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I was at my regular corner table in the back of the coffee house in Masaryk Square, far from the bright light streaming in through the south-facing window, sitting with my back to the wall as usual. I was leisurely sipping an espresso as I leafed through the morning paper, waiting for Mira to finish her shopping and come pick me up. Then my cell phone came to life in the pocket of my jeans.
It was my partner, Shai. "Dotan," he said, "we've got a case. This time it's Bangkok. A missing woman." Silence.
"That's it?" I grumbled. "You're really drowning me in info." I already missed the ease I was feeling before I answered the phone. I took another sip. I always liked the coffee here, but this time it was particularly good, a strong intriguing blend.
"Listen up," Shai said with obvious impatience. "Her name is Sigal Bardon, twenty-six. I'm getting the details now. You ought to get down here right away." Lately my conversations with Shai were as brief as possible, and I don't even want to talk about the taste they left in my mouth. Our partnership was going south. For a lot of reasons.
I got up reluctantly, to put it mildly.
"You didn't finish your coffee," Nora, the longtime waitress, said. She'd started working here years ago when she was a student, studying art or cinema or something like that, and never left. I'd also started having my coffee here years ago, and I was still here too.
"What is it?" she asked. "A case?"
I flashed her a smile. It's easy to smile at Nora. Slender body, ample perky boobs, flowing red hair. Wherever your looked, figure or face, she was a sight to behold, even though she wasn't a kid anymore. And you could tell she wasn't burdened by a permanent man in her life.
"The coffee — a new blend?" I asked.
This time it was she who smiled as she gave me a thumbs-up. "Should I save some for when you get back?"
I mumbled an answer, left her a generous tip, as usual, and left. The light was almost blinding, the abrasive glare of late spring. The comforting grayish light of a Tel Aviv winter was gone. I hailed a cab. As I settled into the back seat, I remembered to call Mira. "I'm on the way to the office, baby. I'm guessing I'll have to catch the night flight to Bangkok."
"Again? You just got back."
"I'll make it up to you when I get home, sweetie."
"Should I tell you how many times I've heard that?"
I heard her sigh as she disconnected. We both knew it was a lost cause — us, I mean, not the case.
"Wow," the cabbie started badgering me as soon as I finished the call. "What I wouldn't give to go to Bangkok again." I could see his cloudy eyes in the mirror. You can't avoid those kibitzers. He'd been to Bangkok once, and now I would have to hear about it the whole ride. "I had such a great time, you wouldn't believe it," he went on. "I'd chop off a finger to get on a plane right now."
I tuned him out. I pictured the body of a young woman lying naked on the bed or floor of a room in a no-star hotel. I could see the screaming headlines in tomorrow's papers: "26-Year-Old Israeli Woman Found Dead in Bangkok Guesthouse: Autopsy Reveals Heart Failure Following Lethal Combination of Alcohol and Drugs."
Drugs. It wouldn't be just any drug. It would be heroin, white magic, Bangkok gold. Throw in alcohol and you get vomiting, convulsions, sweating. An overdose paralyzes the central nervous system, sending the victim into a deep coma. Death follows quickly, within minutes. One second, you're high, and the next, there's a corpse to get through customs. It happens at least once a week in Bangkok.
* * *
Mira drove me to the airport. She almost had to twist my arm to convince me not to call a cab. "It's our quality time," she sighed, "the drive back and forth to the airport."
Mira. The only person who still cares when I come and go. That too, I guessed, would soon be over. Especially considering the fact that we were already living in separate apartments. A "trial separation" it's called. I'd known a few in the past. Somehow these trials never pan out. Or maybe it's the opposite. They work so well that at least one side isn't in a hurry to get back together. Maybe that's why I'd heard myself calling Mira "baby" and "sweetie" lately.
"What's the story?" she asked on the way.
"A missing woman."
"Don't know. She hasn't been in touch with her family for over two weeks."
"It's so sad," Mira said, her voice filled with compassion. "It's always the family who suffers in the end."
"This family is well known, well connected," I said, adding, "and filthy rich. They asked us to keep a low profile."
"What difference does it make?" I said irritably. "They're all pretty."
I remembered the picture in the file Shai prepared for me. The truth? Sigal Bardon was pretty. Very pretty. But it really didn't make any difference.
Mira kissed me lightly on the cheek. "Take care," she said.
It sounded like goodbye. Maybe it was. But my mind was already someplace else.
* * *
The airport was as busy as always. You see the lines at the duty-free shop and you know that life goes on. No matter what's happening outside, beyond the huge glass windows — intifada, economic crisis, whatever — the price of single malt whiskey has gone up, men are sniffing Cuban cigars, and perfumes are being piled into shopping carts like cartons of milk in the supermarket. I bought a few cartons of Marlboros, which in my experience is the incentive most highly prized by the cops in Thailand. Especially Tom, an old friend of mine. I threw in two bottles of Jameson, one for meetings so I wouldn't have to endure the local whiskey, Mekhong, which mangles the digestive system. The other was for the nights, or more precisely, for the mornings after the nights, those never-ending mornings you spend trying to figure out what the hell happened the night before, where you were, and even more importantly, with whom. That's a pivotal question in Bangkok. It can sometimes be a matter of life and death. So a bottle of Jameson is a good idea. It always comes in handy.CHAPTER 2
I have a simple method for dealing with long flights: two whiskeys, neat, before dinner, a Campari and tonic as soon as the airborne waitress makes her way back with the drinks cart, and then red wine to make the gooey mush they call airplane food a little more palatable. Afterwards, I lean my seat back as far as it will go in shitty economy class and close my eyes. I wake up with a dry mouth and a slight headache, which is helpful in its own way; it keeps me from losing my cool in the long line at Immigration after we land.
But it doesn't always work.
As soon as I closed my eyes, someone shook my shoulder.
"Are you asleep?"
The girl in the next seat was smiling, if you can call it a smile when there's a bauble stuck in her tongue and another one glinting at you from what's left of her nose.
"Most definitely," I said.
It didn't do any good. "Want some Coke?" she asked, offering me what was left in her plastic cup, believe it or not. Haven't these youngsters ever heard of infectious diseases? But it was a nice gesture. I curled up in sleeping mode, but shewas persistent. Her eyes sparkled — not sparkled, glowed — with a passion to experience life.
"Have you been to Bangkok before?"
I muttered something in reply that could be taken to mean any number of things.
"What are you going for?"
"Business." I hoped I said it blandly enough for her to get the message.
"Awesome! I'm staying in Bangkok for a few days. There's a course in Vipassana at a temple in the Banglamphu district. Some famous master is coming; I can't remember his name. But he's important, like the Dalai Lama. After that I'm going on a trek in Chiang Mai. Then, something like two weeks later, I'm going to the islands, probably to Railay Beach to do some rock climbing. Cool, right?" Whew. She didn't even take a breath in the middle. All staccato. She left me no choice. I asked a passing flight attendant for a whiskey soda, no ice. I knew I didn't have an easy flight ahead of me. The moppet was going to chew my ear off until we landed, and then she'd say "bye" with a see-you-later smile, although that was never going to happen. In any case, I wouldn't be getting any sleep.
Luckily, they began screening a film, Bertolucci's Little Buddha. My seatmate slipped out of her shoes and settled herself cross-legged on the seat. Putting on her earphones, she disconnected from me. I thanked merciful Buddha, Om mani padme hum, and Bertolucci too, for taking pity on me even if they didn't know it. Then I closed my eyes.CHAPTER 3
Bangkok. I've been coming here for twenty years and heard all the contradictory descriptions: squalid, a giant whorehouse; beautiful but too hot. We live in an age where after one week we think we know everything. But the city is all that and much more. It's Bangkok.
I was just taking out my passport when Tom appeared. There are Thais and there are Thais. The ones from the north are paler, the ones from the south are darker. And then there's Tom, the biggest and loudest of them all. He's also the most non-Thai Thai person I've ever met. He says what he thinks. He gave himself the name Tom during a short-lived pointless marriage to an American lady, because his Thai name, like many others, is almost as long as the local name of Bangkok itself, which starts with Krung Thep Mahanakhon. No foreigner can remember the rest. Trying to say Tom's full name makes your jaw hurt, so he sticks with Tom.
"My friend," he said, hugging me, or rather squashing me. Laughing, he led me through Immigration, and then was seized by a coughing fit thanks to all the Marlboros he chain smokes.
"It's been a while," I said.
"Where did you disappear to?"
"Our business is growing."
"Business? Does your buddy still think he's the head of Mossad?" Tom snorted through his broad porcine nose, a snort that accurately described the state of our company.
"Schmattes, that's all it is."
How a cop in Thailand learned Yiddish expressions, I haven't the faintest idea. I asked him once and he made a veiled reference to private lessons from a well-known rabbi who was caught in Patpong, Bangkok's red-light district, with his pants down.
"Chabad rabbi?" I'd asked.
"No. Haredi. Highly revered by the ultra-Orthodox in your country. He claimed he was there to buy a Rolex watch. When we leaned on him, he said the local religious authorities and kashrut inspectors weren't reliable, so he'd come to check out the goods himself."
Tom has a phrase for every situation. If you consider a ten-word vocabulary knowing a language, I bet he knows more languages than anyone else.
That's how it is when you work for the Tourist Police in Bangkok. Citizens from every country in the world wind up in Bangkok. And like everyone else on the force, Tom believes that if they're in his city, they're undoubtedly breaking some law. So if he can say "fuck you," "you're screwed," and "show me the money" in their language, a lot of pain and red tape can be avoided before they ever see a jail cell.
Outside the terminal it was drizzling. I've yet to arrive in Bangkok when it wasn't raining. Some people get lucky and it starts raining when they leave, putting them in a nostalgic mood. With me it's the opposite. The rain tells me I just got here and the shit is already flying.
When the driver of the white Toyota squad car caught sight of us at the exit, he hastily opened a wide umbrella. He was a small fellow with a pockmarked face and the gaunt appearance of someone with a multitude of needle marks in his arms. In his case, they were covered in tattoos. Over his brow, the word "Gai" was shaved into his hair.
"This is Gai," Tom said, introducing him. "It means chick." He saw me checking him out and added, "Don't get the wrong idea. He's no baby chick. There's nowhere you can't go if you've got him by your side. When he goes ballistic, he can plow through ten men, easy."
Tom had an amazing talent to surround himself with psychos. Some people are magnets for the fucked up. The thought made me shudder: maybe that's why we'd been friends for so long. On the other hand, maybe the reason our friendship had endured was that we didn't see each other very often. It was the same with the women in my life, except that it worked better with Tom.
"He was apprenticed to a monk in an outlying temple near Ayutthaya," Tom explained as the white Toyota pulled onto the highway that would take us from the airport into the city. "When he was fourteen, he fell in love and left the monastery, but then he found out that the girl was really a ladyboy who had cut off his own balls and tucked up his penis. Gai was small and thin, so he became a jockey."
Tom lit a cigarette from the butt of the last one before putting it out in the overflowing ashtray. I wrinkled my nose at the repulsive accumulation of butts and ashes. Laughing, he went on. "That's when he started shooting up. They all do it to stay small. He got hooked like everyone else, fucked up, and did some time. I got him out. He owes me."
He owes me. That's how everything works in Thailand. You give the guard in the parking garage twenty bahts, about fifty cents, and he owes you. You order a drink for a girl in a club, and she owes you. That's how it is.
"What do you know about the young Israeli woman who went missing?" I asked.
Tom looked at me, puffed on his cigarette to gain time, and said, "Look, we're friends. I'm nearing the end of the road on the force. I just came to say goodbye."
We sat in silence. I understood. You give twenty–thirty of the best years of your life to the system, and then one day something goes wrong. It isn't you who changed, it's the world around you. No one thinks or acts like you anymore. Suddenly you're a dinosaur with different standards, and then in a flash you're out on some lame excuse. I guess it's the same everywhere, not just where I come from. Guess? No, I know it is.
"What are you going to do?" I asked.
"Follow an old dream," he said with a grin. "I have some land in the south, not far from Phuket. I'm going to grow bananas, papaya, pineapple. I'll have a huge stable of gamecocks, for a little fun and some betting on the side. A quiet life. There'll be a cabin for you, too, somewhere you can bring a giggly little girl with a firm butt and do what every stupid falang, every white man, does in Thailand: eat, sleep, and make fucky-fucky all day. Not necessarily in that order."
I didn't want to tell him what I thought about his idiotic dream of going back to nature. First of all, in Thailand, unless you're Tom, you don't say what you think. If you do, you're considered a busybody. And if on top of that you show your emotions, people look at you funny. Secondly, there was no point. It was obvious it wouldn't last more than a year. That's all it would take for him to waste half of his retirement money on a worthless piece of land and the other half on ladyboys, his own kinky preference.
Besides, what could I do about it? Could I change how things played out or alter someone else's karma? I was only here to try to solve the mystery of one twenty-six-year-old Israeli woman who had gone missing.
If I were smarter, I would have known it didn't work like that in Thailand. Not for a falang like me. The conversation with Tom should have told me that sometimes the best answer is early retirement and a mediocre karma, even if it means that dreams are shattered and hopes are crushed. There are a lot of foreigners on the muddy bottom of the Chao Phraya River who thought they had gained an understanding of Eastern wisdom. But they were wrong. Very wrong.
"So you haven't heard anything about the disappearance of Sigal Bardon?" I tried again.
"No, and I don't want to. Capito?" Tom answered. "How many times can I hear about an Israeli who disappeared or got into trouble? As if you're the only ones here."
I wanted to believe him, but I wasn't convinced. Anyone who knows anything about the Bangkok police knows that the district commander has to keep himself informed of everything that happens in the city. If he takes his eye off the ball for a second, it can cost him dearly. Either in money or in power. And power is as valuable as money, sometimes more. The city doesn't sleep for a minute, and anyone who doesn't get on board on time misses the boat.
"Who am I working with here? Who should I talk to?
"Don't know, bro," he said. He used the Hebrew word achi, pronouncing it the way the Israeli kids on Khao San Road do, with the accent on the first syllable. "I wish I could give you a name, but you're on your own."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Passport to Death"
Copyright © 2011 Yigal Zur.
Excerpted by permission of Oceanview Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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