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THE BRITTLE LIMIT, part 4 of 4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE BRITTLE LIMIT

 

a novel

 

 

 

Part 4 of 4

 

 

 

 

 

 

KAE BELL

 

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.

 

Copyright © 2016 Kae Bell

 

All Rights Reserved

 

Part 4

Chapter 29

Waves lapped at the deserted beach in front of the stilt house, the tide surging in. An emerging moon sat low on the eastern horizon, only a quarter of its fullness peeking out, its color a light orange. It would be a bright night once the moon rose. But now, it was still full dark. Far out over the sea, lightning flashed in high cloudbanks, threatening the clear night.

Leaving the safe cover of the water Andrew moved onto the beach, keeping low as he approached the house, flicking off dank seaweed sticking to his muscular frame. He had swum down to this site from a half mile up the empty beach, carried by the tide and adrenaline.

The balcony was empty but through the windows, Andrew could see light and movement inside. Although the beach was dark, he remained cautious. He did not want sharp eyes inside to catch his movements. He moved swiftly under the stilt house, its floor eight feet above his head.

Earlier in the night, from farther up shore, he had watched guards moving boxes from the house into a black SUV. He could only guess the boxes’ contents. He did not know how much time he had to find out. Now, under the house, he heard voices overhead, low murmurings, the sounds of agreement and plans moving forward.

Andrew figured whatever Hakk had planned it would be on a big scale, with massive casualties. The Friendship Bridges had been a major undertaking and it was only luck that so few people had died. Andrew knew Hakk would not stop there. Now he would ramp it up. He was showing off his might.

With a shiver, Andrew remembered the man’s icy stare at the Embassy party, his thinly veiled warning to Andrew to watch his step, the frisson that gripped Andrew as he shook Hakk’s hand. This was a man who preferred darkness to light, stasis to change. Death to life.

Walking under the house, Andrew didn’t feel the buried net until it was too late. An alarm sounded, as a net scooped Andrew up like a fish from the sea. In two seconds, Andrew was suspended like aged meat on a hook.

At the alarm, guards came running and a blinding spotlight shone on Andrew.

Strung up, Andrew surveyed the scene. He faced the dunes behind the house and in the dark, could see the scrubby brush eking out a life on the sand. Smelling pipe smoke from behind him, he wormed around in the rough netting to see Hakk below him staring and puffing on a long thin pipe.

Hakk’s eyes were black, his face a stone. He watched Andrew for several moments before he spoke.

“You are the catch of the day, Mr. Shaw. I’m afraid we don’t follow catch and release here. Perhaps we should gut you and dry you for sale at the Russian Market. What is the going rate per pound for spies these days?”

“Look, whatever your plan is, you’ll never get away with it. Your warnings to the embassies have alerted everyone, as you’d hoped. But we also have your manifesto and we will stop you,” Andrew said, gripping the rough netting in his hands.

“Ahh, but you see, Mr. Shaw, you are mistaken. I have already ‘gotten away with it’. Everything is in motion. There is no turning back the clock. Everyone will soon feel the effects of my plan. Even your Veteran friends in the jungle. Soon they too will be blasted away, vaporized, a distant memory. As for the rest of the country, I will be their savior. I will rid them of desire and want. They will return, all of them, to simpler times, when the outside world was shunned, when fear and hard work made us strong.”

Andrew shook the net as he spoke. “But why are you doing this? Your country is peaceful now, prosperous. Why would you disrupt that?”

Hakk spat on the beach, hissing his words. “My country is rotted flesh, attracting flies, maggots, vermin – foreign vultures who come to feed off the innards of the land. My country is a whore for them, for sale to the highest bidder. A slave to outsiders. I will free her from the yoke of the Ch’kai.”

As he listened to Hakk, Andrew pulled a clear plastic blade off his chest, where it was taped along his last rib. He palmed this in his hand. Behind his back, he pushed the thin knife into the chunky twine, moving the serrated blade back and forth against the rough rope. One piece gave way and he worked on the second, then the third. In a moment, he was able to reach his hand out of the net.

Hakk paced the beach, yelling out to his men in Khmer. Andrew needed more time.

He asked Hakk, “What is your next plan for the Ch’kai? Perhaps we can settle this another way, come to an understanding, an arrangement that could benefit you.”

Hakk spat again as he paced, forward and back. “You have nothing I want, Mr. Shaw. Perhaps you would do better to focus on your own troubles. You have other worries now. You and your little friend Severine.” At Severine’s name, Andrew’s heart sank. How had she gotten involved in this, he wondered.

As Hakk spoke, Andrew cut through several more rungs of the net and reached out to the metal ring that held the net together. He felt above and behind him for the metal rung, for a catch or release. He could not find it, so he reached farther around the metal hook until. Ahh, there it was. He grasped the metal release and gave it a hard pull. The net relaxed around him and he dropped six feet to the ground, landing with a thud on the soft sand. Gathering the net beneath him in his arms, he leapt at Hakk, who turned in surprise but not in time. Andrew cast the net upon him, pinning Hakk to the ground. His pipe fell to the beach and sizzled in the sand.

“What are the other targets?” Andrew asked. He held the knife to Hakk’s throat. Hakk stared up at him, expressionless. He blinked once, twice.

“I don’t know what you speak of. But, please, continue. Life is so tiresome.” Hakk stared at him, undaunted by the slim knife that he could feel against his neck.

Andrew shook Hakk’s shoulders. “Tell me your plan!” Andrew yelled into the night.

Behind him, a metallic sound. Andrew looked up to see several pistols trained on him. He glanced left and right. Black-clad guards surrounded him on the beach.

The moon had risen above the horizon and gentle orange moonlight glowed on the weapons aimed at Andrew’s head and chest.

Hakk spoke in Khmer, his voice calm and unhurried. The largest guard stepped close and held out his left hand.

“Heang would like your weapon.” Hakk explained. “He enjoys knives. Especially using them on intruders.”

For an instant, Andrew considered slitting Hakk’s throat. Just be done with it. Whatever insanity he had planned would die with him.

But then Andrew would never find out the next target or targets and would not be able to stop it. Or even to try. And he himself would be dead the moment after he slit Hakk’s throat. He resisted the urge to destroy.

Instead, Andrew looked up at Heang, who smiled at him, and handed Heang the clear knife, blade first.

“Hope it comes in handy,” Andrew said.

In his zeal for his new toy, Heang grabbed the extended knife hard, his soft hand closing down on the blade. The razor sharp thinness of the blade sliced his hand. A fine line of bright red appeared in his large palm. It wasn’t a deep cut, but it was long. Surprised, Heang yanked his hand away, the knife dropping onto the sand next to Hakk.

“That was foolish,” Hakk said.

A second guard yanked Andrew off of Hakk and bound Andrew’s arms behind his back.

Hakk stood, untangling himself from the net, as if removing a dinner jacket, brushing bits of sand and seaweed off his trousers and arms. “But then you have not impressed me with your wisdom. You seem to have a knack for missteps. One after another. This is why your country has set you loose, yes? You were careless.”

Andrew tried to show no expression at this comment, but he was surprised at Hakk’s knowledge. Where would he have gotten that information?

“And you are certainly no use to me, you have been nothing but an annoyance since you arrived to Phnom Penh. But that will all soon end.”

Hakk lifted his right hand, a signal to someone up the beach. Andrew turned around to see, but guard number two pushed his chin to face forward again. He’d caught a glimpse of men carrying a skiff down the beach. After a few minutes, they appeared and placed the boat at the water’s edge.

Hakk nodded at the boat. “I understand that you are a sailor. That you have a love of the sea.”

Andrew hadn’t sailed since his time at the Naval Academy. He said nothing. Hakk smiled. “I know so many things about Andrew Shaw. My sources are excellent. And discrete.” He pointed at the boat. “So you will enjoy your time on the open sea. I hear the winds might pick up, there is a storm coming. Such an experienced sailor, you will have no troubles.”

Hakk spoke to Heang in Khmer, his voice rough, finality in his tone. He glanced once more at Andrew and then walked toward the house, climbing the ladder into the hut’s interior.

Heang lifted Andrew into the boat, binding his feet as tight as his arms, then started the engine. Andrew spoke to him, hoping to distract him.

“You don’t need to do this. You know, I could set you up in America. You’d do great with the ladies. Strong silent type and all. Where am I headed, big guy? Wanna join me?”

Heang worked on the boat, preparing it for a one-way journey. Andrew had seen that the tiller had been rigged with a Loran, so he would not be steering himself anywhere. Andrew assumed it would be a straight course to the bottom of the sea.

Next, Heang moved around Andrew to the bow, where he knelt down. Andrew heard a whirring electric sound. He strained against the ropes holding him to the wooden slats. What he saw depressed him.

Heang drilled a hole in the bow, a small hole, but a hole nonetheless, just above the waterline. It would be enough to allow water to seep in as the boat headed out to rougher seas, where Andrew would vanish in the water’s depths. Heang stepped back and surveyed his work.

For the first time, Andrew felt hopeless.

“Well, you guys have thought of everything, haven’t you?” Andrew said.

Heang grunted and stepped out of the boat, started the engine and gave the boat a hard push into the deeper water. The wood bottom rasped along the grainy wet sand until it floated free, bouncing on incoming waves.

Andrew lay on the bottom of the boat, tied under the wooden seats, staring at the sky. He could see the moon in his peripheral vision, above the horizon, shining white on the water.

As the boat moved away from the beach, bobbing up and down on the rolling waves, the engine whirred and hummed, as it popped out of and then back into the sea.

Beyond the incoming tide, the water was calmer and the engine grabbed ahold. The boat began its journey south into the Gulf of Thailand, heading to open water.

Andrew stared up at the night sky, wishing for familiar stars.

The boat smelled of fish and salt. It had seen many journeys on this open sea and it did not mind that this would be its last.

 

Chapter 30

The boat slowed, as Captain Sovan scanned the river’s edge for the turn-off.

There, he saw it. Around a sharp bend in the river, on the right, a tall white tree, bare branches hanging low. The captain slowed the boat’s engine to a crawl and set a course directly for the tree. He scrambled ahead to the bow to guide his boat with a long red pole. The river was shallow along the bank. The last thing he needed was to get stuck in the mud. Gripping the pole, he pushed away from the bank, guiding the boat into this hidden tributary of the Mekong. The boat passed the tree, slipping off the main river and out of sight, into denser jungle. The boat motored along slowly, its engine the only sound in the night.

The boat was on an ancient canal cut thousands of years ago, concealed from view by dense overgrowth, until it was rediscovered by Captain Sovan, who had heard tales of a hidden river.

Jeremy watched this activity with interest. He wasn’t a fan of boat rides and he was glad they had left the big river behind. Its waves and current had made him nauseous. Now, there was little current and the boat chugged ahead easily. This small river was only a few boat-widths across, with thick vegetation on each bank. There seemed to be no habitation, no man-made structures. Looking up, Jeremy could see a few stars through the tree branches overhead.

After some time, Jeremy noticed the boat had picked up speed. Captain Sovan hurried back the stern of the boat to adjust the engine.

“Now we will move fast. Deeper water. Watch your head!” the Captain exclaimed, pointing ahead in the dark. Jeremy could see the outline of something approaching, a darkness greater than the night.

He ducked just in time as the river carried the boat into a wide-mouthed cave. The entrance of the cave was about eight feet high and ten feet wide. Looking up from his crouch, Jeremy watched the stars disappear, replaced by an impenetrable black ceiling. The river bank was replaced by walls of stone.

“What is this place?” Jeremy asked.

“Shortcut. Fastest way to cavern. From old times.”

“Well, we better get there soon. I have a boat waiting in Sihanoukville to take a shipment.” “Yes, very good. Now, boat will go fast,” Captain Sovan replied.

Jeremy muttered to himself, as he peered into the darkness ahead, barely cut by the boat’s light, calculating the offers he had in hand for the statues and several he knew would come in once other antiquities collectors found out. It was important, he knew, not to flood the market. It would raise questions and devalue the pieces.

“Hold on!”

The Captain mimed hanging on to the boat while gesturing ahead with his other hand. Jeremy glanced ahead and saw the rapids. The boat would drop into these in only seconds. He grabbed on to the boat’s edge with both hands as the boat rushed forward deeper underground.

 

*******

In the cave, the boat charged into the narrow rapids, which continued for some time. The water slowed as the canal widened and the stone ceiling gave way to a cavernous space. The river continued to meander through the dark, gentler and quiet.

They traveled through the cavern for what felt like forever to Jeremy but was little more than an hour. Jeremy had lost all sense of direction inside this underground space. Eventually, the boat rounded a corner and Jeremy saw light ahead. A long white beach came into view a half mile ahead. Beyond the beach, higher up on a wide plain, the life-size gold statues gleamed in ethereal light from the cavern’s roof. Jeremy’s heart rate quickened. They had arrived.

At the back of the boat, Captain Sovan had set to work. He called out to Jeremy. “Please – can you help me?” Jeremy watched as the Captain threw back a tarp to reveal a blue barrel. As the boat approached the beach, the Captain rolled it on its edge toward the side of the boat, planning to lift it over the side onto the beach once the boat was anchored.

“What is THAT?” Jeremy asked.

“Mr. Hakk said gift for the American men who live here. Said to keep it secret.”

“A gift? From Hakk?”

Jeremy strode to the barrel, turned it upright, and reached to yank off its plastic lid. The Captain got in Jeremy’s way and tried to stop him, his weathered hands placed firmly on the barrel’s lid. He pushed at Jeremy with his whole body, protesting.

“No! Hakk said no to open. Only for these men in hiding. A present. A surprise.” He let go a string of Khmer utterances.

Jeremy shoved the Captain aside. The Captain lost his balance and fell to the boat floor. Unaccustomed to being pushed about on his own boat, the Captain seethed. While no one had witnessed the loss of face and the embarrassment of a passenger commandeering his vessel’s cargo, he felt it. His face reddened as he watched Jeremy grab a screwdriver from the boat’s toolbox and wedge it underneath the lip of the barrel lid, loosening the plastic around the rim.

Loosening the lid enough to slip his fingers underneath the lip, Jeremy pulled the lid and threw it, like a Frisbee, into the river. He peered inside.

He saw a metal canister, the timer and the wires. Even from Jeremy’s limited experience with such things, he guessed by the size and weight, it was enough to blow the roof off a football stadium.

The digital timer counted down, the numbers shifting from 3 hours to 2 hours, 59 minutes, and 59 seconds.

The boat ground to a halt against the sand, its motor still trying to push the boat forward.

*******

Thirty minutes later, the barrel sat on the beach, settled in the sand. The Captain and Jeremy had removed it from the boat. It had taken them ten minutes to lift the barrel and carry it together to a flat spot on the sand by the cliff. They had argued about moving it at all. Jeremy wanted to send the boat back down stream. In the end Captain Sovan had prevailed, presenting a gun in defense of his position, explaining to Jeremy that this was his boat, his cargo and Jeremy was his passenger. Jeremy was persuaded.

The Captain had returned to his boat, where he folded and refolded his salty fishing nets, wishing he was back on the wide Mekong river. Jeremy walked among the field of statues, touching them and breathing deeply. The gold statues stared, unmoved by the new arrivals to the cavern or their destructive cargo.

Awake now, Severine sat on the beach by the river, her arm around Samnang. Both were groggy from the drugs and more than a little confused by their new location. Samnang would not speak. Severine had put her feet in the water and Samnang had done the same. Together, they sat, big and little, their long black hair hanging down their backs, watching the river as it flowed south.

Over the bubble of the river, Severine heard voices. She glanced at the Captain, who was focused on his net. He whistled to himself. She looked back at the plain, where Jeremy wandered in a silent and golden trance. She was sure she heard voices. She lifted her chin and looked at the river, where two canoes appeared around a bend.

“Dammit it all the hell! This daggun’ rope has tangled my foot. Can’t you fools learn how to coil a rope. Help me out, Frank!”

The boats rounding the bend carried five men. One of them was hopping about, tipping the canoe this way and that.

“Sit down fool, or we’re all gonna end up floating in this river.”

“Oh thank God.” Severine stood. She didn’t know who they were or what they were doing there, in this strange, ethereal place. But their voices, she could hear, were filled with laughter and light.

The boats continued toward her and she waved at the men, one of whom whistled at her, long and low. Frank scowled at him.

“Classy, Harry, to catcall a women in distress.” The canoes neared the beach and Frank hopped into the water to pull the boats onto the pebbles. He called out to Severine.

“We heard we had company, thought we’d come on down here and see what’s going on.”

The man called Harry whooped as he hopped out of the boat, using his cane to steady himself and nearly falling in the shallow water. Frank caught him. “We haven’t had this much excitement in thirty years!” Harry yelled.

The second man with a cane followed. The two men sidled over to the blue barrel.

“Watcha got in here?” Harry asked. He poked at the barrel with his cane.

The other man scolded him. “Hells bells, Harry, don’t you remember anything? You don’t poke a live explosive!”

“Ahh, shut up Ed, you old windbag. You always were a know-it-all. Let me take a closer look at this thing.” Harry knelt down in the sand, putting his cane on the beach and peering into the barrel at the bomb.

Severine rushed over to Frank. “I don’t know who you are but I’m so thankful you’re here. An evil man, he sent us here with this bomb. What do we do?”

“Steady now. Hang on there misses. We’ll let the experts take a look.” He nodded at Ed and Harry who were circling the bomb, arguing about it.

“Whaddaya see, Harry?” Ed asked.

“Not too much.” Harry rapped on the metal casing. “Gotta open this baby up, take a look inside. Anyone got any pliers?”

The Captain had watched the new arrivals with interest and he hopped from his fishing boat with his toolbox. “Yes, here is tools.” He had given up trying to control the situation. He was outnumbered now.

Severine turned to Frank. “Is that a good idea?” she asked, her face dark with worry.

Frank shrugged. “Who knows? Let’s see what they come up with. They’re the best we’ve got at bomb disposal around here.” Frank gestured around the empty space.

Samnang, next to Severine, watched Frank with wide brown eyes. Frank bent down to her.

“What’s your name there, little bug?” he asked.

Samnang whispered her name. Severine smiled. “She’s a lot shy and a little scared.”

“Well, everything is gonna be ok, little lady.” Samnang looked from Frank to Severine and then back again.

Severine said, under her breath, “I hope so.” Frank patted her hand.

*******

Jeremy was furious. He and Hakk had made a deal. A deal! Now he’d been sent upriver with a bomb. He sat on a golden chair and fumed, muttering about teaching Hakk a lesson.

“I’ve got to get the statues out of here,” Jeremy said to himself. He had worked so hard, had sacrificed for this. He would not be thwarted by some two-bit local gangster.

From the beach, Severine and Frank watched him. “What’s wrong with your friend there?” Frank asked.

“His plan has gone awry. He doesn’t like it when things don’t go his way.”

“Well, our boys are gonna try to disarm the bomb. In the meantime, we need to get everyone out of here, in case they don’t.”

“How? We won’t all fit in those canoes and even the fishing boat.”

“Our buddy Bob has it all figure out.” Frank said. “Tell the lady your plan.”

“The lights, the power here, are from a submarine we brought upriver about thirty years ago now. It’s about out of juice…”

“And so are we…” Frank added helpfully.

“…So we’re gonna hop in and take a ride, maybe head into town, to see the sights. Figured now’s as good a time as any,” he added, nodding at the bomb, surrounded now by all the men, one of them on his knees trying to read the timer.

Frank clapped his hands together. “All right. Best let everyone know we’re outta here. How’s the bomb disposal going Harry?”

Harry looked up. He’d pulled off a metal plate and was staring at an imposing tangle of wires, red and green and blue. In his hand he held a pair of metal clippers, his bent arthritic hands shaking as they gripped the yellow rubber handles.

“It’s a doozy!” He shook the tool in the air. Ed, next to him, grabbed the extended clippers and said, “Let me try. You don’t know what you’re doing anyway.” The two men set to bickering.

“Here she is.” Bob said, looking upriver. Severine followed his gaze.

Around the bend, a long black line appeared on the river. Severine had never seen a submarine up close. Samnang hung by her side, frightened of the metal creature that neared the beach.

The submarine creaked as it approached the beach from up river. Severine watched, fascinated as the sub came into better view. It was actually dark grey, not black. It slowed and with a quiet whirring sound it stopped in the deepest part of the canal. A metal portal on top flipped open. Stuart popped his head out of the portal.

“Alright, I got her on stand-by. Let’s go folks! I don’t know how much juice this old tin can has got left in her!”

The people on the beach walked to the river’s edge, where Frank ferried them in the canoe to the waiting submarine. One by one, they climbed onto the deck of the old submarine. The fellows with canes left the bomb reluctantly, Ed glancing back at his handiwork. The clock continued to count down.

Once on the submarine, the men tap-tapped their way along the deck. Harry gave the boat a sharp jab with his cane.

“Is this thing solid?”

Bob grinned. “We better hope so!”

By now, only one person remained on the beach watching all this departure activity. Jeremy paced along the shore, staring first at the field of gold figures then back at the submarine.

“I’m not leaving this. It’s millions of dollars of gold. I’ll load this into the fishing boat. Or I’ll go out the other way.”

Severine glanced back at him. She turned to Frank, “Should we force him to leave?”

Frank shrugged. “He’s a grown man, he can do what he likes.” Frank glanced at his watch. “And if he stays here, by my calculations,” he nodded at the bomb, “He’s got about an hour left in which to do that.”

Severine glanced back once more and then shepherded Samnang down into the submarine’s hold.

“Is that everybody?” Bob yelled down into the tin can about to be their home for the next several hours.

Severine looked up, as the round portal door closed and the hatch was sealed. She felt her chest tighten.

Frank patted her arm. “This is gonna be a wild ride, little lady. Hang on.”

Bob yelled out to his first officer, the checkers-playing cane-wielding Ed.

“Full speed ahead. We’re on the move.”

Outside, Jeremy stood amidst the gold statues, watched the submarine move away down the canal. He started to drag the closest gold statue in the direction of the beach, where the bomb counted time in fleeting seconds.

Chapter 31

The helicopter flew low along the shoreline, the thup thup thup of its rotor muted by the crashing surf. An approaching typhoon had kicked up the seas of the Gulf of Thailand and spray spattered the cockpit windows. The winds would only increase. In this rough weather, the chopper had a short timeframe to be out safely. Once the heavy winds hit, it would be forced to ground.

The helicopter held two occupants: The young pilot that had ferried Andrew home from Mondulkiri and a woman beside him, who stared hard at a map as if her life depended on it. Flint, her eyes squinting, her mouth in a worried frown, looked out into the night.

She’d flown from Dulles to Singapore while Andrew had been in Mondulkiri, once her team had confirmed Mey Hakk as the source of the Ch’kai email. She’d also heard some disturbing rumors about an Embassy attaché gone missing. She’d flown onward to Phnom Penh when Andrew had insisted on chasing Hakk down on his own. Now she was doing her best to track her man.

In her hand she held what looked like a smart phone. It was a secure tracking device, picking up a coded signal from a chip in Andrew’s body, implanted four years ago, unbeknownst to him, during a routine surgery, before he went deep undercover. For each agent, the chip was placed in a different location, based on body type, gender, and height. Flint never told her agents when she had them implanted or where the device was. Of course, the Agency didn’t tell their agents many things. For their own protection.

The display showed latitude and longitude coordinates. A digital compass changed slightly every few seconds. They ha missed Andrew on the beach by an hour. Since then he’d been drifting southwest with the current and the wind. If he’d had a motor, it had long since died. He was under the power of the elements. Which were about to get nasty.

Flint spoke into her headset to the pilot as they flew swiftly along the shoreline.

“He’s a few miles out, south, southwest, based on this calculation. Can you make it?”

“Sure can.”

The helicopter veered sharply away from the shoreline and headed out over the Gulf of Thailand. It traveled over open water, a quarter mile above the sea, to avoid the mist kicked up by the heaving whitecaps.

There were almost no boats out, as fishermen, men who live and die by the sea, had called it a day, with the typhoon predicted to hold sustained winds of up to 150 mph. It was not a time to be on the water.

Flint calculated that Andrew had been out there for 9 hours. She felt both guilt and anxiety. She’d put him in this position. She should have done better due diligence on this entire operation.

She watched the tracking device: It showed Andrew about three miles off shore in the Gulf of Thailand.

She looked out the window at the choppy sea below them. Angry waves grew bigger. She hoped wherever Andrew was, he was afloat. And alive.

*******

Andrew had slept deeply. Bound and tied, he’d tried to stay awake but the fatigue and rocking waves had lulled him to sleep. When he woke, he was soaking wet and freezing, in three inches of water that had seeped into the hole in the hull. Andrew wondered how it was possible to be cold in an equatorial climate. But he was.

He was also stiff from lying in the same position for hours. Heang had tied him underneath the front and back seat slats, as if he were to be roasted on a spit. As best he could, Andrew stretched, his hips achy, his calves cramped.

Stretched out to full length, Andrew’s legs reached to the end of the dinghy. His bare feet, pointed, reached the hole through which seawater was splashing.

He poked his big toe into the drilled hole, wedging himself into a secure position. The seepage stopped. Andrew sighed. Well, that’s one problem solved. He’d bought himself time. Not a lot, not with the storm. But some time.

He started working on the bindings on his wrists.

*******

The weather grew worse farther out to sea. Rain plastered the windows. Heavy winds stirred the already frenzied sea. It was nearly impossible to see, even with the spotlight shining down from the helicopter.

Flint peered out of the window at the churning sea but could discern nothing in the dark. The pilot was the first to see the boat.

“There!”

The pilot sighted the boat about a hundred off. The helo drew closer and Flint pressed her nose against the glass. Andrew was one of her best. She didn’t want to lose him.

Through the mist, she could see the white bobbing dinghy, drifting with the current. It was half-full of water and would soon sink.

Most importantly, she could see Andrew wasn’t in it. She checked her tracker, which she’d forgotten once they’d spotted the boat. Sure enough, Andrew was on the move.

“It’s too rough now, we have to turn back,” the pilot said, as he turned the helicopter back toward shore.

Flint swore under her breath and nodded. She looked at her tracker. He was out there, somewhere.

Chapter 32

A brash Cambodian fisherman, who believed his boat unsinkable, steered his fishing boat through the night and surging seas of the Gulf of Thailand. Over many beers, on evenings in Sihanoukville bars, he would brag to his fisherman friends that there was no storm his boat could not vanquish. So far he had been right.

It wasn’t much to look at, a wooden junk like many others. But it was solid and tended to with love. It had been his father’s boat before him.

The fisherman had one net still out and then he would call it a day. As he pulled the net in, which was filled to his delight with flapping fish churned up from the storm, he spotted in the water near the boat, lit from the spotlight on his net, white limbs slicing through the waves. He thought it was an albino octopus caught in the maelstrom. Then he saw a man’s head bob up between waves, and after a few moments, one of the white arms grabbed onto the boat’s edge, the hand gripping the wooden railing. The whole man followed the hand, as the man pulled himself up on to the boat. He stood, naked, staring at the fisherman. He was white as a bone and breathing hard.

“Help me.” The man slumped against the side of the boat, exhausted.

The fisherman had seen many American movies and he was especially fond of Meryl Streep films. His English was from Hollywood films bought for pennies at the local market.

“Yes. Yes.” The fisherman left his net and the flapping fish hoping to return to the sea. He gave Andrew water from his own bottle then rummaged inside the small cabin for an old woven blanket. Some calm nights he slept on the open water, under the sky. The night air always carried a chill that permeated the bones.

As he wrapped Andrew in the rough blanket, he saw the red marks on Andrew’s wrists and ankles. They were not deep, rope burns only, and would be fine from the salt water. But a man lost at sea for any amount of time is a man at risk of dying, from exposure, dehydration, and hypothermia.

“Here. Drink. More.” Andrew drank again deeply and then proceeded to throw up much of what he had swallowed.

“Good, good.” The fisherman said, “Salt water. Good on outside, bad on inside.” He gave the bottle again to Andrew. “Drink. Again.”

As Andrew drank the water, wiped his mouth, the fisherman started his engine.

“How far are we from shore?”

“Far. You strong swimmer. But not that strong. Where is boat?”

Andrew leaned his head back against the wood. “By now, at the bottom of the sea.” The fisherman, pondering this, felt proud of his small but seaworthy craft. He patted the boat’s side.

The winds continued to pick up and a gust knocked the boat hard. Andrew caught himself, his hand reaching for an edge. The fisherman simply adjusted his stance. His sea legs were on auto-pilot.

Andrew wrapped the blanket around himself tighter. “I need to get to shore. To Cambodia. Can you take me there?”

“Yes, yes. We go now. I take you.” The fisherman studied his unexpected passenger. “Kampot?” Most tourists wanted to go to Kampot.

“No. Anywhere but Kampot.” Kampot was the site from which he had been launched.

“OK. I take you Sihanoukville. Very fun. Many parties. Much drinking.” The fisherman opened the engine and the boat picked up speed. He pointed at the heavy night skies.

“Now, the storm comes.”

Andrew looked out into the night. “Yes. It does.”

Chapter 33

Andrew stood on the edge of the clearing, leaning against a thick tree. The rain pelted down in the thin morning light, pushing its way through the jungle canopy and pattering on the dense leaves. The sun, thwarted by the thick low clouds of the fast-moving storm, was nowhere to be seen. It would be a dark day.

The camp in front of Andrew consisted of five wood-framed huts with thatched roofs and walls. Tall straight trees surrounding the clearing swayed in the heavy wind. Light shone from the largest hut. Several men stood under a large tree smoking. In a rustic bamboo stable by the edge of the forest near Andrew, animals shifted about in the darkness, waiting to be fed.

Andrew counted ten motorcycles. And the helicopter he’d passed a quarter mile back could hold one person, maybe two.

Socheat’s translation of Hakk’s treatise had listed three training camps. Like Ben, Andrew had stumbled on the first camp in Mondulkiri and visited the second in Kampot, hoping to talk to Hakk. Now, deep in the Cardamom mountains, site of the last stand of the Khmer Rouge, Andrew knew he had found the main camp, Hakk’s stronghold. While the other two were transient facilities, here, he’d seen water cisterns on the mountain-side, large storage containers, probably with food and weaponry, and a helicopter pad. This is where Hakk was holed up and where he planned to remain.

While the weather had helped his approach, masking the sound of the helo he’d commandeered from the Sihanoukville airport, now the rain pelted down on him. His clothes, borrowed from a drunk Australian who’d been walking on the Sihanoukville beach at 5:00 AM, were soaked and plastered to his body.

He had landed on the only open spot he could find, a deserted road about a mile away, and had snaked his way up the mountain, following a trail worn by animals wild and domestic moving over the hill. Several times, thinking he heard voices, he had faded off the trail into the trees. But it had been only the wind.

The camp was far from all towns, the closest village a rugged twenty-mile motorcycle ride away and that was nothing more than a watering hole, offering only warm beer and weak pot. The only people who would pass this way were locals, farmers who wanted no trouble. Certainly, there were no tourists.

*******

Hakk’s men had arrived an hour earlier, one from each province, driving the long distance from their homelands, where they themselves had their own men, believers waiting for the word. This group had met only once before, a year previous, to set things in motion. Tonight, they had greeted each other with deep bows and quiet words, waiting for their leader to summon them. It was a solemn and sacred time.

Andrew watched as Hakk appeared in the doorway and called from the hut, yelling over the sound of the noisily swaying trees, for his men. He was ready. Cigarettes were extinguished, feet shuffled and the men fell into a line, moving toward the light. In the dark, Andrew waited.

*******

Inside the hut, Hakk stood at the head of the wooden table in the center of the room, staring at a large map on the wall to his right. The room was lit by oil lanterns, one positioned in each corner and another hanging from a pole that ran from one end of the ceiling to the other.

On the table, squat white candles smoked, their flames casting shadows on the men’s faces as they assembled and sat, four seats on each side. The seat at the head of the table was vacant.

The men, all in their fifties, dark hair graying at the temples, were dressed identically in black. While it was not evident from their stony faces, they were the type of men for whom hate came easy, like breathing. It was all they had known. As with Hakk, it was the only sustenance they needed, its power sustaining as they steeped in bitter anger, watching as the world pressed forward, into an open, welcome, connected future.

Hakk had devoted years searching for this small band of men, visiting villages and towns in distant provinces, asking quiet questions in subdued corners, leaving a trail for his brothers-in-arms to find him. He had known there must be others like him, who had stood guard decades ago, like him, on rice paddies now forgotten. Who longed too to see the work continue.

The men, hatred stirred awake, came to him from the remotest corners of the countryside, with hopes that their collective dreams would restore order to the world gone mad.

Hakk held his arms behind his back and breathed in, his shoulders rising with the inhale. He waited. On the table, his satellite phone rang and he grabbed it to answer.

“Jah. Jah.” Yes. Yes. OK.

He hung up and nodded at the men. Their faces showed visible relief. The loss of the Siem Reap bomb had disrupted the initial plan, but now things were back on schedule.

Hakk placed the pin in Siem Reap.

“Now we begin.”

As Hakk spoke, his voice quiet, his advisors leaned forward to hear, their faces open and reverent, their eyes unblinking. They watched his lips as his words unveiled a new world for them. For their country. For the world.

What he said made their heartbeats quicken.

*******

Andrew had watched the men enter the hut. He noted that only one man stood guard in the doorway, the guard Heang from the beach. From his location, Andrew could see into the hut through a window and he watched Hakk talking. He wanted to get closer.

He approached the stables from the back. From this location, he could smell that the stalls needed a good cleaning and some fresh hay. He stepped to the front to see the offending creatures.

The stable revealed a large gray beast, whose left eye watched Andrew, transfixed. The elephant was the largest Andrew had seen. It huffed at him, a question. She and her companion had been fed, an extra large bucket each, and so were content and untroubled by their visitor. Watching her, Andrew christened her Jane and her son Dick. Andrew was about to move in to the stable, as figured it would be a good place to watch the action, out of the rain, when he heard voices.

He slipped back behind the stable and watched Heang approach, carrying something in his hand. Andrew assumed it was a gun. He didn’t know if he should bolt for the cover of the jungle or stay put.

Heang went right into the stable, where Andrew could no longer see him. He could hear Heang speaking in quiet Khmer, in a gentle sing song tone. Andrew ventured closer to the stable window to peer in.

Heang was sitting on a plastic bucket feeding the vast elephant grapes from his hand. He caressed the large animal’s face and sang a lullaby while Jane ate.

After a few minutes, snack time over, Heang patted the animal’s trunk, brushed off his trousers and walked back to the hut. He wiped his feet on the dirt outside and walked in.

Andrew watched this scene, considering his options. He could draw Heang to the stable and maybe take him out by force. But the odds were still too great; there were too many men. And who knew if there were a few men more patrolling the woods, though Andrew had not seen anyone on his approach up the hill. He didn’t even have a weapon at this point. With a glance at the animals, he retreated to the edge of the woods and waited.

Chapter 34

Hours later, Andrew fretted in the woods, hungry and cold, knowing he was wasting time but certain that he could stop Hakk’s plan, if he could just get inside that hut.

All day, he’d watched the men at the table. From Andrew’s vantage point, he could see Hakk lecture his men. Andrew caught an occasional familiar-sounding word, but they spoke mostly in Khmer and without Socheat’s help, he understood little of it. The men had eaten a simple meal, prepared by Heang, of rice in coconut milk. Andrew had watched as Heang sliced the rind from the fruit and tended the fire.

Each man in turn had left the hut to venture into the woods, presumably, Andrew figured, to relieve themselves. During all of this, Andrew had kept his eyes trained on the hut.

At one point, after several hours, an argument had erupted inside the hut, between two of the men, their yelling waking Andrew from an uneasy snooze. Hakk had silenced them with a word and resumed.

While Andrew waited, he built a rough sling-shot from a supple twig and a thin elastic from his waist band. He used to build them when he was a kid, terrorizing the neighborhood squirrels. Not an ideal weapon, but it would have to do.

Finally, in late afternoon, the men emerged looking tired but eager. The meeting was adjourned just as the storm broke, blowing east to Vietnam. Thin rays of light were caught and reflected in large round raindrops on dark green leaves. Hakk remained inside, unseen except for glimpses through the window.

Heang stood guard as a few men lit cigarettes and others hopped on their motorcycles, revving their engines as they anticipated the return trip to their homelands. This, Andrew knew, meant things were in motion for Sunday. The bikers launched themselves onto the rough dirt trail and disappeared, leaving a trail of dust.

Andrew counted. Aside from the two remaining men, who were also readying for travel, that left Heang, one other guard, and Hakk inside the hut. Andrew was more comfortable with this. The departure of the men told Andrew that Hakk felt secure in these woods, far from any city, certain that he had nothing to fear. Confident that he himself was the greatest danger.

Andrew settled down behind the stable to wait. After some time, all was quiet again. Heang called out to his fellow guard. He had to urinate. He walked in to the woods on the far side of the clearing, leaving only the one guard, facing the stream, chucking stones at the small frogs that had appeared on the banks, filling the coming night with song.

Andrew stepped into the dark stable where the animals rested. He loosened the twine tying the elephants to the bamboo poles and with a rump slap, pushed them toward the clearing. They didn’t need much encouragement, as they too thought the stall needed a good cleaning. As they stepped away from him, Andrew patted the big girl’s rump. “Sorry, you’re not gonna like this.” He slipped back into the darkness and pulled out the slingshot.

Elephants have thick hides but Andrew hoped they could still feel beneath all that skin.

He found a bullet-shaped object in his pocket. He’d gnawed off a part of the rubber sole of his shoes while he waited. The hard black rubber would sting the old girl and hopefully, piss her off pretty good. Andrew hoped she’d have something to say about that.

Andrew took aim. In the clearing, Jane nibbled on the grass, which tasted sweeter than her normal feed. Her baby boy stayed close by.

Phhtt! The shot hit home and was followed by a trumpeting that could wake the dead. The elephant bellowed, wailed and kicked, turning this way and that in effort to stop the pain and find the aggressor. Andrew shot a second round. More furious complaining ensued.

Her companion, uncertain what had happened, tried to be helpful but kept getting in Jane’s way. The wailing continued, and Andrew assumed the rubber bullet had left a good welt on Jane’s ample backside. No matter. It did the trick.

The guard rushed from the hut to see what the fuss was about. Heang ran back to the clearing from his piss in the woods.

On seeing the men running at her, Jane went into a mad rampage, storming directly at them. The closest one turned to run away, climbing the nearest tree he could find. But Heang pulled out his gun and shut a round into the air. At the sound, Jane bellowed once more and turned sharply, heading now for the forest, for the safety of the deepest jungle she could find. Her companion followed on Jane’s heels, their bellowing echoing in the jungle.

Hakk appeared in the doorway at the top of the short ladder.

“Fools. Go and get them.”

Amidst the hubbub, darkness had fallen, without warning, night ushered in unceremoniously, without introduction. The guards lit long bamboo torches and headed reluctantly into the dense jungle. They had dim hope of finding the escaped elephants, who now galloped through the forest, thrilled with their freedom, trumpeting for all that they were back. The guards did not argue with Hakk. They proceeded as commanded.

Hakk watched his men disappear in to the jungle, their torchlight bobbing and weaving with their movements, trying to find the semblance of a path, but having little luck.

“Fools.” Hakk muttered. He was alone now, which he preferred. He needed his men only to execute his plan. He retreated inside to wait. With the rising of the sun, his vision would unfold across the country. All would be enlightened.

Andrew watched from his hiding place by the stable. “This works,” he whispered to himself. He imagined Hakk would be surprised to see him. And not pleasantly so. Andrew looked forward to the reunion.

*******

Leaving his hiding place, Andrew stayed low to the ground and circled the perimeter of the camp to approach the main hut. A broad shallow brook bubbled nearby. He was certain there was no one else but Hakk present.

He crouched in the semi-darkness of dusk and moved to the hut, the sky above him the deepest blue before the stars appeared. He wedged himself underneath the hut, into a two-foot gap between the forest floor and the hut baseboards. There, through gaps in the uneven floor, Andrew could see Hakk pacing. Andrew smelled cigarette smoke, Hakk’s pipe and charred paper, as if evidence had been burned. The lantern in the north corner of the hut had gone out, its oil depleted.

Andrew’s only weapon, his knife, was safely in the hands of Heang, who was now in the jungle, hunting his pet elephant.

By the entrance to the hut, the cooking fire still burned, popping and cracking as the flames devoured the dry wood seasoned several years in the remote jungle. The fire threw the occasional spark onto the clearing, where it extinguished in grass still wet from the rain.

Concealed now so close to his target, Andrew saw something glowing red amidst the flames. Andrew shimmied forward in the dirt on his elbows to get a closer look at the fire.

The object in the fire was a metal shovel, stuck into the coals to move the logs and forgotten once the rice was cooked and the meal was served.

Andrew listened. There was no sound of the guards; they were too far into the jungle. He heard no noises from above him in the hut. He could not see Hakk now but assumed he was reading and standing still. Andrew pushed forward from underneath the floor, toward the fire.

Moving quickly beside the fire, Andrew touched the protruding shovel handle, testing it. It was wood and cool to the touch. But the shovel blade, squarely in the coals for some time now, shone red hot along its edge. Andrew grabbed the handle and pulled the makeshift weapon from the coals. He moved back to the hut and crouched low by the window, his legs loose and ready, his heart thumping against his chest wall. He took a moment to slow his breath and visualize his next several moves as he watched Hakk pace by a map on the wall. Deep in thought, Hakk paced with a strict rhythm, the same number of steps in each direction, his turns sharp and quick.

Andrew glanced around the clearing. It was empty and quiet. The elephant-chasing guards had disappeared deep into the brush. The evening birdsong had settled into silence. The clear-running brook tumbled over stones, toward wide and far-away shores.

Andrew strode to the hut and stood beside the doorway, peering in. Hakk had stopped pacing and was staring at the map, his hands held behind his back. He rocked on his heels. A board beneath his shoes squeaked with each descent. In loose-fitting black trousers and top, Hakk carried no visible weapon. Andrew saw a pistol at the far end of the table, by Hakk’s seat.

Andrew stepped up inside the hut and moved toward the table, the shovel at his side. He was careful to keep the red blade a good distance from his skin. With each slow step, he kept his eyes trained on Hakk.

As he reached the table, the board underneath his right foot creaked. Hakk turned at the sound. The two men stared at each other from opposite ends of the table. A shadow crossed Hakk’s face and then was gone.

“How unfortunate. I thought Heang had dealt with you.”

“Your man Heang might take a lesson or two in tying knots.”

“What is it that you want Mr. Shaw? You have traveled a long way.”

“I want you to call off your plan. Call off your men. Whatever you have in the works, you’ll just destroy your country, its future. Call it off. Call it off right now.”

As he spoke, Andrew eyed the gun on the table. Hakk followed Andrew’s gaze.

“You know nothing of my country, Mr. Shaw. Nothing of what it is and what it needs for the future. I will set my country, my people, free,” Hakk said, glaring at Andrew.

For a moment, the two men faced each other. The wind that had earlier gripped the trees had calmed. The night was still, with the only the silent music of the stars. The forest held its breath.

The next instant, both men lurched for the gun. Hakk was closest and grabbed it, as Andrew rushed forward, swinging the shovel in a high arc like a baton. Hakk released one wild shot before the shovel knocked the gun from his left hand and hit him square on the chin. The blow knocked him backwards into the wall and he crumbled to the floor. Andrew dropped the hot shovel and was upon Hakk in instant, his hands on his throat.

Hakk smiled up at Andrew, their faces inches apart. “You are a foolish, persistent man,” Hakk said, looking past Andrew.

Before Andrew could turn, Heang, who had returned from the chase and heard the commotion in the hut, stepped inside to see the fight. He rushed forward and jabbed a large needle in Andrew’s neck. Andrew felt a weakness take hold of him, a coldness that coursed through him like a chill winter wind. He collapsed off of Hakk onto the wood floor. There he lay, unable to move, but still conscious, staring up at Hakk, who stood over him, dusting off his hands. Andrew tried to think, but a fog enveloped him.

Hakk watched the drugs take hold. He said to Andrew, “The animals get unruly, so we give them something to calm themselves. We underestimated you. So now we will keep you with us. You will stand witness to my triumph.”

Hakk bent low, close to Andrew’s face. “And when it is over, I’ll dump you like chum in the South China Sea.”

Andrew succumbed to the chemicals, his last image Hakk’s black eyes watching over him.

*******

When he woke, Andrew was tied in the elephant stable, sitting in shit-covered straw. He shook the offending material off his bare arms. The knots around his wrists and ankles were expertly done this time, tight and secure.

Andrew listened. Above the trees swaying in winds leftover from the storm, he heard men talking nearby but out of his view. A snuffling noise accompanied their quiet conversation. The guards had returned, with only one of the elephants, the baby, tied to a nearby tree, grazing by the stream.

The light in the main hut was out. The men stood guard under a wide tree, smoking, their cigarette tips red in the dark. They had been instructed not to speak with the prisoner, not to touch him, feed him or respond to his queries or requests.

Andrew called out. “Hey! Heang!”

No reply. But their quiet conversation had ceased and they listened. They had not been instructed against listening.

“Hey, someone come here. There’s a huge snake in here, striped like a bee! I think it’s gonna bite me! Get this thing away from me!”

Tied to the stiff bamboo, Andrew yelled and shuffled about in the straw, making noise enough for the guards to hear. He knew there was a deep fear of snakes here, the provinces writhed with poisonous ones, cobras, vipers, who had killed many a bare-footed farmer. The snake Andrew described, the banded krait, with distinctive black and yellow stripes, struck fear in all hearts; its bite brought with it a painful, paralytic death.

No reply from the guards. No movement. Andrew continued.

“Holy SHIT! Ow!! OWWWww! The fucker just bit me!”

Andrew knocked about the stable more vigorously now, banging his head on the bamboo and with his bound feet, kicking straw out onto the clearing, where the guards would hopefully see it in the torchlight.

“Ugh. Help, help me…someone. Help.”

Andrew made several more unintelligible noises, his voice trailing off and then he lay still, blinking.

He waited. No movement from the guards. But no conversation either.

Andrew waited and listened. He was good at waiting and listening. It always paid off.

*******

After twenty minutes, during which Andrew moved only once, stretching his left foot, pointing and flexing to work out a cramp under his big toe, one of the guards ventured toward the stable. Heang had tried to dissuade him but he insisted. His little sister had nearly died from a snake bite while catching frogs by a stream. He did not like snakes. And it sounded like the snake was in a biting mood.

The guard lit a torch and walked forward, watching the grass and flaring the ground with the torch in case the snake had slithered into the clearing.

The guard had heard Andrew’s pleas and decided he himself was just being smart by checking on things. If there was a snake and more importantly, if the prisoner was dead, he would need to tell Hakk. He knew he was disobeying Hakk’s order but he was certain Hakk would applaud his initiative.

He stepped forward into the stable, his foot slipping a bit on the soiled hay.

In the dark stable, the prisoner was slumped by the back wall. The guard shone the torch on the hay, uncertain now if he should move forward. Perhaps the snake lay coiled and waiting, disturbed by this new visitor. The guard backed away.

Then he heard it, a slight hissing sound, so faint he thought it might be the distant wind. He stopped moving, breathing. He listened. There it was again. A whisper of a hiss, then nothing.

He was certain there was a snake. This would not do. The guards slept on straw mats on the ground outside Hakk’s hut in the open air. A snake would be drawn to their warm bodies. It was a danger to all of them.

He pulled his gun from his belt and stepped forward again into the dark.

*******

Andrew had watched with relief as the guard approach. It had been a long twenty minutes. He had twisted himself into an uncomfortable position to mimic a painful death. His arms, tied behind his back, were asleep.

He had watched the guard step into the doorway, hesitate, and step outside again.

Betting on the strength of curiosity and fear, Andrew making as small a sound as he could, had hissed. He knew if he was still tied up when Hakk woke, with the dawn, there was no tomorrow for him. For many.

The guard waved the torch across the hay, the sound of the flame swooshing. Motes of dust filtered up from the hay, floating in the light. He stepped again, lifting his foot and placing it with care, approaching the still prisoner, who was prone, his body frozen and contorted, as if in pain. The guard listened for breathing but heard none.

As the guard approached him with his gun drawn, Andrew felt his stomach tighten. He readied to strike.

Andrew moved so quickly he surprised even himself. In lightning motions, Andrew thrust his bound feet hard upwards at the guard, who had leaned over the “corpse” to inspect it. Knocking the guard off his feet, Andrew pulled him close with his legs, rolling his torso onto the guard to stifle his surprised calls for help. Andrew shoved a sharp elbow below the guard’s sternum, to knock out his wind and silence his cries. Then, rolling off him, with a sharp blow from his palm, he shoved the man’s nose into his brain.

Andrew’s breathing was heavy with momentum. He grabbed the guard’s gun, a knife from his pocket, a cell phone, and a lighter. His colleagues would be looking for him in a moment, wondering if he had found the snake.

He had indeed, only it had two legs. And now it was armed.

 

Chapter 35

It was a perfect Saturday morning, cool with no hint of rain, the first time in months. The children’s game of tag had started, as it usually did, on the temple steps. They were so pleased to leave behind their schoolbooks and uniforms and to jump and race on ancient stone steps.

The tourists had arrived to Siem Reap in abundance the day before, swarming the temples in numbers indicating that rainy season was truly over. The local policemen and guards had shooed the children away from the temples where they usually played.

Seeking a more peaceful playground where they would not be admonished, the children ventured farther into the woods than they normally did. Their game continued in the jungle, as the children scattered in the woods, their yelps and giggles carrying high into the tall trees.

As they moved deeper into the forest, where it was darker and still, the children grew quiet. The group drew closer together. Then the game itself stopped, no one wanted to be ‘It’ as no one wanted to run far ahead of the others. They stayed together in the quiet, walking through the dim jungle light.

This was a new game, exploring, that they had done little. They were usually under the watchful eye of an older sister or aunt but today everyone was busy cooking or sewing to prepare for Pchum Ben Day tomorrow.

The bravest boy led the way. There was a barely discernible path. In a forest where wild animals roamed, there were always paths to follow. The children did not think to wonder if it was the path of a tiger or a bear or a monkey. They pushed ahead, excited and happy in the way unique to children, on sensory overload from the jungle’s richness.

It was the youngest boy who spotted the truck first. He thought maybe it was a vast gray elephant. He called out to the others, look over there at that big sleeping thing. The others followed his pointing finger to the left, about 50 feet away. From there, the ground swelled up and they could see the edge of a road high above.

“What is that?” asked a girl named Prina. She thought it looked like a truck but she had learned that boys liked to be asked questions, rather than to be told, so they could look smart in front of others.

“It’s a truck,” said the oldest boy whose name was Guy. “It must have driven off the road.”

The young boy who spotted it didn’t want to lose the limelight.

“Let’s go see what’s inside! Maybe it’s filled with money.”

“Or candy,” said a stocky boy.

“It’s probably filled with bags of rice.” Guy said. “Prina and I will go take a look. If it’s something good, we’ll call you all over.”

“You’ll try to take it all,” the chubby boy complained. Life, he thought, was unfair.

“No,” Guy said. “I promise. You stay here. You there,” he called to the youngest boy. “You keep watch while we walk over there.”

“Ok.” The young boy looked annoyed to have to follow orders, he was always being told what to do, but also thrilled to be in charge for the first time ever. His chest puffed out as the older boy moved off the path, toward the still truck.

Prina smiled at Guy, who was half-French on his mother’s side. He took her hand and ignored the others as they giggled. “Come on, let’s go see.”

*******

The young couple walked toward the truck, while the other children waited along the path. Someone called out something inappropriate but Guy ignored them, holding Prina’s hand tightly. They approached the truck from the front.

When the truck had landed on the ground at a high rate of speed, its front collapsed and was embedded in the dirt. As they got closer, Guy saw a form in the front, but could not make it out exactly. He called out “Hello?” but no response. By a large Banyan tree, he told Prina to wait while he walked forward. The truck was about ten feet away.

From five feet away, Guy saw the driver, slumped over the steering wheel. He walked to the cab and with a tug, and then a second tug, he opened the door. The driver’s body, slumped forward, also leaned heavily against the door. When the door opened, his weight pushed it hard and the body came tumbling to the ground, surprising Guy, who jumped back a couple feet.

Seeing this, Prina screamed and ran back to the others who were waiting on the path, craning their necks to see what the commotion was about. This was certainly more exciting than a childish game of hide and seek, they thought.

Guy, recovered from the surprise, looked at the body in a pile on the ground. Guy did not need to check if this man was dead, he could tell from the smell. And the attendant flies that buzzed around the man’s exposed flesh.

He glanced along the length of the white truck, which had no markings or signage but looked pretty beaten up. A burnished glint of metal on the ground near the rear of the truck caught his eye. Guy stepped closer. Still a safe distance of a couple feet, Guy could see exactly what it was. Every Cambodian child knew; they were told by their parents over and over again to be careful. It was a land mine. Guy knew they were everywhere in the country, but they were supposed to have been cleared the land this close to the temples, near to where tourists walked. But the jungle was vast and sometimes things were overlooked.

What was more troubling than the glint from the land mine, was that the canister that had been inside the truck had rolled onto the dirt and landed on the edge of the metal. Guy wasn’t sure what it was, but he knew it was bad. He returned to Prina and yelled to his younger brother, “Run and get our father!”

*******

The Cambodian man approached the white truck, taking small, hesitant steps through the jungle underbrush. He was a brave man, but he did not wish to be blown up. He glanced back to the trail, where a small but growing audience of locals stood watching him. They murmured as he walked but grew silent when he stooped down to look at the canister, disappearing from their view behind the brush. A young boy craned his neck. The man’s youngest son tugged on his mother’s sleeve and asked, “Where’s daddy?” The mother shushed him, staring, transfixed at the greenery where her husband had just stood.

The man knelt near the silver canister and looked at it from every angle he could manage, without disturbing the ground below it. He stood, glanced forward and saw the dead driver.

Satisfied, the man took one last look and jogged back to the path, his lithe brown frame moving with ease through the greenery.

Back at the safety of the path, he spoke to a few local men who had gathered to watch him approach the truck. Their pushcarts filled with goods for sale – trinkets, temple replicas, carved wooden elephants, t-shirts bearing the phrase “I Heart Angkor Wat” and of course food and drinks, all for the tourists – stood unmanned by the temple road.

Instead, the men stood on the spare path and listened, murmuring to each other in agreement, as the man explained that they must guard the truck until the authorities arrived. There was a dead man, he said.

In case that was not enough of a deterrent to leave well enough alone, as he knew sometimes his friends’ curiosity sometimes outweighed their share of wisdom, he explained that the truck was haunted with angry ghosts from Pchum Ben whose relatives had neglected to bring them offerings and they were now feeding on the dead man. The listening men looked horrified.

That should keep them from approaching the truck while he puzzled on how to reach the Prime Minister. It wasn’t every day a tuk-tuk driver had such important news. He wondered if anyone would listen.

Chapter 36

The spotlights of the helicopter pierced the night, blinding the two guards standing in the clearing, as the helicopter swooped high over the trees then low toward the clearing and the two guards. The men bolted for cover but were cut down, as Andrew blasted the helo’s machine gun. The men dropped in their tracks, cut down by the spray of bullets. The helo swept up sideways and away into the night.

Once away from the stable, Andrew had raced out of the clearing, down the brief scrubby hill by the stream to the rustic helo landing pad he’d seen on his hike up. There, he’d broken in to the helicopter, Hakk’s transport to and from his camps and town. The heavy machinery had been acquired at an exorbitant cost on the black market a year ago from a disgruntled Chinese military pilot who’d needed fast cash.

Andrew had tried several times to start the unfamiliar machine, glancing repeatedly over his shoulder, worried that the guards would notice his absence and that of their colleague. He breathed a sigh of relief when the rotor began to move. The Chinese-made helo was a stretch even for Andrew’s pilot skills but it had at last lifted off the ground, preferring the sky to the earth.

Having heard the sound of his only transport overhead, coupled with the sound of gunfire, Hakk burst from the hut, an RPG launcher at his shoulder. He looked at the dead guards by the tree, then at the empty sky. He watched the tree line for the helicopter to reappear. In the quiet night, he could hear the helicopter grow louder as Andrew circled back. Hakk stood in the middle of the clearing, the launcher set against his firm shoulder, and waited for the helo to reappear above the trees.

Its nose down, floodlights on, the machine breached the night and flew at Hakk like an arrow. Hakk aimed the launcher, waited a heartbeat, and then fired for the window, the widest and weakest spot in the reinforced cockpit.

Andrew saw the blast gases light up behind Hakk’s left shoulder and he lifted the helo sharply up and sideways to the left to evade the launched grenade.

Its accuracy dependent on a shooter’s skill, not a smart armament, the grenade projectile missed its mark, taking out only the right engine, not blasting the helicopter’s cockpit and pilot as Hakk had intended. The helo rocked from the blast, side to side, as Andrew struggled with the controls. The left engine immediately picked up the slack and Andrew lifted up into the sky and pushed beyond the clearing. He would circle around one more time and this time he would take Hakk out. There was no more reasoning. There was no more time.

Circling back around the clearing, Andrew looked down and did not see Hakk anywhere in the open area. He shone the spotlight on the edges of the clearing, the helo doing a low circle. Lifting up, Andrew blasted the huts with machine gunfire. No movement, no sound. Nothing. Either Hakk had ducked into the jungle or he had been sliced in two by a spray of bullets.

Andrew set the helo down in the center of the clearing to investigate.

*******

Andrew grabbed a long black flashlight by the seat and jumped out of the helo. Staying close and low, he shone the light along the clearing’s perimeter, looking for movement. There was none.

Taking short, careful steps, Andrew approached the main hut, the flashlight casting a wide ‘V’ of light in front of him. To his left and right, it was dark and still, the torches burned out.

The hut was empty. The flashlight revealed bullet holes marking the table and chairs, the thatch walls no protection against gunfire. A line of bullets had cut a swath of holes across the map of Cambodia on the wall.

Andrew stepped back into the clearing and listened. He could hear only the stream bubbling nearby and the frightened baby elephant making snuffling sounds outside. Andrew approached the stream, which was dark now in the late night.

Andrew peered down the streambed, shadowed by overhanging trees. The gurgling water offered the only sound that could conceal movement.

Sure enough, twenty feet ahead, Hakk, hunched low, walked in the stream bed, following the water’s noisy path down the mountain, the happy babbling hiding the sound of his splashing footsteps.

Andrew walked then jogged toward Hakk, not caring if Hakk heard. Hakk turned at Andrew’s approach and seeing him, bolted ahead, kicking up spray as he splashed forward. A ways ahead, Hakk knew, the stream fed a wider fast-moving river. If Hakk could get to that, he would be free of this gadfly.

Close enough, Andrew leapt at Hakk, tackling him from behind, both of the men falling into the clear stream. They struggled in the water, grappling and rolling, their feet slipping out from under them on the slimy rocks as each tried to gain purchase on the ground beneath them.

Andrew, gripping the back of Hakk’s wet shirt, pulled Hakk away and pushed him onto his back on the flat stones in the stream’s center, cool water running over Hakk’s face into his mouth and nose. Hakk sputtered as Andrew, sitting squarely on Hakk’s chest, pulled an arm back and blasted his face with a tight fist, bloodying his nose. Hakk took the hit with a grunt, the stream’s flowing water washing the blood away downstream.

For only a second, Andrew’s grip loosened, and Hakk turned on his side, pulled his knee forward and kicked Andrew in the chest, knocking him off sideways. Hakk slipped downstream and scrambled toward the mossy bank, intent on climbing upward and away. His hands grabbed at loose stones and pebbles, his feet slipped on rocks. He neared the top of the bank, when Andrew jumped at him and caught his foot, trying to pull Hakk back into the water.

Hakk stared back at him, blood running from his nose over his lips and down his chin. He gave one last kick at Andrew with his left foot, catching Andrew’s shoulder, and once at the top of bank, raced for his helicopter.

Andrew followed in swift pursuit, scrambling up the bank, slipping and sliding in the rough. He cut his hand on a fine sharp rock, but ignored the warm blood that oozed in his palm. He reached the top and bolted to the helo, which Hakk had started moments before. The rotor was turning, gaining speed. Within moments, the helo lifted off the ground. Andrew dove into the open door just as Hakk tried to swing it closed, the helo lifting higher. The helo gained altitude as Hakk slammed the door again and again, cursing at Andrew who hung on outside, his feet in the door, his fingers wedged into a deep metal groove in the door rim.

“You can’t stop me!!” Hakk screamed as he slammed at Andrew’s fingers repeatedly with a dull end of a screwdriver. The helo flew higher, now several hundred feet above the trees.

Andrew held tight to the door rim with one hand, while he struggled for the stable guard’s gun tucked in the small of his back. Gripping the cold metal, he pulled it forward and pointed the gun at Hakk’s head.

“Tell me the plan for Sunday!” Andrew demanded. “Take us back down and tell me the plan!”

Seeing the gun, Hakk tilted the helicopter nearly on its side, careening to the left through the wispy clouds. With the sudden sideways jolt, Andrew’s feet slipped in the doorframe but he held on with his fingers as the helicopter slid through the air.

“I’m not fucking around!” Andrew yelled and turned his face away as he shot out the front windshield. Glass flew into Hakk’s face. Andrew regained his footing and pointed the gun again at Hakk. “Take her down!”

Hakk’s eyes wild, he took the helicopter higher and higher. Wind whipped through the broken window. Hakk screamed above the noise, his eyes red with rage. “No! Time has been reset. It is the beginning. We can’t be stopped. We are an army of believers, a thousand strong!”

“Well, then, “ Andrew said as he steadied himself against the door. “One less believer won’t be missed.” He pulled the trigger and Hakk was no more.

*******

As the helo careened forward and up, Andrew yanked himself into the cockpit, climbing in over Hakk’s inert body to seize the controls. The helicopter yawed right. Andrew trimmed the controls and pushed the dead man out the door into the night, the body falling through the misty clouds to the jungle below.

If Hakk was telling the truth, he had merely been the spark initiating what would come next.

Whatever that was, Andrew had to stop it. He set a course for Phnom Penh.

Chapter 37

In the Prime Minister’s headquarters in Phnom Penh, Andrew pushed past the guards into the stately conference room. Thirty faces turned toward the interruption. Andrew stood at the head of the table and said, “You are all in grave danger.”

Behind him, hot on his heels, were the two guards he had fooled into letting him in to the building by pretending to be sick on the stone steps. He had approached the building acting like a tourist, getting a little too close, which had displeased the surrounding armed guards. Then he had proceeded to vomit on the steps, a trick he had picked up along the way – it came in handy in his line of work.

The guards had approached him to admonish him for soiling the grounds and he had bolted past them through the front door, running all the way down to the end of the hall where the Prime Minister was in a special evening session with his Ministers.

The guards burst in after him, looking for the intruder. Spotting him, one guard grabbed Andrew and wrestled him to the table, a meaty sweaty palm pressing Andrew’s face into the wood and a thick elbow digging into Andrew’s back. The other guard pulled out his gun and trained it at Andrew’s head.

The Prime Minister stood, surprised and displeased, a combination that did not bode well. He was not accustomed to interruptions and did not take kindly to them. The other men seated at the table watched him for guidance on how to react.

“What is the meaning of this?” The Prime Minister asked.

Pressed against the cold mahogany, Andrew’s mouth was forced open by the weight of the guard’s hand on his head, giving Andrew a fish-like expression, his lips puckered. In his line of sight, Andrew saw three glasses of water, two pencils, a medium-sized yellow sticky pad and a Cambodian Army General with the unfortunate luck to be seated at this end of the table by the door. The General tried everything he could to avoid eye contact with Andrew, whose face was about a foot from his own.

Andrew spoke, his voice muffled by the guard’s beefy arm, the guard trying to imprint Andrew’s face into the grain of the wood.

Not an uncivilized man, the Prime Minister lifted a finger and the guard pulled Andrew upright, to allow him to speak, still gripping Andrew’s arms in tight right angles behind his back.

Andrew repeated his words. “You’re in danger. Your country is in danger.” That wouldn’t be enough. Andrew knew he had one chance before he was shown outside and permanently retired with a discrete bullet in the back. His government would receive a condolence letter stating that Andrew had had an unfortunate accident while on holiday. He mentally sifted through the words from Hakk’s Manifesto.

“Year Zero is upon us,” Andrew said. He repeated this, slowly, emphasizing the second word.

For a moment, the room was silent, as these words were absorbed by the men seated at the table. Then a commotion erupted, as the Ministers gasped and stood and began to fret and bicker, their well-honed manners wilting in the grip of fear and anger.

Andrew had chosen his words carefully, for maximum impact in this precarious situation. “Year Zero” was a reference to Pol Pot, who had pronounced April 1975 as Year Zero, when the Khmer Rouge regime abandoned and erased all that had occurred before its ascension, all culture, customs, beliefs, and history, wiped clean. Hakk’s Manifesto described Year Zero coming again. Setting the clock to zero, once more, to begin the future anew.

Andrew had figured it out on the flight back – that was the meaning of Hakk’s last crazed rant, that with his plan in place, in motion. Time had been reset to Year Zero.

Starting tomorrow, Sunday, Pchum Ben Day.

Uttering these words, in this room, to these men, Andrew had seeded the doubt he needed to survive this meeting.

From his position at the table, directly opposite from the country’s leader, Andrew watched the commotion, as the men discussed in increasingly loud tones what this interruption could mean.

The commotion ceased when the Prime Minister, still standing, raised his voice just above the volume of the room. “Enough.” He spoke in Khmer, his tone clear. He banged his open palm, once, on the table, and repeated himself, loud enough to be heard above the anxious murmuring. A hush fell over the room.

All eyes were on the Prime Minister, who in turn stared at Andrew, his dark eyes fixed, his expression guarded.

He waved a dismissive hand twice at the table occupants, as if sweeping away a fruit fly. “Everyone, leave us,” the Prime Minister told his Ministers. They stood and filed out of the room, glancing at Andrew, some with hatred, some with fear, some simply with curiosity.

The Prime Minister motioned to the guard. “Bring this man to me.”

The guard man-handled Andrew toward the front of the room and the Prime Minister, shoving Andrew into an empty leather seat.

“Leave us,” the Prime Minister said to the guard and turned to Andrew, his hands clasped behind his back. His face showed no expression. He spoke in English.

“You come here…you break into my building, you disrupt my meeting…and you disrespect me in front of my men. These are unacceptable offenses.”

He tapped his finger on the table to each syllable as he repeated the word. “Unacceptable.” He continued, his voice calm and even.

“I know who you are. I know that you are American, that you work with the US Embassy. My people have been aware of your movements since you arrived to Phnom Penh several days ago.”

Andrew looked surprised, so the Prime Minister explained. “There is little I do not now know of in my country.”

“But sir, there is something you don’t know. Something that has been hidden from you, by people who oppose the country’s progress and direction, who want to turn back the clock, to expel the foreigners, to stop all progress, to close the doors and return to a dark past.”

The Prime Minister raised his voice, ever so slightly, the only sign of his rising irritation. “You spoke of Year Zero. What is the meaning of this?”

“There is a document, in my pocket. If you read it, perhaps it will make sense.”

The Prime Minister stared at Andrew without blinking. He showed no emotion and, worryingly to Andrew, no concern. Andrew did not think he was getting through. But he waited. He could think of nothing else to say.

The Prime Minister sat, thinking. After several minutes of silence, he approached Andrew and yanked the pages from Andrew’s breast pocket. He read quickly across the Khmer script then tossed the pages on the table.

“These are the ravings of a crazy person. A nobody.”

“Yes, but a crazy person with followers. I saw them myself. We have very little time. Sir, I need your help.”

The Prime Minister stepped to the long picture window, the bullet-proof glass offering a view of the well-lit courtyard and a single large mango tree, heavy with fruit. Beyond the courtyard, the lights of Phnom Penh lit the night sky.

“What is planned?” the Prime Minister asked.

Andrew walked him through what he knew of Hakk’s plans. The Manifesto had been vague, he explained, it rambled. They knew only the time and the day. Not where and not how. Not yet. But if they could prepare, Andrew explained, he believed they could stop it. Or at least blunt it.

As Andrew spoke, he saw a glimmer of acceptance in the Prime Minister’s face. Andrew pushed while he had an advantage, explaining what he would need from the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister only half-listened as he looked out into the night. A fruit bat mad with hunger winged its way across the sky, its zigzag flight defying reason.

The Prime Minister had faith in his men, in their intelligence gathering and most of all, their loyalty. He doubted that anyone could stage an act of terrorism in his country, let alone a plan to disrupt the entire nation, without being caught and thwarted. It was unthinkable. And therefore, impossible.

The Prime Minister considered the loss of face that Andrew had inflicted on him. Once lost, face was not recovered. He pondered his next steps. A foreigner must not dictate policy nor be seen in a position of power. Not now. Not ever.

He chose the only course available to him. He turned to Andrew, his face a mixture of contempt and arrogance. “These are lies. Western conspiracies. Take your nonsense elsewhere. This will not happen.”

Before Andrew could react, the Prime Minister slammed his fist on the table and yelled “Guards!”

The door swung open but rather than a heavily-armed guard, the Prime Minister’s key aide rushed in, his eyes wide with fright. He held a cell phone in his shaking right hand, far in front of him. He spoke in Khmer, in unrestrained tones, not at all appropriate for speaking to the Prime Minister. But he could not help himself.

Andrew couldn’t decipher the words, but he could tell their meaning from the worried tone. Something was up.

The Prime Minister took the phone and said “Yes?” and listened.

Andrew watched the Prime Minister’s face as the caller spoke, the relaxing of his jaw, the loosening of his brow. Replacing the disbelief and disdain was worry. He listened for a few more moments, nodding his head as the person talked excitedly on the other end of the line. Then the click of disconnection.

The Prime Minister inhaled and placed his hands flat on the table.

“We have found a bomb.”

Andrew nodded “Where is it?”

“Outside of the Angkor complex. A truck went off the road. Some children found it in the jungle. It has a timer. It’s counting down.”

Chapter 38

A small room was allocated for planning. The wooden table in the center was cluttered with papers, articles and copies of Hakk’s Manifesto lay on the table, in Khmer, English and Chinese. A huge map of Cambodia was taped to the wall, the country’s major cities circled in black marker. A red ‘X’ marked the bridges in Phnom Penh. They had been highlighted and annotated. There were still unanswered questions.

Flint sat at the table, alternating between scratching a mosquito bite on her bare leg and taking notes on the yellow pad in front of her.

“Let’s go over it once more,” she said. She glanced at Andrew, who walked around the room looking stressed. He hadn’t shaved for a week. The large dark circles under his tired eyes made him look like a half-dead raccoon.

They reviewed the translated missive from Hakk.

Flint asked, “What did he hope to accomplish exactly?”

Andrew had been thinking about that constantly since he had left the jungle. Hakk had seemed so certain of himself, certain of the inexorable outcome, even in the face of his own demise. Stopping in front of the map on the wall, Andrew shared his thought with Flint.

“He’s trying to break this country.”

“How do you mean?” Flint asked

“He’s putting the pressure on. The terror from the emails, the bridges, the fear, the panic. This country is brittle, from its horrible history. After what? Forty, fifty years of war and internal strife, it can’t absorb any more trauma. It has no flex left within it, no bend, no capacity for strain. One more war, one more coup or period of unrest or even uncertainty, and it will snap like a bad bone. Hakk was counting on that, the brittleness, the country at its limit. He wants to break the country’s collective will to survive. To make people give up. Succumb. If the foreigners leave, it will ruin people’s livelihood. It would be too much to take.”

Understanding flashed on Flint’s face as she shook her head in astonishment at a mind bent on destruction merely for destruction’s sake.

“Sick bastard. And here, I got this today. This is more of the same.” She gave Andrew Hakk’s latest email communication to the Ambassadors. It had been sent late Friday night, set on a timer to go after the bridges collapsed.

“You were warned,” was the message the email contained. It had been sent to all the Embassies in Phnom Penh, to everyone from the Ambassador to the interns, dispatched automatically. Not surprisingly, on the heels of the bridge collapse, this message had created a flurry of international email communication, secure and not secure, from Embassy staff to their home country. Most embassies were closing on Monday while this matter was investigated.

Andrew’s phone rang and he stepped out of the room.

Flint doodled on the pages of the manifesto, drawing the DC skyline as she read again the musings of a mad man.

“Siem Reap is safe.” Andrew said when he returned to the room.

“That’s a relief. Pretty touch and go up there for a minute,” Flint said.

A US special-forces demolition team, flown in from parts undisclosed, was decommissioning the massive bomb in the jungle outside Siem Reap. Andrew understood from the amount of explosive inside it, it would have cratered the shabby little town.

Andrew shook his head as he stared at the map. He had tried to recreate from memory what he had seen in Hakk’s hut in the mountains.

“The thing is, I’m not so sure we’re out of the woods. I think he had a back up plan. That’s what he meant when he said there was no stopping, that it was already in motion. The bomb was just one part of it. All his men in the jungle, what’s their mission?”

Flint drew swift, straight lines on the blank paper as she spoke. “Smaller bombs? Light weaponry? Suicide vests? Tourists are sitting ducks, really, for the lone rogue warrior.” She tilted her head at Andrew. “The Agency would like to alert the public to the threat.”

Andrew turned to her. “It’s not gonna happen. The powers-that-be here want this contained, controlled. Kept quiet. We have permission to stop it, not advertise it. Too much at stake if the press gets a hold of it.”

Flint shook her head. “Bad decisions.”

“Well, it’s what we’ve got to work with.”

Andrew’s phone rang again. He looked at the number before he answered it. Not a number he recognized.

“Hello?” he said. The caller was female and frantic. Andrew looked relieved. Flint watched him.

“Thank God. Severine, where are you?”

“It’s a long story. I’m fine. I’m on the Mekong, heading south toward Phnom Penh.”

“Don’t come here. You can’t get by. Hakk has blown up the bridges.”

“Who’s Hakk?”

“It doesn’t matter right now, I’ll explain later. Just, don’t come to Phnom Penh.”

He heard Severine turn and speak to someone beside her:

“He says we can’t get through, the river is blocked.”

Andrew said, “Severine, listen. Go north. Go to the deepest point in the river and stay put. We’ll send someone for you. Call me when you get through.”

“OK. We can do that. I’ll tell the others.” She clicked off.

Andrew wondered what others. He would ask her later.

The door of the room opened and a secretary pushed in a metal cart set with drinks and lunch. The cart was a mini-version of the street pushcarts that were ubiquitous in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian version of a food-truck, selling all manner of food and souvenirs.

The cart’s black wheels squeaked as they rolled over the linoleum. Settling the tray in the corner, the secretary bowed slightly and departed, closing the door behind her.

Flint stood and headed to the cart. She never ate on international flights and hadn’t had a decent meal for two days. Flint grabbed a sandwich from the stack, sniffed it and took a bite. She chewed, content.

Andrew walked up behind her. “What looks good?” he asked, eyeing the rectangular metal cart. The top shelf held a tray stacked high with triangular white-bread sandwiches, crusts cut off. The cart’s lower shelf was filled with soda cans, the brightly-colored aluminum cylinders packed in tight.

Andrew watched Flint standing by the cart, leaning her slim hip on the cart’s metal edge as she poked at the sandwiches and selected her next victim. She looked at Andrew as she chewed.

“It’d be nice to have lunch wheeled in everyday, huh? Right to your desk. Easy access,” she said.

Andrew nodded absently. Then struck by a thought, Andrew’s eyes grew wide. He grabbed Flint’s arm, squeezing harder than intended, and she flinched in both surprise and pain.

“Ouch!” Flint exclaimed.

“I got it!” Andrew said, more loudly than he needed to in the small room.

“Got what?” Flint asked, rubbing her arm.

“His plan. His back-up plan.”

Flint had heard Andrew crack cases wide open but she had never seen it in person. She watched him.

“Explain.”

“Tourists. Temples.” He slammed his hand against the map, to land on the red ‘X’ of Siem Reap. “Angkor Wat.”

Shock spread across Flint’s face, as she registered the magnitude of a terror attack on the country’s greatest temple, its source of pride, the sign of its greatness. The central attraction for tourists.

Andrew continued, “Every morning it’s packed solid with tourists, watching the dawn break over the temple’s spires. That’s his plan, to target those tourists, from all over the world. It will incite the fear and hysteria he’s been preaching.”

Flint agreed. “If that’s true, if that’s his target, there will be nothing comparable left to see in this country. Tourism will die a sudden, ugly death.”

Andrew bolted from the room. “Not if I can help it.”

 

Chapter 39

Pchum Ben Day

In the darkness, the woman worked. Her hands, small and brown, spotted from years in the fields, scooped handful after handful of cooked white rice, sweet with coconut milk, from a large clay bowl, molding the rice into firm mounds. She lined them in tight rows on rectangular white platters and sprinkled these with sesame seeds. Finished, she surveyed her work. Satisfied, she wiped her hands on a red apron and prepared for the trip to feed her long dead ancestors.

*******

Alarm clocks sounded early on the Sunday morning. Tourists roused themselves and dressed, drank coffees and teas and wandered, half-awake, down from their hotel rooms into lobbies in guest houses across Siem Reap.

The buses began to arrive to the guest houses at 5:10 AM. They lined the streets and waited in the dark to take the sleepy sightseers on the short ride to Angkor Wat for sunrise. Sunrise was at 6:09 this morning.

Andrew had flown in from Phnom Penh overnight, stopping briefly by Severine’s apartment.

Now, he stood in front of the dark temple of Angkor Wat, waiting. A few ambitious tourists had already arrived, seeking the best view.

Andrew had memorized Hakk’s treatise Socheat had translated for him. Most of it made sense now, with what they knew, but one line of it niggled at him.

“Through the dead we give thanks and offer them our tomorrows.”

He was missing something. It was there in the shadows of consciousness. He nudged at it mentally like a loose tooth.

Buses arrived. Passengers debarked, jockeying for position by the wide moat below the temple. Those who arrived late would grumble in the back, straining their necks.

In the darkness, Andrew watched the tourists assemble into a shuffling crowd, waiting to be awed by this combination of man and nature, sun rising over ancient stone.

A small team of local military, courtesy of the Prime Minister, wandered through the growing crowd. They had been instructed to be unobtrusive, to avoid alarm or panic, and to follow Andrew’s lead. They glanced at Andrew now and again.

Behind the crowd, local vendors set up their pushcarts for the day’s trade, with guidebooks and temple replicas, wooden necklaces and carved stone elephants. Their carts were chock full of cheap merchandise ready for the tourist season.

These were Andrew’s main concern. Packed with heavy explosives, a pushcart could be a perfect weapon to decimate this assembled crowd. The military men walked by the vendors slowly, suspicious of everyone, their bomb sniffing dogs snuffling along the ground, finding nothing.

Andrew walked along the line of carts that now encircled the tourists. In yesterday’s planning, they had considered banning the vendors today but decided that would tip their hand, signal whoever was orchestrating the coming destruction.

Andrew walked by the vendors, watching for shifty behavior, any sign of nerves. One vendor caught his attention, an anxious, emaciated man with a slim goatee tapping his foot and shifting left and right as he watched the temple in the growing light. Andrew approached him.

“Hey, buddy, got a light?” Andrew called out, as he stepped close to the man. The man jumped, surprised, his shoulders up, a reflex. He rummaged in his pockets. Sweat broke out on his brow.

Behind them, the sun cast deep orange rays, lighting up the sky. The pineapple-shaped cones stood in stark silhouette.

“No, no light, no smoke, sorry,” the man said, chewing on his lower lip, his eyes rolling into the back of his head. Andrew knew a junkie when he saw one. This guy had something to hide.

Without warning, Andrew toppled the man’s wooden pushcart, its contents spilling onto the dirt road. As the man complained loudly, staring at his livelihood strewn about in a broken mess, Andrew rummaged through the cart’s contents, looking for guns, a bomb, anything. But it was only worthless trinkets: Bracelets, temple replicas, and plastic Buddhas.

The assembled crowd was oblivious, only a few people glancing behind them at the minor commotion then turning back to watch the sun. As the sunlight brightened from orange to deep yellow, camera shutters clicked. The crowd murmured in awe.

Andrew stood, staring down at the mess he had made, while the vendor chided him in Khmer. The man’s friends approached, also vendors, cursing at Andrew for harassing a man sick with break bone fever. The undercover cops approached to disperse the growing group of disgruntled local vendors.

Andrew turned back to look at the temple and the massive crowd. How could he be so wrong? He had been certain the bomb would be concealed in one of the vendor carts lining the road. It was the simplest way for Hakk to inflict major damage, both immediate and long term. Andrew had warned the others to be on the look out for vendors: Flint was watching the US Embassy; Socheat was staged near Wat Phnom, his contacts throughout the countryside notified as well; the Prime Minister had staged his men throughout town. All eyes on the vendors, their carts bearing not only souvenirs and trinkets but destruction.

Andrew could see he was wrong. It wasn’t the vendors. But what was it? What was coming?

In the quiet dawn, a tuk-tuk drove down the lane, its driver stopping near the assembled crowd. A lone robed monk hopped down from the open cab, late for the show but still in time for the sun to reach the temple’s zenith, only minutes away. His saffron robe flowed about him as he moved. Around his waist, Andrew saw, wrapped tight to his body by a black sash, was a large round silver canister, a donation bucket to receive alms in exchange for the monk’s prayers. It was carried by all Buddhist monks to accept gifts of thanks.

Andrew watched as the monk walked into the crowd, moving deep into the mass of tourists. Seeing the monk’s orange robes in the early morning light, people stepped aside to let him through. A few took pictures of the local color, so close.

Andrew watched the flowing saffron robes move into the sea of tourists from every nation, the robe a deep orange, a mix of yellow and red – the color of safety, of warning, of hazards. The color of criminals.

Andrew considered how the color orange wove through Cambodian life. It was everywhere, a single rich thread binding all together, orange clad monks on the roads, and sidewalks, in the tuk-tuks and the temples.

Realization hit and Andrew knew that Hakk’s army of men bent on destruction would not be concealed as common street vendors. Andrew had not grasped Hakk’s full intent. No, Hakk had put into motion a farther-reaching plan, intending to annihilate not only the foreign influence and taint, to rid the country of the Ch’kai, but also destroying any organization that exerted influence on the people.

The influence of religion. The Buddhist custom of honoring the past.

To purge the people of all thoughts, to fill their hearts with fear. To set the stage for his Year Zero.

So, Hakk’s army would wear the color of prayer, blending into the fabric of this holy day of Pchum Ben, donning garb to conceal their true intent, a perfect disguise, which offered the perfect vehicle to deliver fear and death to the hearts of the people.

Andrew pictured the monk’s silver canister, tied tight to his waist.

The canister was not filled with thanks. Today, it was filled with hate.

The monk moved forward into the throngs of people. Andrew pulled out his phone. He had to warn people.

*******

Socheat answered on the first ring. He’d been waiting for Andrew’s call. Andrew explained, speaking quickly. There was so little time.

“Hakk wasn’t only after the foreigners. It’s everyone. His men are targeting the Wats. They’ll be packed today with families honoring their ancestors. And with tourists. Everyone. It’s Hakk’s message to Pol Pot, his offering to his ghost, that he has fulfilled the promise to realize Pol Pot’s vision. Destruction.”

On the other end of the line, Socheat listened. “On this day, the ghosts of the damned flock to the Wats seeking succor from the living. How will it happen?” Socheat asked.

Watching the orange monk move through the crowd, Andrew described the threat from the silver chalice, an urn of death, packed full of plastic explosives.

“The whole country is gonna blow,” Andrew said, glancing at the sky. There were thousands of Wats across the country. Dawn was nearly over. He looked at his watch. Sunrise was at 6:09 AM. It was now 6:01 AM. “In eight minutes.”

He hung up. He had one more call to make. He dialed on his local phone.

The man on the other end of the line picked up immediately. Andrew said, “It’s me.” He explained and then added, “Got it? Good. Hit send.”

Chapter 40

The orange-clad monks stepped out into the pre-dawn darkness en route to the Pagodas, the Wats. In the dark, they made left and right turns, their flip-flops clopping against callused heels. They anticipated the fine meal that awaited them at the Pagodas, food prepared by their countrymen, to honor and nourish ancestors long dead.

Several monks held back, walking a safe distance from their brothers.

They too carried with them an offering for this most special day.

These men were not monks. They were neither devout nor holy and had never offered up a prayer for another.

But they were indeed devoted to a cause. They were devoted to destruction, to resurrecting an evil long dead. Devoted to Year Zero.

They walked, without qualm, to the Pagodas, certain of the rightness in their actions, step after step, thinking only that they would at last free the country from the grip of the foreign dogs, from the greed and desires that tainted their countrymen.

As they entered the Wats all across the nation, the smell of warm rice enticed them and they thought fondly of their last meal.

*******

Above him, Andrew heard a sound in the trees, leaves shifting, branches bearing weight. Andrew looked up but could see nothing. He moved closer to the tree for a better view.

There, high in the leafy branches, tucked in the thick crook of the tree, was a man dressed in black, his eyes trained on the rising sun, on the spires of Angkor Wat. Cradled in his arms, wedged against his shoulder, was a long black barrel. A grenade launcher, Andrew could see, its target straight ahead, silhouetted by the sun.

Shit. Andrew started to reach for his gun but he didn’t have a clear shot. And shooting the man in the tree would only alert the monk standing deep in the crowd, waiting for the sun to hit the top of the stone spire.

Andrew knew he had to choose. He glanced once more at the man in the tree, cursed under his breath and began to push his way into the crowd. To yell in warning, he knew, would only spur the monk to detonate himself before the sun had reached its mark.

As Andrew moved forward, following the monk, everything around him slowed. The air thickened and he could hear a thrumming in his ears, as his blood pulsed at his hot temples. His vision narrowed and all Andrew could see was his orange target, standing ahead in the crowd.

The lone monk had stopped and looked now to the sun and the sky, thinking of a new day, his warm hands resting on the silver chalice strapped to his ready body. He did a slow full rotation to take it all in, the rising light, the ancient temple, the tourists with their smiles and cameras and bucket list dreams.

As Andrew leapt at the monk, pulling him down and covering his orange torso with his own body, the rocket launched from the high tree, aimed with precision. It blasted out through the green leaves toward the central dome of Angkor Wat, now tipped in golden sunlight. In a breath, the rocket’s metal cone pierced the central spire, the impact initiating the explosion, the metal momentum blasting the stone to pieces. Sheared stone flew out hundreds of feet, raining down from the sky. The sun shone in the empty space where moments before the spire had stood.

The surprised tourists, standing a safe distance away behind the wide water moat, thought this was part of the morning show. They gasped and snapped pictures on their cameras, catching the moment for all eternity, wondering who would pick up all the pieces.

Andrew had seen the rocket launch, had heard the brutal fracturing of history. But it was too late for that. Beneath him, the monk smiled at Andrew as the silver chalice detonated, one of hundreds of simultaneous explosions that ripped through Wats across the Cambodian provinces, all synchronized with the rising sun. As Andrew’s body absorbed the full impact, as the blast ripped across and through him, he thought of the hollowness of the vessel that exploded into him, how the empty can be filled with good or evil.

*******

In Phnom Penh, the skies were rapt in the throes of dawn. The submarine had stopped by the broken bridges. The Veterans stood on deck looking at the wreckage. Severine sat next to Frank, watching the sunrise in the east. Samnang slept next to them.

Severine’s phone buzzed with a text message. She hoped it was Andrew. She’d been trying to reach him to explain that the men had insisted they go to Phnom Penh but she’d no luck reaching him. She glanced at the text and read the message, her mouth agape. She grabbed Frank’s arm.

“Read this. It says it’s from the Prime Minister. He’s telling everyone to stay away from the Wats today, to go home. Now. Says a terrorist attack is imminent.” She looked hard at Frank. “Do you think it’s a hoax?”

Frank read the brief text and turned to look at the hill of Wat Phnom in front of them.

“Only one way to find out.”

Frank turned to the men behind him, who sat and stood, waiting for orders.

“Boys, there’s some shit going down.” He pointed to Wat Phnom. “We need to take that hill.”

“Yeehaw!” Ed yelled, waving his cane as he slid on his butt into the shallow water by the riverbank.

The men clambered together up the bank and scuttled across the street toward the high green hill.

*******

Wat Phnom was packed with people who had arrived early to the popular Wat for Pchum Ben Day: Men, women, young, old, locals and tourists. Cambodian women, up since the early morning cooking, bore their offerings, their trays of sweet nourishing rice, toward the altar where the great Buddha sat in serene silence.

The color orange was everywhere – every other person in the room was a monk, dressed in a flowing saffron robe. Most of them were busy eating coconut rice, hungry from sitting inside during the months of rain, waiting to offer prayers, to return to the streets to pray for their countrymen. Now they were too intent on satisfying their hunger to notice the katoey scanning the crowded room from the back.

A tiny old white man ran into the main Pagoda doorway, his cane in his right hand. He stopped, staring at the packed crowd. He’d been the first of the Veterans up the steps. He was quick on his feet, always had been. He’d left those old coots behind, anxious for action.

Standing in the doorway, Ed watched a beautiful Cambodian woman, pace behind the crowd, her eyes scanning the innocents as she tried to find a break in the dense mass of people. Her long black hair, white tips at the end, was a stark contrast against her short red dress. She glanced down at the small man who now appeared at her side.

She was a foot taller than he and far broader of shoulder. Noticing her attention, Ed winked, raising his eyebrows twice, ever the rogue, even in battle.

She stepped close to him and leaned down to Ed to whisper in his ear. He leaned forward to hear.

As he listened, Ed’s expression changed, his face hardening in anticipation. The woman leaned away from him, her eyes wide, her face a question.

“We have no time,” she said. “I can’t get through that crowd.”

Ed dropped his cane and saluted the woman. He stepped forward and crouched onto his knees, proceeded in a fast crawl forward, sneaking in between the empty spaces. As he moved forward, Ed stared up, looking and looking, as Socheat had asked him to. There was so much orange and so few seconds separating the present from the future destruction.

Ed spotted the monk with the black sash, near the front, by the Buddha, his silver donation bucket wrapped tightly to his slim frame. As an incense stick burned to its sweet end in front of the golden Buddha, the monk turned to face the crowd. Ed rose to his full height, pushing his shoulders past pointy elbows. A boy of ten stood nearby watching him. He waved at the funny man who had crawled on the Pagoda floor on Pchum Ben Day. The boy wondered if the man perhaps was a ghost, paying penance on his knees, seeking rice to eat. Ed waved back and winked, then reached up for the silver bucket, and grabbing its lip, yanked the monk to the ground, sandwiching the metal between them.

“Not on my watch,” he said.

*****

In the provinces, it was the tuk-tuk drivers who acted most quickly in response to the Prime Minister’s message. In their ubiquity, the drivers were a lightning chain reaction, racing towards the Wats, honking their horns and yelling at people on the streets, warning them to turn around and go home. In a country with no public transport system, these men were the circulation system of the nation, ferrying their countrymen and visitors to and fro, getting everyone where they needed to go, safely, and, when traffic permitted, on time. Today, however, they did not transport anyone but themselves and their selfless hearts, ignoring traffic rules, streetlights and other hindrances to speed. They reached Wats in the farthest corners of a country and they surrounded the threat.

In one large and crowded Pagoda in a province far from Phnom Penh, several drivers overcame the monk with the silver urn secured by a black sash. A tuk-tuk driver named Kiem had led that charge, racing toward the Wat on his shiny red motorcycle. He had not found Severine but instead he had found his purpose. He smiled as he tackled the monk, content with his contribution and with whatever would come next. Perhaps he would visit the Pagoda again one day as a ghost. He hoped there were motorcycles in the beyond.

*******

Somewhere in a remote corner of the eastern jungle, a massive explosion had occurred deep underground. It was not noted by anyone and it would be some time before the thick vein of gold there was discovered. When at last it was found by an Australian prospector, large chunks of the metal were noted already carved from the massive gold vein, strewn about a vast plane next to a previously unmapped underground river. The misshapen lumps were thought to be the result of an earthquake and so were simply added to the newly mined materials. A few of the miners thought it odd that there were so many large chunks of gold lying about but beyond that what could be done. There was no one in town who knew anything about it. Of course, there were a few rumors of antiquities, but there were always rumors in town whenever people talked of the jungle. If there had been antiquities, they were long gone or destroyed.

 

Chapter 41

Police tape extended in front of Angkor Wat, across the green lawn, past the broad moat and the long sidewalk, blocking the entrance to the temple from the street. Curious tourists wandered by, too late for the show. Chided by policemen, they scurried on to temples farther afield, Ta Prahm and the Bayon, still intact.

Flint stepped over the tape and walked among the rubble of Angkor Wat’s central dome. She’d flown up from Phnom Penh a few hours after the dawn attacks.

The police detective saw her and nodded. She was not supposed to be there and they both knew it. But she was getting a pass today. Her agent had personally saved hundreds of lives there earlier that morning. His efforts had saved thousands.

Flint knelt down and picked up a broken rectangular stone, its flat surface smooth. A second similar stone lay nearby. She placed the two pieces together, edges aligned. She held them for a moment, looking at the whole, before letting them fall from her hands to the soft earth.

She shook her head. There will always be men bent on breaking things, she thought.

She studied the broken temple. The destruction of that single spire was complete. But the other spires rose up behind it.

Nearby, a massive stone Buddha lay on its side, a hairline crack running diagonally from left to right across its face, under its eye, over the bridge of its nose and through its eternal smile.

*******

In total, nearly half of the Wats in the country were attacked and decimated that Pchum Ben Day morning. Hakk’s message of fear had reached far, enticing both those clinging to a dark-hearted past and others simply bent on destruction, hating for the sweet pleasure that hate brought to simple people.

But thankfully, the text message had gotten through as hoped. Andrew had told the Prime Minister he needed only one thing from him. Had made him promise. He’d explained that on Pchum Ben Day, he might need to reach every man, woman and child in the country. It had seemed a ridiculous thing to ask, far-reaching and nonsensical, and the Prime Minister had told him so, more than once, as the two men had argued about possibilities and potential. But Andrew had asked for it nonetheless, demanded it, as he had anticipated the worst. And in the end, to his credit, the Prime Minister had promised and acted swiftly when he had received Andrew’s frantic call at sunrise.

The brief text had saved countless lives – catching people en route to their local Pagodas, bearing gifts to honor the dead and nourish the ghosts of their ancestors. The people had paused in their journey and read the text, urged to do so by others around them on the streets and sidewalks, their own phones in hand.

They’d read the words once, then twice, surprised at the odd message and its sender, but grateful, deeply so, once the reports of the attacks began to come in and the toll of the dead were released.

The people had turned around and gone home, setting the trays of rice aside. There, they had celebrated Pchum Ben Day, thinking of times past and a future that would bring the unknown, as the future always did. They decided that it did not matter so much where they were on this day, but rather, that they were together, thinking of those they had loved. They lit incense and gave thanks, saying prayers for those they had lost, wishing them peace and succor, and that they would find their way home.

 

 

Epilogue

Severine swept the wide courtyard while the children sang. Nearby, on a mahogany bench, Frank sat playing the guitar, teaching Samnang how to strum. In the back kitchen, Bob cooked dinner, while several other Veterans tended to the large garden they had built in a sunlit corner.

Severine smiled to herself. She had known as a girl that she would one day run a home for orphans. She knew that was her calling: Those without family moved her, struck in her the chord of greatest giving. But she had not known until recently that this calling included providing shelter, hearth, and home to orphans of all ages, from all times. She was so pleased to learn this. It mended her heart.

*******

In a pristine hospital, Flint entered a bright white room occupied only by a heavily bandaged man lying on a single bed, his head turned toward the window. At the sound of the door, the man turned his head. He tried to smile at Flint, but the bandages didn’t budge.

Flint was thrilled to see Andrew open his eyes and move his head. He’d been in a coma for two weeks after the attack. Then for two additional weeks from doctor’s orders. He had lost his spleen and damaged his liver, the impact only partially blunted by the PPE he had borrowed from Ben Goodnight’s collection before his trip to Siem Reap.

And he had lost a lot of blood. After the bomb went off, he’d nearly bled out from a cut to his femoral artery, as people, terrified, ran away from, not toward, him.

The required surgeries had been intense. And there would be many more. Especially to his face, which was nearly wiped clean of skin from the blast.

“Walk me through it again,” he croaked.

She smiled and took his hand and told her favorite agent a story. She had told Andrew the same story twice a day for the past week, after he had regained consciousness and was able to hear her. She told him what they’d learned in the weeks following the attack.

Hakk had tried to start an isolationist revolutionary movement for years, drumming up hatred against foreigners, as part of his mission to be true to Pol Pot. But he needed money to go big, to recruit enough to make an impact.

So he had joined the gold rush, along with so many others, seeing the metal as a way to make easy money to fuel his cause. He applied for land concessions to mine for gold.

The first time he had applied, he was denied and the concession went to a foreign company. So he applied again, this time for a different plot of land, in Mondulkiri. Same again. Ten times he applied. Ten times he was denied. Every time the concession went to a foreign company.

Then two things happened, in rapid succession. Hakk had owned two artisanal gem mines in Mondulkiri, very small mines yielding only a few gems, but enough to satisfy. These were co-opted, the land given to a foreign company for timber harvesting. And then Hakk discovered the Veterans nearby in the jungle. He didn’t know what they were doing there. All he knew was that it infuriated him further, as he watched his land taken away from him and the country spread its doors wide open to foreign money and influence.

Hakk blamed all this on the Ch’kai, the foreign dogs. So he unleashed his anger in his horrible plan to return to the time of Year Zero.

Flint watched Andrew, his chest rising and falling as he lay on the bed, the pale skin of his wrists nearly as white as the hospital sheets. She would tell him later, about what else they had found, shortly after the Wat explosions, the mechanisms that Hakk had set in motion, the army of men waiting to seize control in the chaotic aftermath of Pchum Ben Day. It had been stopped in time. That was all Andrew needed to know for now. She’d tell him the rest when he was stronger.

“And Ben Goodnight?” Andrew asked.

“Caught in the crossfire.” Flint raised her eyebrows at Andrew. “I think there were a couple details you left out of your reporting.”

From within Andrew’s bandaged body, came a deep sigh.

“So what’s next for me?” Andrew asked.

“Well, I’ve got good news. You’ve been cleared. That face of yours is so messed up, no one’s ever gonna recognize you. What you did at that temple, well, it speaks for itself.”

The surprise was evident in Andrew’s voice. “You guys want me back?”

“Yeah.” Flint smiled and shrugged. “We want you back. Waddaya think?”

Andrew turned his head to stare out the window at the open sky. He knew Flint had pulled strings to get him a room with a view.

“It’s great news.” His words were halted. “But first, with your OK, I think I’ll take some time. Maybe a vacation. I’ve heard they’re quite pleasant.” He coughed and winced at the pain.

Flint leaned in. “Of course. Whatever you need. We’ll get you all well.” She tucked the corner of a white sheet under the thin mattress. “Now, listen, Andrew. There’s something else. Someone is here to see you. We’ve made excuse after excuse. But she knows you’re conscious now and is insisting.”

Before Flint could finish, the door to the hospital room pushed open. Andrew stared. How she had found him, Andrew couldn’t even guess. He didn’t even know where he was.

But without skipping a beat, she walked back into his life.

*******

In Cambodia, the Ch’kai, the Barangs, the foreigners stayed. And many more came, arriving in droves, from cities spanning the globe. They came to help rebuild a nation’s sacred places. They were not afraid. In fact, they were braver than they had ever been, spurred to action by the pain and loss of others. The Cambodian people welcomed them, hopes soaring for tomorrow.

Hate saw it had no home here. It moved on.

There would be other places and other times. It had learned that much.

 

 

*******

 

 

Acknowledgments

 

I’d like to thank my early readers and friends/editors for helping me craft this debut novel. I am currently writing the sequel.

I welcome all feedback and reviews. Self-publishing is challenging, in that it is difficult to gain traction but rewarding, in that success means the story entertained you. If you enjoyed ‘The Brittle Limit’, please tell your friends and family. Word of mouth is the best way to help a new author.

For questions and comment about the book, I can be reached at [email protected]

 

 

 


THE BRITTLE LIMIT, part 4 of 4

  • Author: Kae Bell
  • Published: 2016-05-26 17:20:09
  • Words: 21319
THE BRITTLE LIMIT, part 4 of 4 THE BRITTLE LIMIT, part 4 of 4