Spirit House

A Vincent Calvino crime novel
First in the series


ISBN 974-92389-3-1
Trade paperback 6" - 9 1/4"
2004, 306 pages
 

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Excerpt

Chapter 8

Tik disappeared into the back of the bar beside the stage. She spoke with a girlfriend who casually stepped out of her street clothes and slipped into a G-string. Looking at herself in the mirror above the bar, the girlfriend fixed gold star shaped pasties over each nipple. It was difficult to make out from their whispers what was being said. Calvino looked away and leaned back-taking in the rest of the bar; not much remained of the original decor. It was just another Patpong downstairs go-go bar. Not many of the old timers were left around from those days, thought Calvino. A moment later, he spotted Bartlett, a freelancer from New Zealand who had wandered in alone with a laptop in one hand. He waved at Calvino, ordered a beer at the bar, and went over to his table. Bartlett scratched the chin of the stuffed civet cat. He was about five-three, sharp-chinned, with tiny, pale hands and narrow feet-as if they had been bound as a child-and an oversized head, his thinning hair combed straight back.

"Funny thing about this bar. It always makes me think how one jungle can so easily turn into another. Especially in your line of work, I suspect. Did you ever turn up anything in the Jeff Logan case?"

After all the years of operation, what remained of the original were the exotic fish tank and a stuffed civet cat. And a few fixtures like Bartlett who had been around since the old days launched straight into a conversation as if there had been a long pause between tongs.

"A lot of questions."

"With no answers. Ah, but that is Bangkok, isn't it?"

"You turned a few bucks covering Jeff's murder," said Calvino, glancing back to see if he could catch sight of Tik.

"That is called journalism. People want to know about young men dying of heart attacks in Bangkok. It's reassuring."

"It's a lot of things, but reassuring it's not," said Calvino.

Bartlett's forehead rippled with a wave of wrinkles. "There's where you're wrong. A journalist knows his audience. Reassuring, I'm afraid Is the right choice of words. For the audience in America, Canada, England-you name it..."

"New Zealand."

Bartlett talked in bursts, his deep, penetrating blue eyes looking at the listener. He had a look that suggested he had belonged to the original African motif; a well-used Lord of the Flies youth look of someone stranded, shipwrecked on a jungle island of childhood from which he could never escape.

He brightened his smile. "Even little New Zealand wants to be reassured that the real, bad old world out there is filled with dangers. It's better to stay home with the old Sheila, eating pizza and watching TV, than flying out to some strange land occupied by people waiting to cut you down in your very prime. Editors love stories like that. You get any more, just let me know." He tapped the case of his laptop computer.

Bartlett had the journalistic flare for gauging his audience's reaction as he spoke, rearranging the adjectives and verb forms to fit the mood of the moment. His childlike feet kicking the back of the booth as he spoke. In Thailand, he had found a country where he was average height and rooms filled with available women, most of whom he could stare eyeball-to-eyeball with at the bar. If they had removed their high-heel shoes, that is.

"You're here a little early," said Bartlett, smelling a story. "Nice, looking girl, Tik. I had her about ... let me see, eighteen months ago. I took her short time." Bartlett's face twitched around the nose and eyes.

Calvino tried to Imagine Bartlett stripped naked lying on top of Tik. The Image didn't form easily. Bartlett fingered the civet cat the way Ben Hoadly had once done. He sat silently for a moment. "What happened to its ears?"

"I thought everyone had heard that story," he said, kicking the heels of his shoes against the booth.

"I'm listening," said Calvino, glancing back at Tik who stood in the back talking to her friend.

"You listening?"

"I'm listening."

"In the old days the owner of the African Queen kept an eight-foot python caged behind the bar. He had bought the snake from a Thai stripper who had used "Monty" in her act. The snake even got a billing. Noi and Monty performed the world-famous love dance. It wasn't much of an act. The snake hung around her neck. She stripped slowly and danced around the stage. Pretty tame stuff, really. She ended up marrying a guy from South Africa. Since Noi was leaving the country and getting out of the business' she sold Monty to the African Queen Bar. The Thais are very practical people. The owner figured that Monty wasn't going to have a free lunch. He had to work like everyone else. After two in the morning, when the bar closed, Monty was given free reign of the African Queen. He was let out of the cage. This was mealtime. The python hadn't eaten all day. He was a big snake with a big appetite. He ate a ton of rats. The African Queen was the one bar on the strip which never had a problem with rats when that python was on the lose. The rats blackballed the place. Rats are smart. Every morning when the staff came in the python was stuffed, curled up in a ball, its gut filled with rats, and fell fast asleep. But soon the rats stopped showing up. Monty was hungry and did the only thing a really famished snake would think of doing. He went looked for a new territory. If the rats wouldn't come to him, he would go to the rats. So one morning the python disappeared. It had broken out of the bar and gone on a tour of Patpong. About a week later in an upstairs bar three doors down from the African Queen, in the back a couple of whores sat in front of a mirrored dresser putting on their makeup. The python dropped down from the ceiling and landed on the head of a whore. She freaked out, screamed down the place, and fainted. The whores hated snakes, especially rat-fed Pythons eight foot in length. In all the confusion, Monty disappeared. The African Queen Bar never got the python back. Although there are rumors from time to time that someone has spotted Monty, most of it is pills and drugs talking. You know, hallucinations."

Bartlett looked off toward the ceiling.

"And the civet cat's ears."

"Ali, yes, the poor civet cat. Once the python left, the rats returned to the bar. The rats chewed off its ears. Of course, the Thais believe the rats did it for revenge. A kind of rat language warning not to buy a new python. Rat extortion, if you like. Myself, I think rats would gnaw through about anything."

The civet cat ended. Calvino finished his drink and ordered another. 'Who told you that story?'

"The Worm."

"Who's the Worm?"

"Ben Hoadly. It was a nickname from school."

"Said who?"

"Who knows where a nickname starts?"

Calvino remembered the Ben's computer file named Worm, and in another file Bartlett's name on the list of people who had invested in the SET through Ben. He wondered if Calvino was sorry; he wondered if Ben had told him the story, and if so, why he had never told him.

"You have any theory on who might have killed him?"

Bartlett's face twitched as he smiled. "Who wants to know?"

"I want to know."

"Ah, I get it. You've got another job. I wonder if my mother would hire you if I turned up dead in Bangkok?"

"I hear lie lost some heavy number for a number of -people."

Bartlett's face softened. "He lost me a tidy sum. But even in Bangkok, farangs don't normally kill another farang because they suffered a financial setback. Certainly not with a bullet in the back of the head. That's execution-style. Chinese-Thai style, if you want my theory. Though, the thinner addict might have done it." He looked at the civet cat. "Anyway, it was a bit of a shock. About Ben."

Calvino saw a Thai in expensive Italian shoes, a black silk shirt, and white pants enter with a couple of bodyguards.

"Here's my interview arriving thirty minutes late," said

Bartlett, rising from the table.

Calvino recognized him from newspaper photographs. It was Chanchai. The African Queen owner bowed and waied at the same moment. Other staff-their faces a mask of fear-the same look he remembered on Ilk's face earlier- and faded into the shadows. It was like a boss going into a restaurant in Little Italy spreading terror with a crooked smile.

"I must be off," said Bartlett. "I hope you find Ben's killer."

"Introduce me, Bartlett."

"Well, er..."

Calvino was away from the table with his hand stretched out. "My name Is Calvino. We were talking about snakes in Patpong before you came in."

Chanchai stared hard at Calvino. Then he broke out into a smile. He was from the south, a Muslim, who came from a culture of violence, revenge, and hatred. As a teenager he had been a smuggler: electronics into Thailand, and drugs into Malaysia. His mother had been sold to a brothel when she was twelve. He never knew his father but he has Malay features. His father had been a short time brothel customer.

Chanchai's first job in Bangkok was as a kick-boxer. He was uneducated but street-smart, quick-witted, and played hardball. He had reputedly killed nine men. He had the basic desire of the rejected and Impoverished: a constant hunger for power, respect, and acceptance. As a whore's son, he had been treated as a nullity his entire life, he has something to prove: and a family to create out of nothing.

In Patpong, Chanchai counted for something, Important people noticed and feared him, respected him, honored him.

"Mr. Calvino's a private investigator," said Bartlett.

Chanchai grinned, set down his mobile phone and leaned forward, his two five-baht chains swinging gently from his neck. He barked for the owner to send Calvino another drink. Then he extended his hand to Calvino who reached out and shook it. Chanchai had a strong grip; he was someone who didn't let go.

"The drink’s on the house."

Bartlett, Chanchai and the two bodyguards quickly were out the door. Calvino stared at the empty bar, the civet cat, and wandered to the back. Tik had disappeared from the doorway. He pushed through a Chinese bead curtain which led to a corridor. Off to the left was a sign to the toilets and off to the right were stairs leading upstairs. He checked the toilet first; it was empty. He retraced his way back to the stairs. There was music coming from above. A cassette of Ring my Bell played in the distance. Calvino went up the stairs and found a series of small back rooms where girls took customers for a price and a smelly toilet with the water tank running. A naked light bulb hung from the ceiling in the perpetually dark interior. Several bookcases stacked with high-heeled shoes lined the wall, small tables stacked with junk-newspapers, pens, cups, small dead plants and a strong smell of perfume and stale cigarette smoke hung in the air.

"Tik," Calvino called out.

There was no answer. He called her name several more times, walking down the corridor to the right.

"In here," came her voice. "My friend you, she talk to you now. She tell you everything." Tik appeared in the doorway of one of the private rooms. The moronic lyrics of Ring my Bell blared from the bedroom behind her.

"What are you doing back here?"

"What?" She couldn't hear him over the music.

"Why are you up here?" He moved in close and shouted.

"You talk, talk with your friend you. I bored very much." She sounded a little angry. Bar girls hated extended conversations between farangs in a fast, clipped English they could not understand, and had nothing to do with them. She could have cared less that rats had eaten the ears off the civet cat. He caught a sudden change in her expression. She looked puzzled and straight through Calvino.

"Mae," she screamed, back-pedaling. Ring my bell, you can ring my bell.

Calvino half-turned, blocking a large knife which came at him, narrowly missing his back. The katoey knocked him into the wall, and pushed her hand into Calvino's jacket. She fumbled for his gun. It remembered, he thought. The katoey spit in his face and tried to bite him. Her teeth sunk into his arm and he cried out in pain. "Asshole," she said, as he struck hard between the shoulder blades. Her nostrils flared and her eyes were-wild with hate.

"Did I ring your bell, sweetheart?"

Her elbow in a karate-like uppercut thrust caught Calvino on the side of his law. The force of the blow knocked him off his feet. He crashed through a couple of small tables and bookcases. High-heeled shoes, hairspray, paint thinner, phony fingernails, rags, old newspapers, nail files-a rat's nest of stale junk scattered across the floor, breaking and smashing. Calvino pushed himself up against the floor, trying to regain his balance. She Ignored him and he followed her eye-line to the gun. "Oh, shit," he murmured. The katoey dove for the gun which had bounced on the floor. Tik ran forward and kicked the gun away from the katoey. The katoey threw a hairspray can at her. Tik retreated down the corridor.

"You bitch, you cunt. I kill you, too, " shouted the katoey. A door slammed behind Tik. Calvino heard the lock click into place. She was safe, he thought.

"Longtime no see," said Calvino, as the katoey recovered her concentration, picked up the knife, and came after him. "Where did you learn that karate shit. Not bad. Maybe you could tell me who set me up earlier today?" His hand had reached out and grabbed the first sharp object it touched. Calvino came up with a HI-Super ballpoint pen. "Let's talk before someone gets hurt. Okay?" He palmed the pen and rose to his feet, slowly backing up.

The katoey lunged at him, making a swiping motion. She missed and, in a half-crazed charge, the knife raised above her head, her I ipstick smeared, thrust downward. She kept on moving forward with the determination of a fanatic. Her face was disfigured with sweat and bruises. She licked her lips and gestured for Calvino to come forward. He continued to back away in a crouched position.

"We could be friends," he said. Under the glare of the naked light bulb he saw a crescent-shaped scar below her right eye.

"I kill you," she said.

"I guess friendship is out of the question," said Calvino.

The katoey shifted the knife from one hand to the other. Calvino tripped over a table which had been tipped over in his fall. As he fell, the radiance of the bright light above him, the katoey hesitated for a second, then rushed forward, aiming at his chest cavity. He deflected the knife with a bottle of antiseptic which shattered in his hand. In the elapsed moment of confusion, as the katoey, the curvature of her arched back a grotesque shadow on the wall, Calvino used both hands to drive the ballpoint pen through her eye. The HI-Super ballpoint pierced through her eye. It was like sticking a candle in a week-old birthday cake. The cornea busted like an egg yolk. Three inches of hard plastic penetrated the eye and traveled through tissue, blood vessels, and into the brain. Ring my Bell echoed in the silence, muffling her scream. For one exuberant moment, the katoey shuddered as a faintly yellowish liquid and blood poured from the hole in her face. Blood quickly soaked the, floor.

Calvino crawled forward through the trash on the floor, his hands wet with blood, and found his gun under a plastic bag. He pushed the bag away, spilling rat poison into the gore. It had almost worked, Calvino thought. A perfect setup. He rolled the katoey over on her back, felt for a pulse and finding none, went down to the room where Tik had locked herself in. Why had Tik kicked the gun away? He should be dead. He called her name but there was no reply. He tried the door, shaking the handle, then banging on the door.

"Tik, let me in. It's okay. You can come out." He put his ear against the door. "No one Is gonna hurt you." Still there was no answer. Calvino took a deep breath and one step back, then forced the door open with his shoulder. Rubbing his shoulder, he walked into the small, dark room. He flipped on the light. There was a single bed along one, side, a nightstand, and some porno magazines, but no Tik in the far corner a boarded-up window had been kicked open. She had fled the scene like a Bangkok bus driver who had caused an accident. Calvino walked back into the corridor and dragged the dead katoey into the room and laid the body on the bed. He switched off the light and closed the door. He walked down the stairs and at the bottom a small wooden gate had been drawn across. He unlatched the gate and entered the ground-floor corridor. A customer came out of the toilet.

"Man, you smell ripe," said a farang about thirtysomething, with Iong matted red hair and green eyes.

The antiseptic from the broken bottle reeked from Calvino's clothing. The flecks of blood spattered on his shirt were still fresh and wet. Calvino buttoned his suit jacket and passed the farang and pushed through the Chinese beaded curtains, past the bar where about a dozen people sat. Outside the African Queen, Calvino spotted Vichai in his cowboy shirt and Reeboks.

"Let's have a talk," Calvino said.

Vichai who had stood leaning against the display of videos, took off running through the light crowd of tourists who were shopping along the stalls. Calvino gave chase only to find his path blocked by a half-dozen touts and pimps, fists clenched. The intimidation worked, stopping Calvino dead in his tracks. if he had moved another step, they would have attacked him wolf-pack style, with fists, feet, razors, kn Ives, and pipes. Calvi no's law of street fighting with Thais in Patpong was: Don't. He caught a last glimpse of Vichai running through the Top Hat restaurant. Calvino knew the back door led into the maze of sois.

He turned and walked away, passing the Bookseller he went to the right off the main strip. On the glass door of the bookstore was an advertisement for HI-Super ballpoint pens and a sensual woman in a bikini holding one between her fingers and smiling.

(back to book main)

 

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