Authors: Stephen Leather,Warren Olson
THE CASE OF THE DOUBLE-CROSSED DUTCHMAN
There are a whole host of things I love about living in Thailand: the gorgeous women, the climate, the food, the beaches. But right at the top of the list of things I hate is being pursued at high speed by two motorcyclists with gun-toting pillion passengers. The guys out to put a bullet in my head weren’t flashing the smiles that Thailand is famous for—they were glaring at me with murder in their eyes. I swerved over to the right, trying to clip the rear wheel of the bike nearest to me but he moved away easily. The pillion passenger was caught off balance and he grabbed the waist of the driver. I took a quick look over my left shoulder. The second pillion passenger had his gun aimed at my head. I slammed on the brakes and the bike roared by, the passenger’s hair whipping in the wind.
I cursed, spitting out pretty much all the swear words I knew. I was in deep, deep shit, and it had all been the fault of my brand new digital camera.
The case had started easily enough. I’d received a phone call from a Dutch detective agency in Amsterdam that I’d done business with a few times. They were good payers and good payers are like hens teeth in the private-eye business. They were acting for a well-known Dutch businessmen who’d married a girl from Bangkok five years earlier. The businessmen had started taking his wife to a local Thai restaurant and was worried that she might have started a relationship with a young waiter. The Dutch detectives had put the wife under surveillance but so far hadn’t caught her misbehaving, but now the wife was planning to fly to Thailand for Songkran, the Thai new year. It’s the traditional time for Thai families to get together, and the businessman was too busy adding to his millions to go with her. A red flag was raised when the Dutch detectives discovered that the Thai waiter had booked onto the same flight to Bangkok. It could have been a coincidence, of course, but the Dutch guys wanted me to mount a surveillance operation once they’d arrived in Bangkok.
The girl’s parents lived in Chiang Mai, in the north of Thailand, so the first thing I did was to check if she had booked an onward flight from Bangkok. She hadn’t, but she might be planning to buy the ticket once she’d arrived, or even travel up by train or bus. I asked for a description of the jewellery and watch she usually wore, because photographs were often surprisingly unhelpful for identifying people and there would be several dozen young and pretty girls, all with black hair and brown eyes, getting off the KLM 747 from Amsterdam. The information, along with her passport number and a copy of her Thai ID card, came over with her pictures, plus a photograph of the waiter, and a sizeable retainer was transferred into my account with Bangkok Bank.
She was due to arrive at Don Muang at eleven o’clock in the morning in two days’ time. The problem was, I had no idea what she was going to do once she’d arrived. I bought Business Class tickets on the three flights that were due to leave for Chiang Mai after her flight had arrived, just in case she decided to head up north straight away. But if she took a car into Bangkok, I had a problem. I’d have to be in the terminal to check that she arrived, but that would mean parking my car in the multistorey. If she hopped into a cab I’d lose her before I got back to my vehicle. If she was picked up by a friend then the friend would have parked in the multistorey and by the time I’d identified their car it would be too late to get to my own vehicle. I couldn’t use motorcycles to follow her because motorcycles aren’t allowed on the country’s expressways, and the route from the airport to the city was all expressway. I didn’t have the money to start paying half a dozen guys to stake out the airport to cover every eventuality so I decided to nab a taxi driver at the airport and offered him 2,000 baht for a four-hour hire. He practically bit my hand off and I gave him 500 baht up front and told him to wait outside the terminal for me. He had a mobile phone so that if the girl headed to the car park I could follow her and then call the taxi to pick me up. If she hired a cab then I was ahead of the game, I just had to get into my taxi and follow her. And if she walked over to the domestic terminal and bought a ticket to Chiang Mai, all I’d have to do would be to get on the flight with her. I was feeling pretty pleased with myself as I sipped a cup of coffee in the arrivals area.
The terminal was packed, as hundreds of thousands of Thais rushed home in time for the New Year celebrations. There were lots of tourists too, who think it’s fun to douse each other with water as a way of celebrating Thai New Year. Frankly, after ten years of having water thrown in my face every April, I celebrate the festival by staying at home and ordering pizza and beer over the phone. But that’s just me.
The flight landed bang on time and it took them just over an hour to pass through Customs and Immigration. I spotted the girl among a group of Thais. She was pushing a trolley piled high with suitcases and bulging nylon bags, presumably gifts for her family. The waiter was a few paces behind her, pushing his own trolley. Nothing suspicious about that, they would have been sure to have met on the plane even if they hadn’t been planning to travel together. The photographs that the Dutch agency sent didn’t do the girl justice. She had waist-length hair, high cheekbones, and was model-pretty with curves in all the right places. She was tall for a Thai, five-seven or thereabouts, and she was wearing a short denim skirt that showed off a gorgeous pair of legs.
There were four people waiting to greet the girl, two were a few years younger than her and they quickly waied her, pressing their hands together and placing the tips of the fingers against their chins. Showing respect. That tends to be how Thais greet each other, even after long absences. No great show of emotion, no hugs or kisses. A nice, respectful wai. The girl first waied the two older members of the group, then returned the wai to the girl and boy who had waied her. Then she introduced them to the waiter. He waied them all, then they pushed their trolleys towards the car park. That answered two questions right there. She wasn’t flying to Chiang Mai and she was definitely travelling with the waiter.
I kept my distance but the terminal was so crowded that I doubted they would have spotted me even if they’d looked my way. They walked to the car park and started putting the bags into the back of a Toyota van. I made a note of the registration number and hurried back to the waiting taxi.
I was feeling even more pleased with myself as the van pulled out of the multistorey car park. I told the taxi driver to follow the van and settled back in my seat. All we had to do was keep the van in sight on the expressway and make sure that we took the same exit. The fact that I was tailing the van in a Bangkok taxi meant that there was virtually no way they’d spot me. Taxis account for about ten per cent of the cars on the roads at any time.
The van started to pull away from us and I told the driver to step on it. He nodded enthusiastically but we didn’t go any faster. I told him again, this time in Khmer, but that didn’t seem to sink in so I repeated myself in the Isaan dialect that many taxi drivers speak. He nodded again but the van continued to disappear into the distance. I peered into the footwell. The accelerator was flat against the floor. I groaned. The engine was juddering like a heart-attack victim and we hadn’t even broken sixty kilometres an hour. The driver grinned and gripped the steering wheel so tightly that his knuckles started to turn white.
We lost the van before we reached the first turn off so I told the driver to take me back to my office. I gave him half the fee we had agreed on but he threw a temper tantrum and started waving his mobile phone at me and threatened to call his friends. Most taxi drivers have at least a crowbar or baseball bat in their vehicles, and guns aren’t unknown, and one of their favourite pastimes is roughing up troublesome farangs, as they call us foreigners, so I gave him the full 2,000 baht. The Dutchman would be covering my expenses anyway so it was no big deal.
I phoned the Dutch agency and spun them a story about knowing the general area where the subject was, but that I wanted a recent phone bill from the client to see if there were any Bangkok numbers that the girl had called before arriving in Thailand. An hour later and a phone bill was faxed through to me. I was in luck—there were four numbers with Bangkok’s 02 prefix. I fed the numbers into a reverse directory I use and the computer gave me the addresses. Three were offices and one was an apartment in the Bangna area of the city. I drove out to Bangna in a rental car and sat outside the apartment block for the rest of the day.
The apartment was in a small side road and it was difficult to get a view of the main entrance without sticking out like a sore thumb so I parked the car and went and sat in a small chicken restaurant opposite the block. I ordered some kow man gai, steamed chicken and rice with a tangy sauce and a bowl of watery soup. There was a British soccer game on the television set in the corner and after muttering ‘Man U
(Manchester United are sure to win) I was pretty much ignored by the half dozen male customers sitting at a Formica table drinking Singha beer. After about an hour I saw the waiter walking towards the apartment block. Bingo. He went inside.
I phoned my contact in the Dutch agency and explained that the waiter was definitely staying with the girl and there was no indication that they were heading up to Chiang Mai. My contact was pleased, but said that his client wanted a photograph of the girl and the waiter together.
I had a brand new digital camera in the boot of the car, so I parked as close to the apartment block as I could and sat with the camera on my lap. It had a telephoto lens and the salesman had assured me that it was state-of-the-art. Being digital, I could use my computer to email the pictures without having to wait for film to be processed. I as starting to feel pretty pleased with myself again. I had found where they were staying, there was only one way in and out, all I needed was a photograph and the fee was in the bag.
Time passed. It got dark. I had a couple of bottles of water in the car and I drank them both. Midnight passed. I was thinking about abandoning the surveillance for the night, figuring that perhaps the girl and the waiter were having too much fun to go out, when I saw movement in the lobby. I wound the window down and got the camera ready. It was the waiter. He held the door open and the girl walked out. ‘Yes,’ I hissed triumphantly. I brought up the camera lens and took a couple of quick shots. Just then there was a double flash of lightning. It looked as if my luck was changing for the worse—the weather had been fine all day and now that I had them in my sights a tropical storm was starting. I fired off another two quick shots and lightning flashed again.
Click. Flash. Click. Flash.
Then it hit me. My state-of-the-art digital camera with its onboard smarter-than-a-human-being computer had decided that as it was dark I should be using the flash. What the bloody thing hadn’t realised was that the last thing a private detective on a stakeout needs is a flash going off, computer-controlled or otherwise. The girl and the waiter looked in my direction and hurried along the road away from the car.
I cursed and fumbled with the camera, trying to find the control that turned off the flash.
Something smacked against the bonnet of the car and I looked up to see a muscle-bound Thai man glaring at me. He had a thick gold chain around his neck and a wicked scar across his left cheek that cut through a crop of old acne scars. He thumped on the bonnet again.
?” he screamed, which means ‘I’m sorry old chap but what exactly are you doing?’ or words to that effect.
I put the camera on the passenger seat and hit the central locking switch. The thuds of the locks clicking into place antagonised the man even more and he slapped the windscreen. A second man, just as heavily built, ran over and began pulling at the passenger door handle.
I looked around. Two more men were walking purposefully out of the restaurant and one of them was swinging a large machete. I didn’t know what I’d done to upset them but they didn’t look like the sort of guys who were going to respond to reason. I had the engine running to keep the aircon cold so I put the car into gear and moved forward, slowly enough to give the guy with the scar a chance to get out of the way. A foreigner running over a Thai would end only one way and sleeping on the floor of a Thai prison wasn’t how I was planning to spend my retirement.
I pushed harder on the accelerator. The guy kept hold of the passenger side door handle and jogged to keep up. I cursed. I didn’t want to drag him down the road, but I was equally unhappy at the prospect of the guy with the machete doing a remodelling job on the rental car.
Machete Guy shouted something and started to run. I stopped worrying about the man on the passenger side and pushed the accelerator to the floor. The wheels screeched on the tarmac and the car leapt forward. I roared down the road, snatching a quick look in the rear-view mirror. The four men were standing on the pavement, screaming at me. I grinned and took the first right turn, onto a major road. I was just starting to relax when I saw the motorbikes.
As they got closer I recognised one of the drivers—it was Machete Guy. I had no idea what I’d done to upset the guys, but figured they had obviously been up to something iffy and thought that I’d been taking photographs of them. Drugs maybe, or gambling. There might have been an underage brothel above the restaurant for all I knew. In an ideal world I’d have just explained that I had been taking pictures of an unfaithful wife, but Bangkok wasn’t an ideal world and it was probably too late for any explanation.
There was a fair bit of traffic around and I had to slow down. The motorcycles quickly gained on me. Machete Guy’s pillion passenger brandished a pistol and motioned for me to pull over to the side of the road. Yeah, right. I shook my head, braked hard, and pulled a left, cutting across a bus and feeling the rear end fishtail as I floored the accelerator again. I knew there was no way I was going to be able to outrun the bikes in the city. It would only be a matter of time before I hit traffic or a red light.