Winner of the Dilys Award and a Crime Writers' Association Library Dagger
Feisty Dr. Siri Paiboun is no respecter of persons or party; at his age he feels he can afford to be independent. In this, the second novel in the series, he travels to Luang Prabang, where he communes with the deposed king who is resigned to his fate: it was predicted long ago. And he attends a conference of shamans called by the Communist Party to deliver an ultimatum to the spirits: obey party orders or get out. But as a series of mutilated corpses arrives in Dr. Siri's morgue, and Nurse Dtui is menaced, he must use all his powers--forensic and shamanic--to discover the creature--animal or spirit--that has been slaying the innocent.
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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.:
Vientiane, People’s Democratic Republic of Laos, March 1977
The neon hammer and sickle buzzed and flickered into life over the night club of the Lan Xang Hotel. The sun had plummeted mauvely into Thailand across the Mekhong River, and the hotel waitresses were lighting the little lamps that turned the simple sky-blue room into a mysterious nighttime cavern.
In an hour, a large Vietnamese delegation would be offered diversion there by members of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party Politburo. They’d be made to watch poor country boys in fur hats do a Lao falling-over version of cossack dancing. They’d be forced to suck semi-fermented rice whiskey from large tubs through long straws until they were dizzy. They’d finally be coerced into embarrassing dances with solid girls in ankle-length skirts and crusty makeup.
And, assuming they survived these delights, they’d be allowed to return to their rooms to sleep. Next day, with heads heavy as pressed rubber, they’d sign their names to documents laying the foundations for the forthcoming Lao/Vietnam Treaty of Friendship, and they probably wouldn’t remember very much about it.
But that was all to come. The understaffed hotel day shift had been replaced by an understaffed night crew. The sweating receptionist was ironing a shirt in the glass office behind her desk. The chambermaid was running a bowl of rice porridge up to a sick guest on the third floor.
Outside, an old guard, in a jacket so large it reached his knees, was locking the back gate that opened onto Sethathirat Road. At night, the gate kept out dogs and the occasional traveler tempted to come into the garden in search of respite from the cruel hot-season nights. An eight-foot wall protected the place as if it were something more special than it was.
Leaves floated in a greasy swimming pool. Obedient flowers stood in well-spaced regiments, better watered than any of the households outside along the street. And then there were the cages. They were solid concrete, so squat that a tall man would have to stoop to see inside. Two were empty. They housed only the spirits of animals temporarily imprisoned there: a monkey replaced by a deer, a peacock taking over the sentence of a wild dog.
But in the grim shadows of the third cage, something wheezed. It moved seldom, only to scratch lethargically at its dry skin. The unchristened black mountain bear was hosed down along with the bougainvilleas and given scraps from the kitchen from time to time. Its fur was patchy and dull, like a carpet in a well-trodden passage. Buddha only knew how the creature had survived for so long in its cramped jail, and the Lord had been banished from the socialist republic some fifteen months hence.
People came in the early evening and at weekends to stand in front of the cage and stare at her. She stared back, although her glazed bloodshot eyes could no longer make out details of the mocking faces. Children laughed and pointed. Brave fathers poked sticks in through the bars, but the black mountain bear no longer appeared to give a damn.
They naturally blamed the old guard the next day. “Too much rice whiskey,” they said. “Slack,” they said. The guard denied it, of course. He swore he’d relocked the cage door. He’d thrown the leftovers from the Vietnamese banquet into the animal’s bowl and locked the cage. He was sure of it. He swore the beast was still in there when he did his rounds at four. He swore he had no idea how it could have gotten out, or where it could have gone. But they sacked him anyway.
After a panicked search of the grounds and the hotel buildings, the manager declared to his staff that the place was safe and it was a problem now for the police. In fact, he didn’t think it would be wise to mention the escape to his guests at all. As far as he was concerned, the problem was over.
But for Vientiane, it had barely started.
Tomb Sweet Tomb
The sun baked everything in the new suburb. Comrade Civilai stepped from the hot black limousine and, without locking the doors, walked up to the concrete mausoleum where they’d put Dr. Siri. The gate and the front door were open, and he could see clear through to the small yard at the back. There was no furniture to interrupt the view.
He kicked off his Sunday sandals and walked into the front room. It was as if the builders and decorators had just left. The walls were still virgin Wattay light-blue, to match the swimming-pool-colored Wattay airport. They were unencumbered by pictures or posters or photographs of heroes of the revolution. No French plaster ducks flew in formation. No clock ticked. If he didn’t know Siri had lived here for a month, he would have guessed this to be a vacant house.
On his way to the back, he passed a small room where piles of clothes told him he was nearing a primitive life form. In the back yard, he discovered it. Dr. Siri Paiboun, reluctant national coroner, confused psychic, disheartened communist, swung gently on a hammock strung between two jackfruit saplings. A larger man would have brought them both down.
In his shadow, Saloop, rescued street dog and lifesaver, drooled onto the hot earth. He looked up with one eye, decided Civilai was too old and bald to be a threat, and returned to his dream.
A month earlier, the yard had been dirt and debris. Today it was a jungle. Siri had gone to great pains to recreate the environment in which he’d spent the latter forty of his seventy-two years. For the past four weekends, he and his trusted morgue colleagues had set off into the outer suburbs and denuded them unashamedly. They’d transported a variety of trees and shrubs back to this humble bunker–the Party’s thanks for his services.
“I do hope I’m not disturbing you,” Civilai said, knowing full well how disturbing he was being. Siri’s eerie green eyes opened slowly to see his best friend leaning over him.
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