Asia, circa 2007: Friday 13th.
Laying low, writing my tale.
The Orient. Beware the dark side.
I’m the sort that attracts trouble. I know it. Whenever I return to Australia, my friends always ask me the same question: "…so, what happened this time?!?…". They know it. I’m a guy with a million stories - most of which will never be written.
Friday 13th. Somewhere in Asia.
Its just another day in a foreign place. I am up before the crack of dawn with 2 hours sleep. I’m racing across a sleeping city towards an airport, impersonating a pinball in the back of the taxi as the cab driver does his best grand prix routine, clocking over 100 kmph and swerving right and left to avoid imaginary traffic. I’m grinning at the driver’s antics - I am sure he thinks that if he doesn’t move his steering wheel constantly, the car just won’t move. I’m also sure we’re going to crash and burn on our way to my destination, but hey, if you can’t beat them, might as well join them.
I check my PDA and flick through a few emails. The date is on the top right hand side, written in a luminescent white microsoft font:
I’m not the superstitious sort, but I start to wonder. If anything is to happen to me on this trip, its got to be today. I jolt forward as the cab comes to a sudden stop. I’m at the airport.
The check in counter is quiet. I’m looking at a pretty stewardess who is asking me all of the usual check in questions. I give her all of the usual answers. She hands me a boarding pass and smiles that ‘check in’ smile that says ‘NEXT’. I take it and head towards immigration.
On my way, I look at the boarding pass:
"…Boarding Gate: 113. Seat: 13B…".
Interesting numbers. I’m not a betting man, but I’m sure that the odds on those numbers today are astronomical. Where’s my lottery ticket? Its only a small illogical leap to an assumption that the plane is going to go down in flames. I almost think twice about boarding, but I’m due for meetings. I’d die for what I do, so I fly. To prove the point, I use my PDA against flight rules. And get told off by an attendant for putting everyone in danger. And I wait for the crash and burn. And I land safely. How disappointing.
Pffft. Friday the 13th, my ass.
Its afternoon. My meeting went well, another job finished and now a new city awaits. Its all fun, sunshine and butterflies. I love being in new places. There is a certain freedom you have when nobody knows you in a new place - complete and pure anonymity. So I wander the streets with my iPod and take in the sights. Soon I am wonderfully lost, still grooving to my own beat, but I’m getting tired. Its too soon to quit though, so I decide to get some caffeine.
Where to go?
I look around, but I’ve wandered way off the tourist track into a seedy area. There are no tourists here. After twenty minutes of looking for a good option, I decide to bypass all of the third rate places and settle for a place that is second rate.
I push open the door and scope the place. It’s a dive, dirty, with décor taken from a ‘B’ grade 1970’s biker movie. Not good, but I know there is coffee here. With the nose of a bloodhound, I smell that coffee - it’s the sort of percolated tar that would make a fast food restaurant in the USA proud. I take a seat with my back facing the wall and motion for the foul brew. A cup lands unceremoniously on my table and I start to suck it down.
*UGH* I’m half horrified, half loving it. For a split second, I’m in my own little world, paying homage to my coffee addiction. A split second too long. That split second is all it took to change this story.
I look up from my coffee. I’m sure there is a brown coffee moustache on my top lip, but I’m more interested in my new companion. A very pretty girl has sat down at my table and she is smiling at me. She is uninvited. Her smile tells me that she is happy to be here, but her eyes tell me a very different story.
“Hi! How are you? Where are you from?” she asks me, grinning. Her body language is suggestive, her eyes are hollow.
“I’m from somewhere far away, and I wasn’t born yesterday. So, how can I help you?” I reply, not smiling.
She sits back in her seat, a little less sure of herself. “I want to practice my English. Maybe we can spend some time together. You look nice. Maybe you can buy me a drink?”
I look at her eyes - still nothing there. My gut tells me that this is a routine for her and the hair on the back of my neck is at full attention now. Always trust instinct. “Thanks, but no thanks…” I say to her,“… I’m just here for the fantastic coffee. English school is closed today”.
She gets up abruptly, frowning, and heads to the back of the bar. She isn't used to being turned down. I watch her get into a heated conversation with a middle aged woman, obviously the owner. They both look in my direction and our eyes lock. I feel a creeping sensation race up and down my spine. The message is clear to me, I’m the mark here and it is time to go.
I take out a note and leave it under the empty coffee cup. Its far too much for bad coffee, but its better than hanging around. I check my wallet, shoulder my laptop and turn towards the door. I’m not surprised to see a heavy set man blocking the exit. Door bitch. He indicates to me that I need to get the bill. I look at him for a moment, thinking about my options. Fight my way out, or see what the deal is? There is no rush yet, nor is there much of a choice, so I return to the table and make a hand gesture for the bill.
The middle aged woman walks up to the table. She has the gait of a gun slinger. Her face has frown lines etched into it from a lifetime of shady deals and I know I’m next on that list. She gives me a bill, its illegibly scrawled. My eyes run down the many items and rest on the bottom line: the equivalent of just over $1,000 Australian Dollars.
Damn. That’s an expensive cup of coffee. Friday 13th. Here we go. Time to make a story.
Me: “Are you the manager?” I ask her
Manager: “Yes, I am the manager”.
Me: “Are you sure you gave me the right bill?”
Manager: “Yes, you pay me now”.
Me: “I’m not paying you for anything more than this coffee”.
Manager: “You will pay me all of this bill, this isn’t your country”.
Me: “Is that a fact? Let’s call the police and see what happens”.
Manager: “Ok, I will call the police. Then you can pay more. We do another bill for you. My girls will speak to the police and we will make sure everyone knows you had a big party here”.
Advantage, manager. She is on the phone now, calling the police. Or worse. The door bitch is at my rear and another Bruce Lee sort has meanwhile sauntered out of the kitchen and is giving me the stare of death, standing in front of me. I’m in a bad situation, and the manager knows it. Her goons are ready to roll me - Laptop, credit cards, cash - I’m a stranger in an out of the way place with cops that could be on the take en-route. The clock is ticking and she is in control.
Its all been said and done before. My mind ticks. I realise something: She knows every line a poor tourist has to say and I’m playing to her rules. She has the field set out nicely. So it is time to change the game.
Me: “Ok, ok, you win, Boss Woman. No police. Lets discuss this”.
Manager: She puts the phone down. “You pay me. Give it to me now”.
Me: “I don’t have enough money, I only wanted a coffee”.
Manager: “No money? You owe bill! You give me your credit card!”
I’m checking the scene inbetween the banter. Bruce lee and the door bitch have relaxed and the manager’s aggressive tone betrays her confidence that she thinks she has the money in the bank from a sucker being pranked. There is just one problem. I know how this is going to end. I know that if I pay her, it will only be the beginning. Then they will take everything else of value from me. That’s not what worries me though, its what will happen afterward that has me concerned. They will make sure I never talk about this. So paying is the least of my problems now - I need to figure out a way to escape.
There are too many people eyeing me here. Escape requires distraction. Create disorganisation and I might have an opportunity that I can exploit. My mind races for an idea… I take a deep breath. Ok, lets do this…
I switch from conciliatory to hyper aggressive in a heartbeat:
“I've changed my mind. Your coffee sucks. Go f**k yourself…”. I’m delivering my mad dog stare to the manager and she takes a step back, shocked. “…Lets call this what it is: a robbery. You won’t get any credit cards from me, I don’t have any…”.
Bruce Lee moves in front of the manager now, who is turning a dark shade of purple. She is angry, shocked, uncertain. The mood is contagious, her goons look at her for direction, but nobody moves. Not yet, but its gonna change very soon... So before she has a chance to talk, I drop my laptop bag, face Bruce Lee defensively and continue talking to the manager. I raise my voice and address her again:
“…I’m not playing your games, so lets play mine. I see only 2 options. One: I empty my wallet of whatever notes I have and whatever is there, you can take. I will leave, you get paid something, all nice and easy. Or two: you get greedy and try to take more than what I give. That would be a very bad idea. If you try, I’m going to have to defend myself. You better be sure that your friends can stop me, because if they can’t, I’ll be stopping you. If that happens, I’m going to make sure you can’t do this to anyone else…”. There is a lit lighter in my hand. Her eyes move from my face to the flame. The lighter makes the point better than the words. I watch the colour drain from the manager’s face. She didn’t expect this.
From nice to nuts, all over a cup of coffee. Life can be strange like that on a Friday the 13th in the afternoon.
Taking advantage of her uncertainty, I reach into my pocket and get my wallet. This is the only circumstance where I would say that silence is consent! Inside are a wad of small denominations, at least 20 notes, probably amounting to $100 Australian dollars. I throw the wad into Bruce Lee’s face and the notes scatter on impact, sending money flying in all directions. He takes a step backwards in surprise and joins the manager, who is now on the floor scrambling on all fours and trying to collect & count the notes. She looks like a beggar down there. It suits her.
Its the chance I’ve been waiting for. 2 down, one to go. Even odds and that is as good as it gets. Time to escape.
I shoulder my laptop and charge the door. I have no plan to stop, so I pick up as much speed as I can, running at full speed towards the door bitch. Our eyes meet, he hesitates, the distance between us is eroding with every passing second. Pressure builds, adrenaline pumps and I prepare to make contact. In the last second, he cracks and moves from the doorway.
I stop in the street, near the doorway. I hear the manager screaming at her staff. I don’t turn around to investigate. I simply walk away, melting into the crowd.