Vientiane, 1980: For a man of his age and in his corner of the world, Dr. Siri, the 76-year-old former national coroner of Laos, is doing remarkably well—especially considering the fact that he is possessed by a thousand-year-old Hmong shaman. That is, until he finds a mysterious note tied to his dog’s tail. Upon finding someone to translate the note, Dr. Siri learns it is a death threat addressed not only to him, but to everyone he holds dear. Whoever wrote the note claims the job will be executed in two weeks.
Thus, at the urging of his wife and his motley crew of faithful friends, Dr. Siri must figure out who wants him dead, prompting him to recount three incidents over the years: an early meeting with his lifelong pal Civilai in Paris in the early ’30s, a particularly disruptive visit to an art museum in Saigon in 1956, and a prisoner of war negotiation in Hanoi at the height of the Vietnam War in the ’70s. There will be grave consequences in the present if Dr. Siri can’t decipher the clues from his past.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
A City of Two Tails
Dr. Siri was standing in front of Daeng’s noodle shop when she pulled up on the bicycle. It was a clammy day, but his wife rarely raised a sweat even under a midday sun. She leaned the bike against the last sandalwood tree on that stretch of the road and patted Ugly the dog. Siri shrugged.
“So?” he said.
“What did she say?”
Daeng pecked him on the cheek and walked past him into the dark shop house. He trotted behind.
“She said I have the body and constitution of a sixty-nine-year-old.”
“You are sixty-nine.”
“Then I have nothing to be disappointed or smug about, do I? I’m fit and healthy. I’m a nice, average Lao lady with supposed arthritis. She did, however, mention that most people my age in this country are dead. I think that’s a positive, don’t you?”
“But what about . . . ? You know?”
“She didn’t say anything,” said Daeng.
“Didn’t mention it at all. She obviously didn’t notice it.”
“What kind of a doctor doesn’t notice that one of her patients has a tail?”
“I’ve told you, Siri. You and I are the only people who see it.”
“What about the shamans in Udon?”
“They didn’t see it, Siri. They visualized it. Not the same thing.”
“It’s a physical thing, Daeng. You know it is. I can feel it.”
“I know. And I like it when you do.”
“But now Dr. Porn would have us believe that it doesn’t exist, which means I must be senile,” said Siri.
“It means we’re both senile.”
“Then, by the same account, if you don’t have a tail, then obviously my disappearances are a figment of my imagination.”
“Not at all,” said his wife dusting the stools to prepare for the evening noodle rush. “All it tells us is that nobody else notices you’re gone.”
“I’ve disappeared in public before,” said Siri with more than a touch of indignation. “Haven’t I disappeared in the market? At a musical recital? In a crowded—”
“Look, my love,” she said, taking his hand, “there is no doubt that you disappear. There is no doubt you cross over to the other side and learn things there and return and tell me of your adventures. There is no doubt you are possessed by a thousand-year-old Hmong shaman and communicate through an ornery transvestite spirit medium. There is no doubt that you see the souls of the dead just as there is no doubt that I have a tail that I received from a witch in return for a cure for my arthritis. But, for whatever reason, nobody else bears witness to our little peculiarities. And perhaps it’s just as well. The politburo would probably have us burned at the stake for occult practices if anyone reported us. Even Buddhism makes them queasy. Imagine what they’d do if Dr. Porn wrote in her official report, ‘. . . and, by the way, Madam Daeng appears to have grown a tail since her last checkup.’”
“You’re right,” said Siri.
“I’m always right,” said Daeng. She squeezed his hand and smiled and returned to the chore of readying her restaurant. She was startled by the sound of hammering from the back room.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“Nyot, the doorman,” said Siri.
“He’s still here?” asked Daeng. “How long does it take to put in a door?”
Mr. Nyot, the carpenter, was busy hanging. Following the previous monsoons, the door had changed shape and would no longer close. Daeng was not afraid of intruders. Ever since it was installed when the shop house was rebuilt, that door had never been locked. Nobody could remember where the key was. There were no security issues in Vientiane. The Party wouldn’t allow such a thing. All the burglars were safely behind bars on the detention islands. The ill-fitting door banged in the wind and Mr. Nyot had promised them a nice new door at a special price. But it was also a special door. Daeng went to inspect the work.
“What’s that?” she asked, pointing at the missing rectangle of wood at the base.
“It’s a dog entrance,” said Nyot.
“It’s a hole,” said Daeng.
“Right now it may look like a hole,” said Nyot, “but over there I have a flap with hinges that I will attach shortly.”
“That’s not what I ordered,” said Daeng.
“Maybe not. But this door is five-thousand kip cheaper than the next in the range. And I did notice that you have a dog outside that seems unable to enter the building.”
“That dog has never entered a building,” said Daeng. “Not because it’s unable to but because it has some canine dread of being inside.”
“Well, when it gets over its fear this will be the perfect door for it.”
She couldn’t be bothered to argue and the saved five-thousand kip would come in handy even though it was a tiny sum. But she was sure that when the wind blew from then on, the dog flap would bang through the night and the hinges would creak and they would miss their old one. She was very pessimistic when it came to doors.
Siri laughed at their exchange as he wiped the tabletops with a dishcloth and thought back to his last contact with Auntie Bpoo, his unhelpful, unpleasant spirit guide. It had been a while. She had him on some kind of training program. He’d passed “taking control of his own destiny” and “awareness,” and he was ready for the next test but for some reason she’d gone mute. He attempted to evoke her often, but the channel was off air. Often, he wished his life could have been, not normal exactly, but more under his own control. Daeng was saying something behind him.
“What was that?” Siri asked.
“I said the ribbon was a nice touch,” said Daeng.
“What ribbon’s that?”
“You didn’t decorate the dog?”
“Not sure I know what you’re talking about.”
“The ribbon, Siri. You didn’t see him out there? Ugly has a rather sweet pink bow on his tail.”
“Nothing to do with me,” he said walking to the street.
Ugly was under the tree guarding the bicycle. Sure enough, he was wearing a ribbon with a silk flower, and from the rear he looked like a mangy birthday present.
Siri laughed. “This looks like the work of a certain Down syndrome comedian I know,” he said.
“Can’t blame Geung and his bride this time,” said Daeng. “In case you haven’t noticed, we’re doing all the noodle work here. He and Tukta won’t be back from their honeymoon for another week. And Ugly was not so beautifully kitted out when I left this morning. Don’t take it off. He looks adorable.”
Siri was bent double inspecting the dog’s rear end. There was more of a sausage than an actual tail so it was surprising the decorator had found enough length to tie on the bow and that Ugly would allow it.
“It appears to have a message attached,” Siri said. “There’s a small capsule hanging from it. Lucky he didn’t need to go to the bathroom before you noticed it.”
“A message?” She smiled. “How thrilling.”
Never one to pass up a mystery, Daeng joined her husband on the uneven pavement. Ugly seemed reluctant to give up his treasure. He growled deep in his throat.
“Come on, you ungrateful mongrel,” said Siri. “Who do you think pays for your meals and applies ointment to all your sores and apologizes to the neighbors for your indiscriminate peeing?”
It was a compelling argument and one that Ugly obviously had no counter for. He held up his haunches for his master to remove the capsule. It was a silver cylinder about the size of a cigarette. Its two halves could be pulled apart. Siri had seen its kind before but he couldn’t remember where. Inside was a tight roll of paper, which he unfurled.
“Unquestionably a treasure map,” said Daeng.
“Only words, I’m afraid,” said Siri. “And handwritten.”
Still pretending that his eyesight was as good as it had always been, he held out the slip at arm’s length and squinted at the tiny writing. He would blame that arm for its shortness rather than admit to any deficiency in his eyesight. The note was just within range.
“It’s in English,” he said.
“What a shame,” said Daeng.
He read it aloud with what he considered to be an English accent.
“My dear Dr. Siri Paiboun, it has been a while. By now I’m sure you have either forgotten my promise of revenge or have dismissed it as an idle threat. But if you had known me at all, you would have realized that my desire to destroy you and your loved ones is a fire that has burned in my heart without end. After such a long search I have found you and I am near you. I have already deleted one of your darlings. Before I leave I will have ruined the life you have established just as you did mine. I have two more weeks. That should be more than sufficient.”
It would be several hours before Siri and Daeng could fully appreciate the seriousness of their note because neither of them understood English. They knew French and could read the characters and they could guess here and there at meanings. But the languages were too far apart to cause either of them to panic. That would come later.