From the novelist the New York Times compares to Paul Bowles, Evelyn Waugh and Ian McEwan, an evocative new work of literary suspense.
Adrift in Cambodia and eager to side-step a life of quiet desperation as a small-town teacher, 28-year-old Englishman Robert Grieve decides to go missing. As he crosses the border from Thailand, he tests the threshold of a new future.
And on that first night, a small windfall precipitates a chain of events—involving a bag of “jinxed” money, a suave American, a trunk full of heroin, a hustler taxi driver, and a rich doctor’s daughter—that changes Robert’s life forever.
A SUDDEN DUSK had come. The road dipped slightly by a second crossroads and they paused while the engine turned and they could hear the insects purring wildly in the fields. A headlight was coming across the opposite field at high speed but they could not see the surface of this other road. The sugarcane was high here on all sides and tall banana trees lined the road. The moon now flashed between their leaves. It was because the road curved sharply that they did not see the other beam of light for a few seconds. It came around the bend at a leisurely pace and they saw that it was a motorbike and on it was the white man that Robert had seen at the temple earlier in the day.
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He recognized him at once and when the bike slowed the barang looked up and saw them and drew to a halt at the side of the sugarcane.
“It’s the guy I saw earlier,” Robert said to Ouksa, and he felt a desire to get out of the car and make himself known.
Ouksa said nothing, but the sudden frown was telling.
“I’ll say hello,” Robert said.
He was out on the road and the quietness came down upon him now that the motors had been turned off and he saw that the barang was handsome and only slightly older than himself and dressed in his sharp summer linens and dark blue suede drivers.
“Are you lost?” the man said, laughing and showing all the openness in the world.
“Half lost, maybe,” Robert said.
“Englishman?” the American said.
“Can’t deny it.”
“I thought so. A Brit on a country road—I thought you might need some help.”
Robert turned toward the car and the face of Ouksa peering through the windscreen.
“I don’t know about help. I suppose he knows the road.”
“Depends where you’re going.”
“Back to Battambang, I guess.”
The bike rider shook his hand.
“I’m Simon Beaucamp.”
“England then? That’s a long way to come. Or go.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Me, I live here.”
The voice was aristocratic New England, slightly clipped. Money, ease and familiarity with out-of-the-way things.
“Down by the river. I have a place there.”
He made a motion to the fields, to the high trees.
They were as if alone in the sweet darkness, the two barangs, and mutually amused at the coincidence.
“Well, I just thought you might need some help. You traveling?”
“Yeah, passing through.”
“Come down to the river and have a drink if you like. There’s a bar called Angkor Town down there.”
“That’s a good idea—I’ll ask the driver if he doesn’t mind.”
“He won’t turn down a drink.”
Robert walked back to the car.
“What say we go with my new friend here and have a drink down by the river? He says there’s a bar called Angkor Town. You know it?”
But Ouksa was pale and he kept his eyes upon the motorbike gleaming at the far side of the road.
“You look a little worried,” Robert said. “It’s just a drink and you can join us.”
Ouksa shook his head emphatically. “Not with him.”
“What’s wrong with him? He’s just a barang like me.”
“Why not?” Robert said irritably.
“He has a bad feeling about him. It’s clear.”
“Clear to who?”
“Clear to me. Don’t go with him.”
But Robert himself now had a small doubt. Should he listen to the more knowing Khmer? But his pride kicked in and he decided to go for bravura. There was also his sense that Ouksa’s emphatic warning was itself a con. He didn’t know who to believe and who to trust and so he went with the benefit of the doubt he was inclined to offer a fellow Anglo.
“Anyway,” he said with a kind of counteremphasis, “I’m paying, aren’t I? It’s my call.”
“I don care you pay.”
“Come on, Ouksa. It’s just a damn drink down by the river. There’s no harm in it. We’ll drive back to the hotel after. I’ll pay you more.”
“OK, twenty dollars more. Plus drinks.”
Seeing that he had little choice the Khmer relented.
“I won’ take him in the car,” he said, however.
“All right. He’ll just lead us down there.”
Robert went back to the stranger.
“I talked him into it. He seems a bit spooked for some reason.”
“Oh? Well, I’ve been known to have that effect.”
“Never mind him, we’ll follow you down to the river. I hope we aren’t putting you out.”
“Not at all.”
Beaucamp went back to his bike and mounted it, and the smile had not left his mouth.
“Just follow me,” he called out.
ROBERT NODDED AND walked back to the car and got in the back. The night suddenly felt a little hotter and he rolled down the window despite the air-conditioning. There was a scent of burning rubber coming from somewhere and of singed hay. The Milky Way had appeared and yet there was still a cloying rain in the air, a claustrophobia of monsoon.
“We’ll go for a drink at this Angkor Town and it’ll be OK,” he said to Ouksa. “It won’t take more than an hour or so.”
The driver said nothing, merely caught his eyes in the mirror. He was not happy about it but he would not say why. There was something tough and unspeakable in the air.
Perhaps he didn’t like being out in the fields at night. One never knew. He didn’t trust what he found on those roads where ghosts roamed. They set off anyway and they followed the taillight of the bike. Soon they were passing through more of the lifeless fields and the lines of tall sugar palms that made the sky seem even larger than it was and the wind rushed against his face. He had noticed that at night a ghostly music floated across those same fields, a music of roneat, bamboo xylophones, and pai au, flutes, as if being played by men wandering through the fields blind. Of course, the farmers had radios. Within ten minutes the river had come into view, mostly dark but with a few lights strung along it. It was the outskirts of town, the same road that led straight to the French buildings on Street 1. He didn’t know where exactly but he didn’t care, it was just the same river and a river was a welcome thing in that flat, disorienting land. The suffocation lifted and one felt, paradoxically, the intimate immensity of the land again. The air changed and a voice inside Robert said “Yes” and he licked his lips and he saw the houses on stilts on the far side and felt glad to be down by the water at last. The road had many small houses with gardens on the water and a temple called Wat Kor.
Angkor Town was the only bar on this stretch, a large red Angkor beer sign—as always—hung above its gates. A narrow courtyard led down to the deck over the river. It was a Khmer place through and through, almost boisterous but never quite reaching that critical point. Red tables and red plastic chairs, jungle foliage right at the elbows of drinkers on the deck. Rows of small Angkor flags hung from the rafters and posters for Freshy orange juice. There were longtails hauled up into the reeds, red blossoms arching down to the water.
Beaucamp waited for them, with the bike tilted in the courtyard, and when they came up he pointed at the red sign above the roof and for some reason made a face.
They went out onto the deck.
The waters glided past like black oil, momentarily lit by fusty lamps with their color of honeycombs. On the far bank the massive trees looked like the columns of some destroyed Babylonian palace which even centuries of violent rain could not wear down.
“This is my spot,” Beaucamp said, the place where he passed his evenings reading novels. “It’s a fine spot, too.”
The barman did not move from the bar, but called out Simon’s name and waved a pair of ice tongs. Then he came over with a bottle of Royal Stag and a bucket of hacked ice and they laid out their tumblers and filled them with the ice. Ouksa finally relaxed a little and the smell of the opened bottle chased off his superstitious timidity. When the glasses clacked some of the fear seemed to go out of his eyes and he swigged back the Royal Stag with a relish that was clearly customary. The suave American spoke fluent Khmer to him, a language he seemed to speak as easily as he did English. It must have taken years to master. He said his house was a little way upriver, a place he had built himself after buying the land from a policeman.
“So you’re passing through our little town,” he said to Robert. “Not that many people come through here. You came over the border at Pailin?”
“I took a taxi from Bangkok.”
“It’s a cheap way to come. I like that trip myself. See the casinos?”
“That’s what my friend said.”
Robert cocked his head, and he felt a small disbelief. “Everyone seems to know—”
“It’s a small world up here. A barang wins two grand at the Diamond, everyone knows. That’s the way it is.”
Beaucamp crossed his legs and laughed.
“Like our Ouksa knew too, I’m sure. Yeah, everyone knows those things.”
“I got lucky for a night.”
“Everyone gets lucky for a night. You’re not here for the casinos though.”
“As a matter of fact, no. I’m not here for anything.”
“When I first came here years ago I didn’t know why I came either. Then I ended up never going back. Don’t ask me why. You could get a house back then for about ten grand, which is what I paid to build it. Got real teak from the Cardamom Mountains too. Can’t get that now.”
“Like you say, it’s a sweet spot. I can see that.”
“It is and it isn’t. It’s a tough spot too. I like it. Not everyone likes it. Seems like you’re undecided.”
“I don’t know,” Robert said, “I only just got here.”
“So you did. How do you like our Indian whisky? It’s better than the Thai one, I think.”
“You can drink it all day and not get a headache. One day I’ll give you some Golden Muscle wine. The local stuff. It’s made from deer antlers.”
Simon switched to Khmer.
“Did you give him a fair price, brother?”
“Sure I did,” Ouksa said. “Same price as everyone else.”
“Every other barang, you mean.”
Ouksa shrugged. “Every other barang, sure.”
“Why don’t you drive back to the hotel and get his stuff and bring it back here? I’ve decided to ask him to stay tonight with me. Can you do that?”
“Don’t forget anything in the room. It’s paid in advance, I think.”
Ouksa put down his drink and Simon explained to Robert in English.
“At your place?” Robert said.
“Why not? The Alpha is a fleapit. It used to be called the Teo and it was a fleapit then too. You’ll like my place much better, believe me. We can play chess. Do you like chess?”
Robert shrugged. “I do, sometimes.”
“Splendid. Then we can play chess.” Simon’s eyes began to shine with mocking humor. Did he really enjoy these sorts of games? “I haven’t played in months. I can’t find anyone here to play against. You’d be doing me an enormous favor actually.”
But the favor was also the other way around.
Within a few minutes, in fact, Robert had begun to feel curiously attracted to Simon. It was not a sexual attraction, but it was certainly physical. The American’s body was relaxed and affable and confident. His elegance was simple, unaffected. It suggested a man who didn’t care what judgments he was subjected to because they couldn’t possibly be all that bad. And usually they would be flattering. It was Robert who was confused and a little blinded, and both of them knew it. Simon had acquired a fluent familiarity with his surroundings. He obviously spoke the language perfectly, and it was not by any means an easy language. At first Robert had wondered if Simon was gay and the purpose of the game all too easy to understand. But gradually his instinct told him that this was not the case; he might be bisexual, but either way the game was not sexual. It was about something else. Perhaps Simon was bored on his luscious river and he needed something, or someone, to manipulate.
Ouksa finished off his drink and stood up.
“Drive straight back here,” Simon said in Khmer. “I don’t want to go looking for you.”
“Is it all right for him to go alone?” Robert asked.
“Sure it is. Everyone knows everyone here. He won’t do anything amiss. He knows I’d find him.”
When Ouksa had gone and the car had begun its short trip up to the Alpha, Simon filled his glass again and put fresh ice into it.
“All the same, Robert, you should be a little careful moving around with that kind of money. It could be tempting for some people. Not for this one. But others. Two grand is a fortune here.”
Image credits: Author photo: © Chris Wise; Dmitry Naumov/Shutterstock.com