The Ashes of Paradise
Christian Henry Asher, “Charlie” to his friends — few of which presently remained in the Diplomatic Service — kept his eyes shut and his breathing calm, ignoring both the cool hardness of the hotel room’s tiled floor beneath his knees and the occasional, distant rattle of small-arms fire. The annoying, erratic hum of the air conditioner was far harder to ignore, and behind that, loudest in his mind if not his hearing, he was conscious of the quiet, repeated swish, swish of the ceiling fan’s wooden blades.
Miu had always hated what he called “fan room.” Wherever they had stayed, his only question had been “have air?” — meaning air-conditioning. “Fan for dance only,” he would say. Indifferent plumbing; traffic that honked and squealed or shook the building as it rumbled through the night; partying neighbors or rogue insect life — none of those traveller’s misfortunes had ever cast the slightest shadow over Miu’s sunny calm, just so long as somewhere an air-con roared and turned the lovely tropical night to ice. The cold had sunk into Charlie’s old bones, but he’d counted the trusting pressure of Miu’s slender body curled against his front, soap-scented and warm in sleep, as compensation beyond measure.
Charlie drew a deep, shaky breath and opened his eyes. The filigree leaves of the fan he had imported from Madrid, Spain, lay open on his palm, as fragile as a butterfly. He stroked one finger over the delicate inlay — although the work was so fine that he could feel only smoothnes — then closed the sticks together with gentle attention, as though arranging the remains of a loved one. He swallowed, forcing down the lump in his throat as he returned the fragile creation to the leather box next its twin. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered. “I miss you so much, Miu.”
He slid the box back into his suitcase, and stroked his fingertips across the entwined “LV” monograms of the lining, behind which the two fat envelopes were concealed. When he’d packed in Washington, he’d been concerned that the money — the remains of his savings, plus the results of selling his jewelry — wouldn’t be enough. Well, serve him right for taking his eye off the ball: that temple and a dozen others like it were now smoking ruins, dynamited by the New Party zealots while he and his fellow delegates were somewhere over the Pacific.
Officially the ceasefire was still in place. “Urban Clearance Program,” had been the bland statement of the welcoming committee at the airport. The western-besuited representative of the New Party had smiled largely, his teeth white in his beard as he extended a square, no nonsense hand to the leader of their delegation. A consummate politician; showing no disquiet at touching an unveiled woman in public, regardless of the more conservative elements in his new government.
“We send a message to you, our friends,” he’d boomed, his voice apparently unaided by the microphones. “To our new future together in strength and prosperity.”
Charlie, well back in the delegation with the other “camp followers,” — those without official diplomatic status: clerks, secretaries and discreet paramours; — had watched as Councilor Dane returned the handclasp, pausing while the cameras flashed, the brassy blond helmet of her hair vivid against the darkened city beyond.
Giddy with success, he’d employed the freedom of his newly junior status to look around, enjoying the familiar sights. The politicians with their careful dignity, each wearing the price of a village on their backs; the neat khaki lines of unsmiling faces in their dress uniforms, and behind the barriers the crowd: cheering like they had bayonets in back of them.
Never had Miu’s gentle spirit seemed further away.
Charlie selected a white silk necktie, closed his suitcase and clicked the locks shut, absently dusting off the knees of his dress pants before crossing to the dresser. As his fingers looped and folded the cool silk, he found himself watching the reflection of the wooden fan blades circling with reassuring hypnotic lassitude above him. He glanced across at the erratically humming air-conditioner beneath the window. He hadn’t wanted to turn it on, but the bell-boy had been so proud that the hotel not only had air-conditioning, but could actually command the electricity to run it, that Charlie had smiled and let him demonstrate its capabilities.
The lean teenager had stood on tiptoe to adjust the drapes. Had leaned over when adjusting the faucets on the tub. Charlie was sure that the boy would have happily demonstrated other capabilities. He had that look: that smile. That ass! Instead Charlie had pretended ignorance and merely tipped the bell-boy generously; even as he was telling himself that he was being a fool.
Miu wouldn’t have minded. He would have smiled and said: “He good? Know somebody better.” And then he would have turned over, reaching for Charlie as the white cotton sheet slid down his shining, slender brown body; his slanted, espresso-dark eyes agleam with mischief; his small, hot fingertips tracing patterns up Charlie’s now silver-haired chest that made his breath catch. His memory supplied the feel of Miu’s warm, smooth skin against his own; the pale pink tip of his tongue which he always clenched between his beautiful teeth when he was concentrating.
Charlie paused in the act of teasing out the bow of his necktie, as waves of the sweet musk-oil that Miu always used rose in his memory: he always used to feel the perfumed taste of it in his mouth just before they kissed. He’d been used to joke that at his age it was a wonder the boy hadn’t killed him. Instead, it had been quite the reverse.
Charlie drew himself up, smoothing back his thinning silver hair and checking the fit of his evening dress in the mirror. The lunches and dinners at the start of diplomatic negotiations were always such a bore. Now, having been demoted to something rather less than a side-kick to the guy who watched the coats, perhaps he could duck out early.
He drew a sharp, painful breath. He was back, where he’d never thought to be again after the mess he’d made, and for the brief time he was here he’d seize his opportunities, as Miu always had. He’d find some way to say his farewells; meanwhile he was sure he could find congenial company, even in the ashes of Paradise.
“But that’s the beauty of it, you see!” Congressman Havors said, beaming, his hands clasped before him on the polished conference table. “Modern, practical accommodation—”
Barracks, Charlie mentally translated behind his professional smile. Built on the cheap by your cronies—
”—located close to industry—”
Foreign owned industry—
“And protected by an independent security force.” Havors leaned his suited bulk closer to the table and unclasped his hands to wag a thick finger. “Not the army: a purely defensive force to protect the workers in the new towns.”
Oh, that was clever. From his clerk’s position behind the negotiators, Charlie glanced left and right at the thoughtful faces around the table, counting the number that knew this country would be paying to guarantee the multinationals’ profits, and wondering how many cared.
Congresswoman Heartt leaned forward. “And these new towns,” she said. “They’d be built to be clean, wholesome, family places: with no liquor, or vice?”
Built to be malarial pest-holes, Charlie thought. He’d seen the plans: standard shallow-roofed frame tract housing, reincarnated in cement. Fine in a temperate climate, and tolerable now in the cool season, but when the heat returned they’d turn into ovens. As for the wet season — well, there was a reason the local housing was steep-roofed and built either on high ground or on stilts. He shifted impatiently in his seat. “This country is eighty percent Buddhist ma’am. Very few people drink more than a beer or three at weddings, well diluted with ice.”
She turned to stare at him, visibly struggling to recall the name of this junior upstart. “Yes, well,” she said. “Then it’s best these people don’t get the taste for it, don’t you agree?” She looked back at Havors, dismissing him.
“These people” were living in planned cities with running water when you were living in a thatched hut in Asshole of the World, Europe, above your pigs! he thought.
He glanced sideways at the local representatives. As he expected, their bland, tinted ivory faces revealed nothing. It wasn’t surprising: anyone who could not only thrive during the vicious court intrigues between the Prince and the old Queen Mother but survive the rise not just of both armies but of the “assistance” from the ancient enemy over the border wouldn’t be wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Unfortunately the contingent from Consolidated Chemicals seemed unable to keep the fat, contented smiles off their faces.
“Goodbye water table,” Charlie thought. “Hello, New Bhopal.”
Equally unfortunately, it seemed his own diplomatic mask was in need of repair. Charlie felt a touch on his arm, and looked round into the chubby, round-faced features of Mark Lakey, his diplomatic senior, and twenty years his junior.
“Check for messages and sitrep would you please, Asher?” Laker said, his out-sticking ears pink-tinged with embarrassment.
“Yes, mister Lakey.” Charlie gave Mark a small smile and saw him relax. In private, Mark Lakey made no secret of his high regard for Charlie and his ability to get things done here, but in public the niceties of diplomatic rank had to be observed.
“Come along boys! Bond on your own time.” Gillian Dane’s broad, dimpled smile was almost as famous as her plain speaking. She’d apparently charmed many during her earlier career, but now it seemed she didn’t bother with those on “her” team. Charlie preferred her rudeness to her smile – he noticed it never reached her hard blue eyes anyway. “Messages, Asher,” she said and turned back to the table, having demonstrated to her satisfaction who was in charge.
Outside the meeting room, Charlie checked with security, who looked at him with their blank, Special Service gaze and told him there was no cause for alarm, as if he were a civilian. He passed the non-message back to Mark Lakey, and then slipped out through the kitchens for a smoke.
Charlie knew better than to offer a cigarette to the guard who stood rigidly beside the open door, his uniform crisply immaculate despite the heat. Instead he dropped a couple on the cement wall which did duty as a hand rail. The guard turned his head and Charlie found himself momentarily reflected in the twin, gold-tinted mirrors.
He descended the gritty, whitewashed cement steps of a narrow stairway and stood in the quiet, sweet stink of the service alleyway, where a small heap of squashed cigarette butts suggested the kitchen staff usually smoked. Flies buzzed around the trashcans and he found himself smiling as he remembered how Miu had always claimed the smoke from Charlie’s strong, unfiltered cigarettes was better than any commercial repellant. He’d seemed to like the taste though: winding his smooth, small brown arms around Charlie’s neck and thrusting his hard little tongue into his mouth; kissing him with a hungry passion quite at odds with his shy public reserve.
The smoke tasted suddenly bitter and Charlie coughed, telling himself that was the reason his eyes were watering. He hoped that after he’d gone, Miu had found himself a lusty soldier or three with whom he could really pound the mattress instead of humoring the frailties of an old diplomatic wreck barely able to satisfy him. He hated the idea that the University fees he’d paid, and the regular “pocket money” he’d sent might have meant Miu had wasted his last twenty-two months of life sleeping alone, without the warmth of strong arms around him and the comfort of a hard cock pulsing seed deep inside the warmth of his slick, tight little bottom.
Charlie lit a second cigarette off the butt of the first, his fingers shaking, cursing himself for his lack of control. Perhaps they were right: perhaps he was past it. Look at the mess he’d made in the meeting room just now; letting his feelings show. Broken face, they called it here.
He turned, walking down the sloping alleyway through the cool, dove-gray shadows, past the buzzing dumpsters towards the louder, remembered buzz of traffic. Even that was different from back home. The little scooters and motorbikes gave the traffic a different sound: a higher, nasal snarl beneath the incessant bleat and yarp of their horns. But he could hear there were a lot fewer than there used to be before all the troubles, and when he looked up at the building he could see patches of raw new mortar, although unlike the front, here in back they hadn’t bothered with a cosmetic coat of paint.
The traffic noise grew suddenly louder as he turned the corner of the hotel, and the soldier on duty by the gate drew himself up sharply, sunlight glinting off his new, automatic weapon. In defiance of security, one half of the tall, black-painted wooden gate stood open. The other soldier stood outside, dickering with a small crowd of boys. Of course, Charlie thought: lunchtime.
Having gotten himself under control, Charlie had been about to turn back, but knew the sentries would assume that the stupid foreigner had seen security problems where none existed and reported them. Relations between the delegation and the local security were tense enough already. He’d no intention of compounding today’s failure by fueling an incident. So he stepped through the gateway.
At once boys swarmed him, holding up lighters, trinkets, packets of snack food and flowers. A few called out greetings in German, or one of the Slavic languages, but most used English: “You want?” “Good luck — make very good!” “Have flower?” “Make bless!”
One small, round-faced boy grinned up at him and yelled: “Bo-joo! Telephon!” while holding up a pre-paid phone card.
Charlie smiled back, wondering if the boy recognized the shape of the unfiltered cigarette or if, like Miu, it was the smell of the smoke which had alerted him. Either way he approved the boy’s quickness in addressing him in French. “Je non parle pas le francais,” he said. “English.”
“Phone-ca’ for you?”
Charlie looked at the worn card proffered in the small, grimy, brown hand. The problem used to be that most of the cards bought off street-boys were fakes; now the issue was more likely to be the lack of any functioning network.
Charlie looked at the cheeky intelligence sparkling in those dark eyes and laughed as the boy named an outrageous price. “I like very much,” he said, offering a small bill for the card. Impulsively, he stroked the silky back of the boy’s hand as he took it.
“We go hotel?”
Charlie smiled and shook his head, no. “I stay different hotel.”
The boy’s smile grew bigger. “No prob-lem,” he said, raising his voice as two other boys insinuated themselves between them. “I Ting. Find you again. Everything no problem.”
Charlie examined several necklaces and lucky charms, now all offered by pretty boys who gave him sultry, calculating or provocative looks, depending on what they thought most likely to catch his interest. He examined each offering with a smile and a compliment, giving some a small tip, until out of the corner of his eye he saw three boys running towards them, breathless, holding foil dishes and paper-wrapped parcels above their heads. Time to go. He turned to the guard and thanked him politely, declining the obligatory invitation to share their lunch due to lack of time. The crowd of boys dispersed and Charlie found himself walking back up the alleyway much lighter of heart.
Miu, he felt, would have approved.
Charlie breathed in, tasting the heavy, sweet warmth of the thick, spicy tropical night air; relishing the sensations and the memories it summoned. Such a relief after spending the day in the sterile, chilled air of the temporary seat of government: the old Imperial Hotel with its polished marble columns, thick carpets and faux, French-colonial furnishings where the rest of the diplomatic corps were staying. Strange to think how much Miu would have loved that place.
He smiled down at his little companion. As promised, Ting had found him again. Night-shadows shifted on the boy’s face as Ting looked up at him, small teeth gleaming white in his sweet, round face; half invisible in the alley’s musty semi-dark. His lean hand felt warm in Charlie’s as he tugged forward. “You come!” the boy said; the words as much a promise as an instruction.
Charlie had endured the meetings after the opulent, protracted lunch, and hoped he had been successful in concealing his dismay as the New Party, evidently desperate for hard currency, had made one concession after another. Intellectually he’d known they were puppets, the public face of the old enemy from across the border, already imposing its alien values here, but the casual demonstration of their callousness had sickened him almost as much as the sight of his own country’s naked greed. So much for using his “previous experience of the local situation;” the official reason for his appointment. These meetings were essentially to discuss the level of squeeze.
The night air was heavy with the threat of rain. Across the road, whiteness blazed from the hygienic, empty windows of the new consumer stores, but over here the road felt soft, felted underfoot with rotting vegetation. Above them, the bullet-pocked, pastel-painted concrete walls of the old Palm View hotel were tumerous with bulky airconditioning units, roaring in the dark.
Ting tugged his hand impatiently again, and Charlie shrugged and turned his back on the brilliantly floodlit, empty stores as the boy led him away.
The alley sloped steeply downward. Charlie found he must be careful where he put his feet, unlike Ting who danced beside him surefooted as a little mouse, beaming, proud of the good luck he was bringing his family. As they descended the hill, the shattered buildings looming close on either side were dark, gutted ruins, with only the flickering orange light of an occasional fat-lamp showing where some stubborn family hung on, working too-long hours in the government “foreigners only” stores where tourists no longer shopped, or haunting the polluted beach where empty, once-white plastic chairs sat beneath the rotting awnings.
Charlie looked around, remembering when all this was bright with life; when this and a dozen other alleys had all been blaring disco-bars sitting cheek-by-jowl, crowding each other’s space as they vied for custom, all filled to bursting by the foreigners eager to press money into the hands of beautiful, smiling boys.
Sure, a lot of that money had stayed in the bars. Of course, being pretty boys, those boys spent a lot on pretty things, and many spent more on gambling. Still, how many farms had been rebuilt, how many fields and cattle purchased by the money those good boys and their hardworking sisters sent home from the bars? This quiet, friendly country had risen to prosperity on the cum-bespattered backs of its hard-working daughters and sons.
To their left, a cigarette glowed cherry-red in a nearby doorway. Ting immediately halted, silently tugging at Charlie’s hand. Ahead, where the alley was crossed by a second, narrower one, boots grated on gravel. In the dark shadows at the corner, moonlight gleamed briefly on the metal of a rifle barrel as the sentry moved, revealing himself.
Ting was already on tiptoe, stretching up to whisper in his ear, but Charlie squeezed the boy’s hand and passed across the closely folded notes he had ready. His companion smiled, nodded approval and let go his hand. The boy slipped into the deeper shadows near the smoker’s doorway and Charlie looked away with elaborate disinterest. He knew he would hear nothing.
The wall across from him brightened as someone in the building behind unshuttered a window, the soft puttering of the generator and the clear steady glow of the electric light advertising the owner’s potent political connections.
Idly Charlie let his gaze follow the starred trail of bullet holes across the shattered plastic signs: “Happy Boys” one read. “Beauty Boys”; read another. Ugly smoke stains above the gaping doorways and windows said what the new order and its army thought of happiness and beauty.
Next door, rusted reinforcing rods poked out of the raw concrete like bloodied, fossil fingers and he realized that the building had never been finished; a victim of policy rather than war. Charlie looked away as the memories came flooding back.
Business had been booming. The families that owned the bars had gotten fat, and the government — like governments everywhere — had hogged all the credit; telling themselves it was from their policies, their far-sightedness that all these riches sprang. They told themselves they deserved their comforts, and dreamed of more. The old predator had ceased circling and closed in.
Schools it would provide, it said. Hospitals; orphanages; help for the poor — and all for such a very little. Pay no heed, it said, to the blasted ruins of other countries it had helped; the dead rotting in mass graves; the remaining millions living in poverty and fear amid the whistling bullets and the seething hate. Those had been local matters; peculiar difficulties; mere mischance. The ministers had pocketed their gifts, and listened.
First had come the “decency” laws: boys were no longer permitted to dance with foreigners. Then they must cover up the beauty that so disturbed outsiders. Pleasure is wrong, the Predators said. It corrupts the weak. You’re doing this for their own good. As new hotels and shopping malls climbed towards the sky, the bars were told they could no longer open all night, or play the music they chose, or put on their famous shows. Soon, the predators said, the country would not be known for sex and sinful pleasure, but for good, hard business sense. The ministers had basked in the predators’ approval, greedily anticipating their cut of the take.
Well, they’d thrown the legal door wide open and invited in the devil. And how many of them had lost everything? Not enough, Charlie thought, bitterly. Not enough.
Ting was back, moving silent as a drifting leaf on his small, bare feet. His skin gleamed for a moment in the reflected light, and then the shutters closed again. He clasped Charlie’s arm and stood on tiptoe as the man bent down. “Everything very good,” the boy whispered, and Charlie shivered at the intimacy of sweet breath warm in his ear.
He could, he knew, turn his head and kiss his companion right here. Ting would permit it, but it would cost the boy dear, later. Charlie knew it was dangerous enough for Ting to touch him, a foreigner, even while posing as a guide. He tried not to smile at this lovely boy, and knew Ting was grateful for this foreigner’s good manners, for all that his stiff, poker-face fooled none of the hidden observers here. We rely on the civilized habits of his ancient culture, Charlie thought. The living roots too deeply buried to be corrupted yet by the honeyed poison of “it’s for their own good.” Here, people did not presume to be experts on another’s life; they were not yet addicted to the seductive smugness of self-righteousness.
The sentry was gone from his post. Unhurried, Ting led him on, and they turned into the narrow, winding slot of the sweet-stinking alley. Charlie was grateful that this alley, though equally treacherous underfoot, was level. Gleams of light from behind shutters and the raw, abrasive tang of burning chillies told him that these buildings too were still inhabited. Charlie resisted the urge to look back: it would be impolite to notice the soldier, who would be compelled to remain blind to him, now that the fiscal proprieties had been observed.
“Home now — you come,” Ting whispered. He let go Charlie’s hand and bent to pull aside a sheet of rusty corrugated iron hanging askew against the fractured steel and cement of yet another failed commercial hope. With a glance of apology, the boy ducked into the dark, triangular void revealed. Charlie followed the pale gleam of Ting’s shirt into the stifling dark. The space felt narrow, perhaps a passage. To one side, his fingertips brushed raw, scarred bricks.
“Moment,” Ting whispered, and eeled past to pull the iron sheet into place again. It was the most intimate contact so far, and quite deliberate, Charlie knew. In the confined space he could smell the oil anointing the back of the boy’s neck; the same spiced musk Miu had used, and felt a small, firm shoulder nudging his stomach. Pitch dark descended.
Ting’s small hand found his own again, unerring in the dark. The boy tugged, and Charlie bent down again, anticipating further whispered instructions, only to be surprised by a kiss.
The boy’s lips were very soft; his tongue eager and experienced. After a moment he broke the kiss, and Charlie felt a gentle touch on the side of his neck. “You will behind me and no look, pliss?” Ting whispered.
Oh. The new rules. “Your mother?”
“Sister also,” Ting said. “You no look.”
“I promise: no look.”
Ting called out: a formal greeting that Charlie recognised, and then a longer phrase. In the dark his boy’s voice sing-songed over the tones that long ago the man had tried, and failed, to learn; creating beauty out of commonplace.
Charlie heard scuffling, movement. A little way ahead, a door squeaked ajar, the flickering of candlelight revealing one wall of this narrow passageway as mortar-pocked concrete patched with brick, stretching off into musty dark beyond. The other wall was flattened cardboard packing cases supported by a bamboo framework, which flexed slightly as he looked.
Ting moved to the doorway, and, mindful of his promise, Charlie followed two long foreigner’s paces behind. The boy bowed to someone in the room beyond; turned to look at his new companion, his eyes shining, and then turned back to bow again, murmuring something, his musical voice low and respectful. Ting pushed the flimsy door wider and stepped through, glancing over his shoulder to summon his guest with those lovely dark eyes.
Charlie slipped off his shoes and stepped over the threshold, feeling the rectangular, sand-smoothed panels from wooden packing cases warm and silky beneath his feet.
The small room was a riot of color. Hangings woven of bright, shredded carrier bags hung on every wall, shimmering in the flickering light of tea candles mounted in holders fashioned from polished soda cans. Two curtains of bright-printed blue cotton shielded half-height doorways in the wall opposite. One was set low in the wall, the other near the low ceiling, accessed by a short, three-step ladder of split bamboo.
Seated at the edge of a woven, wipable plastic mat between the doorways, his back straight as any lancer, was the thinnest old man Charlie had ever seen. Charlie made haste to show respect, bowing, and saw the expression on that fierce hawk’s face thaw a little.
“Oncle say make welcome,” Ting said. “Sit, sit.” He patted the air, and Charlie sank down into his best imitation of the formal floor-squat, admiring Ting’s grace as he bobbed apology for having his head higher than his uncle and guest both, then crossing to close the door behind them.
The curtain over the lower doorway twitched and Charlie courteously focused his attention on Uncle so that the womenfolk could satisfy their curiousity without risk of embarrassment. This new gender segregation made him uneasy, but he approved the family’s caution: the new order had spies everywhere. Thunder growled loud above, and the old man nodded solemnly at Charlie’s finger rain-pantomime, and said something to Ting.
“Oncle say roof good — he make,” Ting said, as he padded across to poke his head through the lower curtain. A whispered conversation followed, and then he pulled his head back and came over to sit close. “Good drink water soon.”
Charlie was unsurprised when, now safe in his own home, Ting became quite bold. He leaned against Charlie and stroked his leg with his slender, delicate fingers. Charlie felt himself responding, as any boy-lover would, and the boy smiled, an enthusiastic, cheeky grin. He said something to his Uncle, who laughed, slapping his thigh and showing long, betel-stained teeth.
“I have good time with you,” Ting said.
Charlie joined in the laughter, patting the warm silken skin at the small of Ting’s back where his shirt had ridden up. “I think you will make it very good time,” he said.
Ting smiled, catching his lower lip in his white teeth, his dark, almond eyes making promises, and then translated for his Uncle. Charlie caught the word for “wife” in the man’s reply and was startled to see Ting blush.
The boy said something to his uncle, his gaze politely low but his voice quite firm. Charlie missed the sense though, for just then the curtain was lifted aside and a tall youth — although here every male who wasn’t either venerable like Uncle, or the head of a house was a “boy” — backed into the room.
Uncle spoke sharply at the discourtesy, and as the boy made haste to kneel and turn so that he faced into the room, Ting leaned closer, pressing his warm body against Charlie’s side and whispering in his ear.
“Him coo-sin Lek. He shy.”
Stately as a Duchess, cousin Lek placed the round tin tray crowded with tea-things onto the mat in the center of the room. His shining black, straight hair was long, past shoulder length and hung down as he moved, half obscuring his face.
Charlie swallowed as he watched the boy open the dented aluminum tea-pot and stir it, his throat suddenly tight. The trained, ceremonial grace of those movements was achingly familiar. The hosts at Bang-Bang Boys Bar and Rainbow Boys had all been well trained, but the best, the most graceful had been from the Lotus Garden. All long-gone now.
“You are Lotus boy before?” Charlie asked Lek.
Lek looked up from his task. “I once had that honor, yes,” he said, sounding startled, turning his head slightly.
For an anguished, heartbreaking moment Charlie saw his lover, Miu, in the shadows of the boy’s face before common sense kicked in and added the growth and changes another eight years would have achieved, had Miu lived. Then Lek turned to face him fully, and Charlie swallowed bile as the boy’s dark hair swung back to reveal the hidden half of his face.
Two long, puckered red scars ran from Lek’s jaw; up, across his cheek to his hairline. In places his skin gleamed as though pulled too tight. His cheekbone looked subtly wrong as well.
“Accident,” Ting whispered. “Motobigh-”
“Oh. Yes. Motorbikes are so unpredictable. Most unfortunate,” Charlie said, politely ignoring the evidence of the savage attack. He felt the anger surge inside him and looked down, falling silent until he was sure he could command his voice again.
Once, no foreigner would have dared pressure a boy, much less raise a hand against him. All bars had a Mamasan, the manager who ran the front of house. It was the Mamasan’s responsibility to talk to the customers, and to match their desires with the right boy; one who was willing to do what the customer wished. They prided themselves on avoiding misunderstandings, on protecting both their boys and the good name of the bar.
Any Mamasan to whom a boy reported a “problem customer” was assiduous in sharing the information. Thereafter, until he made reparation, that customer found all the boys mysteriously “busy” whenever he entered any bar. Such ostracism was usually enough to re-educate a boor, but once or twice during his tenure at the consulate, Charlie had become aware of the bars expressing more direct disapproval; he knew of occaisional arrangements made for a pale-faced bully to leave on the next flight with instructions never to return.
Then the decency laws crippled the bars’ trade. The government increased the pressure, delighted; believing their foreign advisors that it was the “sex-trade” reputation that kept the majority of foreigners away. They urged the building of more hotels, in greedy anticipation of the surge of “family” tourists that never came.
The sex trade didn’t go away; it never does. The boys stayed, but stripped of the protection granted by legitimacy. The government pretended ignorance, breathing a sigh of relief, feeling safe at last from the superficial humbug of pious, ignorant westerners. The flood of gold would be ample compensation for the bad luck of a few unimportant “money boys,” who brought such things upon themselves by their lack of merit anyway.
Charlie felt Ting touch his arm. “Lek he sorry. He go now.”
“No—” Charlie swallowed, and looked aside. After Lek’s earlier, gentle reproof, he took pains to speak proper english. “Please stay, Lek. Forgive my poor manners. You reminded me so much of a boy I once knew, that’s all. He would have been a teacher, now.”
“He is not?”
Charlie looked up. Lek’s hair once again hid half his face, and now he could clearly see that, beautiful as this boy was, he was not Miu. He swallowed, feeling the twisting in his gut. “I never heard from Miu after the September riots,” he said. “I know the police raided his university.”
Ting turned his head sharply at the mention of politics, dark eyes glancing eloquently towards the thin walls. He sucked in breath as though to speak, but subsided abruptly as Lek lifted the teapot high, pouring a long, amber stream of tea into a glass until it was brimming, leaving no space for bad luck.
By the third, perhaps even the second time they met, Miu had dropped his claim to being even an apprentice Lotus boy; claiming only that he worked “in Lotus House,” which with typical subtlety allowed Charlie to believe him a trained boy, if he wished, without actually making a false claim. Charlie had lost count of the nights he’d lain wakeful, with Miu folded warmly tight against him, breathing softly in sleep, trying to imagine a foolproof form of words that would tell Miu that he was not, and never had been deceived, without “breaking his face.” He never had.
Charlie found himself smiling as he admired the smooth, beautiful curve Lek’s arm made, and the pleasing, graceful shape his long fingers still contrived to make around the cheap, chunky glass as he offered it to his family’s honored guest. Automatically he found himself accepting it the correct manner, as he had countless times before when Miu had served him tea.
He’d heard that locals could tell the favored of a Lotus Boy at sight, from the poise, the charm and even the success that transferred. It was easy to believe, for here in the presence of the genuine article he found himself more alert; his back straightening and calm flowing over him as it never had before.
“My friend Miu was a good boy,” Charlie said, raising his voice slightly. “He studied hard, made merit and thought of his family. I am sure he was never disloyal. He wanted only to be a teacher, in a small school in his home town.” And for us to live together, he added silently. Only I had to open my big mouth and become a political embarrassment. He raised the glass courteously to Uncle, and to the empty shelf above him where the family shrine would normally have been, before taking a tiny sip of the sweet, scalding liquid.
“Learning is a precious thing,” Lek said softly, “for then we value peace the more.” He lowered his lashes, his long, narrow lips curved in a subtle smile.
“You pay?” Ting said, and Charlie found himself smiling at the boy’s direct, businesslike approach.
Lek paused in the act of pouring more tea and hushed him, a despairing teacher with a graceless student, and quoted a proverb whose singsong phrases Charlie understood: recalled from his language classes long ago. “The tiger stalks the goat, not the goat the tiger.” Lek’s voice was beautiful – cool, pure, soft as a flute, and with the same hints of strength and richness in the lower register, too. A voice for secrets. A courtesan’s voice.
Charlie laughed, softly. “Yes, I paid. Although I think your little goat will eat me alive, with eyes so beautiful as that.” Oh yes, I paid, Charlie thought. In the long silence after the news reports of the riots, in the aching, silent depths of the night, undisturbed by the soft breathing of his boy, how he had paid.
Lek glanced up beneath the veil of his hair and smiled at the neat return of his earlier reproof. “You have learned, I think.” He offered the second glass of tea to his uncle.
Charlie held up his hand, thumb and middle finger fractionally apart. “A little,” he said.
Ting grinned. “Oh, no! Mister Charlie not little! Is—” he held up his hands about a foot apart, and added something that provoked general laughter.
Charlie put down his tea, shifted his hip and slid an envelope from his pocket. He offered it formally to Uncle using both hands, his left cupped below his right. Uncle took it with the grace of a warlord, and placed it, unopened, on the floor to his right-hand side, pretending indifference.
“Lek,” Charlie said, as Ting squeaked excitement and bounced to his feet. “Thank you for welcoming us. Your grace was an unexpected pleasure, and I’m sure your teaching will bring more pleasure yet.” Out of the corner of his eye he saw Ting scramble up the ladder and disappear through the curtain.
Lek blushed, lowering his long eyelashes. Charlie found himself swallowing in a tight throat. He wanted to invite Lek to join them, but was afraid of leaving him with no graceful way to refuse, and shaming the boy.
“I would invite you now, but these days a foreigner does not walk the streets carrying the price of a Lotus boy without good cause,” Charlie said. It was the best he could think of.
Lek moved his head in graceful acceptance, his shining dark hair hiding his ruin. Charlie was careful to control his face, feeling his stomach tighten and sour at the gratitude in Lek’s gaze for the courtesy of his dismissal.
“I will wait,” Lek said, composing himself gracefully on the mat. “If you speak loudly, I will translate.”
Charlie hesitated, then reached into his pocket and palmed a rubber. Since the incoming Church banned them, their price on the black market had soared; the hotel staff accepted them readily as gratuities. He knelt and took Lek’s hands in his own, discreetly passing him the small foil packet. “You bring honor to your family,” he said.
Charlie stood and turned his back – technically impolite, but he found he didn’t want to see the boy’s expression, concerned lest his clumsiness had caused Lek to lose face in front of his family. He climbed the bamboo ladder, which creaked and flexed beneath his weight, and pushed through the upper curtain.
The walls of the small room beyond were checkerboarded, constructed of flattened cartons, the logos of electronics companies, fashion brands and auto companies looming in the flickering light of the small tea-candle. The only other thing the room contained was a double mattress, covered with a thin, much washed pink cotton sheet.
Ting popped his head through a small, rough doorway hammered through the cement wall to Charlie’s right. “Moment!” he said, grinning, water trickling down his face from his gleaming, dark hair. “Clean boy for you!”
“Also,” Charlie said, beginning to unbutton his shirt. “I wash.” He made washing movements with his hands over his body.
“Good.” Ting’s white smile broadened at the foreigner’s consideration. He bobbed his head in acknowledgement. “Very good. You come.” He called out a sentence, and Lek answered from the room below:
“Ting says he will wash you in a very nice way.” His voice warmed as though he was suppressing laughter. “I taught him this: do you wish to borrow my protection?” He added a sentence in his own language, the only word of which Charlie recognized was “condom.” Around him, Charlie heard murmurs of approval at the unexpectedly clean habits of the foreigner — almost as though he were a proper, civilized person — and then soft laughter.
Charlie felt a glow of gratitude to Lek, who had increased Charlie’s standing with his family. He was now a good man, who protected others at his own cost. “No problem,” he called, shucking his shirt and beginning to unbutton his short pants. “When I saw Ting’s smile, I brought many rubbers, but now because of you, and your teaching, I fear I will not have enough!” He was sure Lek would pick up on the unnecessary “you” and wondered if he would include it in the translation.
Whatever Lek said caused a shout of laughter from all around as Charlie shifted awkwardly in the confined space, the floor creaking as he shucked off his shorts.
Ting giggled with his hand in front of his mouth as Charlie’s hardon waggled into view. He called out a sentence that Charlie could well guess the sense of, but when Lek replied Ting settled down, looking momentarily contrite before his grin broke out again. Somewhere below music started: Charlie recognized the tinny sound of a wind-up radio.
Charlie hummed along to the bouncy pop song as he pulled a handful of rubbers from his pocket and scattered them on the bed. He chose one, held it up, and then crawled across the room’s shifting floor towards where the boy crouched in the dark, square hole that was the doorway.
As he squeezed through the hole, to his surprise Charlie felt not split bamboo flooring, but gritty cement beneath his fingers. The dark space felt larger, too, as though the ceiling was much higher. As Charlie straightened up gratefully, lightning flared and the jagged concrete walls of a ruined stairwell flashed blue-white above them.
Thunder crashed. “Buddha make shower!” Ting shouted, grabbing his hand and tugging him towards an open doorway that glowed with a cool, white glow.
The ruined rooms beyond were roofless and none of the cement walls stood above waist height. Plastic washing-up bowls stood everywhere on the walls and floor, collecting the rain. The downpour fell in a million glittering diamonds, lit by the reflected floodlights of the empty tourist city on the hill above them.
“Big shower! You like?” Ting shouted as the rain hammered down on them: a thousand warm little slaps a second. “Have small also!” He pointed to a corner near the doorway they’d just come through, where the rose from a watering-can depended from a length of green hosepipe which curved up to disappear between broken blocks of concrete, doubtless to another water-collecting area on a higher floor.
“Very good!” Charlie said, craning his neck as he looked upwards. Was that movement? Of course: Ting was among friends here. He only hoped he was, too.
But nothing could distract him for long from the tiny beauty grinning up at him. In the half-light, Ting’s body seemed descibed only by the gleams along his softly rounded boy’s muscles. Bright droplets hung from his dark nipples, and Charlie found his fingers irresistably drawn to their rubbery hardness. He spread his hand, stroking the boy’s narrow chest, and Ting looked up a moment and then reached for Charlie’s hip, his little fingers settling delicately on the pale skin.
“I like.” Ting slid his hand down through Charlie’s rain-glittering pubic hair, and looked up.
“Now you wash?” Charile said, wiping rain-drops from his face.
Ting grinned and splashed away through the dancing rain, to return brandishing a half-full bottle of green shower-gel. He squirted a blob onto his little hand and dropped the bottle clattering onto the cement.
A moment later, Charlie’s cock was a monument of white foam. Ting giggled, moving closer and using both small warm hands to massage the hard flesh.
“Oh — oh, yes!” Charlie said, as small, slick fingers caressed and probed. The rain washed the foam away, and Ting bent to retrieve the shampoo, wiggling his little ass and making lewd play with the phallic bottle.
“You want fucky-fuck with nice boy?”
“Have condom,” Charlie replied, displaying it.
Ting shrieked with laughter and squirted him with gel. “Catch boy first!” he shouted, dancing away through the bouncing raindrops.
The half-full plastic bowls formed a maze through which he chased the giggling, slick-brown little boy, slowed by the need to not upset tenants’ drinking water, dashing left and right to cut off Ting’s attempts at escape, herding him toward the corner of the roof where low cement-block walls still stood.
Or perhaps not — when Ting turned, laughing, at bay, Charlie immediately saw the little covered bowl of snacks, the bottle of local whiskey, the gleaming, bright-painted and now extremely illegal shrine, the smoking incense protected from the rain by the scarlet, tassel-decorated umbrella.
If that hadn’t been enough of a hint, the garish cushion on top of the broad waist-high wall and the small bottle of lube would certainly have clued him in.
“I think goat lead tiger!” Charlie shouted, feeling the rain running down his face and back, “but now I make goat on stick, like kebab!”
Ting backed into the corner, giggling, as Charlie advanced to take possession. The boy’s gleaming, rain-slick skin felt warm and firm beneath his hands. He stroked down the boy’s smooth chest and rounded belly to just short of his little stiffness, and Ting turned and wriggled against him, rubbing his taut little buns against Charlie’s thighs.
“I coo-shon,” Ting shouted, patting the sodden, multicolored plastic padding atop the wall. “You put.” He pointed at the condom, and Charlie smiled, nodding.
The rain made the packaging slick, but Charlie found his main problem was distraction – Ting was so charming, funny and sexy as he stood on tiptoe and then wriggled up onto the wall, pressing his tummy down onto the cushion and finding toe holds with his bare little feet so that he could push his gleaming, apple sized brown buns into the air. Raindrops sparkled on his smooth, shining flesh as he reached back and began to lube his ass, pushing small fingers in and out of his tightly folded little pucker.
Charlie rolled the rubber down over his throbbing hardness and moved close behind Ting. The narrow wall here swelled wider, where a structural pillar had supported the upper floors, so the boy was comfortably supported from hips to armpits. From behind them and to their right, light shone down from tourist town, but ahead and left was only the descending, red-flecked darkness of the once-prosperous city, overgrown gardens lashed by the rain.
Ting twisted his head and looked up at him, grinning as Charlie positioned the broad head of his rubber-sheathed cock against the darker, crinkled chocolate button of his boy hole.
Charlie felt the boy push back, and muscles shift, Ting’s asshole relaxing to receive him as he pressed his hardness through that well-trained ring of muscle.
“You like?” Ting shouted.
“Oh, good view: yes, I like,” Charlie said, pointing over the wall and struggling to maintain his poker face.
Ting giggled and wiggled his ass, and Charlie stroked his dark, slender back, drawing gleaming fingertip patterns in the raindrops as he pushed his pale cock steadily into the boy’s tight, hot bowels. “I like hot boy very much also,” he said, and Ting laughed.
“Very good!” the boy said, using his muscles to massage the hard bulk inside him. “Very big! Ting like big foreigner man!”
Charlie found himself grinning at the sales talk as he began fucking the boy slowly, doing his best to resist Ting’s attempts to tease him into frenzy with his clever, trained little ass. He stroked the boy’s arms, feeling the smooth curves of his immature muscles, and then traced the knobs of his spine and the lines of his ribs beneath his silky, smooth skin. He stroked the boy’s smooth little pits and heard Ting sigh when he stroked his thumbs down the boy’s flanks, to his waist. Ting’s ass-ring massaged him as he thrust steadily in and out, and in return he massaged first the boy’s waist and his back, and then, reaching down, the back of Ting’s knees and his slender, hard muscled little thighs.
Ting wriggled like a puppy, humping his butt backwards towards Charlie, wordlessly urging the foreigner to stuff as much of that big, hard cock inside him as he could. His gripping, squeezing ring stroked the length of Charlie’s shaft, from crown to balls and back again, milking his hardness, making him groan from the pleasure.
“Lek taught you well,” Charlie grunted, fucking the boy a little harder.
“Lek he no fuck,” Ting gasped. “Finger only. Lek he lady only, for wife.”
“Ah.” Charlie bit back the obvious question. Since the collapse of tourism, even perfect, whole boys could no longer find rich foreign husbands. He swallowed, his throat and heart hurting as he remembered Miu. Even if a boy did find a guy who wasn’t all pillow-talk: who meant what he promised, he could still end up with nothing. If he picked an idiot who didn’t know when to keep his mouth shut.
Charlie felt Ting’s hot little ass squeeze his cock, and recalled himself. He bent awkwardly and kissed the boy’s smooth shoulder, feeling the rain pattering on his back. “Sorry,” he said. “Too much think, not enough fuck!”
“No problem!” Ting said, turning his head and wrinkling his little, snub nose. “You good heart, mister Cha-lee!”
“You good boy,” Charlie replied. “Work for your family.” He slid his hands beneath Ting’s narrow chest and began fucking his tight, hot little hole with all the concentration he could muster. He focused all his attention on the smooth warmth of the brown, rain-slick flesh close beneath him, restraining himself from stroking the boy’s firm nipples or letting his hands stray down to play with Ting’s little goodies: some boys were very shy just there. That would be for another time, perhaps, when Ting knew him better, and trusted him. Right now he had to persuade the boy that his skills enflamed the foreigner to the point that his tight, gripping little ass was all that mattered.
He fucked Ting harder, gasping and glad of the cooling rain now, his thighs slapping loudly against the boy’s glistening, wet flesh. Ting shifted under him, spreading his legs wider and tilting his hips as he braced his small, bare feet against the wall. His little hole clamped down tighter, and Charlie bucked and gasped, ramming himself home into the slick heat of the boy’s gut, his balls slapping against Ting’s hairless crotch with every stroke.
“Oh, god!” Charlie gasped. “I, I’m about to cum in your ass, boy!” He thrust deep, feeling Ting’s hard little buns against his hips, and then fucked him another few, quick strokes as he felt his balls tightening. “Fuck, but you’re a gorgeous, tight little boy!” he groaned, pushing his thick, hard cock back in to the root and whimpering as Ting’s tight little tube massaged him. “Oh yes, oh you little darlingggg...”
Charlie felt the twitch, deep at the base of his cock as he continued to hump his hard meat harder and harder against the little boy’s tailbone.
Ting giggled. “Dar-leenng!” he sang. “In my ass, so hard, dar- leennngg!”
Charlie lurched forward, grunting as he felt his cock throb and twitch inside Ting’s tight heat, feeling the boy’s gut stretched around his hardness. “Uhhh!” he grunted, feeling the hot pulse of his cum as it forced itself along his cock. “Nnnhh!”
He shuddered as he came, a hot-cold feverish twitching, his hips bucking of their own accord as he pumped his cum into the boy. “Nhhh-nhhh-nhhh!” he gasped. “Ahhh!”
It took Charlie a moment before he realized that he was resting his full weight on Ting’s small, warm body, and he pushed himself up shakily on his arms, panting an apology, to receive the inevitable polite response:
Charlie felt small hands at the base of his cock, gripping, and managed to whimper a protest as he felt Ting’s warmth withdrawn. The boy slid from beneath him and twisted to crouch at the base of the wall. Charlie supported himself on shaking arms and looked down smiling at the expression of concentration on Ting’s round face as he peeled the cum-filled rubber off and knotted the neck.
Ting grinned up at him, his expression innocent as any schoolboy’s. “All you big cock go inside Ting! Small boy very good; tight boy for you, yes?”
Charlie nodded and managed to stand, still breathless. Ting stood next to him and threw the rubber over the wall. Charlie watched the gleam of white arc down into the night and disappear. Ting moved closer and Charlie stroked his hand down over the boy’s back and reached down to squeeze one firm little asscheek. “Very good,” he gasped, sliding his fingers down the smooth valley to massage Ting’s softened little button.
Ting giggled and Charlie felt the boy’s hole relax, opening to admit his questing finger. “Lek teach good, yes,” he said. “Now I shower.”
“Also,” Charlie said.
Showering with Ting was like sharing a small cage with a curious, horny little monkey. Ting gestured for Charlie to sit on an upturned bucket, and then shampooed him from crown to soles, his little fingers probing; half expert massage, half boy curiosity. Charlie picked up the bottle and returned the compliment, enjoying the excuse to smooth his hands over his little companion’s warm, glassy smooth skin again. He washed down as far as Ting’s belly button, and paused.
“OK?” Charlie asked.
Ting looked at him, a single dark, shy glance, and away again.
“Not okay.” Charlie said. “No problem.” He slid his arm across the small of Ting’s back, and pulled him close.
“Sa-morr. No good,” Ting whispered. “So sorree.”
“Small no problem,” Charlie murmured into the curve of Ting’s little ear. “Small very good.” He ran the palm of his hand from Ting’s shoulder down to his round little butt — demonstrably no great distance. “Small make me cum very good. But shy is a good boy also.” He patted Ting’s butt-cheek and smiled as he felt Ting draw himself up.
“Help my family,” Ting said, pride in his voice. “You give good to Oncle. See again maybe. Here very bad. Soon, we go.”
“Oh. Me too,” Charlie said, dreading flying back; the return to the bleak, blue-weave cubicle warren hell of the central diplomatic offices to which he’d been demoted. “Miss your country. Miss you.” He looked up at the dangling shower head, reached up, hooked his finger through the loop of yellow plastic string, and pulled.
Rainwater fell like tears.