Part One: In The Dark
The Rules by Which I Live
Two two-gallon cans of paint weigh about five times as much as he’d thought they would.
Feeling as burdened as a prospector’s donkey, the wire handles of the cans cutting into his palms, he manages to pull open the door of the shop unaided. The door immediately swings shut on his chest, so he pushes it with his knee and edges through it sideways, left side first. One hundred percent of his attention is focused on not letting the door close on the can in his right hand.
Which means that when he steps onto the wet sidewalk with his back to the road, he’s too preoccupied to hear the people running. So he’s unprepared when the crowd suddenly floods past, going at top speed, and the very large man strikes him from behind.
Rafferty pitches forward at a diagonal and bounces off a couple of running men on the way down. He instinctively throws his hands in front of him to break his fall, then tries to yank them back again when he registers the dangling paint cans. He fails on all counts, landing on his elbows with bone-chipping force and allowing the cans to hit the pavement hard enough to burst open in two eruptions of color, Apricot Cream (Rose’s choice) and a sort of rotted eggplant called Urban Decay, which Miaow picked for her room.
The man who ran into him has come down on top of him, all the way to the pavement. Rafferty is trying to struggle out from under, his hands slipping on the apricot pavement, when he hears three sounds, like the crack of a bat in a stadium, and the man shudders as though he’s been shocked, then shudders again and rolls off Rafferty and into the paint, on his side.
His blue eyes, wide with surprise, look at Rafferty as though Rafferty is the most important question he’s ever been asked and he doesn’t know the answer.
Rafferty pulls his head back for a better look, and the man opens his mouth, but all that comes out is a ragged tatter of air.
He’s a once-tough sixty-five or so, the planes of his face softened by the passage of years, wearing a T-shirt and a photographer’s vest over cargo shorts, both soaked from the rain. The chunky garments emphasize the thirty or thirty-five extra pounds that suggest he might be American or German. His fair, wet hair, vaguely military and brush-cut, all of an inch long, is in retreat from a high, balding forehead. For some reason what draws Rafferty’s attention, as people continue to run past, is that the skin on the top of the man’s head is crimson from sunburn. It’s been raining for days, but the man is sunburned.
Rafferty glances up the sloping road, sees that the running crowd is thinning, and says to the staring man, “I’ve got to get up. Are you okay?”
As he pulls himself to a sitting position, the wide eyes follow him and the mouth opens and closes noiselessly again. Then the man reaches up with his right hand and it lands heavily on the pocket of Rafferty’s T-shirt, tearing it slightly before the hand rises again and comes down on Rafferty’s left shoulder. The weight of it tugs Rafferty down a few inches, and the gesture opens the man’s vest. Up close, Rafferty sees the blackish red, like a third paint pigment, saturating the white T-shirt beneath.
“Hold it,” Rafferty says to no one. “You’re . . .”
The bat cracks again, and it looks as if the man has been yanked by an invisible cord, jerked three or four inches, headfirst, over the slick, colorful pavement. His head slowly turns to the right, with so much effort that Rafferty wouldn’t be surprised to hear it creak, and he stares disbelievingly in the direction the running crowd came from.
The red pools into the apricot under the man’s chest.
“Let me get you up,” Rafferty says. All he can think is that the bleeding might slow if the man is upright instead of facing downhill. Rafferty slips an arm under the bleeding man’s shoulders and slowly, carefully, pulls him to a sitting position. The man’s head wobbles and then lolls left and drops forward, his chin hitting his chest so hard that Rafferty can hear his teeth snap together.
Rafferty is looking wildly for help when the man suddenly raises his head and says something, almost a whisper.
“What?” Rafferty says. “What did you say?”
The man’s mouth works two or three times, like someone getting ready to pronounce an unfamiliar sound, and he coughs a thick, dark, oyster-size gout of blood down over his chin. The muscles in his face stiffen into a mask, rigid with will. He peels his upper lip free of his teeth and says, in a voice that’s almost all air, “Helen.” With a tiny nod, he brings his head back up. “Eckersley.” Another cough, more blood. “Cheyenne,” he says, and he slumps to his left.
Rafferty bends over him, looking for a breath, feeling for a pulse, and the gray day is shoved aside by a burst of light. He looks up to see a television crew—a cameraman with a shoulder-mounted rig, a lighting man with a blinding sun gun, and a third guy, probably the producer, pushing the other two into position. Rafferty’s shouting “Get a doctor!” but the crew comes in closer, closer, the cameraman going into a gradual crouch to catch the dying man’s face, and Rafferty reaches behind him with his free hand, snags the wire handle of one of the mostly-empty cans of paint, and slings it at the camera.
The can clatters on the camera’s grip, sending its remaining paint in an airborne arc of Urban Decay, and the cameraman rocks onto his seat, yanking the camera back and throwing out a hand to catch himself. The producer advances on Rafferty, shouting, but then three brown-uniformed police materialize between them. One of them slams his chest into the producer, backing him off, and the other two come over to Rafferty.
“Are you all right?” one of the cops asks. His English is heavily accented.
“Yes, sure,” Rafferty says in Thai, “but this man—”
Before Rafferty can finish the sentence, though, a new man, wearing an elegant raincoat over street clothes, steps in between him and the man lying flat on the pavement. “We’ll take care of him,” the man in the raincoat says in English. “You just go with the officers.”
“I’ve got him,” the man says, leaning close and holding Rafferty’s gaze. He’s tall for a Thai, sleek and handsome, if a little puffy beneath the eyes, and his English is as accent-free as California. “Either go with the officers willingly or they’ll drag you.” He kneels in front of the man wearing the photographer’s vest, blocking Rafferty’s view.
One of the uniforms bends down and extends a hand. The other has his hip cocked and his hand resting on the butt of his pistol.
Rafferty gets up, avoiding the outstretched hand. The patrolman closer to him wraps his fingers around Rafferty’s bicep and tugs him away. And then there are three more cops coming down the street, eyeing the TV crew. The producer helps his cameraman up, whispers something to him, and hauls the lighting man toward the cops. Instantly the cameraman is sprinting down the hill, his feet splashing in the gutter, as the producer and the lighting guy dance interference in front of the oncoming police. By the time one of the cops shakes free and takes off in pursuit, the cameraman has rounded the corner at the bottom of the hill.
The uniforms manhandle Rafferty downhill and position him in a doorway, out of the rain, so the fallen man and the other police are behind him. The street is empty now, except for the knot of men in front of the paint shop. Rafferty tries to turn to look behind him, but the cop pulls him back into position and says, “Papers.”
“That man’s been shot,” Rafferty says, the realization dawning on him at last. “He needs a doctor.”
“Nobody got shot.” The cops exchange a fast glance, and the one who’s not holding Rafferty lets his eyes flick up the hill. “He’ll be fine,” his partner says.
“I heard the gun,” Rafferty says. “He was bleeding like—”
“He wasn’t shot,” the cop says. “There wasn’t any gun.” He gives Rafferty’s arm a token shake. “Let me see your papers.”
Rafferty says, “Oh, for Christ’s sake,” but he digs in the rear pockets of his jeans and pries his wallet out. As he begins to open it, he sees the smear of blood on his hand. “Look,” he says, holding it under the nose of the nearer cop. “He was bleeding. Don’t tell me he wasn’t—”
“Nosebleed,” the cop says. “Papers, now.”
Rafferty wipes the blood on the thigh of his jeans and fishes through the wallet until he comes up with two tissue-soft sheets of paper, almost transparent with wear. He opens one and then the other. “Passport. Current visa.”
“Where are the originals?” the nearer cop says. He’s meaningfully lean, the kind of thin that rarely signals an easy nature, and his lips are as sharp as a parrot’s beak. His partner, younger and fleshier, seems to be fixated on what’s happening up the hill, his mouth half open.
“At my apartment.”
“Philip Rafferty,” the cop reads aloud, mangling both names. “You’re a resident of Thailand?”
“That’s what the visa says.”
The cop gives him small, tight eyes, as though he’s already sighting a weapon. “I ask you questions,” he says in English. “You answer, you understand?”
“Yeah, I think I can follow that.”
“Why don’t you carry originals?”
“Because someone might take them, some cop or someone, and I’d have to get new ones.”
The cop says, “Puh,” just barely not a spit. He holds out the copies and, as Rafferty reaches for them, drops them. They flutter to the wet pavement.
For a few seconds, Rafferty looks into the cop’s eyes. What he sees there makes him nod and bend down to pick up the papers.
The cop puts his foot on them.
“Fine,” Rafferty says, straightening. He can hear the blood in his ears. “Fuck them, I can make new ones.”
The cop moves his foot. The papers are translucent with water and smeared with mud. “Pick up,” he says. “If you not, if you walk away, I stop you and say I want papers, then arrest you because you don’t have.”
Rafferty leans against the wall, feeling the pulse thrum at the side of his neck. “Back up,” he says. “Until you back up, I’ll stand here and we’ll look at each other.”
The soft-faced cop tells his partner, in Thai, to stop fooling around. After a moment the lean cop backs away and then makes a gesture, palm up, in the direction of the documents.
Rafferty bends and peels the papers free of the sidewalk, but as he straightens, the lean cop steps closer again, and his fingers dart into the pocket of Rafferty’s T-shirt. When they come out, they’re holding a yellow slip of paper, tightly folded. He opens it to reveal a small diamond shape, cut into the center by someone who’s folded it into quarters and then snipped off the tip of the central fold. “What’s this?”
“That’s my yellow piece of paper,” Rafferty says. He’s never seen it before.
“What does it say?”
“The rules by which I live,” Rafferty says. “The Diamond Sutra.”
The other cop looks over his partner’s shoulder and laughs. “It’s your laundry ticket,” he says.
Rafferty says, “It’s in code.”
The plump cop laughs again, and even the lean one relaxes a little. He hands the ticket back, saying, “You going to need the clean clothes. You all dirty.”
“Thanks. I hadn’t noticed.”
The lean cop backs away. “You go now. Go home.”
“I need to buy some more paint.”
“Home. Cannot go in store now.”
Rafferty turns to look uphill again, and the plump cop stands in his way, although Rafferty gets a quick glimpse of a tight knot of uniforms and plainclothes around the fallen farang.
“Go,” the plump cop says. “Go now or we arrest you.”
“I’ve got an apartment to paint,” Rafferty says, pocketing the yellow ticket.
“Have too much paint in Bangkok,” says the plump cop. “Can buy anywhere. You go.”
“I go,” Rafferty says, sidestepping the lean cop and plodding downhill. A siren emits a short, throat-clearing whoop behind him, and he turns to see an ambulance glide into position in front of the paint store. The lean cop waves him on: Keep going.
At the foot of the mild little hill is a good-size four-lane boulevard, and Rafferty is surprised to see the wet pavement shining in a flat, uninterrupted slab, as empty as outer space. A block to his right, he sees a barrier: white sawhorses set up on the far side of the turn that leads up to the hill with the paint shop on it. Half a dozen policemen wearing yellow slickers have assumed poses of varying vigilance, facing the oncoming traffic.
Turning around, Rafferty sees a mirror version of the blockade two blocks in the other direction. Since there’s no traffic on the street he’s just hiked down, it’s not a difficult guess that it’s been barricaded, too, a few blocks away in both directions.
It feels strange to him; Bangkok is many things, but it’s never empty. As he walks, he sees the wide blue eyes and feels again the sudden jerk of the body atop his when the first bullet struck it. Feels retroactively an unbidden thrill at having been missed. Whoever was shooting was either very good or completely indifferent.
The man's odd haircut, the haircut of someone who might not have been able to let go of being military. When Rafferty was growing up in the desert outside Lancaster, California, he had met men like that, friends of his father, men who had gone into service at eighteen, probably leaving behind a teenager they no longer wanted to be, and then spent three or four decades having everything decided for them. Men who, at the age of fifty, had never given a thought to how they should comb their hair.
But if one of those men had been killed, he thinks as he makes his way down the center of the wet, deserted boulevard, there might have been a cop or two, maybe an ambulance. Not half a dozen policemen, barricades, plainclothes guys, multiple ambulances, and—he remembers the handsome one with the puffy eyes—spooks.
Despite the rain, his clothes are stiffening with the paint, his entire front and left side a patchwork of apricot with artistic mottlings of Urban Decay. Looking down at it now, in the even gray light, he decides the apricot is too strong for the living room. It needs more white.