The Lady In The Tree
Behind The Smile – volume 4
1 TROUBLE AT T’ MILL
“It’s just got to be some kind of mafia… I can’t see who else it could be…”
“Who’s got to be the Mafia, Lek? I don’t follow you,” asked Craig eventually having to give up on his writing because Lek was driving him mad with her incessant mumbling, hunched over her laptop at the other end of the desk.
“Someone is trying to ruin our businesses, aren’t they? Little, niggly things like petty theft started about two weeks ago… yes, about two weeks after Ayr went to Australia to get married, but I didn’t think too much about them, because that sort of stuff happens, doesn’t it, right? But when we started having real problems the other day… It’s as if they were testing us with the thefts, and now that they know that we are a ma.., er woman down, they are hitting us hard. They know that I’m rushed off my feet and can’t be everywhere at once.
“They also know that I don’t have a man who can help me.”
“Thank you very much.”
“Well, it’s true, isn’t it? A Thai man would be able to help. He would know people, he would understand, he would do something to help… but what can you do? Write a story about it? Put it on your blog? You don’t know how things work in Thailand, you don’t know anybody and you don’t even speak Thai.
“Therefore, I am left on my own to take on the mafia without a husband to help me.”
“If you put it like that, I suppose you’ve got a point, but you don’t paint me in a very good light, do you? I’m just some useless storyteller who can’t help his wife take care of business.”
“It is truth…”
“All right, so it’s the truth, but I wish you wouldn’t keep rubbing it in. I have my pride as well, you know.”
“I am just calling a spade a spade… There is nothing wrong with that, is there?”
“I don’t suppose, so, but you could call me a nice, useless old spade to soften the blow. What has happened, and who are these Mafioso, anyway?”
“What is ‘Mafioso’?’
“Italian Mafia personnel, why what are you talking about?”
“Not Italians, that’s for sure! The mafia, you know, crooks, thieves, bandits, bullies, the Thai mafia. When Thai people say mafia, it is not Italian Mafia, it is just local criminals, bullies, mafia… Anyway, I told you before, but you always too busy to listen me: they pour paint on Ayr’s car, go in her flat and sho.. the shop, make problems in the na… I told you.”
“Yes, sorry, you did. A bit more than coincidence, eh? Have you been to the police?”
“See, you don’t understand! Go to the police, what good is that? I go already, but without evidence and proof, they can do nothing.”
“No, I suppose not, but isn’t it their job to get evidence?”
“See, you just don’t understand, do you? If it was a murder, they would have to investigate, because they can see a crime… but not in cases like ours. The mafia can say that I started it and they are coming back at me and who knows… maybe they pay police to look somewhere else…”
“The other way?”
“I must give them some proof… something that they cannot ignore… then I can get some help.’
“Yes, tricky, isn’t it? Can’t your brothers help?”
“I give up with you sometimes, I really do… look, my brothers’ wives don’t want them getting involved with the mafia for me, and as their big sister, neither do I, and secondly, I don’t want them to think that we can’t handle the problem on our own, or we will both lose face… and you will look like a pussy. I am trying to save you from that, not that you can help anyway.
“That is why I have no-one to turn to but Ayr. She would know what to do.”
“I see, that hopeless, is it?”
“I am afraid so. All those years ago, I thought that having a falang husband was the best thing in the world, who would have thought that I would regret it one day?”
“Charmed, I’m sure! Are you saying that you regret marrying me now?”
“No, darling, but at this precise moment, a Thai husband would be more use to me.”
“Funny, isn’t it? You don’t want your Thai brothers to get involved with the mafia, but you wouldn’t mind if your Thai husband had to have a go.”
“Not funny, no, but that is part of his job, not part of a brother’s job. A brother has his own wife he must fight for… and I have you. It is a shame, but that is my Karma.”
“I wish you would stop saying things like that, you’ll be giving me a complex soon!
“Hey, I’ve got an idea! You could take a Thai lover and he could do all your fighting for you!”
“I have already thought of that, but I am too old now. Only old men like me now and they cannot fight well.”
“Oh, I was only joking… Did you really consider taking a lover to fight your battles for you?”
“I have to consider every option, telak, but I didn’t want to have to do it, not really. Anyway, that idea is no good, so we can forget about it. Water under the bridge, as you say.”
“I don’t think we do, but I know what you mean. So, I am lucky that I am married to an old woman, who can’t get a young lover then?”
“Haven’t I always said that you are lucky to have me, Craig? Nothing has changed and I still love you too. We are lucky that they haven’t shot us yet, but maybe that will come later, if we ignore their warnings. What do you think?”
“I don’t know, I have never been in this predicament before, and, like you have said many times, I don’t understand, so I’m afraid that you are quite right, you are on your own for the time being, my dear… Look, if you want to ask your brothers for advice, I don’t mind if they think that I am a pussy… just ask them not to say it too often, eh?”
“No, I’m afraid that that option is out too.”
“OK, let’s try something else then. When is your other, not so useless, partner coming back from Australia?”
“Next week, I think. Why?”
“I was thinking that we could order a few things off eBay from China, security devices and things like that, but it might be better if Ross and Ayr brought, or even sent, them back from Australia. I’ll phone or email him later. By the way, have you told Ayr about any of this nonsense?”
“No, I didn’t want to spoil her wedding, but maybe is all right to tell her now.”
“’It is all right’…”
“Not ‘is all right’, ‘it is all right’.”
“Never mind, look, why don’t you put her in the picture and I’ll have a chat with Ross? We oldie falangs may not be able to grapple with the Thai mafia, but maybe we can get some evidence so that our wives can go to the police and get them to do something about it.
“Does that put your mind at rest a little, telak?”
“Yes, telak, you may not be a brave Thai warrior, but you are not a stupid falang either, are you?’
“Er, thank you, I think. OK, well, let’s get on with that, then I can get back to typing this novel up. What are you doing tonight, Lek?”
“I will go in the other room and phone Ayr and then go and sit in Nong’s so I can keep an eye on the shop for a while. Do you want to come and keep me company?”
“Yes, I’d love to, give me some time to get to a sensible place to stop and I’ll come and join you, but look, don’t go fighting with any mafia until I get there, you know, so I can take photos for evidence.”
Lek poked her tongue out at him and left the office. Craig flicked over to Skype and selected Ross’ account.
“Hi Ross, how’s married life? Good, good, when are you coming back here?…. Ten days? Was that Ayr I just heard? Say hello from me. OK, look, we’ve been having a spot of bother over here. Lek thinks it’s the local mafia hired by the competition, but there’s nothing she can do about it without evidence… Oh, the shop’s been broken into, wilful damage, that sort of thing, but no personal violence.
“You may know more about security devices than I do, but I was thinking about a security system for our house and one for the shop that you could extend into Ayr’s flat, or you could have a separate one for that, that’s up to you. I want ours to have battery back up with a solar panel charger…. Yes, that’s the idea… Can you manage that? Everything wireless, OK? PIR’s too and a CCTV unit, no make that two for us and at least two for the shop and, er, two for Lek’s orchard, but there’s no electricity there, so they will have to be solar. I don’t know if this is possible, but I would like low-light cameras for the orchard… no, there’s no lighting there, and I don’t really want to put any either. No, if a light comes on, they will cover their faces and scarper. I want to catch them red-handed.
“Can you do all that? Do you have time? You might want to check with customs as well. Maybe send some of it back to us, and the shop and Lek’s mother’s address, Ayr will know what that is.
“OK, mate, sorry to be the bearer of ill tidings, but these things happen, apparently, not that they ever have to me before. Perhaps someone is jealous of falangs’ wives making a few bob… Lek didn’t say so, but it could be the case nevertheless. You know what they’re like, they never tell you everything anyway, do they?
“OK, Ross, give my love to Ayr, we’ll be looking forward to seeing you in ten days. Yes, OK, will do, I’m going to see her now, and don’t worry about the situation here, we’re doing what we can and are holding the fort. The security cameras will be a great deterrent, I hope, unless some bugger shoots them out, but it’s worth a go.
“Lek? Tell Ayr she’s fine. She’s coping really well, you know her. In fact, she’s sitting sentry duty outside the shop right now, but she has to sleep too and can’t be everywhere. I’ll suggest we get some of the boys to help tomorrow, but it’s too late to do that this evening. Lek only just told me what’s been going… this saving face thing can be a real pain, eh?
“Oh, well, you’ve got all that to come then, my friend and good luck to you with it. Bye for now, see you.”
Craig flicked Skype off and went back to Word, then he looked down at the rough book of his current novel for the next sentence to copy up. He couldn’t be bothered, the call of a beer was more inviting than the desire to add another thousand words to his computer copy. It was rare for him to feel like that, typing up work that he had already written out in longhand seemed like the worst job he had ever had. He knew what was coming next in the story, hated doing things twice and still couldn’t type after thirty years. He seemed to have a mental and a physical block on typing.
He stood up, left everything running as he always did, locked the doors and walked around the corner to Nong’s shop. It was only a couple of hundred yards away and she would want to close at nine or nine thirty, so he could catch up on his typing then.
“Hello, Nong, sabai dee mai, kap?” he asked, as he walked down off the road. She was dealing with a customer, but she held up a thumb to say she was well, and then a finger to ask if he wanted a beer. He nodded back. He laid a hand on Lek’s shoulder and then sat down opposite her at the new picnic-style, double-bench table that she had just had made. A piece of oilcloth had been nailed to the top of it to protect the hardwood, presumably from spillages and any rain that might blow in under the roof since there were no walls on the little shelter. He noticed right away that condensation from Lek’s bottle had created a puddle on the cloth, whereas it would have dripped through and dried up without the cloth. He wouldn’t have the heart to tell her that the oilcloth was a bad idea.
“No mafia yet then, Lek?”
“Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! They will come at three or four o’clock in the morning, not when everybody can see them!”
“Yes, I think that you are right. Would you like another beer, my dear?”
“I’m not sure, let me think… I could just sit here, stare at this empty bottle and waste my life, or I could have another one.”
Nong brought Craig’s beer.
“Lek auw eek kwat nung duay, kap – Lek wants another bottle too, please.” It was obvious that Lek was in a bad mood.
“Cheers, my dear!” They clinked bottles. “I rang Ross and ordered a few security systems. He’ll bring some back with him and post the others. The video cameras work on movement, so we will always be able to see anyone hurting your business. Ross says he’ll post them the day after tomorrow and they will bring the rest in ten days,
“So, what do you think? That should go a long way to solving your problem, shouldn’t it, telak?”
“Yes, Craig, very good. You do know that I was only joking about taking a lover, don’t you?”
“No, I didn’t really, but I bet it did cross your mind as an option, didn’t it?” He watched a dark cloud pass over her expression. “I don’t mean that you considered doing it… I just mean that the option probably crossed your mind and you said ‘no’ immediately, which I am sure you did, because you are a loyal and faithful wife, I know that.”
She smiled enigmatically, but did not give a reply, although he knew that he was right. After ten years of living with her, he knew that Lek thought of most things.
When Nong brought Lek’s beer, Craig tried another idea.
“Khun Nong, khun loo layoo wah Ayr mee penha tee baan? Phom yahk wah mah khun bai non tee baan khun Ayr wahn nee, OK, mai?.”
Nong looked at Craig quizzically, and then at Lek, who said it properly.
“He’s trying to say: ‘You know that Ayr had a problem in her house,’ – he means the break-in – ‘I want your dog to sleep in Ayr’s house tonight, OK?’.”
Craig knew what was going on and listened carefully, as he always did, but couldn’t notice the subtle changes Lek had had to make to render it intelligible to a Thai who didn’t know him as well as Lek.
“Is that what you want, Lek?” asked Nong.
“It is not my idea, but it might help.”
“Yes, all right, when do you want to put him in there?”
“Mmm, have you fed him yet, and what time are you going to close?”
“I fed him two hours ago, and I will probably close at nine, but if you buy a few beers, you can still sit here and drink them. That is not a problem. Things are pretty quiet tonight, eh?”
Nong called Milo over and picked him up. He was a fully-grown, chocolate-coloured poodle cross, which stood a foot tall, but he was brave and would bark at anything that moved within four yards of him at night.
Milo would be the ideal guard dog, not because he was much of a threat, but because he would make enough row to wake the neighbours up, should anyone try to enter the shop.”
“Will you be safe without Milo, Nong?” asked Lek.
“Yes, I’ve still got my 38 under my pillow and I can scream louder than Milo anyway.”
Nong and Lek walked over to the shop with Lek and dropped Milo inside the door as Lek opened it.
“I’ll just pop inside and put some water down for him. Thanks ever so much.” Nong started back to her shop, pleased that she could help out.
“No, problem, any time. I hate thieves.. the bane of my life, they are… kids nicking sweets, their parents taking petrol and forgetting to mention it… You’ve got to have eyes in the back of your head when you’ve got a shop like mine, you know…” She walked off still muttering.
“OK!” Lek regretted triggering one of Nong’s hobby horses, because she could go on about petty thieves for hours. However, it did give her an idea.
She locked up and rejoined Craig.
“You really should run these ideas past me first. You know that I don’t like people to think that we can’t cope on our own, I lose face again now a little bit. Thai people don’t tell people everything or ask for help – only from family. I don’t like Nong to know everything.”
“Jesus, Lek! She already knows you had a break in! She already knows that there is not much you can do until Ayr gets back, so what is the problem? She lent you her dog? Big problem, eh?
“I just solved a problem for you… OK? Now, tomorrow you can get two of the boys to sleep in there and give Milo back! In fact, you should have organised that today already! Capiche? Lighten up will you?
“Not everyone has got a scorecard at the ready to deduct points from your face-count whenever you do anything.”
“Are you finished ranting now? That is what I said, you do not understand Thai people, because that is exactly what they do, especially in a village. Oh, they don’t have score cards like in ice skating, but they have very good memories… believe me, and so do I.”
Craig knew that he shouldn’t have made that last remark, because he did believe her.
“Yes, all right, love, I’m sorry for saying that, I didn’t really mean it, but you can’t criticise me for not helping and then shout at me when I do. It’s not very fair, is it? I might just as well crawl behind my desk and stay there – and say nothing!”
“Sometimes, it would be better, I think so too… I was just talking to Nong and she has a bee in her bonnet about theft from her shop, so why don’t you order one of those security set-ups like they use in the 7/11’s and sell it to her. You said you could order one from China through eBay, didn’t you?”
“OK, but she is a bit mean, what if she doesn’t take it?”
“If she doesn’t, one of the other shops will and there are at least ten well-off families that might as well. In, fact, order two or even three, with video cameras that can be linked to the Internet. Don’t worry, I’ll sell, you just install them. You can do that, can’t you? Good, no-one else around here is doing it yet.” Lek started to enumerate the likely local customers under her breath in the strange way she had of counting on her fingers starting with the thumb on her right hand. “I think we can sell at least ten, maybe fifteen, telak, what do you think? Good idea or no?”
“It sounds good to me, I’ll order them tonight. I know that many, many people in the village are on the Internet now, because I get so many Facebook friend requests from people here. Last year there were only a few in total, but now there are a few every week. Yes, it sounds like a very good idea.”
“Internet is still new here, people don’t know about eBay and don’t have credit cards and don’t trust to send money to China to someone they don’t know for alarms. They don’t understand yet, but Thai people are not stupid, they will learn quickly, we must do it first.”
“Yes, OK, telak, I get the picture. I’ll get on to it as soon as Nong kicks us out of here.”
The next morning, Lek got up at six fifteen, as usual, showered, made a bowl of rice soup for breakfast out of leftovers and took it in a flask to their shop, Northern Farming Supplies. She was normally there by seven anyway, but she wanted to let Milo out before he got desperate and had an accident. She opened up, set him free and sat at the small concrete table outside to have her meal.
They had two gangers running their workforce, Da and Bot, both of them from Mae Sot, as were most of the workers. Da was slightly senior, so she phoned him.
“Good morning, Da! Everything all right?”
“Yes, Khun Lek, we are already out. We’ve got the guys out in the fields as arranged yesterday… rebuilding the boundary paths between the plots and we’ve got two teams cutting rice.”
“Good, good. Look a few things have cropped up, so when you’ve got everyone settled could you come up here to the shop? Bring Bot with you too, will you? You’ll have to phone him and let him know, because I am a bit busy right now. What time? Oh, before lunch, say, tenish…. Yes, righty-o, you do that then, ring Bot and then call me back. See you, bye.”
She took her bowl into the shop, swilled it and the flask out under the tap, put the coffee machine on, and then had a quick look around for dog muck, but there was none, so she clicked the computer on and started her day’s correspondence.
Most of the emails were junk as usual, but there were a few offers from new suppliers that had to be looked into when she had more time. She quickly created a few rules that would direct them to the Suppliers’ Folder in her Inbox in the future and dragged and dropped those emails into the folder manually. Requests for work were dealt with in a similar fashion, and then she came across an email the like of which she had never seen before.
“Get out of the rice business! If you don’t get out, we’ll TAKE YOU OUT! You have been warned!”
She had to read it a few times before it sank in that it wasn’t a joke and that it really was addressed to Ayr and her. It crossed her mind that Nong had a gun as well as a dog that she might need to borrow, but she put a brave face on, took up her ledger and started stocktaking.
Meanwhile, Craig was getting up too. He clicked on the coffee machine as he headed to the bathroom. The two mugs of water that he had put in there the night before had boiled by the time he came out, so he made his first mug of instant, took down the biscuit tin, and went into his office. He always left the laptop running, so he only had to move the mouse to bring it out of hibernation. He too ate his biscuits – three with each of the two mugs of coffee – drank his coffee and answered his emails, most of which were junk too, the same as for every other Internet user in the world.
He had nearly finished, when Facebook beeped to say that he had a message. It was Lek.
“If you have time, please come to the shop. I want your advice. Love Lek x”
It was an unusual message for Lek, but it didn’t sound urgent so he drained his coffee, went for a shower and got dressed. Then he poured another coffee, left it there to cool, locked the house up and walked the several hundred yards to the shop.
“What’s the problem, Lek? Everything OK?”
“I not sure, take a look at this email, telak. It came this morning, or last night.”
He wanted to correct her English, but sensed that it would not be a good time.
“That’s not very nice, is it? Do you think it’s serious? The timestamp says it came at one eleven this morning.”
“I don’t know, but I think that I have to treat it as serious because of what has been happening, don’t you? I tried to ignore it when I first read it, but I can’t, it keeps coming back into my head. What do you think we ought to do about it?”
“Let’s take a closer look. Sit down in front of the screen.” He pulled up a chair and sat to her right. “OK, right-click on the email item in the list, that brings up the metadata, let’s see what that can tell us. Email forgers and spammers usually blur this data so they can’t be traced… and? Hey, these people haven’t done that! Well, well, well. It shows that we’re either dealing with amateurs or fools. OK, put the cursor in that data, click ‘Control A’ and then ‘Control S’, open Notepad, put the cursor in there and click ‘Control V’. Good, now save it to the desktop. Now we have a copy of where the email came from and when.
“Now we can think about what we’re going to do with it.
“First, we can check who their ISP is… TOT, and who supplied their email address, and that is there, their website is called thaifarmingindustries.com and it is hosted by Hostgator, so, we can report them for abuse to those people and we can report them to the police as well. How far do you want to take it?”
“What do you think? I’m new to all this, I don’t know?”
“To be honest with you, this is the first time I’ve had to deal with a cyber death threat too, but I imagine that the procedure is the same as for spam. Oh, there’s another thing we can do, get their web site delisted at Google by issuing a DMCA.”
“A DMCA? You do what you think you can do, but try to make it look like it don’t come from us, OK? How you say, anonymouse?”
“Yes, that’s close enough for today. OK, I think I can manage that. If I were you though, I would use any contact I had in the Thai police force to find out how to report this, because it is serious abuse. They may be stupid, but they may be violent as well. So, if you like, I’ll email this metadata to the house and deal with it from there, while you scour the Thai police web site to find out how to report this. I can’t do it because it won’t be in English. There may be a few other things we can do too, I’ll have to have a think.”
“Will you be all right here alone? Do you want me to bring my laptop here and stay with you?”
“No, it’s not worth it, I’ll be OK. If they want me, they’ll get me, there’s not much you can do about that. Thanks though.”
At that moment, Da and Bot came in behind them and Lek jumped. Craig was worried for her.
“I’m sorry, Lek, but you can’t work here under these conditions. I’ve got an idea, why don’t you tell Da that you want two of his biggest men to work around the shop until Ayr and Ross get back?. They can repair those holed punts, repaint the outside or dig a garden for you. Plant some flowers – anything so that you are not here alone”
“I’ll think about it, telak…”
“No, you won’t, you will do it! I want to hear you tell them now. I can’t work at home knowing that you’re jumping out of your skin every time the doorbell rings. Go on, tell them.
Reluctantly, Lek did as she was asked, but without giving Da a reason why. Da said that he would have them there after lunch, so Craig went home.
The first thing he did was address the problem of the death threat. He had taken it more seriously that he had let on to Lek – he was really very worried about it, but he knew how far he could go was limited.
He did all he had told Lek he would do, but also left a request for help message on the FBI web site, because the site was hosted in America. Then he wrote an anonymous message complaining about a death threat from the owner of the web site on the Thai police helpline, giving the man’s address.
Craig pulled his rough book into eyesight and changed to Word to continue typing up when he had one more idea to help Lek and ease his mind. He took down Bpom’s lead, and walked him around to the shop.
“Here, Lek, our last precaution, Bpom wants to help as well.”
“Aw, Craig! I haven’t got time to look after him, serve customers and do everything else, please, take him home! Besides, two men will be here after lunch, so there really is no need.”
“Tough, you’ve got him now, and if you refuse, you’ll hurt his feelings. Look, he’s on a lead and we can tie this length of rope,” he said, taking a hank of rope off a shelf. “to that and tie him to the back door. That way, you won’t get any surprises from Ayr’s flat –you can forget about it. You’ll only have to watch the front door and the boys will help there… All right, love?
“I am satisfied that there is nothing more we can do for now, OK, so if you take Bpom, I will go home and leave you in peace. Good, I’ll tie him up around the back, give him some water and get out of your hair. I love you my dear, and don’t want anything to happen to you, because I don’t know what I would do without you.”
“All right, all right, you win, I’ll see you in Nong’s for a beer at seven, as usual. Now go, please, go and do some work.”
“OK, I’m going, bye telak, I love you.”
Lek blushed at such a demonstration of affection before strangers, and Craig, realising it too late, made a rapid exit past a bewildered Da and Bot out of the front door with their dog.
You can buy The Lady In The Tree from the bookshop in the title bar.