Luk Thep (sample chapters)

 

1.

The humidity in the office was intense enough to induce light-headedness, even though it was late in the evening, and the central air conditioning was running, rattling.

Thirty-four-year-old Jane Hughes reminded herself that this was, after all, an office in Thailand.

Roughly forty-eight hours ago she had driven to the airport through a typical February morning in Michigan, the tires of her SUV slipping across ice. Snow and ice pellets had threatened to overwhelm her windshield wipers. Climate shock, like culture shock, was an unavoidable aspect of international business travel.

The overhead florescent lights were turned off to save power. Electricity was more expensive in Thailand than in the United States.

At any rate, Jane and the other woman with her, Khajee Wongsuwan, did not need the overhead lights. They had pulled their chairs close to Khajee’s desk, where they huddled over an Excel spreadsheet displayed on Khajee’s laptop computer.

Khajee’s office was cramped. This partly accounted for the tenseness of the fetid tropical air. Jane and Khajee were the only two people in the room, Jane was quite sure. Nevertheless, Jane could not dispel the feeling that they were being watched by unseen eyes.

Ridiculous.

She was tired, jet-lagged, and in unfamiliar surroundings—that was all. Her job at TRX Automotive frequently took her abroad; but this was her first trip to the company’s manufacturing facilities in Thailand. She had slept about four hours out of the past twenty-four. No wonder her mind was foggy.

Khajee tapped the screen, glowing in the darkness, with a pen. “The defect rates are much lower with the new supplier,” Khajee observed.

This was no surprise to Jane. The supplier change had been Jane’s idea. Jane nodded. The evidence was right there in black-and-white.

The new supplier was located in Vietnam, whereas the previous supplier had been located in Thailand. But the Vietnamese company offered both better pricing and higher quality. The decision was a no-brainer, once you laid out the data.

“That’s good news, isn’t it?” Khajee asked rhetorically. Khajee Wongsuwan was about Jane’s age. She was slender, pretty, and tall for a Thai. She spoke fluent English with only a slight accent, having been educated both in Thailand and abroad. Khajee was an employee of TRX Automotive’s Thai subsidiary, TRX Automotive Thailand. She was Jane’s main contact for supplier-related issues at the Thai plant.

“Ram will have to be convinced by this data,” Khajee said. “There’s no way to argue against it.”

Ram, yes, of course. Ram. He was the last person Jane wanted to think about right now.

2.

Ram Thongchai was Khajee’s boss, the deputy plant manager. Jane was well aware that Ram’s ongoing resistance to the supplier change had little to do with quality data or the profitability of the company. His reasons were personal, political, and probably more than a little corrupt.

Jane reflected, for the umpteenth time, how much business practices differed by country, especially in those countries that formed the so-called “developing world.” It was never just about the numbers. There were always so many extraneous factors to be considered. Issues of what some Asian cultures called “face”, issues of local politics—and yes, issues of corruption and bribery.

“The supplier change is a good decision for the company,” Jane replied. If Ram wanted to pitch a fit, Jane felt more than prepared to refute his half-baked, thinly disguised arguments. “I think Ram will be okay with it, once he sees all the data.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Khajee said.

We aren’t alone in this room, Jane thought.

The thought was unbidden and sudden, and totally at odds with their discussion of sub-suppliers and factory data. Despite the stuffiness of the room, despite the grime, stickiness, and perspiration that clung to her body beneath her business attire, Jane felt a chill, of the Michigan-in-winter variety.

Jet lag, Jane told herself again. Jet lag and the unfamiliar surroundings. As much as she traveled, it was not entirely unusual for Jane to feel uneasy in foreign locales, especially after dark. When abroad, the unfamiliar sometimes appeared sinister.

There were so many unknowns, after all. It was difficult to know which strangers might offer you a hand of assistance, and which ones might pick your pocket—or worse—harm you. It was difficult to tell which neighborhoods were safe, and which ones were dangerous.

Every foreign country, every foreign city, really, was like a world unto itself. After two years as TRX Automotive’s Asian supply chain manager, Jane found that the foreign could simultaneously attract and repel her.

Nevertheless, regular travel to China, South Korea, and Southeast Asia was a key element of her job. There was a mix of perks and sacrifices that went with an impressive title, and a salary that was high for her age and number of years in the automotive industry.

TRX Automotive, a manufacturer of automotive ignition systems, had factories all over the world. Many were in LCCs (“low-cost countries”) like Thailand. Jane was grateful that she was permanently posted to the company’s corporate headquarters in Novi, Michigan, just outside Detroit. She was able to get her job done by traveling about once per month.

But travel could never be completely eliminated. Despite all the high-speed Internet connections and digital communication tools, sometimes you simply had to board a plane and visit a production facility.

This was especially true when there was a change of component suppliers, as was the case this time—not to mention a TRX manager with questionable motives.

3.

Jane was again struck by the sensation that she and Khajee were not the only two parties in the room. She could no longer ignore it, pretend the feeling wasn’t there.

Jet lag, jet lag, she told herself. Just focus on getting the job done, so you can get back home again!

Barring an unforeseen, last-minute disaster, this would be a quick trip, barely two nights.

Jane had arrived late the previous night, local time. After grabbing a few hours of sleep in her hotel room, she had gone directly to the TRX plant on the outskirts of Bangkok. The taxi ride out to the plant was made a bit precarious, owing to the driver’s minimal English, and his uncertainty regarding the plant’s location. For a brief while, Jane had imagined herself to be the victim of an elaborate kidnapping plot—not a farfetched scenario in Thailand, where kidnappings for ransom sometimes occurred. Jane breathed a sigh of relief when the smiling driver finally located the TRX plant in the distance, along a rural country road where a new industrial park was under development.

Then Jane and Khajee had spent the entire day out on the factory floor, observing the new supplier’s components in production. They talked to quality control inspectors and production engineers, to line supervisors and assembly line workers. Khajee graciously translated every word of every conversation, which made every interaction take twice as long as it would have in the U.S. or Canada.

Ram was obviously keeping an eye on them, hoping in vain that the new supplier’s components would be judged substandard and unacceptable. He occasionally stopped by to listen in on their conversations with various parties, glowering as it became ever clearer that everyone preferred the new components to the old ones.

Jane reflected on how the events of the day had combined to thwart Ram’s scheming. She had been more than a little pleased to see Ram get his comeuppance. Good for him!

Khajee, tireless and ever patient, continued now to scroll through the lines on the spreadsheet that contained the previous month’s quality data for the new components. Jane was impressed by her conscientiousness, her desire to produce the best result for the company. Khajee was a team player.

*      *      *

Khajee’s job was made all the more difficult by her boss, whose motivations were personal, venal. The supplier change would likely have a negative impact on Ram’s finances. Not his TRX salary, mind you, but his “off-the-books”, or “outside” compensation.

Thinking of Ram’s resistance and probable corruption, Jane could not help feeling a twinge of anger. The change of supplier should not be at all controversial.

Though nothing could be proven, Jane was certain that Ram was corrupt. Although bribes and greased palms were common enough in this part of the world, Jane found the reality of the situation galling, nonetheless.

Could Ram be watching them? Jane wondered.

There was that spooky feeling again: Try as she might, she couldn’t shake it. When Khajee paused to reach for the mouse and scroll down the spreadsheet, Jane looked over her shoulder, out the window.

Khajee’s office was on the first floor of the plant facility. The night was moonlit; and the window looked out upon a typical inland scene in the rural tropics: There were scattered palm trees, and far beyond that, hills that would be covered with impenetrable jungle. Off to one side she saw one of the factory’s utility buildings, gleaming white beneath halogen lights.

What had she expected to see? Ram standing outside the window, watching them?

It was ridiculous. Everything would be better, Jane told herself, once she got some sleep.

4.

Jane whirled around from the window when she heard a sound at the doorway to Khajee’s office. Khajee had left the door open. There was no reason not to at this hour. The office wing of the factory facility was deserted, and a closed door would have made the heat in the tiny room simply unbearable.

Jane could not identify the generically male silhouette figure standing in the open doorway. Her first thought was Ram; but this man was too short, too diminutive.

Then she noticed the mop and bucket that he was pushing. Janitorial staff, obviously.

Jane understood not a single word of Thai. (When she first started interacting with the TRX plant in Thailand, Jane had once dabbled with the language—for about fifteen minutes. Thai struck Jane as several magnitudes more difficult than the French she had studied in high school. Besides, foreign languages had never been her forte.) Nevertheless, it was easy enough to grasp the gist of the brief conversation that transpired between Khajee and the cleaning man: He wanted to clean her office, obviously part of his nightly routine. Khajee replied that she was still using it. Could he come back later?

As the cleaning man shuffled away, pushing his mop and bucket, Jane wondered if the old man’s presence might have been the source of her ongoing, unexplainable unease. Could he have been watching the two of them for a while in secret?

It was possible, though unlikely.

Then Jane saw the child, and she felt her heart jump inside her chest.

The little girl was of an indeterminate age between infancy and the toddler stage—perhaps a year and a half or two years old. Seated in a chair in the opposite corner of the office, she was wearing a red and white dress. Her features were vaguely Asian, which made sense in Thailand; and her hair was braided in two long pigtails.

The little girl sat perfectly still, perfectly silent. She gave Jane a fixed smile. Her expression was superficially innocent, of course; but something about the smile suggested cunning.

Nevertheless, a child.

“A little girl!” Jane gasped aloud. Her next thought was: This is Khajee’s child. Who else would the little girl be? 

Then, a cascade of secondary questions: Why had Khajee failed to mention or acknowledge the girl? Jane knew that Khajee was single. How would single motherhood work in a traditional society like that of Thailand? Why was the little girl sitting there so quiet and motionless—not like a typical child at all?

This brought vague speculations of child abuse, of a little girl drugged so that she would not disturb her mother while she was working.

Was the little girl sufficiently fed, or held to starvation rations?

But Khajee responded to Jane’s open alarm with a gentle laugh. “She’s not a real little girl. She’s only a doll!”

5.

Jane looked closer, and now she saw that the small figure seated in the chair was only a doll, albeit a very realistic-looking one.

“She gave you quite a scare,” Khajee said with good humor. Jane noted Khajee’s use of the personal pronoun. Jane also noted that yes, indeed, the doll had given her quite a scare.

The corporate realm was not a world without fear. The cutthroat competitiveness of the global economy produced a macro-level fear of being downsized, “right-sized” out, or otherwise falling into obsolescence. Jane had not a protectionist bone in her body, but she couldn’t help feeling the occasional twinge of admiration-mixed-with-resentment toward her Asian colleagues: They worked so tirelessly, so efficiently. All of the jobs at TRX Automotive Thailand represented jobs that no longer existed in the United States. How long before her job, too, was outsourced to a more efficient Asian or Latin American rival?

Beneath the macro-level fears was the constant uneasiness about where you stood within the company hierarchy—not just the formal organization chart, but within the ever-shifting hierarchy of senior management favor. This was not simply a matter of doing your job well, but of maintaining the outward perception that you were doing your job well.

Although Jane was single and had no dependents, she had much invested in her career. She knew that despite her undeniable hard work, she was fortunate to be where she was at her age. Jane did not want to lose what she had gained. She wanted to continue moving forward.

Anxiety about such matters occasionally kept Jane up at night. But the fear of the genuinely unknown was mostly alien to her existence. No one ever discussed haunted houses or vampires at a corporate meeting, even during the informal pre-meeting banter. To express an interest in the macabre would be (yet another) way to sideline your career prospects. People would think you were unhinged.

Perhaps that was why Jane was momentarily uncomfortable over her reaction to the doll. She now knew, rationally, that the doll was just a doll. But it made her uneasy, nonetheless.

“It looks very realistic,” Jane said. “Like a real little girl.”

Khajee nodded. “Each one of them is unique. They aren’t cheap.”

Khajee then mentioned the price she had paid in baht, the Thai currency. It was an amount that corresponded to about $800 American dollars.

“A lot to pay for a doll,” Jane blurted out. Then she realized the potential rudeness of her observation. “I—I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by that remark.”

But it was a lot to pay for a doll, realistic-looking or not.

“That’s okay,” Khajee said. “But this is a special kind of doll, you see. And I’m not only talking about the way it looks. The doll is called a luk thep. That means ‘angel doll’ or ‘spirit doll’. They perform a ceremony for each doll at the plant where the dolls are made. And then each doll is supposed to be inhabited by the spirit of a deceased child.”

“You mean the doll is—possessed?” Jane asked. Khajee gave a puzzled look in response. “I mean—haunted,” Jane clarified.

“Well, yes,” Khajee replied, after giving the matter some thought. “I suppose that’s one way to look at it, though a Buddhist would see the matter differently than someone from the West, you understand.”

Jane nodded noncommittally. A lapsed Roman Catholic, there were many holes in her knowledge of her own spiritual and religious traditions. She had only the vaguest grasp of Buddhist beliefs.

Didn’t the Buddhists believe in reincarnation? Jane was almost certain that the Buddhists did. Perhaps that would make them more comfortable with the notion of a ‘haunted doll.’

But still, even a Buddhist would have to ask certain inevitable questions. For starters: What kind of a spirit would want to inhabit a doll, and to what purpose?

“It certainly looks realistic,” Jane said, repeating her prior observation, not knowing what else to say.

“Her name is Lawan,” Khajee said, as if correcting Jane. Khajee smiled self-consciously. “Yes. I named her. Most luk thep mothers do. I suppose you’re wondering why an adult woman would want to buy a doll and name it.”

Jane couldn’t avoid an involuntary flinch at Khajee’s description of herself as the doll’s ‘mother’.

“I suppose I would wonder,” Jane admitted.

“Well, the dolls are very popular because of social changes in Thailand,” Khajee began. “I’m sure you know about my country’s reputation, where women are concerned—what goes on in cities like Bangkok and Pattaya.”

Ah, yes, Jane thought—what goes on in Bangkok and Pattaya. 

6.

“Sure,” Jane said. There was no point in denying this, no point in feigning ignorance. For generations, Thailand had had a reputation as the chief fleshpot of Asia. Prostitution of the most blatant, open kind was widely tolerated here; and the economics of the situation had long made Thailand’s red-light districts a bargain for the pleasure-seeking Western male.

Even in the corporate realm, where talk of such subject matter would ordinarily be the ultimate taboo, there were whispers and innuendos about Thailand. Jane had noticed that some of the male engineers at TRX had shown a suspicious level of interest in visiting the Thai branch. This might have been nothing more than a coincidence. But well, as they said: circumstantial evidence…

“Things are so free and easy here,” Khajee went on. “So many women available. So many options for men. It’s hard to find a good man in Thailand.”

“Hard to find a good man in America,” Jane replied, by way of commiseration.

Of course, she had found a good man, hadn’t she? Jane thought of David Haley, the man she had been seeing. Her boyfriend, she supposed.

Until five months ago, when she met David, Jane would have largely agreed with the sentiment that she had just uttered. Jane was tall, fit, attractive, and well-educated. But she had seemed incapable of finding her Mr. Right.

She had gone from one semi-serious relationship to another, dealing with Mr. Not Ready, Mr. Keeping His Options Open, and their various friends. Already well into her thirties, Jane had begun to resign herself to an inevitable spinsterhood. At least she still had her work! And her cat! 

She had enumerated such considerations with a sort of gallows humor. She also reminded herself that she worked a lot of hours. Maybe that was part of the problem. Perhaps she needed to change her entire life, she thought, before it was too late.

Then a friend had dragged her out one night to a party that she really hadn’t wanted to attend. At that party she’d met David Haley. Her life had been different since then.

And then David had left—but not for long. David was presently working on a corporate assignment in Germany. The distance had not seemed to dim his ardor—or hers. Jane was eagerly looking forward to David’s return, now just a few weeks away.

Khajee seemed very interested in David, Jane had noticed, although the two had never met. On several occasions, Khajee had asked to see David’s picture, pointedly noting how handsome he was.

“Yes,” Khajee said now, “but you’ve found one—a good man, I mean.”

“For a long time, I didn’t. Couldn’t.”

“But the point is, you did. Things are very different in Thailand. Also, the country is changing because of globalization and economic development. Fewer people getting married and having children all over the country. Very different now, even compared to my parents’ time. Did you know that Thailand has the lowest birthrate in Southeast Asia?”

“No, I didn’t,” Jane replied.

“Well, it’s true. Lower than Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, or Malaysia. The birth rate here is about the same as in Japan.”

“I see.” Jane had read and heard about low birth rates in Japan. A dwindling, aging population now threatened the long-term vibrancy of the Japanese economy.

“Anyway, with so many childless women, there’s now a market for dolls that contain the souls of dead children.” Khajee shrugged, as if not sure what to make of that herself, as if realizing just how bizarre that sounded.

Jane felt an involuntary shudder ripple through her body, despite the heat. She looked again at the doll—the luk thep. The “angel doll” or “spirit doll”. What had Khajee named her? Lawan.

“And think about the other side of the equation,” Khajee continued. “There are so many little ones who have died young, especially in this part of the world. I like to think that my little Lawan contains the soul of a sweet little girl who never knew a proper mother.”

Jane found herself seized by a sudden desire to change the subject. She didn’t want to speculate about the nature of the spirit that might inhabit the doll. She glanced again at the doll’s macabrely realistic face, its artificially cherubic smile.

Jane shuddered, and hoped that Khajee wouldn’t notice her reaction.

Although Jane wasn’t superstitious, she also hoped that the central sales point of the luk thep doll—the supposed spiritual infestation—was the myth that she (for the most part) believed it to be. For if a spirit were inside that doll, Jane suspected that it would not be angelic in temperament.

“You can never be sure about such things, can you?” Jane replied. (What else could you say to a notion like that, uttered by a colleague whom you didn’t know all that well, late at night in an office thousands of miles from home?) “Well, it gave me a little bit of a start, that’s all. Come on, we’ve almost finished going through the data. Then we can both call it a day—and hopefully get some sleep.”

Khajee took the hint; and for that matter, the Thai woman was probably tired, too. It had been an awfully long day. Khajee leaned forward in her chair, clutched the mouse once more, and the two women resumed their confirmation of the data.

Khajee said no more about the doll—Lawan—but Jane remained aware of it. At one point Jane considered asking Khajee to cover it, for the simple reason that it was distracting her. But there was no way to make such a request politely—certainly not in another person’s office.

7.

At long last, the review of the data was done. Both women exhaled audibly when the task was finally complete.

“Are you ready for some rest now?” Khajee asked, playfully.

Jane checked her watch, which she had set to local time upon her arrival in Bangkok. It was a little past 9 o’clock p.m.

“Yeah, I’d say I am. Thank you for staying so late tonight to help me get this all done. I really appreciate it. I couldn’t have done any of this without your help.”

“Oh, don’t mention it,” Khajee said.

This was a good moment, Jane thought—one of those relatively rare occasions when corporate platitudes about “teamwork” actually take on a semblance of reality. Today Ram had been as obstructionist as Jane had expected; but there was no denying that Khajee had gone out of her way to help.

Yes, a bed sounds inviting right now—after a quick dinner, perhaps.

Just then she had a moderately disturbing vision: She saw an image of herself walking out of the plant with the luk thep doll tucked under her arm. That was crazy, of course. There was absolutely no way she would want the damn thing. (Needless to say!) And besides, little “Lawan” belonged to Khajee.

And Khajee could have her.

Jane decided that she had given the doll more than enough thought, thank you very much. There were far more important things to think about: a mission accomplished, a job well done. Once again, Jane had stretched herself, and she had been surprised to discover a deep internal well of untapped energy and resolve.

Although she had left Michigan barely two days ago, this had been an arduous business trip, as business trips went. The abbreviated time frame made it all the more exhausting.

The chief objectives had been accomplished. Jane—with the help of Khajee and other members of the local Thai staff—had verified the soundness of the new subcomponents supplier.

The good guys (and ladies) had performed well in the interests of the company—of the team—as the corporate motivational slogans would say. Ram had been defeated, his petty, self-interested attempts at empire-building thwarted. No matter what his political connections in Thailand (Jane had heard various rumors) the man could not deny objective data indefinitely. Sooner or later, Ram would have to come around, or leave TRX Automotive Thailand for another company where corruption was more tolerated.

And if Ram decided to leave the company, Jane decided, that might not be such a bad outcome.

But she suspected that Ram would not give up so easily. The Thai manager had proven himself to be quite tenacious.

8.

“Would you like me to give you a ride to your hotel?” Khajee asked.

When Jane hesitated in her response, the Thai woman laughed and said, “Oh you probably thought that I was going to take you on the back of a moped!”

“Not necessarily,” Jane said. That would have been her first thought, though. Mopeds were ubiquitous in the cities of Southeast Asia—Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Kuala Lumpur, and, of course, Bangkok. The truth was that as tired as Jane was, she simply hadn’t had time to fully contemplate Khajee’s offer.

“Well, I’ll have you know that I now own a brand-new Yaris!”

“Really? Congratulations.” Jane was familiar with the Toyota Yaris. The Yaris was a subcompact model, considered somewhat on the cheap side in the United States. In a developing country like Thailand, however, such a vehicle (especially a new one) would be regarded as a luxury for a single woman in her thirties to own.

“I can drop you off at your hotel,” Khajee offered. “Little Lawan can ride in the back seat.”

Jane was on the verge of accepting the offer. She knew Khajee well, and was completely comfortable with her. All things being equal, a ride with Khajee would be a much better option than a ride with a taxi driver who spoke marginal or minimal English.

Then she thought about the prospect of sitting in Khajee’s Yaris with the doll (“Little Lawan”) seated behind her. So Khajee put the doll in her car, just like a real child? Apparently so. Jane wondered if the creepy little thing even had its own car seat…

There was no way she was going to ask—nor did she plan to find out. Jane knew that she was probably being foolish now, but she had been supremely rational all day.

“Thanks for the kind offer,” Jane said.  “But I know you’d have to go out of your way to take me to my hotel.”

Jane didn’t know this for a fact. It was a good bet, though. The hotel was located near the center of Bangkok; and Khajee had earlier that day indicated that her apartment was only twenty minutes’ drive from the plant, well outside the city.

“It won’t take very long,” Khajee persisted.

“No, really, you’ve done more than enough for me today. I’ll talk to the security guard. They’ll call a reliable taxi for me—with a driver who knows the roads well enough to get me back, and with enough English so that we can communicate. You need to get home and get some rest yourself, Khajee. After all, I’m going back to Michigan, but you’ll have to deal with Ram tomorrow.”

Jane wondered if she had said too much, referring to Ram in a context that could only be interpreted as negative. Ram had been a negative force in the process, however; and perhaps there was nothing wrong with calling him out in a discreet way. Jane wanted Khajee to know that she was not alone, that her counterparts at the TRX Automotive headquarters in Michigan had her back, should it come to a confrontation.

“Ah, yes, Ram,” Khajee said knowingly. “I think everything will be okay with him from here on out.”

“If you have any problems, let me know. I have a boss of my own, you know. We’ll get him involved, if need be.”

Jane thought then about Martin Tully. As a manager, Jane reported directly to one of the company’s four vice presidents. Martin certainly had his quirks, but he was an ideal boss compared to Ram.

“Thank you for your support,” Khajee said. “Hopefully it won’t come to that; but I’ll keep what you said in mind.”

“Well,” Jane said, “Goodnight. We’ll be in touch after I return to Michigan.” Jane stood and gathered her accoutrements into her attaché case: several manila folders stuffed with documents, a calculator, and a legal pad.

On the way out of Khajee’s office, Jane took one last, involuntary glance at the doll. Childless or not, Jane thought, I don’t know why any woman would want to keep something like that around. It would be creepy enough by itself. But the idea that the doll contains the soul of a dead child…

She decided that she would rather not dwell on such things.

 

End of excerpt…