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The Unkindest Cut of All – by Mike Bell

Sofia Manfredi’s tenth birthday was a sombre and sorrow-filled affair just like the previous four.  It was remarkable for the absence of the birthday girl.  Her grief-stricken parents put on this mystifying charade each year as they vainly tried to keep alive her memory.  She had disappeared five years earlier at this same venue.

Sofia had been the crowning glory of Warina’s life.  Her marriage to Alfredo, Pattaya’s foremost Ferrari dealer, had made her financially comfortable.  Her husband was a kind and handsome man.  The child seemed like a blessing from God.

Sophia wanted for nothing; designer labels; a place at the prestigious Regents School ; a birthday party at the Hilton each year. At her sixth such party, surrounded by adoring friends and family she disappeared; a quick visit to the toilet from which she never returned.

Saritdet Theparat was baffled; as chief of police in Pattaya the case landed squarely in his lap.  The pressure from above was immense; The Italian Embassy; local wealthy hi-so businessmen fearful for their own families; newspaper reporters from seemingly round the globe all wanted to speak to him.  He had little to say.  The security cameras showed Sophia holding hands with an affluent Thai woman, chatting and smiling as they took the lift.  There were very clear shots of a Mercedes Benz receiving both the woman and child.  The number plates were false.

The police were stumped.  It had all the hallmarks of a kidnapping yet, as weeks passed, no ransom was demanded.  The final theory was that she had been snatched and put to work as a beggar.  In a Buddhist country like Thailand , to give alms is to make merit.  Unscrupulous parents sometimes put their own children to work on the streets; a lucrative living is to be made, particularly if the child is deformed or handicapped in some way.  Sometimes children were purposely mutilated to enhance their begging abilities.  There were gang masters who owned many such children, driving them to work in luxury cars.

Despite posters pasted all over Pattaya; despite the million baht reward offered by Alfredo; despite the many private investigators and psychics employed by the Manfredis,  Sophia had disappeared off the face of the earth.  Each year they staged a birthday party at the Hilton in the hope of jogging memories.  The strain had taken their toll both physically and emotionally on the parents.  Alfredo was in and out of Bangkok-Pattaya hospital with a suspected peptic ulcer.  Warina was spending more and more time on pointless shopping trips in Bangkok .  The missing years could hardly be classed as life.

Warina sat in the back of the family car, going nowhere fast.  Her mood was reflected in the slow drizzle turning the world outside into soft focus.  Every family she saw walking along Sukhumvit gave her a physical pain; her throat felt like she had a permanent tumour growing there.  Her eyes skimmed the beggar children as they had done a million times since Sophia’s disappearance.  The Manfredis had talked of adopting one but misplaced loyalty or a refusal to accept that Sophia had gone for ever, kept them from the final step.

As she gazed through the trickling tears of rain on the windscreen, her eyes were drawn to a ragged girl pacing the pavement.  Something about the girl’s posture was strangely familiar.  She rummaged in her purse and plucked out a hundred baht note.  The movement drew the girl to the car and she placed the blackened stump of her right arm on the glass inches from Warina’s eyes.  She wound down the window and proffered the note.

‘Mama.  Is it you?’  The voice she had dreamed of almost nightly; the words she had prayed for daily, cut across her thoughts like iced water on a hot Songran day.  Breathlessly she stared at the ragged urchin leaning towards her.  The face was grimy, thinner but unmistakably Sophia’s.  A sob of joy was stifled in her throat as she stared at the child’s right arm.  Hot tears scalded her cheeks as she hugged her fiercely.  ‘My darling baby, what have they done to you?’  Then she bounded from the car and hugged her daughter to her, fiercely, protectively.

Sophia told her story on the way back to Pattaya.  The beautiful lady had appeared inside the Hilton washroom.  She was told to go with the lady; a surprise awaited her from her father Alfredo.  In the car she had drunk something to make her sleep.  She woke in a dirty room surrounded by dirty children.  They explained the rules of the game.  They sold chewing gum and kind people gave them money.  If they didn’t sell enough gum they did not eat.

At first Sophia refused and starved for days.  Then she agreed but planned to escape.  On her first day she tried to talk to a policeman but she had been watched.  An adult cut into the conversation and told the policeman she was his simple minded daughter.  Two hundred Baht and one hour later, the man they called Uncle Po, explained in a kindly tone why a severe lesson needed to be taught.  Two men held her whilst a third stretched out her arm across the thick wooden table.  It was Uncle himself who wielded the heavy cleaver. She saw her hand fall to the floor; heard the heavy clunk as it hit the ground.  She lost consciousness when they thrust her arm into hot tar.  When she recovered she vowed never to attempt to escape again.  She remembered only her mother’s face in her dreams nightly.

Naturally Alfredo was delirious with joy.  He listened to the wishes of the girls in his life and did not involve the police.  He was also puzzled at the many Bangkok shopping trips they undertook two or three times a week.  Perhaps, he thought, mother and daughter were re-bonding, cementing their relationship again.

*****

Uncle Po was working in the chaotic garage of a large, detached house on the outskirts of Bangkok .  A gas burner was heating the bubbling tar.  A large work table had been fitted with leather straps to prevent struggling.  He whistled brightly, though his heart was

heavy.  Amputating a child's limb was always hard work and would disturb his sleep for an hour or so later that night.  When all was prepared he opened the garage door and entered the house.

Moments later he returned.  A chastened and terrified boy followed him, not realising what was about to happen, but aware that he was in trouble.

As he wandered back into the garage, a frail figure slipped out of the shadows behind him.  He didn't hear the rustle of material as the figure raised a 2 foot length of steel scaffolding pipe.  He did, however, feel the blow to the back of his skull.  Oddly, he was more concerned about his wire-framed glasses as they skittered across the floor.  The second blow stopped him worrying about anything for an hour or so.

He regained consciousness slowly; a throbbing pain throughout his head, like the worst hangover he had ever experienced.  Without his glasses, he couldn't focus on the figures moving around the room.  He blinked as they were placed tenderly on his face and his vision was restored.

A strangely familiar Thai woman leant over him.  "Uncle Po?"  She asked.  He tried to answer, but the adhesive tape across his mouth prevented the words escaping.  He nodded and more pain echoed through his skull.  He tried to reach up but found his hands and feet secured... He began to realise he was lying on his wooden work bench, strapped down with his own leather straps.  Grouped around the table were his children; stony-faced; curious; maimed.  One of them stepped forward.  It was the prosthetic hand that helped him recognise Sophia.  She was holding the container for the battery acid awkwardly in her plastic hand.  Smiling shyly she leaned toward him, and with her good hand, carefully, determinedly, removed his glasses.