Authors: Timothy Hallinan
For the Choys:
Gerald, Colleen, Gerald Alexander, and Michael
And, as ever,
who holds the thread
oke Rafferty has been on the sidewalk less than five minutes when he spots the tail.
Three of them, all male. One ahead, two behind. Taking their time, no telltale urgency. All relatively young and dressed to fade: one white T-shirt, one red T-shirt, one long-sleeved black shirt. Pants of that indeterminate color produced by years of hard laundering, a sort of enervated second cousin to beige.
The clothes aren't much help, but they're all Rafferty has: no conspicuous physical anomalies, no scars, no rap-inspired dreadlocks, no tattoos, no bleached hair. He's looking at a trio of standard hands dealt out of the Thai genetic shuffleâshort and slim-waisted, with the black hair and dark skin of the northeast. Three everyday guys, out on a choreographed stroll, doing a pretty slick version of the barre rotation: changing places at random intervals, the man in front casually crossing the road to the far sidewalk and drifting back, replaced moments later by one of the pair behind. A rolling maneuver, like a deal in three-card monte.
The guy in the black shirt is what Arnold Prettyman calls “the flag.” He's wearing reflective shades, he walks funny, it's too hot for long sleeves, and it's too sunny for black, even at 10:30
So either Rafferty is supposed to notice him or he's not very good.
Prettyman's First Law of Espionage, drummed into Poke's head over the past couple of weeks: Always assume that the other guy is good.
So. Take score. Moderate foot traffic, average for an early weekday morning in an upscale Bangkok shopping district. Stores just open, offering lots of nice, big, reflective display windows, useful to both the stalkers and the target. The sun is still low, so shadows are long, which can be either helpful or deadly around corners. The usual blast-furnace, wet-blanket Bangkok heat, heat with an actual
to it that frequently takes Rafferty by surprise even after more than two years here. It changes the way he dresses, the way he breathes, and even the way he walks. The way everybody walks. It shortens the stride and makes it pointless to waste energy lifting the feet any higher than absolutely necessary; all the effort goes into moving forward. The result is what Rafferty has come to think of as the Bangkok Glide, the energy-efficient and peculiarly graceful way Thai people have of getting themselves from place to place without melting directly into the sidewalk.
Unlike the other two, whose glides are so proficient they might as well be ice-skating, the guy in the black shirt moves like a man wearing cast-iron boots: heavy steps, a lot of lateral hip action. He looks like Lurch among the ballerinas. The man has, Rafferty finally recognizes, a clubfoot, so put a check in the physical-anomaly column after all. The clubfoot is housed in a black architectural structure half the size of a
the three-wheeled taxis so ubiquitous in Bangkok. So here's Black Shirt, aka
Foot; him, Rafferty can spot.
Okay, he can spot him. So what?
Thought One is to lose Black Shirt first. Reduce the opposition numbers and then worry about the others. Thought Two is to stay with Black Shirt and try to lose the others, on the assumption that he can spot Black Shirt anytime.
The men who are following him probably expect him to proceed from Thought One to Thought Two. Of course, they might know he'd
realize they'd expect that, and they'd revert to Thought One. That's what Prettyman would probably do in this situation.
Or is it? And is there a Thought Three that hasn't even come to him?
Rafferty feels a brittle little arpeggio in his forebrain, the opening bars of the overture to a headache.
A long time ago, he learned that the best course of action, when you're faced with a difficult problem, is to choose one solution, at random if necessary, and stick with it. Don't question it unless it kills you. Okay. Lose Black Shirt and keep an eye on the other two.
The flush of comfort that always accompanies a decision recedes almost immediately at the thought of Prettyman's Second Law. There are usually more than you can spot.
Moving more slowly than the flow of foot traffic, forcing the trackers to lag awkwardly, Rafferty passes the entrance to a five-story department store, one of the newly cloned U.S.-style emporiums that have sprung up all over the city to serve Bangkok's exploding middle class. He pulls his followers out of position by moving an extra twenty steps or so past the polished chrome of the revolving door, as yet un-smudged with shoppers' fingerprints. Then he stops and searches the glass for reflected movement while he pretends to be fascinated by whatever the hell is on the other side of the window. He counts to five, turns away, takes two steps in the direction he's been moving in, then decides that whatever was in the windowâon second glance it seems to be women's shoes, of all the stupid fucking thingsâis indispensable after all. He reverses direction abruptly, seeing the pair behind freeze at the edge of his vision and then scramble to separate, and goes back to the store entrance, moving quickly and decisively, trying to look like a man who's just spotted an irresistible pair of high heels. Pushes at the revolving door.
Cool air like a faceful of water.
He finds himself in the cosmetics department, where a hundred mirrors point back at the door he has just come through. In the closest one, Rafferty watches White T-Shirt come through the revolving door, snap a quick, disbelieving look at the mirrors, and keep right on going until he's outside again.
Rafferty is practically the only customer in the store. Half a dozen
hibernating saleswomen gape at him. One of them shakes herself awake and says, in English, “Help you, sir?”
“I've got a terrible problem withâ¦um, tangling,” he says, tugging at his hair and keeping his eyes on a mirror that frames the two men talking in the street behind him. White T-Shirt with his back to the door, Red T-Shirt displaying dark skin and a pimp's thin mustache. Lots of gesturing.
“You hair okay,” says the woman behind the counter. She employs the unique Thai-style selling technique; the chat is more important than the sale. “You hair pretty good.” She squints dubiously. “Maybe too long,
Maybe cut little bit
In the mirror Rafferty sees Red T-Shirt lose the argument on the sidewalk and push the revolving door. “I'll come back tomorrow,” Rafferty says, shoving off from the counter. “Before I brush.” He walks quickly through the cosmetics department and boards the store's central escalator.
Standing sideways as the escalator's sole passenger, he watches Red T-Shirt do some broken-field running between the counters to catch up, and then Rafferty turns and takes the rest of the steps two at a time.
Turn right at the top of the escalator, move at a half run through a voluptuary's forest of mannequins wearing impractical underwear the colors of extinct tropical fruits. The women's-underwear department borders the housewares department, a broad expanse of gleaming white marble and porcelain meant to awaken kitchen envy in female shoppers. Rafferty stops at the first of a long line of gleaming stainless-steel sinks, complete with a homey assortment of washed dishes in a drying rack, and grabs the squeeze bottle of detergent, hoping it's not just a prop. It is reassuringly heavy. Without looking back, he pops the top and spews a long zigzag of clear, thick liquid on the tile floor as he retreats up the aisle. At the far end, he waits until Red T-Shirt has found his way through the glade of underwear. Once he is sure the man has seen him, Rafferty turns and breaks into a full-out bolt. He is rewarded by the distinctive sound of running feet behind him, then a cry of despair followed by a clamorous crash as some display or another goes down. A glance over his shoulder shows him Red T-Shirt at the bottom layer of a heap of broken dishes, flailing to get his hands and feet under him on the slick floor as shopgirls come running from all directions.
The down escalators take Rafferty in easy stages to the basement, which is positively arctic. Housewives on the verge of hypothermia paw listlessly through piles of bargain clothes. At the far end of the sale area lurks an ersatz McDonald's, complete with its own frightening clown. Beyond the bright plastic tables, their chairs bolted gaily to the floor, a set of tiled steps leads up to the sidewalk, and Rafferty takes them in two springs.
Hot air again. Hot pavement through the soles of his shoes. Traffic noise.
Lots of pretty women wearing bright colors. No White T-Shirt; he's almost certainly watching the entrance. No Black Shirt. Red T-Shirt is probably flat on his back picking slivers of crockery from his hair.
Rafferty slows, debating the wisdom of turning the tables and grabbing one of them for a brief conversation. He is weighing the pros and cons as he makes a right into a side street and the little man with the black shirt and the clubfoot steps out of a doorway, smiles apologetically, levels a small black gun at Poke's head, and shoots him square in the face.