|Skytrain to Murder
By Dean Barrett
Published by Village East Book
October 2003 in trade pb; 0966189965; 284 pages
I knew from the minute the foxy blond in the blue shorts sat down she was a tease. Young--maybe 22, 23. Blond--maybe bleached. Face and figure--no maybe's there. Absolutely stunning. And she knew it.
I hadn't seen her approach because the open-air beer bar was sheltered from Bangkok's traffic by a semi-circle of dust-covered, shoulder-high potted plants. Customers were protected from the sun and rain by a thatch-and-wood roof from which a few Halloween balloons and tiny plastic witches added color and annoyance to anyone trying to chug his beer. She sat where a few balloons nestled beside a tiny Buddhist shrine, and several others encircled a beribboned bell customers could ring should they feel happy enough to buy everyone a drink.
The Thai women working behind the bar hadn't noticed the blond yet; too busy admiring Goong's latest shoes--expensive leather footwear from Italy paid for by her lovesick sweetheart in France so that (unknown to him) she could wear them to discos with her Thai boyfriend. I knew this because I knew Goong, and I also knew her cop boyfriend who owned the open-air bar I was drinking at.
But most of the customers around the oval-shaped counter had already stopped talking and were quietly appraising the blond. Which in itself said a lot about her looks. Because in Bangkok beautiful women are the norm, and most foreign men who end up in the Big Mango prefer Thai women. Especially the jaded local expats and weather-beaten foreign offshore oil riggers who drink at the open-air bars off Sukhumvith Road. I had seldom seen them cast a farang , or foreign, woman a second glance. Certainly not in approval. But they did now. Now they threw back their Singha beer and Mekhong whiskey as before, but behind their attempts at nonchalance each was as attentive and alert as a grammar school student on his first day of school. It was as if a solar flare had sent a spectacular light show crashing through Bangkok's murky, malevolent October night sky, disrupting communications.
I motioned to Goong's younger sister, Lek, and she suddenly noticed the blond. She quickly approached her, gave her a big Thai smile and a "Hello, what you like?" The evening traffic noises were as clamorous as ever and beside me an inebriated Greg Winston-"Winny" to his friends--was talking, still unaware that he was the only one doing so, but I heard the blond order a rum-and-coke.
At first, she never glanced my way, but I could tell she was aware of the tension her presence had caused. I had seen sexually charged particles wreak havoc with a bar's magnetic field before. But none as alluring as this one. The fine sun-kissed blond tresses, the big blue eyes, the cute upturned nose, the sensual, heart-shaped lips, the irresistible charm of youth-this one had it all.
Something about the innocent yet provocative way she perched on the bar stool, the way she tossed back her short, stylish, slightly tomboyish haircut, the way she ran her hand over the smooth expanse of flesh visible between where her short-sleeved powder blue top ended well above the belt-line of her hip-hugging, powder blue shorts. The way she tilted her head down to take a drink then looked up at me from under her full bangs and mouthed a "thank you" for getting Lek's attention for her. No doubt about it. The lady was a tease.
I raised my bottle of Singha Gold and nodded in acknowledgment.
"I am telling you, Scott, whatever country I've been in it has been my experience that one out of every 11.5 women prefers older men. That is a statistical fact. A factual statistic! You just have to get through the first 10.5 to get to the right one. The one who recognizes the charms of-" In mid-sentence Winny finally stopped droning on about his latest woman theory and caught onto the new situation at the bar. He placed his huge fists on the counter and leaned his thick neck forward to look past me. He was entering his late fifties and was spending far too much time sitting at bar counters but most of his muscle had yet to turn to fat. "Well, well, what have we here?"
I lowered my voice. "What we have here, old friend, is known as a tease with a capital T."
"You see 'tease'; I see 't's as in opportunity ."
"So go for her."
"Not me, lad, I'm too long in the tooth for that. I think you should go for her."
"Haven't you always warned me about-"
"This one is off the charts. Besides, I could be her grandfather. She's yours."
I looked over at the blond. She was cute all right. Despite high cheekbones, her lovely face was almost perfectly oval ending in a slightly narrow chin which she had cleverly de-emphasized with her wide, pageboy-style hairdo. I watched her glance up at me then quickly down again, as if she was interested but just a bit too shy to reveal her interest overtly. The act looked guileless enough. But it was an act; and a well practiced one. I'd made more than my share of mistakes along the way but I hadn't reached my mid-thirties a complete naif. "I think I'll give this miss a miss."
Winny raised his thick salt-and-pepper eyebrows. "And have it spread throughout the Big Mango that Scott Sterling was afraid to approach a round-eyed female?"
Political correctness was not one of Winny's strong points. "Look, Winny-"
I felt one of his meaty hands clamp down on my arm. "Look at her. She is sitting there pining away because no one will pay the slightest bit of attention to her. A shy, lonely young thing on her first trip outside the States. A demure, skittish, virginal waif totally confused by all the contradictory images bombarding her in the Land of Smiles: Devout Buddhist monks, naked go-go dancers, food too spicy to eat, water too filthy to drink, heat and humidity beyond belief. She's all alone and completely lost in the city of broken hearts and broken pavement. For God's sakes, man, give her something to remember when she's back in her nondescript little village wedged into the snow-covered hills of North Dakota working over a hot stove, cooking food for an unfaithful, ungrateful, unemployed, physically violent man she no longer loves. Give her something to cling to." Here his voice dropped to an earnest but histrionic whisper: "Give her the memory of you !"
Winny was the night manager of the bar I had been living over for over a year, the Boots and Saddle Saloon, one of the most popular of the watering holes favored by expats. But before he had chucked in his previous existence and moved to the Big Mango, he had been an actor and sometimes director in the Big Apple. A battle-scarred veteran of the Vietnam War as well as a bottle-scarred veteran of various skirmishes with egotistical producers, arrogant directors and demanding actors in New York's Off-Broadway, he was now without doubt, a perfectly contented expat, but his thespian background surfaced abruptly whenever he started on his fourth glass of Mekhong whiskey or whenever he was under pressure. I held my ground. "I'm telling you, Winny, I've seen the type before--she's a tease."
He released my arm and rolled his beer bottle between his palms as a potter might roll clay. "Only one way to be absolutely certain though, isn't there?"
I glanced around the bar and saw others waiting to see if I would move in on the blond. Scenes from National Geographic TV specials from my boyhood flooded back to me-'Look, boys and girls: watch the way the males of the herd observe its leader as he tries to impress the new female of the herd. If he fails, the herd will tear him limb from limb, devour him, leave his bones to bleach in the sun, and shortly after another leader will emerge.'
I looked again at the woman. As a diver, I often reflected upon similar character traits in the life forms walking above ground and those swimming in the sea. And this one reminded me of one of the most beautiful creatures I had encountered on Thailand's reefs: the lionfish; the fish with the resplendent, plume-like dorsal and pectoral fins. As gorgeous as the fish is, the one thing you don't want to do is to agitate it in any way. Because along those beautiful fins is enough poison to make curious swimmers who venture too close wish they hadn't been mesmerized by its beauty in the first place.
Maybe I'd had too much Singha or maybe I'd been a bit depressed lately or maybe it was just a juvenile reaction to a schoolboy's dare, but I felt myself getting up. I picked up my bottle of beer and walked toward her. I could feel all eyes boring into me. The blond kept emitting her shy smile like a homing beacon. A delightfully winsome smile--all for me. But something about that smile made me feel as if a red lasar dot from a 9 millimeter semiautomatic was being trained on my forehead.
I stopped beside her and leaned against the bar. I was immediately enveloped in the pungent odor of her musky perfume. "Excuse me, but the man you were supposed to meet this evening called to say he couldn't make it. And he asked me to escort you in his place."
The smile changed. It segued from diffidence and timidity into an arrogant smirk of victory. A sneer of contempt. I knew I'd been had. The lionfish was about to strike. Her voice was all feminine softness. And hard as nails. "Nice try, Romeo, but the person I'm waiting for is a woman." She turned in her seat to look past me. "And here she comes now."
A sexily dressed Thai woman in her 20's strode quickly past the outside tables and purposefully up to the bar. The outline of her nipples appeared plain as day as they pushed into her canary yellow blouse, and her curvaceous legs made impossible demands on her short cream-colored skirt. I couldn't be sure, but she seemed to be a kind of high class call girl. And her face lacked a certain softness -- the kind of face a Thai woman might have after spending years abroad; or years with men who have come from abroad.
As she approached, the blond stood up and held out her arms. The Thai woman walked into them and they held each other as lovers, kissing full on the lips. A lingering kiss, neither being in a hurry to break it off. I heard a few subdued exclamations around the bar. I gripped my beer bottle and tried not to feel like a horse's ass. I pretended to take a sudden interest in the red, white and blue bars of the drooping Thai flag above the faded beer advertisements. The city's notorious pollution had transformed the white of the bars into a deep gray. I looked up at the tiny blinking lights of various colors draped about the bar and then down at the bar's ailing dog tossing in its sleep. But two attractive young women passionately kissing one another was enough of a spectacle to turn a boisterous bar into a silent movie.
The blond released the woman and sat back on the stool. She reached up and took her companion's hand. "I'm glad you got here early." She glanced in my direction. "This middle-aged Romeo was hitting on me."
The Thai woman made a face as if she'd smelled something slightly off. "I think Patpong girls are more his type." She looked me over. "Kangaroo Bar would be perfect for him."
I smiled. "The night market has screwed Patpong up. And the touts are too aggressive. I don't go there much anymore."
"Maybe you should."
"And which bar will I find you working in?"
Her face became a malevolent mask. "I suggest you fuck off. Now."
Two rules I had learned in Bangkok long before I left my CIA desk at the American embassy: Never argue with a woman in love and especially never argue with a woman in love with a woman. I nodded and smiled pleasantly. "My mistake." I made the long walk back to my stool and sat down. Conversations slowly resumed. I may have just imagined hearing chortles and chuckles at my expense.
Winny slapped me on the back. "Lek, get this middle-aged Romeo a beer. On me."
The blond finished her drink, paid her bill and, holding hands with her significant other, walked off in the direction of Sukhumvith Road. I drained the bottle in front of me before speaking. "Am I going to tell you I told you so or am I going to resist telling you I told you so?"
"I think you are man enough to resist. Besides, that was a lovely pick-up line you used on her. Does it really work?"
"I tried it on my ex-wife the first time I saw her."
"And it worked?"
"Only too well."
Lek placed the beer down in front of me. Lek had opaque brown eyes, the same shade as fish sauce left a bit too long out in the steamy Thai climate during the hot season. But in the rays of the setting sun, her eyes appeared a murky, reddish brown, the exact hue of vinegared ground chili. Her skin was a coconut-husk brown and her nail color was the same odd pink as shrimp paste. Her blouse was a gingko-nut-soup yellow. Just looking at her made me hungry. Above her head, strings of tiny bar lights flickered on and off like aroused fireflies. "What mean, 'Lomeo'?"
Winny reached out to gently stroke Lek's delicate chin. "'Lomeo', my incomparable Siamese beauty, is a man who is irresistible to women. All women want him."
Lek brushed his hand away and laughed, revealing both her protruding upper teeth and her lovely dimples. "All girl want man with money; Scott no have money; he number ten Lomeo." And with that she went back to share the joke with the other Thai women behind the bar.
I peeled back bits of gold paper from the mouth of the bottle and took a long hit on my beer. Now I had been ridiculed by women of East and West: a fine ending to a fine day.
We were nearing the end of the rainy season, but when the Thai flag began flapping about like a just-landed marlin and the sky directly overhead darkened I knew that in less than fifteen minutes the day's downpour would begin. I could make it back to my apartment over the Boots and Saddle if I left now; or I could finish my beer and ride out the storm. Call me Storm-rider.
I swiveled my stool to watch bargirls on their way to work emerge from a samlor, and others sitting sidesaddle cling tightly to the back of motorcycle taxis, when something made me take a last look at the blond.
She and her friend were getting into another samlor. She turned back to me and favored me with a coquettish smile. No question about it: whether she was straight or a lesbian or a bisexual or an alien, she was gorgeous. I didn't know then that I would soon see her again. And I had no way of knowing the danger that would involve me in.Copyright © 2003 Dean Barrett
Reprinted with permission.
"Rich in the customs of Thailand, Skytrain to Murder, an interesting mystery. Local traditions are carefully woven into every page."(back to top)
Dean Barrett has lived in Asia for over 20 years as writer, editor, photographer and publisher. He was trained as a Chinese linguist at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California and, at graduation, was chosen to present original stage material on China. After serving with the Army Security Agency in East and Southeast Asia, he pursued graduate studies in Chinese Area Studies at San Francisco State College and received his Masters Degree in Asian Studies from the University of Hawaii.