Comfort Zone

A Vincent Calvino crime novel
Fourth in the series

ISBN 974-87754-9-6
Paperback 5" - 7 3/4"
2001, 267 pages





Now available on eBooks

Kindle $4.95



Chapter 1

With the overhead sun beating down, Calvino headed in the direction of hundreds of people who huddled around a long row of concession stands with volunteers hawking everything from lotto tickets, hot dogs, hamburgers, to Budweiser beer. Kids rode on the Ferris wheel and the merry-go-round. An image of his own daughter, Melody, flashed through his mind, leaving some guilt, some pain as it screamed on through his consciousness. A few feet away, an American Chamber of Commerce guy in baggy shorts and Washington University T-shirt pressed a bullhorn to his mouth and announced that substituting boiled eggs was, once again this year, against the rules. And no rolling of eggs. You had to toss them in the air. This guy was obviously a veteran of a number of Bangkok Fourth of July celebrations. The crowd of Thais and farang dressed in shorts and T-shirts looked relaxed even though they were sweaty, hot and hungry. Behind this superficial informality were the serious players on the local scene, the lawyers, bankers, doctors, embassy types, merchants, journalists, NGOs, preachers, and Peace Corp workers. This was the crew of America's Starship Enterprise lost in the vastness of Asian space and time.

Then he saw Harry Markle waving at him to come over to his table.

Harry Markle, his Thai wife, nicknamed Noi, and their two kids occupied a table. Occupied was the right word. There were few tables with umbrellas and if you left one for a moment some Hell's Angel, Mormon or preacher would pounce on it and you would need a loaded assault rifle to get it back. Noi was a registered pharmacist and had her own shop which stocked New Age herbal remedies. The shop, the only one like it in Bangkok, was listed in a couple of the travel guides to Thailand and she was thinking of opening a second branch at Seacon Shopping Mall. Harry Markle was a telecommunications expert, linking companies and people to the Internet, setting up nodes in places like Hong Kong and Finland. He laid down software so complex and sophisticated that, once it was hooked into various networks of computers, the effect was to grant Harry lifetime job security; he could never be fired from his job because no one could replace him, and all that transmitted data would go over the side of a cliff like a spooked herd of buffaloes in a thunderstorm.

Calvino sat down in a plastic chair as Markle pulled the tab on a can of Bud, beer foaming through the hole and down the side of the can.

"Great weather today, 99 said Harry.

One of his daughters, the fourteen-year-old, came to the table with one of her friends, eating a hot dog, the mustard squirting onto her hand.

Dr. Penguin, dressed in a dinner jacket with a toy penguin head shaped as a hat which he wore pulled down over his ears, removed an egg from Harry's two-year-old daughter's ear. Her eyes got real big.

"You like that, Honey?" asked Harry, picking her up.

She looked at Dr. Penguin with the kind of face that looked like it could go either way: cry or laugh. She started to laugh as Dr. Penguin pulled an egg from Calvino's ear.

"A private eye shouldn't go around with eggs in his head, said Dr. Penguin.

"And a penguin should keep out of the sun," said Noi.

Harry looked at the egg. "At least it's not scrambled, " said Harry.

"Just hard-boiled," said Calvino.

Over the loudspeaker system a midwestern accent read off a list of lottery announcements, mispronouncing most of the Thai names. At the next table, several Soi Cowboy bargirls in shorts and tank-tops were decked out in gold chains and bracelets. They were trying to keep out of the sun. Bar girls hated getting a tan. Most of them were village girls from Isan and were sensitive about the darkness of their skin. Dark skinned wasn't cool. White, white skin was the meaning of beauty, along with lots of gold to set it off, according to the Comfort Zone standard of desirable.

"The bar girls never miss a Fourth of July," said Harry Markle, as Dr. Penguin wandered off.

"They like fireworks," said Noi, who was university educated, and was doing her best to deflect the conversation about the girls at the next table.

"Yeah," said Harry. "They are like Willie Sutton. Why do you rob banks, Willie? That's where the money is. Ladies, why do you come to the Fourth of July picnic every year?

Because that is where the money is. Inside every bar girl is a little Willie Sutton voice screaming out."

Over at the stands people stood three or four deep gorging on the free popcorn, ice cream, and soda. Eating ears of corn, leaning over with the butter running over their hands, giving them a shiny lacquer, and running off-into the grass.

"You have any trouble getting through the airport security at the gate?" Harry asked.

"Pratt showed his badge. No problem," said Calvino.

"It helps to be connected. Some guy with a bar girl set off the alarm at security. That made for fun. Some logger chick arrived with a SWAT team to rub him down. He was clean but his girl had one of those toy gun lighters," he said, drinking from his beer. "The logger chick asked her what it was. But her English wasn't so great. So the guy said, 'Look, my friend is a vice challenged person. 'And she squinted and asked, 'Vice, what's that mean?' 'Vice as in vice squad, 'he said. 'The toy gun makes her feel safe.' The logger chick nodded, gave her back the toy gun and waved them through."

Logger chick was the current expat-speak for overweight middle-aged white women. Someone in a Washington Square bar once defined a logger chick as a woman with the biceps of an axe swinger and the legs of a mature redwood.

"Trust me, it happened. Ask Noi, " said Harry.

"About my sister..." Noi said, sounding sheepish.

Harry had phoned two days earlier and said Calvino just had to meet Meow. She was about eight years younger than Noi smart, beautiful and available. And Meow would be at the Fourth of July picnic.

"She couldn't make it," said Harry, finishing his wife's sentence. "One of those Thai things."

That always covered a lot of ground. As it turned out, Noi's sister, Meow, had cancelled the picnic because she had a call from her astrologer saying under no circumstances was she to leave the house. The alignment of the stars had forbidden her from going.

"I didn't say she wasn't superstitious," said Harry.

"No, you are right. "

"I hope you aren't too disappointed," said Noi.

Calvino drank his beer. "Maybe we can get together on the next full moon."

"Not to let you completely down, I have some work for you. A personal case."

Calvino came each year with the expectation of getting an assignment. What he hadn't expected was that, instead of getting fixed up with Noi's sister, Harry Markle was going to hire him for a job at the Fourth of July picnic. He wished he could wash off the cologne. Pratt was right, it was not such a good idea. Everyone was keeping their distance. The astrologer had guessed that smell from the movement of the stars and moon and had warned Meow away, he thought. In the heat he could not help feel a sadness as the expectation of meeting Meow fell away, drawing him over the edge into doom and disappointment. Shifting his expectation from the personal into a work mode was hard at first. The idea of possible romance was like a loose piece of string; it could be shaped in any way to fit the imagination until the spell was broken and the realization set in that he had deceived himself, strung himself along. He pulled himself together, smiled, and opened another beer. "A personal case," he heard Harry say again. Case assignments at the Fourth of July picnic had a habit of always being an omen of bad karma. Lt. Col. Pratt was right. It had been his primary reason forgoing year after year. One year he was going to break that string of bad Fourth of July cases. He knew that Harry Markle wouldn't let him down.

The year before last, he had gone after a missing son who had run off with a local girl to Koh Chang. He brought the kid back by the eighth of July and left the girl on the island; she had already found a replacement farang with more money... The kid fell on the ferry deck and broke his arm. The parents blamed Calvino for not properly looking after their son. It was a good reason to stiff him for the bill.

Calvino had clients and friends who expected him to be at the picnic. It was bad for business to miss the Fourth of July in Bangkok and it was bad to take an assignment at the Fourth of July picnic. No one ever said it outright, but it was a loyalty thing. In the middle of Bangkok, forgetting the Fourth of July picnic was an act of expat treason. The American Chamber of Commerce, he thought, kept some kind of unofficial blacklist of those who didn't show up. This year an old friend had phoned him. Harry Markle, said he had a beautiful present for him.

Now at the picnic he was singing a different tune.

"I've got a problem, Vinee," said Harry.

"Who doesn't?" asked Calvino.

He had known Harry Markle for a half dozen years. In other words enough time to learn the basic catastrophes which had blown through his life, the trail of ghosts left behind.

"It's my little brother in Saigon," said Harry.

"He was there for the twentieth anniversary?" asked Calvino.

"Yeah, he was."

I didn't know you had a younger brother."

"I left home before he was born. So let's say we aren't all that close. Now he's working as a lawyer in Vietnam," said Harry.

So far it didn't sound like much of a problem. But cases which started soft lipped like this often had steel jaws and sharp teeth.

"What's his problem? Other than he's trying to follow in his big brother's footsteps," said Calvino.

"Drew has the usual paranoid feelings of any American thirty-year-old who has never been out of the States and is trying to make a go of it in Saigon."

"Like what?"

"Someone in the office is up to the usual monkey shines. Drew says there's something unethical going on. He kept using the words professional ethics."

Calvino smiled at the word.

"I know, I know, " said Harry. "The American delusion. It's what got us into Vietnam in the first place. Drew hasn't found out yet that American ethics aren't as popular as American junk food and movies. But give him time. He will learn."

Markle was ex-special forces and had done two tours in Vietnam. In Asia, every other guy over forty-five claimed to have served in the special forces, or was a Green Beret, a Navy Seal; someone who was a mean motherfucker in the past and who had lived in the jungles on slugs and slit the throats of Viet Cong until dawn. Harry Markle was the only guy Calvino had ever met that actually had done it and survived, with a sense of humor, his life intact. He had a family and had settled in Thailand.

Noi nudged Harry's arm. His eyes followed her to a dozen Marines dressed in T-shirts and shorts picking up one end of a thick, long rope. Next came a dozen Mormons, looking like they had just flunked the physical for army boot camp. They picked up the other end of the rope. For a moment, Markle's brother in Saigon was just a slice of conversation left hanging in the air.

"Who you betting on?" asked Harry, grinning from ear to ear. "God or the Marines?"

"If there were a God you wouldn't need the Marines," said Calvino.

There was nothing scientific about this. But American Marines from the US Embassy in Bangkok had standard issue bull-like necks. The average Mormon looked as small as a fridge magnet next to the Marine guard. Belief in God had caused men to believe that miracles could overcome neck size differences. So in most years the Mormons entered the tug-of-war contest in Bangkok, meaning they would have to face the Marines and hope God was listening. And each Fourth of July picnic in Bangkok it rained like hell just after the US Marines wiped the playground with a dozen skinny Mormons holding on for dear life as the Marines dragged them through the mud in a tug-of-war that was never a contest. Was it the rain which followed God's wrath? Or was it just the rainy season weather with all those black clouds and claps of thunder in Bangkok that time of year?

Harry Markle said, "The Mormons did it once. It was like carrying an elephant up the side of a hill. It can be done. But it's always difficult and messy."

"Those aren't Mormons," said Noi. "That's AT&T."

She was right. She was Thai but she could still tell the difference between the Mormons and the telephone company. One paid dividends in this life, one promised dividends in the next. Thais were forever crossing the boundary between last, present and next life. It made perfect sense in terms of continuity and prevented the uneasy sense in the Christian West that you only got your ticket punched once; it was either up or down, and never back. for a repeat of another tug-of-war.

A crowd gathered and they could hear the side bets being made. A small group of old Asian hands of all nationalities were drinking beer and watching the Marines, all that muscle and short haircuts looking down the rope like it was the barrel of a gun. All those black clouds which had accumulated over the playing field opened up and it started to rain. The Marines didn't blink an eye. The AT&T team was one man short, and no one was volunteering to take on the Marines. A vice president found a consultant hiding behind a table of bar girls and ordered him onto the field. Then the contest began. Everyone at the table was on their feet. And the rain came harder. Harry was right; one year the Mormons actually won the tug-of-war. And it still rained. This year it rained before the contest was decided.

About eight in the evening the fireworks display started with the whistle of a rocket shooting high overhead, which was followed by a blinding flash and a shower storm of white feathery bursts of white light lit up the black sky. Calvino glanced to his right and saw how the light from the fireworks illuminated Markle. His face looked different, rigid, immobile but alert. He looked like someone caught in the open as a flare floated down on a tiny parachute and guns opened fire. This was the old mask that Harry Markle and a lot of other vets wore every year at the Fourth of July picnic. Vietnam was a one hour and five minute flight away from Bangkok. For a few minutes they remembered something, thought Calvino.

"It beats me why my little brother who was doing perfectly well in New York City would want to try and play lawyer in a communist regime, " said Markle, his head turned toward the sky, his mouth slightly ajar.

"Sometimes a younger brother feels that he has something to live up to. Your two tours in Vietnam and the drawer full of medals is a whole lot to live up to for anyone."

"But as a lawyer?" Craning his head around, Harry pushed the black, horn-rimmed glasses onto the bridge of his nose.

"Maybe it was the only way he could get himself a way to Vietnam."

Another flash burst lit up the sky in red, blue and white. The colors of the American flag draining down the edges of the night sky in Bangkok.

"I want you to go to Saigon for a few days. Check that he's okay, you know. Give him a talk about ethics and business in this part of the world. Three hundred a day plus expenses, right?"

Calvino thought about karma as he watched another star burst of rockets overhead. "Do I go or stay?" he asked himself.

"I'd go myself, but I have this assignment..." said Harry Markle, breaking off as Noi handed him another beer.

"Okay, three days should be enough time," said Calvino.

"More than ample," said Harry Markle, "Take an extra day and get out in the countryside. Let's call that a bonus."

(back to book main)


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