Copyright © 2016 Kae Bell
All Rights Reserved
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, business establishments, or locales is purely coincidental.
Map of Cambodia
The ladyboy stood alone outside the circle of light cast by the tall street lamp. Behind him, deep in the shadows of Wat Phnom, the park elephant leaned against a thick tree, snoring. Leaves rustled in the warm breeze. The Wat was nearly empty this time of night.
The ladyboy was tall, willowy, with long black hair, bleached white at the ends, which fell to his waist. His tight-fitting green silk dress did not betray him – many of his clients didn’t know he was a man until they were beyond caring. His walk didn’t give him away, as he paced easy and slow like a jungle cat, slim hips shifting under the filmy green satin, five-inch heels clicking on the pavement. His false silver lashes fluttered as he leaned into the light to peer down the street. His client was late.
He lit a cigarette, pursing his lips to avoid smudging heavy red lipstick. He inhaled, the cigarette tip brightening with his sharp intake of breath.
A block away, a long black car turned the corner and slowed as it neared the street lamp, stopping not far from the ladyboy. A back door opened and a deep male voice called from inside the car. “Get in.”
The ladyboy turned his head slightly, to acknowledge he’d heard, then took a last long drag on his cigarette. He flicked the cigarette into the darkness in a practiced move and started toward the car, exaggerating his runway swagger. No one ordered him around he thought, a small furrow in his brow. Smiling as he slid into the back seat, he said “Hello darling” and gave the man’s knee a squeeze. The man batted the manicured hand away. “Stop fooling.” With a harrumph, the ladyboy crossed his legs and settled back into the soft leather seat.
The car pulled away down the empty lane.
On the sidewalk, on the edge of the light, the ladyboy’s half-smoked cigarette burned, its trail of gray smoke wandering skyward, a bright red lipstick kiss on the end.
Mondulkiri Province, Cambodia
Immersed in a deep natural pool dappled with sunlight, Severine lifted her face skyward, eyes closed. The light danced across her cheeks, flushed with exertion from the day’s long hike. Encircling the pool, trees swayed in a breeze.
There was no warning. An explosion blasted the quiet jungle, ripping up ancient roots and stones. Piles of dry leaves from seasons past ignited on the forest floor, eager tinder. Flames leapt onto dry vines encircling the trees and wound their way skyward, leaping from tree to tree. Soon, a wall of flames thirty feet high raged in the woods.
The blast ripped Severine from her daydream. She swam to the pool’s edge and clung to the rocks as she studied the clearing. Her stomach clenched when she saw smoke billowing from the path.
“Ben? What was that? Ben! Are you hurt?” she yelled. No reply. Only minutes before Ben Goodnight had walked into the jungle, leaving her to rest before the hike back to the main road.
Clambering out of the water, slipping on rocks, Severine grabbed her backpack, her wet fingers struggling with the zipper. The zipper would not budge, stuck on some fabric inside. She yanked at the stubborn metal piece again, harder this time, until at last it gave. Severine felt around inside the pack for her phone. She yanked it out.
“Shit,” she said, staring at its screen. ‘No service’.
“Ben?” she yelled, eyeing the gray smoke creeping into the clearing. Sunlight played on the smoke’s leading edge.
Severine reached for her clothes, pulling shorts and shirt over a wet bikini.
“Ben!!” she screamed again, desperate for a reply. She shoved dripping feet into her hiking boots and dipped a red bandana in the pool. This she held over her mouth and nose as she ran down the path in Ben’s direction. The heat rolled at her in waves.
Farther along, a wall of flames consumed the jungle in its path. The fire stretched and jawed, threatening Severine. She stood on its encroaching edge and called for Ben again and again. She ran to the left of the flames and behind them, yelling all the while for Ben. The love of her life. He could not hear her anymore.
A half-mile away, on the other side of the fire, two men had stopped. They had felt the explosion and could smell the fire. They listened to the woman’s frantic screams. One signaled with a gloved hand, a double flick of the wrist, fingers pointing ahead. They pressed on in the opposite direction.
The large man lumbered down the steps of Capitol Hill. His jacket buttons strained against a prominent belly developed over years of long lunches and longer dinners, schmoozing constituents and fellow senators.
It had been another long day. Hank Mintz was looking forward to this evening. At the bottom of the steeps, a limousine waited for him. It would spirit him away to a bungalow thirty miles outside the beltway, where his newest 25-year-old staffer waited for him, anxious to please.
Hank heard the trip-trop of high heels behind him but ignored it. People were coming and going at all hours here. His work was done for the day and everyone who mattered knew it. He longed for a cigar and a large brandy. Soon.
The trip-trop got louder and closer.
“Senator! Senator Mintz!! I’m sorry to interrupt. I have an urgent message.”
Mintz glanced back to see his secretary Marjorie nearly on top of him, out of breath and disheveled from running down hallways trying to catch him. Mintz did not appreciate being chased after like some scofflaw who had ducked out on his lunch tab.
“From whom?” he growled.
“From Mr. Goodnight. The CEO of…”
Mintz interrupted. “I know who he is and what he does, goddammit…I’ve known him for thirty years. What’s he want?”
“Sir, perhaps you’d best listen to it yourself.” Marjorie handed him a cellphone. Mintz saw the number he knew by heart and the message. Five minutes long. Odd. Goodnight wasn’t a man of many words. He tapped the ‘play’ button on the screen and held the phone to his ear. On either side of him, people streamed up and down the long set of steps.
The message played. His close friend and donor Phil Goodnight yelled, hysterical. Mintz waited until he’d heard the full recording. He listened to it again. He checked the time of the call and handed the phone back to Marjorie. He gave his jacket a short tug on both sides and looked longingly at the horizon. Oh well. His brandy would have to wait. His intern too.
Turning on the balls of his feet, he started back up the steps, Marjorie’s trip-trop keeping pace a few steps behind him. Mintz paused and glanced back at her.
“Marj, make yourself useful. Get me the President on that phone. I need a favor.”
Out the window, Andrew saw the taxi pull into the drive. Shit. It was early. Rummaging through a closet, Andrew tossed a few items into a backpack: t-shirts, trousers, a pair of running shoes.
Five years was a long time to live a lie. Not much to show for it.
The taxi driver honked to announce himself.
Andrew was running out of time. He moved quickly through the apartment, looking for anything else he might need for a life on the run. His passport. This he stuffed in his shirt pocket, hoping against hope it would still work.
He tried to ignore the rising panic. He was trained to handle much worse. The drop. It must have been the drop. He was not followed. The flash drive he had left had upcoming dates, times, a few more names. And his report on her, of course. Naira was the brains. And muscle, it would turn out.
The drop was flawless in execution. One minute he had the flash drive, the next minute he did not, and it had moved into circulation. Langley’s International Library.
Naira had known. The relationship. It might have been a look on his face, a false laugh. One too many questions. Andrew wasn’t sure. But something had triggered her suspicion.
But that’s all it had been. Suspicion.
Until the drop. The drop confirmed it. And she let the drop happen. She’d given him that. Her feelings, at least, were real.
But she wasn’t one for disloyalty.
Andrew knew the goon was Naira’s the minute he saw him on the street, five minutes after the drop. She’d been ready for his betrayal, that was clear.
The goon followed Andrew, taking long strides and closing the gap between them. He had the look Naira liked in her muscle, broad shoulders and ugly enough not to tempt. Andrew knew her approach. If there was one man, there were several. He was outnumbered and soon it would be over.
The cyclist was blind luck. Cyclists were everywhere on these streets, unaware of mortality, the ease with which a collision would crush their skull.
Andrew hurried on the sidewalk, facing the busy traffic, trying to run without running from the heavy who was counting the seconds before he could wring Andrew’s skinny neck. The brazen cyclist had pedaled within an inch of Andrew, sporting messenger gear and a courier bag across his body.
It was an accident. As the courier pedaled by the bus, as close as he could be without brushing its metal sides, the messenger’s courier bag had caught on the side mirror. The rider was pulled from his bike, which continued another ten feet, rider-less, bounced onto the sidewalk, knocking down several pedestrians. Including the goon. Andrew glanced back at the resulting commotion. He saw the goon prone, on the concrete, shaking his head to rattle his brains back into place.
Seeing this, Andrew had run like the wind, ducking down a side street. Get off the grid. One goon down meant the others would be distracted and leaderless. For about sixty seconds.
Which was all Andrew needed.
He didn’t go to Naira’s flat. Not did he go to his own. She knew where he lived, which meant the others would too. They would be waiting for him.
He slid down narrow alleys, buying a turban at one stall, a shawl at another. By the time he arrived to the Agency safe house, a grungy flat used infrequently by fellow spooks, Andrew was unrecognizable. Part homeless man, part beggar woman. It had a coded lock, which released as Andrew typed in his personal emergency key.
The house was empty. From the musty smell, the stale air, No one had been there in some time. No matter. The house was stocked not for vacationers but for those on the run.
The cab driver honked again, this time holding the horn longer.
It was time to go.
Five years of lying.
Andrew slipped a blue ski cap onto his head and a pair of large sunglasses. Even his taxi was Agency approved. But at this point, caution ruled his every move. Until he was out of the country. On another continent.
Andrew slung the half-full backpack over his shoulder, opened the door, and stepped into the unforgiving Moroccan sun.
His driver squinted up at him, impatient to beat the rush. He assessed Andrew, watched him fumble with keys, wipe away prints, rush down the steps. The driver had seen it all. Thieves, murderers, spies – they all passed through this town. This apartment. All he cared was that they paid well. The driver settled back in his seat. They would have to hurry to catch the ferry.
It was time to go.
Long strides down the stones steps and Andrew slid into the back of the car. The engine revved and they were away, speeding to the port. Across the street, a neighborhood child played with a dog, tossing a ball. A game of fetch. The dog never tired of retrieving, its tail wagging as it chased and returned, chased and returned.
The ferry crossing from Tangier to Gibralter was faster than flying. His heart pounding, Andrew boarded with his passport, trusting she’d not yet had it flagged. The man at the desk reviewed it, stamped it, returned it. Andrew waited to exhale his relief until he found a seat.
At worst she would know how he had left. But by the time she traced the passport, he would be gone, out of the country, the passport dumped in Gibraltar.
From there, it was anybody’s guess. Even his own.
Seated by the open window, misted by spray, Andrew counted the people on board. It was a light travel day, mostly European tourists returning from an afternoon in the markets, arms full of overpriced rugs sold by men who negotiated in their sleep.
A train to Madrid. A new passport. From Madrid, a flight to Paris. He looked over his shoulder the entire time. Was he blown?
At Charles De Gaulle, he considered his options on the departing flight board. Where to go?
As far away as he could. As quickly and as unpredictably as possible.
Waiting for the morning bus, the tourists chatted, their pitch higher than normal. A day or two into vacation and everything felt foreign and off-kilter. The jet lag was awful, they would write to their children and grandchildren. But yes, Cambodia truly was the Kingdom of Wonder.
Standing apart from the tourists, the Cambodian locals spoke in low tones. The Khmer women wore loose-fitting cotton pajamas in pinks and yellows. A mother squatted on her haunches feeding her little boy a carrot. The men smoked hand-rolled cigarettes. The bus driver chatted with a young woman tending fluttering birds packed into a wire cage.
Andrew slid into this line, wearing his shorts and t-shirt, his backpack flung across a shoulder. He’d landed fewer than 24 hours ago in Siem Reap. Received this message on check-in with his superiors.
Yes, his cover was blown. He was done. That part of his life completed.
Why then did he still feel incomplete?
The news of his arrival in Cambodia had raised interest levels back in Langley.
There’s one small thing…
He sighed, a moth ever drawn to the flame, as he eyed the bus, which spewed black smoke from its tailpipe. With an air of resignation, like a horse in its last losing race, it had started up, for its journey south.
The boarding line was finally moving, as the last pieces of luggage loaded. In their wire cage, the birds chirped in a frenzy, as the cage was shoved into the bus’s undercarriage for the trip to market.
Andrew woke with a start. Out his window, he saw dense green jungle lining the dirt-covered road, a couple cows and a farmer squatting, watching the bus, as he chewed a piece of grass.
The bus had stopped. This was not a scheduled stop on the road to Phnom Penh. Andrew checked his watch. They’d been traveling for four hours. Two to go. Passengers stirred. The engine was off and without the AC, the bus had warmed up in the mid-day heat. It was uncomfortable for the passengers who had overdressed for the long ride. People peeled off layers.
In the backseat, a baby fussed. His young mother cooed at him, but she too was anxious, tapping her bare foot on the floor.
Andrew stood to better see out the opposite window, leaning over an elderly couple that stared up blankly at him. Andrew recognized them from the Bayon Temple. “Guten Tag. I think we have a flat tire,” he said in German. The old man blinked his watery blue eyes.
Andrew made his way down the aisle, stepping over suitcases and handbags cluttering the walkway, and pushed open the door, stepping outside. The air, though warm, was fresh and felt good on his face. He took a deep breath.
Outside, on the ground by the flat tire, the driver turned a hand crank, trying to lift the bus. Not surprisingly, he was having little luck with the passengers still on board.
“Can I help?” Andrew asked the driver, leaning down to inspect the wheel. A worn spare tire sat in the dirt.
The driver smiled at him, grateful for assistance with this stubborn bus he drove every day. The driver’s eyes were yellow with jaundice. “Flat tire. Maybe need to fix before go.”
Andrew nodded at the flat. “Yes, I agree. Mind if I take a look?” Andrew asked. The driver smiled and scooted backwards out of the way to make room, kicking up the dust along the roadside. Andrew knelt down in the dirt, sun glinting on his brown hair. He ran his hand along the black tire, fully flat, for signs of damage. There, halfway down, near the metal rim, was a rusty nail head flush with the rubber, evidence of the internal damage.
As Andrew leaned forward to inspect the nail, poking at it with his finger, he felt something cold and hard against his back. He figured it was the driver, handing him the tire jack he’d seen on the ground. Behind him, a young male voice said, “Give me money.”
Andrew turned his head. Behind him, a teenage boy, thin as a rail, dressed in worn plaid shorts, held a pistol against Andrew’s shoulder blades. The bus driver stood behind the boy, wringing his hands and pleading with his yellow eyes, hoping that Andrew could fix not only the flat tire but this too.
“No problem, no problem.”
Andrew lifted his hands above his shoulders where his attacker could see them. “Can I reach into my pocket here? My pocket.” Andrew pointed at his back pocket, where his wallet was tucked firmly in his tan trousers. The boy nodded and waved the gun in approval.
Andrew stretched his right arm out and down, exaggerating the movement toward the wallet, his elbow pointing back at the boy, who had stepped closer, anxious to be away with his gains.
With a practiced movement, Andrew jabbed his right elbow into the boy’s narrow sternum and gripped his thin wrist, grabbing the gun. He flipped the surprised thief onto his back. The thin boy looked up at Andrew, fear in his hungry eyes. “No hurt, no hurt! Sum tho, sum tho!”
“It’s too late for apologies, buddy.” Andrew waved the gun at the boy, with no intention to shoot. “Shame on you. Shame! Go home!”
The boy scrambled to his feet, his stick-like arms and legs flailing in every direction, knocking the bus driver to the ground. Away from Andrew, the boy lurched into the jungle, stopping once before he disappeared completely into the brush to yell some unintelligible insult.
The stunned driver sat on the ground, watching the boy’s retreat. He turned to Andrew, his face filled with relief. “Thank you.”
Andrew helped him to his feet and gave him a pat on the back, then walked to the bus door, shoving the slim pistol against the small of his back, yanking his shirttail out to conceal it. He stepped inside the bus, up one step.
From inside, a round of applause. Finally, excitement the tourists could brag about to their friends. But now they were hungry, tired of this bus and ready for a stiff drink. Surely they could be on their way?
Andrew waved away the applause. “Minor set- back folks, a flat tire...and as you may have seen, an attempted robbery. If you can all please step outside for a few minutes, it’s safe now. We’ll change the tire and be on our way.”
For effect, Andrew repeated this message in German, French, Japanese and Chinese, to everyone’s delight. If his cover was well and truly blown, he could at least make himself useful.
On the banks of the Mekong and Bassac rivers, Phnom Penh hummed. Once a quaint backwater with dusty roads leading to a sleepy riverbank, the city had transformed, almost overnight, into a buzzing mini-metropolis, with traffic cops, high-rise buildings, and bustling corner cafes catering to the ever-growing expat community. Fueled by an influx of foreign investment, speculative businessmen, volun-tourists, and colorful carpetbaggers, the city thrived.
The rickety bus arrived to Phnom Penh city limits two hours late, but intact, in time for the afternoon rush hour. It vied for pole position with tuk-tuks, motodops – motorbike taxis – and shiny SUVs on the crowded roads, designed for less crowded times. Motodop drivers above the law wove in and out of the melee.
During this particular rush hour, a long single-file line of Cambodian children in spotless plaid uniforms marched home along the road’s edge, backpacks filled with homework to learn by rote.
Ahead of them, a brave bicyclist attempted to enter the oncoming traffic, hoping to ferry his way to safer asphalt. As he entered the traffic stream, a black SUV with tinted windows and no license plates revved its engine at him, causing him to jerk the bike’s handlebars to the left, sending the bike’s front wheel into a water-filled pothole. The bike flipped and its rider followed, flying off the seat and landing on his back, his basket of fruit scattering in every direction. Traffic halted, Andrew’s bus included.
The school children, delighted at the fracas, broke from their orderly line to gawk at the cyclist. Car horns honked and drivers yelled at the stunned cyclist. People laughed and pointed at the foolish man sitting dazed on the ground, shaking his head.
The cyclist picked himself up, and brushed off his muddy trousers, ignoring the loss of face and the laughing children, who jeered at him, hoping to get a response. He stood, his arms at his side, watching the offending SUV that barreled away, running a red light and screeching around the next corner. The SUV gone, the man went about collecting his star fruit, piece by piece, wiping it off on his shirt, and inspecting it for damage. No one offered to help. Eventually he had all of his wares back in his basket. He gave the bike’s front wheel a kick, his only visible reaction, and mounted the bike to continue his journey home.
The show over, the school kids fell into line again, hoping for further entertainment at someone else’s expense.
Traffic moving again, the bus navigated its way through traffic, past the Olympic Stadium to its final stop in the center of town.
It pulled up to a three-story red brick building adjacent to a massive yellow domed structure that looked like it could hold a football field under its sunny roof. The sign outside read ‘Phsar Thmey’, in Khmer script, with the translation underneath, ‘Central Market’.
Andrew waited to debark, as others pushed from the back to exit the now pungent bus. The toilet had not met expectations.
Off the bus, Andrew maneuvered to escape the milling crowd, some people waiting for their luggage to emerge from the bowels of the bus and others waiting for passengers from buses yet to arrive. His departure was hindered by fellow passengers offering to buy him drinks or dinner.
One male passenger, a paunchy man with broken glasses and stale breath, approached him. “Fancy going to the titty bars? It’s cheap and cleaner than Thailand.”
Andrew declined all invitations and hailed a tuk-tuk.
“The US Embassy.”
Armed guards at the US Embassy eyed Andrew as he stopped in front of the gate.
Andrew’s name was on the list of expected visitors. Andrew cringed. Through the metal detector and inside the lobby, Andrew waited. The marble floors and vaulted ceiling, coupled with air conditioning, made for a pleasant welcome. Andrew counted seven people in the lobby: Three filling in forms at the front desk, three reading a plaque on the wall, and one maintenance worker in black coveralls, watering plants with yellow blossoms.
“Andrew Shaw?” Andrew turned his head at his name, glancing around the lobby at who might have heard.
A pale man with a wispy comb-over of a few black hairs rushed to Andrew from the main corridor, extending his hand in greeting. His sloped shoulders made him seem shorter than he was.
“Welcome. I’m Jeremy Baker.”
Andrew shook his extended hand.
“I’ll be your attaché during your stay with us. I’m one of the Consular Officers here. I hope the bus ride wasn’t too awful. The route from Siem Reap is under construction, so it takes longer than usual. Not the nicest ride. Still, the scenery is alright, if you like trees.” Jeremy’s bellowing voice carried across the open space. It belied his bland physical appearance. Andrew imagined that came in handy.
“Good to meet you. Thanks for the welcome.”
Jeremy glanced left and right, sweating profusely. Jeremy’s glasses slid down his large nose and he let go of Andrew’s hand to push them up the bridge of his nose.
“Please follow me, let’s get you settled in. It’s a madhouse today.”
Andrew followed Jeremy down the long hallway, passed closed doors through which people rushed in and out. A young woman hurried by carrying an armful of purple and yellow streamers. “Scoose me,” she said, pushing past them both. She smiled at Andrew, her white teeth gleaming.
“Ahhh. Chaos. Absolute chaos. The ambassador is hosting a reception here this loads of people, local dignitaries, members of the business community, and of course the embassy staff. There are fireworks.” He glanced at Andrew and added, “It’s a security nightmare.”
Andrew looked up at the orange crepe paper strung from pillar to pillar along the hallway. “What’s the occasion? Halloween?”
Jeremy gave Andrew a sideways look as they walked, smirking. “Ahh, yes, you’re a tourist. No, not Halloween. But not too far off really. Pchum Ben. The Festival of the Dead.”
“What’s that?” Andrew asked.
Around a corner, a second giggling woman appeared, carrying boxes filled with inflated balloons. Unable to see over the tall box, she collided with the two men.
“Whoops! Hold on there!” Jeremy exclaimed, catching a stray balloon as it wafted over the top of the box and into the air. The woman grimaced as Jeremy placed the errant balloon back in the box. She nodded at Jeremy as she scurried by, murmuring ‘Sorry! Thanks!’ Down the hallway, a door opened. “Is that you Brenda?” someone yelled. A second female voice from inside, “You’re late!” Tinkling laughter as the door closed behind the balloon-bearer.
Increasing his pace, his face a stern stone, Jeremy walked with short swift steps, like a small dog. They passed several more closed doors. The walls were lined with pictures of past ambassadors and photos of a young Jackie Kennedy.
At the corridor’s end, Jeremy stopped. “Here we are.” He opened the wood-paneled door and stepped aside to allow Andrew to enter.
Andrew stepped into the anteroom, flooded with sunlight from its east window. Jeremy followed Andrew and shut the door. At a metal desk, a young woman stared at her computer screen, her long fingers moving furiously across her keyboard. The woman did not look up, intent on her missive and the music from her headphones. Andrew could hear a heavy bass beat. Punk, Andrew guessed. Late 70s.
“Janey,” Jeremy said, frowning, fluttering his pale hands in front of her screen.
Janey flinched, surprised, and looked up, knocking her headphones into her lap. “Sorry!” she exclaimed. She raised her eyebrows at Andrew.
“Hello?” she said.
“Janey, this is Andrew Shaw. Andrew, Janey. Our go-to girl.” Andrew saw the flash of disapproval on Janey’s face.
“Nice to meet you,” Andrew said, extending his hand. Janey’s handshake was firm but lightning-quick, as if a hummingbird had collided with Andrew’s hand and flown away.
“Welcome to the Kingdom,” she said with a half-smile. Her eyes flicked to her screen and back to Andrew.
Jeremy cleared his throat. “This way.” Leaving Janey to her typing, he stepped into his office. Andrew followed, glancing back at Janey. Her desk was devoid of photos or mementos, save alone stone Buddha which sat a stoic watch over transcription.
Jeremy’s office had a view of Wat Phnom across the street. The park’s leafy trees swayed in a breeze. The thick glass kept out the sound of honking and the smell of diesel.
On the walls, framed photographs of European icons: Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, the Rathaus-Glockenspiel of Munich.
Diplomatic posts? Andrew wondered. Or vacation. On the adjacent wall, an empty space showed wood darker than the exposed wall. A picture recently moved. Redecorating, Andrew mused.
Two empty leather chairs faced Jeremy’s desk. Jeremy had seated himself behind the wood desk and motioned to Andrew to choose either chair. Andrew sat closest to the door. He settled into the soft leather for what he felt was likely to be a waste of his time.
“I understand you’re arriving from Siem Reap. Unfortunate time for a vacation. It’s still officially rainy season, but I’m sure you knew that when you booked. Do you enjoy rain? Off-season travel? Some people travel when the crowds will be light. There’s no perfect time to visit Southeast Asia. It’s either hot or wet or both.” Jeremy chuckled at his joke, as he folded a sheet of paper in half and then half again..
Andrew shrugged. “When I was free.”
Jeremy studied Andrew for a moment, crinkling his nose as if smelling sour milk. “Yes. Yes, that makes sense,” he said, folding his hands on a manila folder on his desk.
“We received a phone call seeking, nay, demanding, cooperation in this unfortunate matter, of which, I understand, you are aware.” Jeremy’s eyes were wide.
Andrew nodded, his gaze steady. If this guy thought he might talk, he was way off. It still rankled to be in this room, in this building, in the wide-open civilian spaces. He pushed the thought aside to listen.
“Quite something really. Extraordinary.” Jeremy said, unclasping his hands and opening his palms to the sky for several seconds, whether in despair or thanks, Andrew did not know. “No, not every day, this. Not anymore, in this country. Thank god for that. Odd times…Well, let’s see what we’ve got, shall we?”
Jeremy flipped open the manila folder with a pinkie finger and focused on the top page. He glanced at Andrew. “It’s not much, I’m afraid.” He thumbed through the papers, counting once and then again. He tapped them like a magician does a deck of cards. “Of course, it’s only just happened. We may learn more. We may not. Things happen here that don’t ever make sense.”
Andrew realized he’d been falling asleep. “Like what?”
Jeremy closed the folder and handed it to Andrew. “I imagine you’ll find out.”
Andrew took the folder. The deceased’s name was printed in black ink on the folder’s tab. ‘Ben Goodnight’.
“The young man lived here with his girlfriend. He’d been in country eighteen months. She’s lived here a good bit longer,” Jeremy said, rocking in his chair as he spoke.
Andrew flipped open the file and scanned the first page. A photo of a young man, mid-twenties Andrew guessed. Local address, emergency contact information, an address in the USA. Probably the father’s. Andrew flipped through the next several pages. Some marketing materials. A couple local magazines.
“Anything else?” Andrew asked.
“No. That’s it from our end,” Jeremy said. Andrew closed the file. Outside, the trees stretched into the blue sky, still. The breeze had stopped.
With his pinkie finger, Jeremy scratched absently below his nose.
“Anyway,” Jeremy said. “I’ve been instructed to support your efforts. I am to provide you with what you need. We’ve set up in an office. Not much… a desk, a computer and…Flint had said you would be without a weapon. Seems curious for someone of your profession to travel so unprepared.”
Andrew’s spine pressed hard against the seat. He’d already chucked the gun from the bus robber. “Do YOU bring a gun on vacation?” he asked.
Jeremy shook his head ‘No’.
Jeremy nodded. “Of course.” He replaced a stray pencil into the metal cup on the desk’s far edge, and stood, pushing his chair back. He walked to the wall safe behind the desk. With a few dial turns, he’d opened it. From inside, he removed a black case, which he placed on the desk and opened to reveal a Glock 19. He watched Andrew. ”It’s what we have available. I hope it is adequate.”
Andrew reached for the gun but Jeremy shut the case abruptly. “Sorry.” He slid it across the desk to Andrew. “Not in here please. We hope, of course, that you won’t need to use it at all.”
“I’ll do my best.” Andrew stood abruptly. He took the case in one hand, the slim file in his other.
“Shall we?” Jeremy gazed at Andrew over his round eyeglasses. He was not done. “Nearly.” He waved a hand indicating that Andrew should sit down.
“It is most important you grasp my last point.” His fingers steepled, Jeremy went on. “Our country is pleased to enjoy good relations with the Cambodian government, but we are guests in this country. In that regard, we have been asked unofficially to stay in the shadows on this matter with Ben. They fear this incident might frighten the tourists away, if too much is made of this unfortunate accident.”
Andrew nodded. “Accident remains to be determined I think. But I get your message. If I kill anyone, do it on the down low?”
Jeremy made a choking sound that morphed to a coughing fit. It took him a minute to recover his breath.
Andrew smirked. “Sorry, bad joke.”
Above the desk, the fluorescent lights hummed.
Red-faced now and coughing slightly, Jeremy stood. He recovered enough to speak.
“Janey will show you to your office.”
On cue, the wooden door opened and Janey breezed in.
Janey wordlessly guided Andrew through the maze of the embassy hallways. Her high heels clicked on the tile floor as she walked, the sound echoing in the high hallways.
Andrew glanced at his watch. It was just after 4:30 PM. At the end of the hallway, they descended a flight of stairs to another long hallway, almost identical to the one above, only with lower ceilings and dank air. Andrew was having trouble tracking direction in this subterranean lair. They turned left and right a couple more times when Janey stopped and turned to face the wall.
“Here we are.” They were standing in a hallway with no doors as far as Andrew could tell. Janey pulled a small coppery key from her blue skirt pocket and inserted it into an imperceptible keyhole in the wall. She turned the key and pushed lightly on the wall, revealing a discrete door that gave way to a small office with concrete floors, a metal desk on which sat an ancient desktop computer, and an antiquated printer. A single rectangular window allowed in the late afternoon’s slanted light.
“Sorry to put you down here in the nether world. Orders, I’m afraid. Far from probing eyes.” She smiled at him and added, “People talk here. Not much else to do in this little town.”
“People talk everywhere. Anyway, I prefer privacy.”
Andrew stuck his head inside his new office, looking for the light switch, which he found on the cool steel wall. He flipped the switch up and the overhead fluorescent light blinked on, off, then on again, with its trademark hum.
“This works.” He stepped inside.
Janey looked around at the office one last time. Satisfied, she said, “Right. I’ll leave you to it.”
Peering out the high small window onto the embassy lawn, Andrew turned back to say ‘Thank you’ but Janey was already on her way down the hallway, walking with sharp steps to her next task. Andrew stuck his head out the door and watched her turn the corner at the far end of the hallway, pivoting on her toes.
Andrew looked around the office. It wasn’t the same as climbing stone temples, but it suited. He didn’t expect this would take long. Ask a few questions, send in a report and he could be on his way.
Andrew closed the door, sat down and flipped opened the file. There was more than Andrew had thought. A couple tourist magazines showing riverside restaurants and pretty Cambodian hostesses, a map of Cambodia, with a circle around Phnom Penh. And a Cambodian police report with a statement from Ben’s girlfriend.
Andrew made a few notes, then logged on to his email. Two new emails from Flint, one with photos of Ben and a stunning dark-haired girl. The second email was standard CIA country background info.
He had hit ‘Print’ when there was a knock on the door. The printer was in high gear, clacking away, spitting out pages. Over the racket, Andrew called out, “Come in.” The door opened to reveal Janey.
“Hi. Sorry to bother you so soon but I’ve brought you a local phone. We thought you’d need one. It’s best for making local calls. One of the secretaries dropped it off.”
She handed him a plastic gray phone. Andrew took it, amused. It looked like a child’s toy. No full-length slick glossy screen, no camera. It had an actual push keypad with numbers and letters and a small plastic screen. Welcome to the stone ages.
“Thanks.” He tucked it in a shirt pocket.
Janey continued. “I’ve loaded it with credit, so you should be good for a while. If you run out, you can top up at any store, just buy a card.”
“Will do.” Andrew didn’t mention his secure mobile phone. One more phone couldn’t hurt. He smiled at Janey, who tugged at her skirt hem as she stood in the door.
“Thank you,” he repeated, moving the paper he’d been reading closer to him.
Janey lingered. Andrew looked down and started to read. Janey stepped closer to the desk. Her shadow fell across the desk. Andrew looked up. Janey eyed him, her face stern in the shadows, her right hand behind her back.
“I’ve also brought you this.” She held forward a sheet of paper in her right hand, which trembled slightly. Andrew wondered if it was nerves or fear or something else.
“The US ambassador received this email weeks ago. He gave it to Jeremy to deal with. We get a lot of crank mail and calls, from locals, expats, and everyone in between. Everyone’s got a grudge against the US, doesn’t matter where. Anyway, Jeremy said that’s what this was. Another crank. I asked him and he said not to bother you with it. But then, when you walked in, I thought, what’s the harm? You look like a man who likes to know things. Thought you might want to take a look.” She crinkled her nose in uncertainty and shifted from her left foot to right. “Jeremy is experienced. I respect his opinion and he’s my boss, so normally, I wouldn’t…well, anyway, here it is. Fresh eyes can help.”
Andrew took the paper. Only four words. This crank, if that’s what it was, didn’t have too much to say.
“Ch’kai leave or die,” he read out loud then looked up. Janey watched him. “Who’s Ch’kai?” Andrew asked, struggling to pronounce the word. He felt like he’d heard it before.
Standing by the desk, Janey glanced around the office. There was a plastic chair in the corner that looked like it had been left outside for a few seasons. A thin film of dust covered the surfaces. She pointed to it. “May I sit?” she asked. Andrew nodded. Janey dragged the chair forward to the desk. Its plastic legs made a dull sound on the floor. Janey sat on the chair’s edge and put her hands together as if in prayer.
“It’s not a who, it’s a what. Translated literally from the Khmer, ‘ch’kai’ is the word for dog.”
She watched Andrew closely as she continued. Her hands fluttered slightly above her lap as she spoke. “But referring to a person, ch’kai is an insult. Really, one of the rudest things you can call someone in this country.”
Andrew put the paper on the desk and leaned back in his chair, his arms over his head, hands clasped behind his neck. The chair squeaked slightly as he rocked into a comfortable position. He had expected this to be a simple investigation. It was becoming less so by the minute. “Huh. Someone clearly doesn’t like the US Ambassador much. Did he refuse someone a visa to the States? Maybe missed a local dignitary’s wedding?”
“No, it’s not that.” Janey leaned forward and pointed to the words on the page. “Ch’kai is a slur. It means vermin. It’s used to describe foreigners in this country.”
Andrew looked down at the note, his mind working on the real meaning of the four simple words.
“Foreigners leave or die,” he said, looking at Janey, whose pupils were dark and wide in the dim office light. “That’s a pretty clear message. To the point.”
“Yes, exactly.” Janey said, blinking, pleased to be understood. “See, cranks, they go on and on. They have no self-control, you know, they are all over the place usually. Their letters and emails are miles long, they can’t make a point without writing pages of insults and injuries before it. This was exact. Short. Different.”
“I agree. Mind if I keep this?” He held the paper and looked at Janey, who nodded.
“Of course. I hope it’s helpful.” She stood, pushing the chair noisily back into its dusty corner. Andrew stood too and stepped to the front of the desk. He towered over Janey, who gazed up at him.
“You did the right thing, sharing this. Could you possibly forward me the original email?”
Janey straightened her skirt, a satisfied smile on her lips, and looked up at Andrew. “Yes, of course. I’ll do that right away.” In the dim light, she blushed and hoped Andrew did not notice.
“Thank you. Again. Really helpful.” Andrew held out his hand. Surprised, Janey took it. Her grip was firm, her hand cool, encased completely in Andrew’s own. He could feel her pulse though her skin. She held his gaze and answered, “You’re very welcome.”
Releasing his hand and stepping back from him, Janey pivoted on her toes and moved into the hall, waving a childish goodbye.
Andrew sat back in his chair and picked up the local paper he’d been reading. He heard footsteps approaching and looked up.
“Also…a word to the wise?” Janey reappeared in the doorway.
“Keep the door locked. I wouldn’t expect anything to happen, security is tight. But you’re down here on your own. And while I’m sure you can take care of yourself…an ounce of prevention…” She shrugged slightly, blushing again. This time Andrew saw.
“Understood. I’ll lock myself in,” Andrew said, grinning.
Satisfied she’d done her duty, Janey nodded and straightened her shoulders. “Good. Very good. Please, let me know if you need anything else.” For a heartbeat, she stood silent in the doorway, perfectly still, silhouetted by the hall light. “We’re all upset about Ben,” she said, then turned and walked away, her heels tapping out her exit until the sound disappeared up the stairs.
Andrew listened. Then he stood and locked the door. Never a bad idea to lock up. Andrew knew there were always ways to get through defenses of any kind, whether locks, chains, walls, or wire. Even lies. Lies were defenses, complex verbal locks on reality. A lesson he should have remembered. His life under cover had been an intricate set of lies, locked doors that somehow, someone had penetrated. He’d gone over the drop in Morocco again and again in his mind. Didn’t matter. Flint had confirmed he was blown, same time as she sent him here. They knew nothing more. She’d said they’d deal with it later. Focus on the now.
Andrew sat back at the desk, slumping into the chair and staring at the email. He sighed. The years under cover had taken a toll on him. He hadn’t known how big a toll under he got out. Now, halfway around the world, in a dusty backwater town, chasing down crank calls. He’d ruined one marriage, a couple lives. Now it looked like he’d ruined his career.
“This can’t be all there is.” Those words always the refrain that came back to him when he felt low. When he felt anything really. Which wasn’t often, if he was honest with himself. And how could he not be honest with himself now? Here, in the building’s bowels, with no one to lie to except himself.
Andrew considered his options. While he kept his head down here, Flint had stuck him with this gig, calling it ‘a favor for our mutual boss’. Of course, he could just disappear. He could walk out, right now, leave this junket to some embassy flunky. Southeast Asia, a good place to reinvent, was filled with people who’d shed their old selves like skin.
He was tired of lying. Though he didn’t know what gave him up in Tangier, it came down to that. He was tired of the lies.
Back home, his options weren’t great. Take a break, Flint had said. Andrew knew what it meant. His cover blown, he was of little use. They’d put him out to pasture. If that happened, he didn’t know what he’d do. A Washington D.C. think-tank? A lobbyist? No thanks. He didn’t want to be part of the problem.
All he knew was the field. He was good at it. Slipping undetected into lives lost to greed and hate. Empty faces of the damned everywhere. Yes, the thrill of the unknown, of the unknowable, had always been his drug of choice. A junkie will do or say anything to get a fix.
Images of Tangier, its winding streets, white walls, and whiter beaches, as his taxi sped to the ferry. He was good at it.
Well, he had been, once, he thought. He slipped the email into Ben’s file.
Now here he was in plain sight. Doing mop-up work, a POTUS lackey.
At least he was armed. Andrew stared at the gun case Jeremy had supplied. He unlocked and opened it. The gun, packed in stiff foam, gleamed a muted black. Andrew slipped his finger through the trigger and lifted it out of the case, checked it wasn’t loaded. He held the pistol up to the buzzing florescent light, turned it back and forth, then brought the muzzle to his nose and inhaled. The fine smell of composite. He looked down the barrel; it was pristine. He adjusted the grip, feeling its rough texture in his large hand.
Andrew grabbed one of the gun’s magazines and in a fluid movement, loaded the weapon. He slid the gun into the space at the small of his back, over his shirt, and pulled on a light jacket. Opening the door, he hoped he could find his way out of the maze to the street level above.
He had questions. He hoped the night had answers. It usually did.
The Phnom Penh waterfront hummed. Bicyclists and tuk-tuks wove along the paved river road, while tourists navigated the sidewalk on foot. Sisowath Quay restaurants advertised “happy” pizza, with French fries for the less adventurous. Local shops stocked with colorful raw silk scarves and pirated Hollywood DVDs beckoned travelers.
On a central corner the imposing Foreign Correspondents Club, known simply as FCC, offered a broad view of all these comings and goings. From its broad balcony, one could watch boats heading downriver to Ho Chi Minh City or upriver to Tonle Sap, the Great Lake. Some spent hours watching the waters of the Mekong flow to the sea.
The balcony was a clever place to escape the heavy afternoon rains, especially in the late afternoon, when it was nearly empty, after the busy lunch crowd but before the expat dinner boozers arrived, with their tall tales and foolish dreams. A few businessmen were finishing boozy lunches, as they finalized lucrative textile deals. Americans needed more cheap t-shirts. The bored bartender sliced limes while his servers gathered the remaining dirty dishes.
Severine sat at a table along the balcony’s edge, overlooking the river, staring out at the muddy water and the rows of huts on the opposite shore. Stunned by the past 24 hours, she felt like her brain was breaking into pieces. Dark circles under her eyes, she scratched a mosquito bite on her forearm. Street kids who knew her by sight wandered by her table and asked her for change but she waved them away. One enterprising young boy put a giant furry tarantula on her table. His pet usually scared the Western women into running away from the table, leaving their purses behind. Severine merely looked at the boy with sad eyes. Disappointed, he picked up his spider and walked down the street looking for his next victim.
Severine sipped her coffee, cold now. She drank it anyway. She’d been sitting there for hours. The staff had given up on asking her if she wanted anything else. She’d called work this morning and told her assistant what had happened, said maybe she’d be in tomorrow. Maybe.
She did not know what to do.
She watched her cigarette in the ashtray, as the fire crept along the tightly rolled white paper, in a slow, jagged advance, the flame leaving behind it a fragile branch of ash hanging from the fine divide between the burnt and the unburnt. She tapped the cigarette once, and the ash flaked to the floor, discarded.
Ben had wanted her to quit. He’d started with gentle chiding, then when she’d resisted – she’d say “I’m French – we smoke, we drink, we make mad passionate love to our men,” he’d smiled but had taken to hiding her cigarettes in the cupboards and corners of their home.
This, because he’d wanted to start a family. At age 26, he was ready. But she’d said wait. Let’s wait. As if it was something they would do together.
A tear fell to the table.
Two large young western men in tan uniforms who had been watching her from a distance approached the table.
“Severine Chandon?” asked the taller of the two men.
“Yes?” Severine was surprised to hear her full name, spoken so formally. She looked up at the men. One of them held her picture in his left hand and he glanced at it again, as if to double-check they had the right lady.
“Will you please come with us? Someone would like to speak with you.”
She knew by their accents that they were American. They sounded like Ben, the same long vowel sounds, and the wasteful enunciation.
Severine glanced around the street and looked up at them. “I’m sorry? Come with you to where?”
The tall lantern-jawed man stood close to her table so that she had to look straight up at him. She pushed her chair back from the table to get some space.
“To the embassy ma’am.”
“The US Embassy, ma’am.”
“Who, exactly, are you?” she asked. She wasn’t completely surprised by their request. She’d known there would be questions. But she was not in the mood to cooperate. Not yet. As the men stared at her, their impolite eyes boring down on her back, she considered her options. She was tempted to jump up and run down the stairs, just to see what these goons would do. But she didn’t have the energy. So she chose to be difficult, which was equally satisfying.
“Why on earth would I go to the US Embassy? I’m French,” she said.
She was tired. The past twenty-four hours had been a nightmare, the trip back from Mondulkiri a blur. She touched the red scratches on her legs, from nasty briars as she’d run through the jungle after the explosion, all the way back to the dirt road.
Then talking to the police, who had been no help at all. They clearly felt they had bigger problems than a single mine death. Thousands of people died every year from landmines, one officer had told her. They couldn’t investigate each one. Especially so far away, in Mondulkiri.
And now these American goons, acting so imperial, she thought.
The short redheaded fellow spoke, his Napoleon complex kicking in despite his efforts to contain it. “We have a few questions for you about Ben Goodnight, who we understand was killed in the jungle yesterday. Come with us now.”
The taller guard stepped closer, glancing at his partner.
The image of Ben lying on the forest floor seared across Severine’s brain. She’d made it past the burning underbrush to see him lying there on the flaming forest floor. She had rushed to him, assumed he was in pain, knocked out. She’d turned him over onto his back, his face falling toward her. One side of his head was blown off completely, brain matter falling out. She’d screamed.
That was when she had started to run. She’d run back to the pool, through the sunlit clearing, to the path they’d taken in from the road.
Sitting there on the balcony by the river, she realized she had stopped breathing. She inhaled.
The short guard cleared his throat. They were impatient, as guards tended to be when kept waiting. The tall one shifted from his left foot to his right foot and then back again. The short man had an annoying habit of jangling his cheap ill-fitting wristwatch, which sounded like a choke collar, the loose chain running back over itself.
Thinking it would expedite things, it usually did, the short guard handed his ID card to Severine. She took it. It identified him as Bill Hannon, age 25. In his photo, standing at attention, he looked like a puffed-up redheaded bulldog.
She handed it back to him. “Why, thank you. You look just like your photo.” She smiled her most charming smile, willing these men to go away.
The men stared at her, waiting. They had their orders.
She glanced around the mostly empty room. The waitresses, including Severine’s, were gathered at the long wooden bar flirting with the broad-shouldered bartender, each vying for his attention.
Soon it would be dinnertime. The tables would fill up, people standing in line on the stairs waiting for a seat. Even the air itself would become crowded with words, so many words, friends and lovers deep in conversation, laughter, and storytelling of the day.
Severine couldn’t take it.
She wanted to go home. She glanced over the balcony. The street was busy now, the old Western men with teenage Cambodian women on their arms, tourist families from the West, all white and smiley. A tuk-tuk driver waved at her from under the leafy green tree across the street. Directly outside the FCC, a black sedan was parked, waiting.
She nodded. “Fine, let’s go.”
The men walked side-by-side behind her to the black car, their rubber-soled shoes silent on the pavement.
Without warning, Severine lurched backward, crashing into the redhead’s not insignificant bulk, directly behind her. “My bag!” She pointed at the lone green backpack still sitting under the table.
The redhead jogged back to the table, grabbed the bag, and jogged back. He gave her the bag then put his hand on her bare elbow to move her along. “Let’s go.”
Severine held the backpack close as she followed the men down the stairs outside to the waiting black car.
The car was running, as if ready to speed away at a moment’s notice. Its diplomatic plates were in plain view against the shiny chrome. The back door opened as she approached. Bill gestured to the back. Severine peeked in: It was dim, the windows heavily tinted. She climbed in, the door shutting behind her.
Inside the car was quiet and cool, the bright sun thwarted by tinted glass. The car smelled of lemons. The AC whirred overhead, offering solace from the heat. The luxury of the soft tan leather seats felt good to Severine, something she was not accustomed to.
She looked at the man seated across from her and back at her lap.
He smiled. “Hello Severine.”
She spoke, barely moving her lips. “Hello Jeremy.”
He slid forward on his seat toward her, his wool trousers making a swooshing noise on the fine leather, and placed a slim hand on Severine’s bare knee, his long fingers pressing on the inside edge of the bone.
“I’m so sorry about Ben.”
Staring at her lap, unmoving, she replied, “Thank you.”
Jeremy, watching her, leaned back, removing his hand from her leg, and reached for a blue handkerchief tucked neatly into his breast pocket. He held this out to Severine, who glanced up and took the smooth silk fabric.
Jeremy settled back again in his seat, spreading his arms wide across the seat back.
“It’s good to see you Severine,” he said. His hungry eyes looked her up and down.
Severine, focused on the fine grain of the seat leather, said nothing. She tucked one small foot up under her legs, adjusting her ankle then folded her small hands in her lap, leaving the blue kerchief on the seat. It was cold in the car, the AC on full blast.
Jeremy sighed and brought his arms down, steepling his hands in front of his dark suit jacket. He’d dressed for her this morning. She’d always liked this suit.
“There is a man in town. He’ll need to speak with you about Ben, a formality really. I’ve given him your number.”
“OK.” She looked up at Jeremy. “Is that it?” She started to reach for the door handle, but Jeremy blocked her hand.
“No. No, it’s not.” Jeremy pressed his lips together. He was looking forward to this next bit. “With regards to Ben…I am not sure if you know and I am sorry to be the one to tell you – it is a bit awkward, considering.” His hands fluttered in front of him. He glanced at her piercing blue eyes. He continued.
“When an American citizen dies overseas without a next-of-kin present in country, the Consular Officer becomes the executor. In this instance, that would be me. So. I’ll need a key to his apartment, so I may sort out his things.”
Severine looked up, her face flushed, her eyes wide.
“He has next of kin in country,” she said.
Jeremy’s face twisted into an ugly mixture of disdain and doubt. He disliked being contradicted.
“Who?” he asked. The word, spoken more forcefully than he’d intended, sounded like an accusation.
“Me.” She dropped this bomb, knowing full well the devastation it would cause. Jeremy had not made things easy for Ben. Nor for her.
It had been a full three years since she and Jeremy had met at an art show at the Chinese House, a photography exhibit that they had discussed for hours; two and a half years since they began dating seriously; and one year since he’d proposed to her on the bank of the Mekong River and she had turned him down, in no uncertain terms, having met Ben at a riverside cafe only days before.
Ben had changed everything for her. When Jeremy found out the reason for her refusal, he’d called her a whore and they had not spoken since.
“We married two weeks ago. It was a private ceremony.” She said, glancing out the window at a passerby who tried to see in the tinted glass.
“So, you needn’t trouble yourself about his things. That’s my role. As his wife. I’ll take care of it.” Severine stared at Jeremy, unblinking, daring him to question or belittle her or simply deny her what she needed most. To be left alone. She held out his unused handkerchief.
Jeremy closed his mouth, which had fallen open. His face, for the briefest moment, wore the expression of a man punched, hard, in the gut. But he was a diplomat, and the surprise was replaced by a serene, accepting smile. He took the handkerchief and tucked it back into its pocket, neat and tidy.
Severine reached for the car handle again and now pushed open the door. The steamy night air flowed into the car, bringing with it the smells and sounds of early evening, hot oil, spices and laughter. It was a welcome change after the frigid forced air of the car. At a nearby bar, a radio played, a tinny cacophonous sound, the woman’s voice hitting ethereal high notes.
One foot on the pavement, but still seated in the car, Severine turned to Jeremy, whose mouth had settled into a thin unpleasant line. She started to say something, thought better of it, and stepped out alone into the welcoming warm night, leaving the door open behind her.
On the side street by the car, a lone junk man wandered down the road, honking his plastic horn and pulling his pushcart full of bottles, cardboard and junk metal.
The short Cambodian waiter buzzed from table to table, ensuring his guests had adequate coffee, tea, cream, and sugar for their breakfast. Another napkin? Just one moment. Extra sauce? Right away. His white uniform was spotless, his jet black hair brushed back to smooth shine, his wide smile bright and sincere. He was a perfect waiter.
It was hectic today, Le Hotel Royale busier than usual at the end of rainy season. The waiter did not mind. These well-heeled tourists were polite to him, respectful and interested. They asked him about his wife, his three children, the oldest of whom was fifteen, with plans to go to overseas one day. And these visitors to his country tipped well, appreciative of the oasis of calm, the excellent service and the friendly manner, which bolstered them against the unmannered streets. It was a fascinating city, they’d found, but it had a hard edge, honed and ready.
The Hotel attracted all sorts, some drawn by the sweet mystique of Jackie O’s famous cocktail served at the hotel’s venerable Elephant Bar; others to the proximity to Wat Phnom and bustling Sisowath Quay, its shops a mecca of silk and guide books, only a short walk down the street.
Basking like turtles in the morning sun, guests enjoyed their morning meals on the balcony, the clink and clank of silverware on china and quiet hum of conversation accompanied by the buzz of blue dragonflies that flitted among the clay flower pots that lined the patio. People, excited to be on holiday, plotted their course through town: The Silver Pagoda, Tuol Sleng, so much to see in such a small city. Although rain was predicted for later, the tourists were undaunted. They would simply duck, laughing as they escaped the massive rain drops, into one of the endless cafes that peppered the city.
Outside the hotel, tuk-tuk drivers waited in the street for the first guests to depart. The drivers were not allowed to drive their tuk-tuks on to the pristine hotel grounds until called for.
Severine took a bite of her dry toast, as she listened to the other guests talk. She’d decided en route home last night that she was not ready to face her apartment yet. She’d go home later, after a day of work. The children would distract her, make her smile. Then perhaps she could handle going home.
She turned the page of the Phnom Penh Post, not reading, but turning the pages for the familiar feel of paper on her fingers. She and Ben had read the paper together on the weekends, sharing aloud their favorite stories.
She didn’t feel Andrew’s eyes on her as he watched her from the pool bar.
He had seen her on his way out of the hotel; her photo had made a strong impression, the dark hair and those eyes. He had planned to call her later but decided to take advantage of this opportunity.
But he studied her before his approach. She looked resigned, he thought. Not surprising. And tired. Who wouldn’t be, he thought, after that.
For very different reasons, he himself was beat. After he’d left the embassy last night he’d gone sightseeing, first along the busy waterfront and then down Street 178, rife with Western bars and tourists. He’d settled at one bar called Ruby’s where the expats seemed particularly thick and there he had eavesdropped on a few Western women talking about Ben Goodnight’s demise. Here, he’d thought, like many small towns, gossip was a treasured currency.
Now Andrew watched Severine turn the white pages of the paper, one after the next, not reading he guessed. Just habit. Normalcy amidst insanity.
Best get this over with. He hopped off the bar stool and walked towards her table, careful to stay out of her line of sight. Sometimes people bolted.
Severine looked up at the tall man standing by her table, wearing shorts and a button down Hawaiian shirt. A backpack slung across his back and a camera around his neck. He looked like a tourist. As he’d intended.
“I’m Andrew Shaw. I think Jeremy had mentioned to you that I’d need to speak with you. I recognized you from your photo.” He stuck out his large hand, which she took. They stared at each other for a brief moment, their hands clasped. Andrew noted her grip, strong, and her eyes, dark circles underneath.
“Yes. He did.” She sighed. This wasn’t going to get better anytime soon. “You have questions about Ben.”
“Yes. I do. Is this a good time?” He pulled out the chair opposite hers.
It didn’t seem like she had much choice. “Fine.”
She watched as Andrew took the seat, the chair’s legs scraping loudly against the gray slate floor as he pulled himself closer to the table.
Seated, Andrew rested his hands on the glass tabletop, palms down. His brow furrowed. He’d had little personal experience with real loss. Loss didn’t allow for dissembling. He inhaled, his shoulders lifting with the deep breath.
“I am so sorry about Ben. Certainly a massive shock for you.”
Though Severine wasn’t a crier, she had cried last night, long jagged bouts. But she would not cry now. Her emotions were folded secret notes to be read alone in the dark.
“Thank you,” she said.
The waiter refreshed Severine’s coffee and lifting the heavy silver pot in Andrew’s direction, asked Andrew, “Sir?”.
“Yes. Black, thanks.”
The waiter left to fetch Andrew a fresh cup.
“You must be reeling,” Andrew said.
“Yes.” Severine cleared her throat and sipped her ice water. “When one’s husband gets blown up, it’s certainly a surprise.” Her French accent, normally slight, slipped out, ‘surprise’ sounding like sur-preeze.
“You’re married?” Andrew asked. He hadn’t seen this detail anywhere in his review.
“Yes. I am married,” Severine replied.
“Sorry, Jeremy said…”
Severine interrupted. “Jeremy didn’t know. Contrary to his belief, Jeremy does not know everything that goes on in this town.”
Andrew raised his eyebrows at her vehement reply. Clearly, a little tension there, he thought. A topic best left alone. Interesting.
Severine placed her water glass hard on the table and her hand hit the side of her full coffee cup, spilling the dark liquid on the table. Andrew grabbed white cloth napkins from an adjacent table and mopped up the mess while Severine watched him. He piled the soiled napkins on the tabletop. The waiter swooped in to clear them away.
“We’d like to understand exactly what happened out there in Mondulkiri,” Andrew said.
Severine narrowed her eyes at Andrew. “When you say ‘We’, who is this royal ‘We’?” she asked.
“Didn’t Jeremy explain?” Andrew replied.
Severine shook her head. “Like everyone I’ve encountered so far in the past 24 hours, Jeremy was less than helpful. Nothing knew. He said you would have questions and that I was to answer them. Which I will try to do. But when you say ‘We’, I’m first interested in knowing who is the ‘We’ so interested in me.”
Andrew sat back in his chair. They seemed to have broken the ice at least; she was pissed, which was better than cold and unresponsive. “You called Ben’s dad, right? To let him know…what happened?”
She nodded. “Yes. I left a panicked voicemail with his secretary. He was in a meeting, she said. Even when I told her it was an emergency, that his son had just been killed, she wouldn’t put me through. Can you imagine? What meeting is so important? I have not heard back from him. We’ve never met.”
Andrew listened to this with interest. He’d met a few businessmen who would put a meeting first. “Well, your message got through,” he said. “Ben’s father has asked for an investigation into his son’s death. He has a lot of pull back in the States.” Severine looked skeptical at this revelation. She’d assumed Andrew was conducting a routine inquiry. Jeremy, as usual, had not told her the full story.
Seeing her reaction, Andrew asked, “You didn’t know?”
She shook her head, tossing her long hair on her shoulders. “Ben didn’t get along with his dad. He didn’t talk much about family. I understood they were farmers, or ranchers, something on the land.”
Andrew, like most men, was not unaffected by a woman with an accent. When Severine spoke, she held Andrew’s gaze, unblinking, like a prowling cat.
“Well, yes, something like that.” Andrew didn’t think now was the time to explain the extent of influence. “Ben’s father asked that this matter be fully investigated. And the…” Andrew almost said Agency, but caught himself. “The Embassy got tasked with the investigation. As you’ve said, the local authorities aren’t being too helpful at the moment.”
Severine rested her chin wearily on her fist and looked up at the sky. The sleep-deprivation and adrenaline of the past couple days were catching up with her even before the day had really started. She looked back at Andrew and asked, “How is it that you pulled the short straw to handle this?”
Andrew paused, deciding again that some information was on a need-to-know basis. Until he had a clearer picture. Right now everything was murky and so his level of trust was low. But then it usually was.
“Mostly, I was in town and available,” he answered.
Severine nodded. “What’s your plan?” She asked.
Andrew scratched his stubble-covered chin. Three days grown, his sparse beard was flecked with red. Somewhere in his family’s past there had been a ginger.
He was not prepared for this question. He hedged.
“Unhh. I’m reviewing what information I have. I’ll select the best way forward based on my review.” Andrew didn’t have a fully sketched out approach but was not going to admit that to his only witness.
He continued, “I do need to know exactly what happened in Mondulkiri.” He paused. “I realize that might be difficult for you, but we do need to go through it.”
Severine looked down at the napkin in her lap. “Not here.”
“OK. No, not here. I also plan to go out there to the jungle, to cover the bases. So I will need your guidance on that, with the location.”
Severine scrunched her nose, thinking, wrinkles appearing on the bridge of her nose. She was about to ask a question she’d wanted to ask Jeremy but had not allowed herself to, for pride. There was, after all, a practical side to all of this. There was always a practical side to death, which, in truth, took the edge off of grief. She took a deep breath. “Are you going to bring back his body?”
Andrew started in his seat, jolted by her frankness. “Yes. If I am able to. But I’ll need your cooperation before I go out there.”
On edge from this discussion and dreading talking about Mondulkiri, Severine lifted her chin, exposing her slim white throat. Her eyes were wide. “Am I some kind of a suspect in this investigation?”
Overhead the fans whirred, the phtt-phtt-phtt of the metal blades a rhythmic beat. Andrew studied Severine for a long minute. She held his gaze. He sipped his coffee, the steam wafting in the air near his face, the white cup obscuring his face. He shrugged.
“Ma’am, as I explained, I need information about what Ben was doing in Mondulkiri. Where exactly he was. Why he was there.” Andrew set the cup down with a clink.
“Fine.” She stood, pushing the chair back hard against the slate floor. “But I’m late and I need to go to work now. We can talk there during my lunch break. Here’s the address. Come by at eleven. The children will be in class.”
Severine handed him a card with her name and an address. She nodded at the waiter, who swept in to clear her place.
Andrew read the card. Below Severine’s information was the organization’s name, in French:
La Maison des Enfants D’Espère.
The House for Hope’s Children.
Severine watched him decipher the title with his school-boy French.
“See you at 11.” She walked toward the hotel lobby, disappearing behind the marble columns into the quiet shadows.
Andrew sat in the back of a raggedy tuk-tuk, glancing occasionally at his watch. He was late. The orphanage was far out, southwest of town, past the airport, near a small tributary of the Mekong. The tributary ran full now, at the end of rainy season and was used by all for cooking, bathing, transport and disposal, serving as both plumbing and sewer. This far out, the poverty was unadulterated, not mixed discretely, as it was downtown, between fancy houses and fine clothing shops frequented only by wealthy locals and tourists.
On the way out of town, they’d picked up a tail. Andrew wasn’t sure at first. He had seen a motorcycle start up behind the tuk-tuk when they passed through the slums of Stung Meanchey. The biker stayed with them too steadily, too doggedly.
Andrew needed to shake it, to be sure. “Take that left,” he’d told the tuk-tuk driver, who hung the sharp turn expertly. They’d navigated several side streets, disrupting stray dogs at rest and children at play.
By the third unscheduled turn, the motorcycle had fallen back another block but was making an effort to keep them in sight. Inexpert tail, Andrew thought, its helmeted driver hunched over, gripping the handles, too focused.
His tuk-tuk driver did a series of double backs and retracing steps, and returned through the slow throngs of the Wat, where it was difficult to see past the crowds. When they returned to the main road a few miles farther down, the tail was nowhere to be seen.
If the tail was from his old life or his new, Andrew did not know. Both worried him and both felt beyond his control.
At last, the tuk-tuk turned off the main road down a side street leading to the destination. It bumped and jostled along the pitted dirt road. Andrew hung on to the metal bar in the cab as he bounced on the seat in the back. When the tuk-tuk got a few blocks from the orphanage, Andrew asked the driver to stop so he could walk. He wanted to see and seeing meant slowing down. He hopped out.
There were no sidewalks. Houses, if they could be called that, lined the dirt roads. Small one-story shacks made of corrugated metal sheets, the main room about ten feet squared, opened directly onto the street. It was clear from the water line on several houses that these shacks flooded during heavy rains. On the far side of the street an open sewer paralleled the road. This too flooded during the rains, dumping its contents into people’s front rooms.
Ahead of him, bare-foot Cambodian boys played a modified game of soccer, using a flip-flop as the ball, and more flip-flops as goals. Their small feet kicked up bowls of dust as they shifted the sandal back and forth along the improvised playing field, their thin limbs moving the “ball” to the goal.
As Andrew walked by the game, play stopped. The boys watched him. Not too many white men came to this part of town. One brave young boy called out in perfect English “Mister, can I have a dollar?” Andrew waved and kept walking. He could see the orphanage sign ahead on the left.
A burly guard watched him approach from a lawn chair. Eight-foot cement walls made the orphanage look more like a prison than a playground.
Andrew approached the guard, who stood up. The guard was not armed from what Andrew could see but he looked like he knew how to handle himself.
“I’m here to see Severine.”
The guard pulled out a walkie-talkie.
“Andrew Shaw, Ma’am?”
Andrew heard the response come through, Severine’s voice crackly over the handheld: “Send him through, Vith.”
The guard ambled to the gate. A thick padlock secured the heavy fence. Eyeing Andrew, Vith pulled a set of jangling keys from his belt, selected the correct one, and unlocked the padlock. He slid the heavy bolt and pulled open the gate.
Andrew stepped through the gate and surveyed the open square. A bubbling fountain in the middle highlighted stone elephants at play in the water. Along the edges were several mahogany benches, each with a brass plaque, bearing names of international donors. High concrete walls surrounded the courtyard on three sides.
Directly in front of Andrew, the main building, a two-story white structure showcased a lack of architectural imagination, with sharp corners and no adornment. A long hallway ran from the front toward the back of the building and Andrew could hear high-pitched voices bouncing out of rooms off the hallway, as children recited the alphabet and read fairy tales aloud. Andrew sat down on a bench and waited. He ran his hand along the wood of the bench. It had a fine grain, its wood from trees harvested in-country.
Severine emerged from the main archway, wiping her hands on a yellow dish towel. She looked different from earlier this morning, Andrew saw. Rejuvenated. Relieved. Smiling. She walked to the bench and stood in front of Andrew.
“You made it. Welcome.” She gestured around the courtyard.
“Well, this shouldn’t take long. I have just a few questions.” He pulled out a notebook. “OK if I take notes?”
Severine raised her eyebrows, looking at the notebook. “Official. Am I on the record?”
“Over forty, my memory is shot.”
Severine nodded. “OK.” She took a seat by Andrew, leaving a space between them.
Andrew glanced at his questions.
“Ben’s work was demining, right? Is that what he was doing in Mondulkiri?”
Severine smoothed out her long skirt. “Most of his work was demining farms and forests in the provinces. There are many mines still in this country, even now, after so many years…But this job was different. This client didn’t hire him to do any demining.”
Andrew looked up.
“What was he hired for?” he asked.
“Prospecting.” Severine said the word carefully, her accent heavy on the first syllable.
“Prospecting.” Andrew repeated the word and Severine nodded.
Andrew narrowed his eyes. This was news. “Like…scrap metal?”
Severine looked at him with thinly veiled exasperation. “No. Precious metal. Gold, silver, like that.”
“Who hired him to do this?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
Andrew stared at her, unsatisfied. “Sorry for how this sounds but…how can you not know who your husband worked for?” Andrew asked.
Severine stared coldly. “Do you know how many NGOs there are in town, Mr. Shaw?”
“No. No, I don’t.” NGO. Non-Governmental Organization. A lot of the people he’d met at Ruby’s last night worked at NGOs. They all seemed to have a burning cause.
“Over two thousand. Two thousand NGOs. Ben worked for many of them, often for free. Maybe one hundred NGOs he worked for, maybe more. And those are the ones I do know about. You try to keep it straight, whose field your husband is in, digging for explosives. It is not so easy. After a while, I stopped asking. So many clients, so much danger.”
“And he didn’t mention this new client who hired him to do a different kind of work?”
Severine shook her head and stared at the gurgling fountain. Andrew thought it best to change topics.
“Where’d he learn demining? Not really something you learn in school.”
“In the Army.”
“He was military?”
Severine turned to him, her eyes brimming with tears. “Yes. I assumed you knew that, you know so much about him. He was in four years, enlisted. That’s why he didn’t get along with his father, who’d wanted Ben to go to university. Ben didn’t see the point when he could help right away.”
“Where’d he serve?”
“Afghanistan. 2006-2010. He was Infantry.”
“What province?” Andrew didn’t think she’d know.
“Helmand,” Severine answered. Andrew wrote this in his notebook. He’d had some buddies there.
“Why didn’t he stay in?”
“He lost an eye to a bomb,” Severine said.
Andrew nodded. He knew plenty of guys who had lost limbs and lives to the improvised explosive devices used in today’s warfare. But he was most curious about something else.
“So he went from the service into humanitarian demining? How does that happen? Seems like not the first choice of careers?” Andrew asked.
Severine opened her hands in front of her, as if presenting a gift. “The children. He worried so much about the children in these countries. No toys, no games, all they have is the outdoors. But for many, there is no safe place to play. He’d seen the impact war had on children. So when he got out, he picked a developing country and went to help.”
“And so, Cambodia. How did you two meet?”
In her lap, Severine’s cell phone rang, a loud bell. She glanced down at it.
“Please, excuse me.” She put a hand on Andrew’s arm and then stepped away from the bench to take the call.
In the second story window, a small Cambodian girl, her dark hair in high ponytails, peaked out at Andrew from behind a thin blue curtain. Andrew waved at her and she giggled and disappeared.
Severine ended her call and returned. “I’m afraid I’ve got to cut our time short. My donors are stopping by. This is completely unexpected. They’ve just flown in from Canada and are en route here. I need to get the children and myself ready. When the donors come in person, I need to reassure them that I’m spending their money wisely.”
“We’re not quite done, I’m afraid.” Andrew glanced at his notebook, where several key questions were still answered.
Severine ran her hands through her hair, pulling at a tangle. “In fact we are. Truth be told, we’re broke here. If I don’t get a check from them today, these kids won’t eat. I’ve got a month’s worth of funding.”
Andrew glanced at the window. Now there were three children, smiles and giggles, peaking out from behind the curtain. Severine turned to see what Andrew was staring at.
“Ohh, those rascals. They’re supposed to be studying. They are too curious for their own good.” Severine made a fake scowl at the children, her hands on her hips, and the children ran away from the window. Sounds of scampering feet echoed in the courtyard.
Severine looked back at Andrew. “Tomorrow perhaps?” she said, with an embarrassed grimace. She started toward the gate.
“Sure.” Andrew hurried toward her and the gate. “Here’s my number, in case you think of anything else in the meantime that could be useful.” He handed her a slip of notepad paper, on which he’d written his local phone number.
Severine took it, smiling at the ripped paper. “Nice card.”
Andrew shrugged. “It’s all I could get on short notice.”
Severine raised her eyebrows. “This isn’t my day job,” he offered.
Severine smirked. “It shows.” She waved at the guard to get his attention. “Vith will let you out.” Sweeping the stoop, Vith looked up at his name. He placed the broom against the wall and started to unlock the gate, as Severine walked away. Andrew looked after her. Vith jangled his keys to hurry Andrew along.
Andrew’s waiting tuk-tuk was parked across the road, its driver chatting with a red-helmeted motodop driver, a cousin he’d not seen in ages. Seeing Andrew, he started the engine. Andrew hopped in, leaning his weary shoulders against the steel metal bars, his bare legs white on the ripped red vinyl seat. “Back to the Embassy.” He still had more questions than answers. But it was a start.
Afternoon sunlight filtered in through the grubby window of Andrew’s basement lair. Andrew sat hunched over his computer. He’d spent most of the afternoon calling mining companies. One by one, he’d asked each if they had contracted with an individual prospector named Ben Goodnight in the past year.
But they all said ‘no’, and convincingly so, explaining, unprompted, that they used larger outfits or had their own internal people for such work. A dead end.
Andrew flipped through the reports he had found on the industry.
The country’s mining industry was booming, expanding from small, localized efforts to a major international draw, attracting all sorts, including the usual handful of unsavory characters. Companies were paying the Cambodian government hand over fist for the right to prospect in the remotest reaches of the country, Mondulkiri, Ratanakiri, Preah Vihar. These were not well-trodden paths. New mines meant new roads funded by new money. No stone unturned in the search for riches. The freshly-minted Ministry of Mines was raking it in.
From what Andrew could tell, no one had struck it rich. Not yet. At least not in a big way. There had been a handful of gems found and some small amounts of gold, mostly from artisanal mines in the north. These were enough to feed the frenzy. People kept arriving. Staking their claims.
Andrew flipped through the articles he had printed out, looking for one he’d skimmed earlier. Something had stuck in his mind. He found the page and scanned it again. It was an interview with a local mining expert, talking about the challenge to capital markets in Cambodia.
“Most of the mining companies operating in country are public, listed on exchanges on Hong Kong, Australia, the US. Sure, there are still one or two private companies remaining. We’d expect them to go public in the next year, to take advantage of the capital infusion. Mining is capital-intensive and you need to have a solid long-term strategy to stick around for the big payoff.”
All the companies. Andrew had called ten companies today. He kept reading:
“Which are those?”
“KMM and Kingdom Gold. Both small, mostly focused on exploration.”
“Kampuchea Mining and Minerals.”
The interview went on to discuss esoteric mining issues, types of drilling for the different rock formations and types.
Andrew typed ‘Kingdom Gold’ into the search field. The company website was a plain blue background with text in the middle, explaining that the company was no longer in operation. Looked like it had gone under. No long term plan in place.
Andrew typed the next name, Kampuchea Mining and Minerals, into the search field. This search yielded a more elaborate website, a gold background with a temple silhouette, black angular letters listing the company’s address and phone number, and a “Contact Us” button along the side, presumably for investors.
He copied down the address and phone number and dialed the number to see if anyone was still in the office on this late Monday afternoon. A receptionist answered the phone. Andrew hung up, grabbed his gun and keys from the desk and hurried upstairs. If he pushed it, he could get there in time to catch someone for a chat.
Andrew’s motodop pulled up in front of a squat two-story office building across from the Caltek Bokor gas station in Boeung Keng Kang, a neighborhood popular with expats, about a mile from the Embassy. Andrew studied the scratched and heavily fingerprinted brass plaque by the locked front door. It listed several tenants, including a dentist, a physical therapist, and a masseuse whose name was also written in Khmer script below the English letters. On the fifth-line down, he saw the name Kampuchea Mining and Minerals, listed as occupying the second floor, Suite 213.
Without warning, the front door swung open and a Cambodian woman pushed her way past Andrew, barely glancing at him. Andrew assumed this was the secretary who had answered the phone when he’d called twenty minutes earlier. Andrew caught the door as it drifted close and stepped into the dim hallway.
While the outside of the building was run down, the inside was done up in an expansive, professional style. The wooden floors were shiny and new, the walls painted a deep red and decorated with high-end, local art, etchings of elephants and temples, black and white photographs of local tourist spots.
Andrew made his way up the staircase to the second floor, where he saw the sign for KMM at the far end of the hallway. He pulled the door open and stepped inside. A fat red-faced man sat sideways at a large L-shaped wooden desk, watching his computer screen as he muttered a string of expletives, in a thick Australian accent. He turned toward the door when Andrew walk in.
“What the blast are you doing in here? We’re closed!” the man yelled, huffing like a steam train as he stood up from the desk to reveal his massive stomach, which tested the buttons of a wrinkled blue shirt. He’d been holding a lit cigar in his right hand, which he’d dropped at Andrew’s unannounced entrance. The cigar now lay on the floor, singeing the carpet. The smell of smoke and burning polyester filled the room.
“Sorry, I called but I got cut off, so thought I’d just head over and pop in.”
It was sort of true, he figured. “I’m Andrew Shaw. I’m with the US Embassy.” He stepped forward and extended his hand.
The man ignored the greeting. “I don’t give a blast who you’re with. This isn’t the United States, if you’d failed to notice. No one gives a shit who you are with in this town. What the fuck do you want?”
Here’s a charmer, Andrew thought. “I have a couple questions for you about Ben Goodnight. He recently was killed in the field.”
This information settled the old boy down, as he harrumphed himself back into his seat and into a lower-grade hysteria. He’d picked up his cigar from the floor and puffed on it but the flame was out. He relit the cigar tip with a cheap green plastic lighter and squinted at Andrew.
“Yes, I’d heard about that, bloody shame. He was a good kid. Hard working. Willing to take a risk. Hard to find dependable talent out here. All the young folks doped up on cheap available drugs or can’t pull themselves off of the cheap available ass. Or both. But that Ben, he was a good one. Solid.” He puffed on his cigar as he eyed Andrew. “What did you want to ask me?”
“I’m trying to find out who Ben was working for and what exactly he was doing out there in the field.”
The man puffed on his cigar. He did his best thinking while smoking.
“Listen here,” he said, chewing on the cigar’s end. “I was heading out for a drink. You seem like a decent guy. Let’s talk over a whiskey. You’re buying.” He stood and stuck out his hand. “I’m Tom. Tom O’Connell.”
Andrew smiled and shook the man’s beefy hand. “Lead the way.” He’d bought many an adult beverage for a source.
The bar called Abbey’s was conveniently located only two buildings down from KMM’s office, a single-story storefront, a neon sign in the window. It was a grungy but popular dive that had seen better days but not happier ones. The front bar was busy on the early Monday evening, filled with fresh faces, ready to start the weeknight with a serious buzz. Andrew saw the booze on display was all top shelf, including his favorite Waypoint whisky.
Tom led the way past the busy front bar down the carpeted hall into a dim and smoky back room filled with antique-looking furniture, all replicas, and large Plaster-of-Paris lion statues guarding each corner.
“This is ‘The Club’ back here. Men only. The front room is for the kids, the NGO workers, volunteers. Too much energy.”
The Khmer bartender had seen him approaching and poured two generous fingers of whiskey into a crystal tumbler.
“Make it two, Geoff. Courtesy of my friend here.”
Andrew nodded and pulled out a fifty, laid it on the bar, enough for couple fine whiskeys. The bartender poured another.
Tom took one and handed Andrew a glass. “We are not entirely uncivilized here.” They clinked glasses and Tom took a deep swig.
“So.” Andrew needed to keep this guy focused.
“Yeah. Ben did some work for me. Not a lot, since usually we go with more established players for the prospecting work. But he seemed like a bright lad, a go-getter. Every now and then I’d throw him a bone you know, stuff no one else wanted to do. As I said, hard to find good talent, people willing to take risks. I offered him a gig prospecting a bit of tricky terrain, hoped maybe he could streamline things for us.”
“How?” Andrew asked.
“The first phase of mining– ‘Exploration’, you with me? – is fucking expensive, cause you’re digging around in the dirt blind and mostly you come up empty. Over and over. Ben was cheap, had his own metal detectors, his own safety gear. Figured, if he could pinpoint a promising source, then I’d send in the big guns.”
Tom winced. “You don’t know shit about mining, do you?”
“’Source’ is what your investors want to see. New sources of metal. Stones are alright too, red or green, but gold is easier to move. Preferably a thick, easy-to-access vein of the stuff. Investors, they’re like heroin addicts that way. They like a big hit.” Tom chortled.
“Investors? I thought this was a private venture.”
“Sure it is.” Tom patted his hefty stomach. “But not my money. No, I got a couple pain-in-the-ass Americans who expect to see a big return. Couple of tech billionaires, think since they cracked open the Internet, they understand rocks too. Why don’t people just stick with what they know?”
Sensed an oncoming diatribe, Andrew asked “You said you sent Ben prospecting? When was this?”
Tom took a deep swallow of whiskey, thinking. “First time, about six months back, then again two months ago, then most recently, last month.”
“All three times to Mondulkiri?”
Tom looked up from relighting his cigar, which had gone out. He raised his eyebrows and puffed as he shook his head. “I didn’t send him to Mondulkiri. I sent him to Ratanakiri, to the north. Sorry, mate but if he was in Mondulkiri, he was on someone else’s dime.” He downed the last of his whisky. Two fingers went up and the bartender reloaded his glass.
Late afternoon light flooded the orphanage kitchen. It was a large square room, windows on three sides. Cheerful yellow tiles covered the floor. An ancient-looking stove sat in the back corner, well-worn cookware hung from the high ceiling.
As she dried dishes alongside her Cambodian staff, Severine glanced at the guitar that sat unused, propped against the wall. Finished, she wished the children good night and gave last instructions to Kolab. Her assistant would manage the orphanage for the next two days, while Severine took time to sort through Ben’s things. And to think.
She spoke briefly to the night guard, who locked the door behind her and settled into his chair for an early evening snooze.
Outside the gate, Severine placed a massive well-padded helmet over her unruly black hair, started up her motorcycle and sped down the quiet dirt road toward her apartment on the far side of town, near the lake.
A block away, a yellow tuk-tuk sat parked by a flimsy metal shack, its plastic flaps closed against potential rain. The playing children had long ago disappeared. The tuk-tuk driver sat in the back cab, feigning sleep. Through serpentine eyes, he watched Severine say her goodnights.
“Meddling French bitch,” he muttered under his breath, watching Severine drive away. He dialed his phone, spoke briefly and hung up. He settled in for the night. He would await further instructions.
No one paid attention to a sleeping tuk-tuk driver. Drivers slept in their own cabs all over town.
So no one considered what trouble he might cause.
Quite a bit, as it would happen.
Severine zipped through the busy streets to her apartment, passing monks clad in long saffron robes and families of four perched on a single moto. She honked at a friend riding a bicycle, taking careful steps among broken bottles.
Ahead, at a four-way traffic light that only half of the vehicles obeyed, Cambodian children stood together on the corner. As Severine pulled up, the kids approached her and held out thick white bracelets made of white jasmine flower buds, tied with red string.
“Flowers, lady? Flowers?”
Severine hated seeing the kids on the street. She didn’t like to encourage them to beg. But tonight, she reached into her pocket for riel, and handed a handful of bills to the dirtiest little boy she’d ever seen, who smiled at her, his brown eyes wide, as he placed a Jasmine bracelet on her slim wrist. He said “Ah Kuhn,” and ran off with his remaining wares. The light changed to green. An impatient SUV honked behind her. Severine started up.
As she wove through the traffic, Severine smelled the flower bracelet. She knew the kids should be in school. Street kids made a good living, easy money from tourists. And today she’d needed flowers.
She recalled Andrew’s question from the morning. How did you two meet?
So perfectly, she thought.
She turned off the main road and navigated several smaller, pot-holed side streets, lined with modest single-story family shops. On every corner, tuk-tuk and moto-dop drivers congregated, talking, eating, and waiting for a fare. Grungy western backpackers walked down the street, their unwashed dreadlocks like matted cats. They peered at Severine as she sped by.
As Severine drove over a short bridge, she held her breath. The open canal below her was about five feet wide, its murky water dotted with floating water bottles, soda cans, and other unmentionable debris. It snaked its way through the city, behind homes, businesses, pagodas and museums, open to refuse from all.
A half-mile farther, she turned right and drove twenty feet down a quiet lane, where she pulled up next to a three-story pink house with a wide concrete courtyard, behind a high iron gate.
She let herself in, her key hanging from a white shoelace around her neck. She hadn’t been back home since the trip to Mondulkiri. Her heart beat hard as she walked up the steps. Pots and pans crashed in a neighbor’s kitchen nearby. Somewhere, someone practiced a Jack Johnson song on an out-of-tune guitar.
As soon as she reached the front door, Severine knew something was wrong. The deadbolt was not on, which she knew she’d locked. The pink curtain that covered the glass had been pushed back a couple inches, as if someone had been peering out. Watching.
“Hello?” she called out, stepping in to the hallway. She heard some footsteps in the back of the house near the kitchen and saw a figure jump out an open window onto the bamboo scaffolding outside.
“Damn it,” she said. She’d known the workers were coming to do work on the roof and she’d forgotten to close all the windows before they started. She figured the intruder was a mischievous kid. The local children were fascinated by her collection of glass frogs on display in a bookshelf in the front hall. She’d been collecting them since she was little, her father presenting one to her after each of his trips abroad. Other than the clothes on her back, the collection was the only thing she’d brought with her from France.
She flicked on the hallway light and gasped.
The hallway floor was covered with broken glass. Her collection had been knocked to the ground, the figures smashed, the pieces kicked up and down the wood floors. She walked quickly past the mess into the living room.
There she saw papers strewn across the floor, boxes overturned, the desk drawers pulled out. The sofa cushions had been sliced open and the stuffing pulled out. A large ceramic Buddha had been lifted up and smashed on the wood floor. It lay shattered in pieces by the window. She stepped toward the window and picked up a fragment. It had been a gift from her husband.
Severine couldn’t process this alone. She pulled out her phone and rooted in her purse for the slip of paper Andrew had given her.
He answered on the first ring.
“So, now I need your help.” She described the scene in her hallway and living room.
Andrew asked, “Where do you live?”
She gave him the address, then sat on the torn sofa, staring at the broken pieces.
By the time Andrew arrived, the moon had risen halfway into the clear sky. Severine sat on the top step of the outside stairs, watching him, smoking a thin cigarette and listening to the buzzing insects droning overhead, playing Russian roulette in the bright porch light.
With a nod from Severine, the night guard - standard in most residences -opened the heavy gate, pushing its weight with a practiced hand. Andrew rushed in, climbing the stairs two steps at a time. As he approached, Severine stubbed out her cigarette on the concrete, stood and turned, wordlessly opening the front screen door for Andrew to go in. She followed him.
The lights were all on in the house. Andrew surveyed the mess in the hallway. “Shit.” He turned to her, studying Severine’s face to get a sense of how she was handling this. So far so good.
“Do you know what they were looking for?”
“Yes, in fact I do.” She picked up a large glass fragment of her favorite green frog, its golden eye staring at her. “Follow me.”
She led Andrew into the main room. French doors opened out into the night, street sounds filtering up into the bright room. A lone moth darted in, seeking the source of the light.
Andrew looked around. There were papers all over the floor, the desk, and the couch. Overturned cardboard boxes lay ripped and strewn across the floor, the contents dumped without care. They’d left nothing untouched. A night wind from the open window fluttered the papers.
“What is all this?”
“Ben’s records. He kept meticulous notes of his work.” She neatened a stack of papers on the couch, cornering the edges. “Among all this, they knew exactly what they were looking for. And they found it.”
“How do you mean?”
Severine picked up a black metal box, its flimsy metal lock bent and misshapen. She opened the box and turned it upside down. It was empty.
“This contained his reports to the Ministry, where he’d been, what he’d done, seen…found. He put all that into his reports and kept a copy for himself.”
“What reports? What Ministry?” Andrew felt heady, with the slight buzz that he got when things were about to light up.
Severine scratched her chin as she bit her lower lip. She was tired. She hadn’t slept now for three nights.
“Ben filed reports with the Ministry of Mining. He reported on things he found out in the jungle. Artifacts, remnants, old stone carvings. Nothing too big, usually just fragments. He’d find shards of pottery, old tools, parts of statues. Nobody has explored the deep woods out there because of all the leftover land mines. There’s still a lot of stuff out there, just waiting to be found. The Ministry rule is if it is historical, the Ministry wants to know. It’s how they decide whether to grant concessions to mining companies or to mark the land for preservation.”
Severine’s long hair framed her face. “And that’s what they took. All of his Ministry reports.” She surveyed the mess on the floor. “They made quite a mess finding them. But they knew the reports were here.”
Andrew stared at the empty box. “The report would say what he found and who he was working for?”
“Yes, that would all have been in the report.”
Andrew stared out the window, thinking, and turned back to Severine. “But Ben couldn’t have filed a report for this trip. He…never made it back.”
Severine nodded, accepting the harsh truth. “Yes, you’re right. But he had filed a report from his first trip out there. He said he needed to go back again to this one site, wanted me to go along.”
Andrew started at this revelation, that Ben had previously visited the site where he was killed.
Severine picked at the stuffing on the slashed couch. “If it’s helpful, I do know that he got paid in cash. And a lot of it.”
“Five thousand dollars for two days work.”
“Is that good money? It sounds like very good money.” Andrew didn’t know the going rate for working in a minefield. His job was filled with risk, but not take-one-wrong-step-and-you’re-dead kind of risk.
“Yes. Very. He was thrilled.” She picked at a hangnail on her left thumb, a nervous habit. She looked at her bare left hand. Her fingernails were unpolished and short, bitten to the quick.
“Look. This might not be easy. But can you tell me exactly what happened in the jungle that day? Maybe there’s something you don’t realize is important.”
“Yes, OK. I can do that.” Severine sat down on the couch, took one deep breath, then another. She looked around the chaos in the room and began to recount the afternoon in Mondulkiri.
For some time, the only sound was the thwek-thwek of the machete as they moved farther into the grasping jungle. Rounding a blind corner, they came upon a small sunlit clearing, a deep inviting pool of water on the far end. Following Ben into the clearing, Severine looked up, relieved to see the cloudless blue sky above. The sunlit pool sparkled. A stream feeding the pool burbled over a short waterfall, its stones covered with green moss.
Ben said “OK, let’s take a break.”
“Thank God. I’m boiling.”
Ben smiled back at her, his dark eyes dancing. “I’d rather be hot than covered in bug bites. I don’t think you want malaria.”
She shrugged. “I’m not so sure. Anything to cool down.”
Severine sat down on a long flat rock by the pool and pulled a blue plastic water bottle from the side of her pack. She drank deeply. Ben dropped his heavy pack on the grass and crouched down on his haunches, spreading a map on the empty rock next to Severine. “Alright. Let’s see where we are.”
“Yes, that’d be good to know,” Severine said.
Ben studied the map in the mid-afternoon sun, light from the pool reflecting and bouncing on his tan face. He looked at a compass and his handheld GPS, then tapped a spot on the middle left of the paper, a large area of uninterrupted green.
Severine tilted her head back in exhaustion and asked, “Please, can we call it a day?” Her voice was heavy with concern and fatigue. She’d had enough jungle for one day. It was getting late and she could see Ben was tired too, his left eye drooped when he started to fade. They were dehydrated and it was a long slog back to the road.
“Almost,” Ben said, still looking at the map.
“Well, while you decide, can I take a swim in the pool?”
Ben glanced at the water behind them and back at his wife. He wiped sweat from his brow.
“I’d prefer you didn’t. Who knows what’s in there?” He stood from his crouch.
Severine dipped her fingertips into the water. It was cool and inviting.
“How about just my feet?”
He grinned at her. “Ok, just your feet.”
She tugged at her brown bootlaces, which Ben had tied in thick double knots.
“Just my feet.” She pulled off a sock and dipped her toe and then her foot in the clear water, while Ben watched. A bird-call in the distance got his attention and he peered into the thick jungle beyond the shimmering pool.
“Hey, while you soak your toes, I’m gonna take a look down there.” He gestured beyond the water’s far edge, where a stream trickled in and the moss was greenest. The barest hint of a path suggested something beyond.
“Oh, darling. Don’t.” She lowered her head and looked up again, pleading. “Really. You can come back out here another time without me. You’re tired. We’re both tired. Let’s just rest for a moment and go back.”
Ben listened, thinking. He heard the bird call again.
“Nah, it’ll be quick, I promise. I’ll be back in a flash, you won’t even notice I’m gone.” His face was filled with light, his eyes bright with the unknown. As he dug through his stuffed pack, Severine tried a different tack.
“You’re going to leave me alone, in this wild place, while you go traipsing through the jungle?”
Ben looked back at her. “You know you’re perfectly safe. You’ve got protection.” He pulled a pistol from his pack, checked it was loaded, and placed it on the flat rock by the water. “And you know how to use it. I’ll be ten minutes, out and back.” He winked at her, then bent down to chuck her under her chin and give her a quick kiss on the lips.
“That’s what you always say.” She grinned at him, hiding her concern behind a brave smile. She didn’t want to be a nagging wife. She consoled herself, this is what it’s like to be married to an adventurer.
Ben leaned over and kissed her again. This time he lingered, looking her in the eyes, tracing a finger from her temple to her chin. Then he stood and stepped away. He picked up his metal detector and walked around the pool onto the slight path, leading each step with a sweep from the detector, the machete slicing at the disgruntled underbrush.
“Call out if you need me.” He yelled back over his shoulder.
“OK.” Severine dipped her feet into the pool. She sat there for a few minutes, listening as the sound of Ben’s steps grew distant, wiping sweat from her temple with the palm of her hand. A small round stone sat by the water, its surface smooth and gray. She picked it up, tossing it into the middle of the pond, where it landed with a plunking sound, breaking the water’s surface. Ripples in the blue water distorted the reflected sunlight.
“Mosquitoes be damned,” she muttered, as she pulled off her sweaty long-sleeve shirt, revealing a black jog bra underneath. The cool air felt good on her bare arms. She stood and stripped down to reveal black boy shorts and a bright green tattoo of a small frog on her right hip. Tossing her clothes onto the rock by the gun and smacking at a hungry mosquito that had landed on her thigh, she waded into the pool, with an eye out for snakes.
The pool was ten feet across and four feet deep in the center, the bottom covered with smooth round stones, which felt good on Severine’s tired feet. She hunched down in the deepest part, so that only her neck and head were showing. She looked up at the patch of blue sky above her, framed by the tall fronds of swaying trees.
She felt a rush of cold air on her neck and turned in the water to face the direction it came from. It was just a slight breeze picking up.
Impulsively, she called out, “Ben!!”
She waited. No reply. She called out again, louder this time.
The explosion followed. She ran toward the flames, though she could see the devastation ahead was complete. In the light of the flames, she saw something glint on the ground and crawled ahead toward it in the scorching heat. There on the ground was the gnarled handle of a metal detector, bent from the blast.
Andrew listened, taking notes. Severine ended her story, her eyes shining.
“How’d you get home?” Andrew thought it best to keep moving forward.
“A biker picked me up on the road. An old guy, American, gave me a ride to Sen Monorom on his Harley. Bikers like the back roads after the rains, they tear it up, for fun. I got the next helicopter back here.”
“You get this biker’s name?”
“No, I was…pretty incoherent. He’s just one of those guys you see around town, in the POW-MIA shirts.” Andrew had seen them, western men, remnants from another time, grizzled and gray.
“Did you often go with Ben on his trips?”
“No. Just this once. He insisted I come, said with everything going on, it wouldn’t last.”
“What’s ‘going on’?”
“Development. New buildings, factories, businesses. Ben said it was going to change everything. We were planning to leave next year, to go to Laos.”
She turned to the window, remembering. The moon was high in the sky, shining its light on the broken golden Buddha at Severine’s feet.
“We were planning to leave,” she repeated.
The normally shallow river, turgid from rain, had breached its banks and water flowed with greedy abandon over the flat ground, flooding the grassland and underbrush that lined the riverbank. It flowed underneath a sturdy thatched hut that stood on wooden stilts near the river’s edge, on a slight rise where the ground swelled up to meet the forest.
This river had shifted course this way and that over the years, but its waters always found the way to the South China Sea. The hut had seen many rainy seasons by this river, its thick stilts withstanding the wilt and way of the rains. It would weather many more.
Inside the hut’s thatched walls, a thin Cambodian man sat alone, on a solid bamboo chair, his large hands flat on the wood desk at the center of the room. A straw mat was rolled up in the corner. The hut was dim with dusk.
The man stared straight ahead, unblinking, waiting. His name was Mey Hakk. At this moment, he was plagued by an excruciating migraine. He sat, unmoving.
The torment had fallen on Hakk quickly today. He could always sense its onset, like a coming storm. His sight grew pixelated, a shimmering in the corner of his eye, until his entire field of vision undulated, colors and images mixing together in a miasmatic mess. And then the agony would begin, shooting in sharp arcs across his brain like a vengeful fever. If he tried to fight it, it would only last longer. All he could do was wait.
This pain infuriated him. When it passed, he would lash out at whoever was unlucky enough to be in his reach: Sometimes it was a guard; more often a woman. More than once his guards had disposed of a young woman’s body after one of Hakk’s migraines.
A letter sat on the desk in front of him. It was a few short paragraphs addressed to him and signed with a flourish.
Hakk had read the letter several times since he had received it a week ago by courier. Through the hazy pain, Hakk stared at it, the words jumping off the page at him, the brazen seal mocking him.
It didn’t matter anymore. Everything was in place.
It was time. Time to begin.
Hakk had been nine years old when the Khmer Rouge soldier had handed him a machine gun and told him to guard the rice fields. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge, in full control of Cambodia, implemented its vision for independence from the outside world, to abolish all aspects of government and commerce and to force the Cambodian people onto collective farms, establishing a single peasant class to work the land.
Hakk’s family, peasants from the coast, had joined the forced migration. Hakk, with his mother, father, and two older sisters, made the journey to a camp in the south with nothing but the ragged clothes on their backs. There, they had lived in a basic camp and worked the rice fields.
One day, an older Khmer Rouge guard took notice of Hakk, who was tall for his age, and strong. They needed young guards, children, not yet tainted in thought, who could be trusted. The adults needed to work the fields, to be reformed.
Hakk found himself at age nine, his hands heavy with the heft of the weapon, guarding dozens of adults. His instructions were to shoot the runners.
For five unremarkable days, he had stood guard over the rice harvest. With numb eyes, he’d watched the workers in the golden fields, as they bent low, cutting small bunches of the tall grass near the base of the stalks, tying these together carefully not to loosen the rice, and stacking these for threshing.
On the morning of the sixth day, Hakk saw a worker, a man, maybe thirty years old, hunch low among the gold stalks swaying in the breeze, watched him slither along the edge of the field, the reeds moving in his wake. The worker headed toward the forest’s edge, on the far side of the field, where he hoped, if he could run fast enough, he could escape into the wilderness, to hide and rest and find his way to freedom.
Hakk had watched with great interest as the man slid among the stalks.
As the man had stepped up from the rice paddy to the road, glancing backwards, always a mistake, Hakk had pulled the trigger, blasting a hole in the man’s right shoulder.
Despite his wound, with the forest so close, the man, a former schoolteacher, had continued running, his thin arms flailing, his breath ragged with fear and determination.
Surprised at the runner’s persistence and thrilled by the gun’s jolting action against his narrow bony shoulder, Hakk had shot the gun again and again, until the man ran no farther. Hakk walked forward and stared, entranced by the corpse on the soft brown dirt.
That had been the most exciting day of Hakk’s nine years.
For three more years he had guarded prisoners.
When they tried to escape, he shot them.
It was simple work and he was good at it.
One hot March day in 1978, Hakk was called away from his post by the fields. It was late afternoon and temperatures had reached over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Several workers had collapsed from heat exhaustion and Hakk had admonished them.
As Hakk followed the older guard, a boy of sixteen, he fretted that perhaps he had failed in some way. Hakk considered his actions, how he held his weapon, how he disciplined his prisoners, how he ignored their pleas for water, food, mercy.
As they walked the road toward the forest’s edge, the two boys, dressed in black, passed the workers bent low in the rice paddies, their straw hats hiding stony faces. They dared not look up at the men with guns walking by. They shuffled through the mud with their baskets of seed.
Past the rice fields, the boys moved into the woods. There, in the dense jungle, a wide clearing had been cut near a fast-running brook.
Hakk saw a large wooden platform hut and behind it, some ways off, two smaller huts, with thatched roofs and walls. Several guards stood around the perimeter of the largest hut, massive dour men dressed in simple uniforms, their faces mostly covered with the red-checked Krama to ward off the flies. Each man held a gun, much bigger than Hakk’s own. One played a wooden pipe that yielded a high thin wail, sounding, Hakk thought, like the dying cry of an animal.
The guards watched the two boys approach, their black eyes following each step. Hakk’s heart started to pound.
To Hakk’s relief, the guards let the boys pass, but only after they had relieved each of his respective weapon.
The older boy opened the tent flap for him and Hakk entered.
In the hut, it was dark. A thin candle burned on a bamboo desk. The air was sweet with honeysuckle.
Hakk knew that he was in the presence of greatness. Quiet power flowed from a figure seated in the darkest corner.
Hakk bowed down deeply from the waist, toward the shadows, not knowing what else to do. He stayed bowed, his hands pressed together as if in prayer, held close to his young heart. He waited.
The man in the shadows spoke, his Khmer that of an educated, well traveled man.
“I hear reports of those soldiers who embrace the cause, who demonstrate fierce loyalty to our Organization, who will be my leaders of tomorrow. I hear that you have great promise, that you do good work guarding our fields. Your workers fear you, they respect you. This is excellent and I commend you. One day, when you are older, I will make you a General. You will be a great leader.”
Hakk could barely speak, he was so honored, to be in the presence of and to be spoken to by the Khmer Rouge mastermind, Pol Pot himself.
But Hakk did not want to wait until he was older. He was ready for bigger things.
“I am ready. I am ready now…”
Pol Pot cut him off. “All in good time. For now, I need you to stay here, to guard the fields. I will send for you when it is time. Now, approach me.”
Hakk walked toward the darkness. There, he could see his leader seated on a deep pile of saffron-colored pillows.
Pol Pot held out a red-checked scarf, a krama like the guards outside wore.
“Here is a reminder of our talk. I do not forget those who have served me. Promise me you will always continue our work.”
Hakk reached out and took the rough scarf. He could barely speak, he was so proud.
Hakk tied the krama around his neck. He would wear it and all would know that he had met with Pol Pot.
“Go now. You are needed back on the fields.”
“Ah kuhn, ah kuhn.” Thank you, thank you. Hakk bowed low again as he backed away, exiting the tent. He ran all the way back to the field, his weapon, retrieved from the guards, jangling at his side.
When, many months later, word arrived that the Vietnamese had come to release the workers from the fields, and that Pol Pot had fled in disgrace to the distant jungle, Hakk had dropped his gun in a muddy rice paddy, stuffed the krama in his pocket, and blended in with the masses of survivors, who left the rice fields in a daze, unbelieving that the nightmare had ended. Hakk had convincingly played the role of a boy who’d lost his family to starvation, disease and brutality. This was a true for so many, why not him.
He had only a krama scarf to remind him of his promise. Hakk vowed to see the promise through. No matter when. No matter how.
Over the decades, the promise to Pol Pot had wormed its way into every cell of Hakk’s body until he became the promise itself. Until it was his only truth.
Each day when he woke he told himself, he would save his countrymen from the depravity he saw all around him. Each night, he whispered that he would cleanse their hearts.
Most importantly, he promised himself, he would expel the foreigners, who corrupted his country with their wicked, greedy ways, their social-climbing, do-gooding, snake-eyed deception, smiling while they built their fortunes on Cambodia’s birthright. The land.
He had watched his country lose its way. He had endured the shame of its profligate and promiscuous ways, wooing outsiders to come, to see, to taste.
He had endured this. But soon it would end. While it had taken years to lay the groundwork of the coming purge and destruction, now, he had set things in motion. Fulfilling his promise at last.
He had many followers, like-minded men, who also wished to return to the simpler time, to the time of Pol Pot’s Angkar, the Organization, when all men were one, all the same. Freed from the self, freed from want and desire. Cleansed of thought by work.
And the Ch’kai. The vermin. The foreigners. They would be expelled or destroyed, fear a dagger in their hearts.
Hakk’s own heart seized, as the pain faded and his mind cleared.
By the light of a single flame, he set to work. It was time.
Andrew stretched back in his chair, reaching his long arms high toward the unfinished ceiling. He glanced at his watch. It was 1:00 AM. Sheesh, he thought. He’d been hunched over the computer for three hours. For someone who disliked office work, he was getting good at it. He’d come back to the Embassy after settling Severine in for the night. They’d swept up the mess in the hall, locked all the windows and doors. He had promised to call in the morning.
Since then, he’d read everything Flint had sent on Ben Goodnight. But he still had too little to go on. He needed to see that Ministry report.
Andrew stood, stretched left and right, and peered out the high small window into the night. Streetlights shone on the manicured embassy lawn. It was time to call it a night.
He headed out the maze of the basement hallways, his shoes squeaking on the scuffed floor. Up the stairs and out into the main hallway. This late, the lights had been dimmed. His footsteps echoed in the lobby.
Outside, freed from the sterile embassy air conditioning, Andrew breathed in the night air, filled with the scent of incense and fresh coconut.
At the exit, Andrew signed out with the security guard and walked through the heavy metal gates, peering out into the night, looking left and right down the quiet street.
In front of him, Andrew saw the leafy trees of Wat Phnom. He walked that way. He wanted to see the Wat itself on the hilltop.
As he walked along the sidewalk, taking in the fresh night air, a stray dog trotted by, its scruffy ears perked up, looking for scraps or romance, whichever it encountered first. It glanced at Andrew and sniffed the air, but found nothing of interest there. He trotted down a side alley that held great promise.
Andrew crossed the street and entered the tree-filled park of Wat Phnom. There were a handful of people out this late, gossiping and drinking beers under a streetlight, enjoying the dry weather.
With the end of the rains, autumn had arrived. The temperature, though still warm, would, over the next couple weeks, drop several degrees. Under the constant shade of the trees, the park was a cool place to escape in any season.
Andrew slowed his pace, taking deep breaths of the fresh air and getting a feel for the park, its light and shadows. He heard the leaves above him rustle in the breeze. He looked up, on alert. There was nothing but wind.
At a tap-tap tapping sound behind him, he whirled around. A wizened Cambodian grandma wearing loose yellow flowery pajamas shuffled by him, poking a long stick at the piles of dry leaves on the sidewalk as she moved along. She glanced at him as she walked past. He watched her disappear into the deepening night. He moved further toward the center of the park.
As he walked, Andrew thought about what Flint had told him. There were thousands of unexploded landmines in Cambodia, left over from the Khmer Rouge regime forty years before. People were maimed or killed everyday, all over the country, though the civil war had been over for decades.
So a landmine casualty was not unusual.
Except. With the email Janey had shown him, Andrew wasn’t convinced it was simply Ben’s bad luck in the jungle. Something felt off. Orchestrated. Intended.
Andrew walked up the long flight of steps to Wat Phnom. Wat Phnom was a sacred place for Buddhists, one of several Wats in town, but by far the most visited, with its unique location on a leafy hilltop. It was open to all.
At the top of the hill, in the dark, Andrew made his way inside the quiet temple.
The main room in the Wat was rectangular with high ceilings, lit by candlelight. Colorful murals on the walls and ceiling depicted stories of ancient times, of the reincarnations that preceded Buddha’s enlightenment. Rows of red and green columns in the room’s center marked the most sacred space. On the altar, a large golden Buddha stared at the offerings on the floor below. These offerings would multiply a thousand fold in a few days’ time, on Pchum Ben Day, when people visited the Pagodas to revere their dead.
Andrew stepped forward to study the Buddha. Someone had placed a flower bouquet in his cross-legged lap. Smaller statues of lesser deities and monks stood at his feet. Flowers lined the altar yet the room smelled of stale incense.
Andrew glanced around the room once more. He didn’t belong here. He trotted back outside, then down the long set of stone steps, to the concrete sidewalk. Walking halfway around the circular park, he settled against a tall wide tree, his arms crossed, leaning his shoulder against the rough bark.
Hearing someone behind him, Andrew whirled around, expecting to see the little Cambodian grandma, though his hand reached instinctively for his gun.
In front of him stood a tall stunning Cambodian woman with waist-length hair, wearing a short green dress.
Staring at Andrew, the woman said, “You need to find your own tree in this park.” Her voice was light and warm, her nearly perfect English laced with a mild Cambodian accent.
“Excuse me?” Andrew didn’t sense any immediate danger. But something was off.
“This section of the park belongs to me,” the woman said. There was no malice in her voice but she did not smile.
Andrew looked around him then back at the gorgeous woman wearing heavy makeup, a too-tight dress and five-inch heels. He realized what she meant.
“Sorry, I hadn’t realized. I’m not working. I’m just a little knocked out from the heat. I’ll move on, if you can give me a second.”
At this, she smiled and giggled. “Oh, you’re a funny man. I’m teasing you. You looked so serious. You stay right there. I saw you here all alone. Thought you might want company. You know?” She raised her eyebrows and tilted back her head. “I’m Socheat, by the way.”
Andrew studied the woman, her jaw line a little too sharp, her shoulders a little too broad. While her face was stunning, her laugh, deep and throaty, gave her away.
The ‘she’ was a he, a katoey or ladyboy, a young man dressed, very convincingly, as a woman. The katoey was part of the culture in Southeast Asia, in some countries even a third gender. Andrew had read about the local ladyboys. In Cambodia they were part of the scenery, working as hairdressers, shop owners and sometimes in the sex trade.
“Ahh, well, thank you. But, no offense, you’re not really my type,” Andrew said, slightly embarrassed.
“No fun for me,” the ladyboy said, disappointed. “You figured it out so quick. Not everyone as smart as you Americans.” His face lit up. “How do they say in your country? ‘Don’t knock it ‘til you try it.’”
Andrew nodded and chuckled. “They do say that.” He’d noticed there was a love of American idioms in this country. Then he realized something with a start.
“How did you know I was American?”
The ladyboy was leaning his back against the tree, perky chest out, with one long bare leg bent at the knee, his high-heeled foot resting on the trunk. He lit a cigarette, blew the smoke in Andrew’s direction.
“I watched you. You walked out of the American Embassy and over here. I made a guess. And look, I was right! I’m smart too.”
Andrew took a step toward him, trying to get a sense of danger. He was good at reading people. Socheat gave no signs of ill intent.
“Do you often watch the people who come and go from the Embassy?” Andrew asked.
Socheat batted his wide eyelashes at him, flirting.
“Hmmm. Who wants to know? Are you a cop?” Socheat asked, a glimmer in his eye. He winked. He loved a man in uniform.
Andrew hid his surprise. “No. But I find it interesting that you noticed me.”
“Oh, I notice many things.”
A tuk-tuk full of drunken tourists drove by, Western ladies on a bender, yelling out at anybody they saw. One of them lifted her top at Socheat and Andrew. The tuk-tuk kept on around the curve of the circular drive, heading toward another night club and another round of shooters.
Andrew watched the tuk-tuk disappear. It was quiet again. Socheat watched him.
“What do you notice?” Andrew asked.
Socheat smiled at him, pushed away from the tree and started to walk along the sidewalk. He turned and waited for Andrew to follow him out of the jarring streetlamp light.
“There’s a lot to notice in this small town. You hear things.”
“What have you heard?”
Socheat ignored the question. “Such a small town, you learn to tell the good people from the bad people.”
“Do you know some bad people?”
Socheat stopped and looked directly at Andrew. “We all know some bad people,” he said then continued walking, smoking his cigarette down the end.
Andrew watched him walk for half a minute. Then he jogged over to catch up.
“Look, I’m trying to find out what happened to a friend of mine.” Andrew pulled out the picture of Ben. “Maybe you can help me? Do you know him? His name is Ben Goodnight.”
Socheat stopped to study the image. Andrew did not see any flicker of recognition on Socheat’s face.
“No. Do not know him. He’s handsome. But, no, I have not seen him. I would have remembered.” Socheat took out another cigarette and held it in his delicate hand. “What happened to him?”
Andrew rummaged in his pocket. He always carried a few things: A knife, a pen and a lighter. He’d gotten more information simply from lighting cigarettes than from taps and hacks combined.
“He was in the jungle and he stepped on a landmine.”
Socheat inhaled with a hiss. “Ahhh. That’s bad luck. Many people every year are maimed by the landmines leftover.” Socheat leaned toward Andrew. “Where was he?”
“In Mondulkiri, near the eastern border, toward the mountains.”
Socheat breathed out, “Ahhh.”
“Is there something about that location?”
“It’s risky, the jungle. Dangerous.”
“Sometimes you’ve got to take risks to make a living.”
Socheat nodded. “Yes, I know that.”
Socheat walked toward Andrew, his legs moving in a slow runway strut.
“There is a legend about the forests of Mondulkiri. The land there refuses to be tamed. That is why the rain falls heaviest there, the jungle is thickest, the animals the most ferocious. It is ungovernable. Many men have died trying to tame it.”
Andrew wasn’t one for myths and legends, but he always listened. Sometimes amidst the mumbo jumbo, there was a nugget worth hearing.
Socheat crossed his arms, watching him, one leg perched out, knee slightly bent.
“Yes, well the landmine that blew up my friend certainly didn’t want to be tamed,” Andrew said.
Overhead there was a screeching commotion in the trees.
Socheat nodded up at the trees. “It’s the park monkeys. They are naughty. They steal food, flowers, even laundry. Anything they can find. They destroy things for fun and scare the tourists. Very naughty.”
Andrew stared up into the trees. He didn’t see anything, but he did hear large shapes overhead in the leaves, bickering in the night.
Andrew wrote down his local cell phone number and handed it to Socheat. “If you hear anything about my friend, please, give me a call.”
“Will do, handsome. And you know where to find me. If you get lonely.” Socheat winked at him, flipped his hair and kept walking, his heels clicking on the sidewalk.
Andrew waved his hand in a small goodbye and muttered “Not likely,” under his breath. He moved away from the Wat toward the main road of Sisowath Quay and the river. He needed to walk off the day.
Heading toward the Japanese Bridge, Andrew saw the bridge was crowded with late night traffic. The clubs must have all closed.
The bridge, its full name the Cambodian-Japanese Friendship Bridge, was a gift from the Japanese government some fifty years ago. It linked the east and west banks of the river. Next to it stood the town’s latest project, the Cambodian-Chinese Friendship Bridge, only recently opened to traffic.
Andrew walked across the street, traffic flowing by and around him, parting like a sea. The air was thick with exhaust fumes.
On the bridge, traffic had jammed. Andrew walked past idling cars and tuk-tuks. At the high point of the bridge, he stopped and looked over the edge at the slow-moving Mekong. A couple junk boats floated downriver, trailed by a late-night tourist booze cruise, lit up with colorful lights.
From where Andrew stood, looking out at the lights of Sisowath Quay on his right and the dark east bank on his left, Andrew thought he could easily be looking upriver from the Memorial Bridge over the Potomac River in DC, gazing at the lights of Georgetown and the darkness of Roosevelt Island. For a moment, he felt a queasy combination of homesickness, déjà-vu and the rapid passage of time, rolled into one. It wasn’t pleasant.
Andrew was knocked from his reverie by three laughing Cambodian girls, out riding bicycles well after their curfew. They pedaled by him, bare arms thin as matchsticks, their long black hair streaming behind them in the wind. One bike’s wheel rolled over Andrew’s foot, so he stepped closer to the wall. A noisy truck stinking of diesel chugged by, puffing black exhaust into the night air. Andrew turned toward the water.
He heard the shot before he felt it whiz by his hand on the bridge wall. It blasted a chunk of the concrete. Andrew spun around. Drivers continued on, the jam clearing up. No one else had noticed the shot. Andrew looked up, back toward Wat Phnom. From this angle, it had to have come from the hill.
Andrew ducked low by the wall; there was nowhere to take cover. In the bright bridge lights, the shooter had a clear shot. Even if the shooter was a bad shot, he might get lucky the second time around. Or was the first shot a warning? Andrew hesitated a moment then grabbed the lip of the bridge, pulling himself over the edge and launching toward the watery darkness below.
The second shot hit the bridge squarely where Andrew had been crouching, blasting white chips in every direction.
Andrew swam toward the quiet east bank of the Mekong, swift frog-like breaststrokes propelling him away from the Friendship Bridge. The water was colder than he expected and smelled of fuel.
Behind him, the lights of Sisowath Quay silhouetted late night revelers walking along the river’s edge, oblivious to his watery plight.
As he swam, Andrew stayed mostly under the water’s surface, popping up every twenty feet to inhale and check his sight line, to avoid any errant Mekong party boats whose massive propellers would chop him into fish bait.
The slow-moving brown water carried him downriver. Ahead to his left, Andrew could see a few yellow lights from the clusters of simple riverside shacks. He swam toward the wooden huts, where many Cambodian families made their homes.
Reaching the bank, his feet touching ground, Andrew stayed submerged and tread in the muck. The pier loomed ahead. He grabbed a thick wooden pole and settled in behind its bulk, in the small eddy. In its shadow, Andrew caught his breath and removed his sopping wet shirt. His chest heaved with exertion and adrenaline.
Several thin junk boats were tied to the far side of the pier, knocking together in the light current. Staying low, Andrew crawled into the closest one, slipping over its low side and settling on its floor, covered in fishy netting. He breathed through his mouth to avoid the salty stench.
From here, he could see the bridge upriver in the distance. He looked beyond the bridge, to the high green hill of Wat Phnom. He glanced downriver and saw a bright white neon sign that read ‘Snowy’s’. He clambered onto the shore and followed the neon, his waterlogged shoes squishing with each step.
At the bar, several hardy patrons drank late in the night. Three grizzled Western men sat on the wobbly wooden stools, hold-overs from another era. One of them wore a jean jacket with a large POW-MIA patch on the back. They watched Andrew walk in, one nudging his drinking buddies to take a look at what the cat dragged in.
The bartender, a tall cheerful Brit with rosy cheeks he inherited from his Scottish mum, lit up when Andrew walked in. He loved a good story and one had just walked into his bar.
The bartender asked, “Did you have trouble finding the place, mate? Looks like you maybe took a wrong turn there, ended up in the drink.” He sniffed the air. “Kinda ripe too, the river, this time of year. Everything’s all churned up.” He wiped the bar with a damp Stella beer towel, glancing up at Andrew in between swipes.
“Yeah, I got a little turned around,” Andrew said.
“Well, you’re welcome to stay, but shirts are required inside, I’m afraid, unless you’re on the balcony. Where pretty much anything goes.” He winked.
“That’ll work, thanks.” Andrew started to walk out to the balcony, when the jean jacket guy grabbed his arm, yelling out to the bartender.
“Get this man a beer, Simon. Looks like he’s had a rough night.”
Andrew nodded his thanks, took his beer and stepped out into the night.
While he drank his cold beer, standing in a dismal pool of river water, staring at the lights of Sisowath Quay on the opposite shore, Andrew thought about how much he disliked being target practice.
He’d been shot at before, but only when he’d expected it. Maybe even deserved it. But this investigation was supposed to be a mere formality. Apparently, though, somewhere, he’d struck a nerve. Unfortunately, he didn’t know whose. Which might make it hard to avoid future bullets bearing his name.
The next morning at 8:45, Andrew’s tuk-tuk pulled up to the Ministry of Mines and Energy, a drab, three-story concrete building that looked like it could serve as an adequate wartime bunker. The Ministry did not open until 9:00 AM, so Andrew sat in the back seat and watched as employees scurried into the front door.
At nine sharp, Andrew hopped out and tossed several dollars bills in the tuk-tuk driver’s basket, nodding to the driver, who revved his engine in thanks.
Andrew walked through the metal gate by the large guard, who eyed him but let him pass. The Ministry was open to the public. On the Ministry steps, a yellow cat mewled loudly. The guard, catching sight of the stray, ran to kick it outside the gates.
Andrew pushed open a glass door, receiving a blast of cold air from the portable AC unit chugging away in the lobby window. At the front desk a middle-aged woman with long black hair piled high on her head in an elaborate braided bun glanced at Andrew as he approached her gray metal desk. Her thick glasses reflected the computer screen, which she stared at while listening to someone yell at her on the other end of the phone. Andrew could hear the caller from five feet away.
The receptionist spoke into the phone and punched the hold button on the phone, shaking her head in annoyance. The red light blinked on and off. The woman whose nameplate read ‘Devi Yann’ stood and gave a small bow to Andrew, her folded hands in front of her breastbone. As the woman bowed her head toward him, Andrew saw her blue butterfly hairclip in her tight black bun. She said “Jo’om reap suoh” – Hello – and Andrew replied with a brief nod.
“Please to welcome you to the Ministry. How can I be to help you?” She smiled at Andrew.
“My name is Andrew Shaw. I’d like to see…” Andrew glanced at his notes. “Mr. Phirun Cheng.”
Devi blinked several times, then smiled at Andrew, her eyes darting left and right around the room. Devi picked up her phone, punching one button and spoke Khmer into the mouthpiece, her words short and sharp. She listened to the rapid reply. The earlier caller was still on hold, the red light blinking.
“Ahh. So sorry but Mr. Cheng…” She swallowed. “Mr. Cheng is not in today. So very sorry.” She smiled apologetically.
Andrew stared hard at her for a minute, and then turned to go. “OK, thank you.” He pushed part way through the door then turned back toward her and approached her desk. Her face showed her surprise.
“Is Mr. Cheng’s Supervisor in today? It is quite important. I’m here from the US Embassy.” Andrew flashed the temporary plastic badge Janey had given him.
The receptionist’s eyes widened and she glanced back at the blinking red light on her phone. Andrew stood in front of her desk, his arms by his side. Waiting. He nodded toward the phone.
She picked up the phone again and dialed an extension. She spoke rapidly into the phone and hung up.
“Mr. Cheng supervisor is here. He will see you. Please, you take a seat.” She gestured toward the row of white plastic chairs along the side of the wall. Andrew glanced over his shoulder.
“Yes, please, over there,” Devi said, anxious. She did not get many visitors who insisted on seeing supervisors.
“OK.” Andrew took a seat in a small molded plastic chair. On a television mounted on the far wall a zombie movie was playing. Andrew watched as the half dead ravaged a small village, screaming townspeople everywhere. It didn’t seem appropriate television for a government Ministry. But who was he to judge.
A door directly next to his seat opened and a short Cambodian man with a small paunch came out of the back office to stand in front of Andrew, blocking his view of the film. He gave Andrew a curt nod.
“You are here to see Mr. Cheng.”
“We are so very sorry for to tell you, but Mr. Cheng is not here today.”
“Yes, so your receptionist said. Do you know if he’ll be back in tomorrow? I have some questions for him.”
“No. We do not know.” The man smiled and spread his hands open wide, palms up, as if that resolved the issue. “We are so very sorry that Mr. Cheng is not here. Sorry for your trouble. Thank you for coming to visit the Kingdom.”
With that the man bowed, turned quickly and disappeared behind the door, leaving Andrew standing in the lobby watching the door. At her desk, Devi refused to look at Andrew. Andrew walked out the door, with a backward glance, catching Devi peek at him as Andrew walked away.
At four PM, workers streamed out of the Ministry, climbing onto bicycles, motos, tuk-tuks. Stylish boyfriends on shiny red motos picked up their perfectly-coiffed girlfriends.
Devi pulled her bicycle from the dense row of bicycles along the building’s side and wheeled it out the front gate. There, she eased herself into the rush hour traffic.
She followed the road from the right, where the fork offered a choice to go east or north. She chose east, toward the river. Andrew followed her from a distance on his moto, a helmet concealing his face. He followed her onto Sisowath Quay, past the Chinese Art House and over the Japanese Bridge. She drove east, past small shops, weaving in and out of the unpredictable traffic. Andrew, less skilled at navigating, dodged a few oncoming tuk-tuks, the drivers tskking at him.
She pedaled for a mile before turning down a dirt side road. The houses along this road were sheet metal shacks, open to the road and the elements. Dogs nipped at chickens that wandered free in the street. Barefoot children ran up and down the road.
Devi stopped in front of one of the metal houses and hopped off her bike, leaning it against the metal wall. She walked inside and moments later Andrew heard the delighted yelps of happy children. Andrew decided he would wait until she had settled the children down and fed them. Standing outside, he listened to stories told in Khmer of the day’s events, the mother cooking dinner and then scolding the children to bed. At the sounds of cleaning up, plates and bowls being scraped of food, stray cats came running from dusty alleyways, anxious for their share.
When the sounds had died down, Andrew knocked on the metal wall that served as the entrance to the shack. He leaned into the light of the open doorway and saw the woman look up from the back room, where she was setting washed dishes aside. Andrew heard the sharp intake of her breath, the surprise at seeing his unwanted white face again.
“What do you want?” she asked. Andrew could hear the fear in her voice, underneath the bravado. There was no man of this house to protect her or her children. He had been kicked out years before.
“I need to speak with you.”
Devi stared at Andrew, and then out past him, in to the night. She stepped by him in the doorway and looked up and down the street, which was empty save for the strays.
“How did you find me?”
“I followed you home. I’m sorry to bother you. But a friend of mine has been killed. I need to speak with Mr. Cheng. He has information that might help me find out why my friend was killed.”
The moon rose in the east, shining through wispy clouds on the horizon. The woman looked stricken. In the dim light Andrew could see her face had gone ashen.
“Mr. Cheng cannot see you. Mr. Cheng is dead.”
Bright with colored lights and paper lanterns, the embassy lawn was humming with activity. By 9:00 PM, the party was in full swing. Under a large white tent, tipsy revelers swayed to a live band and sipped the generous free champagne. Dignitaries stood apart, trying to look official in their inebriated state. Additional armed guards at the embassy gate checked names and passes against a long guest list. Anyone not on the list was not getting in, they repeatedly told curious passersby and tourists.
Inside the embassy, in the basement, Andrew hunched over his desk, bleary-eyed. He had returned from Devi’s to give Flint an update via Skype. Flint’s face filled the computer screen. Andrew was explaining his day’s activities.
Dance music started up outside on the Embassy lawn, the pounding beat picked up by the computer microphone.
Flint interrupted Andrew. “What is that cacophony? Are you at a club?”
Andrew turned the computer screen left and right, the camera panning across the bare office. “Does it look like a club?”
“No club I’ve been to.” She paused to unwrap a piece of gum and stuff it in her mouth. “Listen. The dad is calling me every hour on the hour. Pain in my ass. You’ve got to give me something, Shaw.”
Flint was a tough New York broad. Four generations of Flints had lived in Manhattan. She’d moved south thirty years before to join the Agency, but was still New York through and through. She was known for neither her patience nor her sensitivity. But her doggedness and loyalty were legendary.
Andrew shrugged and shook his head. “I don’t have any solid answers yet. I need to see that report.”
“This is enough to make a girl start smoking again. What else? Come on, Andrew, you can do better than this.”
Andrew ignored the barb and flipped through his notes.
“Ben was prospecting for metal.”
“Whaddya mean? Like gold-digging? We’ve got a lot of that going on inside the Beltway.”
“Sort of. It’s literally a gold rush out here. But not just for gold. Silver, platinum, even gems apparently. A bunch of mining companies have popped up in the past few years, from all over. China, Australia, South Africa, even the States.”
“Veritable melting pot. ‘There’s gold in them hills’. Sounds good to me. How does it work? I show up one day and start digging in the dirt for gold? Maybe I’ll quit my day job, head out your way.” Andrew could hear her snapping her gum. She knew he hated that.
“Not exactly. It’s not quite that seamless. Companies pay the Cambodian government millions of dollars, first for permission to look for metal and then for permission to mine it. It’s expensive, competitive and apparently quite secretive.”
“Well, sounds like a racket to me. Has anyone found anything of value?”
“Not that I’ve heard. But it’s still early days. However, the rumors run rampant.”
“Alright. Well this at least gives me something to tell the father. ‘Your boy was digging for gold.’ Keep looking, keep me posted. Some fool assistant here gave him my personal cell phone. Anything else I should know?”
“I think someone else is looking into this.” Andrew said.
Flint stopped snapping her gum.
Andrew explained about being shot at the night before.
“AHA! You ARE on to something. You’re holding out on me. Good. It’s a sign that you’re on the right track. You look like you survived. So what’s your next move?”
“I’m going to the province where the kid bought it. Mondulkiri.”
“That’s my boy. Get your hands dirty. Don’t step on anything metal.”
Flint hung up before Andrew could say ‘Thanks for your concern’.
Andrew sat back in his chair. As he flipped through some papers on the desk, he saw the handle on his office door turning.
Someone was outside his door. The handle turned again. Someone was trying to get in. But the door was locked.
Outside the music blared. Andrew stood, pushing his chair back and approached the door from the side. He reached out to the handle and yanked the door opened, his gun drawn.
He surprised Janey standing in the hallway.
She stepped back at the sight of the gun, fear on her face.
Ohhhh!” she exclaimed.
Andrew lowered his weapon and exhaled. He slipped the gun out of sight.
“What the hell are you doing outside my door?”
She was flustered, her left hand over her heart. Andrew had not seen her since the day he’d arrived to Phnom Penh. She was dressed in a pale blue silk dress, her hair done up in curls. She held a fruity looking drink in a tall glass. Andrew could smell the booze. The bartender out there had a heavy hand.
“Oh, I was just checking if you were here! You scared me!”
“I scared you?”
“I’m sorry but Jeremy sent me. He thought you might like to be part of tonight’s celebration. We could see from the lawn that your light was on in this rabbit hole, so we thought you might be here.” She sniffed. “I certainly did not expect to be greeted at gunpoint.”
“Yeah, well, maybe you should have knocked.”
She continued, ignoring his admonition and slurring her words slightly. “I thought, I mean, WE thought, if you weren’t busy, you might enjoy a refreshing adult beverage?” She lifted her fruity cocktail. It had once been a frozen drink but had melted in the heat.
Andrew gestured to the pile of papers on his desk. “I’m reading…”
Janey waved her hands in the air. “Work will wait. Besides, maybe they can help you.”
“The local glitterati. We always invite local bigwigs to our Pchum Ben party. After all, it’s their holiday. So you might talk to a few of them, ask your questions. Never hurts to say hello. Be a little friendly.” She smiled at Andrew and blinked.
Andrew looked at his desk. He flew out to Mondulkiri tomorrow. Janey smiled her most convincing smile. “Come on. One drink.”
Andrew shrugged, giving in. “Free booze is the best booze. Lead the way.”
Outside the music kicked into high gear. Janey and Andrew walked down the empty hallway, Janey pulling Andrew along by his shirtsleeve. Andrew was amused at Janey’s tipsy self.
“Hurry, it’s starting!” Janey said.
They had reached the front embassy door. Janey looked out at her fellow revelers on the lawn. The lawn of the embassy was filled with well-dressed party-goers, American and Cambodian men and women, all happily drinking and eating, watching the colorful fireworks light up the sky over the river.
Standing right behind Janey, who was looking over her shoulder at him, Andrew could smell her light perfume and the edge of gin on her breath. Janey giggled and pushed open the door.
Andrew stood with a beer, watching a dozen dancers in colorful costumes perform a traditional dance for the crowd. They finished to a loud round of applause from the large audience.
Andrew turned to Janey, who had switched to club soda.
“Tell me about this Pchum Ben holiday,” Andrew asked. “Jeremy said it’s something to do with ancestors.”
“Yes, that’s right. It’s a Buddhist holiday, marking the end of rainy season. The story is that during Pchum Ben, all the ghosts – well, all the bad ones – get a two-week pass from hell to visit their families. So they return to their homelands, mostly for food.” Janey sipped her drink and eyed the heavily laden dessert table. “There’s no food in hell, apparently.”
“So the ghosts go trick or treating?” Andrew grinned.
Janey rolled her eyes. “Something like that. Mostly, they just want sweet rice. So their families bring food offerings to the Wats, which the monks eat.”
“The monks eat the ghosts’ food? Doesn’t that piss off the ghosts?”
Janey raised her eyebrows. “No. The ghosts can’t eat, silly. Some of the ghosts, the really bad ones, don’t even have mouths. So the monks eat the food and the ghosts receive succor through the monks.”
“So everyone is happy?”
“Yup. And sated. Good karma all around.”
Andrew watched the Ambassador greet a few well-dressed businessmen standing by the bar with an appropriate deep bow. By Andrew’s side, Janey bent low to fix her strappy heel.
“Who are those gentlemen there?”
Janey looked up. “Local government types. Military too. That old guy there,” she pointed discretely at an elderly gentleman in a dark starched uniform decked with medals, chatting up an attractive American volunteer, “Is a General in the Cambodian Army…his wife is the battle-ax over at the dessert table.”
Andrew glanced at the dessert table, where the battle-ax was loading her dinner plate with chocolate cake.
The newest arrivals to the party caught Andrew’s attention. Five local men dressed identically in plain black cotton garb sidled past the armed embassy guards. One of the men was older than the others by a couple decades. His graying hair was slicked back. He surveyed the party scene as his bodyguards fanned out in to the crowd.
“And who is that, with the entourage?”
Janey turned to him, her voice low.
“That’s Mey Hakk. He’s very successful. He owns a couple factories on the outskirts of town.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “He’s rumored to have ties to local warlords.”
Andrew took a long look at Hakk, who was saying polite hellos to Jeremy. Andrew was distracted by a giggling group of women making a scene, more than fashionably late and tarted up in jewel-colored gowns, heavy make-up and five-inch heels. They made a loud fuss at the gate, as one of the guards had gotten a little frisky as he checked the women on their way in.
“Ahhhhh!” Janey laughed and pointed. “I see the embassy ladies went all out tonight! We don’t get too many chances to dress up, it’s a casual town, t-shirts and flip-flops all the way.”
Andrew glanced around for Hakk, but didn’t see him. He saw Jeremy talking with the General’s battle-ax wife, both of them enjoying chocolate cake. Andrew studied the milling crowd, searching faces. He moved to the left toward the fence for a better view.
There he was. Hakk was talking with the U.S. Ambassador, who Andrew knew by sight. Mey Hakk certainly knew how to work a room, Andrew thought.
Andrew stepped over to Janey, his face close to hers. “Can you introduce me to your friend Hakk?”
Janey smiled. “Certainly. How shall I introduce you? Meet our resident spy, private investigator, secret agent?” She smirked at Andrew, who blinked.
“Just say I’m a friend, here in town to see the sights.”
Janey led Andrew over to the Ambassador and Hakk, sobering up along the way. With the practiced grace of one accustomed to diplomatic circles, she interrupted their conversation and inserted herself into it. In a heartbeat, she had both men chuckling, Hakk glancing with obvious pleasure at her low-cut dress. As if on cue, she pointed to Andrew, who had stood a respectful distance away.
“Oh gentlemen, please, I’d like to introduce you to someone. This is Andrew Shaw. He’s the man investigating Ben Goodnight’s death.” She stepped back to make room for Andrew.
“Subtle,” Andrew whispered to Janey. “Thanks for nothing.”
“At least now they’ll talk to you. They would have just ignored you.”
The Ambassador had extended his hand to Andrew, who took it. Janey melted into the crowd to join her friends doing shooters at the bar.
“Good to meet you sir,” Andrew said.
“Likewise. Sad news about Ben Goodnight. He did great work. Still too common in this country, land mine accidents. Glad you’re able to help.”
“Well, I’m trying anyway. I hope to get out there shortly, see if I can finalize the details.”
“The details?” The ambassador sipped his whiskey, the melting ice cubes clinking against the glass.
“Well, it hasn’t been confirmed that it was a landmine.”
Surprise on his face, the ambassador asked, “Has it not?”
“What else might it be?” Hakk asked, his face a stone. Before Andrew could answer, the ambassador, realizing his gaff, jumped in with his own introductions. “I’m sorry, one drink and I forget my manners. Please allow me to introduce to you to Mr. Mey Hakk.” He leaned in close to Andrew, his breath hot with malt. “Sorry son, senior moment, what was your name again?”
“Shaw. Andrew Shaw.”
Hakk, his spotless black shirt accented only by a red pocket square, bowed slightly to Andrew. Andrew returned the bow, bending farther from the waist and holding the pose longer.
The Ambassador pulled his ringing, vibrating phone from his inside jacket pocket. He glanced at the screen, slid the arrow and said hello. He covered the mouthpiece.
“Excuse me, gentlemen. I’ve got to take this. The airline. My wife and kids are flying out tomorrow and their tickets are all a jumble. Sometimes it pays to be a Platinum member.” He stepped away, leaving Andrew with Hakk. The two men stood in silence for a minute. All around them party-goers swirled, dancing, drinking. Janey waggled her fingers at Andrew from the bar.
Andrew’s senses were on alert. He was aware of Hakk’s posture, the whiteness of his teeth, the gleam of his watch in the overhead lights. Nothing was left to chance.
The two men stood on the edge of the lawn near the tall fence encircling the compound. Andrew looked at Wat Phnom across the street. He thought he saw Socheat in the shadows but when he looked again, he saw only the trees and the night.
“Did you know Ben Goodnight well?”
“No. Not at all in fact.” Andrew swigged his beer but the bottle was empty. “You?”
Hakk nodded, his hands folded together at his waist, right palm over the left, a sad smile on his lined face. “No. I had heard of his humanitarian work. It is unfortunate what happened to him. This country can be a dangerous place. Even now. It is wise to watch one’s footing when in unknown territory.”
Andrew cocked his head, listening. Was that a threat? Or a friendly caution? “Even now. That’s good advice, I’m sure. Especially as I’m heading to Mondulkiri to take a closer look. I hear it is pretty wild out there. Have you been?”
Hakk took a step back, as a white moth dive-bombed him. He now stood in the shadow of the embassy and Andrew could not see his expression. “No. Unfortunately, work allows little time for travel to the provinces. They are quite beautiful, my country’s jungles. But sadly filled with landmines. Let us hope you do not become the next Goodnight.”
Definitely a threat, Andrew thought. He tried a different angle.
“Janey said you’re in manufacturing?” Andrew asked.
Hakk’s blank eyes blinked twice before he answered. “Yes. Among other things.”
“What do you make?”
“Christmas lights. Costume jewelry. Textiles.” Hakk glanced at his watch.
“Please excuse me Mr. Shaw. I had not realized the time and I have another engagement this evening. I do hope you enjoy our country. Please give Mr. Ambassador my regrets.”
As Hakk turned to leave, Andrew grabbed his forearm, his hand gripping the black fabric.
“I’d like to speak some more, if that’s alright? I have a few questions for you about local customs.” Andrew said, peering into Hakk’s eyes. Hakk was still, but his guards were not.
The bodyguards who had accompanied Hakk moved toward the two men, their hands grabbing for weapons. Andrew watched as Hakk gave his men an imperceptible nod to stand down.
“You have caught the attention of my men Rith and Heang. That’s never a good idea.”
Hakk placed his leathery hand on Andrew’s wrist, his fingers encircling the bone, tightened his grip and lifted Andrew’s hand from his arm.
“It was a pleasure to meet you Mr. Shaw. I hope you enjoy yourself during your stay in the Kingdom.” With that, Hakk walked away, the party-goers dancing out of his way in time to the heavy beat blasting from the massive speakers on the lawn.
Andrew watched as Hakk exited the gates and climbed into a waiting limousine. Beyond the gates, Socheat stood, chain-smoking and watching.
An early quarter-moon shone on the sidewalk and scrubby weeds that pushed through the broken concrete.
Andrew hopped off the moto two blocks from the Ministry, walking down the quiet street. At 4:00 AM, this part of town was dead, except for the orange cat, which yowled at Andrew in the still night.
Devi had described the back entrance, which she said would be the easiest way into the building. Andrew slipped around back.
He jimmied the flimsy lock and slipped into the dim stairwell and down the empty hall.
Devi had not known about Ben Goodnight or his death, had only been told by her boss that she was not to speak of Mr. Cheng again. She had not even been told that he was dead but she had overheard her boss talking on the phone with an outside caller that Cheng had been found in the open sewer with stab wounds all over his body. She did not know who the caller was.
Andrew took the steps two at a time. The carpeted stairway dulled the sound of his heavy footsteps, his flashlight spotlighting the steps in front of him.
The office where Cheng had worked was on the third floor. As Andrew emerged from the stairwell, pushing through a heavy metal door, he saw a long open plan office space that stretched all the way to the front of the building, desks stacked with paper, and rows of metal filing cabinets along the wall. The room was dark, with no emergency lighting, only dim moonlight siphoning in through the windows.
Andrew checked the floor plan that he’d drawn from Devi’s description. He looked around the room, counting rows of desks then moving forward down the hall to the second to last row, where he turned. Walking toward the windows, he panned the flashlight over the last desk. No computer, though there was a dust-free area of the desk where a desktop computer had once been. Someone had been here before him.
Andrew glanced around the desk. No name plate either, though the other desks had them. This must be it. He thumbed through loose papers on the desk. Mostly forms, arranged by date. Everything seemed to be very orderly. A metal file cabinet on the side of the desk revealed the same degree of order.
In the file cabinet, Andrew flipped his fingers through the alphabetized files in the top drawer.
There was no file under ‘G’.
Andrew fingered though the files once more. A flash of color caught his eye. There, between H and I, something was crumpled and shoved in between folders.
Andrew pulled it out, and unfolded it on the desktop. It was a square yellow paper napkin, bearing the letters FCC. Andrew knew this, the Foreign Correspondent’s Club, a restaurant in town. On it was a rough map, sketched in ink.
Andrew stepped to the window to get a better look in the light.
Some coordinates were scribbled on the map. Severine had explained she had no sense of the route they had taken into the jungle, had just followed Ben’s lead. Andrew pulled out his secure phone, took a picture of the napkin then put it in his pocket.
Andrew turned when he heard footsteps from the hallway. He crouched by the desk and moved along the side of the wall, in the shadows behind the row of desks and ducked into an open supply closet, pulling the door partially closed.
A black-clad figure moved into the room, shining a flashlight along the walls. The light panned across the room, over Cheng’s desk, along the back wall and into the crack of the doorway where Andrew hid. Andrew closed his eyes, to not reflect the light.
As the figure moved into the room, Andrew could see from the silhouette, it was a woman. She moved to the desk where Andrew had been standing moments before. Andrew did not think she had seen him.
Andrew watched her as she approached Cheng’s desk. She was slender, about 5’6”. She wore a mask, so Andrew could not see her face.
She reached the desk, where she placed her gun, and turned to the file cabinet. Andrew swore under his breath. He had left his phone on the windowsill near the desk. The woman did not notice it, as she rifled through the files, shining a small flashlight on certain pages but finding nothing of interest. She shoved the drawer closed and looked around the room, tilting her head upward. Andrew had the sense that she was smelling the air.
The woman tensed and was still. She moved her flashlight across the room, a slow sweeping arc, the bright light shining from one end of the room to the other and then back. She peered into the far corner of the room, where there was a windowless office in deep shadow. Andrew watched, as she picked up her pistol and moved across the floor.
She stopped halfway down the aisle and glanced back, then moved forward to the back room.
When she was out of sight, Andrew slid out of the closet, crouching low, moving along the wall, to the windowsill near Cheng’s desk. He stuck his phone in his pocket. As he turned, he heard a gun click at the back of his head.
“Hands on your head,” a deep male voice said. Andrew did as he was told. The man frisked him for weapons and found the embassy-issued Glock in the small of Andrew’s back, which he pocketed. He reached high for Andrew’s left wrist. As Andrew felt the man’s stubby fingers clamp around his wrist, he lurched forward, pulling the man off balance. Andrew swung around, twisting the man’s arm, pulling him close and kneeing him in the groin. With a grunt, the man hunched instinctively in pain and Andrew knocked the gun from his hand. Andrew grabbed it as it hit the floor. One more jab to the man’s temple and the man went down. Andrew bolted for the stairwell. Muddy early morning light filtered in through the dingy windows.
Hearing the commotion, the woman ran out of the back office with her gun drawn. Andrew turned the corner as she fired a shot, which ricocheted in the silent building. Andrew could hear a sharp command to “Get up!” from the woman berating her accomplice, then two sets of footsteps running after him.
Andrew raced down the flights of stairs. He was three flights ups, and took full stairwells in a leap. The last stairwell, he pushed out the emergency door, which started an alarm. That would get the neighbors’ attention. He had to get out of there. The morning traffic was just beginning with the earliest light of day.
Andrew ran across the street, behind a row of tuk-tuks. Behind him, the stairwell door opened and the woman peered out, gun in hand. She looked left and right but all she saw was the early traffic. Andrew watched her swear in frustration. She turned around, the door closing, to go find her useless colleague before the police arrived to investigate the alarm.
From behind the tuk-tuks, Andrew checked each one until he found one inhabited by a sleeping driver. The driver woke, reluctantly but obligingly.
Andrew hopped into the back, leaning far into the shadows of the plastic flaps in case there were prying eyes. The tuk-tuk entered the flow of morning traffic.
As Andrew stared at the rough map, he wondered what Ben had found in Mondulkiri that had so many people interested. He would soon find out.
Andrew’s phone rang early. Too early.
“Hello?” Andrew’s voice was rough with lack of sleep. He heard a thick accent on the other end of the line.
“Mate, I think I found something for you.” It was Tom of Kampuchea Mining and Minerals, sounding too awake for Andrew. Tom gave Andrew an address and said to meet him in ten minutes.
The local hostess bar was already bustling at 9:00 AM. When Andrew had balked at the suggested location, Tom claimed he didn’t want anyone to see Andrew coming and going from the KMM office. Andrew figured that was just an excuse to start drinking.
Andrew found the building in a popular part of town and walked up the stairs to the second floor establishment, past a storefront where a row of seated local women gave pedicures to well-dressed Western ladies flipping through worn copies of Hello! Magazine.
On the stairwell, glossy pictures of beautiful young Cambodian women advertised what Andrew would find upstairs.
Andrew had read about these places in the Phnom Penh magazine, bars catering to ex-pat men, filled with beautiful young Cambodian women who would talk to you for a free drink and sleep with you for $5. Cheap and easy wasn’t Andrew’s thing, he focused more on the unattainable.
At this early hour, he saw a handful of gray haired men dressed in tight t-shirts and khaki shorts, lining the bar, looking to get an early start on their day’s activities.
Andrew’s arrival caused a flurry of activity with the two slight women manning the front hostess station. He was a new one, they thought, glancing at each other with excited smiles, and he looked like he had money to spend.
The ladies blinked their brown eyes at him and flipped their long black hair. They asked him if he would like to sit at the bar or a table and would he like company. They smiled, their teeth too white.
Andrew spotted Tom in a back booth, to the right. He waved off the ladies’ attention and walked to the back, sliding into the dingy booth, which was upholstered in cherry red plastic and punctured in a couple places.
“It works for me.”
“So what did you learn?”
“What’s the rush? Have a drink. I’m buying.”
“You drag me out of bed and expect me to join you in a beer and shoot the shit? Come on man. Whaddya got?”
Tom leaned closer to the table, glancing over his right shoulder. Andrew could smell his foul breath from across the table.
“I need you to do something for me, mate.” Andrew sighed. Of course.
“And what would that be?” he asked.
“I need to get back to Oz.”
“So buy a ticket.”
Tom leaned in, his thick stomach pressed hard against the table’s plastic edge.
“Look mate the truth is, I’m broke. The office, the car, it’s all a show, so people don’t talk. I lost everything last year on a platinum mine that never panned out. I’ve been living on borrowed time and borrowed cash. Now I’ve got some local thug after me, wanting his payout. And I don’t got it. I gotta get out of town.”
Andrew paused. He wondered if he was being played, but he had so few sources here, he couldn’t really negotiate.
“That’s a tough situation, Tom. Sorry to hear it. Don’t you have family or friends who could help you out?”
“No, no, NO! None of them can help me. I need to be gone today.”
Andrew tilted his head and squinted at Tom across from him. “You know, the Embassy doesn’t pay much. I don’t have that kind of cash lying around.”
Tom’s eyes narrowed.
“I been in this business a long time, mate. A long time. You’re no embassy desk jockey. No sir. You got connections – you want a name, you make this happen for me.”
Andrew sighed and leaned back in the booth, his palms flat on the slick table.
“So what are we talking here? A couple thousand?”
“Yes.” Tom scrunched his face together, his beady eyes calculating what he could get away with. “Five. Five thousand should do.” He bobbed his head up and down a few times, his eyes bright.
Andrew’s lips pressed together in a thin white line. “I’ll tell you what. You give me the information and I’ll sort you out, one way or another. It’s the best I can offer.”
Andrew had plenty of available cash; he always did. Greasing the wheels of the intelligence turbine was part of his job. But it bothered him that this guy, a hack, had sniffed him out. He needed to button up. Maybe he was losing his edge.
Tom looked at Andrew from the corner of his eye. “Today? I got your word?”
“Alright.” Tom stuck his puffy red hand in Andrew’s face. Andrew shook it, then wiped his hand on his trousers under the table. “Now, your news.”
“Your friend was hired by a mom and pop company. They’re working on the cheap, they hired Ben ‘cause he had all his own gear, didn’t want a contract, was low maintenance, no red tape.”
“The name please?”
“River Metals. I asked – discretely – no one knows too much about them. Guess they keep to themselves. Except I found this.”
He pulled out a printout of a screenshot from the Ministry of Mining website.
“They applied for a massive land concession in Mondulkiri a few months back, tried to get an exploration license, but no luck. That happens sometimes in this business, you can’t count your chickens. I should know.” He sniffed with self-pity.
“Who got the concession?”
“In Mondulkiri, who got the concession to explore that land?”
“Some Chinese joint venture, going gangbusters, gonna try to extract within the year if they get lucky.”
“Is there anyway to find out who else applied for that land concession?” Andrew asked.
As Tom sipped his whiskey, one of the pretty bar hostesses plopped herself onto his ample lap, draping her waifish arm across his substantial shoulder.
“Hi Mr. Tom, who your friend?” She batted her long black eyelashes at Andrew and smiled. “Maybe he want to buy me a drink? And one for Bong Srey?” She nodded behind her, where another hostess, dressed in equally short shorts and a purple halter top, stood off to the side watching her friend’s antics and taking mental notes. She was newer at the business. She gave a small wave and a timid smile.
Tom reddened, and coughed, choking on the whiskey and embarrassed by his sudden seatmate. He cleared his throat. “Hey Honey. I’ll talk to you a little later, alright? We’re busy here. Man talk. You scoot now.”
He lifted her up by her slim hips – she weighed maybe 100 pounds – and plopped her feet on the floor by the table. Giving her flat bottom a little pat, he said, “Run along now.” The girl pouted, flipping her hair at Tom and ignoring Andrew, who had simply watched this exchange. She flitted to the bar to find more agreeable company. Her friend Bong Srey stared for one more moment at Andrew then followed suit.
Tom turned back to Andrew, his face still red. “Sorry about that. They’re playful little things. They know me pretty well here. I probably come by more than I should, but hell, I’m just a man.” Tom eyed the three young women bending over the balcony looking down into the street for their next customers.
Andrew cleared his throat. “Tom. The concession.”
Tom turned back to Andrew. “The Ministry holds those application lists close, since it’s not a straight numbers game, it’s more who you know. But then what isn’t? There’s a limited number of players in town and we all get to know each other pretty good. I found out about River Metals by calling in some favors. Had to knock a few heads together.”
“Do you have an address?”
Tom pulled out a small sheet of paper, held it out to Andrew, who reached for it. Before Andrew could take the paper, Tom pulled it away.
“We’ve got a deal?” Tom asked.
“Like I said. I’ll set you up.”
Tom handed the paper to Andrew and added, “It’s near Wat Steung Meanchey. Strange place for a Barang office. Not real nice out that way, not too welcoming.”
Andrew took the paper. “Far from prying eyes maybe. Thanks for this.”
“Sure.” Tom ordered another whiskey as Andrew stood up and started toward the front.
Tom called out after him. “Hey there buddy, can you take care of this bar tab for me on your way out? And get me sorted on what we discussed.” Tom tossed back the last of his whiskey in anticipation of the second.
Walking toward the stairwell, Andrew lifted his right arm and without looking back, gave a small wave.
“Take it easy, Tom. I’ll be in touch.”
Wat Steung Meanchey was bustling in the afternoon. Saffron-clad monks wandered by, seeking alms, their silver donation buckets tied to their slim waists. Local families crowded the Wat, the fathers wearing their best, the mothers bearing platefuls of rice. Children trailed behind their parents, tugging on their uncomfortable clothes and staring at the bright robes of the bald monks who walked by them, silent as stone.
The motodop dropped Andrew on a side street, past the Wat.
The driver, his voice muffled by his large helmet, said ‘there’ and pointed down an alley. Andrew saw a metal gate, with a faded number painted on the side, matching the number on Tom’s paper. Andrew was not surprised there was no sign advertising ‘River Metals’.
An intercom on the fence suggested that visitors would be welcome but Andrew was certain no one would answer if he rang. Nor did he wish to announce his arrival. He didn’t see a security camera, but that did not mean there wasn’t one tucked up in a tree.
Andrew followed the high wooden fence around to the back of the building. Through the fence slats, warped from the rains, he could see a large courtyard on the side and back of the building. Andrew saw two cars, one a beat-up jalopy with California plates and the other a slick silver SUV with no plates to speak of, and a crotch-rocket motorcycle. He’d found his tail.
Andrew sidled along a hedge adjacent to the fence. Outside the fence, a row of dented gray trash cans overflowed with refuse. A few rats scurried away from the trash when they saw Andrew approaching, leaving behind the food they’d scrounged. They’d return after he was gone; there was plenty for everyone.
Andrew found a metal lid, placed this on the sturdiest bin and hopped up. Now, peering over the fence, he had a full view of the house and the courtyard. He could see a couple lights on in the first floor of the two-story house.
Glancing behind him, seeing no one, he pulled himself up and over, dropping on to the cement and moving behind the larger of the two cars. He hadn’t seen any cameras on the outside of the house and hoped there were none in the courtyard.
Staying close to the house, he edged along the building’s side. Through an open window, he heard a male and female voice, both speaking English. He moved closer to the house, avoiding a large threatening anthill, and onto the grass. He reached the open window.
Sounds of paper rustling, then an electric whirring sound. Andrew leaned forward to the window’s edge and peeked in.
Inside, a heavy middle-aged woman with disheveled red hair crouched on the floor, feeding papers into the shredder. She’d fed too many pages at once and was having to pull out the resulting paper jam. She looked stressed and rushed. Piles of papers surrounded the shredder; the woman had her work cut out for her.
A tall broad-shouldered young man, with closely cropped dark hair and a clean-shaven face, stood in the doorway of the room where the woman was working. His legs were long and he still had the air of a colt about him. He was dressed in sweats and looked like he had just come from the gym. His face was flushed.
“When’s dinner, Mom?”
The mother looked up from her task. “Have you packed yet?”
“Nah, I’ll do it later.”
His mother put the papers down and her hands on her ample hips. Andrew could see she’d been pretty once, but somewhere in the past five years, she had decided it was all too much effort and for what.
“Please do it now. We fly out first thing in the morning. Early. I want you to be ready. Pack first and then I’ll feed you.”
The young man, who Andrew could see now was only sixteen or seventeen, loped out of the room, grumbling.
Andrew tried to get a better glimpse of the files, but it was just words on the page from where he stood.
The woman continued her work, having discovered the perfect number of pages to feed into the machine. She thought that whoever built these shredders surely must know that this task usually had to happen quickly.
Andrew stepped back from the house and looked up. The bedrooms were probably on the second floor and knowing teenage boys, he figured the boy would be in the back of the house, which put him a good distance away from the mother’s office. Far enough away for Andrew and Mom to have a chat.
Andrew walked around and tested the front door, a solid wooden door. Locked. It took a couple tries with Andrew’s pick but a sharp click told Andrew he was in. He opened the door a fraction and looked in. The hallway was empty. He stepped in and shut the door behind him.
The inside of the house confirmed his suspicions. This was indeed a home. Enlarged photographs of family vacations hung on the walls, an arty black and white print of three children staring out to sea, and framed hand-drawn art from children, probably many years old by now, maybe even the grumpy teenage boy. The requisite picture of Angkor Wat sat above the mantle in a living room across from the entrance hall.
Several pairs of shoes were lined up at the front door. Pink running shoes. Men’s sneakers. Flip-flops and sandals.
Andrew walked toward the office, where the woman was still feeding paper in to the machine. Her back was to him. He stepped in and in a moment, he had her in a chokehold, his hand around her mouth. He whispered, “I’m not going to hurt you. But I need to ask you some questions and I need you to cooperate. Do you understand me?” She nodded.
He lifted her up from her kneeling position and placed her in a nearby chair.
“I’m going to take my hand away. I need you to stay quiet. Can you do that?”
The woman nodded again, her eyes wild.
Andrew released her and stepped away, back to the wall. Shredded paper was everywhere, the garbage bags waiting to be filled with the stuff.
“Are you ‘River Metals’?”
“Yes.” The woman’s voice was a whisper.
“Did you hire Ben Goodnight to go to Mondulkiri?”
“Do you know that he got killed by a land mine out there?”
At this, the woman teared up. “Yes.”
Down the hall, the front door had opened and closed without Andrew hearing and a tall swarthy man, with a thick black mustache, crept down the hallway. He stopped to listen to the unknown male voice speaking in stern tones to his wife. This did not please him.
The man sidled up to the open doorway, looking in to see his wife weeping in a wicker chair and a strange man glaring at her. Enraged, he charged into the room, directly at Andrew, tackling him and dragging him to the ground, punching Andrew in the face again and again. Andrew grabbed the man’s shirttails and, knocking his feet out from under him, pushed him face down into the deep pile of shredded paper, holding him down while the man struggled and swore.
Andrew recognized the man. This was indeed the tail he thought he’d picked up on his second day in town. He wondered if this man was also his bridge shooter.
Andrew lifted the man, frisked him, and finding nothing, threw him into the chair by the wife. He trained a gun on the two of them.
“What’d you tell him, Louise?” The man looked sideways at the woman.
“Who are you and what do you want?” the man demanded, nursing a busted lip.
“I’m holding the gun, so I’m asking the questions. Why did you hire Ben Goodnight?”
“What’s it to you?”
“Look, you’ve been following me around for the past day and a half. You’re a lousy tail. And now I find your colleague busy shredding files and packing up. Looks a little suspicious to me. So I’ll ask you again. Why did you hire Ben?”
The man sneered at him. “None of your business.”
Andrew stepped closer and reached into the man’s inside jacket pocket, pulling out a U.S. passport. He opened it up.
“Says here you’re an American citizen. Also seems like you are in hurry to go somewhere. Perhaps I can make it my business to find out what the rush is all about. I’ll get you shipped back to the US, your passport revoked, faster than you can sing ‘America the Beautiful’. I don’t know what your operation is here. But it doesn’t look legal.”
The man looked stricken. He did not want to go back to the States. Andrew’s threat had his full attention. Andrew wondered for an instant what it was – crime, drugs, money – that caused the anxiety evident on this guy’s face. Whatever the reason, the man started to talk.
“Some old guy gave me a pile of cash, told me to hire Ben to go out to Mondulkiri to do some prospecting out there. ‘Tell him to dig around in the dirt’ is what he said. Wanted him to have a look around, file a report on what he saw. He gave me the exact coordinates where Ben should look.”
“When was this?”
“About two months ago.”
That would be sometime in July, Andrew thought.
“Did Ben take the job?”
“Sure. He flew out the next day. When he came back, he was all wound up, thanked me for the work, gave me his report. I paid him, like the old guy said to do, and I hadn’t seen him since. Then I heard he got blown up out there just the other day. So I don’t know what to think.”
“Do you have a copy of his report?”
The man turned to his wife, who still looked terrified. “Louise?”
She jumped up to help. “Yes. Yes. Maybe.” She was breathless. “I think I was about to shred it. I’d done March, April, May. Let’s see.” She thumbed through a pile of paper by the shredder.
“That’s June.” She picked up the next pile, flipped half way through it.
“Here it is!” She pulled a piece of paper from the stack, held it up like a prize.
Andrew took it and skimmed the page, words from the report jumping off the page at him.
Andrew looked up. “It says he strongly recommends that this land not be conceded for mining. That he found artifacts out there. A lot of them.” Andrew shook his head. “But the land was conceded anyway. I read about it on the Ministry website.”
The man shrugged, his wife staring at Andrew.
Andrew talked to himself now. “This was two months ago. Why did he go back out there last week, if the land was conceded?”
The wife spoke up. “Maybe he wanted to check his facts.”
Andrew’s eyes grew wide. Of course. Ben had tried to alert the Ministry about the artifacts in Mondulkiri. But they went ahead and conceded the land anyway. Perhaps they’d investigated themselves and found nothing, Andrew thought.
Severine had said Ben had brought her out there because he wanted her to see something. But not only because he didn’t think it would last.
“That’s exactly it. He went back for proof.”
Andrew folded the report and tucked it in his back pocket.
“Thanks for this. Sorry for the fright. You’ve been very helpful. Good luck with the move. Stay out of trouble.”
Andrew ducked out into the night. The jungle awaited.
Severine picked up the toys that had not made it back into the large plastic storage tubs. There were always a few hiding under the benches and the instigators were always the same. Late afternoon and the children were finishing their lessons after a short but noisy recess.
She jumped when she looked up and saw Andrew watching her from the archway. Her shoulders relaxed and she put a hand to her cheek.
“You scared me.”
Andrew walked into the courtyard. “Vith let me in. I said hello a couple times, but you must not have heard me. Deep in thought?”
“I guess. I’ve got a lot on my mind.” She picked up the last toy and tossed it in the bucket.
“Care to share?”
Severine shook her head.
“Is this an OK time to speak?”
Severing glanced back at the house, where giggles and high-pitched voices twinkled out of the windows.
“My cook called in sick today, third time this month, so I have to get dinner ready for the kids.”
“What are they having?” Andrew shifted from his left foot to his right.
Severine looked at Andrew. “Spaghetti.”
“Don’t they get enough noodles in this town?”
She smirked. “They love it. It helps them learn about other cultures. Every week, we do a ‘Noodles From Around The World’ night.”
“Nice. How about I help you boil the water?”
She smiled. “Are you sure you know how?”
Andrew grinned. “Lead the way and I’ll show you how it’s done.”
In the kitchen, steam rose from roiling water in the industrial-size stainless steel pot. The kitchen windows by the stove were fogged up.
Andrew described the Ministry report while Severine stirred the water.
“Where’d you get a copy?” Severine asked.
Andrew relayed his afternoon’s activities and explained his theory.
“I think somebody buried that report. Someone who didn’t want anyone nosing around out there.”
“Why would someone do that?”
“The report mentions a camp and empty huts. Maybe someone did not want that known.”
Severine looked up at him. She knew how men like Andrew worked. She’d been married to one. “When are you leaving?” she asked.
Hakk stood on the bamboo porch of the primitive hut, staring out at the orange sun setting over the wide sea. A scantily-dressed young Khmer woman sat on a wicker chair nearby, her legs tucked up under her, watching episodes of I Love Lucy on an Ipad, the wires from the earphones trailing down her shoulders. Every few minutes her giggling would ring across the hut, despite her having been told to keep quiet twice already.
Now, she’d worn out her welcome.
“Get out. Leave me be,” he hissed in Khmer. He was annoyed and not only by her laughter. There had been a delay.
As the young woman hurried out, a black-clad young man knocked on the open doorway and cleared his throat.
“What is it?” Hakk asked.
“The American man is asking a lot of questions about the boy. He has talked with the French girl.”
“Yes, I know of him. I met him. It does not matter now. Did you find the reports at her apartment and the Ministry?”
“Yes.” The young man held up several papers in his left hand.
“And Mr. Cheng?”
“Taken care of, as you instructed.”
“Good. Traitors will not be tolerated,” Hakk said, the wooden floor creaking beneath him.
He turned from the sunset and walked to a table piled with large green coconuts, the skin smooth like a melon. A machete sat by the fruit, its blade sharp and ready. Hakk lifted a coconut, balancing it on its end and began to chop away at the outer green rind with practiced slices.
Rather than leaving, the young man walked in to the hut, uninvited, to watch as Hakk whacked away at the fruit. He was thirsty and wanted some coconut. He spoke, his tones unmeasured. “I heard the American tell the French girl that the boy’s father is rich. Maybe we should have held him for ransom instead.”
Hakk dropped the fruit, the knife still in hand. In a heartbeat, the machete’s silvery blade was pressed against the young man’s slim throat. His arms hung by his side, his left hand still clutching the stolen reports.
“Never doubt me,” Hakk hissed. “Never say such things. Do not even think them. Do you understand?”
“Yes. Yes, Father. Sum tho.”
Hakk allowed the blade to slide away from the young man’s neck but not before he’d pressed it hard enough to nick the flesh above the collarbone.
Released, the young man trembled. His right hand went to his neck. He pulled his hand away, his fingers red with blood. He blanched.
Hakk had returned to his work on the coconut, which had been shorn of its green rind and now shone bone white, its flesh fragrant and clean.
“Keep me informed of his movements. Soon, it will not matter.”
Hakk jabbed the knife horizontally across the peaked top of the white mass, catching and lifting with the blade a two-inch piece of the coconut flesh to access the sweet juice within. He looked up at the young soldier. “Burn those reports. And tend to that nasty cut.”
The young man, terrified, backed out of the room.
“Eap!” Hakk shouted. The young man stepped back into the doorway.
“Send in Heang.”
On hearing his name, a large Cambodian man appeared in the doorway. His dirty yellow t-shirt was two sizes too small and his bulk filled the doorframe. He lifted his dark eyebrows at Hakk.
“Where is the truck from Thailand?” Hakk demanded.
Heang leaned on the doorframe. The wood creaked at the weight. He was Hakk’s most trusted guard. He had been a street kid ten years ago when Hakk had recruited him right off a corner, given him work and money. In return, Heang offered Hakk all he had, which was his full unthinking loyalty.
But he did not like to give Hakk unpleasant news. Hakk had rages and Heang had been on the receiving end of a few of them. He was not looking forward to answering Hakk’s question.
“The driver made the pick-up as arranged. He ought to be there by now, but we have not heard from him and his phone only rings. His girlfriend got a text from him while he was driving. She said he’d been drinking.”
Hakk slammed the knife into the wooden table. “Find that truck.”
Heang looked skeptical. A truck lost in the deep Cambodian jungle would not easily reveal itself. This would be a difficult if not impossible task. He said nothing but Hakk sensed the hesitation.
3:00 AM: earlier that day in the Cambodian jungle
The truck barreled down the road at break-neck speed. Music blared from cheap tinny speakers, classic American rock. The driver, a young Cambodian man named Sun, was no more than twenty. A cigarette in one hand, a beer in the other, he steered with his bare knobby knees.
He’d been stopped for too long at the Thai border, even though he had paid the bribes, as he’d been instructed. The Thai guards had been bored, few vehicle crossings that day, and so they’d hassled him for something to do, to relieve the tedium.
He had handed them more money than he wanted to give up, but he had to get through that border at all cost. Now, he was trying to make up for lost time, driving like a maniac over rutted, unforgiving roads. He needed to be in Siem Reap by morning and had several hours to go. It was dark on these back jungle roads. The bright curve of a waxing moon didn’t penetrate the darkness. The headlights gave limited assistance in lighting the way.
At least the music lightened the driver’s mood. He was stressed out and tired, hung over from last night’s partying. He tried to focus on the money he would be paid at the end of this journey. He just wanted to see his girlfriend, smoke pot and have sex. The money would make the hassle and especially the humiliation at the hands of the Thai border guards all worth it. This was better work than the factory job he had before he got fired for sleeping on his shift.
When the man had approached him last week in a Battambang café about doing a job, Sun hoped it would be work that paid well. Sun was behind on his rent and his girlfriend wanted him to buy her a new scooter.
He knew from the way the man had glanced around the café before explaining the job, that this would be illegal. And that meant it would pay. A lot. Sun had done illegal things before. He liked breaking laws. He enjoyed all the forbidden fruits, he thought, visualizing his other girlfriend, who his serious girlfriend did not know about.
The job itself was simple: Deliver a package from the port of Laem Charbang in Thailand to the address in Cambodia the man had written on the paper. It would mean a long and difficult drive. He had told Sun he would be well compensated. He’d explained to Sun that it was important to deliver the goods on time, by the following Wednesday. Since the roads were bad this time of year, the man said, be sure to rent a good truck, something that could handle the mud.
The man had given him the name of the ship, the date of its arrival, and a description of his contact at the port, who would be wearing a red-checked krama. Best of all, the man had given Sun two thousand US dollars to rent a truck and to help grease the wheels, along the way. Whatever was left over was for Sun to keep, plus another two thousand on successful delivery of the cargo, free and clear.
Sun had got a truck, met the ship, and loaded the item. It was larger than he expected, a big blue barrel, and heavy, but not unmanageable. So far, it had been easy money.
But before the ship had arrived, those two thousand dollars had been burning a hole in Sun’s pocket. As he’d sat at a beachside restaurant in Laem Charbang, smoking cigarettes and eating noodles, he’d looked at the map to plan his route. He figured he would only need a couple hundred dollars for bribes, at the dock, then the borders, and then a little in case he met some police along the way. There was no reason why he shouldn’t enjoy himself now, while he waited, he thought.
He looked at the clock on the wall. It was only 10:00 PM. The ship with his cargo was due at 1:00 PM the next day. Plenty of time to party.
He called his buddy Neam, who was sitting home getting high. Sun said he’d had a windfall, to come meet him out. Neam worked the docks but spent most of his spare time smoking.
They went to a hostess bar right on the beach, where it was mostly expats and the ladies were better looking. They were also more expensive and a bit uppity, Sun had thought. But they had started to cooperate when he’d flashed a few fifties. He’d felt like a big man.
And man, had they had a good time. A very good time. He didn’t know how many drinks he’d bought and he’d paid for Neam’s too. And the women, so many women, his dick actually hurt. They’d been up all night, until the cops kicked them off the beach.
Now he was late for the pickup. He’d overslept and arrived forty-five minutes late for the ship, which loomed large and gray along the busy waterfront. Colorful shipping containers were stacked five and six high all throughout the lot, most filled with clothing to be shipped and sold overseas.
In his truck, Sun spotted his contact, wearing a krama that concealed most of his face. The contact stood next to a tall blue plastic barrel by a stack of three orange shipping containers. With the contact’s help, Sun loaded the barrel onto the truck and was on his way.
He still had plenty of time to get to Siem Reap. Easy money.
The song on the radio changed as the truck hit a rut. These muddy roads were shit after the rains. Sun dropped his beer can as the truck jostled through the massive pothole. Angkor Beer spilled on the passenger’s side, staining the well-worn mat.
Sun glanced down at the beer on the floor and back at the road. That was his last beer for the ride. He’d drunk the five others already and there would not be any more stops. He glanced once more at the road and then reached down with his right hand to pick up the can before it all spilled out.
As Sun leaned over to retrieve the beer, the view through the windshield changed. A sharp curve, just outside the reach of the high beams, appeared ahead. Sun, head just below the dashboard, fumbled for his last can, which slipped again out of his wet hands. Sun did not see the fast-approaching sharp curve, though he did manage to get his hands on the half-full beer can. As he sat up, lifting the beer to his lips, Sun felt the truck go airborne.
Sun looked up in time to see the truck heading straight, where the road veered left. In this part of the jungle, the road was built high on a berm, to protect it from flooding in the rainy season. The forest floor was ten feet below the road.
The truck shot right over the edge, flew through the air for what felt like a long time but was in fact only seconds, crashing through small trees and shrubs as it hit the ground hard and tipped halfway over on its side.
Sun hit his head on the front windshield, cracking the glass. As the truck jerked sideways, the left side of his head took a hard hit. While the first hit hadn’t caused much damage, the second one did, knocking Sun out and leaving a nasty gash on Sun’s temple. This began to bleed profusely. He would not wake up again; he would not collect two thousand dollars.
In the back of the truck, the frayed rope, which had spent the better part of its life on a fishing boat and had seen its share of salt water, broke and the cargo it had held in place rolled free, coming to rest heavily against the back door.
As the truck settled into its small crater, with one last shift to the left, the back door flung open and the cargo rolled out. It rolled down the embankment, coming to rest in a sea of green ferns, with a small, almost inaudible clink, against a thin shiny piece of metal connected to a decades-old, but still functional landmine.
Around the truck, the trees and leaves rustled from the disturbance. After a few minutes, stillness returned to the jungle. The dark was lit by the flickering yellow headlights, which would last for the remaining few hours of night, growing dim just in time for the dawn.
Andrew watched the helicopter pilot ready for flight. He was young, 28 or 29, but with enough experience, Andrew hoped, to get them out there in one piece.
The late afternoon sky was clear, good for flying, with wispy cirrus clouds and the occasional jet trail from flights heading west.
The rotor turned, casting slow shadows on the tarmac. The shadows picked up speed with each successive revolution until Andrew could feel the upward motion as the helicopter lifted off the ground. Andrew was himself a skilled pilot and loved the sensation of being airborne, on the move.
As the helicopter lifted off, leaving only flurries of dust behind, the pilot handed Andrew a headset, indicating with his hands that Andrew should put it on. Andrew did as instructed, adjusting the earpieces and putting the mic into position.
The helicopter swept out across town, over landmarks, some of which Andrew recognized. Below was the yellow dome of the Central Market, where the bus had dropped him. It seemed like weeks ago but had only been a few days. He looked to his left. There, below them, refreshing and green, was Wat Phnom.
“It’s man-made you know,” the pilot explained, glancing at Andrew, as they swooped away from the Mekong to points east. “The Hill.”
Andrew shook his head, watching the green hill disappear behind them. He had not known.
Blades whirring overhead and a wind from the west, they quickly left Phnom Penh behind. Out the window, the scenery below turned to peasant farms, rice paddies, and dirt roads. Andrew watched the fields of golden grasses sway below them, heavy with crop, ready for harvest. He saw a farmer and his family at work in a field, grasping at tall stalks and slicing, grasp and slice. At the field’s edge, bunches of cut stalks lay tied and stacked, ready for husking. The family stopped their work, looking up as the helicopter flew overhead. A small boy waved.
The province of Mondulkiri was 120 miles northeast of Phnom Penh. From the coordinates on Ben’s map, the same ones as on the Ministry report, Andrew had picked a drop off point. From there he would trek in to the explosion site. He had borrowed some of Ben’s personal protection equipment; Severine had insisted.
Andrew watched out the window as the green jungle stretched for miles in every direction, interrupted only occasionally by a meandering river. The tall trees stretched skyward, basking in the late-day sun. After a while, the terrain started to roll with hills.
Andrew looked at the map, his destination marked with a red ‘X’.
They’d been flying for 45 minutes. Jungle stretched below them. “We must be getting close.”
“Yup. I’m gonna get you as close as I can to where you want, but it kinda depends on the roads. I have to find somewhere wide and flat, and after these rains, I dunno what it’s like out here. The mud gets churned up. Sometimes the bikers get out there too and really tear things up.”
They descended until they were flying directly over the trees. The skilled pilot lifted and dropped the helicopter with the changing terrain, keeping them always at a safe distance from disaster.
Andrew looked out the window down at the vast green jungle. He could not see into the forest, nothing beyond the wide leaves that hid the forest floor below.
A wide dirt road appeared in front of them, cutting through the jungle. The pilot turned and followed it for a minute, looking for a smooth place to set down.
“This is your road, buddy. We’re about ten miles from the coordinates you gave me. I’m gonna swing in as close as I can to there. But with the road conditions, I’ve gotta take what I can. Have a look.”
Andrew stared down at the muddy road. Huge ruts and minor mudslides made it look impassable in certain places. Trees had fallen where the ground was so water logged it could not hold the tree upright.
“It works, thanks.”
The helicopter swooped low over a smooth patch of road and hovered a few feet above the ground. Andrew pushed open the door and hopped out with his equipment in hand. He looked back in at the pilot.
“No problem. Any idea when you might want to head back?” the pilot asked.
Andrew shook his head.
“You’re on your own then. Logging trucks come through here sometimes, they’ll pick you up, take you into town. Take it easy, man.”
Andrew gave a wave but the pilot, focused skyward, did not reciprocate. The helicopter lifted off and in seconds was gone, leaving only the darkening sky overhead.
Andrew got a location from his sat nav and marked this on the map. With his bearings, he headed south, his pack and gear slung over his shoulder. The sun was setting. He had enough food for three days, should he need it, rope, water purification and a tent. And a gun, if that too might be required.
He’d walked five miles down the road, shining his high-powered flashlight along the forest edge, when he caught the barest outline of a trail, where the dense brush showed evidence of a large blade. Andrew pushed his way through the brush. This was a trail. It must be Ben’s trail in.
Severine had said they’d walked for over an hour from the road before they found the pool. Andrew drank from his water bottle, wiped his brow with a dark kerchief, then pushed ahead.
High in the trees, a bird screeched, unhappy with the intruder in her midst.
The terrain rolled. Among the hills, small streams bubbled by, the rocks slippery with moss. Andrew slipped a few times as he crossed the streams and wondered if he had climbed and descended this same hill already but his satellite reading said he was making forward progress.
Crouching down to retie an errant bootlace, Andrew felt the vibration through his feet. At first, it was barely noticeable. Andrew placed both hands flat on the ground to check. There it was, he was certain – a vibration, distant but stronger than it had been only a moment before. And growing stronger.
He heard them before he saw them: Two young elephants galloping through the forest along the rough-hewn trail and grunting at each other. Andrew scrambled out of the way, swinging himself up into a sturdy tree and climbing several branches to be well above the ground. As he climbed, he plowed through thick spider webs spun among the tree limbs, the silvery fronds clinging to his face and hair, veiling him in whispery threads. He brushed these away and looked down the path.
A mother had to be close behind, since these calves were still too young to be on their own. Sure enough, a mother elephant appeared, lumbering behind her calves, her gray bulk swaying this way and that. Her babies squealed with delight at their mother’s arrival, stomping their feet and tearing at leaves with their trunks.
Andrew watched the mother follow the calves as they continued to wreak havoc on the underbrush. They disappeared and soon all was quiet again.
From his position high in the tree, Andrew had a different view of the jungle than from the forest floor. What he had thought was the valley floor, where he’d been walking, he could now see was not. The trail he’d been on did not allow him to see that the thick grove of trees hid a second valley below. He pulled out his sat nav and took another reading, comparing it to Ben’s notes. He was closer than he’d realized. He unfolded a map, holding a slim flashlight in his mouth, and marked his location.
A gunshot blasted in the distance, the sound echoing in the valley below. Poachers were common in the provinces, Andrew had heard.
The gunshot sounded again. It was not far off.
Andrew listened for movement but heard none. The gunshot had come from that valley below. He climbed down from the tree and moved along the trail, keeping low and quiet. After five minutes, he heard a third shot. He had closed the distance by half, and this shot was louder, easier for him to pinpoint. He adjusted his direction and headed north.
In a short time, Andrew heard male voices somewhere ahead. From their tones it sounded like an argument. The men spoke in Khmer. Andrew slowed his pace as he approached the voices.
Ahead, he saw a tall bamboo fence, eight feet high. Inside the fence, the men were still arguing. Andrew backed away and climbed a nearby tree, for a view of what lay behind the fence.
Looking down from the tree, Andrew gauged the compound was about half of a football field long, with ten or eleven thatch huts set up in two rows. And men. Several men walking about.
“An empty camp,” Ben’s report had noted. Only it wasn’t empty now.
In the camp’s torchlight, Andrew saw three corpses laying face down on the ground, wearing blindfolds. They had been shot at point blank range.
A guard in front of one of the huts blew a whistle and scores of men emerged from the huts. They were dressed in black, their uniforms making them indistinguishable. The whistle blew again and the men scrambled into a line in front of the guard. The guard proceeded to hand each man a square box.
Andrew shifted his gaze to the large hut closest to him, where two men walked now, deep in discussion. One of the men Andrew had never seen before. But the other man, Andrew knew from somewhere. He sifted mentally through who he had met in the past few days. Then he remembered. The embassy party.
The man Andrew watched walk across the compound was one of Hakk’s bodyguards from the party, the one Hakk had called ‘Rith’.
Andrew had to get into the compound. He would wait. He wedged himself into the crook of the tree.
As he waited, Andrew heard talking and smelled meat cooked on open fires. After some time, the men retired to their huts, where lights were lit. Eventually, these lights were extinguished and all grew still.
Two armed men guarded the gate. Andrew watched as the guards played dice and drank themselves into oblivion, glancing behind them occasionally, as these activities were forbidden. After a couple hours of heavy drinking, they fell asleep, leaning against the flimsy bamboo fence.
Andrew waited, to be certain everyone was asleep. The camp was quiet. The torches burned in the sleepy wind.
He started down from his perch.
Flimsy and poorly built, the bamboo fence offered little protection, meant only to dissuade forest animals. The camp occupants had not expected visitors. They had set up camp far from the road for privacy. Andrew wanted to know why.
Once inside the fence, Andrew moved in the direction of Rith’s hut. He eyed the sleeping guards but they were out cold.
Andrew stepped in to the open doorway of the hut and surveyed the room. He heard heavy snoring from a figure on the mat in the corner. On a desk by an open window, he saw several weapons, a pistol and a machine gun. Andrew walked to the desk.
There he saw also a book, creased open to its middle, the pages worn from heavy reading. Andrew picked it up and flipped through it. The text was Khmer script, about fifty pages thick, no images, just text.
Placing the book open on the desk, Andrew pulled out his secure phone and took photos, turning the pages quickly and quietly.
Andrew had photographed half of the pages when he realized the snoring behind him had stopped. Too late he felt the presence and turned just as a sharp ax came down on his left shoulder. The blade cut through his backpack strap and his light jacket. Andrew wrenched away before it cut deeper, and knocked the weapon to the floor.
He turned and punched Rith hard across the chin and kicked out his knee, then raced toward the unguarded window. Rith yelled out to his guards, who roused from their stupor.
From the other tents, the men heard the alarm and raced out to join the chase. A few were fast, faster than Andrew and one of them tackled him, knocking Andrew to the ground. Andrew held on to his attacker and rolled right to avoid the onslaught of others charging toward him. He rolled into the cooking fire, which still had red coals hot enough to burn the soldier’s bare back. As the man felt the coals burn into his flesh, he released his own grip on Andrew, screaming in pain.
Andrew ran now toward the gate, but got only a few steps farther before the next shadowy figure tackled him, grabbing his wounded shoulder, causing Andrew to yelp in pain. Andrew whirled around, grabbing his gun from the small of his back, and shot his attacker, who fell to the ground.
Reaching the gate, which was lower than the wall by a couple feet, Andrew jumped to grab hold of the top. Shots rang out as the men fired in Andrew’s direction, the sound echoing in the night. It was dark and the shots pinged left. Andrew threw himself over the gate and ran into the jungle.
Behind him, he heard the gate roll open behind him and swift footsteps as the men fanned out into the forest. These guards had spent the past year living in this forest. They knew the terrain. There would be few places for Andrew to hide.
Andrew pushed his way through the underbrush. He’d covered about four hundred yards, but without any guiding moonlight, he wasn’t even sure what direction he was going. The guards pressed behind him, yelling to each other in Khmer. They were younger than he was. Faster. It would only be a matter of time before they caught him.
As Andrew raced forward in the dark, pushing his way through the brush, he tripped and fell, his boot catching on something on the jungle floor. On one knee, with his stuck leg protruding behind him, Andrew yanked his foot forward to pull it free, but the lace seemed to be stuck. Andrew felt back around his boot, but could not get it loose. He felt a rough edge and could feel his lace wrapped around it. He flicked on his flashlight as a last measure. In the small light, he saw a metal bar protruding about eight inches from a stone, like a piece of broken rebar. His bootlace had caught the jagged end and had thread itself over the metal point. Looking at the rusty metal, Andrew was glad it was his boot and not his leg that had connected with the sharp edge. He heard the guards’ yells grow louder, as they discerned which way he had turned. With a flip of his knife, he sliced away the offending lace. He stood and readied to run when he heard a voice directly behind him speak in a quiet tone.
“Howdy fella.” Andrew shone his flashlight at the voice. The light revealed an elderly white man, wearing a faded Yankees ball cap, staring at him. The old man nodded at the sounds of the guards, crashing ever closer.
“If you’ll come with me, I’ll get you somewhere safe. Quick now. You’ve created quite a ruckus. Best kill the light now.”
Andrew’s options were few. He didn’t know who this stranger was but he knew that if Hakk’s guards caught him, that would surely be his end. He nodded and turned off his flashlight. The man started ahead, leading Andrew sideways along a slight path, making minimal sound and moving with knowledgeable ease through the dark brush deeper into the jungle.
Severine stopped by the orphanage in the morning. She knew Andrew was in Mondulkiri and she was anxious for news, but all she could do was wait. She walked in to the courtyard.
Normally at this time, the children would be enjoying morning recess, playing loudly. But instead the kids were seated in small quiet groups, talking. A couple children cried. Severine spotted Kolab standing in a courtyard corner by the tallest tree, talking on the phone. When Kolab saw Severine, she hung up. Severine walked to her. The children watched.
“Kolab, what is going on?”
Kolab wrung her hands. “They’ve taken Samnang.”
“What are you talking about? Who has?”
“I don’t know. Two men came in, they had guns. They looked at all the children. Then they took Samnang with them.” Kolab was dressed in her nightgown and her black hair, usually braided down her back, hung loose on her shoulders.
Severine felt sick.
“Did they say anything? Did they say why they took her?”
“They saw her necklace. They tried to take it from her but she screamed. So they took her.”
Severine tried to remember a necklace but couldn’t.
“It was a trinket on a string. It was not even pretty. A broken piece of clay or stone on a chain.
Severine’s throat constricted. “Where did she get it?”
“From Ben. Ben gave it to her for her birthday last week.”
The dirt road through the slums by Wat Steung Meanchey was pitted from the combination of heavy rain and heavy traffic. Metal shacks lined the streets. Inside, fires cast sad light on meager dinners.
It was after 9:00 PM, but barefoot children still played in the road. They scattered like roaches as the tuk-tuk approached, its lone headlight shining bright. The driver Kiem slowed to a stop in front of a yellow three-story house set back from the street. He turned back to his passenger.
“We are here, Miss Severine.”
A heavy-set guard with close-cropped black hair sat outside on the concrete stoop, leaning against the wall, half-asleep. He opened one keen eye when he heard the tuk-tuk approach and then the other when its engine cut off in front of the house. He shifted his gun in his thick hand and waited.
The street smelled of glue. Across the street from the yellow house, several young men sat on the floor of a shack, working in dim light with their hands, their fingers turning, lifting, bending. Severine saw they were making flip-flops, cutting and pasting the pieces together. The men, high on fumes, were oblivious to her.
The guard called out and Kiem nodded to him as he took off his helmet.
Severine asked “What did he say?”
“He asked why we are here. He knows who you are, Miss Severine.”
Severine stepped down from the tuk-tuk and took several steps forward to approach the guard. She’d seen him around town at the clubs. His name was Cho. She knew he did security for a couple local gangsters. He was a brute with a reputation for unwarranted violence.
“If you know me, you know I want Samnang. She is my responsibility. I have money to give for her release.” Severine lifted a plastic bag above her head, her bare white arm gleaming in the light.
A second guard emerged from the yellow house and glanced at the street and Severine. The two guards conferred. The second guard yelled to Kiem, who listened and translated, twisting his soft hat in his hands.
“He says give them the money and they will bring it to Heang.”
Severine shook her head.
“No. I will only give the money to Heang in exchange for Samnang…”
The guard interrupted her, letting loose an angry string of guttural sounds that encompassed the entirety of Khmer profanity. He took several quick long strides forward to Severine, his arm raised. Severine backed away, stepping on a loose stone in the road, nearly losing her balance.
A large, broad-shouldered man appeared in the doorway and spoke a single word. The guard stopped in his tracks and his shoulders slumped. He stomped off down the road like a petulant child. Severine breathed a sigh of relief as she watched the angry guard fade into the night.
“You are Heang,” Severine said and bowed low, her white hands folded in front of her forehead, as she bent forward. She stood upright. “I am here for Samnang. I have money for her, a lot of money.” She opened the plastic bag and took out a bound stack of fifties. The edge of the bills flipped in the breeze.
Heang waved his hand as if plagued by a pesky fly.
“Samnang is no longer your concern,” he said.
“Please, let me have her. I can get you more money.” Desperation had crept into her voice. Her face was wrought with fear for the scared little girl somewhere in that vast house.
Heang spoke to Cho, who rushed forward and grabbed the plastic bag, sneering at Severine, and gave it to Heang. Heang reached in and pulled out the bound bills, sniffed them then chucked the hunk of paper, underhanded, toward the open fire. The money fell short, landing in a deep puddle with a splash.
Cho eyed the wet bills. It was more money than he’d make in a lifetime.
Heang seethed. “I don’t want your dirty money.”
Down the street, barking and yelling ensued, as a vigilant guard dog surprised the disgraced guard. Barking and yelling ensued for several seconds until a single shot sounded in the night. Then all was quiet again.
Severine approached Heang. She knew Samnang was inside this rickety house, steps away, scared and alone. She would not leave without her.
“Please, may I see her for a moment? If you let me see her, I can tell you where the necklace is from.”
Heang’s eyes narrowed. He stepped out of the doorway and down the steps until he stood on the ground.
“You know about the necklace?” he asked.
She glanced at Kiem. Now she would have to bluff.
“Yes. Yes, and there is more, much more than that. Please let me see her and I will tell you.”
Heang stared at her.
“Five minutes.” He jutted his chin out at Cho and yanked his head toward the house.
In three strides Cho was by Severine’s side, grabbing her arm and dragging her forward. She stumbled in surprise as she hurried along the courtyard with his assistance.
Inside, a television played on full blast. A tiny old Khmer man was sprawled on a ripped couch in the corner, cackling at the TV. The guard barked and the old man sat up and stood.
Severine saw it was actually an old woman, with very short gray hair and a deeply wrinkled face. There was not a patch of skin that was not lined. The woman smiled broadly as she listened to the guard’s instructions, making sounds of agreement every few sentences. The guard frisked Severine, feeling over her loose clothes and her belt. Satisfied, he gave her a look and left the room.
The old woman smiled, displaying a few remaining yellow teeth, and took Severine’s hand in her own. She led Severine through a doorway and down the hallway, to the back of the house and a stairwell.
The hallway walls were covered with cheap tapestries featuring the temples of Siem Reap, held to the walls by colorful plastic thumbtacks.
Climbing up the stairs, Severine listened for any sound from the closed doors but the house was quiet. She could hear the guards heckling Kiem outside but knew he could take care of himself.
Upstairs on the landing, the old woman stopped by a door and fumbled in her breast pocket. She unlocked the door and indicated Severine should step in. Ahead of her, Severine saw yet another stairway, leading to a third floor. It was dark but Severine took a few steps in. The door closed and she heard the bolt shoot closed. She was locked in.
She started up the steps, not sure if this was trick by Heang. She considered that no one in the world knew where she was.
On the third floor landing, Severine heard whimpering. She hurried the last couple steps to the door.
The room was large – but with only one small high window. From the window, Severine could see a crescent of moon. As Severine’s eyes adjusted to the light, she spotted Samnang curled up on a rickety metal cot in the corner of the dusty room. Severine rushed to her.
“Little Samnang. It’s me, Severine.” With the old woman and the guard somewhere at the bottom of the stairwell, Severine knew she had only minutes with Samnang. Samnang’s eyes were black in the dark room. Severine could barely see her little face in the shadows.
“Severine. Sok s’bey.”
Severine embraced Samnang, brushing her black hair back from her face. Samnang was crying but smiled at Severine. Severine looked across the bed, where there was a glass of water on a ledge. Severine held it to Samnang.
“Here, little one, you need to drink. Have they given you anything to eat?” Samnang shook her head. Severine cursed under her breath, “Animals.”
Severine folded the bedclothes while Samnang drank the water.
At the sound of footsteps, Severine gathered her wits together. She was not going to settle for a goodbye.
“Samnang, listen, we need to get you out of here, but these are bad men. I need you to trust me. Do you trust me, will you do what I say?” she whispered, hoping the little girl understood. Samnang nodded.
Cho appeared in the doorway and waved his gun. “Enough. Time to go.”
Severine gave Samnang one last hug and walked to the door, stopping briefly to peer out the single window. It was small but it would do. She looked back to see the little girl, who waved a small hand.
As Severine walked down the steep steps and through the house, her mind raced. Heang waited outside, his face a sneer.
“You got to see the little girl. Now go.”
Severine picked the money up from the puddle – Heang had kicked it in – and shook it.
“Thank you for letting me see her.” She bowed with palms together to Heang and turned away.
“Kiem, I’m ready to go home now.”
Lighting a cigarette, Heang watched as the tuk-tuk drove away. He liked to toy with his prey. He called out to the guards. He had a job for them.
The old man walked to a wall of stone that rose up before them in the jungle. He flicked on a red flashlight. Andrew watched in the bare light as the man pressed the stone wall and the rock moved. A sliver of light and then a gap appeared, just wide enough to slip through sideways. He gestured at Andrew to follow. The door closed behind them.
They were inside a small stone chamber. A stairway at the chamber’s far side led down. The man walked to this and began to descend the steps. Andrew followed.
At the bottom of the stairwell was a large metal door. The man inserted a key and the door swung open. Another staircase stretched down and down, as far as Andrew could see. Andrew hesitated.
The man led the way. Again, Andrew followed.
“I’m Stuart,” the man said over his shoulder.
“You don’t like this so much?”
Andrew shook his head. “Not so much.”
“Better than getting skewered out there.”
Andrew nodded. “True.”
Andrew’s ears popped slightly on the descent. At the bottom, another door and another key revealed a long hallway.
“Come on.” Stu had started the walk down the hallway and glanced back at Andrew, who hurried to catch up.
At the end, they’d reached another stone wall. Stu pushed through a swinging door and under a low archway.
Andrew followed and looked around. He was stunned by what lay in front of him. It was a vast open well-lit space, a huge cavern underground. Andrew’s estimate was that the space was about a football field long and wide.
But it wasn’t the open space that shocked him.
It was the people.
There were men, several of them. Andrew counted nine that he could see. Ten including Stuart. From what Andrew could tell, they were all Westerners, engaged in various activities.
A few struggled with a large unwieldy green tent, next to a row of already constructed tents. Next to the tents was a basketball court, where two guys were playing hoops, albeit slowly. A couple men sat by a tent playing checkers. Two more were tending a garden beyond the tents, but close to the river.
The men waved at Stu, who waved back.
Accustomed to the unexpected and not one to be taken aback, Andrew tried to think this through. Andrew estimated that these men were all in their seventies, maybe a couple in their eighties.
He turned to look around and inhaled at the sight to his left. “There’s a river.” At the far western edge of the space, a river flowed through the cavern.
One of the men tending the garden, a burly guy who looked like he might have been a defensive lineman a long time ago, had looked up and dusted the dirt off his hands. He dropped his trowel in the dirt and headed up the hill toward Andrew and Stuart, taking his time.
Andrew turned to Stuart. “Who are all these guys?” Before Stu could answer, the gardener had reached them.
“Who’ve you brought us this time, Stu?”
“This is Andrew. He’s a friend. He needed some help out there.”
The burly man stuck out his hand to Andrew, who took it, staring with interest at the man’s wrinkles. The man’s eyes sparkled; he was delighting in the surprise on Andrew’s face.
“Welcome to our little slice of heaven. I’m Frank Hopper.”
Frank spoke with a slight southern twang. His handshake was strong and warm.
Stu turned to Frank, “I’ve not explained our set-up. Andrew had caught the attention of the neighbors, so I thought it best just to hurry along.”
Frank nodded. “Got it. OK.” He turned to Andrew, put a thick arm around his shoulder. “Well, son, how about I show you around? Sound alright?”
Andrew followed Frank down the hill to the basic camp, Frank walking with care along the rocky terrain. Andrew stepped in his footsteps.
Frank glanced back and said, “I’m sure you’re wondering, what the hell. So, it’s like this. We came over here when we were young men to fight for our country. Things didn’t work the way we’d expected and they definitely didn’t work out for a lot of our brothers over here – we lost a lot of good men. But we all kept fighting, right up to the end.”
“In the 70’s.” Andrew, born in 1971, did the math.
“That’s right. Some years back now. Well, when we got the word it was time to come home, we thought hard about it. All of us here had done multiple tours and we’d got used to living in the jungle, with the bugs, the heat, hell even the food. And we heard things were pretty bad for GIs back home, people spitting on our boys, calling ‘em nasty names. After what we went through over here, we didn’t think that sounded too good. So we figured we’d stay put, lay low, wait it out ‘til things got better. We’d got to know the jungle pretty good, so had found this here place to hole up.”
“You’re across the border? You’re in Cambodia,” Andrew said.
Frank sighed. “The borders weren’t quite what they are today, son. Shifting sands.”
Frank pulled out a pipe and tapped it out, refilled it and lit it, all in one fluid motion. “Where was I?” He looked to the ceiling for a moment, thinking, annoyed at his fair-weather memory. “Got it, that’s right.”
“Then the Khmer Rouge came along and everything went to hell. We sort of got stuck in the middle then, as it were. So we hunkered down. By the time that madness ended, we’d built ourselves a nice little community here and made a few discoveries along the way. Figured we might as well stay put, see how things went. And we liked the privacy; no one ever came out this way.” He puffed on his pipe.
Andrew looked around him, shook his head, and said, “Let me make sure I’m understanding. You’re telling me that you are all Veterans of the Vietnam War?”
“That’s right. To the man. Quite a cast of characters we are.” He winked at Andrew.
“And you’ve not been home since…?”
“To the United States? 1968 for me.” Frank glanced around. Several of the men had left their tasks to gather round Frank and Andrew, curious about the unannounced visitor. “Different for everyone. But an easy forty years.”
“But, but…It’s better there now. So much better.” Andrew had been Navy, like his father before him.
A hunched old guy playing checkers yelled out, “You sure ‘bout that, son?”
Andrew nodded, emphatic. “Yeah. Absolutely. People celebrate Veterans. They welcome them. It’s not like it was. Not at all.”
Frank leaned back on his heels, crossed his arms and looked at Andrew over his thick black-rim grasses. A large gold ring flashed on his right hand.
“Son, we get out and about. We stay up on our current events, don’t we boys?”
The men murmured agreement.
“And we hear our guys are dying on the VA’s watch. And young fellas killing themselves after years of deployment. That doesn’t sound like a heroes’ welcome.”
“Sounds more like a fuck you to me!” The old checker player cackled, waving his cane.
Frank said, “Please excuse Ed, he was Special Forces. No manners.”
“Kick your ass though!” Ed yelled back, louder than necessary. His fellow checker player shook his head in disapproval.
Andrew felt dazed. He looked at Frank. “But what about family?”
Frank shrugged. “We were a rowdy young bunch when we joined up. Buncha misfits. None of us had much family to speak of. We were all pretty much running away from something or toward something better. So it made sense to stay. We had nothing to go home to.” Frank coughed.
“And not a married guy in the lot, save Jackson over there. But he was a special case.” Frank gestured to one of the guys washing clothes in the river, who heard his name and waved.
As he watched the waving man, Andrew heard a female voice ring across the cavern: “Alright fellas, supper’s on.”
Frank’s eyebrows went up and he smiled at the voice. “That’s Jackson’s wife. We voted and agreed he could invite her on over. We all knew she was a hell of a cook.”
Behind him, the old checker player cackled again and double-jumped his opponent’s red pieces.
“And once things settled down a bit, we’d sneak out to the coast now and again, pretend we were some crazy lost vets, couldn’t find their way home. Which, I guess, we are!” He guffawed, along with the rest of the men, then his face darkened, his expression somber. The men fell quiet.
“We lost a lot of our brothers over them hills. So far away from home.”
He paused for a long minute and the cavern was silent, the only sound the river flowing.
“A lot of brothers,” he repeated, looking at Andrew. “Sometimes, when the loss is too much, a man’s heart breaks, clear in two, and one part just sorta falls away into the hole where broken things go. And then he’s left with a heart that can’t never mend. And he goes about his business, making the best of things, with what he got left. That’s what we done here.”
Ed, listening to this, paused from the game of checkers and shook his head, murmuring, “A man’s got limits.”
Frank continued. “And if you believe in all that Pchum Ben stuff – you can’t live in this country without picking up the customs – we wanted our boys to have a place here, a home, in case their spirits went looking for family, or something close to it. We think this here is a special place and we hope they do too.”
Andrew looked around. At the rough camp, the flowing river, the blazing fire, smoke wafting up high into the stony reaches of the cavernous ceiling.
“I bet they do.” He thought about what he knew about Pchum Ben. “You’d need a lot of coconut rice balls to keep ‘em happy.”
Frank burst into a grin. “Haw! Damn straight we would, you hear that Ed? This fella said we’d need a lot of coconut rice balls, haw haw!”
Ed cackled, grabbing his crotch. “I’ll show him my coconut balls!!”
Frank chuckled, his eyes twinkling.
Andrew looked around, at the tents, standard Army issue circa 1970. He had so many questions. Frank and Stuart exchanged a glance.
Frank put his arm around Andrew and said, “Let me show you the rest of the place.”
They walked down to the river bank and then along a path by the water, small pebbles crunching under their feet.
“It’s a lot to take in, I know. So I’ll tell you another story, maybe it’ll help. I had a buddy, who had a son before I flew out to Viet Nam. Named me that boy’s godfather, he did. That was a proud day for me, holding that little boy in my arms. Anyway, I heard that young boy growed up good and right. Went to fight in Iraq, spent four years in the fight. Came back home when that was over, but just wasn’t the same. Trouble, you know. Couldn’t get help, no one would listen. Man up, they’d say. So that young boy tried to kill himself. He figured better to be dead than to have those demons in his head.”
Frank wiped his eyes, and sniffed. “Damn allergies.” He continued. “Well, I got wind of that, we all did here. We decided it was time to enter the fight again.”
He looked out across the cavern, at the ragtag band of men, then back at Andrew. “A nation that don’t know how to save its sons and daughters within its own borders, well, that’s a nation at a breaking point. So we decided to do our part.”
They had reached the end of the cavern. A high wall rose up in front of them. Frank gestured to Andrew to lean into a small opening at the base of the rock.
“Take a gander in there, son.”
Andrew sat down against the stone and leaned in. He had to stick his whole head and part of his right shoulder under the small opening. It was pitch black. Frank handed him a huge black flashlight. “This might help.”
Andrew turned on the flashlight and shone it up and around.
In the light, he saw a deep corridor that stretched as far as the light would reach. What gleamed back at him was gold. He stared in awe.
Andrew ducked his head out of the hole and said, “It’s gold.”
Frank gestured around him. “Sure enough is. Solid gold. When we found this little vein, we decided it was providence. See here. This mine has funded many a Veteran in need back home. None of those fancy-pants ‘We are warriors’ foundations tugging at your heartstrings while the CEO laughs all the way to the bank in his Mercedes. No sir. Just straight up cash in the pocket of someone who served his country.”
Andrew stared at this ragged old man who could have passed for a homeless guy on a street corner in DC.
“Damn straight we are.” Frank’s chest puffed with pride.
Andrew had read about the anonymous donor that went only by the name ‘Epitome’, that had made countless individual donations to veterans across the States. No fancy parties. No rubbing shoulders with movie stars. Just straight up helping the guys who had given up some of their freedom. And the families who had given all.
Frank continued. “Anyway. It’s good you’re here. We thought we’d better go legit before all those mining companies get out here.”
“Is that what’s happening?” Andrew asked.
“We hear this land, I mean the land above us, was conceded a couple months ago for exploration. Now, it’s only a matter of time before the digging starts and we’re found out. And as you well know, we’ve got some less than friendly neighbors outside, shooting at anything that moves. We don’t know what that’s all about but it makes a walk in the woods a dangerous proposition.”
Andrew nodded. “I think I might know.”
Frank nodded and turned back to Andrew. “Well, you’ll have to let me in on it sometime. Pains in my ass.” Frank led Andrew back toward the camp. “There’s something else you need to see.”
“I told you we were busy here in the 90’s, trying to make ourselves comfortable for the long haul, build out our infrastructure, expand our camp. You can see we have power, courtesy of an inexpertly scuttled Russian submarine. We have water from the river. So we explored down here, dug around to see what else there was to see. And we found some artifacts. In fact, we uncovered a world made of metal.”
“What do you mean?” Andrew frowned.
“Son, I can only show you. Words just won’t do. Come along with me.” Frank called out to Stu to join them.
Frank led Andrew to the river, where several rough-hewn wood canoes were beached. They loaded themselves into the largest one, Stu in the front, Frank in the back, Andrew in the middle. Frank pushed them out into the water.
“Hang on son,” Frank said. “It’s quite a ride.”
Frank paddled to the river’s center, where the water ran swift. Andrew felt the current grip the canoe. The water was clear and blue, so unlike the Mekong.
They floated for several minutes in silence. It felt to Andrew like they were heading downhill. They began to move quickly. Ahead, he heard a roar.
“Hold tight everybody.”
The roar got louder and the water around them rougher. Away from the well-lit cavern, it was dark. Andrew could not see what lay ahead, could only guess. Suddenly Andrew felt himself falling, the canoe dropping several feet in the dark. He hung on as he’d been instructed. They fell for what felt like a good minute. The canoe crashed down and immediately started moving forward again. Andrew could hear Frank in the back paddling. Ahead, Andrew saw light.
The canoe rounded a corner, revealing what the men had found. The river slowed and meandered now by a vast sloping plain. The roof of this second cavern was so high, Andrew could not see it. Lights had been strung up, as in the first cavern. What lay in front of him was without question the most stunning sight of his life.
Severine climbed into the tuk-tuk, closing the plastic flaps behind her. As Kiem drove slowly away, Severine leaned forward on the front seat, so her head was next to his.
“Kiem, when you turn the corner, I want you to slow down, but don’t stop and I’m going to hop out. I want you to keep driving and then to meet me at the entrance to Wat Steung Meanchey in thirty minutes.”
“Miss Severine…” Kiem sounded doubtful and more than a little scared.
“Kiem, please, just do this.”
As they turned the corner, Severine glanced back and could see Heang and the guard Cho through the plastic windows. They were standing watching the tuk-tuk. Once the tuk-tuk had turned the corner and she knew they were out of sight, Severine tapped Kiem on the shoulder. He turned his head briefly to acknowledge her and cut his speed in half, down to about five miles an hour. Severine opened the flap and hopped out, running quickly down the little alley that ran behind the houses.
Kiem sped up again and in a moment was gone. Severine stood in the dark of the alley, listening to the water running in the open sewer. She walked forward down the alley, counting the houses as she walked by. The wet ground squished under her sneakers.
She counted eight houses and at the ninth house, she stopped and looked up. It was three stories and Samnang had been on the third floor. She had walked down a long hallway. Samnang’s room was at the back of the house. Severine could see the little window above.
As thin cloud cover passed, revealing the moon, the night grew bright again. In the light, Severine saw the third-story window open. Samnang had understood.
Samnang stuck her little head out. Severine heard her little voice call out.
“Yes. Yes, Samnang, I’m here!” Severine waved and hoped they were far enough away from the front door that the guard would not hear them.
Severine flicked on her flashlight and turned the light up toward Samnang. Severine stood directly under the window.
“Samnang, are you ready?”
Severine hoped the knot she had tied around Samnang’s waist was strong. She’d brought the thin rope in under her light sweater, coiled around her own waist like a belt. She was grateful that the guard had not thought to frisk her more than a quick pat down her back, arms and legs. When she hugged Samnang, she’d pulled off the rope and tied it to Samnang’s waist, tying the other end to the bedpost. Samnang weighed nearly nothing and the rope only needed to support her for a minute.
Samnang looked out the window again and then the next thing Severine knew, she had pushed her whole body through the little window and was hanging by her fingertips to the windowsill.
“OK. Samnang. I’ve got you.” Severine braced and tried to think of how long the rope was. She thought it was about fifteen feet. Samnang was turning in circles as the rope uncurled around her and she tumbled in circles at Severine, coming to a sharp halt, her thin body hitting the wall of the house.
“Ungh!” Samnang grunted with her impact against the house and the yank of the rope against her body. She was, Severine saw, at the rope’s end, but hanging three feet above where Severine stood.
“Samnang, are you OK?” Severine whispered.
“Yes, Miss Severine. Yes, OK.”
“Samnang, I can’t reach you. We need to hurry. I’m going to give you a knife and I need you to cut the rope. OK? Can you do that?” Severine reached into her blouse and pulled out a thin penknife.
Severine mimed cutting a rope. “Like this, see?”
Samnang nodded. Severine stood on her tiptoes, stretching her arm upwards as far as she could, holding the knife by the blade up to Samnang, who reached for it and grabbed it in her little hand. She began to saw at the rope. Severine stood beneath her, her arms outstretched, waiting. With a last hard drag of the serrated knife, Samnang tumbled into Severine’s arms. The knife fell with a splash into the murky puddle at Severine’s feet.
Severine burst into a run. She was not sure how much time they had. A dog had started barking nearby and would soon wake the neighbors. She did not need any curious passersby asking what she was doing.
With Samnang on her back, her bony little arms wrapped around her neck, Severine jogged down the alleyway back to where she had jumped from the tuk-tuk only minutes before. Samnang was light on her back and Severine breathed into the cool night air. Her feet made quiet footfalls as she moved down the dirt alleyway. If she could just get down to the main road where she had told Kiem to wait.
Heang stepped out from the shadow of the building, his gun pointing at Severine.
“You are a persistent woman,” Heang said. “But your tuk-tuk driver is foolish and circled back to see if he could find you. We wondered why he had come back, so we stopped him to ask. He said he was worried about you. Isn’t that sweet. But I am afraid he won’t be driving you anywhere, any more.”
Severine’s stomach turned. Oh no, poor Kiem.
That was her last thought before the injection delivered by Cho knocked her out. The Ketamine forced her into a deep place.
The old Cambodian lady walked slowly down the street with the wide circular basket of fruit on her head. She hoped to sell everything today, there were many workers at the construction site and they were always very hungry. As she waited, she spied a big dark lump lying on the side of the road and curious, she approached it. It was a man, she saw, lying in a crumpled heap. She kicked him and scolded him in Khmer.
“Have some respect for yourself. Drunken fool, lying in the garbage.” She kicked him again and shook one hand at him before she walked away.
Kiem stirred. He was lying in a small dirty stream lined with rubbish. A stray chicken walked by and pecked at his foot. His head hurt and he put his hand at the back of his skull. It was sticky. He pulled his hand away and looked. Blood, but not too much.
He remembered waiting for Miss Severine last night, then deciding to drive back to find her. He had worried she was not safe with those bad gangsters so close by, she was too risky for a lady, he thought. He had parked his tuk-tuk a few streets away and then tiptoed forward to the alley where he had dropped Severine. Then someone had hit him on the head with something hard and after that he did not remember. They must have dragged him into this stream of garbage.
As he stood up, he felt sick to his stomach and fell back down to his knees. Some local women walking near him on their way to work giggled at seeing him sitting in garbage and at his dirty clothes. He yelled at them and asked them for some water. They giggled some more, and one called out “Crazy old man, sitting in the trash, you should know better.” They thought he was a beggar.
But one of the younger ladies approached him shyly and gave him a bottle of water. “Sum tho,” he called out, as they walked away. Thank you.
They were still giggling, looking back at him as Kiem took a sip of the water, then a gulp. He tilted his head forward and dumped the rest of the water on the back of his head to clean the cut.
He checked his pockets. He still had his phone. Stupid gangsters. He dialed Miss Severine but there was no answer. But he heard a ringing sound nearby. He hung up his phone and the ringing stopped. He dialed again. More ringing. He stood up slowly and walked in the direction of the sound. There, lying near a sleeping stray dog, was Severine’s phone, ringing.
Uh uh, Kiem thought. Not good.
He picked up Severine’s phone, dried it with his shirt, and slipped it in his pocket. He walked down the slowly waking street, past a wire basket filled with chickens, clucking at him as he walked by.
Something bad must have happened to Miss Severine after they bumped his head.
He had wanted to go to his homeland today, to see his family. He knew his wife was busy making rice with sesame seeds and coconut milk for their ancestors. But instead he would look for Miss Severine.
He walked to the end of the road, away from the house where Severine had visited. Kiem turned right onto the busy street filled with a steady flow of early morning traffic. Tuk-tuks, bicycles, and flatbed tracks rolled by him but he didn’t flinch or yield as he walked along the side of the road. He started to cross the street and the traffic gave way, flowing around him, parting for him as he moved forward.
Across the street, he walked down a sandy path that led below the bridge and onto a sand road that ran along the soapy river. He walked along the path by several tin houses until he reached a small hut about a half-mile from the bridge. He pushed aside the rickety metal door and stepped inside.
The room was sparsely furnished: A cot, a few beaten-up cooking utensils and a pile of clothes that looked like they needed a serious wash. Behind the bed, which was piled high with more dirty clothes and blankets, was an oily tarp, stained and patched. Kiem looked around to see if any passers-by were near. No one. Then he lifted the tarp, revealing a gleaming red motorcycle. Despite his steady dull headache, he smiled. He hid the bike because he knew gangsters would steal it otherwise. He used it only to go back to his province, his distant homeland, to see his family – it was much faster than driving the tuk-tuk on those muddy jungle roads. And today he needed to be fast.
He knew where Heang’s home province was, as it was his own as well. He would go there now to search for Miss Severine. He would search until he found her.
The sun shone on the hard pavement. The courtyard was surrounded on four sides by tall gray walls. Severine lay in the corner. Her chest rose and fell slowly, as if she was in a deep sleep. A guard watched her from a cot, where he lay resting in the afternoon sun. He had been instructed not to hurt her more than she was already. He had watched Heang beat her and it had thrilled him.
Finally, Severine stirred. The drugs they had given her had left her groggy and nauseous. She sat up and the pain hit. Her head hurt and her back and her legs. She groaned. She was blindfolded but could hear distant traffic noises and talking from passersby. She assumed she was in a courtyard not far from where they’d taken her. It smelled of garbage.
She heard someone moving around the courtyard and she called out. “Please, I am thirsty. May I have some water?”
The guard did not see the harm in that. He poured water from a red ceramic jug sitting on the plastic countertop into a chipped yellow mug and carried this to Severine, lifting her to a seated position. He untied her hands roughly and gave her the mug, placing it in her hands. Her blindfold he left in place. He did not want her to see where she was. He thought it would give her ideas. He did not want her to have ideas.
The courtyard itself had once been a garden but the current owner did not cultivate flowers or plants. Decay was evident in the empty beds and brown twisted dead branches. The rain had further damaged the garden by eroding the dirt, which spilled from the low shallow beds onto the concrete, in crooked brown lines
Severine drank from the mug and held it out for her captor. He had not spoken to her yet, only grunted. But she could smell him. He had not showered for days, if not weeks. He smelled of dried fish and urine. Both smells equally noxious and together, almost unbearable.
A knock on an inside door caught her captor’s attention and Severine heard his feet shuffle out of the courtyard. She judged by the sound the size of the space she was in.
In his rush to see who had knocked, her captor had left her hands untied. Severine pulled at the fabric around her head. It was a krama: She could just barely see through the red-checked fabric. It was tied tightly and she struggled with it for a moment before she was able to pull it off.
She looked around. The sun was low. Must be late afternoon but of what day she could not be sure. The courtyard was filled with discarded items and debris: Old bicycles, a rusty metal tub, a couple car tires, and a broken pushcart. She saw no evidence of Samnang.
Severine set working on the ties binding her ankles. The knots were tight and her fingers were cramped from being tied and crushed under her own weight for several hours. She heard voices from inside the house. She worked at the knots, loosening them.
She figured she had a minute, two if she was lucky. She kept at the knots, yanking. The last one gave way with a final tug. She stood, steadied herself against the brick wall, and raced to the gate. It was locked but the lock was old, like everything else in the courtyard. She banged at it with the palm of her fist, hoping it would give way. It did not. Looking around for something sturdier, she grabbed a tire iron by the motorcycle and smashed it against the metal lock. The lock, rusted from years of rain, broke clear in two, the metal shearing where the tire iron struck. The pieces clattered to the floor.
Severine knocked the lock off the gate and pushed it open, running down the dusty street as her captor and his guest appeared in the doorway of the house, alerted by the clatter. Her captor, confused, looked to where Severine had been and then over to the gate, which was open and swinging on its hinges. He rushed out to the street and caught sight of Severine as she rounded the corner in her bare feet. He raced after her.
She did not get far. Despite his bulk and general dim-wittedness, her captor was quick. He bolted to the corner, past the trash bins and tuk-tuks between him and his prey. Severine glanced back and kept running. The open canal lay in front of her.
He closed the distance in ten seconds and, like a lion bored with the chase, knocked Severine to the ground with a thick heavy sideways swipe to her head. He scooped her up, tossing her over his shoulder, her dusty bare feet dangling by his thick waist.
He pulled out a knife and held it against her Achilles tendon, a suggestion to behave. He liked having a prisoner to watch over. And he would not lose her again.
After dusk, bound again in the courtyard, leaning against a wall, Severine heard a familiar voice. She turned.
Heang stared at her from several feet away.
“So now, you have made things difficult for yourself.” He glared at her, his nostrils flaring. He bent down to her with a knife in his hands and sliced through the twine that bound her ankles and knees.
“Get up,” he said, then called out to the guard in Khmer. The guard opened the gates and a long black car backed into the courtyard. As Severine struggled up, Heang yanked her to her feet. When the car stopped, he pushed her to the back car door, which had opened from inside. When Severine climbed in, she saw Samnang, shivering and weeping in the far corner of the back seat.
The car door slammed shut behind her. It was dark and Severine heard breathing, slow and easy. A match was struck and a familiar face smiled back at her in its wavering light.
The river had widened here, and the canoe had slowed, giving the three men a good view of the plain. Frank steered from the back and Stu directed upfront, their paddles pulling the water backwards, drawing lines on the river’s surface that spiraled out into the current.
As Andrew stared at the plain, all he could think was that it was like a photograph. Only life-size and cast in gold. It was a day in the life from long ago. All across the plain were figures, humans and animals, caught in a moment in time, a moment, Andrew could tell, of celebration. He could see tables covered with food made of gold. Animals bedecked with jewels. The expressions on the finely wrought human statues were ones of joy. People smiled, danced, laughed and sang. In gold.
Frank spoke. “It was gift of sorts to a great king from an artisan. A sign of the king’s worth, the joy he brought to his people, and a measure of the people’s love for him.”
“How far back?”
“None of us are experts but…”
Stu chimed in. “I would guess four thousand years old.”
“That would predate the Terracotta Army by a couple thousand years,” Andrew said. He had seen them in London some years back.
Stuart was impressed. “Very good. The artistry is finer as well. Casting these figures in gold. It exceeds knowledge of metalworking of that time.”
“It’s astonishing,” Andrew said, looking at the shining figures.
They had pulled the canoe to shore, stepped out onto the beach and walked toward the plain. The soft sand gave way underneath their feet, slowing their progress.
“You said there was a story?” Andrew asked
“Yes, more of a fairy tale. There are engravings over there.” Frank gestured to the far stone wall. “In symbology none of us had seen. We copied it down and every couple months, one of us would go to town and have it translated page by page, careful-like, so no one could put two and two together.” He rummaged around in his pockets.
“Here’s what we got.”
Frank pulled from his pocket several typed pages and handed them to Andrew. “Why don’t you have a read. It’s quite a yarn. Even for a spook like you.” He winked and walked away.
The Story of The Keep
There was an ancient kingdom before the lines for countries were drawn. A great king ruled the land and the sea. One day, bearing bad news, the king’s Magician found the king high in a tower built on a hill shrouded by mist.
He said to his King, “Sir, I have studied the stars, as you have entrusted me to do. Until now your rule has been marked by greatness and peace, due to your wisdom. But also through the grace of the stars. But now, I have foreseen a catastrophe.”
The king turned from the window, where he gazed out though the mist into the lives and hearts of his people, who were content.
“I have never known you to trouble me with small matters, so I will hear you out,” said the King.
The Magician gestured to the window to the east.
“As you know, there are times of stasis and times of change. We have been blessed by balance. Time must have balance or things fall into disorder. I sense that a great imbalance is coming, that the balance is breaking and once broken, will not be repaired.”
“Please explain,” the king urged. Worry was etched on his lined face that wore years of concern for his far-reaching lands.
“The imbalance if left unheeded will lead to a series of chaotic events. We are currently in harmony with the other celestial bodies, but that will cease. The passage of time as we know it will cease, the speed of time will increase. What used to feel like a year, even a decade, will pass in a day. There will be no order.”
“Can you restore the order?” the King asked, looking south, at the sea that stretched far out beyond the view from the window. The sun was setting and the evening clouds were tinged with the yellow and orange of dusk.
“I do not know, your greatness. I have not attempted such a spell before. There is no record of anyone trying to restore the balance.”
The King looked at his Magician. “I have great trust in you. I believe you can do this. I believe you must try. How much time do we have?”
“A year, before the imbalance begins. After that, the way forward is dangerous and unpredictable.”
“If you are successful, you will save my kingdom. Then you will be a great and revered man. Do what you must. I put the faith of my people with you.”
The Magician tried many spells to restore the balance. Nothing worked. The year passed quickly and he still had not righted the imbalance. The weather had shifted and many terrible storms passed through the land, frightening the people and ruining crops. The Magician knew this was only the beginning. There was war threatened. People were restless, anxious, and angry.
One night deep in the bowels of his workshop, he realized the source of the imbalance. At last the Magician understood what he needed to do to restore balance to time, to hold the coming chaos at bay.
He left the kingdom by the sea and wandered for many nights in the wilderness until he found a great cavern, where he sealed himself inside. Then he spun a spell unlike any other he had cast before, binding the magic to the golden metal he found deep in the stone. Binding the magic to the earth, where it would take hold.
Then he began to create, in that metal, the world in which he had once lived and to which he knew he could never return…
Andrew flipped over the page to see if there was anything more, but that was it.
He walked back to Frank, who was skipping stones on the beach.
“What does it mean?” Andrew asked.
“Well, I sure as hell don’t know. But it sounded important. This here is a magical place.”
Andrew looked around at the statues that gleamed in the light. “It is indeed. It must be priceless.”
“Well, not quite priceless, but close, pound for pound. We had a couple of our smarter fellows round this bend and their guestimate was around $500 million if it was all melted down.” He smiled. “Course, you wouldn’t want to melt this artistry down to the base metal. Though I fear that may happen.”
Andrew stared out into the plain. “Can’t we just contact the Ministry of Mines and report it?”
Frank looked at Andrew sideways, from under his hat. “That’s what Ben Goodnight tried to do.”
Andrew whirled around.
“You knew Ben Goodnight?”
Frank nodded, his face grim. “We hired him. Or rather, we had someone hire him for us. We wanted him to dig around, prospect for gold, find a few small artifacts, and file the requisite report.”
“You paid River Metals to hire Ben?”
“Sure did. We thought if we could get this place on the Ministry’s radar, with a few small but enticing gold statuettes and other pieces we left top-side for Ben to find, they’d send someone round to take a look and ring fence this place, set it aside for safe-keeping.”
Andrew nodded. “I’ve seen Ben’s report. It mentions finding several artifacts. You planted those?”
“But it didn’t work out that way. The land was conceded for exploration.” Andrew said, kicking at the sand, the grains flying low in every direction. Frank shook his head.
“Apparently, cash is king. Some durn company paid millions of dollars for the right to mine out here. And that’s just what’s on the books. You can bet there’s additional dollars lining someone’s pocket to look the other way. They don’t know what they’ve got.”
Andrew puzzled though this. “What happened to Ben when he came back? Was it a landmine?”
Frank looked away, troubled. “Those damn men in black set up camp out there a year ago. In a prime spot, right by a stream. Always marching around and barking orders at each other. Then they’d seen us out and about one day, started taking pot shots at us. We’ve been skirmishing with them ever since. Couldn’t find the way in here, so they started setting traps for us.”
“And Ben walked right into a trap?”
“Yes sir, he sure did. Damn shame.” Frank looked away, the briefest glint in his eyes.
From the beach, the two men began a gradual ascent to a distant rocky cliff, the plain of golden figures stretching off to their left. Stu stayed with the canoe.
As they walked, the soft sand turned to packed dirt. With no sunlight, it was a barren place. Here and there, Andrew saw nuggets of gold scattered along the ground. The walls of the cavern shone with dark yellow veins.
About a hundred feet up from the beach, steps cut into the cliff led to a high plateau. The men ascended, Frank catching his breath now and again on the way up. At the top, Andrew turned to stare down at the plain below.
Frank spoke, breaking the reverie. “More to see. Come.”
They walked for some ways along the plateau. Ahead, Andrew saw a rough-hewn kiln, a stone hearth that would have been used for a vast fire, and a cauldron. Metal-working instruments, tongs, and clay crucibles were scattered on the ground.
“This was the forge?”
Andrew studied the ancient workshop.
“Incredible to think one man built all this, just to remind himself of home.” Andrew said. He watched Frank poke at the cold hearth with his toe.
“That is if you believe the story,” Frank said.
Andrew picked up some tongs and sighed. He finally had some answers about Ben and Flint would want to know. It was time for him to go. But he had one message left to impart.
“You know you guys can’t stay here much longer,” he said, staring hard at Frank.
“We know.” Frank nodded, his head still down.
Andrew left aside all the unanswered questions, the rightness and wrongness.
“We knew we’d need to leave at some point. It’s just a little sooner than we thought. Times are changing,” Frank said, still poking at the ancient stone coals. He looked up at Andrew and squinted back at the fire.
Andrew asked, “Can I help? I could call someone when I get back to town. They’d have a helo out here in an instant to take you all home. Back to the States.”
Frank shook his head. “Nah, don’t do that son. We’ve been outside the wire so long, we wouldn’t know how to fit in.”
“Where will you go?”
“I dunno. Thailand, Burma, Laos? Somewhere off the grid. Maybe with better light.” Andrew smiled at this.
Frank continued. “It’ll be tough, leaving. I feel bad about the statues. I feel like we were supposed to find them, that we’ll have failed them, leaving them behind. But whaddaya gonna do?”
Frank walked up a small hill. Andrew followed, uncertain where they were going. The ground was rougher here, covered with stones and small boulders. They continued uphill for some time, scrambling over the rock. Andrew thought it looked as if there had been a landslide here a long time ago. They stopped at the top of the hill.
Andrew glanced around them. Beyond the pebbly debris, Andrew saw what he thought was sunlight casting rays on the dirt floor. “Is that daylight?” he asked, incredulous.
“Yes, it is. It’s how we initially found this place. It’s an old well that leads to ground level.”
“How far below ground is your camp?
“About a quarter mile.”
“And how far below are we now?”
“About thirty feet. There’s a metal ladder that will take you to the surface. But you need to be careful. We’ve cleared all the traps those jerks set, but some of the men might still be out and about. Watch your back.”
“Roger that.” Andrew stuck out his hand. “Thanks for the welcome. And thank Stu for saving me.”
Frank took it, holding Andrew’s gaze. “You got it. Good luck, young man. Maybe we’ll meet again.”
The men shook, then embraced, each giving and receiving a slap on the back.
Andrew turned and approached the opening in the stonewall, a chipped archway eons old. He looked up the wide stone shaft. Sunlight filtered down through the wet mossy darkness. A brown bat shifted sideways on the jutting stones above. Andrew placed a foot onto the first metal rung, testing it. It held. He placed a foot on the next rung and reached upwards, climbing toward the light.
In the morning light, Andrew emerged from the jungle onto the dirt road. He’d had an uneventful trip through the jungle back to the road. None of Hakk’s men seemed to be about, for which he was thankful.
He’d tried to reach his helicopter pilot but had not had any luck getting through. Just static. He sat down on the roadside to dial again, hoping he would have better reception this time.
A distant engine roar caused him to look up the road. On the crest of the hill, he saw two large motorcycles, tearing down the dirt road, heading straight for him. The riders were decked out in leather pants, jackets and imposing helmets.
Watching the bikes descend the hill, Andrew decided nothing surprised him in this country anymore. It was its own dimension.
As the bikers approached, they slowed, then stopped, pulling up near Andrew, one of the bikes sliding in the dirt, spraying chunks of mud. Andrew shielded his face from the blast.
The larger rider pulled off his helmet. He was about sixty, Western, with a week’s worth of stubble and a tattoo that said ‘Bike Me’ in large letters on his neck. “Are you lost or something son?” he asked Andrew.
Andrew shook his head. “No, but my sat phone isn’t working. I can’t call my ride.”
The other rider piped in, removing a helmet that had gotten stuck on a leather catch. “Those gadgets aren’t worth the plastic they’re made of out here in this jungle. Too much tree cover.” The woman had short blond hair and bright blue eyes.
The first rider nodded in agreement. “Betty’s right. Not the best move to depend on a phone out here. You could be stuck for days. No one would know you were missing.” He said this with concern. He steadied his bike, hopping off to approach Andrew, who stood.
“Yes, well, I’ll know for next time.” Andrew wiped his hands on his trousers and extended his right one. “I’m Andrew.”
“Bill. This here’s my wife Betty Ann. Semi-retired, living the dream.” They shook.
“Anyway, we’re heading to town, we just came out to test out our new toys. Happy to give to you a lift. To Sen Monorom, that is.”
“That’d be great. Uh…did someone tell you I was in the area?” Andrew said, glancing back at the forest behind him. The trail was barely discernable. The trees waved at him in the breeze.
The couple looked at each other. Bill watched as Andrew looked around. He said, “Ain’t nobody here but us girls,” with a grin at Betty Ann, then looked at the sky and snorted, sniffing the air.
“We best get a move on. There’s still some rain in those clouds. Hop on.”
With one last glance backward, Andrew did as he was told, throwing a leg over the wide bike, an easy 800 pounds of metal. He admired the shiny chrome, flecked with mud. Bill revved the engine.
“Just so you know, there’s a price to be paid for a lift to town.”
Andrew smiled. “What’s that?”
“Cold beers at Snowy’s.”
“You got it.”
“Hop in and hang on. It’s a bumpy ride!”
“Hello, Severine. I didn’t expect to see you again so soon.”
Severine blinked rapidly, glancing to her left and right, confused. “What are YOU doing here?”
Jeremy continued. “It’s a shame you had to get mixed up in this. Things are not going your way of late. It would have been better, easier, if you could have gone about your merry way. But always the do-gooder, just like your nosy boyfriend. Oh, excuse me. Your husband. No, you had to do the right thing. Too many do-gooders in this town.”
“What do you know about Ben?”
“Only that he started asking too many questions, sticking his nose into things that didn’t concern him.”
“But you’re an American, you work at the Embassy. How are you involved with these men, it makes no sense?”
“In fact, it makes perfect sense. I have access to government officials at all levels. I remain open to communication, all offers of assistance, partnership, and requests for information. From all parties. I recently learned from a certain Ministry contact about a potential archeological find in Mondulkiri. Apparently, Ben explained things nicely in his little report. So I did a little investigating on my own. There are objects worth millions on the black market out there. Millions. But Ben wanted to preserve them and insisted on blowing the whistle until someone paid attention.”
Jeremy paused, frowning. He leaned forward, his face next to Severine’s. He inhaled. “I never liked him,” he added in a whisper. Severine felt his hot breath on her cheek. She yanked away.
“What did you do to my husband?”
“I have a new partner, you see. A man with a fondness for the past, shall we say. We have an arrangement. I make sure that you no longer interfere in his plans and he helps me get the gold. Win win.” He smiled, opening his palms.
He leaned back. “You need to understand how the world works. There is always demand. For something. The key is knowing what people want.”
Severine’s face was a stone. She stared ahead as Jeremy continued.
“I deserve more than a pittance in this life. So I’ve made that happen. Lately, I have a golden touch.” Jeremy smiled and wiggled his long white fingers. He leaned back in his seat and brushed an invisible speck of lint from his pressed trousers.
In the front passenger seat, Heang turned around for instructions.
“To the boat,” Jeremy barked then turned to smile at Severine, his upper lip too high on his pink gums. “You and I – we’d always talked of taking a river cruise.”
The temperature dropped with the setting sun, the season changing in the few minutes separating day and night. Autumn had arrived, only a couple degrees difference, but noticeable.
The fog had rolled into town off the cooling river in undulating waves. The boat Captain watched the fog fold its way forward, marking time by the disappearance of the street lights along the shoreline ahead, shrouding everything in gray.
Fog was not common here, but it had its place on this odd evening. The wooden boat made its lazy way to the pier, its old engine chugging away.
The Captain could see the pier was still empty. No one had arrived; he was early. He had made good time from Ho Chi Minh City.
Most of the Captain’s business was bringing items upriver from Vietnam to Phnom Penh and occasionally to Siem Reap, farther north. Some legitimate items, deliveries from local merchants. Some less so. The latter paid better, though the risks were higher, especially at the border between Vietnam and Cambodia. The border guards were too aware of their power, their ability to ruin a Captain’s day, depending on their mood and desire.
But the Captain, who was half-Vietnamese and half-Cambodian, understood the needs of the border guards. He had met many people in his years on the river. He fancied himself a citizen of the water, rather than of a country.
A few squawks from a lone leafy tree along the bank by the pier let the Captain know that his boat was disturbing a well-concealed bird’s nest. No matter. His only concern was delivering his cargo and receiving payment.
He looked at this week’s cargo, propped near a few old wooden oars by the fishing nets. He’d been told to take especially good care of this item. Was told it could break if treated roughly.
To discourage attention, the cargo was well covered by a faded pea-green tarp, itself at least twenty years old, frayed along its edges, with holes that had been patched and re-patched by the Captain’s wife. The Captain could well afford a new tarp, as made good money. But newness was a sign of prosperity to the border guards, suggesting there was something of value onboard to inspect. He kept his old tarp, and his engine with the death rattle.
The Captain lifted the tarp to make sure all was well. The blue plastic barrel was tucked in nicely between the nets.
He scanned the street. There only a few working street lights near this pier, enough to provide visibility but not enough to draw attention to whatever might happen on this remote pier on Phnom Penh’s edge.
The birds squawked again and rustled in their nest, readying for the night.
There, he saw movement. He looked up the street and saw a black car moving down the quiet lane to the waterlogged pier. One headlight was out.
The Captain readied himself. He was anxious. The owner of this cargo was unpredictable. But he paid well and the work was steady.
Severine’s mind raced. A cruise, Jeremy had said. If she could only make a break for it to a hotel or guesthouse, she’d be safe. But Samnang was in the seat beside her, so she needed to stay put.
They drove for some time, through town, then on to its fringes.
Heang opened Severine’s car door and yanked her out of the car, man-handling her. She struggled with him, pushing back at his groping hands. “Hold still,” he barked. She assumed he was going to tie her hands tighter and she lifted her arms to protest. Jeremy watched this exchange with a mild look of disdain.
When Severine saw the syringe, she shrank away. The Ketamine they’d used on her earlier had made her feel insane. It was a madness she didn’t know if she could tolerate again.
Before she could block him, Heang had injected her in the neck. She felt herself fade gently this time. Her mind filled with images of Ben leading her down a green path, of the pool where she’d swum. This would be a deep sleep.
Jeremy nodded his approval as Severine collapsed into Heang’s arms.
“Now the girl,” Jeremy said.
Heang opened the other back door and lifted out Samnang. She lay heavy in his arms, whimpering when she saw Severine collapsed on the ground. Heang watched her small scared face as he injected her as well. He handed her limp body to Jeremy, who took the child in his arms, while Heang picked up Severine and led the way down the rickety pier to the boat rocking on the gentle river current.
The Captain emerged from inside the boat, and bowed, hands held high, as Jeremy and Heang stepped onboard. Heang dumped the unconscious woman and Jeremy deposited the girl onto netting piled in the corner next to a faded worn tarp.
The Captain, named Sovan, started the old engine, which coughed in protest of this late night voyage. Sovan glanced at the two supine passengers. He was paid to navigate the river and not ask questions. He coaxed his temperamental engine down to a gentle purr and the boat pulled away from the dock.
After so much rain, the stormy river rocked the boat to and fro as she made her way north. The Mekong wound its way up to Laos and beyond, but this boat was not traveling that far. After a couple hours on the river, the Captain could sense the turn ahead to his right. He could see little ahead in the dark but even in dim light, he knew the turns and twists of this river, its depths and shallows. And he could feel the river, urgent, like a child tugging its mother.
Ah, there. He saw the opening he sought, hidden by overhanging trees. He steered the boat forward. Glancing back, he saw his passengers asleep, the little girl restless, troubled by nightmares. Jeremy alone was awake.
Sovan turned his attention back to the water.
Severine wanted to keep sleeping. Everything was heavy and quiet in her head. She forced herself closer to consciousness. There was that noise again. She felt a gentle rocking. With a start, she remembered where she was.
She told herself not to move. She did not want to draw any attention to herself. Opening her eyes a slit, she saw Samnang lying next to her, her eyes still closed and her mouth open. Severine watched Samnang breathe. If they’d given Samnang the same dose of whatever they gave her, Samnang would be sleeping for a long time.
Heang lay on a wooden bench, asleep and snoring loudly, a gun in his lap. Jeremy stood at the bow, watching their progress. Severine could feel her hands tied behind her and when she tried to move her feet, found her legs were tied as well, at both the ankles and the knees. Severine turned her head slightly forward and saw the Captain, standing alert, looking ahead.
Heang’s phone rang and he stuttered awake, dropping his gun. He grabbed for it as he fumbled to answer his phone. Severine hoped the gun wasn’t loaded as it hit the wooden deck with a clunk. She closed her eyes. The longer she was knocked out, she guessed, the more time she had to figure out a way out. She listened to Heang on the phone.
Severine listened, trying to catch any of the Khmer words she knew.
He spoke rapidly, then more agreement. “Jah. Jah.”
He clicked his phone off and yelled to the Captain, “Chop chop chop.” Stop.
Sovan turned around, a questioning look on his face. Heang spoke quickly.
Her Khmer wasn’t perfect but Severine got the gist. Heang had a problem back in town, he had to go back to Phnom Penh. He would take the dinghy and let them continue their journey.
“Stop here. I must go back,” Heang repeated.
Sovan cut the engine and the boat started to drift backwards with the current. This got Jeremy’s attention and he walked to the stern.
“What’s going on?” Jeremy asked, looking first to Heang, then Sovan.
Heang scowled. “I have a problem with a delivery. I must go back. You go on ahead. Do what you need to do.” He glared at Jeremy, who looked away.
As Jeremy sputtered about this change of plan, Heang moved quickly, stepping from the stern into the bobbing dinghy tied behind the boat. He started its small engine, threw off the line, and turned the dinghy around, heading down river, back to Phnom Penh. He did not look back.
Jeremy watched the dinghy sluice through the water, only mildly annoyed at the disruption. He was glad to be rid of Heang, who Jeremy found unseemly. Another gangster with delusions of grandeur. Sometimes such associations were necessary, Jeremy thought, returning to the bow. His heart started to quicken as he thought of his statues, his future, ahead. He had several buyers lined up already. He would be richer than he had ever dreamed.
Sovan set the boat’s course and went to check on his cargo. The Western woman and the child still slept. Sovan squeezed past them and edged into the corner of the boat. As instructed, he was bringing the cargo with him to the secret cave. Special delivery, Heang had explained to the Captain, for the American GIs living there. A gift from Hakk, he’d said, to thank them for their service. Captain Sovan thought it was unusual but he kept this to himself. He didn’t question. He’d survived so long through listening, not nosing in others’ business. He adjusted the tiller.
Under the green tarp, in a plastic barrel, a digital timer attached to a metal canister the size of a kitchen waste bin counted down. Its colorful wires wove inside the canister, where they linked up with two detonators and two tall stacks, each sixteen bricks high, of C4 plastic explosive.
The Cambodian-Japanese Friendship Bridge collapsed first, the charges at both ends and the bridge’s middle tucked carefully out of sight, until they detonated late Friday afternoon.
As the bridge beneath them crumbled, pedestrians, bicyclists, tuk-tuks, pushcarts and their vendors plunged into the flowing river.
Seeing this, traffic on the adjacent Cambodian-Chinese Friendship Bridge panicked. People leapt from their vehicles, running for the safety of solid ground on either end of the bridge. Some made it. Others, less swift of foot, did not, and they joined the melee in the water below as a second set of charges blew the Chinese Bridge into large chunks that plunked into the water.
The explosion was felt by all along Sisowath Quay. Tourists watched from balconies and street cafes, standing and leaving their coffees to cross the street for a better view.
The police arrived quickly, though there was little they could do except stare and wonder, along with everyone else. The police asked a few questions, hassled a couple motodop drivers who were not wearing helmets, and then returned to the station. No one had seen anything suspicious.
The collapsed bridges resulted in limited loss of life: One cyclist drowned trying to untangle himself from his bike clips. A young monk was unable to escape from a crowded tuk-tuk, packed in with eight of his brothers, all of whom had swum to safety. Set on a timer, the explosions had occurred moments after a traffic jam had cleared.
There were broken bones, bruises, and general upset. Those who landed in the river and swam to the shore, stood on the river’s edge watching their vehicles, for many of them their livelihood, sink or drift down river. A man in a dripping wet suit stood next to a t-shirted tuk-tuk driver, both of them staring at the watery field of debris. Children cried as their mothers gossiped and pointed at where the bridge had been.
People were confused and scared. As intended.
The helicopter approached town from the east shortly after the explosion and Andrew saw the mayhem out the cockpit window. The bank of the river was thick with people. Traffic on Sisowath Quay was stopped and flashing police cars blocked the street at both ends. An ambulance several blocks away from the scene, its lights flashing, snaked its way through slim gaps in the dense traffic.
As the helicopter got closer, Andrew saw the absence of the bridges.
“What the hell?” he said.
The pilot, listening to his radio, glanced over at his passenger.
“Report just came in. Two explosions, one minute apart. Took out both bridges. Two confirmed dead, countless injured. Several unaccounted for.”
“Fuck me.” Andrew stared out the window at the receding scene.
The moment the helo landed, Andrew called Flint on his secure phone. She answered on the first ring.
Andrew described the scene on the river, with the bridges.
He asked, “Has it made the international news yet?”
“Not yet. But I’m sure it will,” Flint said, adding, “As intended, is my guess.”
“This is bigger than we thought.”
“I’ll agree with that assessment,” Flint said. “What have you got?”
Andrew outlined to Flint everything he’d learned in the past twenty-four hours, about River Metals, about Ben’s Ministry report, about the artifacts Ben listed in the report and the empty camp he described. Andrew told about his own tussle at the camp with Hakk’s bodyguard. He didn’t mention Frank or the cavern. He didn’t see the point. Not yet.
“So I think Ben stumbled on to something he wasn’t supposed to see when he first went out to Mondulkiri two months ago.”
“The empty camp.”
“Yes. And because Ben was meticulous in his reporting, he noted it in his report to the Ministry of Mines. And someone found out about the report. And squelched it.”
“Only the camp wasn’t empty when you were there.”
“No.” Andrew pictured the three executed men lying on the ground. He wondered if one of them was Mr. Cheng.
“Back up here – You say this company River Metals hired Ben.”
“Who hired River Metals?”
“Some two-penny mom and pop shop hires a random kid to go dig for gold in the middle of nowhere, pays him a load of cash, and he finds ancient artifacts? Bullshit. They sure as hell didn’t pick Ben out of the Yellow Pages, someone told them to hire him and paid them to do it. Who was it, Shaw? Since you’re not asking that question, it means you must know the answer.”
Andrew paused. Flint was good. Sometimes he forgot that.
“I’d rather not say.”
“Don’t get all cagey on me.”
“For now. I’d rather not say for now. Please, Flint, just bear with me. Right now, we need to know more about Mey Hakk. Why would his body guard be at a secret jungle camp?”
Flint cleared her throat. It was her turn to have big news.
“Well, we have learned something very interesting about Mr. Mey Hakk, thanks to you. We ran a trace on that ‘Ch’kai’ email you forwarded to me. It had covered a lot of ground, bounced around servers all over the world, led our team on quite a chase. But in the end, we nailed it – it originated from a computer inside one of Mey Hakk’s factories.”
“So, if he sent that email, and the Friendship Bridges are his work, I think we can assume there is more to come. But what?” Andrew said.
“It’d be good if you could figure that out pronto. And stop it. Because you and every other American in that town is a target,” Flint said. “Meantime, I’ve got to call the kid’s father. At least we have some news for him.”
“Yeah,” Andrew said, distracted. “OK. I’ll be in touch. I’ve got to go see a friend.” He flagged down a passing motodop and hopped on, clinging to the metal bar as the bike wove expertly into the teaming traffic.
Andrew stopped by the Embassy to print out the photographed pages of the book from Rith’s desk. He needed Socheat’s help. He hoped these would shed some light on Hakk.
He walked over to Wat Phnom, staying away from the river and the milling crowds. The usual disaster gawkers had arrived, wanting to be a witness to the event.
Andrew looked around the park but Socheat was nowhere to be found.
Andrew walked up the steps to the Wat. Unlike his previous visit, it was busy. Despite the bridge explosions, the Wat was packed with locals. Incense filled the air. Monks prayed and chanted. Children ran across courtyards. Women carried trays of sweet rice for the dead.
Andrew wandered back down the Hill. Socheat stood by a tall tree at the eastern edge of the park, watching the crowded riverbank.
Andrew approached his friend, who nodded, a thin smile on his painted red lips.
“I figured you’d come for me sooner or later.”
Andrew said “I need your help with something. This…” He nodded at the destroyed bridges. “I think this has to do with my friend who was killed. There is a man, Mey Hakk…”
Socheat’s smile vanished, his mannerisms diminished.
“We must not talk of this here.”
Andrew glanced around. They stood alone, apart from the crowd of watchers.
“Meet me in ten minutes at the Elephant Bar.” Socheat pointed up the street to Hotel Le Royale.
Andrew nodded and turned to walk away. Something weighty had shifted in Socheat. From hearing the name Mey Hakk. What did it mean?
Hotel Le Royale, also known as ‘Raffles’, stood 200 yards down the road from Wat Phnom. Andrew walked down the sidewalk, his steps heavy as his mind raced. A few brown leaves drifted past his feet, carried by a light night breeze. Images of the jungle sifted through his mind, the statues, the Veterans, the camp, and the guards. On auto-pilot, he turned into the manicured hotel compound, glancing through the windows at the golden light inside.
From a silk loveseat in a far corner of the lounge, Andrew watched Socheat enter the room, sashaying for the attentive audience of men and women who looked up as he paused in the doorway, his blue silk dress catching light in all the right places. He blinked his long eyelashes then caught sight of Andrew in the far corner. He stepped forward, his gait high like a dressage pony.
Andrew sat shrouded by heavy curtains hung from the ceiling. His beer sat untouched next to a candle. Socheat took a seat on the couch across from Andrew, crossing his legs and folding his hands on his knees.
Andrew leaned forward.
“I need you to translate something.” Andrew pulled several pages from his back pocket and spread them open on the table. Dense Khmer script covered the page.
“Aren’t you going to order a lady a drink?” Socheat tilted his head at the bar next to them, where the bartender put the finishing touch on a dirty martini, a heavy pour of olive juice into the V-shaped glass. Large stone elephants adorned the bar.
Andrew rolled his eyes and lifted a finger. He understood – they needed to keep up appearances – this was just a casual social meeting. No rush.
A slim waitress appeared, glancing at Socheat, and gave Andrew a quick bow. “Yes, sir?”
“For the lady, a…”
“Femme Fatale,” Socheat said. The waitress nodded and returned shortly with a pink cocktail bearing a fragrant flower on the side.
Drink in hand, Socheat leaned forward to read the copies, long hair falling across his face, casting a shadow on the pages. Andrew watched as Socheat read, his eyes moving across and down the lines. Socheat looked up at Andrew.
“These are the words of an angry man.”
“What does it say?”
Socheat shook his head. “It’s a…what’s the English word…a manifesto.”
“About what?” Andrew scratched his face, heavy with stubble.
Socheat’s eyes were dark. “The author of this is Hakk – the man you mentioned. He wants to rid the country of the foreigners. The Ch’kai. You know this word ‘Ch’kai’? Dogs.”
“Yes. I know it. It’s a popular word these days. But get rid of us, why?”
Socheat looked back at the pages, his finger tracing several lines of text until he found the passage he wanted. “It says that the Ch’kai exploit and taint the country and its people. That the Ch’kai have damaged his country and its people with their greed and sloth. That they will be taught a lesson. Reeducated. That there will be retribution. It goes on like that for some time.”
“Does it outline his plan?”
“No, nothing specific. It speaks only of fear, intimidation…and death. For several lines, it speaks of the destruction caused by the Ch’kai’s hold on this country. And of breaking those ties.”
“And so, the Friendship Bridges,” Andrew said.
“Yes, but that’s only the beginning.”
“I thought you said it wasn’t specific.”
“Not on the what. But on the when, yes. It is.” Socheat pointed. “At the bottom, here, these characters. It’s part of the Khmer calendar. You see here that one character is traced in bold. The reader must have wanted to remind himself. That is this Sunday. In two day’s time. Which makes sense.”
“What do you mean?”
“Sunday is Pchum Ben Day. The day we honor our ancestors.”
“The Day of the Dead,” Andrew said.
Socheat looked up. “You know the custom?”
“Yes, a friend explained it. But what does Pchum Ben Day have to do with this? Why that day?”
The candle on the table between them had gone out and the waitress stopped by with a fresh one. She placed the bowl on the table and removed the extinguished flame. Socheat waited for her to leave before he replied.
“It’s a time when lost souls roam the earth, freed from hell to seek solace. Hakk is choosing this day to honor a man who he sees as a father figure. Who taught him to kill. To hate. To destroy.”
Andrew put his elbows on the table and rested his forehead on his steepled fingers. He was tired. He looked up at Socheat.
“Pol Pot?” he asked. Socheat nodded.
“You can’t be serious,” Andrew said.
“Yes. It is.” Socheat paused, watching Andrew, then continued, speaking slowly. “Hakk was a child soldier of the Khmer Rouge, in the fields, decades ago. He would have been ten or eleven. And now,” Socheat tapped the paper on the table. “Now he is fulfilling a promise he made to that monster.”
Andrew finished the thought, astonished. “To continue his work. To isolate the country completely.”
Andrew reached for his beer. Condensation on the glass had dripped on to the table and the glass sat now in a small puddle of water. Andrew held the glass, feeling the cold on his fingers, then lifted it to his lips to drink. He paused and put the glass back down.
“That’s not all in that document, is it?” Andrew asked.
Socheat watched Andrew with hooded eyes and shook his head. Andrew leaned forward, his chin, above the candle, lit up by the dancing flame.
“How do you know all this about Mey Hakk?”
A waiter had opened the patio door, to release a wasp that had made his way inside. The waiter shook the white napkin in the night air, releasing the intruder. A breeze wafted in, bearing warm humid air.
Socheat leaned in close to Andrew and spoke quietly, in perfect Chinese.
“You and I, we are very much alike.”
Andrew heard the Beijing accent, the private schools, the cultivation and the training, all evidence that Socheat was not all he seemed.
The men eyed each other with practiced stares, then Andrew spit out his whispered words. “You’re an agent?”
Socheat said nothing, but blinked once, looking left and right for listeners.
Andrew sat back in his seat. He thought about their meeting, by chance, at Wat Phnom. Socheat always waiting for a client who never arrived. Socheat watching from the sidewalk during the embassy party.
“Of course. China has a hand in everything,” Andrew said. Then he leaned forward, confused.
“But why are you watching the US Embassy?” he asked.
Socheat ran his hands along the silk of the loveseat.
“The letter about the Ch’kai. Our Embassy received one as well. China invests here. We have made significant investments in this country. What Hakk has planned – what this document suggests – would destroy this country as we know it. Culturally. Morally. And financially. It will destroy our investment here. This is part of his plan of course. But this must not happen.”
“Why didn’t you do something about it before?”
“We weren’t sure if the threat was real. So we waited and watched for your country to start the music. We watched for a sign from the US that this was the real deal. You were it.”
Deep in the bowels of the US embassy, Andrew watched Flint on the computer, as he relayed to her the translated contents of the manifesto. Socheat had taken the printed copy and would provide a full written translation later.
“So then, what’s Hakk’s next move? First, he threatens every foreigner in town. Then he blows up two bridges, gifts from neighboring countries that are major investors. That’ll be great for international relations,” Flint said.
“That’s the point, don’t you see? To drive a wedge. To drive us away. I’m not sure about his next move. Not yet.”
Always pragmatic, Flint made a list. “OK. So he wants to scare all the foreigners away. What are potential targets? Malls, concerts, major sporting events?”
Andrew corrected her. “It’s different here, there aren’t so much of the stadiums or shopping malls or other big indoor locations like back home. With few exceptions, everything is outside, open air.”
“Like the bridges?”
“Exactly. Like the bridges.” Andrew scratched his chin and bit at his lips, which were chapped from the sun.
“Embassies?” Flint suggested.
“No, I don’t think so. That’s the one place in the country besides government buildings where security is really tight. And again, the density of people is lacking.”
Flint asked, “Aren’t there some big markets in town?”
“There’s a couple, sure. He could make a scene, like he’s done with the bridges. But I think he’s planning something bigger.” Andrew chewed on the end of his pen, a bad habit.
“Popular restaurants? Nightclubs? Art openings?” Flint suggested.
“Yep, there is all that here. But it’s all mixed together, everything is a jumble of Khmers and expats, everyone does all the same stuff.”
He continued, “And besides, all that feels too haphazard. This guy is focused. Methodical. He’s had years to plan.”
As Flint watched him on a screen from thousands of miles away, her arms crossed, Andrew stared at the map of Cambodia on his desk. Socheat had explained that the manifesto described three different camp locations. These were now marked on the map with an ‘X’, including Mondulkiri. Andrew stared at the other two locations. Andrew’s pen hovered over one then the other ‘X’.
He knew Hakk wasn’t in Mondulkiri. Fifty-fifty shot, he thought. He circled the camp by the sea.
“Enough guessing. I’ll go ask him myself.”
Waves lapped at the deserted beach. In front of the stilt house, the tide surged in. An emerging moon sat low on the eastern horizon, only a quarter of its fullness peeking out, its color a light orange. It would be a bright night once the moon rose. But now, it was still full dark. Far out over the sea, lightning flashed in high cloudbanks, threatening the clear night.
Leaving the safe cover of the water Andrew moved onto the beach, keeping low as he approached the house, flicking off dank seaweed sticking to his muscular frame. He had swum down to this site from a half mile up the empty beach, carried by the tide and adrenaline.
The balcony was empty but through the windows, Andrew could see light and movement inside. Although the beach was dark, he remained cautious. He did not want sharp eyes inside to catch his movements. He moved swiftly under the stilt house, its floor eight feet above his head.
Earlier in the night, from farther up shore, he had watched guards moving boxes from the house into a black SUV. He could only guess the boxes’ contents. He did not know how much time he had to find out. Now, under the house, he heard voices overhead, low murmurings, the sounds of agreement and plans moving forward.
Andrew figured whatever Hakk had planned it would be on a big scale, with massive casualties. The Friendship Bridges had been a major undertaking and it was only luck that so few people had died. Andrew knew Hakk would not stop there. Now he would ramp it up. He was showing off his might.
With a shiver, Andrew remembered the man’s icy stare at the Embassy party, his thinly veiled warning to Andrew to watch his step, the frisson that gripped Andrew as he shook Hakk’s hand. This was a man who preferred darkness to light, stasis to change. Death to life.
Walking under the house, Andrew didn’t feel the buried net until it was too late. An alarm sounded, as a net scooped Andrew up like a fish from the sea. In two seconds, Andrew was suspended like aged meat on a hook.
At the alarm, guards came running and a blinding spotlight shone on Andrew.
Strung up, Andrew surveyed the scene. He faced the dunes behind the house and in the dark, could see the scrubby brush eking out a life on the sand. Smelling pipe smoke from behind him, he wormed around in the rough netting to see Hakk below him staring and puffing on a long thin pipe.
Hakk’s eyes were black, his face a stone. He watched Andrew for several moments before he spoke.
“You are the catch of the day, Mr. Shaw. I’m afraid we don’t follow catch and release here. Perhaps we should gut you and dry you for sale at the Russian Market. What is the going rate per pound for spies these days?”
“Look, whatever your plan is, you’ll never get away with it. Your warnings to the embassies have alerted everyone, as you’d hoped. But we also have your manifesto and we will stop you,” Andrew said, gripping the rough netting in his hands.
“Ahh, but you see, Mr. Shaw, you are mistaken. I have already ‘gotten away with it’. Everything is in motion. There is no turning back the clock. Everyone will soon feel the effects of my plan. Even your Veteran friends in the jungle. Soon they too will be blasted away, vaporized, a distant memory. As for the rest of the country, I will be their savior. I will rid them of desire and want. They will return, all of them, to simpler times, when the outside world was shunned, when fear and hard work made us strong.”
Andrew shook the net as he spoke. “But why are you doing this? Your country is peaceful now, prosperous. Why would you disrupt that?”
Hakk spat on the beach, hissing his words. “My country is rotted flesh, attracting flies, maggots, vermin – foreign vultures who come to feed off the innards of the land. My country is a whore for them, for sale to the highest bidder. A slave to outsiders. I will free her from the yoke of the Ch’kai.”
As he listened to Hakk, Andrew pulled a clear plastic blade off his chest, where it was taped along his last rib. He palmed this in his hand. Behind his back, he pushed the thin knife into the chunky twine, moving the serrated blade back and forth against the rough rope. One piece gave way and he worked on the second, then the third. In a moment, he was able to reach his hand out of the net.
Hakk paced the beach, yelling out to his men in Khmer. Andrew needed more time.
He asked Hakk, “What is your next plan for the Ch’kai? Perhaps we can settle this another way, come to an understanding, an arrangement that could benefit you.”
Hakk spat again as he paced, forward and back. “You have nothing I want, Mr. Shaw. Perhaps you would do better to focus on your own troubles. You have other worries now. You and your little friend Severine.” At Severine’s name, Andrew’s heart sank. How had she gotten involved in this, he wondered.
As Hakk spoke, Andrew cut through several more rungs of the net and reached out to the metal ring that held the net together. He felt above and behind him for the metal rung, for a catch or release. He could not find it, so he reached farther around the metal hook until. Ahh, there it was. He grasped the metal release and gave it a hard pull. The net relaxed around him and he dropped six feet to the ground, landing with a thud on the soft sand. Gathering the net beneath him in his arms, he leapt at Hakk, who turned in surprise but not in time. Andrew cast the net upon him, pinning Hakk to the ground. His pipe fell to the beach and sizzled in the sand.
“What are the other targets?” Andrew asked. He held the knife to Hakk’s throat. Hakk stared up at him, expressionless. He blinked once, twice.
“I don’t know what you speak of. But, please, continue. Life is so tiresome.” Hakk stared at him, undaunted by the slim knife that he could feel against his neck.
Andrew shook Hakk’s shoulders. “Tell me your plan!” Andrew yelled into the night.
Behind him, a metallic sound. Andrew looked up to see several pistols trained on him. He glanced left and right. Black-clad guards surrounded him on the beach.
The moon had risen above the horizon and gentle orange moonlight glowed on the weapons aimed at Andrew’s head and chest.
Hakk spoke in Khmer, his voice calm and unhurried. The largest guard stepped close and held out his left hand.
“Heang would like your weapon.” Hakk explained. “He enjoys knives. Especially using them on intruders.”
For an instant, Andrew considered slitting Hakk’s throat. Just be done with it. Whatever insanity he had planned would die with him.
But then Andrew would never find out the next target or targets and would not be able to stop it. Or even to try. And he himself would be dead the moment after he slit Hakk’s throat. He resisted the urge to destroy.
Instead, Andrew looked up at Heang, who smiled at him, and handed Heang the clear knife, blade first.
“Hope it comes in handy,” Andrew said.
In his zeal for his new toy, Heang grabbed the extended knife hard, his soft hand closing down on the blade. The razor sharp thinness of the blade sliced his hand. A fine line of bright red appeared in his large palm. It wasn’t a deep cut, but it was long. Surprised, Heang yanked his hand away, the knife dropping onto the sand next to Hakk.
“That was foolish,” Hakk said.
A second guard yanked Andrew off of Hakk and bound Andrew’s arms behind his back.
Hakk stood, untangling himself from the net, as if removing a dinner jacket, brushing bits of sand and seaweed off his trousers and arms. “But then you have not impressed me with your wisdom. You seem to have a knack for missteps. One after another. This is why your country has set you loose, yes? You were careless.”
Andrew tried to show no expression at this comment, but he was surprised at Hakk’s knowledge. Where would he have gotten that information?
“And you are certainly no use to me, you have been nothing but an annoyance since you arrived to Phnom Penh. But that will all soon end.”
Hakk lifted his right hand, a signal to someone up the beach. Andrew turned around to see, but guard number two pushed his chin to face forward again. He’d caught a glimpse of men carrying a skiff down the beach. After a few minutes, they appeared and placed the boat at the water’s edge.
Hakk nodded at the boat. “I understand that you are a sailor. That you have a love of the sea.”
Andrew hadn’t sailed since his time at the Naval Academy. He said nothing. Hakk smiled. “I know so many things about Andrew Shaw. My sources are excellent. And discrete.” He pointed at the boat. “So you will enjoy your time on the open sea. I hear the winds might pick up, there is a storm coming. Such an experienced sailor, you will have no troubles.”
Hakk spoke to Heang in Khmer, his voice rough, finality in his tone. He glanced once more at Andrew and then walked toward the house, climbing the ladder into the hut’s interior.
Heang lifted Andrew into the boat, binding his feet as tight as his arms, then started the engine. Andrew spoke to him, hoping to distract him.
“You don’t need to do this. You know, I could set you up in America. You’d do great with the ladies. Strong silent type and all. Where am I headed, big guy? Wanna join me?”
Heang worked on the boat, preparing it for a one-way journey. Andrew had seen that the tiller had been rigged with a Loran, so he would not be steering himself anywhere. Andrew assumed it would be a straight course to the bottom of the sea.
Next, Heang moved around Andrew to the bow, where he knelt down. Andrew heard a whirring electric sound. He strained against the ropes holding him to the wooden slats. What he saw depressed him.
Heang drilled a hole in the bow, a small hole, but a hole nonetheless, just above the waterline. It would be enough to allow water to seep in as the boat headed out to rougher seas, where Andrew would vanish in the water’s depths. Heang stepped back and surveyed his work.
For the first time, Andrew felt hopeless.
“Well, you guys have thought of everything, haven’t you?” Andrew said.
Heang grunted and stepped out of the boat, started the engine and gave the boat a hard push into the deeper water. The wood bottom rasped along the grainy wet sand until it floated free, bouncing on incoming waves.
Andrew lay on the bottom of the boat, tied under the wooden seats, staring at the sky. He could see the moon in his peripheral vision, above the horizon, shining white on the water.
As the boat moved away from the beach, bobbing up and down on the rolling waves, the engine whirred and hummed, as it popped out of and then back into the sea.
Beyond the incoming tide, the water was calmer and the engine grabbed ahold. The boat began its journey south into the Gulf of Thailand, heading to open water.
Andrew stared up at the night sky, wishing for familiar stars.
The boat smelled of fish and salt. It had seen many journeys on this open sea and it did not mind that this would be its last.
The boat slowed, as Captain Sovan scanned the river’s edge for the turn-off.
There, he saw it. Around a sharp bend in the river, on the right, a tall white tree, bare branches hanging low. The captain slowed the boat’s engine to a crawl and set a course directly for the tree. He scrambled ahead to the bow to guide his boat with a long red pole. The river was shallow along the bank. The last thing he needed was to get stuck in the mud. Gripping the pole, he pushed away from the bank, guiding the boat into this hidden tributary of the Mekong. The boat passed the tree, slipping off the main river and out of sight, into denser jungle. The boat motored along slowly, its engine the only sound in the night.
The boat was on an ancient canal cut thousands of years ago, concealed from view by dense overgrowth, until it was rediscovered by Captain Sovan, who had heard tales of a hidden river.
Jeremy watched this activity with interest. He wasn’t a fan of boat rides and he was glad they had left the big river behind. Its waves and current had made him nauseous. Now, there was little current and the boat chugged ahead easily. This small river was only a few boat-widths across, with thick vegetation on each bank. There seemed to be no habitation, no man-made structures. Looking up, Jeremy could see a few stars through the tree branches overhead.
After some time, Jeremy noticed the boat had picked up speed. Captain Sovan hurried back the stern of the boat to adjust the engine.
“Now we will move fast. Deeper water. Watch your head!” the Captain exclaimed, pointing ahead in the dark. Jeremy could see the outline of something approaching, a darkness greater than the night.
He ducked just in time as the river carried the boat into a wide-mouthed cave. The entrance of the cave was about eight feet high and ten feet wide. Looking up from his crouch, Jeremy watched the stars disappear, replaced by an impenetrable black ceiling. The river bank was replaced by walls of stone.
“What is this place?” Jeremy asked.
“Shortcut. Fastest way to cavern. From old times.”
“Well, we better get there soon. I have a boat waiting in Sihanoukville to take a shipment.” “Yes, very good. Now, boat will go fast,” Captain Sovan replied.
Jeremy muttered to himself, as he peered into the darkness ahead, barely cut by the boat’s light, calculating the offers he had in hand for the statues and several he knew would come in once other antiquities collectors found out. It was important, he knew, not to flood the market. It would raise questions and devalue the pieces.
The Captain mimed hanging on to the boat while gesturing ahead with his other hand. Jeremy glanced ahead and saw the rapids. The boat would drop into these in only seconds. He grabbed on to the boat’s edge with both hands as the boat rushed forward deeper underground.
In the cave, the boat charged into the narrow rapids, which continued for some time. The water slowed as the canal widened and the stone ceiling gave way to a cavernous space. The river continued to meander through the dark, gentler and quiet.
They traveled through the cavern for what felt like forever to Jeremy but was little more than an hour. Jeremy had lost all sense of direction inside this underground space. Eventually, the boat rounded a corner and Jeremy saw light ahead. A long white beach came into view a half mile ahead. Beyond the beach, higher up on a wide plain, the life-size gold statues gleamed in ethereal light from the cavern’s roof. Jeremy’s heart rate quickened. They had arrived.
At the back of the boat, Captain Sovan had set to work. He called out to Jeremy. “Please – can you help me?” Jeremy watched as the Captain threw back a tarp to reveal a blue barrel. As the boat approached the beach, the Captain rolled it on its edge toward the side of the boat, planning to lift it over the side onto the beach once the boat was anchored.
“What is THAT?” Jeremy asked.
“Mr. Hakk said gift for the American men who live here. Said to keep it secret.”
“A gift? From Hakk?”
Jeremy strode to the barrel, turned it upright, and reached to yank off its plastic lid. The Captain got in Jeremy’s way and tried to stop him, his weathered hands placed firmly on the barrel’s lid. He pushed at Jeremy with his whole body, protesting.
“No! Hakk said no to open. Only for these men in hiding. A present. A surprise.” He let go a string of Khmer utterances.
Jeremy shoved the Captain aside. The Captain lost his balance and fell to the boat floor. Unaccustomed to being pushed about on his own boat, the Captain seethed. While no one had witnessed the loss of face and the embarrassment of a passenger commandeering his vessel’s cargo, he felt it. His face reddened as he watched Jeremy grab a screwdriver from the boat’s toolbox and wedge it underneath the lip of the barrel lid, loosening the plastic around the rim.
Loosening the lid enough to slip his fingers underneath the lip, Jeremy pulled the lid and threw it, like a Frisbee, into the river. He peered inside.
He saw a metal canister, the timer and the wires. Even from Jeremy’s limited experience with such things, he guessed by the size and weight, it was enough to blow the roof off a football stadium.
The digital timer counted down, the numbers shifting from 3 hours to 2 hours, 59 minutes, and 59 seconds.
The boat ground to a halt against the sand, its motor still trying to push the boat forward.
Thirty minutes later, the barrel sat on the beach, settled in the sand. The Captain and Jeremy had removed it from the boat. It had taken them ten minutes to lift the barrel and carry it together to a flat spot on the sand by the cliff. They had argued about moving it at all. Jeremy wanted to send the boat back down stream. In the end Captain Sovan had prevailed, presenting a gun in defense of his position, explaining to Jeremy that this was his boat, his cargo and Jeremy was his passenger. Jeremy was persuaded.
The Captain had returned to his boat, where he folded and refolded his salty fishing nets, wishing he was back on the wide Mekong river. Jeremy walked among the field of statues, touching them and breathing deeply. The gold statues stared, unmoved by the new arrivals to the cavern or their destructive cargo.
Awake now, Severine sat on the beach by the river, her arm around Samnang. Both were groggy from the drugs and more than a little confused by their new location. Samnang would not speak. Severine had put her feet in the water and Samnang had done the same. Together, they sat, big and little, their long black hair hanging down their backs, watching the river as it flowed south.
Over the bubble of the river, Severine heard voices. She glanced at the Captain, who was focused on his net. He whistled to himself. She looked back at the plain, where Jeremy wandered in a silent and golden trance. She was sure she heard voices. She lifted her chin and looked at the river, where two canoes appeared around a bend.
“Dammit it all the hell! This daggun’ rope has tangled my foot. Can’t you fools learn how to coil a rope. Help me out, Frank!”
The boats rounding the bend carried five men. One of them was hopping about, tipping the canoe this way and that.
“Sit down fool, or we’re all gonna end up floating in this river.”
“Oh thank God.” Severine stood. She didn’t know who they were or what they were doing there, in this strange, ethereal place. But their voices, she could hear, were filled with laughter and light.
The boats continued toward her and she waved at the men, one of whom whistled at her, long and low. Frank scowled at him.
“Classy, Harry, to catcall a women in distress.” The canoes neared the beach and Frank hopped into the water to pull the boats onto the pebbles. He called out to Severine.
“We heard we had company, thought we’d come on down here and see what’s going on.”
The man called Harry whooped as he hopped out of the boat, using his cane to steady himself and nearly falling in the shallow water. Frank caught him. “We haven’t had this much excitement in thirty years!” Harry yelled.
The second man with a cane followed. The two men sidled over to the blue barrel.
“Watcha got in here?” Harry asked. He poked at the barrel with his cane.
The other man scolded him. “Hells bells, Harry, don’t you remember anything? You don’t poke a live explosive!”
“Ahh, shut up Ed, you old windbag. You always were a know-it-all. Let me take a closer look at this thing.” Harry knelt down in the sand, putting his cane on the beach and peering into the barrel at the bomb.
Severine rushed over to Frank. “I don’t know who you are but I’m so thankful you’re here. An evil man, he sent us here with this bomb. What do we do?”
“Steady now. Hang on there misses. We’ll let the experts take a look.” He nodded at Ed and Harry who were circling the bomb, arguing about it.
“Whaddaya see, Harry?” Ed asked.
“Not too much.” Harry rapped on the metal casing. “Gotta open this baby up, take a look inside. Anyone got any pliers?”
The Captain had watched the new arrivals with interest and he hopped from his fishing boat with his toolbox. “Yes, here is tools.” He had given up trying to control the situation. He was outnumbered now.
Severine turned to Frank. “Is that a good idea?” she asked, her face dark with worry.
Frank shrugged. “Who knows? Let’s see what they come up with. They’re the best we’ve got at bomb disposal around here.” Frank gestured around the empty space.
Samnang, next to Severine, watched Frank with wide brown eyes. Frank bent down to her.
“What’s your name there, little bug?” he asked.
Samnang whispered her name. Severine smiled. “She’s a lot shy and a little scared.”
“Well, everything is gonna be ok, little lady.” Samnang looked from Frank to Severine and then back again.
Severine said, under her breath, “I hope so.” Frank patted her hand.
Jeremy was furious. He and Hakk had made a deal. A deal! Now he’d been sent upriver with a bomb. He sat on a golden chair and fumed, muttering about teaching Hakk a lesson.
“I’ve got to get the statues out of here,” Jeremy said to himself. He had worked so hard, had sacrificed for this. He would not be thwarted by some two-bit local gangster.
From the beach, Severine and Frank watched him. “What’s wrong with your friend there?” Frank asked.
“His plan has gone awry. He doesn’t like it when things don’t go his way.”
“Well, our boys are gonna try to disarm the bomb. In the meantime, we need to get everyone out of here, in case they don’t.”
“How? We won’t all fit in those canoes and even the fishing boat.”
“Our buddy Bob has it all figure out.” Frank said. “Tell the lady your plan.”
“The lights, the power here, are from a submarine we brought upriver about thirty years ago now. It’s about out of juice…”
“And so are we…” Frank added helpfully.
“…So we’re gonna hop in and take a ride, maybe head into town, to see the sights. Figured now’s as good a time as any,” he added, nodding at the bomb, surrounded now by all the men, one of them on his knees trying to read the timer.
Frank clapped his hands together. “All right. Best let everyone know we’re outta here. How’s the bomb disposal going Harry?”
Harry looked up. He’d pulled off a metal plate and was staring at an imposing tangle of wires, red and green and blue. In his hand he held a pair of metal clippers, his bent arthritic hands shaking as they gripped the yellow rubber handles.
“It’s a doozy!” He shook the tool in the air. Ed, next to him, grabbed the extended clippers and said, “Let me try. You don’t know what you’re doing anyway.” The two men set to bickering.
“Here she is.” Bob said, looking upriver. Severine followed his gaze.
Around the bend, a long black line appeared on the river. Severine had never seen a submarine up close. Samnang hung by her side, frightened of the metal creature that neared the beach.
The submarine creaked as it approached the beach from up river. Severine watched, fascinated as the sub came into better view. It was actually dark grey, not black. It slowed and with a quiet whirring sound it stopped in the deepest part of the canal. A metal portal on top flipped open. Stuart popped his head out of the portal.
“Alright, I got her on stand-by. Let’s go folks! I don’t know how much juice this old tin can has got left in her!”
The people on the beach walked to the river’s edge, where Frank ferried them in the canoe to the waiting submarine. One by one, they climbed onto the deck of the old submarine. The fellows with canes left the bomb reluctantly, Ed glancing back at his handiwork. The clock continued to count down.
Once on the submarine, the men tap-tapped their way along the deck. Harry gave the boat a sharp jab with his cane.
“Is this thing solid?”
Bob grinned. “We better hope so!”
By now, only one person remained on the beach watching all this departure activity. Jeremy paced along the shore, staring first at the field of gold figures then back at the submarine.
“I’m not leaving this. It’s millions of dollars of gold. I’ll load this into the fishing boat. Or I’ll go out the other way.”
Severine glanced back at him. She turned to Frank, “Should we force him to leave?”
Frank shrugged. “He’s a grown man, he can do what he likes.” Frank glanced at his watch. “And if he stays here, by my calculations,” he nodded at the bomb, “He’s got about an hour left in which to do that.”
Severine glanced back once more and then shepherded Samnang down into the submarine’s hold.
“Is that everybody?” Bob yelled down into the tin can about to be their home for the next several hours.
Severine looked up, as the round portal door closed and the hatch was sealed. She felt her chest tighten.
Frank patted her arm. “This is gonna be a wild ride, little lady. Hang on.”
Bob yelled out to his first officer, the checkers-playing cane-wielding Ed.
“Full speed ahead. We’re on the move.”
Outside, Jeremy stood amidst the gold statues, watched the submarine move away down the canal. He started to drag the closest gold statue in the direction of the beach, where the bomb counted time in fleeting seconds.
The helicopter flew low along the shoreline, the thup thup thup of its rotor muted by the crashing surf. An approaching typhoon had kicked up the seas of the Gulf of Thailand and spray spattered the cockpit windows. The winds would only increase. In this rough weather, the chopper had a short timeframe to be out safely. Once the heavy winds hit, it would be forced to ground.
The helicopter held two occupants: The young pilot that had ferried Andrew home from Mondulkiri and a woman beside him, who stared hard at a map as if her life depended on it. Flint, her eyes squinting, her mouth in a worried frown, looked out into the night.
She’d flown from Dulles to Singapore while Andrew had been in Mondulkiri, once her team had confirmed Mey Hakk as the source of the Ch’kai email. She’d also heard some disturbing rumors about an Embassy attaché gone missing. She’d flown onward to Phnom Penh when Andrew had insisted on chasing Hakk down on his own. Now she was doing her best to track her man.
In her hand she held what looked like a smart phone. It was a secure tracking device, picking up a coded signal from a chip in Andrew’s body, implanted four years ago, unbeknownst to him, during a routine surgery, before he went deep undercover. For each agent, the chip was placed in a different location, based on body type, gender, and height. Flint never told her agents when she had them implanted or where the device was. Of course, the Agency didn’t tell their agents many things. For their own protection.
The display showed latitude and longitude coordinates. A digital compass changed slightly every few seconds. They ha missed Andrew on the beach by an hour. Since then he’d been drifting southwest with the current and the wind. If he’d had a motor, it had long since died. He was under the power of the elements. Which were about to get nasty.
Flint spoke into her headset to the pilot as they flew swiftly along the shoreline.
“He’s a few miles out, south, southwest, based on this calculation. Can you make it?”
The helicopter veered sharply away from the shoreline and headed out over the Gulf of Thailand. It traveled over open water, a quarter mile above the sea, to avoid the mist kicked up by the heaving whitecaps.
There were almost no boats out, as fishermen, men who live and die by the sea, had called it a day, with the typhoon predicted to hold sustained winds of up to 150 mph. It was not a time to be on the water.
Flint calculated that Andrew had been out there for 9 hours. She felt both guilt and anxiety. She’d put him in this position. She should have done better due diligence on this entire operation.
She watched the tracking device: It showed Andrew about three miles off shore in the Gulf of Thailand.
She looked out the window at the choppy sea below them. Angry waves grew bigger. She hoped wherever Andrew was, he was afloat. And alive.
Andrew had slept deeply. Bound and tied, he’d tried to stay awake but the fatigue and rocking waves had lulled him to sleep. When he woke, he was soaking wet and freezing, in three inches of water that had seeped into the hole in the hull. Andrew wondered how it was possible to be cold in an equatorial climate. But he was.
He was also stiff from lying in the same position for hours. Heang had tied him underneath the front and back seat slats, as if he were to be roasted on a spit. As best he could, Andrew stretched, his hips achy, his calves cramped.
Stretched out to full length, Andrew’s legs reached to the end of the dinghy. His bare feet, pointed, reached the hole through which seawater was splashing.
He poked his big toe into the drilled hole, wedging himself into a secure position. The seepage stopped. Andrew sighed. Well, that’s one problem solved. He’d bought himself time. Not a lot, not with the storm. But some time.
He started working on the bindings on his wrists.
The weather grew worse farther out to sea. Rain plastered the windows. Heavy winds stirred the already frenzied sea. It was nearly impossible to see, even with the spotlight shining down from the helicopter.
Flint peered out of the window at the churning sea but could discern nothing in the dark. The pilot was the first to see the boat.
The pilot sighted the boat about a hundred off. The helo drew closer and Flint pressed her nose against the glass. Andrew was one of her best. She didn’t want to lose him.
Through the mist, she could see the white bobbing dinghy, drifting with the current. It was half-full of water and would soon sink.
Most importantly, she could see Andrew wasn’t in it. She checked her tracker, which she’d forgotten once they’d spotted the boat. Sure enough, Andrew was on the move.
“It’s too rough now, we have to turn back,” the pilot said, as he turned the helicopter back toward shore.
Flint swore under her breath and nodded. She looked at her tracker. He was out there, somewhere.
A brash Cambodian fisherman, who believed his fishing boat unsinkable, steered the boat through the surging night seas of the Gulf of Thailand. Over many beers, on evenings in Sihanoukville bars, he would brag to his fishermen friends that there was no storm his boat could not vanquish. So far he had been right.
It wasn’t much to look at, a wooden junk like many others. But it was solid and tended to with love. It had been his father’s boat before him.
The fisherman had one net still out and then he would call it a day. As he pulled the net in, which was filled to his delight with flapping fish churned up from the storm, he spotted in the water near the boat, lit from the spotlight on his net, white limbs slicing through the waves. He thought it was an albino octopus caught in the maelstrom. Then he saw a man’s head bob up between waves, and after a few moments, one of the white arms grabbed onto the boat’s edge, the hand gripping the wooden railing. The whole man followed the hand, as the man pulled himself up on to the boat. He stood, naked, staring at the fisherman. He was white as a bone and breathing hard.
“Help me.” The man slumped against the side of the boat, exhausted.
The fisherman had seen many American movies and he was especially fond of Meryl Streep films. His English was from Hollywood films bought for pennies at the local market.
“Yes. Yes.” The fisherman left his net and the flapping fish hoping to return to the sea. He gave Andrew water from his own bottle then rummaged inside the small cabin for an old woven blanket. Some calm nights he slept on the open water, under the sky. The night air always carried a chill that permeated the bones.
As he wrapped Andrew in the rough blanket, he saw the red marks on Andrew’s wrists and ankles. They were not deep, rope burns only, and would be fine from the salt water. But a man lost at sea for any amount of time is a man at risk of dying, from exposure, dehydration, and hypothermia.
“Here. Drink. More.” Andrew drank again deeply and then proceeded to throw up much of what he had swallowed.
“Good, good.” The fisherman said, “Salt water. Good on outside, bad on inside.” He gave the bottle again to Andrew. “Drink. Again.”
As Andrew drank the water, wiped his mouth, the fisherman started his engine.
“How far are we from shore?”
“Far. You strong swimmer. But not that strong. Where is boat?”
Andrew leaned his head back against the wood. “By now, at the bottom of the sea.” The fisherman, pondering this, felt proud of his small but seaworthy craft. He patted the boat’s side.
The winds continued to pick up and a gust knocked the boat hard. Andrew caught himself, his hand reaching for an edge. The fisherman simply adjusted his stance. His sea legs were on auto-pilot.
Andrew wrapped the blanket around himself tighter. “I need to get to shore. To Cambodia. Can you take me there?”
“Yes, yes. We go now. I take you.” The fisherman studied his unexpected passenger. “Kampot?” Most tourists wanted to go to Kampot.
“No. Anywhere but Kampot.” Kampot was the beach from which he’d been launched.
“OK. I take you Sihanoukville. Very fun. Many parties. Much drinking.” The fisherman opened the engine and the boat picked up speed. He pointed at the heavy night skies.
“Now, the storm comes.”
Andrew looked out into the night. “Yes. It does.”
Andrew stood on the edge of the clearing, leaning against a thick tree. The rain pelted down in the thin morning light, pushing its way through the jungle canopy and pattering on the dense leaves. The sun, thwarted by the thick low clouds of the fast-moving storm, was nowhere to be seen. It would be a dark day.
The camp in front of Andrew consisted of five wood-framed huts with thatched roofs and walls. Tall straight trees surrounding the clearing swayed in the heavy wind. Light shone from the largest hut. Several men stood under a large tree smoking. In a rustic bamboo stable by the edge of the forest near Andrew, animals shifted about in the darkness, waiting to be fed.
Andrew counted ten motorcycles. And the helicopter he’d passed a quarter mile back could hold one person, maybe two.
Socheat’s translation of Hakk’s treatise had listed three training camps. Like Ben, Andrew had stumbled on the first camp in Mondulkiri and visited the second in Kampot, hoping to talk to Hakk. Now, deep in the Cardamom mountains, site of the last stand of the Khmer Rouge, Andrew knew he had found the main camp, Hakk’s stronghold. While the other two were transient facilities, here, he’d seen water cisterns on the mountain-side, large storage containers, probably with food and weaponry, and a helicopter pad. This is where Hakk was holed up and where he planned to remain.
While the weather had helped his approach, masking the sound of the helo he’d commandeered from the Sihanoukville airport, now the rain pelted down on him. His clothes, borrowed from a drunk Australian who’d been walking on the Sihanoukville beach at 5:00 AM, were soaked and plastered to his body.
He had landed on the only open spot he could find, a deserted road about a mile away, and had snaked his way up the mountain, following a trail worn by animals wild and domestic moving over the hill. Several times, thinking he heard voices, he had faded off the trail into the trees. But it had been only the wind.
The camp was far from all towns, the closest village a rugged twenty-mile motorcycle ride away and that was nothing more than a watering hole, offering only warm beer and weak pot. The only people who would pass this way were locals, farmers who wanted no trouble. Certainly, there were no tourists.
Hakk’s men had arrived an hour earlier, one from each province, driving the long distance from their homelands, where they themselves had their own men, believers waiting for the word. This group had met only once before, a year previous, to set things in motion. Tonight, they had greeted each other with deep bows and quiet words, waiting for their leader to summon them. It was a solemn and sacred time.
Andrew watched as Hakk appeared in the doorway and called from the hut, yelling over the sound of the noisily swaying trees, for his men. He was ready. Cigarettes were extinguished, feet shuffled and the men fell into a line, moving toward the light. In the dark, Andrew waited.
Inside the hut, Hakk stood at the head of the wooden table in the center of the room, staring at a large map on the wall to his right. The room was lit by oil lanterns, one positioned in each corner and another hanging from a pole that ran from one end of the ceiling to the other.
On the table, squat white candles smoked, their flames casting shadows on the men’s faces as they assembled and sat, four seats on each side. The seat at the head of the table was vacant.
The men, all in their fifties, dark hair graying at the temples, were dressed identically in black. While it was not evident from their stony faces, they were the type of men for whom hate came easy, like breathing. It was all they had known. As with Hakk, it was the only sustenance they needed, its power sustaining as they steeped in bitter anger, watching as the world pressed forward, into an open, welcome, connected future.
Hakk had devoted years searching for this small band of men, visiting villages and towns in distant provinces, asking quiet questions in subdued corners, leaving a trail for his brothers-in-arms to find him. He had known there must be others like him, who had stood guard decades ago, like him, on rice paddies now forgotten. Who longed too to see the work continue.
The men, hatred stirred awake, came to him from the remotest corners of the countryside, with hopes that their collective dreams would restore order to the world gone mad.
Hakk held his arms behind his back and breathed in, his shoulders rising with the inhale. He waited. On the table, his satellite phone rang and he grabbed it to answer.
“Jah. Jah.” Yes. Yes. OK.
He hung up and nodded at the men. Their faces showed visible relief. The loss of the Siem Reap bomb had disrupted the initial plan, but now things were back on schedule.
Hakk placed the pin in Siem Reap.
“Now we begin.”
As Hakk spoke, his voice quiet, his advisors leaned forward to hear, their faces open and reverent, their eyes unblinking. They watched his lips as his words unveiled a new world for them. For their country. For the world.
What he said made their heartbeats quicken.
Andrew had watched the men enter the hut. He noted that only one man stood guard in the doorway, the guard Heang from the beach. From his location, Andrew could see into the hut through a window and he watched Hakk talking. He wanted to get closer.
He approached the stables from the back. From this location, he could smell that the stalls needed a good cleaning and some fresh hay. He stepped to the front to see the offending creatures.
The stable revealed a large gray beast, whose left eye watched Andrew, transfixed. The elephant was the largest Andrew had seen. It huffed at him, a question. She and her companion had been fed, an extra large bucket each, and so were content and untroubled by their visitor. Watching her, Andrew christened her Jane and her son Dick. Andrew was about to move in to the stable, as figured it would be a good place to watch the action, out of the rain, when he heard voices.
He slipped back behind the stable and watched Heang approach, carrying something in his hand. Andrew assumed it was a gun. He didn’t know if he should bolt for the cover of the jungle or stay put.
Heang went right into the stable, where Andrew could no longer see him. He could hear Heang speaking in quiet Khmer, in a gentle sing song tone. Andrew ventured closer to the stable window to peer in.
Heang was sitting on a plastic bucket feeding the vast elephant grapes from his hand. He caressed the large animal’s face and sang a lullaby while Jane ate.
After a few minutes, snack time over, Heang patted the animal’s trunk, brushed off his trousers and walked back to the hut. He wiped his feet on the dirt outside and walked in.
Andrew watched this scene, considering his options. He could draw Heang to the stable and maybe take him out by force. But the odds were still too great; there were too many men. And who knew if there were a few men more patrolling the woods, though Andrew had not seen anyone on his approach up the hill. He didn’t even have a weapon at this point. With a glance at the animals, he retreated to the edge of the woods and waited.
Hours later, Andrew fretted in the woods, hungry and cold, knowing he was wasting time but certain that he could stop Hakk’s plan, if he could just get inside that hut.
All day, he’d watched the men at the table. From Andrew’s vantage point, he could see Hakk lecture his men. Andrew caught an occasional familiar-sounding word, but they spoke mostly in Khmer and without Socheat’s help, he understood little of it. The men had eaten a simple meal, prepared by Heang, of rice in coconut milk. Andrew had watched as Heang sliced the rind from the fruit and tended the fire.
Each man in turn had left the hut to venture into the woods, presumably, Andrew figured, to relieve themselves. During all of this, Andrew had kept his eyes trained on the hut.
At one point, after several hours, an argument had erupted inside the hut, between two of the men, their yelling waking Andrew from an uneasy snooze. Hakk had silenced them with a word and resumed.
While Andrew waited, he built a rough sling-shot from a supple twig and a thin elastic from his waist band. He used to build them when he was a kid, terrorizing the neighborhood squirrels. Not an ideal weapon, but it would have to do.
Finally, in late afternoon, the men emerged looking tired but eager. The meeting was adjourned just as the storm broke, blowing east to Vietnam. Thin rays of light were caught and reflected in large round raindrops on dark green leaves. Hakk remained inside, unseen except for glimpses through the window.
Heang stood guard as a few men lit cigarettes and others hopped on their motorcycles, revving their engines as they anticipated the return trip to their homelands. This, Andrew knew, meant things were in motion for Sunday. The bikers launched themselves onto the rough dirt trail and disappeared, leaving a trail of dust.
Andrew counted. Aside from the two remaining men, who were also readying for travel, that left Heang, one other guard, and Hakk inside the hut. Andrew was more comfortable with this. The departure of the men told Andrew that Hakk felt secure in these woods, far from any city, certain that he had nothing to fear. Confident that he himself was the greatest danger.
Andrew settled down behind the stable to wait. After some time, all was quiet again. Heang called out to his fellow guard. He had to urinate. He walked in to the woods on the far side of the clearing, leaving only the one guard, facing the stream, chucking stones at the small frogs that had appeared on the banks, filling the coming night with song.
Andrew stepped into the dark stable where the animals rested. He loosened the twine tying the elephants to the bamboo poles and with a rump slap, pushed them toward the clearing. They didn’t need much encouragement, as they too thought the stall needed a good cleaning. As they stepped away from him, Andrew patted the big girl’s rump. “Sorry, you’re not gonna like this.” He slipped back into the darkness and pulled out the slingshot.
Elephants have thick hides but Andrew hoped they could still feel beneath all that skin.
He found a bullet-shaped object in his pocket. He’d gnawed off a part of the rubber sole of his shoes while he waited. The hard black rubber would sting the old girl and hopefully, piss her off pretty good. Andrew hoped she’d have something to say about that.
Andrew took aim. In the clearing, Jane nibbled on the grass, which tasted sweeter than her normal feed. Her baby boy stayed close by.
Phhtt! The shot hit home and was followed by a trumpeting that could wake the dead. The elephant bellowed, wailed and kicked, turning this way and that in effort to stop the pain and find the aggressor. Andrew shot a second round. More furious complaining ensued.
Her companion, uncertain what had happened, tried to be helpful but kept getting in Jane’s way. The wailing continued, and Andrew assumed the rubber bullet had left a good welt on Jane’s ample backside. No matter. It did the trick.
The guard rushed from the hut to see what the fuss was about. Heang ran back to the clearing from his piss in the woods.
On seeing the men running at her, Jane went into a mad rampage, storming directly at them. The closest one turned to run away, climbing the nearest tree he could find. But Heang pulled out his gun and shut a round into the air. At the sound, Jane bellowed once more and turned sharply, heading now for the forest, for the safety of the deepest jungle she could find. Her companion followed on Jane’s heels, their bellowing echoing in the jungle.
Hakk appeared in the doorway at the top of the short ladder.
“Fools. Go and get them.”
Amidst the hubbub, darkness had fallen, without warning, night ushered in unceremoniously, without introduction. The guards lit long bamboo torches and headed reluctantly into the dense jungle. They had dim hope of finding the escaped elephants, who now galloped through the forest, thrilled with their freedom, trumpeting for all that they were back. The guards did not argue with Hakk. They proceeded as commanded.
Hakk watched his men disappear in to the jungle, their torchlight bobbing and weaving with their movements, trying to find the semblance of a path, but having little luck.
“Fools.” Hakk muttered. He was alone now, which he preferred. He needed his men only to execute his plan. He retreated inside to wait. With the rising of the sun, his vision would unfold across the country. All would be enlightened.
Andrew watched from his hiding place by the stable. “This works,” he whispered to himself. He imagined Hakk would be surprised to see him. And not pleasantly so. Andrew looked forward to the reunion.
Leaving his hiding place, Andrew stayed low to the ground and circled the perimeter of the camp to approach the main hut. A broad shallow brook bubbled nearby. He was certain there was no one else but Hakk present.
He crouched in the semi-darkness of dusk and moved to the hut, the sky above him the deepest blue before the stars appeared. He wedged himself underneath the hut, into a two-foot gap between the forest floor and the hut baseboards. There, through gaps in the uneven floor, Andrew could see Hakk pacing. Andrew smelled cigarette smoke, Hakk’s pipe and charred paper, as if evidence had been burned. The lantern in the north corner of the hut had gone out, its oil depleted.
Andrew’s only weapon, his knife, was safely in the hands of Heang, who was now in the jungle, hunting his pet elephant.
By the entrance to the hut, the cooking fire still burned, popping and cracking as the flames devoured the dry wood seasoned several years in the remote jungle. The fire threw the occasional spark onto the clearing, where it extinguished in grass still wet from the rain.
Concealed now so close to his target, Andrew saw something glowing red amidst the flames. Andrew shimmied forward in the dirt on his elbows to get a closer look at the fire.
The object in the fire was a metal shovel, stuck into the coals to move the logs and forgotten once the rice was cooked and the meal was served.
Andrew listened. There was no sound of the guards; they were too far into the jungle. He heard no noises from above him in the hut. He could not see Hakk now but assumed he was reading and standing still. Andrew pushed forward from underneath the floor, toward the fire.
Moving quickly beside the fire, Andrew touched the protruding shovel handle, testing it. It was wood and cool to the touch. But the shovel blade, squarely in the coals for some time now, shone red hot along its edge. Andrew grabbed the handle and pulled the makeshift weapon from the coals. He moved back to the hut and crouched low by the window, his legs loose and ready, his heart thumping against his chest wall. He took a moment to slow his breath and visualize his next several moves as he watched Hakk pace by a map on the wall. Deep in thought, Hakk paced with a strict rhythm, the same number of steps in each direction, his turns sharp and quick.
Andrew glanced around the clearing. It was empty and quiet. The elephant-chasing guards had disappeared deep into the brush. The evening birdsong had settled into silence. The clear-running brook tumbled over stones, toward wide and far-away shores.
Andrew strode to the hut and stood beside the doorway, peering in. Hakk had stopped pacing and was staring at the map, his hands held behind his back. He rocked on his heels. A board beneath his shoes squeaked with each descent. In loose-fitting black trousers and top, Hakk carried no visible weapon. Andrew saw a pistol at the far end of the table, by Hakk’s seat.
Andrew stepped up inside the hut and moved toward the table, the shovel at his side. He was careful to keep the red blade a good distance from his skin. With each slow step, he kept his eyes trained on Hakk.
As he reached the table, the board underneath his right foot creaked. Hakk turned at the sound. The two men stared at each other from opposite ends of the table. A shadow crossed Hakk’s face and then was gone.
“How unfortunate. I thought Heang had dealt with you.”
“Your man Heang might take a lesson or two in tying knots.”
“What is it that you want Mr. Shaw? You have traveled a long way.”
“I want you to call off your plan. Call off your men. Whatever you have in the works, you’ll just destroy your country, its future. Call it off. Call it off right now.”
As he spoke, Andrew eyed the gun on the table. Hakk followed Andrew’s gaze.
“You know nothing of my country, Mr. Shaw. Nothing of what it is and what it needs for the future. I will set my country, my people, free,” Hakk said, glaring at Andrew.
For a moment, the two men faced each other. The wind that had earlier gripped the trees had calmed. The night was still, with the only the silent music of the stars. The forest held its breath.
The next instant, both men lurched for the gun. Hakk was closest and grabbed it, as Andrew rushed forward, swinging the shovel in a high arc like a baton. Hakk released one wild shot before the shovel knocked the gun from his left hand and hit him square on the chin. The blow knocked him backwards into the wall and he crumbled to the floor. Andrew dropped the hot shovel and was upon Hakk in instant, his hands on his throat.
Hakk smiled up at Andrew, their faces inches apart. “You are a foolish, persistent man,” Hakk said, looking past Andrew.
Before Andrew could turn, Heang, who had returned from the chase and heard the commotion in the hut, stepped inside to see the fight. He rushed forward and jabbed a large needle in Andrew’s neck. Andrew felt a weakness take hold of him, a coldness that coursed through him like a chill winter wind. He collapsed off of Hakk onto the wood floor. There he lay, unable to move, but still conscious, staring up at Hakk, who stood over him, dusting off his hands. Andrew tried to think, but a fog enveloped him.
Hakk watched the drugs take hold. He said to Andrew, “The animals get unruly, so we give them something to calm themselves. We underestimated you. So now we will keep you with us. You will stand witness to my triumph.”
Hakk bent low, close to Andrew’s face. “And when it is over, I’ll dump you like chum in the South China Sea.”
Andrew succumbed to the chemicals, his last image Hakk’s black eyes watching over him.
When he woke, Andrew was tied in the elephant stable, sitting in shit-covered straw. He shook the offending material off his bare arms. The knots around his wrists and ankles were expertly done this time, tight and secure.
Andrew listened. Above the trees swaying in winds leftover from the storm, he heard men talking nearby but out of his view. A snuffling noise accompanied their quiet conversation. The guards had returned, with only one of the elephants, the baby, tied to a nearby tree, grazing by the stream.
The light in the main hut was out. The men stood guard under a wide tree, smoking, their cigarette tips red in the dark. They had been instructed not to speak with the prisoner, not to touch him, feed him or respond to his queries or requests.
Andrew called out. “Hey! Heang!”
No reply. But their quiet conversation had ceased and they listened. They had not been instructed against listening.
“Hey, someone come here. There’s a huge snake in here, striped like a bee! I think it’s gonna bite me! Get this thing away from me!”
Tied to the stiff bamboo, Andrew yelled and shuffled about in the straw, making noise enough for the guards to hear. He knew there was a deep fear of snakes here, the provinces writhed with poisonous ones, cobras, vipers, who had killed many a bare-footed farmer. The snake Andrew described, the banded krait, with distinctive black and yellow stripes, struck fear in all hearts; its bite brought with it a painful, paralytic death.
No reply from the guards. No movement. Andrew continued.
“Holy SHIT! Ow!! OWWWww! The fucker just bit me!”
Andrew knocked about the stable more vigorously now, banging his head on the bamboo and with his bound feet, kicking straw out onto the clearing, where the guards would hopefully see it in the torchlight.
“Ugh. Help, help me…someone. Help.”
Andrew made several more unintelligible noises, his voice trailing off and then he lay still, blinking.
He waited. No movement from the guards. But no conversation either.
Andrew waited and listened. He was good at waiting and listening. It always paid off.
After twenty minutes, during which Andrew moved only once, stretching his left foot, pointing and flexing to work out a cramp under his big toe, one of the guards ventured toward the stable. Heang had tried to dissuade him but he insisted. His little sister had nearly died from a snake bite while catching frogs by a stream. He did not like snakes. And it sounded like the snake was in a biting mood.
The guard lit a torch and walked forward, watching the grass and flaring the ground with the torch in case the snake had slithered into the clearing.
The guard had heard Andrew’s pleas and decided he himself was just being smart by checking on things. If there was a snake and more importantly, if the prisoner was dead, he would need to tell Hakk. He knew he was disobeying Hakk’s order but he was certain Hakk would applaud his initiative.
He stepped forward into the stable, his foot slipping on the soiled hay.
Inside, the prisoner was slumped by the back wall. The guard shone the torch on the hay, uncertain if he should move forward. Perhaps the snake lay coiled and waiting, disturbed by this new visitor. The guard backed away.
Then he heard it, a slight hissing sound, so faint he thought it might be the distant wind. He stopped moving, breathing. He listened. There it was again. A whisper of a hiss, then nothing.
He was certain there was a snake. This would not do. The guards slept on straw mats on the ground outside Hakk’s hut in the open air. A snake would be drawn to their warm bodies. It was a danger to all of them.
He pulled his gun from his belt and stepped forward again into the dark.
Andrew had watched with relief as the guard approach. It had been a long twenty minutes. He had twisted himself into an uncomfortable position to mimic a painful death. His arms, tied behind his back, were asleep.
He had watched the guard step into the doorway, hesitate, and step outside again.
Betting on the strength of curiosity and fear, Andrew making as small a sound as he could, had hissed. He knew if he was still tied up when Hakk woke, with the dawn, there was no tomorrow for him. For many.
The guard waved the torch across the hay, the sound of the flame swooshing. Motes of dust filtered up from the hay, floating in the light. He stepped again, lifting his foot and placing it with care, approaching the still prisoner, who was prone, his body frozen and contorted, as if in pain. The guard listened for breathing but heard none.
As the guard approached him with his gun drawn, Andrew felt his stomach tighten. He readied to strike.
Andrew moved so quickly he surprised even himself. In lightning motions, Andrew thrust his bound feet hard upwards at the guard, who had leaned over the “corpse” to inspect it. Knocking the guard off his feet, Andrew pulled him close with his legs, rolling his torso onto the guard to stifle his surprised calls for help. Andrew shoved a sharp elbow below the guard’s sternum, to knock out his wind and silence his cries. Then, rolling off him, with a sharp blow from his palm, he shoved the man’s nose into his brain.
Andrew’s breathing was heavy with momentum. He grabbed the guard’s gun, a knife from his pocket, a cell phone, and a lighter. His colleagues would be looking for him in a moment, wondering if he had found the snake.
He had indeed, only it had two legs. And now it was armed.
It was a perfect Saturday morning, cool with no hint of rain, the first time in months. The children’s game of tag had started, as it usually did, on the temple steps. They were so pleased to leave behind their schoolbooks and uniforms and to jump and race on ancient stone steps.
The tourists had arrived to Siem Reap in abundance the day before, swarming the temples in numbers indicating that rainy season was truly over. The local policemen and guards had shooed the children away from the temples where they usually played.
Seeking a more peaceful playground where they would not be admonished, the children ventured farther into the woods than they normally did. Their game continued in the jungle, as the children scattered in the woods, their yelps and giggles carrying high into the tall trees.
As they moved deeper into the forest, where it was darker and still, the children grew quiet. The group drew closer together. Then the game itself stopped, no one wanted to be ‘It’ as no one wanted to run far ahead of the others. They stayed together in the quiet, walking through the dim jungle light.
This was a new game, exploring, that they had done little. They were usually under the watchful eye of an older sister or aunt but today everyone was busy cooking or sewing to prepare for Pchum Ben Day tomorrow.
The bravest boy led the way. There was a barely discernible path. In a forest where wild animals roamed, there were always paths to follow. The children did not think to wonder if it was the path of a tiger or a bear or a monkey. They pushed ahead, excited and happy in the way unique to children, on sensory overload from the jungle’s richness.
It was the youngest boy who spotted the truck first. He thought maybe it was a vast gray elephant. He called out to the others, look over there at that big sleeping thing. The others followed his pointing finger to the left, about 50 feet away. From there, the ground swelled up and they could see the edge of a road high above.
“What is that?” asked a girl named Prina. She thought it looked like a truck but she had learned that boys liked to be asked questions, rather than to be told, so they could look smart in front of others.
“It’s a truck,” said the oldest boy whose name was Guy. “It must have driven off the road.”
The young boy who spotted it didn’t want to lose the limelight.
“Let’s go see what’s inside! Maybe it’s filled with money.”
“Or candy,” said a stocky boy.
“It’s probably filled with bags of rice.” Guy said. “Prina and I will go take a look. If it’s something good, we’ll call you all over.”
“You’ll try to take it all,” the chubby boy complained. Life, he thought, was unfair.
“No,” Guy said. “I promise. You stay here. You there,” he called to the youngest boy. “You keep watch while we walk over there.”
“Ok.” The young boy looked annoyed to have to follow orders, he was always being told what to do, but also thrilled to be in charge for the first time ever. His chest puffed out as the older boy moved off the path, toward the still truck.
Prina smiled at Guy, who was half-French on his mother’s side. He took her hand and ignored the others as they giggled. “Come on, let’s go see.”
The young couple walked toward the truck, while the other children waited along the path. Someone called out something inappropriate but Guy ignored them, holding Prina’s hand tightly. They approached the truck from the front.
When the truck had landed on the ground at a high rate of speed, its front collapsed and was embedded in the dirt. As they got closer, Guy saw a form in the front, but could not make it out exactly. He called out “Hello?” but no response. By a large Banyan tree, he told Prina to wait while he walked forward. The truck was about ten feet away.
From five feet away, Guy saw the driver, slumped over the steering wheel. He walked to the cab and with a tug, and then a second tug, he opened the door. The driver’s body, slumped forward, also leaned heavily against the door. When the door opened, his weight pushed it hard and the body came tumbling to the ground, surprising Guy, who jumped back a couple feet.
Seeing this, Prina screamed and ran back to the others who were waiting on the path, craning their necks to see what the commotion was about. This was certainly more exciting than a childish game of hide and seek, they thought.
Guy, recovered from the surprise, looked at the body in a pile on the ground. Guy did not need to check if this man was dead, he could tell from the smell. And the attendant flies that buzzed around the man’s exposed flesh.
He glanced along the length of the white truck, which had no markings or signage but looked pretty beaten up. A burnished glint of metal on the ground near the rear of the truck caught his eye. Guy stepped closer. Still a safe distance of a couple feet, Guy could see exactly what it was. Every Cambodian child knew; they were told by their parents over and over again to be careful. It was a land mine. Guy knew they were everywhere in the country, but they were supposed to have been cleared the land this close to the temples, near to where tourists walked. But the jungle was vast and sometimes things were overlooked.
What was more troubling than the glint from the land mine, was that the canister that had been inside the truck had rolled onto the dirt and landed on the edge of the metal. Guy wasn’t sure what it was, but he knew it was bad. He returned to Prina and yelled to his younger brother, “Run and get our father!”
The Cambodian man approached the white truck, taking small, hesitant steps through the jungle underbrush. He was a brave man, but he did not wish to be blown up. He glanced back to the trail, where a small but growing audience of locals stood watching him. They murmured as he walked but grew silent when he stooped down to look at the canister, disappearing from their view behind the brush. A young boy craned his neck. The man’s youngest son tugged on his mother’s sleeve and asked, “Where’s daddy?” The mother shushed him, staring, transfixed at the greenery where her husband had just stood.
The man knelt near the silver canister and looked at it from every angle he could manage, without disturbing the ground below it. He stood, glanced forward and saw the dead driver.
Satisfied, the man took one last look and jogged back to the path, his lithe brown frame moving with ease through the greenery.
Back at the safety of the path, he spoke to a few local men who had gathered to watch him approach the truck. Their pushcarts filled with goods for sale – trinkets, temple replicas, carved wooden elephants, t-shirts bearing the phrase “I Heart Angkor Wat” and of course food and drinks, all for the tourists – stood unmanned by the temple road.
Instead, the men stood on the spare path and listened, murmuring to each other in agreement, as the man explained that they must guard the truck until the authorities arrived. There was a dead man, he said.
In case that was not enough of a deterrent to leave well enough alone, as he knew sometimes his friends’ curiosity sometimes outweighed their share of wisdom, he explained that the truck was haunted with angry ghosts from Pchum Ben whose relatives had neglected to bring them offerings and they were now feeding on the dead man. The listening men looked horrified.
That should keep them from approaching the truck while he puzzled on how to reach the Prime Minister. It wasn’t every day a tuk-tuk driver had such important news. He wondered if anyone would listen.
The spotlights of the helicopter pierced the night, blinding the two guards standing in the clearing, as the helicopter swooped high over the trees then low toward the clearing and the two guards. The men bolted for cover but were cut down, as Andrew blasted the helo’s machine gun. The men dropped in their tracks, cut down by the spray of bullets. The helo swept up sideways and away into the night.
Once away from the stable, Andrew had raced out of the clearing, down the brief scrubby hill by the stream to the rustic helo landing pad he’d seen on his hike up. There, he’d broken in to the helicopter, Hakk’s transport to and from his camps and town. The heavy machinery had been acquired at an exorbitant cost on the black market a year ago from a disgruntled Chinese military pilot who’d needed fast cash.
Andrew had tried several times to start the unfamiliar machine, glancing repeatedly over his shoulder, worried that the guards would notice his absence and that of their colleague. He breathed a sigh of relief when the rotor began to move. The Chinese-made helo was a stretch even for Andrew’s pilot skills but it had at last lifted off the ground, preferring the sky to the earth.
Having heard the sound of his only transport overhead, coupled with the sound of gunfire, Hakk burst from the hut, an RPG launcher at his shoulder. He looked at the dead guards by the tree, then at the empty sky. He watched the tree line for the helicopter to reappear. In the quiet night, he could hear the helicopter grow louder as Andrew circled back. Hakk stood in the middle of the clearing, the launcher set against his firm shoulder, and waited for the helo to reappear above the trees.
Its nose down, floodlights on, the machine breached the night and flew at Hakk like an arrow. Hakk aimed the launcher, waited a heartbeat, and then fired for the window, the widest and weakest spot in the reinforced cockpit.
Andrew saw the blast gases light up behind Hakk’s left shoulder and he lifted the helo sharply up and sideways to the left to evade the launched grenade.
Its accuracy dependent on a shooter’s skill, not a smart armament, the grenade projectile missed its mark, taking out only the right engine, not blasting the helicopter’s cockpit and pilot as Hakk had intended. The helo rocked from the blast, side to side, as Andrew struggled with the controls. The left engine immediately picked up the slack and Andrew lifted up into the sky and pushed beyond the clearing. He would circle around one more time and this time he would take Hakk out. There was no more reasoning. There was no more time.
Circling back around the clearing, Andrew looked down and did not see Hakk anywhere in the open area. He shone the spotlight on the edges of the clearing, the helo doing a low circle. Lifting up, Andrew blasted the huts with machine gunfire. No movement, no sound. Nothing. Either Hakk had ducked into the jungle or he had been sliced in two by a spray of bullets.
Andrew set the helo down in the center of the clearing to investigate.
Andrew grabbed a long black flashlight by the seat and jumped out of the helo. Staying close and low, he shone the light along the clearing’s perimeter, looking for movement. There was none.
Taking short, careful steps, Andrew approached the main hut, the flashlight casting a wide ‘V’ of light in front of him. To his left and right, it was dark and still, the torches burned out.
The hut was empty. The flashlight revealed bullet holes marking the table and chairs, the thatch walls no protection against gunfire. A line of bullets had cut a swath of holes across the map of Cambodia on the wall.
Andrew stepped back into the clearing and listened. He could hear only the stream bubbling nearby and the frightened baby elephant making snuffling sounds outside. Andrew approached the stream, which was dark now in the late night.
Andrew peered down the streambed, shadowed by overhanging trees. The gurgling water offered the only sound that could conceal movement.
Sure enough, twenty feet ahead, Hakk, hunched low, walked in the stream bed, following the water’s noisy path down the mountain, the happy babbling hiding the sound of his splashing footsteps.
Andrew walked then jogged toward Hakk, not caring if Hakk heard. Hakk turned at Andrew’s approach and seeing him, bolted ahead, kicking up spray as he splashed forward. A ways ahead, Hakk knew, the stream fed a wider fast-moving river. If Hakk could get to that, he would be free of this gadfly.
Close enough, Andrew leapt at Hakk, tackling him from behind, both of the men falling into the clear stream. They struggled in the water, grappling and rolling, their feet slipping out from under them on the slimy rocks as each tried to gain purchase on the ground beneath them.
Andrew, gripping the back of Hakk’s wet shirt, pulled Hakk away and pushed him onto his back on the flat stones in the stream’s center, cool water running over Hakk’s face into his mouth and nose. Hakk sputtered as Andrew, sitting squarely on Hakk’s chest, pulled an arm back and blasted his face with a tight fist, bloodying his nose. Hakk took the hit with a grunt, the stream’s flowing water washing the blood away downstream.
For only a second, Andrew’s grip loosened, and Hakk turned on his side, pulled his knee forward and kicked Andrew in the chest, knocking him off sideways. Hakk slipped downstream and scrambled toward the mossy bank, intent on climbing upward and away. His hands grabbed at loose stones and pebbles, his feet slipped on rocks. He neared the top of the bank, when Andrew jumped at him and caught his foot, trying to pull Hakk back into the water.
Hakk stared back at him, blood running from his nose over his lips and down his chin. He gave one last kick at Andrew with his left foot, catching Andrew’s shoulder, and once at the top of bank, raced for his helicopter.
Andrew followed in swift pursuit, scrambling up the bank, slipping and sliding in the rough. He cut his hand on a fine sharp rock, but ignored the warm blood that oozed in his palm. He reached the top and bolted to the helo, which Hakk had started moments before. The rotor was turning, gaining speed. Within moments, the helo lifted off the ground. Andrew dove into the open door just as Hakk tried to swing it closed, the helo lifting higher. The helo gained altitude as Hakk slammed the door again and again, cursing at Andrew who hung on outside, his feet in the door, his fingers wedged into a deep metal groove in the door rim.
“You can’t stop me!!” Hakk screamed as he slammed at Andrew’s fingers repeatedly with a dull end of a screwdriver. The helo flew higher, now several hundred feet above the trees.
Andrew held tight to the door rim with one hand, while he struggled for the stable guard’s gun tucked in the small of his back. Gripping the cold metal, he pulled it forward and pointed the gun at Hakk’s head.
“Tell me the plan for Sunday!” Andrew demanded. “Take us back down and tell me the plan!”
Seeing the gun, Hakk tilted the helicopter nearly on its side, careening to the left through the wispy clouds. With the sudden sideways jolt, Andrew’s feet slipped in the doorframe but he held on with his fingers as the helicopter slid through the air.
“I’m not fucking around!” Andrew yelled and turned his face away as he shot out the front windshield. Glass flew into Hakk’s face. Andrew regained his footing and pointed the gun again at Hakk. “Take her down!”
Hakk’s eyes wild, he took the helicopter higher and higher. Wind whipped through the broken window. Hakk screamed above the noise, his eyes red with rage. “No! Time has been reset. It is the beginning. We can’t be stopped. We are an army of believers, a thousand strong!”
“Well, then, “ Andrew said as he steadied himself against the door. “One less believer won’t be missed.” He pulled the trigger and Hakk was no more.
As the helo careened forward and up, Andrew yanked himself into the cockpit, climbing in over Hakk’s inert body to seize the controls. The helicopter yawed right. Andrew trimmed the controls and pushed the dead man out the door into the night, the body falling through the misty clouds to the jungle below.
If Hakk was telling the truth, he had merely been the spark initiating what would come next.
Whatever that was, Andrew had to stop it. He set a course for Phnom Penh.
In the Prime Minister’s headquarters in Phnom Penh, Andrew pushed past the guards into the stately conference room. Thirty faces turned toward the interruption. Andrew stood at the head of the table and said, “You are all in grave danger.”
Behind him, hot on his heels, were the two guards he had fooled into letting him in to the building by pretending to be sick on the stone steps. He had approached the building acting like a tourist, getting a little too close, which had displeased the surrounding armed guards. Then he had proceeded to vomit on the steps, a trick he had picked up along the way – it came in handy in his line of work.
The guards had approached him to admonish him for soiling the grounds and he had bolted past them through the front door, running all the way down to the end of the hall where the Prime Minister was in a special evening session with his Ministers.
The guards burst in after him, looking for the intruder. Spotting him, one guard grabbed Andrew and wrestled him to the table, a meaty sweaty palm pressing Andrew’s face into the wood and a thick elbow digging into Andrew’s back. The other guard pulled out his gun and trained it at Andrew’s head.
The Prime Minister stood, surprised and displeased, a combination that did not bode well. He was not accustomed to interruptions and did not take kindly to them. The other men seated at the table watched him for guidance on how to react.
“What is the meaning of this?” The Prime Minister asked.
Pressed against the cold mahogany, Andrew’s mouth was forced open by the weight of the guard’s hand on his head, giving Andrew a fish-like expression, his lips puckered. In his line of sight, Andrew saw three glasses of water, two pencils, a medium-sized yellow sticky pad and a Cambodian Army General with the unfortunate luck to be seated at this end of the table by the door. The General tried everything he could to avoid eye contact with Andrew, whose face was about a foot from his own.
Andrew spoke, his voice muffled by the guard’s beefy arm, the guard trying to imprint Andrew’s face into the grain of the wood.
Not an uncivilized man, the Prime Minister lifted a finger and the guard pulled Andrew upright, to allow him to speak, still gripping Andrew’s arms in tight right angles behind his back.
Andrew repeated his words. “You’re in danger. Your country is in danger.” That wouldn’t be enough. Andrew knew he had one chance before he was shown outside and permanently retired with a discrete bullet in the back. His government would receive a condolence letter stating that Andrew had had an unfortunate accident while on holiday. He mentally sifted through the words from Hakk’s Manifesto.
“Year Zero is upon us,” Andrew said. He repeated this, slowly, emphasizing the second word.
For a moment, the room was silent, as these words were absorbed by the men seated at the table. Then a commotion erupted, as the Ministers gasped and stood and began to fret and bicker, their well-honed manners wilting in the grip of fear and anger.
Andrew had chosen his words carefully, for maximum impact in this precarious situation. “Year Zero” was a reference to Pol Pot, who had pronounced April 1975 as Year Zero, when the Khmer Rouge regime abandoned and erased all that had occurred before its ascension, all culture, customs, beliefs, and history, wiped clean. Hakk’s Manifesto described Year Zero coming again. Setting the clock to zero, once more, to begin the future anew.
Andrew had figured it out on the flight back – that was the meaning of Hakk’s last crazed rant, that with his plan in place, in motion. Time had been reset to Year Zero.
Starting tomorrow, Sunday, Pchum Ben Day.
Uttering these words, in this room, to these men, Andrew had seeded the doubt he needed to survive this meeting.
From his position at the table, directly opposite from the country’s leader, Andrew watched the commotion, as the men discussed in increasingly loud tones what this interruption could mean.
The commotion ceased when the Prime Minister, still standing, raised his voice just above the volume of the room. “Enough.” He spoke in Khmer, his tone clear. He banged his open palm, once, on the table, and repeated himself, loud enough to be heard above the anxious murmuring. A hush fell over the room.
All eyes were on the Prime Minister, who in turn stared at Andrew, his dark eyes fixed, his expression guarded.
He waved a dismissive hand twice at the table occupants, as if sweeping away a fruit fly. “Everyone, leave us,” the Prime Minister told his Ministers. They stood and filed out of the room, glancing at Andrew, some with hatred, some with fear, some simply with curiosity.
The Prime Minister motioned to the guard. “Bring this man to me.”
The guard man-handled Andrew toward the front of the room and the Prime Minister, shoving Andrew into an empty leather seat.
“Leave us,” the Prime Minister said to the guard and turned to Andrew, his hands clasped behind his back. His face showed no expression. He spoke in English.
“You come here…you break into my building, you disrupt my meeting…and you disrespect me in front of my men. These are unacceptable offenses.”
He tapped his finger on the table to each syllable as he repeated the word. “Unacceptable.” He continued, his voice calm and even.
“I know who you are. I know that you are American, that you work with the US Embassy. My people have been aware of your movements since you arrived to Phnom Penh several days ago.”
Andrew looked surprised, so the Prime Minister explained. “There is little I do not now know of in my country.”
“But sir, there is something you don’t know. Something that has been hidden from you, by people who oppose the country’s progress and direction, who want to turn back the clock, to expel the foreigners, to stop all progress, to close the doors and return to a dark past.”
The Prime Minister raised his voice, ever so slightly, the only sign of his rising irritation. “You spoke of Year Zero. What is the meaning of this?”
“There is a document, in my pocket. If you read it, perhaps it will make sense.”
The Prime Minister stared at Andrew without blinking. He showed no emotion and, worryingly to Andrew, no concern. Andrew did not think he was getting through. But he waited. He could think of nothing else to say.
The Prime Minister sat, thinking. After several minutes of silence, he approached Andrew and yanked the pages from Andrew’s breast pocket. He read quickly across the Khmer script then tossed the pages on the table.
“These are the ravings of a crazy person. A nobody.”
“Yes, but a crazy person with followers. I saw them myself. We have very little time. Sir, I need your help.”
The Prime Minister stepped to the long picture window, the bullet-proof glass offering a view of the well-lit courtyard and a single large mango tree, heavy with fruit. Beyond the courtyard, the lights of Phnom Penh lit the night sky.
“What is planned?” the Prime Minister asked.
Andrew walked him through what he knew of Hakk’s plans. The Manifesto had been vague, he explained, it rambled. They knew only the time and the day. Not where and not how. Not yet. But if they could prepare, Andrew explained, he believed they could stop it. Or at least blunt it.
As Andrew spoke, he saw a glimmer of acceptance in the Prime Minister’s face. Andrew pushed while he had an advantage, explaining what he would need from the Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister only half-listened as he looked out into the night. A fruit bat mad with hunger winged its way across the sky, its zigzag flight defying reason.
The Prime Minister had faith in his men, in their intelligence gathering and most of all, their loyalty. He doubted that anyone could stage an act of terrorism in his country, let alone a plan to disrupt the entire nation, without being caught and thwarted. It was unthinkable. And therefore, impossible.
The Prime Minister considered the loss of face that Andrew had inflicted on him. Once lost, face was not recovered. He pondered his next steps. A foreigner must not dictate policy nor be seen in a position of power. Not now. Not ever.
He chose the only course available to him. He turned to Andrew, his face a mixture of contempt and arrogance. “These are lies. Western conspiracies. Take your nonsense elsewhere. This will not happen.”
Before Andrew could react, the Prime Minister slammed his fist on the table and yelled “Guards!”
The door swung open but rather than a heavily-armed guard, the Prime Minister’s key aide rushed in, his eyes wide with fright. He held a cell phone in his shaking right hand, far in front of him. He spoke in Khmer, in unrestrained tones, not at all appropriate for speaking to the Prime Minister. But he could not help himself.
Andrew couldn’t decipher the words, but he could tell their meaning from the worried tone. Something was up.
The Prime Minister took the phone and said “Yes?” and listened.
Andrew watched the Prime Minister’s face as the caller spoke, the relaxing of his jaw, the loosening of his brow. Replacing the disbelief and disdain was worry. He listened for a few more moments, nodding his head as the person talked excitedly on the other end of the line. Then the click of disconnection.
The Prime Minister inhaled and placed his hands flat on the table.
“We have found a bomb.”
Andrew nodded “Where is it?”
“Outside of the Angkor complex. A truck drove off the road. Some children found it in the jungle. It has a timer. It is counting down.”
A small room was allocated for planning. The wooden table in the center was cluttered with papers, articles and copies of Hakk’s Manifesto lay on the table, in Khmer, English and Chinese. A huge map of Cambodia was taped to the wall, the country’s major cities circled in black marker. A red ‘X’ marked the bridges in Phnom Penh. They had been highlighted and annotated. There were still unanswered questions.
Flint sat at the table, alternating between scratching a mosquito bite on her bare leg and taking notes on the yellow pad in front of her.
“Let’s go over it once more,” she said. She glanced at Andrew, who walked around the room looking stressed. He hadn’t shaved for a week. The large dark circles under his tired eyes made him look like a half-dead raccoon.
They reviewed the translated missive from Hakk.
Flint asked, “What did he hope to accomplish exactly?”
Andrew had been thinking about that constantly since he had left the jungle. Hakk had seemed so certain of himself, certain of the inexorable outcome, even in the face of his own demise. Stopping in front of the map on the wall, Andrew shared his thought with Flint.
“He’s trying to break this country.”
“How do you mean?” Flint asked
“He’s putting the pressure on. The terror from the emails, the bridges, the fear, the panic. This country is brittle, from its horrible history. After what? Forty, fifty years of war and internal strife, it can’t absorb any more trauma. It has no flex left within it, no bend, no capacity for strain. One more war, one more coup or period of unrest or even uncertainty, and it will snap like a bad bone. Hakk was counting on that, the brittleness, the country at its limit. He wants to break the country’s collective will to survive. To make people give up. Succumb. If the foreigners leave, it will ruin people’s livelihood. It would be too much to take.”
Understanding flashed on Flint’s face as she shook her head in astonishment at a mind bent on destruction merely for destruction’s sake.
“Sick bastard. And here, I got this today. This is more of the same.” She gave Andrew Hakk’s latest email communication to the Ambassadors. It had been sent late Friday night, set on a timer to go after the bridges collapsed.
“You were warned,” was the message the email contained. It had been sent to all the Embassies in Phnom Penh, to everyone from the Ambassador to the interns, dispatched automatically. Not surprisingly, on the heels of the bridge collapse, this message had created a flurry of international email communication, secure and not secure, from Embassy staff to their home country. Most embassies were closing on Monday while this matter was investigated.
Andrew’s phone rang and he stepped out of the room.
Flint doodled on the pages of the manifesto, drawing the DC skyline as she read again the musings of a mad man.
“Siem Reap is safe.” Andrew said when he returned to the room.
“That’s a relief. Pretty touch and go up there for a minute,” Flint said.
A US special-forces demolition team, flown in from parts undisclosed, was decommissioning the massive bomb in the jungle outside Siem Reap. Andrew understood from the amount of explosive inside it, it would have cratered the shabby little town.
Andrew shook his head as he stared at the map. He had tried to recreate from memory what he had seen in Hakk’s hut in the mountains.
“The thing is, I’m not so sure we’re out of the woods. I think he had a back up plan. That’s what he meant when he said there was no stopping, that it was already in motion. The bomb was just one part of it. All his men in the jungle, what’s their mission?”
Flint drew swift, straight lines on the blank paper as she spoke. “Smaller bombs? Light weaponry? Suicide vests? Tourists are sitting ducks, really, for the lone rogue warrior.” She tilted her head at Andrew. “The Agency would like to alert the public to the threat.”
Andrew turned to her. “It’s not gonna happen. The powers-that-be here want this contained, controlled. Kept quiet. We have permission to stop it, not advertise it. Too much at stake if the press gets a hold of it.”
Flint shook her head. “Bad decisions.”
“Well, it’s what we’ve got to work with.”
Andrew’s phone rang again. He looked at the number before he answered it. Not a number he recognized.
“Hello?” he said. The caller was female and frantic. Andrew looked relieved. Flint watched him.
“Thank God. Severine, where are you?”
“It’s a long story. I’m fine. I’m on the Mekong, heading south toward Phnom Penh.”
“Don’t come here. You can’t get by. Hakk has blown up the bridges.”
“It doesn’t matter right now, I’ll explain later. Just, don’t come to Phnom Penh.”
He heard Severine turn and speak to someone beside her:
“He says we can’t get through, the river is blocked.”
Andrew said, “Severine, listen. Go north. Go to the deepest point in the river and stay put. We’ll send someone for you. Call me when you get through.”
“OK. We can do that. I’ll tell the others.” She clicked off.
Andrew wondered what others. He would ask her later.
The door of the room opened and a secretary pushed in a metal cart set with drinks and lunch. The cart was a mini-version of the street pushcarts that were ubiquitous in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian version of a food-truck, selling all manner of food and souvenirs.
The cart’s black wheels squeaked as they rolled over the linoleum. Settling the tray in the corner, the secretary bowed slightly and departed, closing the door behind her.
Flint stood and headed to the cart. She never ate on international flights and hadn’t had a decent meal for two days. Flint grabbed a sandwich from the stack, sniffed it and took a bite. She chewed, content.
Andrew walked up behind her. “What looks good?” he asked, eyeing the rectangular metal cart. The top shelf held a tray stacked high with triangular white-bread sandwiches, crusts cut off. The cart’s lower shelf was filled with soda cans, the brightly-colored aluminum cylinders packed in tight.
Andrew watched Flint standing by the cart, leaning her slim hip on the cart’s metal edge as she poked at the sandwiches and selected her next victim. She looked at Andrew as she chewed.
“It’d be nice to have lunch wheeled in everyday, huh? Right to your desk. Easy access,” she said.
Andrew nodded absently. Then struck by a thought, Andrew’s eyes grew wide. He grabbed Flint’s arm, squeezing harder than intended, and she flinched in both surprise and pain.
“Ouch!” Flint exclaimed.
“I got it!” Andrew said, more loudly than he needed to in the small room.
“Got what?” Flint asked, rubbing her arm.
“His plan. His back-up plan.”
Flint had heard Andrew crack cases wide open but she had never seen it in person. She watched him.
“Tourists. Temples.” He slammed his hand against the map, to land on the red ‘X’ of Siem Reap. “Angkor Wat.”
Shock spread across Flint’s face, as she registered the magnitude of a terror attack on the country’s greatest temple, its source of pride, the sign of its greatness. The central attraction for tourists.
Andrew continued, “Every morning it’s packed solid with tourists, watching the dawn break over the temple’s spires. That’s his plan, to target those tourists, from all over the world. It will incite the fear and hysteria he’s been preaching.”
Flint agreed. “If that’s true, if that’s his target, there will be nothing comparable left to see in this country. Tourism will die a sudden, ugly death.”
Andrew bolted from the room. “Not if I can help it.”
Pchum Ben Day
In the darkness, the woman worked. Her hands, small and brown, spotted from years in the fields, scooped handful after handful of cooked white rice, sweet with coconut milk, from a large clay bowl, molding the rice into firm mounds. She lined them in tight rows on rectangular white platters and sprinkled these with sesame seeds. Finished, she surveyed her work. Satisfied, she wiped her hands on a red apron and prepared for the trip to feed her long dead ancestors.
Alarm clocks sounded early on the Sunday morning. Tourists roused themselves and dressed, drank coffees and teas and wandered, half-awake, down from their hotel rooms into lobbies in guest houses across Siem Reap.
The buses began to arrive to the guest houses at 5:10 AM. They lined the streets and waited in the dark to take the sleepy sightseers on the short ride to Angkor Wat for sunrise. Sunrise was at 6:09 this morning.
Andrew had flown in from Phnom Penh overnight, stopping briefly by Severine’s apartment.
Now, he stood in front of the dark temple of Angkor Wat, waiting. A few ambitious tourists had already arrived, seeking the best view.
Andrew had memorized Hakk’s treatise Socheat had translated for him. Most of it made sense now, with what they knew, but one line of it niggled at him.
“Through the dead we give thanks and offer them our tomorrows.”
He was missing something. It was there in the shadows of consciousness. He nudged at it mentally like a loose tooth.
Buses arrived. Passengers debarked, jockeying for position by the wide moat below the temple. Those who arrived late would grumble in the back, straining their necks.
In the darkness, Andrew watched the tourists assemble into a shuffling crowd, waiting to be awed by this combination of man and nature, sun rising over ancient stone.
A small team of local military, courtesy of the Prime Minister, wandered through the growing crowd. They had been instructed to be unobtrusive, to avoid alarm or panic, and to follow Andrew’s lead. They glanced at Andrew now and again.
Behind the crowd, local vendors set up their pushcarts for the day’s trade, with guidebooks and temple replicas, wooden necklaces and carved stone elephants. Their carts were chock full of cheap merchandise ready for the tourist season.
These were Andrew’s main concern. Packed with heavy explosives, a pushcart could be a perfect weapon to decimate this assembled crowd. The military men walked by the vendors slowly, suspicious of everyone, their bomb sniffing dogs snuffling along the ground, finding nothing.
Andrew walked along the line of carts that now encircled the tourists. In yesterday’s planning, they had considered banning the vendors today but decided that would tip their hand, signal whoever was orchestrating the coming destruction.
Andrew walked by the vendors, watching for shifty behavior, any sign of nerves. One vendor caught his attention, an anxious, emaciated man with a slim goatee tapping his foot and shifting left and right as he watched the temple in the growing light. Andrew approached him.
“Hey, buddy, got a light?” Andrew called out, as he stepped close to the man. The man jumped, surprised, his shoulders up, a reflex. He rummaged in his pockets. Sweat broke out on his brow.
Behind them, the sun cast deep orange rays, lighting up the sky. The pineapple-shaped cones stood in stark silhouette.
“No, no light, no smoke, sorry,” the man said, chewing on his lower lip, his eyes rolling into the back of his head. Andrew knew a junkie when he saw one. This guy had something to hide.
Without warning, Andrew toppled the man’s wooden pushcart, its contents spilling onto the dirt road. As the man complained loudly, staring at his livelihood strewn about in a broken mess, Andrew rummaged through the cart’s contents, looking for guns, a bomb, anything. But it was only worthless trinkets: Bracelets, temple replicas, and plastic Buddhas.
The assembled crowd was oblivious, only a few people glancing behind them at the minor commotion then turning back to watch the sun. As the sunlight brightened from orange to deep yellow, camera shutters clicked. The crowd murmured in awe.
Andrew stood, staring down at the mess he had made, while the vendor chided him in Khmer. The man’s friends approached, also vendors, cursing at Andrew for harassing a man sick with break bone fever. The undercover cops approached to disperse the growing group of disgruntled local vendors.
Andrew turned back to look at the temple and the massive crowd. How could he be so wrong? He had been certain the bomb would be concealed in one of the vendor carts lining the road. It was the simplest way for Hakk to inflict major damage, both immediate and long term. Andrew had warned the others to be on the look out for vendors: Flint was watching the US Embassy; Socheat was staged near Wat Phnom, his contacts throughout the countryside notified as well; the Prime Minister had staged his men throughout town. All eyes on the vendors, their carts bearing not only souvenirs and trinkets but destruction.
Andrew could see he was wrong. It wasn’t the vendors. But what was it? What was coming?
In the quiet dawn, a tuk-tuk drove down the lane, its driver stopping near the assembled crowd. A lone robed monk hopped down from the open cab, late for the show but still in time for the sun to reach the temple’s zenith, only minutes away. His saffron robe flowed about him as he moved. Around his waist, Andrew saw, wrapped tight to his body by a black sash, was a large round silver canister, a donation bucket to receive alms in exchange for the monk’s prayers. It was carried by all Buddhist monks to accept gifts of thanks.
Andrew watched as the monk walked into the crowd, moving deep into the mass of tourists. Seeing the monk’s orange robes in the early morning light, people stepped aside to let him through. A few took pictures of the local color, so close.
Andrew watched the flowing saffron robes move into the sea of tourists from every nation, the robe a deep orange, a mix of yellow and red – the color of safety, of warning, of hazards. The color of criminals.
Andrew considered how the color orange wove through Cambodian life. It was everywhere, a single rich thread binding all together, orange clad monks on the roads, and sidewalks, in the tuk-tuks and the temples.
Realization hit and Andrew knew that Hakk’s army of men bent on destruction would not be concealed as common street vendors. Andrew had not grasped Hakk’s full intent. No, Hakk had put into motion a farther-reaching plan, intending to annihilate not only the foreign influence and taint, to rid the country of the Ch’kai, but also destroying any organization that exerted influence on the people.
The influence of religion. The Buddhist custom of honoring the past.
To purge the people of all thoughts, to fill their hearts with fear. To set the stage for his Year Zero.
So, Hakk’s army would wear the color of prayer, blending into the fabric of this holy day of Pchum Ben, donning garb to conceal their true intent, a perfect disguise, which offered the perfect vehicle to deliver fear and death to the hearts of the people.
Andrew pictured the monk’s silver canister, tied tight to his waist.
The canister was not filled with thanks. Today, it was filled with hate.
The monk moved forward into the throngs of people. Andrew pulled out his phone. He had to warn people.
Socheat answered on the first ring. He’d been waiting for Andrew’s call. Andrew explained, speaking quickly. There was so little time.
“Hakk wasn’t only after the foreigners. It’s everyone. His men are targeting the Wats. They’ll be packed today with families honoring their ancestors. And with tourists. Everyone. It’s Hakk’s message to Pol Pot, his offering to his ghost, that he has fulfilled the promise to realize Pol Pot’s vision. Destruction.”
On the other end of the line, Socheat listened. “On this day, the ghosts of the damned flock to the Wats seeking succor from the living. How will it happen?” Socheat asked.
Watching the orange monk move through the crowd, Andrew described the threat from the silver chalice, an urn of death, packed full of plastic explosives.
“The whole country is gonna blow,” Andrew said, glancing at the sky. There were thousands of Wats across the country. Dawn was nearly over. He looked at his watch. Sunrise was at 6:09 AM. It was now 6:01 AM. “In eight minutes.”
He hung up. He had one more call to make. He dialed on his local phone.
The man on the other end of the line picked up immediately. Andrew said, “It’s me.” He explained and then added, “Got it? Good. Hit send.”
The orange-clad monks stepped out into the pre-dawn darkness en route to the Pagodas, the Wats. In the dark, they made left and right turns, their flip-flops clopping against callused heels. They anticipated the fine meal that awaited them at the Pagodas, food prepared by their countrymen, to honor and nourish ancestors long dead.
Several monks held back, walking a safe distance from their brothers.
They too carried with them an offering for this most special day.
These men were not monks. They were neither devout nor holy and had never offered up a prayer for another.
But they were indeed devoted to a cause. They were devoted to destruction, to resurrecting an evil long dead. Devoted to Year Zero.
They walked, without qualm, to the Pagodas, certain of the rightness in their actions, step after step, thinking only that they would at last free the country from the grip of the foreign dogs, from the greed and desires that tainted their countrymen.
As they entered the Wats all across the nation, the smell of warm rice enticed them and they thought fondly of their last meal.
Above him, Andrew heard a sound in the trees, leaves shifting, branches bearing weight. Andrew looked up but could see nothing. He moved closer to the tree for a better view.
There, high in the leafy branches, tucked in the thick crook of the tree, was a man dressed in black, his eyes trained on the rising sun, on the spires of Angkor Wat. Cradled in his arms, wedged against his shoulder, was a long black barrel. A grenade launcher, Andrew could see, its target straight ahead, silhouetted by the sun.
Shit. Andrew started to reach for his gun but he didn’t have a clear shot. And shooting the man in the tree would only alert the monk standing deep in the crowd, waiting for the sun to hit the top of the stone spire.
Andrew knew he had to choose. He glanced once more at the man in the tree, cursed under his breath and began to push his way into the crowd. To yell in warning, he knew, would only spur the monk to detonate himself before the sun had reached its mark.
As Andrew moved forward, following the monk, everything around him slowed. The air thickened and he could hear a thrumming in his ears, as his blood pulsed at his hot temples. His vision narrowed and all Andrew could see was his orange target, standing ahead in the crowd.
The lone monk had stopped and looked now to the sun and the sky, thinking of a new day, his warm hands resting on the silver chalice strapped to his ready body. He did a slow full rotation to take it all in, the rising light, the ancient temple, the tourists with their smiles and cameras and bucket list dreams.
As Andrew leapt at the monk, pulling him down and covering his orange torso with his own body, the rocket launched from the high tree, aimed with precision. It blasted out through the green leaves toward the central dome of Angkor Wat, now tipped in golden sunlight. In a breath, the rocket’s metal cone pierced the central spire, the impact initiating the explosion, the metal momentum blasting the stone to pieces. Sheared stone flew out hundreds of feet, raining down from the sky. The sun shone in the empty space where moments before the spire had stood.
The surprised tourists, standing a safe distance away behind the wide water moat, thought this was part of the morning show. They gasped and snapped pictures on their cameras, catching the moment for all eternity, wondering who would pick up all the pieces.
Andrew had seen the rocket launch, had heard the brutal fracturing of history. But it was too late for that. Beneath him, the monk smiled at Andrew as the silver chalice detonated, one of hundreds of simultaneous explosions that ripped through Wats across the Cambodian provinces, all synchronized with the rising sun. As Andrew’s body absorbed the full impact, as the blast ripped across and through him, he thought of the hollowness of the vessel that exploded into him, how the empty can be filled with good or evil.
In Phnom Penh, the skies were rapt in the throes of dawn. The submarine had stopped by the broken bridges. The Veterans stood on deck looking at the wreckage. Severine sat next to Frank, watching the sunrise in the east. Samnang slept next to them.
Severine’s phone buzzed with a text message. She hoped it was Andrew. She’d been trying to reach him to explain that the men had insisted they go to Phnom Penh but she’d no luck reaching him. She glanced at the text and read the message, her mouth agape. She grabbed Frank’s arm.
“Read this. It says it’s from the Prime Minister. He’s telling everyone to stay away from the Wats today, to go home. Now. Says a terrorist attack is imminent.” She looked hard at Frank. “Do you think it’s a hoax?”
Frank read the brief text and turned to look at the hill of Wat Phnom in front of them.
“Only one way to find out.”
Frank turned to the men behind him, who sat and stood, waiting for orders.
“Boys, there’s some shit going down.” He pointed to Wat Phnom. “We need to take that hill.”
“Yeehaw!” Ed yelled, waving his cane as he slid on his butt into the shallow water by the riverbank.
The other men followed suit. They clambered together up the bank and scuttled across the street toward the high green hill.
Wat Phnom was packed with people who had arrived early to the popular Wat for Pchum Ben Day: Men, women, young, old, locals and tourists. Cambodian women, up since the early morning cooking, bore their offerings, their trays of sweet nourishing rice, toward the altar where the great Buddha sat in serene silence.
The color orange was everywhere – every other person in the room was a monk, dressed in a flowing saffron robe. Most of them were busy eating coconut rice, hungry from sitting inside during the months of rain, waiting to offer prayers, to return to the streets to pray for their countrymen. Now they were too intent on satisfying their hunger to notice the katoey scanning the crowded room from the back.
A tiny old white man ran into the main Pagoda doorway, his cane in his right hand. He stopped, staring at the packed crowd. He’d been the first of the Veterans up the steps. He was quick on his feet, always had been. He’d left those old coots behind, anxious for action.
Standing in the doorway, Ed watched a beautiful Cambodian woman, pace behind the crowd, her eyes scanning the innocents as she tried to find a break in the dense mass of people. Her long black hair, white tips at the end, was a stark contrast against her short red dress. She glanced down at the small man who now appeared at her side.
She was a foot taller than he and far broader of shoulder. Noticing her attention, Ed winked, raising his eyebrows twice, ever the rogue, even in battle.
She stepped close to him and leaned down to Ed to whisper in his ear. He leaned forward to hear.
As he listened, Ed’s expression changed, his face hardening in anticipation. The woman leaned away from him, her eyes wide, her face a question.
“We have no time,” she said. “I can’t get through that crowd.”
Ed dropped his cane and saluted the woman. He stepped forward and crouched onto his knees, proceeded in a fast crawl forward, sneaking in between the empty spaces. As he moved forward, Ed stared up, looking and looking, as Socheat had asked him to. There was so much orange and so few seconds separating the present from the future destruction.
Ed spotted the monk with the black sash, near the front, by the Buddha, his silver donation bucket wrapped tightly to his slim frame. As an incense stick burned to its sweet end in front of the golden Buddha, the monk turned to face the crowd. Ed rose to his full height, pushing his shoulders past pointy elbows. A boy of ten stood nearby watching him. He waved at the funny man who had crawled on the Pagoda floor on Pchum Ben Day. The boy wondered if the man perhaps was a ghost, paying penance on his knees, seeking rice to eat. Ed waved back and winked, then reached up for the silver bucket, and grabbing its lip, yanked the monk to the ground, sandwiching the metal between them.
“Not on my watch,” he said.
In the provinces, it was the tuk-tuk drivers who acted most quickly in response to the Prime Minister’s message. In their ubiquity, the drivers were a lightning chain reaction, racing towards the Wats, honking their horns and yelling at people on the streets, warning them to turn around and go home. In a country with no public transport system, these men were the circulation system of the nation, ferrying their countrymen and visitors to and fro, getting everyone where they needed to go, safely, and, when traffic permitted, on time. Today, however, they did not transport anyone but themselves and their selfless hearts, ignoring traffic rules, streetlights and other hindrances to speed. They reached Wats in the farthest corners of a country and they surrounded the threat.
In one large and crowded Pagoda in a province far from Phnom Penh, several drivers overcame the monk with the silver urn secured by a black sash. A tuk-tuk driver named Kiem had led that charge, racing toward the Wat on his shiny red motorcycle. He had not found Severine but instead he had found his purpose. He smiled as he tackled the monk, content with his contribution and with whatever would come next. Perhaps he would visit the Pagoda again one day as a ghost. He hoped there were motorcycles in the beyond.
Somewhere in a remote corner of the eastern jungle, a massive explosion had occurred deep underground. It was not noted by anyone and it would be some time before the thick vein of gold there was discovered. When at last it was found by an Australian prospector, large chunks of the metal were noted already carved from the massive gold vein, strewn about a vast plane next to a previously unmapped underground river. The misshapen lumps were thought to be the result of an earthquake and so were simply added to the newly mined materials. A few of the miners thought it odd that there were so many large chunks of gold lying about but beyond that what could be done. There was no one in town who knew anything about it. Of course, there were a few rumors of antiquities, but there were always rumors in town whenever people talked of the jungle. If there had been antiquities, they were long gone or destroyed.
Police tape extended in front of Angkor Wat, across the green lawn, past the broad moat and the long sidewalk, blocking the entrance to the temple from the street. Curious tourists wandered by, too late for the show. Chided by policemen, they scurried on to temples farther afield, Ta Prahm and the Bayon, still intact.
Flint stepped over the tape and walked among the rubble of Angkor Wat’s central dome. She’d flown up from Phnom Penh a few hours after the dawn attacks.
The police detective saw her and nodded. She was not supposed to be there and they both knew it. But she was getting a pass today. Her agent had personally saved hundreds of lives there earlier that morning. His efforts had saved thousands.
Flint knelt down and picked up a broken rectangular stone, its flat surface smooth. A second similar stone lay nearby. She placed the two pieces together, edges aligned. She held them for a moment, looking at the whole, before letting them fall from her hands to the soft earth.
She shook her head. There will always be men bent on breaking things, she thought.
She studied the broken temple. The destruction of that single spire was complete. But the other spires rose up behind it.
Nearby, a massive stone Buddha lay on its side, a hairline crack running diagonally from left to right across its face, under its eye, over the bridge of its nose and through its eternal smile.
In total, nearly half of the Wats in the country were attacked and decimated that Pchum Ben Day morning. Hakk’s message of fear had reached far, enticing both those clinging to a dark-hearted past and others simply bent on destruction, hating for the sweet pleasure that hate brought to simple people.
But thankfully, the text message had gotten through as hoped. Andrew had told the Prime Minister he needed only one thing from him. Had made him promise. He’d explained that on Pchum Ben Day, he might need to reach every man, woman and child in the country. It had seemed a ridiculous thing to ask, far-reaching and nonsensical, and the Prime Minister had told him so, more than once, as the two men had argued about possibilities and potential. But Andrew had asked for it nonetheless, demanded it, as he had anticipated the worst. And in the end, to his credit, the Prime Minister had promised and acted swiftly when he had received Andrew’s frantic call at sunrise.
The brief text had saved countless lives – catching people en route to their local Pagodas, bearing gifts to honor the dead and nourish the ghosts of their ancestors. The people had paused in their journey and read the text, urged to do so by others around them on the streets and sidewalks, their own phones in hand.
They’d read the words once, then twice, surprised at the odd message and its sender, but grateful, deeply so, once the reports of the attacks began to come in and the toll of the dead were released.
The people had turned around and gone home, setting the trays of rice aside. There, they had celebrated Pchum Ben Day, thinking of times past and a future that would bring the unknown, as the future always did. They decided that it did not matter so much where they were on this day, but rather, that they were together, thinking of those they had loved. They lit incense and gave thanks, saying prayers for those they had lost, wishing them peace and succor, and that they would find their way home.
Severine swept the wide courtyard while the children sang. Nearby, on a mahogany bench, Frank sat playing the guitar, teaching Samnang how to strum. In the back kitchen, Bob cooked dinner, while several other Veterans tended to the large garden they had built in a sunlit corner.
Severine smiled to herself. She had known as a girl that she would one day run a home for orphans. She knew that was her calling: Those without family moved her, struck in her the chord of greatest giving. But she had not known until recently that this calling included providing shelter, hearth, and home to orphans of all ages, from all times. She was so pleased to learn this. It mended her heart.
In a pristine hospital, Flint entered a bright white room occupied only by a heavily bandaged man lying on a single bed, his head turned toward the window. At the sound of the door, the man turned his head. He tried to smile at Flint, but the bandages didn’t budge.
Flint was thrilled to see Andrew open his eyes and move his head. He’d been in a coma for two weeks after the attack. Then for two additional weeks from doctor’s orders. He had lost his spleen and damaged his liver, the impact only partially blunted by the PPE he had borrowed from Ben Goodnight’s collection before his trip to Siem Reap.
And he had lost a lot of blood. After the bomb went off, he’d nearly bled out from a cut to his femoral artery, as people, terrified, ran away from, not toward, him.
The required surgeries had been intense. And there would be many more. Especially to his face, which was nearly wiped clean of skin from the blast.
“Walk me through it again,” he croaked.
She smiled and took his hand and told her favorite agent a story. She had told Andrew the same story twice a day for the past week, after he had regained consciousness and was able to hear her. She told him what they’d learned in the weeks following the attack.
Hakk had tried to start an isolationist revolutionary movement for years, drumming up hatred against foreigners, as part of his mission to be true to Pol Pot. But he needed money to go big, to recruit enough to make an impact.
So he had joined the gold rush, along with so many others, seeing the metal as a way to make easy money to fuel his cause. He applied for land concessions to mine for gold.
The first time he had applied, he was denied and the concession went to a foreign company. So he applied again, this time for a different plot of land, in Mondulkiri. Same again. Ten times he applied. Ten times he was denied. Every time the concession went to a foreign company.
Then two things happened, in rapid succession. Hakk owned two gem mines in Mondulkiri, small mines yielding only a few gems, but enough to satisfy, to provide a steady income. These were co-opted without compensation by the Ministry, the land rights transferred to a foreign company.
Then Hakk discovered the Veterans nearby in the jungle. It was more than he could take. He didn’t know why they were there. Or for how long. All he knew was that it infuriated him, as his land was taken away and the country spread its doors open to foreign money and influence. Like a whore, he would say.
Hakk blamed all this on the Ch’kai, the foreign dogs. So he unleashed his anger in his horrible plan to return to the time of Year Zero.
Flint watched Andrew, his chest rising and falling as he lay on the bed, the pale skin of his wrists nearly as white as the hospital sheets. She would tell him later, about what else they had found, shortly after the Wat explosions, the mechanisms that Hakk had set in motion, the army of men waiting to seize control in the chaotic aftermath of Pchum Ben Day. It had been stopped in time. That was all Andrew needed to know for now. She’d tell him the rest when he was stronger.
“And Ben Goodnight?” Andrew asked.
“Caught in the crossfire.” Flint raised her eyebrows at Andrew. “I think there were a couple details you left out of your reporting.”
From within Andrew’s bandaged body, came a deep sigh.
“So what’s next for me?” Andrew asked.
“Well, I’ve got good news. You’ve been cleared. That face of yours is so messed up, no one’s ever gonna recognize you. What you did at that temple, well, it speaks for itself.”
The surprise was evident in Andrew’s voice. “You guys want me back?”
“Yeah.” Flint smiled and shrugged. “We want you back. Waddaya think?”
Andrew turned his head to stare out the window at the open sky. He knew Flint had pulled strings to get him a room with a view.
“It’s great news.” His words were halted. “But first, with your OK, I think I’ll take some time. Maybe a vacation. I’ve heard they’re quite pleasant.” He coughed and winced at the pain.
Flint leaned in. “Of course. Whatever you need. We’ll get you all well.” She tucked the corner of a white sheet under the thin mattress. “Now, listen, Andrew. There’s something else. Someone is here to see you. We’ve made excuse after excuse. But she knows you’re conscious now and is insisting.”
Before Flint could finish, the door to the hospital room pushed open. Andrew stared. How she had found him, Andrew couldn’t even guess. Even he didn’t even know where he was.
Without skipping a beat, she walked back into his life.
In Cambodia, the Ch’kai, the Barangs, the foreigners stayed. And many more came, arriving in droves, from cities spanning the globe. They came to help rebuild a nation’s sacred places. They were not afraid. In fact, they were braver than they had ever been, spurred to action by the pain and loss of others. The Cambodian people welcomed them, hopes soaring for tomorrow.
Hate saw it had no home here and it moved on.
There would be other places and other times. It had learned that much.
I’d like to thank all readers, friends, and editors for helping me craft this, my debut novel.
Self-publishing is challenging. It is difficult to gain traction without a publishing house doing marketing. But it is a deeply rewarding process, in that success, ie, readers, means that the story entertained you.
For questions and comment about the book, I can be reached at [email protected]