Authors: Timothy Hallinan
“Good. Good.” A few things on Thanom’s desk—a memo pad, a sleek little laptop that makes Arthit’s look like a museum piece, the old-fashioned intercom that links him to his secretary—seem to be slightly out of place. When he’s rearranged them, he tilts his chair back, his eyes on a spot floating in the air a few feet to the left of Arthit’s head. “The killing of Sawat—”
“And the others,” Arthit says.
“Of course, the others. Policemen, some of them, and a former policeman.” He grimaces and sucks air through his invisible teeth. “It—it—well …”
“Awkward,” Arthit volunteers.
“Yes, awkward. Doubly awkward, because Sawat apparently had policemen working for him even now. But most of all, there’s all that other business, that … unpleasantness from a few years back. All that will get raked over again.”
“Bad for the department.”
“Terrible. A ring of hit men in uniform. Even though we managed to keep it out of the courts, it took years to put it behind us. Careers were ruined.” He tugs down on the front of his shirt, smoothing it over his belly. “Even some of those who kept their jobs have a black mark in their files. A
do not promote
Thanom is one who has been promoted since the story broke, even though he was Sawat’s immediate superior and the obvious place for blame to land. The betting pool, down at Arthit’s level, was four-to-one in favor of Thanom being forced into early retirement, but he somehow managed to zig when a zag would have put him on the street, and he’s been zigging ever since. The Dancer.
“Well, we did avoid the courts,” Arthit says with a certain amount of enjoyment. “Both the judiciary and the police board decided that it didn’t make sense to reopen the cases—”
“Yes, yes, yes. But the newspapers, television, the new Prime Minister’s party. It’s all going to get raked up again, by people who
don’t sympathize with us. The only thing to do is deal with it swiftly.”
“Decisively,” Arthit says.
Thanom’s flat black eyes come up, and Arthit thinks he’s pushed it too far. Thanom waits, expressionless as a shark, until it becomes clear to him that Arthit isn’t going to look away. “Of course,” Thanom says. “And, as smart as you are, you’ve already spotted the central problem.”
“Finding someone you can trust,” Arthit says. “There are people here who might leak to the papers or the government. Putting favors in the bank. And then, on the other side of the issue, Sawat obviously was still connected to people in this building, and they’re probably afraid they’ll be exposed. In fact, one of them might have killed him.”
“He was a nasty piece of work,” Thanom says. “And, as you say, connected inside the department.” But his heart isn’t in it, and he lets it trail off. Then he sits forward. “This is the confidential part. Before I go any farther, I need to know this is between us.”
“If you’re uncomfortable with it—” Arthit begins, but Thanom lifts a hand and brings it down onto the top of his desk with a flat
, I’m uncomfortable with it. But if I’m going to make any progress, I need allies. I need confidants. And you and I—well, we’ve never gotten along very well, but I’ve observed that you have a code of ethics. If you give me your word, I’m going to take it.”
“Well, then.” Arthit pulls a chair up to the desk and sits. “Since we’re being so frank with each other, how do I know you’re not setting me up? Here I am, Mr. Trusty, poking his nose into everything, acting on your secret orders, and everybody’s staring at me because I might be incriminating them or shielding myself. And you suddenly have no idea why I got involved in the first place.”
For a tenth of a second, Thanom’s eyes connect with Arthit’s and then bounce off, so quickly it’s almost audible. “You want
candor? There are a hundred ways I can fuck you over, whether you help me or not. But instead here I am, telling you I need your help. So here’s what I’ll do. I’ll write a paragraph, right now, in longhand, explaining that I asked you to work on this. Undercover. Would that satisfy you?” He hasn’t raised his voice, but his face is a deep, almost arterial red.
“No need,” Arthit says. Thanom’s right; he can destroy Arthit any time he wants. “I’ll trust you.”
Thanom draws a deep breath, and the corners of his long upper lip pull up in an expression he probably wants Arthit to interpret as a smile. “Only a few people know about this: we have video. From the security cameras in the building.”
“And this is where you begin to help me.” Thanom leans back in the chair again and swivels to his right so he can look out the window. “I need to limit the number of people who see that film.”
The muscles in Arthit’s back extend their grasp practically all the way up to the base of his neck and yank. He sees it coming, and it’s not good on any level.
“Your friend,” Thanom says. “That woman.”
Arthit says nothing.
“The deaf one,” Thanom says with an edge on his voice. “I need her to look at it.” He drifts around in the chair until he’s facing Arthit again, and this time his eyes find Arthit’s and hold them. “And I need your word, and hers, that what she sees will be between her and me only. Is that clear?”
“She’s working,” Arthit says.
Thanom says, “Is she.” It isn’t a question. “This is how we begin being honest with each other?”
Arthit starts to lick his lips and thinks better of it.
“Somehow, in that very obscure scuffle a couple of months back with your
friend,” Thanom says, “she got on the wrong side of Shen and his national security ghostbusters. As I hear it, they got her fired from the school she worked at. Am I wrong?”
“No, sir. But she’s been looking—”
“I’m sure she has.” He lifts the corners of his mouth again. “And maybe we can help her. There must be other schools for damaged children. A word from us could do wonders, don’t you think?”
Arthit feels like he steered off the curve. “Yes. Of course. Sir.”
“So get her in here for me. I need her here in half an hour. Agreed?”
“How could I not agree?” Arthit says, just barely not snapping it.
He stands and turns to go, but the buzzer on the desk rings, and Thanom says, “One minute.” He picks up the phone, and his face drains of color. When he hangs up, he says, “Thongchai’s been killed. And two active cops. Just now.” He grabs hold of his hair and yanks. “They just killed
VE BEEN IN
the room for almost an hour, Dok and Chalee, and the girl on the bed hasn’t moved. She’s on her back. The top part of the bed, with its flat, hard-looking pillows, has been cranked up a few degrees, so they can see her face. Handcuffs clamp her wrists to the steel railings alongside the narrow mattress, and a thin transparent line snakes from the plastic bag hanging two feet above her head and ends beneath a bandage on the inside of her right elbow. The drip apparently contains a sedative, because Dok and Chalee’s conversation, which began in whispers, has progressed to a normal tone of voice, and there’s nothing to suggest it reaches the girl on the bed.
They’re on metal folding chairs, cold when they first sat down. Chalee has a book in her lap, something big that’s covered with stupid-looking color pictures for little kids, turtles with hats and some kind of dog-looking thing with a red tail. Dok had sneaked several glances at the pictures before Chalee put the stack of paper on top of it. The paper, printed on one side with words and numbers but blank on the other, is donated to the Center by businesses. Chalee, as usual, has snatched a stack about thirty sheets deep. Her eyes flick back and forth from the paper to the girl on the bed. Dok watches the face emerge from the pencil’s tip. The eyes of the girl on the bed are closed, but in the drawing they stare back at Dok.
“She’s so pretty,” Chalee says, and when Dok looks over at the bed again he sees that she’s right. It took four people to do it, but the girl has been scrubbed clean and her tangled hair not so much combed as pressed into a semblance of symmetry. The face the hair frames looks immensely fragile, as though the bones beneath the skin are eggshell-thin and would cave in if they were blown on. The girl’s skin is paler than Dok’s and Chalee’s, her nose narrower and higher-bridged, the hair curlier and shaded toward auburn, with a hint of red. Chalee is working on the nose now, and it’s giving her trouble; she’s making a quiet little clicking sound with her tongue.
Chalee rolls the tip of the pencil lead against the side of her thumb and then uses the thumb to rub a shadow down the right side of the nose, making the bridge jump out. She squints at it, licks the thumb, and wipes it on her jeans. “Sure.”
“If she’s got a
parent, why was she starving in an alley?
“Not all of them,” Chalee says, the pencil moving quickly, shaping a cheekbone. “We had one in my village. He showed up one day, drunk and crazy and dirty, just came out of the woods. He smelled
. The cops came to get him. If he was rich, it wasn’t in his pockets.”
Dok lifts his chin toward the girl on the bed. “Do you think
“She had such a high fever, who can say? Maybe she saw things we didn’t.” Chalee glances toward the ceiling and then back down at her drawing. “Once when I was sick, when I was little, I saw the spirits in the corners of the room.”
Dok feels his mouth fall open. “What did they look like?”
“Like smoke. Like cobwebs.” She takes the eraser to the center of an eye, making a tiny circle with it, and when she lifts it, there’s a pinpoint of light reflected in the dark iris. “I could see through their faces. They looked sad, like they wanted to say something but they knew we couldn’t hear them.” Chalee’s hand pauses just
above the paper’s surface. “Maybe she sees them. Or maybe not. Maybe someone was terrible to her.” She begins making very light, very short lines that, as Dok watches, become eyelashes. “Maybe she’s just frightened.”
Dok considers the alternatives, a little envious that Chalee saw a room’s spirits. “Who do you think she is?”
The pencil stops, its point describing little figure eights just above the page. “Maybe a bar girl’s daughter.”
Dok shoves his lower lip out and tilts his head to one side. There’s something in the girl’s face—something fine, he thinks—that doesn’t say
to him. “She looks like a princess,” he says. “Why a bar girl?”
“Because she’s beautiful. So are bar girls, right? That’s their
. And if her mother wasn’t a bar worker, then she would have married her
and this girl would have a family to live with instead of wandering around sick and starving. I think maybe a bar girl who uses drugs. Maybe she overdosed and left her daughter alone. Poor baby. Shhh for a minute.” She holds her arm out in front of her, the pencil vertical in her fist, sighting past it at the sleeping girl. Then she closes one eye, opens it, and closes the other.
“Why do you do that?”
“I saw someone do it on television. I’ve been trying to figure out why.”
“Why do you
they did it?”
“Because it looks good. Watching someone draw is boring.”
Dok says, his face warm, “I’m not bored.”
“No,” Chalee says, “but that’s because you’re sweet.”
The inside of Dok’s chest goes all fizzy.
is so much nicer than
. “We found her,” he says, just to keep Chalee talking. “I feel like we should take care of her.”
Chalee says, “Awwww.” She does something to the hair over the girl’s forehead, lifts the pencil, and sticks it behind her ear. Pursing her mouth critically, she stares down at the sketch. “What do you think?”
Dok leans over, inhaling the smell of soap that always seems to surround Chalee. Even with its open eyes, the face on the page is sealed and mysterious, like a dream seen from outside. The lips are parted slightly, as though preparing to form words that might explain everything. “It’s beautiful,” he says.
Chalee makes a
noise and says, “It’s okay.”
“Have you always been able to do that?”
“I drew pictures of everyone in my village. Everybody—” She swallows and breaks off.
“I’ll bet they liked them,” Dok says.
Chalee nods, her eyes on nothing much, a point a few inches above the top edge of the page. Swallows again.
“Me,” Dok says, suddenly terrified she’s going to start to cry. “Could you draw me? I’ve never had a picture of me.” Chalee doesn’t speak, and he says, quickly, “Probably not. Why would you want to draw—”
“Sure,” Chalee says. It’s mostly breath. She says, “Sure,” again, and then she clears her throat. She’s clenched her right fist, and she knocks her knuckles rapidly on top of the stack of paper, and Dok doesn’t think she knows she’s doing it. She says, “Here.” She riffles through the sheets of paper in her lap, and pulls one out. “This is my sister,” she says, pushing the paper at Dok. “Sumalee, her name is Sumalee.”
like the flower?” Dok says. Sumalee is pretty, but not—in Dok’s eyes—as pretty as Chalee. She’s twelve or thirteen, wearing shorts and an oversized T-shirt with some kind of picture on it, lost in the folds and wrinkles, and she has a village schoolgirl’s chopped hair, a big accidental-looking split like an upside-down V in her bangs. There’s an open window to her left, so that the right side of her face is in shadow. Dok runs his fingertips very lightly over the surface, afraid he’ll smudge it. “It looks like she’s coming out of the page,” he says.
“I worked hard on that,” Chalee says. “Sumalee hated to sit there. She had too much energy.”
He lifts an edge of the paper, crisp and new. “It looks like you just drew it.”
“I did. I’ve drawn it a hundred times.”
“Sumalee,” Dok says, memorizing the name. “Where is she now?”
Dok watches Chalee put the drawing back on the bottom of the stack, and there’s the face of the girl on the bed again, back on top. He counts to five silently, and when it’s clear that Chalee isn’t going to answer the question, he says, “What about those things on her nose?”