It's forty minutes before midnight here in Bangkok, so happy new year to everybody! My New Year's resolution is to double my workload and to write two books a year from now one! I'll do my best to stick to it. I'm almost at 75,000 words on the Jack Nightingale book, and as soon as it's done I'm going to get stuck into the new Dan Shepherd book. I'm still working on the Bangkok Bob book as well - and here's the fourth chapter so you can see how it's going.
I hope everyone out there has a great 2009!
The hotel that John Junior had stayed in was a featureless concrete block in Sukhumvit Soi Eight, a short walk from the Nana skytrain station. It was six stories high with air-conditioning units mounted in front of each window. The reception was dark and gloomy; half the fluorescent tubes had been removed from the overhead lighting, presumably to save money.
There was a young woman behind the reception desk, adding up receipts with a calculator when I walked in. There were two ceiling-mounted fans taking it in turns to play across the desk, and with each pass of air she had to hold the receipts down with the flat of her hand so that they didn’t blow away. Behind her was a large wooden unit divided into pigeonholes. A sheet of paper had been taped to the bottom. Child-like capital letters warned that if the room charges were a week late, the electricity supply would be cut off. Two weeks later and the water supply to the room would be turned off.
I smiled when she looked up. ‘Sawasdee ka,’ she said. She had shoulder-length hair with a Hello Kitty bow behind one ear.
I told her that I was looking for John Clare Junior and she frowned as if I’d just given her a difficult mathematical equation to solve. ‘He not here,’ she said. ‘Check out already.’
I’d spoken to her in Thai but she had replied in English. That wasn’t unusual in Thailand. Many Thais assumed that Westerners couldn’t speak their language, and even though they heard the words in Thai they would assume that they had been spoken to in English. Sounds crazy, but it’s true.
‘I know, I think he checked out about three weeks ago,’ I said. ‘Do you remember him?’ I passed over the photograph that his parents had given me.
She looked at it, her frown deepening. Then realisation dawned and she smiled. ‘Khun John,’ she said. ‘He check out already.’
She handed me back the photograph and went back to adding up her receipts.
‘Did he say where he was going?’ I asked, in Thai. ‘Did he leave a forwarding address for his mail?’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Do you think you could check with the manager?'
‘Manager not here today.’ She smiled at me and waited for me to go away so that she could get on with her work.
I took out my wallet and gave her a one hundred baht note, which is probably as much as she earned in a day. ‘Maybe you could check anyway,’ I asked.
She reached under her desk and brought out a heavy ledger, opened it and flicked through the pages. She ran her finger down the hand-written entries, frowning furiously again. One of the fans blew her stack of receipts across the desk and she made gasped and tried to gather them up.
I turned the ledger around and looked at it. Most of the guests were foreigners and their names were written in English, as were the dates they checked in and out. All other comments were in Thai.
I found John Junior’s entry. His name, his address in Utah, his passport details, and the dates he’d checked in and out. There was nothing else.
The girl finished picking up the receipts and weighed them down with the calculator. I turned the ledger around.
‘Do you remember Khun John?’ I asked.
She nodded. ‘American boy,’ she said. ‘Very polite. He say he want to be teacher.’
‘Do you know where he wanted to teach?’
She shook her head.
‘Did he say if he was going to stay in Bangkok?
‘Maybe,’ she said.
That could have meant that maybe he said, or maybe he didn’t, or that he did and she didn’t remember.
‘Did any friends visit him?’
She frowned as she thought, then she shook her head slowly. ‘No one come to see him.’
She shook her head a bit more emphatically this time.
‘What about when he checked out? He took all his luggage with him?’
‘Jing Jing,’ she said. Sure. The first Thai she’d used with me. It had finally got through to her that I was speaking to her in her own language.
‘Did he have a lot of bags?’
‘A rucksack. A black one. And two nylon bags.’
‘So did he get a taxi?’
Tuk-tuks were the three-wheeled motorcycle hybrids that buzzed around town. They used to be a quick way of getting around town but the traffic is now so heavy that they weren’t any quicker, or cheaper, than taxis. They were usually used by tourists or locals for short journeys down the narrow sois. I asked her if she meant a tuk-tuk or if he’d used one of the small sideless vans that also plied their trade down the smaller roads. She decided that it was a van. A red one. By then I’d pretty much run out of questions so I thanked her in Thai and walked back up the soi to Sukhumvit Road.
A warm wind was blowing from the west, tugging at my hair and rippling the material of my jacket. The stallholders who operated the stalls that lined the pavements were pulling sheets of plastic over their wares, a sure sign that rain was on its way. What I really wanted to do was to catch the Skytrain to Soi Thonglor and visit the police station there, but I figured there was a good chance that I’d get caught in the approaching downpour so I decided to walk to Fatso’s Bar instead.
I walked down to the traffic lights at Soi 3, and waited for them to change. All the sois to the north of Sukhumvit were odd numbers, those on the south side were even. Fatso’s was in Soi 4, also known as Soi Nana and home to Nana Plaza. Nana Plaza is one of the city’s red light areas, with forty-odd go-go bars and a couple of thousand bargirls. Not what you’d call a salubrious area.
The traffic lights were under the control of a middle-aged policeman sitting in a glass cubicle on the soi 4 side of Sukhumvit. He had a walkie-talkie pressed to his ear. There was no alternative other than to wait patiently.
Jai yen yen.
By the time the policeman was given the order to change the lights to red, the first spots of rain were starting to fall, so I hurried across the road and down soi 4.
The early shift go-go girls were starting to arrive at the plaza, more often than not dropped of by their motorcycle-driving boyfriends. Most of the girls wore the standard off-duty bargirl uniform of low-cut black t-shirt, tight blue jeans and impossibly high heels. The ones who were doing well had an ounce or two of gold around their necks and a top-of-the-range mobile phone clipped to their belt.
A couple of girls sitting at the beer bar at the entrance of the bar called over to tell me what a handsome man I was.
Not true, but always nice to hear anyway.
I walked down Soi 4, past the beauty salon, the German restaurant that served a halfway decent Weinershniztel and the travel agent run by Sue who’s been married to a Thai for so long that she speaks English with an accent.
I pushed open the glass door that led into the haven of Britishness that is Fatso’s.
Big Ron was sitting in his specially-reinforced chair and smearing butter over two halves of a stick of French bread. His early-evening snack. He didn’t really start eating until the sun went down.
‘How are they hanging, Bob?’ he asked as he began stacking slices of fried bacon onto one of the slices.
‘Straight and level,’ I said, sliding onto one of the barstools. ‘How’s the diet?’
Big Ron chuckled as he piled the bacon higher. He tipped the scales at something like one hundred and thirty kilos, but it had been some years since he’d stepped on a set of scales. Even taxis were reluctant to take him any distance, figuring that the damage to the suspension would be irreversible. He lived in a two-bedroom condo, which was a ten-minute waddle from the bar.
One of the waitresses put an opened bottle of Phuket Beer in front of me and I smiled my thanks. ‘How are you, Khun Bob?’ she asked. Her name was Oy and she had shoulder-length hair and a cute button nose and a skirt that barely covered her backside when she bent down to pick bottles of cold beer out of the chest fridge behind the bar.
Not that I looked.
Cross my heart.
‘I’m fine, Oy, thanks.’ She noticed the beads of sweat and my brow and handed me an ice-cold towel in a plastic wrapper.
All the Fatso’s waitresses had infallible memories for faces, names and drinks. You could walk into the bar once, order one drink and leave and not go back for a year. But when you did go back, they’d remember your name and what you drank. And whether or not you’d thrown up in the bathroom.
There were only two other customers sitting at the bar. Alan and Bruce, both long-time regulars. Alan was an analyst with a Japanese stockbroking firm; Bruce helped run a furniture factory. I waved at Oy to buy them both drinks and they raised their glasses in thanks.
Fatso’s was a small place with room for about twenty sitting on stools around the horseshoe-shaped bar and another dozen could just about pack into the space by the door. A spiral staircase ran upstairs to a small restaurant area with a dozen tables and the unisex toilets. Big Ron kept a small camera behind the bar so that he could take pictures up the skirts of his waitresses as they went upstairs.
The results of his hobby were hanging on the walls of the bar, along with photographs of the Fatso’s regulars in various stages of inebriation. There’s a couple of me somewhere but I don’t go out of my way to seek them out. Part of my past.
I’m not ashamed of my heavy-drinking days. But they’re a bit like an old girlfriend that you never really loved and now half-regret sleeping with. I mean it was fun at the time, but looking back I cringe a bit.
Big Ron slapped the top down on his sandwich and began munching on it. Bacon fat and butter dribbled down his chins and he groaned contentedly. The bacon sandwich was just a snack; he’d start eating in earnest at about eight o’clock.
‘I’m looking for a Mormon,’ I said.
‘You’ve come to the right place, they’re all morons in here,’ said Big Ron. He grabbed a handful of paper napkins and wiped his chin.
‘I resemble that remark,’ said Alan prissily.
‘Mormon,’ I said. ‘Salt Lake City and all that.’
‘The Osmonds,’ said Bruce. ‘I’ll be your long haired lover from Liverpool.’
‘Not in this lifetime, you bald twat,’ said Big Ron. Insulting his customers was as much a part of his charm as his habit of photographing the stocking tops of the waitresses. You either loved Big Ron or you hated him, there was no middle ground.
‘He’s a young guy, twenty-two. Wouldn’t say boo to a Peking Duck. Came to Bangkok to teach English three months ago and he’s disappeared.’
‘Says who?’ asked Alan.
‘His mum and dad. They’ve come here looking for him.’
‘What is it with Americans teaching English?’ said Alan. ‘Shouldn’t they be teaching American? I mean, come on.’
Big Ron belched. ‘He’ll be lying on a beach somewhere with a dark-skinned beauty, smoking dope during the day and screwing like a bunny at night. Trust me.’
‘Much as I do trust you, he’s not like that,’ I said.
Big Ron guffawed again, spitting out bits of bread and bacon in my direction. Oy flashed me an apologetic smile and wiped the bar top with a damp cloth.
‘They’re all like that,’ said Big Ron. ‘Americans are the worst. Twenty fours after hitting Bangkok, he’ll have been in the sack with a hooker.’
‘Twelve,’ said Alan.
‘Two,’ said Bruce, ‘including travel time from the airport.’
‘He’s a virgin,’ I said patiently. ‘Born again.’
‘A born-again virgin?’ grinned Bruce. ‘Nana Plaza’s full of them. Little Puy in Rainbow Two has sold her virginity three times as far as I know.’
‘According to his parents, he’s saving himself for the right woman.’
‘If you save wicked women, save one for me,’ said Alan. He reached over and rang a large bronze bell that was hanging just to the right of Big Ron’s head. The Fatso’s girls started pouring drinks for the guys sitting at the bar. One ring bought a round of drinks. Two rings brought a round for the customers and a drink each for the staff behind the bar. Three rings and everyone in the bar and in the restaurant upstairs got drinks, along with the kitchen staff.
‘I went to his apartment,’ I said. ‘He’d cleared out.’
‘Where was he staying?’ asked Bruce.
‘He’ll have hitched up with a freelancer from the German bar,’ said Bruce.
‘Lying on a beach,’ said Big Ron. ‘Guaranteed.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Do you want to put your money where your mouth is?’
The thing about Big Ron is that more often than not, he’s right. ‘Maybe,’ I said hesitantly.
‘If I’m right and he’s on a beach with a bird, you ring the bell three times.’
‘On a Saturday night. Between nine and ten.’
That was the busiest time in Fatso’s. Maybe two dozen people upstairs eating. Twenty around the bar downstairs. Eight Fatso’s girls. Three or four kitchen staff. Not a cheap round
‘And if you’re wrong?’
‘Free drinks for a week.’
‘Deal,’ I said. No way was John Junior hooked up with a girl. He wasn’t the type.
Big Ron grin, belched, and wiped his chin with the back of his hand.
‘Ding, dong,’ he said. ‘Ding bloody dong.’