The Coroner's Lunch
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by Colin Cotterill
Description: Dr. Siri Paiboun, one of the last doctors left in Laos after the Communist takeover, has been drafted to be national coroner. He is untrained for the job, but this independent 72-year-old has an outstanding qualification for it: curiosity. And he doesn't mind incurring the wrath of the Party hierarchy as he unravels mysterious murders, because the spirits of the dead are on his side. With the help of his newly-appointed secretary, the ambitious and shrewd Dtui, and Mr. Geung, the Down-Syndrome-afflicted morgue assistant, Dr. Paiboun performs autopsies and begins asking questions to solve the mysteries relating to the death of the wife of a government official and of the unidentified body fished out of the river who didn't drown but was tortured with electricity. As it turns out, all is not peaceful and calm in the new Communist paradise of Laos.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, 2004
eBookwise Release Date: June 2009
5 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [360 KB]
Reading time: 212-297 min.
"A wonderfully fresh and exotic mystery."--The New York Times Book Review
"If Cotterill--had done nothing more than treat us to Siri's views on the dramatic, even comic crises that mark periods of government upheaval, his debut mystery would still be fascinating. But the multiple cases spread out on Siri's examining table?are not cozy entertainments, but substantial crimes that take us into the thick of political intrigue,"--The New York Times Book Review
"The sights, smells and colors of Laos practically jump off the pages of this inspired, often wryly witty first novel."--Denver Post
People's Democratic Republic of Laos, October 1976
Tran, Tran, and Hok broke through the heavy end-of-wet-season clouds. The warm night air rushed against their reluctant smiles and yanked their hair vertical. They fell in a neat formation, like sleet. There was no time for elegant floating or fancy aerobatics; they just followed the rusty bombshells that were tied to their feet with pink nylon string.
Tran the elder led the charge. He was the heaviest of the three. By the time he reached the surface of Nam Ngum reservoir, he was already ahead by two seconds. If this had been the Olympics, he would have scored a 9.98 or thereabouts. There was barely a splash. Tran the younger and Hok-the-twice-dead pierced the water without so much as a pulse-beat between them.
A quarter of a ton of unarmed ordnance dragged all three men quickly to the smooth muddy bottom of the lake and anchored them there. For two weeks, Tran, Tran, and Hok swayed gently back and forth in the current and entertained the fish and algae that fed on them like diners at a slow-moving noodle stall.
* * * *
Vientiane, Two Weeks Later
It was a depressing audience, and there were going to be a lot more like it. Now that Haeng, the spotty-faced magistrate, was back, Siri would have to explain himself every damn Friday, and kowtow to a man young enough to be his grandson.
In the jargon of the Marxist-Leninists, the sessions were known as "burden-sharing tutorials." But after the first hour in front of Judge Haeng's warped plywood desk, Dr. Siri's burden had become more weighty. The judge, fresh off the production line, had taken great delight in casting un-expert doubts on Siri's reports and correcting his spelling.
"And what do you put the loss of blood down to?" Judge Haeng asked.
Siri wondered more than once whether he was deliberately being asked trick questions to establish the state of his mind. "Well." He considered it for a moment. "The body's inability to keep it in?" The little judge h'mmed and looked back down at the report. He wasn't even bright enough for sarcasm. "Of course, the fact that the poor man's legs had been cut off above the knees might have had something to do with it. It's all there in the report."
"You may believe it's all here in the report, Comrade Siri, but you seem to be very selective as to what information you share with your readers. I'd like to see much more detail in the future, if you don't mind. And to be honest, I don't see how you can be so sure it was the loss of blood that killed him, rather than, say..."
"Exactly. It would have been a terrible shock when his legs were severed. How do you know he didn't have a heart attack? He wasn't a young man."
With each of the previous three cases they'd debated, Haeng had somehow twisted the facts around to the possibility of a natural death, but this was his most creative suggestion. It struck Siri that the judge would be delighted if all the case reports that came through his office were headed "cardiac arrest."
True, the fisherman's heart had stopped beating, but it was the signal announcing his death rather than the cause of it. The newly armor-plated military launch had crashed into the concrete dock at Tar Deua. With all the extra weight, it lay low in the water. Fortunately for the crew, the collision was cushioned by the longboat man standing in his little wooden craft against the wall, with no way to escape. Like a surprising number of fishermen on the Mekhong, he'd never learned to swim.
The overlapping metal deck sliced him apart like a scythe cutting through rice stalks, and the railing pinned him upright where he had been standing. The embarrassed captain and his crew pulled him--his torso--up onto the deck, where he lay in numb confusion, chattering and laughing as if he didn't know he was missing a couple of limbs.
The boat reversed and people on the bank watched the legs topple into the water and sink. They likely swelled up in a few hours and returned to the surface. They had worn odd flip-flops, so the chances of them being re-united in time for the funeral were poor.
"If you intend to cite a heart attack for every cause of death, I don't really see why we need a coroner at all, Comrade." Siri had reached his limit, and it was a limit that floated in a vast distant atmosphere. After seventy-two years, he'd seen so many hardships that he'd reached the calmness of an astronaut bobbing about in space. Although he wasn't much better at Buddhism than he was at communism, he seemed able to meditate himself away from anger. Nobody could recall him losing his temper.
Dr. Siri Paiboun was often described as a short-arsed man. He had a peculiar build, like a lightweight wrestler with a stoop. When he walked, it was as if his bottom half was doing its best to keep up with his top half. His hair, clipped short, was a dazzling white. Where a lot of Lao men had awakened late in life to find, by some miracle of the Lord above, their hair returned to its youthful blackness, Siri had more sensible uses for his allowance than Yu Dum Chinese dye. There was nothing fake or added or subtracted about him. He was all himself.
He'd never had much success with whiskers, unless you counted eyebrows as whiskers. Siri's had become so overgrown, it took strangers a while to make out his peculiar eyes. Even those who'd traveled ten times around the world had never seen such eyes. They were the bright green of well-lighted snooker-table felt, and they never failed to amuse him when they stared back from his mirror. He didn't know much about his real parents, but there had been no rumors of aliens in his blood. How he'd ended up with eyes like these, he couldn't explain to anyone.
Forty minutes into the "shared burden tutorial," Judge Haeng still hadn't been able to look into those eyes. He'd watched his pencil wagging. He'd looked at the button dangling from the cuff of the doctor's white shirt. He'd stared up through the broken louver window as if the red star were sparkling in the evening sky outside the walls of the Department of Justice. But he hadn't once looked into Siri's brilliant green eyes.
"Of course, Comrade Siri, we have to have a coroner because, as you well know, any organized socialist system must be accountable to its brothers and sisters. Revolutionary consciousness is maintained beneath the brilliance of the beam from the socialist lighthouse. But the people have a right to see the lighthouse keeper's clean underwear drying on the rocks."
Hell, the boy was good at that: he was a master at coming up with exactly the wrong motto for the right situation. Everyone went home and analyzed their mottoes, and realized too late that they had no bearing on ... anything. Siri stared at the sun-starved boy and felt kind of sorry for him.
His only claim to respect was a Soviet law degree on paper so thin, you could see the wall where it hung through it. He'd been trained, rapidly, to fill one of the many gaps left by the fleeing upper classes. He'd studied in a language he didn't really understand and been handed a degree he didn't really deserve. The Soviets added his name to the roster of Asian communists successfully educated by the great and gloriously enlightened socialist Motherland.
Siri believed a judge should be someone who acquired wisdom layer by layer over a long life, like tree rings of knowledge, believed you couldn't just walk into the position by guessing the right answers to multiple choice tests in Russian.
"Can I go?" Siri stood and walked toward the door without waiting for permission.
Haeng looked at him like he was lower than dirt. "I think we'll need to discuss attitude at out next tutorial. Don't you?"
Siri smiled and resisted making a comment.
"And, Doctor," the coroner stood with his nose to the door, "why do you suppose the Democratic Republic issues quality black shoes to its government officials free of charge?"
Siri looked down at his ragged brown sandals. "To keep Chinese factories open?"
Judge Haeng lowered his head and moved it from side to side in slow motion. It was a gesture he'd learned from older men, and it didn't quite suit him.
"We have left the jungle, Comrade. We have escaped from the caves. We now command respect from the masses, and our attire reflects our standing in the new society. Civilized people wear shoes. Our comrades expect it of us. Do you understand what I'm telling you?" He was speaking slowly now, like a nurse to a senile patient.
Siri turned back to him with no sign that he'd been humiliated. "I believe I do, Comrade. But I think if the proletariat are going to kiss my feet, the least I can do is give them a few toes to wrap their lips around."
He yanked open the sticky door and left.
Siri walked home through the dusty Vientiane streets at the end of a long Friday. He usually kept a cheery smile on his face for anyone who wanted it. But he'd noticed that fewer people returned it these days. The merchants along his route who knew him always had a friendly comment, but strangers were starting to misread his expression. "What does he know, this little man? What does he have to smile about?"
He passed government women at the end of their day jobs. They wore khaki blouses and traditional black phasin that hung stiffly to their ankles. Each managed to make her uniform unique in some way: a brooch, a different collar, a fold in the skirt that was their own.
He passed schoolchildren in scrubbed white shirts and itchy red scarves. They seemed baffled by their day, too confused to giggle or mess around. Siri felt the same.
He passed dark, half-empty shops that all seemed to sell the same things. He passed the fountain whose spouts had become cave dwellings for insects, and unfinished buildings whose bamboo scaffolding was green with ivy.
It took him twenty minutes to walk home: just enough time to get the annoying image of Judge Haeng out of his mind. Siri was staying in an old French two-story house with a small front garden crammed with vegetables. The building needed just about everything: paint, mortar, uncracked glass, tiles, you name it; but it wasn't likely to get any of them for some time.
As was its way, Saloop lurched out from the cabbages like a crocodile and, even in semi-consciousness, started to howl at Siri. The dog had howled at him and him alone for the entire ten months he'd been there. Nobody could explain what motivated the slovenly creature to pick on the doctor as it did, but there were things going on in that dog's mind that no human could fathom.
As it did every day, Saloop's eerie wail inspired a chorus of barks and howls the length of the street and beyond and, as usual, Siri creaked open the front door to the accompaniment of dogs. He could never sneak home unnoticed. Even the staircase betrayed him. Under his footsteps, its groans echoed in the bare hallway and the loose floorboards announced his arrival on the balcony.
Neither the front door nor the door to his room was locked. There was no need. Crime had stopped. His apartment was at the rear overlooking the little Hay Sok temple. He reversed out of his sandals and stepped inside. There was a desk with books waiting for him at the window. A thin mattress was rolled up against one wall under the skirt of a mosquito net. Three peeling vinyl chairs gathered around a tin coffee table, and a small stained sink perched on a thick metal pipe.
The bathroom downstairs was shared with two couples, three kids, and a lady who was the acting head of the teacher training division at the Department of Education. Such were the spoils of a communist victory. But as conditions were no worse than before, nobody complained. He lit the gas on the one-ring range and boiled his kettle of water for coffee. In a way it felt good to be home.
But this was to be a weekend of strange awakenings. On Friday night he sat at his desk reading by oil lamp until the fussing of the moths got too much for him. His bedroll was placed so he could see the moon emerging from behind one cloud, and the next, and the next, until he was hypnotized into a peaceful sleep.
Siri's dream world had always been bizarre. In his childhood, the images that lurked there constantly interrupted his sleep. The sane woman who raised him would come to his bed and remind him that these were his dreams inside his head, and nobody had more right to be in there than he. He learned how to walk tall through his nightmares and not to be afraid of what happened there.
Although he stopped being scared, he never did gain control of them. He couldn't keep out unwanted visitors, for one thing. There were a lot of strangers loitering in his dreams with little or no intention of entertaining him. They lurked, laid about, idled, as if Siri's head was a waiting room. He often felt as if his was just a backstage to someone else's dreams.
But the most peculiar visitors to his subconscious were the dead. Since that first mortality, the first bullet-ridden man to die on his operating table, all those who'd passed from here to there in front of him had taken the trouble to pay him a visit.
When he was a young doctor, he'd wondered whether he was being punished for not saving them. None of his colleagues shared these hauntings, and a psychologist he once worked with in Vietnam suggested they were merely manifestations of his own guilt. All doctors wonder whether they could have done more for their patients. In Siri's case, the learned man believed, these doubts came in visual form. Siri was calmed by the fact that in the dreams the departed didn't seem to blame him; they were just bystanders, watching events with him. He was never threatened by them. The psychologist assured him this was a good sign.
Since Siri had started working as a coroner, coming into contact with the bodies of people he hadn't known when alive, these visitations had become more profound. He was somehow able to know the feelings and personalities of the departed. It didn't seem to matter how long it had been since life had drained from the body; his dream world could spiritually reassemble the person. He could have conversations with the completed whole, and get a feeling of the essence of what that person had been in real life.
Of course, Siri hadn't been able to mention these reconstructions to his friends or colleagues. He didn't see it would be to anyone's advantage to admit that he turned into a raving lunatic after dark. His condition did no harm, and it did encourage him to show more respect to cadavers, once he knew the former owners would be back.
With such mysteries going on in Siri's sleep, it was hardly surprising he often awoke confused. On this particular Saturday morning, he found himself in one of those neither-one-nor-the-other dimensions. He was aware he was in his room and that two of his fingers had been bitten by midges. He heard the dripping of the tap. He could smell the smoke of leaves burning in the temple yard. But he was still dreaming.
On one of the vinyl chairs there was a man. The morning light filtered through the cloth curtain immediately behind his head. From inside the mosquito net, Siri couldn't make out his face, but there was no mistaking who he was. He had no shirt and his frail torso was blue with old tattooed mantras. He wore a checkered loincloth, below which two leg stubs rested on the seat. The congealed blood matched the vinyl.
"How are you feeling?" Siri asked him. It was an odd question to pose to a dead man, but this was a dream after all. He became aware of the high-pitched howling of the dogs from the lane out front. All the signs of consciousness were gathering, but the longboat man still refused to leave.
He was sitting, looking back at Siri with a toothless smile smeared across the bottom of his face. Then he glanced away and pointed his long bony finger in front of him. Siri had to sit up against his pillow to see. On the tin coffee table there was a bottle of Mekhong whisky. At least it was a Mekhong bottle, but it contained something darker and denser than it should have. It could have been blood, but that was just Siri's morbid fancy at work.
He lay back on his pillow and wondered how much more aware of his environment he needed to be before the old man would leave. Then the curtain fluttered slightly and more temple smoke puffed in on the breeze. And in the second he was distracted, a doubt was cast. The fisherman's head could have been a fold in the curtain, his body the indentation made by countless backs that had slumped in the chair before him.
As if some conductor had swiped his baton through the air, the dog chorus fell silent and Siri was left with the dripping of the tap. There was no doubt now that he was awake. He marveled again at the magic of dreams, his dreams, and chuckled to think that one of his inmates might have been trying to escape.
Suddenly refreshed, and mysteriously elated, he pulled back his mosquito net and got up. He saw the midge that had been trapped inside with him and feasted gloriously on his finger's blood. It flew to the window and out to boast of its coup.
Siri put on the kettle, drew the ill-fitting curtain, and carried his small transistor radio to the coffee table. It was a sin, but one he delighted in.
Lao radio broadcasts boomed from public address speakers all over the city from five A.M. on. Some lucky citizens had the honor of being blasted from their beds by statistics of the People's National Rice Harvest coming directly through their window. Others' houses vibrated to reminders that salt borders would keep slugs off their vegetables.
But Siri was in a blissful black hole, far enough from the PA's for their messages to be no more than a distant hum. He listened instead to his beloved transistor. By keeping the volume down, he could tune into world news on the Thai military channel. The world had receded somewhat on Lao radio recently.
Naturally, Thai radio and television were banned in the People's Democratic Republic. You wouldn't be arrested for listening, but your District Security Council member would knock loudly on your door and shout for all the neighbors to hear, "Comrade, don't you realize that listening to decadent foreign propaganda will only distort your mind? Aren't we all content here with what we have? Why do we need to give satisfaction to the capitalist pigs by listening to their pollution?"
Your name would be added to a list of grade-four subversives and, theoretically, your co-workers would cease to have complete trust in you. But as far as Siri was concerned, the edict only succeeded in depriving the Lao people of some jolly entertainment.
The Thais were devastated that evil communists had moved in next door, in Laos. Their paranoid military could never be accused of subtlety. Siri loved to listen to their broadcasts. He honestly believed that if the politburo allowed free access to Thai radio, people would decide for themselves which regime they'd prefer to live under.
He'd listened to "expert" commentaries on the Reds' inborn taste for wife-sharing, an infirmity that caused such confusion in their society that "incest was inevitable." How communism had led to a dramatic increase in two-headed births he was uncertain, but Thai radio had the figures to prove it.
Saturday morning was his favorite because they assumed the Lao would be gathered by their radios on the weekend, desperate for propaganda. But today Siri was distracted. He didn't even get around to turning on the radio. He brought his thick brown Vietnamese coffee to the table, sat in his favorite chair, and inhaled the delicious aroma. It smelled a lot better than it tasted.