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The launch of a brand new series by the internationally bestselling, critically acclaimed author of The Coroner’s Lunch With worldwide critical acclaim, Colin Cotterill is one of the most highly regarded “cult favorite” crime writers today. Now, with this new series, Cotterill is poised to break into the mainstream. Set in present day rural Thailand, Cotterill is as sharp and witty, yet more engaging and charming, than ever before.Jimm Juree was a crime reporter for the Chiang Mai Daily Mail with a somewhat eccentric family—a mother who might be drifting mentally; a grandfather—a retired cop—who rarely talks; a younger brother obsessed with body-building, and a transgendered, former beauty pageant queen, former older brother. When Jimm is forced to follow her family to a rural village on the coast of Southern Thailand, she’s convinced her career—maybe her life—is over. So when a van containing the skeletal remains of two hippies, one of them wearing a hat, is inexplicably unearthed in a local farmer’s field, Jimm is thrilled. Shortly thereafter an abbot at a local Buddhist temple is viciously murdered, with the temple’s monk and nun the only suspects. Suddenly Jimm’s new life becomes somewhat more promising—and a lot more deadly. And if Jimm is to make the most of this opportunity, and unravel the mysteries that underlie these inexplicable events, it will take luck, perseverance, and the help of her entire family. One of Library Journal's Best Mystery Books of 2011
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Born in London, COLIN COTTERILL has worked as teacher in Israel, Australia, the U.S. and Japan before he started training teachers in Thailand. Cotterill and his wife live in a small fishing village on the Gulf of Siam in Southern Thailand. He’s won the Dilys and a CWA Dagger, and has been a finalist for several other awards.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
“Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream.”
—GEORGE W. BUSH, LACROSSE, WISCONSIN, 18 OCTOBER, 2000
Old Mel hired one of Da’s nephews—the slow-witted one with the dent in his forehead—to sink a well in his back acre. The irrigation trenches his family had dug between the rows of oil palms didn’t extend to the rear fence and the new fronds were browning even before they fanned open. It hadn’t rained for a month. Mel had been lugging watering cans out there for two weeks and his back bones were starting to clack like mah-jong tiles. So, a well, a cheap Chinese pump, half a dozen sprinklers, and all he’d need to do was flick a switch. Oil palms took care of themselves if you watered them often and gave them manure treats once every three months. Twenty palms saved without crippling his spine. Cheap at twice the price.
So, on Saturday last, Old Mel sat on the top rung of the back fence and watched the young man work. The nephew’s skull indentation made Mel wonder if he’d been hit by a metal petanque ball thrown at high speed. Such was the concavity. But he decided it was better not to ask. He knew the response would be long and slobbered. He knew the nephew would stop work to reply because he couldn’t perform two functions simultaneously. So Mel merely sat and watched him dig. He could have chipped in with some labor to make the job easier but Old Mel was a firm believer in not hiring a goat and bleating himself.
The tried-and-tested southern Thai method of sinking a well would undoubtedly not have been acceptable in any Western country where concepts such as “quality” and “safety standards” were firmly in place. Four one-meter concrete pipe segments lay on the ground to one side. The nephew would dig a hole broad and deep enough to insert one of the segments. He would then jump into the hole and continue to burrow downward, scooping out earth from beneath the concrete pipe. The latter would sink into the ground like a very slow elevator. Once its top lip was level with the surface of the field, the second pipe segment would be placed on top of it and the excavation would continue. The earth in Old Mel’s field was a mixture of dirt and sand and once you got below the knotty pissweed, it was not terribly hard to dig. The problems would begin—if you were lucky—when the third section was inserted and the water started to rise, turning the hole into a mudbath spa. Before the fourth segment was level with the ground, the unfortunate young man could be spending half his time submerged in murky brown water.
But on this arid Saturday morning the well would not allow itself to be sunk. At no more than waist depth below the surface, the nephew’s hoe clanged against something solid. A loud metallic gong scattered the wimpy drongos from the trees. Lizards scampered from beneath rocks. The nephew was obviously enchanted by the percussion because he struck three more times before Mel could convince him to cease. The old man climbed down from his perch, hooked his toes into his sandals, and ambled over to the hole. He stopped at the concrete rim and stared down at his laborer’s feet which, against all the odds, stood astride a small island of rust.
“It can’t be much,” Mel said. “Probably a barrel lid. Sink your hoe off to the edges. You can work your way below it and pry it up.”
Easily said. The nephew prodded and poked but every foray produced the same tinny clunk. There was no way around it. For all anyone knew, the obstruction might have extended from the Gulf all the way across to the Andaman Sea and been connected to one of the earth’s plates. All Mel could think about was that this sheet of metal stood defiantly between him and lower-back-pain relief. He wasn’t about to give in without a fight whether it unbalanced the earth or not. He walked to the fence, grabbed a solid black crowbar and held it out to the lad.
“Here, use this,” he said. “Smash your way through it.”
Da’s nephew stared forlornly at the tool. It was obvious some laborious mechanical process was taking place in his mind. The crowbar was getting heavy in Mel’s hand.
“I’m just paid for digging,” said the nephew, at last. “Nobody said nothing about smashing. That’s a job for specialists, smashing is. I’m just a digger.”
“Go on, boy. Look at it. It’s rusted to hell. You could sneeze a hole in it.”
“I don’t know, Old Mel. Wear and tear on the tools. All that added time...”
This was a lesson learned for Mel. A brain dent did not necessarily affect a young man’s ability to extort.
“All right, look. I’m not going to pay you to start a new well somewhere else, so why don’t we just say ... what? Fifty baht extra? How’s that?”
There was no further discussion. The nephew began jabbing the crowbar into the metal plate with renewed enthusiasm. With the fifty baht incentive, the young man performed like a large, enthusiastic can opener. He stood at the center of the hole and gouged through the metal around him. Like Mel, he’d probably expected to be able to lift out a perfect circle of rusted metal and continue his dig south uninterrupted. He would have anticipated a firm grounding of earth beneath the metal. He probably didn’t expect in his wildest and most troubling dreams to hear that teeth-grinding creak, or to have the metal upon which he stood drop like a theatrical trapdoor. He seemed to hover in midair for a split second before plummeting into the dark void beneath him.
The silence that followed stretched into the hot early morning like warm noodle dough. Crickets and songbirds held their breaths. A solitary wispy cloud hung overhead. Mel stood leaning forward slightly to look into the hole but all he could see was blackness. He didn’t recall the lad’s name so he couldn’t call it out.
“You all right there?” he said. Then, realizing the newly opened shaft might be vastly deep he shouted the same question. “YOU ALL RIGHT?”
There was no reply.
A number of lands around the globe have what they refer to as a southern temperament. Thailand is no exception. Old Mel could surely have gone running off screaming for help. He might have beaten a pestle against the old tin tub that hung from his balcony or trekked those two kilometers to the nearest payphone. But he was a southerner. He broke off a stem of sweet grass to chew while he sat on the concrete segment and gazed into the abyss. There was a good deal to consider. Perhaps this had been a blessing in disguise. He wondered whether they’d chanced on an old well shaft. Saved themselves time. But there’d been no splash. It was probably dry. Bad luck, that.
“Young fellow?” he called again, half-heartedly.
There was still no response.
Mel wondered just how long was a suitable period of time before he should get anxious. He was in the middle of a plan. Go back to the shed. Get a rope. Tie it to the fence. Lower it into the hole, and ... but there was his back problem. That wouldn’t work. He’d have to call his neighbor, Gai, to—
The voice was odd, echoey, like that of a lone sardine in a tin can.
“Old Mel. You there?”
“What are you playing at down there?” Mel asked. “You stuck?”
“No, no. I had the wind knocked out of me, that’s all, but I chanced lucky. I’m on ... a bed.”
“That’s what they call concussion, boy. You need a—”
“No. I’m on a bed. Really I am.”
“What makes you think so?”
“I can feel the springs.”
“Plant roots, boy. Easily mistaken for bedsprings.”
Mel realized that in the nephew’s case, concussion wouldn’t have made a lot of difference.
“All right, look, I need to fetch somebody,” he said.
“You know, I can probably get myself out, Old Mel. I’m not so far from the hole. I’m looking up at it.”
“No, but my shirt’s snagged on one of the springs. You should come down and have a look. This is odd, Old Mel. The more my eyes get used to the dark, the odder it is.”
“What can you see, boy?”
Old Mel chuckled. “You’re on a bed and you’ve got windows round you? Sounds to me like you’ve found yourself an underground bedroom. What are the odds of that?”
He was wondering where the nearest psychiatric care unit might be. Whether analysis was included under the government thirty-baht universal health initiative.
“And there’s...” the nephew began.
“A bedside lamp?”
“Oh, no. Old Mel. Old Mel.”
There was a real panicky timbre to his voice.
“What? What is it?”
“There’s skeletons down here.”
Mel was hoping he wouldn’t have to be responsible in some way for the young fellow’s rehabilitation. Whether he’d be obliged to employ him in some menial position in which his affliction wouldn’t be too much of a disadvantage. Scarecrow, perhaps? Maybe he could find a witness who’d swear the boy was already eight points brain-dead before he fell down the old well shaft. You had to be careful these days with so many unemployed lawyers around. Mean buggers, those lawyers.
“They animal bones, boy?” he asked, just to humor the lad.
“No, Old Mel. They’re people all right.”
“How can you tell?”
“One’s wearing a hat.”
* * *
That was as far as I managed to get with the fertile prose version. It takes it out of you, writing with heart. And it was just for me really. Sort of a confirmation to myself that my inner diva can still make love to the keyboard when she’s in the mood. I have to keep her roped and gagged when I’m writing for the newspapers. They don’t like her at all. They don’t want love. They want a quick tryst in a motel room that’s forgotten in a few hours. They want dates and times and figures and facts and stats. They want the names and ages of the victims and the perpetrators, the ranks of every police officer vaguely involved with the case, the verbatim quotes from experts, and the ungrammatical misinformation from eyewitnesses. They don’t care what I think. I’m just that peculiar woman on the crime desk or, at least, I used to be. I’d try to sneak in the odd metaphor from time to time but the Mail would set their editorial medusa on me until my piece looked like a lexicon of criminal terminology and place names. This is what hit the newspaper shops on Sunday morning.
TWO DEAD BODIES IN BURIED VEHICLE
Chumphon province. Two unidentified bodies were found yesterday in a Volkswagen Kombi Type 2 camper van, registration number Or Por 243, from Surat Thani province, buried at the rear of a palm oil plantation in Bang Ka sub-district, Lang Suan district, Chumphon province. Police Major General Suvit Pamaluang of the Lang Suan municipality announced that the bodies were discovered at 0800 hours on the morning of Saturday 23 August by Mr. Mel Phumihan, the owner of the land. So far, the victims have not been identified and there have been no clues found as to how the vehicle became buried there.
At 1000 hours, constable Ma Yai and constable Ma Lek from the Pak Nam sub-regional municipality police station in Lang Suan sub-district were dispatched to Bang Ka following a call logged at 0923 hours. Upon their arrival at Mr. Mel’s palm plantation they were met by Mr. Mel (68 years old) and his day laborer, Mr. Anuphong Wiset (22). The two men had been digging a well and had encountered an unexpected obstacle beneath the ground in the form of a complete 1972 model Volkswagen Camper van popularly known in the West as a Kombi with traces of red and cream trimming. The description of the vehicle was wired to the Surat police station and officers are still attempting to trace any missing vehicles answering this description. Desk Sergeant Monluk Pradibat at the central motor registry in Bangkok informed this newspaper that, “This vehicle will be particularly difficult to trace as computer records of missing vehicles date back only as far as 1994. Any records before that would be filed on paper forms at our central warehouse.”
As to the identity of the bodies, Police Major Mana Sachawacharapong, the head of the Pak Nam police station, in whose jurisdiction the discovery was made, told our reporter, “The identities of the dead bodies and the causes of death are still being investigated. But I can tell you that this was either an accident, murder or an act of nature.” The captain was not, however, prepared to rule out suicide.
They always did that, Thai police. Cover all the bases. Shot four times in the face over a period of twenty minutes? Don’t rule out suicide. They’d recently found a head in a plastic bag suspended on a rope from a bridge in Bangkok and they hadn’t dismissed the possibility of suicide. It gave those self-promoting senior policemen something to talk about to the press. Made them sound more important. Rather than admit “We haven’t got the foggiest idea,” the ranking officer of the day would go down the list of bloody obvious possibilities even if he hadn’t visited the site of the crime. As long as you spelled his name correctly he’d talk to you the whole day. Perhaps you can see I have a certain dark feeling toward our gentlemen in khaki.
But the good news is, I was back. All right, I didn’t get a by-line, the Thai dailies don’t encourage reporter egoism, but word would get out that I’d risen from the dead. I might be living in the buttock end of the world but I could still sniff out a story. After nine months of highway traffic pile-up reports and coconut yield statistics, I’d been thrilled when I heard they’d discovered the bodies. Please let them be murder victims, I prayed. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a bloodthirsty person. I just needed reassuring that man hadn’t stopped displaying inhumanity to man. I’d begun to doubt it.
I’d been sitting in one of our grass-roofed huts overlooking the bay, gutting mackerel when I heard the news of old Mel’s VW. Unless we get a few sea bass or a tasty anchovy, mackerel gutting’s usually the highlight of the week in our cul-de-sac of a village. Kow, the squid-boat captain, stopped by on his Honda Dream with its fishball-dispensing sidecar. He’s our local Paul Revere. You don’t need a cell phone or Internet connection if you have someone like Captain Kow in the vicinity. I’ve no idea how he hears it all but I’d wager he’s a good hour ahead of the BBC on most news.
“You hear?” he yelled. Of course I hadn’t heard. I never hear anything. “They found a car with dead bodies in it under Old Mel’s back lot.”
He smiled. He’s got a sort of mail slot where his front teeth ought to be. It makes you want to doubt him but he’s invariably right. His southern accent’s so thick I needed a few seconds to decipher his words.
“Who’s Old Mel?” I asked.
“Got twenty hectares out off the Bang Ka road just before Bang Ga.”
I was elated. This was the first burst of excitement I’d felt all year. I had to get over there. My little brother, Arnon, playfully known as Arny, was out somewhere with the truck and Granddad Jah had the motorcycle. I didn’t have any choice but to use Mair’s old auntie bicycle with the metal basket on the front. I shouted to my mother that I was taking it and heard a faint “Make sure you put petrol in it” from deep inside our shop. Right, Mair.
Apart from the bridge over the Lang Suan river the roads are mostly flat around here, all palm and coconut plantations. Pleasant enough if you like green—I don’t. There are limestone cliffs st...
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