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Publisher Bangkok Ink
eBook Kindle Edition
Carl Engel is an enigma. The blunt Londoner has forged a thirty-year career as a private investigator amid the chaos of Thailand's political history. Struggling with advancing years and a decreasing workload he is approached by an elderly American with a lucrative missing persons case. The case descends into the sordid world of an elusive serial killer and a menacing web of political intrigue dating back to the Vietnam War. Carl must use his guile and experience to stay alive, find the killer and negotiate the dangerous military interests that lurk behind the scenes.
Valkyries filled the inside of his car and hung around the outside like a loud mist. He had reconfirmed his status as a god so he was attentively listening to every glorious note of Wagner at full volume. Only Wagner was powerful enough and had sufficient metaphysical depth for the ears of gods whilst instilling the necessary terror in mortals.
His shiny new black Mercedes raced and bounced along the potholed dirt road raising a cloud of dust in its wake. The old man didn’t usually have a heavy foot but he was annoyingly late and the sun’s rise was imminent. He cursed the poor farmers who were out walking to their fields at such an inconvenient and ungodly hour. He was getting careless in his old age. He had never cut it so fine before and he sure as hell was never going to leave it so late again. He had no choice but tolerate the dirt and the gravel that was kicked up by his wheels as they spun for traction. The small stones would leave marks on the perfectly waxed paint and he wasn’t happy about that. The Mercedes was his pride and joy.
He had driven off the highway somewhere past the ancient capital of Ayuddhaya. He wasn’t totally sure where he was but he knew how to get back to the main road, which was all that mattered. He drove with his back ramrod straight and his face pushed forward so his eyes could see through the tiny gaps in the red fog of laterite dust. He identified a dirt lane to his left that ran beside a dry irrigation ditch to a field that looked neglected and unfarmed. This would have to do, so he turned left and drove a couple of hundred meters until he couldn’t see anyone in his rear-view mirror. He stopped the car beside the ditch. His breathing was fast and he could feel his heart beating. He lived for this.
He went to the back of the car and opened the boot. She was perfect, he thought, and now she was his forever, nobody else could ever have her. She looked young, she might well have been. It was hard to tell with Thai women. From the neck up she was without blemish. The perfect long, shiny black hair covered the bloody stumps where her ears had been and she had retained the face of an angel. From the neck down the naked broken and slashed torso was covered in blood and gore. My god you are beautiful, he thought as he hurriedly lifted her small body out of the plastic and duct tape lined boot. He carried her into the ditch for the ritual of cleaning, and gently laid her down on a bed of brown leaves.
Then, with agility that belied his years, he jumped from the ditch and retrieved a plastic supermarket bag from the bloody boot. He hastily took several beer bottles out of the bag and removed their plastic caps. From the bottles he poured petrol from one end of the body to the other. Normally, he wouldn’t have rushed but today was different. He grabbed a newspaper from the front seat, rolled it up, lit it with a match, and dropped it into the ditch without ceremony.
When the police eventually responded to the phone calls and arrived at the scene, the local farmers were gathered around the blackened smoking remains still taking pictures with their hand-me-down telephones held together with sticky tape, glue and brightly coloured rubber bands. All the farmers could claim to have seen was a cloud of dust moving fast away from them towards the main highway to Bangkok.
One smiling, gap toothed, leather faced local villager on a rusty bicycle told the cops that he was sure the vehicle had been a very new S class Mercedes driven by an elderly foreigner and sounding like it was full of screaming ghosts. The police called him a fool and disregarded his statement as the uneducated ramblings of a village idiot. Everybody knew that elderly foreigners with ridiculously expensive cars didn’t dispose of bodies in rural Thailand at five o’clock in the morning.
It had been another monsoon Monday and Sukhumvit Road, the neon artery of boozy expatriate life, was knee deep in foul-smelling water. Carl Engel, Bangkok’s longest suffering private investigator, had taken shelter from the storm in a side street, his car parked a short distance from the main road. He had gone seven weeks without a client and had been forced to sell a hand-carved ivory chess set from Hong Kong that had been given to him by his long dead father. The sale had provided him with enough cash flow to last a couple of months and temporarily alleviated his fear of poverty. Being broke was the only thing that Carl was still scared of. Death had tapped him on the shoulder enough times for him to develop a certain level of immunity but Bangkok was no place for a foreigner to be penniless.
He had left home early and had been lucky not to break down and get trapped in the rising water. This he interpreted as a reward for putting aside his usual pessimism and embracing the possibility of turning the day’s unexpected potential client, an endangered species, into a badly needed cash injection. The early start had left him with time to kill and growing impatience for his appointment with his latest opportunity. Glaring at the clock on the wall was not making the hands move any faster so he stopped but soon found himself looking at his watch instead.
The floodwater had reached the bottom of the doors on his classic 1977 red Porsche, an impractical car at the best of times. It was over thirty years old and impossible during the monsoon season. Women had come and gone in his life but the car had stayed. He was looking at the old Porsche through the window of Duke’s American Bar and Restaurant, one of the few places that opened early enough for breakfast. The rain had been heavy, not cats and dogs, more like elephants and buffaloes. Fortunately Duke’s entrance was high enough to keep the water at bay. Whatever happened outside, things inside would carry on as usual and in case of emergency there was a guesthouse with a few cheap rooms upstairs.
Carl had once lived in the guesthouse and called Duke’s home for a few months following the implosion of one of his marriages - a period of loose women, poker and binge drinking, which had come to an abrupt end when the cards ran cold and his money ran out. This was followed by some introspection that had all the comfort of going down a sewer in a glass bottom boat followed by a good scrub and brush up as he re-joined the world of making money as opposed to spending it.
Carl Engel’s dark hair was peppered with grey. He was above medium height and slightly over medium build. His belly had grown with every year since his fortieth birthday so he had a decade of growth to contend with. His height helped him to carry the extra weight but now that he had hit fifty the belly was starting to take charge.
He liked expensive Italian clothes but wasn’t flashy. That day he wore jeans, a black polo shirt and a grey linen sports jacket that wrinkled with wear. To complete the look, he wore soft black leather driving moccasins with no socks. On his wrist he wore a Girard-Perregaux chronograph. It was a valuable timepiece that had somehow avoided the pawnshop and stayed on his wrist through thick and thin. He chose to look chic and successful to camouflage the tidal nature of his finances. His face looked thoroughly lived in but he had always maintained the spark of the undefeated in his pale blue eyes.
In his youth Carl had been fortunate enough to experience all Thailand had to offer. Once upon a time he’d even been an idealistic romantic but his work had quickly put an end to that. Carl had seen the best and the worst of people, mostly the worst. Through experience he had reached the conclusion that nobody ever really knew anybody, as there were always parts that were kept hidden and were exclusively reserved for other people or situations. He could see deeper into people’s souls than most and it left him with no doubt of the duality that existed below the surface. Carl had come to believe that romance required putting someone on a pedestal and he could no longer do that.
He had over thirty years of history with Duke’s American Bar and Restaurant and liked to drop in from time to time for a shot of nostalgia. The customers Carl had known over the years had come and gone. Some of them had left dead and some had left by airplane. Fading eight by ten photographs of a youthful Carl with some of them lined the walls. He had always thought it fortunate that very few people looked at the pictures of his youthful smiling and overtly optimistic face standing beside the long departed. Funny thing about the dead; he still expected them to walk through the door one day. The ones that had left by plane would eventually walk through the door. Bangkok had that effect on people. They always came back.
Carl was sitting alone at a round table that had wooden chairs for eight people. It had started life as a poker table that had taken pride of place in a Patpong go-go bar run by Texans with ten-gallon hats. Poker was illegal as was all gambling not in the hands of the government so the owners would send the bikini clad girls home, lock the doors at 1 a.m. and play cards until the sun came up. The table’s history went all the way back to the Vietnam War era and had seen a lot of money change hands over the years. When the go-go bar finally closed its doors following the death of the alcoholic owner, the legendary piece of furniture had somehow made its way across town and become a dining table in Duke’s. Carl liked the table.
Two men standing at the bar were looking in the direction of the window and laughing like schoolboys. They were Tom and Gary Downing, known around town as the Drowning brothers because they had made their fortune building and maintaining swimming pools. They were an expatriate success story and Carl had always been partial to a happy ending.
“Hey Carl,” the larger of the two brothers called out. “You know how you do all that undercover stuff? Fixing things and investigating and so on?”
Carl looked up without saying anything.
“We just really want to know something. How do you do all that in a bright red Porsche?”
He knew they were trying to be funny, rather than insulting. He had tracked down the location of a victim held by a highly unpleasant group of foreign gangsters and local Thai police. The gang had kidnapped and tortured the friend of the smaller quieter brother and demanded a million dollars ransom. Carl had been hired to investigate the gang and liaise with local police, which was not without personal danger, as the police typically protected their own.
Carl managed the problem by providing large cash incentives to policemen who were not related to the perpetrators and then feeding the police information he got from working the streets. They found the gang in four days and got the victim back without having to pay any ransom. Carl had managed the ransom negotiations using an alias and bought the police the time they needed to apply for the court warrants and permissions necessary for kicking down the doors that were required for Carl’s plan to work.
A thirty-man metropolitan police commando unit carried out the rescue. The commandos blew off the doors of the townhouse where the victim was being held and went in with guns and stun grenades. It had been a big story. Although Carl had made sure he had not been mentioned in the tabloids, the client knew he had put everything together. Carl knew he knew because he had happily paid Carl’s enormous bill. The police got all the credit, and the client and the victim’s family were sworn to secrecy. Carl liked to stay in the shadows. It would not be healthy to do what he did otherwise.
“You two are starting even earlier than usual. Do your wives know you have escaped?” Carl asked when their laughter had ceased.
“What else is there to do on a rainy day in Bangkok? Join us for a drink?” the big man asked Carl.
“You have to be joking. Last time I drank with you the beer was spiked with vodka and I went to my now ex-wife’s birthday party on rubber legs. It’s a little early for me anyway.”
“I forgot you don’t like to drink when you are leaping over tall buildings in a single bound and wearing your underpants outside your trousers. Anything interesting going on?” the small man asked, assuming that Carl’s life was all high voltage.
“I’m not involved in anything at present, I just don’t feel like drinking.”
“You are not as much fun as you used to be,” the smaller man said.
“Who is?” Carl replied.
They mumbled and went back to their breakfast beers. The brothers were fundamentally decent and Carl liked them both, even though they were prone to playing annoying schoolboy pranks on everybody they knew. Carl was left pondering the island that was his car, and wondered where advertising stopped and vanity started. Mind you, it made a lovely noise when it was dry.
“Better you let them buy you a drink. You’re much nicer when you are drunk,” Pet told him.
Pet was in a foul mood. Her name meant duck and she was his waitress that morning. She had taken a shine to him years earlier and was very angry that her feelings were not reciprocated. In her childlike innocence she could not see beyond her own idyllic vision and begrudged Carl his own interpretation of the future, and whatever else caused him to withhold service. She was clearly the extremely possessive type but Carl had already lived in that nightmare. He wanted to tell her that she shouldn’t hold a candle if she didn’t know where it had been, but some things just couldn’t be translated.
“Why do you read the menu? You always order the breakfast,” she said to him in Thai as she took the menu from his hand and turned on her heels and waddled away.
She returned with his order ten minutes later and slammed it angrily in front of him. If they’d been married and he had come home the previous night drunk and covered with lipstick her behaviour wouldn’t have been any different.
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Harlan Wolff has lived in Thailand since 1977 and is a successful Private Investigator and troubleshooter specializing in major crime and serious corporate issues. His first book Bangkok Rules is a gritty and real account of a Bangkok based PI's milieu.