TAKING CHARGE

Last week Mu did what she could to bulletproof Jack, given his tendency to annoy the wrong people. This week Jack hears from yet someone else he’s just a babe in the woods.

DK Books 2nd ed. Current edition here


Selections from Arno Petty’s Intelligencer and Weekly Gleaner

  • THAT’LL TEACH HER. After all this time the oil-shares chit-fund scandal has resurfaced in the popular media. Mae Chamoy has been sentenced to 143,965 years in prison and fined four billion baht. It is safe to say she has managed somehow to irritate somebody. 


Mu was sitting on the edge of the bed tapping her tooth. 

I loved it, it always did something to me when Mu parted her gorgeous lips and tapped a front tooth with her fingernail in just that way. It never failed to give me a warm little buzz, no matter how much I knew this tapping was generally a prelude to some decision, and never mind I knew that decisions of this magnitude often complicated life in ways I wouldn’t have chosen, had you given me the choice. And here was Mu tapping away, her soft brown eyes as hard as they ever got, and she was staring off into the distance where she generally found her good ideas. 

“You still have money from those stories from Burma in your hiding place,” she said to me, and I couldn’t deny it. “And you get more next week. And you sell your computer. How much money is that?” 

What she had in mind was the kidnappers might ask us for a ransom. If they didn’t, then she said we would have to think about paying somebody to sort things out for us. She didn’t know who yet, but she would find someone. 

Mu had as many cousins as you had problems, and at least one of these cousins always knew someone who knew somebody who could fix you up, whatever what your problem was. So Mu asked a cousin what about this — who were these people who snatched her sister? And this cousin came up with someone who knew somebody who knew some nak laeng, a hard man who fixed things for people as a regular business. Before you knew it, in just a few days, this technician had a line on who took Bia, these unpleasant men who were working for the mysterious person who was trying to tell me something about his negative feelings towards me. 

The fellow with the teeth was known on the street as Fun, meaning “teeth” in Thai, probably on account of all the teeth he had. He was known as a handy fellow to have around when you wanted to cause anybody some grief. He was dependable, competent, and charged the standard rates plus a bit extra, just as a bonus for doing things right. What the consultant couldn’t tell us was who had hired Fun and Co., where these kidnappers were now, or where Bia was either. 

In the meantime, I had never seen Mu like this before. She was at least twice as businesslike as usual, and seemed pretty calm, except one night when she said to me: “This is your fault, Jack. I hate you.” And then again later, after we’d gone to bed, when she turned to hug up against me and cry. “She’s really only a little girl, Jack. What are they going to do to her?” And she cried for a long time; but she didn’t say she hated me any more. 

Maybe it was my fault. I wished I knew who was after me, and why. 

The next morning, she was all business again. “And Jack. You be careful. Don’t you do anything, do you hear me? You don’t know the Thai Way, and you are going to get my sister killed. And you too. You don’t know, okay? You are dek rai saa.”

I was a babe in the woods. 

*

Hip noticed my hand right away. He did not approve of this new tendency to hammer on things with my fist, he wanted me to know. It was a bad policy. 

“What else do I see? Whoa. Nicotine stains on your fingers. This tells me that you haven’t stopped smoking. In fact, it could be you are neck and neck with a Bangkok city bus as a contributor to this rich atmosphere we get to enjoy here in the city. And you are chewing your fingernails. You are too old to be chewing fingernails, Jack. 

“Oh, yeah. I see a lot, just taking a quick gander, here. For one more thing, I see the ring Mu gave you is missing. I am tempted to say you are having domestic problems, except I saw you and Mu only this morning having breakfast at Tip’s, when all seemed as okay as usual. So what is the story?” 

I was impressed with Hip’s talents as a palmist. Also, I hadn’t seen him that morning, so where was he when Mu and I were having breakfast? 

And how could he be everywhere he had to be all at the same time? Sometimes I could see what the girls meant; there was something supernatural about Hip. But what I told him was this: “Mu figures if she is going to pawn her jewelry and furthermore tie up her rolling capital in fronting the money to hire some boys to look after business, then the least I can do is kick in my ring. And my computer, I guess. I’ve still got the old Royal, anyway. 

“And I’ve got my ostrich amulet. I’m beginning to understand exactly how it feels; I want to cover my eyes and not look, my life’s become that interesting lately.” 

Hip took a long look at my amulet, after I slipped the heavy metal chain over my head and held it out to him. He turned serious, and he said this was a good phit taa, a special one, and I should look after it. It would maybe look after me in return. 

“But that’s not enough, Jack.” 

From what he could see, Hip said, I had pissed off everybody from the tape vendor on my soi to the bus driver to half the business community of the country. “Jack, my boy, I would say just about anybody and everybody wants to kick your ass.” 

I hadn’t even told him about Noi, this bargirl I committed a kind of indiscretion with. Only once. Or twice; when I was drunk a bit. Nothing important. Only a minor slip. Or two. Now Noi was giving me the idea she wanted to kick my ass. And Mu would have taken out a contract on me herself, come to that, if she had had any idea. 

Hip told me that however much mojo this amulet had working for it, it wouldn’t be enough to keep me from getting well and truly dead if I didn’t change my ways. “There are two things you’ve got to understand, here. 

“On one hand, you don’t want to criticize people, especially in public. What talking about shit at the dinner table is to Amy Vanderbilt, any kind of confrontation is to a Thai. Criticism is one type of conflict and, as such, it’s bad form. The avoidance of conflict is behind half the stuff that goes down around here, you know what I mean? It explains half of what there is to know about Thai life. Remember this: for a Thai, it’s best to walk away from anything that looks like a confrontation; but if that’s not possible, then whoa. Your average Thai will kill somebody just to avoid a conflict with him. 

“On the other hand, you don’t want to cause somebody to lose face. Loss of face is a lot more than embarrassment. Losing face for a Thai is like losing part of yourself — you shrink in stature. And the best way to make up for a loss of face is to remove the agent of this loss, preferably in a way that tells the world that the account is squared. 

Oops

“It’s like this Mae Chamoy case that is back in the news. What do they finally give this poor lady, just for running her oil-share chit fund, which is after all only a pyramid money scheme? She is sentenced to 143,965 years, which even with time off for good behavior is a long time, and a four-billion baht fine. Sure, she takes 16,200 people for their nest eggs, and supposedly she rips the public for a good deal of money. So what? You get these other dudes, pillars of the community, most of them, and they strip the forests, cover the beaches in shit, force the prices of land up to where your average Joe can’t afford to live, and that’s okay. No, what Mae Chamoy does wrong is she makes the wrong people look like dingbats. That’s the one thing you want to watch around here. You don’t want to make the wrong people look like dingbats. 

“And that’s what you do, I’m coming to think. 

“You can’t go doing things like that, Jack. Not with anybody, to be on the safe side, much less a tape vendor. Do you know how much money is involved in flogging pirate music tapes? Lots. And the boys that run these things, the guys who supply the street vendors, they are not going to sit by and let you interfere with commerce. They’re not going to let anybody interfere.”

“So what do I do now?” 

Hip let me know that he was going to put out an all-points bulletin on his network. Half the bargirls, massage parlor ladies, and drivers in the city would have their ears to the ground. “Don’t worry, Jack. We’ll find her.” 

That was nice to hear, I thought; but why then did Hip look so worried? 

“And Jack — you just lie low, okay? Yo, Arno. You are something of a babe in the woods, I gotta say it. So don’t do anything, okay?” 

“Okay,” I answered him. 

But I wanted to say I was getting tired of everybody telling me what was what and how I was a babe in the woods. It was starting to make me mad, to tell the truth. On the way home I gave a couple of street dogs the eye, sizing them up for field goals, but they sloped off immediately, no doubt knowing all about the Thai Way. So I kicked a mango tree instead, which hurt and which furthermore got me some strange looks from the sweet-corn vendor over by the temple wall. 

Anyway, this wasn’t a situation that called for kicking dogs, I decided. It was time to think about kicking some ass. 

*

“Steve Davis!” 

At first I hardly recognized the joint. The whole room was brightly lit. The busty blonde was hanging straight in her frame, and the tables had been re-covered in tangerine felt. Tangerine already liberally stained with other things. As for the rest, though, there was the same old smell of stale piss and beer and spittoons. The same cast of tattooed types were hanging about the place making me nervous, furthermore, and I still couldn’t get a Kloster beer. 

I never thought I would want to see Tommy and Willie again, after the last time. But under the circumstances it occurred to me they might have their uses. In fact it was exactly such resourceful individuals we were short of at this time. The problem was, the last time I had seen them, they were going like bats out of hell one way down the river and I was going the other. They didn’t stop to leave a forwarding address, as it happened, and I didn’t think I would find them in the telephone book, not even in the Yellow Pages under “Contractors.” There was just one thing to do, I thought; so I did it. 

“Steve Davis!” There was this joyous cry from the back of the room, and a man I recognized as my boat driver from last time was waving a cue at me. In no time, I had a glass of Mekhong cola in my hand, and I was being offered a game of snooker. “Five hundred baht, na? One game, 500 baht, okay?” 

For people about to take on the world champion, they were too enthusiastic for my liking, so I changed the subject. “I’m looking for somebody,” I said.

This didn’t mean I wanted a lady, I had to explain, and it didn’t mean I wanted a big-money game of snooker either. Not at all. “I have a kind of business conflict,” I was trying to say, “this annoying problem in human relations …” when the manager of the snooker room showed up. 

Sawasdi krap. Howdy,” I told him, smiling in my most winning way. “The place looks really nice. Nice tables. Very classy.” 

He spat on the floor, missing the nearest spittoon by a yard or more and clearly not caring if he did. “We have to change our image,” he said to me in passable English, “after you and your friends shoot the place up. Can you imagine that? And cops all around. Think of the money this cost us. You can’t imagine.” 

And speaking of money, the next thing I knew there was a small matter of the outstanding bill for food and drink from my last visit here. It seemed Jean-Paul Somsak had not taken care of things after all, probably distracted by the press of events. As it stood, Somsak was spending some time in a local prison and was on a limited budget, the manager told me, one which did not extend to paying bills of this magnitude. 

What it amounted to, I had to cover the whole tab for that other afternoon, not only the whiskey and the snacks, but also the holes in the door and the ceiling. And we should not forget the matter of the girl in the room upstairs; her customer ran out without paying, so she put in a claim for 200 baht as well. “We’re not even going to talk about the fees I have to lay out to keep our public officials happy,” says the manager. 

Though really he was going to mention them, and he was just starting to spell it out when we were interrupted by an impatient gang of would-be contractors. 

They had figured out what I was after, and it looked as though everybody in the place was ready to do the job, whatever that might be. But I told them I had to talk to my friends Tommy and Willie. Yes, I realized those boys were not standard and sometimes could be dangerous to the health of all and sundry, but friends were friends and what were they for if you didn’t turn to them in times of need? And so on. But no one knew where Tommy and Willie had gotten to. After that interesting afternoon, it seems, they had kept a low profile. 

Maybe it was because he remembered who my friends were, or it could be he was afraid of getting pushed into a tax bracket he couldn’t handle, but the manager decided to waive the official fees and we settled the bill for 2,000 baht even, which was a bargain, as I had to admit, given the price of doors these days. As for the others, half of them wanted to give me their business cards or at least tell me I could find them there at the snooker room any time I had problems that needed ironing out. But none of them had Willie and Tommy’s presence; they just didn’t inspire confidence. 

So there I was — another 2,000 baht down and no closer to a solution to our problems. It was enough to depress you. 

.

Next week ‘Fat-Fat’ Hung Fat invites Jack to a nice dinner.

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