In the golden age of conspicuous consumption--it must be more than twenty years ago now, although it seems like only yesterday--someone rich and famous from Hong Kong built a stately pleasure dome high on a hill in Phuket overlooking the Andaman Sea. They used the finest Thai architects, who produced a lyrical palace with curving roofs under which teak pillars of great girth support high ceilings over vast play areas where pools of limpid blue are linked by tiny streams that tinkle over smooth pebbles selected by a feng shui master, and enormous bedrooms offer ocean views to make you gasp. The developer named the hilltop they had thus colonized Vulture Peak, whether in homage to the Indian mountain upon which the Buddha gave his celebrated sermons, or to the buzzards they had evicted, is unclear.
It’s as good a place as any for a triple homicide, although access is complicated. I came by taxi, but the driver lost us in a complex of single-lane roads that led to other mansions. We could see the place clearly enough--it’s the biggest and swankiest of them all--so in the end I climbed up an iron ladder from the sea and have arrived a good fifty minutes after the forensic team, which is led by our senior pathologist, Dr. Supatra, a diminutive figure in white coveralls, mask, and gloves. We press our palms together and wai each other from a distance. She is accompanied by a team of about eight, for the news that it is an atrocity of the more serious kind preceded our arrival and the good doctor likes to be prepared. More than the size of her team, the heavy silence and glum faces--only she and her chief assistant are wearing masks--portend a crime scene lurid with bad luck. Not a one of us will not spend an hour or so making merit in a temple before the day is out. In my mind’s eye I stand before a Buddha image with a bunch of smoking incense and bow three times.
Dr. Supatra leads me to the master bedroom, where three human forms lie on a giant bed. In an attempt to minimize the bad joss as much as to express respect for the dead, Supatra has covered them from head to toe with an equally extravagant white sheet. She pauses for a moment before inviting me to share the labor of removing it. The rest of her team have wandered in to observe my reaction.
The Buddha taught that the distinction between subject and object, the self and other, even between you and me, Dear Farang Reader (may I call you DFR?), is illusory. This lesson is brought home with perhaps more drama than the Master intended when the human forms before you have been stripped of faces, eyes, genitals, and--as the good doctor indicates by pointing to gaping wounds in each cadaver--kidneys and livers too. To call them anonymous would be to evade the issue. Stripped of every vestige of personal identity, they are all of us, as anyone knows who has ever flown economy. With so much surgery to absorb, it takes me a moment to notice that the finger and thumb tips of each victim have been snipped off. Supatra follows my gaze.
“Any first impressions regarding cause of death?” I ask.
“Gunshot wounds to the back of the head. A single shot in each case. Everything points to a carefully planned execution prior to pillaging the bodies for organs.”
“Obviously no print identification,” I mutter. “DNA?”
The doctor shrugs. “If any of them committed a serious crime over the past five years, maybe. We only have DNA records for convicted criminals.”
“But prints could have been checked on the national ID bank.” I shake my head. “Someone is being unusually shy about who they killed. We have to go on the likelihood they were all Thai residents who could have been identified if they still had fingertips.” I scratch my jaw. “That leaves sixty million possibilities.”
Supatra allows herself a smile bordering on the coquettish. “I may be able to help, Detective. Just last week I sent off for some fancy software that will allow us to reconstruct the faces on my laptop. The government won’t pay so I’m buying it myself.”
“Really? That will be helpful. By the way, what genders are the victims?”
“Two men and a woman.”
Now I notice something else. “No blood?”
“Somebody cleaned up meticulously. They even used some chemical that neutralizes our tests. I tell you, whoever did it were professionals. There were certainly more than one.” I nod.
“Any ideas?” the doctor asks when we have replaced the sheet.
“You mean whodunit? Only in the more general sense.” She raises her eyes. “Ronald Reagan, Milton Friedman, Margaret Thatcher, Adam Smith. Capitalism dunit. Those organs are being worn by somebody else right now.”
She stares at me for a moment and, good Buddhist that she is, shivers. “Oh, yes. Of course I saw that from the start.”
I leave her in the infinite lounge to step out onto the balcony, which offers a plummeting vista of rocks and ocean of the kind that invariably provokes thoughts of suicide in even the healthiest psyche, and fish out my cell phone to call my assistant, Lek. I ask him to go straight to the Phuket land registry and give him the address of the crime scene, which should be enough for the registry to work out the lot number. I don’t bother to check the rest of the house--what’s the point?
Despite my evasive answer to the doctor’s question, I already know too much. I need to clear my head and my heart. I also need to consider how to break the news to my partner, Chanya. All of a sudden I need to do a lot of things that form no part of crime detection. The iron ladder I climbed up starts at a corner of the balcony and hugs the massive rock all the way down. I jump the last two steps to land on soft shale that releases an inelegant sea stench, which I suck in with some relief. Despite the impossible heat I decide to follow the shore all the way back to the main road. I’ll find a cab or a motorbike taxi there.
Lek, a transsexual permanently on the verge of the operation that will equally permanently turn him into a woman, is waiting outside the thoroughly modern land registry, a refugee from the glacial air-conditioning that our bureaucrats have come to expect as a perk of their employment. He shivers as I open the door for us, and we are braced by an arctic breeze. “The clerk’s a katoey,” he complains. Katoey means transsexual, which is to say one of his own tribe. Is it too early in the narrative for a dark observation on the human condition, namely that to know well is often to loath well? To put it another way, the fishwife inside all men is liberated when the goolies are cut off--or about to be.
But he’s right, the clerk is a katoey of the kind who did not find consummation after the operation. Dark, paranoid eyes seem in endless doubt as to whether life without a cock is even worse than with one. When I ask politely if he cannot find the lot number of the address I give him--it is after all the biggest, most prominent, most overblown mansion on the highest rock in the locality--Lek interjects loudly with faux hurt, “I already asked him exactly that question, and he said, ‘What do you think I am, a private detective?’ ”
I catch the clerk’s eye and smile glacially as I present my police ID. Caught, he goes into a classic katoey sulk. It’s the full show with pouted lips, tuts, and well-I-supposes, but he magically finds the logbook under the desk. He must have retrieved it from the shelves while Lek was outside sheltering from the cold. Perhaps fearful that I will make a formal complaint, he tuts and frets his way through the pages until he finds the lot we are seeking. He also runs his finger down the column that records the various parties who have owned the pleasure palace over the years.
It seems that a famous and now deceased Hong Kong Chinese woman, the widow of an equally famous land development tycoon, bought the lot through a local company without disguising her identity. This we may take as an act of flamboyance, proving she was so rich she didn’t much care if one day she would have to pay tax on the resale or, more likely, that she would one day be cheated by her Thai shadow shareholders. On her death the property was sold and resold through a succession of shell companies until the present owner, B.C.A. Company, bought it officially for one hundred million baht, which at the present rate of exchange works out at roughly $3.5 million. The recorded price doubtless reflects a strategy to evade transfer tax; we can assume the actual sale figure was at least double.
As is proper, the details of B.C.A. Company are also recorded in the register. I am not surprised that the eight shareholders are Thai; I would be surprised, though, if any of them invested any equity at all in the company. Whoever is the true owner of the mansion has made sure someone searching the registry--a cop like me, for example--will not so easily discover their identity.
I thank the clerk. He has transformed into a female doormat who fawns and moans as he hefts the heavy tome and tramps slope-shouldered down the aisle between shelves that hold the larcenous secrets of a real estate boom more than thirty years old, while Lek and I retreat gratefully to the heat wave that awaits outside.
I try to avoid Lek’s eye while we look around for a taxi, but he grasps my arm.
“It’s part of the other thing, isn’t it?”
“Too early to say,” I reply. He treats me to a fishwife leer of disbelief.
I shall tease you no further, DFR, but straightaway tell you what I know. It all began on an inauspicious Thursday last week.
“I looked into body parts about five years ago,” Police Colonel Vikorn said, and gave me one of his dangerous smiles. We were in his spartan but spacious office, where he sat at his desk under a great anticorruption poster of which he is inexplicably fond. “But the logistics seemed too nerve-wracking. In the end I decided to stay with what I knew. Smack never goes bad, especially if you keep it in morphine bricks during a bear market.”
My Colonel stood. He is of average height with gray hair almost cropped. As on most days, he was dressed in an informal version of the Thai cop’s brown uniform, a worn cotton combination that looks like military fatigues. It is one of his idiosyncrasies that he never walks but only prowls. Now he prowled to the window to look down on the cooked-food stalls that line the street below. “So many things you have to set up. The surgeon to harvest the parts from the donor or the cadaver. The other surgeon to pop them into the donee. Nursing support for both. And if you do it right, you probably need a specialist in whatever organ you’re transplanting--kidneys are the gold standard, but there’s quite a lot of liver, heart, lung trafficking these days, and they say that whole eyes and faces are now viable. Then there’s the clinic to set up. If you’ve got some farang calling the shots, he’s not going to expect it all to happen in a third-world garage.”
He pursed his lips. “And you have to have a good organ hunter to work the supply side in the first place, not to mention the nurse to take the blood samples to check compatibility.” He turned to face me. “But I could see the point, of course. Suppose some rich little shit on Wall Street needs a new heart. Is he going to wait in line in the hope that the health system will find him a replacement before he croaks--or is he going to buy himself one on the black market? If he’s on the point of dying, obviously he’ll pay whatever price the organ hunter demands. If he’s worth eight hundred million, surely a mere million is not too much to ask in return for another twenty years of bleeding the world white? See, the hunter is the key to it all.” He paused and frowned. “Sure, it would be a first-class racket if it wasn’t for the short shelf life of the product. Did you know that lungs and hearts only last six hours? After that they’re useless.”
“No,” I said, “I didn’t know that.”
Vikorn flashed me a glance and nodded thoughtfully. “Eyes, of course, last longer. Just pop them out and chuck them in a fridge, they’re good for a week.”
“I thought you said eyes were only just coming onstream.”
“I said whole eyes. Corneas are entry-level stuff--you don’t even need a real surgeon, a well-trained nurse could do it--but the corneas are kept intact on the eyeballs until they’re needed--it’s called an eye bank. No civilized country is without one.” He covered his mouth to cough. “The United Arab Emirates is one of the big markets for corneas. It’s all that sun, burns them out. How long do you think human testicles would last on ice?”
“I have no idea. I’ve never heard of transplanting testicles.”
“There’s an incredible demand for them in North Korea, did you know that?”
“Of course, with North Koreans you never know if they’re going to transplant them or eat them.”
He let the moment hang for a few beats, then said in a suddenly formal and almost public tone of voice, “Organ trafficking is a deplorable thing, don’t you think? It’s outrageous that people use our country as a staging post for such an appalling crime. Someone needs to do something about it. I spoke to the deputy secretary yesterday, he’s right behind me. He’s given me tacit approval to lead the charge.”
Now I’d lost the plot entirely. Vikorn lead a law and order campaign? In your mythology, DFR, that would be like Judas running for pope. Stranger still, this was the first I’d heard of Thailand being a world organ-trading center. Shrewdly, my master gave me a few moments to adjust to the new reality. Then he said, “So I’m appointing you as lead investigator.”
“Huh?” In more than a decade of feudal service to my chief, he has never asked me to perform a socially useful task. On the contrary, my contribution to the community has largely consisted in modifying his personal interpretation of Western capitalism. “You started out admitting that you looked into the trade for personal profit. Now suddenly you want to wipe it out. May I ask why?”
Excerpted from Vulture Peak by John Burdett. Copyright © 2012 by John Burdett. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.