Analyzing things was fine, but good reflexes could save your life.
Orson Scott Card
The cab ride to Lumpini stadium took ten minutes. We bought ringside seats for fifteen hundred baht a seat and went inside.
Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, is one of the few martial arts that is a recognized national sport. The fighters wear gloves, but that's pretty much where the similarities to Western boxing end. It's referred to as, "The Art of the Eight Limbs," as the boxers also legally and enthusiastically fight with their feet, knees, shins, elbows, and even heads.
During some time spent in Japan, I had trained with an ex-fighter, and we had taught each other a thing or two. I went away from that training bout with a lot of respect for the ferocity and effectiveness of the fighting system.
We caught the last three fights of the evening. As always, I was impressed with the skill and heart that these men brought into the ring, and this time I found myself a little envious, too. Naruto was characteristically enthusiastic, of course, hollering during the fights and even getting up to offer some congratulations in Thai to the winners as they left the ring. I would have preferred it if he kept a lower profile, but I recognized that it would be impossible for him. I reminded myself that, if I wanted to keep this fledgling partnership going, I would have to accept him more or less the way he was.
When the last match ended, we headed outside. "Well, the night is young, and so are we. Whaddya think, time to hit a bar?"
I nodded. "Yeah, if you know a place."
"Then follow me, for I happen to know just the place."
We caught another cab, and it only took us ten more minutes to get to the place Naruto had in mind: "Brown Sugar! The finest jazz restaurant in Thailand!"
A redbrick building with a single wooden door propped open, inviting. A window with rows of glass shelves displaying bottles of everything from Japanese sake to Kentucky moonshine. The place had a classic, some might say 'run-down' feel to it. The main room was a cramped, low-ceilinged space that could probably hold thirty people on a good night, and it was currently three-quarters full. There were a few wooden tables and heavy wooden chairs, all providing a good line of sight to the stage.
"Well, what do you think?" Naruto asked. "You like it?"
"I do," I admitted, failing to keep the surprise out of my voice.
"Ha, what did you think, I was gonna take us to a strip club or something?"
"I hope that's rhetorical."
He shook his head. "Sometimes you gotta give people more credit, man."
I looked at him, sighing. "Okay. Thanks for showing—"
He grinned. "Ah, forget it."
"I was just going to say that I'll order the drinks, but since you said…"
"Hey now! Whatever makes you happy, brother!
The hostess brought us to our table, and I ordered us two drinks without telling him what they were. Naruto was skeptical at first, but his eyes lit up once he brought the glass down from his lips. "Damn!"
"I'll send your compliments to Scotland." I knew what he meant.
"What the hell is this?"
"1958 Highland park single malt whisky. Runs about fifteen hundred per bottle, but I'd say it's worth it."
"That so?" He took another swig. "How d'you know so much about whisky?"
I shrugged. "For what I do, I need to be able to blend in with a lot of different scenes. To do that, you need to know the little things, the tells, that can give you away as being an imposter. Could be knowledge about drinks, could be which kind of fork to use, could be the right clothes to wear. Or the right words." I sipped, and continued. "To tell you the truth, I don't know how I learned about whisky. I just try to watch and learn. I'm a good imitator, but to tell you the truth I just like single malts."
"So you can just…put these things on, then take them off, like they're some kind of disguise?"
"I guess so. You do it too, although a little differently. You've got a way of disappearing when you want to, I've seen that."
"Yeah, that's from sniper training in Konoha. It's a Zen thing."
Periodically, a new couple or group would come in from the outside, and I was glad to see Naruto checking the door each time this happened. In professionals this should be a quick reflex, performed as unconsciously as breathing. You always want to know who's joining you, to maintain your sense of the crowd.
At one point, I looked up to see a striking Thai girl enter the club. Her makeup was perfect and her hair was done in a neat cascade down the sides of her face. She had perfect posture and a confident gait. Drop earrings that looked like jade gleamed under each ear. She sat down at the bar like royalty on a throne and looked around the club. Naruto nudged me, grinning.
"I feel a disturbance in the Force."
I sighed, wondering whether I'd been giving Naruto too much credit for what I thought were perimeter checks. It looked like the more likely explanation was excessive horniness. The girl saw Naruto and smiled. He smiled back.
Oh, great. I took a longer sip. Here we go.
She mentioned something to the bartender and got up, then headed towards us.
"No argument there."
The confidence she displayed in brazenly approaching us told me I was right in suspecting she was a prostitute. But it occurred to me that her presence here was a little odd. The high-end hookers tend to troll in dance clubs and pop bars, not out-of-the-way dives like Brown Sugar. Well, she might not have been having any luck in the other places, might have drifted here for the music.
Still, as it always does in response to something out of place, my alertness jumped up a notch. Although I had been keeping a low-level awareness of what was going on in the room, I glanced around to make sure that nothing else was wrong. Everything seemed okay.
The girl came to our table. I checked her hands: right hand empty, left hand holding a tiny black evening bag, probably weighed down with nothing more than a cell phone, lipstick, and a mirror. I didn't pick out any danger signals. But my sense that something was out of place wasn't entirely gone, and I remained watchful.
She glanced at me, then Naruto. "Hi," she said, in a voice that was both sweet and slightly husky. "My name is Haku." She had a heavy accent.
"Why, hello, Haku," Naruto said, giving her an enormous smile. "I'm Bob, and this here is Richard. But most people call him Dick."
She held out her hand to him and they shook, and then she turned it to me. I caught her fingers and gave them a gentle squeeze. Her fingertips were smooth, no calluses, and as she withdrew I glanced at her hand. Her fingers were long and perfectly manicured. There was something…something here that I didn't understand.
"Would you like to join us for a drink?" Naruto asked her.
She offered a pleased smile, sat down, and made some superficial adjustment to her hair. "Yes, very much." I expected this kind of conversation would be all that was comfortable for her in English. That, and maybe, "Oh, you so big cock! You make me come so much!" and other such Shakespearean phrases of the trade.
I scanned the room while Naruto and Haiku murmured to each other. No one around the bar set my radar off. But something was still bothering me. Not a lot, but it was there. Maybe you're just jumpy. You're not used to being out in the open with company, with someone approaching you uninvited. Maybe.
Naruto ordered the girl a fresh drink, and she put her hand on his. Well. It looked like I was going to finish up the evening on my own, after all. It suited me fine. "You know, I'm actually feeling a little tired."
The girl glanced up and back at me. From that angle, beneath the smooth skin of her neck I saw a slight bulge of the cricothyroid cartilage…
…better known as the Adam's apple.
Oh. My. God.
All at once I understood what was making me so twitchy. I had to stifle a laugh.
"Oh come on, Dick, it's not your bedtime yet! Stick around, you might have some fun for yourself!"
Oh, I'm going to have some fun all right, I thought. I'm sure of that.
"Well…okay. Maybe for another song."
"There you go," Naruto laughed as he drained the rest of his whiskey. "Me and Haiku are gonna get refills. You want another? I'm buying."
"Oh…sure, why not?"
Naruto signaled the waitress and ordered everyone another round. He and Haku both leaned close again and went back to their whisperings of nasty nothings. Oh boy, oh boy, this was going to be so good. I didn't know what I'd done to deserve something so beautiful, but here it was. And it could only get better.
The drinks came. I enjoyed mine in silence, my focus alternating between the bar, the crowd, and my distracted drinking companions. Haku's arm had disappeared beneath the table. From the angle of their bodies, I deduced that her hand was, at minimum, on Naruto's upper thigh. I was willing to bet on farther north, though.
Haku whispered something to him. Naruto nodded. She smiled at me, got up, excused herself, and headed towards the restroom. Naruto's eyes were focused on her ass while he spoke. "Well, my friend, you know I'm going to miss you, but duty calls."
I couldn't smile. I would just completely lose it. "No problem. She's full of surprises, from the look of her."
"Yeah, no kidding. When was the last time you saw something so fine? A little flat in the chest, yeah, but that doesn't bother me a bit. I'm sure her other charms'll make up for it."
"Oh, definitely. I'm sure she's very well equipped for the job." It was becoming next to impossible to keep my voice even. One hitch, one chuckle, and I'd be lost in a hurricane-force laughing fit.
"Thanks for the understanding, man. It's time for the young lady to have the experience of a lifetime. It'll be nothing but disappointment for her after tonight, but that's the price one pays for a love-filled evening with Naruto."
I nodded. A single word and I was done for.
He must have misinterpreted my silence. "Hey, man, there's no need for you to spend the night alone. You're not a bad-looking guy, and the ladies won't know about your paranoia until it's too late anyway. You could hook up with someone if you wanted to."
Part of me—a very big part of me—wanted to let him go through with it. And I would have paid almost anything to be there at the moment of truth. But he was too good of a friend. Hell, he'd saved my life. I couldn't do it to him, even if he did deserve it.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. "Naruto. She's a katoey."
Katoey, or "lady-boy," has a range of meanings, from a guy who likes to dress in drag occasionally to a man who has had full transgender surgery and is now effectively a woman. They can be found all over Thailand and are generally accepted, if sometimes difficult to spot, within the society. Regardless of the differences, what they all have in common is that presumably Naruto wouldn't want to sleep with one.
He shot me a look and cocked his head. "Now that's just not like you, man. Don't go trying to spoil my night just because you haven't got a girl of your own."
Denial. It was to be expected. "Did you notice the size of her hands? They're just a little big for her frame, don't you think? And did you get a look at her Adam's apple? Women don't have—"
"Don't fuck around with me like that," he said, but I could see some color drain from his face.
I bit my bottom lip, defying the titanic urge to laugh. "I'm not."
Haku came back from the restroom as if on cue. Naruto stood up and turned to her. "Baby," he said, "Dick over her thinks…he says…"
I smiled gently to her. "I just didn't want there to be a misunderstanding. Bob didn't know you're a katoey."
She smiled back, then looked at Naruto, her eyes wide. "You no like katoey?"
Naruto lost a little more color. "I…I…" he stammered.
"Me, I think you already know," she said. "So I no say anything…"
"No, I didn't know!" he said, voice anguished.
"Most men, no problem. When it dark…"
"I'm not like them!"
She smiled hopefully, eyes wide. "Please, honey? I like you."
Naruto's expression was about halfway to physical illness. He held a hand out, palm facing her, while the other hand settled over his stomach as if to fight back nausea. "Look, I don't mean to be rude, but could you just go?"
Haku hesitated, then nodded. "Okay. Thank you for drinks with me." She got up and left the club, no doubt disappointed that the time invested here had yielded so little. Naruto looked like he had been gut shot.
He slumped into his chair and looked at me. "When did you spot that shit about her neck?"
"You left me hanging for a pretty long time there, bud."
"Hey, I thought you knew. It was pretty obvious, you know."
"It most definitely was not obvious, no sir!"
"You sure you don't want to take her back to the hotel? If you hurry…"
"Oh, drop it."
"Because, c'mon, you had to know. At some level. I mean, you even pointed out that she was a little flat-chested. And I don't see how you could have missed the hands and the Adam's apple. She might as well have been wearing a sign."
"Fucking ought to." He drained the rest of his drink in one long swallow, wiped his mouth with the back of one hand, and stood. "Well, if you don't mind, I'm gonna go try someplace different."
"You know it."
"Good idea. If they're undressed you'll have a better chance of making sure."
He scowled. "You coming along?"
"No, I'd better let you go alone. I wouldn't want to interfere with a man's quest to recover his pride…but on the other hand, who's going to warn you if you run into another—"
"I'll be fine alone, already."
I thought about going on, something about how, with all our expertise and training on how to spot abnormalities, he still had almost unintentionally gone off with a katoey. Or presumably unintentionally. But he looked so glum that I decided to give it a rest for now. I smiled. "All right. We'll talk in the morning?"
"In the morning." He tossed a few hundred baht onto the table, put his jacket on, and left.
As soon as he was out of sight, I allowed the laughter to come out. A few weird looks were aimed my way as I shook with silent laughter. It was going to be good to have something in my arsenal that I could bring up anytime Naruto gave me grief.
I chuckled some more, then leaned back to enjoy the rest of the music. It was odd that a katoey hooker had been here, though. What were the odds that she would have found Naruto here, of all places? Brown Sugar was usually the wrong place for ladies of the evening on the prowl for customers. Sure, she could have come in here to enjoy the music, take a break, whatever, but the way she'd been looking around right away, the way she'd immediately zeroed in on Naruto…
Maybe that was opportunistic.
Didn't feel opportunistic. It felt focused.
I chewed on that. Then, in a sort of semiconscious shorthand that was more suddenly just there than deduced piece by piece, I realized:
If someone wanted to get to you and Naruto, the first thing he'd try to do is separate you both. To do that, if he was smart, he would employ some means that could distract your sensitivity to odd things in the surrounding environment. Give you something out of the ordinary for you could focus on. A lady-boy, for example. Or, if you didn't spot the fact that there was something wrong, and one of you went off with her…boom. There you go, you've found a way to divide us.
My hand tightened around my glass.
And a lady-boy would be used to acting, to passing off as something else, to luring people. Fooling them.
I felt my blood spike with adrenaline and my heart start to pound. If Naruto had still been at the table, he would have laughed at me. I didn't care. There were certain things I would try to change about myself to accommodate our partnership. Trusting my gut would never be one of them.
I stood up and walked briskly to the door, as fast as I could move without being obvious. I was hoping that I was wrong. I could have been wrong. It was very, very possible that I was wrong.
But I knew I was right.