Love in the time of Corona

Chapter 1. Light Dances on the River’s Edge.

April 2020. A Wednesday Morning

It’s hot and dangerous at ten minutes to sun-up in Cambodia. Behind the Jolly Roger Gas Station and Supermarket, the twins held each other, too afraid of the doctor 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 doctor was breathing heavily, fifteen yards from where they sat. Four Chinese bodyguards with black hearts, dead eyes and a thirst for blood loaded the van with bag after bag of food, water and medicine.

The doctor glared at the twins. Their friend Marie had no fight left in her. She stared at her hands and contemplated sinking her teeth into her wrist, to tear away the veins. Bleed out all the pain.

The doctor could no longer contain his anger.

He stormed over, kicked the beggar away and shouted at Ruth, “Who did you call? You used that driver’s cellphone. Why?”

“Just a friend in town, I swear. Had to say goodbye.”

The doctor knew a lie when he heard it. And first chance he got; he’d personally take charge of the removal of Ruth’s left hand.

A few minutes later

VISCOUNT HASTINGS

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. He stared in the mirror, searched his own face for a trace of enthusiasm for living but found none. 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.

Who’s that? The waitress? Former street-girl. She recognized him too. Went on to tell him she’s a born-again Christian, living with the local church lady. That pleased Hastings as he ordered eggs, tomatoes, sausages and earl grey tea with French toast on the side before settling back to enjoy the sunrise. A bleeding hobo lay in a crooked heap on the footpath beside a cop whose cheeks dimpled as he laughed while sharing a joke with the ice cream man. Standing outside on the pavement next door, 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. Texas Johnny had clearly been drinking all night as he cuddled a girl who had her back to Hastings. Shapely young lady.

It dawned on Hastings, how throwing himself into the river might not have been a bad idea. The bloody world made him ill. He snapped back to reality when Vera from the Pussycat bar appeared to notice him. She sprinted over. Why hadn’t he dropped by for a drink of late?  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. The club girls weren’t making any money. Their usual Chinese customers had all returned to China because of a virus going around.

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. His iPad had gone into meltdown, he couldn’t read his E-books and needed someone to translate. No luck. Vera told him the twins had taken off on Saturday morning with some old Polish guy and no one had seen them since. Their disappearance caused a lot of fretting. When they hadn’t answered their cellphones, fretting turned to despair. She promised to get one of the other girls to accompany him and skipped away.

The Texan and his girl were just yards away from his table shouting for a tuk-tuk. Though he didn’t know her, Hastings had heard all about the notorious ladyboy who went by the moniker, Diva. He 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.

The Viscount took a sip of his tea then turned his focus to the waterway and he marveled at the way the sunlight danced on the river’s edge with a sparkling supremacy. For no apparent reason that reminded him the vanishing twins had stopped by his hotel on Saturday morning. They’d asked for him at reception. He hadn’t been in his room. The girls abruptly departed without leaving a message. All that happened around the time they went missing. Maybe those girls had been reaching out to him for help?

Thirty minutes later his cellphone rang. The brother of the twins was in the States. He described the frustration of not being able to rescue his sisters from the street. No surprise they went missing. Having said that, he experienced a very sinister moment of dread after calling and learning other girls had gone missing too. He kept on hearing about a Western man who his sisters trusted. A man who could track them down. That man was Viscount Hastings. 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.

*

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.

“I heard the twins have gone missing. Was hoping you could tell me a bit more about the circumstances.”

She frowned. “Helena and Ruth?”

“Yes.”

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.

She stood, said, “The ladyboy Diva has been asking questions too,” and strolled away.

Comparing notes with a ladyboy did not interest him.

Once back at the hotel, he shoved two one-dollar bills into the driver’s outstretched hand and marched into the reception area where a fracas was underway. A lady he hadn’t seen before was manning the 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. “Shitty view, but it’s nice enough.”

“Have a good flight?”

“I hate flying. All this Corona Virus shit meant no food on the plane.”

“I’ll make tea.” As he unpacked the Earl Grey teabags, he heard Sedona making herself comfortable on the bed. “So, dear girl, what’s this virus people are talking about?” Hastings watched no television, didn’t use the internet and only occasionally bothered with newspapers. Contemporary issues were of no interest to him.

“Started in Wuhan, spreading round heaps and countries are closing borders and shit. I was lucky to get a flight here.”

Sounded like she was exaggerating. “I suppose you’re wondering why I wanted us to spend this time together?”

“Nah, it’s this Corona shite, right? You want me in a safe place with you?”

Truth was that hadn’t occurred to him, but she didn’t need to know that right now. “That’s part of it, Sedona, yes.”

“I 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, said, “Oh sorry, dear boy,” and rose from the bed. 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.”

“Just joking ‘bout the hundred thousand but I do need to earn some 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 mean 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.”

“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.”

“You’re an American citizen.”

“Doesn’t mean shit. It’s all in the face.”

“Not going to lie, there is 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.”

*

Social life in Phnom Penh revolved around food and drink. Locals and tourists met in restaurants, then sat in cafés before moving on to a buffet and then out for wine and cocktails. Remaining at the peak of his game was, for Hastings, an on-going battle. He kept a strict diet/exercise regime. Heroin was always a problem, as he’d been experiencing dull arthritic pain in his hands for years. For now he stayed away from it. Problem was in central Phnom Penh, drugs and legal highs were sold side-by-side with bottled beer and full English breakfasts. Not wanting to spark off old habits, he entered all venues with his guard up.

At sunset and with Sedona by his side, he turned into 118th Street. The smell turned his guts. A grubby little thoroughfare. Homeless children with grubby faces. Pool tables, grimy puddles and little plastic chairs. Grubby little street-stands where haggard, grubby traders flogged grubby snacks that resembled deep fried rodents impaled on lollipop sticks. Rickety old Western men walked hand-in-hand with the city’s gorgeous maidens whose feminine souls were grubbied by the humiliation integral to the flesh trade.

Out front of the 7/11, spindly runaway rural girls wore forlorn stares and strappy suede heels. They pouted, unbuttoned their blouses and ushered Western youths into bars. This ritual was a kind of audition. Successfully procuring young men for the clubs would lead to the girls finding acceptance into one of the bar slut gangs where they’d get protection from the police and the freedom to revel in routine helpings of sisterhood and fried rice.

At the corner of the Preah Sisowath Quay, Hastings stopped and told Sedona to do the same. Not one hundred yards away, the sun was setting on the river. Rats scurried from one drain to the next. The stench of garbage and cheap perfume filled the air. A line of bars differentiated themselves with crude names flashing in neon. I Get You bar. Butterflies and Beer. The Apocalypse bar. He met She.

“Where do you wanna go?”

Knowing the Pussycat wouldn’t be open for another hour, Hastings took Sedona by the hand and led her into the Corner café.

“First time you’ve ever held my hand.”

“Young lady, I’d rather Western men didn’t look at you and get any ideas. You follow?”

She didn’t reply, but her smirk said it all.

“Remind me,” said Hastings. “Why are we catching up with this girlfriend of yours?”

Sedona tapped her cellphone. “I let her know we’re here. She’s like a minute away.” She leaned back in her chair and put her feet on the other. “And I told you, she’s in trouble. Don’t know what it is but she got a message to me through a friend of a friend.”

Sedona’s friend entered the café with a cheery spring in her step. Hastings recognized her and his heart sank.

She hugged Sedona. They exchanged air kisses.

“Hasty, I’d like you to meet my friend Diva.”

*

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