Greed is like salt.
Some must be.
Too much, ruins more than soups.
Alexandrite Farming in Thailand
South of Bangkok, September 2003
Ed stared over an endless stretch of swamps glimmering in the hot afternoon sun. The ugliest man in the world shared from deep inside his ego: how he had the genius to do what would come anyways; how his was the success of Asian cunning and Western determination, or vice versa. The man droned on, readying an old video cam. Lizzy stared at the fan standing in a corner, slowly churning the thick fragrant air.
Sri Lanka, 2002
On the island once called Ceylon, decades of civil war came to an end. A peace treaty, supported by India and brokered by Norway, had been signed between the separatist Tamil Tigers in the North and the Sri Lankan government.
Ed and Lizzy moved ‘Wild Monkey Gems’ from Kenya to Sri Lanka and settled in Batticaloa, deep in Tamil Tiger territory where Ed had spent parts of his youth. For years, only NGOs had dared to show there in convoys of shiny SUVs. The new arrivals were gawked at like aliens, the first foreigners to settle on the North coast for over two decades, not war-journalists but normal businesspeople, private investors daring to start a new life. Though they encountered many cynics and much disbelieve, some saw in them a sign that better times were coming, finally.
Their website produced regular orders which they exported through Sri Lanka’s Gem Authority. Each gem underwent detailed documentation and needed a dozen signatures before it was sealed, under witnesses, in hand-made tin-boxes and handed over for shipment.
In a rented house, they lived without dairy products, chocolate, olive oil or steaks. Instead, they ate rice, mixed with unforgivably spicy curry sauce and sprinkled with the fine sand Batticaloa was built on.
They discovered a country frozen in war-torn backwardness. Modernity had simply passed-by the Northern highlands. Elephants worked for their lively hood, not for tourists, men hunted in the waves like their grandfathers had, and walking was still the common mode of transport. Travelling the mining areas, they stayed in guest houses where coffee was unknown, the restroom was a hole in the floor, and villagers came in droves to gawk at the ‘black woman’, Lizzy that is. Untouched natural beauty lay interrupted only by the terrifying scars of war, burned down villages, pillboxes on strategic corners, and bombed-out hotel cadavers. People had suffered, with traumatized eyes, fear and loss carved in their faces, yearning for normality, hungry to catch-up with the rest of the world.
In September, they met Peter Pestana, the CEO of OneOre and their angel investor, in a Colombo hotel. Post 9/11, his hair had thinned and greyed, but he still wore it shoulder long. Other than aged, he had remained the imprint of wealth, smiling with the confidence of London, well fed, and refreshed from his private jet. Lizzy and Edward had aged, too, but weren’t well fed and looked as if they lived deep in the jungle, which was indeed true.
In his presidential suite, Peter indulged them with Australian steaks, fresh orange juice and later cheesecake and dark chocolate. One must have experienced months of sandy rice with spicy sauce to really appreciate a steak, salted butter, and fresh bread.
When both surrendered with bulging bellies on a silk sofa, Peter got down to business. He did not ask for their sales data, which Ed had prepared in some detail, but brought out a small velvet bag and showed an extra fine Alexandrite, near five carats with the much sought-after ‘dramatic’ color-change, moving from jungle green to a crimson red.
They had never seen such quality and said so. To their surprise, Peter did not look happy but shook his head as he pulled out a bigger bag with twenty more stones of similar size and quality. No collector would have transported such gems in one bag, tumbling and chipping facets, but Peter’s carelessness and the parcel’s conformity could only mean one thing: They were not natural. With a disrespectful motion, Peter spilled the whole bag onto the glass table.
“Synthetic?” Ed asked doubtfully. So far, all synthetic alexandrite he had seen were ugly ducks.
“Nope,” Peter said. “These are really Chrysoberyl. My lab can’t figure out how they were treated. Undistinguishable from Alexandrite. I must expose them. Every day these guys sell undisclosed into the market, is one day lost.”
Peter paused and looked at his guests.
“I need an undercover buyer to go to Bangkok and find the source, or I have to depreciate my 25 million euros stock in Alexandrite.”
Ed and Lizzy exchanged glances. Lizzy nodded ever so slightly.
Two days later, Peter flew them to Bangkok, and immediately ordered his pilot to continue to London.
They had reserved a room at The Lebua State Towers and were lucky to get a residence on the 55th floor overlooking buzzling Bangkok as far as the smog would allow. The Chao Praya, the ‘big river’, snaked majestically beneath their balcony, boats flitting left and right like toys, the city thrumming with life day and night.
Next morning, they walked Silom, the street every gemstone visits at least once on its way from mine to jewelry. Asking for high-end alexandrite, they were shown five stones of excellent quality, in quick order, each seller claiming that his was the best gem found in recent history. For reference, they bought two pieces, already far under normal market value, a sure sign that depreciation had begun.
Those days, gem business on Silom was conducted in hard cash, best in dollar or euro, while tax invoices and export papers were written out in Thai Baht and thus at one percent of true value. Peter had supplied them with two-hundred banknotes of five hundred euros each, the highest cash denomination in the world. In Bangkok, a maid cleaning luxury apartments worth millions of dollars, would earn only one of these bills per year. Peter had also given the couple a credit card running on One-Ore. Unlimited funds, he had said.
In the evening, they sat in the cool breeze on the hotel’s rooftop bar, drank cooled Chablis, and watched the fancy city-crowd partying, a stark contrast to Batticaloa where most evenings ended with blackouts.
On the second day, they returned to the most ambitious Alexandrite dealer operating from a reserved table at a coffee bar. The Thai, with more rings than fingers and an open shirt revealing a hairy chest, was delighted to see them again. They asked him for an introduction to his supplier. First, the dealer refused, but they insisted, saying they would not buy again unless they could meet the source. In the end, the man agreed and promised a meeting after lunch. This was another sign that something was afoot. No dealer would, under normal circumstances, disclose his source, because once he had introduced buyer to seller, they would push him out. But these weren’t normal circumstances. The quicker the buck, the better.
After lunch, the dealer took them to the VIP elevator of the Jewelry Trade Center, or JTC for short, and up to the top floor. There, they were introduced to Mr. Sandaporn, an elderly Thai-Chinese in dark suit and promenaded grey hair. With a nod, that guaranteed his provision, Sandaporn dismissed the Thai and led the couple into his inner office. Thick carpets, heavy dark wood furniture and curtains insulated the room from the ever-blaring city with the calm and quiet of a deep cave. After some small talk, Mr. Sandaporn presented a tray of four dozen perfect Alexandrite. Nature would not release such a selection in a century of earnest mining. When Lizzy, to Ed’s shock, remarked thus, Mr. Sandaporn shrugged and smiled.
“New mine,” he lied with perfection, didn’t even blink.
‘New Mine’ was always the explanation for new treatments. Ed knew these old traders for the sneakiest businessmen on earth. If good for sales, they would lie twice while saying ‘Good morning’ and be proud of it. Not a sign of bad character at all. Loyal friends and loving fathers they may be but cheating for profit was a sport to them.
To divert attention from the Alexandrite, Ed asked to see some red Spinel. When Sandaporn went to call his assistant, Lizzy shot a closeup of a framed desk photo showing the man shaking some VIP’s hand.
They bought a Spinel, together with one ‘New Mine’ Alexandrite, and promised to be back.
“We need help,” said Ed as they descended in the elevator.
A phone call later they had an after-hour appointment with Mr. Spy on Sukhumvit road.
Lizzy made jokes about the detective’s name, but Ed assured her that Mr. Spy was worth his money, and never gave up on a case, a pro in a world of amateurs.
The journey across the city took almost two hours by taxi and they swore to switch to the Bangkok-Sky-Train or BTS next time.
“Why didn’t we take somebody close-by?” asked Lizzy during the second hour in the smelly Taxi.
“Sukhumvit is not connected to the trade. We cannot discuss this anywhere near Silom.”
Mr. Spy was half Thai half Australian, a common enough mix in Bangkok. His dark-orange suit crowned by a yellow tie seemed to defy under-cover work, but the man could blend into local crowds like a lizard into the jungle. He had the thick black hair of most Asians but with a Caucasian wave. His eyes, too, had the elongated Asian shape but with the blue-grey color of a northern sea.
The PI listened patiently to Ed and Lizzy telling a couple’s story while he downloaded Sandaporn’s image to his laptop.
When they had finished, he said, “Sounds interesting. You are aware that I know dud about gemstones, right?”
Ed nodded. “Better so, they will not see you coming.”
Mr. Spy named his per diem rate and suggested a success bonus for locating the treatment facility.
“When can you start?” Ed asked before he accepted the offer.
“I do have other clients, but nothing pressing. I will research a bit tonight and start tomorrow.”
“Can we help?” Lizzy asked.
Mr. Spy studied his new clients for a moment, then waggled his head and began to rummage through a desk drawer. He came up with a little box from which he extracted a large coin, ten-baht with a copper inlay displaying the country’s King.
He handed the coin to Lizzy, who passed it to Ed after a study and a shrug.
“Go again to Mr. Sandaporn, tomorrow, and place the coin anywhere in his room. Can do? First thing in the morning?”
Before they left, Ed said, “Idea: I could ask for an unusual cut Alexandrite, something he won’t have, something he needs to order, perhaps you get closer that way.”
The next day, Mr. Spy stationed himself near the VIP elevator. He spotted Sandaporn as he came to work punctually at 10.00.
Lizzy and Ed were already waiting in his front office when Sandaporn arrived. The trader ordered three iced lattes before he motioned them to enter his office. Ed began by praising the fake Alexandrite and asked to see more. As agreed with Lizzy, there was no further talk of impossible quality, even if it outed them as utter tourists. Burning $1.5k per carat on fakes, hurt Ed’s professional pride like a boxer taking a dive in round two.
Since the previous day, two rows of alexandrite had disappeared from the tray. Business, obviously, was brisk. Others were buying Alexandrite at depreciating prices and selling them into their sales channels for the original value. The flash supply created a wave of gems rolling towards the consumer market. To keep up the good mood, the couple chose twenty-one carats of Alexandrite in five more pieces.
When their iced lattes arrived, Ed used the commotion to drop Mr. Spy’s coin into a potted palm tree.
“Would you have a pair of trillions? Perhaps four carat each?” Ed asked, innocently sipping his latte.
Alexandrite was almost never cut in trillions because it sacrificed weight in favor of a mediocre brilliancy. Demanding a pair of such stones was asking the near impossible. Yet, Sandaporn didn’t blink, only checked his weekly planner, and said ‘yes’, he could have a pair of trillions in two days.
“We’ll be back for the pair day-after tomorrow,” Ed confirmed as they left. “Shall we make a deposit for the unusual cut?”
Mr. Sandaporn waved his hands. “No, not from my distinguished customers. I will have them ready. No problem.”
Below, in a coffee booth with view of the VIP elevator, Mr. Spy smiled. He listened to headphones, like so many, only that he carefully tuned a small black box hidden between his knees. Ed had guessed that the treatment facility would be located outside the city limits or South, in Bangkok’s secretive little sister, Chanthaburi, where most treatment factories were located. For that eventuality, Mr. Spy had reserved a rental Toyota Camry, already waiting in the JTC’s garage. Following a target on foot around Silom or in the BTS would be easy, but if Sandaporn travelled anywhere by car, Mr. Spy had to know the destination beforehand. Bangkok was far too chaotic for a spontaneous tail by car. The JTC’s garage alone had six exits onto four different streets depending in which direction somebody would want to leave town.
Later, Ed and Lizzy met Mr. Spy in a Starbucks inside the JTC.
“He has already ordered the special cut, then he made travel arrangements,” said Spy.
“Did he say where to?” Ed asked.
“Not exactly, but South, I think. He told his wife he’ll buy shrimps and be back for a late dinner.”
“Then it must be in Chanthaburi. A tough trip for one day though. Poor driver.”
“No. He told his driver to take a day off,” the PI said.
They agreed to stay in contact via text messages, for mobile reception could be spotty on the road.
Ed and Lizzy went to dine in the ‘Blue Elephant’, the newest opening of a French chef who had made a fortune with a European chain of none-spicy Thai restaurant visited by everybody except Thais.
The next day, at ten o’clock, a message from Spy reported Sandaporn arriving in his office.
“He has to get going, or he’ll never make it back in one day,” Ed remarked.
Chanthaburi was near the Cambodian border, a good six hours of hard driving, one way.
At eleven thirty, Mr. Spy messaged that he was leaving town by car, following his target. During lunch in a food court, a third message arrived: ‘Highway 3 to Chon.’
Back in the room, they studied a map. Highway ‘3’ lay South, towards Pattaya.
“But, no, he is not going to Chanthaburi,” Ed said. “That would have been the ‘361’. What is he doing?”
“Perhaps he goes to visit his little friend in the South, buys shrimps, and somebody else picks-up the gems?” asked Lizzy.
“No, yes, normally yes, Sandaporn has runners, but for a new treatment like this, he will keep the circle very small. He lies to his wife, even the driver is not supposed to know. That’s very secretive. Drivers normally know everything.”
On the map, Ed followed highway ‘3’ down the coast.
“All beach towns. They might have started this in an unusual location, perhaps hiding in plain side, in a closed hotel or restaurant, somewhere right in tourist country. Not a bad idea.”
They waited for more updates from Spy, but the phone stayed quiet. When the room became too boring, and the view from the balcony too hot, they hung around a hidden terrasse in the back of the hotel to avoid chance encounters with other traders. The less rumor they stirred on Silom, the better. If it became known, that they bought fakes at tourist rates, their reputation would suffer. The gem trade was a village that way.
Three o’clock passed without an update. Strange because Mr. Spy always texted, almost obsessively, at times straining his client’s nerves. At five, against the rules, they called Spy’s mobile. Voice mail. More waiting.
From then on, they called every other hour, but the phone remained stubbornly off.
They watched movies, had room service, and went to bed with a dull sense of foreboding.
When no news had come the following morning, they started to worry seriously.
After lunch, they called Spy’s secretary. At first, the woman was all professional secrecy, but when Ed identified them as ‘the clients from Silom’, she talked a lot:
‘Yes, he is gone, since yesterday, but he didn’t call, and worst, did not return at night. Imagine! Not his way at all, and he doesn’t answer the phone, not even his emergency number. Nothing for 24 hours! Never happened before. I can’t call the police, can I? They hate us. What else can I do?’’
Ed could not get in a single sentence. In the end, they hung up on the lady to stop her from talking on.
In London, Peter was in conference but left a message that he trusted their judgement. They were to decide. While Peter had given his passion to gemstones, it was the price of copper that could sink his company, which in turn would shake the global mining market for weeks. A missing PI in Bangkok was not on his radar.
They decided to start searching themselves and set out to see Sandaporn. If the trader had returned from his trip to the Alexandrite facility but Spy had not, then things were getting complicated.
They had to wait a while but then were received with the usual professional courtesy.
“I have your trillion pair,” Sandaporn said in his office.
As the trader opened his safe, Ed checked for the coin. It was gone. Sandaporn had found their gadget. Ed tried to remain, or at least appear, unconcerned. But Lizzy stared at him. She sensed his worry right away. Sure, Sandaporn would notice, too. Or did he? He seemed friendly and relaxed. Yet, reading an old crook like Sandaporn was like night-walking a duck with blindfold. He might have given the coin to building-security and let them deal with it. Espionage was nothing new or uncommon on Silom. Few datapoints help more in negotiations than the other’s buying price, especially in the elastic valuation of gemstones. Or had Sandaporn already called the police? Was he trying to keep them in his office longer than usual? Would they be picked up by the police soon? Ed wanted to leave, quickly.
They bought the pair Alexandrite and took their leave. No police waited in the front office. Ed breathed lighter.
In the elevator, before Ed could speak, Lizzy said, “Did you see the draft brochure for a shrimp farm? On his desk?”
“The coin was gone.”
“I know. But the brochure, did you see? For a shrimp farm. The design was not finished, still with notes and corrections on it. A draft for a new business, something with ‘Novelty’ in the name.”
Ed stared at Lizzy, his brain too stressed to understand.
“Shrimp farming?” he asked irritated.
“Yes, shrimps, the nasty little stinkers.”
“What the heck would Sandaporn want with shrimp farming?”
Gems and shrimps were such opposite trades. Shrimps would start stinking during the time it may take to negotiate a single important gem. They were terrible to transport, never appreciated in value but ruin your health after a week, just opposite from gems. Did Sandaporn diversify? Ed didn’t think so. A gem trader in seafood was like a car racing company investing in used bicycles.
Then, Ed caught on, “They are pretending to farm shrimps!”
“Finally!” said Lizzy and boxed him on the shoulder. “I wanted to snatch the brochure, but it was too risky. I did memorize the town, though. Bang Soa Tong, or very similar.”
In silence, they hurried back to their room and checked the map again. Bang Sao Thong lay just north of Amphoe Bang Bo, ten kilometers from where Spy had last checked-in.
They looked at one another and nodded.
Ed said, “Let’s go. If we can’t find Spy, we can still see if somebody is faking gems there.”
“Yep, finding a gem factory amongst shrimp farms shouldn’t be difficult. We just need to search for something that’s not smelling.”
Lizzy loathed shrimps, or prawns, or any other ‘wet vultures’, even dead ones. Some childhood trauma.
They arranged to rent a most inconspicuous Toyota Camry and left Bangkok on a sixteen-lane highway to the South, traveling lightly with a joint backpack, taking only water, maps, their four phones, a few bundles of 500€ notes, a few thousand Baht in cash, Peter’s credit card, and their IDs.
After three hour’s drive they neared Amphoe Bang Soon, a small city with harbor and access to vast mangrove forests protecting Bangkok from floods, at least before they had been hacked off for shrimp farming.
They stopped at a little roadside lunch restaurant, and Ed ordered fried shrimps, while Lizzy stuck to a sandwich. Ed praised the food and interviewed the owner.
‘Yes-Yes, fresh-fresh from here. My brother-in-law’s farm. Yes, many-many farms. Big-small, old-new. No-No, gems not, why gems? Yes-Yes, a new farm just started, big-big. Lots of money. Name is, uh, Noveeltie, yes, Noveeltie Shrimp. Sure-Sure. Welcome.’
“That’s it!” Lizzy said as they started the car.
They searched the signs along the road for anything with ‘Novelty’ on it.
Soon, they found a small but shiny new sign, sticking out between dusty and rusted boards, reading, ‘Novelty Shrimps.’
They turned and followed the dirt road, passing by farm after farm, pond after pond, wooden signs, written in Thai, most with one hut towards the street, surrounded only by meager fences. Shrimp farms, by the very nature of their extended business, had little need for security. Nobody wanted to steal shrimps here.
After a few minutes, they slowed, staring ahead. To the right, off the road, next to a bamboo forest, stood a Camry, just like theirs, but burned-out and without number plates.
“Wait… was that?” Lizzy turned in the seat to look back. “Did Spy mention getting a rental?”
Ed continued driving, his hands gripping the wheel harder.
“Yes, he even gave me their number, recommended this company, where we got this one. You think that was Spy’s car?”
“I certainly hope not. Jesus, but that did look like a very recent fire. It was practically still smoldering,” Lizzy said in a low tone.
Ed kept driving.
“Do you think they would burn somebody’s car for sneaking up on their business?” Lizzy asked.
“I don’t know, but I think Peter would agree for us to stop here. What you say?”
Ed slowed down, searching for a place to turn the car but the road was not wide enough, barely allowing two cars at once. To the right bamboo forest continued, to the left, swamp molded into square blocks, each the size of a tennis court, and several feet deep.
“But we need proof,” Lizzy said.
“Take a photo of the wreck,” Ed said, then hesitated.
“He might have torched his car with a cigarette.”
He paused again. “Only Spy didn’t smoke.”
“No cigarette burns a car like that. I have seen my share of torched cars in Africa. Somebody poured gasoline into that one, and a lot, too,” said Lizzy. “No, Sir, that was not an accident.”
They followed the road, were forced to turn right after the bamboo forest, and stared at a very different type of building, twenty meters ahead. The road dead-ended in a massive gate set in high concrete walls, with only one small metal door on the side, crowned with Dannert wire and secured with cameras on poles pointing every way.
Ed hit the brakes.
“This looks more like a prison, or a drug lab,” Lizzy said.
“That’s it! We’re out of here,” Ed said, changed into reverse and turned, only to see a large water truck coming around the corner. The lorry closed the distance, stopped behind the Camry, and honked with a nasty blast. Left and right of the road now lay nothing but shrimp ponds.
Slowly, the gate opened inwards. The truck’s motor howled and inched forward until they stood bumper to bumper. HONK!
Ed cursed, changed into first gear, and slowly drove into the compound.
The gate closed behind. The truck had stayed outside.
“Oops!” said Lizzy.
The compound consisted of two-story buildings set in a U-shape opening towards the gate. From one building several men rushed at the Camry, while a fat Indonesian-looking man, dressed in a sarong and a stained suit shirt, stood in a door, his piggish eyes watching them sharply. The eyes, though small and black, seemed to burn through the mirrored windshield and rested first on Ed, then on Lizzy.
Their central lock was still activated, and the motor was running. Ed considered to crash his way back and out. He remembered the lorry outside, and the swamps. Without four-wheel-drive he would not get past.
“Let’s play nice and innocent,” Lizzy said. “We done no wrong.”
Ed switched the motor off and released the door lock. Immediately two men opened the doors and motioned them to leave the car.
Ed made a slowly-slowly sign and reached for their rucksack. He exited the car, stretched, yawned, and looked around in tourist-fashion. Only then did he turn and took a few steps towards the fat guy in the door.
Lizzy had stepped from the car, too, and sided with Ed. Now, the fat man was staring her clothes off with a dreamy expression. She was used to onlookers undressing her but, eyes aside, this man was awful to behold. Thin hair lay plastered in half circles to hide the bold head with pimples between overly wide ears. Underneath, two hundred pounds bulged in a five-foot vase-shaped body. His default facial expression seemed sneering condescension. Gosh, this may be the ugliest man she had ever lain eyes on.
Somebody had closed the car doors behind them.
Ed didn’t look back but sauntered towards Mr. Ugly. He waited for Lizzy, and together they walked up to the man, both folding their hands in a classic polite Thai Wai. The man didn’t Wai back but frowned, adding anger to the condescending sneer.
“Hello! We want to buy ‘New Mine’ Alexandrite,” Ed said, looking bravely into the man’s eyes, feeling a headache creeping into his temples.
“Hi there!” added Lizzy in a friendly tone.
The man didn’t react, didn’t move. No shaking hands. No smiles. Very Un-Thai.
“We don’t retail here. Or did you see a sign? Who send you?”
The man’s voice was the opposite of his outer appearance. Well-tuned, baritone but without scratchy darkness, slow, clear English without local accent.
“We don’t buy retail either, or we could have stayed on Silom,” Lizzy said.
Again, the man didn’t as much as blink. He simply ignored Lizzy as if nobody had spoken. He had seen his fill of the woman and now kept his eyes fixed on Ed. Women had no place in his business, especially not black ones. They were but pretty things to be exhibited, if occasion arose, but other than that they were not supposed to leave the house. Guarding children, cleaning and cooking was their job. If foreigners insisted to bring them in the office, they could not expect everybody else to talk to them, right?
For a while, Mr. Ugly just stood there, looking Ed up-and-down, contemplating. Then he came to some conclusion, nodding to himself with an unpleasant smile, muttering ‘In shaa Allah’ twice.
“Well, then that’s that, if you really want, come on in, as-salaam alaykum,” he said with his strangely accomplished voice, still smiling in his strange way, and turned back into the building.
They followed him up a staircase to the second floor. Other men came up behind.
The upper level consisted of a canteen to serve perhaps twenty men and a classic Asian chef-office at the end of the corridor. Mr. Ugly ushered them in, always smiling and sneering at the same time. From the top windows, one could see over endless fields of shrimp farms, the tapestry of global protein transformation.
Instead of shrimps, however, the office smelled of incense-sticks and rose-pedals, fragrant smoke wafted in the air, like in a cheap spa in Bangkok. A thick carpet lay on the floor but there was no AC. They had taken off their shoes outside the door.
Mr. Ugly plopped into a seat behind his desk, breathing heavily from the ascent, and pointed at two chairs, his eyes still fixed on Ed, further deepening the headache.
At the door, four men squeezed to get a better view. Mr. Ugly, in a less pretty voice, told them to bug-off in Bahasa Indonesia, followed by a curse.
With the door closed, and everybody seated, Mr. Ugly said, “I know your name, but you don’t need to know mine. I have been thinking what I would do if you came here. In fact, I had considered to come to Bangkok. But Masha’Allah, he decided for me. Here you are, and I have not much choice.”
Ed and Lizzy exchanged surprised glances.
“Yes, I know why you have come and what you want and everything else. Your investigator, that pretty guy in the strange suit, he came the other day. We don’t get many uninvited guests, which is how we like it. See, I have this.”
He pulled a ten-baht coin from his shirt pocket, twirled it through the air and caught it with surprising agility. “I know it all. Your man talked, dear, how he talked!”
“Where is he?” Lizzy asked.
Again, Mr. Ugly ignored her, keeping his attention on Ed.
“Did you burn his car?” Ed asked.
“Yes, but we took him out first,” Mr. Ugly smiled generously. “I needed to hear his story, after all.”
“The rental company will make you pay for it,” Ed said. “You’re crazy!”
“Don’t get agitated. As if I cared for a rental company. They’ll never find the car anyways.”
“Where is Mr. Spy?” Ed asked.
“Huh, really, that’s what you call him? Mr. Spy? How perfectly ridiculous!”
Mr. Ugly grinned into their frozen faces. He was amusing himself.
“I don’t believe you. He is a pro. He’d never talk,” Ed said, with some firmness in his voice.
Mr. Ugly went into an unpleasantly long belly laugh.
“Oh, no, Mr., huh, Spy talked, all right—” he finished with a snicker, then suddenly looked up with a deadly serious face.
“He was, not is, a pro, perhaps, but he talked, long before we fed him to the prawns, that was. By then, he had moved on to Jannah, luckily for him, I imagine. May Allah grant him mercy. He was brave, a true martyr, I must admit.”
Humor returned to Mr. Ugly’s face.
“But I do think shrimps prefer fresh meat, like alive. Not that I know much about it. Just an educated guess.”
For the first time since he had undressed her downstairs, Mr. Ugly looked at Lizzy.
“You two, they can have fresh, still twitching and all. Yes, I think they’d like that. Nicely bound in copper wire, not duct-tape, or they chew it up again, although, as I mentioned, your friend wasn’t moving anymore. One never ceases to learn. Can’t use duct-tape in such cases. I didn’t know shrimps would eat it, did you? Must be the glue. I guess they get high on it. They left nothing behind, not even the bones, last I checked, half an hour ago I did, some teeth perhaps. Of course, we had to undress him. I don’t think they’d eat a suit, especially not in such color.”
His eyes flickered. “No worry. First, we get rid of your clothes. His, we burned with the car, but the lab has an incinerator, so no problem.”
Ed looked straight at Lizzy. She blinked nervously and there was an unusual edge in her jaw. Her skin had turned greyish.
Could shrimps…? Was it possible to be killed by shrimps? Decidedly yes, it was possible. If one couldn’t move, they would take the eyes first. Their maws would do a slow job, ripping off little pieces, one by one but in a thousand places at the same time. No Spanish inquisitor could have wished for worse. How very nasty! A personalized vision of hell for Lizzy.
After enough time to imagine details had passed, Mr. Ugly added with a generous gesture, “Or shall we negotiate a deal?”
Lizzy looked at Ed with wide eyes.
“We are all deal,” said Ed, and, after short rummage, pulled the bundles of euros from the rucksack.
He waved them in the air. There may have been 25 or 30 thousand, but Mr. Ugly didn’t look impressed. He got up and without a word took the money from Ed’s hands.
“I’ll keep that for good luck,” he said smiling, and winked an eye at Ed. “Or in case I must pay the rental, which I doubt.”
“We also have a credit card, but then I need a machine. I think it’s good for the same amount if you stretch it over a few days. We can arrange that,” Ed said somewhat hastily.
Mr. Ugly raised his pudgy hands. “No, no need. A deal is all I want.”
“What is it?” Ed asked.
“I want to sell the treatment process to OneOre. The whole factory, in fact.“
“OneOre?” Ed fainted surprise. Mr. Spy had really talked.
“Yes, OneOre. You heard me right. Don’t play games. I know your story,” said Mr. Ugly and leaned back. “My treatment here creates an added-value of 2.4 million, annually.”
“Baht?” Ed asked.
“Don’t play, I said. Euros.”
“Why would OneOre want to make fake Alexandrite?” asked Lizzy.
The stare remained on Ed, who had to repeat the question.
“Why? It’s good business. With their sales channels, they can sell the lot for double, and, let’s not forget: I won’t feed you to the shrimps,” Mr. Ugly answered.
“You think OneOre wants to invest here in the swamps, just to rescue two silly foreigners?” Ed’s voice sounded less firm than he wished.
“Perhaps not OneOre, but Peter Pestana would.”
Not only had Mr. Spy talked, but he also had done serious research, for they had not mentioned their friendship with Peter.
“Uhm, so what’s your ask?” asked Ed, just to cover his despair and win some time.
“We estimate five years before the market collapses. So, that’s five times 2.4.”
“Twelve million dollars? You must be crazy. Even if Peter wanted to, his shareholders would fire him.”
“No-no, Euros, remember? It’s less than his entertainment account. No problem for a guy like him. He listed a net-worth of 3 billion or so. Can’t remember Euros or Dollars.”
A rock, and not a precious one, seemed to lodge in Ed’s stomach. “I don’t think so. It’s not OneOre’s business model and we are not Peter’s kids, only partners, and not very important ones, at that.” No firmness remained in his voice.
“Can you hear?” Mr. Ugly pretended to listen.
Ed shrugged and tried a smile.
“Hungry shrimps: ‘Food! Food!’”
He mimicked an animal with little antennas and broke out in another belly laugh.
Lizzy made a face as if she was going to throw-up.
Finally, Ed found some anger for his words. “It’s not business. It’s blackmail. Murder. You really want to screw with OneOre? From your stinking little compound here? Peter will hire a pack of nasty mercenaries and clear this shit hole. You are crazy. OneOre does business in worse countries than this. They are pros.”
“Yes, but he doesn’t know where to send his pros, now does he? Nobody knows. I take the money, give you the formula and the keys to this place with everything set up. I have a lab manager to run the process for you. OneOre can make a nice profit.”
“But how, how do you want to get away with this kind of money and–”
Mr. Ugly interrupted, “I’m happy we have entered negotiations.”
Ed ignored the remark. Negotiating was such a strong habit.
“You have to keep the formula to yourself, of course, no posting on the web, huh?” Mr. Ugly winked and smiled.
He really had done his homework. Ed considered other solutions. Escape. Violence. Threat. Nothing good.
Mr. Ugly seemed to have sensed the alternatives swirling through Ed’s mind. “Just in case you want to jump me, you would not get out alive. I have twenty loyal men outside, and they think they get their share. They’ll fight for it.”
Lizzy issued an angry growl – not a nice sound, but then Mr. Ugly had never seen her swing a squash-racket or drive an SUV.
“I have to call Peter,” said Ed and motioned to the ancient phone with a turntable that sat on the desk.
“Shush, no, no, not on a landline. Your Peter can track us here. Nope. Won’t do. That would be stupid.”
“Then a mobile.”
“No. Can be tracked too, but anyways we have no reception here. You will send a fax. But from Bangkok. You’ll order your hotel to do it. The Lebua, right?”
Ed sighed. The man had thought this through, and he wasn’t stupid.
Mr. Ugly sat smiling, sneering, staring.
“Stop looking at me like that, or I’ll die of a headache before you can sell us,” Ed said and rubbed a spot on his forehead.
Mr. Ugly averted his eyes and pushed a paper over the table.
Ed read the precise schoolbook script:
‘Alexandrite factory for sale. 12 million euro. Without deal, Wild Monkey loses management. Urgent. Call 66 60 87 687 87.’
“He will understand, don’t you think?” asked Mr. Ugly. “I have a man in Bangkok. He will negotiate for us, for you that is. Nobody will ever know where you are.”
Mr. Ugly picked up the ancient phone standing on his desk. “What was your room number at the Lebua? 552?”
In London, Peter Pestana, sat over the Financial Times with a glass of freshly pressed orange juice. Frank, his personal assistant, a new hire from Germany, entered the private suite and handed him a sheet of paper.
Peter leaned into the sofa, took the paper, and murmured with a smile, “Ah, we still have fax machines.”
His smile dried up, as he stared at the two lines. He checked the sender code. He read the text aloud, checked the header, again the code, looked out of the window for a while, sighed, and picked up the phone on the sideboard.
Logan Jullse, the security chief, knocked on the door three minutes later. Logan was a generation younger than Peter, red haired and with the nose of a drinker, although he never touched alcohol.
“L, we have a blackmail situation,” Peter said.
“Who is blackmailed?”
“OneOre. Me. Never-mind. They seem to have two of our, huh, agents.”
“Yes, I hired them to find a treating facility.”
“Chrysoberyl into Alexandrite.”
Logan opened his mouth, but Peter stopped him, “Just listen, will you? I hired this couple to locate a factory in Thailand. That’s all you need to know.”
Logan shifted in place, but kept his lips pressed together.
“And, no,” Peter added with a sigh. “We do not have any more operation in Thailand before you ask. That’s why I hired outsiders, privately, sort of, but we must deal with it. Do you still have your contacts in Bangkok?”
Logan only nodded but allowed himself a questioning glance.
“Twelve million,” Peter stated.
Logan clicked his tongue and waited.
“Euros, that is. Twelve for two of my friends.”
Logan broke his silence, “Sir, the board will never allow to spend six per person.”
“My board won’t allow anything. Especially not via the purchase of a half-illegal treatment facility in Thailand. Even if I could push it through the board, it would need months of due diligence and paperwork. No, we need to do this quick and, uh, creatively. Officially, OneOre cannot be involved. This was all based on a handshake. But I value my handshakes.”
Peter got up.
“We are going on a holiday to Thailand. Take two experienced men with local experience. We leave at 14.00.”
Later in the afternoon, Peter’s private jet crossed the British channel with five passengers. Logan and two of his men, Rob, a short sturdy Brazilian and Jesse, a fluent Thai-speaker with lush brown hair, read and re-read the fax, studied a map of Bangkok and the floor plan of the Lebua.
Peter told young Frank how he had met Ed and Lizzy in Madagascar, and why their company was connected to a monkey named Siegfried.
After an early dinner on board, the men joined to develop hostage scenarios. Later, well past midnight in Bangkok, Frank and Peter napped in the back of the plane. Logan and his men didn’t sleep but continued what-if games. As the sun rose over the dark horizon, Logan had burned the situation down to three main options, none included any shrimp farming.
Peter awoke as the jet descended to Don Muang Airport. Bangkok’s street vendors had prepared fresh Tom Yang for the day, traffic had filled the streets, and soaked the air with smog. After the brief controls for private jets, the group checked into the Lebua State Towers. Frank had booked the complete top floor. The elevator was programmed to stop on their floor only with a valid key card and a code.
At first, Logan bribed the hotel manager and a cleaning maid to access Ed’s and Lizzy’s room. He found it deserted in a haste, but without useful clues except for the reservation of a rental. The company confirmed the car being a day overdue, and agreed, after some threats and assurances, to provide its number plates, color and make. However, they had no way to track the car, no GPS signal, no records of highway tolls or petrol fillings. If the car was not returned within the next 18 hours, they would automatically report it missing with the authorities. Logan got the rental manager to postpone the police report for 48 hours.
Meanwhile, Logan’s men interviewed hotel employees, guests or anybody willing to talk around the Lebua. They confirmed the couple had been in and out of the hotel, but nobody had seen them the previous day.
After they had reported their findings, Peter and Frank stayed behind to begin negotiations. Logan went to visit an old contact in the telecom ministry, while Jesse and Rob went out to ask for Alexandrite on Silom, and perhaps find somebody who knew Ed and Lizzy.
To the south, the couple had slept on mattresses in a locked cellar room with only an AC, no chairs, no table. For breakfast, as for dinner, they had managed to swallow some dry rice rescued from under the too spicy sauce. The night had been unpleasant, either too cold when the AC ran or too hot before it started up again.
Their guards, two silent Indonesians, were stationed outside their door. Neither looked bribable. In any case, Mr. Ugly had confiscated all their belongings, leaving them nothing to bribe anybody with. He had even taken Lizzy’s jewelry which made her so angry that Ed was afraid she would start a fight, but luckily, she had refrained from doing so.
Ed banged on the door to go to the restrooms. He was escorted up the stairs and down two corridors. They passed a room that reminded him of a pharmaceutical production, large chrome structures, with tanks, pipes, and regulators, and something like monitors. When he stopped, the guard politely ushered him on. They came to a room with a row of WCs, each inhabited by several hundred flies, but no stalls. Three wash basins, according to the yellow stains all around, doubled as pissoir. They probably shower outside, in open air, Ed thought. He would demand a shower, later, and scout some more. The complex was far larger than it had appeared from the yard. He could hardly tell in which direction the exit lay.
When he returned, Lizzy had set her mattress against the wall and was punching and kicking it with furious grunts.
She stopped and stared at the guard.
“Don’t,” Ed said, and the man understood, hastening to lock the door behind.
“Don’t what?” Lizzy asked sharply.
“Don’t use the wash basins.”
In Bangkok, Peter dialed the number given in the fax. It rang only once and was answered with a curt, “Sawasdee-krap?”
Peter confirmed that he had the right number by asking, “How do you expect us to deliver twelve million in cash?”
The man didn’t miss a beat, but answered with professional calm, “My client is reasonable. Only two million need to be in cash. The rest can be in OneOre bearer shares, or gold, for example.”
Frank, listening in, rolled his blue eyes.
“We can work on that. But even two million in cash is a load of paper,” Peter said.
“Not too bad, four thousand 500-Euro notes will do fine. All you need is a rental car which you drive to a reserved parking space. We take it from there.”
“I’m to fill a rental with money and then leave the key? In Bangkok?” Peter asked.
“Basically, yes. But these are details we will partake later. Be sure, we take good care of the retrieval.”
“Look, I need–”
“Assurances obviously. Yes. You will see a recent video with the couple in good health. When you get your friends back, they will have the documents of sale, describing the chemical process involved. They will also have the location and security codes of the factory. You can take it over in working order, including staff.”
“Very kind,” Peter smiled sourly.
“Thank you. How long will you need?” the man asked.
“I have to get back to you.”
“Fine. I will call this number again in twenty-four hours from now. Is that to your liking?”
“My what?” Peter frowned. “Look, I call you when we have–”
“No. This phone will not be in service. I will call you.”
The line went dead. Peter sank into a sofa. After a sigh, he said, “I do have some emergency funds on the plane. Cash, bullions, and a collection of Burmese rubies.”
“You are planning to pay these people?” Frank asked.
Peter stared at his hands, nodding slowly, muttering, “If I have to.”
Soon after, Rob returned with an Alexandrite and Peter confirmed it to be a treated Chrysoberyl simply based on size and perfection.
Then, Logan came from the Telecom ministry.
“That number, in the fax, is a recent registration. Only a few calls made, all from inside the JTC,” he said.
“No good in a building with 4000 people. Who is the owner?” Peter asked with little hope.
“An anonymous sim-card provider,” Logan answered.
“Huh, they are not stupid,” Frank said with respect.
“Wait!” Logan held up his hand. “I also got a received-call list from the hotel reception. All incoming numbers and their calls in the three hours before the fax was sent to London.” He laid a USB stick on the table. “2334 calls from 645 numbers. The hotel phone system does not accept callers without ID. The number you got in the fax is not amongst them, I checked right away.”
Peter took the stick and nodded.
“Good work,” he said to Logan, then he turned to Frank.
“Please return to the jet and get what is in its safe. I will instruct the pilot accordingly. Take a car and driver from the hotel, no taxi.”
Frank made a ‘no-need-to-tell-me’ face and left.
The men downloaded the call logs onto their computers and began sorting them by caller ID, length, and frequency. The Lebua’s laundry, airlines, travel agencies and obvious suppliers eliminated 177 numbers. Connections to guests made 88 calls. Employees and staff family threw out another 87. There were 55 miscalls or interrupted connections of less than three seconds and 97 numbers who had called two or more times.
This left them with 141 numbers.
Peter made twenty test calls, ordering Logan, who played the hotel clerk, to send the exact fax he had received in London and book it onto a room. The calls came out with 80 seconds on average, with the shortest being 55 seconds, and the longest one hundred. Listing the remaining numbers according to length of call, there were 18 numbers left within 55 to 100 seconds.
These 18 numbers were selected for closer investigation. Each man took six numbers and researched their details in Logan’s data, on the web and on the OneOre servers. Only if they couldn’t get enough information, did they call the numbers and spun stories to find out who was behind the call to the hotel. There were five escort girls or lady-boys, one couldn’t tell which from the voices, a health inspector, a school, two European businessmen, one dentist, a crocodile farm, a monk, a street vendor, and a gay bartender. In the end, they had eliminated all but three callers whom they could not make sense off, or which sounded suspicious. One was a construction-side near Silom where their call was answered only with Russian curses. A venture fund with the name ‘Happy Interest’ from Bangkok refused to reveal any information. At the third, a shrimp farm in Amphoe Bang Soon, south of Bangkok, nobody answered the phone and there was not a shred of public data available. The company had been registered only a month earlier.
Peter ordered a shrimp cocktail to the room and then paid the waiter to get the Chef. He inquired about the source of these ‘very good’ shrimps. Upon hearing that they came from Uruguay and were in fact prawns, he asked the Chef if he ever used any Thai shrimp.
The Chef wrinkled his nose. “Thai shrimps stink. Never, Sir.”
“Have you gotten any local offers recently?”
“No, no. Different business altogether. These shrimps are used only for fish paste, powder, and sauce, or crackers and such,” said the Chef.
Peter dismissed him with a reservation in his restaurant for later in the evening.
Rob, calling other VCs in Bangkok, was told that ‘Happy Interest’ planned on setting up a tourism fund next year. They had probably called for information and been rebuffed but wanted nobody to know.
Frank, who had returned from the plane with three golden Halliburton suitcases, suggested to go and see the construction side.
“I’ll go. I speak Russian,” said Rob.
Logan nodded, and Rob left.
Little later, Jesse returned from his Alexandrite hunt.
“I have found a Thai who said he can bring me to the main distributor of these new Alexandrite. And, lucky daisy, he mentioned that he done very good business with Farangs just the other day. They bought from him and then went to buy from his source. That may be them, no?”
“What’s a Farang?” Peter asked.
“Farang means ‘potato’, a Thai byword for foreigners, as in ‘round, soft, white,” Jesse said.
“Charming description!” laughed Peter.
“Anyways, he will introduce us to the source tomorrow. We meet him at 09.45,” Jesse finished.
“Great job, Jesse,” Peter said, and held up his hand. They stood and waited for him to speak again.
“Let’s visit this seller tomorrow. If he recognizes me, if he reacts strange or shows any weird behavior, we can’t leave him there. L., in that case, I want you to bring him down, right there. If need be, we take over his office by force. Bring the gun. We must play it flexible. If he doesn’t know me, if he doesn’t blink at all, then, we simply buy Alexandrite and that’s it. Jesse, you will play the local schlepper. Me and Logan, we’ll be there for quality check of goods. Rob comes for security in case things get heated. Frank, you stay here. If the guy is clean, we text you his details and you move all levers to find out more. We need to know where he lives, what his connections are, who are his friends, anything helpful. OKI?”
He looked around, all nods. “Then to dinner!”
Later, Rob returned from the construction side. He looked disheveled and had ripped one sleeve.
“I had to run and hide. Almost got caught. The place teams with illegal workers, that’s why they didn’t like me sneaking around, but it’s in phase one. No building useful for a kidnapping, or a secret factory. Russian mafia for sure, but nothing for us.”
The next day, at 10.20, the group, led by the Thai dealer, filled Sandaporn’s front office.
Without appointment, the assistant was reluctant to admit such a crowd to her boss.
Hearing the commotion, Sandaporn came from his office. Peter stepped up and showed him the golden Halliburton he carried, and he was all salesman, ushering them into his inner sanctum with humble curtesy. No sign of distress.
Peter motioned Logan to sit with him and study trays with gems, while Jesse occupied Sandaporn with much talk, and Rob texted the location and name of the company to Frank who started to research on the trader and his dealings. After leaving almost one hundred thousand euros in cash at Sandaporn’s office, they asked for a new appointment.
“At your pleasure. Come any time. I’m here from ten o’clock on, sharp, every day,” said Sandaporn with pride.
When they arrived back at the Lebua, Frank awaited them with news. Sandaporn had broad holdings in various gem and jewelry businesses but none in perishable goods, except for ‘Novelty Shrimps’, a very recent investment one hundred kilometers to the south of Bangkok.
“Bingo!” said Peter and leaned back in his chair. “But how is it that this guy doesn’t know a thing? He didn’t recognize me, right?”
“Yeah, no, he did not,” Logan agreed. “He was straight, flawless. Once he saw the Halliburton, he was all business.”
“Then, there must be another level. They must be at the factory, and the deal is done from there. Sandaporn doesn’t know,” Peter said.
“Well, let’s go there. Let’s go to… what was it? Ang Bang Soup?” Logan said.
“Amphoe Bang Soon,” corrected Jesse in the precise pronunciation only a Thai connoisseur could deliver.
Peter made a ‘slow-down’ motion and looked at Logan.
“We don’t want to rush it now. Nothing will happen as long as they wait for money. L., I would like Sandaporn to come with us. We can’t tell him about this blackmail thing, yet, it would get too complicated, but I don’t want him running free when we visit his investment and kick-in doors. We better keep him close. He will not want to come without explanation, but I’m sure you can convince him otherwise, right?”
Logan considered for a moment. “Yes, he said ‘sharp at ten’. That means he is using the BTS to go to work. We–”
“I do not need to know,” Peter interrupted.
Logan closed his mouth and nodded.
“Frank, we need two good cars, real cars. At least one must have tinted windows. Once Sandaporn has accepted Logan’s kind invitation, I would like to leave for the south right away.”
Peter turned back to Logan. “Is tomorrow morning enough time for you to get Sandaporn into a car?”
“Sure. I’ll have Sangaporn all happy to join us and nobody will know about the location or miss him.”
“Sandaporn,” Jesse corrected.
“Do you need more men?” Peter asked Logan.
“There is one who could help. His name is Getawajapot. He was police chief for Bangkok, now retired. For a thousand euro a day, he will be happy to help, if I explain him the good reasons. He will not do illegal stuff, but he understands the risks if foreigners are held for ransom in his country. That man can move mountains here.”
“Sounds promising. Please hire him. Frank, let’s have three cars then.”
“No need,” said Logan. “If Getawajapot comes, he will bring his own car, and driver.”
The next morning, Mr. Sandaporn arrived with the usual ten o’clock train and walked to the JTC. Floating in throngs of laughing office girls, traders, designers, and goldsmiths, he noted two men settling left and right. Both foreigners, one tall and the other short, looked strangely familiar. Before he could make the connection, the one with long brown hair said in fluent Thai, “Please come with us and be ever so natural about it.”
The other man took him gently by the elbow and with little pressure caused a nasty pain shooting into his shoulders. Sandaporn winced but walked on, even as black spots danced before his eyes. As soon as Sandaporn had swung away from the JTC, the pressure on his elbow subsided but the hand remained. They entered the Lebua’s lobby without any further incidences. But when Sandaporn realized, they were heading to the underground garage, he squirmed and protested. Rob renewed his pressure on the elbow, while Jesse talked to him in calm Thai. Reluctantly, he followed and, after padding him down, taking his briefcase, phone, and keys, they made him sit in the back of a black Landcruiser with tinted windows.
Logan was already waiting in the car.
When Sandaporn saw that he was not to be murdered right away, he took a few deep breaths and calmed his blood pressure.
Logan said, “You need to call your secretary. Tell her to cancel all appointments and that you go abroad for a few days.”
He handed Sandaporn his phone.
“Abroad? But she has not booked any flights.” Sandaporn squirmed, refusing to touch his phone.
“Then let her make a booking, say to Singapore. Plus hotel. And ask her not to tell anybody.”
Logan pointed at Jesse who had entered in the front. “He’ll be listening, and you know he speaks excellent Thai, so please be brief, normal and just talk about necessary items.”
Rob reached for Sandaporn’s elbow, but he flinched away.
“No need. I understood. Don’t worry.” He took his phone from Logan.
Jesse listened to the call, concentrating with both eyes closed, one hand lifted and ready to signal Rob to cut the line. The conversation went smoothly and uninterrupted.
When Sandaporn disconnected the phone and returned it to Logan, Jesse exited the car and politely offered his front seat to a tiny, old gentleman who climbed with a routine motion into the high car.
Mr. Getawajapot, the bespectacled ex-chief, barely filled half of his seat. He looked like a child allowed to sit in the front. But a scar over the left eye attested to the brutal life he had lived in the metropolitan police. His intense personality quickly filled the car without a spoken word.
He turned to Sandaporn, joining his palms under the chin, and bowed his head in a Wai.
Sandaporn stared back with open mouth, almost forgetting his manners but then Wai-ed back, twice, bending far deeper and thus expressing his submission and respect for the older man, his eyes wide with surprise, and then fear. Getawajapot turned and looked to the front without a word, his blunt silence a social afront, showing strong displeasure, almost anger and scaring Sandaporn even more.
Unbound from institutional restriction, and well connected, Getawajapot represented the elite of Bangkok, a few dozen families who ruled a city of fifteen million with iron hands.
Another man, a tall Thai with impressive shoulders entered the car without greeting anybody and started the motor.
‘His driver, and bodyguard,’ thought Sandaporn and looked from the driver to the police chief, and around the interior. ‘His car!’
He remembered seeing the old man on TV during his retirement ceremony, shaking hands with Bhumibol Adulyadej, the revered King of Thailand, an ultimate honor for any mortal Thai. Angering such a man was almost like angering the King himself, or the gods. Sandaporn swallowed dry. He wished he had skipped office that day. These foreigners, whoever they were and whatever they wanted, had terribly good connections. Getawajapot did not join somebody for crime, not for the illegal. They wanted something the old chief could wrap his good conscience around. Sandaporn thought himself a legitimate businessman, not a criminal. His latest investment in the South was not-so-official but what had the police to do with gem-treatments? Nothing. Undisclosed treatments were frowned upon, but hardly a crime. After all, many Thais had made fortunes with gem treatments for decades. That could not be it. Yet, as they left the garage southwards, Sandaporn could not think of any other reason than his new treatment plant. His unease deepened. Something was going on. With Getawajapot on board, the foreigners could not be the criminals. If it wasn’t them, then who? The only possible answer shilled his blood. It was him. What had he done wrong? He recalled the previous days. The only excitement had been that ten-baht coin, which his weekly sweeper had found. He had shown the coin to the Indonesian running the facility simply to demonstrate how very careful they had to be, and then forgot about it. Dozens of buyers were coming every day asking for his ‘New Mine’ Alexandrite. They all desperately wanted to find his source, his secret. He had not suspected the two Farangs, but rather the unpleasant Han Chinese who had come later that day. These Hongkongers always tried to snoop out their newest treatments and take them back home. But no, now it was clear. That Farang couple had been sent to find him and his factory. The coin had been theirs. But still, this made no sense. There was something else. Two more cars belonged to their group. One Benz limousine and one of the new BMW crossovers. A serious show of force. Getawajapot would not get mixed up in a banal issue like gem treatments. And how had they caught-on his working routine so fast? He had seen them for the first time yesterday, but not 24 hours later, they had been waiting for him at the BTS. What on earth did they want with him?
He overcame his fear and asked polite questions into the car, without directing them at Getawajapot. Nobody answered. After the fourth question, the short man made a show to look at his elbow, and he stopped asking.
Ed and Lizzy spent an anxious yet utterly boring day in their little room. All ideas to change their situation ran afoul the fact that they had no contact to the outside world, nor did they see any chance to escape. The steel door was bolted from the outside. The room was windowless, or if there ever had been one, it had been walled over. Twice they demanded an audience to get some movement or information, but no, ‘the boss didn’t want to see them.’
Lizzy had fluctuated between resignation and mad anger, released against her mattress. For lunch, they had been given fried prawns, as if to make a point. Lizzy had thrown the plate against the wall.
“That doesn’t help,” Ed said, looking at the mess.
“We attack that fellow when he brings dinner, take him hostage and get this ugly fuck to let us out,” Lizzy suggested with clenched fists.
“Ah, you think he cares about one man? No, no dice.”
“But at least, we could do something.” Lizzy punched her mattress again.
Later, before dinner, two men entered and bound Ed’s hands on his back and his feet so that he could walk only in small steps. Lizzy, they left untouched. Mr. Ugly would have been safer to bind Lizzy and leave Ed free. But what did he know about the wrath and revenge of a strong African woman?
When they entered the office, Mr. Ugly sat behind his desk and smiled ever so contentedly.
“I have excellent news. Mr. Pestana has come to Bangkok, and he is negotiating. We need to make a video of you two sweeties being happy and well. Perhaps the deal goes through today. If you are lucky, and if all goes well, you’re free in two days, and I can finally leave this stinking swamp. Allah, may he be praised, knows I’m sick of it.”
As before, the office wafted with strong aromas, incense sticks burned in all corners and in front of a little shrine at the wall. A slowly turning fan swirled the scents into an agreeable mix.
Mr. Ugly began a proud monologue about his successful venture while fussing over an old video cam.
“What about your business partner, your boss in Bangkok? Mr. Sandaporn, what does he say to you kidnapping people and selling his factory?” Ed asked.
“Boss? Ugh, boss indeed! That old fart has no clue. Thais! All stupid. I will be gone before he scratches his nose. Then he has no choice but deal with OneOre.”
Ed sighed and hobbled to the window. Shrimp farms stretched into the horizon. The afternoon sun glimmered on the shallow waters. Far behind thousands of little swamps, the Lebua awaited them with showers and clean bedsheets. The hands bound to his back felt numb and cold with the reduced blood circulation. Restricted in his leg movements, he felt helpless and silly, vulnerable and without balance. Mr. Ugly continued praising his own cleverness. Ed disconnected from the voice and recalled the dinner at the Elephant. He turned to catch Lizzy’s eyes, but she sat where she had been told to sit, on a chair a few paces from the desk, staring at the old fan churning in one corner.
With a flash, Ed knew what Lizzy would do and feared it, even as he was sick of his own helplessness and would welcome a solution, any solution.
They were alone in the office. Mr. Ugly had dismissed his men, not fearing a bound captive or this woman of a lower human class. Lizzy’s eyes glowed with anger and stored energy.
Ed said something like ‘look-here, we need to talk’ and, as quick as his bound legs allowed, hopped towards the desk. Mr. Ugly sat up surprised at the sudden movement, turning to Ed and taking his attention from Lizzy.
In the corner of his eyes, Ed saw Lizzy rise from her chair. With two long steps, she crossed the room and grabbed the fan by its thick stand like a two-handed ax, leaning backwards as she swung the fan with outstretched arms like a discus thrower, whirling towards the desk, combining natural elegance with the ability to plot motion in three-dimensional space faster than any computer. No sound came from her lips, her face was pure concentration as she put all her loathing against condescending men into the swing, her muscles trained in Kenya’s national squash team. She had played on number one for years and could have gone international, but such a career would have been short sighted. Nobody withstood the rigors of the fastest sport professionally beyond the age of thirty. Burning two thousand calories per hour, excelled only by skiing uphill, a good game could last two hours, and a competition ran over four games, eight hours of extreme speed and maximum force combined with outstanding spatial coordination.
The fan’s plug ripped from the wall socket, depriving the blades of rotating power. The cable whirled around the turning Lizzy as the fan’s rotor crashed into Mr. Ugly with the speed of a volley cross-court. The fan smacked him straight off his seat and his short legs came up as the chair overturned. Lizzy’s after-swing would have made Tiger Woods proud. For an instant, Ed feared for Mr. Ugly’s life, but nobody could stop Lizzy once she had come up to speed. She released her weapon, or what was left of it, and jumped over the table to strangle the man on the floor with both hands. Only then did she allow herself an angry growl.
Ed hopped around the desk, almost stumbling. With hands bound on his back he tried clumsily to pull Lizzy away but, in her fury, she shoved him aside. He fell on his back and for a moment rolled like a beetle.
When he finally got on his knees, Lizzy had a letter opener in one hand while still choking the man with the other, pressing him down with one foot on the big belly.
“Lizzy, enough, enough,” Ed pleaded, standing up.
The door crashed open. Two men rushed in. When they saw their boss lying on the floor, blood flowing from a broken nose and gashes in his face, they shouted for help.
“Close. Out! Close the door from outside,” Lizzy commanded and set the knife on Mr. Ugly’s neck. Confused, the men retreated out the door, but didn’t close it.
Lizzy started to kick the man on the floor. Luckily her bare feet and the not so well-trained kicking-routine did less harm.
“Lizzy, stop!” Ed said again.
Lizzy held the next kick, one foot in the air. “What?”
“He had enough. You got him. But we need him alive.”
Lizzy ended the kick halfhearted, her chest moving slow but strong. Ed motioned to a scissor lying on the table and Lizzy cut the tape on his legs and wrists, all the while keeping the letter opener pointed at Mr. Ugly’s neck, who made croaking sounds and tried to roll away but couldn’t get his body weight around before Lizzy again put her foot on his belly.
Outside the door, men were shouting, probably encouraging one another to storm the office but none dared.
They heaved the groaning man onto his knees. Lizzy pulled the cable from the wrecked fan. She did not bind Mr. Ugly’s hands but made a simple noose, flung it over his head and pulled the nod tight until the man gurgled and choked.
“Enough!“ said Ed.
Lizzy stopped pulling and pressed the letter opener into a bulge in the double chin, looking to the door, where three men dithered in panic.
“Close the door. Piss off!” Ed said to them.
Lizzy began to laugh. A wild, crazy sound, releasing leftover energy and tension. The men pulled back in fright, but still didn’t close the door.
“Tell them!” Lizzy said and underlined her request with a short pull on the cable.
Mr. Ugly croaked something in Thai or Bahasa Indonesia, and the men closed the door.
Lizzy looked at Ed for the broader strategy, her strength in spontaneous action, rather than planning. Ed picked up the phone.
“OK, let’s get Peter. If he is in Bangkok, he’ll get us out of here.”
He started to dialed Peter’s private sat phone number from memory but then realized the line out was dead. Either Mr. Ugly’s men had reacted extraordinarily fast and cut them off, or the Thai telecom was out of order. Ed suspected the latter in a rural area.
“Oh, did you not pay the telco bill?” Lizzy asked and poked Mr. Ugly with the letter opener. “This was working the other day.”
Mr. Ugly squeaked, then huffed through clenched teeth and bloody lips, “We are cut off half the time.”
His voice had lost its pleasing character.
“Look, if we can’t call for help, we need to take you for a road trip. You’re not going to like it. I can tell you now,” Ed said, and Lizzy smiled.
“Wait till the phone is back. An hour or two, max,” Mr. Ugly whimpered.
“No, we are tired of waiting. You walk with us.” Lizzy pulled the man up by the cable. “Tell your men to clear the way to our car.”
“Yes. Our car. Any problem?” Ed asked.
“We burned it,” Mr. Ugly said almost with regret.
“You didn’t!” said Lizzy and pulled on the cable.
Mr. Ugly nodded, looking at Ed with a plea for mercy in his eyes.
“Stop staring at me, I told you already. If I get a headache, you get a blindfold. Anyhow, then we will take your car.”
The man waggled his head. “My car, I send to collect Chrysoberyl.”
“Then anybody’s car, for fuck sake, some car,” Lizzy snarled. “Don’t tell me you have no car here at all. If we don’t have a ride and no telephone, we go on a hike, like in walking on your short ugly legs.”
Mr Ugly spit what looked like a half tooth onto the floor. “We have only motor bikes.”
“No, that won’t do. Get the water truck ready,” Ed said.
“The water-truck? You want to drive the water-truck?” Mr. Ugly said with genuine surprise.
“Why? You think I can’t drive a truck?” Ed asked and took the cable from Lizzy’s hand.
They pulled Mr. Ugly up. Lizzy wrenched the man’s arm on his back, pressing the letter opener into his neck.
“Let’s go,” Ed said and pulled on the cable.
Mr. Ugly in the middle, they stopped two meters from the closed door.
“Tell them to open and step away. Get the keys. Keep distance and stuff,” Ed said.
Lizzy added, “If anything bad happens to us, I’ll make sure you join, got it? Nobody takes me alive.”
She looked over to Ed to make sure he got her point.
“Understood? Not alive.” She stabbed the letter opener deeper into the fat until Mr. Ugly squeaked, nodded.
“Call them,” Ed said and repeated the instructions.
Mr. Ugly cleared his throat with a bubbling cough and raised his voice to carry through the door.
A few fearful shouts and questions came from the other side, but the door didn’t open.
Mr. Ugly shouted again.
“The instructions. You remember? Distance?” Ed said.
Mr. Ugly resumed shouting.
Finally, the door opened and one of their guards peaked around the corner, beckoning them to come.
They moved through the corridor, men withdrawing in front and following behind, keeping the commanded distance but always threatening close. Ed, in front of Mr. Ugly, now walked backwards, holding the cable tight, constantly checking for the men behind. Lizzy, who could not turn and had both hands occupied, one locking Mr. Ugly’s arm between his shoulder blades and the other pressing the knife at the man’s throat, risked a determined grab from behind. Yet, the individuals lacked resolve, and the group leadership.
On the stairs, Ed feared that a quick shove would send them tumbling downwards in a heap. But nobody made a move, even as the couple had a hard time keeping their balance and control over their hostage while wobbling down step-by-step. Mr. Ugly himself may have jumped down the stairs and gravity would have opened their formation. But he was in pain and dazed, probably fearing a broken arm, or a dislocated shoulder, not to mention Lizzy’s punishment should he fail in his attempt. Thus, they managed to descend the stairs without attack and down another corridor to the main door.
There they were stopped.
A half dozen men, armed with determined faces, screwdrivers, and wrenches blocked the exit. The group was led by a thin grey man in a clean white coat, obviously the lab manager. Here was leadership. Perhaps, the others hadn’t attacked on the stairs because they knew this was coming. The man even had a name, or something stitched on his chest, his face was haggard, and his skin looked as if it had not been under the sun for a long while. He was holding a fire extinguisher in both hands, but had not removed the tube, wielding the tank more as a battering ram. Either he mistrusted it functioning, or he hadn’t thought of the disabling blast of powder he could unleash with it.
When Mr. Ugly saw the thin man baring the exit, he hissed, not relieved but angry, then cursed.
The lab manager shouted in a mix of Thai and Bahasa Indonesia, including the words ‘Farang’ and ‘Dollars’ followed by a number. All around the men shifted on their feet, securing their stances, readying for a fight. Judging from Mr. Ugly’s reaction they had decided to sacrifice their boss and pull through without him.
“It seems your men are not so loyal, after all,” said Lizzy and, with a quick controlled motion, poked the shoulder, not deep, but in the place where the tension must have been strongest. The shoulder made a wet sound that send a shudder through the group. Mr. Ugly squealed terribly through his severely tightened throat. Lizzy returned the knife to the double chin.
“Can you get them under control?” Lizzy asked.
Mr. Ugly began to talk, ever so fast, a waterfall of words, mixed with sobs and cries. They heard ‘formula’, and ‘OneOre’ and ’Pestana’ and more dollar amounts, and ‘Lebua’ and again ‘OneOre’ and ‘formula’.
The thin man seemed taken aback and the group began to argue fiercely. Mr. Ugly must have told them details they were not aware off. The thin man tried to shout them down but failed. Emotions rose, men yelling into faces, waving weapons. Some began pushing each other and it looked like a general brawl would follow.
Ed encouraged Mr. Ugly with a shove to defend himself some more. Again, the bleeding man talked, even faster than before, now with angry questions and curses directed at the thin man. They stopped fighting amongst one another and listened. Under the staccato of arguments, even the thin man looked hesitant.
“Get them to move and give us the keys to the truck! Last chance,” Lizzy said.
Mr. Ugly turned authoritative, screamed furious commands at his men, pinkish foam at the mouth. The rebellion broke. The thin man dropped the fire extinguisher with a disgusted grunt, folded his arms and leaned against the wall.
The others exchanged hushed words. Finally, they pushed a little boy forward, dressed only in underpants. The boy quivered in fear, holding out a worn MAN key. Somebody opened the main door. Bright sunlight crashed into the corridor.
Ed took the key from the boy’s shaking hand and tried to reassure the kid with a smile, but he only ran away with a little shriek.
The ex-rebels moved off through the exit and into the open. Only the lab manager remained behind, leaning against the wall with a grim face. Warm air, saturated with shrimp scent, rushed through the door. Still, it felt fresh and alpine in comparison. Only now, did they realize how oppressing the atmosphere in the corridor had been.
When they moved past the thin man, Mr. Ugly spat a gush of blood and saliva on the man’s white coat and hissed. For a moment it looked as if the lab manager would participate in strangling the boss, but Ed quickly pulled him through the door.
Squinting into the bright sun, they saw the battered water truck, parked with the passenger seat to the wall, nose to the gate.
“Shall I go and start it?” Lizzy asked.
“No, better stay together.”
They carefully crossed the yard, thirty meters perhaps. The ground was muddy from a nightly rain. Lizzy slipped once on her bare feet but recovered with cat-like balance and without further cutting the whimpering Mr. Ugly who clutched at his punctured shoulder.
At the lorry, Ed opened the creaking driver’s door. The circle of men had followed but they now seemed utterly discouraged and kept well out of Lizzy’s striking distance.
“I drive. We must be quick now,” Ed said.
Lizzy let go of Mr. Ugly’s arm and took the cable from Ed.
Ed counted, “One, two, three.”
They climbed into the cabin, first Lizzy, squeezing over the driver’s seat and pulling Mr. Ugly behind. Under a relentless sun, the lorry had heated to sauna level, smelling of old seats, gasoline, and fish even though the side windows had long been removed.
Ed closed the door and looked around. No seatbelts, of course not. He inserted the key and turned. The motor growled and caught after a few puffs. By now, two dozen men stood around in the courtyard, in groups or alone, helplessly looking on, trying to match what their bosses had been shouting at each-other with the fact that the Farangs now appeared to be escaping with the boss-boss. Was this as planned, and good for them, or rather not? In any case, it was too late for actions.
Those who stood between truck and exit, hastily stepped aside, clearing a path but nobody moved to open the gate.
“Tell them to open up,” said Lizzy and elbowed Mr. Ugly.
“Nah! I’ll crash it,” Ed said, fearing more lengthy discussions or new trouble. He just wanted to get out, quick, and, truth be told, relished the prospect of doing some manly violence, himself, for a change.
Mr. Ugly turned to Ed and drew breath.
“Shut up. Don’t stare,” Ed said without looking. Mr. Ugly closed his mouth.
Ed gave the gas pedal a deep shove. The motor howled with ancient diesel force. He kept the foot brake pressed hard while bringing the motor up to full throttle, and released the hand brake, a rusty iron protruding from the naked floor. The truck shuddered, straining between forces, metal screaming at the angry motor. Ed let the foot brake snap. The lorry did not exactly jump but pushed with surprising speed towards the gate.
Mr. Ugly braced for impact, and chuckled.
Ed heard the snicker by his side and knew he had miscalculated. But before he could react, the truck slammed into the gate.
When Ed awoke, he was pulled from the cabin, kicked and punched, then his hands were roped behind his back. Other men were busy binding a still unconscious Lizzy with extra vigilance, her skin bulging red against the rope.
The gate stood badly dented but not open at all. Steam rushed from the truck’s front, the motor dead.
A few paces away, Mr. Ugly sat on a flimsy plastic chair, sneer-smiling at Ed, with a bottle of liquor in one hand, while a man fussed over the injured shoulder. He did not seem to have new wounds, the gashes from the fan had almost dried up. Bracing had really helped.
“But you both are so dead. You will be eaten by shrimps, I swear!”
Ed looked at Lizzy. She must have broken her nose. The face was swelling rapidly, blood and saliva bubbled on her mouth.
A shrill ringing underlined Ed’s headache. Lizzy was thrown next to him. Still, she wasn’t moving.
“It’s a pity, but we must make the movie first. After that, I feel a very bad time coming for you, and your monkey lady,” Mr Ugly said and took a pull from the bottle. “Pestana won’t like the video, but, hey, you are still alive, aren’t you? That messed-up state is not my fault, and you’ll tell them so.”
He searched the crowd of men standing around in a circle and nodded at the little boy, said something containing ‘camera’ and the boy shot off to the buildings. The lab manager stepped up, blinking in the sun. The two men exchanged a few terse words, and the lab manager turned with a huff and walked towards the building.
At this moment, a concert of car horns started in a distant, coming closer rapidly. Heavy motors howled. Gravel spewed just outside the gate. The honking ceased; car doors slammed.
The lab manager came running back. Mr. Ugly cursed and slowly stood up.
The little boy appeared in an upper window, shouting, and pointing across the gate. ‘Farang-Farang’, and ‘cars-cars’.
Lizzy moaned, trying to open her swollen eyes.
“Somebody is outside,” Ed whispered but Lizzy didn’t seem to hear or understand.
Now, they heard calls and shouts from behind the gate.
Clearly, somebody called for ‘Edward’ and ‘Lizzy’. It wasn’t Peter’s voice, but Peter wasn’t the yelling type.
“We are from OneOre!” and “Open up, or we break down your gate.”
Mr. Ugly sneered. “Go on! Good luck with that!”
The lab manager threw a torrent of questions and accusations at Mr. Ugly before he turned to rush back into the building. The men around whispered anxiously.
Lizzy was trying to get on her knees, but Mr. Ugly kicked her in the ribs.
Lizzy hissed, fell back, and gurgled.
Ed tried to spit at Mr. Ugly but only managed to soil himself. “Here, try me, you coward!”
“Oh, of course.” He kicked Ed in the rips.
Ed screamed, the pain and anger allowing extra volume, “Peter! Peter! We are here. Help!”
Lizzy lifted her head, took in the scene, and joined in, screaming obscenities at the men and ever louder ‘Help’ over the gate.
Then somebody duct-taped his mouth shut, with two layers around the head. His screams turned to mumbles, then ceased all together. From behind the gate, came only the hum of engines.
Lizzy shouted two more times but then suffered the same fate. Her eyes grew wide. Bubbles of blood rose from her nostrils. She couldn’t breathe! Her face turned gray pink. Ed renewed his mumbles and strained against his bonds, panicking.
The gate shook, and then clattered. A redhead peered over the edge and disappeared again.
Getawajapot’s Landcruiser had led the group out of Bangkok and down the southern highways in defiance of traffic rules, and physics. Accustomed to the road conditions and with the carte-blanche of a government VIP, the driver had pressed Jesse, Rob and Sandaporn into their seatbelts and forced them to cling at roof and door handles. Meanwhile, the little man on his front seat floated effortlessly left and right, silent and seemingly oblivious to oncoming trucks, tight curves and crashed-over junctions. Rob wondered if his low vantage point helped the cool, then the old man raised his hand well ahead a sudden violent change in the pavement and the driver slowed with a mumbled excuse.
Logan, driving the Benz limousine in the middle had clicked his tongue, and chuckled admiringly at the dares.
Frank, driving the BMW with Peter in the back, cursed, sweated, kicking the car into red just to keep up. He was not a race driver at all, nor used to oxcarts and potholes.
Peter called the supposed shrimp farm every half-hour from his sat phone, but the lines remained dead.
As the convoy raced over the final stretch of dirt road towards ‘Novelty Shrimps’, Getawajapot signaled his driver to hit the horn. The others followed suit and they arrived in a satisfying concert of alarm.
At the gate, they stopped in a line and jumped out. Only Getawajapot’s driver remained in his seat, retrieved a box from under his seat and serenely unpacked a sandwich.
Peter’s men began to shout until they heard answers from inside the compound. Logan examined the gate, strangely battered from the other side. He peered through a slit and turned.
“Can’t see, but it’s blocked by a truck.”
He took a short round sprint and half ran, half climbed up the gate, lifting himself over the edge.
“There they are!” he called and dropped back.
The seven men gathered in front of the Landcruiser.
“Let me talk to them,” Getawajapot offered.
Inside the yard, Lizzy, now pink with a blue undertone, flopped to the ground, again unconscious.
Mr. Ugly looked at her with some concern and asked Ed, “You promise she will not start screaming again?”
Ed muffled incoherent positives.
When the tape was finally peeled from Lizzy’s mouth, her body inhaled sharply, but she didn’t open her eyes. Ed did not think she could scream, even if she wanted to.
Mr. Ugly pointed at the couple and gave a command. Four men picked-up Lizzy and carried her back into the building. Ed hopped behind with the help of two others.
His forehead wrinkled in thought, Mr. Ugly followed them up the stairs. He ordered the ‘Farangs’ to be taken inside the canteen.
“Guard these two, especially the woman,” he said.
If he lost the respect of his men, it couldn’t be helped. But this one was not a normal woman, she was dangerous, even when bound. They had not seen her wield that fan. He would never go near an African woman again.
In his office, he pulled a medical box from a drawer, took out one envelope, tore-off the plastic cover with his teeth, carefully folded a transparent patch onto itself and inserted it under his tongue, like tobacco. He closed his eyes, breathed trice, and sighed in a warm rush of invincibility. The pain in his shoulder now seemed far away. Only then, did he step to the closed window and looked down.
Below, a group of men, foreigners mostly, were talking in front of a row of expensive cars. He squinted through the dirty glass. There was his partner Sandaporn. That fool. He did not look happy, nor on his side. The long grey hair of one foreigner seemed familiar. Was this the boss of OneOre? He tried to recall the photograph he had seen only yesterday but couldn’t remember. He took binoculars from a shelf and checked the cars. Two rentals with green plates. Only the Landcruiser in the front had a local number plate. White on brown. He couldn’t remember whom they belonged to, but they were rare and instilled respect. His hand trembled. His sight had become fuzzy. He pulled the patch from his mouth, and stuck it under his sleeve, for later.
Now, a tall broad Thai appeared from behind the Landcruiser and gave something big to a small guy standing a bit to the side. Mr. Ugly raised the binocular again and focused on the small man. He held a monster bull horn, half his own size, and stepped in front of the gate. Mr. Ugly’s feeling of invincibility vanished. This was the police-chief who ended Thailand’s Methamphetamine epidemy with newly formed units, incorruptible ‘death squads’, executing, on the spot and without trial, anybody who was arrested with the drug, thousands of dealers, big and small, but also thousands of users, rich and poor.
The ex-chief now stared straight at his window and raised the bull horn.
“Can you hear me?”
At first, he was tempted to step away from the window and hide, but what good would that do? Slowly, he opened the window. Everybody looked up and studied him.
“You need to let the foreigners go,” said the small man through the bull horn, and dropped it to his side, as if that was all he had to say.
Mr. Ugly, his face ashen and his eyes big and black, couldn’t shout, didn’t feel he had the energy to cross the distance. He only shook his head, ‘No’.
“I see you have made plans without me,” shouted Sandaporn. Not a question but a statement.
Mr. Ugly scowled. The treatment had been his development, and he had done all the dirty work, while that fool sat in his comfort office and raked in the money. But no, he was smarter. Sandaporn didn’t have the chemical detail of the catalyst. Only he and his supplier in Jakarta knew. He had made sure of that. The lab manager could handle the process, but that was not enough. If OneOre wanted to cook Alexandrite, they needed the formula, that was something to bargain with, also he had the prisoners in the canteen. Though he no longer hoped to score big, he would try to make it to Indonesia with the cash from the Farangs. That would get him across the worst, especially to pay for that girl he had promised to marry. Her brothers would not allow him to withdraw from the arrangement. He had already paid the deposit, three thousand dollars. If he failed to come up with the remaining seven, it would mean that the girl had, in his view, hidden flaws, like not being a virgin or such. The brothers would not accept the stain on the family honor. They would find him. Giving up was not in the cards. What a mess these darn Farangs had gotten him into. He really wanted to kick them again.
Below, three of the foreigners began to walk along the wall surrounding the compound. One man went back to the BMW and returned with a lengthy metal container, walked to the gate, and shoved it into the compound. It hit the dirt next to the truck.
Pestana pulled a phone from his pocket and held it up for him to see, then passed it to Sandaporn.
They even have satellite phones! Mr. Ugly quivered with anger at the unfair opposition.
“Bring me that box, quickly!” he called to the little boy hiding in a doorway. The boy rushed across the yard like he had seen soldiers run in war movies, snatched the box with both hands, and dashed back into the building. A moment later, he entered the office.
Mr. Ugly grabbed the box and pried off the lid. Inside lay a bulky phone protected in bubble foil. It rang with an abrasive sound. Hastily, he unwrapped it and pressed the bottom with a green sign on it.
At first, Sandaporn gave him a silent treatment, then he said, “You will now bring the Farangs to the gate and face the music.”
“It’s a phrase, a word play. It means, be responsible for what you did.”
“I want passage to Indonesia, and I give you the formula, and the foreigners,” Mr. Ugly said in one hasty gush. “You can continue the business with OneOre.”
Sandaporn shook his head and handed the phone to Getawajapot.
“Listen, there is no clean out for you,” the old man said with hard routine. “I have a special prison cell in the Bangkok Hilton only for people like you. If you give up, you go there with a few broken bones, nothing bad. But, if you harm the foreigners, you will go nowhere, ever again.”
“I need passage home. That’s all.” Mr. Ugly could barely hold on to the phone.
Getawajapot smiled and clicked his tongue.
“He wants to go home to mama,” he said to Pestana.
“Can’t we let him go?” Peter asked. “It’s going to be risky, taking this place by force.”
Getawajapot shook his head, almost sadly. “No, Sir, sorry, we cannot allow such things to happen. It’s respectless and bad for business. Where do we end if foreigners are kidnapped and the guy walks? No, not under my watch.”
Peter thought of reminding Getawajapot that his watch was over, and that he was on retainer but thought better of it. Now that he had brought the ex-chief, he could not undo it.
Upstairs, Mr. Ugly, hearing the exchange on the phone, saw a sliver of hope. The CEO wanted to let him go. He wanted to take over the factory. It was what a businessman would do. But Getawajapot was a man of principles. How he hated principles.
Mr. Ugly begged, explained, and begged again. All in vain. Getawajapot was not willing to negotiate.
“Allow me to talk to Pestana,” he said when nothing else came to his mind.
“He wants to talk to you. Waste of time,” said the old man and offered the phone with a questioning glance.
Peter took the phone.
The old man shook his head and pulled two fingers across his throat.
“I’m listening,” Peter said into the phone.
Once more, Mr. Ugly laid out his innocence, recounted how he was forced into this situation against his will, and how he would turn over all his knowhow to OneOre.
Peter shook his head. “My hands are tight. I would make you a deal, but my friend here doesn’t agree. I get his point. My government doesn’t negotiate with terrorists either.”
The word ‘terrorists’ scared Mr. Ugly to a new level. He was no terrorist! But who would believe a Muslim from Java at a shrimp farm in South Thailand?
He heard screams from outside, cursed, and rushed to the window.
Two men were scaling his walls at different places. How could the foreigners climb up naked concrete? The third was pulling himself up one of the camera poles.
He threw the telephone on the sofa and rushed to where Ed and Lizzy lay tightly bound on the floor. A dozen men stood in the canteen, wringing their hands, the little boy was crying.
Grabbing a scissor from a sideboard, he dragged the half-conscious Lizzy to an open window, yelling, “Call them back!”
In the corner, Ed tried to get on his feet but fell over again, and again.
“Call them back,” Mr. Ugly screamed.
To the left, one man was already cutting the razor wire topping the wall. The one climbing the pole had reached a point from where he might jump into the compound.
He pressed the scissor into Lizzy’s throat, shouting angry curses in Bahasa Indonesia.
“Don’t! Wait!” called Peter from below, raising his hands.
The three men paused in precarious positions, swaying, holding on to wires and poles.
In low but angry tones, a new discussion broke out in front of the gate.
Pestana, red in the face, stamped his foot while Getawajapot shook his head.
Finally, Pestana waved to his men. “Come back. Let’s think this through.”
The three men looked disappointed but obeyed. When everybody had gathered again at the Landcruiser, Mr. Ugly pushed Lizzy to the ground.
Next door, the sat phone rang again.
“Now,” Mr. Ugly said to his men standing around with frightened faces. “Inshallah, we will sell the formula.”
The men exchanged unbelieving looks and worried murmurs.
“Trust me. Everybody will get paid.”
In his office, the phone shrilled insistently.
“Wait here. Don’t worry. They can’t do anything without the formula, they need us,” he said to the men and rushed over to his room.
He pulled the bundles of Ed’s euros from a drawer and stuffed them under his belt, covering them with his shirt. Only then, did he pick up the phone and pressed the green button.
This time it was an angry Pestana on the line.
“If you hurt the woman, I will personally make sure you don’t get out alive. I’m the only one to put in a word for you here, so don’t irritate me.”
“Irritate?” Mr. Ugly asked. One never knew what these Farangs meant, but he didn’t wait for an explanation.
“I want the last car in that row,” he said. “I come down with the woman. Turn the last car around and let me leave. You can rescue your man here and I will let the woman go once I’m safe. You take the factory, yes?”
“No! You can’t leave,” said Peter sharply. “We won’t allow that.”
“I will give you the formula, by Allah, I promise. Just let me go, and you get the formula.”
“We don’t want the formula,” Peter said.
Mr. Ugly, dumbfounded, plopped onto the sofa. Before he could come up with a reply, Getawajapot’s voice, louder than before and magnified with anger, boomed over the compound.
Mr. Ugly jumped to the window with the phone pressed to his ear.
Getawajapot stood at the gate with the bull horn, his small posture all authority. He spoke in simple Thai, slow, every word a sharp cut through the air above the compound.
Peter looked at Jesse for help.
“Your boss wants to leave you behind,” Jesse translated. “He escapes with millions, uh, But… it was him, who took the foreigners, not you.”
Sandaporn smiled, nodding.
“Come out. I will let you go. If you help him escape, everybody will be arrested. Shot as terrorists,” Jesse finished almost simultaneously with the old man.
They looked up. The windows above were empty.
“That’s it. He is done,” said Sandaporn.
“L, quick, make sure he does no harm,” Peter said.
Logan, with Rob behind, climbed the gate, ripping their clothes on the barbed wire on top, ignoring it, and jumped down on the other side.
Just as they had disappeared, the small side-door in the wall opened and a thin haggard man dressed only in trousers and an undershirt ducked out, his hands raised. Behind him a throng of workers followed.
Above, Mr. Ugly locked his office with an iron bar. He heard the frightened shouts of his men descending the stairs and rushing across the yard to the fire exit. His shoulders sacked and he dropped the phone carelessly. He removed the patch sticking under his sleeve and stuck it under his tongue. Then, he slowly opened his shirt, threw the cash next to the phone and pulled the box with fentanyl patches from the drawer.
Logan and Rob found the couple bound and alone, lying on the floor of the canteen.
“He ith in hith offich,” Lizzy, her face badly swollen, said through split lips and pointed to the closed office across the corridor.
Rob began to cut ropes and remove tapes, while Logan tried to force the office door.
Hanging on to one another, Ed and Lizzy limped into the courtyard. Above, Logan climbed out of the canteen window. Clinging to the roof drainage, he worked his way towards the office windows.
Peter led Ed and Lizzy to the BMW. They spoke little as they cleaned themselves and each other with wet tissues from a dispenser.
Searching for fresh clothes in a luggage, Ed noted the three golden Halliburton stacked in the back of the car.
“Is that what I think it is?” he asked Peter.
Peter nodded. “Yes, just in case, I brought some valuables for a barter.”
Lizzy put one hand on Peter’s arm.
“I’t giw you a kith, buh not like tish,” she spluttered.
“I was only looking after my investments,” Peter said with a wave of his hand.
“Bullthit,” said Lizzy. “Thou are ah thru frenth.”
Ed could have sworn Peter blushed for a moment, but then it was gone.
“I will go and make photos,” said Peter. “Then we tear it down.”
When they were alone, Lizzy took Ed’s hands in hers.
“Crash da gate, huh?” she mocked with a crooked smile. “Tath didnn work tho well.”
Ed wiped some fresh blood from her lips. “Don’t talk too much or your lips will never heal.”
They leaned against each other and sank into the comfortable leather seats.
Logan climbed through the office window and found Mr. Ugly sitting on his sofa, eyes closed, smiling distantly. He didn’t seem to notice Logan opening the door and calling in Rob.
“Is he drunk?” Rob asked, seeing the man on the sofa.
“Sure looks like it,” answered Logan.
Together, they wrestled the heavy man onto his feet. He didn’t resist, didn’t look left or right, spoke no word as they dragged him through the corridor. On the stairs, the man went slack and even heavier. He slipped from their grasp, rolled down the stairs and sprawled motionless on the floor. His face was frozen in a content smile. Under his shirt, Logan discovered fourteen patches covering chest and belly in two rows.
He was not going to face the music, ever again.
Houses of Memory
For some, Jesus is suffering & loss.
To others, suffering & loss is just that.
Sri Lanka’s East Coast, Boxing Day 2004, Batticaloa’s Lady Manning Bridge
During the ascend onto the old steel bridge, the Toyota howled, slithered, left rubber but then gripped into the hot fractured asphalt. The woman in the passenger seat grunted with relief as the car leveled on the first element suspended over the lagoon. Others, with old tires and lighter vehicles, frequently got stuck on the ramp, blocking all traffic along the coast, causing a storm of horns and curses. The woman dreaded the road rage common in the country.
Three cars behind, a green minibus, filled with gloomy young men, lurched onto the bridge. The man in the Toyota watched in his rear-view mirror and frowned. Deep in Tamil Tiger area, those men were probably not Jehovah’s Witnesses.
To the front, as if to make a point, an army truck waited in line. The woman, following her husband’s glance and thoughts, arched tattooed eyebrows.
“Suppose they keep their peace?” asked the man and pushed his horn-rimmed glasses deeper into a heavily scarred pale face. His cratered skin, worse than pockmarks, clashed with his friendly eyes and open features, polarizing people, drawing them close or repelling them, as if skin defined character.
“Dai Dschobo,” said the woman, ‘don’t worry.’
She, too, was pale, but her skin was smooth, well-groomed, and showing no hint of the dark spots Japanese women feared in age.
Under the cease-fire agreement signed in 2002, they hoped nobody would risk a violent confrontation, but simple misunderstandings had reignited the civil war before. Singhalese soldiers stationed in the Tamil-North lived under a constant terror-threat, while the local population perceived them not only as occupiers but as the very root of the area’s poverty, and most families had suffered losses during three consecutive decades of armed conflict. A generation of Tamils had grown up under government oppression and its violent counterreaction. War, here, was the state-of-affairs.
They sat in silence, something he valued in her, not to fill every waking moment with yapper.
The Toyota crept forward, bumper to bumper, in a long row of cars crossing the bridge. Those with ACs had their cars sealed and engines boiling, those without ACs suffered doubly from heat and exhaust fumes. Only bicycles and pedestrians, too poor even for the bus, made continuous progress; routine traffic here, and not as bad as in Bangkok, where they had peed in shopping bags after hours on the same spot.
Batticaloa, the third largest city of ‘Eelam’ as the Tamils planned to call their country, once liberated, was home to an estimated one hundred thousand souls, all Tamils, plus a few Muslims. Lady Manning Bridge, designed in an early Bauhaus style, and constructed by the British, was the only connection to the south-coast. Its orderly, solid steel posts had withstood hurricanes and ever-increasing traffic unchanged for a century. The brackish water of the lagoon reached fifty, mostly unchartered, kilometers into the jungle and sheltered hundred twenty square kilometers of a unique, little-known ecosystem, including the world’s only inedible eel and a poisonous type of wells that was rumored to ‘sing’ during full-moon nights. Thousands of jelly fish, up to five meters long, trailed yellow tentacles with clusters of red venom in the slow current under the bridge.
Nothing, however, had kept the man in the Toyota from fishing here in his youth, thirty years ago, wading-in deep, catching not only strange fish but also a nameless skin-disease which had left his body scarred, head to foot, insusceptible to any tan except immediate sunburn. Whenever he crossed this bridge in later life, memories flowed like the water below. In a small house across the lagoon, he had lain for weeks, shaking with fever, eyes watering, and skin shedding. Asha, the hotel-manager’s daughter, had become not only his salvation with her homemade ointments, but also his first love. Alcoholism overwhelmed Asha in her twenties and sent him fleeing to study in Europe. Long before Asha’s thirties’ birthday, and before he had been able to talk her into one of Kandy’s luxurious rehabs, Asha had died from liver-failure, leaving him nothing but an aching heart and a never bronzing skin.
After university, he spent five years in a classic career, mostly marketing business software, but never got far. Those taking fault with his strange looks always prevailed, negative opinions vetoing positive ones. His salvation arrived with an idea for software to puzzle-package bulky objects into ISO containers. Clever movers had always used a similar process intuitively, but his software enabled even unimaginative operators to optimize storage space. When a friendly study by the UNICAF called his patented software a ‘necessity for all logistic companies’ he carved himself a niche market, selling CDs, two dollars each, for three thousand plus annual subscription fees. Later, seeing cloud-computing on the horizon, he sold the company to a Japanese conglomerate with less foresight.
His future wife had been on the Japanese buyer’s team, task with the evaluation of his software market. When she entered the room for the first time, an electric bolt had gone through his spine, not a normal reaction even though she was pretty in any objective sense. It had taken a far leap over the cultural gap, but he had managed to spin a private contact, and found that she was single, and going to Bali for Christmas. The company sale closed, and with no further obligations in life, his own holiday promised to be long and flexible. He ran into her, by pure chance as he insisted, on Boxing Day, exactly two years ago, on the terrace of her hotel in Ubud.
Four years his junior, with thick black hair in page-style, he told her of an island in the Indian ocean, awakening to life after thirty years of civil war, the ancient Ceylon with its rugged mountains at World’s End, giant tea estates, unexplored beaches, and ancient ruins in the jungle. He did not speak of Asha but told her of the hotel his parents had built before the civil war.
“I like to go there, perhaps rebuild it,” he said, and there was a question in his eyes.
Before New Year’s Day, she agreed to take a plunge, start a new life, away from spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations. Only later, did he understand, how much courage the step took for a Japanese woman in her thirties. Not only to give up her well-paid guaranteed employment and going abroad, but of all things, with a foreigner, a Gaijin. She was honestly surprised when her parents did not break-off contact, although they kept her dishonor a secret from the rest of the family.
Of his parents’ hotel, only the foundations had survived, and those were so overgrown that they feared to have the wrong coordinates, until they discovered the old water tank in the jungle. Raised high to protect animals from drowning, and deliver plumbing pressure, the tank had not only survived the war but was still in use by the now old gardener who had continued to care for the coconut trees planted thirty years ago, now in their prime. The water pump was long broken or sold, of course, but the old gardener filled the tank manually and earned additional income during droughts.
Despite their undeveloped beauty, no tourism had arrived on the northern beaches, except for hippies smoking the country’s cheap weed, and relief-workers travelling in convoys of shiny SUVs, living in the one hotel their NGO had rented as a whole, drinks inclusive.
He abandoned the idea to rebuild the families’ hotel. Instead, they settled in Colombo where internet connections were at least possible, and they had found a shop with fresh cheese and butter, if not sashimi-grade tuna.
They married in 2004 with only the driver as witness. The ceremony was short, and the wedding cake but a colored block of indigestible sugar. The unrivaled success of the day was his present, two puppies, adored with red ribbons, siblings, male and female, falling over one-another to gain attention and love.
For Christmas and a late honeymoon, they had loaded the dogs, beach wear and a big cooler with food into the Toyota and set off to spend the days on the family beach.
Bread & Butter, named after their first meal, now sat on the backseat, turning ears and heads towards the many noises on the bridge, panting, slavering, and stinking from a dead fruit-bat they had fought over during a stopover, happily awaiting the next adventure, including but not limited to endless walks, biting waves, killing strands of dried sea weed, and, most importantly, chasing crows. Bread, whose upper tail had been pinched and eaten by a crow when he was just a tiny pup, hated crows with all his young heart. In solidarity, Butter had vigorously adopted her brother’s passion and together they were a menace even to the cleverest old bird.
The freshly married couple, too, looked forward enjoying their own beach, so lonely, no tourist brochure could make it up. The old gardener, with his tiny, stringy, almost naked body, would climb the trees and hack down king-coconuts so beloved by the country. Without coconuts, essential for everything from food to roofs, it was said, the ancient Ceylon would starve and die of exposure, but also that one could live on coconuts alone. A claim, they were impartial to test.
As they reached the middle of the bridge, the sudden cry of a thousand animals rose over lagoon and city. In the north, nature never rested. Birds, monkeys, insects, rosters, cats, and dogs delivered a constant background concert, day, and night. Yet, the sound they now heard was different, an urgent dimension removed, uncommon in scale and scope, issuing from all animals at once and at full volume, intruding even into the Toyota’s sheltered cabin and overwhelming the hubbub on the bridge. Pedestrians pointed skywards.
Across the horizon, flocks of birds, green parrots, orange buzzers, and many only an ornithologist could name, took to the air. Crows rose by the tens of thousands, darkening the sky. Whatever had wings, flew up and inland. Only the crows remained, hovering over the city like black smog.
On the bridge, everybody stood with confused faces. Bread & Butter whined from the back. The man shushed them. Barking in the car was forbidden.
The woman turned her attention from the sky down to the lagoon’s shore.
“Look!” she said, her face signaling surprise.
Animals followed the birds, crossing fields and paths along the lagoon, darting from bushes and scrubs. Wildlife and domesticated animals ran, jumped, hopped, and slithered over sand and fields. Prey and predators, oblivious to one another, hurried side by side, always inland. The man pulled binoculars from the compartment and hung them over his neck. He was about to open the door, when the woman grabbed his arm with one hand, her eyes turning to his, her head shaking in silence.
He was not sure whether she did not want him to go outside or only wanted him to listen, so he asked, “What is it?”
“Not good – not good,” she answered with the Asian habit to repeat words to stress them, like fast-fast or ready-ready.
He knew, she was not going to say more, now. Muttering something like ‘hold-on’ he pulled free from the woman’s hand, jumped out, closed the door, and climbed onto the cargo bed. The sun stabbed at his scarred skin, while he scanned the horizon.
To the west and south, the flocks of birds had thinned, either gone to ground or flown out of sight. Far behind the central mountain ridge, lay Colombo, the island’s capital, and its international airport. Though only 600km, the trip to Colombo required twenty hours of concentrated driving on bad streets, shared with drunk drivers and clobbered-together cars lacking basic maintenance not to mention insurance. Done frequently, the journey could ruin nerves, or turn you into roadkill. With Batticaloa’s airport bombed by ambitious Tigers, the only safe way to cross the island was by helicopter, a daily service offered to and from Colombo. Even if maintenance of helicopters was better than that of cars, every year a heli crashed into the jungles for unknown reasons. Blaming the Tamil Tigers had not helped the peace process.
Northwards, the suburbs of Batticaloa pushed against the lagoon’s shore. The city appeared normal to the man, except for the unusual number of crows hovering. There always were crows in the sky, many hundreds flew regularly to and from their nesting places, but now every crow seemed to be in the air at once.
Finally, the man turned his binoculars east, towards the Indian ocean and the mouth of the lagoon. There, a mile off, the landscape had changed. The beach extended far into the east, the ocean out of sight. Where surf had been before, now sand, rocks and towering coral blocks lay drying in the morning sun. Fishing boats sat aground. Silver shades of all sizes danced in the morning sun. Where the lagoon used to meet the ocean, a river, fast and strangely alive, tore down to the almost invisible sea, sucking away jellyfish and flotsam. The sea gulls seemed amused as they rode the current out to sea. Fishermen, who plied the rich delta day and night, fled, arms flailing. At least two had been pulled away by the current; their heads bobbed in the current, less amused. Even as he looked on, the lagoon reached its lowest level, and the river subsided its rush into the ocean. With a few final gushes, the lagoon turned into a lake, separated from the open seas, its fringes laid bare as if from a long drought. The whole basin, despite its giant dimensions, had dropped five meters within minutes. Slowly, the man lowered his binoculars.
All around, people had discovered the strange sight. Most cars and the bus had emptied. People stood around in groups, gesticulating, pointing, discussing loudly. The man heard the words ‘storm’ and ‘flood’ in Tamil and returned into the car, hands gripping the steering wheel.
“What is this?” he asked.
The woman whispered one of the few words that had filtered from Japanese to the global dictionary, “Tsunami.”
At first, this made no sense. A Tsunami pushed the sea onto land, not away from it. But no, it would not, not initially at least! Like every wave, a Tsunami would first suck water away from the land and then throw itself forth again. He imagined the pull that proceeded every wave on the beach. Could this vast movement be the same, a giant lagoon sucked half dry by an approaching wave? It seemed impossible, the dimensions beyond imagination, like weather fronts or plate tectonics. He remembered that earthquakes caused Tsunamis. Would they not have felt the earth shaking or something? He had never experienced an earthquake. Were Tsunamis not caused by undersea volcanos, or was it landslides?
To the east, he knew, Batticaloa lay open to the Indian Ocean. No coral reef protected the coast in this area. A tingling nausea settled in his stomach.
On the bridge, too, wonder had given way to alarm. No Tsunami had befallen the country in living memory, but people guessed that water receding this fast would return, likely faster. Pedestrians now walked briskly north, hurrying down the ramp, back to their unsuspecting families and unguarded houses in the city. Others fled south, making for the open country. Some ran first one way, then returning the other. Cyclists rushed through the crowd, weaving recklessly. A man with his daughter sitting on the cross bar collided with a tea-cart. People screamed and shouted at each other. A family of four, parents with teenage girls, locked their Honda on the southern lane, and walked into the opposite direction, back to town. The man in the Toyota was too astonished to protest. How would they get past this car once the traffic cleared up? The driver of the city-bus honked and yelled, but the father hustled his family along, ignoring the shouts.
The woman looked back to the north, glanced over the lagoon and to the sea, mustered the inside of the car, as if evaluating, until she finally met his eyes. As so often, he could not guess what she was thinking, her inscrutable face set in a display of earnest consideration, but nothing more. Not that she lacked deeper emotions, they simply didn’t show that easily. He could not have loved her, had he not known, witnessed, and concluded based on past actions, that they shared similar subcurrents of emotions. In the beginning, it may have been simply her attraction as a woman that pulled him into love, or falling into, but over time, during days and months of close contact, he had come to learn the subtleties of her thoughts and feelings, even as they were not immediately visible in her eyes and remained unexpressed by words.
“Open the windows!” she said with a concluding voice.
He hesitated. “Why?”
“So that water can flow through the car, and if we fall, we can get out quickly.”
“What? Fall off the bridge?”
“Yes,” she said and stared at the central switch on his door, routinely kept on locked.
He checked left and right. Steel poles, part of the bridge’s superstructure, stood between vehicles and a plunge into the lagoon. To the right, a chain-linked fence separated the pedestrian walk from the driveway. The man doubted a car could be thrown off the bridge unless the whole structure collapsed. Such bridges were designed to withstand not only the daily onslaught of heavy traffic, but also hurricanes and occasional car accidents. Besides, the bridge-deck sat elevated high over the lagoon, perhaps ten meters above the normal water level, and now, with the lagoon half empty, closer to fifteen. Also, they were a mile off the coast. What wave could reach a mile inland? Later in the day, sitting on their beach, yes, they may have been in serious trouble. But here? Getting stuck in traffic had turned out to be a lucky break. Still, even on the beach, they could have climbed in the good old water tank. The heavy car, too, offered protection and he was reluctant to open the windows, allowing heat and noise into the cabin, but the woman continued her stare with unblinking, uncompromising eyes.
“Open the windows!” she said again.
With a sigh, he opened the front windows. On hot humid air, the bridge’s commotion poured into the cabin, slapping their faces like soggy rags. Immediately, Butter pushed her head over the man’s shoulder and out the window, squealing with excitement. Bread, always the more obedient of the two, remained on the backseat, greedily sniffing the coastal air.
“Not the rear. OK?” he asked.
The man fought Butter back on the rear seat, then turned to his wife for confirmation. The dogs had never jumped out the windows, but he did not want to take any chances right then.
The woman did not react but only looked at him.
“Gomen, gomen,” she said.
Twice ‘sorry’ or ‘very sorry’, and her face did express regret in the formally correct displays of emotion, though he also thought to detected retreat or distance in her eyes.
“What… What do you mean?” he asked, knowing there would be no answer.
She turned away, head straight and closed her eyes. Her face turned standard neutral.
The man had the sudden feeling of sitting alone in the car.
He took a deep breath, closed his own eyes for a moment to steady the sudden feeling of betrayal, and then said in a soft, intimate voice, a tone that he would not use for anybody else, an intonation such as couples develop exclusively for one another, “Don’t do this again! Please.”
He had been through this before, when they sat stranded without water on an airstrip in the upcountry of Mozambique. With a see-you-later, she had retreated into hours of meditation, leaving him to suffer thirst and boredom alone, or so he felt, audibly cursing the travel agency that had left them hanging, and silently reprimanding the lifeless partner he wanted to share the plight with. She had reopened her eyes only as the faint hum of the Cessna rose over the hill. During the flight to Maputo, and for some time after, perhaps in childish revenge, the man had refused to talk to her, or even acknowledge her presence. Then, he had been angry, now, he was disappointed.
“You promised,” he said, still in the same intimate voice, if with some bitterness.
She had promised, promised twice, back in the hotel in Maputo, after a long and exhausting discussion.
‘Meisho Fukai’, she had called the trick, or ‘deep meditation’, to avoid or escape from an unpleasant situation. An extreme form of accepting the inevitable, and a Buddhist practice, she had claimed. When he countered that leaving a partner alone in a bad time was not exactly ‘loving kindness’, she had offered to introduce him to the practice.
“Why? So, we can both sit alone? What’s the use of being together then?” he had asked.
“If there is nothing we can do, why suffer?”
“It’s part of life.”
“Do you want me to suffer?” she had asked, with earnestness, as if the question could be more than rhetoric.
“Don’t be dramatic! Nobody wants you to suffer. But we didn’t face an uncurable disease, only a few hours of thirst and boredom.”
“Thirst and boredom are no good.”
“You can’t know that. Perhaps you missed something important. You judged a certain reality as undesirable but gave it no chance.”
“Did you have any insights on the airfield?” she had asked and, if her face would not have been so unreadable, he might have interpretated scorn into her words.
“Yes, I felt abandoned.”
“I’m sorry,” she had said with a brief but true flash of regret in her eyes, “Next time, let’s do it together, OK?”
“No, I will not piss-off every time something stinks. Reality should be accepted, not judged. One never knows how things turn out.”
“We knew it was going to be a tough time,” she had said, sounding exhausted. “Not all reality is worthwhile.”
“So, if there is no cream pie, you quit?”
At this, she had frowned in honest confusion. Western metaphors eluded her.
“What’s that got to do with cream pie?” she had asked with plain curiosity.
“Uh, sorry, just a phrase, I meant to say, accept pleasant and unpleasant times, or we can shoot heroin right away.”
“Your examples are strange,” she had said, matter of fact.
“Perhaps. But I don’t want to find myself alone when things are unpleasant. That’s not a relationship.”
“But forcing me to suffer needlessly is?” she had asked, as always without the display of emotions on her face.
The argument lasted the whole day. He had lined up example after example, childcare, emergencies, prison-time, building irrefutable logical chains, or so he thought, but she had reasoned them all into exceptions or irrelevance. In the end, however, she had relented and made a solemn promise to abandon ‘Meisho Fukai’, at least as far as it concerned their relation. Without knowing why, he had been unconvinced, sensing that she was agreeing only out of kindness. Hence, he had made her repeat the pledge, which she had done without hesitation. But she had obviously lied then. The memory upset him even more.
“Oi!!” he said, sharply, twice, then again pleading, “You promised!”
No reaction. Instead, she seemed to sink even deeper into the seat, her breath steady. A forcefield settled over the woman, his wife, excluding her from reality, leaving him behind. She knew she was breaking her promise, but did it anyways, despite his pleading. That enraged him more than the escapism itself. He would have been irritated, perhaps furious, but disappointment was a far deeper pain. He considered to shake her, force her back to reality, but he could not bring himself to do it. Although it was not exactly physical violence, still, it seemed not the right thing for a honeymoon. In any case, even if he could make her come back, it would have been against her will, and what good would that do? Enforcing companionship would be like demanding love. If she had decided to abandon him then this was his reality and he’d have to face it now, not judge it, not yet, not while it was happening. Later, one may judge.
He looked around.
On the northern lane, opposite to their Toyota, a couple stood by their beaten-up tiny Suzuki four-wheeler. Both gesticulated, yelled into their phones, probably telling their neighbors or friends to climb on their roofs. ‘Good luck with that,’ thought the man, and smiled at the idea of somebody calling on Boxing Day demanding you should climb on your roof. He looked at his wife, wanting to share the humor, but remembered that seeing her expressionless face would only frustrate him more.
Grunting in disapproval, he opened the door to take another look at the beach, or whatever the now exposed seafloor could be called. Just as he was about to jump onto the pick-up’s loading bay, a horn blared in a long hacking sound, underlain by the howling of a motor. He squinted down the southern line of vehicles.
A good hundred meters to the south, a newish E-class Mercedes was plowing up the middle of the bridge, forcing through the gap between the oncoming lanes, ramming others left and right. People jumped from the driveway, stepping on curbs, and clinging to fences. The driver, it must be a man because women were rarely driving here, never let go of his horn which had reached an unsteady electric crescendo. In his wake, people cursed and waived fists. With growing anger, the man watched as a white Civic pushed onto the middle lane, blocking the advancing Mercedes as if cutting somebody from jumping queue at a check-out. The oncoming car effortlessly swiped the small sedan aside. Quickly, the man sat back in the Toyota, shut the door, and started his motor. His heart suddenly hammered with adrenaline demanding action, his tension seeing an outlet. Stopping the Mercedes would feel good. ‘Side-ways, when passing-by, not frontal,’ he thought, but then hesitated. Perhaps the driver had a pregnant woman in the backseat or a toddler with an asthma attack?
He looked at the peaceful wife next to him, checked for the dogs in the rear mirror, warned them not to bark, and dropped the plan with a sigh. Instead, he began maneuvering away from the center of the road. Just as he turned the Toyota’s wheels for the second time, the Mercedes crashed into a narrow passage between the city bus and a lorry laden with tree-trunks. It would not get through, unless one of the other drivers made space. That seemed unlikely. The bus-driver screamed down at the Mercedes; his ears gone all red. The lorry driver was groping under his seat, perhaps searching for a wrench or some other weapon. People came up running and shouting from all sides. Sheltered behind tinted windows, the driver of the Mercedes ignored them and tried to reverse. The motor screamed, metal ripped but the car did not come loose, its hood jammed under the lorry. Changing gear, the driver rammed forward again, pushing the lorry sideways. A log rolled off the top and tumbled down the other side, where a pedestrian jumped from his bicycle in the last moment. The trunk squashed the bike like thin wire, but the railing stopped it with a resounding thud of superior strength. The driver of the Mercedes abandoned his effort to free the car, offed the motor, and tried to open his door but it was stuck or bent out of shape. The owner of the bicycle yelled up at the lorry driver, who had exited his cabin on the other side, swinging a large screwdriver. Both joined the small crowd yelling and gesticulating at the battered Mercedes from front and back.
The man in the Toyota shook his head and smirked at the familiar sight of people screaming at one another after an accident, for a moment forgetting the lagoon and his worries.
“The fool better stay inside,” he said and checked his wife. Nothing. She would have hated the scene, emotions openly displayed, especially in public.
From what he had seen elsewhere, the angry crowd might well decide to throw the Mercedes driver off the bridge right away, if he dared to come out.
But then, a soldier ran up from the south, waving his rifle, shouting. The atmosphere changed immediately. Everybody froze, casting resentful but meek looks at the soldier.
From the other direction, a policeman came hurrying, a whistle bleating between his lips. The driver of the Mercedes threw himself against the door, again without result, then he rolled down his window hastily and tried to climb out of the car. Big eyes rolled in his chocolate-colored face as he made soothing gestures to the soldier. A gold chain around his neck blinked in the sun. He must be a local VIP with such a newish Mercedes. There seemed nobody else in the car, no pregnant woman or such. Again, the man in the Toyota wanted to share the moment with his wife, but she was not watching.
On the road, the soldier had stopped running, and walked the last meters to the Mercedes, warily checking left and right, his rifle at the ready. Used to suicide bombings, already nervous, the soldier may have suspected the lagoon’s weird behavior a clever plot for the weekly terror bombing. The bridge would be a worthy target, another blow to the north’s already ruinous infrastructure. The soldier motioned the men to step back, which they did, vacating the passage between bus and lorry. By now, the driver was squeezing his sizeable belly through the window, pulling himself up by the lorry’s frame while anxiously checking the logs above. Turning to the soldier, he said something with a forced smile on his round face, perhaps a joke about his lack of exercise. The soldier did not smile. VIPs, other than the poor, were usually given a chance to explain themselves.
But nothing was normal that day. The soldier raised his rifle, and for an instant the man in the Toyota looked down the barrel of the gun, ducking instinctively, before the soldier, without aiming, nor warning, shot the driver in the chest.
People jumped for cover, crashing into one another within the tight confines of the bridge. The policeman threw himself on the ground where he had been running, came up again and disappeared into the opposite direction.
In the Toyota, Bread & Butter howled. The man flinched, hands over ears, cursing. His wife jolted slightly but did not open her eyes. So far, they had witnessed shootings only from a distance, once when the Minister of Tourism had been assassinated down the road from their house, and once when the army had cleared a compound suspected to harbor terrorists. At close range, and with a fair chance of getting caught in crossfire, the man was terrified, and gasped for air.
The VIP slacked but did not let go of the lorry. His belly hung on the door, hindering a downward slide. For a moment he seemed to consider his options, then, he returned to struggle out the window, slower and even more awkward than before but far from dead. Just as he had managed to pull one knee through the window, the soldier sent a second bullet. The man’s head snapped sideways, twice, as if anchored on a spring, then he spat blood in a noiseless scream. The chain blinked as he collapsed face-down out the window and crumbled under the lorry.
The crowd along the bridge, initially shrunken away from the shots, came up like one multi-bodied organism. An immediate and obvious enemy had revealed himself, one they feared but knew how to fight.
Three soldiers rushed from the army truck to cover their comrade, rifles menacing the crowd, yelling orders. Young men spilled from the green mini-bus, some armed only with rage, others with clubs or knifes. The man in the Toyota feared a coming bloodbath with soldiers fighting to the last bullet before they were ripped limp from limp by an angry mob. In paradise, less had led to worse. He glanced at his wife. She still sat upright, eyes closed, but a shadow of worry had settled on her face, with jaw tightened, and fine lines appearing across her forehead.
From the vivid blue sky, seemingly out of nowhere, before the mob burst into action or the soldiers dropped their scruple to fire into the crowd, a gush of cold air pushed over the bridge, like a sudden increase of air pressure, not warm and humid, but crisp and cool, as if a slice of upper atmosphere had dropped onto the surface. A rumble, a low frequency groan, travelled through the earth, felt rather than heard, like a train coming up in a distance, shaking the bridge and the water below.
God, angry with his flawed creatures, knocked on the wall of an unseen aquarium, disrupting the fight with his superior wrath. The world trembled to a halt. Even the crows above seemed to pause in midflight. After the hubbub and the deafening shots, the ensuing silence was almost painful. Frightened eyes turned slowly to the ocean.
Through the window, the man in the Toyota watched the horizon over the sea turn dirty white, wobble, and then rise all at once, first barely visible, unbelievable, then more pronounced. A dark shape cut into the sky with white blades and moved inlands.
With sudden synchroneity, dogs barked up a mad storm over the city, breaking the silent spell and filling the air with dread. People wrenched their eyes from the horizon, turning to flee this way, and that, climbing the fence separating road and walkway to get to the protected side of the bridge, away from the ocean. Men climbed up bridge arches. People rushed to their cars, locked their doors, and closed windows. Pedestrians tried to enter vehicles without permission. Fights ensued over spots considered safe. A man in a Muslim robe fell from the superstructure, crashing headfirst onto a car-roof, rolling down in a loose ball.
Two soldiers flung their rifles over their shoulders, climbed onto the railing, and dove gracefully into the lagoon, surprising everybody in a country where few could swim. ‘Perhaps combat-divers,’ the man thought with sudden curiosity. The ‘Sea Tigers’ build their own submarines in an impressive DIY feat for a terror organization with meager resources. The other soldiers yelled after the swimmers, but then returned to the truck.
On the backseat, Bread turned in circles, howling a so-far unheard tone. Butter, whining, pushed her head through the driver’s window once more until the man shoved her back.
The man opened his door again, reminding the dogs to stay put. He stood up and leaned out with one hand on the steering wheel, pointing his binoculars towards the sea.
By now, the ocean had reconquered much of the land it had exposed. Through the binoculars, the water’s pace became more obvious, impossible to outrun even if the terrain had been less treacherous. With irregular motions, the sea pressed forward, holding in places, then surging ahead in uneven bursts, swallowing rocks, briefly splitting into channels, but reuniting again, picking up fishing boats where they lay grounded, and carrying them off like coconut shells. Wherever the ascend steepened, the water lolled for a moment and then, with gathered force, burst onto the next level in one sudden swell.
On the beach, in front of a dune several meters high, the water halted, as if in reference to the deed ahead, expanding only in place, until the pressure offshore summoned one massive wave and pushed it landwards. Coming closer and loosing depth, the wave slowed but rose, crested, reformed, and crested again, rising ever taller, until it reached as high as the coconut trees lining the first residential buildings, western-style beach villas, build by Batticaloa’s few affluent Tamils, fenced off by tall thickets and walls topped with broken bottles. Around the villas Bermudagrass grew in lush green with the thick but razor-sharp blades capable of surviving tropical sun. An unkempt pool blinked dirty blue through a fence. One-room huts, constructed exclusively from various parts of the coconut tree, and inhabited by fishermen or those working at the villas, squatted on the sandy plots in between.
Effortlessly, the wave broke over the dune and plowed into the first row of houses. Walls and villas collapsed with no more resistance than the small huts. Old coconut trees, having lived through decades of monsoons, bent, and broke like twigs or were ripped from the ground. A feeble row of utility poles along the beach road fell in one motion. Behind the wave, the sea swallowed what had not been torn down.
The man lowered the binoculars, their detailed view too limited to capture the entire scene unfolding.
At the lagoon’s mouth, the wave broke over the entrance, gushed into the inert lagoon, reformed almost to its original size, and pushed onward, meeting no more obstacles, no houses, nor vegetation, only more welcoming water. This he had failed to anticipate. A wave could perhaps not wash over a mile of land, but over water it could cross unimpeded. Was this secondary wave higher than the bridge? As it travelled inland, the lagoon swelled from one shore to the other in an elegant, unhurried movement. Small fish, as if chased by tuna, darted left and right on its surface. Along the northern shore, the wave swallowed parked cars, ripped piers into shreds and picked up small boats docked there, catapulting them into trees and residential buildings. To the south, in a less densely populated area, whole farms with huts and storage buildings vanished in the swash. A troupe of water buffalos, proud but not clever, their massive horns roped together, had ignored the earlier panic but now pushed one way, then back, roaring in anger and fright, until they were swallowed as one.
Refracting through a soft curve in the lagoon, the wave seemed to accelerate as it settled into the final stretch towards the bridge. Now, a mile seemed not such a protective distance to the ocean. The man standing in the Toyota judged the oncoming crest to reach four or five meters above the driveway. The bridge would be washed over in a minute or two. But would it collapse? The wave moved faster than a normal person could run, but still easy to follow from a distance, crossing an intersection or passing a large building in the time one needed for a deep breath. Just as the man had jumped back into the protective car and shut the door, the wave suddenly lost height, flattened out, seemed to settle down in front of the bridge, while remaining unchanged on its flanks towards the shores. With a rush of hope, he remembered that the lagoon was considered to reach its maximum depth under the bridge, which was why nobody fished there. The normal hand lines and sinkers the locals used did not reach the bottom before the bait was pulled up and out into the middle waters where few fish lived.
Even as the wave ripped across the northern ramp, swallowing a police booth and a pillbox protecting the bridge’s access, swiping away cars and anybody who had not fled, the water passed under the bridge like a giant sea creature, dashing against piers and substructure, white water spraying in powerless anger.
The bridge shuddered in its foundations, then stilled. The driveway was hardly wet!
Relief rushed through the man’s body, and he grunted, exhaling the air he had been holding subconsciously. The catastrophe had passed them by. Other than the lands around, they had been lucky! An hour later, or an hour earlier, they would have been lost. He could hardly suppress a smile as he picked up his binoculars and, remaining inside the car, leaned out the window and turned to look at the city to the north.
There, the wave had collapsed into a single massive swash, pressing forward, pulling cars, logs, and people along. At its front, the water collected debris of all sizes and shapes in a roiling mass of brown mud, so thick that one may have considered walking on it, until geysers of white foam erupted from the depth. Explosions echoed over the city. A few strong trees, people clinging in their branches, stood like islands of sanity in the chaos. The air over the city turned to an industrial haze of steam and black puffs. Except for its slender towers, the big Mosque survived the onslaught, at least its main roof stood unharmed. Allah’s judgement, people would say. Also, the army’s radio station, elevated on an artificial hill and ringed by heavy walls, remained visible in the muddy slush. Through the binoculars, details jumped out, a cricket helm, a girl cowering inside a cupboard, an iguana with its tongue flitting far out, an umbrella hung in a tree branch where a chair had settled as if somebody would come to sit there. The roof of a rickshaw bobbed twice before it disappeared. He saw people paddling helplessly in heaps of plastic litter. A boy clung to a cable hanging from a pole from which a blue Sari, unfolded to its full length, swayed empty in the water.
‘Perhaps his mother’s Sari,’ the man thought with a tight throat.
Everywhere, people and animals fought for their lives. He suddenly felt sick, dizzy, and he could not watch any longer. He dropped into his seat with a stiff neck cracking as he turned to his wife. She sat with hands folded tightly in her lab, face calm, lips parted, knees pressed loosely together, breathing a tat faster than usual but regular.
“It has passed,” he said.
He searched the water bottle but could not find it, and again turned to his wife, sudden anger displacing relief.
“You can stop this now.”
Nothing. She was not there. He was talking to an emptied body. Was she so far gone that she had not felt the wave pass by? Again, he considered shaking her. If he did that now, it would be in anger. They should have shared an experience of relief. Instead, he was angry with her. Since the airfield in Mozambique, she had kept her promise. They had been in other tight spots since then and she had stayed with him. True, not much could be done here, except to hope the bridge would survive the onslaught. In trouble, she had been, could be, daring and forceful, at least when she thought that action was possible. Once, a half-crazed drunkard had thought he could rob some hapless tourists. His wife had simply ignored the threats, and lectured the would-be thug in calm Japanese, until he broke down in tears and fled. The man knew not what exactly his wife had said, and the runner sure had not understood Japanese either, but it had worked.
He respected Japanese culture, of course, and, though often too rigid for his tastes, he envied its radical consequentiality, the uncompromising logic of Buddhism. Yet, the cultural implications, its translation in daily life, if that was what his wife now did, still puzzled, and caught him by surprise. Only now, far too late, he understood what really had happened in the hotel in Maputo. She had promised not because she thought he was right, but simply to spare him, and their marriage, the painful truth that she was not willing to suffer with him unequivocally, or die, put dramatically. She had realized that he could not accept her decision, but would, in his western stubbornness, continue to confront her, insist on pushing the issue. In the end, to stop him, she had lied to his face; not nice, but far less dishonorable for a Japanese than open confrontation and a loss-of-face. He should not have pressed the matter, but let it be, accept her position as given, or take it up another day. Many times, and it seemed in vain, he had tried to grasp the terror of this final Asian psycatastrophe, the loss-of-face. Refusing his request would have resulted in dishonor. But whose? His, or hers? He was not sure. Open disagreement was anathema in the East; it simply was not done. So, she had made a promise she had not planned to keep. That, in turn, was anathema to him. Yet could he fault her? She had done what she thought was right, and better for both. Or had she? And why did she continue now? The question nagged. Japanese knew all about Tsunamis, occupying a mythical place in their islander consciousness. Half God, half demon, with cleansing powers, they purged earth from sin and sinner, similarly to the biblical flood, only more temporary, and survivable. Finally, it dawned on him, what all Japanese knew: The first wave of any Tsunami is never the tallest.
He turned to the ocean, raised the binoculars, and saw what he had feared, and his wife expected. A second wave, larger than the first, stormed through the Christmas morning.
On the bridge, nobody paid attention. God had spared the few on the bridge, destroying the many all around. Some had sunken to their knees, perhaps thanking for their safe deliverance, or praying for the souls in the drowning city below. Others still cowered where they had hoped for safety. On the walkway, by the Toyota’s side, three men, who had, moments before, clutched at one another and the railing in fright, relaxed their grips and tried smiles, embarrassed at their own panic. Then they turned and stared with dead eyes at the flooded city.
A strong urge to watch the next wave overcame the man in the Toyota, but he resisted, knowing the hypnotic sight was going to block all rational thought. Instead, he stared at the steering wheel, trying to silence the many voices in his head, and utilize the minutes he had to penetrate their situation, consider options, come-up with ideas to optimize their chances to survive the next wave, or waves, and whatever came after, if there was an after. So far, they had been spared by sheer luck, only a meter distance between crest and deck had kept them out of danger. But if this next wave, or the one after that, was only a few meters higher, as it appeared to be, it would crash into the bridge. Could they prepare? She had not thought so, but given up, after opening the windows. That was all she had considered worth doing. The rapid shift from relief to doubt to renewed terror had exhausted the man. Suddenly, he felt profoundly tired. Slapping his forehead, he forced himself to think. Should he fasten the seatbelt? Or rather not? No, she had not, so neither would he. If the bridge went down as a whole, he reckoned, they had little chance of surviving. But if they did, they would have to exit the car within seconds. Suppressing sudden panic, he imagined the steel structure and cars crashing into the water. Was opening the windows really the right thing to do? Their car would sink much faster. And, if they got out, the water would be full of drowning non-swimmers, terrified people, reduced to their reptilian brains. Was jumping and swimming now, before the wave hit, like the two soldiers had done, be a safer alternative? He had not followed the soldiers’ fate. Perhaps they were still swimming somewhere, carried off by the first wave. He was desperate to talk options with her. Should he finally slap her out of it? No fruitful exchange of opinions beckoned that way. But what if swimming was the right idea? She had been a successful freestyle athlete in her youth and he, too, was a good swimmer. Better jump into the water early, than be washed off, drowned in the car or by panicking people, or be hit by a tree trunk. They could find something to hold on to. But for how long? If they made it, they might end up somewhere deep in the jungle, far from help, and there die the thousand deaths of exposure. And, what of the dogs? Would they follow? Perhaps. Sure. Dogs can swim, but, again, for how long? If the dogs panicked, as they sure would, things could get even more difficult. Drowning dogs made for worse companions than drowning people. He once capsized in a boat with his small terrier. It had been a harmless sailing mishap on a calm lake, but, once in the water, the dog went into full rescue-me-who-can-mode, trying to use his head as life-raft, almost drowning him before he was able to climb onto the floating hull, righten the boat, and rescue the dog. Wherever he turned his attention, the bridge continued to be their most promising option. Elevated, solidly built, accessible and visible to rescuers if such were to come. Repeatedly, he looked at his motionless wife, only to be confronted with his lone anguish. She had decided that nothing could be done, or she would not have departed like this. But had she really been able to oversee the situation so fast? There were too many unknown factors, too many questions. The bridge may hold against water alone, but what if a wave dashed something heavy, like a trawler, against it? What about the lorry with the tree trunks? No use to fret about it. On the bridge and inside the car was the safest place on offer. Could he position the car differently to better their chances? Too risky. In any case there was not much space and he didn’t want to end like the driver of the Mercedes. Should he leave the motor running? He decided, yes. An engine might survive a deluge better while hot and moving. They would need the car, after. But where would they go? Did this happen all along the coast? Yes, it must. The streets would be impassable, even if the water receded. If Colombo was destroyed, the whole country, hardly at peace in the best of times, would descend into anarchy. Would the soldiers protect them, after? How many hours would it take for rescue to come? Days? How long before desperate survivors from the city took what they needed, or wanted, from the lucky few on the bridge? He had roped down the cooler with food and water in the back of the truck. Also, their luggage. Would water rip them out? Well, they could always eat coconuts. He had secured their stuff to withstand hours of driving through potholes and on unpaved roads. Should he jump out and tightened the ropes before the second wave hit? Or make a quick SOS call? But to whom? The lines would be down, no doubt. They hardly had reception under normal circumstances.
He checked the wave’s approach over the lagoon. It had crossed approximately a third of the distance to the bridge. Again, the lagoon lifted in its entirety from coast to coast. Was this second wave larger? Yes, it was. How much, was hard to say without references left standing, but even a few meters would be their doom.
God was going to punish them after all.
He picked up the binoculars and turned north to the city. Without anything substantial left in its path, it had not broadened into a flood, like its predecessor, but fell upon the already beaten town with undiminished force, ripping survivors from the still standing trees, pushing a trawler through the Mosque’s roof, and dropping it into the main hall. The walls around the radio station collapsed, water swallowing the little hill, its dishes poking through the roiling mass until they, too, disappeared.
On the bridge, people had noticed the new danger approaching and withdrawn to the locations where they had overcome the first wave, in the hope that what worked once may well safe them again. All along the right side of the bridge, people clung to beams and poles with rigid faces. Some had wedged their arms through the fence separating cars and pedestrians. Except for the Toyota and those who had no windows to begin with, like the city bus or the lorry, all cars were sealed closed, their occupants only shades moving behind glass. None, as far as the man had seen, had sought their luck with a jump into the open water. Suicide for most. No surprise there. The soldiers had withdrawn into their truck and closed the windows, too. Where there had been panic and frantic action before, there now was dazed apprehension and the hope that luck was going to be on their side one more time. Bread & Butter stood in silence, bodies tense but motionless, erect on all fours, noses quivering, tails horizontally and rigid, an unusual but natural looking pose of highest attention and readiness.
The man switched back and forth between the detailed sights through the binoculars and the elevated overview from the bridge, constantly checking the wave’s progress over the lagoon. His personal dread lessened in the removed notion of the beholder, not the participant, subconsciously hoping with sober observation to postpone the inevitable.
Finally, however, he dropped the binoculars and turned to grip the steering wheel with both hands, ordering the dogs to stay put, and glancing at his wife for a last time. Then, he locked his elbows, pressing deep into the seat, building maximum tension, as if he wanted to slide back. He relinquished rational thought and turned to watch the final approach of the wave. Like the first, the second wave settled into the deep water before the bridge, but its crest towered well above the main deck. Other than over the beach, the wave did not break before the bridge and crash, but simply traveled against it. In the last moment, a swarm of full-sized Mullets, compact bullet-shaped fish, glittering silver, broke through the wave’s shoulder and the man saw one sailing right at his window. Without breath to spare for a shout, nor time to make the connection, the man felt a cold wet punch to the head just as the bridge began to shudder in its foundations.
An instant later, water burst into their left side. To the man’s surprise, it was not too unpleasant but warm, close to body temperature, comforting in a way. Its smell registered as something familiar, connected to a long-forgotten feeling of young adventure. The cabin filled as if the car stood in a fast-moving river. The water flushed the dogs up against the small rear window, but they did not make a sound.
The Toyota pitched hard under lateral pressure but did not move sideways until the Suzuki from the opposite lane rolled over and rammed their front. Under the sudden impact, the heavier vehicle lost contact to the ground and plunged deep into the fence sheltering the pedestrian walk. Wires moaned. For a moment, the car hung balanced in the fence. In a rush of analytic clarity, the man saw a flowchart of tension distributing from the chassis into the fence, transferring force into each single strand and then leading it away towards the posts. Square mesh-wires contorted horizontally until they ripped in a series of explosive metallic snaps. The Suzuki vanished over the railing. The heavy Toyota remained upright as it lunged sideways, and into screaming pedestrians.
A woman in a red Sari, holding a bundle in her arms, saw the cars moving in her direction and in a reflex, even as the Toyota’s door crushed her against the railing and she was submerged in water, held the bundle high over her head. Men tried to fend off the oncoming car, backs pressed against the railing, their bodies insubstantial against the momentum of steel and water. In the cabin, all was whirling mud, pulling, and pushing in twilight. The car lifted from its suspension, floating momentarily up the railing, but then crashing back on its wheels as the departing wave sucked water from the cabin, leaving them as if relaxing in a dirty whirlpool. Slowly, water flowed out through floor and sides.
The woman had opened her eyes in the last moments. She shook herself, as from a dream or day vision and wiped her eyes and face, breathing hard but regularly, interspersed with short spluttering coughs. A jelly fish stuck between her back and the seat. Her hair, sprinkled with bits of green algae and trash, hung wildly in uneven braids. He expected relief to have her return to reality but, finding none, searched for words. An unpleasant, disconnected feeling hindered him from speaking.
Three men were caught between the Toyota’s loading bay and the railing. Their torsos, unhurt and containing all necessary organs, had no immediate reason to forsake life, as hearts and lungs continued pumping oxygen to the brains. Two of the men hung limb, the third struggled in a repetitive circle of motions, as if trying to climb from a whole.
The lorry with tree-trunks had shifted across the walkway and sat pressed into logs that had either been lifted or rolled off the cargo bed. The driver of the Mercedes had disappeared, as had his car.
The man in the Toyota tried to open his door. He pushed several times before it swung open with a wet squeal. The remaining water gushed out, leaving only debris and mud behind. He forced the door close again. With time and thought, he might have kept the water inside the cabin, making the car heavier and harder to wash away, but his actions were instinctive. Somebody pounded on the car’s back, first faint, then with increasing force, shouting indistinctively. He could perhaps move the car and free the men. Only then, he noticed the motor’s stillness. The passing water must have killed the engine. Without much hope, he turned the car key into off-position and back again, twice. No sound came from the motor. By then, the pounding and screaming from the back had stopped.
The woman felt down her body, checking for completeness or hidden injuries. Then she looked at him and, although he did not turn, he felt the question in her gaze.
He only nodded, ‘Yes, OK, sort of.’
In the corner of his eyes, he saw her focusing through his window, nodding ever so slightly, and followed her gaze.
Over the lagoon’s mouth, a third wave crashed inland.
In size, it seemed not taller than the second one, but it appeared wider, the body underneath its crest thicker and more powerful but flattened. The woman quickly turned to kneel on her seat, reaching into the back where the dogs stood dripping wet and shivering wildly, not from cold but from fear and excitement. She felt along their bodies, as far as she could reach, twice checking for the oncoming wave, while plugging bits of plastic and algae from the dog’s fur. They competed for her probing hands, pushing each other, heads pressing against her arms, quietly whimpering in fright and appeal for reassurance. They liked water only when they could bite into it from above. Showers and baths were feared and had to be enforced. He kept following the hypnotic motion of the wave as it reached midway up the lagoon. She made a few calming sounds to the dogs, then hastened back onto her seat.
“They are OK,” she said and put her hand on his arm, now relocked against the steering wheel, but he did not react.
This would have been his moment to speak, normally. She let go of his arm and gripped the handle to the front. Her eyes remained open, fastening somewhere behind the windscreen.
The bridge shuddered for the third time as water rose onto the deck. Again, the Toyota was pressed against the railing. The cabin filled with water, rushing left to right, although, or so it seemed, less intense than previously. They endured the whirling chaos of mud and debris with some calmness. The men caught between car and railing disappeared with the wave. The Toyota lifted from its suspension but did not lose contact to the ground. A leather purse rushed into the cabin but disappeared immediately out the other side. The man thought that, yes, with closed windows they may indeed have been lifted over the railing. Seen that way, the woman had saved his life, but it had not been an act of compassion. Butter drifted to the front, helplessly clawing, her nose pressed against the roof, snorting fiercely. The man felt paws ripping at his shoulder and grabbed the dog by a hindleg before the departing wave could suck her out the window.
When the water in the cabin had receded to chest height, he managed to float Butter to the back of the car. Then, the man opened the door and again let out the remaining water.
He brushed algae from his face, spat, coughed, spat again, and for the first time turned to meet the woman’s eyes. They stared at one another, each searching the other’s face. Her perfectly arranged proportions, humiliating many men into openmouthed stares, could have come straight from a trendy outdoor fashion magazine, hair gleaming oily wet with strange accessories blinking in the sun, the photo-director having suggested something like ‘alone in the jungle’. Nothing had changed. She was the same, only a broken promise later, nothing terrible in her value system, misplaced expectations unavoidable in human relation. The man’s face, however, must have shown something different, for she blinked in a rare loss of composure, and he saw a bewildered sadness clouding her eyes.
He could not stand the sight, guilt and disappointment cutting equally deep, and turned to look to the sea.
The interval between waves had shortened. The fourth had already broken over the beach and was now travelling up the lagoon. The man followed its path inland with rational detachment, less hypnotic fright. He judged this wave to be smaller, perhaps similar to the very first one, though less steep. The land around lay completely transformed, flat, and swirling in grey and brown; it could have been the view on a different planet under an uninhabitable atmosphere.
Still, they didn’t speak, the tension in the car not exclusively from external danger. The bridge shook but the water did not reach up to the Toyota’s windows. As they watched the wave flood around the car, they instinctively held their breath. When it had passed, all vehicles had remained in their former positions, but the man did not dare to venture out yet.
The fifth wave washed almost gently over the asphalt, taking more debris away than it left behind.
The sixth wave passed without reaching the upper bridge, as did the seventh. All along the right side of the bridge, people began to crawl from the mountains of debris deposited between railing, poles, and parts of intact fences, pulling free from unidentifiable mounds of wreckage, lumped into solid masses by sand, mud, algae, and jelly fish. Men, women and children squeezed through broken car windows, pulling on bodies still inside, or helping others caught somewhere, many crying, some begging for help, some silently digging through the debris, laboring with hectic movements and wild yet exhausted looks on their faces, constantly checking left and right as if fresh destruction may rain down on them from any direction. A few sat or stood motionless staring at nothing. Three soldiers cast a thick rope down into the lagoon trying to rescue people below the bridge. The green mini-bus had vanished, perhaps with the Tigers inside. The army truck sat pressed against the railing, like their Toyota. The conflict that had preceded the Tsunami was forgotten, at least for the moment. Men descended from the superstructure with disturbed eyes, but seemingly unharmed. Cries of pain and loss filled the air. Those with serious injuries would not live through the day. Even if any of the local hospitals had survived the Tsunami intact, which was unlikely, they could hardly cope, running at full capacity in normal times. Their staff was not going to come for work soon, if at all. Many doctors and nurses must have died, too. The dirty water was going to infect even minor injuries. Without antibiotics, people were going to die for weeks to come. The city would turn into an open cemetery, corpses spreading disease, contaminating drinking water and food supplies. Relief and rescue organizations would take days to arrive, and they were going to be stretched terribly thin along the length of the coast. Trincomalee and Jaffna, both Tamil cities directly on the ocean, must lay in ruins, too. Most Sri Lankan cities sat along the coast. Only Kandy, in the mountains, was going to be unaffected. A hopeless outlook.
The man remembered the small bottle of Betadine and an emergency pack of Cipro in their luggage and asked to his wife, “Is it over?”
The woman nodded, lips quivering as she bent forward and away in a rocking motion. She had never cried before, not since they met. Her upper body moved in tiny jerks. Behind the thick hair, and with her head turned slightly to the right, he could not see her face, though she didn’t cover it, her hands clasped under the chin. She made no sound, but he was sure she was crying.
He knew he should comfort her, lay a hand on her shoulder, touch her, turn her around and hug her, but, again, a feeling of disconnection made him dizzy. His hand did not move. He would have to enforce the gesture. Instead, he plugged the mushed jelly fish from her back and tossed it out the window. This was all he could bring himself to do. He felt ashamed. Now, he was the disappointment.
In the front, a young Muslim struggled to pull an unconscious woman, assumingly his wife, from a car lying on its roof. The man got out of the Toyota, commanding the dogs to stay put, and closed the door. He stepped up to the young man and without a word they managed to extract the woman from the car, careful as not to injure her on the ragged frame. The woman came-to just when they had set her down, kneeling on either side and leaning over. She began to scream, punching and clawing at them. The two men tumbled backwards, and she scuttled away on all fourth, terror distorting her features. Then, she recognized her husband and flew into his arms with tears pouring over her face.
Slowly, the man got up from the floor and turned to the north. He felt too weak to lift the binoculars still hanging around his neck. The screams of the woman continued to echo in his ears, together with a high-pitched electric sound that he knew was in his head only. Over the city, the water seemed to have reached its highest point, at places beginning to retreat, creating giant swirls, turning this way and that, merging and separating again. Survivors sat in treetops, stood on roofs, and other indefinable structures. Corpses, human but few animals, drifted free or swayed lazily around obstacles. Cars, motorbikes, and boats lay where the receding water had disposed them, stacked in the most unlikely places. In between, and everywhere, coconuts floated by the millions.
The man opened the Toyota and called the dogs from the car. In wet rotor-action, both barked, protesting the unannounced and undeserved bath. They stood for a moment, looking around, sniffing the air, then, seemingly oblivious to the changed reality, they started to chase crows swooping over the bridge. The man checked the Toyota’s cargo bay. It stood full of muddy water, and he released the flap. The brown mass gushed onto the bridge and with it a Mullet that must have been caught in there. He shuddered at the sound.
The feeling of disconnection hit him again. He secured his balance with one hand on the car. Heavy and weightless at once, weirdly empty, he swayed and struggled to recall his life situation. He remembered every second on the bridge with exceptional clarity, but the endless stretch of time before lay in fog. His life seemed to have started just a half hour ago. What had he done yesterday, last month, last year?
He looked around for something to reconstruct and stabilize his identity. A woman climbed from the Toyota, no, ‘his’ Toyota. He watched as she carefully balanced over waste and through mud until she stood next to him, looking up into his face. The man remembered the intimate force her beauty used to have on him, also the feeling of safety and kinship.
Between his feet, the Mullet flapped in the mud, desperate for life. The man kneeled, cupped one hand over the fish’s eyes, calming it with sudden darkness, then quickly grabbed it by the tail and hoisted it over the railing. It disappeared in the water with a silver flash and the man started to cry.
Edward Bristol, Europe, 2022
Here is a link to download the full story in MP3 for your car or on the go:
This novel does NOT deal with gemstones or 3rd world business but recounts the adventures of a medieval woman, Demuth, and her Viking dog, Hal.
Germany, 1499 AD:
The Renaissance is dawning over Europe. Ideas of freedom and science shake the foundations of medieval society. New Worlds, discovered in the West, open unprecedented opportunities for Europe and its oppressed people.
Demuth, the successful but eccentric apothecary, knows little about these developments… until she is forced to flee from a witch-hunt and must leave her protected life for good.
With Hal by her side and a pouch of opium around her neck, Demuth learns that the world is much bigger than she had ever imagined.
Listen to Part I: Lives End!
The full audio-book can be bought from WildFish directly.
See the green grass on the other side?
Paperback is available here.
Thanks for all your feed-back. I hope to start a new Ed Bristol story sometimes this year.
The same year Sunil finished his school, took his money plus interest from the bank and disappeared, probably to Colombo.
I do not know what happened to him, nor his father. We left the country as the civil war rekindled. I can’t offer a happier ending.
These are the realities of fair trade. It ain’t simple.
Young Hillary Adams recorded her sadistic father; and posted it online.
His shame is forever public. Well done!
Let all parents know: In the 21st century, you will be watched.
The clip ruined my week but never mind as long as William Adams’ week is worse. The memory of being whipped for nothing more than leaving the light on (so small, I was scared in the dark) or for an only average test result at school.
The fact that this is done by your own parents (shame the moms, too) and in your own bedroom makes it so inescapably terrible. The immediate pain on the skin is little compared to the effect of William’s final words: “See what you’ve done to your family! Are you now happy?” Obviously she wasn’t, cramping on the floor, but she might have believed that it was her fault, that she was blame and not him. That is how kids are.
I will not whine about how tough my childhood was. For most kids in Asia and Africa beatings are the easy part. But let me say that, after seeing Hillary’s video, I wanted to get on the next flight and give my dad a little whipping, just for fun or because he didn’t come to my daughter’s birthday. Don’t get me started. May he thank God that I am not all like him – an-eye-for-an-eye and so on.
Beware of neglect and the damage done to children. It comes back in terrible shapes; as terrorism, and racism, and crystal-meth and, of course, more child abuse. Personally, I intend to break this cycle in my own little family. My daughter will not have to endure what was done to me.
Sure, a teenage daughter can be a pest and all. My daughter will, perhaps, be a pest some-day, but I herewith –forever public– ask God to rot off my hands if I ever do anything remotely comparable.
I just love CCTVs, wireless webcams, IP-Cameras and constant home surveillance. Forget about privacy if we can protect our children from harm.
Our house in Bangkok stood at the end of a cul-de-sac inside a big compound bordering to an even bigger slum. A barbed-wire fenced wall separated us from the poor. I liked the wall for the cozy atmosphere it creates in our street, but the inhabitants of the slum didn’t seem to justify the security. Their lives were just as burdensome or as happy as ours; and they didn’t care about the crazy foreigners inside the compound.
Crime was not a topic, but bad things did happen behind the wall.
To control the swamp that Bangkok is build on, the city’s engineers dug up channels and concreted over every trickle of running water. Today, the channels and rivers of Bangkok are deathtraps to all land creatures. The embankments are unforgiving walls; too steep and slippery even for rats to climb up.
Such a channel lay behind our compound’s wall: a dark and still body of water choked with garbage, a sad sight with a bad smell, but normal in Bangkok.
During one of the first nights in our new house, I was roused by a wail and splashing sounds. I ran to the upper window from where I could see the channel. A dog had fallen in. I saw him paddling back and forth, searching a way out. Every few seconds, he let out this heart-stabbing wail. Then, he tried to climb on one of the garbage islands, but in vain; it sunk away and reemerged in a circle around him. I looked out for the fridge that I had seen floating the other day but it was gone.
Our dogs, joining the terrible wails with their own interpretation, interupted even my wife’s deep sleep. When she came up and saw what happened, she started to cry. I put my arms around her; she was shivering despite the heat. It must have been two or three o’clock in the morning yet Bangkok was still like a steam sauna.
After years in the third world, one, sadly, gets hardened to suffering; yet I can not stand idle when there is at least something that can be tried. The compound’s wall was too high to climb. Even if I had a ladder, there was too much barbed-wire on top. The dog wailed and paddled-on for his little life.
I grabbed my sneakers and started to run – first a kilometer or two into the opposite direction, away from the wall and the channel, out of our compound and down onto Sukhumvit Road, one of Bangkok’s busy eight-lane arteries. There I turned right towards the first big junction. I ran fast, feeling positively athletic in my mission, which I was not – in fact I carried 20 kilo overweight. Lorries and cars honked at me: a crazy foreigner in pajamas and sneakers racing through the dark.
At the big junction I turned right into a smaller road (which means only four lanes in Bangkok) and from there again right into a residential street, consequently making a wide circle around our compound; and finally arriving at a bridge crossing the channel behind the compound. Beside the bridge I found the little track which I had noticed earlier and which followed up the channel between our compound’s wall and the slum.
When I got to the back of our house, my wife had climbed into a tree from where she could peer over the wall. The dog was still alive but in-between his wails there were gurgling sounds. He was clawing the wall, trying to hold onto the slippery moss. I lay on my belly and leaned over the bank. As he saw me, he squeaked and tried to get away. It was a typical midsize street mutt – half-wild creatures with no family attachment, shy and wary of humans.
I snatched him by the neck and hauled him up. Determined to fight for his life even in this misery, he bit me in the wrist. Now, I squeaked; and let go in midair. Luckily he was already on an upward trajectory. He crashed against the wall and landed on his feet.
For a moment we stared at each other, me breathlessly non-athletic and him scared out of his senses. Then he dashed off; and again fell into the channel!
There he was paddling around and wailing once more. I was rather dispirited but my wife up in the tree was not.
The second time, having learned my lesson, I got him by the tail, pulled him upwards and swung him to safe ground, always keeping good distance from his jaws. I was afraid his tail might come off but it held fine. Those street mutts are tough little fellows.
The instant I let go of his tail, he disappeared down the path and into the dark. No more splashing sounds. He, too, had learned his lesson. Probably he felt that he had escaped not only the water but also Bangkok’s legendary dog eater, the nightmare of all street puppies. I was left behind in the mud, bleeding and panting. You can’t expect him to say thanks.
To my wife, however, I was a hero and back in the house I got beer for my wrist and many hugs. The next day, I broke the lock of an emergency exit in the compound’s wall (there was, of course, no key) and thus got direct access to the little path next to the channel. Then, we bought a big landing net in a fishing shop.
We regularly rescued lizards, birds and cats, but mostly dogs – young dogs; they are just too silly. We also built a watchtower for our dog to guard the channel (see picture). When something falls in, he howls; and we get the net ready.