Saturday, August 27, 2016

Luk Thep: an online novel, chapter 37


Thirty-Seven

Jane’s main contact at the Manila plant was a young woman named Maria Reyes. Her boss was an older man named Franco Avilla.

At first Khajee had suspected parallels between these two and the Khajee/Ram combination. But it turned out that the two Filipinos were nothing like the two Thais. 

Maria Reyes was in her mid-twenties, perhaps ten years younger than Khajee and Jane. Franco Avilla was a much, much older man—probably in his mid-sixties. Jane suspected that he was only a year or two away from retirement. Franco Avilla spoke constantly of his beloved wife and his even more beloved children and grandchildren. He got along well with Maria, but there wasn't the slightest hint of anything inappropriate. 

And Franco, unlike Ram, was cooperative and helpful where work-related matters were concerned.

The second afternoon of her trip—the day before her return flight to the U.S.—Jane finished her meetings at the Manila plant at 4:30 p.m. This was a rare luxury on overseas business trips, which were typically characterized by too few hours and too many items on the agenda.

After enjoying a leisurely, solitary dinner in the restaurant attached to her hotel, Jane decided that she could afford to venture out a bit. Across the square from the hotel, there was a little outdoor café that had been beckoning her since she had first noticed it upon her arrival. Complimented with decorative palm trees and old Spanish architecture, the café was postcard-perfect. 

Jane had brought with her a John Grisham novel. She had been carrying the same novel around for months, and had only read to page twenty-three. Why not enjoy an outdoor cup of coffee or espresso as she read, while supporting the local economy? The area around the hotel seemed safe enough. Jane had noticed a moderate police presence—just enough to be reassuring, but not so great as to suggest frequent outbreaks of violence. 

Jane strolled across the cobblestone Spanish square toward the Spanish architecture café, her novel tucked under one arm, her handbag securely tucked under the other. The late afternoon weather was warm and marvelously sunny. But it was more reminiscent of Hawaii than Thailand. 

Looking back later on what happened, Jane would recall that she had experienced no inkling of anyone watching her.

She took an outdoor seat at a small table with two chairs. A young female member of the service staff appeared. Jane addressed her tentatively, in English. The young woman replied in the same language, not missing a beat. 

Although there are multiple indigenous languages in the Philippines, English is widely taught and spoken. The Philippines has distinguished itself in recent years as a low-cost location for call centers, servicing customers in the U.S. and Canada. English is an iffy proposition in the Philippine hinterlands, but in Manila, in tourist places, one can usually get by in English.

Jane was sipping a coffee and reading page thirty-two of the John Grisham novel when she heard the chair across from her slide away from the table. When she looked up, she was no longer alone at the table.

The woman was Asian, of slender build. She was wearing a scarf over her black hair, as well as sunglasses. The woman pushed the sunglasses down over her nose and looked at Jane over their rims. Jane knew immediately who she was. 

“Khajee was weak,” the woman said. “That was why she betrayed me.” The woman whom Jane had once known as Khajee Wongsuwan sighed. “That was why I tried to help her. She never got her husband, you know. But she had her little girl.”

Jane tried to speak but found herself unable. The partly covered face before her was Khajee’s—and yet, it wasn't Khajee’s. Jane remembered the flash of the furious, growling face in the jungle undergrowth.

Khajee stood as abruptly as she had sat down, and pushed her chair back into place. “But you were my last mommy. Goodbye, mommy. You know, maybe I’ll visit you someday. It snows where you live, doesn't it?”

She walked away, and said over her shoulder, “I’ve always wanted to see the snow.”

The woman who might have been Khajee—and might have been someone or something else—walked away until she became obscured by other pedestrians, and then disappeared in the afternoon crowd. 

Jane sat there for a very long time before she summoned the composure to pay her café bill and return to her hotel.



THE END

Friday, August 26, 2016

Luk Thep, an online novel: Chapter 36

Previous: Chapter 35



Chapter 36


Two months after her return from Thailand, Jane met a new man—also at a party. His name was Todd. His personality was brasher, more alpha than David’s. But Todd also worked in the automotive industry. The boardrooms and factories of the automotive industry drew far more alpha types—male as well as female—than shrinking violets.

When she accepted Todd’s initial invitation to dinner, Jane felt pangs of guilt. David had slept in her bed, had died, not so long ago. But the two of them had not been married. How long was she supposed to grieve, and what purpose could self-denying grief possibly serve?

Looking back on it all, in the wee hours of the first night she spent with Todd, it all seemed like a dream. Khajee, Ram, David, Lawan—they were all somehow connected; and she could sense all of them fading.

Luckily, Jane had no immediate need to return to the TRX Thailand. (She wondered if she could, when the inevitable necessity arose.) 

She had started working more closely with the TRX division in the Philippines, a country she had only visited once. As a trip to the company’s factory in Manila drew near, Jane felt few misgivings. One thousand, three hundred seventy-five miles separated Bangkok and Manila. Both were technically in Southeast Asia, but Manila was as far from Bangkok as the Detroit area was from Denver, Colorado, or Miami, Florida. Such were the distances in the Pacific. 

Martin summoned Jane into his office the day before her departure, a routine pre-business-trip chat.

“Watch yourself in Manila,” Martin said. “They have terrorists there, you know. Groups linked to al-Qaeda.”

Jane smiled at Martin’s attempt to be protective and avuncular. “Will do,” she nodded. “Thank you.”

After going over some business items, Martin paused for a moment, pensive and reflective.

“What?” Jane prompted.

“To tell you the truth,” Martin said. “I was just thinking about Ram Thongchai. And Khajee, of course.”

Jane’s heart jumped, though she maintained her outward calm. “Did they ever find her?”

“No,” Martin replied. “At least, not to the best of my knowledge. Ask me, they never will. It’s a damned shame, what happened—both for them and for the company.”

“It is,” Jane agreed, secretly relieved that Khajee had remained at large.

Over the past week a new question had surfaced in Jane’s mind: What if Khajee were captured? Would the Thai woman reveal everything, including Jane’s presence at the murder scene? 

Although Jane had had no part in Ram’s death, her subsequent silence about what she knew would amount to probable cause for suspicion. Jane had begun to wonder what sort of extradition treaties the U.S. and Thailand had in place. Her more paranoid side conjured images of herself in a damp, fetid cell in a Bangkok prison, serving out a ten- or fifteen-year sentence for obstruction of justice, or whatever they would call it. She would be an old, prematurely elderly woman before she was released—if she survived her incarceration.

But no—that wouldn't happen. Remember, she told herself. Asia is enormous, enormous beyond comprehension. Khajee has disappeared.

“Well, anyway,” Martin said. “Have a safe trip.”

Jane thanked Martin, but she wondered: Would she ever feel safe again while abroad—especially in Asia?


*      *     *

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Luk Thep: an online novel: Chapter 35

Previous: Chapter 34



Thirty-Five

Ram's partially decomposed body was found in the jungle three days after he went missing. Given the wonders of modern technology, it was perhaps unusual that his fate remained unknown for even that long. Ram's SUV, a newer model, had been outfitted with a theft prevention system that also allowed the automaker to track the vehicle's location. 

But such methods, still relatively new even in the West, were far from second-nature among law enforcement personnel in Thailand. A full twenty-four hours elapsed before the Bangkok police thought to contact Toyota for information about the theft tracking system.

Once the SUV was found at the base of the trail leading up to the ruined village, the rest was a matter of tracing pieces of evidence toward their logical conclusions. The trail was searched; and the police search team quickly located a disturbed swath of vegetation. That loose end led them to Ram's body, already picked over by jungle rats, flies, and beetles.

But Jane never fell under any suspicion. When she returned to Michigan, she gave Martin a pro forma report about her meeting with Ram, adding in some business items that could be easily and plausibly fabricated.

By the time the news of Ram Thongchai's disappearance and probable murder rippled through the company, Jane's meeting with him had been forgotten. No one would have suspected that a female American executive, briefly in Thailand for a quick morning meeting, could have had any connection to the crime. Jane was not contacted to give a statement; her involvement was on no one's radar.

Instead, and somewhat predictably, suspicions immediately focused on Khajee, the younger mistress of Ram who had recently taken an unauthorized leave of absence from the company. The true nature of Ram and Khajee's relationship quickly came to light. Ram's wife sealed Khajee's fugitive status: She told police that Ram had recently confessed the error of his ways. In Ram's wife's telling, the manager had been trying to break off with Khajee, but the younger woman had become obsessive about Ram and the affair, and would not be turned away. Ram had supposedly feared that his subordinate and lover might eventually resort to violence. 

When Thai authorities discovered that Khajee had fled the country, via a one-way airline ticket to Jakarta, there was no longer a question in anyone's mind: Khajee had murdered her boss.

But the trail went cold in Jakarta. Khajee had not registered in any local hotel. A bulletin was issued for her arrest; but Indonesia is a vast, densely populated, and clumsily administered place. Khajee had simply disappeared; and, Jane knew, in Southeast Asia that would require no supernatural help.

Martin did not suspect Jane, but he did take note of her proximity to so much misery. 

“I’m sorry to see that so much misfortune has come your way of late,” Martin said when he walked into her office one day. “First David, now this. I know that you and Ram had your conflicts, and I sensed that you’d had a falling out with Khajee, but…”

His voice trailed off. What more was there to say, really? And Jane could think of no response that would not lead to difficult questions. So Jane merely nodded and thanked Martin for his concern. 

Jane thought, David is gone. Although Dusty had been a cat—not a person—he had likely been a casualty of Lawan, too. But at least Lawan lay buried. At least it was over.

Jane had half-expected the luk thep doll to follow her home from Thailand. Arriving home to her condo after her return flight, Jane imagined the doll sitting, caked with mud, on her living room sofa. 

But the doll had not been there. Nor had it appeared since then. On more than one occasion, Jane had awakened in the middle of the night, sure that she heard Lawan rustling around in her condominium, or climbing atop the bookcase in the spare room to resume her old perch. 

Each time, Jane turned on every light within reach and made an exhaustive search of the condominium. The doll could not be found. 

And that was the way it should have been. Wouldn't it be safe now to assume that it was finally over, whatever “it” had actually been? 

Then she recalled Khajee’s parting words. Well, Khajee was thousands of miles away, in hiding somewhere amid the countless towns and villages of Asia. Jane knew all too well that Lawan could wreak havoc on a person’s sanity. Hadn’t Jane sensed herself slipping over the edge there, for a while?  Khajee’s parting sentence—and all that it implied—might have been nothing more than a projection. 

And there was another possibility as well—that Khajee had indeed been deranged in her own right, that she had been Ram’s actual, fully conscious, and deliberate murderer.

*     *     *

Monday, August 22, 2016

Luk Thep: an online novel: Chapter 34

Previous: Chapter 33


Thirty-Four

The truck driver turned out to be every bit as friendly as he’d initially appeared to be. Jane had very little interaction with him, and all of that was conducted through Khajee. For the man spoke no more than a few words of survival English. He wanted to know where Jane was from: Australia? The United States? Canada or New Zealand, maybe? 

When Jane replied through Khajee that she was from the United States, he proudly revealed that his great-niece was presently studying at the University of California, San Diego. Did Jane live near San Diego? 

When Jane revealed that she lived far from San Diego, on the other side of the country, really, the man was mildly disappointed. His niece had apparently told him all about San Diego and the State of California. He admitted that he had never heard of Michigan.

“That’s all right. There’s nothing in Michigan worth knowing about,” Jane replied, self-deprecatingly. When Khajee translated this, the truck driver thought about it for ten seconds or so, and then looked at Jane and laughed.

The man was carrying scrap metal in the back of his truck. He told Khajee that he collected and resold scrap metal for a living. Jane replied that this sounded like an interesting line of work.

Luckily for them, though, the man’s customers were all located in Bangkok; and they were mostly round-the-clock operations that accepted deliveries at all hours of the day. Otherwise, he wouldn't have happened upon them. He insisted on driving them all the way to Jane’s hotel. When she tried to hand him the wad of baht that she had stashed in her knapsack he refused adamantly. 

Jane repeated the offer once, but no more than that. In her experience traveling abroad, to Asia (and to Latin America in one of her early assignments), she had learned that there were two types of foreigners in this regard: First there were those who endlessly hustled and angled for tips from rich Westerners. Then there were those for whom the display of common kindness was a matter of personal honor. It was as if they were saying, yes, your country may be richer, but here we have manners. We help strangers. We are polite.

This man was obviously of the latter category. So Jane broke things off with a profuse expression of thanks, folding her hands together as if in prayer and nodding her head, as she had seen Thais do so often. Jane was not being insincere. She truly was grateful for all that the truck driver had done.

Somewhat to Jane’s surprise, Khajee exited the truck with her. Then she remembered that Khajee lived in an apartment in a remote suburb. To ask the truck driver to go so far out of his way would be unreasonable. 

They both stood on the sidewalk and waved to the truck driver as he pulled away. The man smiled through broken teeth and waved back at them.

When he was gone, Jane asked Khajee, “Where is your car?”

“At home, I think,” Khajee replied. “At least, that’s where it should be.”

“Why don’t you come up to my room?” Jane gestured toward the hotel. “You could take a shower in my room.”

Jane felt obliged to make this offer, but she immediately regretted it. For a variety of reasons—both mundane and speculative—Jane did not want to be alone in an enclosed space with Khajee right now. 

“No, thanks, Jane,” Khajee said. “I’ll be all right from here.”

“How will you get home?”

“There are taxis all over Bangkok.”

“But you probably don’t have any money, do you?” Jane proffered the wad of baht that the truck driver had refused. It wasn't an exorbitant amount, by any means, but it would be enough for a taxi ride anywhere in the city or its environs.

Khajee took the money. “Thank you Jane, for—for everything you’ve done.”

Jane could not honestly tell her that she was welcome, that it had been no trouble. Instead she said, “I suppose I’ve made my decision, then.” 

Khajee raised her eyebrows. “Oh? What decision?”

“I believe that Ram is dead, and I’m almost certain that you had some hand in his death. Ever since I found you in that hut, I’ve been trying to decide if I should report this to the police. 

“But I’ve decided that I’m going to just walk away from all this. I can’t forget what you did, Khajee, sending me that damn doll. I believe that was your decision. But what happened to Ram tonight, I’m going to choose to believe that that was Lawan, even if she used you.”

Jane wondered if it would really be that simple, if she really could just walk away. Eventually Ram’s SUV would be found. What about her fingerprints? Then she noted that her hands were clean—because she had been wearing gloves the entire evening. She had taken them off to remove the baht from her knapsack. She had worn the gloves in Ram’s SUV. 

What about her hair fibers? DNA? No, it would probably not come to that. 

There were no incriminating electronic messages between her and Ram. They had worked out everything verbally, in that little meeting room at the plant, leaving no record of what they had planned.

“Thank you,” Khajee said at length. “That is good to hear.”

“Another thing, Khajee. Maybe you should leave for a while. You have some money stashed away, right? I’m not sure how this will end for you if you stay here.”

“You may be right,” Khajee said contemplatively. 

“But I won’t tell anyone what I know,” Jane reiterated. “You can trust me on that. It was a shame about Ram, but now, well, now Lawan is buried.”

“Buried in the ground,” Khajee said, in a way that for some reason made Jane uneasy. 

“Well, anyway,” Jane said, “It’s been a long night. I should be going. I suppose you should, too.” 

There was more that she wanted to say to Khajee. She wanted to vent on her, to tell her all that Lawan had cost her, how the Thai woman should have left her out of it. Khajee could have, should have, spared her much grief. But she had sent the damn doll to her, and thereby entrapped her.

But what good would that do now? There was nothing for Jane to do but forgive, go back to Michigan, and move on.

"Yes," Khajee agreed. "I should go."

"Goodbye, then," Jane said with finality, leaving so much unsaid.

That should have been the end of their conversation. Khajee made as if to turn away, but then she stopped, and said, “She was jealous of you, you know, you with your good-looking American boyfriend, David.”

Jane considered all that Khajee's use of the third-person inflection implied and felt a sudden, concrete chill enclose her body. Khajee smiled mischievously. It might have been Jane's imagination, but the other woman seemed to wink before she turned back around.

Then Khajee was leaving her, for good this time. Jane started to call after her. After all the secrets, evasions, and half-truths Khajee had left her with, the Thai woman could not leave Jane with this final one, too.

But Khajee's back profile was rapidly receding now. To catch her, Jane would have to run.

Was it really worth the effort? Despite all that Khajee's final utterance suggested, Jane found that she was simply too tired to pursue yet one more mystery.

It's over, Jane thought. So why not simply let it go? Even if I run after Khajee, and even if she gives me some kind of an answer, it is sure to be a cryptic one that will only open up more questions.

With that, Jane sighed into the humid Bangkok night. She walked toward the main entrance of her hotel. Glad to have Lawan and Khajee behind her. 

But Ram was still missing; and his corpse might lay out in the jungle. While Khajee's final mystery could perhaps be ignored, there were other moral and practical questions that might not be so easily banished.

*     *     *

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Prehistoric Dieting and Post-Modern Ironies

As part of my never-ending struggle with excess weight gain, I've been practicing a modified version of the so-called, "Paleolithic Diet". 

The central idea behind the "Paleolithic Diet" is that one should "eat like a caveman” (or caveperson, if you prefer to be politically correct). 

This means eating the foods that would have been available to a hunter-gatherer: fruits, leafy vegetables, meat and berries. 

The Paleolithic Diet pointedly excludes grains, and all foods made from grains. This means bread, of course; and don't even think about one of those giant gourmet chocolate chip cookies for sale at the mall. (Even "healthy" grains are suspect under the terms of the Paleolithic Diet: There is currently a controversy in Paleolithic dieting circles about whether or not oatmeal is permissible for those who wish to eat as our most ancient forebears ate.)

Paleolithic humans might have occasionally snacked on wild grains; but they didn't grow grain systematically. This is the key reason why they were hunter-gatherers, and why they remained so far behind.

In a prehistoric society of hunter-gatherers, every able-bodied person was engaged in the acquisition or preparation of food. Because meat, berries, and even vegetables quickly spoiled, they had to be consumed within a short time frame. Hunter-gatherers could never get very far ahead. They never knew the source of their next meals with absolutely certainty. Hence the constant preoccupation with food.

The so-called "Stone Age" is divided into two major epochs. The first of these is the Paleolithic Age. Paleolithic is Greek for "old stone", so the Paleolithic Age is also called the "Old Stone Age". 

All dates are inexact this far back, but the Paleolithic Age roughly spans the period from about 2.5 million years ago, up to 10,000 BC. In evolutionary terms, this is the first human age for which it was meaningful to speak of humans as being human.

The next period is the Neolithic Age, or "New Stone Age". This comprises the prehistoric era from 10,000 B.C. (around the end of the last ice age) up to 4000 B.C., when some of the first recognizable civilizations began to appear.

But these terms--Old Stone Age and New Stone Age--are misleading. Neolithic peoples did make some innovations in stone tool fabrication, but not to the degree that would mark an entirely new era. 

The world-altering change of this period was the discovery of agriculture, which gradually enabled humans to escape the hand-to-mouth existence of the hunter-gatherer. This meant not only growing plants for food, but also domesticating animals for human consumption.

In a word: surplus. Maybe not a lot, by modern standards, but enough so that it was no longer essential for every single member of a tribe or community to be preoccupied with food acquisition, all day, everyday. 

This made room for the central pillar of any civilized workforce: Specialization. And with specialization, came commerce. Rather than making all his own tools and clothing, a farmer could purchase (or barter) these items from individuals who specialized in making them. Specialization and commerce brought increased output and sophistication.

Historians refer to this set of developments as the Agricultural Revolution. Consider how advanced civilization has become in the thousands of years since this revolution, compared to how the hunter-gatherers languished in a bare-bones primitive state for the hundreds of thousands of years prior.

And all because people started relying on agriculture instead of hunting and foraging.

One of the most important agricultural products then (as now) was grain. Grain could be be stored for later consumption, as could legumes, and potatoes.

Beans, rice, wheat, and potatoes. These are the foods that you aren't supposed to eat if you want to adhere to the Paleolithic Diet.

And in my experience, the Paleolithic Diet works--if your aim is to reduce calories and lose weight. But when survival depended on hoarding calories, it was exactly the wrong approach for anything but survival by the thinnest of margins.

The ironies don't stop there: Because wheat- and corn-based foods are cheap, modern lower-income people tend to consume them in disproportionate amounts. 

Not so long ago, the poorer people were, the skinnier they were. In the early twenty-first century, the nationwide obesity epidemic is most pronounced in lower income communities. The poorest states in the U.S. are also the fattest ones.

Meanwhile, the Paleolithic Diet craze has given rise to a new boutique cottage industry: Go to Amazon.com, and execute a search for ‘Paleolithic Diet’. You’ll find scores of titles like, The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Foods You Were Designed to Eat, Paleo Dieting for Beginners, and that venerable favorite, Well Fed: Paleo Recipes for People Who Love to Eat

(The last of these, though published five years ago, currently enjoys a solid rank of 1,511 on Amazon. Another Paleolithic Diet book consistently stays within the top two or three hundred spot. It occurred to me that I’ve been wasting my time writing novels and history books. I should be writing Paleolithic Diet books.)  

The publishing industry as we know it today evolved after the printing press was invented in 1440—relatively recent times, in the context of human history. 

It is good to know that the resources of modern publishing have been employed to the creation and distribution of so many Paleolithic Diet books… All so we can learn to eat like cavemen and cavewomen did, back when the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge were still thousands of years in the future.