THE BRITTLE LIMIT: Part 1 of 4
Copyright © 2016 Kae Bell
All Rights Reserved
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents either are 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.
“All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, hope.”
“Chaos, like the grave, is a haven of equality.”
Eric Hoffer, , 1953
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, that 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 wet face. Her cheeks were 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. Their backpacks were there on the ground. 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 pulled on hiking boots, laced them, then 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. A limousine waited for him along the side road, waiting to sweep 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 very well 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 used only for the Senate office. Mintz pushed the ‘play’ button on the screen and held the phone to his ear.
His close friend and major donor Phil Goodnight yelled on the other end of the line, nearly hysterical. Mintz waited until he’d heard the complete recording. Then he listened to it again. He checked the time of the call and handed the phone back to Marjorie. Oh well. He gave his jacket a short tug on both sides and looked longingly at the horizon. His brandy would have to wait. 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 once on the way up.
“Marj, make yourself useful. Get me the President on that phone. I need a favor.”
Andrew tossed a few items into a backpack: a book, t-shirts, running shoes. He’d be leaving this life behind. Which was fine. Five years was a long time to live a lie. But the question now was what would happen next.
Outside, a cab idled.
He reviewed the past few hours. As scheduled, he’d traveled to the drop. He was not followed. The flash drive he left behind had dates, times, a few more names. And a report on her, of course. As Flint had suspected and Andrew had confirmed, Naira was the brains. And some muscle, it would turn out.
The drop was flawless, in execution. Andrew had been doing this for years. It was magic, one minute he had the flash drive, the next minute he did not, and it had moved into circulation. Langley’s International Library.
Somehow, Naira had known.
Andrew slung the backpack over his shoulder, opened the door and stepped into the unforgiving Moroccan sun. His driver squinted up at him, impatient to be on the road before the rush. The driver assessed Andrew, watched him fumble with keys, wipe prints, rush down the steps. The driver had seen it all. Thieves, murderers, spies – they all passed through this town. All he cared was that they tipped well. No matter. The driver settled back in his seat. They would have to hurry to catch the ferry.
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 for a game of fetch. The dog never tired of retrieving, its tail wagging as it fetched and returned, fetched and returned.
The ferry crossing from Tangier to Gibralter was faster than waiting at the airport. Andrew boarded with the same passport he’d been using, trusting she’d not yet had it flagged. She was good, but she wasn’t that good. At worst she would know how he had left. But by the time she traced the passport, he would be gone, the passport dumped in Gibralter. From there, it was anybody’s guess.
Seated by the open window, misted by sea spray, Andrew counted the people on board. It was a light afternoon, mostly European tourists returning from a day in the markets, arms full of overpriced rugs sold by men who negotiated in their sleep.
A train to Madrid. A new passport delivered after a call to an affiliate who owed Andrew for evacuating his parents from Syria. From Madrid, Andrew caught a flight to Paris, to be that much farther away. He looked over his shoulder the entire time. Was he blown?
In Paris, he looked at the departing flight board. Where to go from here?
Waiting for the morning bus, the tourists chatted, their pitch higher than normal. A day or two into vacation and everything still felt foreign. The jet lag was awful, they would write to their children and grandchildren. But yes, Cambodia was the Kingdom of Wonder.
Standing apart from the others, the Cambodian locals waited. The women wore loose-fitting cotton pajamas. A mother squatted on her haunches feeding her toddler carrot. The men smoked hand-rolled cigarettes. The bus driver chatted with a young woman tending birds packed into a wire cage.
Andrew slid into the line and eyed the waiting bus. There was an air of resignation about the bus, like a horse in its last losing race.
Loaded, the bus pulled onto the road, its tailpipe puffing black smoke. A Khmer zombie film played on TV, soundtrack at full volume. The living dead terrorized humanity, English subtitles translating terror into broken English.
Thirty minutes into the film, everyone had nodded off.
Andrew reclined his seat and closed his eyes, leaning his head against the rattling window. For a few minutes, his eyes flickered as images raced across his brain, of things that had been but no longer were. He pushed that aside as he had learned to do. He slept.
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, chewing a piece of grass.
The bus had stopped. This was not a scheduled rest stop. Andrew checked his watch. They’d been traveling for four hours, two to go. The other passengers were stirring. 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 brown 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 several fellow passengers offering to buy him drinks or dinner.
One male passenger, a paunchy older man with broken eyeglasses and stale breath, approached him. “Fancy going to the titty bars? It’s cheap and easy here, cleaner than Thailand.”
Andrew declined all invitations and instead hailed a tuk-tuk.
“The US embassy.”
Four scowling and heavily armed American guards at the US Embassy eyed Andrew as he hopped out in front of the gate.
Helpfully, Andrew’s name was on the day’s list of expected visitors. Andrew cringed slightly. He felt exposed. The guards snapped to attention when they saw Andrew’s host.
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 far wall, then one more, a 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. Andrew shook his hand.
“Welcome. I’m Jeremy Baker.”
Jeremy continued talking while they shook hands, holding Andrew’s hand in his own for longer than Andrew deemed necessary or normal. 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.
“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 even 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 contradiction came in handy.
“Good to meet you. Thanks for the welcome.”
“Please follow me, let’s get you settled in. It’s a madhouse today.” Jeremy glanced left and right, sweating profusely.
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?” he asked.
Jeremy gave Andrew a sideways look as they walked. “Ahh, yes, you’re a tourist.” Jeremy smirked. “It is Pchum Ben. The Festival of the Dead.”
“What’s it for?” Andrew asked.
“To honor one’s ancestors.”
A second giggling woman ran by them down the hall, carrying boxes filled with inflated balloons. She nodded at Jeremy as she opened one of the doors off the hallway and ducked in. Someone yelled from inside the room, “You’re late!” More laughter.
Jeremy walked down the hall with swift, short steps, like a small dog. Despite his height, Andrew had to work to keep up with him.
They passed several more closed doors and at last, Jeremy stopped. “Here we are.” He opened the wood-paneled door and stepped back to allow Andrew to enter first.
He stepped into a bright anteroom where an attractive woman stared at her computer screen, her fingers moving furiously across her keyboard. Her ear buds drowned out distraction with a bass beat Andrew could hear from the door. Jeremy followed Andrew in and shut the door.
“Janey,” Jeremy said, frowning, clearing his throat and fluttering his hands in front of her face.
Janey looked up, removed her ear buds, and slipped her reading glasses on top of her head. “Sorry!” she exclaimed, smiling broadly at Jeremy. Turning in her chair, she raised her eyebrows at Andrew.
“Hello?” she said to Andrew.
“Janey, this is Andrew Shaw. Andrew, this is Janey, our go-to girl.” Andrew thought he saw a flicker of disapproval flash across Janey’s face.
“Hello, nice to meet you,” Andrew said.
Janey half-smiled and nodded, her eyes flicking back to her screen in anticipation. Jeremy continued forward through the anteroom to his office. Andrew followed, glancing back at Janey, absorbed in typing again. He noticed her spotless desk, devoid of photos or personal mementos.
Jeremy’s office had large windows with views of Wat Phnom park across the street. The leafy trees swayed in a breeze. The thick glass kept out the city sounds.
Across one office wall, framed black and white photographs depicted iconic European cities: Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, even the Rathaus-Glockenspiel of Munich. Diplomatic posts, Andrew wondered. Or perhaps vacations. Or a bit of both. He saw adjacent empty wall space where the shape of a picture frame was outlined by wood darker than the consistently exposed wall.
Two leather chairs faced Jeremy’s desk. Already seated, Jeremy motioned to Andrew to sit in either chair. Andrew chose the one closest to the door, which he had left open. He settled himself into the soft leather as Jeremy started talking.
“Would you like a coffee? Water?”
“No thank you,” Andrew said. He waited. He sensed Jeremy trying to figure him out.
“I understand you arriving here from a vacation in Siem Reap. Unfortunate time for a vacation, really. It’s still officially the rainy season after all, but I’m sure you knew that when you booked your trip. Do you enjoy rain? Or off-season travel? Some people travel when they know the crowds will be light. There’s no perfect time to visit Southeast Asia. It’s either hot or wet or both.”
“It’s when I was free.” Andrew shrugged.
Jeremy studied Andrew for a long moment. “Yes. Yes, that makes sense,” he said.
Folding his tan hands carefully on a manila folder on his desk, Jeremy continued. “We received a phone call seeking, nay, demanding cooperation in this unfortunate matter, of which, I understand, you are aware.” Jeremy’s eyes widened in a question.
Andrew nodded, his gaze steady on Jeremy’s face.
“Quite something really. Extraordinary.” Jeremy said, unclasping his hands and opening his palm to the sky, where he held them suspended for several seconds.
“Well, let’s look at what we’ve got.” He opened the folder, looking at the top page. “This is the information we’ve received. It’s not much.” He thumbed through the papers, as if counting, then tapped them twice. “Of course, it’s only just happened.”
He closed the folder and handed it to Andrew.
Andrew saw the name of the deceased 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 beyond this?” Andrew asked.
“No. That is everything,” Jeremy said. Andrew closed the file and looked outside, where the trees stretched into the blue sky.
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 whatever you need. We’re setting you up in an office. Not much…just a desk, a computer and…Flint had said you would be without a weapon. Seems curious for someone of your profession to travel 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, then stood, pushing his chair back. He walked to the wall safe behind the desk. With a few swift turns of the dial, 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. He slid it across the desk to Andrew. “Not 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.
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 to stay well in the shadows on this matter with Ben. They fear this incident might frighten tourists away, if too much is made of it.”
Andrew nodded. “If I kill anyone, do it on the down low?”
Jeremy’s mouth fell open. He made a strangled choking sound.
Andrew chuckled. “Sorry, bad joke. Discretion is required, understood.”
Jeremy inhaled and leaned back in his chair, fingers drumming against the armrests as he squinted at Andrew. Above, the fluorescent lights hummed, as if blasted with an electrical surge. Andrew leaned forward.
“I’d like to get started.”
“Of course. Janey will show you to your office.”
On cue, the heavy 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 clear. 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, then 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. Andrew 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 tight,” 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 very 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 up and locked the door. Never a bad idea to lock up. Though 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. Here he was, 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.
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. Here he was, 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, Andrew could just disappear. He could walk out, right now, leave this junket to some embassy flunky. Southeast Asia is a good place to reinvent oneself, filled with people who had shed their old selves like skin.
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.
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, usually slight, slipped out, ‘surprise’ sounding like sur-preeze.
“You’re married?” Andrew asked, himself surprised.
“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 small electric buzz and phtt-phtt-phtt of the metal blades a rhythmic beat. Andrew studied Severine for a long minute. She held his gaze. He picked up his coffee and took a slow sip, the steam wafting in the air near his face. He shrugged.
“Ma’am, as I said, I simply need information about what Ben was doing in Mondulkiri. And where exactly he was.” Andrew sipped the beverage, the white cup obscuring his face.
“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 then.”
Severine handed him a plain 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 turned and walked toward the hotel lobby, disappearing behind the vast marble columns and into the cool, quiet shadows.
Andrew sat in the back of a raggedy tuk-tuk, glancing occasionally at his watch. He was late. The orphanage was a long way 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 a little 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, a crotch rocket, had fallen back another block but was still making an effort to keep them in sight. It was an inexpert tail, Andrew thought, its helmeted driver hunched over, gripping the handles, too obviously focused.
He had the tuk-tuk driver do a series of double backs and retracing steps, and return through the slow throngs of the Wat, where it was difficult to see beyond 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 the moment.
But now they were running late. They were still a few miles away. This place was off the grid.
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 to speak of here. Houses, if they could be called that, lined the dirt roads. Small one-story shacks made of corrugated metal sheets, the main room about 10×10 feet, opened directly onto the street. It was obvious 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, several 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 brown limbs moving the “ball” expertly to the goal.
As Andrew walked by the game, play stopped for a moment as 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 part of the orphanage sign ahead on the left. “Espère”
A burly guard watched him approach from a rusted metal lawn chair. Eight-foot high cement walls made the orphanage look more like a prison than a playground.
Andrew approached the guard, who stood up as Andrew got within five feet. 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 toward the iron gate. A thick steel padlock secured the heavy fence. Eyeing Andrew, Vith pulled a massive set of jangling keys from his belt, selected the correct key and unlocked the padlock, sliding the heavy black bolt back and pulling open the gate. Vith gestured with his left hand for Andrew to proceed inside.
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.
Andrew waved away a fly intent on biting his bare arm. “Not without incident.” He explain his lateness, he described a traffic accident he’d seen on the way, a collision between a truck and a motodop whose driver had not been wearing a helmet.
“Yes. That is the way here. There’s always something that goes wrong. But you get used to it.” She shrugged. “You have to.”
“Good to know.” He looked at his watch. “Is this an OK time? I know you’d said eleven.” It was now just shy of noon, the sun directly overhead.
“Yes. For a short visit. I’m quite behind today since did not come in yesterday. My staff has mostly deserted me today to help their families with the rice harvest.”
“Isn’t there a machine for that?” Andrew asked.
“Not here. Here everything is done by hand.”
“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. “So official. Am I to be on the record?”
“It’s just to help me remember. Over forty, my memory is shot.”
Severine nodded. “OK.” She took a seat by Andrew on the bench, leaving a wide space between them.
Andrew consulted the list of questions he had written up last night and a few more he had added this morning after the encounter with Severine at the hotel.
“I understand Ben’s work was demining? Is that what he was doing in Mondulkiri?”
Severine smoothed out her long tan skirt and said, “Most of his work was demining farms and forests in the provinces. There are so 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 from his notebook.
“What was he hired to do?” 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 work?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
Andrew stared at her, unsatisfied with this response.
“Sorry for how this sounds but…how can you not know who your husband worked for?” Andrew asked.
Severine gave him a cold stare and then asked, “Do you know how many NGOs there are in town, Mr. Shaw?”
“No. I do not.” He knew the term though. NGO. Non-Governmental Organization. A lot of the young people he’d met at Ruby’s last night had worked at NGOs. They all seemed to have a burning cause.
“Over two thousand. Two thousand NGOs.” Severine was fired up, Andrew could see. She clearly didn’t like being faulted where her husband was concerned. But she was talking, so that was good. Only way he was going to get any answers. He let her continue uninterrupted.
“Ben worked for so many of them, often for free. Maybe one hundred NGOs he worked for, maybe more. And those are the ones I know about. You try to keep it straight, which field your husband is digging in for explosives and for whom. It is not so easy. After a while, I stopped asking.”
Andrew nodded, chastised. He thought it best to change topics. He’d try a different approach on that topic.
“Where’d he pick up the demining skills? Not really something you learn in school.”
“In the Army.”
“He was military?”
Severine looked up. “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. She surprised him.
“Helmand,” Severine answered. Andrew looked down at his notebook. He’d had some buddies there.
“Why didn’t he stay in?”
“He lost an eye to an IED,” Severine said.
Andrew nodded in understanding. 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 traditional bell ring. 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, I’m afraid. 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 cash, that’s it.”
Andrew glanced up at the window. This time there were three children, all 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, giggling, knowing full well they could never be in big trouble with her. The sound of their scampering feet in the hallway echoed in the courtyard.
Severine looked back at Andrew. “So, more tomorrow perhaps?” she said, with an almost 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.”
Vith was busy sweeping the stoop and looked up at his name. He placed the straw broom against the white wall and unlocked the gate, as Severine hurried away across the courtyard and down the long arched hallway. Andrew looked back after her. Vith jangled his keys to hurry Andrew along.
Andrew walked out the gate and onto the dirt road. His waiting tuk-tuk was parked across the road, its cheerful driver chatting with a red-helmeted motodop driver, a distant cousin he’d not seen in ages, who lived in this neighborhood. 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.
Thin afternoon sunlight filtered in through the grubby rectangular window of Andrew’s basement lair. Andrew sat hunched over his computer. He’d spent most of the afternoon calling mining companies in Phnom Penh, a list pulled from the Internet. One by one, he’d asked each person who answered if they had employed an individual prospector named Ben Goodnight in the past year. He didn’t expect them to say ‘yes’ outright, but he figured he would be able to tell from a hesitation or reluctance to answer, who deserved a follow-up in-person visit.
But most of them said ‘no’ and convincingly so, explaining, unprompted, that they used larger outfits or had their own internal people for early stage prospecting. No one sounded like they had anything to hide. One person expressed her condolences. She had heard through the local gossip mill, alive and well in this small town, what had happened to Ben.
Aside from the calls, Andrew had read everything he could find on-line about the local mining industry. It was booming, attracting all sorts, including a handful of unsavory characters, like any venture that promised easy money. Companies paid the Cambodian government for the right to prospect in the remotest reaches of the country, Mondulkiri, Ratanakiri, Preah Vihar, no stone unturned in the search for riches.
From what Andrew could tell, no one had struck it rich yet, not in a big way. But the handfuls of gems and gold that had been found, mostly from artisanal mines in the north, were enough to feed the frenzy. People kept coming.
Andrew flipped through the articles he’d printed and highlighted, looking for one particular piece he’d skimmed earlier. Something in it had stuck in his mind. He found the page and scanned down the article, an interview with a local mining industry expert, talking about capital markets in Cambodia.
“Most of the companies here are public, listed on major exchanges on Hong Kong, Australia, the US. Sure, there are a one or two private companies still remaining, but we’d certainly 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 game to stick around for the big payoff.”
All the companies Andrew had called that afternoon were public companies. He kept reading the article:
“What are those?”
“KMM and Kingdom Gold. Both small firms, mostly focused on exploration.”
“Kampuchea Mining and Minerals.”
The interview went on to discuss more esoteric issues in mining, like the depths of mines and types of drilling for different rock formations.
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.
Andrew typed the next name, Kampuchea Mining and Minerals, into the search field. This search yielded a more elaborate website, a deep gold background with a temple silhouette, black angular lettering listing the company’s address and phone number, and a “Contact Us” button along the side, presumably for interested investors. Understated but classy, Andrew thought.
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 come up empty. Over and over. Ben was cheap, had his own metal detectors. Figured, if he could pinpoint a promising source, then I’d send in the big guns.”
Tom winced, as if in pain. “You don’t know shit about mining, do you?”
“Sources is what investors want to see, new sources of metal, preferably a thick, rich, easy-to-access vein. Investors, they’re kinda like heroin addicts that way.” Tom chortled at his joke.
“Investors?” Andrew asked. “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 American investors 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 interrupted. “So you sent Ben out prospecting? When was this?”
Tom took a deep swallow of his 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 again. 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 finished 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 the sleeping tuk-tuk driver. 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 flowing saffron robes and families of four perched all on a single moto. She honked at a friend riding a bicycle and waved at her hairdresser walking her dog down the dirty sidewalk, taking careful steps among broken beer bottles.
Ahead, at a four-way traffic light that only half of the vehicles obeyed, several 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 kids on the street but they were all over this town. She didn’t like to encourage them to beg. But tonight, she reached into her pocket for riel, and handed the handful of bills to the smallest, dirtiest little boy she’d ever seen, who smiled at her, his brown eyes wide, as he placed a white Jasmine bracelet on her slim wrist, said “Ah Kuhn,” and then ran off with his remaining wares.
The light changed to green and Severine started up again, an impatient black SUV honking behind her.
As she wove in and out of the traffic, Severine held the bracelet to her nose and inhaled. She knew the kids should be in school. Kids made a good living on the street, easy money from tourists.
But today, she’d needed flowers.
She recalled Andrew’s question from the morning. How did you two meet?
So perfectly, she thought, looking at the flowers.
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.