Cornell was loaded for game when we picked him up the next day.
In a small bag, he carried a Nikkormat with a 200 mm telephoto lens to shoot stuff at a safe distance, and a small, palm-sized Petri camera for close up work. We hopped a samlor to Asdang Road and strolled the stalls. We found camo trousers, boonie hats, equipment belts, rucksacks, tool bags, Navy medic sets, all stuff someone could claim with a straight face was “surplus” – but curiously the supply seemed limitless. Hawkridge noticed a stall filled with dozens of U.S. Army M-65 field jackets hanging off a bamboo pole and I went to work on the vendor.
“Sawatdee, khap,” I smiled, grabbing a jacket and switching to Thai. “Nee taorai? “ The vendor smiled. How many did I want?
“Tell him we want a hundred,” Cornell replied. I looked at Cornell.
“A hundred? Isn’t that….”
Instead, he fiddled with his abacus a few seconds then held it up for me. I don’t remember the price, just being stunned that a hundred jackets was no problem. He could have them ready for pickup tomorrow, he assured me. I translated for Cornell. As we walked away, the price kept dropping. Same thing at each stall. It got ridiculous. How about 500 olive drab wrist watches? No problem. How about a thousand Zippo lighters? No problem. As we chatted up the vendors in Thai, Cornell discretely snapped away.
It was a hot, humid Bangkok day. We bought some Fantas and downed them under a tree.
“Where the hell do you get a hundred new U.S. Army field jackets in a day?” I asked Cornell. “What do you do – rob a military base?”
“Nope,” he replied. ‘They probably just place an order with their friends.”
Thailand operated like Vietnam, he explained. A company called ETO, jointly owned by the Thai government and well-connected Thai generals, had a monopoly on delivering most U.S. military supplies from Thai ports to the dozen U.S. military bases scattered around the Kingdom. Stuff got “lost,” or paperwork was doctored at the warehouse to show fifty cases of Johnny Walker being shipped when sixty were actually loaded. Few noticed the discrepancy and, even if someone did, nobody followed up. I wondered how many bottles of scotch lining the bar at the Bacchus arrived ETO. I made a mental note to ask Aristotle.
Scott knew of a half-dozen more stalls selling PX and U.S. military gear in the Saturday-Sunday Market and the three of us headed over to see what we could buy there.
I loved Sanaam Luang market. Every weekend, vendors filled a large, open field across from the Grand Palace with several thousand stalls. I went down there in the dry season and watched dueling kites chase each other across the sky above the market, their strings covered with razor-sharp glass to cut their competitors thread and send them into a tailspin. You could buy anything there – plastic dishes, silks, woodcarvings, fighting fish, machetes, bananas, underwear, sapphires and diamonds, strange Chinese aphrodisiacs, and animals of all kinds – dogs, cats, gibbons, parrots, pythons – for sale as pets or food.
One week I studied a salesman with a spider monkey on his shoulder as he gathered a ring of rubes from upcountry by poking and prodding a drugged-out cobra in a jar to rise up and stare at the crowd with its beady eyes. The cobra, probably milked before the show, eventually gave him a nip on the arm, the guy swooned, a pretty girl rushed over and gave him a glug from a small vial, and he bounced back from the dead, smiling, and started selling his anti-snake bite medicine. The monkey collected the money.
Scott steered us through the crowds to a stall offering boxes of mildew-resistant, straight-from-the States, U.S. Army jungle boots, all sizes, still in their original plastic bags. They had a stainless steel plate in the sole to protect the soldier from the sharpened bamboo punji stakes the Viet Cong lined jungle trails with. Next to them were boxes of brand-new U.S. Air Force pilot survival knives. I pulled one out of its scabbard. It had a leather-wound handle and a mean, five-inch long blade. The scabbard included a small pocket that held a sharpening stone.
“These things were just issued to our pilots a month ago,” Cornell whistled. “These guys work fast.”
“Taorai?” I asked the smiling vendor.
“The price is right,” I told Cornell. “Eighty baht.” Four bucks was cheaper than the cost to manufacture them, but when you got them for free, everybody still made a nice profit.
It was almost noon and Cornell had the shots he came for. Oddly enough, I felt proud of Thailand. The stealing of scotch and TVs and Crest toothpaste by the Thai military was costing American taxpayers’ money, but Thailand wasn’t Vietnam. They weren’t arming the enemy. The only weapons we found beside the pilot knives were boxes of M7 bayonets.
“Pretty tame compared to Qui Nhon, yeah?” I joked. Cornell looked at me like I was the dumbest guy on earth.
“The only difference between Vietnam and Thailand is the Thais don’t put their looted M-16s on display,” he spat out. He announced he was heading for Laos.
“I want to see what stolen stuff of ours they’re selling on the black market up there.”
He returned a few days later. “Vientiane’s a jungle slum,” he told me over lunch as he forked a steak into his mouth at the U.S. military commissary. He disliked the Laotians almost as much as he did the Vietnamese. The samlor drivers were “little yellow monkeys” who couldn’t even speak decent English.
“‘You, you, ride?’” Cornell mocked, demonstrating with grunting noises. I took it personal.
“They’re not supposed to speak English,” I fired back. “You were in Laos, not London. Try speaking Lao.”
“They want our money, they can learn English,” he snapped back. “When we leave, they can go back to the jungle.” I wanted to punch him in the nose. Cornell returned to the “slum” that weekend to do some more investigating, this time into American involvement in the opium trade.
I dropped by the Bangkok World the following week and Sterling handed me a letter. It was from Cornell. I looked at the stamp and postmark. He was in Austria. He had been threatened, but he didn’t say by whom. "For certain reasons, it became highly desirable that I left Laos at once and returned to Europe. I still need all the material I can get, but there was no reason to endanger everything…”
“Do you think he’s being paranoid?” I asked Sterling.
“I don’t know,” Sterling replied, “If they really tried to kill him in the States, he’s certainly smart to be afraid out here.”
Contract murder was cheaper, the local media was compromised, and investigations were easy to stop. An American undercover agent investigating the theft of PX goods at the Air Force base up at U-Tapao had been murdered a month earlier. No leads, no investigation, nada. Maybe Cornell pissed somebody off and they were looking for him too.
They weren’t people to mess with.