The Lip and Eye Remover
(brand name on bottle of makeup removal cream)
E-MAIL TO CLINT EASTWOOD
It's Jimm here, your Thai friend down on the Gulf of Siam. Merry Christmas to you and your family. It's been a while since I wrote. I hope you are well. My sister (aka brother) Sissi and I noticed that you recently fired your personal assistant, Liced. We hope it had nothing to do with us hacking into her e-mail account and accessing private information about Malpaso Productions. Liced was a victim in all this and was virtually blackmailed into helping us. I hope you can forgive her and consider rehiring her. As we now have nobody "on the inside," I'm sending this package to your private post office box. I promise this is the last confidential information we will take advantage of. The enclosed DVD contains recorded footage of our very exciting pursuit of Burmese slaves on the Gulf of Thailand. As a live Internet feed, we attracted 1.3 million viewers for the event. Sissi and I are certain every one of them would gladly fork out fifteen dollars a ticket and watch it as a cinematic experience, especially if Natalie Portman played me. But I bow to you on casting decisions on this one. I've taken the liberty of wrapping the DVD in my screenplay adaptation of the events.
Clint, I'm sure you'll recall that this is the fourth screenplay I've sent you, each one more thrilling than the last. Although I haven't heard back from you personally (not complaining. Old age is catching up with all of us), we did intercept a message from one of your editorial reviewers that referred to serious doubts about the quality of characterization in our second manuscript. First, it was heartening to know you bothered to have our work assessed internally. But we feel a need to address this issue, especially as the characters in the second screenplay are my family members. We considered the comments to be unfairly cruel and I would like to take your editor to task.
Our mother, Mair, is perhaps starting to feel the teeth of dementia nibbling at her heels, but that doesn't make her "nutty as a fruitcake" as your reviewer described her. She has long coherent periods which do not involve wearing odd shoes or buying secondhand Cosplay rabbit suits on eBay. (She's only done that once. She wanted to bond with the dogs.) Between you and me, she was a "flower child" for several years and did spend a good deal of time in the jungle with anti-system elements and there may have been intoxicants ingested at that time. But I'd like to see them as turning her into a more whole and mellow human rather than "a fruit basket."
The older gentleman who was described as "unlikable and two -dimensional" is, in fact, my Grandad Jah. I have to agree with the "unlikable" part, but Grandad, I have to strongly protest, is not lacking a dimension. At the very most, he may be short a sense or two. But his absence of humor and social etiquette is more than made up for by his innate skill as an investigator. One would imagine that forty years spent in the Thai Police Force, where the focus is on amassing great wealth rather than putting oneself in harm's way, might erase a man's policing instincts. But Grandad Jah has uncanny abilities and is as honest as the day is long (which explains why he's still penniless).
This brings me to my brother, Arnon, known affectionately as Arny, after his hero Arnold Schwarzenegger. Had we not followed our mother to the northernmost southern province in Thailand for reasons that I've only recently come to understand, he would undoubtedly have been this year's Mr. Chiang Mai Body Beautiful. So, the comment, "This character has no personality, no abilities and absolutely no purpose for being in the story," is a bit like complaining that Moby Dick didn't have much of a speaking part. Everything revolves around Arny. He's the sounding board for my stories, and even though he wouldn't harm a fly, he is my protector. In the last screenplay you'll notice that he takes on a boatload of pirates all by himself. I may have exaggerated the number of opponents he faced and the injuries he inflicted, but he did make a good account of himself in front of his fiancée.
The "Impossible Hermaphrodite Queen," is my "sister," Sissi, who was neither born with conflicting organs nor crowned. If your reviewer had bothered to read the character sheet, he or she would know this. I feel he or she was just being smart in an attempt to impress you. I'm sure you have a lot of people sucking up to you. Sissi is transgender and has a medical certificate to prove it. With reference to her computer skills, the Malpaso threat to "chase you down and run you out of business," was very dramatic, but I'm sure you realize she's un-chasable and un-runoutable. Our hacking has, you'll have to agree, been very friendly, and even though your accounts were wide open to access and abuse, we have not robbed you blind. And I'm sure that when we're sitting down at the negotiating table discussing the finer details of our first movie deal, we'll all look back at these days and laugh.
Which brings me to me, Jimm Juree. I should perhaps have been the most offended and hurt by your reviewer's comments, but I am traditionally a punching bag for abuse. As I am only thirty four and have never been in domestic service, I was forced to look up some other meaning for "old maid." Once found, I am obliged to protest most strongly. I was married and had conjugal moments with my husband during our three-point-seven years of marriage. At least once a month, if I remember rightly. Not a record, I agree, but enough to disqualify me from being "a woman who has not formed a human pair bond by the time she is approaching or has reached menopause and the end of her reproductive lifespan." (Wikipedia.) My husband had been desperate to appear married and I was desperate to be asked, which may not make us a pair bond, but it's a precedent. I have a good ten years of premenopausal hunting left in me.
I also take objection to the expression "a very unlikely Thai female character." If by this he means I don't work in a rice paddy or a go-go bar, am not listed on any Internet dating sites, and do not walk with tiny steps or speak demurely when in male company, then, fair enough, he's got me. But, in fact, we Thai gals were given admittance to the twenty-first century. We're allowed to chat online and study overseas and speak foreign languages. Would you believe it? We can even run companies and stand for parliament. No, Clint, my hero, I don't believe for a second that you want movie scripts full of stereotypes, and I'm sure you sent that confidential internal memo to the trash where it belonged.
Well, hey. You probably can't wait to get your teeth into the enclosed DVD and manuscript, so I'll stop here. As Sissi and I are sure the North American postal service is all but redundant since the advent of e-mails, we decided to increase the odds of you receiving this package by making thirty -seven copies, which we are sending to your work colleagues, some senior shareholders of the company, friends and family. In each one we have included a small plant pot mat hand-embroidered by Hmong hill-tribe women in the north. As I say, when we're all raking in the dollars from our first movie collaboration, you'll stop seeing this as harassment and appreciate the charming side of it. Somewhere on the director's voice-over on the DVD you'll mention how annoyed you were at first but that those goddamned crazy Thais had one hell of a product.
Have a great Christmas and may Santa bring you yet another Oscar.
Love, Jimm and Sissi
(Postal address withheld but you have our e-mail)
Please Leave Your Values at the Front Desk
Ours had become a life of shoulds. My mother, Mair, should have been on duty at the inconvenience store at our family resort. Instead, she was off painting desks at her school for the children of Burmese day laborers. Arny should have been cleaning all the junk off the beach in the unlikely occurrence we'd have any guests, but he was off spotting weights for his fifty-eight-year-old bodybuilding fiancée, Gaew. Grandad Jah should have ... well, he didn't have any role or function in the running of the Gulf Bay Lovely Resort and Restaurant, so he was sitting by the roadside watching traffic, of which there was precious little.
That just left me — who should be just about anywhere else — in charge of five bungalows, four thatched outdoor tables, a half -submerged latrine block, and two cows that had wandered along the beach one day, taken a fancy to our young palms, and stayed. Oh, and there were three dogs that I tend to forget because, despite what they think, I'm not a dog person. They are, in order of rescue, Gogo of the non-functioning intestines; Sticky, second name Rice; and our latest recruit, Little Beer, riddled with mange and unlikely ever to get a date. We used to have a rescue monkey as well, but we sent her to Phuket for trauma rehab. All these were the result of Mair's dual conditions of early Alzheimer's and philanthropy. This was a combination which incorporated the search and recover mission for our long-lost father. Look, in fact I do have a story to tell here; a blood -and-guts tale of betrayal, sex, and international intrigue, so don't let me get sidetracked talking about Captain Kow. But, just briefly, when we first arrived here in the south, Captain Kow was a local celebrity; a gap-toothed, all-knowing, squid-scented old guy with nice eyes. When we found out he was the father who'd deserted us all when I was three, at least one thing made sense. Mair had dragged us down here for a reason. There was method in her madness. We don't know how she discovered Kow's whereabouts, but she was single-minded in his pursuit. That, in a Mills and Boone kind of way, I could admire. She gave up all she had, including half her mind, to move her family to the place where her one love had settled. It would have made a good movie but not one I'd want to be in.
Since his unmasking by my transgender sister, Sissi, the good captain had vanished again. We hadn't had a chance to ask him about our abandonment or the semi-orphanic years we'd spent rattling around in Chiang Mai with humorless Grandad Jah as the nearest thing we had to a father figure. Kow had a lot to answer for, so I could understand his disappearance. I inherited his avoidance of culpability. All right. That's all I have to say on the subject for now. As a potential award-winning crime reporter in my days at the Chiang Mai Mail, I am only too aware that distracting side-shows can be really annoying for a reader who just wants to get down to the murder. So, here's the lead-in.
To compensate for the fact we weren't making any money at all at the resort, I was working two outside jobs. By far the best-paying was my role as an English language doctor. During her brief visit to Maprao, Sissi had introduced me to the dongle, which turned my notebook into a loaded weapon. Suddenly I could be online without queuing for hours at the Pak Nam Internet café. I couldn't afford to pay the cell-phone bills, but Sissi had done something illegal to the dtac databank that automatically topped me up. I'd spent a lot of my time on the road during my working days up north and was constantly frustrated by the fact that the sign makers assumed they could translate Thai into English merely with the use of a dictionary. This led to sentences such as DO NOT USE ELEVATOR WHILE CAUSING FIRE. So I had the brilliant idea of offering my services to anyone who wanted their signs translated accurately. Sissi blitzed me all over the Internet, and before I knew it, I was getting regular work. Local councils had me writing their signs to avoid embarrassments, such as my favorite detour sign: EVERYONE GETS OFF HERE. Hotels had me improve on warnings like DO NOT DRIVE IN THE POOL AS WATER NOT SO DEEP. Ironically, my English doctoring practice was keeping us all alive. The Chumphon Department of Highways had sent me a list of road signs to correct. I was a whiz at transcription. It was me who convinced the provincial authorities to rewrite their Chum Porn signs. I had struck gold.
My other "job" was at the Chumphon News. With the advent of desktop publishing and a wealth of smart unemployed journalism graduates, it was as if almost any town with a population over fifteen boasted its own newspaper. The News operated out of a house beside a busy main road. Its two regular contributors had flu, so, one day the editor asked me if I might interview a famous international writer for them. As famous writers were notoriously thin on the ground in Chumphon, I accepted with bells on. I had visions of Dan Brown on a rock-climbing vacation in Krabi, me flown business class to Bangkok for dinner with Stephen King, a weekend on Kathy Reichs's yacht off Samui. But I did not have visions of Kor Kao, a ten-minute bicycle ride down the bay from our resort. I was suspicious.
"What's his name?" I asked.
"Conrad Coralbank," he said.
It sounded like a coastal preservation program. I could have feigned knowledge to impress the editor, but instead I asked, "And he's famous?"
"Absolutely," he said. He was a very literary man, but he needed to open the Word information sheet he'd put together before he could tell me what the famous author had written.
"He's won stuff," he said. "Awards and that. He writes" — he squinted as he read the English — "mystery novels set in Laos."
Laos. Great. My ardor softened to a mushy paste of uninterest. Nobody would ever become famous by writing about a place that 98.3 percent of American high school students couldn't locate on an atlas. Not even one with the country names written on it and an index. Admittedly, 34 percent of that sample couldn't find Canada either. Laos — and I don't want to sound racist here — is easily the most boring place on the planet. I'd been there several times on stories, and it's a scientific fact that clocks move slower there. One second in Laos is the equivalent of twelve minutes over here. Getting something done was like wading waist-deep through rice porridge. This was clearly going to be one of those pump-him-up-and-make -him-look-more-interesting-than-he-actually-is pieces. Fluff. But it was work. If I did a good job, they might start giving me assignments. Plus, there was the bonus that I'd get to speak English. My latent second language only ever got a real run-out with Sissi in our long bilingual phone conversations. We prided ourselves on our skill at speaking English in foreign accents. I did a good Brazilian. She had Eastern Europe down pat. It didn't, however, improve the actual language.
That was another good point. It would be a boon to find a down-and-out Westerner within cycling distance who could help me with my conversation skills. He'd probably be an alcoholic with skin allergies, grateful that a voluptuously curvy young Thai girl should stop by occasionally for a chat. I'd bring him a bottle of Mekhong whiskey, watch his liver-polka-dotted hands shake as he poured it neat into his cracked Amazing Thailand mug and partook of a grateful swig. Of course, I'd take the mace. Western writers in Thailand drew most of their inspiration from bars. He'd assume I was as loose as all the girlies in farang novels. That's the problem, you see? When you have a government full of dirty old men who have more sex with professionals than with their own wives, it's very difficult to dismantle a sex industry that for many years was the country's only drawing card. The U.S. military left two-thirds of its combat pay in Pattaya. Word got around, and soon every Tom, Dick, and Helmut was on a charter flight to Bangkok. A lot of powerful people here got where they are today on the back of the male libido. You see why I could never write fiction? I get too tied down with issues. Nobody wants to read all this, so ... Conrad Coralbank. The editor allowed me to sit and look him up online. His computer was dial-up. The connection was such that I drifted into a daydream where I was a Neanderthal staring at a rectangular block of stone, occasionally hammering it with my club. Then the Wikipedia page arrived. Here's what didn't surprise me. The photo was of a fresh-faced, big-teethed, blue-eyed man — late forties according to the caption — with fashionably long hair. They do that — authors. They dig out a picture from thirty years before that they kept because although it didn't actually look like them, it looked the way they'd willed themselves to look at the time. They send it to their publisher who airbrushes out the pimples, and there it is: the jacket photo.
I was, however, thrown by the number of books he'd supposedly written and the awards he'd purportedly been nominated for, and by the fact that he was apparently married and enjoyed cycling, kayaking, and walking the dogs on the beach. None of that sounded particularly down-and-out to me. But, hey, anyone can write themselves a Wikipedia page, and if nobody who knows any better ever looks at it, nobody will edit out your lies. The net was Club Med for the scammer. So I wasn't exactly shaken by this introduction, just a little stirred. And to stir me even more, Conrad had photos.