By Zachary Lynn
This is the first part of a two part short story, which acts as a prequel to the Sea Lion Press Novel 'Three Days in Yangon'. If you enjoy this, you can find more like this in that book.
The great dhammazedi bell clanged six times and the sun rose over the teeming masses of Yangon. Many within the ever growing metropolis could remember l when Yangon had been a sleepy port city on the edge of a decaying Empire. The great harbor was now crowded with ships from a dozen nations, and the city streets teemed with visitors ranging from France to Azatlan. Merchants bellowed prices while they competed with Priests of every possible known deity, even some that likely had their genesis in the streets of Yangon. The sky was a perpetual yellow haze from the factories and shipyards. From shoes to warships, the factories of Konbuang never tired. Neither did those whose crimes preyed upon the more honest citizenry. Back before the chalk reforms, the ward banners had been legalized thugs who preyed upon all those who couldn’t pay. In the new Konbuang, they were men and women dedicated to the public order…or were simply looking for a better job than the drudgery of a factory.
Detective Inspector Linn Thawda leaned against an oil lamp post, smoking a cheroot cigarette and hoping his headache would go away. He was, all things considered, not having a good morning. The acrid smoke of his cigarette woke him up and focused his mind from the morose state found it in. His youngest daughter had been up for half of the night with a bad toothache, and had screamed through most of the night. He was running on a breakfast of cheroot cigarettes and coffee, and wished he could have just told the Captain he was taking his three year old to the doctor.
Meang had decided to do it, her position as the manager at a bank allowing her a level of flexibility. Also after he had been overheard making some rather uncomplimentary remarks about Captain Zhou, he was under an official reprimand. Powering through his headache and shaking sleep from his mind, he dragged himself into work. He had faced down Viet counter battery fire and he would deal with Captain Zhou.
Lieutenant Khoun informed him at the office that there had been a poisoning at a wealthy citizens party for the summer conjunction, and he was to work the case. Which was fine, his beat was homicide and he did it damn well. His punishment however was mentorship; babysitting some new blood applying for an Inspectorate badge, clawing their way up from beat cop. Thawda preferred working alone, except when he dragged beat cops along to muscle up gangsters or raid anopium house. He was a hard man and he worked alone.
That had collapsed when some sniveling weasel from payroll had overheard him tell Nhea that “Captain Zhao is a political ass kisser who couldn’t solve the crime of who took his teabags, let alone anything actually important.” He was at least understandably mad as half the 56 had been chewed out by the Captain over “food theft” from the shared kitchen. Thawda had been reported for being uncooperative and insubordinate, and had thus been reprimanded. The Captain knew that Thawda hated helping people and dodged every drive for mentors he could, and Thawda had accidently ended up playing right into his hands. He would at least do his best to make sure that the cycle of political ass kissing was not perpetuated.
He appraised the fresh faced young man walking up to him. Shorter, with slicked back black hair, wearing a beat cop’s yellow smock. He had seen the rookie around the 56 before but never met him in person. Plenty of young men who wanted 500 baht a month signed up to be a beat cop. If the kid wanted a life that was more than smacking people with a truncheon, directing traffic and corralling drunken tourists, then the Gods’ blessing to him. He looked at the kid, politely ignored that he was only 10 years younger than him.. and asked as he lit a cigarette off his burning stub, grinding the first one under his boot.
“Want a cigarette rookie?”
“No thank you inspector, I don’t smoke.”
“You will eventually if your wife doesn’t kill you for it. I’m Inspector Linn Thawda and you’re going to be following me around until I decide you're either not cut out for this shit, or you got what it takes to get your inspector’s cap.”
While the beat cops went bareheaded and just wore a yellow smock over street clothes, the Inspectors wore a light blue uniform and a peaked military style cap. Thus earning the cap was the metaphor for becoming an inspector.
“Alright, so hopefully the Lieutenant gave you some basic notes. Tell me what you know as we visit the bakery.”
Khin pulled out a notepad and Thawda nodded respectfully. The Rookie had at least come prepared to learn something. Thawda had his own notepad and pencil in a pocket of his light blue uniform.
“Yes Inspector, of course inspector. Lady Yadana Kiang was murdered last night at the home of Kaung Omar, owner of several merchant vessels. Kuang Omar is a man of means and his vessels specialize in the trade routes between Konbuang and the Far East Republic, as well as Canada and Azatlan. The party itself was for the spring conjoining, but the murder occurred during the dinner, before the clothes came off. He’s been cleared but I assume that we are tracking down names from the party. What’s the bakery connection?”
The pair went inside the small bakery where Thawda ordered a couple of mantou buns and a cup of javan coffee. The bakery itself was an early morning madhouse as the pair pushed past a couple of French tourists looking at the sanwei makin cakes, a gaggle of university students buying tarts, and some bannermen from the 56 buying milk tea. Thanks to Thawda’s blue uniform and cap badge, not to mention intense scowl, people got out of his way. Thawda passed the harried looking Shan baker some bhat and got his bag of mantou buns and coffee in a wax cup. Finally as they stepped back out of the dull roar of the shop, Thawda said
“Not a damn thing. I slept 4 hours last night and now I’m back here pounding on doors, I got my kid sister’s wedding at 8 PM. I’m hungry and tired. You getting anything?”
Khin managed to look surprised at Thawda’s sudden regard.
“Uh…no thank you Inspector, late night at the bars?”
Inspector Thawda munched on a mantou bun “Nah, no bars, just a late night and a screaming
kid. Wife is getting her to the doctor today. Anyway, Suit yourself…mhmmm, and knock off the yes inspector, no inspector bullshit.”
Khin looked at the notepad where he had a list of names. The most likely suspects had been divvied up, with the most promising ones given to Thawda, and a few ancillary names had been tossed over to some of the bannermen who could use big words and be relied on to ask questions without their truncheon.
“Mon Vu, serving girl, 18 Rue Haiphong In…Sir”
The street corner was a stop on a major omnibus route. There was supposed to be an electric street car service going up, but when it would actually happen was the bigger question. The Omnibus clattered to a stop, the 8 horse team coming to a neighing halt as a stream of passengers got off from the back, and the two inspectors climbed on, flashing badges to skip the fare, but resigning them to the bucket seats on top set aside for cops.
Thawda looked out over the streets as they passed a procession to the black goat and Goddess mother of Konbuang. A giant gong was drawn by 6 horses on a wheeled cart, and even as a Priestess rang a call, masked revelers danced around the cart. Other Acolytes of the Mother spun censors of sweet incense, calling out for passerby to come to the great renewal of life at the temple complexes. Many would of course take it, for having a child conceived on the eve of the convergence was a good omen before the Mother. He himself was not overly religious, keeping to the Gods but largely only showing up to temples when his wife dragged him. He also generally felt orgies were a younger man’s event. He turned to his new follower
“Are you armed?”
“I have my truncheon sir”
“No, I have a knife though sir”
“Good enough. Learn to shoot when you can. If you’re a beat cop you don’t need a gun, but once you get the cap you will. Of course you have to buy your own”
Thawda indicated the snubnosed .38 in a shoulder holster and the two rapid reloaders he kept in a belt pouch. Khin changed the subject, an attempt at making casual conversation.
“If I may ask, what did you buy for your sister’s wedding present?”
“Not sure, it’s not been a big week for me planning, rookie. But fuck it, you got a good suggestion? Oh, wait, here we go.”
18 Rue Haiphong was a tenement block indistinguishable from the thousands of others that had grown in the urban sprawl, an architectural nightmare that catered and consumed the masses that flocked to the city in greater numbers with every passing month. Built to house workers for the industrial district that supplied the docks as well as the city pump station, they were thrown together with little concern for either aesthetics or municipal health, their substandard construction leaving them towering and unpleasant looking. The air around the building was thick with soot and grime from badly ventilated cooking fires and a distinct tang of human waste stung the eyes. It must have been shift change hour, for the hallways were crowded with laborers, both fresh from their homes and exhausted from the evening shift. The night shift was
returning from the ritual drowning of their sorrows, returning to their angry wives even as the morning shift was heading out under the cloud of their own hangovers. The workers of this block primarily catered to the big military shipyard that served the Imperial Navy. Naturally, the workers shied away from police.
While most would be friendly with the yellow smock of a beat cop like Khin, the Navy blue uniform of an Inspector like Thawda rang alarm bells even in their ignorant and dulled brains. It meant someone was probably going to get knocked around and some doors kicked in, and while it didn’t carry the same existential dread as the cloaked men of the empty room, the people of the working classes still remembered the brutality of the banner houses. That and the police inspectorate still had widespread power to haul people in. While the Empress and the Imperial Diet banned torture without a warrant from the judiciary and suspects could request a pardoner, Inspectors like Thawda were under no obligation to be polite. His headache and long day did not help. As they walked, Thawda asked the young cop
“You like art?”
“Do you like art? I took my wife to the art exhibit at the Yangon art museum. They have a new exhibit of some shit called surrealism. It's from Portugal. All weird spirals and stuff. My wife loved it.”
“That’s good sir. I can’t say I’ve tried doing much with art”
“Well, I didn’t either but I really like the Impressionists. Find it relaxing. Take your girlfriend there. She’ll love it. You’ll grumble at first but you’ll find something you like.”
“Yes sir, just never tried it.”
Thawda chuckled as they walked
“Your girl will appreciate you trying a little more. When you're young you don’t have to try as hard. But keep things going. Just show you’re still interested.”
They passed through the narrow alleyways and crowded outdoor laundry and cooking fires. The bricks were stained with all manner of fluids, and chatter grew quiet while the two men passed the people by. The area was awash with the smell of sweat, alcohol and cooking fires. Dodging the street urchins and the obviously more intoxicated denizens, they approached several people on ground level. A building like this didn’t have a reliable record of who lived where, and landlords collected a weekly rent with a logbook door to door. Also a place like this it was faster to ask around then try to find whatever hole the landlord was hiding in. The two men had very different results, with Khin squatting down to ask men and women by a cooking fire “Excuse me, we are on the Empresses’ business, where is a Ms Mon Vu?” While Thawda would march up to people who looked scared of them and either grab them by the collar, or just get in their face “Dogfucker! Where is Mon Vu, she has committed a crime!”
Thawda got better results. For better or for worse, people still responded well to terror in this part of town. Thawda could admit to himself that he was taking out his rather poor evening on some of the populace, but it did get results.
As they walked he said
“Lesson one. We run this town. Be polite when you can, but the walls come up when they see
the uniform. Lots of people have an instinctual fear of authority and have so many guilty thoughts they will tell you precisely what you need to know. Me personally, I am not a cruel man, but this is how we get results. Maybe the days are changing, but for now, this is what we do. You have to make them think you will give them a swift kick in the side if they don’t tell us who we’re looking for. And be ready to follow through. But we got her address 219, the second 219.”
The first 219 was one the second floor. The second 219 was on the 7th floor. It was considered sacrilegious to have a 7th floor so they used the second floor again. It was either that or it had been a drunken lunatic building the place. Each of these was a distinct possibility in a city undergoing the out of control growth of Yangon.
It was a wonder that the building had not fallen over. Several other hastily built tenement apartment blocks in the city had fallen down because of cheated building codes. Thawda himself actually had a lot of sympathy for these folks considering the slum he had been born in. He had taken a great degree of pleasure when he had hauled in a builder who had cheated so badly a building had collapsed and killed 120 workers. However he kept his sympathy in check. The streets of Yangon were not usually the place for kindness. Both men were panting and a little sweaty by the time they got to the correct floor. The creaking and crooked stairwells were poorly ventilated, rather steep, and a fairly unpleasant climb even for two men in good shape.
They walked along the narrow hallway, not even wide enough for both men to walk side by side. At the correct door, Thawda raised a calloused fist and pounded on the door.
“Open up for the police! We need to speak to you.”
No answer as the men stood there. One door creaked open and a man peered slightly into the hallway, then hurriedly shut the door when Thawda glared at him. Thawda pulled his truncheon out of a belt loop as they heard the sounds of scuffling inside the room. Khin pulled him without Thawda saying anything. Thawda briefly considered if he had probable cause, and decided he did. So he muttered
“Oh fuck it”
Thawda swung his truncheon down on the burnished metal of the door handle, almost surprised it even had a lock on it. A shirtless man was grabbing for an iron bar and a woman in a shift was grabbing for a dull kitchen knife. Both of them were thin and haggard, looking 40 when neither was likely over 25. The dwelling itself was tiny, just a small bed barely big enough to comfortably fit two people, an iron bar for hanging a few sets of clothing, a small pile of magazines, some cooking pots hanging on a rack and…not much else beyond a chamberpot. Thawda had lived in such a place, but he had also shared it with 2 sisters and another brother. His had also been at street level, but that was scarce comfort in the spoil. Keeping his baton in his right hand, Thawda pulled up his detective badge.
“Police. Put down the weapons or I will take them from you.”
The two slowly placed their weapons on the bed and raised their hands, both wearing looks of fear. Thawda had seen it countless times before. Finally, the woman said, her eyes cast down.
“I am so sorry, I thought you were with the local gangsters. There is a street boss here named
Sai Fan and sometimes her heavies pretend to be police to rob people when people don’t buy enough of her goods during the month.”
Khin had pulled out his notepad and scribbled down the name, which was a good choice on his part. Thawda looked at the two people and asked
“How long has this been happening?”
“Three months now”
Thawda grunted. Oftentimes one case brought up 2 new ones. But this was something that couldn’t stand. Gangsters were a part of life, an endless battle between police and crime in Konbuang. But Gangsters wearing official colors of the government was an unacceptable tarnishing of the Empress’s servants.
“We’ll get someone on that, it is troubling citizens and we are glad you reported it. But we are here about the murder of Lady Kiang. She was poisoned at the dinner party you worked last night.” As they talked, Khin began rummaging through the couples’ few meager belongings, being more careful than Thawda would likely have been. Even as he piled stuff on the floor, it was depressingly dull. Not a single bit of contraband. Not even a proscribed magazine or chartist pamphlet. They found some money tucked in a small packet in a draw of undergarments, but neither man even for a second considered taking the money. Corruption in the police force still carried a sentence ranging from a labor camp in the Kra peninsula to the mother's mercy at Insein prison. Mon Vu sat down, leaning against the wall.
“I worked the party last night sir, but I did not kill Lady Kiang. I would not do that; she was very kind and I would have no reason to kill her. I had met her several times before that and she was always nice, giving me an extra few bhat for my troubles all the time. She was the same way with all the staff. Nobody would hurt her out of malice.” Her husband said
“I swear sir my wife would not do that. You have looked at our things. We have no poison, no reason for such a thing. I work at the steel mill and we just want to earn an honest living.”
Thawda around and nodded.
“I believe you. No motive, no method, nothing to indicate you are lying to us. We will leave. If you want reimbursement for the door, submit a claim to the 56 precinct. Tell the Sergeant that Thawda did it. She will expedite your claim.”
As they headed back down the narrow staircase, Khin asked
“So how did you know they didn’t do it sir, we barely questioned them?”
“Motive was financial. Lady Kiang was basically a guardian spirit of kindness. She and her husband founded schools, paid their servants 30% higher than the average and gave generously to just about every charity in the city. Whoever killed the lady at the party was paid by someone who did not attend but wanted them to die. So we have to find someone with material goods or money about their station. That’s going to be our murderer.”
“How did you figure out it was for money?”
“Good question Rookie. You ask the right ones. It is because if one of the ones at the party had done it, they would have done it themselves. Probably at the party themselves. This is the nobility. You and I, a good honor duel happens at the courthouse and it’s the talk of the week. The nobility live in a world different than us. I’ve been to the aftermath of a major argument at a nobles home while the mortician mummers were carting the bodies out. If one of them had done it they wouldn’t have been able to shut up about it. So it would have had to be one of the servants paid to make a hit. For money or to hide from retribution I would surmise.”
They passed through two more tenement apartments and finding nothing. The apartment blocks were much the same. Teetering monuments to the nonstop growth of Konbuang, with dreary lines of workings passing in and out. The people were poor workers from the factories, as well as cleaners and servants for the middle and wealthy class. Thawda himself imagined that his housekeeper lived in much a similar place like this.
As the great bell told for the lunch hour, Thawda made them stop for lunch at a street vendor selling short pork buns and bought some for himself and Khin. As they sat on a park bench, Khin asked
“Sir, you’ve been married for a while right?”
“14 years now, met her at a dance right after we took Hanoi back in 49. You thinking about making the bind with her.”
“Yeah, after I pass the exam”
“Good man. Want to know my biggest bit of advice for staying married”
“Yes sir that would be great”
“Don’t smoke in the house”
“Wait really? Not 'Don't bring your job home' or something?”
“So she will totally forgive you for that. But Gods beyond the wall if you fuck up the walls with smoke she will not forgive you. Oh also if you get drunk make sure she gets drunk with you. Her dealing with you when you're drunk will be a slow poison on your marriage.”
“Yes sir, thankyou.”
“No problem, pass the exam, get married and welcome to the middle class rookie.”
Zachary Lynn is the Author of Three Days in Yangon published by Sea Lion Press