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DO OR DIE Spirit by Simon Totten

© Simon Totten

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*** Denotes beginning and end of Spirit narration.

***

Prologue

What’s in a name?

Allow me to introduce myself. A fraction of a second after the fertilisation of Jake Hunter’s embryo, I exploded into life. I didn’t choose him but I’m stuck with him now.

You can’t see, hear, touch, taste or smell me so it’s not surprising you don’t talk about me much and can’t find me when you need me most. Even your best scientific brains have no idea who I am. They believe human DNA is 2% chromosomes, cells and genes and the other 98% is dormant. They think I’m redundant genetic clutter left over from billions of years of evolution. They call me Junk. Whatever.

To be honest, it’s not important what you or your eggheads call me. I am nothing yet everything. To some I’m the essence of their being, a celestial presence, an indefinable aura. To others I’m just plain spirit.

The Windows of the Soul

For the last twenty five years, I have marvelled at your world through the windows of Jake’s soul. Buildings so high you can see for miles from the top. Clouds the size of mountains. Sunsets so stunning they make you cry. Skies so vast and clear, you believe you can fly. Trees so tall and strong with roots so deep, anything seems possible. It’s the same one you see, except for two things: The spirits and the colours.

The Spirits

It’s amazing what people believe isn’t it? Jake hopes I will end up at the pearly gates of heaven where choirs of angels will welcome me with hymns and harps. Sometimes he fears devils with pitchforks will make me burn forever in the eternal fires of Hell.

Others say spirits are recycled. Not like plastic bottles, but reborn into the body of something or someone else. They come back in a frog, orangutan or dragonfly or something. Then, after living many lives they end up in Nirvana.

Others believe spirits of bad people are swallowed by a creature with a crocodile head called the ‘Devourer of Souls.’ Spirits of good people are led to the Happy Fields, to join the God of the Underworld. A few think a human life is a prison sentence to be served before the spirit can take its place in the glorious Milky Way.

Whatever you think happens to your spirit when you die, think again. It becomes one of three kinds of spirit known as ‘The Unholy Trinity of The Dead.’

1. ‘The Free’ move on to become sunshine and light.
2. ‘The Hungry’ stop at nothing for revenge until they move on.
3. ‘The Damned’ are dark black hybrid, shape shifters or shadows that remain on earth to make evil happen.

The Colours

Some say they can see the colours but I’m not so sure. They’re sometimes known as aura or the fingerprint of God. They’re a visible clue to the hidden reality of people. A map of their thoughts and feelings. A precise indication of their emotional state. It’s a shame you can’t see them, they’d make your life so much easier.

My Story

This story is best told by me because I know what Jake is thinking before he thinks it. I feel the blood in his veins. I see his dreams and memories. I know him better than he knows himself.

From ‘The Bible’ and ‘The Quran’, to ‘The Sun’ newspaper. From ‘A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius,’ to ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears,’ From literary fiction, to page turning crime thrillers, to dark fantasy or fluffy rom com chick lit there aren’t many stories that haven’t already been told. So why bother with mine?

Well, if you’ve ever been curious about spirit, then read on, you’re in the right place.

***

Chapter 1

A Bolt from the Blue

Blood oozes from the stab wound in Jake Hunter’s abdomen. Its red warmth soaks deep into his white cotton T-shirt. A strange weightlessness fills the void of his desolate mind. Cold fear swamps it. A silent scream begs the life that’s draining from his body to return.

He reaches for the comfort of the St Christopher pendant around his neck, but can’t feel it.

‘Our Father who art in heaven…’ he prays.

He collapses, on his back, staring at the ceiling. Sweat pours into his eyes. Panting like a dog on a hot summer’s day, his heart pounds, flooding his brain with blood. A hot wetness trickles down his leg. Quick fire thoughts rattle through his mind. Help. Someone. Save me. Please. I beg you. Anyone.

His heartbeat murmurs. Fading fast, dreams flicker unsteadily into life, hovering like ghosts. White fluffy clouds and sheep drift into a storm. He levitates down the stairs backwards. When he hits the bottom, a white baboon dances to sad accordion music. A witch cackles in the background. He tries to light a candle but can’t. He rides a magic carpet to escape, but there’s no way out. Heavy breathing follows him, slowing to a faint whisper.

As he stares into the abyss, he rakes through the cluttered chaos of his past, racing back in time over the rolling fields of the green valley he’d grown up in. Over the tops of houses. Through parks he’d played in as a child. The school he’d learned to read and write in. Along roads he’d ridden his bike on. Streets he’d walked on.

Black clouds and shadows shift, clearing his way, inviting him in to a cold, lonely place. A place so dark, he could not see a way out.
A voice was calling him. A voice he knew well.

‘Let’s play,’ said Danny.

Jake followed his younger brother out of the darkness into the back garden of his parent’s house where they’d spent many hours happily playing. In truth it was a rubbish dump full of weeds but to a five-year-old it was an adventure playground.

As Jake swayed on a rusty old swing gazing at dandelion fairies gliding over a broken trellis fence, children’s voices echoed in the street. An ice cream van jingled. Danny shot an arrow from a bow that just missed his head. Jake laughed.

In the woods behind his house, he lingered over the tops of trees. White clouds meandered across a clear blue sky. Brittle leaves rustled in the wind on a sunny autumn day. The fiery red face and shirtless torso of a scrawny boy, fried pink by the sun, came running out of the bushes towards him. Beneath the great oaks and spreading sycamores, Danny looked tiny.

‘Da na na na na, da na na na na,’ rattled Jake with a stick gun.

‘Bang, bang, you’re dead,’ said Danny.

That’s not fair you’re both supposed to fall when you’re dead. Nobody can survive an attack at that range. Play fair! Drop dead!

Anyway, you’re the cavalry and I’m Geronimo chief of all commanche Indian braves. You have to be dead before I can take your scalp with my tomohawk,’ said Danny.

‘We should get back, tea will be ready,’ said Jake.

‘Ahh, you always spoil the game,’ said Danny. They set off home, lost in their world of make believe, oblivious to the menacing black clouds hanging above the crisp yellow leaves that were clinging on to summer.

Rain drops pattered, tickling at first and then pelting off their heads. They wiped floods from their eyes while laughing at their squelching shoes and the novelty of being soaked in their clothes.

The branches of trees bent backwards as the wind howled. It held them back as they walked into it. They put their arms out and lifted their feet in exaggerated fashion, puffed out their cheeks and leaned forward pretending to walk like spacemen on the moon. They couldn’t hear themselves speak as the wind took their voices and swirled them around so they echoed in the hollows of tree trunks and the depths of rabbit holes.

Thunder rumbled louder. They did Indian rain dances and laughed. The more they danced the more it rained and the more it rained the more they laughed. Jake looked up, rain spat repeatedly in his eyes. The dark sky lit up with a white flash. He saw the oak creaking in the wind. Its base ruptured and the wind toppled it. He fell to the ground and watched helplessly as it swayed towards him. Danny was suddenly above him pulling him by his arms and dragging him across the ground until he could go no further and collapsed exhausted on the wet ground. They looked up in time to see the tree, crack, splinter and crash just inches away from them. Dishevelled and trembling they turned to each other and laughed.

Jake stirs. His heartbeat canters and gallops, then thunders like wild horses’ hooves. Slowly, air filters back into his lungs, making him splutter and choke, until his breathing is rising and falling like a tsunami. His eyes flutter, half opening. Summoning all his strength, he lifts his head and pushes himself up. On his hands and knees, he crawls towards the door, spilling a thick trail of blood on the floor behind him. His red right hand reaches for the handle.

His legs give way. He stumbles to his knees near the door. Then, like a demolished house he falls. His left arm twisted behind his back, legs splayed on the ground. Blood, seeping from a thin flesh wound, drips slowly into a pool on the floor and he plunges deep into unconsciousness.

***
Strange how life turns out sometimes isn’t it? Just two days earlier, he’d stepped off a flight to Bangkok from London via Frankfurt and Abu Dhabi. And now, here he was, lying on the ground in a remote hilltribe village near Chiang Mai, alone and abandoned with his life hanging by the slenderest thread.

Just goes to show, you can never be sure what’s around the corner. I don’t know about you but Jake Hunter thinks life is written in the stars. It’s a series of random unconnected events and coincidences. Things happen because they’re meant to. You get what you get. It’s all about destiny and serendipity.

You might put what happened down to Sod’s law, or Murphy’s law, the law of averages, Polyanna’s law, Pangloss’s law, the law of making up jackass laws. You may even say you make your own luck in life but take it from me, spirits make life happen.

Even in his hour of need, he was sure he wouldn’t die. God simply wouldn’t allow it. The old man with the long flowing white beard in the sky was too full of love, hope and kindness. Too great and powerful to let a thing like that happen. And even if it was his time, there was no need to worry. He’d send a messenger. A beautiful angel with breathtaking white wings who’d take him to Heaven.

This was no surprise to me. He’s always believed in things he’s never seen. As a boy, he thought Santa Claus flew around the world in one night delivering presents. Easter eggs came from the Easter bunny. Jack Frost covered the ground in that magical silver stuff. Fairies played at the bottom of his garden and ghosts and ghouls hid under his floorboards. And whenever he got into trouble Superman or Spiderman would always rescue him.

As recently as a few months ago, on the way back from the pub he convinced himself leprechauns, elves, goblins and aliens were dancing in the moonlight. He still keeps pictures of the Loch Ness Monster and UFOs in his drawer in the hope that one day someone will prove they exist once and for all.

People who believe in such things are either brave or stupid. I can’t decide. Call me crazy if you like, but I only believe in things I can see.

Most people can’t wait for their holidays. Cheap package deals, remote paradise islands, a bit of five-star luxury, or a spot of glamping but not Jake.

His story begins a couple of days ago, at the start of his holiday in Bangkok. The three weeks of holiday fun in Thailand were supposed to be a new start. A chance to put all his worries behind him, look forward to all the places he’d see, the people he’d meet. Be seduced by new tastes and exotic experiences. Be enlightened by the spiritual wisdom of Buddha. Discover new horizons, break down barriers and find himself. Be transformed into an adrenalin junkie. Wear shades and shorts, soak up rays, sip Pina Coladas and ogle at big busted bikini babes on white tropical beaches with emerald oceans and paradise palms.

But the plain truth was it scared him to death. I was shocked when he decided to go. It was nothing to do with me, I assure you. I kept telling him, ‘This is it. The dream holiday you’ve been waiting for. Life is for living. Go for it.’ But he didn’t listen. These days he never does.

***


Chapter 2

Afro Fire

On his way to meet his brother Danny at a hotel on Bangkok’s Khao San Road, the bus from the airport was crawling. It had been stuck in traffic for three hours and the unforgiving humidity was burying him alive. He removed his steamed-up glasses and wiped a tepid residue of sweat from his eyes. This was his first trip abroad and he was cooking in the midday heat. Shielding his eyes from the white-hot glare, he stumbled, grabbing at thin air.

‘Open the window please, someone… anyone?’ he said. Nobody moved or said a word. Like white-faced zombies, passengers stared straight through him.

He gazed out of the window. He had never seen so many people as there were on the streets of Bangkok. Not in one place, at the same time. Businessmen in suits gabbled furiously into mobile phones, street sellers hollered and beggars pleaded. Each with the same desperation in their eyes.

Cars, trucks, rickshaws, lorries queued bumper to bumper. Heaving, clanking wrecks of man-made insanity were gridlocked, snarling like a stampede of wounded metallic beasts.

When the bus finally stopped to let people off, it was a huge relief. There was light at the end of the tunnel in the shape of a vacant seat. Jake slumped into it. Except that rather than sitting, he perched on it. The large woman next to him, with her round hips, Afro frizz and breasts like lumpy pillows, was taking up most of the room but at least he was able to put his heavy bag down and rest his legs.

He ran his clammy fingers through the matted thick black curls and gnawed at his fingernails. Fists clenched. Teeth grinding. His trembling hand unzipped his bag and fumbled inside for his plastic bottle of water.

‘Shhh…’ he sighed, pulling it out and seeing it was empty. He still managed a smile though, musing that perhaps this was what it meant to be living on the edge. He consoled himself with the fact it was a considerable improvement on standing in the aisle in a tangle of sticky bodies, close to collapse.

The bus driver had not been watching the road. Every now and then he would fling his arms in the air shaking his fists at everyone and everything. Then, he bowed his head, clasped his hands together and appeared to be talking to himself.

Jake stared at the woman next to him, imploring an explanation.

‘What the hell’s he doing?’ he said.

‘He ask for help,’ she said. ‘From Mae Yanang the goddess of journeys to chase the smog away.’

Next to Jake an old woman was standing, struggling with heavy bags of shopping. She was swaying in the heat as if she was going to pass out. He stood up and gestured for her to take his seat. Smiling gratefully she slumped into it and the colour returned to her cheeks.

Through the front window, Jake could see no further than a couple of metres ahead. He closed his eyes, trembling, imagining no end of mayhem and carnage, rubbed his St Christopher pendant between his sticky finger and thumb.

‘Hail Mary full of grace…’ he muttered, praying for safety and the journey to end. When the bus finally juddered to a halt he made his way to the exit. The twelve hour flight had left him feeling like an astronaut, taking his first steps on the moon. As he stretched and yawned, he noticed most of the smog had cleared but the angry growl of gridlocked vehicles sent a shudder through his bones.

After collecting his backpack from the luggage store, he set off for the hostel where he had arranged to meet Danny. He fought a lone battle against an incessant tide of jostling bodies.

As he hurried on his way, sweat dripping from his forehead, he stopped in his tracks. In the dark shadow of a shop front, he shivered, feeling unwell. He couldn’t understand why he was so cold in such unbearable heat. A black mood, laced with fearful dread spread over him.

As soon as the light touched him an overwhelming feeling of warmth he had never experienced before spread inside him. He was at peace. When it left him his optimism did too.

Time had crept quietly on to 3.36pm, not long until he was due to meet Danny. He broke into a jog. A sign for the Khao San Road appeared. He stood by the side of the road waiting to cross. In the grit and slime in the gutter he shifted his feet uneasily from side to side. He couldn’t wait to see him. The last thing he wanted was to be late. While he waited for a gap in the never ending traffic his impatience grew and grew until finally, he could take no more and inched his way forwards.

He expected drivers to show some caution and slow down. A rickshaw rattled by, missing his toes by a few centimetres. He stepped back. The wind from vehicles flew past him forcing him further back. Drivers pumped their horns, stopping to lean out of windows and shake their fists at him. Their red faces snarled, spitting insults like bullets.

‘Afro fire, Afro fire,’ whispered a voice in his ear. He looked around for someone speaking to him. He was alone.

On the other side of the road, the hefty woman from the bus, with the Afro frizz and breasts like lumpy pillows was staring at him. Orange and yellow flames shot out of her head. Her hair was ablaze.

Jake stepped out, running into the road to help her. The woman looked at him, grinning. The fire was gone. Laughter filled his head.

‘AAAArghhh…’ he raged as a rusty old pick-up truck, with the passenger side door panned in was speeding out of control towards him. Like a rabbit in headlights, he froze.

***

The people in Bangkok that day all had halos of luminous light surrounding them. Usually, I can spot a few green auras, belonging to well-balanced normal people, peaceful, comfortable, healthy, loving types. People that enjoy nature and animals. People that put education above money. But here there were none. Most were purple or muddied red. Purple is pain. Red is rage, the kind that can make you kill.

Clouds of toxic poison billowed from the traffic fumes into the sky, melting holes in it. Crimson, pink, orange and green swirled like an aurora borealis. I wondered how it was possible that something so beautiful could be so deadly. Let’s face it, your planet is falling apart. You’re killing yourselves with earthquakes, fires, floods, tsunami’s and hurricanes and you can’t even see it. What is it you say? ‘What the eyes don’t see… the heart can’t feel.’

When Jake gave up his seat for the old woman on the bus it reminded me that appearance is superficial, looks are only skin deep. Real beauty comes from within. When Jake had nothing to drink, I wondered why people crave love so much when you can live without it, but can’t without water.

Scorpion dragons with human hearts darkened the shifting Bangkok skies. Bugs with human eyes spewed out of sewers. Black lizard-rats with human fingers spilled from the shadows, doorways and ledges of buildings. When one spread itself over Jake’s face, I had to be careful. Stay strong. Let them in and three things could happen. 1. Jake would die or 2. He’d go insane or 3. Both.

Years ago, when Jake was knee high to a grasshopper, he went to see serious men in white coats. They did all kinds of tests and looked at his mother grimly. They told him he had ‘Bipolar Type II Psychosis.’ Ever since he has always taken yellow pills to keep the voice in his head and the visions he sees under control. But in all the holiday excitement, he had forgotten them.

***

Chapter 3

The Domino Effect

The truck swerved, missing Jake by a hair’s breadth. It span in a circle in front of him. Veering to the right it hit the curb. Two wheels mounted the pavement. Metal poles piled up in the back, rattling and rolling before bouncing onto the road. People dived out of the way. A man in a grey business suit fell backwards tossing his briefcase into the sky. Pieces of paper flapped in the air.

A woman tottered backwards on high-heeled stilettoes, dropping her jaw and bags at the same time. The truck careered into empty seats and tables outside a restaurant and ploughed headlong into it, shattering the name ‘Soon Fat’ neatly written on the front window in frosted letters. A shower of glass rained down as it came to a standstill, half inside, half outside the restaurant.

The distant sound of smashing glass was faintly audible above droning traffic. A dull thud, scraping metal and a scream quickly followed. Something sparked and buzzed.

His glasses flew off. His world was a blur. Shaken up, he fumbled blindly in the road. When he finally retrieved them he placed them back on his nose and struggled to his feet. Through fumes he could see the concern on the faces of the gathering crowd.

Passers-by moved in slow motion, as if nothing had happened. Splintered table legs and broken chairs were scattered over the ground. Broken fragments of brick tumbled from a wall. Umbrella shades lay crushed and battered. The restaurant owner came out of the entrance in tears and sank to his knees, holding his head in his hands. His life’s work, ruined in a few seconds.

A man was lying spread-eagled, in the road next to the mangled wreckage of his tuk tuk. The left wheel was bent double, the right spinning slowly. Jake searched for signs of life but the man was motionless, his eyes were closed.

In the middle of the chaos, was a small Thai boy, dressed in a cowboy suit lying on the ground. His fingers twitching, scratching at the hard tarmac pavement. His pleading eyes lost in space. They blinked a few times, before closing. Blood trickled from his ear. Next to him the silver barrel of his toy pistol gleamed in the sun. One minute he had been happily playing in the street. The next he wasn’t. The faces surrounding him were vacant and gaunt.

As the growl of engines faded into the background, Jake staggered towards the boy to help him but was forced back again by traffic. The other side of the road felt like the other side of the world as he gazed in horror at the wreck of the smoking truck and the surrounding carnage. He wanted the ground to swallow him whole.

A Thai woman, holding a baby in her arms was bawling hysterically. She pushed through the mass of crowded bodies. Several people jostled her but she stayed focused on the boy. Free at last from the crowd she ran to him. She held back her momentum and easing herself unsteadily down, she knelt next to him, as if she were praying.

‘Lek, Lek, Lek!’ she screamed, touching his face.

She leaned over and shook his lifeless body again and again. There was no response. She tried again, refusing to accept his fate. In that moment the world stopped. Silence filled the air. Her baby’s cry shattered it. Only a grieving mother could cradle a boy in her arms and weep in that way. Images of chaos and Lek’s dead face played over and over in his mind.

Jake twisted his fingers together and bit down so hard on his lip, he tasted blood. He heaved deep breaths, trying to stay calm. He wanted to run but couldn’t. He stood rigid, transfixed by shock, rooted to the spot. Vomit welled up in his throat. Pain birds flew from his churning stomach and circled his mind, making him dizzy.

Turning his back on grave onlookers’ faces, he ran, his heart racing, his lungs ready to burst. At the street corner he stopped. Bent double, hacking and barking like a seal. He was on the verge of collapse. He could go no further and looked back.

In the distance, people were fussing and shouting. A policeman tried to calm irate drivers, beeping their horns. Another was hopelessly directing traffic. People got out of stationary vehicles, shouting. Blue sirens blared and flashed. Firemen sprayed the burning car, quelling the flames. Paper and burning debris flew in the air like confetti. Smoke darkened the sky.

Jake’s thoughts span out of control. He looked up at the ashen sky. He saw clouds, the odd bird. Nothing unusual. He wondered if there really was a God. And if so, how could he let something like this happen? He sat down on the corner of the street, drew his knees up to his chin and covered his ears, rocking slowly, back and forth.

***

From inside the tuk-tuk drivers twisted body the swirling mist of a black mutant spirit emerged. With two stumpy horns and dark hollow sockets for eyes it drifted into the street. Tusk-like fangs snarled. A long proboscis slithered in and out of its jaws. At first it floated around a ravenous dog which was nuzzling at scraps in the gutter and slipped inside its bony ribcage. The dog shook violently as if it had fleas. When it bolted, the spirit flew out again and filtered slowly out of sight down the metal grid of a drain.

A white ghost howled and span into a mini tornado of glowing gold that fizzed, sparked and rocketed into the sky. It exploded, shooting laser beams of light from behind clouds. It sliced through the smog, lighting up the world until it was gone, free at last.

It took a while. These things sometimes take longer than you expect but when the dust had settled on the accident and the spirit of that poor boy Lek left his body, I had only one thought. Only the good die young. The faint imprint of his face was separated from the rest of him. It circled, seeming uncertain of where to go or what to do next.

But one thing was for sure. It had decided that if Jake hadn’t run into the road, the car wouldn’t have hit Lek and he’d still be alive. It was simple: Jake was the reason he was dead. It was pure white, shaking with the demented lunacy of a hungry ghost that would stop at nothing to get revenge. That was bad news for Jake. Very bad.

***

Chapter 4

A Tourist’s temple

Jake had only been in the country a couple of hours and two people were dead already. He wondered what could go wrong next. He steadied his trembling hand, telling himself accidents happened all the time, especially in busy cities. He wasn’t going to miss his holiday with Danny. That was unthinkable.

He checked his watch. He could still make it on time to meet him at a hotel on the Khao San Road, but he’d have to hurry. Jet lag and heat exhaustion slowed his progress.

For the last few months updates on Danny’s travel exploits had been daily. Emailed snapshots of stunning sunsets, backpackers’ mooning arses, death defying sky divers and bungee jumping adrenaline junkies had dropped into his inbox. Garbled incoherent ramblings on the beauty of our planet had clogged his voicemail. His twitter account was overloaded with graphic, occasionally sordid secrets of the travel circuit. Random philosophical texts popped up regularly. The bulletins had become as much a part of his everyday life as the milk on his cornflakes.

But then, without warning, they stopped. He had heard nothing from Danny for the last three months. That wasn’t like him.

He hadn’t needed to leave his bedroom to be part of Danny’s adventures in Indonesia, Burma, Borneo and now Thailand. All he’d had to do was click a mouse, push a button, chill and Danny was there. Now, the reality of being in Bangkok was starting to hit him.

The tatty, crumpled postcard he was holding in his hand had already lost its whiteness to the ravages of time. The corners were shrivelled by sunlight and Danny’s scrawl on the back had been smudged by orange brown beer or coffee stains, he couldn’t quite remember. All that really mattered was that it was still legible and despite the many wonders of modern technology it was his only real link to him. He stretched his wiry frame upwards and held it up to the light to get a better look.

“Hey dude, I’m the urban spaceman. Wheels are made for rollin’, bags were made to pack I never seen a sight that didn’t look better lookin’ back. Butterflies, zebras, moonbeams and fairytales, - Tai Loke 3570 Khao San Rd is cheapest Bangkok hostel if you fancy a visit. Meet you there. Aug 21 4pm? Jesus Jimi Christ, Come up and see me make me smile?”

Jake smiled at the lyrics of Danny’s favourite songs. On their last night together, they had got stoned listening to Hendrix, Dylan and The Rolling Stones. The sixties kind of suited Danny. Wild, free and easy.

On the front of the postcard was a photo of Thai workers with wide-brimmed straw hats, digging in a field with spades and forks. He tucked it carefully in his pocket like it was his most treasured worldly possession.

The midday sun glowed suddenly, burning his face. A Thai man in a green shell suit stood in his way. He looked about twenty but with a face that was care worn, full of scars and pot holes. A greasy streak of his black wavy hair hung down in front of his pale face. He loitered, as if he were about to rob him.

‘You want… buy?’ he asked, holding up plastic bath plugs on chains while one of his eyes stared into the space above his head and the other was covered by a patch.

Unsettled by his presence, Jake skirted around him. A few steps further on, an older man tried to convince him that a stuffed camel would be the cornerstone of his existence. It seemed that everywhere he turned, somebody was selling something as if their life depended on it. He kept his head down and carried on.

A beggar stood before him. His filthy ripped rags were all but hanging off his back. His face was barely visible through dry flakes of dirt and great clumps of his long beard were matted together. He held out a photo of Thai royalty and rattled a rusty tin. Guilt and pity made him reach into his pocket for some coins but he thought better of it and in the end gave him nothing.

A Thai woman leaned in close to his face, pressing herself against him so he felt the cushion of her breasts on his arm. It was difficult to see her face at first. It was hidden by a black veil.

‘Cheap fuckee, you want cheap fuckee?’ she asked, sliding her tongue back and forth over broken teeth.

As her dark sunken eyes, warts and hooked nose became visible, he guessed she must have been in her late forties at least. Jake shook his head, barely able to look at her. He brushed her aside and lengthened his stride. He kept looking back to see if he was rid of her. He heard her yelling after him but her voice gradually faded away. When he was satisfied she had given up and finally taken her business elsewhere, he breathed a sigh of relief.

Exhausted, Jake dumped his rucksack on the pavement and sat down on it for a rest. Just when he thought he’d found a moment of peace, out of nowhere, a caged chicken was thrust into his face. As he stared into its drooping eyes, a warm liquid splashed his face. He looked up and a drip of sweat fell into his face from the hairy armpit above him.

‘Jesus C-Christ,’ he stammered.

The man with the chicken suddenly disappeared. He stood up, shaking. Fists clenched. Teeth grinding.

‘F-Fuck,’ he said, his tongue’s connection to his brain severed.

‘You ok?’ said an old man passing by.

Jake glared at him suspiciously.

Taut and visibly shaking, the old man leaned closer to him, narrowing his watery hazel eyes. Sensing Jake’s apprehension he removed the amulet on a piece of string from around his neck and reached over to hand it to Jake.

‘Really there’s no need,’ protested Jake. ‘I’ve got a St Christopher to protect me,’ said Jake. ‘He’s the patron saint of travellers, where I come from.’

‘Take it, take it,’ insisted the old man forcing the amulet into his hand. Reluctantly Jake closed his fingers around it and tied it around his neck.

‘It look bad,’ said the old man, pointing at the sky. Jake looked up at the cloud of thick smog billowing into the road, studying the swirl of mysterious white shapes spiralling over rows of cars, bicycles, tuk-tuks and rickashaws. They were drifting closer. The world was disappearing before his eyes, closing in on him.

He was late. Danny would be wondering where he was. The Khao San Road was bursting with noise and activity. A riot of colour stretched as far as he could see. He had never been anywhere like this before. It was a cornucopia of delight and madness. Sellers shouted. Tourists clicked at cameras, furiously snapping momentoes of their visit. Businessmen’s ears were glued to their phones. Clothes stalls were draped in swathes of shiny silk and garish cotton. The smells of fried locusts and banana fritters released floods of saliva in his mouth. He licked his lips and swallowed hard to avoid drooling.

After browsing fake rolexes, handbags and cheap gold necklaces, he positioned himself carefully, balancing on both feet under the canopy of a market stall to shelter from the rain.

It showed no sign of easing off. He resigned himself to a soaking and made a dash for it into the street, splashing his way through puddles, half-jogging, half-lurching. He didn’t mind the rain. In fact, he quite liked it. It was cool and refreshing.

As he searched for ‘Tai Loke 3570,’ among the sprawling Thai letters on advertising signs, he kept mumbling the number over and over to himself. Several times he stopped to catch his breath, while water rolled into his face. Wiping his specs on his soggy sleeve only made visibility worse and he kept bumping into strangers. One of them took offence, cursed and jostled him. He took evasive action and hurried on.

Eventually he came to a battered door. The numbers painted on the wall beside it were faint. He checked them several times until he was sure it was 3570. He tried to push the weight of the front door, yanking and heaving it, but it wouldn’t budge. The stress of the journey had left him weak and tired. His wet clothes were sticking to his skin like concrete, weighing him down.

Then without any effort at all the heavy gold knocker in the middle suddenly began to move. The door creaked magically open like the entrance to a secret temple.

When he stepped inside the Tai Loke hotel, a sweaty grubby mess of a middle-aged man emerged in the doorway. As he held it open his beady eyes looked Jake up and down and then he walked inside and sat down behind a glass kiosk that reminded him of an old theatre box office.

His jowels were chubby like a hamster’s. Strands of greasy hair were stuck to the crown of his round bald head. His face, partly obscured by swipes of dirt and a spider web of cracks in the glass, resembled a Picasso cubist painting. His lop-sided smile acknowledged Jake’s presence.

‘Yeth? What d’ya want?’ he lisped through the gap in his teeth Jake pulled out the creased photo of Danny.

‘You seen this guy lately? He’s staying here.

There couldn’t have been many that looked like Danny in Thailand. His dyed blonde mohawk, the dragonfly tattoo on his arm and dangly pirate ear ring made him unmistakable. Anyone seeing his smile for the first time would think it was false but he knew that whenever he had his photo taken he always said bollocks instead of cheese.

The hotel owner looked at him blankly and shook his head briefly.

‘Many tourist, no memory,’ he said, scratching the flab bulging from the holes in his white string vest.

‘You sure? He’s been staying here. You must have seen him?’ said Jake waving his postcard under his nose.

A grimace spread over his face. His pursed lips, inflating the rolls of flesh under his chin like a plastic paddling pool. He shrugged.

‘Ok I’ll wait for him here. Have you got a bed for tonight?’ asked Jake.

‘Only big room beds, all rest taken,’

‘Big room beds?’ asked Jake.

‘Come, I show you,’ he said, swatting a fly on the back of his hairy neck.

He ushered Jake through the door, gesturing grandly as if he were leading him into a royal palace.

‘Forty baht. Cheapest in town,’ he enthused. Jake dragged his rucksack into a shabby dormitory where rows of grey metal framed beds were lined up with military precision. Jake paid him for the night.

When the owner was out of sight he flopped onto the nearest bed. At last he could finally relax. Exhausted, he sank into a saggy mattress, staring up into the wooden rafters and waited.

***

I couldn’t miss the man selling bath plugs. His bright neon lime aura must have been about a foot wide and flashed in bright sunlight. It showed he was struggling, losing control.

The dark blue around the prostitute’s feet meant she feared the future. I could tell Jake was tempted by her offer. Maybe it was being in a strange city, nobody would know if he propositioned her. It was hard but he managed to resist.

The old man with the amulet was dark muddy and grey. A residue of fear was accumulating in his body. The darkness of death was almost upon him.

As Jake made his way to the hostel Lek was never far behind him. His legless, neckless form kept vanishing into the mountain of grey cloud above but kept coming back. He dipped and dived like a manic bird, flashing in front of us with the sheriff star on his shirt shining bright.

As the Tai Loke hostel door opened, half of his face appeared alongside us. One silky white eye peered out. Wing-like limbs hung from his sides like the melting wax of two huge candles. A gaping hole opened and closed, as if he was screaming. White fire roared from the narrow spaces where his eyes used to be. In a flash he was at Jake’s throat, slashing his misty tendrils across his neck as if he were cutting his throat.

But like all spirits Lek had to learn that he could not influence the physical world unless he possessed something living in it. He tried everything to force his way into Jake. He was inventive and determined I’ll give him that A hungry ghost never gives up but I couldn’t allow him in. Not now, not ever.

***













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