By S D Olsen
"Where you come from?" the girl asks, clamping a thin arm through his.
Zac turns to face her and straight away tenses up. She wears a tight red top with thin shoulder straps, denim hot pants, and wedge heels that lift her over the five-foot mark. Her face is petite and elegant, but cheapened by painted-on eyebrows and smeared purply lipstick. He can see large hooped earrings beneath the tangle of her long black hair.
"America nice country. First time in Bangkok?"
"Yes. We're just over from Singapore."
"You from Singapore?"
"No, I mean, I've just moved there. From the US. My friend's from Singapore though, aren't you, Vic?" But Victor ignores him, too busy talking to the girl's friend.
"Singapore nice also. You want dance?"
He smiles awkwardly and shakes his head; no one else is dancing, and he's not had anywhere near enough to drink. The music isn't his thing either, a stream of soulless synth layered over never-ending bass. Barely-clothed hostesses stand together in small chatting groups. They are eyeing up the tourists who are beginning to troop in from a street already hectic despite the early hour. Three crew-cut men, their accents either British or Australian, make their way through the scattered high tables towards the zinc-sided bar, and take their places a few yards to the right of Victor; a same-sized group of go-go girls moves in for the kill.
Zac shifts uneasily on his feet, and silently raises a gin and tonic to his lips. The bargirl relaxes her grip on his arm, then moves her hand up to squeeze his gym-toned bicep. "You very strong."
He gives an embarrassed laugh and looks away to avoid the eye of his new companion, which isn't hard to do given their height difference. His gaze is drawn to the drinkers and scooters and food vendors and glowstick sellers swirling in Brownian motion out in the alley. There must be hundreds of people out and about – and he's the only one in chinos and a long-sleeved shirt. He should have listened to his friend.
"Why you come here?" she asks.
Zac looks at her, not sure what to say. He can hardly tell her the truth, the real reason Victor brought him here. That would be too crude.
"Where? Do you mean Bangkok?"
"He came to get some action," says Victor from his barstool. Zac shoots him a look, but his pal doesn't care. He's been in constant conversation with the bargirl all this time, and she now has her arm around his waist. She is taller and wears a short pink dress that strains over a well-padded chest.
Zac turns back to his new friend. "What's your name?" he asks, politely.
"Candy," she replies, giving his arm a little pat.
"That's not her real name," says Victor. "They're all fake here, especially their tits." Both Candy and her friend gently swat him, so he replies a few words in Thai, which makes both girls open their mouths in shock.
"You know too much, I think you been here too many times," says Candy with a dismissive flick of her heavily nail-painted hand. "Your friend, he no good," she says to Zac.
"Because I know all your tricks," laughs Victor, and his girl gently hits him again. Then she grabs his T-shirt and drags him from his seat.
They head onto the miniature dancefloor; within seconds they have their hands all over each other, bodies moving roughly in time to the electronic beat. No one else joins them there.
"How long you stay in Bangkok?" asks Candy, who has hopped onto the vacated stool. Her head is closer to Zac's now.
"Just the weekend."
"Where you work?"
"In a bank. It's very boring."
"No boring, good work, good money."
"The pay's okay, nothing too much."
"No, that not true," she says, giving a little laugh. She looks up at him and smiles. "You buy me drink?"
"Yes, sure. What do you want?"
"Champagne? I'm not sure they have it here." He is wrong. The barman presents him with the bill straightaway, which Zac finds vaguely insulting. He's hardly the type to do a runner.
It's a long way from the elegant Georgetown bars he was drinking in this time last month. There are no hunting scenes or modern pieces of art; instead the walls are covered in photos and postcards by the hundred, and a handful of metal signs spouting 'Keep Calm' clichés of all sorts. There is an unexpected oar on the wall, perhaps a gift from a visiting crew. The white blade has yellowed in the constant fog of nicotine and sweat.
Candy has her way and Zac pays up. She finishes the glass in three quick swigs, the bubbles not slowing her down. Before Zac can say no, the barman, with slicked-back hair and an AC/DC T-shirt, has refilled her glass.
Victor taps him on the shoulder, the dancing done. "I'm off. I'll see you later."
"Wait, where are you going?"
"Guess." He leads his girl out into the street, too quickly to hear Zac's "Come back!".
Candy holds up her glass. "No worry, we have fun tonight, you me."
"Hey Jude, you want to be careful about her." Zac jumps a little, the voice so close to his ear. She has a short bob, dyed light brown, and a matching diamond necklace and earring set that are hard to ignore. Her skin is much paler than Candy's, almost Chinese in tone, and she wears an ivory satin top with yellow linen slacks.
"You – you look like Jude Law." Zac looks surprised.
"You know who that is, right?" asks the woman.
"Yeah, I know who he is. It's just that no one's ever said that before."
"There's a first time for everything. And I mean it, you've got to watch yourself with that girl."
"What are you talking about?"
"The person you're with, she's a bargirl. You must know what they're like?"
"What about them?"
"Has she told you she loves you yet?"
"No, should she have?"
"Well, she will, anything to get your guard down. But it's all a scam."
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Come on, can't you see? She just wants your money."
"I'm not sure about that. She seems nice. A little forward perhaps, but I think she wants a good time, that's all."
"Maybe. Or she's a thief."
"What are you saying?"
"She's going to steal your money."
"No, she's not."
"Yes, she will, because that's what they do. Where's she gone by the way? The bathroom?"
"That's what she said." He looks around, but she isn't anywhere to be seen. But then, considering all the drinks she's knocked back, no wonder she's been a while. At least he managed to downgrade her to Prosecco.
"Come on, let's get out of here before she comes back. If you try and leave her when she's next to you she'll cause a scene and you really don't want that."
"Are you sure? I mean, she seems harmless enough."
"You've not been to Bangkok before, have you?"
"Exactly. Drink up and let's go, before she's back."
But Zac pauses. "Sorry, what's your name?"
"Why are you doing this?"
"To stop you being taken advantage of. That's my job," she smiles. "Now let's go."
Zac stares at her for a few seconds. She's carrying a gold lamé clutch and has a constellation of stones on her fingers.
"Okay." He drains his glass and stands up, a little unsteady after his five or so gins: the last 40 minutes with Candy have been more about drinking than chatting.
She guides him left out of the bar and they push through the crowds. Then Zac stops them. "I've got an idea where we can go."
"You do? I thought you were new here?"
"I am, but I saw it as we were walking. It's a couple of hundred yards that way."
Lily checks her step. "What's it called?"
"I have no idea, but it looked smart. Let's go and find out."
"I think I know it, it's not much fun. I was going to take us to another bar, a quick cab away."
"Why take a cab when we can just go around the corner?"
They walk in silence to the end of the street, trying not to trip over the raised manhole covers or stumble into the street-peppered potholes, and ignoring the calls of the bargirls offering them drinks and a good time if only they'd come in. They pass by two middle-aged men in bulging T-shirts who are speaking in Russian to a couple of women, but not getting very far.
The bar really doesn't sit well in the neighbourhood with its glass front and expensive-looking interior. The clientele is exclusive too, all well-to-do locals.
There is a bouncer at the door, a tall, shaven-headed Thai with an austere face. He wears a black short-sleeved shirt and a silver necklace that flops out onto his front.
"Are you sure you want to go in?" asks Lily, still a few dozen yards from the entrance. The bouncer is looking the other way.
"Yes, why not?" He takes a step forward, but the doorman sees them. With what Zac takes to be a note of recognition – confusingly so because he's certainly never been here before – the man blocks their path. He raises his finger to Lily and rattles off something aggressive in Thai.
"What's the matter?" asks Zac.
Lily coolly turns to her American. "He says you can't come in."
"Me? What have I done?"
"Really? I thought they liked Westerners here. Let me say something." He turns to the bouncer, puts his hands together, and asks politely in English. The bouncer replies in his own language, and again points at Lily.
Zac gives up. "Maybe he doesn't like you hanging out with me."
"Yes, that's it," says Lily. "Thai men don't like you hanging out with their girls. Why don't we go to another place?"
They turn on their heels and head further along the street. The new bar isn't quite as upmarket, but the music is quieter and there is a table by the open wall. The waiter is smiley and attentive, and within less than a minute they are each presented with a bottle of Sapporo beer before they even have a chance to order.
"I've got to ask, what were you doing in that bar? You don't look like the type of woman who'd normally go there."
"I was with a friend, but she got lucky. By the way, what's your name?"
"Nice to meet you, Zac," and she shakes his hand with mock formality and a grin.
"Are you Thai?" he asks.
"Yes, can't you tell?"
"You sound American."
"I went to college there."
"Me too. Obviously."
"Yeah, right. Where did you go?"
"Columbia? That's where I went."
"No way! When were you there?" Zac leans forward in his chair.
"A few years back. I only did a semester there."
"But when? What year?"
"I don't really like to talk about it."
"Really? How come?"
Lily pauses, and her expression saddens. "If you really want to know, my Dad lost his business, so I had to come back here." Then she looks away onto the street just as a middle-aged woman is approaching with a chain of glowing plastic penises. Lily dismisses her with a wave.
Zac waits for a moment before saying anything else. "I'm sorry to hear that. I didn't mean to upset you."
"Don't worry," she says, putting her hand on his. "It's all in the past. In any case, it's much more fun to talk about the future. I've got a good feeling about tonight." She smiles warmly and lifts her beer in salute. "To us."
They clink bottles, and then Lily pulls out a cigarette from her bag, followed by a small gold lighter that she places onto the table. A moment later and Zac takes the hint; he lights the cigarette for her.
"What will you do now you're back in Thailand? Stay here?"
"Absolutely not! I'm saving some money and as soon as I can I'm out of here."
"Are you working then?"
"Kind of, it's a long story. But I should have enough to leave soon."
"Where will you go?"
"Who knows? Maybe the States again, maybe Europe. I was offered something in Singapore but it's too close to home. Anyway, that's enough of me. Tell me something about you."
"Let me order the drinks first."
Zac calls loudly over to the waiter, something he'd never have done back in Washington. He's learning the local ways fast, although sometimes, he frets, not fast enough.
"Tell me something, how would Candy have stolen from me?"
Lily takes a drag and then turns her head to exhale to make sure none of the smoke makes its way to Zac. "Girls like that are very clever. First, she'll take you to your hotel room, promising all you can imagine. Then as soon as you're there she'll entice you out onto the balcony and lock the door behind you. It's all very simple."
"Why does she lock you out?"
"To steal your things, of course. You can't open the door from the outside, and so once you're trapped she can take all the time in the world to scoop up all your valuables."
Zac thinks for a moment as Lily takes another puff. "What if people keep their valuables in the room safe?"
"That's not a problem. Most people use the same passcode, four zeroes, or 1234. Or four nines."
"Ha, that's funny."
"Why's that funny? Is that your code?"
"Maybe, maybe not. I shouldn't say."
"It is!" she laughs, just as the waiter arrives to take their order.
"My lips are sealed. Anyway, are you happy to stick with beer, or do you want a gin or something?"
"I'll have a vodka tonic. But I'll get them," she says, stubbing out her cigarette in the heavy glass ashtray.
"No, you won't, it'd be my pleasure."
They're looking for a cab when Zac jolts still. "Oh my God, it's Candy."
"There." The spurned bargirl spies them too. "She's coming towards us." Candy, accompanied by a similarly dressed friend who Zac doesn't recognise, is pacing down the pavement towards them, threading through the metal tables that have spilled onto the thoroughfare. She's shouting something and waving her arms.
"What's she saying?" asks Zac. Candy has almost reached them, but all he can make out from her anger is "No good! No good!"
"Come on, let's find a taxi, quick." Zac takes Lily's arm and spins them round in retreat. But he hears quickened footsteps and then a thwack. Lily has been slapped round the head.
"Hey, what are you doing?" shouts Zac. Candy shouts something else in Thai, and then tries to grab Lily's hair, but receives a smack on the arm from the clutch in response. Zac jumps between them, but then Candy's stockier, older friend takes a swipe.
"Leave her alone!" shouts Zac, as Lily takes refuge at his back. Candy and friend say something else unknown, before dropping their arms and turning around. Zac watches them walk away, then turns to Lily.
"Are you okay?"
He taps the card against the sensor and the door clicks open. There's an armchair in the corner of the room and a perfunctory desk in another, a 50-inch television on the wall, and a few generic prints of nothing in particular to decorate the walls. Two large double beds with off-white covers are turned down and ready. Thankfully, there's no sign of Victor.
"You and your friend are both staying here? Can't you afford your own room?"
"No, it's not that, it's just that, well…"
"Don't be embarrassed, I'm just teasing. Do you live together in Singapore too?"
"Me and Victor? You must be joking. He still lives with his parents, but I have my own flat. Although we did share an apartment at Colombia, that's how we met."
"Is he coming back here?"
"I thought he would be, but apparently not. Let me check if he's messaged. No, nothing."
"Is that the new iPhone?"
"Yes it is."
"Do you mind if I have a look? I'm thinking of upgrading."
"Sure." He hands it over, and she turns it over in her hands. "It's nice," she says, walking over to the armchair. She drops into the seat, places the phone on the adjoining glass coffee table, and removes her heels. "What are we having to drink?"
"Let's see what the minibar has."
"Minibar? I want a long drink, don't you?"
"Maybe some more gin? I'm all vodka'd out. Call room service, maybe they've got a bottle they can bring up." She sees his look. "A bottle's cheaper in the end."
"Fine." He sits down on the edge of the bed and picks up the brown plastic receiver.
"Ask if they have Bombay Sapphire," she whispers. "And don't forget the tonic."
As soon as he ends the call she's on her feet and pushing him backwards onto the bed. She straddles and kisses him. Zac relaxes into her forcefulness, then after a few minutes grasps her shoulders and rolls her over.
He's now on top, and they kiss deeper, her arms strongly round his back. He reaches down to the top of her legs, but she grabs his hand.
"No, don't. Not yet. The gin will be here any second." Zac looks at her, his features frozen, and then draws his hand away. He rolls off her and sighs.
"Just as we were getting going." He raises his head and looks her in the eyes. "You're incredibly beautiful, you know."
"Yes, I do."
"Ha! And full of it too!" He twists back onto her to continue their kiss, but she laughs and pushes him off, so that he loses his balance and ends up on the floor.
"I think you've had enough to drink already," says Lily.
The bell rings.
Zac notices the room service waitress looking Lily up and down with a barely disguised hostility. They really don't like their women mixing with foreign men, he thinks.
"Aren't you going to pay with a card?"
Zac looks at Lily, confused. His pen is already on the paper, ready to sign the chit he's been given.
"Why? I was just going to put it on the room."
"It's a bit unfair, don't you think? On your friend I mean. Buying a strange lady a bottle of gin."
"He won't mind. Oh, okay, maybe you're right." He reaches into his pocket and takes out his wallet. After paying with the card the waitress hands him the tray, forcing him to toss the leather onto the side cabinet.
He unscrews the bottle and makes two G&Ts. After a quick toast and gulp, Lily puts down her glass and reaches for the cigarettes in her clutch. "Oh, you'd better not smoke in here," says Zac.
"Sorry, it's alright, I'll just hop outside." She slides open the balcony door and walks out with her glass. Zac follows and plonks himself down on the wicker chair next to hers, the light-flecked cityscape beneath them. Lily has her cigarette in hand, and once more he sparks her up.
They sit in silence while she smokes. Then, finished, she leans over and kisses him, moving her fingers towards his crotch and letting them linger there for a moment.
Abruptly she stands up.
"I've just got to use the bathroom. Stay here, let me get you a top-up too." She whisks his glass away and leaves him to his thoughts which are becoming more explicit by the second.
Zac hasn't smoked for a year, but suddenly has an urge to break his vow. He looks down to the table where she placed the packet and lighter, but they're gone. Why did she take her cigarettes with her?
He turns to look inside the room, and jumps. Lily is already there, standing by the balcony entrance, her face dreadfully hardened. That's odd, he thinks, and is about to say something when, in one quick move, she slides the door shut and locks it.
It takes him a second before it hits him what she's done; then he leaps to his feet in a whoosh of drunken anger, and yells and attacks the glass. But he's dead to her.
Victor's small rucksack is by the wall and is soon emptied of its book and magazines and mints, dumped in a heap on the floor. Zac watches the bag swallow his phone, his wallet, and a Fitbit that his friend had left on the side. And the bottle of gin.
Then she slides open the wardrobe and, after one failed try, victoriously opens the safe.QLRS Vol. 19 No. 2 Apr 2020