Chapter 1—Welcome to Thailand

 

THE WHEELS of the fully loaded 747 jumbo jet slammed down onto the runway in Bangkok, as rough a landing as the flight had been. Despite the jarring touchdown, Patrick had a sense of overwhelming joy for the fact that this leg of his trip was nearly over. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say he felt the anticipation of impending great joy, because otherwise he felt like day-old dog crap.

Every time Patrick made this flight, he told himself he would never again subject himself to the ordeal. Surely he would remember before agreeing to another such trip that flights that lasted more than twelve hours were killers. But every time, he forgot and agreed once again to make the long haul halfway around the world.

This time—with God as his witness—this time would be different, he told himself, as the plane that had moments before so gracefully glided through the air, now lumbered across the taxiway, swaying as it made its way slowly to the terminal.

This trip had included the added misery because he’d waited too late to book his ticket. His work in London had taken longer than originally budgeted, so he’d had to postpone his departure for Bangkok. When he’d finally been able to leave London, all the first-class and business-class seats for the flight from London to Bangkok were gone. Although he wanted to pay to sit up front with more room so he could work—maybe lie back and sleep for a while—he was relegated to the back of the bus with the rest of the passengers in coach. If he hadn’t been so pressed for time, he would have waited and taken another flight, one where he could have gotten a seat in first class. But he was due in a meeting first thing the next morning, so flexibility and time were two luxuries he did not have on this leg of the trip. He’d had to suck it up and deal with the situation, but that didn’t stop him from grumbling to himself.

When they had finally parked at the gate, he knew no matter how much he wanted to be off that airplane—and he really, really, really wanted to get off—it would only further the torture to even think about getting out of his seat just yet. Nothing was going to happen right away; no one was going to move anytime soon where he was seated near the back of the plane, so why bother even trying. Standing would only take him from his uncomfortable seat to stand uncomfortably in the overcrowded aisle, assuming he could even squeeze into it.

He had read the reports by the so-called experts on how a fully loaded 747 could be evacuated in something like ninety seconds. He wondered why those same experts didn’t make a report on how long it took to deplane a fully loaded 747 after a twelve-hour flight, when everyone had to get out of their seat, stretch their sore and aching muscles, find their carry-ons, hit someone by accident with luggage that was too large, then have to stop and hold up everyone else while they apologized, and finally make their way off the plane. Deplaning was not a speedy process, especially when one was seated way, way in the back as Patrick was on this flight.

As he waited, he was neither patient nor impatient. He was just sort of numb. When the hordes of humanity closest to him finally started to move, Patrick tried to remember how his legs worked. After collecting his briefcase from under the seat in front of him, he crawled out of his godforsaken middle seat at the back of the coach cabin, grabbed his one small carry-on bag, and then started to move with the herd off the plane.

When the air on the jet bridge touched his face, it felt like someone had thrown a hot, wet, smelly blanket over his head. Ah, yes, a cool day in Bangkok.

He knew that after drinking about a gallon of water, spending about an hour in the shower, followed by ten hours of sleep, then and only then would he start to feel like a real human being again. But he couldn’t let his mind go there just yet. No. There were too many hurdles to get through between where he was and those good feelings.

The walkway from the airplane into the terminal always reminded him of the chutes cattle were forced into on their way to the slaughterhouse. He didn’t know what had originally placed that image into his head, but once there, it would not leave. Now, every time he found himself walking through one of the things, that vision came rushing back to him uninvited.

Patrick had made his first trip to Thailand many years earlier, when flights came into an older airport in a different part of town. For the last several years, all flights arrived at the still relatively new airport. The only problem was the new airport had a lot more capacity, and more capacity brought more planes, which brought more people, which made for a bit of chaos at times getting out of the airport.

In addition to being a ridiculously long flight, this flight had been especially torturous because of bad weather. Huge storms somewhere over Belarus or Kazakhstan had woken up most of the people who had settled in to try to get some sleep. There was something about getting tossed around on a darkened plane in the middle of the night that was especially frightening, even for a road warrior like Patrick.

The flight had left London’s Heathrow Airport pretty much on time a few minutes after ten o’clock on Saturday night. Patrick had hoped to get some sleep, but the experience of filling the plane to capacity and then shaking it vigorously for roughly one-quarter of the distance did not lend itself to rest.

Their pilot had dutifully tried to find better conditions by detouring around the worst of the weather, but in the end, there was only so much he could do.

Patrick had not been able to get much sleep, so with nothing else to do, he had sat in his middle seat and watched the little airplane symbol on the map on the seatback in front of him as it slowly—ever so slowly—inched its way across Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, China, a sliver of Nepal, and finally, finally over Myanmar before they started their descent into Bangkok, Thailand, where they landed at about three thirty Sunday afternoon. With the time change of six hours and the flight time of twelve, it was only eighteen hours, but to Patrick and everyone else who crawled off the plane that hot, muggy afternoon, it felt like a lifetime had passed since they boarded.

For once, the lines at the various checkpoints were not too ridiculous. Still, Patrick unfailingly picked one of the slower lines, then inched his way through, showing his passport when required, turning in documents he’d completed aboard the plane, and answering questions asked of him.

When he finally had his suitcase in hand and had cleared every checkpoint, he strode through the terminal. The last hurdle was another line, this one for a cab to take him into the city to his hotel. At least inside the airport when he’d stood in line, it had been air-conditioned. But the cab line was outside in the lingering heat and overwhelming humidity of an afternoon in Thailand.

The line moved slowly, with there being more passengers than cabs, for some reason. He didn’t know if it was the convergence of multiple jumbo jets arriving at the same time, but the cab line was interminable. Patrick was exhausted, and the longer he waited, the more he sweat and the more uncomfortable he became. Finally the line moved, and it was his turn.

After the driver had stashed his suitcase in the trunk of the cab, Patrick crawled into the back seat of the small Thai car and closed his eyes for a few minutes. He tried picturing the welcoming grand lobby of his hotel, a place he’d stayed many times and knew rather well. Without intending to do so, he drifted to sleep for a few minutes.

He opened his eyes blearily and looked around. Was he at his hotel already? No. But something had woken him. What the hell was it? Ah. He saw now that his cabdriver was trying to hand him something. Hadn’t he seen Patrick sleeping? Tipping didn’t mean the same thing in Thailand, so Patrick wouldn’t be able to undertip to express his dissatisfaction.

When he had roused himself enough to figure out who he was and where he was, Patrick instinctively reached out and took what the driver was trying to shove his way. One glance, though, told him all he needed to know. The driver was attempting to persuade him to rent a prostitute from him. Patrick didn’t know if the woman was supposed to be the driver’s wife or sister or mother or some random stranger. He didn’t care. He didn’t go for women and certainly wouldn’t willingly sleep with some stranger a cabdriver in a foreign land was pushing on him.

The driver was half turned around, smiling at Patrick. He seemed extraordinarily eager for Patrick to look at the photos, as if looking at them would change his mind. His English was horrible, but Patrick knew what the guy was doing and didn’t want to play that game. He shook his head and shoved the plastic-covered photos back to the man. The driver smiled more and gestured for Patrick to look some more. Patrick caught something about “good deal.” When the guy wouldn’t take the pictures back, Patrick simply dropped them onto the front seat beside the driver.

Thai people can be very gentle, quiet people, but this driver was neither. He wanted to make a sale and was not pleased Patrick wasn’t interested. He was turning back toward Patrick to say something. Patrick was looking at him, dreading the idea of a dispute with a non-English-speaking cabdriver in a foreign country.

But neither of them needed to worry, at least about that. While the driver had been distracted trying to convince Patrick of the great deal he had for him, their car had veered slightly across the lines separating the two lanes of traffic. Before a single word of argument could be uttered, a truck slammed into the front of the driver’s side of the cab with a vicious force, not only stopping their forward momentum but also snapping the car hard as they spun out of control. It all happened so fast the collision pushed the car into the path of another vehicle, which smashed into the front end of the other side of the cab, whipping them around.

Another truck smashed into the second car, which crushed some more of the cab. The third collision somehow loosened the cab from the other vehicles, and it slid sideways over the edge of the road and down a concrete embankment. The angle of descent was enough that the cab started to roll and did three complete rotations before coming to rest upside down in a crumpled heap of twisted metal and plastic.

It was irrelevant to the driver—he’d died almost instantly when the first truck hit the vehicle. But it was very much relevant for Patrick in the back seat, or more properly what was left of the back seat, which now sat where part of the trunk had once rested. Most of the trunk had been sheared off at one stage or another of the various encounters with other vehicles.

No one could come through a massive traumatic crash like that one and walk away without a scratch. Patrick was indeed scratched and scraped, bumped and bruised, and even burned in one place. He’d been thrown around the inside of the cab from one side to the other and back again before the small car had taken its final roll down the embankment. He barely realized it, but his left shoulder was injured and would soon hurt like crazy.

During their crash, Patrick’s head had banged hard into the window, or something else in the car. Even though the cab was no longer moving, he was having a miserable time trying to stop the world from spinning.

Any fatigue Patrick had felt was automatically erased by the adrenaline flooding his bloodstream. As that rush of hormones subsided a bit, Patrick felt an overwhelming urge to simply lie back now that his world had stopped flipping end over end. Blood dripped over one eye from a horrible cut on his forehead. He felt woozy and just wanted to be still for a moment. Whether he was conscious or not didn’t matter; he just wanted his world to stabilize.

But he wasn’t given that choice. A spark from somewhere ignited the gasoline leaking from the car. Patrick was close enough to both the gas and the fire that his primitive fight-or-flight instinct kicked in. He knew without thinking that fire meant danger and he had to get the hell out of there. His bleeding forehead and the dizziness made it difficult for him to see straight, but he managed to feel his way to an opening of some sort. He didn’t know exactly what, nor did it really matter.

As he pulled himself through the opening in the twisted carcass of the vehicle, one leg of his suit pants caught on a jagged piece of metal and tore half of that piece of cloth away. His jacket fared no better. He caught the left sleeve on another piece of metal and left it behind as he struggled to get free. He smelled the smoke and felt the heat of the flames, so he knew getting out, getting away, was all that mattered if he wanted to live for more than the next sixty seconds.

Before Patrick departed from home, first for London and then for Bangkok, he had purchased sufficient British pounds for the first part of his trip and Thai baht for the second. But all his currency was either in the inside pocket of his jacket, in his wallet (which was in his briefcase, which was still inside the cab), or in the pocket of his pants—the pants that had been torn as he crawled from the cab. But none of that mattered to Patrick at the moment. In fact, none of those thoughts were anywhere near the front of his mind. First and foremost was the basic instinct to survive.

When he pulled himself clear of the crumpled cab, he stayed down and just kept scrambling, intent on putting distance between himself and the mangled wreck.

He hadn’t gotten ten feet before a massive explosion ripped through the air. Patrick instinctively threw himself flat onto the concrete, assuming it was his cab that had just blown up. It took him nearly thirty seconds to realize the explosion had come from somewhere else. Looking around he saw his cab still burning and still too close, so he got back onto his hands and knees and kept crawling away.

After he had covered about fifty feet, he ran out of space to move because the concrete platform ended and he could see the river below. But that didn’t matter because Patrick’s attention was ripped away by the sound of his cab exploding. The combination of fire and gasoline had produced the cataclysmic reaction he’d instinctively feared.

When the first explosion had happened, Patrick had dropped to the ground. He didn’t get a choice on this one—the force of the blast knocked him down.

Patrick rolled over onto his back as the fireball of flames engulfed the cab. Pieces of the vehicle blown away by the explosion started to rain down. Instinctively he rolled to his side and attempted to curl into a fetal position so he could shield his body the best he could from the pieces of hot or burning metal and plastic. The blast of heat from the explosion threatened to push him over the edge and into the river below.

Once the initial roar of the flames died back, Patrick knew he had to get the hell out of there. The heat of the flames was licking at him. He had to put some distance between the burning cab and himself.

With the river to one side, flames from the road on the other, and his own burning cab behind him, he fled the only way left open to him. He simply focused on moving away from the heat of the fire. It took some work, but he managed to stand up and walk and to eventually climb out of the concrete valley he was in. He walked a fair distance before he found a spot with a less steep incline that allowed him to climb up, and eventually he made it up to road level.

When he got to the road level, he looked left and then right, but nothing seemed familiar. He didn’t know where he was or which way he should go.

At the very moment Patrick came closest to flat-out screaming panic, he realized not only did he not know where he was, but he also did not know who he was. He was no longer Patrick. He was a stranger in a very foreign land, a man with absolutely no clue about anything.