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Authors: Christopher G. Moore

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BOOK: Paying Back Jack
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As Colonel Pratt sat in Calvino's office, holding the bottle of single-malt whiskey, he turned to his old mentor. “I would recommend that Vincent leave town for a few days.”

The General nodded. “My good friend has a hotel in Pattaya. He can stay there.”

“Hold on,” said Calvino. “I'm being exiled to Pattaya?”

“It will take a few days to clear up the problem,” said Colonel Pratt. “Look at it as a vacation, Vincent. You deserve some time away from the office. Kids, clients …”

“Two fried thugs.”

“Repeat to yourself: I am going on a holiday.”

“Do I have a choice?”

Calvino looked at Colonel Pratt and then at General Yosaporn and saw that he didn't have any choice. Every one had already agreed he had to go away. The problem was that Calvino had been too successful. He hadn't just won the battle with Apichart; he had vanquished him, left him naked and humiliated. Apichart had paid the rent money and signed the letter, but with such a loss of face that some blood would have to be spilled to get it back again. Apichart's clients
were laughing at him. That was intolerable for a Thai-Chinese. The coffin story had become legendary, whispered between the wives among his circle of friends.

“I could use a holiday,” said Calvino. “A few days away from Bangkok might be a good thing.”

A faint smile crossed the General's lips. “We hope it will be only a few days.”

Calvino rolled his eyes. “It could be longer? I've got ongoing cases to handle.”

“Remember what I taught you about meditation,” said General Yosaporn.

“Let go, don't get attached,” Calvino replied. “And I can do that until I start thinking about how I'm going to cover the rent and Ratana's salary.”

The General was on his feet and Colonel Pratt rose and followed him out. There hadn't been anything else to say. Colonel Pratt would settle the problem with Apichart—doing what had to be done in order to repair the damage. With guys like Apichart, the five precepts were never a good place to start.

After they'd left, Calvino sat alone in his office, thinking about a client named Casey. He owed Calvino money. He made a note to have Ratana phone him and let him know that he'd been called away by a client in Pattaya.

He pulled out another bottle of the single-malt and studied the label. He knew a bar owner in Pattaya who might buy it from him. He smiled and glanced a final time at Colonel Pratt's drawing, lifted the whiskey from his desk, and walked out to his car. He convinced himself this wasn't an exile; he was instead doing something he'd not done for a long time: he was taking a vacation. The whiskey was his passport, a way to escape from Bangkok for a week and to kick back and relax by the sea. Calvino drummed his fingers on the box, a smile on his lips. Passing the baby crib and holding his breath against the smell of freshly soiled diapers, he said his goodbyes to Ratana and little John-John, and to the tiny limbs of the other infants in the crib with John-John, whose names he couldn't remember.

TWO

TWENTY-FOUR HOURS AFTER Colonel Pratt and General Yosaporn had left his office, Calvino arrived at his hotel in Pattaya. He'd tied up a few loose ends and left Ratana in charge of the office—meaning the nursery wouldn't have to cope with his interruptions or those of the clients: grifters, gamblers, drunks, suspicious spouses; mainly men bruised and worn down from their swim in the gutter end of the Thai business world. Calvino was going upstream to where the big fish stayed submerged, blowing no bubbles.

The road curved around the bay. Large umbrellas and beach chairs were lined up in rows by the sea; baht taxis patrolled the perimeter. And tourists in shorts, bodies glistening with sunblock, and displaying faded tattoos, walked along the quay. Calvino turned into the hotel driveway. A doorman opened his car door and an assistant offered to take his luggage and park his car in the lot below the hotel. He figured the General had phoned ahead. The staff was too attentive, the wais too much for a farang. The hotel was all chrome and glass, modern, imposing, catching the light from the sea. Modern only went so far, though; in front of the hotel was a traditional spirit house. Peel back the latest European design, and underneath probably lurked an ancient tradition to appease the spirits of the land, angry spirits that bring misfortune, bad health, and business failure. Placed on a pedestal, the spirit house looked more like a dollhouse managed by a mentally disturbed child. Tiny ceramic figures were placed on the small terrace that surrounded
it—painted warriors, demons, giants, and angels staring with blank black eyes at Beach Road.

Spirit houses were a dime a dozen in any Thai city, and Pattaya was no exception. If Calvino were to stop to examine each one, he couldn't have covered half a mile in a day, so he was selective in his appreciation. When he first saw a young woman making an offering to the spirit, she had a cold, graceful elegance. She gave the impression of being carved out of ice, one of those fancy ice sculptures that hotels set out in the lobby for weddings. Her eyes were closed, hands folded in prayer, her head bowed. Unaware of his presence, she caught and held his attention. Seeing a woman pay homage made a man remember that in the spirit world, a woman had a chance of evening the odds.

Great-looking hotel, beautiful ying in front of the spirit house … what's not to like? Calvino thought as he worked himself down the list of possibilities: A ying could be good or bad, young or old, educated or illiterate, ugly or beautiful, kind or mean, available or unavailable. He gave this ying a high score. It was the start of a perfect exile—or vacation, depending on a man's point of view. It doesn't much matter which, he thought, as a smile crossed his lips. He started to approach the woman but stopped short. Some basic instinct told him to pull back, wait a little longer before making his move.

Looking as if transported from the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the woman moved her lips in prayer. Below the ice Calvino sensed trouble, and the feeling had been strong enough for him to abort his approach. He reminded himself of Calvino's law: Act on impulse when betting on a horse, but never with a woman. A horse never drags a man into its life. It either wins or loses the race. A man can spend an afternoon at the track and, eight races later, count his money and know whether he has won or not. With a woman it's never that simple. With a woman the numbers never add up.

A seagull landed on top of the spirit house. Its belly fluted with gray feathers, it walked along the roof and dropped down beside a plate of oranges. Opening her eyes, the woman saw the seagull and smiled. The bird flew off with a wedge of orange in its beak. After the seagull had flown away, she sensed someone watching her and, turning around, had seen Calvino. For a brief moment, their eyes had locked, and she had smiled. It had been the most human of
connections, fleeting, without demand, without flirtation, and it had lasted only an instant.

Don't be a fish blowing bubbles close to the surface, he told himself. Besides, vacations are about leaving problems behind. Who had caused that woman's great expectations about life to dissolve into a cocktail of anxiety with a superstitious chaser? He didn't really want to know. Why spoil the rare opportunity to be free of other people's problems, aches, pains, disappointments, and regrets?

At the front desk the receptionist looked up his name and pulled out a couple of pieces of paper. Reading through them, he nodded and told Calvino he'd been upgraded. Bless General Yosaporn, Calvino thought. He'd pulled the strings to put him in a suite.

Upstairs, Calvino slipped the keycard into the door and walked into a large suite with a separate sitting room and bedroom, a flat-screen TV in both rooms, and a bathroom the size of his bedroom in Bangkok. This is what a vacation is supposed to be, he thought. A temporary escape from reality. He'd rarely been in such a large hotel room except to meet a client. Outside the door he'd noticed a bronze plaque declaring his new digs the “Regency Suite.” If he had to lie low, this was definitely the way to do it.

Calvino had the bellhop set the case of whiskey on the table and pull back the curtains. Then he tipped him a hundred baht. Looking out at the blue sky, the ribbon of white sand, and the dolphin-gray sea dotted with Jet Skiers, fishing and pleasure boats and, on the horizon, cargo ships, he felt like a high roller at Atlantic City who'd been put up in style by management. All that was missing was a high stack of chips and some playing cards.

Calvino's good mood lingered like a familiar song as he sat alone on his balcony overlooking the sea. There were a lot of fish out there—but he had in mind the two-legged variety who strolled along Beach Road as the sun came down over the water. Pattaya was stretching, arms out, waking up and getting ready for the night, putting the line out for those hungry mouths moving in the far distance.

Now was the time to catch up on doing nothing. Sit back and read a good book or two. He'd packed Graham Greene's
The Quiet American
—on the basis that he'd never met such an American—and a battered copy of George Orwell's
Burmese Days
. The authors were a couple of guys who had established reputations for knowing a thing
or two about Southeast Asia. There might be another coffin-like trick he could pick up from their books.

More than a year had passed since Calvino had taken his last real holiday. This was his first forced exile. Either way, it was a milestone to be in the suite overlooking Beach Road in Pattaya. No stakeout, no phone calls to clients, no security detail, phone bugging, or tailing assholes at three in the morning. He pushed back in the chair and poured himself a drink, telling himself that life was good. The hotel hugged the rim of the beach. It was a dream location, a dream room, and on the lucky ninth floor. The Chinese thought highly of the number nine. But they were also big on eight and thirteen. They had number madness that could leave them in a shrill and dazed place.

Colonel Pratt had said the hotel owner was an old friend of General Yosaporn's. The General had made the arrangements, and by paying for the suite he'd given Calvino a lot of face. He figured that the General's name had been linked with his own, and that fact had been passed down the chain of command. A Thai receptionist seeing a farang being taken care of by a Thai general saw a face the size of a full moon. The social network of names and ranks coiled itself around lives like ivy. Once it started, there was no way to fight the foliage; it simply consumed everyone.

Calvino opened a bottle of Johnnie Walker—having promised himself not to touch the expensive stuff from the General—and poured himself three fingers of scotch. He sipped it and thought about going out for dinner. He also considered whether Apichart might send someone to shoot him. That was an easy thing to arrange in Pattaya. Colonel Pratt had been less concerned about Apichart than about the cops. A couple of people had seen him push the vendor's cart into the path of the motorcycle, and Thailand was a place where, in the not so distant past, over a hundred people had seen someone shoot a cop in the head but afterwards no one could remember a thing. Colonel Pratt had the experience on the ground. He had convinced the police at the scene to write it up as an accident. Just in case someone from the department came around to ask more questions, it was better for Calvino to be out of town.

Calvino looked over at the case of whiskey and smiled. The guy who wanted to buy the whiskey also ran a restaurant where the steaks were thick, the mushroom sauce was perfectly seasoned, and
the women were smiling and available. The restaurant was located at the far end of South Pattaya Road; it was squeezed between a dive where the Russian mob drank vodka and plotted crimes, and an Italian joint where old criminals had retired, having beat the system and set up a restaurant. Removing the lid from the ice bucket, Calvino breathed in deeply, closed his eyes, and tried to remember what the General had taught him about meditation. When he opened his eyes, he stared at the sea and felt calm and alive. He even allowed himself to feel happy.

He lowered his glass, sucked in the air, and admired the view. Had it been possible to hold a moment for eternity, this one would have been high on his short list. The problem with such a moment is that it never lasts.

The spell broke when Calvino saw a naked woman in a freefall, directly in front of his balcony. Long black hair flowing, lips parted in a silent scream—the look of someone who knew she was already dead. He stared straight into her face, and it hit him like a jolt of electrical current. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end. He rose to his feet, grabbed the railing and looked down. “What the fuck?”

He backed away, shaking his head. Then, moving forward, he stuck his head out, looking above and then down below. His heart raced. He couldn't think straight. Blood was pumping hard and fast. He steadied himself at the railing, looked down again, and shook his head. “What the …” was all he could manage to get out. What the fuck do I do now? Again he leaned over the railing, looking at the people who gathered around the body on the pavement. Some of them looked up. He stood back from the railing. This was the last thing he wanted to get involved in.

It had happened so fast that there hadn't been time to comprehend much of anything about the young woman. Then her face registered in his mind; she was the ice goddess at the spirit house.

From the ninth floor the woman's body looked tiny, unreal, as if a doll had been thrown over the side, sprawled arms and legs at unnatural angles, partly on the sidewalk and partly in the road. A car braked hard and stopped. Another car slammed into the back of the first car. Soon the street filled with people circling the body. Calvino stood staring at them all. It had been a dead drop. One hand on the railing, the other hand cupping his whiskey glass, Calvino looked at
the concrete bottom of the balcony above his head. She'd fallen from above, but how far above he had no way of determining. It seemed that the spirit hadn't been at home when she'd planted the incense sticks in the tiny bowls filled with beach sand.

BOOK: Paying Back Jack
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