AFTER I RETURNED to Bangkok, decades had passed. On arrival, I promised myself no more complicated investigations, messy missing-persons cases or cases that probed extra layers of fat, fueled by corruption. I’d finished with dead-end people snagged in mortal conflict with themselves, their spouses and powerful people. I no longer believed in best-case scenario or that I would emerge from any dangerous situation without a scratch, that I would expose and defeat those who were quick to use violence, lies and revenge. Like Don Quixote, I’d seen enemies around every corner.
I’d finished with the drama of tilting at windmills. I stopped living in my dreams of the world uncluttered by the realities in front of my nose. When you believe you can no longer change the world, you stop believing love and honor are sufficient weapons to push back against greed, power and wealth. Like all promises we make to ourselves after waking from the dream the world can be changed, these are easy to make and hard to keep.
Bangkok was the place of windmills, a place of the dark arts making enemies out of barbers and wine sacks. Like an alcoholic who believes he can handle a drink, I found myself slipping under the waves of a new Bangkok dream. I had my old armor and lance and set out as a cultural detective who translated smiles and silences for a living, thinking this
would prepare me to slay the digital dragons. Thai culture had changed. The environment, the relationships—and so had I. When had a challenge stopped the Man of La Mancha?
I returned to Bangkok hoping for one more chance to change the world. And there was my conflict—seeing the world as it was and seeing it as I thought it ought to be. I turned down a dozen cases while making up my mind to ride again. I’m good at ducking the sucker punch. But not as good as I thought. I’m vulnerable to a range of weak spots. All it takes is the right person at the right time to push that button.
When Ratana asked me to help someone from the old days, I knew this was going to be a promise breaker. She looked at me with those large, sad, knowing eyes. “Please Khun Vinny, Metta needs some help with Mike Hanover, her ex-husband. You know him from Washington Square days.”
“Tell her to get a lawyer,” I said.
“Khun Metta specifically asked for you, Vinny.” Ratana looked me straight in the eye with that combination of disabling honesty and innocence, testing whether my time back in New York had hardened me, equipped me with the decency-destroying weapon a detective needed in his arsenal if he was to say no, turn and walk away from a helpless woman in distress.
Ratana saw in my eyes that I led Rocinante out of the stables, his ribs showing, aged and slow. She witnessed me put on the saddle, mount my trusty steed and raise my lance.
My dreamer self broke the promise to my knowing self, the one that knew I’d regret it. That was the terrible part. To feel your dreams are larger than your knowing of the world. You know you are being asked to travel a road of hurt, and some force inside you—an angel or a devil— fights this battle, and after a deep breath you take that first
step. I was on my way to the start of a complicated case. I should’ve paid more attention to the first clue: Metta’s name translated into English as “unconditional love for all beings.” Her name had been taken from Buddhist scriptures and given to her by a monk. It was a Thai aspiration name, which reminded her that she lived in a world where love was conditional. Miss Unconditional Love shacked up with Mike Hanover, got pregnant and got dumped—the usual cycle for a Thai woman looking for a sheltering sky, who learns too late that the modern sky, like love, had gone into what people called the Great Upheaval, a time of turbulence, chaos, unstable cycles of dense radiation, extreme heat and rising sea levels.
I never understood how men like Mike Hanover outlived just about everyone, managed against all odds to outlive an entire era. Mike had survived after Washington Square was long gone. He’d eaten a cargo ship’s hold of Old George’s Texas Lone Star Saloon sixty-baht lunches. Those meals had been eaten a lifetime ago. The Texas Lone Star had since been bulldozed, taking a slew of the other bars too, the collective debris carted away. Built like tombstones on the mass grave of Washington Square, a host of shiny shopping malls and offices, swank restaurants and a luxury hotel fell on hard times as the Great Upheaval flattened the old economies worldwide. Old George, who had disappeared as smoke up the chimney of Wat That Thong, would have had his last smoker’s cough coating his laugh at the irony of how the destroyers had in turn been destroyed.
Helping Metta find her son meant getting into a domestic tangle with Mike. There were pluses and minuses. Mike was a vault of the past carrying the stories of the old gang, knowing who had died and of what, who had a stroke or dementia, who’d left Thailand broken in mind and spirit. Mike did what he’d always done: He opened a restaurant, in a hole in the wall, hired girls to dance, cooked, and played
soundtracks of music from the sixties of the last century. In my experience, if you have no place to go and are mean enough not to die young, you became a human museum, drawing a crowd that is happy to believe the old tales of heroics.
I made an appointment to meet Metta at Silk & Belt Park, where she worked and had one day a month off. As the road curved to the left, a giant Ferris wheel loomed against a gray washed-out skyline. Shanties and abandoned cars lined the road. Not long afterward, my taxi passed a sign in English and Thai: You’ve Entered the Silk & Belt Park. What the sign left out was that you needed an official visitor pass, or you would be turned back, and the process of applying for a pass required about a week. An agency had taken my fingerprints, eye scan, facial scan, passport scan. A hospital had to certify my DNA sample. I asked, “Why no stool sample?” and was told that it was required as of next month. In Bangkok, reality always outstripped humor. I gathered all the documents and presented them in person to the agency. I had a one-hour interview. A week later, I had a message to pick up my visitor pass. If Metta had been in prison, it would have been easier to visit her.
So what was this place that discouraged farang? Silk & Belt Park was a semi-autonomous zone between the Chao Phraya River and the port, a Chinese joint venture with EarthCraft—the digital playground, portal and alt-reality landscape that had expanded into the analog world. The Chinese had signed a 99-year lease on a 199-rai apartment in the heart of Khlong Toey—I ’d read a translation of the Chinese-Thai lease and it was word-for-word plagiarism of the 1842 British Hong Kong Treaty. And I’ve heard it said the Chinese don’t have a sense of humor—but that’s not true. They created an amusement facility with reconstructed historical artifacts, a research center, shopping malls, condos and offices. And they called it a park. That’s funny. I’d start
with the Ferris wheel, which had become an iconic symbol in Bangkok, like the Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty. Like a magnet, it pulled in Asian tourists, especially the mainland Chinese on a package.
From the back of the pedicab, as we approached the park, I saw Big Ben in the distance and heard the distinctive chime announcing 8:00 p.m. I don’t mean a replica of Big Ben. I mean the real McCoy. While I was away from Thailand, the British, facing hard times, had sold Big Ben to the Chinese. Years earlier, the Thais bought the British Embassy grounds in Bangkok. It takes a lot of EarthCraft credits to keep up the appearance of power long after it is gone. If you’re going down for the count, landmarks don’t much matter; they’re more like flotation devices on aircraft that promise what everyone knows won’t be delivered.
My Thai partner, Pratt, a retired police general and my own cultural guide, fixer and loyal friend, ran in the circles where the elites exchanged the latest gossip on how the Silk & Belt Park had emerged out of the cracked shell of the old Chinese Belt & Road project. Over drinks he confided that the Chinese had been taken to the Thais to the cleaners. “They learned their lesson from Belt & Road. The park’s their new model. I heard it was a good deal for the Thais.” He shook his head. “Not so good for us.” Then he told me the story of how the deal came together.
“It was Henrietta,” Pratt told me. “She worked behind the scenes; a hidden partner in the deal for Silk & Belt. And she had chosen the name: silk for nice, and belt for when you get out of line.” Forget about the road, Henrietta had texted the lead Chinese negotiator. That’s a separate deal.
“What was Henrietta’s end of the deal?” I asked Pratt. Being an AI, Henrietta would want more than the usual swag or welcome-bag trinkets. Pratt nodded. It turns out, she got a huge amount of the latest quantum neural memory-circuit inserts, three hundred square kilometers of land in Xinjiang
with five thousand solar-powered processing farms and the top five thousand scientists—she gave the Chinese a list of names, addresses, social rankings and emails. This was the crème de la crème of China’s scientific team. Sending them to Xinjiang to work for Henrietta would gut the Chinese, ripping their best and brightest from the national belly.
When the Chinese balked, Henrietta showed them how hardball was played. She sent the Chinese negotiation team a short note:
Nice little radar operation you’ve got. It would be a pity if something happened to it.
The Chinese were no strangers to noir—Henrietta reminded them that things could get much darker.
I asked Pratt what the Thais had got out of the deal.
“More Chinese.” He smiled to see my reaction. “And fifty-seven tanks and thirteen submarines. Sixty-day warranty on tanks and submarines.”
As if I’d never left, Ratana assumed her habitual role of filling me in on the details and made the arrangements to meet Metta at the northeast corner of Big Ben as the clock struck 9:00 p.m. Nine was a lucky number for the Chinese. And mingling in the crowd around Big Ben, Metta could speak to a foreigner without security immediately pouncing and yanking her out to ask what I wanted. But we’d be watched. Surveillance cameras would pick her up; they would pick me up. It wasn’t illegal to meet me. I was already in their surveillance system, along with my DNA. Besides, most of her workmates at the park were foreigners. She cooked hundreds of “the original, authentic pad Thai” alongside a dozen other Thais, in what was constructed to look like a street stall, working from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Last time I saw Metta, she was an awkward teenager, recently arrived in Bangkok from Roi Et. She’d found work in One Hand Clapping, a massage parlor next to my old office. I first met her after I’d busted down the door of
a small room there, where a young massage girl named Jazz lay crumpled up dead on the bed. Metta rocked back and forth on a chair, spacey and pale, shivering until the mamas threw a bath towel around her shoulders. In the doorway, several other yings stared and pointed. Jazz had killed herself. They say after you die, your body no longer has an owner. Here’s the strange thing: I couldn’t remember her. I remembered the dead girl and the mamasan, but Metta? Her face was buried deep in some memory hole that my digging tools couldn’t reach.
At 8:30 p.m., the pedicab, having detoured around two sinkholes, pulled into the lane for foreigners. Only five cars ahead of us in the queue. In the next lane, buses with Asian tourists snaked back half a kilometer; and one lane over, in the fast-track lane for Chinese, solar-powered tour buses drove through at sixty kilometers an hour. The buses were noiseless double-deckers with huge batteries on the roof. I watched them shoot past. The passengers’ faces were a blur.
Armed security guards walked along the queue of cars, inspecting the occupants, asking for papers. At the entrance gate, a guard stopped my pedicab. I rolled down the window. It wasn’t the usual Thai private security guard with a whistle pressed between his lips. Instead, it was a Chinese solider who asked for my papers and official pass. He put a facial scanner in the window telling me to look into it without moving my head. After the scanning, I handed my pass to him and he turned and swiped it against a computer pad. He wrinkled his nose as he stared at the screen and facial scan. They matched. The security guard glanced at the pedicab driver’s sweat-covered face. He clutched an amulet hanging from a rearview mirror, which had been looted from an old taxi. The pedicab driver also got the facial-scan treatment. He’d been driving for twenty-four hours without sleep, but the scanner could match his death-mask face with the one
in the data file. I was impressed. He’d passed the scan and let go of the amulet. Buddha had once again saved him.
“You are authorized for six hours. No overstaying is permitted. Do you understand?” The security guard mechanically mouthed his memorized English script. “Sign this,” he said, handing me a piece of paper through the window. It read like a contract agreeing to hand over my body for medical research and body parts. I signed it and handed it back.
“Silk & Belt Park. It’s like a short-time hotel only a bit longer,” I said. Neither irony nor humor was ever a good idea with police, military or guards who were drilled never to crack a smile and who might strip search anyone who cracked a joke.
He handed back my pass. “If you overstay, you are subject to a fine and imprisonment.”
I noticed a small digital clock in the right-hand corner counting down. It read five hours and fifty-three minutes. The Chinese on the tour buses roaring through the fast lane had a full-day pass. Thais, depending on their social-credit ranking, were given a maximum of twelve hours per day for one week a year. If you were of European ancestry, you got six hours on a special pass, renewal every two years. Only fifty farang passes were allowed each month. In reality only half a dozen were given out, and half of these were approved only after paying a bribe.
The pedicab driver stood on his pedals and we slowly passed through the entrance, both eyeing the ten-meter security wall that ringed the 199-rai complex, separating the park from Khlong Toey, the dense, hot, packed and miserable slum, which rivaled the favela in Rio de Janeiro. Khlong Toey squatters boiled like frogs in a pot under the extreme heat. The official population was one hundred thousand people, but no one believed that number. With the failure of rice crops for the five years running, farmers in
the northeast gave up and headed to Bangkok, ballooning the Khlong Toey numbers to somewhere between five hundred thousand and a million unemployed, hungry and thirsty ex-farmers who queued for water and food in the shadow of the Ferris wheel. None of them happy to be on the other side of the wall.
The Chinese developers named the Ferris wheel The Golden Angel, which was rich as they tossed religious and ethnic groups like the Falun Gong and Uyghurs into detention camps. But test marketing proved itself within a year, and the heavenly representative of Silk & Belt Park rained down large profits.
The pedicab slowed to a stop as the driver jumped down and hand-guided it behind a row of water tankers. As I got out, I could hear singing, laughing and shouting as a dozen trucks with crews on top sprayed water over to the slum side of the wall.
“They do that twice a day. On the other side, people line up with buckets to catch a few drops,” said the pedicab driver, who had got out and also watched the Silk & Belt Park spray brigade do their job.
I looked back at him leaning against the pedicab with the awning pushed back. “That’s unlawful under the water shortage rules,” I said.
The pedicab driver nodded, feeling some of the mist from the spray blow back on his face. He smiled. “Rationing rules are bent in the zone.”
Overhead a fleet of drones with the wingspan of an Andean Condor patrolled the wall perimeter, red lights flashing at the wingtips. Under their wings, each drone carried a payload of laser-guided rounds that could zero in on a head one kilometer away. As I followed the path to the Ferris wheel, I saw an unmarked service road running parallel to the road. Water trucks were lined up bumper to bumper. They’d been fitted with spray nozzles and were
set in a rotating turret. An operator sat behind the nozzle adjusting the volume and direction of the water. A couple of minutes later, the trucks and drones behind me, I was swept up in a crowd of people moving like a column of ants drawn to the Golden Angel.
Three Chinese women came up to me and asked if they could take a group picture with the Golden Angel in the background. I was a rare foreign bird not often spotted in this forest. After the group shot, each woman took a turn standing beside me, her finger pointed at my head, I thought. It was actually pointed at the plastic ID card with my photograph and my remaining countdown time ticking away. Soon a queue of Chinese men and women, young and old, waited to have their picture taken with me. Nothing can prepare you for the sheer number of Chinese who want to show their friends their new best farang friend. I was a strange white ant marching toward the Ferris wheel—the largest in the world according to Chinese propaganda— enormous enough for NASA satellites circling the globe to pick it out. As our picture was taken, one of the Chinese told me that the president of China had a framed photograph of himself next to the Ferris wheel and a satellite photo of the wheel enlarged, hanging side-by-side on his office wall. The Chinese seemed disappointed when I turned on a path leading away from the Ferris wheel.
“I’m going to Big Ben,” I said.
“No, Golden Angel is much nicer,” one of the women said.
“Much higher,” said another.
“Our Chairman loves the Golden Angel,” said yet someone else.
I smiled and waved and carried on walking. They lost interest in me. I had ended up a disappointment.
Big Ben loomed ahead. The Chinese had erected it on the riverside south of the Ferris wheel, close to the Cotswold
village where Metta worked as a food vendor. She must have heard that loud bong every hour, fifteen times a day.
I had mixed emotions looking up at an iconic part of London set against Khlong Toey port. We have a sense of where things belong. When they are out of place, there is a quietly disturbing unease. I looked back at the wall. Those living in the slum on the other side would have been able to read the time of day on Big Ben. I poised for a new crop of Chinese tourists’ photo sessions—smiling Chinese, smiling detective. Maybe they’d heard a famous detective was standing in front of Big Ben.
I turned when I heard my name, and Metta was standing next to me, a small women dressed in a white cook’s uniform wearing a black hair net. She’d been waiting near the northeast corner, watching as the Chinese lined up to take their picture with me.
“It’s okay to tell them no,” she said, gesturing toward the Chinese tourists. “They ask any farang.”
“Right,” I said. “I knew that.”
Her timing was not Thai time. She’d showed up just as the huge expat clock boomed out nine times. Hundreds of Chinese broke out into applause and smiles. Nine gongs from Big Ben was supposed to bring good fortune and health. The Chinese audience was large enough for a Hong Kong street demonstration. Close up, Big Ben was ear shattering. The rumor was, the Chinese had amplified the sound. Fireworks burst above the clock. The crowd roared. It was time to have a talk with Metta. If nine were a lucky number, I hoped some of that luck would rub off on both of us.