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Authors: Christopher G. Moore

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BOOK: Paying Back Jack
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The General looked at the drawing.

“Pratt drew that one,” said Calvino.

Pratt had signed his name at the bottom and given the sketch to Calvino. It wasn't a Picasso—more like Warhol: Marilyn Monroe as a fish.

“And you framed it and put it on your wall,” said the General, as if not believing his eyes.

Pratt's drawing stared down from the wall, reminding Calvino that a man who was careless about what he said sooner or later got himself hooked, pulled out of the water, gutted, and cooked. That was a Thai way of referring to trouble. Two men had been gas-fried in the street, and pieces of a vendor's cart and a small forest's worth of dead bugs had been strewed about the wreckage, but the General didn't want to talk about what had happened on the street. Colonel Pratt sat back in his chair, arms folded, asking no questions of the General or Calvino. The three men sat in silence.

Calvino found himself studying the sketch. People had this fishlike nature. They couldn't help but float to the surface and blow bubbles, even though it gave away their position to the fisherman on the riverbank, and put them one step away from a dinner plate.

Calvino turned his attention to the large box wrapped in silver foil paper with red ribbon. It had been delivered that morning. General Yosaporn had signed the card in classic, refined handwriting, curls and swirls that only a fountain pen could make. It was a thank-you note. Before he'd gone to Venice Tailors, Calvino had read and reread the card and stared at the bottles in the open box. The General beamed with pride as he watched Calvino pull out a bottle of whiskey. Calvino asked himself what to do with the windfall. Altogether there were a dozen bottles of single-malt whiskey, the upscale stuff that sold for two hundred dollars a bottle at the airport duty-free.

“I hope you like whiskey,” said the General.

Calvino thought the single malt went well with his new jacket. “One bottle would have been enough,” he said.

“Share it with your friends,” said the General, glancing over at Colonel Pratt.

“Vincent, you did the right thing,” said Colonel Pratt. It was the first time he'd acknowledged what had happened earlier in the soi.

“I almost shot him,” said Calvino. “It crossed my mind. But they were moving fast and I didn't have time.”

“That was a good thing, Vincent. It avoided a problem.”

Someone being cooked to a dark leathery brown like a rice-field rat in a bonfire could be explained as another example of reckless driving. A gunshot could not be ruled out as the dead artists bars had been known to draw armed patrons.

Calvino nodded. A crooked smile flashed across his face as he handed the Colonel a bottle of whiskey. “Now that's doing the right thing,” he said. “Isn't that right, General?”

The General agreed. Colonel Pratt accepted the bottle, turned it around, read the label, and nodded to the General. The two had spent a few minutes alone before they walked over to Calvino's office. Whatever they'd said to each other, Calvino hadn't been briefed on. It stayed between the General and the Colonel; they'd closed ranks for whatever reason. Cautious, security-minded men, they were distrustful of anyone not on the inside. This wasn't like Colonel Pratt. It took some getting used to—Pratt's show of total deference to the General. In addition to the case of single-malt whiskey, the General had also sent a large stuffed bear for Ratana's baby and a dozen long-stemmed red roses for the mother. All bases in the gratitude department had been neatly covered. Like Pratt, Ratana had shown more than the usual respect to the old man.

“It was Apichart,” said Calvino out of the blue.

Calvino guessed that this was what the General and Colonel had been talking about. Coldness crossed the General's face as swiftly as an arctic wind. His upper teeth bit gently down on his lower lip as he caught himself stooping in his chair. He sat erect like a soldier at a mission briefing. “That business is finished.”

“In New York,” said Calvino, “there's an old lesson that business is never finished with a wise guy. And that's how I make Apichart.
He put a hit on you. We're alone. We can say it the way it is. You'll run a check on the two dead punks, find the link, and then what?”

“Not another empty coffin,” said Colonel Pratt.

The General's translucent paper-thin skin revealed hundreds of veins snaking up his wrists to his forearms and disappearing inside his shirt. Of medium height with slightly stooped shoulders, he was an unassuming white-haired man in his seventies who could have been someone's grandfather. Years before, the General had been Pratt's mentor in the police force; that was the personal connection that had brought the General into Calvino's life.

The General had recently had a problem with a tenant named Apichart, the owner of an advertising agency, who had an office on the ground floor of a building the General owned on Sathorn Road. The office was in an excellent location but Apichart had neglected to pay rent and refused to leave the premises. Colonel Pratt had sent General Yosaporn to Calvino's office. That was, of course, not the usual way of handling things. Five minutes into the case, Calvino was convinced that Apichart was an asshole, and there were Thai ways of dealing with assholes. Going to a private eye wasn't usually one of them. The General, given his rank and social status, was quite capable of taking all necessary measures to recover his rent. But at the same time, he was a good Buddhist who followed the five precepts, including the ban on cheating and lying. Of course, not killing was on that list, too. He'd spent twenty minutes talking about meditation that day and had even gotten Calvino to try out the technique, showing him how to sit, where to put his hands, how to breathe, and most importantly, how to clear the mind.

Calvino had said he'd clear his mind properly after he'd collected the rent from the General's tenant. Five days later, Apichart, a Chinese-Thai who always traveled with two bodyguards, had seen the light and did what he was forced to do. But seeing the light had given Apichart some dark thoughts. As a man who made a living hawking skin-whitening cream, instant noodles, cheap flights on a budget airline with a terrible safety record, and shampoo that promised every ying the attention of men, Apichart had no trouble creating a cruel, damaging campaign.

Apichart could've learned something from Colonel Pratt's drawing of the fish. But he'd gotten rich with easy money and thought
he had nothing more to learn. It had come as no surprise when he opened his mouth and blew out one large bubble after another. Apichart had told everyone in the building that General Yosaporn owed him money and that he was withholding the rent to offset the debt. It was cheaper than taking the General to court, he'd told anyone who would listen. Sheepishly, the General had admitted to Calvino that he had once received money from Apichart but had assumed it was a donation to his meditation center. They had constructed a pavilion using Apichart's money. Whether the money was a loan or a donation was a matter of who was telling the story. In any event, the General had no way to repay Apichart. And it wasn't the debt but the interest that had been murderous. Apichart had pulled the figure of twenty percent a month out of the air, and at that rate it wouldn't be long until Apichart owned the building.

Calvino had told the old general he'd do what he could.

On that morning a couple of months ago, Calvino had waited until the General had left and found a crawl space between the baby crib and the toys, diapers, formula, and baby bottles. Ratana sat behind her desk reading an online article about infant nutrition. There had been a lull in the baby's crying, an expanse of time that threatened to exceed the previous record of twenty-eight minutes. It was like a cease-fire as both sides reloaded and cleaned up the wounded. Calvino cleared his throat and, getting no reaction, leaned over her desk and tapped Ratana on the shoulder. Jumping as if from a bolt of electricity, she looked up with startled eyes.

“Order a Chinese coffin,” he whispered. “I want one that's cheesy.”

“Cheesy?” She tilted her head, trying to figure out how cheese could factor into coffin buying.

He saw her confusion. “A tacky coffin that is butt ugly, a disgrace. One that no self-respecting Chinese family would buy. I want the coffin that the coffin maker's wife predicted wouldn't sell until the late afternoon of his next life.”

She understood “next life, late afternoon.” In Thailand, that meant something that would likely never occur. He'd caught her attention. It wasn't every day her boss asked for a coffin. “Who died?”

“No one died,” said Calvino. He handed her a slip of paper on which he had drawn the floor plan of General Yosaporn's building.

“Why do you want a coffin?”

“For a deadbeat.”

“You said no one died.”

The conversation had turned into a cross-cultural nightmare.

“Have the coffin delivered to this address. Tell them to put the coffin exactly where I've marked with an
. Then I want you to arrange for three monks to go to the building for the next three days. Tell them to chant beside the coffin.”

Ratana's eyes grew large as she looked at the paper and then up at her boss. Working for a farang was always a bundle of surprises. She had told her mother and her friends that after a few years, though, you became shockproof. Nothing ever surprises you about a farang. Now she told herself that she'd been wrong.

“That's the General's building,” she said.

Calvino nodded, thinking what a relief to actually get his message through.

“I think this is a mistake. You shouldn't do this.”

“Better yet, see if we could just rent the coffin for a few days. Buying it isn't necessary,” he said.

She had never heard of anyone renting a coffin. “Khun Vinny, have you talked to the General about this?”

“Okay, if they won't rent a coffin, then order the cheapest, most stripped-down basic model. And I'd like it delivered tomorrow. Monks tomorrow would be good, too.”

After he explained the purpose of the coffin, Ratana shivered. “You don't understand the problems this could cause.”

Sometimes he forgot that his secretary was half-Chinese.

“It's a superstition that you should never walk past a coffin, right?”

“It's bad luck.”

“When reason fails, then superstition is a good backup.”

Accepting that this was a battle she couldn't win, Ratana phoned several shops. There was a long pause each time after she asked about renting a coffin. In the end, she found a shop past Soi 101 on Sukhumvit Road that seemed to be going through a slow period. The owner agreed to sell a coffin for five thousand baht and to refund one thousand if it was returned undamaged. Even in the coffin trade, there was a middle path to doing business.

Later that day, a coffin was delivered to the location Calvino had marked: a space in the corridor outside Apichart's office. The wooden
coffin was painted white. Red and orange rosettes festooned the sides and the lid. Squinting hard at a distance, one might take the rosettes for a drug-addled artist's idea of exotic aboriginal flowers. Closer examination suggested they might pass for blood clots or lepers' boils. People walking down the corridor averted their eyes. The coffin maker also brought a small shrine to hold candles and incense and set it at the head of the coffin. Three monks arrived the following day and chanted for twenty minutes. The coffin, the shrine, and the monks provoked a considerable amount of attention—not the good kind, but horrified stares like those of passersby who stopped to look at the carnage of a car accident.

Bangkok is a large Chinese city. As Colonel Pratt had once said, the whole population has Chinese DNA. The borderline between Chinese and Thai-Chinese is a matter for debate, but eventually most people become plain, unadorned Thais without a Chinese modifier. Their Chinese blood is like that of minor royalty—diluted over the generations to the point where it has been drained of most meaning.

Calvino figured General Yosaporn's tenant, who was second-generation Thai on his mother's side, had enough residual Chinese identity to register the shock of seeing a coffin beside his office. As Ratana had pointed out, coffins are not just a symbol of death but also bad luck for the living. The Chinese will walk two blocks out of their way not to pass a coffin. Office workers who used the corridor of the General's building had no choice but to pass it. Customers and clients, though, who were mainly Chinese, did have a choice.

From the day the coffin appeared outside Apichart's office, his business went into a stall, then a nosedive. If his business had been free peanuts, there wouldn't have been a single monkey willing to take one.

Apichart begged, threatened, shed tears—tears of rage, tears of shame, and most improbably of all, tears of helplessness. The General said the situation was out of his hands, meaning Apichart had had his chance and having crossed the threshold of socially acceptable behavior, he'd lost his right to appeal to the General for help. Apichart was all alone staring down the farang over a coffin that wouldn't be moved. A couple of days later, one of Apichart's bodyguards delivered the back rent and a year's payment in advance. All in cash. He also signed a document saying the earlier money given to the General
had been a donation and not a loan. The company that had delivered the coffin had it removed that day. They returned one thousand baht to Ratana, who gave them a tax receipt. She was informed that any time her farang boss or his friends wished to rent a coffin, they'd be happy to throw in free delivery and give her a 10 percent commission.

Once Colonel Pratt had news of Calvino's success in collecting the rent, the Colonel phoned to thank him. Calvino's scheme had been crazy but it had worked. Thais rarely fought against anything that proved effective. The General's influence had gradually dissolved over the years except among the community of devout meditators, where his star had never been higher. Like the unwritten rules that governed who was Chinese and who was Thai, each year past retirement at age sixty had washed away another level of power and influence. By age seventy-five, for General Yosaporn, only Colonel Pratt remained his steadfast friend. There were one or two other old-timers, but most of the powerful people he knew were dead. Newspapers sometimes profiled his meditation work. The reality was he was a relic from a time when decency and compassion had value.

BOOK: Paying Back Jack
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