Light Dances on the River’s Edge

It’s hot and dangerous at ten minutes to sun-up in Cambodia. Behind the gas station, the twins held each other, too afraid of the monster to move. Their blonde hair was greasy; the one they called Ruth had purple bruising beneath her left eye while Helena wept and prayed for death. A beggar crawled their way. She’d had one leg surgically removed, her remaining foot was deformed, like a diver’s flipper. Both hands were missing. She said nothing but she was pleading for money, holding out the stump of her left forearm. The twins were oblivious to the amputee’s presence for the monster was breathing heavily, fifteen yards from where they sat. His eyes were on them. He could no longer contain his anger.

 

Down south, in central Phnom Penh, Viscount Hastings woke up, finished Tender is the Night then he bathed, slipped into his white cotton safari suit and Italian shoes, resplendent with Oxford tie and Panama hat and he stared in the mirror, searched his own face for a trace of enthusiasm for living but found none and staggered down to reception where he admonished the night-manager for not reminding the housemaids to polish his cutlery, then he stumbled out of his hotel, along Riverside and into a cafe opposite the Pussycat Bar, right in the ailing heart of the city’s red light district where he recognized the waitress as a former street-girl who went on to tell him she’s a born again Christian, living with the local church lady which pleased Hastings as he ordered eggs, tomatoes, sausages and earl grey tea with garlic bread on the side before settling back to enjoy the sunrise but he noticed a bleeding hobo sprawled out on the footpath beside a cop sharing a joke with the ice cream man and standing outside on the pavement next door there was a loud American in a cowboy hat, boots and bright red racing driver shirt, sounding off about how he bossed the Central Industrial wing during his prison years and he’d clearly been drinking all night as he cuddled a girl who had her back to Hastings who could see she was well-built but a poor mother with baby in arms got his attention for she wanted to sell him chewing gum but he had no change so he offered her his garlic bread which she gratefully accepted, slipping the bread into a plastic bag and as she left it dawned on Hastings, how throwing himself into the river might not have been a bad idea for the world made him ill but then Vera from the Pussycat bar noticed him and she sprinted over to ask why he hadn’t dropped by for a drink of late so he told her he’d been spending a lot of time at the officer’s mess at the Army base which had become something of a gun club for ex-pats but then she told him the club girls had made no money because their usual Chinese customers had been at a massive private party with the on-line girls and now they couldn’t buy rice, beans and lemon tea for breakfast on the riverbank which is where they went to sing songs and dance when the bar closed at 8 am so Hastings gave her a tenner but his condition was she had to get one of the twins, the new girls with the bleached blonde hair who spoke fluent English, to accompany him to the Apple Store in the afternoon because his MacBook Pro had gone into meltdown and he needed someone to translate but Vera told him the twins had taken off on Saturday morning with some old Polish guy and no one had seen them since causing everybody to fret especially since they weren’t answering their cellphones, however, she’d get one of the  other girls to accompany him and as she skipped away Hastings turned his attention to a teenager rummaging among the garbage heap and while he pilfered Hastings noticed behind the grease, dirt and sweat he had the chiseled features and dangerous glare of a male model and Hastings couldn’t help but feel a tinge of sadness as he wondered how the pilferer’s life would have panned out if he’d been born in Paris and not Indochina, but wind off the river blew the bitter stench of the garbage heap his way and he turned his head and the American and his girl were just yards away from his table shouting for a tuk-tuk and Hastings recognized her from the street at night then noticed how deep her voice was and her Adam’s apple and Hastings pondered the probability that the cowboy had a wife and kids back in Dallas but the lascivious smirk on the cowboy’s face confirmed Hastings suspicion that he knew exactly who he was with and he couldn’t wait to get his date back to his hotel room so Hastings took a sip of his tea then turned his focus to the waterway and he marveled at the way the sunlight shimmered and danced on the river’s edge with a sparkling supremacy that reminded him the vanishing twins had stopped by his hotel on Saturday morning to ask for him at reception but he hadn’t been in his room and they’d abruptly departed without leaving a message and that was around the time they went missing and he had to acknowledge though his days were spent dining on a deluge of decadence orchestrated by the depraved, those girls had probably been reaching out to him for help then his cellphone rang and it was the brother of the twins who was in the States and he sounded heartbroken as he described his inability to rescue his sisters from the street so it didn’t surprise him when they went missing but after he heard he experienced a very sinister moment of dread and he’d called around the clubs and he kept on hearing about Viscount Hastings then one of the girls had given him Hastings’ number and he wanted Hastings to find them, then the Viscount named a price and the brother agreed to pay the money—half now, half on completion—and so the Viscount got to work.

*

That Afternoon

The receptionist was a pretty girl in a frumpy kind of way. The kind who have that special touch to make a hotel seem homely. Hastings asked her to remind him again of what happened when the twins dropped by. Prodding at her temple with one finger, she was slow recollecting her thoughts and he had to remind himself to be gentlemanly for tracking somebody, anybody, always took patients. They’d come to the front desk asking for him on Saturday morning around 6 am. Both looked flustered. He receptionist told them he probably spent the night at the Army base. Then the twins noticed a car pulling up outside. Looked like they recognized the two tough Chinese men who got out and made their presence known.

The twins had slunk over to the car and they all drove away. Hastings asked the receptionist to think hard and try to remember anything that seemed odd about their visit. When they witnessed the car pulling up outside, one of the girls had made a move to go around the reception desk and head out back, but the other girl restrained her.

Hastings asked where the back door led to. Like every backdoor in that street it led to nowhere but a massive construction site. As he thanked the receptionist, he noticed the glint in her eye that told him she liked being involved in a minor mystery. She then confirmed his tailor would be at the hotel at 9 am tomorrow to fit him for a white tuxedo he’d had his eye on. He headed to On the Corner, his favorite Mediterranean restaurant. He took a table outside but waved away the waiter’s offer of a menu for his appetite had left him.

A pair of kids played in the gutter. Both of them were oblivious to their seedy surrounds. Or were they? Maybe they were taking in everything. Detectives say children make the best eyewitnesses because their naivety and freedom from inhibition instills in them an acute awareness that rapidly diminishes when they reach puberty. Hastings nodded as if making an agreement with himself. They were no longer children but one of the girls at the Pussycat had to know something and that’s where he’d start.

It didn’t open until 8 pm and the girls would all be sleeping back at their ten-to-a-room dormitory-style apartment. He had a relative arriving from the States at 5 pm.  Hastings never did airport pick-ups and accordingly had arranged a taxi at the airport. He’d meet his relative at the hotel. He remembered Julia from the Pussycat would be accompanying him to the Apple Store. He checked his watch. Apple was next door to a cafe called Mad Monkey and she was to meet him at one of the tables outside in 15 minutes.

The tuk-tuk driver was a portly fellow who appeared to be completely at ease with his place in the universe. Weaving in and out of the traffic, he operated with the effortlessness of a fish swimming downstream. Julia was not pleased to see Hastings. She smiled, as those young ladies always did, but her eyes were red, and face drawn. No doubt she needed her sleep and the appointment was breaking up her routine. She rose, probably assuming they’d head straight into the Apple Store, but his eyes commanded her to sit back down. He ordered a mineral water. She didn’t want anything, but she quite understandably asked, “So where’s your computer?”

“Forget that.” He looked forward to the waiter’s return with his ice-cold mineral water as the fierce sun overhead turned its glare to Cambodia.

Julia had that dark, exotic beauty he’d come to learn was commonplace among country-girls from the tropical forests in the north. Her lips were permanently extended into a full and highly erotic pout, but her brown eyes were still sparkling and innocent. “You want me at the hotel, right? That’s not the you I know.”

It took a moment for him to work out what she meant, but when the penny dropped it brought a smile to his face. “No, no, nothing like that. I heard the twins have gone missing. Was hoping you could tell me a bit more about the circumstances.”

She frowned. “Did you want to spend the night with them?”

“Eventually, yes.”

“Helena or Ruth?”

“Ruth.” Hastings learned a long time ago, when seeking information on the street, never play it holier-than-thou. He didn’t date any of the girls, but Julia would be more cooperative with regard to his enquiries if he proffered motives she could relate to. “I’ve spent a fair amount of time befriending you girls and have never had the pleasure of a date, so thought I’d start with one of those two lovely girls.”

“You don’t think I’m as beautiful as them?”

“Of course you are.”

“And we’ll date before the week’s out?”

A commitment he simply couldn’t make. Cambodian clubs-girls were fiercely possessive of their customers and once Hastings involved himself with one, he’d have a lot of trouble communicating with the others. He wouldn’t be able to walk into the Pussycat without Julia wrapping herself around him and letting her colleagues know exactly who he belonged to. His days of sitting alone in a quiet corner of the bar reading his novel and observing the games at play would be over. “Julia, I like you; I really do. But I want to be straight up with you and honestly, I’ve fallen for one of the twins. Specifically, Ruth.”

Julia had a trace of sadness in her eyes. And there was something else going on with her. She gulped before speaking. “It’s good advice I give you when I tell you to forget about Helena and Ruth.”

“And I thank you for that, but what happened to them?” Now he made a point of fixing her with a stare that was in no way threatening, but he wanted answers. “Just tell me what you know.”

She let out a long sigh, put her cigarettes, lighter and cellphone in her bag and said, “Nothing. At the end of Friday night, this old Polish guy who we’d never seen before bought everybody drinks, paid twenty dollars to the bar and asked them to leave with him.”

“Didn’t they call from the hotel, say where they were and confirm everything was okay?”

“No. Not a word. They didn’t go back to the apartments either.”

Hastings noticed a dragonfly at his feet. For no apparent reason the bloody thing annoyed him, and he rubbed it out with his shoe. Police had their hands full running the rackets and didn’t bother investigating missing girls—naturally an exception would be made for diplomats’ daughters—surely there must have been someone somewhere who’d be concerned. Someone who could help him. “Who was the last person to see them?”

An unhealthy pause.

His delivery went up in volume as he commanded Julia to, “Think, dear girl, think.”

“The driver.”

“Taxi driver? You know them all. Which one?”

“Not a taxi and I didn’t see his driver, but I know where they got the car from.”

He held out his hands. “Well? Whose car was it?”

“Japanese Pavilion Hotel.”

“One of the plush joints on the other side of the river. How you can you be sure?”

“I’ve done tricks there—quite a few. They’re the only hotel who provide those Mitsubishis for their guests in the villas out back.”

“Staff at the Pavilion must know something.”

“Maybe they do.”

“You sure you don’t know anything else?”

She closed her eyes and muttered, “A couple of other girls went missing but they were with Chinese men. Them and twins all from the north east. Now those homeless kids who come in the bar selling chewing gum. The one they call Brad Beckham, he—”

“Brad Beckham?” The Cambodian proclivity for adopting Western celebrity appellations could always bring a smile to his face, but that day wasn’t the day for smiling.”

“Yeah Hastings. The boy Brad. He called the Polish guy who took the twins, Jakub.”

“Jakub? You’re sure that’s what you heard?”

“Sure, I’m sure that’s what I heard. The man had been talking to the boy. Old fucker looked like he hated hearing his name mentioned.”

Now he had something. Something to run with. As he opened his mouth to continue the interview Julia abruptly stood up and moved to make her way past him.

He grabbed her arm. Not roughly, but he had a question that needed answering. “Who do you girls turn to in these situations?”

“We have each other.” She tapped his hand as if to say let me go, then smiled, said, “And we have friends like you,” and strolled away. Hastings had no objections to her leaving. He had to get to the hotel and meet his relative. As he watched Julia fade into the distance something in the pace with which she departed told him she knew she should have kept her mouth shut. Hear no evil, see no etc

The tuk-tuk ride back to the hotel seemed to take an eternity for Hastings’s mind was mulling over everything Julia shared. Brad Beckham. He could track him down easily enough.

He shoved two one-dollar bills into the driver’s outstretched hand and marched into the hotel reception where a fracas was underway. A lady he hadn’t seen before was manning the reception desk and his relative had arrived and was slouched back on the couch, feet up on the table, backpack by her side, and an unhappy snarl on her rosebud lips.

“You’re late,” his relative said. “Tells that bitch I’m not one of your hookers. She asked me for my passport.”

“Don’t take it personally, that’s protocol for all visitors to the hotel, not just ladies of the night. A safety precaution for the guests.”

The receptionist came out from behind her desk, clipboard in hand, and one eyebrow raised. “Who might you be, sir?”

Gently, he removed his relative’s feet from the coffee table, took out his room key, dangled it in front of the receptionist’s face and then turned back to his relative. Seeing her brought a smile to his face. “Room 202. I’m Viscount Hastings. This charming little Asian creature is my daughter, Miss Sedona Li. And she’ll need her own room.”

*

The room was spacious and breezy. A four-poster queen size bed, all ruffles, fresh cotton and chestnut wood. Two elegantly folded white towels. Lemon scent hung in the air. The satin drapes were open, revealing a metallic balcony lined with pot-plants. In the background stood a massive construction site where wiry men in hardhats buzzed around like furious bees and sun reflected off the workhouse windows; a hundred blinking flashlights.

Sedona slid the window shut and dropped her bag. “Nice here, although it’s a shitty view, ya know.”

“Have a good flight?”  Hastings emptied a bottle of mineral water into the kettle.

“I hate flying.”

“I’ll make tea.” As he unpacked the Earl Grey teabags, he heard Sedona making herself comfortable on the bed. “So, dear girl, I suppose you’re wondering why I wanted us to spend this time together?”

“Nah, I thought sending me the ticket was a nice gesture. Gotta buddy here I’ve been wanting to catch up with too. She’s cool.”

He placed her cup on the bedside table, pulled up a chair, sat on it backwards, took a sip of his tea and drew his shoulders back.

“Oh no, this looks serious.”

He frowned. “What are you talking about?”

Two housemaids outside in the hallway passed by their door, dialoguing in that energetic high-pitched discourse which made all communication in Khmer resemble an argument.

When their voices died down, Sedona said, “Every time you’re gonna go all Daddy-knows-best on me you start by taking a deep breath, then pulling your shoulders back.”

He couldn’t help but smile. “Nothing like that. Two girls, twins, have gone missing from the Pussycat bar. Their brother has engaged me to find them. Will you help me?”

“Which girls? I know all that lot.”

“Not these girls, they were new. Helena and Ruth.”

“What are their Khmer names?”

“All those girls have Western names, that’s all I know.”

“A hundred thousand dollars.”

“Pardon?”

“I’m broke. We both know you’re a fucking millionaire, so…”

“Language Sedona. Watch the potty-mouth.”

She scoffed, “Oh sorry, dear boy,” rose from the bed and rummaged through her backpack. “You got any smokes?”

He flung his Camels onto the bed. “You know if you need money you only have to ask.”

“That hundred thousand figure was only a joke, but I do need cash.” The ashtray appeared to be carved out of solid marble. Sedona placed it on the dresser, lit her cigarette and dropped back down onto the bed. “And I wanna earn it. No handouts here.”

She fixed him with a stare, and he couldn’t help but enjoy the dreamy, almost surrealistic quality in her eyes, indeed her whole face was an oil painting. Though only twenty years of age, she’d experienced so much and yet none of it was written into her face.

“Every time I get involved in one of your operations, I end up on the international ten most wanted list. Gotta make this worth my while, Hasty.”

“It’s a deal.”

“Is that why you brought me here?”

“Certainly not. Was only holidaying myself.”

“Don’t forget us Chinese aren’t popular in Cambodia. Don’t expect no magic.”

“It’s the men they don’t like, and they are an uncouth mob.”

“Don’t you believe it, it’s chicks too.”

“Remember dear, there’s risk involved. This can be a dangerous country.”

She pulled a ridiculously large pair of dark sunglasses out of her top pocket and slipped them on. Drew deeply on her cigarette then exhaled and with a smile said, “I eat danger for breakfast. Now tell me all about these missing girls.”

*

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