"Here, use this," he said. "Smash your way through it."
Da's nephew stared forlornly at the tool. It was obvious some laborious mechanical process was taking place in his mind. The crowbar was getting heavy in Mel's hand.
"I'm just paid for digging," said the nephew, at last. "Nobody said nothing about smashing. That's a job for specialists, smashing is. I'm just a digger."
"Go on, boy. Look at it. It's rusted to hell. You could sneeze a hole in it."
"I don't know, Old Mel. Wear and tear on the tools. All that added time..."
This was a lesson learned for Mel. A brain dent did not necessarily affect a young man's ability to extort.
"All right, look. I'm not going to pay you to start a new well somewhere else, so why don't we just say... what? Fifty baht extra? How's that?"
There was no further discussion. The nephew began jabbing the crowbar into the metal plate with renewed enthusiasm. With the fifty baht incentive, the young man performed like a large, enthusiastic can opener. He stood at the center of the hole and gouged through the metal around him. Like Mel, he'd probably expected to be able to lift out a perfect circle of rusted metal and continue his dig south uninterrupted. He would have anticipated a firm grounding of earth beneath the metal. He probably didn't expect in his wildest and most troubling dreams to hear that teeth-grinding creak, or to have the metal upon which he stood drop like a theatrical trapdoor. He seemed to hover in midair for a split second before plummeting into the dark void beneath him.
The silence that followed stretched into the hot early morning like warm noodle dough. Crickets and songbirds held their breaths. A solitary wispy cloud hung overhead. Mel stood leaning forward slightly to look into the hole but all he could see was blackness. He didn't recall the lad's name so he couldn't call it out.
"You all right there?" he said. Then, realizing the newly opened shaft might be vastly deep he shouted the same question. "YOU ALL RIGHT?"
There was no reply.
A number of lands around the globe have what they refer to as a southern temperament. Thailand is no exception. Old Mel could surely have gone running off screaming for help. He might have beaten a pestle against the old tin tub that hung from his balcony or trekked those two kilometers to the nearest payphone. But he was a southerner. He broke off a stem of sweet grass to chew while he sat on the concrete segment and gazed into the abyss. There was a good deal to consider. Perhaps this had been a blessing in disguise. He wondered whether they'd chanced on an old well shaft. Saved themselves time. But there'd been no splash. It was probably dry. Bad luck, that.
"Young fellow?" he called again, half-heartedly.
There was still no response.
Mel wondered just how long was a suitable period of time before he should get anxious. He was in the middle of a plan. Go back to the shed. Get a rope. Tie it to the fence. Lower it into the hole, and... but there was his back problem. That wouldn't work. He'd have to call his neighbor, Gai, to -
The voice was odd, echoey, like that of a lone sardine in a tin can.
"Old Mel. You there?"
"What are you playing at down there?" Mel asked. "You stuck?"
"No, no. I had the wind knocked out of me, that's all, but I chanced lucky. I'm on... a bed."
"That's what they call concussion, boy. You need a - "
"No. I'm on a bed. Really I am."
"What makes you think so?"
"I can feel the springs."
"Plant roots, boy. Easily mistaken for bedsprings."
Mel realized that in the nephew's case, concussion wouldn't have made a lot of difference.
"All right, look, I need to fetch somebody," he said.
"You know, I can probably get myself out, Old Mel. I'm not so far from the hole. I'm looking up at it."
Excerpted from Killed at the Whim of a Hat by Colin Cotterill. Copyright © 2011 by Colin Cotterill. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Minotaur. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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