The Sauna in Heaven

12 May 2010, Bangkok, 2 pm

“I’d like you to help me with something…” He paused and waited until I had lowered myself into the still-steaming, hot water.
I wondered if he was clairvoyant. Was I just an open book to him? I had come to tell him I wanted out of the family business. By the look in his eyes, I could tell he knew why I had come, and was preempting the discussion.

“Yes, Khun Por.” He insists I call him Father, Khun Por, even though he is not my natural father. Everyone else calls him Jor Por Pak Nam, literally Godfather of the River’s Mouth. Unless you’re Thai, that won’t mean much to you. And that’s how it is meant to be; it’s better you don’t know. I eased myself onto the narrow shelf in the pool, the heat vicious. A tingling sensation covered the sunken part of my body as veins expanded and blood rushed.

I waited. This wasn’t a request. We both knew that. Whatever he asked me to do, whatever, I would do. It’s a way of life. People in the west – you – you don’t understand this. Perhaps in Sicily. But blind obedience and loyalty, it’s mainly an Asian thing. The Thai word for it, Griengjai, has no equivalent in the English language. You don’t even have a word to describe this cultural trait. But it is what holds us together: our cultural glue. Quitting the family business would have to wait.

“I need you to go see Big Tiger. I owe him a favor, and he needs…” He smiled, and I knew what was coming next: Dek Farang, Foreigner Kid in English. I’m hardly a kid, but I’ve been called Dek Farang by the family for as long as I can remember. Except Mother, she’s called me Chance since the day she gave me that name, on my fifteenth birthday.

Dek Farang, coming from Por, is a term of endearment, a bookmark in time to when he first laid that name on me forty-one years ago. On the street, everyone else calls me Khun “Oh”, a Thai nickname, shortened from Ohgaat, which translates as Mr. Chance. In business, I use an entirely different name. Complicated? Sure.

We were in a suite in “Heaven” – a high-priced sauna and massage joint on Ratchada – a safe place for us to meet in private. My image as a respectable businessman is something we both want to protect. The suite looked like Ikea meets Bali in the French Revolution. Minimalist sofas, Louis XIV chairs in white and gold, mixed with slate gray post-modernist wall art, the baths of hot and cold water, narrow and long. Not my taste, but it was private, and we weren’t there for the decor.

Bank and Red waited outside the door. His “boys”. You will never stop at this floor, and if you called them boys, you’d either end up dead or in hospital for a very long time. Bank is at least sixty-five; Red, maybe a bit younger, but these are two guys whose wrong side you never want to be on. There’s a story about a Farang, who insulted Por in Patpong one night. This was back in the early sixties. Bank and Red, then in their mid-teens, waited a week to let things settle down. Then they beat the guy a breath short of death in the middle of Patpong Road. He was in hospital for four months before he could eat anything larger than what fits down a straw. The day he came out, they beat him again on the steps of the hospital. I heard it went on for a year. Somehow, the police never found out who was doing the beating.

I waited to see if he’d give me any more instructions about seeing Big Tiger. It would be impolite of me to speak first.

Por let his legs float up and waved his arms slowly outward to rest them on the side of the pool. His legs, skinny and white, contrasted with the teak color of his arms and face. I watched as the ripple in the flat pool spread towards me, bracing myself for the pain. He turned and looked at me. The brow on his square Chinese Thai face furrowed with thought, and a little smirk, come frown, on his mouth. His lips hardly moved when he spoke.

“I spoke to your uncle last week. He mentioned you. He hasn’t seen you for a while.”

No more talk about Big Tiger then, just an admonishment that I hadn’t been to see Uncle Mike.

“I’ve been busy, Por.”

“Too busy to go and see your uncle?” An eyebrow raised, a question mark in his large doleful weepy eyes.

“No, Por. I’ll go see Uncle Mike.” The white eyebrow raised a fraction higher.

“This week, I promise.”

He smiled. I smiled back. It’d cost me a day to fly to Phuket to see Uncle Mike. With having to see Big Tiger, what I had on at the office, and Bangkok’s streets heating up, this was going to be a busy week.

“Ai yah, this water is too hot,” Por said, his Chinese roots showing. He started to slowly lever himself upright. I got up quickly before him and took him by the upper arm, just in case he slipped getting out. He shuffled slightly, a bit wobbly, till he got his bearings. Turning to me, his eyes became deadly serious, hard. He grasped my forearm with a thin bony hand.

“You be careful with Big Tiger. He’s up to something.” He smiled and squeezed my arm. Chat over. I gave him a deep wai. He waied me back, ruffled my hair, and turned towards the master bedroom. I headed for the shower in the guest room.

Freshly showered and wearing one of my best Armani knock-offs, I pressed the button for the elevator and had a quiet word with Bank and Red to look out for the old man. His parting words had me worried and had been in my mind while I was getting dressed. Red’s eyes slid to the woman sitting on the fake Louis XIV chair opposite the elevator.

Por’s newest girlfriend. She was waiting for me to pay her some attention. I didn’t. Half my age, she pouted as she stood with a flounce and a shake of her million-Baht, made-in-Seoul tits. The Koreans do good tits. I looked at her. She paused a second in defiance, which melted as she dropped her eyes and gave me a wai. Respect has to be earned from the inside out. It’s just the way we are.

She brushed past me, the hall wide enough to drive a bus down. Bank opened the door to the suite for her, and with a last glance, she gave me her back like it was a victory. Bank chuckled softly at the look I had received and sat down on the chair she had warmed in her wait. He opened up his Thai Rath newspaper and licked a thumb. Por would be busy for at least a couple of hours.

The elevator pinged, and Red held the door open as I walked into its red velvet-lined interior. So elegant, the designer should be garroted with the gold brocade tassels. I turned and smiled at Red as the doors began to close. I looked at my watch. 3:30 pm.

The blast knocked me off my feet, and life went into slow motion. I was punched into the rear of the elevator and dropped like a sack of lead to the floor.

I came round to the sound of the elevator door pinging each time it bumped against Red’s body. I sat up, legs straight out in front of me, a high-pitched ringing in my ears. Over Red’s dead body, I could see to the far wall of the suite. The whole wall had been blown out. Three meters away, her eyes wide open and staring at me, Por’s girlfriend.

It took me a moment to realize I couldn’t see her body because it wasn’t attached to her head. I wiggled my toes and fingers. Everything still there, or at least it felt like that. One hand on the wall of the elevator, I struggled to my feet, lurching into what remained of the hallway. My legs, no, all of me shaky, I was shaking all over.

Further up the hall, Bank lay face down, a scarlet blood pool around him. On the white marble floor, it was turning to a faint rose color. Water from the sprinklers rained down, mingling with the blood. Dizzy, disoriented, high-pitched ringing in my ears, I walked over the debris of the hallway into the suite. The wall and door of the master bedroom were missing. I stumbled on the slippery rubble beneath my feet.

The lounge and pool area were ripped apart; small fires dotted the room. The water from the pool sloshed around my feet. I saw rubble move in the far right corner of the room. I tore at the brick, shredded furniture, and mattress on the floor in the corner. Por was underneath. Blood poured from his nose, ears, and the smashed remains of his right leg. He tried to sit up. I knelt beside him. Taking my belt off, I got it around his right thigh, pulling it as tight as I could, till he screamed. Getting my arms underneath his armpits, I lifted him until I could put him over my shoulder.

Staggering, my knees still wobbly, I turned. Chai, my driver and bodyguard, stood in the doorway. He was saying something, but I couldn’t make out what. He came over to me, pointing at his left eye, and took Por onto his shoulder. I reached up, feeling my eye, and my hand came away covered in blood. I could feel bits of something stuck in my forehead and cheeks. I pointed to the hall.

We went back into the hall, and bending down, I grabbed Red’s legs and pulled him out of the doorway of the elevator. As I straightened up, everything went sideways.

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