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paperback   ///  novel based on true events  ///  300 pages
genre: literary fiction  /// 

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Synopsis:    Lali, a beautiful young Burmese lady, is 'discovered' by Lee who arranges with her 'mama sang' to take her to the States to embark on a modeling career. They get to San Francisco and hook up with Jeremiah who does a 'photo shoot'. Jeremiah is also smitten by the 'amber skin lady' and manages to dispose of Lee in his pursuit of her favors. Lali breaks free and finds herself alone in a strange land with no contacts and a tenuous handle on English.

Much transpires as we see Lali's inner strength and guile called into play within numerous challenging episodes, including her being kidnapped and then finding herself lost in a forest wilderness. The last sections of the story include a sojourn at a Native American camp, then back to SE Asia for a gripping treasure heist at a Burmese temple.

Below are the first six pages of the 300 page book


                    The Diamond Buddha was not made of diamond any more than Thailand's Emerald Buddha was made of emerald. The latter was sculpted from green jade, whereas the Diamond Buddha was crafted from a tortoise-sized chunk of flawless clear crystal. According to legend, it first appeared at the small Mahabrahmani temple in northern India where Tilopa gained enlightenment. Tilopa, the originator of the Kagyu branch of Mahayana Buddhism, was an anomaly in that he had no guru. In other words, he had no spiritual teacher as was so common among holy men of those times. India, 800 years ago, was a land where ascetics were as common as migrating birds. Tilopa, who grew up tending cows, attained spiritual enlightenment while solemnly walking through the seven gates of the temple - a feat that comprised most of the night. The next morning, villagers found what was to become known as the 'Diamond Buddha'
within the uppermost shrine room. Tilopa had left.

         At various times during the ensuing centuries, sightings of the Diamond Buddha were reported. At the dawning of the fifteenth century, it was said to have found a home in central Ceylon, at an altar near the relic of Buddha's tooth. It somehow disappeared under nefarious circumstances and was believed to have been spirited to Southeast Asia by Dravidian pirates. The most reliable sighting since then was made by a wandering monk who visited the Khmer kingdom in what is now Cambodia. During his time of seclusion there, he wrote a letter dated 2105 (A.D. 1562), wherein he claimed to have seen the Diamond Buddha in a secret chamber within the Prasat Baboun temple close to the Angkhor Wat complex. When an earthquake collapsed the temple years later, no evidence of the Diamond Buddha was reported to have been found in the rubble.

1. One Hundred and Eighty One years later

                   General Hiruma was pacing around his field tent like a lion with his tail burnt off. British shells were falling within his perimeter. He re-read the de-coded dispatch from Regional Command with disdain; "We regret that you cannot hold your position STOP Your request to retreat has not been approved STOP Troop transport planes will arrive at nightfall to evacuate wounded STOP All other infantry should hold position STOP Wounded soldiers should carry no gear as planes are laden with return fuel and are limited by weight STOP.

         It was that last sentence that angered the General the most. He spit each word out as if they were maggots caught in his mouth. He could self-inflict a wound to gain entry to a medi-vac plane - that was no problem. It was the demand to 'carry no gear' that burnt his biscuit. It so happened the general had painstakingly pilfered quantities of valuables during his campaign through northern Burma, and he wasn't going to let those efforts amount to naught.

         As for doing the honorable thing and leading a strategic fighting retreat over land with his men: "The monsoon is only half gone" he barked to his assistant, "and there's no way in hell that I'll direct my men to roll oxcarts through endless muddy troughs - with those damnable British bulldogs nipping at our heels."

         The Brits ruled the air and had the luxury of provision drops along their path. All they had to do was mark their position with colored smoke and, like magic; dry crackers, tinned ham and ammo would get parachuted right into their laps. Hiruma's dog-tired Japanese troops didn't even have decent motorized transport any more, and barely enough bullets to kill dogs for dinner. His men would get rape crazy every time they came upon a Burmese village. That, along with forcing the local men to work as slaves, and pilfering valuables didn't endear his troops to the locals. "No wonder the peasants scatter through the countryside as we approach their villages," the General grinned sardonically. "That would never happen in Japan. We would stand and defend our women's' honor with our last drop of energy."

         He ordered everyone out of his tent except Captain Yoshida. Yoshida was the son of his best friend from his home town. "I'm going to get us home alive ....and with honor." Hiruma said to his protege after the room cleared. "Not only that, we'll both be very rich. Your father will be proud of you." He paused to bask in what he assumed was the young man's admiration. "Here is the plan: I want you to get three strong Burmese men and bring them here. If any of my staff asks what you are doing, tell them you are carrying out direct orders from Regional Command." He waved the paper dispatch at the young man.

         The General instructed his staff regarding the evacuation of wounded by plane. Foremost in his thoughts, however, were his plans to hide the commandeered wealth - valuables that he had collected during the past weeks of his column's retreat.

         A few days earlier, he had a crew dig a gun emplacement within a nearby monastery. He personally picked the foxhole site, not only because it rested alongside a temple platform, but because of the riches that might lay beneath that mass of rock. He had swept aside protests by the few monks who were still straggling around - finally resorting to having them run off the temple compound by fixed bayonets. As soon as the foxhole was dug, he had two soldiers dig a lateral tunnel - to see what they could find under the Buddhist shrine that sat in the middle of the platform. It was well known that valuables were buried in such places. No one was fooled when the general insisted they were looking for buried explosives. Two hours later a soldier, slathered in mud, came to the command tent to report that nothing of value had been found.

         An hour after that, Captain Yoshida returned with three local men.

         "Tell those betel-chewing boys to grab those sacks and let's go," the General ordered. The dark skinned men, their wrap around cloths thinly veiling spindly legs, strained to lift the two hefty sacks. The young Captain held back, then relented and grabbed one end of the second sack - while cursing the General under his breath for not thinking to get four workers instead of three.

         He looked over to see the Burmese porter at the other end of the load flash his red-stained teeth. Yoshida didn't know whether he was being treated to a smile or grimace.

         By the time the men arrived at the temple site, drizzle had turned to rain and gusts of wind were flaying the tops of the palm trees. The three workers were soon basted in mud as they pushed the bulky sacks deep within the narrow tunnel that ran under the temple platform. "Maybe they think we're adding spiritual offerings to their pagoda in supplication for our bad deeds," General Hiruma quipped while wiping his nose with his sleeve.

         The Captain was stone faced. "No use trying to explain to them. There's the language barrier to overcome."

         "Hey, these miserable peasants won't even be alive in a few minutes any way," The General added sardonically. When the workers emerged, the General ordered the tunnel opening closed and the foxhole filled in. He then turned to Captain Yoshida and ordered him to execute the workers. "Shoot the brown bastards!" he called out as his orderly hesitated. The General drew his sword and held it high over the Captains head. "Shoot, or suffer for not obeying orders!"

         Yoshida drew his revolver and shot two of the workers. Then, thinking that the General would in turn slice his head off when all the workers were killed, turned to aim the gun squarely at the General's chest. The general drew his samurai sword and brought it to task swiftly. The Captain stepped back in horror as he saw his own severed hand and pistol in the mud. The General lunged forward to finish him off but slipped and fell. Yoshida scrambled to where his lifeless hand lay, picked out the gun and emptied its magazine into the General's forehead. Bits of cranium and brain colored the saturated soil. He dropped the gun, grabbed the stump of his wrist to squeeze it shut but he'd lost too much blood. He staggered a few paces then collapsed. The next morning, a group of monks found four bodies cold on the ground - two locals and two uniformed Japs.

2. Fifty Five Years Later

                        "Lee, come," my two teenage lovelies called to me from outside the shop window. Shoulders scrunched, they shifted from leg to leg as if that generated more warmth. They were creating wet spots on the sidewalk and their hair, their blouses, their shoes were all drenched. "Come on Lee, Songkran. We go!" they called out beaming like toddlers in the midday sun.

         These gals had been my buddies for the past three weeks. It was a package deal; I courted one and the other came along - no strings attached. Mae and Yo had been friends since they were little kids. Even now, they slept on the same pad together. That funky mattress and a vanity were the only furniture in their threadbare apartment.

         "Lee, come," Mae pleaded. "You, me, Yo go ride motobike together!"

         "Ok, ok, I come. Wait a moment."

         It was my first Songkran - the ten day water festival that hits southeast Asia every April - their warmest month. I'd heard how people spent their waking hours splashing water on each other, but nothing prepared me for the real thing.

         I kickstarted the motorbike and the girls hopped on, Mae in front and Yo snug up in back. With me sandwiched in between, we took off down the alley. Trading their wetness for my body heat, we headed downtown in this northern Thai town called Chiang Rai.

         The first gauntlet was a family group fronted by little kids with water pistols - who gleefully squirted us as we slipped by. The scene up ahead was more ominous. The muffled commotion was like an action movie stretched on a screen between the corner buildings.

         Riding into the melee, we were met head-on by a squad of gangly boys who unloaded point-blank broadsides of water on us from plastic buckets. Their leader was a shirtless guy with a green bandana. Wielding a garden hose, he alternated between filling his buddies' buckets and taking a few shots at his new targets; two girls and a farang on a motorbike. Farang (pronounced "falang") is the Thai word for foreigner. His mirth spilled over as he broadsided us. Drenching a farang at Songkran is worth a fistful of bonus points.

         As we entered the main thoroughfare, the full scale of the festivity came into view. There were drenched gangs of teenagers lining both sides of the street with buckets, hoses and water guns. Open pickups crept up and down the street, each manned by bucket brigades and supplied by on-board 55-gallon drums of water. One gang was adorned in matching red and yellow feathered headdresses with two younger kids beating tom-toms. Prodigious amounts of water were being thrown about.

        I was as happy as a turkey in a typhoon as I slowed the bike, looking for an alley to escape the watery riot. My laughing bikemates would have none of it, imploring me to ride headlong into the fray. Not wanting to appear timid, I steeled my resolve and aimed the motorbike for a slight opening between a line of pick-up trucks and sidewalk revelers. Not one of my smartest moves. On the ride home I found myself reciting 'Mary Had A Little Lamb,' while inserting variations of the phrase; 'discretion is the better part of valor' at places where I forgot the words.

        Arriving finally at the sanctuary of my small house on the outskirts of town, I parked the bike, walked to a sunny spot, stripped to my shorts and wrung everything out on some potted plants. The girls were percolating with residual laughter.

         Mae chided me, saying, "You a cat, you no like water."

         "And you're two Labrador puppy dogs, you like water," I retorted.

        "Lababo puppy dogs - what is that?"

       "You Lababos," I said while grabbing their giggling bodies and mashing them into mine.

        'Smart play Montana,' I told myself, realizing I was wet all over again.

        We took off shoes and went inside. I grabbed an armload of towels, and the three of us got to toweling each other off. I tossed them T-shirts and boxer shorts and within moments we were all warm and fuzzy.

         Yo sat on a floor mat to continue the jigsaw puzzle that she started in the wee hours the night before. I asked if anyone wanted to watch cable TV. Yo grabbed the TV schedule and, reading carefully, announced, "I want watch disco very."

         "Ok, you want to watch a music video channel? That's cool as long as you 'mute' it, 'cause we already have music playing on the stereo."

         "Lee, 'disco very' it not music channel, it science and nature channel."

       I put on my reading specs and looked closely at what she was pointing at in the TV listings. "That's Discovery channel, babe. Sure, let's do Discovery. You can watch the lions and baby polar bears, but let's kill the audio - ok?" She looked at me askew.

         Mae put her arms around my waist and asked to see the photos that we?d taken a few days ago on our outing to a waterfall. I took one of her skinny arms and pretended to break it at the elbow - showcasing the anatomical marvel of how far her arm hinged in the wrong direction. She slapped my shoulder and shoved me. I clicked on the computer while she slid onto my lap and we were off to find the digital photos.

        A bit later, two of their lady friends showed up carrying plastic bags of food and a cacophony of good natured Thai banter filled the room. They'd also been running the gauntlet of water brigades. They toweled off and went straight to the kitchen and began arranging the food they'd brought. I was reminded how Thai social life revolved around food and, at any given time, they're planning their next meal. I noticed the jigsaw puzzle sitting by itself and asked Mae where Yo went to and was told she was busy cleaning my bathroom.

         I grumbled in mock indignation whether that was a commentary on my standard of hygiene and went to look into the bathroom to see if it was for real. Sure enough Yo was there, down on one knee facing away from me. I marveled wordlessly at the intensity of her tile scrubbage - especially when she took a screwdriver, removed the stainless steel floor drain. She then scoured both sides of it with the cleaning brush before screwing it back in place.

         The phone rang, and Mae handed it to me. It was my Welsh friend Geoff. "My man, your presence is needed. I got four choice ladies here and I don't know if can handle them all by myself." Mae, who spoke some English, looked over at me. She couldn't completely understand what I was saying, but she got the gist of it. She gave me her intrigued puppy dog look; half curiosity, half consternation. "Yeah you're gonna get drenched no matter what," I continued into the phone, "try wearing just shorts and sandals." Pause. "No, just bring yourself..., oh ok, go ahead and bring a fistful of flowers. Mixed color roses, why not, they ring the ladies' chimes, ....yeah, get your Limey buns over here. This is the happenin' place."

         I felt an urge to hear Junior Walker, so I slapped in a cassette and his "Pucker Up Buttercup" filled the room. I picked up a banana, cradled it like a microphone and in a flash was belting out a duet with Junior.

         'Pucker up Buttercup / I want to kiss you one time, Pucker up Buttercup / I want to kiss you one time, I want to ho-old you / Buttercup I want to show you how.'

         Next morning, I woke up wondering who left the curtains open. My eyes focused just enough to see two girls sleeping on the floor cushion, illuminated by the salmon pink of dawn. Out on the porch still asleep on the reclining deck chair, Geoff and Yo lay bare-chested and wrapped in each other's arms - a Matisse study in pastels and cafe au lait. Lying next to me was Mae, wrapped in a yellow towel with her head at the foot of the bed. I gently grabbed the little foot in front of my face. She mumbled something in Thai and jiggled her 90 pound frame further from my reach. I sat up, bent over and kissed her on the cheek. I thought about how different life had become.

                                                         - - - - - -   end of excerpt  - - - - - -


The excerpt above comprises just the first six of the 300 pages of Lali's Passage.

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