In the previous episode, Jack Shackaway was robbed at gunpoint by a pair of colorful characters. These gentlemen, name of Tommy Two-Toes and Wrong-Way Willie Wong, then bought drinks with the money they took from him till they were all legless.
In the course of events, Tommy and Willie said they had a business deal they wanted to discuss with him, and Jack said he had to go to the toilet. In fact he did have to go to the toilet, but immediately after that he high-tailed it out of there just as fast as he could go.
A BAD TIME TO QUIT SMOKING
Selections from Arno Petty’s Intelligencer and Weekly Gleaner
- HIRE A SPECIALIST. The Land of Smiles has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Most of these killings are crimes of passion involving friends and family. A lot of them, though, are the result of ‘business disputes,’ where for a fee persistently annoying individuals may be removed by gunmen who specialize in such matters. The going rate for a newspaper columnist (a foreign one) is about 15,000 baht, or 10,000 baht for a Thai. Reporters can be done for less. Yo, Izzy Scoop: are you out there and listening?
- HAVE THEY GOT A UNION? In the run-up to the general election, the police department has said it plans to keep tabs on the 1,000 gunmen it has on its books in the Central Region alone. Why, if these people are gunmen, are they only on the police records and not in jail? Is it just for taxation purposes that these records are kept, or what?
Over the next few months, I got to tell the story of Tommy Two-Toes and his partner Wrong-Way Willie any number of times, and I got to enjoy more than a few complimentary beers while doing so, which went some way towards helping me recoup my losses of that day. Eventually, of course, other characters and other stories pushed Tommy and Willie out of the limelight. Next thing I knew, I even forgot I never wanted to go into that part of town again.
I had other things on my mind. Like eating and paying the rent, for example.
Propriapist Publications (New York) still hadn’t mailed me my check for A Dick for Dorothy. How was it they could tell me Arno Petty’s pornographic A-Z series of novels was fast becoming a cult phenomenon back Stateside, hurry up and send the next one, but they wouldn’t even up the ante? All they would say was they might make it an extra grand a book, after we got past “F.” After Flora’s Fauna, God help me.
Meanwhile my friend Hippolyte Lafleur — sometimes known as Izzy Scoop, although that’s a secret — put a word in for me down at the Bangkok Examiner, and I got what you could almost call a serious assignment, even though the money they talked about giving me was not what anybody would call serious money.
And so that was how one day I wound up in a snooker room down by the waterfront at Klong Toey, this snooker room being what you might call a colorful place. I was thinking it was too bad I didn’t have a camera with me, and then again I was also thinking it was not too bad. The joint was harboring a number of your classic shady characters, and it was a safe bet these low-lifes were no assembly of male models, unless, that is, you were thinking of modeling brass knuckles.
Chances were pretty good, in fact, these boys were not in the mood to have their picture taken by me or by anybody else either. And it was not as though I could sneak a quick shot or two on the sly — I was the one Westerner in the place and this fact was not going entirely unnoticed. The only way I would stick out more like a sore thumb, I thought, was if I had my nose painted for example bright blue or else I waved a camera around.
I was there because I wanted to talk to some gunmen. It was not that I sought their professional services. Not at all. I was a peace-loving citizen, and there was nobody I wanted dead at the moment except for maybe one newspaper editor, now that I thought about it. Maybe a couple more editors too, why not? But no, I was merely writing a story about gunmen. Only I knew very little about gunmen other than that bumping people was a real growth industry in some parts of Thailand, with assassins getting thick as flies, and with not enough police they had to watch the even-numbered gunmen on some days and the odd-numbered ones on other days. And no matter how much these boys looked after business, there always seemed to be more business conflicts and suchlike that needed resolving, and more people who would pay good money to establish their own peace of mind.
So I had to get some background, and I had an appointment to see a couple of individuals I was told were adept at ridding the scene of bothersome folk. For a suitable fee, they did this, and sometimes only for practice. I was supposed to show up alone and sit with a Singha beer and a Bangkok Examiner and wait till somebody came to tell me what was what. And that was what I was doing.
This snooker parlor was the place to talk to gunmen if you wanted to talk to gunmen, or so I had heard, and looking around me I had to think I was not being misled. Just about anybody I saw could have been a gunman. But I told myself to relax. These were merely a few citizens having a quiet game of snooker. That’s right. The real desperadoes were the guys I had arranged to meet and whom even then I sat waiting for. This thought made me drink my glass of beer down and pour another one.
I don’t really care for Singha beer, to tell the truth, but you didn’t get Kloster in this class of establishment. Even if they did have it nobody would drink it, drinking Kloster beer being considered effete and foolhardy besides, since anybody who could pay extra just to be seen sitting around drinking a premium beer with a fancy foreign name deserved to have what was left of his money appropriated by people who specialized in appropriating other people’s money and then redistributed to the truly needy, let us say, for example, the salt of the earth who by preference drank Singha beer.
No, these boys drank Singha, and I was drinking Singha. I could also smell Mekhong whiskey, which was likewise de rigueur in these circles, and cheaper than beer besides. Three tables down from where I sat there were a pair of bullyboys and they were putting back the Mekhong sodas and shooting fast, hard snooker like they knew what they were doing. Both were stripped to the waist, and they were covered with blue tattoos — lizards and dragons on their arms and magical Khmer script all over their backs. It was not only on aesthetic grounds they were thus decorated, by no means: these tattoos were meant to ward off everything from bad luck and bullets to the common cold. These two specimens were also wearing a couple of chunky amulets on chains around their necks. Looking at all this, you had to get the idea their world was a dangerous place and, seeing the various scars that also decorated their persons, you might have thought they could use one or two more amulets and maybe a Khmer postscript just there on the lower back where there was room if you wrote small.
Half the guys weren’t wearing shirts, and the other half had their T-shirts rolled up to let the sweat evaporate off their bellies. You could believe you were looking at boxers, dockworkers, lads who could tote hundred-kilo sacks of rice up those ramps in the godowns along the river ten hours a day with half an hour for lunch and no double time on Sundays.
I was sorry I had quit smoking, because it’s almost impossible to hang around a snooker room successfully without a cigarette. I was concentrating on being invisible, though of course not so invisible my contact might miss me. Despite this, I was the object of any number of looks from the denizens of this joint, not to mention some comments in Thai that I did not quite get. One word was coming up more than once, however, and that word was farang. Farang means “Westerner,” which is not the worst thing you can call a person, though there are different ways of saying this word. Some ways seem to mean “Westerner-who-is-a-welcome-guest-in-this-place-which-is-our-turf,” while other ways have the flavor of “Westerner-who-bears-much-resemblance-to-a-dog-turd.” Even if I allowed for some paranoia on my part, I had to think the farangs I was hearing smacked more than somewhat of the latter model.
With hard men in Thailand, it is not generally recommended you look them in the eye too long unless, of course, you wish to communicate the idea you are made of sterner stuff than they are. And unless you have some experience in fighting with fists, knees and feet, not to mention all manner of objects both blunt and sharp, it is unwise to communicate this idea. So as to avoid sending this message, then, I was not looking at anybody’s eyes. I was looking instead at a big painting that was hanging in the shadows, gracing the otherwise bare wooden planks of the wall opposite. An oil painting on black velvet of a bare-busted blonde lady, it was hanging fairly radically askew, and I was wondering why they hung the picture in this way. It could be they thought it added to the homey ambience, along with the crusty spittoons and the smell of stale piss and beer and sweat. While I was so musing, a dark spot on the wall above the painting suddenly moved. It twitched and crawled along the top of the picture-frame, and the picture tilted some more. It was a fact, I told myself not for the first time — Singha beer had mind-bending qualities beyond those attributable only to alcohol, and I would never drink it again unless, of course, there was no Kloster beer at hand. Then I saw that the dark spot above the picture was no dark spot at all. It was instead a large rat with glittering eyes, a large black rat that abruptly dropped to the floor, leaving the lady with the big bust rocking in her frame.
I felt a chill, no matter this was Bangkok and as usual hotter than the hubs of hell, the lazy big ceiling fans doing little to alleviate the situation.
Then I felt another chill, and this one made the first chill seem balmy by comparison. There was a guy looking at me, and there was no looking away from those eyes. What I was getting was the Look, and it was none other than Tommy Two-Toes himself who was giving it to me. There he stood, tottering away on his bad feet. Then he moved closer, and he lurched along like he was on strings, his puppeteer no doubt keeping him just off the ground so Tommy’s feet didn’t hurt too bad and he wouldn’t get pissed off and give him the Look.
You ask if I am the type who has chills at the drop of a hat. I assure you that I am not. A slight frisson at the drop of a rat, perhaps, as I have already admitted, but other than that I am normally as cool as a cucumber, or possibly cooler. What I was getting in the way of the Look from Tommy, however, would have made a mountain gorilla blanch and leave the room.
If you could harness the Look, it would make just the thing for riot control.
I was trying to find a smile, and I started to say “Hi, Tommy” when there was a sudden diversion. The two tattooed types with the Mekhong sodas had agreed to disagree about something. One of them slammed his cue down hard on the table, and they stared each other right in the eyes which, as I have already said, is inappropriate behavior for anybody trying to win friends and influence people in these circles. I couldn’t understand exactly what they were saying, but one guy was obviously suggesting something along the lines of “Egad, sir. You displease me more than somewhat!” and the other gentleman probably answered him with “I give not a fig for your displeasure, my good man; and I give even less for the services of your sister who, as it is commonly known, cheats at cards and smells of fish besides.” Or words to that effect. Before you knew it, of course, they had called each other hia, giant lizards, and there was no turning back.
They immediately moved on to various tests of each other’s magical defense system, and set about trying to add to each other’s collection of scars. The ritual proceeded with the kicking off of the flip-flops, followed by spirited attempts to kick each other’s heads off. The rest of the assembly backed off to a prudent distance, and I saw some of them were busy making bets on the outcome of the contest.
Just as they started to wave snooker cues around as well, and it looked as though some damage might finally get done after all, Tommy stepped in. He flung a brass cuspidor gonging up hard against the wall, and everybody froze. They looked at the splash of mess on the wall and at the cuspidor, which had come to rest on the floor between the men. Then the fighters looked at Tommy, and there was black death in their eyes.
Tommy tottered on his mutilated feet, bracing himself against a table, and then he unleashed the Look. Death going eyeball-to-eyeball with the Look was no contest. The two rowdies started blinking nervously and backed away, all animosity forgotten. They put the cues down carefully on a table and they gave everybody sickly grins before they left.
I was also making my way along the wall towards the door, thinking I had had enough local color for one day and possibly I liked travel writing better anyway, when Tommy refocused on me and said, “Sawasdi, farang.” Howdy, farang was no doubt better than many things he could have said to me, and this version of farang seemed to be mainly a warm and welcoming one.
He came over and said like this in Thai: “Where have you been all this time, long time no see. Hey! Are you the farang writer who wants to talk to somebody upstairs? Imagine that. Isn’t it a small world?”
I think that was what he said, anyway; I found it hard to understand his Thai. In any case, it seemed we were old buddies, and why didn’t we shoot some snooker while we waited to see our man; it wasn’t time yet.
Tommy couldn’t stand on tiptoe to rack the balls, not having enough toes to stand tiptoe on, so he had to lie flat on the edge of the table, legs straight out behind. While he was racking up the balls I asked him, “Where’s Willie?”
This got me a funny look, and he said, kind of quiet like, “Willie who?”
“You know — your old partner, Wrong-Way Willie Wong.” I spelled it out for him.
Tommy ran the rack back and forth on the table making some noise with the balls, and he said, “Never heard of him.” Then, in a quiet voice he added “Kowchai (you know what I mean)?” He got down off the table and gave me a look that wasn’t the Look, but which was nevertheless a warning the Look would not be far behind if I didn’t get smart and forget about anybody named Willie real quick. Which I did, but I couldn’t help but wonder why I had to do this thing. Maybe Tommy and Willie had had some sort of falling out.
The other boys in this snooker parlor warmed right up to me, once it was clear I had business there and somebody knew me and all. You didn’t get that many foreigners down in this part of town, I guessed, and I was something of a celebrity. Already I was getting called Steve Davis. After all, Steve Davis was a foreigner and I was a foreigner, and this was a snooker room and Steve Davis was the world-champion snooker player; therefore I was Steve Davis. This much seemed reasonable enough. The local lads had great respect and admiration for this noted practitioner of the snooker’s art; possibly Sylvester Stallone and Jackie Chan enjoyed better press as foreigners in Thailand, but that was about it. Actually, I was thinking it was too bad I did not resemble Steve Davis a bit more, as this would probably have increased the value of my stock around the place no end. Unfortunately, I was at least twice as robust and only one-fiftieth as knowledgeable about which end of the snooker cue was which, and not even his most distant cousin could have really mistaken me for Steve Davis.
Anyway, everybody crowded around and wanted to know how long I was going to be in Thailand and how come I could speak Thai? It did no good to tell them I spoke Thai just as well as I played snooker because, after all, I was Steve Davis. They also wanted to know if I could eat hot food, and did I like Thai girls? I know they asked these questions to show they liked me; it didn’t matter that every Thai I ever met asked me the same things. So for a change I told them yes, I ate Thai food and I liked hot girls. This joke, I had to think, did not translate into Thai because nobody laughed. But maybe they didn’t understand my Thai in the first place.
Tommy made a few shots, and then I scratched, jumping the cue-ball right off the table. The guy who retrieved it for me congratulated me on a very amusing shot and smiled to let me know he knew I was only hustling. Tommy made a few more shots and I scratched again. Tommy pretty soon got pissed off. It was hard to make a shot even if you did know how to shoot, what with all these fans hanging around, and he told me it was time to go upstairs. My groupies gave me a rousing send-off, telling me I was always welcome, let us have a friendly game next time. They were glad I liked Thai girls. When I looked at their faces, I could see they thought that was where I was going now, to meet some nice Thai girl. It was that kind of place, I guessed.
There was a door in the back of the room, in behind the beer counter, and we walked through a shed into the open air, where we went along a wooden boardwalk across some wet ground into the next building. A nervous individual with one clouded eye and an enormous goiter popped up as we came in, but he relaxed as soon as he saw Tommy. They exchanged a few words I didn’t catch, and Tommy and I continued along to a dimly-lit staircase. On the second landing, sitting on a chair outside a door, there was a big, handy-looking dude dressed in a sarong. The door was clearly built to resist shock and it had a sliding peep-hole.
The guy got up and banged three times on the door. Somebody appeared at the peephole, and then I heard a drop-bar being lifted and the door opened. Tommy went in first and I followed. We found ourselves in a plain room — unpainted wooden walls, a few mismatched chairs and a card table, and a dirty mattress on the floor with a TV and video machine at one end. There was another door opposite, but it was closed. A Mekhong girlie calendar hung on one wall; the calendar was for July two years earlier. Probably because the girl that month was such a knockout.
There were two men in the room. A scrawny lad of twenty years or so, with blue-tattooed arms sticking out of a tank-top that read ZOOM, BANG, BANANAS was perched on a chair up against the wall under Miss July, a wooden match between his teeth and a pair of shades hiding his eyes. A long-barreled pump-action shotgun stood against the wall beside him, and a bandoleer of 12-gauge shells was slung diagonally across his chest. His chest was only eight or nine shells wide. I thought maybe he was doing his Rambo imitation, though he needed a good fifty pounds of meat on him if he really wanted to look like Sylvester Stallone. Was this one of my gunman? I asked myself. I hoped not. But he moved that matchstick back and forth between his teeth like a real pro. And his eyes might have been deadly, behind those shades, who could tell?
Tommy ignored him. He talked to the other guy, a pasty-faced party with wall-eyes and a slavish manner. He looked something like an Asian Jean-Paul Sartre as a young man. But Tommy called him Somsak. He told him to go downstairs and get a ben of Mekhong whiskey, a half-bottle, and bring some soda and ice. Also he wanted some food — he said bring us yam tua thot, some deep-fried peanuts with chopped fresh chilies and spring onions, and moo yahng, that nice barbecued pork with hot sauce.
“You like Mekhong?” Tommy asked me, even though Jean-Paul Somsak had gone already and it was too late to order anything else. So I said sure, what the hell.
I sat down and put my pocket tape-recorder on the table.
“What’s that?” said Tommy, and Rambo pushed his chair away from the wall and came down with a bang to sit forward, motionless, eyes intent on my little Hitachi.
“It’s my tape-recorder.”
This was going to make life unnecessarily difficult. It was going to be hard to use my notebook while I ate and drank and tried to make sure nobody shot me all at the same time.
I shrugged and started to put it away, but Rambo indicated he wanted to see the machine.
So there we sat. Tommy was silent; he just looked at me. His face was alert, but he didn’t appear to expect anything — he was merely sitting and looking. I wondered what I was supposed to do. Rambo was playing with my recorder, back on his chair against the wall, busily chewing his matchstick. Who was it I was supposed to interview, then? Maybe it was Tommy. But how was I going to interview him in Thai? Here in Thailand I sometimes got sent to the toilet when I was only trying to order pork sausage.
Rambo was singing Carabao’s nice song “Welcome to Thailand” between his teeth into the mike — in the process, I guessed, erasing the interview with the high-ranking police officer I had managed to get only after long negotiation. Then there were three bangs on the door, and Somsak arrived with the drinks. I decided a little Mekhong was a good thing after all.
And just at that moment the other door opened.
Next week we renew our acquaintance with Wrong-Way Willie Wong, plus we learn all about Fast Vanich. At the same time we get to see how difficult things can get for struggling young risk management-dispute resolution consultants, and we learn about the Thai expression “to kick the dog.”
2 thoughts on “BAD TIME TO QUIT SMOKING”
Wonderful craftsmanship in every sentence, every phrase of every sentence.
Hey. Are you channelling my dear, departed mother, or what? Many thanks, in any case. 🙂