Asia Hand

A Vincent Calvino crime novel
Second in the series


ISBN 974-87171-2-7
Paperback 5" - 7 3/4"
2000, 277 pages

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Excerpt

Chapter 14
Love Nest Bar

Love was not something anyone found in the bar.

As for nest - it was more of a pit than a nest.

Bitter Bob slumped over the bar, his arms collapsed around his head as if he had heard an air raid siren. He squirmed on the bar stool shivering with the cold sweats. His pants were wrinkled and soiled, and he smelled like he hadn't had a bath in a couple of days - in the tropics that amounted to a month of neglect.

"I knew that kid. Hutton. And one more thing, I used to know his whore. I think I even used to know you, Calvino. From the old days. They fucking killed him," said Bitter Bob. "And you wanna know why they killed him?" Because Hutton was a farang."

In Bitter Bob's mind "they"were unknown people, mostly Thai thugs, always out on the edge, waiting like toilet flies to attack a farang with his dick in his hand. If they got Jerry Hutton, the way Bob's mind reasoned, then they might have targeted him next. And they were waiting for him outside the bar, lurking in the back of tuk-tuks or slouched over a motorcycle in the shadowy areas in between street lamps on Soi 23.

"Bob, did you get a look at the guy Noi went out with?"

Bitter Bob raised his amber bottle of Singha beer. He sucked on it long and hard, not taking in any air, until he set the bottle back on the counter and ordered another round.

"Some fool," said Bitter Bob.

"What country was this fool from?"

"If you're asking me whether this fool was a foreigner, then I guess I'd have to say he was. Foreign, I mean. He didn't speak English like an American."

"Was he French, Aussie, German? Think, Bob." Calvino was thinking that Bitter Bob had about as much ability to identify the nationality of a farang as the average upcountry bargirl *

"I'm thinking but nothing inside my mind. I ain't good at spotting accents. He was just another shitfaced fool. A stranger and that's all I know."

Calvino had talked to Bitter Bob at the Love Nest Bar around ten. He had missed Noi by fifteen minutes; she had been bought out for a short-time. When Calvino came back after eleven Noi still hadn't returned. He looked at his watch and ordered a Mekong and soda.

"She ain't back, if that's of any interest to you," said Bitter Bob.

Calvino bought him a beer.

"The mamasan said she went short-time," said Calvino.

"In my opinion that could mean just about anything from ten minutes to ten days in Bangkok. The Thais gotta different way of telling time. I've got a theory about that," said Bitter Bob.

The waiter set down Calvino's Mekong and Bitter Bob's beer. He wasn't in the mood to hear Bitter Bob's theory about the passage of time in Thailand. So rather than sitting at the bar, he took his drink and sat alone on a long bench in the back. He liked having his back against the wall. A waitress in high heels and a bikini top brought him two chits stuffed in a bamboo cup and put it on his table. He nursed his Mekong and soda. Noi was a business woman, he thought. For her a short-time averaged one hour and that included travel time. As he drank his Mekong he saw Bitter Bob clocking him in the bar mirror. Bob's bloodshot eyes stared as if wondering whether Calvino might know who "they" were; and he was toying with Bitter Bob, trying to egg him on, draw him out, he was part of the plan for the Thai bikers who waited outside. The moment ended when Bitter Bob lifted his hip on the stool and farted, making the sound of a tire at high speed hitting a nail on the road. He chuckled in his hand, then Bitter Bob's attention moved back to the TV screen where his favorite movie was playing.

The video was one Calvino thought was tailored for Karl's specialized interest - vivid color close-ups of smashed, burned, and punctured human bodies. Bodies pulled from cars, planes, rivers, lakes, sand pits and streets. Doctors in white frocks performed autopsies, using a workshop worth of tools, scalpels, tongs, and a special stainless steel saw. He watched as the saw cut through a skull and the brain fen out with a nudge from the doctor's gloved hand. The video was an all-time favorite of the Bitter Bobs and the other leftover drunks who floated on alcohol vapors through the Soi Cowboy dead-zone hours. Farang zombies - the third shifters gone paranoid - sucking down drinks and trying to hold it together watching teams of doctors ripping out hearts, lungs, livers, and miles and miles of guts. Hutton's video of the Burmese executions of the students was a sweet piece of innocence compared with the slow-mo of the yellow ooze spurting along the edge of a doctor's knife slicing through a diseased kidney.

Calvino drank inside the dead zone of a Soi Cowboy night. In that concourse, farang cut adrift from all moorings applied alcohol to their pain of losses which could never be recovered. The dead zone was the time warp between the end of happy hour and the run-up to midnight. Nothing much happened. The energy level reduced to the basics of breathing, eating bar nuts, drinking and watching videos - and discussing theories of time. During this down period the bar girls - who had done one or two short-times - got their second wind and began moving in for another kill before the night ran down.

All that flickered during this period was the same video repeating how messy it was, like eating pudding with your fingers, to open and disassemble the organs of the human body. For hours on end customers and girls watched livers, spleens, brains, guts spilling into plastic containers.

Seated at the bar with Bitter Bob were a couple of dark, hunched over figures looking like they were shaking off the effects of a tranquilizer gun. The fun games they had thought brought pleasure somehow had gone wrong. Their expressionless, yellowish faces glued to the tube looked the same as what was left of the faces on the bodies in the video. Hardcore credentials were earned by witnessing one gory video autopsy after another and never breaking into a sweat or throwing-up on the bar. They gathered at the Love Nest, and dozens of other places like it, these menof indeterminate age who carried their emotional dart marks in public like war wounds which never properly healed.

But that night Bitter Bob had the cold sweats, and it gave Calvino a bad feeling. He kept thinking of what Tommy Loretti had said about his treatment not having a hero or a linear story. It was the Bitter Bobs who wanted the hero. Someone to look up to, someone who could tell him who "they" were, and show him how to protect himself when they came at his face. He was thinking Tommy had a point when he had an overpowering urge to see joy.

"I want to see the dog," said Calvino to the waitress in tight jeans and a red knit shirt that dung to her breasts. "And don't tell me joy's gone out on a short-time."

The waitress replied to his request with a fake smile and then studied Calvino's face, trying to remember where she had seen him before. Was he a Cheap Charlie on the make, or could she squeeze him for a few baht? A light came on somewhere in the back of her eyes. Yeah, yeah, she remembered Calvino. He had taken Noi a couple of times some years ago. And this was the same guywho had given her the German shepherd; she had scored. One farang was dead and another had taken his place in less than a month, confirming that the universe was perfectly ordered in Bangkok bars. The girls had taken bets that Calvino would come checking after the dog; farang had that way of not letting something go. Farang had a strange relationship with dogs, always patting and kissing them, forgetting they were animals, talking baby-talk to them. No wonder they believed just about anything a girl would tell them about mother's broken leg, nong with the unpaid school fees, and the water buffalo about to die unless a vet was called in.

"Joy's upstairs," the waitress said. "Sleeping. She not go out with farang. Her pussy too small."

Not that Joy was a dog; it was simply a question of size ratio. It came down to a practical question of throw-weight. If a farang wanted to buy out Joy, then there would be a price. So far there had been no request, but the question was left open.

"Joking," said the waitress. "Why you want to take dog? Take girl. She's much better for you. Look there and there." Her finger stabbed the air as she circled around the bar, pointing out the girls in red rayon Chinese house coats with white piping along the collar and the front. Love Nest Bar was printed in big white letters on the back.

"Fifty baht, you go upstairs, wake up Joy, and tell her an old friend has come to scratch her ears," said Calvino, taking a fifty baht note from his wallet and holding it out.

The waitress slipped away - not slipped, she skipped, pranced away, because she had scored, and when anyone scored they clutched the money and did an end-zone victory dance across the floor to alert the other girls that money had gone through the goal posts and landed straight into her pocket. Without a hug, a kiss, or a fuck. Lucky money, free money.

A few days had passed since Calvino had delivered the German shepherd to Noi. He had changed his mind a couple of times, and finally walked over with Joy, knocked on her door and walked home with an uneasy feeling he had been thinking American in the gesture when he should have been thinking like Noi in Thai. She looked out with a pack of relatives at the door and shrugged her shoulders, as if to say, "What are you saying? I gotta pay to feed this fucking monster? Look at all my hungry relatives behind me. And you're saying this royal dog has more right to food than them?"

He had given her money for the dog food but he was certain the dog would only get left over rice, fried grasshoppers, and chicken bones. he had been smart enough not to tell her the dog was worth at least forty all-night pump and grind sessions in some cheap hotel or rundown guest house on Soi Ngarn Duphli where the geeks and shitkickers who shot up with heroin hung out. The "Croaks" who unlike Karl didn't pump iron or shoot-up steroid chasers. The "Croaks" never worried about AIDS because they were already dead. "Buying this dog meant a lot to Jerry," Calvino had tried to explain to her. "He thought you could change your life. Breed the dog. Sell the puppies and make money. Enough money to stay off Soi Cowboy." He was talking to stark cold stone; something talk never could blast through.

She stared at the dog and thought about what Calvino, was saying, working it over in her head, trying to figure out what was in it for him and how to get some cash. "Jerry's dead. Never mind. Everyone dy-laow. Jerry not help me now. So what you say I do? I sell dog pussy, no problem Sell, can. But I cannot sell my pussy? I think very stupid. Jerry think like you. Farang don't know how Thai girl think."

"Don't let anything bad happen to the dog," said Calvino. "You know what I'm saying. The dog gets hurt, then there is gonna be some trouble. And I know you don't like problems . I'm trying to help out here. Do the right thing. All I'm asking is that you do the right thing. What Jerry would've wanted." After he finished his little speech he knew that b asically he had wasted his breath; but he owed it to Hutton to try. Noi's relatives shrank into the shadows, as Noi tensed her entire body in the doorway.

"Jerry buy the dog for me. None of your fucking business. I eat dog. Can. I let farang fuck dog. Can. I sell my pussy. Can," said Noi, as if she had earned an MBA degree in supply-side economics.

In a buyer's market, a smart seller like Noi knew that fast money was the only money worth getting up for, or going into the sackhead first for. It had ended in direct confrontation. The worst of all sins in Thailand: he had challenged her, implied she was less than trustworthy, and suggested she would be accountable for her actions. Calvino, had been in Thailand long enough to know Calvino's law of accountability: never tell a bar girl she's accountable for her actions unless you are prepared for a fight.

With Noi, he had broken the cardinal law.

He had an edgy, sinking feeling as he saw joy sitting near a mosquito net with several relatives crawling over her that he had made a mistake. He had heard that Noi had returned to her old bar. What disturbed him was the rumor the German shepherd had entered what the Japanese called "The Water Trade" -the night life. Joy had become a bar dog. He had phoned Bitter Bob who had confirmed the dog was not just hanging out at the Love Nest Bar, she had become a star attraction.

"I dunno if it's true or not. But some fool said that German shepherd cost more than two of these girls. You know, if you go upcountry you c an buy a girl for twenty, thirty thousand baht. That's what some fool said joy cost."

"Where would you put your money, Bob?" asked Calvino.

"Well, that's a tough one. For good balling you'd have to go for the girl. For loyalty the dog. You can't really piss off a dog. A girl gets pissed off and she's liable to take a knife to your cock. So I guess the best thing is just to keep drinking and not think too much," said Bitter Bob.

The bar girls at the Love Nest Bar liked Joy. They cuddled, teased, kicked, hugged, kissed and ordered joy around the bar. There was more than a little sadism when the girls pounced on Joy. Some deeper anger that the life of the animal was more highly valued than their own life. The customers such as Bitter Bob liked Joy, and the marnasan decided joy was good for business. Customers were buying drinks for the German shepherd. The first night on the job, joy got drunk on beer. The Love Nest was one of the few remaining single shophouse bars left on Soi Cowboy where the girls slept like firewood stacked in cords; the others had become large entertainment centers for tourists.

The waitress who disappeared upstairs with Calvino's fifty baht had been gone ten minutes. Enough time for Calvino to have a good look around the bar. In the two years since he had stopped coming around, little had changed. He recognized most of the half dozen hardcore customers who mixed with nearly two dozen bargirls. Customers and girls were the same old faces from before.

It was a time warp kind of bar. He had paid the bar fine for Noi a couple of times in those days. A year later, Jerry Hutton had bought her out, fallen in love, and made the traditional farang one-man rescue mission into the never-never heartland of the Bangkok sex world. This was the coal face, the miners in g-strings, deep inside the shaft, chipping away through the night. If Hutton had lived long enough, he would have understood that the kind of people who worked and camped out in the Love Nest Bar could never be saved; they always returned to the same sinking ship like rats which had evolved water-wings - they would never drown, there was always another ship in the port. Calvino's law of Bangkok fables Cinderella never went short-time waiting for her Prince Charming to arrive with her lost glass slipper.

The Love Nest had no Cinderellas or Prince Charmings. What the bar did have was a pedigree German shepherd which was a cheap drunk and drank beer, scotch, and gin chasers. Joy had made adiversion from the go-go dancers, the mirrors, and the autopsy video.

Calvino drank, stared at the go-go dancers, and the mirrors. Behind the dancers were concave wraparound mirrors constructed inside a cylinder like Star Trek "Beam me up" cubicles. The bar girls rarely danced; they hung motionless like bus commuters, a hand grabbing the floor-to-ceiling silvermetal pole. The only rotation of hips occurred as they shifted position, getting a better place to watch the TV screen at the opposite end of the bar. If the medium was the message, then the mirrors did a hellish job of conveying a possible message from the future.

The optics in the mirrors enlarged the girls' thighs and bottoms five or six times, and created a distorted illusion of the front and back of the bikini-clad teenage dancers. The bar girls on the platform wore the regulation bikini and highheels. But that all changed in the mirror. Mirror, mirror on the wall who's the most beautiful girl of all? The Love Nest mirrors answered the question with a nightmarish vision of the future twenty-odd years down the road when she was pushing forty and her ass had expanded five-fold. For guys like Bitter Bob who glanced between the dancers and the autopsy video, the special effects of the mirrors confirmed their view of the world in three time frames: a hostile past, a hopeless present and a bitter future. And in the center were two beautiful dancing girls who were half in the present and half in the future - more guts dropped into the bucket on the screen - and in this Bar Jerry Hutton had thought he could change one life.

Joy bounded across the floor and jumped over a bar girl, landing on Calvino's lap. Her paws resting on his shoulders, she licked his face and pushed her head against his neck.

Then her head whipped around and she stuck her snout into his Mekong and drank, her tongue splashing Mekong over the table. She sneezed a couple of times. Calvino stroked her long, thick brown and black coat. The fourteen month old puppy pulled away from Calvino, and swung her large front legs with enormous paws over the small oval table in front of the bench. The mamasan came over and sat on the bench a few feet away from Calvino and made sloppy kissing sounds. Calvino knew a power-play when he saw one. This one worked. In a reflex action, joy leaped over Calvino, and nuzzled the mamasan, her jaws gnawing gently on the mamasanís large, floppy breasts. The mamasan, half drunk, pretended to punch joy's face with her fists. As she laughed and turned her red face away, joy chewed on her hair tied in a bun.

Joy rammed at her head and snapped off one of the mamasan's earrings. This caused near panic. Bar girls and mamasan grabbed at joy, pulling open her mouth, searching the throat for the earring. A teenaged bar girl pulled down the top half of her bikini and offered a breast to the dog - she pinched her pinkish nipple, sticking it in Joy's face, then pulled back. She returned with a cigarette lighter, flicked it under Joy's nose, Joy barked, and playfully chewed on the bar girl's arm. A pimp at the bar leaned back from his stool and patted Joy, fed her a handful of bar peanuts. He reached back to the counter, then returned with a lighter. Joy barked, as the flame came dose to her face. Calvino on the second sweep of the lighter came across from his table and grabbed the pimp's wrist. Calvino raised the flame to touch a cigarette clenched between his lips. He saved the pimp's face and made his point with a single gesture. At the same moment, there was a further diversion, as one of the bar girls, on her hands and knees, found the mamasan's earring on the floor.

The obedience school post-graduate scholar was regressing fast working in the bar. Joy was acting like a cheap drunk and going down as fast as any young girl brought in from upcountry and put in a bar. it wasn't a ride downhill; it was being dropped off a cliff. Calvino wondered what Rolfo would have thought, seeing the German shepherd with papers going back one hundred and fifty years getting sloshed on bar scotch in a bar called the Love Nest. After he gave Rolfo ten thousand baht for Joy, Rolfo said there was one confidential piece of information that as joy's new owner he was entitled to receive. He said it was a code-word.

"What kind of code-word?"

Rolfo wrote it down on a piece of paper, tore it off the pad and handed it to Calvino. The word was - Bismarck.

"If you say that word in a sharp, firm tone, this dog will kill. I trained my dogs for the special forces. And when I finish they are no longer man's best friend. They are one man's friend. The owner who controls and disciplines the animal."

Calvino patted joy on the head. "A killing machine?"

"One hundred percent guaranteed," Rolfo had said. "So you must careful never to use this word. Not even as a joke.''

Calvino saw the pimp on the edge of taking a stand. He thought the word to himself - Bismarck.

The girls beat up on the dog; the customers cuffed her on the ears, and flicked lighters in her face. These weren't wanton acts of cruelty as much as acts of pure boredom.

"It ain't right, I told Toom," said Bitter Bob, nodding at the mamasan. "If she doesn't watch that dog, the girls are gonna kill the poor bitch. You give booze to a dog and it ain't gonna live long. You ever see a dog liver? lt doesn't arnount to a hill of beans."

The Bangkok police didn't arrive at the Love Nest Bar until about twenty after one. Lt. Col. Pratt had been looking for Calvino for nearly two hours when he remembered the matter about the dog. Bitter Bob and most of the dead zone characters had fled into the night, alone, and in the brokendown condition which made neither sex nor sleep likely alternatives.

"We found her at Hotel 99. She had been dead two, maybe three hours," said Lt. Col. Pratt.

"And you're not telling me the rest." Calvino stroked joy, her large head on his lap. The girls in the bar were huddled in a dense clump at the far end of the bench, crying.

"There is some rough play, Vincent," said Lt. Col. Pratt.

"Hatcher. He had Noi killed, shit."

"Nothing points to Hatcher. It all points to you."

"Of course. That's how he works," said Calvino.

"I'm doing the best I can, Vincent."

"What happened?" asked Calvino, wishing a waitress would take his order for another drink.

The operators who ran the short-time hotel had reported the murder to their contact in the force, who passed the information along, until someone who worked for Lt. Col. Pratt saw a connection was being made between Noi's death and Calvino. Noi had been found dead in a short-time hotel - the kind with white plastic curtains which drop behind a car so no one can identify the car or the registration plates. Hotel 99 was located deep inside Soi 11. An attendant had checked out the room after he knocked a couple of times and no one answered the door. He used a master key and let himself inside. He had called out in Thai. There had been no answer. The sheets on the bed were in the usual tangled state and the scent of bodily fluids circled in the air. Noi was found in the bathroom. More precisely, she was inside the bathtub. The taps had been left on. The bathroom was flooded. Noi was deep inside the tub, the water covering her body. Her hands had been tied behind her back, and she had been held down with some force. When the attendant looked over the edge, Noi stared up with dead eyes.

The attendant had identified the john who arrived with Noi at the short-time hotel. It was a photograph of Calvino. Noi's relatives had already given a statement about the conflict between Calvino and Noi over the dog. Most murders in Thailand were the result of a gambling debt, a business conflict, or a failed love affair. Circumstances pointed to Calvino being guilty on at least two counts.

"I was here at ten, and then again at eleven and never left. Bitter Bob was at the bar Toom was here. That waitress over there was serving me drinks," said Calvino.

"And between ten and eleven?" asked Lt. Col. Pratt.

He had gone to Rolfo's house and talked with Karl again.

"Seeing a man about a dog," said Calvino.

"The attendant at Hotel 99 has fingered you, Vincent."

"How much you figure Colonel Hatcher paid him, Pratt? Two thousand baht? Maybe five thousand?"

"I can handle the attendant for now," said Lt. Col. Pratt.

"But sooner or later this asshole is going to take us, Pratt."

"Did you hear the news?"

Calvino shook his head; he didn't want to admit that he had been watching the bar blood and guts video.

"The army has sent a thousand more troops to the Burmese border, and the air force bombed the Burmese about an hour ago," said Lt. Col. Pratt.

"What you're saying is Colonel Hatcher, and this guy Oxley, and their friends have won?"

Lt. Col. Pratt leaned over and patted the dog.

"'I blame you not; for you are mortal, and mortal eyes cannot endure the devil,'" said Lt. Col. Pratt, quoting Rkhard III.

It was the most Thai of answers wrapped in the most elegant of Shakespearian prose. Calvino was not accountable under either Thai or English emotional sensibilities for searching out the devil while avoiding the blame laid at the feet of mortals. What Lt. Col. Pratt didn't tell his friend was the bargain he had made or the devil he had made that bargain with. He would be attending no more pro-democracy meetings. There was that most Thai of all Thai things which had faced him - personal loyalty on the one side and personal conviction to an abstract idea. The Italians had something like this when they greeted each other with the word paisan. There was no other choice in his mind but to help Calvino. It was the Thai in him. Like it had been Calvino's decision not to tell him about the threatening phone calls he had received over helping Dex. Calvino's law about the hardest lesson to learn was to stop talking when you had nothing to say. Pratt had his own law of silence don't start talking about threats received unless you need to be rescued. There was nothing that Calvino as a farang could do, or could be expected to do about the phone calls. There was no rescue mission Calvino could work or blanket of protection he could offer. Dex had invited the threats through his actions; and Pratt, by going along to the meetings thought he might be able to create a shield from harm. Only it didn't work out that way. But Calvino was a farang and had crashed the Mad Hatter's Tea Party. There were broken plates, shattered tables, and sharp edged swords sweeping through in the night.

"Democracy's not on the menu," said the March Hare.

"You're mad," said the Mad Hatter.

"I think we should vote on it," said Alice.

"Kill her. She's mad. After her."

And Calvino thought the party was in jest; a celebration of fun, until the chase had begun.

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