Warning: the offseason produces some strange, strange timekillers. The piece below may be the strangest. Just a warning--ed.
It's a little-known fact that, when his responsibilities allow him time, Beano Cook spends every spare moment of his day attempting to assassinate us. It's a long story from a long time ago, but we'll take the wraps off our secret identity and give you a little peek into the Swindle archives by letting you in on a little secret: in the days before the wall came down and this pretty boy lost his innocence in a Helsinki alley, we used to do a little work for the government before an allergy to ricin and a freak pancreas injury forced us into the blogging business. And Beano, though he might deny every word of it, was tangled up in the same sordid web we were: running guns to Nicaragua, intercepting llamas stuffed full of coca in Miami, and shivering through dead drops in Budapest in January while cranked off of cheap vodka. It was harrowing, soul-destroying stuff--in our case, we've never recovered the ability to write in the first person, so destroyed was our soul from the work we did in the name of Reagan and liberty.
We'll let an excerpt from our upcoming memoir Swindle, the Early Years: Tears of the Condor do the talking for us. But we'll leave you with this: everything you're about to read is 100% truth, right down to the bit where Beano tries to choke us with a phone cord to get the microfilm out of our mouth. Freedom isn't free, kids--and your boy here's the one who cashed the checks.
Tears of the Condor, Vol. 1: Bangkok Baby.
April 3, 1982. Bangkok. Fuck. I'm still in Bangkok. The streets stink like the stink of old sin here. It's hot as balls in the room thanks to a wheezing old Russian air conditioner that just takes the hot air and makes it a. even hotter, and b. smell like moldy tea bags. The three prostitutes on the bed made things a little easier on me last night, but in the way you're thinking about. I hired them to keep me from actually touching the filthy sheets, and slept stretched atop them, like a man surfing a wave of gently undulating hookers all night. That and they're the cheapest alarm you can buy in the City of Angels, since they scream like hell when someone busts down the door with a gun, and silencer, and your name on a bullet.
It's happened before.
No time for sex when you're tracking El Diablo in Bangkok, my friend. I'm here working with Blue Diamond. You don't know the name, and never will. Unless I just told you. Which I did.
Anyway...I'm working with someone for someone and looking for a someone. And that someone, El Diablo, happens to be a man the United States government would like to see erased from the geopolitical game of Parcheesi we're all playing right now. He's a myth, a legend, and enigma wrapped in a riddle and topped with a fine frappe of mystery. Children dream about him before they know him, and old man drop dead to the floor at his name. Once I thought about him while looking at a parrot on the street in Jakarta. The parrot's name was Mandabang. The parrot died that instant. It's not coincidence.
The air conditioner's name is suckass. The walls are sweating. So am I. I kick the hookers off the bed and pack my bag. El Diablo's out there somewhere in the soupy stewy toxic chowder of this town, and I'm just the rusty spoon to find him.
Soupy toxic chowder. Just my beat.
The noodles are barely in my belly when I step into the back of a tuk-tuk and head to Silom Road. Bangkok: the only town where sin wears sin-scented cologne with baggy pleated linen pants and a silk shirt. Besides Manila. And sometimes Biloxi.
The crowds move along the roads.
It's impossible to describe the debauchery happening on the street as I pass through. A woman sells cokes poured into plastic bags on the street corner with one hand and deals hands of UNO with the other. Men lose piles of cash--so possessed by the spirit of the game they do not notice the bandits removing their kidneys from their backs as they play. Children above street level fry rats on power lines. Old ladies strip copper from the power lines for money with their teeth.
The tuk-tuk driver offers me his daughter for the evening. Sweat drips from my forehead. He hands me a picture as we take a wobbly turn. His daughter is a 3 year old Bengal Tiger cub.
This place. Oh, the horror of this place. I'd get weepy about it if I had time. But I don't. There's a microfilm stashed somewhere in Wat Po. It's bait for El Diablo, who's working for the other side. He thinks it's got detailed specs for the Centurion, a carbon-blade bayonet that can be mounted on a ballpoint pen. It's actually got nude photos of Jeanne Kirkpatrick giving Boutros-Boutros Ghali some horizontal diplomacy on it. We've got a sense of humor at Blue Diamond.
That lucky, lucky bastard.
We cross the river. It's so filthy that if you water skied on it you'd leave a trail of flame behind you. Wat Po gleams up ahead in the panting sunlight. I'm ready for you, El Diablo.
Tourists mill about the place. They don't notice lithe Thai pickpockets taking their credit cards, their money belts, their easily accessible organs. Perfect cover--I'm anonymous, invisible, strolling along and looking just like everyone else in my Mexican wrestling mask and pink fedora. I mill into the crowd like a total stranger, my cape trailing behind me.
The microfilm should be stashed in the main stupa on the south side in the teeth of the sculpted mosaic dragons. The Chinese dumped their ballast when they came into harbor. The Thais took it and made temples. The Chinese are lousy houseguests. The Thais are crafty like Christopher Lowell, except not quite so gay. What any of this means is irrelevant, because I see the microfilm canister glinting in sun between two of the dragon's teeth.
I reach for the film when a force hits me from behind. I've been hit before: Russian Spetznaz commandoes at close quarters, Chinese kung-fu masters in a Hong Kong Alley, Charlene Tilton in a trailer on the set of Dallas. (Charlene, baby--it would never have worked out.) But I'm baptized now; the force hits me like a soul enema, a pain-wracked pain so painful my pained pain pains me to describe. A tooth knocked out of my head splits a nearby water buffalo in half, so powerful is the blow. Only the slight cushion offered by the fedora and wrestling mask saves me from a certain skull fracture.
I could have told you Charlene, but I would have had to kill you.
The man on the end of whatever just hit me--fist, leg, head, elbow, thrown Toyota Corolla--isn't just your average knuckledragger. No, this man is a master. I turn to look at the thing that just hit me.
I see the massive head of Beano Cook blocking out the scorching tropical sun.
It made perfect sense. The cover was perfect: turkey-wattled American sportswriter. Only works six months out of the year. Seemed perfectly harmless, really. Unless you knew the truth. That Beano was actually the most lethal, cunning operative Blue Diamond had ever turned out. That he could crush beer cans with his eyelids. That his resume from his time in Delta Force included killing Pablo Escobar with an empanada thrown from the street. That he was worshipped as an angry God in Sri Lanka and classified as a controlled substance by the DEA. And that he'd gone sour when he lost his best friend Sanchez in Bolivia, blamed the government, and gone to work for the other side for good without leaving a trace. That he trained me back in Assassin School.
And now he was facing me. Six and a half feet of sheer malice in a tweed jacket.
He had hands like hammers. Big, fleshy pink hammers. Beano swung; I dodged and heard the sound of three tourists being knocked into the Chao Phraya behind me. Better them than me, I thought. The plan was for me to draw him into the open--that part worked. What didn't work were the three tranq darts the snipers across the river had pumped into his neck. They stuck out of his skin like banderillas waving feebly in the wind and only seemed to make him angrier.
This was trouble. I ran toward the exit and heard thundering footsteps behind. Beano ran like a giraffe: slow steps that covered twice the space your tiny legs did. The exit to the temple complex lay ahead. Perhaps I could grab a passing car and ride it to safety. Perhaps Beano would catch me in the street and turn me to falang fish cakes right there on the pavement.
A woman selling satay along the wall. There's my chance.
I grabbed the barbecue by the handles, spilling tasty peanut sauce and hot, sizzling chicken onto the pavement. As I turned the impact knocked me onto my back again, with only the flaming hot grill separating Beano from me. His hands wrap around my throat like a vise, and all I can smell at first is the overpowering reek of Iron City beer and Old Spice. When someone asks me what death smells like, I will tell them that. Then I smell something different: the odor of burning flesh.
Don't let the smile fool you.
Even Beano cannot stand the pain of a flaming grill pressed to his rock-hard abs. He leaps back, clutching his charred midsection. He wails like Grendel after he had his arm pulled off by Beowulf. (What a total badass. Beowulf would have been a great Blue Diamond operative. Plus he could drink. Which is important.) I toss the grill and grab the nearest tuk-tuk, flinging the driver to the curb with a trailing "sorry." The tuk-tuk zips away down the street like a chicken on fire. In the rearview mirror I see the giant figure of Beano, a.k.a. El Diablo, shaking his angry fist at me.
"I'LL GET YOU SWINDLE!!! I'LL GET YOUUUUUUU!!!"
With that he leapt into the river and swam away. The witnesses said he moved like a crocodile in the water and disappeared in seconds.
And that was when I decided it was a good time to leave Bangkok.
To be continued...