What he needed was a knife.
He had sold his good knife in Cairo, a court official demanding a much larger bribe than usual, and last month, somewhere north of Delhi, he had left his backup knife in the thigh of a French bootlegger. He was sure the man was eager to return it, but he saw it more as a gift than a loan.
An ice pick would work, and he used to own one, kept it right under the front seat of his car, but that was several lifetimes ago, and besides, he was in Thailand now. Not a lot of call for ice picks this close to the equator.
He tried using the stub of his thumbnail, but it just clicked against the plastic. He stopped, paused, took a deep breath and tried again, his eyes throbbing in and out of focus, his nail pushing against the edge, the foil backing bowing up then clinging down, fusing with the clear plastic.
They were right there. Two Extra-Strength, non-drowsy Sinutabs. Childproofed for his protection.
In his experience with hangovers—and in his thirty-three years he had a lot of experience with hangovers—he knew there was no instant cure, but there was relief. And it came in the form of two—or four, depending on whether it was beer or whiskey—acetaminophen-heavy sinus pills downed with a can—or two—of a warm cola; any brand as long as it wasn’t caffeine-free.
Getting the moisture-seal foil off the back of the little plastic dome, well now, that was the challenge, wasn’t it? It separated the stumbling drunk from the merely hung over; the drug company’s final protection against lawsuits. Your honor, if he was sober enough to remove the safety backing, surely he knew not to exceed the recommended dosage.
Then the knocking at the door started up again, a long I- know-you’re-in-there string of knuckle raps. Whoever it was must have heard the lone kitchenette drawer slam shut. Five white plastic sporks, an ashtray and handfuls of wooden chopsticks, but not one goddamn knife.
More knocks. He sighed a cotton-mouthed sigh and shuffled toward the door, favoring his left leg more out of habit than need. Only two people knew he was there and one of them had a key. The other was probably still in the hospital. He checked the fly on his shorts, ran a hand through his hair, and unlocked the door. Whoever it was, he hoped they came with a knife.
It was a girl. The hallway was filled with bright mid-morning light and he had to squint, bringing a hand up to cover his eyes, but he was sure it was a girl. That wasn’t unusual—it was that kind of hotel after all, the kind where you brought your own sheets and signed someone else’s name. What was unusual was that she was blonde. In a land of coffee-colored skin and jet-black hair, a pasty-white blonde with ice-blue eyes was noticeable, no matter how hung over you were. She wore a well-filled peach tank top and a pair of tan baggy shorts, with a new backpack slung over her shoulder, the airline tags still tied to the straps.
“Are you Mark Rohr?” There was something about how she said it, the way her nose curled and how she leaned back as she spoke, that told him she’d be disappointed with the answer.
“The one and only.” He was hung over and nauseous and his eyeballs felt ready to pop, but he smiled his best smile, instinct taking over.
She smiled back. “They told me I could find you here. The woman in the bar downstairs.”
“Did she?” Mark let the smile fade.
“Yes,” she said, shifting her feet, holding her smile. “Now why would she do that?”
“Well, I just got here and I didn’t know what else to do, so…” “So you knocked on my door. Sorry, not interested,” he said and shut the door. He took two steps before the knocking returned, sharper and more urgent now. She was still knocking when he pulled the door back open. “I told you I’m not interested.”
“It’s not what you think,” she said, stepping forward.
“Let me guess. You were backpacking with your friends and you got lost or they left you or you got ripped off and now you’re all alone and all you need is fifty bucks so you can call your folks back in Iowa or Texas or Mayberry, and you’ll pay me back just as soon as they wire the money and, gosh, you’d be oh so grateful, and whatever could you do to say thank you?” He smiled again. “Like I said. Not interested.”
“No,” the girl said, stopping the door with her hand. “That’s not it at all. I want to hire you.”
Mark leaned against the doorframe and waited.
“I asked the bartender,” the girl said, pointing down the hall to the stairs that led to the nameless hotel’s nameless bar, “and she told me I should talk to you.”
He looked at her, at her straight blond hair, her pale shoulders, her athletic build, her long smooth legs and her painted fingernails. Maybe she could get past the childproof seal. “Come on in,” he said, stepping aside as he swung the door open.
It had never been a large room but someone had converted it into a studio apartment, someone who liked things cramped and musty. A fan dangled down from the ceiling, the motionless blades tied together by thick spider webs; gray-white sheets hung over a pair of open windows that let in the stuffy back-alley air and moist tropical heat. There was a sagging bed in the center of the room, a desk, a bar stool, two lamps—one missing its shade and bulb—a TV and VCR on a wheeled cart, a kitchen counter with a sink, three metal cabinets and the knifeless drawer. A shower curtain blocked the view of the squat-style toilet and the chest-high spigot that served as the shower.
“Make yourself at home,” he said, smiling to himself as he watched her reaction. She stepped around the bed to get to the bar stool, careful not to brush against the piles of sheets and tee shirts that littered the floor. She sat down and set her backpack by her feet.
“Have you lived in Thailand long?” she asked. “Is it Monday or Tuesday?”
“That makes it four days. What about you? Aren’t you on the wrong side of the island? Nothing to see in Phuket City.”
“I just got in this morning.”
“And you came straight to see me? I’m touched.”
“No, it’s not that. Well, I guess sort of…” She swallowed and ran her tongue across her lips, and by the way the light filtered through the sheets on the windows he could see her eyes begin to water. “My name’s Robin Antonucci and I need your help.”
“And you’re going to pay me?” She nodded.
Robin reached down for her backpack. He watched as she undid the plastic clips and zippered open the main compartment, pulling out a videotape. “Does that thing work?” she said, pointing at the TV and VCR with the tape.
“No idea. Never turned it on.” He sat at the edge of the bed and swung the rolling cart around. The wheels squeaked and the whole thing wobbled but it moved. He hit the power buttons and a dubbed episode of Friends filled the screen.
“It should be ready to go.” She moved the stool closer as Mark worked the remote. He put the tape in and squeezed the green button until the word play appeared in the upper corner. The VCR whirred and clicked and after a fluttering, slanting start, the program began.
With the CNN logo floating over his right shoulder in a cloudless blue sky, a handsome, olive-skinned man in a red polo shirt walked along a beach, pointing out to the sea and up to the beach as he spoke, the sound too low to hear what he was saying. Along the bottom of the screen the sports ticker ran updated scores—Patriots at the Jets, Lakers at the Bullets, Suns at the Timberwolves. “This is from a few weeks ago,” Mark said, feeling the buttons on the remote with his thumb. “I lost twenty bucks on the Pats. Didn’t cover the spread.”
“December twenty-sixth,” she said, looking deep into the screen as a row of bright orange volume level squares paraded by.
The postcard shot of the beach was replaced by a shaky amateur video, out of focus and badly lit. It took a moment for Mark to comprehend what he was watching. A torrent of water raced down a city street, pouring through shattered windows, washing furniture and people out of busted doors and through collapsing walls. In the middle of the churning brown water, sprawled atop the roof of a submerged car, a woman held onto a screaming baby, her makeshift raft lurching, rolling slowly sideways, upending as it passed from view. A quick cut to a knot of people holding on to a telephone pole, their heads above the water and just below a jumble of sparking wires, then a hurried pan up the street as a pair of lifeless bodies floated by. Another shot, a high balcony view, the camera trained down the length of the beach, capturing the moment when a towering, white- topped wave plowed over the roof of a three-story seaside hotel to crash down on an outdoor market two hundred yards from the shore, an inch above the final from the Monday night game. In a booming James Earl Jones voice, the announcer read the text that appeared on the screen. CNN Special Report—Tsunami—A Year of Recovery.
Robin took the remote from Mark’s hand as the man in the red polo shirt spoke of psychological shock and long-term trauma.
“My brother moved to Thailand three years ago. He was working at a beachfront hotel here on Phuket—a small place, local owner, right up on the water. He gave scuba lessons, took tourists out on dives. He used to email all the time. Sent these great pictures of the sunsets. He loved it.”
On the screen, footage of tropical resorts and bustling town markets were interspaced with images of debris-filled streets and collapsed buildings, a then-and-now montage that faded to black and then cut back to the man in the polo shirt and the golden-sand beach. Robin pointed the remote at the VCR and raised the volume.
“But for some the scars run much deeper. Shock, denial, confusion, anxiety, forgetfulness, recurrent headaches and menstrual problems, sudden outbursts and anger issues, a growing dependency on drugs and alcohol…” the man in the polo shirt gave the sentence a three-beat dramatic pause before continuing. “All classic symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, a serious mental health threat made more complex by the region’s societal norms and cultural traditions.”
Robin pressed the fast forward button, the images of health workers, victims, experts, blue skies, and palm fronds blurring past. She watched the screen, thumb above the play button, as she spoke. “We talked to my brother Christmas Eve. It was already Christmas Day here I guess. Usually we just emailed, phone calls are kind of expensive, but it was Christmas, so we called. He made me promise I’d come and see him at Easter.” Mark watched as she chewed on her lower lip, her eyes fixed on the screen.
“Over two hundred and sixty people died on Phuket, half of them tourists. Many of the bodies were never found. Pulled out to sea probably. We called everybody we could think of calling, but nobody could tell us a thing. We kept on waiting for an email or the phone to ring. It would have been just like him to walk in and ask what’s for dinner.”
She hit the play button, the tape slowing down to normal speed, the VCR’s whirring replaced by a Ford commercial and the flashing graphics of the CNN Special Report. The red-shirted man was back on the beach, a different one this time, the dense vegetation and tall beachside palms hinting at a remote location. Below, the sports ticker continued its endless loop.
“This part’s in either Southern Thailand or Northern Malaysia,” Robin said, and Mark tried to place the region on a fuzzy mental map.
The camera panned the shoreline, zooming in tight on a small group of dark-skinned, hard-bodied fishermen that stood around the tail end of a long, low boat that was pulled high on the beach.
“There,” she said, mashing down the pause button, the fishermen jittering from side to side as the VCR held its place. She leaned forward and put a finger to the screen, holding it there as she turned to look at Mark, her clear blue eyes wide and bright.
“That’s him. That’s my brother. He’s alive. We’ve got to find him.”