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‘The Glass Kingdom,’ by Lawrence Osborne: An Excerpt


Each morning began with an idle swim in the shared pool. For this she went down in the elevator in her swimsuit and a bathrobe, wearing spa slippers and carrying a thermos of more freshly brewed coffee. But before that, and facing her bathroom mirror, she pulled her newly dyed white-blond hair up into a tight ponytail, and inserted the colored contacts that changed her eyes from green to blue. She had found them in a Thai supermarket, a line called Alcon FreshLook. It was not a complicated operation, and she was learning to do it a little faster every day. When she was done, she put on her bathing suit and calculated all the moves she would make that day. Mere repetitions calculated to pass the time, to make her appear ordinary, because an unplanned day is more difficult to organize than a planned one. Since she had no job, it was an unexpectedly difficult problem she had to solve anew every morning. She was in the city purely to make herself invisible for a while, to turn herself into a living ghost in one of the few places where a solitary white woman would be little noticed, sexually or otherwise. When eventually the day was completely mapped out in her head, she sortied out in her bathrobe with her thermos and stepped onto her private landing, where the elevator awaited.

The Kingdom consisted of four towers, each with twenty-one floors, each connected to the others by closed-off landings whose glass doors could be opened only with the security key each tenant possessed. They were thus entirely private. The first and second floors of the building, however, were public spaces. On the lower of these two floors was a replica of a French formal garden, with shrubberies dying in the heat and two-story villas around it, a grander form of lodging offered by the Kingdom. The patios were filled with Chinese lions and plaster Germanic milkmaids with wide-brimmed bonnets pinned onto walls of plastic ivy.

A flight of steps connected the decaying garden with a large pool on the floor above it, itself surrounded by trellises of untamed foliage and Chinese box trees with their aroma of crushed almonds, looking out over abandoned tobacco warehouses. This kind of building had once been fashionable. It was a long-outmoded idea of luxurious living built in the heady days of the early ’90s, the Asian boom that had come and gone and come back again. Now-bankrupt tycoons had built European-style fantasies up and down the street, with turrets, portcullises, and topiary, but they had faded and peeled in a heat that didn’t suit them. The little canals, the klongs, which once gave the illusion of lordly moats, had filled with toxins and monitor lizards.

In the elevator Sarah found herself reflected in a full-length mirror. She glanced up at the security camera in the corner, knowing that the men at reception were watching her at all times, and as she did the camera’s eye seemed to blink. On the fourth floor, a middle-aged woman dressed in a housecoat and slippers got in with her Pomeranian, and in an instant the elevator was claustrophobic. The woman, unable to speak English, had one hand gripped around a leash studded with glass diamonds. The elevator doors at last opened to the first floor, where Burmese maids were already gathered with their masters’ own little Pomeranians and toy poodles. There was a sound of carpets being beaten in the surrounding obscurity. Sarah walked past them, climbed the single flight of steps up to the pool, and slipped into the water.

The children had not yet arrived with their inflatable dolphins and flamingos, and the maids high up in the windows paused to stare down at the white girl resting in the shallows. How did she appear to them? As she looked back at them that morning, another early-morning swimmer made her way toward the pool. A woman of about Sarah’s age, thirty more or less, in the black one-piece of a serious amateur lap racer. The newcomer didn’t even notice Sarah at first and was under the trellis, throwing aside her towel, when she finally did so. She had not yet drawn her goggles down over her eyes when a brief smile came to her lips, and she wished Sarah a good morning. She was Thai or Eurasian; it was hard to tell, though there was little that was European about her.

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