August 1968—The Prologue
You know? Being shut up in a cage with a live bear was a piece
of cake compared to being drunk and high in charge of half-amillion
dollars’ worth of flying metal. The full moon beckoned,
hanging there like an ivory wok in a vast steel-gray sky. It spread
the landscape with an eerie monochrome like daytime to a dog.
Medium-gray jungle against dark-gray mountains. Patches of charcoal
and slivers of silver off the rivers. Boyd could make out every
leaf, every rock, as clear as creation day. He was a god. Oh, yeah.
A deity on a mission. The almighty protagonist in the movies they
made before they could afford colour: starring Boyd Bowry in his
never-ending quest for . . . cheese.
“Cheese, little buddy,” he’d told Marcos. “I’ll bring you back
a hunk of moon cheese. They let you scoop it right out. You want
fries or something with it?”
“Man, you shouldn’t leave me here with that,” was all Marcos
could come back with. Boyd remembered being at the door of
the cage then. He’d stopped, looked back at the bear: drunk,
snoring, farting, head in her feed trough.
“She’ll be cool, man. Fix her a cup of coffee in the morning.
Tell her it was great. Leave your phone number.”
Marcos had done one of those non-military salutes. That’s why
that finger’s so long, you know? Gets all the exercise. That was . . .
what? An hour ago? Half an hour? Time lost all its credibility at
ten thousand feet with no colour in the world. Someone oughta
write a PhD about that. The relationship between . . . between hue
and chronology. The colour of minutes. He’d heard Marcos yelling
some Filipino double Dutch at him as he walked away. The little
guy was mad. Smiled a lot, but. . . .
No, wait. Marcos? That’s not right. Marcos is the goddamned
president. The guy’s about to be eaten by a bear. The least I can
do is remember his name. I’ve known him for. . . .
OK, don’t be distracted now.
Ignition and all that instrumental hoo-ha had been instinctive
and that was just as well ’cause he couldn’t recall doing any of it.
He’d cranked her up, left the ground, and here he was heading
off to the heavenly moon deli service. A Sikorsky was a hell of a
lot safer than a Chevy in so many respects. Never drove a Sikorsky
into a fire hydrant, for one. And if you did, the cops would never
catch up with you, for two. And, what else? A Chevy never surfed
moon rays like a Sikorsky H34.
What a trip. What a goddamned trip. Just hanging in the gray,
looking at the moon. It was cosmic. What happened to nights like
this? What happened to love and harmony, man? No peace and
quiet for those monkeys down there in the trees. For those big
lizards on the rocks. “Sorry guys.” At least he didn’t have to listen
to his own engine growl. He had his headphones connected direct
to the cassette player. The Who: Brits, but complex, man. Percussion
like the punch of anti-aircraft flak.
And even though the music went straight into his brain and deadended
there, he got it into his head that the words were being
broadcast all over Nam to the east and Thailand in the west and
some karmic interpretation service was sending the message to
farmers in their bamboo beds. He shouted over the music, “You
were deceived, brothers, but you can see what we’ve done, right?
You’ve got the magic eyes? You know we’ll get ours in some other
life. You’ve got that damned right. What do we know?”
And that was when it happened; the actual date and time when
the sky fell on Chicken Little. There was a thump first, then an
odd lack of vibration. One second the scenery was holding him
up, the next a trapdoor opened in the universe and he fell through
it. Gravity. What a concept! The fuel light was flashing like
Christmas. There were “procedures.” He could probably send out
a mayday. That was on the list. But who in their right mind would
be up at 2:00 A.M. waiting for some dopehead on a magical mystery
tour to call in? And timing, man. He was in fourteen thousand
pounds of metal heading down to earth with twenty canisters of
volatile substance on board. Some rescue that would be. He disengaged
the rotors, waited for stability, unclamped his belt and rose
from his seat. He smiled at the briefcase sitting in the copilot’s
seat but he didn’t have time to take it with him. He had barely
thirty seconds of the rest of his life to look forward to. To sort
it all out.
“Use your time wisely, man.”
Who should he think of? Who to pledge his love to? Who to
hate? No, that last one was easy. That son-of-a-bitch was one day
away from getting his. And now, look at this. Goddamn it. A oneway
express ticket to some big old Boyd barbecue. All in the timing.
He worked his way down the crawl space to the cabin and staggered
around in there. He’d seen men die in all kinds of ways. He
knew what St. Peter’s first question would be.
“How did you go down, son? Were you calm about it? We don’t
want no screaming girl scouts up here, boy.”
So Boyd opted for cool. When you’re cool, death doesn’t seem
There was a village and all were asleep save two. They saw the
chopper come down, not like a rock, not plumb straight, more
the way a slab of slate might slice through water. They both saw
the wheel hit the tree tops then a spark and the big bird exploded—
spewed out a whole galaxy. One of the insomniacs smiled and
clapped his hands but he could never tell anyone what he’d seen.
The other was so shocked she fell out of a tree, hit her head on
the way down and knocked herself blind. But the last image that
projected itself in her mind was as certain as the earth. She’d seen
it. A dragon had collided with the moon. It had burst into a
million shards and the pieces cascaded across the jungle and there
would never be lightness again at night.1
Another Fine Mess
Dr. Siri and Madame Daeng sat on the edge of the smelly bed
and looked at the body hanging from the door handle opposite.
They were a couple not renowned for silence but this one lent
itself most splendidly to speechlessness. They took in the too-red
lipstick and the too-tight underwear. They breathed the whiskey
fumes and the scent of vomit diluted with disinfectant. They’d
both seen their share of death, perhaps more than a fair share.
But neither had experienced anything like this.
“Well,” said Daeng at last, uncomfortable in the early morning
quiet. The foggy mist rolled in through the window and rasped
the inside of her throat.
“Well, indeed,” agreed her husband.
“This is another fine mess you’ve gotten us into, Dr. Siri.”
“Me? I didn’t do it.”
“No. Not it exactly. It you didn’t do, I grant you. But the consequences
that led to it. They’ve got your fingerprints all over them.”
“Madam, judging from the evidence in front of us, I’d say this
would have occurred whether we were here or not. And it didn’t
even have to have happened here. This was a tragedy begging to
be let out of the bag.”
“Again, you’re right. But if you hadn’t volunteered yourself,
volunteered us all, we’d be at home now beside the Mekhong
eating noodles in relative peace. We wouldn’t be in this room with
this particular body, about to be embroiled in an international
scandal. This would be someone else’s problem. Someone in good
health capable of handling it. But oh no. One last adventure before
I retire, you say. What can go wrong? you say. Everything’s perfectly
safe, you say. And look at us now. Five weeks ago we were perfectly
content and now we’re up to our necks in dung.”
“Come on, Daeng. Be fair. What could I have done to avoid it?”
“What could you have done?”
‘Torn up the note.”Five Weeks Earlier
It was true, just five weeks before, things had been normal. Well,
normal for Vientiane. But first there was the haunting, then the
note, then the Americans. And somewhere between the three life
had become complicated again. That was Laos in the late seventies
though, wasn’t it? What can you say? The place had always
been mysterious, always been a victim of its politics and its confused
beliefs and its weather. While the north ex perienced a premature
dry season, the southern provinces were being flooded by Typhoon
Joe. Worst hit was Champasak, the show province where almost
half the country’s farming cooperatives had been established. All
of them had been rained into submission and, once again, the
locals were convinced that Lady Kosob, the goddess of the rice
harvests, was displeased with government policy. The collectives
program was doomed. This came as a blow to the ministry of
agriculture who’d nationalized all the old royalist estates in preparation
for this great socialist plan.
If the weather wasn’t bad enough, the country’s close proximity
to Kampuchea, once a cultural and commercial partnership,
had become a liability. Refugees fleeing the Khmer Rouge were
flooding into Thailand and southern Laos. The Lao government
had issued twenty official statements denying KR claims that they
were allowing Vietnamese troops to cross Lao territory. They
absolutely weren’t amassing at the border in preparation for an
invasion, which, of course, they were. But as there were still no
actual laws, the Politburo could logically argue that they weren’t
breaking any. The forty-six-member Supreme Council had been
working on a national constitution for eight years and had barely
made it beyond the design of the front cover. This general disorder,
plus the fact that money was harder to come by than a cold beer,
resulted in an estimated 150 citizens crossing the river to Thailand
every day—120 successfully. An editorial in Pasason Lao newssheet
informed the 40 per cent of the country who could read
and the 2 per cent of those who could be bothered, that the
People’s Democratic Republic of Laos had never had it so good.
During the month of July in 1978, people did the morgue at
Mahosot Hospital a great favor by not dying mysteriously. They
merely passed away as people do and no questions were asked.
No motives sought. It was almost as if they sensed that Dr. Siri
Paiboun, the country’s only coroner, was reaching the end of his
unasked-for tenure and they didn’t care to trouble him. The good
doctor had been putting in his notice every month since the Party
first manhandled him into the job three years earlier. His boss,
Judge Haeng, little in so many ways, had ignored the requests. “A
good communist,” the man had said, “does not let go of the plough
halfway across the paddy and leave the buffalo to find its own
direction. He eats with her, tends to her injuries, and sleeps with
her until the job is done.” Siri had resisted the temptation to
spread the word that the Party was advocating bestiality. He’d
known his time would come. But when it did, he’d been only a
heartbeat away from occupying his own slab. He’d met the
departing spirits eyeball to eyeball, and they were waiting for him.
After the horrific events of May that year, he was still deaf in one
ear and could barely feel his right hand. His few hours of sleep
were plagued with nightmares. Everyone agreed that after his runin
with the Khmer Rouge, Dr. Siri had earned his retirement.
If he could stay out of trouble, Siri had under two months
left on the job. Then, the leisurely life he’d dreamed of through
decade after decade in the jungles of Vietnam and northern
Laos would be his; coffee mornings overlooking the Mekhong,
leisurely noodle lunches at his wife Daeng’s shop, long evenings
of talking rice whiskey nonsense with ex-Politburo man Civilai,
and nights stretched out against a triangular pillow in his illicit
backroom library reading French literature and philosophy.
Dallying through to the early morning with comrades Sartre
and Hugo and Voltaire. Really. All he had to do was stay out of
trouble. For anyone else this might not have been much to ask.
But this was no simple man. This was Dr. Siri Paiboun: seventyfour
years of age, forty-eight years an unconvincing member
of the Communist Party, host to a thousand-year-old Hmong
shaman spirit, culturally tainted beyond redemption by ten years
in Paris. Emotionally numbed to the horrors of injury and death
by years of battlefront surgery, Dr. Siri felt he had earned himself
the right to be an ornery old geezer. And, no. Staying out of
trouble for two months was no easy task for such a complicated
He’d had just the one case since his retirement notice was
accepted. Compared to some of his adventures, it was barely worth
mentioning as a case at all. The children at Thong Pong middle
school had become unhinged. A number of them had started to
vibrate uncontrollably and speak in languages none of them knew.
The local medical intern had seen nothing like it and requested
assistance from the Ministry of Health. Stories in Vientiane spread
like atomic bomb fallout and word very quickly found its way to
the morgue where Dr. Siri and his staff had been sitting lifeless
for several weeks. Almost immediately, Siri had set off to visit the
school on his Triumph motorcycle with his faithful nurse Dtui
and lab assistant Geung squashed together behind him. As religion
and superstition had no place in the new regime, nobody
voiced what everyone suspected: that the school was haunted.
Both doctor and nurse feigned indifference when they arrived,
even though both were keen to discover a supernatural source for
the peculiar epidemic. Dtui was one of only a half-dozen people
who knew of Siri’s dalliance with the beyond and she had no
doubt in her mind that there was a malevolent ghost at play in
According to the head teacher, every day after morning assembly,
up to forty children would become zombie-like, ranting and
drooling and shaking without control. At first she’d considered
that this was merely a student prank to get out of studying Marxist-
Leninist theory during the first period. A number of other ruses
had been uncovered by the embedded political spies from the
youth league. But this was too elaborate. Some of the children
had even begun to utter obscenities in voices that, without question,
did not belong to twelve- and thirteen-year-old children. To
Siri it sounded very much like some mass shamanic hysteria. For
some reason, the pliable minds of the children were being hijacked
by wayward spirits. But there had to be some unseen intermediary
to channel the demons.
“Tell me,” he said to the head teacher. “What normally happens
during your morning assembly?”
“The usual ceremony, Doctor,” she replied. “The children line
up in their grades, I make announcements, the flag is raised and
the school band plays the new national anthem.”
The new socialist national anthem, coincidentally, had the same
tune as the old royalist national anthem. Only the words were
different. Although badly metered and slightly misleading, as far
as Siri could ascertain there was nothing inherently evil hidden
in the new lyrics. So he asked to look at the musical instruments.
The head teacher unlocked the music department footlocker and
it was there that Siri found the culprit. He pulled out the exorcism
tambourine with its tassels and bottle cap rattles and smiled
at Nurse Dtui.
“Do you know what this is?” he asked the principal.
“A tambourine?” she guessed.
“A shamanic tambourine, Comrade, used in séances,” he said.
“And fully loaded, I’d say. Any idea how it fell into your possession?”
“Someone from the regional education office brought it,” she
recalled. “Said it had been confiscated from some royalist. Why?”
“I’d wager this is what’s been causing the hysteria,” he told her.
“But . . . but it’s just a musical instrument,” she protested.
Siri smiled at the Mao-shirted woman. She was a cadre from
the northeast with a black and white upbringing and no tolerance
for dimensions beyond the usual three. And so it was that
in both Siri’s report and that of the head teacher, the problem
had been attributed to tainted sweets sold by a rogue vendor
outside the school gates. Yet, once the tambourine had been
removed there was no repeat of the insanity.
The instrument now sat on Siri’s desk at the morgue and he
flicked the little bells from time to time just for the hell of it.
Nurse Dtui and Mr. Geung would look up from their unimportant
tasks and sigh. Siri would apologize then ring it again. His
only other annoying habit had been pulled out from under him.
Dtui had removed the clock from over their office door because
the doctor had begun to count down the minutes to his retirement
in reverse order.
“Only seventy thousand five hundred and forty-five minutes to
go,” he’d sing. Dtui knew that the effects of this after a day or two
would have driven them all into the same moronic stupor as the
pupils at Thong Hong. So she’d come in early one day and had
the hospital handyman take down the clock. She’d told Siri it was
off being serviced. As she never lied, he didn’t question her.
At her desk, Nurse Dtui had her Thai fanzine open in front
of her. To anyone walking unexpectedly into the office it would
appear she was merely fantasizing her size fourteen frame into
a size seven swimsuit as worn by the Bangkok television starlets
on photo shoots. But hidden between the pages of her
magazine were her Med. 1 Gynaecology notes in Russian. Despite
a sudden unexpected pregnancy and the arrival of Malee, now
five months old, Dtui had yet to give up her hopes of studying
in the Soviet bloc. Unsolicited initiative was considered by the
hospital administration to be a suspicious characteristic, a sign
that you were not satisfied with your role in the new republic.
So she studied surreptitiously. Even though she had no intention
of abandoning her baby or her husband and running off
to Moscow, she continued to prepare herself for that far-off day
when she might take over the morgue. When times were hard,
it always helped to have a dream. And times in Vientiane were
But not for some, it seemed. In the corner of the office, behind
a desk and a chair he rarely used, Mr. Geung stood rocking gently
back and forth in a blissful Down’s syndrome trance. His condition
had one of two effects on onlookers. Some were appalled that a
moron should be allowed to work at a hospital. Others, like his many
fans around Mahosot, were envious of the apparent lack of complication
in his life. Devoted to his work. Loyal to a fault. Friendly and
honest. Mr. Geung seemed perfectly happy with a no-frills, budget
lifestyle. But they all wondered what was going on in his head. How
could a middle-aged man with such a terrible affliction seem so at
peace? And recently his serenity had risen to a cloud way beyond
that elusive number nine. Only Siri and Dtui knew the reason for
the elevation. Although Mr. Geung himself was not letting on, his
morgue mates could tell. It was romance. Birds did it. Bees did it.
And, clearly, Mr. Geung did it too.
Others might have interpreted the marks on their friend’s neck
as an allergic reaction to the washing powder in his shirt collar.
But Siri and Dtui worked in the morgue. They knew teeth marks
when they saw them. They didn’t exactly condone the practice.
“One step away from vampirism,” Siri had called it. But neither
begrudged Mr. Geung his first taste of romance, albeit in bitten
form. Tukda’s arrival at the staff canteen had at first enraged
“She’s Down . . . Down’s syndrome,” he’d said, with the same
condescending tone he’d heard all his life. “Sh . . . she shouldn’t
be working here.”
But there was no mistaking the fact that Comrade Tukda was
a pretty young lady and sweet natured. None of Mr. Geung’s
protestations persuaded his coworkers that he didn’t find her
attractive. And Geung and Tukda, through those mysterious corridors
and hidden passageways of the syndrome, found each other.
What they did and where and how and if, nobody knew. Only the
washing powder allergy on Geung’s neck, and the sappy grins when
they mentioned her name, gave anything away. He answered no
questions on the subject. Denied all accusations. It was his . . . their
secret. But there was no doubting the fact that Mr. Geung was
a very happy man.
And this was how the members of the morgue team filled their
days. Siri counting minutes. Dtui conjugating. Geung rocking.
Then, all of a sudden, on one hot July morning, a note arrived.
That such a flimsy slip of paper could have the effect it did would
have been hard to imagine.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Slash and Burn by Colin Cotterill. Copyright © 2011 by Colin Cotterill. Excerpted by permission of Soho Crime, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.