The first time I read this book, I was sitting tight in an insurgent zone in Thailand.
Singapore wasn’t the only place to be bombed that day. A giant car bomb went off while I was huddled in my room devouring The Umbrella Man. If Tay could survive the aftermath of a bomb, so could I.
‘Don’t worry about the insurgents.’ I could hear Tay’s voice in my head.’They have bigger fish to fry than little minnows like you.’
‘But you have to worry because you are a bigger fish,’ I said.
‘I’m still a minnow but with a title,’ he replied, puffing on a Marlboro. ‘Which is all the more reason why they want to silence me.’
With that imaginary dialogue looping in my head, the next morning I ran the seven-kilometer gauntlet to the border with Tay decorum. Without running into any incident, I then jumped into another taxi and chain smoked a packet of Marlboro Red’s the two-hour journey to Butterworth with another Tay book under my belt.
This book resonates with me in ways you’d have no idea unless you survived a terrorist attack. ‘Welcome to the club,’ said Tay, who has a way of communicating with his readers.
I think I’m suffering from the ‘Tay Talking To His Dead Mother’ syndrome. But I like to think that Tay is still alive and kicking under Singapore’s scorching sun. In fact, I know he is.
I was taking a taxi from Changi airport to Johor when a driver, in his early fifties, told me he had recently read Tramadol Nights: Bali Dreaming while he was doing some surveillance work. He was even smoking Marlboro Reds. I could see he was a little overweight and knew more than he should for a taxi driver. We spoke about the usual, prostitution and local crime on the island state.
“And you aren’t so slim yourself,’ he said, as we both fogged out the interior. We both laughed. He can give as good as it gets. The windows were up and I could hardly see him from all the blue swirling Marlboro clouds. It was just about to rain pure nicotine.
“Are you Inspector Tay?” I just came out with it.
“No I’m Duncan,’ he said, with a smile doing a half rise. ‘But if you tell anyone who I really am I might have to kill you.’
I said I wasn’t about to blow his cover, and winked.
I tweeted Jake Needham immediately as the taxi turned a right into Woodlands and told him about the bizarre incident. He said to ease up on the drink, which was neither an affirmation or denial of my claim.
Duncan said he was tracking down some insurgent group from Southern Thailand called ‘Freedom Fighters Against Islamophobia’ who were about to enter Singapore from the Johor side. He pulled out a copy of A Dirty Little War. ‘This is my bible,’ he said, as he dropped me off at the causeway and wavered the fee.
‘I’ve been told it’s a sort of survival guide in the industrial zones,’ I said, as I noticed Duncan’s Glock partly exposed under his white polo shirt around a very large midriff.
‘Enough of that,’ said Duncan who could see me eyeing off the gun, ‘unless you want some medicine from Doctor Glock.’
There was a sadness to Duncan. On the way to the border, he had told me that he had just visited a cemetery and made a pact with the devil to seek out justice at all costs. I knew he was still grieving the loss of a very good friend. He didn’t have to tell me, it was just something that I knew. Those sad eyes that have seen too much don’t tell lies.
At least I had won the driver over with my charm and excessive weight, I thought as I waddled over the causeway and the Johor Strait with a bad knee. But I didn’t appreciate the foul looks from a group of Malays dressed in army fatigues with ‘Freedom Fighters Against Islamophobia’ embossed on the back of their jackets. They were walking in the opposite direction and Duncan was waiting for them.
And that day I was at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in Johor. Oh never mind…I wonder if Tay’s mother has a hotline. I may need some consultation before the guys in white lock me up for my imaginary conversations with a fictitious character not even of my creating.
‘I was only taking creative liberties,’ I said, as three men in white coats jumped out of a white Hilux Van and apprehended me. Then a very hot dominatrix in a pink nursing outfit and matching pink stilettos sedated me with a long syringe and a killer smile.
Does anyone know a good lawyer? They have taken me back over the causeway. Wait a minute, I’ve got Jack Shepherd’s phone number stored in my phone somewhere. The only problem is that I think he’s in Macau and I’ve been locked up on some kind of trumped up sedition charge.
‘Ridiculing Singapore is a crime,’ says the driver of a Hilux Van. Apparently, I was getting a front seat view of the action. I was still feeling drowsy but I recognized the voice. ‘I think you’ll be just fine.’ It was Duncan. My eyes were wide open now as the manicured streets of Singapore flashed before my drugged up eyes as Duncan gunned it down a six lane highway.
He told me that he had hijacked the van from the ISD thugs. “After I finished up the Freedom Fighter’s with 12 rounds.’
Oh course you had, I said. I was coming round.
Was I in some kind of crime novel? Forget that thought for the moment. Or maybe it was just a morphine induced dream.
I forgot that thought too as the van screeched to stop and my forehead bounced off the bullet-proof front screen. I’m wide awake now and got to give credit to those pooled cars at CID. Then Duncan put the pedal to the metal again, burning rubber as he deliberately ran a red light. Fucking whip lash now and there goes the dream theory.
‘You are not in a dream,’ confirmed Duncan, who seemed to be able to read my thoughts. ‘I should be able too,’ he said. ‘ I’m the fucking director of this story.’ Then he looked in the rearview mirror and pointed out the black tire marks at the traffic lights. ‘Proof that we were here.’
He said he was on the way to Batam in Indonesia on another assignment to track down terrorists who were planning to attack Marina Bay with rocket launchers. ‘And one of them is a fucking Australian. His name is Bert,’ he said. ‘More on this crack pot later.’
I agreed to come and he pulled a few strings to get my visas sorted out. I wasn’t supposed to be in Singapore without an exit stamp from Malaysia.
Goh got a light slap on the wrist for pulling such a stupid stunt. “It was the Malaysians who gave the kidnap orders.’ Goh was denying that the orders were coming direct from ISD and his scar was now an inflamed scarlet red color.
Duncan says he was always pulling shit like that but today he put on a great performance. ‘He’s only been carrying out my orders.’
Bizarre is my business, was my first response, but Duncan continued.
He said back in Johor I was only injected me with a light dose of morphine ‘and we spared you some of the nastier scenarios.’
He said he wanted to make my experience of being in an Inspector Tay novel ‘as authentic as possible.’ I thought you were Duncan, I said. And I still think you are Duncan. He just gave a warped and skewed smile. Maybe the effects of the morphine hadn’t worn off yet. Or maybe he put on that demented smile for my own benefit.
I eventually mustered up the courage to ask him a question that might settle this once and for all, though I wasn’t averse to what was going down. ‘Are you saying that all you guys are only actors?’
“We are figments of Jake Needham’s imagination,’ he said, nodding his head slowly, as he stared at a spot in the distance on an imaginary wall. He was trying to buy time and I couldn’t fault him on his acting skills as he lit up his cigarette with the van’s lighter that was burning a red-hot inferno. I could even see a miniature Lucifer dancing on the end of those glowing red hot coils. Was he mocking me? This had to be a bad dream, I reasoned.
Duncan seemed composed now as he put his packet of cigarettes back in his top shirt pocket. He had his wallet stuffed in it too. Polo makes large pockets.
‘It’s not a bad dream,’ said Duncan, who flashed a Cuckoo smile. ‘And that’s not Lucifer dancing on the end of the coil, it’s the current Prime Minister.’ I lighted up, and low and behold, there was the Prime Minister looking insignificant and stupid as ever, dancing on the end of a car lighter.
‘And they are selling like hot cakes,’ said Duncan.
I bet they were.
So you admit you’re not Tay?
‘Not at all,’ he said, as his words trailed out with a large dark cloud. ‘I just liked the idea of you being in an Inspector Tay novel.’
Fuck, was I really in a Jake Needham novel? Hadn’t he just confirmed it twice? It was all making sense.
He cut me short before I even got the next question out.
‘You ask questions, I answer them. But only for today. Any other day I’d bite your fucking head off.’
He was showing Inspector Tay qualities not by the minutes, but by the seconds, and I wasn’t going to go into who he was for now. He was carrying a gun and I wasn’t. Duncan or Tay, I wouldn’t even care if he called himself Daisy.
‘That’s the name of one of the Filipino whores I’m fucking at the moment,’ he replied to my open thought. He took another deep drag of Mr. Marlboro, everyone’s best friend, then continued, settling my doubts once and for all. ‘Today you are our guest.’ He released his hand off his Glock for effect. ‘Not just anyone gets an invites to a Jake Needham book, so consider yourself lucky.’
I noticed, this time, his smile was genuine.
‘We’ll send you the invoice later.’
Well fuck a duck, I said and my face lighted up too. This was too good to be true. I even pinched myself.
‘You ain’t in Kansas any more kiddo.’
Duncan exhaled out a big cloud of billowing smoke. It was looking more like Detroit from my angle.
Wherever the fuck I was, I was enjoying this 3D Technicolor ride. And the morphine wasn’t bad either.
The van pulled in Marina Bay and we boarded a luxury speed boat that was ready to take us to another fabled land rife with corruption, whores, and terrorism.
I could easily get used to this, I told Duncan, as I inhaled the air mixed with salt water and diesel and Marlboro Reds.
‘That’s why I love Jake Needham’s novels,’ said Duncan, as we toasted to Singapore with a long neck of Heineken. The dildo on top of a monstrosity building receded as sprays of salt water was kicked up by the engines of the speedboat. ‘Welcome to my insane world,’ he added. Now Duncan looked terribly pleased. I could see he really enjoyed an occasional trip outside of the ‘island state penitentiary’, as he liked to put it.
I said Jake Needham books likes to poke fun at those who take themselves too seriously while telling a dam good yarn.
‘But the joke is lost upon the Mandarin rulers of the island state,’ said Duncan. ‘They never like being called out.’ He sighed, lit up another cigarette and took a deep drag, before continuing. ‘Not everyone is cut out to be a character in a Jake Needham novel.’
I really knew what he meant. It’s a dangerous world out there.