The success of the Italian Plan hadn’t achieved its expected result and I heeded the advice of Dmitri, an old friend from the East 6th Street biker club, “Nothing like a long bike ride to take your mind off your troubles.”
An overnight train carried me north to Chiang Mai. I rented a 400cc bike and drove into the mountains. I would cross into Burma at Mai Sai. No one checked your passport until Kengtung. China was 90 miles to the North. A full tank of gas was enough for a ride halfway through the Shan State. I revved the engine to 120 kph. My eyes saw nothing of the arid countryside. Only the image of Mem lying with another man. It was leading me to a bad place.
Sam Royalle had been collaborating with a timeshares-realtor from the UK. Nick had come out here with five million baht. He had a traditional Thai house, a loving girlfriend bedecked with gold, and a new Benz. No one had foreseen the global recession, which evaporated his fortune faster than a rice paddy in Isaan during the hot season.
Nick drank heavily and his mia wisely had foreseen the end. She split with the car and the gold. Sam lent Nick money for a one-way ticket to London. His maid found him the day of his flight, floating facedown in his pool. The money for the ticket was unspent in his pocket. For a mere $250 the Pattaya police entered the cause of death as a heart attack, so his family could collect on the life insurance.
Nick wasn’t the only one.
Each issue of the Pattaya Mail was dotted with articles about farangs jumping out of hotel windows, hanging themselves or overdosing on pills after their mica’s desertion. No one was immune to the allure of suicide, but I avoided driving head-on into any cars or trucks on the ride to the bridge spanning the Thaton River.
The shimmering road was crowded with army vehicles. Conscripts nervously studied the northern ridge. The previous day Burmese regulars had shelled orchard project sponsored by King Bumiphol. The 110mm barrage had injured several fruit trees and the Third Army commander was spoiling to avenge this insult as a way to curtail the cross-border amphetamine traffic from the Red Wa.
The heat mercilessly hovered around 100F. A horrible temperature for killing strangers and the sweating sergeant at the checkpoint warned, “Lawang-si. Big shooting this morning. Two soldiers die.”
“Khon Thai?” As an illegal resident in the Land of Smiles I favored the home team.
“Ban thi.” the sergeant stated noncommittally in fear of the departed souls.
I had died on this road ten years ago, so my fear of stray bullets was superseded by the necessity to forget my doomed affair and I asked the NCO at the bridge, “Can I go to Doi Mae Salong?”
The sergeant honored my request with typical Thai indifference, “Law ke khun.”
I saluted my thanks and he ordered a drowsy private to lift the barrier. The bike accelerated across the bridge. The roadside towns were deserted and not a single car or truck traveled in either direction. The absence of farmers tending crops on the steep slopes was disconcerting, for these people were no strangers to danger and I stopped on a curve to ponder the wisdom of this trip.
I splashed a little water on my face and gazed out on the valley stretching west to distant hills.
Fifty years ago the jungles were filled with tall teak trees and elephants roamed wild. Tribes clustered atop the misty peaks far from the modern world. They grew opium to soothe their aches. These people had been happy in their ignorance, until the warlords commercialized the drug trade to help the French pay for their war in Indochina.
Forests were cleared to grow more opium. Roads were built to connect distribution centers. Bribes were paid to the police. Addiction became a way of life and the plague worsened with the coming of the DEA.
Crop eradication led to wholesale deforestation to raise land-intensive crops on margin hillsides. Opium was refined swiftly into heroin. The hill tribes and Thais turned to shooting smack. Needles were swapped and HIV spread through the mountains. Thailand had a full-blown AIDS epidemic on its hands, because a country on the other side of the world has lost control of its people’s drug addiction.
None of this was visible from the road to Doi Mai Salong nor was any of the damage from the ya bah trade. The morning haze camouflaged the progress and the hot wind crawled on my skin like Ae’s caress. Her magic had traveled the length of Thailand. I had to go further to leave her.
A machine gun’s distant tat-tat-a-tatted from the west. Plumes of earth rose above a low ridge and the distant mortar explosions were the rumble of a giant’s footfall. The breeze shifted to carry a shuffling hiss through the dry grass. The sudden peace offered no comfort.
An ache shivered in my left wrist and I touched the scar indented into my forehead. A deja vu chilled my spine. I had died on this very spot and hadn’t recognized it until now. I hadn’t died then and wasn’t going to die now. I tried Ae’s number. No answer. She was either sleeping off a night at the Marine Disco or ignoring my call.
I clearly saw her on Walking Street with her Italian lover. I jumped on the Honda Super 4 and rode away with a hell-bent acceleration on a narrow road, because my reserve of self-preservation had reached empty. The Honda’s 400cc engine generated enough power to reach 160kph.
No cars ever came my way and about ten minutes from Doi Mai Salong my cellphone vibrating in my pocket. I stopped by the side of the road. The elevation was over 1700 meters, yet the temperature hadn’t dropped a single degree. The leaves of the trees hung lifeless. I checked the number on the LCD. It was Ae’s. I pressed “Yes. And she asked, “U ngai?”
Her speaking Thai indicated the Italian was within earshot and I asked myself why she bothered calling an ex-lover before saying, “I’m in Chiang Mai.”
“Khun mi puying?” She sounded, as if she cared. I should have lied, instead said, “I don’t have any woman.”
“Yes, it’s the truth.” An Akha woman was traversing the opposite slope to a grass hut.
Hanging up was the best safeguard for my sanity, yet I listened to her whisper, “Miss you, tee-lat. He not same you. When you come?”
I should have said never. Something stopped my saying that word. I remembered the green liquid in the beer bottle. I had been sick for three days. The words of LOVE POTION # 9 jumbled in my head and I told Ae, “Maybe tomorrow.”
“You come. Call me.” It was an order and I pushed the END button. One substance could erase Ae from my life and I drove the final kilometers to Doi Mai Salong with a krait’s poison running through my veins. The Chinese troops fleeing Mao’s Communists in 1949 had chosen the mountaintop as a refuge.
Its remoteness had guaranteed little interference with the opium trade from the Bangkok government. The completion of a paved road had forced the KMT to legitimize their local enterprises with tourist endeavors and the tribal morning market had been replaced by Chinese merchants selling teas and herbal cures.
It was all a front.
Fin or opium and China White #4 heroin were freely available across the border. I parked my motorcycle by the basketball court and wandered through the alleys in search of opium. No one had any. They fingered me as DEA. I installed myself on a restaurant terrace. My dark mood drove any trinket hawkers from my table.
Beer accompanied my wait. The waiter jealously frowned at my ordering a fourth beer. It wasn’t even Two O’clock. I sang along to Lasso’s chorus and two Akha girls giggled at my rendition of CHAO MOTORSAI, then a teenager sauntered onto the terrace.
His eager eyes and skin stretched tightly over his bones like a witch doctor had shrunk him in the wash identified his addiction to ya bah. He sat at the table, licking his lips.
“I have ganga. 100 baht. Ao, mai ao?”
“No, get me opium. Ma. Horse.” I gave him 500 baht as a test. He went off and stayed away. I was too drunk to drive that night, but couldn’t sleep in the small guesthouse. The sweat from my skin smelled like the green slime smeared around the beer bottle.
Getting a Thai woman out of your system was like cutting gum out of your hair. There was always some left. I needed another woman. There were none in Doi Mae Salong. The ride to Chiang Mai took three hours. I couldn’t wait for the bars to open and caught an afternoon flight to Bangkok. I spoke to Ae twice on the taxi ride to Pattaya.
Both times in English meant she wasn’t with the Italian. She was waiting at the house. Forgiveness rekindled our passion. At midnight she announced she was meeting this Italian. “I tell him it’s over and come to you.”
“How long?” I gulped, wishing I had thrown away my cell phone, never let her out of my sight, and ever having met Ae.
“Not sure. He love me too much. I cannot hurt him same I hurt you. He young man, not old man.” She was dressing in skimpy shorts and a chiffon throng bra. It was not a good-bye outfit. I gave her taxi fare and waited for her. She came to the house at 3am, saying the Italian was smoking ganja with his friends. “I can stay three hours. We make love long time.”
I obeyed with the helplessness of a slave lying under quicksand so his mistress won’t soil her feet,
Afterwards she slept fifteen hours straight. Her telephone rang incessantly. The Italian obviously was unaware about our arrangement. If I answered, he might leave us alone. I looked at the bed, the long black tentacles of hair strewn over her face and her mouth agape, as if she were on the verge of taking her dying breath.
A knife to her heart was almost as tempting as a pillow over her face. A couple of seconds and it was over. While violence smoked in my veins, cold-murder wasn’t simmering in my brain and I let her live.
I was no killer.
At least not yet.