Deep in the soupy, sultry heat of the Cambodian jungle, Sedona awoke by the campfire. She felt a little dazed but not too dazed to realize she was frozen in quicksand. What was that damn smell? She sniffed and frowned. A sooty odor filled her head. She examined the green of the jungle surrounds, then scrutinized the mud that busily consumed her. It wasn’t quicksand covering her frame. Someone had covered her in a layer of mud that had since hardened until it was practically clay. Her throat had been lashed to a sapling, someone had stripped her and bound her hands and ankles. She couldn’t for the life of her move, at least not more than a wriggle.
Whoever secured her in place had to be the same person who propped up a curious statue against the tree-trunk in front of her in a lotus position. The size of an adult, it had a featureless face on a granite head and its arms hung over a sturdy branch secured in front of its chest.
On her left the campfire smoldered. Above it a framework of branches were fixed together, like a large clotheshorse under a canvas canopy. A pair of trousers and a silk shirt, dangled above the glowing embers.
She struggled, but had to stop when the bark on the sapling grazed her back. And then she heard it. Voices in the darkness behind her. She pricked up her ears and attempted to turn her head, but couldn’t. Above the treetops, the ink black sky told her it had to be late at night. What now? What had she gotten herself into? Why couldn’t that old man Hastings be seated in front of her instead of that weird statue? At least she felt safe with him. Come to think of it, she’d been with him that morning, so where the hell was he now?
It all came flooding back. Deep in the jungle on a search for a rare treasure, she’d taken off in search off some dry firewood when their fiercest enemies mad Kiri Kanya and some white guy jumped on her and choked her out. Any doubt she’d fostered that it was those two who captured her, vanished that instant as they rounded the tree and stood, side by side, at the edge of the campfire.
The little man had a deep gash on his cheek and forehead. He wore nothing but a pair of blue underpants. Kiri flicked her hair back out of her face and buttoned up the fly on her combats. Her smile revealed some teeth were missing. A fresh cut ran from chin to throat. Sedona recalled the first time she met her Cambodian cousin Kiri, and how struck she was by the beauty of her full, sensual lips. Now they had a swollen, lob-sided appearance. When Sedona’s eyes matched Kiri’s psychotic stare, she could taste fear in the spit welling in her mouth.
After snatching up a lump of wood, Kiri moved closer to her side and squatted on the earth. “Anak kuchea ank phnheak.”
“No Khmer, speak English,” said the man in a clipped British accent, tinged with cockney.
“Okay.” Kiri put a finger under Sedona’s chin. “I like you cousin. I’ll make you breakfast.”
“Not hungry.” Sedona shifted her gaze to the man. When he smiled, her eyes lit up. Her only chance to survive lay with him and one way or another she had to get him to bond with her. Anything was better than being left alone with Kiri Kanya.
“So you’re the famous Sedona Li, also known as Miss Shanghai.” He didn’t look her way as he spoke, focusing instead on his shirt over the fire. “My name is Freddy. You feeling okay?”
“Well I’m a little tied up at the moment.”
Freddy chuckled and right there and then Sedona knew she had him. He’d displayed a weakness. He’d be the key to her escape. Right now, she was more worried about Kiri, who grabbed a handful of mud, and in an almost loving fashion, slowly smeared it around Sedona’s throat. She thought to object, but didn’t want to risk upsetting her.
When Freddy dropped down on to one knee, little white belly rolls popped over the elastic trimming on his underwear. “So tell us, young Sedona, what are you up to?”
Kiri’s hands were all over the top of her chest, giving her a mud massage. She gulped as Kiri’s fingers reached her jaw. “Could you untie me please?”
“Not so fast,” said Freddy. “What are you doing out here alone in the jungle?”
Thank Christ, they didn’t realize she’d been tracking them with Hastings and just happened to be on her own collecting wood when they stumbled across her. That meant they wouldn’t be on the look-out for him.
Kiri’s demented stare burnt into Sedona’s eyes, causing her legs to tremble, like those of a frightened fawn. Had to keep it together. The mud was turning cold and heavy on her chest.
“I asked you what you were doing out here?”
“I was watching the broken heroes on a last chance power drive. You gonna get this mud off me?”
In unison, her captors stood. Kiri twirled the wooden club in her hand, as Freddy turned to the campfire, grabbed a stick, and poked at the deepest embers where the red coal crackled and broke. “Darling, I think Miss Shanghai is trying to be clever.”
Freddy had none of that aristocratic finesse and natural authority of Hastings. A blind man could see Kiri was his boss. What was the crazy cow up to now? She stood over the statue and lightly tapped the skull with her club.
“You’ll notice Kiri is performing an ancient Cambodian warrior’s ritual.” Freddy threw the stick into the fire. Sparks rose and died. He stood so close, Sedona could count the blackheads and tiny white hairs on his spindly legs. His calf smelled like a wet chicken. “When couples are old, they should have mutual interests, don’t you agree Sedona?”
“I dunno. Ask an old person.” She strained her neck to look up at him, and get a reading of his expression. With deep affection in his eyes, he stepped over a puddle and ran a hand across Kiri’s cheek as she continued tapping the statue. “Unlike me, Kiri’s hails from an ancient culture. We’re young. Opposites attract, when you’re young.” Very slowly, he laid it out. “We know you’re working again with that Hastings bastard. Where’s he camped out? Is he trailing us? We lost everything in the storm, did he survive? I’m asking you now, nicely, once. Consider your answer.”
The mud had hardened, almost to clay and Sedona’s eyes widened when she realized the resemblance she now bore to the statue. Like a whirring banknote counter, her mind processed what to tell them. They had no firearms, or if they did she couldn’t see them. Probably washed away in the storm.
“It’s ready,” said Kiri. Slowly, she peeled the shell from the head of the statue. A whiff of steam rose from the meat inside. It looked like those juicy round Sunday roasts the English love to eat.
“This is where Kiri and I have different tastes,” said Freddy. He pointed at the statue. “That Englishman refused to answer my questions too. He’s Kiri’s breakfast. Your clay has nearly hardened.” He nodded towards the clotheshorse above the campfire. “How’d you like to be up there getting roasted in time for lunch?”
Sedona’s guts heaved as Kiri pulled strips of meat off the dead man’s head and chewed on it. She closed her eyes. Couldn’t take in another atrocity. The world she’d been cast into really was quicksand. She’d die before she’d let them make a cannibal out of her.
“Eat it.” Kiri tore a handful of meat from the side of the skull and shoved it in Sedona’s face.
Before she could tell them to fuck off, Kiri tossed the meat and bolted past Freddy, shouting, “Go, run, run.”
The two of them fled into the lush greenery, leaving Sedona alone and baffled. From out of the dark a figure emerged, holding a a SIG Sauer P320 handgun and wearing a stare that could cut a man down.
“Took your time, Hastings.”
“I’m here now, aren’t I?”