On afternoons like this, in Patpong, the streets are full but the sidewalks are nearly empty. Anyone with any sense has gone inside to get out of the wet and the heat in hopes of finding some dry and cool. The electrical grid flickers, every so often, with all the air conditioners threatening a brown out, and the bars do a brisk trade of bottled water and cold beer.
But then, no one really comes here for just the drinks.
Patpong, for better or worse, is the best-known expatriate playground in the city. Farangs looking for that certain thing that the tourist brochures and hotel concierges don't want to talk about, but everyone knows about, wind up here, eventually. The ground floor go-go bars bring in the average joes, while those in the mood for something a little more exotic -- or illegal -- go up to the second floor, or higher.
Not all of them come back down.
It would be grossly unfair to say that Patong is all about the skin trade, though. There are many other reasons to visit this neighborhood, and many other kinds of drinking establishments, some of which cater to expatriates just trying to keep in touch with one another. Lonely foreigners who want to see friendly and familiar faces head there, first, knowing that sooner or later they'll encounter one of their countrymen, and possibly a new friend.
And then there are those places that cater to the sort of people who don't want to be found.
On Silom Soi 4, nestled amongst the bars that cater almost exclusively to gay men, Katooeys, and the like, there's a two-story place called Pokes. In spite of the suggestive name, and the makeup of some of its clientele, the well-appointed, wood and brass establishment is not necessarily geared towards hooking up for sex. Indeed, anyone who goes in there looking for go-go girls or available boys tends to get toyed with by the bartender, and then gently escorted out by the bouncer.
Put simply, Pokes exists so that people with certain needs can meet people who can provide those needs, or put them in touch with someone who can. If you need a tourguide who will take you places that aren't on any map, a man who can help you hide your money, or reclaim what was stolen, a journalist who can get you in touch with hard-to-find sources, or a detective who can get you out of trouble, Pokes is the best place to go.
And, judging from how busy it gets, there are a lot of people in Bangkok who need it.
Yet, at the same time, the bar conversely provides a shelter for those who don't want to be disturbed. Business happens on the first floor, and solitude -- both singly or in groups -- takes place in the curtained, recessed tables on the second. Fine dining can be brought up from the restaurant next door, drinks are shuttled up by dumb waiter to a stone-deaf server at the back of the darkened room, and woe betide anyone who tries to take their noisy needs up the staircase.
(They say there's a third floor, too, but no one's willing to say what happens, there, if anything. Maybe that's where the gatecrashers go.)
Today, around two in the afternoon, a large, burly, and quite homely fellow dressed -- and bearded -- too heavily for this weather walks in, nods to the bartender, and points up to the stairs. The tender nods and gestures, and up the stairs he goes, heavy feet clomping all the way up.
He goes to a large table, draws the curtain behind him, and sits down facing the stairwell. It takes him a full five minutes of sitting there to actually relax, and then he's just waiting for the waiter to send up his usual bottle of vodka -- without the cap, of course.
Ten minutes -- and three significant shots -- later, he's joined by a tall and large man dressed nicely, but still too warmly for the climate. He's dark skinned, with a very flat nose, short hair, and a neatly groomed mustache. He walks up the stairs, takes in the room, and heads straight for the curtained-off table.
"Mikhail," he says, his voice deep and musical. (Ethiopian.)
"Khalil," the burly fellow replies, his thick accent giving his nationality away more than the vodka does. (Russian.)
Khalil smiles, and makes a point of sitting up against the wall, so that he can keep one eye on Mikhail and another on the stairwell: "Do we know who else is coming?"
"That I do not know, my friend. I only who is not coming."
Khalil's about to ask the obvious question, but then there's another set of footfalls coming up the stairwell. This time it's a short, ginger-haired fellow who's dressed in shorts and a polo shirt, which is the perfect clothing for this sort of day. He gives off the carefree vibes of someone who's just on vacation, but there's traps in his eyes, ready to spring shut on anyone who might mess with him.
"Sir George," Mikhail says, not bothering to rise: "This is Khalil, from NGUVU. Is your first time meeting in person, yes?"
"I do believe so, yes," he replies, his British accent as clipped as a well-trimmed toenail: "But I know who you are, sir."
"May I buy you a drink?" the African asks, smiling. Something behind George's eyes hardens, just for a second, and then it's gone, but that's told Khalil all he needs to know.
Just before Sir George can come up with a polite refusal, there's a noise like a marker on a whiteboard, and two Indian men are in the room. One's large, young man, dressed like he watched too many Matrix movies. The other's older, and dressed more conservatively, with bad facial scars and raggedy, long hair.
"Dosha," Mikhail says, standing up: "I am so relieved to see you, my friend. I had heard bad stories."
"They are all quite true," Dosha Josh says, nodding to the young man who brought him here. There's another sound, and then the young man is gone, just as Dosha pointedly takes the seat that Sir George was going to take.
"So, this is all of us, then?" Sir George asks, trying to rebound from that snub and take the last --and least safe -- seat that remains.
"It is," Dosha replies: "Francois did not survive 3/15, and what's left of Direction Noir isn't to be trusted, now. Mister 9 is missing, presumed dead, and his people are next to useless without him."
"And, as I understand, Jose Julia has pulled one of his famous disappearing acts," Mikhail says, pouring himself another shot.
"And we know what happened to poor Jomo and his agency, don't we?" Sir George says, shooting a significant look at Khalil.
"That just leaves the Gavril person you spoke of," Khalil says, choosing to ignore the glare, at least for now: "Will he be joining us, then?"
"I am afraid the answer is no," Mikhail says, hitting a buzzer on the table to summon the upstairs waiter: "Gavril is also dead. But before he died, he gave to me much useful information. I would give this information to you, my friends. But first, we should drink."
"To his memory? Quite right-" Sir George begins to say, but has his speech halted by a large, red palm.
"To settle us in this place, in this moment," Mikhail corrects him: "To loosen our minds and let certain terrible things wash over us, rather than sweep us away."
"Then the rumors are true?" Dosha asks: "About Israel?"
Mikhail nods: "I have a horror story to tell you, this day. And I fear none of you will ever wish to meet again, after I tell you this thing. But I owe it to him to see that his last words are known, and heard, and understood by those who might be able to do something about this.
"As for whether you are willing, well," he shrugs, regarding the waiter as he appears at the edge of the curtain: "We shall see, yes?"
* * *
Three blocks away, in an alley that's best left deserted, Anil appears. He takes a look up and down the cramped, wet passage, and then navigates its trash and detritus until he comes to a locked metal door.
He hesitates, just for a second. Then he bangs on it, three times, his eyes screwed shut as he does.
The locks tumble and and unlock, and suddenly he finds he can turn the knob. He sighs, opens it, and goes into the darkened interior.
Inside there's a room that's mostly empty, except for an orange crate, and a black, slim cell phone. He closes the door behind him, picks up the phone, and dials a number he wishes he didn't know.
"Where are they?" a raspy voice asks.
"Poke's," Anil says: "The second floor. The large private table."
"Very well," it answers him: "If this is true, our agreement stands."
"It is true. Please let her go. Please-"
"Once this matter is concluded, and not before," the voice insists: "You should understand that by now."
The phonecall goes dead. Anil puts the phone down. He weeps, for all the good it will do him.
But there's nothing he can do now but regret.
(SPYGOD is listening to At Night (The Cure) and having the nastiest Russian vodka you never heard of)