The long-awaited follow-up to Slash and Burn and the ninth installment in Colin Cotterill’s bestselling mystery series starring the inimitable Lao national coroner, Dr. Siri
In a small Lao village, a very strange thing has happened. A woman was shot and killed in her bed during a burglary; she was given a funeral and everyone in the village saw her body burned. Then, three days later, she was back in her house as if she’d never been dead at all. But now she’s clairvoyant and can speak to the dead. That’s why the long-dead brother of a Lao general has enlisted her to help his brother uncover his remains, which have been lost at the bottom of a river for many years.
Lao national coroner Dr. Siri Paiboun and his wife, Madame Daeng, are sent along to supervise the excavation. It could be a kind of relaxing vacation for them, maybe, except Siri is obsessed with the pretty, undead medium’s special abilities, and Madame Daeng might be a little jealous. She doesn’t trust the woman for some reason. Is her hunch right? What is the group really digging for at the bottom of this remote river on the Thai border? What war secrets are being covered up?
February 19, 2013
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Madame Keui was flesh and blood, or so they claimed, although nobody could remember touching that rewarmed flesh, nor seeing her bleed; not even when a second bullet passed through her. Even so, to all intents and purposes, she was alive in October of 1978 when this story takes place. They’d see her walk along the ridge to collect her groceries or ride her bicycle off into the forest. Some in the village had even heard her speak. She had become Vietnamese, they said. Her Lao was thick with it like too-large lumps of mutton in a broth. She no longer talked directly to the villagers, but strangers from afar came to seek her out. They’d go to her house, a fine wooden structure with expensive Chinese furniture; couples and elderly people and families with children. They’d sit with her in the living area visible from the quiet dirt street. And when they left, those strangers would seem elated as if a heavy rock had been removed from their souls. But when the villagers stopped them to ask what had happened there, they were silent. It was as if they’d forgotten they were ever with her. And perhaps that was why they called her Keui: Madame Used-To-Be. Because whenever they talked about the beautiful old woman it was in the past tense. ‘There used to be a woman who spoke with many voices.’ ‘There used to be a woman who seemed to get younger as the months passed.’ ‘There used to be a woman whose house gave off a warm yellow glow even when there was no hurricane lamp oil to be had at the market.’ And even though they might have passed her on the street that morning, at the evening meal they’d still say, ‘There used to be a woman in our village who . . .’ And perhaps that was because two months earlier they’d carried her body to the pyre and watched the flames engulf her.
Chapter 2 The Ninjas From Housing
They lurked in the shadows of the late evening. They’d waited out three nights of diamante skies, the streets lit by a billion stars. And, at last, a bank of clouds had rolled in and given them this brief cover. There were five of them, each dressed in navy blue, which was as near as damn it to black. And in the starless navy blue of the Vientiane night they would have been invisible were it not for the battery-powered torches each carried. The beams negated all the preparations of dressing darkly and applying charred cork to their faces. But in the suburbs east of the That Luang monument there was as yet no street lighting and there were any number of potholes in which to step. At eleven p.m. most of the householders were asleep and dreaming of better times. For any times were better than these. Only one or two windows gave off an eerie khaki glow from lamps deep inside and one by one these were extinguished as the men passed. Torch beams as loud as klaxons. Everyone in East That Luang knew something was about to go down and they all knew better than to come to their windows to watch. Still a block away from their objective, the leader crouched on one knee and signalled for his men to turn off their lamps. They were immediately plunged into the impenetrable black belly of a giant naga. None of them dared move for fear that the earth all around them might have subsided. Yet, not wanting to be considered cowardly, none of them turned his torch back on. So there they remained. Petrified by the darkness. ‘Give your eyes a few minutes, lads,’ the leader said in a whisper that seemed to ricochet back and forth through the concrete of the new suburb. Those few minutes crawled past but still the men’s eyes had not become accustomed to the dark. Even so, their leader stood. They heard the rattle of the large bunch of keys on his belt. They knew it was time to continue the advance on house number 22B742. Butterflies flapped inside them. This would be a moment from which careers were honed. Medals were given for less. They kept close in single file behind the leader who seemed to have a nose for darkness. Up ahead, their target emerged from the night. The house glowed brazenly. Candles flickered in the two front windows and . . . could that be the scent of a tune? Yes. Music. Some decadent Western rubbish. The comrades inside were asking for trouble. Begging for it. They’d get what they deserved this night. The front yard was visible now in the candle glow and the men could see one another’s beady eyes. The leader pointed. ‘You and you, around the back,’ he whispered. ‘Don’t let any escape. We take every last man, woman and child.’ The two men ran to the side alley with a crouching gait not unlike that of Groucho Marx. But their flank advance was stymied by the fact that the side gate was locked, or blocked, or perhaps it was just a fence that looked like a gate and was too high to climb. They looked back for advice from their leader but he couldn’t see them in the shadows. Believing the rearguard to be in place, he led the rest of his team up the garden path to the front porch. He was no lover of these roomridden, occidental-style accommodations. Give him open spaces any day. He reached the door. He had a duplicate key, of course, for number 22B742 but it served no purpose. The door was ajar. He swallowed a gasp and pushed against the heavy teak. The door opened far too obligingly on oiled hinges and if not for a sudden lunge to stop its swing it would have crashed into the hallway wall. The flutter of candlelight shimmied from open doorways to the left and right, and up ahead a room he knew from previous visits to be the kitchen was shining brightly. That was the source of the decadent music. And that, he knew, was where the transients would be gathered. They’d attempt to flee through the back door and into the trap he had laid. From his side pack he produced a Russian Lubitel 166. Not the most compact piece of equipment but efficient and easy enough to reload. There would be no mistakes this time. He would have them all. Meanwhile, the two men sent to the back had retraced their steps and were now attempting to round the building on the east side. This too was a problem because they were met by a dog, an ugly, mean-spirited dog who stood and snarled. Drool dripped from its fangs. The men stopped in their tracks. They had reached the rear kitchen window through which a bright light shone on to their uncomfortable situation. Fortunately the dog was chained and beneath the window was a motorcycle. By climbing on to its seat they were able to both avoid the dog and see inside the house. Just as their heads appeared at the mosquito screen, the leader and his two men burst into the kitchen. ‘Freeze!’ shouted the leader and there was a flash, then another from his camera. ‘Don’t anybody . . .’ But there were no transients in the kitchen, just a solitary old man. He was standing naked in a large zinc bathtub. He was up to his shins in bubbly water and held a particularly impressive loofah. Far from being shocked or embarrassed, the old man laughed, turned away from the men, and loofahed his backside with enthusiasm. ‘Search him,’ shouted the leader. There was no rush to do so. ‘Search all the rooms, the closets, the cupboards, the crawl space beneath the roof.’ His head turned in response to some slight movement through the window screen where he saw the faces of the two men who should have been watching the garden. ‘What are you doing there?’ he shouted.
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