The Elephant Queen



The Elephant Queen
Christy Claiborne, the twenty-something founder of a women's shelter in San
Antonio, travels to Bangkok to network with sister organizations, and is sucked
into a one-woman war against a vast and powerful empire built on child
prostitution. To rescue 22 young girls from the empire's ruler, an octogenarian
Australian, and then destroy his empire, Christy finds a few unlikely allies,
including a wild bull elephant that weighs ten tons and is nearly two centuries old.
The Elephant Queen
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Last year (29 September 2011) ECPAT International (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes) and The Body Shop presented to the United Nations the largest human rights petition ever presented to the UN: a petition with more than 7 million signatures from around the world (7,044,278 signatures) calling for all the world’s nations to “take urgent action to stop the sex trafficking of children and young people.” This novel, first published in 2005, has that exact purpose. “Seething, colorful, and alive with unforgettable characters, Paul Soderberg’s The Elephant Queen sucks the reader into the festering underbelly of Southeast Asia and refuses to let go.” —Alan Dean Foster New York Times bestselling author of Star Wars, Alien, Clash of the Titans, and more than 100 other novelizations and novels. 1 PAUL SODERBERG
“This novel should come with a sticker warning for those with delicate sensibilities—its scenes of sex and violence are beyond intense. But it’s also the most moving and beautiful love story I’ve ever read, bar none, and it makes me proud to be an American.” —US Army Lt. Rebecca J. Powell (Ret.) 2 THE ELEPHANT QUEEN
Deep in his cave near the crest of a jungle-­‐cloaked hill to the west of the whispery river the tiger king stirred. He remained asleep, but his yard-­‐long whiskers twitched. Nightly he marked each tree at the base of the hill, and the pungence of his urine erected a ghost ramparts around that entire green castle keep. But now a few scent molecules, of an aged female elephant in an extremity of pain, had slipped through. It was these molecules that made his nostrils widen, causing his whiskers to twitch. A moment later the claws extruded slowly from and retracted back into a forepaw the size of a dinner plate. Then his tail, 7 feet long, the white tuft at its tip as big as a softball, quivered. But still he slept. 15 PAUL SODERBERG
Bangkok after breakfast! She was groggy, still on Dallas time. But today was it for sightseeing. So Christy rushed from her suite with wet hair, and at the elevator thumbed Down five quick times. The bronze doors reflected a trim twenty-­‐something blonde with the face of a six-­‐year-­‐old on her first time to the big top. Poised to plunge in and stab Lobby as they slid apart, she balked. Inside stood Wayne Newton, Thai-­‐style. His tennis outfit was cotton-­‐candy pink and his belt and Nikes were gold. He definitely was a predator—she sensed that instantly. But after granting her the minimal nod of a royal dismissing a serf, Buddha Newton sought enlightenment from his gold Rolex. So she stepped in. Not until the doors had eased closed did he make his move, but then he moved fast. She barely had time to about-­‐face and start peering up at the number panel like a West-­‐Texas rancher checking for rain before she felt his targeting focus. As surely as the car was commencing its descent, his eyes had dilated for that male look like one long rabid dog lick down her body. Then he murmured, “Pretend I’m a patient. So listen, Nurse, I don’t have an appointment with your vagina. But do you think you could squeeze me in?” She rolled her eyes as Five blinked out. He chuckled, tickled by his own wit. That chuckle tripped all her alarms, and with the stone stare of a Texas Ranger scanning for snipers she watched Four wink past. With quick-­‐draw speed his hand suddenly had cupped her left breast. Pivoting broke contact and powered her punch, her hand heel blurring up slamming his chin with such shocking force his head snapped back and banged the bronze wall and bounced forward so fast his whole body jackknifed down bringing his face straight onto her surging knee so savagely cartilage cracked with a squishy pop and splats of bloody mucus splashed. She bounded back and was ready with a roundhouse right for round two, but he was down, and when the doors slid open he lay in a spineless sprawl like the world’s biggest wad of spat-­‐out bubble gum. Shoe clicks shearing through muted classical music wafting from somewhere, she beelined across the gold-­‐and-­‐marble lobby of Bangkok’s finest hotel. At Reception she informed the white-­‐tuxedoed Thai concierge that in the elevator a moment ago she’d been sexually assaulted and the man was now out cold. 17 PAUL SODERBERG
The concierge cringed with instant and absolute regret and launched a security guard across the lobby to arrest the perp at once. Then straining for the slightest smile from her that would signal the whole awkward incident’s end, he continued to gush apologies until the guard scurried back. The guard’s frantically whispered report caused the concierge to stiffen and blanch, clear his throat and share the bottom line in a voice that rasped with dread: “You have rendered bleeding and unconscious, and very possibly concussed, His Most Serene Excellency Prince Thiri Thuriya Sinbyushin of Burma.” Christy scoffed. “Prince? Prince of Darkness, maybe.” But the now badly blinking man behind the marble countertop clearly was not joking. “Burma? You mean Myanmar?” “Yes, Miss Claiborne. He has been living many years here, in Bangkok, in exile.” “So,” she did the simple math slowly aloud, “the Burmese Neanderthal was booted out of his own country. But he’s a royal. Calling the police would therefore be both pointless and potentially hazardous to my own health. Well. In that case,” she summed up politely but firmly, “I’d be much obliged if you would pick up your telephone there and dial the American Embassy for me.” After glancing at the elevator bank, where the same guard now stood blocking access to that one car, a cell phone suctioned to his ear, the concierge inhaled himself into a more soldierly stance. Shaking his head decisively, he told her, politely but firmly, “That would be unwise, Miss Claiborne.” She leveled at him what her daddy called her Earp eyes. “Today is Thursday,” he blurted, starting suddenly to blink badly again. She let him have it with her Doc-­‐Holliday-­‐on-­‐a-­‐bad-­‐hair-­‐day stare. He twitched, gulped, and rushed to explain. “Every Thursday morning without fail, His Most Serene Excellency meets his extremely good friend the American Ambassador here for tennis, you see.” For another long moment she looked at him like his eyes were two brown empties atop a target practice fence. Then she said, “Match scratched. Due to one player stepping way out of bounds.” “Um, well, yes, Miss Claiborne.” The faintest of smirks barely rippling the golden-­‐brown tranquillity of his perfect-­‐host gaze, the concierge then inquired, “Do you still wish to lodge a complaint?” She sighed and smiled. “Oh no,” she said breezily, “no complaints,” and smiled more beguilingly to lob her bomb: “I’ll just touch Three on my cell phone. Which auto-­‐dials a friend of mine. Who happens to be the most widely read gossip columnist in the Western United States. I’m sure you’ve heard of her: Adrianne, the Abilene Oracle?” 18 THE ELEPHANT QUEEN
He clearly hadn’t heard of her. That didn’t matter. His almond-­‐shaped eyes went walnut. “The press?” “Oh sure, you bet. ‘Sexual-­‐Predator Burmese Prince Assaults American Women’s Rights Activist in The Oriental Hotel’? Yes, she definitely would love this story. So I’ll give her a call just as soon as I’ve checked out of here and found a different hotel, where women tourists aren’t attacked. So: what’s my tab?” No tab at all, he rushed to assure her, because the full $3,200 she’d paid for her two days here at the Oriental would be returned to her credit card immediately, he told her with only minimal stuttering. Patting a linen hankie at his forehead and chin, he concluded by inquiring whether she might be gracious enough to accept a palatial suite at Bangkok’s other grand old hotel, the Erawan, all her expenses there paid in full, naturally. In no rush to end the man’s torment of nightmare headlines incinerating his livelihood, Christy gazed around the ballroom-­‐size lobby. Three dark-­‐suited men wearing wraparound sunglasses were quick-­‐stepping toward the guarded elevator. No one else seemed to have noticed anything amiss. Off to the left hidden in its own flower grotto was the music source, a string quartet in plantation tuxedoes, now doing a Debussy. Beside her mother on one of the couches in the central grouping of lavender luxury seats, a cute little blonde was tickling her baby brother to make him giggle and coo. “Fine,” Christy turned back and told the discreetly gulping man. He actually closed his eyes and spewed air in relief. “But.” He freeze-­‐framed himself, staring. “I’m not going anywhere until after breakfast. Because—if you want the God’s honest truth—the most dangerous place to be in Bangkok right now is between me and a cup of coffee.” He fast-­‐forwarded with delight, waving her attention across the lobby to the arched grand exit to the riverside terrace, where guests could select from an elaborate menu of superb breakfast drinks while enjoying not only the always picturesque river traffic but also a splendid view of Thailand’s grandest shrine, the Temple of the Dawn, Wat Arun, its central prang or tower 250 ft. tall. His brows then inquired: Anything else? Yes, one more thing, she nodded. “Just how vituperative is the man?” “Vitup . . .” “Prince Sin. Sinbu, whatever.” “Sinbyushin.” “Well?” “Forgive me, Miss Claiborne, but I fail to comprehend your question.” 19 PAUL SODERBERG
With a tight smile she toggled to Texan: “Whut Ah’m askin yew ta tell me, sur, is whether that bull-­‐for-­‐brains is gonna try lockin horns with me ag-­‐in. Do Ah need ta watch mah back till Ah’m outta here headin back ta Dallas-­‐Fote Wurth ta-­‐morra night, is what Ah’m askin yew, sur, ta tell me straight.” The trick seemed to work. So focused was he on processing her bizarre accent that when he suddenly got it he seemed to blurt the truth: “ ‘Watch my back’? Oh! Oh no, Miss Claiborne, no no no. The protocol in these matters is that nothing happened, all is well, this is the Land of Smiles, after all. In other words—because you will not be perpetuating it in any way, such as, for example, involving the media—this regrettable incident simply never occurred.” Her fingernails clicked a few simple chords on the marble countertop before she nodded decisively, incident over. “What’s the best coffee out there on the terrace, in your opinion?” The macadamia, he recommended without reservation. Shooting him a one-­‐finger thanks-­‐and-­‐y’all-­‐take-­‐care-­‐now wave, she started across the magnificent lobby like she had all the time in the world, although not a moment to spare even to glance at a woozy royal being helped to stagger out of an elevator dripping blood down his pink togs onto his gold tennies. On the lavender couch the young mother was alternately glancing peevishly at her wristwatch and gazing adoringly at her kids. Still on his back, the infant now was ogling one of the enormous bronze bells that lighted the lobby, bulbs replacing the clappers. His big sister, herself tiny, blond and in a frilly white party dress, was on her knees to poke her button nose close to his chubby face. She was serious now. “Come on, Phil, you can do it!” she cajoled, “Jee-­‐zus,” imploring in Aussie, in her earnestness squeezing a small red rubber ball, “Say it, Phil, say: Jee-­‐zus.” Waving upturned-­‐turtle limbs, Phil burped. “He said it!” the girl shrieked, scrambling up and flinging herself against her mother’s knee to share the glad tidings, “He said it, I heard him! He really said it and now he’s saved, isn’t he, so now he can go to Heaven when he dies and live with Jee-­‐zus just like us!” Secretly smiling, Christy was striding past when the rubber ball suddenly shot free. As it boinked away the tiny savior tore after it too fast. She skidded, lost her balance, and would have slammed face-­‐first onto the marble floor had Christy’s hand not swooped out. “Crikey!” the girl whisper-­‐gushed with guilt and relief once she stood firmly upright and her arm had been released. Christy glanced over. Easing back onto the couch, Mom beamed thanks. Tipping her an all’s-­‐well nod, Christy 20 THE ELEPHANT QUEEN
gave her full attention to the tiny blonde, who now confided with chest-­‐bursting pride, “I can make a cursive D.” As the child who’d saved her baby brother then scampered off to retrieve her ball, Christy paled. Though she managed to saunter on across the lobby casually, her tear ducts started twinging. She swung to the wall near the terrace exit, where a framed old photograph hung as something she could pretend to study until this guilt-­‐grief spasm had passed. It was an age-­‐siennaed daguerreotype of this very hotel on its opening day in 1887, but her stare saw far more recent history, herself 14 and a week out of San Antonio General. Against Daddy’s advice and her own good sense, she was hiding behind sunglasses and the trunk of a crepe myrtle outside the adoption agency. She desperately needed one last glimpse of the tiny blond baby who no longer was hers. So she saw the proud new parents come out and the swaddled infant they carried, her own child, grown beneath her heart, in Christy’s heart forever Lisa. Her fingers taloned into bark to hold herself still as her whole body trembled with the urge to surge from hiding, dash over, and screaming “Changed my mind!” grab Lisa from their arms and race away. Then the couple had climbed with their new daughter into a blue Mercedes that pulled out so abruptly a diesel rig hauling horses in a trailer couldn’t swerve or stop. Big tires burped. The impact showered sparks, shot streams of glass. Horses slammed forward legs snapping like green twigs started screaming. The crushed Mercedes spinning spewing sparks slued to a stop and burst into flame and the shrieks of shattered thoroughbreds being burned alive dueted with her own animal keening. Amber shades hurriedly in place, a slick sightseeing brochure plucked up as something for her fingers to fiddle with, she strolled outside and through an ornamental garden. Conversations at various linened and silvered tables were paused as she arrived at the riverside terrace, the men opening their mouths, the women narrowing their eyes. Touching her sunglasses on more snugly, she selected an isolated table right at the sea wall and seated herself. The Chao Phraya’s rolling café-­‐latté waves slushed lushly along the cement wall and the air was alive with nautical sounds—steady putterings, sudden splashings, horns hooting, rope twangings, hawser groans. A quarter-­‐mile directly across was a steamy stir-­‐fry of industrial chunks, residential cubes, trees like broccoli florets casting soy-­‐colored shade. To her left, south, ships queued for crane-­‐busy docks. She looked to her right and there it was, soaring skyward: the Temple of the Dawn. “Wow,” she exhaled for an Oriental version of the Washington Monument, the whole stupendous structure sparkling as 21 PAUL SODERBERG
morning light glanced off its billions of mosaic pieces of embedded glass and plaster-­‐set porcelain shards arranged like pearly flower petals back in George Washington’s day. Scooting more comfortably into the plush chair and starting lazily to fan her face with the brochure, she rolled her eyes. So Christy! she interviewed herself silently like she was back on the Riverwalk Hilton’s terrace with The Spotlight’s ace gossip columnist, What’d ya do in Bangkok? Well, Adrianne, the very first thing I did was knock a royal pervert on his pink ass. So then I went on out to get caffeined up and watch weird boats. There were fast launches, slow tugs, and rapier-­‐thin speedboats being gunned through shoals of tiny sampans being paddled. There were swift express river taxis, each with a number atop its cabin, chugging upstream and down, and larger slower cross-­‐river ferries that bore no numbers on their roofs. Most prominent was a rust-­‐weeping black freighter that, low in the water, was easing downstream. Most picturesque were the slow craft in its wake, a train of big gray rice barges lashed head-­‐to-­‐tail like a line of plodding circus pachyderms. “Might I perhaps join you?” A nicely tanned fortyish German in a gray Cerutti suit was smiling down hopefully. She just looked up at him. What he finally saw in her eyes garroted his smile and made him gulp. After a moment of frowning for something else to say and finding nothing, and assessing her for just an instant with a strange look, he executed a curt Prussian bow, then strolled away touching here and there at his thousand-­‐dollar threads like checking to see if she’d winged him. And then, Adrianne, I spoiled the whole day of some dude who’s no doubt a Bavarian king or some damn thing. “Oh well.” She sighed and set the brochure onto the table. Then abruptly she went very still, what she’d seen in the German’s eyes only then registering. Refined and suave, the man had gazed down at her with a politely attentive expectancy until he’d grasped her rejection. And at that point, just between blinks, his eyes had changed. Just for that instant, before he strolled off, Christy was being watched by eyes that had glittered within a Bronze Age helmet, seen slaughter by the Greeks, and watched Rome fall. And she went cold. As a shiver twitched her, she exhaled, “Oh, boy,” and wet her lips, gulping, and gasped, “I blew it. Blew it big-­‐time,” because in the elevator: I hit a man. The sudden fear spark chipped by the German’s brief flint gaze ignited a bonfire of fear for the prince’s sleepy stone-­‐rapist stare, and with a paralyzing solar plexus blow dread struck, so hard that breaths suddenly were too precious to release—gulps easy, exhalations hard—while panic flared. 22 THE ELEPHANT QUEEN
Men hate that. Homicidally. Women aren’t sup— Men only act ni— Being beaten by a woman brings out the . . . “Stan,” burst out, a sudden wild certainty, “Call Stan.” But she’d left her cell in her suite. She clenched both chair arms to rise right now, rush up to her suite and her phone and jab One. No. Chill. Get a grip. For emphasis, she said it out loud, “Get a grip.” She eased back to a comfort posture on the plush cushions, and palm-­‐
smoothed each chair arm like gentling a skittish mare. Grin, Girl. She grinned. It was funny—herself punching the panic button for Stan to come charging in when, more than once since high school, she’d love-­‐punched his shoulder for even suggesting such white-­‐knight macho bullshit. The grin subsided, and with a precise pilot’s calm focus she proceeded to check her airworthiness. Steely will no longer wobbly. Heart rate fine. Breathing normal. Midair collision with crushing doubt evaded. Shrilling alarms all silenced. Not even a blip of fear on her mental radar. Elbows propped for hands casually to clasp like a seat belt. Go to autopilot. I’m okay. I’m fine. But . . . Relaxed again but hyper-­‐alert, she set her poker face to assess the situation she was in. Gazing steadily at the brochure on the table, she snapped the facts down one by one like cards revealing a royal flush. His male pride pummeled if not permanently crippled, the prince would be pissed, royally pissed, to the point of wanting blood. But he was a sexual predator, therefore statistically a coward. And now that he’d learned, in spades, why her high-­‐school nickname was Fist, he would avoid her—no question. He absolutely could send goons after her—a whole army wearing wraparound shades launched at her for revenge. But nobody wanted a paparazzi feeding frenzy, cameras clicking like piranha teeth. And—ace of spades—the affront to his swollen ego would be soaring out of his life forever, sipping champagne, next stop Dallas-­‐Fort Worth, ladies and gentlemen, tomorrow night. “Okay,” she concluded whewing air, the high-­‐stakes game won, the chips all hers, and: “I’m fine.” And with a crisp nod for moving forward without further delay she plucked up the brochure and for the first time since she’d grabbed it actually looked 23 PAUL SODERBERG
at it. “In 1700, with 1 million people, Ayutthaya was larger than New York City and London combined. The Thai capital since 1350, it was destroyed by Burmese invaders in 1767, then was moved 42 miles south to Bangkok. Of all Ayutthaya rulers and their consorts, none is more proudly recalled than Queen Suriyothai, who gave her own life in battle to save her husband.” Christy nodded approvingly, reading on: “When a Burmese army attacked in 1549, the Thai monarch, King Mahachakrapat, led a sortie against them. He was accompanied into battle not only by his wife but also by their young sons and teenage daughter. The events by which Her Majesty saved her husband’s life that day but in the process lost her own are proudly recalled by all Thai schoolchildren. Seeing His Majesty surrounded and in mortal danger, she charged into the midst of the foe, galloping her elephant—” With a wince and a spurt of scoff Christy Frisbeed the brochure right over the sea wall into the river. A woman laughed shrilly. Eyes narrowing, ready to stare the comic down, Christy traversed her crosshairs counterclockwise. But at the small dock at the terrace’s far end a river tour for camera-­‐clad hotel guests was getting underway, the launch’s inboards alternately roaring when the exhaust pipes rose out of the water, burbling mightily and churning bubbles when they sank back beneath, and when a tour guide in a trim scarlet outfit had helped the nervously laughing late-­‐comer to board there was a sudden roaring for reverse. “G’day, Ma’am.” So startled she squeaked, Christy focused down on the cherubic face of the same itty-­‐bitty Australian. Now she was clutching a great big kids’ book to her white party dress like a breastplate in case of rebuffs. “Hey there, Cowgirl,” Christy smiled and said, sliding off her sunglasses and tossing them onto the table. “I’m not a cow girl,” the blue-­‐eyed cutie frowned sternly pointing out, “I’m a human girl.” “Where I come from, being called a cowgirl is the highest compliment a girl can get,” Christy explained. “You mean a girl cowboy? We call cowboys jackaroos. Where are you from?” “God’s Country. Texas.” “God lives in Heaven.” “Yup. So do I.” The little girl thought about that. “Do you know John Wayne?” she wanted to know next. “Dad likes his flicks. He’s a Texan, John Wayne is.” “Well, now,” Christy corrected gently, “he is an honorary Texan, for sure. But the fact is, he was from Iowa. That’s one of those corn places.” 24 THE ELEPHANT QUEEN
“Oh. You talk like him, though. A bit.” Straightfaced Christy said, “Yew tawkin bout mah twang thang? Aw shuks, yew think Ah palaver lahk Ah got straw stuck twixt mah chompers, doanchya.” High-­‐pitched giggles burst from the little girl so delightedly she had to start waltzing her book. When she finally stopped wiggling back and forth she took a deep breath and announced, “We’re goin down to Songkla for a week. It’s in South Thailand. You been there?” With pursed lips, raised brows and a sad head shake for nope, Christy conveyed she sure wished she had. “Might wanna try it. ‘World’s most beautiful non-­‐Australian beach’ is what Songkla has, Dad says. He’s over there. Said to say thanks for savin me from a bad bump.” Four tables away, the beatific mother cradling Phil had been joined by a grinning blond husband who called heartily to Christy, “G’day, Miss!” then urged his daughter from afar, “Orright, Susan. Come on back and leave her be.” Susan ignored him, being mid-­‐pitch: “Songkla’s also got pineapples, ocean fireflies, and elfunts. Like elfunts, do ya, Ma’am?” Christy first cleared her throat, wet her lips twice, put on her damn-­‐right can-­‐do face, nodded to herself that she was ready, and failed. “Well, truth be told, eh-­‐eh-­‐el-­‐eh, uh: pachyderms, aren’t egg-­‐zack-­‐ly my favorite animal, no.” “In Australia, we don’t call em ‘pack-­‐a-­‐dums.’ We call em ‘elfunts.’ I love em the best. How come you don’t, ey?” Sure, she could talk about it, Christy nodded and said, “When I was just about your age, Lisa and I—she was my best friend—we were riding on one that came to San Antonio, and she was, um . . . Well, she got . . . hurt bad.” “The elfunt hurt yer best friend Lisa?” “No. A bad guy did.” “Oh, that’s orright then. So you were five-­‐nearly-­‐six, ey? How old are ya now?” “Twenty-­‐four. And I’m going to take me a wild guess here and say that you are, let’s see . . . five-­‐goin-­‐on-­‐six.” “Right first guess. Five-­‐goin-­‐on-­‐twenty-­‐five, Mummy says, sometimes. One day I’ll ride a real elfunt, not a book one. See my book? It’s Babar fights the Wully-­‐Wullies. He’s king of the elfunts, Babar is. He fights the evil rhinos in another book. They’re by Jean de Brunhoff. He’s a Frenchie. Ye’re not supposed to call em Frogs. Babar’s wife’s name’s Celeste. She’s the Elfunt Queen. Mummy sometimes calls me the Elfunt Queen. Cuzza my books. What’s yer name?” “Christy. And you’re Susan.” “Right. My other names are Meryl and Hart. Mummy loves Meryl Streep, see? Anyway: Susan Meryl Hart’s me. Dad calls me ‘Mowglette the Jungle Girl,’ though, sometimes. Says I’m Mowgli’s twin sister, cuz someday I’ll see a real jungle, in Afferka, where Babar lives. You have a nickname, Christy?” 25 PAUL SODERBERG
“Texas Highway Patrol calls me ‘Flash.’ ” “That’s a nice one. What’s yer other names—yer proper Christian ones?” “Lee and Claiborne. But Claiborne for only another two weeks.” “Why zat?” “Because in two weeks and . . . three hours and ten minutes, I’m marrying my buddy Stan. From then on, I’ll be Christy Lee Otterman.” “Good on ya, Christy. Marriage is a holy state. Can I see yer ring?” Christy proudly showed it. The platinum band held a modified marquise-­‐cut diamond, incisions in the stone the pigskin stitches. The little girl gave the rock a very Dana Scully perusal, concluding that it was indeed from outer space: “Looks like a Yank football. A football player, is he—yer boyfriend?” “Used to be, you bet. He was the best high school quarterback in the whole long history of Texas. And as a Dallas Cowboy, he was headed straight for the Hall of Fame when a scum-­‐suc— when a Spittsbur— um, a: Pittsburgh Steeler, broke his leg, in four places. So now he’s the happiest cowboy rancher you ever did see, and I’m all set to be the happiest rancher’s wife there ever was.” “Sounds orright. What’s that other ring?” Christy fisted her right hand to display her best-­‐loved possession, on her middle finger. “Stan gave me this one in high school,” she shared, gazing at it like it was an ancient religious relic rather than a recent one. “Says: ‘Alamo.’ ” It was an inexpensive souvenir ring from the gift shop at the cradle of Texas liberty. The once-­‐acute edges of the raised block letters along the simple stainless-­‐steel band, ALAMO, had been worn smooth the eight years she’d never once had the ring off her finger. “Know what the Alamo was, Susan?” “Yeah, course I do. It’s when you put ice cream on yer apple pie.” “No, Sweetie, that’s à la mode. The Alamo started out as a church. Where I live, in Texas—San Antonio. But guess what: it ended up as America’s holiest shrine. And do you know why? Because in that old church, one hundred and eighty-­‐eight incredibly brave men—who were polite to each other and especially protective of women and girls—all gave their lives in America’s most famous last-­‐stand fight.” “Ree-­‐lee?” “Yep.” “Crikey, some bad bloke tried to steal money from the collection plate, I reckon. That’s what started the fight, ey?” Only barely succeeding in clamping her lips tight to block a mass breakout by all the laughs ever imprisoned within her, Christy shook her head and, warden-­‐ solemn, said, “No. This bad old Mexican army wanted to steal our land. So we used the church like a fort—for that last-­‐stand fight for the greatest value of them all: freedom. That’s what my freedom ring here honors—that principle, 26 THE ELEPHANT QUEEN
which made America the strongest and best damn country in the world. Along with Australia, of course.” “Yeah, but our foundin fathers were all convicts, cutthroats, and evil pirates who wanted to be farmers, Dad says.” “Ditto with Texas, in point of fact: our founding mothers and fathers didn’t go there so much as end up there after running away from somewhere else.” “Then we can be sisters! Can I touch yer freedom ring?” “Sure thing.” Tiny index finger tracing carefully over each letter, the little girl frowning in ferocious concentration whispered slowly to herself, “A, somethin, A, somethin, somethin,” then looked up brightly and said like she’d just really read the word, “Alamo!” Christy’s all’s-­‐well wink was firm, the priceless code word for freedom having been passed like a sacred baton to a lil darlin who would no doubt need it in her life. She glanced over at the clearly adoring parents. Deeply tanned Dad was holding Phil straight up and lowering him slowly for a kiss, then raising him swiftly skyward and grinning as his baby boy chortled with glee and flapped his arms like a bird. She also approved the rolled-­‐up sleeves, the man’s forearms hewn from mahogany. Or whatever they grew down there to feed koala bears—eucalyptus. Great strong carved-­‐eucalyptus arms, though hardly as powerful and not nearly so perfectly proportioned as Stan’s. Probably worked a sheep ranch, or whatever they called spreads down in Crocodile Dundeeland. Stations. Aussie stationhand, those strong tanned arms with rucked-­‐up sleeves said clearly. “Dad’s the best,” Susan followed her gaze and said, “He’s a preacher.” “Oops. I mean, I’ll be doggone,” Christy told the preacher’s daughter, “Well that’s, um, that’s great!” “You bet it is. He talks to God all the time. Tells us what He said. You believe Heaven exists, Christy? The real one, not the Texas one. Do you?” “Uh, yup. Sure do.” “He can prove Heaven exists—Dad can. Wanna hear how he proves it?” “Sure. How does he prove it?” “Easy. Here’s how. He says, Dad does, that the opp-­‐zit of evil’s good—right?” “Right—opposite of evil’s good.” “Well, evil spelled backwards is: ‘live.’ So after evil ‘live’ comes the opp-­‐zit, good death. And the only way death’s good is: if Heaven’s ree-­‐lee real! See how smart he is, my dad? Simple, ey?” “Sounds simple, sure does. But maybe after ‘live’ comes ‘doog.’ ” “Huh?” “Um, never mind. Well, that’s fantastic—your daddy being a good man and 27 PAUL SODERBERG
all. What every little girl needs, for sure, is that right there: a good daddy.” “Right,” Susan nodded like a published expert on parenting before popping The Big Question: “Ye’re a true-­‐blue Christian, arnchya, Christy? I can save you if you aren’t. Are ya?” “Er,” Christy stalled, flashing on the last time she’d spied a tag team of Jehovahs mincing up her walk, two blue-­‐haired grannies armed with gilt-­‐edged faux-­‐leather Nimitz-­‐class Bibles, herself just out of the shower opening the door wide jaybird-­‐buck-­‐naked and pretending to be a deaf-­‐mute poetry buff the 2.4 seconds before they took off like two bee-­‐stung cats. “Well, are ya? You believe in Jee-­‐zus—doanchya?” Christy gave a secret agent sort of wink the little girl could interpret however she liked. “Good on ya, Ma’am,” Susan proclaimed, concluding the credentials-­‐check with her credo, “Heaven’s a better place,” before frowning and getting back to evil. “So the bad Mex-­‐can army soljas let you live cuz ye’re a girl, ey? When they killed all them good blokes in yer church-­‐fort, the Alamo?” “No, Sweetie, oh no. See, the battle was one hundred and sixty-­‐one years ago. Back when America was a teenager. But you know what: who knows? Stan gave me this Alamo ring after I went through a pretty hairy battle of my own—with this bad ole teacher who . . . who tried to hurt me. Stan was so proud of me for standing up to that rat bas— . . . to that teacher, who put his hand on my . . . who gave me a bad touch, that Stan said—when he put this ring on my finger—that my spirit must have been there at the Alamo, all those years ago. So who knows?” Susan gave a little girl’s biggest nod, chin way up and way down, to show she understood all about life after death and undying devotion in men, and wholly approved, then declared, “I like Stan. Can I meet him when he wakes up?” “Pardon me?” Christy frowned. Susan glanced at the table’s empty chairs and shrugged for the obvious. “He’s still asleep, ey? Up in yer room?” Christy smiled. “Actually, he is asleep at the moment—because it’s nighttime in Texas right now. He was all set to come with me. But a few days ago, he was trying to rescue one of his lil dogies, who got her—” “One of his whats? ‘Dough-­‐gies’? You mean a doggy? We have a dog. He’s Christian. Closes his eyes when we pray. Barks at sinners. His name’s Dogma. What’s Stan’s dog’s name?” “Not a dog, Sweetie—a dogie. A dogie’s what we call a motherless calf. A lil range orphan.” “Oh. So she got lost and Stan’s off on walkabout to find her while ye’re here?” “No, he and Helen—” 28 THE ELEPHANT QUEEN
“Who’s Helen? His mum?” “His mare. So anyway, they found the poor lil dogie right away. But she’d gotten herself stuck in some rocks. And as he was trying to free her, he fell and broke his leg. So—” “The same leg he broke playin Yank football on his way to the Hall of Fame he never got to cuz the bad Steeler bloke broke it?” “The very same leg. Got a big cast on it. So he couldn’t travel. But he insisted I still come. So: here I am.” “Ye’re not scared? Of bein all the way round the world all by yerself?” “No sirree bob—not scared at all. Know why?” “Why?” “Well, I’ll tell ya. Because there’s three of me sittin here right now: me; myself; and I. See, when Stan said I should get on the plane without him, me said to myself, ‘Self: you’d best get a move on and join me and I, cuz the three of us are high-­‐tailin it ta Thailand.’ ” The little girl giggled. The big girl grinned. “How much longer will ya be here then, Christy?” “Just today and tomorrow. You?” “Been here two days, and now we’re off to Songkla for a whole week, like I said. I know a Yank joke. What’s the most dangerous place in New York City?” “Um . . . Central Park? No? Don’t rightly know. What’s the most dangerous place in New York City?” “The Vampire State Buildin.” “Oo! That’s a good one.” “Yeah. Here’s another. Whaddaya get when you cross a vampire and a snowman?” “A snowman who really, really hates sunlight?” “Good guess. Wrong, though. Here’s what ya get: frostbite.” Christy laughed and volleyed, “What do you call a baby lobster who won’t share her toys?” and, when Susan grinning shrugged, told her: “Shellfish.” “Good on ya, Christy! I like that one. Why do elfunts wear tennies?” “Got me there. Why do they?” “Cuz nine-­‐ies are too small, and eleven-­‐ies are too big.” “Awesome! Speaking of big: why do gorillas have such big nostrils?” “I give up.” “Cuz they have such big fingers.” Like they’d already been told by Daddy twice to keep it down, they mostly stoppered their mirth bursts, and then Christy filled her lungs with satisfaction 29 PAUL SODERBERG
and smiling questioningly asked what was, after all, a preacher’s daughter, “So how do you like Thailand so far?” Susan brought a hand up to cup her whispered answer. “Mostly I ree-­‐lee like Thailand. The heat’s orright. The noodles are okay. And the flowers are the best. But everyone here smiles all the time.” “That’s not good?” “Not honest, I think. I don’t trust people who always smile. Bullies do that, smile, right before they shove you in the mud. That’s why I trust you, Christy—
cuz you’ve got two faces, not one.” “Two faces?” Christy grinned inquiringly. “Yeah,” Susan nodded emphatically, “Yer hard face looks like this,” and made a darling glare, Goldilocks doing Clint Eastwood. “Yer other face’s my fayvrit. It’s yer soft one,” she said, and from a studious stare the little girl’s expression was all at once starving Gretel’s emerging from a deep dark scary wood into a magical glade of chocolate trees and candy-­‐cane flowers. Christy burst out laughing. “Like yer laugh, too. Sounds like happy birds singin. You like birds, Christy?” “Most of em. Love eagles. Can’t abide canaries, to tell the truth.” “Me too. I like all birds except kookaburras, who laugh ree-­‐lee loud, like idjits. There’s even a song about them sittin in an old gum tree. You like to sing, Christy?” “Love to, definitely, you bet. Even though Stan says I couldn’t carry a tune in a wheelbarrow.” “Right,” the child chirped, excited now and whispering, “C’m’ere, Christy, cuz this is ree-­‐lee ree-­‐lee a real secret.” Rising on her toes to be near enough to bent-­‐down Christy’s ear to breath-­‐tickle, she revealed in an ecstatic slumber-­‐
party whisper: “I can sing the magic elfunt song from the time of the mammufs. Want me to sing it?” What Christy all at once wanted more than anything was to grab the oracle-­‐serious little cutie right up and hug her till she squeaked and nuzzle her till she giggled hysterically. Second choice: “Can eh-­‐el-­‐eh, um . . . Babar: can he really sing?” “Course he can. The elfunts’ motto is: ‘Long Live Happiness.’ That’s why all elfunts specially love music, dancin and singin. Got trumpets for noses, don’t they.” “They surely do.” “Like yer Texas rattler-­‐snakes—right? They love music, dancin and singin, too, cuz they got musical inster-­‐mints on their tails.” “Dern tootin.” “What zat mean?” 30 THE ELEPHANT QUEEN
“Means: for sure, you bet, they surely do.” “Oh. Right. ‘Dern toot-­‐tin.’ Thanks. But anyway, elfunts are the best of all animals who love music. That’s why I love em the best. Simple, ey? Want me to sing their magic song from the time of the mammufs?” “You bet, I’d love to hear their magic song.” “Right. There’s three verses but only one chorus. Here’s the chorus.” And Susan sang in a high clear sweet little-­‐girl voice, “Pata pata, ko ko ko!” Then she bobbed a big solemn nod to signal Christy that a priceless treasure had just been placed into her hands, and announced, “Now here’s the first verse.” But as she swelled her mouse chest for the mammoth solo her father called again. Ready to scamper off this time, she suddenly needed to know: “Stan saved her, did he—the baby dogie calf with no mum?” “He surely did,” Christy assured her, “She’s just fine, back with all her lil dogie friends.” “Good on him. I like Stan. I hate when animals get hurt. That’s why, when I’m a bit bigger, I’m gonna be a vet in Afferka. Cuz sometimes even elfunts get sick and need a friend. Then I’ll ree-­‐lee be the Elfunt Queen.” “Susan!” Off she did scamper then, waving hard and calling, “Bye, Christy!” and Christy waved back warmly. But as the joyful family then strolled into the hotel to head south to this Songkla place, she slid her shades back on. All at once she had to focus ferociously on the river to stifle the sudden anguish of yet another elephant-­‐loving little girl leaving forever. She needed to glare at the glittery water to steel herself as it all started rushing back in vivid terrible detail, the day the first Lisa died, all the kids showing up from all over Bexar County to ride the gypsy’s tired old elephant when it came to San Antonio, none more excited than Christy and her best friend, who was killed when— “Madam?” Christy lurched. A thirty-­‐something Thai in an immaculate white suit glinting gold buttons up to the top of his throat was right there smiling down at her efficiently. She recovered fast, through tinted shades focusing on the breathtakingly smooth Oriental face of a refined waiter who now justified his intrusion by presenting a gilt-­‐edged parchment menu. His English, impeccable, was turned to music by Thai’s tones: “Good morning, Madam,” he warbled, the greeting rising and falling so mellifluently that Christy smiled. Then she had to bite back the grin that threatened to wrench itself free when he told her, the cowgirl-­‐at-­‐heart, “My name is Moo.” “Good morning, Moo,” she managed straightfaced. “Before I order something, let me ask you. Where’s the best place here in town to see orchids?” 31 PAUL SODERBERG
“Ah yes, Thai orchids—the pride of this kingdom, Madam, as we have nearly fifteen thousand native species. Are you a collector?” Nodding happily, she mentioned, “And, proud to say, current President of the Bexar County Orchid-­‐Lovers Club.” “Splendid!” he praised. “Well, of public places to see collections, by far the best would be the Chulaluang Orchid Institute. Very famous worldwide. Said to rival the House of Sander in England during the last century.” “Outstanding. ‘Chew-­‐la-­‐loo-­‐ong.’ Is it nearby? Walking distance?” “Regrettably, no. But all our courtesy limousine drivers know the way.” “Reckon I’ll just grab me a cab.” “As you wish. And before you set off to view spectacular flowers?” “Coffee and a fruit plate, please,” she told him declining the menu, “Thai fruit only. Surprise me.” “My pleasure. Our pomelo is perfect this morning. Pomelo is essentially a delicately sweet grapefruit. This morning’s red bananas are also exquisite. And your preference in coffees?” “Macadamia, please. Regular. Black. Unless you have chicory?” “Madam: since 1887, our chicory coffee here is so fine, it would make blind monks grow beards.” She let the grin loose and it ran free all over her face and twinkled her eyes as she nodded, and when he’d glided away it subsided to a lingering soft smile as she murmured to the river, “Blind monks, mammoth songs, and guys named Moo? Gees-­‐iss K. Reist, Girl, sure as Hell is hot, you ain’t in Texas today.” Then she folded her arms to frame and snug her chest and made a solemn vow to have a great day from here on out no matter what. And she’d start right now, with a prairie denizen’s awe-­‐filled study of a fleet of great seagoing junks that were docking downstream, their slatted trapezoidal sails clattering down, the masts moving like a denuded forest returned to life to dance at seaweed speed upon the café-­‐latté chop. Rigidly at attention at the rear of the immense main kitchen, silver serving tray snugged under his arm like a breastplate put on wrong, Moo tried to swallow unobtrusively. His Most Serene Excellency had not responded in the slightest to his elaborate assurances—from deep within their bandage bunker, Sinbyushin’s lethal eyes remained locked on the waiter’s face like twin Gatling guns a muscle twitch from firing. “Most Serene Excellency, you have my sacred promise,” Moo bowed deeply to underscore his certainty, “Before midnight tonight, she will be dead.” Finally deigning to nod, the prince plucked from his rear pocket a thick 32 THE ELEPHANT QUEEN
sheaf of folded sheets. Moo accepted the papers into hands he then palmed and held against his own bowed forehead. Pausing only to pluck a plump strawberry from the counter, examine it with connoisseur care, then place it back down oh so very gently, then with a vicious fist smash it so savagely juicy pulp splashed every which way, the prince strolled out, staggering only slightly. Fucking Burmese, Moo thought. Then he gulped and glanced around. The master chefs, sous-­‐chefs and pastry chefs, stewards and sommeliers, captains and back-­‐waiters, waiters and busboys all came abruptly back to life and returned briskly to their tasks. Only Phouma the saucier flashing a prank-­‐lover’s grin was not pretending nothing had transpired. Like a fire alarm pulled, the need for nicotine flared. Moo patted his breast pocket for a smoke right there, which would be a gross violation of the kitchen rules. Heaving in a deep breath instead, he unfolded the papers. The email cover sheet introduced the attached file, the rush report on the woman who four hours ago had left him a large tip for her fruit and coffee before hurrying off to see orchids. EXTREMELY URGENT / EXTREMELY CONFIDENTIAL
City of Dallas, State of Texas, United States of America
We are honored to provide a considerable level of detail concerning the
despicable Christy Lee Claiborne, at such short notice, as a result of the lead
attorney of the five men who recently went to prison because of her having
very graciously made his complete case files freely available to us. On the
following pages we have provided relevant passages from those downloaded
files, which contain substantial quantities of what the Americans call “dirt,” the
digging of which is considered both an art form and a martial art by defense
attorneys in this frequently strange country.
While much of Subject Claiborne’s life may seem bizarre, we beg to stress
that she is fairly typical of the Texans we encounter here at the Consulate. In
particular, in her propensity for violence (at age 6, she killed a 6-year-old
named Lisa Lou Laraby), her promiscuity and neglect of children (at age 13,
she became pregnant, simply abandoning the newborn to an adoption agency
rather than raising it), her utter lack of respect for her elders (even her own
father!) and her callous disregard for human life (5 years ago she let her father
die from snakebite, neglecting to seek medical attention in time to save his
life), and perhaps especially in her attitude of complete disrespect for authority
(her driving license is currently revoked—for the third time—for excessive
speed violations), she is sadly representative of the “cowboy” element of
American society, which incidentally is hardly confined to the State of Texas.
Should additional investigation into Subject Claiborne be desired, or should
our assistance in dealing with her on this end be required (such as destroying
her business or burning her house for the hideous crime of having touched the
royal person), we eagerly await the opportunity to serve you further.
Nodding approval for the instant obedience the gravely wounded prince’s request had prompted, and anxious for details about the prepubescent murderess, Moo set his silver tray onto the counter and flipped to the next page. OVERVIEW
Subject Christy Lee Claiborne, 24, has been violent and dangerously
unpredictable since age 6, when she caused the death of 6-year-old Lisa Lou
Laraby. The lead attorney for the five recently jailed men assures us that,
while the case records are sealed and unavailable, it is believed that Subject
Claiborne pushed the other girl off the circus elephant they were both riding,
killing her (and in the process developing a pathological fear of elephants).
The latest revocation of her driving license illustrates her other primary
personality flaw (sadly shared by most Texans): her attitude that respect for
authority is a matter of personal choice. Specifics follow. When the Texas
Highway Patrolman stopped her white Mustang on Interstate 37 headed to
Padre Island last month and informed her that she had been clocked at 164
m.p.h., her reaction amply illustrates this attitude: she uttered a “rebel yell” for
having broken her own personal speed record, and happily offered her wrists
to be handcuffed.
Both of these character flaws (violence; and contemptuous disregard for
authority) were clearly demonstrated during her high school days, when, as a
sophomore, she was expelled for assaulting a teacher. This teacher was a
refined and discriminating gentleman who had done nothing more than try to
fondle one of her breasts. The teacher (who filed a lawsuit against her in
addition to demanding and accomplishing her expulsion) required three
stitches to his lower lip and six more stitches to the back of his head for the
gash sustained when he fell unconscious against the chalk trough of his own
blackboard after she struck him savagely.
What happened next demonstrates yet another of Subject Claiborne’s
disturbing propensities: whipping up public sentiment in order to persecute
those she perceives to be her enemies. Specifically, the student body, led by
Stanley Otterman, a senior, rallied to her cause and forced her reinstatement
and the firing of the teacher. The latter occurred after other female students
came forward with their own allegations against the teacher, whose only
“crime” was to appreciate the female form and to provide consensual sexual
instruction to inquiring young women at that school.
Highly significant is the fact that after the teacher’s eventual termination
and her own reinstatement, Subject Claiborne was known by the nickname
“Fist,” short for a movie title, Fists of Fury. Stanley Otterman, the school’s
football quarterback, already being called “the Arm,” the two of them became
known on campus as “Arm and Fist.” (Which demonstrates the quaint American
custom of condensing any sentiment to fit on a bumpersticker. Subject Claiborne’s
own bumper sticker, incidentally—on the rear fender of her high-performance
white Mustang—reads as follows: “COWGIRLS RULE.”). A final point about
this sequence of high school incidents (which illustrates the simply brain-boggling
American trait of idolizing outlaws): a few days after the teacher’s expulsion
and Subject Claiborne’s triumphant return to school, Arm and Fist were named
Senior Prom King and Queen, Subject Claiborne apparently being the only
sophomore in Texas history to reign as a Senior Prom Queen.
Wondering what a “prom queen” might be, and whether it had anything to do with “Pom,” Australian slang for a Brit, Moo cat-­‐lapped his index finger and turned to the next page, and struck gold. EXPLOITABLE WEAKNESSES
Subject Claiborne has sustained the following three intensely traumatic
experiences in her 24 years: at age 6, witnessing the violent death of her best
friend, during the elephant ride; at age 14, witnessing the violent death of her
own infant in a car crash; and, at age 22, being raped by her superior during a
company Christmas party. Strangely, the first of these seems to be the only
one from which she never recovered, in view of her lifelong debilitating terror
of elephants.
Pachyphobia (fear of elephants): Subject Claiborne’s deep fear and dread
of Myanmar’s most sacred and beloved creature, the elephant, apparently
stems not only from the traumatic childhood incident noted above but also
from her early association of elephants with violent men killing each other. Her
father was an infantryman in Vietnam, where “seeing the elephant,” “meeting
the elephant” and “confronting the elephant” were GI jargon for combat.
These facts establish that the ideal punishment for Subject Claiborne’s
crime of assaulting His Serene Excellency would involve an actual elephant.
Conversely, the savage murder, right in front of her, of any young blond girl
would be very effective. It would heighten her agony by forcing her to relive
her own child’s violent death. Equally, being gang-raped—possibly by an
entire band of Southern Thai pirates, with their filed teeth and hideous
tattoos—could be counted on to achieve the degree of mental devastation her
crime demands as the minimum punishment. Meanwhile, Subject Claiborne
has the easily exploitable weakness of deeply loving two individuals. These
are Stanley Otterman, whom she intends to marry in two weeks, and CelinaMarie Navarro-Corazon, her employee. Both Otterman, 28, and NavarroCorazon, 66, are residents of San Antonio, and a fittingly terrible accident for
either one of them, or both, could very easily be arranged.
“Hm,” Moo mused, mind already racing as he flipped to the next page, a compilation of résumé facts: “CURRENT OCCUPATION: Founder/Director of Lisa’s Place, a foundation opposed to violence against women, established in San Antonio last year (1996). (See Note 1)” Riffling through to Note 1, he then read with intensified interest. 35 PAUL SODERBERG
REASON FOR BEING IN THAILAND: Subject Claiborne is in Bangkok for a
series of meetings, with the directors of four major NGOs (non-governmental
organizations) dedicated to assisting abused women, as a result of she herself
having been “abused” two years ago. During a company party in Houston, she
(then a junior-level financial consultant) was raped atop a conference table by
the firm’s Chief Financial Officer, while four male co-workers held her down
and cheered him on, one of the these men also holding a cocked pistol against
her cheek. Ten months ago, all five men were jailed, and Subject Claiborne
was awarded $10 million. (It is the lead attorney of these men’s defense team
who so graciously gave us full access to his case files to enable us to compile
this intelligence report so promptly.) Subject Claiborne devoted virtually the
entire settlement to the establishment of “Lisa’s Place,” a foundation opposed
to violence against women. Hence her interest in the NGOs, and her presence
in Bangkok. See gossip column (next page).
Moo flipped to a column that had recently appeared in The Spotlight and been culled in a Nexis search a few hours ago: CHRISTIAN BELLS AND BUDDHIST CYMBALS
Adrianne the Abilene Oracle
The enchanting, lovely, level-headed (come to think of it, she could be my
identical twin!!!) founder of Lisa’s Place (in a to-die-for cream suede suit with the
most darling coral earrings and matching necklace she picked up in Barbados)
confided to yours truly yesterday that she’s already packed and ready for a
pre-nuptial honeymoon with hunk hubbie-to-be Stan Otterman (pant pant pant!!!),
who, a lil ole birdie tells me, is absolutely convinced that kissing Christy at the
altar just as soon as they return from their little trip (make that junket to the other
side of the planet!!!) is going to be more thrilling than all 12 of his Super Bowl
touchdown passes and his own 99-yard quarterback sneak wrapped into one
aisle-long adrenaline rush!!! Now only those of you just coming out of a decadelong coma don’t know that we’re talking here about the one and only Stan “K
Dad” Otterman, as in the chant that shook the foundations of Cowboy Stadium
every time he took the field: “K Dad! K Dad! K Dad!” from “Defeat is a lonely
orphan, victory has a thousand fathers.” So you’re all wondering whether there’s a
fatherhood issue here, all y’all coprophagous lil cuties, ain’tchya? Answer—
Moo glanced up and scanned for any nearby American-­‐educated employee. “Hey, Phouma! In America, what’s ‘K’ stand for?” “In the States? Symbol for one thousand.” “So ‘K Dad’?” Phouma leered. “A thousand fathers. Meaning either the child of a whore or victory. There’s this saying—” “Yes yes. And what is a ‘coprophagous’ person?” 36 THE ELEPHANT QUEEN
Returning to his his mixing of the chopped shallots and tarragon for his specialty béarnaise sauce, Phouma told him happily, “A shit-­‐eater. One who loves dirt. Hungry for rumors. Like my roommate at Cal Tech. All nerds are coprophags.” “And what is a ‘prom queen’ in America?” “The girl elected to be royalty for the evening at a promenade, a sort of formal high school dance. Then everyone gets shit-­‐faced and fucks like rabbits.” Waving vague thanks while frowning to concentrate, Moo resumed reading: whether there’s a fatherhood issue here, all y’all coprophagous lil cuties, ain’tchya?
Answer is: Nope—straight from the lush chic coral-lipsticked horse’s mouth—there’ll
only be two of em standing at the altar, not three.
Now a thousand horses normally couldn’t drag it out of me, but just so all you
loyal Bon-Bon Brigaders get it straight from this horse’s mouth: their Big Day is
one month from today and (are you ready for this??!!) they’re holding it in the
Convento Courtyard at The Alamo—where Congressman Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie,
William B. Travis and the other 185 Texan heroes gave their lives for freedom.
These two freedom-fighter/lovebirds, Stan and Christy, will be saying their vows
under the Courtyard’s great old live oak and those three darling cherry trees sent
over years ago by Alamo admirers in Japan!!!
First time to the altar for each of them—and I’m betting the last knot either
one will ever tie, since they’ve been inseparable since high school, where they
strolled around not just hand-in-hand but as (don’t ya jiss luv it!!!) “Arm and Fist.”
And where will the lovely lovebirds be winging off to? “The Land of Smiles,”
Christy told me over chicory coffee and fresh strawberries on the Riverwalk
Hilton terrace yesterday. Color me pea-green!!! A whole week of steamy tranquil
days and sultry tropical nights in the land of Anna and the King of Siam!!! Plus a
full day of meetings, Christy emphasized: “I’m curious to see for myself how
violence to women is dealt with by a religion, Buddhism, that preaches nonviolence,” the
delightful dynamo explained, adding, “So I’ve set up meetings with the directors of the
four biggest sister organizations in Bangkok.”
And guess what, my loyal Bon-Bon Brigaders??? She promised moi and vous a
juicy tell-all exclusive on whatever she finds out about tranquillity à la Thailand just as
soon as she gets back from hearing Buddhist cymbals and Christian wedding bells!!!
Shaking his head woefully, Moo murmured, “But Miss Adrianne of Abilene, I am so very sad to tell you that she will never be getting back.” Then he giggled. Then he gagged, a temple gong inside his skull bonged by a sudden blunt fear: where was the rabble-­‐rousing football player right now? Moo was turning toward the wall phone to check with the desk as he flung gossip aside. The next page was a scanned news clip that made him forget the phone and grin with relief. “Cowboy Turned cowboy Breaks Leg Super Bowl Broke” was the silly 37 PAUL SODERBERG
headline. “Excellent,” Moo murmured like commending a menu choice, having speed-­‐scanned the article, “The stupid cripple broke his leg all over again and stayed home to nurse his cast.” Then riffling back to the Executive Summary, he perused his target’s life and litany of loved ones with only mild interest. BIRTH: 7 March 1973, Bexar County General Hospital, San Antonio.
FAMILY: mother, Clementine, housewife, dec. (cancer, 1975); father, Clinton,
rancher, dec. (snakebite, 1992); no siblings; no known next of kin. [Note: There
exists a surrogate mother. Subject Claiborne’s relatively new foundation, Lisa’s
Place, while very well-funded and already nationally acclaimed, is staffed by a
single employee, this being Celina-Marie Navarro-Corazon, whose title is
“Assistant Director.” Navarro-Corazon (66, a native of Mexico, now a naturalized
American) was severely maimed and mutilated by her then-husband in 1964
(stabbed repeatedly, half-blinded, both thumbs chopped off). Sources suggest
that Subject Claiborne is closer to this woman than to anyone else except
Stanley Otterman—that Navarro-Corazon is a virtual mother to her.]
MARITAL STATUS: never married, currently single. (See Note 2)
Wincing for the chopped-­‐off thumbs, Moo scrabbled fingers through the sheets to find Note 2: MARRIAGE PLANS: Subject Claiborne and Stanley Otterman were one week
from being wed when her rape occurred two years ago, postponing the
ceremony, which is now rescheduled for two weeks from today in the Alamo.
The lead attorney of the men she caused to be jailed for raping her (who
happens to be the uncle of one of the four young men who did nothing but
help hold her down) expressed considerable interest in “derailing” the
marriage a second time, if at all possible.
This delighted Moo. “Well, Honored Counselor,” he assured the nameless man on the other side of the planet, “you will get your wish. Because Miss Claiborne will never be showing up for her own wedding.” And donning a sorrowful expression that slid to the smirk of a slick defense attorney with a trump technicality he flipped back to the Summary. CREDIT HISTORY: Spotless. NET WORTH: US$17 million. REAL ESTATE: 1
large ranch (formerly father’s) owned outright, 1 townhouse owned outright, 1
foundation office leased. LEGAL RECORD: Completely clean except for
speeding violations. ILLEGAL HABITS: None discovered. (She and Otterman
are very publicly opposed to the use of controlled substances of any kind—on
record for wanting to “nuke” the Golden Triangle, which of course is located
partially in Thailand.) EDUCATION: Honors Business graduate, Sam Houston
University, 1989. INTERESTS/HOBBIES: Physical fitness; horseback-riding;
pistol-shooting; orchids (she is this year’s President of the Bexar County
Orchid-Lovers Club); and the history of the Alamo. (See Note 3.)
“Orchids,” Moo murmured with a nod of grudging approval, and reflecting that she must at this very moment be at the splendid institute to which he’d directed her, he read Note 3.
SUBJECT’S INTEREST IN THE ALAMO: Though less than two years old,
Lisa’s Place, which provides counseling and legal and financial assistance to
battered women and rape victims, last month received national recognition for
its innovative outreach program to ending sexual abuse by using the past to
safeguard the future. Subject Claiborne’s “Remember the Alamo” program is
being used in local elementary schools to teach young boys about the 188
Texan heroes who were decent and honorable to their fellows, respectful to
women and protective of girls, but absolutely savage to those who tried to take
away their freedom. This program’s motto is: “Values Never Die.”
“Quite true, Miss Claiborne,” Moo said with sad finality, “yes, values never die. But women do.” Then he set the sheets aside. Folding his arms and attaining the stillness of a temple statue, he took the time to think things through with exquisite care. Long moments later, he nodded. Oblivious to the prominent No Smoking sign affixed beside the wall phone behind him, he drew out an Indonesian clove cigarette and lit it. As first smoke slid up across his face like the soul of a murdered cobra he nodded more firmly, and by the time he needed to tip some ash off he was ready to act. Briskly then he extinguished the cigarette by absently jamming it into the prince-­‐pulped strawberry, and plucking up the handset he dialed. The connection was made before the second ring—sounded like the phone was yanked up, the voice seething in English with barely restrained rage, “Who zis?” “Lord,” he gulped in Thai, “it’s Moo,” and rushed out in his most respectful whisper, “I have a woman for you, Lord. A perfect one. She—” The voice hissed in Thai like the word was a synonym for syphilis: “Woman?” “Yes, Lord. Single, the correct age, and here in Bangkok—alone—right now. But best of all she is exactly what you—” “How old?” “Twenty-­‐four, and I—” “Far too old. As you certainly know. Pray tell me, Moo, what you hope to gain by wasting my time.” “Forgive me, Lord, but two months ago you instructed me to remain on the lookout for any female hotel guest in her early twenties who was traveling alone, of beautiful face and voluptuous figure, in peak physical condition, and, most importantly, as you stressed: from the American West.” “Ah.” 39 PAUL SODERBERG
“Yes, Lord.” “And this one is—from Nevada? Montana? Arizona?” “She is from Texas, Lord.” “Perfect. Does she have an accent?” “Her speech is cultured, yet . . . cowboy.” “Excellent.” “Thank you, Lord. But Lord, while she fits your specifications almost exactly, the best news is this: less than four hours ago, this woman blatantly insulted and physically assaulted His Serene Excellency, savagely breaking his nose and drawing blood, along with possibly fracturing his skull.” “Thiri?” “Yes, Lord.” The voice switched back to English to scoff, “Randy Burmese bastard tried to buff his knob in her belly and she said no with her knuckles, no doubt. That about it?” “I don’t know, Lord.” “I do, the silly sex fiend.” And back in Thai: “Then her physical condition is?” “Perfect condition, Lord. I would say she is one of those American women who jog. Her special interests include horseback-­‐riding and pistol-­‐shooting. Her nickname, shortened from ‘Fists of Fury,’ is ‘Fist.’ ” “Excellent. A war-­‐bitch. So how much physical damage did Sinful-­‐byushin do to her while she struggled?” “Unforgivably never informed of her lifelong propensity for mindless and unprovoked violence, His Most Serene Excellency was unable to defend himself, much less blemish her.” “Surprising. Good for us, though, ey—no damage to the merchandise. So: her appearance?” Moo winced but braved on. “That is one of only two potential problems, Lord. As to ‘no damage to the merchandise,’ as you put it, His Most Serene Excellency was quite emphatic that, um . . . That is to say, that he—” “Wants her dead.” “In as painful and hideous a manner as possible, yes, Lord. Before midnight tonight.” “Naturally. So she’s one of those muscle-­‐bound bull dykes, her biceps like piglet bellies—that the other ‘potential problem’?” “No no, Lord—no! Her arms are feminine perfection: more sensual, supple and expressive than the finest temple dancer’s.” “Then what’s her other defect? Don’t waste my time.” “You wanted a redhead. This one’s hair is the color of rice straw and honey.” “Not a problem. Face and body?” 40 THE ELEPHANT QUEEN
Moo beamed with relief and rhapsodized. “Ah, Lord, her face is strong yet lovely, like the visage of a warrior angel. Her lips are most exquisite—orchid lushness. Her eyes, hazel, are quite striking. My friend Suwat, our morning concierge, who spoke with her after she attacked His Most Serene Excellency, swore to me that her eyes can also be terrifying. ‘Almost supernatural,’ he said. When she feels a very strong emotion, they somehow turn a glowing gold, he insisted—like ‘smoldering honey or fiery amber,’ in his words. All of which confirms my own impression, Lord, which is that within this woman lies the lazy lethal power of a leopardess.” “Fine. Body?” “Her body, Lord: waa! This woman’s body—perfect spheres of breasts, flat belly, tapered waist and luscious hips leading to long supple legs—would make blind monks grow beards. Oh, and Lord, two other things of possible interest. She is quite terrified, even petrified, of elephants. And she adores orchids.” There was a long pause before the voice murmured, “I’ll take her. Good job, Moo. I’ll organize the snatch. Tell Thiri she’s gone to a better world,” and the connection was broken. With the care of a mother cribbing a sleepy infant, Moo cut the dial tone. With glances for the serious offense he was about to commit a second time, he withdrew another clove cigarette and lit it. Through a dreamy smile he exhaled a satiated dragon’s spew of aromatic smoke, having earned from the old Australian the equivalent of an entire year’s wages, and done a favor for the wealthy and powerful Buremese whoreson, with a single phone call. The ancient Westinghouse projector sat whirring and rattling on the teakwood floor at one end of the long and narrow, high-­‐ceilinged room, in which there was not a single piece of furniture, nor anything on the walls, save the image. There was but one slide in the machine, and a single viewer sat down at the far end, peering up mesmerized. The image was plastered like a tan and sepia swath of wallpaper over four narrow but 6-­‐ft.-­‐tall windows, which were shuttered, and the mae daeng wood panels of wall in-­‐between. Though squatting on the floor, the 3-­‐ft.-­‐tall viewer was in the way. His fuzzy shadow started fidgeting suddenly as he pawed at his crotch with one hand and flung the other spidery arm up to flop it back and forth in the image with the spastic jerks of a nantalung shadow puppet. “Tojo!” the projectionist yelled savagely, “Sit still!” The gibbon whipped his head back, his eyes big snake-­‐like lidless orbs of simian amazement. As if surrendering, he then raised both incredibly long 41 PAUL SODERBERG
thin arms up like furry hockey sticks as high as he could reach. But then he snarled and by slapping both arms down onto the floor produced the percussive bang of a firecracker. The old man muttered, “Cheeky bugger.” Stark-­‐naked, he was sitting cross-­‐legged on the floor flanked by the projector and his also floor-­‐bound telephone. His scrawny fingers draping and dangling down from each bony knee like desiccated slugs, he refocused his concentration on the image, through contemplation of its subtle elegance and stark beauty attempting to attain the total tranquillity of meditating monks. With a crafty squint, Tojo swiveled his head back, sat immobile for a moment, then without warning made a sudden lunge up against the wall to try to bite the one building still standing in the image. Lips writhing, the old man began to glare down the long room with all the tension of a sorely tempted monk only barely resisting a wide range of mortal sins. But then the telephone intruded. Though it was muted, like a motoring cat’s tentative purling purr in case someone wants to pet it, the ring’s effect on the high-­‐strung primate at the far end of the room was instantaneous and extreme: he sprang down from the wall and rearing up on his feet went berserk, gnashing his great canines in the direction of the telephone, chewing out snarls, flailing his spindly arms like wasps were attacking. Grabbing up the handset the old man fairly seethed, “Who zis?” “Gordo!” a patrician voice enthused, “Winn Winston here. Glad you’re in. How are you, mate?” “Right as rain, Winnie. I—” Tojo arm-­‐slapped the floor, spun himself in a back flip, then began to belt out an explosive string of piercing woops, a banging out of short sharp howls that rose swiftly in a staccato crescendo to a pounding in the air from the grapefruit-­‐size head with the fangs of a wolfhound flared at the ceiling. Gordo said, “Scuse I,” and cupping the speaking plate yelled, “Shut yer bloody yap, it’s our Ambassador!” With a final sharp grunt Tojo bounded back to the wall, whapped open a window, and sat perched on the sill blinking in the bright sunlight as if unable to decide whether to defecate on a rhododendron or grab a flying bird out of the air and bite its head off. “Ey, Winnie,” Gordo resumed, “G’day, mate, how’s you? Life and wife—no strife?” The Australian Ambassador assured, “Couldn’t be better, thanks much. Your pet’s not in the best of moods, sounds like. But you’re well, ey?” “Too right about my bloody primate. Sudden noises convince him he’s auditionin for the role of Siegfried in The Ring of the bloody Nibelung. ‘Sensitive’s 42 THE ELEPHANT QUEEN
on his pricetag, see? Sudden sounds to him is like blowin a trumpet in a bat’s ear. And him with the most powerful lungs in the jungle. Bit like a jackhammer insistin all the other tools in the shed hurt his ears.” Gordo sighed the sigh of long-­‐suffering pet-­‐owners the world over, then said, “Anyway, to answer yer other question: I’m fine.” “Having one with the flies, are you?” the diplomat asked cordially, Drinking alone? “No, not drinkin at all,” Gordo protested, “Just sittin here for a bittava postprandial ponder, I am. An altar boy with the face of an Alzheimer’s angel thinkin thoughts to make God wince—that’s me.” Winn Winston laughed and, apparently, glanced at his watch. “Bitta bad news,” he said, “I’m off to the Lucky Country within the hour.” “Might wanna bring a brella,” Gordo said helpfully, “Bittava blow, Down Under.” The diplomat laughed with wide-­‐open delight. “The typhoon of the decade threatening, and I should take an umbrella!” He laughed again, his mirth deep and full, a ruddy-­‐faced rancher’s, and invited, “Any other trip tips?” A sudden flurry of scratches by tiny clawlets on the soft skin behind his scrotum, Gordo groped down to de-­‐louse himself as he asked, “Where ya off to this time then?” “The usual—Canberra.” “Federal business, ey?” Gordo nodded against the receiver and said, “Here’s a tip—a word to the wise: don’t forget to lift the lid . . . on the seat of government.” As Winn Winston guffawed like he’d just seen a roo wearing gloves deck a Yank, Gordo added, “And say g’day to my old stampin ground, New South Wales, where the men are men and the women are sheep. Can’t make the meet tonight then, I reckon.” “That’s why I’ve called. Truly sorry, mate. You know your annual lecture is gold-­‐starred on our calendar.” “No worries. As orchids survive on thin air, so shall we orchid-­‐lovers survive yer absence this time. But yer boy’ll still be here, ey?” “Too right he will. Jim wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Squinting at the ape louse two tweezing fingers held up close to his eyes and squished, Gordo said, “Then I look forward to seein him tonight and you when it’s time to form a line of dead marines. Best to Bev.” As the ambassador rang off Gordo replaced the handset and yelled at his ape, “Close the bloody window! Ye’re lettin alla Bangkok’s bloody blowies in!” Sill-­‐bound, gawk-­‐eyed, Tojo merely stared at him. He shrieked, “Buff the floor with yer bloody butt!” Still the gibbon simply stared down the length of the long room. 43 PAUL SODERBERG
With the cunning calm eyes of a mah-­‐jongg master the skeletal old naked man quietly informed his pet, in fluent gutter Japanese, that he now would beat him to death: “Bukkoroshite yaru.” With a snort like a frightened piglet’s Tojo hooked an elongated hand onto the hasp, yanked the window closed concussively, and with a flying leap had reclaimed his place on the floor in front of the image. Gordo then began too to regain focus, to settle himself, to draw about his nakedness the invisible Buddhist robe of complete inner peace which contemplation of this particular image inevitably induced. But then the front gate bell jangled. The dreamy geriatric smile vanished like water droplets off a steaming wok. But he waited, breath held, belligerent face as rigid as a Triad warlord’s willing the intruder to go away. When the bell clangored a second time he barked a Chinese fishwife’s scorching scold, “Waa!” and sat glowering malignantly at the floor. A third time the bell jangled. Snorting then, gawkily clamoring to his feet with the joint pops of senile legs struggling to stand after sitting too long, lips snarl-­‐curling through a repertoire of blistering curses, and saggy genitals flumping, he swung out of the room, stormed down the hallway, and slapped open the front door. Beyond the steps down to the ground, twin rows of mango trees made a lush green tunnel out to the gate, which he couldn’t see as he yelled in Thai, “Krai?” Who’s there? A happy young woman’s singsong voice called sweetly, “Delicious pineapples for sale!” tantalizingly, “Fresh from Songkla!” “Wonderful!” the old Australian called, switching to the lovelier, more liquidy tones of upcountry Thai, “Are they very sweet?” “Very sweet!” “You’re sure?” “Oh yes—very, very sweet!” “Not too big?” “No no, nice small ones!” she called enticingly. He shrieked in Bangkok gutter Thai, “Then bring me one so I can plant it in your bleeding anus and piss down your throat to make it grow bigger!” He slammed the door and stormed back into the long room, flung himself back onto the floor, and tried yet again to focus on the image, a photograph of Hiroshima the morning after. The telephone purred. “Bloody Hell!” he bellowed, grabbing the handset like this time he’d crush its larynx. But his fury dissipated as his man at the Oriental made his respectful report on the stunning young Texan who had bloodied the perv prince and who best of all would be the abso-­‐bloody-­‐lutely perfect peace offering for Lord Shin. 44 THE ELEPHANT QUEEN
“I’ll take her. Good job, Moo. I’ll organize the snatch. Tell Thiri she’s gone to a better world.” The phone re-­‐cradled, the perfect tribute gift for the Golden Triangle’s most powerful and savage warlord just dropped into his lap, the rattly projector mostly humming and his psychotic primate for the moment behaving, the whole century-­‐and-­‐a-­‐half-­‐old house blessedly silent, the naked old Australian finally attained perfect tranquillity through the photographic proof that more than 75,000 subhumans had been reduced to radioactive ash in a single massive shadow-­‐scorching flash. 45 Christy Claiborne, the twenty-something founder of a women's shelter in San
Antonio, travels to Bangkok to network with sister organizations, and is sucked
into a one-woman war against a vast and powerful empire built on child
prostitution. To rescue 22 young girls from the empire's ruler, an octogenarian
Australian, and then destroy his empire, Christy finds a few unlikely allies,
including a wild bull elephant that weighs ten tons and is nearly two centuries old.
The Elephant Queen
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