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. Part 1 is here.
Thawda was a firm believer in the 24 hour rule of homicide and they were running at hour 18. The idea that cases became harder to solve after 24 hours was a new one to policework, and had been popularized in France before moving over to Konbuang, but it was one that in Thawda’s fifteen years of experience seemed to be true.
So they went to find Nilar Le, the 4th and final name on the list. Le lived at 419 Zhou Place. 419 was unique compared to some of the tenement blocks that Thawda had been to. It was a crumbled warehouse that had been converted into an apartment complex. Very haphazardly and only in a madman’s view organized. As they approached As the hour was spinning close to 3:30, none of the shifts were in progress, and the area was the quietest of the 4 buildings that they had visited that day. The veritable tide of people that had been ever-present in the other areas was not present here. Khin asked
“What if nobody is home?”
“Well, she works the evening shift, so she will be sleeping. Now my question is if we have anyone else home. Husband or wife likely will try to work the same shift so they can be together.
So let’s hope they are both sleeping so they don’t pull a gun on us.”
They slipped through the main door into a dimly lit corridor;a few open doorways where mostly old ladies folded laundry or watched gaggles of children who played with a motley assortment of toys. The elderly would usually watch the children of the working class and do laundry. Thawda picked a particular old lady who was watching over three children. He bowed his head in respect for the long life the woman had led, and said as he tossed a few coins to the old woman
“May your days be kind grandmother, if I may trouble you, where does Nilar Le live?”
The old lady vanished the coins into the tattered robe as she cleaned a child’s hair with a brush. She said in a raspy voice
“I don’t like that one. She lives in 242”
“Thank you grandmother”
Khin looked shocked at Thawda’s turn of attitude towards the people they found here and Thawda said
“Place reminds me of where I grew up. It’s all about how you approach people. The workers all likely have something they are guilty about. They assume that we are there to bust someone up for what they might think shouldn’t even be a crime. Here with the grandmothers and the others who watch the kids, a coin and a kind word is the best way to get what we want.”
“You grew up in a slum sir?”
“I got lucky, joined the army and did 6 years in the Solomon islands, and the border skirmishes with Tsan. Mustered out after a Hmong Bandit carved up my shoulder with a ritual kim knife. Got married, got my parents and my siblings out the slum. Married up actually, so I got real lucky. What about you rookie?”
“Parents are farmers out near Pyay, I’m the youngest of 3 brothers and two sisters. Simply wouldn’t be many interested women or land for me to inherit so I headed here about 5 years ago. Ended up signing up for the Police. My girl and I…well we live in a place not much better than here. I want to make her a better life for her. She does not have much as both her parents were taken by the last outbreak and her brother is in the navy.
“Good man. It’s a good reason to take the examination, the salary it brings. The better home you can build. When your children eventually greet you with a smile when you come home. Our job at times can be shit, but it's worth the work we do.”
Khin was quiet and the two men found a staircase, covered in shadow and a dim glow of afternoon light from some grimy windows covered in all manner of dirt. Finally, Khin nodded
They climbed the stairs and Thawda pondered what other advice he could give the younger man. He had done good work and deserved the honest truth. Clever and motivated, he would probably pass the Inspectorate exam. Dark take him Thawda might actually help the kid study. He was sure he had his old study materials in the attic or something. He said
“Look, the Inspectorate is hard work. You tramp around the city. When you’re a beat cop you have your area. You stop purse snatchers, ask a few questions, solve some one day problems.
Maybe even haul in a few drunken tourists or lay out some cheeky fucker who gets pushy with a waitress. But when you got your badge, you never know what bullshit you will wake up to in the morning, if you’re going to kick in the door of a day laborer or politely question a merchant matriarch. You don’t also know if you’re going to find a severed head, a rape victim or a gang execution. You solve it. Because this is our city and we keep it safe. But look kid, you got a good head on you. Toughen up a little and you will be fine. Also, and always remember, we serve at her Imperial Majesty's pleasure.”
Thawda gestured to a portrait of the Empress, a relatively clean image that had been painted on the wall. It was crude, a blend of many different styles of many street artists and other inhabitants adding to it. Despite using only some basic cheap paints, it was a beautiful image. It showed the Empress upon the throne of sorrows, her hair framed by the melted iron of the enemies that had fallen before Konbuang. One hand held a staff, and a sword lay over her lap. The staff that kept the keys locked to the outer dark, and the sword that cleaved the heads of Konbuang’s enemies. She was glad in a flowing gown of blue and gold, and wore a glittering crown of starlight.
It was a stylized, religious image common to the lower classes. A throwback to old legends that the Empress was a divinity in and of herself. Even as crazy as Yangon was at times, it was a belief that would never truly die. People in Konbuang had access to unprecedented wealth, they had opportunities like never before. The Empress even made more public appearances then any previous ruler in history. She was a real figure, instead of a distant idea in a far off city. She had walked their streets, spoken with the people. They prayed to her in times of trouble as much as the Gods. Thawda had even seen her once himself. From a distance, but it was an image that would stick with him for a long time. He had seen her, flanked by the blademaster and her bodyguards ride into Hanoi after the city had fallen. It was just a glimpse, but it was a moment that would stick with him for the rest of his life.
“This city is her will made manifest. It is our job to protect it.”
They climbed up the stairs to the second level of the old warehouse. The stairs creaked as they stepped, they were made of a rough set of boards that would have been added after the warehouse was built. If Thawda was to guess, this building had been actually built before the chalk reforms. An old warehouse of the French trading companies that had once frequented parts of coastal Konbuang, repurposed for a new era. He looked at Khin as they came to 242. The Rookie should be able to handle it.
“You take the lead Rookie, you’ve seen me do enough of these today”
Khin pulled his baton from his belt loop and tapped it on the door, calling out to whoever was on the other side.
“Open up! Police! Empress’ business!”
They heard a scrambling and Khin copied the move that Thawda had used on the first house and used his baton to smash off the door handle. The slag metal handle fell off and clanked down the hallway as the door swung open to reveal another tiny flat. Khin sprinted for the small window that was just big enough for the small woman dressed in an old night shirt to climb out of. The woman was young and in good shape she would have likely been able to climb out of it and scale down the side of the building and make a run for it. Thawda supposed that the Gods only knew where in Yangon she would have gone. Her husband, a big man who judging by his tattoos was a longshoreman of some sort took a swing at Thawda. It was a wild haymaker, great in a bar fight, but useless against someone who knew how to fight. Thawda himself knew several styles of combat, having learned to fight in the streets of the spoil and honed it in the army. He ducked under the blow, crashed his boot onto the man’s toes, and slammed his fist into the man’s solar plexus. The man went down groaning as Khin had slung the woman over his shoulder and away from the window. She yelled at him
“Fuck off! I did nothing wrong.”
Khin said as he dropped her and reached for a pair of handcuffs.
“Then why did I drag you back out a window?”
Thawda laughed as the man gave him the finger. Thawda pulled out a set of cuffs and said
“It is staggering to me Rookie, that people cannot even come up with a good excuse for what they have done. Only obscenities.”
He turned to Khin
“Alright rookie, let's bring them in. Even if they didn’t do it, we’ll haul them in for wasting police time and taking a swing at a police officer”.
Khin had cuffed Nilar Le’s hands behind her back, and Thawda had made absolutely sure her husband’s hands were behind his back. Even slightly dazed from the beatdown Thawda had delivered, the man was a full head taller than either of them and was built like a human being had a child with a steamhauler. While Khin kept the pair under guard, Thawda took the time to toss the apartment. At first he found much of the same, cooking pots, clothing, pornography, pulp magazines, cigarettes, the usual distractions of the working class. But hidden inside a loose floorboard was an envelope containing a decent sheaf of 20 and 100 bhat notes. The presence of 100 bhat notes in a workers flat was already telling. Most establishments that catered towards the denizens of this location would not even break a 100. He quickly counted it.
“We got 1600 Bhat right here. 6 months’ salary for a servant, even a good one. Shit that’s a month’s salary for me. ”
Thawda watched Nilar Le try to come up with an explanation, her previous expression of outrage replaced with fear. Finally she managed to stammer out a very half assed explanation.
“We’re good at saving.”
“Dogshit, nobody is this good. If you somehow were you also would be living somewhere better then here. Plus this is all fresh, right out of a bank vault. If you had saved it over a few months you would have a bunch of crumpled 10s and 20s. This is a payoff. You killed Lady Kiang. If you confess, maybe I can get the Magistrate to give you time at a labor camp. Otherwise you're both going to swing for this.”
Thawda was lying about the longshoreman, but neither of them knew it. Best they could probably get him for was aiding and abetting, but if the Magistrate was feeling vindictive that was still 5 to 10 in the Kra canal project. Khin and Thawda perp walked the two out of the building to the look
the apartment. No matter where he was or what their status was, Thawda always found people liked watching an arrest. The neighbors didn’t seem overly upset, which was a nice change as Thawda had had fruit thrown at him more than once for arresting someone well loved by their neighbors. But Nilar and the unnamed husband had evidently been nobody's friend.
Thawda looked around once they were outside, and spotted one of the many street urchins in Yangon. Most of them were grimy, and lived lives of begging and pickpocketry until they were picked up and taken to an orphanage or a workhorse. Or if they happened to be older, grabbed by a naval press gang.
The kid looked up from his spot where he had been begging by the side of the road. He was covered in soot and grime, and clad in rags. He said as Thawda scribbled a note on his notepad, ripped it off.
“What did I do sir, I did nothing wrong, I am just a beggar”
“No, take this message and 2 bhat to the nearest cop house”
“One now, one when the welcome wagon shows up”
The kid grinned
And he ran off after Thawda tossed him a coin and gave him a paper. The 87 was only a block or two from here, and they would likely have a meat wagon to use. The use of street urchins was Yangon’s unofficial police messenger service. The other options took much longer and involved finding a bike messenger which was not always easy. Also paying a bike messenger came out of Thawda’s bribe budget for the month and that was a pain in the ass.
While Thawda had been working with the urchin, Khin had been talking to the prisoners, who were seated on the curbside. The longshoreman was still clutching his foot and still in a great deal of pain from Thawda’s boot. Thawda would have to be potentially careful, that guy hadn’t done the killing and likely could get out in a few years. A man that large and angry could hold a grudge for a long time. Especially if his wife ended up getting the mother's mercy. Khin stepped away and spoke quickly to Thawda as the Investigator walked back over.
“She told an interesting story. Said three figures in cloaks paid her, met up with her outside of a bar on 77th. They never told her why they wanted it, just gave her the money for it and the poison. She was too scared to not go through with it as she figured they would kill her if they took the money and didn’t follow through.”
“Confessed that easily, I don’t buy it, even if it’s an attempt to dodge the hangman there is going to be more to the story. ”
“I don’t buy it either sir, but I thought it was a place to start. It could certainly have been some political enemy of the Lady Kiang who had her killed. They are choosing the next Mayor of Yangon and she did sit on the council.”
Thawda was impressed. The rookie evidently read the papers.
“It’s a good start, and maybe we get more, maybe we don’t. Regardless though we will sweat them overnight and keep them separate. Haul them back in in the morning and see what they say. Gods beyond I wish I could get away with dangling one of them over the Irradaway Bridge, but new rules. Whatever, we will put them where they can see the old torture tools they keep in one of the basement storage closets.”
Thawda glanced at his watch and swore. It was 4:30 and he had to be across town by 8. Which also still involved buying a gift and changing. This was going to be a problem. At least he was going to avoid the arrest paperwork, and Khin needed the collar bonus much more than he did.
“You know what Rookie. It’s your lucky day and you’re going to look real good to the Lieutenant, this is going to go in as your collar and me assisting, capture bonus is going to be yours.”
“Yes…sir?” Khin was startled.
“I'm about to be late. I need to still go buy a gift. Haul these two in. Give this note to the Lieutenant. He knows, but this will outline everything. I still need to figure out what I’m buying.”
Khin scribbled a few words on a piece of paper from his notepad, the pencil writing rough on the lamppost as he saw a wagon turn the corner, and the urchin sprinting back. Thawda nodded and tossed the kid a second coin as he finished the note. He passed the note to Khin.
The Meat wagon itself had the nickname because in older times before sacrifices became fully voluntary, arrested suspects had just as much chance of ending up in a temple as an offering as jail. The meat wagon was a big two part carriage with a back area with lockable form the outside doors and no windows for the prisoners, and then an open area for the coppers to sit behind the driver. Some countries would have left a window for prisoners to at least get a glimpse of sunlight. Konbuang was not one of those countries.
As Khin was getting the prisoners to their feet, he said “Sir could you buy one of those new iron stoves?” Thawda realized that it was a really good idea. He and his wife had gotten one a few months ago and despite how dirty they were, they did make life much easier.
“Good thinking Kid, now go. Meet you at the Precinct in the morning and we can keep working on getting this thing fully solved.”
The prisoners were shoved into the back of the meat wagon. Khin shut the back door and climbed up into the bucket seat next to the driver. Khin tossed a jaunty salute and Thawda considered the long night of paperwork the Rookie had. Also the chances of actually solving who was behind the murder were very, very unlikely. This case smelled like a big pile way above his grade and may even be something that the men and women on the fifth floor of the five six. But he would do his job until the empty room decided the file was going to vanish.
Thawda stuck out two fingers and put his foot into the street, and a pedicab pulled over fairly quickly. He got in and gave an address near his house where he knew a few of the shops had the stove. The Pedicab raced across the city, the short Karen man on the bike pumping his legs hard as he directed the cab like a madman through the teeming Yangon traffic. Thawda rarely indulged in pedicabs, considering them a usually unneeded expense when his badge got him a free ride on the bus system. Speed was of the essence tonight, and he would feel bad if he was late to his sister’s wedding.
He visited a purveyor of home appliances and the shop was the place where he had gotten the
stove for his own home. Thawda sort of barged into the shop and said a largely not sincere apology to a surprised customer looking at a washboard. He found the proprietor, an overweight balding man who said
“Honorable Detective, how can I help you?”
Thawda gestured to the stove
“How much, delivery included?”
“650 if you want delivery”
“I want it.”
“Not a problem sir, we will deliver at 11”
He pulled bills out of a billfold, and was given a receipt and a promise that the item would be delivered to his sisters in the morning with the address Thawda provided. He got back to his pedicab and the driver got him home in an impressive enough amount of time that Thawda tipped the man an extra bhat. Thawda and his family lived in a respectable middle class bungalow amidst a row of other dwellings similar dwellings, the new abode of Konbuang’s middle class. A couple of rooms, a yard, a good neighborhood where you didn’t need to sleep with one eye open and the air didn’t carry the often pungent aroma of the industrial revolution in Konbuang.
As he came in, Meang called out from where she was doing her makeup before a vanity.
“My parents have the kids and your suit is in the closet”
Thawda quickly changed into his formal Taikpon Eingyi, grateful to be out of uniform for a while. It was a nice change to get away from work and when he was in uniform his relatives kept trying to get him to make their municipal fines go away. He never did it, even for family.
Outside he took Meang’s hand and he considered that they made a nice image. Thawda in his modern cut jacket, the European style shirt with the traditional jacket on top, his black hair just starting to show a few grey streaks. Meang in a lovely silken green hitamin she had bought for the event as well as her heels. She had put her hair up with a series of little silver hairpins that glittered in the fading light of the evening. She was trying out raised heels which were a new trend, but she wore them well. He hailed a new pedicab and gave them the new address. The pedicab deposited them in front of the small park where the wedding was taking place. The park was attached to one of the local shrines to the Mother, and was maintained as a space for events like this, rentable for the middle class to hold a wedding or other event. Even now It was a riot of colors as dusk fell. The women were in colorful dresses and light hitamens, the men in Taikpon Eingyi cut in the new hybrid style. The air was thick with the smell of perfumes and cooking meat from the big grill. People were laughing and the bride and groom were waiting at the entrance. He was really happy to see his sister so happy and he liked her soon to be husband.
He hugged both of them and gave them the card with the receipt.
“So happy for the both of you! Got you a stove, one of the new iron ones, should be here in the morning. If it doesn’t turn up just let me know and I’ll turn down the guys shop upside town for fraud”
His sister Eindra hugged him as she laughed
“Thanks big brother, always the problem solver!”
As Eindra went to talk to Meang for a moment, Htet, the burly railroad engineer that had stolen his sisters heart, shook his hand.
“Thanks…soon to be brother in law, criminals cowering from the blade of the Empress’ justice?”
“Same people trying to run and we bring them in. How’s the railyard?”
“Oh same old, every day something new and surprising, but I couldn’t take anything else. We’re getting some new engines that promise to cut down the cross country trip to Saigon by 3 days.”
“That would be fantastic, hey have you seen my mother?”
“She’s over by the snacks”
He looked around and saw Meang lost deep in conversation with a couple cousins, and he walked over and found his mother. His mother was hunched, hair grey from age and the ravages of time. She could leave the spoil but the spoil never left her. Even though her husband and his father had been taken by bloodlung a few years ago, she still diligently worked the haberdashery that Thawda had helped pay to open, and she had grown into a great business.
She was building herself a tray of little sweet cakes and went to sit down at one of the tables as Thawda followed her over
“Hi Mother, negotiations with Htet’s mother go well”
“Oh yes. Got a smoke for your mother?”
He chuckled and flipped open the pack and lit one. The wedding negotiations were largely ceremonial in this day and age, at least amongst the middle class. In days long by the husband's family would have paid a husband price to the matriarch of the bride's family, the bride's family would have given a gift of an appropriate value. That was from the days where a man’s value was mostly measured in manual labor and fulfilling army conscription requirements. Still he figured his mother gave Htet’s mother a new hat or something and Htet’s mother cooked his mother a fine set of soups. Some traditions must be kept.
She asked as she puffed on the cheroot that Thawda had pulled for her
“Busy day of catching the bad guys?”
“Caught the murderer, but I do not think we will find who was responsible. I mentored a kid who will make a good detective.”
Thawda’s mother laughed as more guests trickled in. She knew about Thawda’s mouth and knew that if he was on mentorship duty he had said something stupid he couldn’t talk his way out of it.
“Your mouth will be the death of you. Ah the number of times I cleaned up your scrapes because of the fights you got in as a kid. Meang must grumble about getting the bloodstains out of your uniforms” Thawda laughed, but his mother was largely right. He had been in a lot of fights as a kid in the spoil. Now if he was in a scrap, as long as it was minor it was Meang tutting at him as she cleaned the cuts and scrapes off, chiding him for not being more careful as a senior investigator.
“I get it from you Mom, I bet your negotiations with Htet’s mother were pretty fun to watch.”
“Ah my son they were. But, she did a good job driving the price down. When I was a little girl, a good man like Htet would have come with 100 bhat and a couple of chickens. Now it was 10 bhat, a chicken and a pair of tickets to Mandalay. I’m also making Htet’s mother a new hat.”
The ceremony began with a single strike of a brass gong, calling the attention of the guests and the spirits present in this place. Thawda and Meang sat in the front row of metal chairs provided by the temple, next to their mother. He wished his brother could be here, but his ship was on station at the naval cordon line near Kuching, and he hadn’t been able to get leave. Even as tired as Thawda was, he could feel how lovely of a ceremony it was. The bridge and groom were escorted up to the Priestess of the mother, clad in her white robes who stood before the shrine. As weddings it was not cripplingly expensive, but it was a nice ceremony. His mother had paid for the food, while Htet’s parents had paid for the Priestess's time and the decoration. But he knew the ceremony had a major significance for Thawda’s mother, as it was a chance for her to show off the family's money. She still was a little ticked off that Thawda and Meang had been married by a military priest the night before Thawda shipped out to the Tsan Border. Meang’s parents being of an older merchant bloodline had been less than pleased that their daughter had eloped. Time and grandchildren had largely healed that rift.
The Priestess said
“We are gathered here, as the dusk begets the merging of the waking and dreaming worlds to celebrate the renewal of life. The moving forward of a couple to continue life as two who will become one….”
She went on for a while, Thawda silently admitting he was rather exhausted and only half listening. He was getting older and he knew that before too long he couldn’t sprint and get into street fights like he had 5 years ago. He apologized silently to the Goddess for the minor disrespect, but he generally figured when he got to the white city he would be explaining to its guards about just why he had always not been exactly a model believer of the faith. But he snapped back after the vows as the bride and grooms hands were bound and .
“May this binding unite you in flesh”
Then the Priestess pricked each of their hands with a needle, and dabbed a tiny drop of the others blood on their foreheads
“And the blood unite you in spirit”
“From this day until the end of days, you are one. By the power vested in me by the Great Mother, the Empress Aung Win and district prefecture 11 of the Yangon Metropolitan Area, I pronounce you man and wife.”
The crowd cheered, and stood up as the music began playing. Big hunks of meat were carved off of the cow roasting over the open fire and Thawda watched the crowd, then turned towards the city lights of Yangon. The part itself was on a hill so he could see more of the city. One day in Yangon was done, and done well. People were behind bars, a young man was showing some real promise, and his little sister got married. But out there, Yangon never slept, and it would be there in the morning
Zachary Lynn is the Author of Three Days in Yangon published by Sea Lion Press