Exit interview

 

Christina ran gasping through a cloud of steam towards the temple’s entrance, past a dozen stalls fragrant with sizzling meat, dodging slow-moving locals with hot-dogs on sticks, swerving stinking gawping backpackers. She bounced off a tall blond cracker in an ‘I ♥ THAILAND’ vest top and got a full dose of sweat and stench as she sucked in another breath.

“Dude, you leave your Axe in Kansas or what?” she muttered, moving away as fast as possible, only partly because of her pursuers.

The crowd was far thicker at the gate – as she forcibly propelled herself between the bodies she stared over her shoulder, eyes casting about the mass of people.

No sign.

One more push through the lines of people queuing to get into the temple buildings, and she was in the open. The over-amped pop music of the fun-fair gave way to the rhythmic monosyllabic chanting of the monks and the fainter ringing of the ceremonial bells around the old chedi. Even after two years away from Chiang Mai the sounds were still familiar, and comforting. She had missed this.

Wat Chedi Luang, during Intakin. It seemed as good a place to go out as any she could think of.

She stopped and turned full-circle, scanning the crowd properly now. Still no sign, but Mike had to be close – from the moment she got the message from Nat, she knew that hulking bastard couldn’t be more than ten minutes away, and Vin along with him, most likely. Moving again, she rummaged in her bag for a pack of chewing gum. Just two pellets left. She popped the lone one in the centre and chewed compulsively.

More stalls lined the sides of the temple compound, these selling offerings instead of food. She jogged past them, then slowed and stopped in front of a vendor, his table covered in small baskets full of flowers and fruit and spices.

It was a risk. But a calculated one. Glancing around again, she darted forward to pick out an offering and pay, then resumed her original path at a trot. Now at the far side of the citadel, she scanned the dozen small altars lining the rail, one for each year of the Thai zodiac, then made for the Great Snake altar towards the far end, close to the chairs.

*

Mike shoved his way through the crowds, barrelling straight ahead with people bouncing off him either side. Slow-moving Thai crowds didn’t fill his heart with joy at the best of times, and this was very fucking far from the best of times.

He couldn’t remember being so angry, not since that snot-nosed British punk had almost blown the whole setup – and even that was strictly professional, client-side anger. This… well, any time an employee tried to fuck you over, it was bound to feel personal, but Christine had gone well beyond that. And now she’d made him come up here, to this piss-ant little city, in the middle of its stupid bloody festival…

Mike did not regard himself as a complicated person, and his immediate thoughts on how to deal with Christine were simple and direct, with much reference to nails, and hammers, and saws, and blowtorches. He sucked in his anger, fed on it, let it drive him forward through this… GOD… DAMN… CROWD.

He looked around for Vin. His whole purpose in life was to deal with shit like this, and he was nowhere to be seen. Mike growled, and swiped a small child out of his way with arm, knocking its gooey treat to the floor in the process. The child stared up at the tall, grizzled farang, and began an enthusiastic impersonation of an air-raid siren.

Mike looked down at its howling face. “Fuck off.” The child’s mouth clamped shut – it got the point, even if it didn’t know the meaning of the words. Its parents stared at Mike now, too, frowns of disapproval and sideways whispers.

“You can both fuck off, too.”

He rammed forward again, ignoring the growing circle of upset faces in the middle of this happy crowd. A few yards on and he felt a tap on his arm, and looked round to find Vin on his left, smiling beatifically and holding a hot-dog on a stick.

Mike eyed Vin’s face, and then the glistening meat tube. “Are you fucking…” Not the time, not the time. “We’re going to discuss this later. Go over your fucking job description again.” Vin’s smile widened. Fat fucking waste of space.

He was nearly at the temple now, where the crowd was thickest. He squeezed past a revoltingly sweaty American in an ‘I ♥ THAILAND’ vest top and elicited a satisfying yelp of pain as his heavy Dr Martens boot came down on the tourist’s flip-flopped foot. The guy turned to argue, but Mike pressed on through the gates and into the temple courtyard.

Around him streamed people queuing to say their prayers, or meditate or something. That thing they did in those ridiculous gold buildings. He’d been in a temple once, more than a decade ago when he first arrived in Thailand, and that was more than enough for him. Christine couldn’t get enough of them, though.

It hadn’t been a surprise, then, when Nat said she’d gone to Wat Chedi Gangbang, or whatever this place was called. He remembered the name of the festival, though: Intakin. Christine had gone on about it enough while she was on the island, had almost come up here to join in one year, until Mike thought up some piece-of-shit make-work errand for her. He did not approve of his employees taking a close interest in local culture.

He scanned the lines of people snaking into the temple buildings. She was keeping in plain sight – would she literally try to hide in a crowd? No, he didn’t think she was that stupid. No room to manoeuvre, nowhere to run if things went south. She’d want somewhere with more control.

He checked Vin had caught up, and cut through the lines, heading past the long main building. Behind it he could see a pile of crumbling brick surrounded by a small moat and a railing. There were no crowds here, just scattered people clutching offerings, and stalls lining the edges of the courtyard.

“We’ll split up. Vin, you take the right – I’ll go left. You see her, you CALL me, ok?” Vin just smiled. “Jesus, man, show some fucking sign you understand. What do you do if you see her?” Vin made a phone shape with his hand, thumb to his ear, little finger to his mouth. “Ok. Fine. Go.”

Mike moved more slowly now, scanning the people methodically, trying to see past the stalls. He still wasn’t sure what her game was – did she think she could actually hide here until he gave up? Or did she think this place offered some sort of protection, that he wouldn’t dare to do something to her in the middle of a temple festival? Either way, he was looking forward to disabusing her of any false assumptions she might have. At length, and by force.

Fucking Christine. He couldn’t figure out if he should have seen this coming or not. He had no illusions about what a stone-cold bitch she could be, unlike the tourist suckers she snared. Behind those doe eyes and soft features was a person without conscience or mercy – but not a psycho. She never did anything without a reason, never did anything stupid or overly risky – just stayed calmly focused on the task at hand. She listened, she paid attention, and she got the job done.

That was what didn’t make sense. She was his number-two. She was already on thirty percent of the profits, plus the take from her own team – a fuck-load more than he’d given to anyone else, or was likely to give again. She was a smart cookie, she knew how much the business was worth – he had figured it was better to cut her in than risk her jumping ship.

She’d been worth it, too, cutting the loss-rate and driving quality recruitment way up. Right now they needed that, what with the never-ending crackdowns, and police getting harder to bribe. And that laptop scam, fucking brilliant. Thanks in no small part to Christine, they kept the ship afloat – and away from storms. Business was good. Everyone seemed happy.

Of course, he’d had to make sure she didn’t get ideas above her station, same as everyone else. This wasn’t a democracy, or some hippie-shit Silicon Valley time-off-to-do-whatever-you-fucking-want operation. This was drugs. And he was the fucking drug-lord.

He turned a corner and came round onto the far side of the brick monument from where he started – and there she was, standing at a small altar, hands pressed together in prayer. Wouldn’t you fucking know it, the thieving little bitch had finally gone full-native.

A few strides and he was level with her, grasping her soft brown arm above the elbow, and squeezing until he could feel the bone. “My word, if it isn’t our little queen of betrayal. How’s it going, Christine?”

She gasped slightly, and turned her head to look at him, her dark eyes wide, but not scared. Not yet. “Mike – what brings you up here? Come to see the festival?”

“Let’s skip the bullshit, alright? I’ve had a bad fucking day. And don’t pretend you weren’t expecting to see me – I’m guessing Nat tipped you off the minute I was out the fucking door.” He grinned at her small frown. “Yeah, don’t think I don’t know what you’ve got going on up here. You think this is your town? You think it’s your crew? Guess a-fucking-gain.”

He looked around, then turned Christine to face a row of chairs under a large tree in the corner, not a dozen yards away. “How about we go and have a nice sit-down and a chat over there, see if we can’t work things out, come to some arrangement maybe?” She nodded. “Excellent, spirit of co-operation – I like it.”

With his free hand he reached into his jacket pocket and pushed up the handle of a stiletto blade so it was just visible above the top. He jerked her arm towards him to direct her attention – her eyes fixed on the distinctive handle. “And if you try anything stupid, then my little spiky friend here comes out to play. Got it? Now move.”

As they walked slowly towards the chairs Mike ground his teeth. This was a fucking chore, but necessary – if there was any chance she’d play ball, tell him where the money and the product were, he had to take it, and he wasn’t in a hurry to hustle her out through the bloody crowd either. He didn’t think she would, though. At this stage, he didn’t really want her to.

Directly above the row of plastic chairs, next to the tree, was a Tannoy broadcasting that dumb-sounding chanting at high volume: BUD-DHAM-SA-RA-NAM-GAC-CHA-MI… Fine. Whatever. At least they wouldn’t be overheard.

As she sat, Christine started to reach into her bag. He snatched it from her lap. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”

“Getting some gum. Is that allowed?”

Mike snorted. He opened the bag and pulled out the nearly-empty blister pack. “This gum?” He held it in two fingers, waving it from side to side as he examined it. “Wrigley’s Extra… Liquid Blast. You still getting the imported stuff, hey? Fucking waste of money.” He squeezed the last pellet through the foil, and casually popped it into his mouth, dropping the empty packet to the ground. “Looks like that was your last one, huh?”

Her expression didn’t change as he looked her in the eye and chewed the gum, but he saw her shoulders slump slightly. It was all a question of dominance – like training an animal. You always had to make clear who was the master, and who was the bitch. He made it a point to talk over people in meetings, to take food – or cigarettes, gum, whatever – without asking, to let doors close in his subordinates’ faces. It wasn’t to be cruel, just to make the point. He didn’t enjoy it – Christ, he didn’t even like gum, for fuck’s sake. But it kept the troops in line. Most of them, anyway.

He spat the gum onto the ground and dug his nails into her arm. “Alright, enough fucking around. Where’d you put my shit?”

*

She had never wanted to be a drug dealer when she grew up. The option definitely hadn’t come up at her college career fairs. It had just sort of happened.

Christina guessed it wasn’t often that a potential mark started asking searching questions of their recruiter about the drugs business – but hey, she was curious. Luckily (or not, depending how you saw it) that initial recruiter was not the brightest star in the sky, and she managed to get quite a lot out of him before he realised he shouldn’t be talking about this stuff.

Ratting him out to Mike got her foot in the door. A calm discussion of potential avenues open to her – and the existence of a set of documents to be delivered to the Thai police in the event of her disappearance – got her a seat at the table. Then, happily abandoning her freshly-earned PolSci degree, she got to work.

She told her parents she was working as a “logistics manager” for a Thai confectionary maker – it seemed close enough. They were barely accepting of her working in Asia, what with her mom’s keen escape from India to the US. She was definitely not in a hurry to return to her roots – and Indochina was too close to comfort for her, or her daughter, she felt. Christina placated them somewhat with pictures of – and eventually a visit to – a very plush modern condo, and lengthy descriptions of the boring, mundane, and above all safe nature of her job.

If they only knew.

She loved the frisson of danger she got from moving heroin. Her life to that point had been a series of sensible, rational decisions that looked set to lead to some office hell, twenty years of paying off debts, and eventually some pretence at a life. Instead, every day saw her clear thousands of dollars in profit, and every day brought fresh threats of spending the rest of her life in prison – either for a very long time, or, if worst came to worst, a very short one.

She had the guts, she quickly learned the languages, and she discovered a natural aptitude for recruiting Western tourists, and for devising methods to get the stuff out of the country. Her pride and joy was the Apple MacBook method – drugs were shaped like batteries, “batteries” go into the laptops, laptops get bought by Americans and flown inconspicuously into the US. Bam.

Once they were back, one quick phone call to the unwitting mule was all it took to exchange the “faulty” machine for a fully functional model, and the cycle was complete. The US end got its drugs, the suckers got their laptops – everyone ended up happy. The best part was, the mules paid her to ship the product, and to date not one of them had been any the wiser.

Mike had been impressed. In what she would come to learn as typical behaviour, he expressed this admiration in the form of increasingly unsubtle digs and petty attacks on her, singling out minor discrepancies for ridicule in front of others, making sly comments about her appearance, inflicting overly-harsh punishments for her subordinates. Oh, and stealing her food, closing doors in her face, all the rest of it. Such fun.

“It’s nothing personal, you know,” Nat said during one of Christina’s post-coital rants on the subject. “I’ve seen him do this with anyone who starts getting successful. I think it’s his way of keeping people in their place – remind you you’re not all that. Guy probably read it in some shitty self-help book or something.”

Christina took a drag on the joint. “What book would this be? The Asshole’s Guide To Man Management?”

“Don’t joke, that’d probably be a best-seller. Hey – you think we should write it? We can use Mike as the cover model.”

“Oh man, just think. ’Thirty ways to be an absolute dick, from Thailand’s shittiest drug dealer’.”

“’Know your staff: managing the fine line between grudging loyalty and outright loathing’…” They both dissolved into a fit of giggles.

Whatever management techniques Mike thought he was using, they weren’t working on Christina. The years went by, and her ability to tune out the passive-aggressive bullshit grew steadily weaker, especially once she returned from her provincial sojourn in Chiang Mai to Mike’s HQ on Phuket.

Yes, fine, the money was great – clearly on some level Mike did actually trust her enough to run the operation. But as much as she tried to let it go, the bullshit got to her. Maybe it would have been easier if it had been personal – but she saw Mike flinging the same stuff at almost everyone, and it just… made her itch.

One day, sitting in a meeting while Mike chewed out the dude in charge of getting the bulk product in from Burma – who, Christina knew, had single-handedly cut timelines by nearly a week in the last six months – something inside her had snapped.

She couldn’t take this any more. It was time for a career change.

At that moment, head bowed, with Mike ranting on about the conspicuousness of the new paint jobs on the courier trucks, she had begun to think up a plan. One big score, and then… bam.

And so six months later, here she was with her boss – well, probably ex-boss, now – clamped onto her arm, looking like he was about to burst an artery.

“Your shit? You mean the money and the drugs?”

“No, my fucking Vegemite supplies. What do you fucking think? Alright, fine, if you’re just going to be cute with me-”

“They’re close.”

*

“Close? What do you mean, close?”

Mike couldn’t believe this. He’d expected defiance, he’d expected fear or bluffing – but he had no idea what Christine was trying to pull here. He glared at her, trying to think of the angles.

At that moment Vin ambled towards them, this time holding a fucking ice cream cone. As he saw them, he pointed excitedly to Christine like he’d just found fucking Waldo.

“Yeah, Vin, well fucking done. Ten out of ten. Just stand there, alright? If she tries to run, grab her.”

Vin smiled a chocolatey smile and took a bite out his cone. He nodded to Christine.

She nodded back. “Hey, Vin. How you doing?”

“Don’t fucking worry about him – you worry about me. Now answer the fucking question – what do you mean ‘close’?”

“Look, I think you’ve got the wrong idea of what’s happening here. If you give me a few minutes I can expla-”

“Christine, I know you think you’re some hyper-intelligent whiz-kid or something, so I’m going to say this slowly: you are not fucking talking your way out of this one, alright? I don’t know what bullshit fucking scam you’re trying to play on me here, but it ain’t gonna work. You’re done. This is the end. One way or another, I’m taking you out of this fucking temple, and then I’m gonna kill you. The only thing left for you to decide is if it’s gonna be quick, or if you’re gonna make me stay up here for the next three days while I finish you off. You understand?”

She turned away and stared at the ground, letting out a deep sigh. “I promise, I’m not trying to talk my way out of anything. I know the situation.” She laughed, a bitter laugh of defeat. “Trust me, I know the fucking situation. Just… just let me tell you what’s going on. Ok?”

He stared at her. Above them the Tannoy continued its chant: DU-TI-YAM-PI-BUD-DHAM-SA-RA-NAM-GAC-CHA-MI…

“Fine. Talk. You have two minutes.”

“Ok.” She shifted in her seat towards him. “So… you know what this festival is all about, right?”

“Yeah, you told me once. Some pole or something.”

“Pillar. The city pillar. They believe Indra gave the pillar to Chiang Mai a thousand years ago, and as long as the city worships it and keeps it safe, the pillar will protect the city.” She turned in her seat to point at the tree behind them. “Same for one of these trees – as long as it stands, Chiang Mai is safe.”

“Alright, fine – what’s that got to do with the price of fish?”

She smiled. “Let’s just say I like the story – this is my safe place. When I’m here, I feel like I can do anything, ask the hard questions.”

“Like what?”

“Like… You know no-one likes you, right?”

He breathed in sharply and squeezed down harder on her arm. “If you’re just going to insult me, we can continue this conversation somewhere else…”

“Jeez, I’m not trying to piss you off, I swear. I promise there’s a point. So, you know, right?”

He nodded. “Yeah, but so what? This is a business, not a fucking popularity contest. So I give people a hard time – helps keep them on their toes, helps them remember who they fucking work for. Get to your fucking point.”

“My point is, I don’t think that actually helps much. What you see as being some management guru or whatever, everyone else sees as you just being an asshole. And I just thought the time had come to make the management more effective.”

“So… you stole three keys and two million bucks the day before payday to teach me some sort of corporate efficiency lesson?” He felt his head spin. He couldn’t keep up with this shit. “Christine, darling, I hate to break it to you, but-”

She laughed, this time like she actually found something funny. “No, that’s not it. Mike, I’m sorry but I lied to you just now. You know that’s the first time I ever lied to you?”

“Lied… what about?”

“Trying to talk my way out of this. That’s exactly what I’m doing. See, it is my town now, and my crew. I’m not trying to teach you a lesson – I’m just getting rid of you, and it takes a few minutes for the drugs to take effect.”

No. This was not fucking happening. This could not be… fuck…

“You probably already feel a bit light-headed. Any minute now, you’re going to start to lose control of your limbs… there we go.”

Mike had tried to increase his grip on her arm, but felt it weakening instead. He felt short of breath. “What… what did you fucking…”

“Now you’ll slowly start to lose control of all your motor functions – you won’t be able to walk, or stand. And in a few minutes, you’ll lose consciousness. At that point, if you get medical attention very promptly, you might eventually recover your ability to walk. But somehow…” she looked around the crowded temple “… I don’t think that’s very likely in the middle of Intakin. Do you? Which is a shame, because without medical attention…”

*

Christina removed her arm from Mike’s now-feeble grip, and patted his cheek. “I can’t say this wasn’t personal – but you have to admit, it’s probably what’s best for the business as well.” She looked at his face, pale now, but still twisted in anger and confusion. “Ok, you don’t have to admit that – I’ll understand if you see it differently.”

She straightened up in her seat and looked over at her now definitely ex-boss. Mike was slumped forward now – with what was probably the last of his strength, he turned his head to look at her. “How..?” His voice was barely a croak.

She leaned forward to pick up the fallen blister pack of gum from the floor, held it in two fingers and waved it in front of his face. “Let’s just say it helps when your target has such predictable habits. But at least you didn’t steal it this time, right? That gum was always meant for you.”

His head drooped down again. With his arms resting on his legs, eyes staring at the floor, he just looked like a tired tourist taking a break.

The chanting of the monks stopped, leaving what seemed like silence until the other noises of the temple filtered in. Christina leaned back and closed her eyes, sighing happily up at the sky. For a moment the afternoon almost seemed peaceful, two foreigners resting their legs, surrounded by the cheerful susurration of the festival. Then she pulled out her phone.

“Nat – it’s done. No problems, I kept it all inside the temple. I’m still with him now actually. Anything you want to tell him?” She looked at Mike again, and winked. “Nat says hi. And bye. Ok babe, I’m on my way now. Go ahead and release the payroll – can’t have people going without their wages, can we? See you at the airport. Love you too.” She hung up. “Guess I do owe you for introducing me to Nat. Don’t know what I’d do without her.”

Mike’s body quivered slightly. She guessed he was trying to will himself to move. Not happening, dude.

She stood up. “Well, Mike, I’d like to say it’s been a pleasure, but it hasn’t. Thanks for everything – I promise to take good care of the business.” She made to leave, then stopped and turned back. “Oh, one more thing, I almost forgot…” She leaned down to his ear. “My name is Christina, you fucking asshole.”

She strode off. As she passed Vin, she turned her head to look at him. “You coming? I’ll buy you another ice cream.”

Vin smiled, and strolled after her.

Behind them, the tall, grizzled drug dealer stayed hunched on his seat, shaking slightly, while the Tannoy started up its chant again: YAM-PI-DHAM-MAM-SA-RA-NAM-GAC-CHA-MI-DU-TI-YAM-PI-SAN-GHAM-SA-RA-NAM-GAC-CHA-MI…

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