first chapter

THE BLOODY BLANKET

A blast from a muzzle-loading rifle boomed across the valley, splintering the dawn.  The explosion reverberated off limestone cliffs to the north before dissipating in a layer of heavy mist smothering the sleeping village. Jolted awake, I sprang out of bed, snatched the shotgun from the wall and thumbed the safety. Gripping the cold steel barrel with my left hand, I slumped back on my lumpy kapok mattress, aimed at the door and waited, my eyes bulging against the gloom. Diew huddled against me, her body warm but tense under a stack of thin blankets. My heart was heaving and my Adam’s apple was rasping my desiccated throat. Mindy, our two-year-old daughter, stirred beside us, and I croaked, “Shush.”

A sudden piercing barrage of shrill Shan burst through the teak shutters behind the bed, launching the guesthouse dogs into a frenzy of barking. I flinched, jerking the barrel upward. Diew swore in Shan and I felt her muscles slacken. She poked me in the ribs and smiled. “Some boys shot a squirrel,” she said in her native Kum Muang. I lowered the weapon, hung the shoulder strap back on a nail in the plank wall, and sat on the bed, my feet on the cold wood floor. The boys would singe the squirrel’s fur then grill the scrawny carcass before pounding it with roasted chili and salt. The fiery mash, eaten with mounds of highland rice, was a typical breakfast dish in the Golden Triangle.

The commotion outside subsided but the village roosters rebooted, contesting the raucous chirping of warblers and drongos in the forest canopy. I felt drained but sleep eluded me. I wrapped a grey Chinese blanket around my shoulders, stepped out of the bedroom and bounced across the split-bamboo floor of Cave Lodge, the panels squeaking as they flexed under my weight. I stacked some kindling, blew the embers on the dirt hearth in the center of the room, and squatted close to ward off the chill. Plumes of wood smoke, with a scent of fresh pine, filtered through the leaf roof. I balanced a soot-blackened kettle over the flames and waited until the steam rattled and lifted the lid. As usual, I let the creek water boil for a few minutes.

I savored the early winter mornings in my mountain home near the Thai-Burmese border and the moments of solitude before guests filled the wooden benches around the fireplace. Outside the open-fronted room, swirls of mist wafted through the evergreen forest on the slope above the river. The liquid babble of the Nam Lang in the valley below, and the clacking of teak and bamboo bells dangling from the buffaloes that grazed its banks, helped calm my frayed nerves. Downstream, a gibbon whooped in the forest near where the river flows into Lod Cave. Living next to a village overstocked with weapons, the gibbon, like me, was lucky to be alive.

The year, 1988, had turned catastrophic. A series of disasters over the last months of 1987 had climaxed in an appalling incident, and my family and I feared for our safety. I loved the guesthouse Diew and I had built with our blistered and sometimes bloodied hands, but I felt despondent and ready to run. The temptation to escape and slink back into the security of the Australian home I had abandoned in 1976 was growing each day.

I poured a cup of steaming mountain Arabica. The sun had crested the eastern ridge and beams of light shafted through the wood smoke billowing in the house. A couple of teenage girls, my Burmese–Shan staff, arrived and start to sweep the floor of the lodge. A few early risers wandered up from their bungalows and joined me by the fire. Over our conversation, I heard the rolling crunch of a vehicle descending the gravel driveway from the village. Diew called out from the kitchen at the back of the house, “Mee siang rot mar ner. Mar chao te chao wa.” She had heard the approaching vehicle and remarked that it was early for visitors. Besides, most of our guests walked nine kilometers on a dirt track through the forest from the bus stop to reach us. I stood up and shed the blanket as I stepped around the fireplace to the front steps of the lodge.

The Royal Thai Provincial Police Commander from Mae Hong Son and Captain Charin, chief of the Soppong District Station, strode towards me from their maroon and white Isuzu pickup. Silver stars and colored bars studded their immaculate, body-hugging uniforms. Polished shoes and steel pistols in black holsters gleamed in the sunlight. The commander stood a head taller and was leaner than the captain who was 20 years his junior. His gaunt features were accentuated by a grimace that stretched the skin on his cheeks to the corners of his tightened lips.  Charin, a few paces behind, was lugging a black garbage bag, clutching the twisted neck with his left hand. He flicked a curt salute with his free hand when he saw me. With his rounded smooth face and cherubic grin, he could have been a podgy Chinese Buddha in a previous incarnation.

The commander glanced at my bare feet before working his way up my baggy farmer’s pants to a dingy T-shirt and my palms together under my chin. When our eyes met, I bow in a wai. “What can I do to help you sir?” I spoke in polite Kum Muang, the language I had been immersed in for the past decade. He gestured to Charin, who stepped forward.

“John,” the captain said in Central Thai with a gentle, almost apologetic tone, “we have come to arrest you for murder.” He looked up at me and flashed his teeth. The words blasted into my gut. I emptied my lungs with an audible whoosh. I knew the captain was a master of intimidation and innuendoes and I was never sure when he was serious.

“You’re joking, right?”

He shifted his inscrutable grin from side to side.

“Me? Really? Murder?” I swallowed, striving to verbalize my thoughts. “Who did I kill?”

“You know,” he replied, “you know.”  His eyes bored through my stunned look, zooming in on the memories and emotions that were replaying in my mind. I knew exactly whom he was talking about.

A month had passed since the captain and I stood together in a dry creek bed beside the body of Ewa, an Australian tourist who had stayed at the lodge. He had handed me a camera and told me to photograph the murder scene, while a medic inspected the corpse. The horrific images I had captured on film had been haunting me ever since. Every day, I thought of little else than the murder. Charin was a regular visitor to the lodge and I was certain the police didn’t have a credible suspect, but I also knew they wanted one.

Charin lifted the black bag to waist height. Something heavy half-filled the bag and stretched the thin plastic. The commander fixed his eyes on mine with a chilling, accusative stare. A sense of dread spiked with intrigue sank through me. I wanted to see the “evidence,” whatever it is.  The captain reached deep inside the bag. I braced myself.

He drew out a grey blanket, gripping one corner between his thumb and fingertips. An adrenaline-laced flashback fired another shot into my stomach. It was mine; the same cheap brand of blanket I was wrapped in five minutes ago. And the bloodstains had solidified into a thick black crust.

The captain dangled the rank rag under my nose, and a smirk spread over his face.

“This,” he asked, giving it a shake, “is it yours?” He cocked his head and tightened his lips. The rim on his police cap shaded his eyes, but I knew he was scrutinizing my facial reactions. I ignored him and stared at the blanket; I hadn’t expected to see it again. So much had happened in the last month that I had forgotten about it.

Charin dropped the blanket on the teak steps that led up to the lodge. I hesitated and considered denying everything. Almost every household in the highlands owned identical blankets – they were as common as empty Singha beer bottles in the lowlands.

The captain was fishing for a suspect, or a scapegoat. After the murder, I had translated foreigner’s statements for him and had watched him thread writhing live worms onto his barbed hooks. He definitely knew who owned the bloody blanket. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have brought the highest-ranking cop in the province with him, to my house. Another certainty was that there was no way I could bullshit my way out of this.

I coughed to clear a wad that had lodged in my throat. I swallowed it, in deference to the commander who surely would have handcuffed me if I had splattered it near his feet. “The blanket is mine,” I admitted. “It’s from down there.” I pointed to the nearest guest bungalow. A backpacker with long disheveled hair, eyes shut, was meditating on the rickety veranda. An image of serenity in this atmosphere of intensifying panic struck me as incongruous. The commander recoiled as he focused on the semi-naked foreigner, while the captain gave my guest, and his bungalow, a dismissive snort.

My head was whirling with memories of a frantic moment in Bungalow 11. I had ripped the blanket off the bed while I was bellowing in Shan, ordering my staff to fetch me a hatchet. The police didn’t need to know about that.

Charin reached again into his black bag. He slowly extracted a soiled tangle of green nylon cord. He held it out, as if trying to return it to me. 

“Is this yours too?” He was pushing the hook in deeper, and I tried not to squirm, at least not yet.

“It was the clothes line.” I lifted my head and puckered my lips in the direction of two wooden stakes stuck in the lawn. A short length of severed green cord dangled from the top of each post.

“We found the blanket and cord in the forest near the cave, not far from the corpse.” His voice had lost its derision, and his smile had dissipated. I struggled to look into his eyes and exude innocence while I stuck with the truth.

“I ditched them there last month,” I said nonchalantly, as if that was how any guiltless person would dispose of a blanket sodden with human blood. The captain glanced at his superior and raised his eyebrows. The commander had crossed his arms on his decorated chest, and slowly he nodded his head. I detected a glint of smug satisfaction in his eyes as he graced me with a condescending leer. He probably thought he had solved the murder mystery.  

Things were looking bad. The last time the commander had visited Cave Lodge he told me he intended to shut us down. The autopsy had revealed the body of the murdered Australian contained a potentially lethal amount of heroin, and he had insinuated that I had supplied the drugs. I told him I had never touched heroin in my life, and abhorred its use. The commander had curled his upper lip into a skeptical sneer, but he had allowed the lodge to remain open.

Now he was back, fingering me for murder. Over the past few minutes the police investigation had progressed at an alarming rate. My accusers were deadly serious about the blanket, and I lived in the Golden Triangle borderlands where murder cases were routinely wrapped up with an on-the-spot sentence. Death came cheap when bullets cost seven baht each – three for a dollar. 

I sucked in a lungful of cold mountain air to regain my composure. I knew the captain or his superior, probably both of them, had lost the plot, before they even had one, and I was slipping into a quagmire of dodgy judgment. I needed to distance myself from their dubious accusation and from my ludicrous thoughts. The evidence that linked me to the brutal slaying of Ewa was flimsy, even farcical, and nobody was going to shoot me in front of my guests. Anyway, the case was already bizarre enough, without any embellishment.

People staying at the lodge had seen Ewa Czajor alive for the last time on 3 January 1988, at the mouth of Lod Cave. Ewa had left the cave alone at sunset, while her boyfriend Peter lingered inside the 50-metre-high entrance chamber with a group of foreign tourists. In the twilight, hundreds of thousands of cave-adapted swifts swirl into the cave to spend the night clinging to stalactites, while the resident bats exit for nocturnal hunting. Peter had waited for the evening bird and bat show to begin.

Ewa’s assailants had intercepted her somewhere along the path from the cave to the lodge. They had injected heroin into her arm, raped her, and strangled her with a jungle vine.

Weeks had passed without any arrests, and pressure was building on the police to come up with a plausible suspect. Then they had picked up the blanket and green cord. I admitted to ownership and to having trashed the stuff outside Lod Cave, but did not confess to any crime – let alone murder.

A tourist’s blood had drenched the blanket – it had splattered onto the cave floor, coated my hands and smeared my clothing. My heart was pounding when I chucked the blanket behind a tree near the cave entrance. I had little choice; soggy cloth doesn’t burn, and I didn’t have time to bury it.

Now, with the police standing on the front steps of the lodge, accusing me of complicity in the murder of one of my guests, I wish I had stashed the blanket in my Land Rover, washed it and put it back in Bungalow 11.

What baffled me was that the captain must have known he couldn’t rationally relate my blanket to the murder of Ewa. Her killers had drugged and then throttled her, but had not spilt any blood. Charin’s soiled evidence led nowhere, unless he had found another corpse that I didn’t know about.

I invited the officers into the lodge to discuss the matter over a mug of coffee and banana muffins from our wood-fired oven. I felt confident they would believe my version of the bloody blanket affair. The captain needed to revitalize his stagnant investigation with a more logical interpretation of the evidence. And he needed another suspect besides me.

I thought I knew the identity of one of the killers. I had requested protection weeks before Charin’s latest visit, and was still paying for two uniformed officers with M16s to sleep in a hut near the front gate of the lodge. I had hoped their presence would deter my suspect from pumping shells out of his five-cartridge, pump-action shotgun into my guesthouse and family. Thai authorities had handed out 15 of these weapons to men in our border-region village, for self-defense. 

To counteract the intimidation, my male staff had acquired illegal weaponry from Chiang Mai. Backyard factories in Lampang churned out the crude but effective handguns. Some fired shotgun shells that sprayed a lethal volley of pellets. Others blasted out M16 bullets and recoiled with enough force to snap a wrist.

I had never fired a gun, but kept my shotgun loaded on the wall beside my bed. Charin had advised me to shoot anyone who broke into my house. “Shoot first, they might be armed,” he said. “I will clear any problems if you kill someone.”

 My family slept restlessly. We cringed at creaking floorboards, the growls of the village dogs, and every gunshot. A vision of a last-stand scenario exacerbated my insomnia. My opponent could pump out five shells in rapid succession. A pre-emptive strike might be a survivable option, but I doubted I could muster enough courage, or hate, to fire my single-shell shotgun first.

I sat with the two officers, cross-legged on the bamboo floor of the lodge, and we discussed my perceptions and fears.

“The case is wide open,” said Charin, spreading his chubby palms wide for emphasis. “Everyone is a suspect. You too, until you can prove you are innocent.” I had assumed that it was the other way around.

“Well,” I began, “you know Diew and I were in Chiang Mai when Ewa died.” Diew is a Chiang Mai native, and she had worked in the northern capital as a trekking guide. When Ewa was leaving the cave alone to walk back to the lodge, we were 200 kilometers away – a distance that took five or six hours in our Land Rover.

Another Australian tourist, Paul, could confirm our sound alibi, if he was taking his medication. Our witness, a proverbial guest from hell, had accompanied us from the lodge to Chiang Mai. He had needed to consult a psychiatrist and treat his schizophrenia, which had flared out of control. I hadn’t told the cops about Paul. I was concerned they might interrogate him and extract a deluded confession.

I convinced the officers that my blanket had nothing to do with the bloodless death of Ewa, and that I was nowhere near the cave when she died. But while I hadn’t committed murder, I still needed to explain why I had dumped a bloody blanket from Bungalow 11 and a nylon cord from the lodge in the forest near the scene of the crime. The account I gave the police was succinct. The full version of how I ended up on the Thai–Burma border with an Australian tourist’s blood on my hands is long and convoluted, and it begins more than a decade earlier on another continent.