My short story, Monk For A Month, is the first of six such stories in my anthology Buddha’s Bad Boys.
Two men, Reece and Darren, are almost done with the “Monk for a Month” program at the temple in Chiang Mai, where they have been living like Buddhist monks. But on the same night that Reece finds out that Darren is having an affair with another Thai monk, there is a murder lose in the town. Reece sees the killer hiding near the temple and goes about trying to help him escape the police. In the process, a love affair begins.
I sat at the bar sporting my saffron robes and shaved head, sipping a Singha beer and listening to the bartender who was clearly agitated. I couldn’t tell whether the man was upset over the recent murders, or the fact that it was raining hard, or if he simply didn’t like serving liquor to a monk, even a Caucasian one.
“His name Somchai,” the barkeep said. He spoke English, but with the usual Thai singsong-clip that I had come to love. “And yes, he kill American expatriate named Warren. Tony Warren.”
I had seen a dead body once before, and it took a moment to get my nerves settled. I had never learned the invaluable art of staying detached in the face of tragedy, of not identifying with the victim. I had no way to shield myself from the reality of how brutal humans can be to each other, what brutal lengths they will go, and the pain they are capable of inflicting on each other.
Across the street, four soldiers trudged along in the rain.
“When did Somchai kill the American?” I asked, my voice scarcely a whisper.
The barkeep didn’t know exactly, sometime at the beginning of the afternoon that had now come to an end. At the same time that he killed Warren, Somchai had also killed Warren’s Thai girlfriend. Both victims had been found two hours earlier at the apartment belonging to Warren.
The barroom was already dark, due to the lateness of the hour and another power outage. Candles flickered on the bar and at each table; their yellow light mingled with the blueness of the dying day.
The shower stopped as suddenly as it had started, as it often does in Thailand.
“How old was she? The girlfriend I mean.” I asked.
“Very young. Nineteen.” Regret passed over the barkeep’s face. “A real beauty.”
“I would like another Singha,” I said, “but I don’t have any more money. Can I buy on credit?”
The bartender’s look of regret turned to disgust. As he walked away, a customer two stools over ordered beers for me and himself, and also shots of cheap Thai whiskey.
The barkeep busied himself with our drinks while the man who ordered moved to the stool next to me. He introduced himself as Ty Poe, and did not shake my hand, as it is consider disrespectful to touch a monk. Poe was courteous, offering the customary wai gesture of respect. He was somewhere in his forties, and had a smoking-induced cough. The polluted streets of Chiang Mai didn’t help his lungs any more than his chain-smoking, I thought. I gave him my name, Reece Jackson, and told him I was from America, San Francisco in fact.
“I overheard you talking about the murders,” Poe said.
“I wonder why they haven’t caught him yet. Chiang Mai is so small a town.”
“They have him trapped within the walls of the old city, but you should know how it is,” Poe grunted. “We’re talking about an American expatriate and his whore who got themselves killed by a homeless gay kid. I mean, there are limited resources available to the police department. The police force, as a rule, is not well trained. Officers have to buy their own uniforms, their own guns. They are poorly paid. Not much would be happening now except that this dead girl happens to be the daughter of an army Major. The army is doing what they can but they do not know the town as well as Somchai.”
Poe was right, I thought. What could anyone reasonably expect of this situation? The unvarnished fact was that in this country, any given police station’s cases were ranked according to priority. And priority in Thailand had to do with money, wealth, and status. Those on the low end of the spectrum were unlikely to receive much attention. And for a homeless gay boy with no family who happened to murder a bit of riff-raff, then it was probably the victim’s fault. Why bother figuring out all the sordid details?
I felt thankful that I lived in a country where every death warranted respect, every victim merited justice, no matter how far down the social and economic ladder that victim might fall. At least I like to believe that bit of hype.
The barkeep placed the beers and shots before us. I lifted my shot in a toast to Poe and knocked my head back, taking the drink in one hot swallow. Poe stared at me in obvious surprise.
“I’ve never seen a monk drink like that,” Poe said.
“I’m not really a monk. My partner and I paid good money to enroll in the Monk-For-A-Month program here at Wat Phra Singh. He’s on some damned spiritual quest that I, frankly, don’t understand. Me, I’m just a system’s engineer along for the ride.”
“So you’re not alone,” Poe asked, exhaling a stream of smoke.
“Technically, no. But it often feels like I am.”
The bar stood only a few doors down from Tha Phae Square, which spread before one of the four main gates of the old city, where two of the town’s chief avenues collided. The square was bordered by the city wall, built of ancient stone and brick, and butted against by the city moat on the north and south sides. The top of the wall was wide and strong enough to walk on, and just then a horde of children scampered along the wet stones, heedless of the danger of falling. Among them ran Archer, my adopted son, also sporting a shaved head and wearing the robes of a monk.
The children looked down on the tourists who gathered in the square, clutching their umbrellas in case the rains returned.
It must be between six and seven in the evening, I thought.
Another shower started and people in the square ran for cover.
Archer hopped down the wall steps and dashed across the road like a fleeing deer. He entered the bar and huddled against me, giving Poe a cautious glance. Archer was a handsome seven-year-old who had a round face that gave way to a large jaw and a brilliant set of teeth. He had an impishness and good humor in his eyes, and was strong for so young a boy. But what I admired most about him was his gentle and trusting disposition. Unlike most boys, he was incapable of hurting anything. His only flaw was that he was fathered by two gay men, which made him an outcast back home, someone to be pitied, stared at, whispered about, and occasionally laughed at by his peers.
Strokes of lightning lit the sky, coming so close together that they seemed like one, and the thunder was continuous. It was a noise that burst like metal fireworks, but which would immediately rise again, its modulations that grew less and less defined as the shower let up until there was only the sound of rain striking paving stones.
“This rain will last all night,” Poe said, lighting another cigarette from the butt of his previous one.