Christopher G. Moore’s prize-winning series of crime novels set in Bangkok has been translated into eleven languages and critically acclaimed around the world. Featuring Vincent Calvino, a disbarred American lawyer working as a PI in the dangerous and steamy Thai capital, the books offer gripping plots, fascinating characters, and unparalleled insight into one of the world’s most entrancing cities.
In Paying Back Jack , Calvino agrees to follow the “minor wife” of a Thai politician and report on her movements. His client is Rick Casey, a shady American whose life has been darkened by the unsolved murder of his idealistic son. But what seems to be a simple surveillance job pulls Calvino into a quest for revenge, as well as a perilous web of political allegiance. Calvino narrowly escapes an attempt on his life and then avoids being framed for a murder only through the calculated lever-pulling of his best friend, Thai police colonel, Pratt. But unknown to our man in Bangkok, in an anonymous apartment tower in the center of the city, a two-man sniper team awaits its shot, a shot that will change everything. Paying Back Jack is classic Christopher G. Moore: densely-woven, eye-opening, and riveting.
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CALVINO'S LAST SPORTS jacket was ruined when Nicky "the Toad" Marras's blood splattered over the lapel and down the pocket. A couple of things to bear in mind about Nicky the Toad: he didn't die, as Calvino only punched him in the nose after the Toad had reached a knife hidden inside his boot. One of those fake Gurka knives sold by street-side vendors. The Toad had an affinity for blades. He pulled it when he got drunk and argumentative, or started getting mad over some contested World Series statistic. The year Joe DiMaggio was eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame and half a bottle of whiskey had set him off. It was the kind of thing the Toad could kill someone over.
Calvino's maid had sent the bloodied Gucci knockoff to the dry cleaner, and the dry cleaner had sent it back with a note. It seemed that Nicky the Toad's blood was as obstinate and mean as the man himself. Nothing could be done to remove the stain. They could sew on some patches, but it wouldn't look like an original Gucci anymore but more like a counterfeit tailored inside a Bangkok sweatshop. And that blurring of the distinction between an original and a counterfeit pretty much summed up Nicky the Toad, who'd watched too many gangster movies.
Calvino had moved on from that night in Bangkok, as had Nicky, back in New York. Calvino's law: After thirty years without any contact, an old school friend surprises you with a trip to Bangkok, gets loaded, starts coughing up old grievances, and reaches for a gun to settle scores; you may have to hit him hard and sacrifice a perfectly good sports jacket. Life was a series of blowbacks but blood is one that sticks to the clothes and to the memory.
A light drizzle outside cast a mid-afternoon gloom over the interior of Venice Tailors, a hole-in-the-wall Sukhumvit shop house tucked underneath the broad concrete arch of the Skytrain. Everyone said it was climate change that had made the weather weird, out of sync. Vincent Calvino stood in front of a floor-to-ceiling mirror at the far end of the shop. He was the only customer. With an election up in the air, no one had been spending. People held tight to their money, planning to use it for an emergency escape — except for Calvino, who had nowhere to escape to. Arms stretched out, eyes closed, he meditated and let his mind float. Circling around him was Tony, the Thai-Chinese tailor, a measuring tape draped around his neck, a piece of blue chalk in one hand. Slowly Tony removed the jacket from the wooden hanger, pulled it onto Calvino's left arm, swung it around, and then threaded Calvino's right arm inside. Grinning and bobbing his head, he admired the final work in the mirror. Only the name of the shop and the Italian posters had any real connection to Italy. Customers played along, pretending that Tony was actually a Tony and that he channeled a line of Italian tailors back to Leonardo Da Vinci.
Tony's assistant, an elderly Thai called Uncle, sat at the cutting table on a high stool, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. Uncle had liver spots sprayed on his neck and hands like he'd been hit by a double-barrel blast of buckshot. He drank green tea for energy and flashed nicotine-stained teeth. In front of Uncle were stacks of well-thumbed fashion magazines bought secondhand from service staff at five-star hotels. Zegna, Brioni, Kiton, and about every other high-end brand were in the glossy ads and editorial features. Tony studied these images the way a counterfeiter examined a hundred-dollar bill. Sadly, imitation was dismissed as second-rate. Tony had turned it into high art.
Tony signaled his assistant to switch on the lights. The overhead neon fixtures flickered, the light danced off the faded posters of Grand Canal, the Coliseum, and Palazzo Vecchio. Tony had never been to Italy, but that didn't matter much. He was a brilliant copyist. He'd mastered the ability to copy the fine detail from the silhouettes, using similar fabrics, and that was enough to come up with a replica that would have fooled the hardcore fashion-conscious New Yorker. Tony's reputation had drawn many customers.
"Don't look, boss," said Tony, who had slicked-back hair and a diamond pinky ring. Tony adjusted the shoulders and buttoned the middle button of the jacket. In the back of the shop Tony's wife sat on the floor with a couple of kids, watching a game show on TV.
Calvino opened his eyes and looked in the mirror. It had been Colonel Pratt who'd suggested it was time to up his game. Calvino was half- Italian, and convincing him to buy a stylish sports coat had taken no arm- twisting. Tony had made a perfect Brioni knock-off. It looked like a five- grand jacket — powdery blue with cream windowpane, a cashmere-and-silk blend, with dual back vents and hand stitching. Tony had worked his magic.
"Do you like?" asked Tony.
Calvino raised his arm, watching the sleeve rise slightly. "I fixed the sleeve from last time," said Tony. This had been the third fitting.
Tony yanked down on the back and the jacket tapered at the waist.
The assistant made a grunting laugh and gave the thumbs-up sign. "Very beautiful, Khun Winee." Then the wife looked around the corner, tearing herself away from the game show to pipe in with her two cents: "You look like young man, very handsome. You now high-society man. Women like you too, too much."
Calvino unbuttoned the jacket and shot her a look in the mirror. The last thing Calvino wanted to hear was that he looked like some overdressed Chinese merchant who couldn't tell a merlot from a shiraz. He liked the jacket. It had exceeded his expectations and his budget. Even unbuttoned, there was no sign that he was holstering a handgun.
"Tony, it's good work."
For a second he thought Tony was going to hug him and kiss him on each cheek. But there were limits to how far down the Italian turnpike Tony was prepared to go. Instead he put his fingers together in a wai and gave a little bow toward Calvino. All that Tony knew about Italians came from fashion magazines and American gangster films. He understood the essence of tailoring: a man's jacket made a statement about him. The perfect man's sports jacket occupied a middle zone between "back off" and "fuck off," and Brioni had figured out the dress formula for a man who walked in that no man's land.
Tony had a special feel for fabrics and a gift with needle and thread, and he took pride in recreating the best of Italy. High style on a backpacker's budget had always been one of Bangkok's draws for visitors. A bit of self-delusion was all that was required; the rest could be pure Thai. Tony understood suits could be a problem in Bangkok temperatures. The heat, searing and raw, gave the impression that the universe was dragging you through a vapor trail of a supernova. Calvino had said, "I gotta be able to breathe." Walking around the city in a jacket could be like wheeling around in a portable sauna. So Tony had gone inventive making a jacket without lining in the body except for a few secret pockets. He read that farangs liked creativity, so he got creative.
Calvino turned to look at himself in profile. Semi-badass, he thought. Tony had taken extra care to tailor the jacket so his leather holster and .38 police special wouldn't bulge. A real badass didn't need to advertise that he was packing. He glanced at the large clock on the wall. He had an appointment with a new client, General Yosaporn. The General had been retired for many years, and Vincent Calvino had been the first private eye he'd ever hired. The General had been glad to pay the fee. And Colonel Pratt, a member in good standing of the Royal Thai police, who had introduced Calvino to the General, had suggested using part of the money for the new jacket. It was a jacket for impressing a new client. On the job, the upscale tailoring might draw too much attention. "Time to go, Tony."
Calvino paid the freight and stepped outside onto Sukhumvit Road. He opened his umbrella and walked to the crosswalk. The new jacket made him feel good. He had put on a light blue shirt and a yellow necktie with gray stripes. They matched his soft black leather Italian shoes. Walking down the street, he told himself the rain didn't matter. The rain adds something — a pinch of mystery, a teaspoon of intrigue, he thought. My wet hair gives off a noir posture — or I could be just another guy fresh from the gym.
In a lot of big cities, a good pair of brass knuckles was worth more than a bucketful of gold rings. As he walked along, he thought about the pocket Tony had made for a pair of brass knuckles. "That was thoughtful of him," Calvino said to himself. He'd reached the crosswalk, what the English called a zebra crossing, a term that fit well in Bangkok. Only a wild animal would cross at the designated place. Drivers of cars, motorcycles, taxis, trucks, and buses saw a crosswalk and stepped on the gas. He watched the traffic. Colonel Pratt had told him that gold was all anyone needed in Bangkok. That's why skinny, brainy men went for the gold. They could buy muscle. A bus rumbled past, blowing out a glacier- melting belch of black fumes. Calvino, hands in his pockets, feeling on top of the world, asked himself, So what came first? The chicken or the egg? The brass knuckles or the gold rings? It was the kind of dilemma his mother had loved. What do you want with knowledge? It only drives you to know how little you can ever know. What's the point of that?
A clearing appeared in the traffic. Calvino edged onto the crosswalk and was halfway into Sukhumvit Road when a gray Benz — one of the upper-end models with tinted windows that cost the same as a village upcountry — came straight at him. He saw the driver inside, a woman on a cell phone eating satay chicken (it might have been pork), but she didn't see him. The car brushed his side — a grazing blow that felt like the bare tip of a bull's horn passing just inside the bullfighter's red cape. It spun him around and he lost his balance, falling on one hand in the street. A group of schoolgirls who might have taken him for an aging NBA star started laughing. Falling down, better yet coming up bloody, was always good for bystander laughter. Slowly he rose to his feet. The Benz was long gone. He wiped his hands together and found his umbrella. It had been run over and ruined. Clutching the naked spines, he nodded his head, eyes half-closed, and meditated for a moment, trying to find that quiet space within. Not finding it, he opened his eyes and saw the schoolgirls waiting for his next move.
He stopped in front of the 7-Eleven at the top of Soi 33 and examined his jacket and tie in the window. Finding himself in one piece, he figured he'd won. One more time he'd crossed Sukhumvit Road on foot, leaving him wide-eyed, with his heart racing — all the necessary elements for post-traumatic flashbacks. Colonel Pratt would like the story. Calvino walked tall, head up, shoulders back, as he turned into Soi 33. The General had had two influences on him. He'd provided the cash for the jacket. And he had introduced Calvino to meditation. Inside Venice Tailors, he had practiced his meditation as Tony hovered around him. It had cleared his mind, opened it to every possibility as Tony had asked him what he thought. He'd had no thoughts.
Calvino stopped beside a street vendor who was cooking a long, tight coil of dead-liver-colored sausages over a charcoal fire in a large clay pot. Closing his eyes, he told himself that he wanted to see the soi as if for the first time, as if looking through the eyes of someone straight off the plane. It had been Colonel Pratt who had warned him that, after so many years inside the country, he would forget what had startled him at first.
He considered the possibility. After thousands of days, Calvino didn't really see the street anymore. That had been Colonel Pratt's point, and the General had agreed. They'd suggested that he try looking at things as if they were fresh, new, and of another time and place.
I've just arrived, and this is the first street in Asia I've ever seen. A smile crossed Calvino's face as he moved down the soi. Each step was a foot deeper into the freak show, starting with the huge banyan tree. Its large, twisted trunk wrapped with dozens of thin, colored nylon scarves, the tree had long, stringy veins that hung like gnarled tentacles over the soi. A dwarf stood on the broken sidewalk in front of a bar, dressed in a vest, a white shirt, and a bow tie. Holding up a sign for happy hour beer, he tagged along after each passing tourist for a few steps. Then, exhausted, he'd stop and retrace his steps to the bar and wait to strike again. "Come inside!" he shouted. "Many pretty girls!" The dwarf was right. There were dozens of girls in their late teens wearing too much makeup, decked out in short skirts, smoking, flirting, eyeing customers, throwing them smiles, then frowns, then another frown. It was early afternoon and there were few customers.
A tuk-tuk, the high pitch of its engine pushed to the limit, made Calvino step back on the sidewalk. A couple of drunken farang tourists sat in the back seat, laughing and screaming, rocking and rolling, as if their future had arrived and they liked what they saw. Calvino waved as they passed. He stopped in front of another street vendor's cart bearing fried grasshoppers, scorpions, and water bugs in separate trays, stacked high under a fluorescent light. The vendor was set up in the street in front of a Japanese karaoke place with a sign that said no non-Japanese allowed. The sign was in Thai. A couple of yings dressed like Japanese geisha called out to him. They liked his jacket. They smelled money.
"I'm not Japanese. I can't go inside," he called back in Thai.
"No problem. You not come in. We go out. Sure."
If he had just arrived in the country, he'd have gawked at the lifeless carcasses of the bug massacre, so he stopped now to take a look. The vendor asked, "You try. You like, buy. You no like, no problem."
The bug vendor held out a water bug and Calvino took it. She made a point of showing the yings. They applauded. A bug-eating farang was about as close to heaven as they'd get on a rainy Tuesday afternoon on the soi with the dead artists bars. While the city was short on museums, Calvino's soi was rich with bars named Renoir, Degas, Monet, or Cézanne, filled with people who had no idea who those painters were.
There was an attitude in the thick, grayish air — of the vendor and of the yings — that Calvino liked. He looked at the water bug in the palm of his hand as though it was a multivitamin and popped it in his mouth. His teeth got traction on the soft outer shell. As he chewed, he saw the General's car approach on the wet pavement, slowing as it reached a space in front of Mona Lisa. Calvino stood beside the vendor's cart, watching the general park his car. He was a kind old man who'd been the perfect client: he'd paid for Calvino's services, and he'd used the payment for his new jacket. It was an awkward social moment, an old man holding out money. Calvino had asked the General to keep the money and to accept his services as a favor. That was the Thai way, but the General shook his head and insisted that he pay. When the General had phoned Calvino and asked to meet him mid-afternoon for a coffee, he'd decided to look presentable. The new jacket would send a message of proper respect to the General. The lunchtime trade had gone back to the offices, shops, and apartments until dinnertime. It was as quiet as it ever got on Soi 33 this side of mid-afternoon.
A short distance behind the General's black Camry a motorcycle had been tailing the car. It slowed as the General's car slowed, and the rider flashed a red laser penlight on the General's car. The General had come to a stop between Goya and Papa's. Calvino looked over his shoulder and saw a second motorcycle, a blue and silver Honda, with a driver and a passenger turn into the soi from Sukhumvit. Both riders on the Honda wore wraparound sunglasses and black clothes. The rear passenger's face was covered with a ski mask. This wasn't the time to act like a newbie fresh from the airport, seeing things for the first time. The hand of the fast-approaching rider had reached inside a nylon jacket and emerged holding a handgun. The gun, the laser: it added up to a certainty that the motorcycle riders were working together. The laser beam pinpointed the man inside.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Paying Back Jack"
Copyright © 2009 Christopher G. Moore.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This writer--and this book--go in the category of ex-pats who think they're tough because they live in a dirty, dangerous third world city. They can't help infusing the story with their own macho fantasies and predilections--which may just be Walter Mitty fantasies because they all can't be former Navy Seals. Ultimately, their prose is tiresome and I certainly couldn't stomach this entry in the genre.
Christopher Moore writes novels about an expat American detective who does P.I. work in Thailand. I have only read one of the other novels, that being The Risk of Infidelity Index. That led me to buy this one, and I was quite happy with the story about snipers planning to take on a Thai businessman. Thailand crime novels take place in the midst of many interesting scenarios, not the least of which is the corruption in the country itself. There are crooked cops, drugs, child slavery, lots of different sex angles, all involving smiling folks who serve the needs of American tourists. Moore plays each of these cards well, and in a way that makes you feel a part of the story. He does a good job on keeping his cards close, so that you can't figure his next move. Altogether it makes for a good read.