For the last three years, on and off, I've been working on a book about a sort-of private detective based in Bangkok - Bob Turtledove. I love the surname Turtledove and have used it already in the book I'm writing about a police negotiator!
I've written about 25,000 words which is I guess about one-third of the finished book. I'll put the first two chapters (about 3,000 words) here so you can get a feel for it.
I say sort-of private eye because he's actually an antiques dealer married to a hi-so Thai girl who helps people out in his spare time. I'm writing it in the first person, which generally I don't do, and the writing style is different from my other thrillers, which are in the third person.
I'm planning a series of books about the character, and already have the titles lined up! First up will be Bangkok Bob and the Missing Mormon, followed by Bangkok Bob and the Much-Maligned Monk, Bangkok Bob and the Crippled Kick-Boxer, Bangkok Bob and the Jilted Jockey. You get the drift, I'm sure.
So why haven't I finished it yet? I guess because I'm pretty sure that my UK publisher Hodder and Stoughton won't want it. That means I'll have to publish it myself, as I did with Private Dancer. And I'm also not one hundred per cent sure that there's room for another Bangkok-based private eye, as my pal Christopher Moore has already done a great job with his Vincent Calvino series. We'll see. I do like writing about Bangkok, which is a city I know well, and what I want to do is write a series without Bob ever setting foot in a go-go bar or massage place or talking to a bar girl. That's one thing that would set it apart from most of the books set in Thailand! Anyway, here's the first two chapters of Bangkok Bob and the Missing Mormon -
She was wearing a lurid Versace silk shirt, had a diamond-studded Rolex watch on her wrist, diamante Gucci sunglasses perched on top of her head and a Louis Vuitton handbag on her lap. She pretty much had all brand name bases covered but she still looked like a fifty-year-old woman with more money than taste. She had brought her large Mercedes to a stop next to a fruit stall and she wound down the passenger side window and waved a ring-encrusted hand at the fruit vendor. I was sitting behind her in a taxi that had only just managed to avoid slamming into her trunk.
The fruit vendor was also in her fifties but had clearly had a much harder life than the woman in the Mercedes. Her face was pockmarked with old acne scars and her stomach bulged against her stained apron as she weighed out mangoes for a young housewife. The fruit vendor pocketed the housewife’s money and waddled over to the car and bent down to listen to the woman, then nodded and hurried back to her stall. The driver tapped out a number on her cell phone and began an animated conversation.
‘Hi-so,’ said my taxi driver, pulling a face. He wound down his window, cleared his throat, and spat a stream of greenish phlegm into the street.
From a good family. But in Thailand being from a good family didn’t necessarily equate to good manners. The woman in the Mercedes almost certainly wasn’t aware of the dozen or so cars waiting patiently for her to get out of the way. And even if she was aware, she wouldn’t have cared. After all, she had the Mercedes and the diamond-encrusted Rolex and we didn’t so it really didn’t matter that she was holding us up. It was the natural order of things.
There was no point in getting upset. She would move when she was ready, and not before. And there was nothing that I or the taxi driver could say or do that would change that. Acceptance was the only option.
The Thais have an expression for it.
I settled back in my seat and turned to the letters page of the Bangkok Post. A reader in Chiang Mai was complaining about the air quality. The farmers around the city were carrying out their annual field burnings and the mayor had warned the population to stay indoors with their windows closed. A reader in Texas was complaining that the ruby he'd bought on a recent holiday in Phuket had turned out to be fake when he got home . A reader in Bangkok was complaining about his erratic cable television service. For many people Thailand was the Land Of Smiles, but the average Bangkok Post reader seemed to spend most of his time complaining about the state of the country.
The fruit vendor hurried over to the Mercedes with a bag of mangoes. She handed them through the window. The woman put her cell phone on the dashboard and then took the mangoes out of the bag one by one, sniffing them and squeezing them to check their ripeness. She rejected one, and the fruit vendor went back to her stall to replace it. The woman picked up her cell phone and resumed her conversation.
I twisted around in my seat. There were now two dozen cars behind us, and a bus. The air was shimmering with exhaust fumes.
I went back to my paper. A tourist from Norway was complaining of the double pricing for foreigners at the Lumpini Boxing Stadium. Tourists paid up to ten times what locals were charged, she said, and that wasn’t fair. I smiled. Fairness wasn’t a concept that necessarily applied to Thailand, especially where foreigners were concerned.
The fruit vendor returned with a replacement mango. The woman smelled it, squeezed it, then put it into the carrier bag. She opened her Louis Vuitton handbag and took out a Prada purse and handed the vendor a red hundred baht note. The vendor zipped open the bag around her waist, slipped in the banknote and took out the woman’s change. The woman took the change, checked it, put the money into the Prada purse, put the purse into her handbag, placed it on the passenger seat and closed the window. I didn’t see her thank the fruit vendor, but that was par for the course for Thailand. Women who drove expensive imported cars did not generally say ‘please’ or ‘thank you,’ at least not to fruit vendors. The window wound up, the woman checked her make-up in her driving mirror, then put the Mercedes into gear.
We were off.
The taxi moved forward. The Mercedes lady was talking on her cell phone again. She indicated a right turn but then turned left on to Sukhumvit Road, oblivious to the motorcycle that narrowly missed slamming into her offside wing.
The traffic light turned red and the taxi jerked to a halt. There were two policemen sitting in the booth across the road from us. It was getting close to the end of the month which meant that the police were looking for any excuse to pull over motorists and either issue a ticket to meet their quota or collect some tea money to pay their minor wife’s rent. Bangkok’s traffic light system was perfectly capable of being co-ordinated by a multi-million pound computer system but more often than not the police would override it and do the changes manually, using walkie-talkies to liaise with their colleagues down the road. That meant that when a light turned red, you had no idea how long it would stay that way. Your fate lay in the hands of a man in a tight-fitting brown uniform with a gun on his hip.
I went back to my paper. My taxi driver wound down his window and spat throatily into the street.
Just another day in Paradise.
Ying is a stunner. A little over five feet tall with waist-length glossy black high and cheekbones you could cut steel plate with, a trim waist and breasts that are, frankly, spectacular.
Stop right there.
I’m married and old enough to be her father.
And I’m her boss, hoss.
She looked over her shoulder and flashed her perfect white teeth at me as I walked into the shop.
Dao-Nok Antiques. It’s sort of a pun on my name. Dao-Nok is Thai for turtle-bird and my name’s Turtledove. I’m not sure if anyone else gets it but it makes me smile.
Ying was carefully rolling bubble-wrap around a wooden Chinese screen that we were shipping to Belgium. ‘Good morning Khun Bob,’ she said.
Khun. It means mister, but it’s also a sign of respect. She respects me because I’m older than her and because I’m her boss.
‘You are late,’ she added, still smiling.
Not much respect there. But she wasn’t being critical, she was just stating a fact. I was normally in the shop by nine and it was now nine-thirty.
‘There was a mango queue,’ I said.
‘I see,’ she said, even though she didn’t.
‘All the way down Soi Thonglor.’
‘I told them you wouldn’t be long.’
‘I see,’ I said, even though I didn’t.
‘They’re waiting, in your office.’
I frowned. ‘And they would be…?’
‘An American couple. They need your help.’
There was a coffee maker by the cash register and I poured myself a cup and took it upstairs. The door to my office was open and my two visitors looked up, smiling hesitantly. He was a big man run to fat, in his mid to late forties. His wife was half his size with wispy blonde hair and probably five years younger. He pushed himself up out of his chair and offered me his hand. It was a big hand, almost square with the fingernails neatly-clipped, but it had no strength in it when we shook. ‘Jonathon Clare,’ he said in a mid-West Accent ‘This is my wife Isabelle.’
‘Nice to meet you, Mr Clare,’ I said. Mrs Clare smiled and offered me her hand. It was a child’s hand, milk-white skin with delicate fingers as brittle as porcelain. ‘Mrs Clare,’ I said, shaking her hand as carefully as possible. I went and sat behind my desk and flashed them a reassuring smile. ‘So how can I help you?’ I asked.
‘Matt Richards at the embassy said that you might be able to find our son,’ said Mr Clare, dropping back into his chair. It creaked under his weight.
I nodded. Matt Richards was an attaché at the US Embassy. He was an acquaintance rather than a friend, someone I bumped into from time to time on the cocktail party circuit. He was an affable enough guy but hard to get close to. I kind of figured he was a spook, CIA or maybe DEA. Whatever, he was cagey enough never to let his guard down with me and I never really cared enough to do any serious probing. It wasn’t the first time he’d sent along people who needed help that the embassy couldn’t – or wouldn’t - provide.
I picked up a pen and reached for a yellow legal pad. There were a whole host of questions that I’d need answering, but from experience I’d found that it was often better just to let them get it off their chests as quickly as possible. ‘I’m listening,’ I said.
Mr Clare looked across at his wife and she nodded at him with raised eyebrows. He was twice her size but I got the feeling that she was the one who ruled the roost in the Clare household. ‘We’re Mormons,’ he said, slowly. ‘From Salt Lake City. Utah. I’m telling you that because I want you to know that John Junior is a God-fearing boy who has honoured his mother and mother since the day he was born. He’s not a boy to go wandering off without telling us where he’s going and what he’s doing.’
Mr Clare reached inside his suit jacket and slid a colour photograph across the desk. I picked it up. It was a graduation photograph, John Junior grinning at the camera with an all-American smile, his wheat-coloured hair sticking out from under a mortarboard, his blue eyes gleaming with triumph, a diploma in his hand.
‘Second in his class,’ said Mr Clare proudly. ‘Scholarships all the way. A man couldn’t ask for a better son.’
‘The apple of our eye,’ said Mrs Clare, nodding in agreement.
‘How old is he?’ I asked.
‘Twenty two,’ said Mr Clare.
‘Twenty three next month,’ added his wife.
Mr Clare handed me a sheet of paper. ‘We have a photocopy of John Junior’s passport. We also told him to photocopy all his important documents. You can never be too careful.’
‘Indeed,’ I said.
‘We’ve already got his birthday present,’ said Mrs Clare. ‘A digital camera. State of the art.’
Mrs Clare reached over and held her husband’s hand. He smiled at her with tight lips.
‘And he’s in Thailand?’ I asked.
‘He came two months ago,’ said Mr Clare. ‘He wanted to take some time off before joining me in the family business. Janitorial supplies. Cleaning equipment. We’re one of the biggest in the state. There’s barely a hospital or school in Utah that doesn’t have our soap in its dispensers.’
I decided it was time to cut to the chase before I got the complete Clare family history. ‘And when was the last time you heard from John Junior?’ I asked.
‘Three weeks ago,’ said Mr Clare. ‘He phoned us every week. And wrote. Letters. Postcards.’
‘Do you have the letters?’
Mr Clare nodded and looked across at his wife. She clicked open a small black handbag and handed me half a dozen airmail envelopes. I put them down next to the photograph.
‘And since the phone call, you haven’t heard from him?’
The Clares shook their heads. ‘Not a word,’ said the father.
‘What sort of visa did he come on?’ I asked.
‘He was a tourist, but he said he was going to get a job teaching English,’ said Mr Clare.
I sat back in my chair. ‘I thought you said he was just taking a break before joining you in the family firm.’
‘He changed his mind. He said he’d fallen in love with the place.’
‘With the place? Or with someone?’
Mr Clare frowned. ‘What are getting at?’
‘He might have met a girl. Or a boy.’
‘Our son is not gay, Mr Turtledove,’ said Mrs Clare, icily.
‘I met he could have teamed up with a guy he’d met. Maybe gone up country, trekking with the hill tribes. It’s easy to lose track of time when you’re in the jungle. Maybe he met a girl. Thailand is full of beautiful women.’
‘Our son is a virgin,’ Mrs Clare said. ‘He is a virgin and will be on his wedding day. He has promised us that.’
I tried not to smile but I figured that any red blooded twenty-two year old male would have a hard time clinging on to his virginity in Thailand.
‘I am serious, Mr Turtledove,’ said Mrs Clare. ‘Our son believes in the bible as the word of our Lord. Besides, if he had met a girl, he would have told us. Our son tells us everything.’
‘How many children do you have?’ I asked.
‘Six,’ said Mr Clare. ‘Three girls. Three boys. John Juniors is the oldest.’
‘And has he been in touch with any of his siblings?’
Mr Clare’s brow furrowed. ‘I told you, he hasn’t been in touch since the last phone call.’
‘You said you hadn’t heard from him. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t been in contact with his brothers and sisters.’
‘They would have told us,’ said Mr Clare. He folded his arms and sat back in his chair and glared at me as daring me to contradict him.
I doodled on the notepad. ‘How was your last conversation with John Junior?’ I asked.
His glare darkened. ‘Now what are you suggesting?’
I kept looking at the pad. The doodle was turning into an angel with spreading wings. ‘John Junior came out here on a holiday, then he calls you to say he wants to work here. He’s your eldest boy and you were expecting him to work in the family firm, so it must have come as a shock.’
‘A surprise, yes.’
‘So did you argue with him?’
‘We had an exchange of views.’
‘And you weren’t happy about his career change?’
Mr Clare tutted. ‘He wanted to throw away his education to live in the Third World, in a country which hasn’t even opened itself up to the Lord.’
‘It’s a Buddhist country, but there are Christians here. And churches.’
‘That’s not the point,’ said Mr Clare. ‘I didn’t want him throwing away the opportunities he had worked for.’
‘So you did argue?’
‘I don’t like what you’re suggesting,’ said Mr Clare. ‘You’re making it sound as if I chased him away. I didn’t, Mr Turtledove. We discussed his plans, and we agreed that he should give it a go. If he wanted to be a teacher, that was up to him. But yes, I made my feelings clear on the subject, of course I did.’
Mrs Clare patted her husband on the shoulder. ‘Teaching is noble occupation, and we told him so,’ she said. ‘We suggested that if he wanted to teach, he should come back to Utah. He said he wanted to teach in Thailand, for a while at least, and we gave him our blessing. We have also taught our children to follow their own path, but to use the Lord as their guide.’
‘When he said goodbye, he said he loved us and that he’d call again in a week,’ said Mr Clare. ‘That was the last we heard from him.’
I looked down at the doodle again. I’d drawn horns on the angel and I flipped over the page before the Clares could see what I’d done. ‘Do you have an address for him?’
‘He was staying at a hotel in Sukhumvit Road but when we spoke he told us that he was checking out and moving into an apartment. He said he’d write to us with the address.’
I asked him for the address of the hotel and wrote it down.
‘We’ve already been there,’ said Mrs Clare. ‘So have the police. He checked out, just as he said he did.’
‘You’ve spoken to the police?’
Mr Clare shook his head. ‘The embassy said they’d spoken to them. And checked all the hospitals.’
‘Did he tell you where he was going to be teaching?’
‘A small school, not far from his new apartment,’ said Mr Clare.
‘Did John Junior have any teaching qualifications?’ I asked.
Mrs Clare shook her head. ‘Not specifically,’ she said. ‘But he did help tutor at a local school some weekends.’
‘Did he mention anyone he’d met here? Any friends?’
‘No one specifically,’ said Mr Clare.
‘Do you think you can find our son, Mr Turtledove?’ asked Mrs Clare, her hands fiddling in her lap.
‘I’ll do my best,’ I said, and I meant it.
She looked at me earnestly, hoping for more information and I smiled as reassuringly as I could. I wanted to tell her that doing my best was all I could promise, that whether or not I found him would be as much down to luck and fate as to the amount of effort I put into it. I wanted to explain what it was like in Thailand, but there was no easy way to put it into words and if I did try to explain then they’d think that I was a few cards short of a full deck. When a crime takes place in the West, more often than not it’s solved by meat and potatoes police work. The police gather evidence, speak to witnesses, identify a suspect and, hopefully, arrest him. In Thailand, the police generally have a pretty good idea of who has committed a crime and then they work backwards to get the evidence to convict him. Or if the perpetrator has enough money or connections to buy himself out of trouble, then they look for evidence to convict someone else. The end result is the same, but the approach is totally different. What I really wanted to tell Mr and Mrs Clare that the best way of finding where John Junior had gone would be to find out where he was and if that sounds a bit like Alice in Wonderland, then welcome to Thailand. But I didn’t. I just kept on smiling reassuringly.
‘Do you think we should stay in Bangkok?’ asked Mr Clare.
I shrugged. ‘That’s up to you. But I can’t offer any guarantees of how long it could take. I might be lucky and find him after a couple of phone calls. Or I might still be looking for him in two months.’
‘It’s just that my cousin Jeb is minding the shop, and when the good Lord was handing out business acumen, Jeb was standing at the back of the queue playing with his Gameboy.’ He held up his hands. ‘Not that money’s an issue, it’s not. But Mr Richards said there wasn’t much that Mrs Clare and I could do ourselves, not being able to speak the language and all.’
I nodded sympathetically. ‘He’s probably right. You’d only be a day away if you were back in Utah. As soon as I found anything, I’d call you.’
‘God bless you, Mr Turtledove,’ said Mrs Clare, and she reached over and patted the back of my hand. She looked into my eyes with such intensity that for a moment I believed that a blessing from her might actually count for something.
‘I would say one thing, just to put your minds at rest,’ I said. ‘If anything really bad had happened, the police would probably know about it and Matt would have been informed. And if he’d been robbed, his credit card would have been used, here or elsewhere in the world. If it had been theft, they wouldn’t have thrown the card away.’
‘You’re saying you don’t think that he’s dead, that’s what you’re saying?’ said Mrs Clare.
I nodded and looked into her eyes and tried to make it look as if my opinion might actually count for something.
‘And how much do you charge?’ asked Mr Clare.
‘That’s difficult to say,’ I said. ‘I’m not a private detective, I don’t charge by the hour.’
‘You sell antiques, Mr Richards said,’ said Mrs Clare.
‘That’s my main business, but I’ve been here for almost fifteen years so I have a fair idea of how the place works. I’ll ask around and I can try a few leads that the police wouldn’t necessarily think of.’
‘He said you used to be a police officer.’
‘In another life,’ I said.
‘In the States?’
I smiled thinly. ‘It’s not something I talk about, much.’
Hardly at all, in fact. Too many bad memories.
‘I understand,’ said Mr Clare. ‘Mr Richards said you were a good man. And reliable.’
‘That was nice of him,’ I said, though I figured what Matt Richards was really doing was getting the Clares out of his hair as quickly as possible. ‘I’ll start by making a few calls, see if I can find out where he was planning to live and work, and take it from there. I’d expect you to cover any expenses, and then when I’ve finished I’ll let you know how much work I’ve done and you can pay me what you think that’s worth.’
‘That’s a strange way of doing business, Mr Turtledove.’
‘It’s a strange country, Mr Clare. But things have a way of working out for the best here.’