A Killing Smile

First in the Land of Smiles Trilogy


ISBN 974-92335-7-3
Trade paperback 6" - 9 1/4"
2004, 270 pages

 

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Excerpt

Chapter 5

George Snow danced over to the booth, his weathered face stretched tightly over his skull the shape of a light bulb. Snow was stoned and grinding his teeth in a twisted smile at a couple of HQ regulars blocking his path. A few sweating matted strands of chest hair sticking out of his Hawaiian shirt. Snow always wore the same uniform: an untucked Hawaiian shirt, jeans, and white tennis shoes. His thick glasses made his eyes appear two times larger than life. Snow's short-cropped hair thinned at the temples, and the ragged edge of a cheap haircut curved around the base of the neck. He always looked in need of a shave. Sweat dripped from his chin and nose, and he was constantly wiping his face with tissues that he balled up and tossed on the floor. He loved Bangkok, the Beach Boys, and California. And he hated lawyers.

"Tuttle, hey, man. I gave one of our old-time favorites, good ole Lek, two-baht for a golden oldie Jukebox number?... number 215... Man, you won't believe what this guy knows! He's the only man in the universe who remembers the number of every song on the HQ jukebox."

"I'm impressed," said Lawrence, smiling at Tuttle.

"He's not wasted twenty years." He turned to Tuttle, reaching over and scooping up a hand of French fries. "When you die they're gonna put a bronze plaque with your name on it over the jukebox. It's gonna say Tuttle knew every song and face by heart. Number 215. 'Like a Virgin'. That ought to be the theme song on Friday nights at HQ. They should use some imagination. Come up with themes. A little inspiration. Something that draws in a better kind of crowd. And most of all, it gives you something to look forward to. If you can't be a virgin, be like a virgin. There's the theme for the '90s. There's always another way, man. There's always another way in Thailand."

"I've been in Bangkok three days. And the advice I'm getting is all over the place," said Lawrence. Tuttle's eyes narrowed slightly, a grin appeared on his face, Lawrence was learning faster than he thought possible.

"Forget everything Tuttle's told you. just listen to this plan; you follow it, and your life will be filled with women and the good life. Scout out a remote, a to-hell-and-gone Lahu village. Man, you gotta travel light. Tuttle here is the expert on packing the small bag and finding a girl to carry it. Put everything in a light shoulder bag. Staging is important. The most important thing in any fucking production. That and light and costume. What do you put inside the bag? All you pack are half a dozen magic tricks. You phone a specialty magic shop in Manhattan. It'd cost you fifteen bucks for ten minutes. Give them your American Express number and just fucking order and order. Make certain they courier the stuff or you'll be waiting around HQ for years like Tuttle here trying to get your shit together and break away."

Tuttle raised his head and Snow stopped talking for a second. "Ask him what goes on the shopping list," said Tuttle, giving Lawrence a wink as a nineteen-year-old who spoke no more than a dozen words of English climbed on his lap and kissed him on each eyebrow.

"The shopping list? Okay, first buy that illusion of fire that leaps from the palm of the hand. It blows people away. They can't explain it; they can't fucking believe it. Fire jets. A crowd forms in seconds. Next go for the illusion called " Hot Lava"; mutant lava spits straight from your fingertips. And to keep your act in high gear, throw in a few multicolored scarves, some ropes that you cut into pieces and then with a move of your hand the rope is one piece again. And the clincher act is great, man. You swallow handful of needles and about three feet of white thread. Then you slowly pull the thread out. Each needle is lined up like clothes pegs on the thread. Five minutes later you're crowned as Lahu Godman. Your audience becomes your subjects. They only want to please you. There's no future in pissing off a god.

"You won't be the first Lahu Godman to come down the pike. The Lahu got a fucked-up history of Messianic movements. Like clockwork every twenty-five years some wando stumbles into one of their villages, claims the title, leads them to revolt, and gets a large number of them massacred. The Lahu are overdue. It's been more than twenty-five years, man. Show one or two of the illusions–magicians never call them tricks-to the headman of the village, and you're in business as Lahu Godman XIV."

Droplets of sweat rolled off Snow's upper lip as he spoke. He drank two Klosters, and ordered a third as he laid out the Lahu Godman plan for Lawrence. Tuttle had heard Snow's struggle with reality before. He was content to let Snow carry on uninterrupted. Lawrence had showed some interest in Snow’s planned compact with the devil. That intrigued Tuttle; this spore of interest in a mechanical device used for deceit. He tried to imagine Lawrence dressed up in hilltribe shaman clothing, and the troubled, awe-struck faces of the villagers as he pulled threaded needles out of his throat.

"Why haven't you applied for the job?" Lawrence asked.

"Why hasn't Tuttle?"

It was one of those questions that carried the merchandise of their mutual past. At college Tuttle had led an exclusive group of students. He had the kind of power that people would have gladly relinquished their possessions or money to join his band, if he had asked that of them. Even after he had gone, his ghostly influence had remained; an underground voice that could never be ignored or dismissed. Tuttle had become a hard-core, another two-bit high-density a Lahu Godman, Lawrence thought. Tuttle had forfeited his claim to the myth of a man who had fled civilization to find spiritual communion deep into the jungles of Southeast Asia. But when fully understood, Lawrence was convinced, Tuttle had not become some primordial explorer but another of countless farangs who had been stranded on the slime mould of Zeno's.

"Every night Tuttle auditions for the Lahu Godman role. Does he get a call back? No way, Jose. He pays his purple COD like the rest of us. He's not a student of the visuals. Tuttle would only get hurt. The Lahu would take him apart like an edible berry."

"Why not stay here? There's no shortage of women," said Lawrence.

Snow glanced at Tuttle and smiled. "You ain't told him, man?" asked Snow. Tuttle shook his head as the girl on his lap massaged his neck.

"Told me what?" asked Lawrence, looking back and forth between Snow and Tuttle.

"You share this ant colony with every anteater in the world, man. We're talking about well-used girls who have been fondled, fingered, licked, and sucked by legions of the unwashed rejects from New York to Berlin. Get real lucky and you might find a ringer. And you know what? Every resident shows up looking for the same invisible, supernatural girl who descends from the heavens above the jukebox. She walks over to your booth, hooks her finger, and says follow me. But she ain't never coming; she don't exist, and that's why we have to invent her. Pray for her coming one night. Meanwhile, you end up with another girl who Gunter or Wolfgang has pawed and gnawed the night before."

"Magic," said Tuttle, brushing the hair away from the girl's face on his lap. "That's what you were saying, Snow."

"That's it. Magic. Take the bus north of Chiang Mai. Stop at any shithole village. Climb off in the middle of nowhere and hike up a mountain. Find a hill tribe with a tradition of Godmen. Then audition for the role. You show them a lava flow, and straightaway you get a long term contract. Next, you settle into the village. Close it off to those fucking trekkers. Man, no fucking trekkers, yuppie lawyers and accountants ever get in. To make your point, leak a little lava; throw a jet of fire out of the palm of your hand. You got their attention now. So you roll with it. Second order of the day-and this is why you've called New York City at great expense, paid for a courier to get the illusions delivered-is the numero uno. You call the headmen of the village, sit them down in a circle. Smoke a few pipes of opium to mellow them out. Then you lay the trip on them."

Snow paused, licking his thin, dry lips; his eyes looking blurred beneath the thick glasses. He unwrapped a piece of hard-rock candy and popped it into his mouth and made loud sucking sounds.

"And lay what on them?" asked Lawrence.

"Lahu Godman wants virgins," said Snow with a sense of satisfaction. He crinkled his nose as he continued to suck the candy. He unwrapped a second piece of candy and dropped it into the open mouth of the young girl sitting on Tuttle's lap. "That's the first phrase you learn in Lahu. It's the first phrase out of the mouth of any self-respecting Lahu Godman. Round up all the virgins, man. You make one of the head guys your major domo. His job is to deliver virgins. You let him know this is a full-time job. He's on call twenty-four hours a day. And if he fucks up, man, there's a massive price to pay. Lahu Godman's got no fucking sense of humor about virgins. Every night and every morning, like clockwork, you get a virgin in a white silk gown carried on a chair and put down in your room. Sooner or later, you have to face the reality of life. Your majordomo's gonna crawl on his hands and knees across your floor, looking as grim as death, and holding his balls-because, man, you've threatened to have lava leaking out of his balls if he ever doubled-crossed you-and he lays on the bad news. The village has gone virgin dry. There ain't a single virgin you haven't fucked before breakfast or after dinner.

"The first crisis of your reign. You can't let them think for one minute that any Lahu Godman is gonna put up with this shit about no more virgins. You throw a jet of fire and graze the right earlobe of your major domo. That does the trick. He's pissing in his pants and thinking that it, is lava leaking down his leg. He's freaking out. Word spreads quickly through the village just how much the godman is disappointed in this no virgin news.

"More virgins, you roar. Lahu Godman say, go to next village and steal their virgins. This is, of course, an act of war. But the villagers have no choice. You got them entertained and scared out of their gourds, man, I'm telling you, they'll raid every fucking village between Chiang Mai and Mae Sai. You'll get their relatives Federal Expressing virgins from Burma and Laos.

"No more goddamn condoms, worry about clap, AIDS, virulen herpes, killer crabs. Just give the line, Lahu Godman want official visit with morel virgins. Or shoot a spike of flames up the ass."

Tuttle stretched his legs out as girl left to join her friends at a table near the television set. They watched a Thai kickboxing match with a couple of waiters.

"You've left out the down side, George," said Tuttle.

"Which is?" asked Lawrence.

Snow held the melted down piece of red rock candy between his teeth and pointed at his mouth. Then spit the piece of candy into an empty Kloster beer bottle.

"You need self-will, man. You've got to know when to stop. Tuttle and I've gone over my Lahu Godman trip. You see, he's got a point. All these Lahu Godmen ruin it for everyone else. Each one gets a little taste of power, and before you know it, fucking virgins isn't enough fun for a day. He's getting his rocks off at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Then he gets a real funny idea. He forgets about making the call to New York, his couriered tricks, his American Express bill—and he convinces himself the illusions are magic. He thinks he is a real Lahu Godman. People filter in from other villages to bow down at his feet. He's an event. What began as sex ends as politics. He becomes a politician with a mission. With an agenda. With an ideology, man, and that's the worst of all. He thinks he's figured out some great system for how time passes through the world. It's not that hard. The villagers believe him; after all, he's fucked every virgin in a hundred-mile radius. But this is a different scale. Every Lahu Godman ends up not only fucking all the virgins, but everyone else. So the villagers do the right thing. They get their revenge. They get rid of him. Shoot him, man. Spear him, bury him alive, cut off his fucking head, his dick, and his balls and bury them all in different ratholes. No Lahu Godman dies a natural death in his bed with his grandchildren around him.

"So I stick to the safe ground. just the standard bullshit, no tricks, no virgins, one night at a time, purples handed out COD. Maybe you could handle it. Ask yourself if your contentment factor is two virgins a day. Or three. You've gotta be brutally honest with your answer. if you want to go for it, my old man works in Hollywood, and I might get some development money for a script. But I need a real life character who's done the trip, man. Think about it. You'd get a story created by credit, and some back-end money Lahu Godman and a cast of virgins is the kind of stuff people want to see. Man up against himself and the hill tribes of Thailand. Special-effects heaven. People would go nuts over the story.

"Or you can hang out at HQ like the rest of us, listen the music on the jukebox, knock back Mekhong and Coke, and ask yourself if you've ever taken Noi back to your apartment. I'd go upcountry and take on the Lahu, but know my own limitations. I wouldn't stop with the virgins.

Man, the American State Department would have to send in a team of forensic experts to dig up a mountainside just to find where they had buried my ass. And I'll be perfectly frank with you. The Lahu are exporting most of their virgins to Bangkok. The Chinese characters in that business aren't impressed with my cutting into their supply of virgins.

"But while the power lasted, think of the possibilities. Each morning, the first words out of your mouth, 'More virgins. Lahu Godman wants more virgins.'

"The best you can hope for in Southeast Asia is a war. During the war, Vietnam was a well-ordered society. All the women in the bars; all the men in uniform getting their asses shot off in the jungle. Peace sucks. You get desperate thoughts. And before you know, you've had two too many drinks, and you're on the telephone, and the guy answers the phone over a crackling line. You tell him-this is Bangkok, listen carefully. I'm an apprentice Lahu Godman, can you give me a quote on a few illusions. Does all your shit come with clear instructions. And when you're packing the order, put in an extra couple kilos of lava dust."

"Lawrence practices law in Los Angeles," said Tuttle, a couple of moments in Snow's thoughtful silence. The revelation darkened Snow s face; his features twisted into a look of scorn. He slowly unwrapped another piece of hard rock candy, staring down at the tabletop.

"What kinda law, man?"

"Pension law."

"A Lahu Godman for the ancients in America," said Snow, shaking his head. His tone had changed as well as his expression. A crude bomb had exploded his dream.

"We were at UCLA together in the'60s," said Tuttle to fill the awkward silence. "We shared an apartment together. It's been a long time since we've seen each other. He's a good guy, George. Not every lawyer's a complete asshole."

"Thanks,"said Lawrence, who had grown uncomfortable as if it had been announced he was the carrier of a fatal virus.

"I guess it could be a comedy. Lahu Godman racks up a billable hours with hilltribe virgins," said Snow, with a slanting glance at Tuttle. "Lahu Godman sues major domo for failure to deliver. Lahu Godman pleads insanity.

After Snow had gone, Lawrence slumped in his booth, a confused, perplexed expression on his face. Snow's unscheduled arrival and departure had left skid marks on his ego. His livelihood had always been a source of pride; of course, he knew of the anti-lawyer jokes, but knew underneath that his position provided a powerful identity and monetary significance. His name and the name of his law firm opened any door in Los Angeles. But in Zeno's he was a displaced person; Snow had treated him as if he were a representative of evil, someone devoted to the force of decline, greed, and intolerance.

"It's an irrational thing with Snow. His hatred of lawyers," said Tuttle, rubbing his jaw. "Don't take it personally." "I didn't," said Lawrence, lying. "He lives in Bangkok?" "He has a room at the Highland Hotel on Sathorn Road. Your basic box that comes with no windows or carpets. The girls love it, he says. It reminds them of their own rooms. They can't afford windows. Outside his hotel on Sathorn Road is a traffic nightmare. Ten lanes of tuk-tuk hard braking all night. Sirens wailing. Paint thinner heads going one hundred-ten-plus on motorcycles. The sounds of madness pounding in his head. He uses the place to refine his Lahu Godman act. He picks up girls from Silom Road and takes them back. They are like Valley girls. That Silom Road Valley girl and her deflowered friend know people who gossip to rangers, cops, Thai males with guns, bikers who eat bags of yah mah-speed. One day Snow's going to be an item in the Bangkok Post Thai male with paint thinner on his breath flees the scene. That’s after he wrapped blocks of piano wire around Snow's neck for screwing his sister."

Tuttle had logged enough time in Thailand to know that magic wasn't for the cities. Not in peace time. Bangkok was a one-shot, try-out location for certain drifters like Snow who sooner or later found enough courage to take their show to a hilltribe audience. Tuttle didn't tell Lawrence the real reason for Snow's disappointment about the lawyer business. Snow had been looking for some years among the newcomers to Zeno's for a sponsor. Someone to finance his trip. His father had nothing to do with Hollywood. But life had dealt Snow the hand as a major domo to watch, in his mind's eye, some other farang's ass busily pumping away on a virgin that by rights, he believed, belonged to him.

'Like a Virgin' played on the jukebox. Several girls sang along to the lyrics, dancing in an open circle, bumping hips, laughing, and ignoring the kick-boxing on the television at the other end of the room. The song got played several times each night that Tuttle came into Zeno's. Snow got a little tearful each time it played. "I'm fucking serious," he'd say, "I'm buying the rights to the music for my film." No one ever believed that Snow was serious about the song, the Lahu Godman movie, or his own life.

Snow had gone for a smoke in the alley. Before he left, he warned Lawrence to keep his plan confidential. "And don't tell anyone about the Lahu Godman idea. You're a lawyer. You understand that original ideas can't be used. Anyway, I don't want it getting around." The more Snow had thought about it, the more he convinced himself that he should go upcountry and apply for the Lahu Godman job. After a few months at the Highland Hotel he had begun to miss not having a window.

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