The box contained a burner cell phone and a sheet of paper that said:
DO NOT RUN
I went to the railing of the terrace and checked the street. Two boys straddling their bicycles in the road were gazing up at the diminishing dot of the drone that had deposited the box on the hotel veranda. They turned and looked at me.
I took the box and went inside.
DO NOT RUN
I was turning the cell phone over in my hands when it started to ring. Factory default ringtone set too loud, little green LCD screen displaying UNKNOWN NUMBER. I put it on the table and watched it as it rang and rang and then stopped.
Outside the window the sun glared down from a perfect cerulean sky, a sky like a dome of rich blue glass. The sun glittered off the ocean in the bay. I was somewhere in Italy — everything was written in Italian — but exactly where in Italy I did not know.
How did they know my name? Who — or what — uses a drone to deliver a cell phone and a note, and how did they know where to find me?
DO NOT RUN
The phone started ringing again. I ran.
Endless hotel corridors, identical and anonymous. Footsteps muffled on carpet, voices muffled in conversation on the other side of doors. Overstarched hotel sheets. Through the window come the lights of a strange city at night or sunlight from an unfamiliar sky. The TV displays global news. Everything deliberately muted, professionally nondescript.
A room in a global hotel chain looks the same whether it is in New York or London, Mexico City or Moscow.
Waking up in a hotel room there is a moment when you could be anywhere.
I fled through the hotel corridors. Usually I avoided going too deep; just skim the surface, navigate some of the shallower hallways, follow the more obvious signs to emerge somewhere if not familiar then at least known. But this time was not usual.
I went deep.
The deeper you go the less distinct things become. The anonymous abstract art found in every hotel becomes more abstract still, often the art merging with the frame or the wall or both in some general impression of a painting on a wall. Carpet starts to creep up the wall, or sober hotel wallpaper extends over the floor. Doors are bigger or smaller like in a circus funhouse. There are usually rooms behind the doors but sometimes the door opens onto a blank wall, or another corridor, or it doesn’t open at all but is instead part of the wall.
I went deeper, deeper.
I rested one night in a room which was wall-to-wall one single mattress, another night where it was laid out like a normal hotel room but everything was around one-third too small.
I usually stock up before plumbing the depths but in my haste this time I brought nothing. I scavenged complimentary chips and nuts from snack bars, bottles of water and cans of beer from minifridges. I slept when I felt the need, divorced from the sun in windowless corridors with tasteful lighting. I checked the outlets in rooms to find one that fit my phone charger. They were of every variety possible: three-prong, two-prong, flat and round pins.
I was in there for probably five days.
Not just hotels. Airports lean more towards open space and concrete but fulfil much the same purpose. I have emerged in train stations although they are never a surprise, all tannoy announcements and 70s tiling. Offices sometimes. Older shopping centres with their warren of corridors in upper levels, although modern sensibilities mean these are becoming scarcer every year. I’ve heard of people using hospitals although this has never worked for me.
I met a man who claimed he emerged in a cruise ship once but I’m not sure I believe him.
Emerging is more art than science. After the drone I wanted to get good and lost, so I took turns at junctions favouring a seedier feel, a more careworn luxury. It’s hard to pin down exactly what it is. Some things just remind you of a certain place. I feel it all the time these days; walking through Cape Town I will traverse a street that gives a strong impression of Vienna, or in Sapporo I will get a sense of Auckland from the way trees line a concourse. Dublin feels like Manila feels like Toronto.
I followed a gradually-worsening humidity and a taste of mildew on the air to where I was reasonably certain of being in the corridors intersecting South-East Asia. Changing into shorts and a polo I tacked away from the more obvious city indicators and by the time I saw daylight again it was from a cloudy but unpolluted sky and the Bahasa on signs marking emergency exits and elevators and non-potable drinking water declared me to be somewhere in Malaysia or Indonesia. I went down to the lobby and found that I was in a resort hotel catering to weekend golfers from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, on an island called Tioman.
I walked out of the hotel and into the little town of Tekek to muddy my trail a bit, but the rest of the island had nothing but a handful of hostels and guesthouses which wouldn’t work if I needed to make a quick exit. I went back to the resort and booked a room for three days with the last of my prepaid credit cards and one of my fake IDs. I sat on the hotel terrace sipping gin and tonics and eating nasi goreng while watching the sky for drones. There were none.
I took stock. I was down to three IDs and just under two thousand dollars-worth of cash in various denominations, mostly US dollars and Euro. I was going to need to make a money run, drone or no drone.
Besides, I was half a world away from the note and cell phone in their box in Italy. There was no way for them to track me; my phone was permanently on aircraft mode and exclusively used to connect to local wifi. I never used my real name or ID when checking in. Prepaid credit cards and cash meant I couldn’t be traced financially. I was safe.
But then again, those things had all been true in Italy as well. I must have slipped up somewhere. How did they know my name? And who exactly were they?
A moot point, in the end. I needed money and I couldn’t stay here forever.
I went back into the corridors without checking out of the hotel on the evening of the second day. This time I stocked myself with supplies from a local supermarket first. Bottles of water, a loaf of bread. Some tins of tuna, a couple of packets of crackers. The less I had to stick my head out, the safer I’d be.
It starts with solitude. It starts with a feeling. The feeling of solitude lying heavy within your body, like a weight cradled in the bowl of your pelvis. Is the distinction between solitude and loneliness clear to you?
Have you ever stood at a high window late at night, looking out over a city made cryptic by its emptiness? Have you ever been hiking alone? Do you enjoy the transformational effect of snowfall? Have you ever come home from a trip or day at work to close the door behind you and release a breath that you hadn’t realise you were holding?
The weight in the pelvis is the main indicator of the correct frame of mind. Then it is simply a matter of exiting the hotel room and traversing the corridors. There will be corners that you missed before. Take them.
I followed the subliminal markers to South America and emerged in Miraflores in Lima. Perfect. I left the Marriott I surfaced in and checked into a guesthouse. It was built into an old colonial, with its high ceilings and private rooms made affordable by shared bathrooms. It was the kind of place with a lounge for solo travellers to mingle - perfect for my needs. I struck up a few conversations, bought a few drinks, and soon enough got introduced to a guy.
The guy raised his eyebrow when I told him how much I wanted to buy, but he either bought my line about supplying my friend’s batchelor party or he just didn’t really care. He said it would take a couple of days, so I spent the next few afternoons sitting on the terrace of a diner overlooking the Pacific nursing a procession of pisco sours.
Three days later I checked out with a kilo of cocaine fresh out of the jungle and a hangover that could drop a cow.
Plastic easy-wipe fast food counters. Takeout coffee cups. Tie-in merchandising. A housewife writes a book based on a movie based on a book which is then translated into fifty languages. Pumpkin spice. Black Friday sales in Asia and Europe. A million Chinese boys dressing up as Captain America for halloween. A hollywood remake of a live-action movie based off an anime based off a manga. A generation of women with a fanfic headcanon, a generation of men with a zombie plan. Selfies in front of global landmarks. The latest iPhone. Towns reduced to highway service stations and culture reduced to claiming the book was better.
Bangkok. Everyone paints the buildings white here but the humidity sets the mildew going within a couple of years. The buildings grubby as if the houses themselves are sweaty and dishevelled. The traffic never stops but then nor do the tourists and that’s why I’m here.
Had I the time and wasn’t looking over my shoulder quite so much I would cut the cocaine into baggies and dole the kilogram out myself in beach bars in Hawaii or the clubs in Melbourne or student dives in Brighton. Better rate of return. I know a barber in Singapore who would probably take a quarter of it in one go to stock up for the year, and a tattooist in Seoul who would be good for at least a hundred grams.
I could sell it myself right here in Bangkok. Hang out in the cafes along Khao San Road and chat to the river of backpackers on their way down to the islands for the full moon party. Hey you guys seem pretty cool, want a bump? Pretty good stuff huh. Yeah I could get you some more. It would be gone in a week, two tops.
Authorities tend not to care when its foreigners selling to other foreigners, especially party drugs like coke and MDMA. Let the kids have their fun. I never get too greedy and charge too much, I never sell to locals, and I never stick around long enough to step on anyone’s toes. Move along before I start to become known.
Nice in theory, but I kept picturing the unmarked charcoal grey drone descending from the sky with its box addressed to me. My real name. The way its little turret of lenses swivelled to keep me in sight. Now was not the time to be public.
So I kept to myself and instead sent an email to a farang who owned a bar out in Ubon Ratchathani who would take the entire lot. It meant getting four times back what I paid for it instead of ten, but it would keep me sufficiently liquid so that I could lay low somewhere out of the way for a while.
The bar guy wrote back almost immediately. He’d take the sleeper train down after the weekend rush, which left me with some time to kill.
There are others who walk the corridors. Some give a nod of acknowledgment while others studiously avoid eye contact and hurry past. We are the solitary kind.
On a few occasions I have stopped to talk with these others, to share news and tips and navigation advice. Inevitably all such talk turns to the same topic: how does this work?
Collective unconscious, they say. Or: we live in a simulation. Dreams, aliens. We are dead and this is hell, or heaven, or more likely purgatory. Space, like time, exists merely in human perception and we have worn it thin in places by making everything alike, interchangeable.
But I ask you: if you were in a hotel room with the curtains drawn and the TV off and had no memory of how you got there, would you be able to tell where in the world you were? And my next question: would it matter?
The man walks up to the table where I am eating pad thai and drinking chang and sits down across from me. He is obviously American; his perfect teeth and pressed chinos might as well be a star-spangled banner. He takes off his designer sunglasses and smiles. He is blandly handsome.
“Joseph Ellis,” he says. It is not a question.
I close my book. “Nope, sorry. Wrong guy.” It’s worth a try.
“We asked you not to run. In Italy.”
I look around, weighing my options. I could make a run for it, try to lose him in Bangkok's warren of streets, in its crowds. Make my way to a hotel, cut my losses and run.
The man across from me clucks his tongue softly, like someone expressing mild annoyance at missing the turn to their street. He gestures very slightly to his right and behind me. Two men, large men, wearing chinos and unnaturally-white dentistry.
“And those are just the ones you can see, Mr. Ellis. In a moment I am going to ask you to come with me, and you are going to leave your belongings here and walk with me outside to a car, which we will both enter. My associates will collect your things.”
“And if I don’t?”
He leaned forward and frowned, lines creasing his perfectly-tanned forehead.
“I hope you understand that this ends in one of two ways, Mr. Ellis.”
“We’re in public. I’ll make a scene. I’ll call over the waitress and tell her to call the police.”
The man reached under his sensible polo shirt and drew a gleaming silver pistol. He placed it in the centre of the table with a heavy thud and leaned back. He made no attempt to hide it, or to guard it from me.
“You would have the death of a waitress weighing on your conscience in that case, Mr. Ellis. It’s entirely up to you.”
Sweat trickled between my shoulderblades and stuck my shirt to my back. I could see it in his face, in his eyes. He meant it. The pistol sat in the centre of the table dense as a neutron star.
I swallowed, my mouth dry. The man with the teeth motioned at the glass of beer sweating condensation on the table between us. I reached out with a trembling hand and took it. It was only inches from the gun but the man made no move to take it back.
I took a mouthful of beer.
“Is it the drugs?”
The man smiled wider.
“No, Mr. Ellis. It’s not the drugs. My office supercedes the legal and the illegal. Those are insipid distinctions for lesser agencies. No.”
He picked up his gun, again making no attempt to hide it, and tucked it back beneath the polo shirt.
“The entire purview of my work is this: everything that exists in the world falls into one of two categories. Either it is a threat, or an asset. My task is to classify, and then react accordingly. Car’s almost here. Why don’t you finish your beer.”
I took another sip. This man was going to take me and put me in a cell in some off-book dark site. Then — who knows. Maybe an unmarked plane to a lab, or a prison, or a training camp. Maybe just a bullet in the head and an unceremonious dumping in a Bangkok alley.
A person like the man in front of me, like his colleagues behind me or his bosses pulling the strings would never be able to understand what I did, covet it as they might. It doesn’t fit into threat or asset. There’s no trick to it. Like the parable of the butterfly, if you hold it too tightly it is crushed, if you hold it too loosely it will fly away. The modern age is a crusher of butterflies, and this man before me a representative of that age.
I look at the man with his perfect smile and his perfect hair. He was probably on the lacrosse team in high school, got straight As. Popular with his coworkers, calls his mother every month. Goes to church. Goes fishing. Goes down on his girlfriend.
A man like this would not understand that when you define the centre you also define the edge.
A big black SUV pulls up in front of the cafe and the man with the perfect teeth nods at me. I’m out of time.
Art by the talented & lovely Jillian Chaplain