Motorbike Kheng never used drugs in his 31 years on earth. He despised drugs. But suspected drug dealers repaired their bikes at his shop. Plus a few motorbike racers and lots of ordinary folk. They shot him anyway. Just for good measure. Just to be sure.
At the time of the killing, he was fine-tuning a carburetor on a souped-up 125cc bike. Squatting, chewing on a toffee, a cell phone to his ear, he had just finished talking with his wife and was saying good night to their nine-year-old son. Every evening at nine o'clock, Motorbike Kheng called from his repair shop to say good night and "three Hail Mary's" together with his family. His son had just said, "Daddy, I love you," and Kheng replied, "Daddy loves you, too." Those were his last words. Shots rang out. His son screamed, "Mommy, what are those noises in Daddy's shop? They hurt my ears! Why doesn't Daddy talk to me?"
The Night Riders work for some authority who seems beyond authority. By day, these cats are smug. Not smirking but hinting. Not threatening outright, which somehow makes the threats more ominous. They come and talk to the slum community leaders like they would to recalcitrant children, telling our poor neighbours things they already know: that there are still folks flogging drugs in our fair city and all over Thailand. That there are motorcycle shops that "soup up" bikes. All the while ignoring the fact that we all played street football together, listen to the same pop songs on the radio, grew up together. Like they've forgotten where they're from.
Motorbike Kheng was probably a witness to a crime or two. Certainly knew a lot of folks. That's all. Perhaps he knew some things; most likely he didn't. He wasn't that kind of person. Even as a kid, he didn't care about who was dealing, who rode such and such a chopper. It wasn't in his nature. But witness or not, he was on somebody's list, somebody who decided that he wasn't on the right side, and so the Night Riders came.
Motorbike Kheng grew up in the slaughterhouse. Even as a kid, he could fix anything. He began by fixing bicycles, then progressed to making his own go-karts. He could make a broken Walkman sing. He simply had the knack.
No dad and a sick mom, he grew up in the care of his aunties. He was always a good kid, polite, didn't cause any problems, didn't hang out with any slaughterhouse gangs. He hated drugs, never even smoked cigarettes. Only drank a little booze and only on occasion. He liked to wear his hair long but wore it neat.
His grandmom and three maiden aunties raised him well. He finished the compulsory 6th Grade, and then he took a crack at high school and got top scores, but the teachers complained he always came to class with motorcycle grease and grimed fingernails. When he finished his first year of high school, he told his oldest auntie he wanted to work fulltime at a neighbourhood motorcycle shop. He would finish high school later, he said. The auntie felt sad that he wanted to quit school. She never married, never had any children of her own, and hoped Kheng would be the first man in the family to leave the slaughterhouse, work in an office - maybe as an engineer or a doctor. But she bought him his first set of tools anyway. She shopped carefully and paid 10,000 baht for them. He paid her back in two years, as he had promised.
As the years passed - with increasing lawlessness, pay-offs, and all the rest - many of Kheng's friends in the slaughterhouse went down - to jail or on to the next life. His aunties grew afraid. They urged Kheng to move to a house they had inherited some 45 minutes away on Bus No.1136. Far away from the slaughterhouse, to safety, they thought.
After all, motorcycles needed fixing everywhere. Kheng agreed. He was Catholic and his new home was in a Catholic area, so he got the Catholic bike trade along with those who just came by. It was a modest trade. Just small time. Living in his aunties' house, tinkering with bikes in the driveway, he made enough to eat and buy a few more tools.
Kheng married a lovely, caring lady, as pretty as pretty gets. She had a son from a previous marriage, which Kheng gladly took on as his own. He worked in his shop, quietly, for seven years. His reputation grew and made his wife, grandmom, and aunties proud. Even the parish priest, who rode a small motorbike around the neighborhood, came and blessed the house and the bike parts scattered around the driveway. Kheng hadn't had a proper church wedding. His aunties said they would speak to the priest - perhaps he could formalise their marriage.
Kheng's old slaughterhouse cronies continued to repair their bikes in his shop and so did some racing clubs. Kheng never joined a "club" himself, never modified his own bikes to race. But because his bikes would win so frequently, he had instant rich friends and poverty stricken enemies.
Then there was the issue of his car. A family man, not a hard partying type, he saved some money; and he took this savings together with his wife's small inheritance and bought a car. Not a new car, just a car. His critics accused him of being "unusually rich." How could a slaughterhouse kid working in a one-man bike repair shop make enough money to buy a car? Had to be drugs, gambling, or racing, right? Already more than 2,500 people had been killed in the drug war and Kheng's name was now added to a list of troublemakers to be dealt with.
And so it began: Harassment, or doan guan in Thai.
The Night Riders listened to his enemies, saw him as one to be plucked. Started to make visits, borrowed tools. Demanded largesse until it grew out of control. His wife, getting worried, urged him to move: "You grew up in the slaughterhouse. Let's go home."
She stayed in the aunties' house while Kheng opened up a new shop near the slaughterhouse along the old railway line street: 5,000 baht per month, including gas and electricity. And his reputation for motorcycle magic followed him. He kept busy.
There is a another word: oom. It's an ordinary word: to lift up an object, but on the street, it means to kidnap a person. Take them away, never to be heard from again.
That's what almost happened about eight months after opening his new shop. (Or maybe it was a trial run. They often do that.) The Night Riders came, grabbed him, threw him into the back of a pickup, stuck a gun in his ribs, pulled a sack over his head. "Make a noise and you're dead." They demanded 30,000 baht and he bargained his life with his five-baht gold chain. He's saved and bought that chain - planned to give his wife on her birthday. Three weeks later, the Night Riders returned to his shop around 9 o'clock, just as he was saying goodnight to his son. They pulled their bike to a stop in front of him, paying no attention to the other customers who were standing around and chatting.
No bargaining this time, they shot him. Three 9mm bullets behind the ear. And then they leisurely rode away.
Friends rushed Kheng to a private hospital nearby. He was unconscious, possibly brain dead, but still breathing, with blood flowing profusely from his ear. Friends phoned the aunties. There was no doctor in attendance, and the staff said the brain scan machine was broken. Thirty minutes later, after the aunties pooled the gold they were wearing, the machine mysteriously began to work.
They tied Kheng's wrists and feet to the bed as he was writhing about. Outside, eight or so policemen, some in uniform, some not, were milling about. Waiting. Someone remarked that such a display of power for "an accident" with an ordinary citizen seems a bit unusual.
The aunties were told that the bullets had passed through, did not show on the scan, and that he would probably die with or without an operation, and even if he lived, he would never be the same. The aunties signed for the operation. Feeling that anything is better than death, that with life there is always hope. His friends said they would pay for it on the spot - they pooled their gold. Over 90 minutes had passed when Kheng was finally wheeled into surgery. He died on the operating table.
The aunties and friends followed as the body was moved to a government hospital for an autopsy. There they were told that two bullets still lodged in Kheng's head, that there never should have been an operation. His situation had been hopeless.
The morning after, the private hospital called the aunties and said there had been an accounting mistake, that they still owed the hospital 50,000 baht. The aunties returned with a pro bono lawyer. It seems also to be a matter of "plucking".
It's been several weeks since the funeral. Kheng's wife, whose loss is truly unimaginable, says she dreams of her husband every night but that they aren't frightening dreams. In her dreams, Kheng smiles and is at peace.
The aunties have taken her in as total family, so she is not alone. The car has been sold. She still lives in the aunties' house - bus route #1136. She walks with her son to school each morning, then stops at the small Catholic cemetery to lay flowers on his grave. Her son still says his three "Hail Mary's" every night. He says that sometimes, if he prays very quietly to himself, he thinks he can hear his daddy praying with him. But he says it sounds like his voice is far away, muffled, like over the phone.