Hushed conversations swelled and ebbed, tide-like. He had picked the wrong trolley—this one’s right front wheel liked to twist to the left suddenly from time to time; it took all his arm strength to keep it on track. By the time he managed to wheel it into the sole private room in Little Lotus, he was sweating.
Peking duck was one of the restaurant’s most renowned specialties. Nai had practiced carving it until he could do it with his eyes closed, waiting for the day that he would be allowed to carve it in front of patrons like his seniors before him. Today would mark the third show of trust from Head Chef. If he kept going like this, perhaps he would soon be allowed to work on the signature dessert as well. Or even compete in creating a seasonal dish for the restaurant.
Parking the trolley at the end of the short, dark table, he lifted the cloche. Instantly, the succulent aroma of duck suffused the air. Of the three older men present, the oldest left the conversation to watch him pick up the knife.
“Are you new?” He asked.
Surprised at the greeting, Nai stammered out, “Yes?”
“New,” the man reiterated. There were small clusters of wrinkles at the edges of his eyes that held a grandfatherly charm. “I haven’t seen you before.”
The conversation between the other two guests had slowly petered out of politics and turned towards alcohol. From the corner of his eye, Nai assessed the almost empty state of the bottle and made a mental note to send Kulab in serve them some more.
“Oh, no, sir. I’ve worked here a while; I just don’t get a chance to carve the ducks often.”
“Oh, enjoy this then.”
After a second more of watching, the man turned away to talk to his compatriots again. Nai’s shoulders unwound. Most patrons liked to watch the duck carving. In fact, quite a few people posted them to social media and, in turn, the restaurant featured them on its Instagram page. While Nai enjoyed the idea of it, he had no desire to put up his inelegant work next to those of his seniors’. He seemed to have lucked out with a table full of older gentlemen who had no interest in it or in him.
He started carving.
“Did you call him?” One of the men asked, yawning as he checked his phone. A brief glance showed Nai that the screensaver was an older woman—probably his wife. “Where is he? It’s already eight-thirty.”
“On his fucking way, I hope,” the second replied. His hands were fiddling with an unused cigarette—peeling the wrapping a little, scratching the filter, rolling it between his fingers. He lifted his empty wineglass and then, noticing it was empty, set it back down. “Don’t know why the fuck he stays so late when he could very well leave. ‘s not like he needs to.”
“He’ll be here when he’s here,” was the swift placation from the oldest. He had already reached his chopsticks out to pick at the first plate of duck skin Nai had carefully lain out. “Don’t tell me both my nongs don’t like my company? Come try the duck while it’s still crispy.”
“Aye, phi. Don’t say something like that. Here, have some pancakes.”
“Yes, yes, eat some. I’ll ring the server over for more wine. Do you—okay, a tea for you.”
“The duck doesn’t taste good cold.”
“Try some of that dipping sauce. I heard that this place was good, phi, but I didn’t have a chance to go here. My measly salary really…”
A hungering quiet descended as they ate, conversation abandoned for chewing, and Nai set the final plate on the table.
“How would you like your duck cooked?” He asked.
“Broth?” One of the men spat. Spittle and pancake flung onto his plate. Almost absently, the man wiped it up with a finger and licked it. “A broth would be nice, right phi?”
“Broth sounds okay,” the oldest agreed. “Thank you, nong.”
Giving a quick waii, Nai pushed the trolley back out, glad to be out of the oppressive room. The dim lights at the entrance of the room flickered. Making a mental note to mention this to the staff as well, he quickly made his way back to the kitchen.
He was definitely going to get chewed out for taking this long. If only he had gotten more practice in the restaurant setting instead of being made to cook soups—
A pair of leather loafers. Nai yelped, swerving the reluctant trolley, and looked up with an apology clinging to his lips.
The lean stranger paid him no heed. He strode straight past Nai to the private booth with a light cardigan hung over one of his arms. As he wrestled to straighten the trolley, Nai couldn’t help one final glance at the man disappearing through the red lacquered doors.
His collar was crooked and a thick, dark blue lanyard peeked out from under it.
Faintly, he was sure he heard someone inside called him ‘doctor’.
The street sank down under the rain like lungs on an exhale. An early morning worker trundled down the potholed street in an old car that made too much noise. Without opening his eyes, Kao could estimate the build to be an early 2000s sedan; most people on this street had them.
Pete’s thumb was warm under his cheekbone. When he shifted it, gentling down the sharp of his cheek, Kao felt his eyelashes tremble with the urge to look at him.
He liked these gentle desires.
“…mmm. No. No—shh. I’m whispering because Kao’s asleep. Shut the fuck up. No, he told me K’Suttaphon was on duty. Yeah. Yeah. I know, I’ll leave now. Mm, I’ll get it for you. Nah, I’ll meet you directly there; tell Mork to sign us in early. No. Shut up, we don’t get paid much anyway, a few minutes won’t make a difference. Oh, shut the fuck up. Fine. Yeah, got it.”
Calls at odd times were fairly common in their lines of work. Kao was more than versed in the art of sleeping through other people’s ringtones and other people’s conversations—medical school trained him well—but he had woken up the moment Pete had shifted out of his grasp today. The bed had felt immeasurably, damply cold and he small and lonely.
Pete rolled off the bed now too and got up. Muscle-heavy, his footsteps made the floor quake when he crept around. Kao was lulled halfway back to sleep by the sound of him.
Loath to relinquish his grasp on quickly-slipping sleep, yet unable to cling to it, Kao opened his dry eyes open with a sigh. Stormy grey squares of morning slipped across the ceiling like goldfish. Gaze still fuzzy, he turned his head to squint at the black blob hunched over the armchair near his window.
With…his bare ass on display?
Kao blinked a few times in an attempt to focus. Pete really wasn’t wearing underwear. His shirt—thrown on and unbuttoned—twitched when he moved.
“’re you flashin’ my neighb’rs?” Kao slurred around a drowsy tongue. “Why’s your ass hangin’ out?”
“Stop looking at it,” Pete whispered back. Seemingly having found what he was searching for—oh, his boxers—he straightened up. “Go back to sleep; you have two more hours.”
“Where’re you goin’?”
“It’s really early.”
In the slate light spilling through the bedroom window, Pete’s eyes gleamed like teeth. His boxers had a tiny hole on the hem of them that showed flashes of golden skin and, when he finally started buttoning his wrinkled shirt, Pete’s fingers stumbled with tiredness. The residual chill of the air-conditioner was damp across their skin.
“D’you know where my lanyard went?”
“No-o,” a yawn broke through the word. Shivering, Kao pulled the blanket up to his chin. “Maybe on the hook in the entrance?”
Pete smoothed his shirt down, bending over to pick up his pants from the neat pile Kao had folded for him last night. The susurrous of his pants was loud in the wake their words.
“Okay,” Pete said. He was dove-soft this early, tufts of his hair refusing to stay down. Kao pulled the blanket over his mouth to hide his wide smile. Rain-wet pigeon Pete Phubodin, he mused, mentally marking down ‘hair gel’ on his next shopping list. “Come lock the door.”
“Move in with me,” Kao told him, pushing his blanket away to finally sit up. His back ached. “Then we’d have none of this business.”
“Table that for when you’re more awake.” Pete’s kiss smelled like shaving cream and, content, Kao pecked his chin when he pulled away. “Come shut the door first.”
“Move it, move it! This—”
“Fuck, it’s raining. Move to the left, to the left—”
“Are you getting the shot of the building?”
Overlapping conversations broke against Pete’s ears as he pushed past the scattering of early bird journalists who had already shown up with their cameramen. Once he had safely ducked under the tape barring the entrance of Thammachaart Healing Home, a rank of novice officers closed the gap, blocking the view of the shaky cameras and their bright lights. Pete clapped Sharp on the shoulder before walking past.
“K’Oatraphon. This way please—we’d like to ask a few questions.”
“Bring the camera over here.”
Unlike the silence that tended to surround Team A, Suttaphon’s team talked in continuous hushed murmurs. Pete flashed his card at one of the officers waiting, following the man’s gesture to a small area that had been set up for evidence collection. June, yawning, was slowly pulling off shoe covers.
“Why’re you taking them off?” Pete greeted, throwing himself down in the folding chair next to him to pull on a pair of shoe covers. “Aren’t you coming in with me?”
“Gotta blast—someone has to get running for a warrant to check this place out since K’Oatraphon is refusing to cooperate. I’ll drop by Fahsai’s office; she said she’d draft one. You gonna stay?”
A few girls peeked out from behind one of the large pillars decorating the lobby and, eyeing them, Pete stood up. They noticed his presence immediately and scuttled away.
“I’ll go check on what the medical team is up to,” Pete said quietly, getting up to lumber in the direction he had seen the women go to. “Drive safe.”
Thammachaart Healing Home was a spa that boasted natural springs and ‘natural’ healing therapies. Pete hadn’t found a reason to ever go to it—it had seemed like a tourist destination more than anything.
With thick wooden beams and wide ceilings, it gave off a feeling of wealth. Green plants hung from rafters behind the reception desk and potted plants spilled in from the central courtyard that held a variety of blooming flowers and a twisting path through them. White painted signs directed people to various areas in the spa.
The three girls Pete had seen watching him were clustered at the cusp of the police tape at the crime scene. A single officer tried to usher them away, bodily blocking their views the best that he could. Upon seeing Pete, a look of quick relief washed over his face.
“Dok,” Pete nodded. One of the girls turned to look at him, eyes widening. “You can’t be here—this is a crime scene.”
“We just wanted to see if it was—”
Quietening down, the three of them fidgeted for a second before scurrying past him. Pete squinted after them.
“Who’re they?” He asked Dok.
“Attendants? There aren’t enough of us here today, so Cola’s the only one who’s questioning people. P’June left as well. A few people keep coming here and there and it’s hard to keep them out by myself.”
Gaze fixed over Dok’s shoulder, Pete watched the medical examiners zip up a black body bag. A cameraman photographed every second of the movement diligently.
“K’Suttaphon,” Pete called.
One of the white blobs swivelled to look at him, waving a hand. Pete waved back.
“I’ll be right out,” Suttaphon replied, muffled.
“Tell him I’m waiting near the reception,” Pete informed Dok, jerking a thumb in the direction of it.
Suttaphon came out less than two minutes later, hair ruffled from the hood he had pulled on earlier. The NFS vest he wore bulged with items tucked into every nook and cranny provided. As Pete watched, he pulled out a half-melted bar of white chocolate and peeled it open.
“I didn’t have breakfast,” Suttaphon justified at Pete’s look.
“Should’ve told me,” Pete hummed, accepting a square of chocolate and placing it on his tongue. Overly sweet. “I could’ve picked something up for you, khun.”
“It’s alright. I’ll grab something from the cafeteria.”
“Mm.” The silence lingered until Suttaphon had made his way through the bar, all fifty grammes of it, and Pete watched him tuck the wrapper back into a pocket. “Murder?”
“Overdose,” Suttaphon sighed. He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Can’t believe Chiang Dao is seeing drug problems now, too. You’d expect it from Chiang Mai.”
“It’s been a rising problem all over Thailand,” Pete sighed too. Staticky, the rising rain drummed down on the roof. A small drop of water splashed down at his feet from a leak in the ceiling. “Looks like we’ll have to leave it to you guys to figure out what it was until we can get that search warrant.”
“Leave it to us.”
When Kao made his way back to his office--back and feet aching from back-to-back autopsies—he was greeted by Sandee throwing his spare sweater at him in fury. Not even attempting to catch it, Kao let the fabric hit his chest and fall to his feet.
“Your fucking phone,” Sandee growled, pointing a shaking finger at the innocuous device. Under her objection, it buzzed. “You’ve gotten forty texts in the past few minutes and. I. Just. Want. To. Finish. This. Report. And. Eat.”
Blinking blearily, Kao picked up his sweater and made his way to his desk, sinking into his seat with a groan. His spine was an unwound slinky. It was only when the phone buzzed two more times that he picked it up.
Pete: so we’re buried
“Want to get lunch?” Thada rapped the door thrice, leaning against the frame of it with a yawn. “There’s khao man gai today.”
While they walked to the cafeteria, Kao unlocked his phone and looked through Pete’s messages. Beside him, Thada’s stomach growled.
“Pete?” Thada asked, vowels stretched around a jaw-breaking yawn.
“Mm. There’s apparently a drug overdose case at a spa there. P’Tapp was assigned to it.”
“Oh, that’s what his team was doing,” Thada mused. Stepping into the cafeteria, he picked up a steel tray, passing it to Kao. “Another one? I didn’t think Chiang Dao would have a drug issue—it’s pretty small.”
“It’s only the second one since I’ve come here. Have there been more?”
“A few.” Thada mumbled a thanks to the cafeteria server, accepting his tray of food. The refrigerated section housed a small army of Dutch Mill and two Yakults. “We’ve investigated a total of five just the last year.”
They shuffled to the payment area quickly before making their way to one of the few tables that overlooked the circular, drizzle-coated courtyard. The glass walls gently collected steam from the heating. A bird hopped playfully through a small puddle.
“Five?” Kao brought up again.
“Yeah. Not all overdoses though, but sometimes they’d send us samples to analyse because we’ve got equipment. We even had to send one case to Bangkok because it’s the only place which had the mass spectrometer we needed. San used to consult for a few hospitals here too, from time to time. Lots of Hep C cases, let me tell you. So, well, you know how it is.”
“I’m surprised; I never heard a peep.”
“Yeah, well, no one really talks about it, do they? They don’t want those numbers going up. It’s just an open secret at this point. Think the only people who don’t know are regular civilians.”
Mouth full of steamed chicken, Kao was inclined to agree. “Police?”
“Not looking into it.” At Kao’s frown, Thada laughed. He pushed away his empty bowl and picked up the Dutch Mill he had bought, stabbing a straw into it. “Oh, don’t worry; this case’ll most likely be handwaved away as well. No one really cares. There aren’t enough cases, you know? Not an epidemic yet.”
“If you say so.”
“I know so.”
Suttaphon was squinting blearily at a computer when Kao knocked on the doorframe of Examination Hall B. His gaze was slow to shift to Kao, exhausted, and Kao waggled bag of satay at him.
“I knew I liked you for a reason,” Suttaphon said, holding a hand out when Kao entered. “Oh—thank you.”
“I heard you had an early morning,” Kao said, handing over the paper bag of food quickly. “Can I have a look at the evidence?”
“Yeah. Didn’t think Chiang Dao had a drug problem.” With Suttaphon’s permission, Kao approached the small dish stacked with coloured multi-layered condoms. “How many?”
“Eighty-six. One popped. Poor girl died in minutes. Meth.”
“Yeah, I know. Didn’t think it was an issue in here either.”
“What’ll you do?”
“Report it to the narcotics centre in Bangkok and see what they’ll do,” Suttaphon sighed. “Now tell me: is it true that there’s khao man gai for lunch?”
Pete was waiting under the porte cochère with a box of still-steaming takeaway in hand. Kao felt the world un-skew at the sight of him.
It was hard not to bound down the stairs like an eager teenager. Staid, he had to repeat to himself, but the measure of his steps was disrupted the closer he got to that copper skin and tilted smile. Pete had no compunctions and held his arms out for a hug.
“Sweaty,” Kao groaned, stepping into his arms anyway. Pete squeezed him tight in response. “Ow!”
“You smell nice.”
“I took a shower unlike some people.”
“Don’t bully me—I’ve been out all day.”
They devoured the greasy food in every traffic clog they came across and, in the spaces between, held each other’s hands. Every passing minute of the drive—or wait, since they haven’t really moved much—felt like a waste and like relaxation. Kao was unspooled in the passenger’s seat.
“I want to sleep,” he murmured.
“I want more food,” Pete replied. His gaze hunted out the small street food carts lining the edges of the road. Slowly, they inched forwards. “We’ve been here for twenty minutes already.”
“Want me to get out and get you something?” Kao offered.
“Could you just order dinner to your house?”
“I could. But, shh, I’ll just call—excuse me! Phi! Can you bring over two chicken satay! Thank you!”
“You’re so annoying.”
His words sank into softness, though, and when Kao peeled open the packet and fed him, he smiled.
“Dumbass,” Kao snorted.
“Shut the fuck up. I’m so hungry.”
“What did you do today? Haul rocks?”
“Oh, so much. We were trying to get warrants to search Thammachaart but there were issues, so it’ll get given to us tomorrow. Can’t believe June had to run all the way to Fahsai’s office for it. And then P’Sun told us to work with Thanin, but June and I refused.”
“What about the drugs? Did you get rid of them?”
“Yeah. Met up with the narc team and had them all disposed of today. The location’s so fucking far away, I hate going there. I’ve been driving all day.”
“I did offer to drive right now.”
“Not for you.” Grease-lipped, Pete leaned over the console to kiss Kao’s cheek, sighing out against the skin there. “I just want to cuddle you into bed.”
“I want that too.” Kao butted his head against the meat of Pete’s shoulder, sighing as well. “We had so much to do today as well. I spent most of the day buried under reports.”
“I thought K’Chaiyanan was good, but I’m about to beat him up.”
“I offered to take on the classes.”
“He can’t expect you to be on top of both things at once though. Don’t think I haven’t noticed your tendency to overwork.” It was said half-playfully, but when Kao glanced over, Pete’s eyes were serious. “Take breaks. Don’t run yourself ragged.”
“I know, I’m not taking any more classes for now. P’Tapp said he’d take care of them.”
“If you wanted to be academic, you should’ve just gone straight into academics instead of this job. It’s cushier too.”
“I’d be bored to death.” Kao thought about it—sprawling university campuses and large lecture halls and hordes of students waiting for classes. Shivering, he shook his head. “Nope. Definitely not for me.”
“Did you have to go for that car crash thing?”
“Yeah. I was in Doi Lo in the afternoon. Director Chaiyanan wasn’t pleased, but there hadn’t been any other options.”
“At least he’s not like Waen.”
A light drizzle left the air wet and foggy by the time they reached Kao’s house. After a warm shower and a light snack, Pete pulled out a bottle of massage oil and got to work on Kao’s feet, pulling groans tripping from his mouth.
“Ow, ow, ow!”
“Your feet are so tense.”
“You’re just horrible at this,” Kao complained. Curling his toes in an attempt to shy his foot away, he stared up at the passing car lights flitting across the ceiling. “It hurts.”
“Here.” Pete’s thumbs gentled on the arch of his foot. Kao pretended like it didn’t send a quake up his spine. “Better?”
The curve of Pete’s smile was intimate and worn. In the amber light, he made it all feel new and electric. When his thumbs swept up again, slick with oil, Kao had to close his eyes.
“Move in with me,” Kao repeated their morning conversation, heart pounding.
“Wow, is my massage that good?” Pete laughed.
“I’m serious. If you don’t want to, just say so.”
“I think I’d like to,” Pete said. The room felt so small when he leaned over Kao and nuzzled the softness of his belly. “Move in with you, that is. We should fix a date for it.”
“Yeah.” His lips felt too hot on his abdomen, too tender, and Kao opened his eyes to meet his black gaze. Pete grinned. “What? Shy?”
Kao reached down to haul him up.
When he kissed him, it felt like green.
The brief spark of local news about the drug overdose at Thammachaart faded away like a blown-out candle. Provincial Chief Moo made some empty promises about a drug-free city that June violently thrust his middle fingers up to in the break room and, laughing, Mork copied.
“Eleven. What did Narcotics tell you?” The rousing game of name bingo with Rain looked like it was amounting to yet another failure for Pete. “Is the case over? We didn’t even get to do anything.”
“Twenty-one. Didn’t they chase June out with a slipper?” Rain squinted at his paper. “Wait, no, I won. Again. This isn’t even fun.”
“Did they?” Mork asked with interest.
“Nah, they just told me the case was being abandoned because it doesn’t matter.” June tipped his chair back onto two legs and frowned at the ceiling. “Sounds like they’re overworked too. Apparently there’s some huge investigation going on in Phuket, y’know? And something with the Vietnamese police too. Can you imagine working on something that big? Man.”
“Not getting paid for it,” Rain shrugged. He picked up the paper he had been playing with and tossed it into a shredder, stretching. “You guys want something? Mork and I have to scope out that assembly hall for Moo’s upcoming speech since there’s no one free enough for it.”
“You go on ahead; I’ve got paperwork.” Pete spun around on his seat and faced his computer with a grimace. “I need to reduce my coffee intake anyway.”
“I’ll stay too, I guess,” June grumbled. “Bring me coffee if you guys come back.”
“Might just fuck off straight home,” Mork clapped their backs, sending June sprawling with curses. “Have fun, pencil pushers.”
Barely a few reports in, Pete’s phone rang. He ignored the first two sets of rings, unwilling to be taken out of his zone, but when his phone only buzzed again, he grabbed it as he stretched his neck.
Squinting down at the digits, Pete rubbed his nape, wondering whether it was worth picking the call up or not. A small paper cup of water with a sticky note on it declared that June had gone to the traffic police for some work. Pete took a sip of water and, when the phone rang again, accepted the call.
“Pete Phubodin speaking.”
“You’re after my father, I heard,” a familiar clear voice spoke. Flinching, Pete’s knuckles whitened around the device. “I have some information that might be of use to you.”
The prison echoed with the chatter of inmates.
Pete hadn’t been to Central in a while now. Mouldy and damp from rain, the paint peeled off the walls and flaked off into little heaps. The stale stench of public urinals and people lingered in the corridor. The warden who was leading him stank of fetid sweat.
“No fans?” Pete asked quietly, hands tucked into his pockets as he glanced around at the old bulletin board with outdated notices pinned to it.
“The ones on this route are broken,” the warden explained. “We’ve been fucking complaining about it for ages, but you know how it is. The engineers are always not here or they never have the right components, ah, it’s so irritating. Do you know how many times I’ve had to send in a request? Hah—one? No, I’ve submitted it four times already. They’re just out here to let us rot with the inmates.”
The warden wiped his forehead with a yellowing handkerchief lovingly stitched with flowers.
A few minutes later, they emerged from the winding corridors to a dead-end passage lined with meeting rooms down one side. A few of the peeling, green wooden doors were shut already—Pete hadn’t expected there to be other visitors apart from him—but the rest swung open to reveal tattered rooms with a two-person table each and chairs. Some of the lucky rooms had ceiling fans.
The wall dead-ended with a large window that faced a prickly, yellowing tree outside whose branches curled with heat. A few slants of sunlight snuck past the branches and struck the cemented floor.
“This is the one,” the warden told him, tucking the damp handkerchief back into an overstuffed pocket and gesturing to the final door with his chin.
Pete studied it for a second before giving the man a quick smile, twisting the door handle and stepping inside.
The room was small and damp with humidity. A lone fan struggled to spin on the left-hand corner, pushing muggy breezes around the small room, and a black digital clock with red numbering patiently showed the time. As the door clicked shut behind him, the heat from their bodies seemed to be stiflingly oppressive.
Coolly, Pete pulled out a chair and sat down.
A trickle of sweat wound a lazy path down where his back was pressed into the uncomfortable wooden chair that barely held any padding. Everything was designed for discomfort.
“I need a promise that you can get me out of here safely; my life is in danger here,” Dream said.
Was he really going to pretend like nothing had happened between them? Pete wanted to scoff; look at him worried about his own life like he hadn’t taken so many. Hiding the disgust, Pete lazily stretched his feet out and crossed them instead, staring at the dirty leather of his own shoes.
“Tell me what you know first. I’ll see what I can get you.”
“That won’t work.” Neatly lacing and unlacing his fingers, Dream looked at him. “I need a promise.”
“The most I can do is reducing your sentence by saying you helped an investigation,” Pete said slowly. “I’ll have to see what I can do.”
Dream watched him without blinking for a long few minutes. It was clearly meant to be a mental game that Pete was willing to play. He watched Dream back patiently, tapping his shoes together.
“There’s a ledger that they want,” Dream announced with relish. “I know where it is.”
Pete’s shoes froze.