Chiang Mai – Thursday, Feb. 20, 9:00 a.m. local time (9:00 p.m. EST on Wednesday, Feb. 19)
A half hour from the Chiang Mai airport, Ko was already nearing the meeting point. Dust flew, as the driver raced down a narrow road flanked by overgrown grasses. They passed an orchard—lychees—then rows of marigolds, ensuring steady supply for the temples. Beyond lay intermittent forest and farmland, bamboo and an occasional palm.
The car came to a rolling stop at a village intersection. Two small but sturdy houses had been built since Ko was last there, the modern kind with tight windows, colorful siding and a corrugated metal roof. A café with its menu on a hand-written sign occupied one corner. The scene was quiet—three tables, each accompanied by two plastic chairs, empty. With only a sleeping mutt to avoid, the driver sped off again. They passed a lane unfamiliar to Ko. According to a billboard, it led to a new condo development.
After a winding curve, a modest but solid gate came into view. The driver punched a code into a keypad at the entrance, and it opened. A rooster and a few hens scattered as the car blew down a driveway and pulled into a dirt yard—large enough for a tour bus to clear a U-turn. Several buildings, including a mechanic’s repair shop, its garage doors open, rimmed the yard, and a dozen mopeds stood lined up along a cinder-block perimeter wall, as if prepared for rental.
Ko’s impulse was to jump out of the car, but he knew he was expected to wait. The driver sat still, keeping the the car running, cool and dehumidified. Ko tapped his foot and surveyed the scene. A sniper was patrolling on one of the roofs.
Ko heard a commotion. Three boys had burst out of a concrete house opposite the garage. Laughing, they began playing soccer and kicking up more dust. A couple of panting dogs frolicked beside them. As the boys continued to play, one of the dogs stood there and watched, moving its head back and forth like an elderly referee. The other dog was more energetic, bounding here and there. The contrast between the normalcy of the boys’ game and the unusual circumstances of the meeting was not lost on Ko, but he remained composed.
After a few minutes, two armed men emerged from a ramshackle building next to the main garage. They approached either side of the car and signaled Ko to open the door and step out. Once he did, the taller one, who was closer to Ko, pointed toward the house with his machine gun. Ko headed over, the younger dog at his heels.
Inside, Ko removed his shoes and placed them in a rack. The light was dim; his eyes took a moment to adjust.
Ko’s cousin, Keng Maung Mai, was sitting at a table, grinning at him and smoking a cigarette. He was wearing colorful, immaculate American sneakers, jeans and a black short-sleeved T-shirt, snug against his bulging biceps. The lower portion of his tattoos—the clawed feet of a tiger on the one side, the open jaws of a crocodile on the other—stuck out. He had the shiny head of a man who re-shaved it every morning.
Ko knew his younger but more powerful cousin eschewed the traditional wai, so he simply offered a greeting. “Cousin Keng. Sawadee khrup.”
“How the hell are you?” Keng said in barely accented American English. Snuffing out his cigarette in an ashtray, Keng came over and looked down on Ko, who at six-foot-one was already much taller than the average Thai man. Keng shook Ko’s hand, crushing hard, then gave him a pound on the back. “Little cousin,” he said, chuckling.
“It’s an honor to see you again,” Ko said, annoyed at the “little” comment, but perennially impressed by his cousin’s English. After all, Keng had learned it on his own, watching TV and talking to tourists.
“Yes,” said Keng, jerking his gaze down at the dog, which had begun sniffing his ankles. In a sudden flash, Keng kicked the unsuspecting animal hard in the ribs and yelled, "Get out!"
With a high-pitched yelp and a hard tuck of its tail, the young mutt retreated to the yard.
“You look better than ever,” Ko said, hiding his disgust.
“I do, don’t I?” Keng laughed, showing off his biceps. “I work out! Soon, you will come see my new house—and new gym and new salt-water pool. I have a retractable roof—great in the rainy season. Today, you will have to be satisfied with this,” he said, waving at the room around him. “I am grateful to my friend Waddy, always generous with his property. Tell me, how are you feeling?”
“Very well, thank you,” Ko said, lying about the jet lag.
“I hope you enjoyed the flight from Bangkok.”
“Yes, Cousin Keng. Thank you very much.”
Keng scrutinized Ko, as if we were a child. “I don’t offer my jet to everyone!”
“It was an honor, Cousin. Thank you.”
“Sit down,” Keng demanded.
Looking down at the floor and nodding, Ko complied.
A young woman in a fitted lavender silk dress emerged from another room with a teapot on a tray. Placing the tray on the table, she poured two cups of tea. “You must be hungry,” she said in Thai, motioning to two women behind her. “Here we have congee, pork soup, pork skewers and omelets with rice. Please enjoy.”
“Your hospitality is outstanding, as always,” Ko told Keng. “Thank you again.”
“Excellent,” Keng said, now more satisfied with his cousin’s obeisance. “You may begin.”
While they ate, the cousins continued in English, catching up on family developments—who was getting married, who was studying abroad, conducting business, joining law enforcement. Determining who could be of assistance to their cause stayed in the forefront of their minds.
“Now, Cousin Ko,” Keng said, as he finished eating. “Your efforts have been extremely successful.”
“The resources you have organized have allowed me to operate above the usual patronage schemes—both here, and north of the Thai border. Your contribution has paid off handsomely,” said Keng, allowing a slight smile.
“That is what I had hoped for, Cousin.”
“All the faction leaders have seen the wisdom of accepting my authority as head of the New Northern Territories.”
“Of course! Your strategy is brilliant,” Ko said, ever careful to offer the right balance of strength and submission. “You have shown great prowess in gathering the NNT forces, long stifled by their own skirmishes. I admire your vision!”
“We are fast approaching the pivot point,” Keng said. “Our recent order of armored vehicles and helicopters has been delivered. The drone swarms and their systems are set. Tell me, is the final shipment of small arms ready?”
“Everything has been taken care of. Rifles, pistols, ammunition, grenades and launchers, detonators and explosives. Consider it done.”
“Outstanding,” Keng said, nodding. “Just as I expected. Is there anything else you’d like to tell me?”
“No? I have heard some interesting news out of Washington, Cousin Ko. Did you think I wouldn’t notice?”
“No. I mean, yes, I assumed you would bring it up, if you wanted to discuss it.”
“The timing of Nou Channarong’s death is curious, Cousin Ko. Wouldn’t you say?”
“He died while you were en route. A girl from the Bank also died the same day—after you left.”
“Yes, that’s the news,” Ko said.
“And you don’t know anything more about this?”
“No, Cousin Keng.”
“People must not take matters into their own hands!”
“Of course not.”
Keng stood up, towering over Ko, who was still seated. “You do not have the situation under control!”
“That is not true, Cousin. This is a coincidence.”
Keng stood up even taller. “Think carefully, Cousin. If my vision comes to pass, you will be rewarded.” Keng paused for effect. “But if you threaten my vision, you will be eliminated in a slow and painful manner! Is that clear?”
“That will not be necessary,” Ko said, bowing his head. “I remain your loyal servant. You can trust me.”
“You will stay in Chiang Mai until further notice. You will have the usual assistance and security at your disposal. But you will refrain from using the phone or the internet. Until now, you have not posed problems for me. On the contrary, you have been my most-trusted ally. It would be unfortunate, if that changed,” he added, pounding Ko on the back again. “My driver will take you.”
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