Read 18mm Blues Online

Authors: Gerald A. Browne

18mm Blues

BOOK: 18mm Blues


11 Harrowhouse

“Vivid, sophisticated, action-filled.”
—Los Angeles Times

“As imaginative, well-plotted, and well-written a thriller as you'll ever find … A remarkable book.” —
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Green Ice

“A cliff-hanger … Sparkling … Entertaining suspense!” —

19 Purchase Street

“A kind of console of our contemporary nightmares at which the author fingers every sinister key … Superb.” —
The New York Times

Stone 588

“No ordinary thriller this, but a story as scintillating as the octahedron crystal on which it focuses.… A tingle for the spine on every page.” —
Publishers Weekly

“Entertaining suspense … Heart-stopping … Browne details both the glitter and grime of the diamond market, high society and the underworld … A gem of a thriller.” —
Orlando Sentinel

Hot Siberian

“Beautifully written … Will keep you entranced.” —
The New York Times Book Review

West 47th

“Immensely entertaining.” —
The Washington Post Book World

18mm Blues

Gerald A. Browne

For my grandmother, Emma,

who was so generous with her love

Know you, perchance, how that formless wretch

The oyster—gems his shallow moonlit chalice?

Where the shell irks him, or the sea-sand frets

He sheds this lovely lustre on his grief

—Sir Edwin Arnold



The boat wasn't good for much else. It had only a two-foot draft, which enabled it to clear the sharp reaches of most reefs and get into the kind of comfortable lagoons that pearl oysters prefer. On open sea, however, this advantage was more than paid for. Even relatively mild chop could cause the boat to toss around so roughly that Bertin would have all he could do to keep it just about on course.

Besides, Bertin wasn't much of a sailor, disliked being out on spacious water. Three jacks had won him half the boat. Four months ago in a game of seven card upstairs over the Pink Secret, a snack bar and storefront whorehouse on Soi Chia Yot.

The fellow who'd wagered half the boat was someone who most times went by the name of Miller or Millard, although, when necessary, he was good at saying he was someone else. He and Bertin were in the same league, both knock-around foreigners (or
, as the Thais called them) with no allegiance except to self, the sort who plied all Southeast Asia, turning up wherever their instincts told them their chances at doing anything to get more might be better.

Miller, oddly enough, hadn't carried on badly after losing half his boat. Just shrugged his face, made an ugly mouth at the three nines that had misled him, and taken it as merely another unfortunate nick in the way fate was whittling away at him.

Bertin had expected a lot more reaction. He felt deprived. To him, being able to gloat and poke at the soreness of a loser were also pleasures of winning. He was small like that, small of heart while physically large. Well over six feet, thick boned and, in his prime at thirty-seven, as strong as he looked. His mere presence seemed to dare anyone to find fault with him. His huge hands were intimidating, as were his coarse features and askew teeth. There wasn't a single elegant thing about him. He knew that, but he'd also learned there was no scarcity of the sort of self-deprecating women who needed to find that appealing.

Only with the hope of rubbing it in, Bertin had immediately demanded that Miller show him what he now owned half of. For all he knew, he said, there might not even be a boat.

Miller had obliged. After hitting Bertin up for a double Mekhong cane whiskey downstairs at the whorehouse bar, he led the way out into the neon-tinged Bangkok night. Around the near corner and up Ruam Chai Street, over the tipped here and sunken there sections of narrow sidewalk, all the way to the Klong Sen Seb, where the boat was. Bertin couldn't make it out very well because of the dark and because there were so many other lesser vessels around it. Off-duty water taxis, empty vending boats and such tied up for the night. What he could see of it didn't impress him. About thirty-five, maybe forty feet long, he estimated, with a hull painted shiny black, which made more obvious all the many places where it had been scraped and gashed. It sat too high in the water, was fat looking and its mast seemed an afterthought, stuck too far forward, contributing to the impression that it was bow heavy.

It had occurred to Bertin then that he'd put up and could have lost good money for this ugly, bastard boat—actually for only half of it—and now that it was an actual boat there before his eyes and not merely the word
, a sleek and valuable thing the way Miller had said it when he extended it to the pot, Bertin felt it unfair that he should have to be disappointed. He had also realized at that moment that a boat, even one like this, or, especially one like this, couldn't be half owned. He followed Miller aboard, stepped over the gunnel, experienced the unsubstantialness of the vessel beneath him, how it shifted slightly, its hull slippery in the water, so easily disturbed. Miller lighted a lantern to show the way into the pilot house and down through a hatch into the cabin, where the air was so compressed with Miller's personal odors and the fumes from the boat's engine that it seemed about to combust. Bertin glanced at the bunk on the left, evidently where Miller slept. The bare ticking of a punished mattress, a single uncased pillow, the coil and twist of a sheet of faded batik. The bunk opposite by less than two feet was burdened with layers of Miller's personal belongings, including a moldy, rigored high-top shoe that chose that moment to fall to the gangway, causing a sound like a single thump on a bass drum.

Miller set about hurriedly to clear his things from the second bunk, to make equal room, relinquishing a half.

Bertin told him not to bother.

It wasn't a week later that the anonymous body of Miller or Millard or whoever was found bobbing in the Klong Phadung among the pilings beneath the place of business of a poultry merchant. It appeared at first that Miller had drowned, however closer examination disclosed he'd been stabbed, only once but very accurately.

Which was how Leon-Charles Bertin became the owner of the whole boat.

And, in the chain of circumstances, how, on that early March morning in 1974, he happened to be at the helm of it five miles off the western coast of Thailand, headed north-northeast.

Bertin had only an approximate idea of where he was. The creased and faded chart that he looked at every once in a while wasn't really much help and he didn't know how to use the sextant that had been among Miller's things. In Penang he'd come close to asking a fishing boat captain to show him how to determine position from the sun and stars with the sextant, but he'd already drunk a couple of hours with the man and had bragged and lied a lot about experiences and couldn't get himself to admit he didn't know something like that.

So as he had all the way down the eastern coast of Thailand and Malaysia and through the Singapore Straits and on up, he was now going by the sight of the shore, keeping the gray-green line of it constant as possible, never out of view. At six knots an hour, which was the full speed of the boat's single-diesel seventy-horsepower engine, along with knowing he'd been under way since five that morning, he was able to place on his mental map of the Thailand Malay Peninsula just about where he was. How far he yet had to go was something he was less certain of. Because he had no definite destination, was bound for merely an area.

The idea of it had first come to him about two months after he'd moved aboard the boat, thrown and given away the worst part of Miller's stuff and stored his own in. For a while the choice got down to either the Sulu Archipelago around Tapul and Tawitawi in the southern Philippines or the French Polynesian Islands, of Tuamotu. He was familiar with the Tuamotus having at one time spent over a year in Papeete, so, naturally, he favored going there, but at the same time he reminded himself of the various reasons why it would be better if he never showed up in those parts again. What's more, getting to the Tuamotus would mean having to be at least a month of days on the open sea, even if he hopped and hugged from land to land all the way to Fiji. He doubted he could handle that.

So, it was going to be Sulu. That was settled in Bertin's plan until one hot night at the Girlie Girlie Bar on that iniquitous Bangkok alley called Soi Cowboy when he got to talking with a pearl dealer, an educated Chinese who wasn't sweating even though he was wearing a fairly heavy suit and a tight knotted tie.

They started on the subject of the possible talents of a particular whore who was phlegmatically offering herself from behind the glass-partitioned part of the establishment. She was number forty-five, according to the tag pinned to her inadequate brassiere. Bertin and the Chinese man agreed she had a lot of Western in her and that it was most likely American black. When number forty-five disappeared to go to work on someone, the conversation between Bertin and the Chinese man stopped and, after a half a drink, started again, hitting lightly upon a couple of topics before getting snagged and staying on pearls.

Bertin enjoyed fibbing that he was a full-time professional pearler, was doing extremely well at it. He had in truth worked for various oyster shell dealers during his time in and around Tahiti. As a cleaner or grader or bagger of those large shells with the most iridescent, highest-grade mother-of-pearl from which cheap souvenirs and crosses and such are shaped. But he'd never been a pearler. Not to say he'd never had a valuable pearl in his hand. It would be impossible for anyone with Bertin's shifty ways to be in Tahiti for any length of time and not come into pearls one way or the other. Bertin also told the Chinese man that he'd been cheated out of the rights to a black pearl bed in Marutea, that otherwise he'd be a millionaire many times over by now.

“One hears all sorts of stories,” the Chinese man said, at least not pointedly doubting Bertin.

“I'll soon be off to Sulu,” Bertin told him casually.

“So you're a pearler.”


“Not many of you left.”

“Makes it all the better.”

“At one time, years ago, naturals of a fair enough quality came out of Sulu. Mostly creams and not large. On the average only about five millimeters, but well formed as I remember.”

“Nothing wrong with some nice creams,” Bertin contended.

“Not at all.”

“I'll take a hatful any day.”

“But white is more desirable now. And pinkish white. Although Latin people, people with swarthy skin, still prefer creams.”

“You're not telling me anything I don't already know.”

The Chinese man made an apologetic face. “In my business there is a tendency to recite,” he explained.

“What I'm getting is you don't think I should try Sulu.”

“That's your business, you're the pearler.”

“Just out of curiosity, where if not Sulu?”

“Any number of better places from what I hear. How many divers do you have?”

“Three. Polynesians. They're good but not dependable.” Bertin mentally commended himself on how truthful he sounded.

“The amas are most dependable if you can get them.”


“Japanese women pearl divers.”

Bertin nodded, as though he'd misunderstood. “I've been meaning to give them a try.”

They talked on. For several drinks. By the time the Chinese man went around the bar to the whorehouse part to choose number forty-five, Bertin had profited much more from him. Sulu was out as the place where he'd pearl and the west coast of Thailand up as close as possible to Burmese waters was settled on. Also, Bertin got the name and number of a man in Phetchaburi who would most likely be able to arrange for some Japanese women divers, as long as the deal that was offered was fair.

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