Christopher G. Moore
An excerpt from the novel, God of Darkness
Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 100 in 1998.
Suddenly Jack's head appears above the crowd as he walks across the entrance to the Ambassador Hotel. He was all smiles, that was Jack. Next to him was Michael Garrett who is a couple of inches shorter than Jack. They are talking and laughing as they weave through the crowded pavement. Jack has planned this piece of espionage with some care and precision. It supposedly is a secret mission, and Hurley has sworn an oath of silence. Not so secret that Michael hasn't been invited along. Hurley is a little hurt, thinking this was to be a two-man raid party. The plan seems like a year ago, counting one hundred day years.
"Hope I didn't keep you waiting, Hurley."
"Just got out of a massage session when I saw Jack," says Michael.
Jack winks at Hurley. "I told him we had a business meeting."
"And about the top secret Thermae project," says Michael.
Jack shrugs. "Michael has the tools we need, Hurley. I say we cut him in."
Hurley thought, this is how it starts. You cut in one friend and then another and before you know it, the entire crowd has a piece of the action.
"If you'd rather not, then it's okay. I don't want to cause a problem," says Michael.
"In other words, there is no problem," says Jack. "The universe as we know it on Sukhumvit Road is in perfect working order."
Hurley smiles and nods. "No problem, Michael."
Michael looks at the corrugated metal fence around the demolition site, "I know you and Jack have a deal. I am not trying to cut in. I want to be a part of history. Tell you what, your the boss, I go along and in return I owe you one."
It was always good to have Michael owing you a favour, or better yet, money. He is one of the best technical guys in the company, and when there is a really difficult problem to fix, Hurley needs Michael's good will to get the job done. A public school boy who gets his hands dirty fixing cell sites scattered over the city, across the country, transmitting signals from one mobile phone to another. He hears rumours now and again that Michael moonlights, milking other cash cows in the city. Nothing substantial is ever confirmed but Hurley figures that sooner or later he will figure out what Michael is up to. They are the same age: Hurley and Michael. And have the same ambition-to stay free of the spokes of the wheel that beat up the employees in the company. To stay employed.
"No problem," says Hurley. "Let's go."
"Let's get down to some work," says Jack, squeezing between two of the vendor's tables and pulled back a make-shift piece of corrugated metal from the entrance to the old Thermae.
One of the vendors begins to protest. "Closed. Cannot go inside."
"Health inspector," says Jack in Thai. "Government inspection. Stand aside."
The vendor's smile reveals black gums as he steps aside.
Hurley and Michael go into the compound a couple of steps behind Jack who leads with military precision. Pseudo-Greek columns are on the sides of the doorway and the sign overhead remains intact. From the upper floors is the sound of sledgehammers smashing against concrete and falling debris. At the current rate of destruction, nothing much will be left standing in another couple of days. At the far end is a makeshift campsite for the workers; three corrugated shacks built against the wall. On the cracked pavement snot nosed children in rags play in the debris-having no idea that it is Christmas Day. Cooking pots steamed over open fires. This could be a in a refugee camp within shelling distance of some dusty hamlet in some forgotten border war. Like migrant workers, these Isan workers work where they sleep and rear their children in shelters no one would think of housing war criminals. A couple of worn down women who are twenty going onto fifty shift around the children, through the grounds, dust in their hair. One looks after the kids, the other is stooping forward to lift the lid of one pot and stirs the rice. One of the kids-a two year old boy with no pants-throws pieces of wood on the open fire. In the family tradition of peasants, he's working before he can talk.
Shadows fall over the Old Thermae, and visibility is further cut in half by an asteroid like belt of grey dust that circulates in clouds eye level above the site. Hurley moves forward into the private domain and finds himself in the orbit of poverty, work, hardship and the smell of rice cooking. In the driveway which leads to the shacks, Hurley and Jack halt their advance alongside a flatbed truck. Michael kicks one of the balding tires. All the fenders were dented.
"You wouldn't want to get in front of this one when the tire blows," Michael says.
"The driver looks a little overheated," says Jack.
The driver's door is open and a small man squats in the shade a few feet away, beads of sweat forming on his face, dripping off his lip. He is listening to a Thai love song on a radio. Even the poor fall in love. The flatbed is heaped with broken shards of concrete, iron rods twisting out of the broken pieces, and next to the truck, all in a neat row, are eight of the booths from the Old Thermae waiting for the end like condemned prisoners. Jack steps forward and touches one of the booths. Michael kneels down on one knee and looks for the initials he carved into one of the benches years ago.
And Hurley, he leans against the truck thinking that this is how it ends...always. With no one around to mourn or even remember the lost generations of women whose warm, moist thighs, naked legs and silky, soft underwear sat on those booths; the hopes, dreams and bodily fluids had all dried away, vanishing without a trace. The booths were the place of judgment; the place where the judges selected from a large jury panel and passed on a cash verdict. A film of white powdery dust covers the black Naugahyde; dust to dust, ashes to ashes, the workers like pallbearers lift one of the ghostly objects and heave it into the back of the truck. Pallbearers from hell would have been more gentle. Jack looks at Hurley and Michael with sad, brooding eyes.
"You see that? History is being thrown on the junk heap."
"History will provide another ass and another seat," says Michael.
"We better get moving," said Jack.
For Hurley the site is another kind of abandonment, another way that people depart without ever saying goodbye.
"Did I tell you my old man came in from England today?" asks Michael. He's found his initials on one of the benches and feels particularly pleased that he was invited to go along.
"My dad has a heart condition. He was here once. But he can't travel now," says Hurley. "Doctor's orders."
"Bummer," says Jack, turning one of the booths over onto the side.
The booths are what Jack had come for. Standing on the flatbed a workman, smoking a cigarette, eyes the three men. He stops working, hands loose at his side, staring at the farang. His face is ash gray, and the red ember at the end of the cigarette glows an evil color as he inhales.
"Where's your boss?" Jack yells, cupping his hands and shouting in Thai, hoping to be heard above all the crashing, thumping, and pounding noises in the compound.
Michael has a laser pen red light, sneaks it out of his trousers and draws a ribbons of red light across the debris, up the worker's pant leg and ending like one of those India sub-continent red dots of the Hindu right between his eyes.
The worker inside the flatbed shrugs as if he does not understand Jack, and turns around, swatting at the light as if he is being attacked by a mosquito or a hungry ghost awakened from the kitchen of the Old Thermae. Hurley moves around the side of the truck and bumps into another workman pissing against the side of the wall. He excuses himself, waits until the worker finishes, pulls his wet equipment back inside his trousers just as Michael's red beam illuminates the wall a few inches from his face. The worker jumps, screaming, as if bitten in the balls by a snake. He whips around, his head looking up and down and from side to side, his face frightened.
"Pee," says Michael. The Thai word for ghost sound like the child's word in English for taking a leak, taking a piss, for eliminating water.
"My friend wants the skin from the black chairs," is the rough translation from Hurley's Thai into English.
"What for?" asked the worker who has been pissing against the side of the wall. He's even more terrified now that these three farangs are here to skin the old booths. A bad omen. It's a MacBeth opening and the witches hunger for hide.
"To make telephone covers," says Jack, replying honestly.
"We have money," says Michael. "At least I don't think I spent it all at the massage parlor. Normally, the old man takes care of that kind of thing."
"It's for an offering to Rahu," says Hurley. Rahu is the Hindu God of Darkness. Khun Maa's favourite deity, who is worshipped by offerings of eight black eggs, eight black children, eight black chickens. Why not eight black Naugahyde strips from the Old Thermae? thinks Hurley.
"Rahu," repeats the workman.
Jack flashes Hurley an admiring "You got him" kind of grin.
The workman smiles, the kind of local smile that Thais sometimes break into when they have some confirmation that the farangs in their midst are hysterically eccentric creatures willing to spend money on things that no one would ever guess had any value. In this case, for a Hindu god. The workman looks worried, turning around to stare at the wall quickly to see if that red light had reappeared. It has not. Is this a trick? Is this good fortune? Who are these three strange men coming into this life? Speaking of gods and bringing mysterious red lights? His face softens as he decides the farang are an omen of good fortune. Whatever that red light source had been, these strangers are being delivered for a pay day; the workman feels this deep in his bones.
The peasant on the flatbed jumps down onto the payment and hooks his finger for them to follow him back to the shacks. Jack and Hurley exchange a glance, thinking maybe the boss is the old snaggled tooth woman cooking the rice. The worker goes into the shack and when he returns he is clutching a folded sheet of plastic, the kind painters throw down to catch the paint from hitting the floor.
"You want to buy covering. I sell you this," says the worker.
Jack shakes his head. "You don't understand. I want the black skins from the booths. That is the covering I need for Rahu. Can you help me? Not for free of course."
Michael takes out his wallet and shows him some notes.
"He understands, Michael," says Hurley. "He has not gone to an English public school but he's not stupid."
The worker nods that he understands the situation. The farang are here to give him a pay day; he has simply confused the merchandise being sold, thinking it isn't possible that these three farang actually wanted the dirty, damaged old Naugahyde and this is a bargaining ploy to see the really good stuff. Is it possible they do not know the Amount? All the time these silly fool farang want junk, want to pay money for garbage, the worker is thinking as he refolds the plastic sheet and carries it back inside the shack. Plastic is practical. It keeps the rain off food, shelter and the wife. It can be shelter, protection; there is value, worth in plastic. Fools who come with a red ghost like light, only wanted useless skins from the old booths for a Rahu ritual, who is he to deny them? Jack has his razor knife out and Hurley holds up a camera and snaps several pictures as Jack and Michael standing over the booth looking back into the camera with a smile like Great White Hunters in central Africa about eighty years ago.
"Time to operate, doctor," says Hurley. "Is the patient ready?"
"She's ready," says Michael.
"It really won't hurt," says Jack as he slits the bench in one long cut, and then turns the knife onto the back of the booth, making another eight foot incision with a clean, swift movement. He is peeling back the hide with his fingers, rolling it into long strips.
"Never underestimate the value of memories," said Michael. "That what the old man says."
"Isn't he a teacher or something in London?" asked Jack.
"A scholar for sure. The old man's into literature. But he has a practical side. I for one wouldn't wish to get in his way."
The Old Thermae was like a private school, a treasure of nearly thirty years of memories: a common meeting ground for expats wanting female companionship for the night, week, month. Men had met their wives, minor wives, girlfriends, one night stands-and all the grey area relationships falling between the tiny relationship folds of the established categories inside the sinkhole that was the Old Thermae; others had been drugged, mugged, cheated, robbed, and stabbed. Women had gone from being young to being old working the main floor-they had gone on that long slide from innocence and hope down the steep slope into full-blown disillusionment and landed hard on their ass onto an unfocussed, disturbed platform as far from heaven's gate as one can land; a place where the sudden realization occurred that they would seek but never find shelter. And the booths where thirty years of seduction, sexual games, negotiations, conversations had taken place were about to be carted away as rubble.
Jack moves to the next booth with his razor knife and gestures at the booth like an old-fashioned red-skin in a 50s Hollywood cowboy and Indian flick. Michael has already red beamed the top of the bench with his laser pen. One of the workman gasps, the red ghost light coming out of the sky and he's ready to run away until his eyes following the light back to Michael's hand. Then he laughs. These farang are full of surprises.
"This one too," Jack says to the workmen. Both of the workman, exchange a glance, shrug, as if to say garbage is garbage, who are they to deny the fix these three savage farang have to such junk. Jack is not waiting any longer because it is getting dark. He neatly strips the booth of the black Naugahyde coverings as if he is skinning a large seal. He folds the skins, hands them to Hurley one at a time as Michael helps slip them in a Bangkok Post gym bag, one of those freebies given out with a year subscription. Jack methodically denudes three more booths, leaving the naked carcasses in the drive.
"How much should we pay these guys?" asks Hurley.
"I think that five hundred baht ought to do it," said Jack. "We have to keep our overheads in line."
Hurley adds another one hundred baht from his pocket. "It will make easier for them to split the money. Otherwise they will be taking a knife to each other."
There are smiles on the Isan peasant faces that go all the way to Roi Et.
But the final touch is Michael's as he opens his hand and offers his laser pen to the workman who had been pissing against he wall earlier. "Merry Christmas," he says. Then he demonstrates to the young man how to work the laser pen. "Point it towards the sky and Santa Claus might just find you." He is saying all of this in English and the workman isn't understanding a word of English and none of this matters because it is farang talk for the farang. Hurley and Jack's ears pick up the signal and they smile. Anyway the peasants have the red light.
The workers, if they are lucky, might be getting about two hundred baht a day. This is about two and a half days pay. Jack forks over an additional purple five hundred baht note to the worker who sits on the edge of the truck bed, his legs dangling loosely. He examines the note, holds it out into the fading light like a bank teller and then gives the thumb up at his co-worker.
"More booths inside," says a worker in Thai, figuring he has stumbled onto a good thing.
"No thanks, we have enough," says Jack, lifting up the gym bag. This is the first time Jack has ever uttered that line in the compound of the Old Thermae, thinks Hurley.
A small, young woman carrying a baby with big brown eyes floating in a tiny sea of yellow appears from around the side of the truck. "This my wife, she clean skins for you. Ten baht each."
The woman is shy and looks away.
"Nah, thanks. But I want them just like this."
"Dirty," says the worker who stood beside the woman who appeared to be his wife holding what appeared to be his child.
"My wife will clean them," says Jack, lying because he didn't have a wife. "My Thai wife," he says with a hard bite on the word "Thai." Jack has never had a wife; never wanted a wife and spit in the eye of the fifty-something old aged monsters, advancing like the speed of light, threatening to leave him utterly alone. Nothing is frightening him into doing something that he has refused to do in the first two acts of his personal drama. He is going to prove that man can keep the sexual urge as urgent during act three as in act two.
Jack's white lie ends any possibility of an argument. The farang has a wife, and if she finds out the money had been paid to another man's wife, well, that knife that cut the Naugahyde is sharp enough to cut the farang. She would get the ten baht each for cleaning the Naugahyde with all the creases and cracks left like tracks from all the bums that had warmed the seats over the years.
Jack kneels down and carefully folds the skins. "Rumour has it the first of the laid off finance company girls was spotted the other night at HQ. Who says the Crisis is a bad thing?"
"Absolutely. It's the beginning of a new gold era," says Michael.
"I don't believe it," says Hurley. "Things will never get that bad."
"Don't ever say, 'Never', my boy," says, Jack standing up with the skins. "Let's get out of here. It's getting dark."
The children gather around the fire in front of their shacks. They are all shadows dancing in the dirt, waiting for their Christmas dinner.
As they emerge through the fence from the worksite, the vendors start laughing. Tears roll down the cheeks of one girl. She holds her sides from laugher. A mirror hangs over one of the polo shirt tables and they catch sight of themselves. They look like three chimney sweeps after a twelve hour day in eighteenth century London. Their faces, shirts and trousers look like they were dragged through a long dead fire as part of some primitive ritual. The girl with the tears in her eyes runs a feather duster over Jack's neck and arms, raising clouds of fine dust. When she finishes he looks the same.
"Health inspectors from the government. We close their restaurant. Too dirty," said Jack.