Love Songs from a Shallow Grave (The Dr. Siri Investigations, Book 7)

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9781455119202: Love Songs from a Shallow Grave (The Dr. Siri Investigations, Book 7)

In this outstanding seventh Dr. Siri Paiboun mystery, things are looking pretty grim for Laos' one and only national coroner.

Three young Laotian women have died from fencing-sword wounds. Each of them had studied abroad in an Eastern bloc country. Before he can complete his investigation, Dr. Siri is lured to Cambodia by an all-expenses-paid trip. Accused of spying for the Vietnamese, he is imprisoned, beaten, and threatened with death. The Khmer Rouge is relentless, and it is touch and go for the dauntless, seventy-four-year-old national--and only--coroner of Laos.

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About the Author:

COLIN COTTERILL was born in London. He has taught in Australia, the United States, and Japan and lived for many years in Laos where he worked for nongovernmental social-service organizations. He now writes full time and lives in Thailand. His books have been Book Sense Picks, and he won the Dilys Award and a Crime Writers' Association Library Dagger for Thirty-Three Teeth.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DR. SIRI

I celebrate the dawn of my seventy-fourth birthday handcuffed
to a lead pipe. I’d had something more traditional
in mind: a few drinks with my new wife, some gay molum
music on the record player, shellfish plucked fresh from
the Mekhong. But here I am in Hades and not a balloon in
sight. My ex-roommate, a gray-faced youth in his early twenties,
is chained by the ankle to the far end of the same pipe.
They dragged the boy in during the night and we struggled
to communicate. We scratched for words to share. But as
soon as he understood that we were different animals in
the same abattoir, tears of despair carved uneven grooves
down his bloody cheeks. I could do nothing but sit back
against the flaking plaster and watch the life drain from
him. He didn’t live to greet the new day. When the sun
finally sneered through the wire mesh of the window, it
cast a shadow like a fisherman’s net across the body. The
corpse lay trapped, expired from the effort of untangling
itself from all this unnecessary misery. But his soul was free.
I envied him that.

I am Dr. Siri Paiboun, the national and only coroner of
the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos, a medical man, a
humanitarian, but I’m still unable to summon an appropriate
emotion. I listened through the night to the sobs and screams
of my unseen neighbors. I didn’t understand the words they
cried but I knew people were being killed all around me. I
scented their essence and saw their fleeing spirits. I am well
aware that I will soon be joining them. Yet the overriding
thought in my mind is that I didn’t have the foresight to
say goodbye or thank you to the people I love. That sounds
corny, I know, but what’s wrong with corny? It has its place.

I wonder whether they might know instinctively. Really. I
wonder whether they’ve been able to see through this crusty,
annoyingly stubborn exterior to the warm and fluffy Siri that
nestles barely visible inside me. If only I could squeeze the hand
of Madame Daeng one final time, ruffle the newly permed hair
of Mr. Geung, sniff the cheeks of Nurse Dtui and her milkscented
baby, and slap Inspector Phosy on the back. If only I
could raise one last glass with my best friend, Civilai. But those
opportunities will never come. The amulet that protected
me from the malevolent spirits was ripped from my neck,
stolen by one of the teenaged guards. I am exposed. Once
the ghosts are aware their enemy is unprotected, they will
circle me like hungry jungle dogs and close in for the kill.
All things considered, at this almost final analysis, I am
stuffed.

 ***

The woman read from the carbon copy in front of her. The
sheet was of such proportions as to defy filing and of such
poor quality that it was almost inevitable the words would
be sucked back into the fibers like invisible ink returning
whence it had emerged. The clerk had a pleasant voice,
soothing like honey balm, and the two old men opposite
stared at her luscious lips as she spoke.

“Of course, it isn’t finalized,” she smiled. “But it will certainly
read something like this.” She coughed. “The People’s
Democratic Republic of Laos would have it known
that Dr. Siri Paiboun, national coroner, hero of the Revolution
and lifetime member of the Communist Party, passed
away on the second of May 1978. Dr. Siri had fought tirelessly
and fearlessly for the Revolution and was—”

“Fearlessly first,” one of the men interrupted.

“I’m sorry?”

“It would be better to have ‘fearlessly’ before ‘tirelessly,’
then nobody would be in doubt as to whether he’d been
tired out by the lack of fearing.”

“Absolutely,” the second man agreed.

“What? Hmm. I’m not sure I understand that.” But the
girl conceded the point and made a note on the pad beside
her. “I’ll mention it to Comrade Sisavee. It is only the first
draft but, to tell the truth, we called you in to check on the
factual, rather than the syntactical elements of the eulogy.
We have people to deal with all the technicalities in later
versions. I’ll read on if I m—”

“And ‘was struck down dead’ has a more heroic ring to
it,” the second old man said. “That’s factual.”

“Struck down?”

“Rather than ‘passed away,’” he added. “‘Passed away’
makes it sound like bodily wind, a collection of stomach
gases on their way out. Do you know what I mean? We’re
talking about heroism here. Heroes don’t just ‘pass’ like
flatulence in a strong breeze.”

“With or without scent,” added the first man most
seriously.

The clerk glared from one old gentleman to the next,
then back to the first.

“Are you playing with me?” she asked sternly.

“Certainly not, sweet young lady,” said the skinnier of the
two men. He was bald as a bowling ball with a long camellike
throat sporting an Adam’s apple so large it might well
have been Adam’s original. “This is a most serious affair.”

“No laughing matter,” agreed the first.

Still uncertain of her ground, the young lady pressed
on. “The nation will never forget the contribution Dr. Siri
made to the development of this great nation, nor
can—”

“That’s two nations,” said the bald man.

“Oh, do let her finish,” said the other. “Didn’t she tell
you they have a department that handles syntax? Probably
an entire ministry.”

“The Ministry of Getting Words Right?”

“Or it could be a branch of the Ministry of Making
Things Up and Bamboozling People.”

The clerk was miffed. She slapped the paper onto the
wooden table top and drummed her fingers on it noisily.
She seemed to be wrestling down a darker inner person. Her
voluptuous mouth had become mysteriously unattractive.

“I don’t think either of you appreciate what a great
honor this is,” she said at last. Her eyes watered. “Anybody
else would be proud. Dr. Siri, I’m particularly disappointed
that you would take all this so lightly. Given your record, it’s
a wonder your name is on the list at all.”

Siri raised the thickets of coarse white hair he called
eyebrows and scratched at his missing left earlobe.

“To be fair, you’re not giving me much time,” he said.

“How can I take life seriously when I’m forced to squeeze
all those remaining pleasures into a mere twelve days? And
look at this. You’re passing me away on my birthday of all
occasions. The happiest day of the year.”

“That’s odd, Doctor,” she said through clenched teeth.

“I thought I had explained myself very clearly.”

“Tell him again,” said ex-politburo member Civilai. “He’s
elderly.”

“As I said,” she began slowly, “the actual date of your
death will be filled in later.”

“In the event of it?” Siri said.

“Exactly.”

“So you aren’t actually expecting me to . . .”

“No!”

The transparent northeastern skin of her neck revealed
an atlas of purple roads heading north in the direction of
her cheeks. The men admired her composure as she took
a deep breath and continued.

“You will pass away naturally, or otherwise, as your destiny
dictates. At that stage we will delete your date of birth
and substitute it with your date of death. When that happens
we will issue the announcement. Is that clear now?”

“And I will become a hero,” Siri smiled.

“It probably won’t be instantaneous . . . in your case.”

The Department of Hero Creation, the DHC, was housed
in a small annex of the propaganda section of the Ministry
of Information. Based loosely on a Vietnamese initiative
already in place, the DHC was responsible for identifying
role models, exaggerating their revolutionary qualities, and
creating a fairy story around their lives. A week earlier, Dr.
Siri and Comrade Civilai had received their invitations to
attend this preliminary meeting. They’d heard of the DHC,
of course, and seen evidence of its devious work. Everyone
over seventy who’d done the Party the great service of
staying alive was under consideration. If selected, school
textbooks would mention their bravery. Histories would
be written detailing their supernatural ability to surmount
the insurmountable and carry the red flag to victory. Siri
and Civilai could hardly pass up a chance to scuttle such a
nefarious scheme.

“What is my case?” Siri asked.

“What?”

“You said, ‘In your case,’ suggesting I have some flaw.”

“Don’t hold back,” Civilai urged the clerk.

“It’s really not my place to . . .”

“Go ahead,” Civilai prodded. “We won’t tell anyone.”

She seemed pleased to do so.

“We are aware of the doctor’s . . . problems with authority,”
the clerk said. She was now ignoring Siri and talking
directly with Civilai. “But history has a short memory. It has
a way of smudging over personality flaws no matter how
serious they might be.”

“Voltaire said that history is just the portrayal of crimes
...

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