Bangkok – Tuesday, Feb. 18, 10:30 p.m. local time (10:30 a.m. EST)
The Martins’ taxi pulled into the circular drive at the Royal Independent Hotel in Bangkok. Golden trumpet flowers, fan palms, and ginger plants—with their phallic red protrusions popping out of waxy green foliage—lined the entryway. Jesse overpaid the driver, aware the extra baht amounted to an outrageous amount by local standards. He didn’t buy into the nonsense that his pocket change would “spoil” the drivers, or that he was being cheated.
Attendants bowed to greet them, and Jesse followed as Joanna floated through the main entrance, across the mosaic tile, beneath a crystal chandelier the size of a small car, and down a hallway. Passing the reception desks and expansive lounge area, she knew the bar Silk River lay hidden in the back. As they entered, they recognized Ko Maung Mai’s distinctive bushy eyebrows and rimless eyeglasses from afar. His hand cupping a snifter of clear, viscous liquid, he was sitting at a river view table.
Joanna waltzed over. “Ko,” she said, extending her arm to shake hands and turning her head coquettishly.
“Good evening, Joanna,” said Ko, now towering over her, returning her handshake and kissing her on the cheek, American-style. “I’m honored to see you. Did Heaven’s Gate live up to your expectations?”
“It was divine—although Jesse hated it.” She laughed. “But he put up with me. Their chef is incredibly talented. Have you been there?”
“Not to eat, I’m afraid; just drinks,” he said, shaking Jesse’s hand as well and gesturing to the chairs across from him. “Please, sit down. What can I offer you this evening? A brandy? Their selection is outstanding.”
The waiter darted over.
“Coffee for me,” Jesse replied. “Joanna is thinking about dessert.”
“Coffee too, please,” she said.
“By all means,” Ko said. “Coffee for my friend and this beautiful lady, and bring the dessert menu,” he told the waiter, who scampered off.
As soon as the waiter returned, Ko ordered his second drink, while Jesse stuck with the coffee, despite Ko’s encouragement to sample Silk River’s finest French pear brandy. Joanna ordered a flourless chocolate cake with mocha ganache and raspberry coulis.
“Your timing is fortuitous, Jesse,” Ko said.
“You can thank Joanna for that. She planned this trip. We’re taking a hiatus.”
Ko inquired about their vacation plans at length, but as soon as Joanna had finished her dessert, he changed tack. “Now,” he said, looking at her. “I must inquire, would you, Joanna, be interested in exploring the hotel library—a rare collection on the penthouse level?”
“You’re suggesting I shouldn’t be privy to your conversation with my husband? I thought you were the liberated type,” Joanna remarked.
“Ah, Joanna, I’m sure your opinion would enrich the discussion, but if you chose to avoid it, let me say, it would be for your own good.”
“Ko, you don’t realize how ridiculous you sound,” she said, laughing and looking at her husband.
Jesse did not react.
A second later, Joanna capitulated. “Fine. Ko, I will go upstairs, and I don’t even mind. But I won’t do it because you are pretending to protect me. I will go as a favor to you, in the interest of your privacy.”
“Thank you, Joanna,” Ko said, reaching out to shake her hand again. “I didn’t mean any disrespect.”
“Of course not. It’s getting late. You men stay out all night, if you want. I’ll get my rest.”
“Sure you don’t mind, Joanna?” Jesse asked.
“The receptionist will call me a taxi. But don’t let me catch you sleeping on our floating market tour tomorrow,” said Joanna, smiling as she walked away.
Jesse looked at Ko, who was watching Joanna disappear down the hall. “You must have something serious to convey, Ko. This meeting comes as unexpected. I had no idea you were even here.”
“Actually, I just arrived. I left early yesterday on that flight from Dulles through Dubai. I was on my way up north for a rendezvous with my cousin. But by the time I got here, all hell had broken loose. I was still at the airport, when I contacted you.”
Jesse opened his eyes wide, but said nothing.
“You haven’t heard?”
“What? I’ve been on vacation. Spit it out!”
“Nou Channarong is dead,” Ko told him.
“The Executive Director at the Bank?”
“How many Nou Channarongs do you know?”
“Shit,” Jesse said, making a low whistle. “Whoo-eee,” he said, slapping his own knee. “Shit!”
“I don’t need to convince you that discretion is of the utmost importance.”
“Are you telling me to pipe down?” Jesse said, laughing heartily. “Nobody in here cares one whit.”
“Let’s not draw attention to ourselves.”
“Son of a bitch,” Jesse said, shaking his head. “What the hell happened to him?”
“Looks like suicide.”
“Did you offer him a little help?” Jesse chortled.
“I was traveling, Jesse.”
“Isn’t that convenient? What an alibi!”
“Does this amuse you?” Ko asked, noting Jesse’s jowls bobbing as he laughed.
“A car accident would look better,” Jesse said. “More tragedy, less mystery.”
“Maybe I should be asking you about it, then, Jesse,” Ko snapped.
“I have been on vacation for a couple of weeks, my friend,” Jesse answered. “Out of pocket. Same as you. Isn’t that nice?”
“Oh so very nice,” Ko said.
“Why were you coming over here now?”
“I have to check on things. I told you that.”
“You’re not trying to say that I could be behind it, of all people?” Jesse said, placing his right hand over his heart. “If you want to do that, I could point the finger right back at you.” Jesse chuckled some more.
“Look,” Ko said. “I don’t see the humor in it. Now I have to explain this to Keng.”
“Yes, you do,” Jesse drawled.
“He will not be pleased. Why do you look so smug?”
Jesse sat back. He pushed his lower lip outward, and his eyelids drooped. “People are fragile. Sometimes they commit suicide. Tragic, sick, sad, what have you, but it’s pretty simple.”
“You are saying he just went and hung himself?”
“His death could draw attention to us, and everything we have worked for.”
“You worry too much, brother. Go back to that mansion in McLean and take a load off. We are well-insulated.”
“And how thick is that insulation?”
“Thick enough. We didn’t have anything to do with it,” Jesse said, drinking his coffee. “Right?”
Ko looked away.
“Any talk of a suicide note?” Jesse asked.
“One hasn’t been released.”
“You’re not worried our operation has ties to this joker?” Jesse asked.
“Let’s pray it doesn’t,” replied Ko, downing the last of his brandy.
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