It was the tail end of my young and wild decade in Bangkok and I had already been describing myself as a private detective for about a year. I had a business card that resembled a small manila file and had picked up some paying clients. My lean and hungry look was disappearing and changing into something more professional. The vodka vice had passed unnoticed into a habit, thanks to my newfound ability to keep up with my bar bills. So far, the work had been nothing to sing and dance about; the odd insurance caper, the occasional wandering son or daughter job, and the occasional embezzler. My crash pad had improved and came complete with hot and cold running women. I wasn’t going anywhere soon, not without a fight anyway.
One morning I got a call from an unfamiliar English voice; South London and by the sound of him, something of a spiv. It was one of those hushed ‘I don’t want to speak on the phone’ conversations that private detectives and lawyers get from time to time. He asked me to meet him at his office on Soi Nana as soon as possible. Soi Nana was one of Bangkok’s red light districts so I didn’t need to ask for directions.
He was a large bully of a man in his late fifties. The spider webs of red veins on his nose and cheeks were well established, so his reasons for being a minute’s walk from the girlie bars did not require great deductive powers. He was dressed in the suit and tie uniform of his past life, but unfortunately for him the rattling ancient air conditioner wasn’t blowing English weather so sweat ran down both sides of his face. The office was sparse, but behind his desk was a large framed picture of him as a much younger man posing beside a Rolls Royce. The message he was pushing was that he had once been a success. I read him immediately as a small time London crook that had come to Bangkok to escape some trouble or other. Possibly the police or an expensive divorce. Whatever his story, it was clear that his best years were behind him and Thailand had taken its toll.
I played it cool and asked for a coffee so he wouldn’t feel I was overly eager to hear what he couldn’t tell me on the phone. He brought me an unpleasant looking instant coffee which he gently put in from of me, and then we sat in silence. I eventually tried to break the ice by telling him I liked his car and he told me the Rolls Royce’s entire maintenance history. The end of the story was how he had been forced to sell it because of a disastrous marriage and a messy divorce. Then we sat in long silence again. It was all getting a little ridiculous.
“Tell me what it is that you would like my assistance with,” I said, reluctantly being first to break the silence again.
“I can’t tell you. It’s a secret,” he blurted out, sweating heavily behind the desk.
We sat in silence again. Was this a joke? Had my friends put him up to it? I didn’t think it was funny at all. I thought everybody knew that it was best to leave me alone until lunchtime. Vodka was a cruel mistress and I would have preferred to have stayed in bed with her.
“This isn’t going to work,” I told him, beginning to assume the whole thing was a complete waste of my time. I looked at him. He looked at me. Nothing happened. I made to get up to leave.
“I have a suitcase full of money hidden at my house and nobody can ever know it’s there.”
“That’s wonderful for you, but what has it got to do with me? Is it stolen or something?”
“Of course not! Why would you think that?” he blurted with a hurt look on his face. Shocked that I would think he could possibly be involved in something not totally above board.
“But I can’t help you if you won’t tell me the problem.”
“I need you to find two men for me. I paid for their hotel so I have their names, but I don’t know if the names I have are the same ones on their passports.”
“Could you begin by describing them to me?”
He looked down in embarrassment as he spoke. Like he was looking for something he had dropped on the floor.
“They said they were from Liberia and they were having a hard time in Thailand. They said they were looked down on because of their skin colour, which is why they needed me to front their business dealings. They even asked me to arrange their hotel rooms and say they were from New York so they would be treated better. They were very secretive you see, and they would be very angry if they knew I was talking to you. They are both decent and honest men, but I must tell you that they are also dangerous.”
“In what way dangerous?” I asked him.
“They are the agents of a big warlord in Africa who cannot travel to Thailand, so sent them instead. I really don’t think I should be talking to you.”
“I think you should. Tell me more.”
“The thing is they have done nothing wrong. It’s not their fault. The suitcase of money, the collateral, was delivered to me just as they promised. It’s not their fault if the delivery from the American Embassy has been delayed by bureaucratic nonsense. Their contact there seems to have got cold feet and refused to bring them the goods we paid for. Then last week they just disappeared. I hope nothing has happened to them.”
“What was this delivery from the American Embassy?”
“Alright, I will let you in on a secret but you must never tell anybody. The CIA have had so many problems with payments to rebel groups falling into the wrong hands that they now have a foolproof way of delivering money. The Embassy in Bangkok stocks a secret chemical that fixes the problem. There is a man at the embassy that sells this liquid out the back door for a hundred thousand dollars per bottle. If the CIA found out, this man would be in serious trouble. This product is never supposed to pass into enemy hands, you see?”
“Oh dear,” I told him, “so you have a suitcase full of black paper that you have been told will turn into hundred dollar bills as soon as they are immersed in a very expensive chemical that you have advanced one hundred thousand dollars for?”
“They are hundred dollar bills! I mean, they will be as soon as I find my two business associates and they go and see their man at the Embassy and sort this out. I can’t wait much longer though, that was all the money I had. I borrowed half of it from the moneylenders at six percent a week actually, and they are coming for their first interest payment this afternoon.”
“I am sorry to tell you that you have been the victim of the Nigerian black money scam,” I told him as gently as possible.
“No I haven’t!”
“I’m afraid you have.”
“You don’t know what you are talking about. I have seen it with my own eyes.” He told me gloating.
“Look, here’s how it works; liquid iodine is set alight to burn off the ethanol. A real hundred-dollar bill is soaked in the black residue and hung up to dry. There is only one real hundred-dollar bill in the game and it is in their pocket. That is the piece of black paper they switch with the piece of black paper that you so carefully selected randomly from all of the others in the suitcase. This switch is well rehearsed, like a magic trick. They then soak this bill in ascorbic acid and you see a black piece of paper magically turn into a hundred dollar bill. It is called the Nigerian black money scam.”
“You don’t know what you are talking about,” he said angrily.
“You don’t have to believe me, pick up a newspaper or a tourist magazine, there are plenty of warnings in the newspapers.”
“Do you think I’m an idiot? Of course I’ve seen the warnings about it in the newspapers. But this is different. They were businessmen and they work for very serious people. I haven’t told you this, but I spoke to the warlord on the phone. He said he guaranteed my investment, personally. How good is that? He said he was sending a diplomatic passport from Liberia so I would be protected by diplomatic immunity. I am to purchase weapons and fighter planes on his behalf as soon as the courier delivers the package to me. There is a numbered Swiss account waiting for me in Zurich. They depend on me, they’ll lose the war without weapons. The suitcase is just the start. I just need you to find them so I can talk to them.”
I looked around the sparse office with no secretary. “What exactly do you do in Bangkok?” I asked him.
“I’m a financial advisor,” he told me.
There was no answer to that. I looked around the room and saw the brochures on life insurance and pension plans and knew it to be true. Having angered and alienated him I had nothing more to say. Nothing was going to change his belief that the only thing that stood between him and millions of dollars was a bottle of liquid that would one day be delivered by a crooked American civil servant who, he believed, he had already paid in full. I had heard some stories in my time, but this one had left me disturbed and shocked. How could anybody be so foolish?
“I can’t help you,” I told him as I got up to leave. He pleaded with me to stay. He even offered me half of what was in the suitcase. That’s when I stopped being nice. I mean, it’s hard to be nice in the face of all that blindness and greed. And the hangover certainly didn’t help much. “Have you considered hiring a witchdoctor instead?” I asked him when he tried to block my path for the third time. That was unnecessarily cruel though; the man was already totally destroyed. I left him standing there alone in the middle of his office, trying to piece together the shattered picture in his head. I saw he had a dreadful expression on his face, and remembered I still didn’t know his name.
It was only whilst drinking my second vodka in a bar round the corner that I was struck by an epiphany. The picture on the wall of past affluence, the humble sparse office, its location in the red light district, and his advancing age enabled me to piece it all together. It was then that it struck me; the foundation of the big con is always the sucker’s total desperation.
The man behind the cheap desk had once had money, and badly wanted it again. He had allowed himself to imagine the life he would have if he could just get back to where he had once been. Having a little money in England will get you a nice car and a big house but that’s usually where it stops. The suburbs of London often have wide lawns and narrow minds and can be a lonely place. The thought of Bangkok and all the willing pretty young country girls in skimpy clothes had infected his mind. The thought of them doing anything he wanted just to get the chance to drink his Champagne, or sit in his car, and wanting to go home with him, had clouded his logic.
Once he had the dream of being the big man in the naughty red light district of Soi Nana he had become hooked. The friendly black African wide boys that had accidentally crossed his path and entered his life knew how to play a man with such a delusion. He had then been willing to pay any price to hold on to the dream that would end his loneliness; even extreme foolishness, even denial, and ultimately even bankruptcy. Nothing could come between him and his wonderful vision of the future, certainly not a streetwise private detective in blue jeans.
I learned a lot that day. I saw the inside of the big con for the first time and understood the ways of the lost lonely men that are the victims of their own greed. I saw that the victim willingly becomes naive, and I could smell the total indifference of the well-schooled perpetrators that had used their craft to escape from the absolute poverty that was their birthright. These encounters, sometimes with victims and sometimes with criminals, would become more frequent and were my foundation blocks to reach the necessary cynical understanding of the shadow world. It quickly provided me with the ability to see the crime from both sides. Although I didn’t know it then, it was the start of a journey through the Bangkok underbelly that was to prepare me for my future life as Bangkok’s most intrepid private detective. I had never wanted it and I didn’t seek it, it looked for me and had no trouble finding me.