THE BRITTLE LIMIT
PARTS 2 & 3
Copyright © 2016 Kae Bell
All Rights Reserved
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, business establishments or locales is purely coincidental.
The normally shallow river, turgid from rain, had breached its banks and water flowed with greedy abandon over the flat ground, flooding the grassland and underbrush that lined the riverbank. It flowed underneath a sturdy thatched hut that stood on wooden stilts near the river’s edge, on a slight rise where the ground swelled up to meet the forest.
This river had shifted course this way and that over the years, but its waters always found the way to the South China Sea. The hut had seen many rainy seasons by this river, its thick stilts withstanding the wilt and way of the rains. It would weather many more.
Inside the hut’s thatched walls, a thin Cambodian man sat alone, on a solid bamboo chair, his large hands flat on the wood desk at the center of the room. A straw mat was rolled up in the corner. The hut was dim with dusk.
The man stared straight ahead, unblinking, waiting. His name was Mey Hakk. At this moment, he was plagued by an excruciating migraine. He sat, unmoving.
The torment had fallen on Hakk quickly today. He could always sense its onset, like a coming storm. His sight grew pixelated, a shimmering in the corner of his eye, until his entire field of vision undulated, colors and images mixing together in a miasmatic mess. And then the agony would begin, shooting in sharp arcs across his brain like a vengeful fever. If he tried to fight it, it would only last longer. All he could do was wait.
This pain infuriated him. When it passed, he would lash out at whoever was unlucky enough to be in his reach: Sometimes it was a guard; more often a woman. More than once his guards had disposed of a young woman’s body after one of Hakk’s migraines.
A letter sat on the desk in front of him. It was a few short paragraphs addressed to him and signed with a flourish.
Hakk had read the letter several times since he had received it a week ago by courier. Through the hazy pain, Hakk stared at it, the words jumping off the page at him, the brazen seal mocking him.
It didn’t matter anymore. Everything was in place.
It was time. Time to begin.
Hakk had been nine years old when the Khmer Rouge soldier had handed him a machine gun and told him to guard the rice fields. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge, in full control of Cambodia, implemented its vision for independence from the outside world, to abolish all aspects of government and commerce and to force the Cambodian people onto collective farms, establishing a single peasant class to work the land.
Hakk’s family, peasants from the coast, had joined the forced migration. Hakk, with his mother, father, and two older sisters, made the journey to a camp in the south with nothing but the ragged clothes on their backs. There, they had lived in a basic camp and worked the rice fields.
One day, an older Khmer Rouge guard took notice of Hakk, who was tall for his age, and strong. They needed young guards, children, not yet tainted in thought, who could be trusted. The adults needed to work the fields, to be reformed.
Hakk found himself at age nine, his hands heavy with the heft of the weapon, guarding dozens of adults. His instructions were to shoot the runners.
For five unremarkable days, he had stood guard over the rice harvest. With numb eyes, he’d watched the workers in the golden fields, as they bent low, cutting small bunches of the tall grass near the base of the stalks, tying these together carefully not to loosen the rice, and stacking these for threshing.
On the morning of the sixth day, Hakk saw a worker, a man, maybe thirty years old, hunch low among the gold stalks swaying in the breeze, watched him slither along the edge of the field, the reeds moving in his wake. The worker headed toward the forest’s edge, on the far side of the field, where he hoped, if he could run fast enough, he could escape into the wilderness, to hide and rest and find his way to freedom.
Hakk had watched with great interest as the man slid among the stalks.
As the man had stepped up from the rice paddy to the road, glancing backwards, always a mistake, Hakk had pulled the trigger, blasting a hole in the man’s right shoulder.
Despite his wound, with the forest so close, the man, a former schoolteacher, had continued running, his thin arms flailing, his breath ragged with fear and determination.
Surprised at the runner’s persistence and thrilled by the gun’s jolting action against his narrow bony shoulder, Hakk had shot the gun again and again, until the man ran no farther. Hakk walked forward and stared, entranced by the corpse on the soft brown dirt.
That had been the most exciting day of Hakk’s nine years.
For three more years he had guarded prisoners.
When they tried to escape, he shot them.
It was simple work and he was good at it.
One hot March day in 1978, Hakk was called away from his post by the fields. It was late afternoon and temperatures had reached over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Several workers had collapsed from heat exhaustion and Hakk had admonished them.
As Hakk followed the older guard, a boy of sixteen, he fretted that perhaps he had failed in some way. Hakk considered his actions, how he held his weapon, how he disciplined his prisoners, how he ignored their pleas for water, food, mercy.
As they walked the road toward the forest’s edge, the two boys, dressed in black, passed the workers bent low in the rice paddies, their straw hats hiding stony faces. They dared not look up at the men with guns walking by. They shuffled through the mud with their baskets of seed.
Past the rice fields, the boys moved into the woods. There, in the dense jungle, a wide clearing had been cut near a fast-running brook.
Hakk saw a large wooden platform hut and behind it, some ways off, two smaller huts, with thatched roofs and walls. Several guards stood around the perimeter of the largest hut, massive dour men dressed in simple uniforms, their faces mostly covered with the red-checked Krama to ward off the flies. Each man held a gun, much bigger than Hakk’s own. One played a wooden pipe that yielded a high thin wail, sounding, Hakk thought, like the dying cry of an animal.
The guards watched the two boys approach, their black eyes following each step. Hakk’s heart started to pound.
To Hakk’s relief, the guards let the boys pass, but only after they had relieved each of his respective weapon.
The older boy opened the tent flap for him and Hakk entered.
In the hut, it was dark. A thin candle burned on a bamboo desk. The air was sweet with honeysuckle.
Hakk knew that he was in the presence of greatness. Quiet power flowed from a figure seated in the darkest corner.
Hakk bowed down deeply from the waist, toward the shadows, not knowing what else to do. He stayed bowed, his hands pressed together as if in prayer, held close to his young heart. He waited.
The man in the shadows spoke, his Khmer that of an educated, well traveled man.
“I hear reports of those soldiers who embrace the cause, who demonstrate fierce loyalty to our Organization, who will be my leaders of tomorrow. I hear that you have great promise, that you do good work guarding our fields. Your workers fear you, they respect you. This is excellent and I commend you. One day, when you are older, I will make you a General. You will be a great leader.”
Hakk could barely speak, he was so honored, to be in the presence of and to be spoken to by the Khmer Rouge mastermind, Pol Pot himself.
But Hakk did not want to wait until he was older. He was ready for bigger things.
“I am ready. I am ready now…”
Pol Pot cut him off. “All in good time. For now, I need you to stay here, to guard the fields. I will send for you when it is time. Now, approach me.”
Hakk walked toward the darkness. There, he could see his leader seated on a deep pile of saffron-colored pillows.
Pol Pot held out a red-checked scarf, a krama like the guards outside wore.
“Here is a reminder of our talk. I do not forget those who have served me. Promise me you will always continue our work.”
Hakk reached out and took the rough scarf. He could barely speak, he was so proud.
Hakk tied the krama around his neck. He would wear it and all would know that he had met with Pol Pot.
“Go now. You are needed back on the fields.”
“Ah kuhn, ah kuhn.” Thank you, thank you. Hakk bowed low again as he backed away, exiting the tent. He ran all the way back to the field, his weapon, retrieved from the guards, jangling at his side.
When, many months later, word arrived that the Vietnamese had come to release the workers from the fields, and that Pol Pot had fled in disgrace to the distant jungle, Hakk had dropped his gun in a muddy rice paddy, stuffed the krama in his pocket, and blended in with the masses of survivors, who left the rice fields in a daze, unbelieving that the nightmare had ended. Hakk had convincingly played the role of a boy who’d lost his family to starvation, disease and brutality. This was a true for so many, why not him.
He had only a krama scarf to remind him of his promise. Hakk vowed to see the promise through. No matter when. No matter how.
Over the decades, the promise to Pol Pot had wormed its way into every cell of Hakk’s body until he became the promise itself. Until it was his only truth.
Each day when he woke he told himself, he would save his countrymen from the depravity he saw all around him. Each night, he whispered that he would cleanse their hearts.
Most importantly, he promised himself, he would expel the foreigners, who corrupted his country with their wicked, greedy ways, their social-climbing, do-gooding, snake-eyed deception, smiling while they built their fortunes on Cambodia’s birthright. The land.
He had watched his country lose its way. He had endured the shame of its profligate and promiscuous ways, wooing outsiders to come, to see, to taste.
He had endured this. But soon it would end. While it had taken years to lay the groundwork of the coming purge and destruction, now, he had set things in motion. Fulfilling his promise at last.
He had many followers, like-minded men, who also wished to return to the simpler time, to the time of Pol Pot’s Angkar, the Organization, when all men were one, all the same. Freed from the self, freed from want and desire. Cleansed of thought by work.
And the Ch’kai. The vermin. The foreigners. They would be expelled or destroyed, fear a dagger in their hearts.
Hakk’s own heart seized, as the pain faded and his mind cleared.
By the light of a single flame, he set to work. It was time.
Andrew stretched back in his chair, reaching his long arms high toward the unfinished ceiling. He glanced at his watch. It was 1:00 AM. Sheesh, he thought. He’d been hunched over the computer for three hours. For someone who disliked office work, he was getting good at it. He’d come back to the Embassy after settling Severine in for the night. They’d swept up the mess in the hall, locked all the windows and doors. He had promised to call in the morning.
Since then, he’d read everything Flint had sent on Ben Goodnight. But he still had too little to go on. He needed to see that Ministry report.
Andrew stood, stretched left and right, and peered out the high small window into the night. Streetlights shone on the manicured embassy lawn. It was time to call it a night.
He headed out the maze of the basement hallways, his shoes squeaking on the scuffed floor. Up the stairs and out into the main hallway. This late, the lights had been dimmed. His footsteps echoed in the lobby.
Outside, freed from the sterile embassy air conditioning, Andrew breathed in the night air, filled with the scent of incense and fresh coconut.
At the exit, Andrew signed out with the security guard and walked through the heavy metal gates, peering out into the night, looking left and right down the quiet street.
In front of him, Andrew saw the leafy trees of Wat Phnom. He walked that way. He wanted to see the Wat itself on the hilltop.
As he walked along the sidewalk, taking in the fresh night air, a stray dog trotted by, its scruffy ears perked up, looking for scraps or romance, whichever it encountered first. It glanced at Andrew and sniffed the air, but found nothing of interest there. He trotted down a side alley that held great promise.
Andrew crossed the street and entered the tree-filled park of Wat Phnom. There were a handful of people out this late, gossiping and drinking beers under a streetlight, enjoying the dry weather.
With the end of the rains, autumn had arrived. The temperature, though still warm, would, over the next couple weeks, drop several degrees. Under the constant shade of the trees, the park was a cool place to escape in any season.
Andrew slowed his pace, taking deep breaths of the fresh air and getting a feel for the park, its light and shadows. He heard the leaves above him rustle in the breeze. He looked up, on alert. There was nothing but wind.
At a tap-tap tapping sound behind him, he whirled around. A wizened Cambodian grandma wearing loose yellow flowery pajamas shuffled by him, poking a long stick at the piles of dry leaves on the sidewalk as she moved along. She glanced at him as she walked past. He watched her disappear into the deepening night. He moved further toward the center of the park.
As he walked, Andrew thought about what Flint had told him. There were thousands of unexploded landmines in Cambodia, left over from the Khmer Rouge regime forty years before. People were maimed or killed everyday, all over the country, though the civil war had been over for decades.
So a landmine casualty was not unusual.
Except. With the email Janey had shown him, Andrew wasn’t convinced it was simply Ben’s bad luck in the jungle. Something felt off. Orchestrated. Intended.
Andrew walked up the long flight of steps to Wat Phnom. Wat Phnom was a sacred place for Buddhists, one of several Wats in town, but by far the most visited, with its unique location on a leafy hilltop. It was open to all.
At the top of the hill, in the dark, Andrew made his way inside the quiet temple.
The main room in the Wat was rectangular with high ceilings, lit by candlelight. Colorful murals on the walls and ceiling depicted stories of ancient times, of the reincarnations that preceded Buddha’s enlightenment. Rows of red and green columns in the room’s center marked the most sacred space. On the altar, a large golden Buddha stared at the offerings on the floor below. These offerings would multiply a thousand fold in a few days’ time, on Pchum Ben Day, when people visited the Pagodas to revere their dead.
Andrew stepped forward to study the Buddha. Someone had placed a flower bouquet in his cross-legged lap. Smaller statues of lesser deities and monks stood at his feet. Flowers lined the altar yet the room smelled of stale incense.
Andrew glanced around the room once more. He didn’t belong here. He trotted back outside, then down the long set of stone steps, to the concrete sidewalk. Walking halfway around the circular park, he settled against a tall wide tree, his arms crossed, leaning his shoulder against the rough bark.
Hearing someone behind him, Andrew whirled around, expecting to see the little Cambodian grandma, though his hand reached instinctively for his gun.
In front of him stood a tall stunning Cambodian woman with waist-length hair, wearing a short green dress.
Staring at Andrew, the woman said, “You need to find your own tree in this park.” Her voice was light and warm, her nearly perfect English laced with a mild Cambodian accent.
“Excuse me?” Andrew didn’t sense any immediate danger. But something was off.
“This section of the park belongs to me,” the woman said. There was no malice in her voice but she did not smile.
Andrew looked around him then back at the gorgeous woman wearing heavy makeup, a too-tight dress and five-inch heels. He realized what she meant.
“Sorry, I hadn’t realized. I’m not working. I’m just a little knocked out from the heat. I’ll move on, if you can give me a second.”
At this, she smiled and giggled. “Oh, you’re a funny man. I’m teasing you. You looked so serious. You stay right there. I saw you here all alone. Thought you might want company. You know?” She raised her eyebrows and tilted back her head. “I’m Socheat, by the way.”
Andrew studied the woman, her jaw line a little too sharp, her shoulders a little too broad. While her face was stunning, her laugh, deep and throaty, gave her away.
The ‘she’ was a he, a katoey or ladyboy, a young man dressed, very convincingly, as a woman. The katoey was part of the culture in Southeast Asia, in some countries even a third gender. Andrew had read about the local ladyboys. In Cambodia they were part of the scenery, working as hairdressers, shop owners and sometimes in the sex trade.
“Ahh, well, thank you. But, no offense, you’re not really my type,” Andrew said, slightly embarrassed.
“No fun for me,” the ladyboy said, disappointed. “You figured it out so quick. Not everyone as smart as you Americans.” His face lit up. “How do they say in your country? ‘Don’t knock it ‘til you try it.’”
Andrew nodded and chuckled. “They do say that.” He’d noticed there was a love of American idioms in this country. Then he realized something with a start.
“How did you know I was American?”
The ladyboy was leaning his back against the tree, perky chest out, with one long bare leg bent at the knee, his high-heeled foot resting on the trunk. He lit a cigarette, blew the smoke in Andrew’s direction.
“I watched you. You walked out of the American Embassy and over here. I made a guess. And look, I was right! I’m smart too.”
Andrew took a step toward him, trying to get a sense of danger. He was good at reading people. Socheat gave no signs of ill intent.
“Do you often watch the people who come and go from the Embassy?” Andrew asked.
Socheat batted his wide eyelashes at him, flirting.
“Hmmm. Who wants to know? Are you a cop?” Socheat asked, a glimmer in his eye. He winked. He loved a man in uniform.
Andrew hid his surprise. “No. But I find it interesting that you noticed me.”
“Oh, I notice many things.”
A tuk-tuk full of drunken tourists drove by, Western ladies on a bender, yelling out at anybody they saw. One of them lifted her top at Socheat and Andrew. The tuk-tuk kept on around the curve of the circular drive, heading toward another night club and another round of shooters.
Andrew watched the tuk-tuk disappear. It was quiet again. Socheat watched him.
“What do you notice?” Andrew asked.
Socheat smiled at him, pushed away from the tree and started to walk along the sidewalk. He turned and waited for Andrew to follow him out of the jarring streetlamp light.
“There’s a lot to notice in this small town. You hear things.”
“What have you heard?”
Socheat ignored the question. “Such a small town, you learn to tell the good people from the bad people.”
“Do you know some bad people?”
Socheat stopped and looked directly at Andrew. “We all know some bad people,” he said then continued walking, smoking his cigarette down the end.
Andrew watched him walk for half a minute. Then he jogged over to catch up.
“Look, I’m trying to find out what happened to a friend of mine.” Andrew pulled out the picture of Ben. “Maybe you can help me? Do you know him? His name is Ben Goodnight.”
Socheat stopped to study the image. Andrew did not see any flicker of recognition on Socheat’s face.
“No. Do not know him. He’s handsome. But, no, I have not seen him. I would have remembered.” Socheat took out another cigarette and held it in his delicate hand. “What happened to him?”
Andrew rummaged in his pocket. He always carried a few things: A knife, a pen and a lighter. He’d gotten more information simply from lighting cigarettes than from taps and hacks combined.
“He was in the jungle and he stepped on a landmine.”
Socheat inhaled with a hiss. “Ahhh. That’s bad luck. Many people every year are maimed by the landmines leftover.” Socheat leaned toward Andrew. “Where was he?”
“In Mondulkiri, near the eastern border, toward the mountains.”
Socheat breathed out, “Ahhh.”
“Is there something about that location?”
“It’s risky, the jungle. Dangerous.”
“Sometimes you’ve got to take risks to make a living.”
Socheat nodded. “Yes, I know that.”
Socheat walked toward Andrew, his legs moving in a slow runway strut.
“There is a legend about the forests of Mondulkiri. The land there refuses to be tamed. That is why the rain falls heaviest there, the jungle is thickest, the animals the most ferocious. It is ungovernable. Many men have died trying to tame it.”
Andrew wasn’t one for myths and legends, but he always listened. Sometimes amidst the mumbo jumbo, there was a nugget worth hearing.
Socheat crossed his arms, watching him, one leg perched out, knee slightly bent.
“Yes, well the landmine that blew up my friend certainly didn’t want to be tamed,” Andrew said.
Overhead there was a screeching commotion in the trees.
Socheat nodded up at the trees. “It’s the park monkeys. They are naughty. They steal food, flowers, even laundry. Anything they can find. They destroy things for fun and scare the tourists. Very naughty.”
Andrew stared up into the trees. He didn’t see anything, but he did hear large shapes overhead in the leaves, bickering in the night.
Andrew wrote down his local cell phone number and handed it to Socheat. “If you hear anything about my friend, please, give me a call.”
“Will do, handsome. And you know where to find me. If you get lonely.” Socheat winked at him, flipped his hair and kept walking, his heels clicking on the sidewalk.
Andrew waved his hand in a small goodbye and muttered “Not likely,” under his breath. He moved away from the Wat toward the main road of Sisowath Quay and the river. He needed to walk off the day.
Heading toward the Japanese Bridge, Andrew saw the bridge was crowded with late night traffic. The clubs must have all closed.
The bridge, its full name the Cambodian-Japanese Friendship Bridge, was a gift from the Japanese government some fifty years ago. It linked the east and west banks of the river. Next to it stood the town’s latest project, the Cambodian-Chinese Friendship Bridge, only recently opened to traffic.
Andrew walked across the street, traffic flowing by and around him, parting like a sea. The air was thick with exhaust fumes.
On the bridge, traffic had jammed. Andrew walked past idling cars and tuk-tuks. At the high point of the bridge, he stopped and looked over the edge at the slow-moving Mekong. A couple junk boats floated downriver, trailed by a late-night tourist booze cruise, lit up with colorful lights.
From where Andrew stood, looking out at the lights of Sisowath Quay on his right and the dark east bank on his left, Andrew thought he could easily be looking upriver from the Memorial Bridge over the Potomac River in DC, gazing at the lights of Georgetown and the darkness of Roosevelt Island. For a moment, he felt a queasy combination of homesickness, déjà-vu and the rapid passage of time, rolled into one. It wasn’t pleasant.
Andrew was knocked from his reverie by three laughing Cambodian girls, out riding bicycles well after their curfew. They pedaled by him, bare arms thin as matchsticks, their long black hair streaming behind them in the wind. One bike’s wheel rolled over Andrew’s foot, so he stepped closer to the wall. A noisy truck stinking of diesel chugged by, puffing black exhaust into the night air. Andrew turned toward the water.
He heard the shot before he felt it whiz by his hand on the bridge wall. It blasted a chunk of the concrete. Andrew spun around. Drivers continued on, the jam clearing up. No one else had noticed the shot. Andrew looked up, back toward Wat Phnom. From this angle, it had to have come from the hill.
Andrew ducked low by the wall; there was nowhere to take cover. In the bright bridge lights, the shooter had a clear shot. Even if the shooter was a bad shot, he might get lucky the second time around. Or was the first shot a warning? Andrew hesitated a moment then grabbed the lip of the bridge, pulling himself over the edge and launching toward the watery darkness below.
The second shot hit the bridge squarely where Andrew had been crouching, blasting white chips in every direction.
Andrew swam toward the quiet east bank of the Mekong, swift frog-like breaststrokes propelling him away from the Friendship Bridge. The water was colder than he expected and smelled of fuel.
Behind him, the lights of Sisowath Quay silhouetted late night revelers walking along the river’s edge, oblivious to his watery plight.
As he swam, Andrew stayed mostly under the water’s surface, popping up every twenty feet to inhale and check his sight line, to avoid any errant Mekong party boats whose massive propellers would chop him into fish bait.
The slow-moving brown water carried him downriver. Ahead to his left, Andrew could see a few yellow lights from the clusters of simple riverside shacks. He swam toward the wooden huts, where many Cambodian families made their homes.
Reaching the bank, his feet touching ground, Andrew stayed submerged and tread in the muck. The pier loomed ahead. He grabbed a thick wooden pole and settled in behind its bulk, in the small eddy. In its shadow, Andrew caught his breath and removed his sopping wet shirt. His chest heaved with exertion and adrenaline.
Several thin junk boats were tied to the far side of the pier, knocking together in the light current. Staying low, Andrew crawled into the closest one, slipping over its low side and settling on its floor, covered in fishy netting. He breathed through his mouth to avoid the salty stench.
From here, he could see the bridge upriver in the distance. He looked beyond the bridge, to the high green hill of Wat Phnom. He glanced downriver and saw a bright white neon sign that read ‘Snowy’s’. He clambered onto the shore and followed the neon, his waterlogged shoes squishing with each step.
At the bar, several hardy patrons drank late in the night. Three grizzled Western men sat on the wobbly wooden stools, hold-overs from another era. One of them wore a jean jacket with a large POW-MIA patch on the back. They watched Andrew walk in, one nudging his drinking buddies to take a look at what the cat dragged in.
The bartender, a tall cheerful Brit with rosy cheeks he inherited from his Scottish mum, lit up when Andrew walked in. He loved a good story and one had just walked into his bar.
The bartender asked, “Did you have trouble finding the place, mate? Looks like you maybe took a wrong turn there, ended up in the drink.” He sniffed the air. “Kinda ripe too, the river, this time of year. Everything’s all churned up.” He wiped the bar with a damp Stella beer towel, glancing up at Andrew in between swipes.
“Yeah, I got a little turned around,” Andrew said.
“Well, you’re welcome to stay, but shirts are required inside, I’m afraid, unless you’re on the balcony. Where pretty much anything goes.” He winked.
“That’ll work, thanks.” Andrew started to walk out to the balcony, when the jean jacket guy grabbed his arm, yelling out to the bartender.
“Get this man a beer, Simon. Looks like he’s had a rough night.”
Andrew nodded his thanks, took his beer and stepped out into the night.
While he drank his cold beer, standing in a dismal pool of river water, staring at the lights of Sisowath Quay on the opposite shore, Andrew thought about how much he disliked being target practice.
He’d been shot at before, but only when he’d expected it. Maybe even deserved it. But this investigation was supposed to be a mere formality. Apparently, though, somewhere, he’d struck a nerve. Unfortunately, he didn’t know whose. Which might make it hard to avoid future bullets bearing his name.
The next morning at 8:45, Andrew’s tuk-tuk pulled up to the Ministry of Mines and Energy, a drab, three-story concrete building that looked like it could serve as an adequate wartime bunker. The Ministry did not open until 9:00 AM, so Andrew sat in the back seat and watched as employees scurried into the front door.
At nine sharp, Andrew hopped out and tossed several dollars bills in the tuk-tuk driver’s basket, nodding to the driver, who revved his engine in thanks.
Andrew walked through the metal gate by the large guard, who eyed him but let him pass. The Ministry was open to the public. On the Ministry steps, a yellow cat mewled loudly. The guard, catching sight of the stray, ran to kick it outside the gates.
Andrew pushed open a glass door, receiving a blast of cold air from the portable AC unit chugging away in the lobby window. At the front desk a middle-aged woman with long black hair piled high on her head in an elaborate braided bun glanced at Andrew as he approached her gray metal desk. Her thick glasses reflected the computer screen, which she stared at while listening to someone yell at her on the other end of the phone. Andrew could hear the caller from five feet away.
The receptionist spoke into the phone and punched the hold button on the phone, shaking her head in annoyance. The red light blinked on and off. The woman whose nameplate read ‘Devi Yann’ stood and gave a small bow to Andrew, her folded hands in front of her breastbone. As the woman bowed her head toward him, Andrew saw her blue butterfly hairclip in her tight black bun. She said “Jo’om reap suoh” – Hello – and Andrew replied with a brief nod.
“Please to welcome you to the Ministry. How can I be to help you?” She smiled at Andrew.
“My name is Andrew Shaw. I’d like to see…” Andrew glanced at his notes. “Mr. Phirun Cheng.”
Devi blinked several times, then smiled at Andrew, her eyes darting left and right around the room. Devi picked up her phone, punching one button and spoke Khmer into the mouthpiece, her words short and sharp. She listened to the rapid reply. The earlier caller was still on hold, the red light blinking.
“Ahh. So sorry but Mr. Cheng…” She swallowed. “Mr. Cheng is not in today. So very sorry.” She smiled apologetically.
Andrew stared hard at her for a minute, and then turned to go. “OK, thank you.” He pushed part way through the door then turned back toward her and approached her desk. Her face showed her surprise.
“Is Mr. Cheng’s Supervisor in today? It is quite important. I’m here from the US Embassy.” Andrew flashed the temporary plastic badge Janey had given him.
The receptionist’s eyes widened and she glanced back at the blinking red light on her phone. Andrew stood in front of her desk, his arms by his side. Waiting. He nodded toward the phone.
She picked up the phone again and dialed an extension. She spoke rapidly into the phone and hung up.
“Mr. Cheng supervisor is here. He will see you. Please, you take a seat.” She gestured toward the row of white plastic chairs along the side of the wall. Andrew glanced over his shoulder.
“Yes, please, over there,” Devi said, anxious. She did not get many visitors who insisted on seeing supervisors.
“OK.” Andrew took a seat in a small molded plastic chair. On a television mounted on the far wall a zombie movie was playing. Andrew watched as the half dead ravaged a small village, screaming townspeople everywhere. It didn’t seem appropriate television for a government Ministry. But who was he to judge.
A door directly next to his seat opened and a short Cambodian man with a small paunch came out of the back office to stand in front of Andrew, blocking his view of the film. He gave Andrew a curt nod.
“You are here to see Mr. Cheng.”
“We are so very sorry for to tell you, but Mr. Cheng is not here today.”
“Yes, so your receptionist said. Do you know if he’ll be back in tomorrow? I have some questions for him.”
“No. We do not know.” The man smiled and spread his hands open wide, palms up, as if that resolved the issue. “We are so very sorry that Mr. Cheng is not here. Sorry for your trouble. Thank you for coming to visit the Kingdom.”
With that the man bowed, turned quickly and disappeared behind the door, leaving Andrew standing in the lobby watching the door. At her desk, Devi refused to look at Andrew. Andrew walked out the door, with a backward glance, catching Devi peek at him as Andrew walked away.
At four PM, workers streamed out of the Ministry, climbing onto bicycles, motos, tuk-tuks. Stylish boyfriends on shiny red motos picked up their perfectly-coiffed girlfriends.
Devi pulled her bicycle from the dense row of bicycles along the building’s side and wheeled it out the front gate. There, she eased herself into the rush hour traffic.
She followed the road from the right, where the fork offered a choice to go east or north. She chose east, toward the river. Andrew followed her from a distance on his moto, a helmet concealing his face. He followed her onto Sisowath Quay, past the Chinese Art House and over the Japanese Bridge. She drove east, past small shops, weaving in and out of the unpredictable traffic. Andrew, less skilled at navigating, dodged a few oncoming tuk-tuks, the drivers tskking at him.
She pedaled for a mile before turning down a dirt side road. The houses along this road were sheet metal shacks, open to the road and the elements. Dogs nipped at chickens that wandered free in the street. Barefoot children ran up and down the road.
Devi stopped in front of one of the metal houses and hopped off her bike, leaning it against the metal wall. She walked inside and moments later Andrew heard the delighted yelps of happy children. Andrew decided he would wait until she had settled the children down and fed them. Standing outside, he listened to stories told in Khmer of the day’s events, the mother cooking dinner and then scolding the children to bed. At the sounds of cleaning up, plates and bowls being scraped of food, stray cats came running from dusty alleyways, anxious for their share.
When the sounds had died down, Andrew knocked on the metal wall that served as the entrance to the shack. He leaned into the light of the open doorway and saw the woman look up from the back room, where she was setting washed dishes aside. Andrew heard the sharp intake of her breath, the surprise at seeing his unwanted white face again.
“What do you want?” she asked. Andrew could hear the fear in her voice, underneath the bravado. There was no man of this house to protect her or her children. He had been kicked out years before.
“I need to speak with you.”
Devi stared at Andrew, and then out past him, in to the night. She stepped by him in the doorway and looked up and down the street, which was empty save for the strays.
“How did you find me?”
“I followed you home. I’m sorry to bother you. But a friend of mine has been killed. I need to speak with Mr. Cheng. He has information that might help me find out why my friend was killed.”
The moon rose in the east, shining through wispy clouds on the horizon. The woman looked stricken. In the dim light Andrew could see her face had gone ashen.
“Mr. Cheng cannot see you. Mr. Cheng is dead.”
Bright with colored lights and paper lanterns, the embassy lawn was humming with activity. By 9:00 PM, the party was in full swing. Under a large white tent, tipsy revelers swayed to a live band and sipped the generous free champagne. Dignitaries stood apart, trying to look official in their inebriated state. Additional armed guards at the embassy gate checked names and passes against a long guest list. Anyone not on the list was not getting in, they repeatedly told curious passersby and tourists.
Inside the embassy, in the basement, Andrew hunched over his desk, bleary-eyed. He had returned from Devi’s to give Flint an update via Skype. Flint’s face filled the computer screen. Andrew was explaining his day’s activities.
Dance music started up outside on the Embassy lawn, the pounding beat picked up by the computer microphone.
Flint interrupted Andrew. “What is that cacophony? Are you at a club?”
Andrew turned the computer screen left and right, the camera panning across the bare office. “Does it look like a club?”
“No club I’ve been to.” She paused to unwrap a piece of gum and stuff it in her mouth. “Listen. The dad is calling me every hour on the hour. Pain in my ass. You’ve got to give me something, Shaw.”
Flint was a tough New York broad. Four generations of Flints had lived in Manhattan. She’d moved south thirty years before to join the Agency, but was still New York through and through. She was known for neither her patience nor her sensitivity. But her doggedness and loyalty were legendary.
Andrew shrugged and shook his head. “I don’t have any solid answers yet. I need to see that report.”
“This is enough to make a girl start smoking again. What else? Come on, Andrew, you can do better than this.”
Andrew ignored the barb and flipped through his notes.
“Ben was prospecting for metal.”
“Whaddya mean? Like gold-digging? We’ve got a lot of that going on inside the Beltway.”
“Sort of. It’s literally a gold rush out here. But not just for gold. Silver, platinum, even gems apparently. A bunch of mining companies have popped up in the past few years, from all over. China, Australia, South Africa, even the States.”
“Veritable melting pot. ‘There’s gold in them hills’. Sounds good to me. How does it work? I show up one day and start digging in the dirt for gold? Maybe I’ll quit my day job, head out your way.” Andrew could hear her snapping her gum. She knew he hated that.
“Not exactly. It’s not quite that seamless. Companies pay the Cambodian government millions of dollars, first for permission to look for metal and then for permission to mine it. It’s expensive, competitive and apparently quite secretive.”
“Well, sounds like a racket to me. Has anyone found anything of value?”
“Not that I’ve heard. But it’s still early days. However, the rumors run rampant.”
“Alright. Well this at least gives me something to tell the father. ‘Your boy was digging for gold.’ Keep looking, keep me posted. Some fool assistant here gave him my personal cell phone. Anything else I should know?”
“I think someone else is looking into this.” Andrew said.
Flint stopped snapping her gum.
Andrew explained about being shot at the night before.
“AHA! You ARE on to something. You’re holding out on me. Good. It’s a sign that you’re on the right track. You look like you survived. So what’s your next move?”
“I’m going to the province where the kid bought it. Mondulkiri.”
“That’s my boy. Get your hands dirty. Don’t step on anything metal.”
Flint hung up before Andrew could say ‘Thanks for your concern’.
Andrew sat back in his chair. As he flipped through some papers on the desk, he saw the handle on his office door turning.
Someone was outside his door. The handle turned again. Someone was trying to get in. But the door was locked.
Outside the music blared. Andrew stood, pushing his chair back and approached the door from the side. He reached out to the handle and yanked the door opened, his gun drawn.
He surprised Janey standing in the hallway.
She stepped back at the sight of the gun, fear on her face.
Ohhhh!” she exclaimed.
Andrew lowered his weapon and exhaled. He slipped the gun out of sight.
“What the hell are you doing outside my door?”
She was flustered, her left hand over her heart. Andrew had not seen her since the day he’d arrived to Phnom Penh. She was dressed in a pale blue silk dress, her hair done up in curls. She held a fruity looking drink in a tall glass. Andrew could smell the booze. The bartender out there had a heavy hand.
“Oh, I was just checking if you were here! You scared me!”
“I scared you?”
“I’m sorry but Jeremy sent me. He thought you might like to be part of tonight’s celebration. We could see from the lawn that your light was on in this rabbit hole, so we thought you might be here.” She sniffed. “I certainly did not expect to be greeted at gunpoint.”
“Yeah, well, maybe you should have knocked.”
She continued, ignoring his admonition and slurring her words slightly. “I thought, I mean, WE thought, if you weren’t busy, you might enjoy a refreshing adult beverage?” She lifted her fruity cocktail. It had once been a frozen drink but had melted in the heat.
Andrew gestured to the pile of papers on his desk. “I’m reading…”
Janey waved her hands in the air. “Work will wait. Besides, maybe they can help you.”
“The local glitterati. We always invite local bigwigs to our Pchum Ben party. After all, it’s their holiday. So you might talk to a few of them, ask your questions. Never hurts to say hello. Be a little friendly.” She smiled at Andrew and blinked.
Andrew looked at his desk. He flew out to Mondulkiri tomorrow. Janey smiled her most convincing smile. “Come on. One drink.”
Andrew shrugged, giving in. “Free booze is the best booze. Lead the way.”
Outside the music kicked into high gear. Janey and Andrew walked down the empty hallway, Janey pulling Andrew along by his shirtsleeve. Andrew was amused at Janey’s tipsy self.
“Hurry, it’s starting!” Janey said.
They had reached the front embassy door. Janey looked out at her fellow revelers on the lawn. The lawn of the embassy was filled with well-dressed party-goers, American and Cambodian men and women, all happily drinking and eating, watching the colorful fireworks light up the sky over the river.
Standing right behind Janey, who was looking over her shoulder at him, Andrew could smell her light perfume and the edge of gin on her breath. Janey giggled and pushed open the door.
Andrew stood with a beer, watching a dozen dancers in colorful costumes perform a traditional dance for the crowd. They finished to a loud round of applause from the large audience.
Andrew turned to Janey, who had switched to club soda.
“Tell me about this Pchum Ben holiday,” Andrew asked. “Jeremy said it’s something to do with ancestors.”
“Yes, that’s right. It’s a Buddhist holiday, marking the end of rainy season. The story is that during Pchum Ben, all the ghosts – well, all the bad ones – get a two-week pass from hell to visit their families. So they return to their homelands, mostly for food.” Janey sipped her drink and eyed the heavily laden dessert table. “There’s no food in hell, apparently.”
“So the ghosts go trick or treating?” Andrew grinned.
Janey rolled her eyes. “Something like that. Mostly, they just want sweet rice. So their families bring food offerings to the Wats, which the monks eat.”
“The monks eat the ghosts’ food? Doesn’t that piss off the ghosts?”
Janey raised her eyebrows. “No. The ghosts can’t eat, silly. Some of the ghosts, the really bad ones, don’t even have mouths. So the monks eat the food and the ghosts receive succor through the monks.”
“So everyone is happy?”
“Yup. And sated. Good karma all around.”
Andrew watched the Ambassador greet a few well-dressed businessmen standing by the bar with an appropriate deep bow. By Andrew’s side, Janey bent low to fix her strappy heel.
“Who are those gentlemen there?”
Janey looked up. “Local government types. Military too. That old guy there,” she pointed discretely at an elderly gentleman in a dark starched uniform decked with medals, chatting up an attractive American volunteer, “Is a General in the Cambodian Army…his wife is the battle-ax over at the dessert table.”
Andrew glanced at the dessert table, where the battle-ax was loading her dinner plate with chocolate cake.
The newest arrivals to the party caught Andrew’s attention. Five local men dressed identically in plain black cotton garb sidled past the armed embassy guards. One of the men was older than the others by a couple decades. His graying hair was slicked back. He surveyed the party scene as his bodyguards fanned out in to the crowd.
“And who is that, with the entourage?”
Janey turned to him, her voice low.
“That’s Mey Hakk. He’s very successful. He owns a couple factories on the outskirts of town.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “He’s rumored to have ties to local warlords.”
Andrew took a long look at Hakk, who was saying polite hellos to Jeremy. Andrew was distracted by a giggling group of women making a scene, more than fashionably late and tarted up in jewel-colored gowns, heavy make-up and five-inch heels. They made a loud fuss at the gate, as one of the guards had gotten a little frisky as he checked the women on their way in.
“Ahhhhh!” Janey laughed and pointed. “I see the embassy ladies went all out tonight! We don’t get too many chances to dress up, it’s a casual town, t-shirts and flip-flops all the way.”
Andrew glanced around for Hakk, but didn’t see him. He saw Jeremy talking with the General’s battle-ax wife, both of them enjoying chocolate cake. Andrew studied the milling crowd, searching faces. He moved to the left toward the fence for a better view.
There he was. Hakk was talking with the U.S. Ambassador, who Andrew knew by sight. Mey Hakk certainly knew how to work a room, Andrew thought.
Andrew stepped over to Janey, his face close to hers. “Can you introduce me to your friend Hakk?”
Janey smiled. “Certainly. How shall I introduce you? Meet our resident spy, private investigator, secret agent?” She smirked at Andrew, who blinked.
“Just say I’m a friend, here in town to see the sights.”
Janey led Andrew over to the Ambassador and Hakk, sobering up along the way. With the practiced grace of one accustomed to diplomatic circles, she interrupted their conversation and inserted herself into it. In a heartbeat, she had both men chuckling, Hakk glancing with obvious pleasure at her low-cut dress. As if on cue, she pointed to Andrew, who had stood a respectful distance away.
“Oh gentlemen, please, I’d like to introduce you to someone. This is Andrew Shaw. He’s the man investigating Ben Goodnight’s death.” She stepped back to make room for Andrew.
“Subtle,” Andrew whispered to Janey. “Thanks for nothing.”
“At least now they’ll talk to you. They would have just ignored you.”
The Ambassador had extended his hand to Andrew, who took it. Janey melted into the crowd to join her friends doing shooters at the bar.
“Good to meet you sir,” Andrew said.
“Likewise. Sad news about Ben Goodnight. He did great work. Still too common in this country, land mine accidents. Glad you’re able to help.”
“Well, I’m trying anyway. I hope to get out there shortly, see if I can finalize the details.”
“The details?” The ambassador sipped his whiskey, the melting ice cubes clinking against the glass.
“Well, it hasn’t been confirmed that it was a landmine.”
Surprise on his face, the ambassador asked, “Has it not?”
“What else might it be?” Hakk asked, his face a stone. Before Andrew could answer, the ambassador, realizing his gaff, jumped in with his own introductions. “I’m sorry, one drink and I forget my manners. Please allow me to introduce to you to Mr. Mey Hakk.” He leaned in close to Andrew, his breath hot with malt. “Sorry son, senior moment, what was your name again?”
“Shaw. Andrew Shaw.”
Hakk, his spotless black shirt accented only by a red pocket square, bowed slightly to Andrew. Andrew returned the bow, bending farther from the waist and holding the pose longer.
The Ambassador pulled his ringing, vibrating phone from his inside jacket pocket. He glanced at the screen, slid the arrow and said hello. He covered the mouthpiece.
“Excuse me, gentlemen. I’ve got to take this. The airline. My wife and kids are flying out tomorrow and their tickets are all a jumble. Sometimes it pays to be a Platinum member.” He stepped away, leaving Andrew with Hakk. The two men stood in silence for a minute. All around them party-goers swirled, dancing, drinking. Janey waggled her fingers at Andrew from the bar.
Andrew’s senses were on alert. He was aware of Hakk’s posture, the whiteness of his teeth, the gleam of his watch in the overhead lights. Nothing was left to chance.
The two men stood on the edge of the lawn near the tall fence encircling the compound. Andrew looked at Wat Phnom across the street. He thought he saw Socheat in the shadows but when he looked again, he saw only the trees and the night.
“Did you know Ben Goodnight well?”
“No. Not at all in fact.” Andrew swigged his beer but the bottle was empty. “You?”
Hakk nodded, his hands folded together at his waist, right palm over the left, a sad smile on his lined face. “No. I had heard of his humanitarian work. It is unfortunate what happened to him. This country can be a dangerous place. Even now. It is wise to watch one’s footing when in unknown territory.”
Andrew cocked his head, listening. Was that a threat? Or a friendly caution? “Even now. That’s good advice, I’m sure. Especially as I’m heading to Mondulkiri to take a closer look. I hear it is pretty wild out there. Have you been?”
Hakk took a step back, as a white moth dive-bombed him. He now stood in the shadow of the embassy and Andrew could not see his expression. “No. Unfortunately, work allows little time for travel to the provinces. They are quite beautiful, my country’s jungles. But sadly filled with landmines. Let us hope you do not become the next Goodnight.”
Definitely a threat, Andrew thought. He tried a different angle.
“Janey said you’re in manufacturing?” Andrew asked.
Hakk’s blank eyes blinked twice before he answered. “Yes. Among other things.”
“What do you make?”
“Christmas lights. Costume jewelry. Textiles.” Hakk glanced at his watch.
“Please excuse me Mr. Shaw. I had not realized the time and I have another engagement this evening. I do hope you enjoy our country. Please give Mr. Ambassador my regrets.”
As Hakk turned to leave, Andrew grabbed his forearm, his hand gripping the black fabric.
“I’d like to speak some more, if that’s alright? I have a few questions for you about local customs.” Andrew said, peering into Hakk’s eyes. Hakk was still, but his guards were not.
The bodyguards who had accompanied Hakk moved toward the two men, their hands grabbing for weapons. Andrew watched as Hakk gave his men an imperceptible nod to stand down.
“You have caught the attention of my men Rith and Heang. That’s never a good idea.”
Hakk placed his leathery hand on Andrew’s wrist, his fingers encircling the bone, tightened his grip and lifted Andrew’s hand from his arm.
“It was a pleasure to meet you Mr. Shaw. I hope you enjoy yourself during your stay in the Kingdom.” With that, Hakk walked away, the party-goers dancing out of his way in time to the heavy beat blasting from the massive speakers on the lawn.
Andrew watched as Hakk exited the gates and climbed into a waiting limousine. Beyond the gates, Socheat stood, chain-smoking and watching.
An early quarter-moon shone on the sidewalk and scrubby weeds that pushed through the broken concrete.
Andrew hopped off the moto two blocks from the Ministry, walking down the quiet street. At 4:00 AM, this part of town was dead, except for the orange cat, which yowled at Andrew in the still night.
Devi had described the back entrance, which she said would be the easiest way into the building. Andrew slipped around back.
He jimmied the flimsy lock and slipped into the dim stairwell and down the empty hall.
Devi had not known about Ben Goodnight or his death, had only been told by her boss that she was not to speak of Mr. Cheng again. She had not even been told that he was dead but she had overheard her boss talking on the phone with an outside caller that Cheng had been found in the open sewer with stab wounds all over his body. She did not know who the caller was.
Andrew took the steps two at a time. The carpeted stairway dulled the sound of his heavy footsteps, his flashlight spotlighting the steps in front of him.
The office where Cheng had worked was on the third floor. As Andrew emerged from the stairwell, pushing through a heavy metal door, he saw a long open plan office space that stretched all the way to the front of the building, desks stacked with paper, and rows of metal filing cabinets along the wall. The room was dark, with no emergency lighting, only dim moonlight siphoning in through the windows.
Andrew checked the floor plan that he’d drawn from Devi’s description. He looked around the room, counting rows of desks then moving forward down the hall to the second to last row, where he turned. Walking toward the windows, he panned the flashlight over the last desk. No computer, though there was a dust-free area of the desk where a desktop computer had once been. Someone had been here before him.
Andrew glanced around the desk. No name plate either, though the other desks had them. This must be it. He thumbed through loose papers on the desk. Mostly forms, arranged by date. Everything seemed to be very orderly. A metal file cabinet on the side of the desk revealed the same degree of order.
In the file cabinet, Andrew flipped his fingers through the alphabetized files in the top drawer.
There was no file under ‘G’.
Andrew fingered though the files once more. A flash of color caught his eye. There, between H and I, something was crumpled and shoved in between folders.
Andrew pulled it out, and unfolded it on the desktop. It was a square yellow paper napkin, bearing the letters FCC. Andrew knew this, the Foreign Correspondent’s Club, a restaurant in town. On it was a rough map, sketched in ink.
Andrew stepped to the window to get a better look in the light.
Some coordinates were scribbled on the map. Severine had explained she had no sense of the route they had taken into the jungle, had just followed Ben’s lead. Andrew pulled out his secure phone, took a picture of the napkin then put it in his pocket.
Andrew turned when he heard footsteps from the hallway. He crouched by the desk and moved along the side of the wall, in the shadows behind the row of desks and ducked into an open supply closet, pulling the door partially closed.
A black-clad figure moved into the room, shining a flashlight along the walls. The light panned across the room, over Cheng’s desk, along the back wall and into the crack of the doorway where Andrew hid. Andrew closed his eyes, to not reflect the light.
As the figure moved into the room, Andrew could see from the silhouette, it was a woman. She moved to the desk where Andrew had been standing moments before. Andrew did not think she had seen him.
Andrew watched her as she approached Cheng’s desk. She was slender, about 5’6”. She wore a mask, so Andrew could not see her face.
She reached the desk, where she placed her gun, and turned to the file cabinet. Andrew swore under his breath. He had left his phone on the windowsill near the desk. The woman did not notice it, as she rifled through the files, shining a small flashlight on certain pages but finding nothing of interest. She shoved the drawer closed and looked around the room, tilting her head upward. Andrew had the sense that she was smelling the air.
The woman tensed and was still. She moved her flashlight across the room, a slow sweeping arc, the bright light shining from one end of the room to the other and then back. She peered into the far corner of the room, where there was a windowless office in deep shadow. Andrew watched, as she picked up her pistol and moved across the floor.
She stopped halfway down the aisle and glanced back, then moved forward to the back room.
When she was out of sight, Andrew slid out of the closet, crouching low, moving along the wall, to the windowsill near Cheng’s desk. He stuck his phone in his pocket. As he turned, he heard a gun click at the back of his head.
“Hands on your head,” a deep male voice said. Andrew did as he was told. The man frisked him for weapons and found the embassy-issued Glock in the small of Andrew’s back, which he pocketed. He reached high for Andrew’s left wrist. As Andrew felt the man’s stubby fingers clamp around his wrist, he lurched forward, pulling the man off balance. Andrew swung around, twisting the man’s arm, pulling him close and kneeing him in the groin. With a grunt, the man hunched instinctively in pain and Andrew knocked the gun from his hand. Andrew grabbed it as it hit the floor. One more jab to the man’s temple and the man went down. Andrew bolted for the stairwell. Muddy early morning light filtered in through the dingy windows.
Hearing the commotion, the woman ran out of the back office with her gun drawn. Andrew turned the corner as she fired a shot, which ricocheted in the silent building. Andrew could hear a sharp command to “Get up!” from the woman berating her accomplice, then two sets of footsteps running after him.
Andrew raced down the flights of stairs. He was three flights ups, and took full stairwells in a leap. The last stairwell, he pushed out the emergency door, which started an alarm. That would get the neighbors’ attention. He had to get out of there. The morning traffic was just beginning with the earliest light of day.
Andrew ran across the street, behind a row of tuk-tuks. Behind him, the stairwell door opened and the woman peered out, gun in hand. She looked left and right but all she saw was the early traffic. Andrew watched her swear in frustration. She turned around, the door closing, to go find her useless colleague before the police arrived to investigate the alarm.
From behind the tuk-tuks, Andrew checked each one until he found one inhabited by a sleeping driver. The driver woke, reluctantly but obligingly.
Andrew hopped into the back, leaning far into the shadows of the plastic flaps in case there were prying eyes. The tuk-tuk entered the flow of morning traffic.
As Andrew stared at the rough map, he wondered what Ben had found in Mondulkiri that had so many people interested. He would soon find out.
Andrew’s phone rang early. Too early.
“Hello?” Andrew’s voice was rough with lack of sleep. He heard a thick accent on the other end of the line.
“Mate, I think I found something for you.” It was Tom of Kampuchea Mining and Minerals, sounding too awake for Andrew. Tom gave Andrew an address and said to meet him in ten minutes.
The local hostess bar was already bustling at 9:00 AM. When Andrew had balked at the suggested location, Tom claimed he didn’t want anyone to see Andrew coming and going from the KMM office. Andrew figured that was just an excuse to start drinking.
Andrew found the building in a popular part of town and walked up the stairs to the second floor establishment, past a storefront where a row of seated local women gave pedicures to well-dressed Western ladies flipping through worn copies of Hello! Magazine.
On the stairwell, glossy pictures of beautiful young Cambodian women advertised what Andrew would find upstairs.
Andrew had read about these places in the Phnom Penh magazine, bars catering to ex-pat men, filled with beautiful young Cambodian women who would talk to you for a free drink and sleep with you for $5. Cheap and easy wasn’t Andrew’s thing, he focused more on the unattainable.
At this early hour, he saw a handful of gray haired men dressed in tight t-shirts and khaki shorts, lining the bar, looking to get an early start on their day’s activities.
Andrew’s arrival caused a flurry of activity with the two slight women manning the front hostess station. He was a new one, they thought, glancing at each other with excited smiles, and he looked like he had money to spend.
The ladies blinked their brown eyes at him and flipped their long black hair. They asked him if he would like to sit at the bar or a table and would he like company. They smiled, their teeth too white.
Andrew spotted Tom in a back booth, to the right. He waved off the ladies’ attention and walked to the back, sliding into the dingy booth, which was upholstered in cherry red plastic and punctured in a couple places.
“It works for me.”
“So what did you learn?”
“What’s the rush? Have a drink. I’m buying.”
“You drag me out of bed and expect me to join you in a beer and shoot the shit? Come on man. Whaddya got?”
Tom leaned closer to the table, glancing over his right shoulder. Andrew could smell his foul breath from across the table.
“I need you to do something for me, mate.” Andrew sighed. Of course.
“And what would that be?” he asked.
“I need to get back to Oz.”
“So buy a ticket.”
Tom leaned in, his thick stomach pressed hard against the table’s plastic edge.
“Look mate the truth is, I’m broke. The office, the car, it’s all a show, so people don’t talk. I lost everything last year on a platinum mine that never panned out. I’ve been living on borrowed time and borrowed cash. Now I’ve got some local thug after me, wanting his payout. And I don’t got it. I gotta get out of town.”
Andrew paused. He wondered if he was being played, but he had so few sources here, he couldn’t really negotiate.
“That’s a tough situation, Tom. Sorry to hear it. Don’t you have family or friends who could help you out?”
“No, no, NO! None of them can help me. I need to be gone today.”
Andrew tilted his head and squinted at Tom across from him. “You know, the Embassy doesn’t pay much. I don’t have that kind of cash lying around.”
Tom’s eyes narrowed.
“I been in this business a long time, mate. A long time. You’re no embassy desk jockey. No sir. You got connections – you want a name, you make this happen for me.”
Andrew sighed and leaned back in the booth, his palms flat on the slick table.
“So what are we talking here? A couple thousand?”
“Yes.” Tom scrunched his face together, his beady eyes calculating what he could get away with. “Five. Five thousand should do.” He bobbed his head up and down a few times, his eyes bright.
Andrew’s lips pressed together in a thin white line. “I’ll tell you what. You give me the information and I’ll sort you out, one way or another. It’s the best I can offer.”
Andrew had plenty of available cash; he always did. Greasing the wheels of the intelligence turbine was part of his job. But it bothered him that this guy, a hack, had sniffed him out. He needed to button up. Maybe he was losing his edge.
Tom looked at Andrew from the corner of his eye. “Today? I got your word?”
“Alright.” Tom stuck his puffy red hand in Andrew’s face. Andrew shook it, then wiped his hand on his trousers under the table. “Now, your news.”
“Your friend was hired by a mom and pop company. They’re working on the cheap, they hired Ben ‘cause he had all his own gear, didn’t want a contract, was low maintenance, no red tape.”
“The name please?”
“River Metals. I asked – discretely – no one knows too much about them. Guess they keep to themselves. Except I found this.”
He pulled out a printout of a screenshot from the Ministry of Mining website.
“They applied for a massive land concession in Mondulkiri a few months back, tried to get an exploration license, but no luck. That happens sometimes in this business, you can’t count your chickens. I should know.” He sniffed with self-pity.
“Who got the concession?”
“In Mondulkiri, who got the concession to explore that land?”
“Some Chinese joint venture, going gangbusters, gonna try to extract within the year if they get lucky.”
“Is there anyway to find out who else applied for that land concession?” Andrew asked.
As Tom sipped his whiskey, one of the pretty bar hostesses plopped herself onto his ample lap, draping her waifish arm across his substantial shoulder.
“Hi Mr. Tom, who your friend?” She batted her long black eyelashes at Andrew and smiled. “Maybe he want to buy me a drink? And one for Bong Srey?” She nodded behind her, where another hostess, dressed in equally short shorts and a purple halter top, stood off to the side watching her friend’s antics and taking mental notes. She was newer at the business. She gave a small wave and a timid smile.
Tom reddened, and coughed, choking on the whiskey and embarrassed by his sudden seatmate. He cleared his throat. “Hey Honey. I’ll talk to you a little later, alright? We’re busy here. Man talk. You scoot now.”
He lifted her up by her slim hips – she weighed maybe 100 pounds – and plopped her feet on the floor by the table. Giving her flat bottom a little pat, he said, “Run along now.” The girl pouted, flipping her hair at Tom and ignoring Andrew, who had simply watched this exchange. She flitted to the bar to find more agreeable company. Her friend Bong Srey stared for one more moment at Andrew then followed suit.
Tom turned back to Andrew, his face still red. “Sorry about that. They’re playful little things. They know me pretty well here. I probably come by more than I should, but hell, I’m just a man.” Tom eyed the three young women bending over the balcony looking down into the street for their next customers.
Andrew cleared his throat. “Tom. The concession.”
Tom turned back to Andrew. “The Ministry holds those application lists close, since it’s not a straight numbers game, it’s more who you know. But then what isn’t? There’s a limited number of players in town and we all get to know each other pretty good. I found out about River Metals by calling in some favors. Had to knock a few heads together.”
“Do you have an address?”
Tom pulled out a small sheet of paper, held it out to Andrew, who reached for it. Before Andrew could take the paper, Tom pulled it away.
“We’ve got a deal?” Tom asked.
“Like I said. I’ll set you up.”
Tom handed the paper to Andrew and added, “It’s near Wat Steung Meanchey. Strange place for a Barang office. Not real nice out that way, not too welcoming.”
Andrew took the paper. “Far from prying eyes maybe. Thanks for this.”
“Sure.” Tom ordered another whiskey as Andrew stood up and started toward the front.
Tom called out after him. “Hey there buddy, can you take care of this bar tab for me on your way out? And get me sorted on what we discussed.” Tom tossed back the last of his whiskey in anticipation of the second.
Walking toward the stairwell, Andrew lifted his right arm and without looking back, gave a small wave.
“Take it easy, Tom. I’ll be in touch.”
Wat Steung Meanchey was bustling in the afternoon. Saffron-clad monks wandered by, seeking alms, their silver donation buckets tied to their slim waists. Local families crowded the Wat, the fathers wearing their best, the mothers bearing platefuls of rice. Children trailed behind their parents, tugging on their uncomfortable clothes and staring at the bright robes of the bald monks who walked by them, silent as stone.
The motodop dropped Andrew on a side street, past the Wat.
The driver, his voice muffled by his large helmet, said ‘there’ and pointed down an alley. Andrew saw a metal gate, with a faded number painted on the side, matching the number on Tom’s paper. Andrew was not surprised there was no sign advertising ‘River Metals’.
An intercom on the fence suggested that visitors would be welcome but Andrew was certain no one would answer if he rang. Nor did he wish to announce his arrival. He didn’t see a security camera, but that did not mean there wasn’t one tucked up in a tree.
Andrew followed the high wooden fence around to the back of the building. Through the fence slats, warped from the rains, he could see a large courtyard on the side and back of the building. Andrew saw two cars, one a beat-up jalopy with California plates and the other a slick silver SUV with no plates to speak of, and a crotch-rocket motorcycle. He’d found his tail.
Andrew sidled along a hedge adjacent to the fence. Outside the fence, a row of dented gray trash cans overflowed with refuse. A few rats scurried away from the trash when they saw Andrew approaching, leaving behind the food they’d scrounged. They’d return after he was gone; there was plenty for everyone.
Andrew found a metal lid, placed this on the sturdiest bin and hopped up. Now, peering over the fence, he had a full view of the house and the courtyard. He could see a couple lights on in the first floor of the two-story house.
Glancing behind him, seeing no one, he pulled himself up and over, dropping on to the cement and moving behind the larger of the two cars. He hadn’t seen any cameras on the outside of the house and hoped there were none in the courtyard.
Staying close to the house, he edged along the building’s side. Through an open window, he heard a male and female voice, both speaking English. He moved closer to the house, avoiding a large threatening anthill, and onto the grass. He reached the open window.
Sounds of paper rustling, then an electric whirring sound. Andrew leaned forward to the window’s edge and peeked in.
Inside, a heavy middle-aged woman with disheveled red hair crouched on the floor, feeding papers into the shredder. She’d fed too many pages at once and was having to pull out the resulting paper jam. She looked stressed and rushed. Piles of papers surrounded the shredder; the woman had her work cut out for her.
A tall broad-shouldered young man, with closely cropped dark hair and a clean-shaven face, stood in the doorway of the room where the woman was working. His legs were long and he still had the air of a colt about him. He was dressed in sweats and looked like he had just come from the gym. His face was flushed.
“When’s dinner, Mom?”
The mother looked up from her task. “Have you packed yet?”
“Nah, I’ll do it later.”
His mother put the papers down and her hands on her ample hips. Andrew could see she’d been pretty once, but somewhere in the past five years, she had decided it was all too much effort and for what.
“Please do it now. We fly out first thing in the morning. Early. I want you to be ready. Pack first and then I’ll feed you.”
The young man, who Andrew could see now was only sixteen or seventeen, loped out of the room, grumbling.
Andrew tried to get a better glimpse of the files, but it was just words on the page from where he stood.
The woman continued her work, having discovered the perfect number of pages to feed into the machine. She thought that whoever built these shredders surely must know that this task usually had to happen quickly.
Andrew stepped back from the house and looked up. The bedrooms were probably on the second floor and knowing teenage boys, he figured the boy would be in the back of the house, which put him a good distance away from the mother’s office. Far enough away for Andrew and Mom to have a chat.
Andrew walked around and tested the front door, a solid wooden door. Locked. It took a couple tries with Andrew’s pick but a sharp click told Andrew he was in. He opened the door a fraction and looked in. The hallway was empty. He stepped in and shut the door behind him.
The inside of the house confirmed his suspicions. This was indeed a home. Enlarged photographs of family vacations hung on the walls, an arty black and white print of three children staring out to sea, and framed hand-drawn art from children, probably many years old by now, maybe even the grumpy teenage boy. The requisite picture of Angkor Wat sat above the mantle in a living room across from the entrance hall.
Several pairs of shoes were lined up at the front door. Pink running shoes. Men’s sneakers. Flip-flops and sandals.
Andrew walked toward the office, where the woman was still feeding paper in to the machine. Her back was to him. He stepped in and in a moment, he had her in a chokehold, his hand around her mouth. He whispered, “I’m not going to hurt you. But I need to ask you some questions and I need you to cooperate. Do you understand me?” She nodded.
He lifted her up from her kneeling position and placed her in a nearby chair.
“I’m going to take my hand away. I need you to stay quiet. Can you do that?”
The woman nodded again, her eyes wild.
Andrew released her and stepped away, back to the wall. Shredded paper was everywhere, the garbage bags waiting to be filled with the stuff.
“Are you ‘River Metals’?”
“Yes.” The woman’s voice was a whisper.
“Did you hire Ben Goodnight to go to Mondulkiri?”
“Do you know that he got killed by a land mine out there?”
At this, the woman teared up. “Yes.”
Down the hall, the front door had opened and closed without Andrew hearing and a tall swarthy man, with a thick black mustache, crept down the hallway. He stopped to listen to the unknown male voice speaking in stern tones to his wife. This did not please him.
The man sidled up to the open doorway, looking in to see his wife weeping in a wicker chair and a strange man glaring at her. Enraged, he charged into the room, directly at Andrew, tackling him and dragging him to the ground, punching Andrew in the face again and again. Andrew grabbed the man’s shirttails and, knocking his feet out from under him, pushed him face down into the deep pile of shredded paper, holding him down while the man struggled and swore.
Andrew recognized the man. This was indeed the tail he thought he’d picked up on his second day in town. He wondered if this man was also his bridge shooter.
Andrew lifted the man, frisked him, and finding nothing, threw him into the chair by the wife. He trained a gun on the two of them.
“What’d you tell him, Louise?” The man looked sideways at the woman.
“Who are you and what do you want?” the man demanded, nursing a busted lip.
“I’m holding the gun, so I’m asking the questions. Why did you hire Ben Goodnight?”
“What’s it to you?”
“Look, you’ve been following me around for the past day and a half. You’re a lousy tail. And now I find your colleague busy shredding files and packing up. Looks a little suspicious to me. So I’ll ask you again. Why did you hire Ben?”
The man sneered at him. “None of your business.”
Andrew stepped closer and reached into the man’s inside jacket pocket, pulling out a U.S. passport. He opened it up.
“Says here you’re an American citizen. Also seems like you are in hurry to go somewhere. Perhaps I can make it my business to find out what the rush is all about. I’ll get you shipped back to the US, your passport revoked, faster than you can sing ‘America the Beautiful’. I don’t know what your operation is here. But it doesn’t look legal.”
The man looked stricken. He did not want to go back to the States. Andrew’s threat had his full attention. Andrew wondered for an instant what it was – crime, drugs, money – that caused the anxiety evident on this guy’s face. Whatever the reason, the man started to talk.
“Some old guy gave me a pile of cash, told me to hire Ben to go out to Mondulkiri to do some prospecting out there. ‘Tell him to dig around in the dirt’ is what he said. Wanted him to have a look around, file a report on what he saw. He gave me the exact coordinates where Ben should look.”
“When was this?”
“About two months ago.”
That would be sometime in July, Andrew thought.
“Did Ben take the job?”
“Sure. He flew out the next day. When he came back, he was all wound up, thanked me for the work, gave me his report. I paid him, like the old guy said to do, and I hadn’t seen him since. Then I heard he got blown up out there just the other day. So I don’t know what to think.”
“Do you have a copy of his report?”
The man turned to his wife, who still looked terrified. “Louise?”
She jumped up to help. “Yes. Yes. Maybe.” She was breathless. “I think I was about to shred it. I’d done March, April, May. Let’s see.” She thumbed through a pile of paper by the shredder.
“That’s June.” She picked up the next pile, flipped half way through it.
“Here it is!” She pulled a piece of paper from the stack, held it up like a prize.
Andrew took it and skimmed the page, words from the report jumping off the page at him.
Andrew looked up. “It says he strongly recommends that this land not be conceded for mining. That he found artifacts out there. A lot of them.” Andrew shook his head. “But the land was conceded anyway. I read about it on the Ministry website.”
The man shrugged, his wife staring at Andrew.
Andrew talked to himself now. “This was two months ago. Why did he go back out there last week, if the land was conceded?”
The wife spoke up. “Maybe he wanted to check his facts.”
Andrew’s eyes grew wide. Of course. Ben had tried to alert the Ministry about the artifacts in Mondulkiri. But they went ahead and conceded the land anyway. Perhaps they’d investigated themselves and found nothing, Andrew thought.
Severine had said Ben had brought her out there because he wanted her to see something. But not only because he didn’t think it would last.
“That’s exactly it. He went back for proof.”
Andrew folded the report and tucked it in his back pocket.
“Thanks for this. Sorry for the fright. You’ve been very helpful. Good luck with the move. Stay out of trouble.”
Andrew ducked out into the night. The jungle awaited.
Severine picked up the toys that had not made it back into the large plastic storage tubs. There were always a few hiding under the benches and the instigators were always the same. Late afternoon and the children were finishing their lessons after a short but noisy recess.
She jumped when she looked up and saw Andrew watching her from the archway. Her shoulders relaxed and she put a hand to her cheek.
“You scared me.”
Andrew walked into the courtyard. “Vith let me in. I said hello a couple times, but you must not have heard me. Deep in thought?”
“I guess. I’ve got a lot on my mind.” She picked up the last toy and tossed it in the bucket.
“Care to share?”
Severine shook her head.
“Is this an OK time to speak?”
Severing glanced back at the house, where giggles and high-pitched voices twinkled out of the windows.
“My cook called in sick today, third time this month, so I have to get dinner ready for the kids.”
“What are they having?” Andrew shifted from his left foot to his right.
Severine looked at Andrew. “Spaghetti.”
“Don’t they get enough noodles in this town?”
She smirked. “They love it. It helps them learn about other cultures. Every week, we do a ‘Noodles From Around The World’ night.”
“Nice. How about I help you boil the water?”
She smiled. “Are you sure you know how?”
Andrew grinned. “Lead the way and I’ll show you how it’s done.”
In the kitchen, steam rose from roiling water in the industrial-size stainless steel pot. The kitchen windows by the stove were fogged up.
Andrew described the Ministry report while Severine stirred the water.
“Where’d you get a copy?” Severine asked.
Andrew relayed his afternoon’s activities and explained his theory.
“I think somebody buried that report. Someone who didn’t want anyone nosing around out there.”
“Why would someone do that?”
“The report mentions a camp and empty huts. Maybe someone did not want that known.”
Severine looked up at him. She knew how men like Andrew worked. She’d been married to one. “When are you leaving?” she asked.
Hakk stood on the bamboo porch of the primitive hut, staring out at the orange sun setting over the wide sea. A scantily-dressed young Khmer woman sat on a wicker chair nearby, her legs tucked up under her, watching episodes of I Love Lucy on an Ipad, the wires from the earphones trailing down her shoulders. Every few minutes her giggling would ring across the hut, despite her having been told to keep quiet twice already.
Now, she’d worn out her welcome.
“Get out. Leave me be,” he hissed in Khmer. He was annoyed and not only by her laughter. There had been a delay.
As the young woman hurried out, a black-clad young man knocked on the open doorway and cleared his throat.
“What is it?” Hakk asked.
“The American man is asking a lot of questions about the boy. He has talked with the French girl.”
“Yes, I know of him. I met him. It does not matter now. Did you find the reports at her apartment and the Ministry?”
“Yes.” The young man held up several papers in his left hand.
“And Mr. Cheng?”
“Taken care of, as you instructed.”
“Good. Traitors will not be tolerated,” Hakk said, the wooden floor creaking beneath him.
He turned from the sunset and walked to a table piled with large green coconuts, the skin smooth like a melon. A machete sat by the fruit, its blade sharp and ready. Hakk lifted a coconut, balancing it on its end and began to chop away at the outer green rind with practiced slices.
Rather than leaving, the young man walked in to the hut, uninvited, to watch as Hakk whacked away at the fruit. He was thirsty and wanted some coconut. He spoke, his tones unmeasured. “I heard the American tell the French girl that the boy’s father is rich. Maybe we should have held him for ransom instead.”
Hakk dropped the fruit, the knife still in hand. In a heartbeat, the machete’s silvery blade was pressed against the young man’s slim throat. His arms hung by his side, his left hand still clutching the stolen reports.
“Never doubt me,” Hakk hissed. “Never say such things. Do not even think them. Do you understand?”
“Yes. Yes, Father. Sum tho.”
Hakk allowed the blade to slide away from the young man’s neck but not before he’d pressed it hard enough to nick the flesh above the collarbone.
Released, the young man trembled. His right hand went to his neck. He pulled his hand away, his fingers red with blood. He blanched.
Hakk had returned to his work on the coconut, which had been shorn of its green rind and now shone bone white, its flesh fragrant and clean.
“Keep me informed of his movements. Soon, it will not matter.”
Hakk jabbed the knife horizontally across the peaked top of the white mass, catching and lifting with the blade a two-inch piece of the coconut flesh to access the sweet juice within. He looked up at the young soldier. “Burn those reports. And tend to that nasty cut.”
The young man, terrified, backed out of the room.
“Eap!” Hakk shouted. The young man stepped back into the doorway.
“Send in Heang.”
On hearing his name, a large Cambodian man appeared in the doorway. His dirty yellow t-shirt was two sizes too small and his bulk filled the doorframe. He lifted his dark eyebrows at Hakk.
“Where is the truck from Thailand?” Hakk demanded.
Heang leaned on the doorframe. The wood creaked at the weight. He was Hakk’s most trusted guard. He had been a street kid ten years ago when Hakk had recruited him right off a corner, given him work and money. In return, Heang offered Hakk all he had, which was his full unthinking loyalty.
But he did not like to give Hakk unpleasant news. Hakk had rages and Heang had been on the receiving end of a few of them. He was not looking forward to answering Hakk’s question.
“The driver made the pick-up as arranged. He ought to be there by now, but we have not heard from him and his phone only rings. His girlfriend got a text from him while he was driving. She said he’d been drinking.”
Hakk slammed the knife into the wooden table. “Find that truck.”
Heang looked skeptical. A truck lost in the deep Cambodian jungle would not easily reveal itself. This would be a difficult if not impossible task. He said nothing but Hakk sensed the hesitation.
3:00 AM: earlier that day in the Cambodian jungle
The truck barreled down the road at break-neck speed. Music blared from cheap tinny speakers, classic American rock. The driver, a young Cambodian man named Sun, was no more than twenty. A cigarette in one hand, a beer in the other, he steered with his bare knobby knees.
He’d been stopped for too long at the Thai border, even though he had paid the bribes, as he’d been instructed. The Thai guards had been bored, few vehicle crossings that day, and so they’d hassled him for something to do, to relieve the tedium.
He had handed them more money than he wanted to give up, but he had to get through that border at all cost. Now, he was trying to make up for lost time, driving like a maniac over rutted, unforgiving roads. He needed to be in Siem Reap by morning and had several hours to go. It was dark on these back jungle roads. The bright curve of a waxing moon didn’t penetrate the darkness. The headlights gave limited assistance in lighting the way.
At least the music lightened the driver’s mood. He was stressed out and tired, hung over from last night’s partying. He tried to focus on the money he would be paid at the end of this journey. He just wanted to see his girlfriend, smoke pot and have sex. The money would make the hassle and especially the humiliation at the hands of the Thai border guards all worth it. This was better work than the factory job he had before he got fired for sleeping on his shift.
When the man had approached him last week in a Battambang café about doing a job, Sun hoped it would be work that paid well. Sun was behind on his rent and his girlfriend wanted him to buy her a new scooter.
He knew from the way the man had glanced around the café before explaining the job, that this would be illegal. And that meant it would pay. A lot. Sun had done illegal things before. He liked breaking laws. He enjoyed all the forbidden fruits, he thought, visualizing his other girlfriend, who his serious girlfriend did not know about.
The job itself was simple: Deliver a package from the port of Laem Charbang in Thailand to the address in Cambodia the man had written on the paper. It would mean a long and difficult drive. He had told Sun he would be well compensated. He’d explained to Sun that it was important to deliver the goods on time, by the following Wednesday. Since the roads were bad this time of year, the man said, be sure to rent a good truck, something that could handle the mud.
The man had given him the name of the ship, the date of its arrival, and a description of his contact at the port, who would be wearing a red-checked krama. Best of all, the man had given Sun two thousand US dollars to rent a truck and to help grease the wheels, along the way. Whatever was left over was for Sun to keep, plus another two thousand on successful delivery of the cargo, free and clear.
Sun had got a truck, met the ship, and loaded the item. It was larger than he expected, a big blue barrel, and heavy, but not unmanageable. So far, it had been easy money.
But before the ship had arrived, those two thousand dollars had been burning a hole in Sun’s pocket. As he’d sat at a beachside restaurant in Laem Charbang, smoking cigarettes and eating noodles, he’d looked at the map to plan his route. He figured he would only need a couple hundred dollars for bribes, at the dock, then the borders, and then a little in case he met some police along the way. There was no reason why he shouldn’t enjoy himself now, while he waited, he thought.
He looked at the clock on the wall. It was only 10:00 PM. The ship with his cargo was due at 1:00 PM the next day. Plenty of time to party.
He called his buddy Neam, who was sitting home getting high. Sun said he’d had a windfall, to come meet him out. Neam worked the docks but spent most of his spare time smoking.
They went to a hostess bar right on the beach, where it was mostly expats and the ladies were better looking. They were also more expensive and a bit uppity, Sun had thought. But they had started to cooperate when he’d flashed a few fifties. He’d felt like a big man.
And man, had they had a good time. A very good time. He didn’t know how many drinks he’d bought and he’d paid for Neam’s too. And the women, so many women, his dick actually hurt. They’d been up all night, until the cops kicked them off the beach.
Now he was late for the pickup. He’d overslept and arrived forty-five minutes late for the ship, which loomed large and gray along the busy waterfront. Colorful shipping containers were stacked five and six high all throughout the lot, most filled with clothing to be shipped and sold overseas.
In his truck, Sun spotted his contact, wearing a krama that concealed most of his face. The contact stood next to a tall blue plastic barrel by a stack of three orange shipping containers. With the contact’s help, Sun loaded the barrel onto the truck and was on his way.
He still had plenty of time to get to Siem Reap. Easy money.
The song on the radio changed as the truck hit a rut. These muddy roads were shit after the rains. Sun dropped his beer can as the truck jostled through the massive pothole. Angkor Beer spilled on the passenger’s side, staining the well-worn mat.
Sun glanced down at the beer on the floor and back at the road. That was his last beer for the ride. He’d drunk the five others already and there would not be any more stops. He glanced once more at the road and then reached down with his right hand to pick up the can before it all spilled out.
As Sun leaned over to retrieve the beer, the view through the windshield changed. A sharp curve, just outside the reach of the high beams, appeared ahead. Sun, head just below the dashboard, fumbled for his last can, which slipped again out of his wet hands. Sun did not see the fast-approaching sharp curve, though he did manage to get his hands on the half-full beer can. As he sat up, lifting the beer to his lips, Sun felt the truck go airborne.
Sun looked up in time to see the truck heading straight, where the road veered left. In this part of the jungle, the road was built high on a berm, to protect it from flooding in the rainy season. The forest floor was ten feet below the road.
The truck shot right over the edge, flew through the air for what felt like a long time but was in fact only seconds, crashing through small trees and shrubs as it hit the ground hard and tipped halfway over on its side.
Sun hit his head on the front windshield, cracking the glass. As the truck jerked sideways, the left side of his head took a hard hit. While the first hit hadn’t caused much damage, the second one did, knocking Sun out and leaving a nasty gash on Sun’s temple. This began to bleed profusely. He would not wake up again; he would not collect two thousand dollars.
In the back of the truck, the frayed rope, which had spent the better part of its life on a fishing boat and had seen its share of salt water, broke and the cargo it had held in place rolled free, coming to rest heavily against the back door.
As the truck settled into its small crater, with one last shift to the left, the back door flung open and the cargo rolled out. It rolled down the embankment, coming to rest in a sea of green ferns, with a small, almost inaudible clink, against a thin shiny piece of metal connected to a decades-old, but still functional landmine.
Around the truck, the trees and leaves rustled from the disturbance. After a few minutes, stillness returned to the jungle. The dark was lit by the flickering yellow headlights, which would last for the remaining few hours of night, growing dim just in time for the dawn.
Andrew watched the helicopter pilot ready for flight. He was young, 28 or 29, but with enough experience, Andrew hoped, to get them out there in one piece.
The late afternoon sky was clear, good for flying, with wispy cirrus clouds and the occasional jet trail from flights heading west.
The rotor turned, casting slow shadows on the tarmac. The shadows picked up speed with each successive revolution until Andrew could feel the upward motion as the helicopter lifted off the ground. Andrew was himself a skilled pilot and loved the sensation of being airborne, on the move.
As the helicopter lifted off, leaving only flurries of dust behind, the pilot handed Andrew a headset, indicating with his hands that Andrew should put it on. Andrew did as instructed, adjusting the earpieces and putting the mic into position.
The helicopter swept out across town, over landmarks, some of which Andrew recognized. Below was the yellow dome of the Central Market, where the bus had dropped him. It seemed like weeks ago but had only been a few days. He looked to his left. There, below them, refreshing and green, was Wat Phnom.
“It’s man-made you know,” the pilot explained, glancing at Andrew, as they swooped away from the Mekong to points east. “The Hill.”
Andrew shook his head, watching the green hill disappear behind them. He had not known.
Blades whirring overhead and a wind from the west, they quickly left Phnom Penh behind. Out the window, the scenery below turned to peasant farms, rice paddies, and dirt roads. Andrew watched the fields of golden grasses sway below them, heavy with crop, ready for harvest. He saw a farmer and his family at work in a field, grasping at tall stalks and slicing, grasp and slice. At the field’s edge, bunches of cut stalks lay tied and stacked, ready for husking. The family stopped their work, looking up as the helicopter flew overhead. A small boy waved.
The province of Mondulkiri was 120 miles northeast of Phnom Penh. From the coordinates on Ben’s map, the same ones as on the Ministry report, Andrew had picked a drop off point. From there he would trek in to the explosion site. He had borrowed some of Ben’s personal protection equipment; Severine had insisted.
Andrew watched out the window as the green jungle stretched for miles in every direction, interrupted only occasionally by a meandering river. The tall trees stretched skyward, basking in the late-day sun. After a while, the terrain started to roll with hills.
Andrew looked at the map, his destination marked with a red ‘X’.
They’d been flying for 45 minutes. Jungle stretched below them. “We must be getting close.”
“Yup. I’m gonna get you as close as I can to where you want, but it kinda depends on the roads. I have to find somewhere wide and flat, and after these rains, I dunno what it’s like out here. The mud gets churned up. Sometimes the bikers get out there too and really tear things up.”
They descended until they were flying directly over the trees. The skilled pilot lifted and dropped the helicopter with the changing terrain, keeping them always at a safe distance from disaster.
Andrew looked out the window down at the vast green jungle. He could not see into the forest, nothing beyond the wide leaves that hid the forest floor below.
A wide dirt road appeared in front of them, cutting through the jungle. The pilot turned and followed it for a minute, looking for a smooth place to set down.
“This is your road, buddy. We’re about ten miles from the coordinates you gave me. I’m gonna swing in as close as I can to there. But with the road conditions, I’ve gotta take what I can. Have a look.”
Andrew stared down at the muddy road. Huge ruts and minor mudslides made it look impassable in certain places. Trees had fallen where the ground was so water logged it could not hold the tree upright.
“It works, thanks.”
The helicopter swooped low over a smooth patch of road and hovered a few feet above the ground. Andrew pushed open the door and hopped out with his equipment in hand. He looked back in at the pilot.
“No problem. Any idea when you might want to head back?” the pilot asked.
Andrew shook his head.
“You’re on your own then. Logging trucks come through here sometimes, they’ll pick you up, take you into town. Take it easy, man.”
Andrew gave a wave but the pilot, focused skyward, did not reciprocate. The helicopter lifted off and in seconds was gone, leaving only the darkening sky overhead.
Andrew got a location from his sat nav and marked this on the map. With his bearings, he headed south, his pack and gear slung over his shoulder. The sun was setting. He had enough food for three days, should he need it, rope, water purification and a tent. And a gun, if that too might be required.
He’d walked five miles down the road, shining his high-powered flashlight along the forest edge, when he caught the barest outline of a trail, where the dense brush showed evidence of a large blade. Andrew pushed his way through the brush. This was a trail. It must be Ben’s trail in.
Severine had said they’d walked for over an hour from the road before they found the pool. Andrew drank from his water bottle, wiped his brow with a dark kerchief, then pushed ahead.
High in the trees, a bird screeched, unhappy with the intruder in her midst.
The terrain rolled. Among the hills, small streams bubbled by, the rocks slippery with moss. Andrew slipped a few times as he crossed the streams and wondered if he had climbed and descended this same hill already but his satellite reading said he was making forward progress.
Crouching down to retie an errant bootlace, Andrew felt the vibration through his feet. At first, it was barely noticeable. Andrew placed both hands flat on the ground to check. There it was, he was certain – a vibration, distant but stronger than it had been only a moment before. And growing stronger.
He heard them before he saw them: Two young elephants galloping through the forest along the rough-hewn trail and grunting at each other. Andrew scrambled out of the way, swinging himself up into a sturdy tree and climbing several branches to be well above the ground. As he climbed, he plowed through thick spider webs spun among the tree limbs, the silvery fronds clinging to his face and hair, veiling him in whispery threads. He brushed these away and looked down the path.
A mother had to be close behind, since these calves were still too young to be on their own. Sure enough, a mother elephant appeared, lumbering behind her calves, her gray bulk swaying this way and that. Her babies squealed with delight at their mother’s arrival, stomping their feet and tearing at leaves with their trunks.
Andrew watched the mother follow the calves as they continued to wreak havoc on the underbrush. They disappeared and soon all was quiet again.
From his position high in the tree, Andrew had a different view of the jungle than from the forest floor. What he had thought was the valley floor, where he’d been walking, he could now see was not. The trail he’d been on did not allow him to see that the thick grove of trees hid a second valley below. He pulled out his sat nav and took another reading, comparing it to Ben’s notes. He was closer than he’d realized. He unfolded a map, holding a slim flashlight in his mouth, and marked his location.
A gunshot blasted in the distance, the sound echoing in the valley below. Poachers were common in the provinces, Andrew had heard.
The gunshot sounded again. It was not far off.
Andrew listened for movement but heard none. The gunshot had come from that valley below. He climbed down from the tree and moved along the trail, keeping low and quiet. After five minutes, he heard a third shot. He had closed the distance by half, and this shot was louder, easier for him to pinpoint. He adjusted his direction and headed north.
In a short time, Andrew heard male voices somewhere ahead. From their tones it sounded like an argument. The men spoke in Khmer. Andrew slowed his pace as he approached the voices.
Ahead, he saw a tall bamboo fence, eight feet high. Inside the fence, the men were still arguing. Andrew backed away and climbed a nearby tree, for a view of what lay behind the fence.
Looking down from the tree, Andrew gauged the compound was about half of a football field long, with ten or eleven thatch huts set up in two rows. And men. Several men walking about.
“An empty camp,” Ben’s report had noted. Only it wasn’t empty now.
In the camp’s torchlight, Andrew saw three corpses laying face down on the ground, wearing blindfolds. They had been shot at point blank range.
A guard in front of one of the huts blew a whistle and scores of men emerged from the huts. They were dressed in black, their uniforms making them indistinguishable. The whistle blew again and the men scrambled into a line in front of the guard. The guard proceeded to hand each man a square box.
Andrew shifted his gaze to the large hut closest to him, where two men walked now, deep in discussion. One of the men Andrew had never seen before. But the other man, Andrew knew from somewhere. He sifted mentally through who he had met in the past few days. Then he remembered. The embassy party.
The man Andrew watched walk across the compound was one of Hakk’s bodyguards from the party, the one Hakk had called ‘Rith’.
Andrew had to get into the compound. He would wait. He wedged himself into the crook of the tree.
As he waited, Andrew heard talking and smelled meat cooked on open fires. After some time, the men retired to their huts, where lights were lit. Eventually, these lights were extinguished and all grew still.
Two armed men guarded the gate. Andrew watched as the guards played dice and drank themselves into oblivion, glancing behind them occasionally, as these activities were forbidden. After a couple hours of heavy drinking, they fell asleep, leaning against the flimsy bamboo fence.
Andrew waited, to be certain everyone was asleep. The camp was quiet. The torches burned in the sleepy wind.
He started down from his perch.
Flimsy and poorly built, the bamboo fence offered little protection, meant only to dissuade forest animals. The camp occupants had not expected visitors. They had set up camp far from the road for privacy. Andrew wanted to know why.
Once inside the fence, Andrew moved in the direction of Rith’s hut. He eyed the sleeping guards but they were out cold.
Andrew stepped in to the open doorway of the hut and surveyed the room. He heard heavy snoring from a figure on the mat in the corner. On a desk by an open window, he saw several weapons, a pistol and a machine gun. Andrew walked to the desk.
There he saw also a book, creased open to its middle, the pages worn from heavy reading. Andrew picked it up and flipped through it. The text was Khmer script, about fifty pages thick, no images, just text.
Placing the book open on the desk, Andrew pulled out his secure phone and took photos, turning the pages quickly and quietly.
Andrew had photographed half of the pages when he realized the snoring behind him had stopped. Too late he felt the presence and turned just as a sharp ax came down on his left shoulder. The blade cut through his backpack strap and his light jacket. Andrew wrenched away before it cut deeper, and knocked the weapon to the floor.
He turned and punched Rith hard across the chin and kicked out his knee, then raced toward the unguarded window. Rith yelled out to his guards, who roused from their stupor.
From the other tents, the men heard the alarm and raced out to join the chase. A few were fast, faster than Andrew and one of them tackled him, knocking Andrew to the ground. Andrew held on to his attacker and rolled right to avoid the onslaught of others charging toward him. He rolled into the cooking fire, which still had red coals hot enough to burn the soldier’s bare back. As the man felt the coals burn into his flesh, he released his own grip on Andrew, screaming in pain.
Andrew ran now toward the gate, but got only a few steps farther before the next shadowy figure tackled him, grabbing his wounded shoulder, causing Andrew to yelp in pain. Andrew whirled around, grabbing his gun from the small of his back, and shot his attacker, who fell to the ground.
Reaching the gate, which was lower than the wall by a couple feet, Andrew jumped to grab hold of the top. Shots rang out as the men fired in Andrew’s direction, the sound echoing in the night. It was dark and the shots pinged left. Andrew threw himself over the gate and ran into the jungle.
Behind him, he heard the gate roll open behind him and swift footsteps as the men fanned out into the forest. These guards had spent the past year living in this forest. They knew the terrain. There would be few places for Andrew to hide.
Andrew pushed his way through the underbrush. He’d covered about four hundred yards, but without any guiding moonlight, he wasn’t even sure what direction he was going. The guards pressed behind him, yelling to each other in Khmer. They were younger than he was. Faster. It would only be a matter of time before they caught him.
As Andrew raced forward in the dark, pushing his way through the brush, he tripped and fell, his boot catching on something on the jungle floor. On one knee, with his stuck leg protruding behind him, Andrew yanked his foot forward to pull it free, but the lace seemed to be stuck. Andrew felt back around his boot, but could not get it loose. He felt a rough edge and could feel his lace wrapped around it. He flicked on his flashlight as a last measure. In the small light, he saw a metal bar protruding about eight inches from a stone, like a piece of broken rebar. His bootlace had caught the jagged end and had thread itself over the metal point. Looking at the rusty metal, Andrew was glad it was his boot and not his leg that had connected with the sharp edge. He heard the guards’ yells grow louder, as they discerned which way he had turned. With a flip of his knife, he sliced away the offending lace. He stood and readied to run when he heard a voice directly behind him speak in a quiet tone.
“Howdy fella.” Andrew shone his flashlight at the voice. The light revealed an elderly white man, wearing a faded Yankees ball cap, staring at him. The old man nodded at the sounds of the guards, crashing ever closer.
“If you’ll come with me, I’ll get you somewhere safe. Quick now. You’ve created quite a ruckus. Best kill the light now.”
Andrew’s options were few. He didn’t know who this stranger was but he knew that if Hakk’s guards caught him, that would surely be his end. He nodded and turned off his flashlight. The man started ahead, leading Andrew sideways along a slight path, making minimal sound and moving with knowledgeable ease through the dark brush deeper into the jungle.
Severine stopped by the orphanage in the morning. She knew Andrew was in Mondulkiri and she was anxious for news, but all she could do was wait. She walked in to the courtyard.
Normally at this time, the children would be enjoying morning recess, playing loudly. But instead the kids were seated in small quiet groups, talking. A couple children cried. Severine spotted Kolab standing in a courtyard corner by the tallest tree, talking on the phone. When Kolab saw Severine, she hung up. Severine walked to her. The children watched.
“Kolab, what is going on?”
Kolab wrung her hands. “They’ve taken Samnang.”
“What are you talking about? Who has?”
“I don’t know. Two men came in, they had guns. They looked at all the children. Then they took Samnang with them.” Kolab was dressed in her nightgown and her black hair, usually braided down her back, hung loose on her shoulders.
Severine felt sick.
“Did they say anything? Did they say why they took her?”
“They saw her necklace. They tried to take it from her but she screamed. So they took her.”
Severine tried to remember a necklace but couldn’t.
“It was a trinket on a string. It was not even pretty. A broken piece of clay or stone on a chain.
Severine’s throat constricted. “Where did she get it?”
“From Ben. Ben gave it to her for her birthday last week.”
The dirt road through the slums by Wat Steung Meanchey was pitted from the combination of heavy rain and heavy traffic. Metal shacks lined the streets. Inside, fires cast sad light on meager dinners.
It was after 9:00 PM, but barefoot children still played in the road. They scattered like roaches as the tuk-tuk approached, its lone headlight shining bright. The driver Kiem slowed to a stop in front of a yellow three-story house set back from the street. He turned back to his passenger.
“We are here, Miss Severine.”
A heavy-set guard with close-cropped black hair sat outside on the concrete stoop, leaning against the wall, half-asleep. He opened one keen eye when he heard the tuk-tuk approach and then the other when its engine cut off in front of the house. He shifted his gun in his thick hand and waited.
The street smelled of glue. Across the street from the yellow house, several young men sat on the floor of a shack, working in dim light with their hands, their fingers turning, lifting, bending. Severine saw they were making flip-flops, cutting and pasting the pieces together. The men, high on fumes, were oblivious to her.
The guard called out and Kiem nodded to him as he took off his helmet.
Severine asked “What did he say?”
“He asked why we are here. He knows who you are, Miss Severine.”
Severine stepped down from the tuk-tuk and took several steps forward to approach the guard. She’d seen him around town at the clubs. His name was Cho. She knew he did security for a couple local gangsters. He was a brute with a reputation for unwarranted violence.
“If you know me, you know I want Samnang. She is my responsibility. I have money to give for her release.” Severine lifted a plastic bag above her head, her bare white arm gleaming in the light.
A second guard emerged from the yellow house and glanced at the street and Severine. The two guards conferred. The second guard yelled to Kiem, who listened and translated, twisting his soft hat in his hands.
“He says give them the money and they will bring it to Heang.”
Severine shook her head.
“No. I will only give the money to Heang in exchange for Samnang…”
The guard interrupted her, letting loose an angry string of guttural sounds that encompassed the entirety of Khmer profanity. He took several quick long strides forward to Severine, his arm raised. Severine backed away, stepping on a loose stone in the road, nearly losing her balance.
A large, broad-shouldered man appeared in the doorway and spoke a single word. The guard stopped in his tracks and his shoulders slumped. He stomped off down the road like a petulant child. Severine breathed a sigh of relief as she watched the angry guard fade into the night.
“You are Heang,” Severine said and bowed low, her white hands folded in front of her forehead, as she bent forward. She stood upright. “I am here for Samnang. I have money for her, a lot of money.” She opened the plastic bag and took out a bound stack of fifties. The edge of the bills flipped in the breeze.
Heang waved his hand as if plagued by a pesky fly.
“Samnang is no longer your concern,” he said.
“Please, let me have her. I can get you more money.” Desperation had crept into her voice. Her face was wrought with fear for the scared little girl somewhere in that vast house.
Heang spoke to Cho, who rushed forward and grabbed the plastic bag, sneering at Severine, and gave it to Heang. Heang reached in and pulled out the bound bills, sniffed them then chucked the hunk of paper, underhanded, toward the open fire. The money fell short, landing in a deep puddle with a splash.
Cho eyed the wet bills. It was more money than he’d make in a lifetime.
Heang seethed. “I don’t want your dirty money.”
Down the street, barking and yelling ensued, as a vigilant guard dog surprised the disgraced guard. Barking and yelling ensued for several seconds until a single shot sounded in the night. Then all was quiet again.
Severine approached Heang. She knew Samnang was inside this rickety house, steps away, scared and alone. She would not leave without her.
“Please, may I see her for a moment? If you let me see her, I can tell you where the necklace is from.”
Heang’s eyes narrowed. He stepped out of the doorway and down the steps until he stood on the ground.
“You know about the necklace?” he asked.
She glanced at Kiem. Now she would have to bluff.
“Yes. Yes, and there is more, much more than that. Please let me see her and I will tell you.”
Heang stared at her.
“Five minutes.” He jutted his chin out at Cho and yanked his head toward the house.
In three strides Cho was by Severine’s side, grabbing her arm and dragging her forward. She stumbled in surprise as she hurried along the courtyard with his assistance.
Inside, a television played on full blast. A tiny old Khmer man was sprawled on a ripped couch in the corner, cackling at the TV. The guard barked and the old man sat up and stood.
Severine saw it was actually an old woman, with very short gray hair and a deeply wrinkled face. There was not a patch of skin that was not lined. The woman smiled broadly as she listened to the guard’s instructions, making sounds of agreement every few sentences. The guard frisked Severine, feeling over her loose clothes and her belt. Satisfied, he gave her a look and left the room.
The old woman smiled, displaying a few remaining yellow teeth, and took Severine’s hand in her own. She led Severine through a doorway and down the hallway, to the back of the house and a stairwell.
The hallway walls were covered with cheap tapestries featuring the temples of Siem Reap, held to the walls by colorful plastic thumbtacks.
Climbing up the stairs, Severine listened for any sound from the closed doors but the house was quiet. She could hear the guards heckling Kiem outside but knew he could take care of himself.
Upstairs on the landing, the old woman stopped by a door and fumbled in her breast pocket. She unlocked the door and indicated Severine should step in. Ahead of her, Severine saw yet another stairway, leading to a third floor. It was dark but Severine took a few steps in. The door closed and she heard the bolt shoot closed. She was locked in.
She started up the steps, not sure if this was trick by Heang. She considered that no one in the world knew where she was.
On the third floor landing, Severine heard whimpering. She hurried the last couple steps to the door.
The room was large – but with only one small high window. From the window, Severine could see a crescent of moon. As Severine’s eyes adjusted to the light, she spotted Samnang curled up on a rickety metal cot in the corner of the dusty room. Severine rushed to her.
“Little Samnang. It’s me, Severine.” With the old woman and the guard somewhere at the bottom of the stairwell, Severine knew she had only minutes with Samnang. Samnang’s eyes were black in the dark room. Severine could barely see her little face in the shadows.
“Severine. Sok s’bey.”
Severine embraced Samnang, brushing her black hair back from her face. Samnang was crying but smiled at Severine. Severine looked across the bed, where there was a glass of water on a ledge. Severine held it to Samnang.
“Here, little one, you need to drink. Have they given you anything to eat?” Samnang shook her head. Severine cursed under her breath, “Animals.”
Severine folded the bedclothes while Samnang drank the water.
At the sound of footsteps, Severine gathered her wits together. She was not going to settle for a goodbye.
“Samnang, listen, we need to get you out of here, but these are bad men. I need you to trust me. Do you trust me, will you do what I say?” she whispered, hoping the little girl understood. Samnang nodded.
Cho appeared in the doorway and waved his gun. “Enough. Time to go.”
Severine gave Samnang one last hug and walked to the door, stopping briefly to peer out the single window. It was small but it would do. She looked back to see the little girl, who waved a small hand.
As Severine walked down the steep steps and through the house, her mind raced. Heang waited outside, his face a sneer.
“You got to see the little girl. Now go.”
Severine picked the money up from the puddle – Heang had kicked it in – and shook it.
“Thank you for letting me see her.” She bowed with palms together to Heang and turned away.
“Kiem, I’m ready to go home now.”
Lighting a cigarette, Heang watched as the tuk-tuk drove away. He liked to toy with his prey. He called out to the guards. He had a job for them.
The old man walked to a wall of stone that rose up before them in the jungle. He flicked on a red flashlight. Andrew watched in the bare light as the man pressed the stone wall and the rock moved. A sliver of light and then a gap appeared, just wide enough to slip through sideways. He gestured at Andrew to follow. The door closed behind them.
They were inside a small stone chamber. A stairway at the chamber’s far side led down. The man walked to this and began to descend the steps. Andrew followed.
At the bottom of the stairwell was a large metal door. The man inserted a key and the door swung open. Another staircase stretched down and down, as far as Andrew could see. Andrew hesitated.
The man led the way. Again, Andrew followed.
“I’m Stuart,” the man said over his shoulder.
“You don’t like this so much?”
Andrew shook his head. “Not so much.”
“Better than getting skewered out there.”
Andrew nodded. “True.”
Andrew’s ears popped slightly on the descent. At the bottom, another door and another key revealed a long hallway.
“Come on.” Stu had started the walk down the hallway and glanced back at Andrew, who hurried to catch up.
At the end, they’d reached another stone wall. Stu pushed through a swinging door and under a low archway.
Andrew followed and looked around. He was stunned by what lay in front of him. It was a vast open well-lit space, a huge cavern underground. Andrew’s estimate was that the space was about a football field long and wide.
But it wasn’t the open space that shocked him.
It was the people.
There were men, several of them. Andrew counted nine that he could see. Ten including Stuart. From what Andrew could tell, they were all Westerners, engaged in various activities.
A few struggled with a large unwieldy green tent, next to a row of already constructed tents. Next to the tents was a basketball court, where two guys were playing hoops, albeit slowly. A couple men sat by a tent playing checkers. Two more were tending a garden beyond the tents, but close to the river.
The men waved at Stu, who waved back.
Accustomed to the unexpected and not one to be taken aback, Andrew tried to think this through. Andrew estimated that these men were all in their seventies, maybe a couple in their eighties.
He turned to look around and inhaled at the sight to his left. “There’s a river.” At the far western edge of the space, a river flowed through the cavern.
One of the men tending the garden, a burly guy who looked like he might have been a defensive lineman a long time ago, had looked up and dusted the dirt off his hands. He dropped his trowel in the dirt and headed up the hill toward Andrew and Stuart, taking his time.
Andrew turned to Stuart. “Who are all these guys?” Before Stu could answer, the gardener had reached them.
“Who’ve you brought us this time, Stu?”
“This is Andrew. He’s a friend. He needed some help out there.”
The burly man stuck out his hand to Andrew, who took it, staring with interest at the man’s wrinkles. The man’s eyes sparkled; he was delighting in the surprise on Andrew’s face.
“Welcome to our little slice of heaven. I’m Frank Hopper.”
Frank spoke with a slight southern twang. His handshake was strong and warm.
Stu turned to Frank, “I’ve not explained our set-up. Andrew had caught the attention of the neighbors, so I thought it best just to hurry along.”
Frank nodded. “Got it. OK.” He turned to Andrew, put a thick arm around his shoulder. “Well, son, how about I show you around? Sound alright?”
Andrew followed Frank down the hill to the basic camp, Frank walking with care along the rocky terrain. Andrew stepped in his footsteps.
Frank glanced back and said, “I’m sure you’re wondering, what the hell. So, it’s like this. We came over here when we were young men to fight for our country. Things didn’t work the way we’d expected and they definitely didn’t work out for a lot of our brothers over here – we lost a lot of good men. But we all kept fighting, right up to the end.”
“In the 70’s.” Andrew, born in 1971, did the math.
“That’s right. Some years back now. Well, when we got the word it was time to come home, we thought hard about it. All of us here had done multiple tours and we’d got used to living in the jungle, with the bugs, the heat, hell even the food. And we heard things were pretty bad for GIs back home, people spitting on our boys, calling ‘em nasty names. After what we went through over here, we didn’t think that sounded too good. So we figured we’d stay put, lay low, wait it out ‘til things got better. We’d got to know the jungle pretty good, so had found this here place to hole up.”
“You’re across the border? You’re in Cambodia,” Andrew said.
Frank sighed. “The borders weren’t quite what they are today, son. Shifting sands.”
Frank pulled out a pipe and tapped it out, refilled it and lit it, all in one fluid motion. “Where was I?” He looked to the ceiling for a moment, thinking, annoyed at his fair-weather memory. “Got it, that’s right.”
“Then the Khmer Rouge came along and everything went to hell. We sort of got stuck in the middle then, as it were. So we hunkered down. By the time that madness ended, we’d built ourselves a nice little community here and made a few discoveries along the way. Figured we might as well stay put, see how things went. And we liked the privacy; no one ever came out this way.” He puffed on his pipe.
Andrew looked around him, shook his head, and said, “Let me make sure I’m understanding. You’re telling me that you are all Veterans of the Vietnam War?”
“That’s right. To the man. Quite a cast of characters we are.” He winked at Andrew.
“And you’ve not been home since…?”
“To the United States? 1968 for me.” Frank glanced around. Several of the men had left their tasks to gather round Frank and Andrew, curious about the unannounced visitor. “Different for everyone. But an easy forty years.”
“But, but…It’s better there now. So much better.” Andrew had been Navy, like his father before him.
A hunched old guy playing checkers yelled out, “You sure ‘bout that, son?”
Andrew nodded, emphatic. “Yeah. Absolutely. People celebrate Veterans. They welcome them. It’s not like it was. Not at all.”
Frank leaned back on his heels, crossed his arms and looked at Andrew over his thick black-rim grasses. A large gold ring flashed on his right hand.
“Son, we get out and about. We stay up on our current events, don’t we boys?”
The men murmured agreement.
“And we hear our guys are dying on the VA’s watch. And young fellas killing themselves after years of deployment. That doesn’t sound like a heroes’ welcome.”
“Sounds more like a fuck you to me!” The old checker player cackled, waving his cane.
Frank said, “Please excuse Ed, he was Special Forces. No manners.”
“Kick your ass though!” Ed yelled back, louder than necessary. His fellow checker player shook his head in disapproval.
Andrew felt dazed. He looked at Frank. “But what about family?”
Frank shrugged. “We were a rowdy young bunch when we joined up. Buncha misfits. None of us had much family to speak of. We were all pretty much running away from something or toward something better. So it made sense to stay. We had nothing to go home to.” Frank coughed.
“And not a married guy in the lot, save Jackson over there. But he was a special case.” Frank gestured to one of the guys washing clothes in the river, who heard his name and waved.
As he watched the waving man, Andrew heard a female voice ring across the cavern: “Alright fellas, supper’s on.”
Frank’s eyebrows went up and he smiled at the voice. “That’s Jackson’s wife. We voted and agreed he could invite her on over. We all knew she was a hell of a cook.”
Behind him, the old checker player cackled again and double-jumped his opponent’s red pieces.
“And once things settled down a bit, we’d sneak out to the coast now and again, pretend we were some crazy lost vets, couldn’t find their way home. Which, I guess, we are!” He guffawed, along with the rest of the men, then his face darkened, his expression somber. The men fell quiet.
“We lost a lot of our brothers over them hills. So far away from home.”
He paused for a long minute and the cavern was silent, the only sound the river flowing.
“A lot of brothers,” he repeated, looking at Andrew. “Sometimes, when the loss is too much, a man’s heart breaks, clear in two, and one part just sorta falls away into the hole where broken things go. And then he’s left with a heart that can’t never mend. And he goes about his business, making the best of things, with what he got left. That’s what we done here.”
Ed, listening to this, paused from the game of checkers and shook his head, murmuring, “A man’s got limits.”
Frank continued. “And if you believe in all that Pchum Ben stuff – you can’t live in this country without picking up the customs – we wanted our boys to have a place here, a home, in case their spirits went looking for family, or something close to it. We think this here is a special place and we hope they do too.”
Andrew looked around. At the rough camp, the flowing river, the blazing fire, smoke wafting up high into the stony reaches of the cavernous ceiling.
“I bet they do.” He thought about what he knew about Pchum Ben. “You’d need a lot of coconut rice balls to keep ‘em happy.”
Frank burst into a grin. “Haw! Damn straight we would, you hear that Ed? This fella said we’d need a lot of coconut rice balls, haw haw!”
Ed cackled, grabbing his crotch. “I’ll show him my coconut balls!!”
Frank chuckled, his eyes twinkling.
Andrew looked around, at the tents, standard Army issue circa 1970. He had so many questions. Frank and Stuart exchanged a glance.
Frank put his arm around Andrew and said, “Let me show you the rest of the place.”
They walked down to the river bank and then along a path by the water, small pebbles crunching under their feet.
“It’s a lot to take in, I know. So I’ll tell you another story, maybe it’ll help. I had a buddy, who had a son before I flew out to Viet Nam. Named me that boy’s godfather, he did. That was a proud day for me, holding that little boy in my arms. Anyway, I heard that young boy growed up good and right. Went to fight in Iraq, spent four years in the fight. Came back home when that was over, but just wasn’t the same. Trouble, you know. Couldn’t get help, no one would listen. Man up, they’d say. So that young boy tried to kill himself. He figured better to be dead than to have those demons in his head.”
Frank wiped his eyes, and sniffed. “Damn allergies.” He continued. “Well, I got wind of that, we all did here. We decided it was time to enter the fight again.”
He looked out across the cavern, at the ragtag band of men, then back at Andrew. “A nation that don’t know how to save its sons and daughters within its own borders, well, that’s a nation at a breaking point. So we decided to do our part.”
They had reached the end of the cavern. A high wall rose up in front of them. Frank gestured to Andrew to lean into a small opening at the base of the rock.
“Take a gander in there, son.”
Andrew sat down against the stone and leaned in. He had to stick his whole head and part of his right shoulder under the small opening. It was pitch black. Frank handed him a huge black flashlight. “This might help.”
Andrew turned on the flashlight and shone it up and around.
In the light, he saw a deep corridor that stretched as far as the light would reach. What gleamed back at him was gold. He stared in awe.
Andrew ducked his head out of the hole and said, “It’s gold.”
Frank gestured around him. “Sure enough is. Solid gold. When we found this little vein, we decided it was providence. See here. This mine has funded many a Veteran in need back home. None of those fancy-pants ‘We are warriors’ foundations tugging at your heartstrings while the CEO laughs all the way to the bank in his Mercedes. No sir. Just straight up cash in the pocket of someone who served his country.”
Andrew stared at this ragged old man who could have passed for a homeless guy on a street corner in DC.
“Damn straight we are.” Frank’s chest puffed with pride.
Andrew had read about the anonymous donor that went only by the name ‘Epitome’, that had made countless individual donations to veterans across the States. No fancy parties. No rubbing shoulders with movie stars. Just straight up helping the guys who had given up some of their freedom. And the families who had given all.
Frank continued. “Anyway. It’s good you’re here. We thought we’d better go legit before all those mining companies get out here.”
“Is that what’s happening?” Andrew asked.
“We hear this land, I mean the land above us, was conceded a couple months ago for exploration. Now, it’s only a matter of time before the digging starts and we’re found out. And as you well know, we’ve got some less than friendly neighbors outside, shooting at anything that moves. We don’t know what that’s all about but it makes a walk in the woods a dangerous proposition.”
Andrew nodded. “I think I might know.”
Frank nodded and turned back to Andrew. “Well, you’ll have to let me in on it sometime. Pains in my ass.” Frank led Andrew back toward the camp. “There’s something else you need to see.”
“I told you we were busy here in the 90’s, trying to make ourselves comfortable for the long haul, build out our infrastructure, expand our camp. You can see we have power, courtesy of an inexpertly scuttled Russian submarine. We have water from the river. So we explored down here, dug around to see what else there was to see. And we found some artifacts. In fact, we uncovered a world made of metal.”
“What do you mean?” Andrew frowned.
“Son, I can only show you. Words just won’t do. Come along with me.” Frank called out to Stu to join them.
Frank led Andrew to the river, where several rough-hewn wood canoes were beached. They loaded themselves into the largest one, Stu in the front, Frank in the back, Andrew in the middle. Frank pushed them out into the water.
“Hang on son,” Frank said. “It’s quite a ride.”
Frank paddled to the river’s center, where the water ran swift. Andrew felt the current grip the canoe. The water was clear and blue, so unlike the Mekong.
They floated for several minutes in silence. It felt to Andrew like they were heading downhill. They began to move quickly. Ahead, he heard a roar.
“Hold tight everybody.”
The roar got louder and the water around them rougher. Away from the well-lit cavern, it was dark. Andrew could not see what lay ahead, could only guess. Suddenly Andrew felt himself falling, the canoe dropping several feet in the dark. He hung on as he’d been instructed. They fell for what felt like a good minute. The canoe crashed down and immediately started moving forward again. Andrew could hear Frank in the back paddling. Ahead, Andrew saw light.
The canoe rounded a corner, revealing what the men had found. The river slowed and meandered now by a vast sloping plain. The roof of this second cavern was so high, Andrew could not see it. Lights had been strung up, as in the first cavern. What lay in front of him was without question the most stunning sight of his life.
Severine climbed into the tuk-tuk, closing the plastic flaps behind her. As Kiem drove slowly away, Severine leaned forward on the front seat, so her head was next to his.
“Kiem, when you turn the corner, I want you to slow down, but don’t stop and I’m going to hop out. I want you to keep driving and then to meet me at the entrance to Wat Steung Meanchey in thirty minutes.”
“Miss Severine…” Kiem sounded doubtful and more than a little scared.
“Kiem, please, just do this.”
As they turned the corner, Severine glanced back and could see Heang and the guard Cho through the plastic windows. They were standing watching the tuk-tuk. Once the tuk-tuk had turned the corner and she knew they were out of sight, Severine tapped Kiem on the shoulder. He turned his head briefly to acknowledge her and cut his speed in half, down to about five miles an hour. Severine opened the flap and hopped out, running quickly down the little alley that ran behind the houses.
Kiem sped up again and in a moment was gone. Severine stood in the dark of the alley, listening to the water running in the open sewer. She walked forward down the alley, counting the houses as she walked by. The wet ground squished under her sneakers.
She counted eight houses and at the ninth house, she stopped and looked up. It was three stories and Samnang had been on the third floor. She had walked down a long hallway. Samnang’s room was at the back of the house. Severine could see the little window above.
As thin cloud cover passed, revealing the moon, the night grew bright again. In the light, Severine saw the third-story window open. Samnang had understood.
Samnang stuck her little head out. Severine heard her little voice call out.
“Yes. Yes, Samnang, I’m here!” Severine waved and hoped they were far enough away from the front door that the guard would not hear them.
Severine flicked on her flashlight and turned the light up toward Samnang. Severine stood directly under the window.
“Samnang, are you ready?”
Severine hoped the knot she had tied around Samnang’s waist was strong. She’d brought the thin rope in under her light sweater, coiled around her own waist like a belt. She was grateful that the guard had not thought to frisk her more than a quick pat down her back, arms and legs. When she hugged Samnang, she’d pulled off the rope and tied it to Samnang’s waist, tying the other end to the bedpost. Samnang weighed nearly nothing and the rope only needed to support her for a minute.
Samnang looked out the window again and then the next thing Severine knew, she had pushed her whole body through the little window and was hanging by her fingertips to the windowsill.
“OK. Samnang. I’ve got you.” Severine braced and tried to think of how long the rope was. She thought it was about fifteen feet. Samnang was turning in circles as the rope uncurled around her and she tumbled in circles at Severine, coming to a sharp halt, her thin body hitting the wall of the house.
“Ungh!” Samnang grunted with her impact against the house and the yank of the rope against her body. She was, Severine saw, at the rope’s end, but hanging three feet above where Severine stood.
“Samnang, are you OK?” Severine whispered.
“Yes, Miss Severine. Yes, OK.”
“Samnang, I can’t reach you. We need to hurry. I’m going to give you a knife and I need you to cut the rope. OK? Can you do that?” Severine reached into her blouse and pulled out a thin penknife.
Severine mimed cutting a rope. “Like this, see?”
Samnang nodded. Severine stood on her tiptoes, stretching her arm upwards as far as she could, holding the knife by the blade up to Samnang, who reached for it and grabbed it in her little hand. She began to saw at the rope. Severine stood beneath her, her arms outstretched, waiting. With a last hard drag of the serrated knife, Samnang tumbled into Severine’s arms. The knife fell with a splash into the murky puddle at Severine’s feet.
Severine burst into a run. She was not sure how much time they had. A dog had started barking nearby and would soon wake the neighbors. She did not need any curious passersby asking what she was doing.
With Samnang on her back, her bony little arms wrapped around her neck, Severine jogged down the alleyway back to where she had jumped from the tuk-tuk only minutes before. Samnang was light on her back and Severine breathed into the cool night air. Her feet made quiet footfalls as she moved down the dirt alleyway. If she could just get down to the main road where she had told Kiem to wait.
Heang stepped out from the shadow of the building, his gun pointing at Severine.
“You are a persistent woman,” Heang said. “But your tuk-tuk driver is foolish and circled back to see if he could find you. We wondered why he had come back, so we stopped him to ask. He said he was worried about you. Isn’t that sweet. But I am afraid he won’t be driving you anywhere, any more.”
Severine’s stomach turned. Oh no, poor Kiem.
That was her last thought before the injection delivered by Cho knocked her out. The Ketamine forced her into a deep place.
The old Cambodian lady walked slowly down the street with the wide circular basket of fruit on her head. She hoped to sell everything today, there were many workers at the construction site and they were always very hungry. As she waited, she spied a big dark lump lying on the side of the road and curious, she approached it. It was a man, she saw, lying in a crumpled heap. She kicked him and scolded him in Khmer.
“Have some respect for yourself. Drunken fool, lying in the garbage.” She kicked him again and shook one hand at him before she walked away.
Kiem stirred. He was lying in a small dirty stream lined with rubbish. A stray chicken walked by and pecked at his foot. His head hurt and he put his hand at the back of his skull. It was sticky. He pulled his hand away and looked. Blood, but not too much.
He remembered waiting for Miss Severine last night, then deciding to drive back to find her. He had worried she was not safe with those bad gangsters so close by, she was too risky for a lady, he thought. He had parked his tuk-tuk a few streets away and then tiptoed forward to the alley where he had dropped Severine. Then someone had hit him on the head with something hard and after that he did not remember. They must have dragged him into this stream of garbage.
As he stood up, he felt sick to his stomach and fell back down to his knees. Some local women walking near him on their way to work giggled at seeing him sitting in garbage and at his dirty clothes. He yelled at them and asked them for some water. They giggled some more, and one called out “Crazy old man, sitting in the trash, you should know better.” They thought he was a beggar.
But one of the younger ladies approached him shyly and gave him a bottle of water. “Sum tho,” he called out, as they walked away. Thank you.
They were still giggling, looking back at him as Kiem took a sip of the water, then a gulp. He tilted his head forward and dumped the rest of the water on the back of his head to clean the cut.
He checked his pockets. He still had his phone. Stupid gangsters. He dialed Miss Severine but there was no answer. But he heard a ringing sound nearby. He hung up his phone and the ringing stopped. He dialed again. More ringing. He stood up slowly and walked in the direction of the sound. There, lying near a sleeping stray dog, was Severine’s phone, ringing.
Uh uh, Kiem thought. Not good.
He picked up Severine’s phone, dried it with his shirt, and slipped it in his pocket. He walked down the slowly waking street, past a wire basket filled with chickens, clucking at him as he walked by.
Something bad must have happened to Miss Severine after they bumped his head.
He had wanted to go to his homeland today, to see his family. He knew his wife was busy making rice with sesame seeds and coconut milk for their ancestors. But instead he would look for Miss Severine.
He walked to the end of the road, away from the house where Severine had visited. Kiem turned right onto the busy street filled with a steady flow of early morning traffic. Tuk-tuks, bicycles, and flatbed tracks rolled by him but he didn’t flinch or yield as he walked along the side of the road. He started to cross the street and the traffic gave way, flowing around him, parting for him as he moved forward.
Across the street, he walked down a sandy path that led below the bridge and onto a sand road that ran along the soapy river. He walked along the path by several tin houses until he reached a small hut about a half-mile from the bridge. He pushed aside the rickety metal door and stepped inside.
The room was sparsely furnished: A cot, a few beaten-up cooking utensils and a pile of clothes that looked like they needed a serious wash. Behind the bed, which was piled high with more dirty clothes and blankets, was an oily tarp, stained and patched. Kiem looked around to see if any passers-by were near. No one. Then he lifted the tarp, revealing a gleaming red motorcycle. Despite his steady dull headache, he smiled. He hid the bike because he knew gangsters would steal it otherwise. He used it only to go back to his province, his distant homeland, to see his family – it was much faster than driving the tuk-tuk on those muddy jungle roads. And today he needed to be fast.
He knew where Heang’s home province was, as it was his own as well. He would go there now to search for Miss Severine. He would search until he found her.
The sun shone on the hard pavement. The courtyard was surrounded on four sides by tall gray walls. Severine lay in the corner. Her chest rose and fell slowly, as if she was in a deep sleep. A guard watched her from a cot, where he lay resting in the afternoon sun. He had been instructed not to hurt her more than she was already. He had watched Heang beat her and it had thrilled him.
Finally, Severine stirred. The drugs they had given her had left her groggy and nauseous. She sat up and the pain hit. Her head hurt and her back and her legs. She groaned. She was blindfolded but could hear distant traffic noises and talking from passersby. She assumed she was in a courtyard not far from where they’d taken her. It smelled of garbage.
She heard someone moving around the courtyard and she called out. “Please, I am thirsty. May I have some water?”
The guard did not see the harm in that. He poured water from a red ceramic jug sitting on the plastic countertop into a chipped yellow mug and carried this to Severine, lifting her to a seated position. He untied her hands roughly and gave her the mug, placing it in her hands. Her blindfold he left in place. He did not want her to see where she was. He thought it would give her ideas. He did not want her to have ideas.
The courtyard itself had once been a garden but the current owner did not cultivate flowers or plants. Decay was evident in the empty beds and brown twisted dead branches. The rain had further damaged the garden by eroding the dirt, which spilled from the low shallow beds onto the concrete, in crooked brown lines
Severine drank from the mug and held it out for her captor. He had not spoken to her yet, only grunted. But she could smell him. He had not showered for days, if not weeks. He smelled of dried fish and urine. Both smells equally noxious and together, almost unbearable.
A knock on an inside door caught her captor’s attention and Severine heard his feet shuffle out of the courtyard. She judged by the sound the size of the space she was in.
In his rush to see who had knocked, her captor had left her hands untied. Severine pulled at the fabric around her head. It was a krama: She could just barely see through the red-checked fabric. It was tied tightly and she struggled with it for a moment before she was able to pull it off.
She looked around. The sun was low. Must be late afternoon but of what day she could not be sure. The courtyard was filled with discarded items and debris: Old bicycles, a rusty metal tub, a couple car tires, and a broken pushcart. She saw no evidence of Samnang.
Severine set working on the ties binding her ankles. The knots were tight and her fingers were cramped from being tied and crushed under her own weight for several hours. She heard voices from inside the house. She worked at the knots, loosening them.
She figured she had a minute, two if she was lucky. She kept at the knots, yanking. The last one gave way with a final tug. She stood, steadied herself against the brick wall, and raced to the gate. It was locked but the lock was old, like everything else in the courtyard. She banged at it with the palm of her fist, hoping it would give way. It did not. Looking around for something sturdier, she grabbed a tire iron by the motorcycle and smashed it against the metal lock. The lock, rusted from years of rain, broke clear in two, the metal shearing where the tire iron struck. The pieces clattered to the floor.
Severine knocked the lock off the gate and pushed it open, running down the dusty street as her captor and his guest appeared in the doorway of the house, alerted by the clatter. Her captor, confused, looked to where Severine had been and then over to the gate, which was open and swinging on its hinges. He rushed out to the street and caught sight of Severine as she rounded the corner in her bare feet. He raced after her.
She did not get far. Despite his bulk and general dim-wittedness, her captor was quick. He bolted to the corner, past the trash bins and tuk-tuks between him and his prey. Severine glanced back and kept running. The open canal lay in front of her.
He closed the distance in ten seconds and, like a lion bored with the chase, knocked Severine to the ground with a thick heavy sideways swipe to her head. He scooped her up, tossing her over his shoulder, her dusty bare feet dangling by his thick waist.
He pulled out a knife and held it against her Achilles tendon, a suggestion to behave. He liked having a prisoner to watch over. And he would not lose her again.
After dusk, bound again in the courtyard, leaning against a wall, Severine heard a familiar voice. She turned.
Heang stared at her from several feet away.
“So now, you have made things difficult for yourself.” He glared at her, his nostrils flaring. He bent down to her with a knife in his hands and sliced through the twine that bound her ankles and knees.
“Get up,” he said, then called out to the guard in Khmer. The guard opened the gates and a long black car backed into the courtyard. As Severine struggled up, Heang yanked her to her feet. When the car stopped, he pushed her to the back car door, which had opened from inside. When Severine climbed in, she saw Samnang, shivering and weeping in the far corner of the back seat.
The car door slammed shut behind her. It was dark and Severine heard breathing, slow and easy. A match was struck and a familiar face smiled back at her in its wavering light.
The river had widened here, and the canoe had slowed, giving the three men a good view of the plain. Frank steered from the back and Stu directed upfront, their paddles pulling the water backwards, drawing lines on the river’s surface that spiraled out into the current.
As Andrew stared at the plain, all he could think was that it was like a photograph. Only life-size and cast in gold. It was a day in the life from long ago. All across the plain were figures, humans and animals, caught in a moment in time, a moment, Andrew could tell, of celebration. He could see tables covered with food made of gold. Animals bedecked with jewels. The expressions on the finely wrought human statues were ones of joy. People smiled, danced, laughed and sang. In gold.
Frank spoke. “It was gift of sorts to a great king from an artisan. A sign of the king’s worth, the joy he brought to his people, and a measure of the people’s love for him.”
“How far back?”
“None of us are experts but…”
Stu chimed in. “I would guess four thousand years old.”
“That would predate the Terracotta Army by a couple thousand years,” Andrew said. He had seen them in London some years back.
Stuart was impressed. “Very good. The artistry is finer as well. Casting these figures in gold. It exceeds knowledge of metalworking of that time.”
“It’s astonishing,” Andrew said, looking at the shining figures.
They had pulled the canoe to shore, stepped out onto the beach and walked toward the plain. The soft sand gave way underneath their feet, slowing their progress.
“You said there was a story?” Andrew asked
“Yes, more of a fairy tale. There are engravings over there.” Frank gestured to the far stone wall. “In symbology none of us had seen. We copied it down and every couple months, one of us would go to town and have it translated page by page, careful-like, so no one could put two and two together.” He rummaged around in his pockets.
“Here’s what we got.”
Frank pulled from his pocket several typed pages and handed them to Andrew. “Why don’t you have a read. It’s quite a yarn. Even for a spook like you.” He winked at Andrew and walked away.
The Story of The Keep
There was an ancient kingdom before the lines for countries were drawn. A great king ruled the land and the sea. One day, bearing bad news, the king’s Magician found the king high in a tower built on a hill shrouded by mist.
He said to his King, “Sir, I have studied the stars, as you have entrusted me to do. Until now your rule has been marked by greatness and peace, due to your wisdom. But also through the grace of the stars. But now, I have foreseen a catastrophe.”
The king turned from the window, where he gazed out though the mist into the lives and hearts of his people, who were content.
“I have never known you to trouble me with small matters, so I will hear you out,” said the King.
The Magician gestured to the window to the east.
“As you know, there are times of stasis and times of change. We have been blessed by balance. Time must have balance or things fall into disorder. I sense that a great imbalance is coming, that the balance is breaking and once broken, will not be repaired.”
“Please explain,” the king urged. Worry was etched on his lined face that wore years of concern for his far-reaching lands.
“The imbalance if left unheeded will lead to a series of chaotic events. We are currently in harmony with the other celestial bodies, but that will cease. The passage of time as we know it will cease, the speed of time will increase. What used to feel like a year, even a decade, will pass in a day. There will be no order.”
“Can you restore the order?” the King asked, looking south, at the sea that stretched far out beyond the view from the window. The sun was setting and the evening clouds were tinged with the yellow and orange of dusk.
“I do not know, your greatness. I have not attempted such a spell before. There is no record of anyone trying to restore the balance.”
The King looked at his Magician. “I have great trust in you. I believe you can do this. I believe you must try. How much time do we have?”
“A year, before the imbalance begins. After that, the way forward is dangerous and unpredictable.”
“If you are successful, you will save my kingdom. Then you will be a great and revered man. Do what you must. I put the faith of my people with you.”
The Magician tried many spells to restore the balance. Nothing worked. The year passed quickly and he still had not righted the imbalance. The weather had shifted and many terrible storms passed through the land, frightening the people and ruining crops. The Magician knew this was only the beginning. There was war threatened. People were restless, anxious, and angry.
One night deep in the bowels of his workshop, he realized the source of the imbalance. At last the Magician understood what he needed to do to restore balance to time, to hold the coming chaos at bay.
He left the kingdom by the sea and wandered for many nights in the wilderness until he found a great cavern, where he sealed himself inside. Then he spun a spell unlike any other he had cast before, binding the magic to the golden metal he found deep in the stone. Binding the magic to the earth, where it would take hold.
Then he began to create, in that metal, the world in which he had once lived and to which he knew he could never return…
Andrew flipped over the page to see if there was anything more, but that was it.
He walked back to Frank, who was skipping stones on the beach.
“What does it mean?” Andrew asked.
“Well, I sure as hell don’t know. But it sounded important. This here is a magical place.”
Andrew looked around at the statues that gleamed in the light. “It is indeed. It must be priceless.”
“Well, not quite priceless, but close, pound for pound. We had a couple of our smarter fellows round this bend and their guestimate was around $500 million if it was all melted down.” He smiled. “Course, you wouldn’t want to melt this artistry down to the base metal. Though I fear that may happen.”
Andrew stared out into the plain. “Can’t we just contact the Ministry of Mines and report it?”
Frank looked at Andrew sideways, from under his hat. “That’s what Ben Goodnight tried to do.”
Andrew whirled around.
“You knew Ben Goodnight?”
Frank nodded, his face grim. “We hired him. Or rather, we had someone hire him for us. We wanted him to dig around, prospect for gold, find a few small artifacts, and file the requisite report.”
“You paid River Metals to hire Ben?”
“Sure did. We thought if we could get this place on the Ministry’s radar, with a few small but enticing gold statuettes and other pieces we left top-side for Ben to find, they’d send someone round to take a look and ring fence this place, set it aside for safe-keeping.”
Andrew nodded. “I’ve seen Ben’s report. It mentions finding several artifacts. You planted those?”
“But it didn’t work out that way. The land was conceded for exploration.” Andrew said, kicking at the sand, the grains flying low in every direction. Frank shook his head.
“Apparently, cash is king. Some durn company paid millions of dollars for the right to mine out here. And that’s just what’s on the books. You can bet there’s additional dollars lining someone’s pocket to look the other way. They don’t know what they’ve got.”
Andrew puzzled though this. “What happened to Ben when he came back? Was it a landmine?”
Frank looked away, troubled. “Those damn men in black set up camp out there a year ago. In a prime spot, right by a stream. Always marching around and barking orders at each other. Then they’d seen us out and about one day, started taking pot shots at us. We’ve been skirmishing with them ever since. Couldn’t find the way in here, so they started setting traps for us.”
“And Ben walked right into a trap?”
“Yes sir, he sure did. Damn shame.” Frank looked away, the briefest glint in his eyes.
From the beach, the two men began a gradual ascent to a distant rocky cliff, the plain of golden figures stretching off to their left. Stu stayed with the canoe.
As they walked, the soft sand turned to packed dirt. With no sunlight, it was a barren place. Here and there, Andrew saw nuggets of gold scattered along the ground. The walls of the cavern shone with dark yellow veins.
About a hundred feet up from the beach, steps cut into the cliff led to a high plateau. The men ascended, Frank catching his breath now and again on the way up. At the top, Andrew turned to stare down at the plain below.
Frank spoke, breaking the reverie. “More to see. Come.”
They walked for some ways along the plateau. Ahead, Andrew saw a rough-hewn kiln, a stone hearth that would have been used for a vast fire, and a cauldron. Metal-working instruments, tongs, and clay crucibles were scattered on the ground.
“This was the forge?”
Andrew studied the ancient workshop.
“Incredible to think one man built all this, just to remind himself of home.” Andrew said. He watched Frank poke at the cold hearth with his toe.
“That is if you believe the story,” Frank said.
Andrew picked up some tongs and sighed. He finally had some answers about Ben and Flint would want to know. It was time for him to go. But he had one message left to impart.
“You know you guys can’t stay here much longer,” he said, staring hard at Frank.
“We know.” Frank nodded, his head still down.
Andrew left aside all the unanswered questions, the rightness and wrongness.
“We knew we’d need to leave at some point. It’s just a little sooner than we thought. Times are changing,” Frank said, still poking at the ancient stone coals. He looked up at Andrew and squinted back at the fire.
Andrew asked, “Can I help? I could call someone when I get back to town. They’d have a helo out here in an instant to take you all home. Back to the States.”
Frank shook his head. “Nah, don’t do that son. We’ve been outside the wire so long, we wouldn’t know how to fit in.”
“Where will you go?”
“I dunno. Thailand, Burma, Laos? Somewhere off the grid. Maybe with better light.” Andrew smiled at this.
Frank continued. “It’ll be tough, leaving. I feel bad about the statues. I feel like we were supposed to find them, that we’ll have failed them, leaving them behind. But whaddaya gonna do?”
Frank walked up a small hill. Andrew followed, uncertain where they were going. The ground was rougher here, covered with stones and small boulders. They continued uphill for some time, scrambling over the rock. Andrew thought it looked as if there had been a landslide here a long time ago. They stopped at the top of the hill.
Andrew glanced around them. Beyond the pebbly debris, Andrew saw what he thought was sunlight casting rays on the dirt floor. “Is that daylight?” he asked, incredulous.
“Yes, it is. It’s how we initially found this place. It’s an old well that leads to ground level.”
“How far below ground is your camp?
“About a quarter mile.”
“And how far below are we now?”
“About thirty feet. There’s a metal ladder that will take you to the surface. But you need to be careful. We’ve cleared all the traps those jerks set, but some of the men might still be out and about. Watch your back.”
“Roger that.” Andrew stuck out his hand. “Thanks for the welcome. And thank Stu for saving me.”
Frank took it, holding Andrew’s gaze. “You got it. Good luck, young man. Maybe we’ll meet again.”
The men shook, then embraced, each giving and receiving a slap on the back.
Andrew turned and approached the opening in the stonewall, a chipped archway eons old. He looked up the wide stone shaft. Sunlight filtered down through the wet mossy darkness. A brown bat shifted sideways on the jutting stones above. Andrew placed a foot onto the first metal rung, testing it. It held. He placed a foot on the next rung and reached upwards, climbing toward the light.
In the morning light, Andrew emerged from the jungle onto the dirt road. He’d had an uneventful trip through the jungle back to the road. None of Hakk’s men seemed to be about, for which he was thankful.
He’d tried to reach his helicopter pilot but had not had any luck getting through. Just static. He sat down on the roadside to dial again, hoping he would have better reception this time.
A distant engine roar caused him to look up the road. On the crest of the hill, he saw two large motorcycles, tearing down the dirt road, heading straight for him. The riders were decked out in leather pants, jackets and imposing helmets.
Watching the bikes descend the hill, Andrew decided nothing surprised him in this country anymore. It was its own dimension.
As the bikers approached, they slowed, then stopped, pulling up near Andrew, one of the bikes sliding in the dirt, spraying chunks of mud. Andrew shielded his face from the blast.
The larger rider pulled off his helmet. He was about sixty, Western, with a week’s worth of stubble and a tattoo that said ‘Bike Me’ in large letters on his neck. “Are you lost or something son?” he asked Andrew.
Andrew shook his head. “No, but my sat phone isn’t working. I can’t call my ride.”
The other rider piped in, removing a helmet that had gotten stuck on a leather catch. “Those gadgets aren’t worth the plastic they’re made of out here in this jungle. Too much tree cover.” The woman had short blond hair and bright blue eyes.
The first rider nodded in agreement. “Betty’s right. Not the best move to depend on a phone out here. You could be stuck for days. No one would know you were missing.” He said this with concern. He steadied his bike, hopping off to approach Andrew, who stood.
“Yes, well, I’ll know for next time.” Andrew wiped his hands on his trousers and extended his right one. “I’m Andrew.”
“Bill. This here’s my wife Betty Ann. Semi-retired, living the dream.” They shook.
“Anyway, we’re heading to town, we just came out to test out our new toys. Happy to give to you a lift. To Sen Monorom, that is.”
“That’d be great. Uh…did someone tell you I was in the area?” Andrew said, glancing back at the forest behind him. The trail was barely discernable. The trees waved at him in the breeze.
The couple looked at each other. Bill watched as Andrew looked around. He said, “Ain’t nobody here but us girls,” with a grin at Betty Ann, then looked at the sky and snorted, sniffing the air.
“We best get a move on. There’s still some rain in those clouds. Hop on.”
With one last glance backward, Andrew did as he was told, throwing a leg over the wide bike, an easy 800 pounds of metal. He admired the shiny chrome, flecked with mud. Bill revved the engine.
“Just so you know, there’s a price to be paid for a lift to town.”
Andrew smiled. “What’s that?”
“Cold beers at Snowy’s.”
“You got it.”
“Hop in and hang on. It’s a bumpy ride!”
“Hello, Severine. I didn’t expect to see you again so soon.”
Severine blinked rapidly, glancing to her left and right, confused. “What are YOU doing here?”
Jeremy continued. “It’s a shame you had to get mixed up in this. Things are not going your way of late. It would have been better, easier, if you could have gone about your merry way. But always the do-gooder, just like your nosy boyfriend. Oh, excuse me. Your husband. No, you had to do the right thing. Too many do-gooders in this town.”
“What do you know about Ben?”
“Only that he started asking too many questions, sticking his nose into things that didn’t concern him.”
“But you’re an American, you work at the Embassy. How are you involved with these men, it makes no sense?”
“In fact, it makes perfect sense. I have access to government officials at all levels. I remain open to communication, all offers of assistance, partnership, and requests for information. From all parties. I recently learned from a certain Ministry contact about a potential archeological find in Mondulkiri. Apparently, Ben explained things nicely in his little report. So I did a little investigating on my own. There are objects worth millions on the black market out there. Millions. But Ben wanted to preserve them and insisted on blowing the whistle until someone paid attention.”
Jeremy paused, frowning. He leaned forward, his face next to Severine’s. He inhaled. “I never liked him,” he added in a whisper. Severine felt his hot breath on her cheek. She yanked away.
“What did you do to my husband?”
“I have a new partner, you see. A man with a fondness for the past, shall we say. We have an arrangement. I make sure that you no longer interfere in his plans and he helps me get the gold. Win win.” He smiled, opening his palms.
He leaned back. “You need to understand how the world works. There is always demand. For something. The key is knowing what people want.”
Severine’s face was a stone. She stared ahead as Jeremy continued.
“I deserve more than a pittance in this life. So I’ve made that happen. Lately, I have a golden touch.” Jeremy smiled and wiggled his long white fingers. He leaned back in his seat and brushed an invisible speck of lint from his pressed trousers.
In the front passenger seat, Heang turned around for instructions.
“To the boat,” Jeremy barked then turned to smile at Severine, his upper lip too high on his pink gums. “You and I – we’d always talked of taking a river cruise.”
The temperature dropped with the setting sun, the season changing in the few minutes separating day and night. Autumn had arrived, only a couple degrees difference, but noticeable.
The fog had rolled into town off the cooling river in undulating waves. The boat Captain watched the fog fold its way forward, marking time by the disappearance of the street lights along the shoreline ahead, shrouding everything in gray.
Fog was not common here, but it had its place on this odd evening. The wooden boat made its lazy way to the pier, its old engine chugging away.
The Captain could see the pier was still empty. No one had arrived; he was early. He had made good time from Ho Chi Minh City.
Most of the Captain’s business was bringing items upriver from Vietnam to Phnom Penh and occasionally to Siem Reap, farther north. Some legitimate items, deliveries from local merchants. Some less so. The latter paid better, though the risks were higher, especially at the border between Vietnam and Cambodia. The border guards were too aware of their power, their ability to ruin a Captain’s day, depending on their mood and desire.
But the Captain, who was half-Vietnamese and half-Cambodian, understood the needs of the border guards. He had met many people in his years on the river. He fancied himself a citizen of the water, rather than of a country.
A few squawks from a lone leafy tree along the bank by the pier let the Captain know that his boat was disturbing a well-concealed bird’s nest. No matter. His only concern was delivering his cargo and receiving payment.
He looked at this week’s cargo, propped near a few old wooden oars by the fishing nets. He’d been told to take especially good care of this item. Was told it could break if treated roughly.
To discourage attention, the cargo was well covered by a faded pea-green tarp, itself at least twenty years old, frayed along its edges, with holes that had been patched and re-patched by the Captain’s wife. The Captain could well afford a new tarp, as made good money. But newness was a sign of prosperity to the border guards, suggesting there was something of value onboard to inspect. He kept his old tarp, and his engine with the death rattle.
The Captain lifted the tarp to make sure all was well. The blue plastic barrel was tucked in nicely between the nets.
He scanned the street. There only a few working street lights near this pier, enough to provide visibility but not enough to draw attention to whatever might happen on this remote pier on Phnom Penh’s edge.
The birds squawked again and rustled in their nest, readying for the night.
There, he saw movement. He looked up the street and saw a black car moving down the quiet lane to the waterlogged pier. One headlight was out.
The Captain readied himself. He was anxious. The owner of this cargo was unpredictable. But he paid well and the work was steady.
Severine’s mind raced. A cruise, Jeremy had said. If she could only make a break for it to a hotel or guesthouse, she’d be safe. But Samnang was in the seat beside her, so she needed to stay put.
They drove for some time, through town, then on to its fringes.
Heang opened Severine’s car door and yanked her out of the car, man-handling her. She struggled with him, pushing back at his groping hands. “Hold still,” he barked. She assumed he was going to tie her hands tighter and she lifted her arms to protest. Jeremy watched this exchange with a mild look of disdain.
When Severine saw the syringe, she shrank away. The Ketamine they’d used on her earlier had made her feel insane. It was a madness she didn’t know if she could tolerate again.
Before she could block him, Heang had injected her in the neck. She felt herself fade gently this time. Her mind filled with images of Ben leading her down a green path, of the pool where she’d swum. This would be a deep sleep.
Jeremy nodded his approval as Severine collapsed into Heang’s arms.
“Now the girl,” Jeremy said.
Heang opened the other back door and lifted out Samnang. She lay heavy in his arms, whimpering when she saw Severine collapsed on the ground. Heang watched her small scared face as he injected her as well. He handed her limp body to Jeremy, who took the child in his arms, while Heang picked up Severine and led the way down the rickety pier to the boat rocking on the gentle river current.
The Captain emerged from inside the boat, and bowed, hands held high, as Jeremy and Heang stepped onboard. Heang dumped the unconscious woman and Jeremy deposited the girl onto netting piled in the corner next to a faded worn tarp.
The Captain, named Sovan, started the old engine, which coughed in protest of this late night voyage. Sovan glanced at the two supine passengers. He was paid to navigate the river and not ask questions. He coaxed his temperamental engine down to a gentle purr and the boat pulled away from the dock.
After so much rain, the stormy river rocked the boat to and fro as she made her way north. The Mekong wound its way up to Laos and beyond, but this boat was not traveling that far. After a couple hours on the river, the Captain could sense the turn ahead to his right. He could see little ahead in the dark but even in dim light, he knew the turns and twists of this river, its depths and shallows. And he could feel the river, urgent, like a child tugging its mother.
Ah, there. He saw the opening he sought, hidden by overhanging trees. He steered the boat forward. Glancing back, he saw his passengers asleep, the little girl restless, troubled by nightmares. Jeremy alone was awake.
Sovan turned his attention back to the water.
Severine wanted to keep sleeping. Everything was heavy and quiet in her head. She forced herself closer to consciousness. There was that noise again. She felt a gentle rocking. With a start, she remembered where she was.
She told herself not to move. She did not want to draw any attention to herself. Opening her eyes a slit, she saw Samnang lying next to her, her eyes still closed and her mouth open. Severine watched Samnang breathe. If they’d given Samnang the same dose of whatever they gave her, Samnang would be sleeping for a long time.
Heang lay on a wooden bench, asleep and snoring loudly, a gun in his lap. Jeremy stood at the bow, watching their progress. Severine could feel her hands tied behind her and when she tried to move her feet, found her legs were tied as well, at both the ankles and the knees. Severine turned her head slightly forward and saw the Captain, standing alert, looking ahead.
Heang’s phone rang and he stuttered awake, dropping his gun. He grabbed for it as he fumbled to answer his phone. Severine hoped the gun wasn’t loaded as it hit the wooden deck with a clunk. She closed her eyes. The longer she was knocked out, she guessed, the more time she had to figure out a way out. She listened to Heang on the phone.
Severine listened, trying to catch any of the Khmer words she knew.
He spoke rapidly, then more agreement. “Jah. Jah.”
He clicked his phone off and yelled to the Captain, “Chop chop chop.” Stop.
Sovan turned around, a questioning look on his face. Heang spoke quickly.
Her Khmer wasn’t perfect but Severine got the gist. Heang had a problem back in town, he had to go back to Phnom Penh. He would take the dinghy and let them continue their journey.
“Stop here. I must go back,” Heang repeated.
Sovan cut the engine and the boat started to drift backwards with the current. This got Jeremy’s attention and he walked to the stern.
“What’s going on?” Jeremy asked, looking first to Heang, then Sovan.
Heang scowled. “I have a problem with a delivery. I must go back. You go on ahead. Do what you need to do.” He glared at Jeremy, who looked away.
As Jeremy sputtered about this change of plan, Heang moved quickly, stepping from the stern into the bobbing dinghy tied behind the boat. He started its small engine, threw off the line, and turned the dinghy around, heading down river, back to Phnom Penh. He did not look back.
Jeremy watched the dinghy sluice through the water, only mildly annoyed at the disruption. He was glad to be rid of Heang, who Jeremy found unseemly. Another gangster with delusions of grandeur. Sometimes such associations were necessary, Jeremy thought, returning to the bow. His heart started to quicken as he thought of his statues, his future, ahead. He had several buyers lined up already. He would be richer than he had ever dreamed.
Sovan set the boat’s course and went to check on his cargo. The Western woman and the child still slept. Sovan squeezed past them and edged into the corner of the boat. As instructed, he was bringing the cargo with him to the secret cave. Special delivery, Heang had explained to the Captain, for the American GIs living there. A gift from Hakk, he’d said, to thank them for their service. Captain Sovan thought it was unusual but he kept this to himself. He didn’t question. He’d survived so long through listening, not nosing in others’ business. He adjusted the tiller.
Under the green tarp, in a plastic barrel, a digital timer attached to a metal canister the size of a kitchen waste bin counted down. Its colorful wires wove inside the canister, where they linked up with two detonators and two tall stacks, each sixteen bricks high, of C4 plastic explosive.
The Cambodian-Japanese Friendship Bridge collapsed first, the charges at both ends and the bridge’s middle tucked carefully out of sight, until they detonated late Friday afternoon.
As the bridge beneath them crumbled, pedestrians, bicyclists, tuk-tuks, pushcarts and their vendors plunged into the flowing river.
Seeing this, traffic on the adjacent Cambodian-Chinese Friendship Bridge panicked. People leapt from their vehicles, running for the safety of solid ground on either end of the bridge. Some made it. Others, less swift of foot, did not, and they joined the melee in the water below as a second set of charges blew the Chinese Bridge into large chunks that plunked into the water.
The explosion was felt by all along Sisowath Quay. Tourists watched from balconies and street cafes, standing and leaving their coffees to cross the street for a better view.
The police arrived quickly, though there was little they could do except stare and wonder, along with everyone else. The police asked a few questions, hassled a couple motodop drivers who were not wearing helmets, and then returned to the station. No one had seen anything suspicious.
The collapsed bridges resulted in limited loss of life: One cyclist drowned trying to untangle himself from his bike clips. A young monk was unable to escape from a crowded tuk-tuk, packed in with eight of his brothers, all of whom had swum to safety. Set on a timer, the explosions had occurred moments after a traffic jam had cleared.
There were broken bones, bruises, and general upset. Those who landed in the river and swam to the shore, stood on the river’s edge watching their vehicles, for many of them their livelihood, sink or drift down river. A man in a dripping wet suit stood next to a t-shirted tuk-tuk driver, both of them staring at the watery field of debris. Children cried as their mothers gossiped and pointed at where the bridge had been.
People were confused and scared. As intended.
The helicopter approached town from the east shortly after the explosion and Andrew saw the mayhem out the cockpit window. The bank of the river was thick with people. Traffic on Sisowath Quay was stopped and flashing police cars blocked the street at both ends. An ambulance several blocks away from the scene, its lights flashing, snaked its way through slim gaps in the dense traffic.
As the helicopter got closer, Andrew saw the absence of the bridges.
“What the hell?” he said.
The pilot, listening to his radio, glanced over at his passenger.
“Report just came in. Two explosions, one minute apart. Took out both bridges. Two confirmed dead, countless injured. Several unaccounted for.”
“Fuck me.” Andrew stared out the window at the receding scene.
The moment the helo landed, Andrew called Flint on his secure phone. She answered on the first ring.
Andrew described the scene on the river, with the bridges.
He asked, “Has it made the international news yet?”
“Not yet. But I’m sure it will,” Flint said, adding, “As intended, is my guess.”
“This is bigger than we thought.”
“I’ll agree with that assessment,” Flint said. “What have you got?”
Andrew outlined to Flint everything he’d learned in the past twenty-four hours, about River Metals, about Ben’s Ministry report, about the artifacts Ben listed in the report and the empty camp he described. Andrew told about his own tussle at the camp with Hakk’s bodyguard. He didn’t mention Frank or the cavern. He didn’t see the point. Not yet.
“So I think Ben stumbled on to something he wasn’t supposed to see when he first went out to Mondulkiri two months ago.”
“The empty camp.”
“Yes. And because Ben was meticulous in his reporting, he noted it in his report to the Ministry of Mines. And someone found out about the report. And squelched it.”
“Only the camp wasn’t empty when you were there.”
“No.” Andrew pictured the three executed men lying on the ground. He wondered if one of them was Mr. Cheng.
“Back up here – You say this company River Metals hired Ben.”
“Who hired River Metals?”
“Some two-penny mom and pop shop hires a random kid to go dig for gold in the middle of nowhere, pays him a load of cash, and he finds ancient artifacts? Bullshit. They sure as hell didn’t pick Ben out of the Yellow Pages, someone told them to hire him and paid them to do it. Who was it, Shaw? Since you’re not asking that question, it means you must know the answer.”
Andrew paused. Flint was good. Sometimes he forgot that.
“I’d rather not say.”
“Don’t get all cagey on me.”
“For now. I’d rather not say for now. Please, Flint, just bear with me. Right now, we need to know more about Mey Hakk. Why would his body guard be at a secret jungle camp?”
Flint cleared her throat. It was her turn to have big news.
“Well, we have learned something very interesting about Mr. Mey Hakk, thanks to you. We ran a trace on that ‘Ch’kai’ email you forwarded to me. It had covered a lot of ground, bounced around servers all over the world, led our team on quite a chase. But in the end, we nailed it – it originated from a computer inside one of Mey Hakk’s factories.”
“So, if he sent that email, and the Friendship Bridges are his work, I think we can assume there is more to come. But what?” Andrew said.
“It’d be good if you could figure that out pronto. And stop it. Because you and every other American in that town is a target,” Flint said. “Meantime, I’ve got to call the kid’s father. At least we have some news for him.”
“Yeah,” Andrew said, distracted. “OK. I’ll be in touch. I’ve got to go see a friend.” He flagged down a passing motodop and hopped on, clinging to the metal bar as the bike wove expertly into the teaming traffic.
Andrew stopped by the Embassy to print out the photographed pages of the book from Rith’s desk. He needed Socheat’s help. He hoped these would shed some light on Hakk.
He walked over to Wat Phnom, staying away from the river and the milling crowds. The usual disaster gawkers had arrived, wanting to be a witness to the event.
Andrew looked around the park but Socheat was nowhere to be found.
Andrew walked up the steps to the Wat. Unlike his previous visit, it was busy. Despite the bridge explosions, the Wat was packed with locals. Incense filled the air. Monks prayed and chanted. Children ran across courtyards. Women carried trays of sweet rice for the dead.
Andrew wandered back down the Hill. Socheat stood by a tall tree at the eastern edge of the park, watching the crowded riverbank.
Andrew approached his friend, who nodded, a thin smile on his painted red lips.
“I figured you’d come for me sooner or later.”
Andrew said “I need your help with something. This…” He nodded at the destroyed bridges. “I think this has to do with my friend who was killed. There is a man, Mey Hakk…”
Socheat’s smile vanished, his mannerisms diminished.
“We must not talk of this here.”
Andrew glanced around. They stood alone, apart from the crowd of watchers.
“Meet me in ten minutes at the Elephant Bar.” Socheat pointed up the street to Hotel Le Royale.
Andrew nodded and turned to walk away. Something weighty had shifted in Socheat. From hearing the name Mey Hakk. What did it mean?
Hotel Le Royale, also known as ‘Raffles’, stood 200 yards down the road from Wat Phnom. Andrew walked down the sidewalk, his steps heavy as his mind raced. A few brown leaves drifted past his feet, carried by a light night breeze. Images of the jungle sifted through his mind, the statues, the Veterans, the camp, and the guards. On auto-pilot, he turned into the manicured hotel compound, glancing through the windows at the golden light inside.
From a silk loveseat in a far corner of the lounge, Andrew watched Socheat enter the room, sashaying for the attentive audience of men and women who looked up as he paused in the doorway, his blue silk dress catching light in all the right places. He blinked his long eyelashes then caught sight of Andrew in the far corner. He stepped forward, his gait high like a dressage pony.
Andrew sat shrouded by heavy curtains hung from the ceiling. His beer sat untouched next to a candle. Socheat took a seat on the couch across from Andrew, crossing his legs and folding his hands on his knees.
Andrew leaned forward.
“I need you to translate something.” Andrew pulled several pages from his back pocket and spread them open on the table. Dense Khmer script covered the page.
“Aren’t you going to order a lady a drink?” Socheat tilted his head at the bar next to them, where the bartender put the finishing touch on a dirty martini, a heavy pour of olive juice into the V-shaped glass. Large stone elephants adorned the bar.
Andrew rolled his eyes and lifted a finger. He understood – they needed to keep up appearances – this was just a casual social meeting. No rush.
A slim waitress appeared, glancing at Socheat, and gave Andrew a quick bow. “Yes, sir?”
“For the lady, a…”
“Femme Fatale,” Socheat said. The waitress nodded and returned shortly with a pink cocktail bearing a fragrant flower on the side.
Drink in hand, Socheat leaned forward to read the copies, long hair falling across his face, casting a shadow on the pages. Andrew watched as Socheat read, his eyes moving across and down the lines. Socheat looked up at Andrew.
“These are the words of an angry man.”
“What does it say?”
Socheat shook his head. “It’s a…what’s the English word…a manifesto.”
“About what?” Andrew scratched his face, heavy with stubble.
Socheat’s eyes were dark. “The author of this is Hakk – the man you mentioned. He wants to rid the country of the foreigners. The Ch’kai. You know this word ‘Ch’kai’? Dogs.”
“Yes. I know it. It’s a popular word these days. But get rid of us, why?”
Socheat looked back at the pages, his finger tracing several lines of text until he found the passage he wanted. “It says that the Ch’kai exploit and taint the country and its people. That the Ch’kai have damaged his country and its people with their greed and sloth. That they will be taught a lesson. Reeducated. That there will be retribution. It goes on like that for some time.”
“Does it outline his plan?”
“No, nothing specific. It speaks only of fear, intimidation…and death. For several lines, it speaks of the destruction caused by the Ch’kai’s hold on this country. And of breaking those ties.”
“And so, the Friendship Bridges,” Andrew said.
“Yes, but that’s only the beginning.”
“I thought you said it wasn’t specific.”
“Not on the what. But on the when, yes. It is.” Socheat pointed. “At the bottom, here, these characters. It’s part of the Khmer calendar. You see here that one character is traced in bold. The reader must have wanted to remind himself. That is this Sunday. In two day’s time. Which makes sense.”
“What do you mean?”
“Sunday is Pchum Ben Day. The day we honor our ancestors.”
“The Day of the Dead,” Andrew said.
Socheat looked up. “You know the custom?”
“Yes, a friend explained it. But what does Pchum Ben Day have to do with this? Why that day?”
The candle on the table between them had gone out and the waitress stopped by with a fresh one. She placed the bowl on the table and removed the extinguished flame. Socheat waited for her to leave before he replied.
“It’s a time when lost souls roam the earth, freed from hell to seek solace. Hakk is choosing this day to honor a man who he sees as a father figure. Who taught him to kill. To hate. To destroy.”
Andrew put his elbows on the table and rested his forehead on his steepled fingers. He was tired. He looked up at Socheat.
“Pol Pot?” he asked. Socheat nodded.
“You can’t be serious,” Andrew said.
“Yes. It is.” Socheat paused, watching Andrew, then continued, speaking slowly. “Hakk was a child soldier of the Khmer Rouge, in the fields, decades ago. He would have been ten or eleven. And now,” Socheat tapped the paper on the table. “Now he is fulfilling a promise he made to that monster.”
Andrew finished the thought, astonished. “To continue his work. To isolate the country completely.”
Andrew reached for his beer. Condensation on the glass had dripped on to the table and the glass sat now in a small puddle of water. Andrew held the glass, feeling the cold on his fingers, then lifted it to his lips to drink. He paused and put the glass back down.
“That’s not all in that document, is it?” Andrew asked.
Socheat watched Andrew with hooded eyes and shook his head. Andrew leaned forward, his chin, above the candle, lit up by the dancing flame.
“How do you know all this about Mey Hakk?”
A waiter had opened the patio door, to release a wasp that had made his way inside. The waiter shook the white napkin in the night air, releasing the intruder. A breeze wafted in, bearing warm humid air.
Socheat leaned in close to Andrew and spoke quietly, in perfect Chinese.
“You and I, we are very much alike.”
Andrew heard the Beijing accent, the private schools, the cultivation and the training, all evidence that Socheat was not all he seemed.
The men eyed each other with practiced stares, then Andrew spit out his whispered words. “You’re an agent?”
Socheat said nothing, but blinked once, looking left and right for listeners.
Andrew sat back in his seat. He thought about their meeting, by chance, at Wat Phnom. Socheat always waiting for a client who never arrived. Socheat watching from the sidewalk during the embassy party.
“Of course. China has a hand in everything,” Andrew said. Then he leaned forward, confused.
“But why are you watching the US Embassy?” he asked.
Socheat ran his hands along the silk of the loveseat.
“The letter about the Ch’kai. Our Embassy received one as well. China invests here. We have made significant investments in this country. What Hakk has planned – what this document suggests – would destroy this country as we know it. Culturally. Morally. And financially. It will destroy our investment here. This is part of his plan of course. But this must not happen.”
“Why didn’t you do something about it before?”
“We weren’t sure if the threat was real. So we waited and watched for your country to start the music. We watched for a sign from the US that this was the real deal. You were it.”
Deep in the bowels of the US embassy, Andrew watched Flint on the computer, as he relayed to her the translated contents of the manifesto. Socheat had taken the printed copy and would provide a full written translation later.
“So then, what’s Hakk’s next move? First, he threatens every foreigner in town. Then he blows up two bridges, gifts from neighboring countries that are major investors. That’ll be great for international relations,” Flint said.
“That’s the point, don’t you see? To drive a wedge. To drive us away. I’m not sure about his next move. Not yet.”
Always pragmatic, Flint made a list. “OK. So he wants to scare all the foreigners away. What are potential targets? Malls, concerts, major sporting events?”
Andrew corrected her. “It’s different here, there aren’t so much of the stadiums or shopping malls or other big indoor locations like back home. With few exceptions, everything is outside, open air.”
“Like the bridges?”
“Exactly. Like the bridges.” Andrew scratched his chin and bit at his lips, which were chapped from the sun.
“Embassies?” Flint suggested.
“No, I don’t think so. That’s the one place in the country besides government buildings where security is really tight. And again, the density of people is lacking.”
Flint asked, “Aren’t there some big markets in town?”
“There’s a couple, sure. He could make a scene, like he’s done with the bridges. But I think he’s planning something bigger.” Andrew chewed on the end of his pen, a bad habit.
“Popular restaurants? Nightclubs? Art openings?” Flint suggested.
“Yep, there is all that here. But it’s all mixed together, everything is a jumble of Khmer and expats, everyone does all the same stuff.”
He continued, “And besides, that seems too haphazard. This guy is focused. Methodical. He’s had years to plan.”
As Flint watched him on a screen from thousands of miles away, Andrew stared at the map of Cambodia on his desk. Socheat had explained that the manifesto described three different camp locations. These were now each marked on the map with an ‘X’, including Mondulkiri. Andrew stared at the other two locations. Andrew’s pen hovered over one then the other ‘X’.
He knew Hakk wasn’t in Mondulkiri. Fifty-fifty shot, he thought. He circled the camp by the sea.
“Enough guessing. I’ll go ask him myself.”