by John Spies

Ablast from a muzzle-loading rifle boomed across the mist-clogged valley. The drongos and warblers in the forest canopy fell silent. The villagers' roosters cut short their crowing and cocked their heads in nervous jerks. Nothing moved as the explosion reverberated off towering limestone cliffs north of the village. I sprang out of bed, grabbed a shotgun from the wall and thumbed the safety. Gripping the cold steel of the barrel with my left hand, I slumped back onto my lumpy kapok mattress, aimed at the door and waited. Diew huddled against me under a stack of thin blankets. I could sense the tension rippling through her body. Mindy, our two-year-old daughter, stirred beside her, and I whispered 'shush'. A sudden, piercing barrage of high-pitched shouting in Shan burst through the open teak shutters behind us, and I flinched reflexively. Diew swore under her breath, and I felt her muscles slacken. I lifted my finger from the trigger and smiled at her spontaneous outburst of profanity. Some boys from the village had shot a squirrel; they would singe its fur then grill the scrawny carcass before pounding it into a paste with chilli and salt for breakfast. I wrapped a grey Chinese blanket around my shoulders, stepped out of the bedroom and bounced across the split-bamboo floor of Cave Lodge. I stacked some kindling, blew the embers on the dirt hearth in the centre of the room, and squatted close to ward off the chill. Plumes of wood smoke, with a scent of fresh pine, filtered through the leaf roof. I balanced a soot-blackened kettle over the flames and waited until the steam rattled and lifted the lid. As usual, I let the creek water boil for a few minutes. I savoured the early winter mornings in my mountain home near the Burmese border, and the moments of solitude before guests filled the wooden benches around the fireplace.

Outside the open-fronted room, swirls of mist wafted through the evergreen forest on the slope above the river. The liquid babble of the Nam Lang in the valley below, and the clacking of teak and bamboo bells dangling from the buffaloes that grazed its banks, helped calm my frayed nerves. Downstream, a gibbon whooped in the forest near where the river flowed into Lod Cave. Living next to a village overstocked with weapons, the gibbon, like me, was lucky to be alive. The year, 1988, had turned catastrophic. A series of disasters over the last months of 1987 had climaxed in an appalling incident, and my family and I feared for our safety. I loved the guesthouse I had built with my blistered and sometimes bloodied hands, but I felt despondent and ready to run. The temptation to escape and slink back into the security of the Australian home I had abandoned in 1976 was growing each day. I poured a cup of strong mountain Arabica. The sun had crested the eastern ridge and was gradually dissolving the mist in the valley. A couple of teenage girls, my Burmese–Shan staff, arrived and started to sweep the floor of the lodge. A few early risers wandered up from their bungalows and joined me by the fire. Over our conversation, I heard the rolling crunch of a vehicle descending the gravel driveway from the village. Diew, my partner of more than 10 years, called out in Northern Thai from the kitchen at the back of the house, 'Mee siang rot mar ner. Mar chao te chao wa.' She had heard the approaching vehicle and remarked that it was early for visitors. I stood up and stretched, then sauntered over to the front steps of the lodge. The Royal Thai Police Commander from Mae Hong Son and Captain Somchai strode towards me from their brown and white Isuzu pickup. Silver stars and coloured bars studded their immaculate, body-hugging uniforms. Polished shoes and steel pistols in black holsters gleamed in the sunlight. The commander glanced at my bare feet before working his way up my baggy farmers pants to a dingy T-shirt. I held my palms together under my chin and bowed in a wai. Using Northern Thai, I politely asked the officers the reason for their visit. Somchai, the local police chief, spoke in soft Central Thai.

'John', he said, 'we have come to arrest you for murder'. The words blasted into my gut. He looked up into my eyes and smiled. I emptied my lungs with an audible whoosh. 'You're joking, right?' The captain shook his head. 'Murder?' I swallowed. 'Me?' A month had passed since the captain and I stood together in a dry creek bed beside the body of Ewa, an Australian tourist who had stayed at the lodge. Somchai had handed me a camera and told me to photograph the murder scene, while a medic inspected the corpse. The horrific images I had captured on film had been haunting me ever since. The police investigation had dragged on, without any suspects – until now. Somchai clutched a garbage bag in his right hand. Something half-filled the bag and stretched the thin plastic. The captain raised it to waist height and grinned. A surreal premonition flashed through my mind. This mad magician in a police uniform was about to pluck out a severed head, or something worse. I gulped and shook my head in denial of my warped thoughts. The captain reached deep inside his black bag. The conjurer inside my head whispered, 'For my next trick...', while I braced myself. Somchai drew out a grey blanket, gripping one corner between his thumb and fingertips. An adrenaline-laced flashback fired another shot into my stomach. This was not a trick, nor a joke.

The bloodstains on the blanket had solidified into a black crust. The captain lifted the rank rag under my nose, and a smirk spread over his face. 'This', he said, 'is it yours?' Somchai cocked his head and tightened his lips. The rim on his star-studded cap shaded his eyes, but I knew he was scrutinising my facial reactions. I ignored him and stared at the blanket; I hadn't expected to see it again. The captain dropped the blanket on the teak steps that led up to the lodge. He must have known I owned it. Otherwise, he wouldn't have brought the highest-ranking cop in the province with him. I hesitated and considered denying everything. Almost every household in the highlands owned identical blankets – they were as common as empty Singha beer bottles. The captain couldn't prove this blood-caked one belonged to me. Unless I confessed.

Somchai was fishing, and he struck me as the type of angler who likes to watch a live worm squirm on a barbed hook. My stomach was churning. I couldn't swallow my spit. I knew I would never be able to bullshit my way out of this. 'Yeah, the blanket is mine. It's from down there.' I pointed to the nearest guest bungalow. A backpacker with long dishevelled hair, eyes shut, was meditating on the rickety veranda. The image of serenity in this atmosphere of intensifying panic struck me as incongruous. Somchai gave my guest, and his bungalow, a dismissive snort. My head was spinning. Memories of a frantic moment in Bungalow 11 were surging back. I had ripped the blanket off the bed while I was bellowing in Thai, ordering my staff to bring me a hatchet. Somchai reached again into his black bag. He slowly extracted a soiled tangle of green nylon cord. He held it out, as if trying to return it. 'How about this?' He was pushing the hook in deeper, but I wasn't going to squirm for him. 'It was the clothes line.' I lifted my head and puckered my lips in the direction of two wooden stakes stuck in the lawn. A short length of severed green cord dangled from the top of each post. 'We found these things in the forest near the cave.' His voice had lost its derision, and he no longer smiled. I struggled to meet his accusative stare and look less guilty than he was making me feel. I stuck with the incriminating truth. 'I ditched them there last month.' The captain looked at his superior and raised his eyebrows. The commander had crossed his arms on his decorated chest, and slowly nodded his head. I detected a glint of smug satisfaction in his eyes. He seemed confident he had solved the murder mystery. Things were looking bad. The last time the commander had visited the lodge, he told me he intended to close the guesthouse. The autopsy had revealed the body of the murdered Australian contained a potentially lethal amount of heroin, and he insinuated that I had supplied the drugs. I told him I had never touched heroin in my life, and abhorred its use. The commander had curled his upper lip and given me a sceptical look, but he had allowed the  lodge to remain open.

Now he was back, fingering me for murder. If I couldn't refute the latest accusation, he might wrap up the case and contemplate an on-the-spot sentence. I lived in the Golden Triangle borderlands, where precedents were plentiful and death comes cheap. Bullets cost seven baht each – three for a dollar. Over the past few minutes the police investigation had progressed at an alarming rate. The cops were deadly serious about the bloody blanket. I sucked in a lungful of cold mountain air to regain my composure. I knew the captain or his superior had lost the plot, and I was slipping into a quagmire of dodgy judgment. I needed to distance myself from their dubious accusation and from my ludicrous thoughts. The evidence that linked me to the brutal slaying of the Australian was flimsy, even farcical, and nobody was going to shoot me in front of my guests. Anyway, the case was already bizarre enough, without any embellishment. People staying at the lodge had seen Ewa Czajor alive for the last time on 3 January 1988, at the mouth of Lod Cave. Ewa had left the cave alone at sunset, while her boyfriend Peter lingered inside the 50-metre-high entrance chamber with a group of foreign tourists. In the twilight, hundreds of thousands of cave-adapted swifts fly into the cave to spend the night clinging to stalactites, while the resident bats exit for nocturnal hunting. Peter had waited for the evening bird and bat show to begin. Ewa's assailants had intercepted her somewhere along the path from the cave to the lodge. They had injected heroin into her arm, raped her, and strangled her with a jungle vine. Weeks had passed without any arrests, and pressure was building on the police to come up with a credible suspect. Then they had picked up the blanket and green cord. I admitted to ownership and to having trashed the stuff outside Lod Cave, but did not confess to any crime – let alone murder. I was aware that a tourist's blood had drenched the blanket – it had splattered onto the cave floor, coated my hands and smeared my clothing. My heart was racing when I chucked the blanket behind a tree near the cave entrance. I had little choice; soggy cloth doesn't burn, and I didn't have time to bury it.

Now, with Somchai standing on the front steps of the lodge, accusing me of complicity in the murder of one of my guests, I wished I had stashed the blanket in my Land Rover, washed it and put it back in Bungalow 11. What baffled me was that the captain knew he couldn't rationally relate my blanket to the murder of Ewa. Her killers had drugged and then throttled her, but had not spilt any blood. Somchai's soiled evidence led nowhere. I invited the officers into the lodge to discuss the matter over a mug of coffee and banana muffins. I felt confident I could clarify some of the confusion clouding the case, and contribute original insights. The captain needed to revitalise his stagnant investigation with a more logical interpretation of the evidence. I thought I knew the identity of one of the killers. I had requested protection weeks before Somchai's latest visit, and was still paying for two uniformed officers with M16s to sleep in a hut near the front gate of the lodge. I hoped their presence would deter my suspect from pumping shells out of his five-cartridge, pump-action shotgun into my guesthouse and family. Thai authorities had handed out 15 of these weapons to men in our border-region village, for self-defence. To counteract the intimidation, my male staff had acquired illegal weaponry from Chiang Mai. Backyard factories in Lampang churned out the crude but effective handguns. Some fired shotgun shells that sprayed a lethal volley of pellets. Others blasted out M16 bullets and recoiled with enough force to snap a wrist. I had never fired a gun, but kept my shotgun loaded on the wall beside my bed. My family slept restlessly. We cringed at creaking floorboards, the growls of the village dogs, and every gunshot. A vision of a last-stand scenario was exacerbating my insomnia. My opponent could pump out five shells in rapid succession. A pre-emptive strike might be a survivable option, but I doubted I could muster enough courage, or hate, to fire my single-shell shotgun first. I sat with the two officers on the bamboo floor of the lodge, and we discussed my perceptions and fears. I assumed that they didn't touch the muffins because they had handled the blanket. Over coffee, the captain said he was conducting a broad investigation  and considered everyone a possible suspect. And I would remain one until I established my innocence.

'You know Diew and I were in Chiang Mai when Ewa died', I told my accusers. Diew is a Chiang Mai native, and she had worked in the northern capital as a trekking guide. When Ewa was leaving the cave alone to walk back to the lodge, we were 200 kilometres away – a distance that took five or six hours in our Land Rover. Another Australian tourist could confirm our sound alibi, if he was taking his medication. Our witness, a proverbial guest from hell, had accompanied us from the lodge to Chiang Mai. He had needed to consult a psychiatrist and treat his schizophrenia, which had flared out of control. I convinced the officers that my blanket had nothing to do with the bloodless death of Ewa, and that I was nowhere near the cave when she died. But while I hadn't committed murder, I still needed to clarify why I had dumped a bloody blanket from Bungalow 11 and a nylon cord from the lodge in the forest near the scene of the crime. The explanation I gave the police was succinct. The full version of how I ended up on the Thai–Burma border with an Australian tourist's blood on my hands is long and convoluted, and it begins more than a decade earlier on another continent.



Enquiries jittra@cavelodge.com  CAVE LODGE 15 Moo 1, Pang Mapha District, Mae Hong Son Province, 58150, THAILAND Ph. 053617203