Authors: Michael E. Rose
Sometimes an obsession can become a death wishâ¦
MICHAEL E. ROSE
McArthur & Company
First published in Canada in 2006 by
McArthur & Company
322 King St.West, Suite 402
Copyright Â© 2006 Michael E. Rose
All rights reserved.
The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in
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Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Rose, Michael E. (Michael Edward)
The Burma effect / Michael E. Rose.
ISBN 978-1-55278-654-3 (pbk)
PS8585.O729B87 2007 C813'.6 C2007-905419-6
Design and composition by Mad Dog Design
eBook Development by Wild Element
The man stripped of all props except that of his spirit is sounding not only the depths he is capable of plumbing, but also testing the heights that he can scale.
Aung San Suu Kyi,
Letters from Burma
Bangkok â April 2001
athan Kellner was a man of strict bohemian habits. He had moved to Bangkok to escape what he considered the excessive normalcy of Canadian life and to be free to indulge his drugs habit and his taste for young Asian women. But he had never truly escaped his need for order, routine, precision. Therefore, he took care to regulate and moderate most, but not all, of his interests, pleasures and vices.
He played badminton, for example, every Saturday afternoon, without fail, except when he was away from Bangkok on an assignment for his magazine or for his other, far less known, employers. He always wore his McGill University track team shorts and the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association T-shirt he had treasured for years and without which, he believed, he could never win a badminton match anywhere in the world.
He always smoked two large joints of mild southern Thailand marijuana before any badminton match, no matter who the opponent. Never more, never less. It was a routine from which he never wavered. The drug put his body and mind, he believed, into the same graceful, swooping rhythm as the badminton bird. He and the racquet and the bird and the net became one, when he was stoned on Thai marijuana, and the game became not sport but dance.
He usually won his badminton matches. He believed, modestly, that this was due to the magical properties of the drug rather than to any particular skill on his part. It may have also had to do, he acknowledged, with the poor physical condition and the drugged or alcoholic state of many of his opponents in the game. Journalists mostly, and most, like him, in their forties and based in Bangkok to nurse their various vices and obsessions.
He sometimes played against embassy personnel, who had other agendas and vices. And sometimes spies, though usually only those from Asian nations relaxed from their espionage endeavours by playing badminton in Bangkok. The Western spies preferred the harder, more aggressive challenges of tennis or squash.
Kellner never joined the others at the bar of Soi Klang Racquet Club after a match. He drank alcohol, of course, but he preferred to do this in the privacy of his own home, along with other stimulants and attractions that can so enhance the pleasures of strong drink. He drank nothing but Nemiroff vodka from Ukraine â the best, he believed, in the world and somewhat difficult to obtain in Bangkok. He drank this with shaved, purified ice, and slices from tiny Thai limes. Two ounces, exactly, at a time, poured over the ice and the fresh-cut lime in a favourite tall glass.
He intended to have three of these when he got home on this particular Saturday evening, as usual. He intended to smoke one more joint and then to have sex with Mai, his almost perfect Thai girlfriend who had lived with him in his peaceful and immaculate apartment at the end of a small
off Thanon Sathon boulevard for almost 11 years. Unlike many older Western men who come to Thailand for women and drugs and drink, Kellner had, after the usual random couplings of the first years, settled with one woman and now went with no other.
It was never difficult to get a taxi outside the racquet club on Thanon Sukhumvit. Kellner had in fact varied his routine slightly in recent years, now preferring to use the clean, quiet Japanese taxis that had slowly been pushing out the noisy
motorized rickshaws once so emblematic of Bangkok. Perhaps a sign of age, he thought, as he settled into the freezing back seat of the car. Perhaps a sign of weakness that he no longer wished to endure the screaming engines and noxious fumes of Bangkok traffic from anything other than the inside of an over-air-conditioned Japanese car.
The taxi coursed through the traffic easily, the young driver an expert and, with Kellner speaking to him in reasonable Thai, not bothering to try to go the long tourists' way around. Getting to Kellner's apartment required a heart-stopping U-turn on Thanon Sathon. Sukhumvit and Sathon were not the classic tourbook back streets of Bangkok. They were broad modern thoroughfares, almost highways, which bisected the city in neighbourhoods of modern highrises, hotels and embassies.
He always enjoyed the freezing ride home from the racquet club late on Saturday afternoons. He enjoyed the sensation as the effects of the marijuana gently faded from his brain. He enjoyed the warmth of the grey sweatshirt he always wore after sport, as the sweat dried on his skin. He enjoyed watching Bangkok slide past, through the green tint of the taxi windows. He enjoyed the muted sounds of the traffic and the Thai music playing low on the driver's radio.
Kellner's apartment on the
off Sathon was not far from the United States Information Service compound. Four stories, owned by some wealthy Thai general who had built it, or so it was said, with the proceeds of various dubious timber and gem deals. It was a modest building, from the outside, but well constructed, well managed and safe. As Kellner got out of the taxi, the watchman, always there, lay under a tree in the courtyard on a rough wooden single bed with a straw mat. One sandalled foot lay perched on the bent knee of the other leg.
From this position he gave Kellner the traditional Thai welcome sign of the
, palms pressed together at chest level. He did not get up, because he had seen Kellner come in and out of the building so many times, at all hours of the day and night, that they had mutually decided to forego the strict application of Thai etiquette. Kellner, sports bag on shoulder, returned the
“You win?” the watchman asked in English from his bed.
“Of course,” Kellner said.
“You not too fat?”
“Not too fat.”
This was a routine Kellner also enjoyed. The watchman was allowed to observe that Kellner had thickened around the middle in recent years, that his once powerful frame had sagged slightly, that his hair was thinning fast. He was allowed to do this only because he knew that Kellner was still solid, still worked out with weights, that he had survived many dangerous assignments in war zones and that he could still very much take care of himself. And that he still had the lovely Mai in his bed.
“Mai waiting for you,
Nathan,” the watchman said with a massive grin. He knew Kellner's routines.
Mai was watching a Hong Kong Chinese soap opera on Kellner's big screen TV. She spoke fair Cantonese but really just liked to see the shoddy costumes and the false goatees and pigtails of the characters, supposedly from some distant Chinese era or other. Always in the Chinese period soaps there was drama, disappointment, shock and outrage. Always there was shouting, reedy music, drum beats, gates slamming, messengers coming and going.
She looked up as Kellner came in and clicked off the TV using the remote. This wasn't movie night.
“You win?” she asked.
“Of course. You ready?”
Kellner stayed with Mai not just because she was beautiful, but because she was smart and loyal and funny. Each time they came out of his bedroom after sex, he thanked whatever gods might be responsible for his extreme good fortune. Mai was not a former bar girl, like so many of the Thai girlfriends other expats maintained, but from a family of shopkeepers who had tried to prevent her from going down that path. And from going down that path with expats like himself.
She was young, of course, roughly half Kellner's age, but no teenager, and she was full of ideas and energy and promise. She was taking high school courses at night. And she was a dream in bed. So Mai was almost, but not quite, perfect. Perfection in women, in one woman, Kellner was still seeking, in his methodical way.
Kellner and Mai always wore identical sarongs of plaid Karen cloth after they had sex and a bath. Kellner wore his pulled firmly around his Western expat stomach. Mai wore hers draped fetchingly from almost perfect breasts. She watched Kellner as he rolled another joint; the last, she would know, that he would have for the day. Alcohol from now on.
“Out tonight?” she asked.
“Press club,” Kellner said as he lit the joint. The vodkas from earlier had already given him a substantial buzz.
He was a vice-president of the Foreign Correspondents Club and tonight he would moderate a panel discussion about the safety of correspondents in war zones. Too many media companies still had to be convinced to provide battle gear and survival training to their staffers. Kellner, the senior man in Southeast Asia for
, was a respected voice. Some of his other professional activities would be less respected in media circles.
He smoked, and looked dreamily through the haze at Mai as she fed her goldfish. Her bare feet made small slapping sounds as she moved to and fro on the waxed tile floor.
It was fully dark when Kellner went back outside. He loved the velvet Asian nights, heavy with humidity and heat and the intense scent of many flowering plants. The marijuana was working its magic. The watchman, also a dope smoker, was already asleep.
A couple of motorcycle taxi drivers usually waited at the end of the soi
Kellner didn't always use them much now, only when he was late for an appointment and did not want to walk down the long dark street to the main road to get a taxi. And he no longer enjoyed hanging onto the back of a hurtling motorcycle in Bangkok traffic, no matter how quick and efficient the ride might be when compared to a car.
Tonight, however, he was late and the Dusit Thani Hotel where the press club was located was not far away. He climbed onto the back of the Honda and the driver started the engine, popped out the clutch and raced the bike forward with what seemed like a single split-second operation. In another split second, they were between the high walls of residential compounds that lined the soi. Large trees blocked the lights from windows. Far down toward Thanon Sathon, miniature with distance, gas lamps flickered on food vendors' carts.
The big car that lunged out in front of them a split second after that came from an alleyway to Kellner's right. The motorcycle driver made an expert panic stop, and then died as a passenger in the car leapt out of the back seat and shot him once in the neck. He fell heavily to the left and the bike clattered to the ground, engine racing crazily and rear wheel spinning at great speed.
Kellner managed to jump away from the bike and to stay on his feet, seeing all this happen from a drug-induced distance and detachment. He had been in trouble before, he had had people try to kill him before, and he was not a man to panic, especially when stoned on Thai marijuana on a balmy Asian night.
, he thought. His mind worked languorously.
Robbery. How much do I have on me
? Then his brain and the marijuana and the vodka bounced the thought slowly back the other way.
Robbery? Maybe not
There was no one around. The gunman approached Kellner slowly. He was small, but wiry, tough, professional. Kellner thought he could be northern Thai, or Burmese. It was too dark to really tell. The driver had sunglasses on, despite the hour and the darkness. The car was a black Lexus, with a heavy grey tint on the glass.
Before the pistol butt crashed onto the side of Kellner's head, his brain had started to work slightly faster.
Who have I pissed off now?
he wondered. He just had time to think of all of those people, all those many possibilities, before he hit the pavement and heard the trunk of the Lexus popping open. He felt arms trying, with difficulty, to drag him to the back of the car, then two more blows to the head, then nothing.