A Bewitching Smile

Second in the Land of Smiles Trilogy


ISBN 974-85787-0-4
Trade paperback 5" - 7 3/4"
2000, 292 pages

 

 

 

 

 

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Excerpt

Chapter 2

As the train pulled out of the station, they sat on benches opposite from one another. She was still rattled, and leaning forward in the second-class sleeper, Suda gave Breach a small slap on the wrist, smiled, and sat back. Her eyes Bashed a look that women often give: Men, God, they take you to the edge every time. You wait and wait. Maybe they show up, maybe they won't. You can never be certain.

The air conditioner blew a steady hiss of cold mist out of wall vents as young porters glided back and forth along the narrow corridors, carrying trays of orange juice, water, watermelon, bananas, and evening meals such as curried shrimp and beef and pork, together with rice or noodles. The ultimate question in Breach's mind on that first night lacked a context for framing, no chance of being asked: would they make love. The law of train car physics decided the answer in a powerfully silent way. Suda occupied the upper berth and Breach bunked below in a coffin-shaped enclosure screened off from the corridor by a curtain. Suda sat crossed-legged below a small light and read a pirated Jeffrey Archer mystery that had been translated into Thai. She had brought three books on the trip. Breach was restless in the lower berth; he stared at the ceiling, running the possibilities of what Suda might be doing or thinking, and what her state of dress or undress might be at that moment. She had small rigid mounts for breasts, he thought. The breasts of a child.

He had agreed to make the trip for several reasons. After the motorcycle incident, he felt Asanee might have a point. And also Suda held out the possibility of being that rare, if not entirely original kind of woman, one who lived inside her own culture as an outsider; but an extraordinary kind of outsider who did not fit within the usual categories: whore, drug addict, lunatic, emotional cripple, or gangster. From country to country, the women Breach had talked with, slept with, walked, ran, and drank with in shops, small hotels, train stations, or restaurants along the road fell into one of those categories; living on the outside of a household, the family, the society was not a choice most women contemplated as desirable. It was an alternative thrust upon, a status which seized them without much choice by lethal combination of defective genes, crazy parents, and daytime TV. Suda challenged Breach's theory. He liked that; he wanted to be proved wrong. He had made a side bet with himself somewhere along the line that with Suda an edge would be reached and Suda would be snared like all of the, other women he knew. Finally, he swung his legs over the side, climbed up the chrome ladder, and stuck his head into her berth. She had reached page 29 of the Archer novel.

"Someone woke me up at the stage. I thought it might have been you. Someone put a hand here. On my shoulder.' When I was in the middle of a dream. That's why I was late."

"Mai bpen rai-never mind."

"A Jeffery Archer comic book," Breach said.

"You like him?"

"I not know him."

"You don't really know me," said Breach.

"I not read your book."

Breach liked that answer. "Cannot," he said, tapping his' forehead. "It's in my private library."

"Maybe it is boring. How do I know?" Suda smiled and stuck a book marker inside the paperback and closed it.

"You don't," grinned Breach. "Indians were once afraid if you took their photograph, you would steal their soul. But you steal a man's soul by taking his words and making them' your own. So I only let a few out at a time, and when I speak, so that I can call all my words home, I keep the listener occupied."

Breach took a five-baht coin from his pocket, showed it to Suda in the palm of his hand, dosed his hand, clapped his hands together, slowly opening both to reveal the coin was gone. Suda stared from hand to hand, then looked up *at Breach, who grinned. He reached forward and brushed against her right ear. He opened his hand and showed her the coin.

"How did you do that?" Suda said.

"Magic," he whispered, wide-eyed. "So no one can steal my soul."

As they said good-night, Breach left the five-baht coin on top of the Archer paperback; there was a slight moment of awkwardness. Partially because Breach wasn't fluent in Thai; partially because they were strangers; partially because magic caused contemplation; but mainly because everything important was left unsaid or discovered between them.

Breach dreamt one of his favorite recurring dreams at three in the morning. A skinny ten-year-old with a dirty face and torn dress was holding up a bunch of flowers. A gust of wind blew the leaves. People walked, pressing against the storm, passed her without looking. Her lower lip quivered, making her face look rubbery. Tears filled her eyes. A man in a double-breasted gray suit, touched by the display of tears, stopped and bought the flowers. As he pulled out his wallet, a man with white hair in a soiled, baggy blue suit Jumped out from behind a door and stood before the flower girl.

"Hallelujah!" he shouted several times, holding up a Bible bound in white calf leather. The startled customer backed away.

The little girl fell to her knees and wrapped her thin arms around his leg. "Don't go, mister. He's me dad. He only wants you to look at his Bible. You don't have to buy unless You want to."

Whenever Breach had this dream, he was interrupted before the customer, looking down at the tiny flower girl, made his decision to stay or leave. Sleeping on the train, it happened again. A hand clutched Breach's shoulder and shook him. His eyes popped wide open and in the darkness of the narrow sleeper, Breach made out the form of a man.

"I was feeling slightly guilty," said Crosby.

"So it was you at the train station." Breach flicked on the night light near the window.

Crosby nodded and shifted his weight forward, half turning and sitting on the edge of Breach's bed. "You were sound asleep. Snoring. Disturbing the peace actually. Ten minutes more and you'd have missed the train. You would've slept straight through a perfect payday."

'Go away, Crosby. I was dreaming about my mother."

"Incest dreams on a train? I thought only the French had those kind of dreams.

"She and my grandfather were running a con on Fleet Street-right behind the Law Courts. That was back in the 30's. Their flowers and Bibles con."

"Your mother was a childhood criminal?" asked Crosby. He was impressed. In most of life the man was always less than the legend; in Breach's case, the myth and legend had not overtaken the full story locked inside the man.

"What are you doing here, Crosby?

Crosby opened a brown bag and produced a plate, napkins, silverware, two glasses and a small bottle of claret. He handed the claret to Breach, who examined the label under the dim light.

"Nineteen-sixty-three. A rather disappointing year."

"This is Thailand and not Oxford, Richard," said Crosby, as he took back the claret and opened it.

"Where's Ross?" asked Breach.

Crosby poured a glass of claret and handed it to Breach. "How do you know Ross Is here?"

"Because of the pate'."

Crosby looked puzzled.

"The pate' and claret are from the first-class car; and you never travel first-class unless get someone else to pay."

"Ross passed out in his berth two hours ago."

Why didn't you tell me before?" asked Breach, raising himself up on his elbows.

"When you buggered off from my school did you tell me?"

Breach chewed a piece of French bread and pate', thinking for a moment. "That was an emergency. Headmaster's daughter, the headmaster, and the police not far behind them."

"Ross's afraid you'll change your mind."

Breach sipped the claret and made a face. "He passed out on this?"

"On Old Grand-Dad."

"On his grandfather?"

"Old Grand-Dad is a cheap whiskey."

"How did you make out with Suda," whispered Crosby, arching his eyes toward the ceiling.

"She likes comic books and magic."

"I figured you'd have a lot in common," said Crosby, before vanishing a moment later.

Monday morning, a barefoot train porter, with a flutter and rattle of cloth and metal, pulled back the curtain of Breach's berth at 6:00 a.m. An empty bottle of claret tolled off the bed, hit the floor without breaking, and careened down narrow corridor, shattering against a luggage rack. Breach blinked at the porter and rubbed his eyes. It was first light outside. He looked at his wristwatch. Then he lay back on the bed, closed his eyes, and thought about the flower girl pedaling bunches of wilted red roses to barristers and clerks and solicitors all those years ago in London. Forty-five minutes later the train pulled into Chiang Mai station.

Outside the station, Suda bargained with two young samlor drivers. The Riverside Guest House was about two kilometers from the station. They eyed the size of Breach in settling on the fare. The drivers flipped a coin for Breach. Then they set off in separate samlors. Suda's driver, his leg muscles knotted, the surface rippled with thick coils of veins, set off. Breach's driver followed behind, cursing his early morning bad luck on a flip of the one-baht coin. He pedaled through the busy streets, waving at motorcyclists, tuk-tuk drivers, cars, and buses to give way as he moved across lanes. Breach, once or twice, looked behind, trying to make out faces inside taxis and samfors. But he saw no sign of either Crosby or Ross. So this would be the tone of the journey, thought Breach. Suda somewhere ahead, alone, leaning forward, and shouting directions, suggestions, and orders. While he looked over his shoulder wondering at what odd hour of the day or night another mediocre bottle of claret might appear.

From Bangkok, Suda booked the guest house off a narrow sub-soi with large, green grounds that sloped down to the muddy banks of the Ping River. Modern rooms and plumbing, freshly mowed lawns with beach chairs, a restaurant beside the river, and three or four dogs that pranced around the grass, driveway, and nuzzled guests as they strolled past the main desk.

Another unasked question between Suda and Breach was answered at the check-in desk. Suda booked separate rooms on different floors. The simple act of filling out the form cleaned the air. Separate train berths, samlors, and hotel rooms. This woman was more than able to communicate her intentions. Breach thought about asking her about Crosby and Ross. Had she known they were on the train? But he sensed his timing was wrong. He hated early morning explanations, suspicions, and lies. He felt Crosby and Ross would force Suda into one of those predictable categories.

Above all, Breach sensed the truth was some distance away, and it would find him, as it always had.

He shifted through the possibilities that could be excluded: midnight shifting around rooms, romance and promises, and preoccupations and disillusionment. Sex had not been his reason for the trip, he reminded himself. Staying out of the path of Asanee's colonel had been one reason. He might not have gone if Suda had not held out the promise of something he wanted. She had showed him some rare, fine ancient artifacts from hilltribe shamans; she knew shamans living in the old way in remote northern villages. He told himself he had signed on for the trip because he wanted a set of ritual knives. An old mentor and friend, Thomas Pierce, had requested the ancient shaman knives-not for fighting, for cutting food, or for self-protection. The shaman knives had a different, wholly mystical purpose: slaughter at a fixed time and location, to discard a life to catch the attention of the gods beyond a horizon which no one could enter. An urgent request had come through Pierce's wife in Oxford. The ritual killing knives spooked Suda. When she spoke of them, Breach could see the fear in her eyes. They evoked ghosts, for good or evil, they sliced a wound, opening a seam for those in one world to see and speak with those in another.

Suda had not slept well on the train. She tossed and turned in her berth. The noise and motion, and a mind that she would not shut down. The tracks curved, the car Pitched, and she felt her heart beating in the dark. She heard voices; smelled food and wine. She had dreamed of ritual knives, ritual slaughter, and bodies that fled away into darkness with the loud clack of wings, hairy limbs, and a bright-red plumage. She opened her eyes in the morning soaked in sweat.

Her father had nicknamed her Suda: his inspiration came from a Thai medicine for fever. As far as she knew, she was the only girl with that nickname in Thailand.

"It could've been worse," Breach said. "You could've ended up as penicillin."

Suda shrugged. "Or aspirin," she said.

"I never met anyone named after a drug before."

"My father like very much. Also its the name of a flower."

If women were thought of as a commodity, it was an easy extension to name them after a product, drug, or flower thought Breach. He kept his thoughts to himself. There was an invisible hard edge where humor ended and criticism began; one was the surface, the other the core below the surface; and, in Thailand, the culture placed a barrier beyond the surface. Even with someone like Suda who from an early age had been a "rebel"-a word she found in her Thai-English dictionary.

From age seven she sold water and juice in plastic bags at the train station. She was one of travelling band of young faces racing along the train platform, tugging at passengers' sleeves, eyes large and clear, and begging in the way only a child can evoke sympathy. At age thirteen, a turning point in her life occurred. There had been a family crisis. Her aunt, her father's sister, had a baby who had become very ill. Suda was sent to her aunt's house in another town. A few weeks later the aunt's baby died. When Suda asked her father to return home, he looked at her long and hard: "Why don't you like my sister? You want me to lose face." The message was clear. "You are disposable like toothpaste. I can always buy another tube. My sister needs you to brush her soul. clean. So you stay as long as she wants. What you want does not matter and cannot matter."

Suda lived at her aunt's house through her teens, picking up her love of antiques, and finally leaving to attend university. She never recovered from the loss of her family, that her own father had refused to allow her back into the sanctuary of childhood. She had lost something in the fashion that women often lose in their relations with men, beginning with their fathers and continuing on the back of bedroom promises. Her exile was the first sign of what waited in the shadows, thought Breach. She hovered at street level leaning against a fast-moving storm like the little flower girl in his dreams.

Breach's mother had doubled up her bet by marrying his father, who was reputed to be the best card player in postwar England. The war had killed off his competition, his mother had joked. For better or worse, his father had failed in the grand style. The old man had gambled and lost the house the furniture, wife and children, and his marriage. His mother cut her losses and left him. The loss did not break her; she was strong, ambitious, and calculated that she would find better odds at another table. She had been the same age as Suda, twenty-seven, when she made the break. And like Suda, his mother threw herself into her work which had been to find a new husband. Suda simply threw herself into her work as if it were her husband. She consumed silver with a sexual fervor, touching the bracelets, necklaces, stroking the long, silver chains, rubbing the hairpins until her finger pads knew only the sensuality of metal.

Suda had perfected a silent-movie walk; a scuttling movement that threw her carriage from side to side. She was schoolgirl-slim-the body of a teenager-a Thai Peter Pan who had refused to ever grow up. Her face bore the features of a teenage Mao and Burmese Buddha. She had Mao's little facial mole and round face, and the Buddha's oval-shaped eyes. Crosby had called her "an ancient girl" which had said more about Crosby than Suda. It had been difficult to image that Crosby had ever been a young child.

As they checked into the guest house, for the first time, Breach thought Suda's face and body possessed the perfect combination for her work. She moved unnoticed in dangerous places. She rolled across the landscape like a shadow belonging nowhere. She was like a Trojan horse waiting to be pulled inside the gates. He followed behind her, carrying his case, up the flight of staffs to their rooms. As she stopped to unlock her door, she looked at him, smiled, and quickly disappeared inside. He had a strange feeling that she was like a long fishing line towed by someone manning a boat in the distance; with pilots like Ross and Crosby in constant radio control. Ross and Crosby were like Breach's grandfather in the old days in London, lurking in the shallow waters for the big fish, half hidden in the shadows with a fistful of Bibles as bait.

 

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