Chiang Mai – Monday, Feb. 24, 4:00 p.m. (4:00 a.m. EST)
Raven and Ice sat in the back of a tuk tuk on the shoulder of a two-lane road outside of Chiang Mai. The driver, who didn’t understand English, leaned forward and drooped his arms over the steering wheel as if he might collapse. He stared into the distance, awaiting instructions.
“Thank God you noticed Sasha and Ingrid leaving,” Raven said. “Or I would have lost them. I wish we could follow them into this place. What is it? An elephant sanctuary?”
“Could be. All the sign indicates is a private estate,” Ice said.
“This must be the meeting they were talking about.”
“Let’s watch from over there,” Ice said, pointing to agricultural land on the opposite side. “It’ll be a better vantage point and more hidden than the back of a tuk tuk—scrub brush, fence posts, shed. Come on,” he said, as he paid the driver.
“Fine, but I better not see any spiders—or snakes,” Raven replied, getting out.
“Can’t promise you that,” Ice said, as the driver took off.
They jumped over a ditch, walked under the trees lining the road, and headed for the shed. On one side, the dirt of a recently tilled field lay open and exposed; on the other, rows of bushy plants stretched into the distance. A wooden bench stood in the shade of the shed. They sat down, leaning their backs on the wall.
Raven did a double take at the bushy plants.
“Strawberries,” Ice said. “We’re famous for it up here. Did you see all the people at the airport carrying boxes of strawberries back to Bangkok?”
She nodded, but she hadn’t noticed. “What’s next?”
“Act natural,” he said.
“I’m more of a city person. Besides, aren’t we trespassing?”
“Nobody is here,” he said, gesturing outward with both arms. “If anybody comes, I’ll tell them my American girlfriend couldn’t take the heat.”
Raven mustered a smile. “I haven’t told you everything,” she said.
“I work for the Daily Journal.”
“Oh, that, I knew that,” he said, laughing. “Torenmaas told me his niece was coming, so I looked you up on the internet.”
“You checked me out ahead of time?”
Raven laughed. “Fair enough. But I didn’t tell you that my colleague was assigned to investigate Channarong’s death. The truth is that I didn’t just come here to check on you and my uncle’s charity. I also came to snoop around.”
“Also obvious,” he said. “Good thing you work for a newspaper and not an espionage service!”
Embarrassed, Raven looked at the ground. She hadn’t realized she was so transparent.
Ice continued, “Don’t feel bad. It’s good you have nothing to hide, and that you’re bad at hiding. I like that about you. It’s also clear this guy Sasha is cavorting with that woman Ingrid, and they are playing games. They are full of themselves. He thinks she’s his minion, but she’s smarter than he realizes. Yet it doesn’t matter which one of them is on top, because both of them are fools. I don’t need a deck of tarot cards to tell me that.”
“You’re pretty observant,” she offered with a side-eye glance.
“They have ‘business’,” he said using air quotes, “with the tall guy Ko and his local friend, here in this villa or whatever is in there,” he continued. “What I don’t get is the connection between these people and Channarong—and your uncle.”
“My uncle?” Raven asked. “No. He doesn’t have anything to do with these people.”
Ice wondered how much he should protest that idea, but before he had a chance to reply, an unusual noise resounded in the distance.
“What’s that?” Raven asked. “Do you hear rumbling?”
“Thai military,” he said, raising his eyebrows and pointing to a convoy racing down the road. “Check it out. Interesting. Some kind of domestic response operation,” he announced like a commentator.
Raven squinted in the sun and gaped at the line of military vehicles fast approaching.
The first one, a light tank, screeched around the corner into the compound’s main entrance and without stopping rammed the gate. In a bout of thunder, the gate lay like road kill on the shoulder. Dust whipped around. An armored car came to a halt at the security booth.
“Oh my God!” she whispered.
Three uniformed men jumped out—two of them attacking the guards, grabbing, cuffing and restraining them on the ground at gunpoint. Another officer took control of the booth. Most of the other vehicles played follow-the-leader pursuing whatever was down the road.
“Keep your head down,” Ice said. He spoke softly, but it was a command. “Try to fit in,” he said and grabbed a rake that had been leaning against the shed. “And put your phone away—don’t draw attention.”
Raven hadn’t seen Ice like this. He had slipped into the skin of a much more serious person. She bent over her knees and tied her sneakers. How could she possibly fit in? From her hunched position, she steadied her phone on the bench and attempted to take a video.
“Some kind of raid,” Ice said, reading her thoughts. “It’s going to get interesting.” He grabbed a bin on the ground, kneeled over a row of plants and began to pick fruit, carefully placing each handful of strawberries into the bin, all the while observing the entrance. “It’s OK. Play along.”
Though the sun was on the wane, the heat baked her. Sweat soaked the back of her shirt, and a mosquito buzzed in her ear. Reluctant to encounter spiders or rotting fruit, she tied and untied her shoes, stealing glances at the road. From time to time, she verified her phone was still working. Another mosquito or ten attacked her ankle. She slapped and swiped, as her inner voice yelled at her to pay attention to the raid. Focus on the convoy, not the bugs! She thought back—at least three light tanks and two armored personnel carriers had passed. There were also several trucks. Local police had joined in—five cars now stood guard at the entrance. As for the soldiers, there had been three or four per vehicle, perhaps 20 vehicles, thus 60 or 80 people.
The dust died down. The air held the calm of the eye of the hurricane. Raven consciously inhaled and exhaled, long slow breaths.
An explosion blew through the silence of the farmland. Then another! The popping of semiautomatic gunfire took over.
Ice picked up his bin and walked to the shed. “We need to get out of sight,” he said, trying the door handle. “We’re in luck. It’s open,” he said. “In here.”
Raven followed him inside. The heat was stifling. Light streamed in between the wall boards. Bins and pails stood stacked in one corner. Two hoes, two shovels and a rake hung on the wall. Otherwise, the shed was empty. The cracks between the wall boards were large enough for them to view the entrance of the compound. “What are they up to?” she asked.
“Could be illegal trade—timber, exotic animals, heroin, meth, even humans. Happens too often, I’m afraid. The military tend to get involved when it comes to drugs. But still, the scale of this is surprising.”
More gunfire erupted. “Let’s sneak in,” said Raven, pointing across the street.
“Go in that compound, now?” he said. “No way. I’ve been following your lead until now, but that’s crazy. I’m not doing it, and neither are you. We’d die. Certain death. No joke.”
Taken aback by his reticence, Raven stayed put.
They both pressed their faces against the shed wall, staring through the cracks.
Out of nowhere, a car shot out of the estate toward the security booth, swerving and kicking up a cloud of dust. Raven and Ice were not the only ones to notice. The police at the entrance opened fire on the raging vehicle barreling toward them. Bullets sprayed the windshield, hood and tires of the car.
Raven gasped and instinctively crouched as a stray bullet hit the roof of the shed with a thwack. Her heart pounded. For a split second, she and Ice made eye contact. Realizing they were both unscathed, they immediately darted their eyes back to the unfolding pandemonium just in time to see the car veer off the driveway and crash into a tree.
For a moment, the scene was eerily quiet. Then the shouts of two officers broke the silence. They inched toward the car with weapons poised.
“They’re commanding the people in the car to drop their weapons and freeze,” Ice explained.
“A mad dash to escape?” Raven asked. “Playing dead?”
One of the officers approached the driver’s side. The window had shattered—small pieces of blueish glass littered the ground. Peering inside, the officer thrust her hand through the empty frame and under the airbag. She repeatedly attempted to open the door, but it remained stuck, too mangled to budge. As she retreated, the second officer shouted commands toward the passenger side. Again, there was no response. He grabbed the handle and attempted to open the other car door. At first nothing happened, but then all of a sudden, the door swung open and a body tumbled out, landing in a heap. No screaming. No moaning. Only a heap.
“Oh my God!” Raven exclaimed. “Look who it is!”
Copyright © by Wolf Bahren. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher with “permission requests” in the subject line at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.