I didn’t know I was looking for Carl, but then we never know who we’re looking for before we find them. A blinding spring rain brought us together. I ran barefoot with sandals clutched in-hand, away from the street and underneath a roadside tarp sheltering a bar of sorts whose chief feature was a middle-aged man that looked like Indiana Jones had he pursued alcoholism instead of archeology. The man sat by himself on a stool at the shop’s sole plastic table knocking back Bintangs with a gaze that saw through the grey, to a clearer place.
“Bintang for table one please,” I said to the fine young lady minding the shop. I sat on the other stool and joined the man in a world pierced with the sound of water falling on tarp, cars honking and scooters beeping their way through streets swollen with rain. A crackle from a nearby loudspeaker burst into “Al-laaaaaaaaaaahu Akbar…” accompanying the other muezzins calling the faithful to prayer with their long fluttering notes, decorating the drum of rain with vocals of an eerily electronic beauty. So close to God, I thought, closer than they realized.
I searched for the strange man’s eyes underneath his fedora. “Just pissing down eh?” I said.
“Innit,” he said in that ‘no-shit’ cockney way, and as if he were expecting someone all the while, slid a blank card across the table.
I flipped the card over. It was bare but for three little words printed in the middle: Carl, Private Eye.
“Carl, I think you missed a key component of the contact card.”
He said “I don’ believe tha’ I ‘ave,” compensating for his dropped T’s and H’s by raising an eyebrow along with the corner of his mouth.
I slid my card across in return. Carl smirked, no doubt for the same reason that everybody else did. My self-appointed title read: Fact-Finder.
“You find the fact, or are you still lookin’ for it?” he asked.
“Still looking,” I replied, “…still looking.”
The busty shopkeeper brought over a Bintang and popped off the cap, releasing a mist that mingled for a moment with the sticky afternoon.
“So tell me, what’s life like as a private eye in Jakarta?”
A low rumble snowballed in Carl’s throat before breaking into speech: “You’re lookin’ at it. I wait for things to ‘appen most of the time..” his eyes wandered over my shoulder and into the distance “But at least I know what I’m waitin’ for. Most people don’ ‘ave the foggiest idea… and believe me, we’re all waitin’ for somethin’.”
I put my beer down. “You know Carl, maybe you can help me with something.”
“Ya think so?” Carl said with an honest and dangerous grin. “Most of my clientele are western wives concerned about their ‘usbands’ one too many trips to an exotic city famous for sex-tourism. Does ‘at sound like you?”
“Hear me out here man, I’ve got something right up your alley. I’m looking for a Bangkok businessman.”
Carl pushed up his fedora with a finger. “Why?”
I found his calm and steady eyes burning beneath the brim. “Justice Carl. Justice.”
His smile threatened laughter. “Lis’en ‘ere, I’ve bin in this par’ of the world for a long time, and yer ain’t gonner find any fookin’ justice ‘ere.”
His words hit hard because he looked like the kind of guy who knew what he was talking about. “I can’t let this thing go man, it’s an evil growing inside of me, I don’t want to carry this around for the rest of my life… I don’t even feel like myself anymore.”
“And if ya find this bloke…” Carl dismissed his empty, “what will yer do then?”
I felt my bare wrist where a coconut bracelet had once been strapped. “I’m torn. If… when I find him… I’ll either talk with him about what happened… seek an understanding if you will. Or I’ll just kick him in the nuts. I’m leaning more towards that.”
Carl shook his head. “Your on a proppa fookin’ mission mate. Me, I don’ participate in farcical acts of vengeance. Revenge isn’t justice—”
“Sure it is” I interrupted, “what is justice if not institutionalized revenge? But let’s say there’s no court to hear my case? What recourse do I have then? What if I’m the only person in the whole damn world who knows who he is… what he’s up to? Don’t I have a duty to stop him from acting again?”
Carl took a swig, “Fook mate, wha’ever this guy did to piss ya off, it’s not worth it. Don’t loose yourself for this, I’ve seen it ‘appen before. You’re the fact-finder. These are the facts. You must digest them. Even though they can’t be digested.”
I raised the bottle and pulled in a mouthful, and another one, and another one, and slammed it down. “Whatever path I take here… this is about more than me. This is about the organization of the human race.”
A swarm of beer burst from Carl’s lips, “Right.”
Then I told Carl what happened in Bangkok.
“Boy was he having you on,” Carl said, planting his bottle with a chuckle. “Usin’ yer dreams to manipulate you like that. And you didn’t help yerself, you broke all three of my travellin’ rules.”
I stared out toward the falling water. “When a dream dies, it feels like it takes the whole world with it.”
“You see what vengeance does, it warps purpose. I would stick to the people comin’ together to light mulberry lanterns or wha’ever the fook that story was all about in Bang Saen.”
“You know what happens when you light a khom loy lantern?” I said, “It lifts gloriously into the sky and for a time wanders about the blue freely. But inevitably it burns out and falls back to earth.”
“I’m only tryin’ to ‘elp you ‘ere mate, it was yer bloody analogy.”
“ASEAN must transform. She can’t go on like a lantern floating aimlessly among the clouds. She must become like a kite, firmly connected to the people, navigating the winds by their will. Or she will fall from the sky.”
“Why don’ yer focus on that idea and forget abou’ yer friend Raj?”
“But what if they’re both about justice? What if the same force binding nations together into federations, is also driving me to return to Bangkok.”
Carl rested his fedora on the table. “Yer’ve lost yer way mate, that much I can already tell and I’ve only known ya for ‘alf an ‘our. Now, before I tell you the three mistakes you made in Bangkok, tell me straight, how long are you stayin’ in Jakarta?”
“This is it Carl. Tomorrow I’m on the train to Bali.”
“In that case, I will drop somethin’ off later at yer place that might ‘elp you out. Where’d you say you were stayin’?”
“See that corner—”
“Wrong. Again. Rule number one, never reveal where you’re stayin’. If you can’t be found, you can’t be touched. Sorry mate wasn’t goin’ for the pun there. Second rule. Never tell anybody the day you’re plannin’ on leavin’ because that’ll be the day they’ll fook yer over. And the third, and most important rule is this: trust your instincts. Right or wrong, they sharpen when followed and dull if ignored. It’s you against the world out there mate, and that lil’ voice in yer head is all you’ve got.”
The shopkeeper came over with her curves and smile and a Bintang for Carl. She placed it on the table and pushed it toward him. Carl returned the smile, and she fell into his lap and whispered into his ear like a little girl asking Santa Clause for presents, her pin legs swinging just above the ground.
“This is my Jakarta girlfriend.” Carl said, “Rule number four: only date girls with jobs, or you’ll never stop ‘earin’ about the uncle who needs a new goat or the second cousin’s fird wife who needs a new roof for is ‘ouse.”
The first time I saw these outwardly mix-matched couples (western men, usually older and overweight, with eastern women, always young and petite) walking hand-in-hand down the street, it was a bit of an affront to my sensibilities. Yet, as is always the case, exposure is the anecdote to lack of understanding, and I changed my mind in Bang Saen. That night after the paper lanterns, I found a little bar near the beach and made good company with an older crew of Austrians. After we got going together at a table with a few beers, their pretty young Thai wives showed up. Then later their adorable Thai-Austrian children. One of the men owed the bar. He spent the winters in Thailand and the summers back in Austria, where he worked as an engineer.
Despite the outward polarity in the couples’ age, education, professional experience, and appearance, how can one truly judge the source of another couples’ happiness? Western society condemned these men: your physical features don’t match the ideal of the age, sorry, you can’t have a pretty wife—they’re reserved for tall folks with nice hair. Likewise for these women: sorry, you were born in the wrong place, you’re unlikely to have wealth and education—these treasures are reserved for people born elsewhere.
By their union, these men will live every day with a women who walked out of their dreams and these women will live a broader and richer life beyond anything what they could have expected from the circumstances of their birth. And their Thai-Austrian children—who never tired of joyously running around our table—will bridge two worlds, bring the families of two continents together, and cast a light toward a future where the flavours of our species are recognized as the great gifts of geography and time that they truly are.
“You never told me,” Carl said, “did you find the old quarter in Hanoi?”
“Yeah … lucky guess. On the cabbies map I realized that a fuzzy hatched-area was actually a lake, with something of a monument-symbol at the northern end. Cities tend to leave a fossil record of their evolution—like all organisms. A shore-road followed the lake around it’s circumference, followed by additional loops roughly retaining the outline of the lake, I thought, that’s it, the city is organized around the lake, this is the original city and thus the most likely place for any old quarter.
“I had the taxi drop me off at the northern end of what turned out to be Hoan Kiem Lake. It was still raining… seems to be following me around these days. Anyway I ducked into the first place with hot water. The funny thing is I unpacked and realized that I was missing two items: Raj’s business card and the bracelet from Preah Vihear Temple. He had taken them both from me while I was under. My mind was still murky from the drugs and the flight and everything. I barely remembered getting to Hanoi. It was like I had just woken up there. I just lay in bed and held up my hand pretending to flip Raj’s card back and forth, just as I had done in Bangkok. First slowly and then all at once it came back to me: his name, company, email. Everything.”
Carl snapped his glance back from somewhere over my shoulder. “You contacted ‘im?”
“I did … wasn’t easy. I had to hold back a lot of anger to write the email that I sent. I just wanted to get a response out of him, you know? So I ended up writing something cute and docile like: Hey Raj, I’m still in Bangkok, crazy night eh? Any chance I left my bracelet in your apartment? Hope to see you again.”
The waitress patted away Carl’s hand from her leg. Islamic Indonesia is a long way from Buddhist Thailand. “You get a response out of ‘im?”
I brandished a notebook out of my front pocket and thumbed away the elastic strap. From the back pouch, I handed Carl a folded piece of paper.
He unfolded it slowly, keeping eye contact. “You’re printin’ it all out. Clever move, that’ll ‘old up in Thai court, or as we call it, the back alley. You’re wastin’ your life mate. Just get a girlfriend and forget about it.” Carl read out loud:
Good to hear from you-
I am in Singapore. Returning to Bangkok tomorrow night. I thought that you had gone to Vietnam or out of the country.
Trust you are feeling better, because you were bit of a wild man the other night with the mixing of the drinks. Well, I do not remember the last part of the evening as I blanked out as well. Only recovered at 6 the next evening. Ha. Ha. That Bangle made out of coconut is in my apartment.
Will you still be in Bangkok on Monday. If so, I can let you have the bangle.
Carl chuckled. “Wild man? I can’t believe he actually wrote out ‘Ha, ha,’ I thought you were just doin’ that for effect.” He continued:
Raj, please hold onto the bracelet for me, it was given to me by a friend and it’s important to me. Are you going to be in Bangkok in 3 weeks time? I’ll be coming back and would like to pick it up. Otherwise, I could meet you in Singapore.
“Nice and friendly, but will he take the bait?”
Stay in touch. I’ll keep your bracelet safe.
It was given to you by a boy at the temple on the Cambodia/Thai Border.
I remember. Not a friend.
“Nope, your playin’ his game here. After all,” Carl looked looked straight at me, “you’re not the first.”
“But I will be the last.”
“Now you say that old line with some bravado mate, but do you remember anythin’ he said from that night which you might interpret as a freat?”
“There is one thing. When I asked him about his business in Bangkok, he said that he was building a hotel in Phuket with his partners. His end of things was to make sure that all the right people got money in their pockets to secure the planning permits, or as he put it: ‘the only difference between a fee and a bribe is transparency.’ Around this time he mentioned off-hand that Thailand was so corrupt that you could have someone killed for fifty baht.”
Carl raised an eyebrow. “This guy ‘ad everythin’ worked out from the beginnin’. That should tell you somethin’ about his character. He doesn’t need to be fantastically rich and powerful to fook yer up. A few kids and bobbies on the payroll will do that for ‘im quite nicely. Remember, he’s the one with the luxury apar’ment in Bangkok, this is his territory, his turf. In the fick of things, everyone from the bellboy in the lobby to the lady at the printshop will support ‘im over you. You’ve got nobody out there.
“Why do you think I ‘ire locals? I keep ’em ‘appy so that I’ve got someone at my side when shit gets messy, and shit always gets messy, thats what shit does. Listen to me very carefully now, if you go back to Bangkok and follow this fook-wit plan of yours, you will not make it back to the airport alive.”
His girlfriend tugged the paper with the emails out of Carl’s hand. She whispered something in his ear and he smiled. “She wants to know if she can keep this to practice her English.”
“Sure,” I said and put my hand over my heart—I don’t know why. “Carl, I feel a little less trust in the faces of strangers, I feel a little less kindness in my soul. I don’t want to carry this anger around with me for the rest of my life. Don’t I have a duty to return it to the source? Then he can live with his own evil.”
“If revenge is so important, then why did you even bother to leave Thailand and come to Jakarta in the first place, when you could now be sleuthing around the streets of Bangkok ‘unting down yer man?”
“I came to see the ASEAN Secretariat. Like I set out to in the beginning…“I rode out there yesterday on the back of an ojek, you know, one of those wild motorcycle taxis. The driver was weaving through oncoming traffic, as you do, and at one point rode right up onto the sidewalk and I had to duck under the steel overhang of a magazine stand. If I was looking away at that point for some reason, that would have been the end of me right there—”
“The ASEAN building. I’ve seen the place, it’s nestled into Blok M. I do a lot of surveillance in the clubs and bars out that way—some of my best photography in fact.”
I leaned on the stool’s back legs. “There must be a lot of men in the world who hate you.”
“That’s alright, there’s just as many women who hate them, and I don’t make people do the things they do, I just record the things they do. You might even say that I’m a servant of the truth. A well paid servant.” Carl tapped his girlfriend’s leg to get up and he shot out of his seat. He took a final swig of beer and kissed her.
“Where ya going bud?” I asked.
“My light just turned on.” He spun on a rain coat, and fixed his fedora on his head. “Keep ‘old of that card in case you get into a jam.”
“But it has no contact info,” I put my hands up, “how do I find you?”
“The same way you find yer friend in Bangkok… by returning to the same place you met me.”
His words seemed to echo in every drop of rain, by returning to the place you met me. I drank there until the rain stopped. Then I hopped on a train to Bali—or so I thought.