“I have sinned and for that I will burn. But I am not evil. I have met evil. Its name was nomad.”
The nomad sat in a Bangkok coffee shop sketching on a napkin with a pen. He was a peculiar man. Unlike the other westerners wearing shorts and t-shirts the nomad wore freshly pressed slacks and a long sleeve shirt with the collar buttoned up and loafers. It was unusual attire for the hot and humid weather of Thailand. The coffee shop was another Starbucks-wanna-be on the fourth floor of Terminal 21, a mega mall built for rich Asians and the farang—Thai slang for a westerner. The air buzzed with conversations, some in Thai most in English. The nomad was oblivious to it all like an island in the stream.
The nomad finished his napkin drawing and took a moment to admire it. The drawing was a cognitive illusion. The bare branches of a tree on closer inspection became the arteries and muscles of a woman. Below the branches was a self-portrait of the nomad sitting in an overstuffed chair drawing. Creation occupied his mind. His need was rising like the thirst of a runner approaching the end of a marathon. He knew that soon there would be work to be done but for the moment he was at peace. Peace is what he wanted most. Stillness.
A Thai waitress cleaning tables nearby glanced over at the drawing. “That very good” she said.
The nomad looked over at her expressionless. He studied her chubby face and overly tight uniform. Too many customer leftovers stolen from the plates she bussed.
“What is very good?” he asked.
“It’s not a photo. It’s a drawing.”
“Yes. Drawing. Very good.”
“Is it your vast experience in the art world that makes you qualified for such a judgement?”
“I no understand.”
“No. How could you possibly?”
He crumpled the drawing and stuffed it into his empty cup. He could feel the disappointment on her face as she returned to bussing tables. The nomad rose from his table and left.
The nomad felt at ease as he descended the mall’s 4-story escalator to the street level. He studied the shops and restaurants as he glided downward. He liked the restaurants in mall. They were clean unlike the dirty little family restaurants and street food that so many of the Thai enjoyed. Bangkok was growing on him. It had the energy of a big city but with Thai hospitality and an abundance of beautiful women. He liked that there were no hard and fast rules in Bangkok. Nobody cared who you were or what you had done in the past. You could be anything or anyone in Bangkok especially if you had money. The Thai respected money. Some worshiped it. Most Thai worked two jobs plus a hustle on the side just to survive in the city but it was better than back-breaking work on a rice farm and a lot more exciting.
The uniformed guards at the entrances to the mall saluted all farang patrons as they entered and exited. It was a show of respect to the westerners but the nomad felt like they were saluting his superiority—their way of saying that he was in control and theirs to command. He always gave them a little salute back encouraging his little army to keep up the good work.
The nomad exited the air-conditioned mall. It was dark and humid outside. The hot air hit him like a sauna. He immediately started sweating through his shirt and ruined the ironed creases on the sleeves. It annoyed him. He liked to look neat and clean. He was not like the others. He stepped around the concrete slabs that covered the sewers hidden below the sidewalk. He had learned through experience that the slabs were often cracked all the way through. If one was not careful, he could end up with a broken leg covered in shit. The smell of human waste mixed with the aromas of street vendors frying chicken in boiling vats of oil and roasting pork satays over compact charcoal grills. Like most farang who spent more than just a few weeks in the country, the nomad had grown accustomed to the smell and at times it even made him hungry.
He ducked under loops of electric wire hanging down from the power poles that serviced the apartments stores and restaurants packed tightly along the streets and down the alleys. In Chiang Mai after a light rain, the nomad had seen a man knocked off his feet after he brushed up against two live wires. He had watched with interest as the man lay in the gutter with his eyes rolled back in his head and his body twitching with mini-convulsions. The man was still unconscious when an ambulance rushed him off to a hospital. Later in his hotel room the nomad had researched death by execution on Google and watched several YouTube videos including an unruly elephant named Topsy put to death by electrocution on Coney Island. Death in all its forms was a curiosity and he found humor in the black and white footage of Topsy’s demise filmed by Thomas Edison’s movie company.
The nomad walked past a teenage girl sitting on a blanket breast feeding her baby. She raised a well-used 7-11 cup as he passed and her sad eyes looked up trying to make contact with the rich westerner. He was not there to solve the world’s problems but he liked giving money to the destitute. It was God-like deciding who would survive another day and who would succumb to Darwin’s law. He dug out the coins from his pocket and dropped thirty baht into her dirty cup. It was not enough to make a difference in her life but it would give her enough for a chicken satay or a small bowl of noodles. She and her baby would survive another day thanks to him.
The nomad joined a throng of pedestrians crossing Ratchadaphisek Road, an 8-lane street that snaked its way through Bangkok like a femoral artery. He knew it was always better to cross with a crowd. There was less chance of getting run over or clipped by a scooter. Tens of thousands of cars and tuk-tuks—motorized tricycles with open air passenger cabs—chocked the streets as scooters weaved in and out taking up every spare inch of pavement. It was surprising that anything moved in the city, but it did and fairly well considering nobody obeyed traffic signals or stayed in their lanes unless a policeman stood in the middle of the street issuing tickets. The driver in front had the right of way. That was the custom and custom usually mattered more than law in Thailand.
Heading north on the opposite side of the street, he zigzagged through the crowd and past the sidewalk bars that served watered-down shots of Johnnie Walker Black to one or two customers at a time. He turned onto a side street resembling a mini Las Vegas with its colored neon and blinking bulbs. The street was called Soi Cowboy and was one of Bangkok’s many adult playgrounds.
Prostitution was illegal but the law was more like an inconvenient speed bump when it came to making money in Thailand, especially when the money came from foreigners. An attractive go-go dancer could make five times what she could make as a line-worker in a factory or as a shop-girl working in the mall. She could support her parents and her children and still have money left over for nice clothes and the latest smart phone. She would never go hungry as long as men wanted her. And if she was lucky, she would find one or two farang boyfriends to support her or even marry her before her looks gave out.
The nomad strolled past several go-go bars with names like Raw Hide, Toy Bar, After Skool and Doll House. Thai boys slapped their handheld signs advertising cheap beer and 5 for 1 shots. Go-go dancers between sets wore that night’s themed lingerie and wrangled passing men by grabbing their arm and pulling them toward the front door of the club. Inside the clubs most of the girls danced with little enthusiasm and bored expressions and often chatted among themselves ignoring the customers until the mamasan scolded them and smacked them on their pussies, tweaked their nipples and pulled their hair. If the girls objected they would be immediately replaced. Most danced topless with one or two completely naked depending on the bar owner’s attitude toward risk and the time of night. A surprise inspection from the local police could bring hefty fines for naked or topless girls and even shutdown the bar if the proper bribes had not been paid. Spotters warned the girls when it was time to suit up. As soon as the danger passed, the clothes came off and the party continued.
The nomad crossed the street to Suzie Wong’s, a go-go bar known for its beautiful dancers armed with foam tubes used to whack passing customers on the back or themselves on the ass if a customer was so inclined. The music inside was old-time rock and roll, a favorite of older farang with thick wallets and blue pills marked with a V. Two Suzy Wong dancers grabbed the nomad’s arms and pulled him toward the entrance. At first he cooperated but then stopped when he heard, “You wanna get nailed?”
He turned back to the outdoor bar across from Suzy Wong’s and saw a very attractive dark-skinned bargirl holding a hammer and standing next to a log set on end. Her smile showed off her white teeth. The nomad knew that bargirls made their money getting customers to buy them lady-drinks which were the same as regular drinks but cost 50% more to cover the girl’s commission. He knew that bargirls were usually cheaper than the go-go girls if he wanted to take her back to his hotel. Seeing the danger of losing a potential customer, the Suzy Wong girls pulled at the nomad more forcefully and turned him around and pulled him toward the club entrance. He turned back to give the bargirl another look. Her face had full lips, a little nose and sculpted cheekbones and her skin was dark and smooth. She was a beauty and knew it and stood smiling and confident. Probably from Isan. Most of the working girls came from the province of Isan in Northeast Thailand.
The nomad knew she could easily be had by just pulling out his billfold. But he wanted more than that. He wanted her to like him. To want him. In his younger days the nomad went for girls who suffered from lack of confidence and could be manipulated easily. But after a few years, he evolved. Now he liked a challenge. He pulled away from the Suzy Wong girls. They cursed him as he stepped over to the bargirl.
“Hi. You’re a frisky one” he said.
“What fisky?” she said.
“Frisky? It means playful.”
“You like payful?”
“I like you. You have a cute little nose.”
“Thank you. What your name?”
“I am David. You?”
They shook hands.
“What does it mean, Buppha?”
“It mean flower” she said. “Where you from?”
“Yes. America. Where are you from?”
The nomad knew the small city of Surin was in the Isan province near the Laotian border and the primary source of rice for all of Thailand.
“A farm girl?”
“Yes. Family grow rice.”
“You are very confident for growing up on a farm.”
“How old are you?”
Asking personal questions such as a woman’s age was considered polite in any introductory conversation in Thailand. She held up two fingers followed by six fingers.
“Do you have children?”
She looked confused.
“Babies? Do you have babies?”
He looked down at her belly. There was no vertical scar from a Thai-style c-section or loose skin below her bellybutton. She was probably telling the truth about only having one child. He had no objection to mothers as long as they remained tight.
“Boy or girl?”
“Girl. She eight.”
“I bet she is a beauty like her mother.”
She struggled to understand most of what he said. Like most bargirls, her English was limited and she wanted to change the subject so she didn’t look stupid. “You want to play?” she asked motioning to the log standing on end.
She tapped the point of a six-penny nail into the log with her hammer. “First one to finish nail buy drink” she said.
She raised the hammer ready to strike.
“Wait. I’ll take that nail” he said and gestured to her nail knowing that she probably placed the nail’s tip in the sweet spot of the log. He took the hammer from her hand. “…and I go first.”
“You play before?”
“Once or twice.”
He unbuttoned his cuff and rolled up the sleeve. He hit the nail squarely and drove it an inch into the log.
“You strong” she said. She glanced at the long scar on his muscular foreman. “You get hurt bad?”
“Bad? No. Not really. Do you have scars like this?”
“Like this no.”
“Good. Your turn.”
She tapped in another starter nail and struck the nail squarely. It went in but not as far as his. He took the hammer and swung at his nail and missed. “Shit” he said.
She giggled. He turned in anger but caught himself. He smiled and handed her the hammer. She swung again and hit her nail squarely. She was consistent and that was the key to the game. The men always used brute force while the bargirls used compliments and consistency.
An hour later, she had six half-finished beers on her side of the table. She took a final swing at her latest nail and drove it until the head was flush with the log.
“Well done” said the nomad and motioned to the bartender to bring her another beer.
“No more beer. My teeth floating.”
“It’s ‘my back teeth are floating.’”
“Thank you for correcting me. My back teeth floating.”
“Okay no more beer.”
“Maybe we could play something else?”
“Okay. What do you have in mind?
“Maybe you take me to hotel and I fuck you good.”
“That sounds interesting.”
Again she didn’t understand him. His vocabulary was beyond her.
He looked her over once again. Her face was without a serious blemish. However, experience had taught him the hard way that things in Thailand were not always what they seemed. “You’re not a—”
“—ladyboy?” she said. She pulled open her shorts and allowed him to have a peak. He nodded his approval. Thai women were clean and bathed two or three times a day.
“Do you know how to swim?” he said.
“I swim little” she said.
“Good. Let’s go to my hotel. It’s got a pool and I’m hot.”
“Yeah. You hot. You pay bar fine. Okay?”
“Eight hundred baht.”
“Okay. And you? How much you cost?”
“Short time or long time?”
“Short time for now but we’ll see where the night takes us.”
“Twenty-five hundred baht short time.”
The nomad glanced up at the security camera covering the bar and saw that they were aimed directly at him. “Okay but I have a good idea.”
“What good idea?”
“What time does the bar close?”
“Why don’t you meet me at two o’clock outside my hotel. I can give you the 800 baht bar fine and the 2500 baht. You’ll make more money. Maybe you do a little extra for me.”
“Okay. I like. But no say anything to other girls so I no get in trouble.”
Elevator doors opened and Buppha and the nomad walked out into a foyer. A sign on a door read Pool. She twisted the doorknob. It was locked.
“Fuck. It locked” said Buppha.
“It’s okay. I have a key” said the nomad. The nomad slammed his foot into the door. It didn’t open. He tried again and again until the lock gave way and the door swung open.
“You bad boy.”
“Only if they catch me.”
They entered the dark indoor pool room and the air was still. The moonlight through the windows illuminated the water. Buppha looked for a light switch.
“No. Leave it dark” he said.
The nomad moved up behind her and kissed her on the back of the neck. She turned and pulled off his shirt revealing his heavily scarred chest, abdomen and arms. She pulled back startled.
“It’s okay. It doesn’t hurt now” he said.
She kissed several of the scars on the chest. He closed his eyes and moaned. He liked this girl. She was smart and knew what he wanted. She moved off and teased him pulling off her clothes. The nomad’s eyes studied her naked body free from scars. She was perfect and worthy of his passion. He pulled off the rest of his clothes revealing even more scars on his buttocks, genitals and legs, some from cigarette burns and others from cuts and gashes. One long scar was from a cracked fibula that had broken through and ripped the skin. Naked, Buppha touched the water with her toes.
“It cold” she said.
“I’ll keep you warm.”
The nomad dove in and disappeared beneath the dark water. Buppha waded into the shallow end and kept one hand on the side of the pool. She was not a good swimmer. The nomad surfaced behind her. He gently folded his arms around her like a mother holds a child on a winter day.
“It’s okay. I’ve got you.”
He gently pulled her from the side. Apprehensive she turned around and wrapped her arms around his neck. They moved into the deep end of the pool. The nomad treaded water for the both of them. Buppha relaxed a bit. He would keep her safe.
“There you go. You can trust me. I’ve got you” he said softly.
As they approached the opposite side, she again reached for the side. The nomad again moved up behind her and took her other hand and placed it on the side so she could hold on to the wall with both hands. She felt his erection on her buttocks.
“You use condom?”
“Yes” said the nomad.
The nomad placed his hands over hers and thrusted gently against her. She let out a moan. The nomad thrusted again more firmly. Her face flinched.
“Wait. Slow. I not ready yet” she said.
The nomad thrusted again and again harder and faster.
“No. Stop. It hurt.”
He didn’t stop. She began to panic and kicked him in the knee. He pushed away in pain.
“Fucking bitch” he said.
She was a fighter. He liked that but she must be controlled and punished for the kick. It was the only way she would learn. He disappeared below the surface. She held onto the side of the pool and pulled herself hand over hand toward the shallow end. Her feet searched for the bottom. The nomad surged out of the water behind her and came down on top of her back. His teeth bit into her shoulder. She screamed in pain. He thrashed his head back and forth and his teeth dug deeper until finally he pulled his mouth away leaving a golf-ball-size hole in her shoulder. He released her and spat out a hunk of flesh into the water. Blood flowed from his mouth and mixed in the water around him. Again he submerged below the black water.
She stared at the hole in her shoulder and watched it fill up with blood. She could not grasp what had just happened or what was about to happen. She looked around at the black water. The nomad was not in sight. She took a breath and pushed herself under the water. Her feet found the bottom of the pool. She scrambled for the shallow end. Her head bobbed out of the water and she looked back at the blackness. No sign of the nomad. She turned back toward the stairs and watched as the nomad rose from the dark water between her and the pool steps. She stopped frozen in fear. The nomad reached out and gently placed his hands on her arms and lifted her up.
The nomad opened his mouth wide and his teeth descended onto her face. The water thrashed as she struggled. Her screams muffled into guttural grunts. The water calmed. The nomad rose from the water and spit something out of his mouth. An object plunked into the water and bobbed to the surface. It was her little brown nose.
The nomad sat calmly on his hotel room balcony looking out at the city lights below. It was just before dawn. He felt full and at peace. Eventually, the authorities would find the girl’s body where he had hidden it and the search for her killer would begin. By then he would be gone. But there was no need to hurry now. He was still safe. And then it hit him—a bolt of pain seared through his brain. The pain left as quickly as it had come. Just ignore it he thought. It’ll go away.
The pain hit him again stronger. He quickly moved into the bedroom and pulled his toilet kit from his luggage bag and fished out a plastic container and opened it. Inside was a plastic statdose pen and one replacement cartridge. The other cartridge had already been used and discarded. He placed the remaining cartridge in the pen and shot himself in the wrist. After a few moments, the medication to took affect and his face relaxed. His peace had returned. The electrical storm in his mind was gone. It was going to be okay.
He wanted to close his eyes and sleep. Even the slightest attack drained him of all his energy. Maybe he would lay down for a few minutes. No he thought. It’s time to go while it is still quiet before the hotel’s day staff arrives. There was work that still needed to be done.
He put the statdose pen back in the plastic container, the container back in his toilet kit and the toilet kit back in his luggage bag. He pulled out his wallet and removed his prepaid credit card. He also pulled out his passport and his phone. He moved back out to the balcony and sat down. He bent the credit card back and forth until it snapped in half. He threw the pieces into the ashtray on the table. He ripped out the photo page of his passport showing his photo and his assumed name—David Mitchell. He methodically tore each page of the passport into four sections and placed them into the ashtray. He pulled the sim card from his cell phone and placed it in the ashtray. He stomped on the cell phone breaking the glass and frame then threw the useless remains over the balcony into the alley below. He broke open a disposable lighter and poured the fluid into the ashtray taking special care to thoroughly soak the photo page of his passport. He used the remains of the lighter mechanism to ignite his passport photo page. He let it burn completely and dropped the flaming photo page into the ashtray, igniting the rest of the evidence. He left the ashtray contents to incinerate and exited the balcony and walked back into his room.
He opened a pouch in his luggage bag and pulled out five passports. He selected one of the passports and opened it to the photo page. Inside was a prepaid credit card with a name matching the passport—Kyle Tanner. He slid the credit card into his wallet and his passport into his jacket pocket. From another pocket in his luggage bag, he pulled out a compact electric screwdriver, a matchbook and a can of lighter fluid. He slid all three it into his jacket pocket. He pulled out a cigarette and placed it behind his ear and zipped up his bag.
He moved back onto the balcony and emptied the ashes of his mini-evidence bonfire onto a piece of tinfoil and neatly folded it up and slipped it into his backpack. He moved back into the room and searched the trashcan. He stuffed the loose garbage into his backpack. He pulled out the can of lighter fluid and squirted the drapes and the bed. Using another lighter, he set the drapes alight and the room quickly became engulfed. He exited the room with his backpack and luggage bag. The nomad knew that the fire would not destroy all his fingerprints and DNA but this was Thailand and the police and fire departments were seriously under staffed and under equipped. There was little chance they would even bother looking for an arsonist once the fire was out.
In the hallway, the nomad disappeared down the stairwell just as the fire alarm sounded. At the bottom of the stairwell, the nomad set his luggage bag by the door and opened the door leading into the lobby and took a quick peak. The front desk staff scurried around trying to figure out if there was a real fire or if it was a false alarm. Guests gathered in the lobby demanding an explanation. In the confusion, the nomad with his backpack slung over his shoulder slipped into the back room behind the front desk.
Inside the back room, video monitors displayed the different views of the hotel’s security cameras. The nomad searched and found the computer controlling and recording the security cameras. He pulled the removable hard drive from the computer along with five others sitting on a nearby rack and dropped them into his backpack. He pulled out the can of lighter fluid and squirted the computer with fluid. He pulled out the book of matches and the cigarette behind his ear. He lit the cigarette and placed the burning cigarette on top of the match heads and folded the cover closed. In a few minutes the cigarette would burn down and ignite the match heads. He placed the homemade incendiary device at the base of the computer next to a gathering puddle of lighter fluid. He zipped up his backpack, slung it back over his shoulder and exited the back room. In the lobby the nomad mixed with the other guests and waited.
Inside the backroom the incendiary device ignited. The computer went up in flames. Smoke poured out of the back room. Guests panicked and ran into the street. The remaining staff ran for fire extinguishers.
The nomad slipped behind the front desk and opened a file drawer. He searched through the copies of passports with the attached admin forms until he found his own. The passport copy clearly showed his photo and his name—David Mitchell. He pulled it and stuffed it into his jacket pocket and squirted lighter fluid into the file. He moved to the hotel computer, pulled out his electric screwdriver and removed the screws from the back panel and removed the computer’s hard drive and dropped it into his backpack along with the other hard drives. He squirted lighter fluid into the computer. The computer shorted out starting another fire. He left the desk and walked back to the stairwell and opened the door. He grabbed his luggage bag and exited the hotel as the fire trucks pulled up.
The nomad walked down the street and over a bridge above a storm canal. He looked around to see that he was truly alone and unzipped his backpack and dumped the hard drives and the loose garbage from the room trashcan and the tinfoil holding the ashes into the water below. His trail was now erased.
It is going to be a fine day he thought as he moved off in the early morning light.
Billy Gamble woke staring at the ceiling of a very small room. It seemed more like the inside of an oversized coffin than an actual room. There was no door in the room but there was light bleeding through a cloth screen down past his feet. His head hurt and his lips were chapped. He was fairly sure he wasn’t dead but he wasn’t prepared to swear on it. Where am I? he thought fighting a growing feeling of vertigo. Taipei? No. He remembered leaving Taipei two weeks ago. It wasn’t Taipei. Seoul? Billy sniffed the cool damp air. No kimchi. Everything and everyone in Korea smelled of kimchi—a fermented cabbage made with onions and ground red peppers. It wasn’t Seoul.
He closed his eyes trying to focus as his head throbbed. It was a wicked hangover. What did I drink last night? Last night…? In his mind were blurred images of flashing neon, green laser beams and Asian showgirls with their fists pounding to the music while dancing on robots. Robots? Yeah robots. Lots of chrome-skinned robots dancing and a panda bear riding a cow and Mothra spewing sparks while carrying a gorilla in its talons. Mothra? It hit him. The Robot Restaurant. I’m in Tokyo. His mind cleared a bit and the vertigo faded. It made sense now. He came to Japan after Taiwan. He was still far from home. The micro air conditioner on the wall above his head hummed. It reminded him of something. He closed his eyes and remembered…
Barbwire hummed from a hard wind. The Grand Tetons of Wyoming towered over a small homestead. A twenty-year-old pickup sat covered with two feet of fresh snow, its rocker panels and fender wells rusted from too many long winters. A school bus with snow chains and a plow welded on the front pulled to a stop on the road. Two boys exited the bus and cut themselves a new path thru the snow. One boy headed for a shed while the other headed for the house.
A young Billy entered his father’s wood shop and closed the door against the wind. For a woodshop there was a definite lack of power tools. Handmade gigs, well-aged chisels and wooden hand-planners with their varnish long worn off hung from the ceiling and on pegboards. It was the kind of stuff people collected as antiques and displayed in local bars and restaurants not anything anyone used anymore. His father stood over a homemade workbench. A wood vise gripped a table leg. He used an old-fashioned hand-drill to auger a hole in the top of the leg.
“How was school?” asked his father.
“Boring as shit.”
“Watch your mouth. Mother doesn’t like you to swear.”
Billy walked over to the bench. His father pulled the auger bit out of the leg and wood chips fell to the floor covered in sawdust.
Billy blew into the hole and purged the remaining wood chips and sawdust. His father handed him a bottle of wood glue and a hand-carved wooden dole.
“Three drops. No more no less.”
Billy let three drops of yellow glue fall and pushed the dole into the hole. It was a tight fit. Billy knew what came next and picked up a wooden mallet.
“Light taps” said his father.
Billy tapped lightly until glue oozed out of the hole past the sides of the dole. His father handed Billy a rag.
“Quick like a rabbit neat like a barkeep.”
Billy used the rag to carefully clean up the excess glue.
“Make good and sure ya get it all or the stain won’t take.”
“Why don’t ya just use big screws? They’re faster.”
“Faster ain’t better. This table’ll be strong for years. Maybe even a lifetime.”
The young Billy nodded. His father took a sip from his Coleman thermos of maybe coffee, maybe something with a little more kick. It depended on the weather and his mood.
“You got chores ‘fore supper.”
“Can’t I stay awhile longer?”
His father gave him a “What do you think?” look. Billy didn’t need to be told twice especially when the second tellin’ was usually accompanied by his father’s boot. He exited the woodshed and closed the door tight behind him.
It was twilight. The sun’s warmth was gone and the temperature dropped like a pinecone from a tree. Billy and his brother Lowell waded knee deep in the snow carrying a bale of alfalfa between them. Billy’s jacket had a patch sewn on the side where Lowell had torn it climbing under a fence before it was handed down to Billy. Nothing was wasted in their family. Nothing. Billy fell and dropped his hook in the snow along with his end of the bale.
“Get your ass up, Buttface” said Lowell.
“I’m trying” said Billy.
“Try harder, Shithead. It’s colder than a witch’s tit out here.”
“My dick’s freezing.”
“How would you know? You ain’t got a dick.”
“You ain’t got a dick.”
“Bigger than your little pecker.”
Billy swung the hook into the side of the bale and lifted up his side again. The boys entered a barn. Eight appaloosa horses with long winter coats were tucked into separate stalls and restless for their supper. One of the horses, a sorrel mare with three socks and a white powdering on her buttocks, whinnied.
“Shut the fuck up, Snowdrop. We’re coming” said Lowell.
“Yeah we’re coming, Snowdrop. Shut the fuck up” said Billy.
The boys dropped the bale in the center of the barn. Lowell grabbed a pair of wire cutters hanging from a nail and snipped the wires holding the alfalfa together. The alfalfa bale fell apart into square flakes. When Lowell put the cutter back on the nail, he reached up and grabbed a hidden pack of cigarettes and a matchbox.
“You feed ’em. I’m having a smoke” said Lowell.
“Pa catches you smoking in the horse barn again he’s gonna—”
“He ain’t gonna do nothing cuz your yapper ain’t gonna say shit.”
“You’re too young to smoke. It’ll stunt your growth.”
“I don’t care. Gimme one. I’m cold and it’ll warm me up.”
“Okay. When you’re done feeding ‘em.”
Lowell struck a match on the zipper of his jeans and lit a cigarette. He tossed the burning match down to the wooden floor next to a small pile of dry hay and started a fire.
“What the fuck, Lowell?”
“Shut up, dick-less.”
Lowell unzipped his fly and peed on the little fire and extinguished it. Billy pulled the bale apart and tossed a flake into each horse’s stall. Billy walked back to Lowell and held out his hand for a cigarette.
“You’re ‘bout as useless as tits on a bull. Ya ain’t done, shit-for-brains. Ya gotta give ’em their grain or they’ll freeze to death.”
“They’re in a barn. They ain’t gonna freeze to death.”
“Maybe not but you still gotta feed ’em their grain. It’s like dessert to a horse. They gonna get all pissy if ya don’t give it to ‘em.”
Billy walked over to a large plastic barrel and opened the lid and gave each horse a scoop of grain mixed with molasses on top of their alfalfa. The horses snarfed it down like kids eating candy. Billy walked back over to Lowell and put his hand out for a cigarette. Lowell dropped the pack to the wooden floor. Billy bent down to pick it up. Lowell turned and farted in Billy’s face.
“That’ll keep you warm” Lowell said running out of the barn. Billy picked up the pack. It was empty.
Billy sat by the fire in the family room. He was halfway finished assembling a 2500-piece puzzle. Billy didn’t look at the box lid that showed a picture of an underwater reef filled with coral fish and a shark. Instead he studied the edges of each loose piece and studied the edges of the assembled pieces. In his mind he measured distances between the farthest edge of each piece and searched for matching patterns, not the color of the printed image on each piece like normal children. He assembled the puzzle quickly. His mother called him to dinner.
Billy sat at the dinner table with his family making a volcano out of his mash potatoes and gravy. The phone rang. Billy glanced at Lowell sharing a worried look. His mother answered it and handed the phone to their father interrupting his meal. His father listened and his expression darkened.
“I see. Well thank ya for calling, Pete. I sure appreciate it. Louise’ll be down tomorrow to pay for anything missing. Be sure and say hello to Betty for us. You have a good night.”
Billy’s father hung up the phone and sat back down at the table without saying a word. Billy gave his brother an even more worried look. His father finished his supper in silence.
Billy and Lowell in their white underwear stood silently in the bathroom with their pants down around their ankles. Their father entered the bathroom and closed the door and turned to his sons.
“You steal baseball cards from Henderson’s five and dime?” asked their father.
“No. Ol’ Pete hates kids. He’s just trying to get us in trouble” Lowell said.
His father nodded and turned to Billy.
Billy stood motionless, petrified. After a long moment he shook his head. Their father pulled off his belt and doubled it up in a loop holding the buckle-end in his hand.
“Billy, you first.”
His father lowered the toilet lid and sat.
“I’m sorry, Pa.”
“Yes ya are. Now get ‘em down.”
Billy pulled down his underwear and leaned over his father’s lap.
“We don’t steal in this family.”
His father struck Billy three times leaving three long red welts on his butt and upper thigh. In tears Billy pulled his underwear up and moved off to one side. He watched his brother pull his underwear down and assume the position.
“This is for stealing.”
His father delivered three licks with his belt. His brother started to rise but his father stopped him and pushed him back down.
“And this is for lying.”
His father delivered even harder blows. Whack—whack—whack—
Billy watched with tears running down his face as his father struck his brother again and again. Watching was always worse than the belt. The lesson was learned by both.
Billy blinked. His memory was over. This wasn’t home, of that he was sure. He glanced at the time on his iPhone—6 a.m. He had slept in and it was time to get up. His room was a hotel capsule—the exact width and length of a single bed. There was a small shelf to hold personal belongings, a reading light and a single electrical outlet. That’s it. No frills. Cheap but efficient. His roommates, mostly Japanese businessmen sleeping off a night of boozing at their favorite Izakaya, had already started their day. Hungover but reliable—that was the Japanese way. He unplugged his phone charger and grabbed his toilet kit and towel and slid to the end of his bed and opened the cloth shutter that served as a door.
Shit he thought. He had forgotten he was on the top bunk. He climbed down the stairs until his bare feet touched carpeted floor. He slid the complementary slippers on his size 13 feet and his heels stuck out over the back edge by a good two inches. Not even close. He kicked off the slippers and walked past the double-stacked capsules lining both sides of a long room. Billy was wearing the terrycloth sleeping garments issued by the hotel for all guests. They were the largest size available, but still road up to his shins.
He entered the white tiled bathroom. Spotless. The Japanese are the cleanest people on the planet he thought. He set his things on the counter and moved to one of ten urinals to start his morning routine. A Japanese man walked up to a urinal near Billy and looked down with disgust at Billy’s bare feet.
“Them slippers they give me didn’t fit” said Billy.
It didn’t help. It was a breach of etiquette. The man moved off to the privacy of a toilet stall.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to—”
Too late. The man was gone.
“Ah to hell with it” Billy said to himself. “Not like I missed the bowl and peeped on the man’s britches.”
Billy finished up and entered the shower locker room, stripped off his sleeping wear, placed his things in a locker, locked the door and slipped the waterproof key band around his wrist. He was buck naked like the other men without even a towel to cover his private parts. That was the Japanese custom when entering a public bathing area. Naked.
He walked into the shower room. There were twenty shower stalls against the walls. He sat down on a short plastic stool in front of a shower head on the end of a flexible steel hose. There was a nice arrangement of complimentary shaving cream, razors, shampoo, conditioner and body gel on the shelf in front of him. He turned on the water and rinsed himself off. The Japanese were overly attentive about soaping up and scrubbing every inch of their bodies before entering a sento, a Japanese public bath. Billy failed to see the point. He turned off the water and stood up and walked over to the pool-sized bath.
Four Japanese men were already sitting in the steamy water. The temperature gauge on the wall read 40 degrees Celsius. Billy stepped in slowly. The water was hot. He was concerned what would happen when his balls hit the water. He looked around at the other men now staring at him. Too late to back out now he thought. He stepped farther into the bath and submerged his body, creating a mini tidal wave. The water was barely tolerable. He relaxed and leaned back against the wall. He grabbed a small bamboo bucket and scooped up some water and poured it over his head. He let out a whoop. Another breach of etiquette. He didn’t care. The other four men got out and left the uncultured American alone in the bath.
“Be glad I didn’t pee” said Billy.
Eve Donoghue stood in front of the Capsule Value Hotel for Men. She checked the address on her list of hotels. More than half the hotels were crossed off and it was still a long list. She walked to the front door and entered the hotel. She immediately took off her shoes and put on a pair of slippers provided by the hotel and set her shoes on the rack in the entryway.
Billy was dressed except for shoes when he exited the men’s locker room. He turned into the shoe storage area across from the front desk and caught a glimpse of Eve as she entered the lobby. He was intrigued by seeing a white woman close to his age and took a second peek as he unlocked his locker and removed a pair of hand-stitched Lucchese boots made of calfskin with lemonwood pegs in the soles. The boots were well past due for a resole but he didn’t trust anyone outside the U.S. to do it. They’d just have to wait.
Eve approached the receptionist and they exchanged bows.
“Do you speak English?” Eve asked with an Irish accent.
“Yes. A little” said the receptionist.
Irish Billy thought. I wonder how she likes her whiskey?
“I am looking for this man” said Eve and pulled a photo from her satchel.
Billy glanced around the corner and saw the Irish woman holding a grainy headshot of his face blown up from his Wyoming driver’s license. Oh shit he thought and ducked back behind the row of lockers. The receptionist studied the photo. Eve saw a hint of recognition in her eyes.
“Do you know him?”
“What he do?”
“Nothing. His uncle died and left him a large inheritance. You know—money.”
Bullshit Billy thought. He had two uncles, one an alcoholic used car salesman lucky to make rent each month and the other a farm equipment mechanic crushed to death eight years ago when a tractor fell off its cinder blocks. He knew why she was after him. He had stolen $4.2 million and the insurance company that was forced to pay the claim wanted its money back.
“Oh that good for him” said the receptionist.
“Aye, very good” said Eve. “I want to find him and tell him. Give him documents to sign so he can get the money.“
Billy grabbed his boots and slipped back into the Men’s locker room.
“Have you seen him?”
“Yes. He staying here.”
“He’s staying here?”
“Is he here now?”
“Yes. I think he still here. Not leave yet. You want I send someone get him?”
“No. I’ll wait here until he comes out. I don’t want to disturb him.”
Eve sat in a stool that gave her a good view of the entire lobby. She pulled out her mobile and dialed.
“Detective Chiba, it’s Eve Donoghue. I found him. Capsule Value Hotel at 1-2-7 Kabukicho. Aye. Four uniformed officers should be enough.” Eve hung up the phone.
Billy opened his locker and pulled out his luggage bag. He pulled his boots over his white socks and spotted an exit sign in Japanese and English on the side wall of the locker room. He moved toward it then burst through an exit door into an alley with his wheeled luggage bag in tow. He vanished into Tokyo’s morning commute. He was lost in the crowd. He was safe.