Excerpt from A Walk in the Thai Sun

Sam Watson felt for the keys in his coat pocket.  Their edges were sharp, mildly irritating his hands.  The locksmith made them yesterday. It was the third time he’d lost his keys in less than a year.  He wondered why he found it so easy, these days, to think about such trivial things while working.

The photographer was busy snapping the girl’s body from a variety of angles.  Sam could see her nose had been broken long enough before her death to allow some swelling to occur. Dried blood flaked from her lips and chin, and the angle of her left thumb told Sam it was dislocated or perhaps broken.  Long greasy black hair, matted with blood from the top of her head, partially hid puncture marks on both arms. She was fourteen, maybe fifteen. He studied the face again: familiar somehow, but he couldn’t place it.

Sam looked around for a weapon but there was nothing obvious. He shuffled his feet and felt one kick something, a cardboard box from a donut shop.  It was one of several such containers littering the floor around the old mattress where they had found the girl. The only other piece of furniture was a wooden chair freshly painted bright yellow.  On this were a few pieces of clothing and an old Radio Shack ghetto blaster.  Sam popped this open and pulled out a cassette. This too was Radio Shack, with the words “Cowboy Junkies” hand-written on the label.  He replaced it, closed the machine and looked around the room again.

The only new paint in the place was on the chair.  The pale yellow walls were mottled with mold and the window was cracked.  The main doorframe was bent and the area around the lock showed evidence of numerous past attempts at prying the door open. These days a good shove was all it took.  Like many of the rooms in the hotels of Vancouver’s eastside, what was inside would normally need little security.  This was the subsistence zone.  You had to be pretty desperate to steal anything found here, but then again desperation was the defining characteristic of the area.

“Do you know her?” asked a voice behind him.

Sam glanced over his shoulder at Collins, who had just entered the room. Collins was nearly twenty-five years Sam’s junior, a college cop recently promoted to lieutenant  “No,” Sam said simply. He lit a cigarette.  “This was all we found when we got here.  One of the other residents called and complained about a lot of screaming, banging, and crashing in the next room. We found the door to the room wide open and her lying there dressed only in a T-shirt.  Paraphernalia all over the place.  Tony is next door talking to the guy who called.”

The two men stood aside as the paramedics placed the body on a stretcher and covered it.  They watched silently as the paramedics carried her past and into the hall.

“Just think, Watson, only three more months of this stuff.”

“Just think, Collins, you’ve got another twenty-five years of it,” Sam said. “If you make it.”

“I’ll make it.”

Sam studied Collins.  The lieutenant was in his early thirties, but he’d been with the force nearly eight years.  He was thoroughly cop, both in his attitude and social life.  “Yeah, you probably will,” Sam said.  He stepped into the hall and took one last look at the girl.  As he did, the covering slipped off her face.  Then he knew.

“What’s wrong?” Collins asked.  “You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.”

“The daughter of a ghost,” Sam said almost inaudibly.

“What?”

Sam nodded toward the receding stretcher.  “Her name was Nicki.  She was the daughter of a hooker I used to know back when they were all working Davie Street.  Nicki was only four or five the last time I saw her. I guess that’s why I didn’t recognize her right away.”

“The daughter of a hooker?”

“Yeah, a hooker,” Sam said. “Same one they found in the dumpster down on Homer a year ago last June.” Her name was Sandy, he added – to himself — and she was one of my few indiscretions as a cop.  The kid was sleeping right in the room.

“Well, at least they got the guy,” Collins said.

“Didn’t help the kid, did it?”

Collins said nothing.

In the silence Sam took his keys out of his pocket and looked at them.  The keys worked, even though they looked nothing like the originals.

“New keys,” said Collins matter-of-factly.

“Oh, you’re good,” Sam said stuffing the keys back into his pocket.

*     *     *     *     *

Ute was no longer a person.  He gave up his personhood when he entered the monastery six months earlier.  He was now a phra, a monk, and he was counted with the Buddha statues, the amulets, and other sacred things of Buddhism.  He was a sacred object, a holy “it.”

He walked down the street, eighth in a line of twelve monks, carrying food bowls in the early morning. As a Buddhist monk, he had a right walk down the streets and alleys at dawn receiving offerings of rice, fruit, and vegetables.  A woman put a spoonful of rice in his bowl.  He did not thank her or even look at her.  He was simply fulfilling a function, acting as the means by which the woman earned good karma.  They both understood that.

Ute tried to keep his eyes on the monk in front of him.  He was supposed to be dispassionate, unaffected by what went on around him.  When the people looked at him, they were supposed to see a spiritual being walking along the road to enlightenment, but whenever his eyes strayed and he saw his reflection on the glass of the storefront windows, he winced.

The line of monks slowly began making its way back to the monastery as the sun climbed higher in the sky.  At the abbey they would eat the food given to them, receive spiritual instruction, meditate, work on temple grounds, and care for stray dogs.

Ute walked slowly back to his quarters.  He had eaten and he had listened to the Abbot talk about the impermanence of all things, about suffering and how it was the result of attachment to the transient things in one’s life.  Now it was time to begin the meditations, to begin the various exercises that were designed to release him from his attachments.  It was the part of day he dreaded most.  He could not attend to the sound of his own breathing, mull over the teachings of the Abbot, or in any other way quiet his mind.  The best he could do was put on a mask of serenity to fool the others. When he assumed various meditation postures and began the exercises, it was not peace that came.  It was not a sense of calm.  It was not detachment from the impermanent things in his life. What came was yet another replay of his loss of face before his fellow police officers, and the laughter.  What came was Lup Law’s latter amazing discovery of a single thirty-five kilo bag of pure heroin in a squatter’s shack down by the railroad, his subsequent appointment to the captaincy, and a new BMW that did not come with the job.  What came to Ute was hatred and a desire for revenge.

There was nothing Ute could do to satisfy this desire. Everyone he knew feared Lup Law and, by himself, Ute could do nothing.  So he strove to defeat the desire itself, to control it, to rise above it.  For an hour and a half he grappled with it, trying to trick his mind into going elsewhere. He tried to empty his mind of thought, grasped at every image of serenity he could think of, and finally forced himself to breathe so deeply that he nearly passed out.

Ute stepped out into the bright sun and squinted.  When his eyes adjusted, he noticed Bom.  The sixteen-year-old novice was sitting under a bo tree meditatively puffing on a cigarette, his legs arranged in proper lotus style.  Bom had been left in the care of the monks when he was only seven years old and had grown up at the temple.  He clung to Ute, hoping the former police officer would use his connections to find him a job so he could leave the place.

“Where are you going today?” Bom asked.

Ute did not answer immediately.  He had several rotating destinations for his daily penitential walking meditations. “To the high school,” Ute said finally, knowing that Bom would want to come along no matter what he said.

Bom stood up.  “Good place.  Good place.  I like to X‑ray the girls as they come out of their classes.”

“I’ll be walking without sandals and avoiding the shade,” Ute said.

“A little pain and discomfort to blot out the past?” Bom asked.

Ute said nothing and began walking through the hot dust toward the temple gate, all the while attending to the precise movements and sensations of his feet.  Bom grinned, slipped on his sandals, opened his umbrella, and followed.

“You know the first thing I’m going to buy when I get out of that place?” Bom asked, breaking a silence that had lasted nearly half an hour.

“No, what?” Ute asked reluctantly. His attempt at walking meditation was going poorly.

“One of those new Honda water‑cooled Scramblers!”  Bom’s eyes seemed to glaze over.  “You can really sit high in the saddle on one of those things.  You could hit a buffalo and go right over it without feeling a thing.  A truly amazing bike!”

Ute smiled.  “They’re nearly 45,000 baht, you know.”

Bom dismissed the cost with a wave of his hand.  “I’ll get the money somehow, even if I have to go into debt for the rest of my life.”

“You probably will,” Ute said as they neared the school.

There was a small restaurant across from the school gates.  They sat in the cool under the awning and ordered two Pepsis.  As monks they were not allowed to eat solid food after midday but liquids were permitted.  The woman poured two iced bottles of Pepsi into plastic cups, handed them to the two monks, and bowed before them.  Ute and Bom ignored her. They were again being used by someone to earn good karma.

The students began to trickle out of their classes and make their way home.  The young men wore black shorts and white shirts. Their names and the name of the school were sewn in blue across their shirt pockets.  Black socks in various stages of disintegration clung to their ankles and descended into brown canvas shoes.  Their hair was cut short in the manner of new military recruits.

The young women were also required to wear uniforms.  They wore black or navy skirts that came down to just above the knee, white socks that were generally better preserved than those of the young men, black plastic shoes, and white blouses.  Their hair was worn in straight bobs and not permitted to touch the collars of the blouses.

Bom kicked Ute under the table.  “Look at that one!” he whispered  “Isn’t she something else?”

The young woman was about sixteen, had a delicate but perfectly proportioned figure, huge eyes with long lashes, and a bashful smile. She was the closest thing to perfection that Ute had ever seen and she was surrounded by young men who were behaving like buffoons.  “Do you know who she is?” Ute asked.

“You mean you don’t?” Bom asked in amazement.

“Should I?”

“That’s Chiang, Lup Law’s daughter.”

The colour slowly drained from Ute’s face.

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