LOVE IN THE TIME OF CORONA– Chapter 2 Blackout

Enough of this nonsense. Hastings rose. “You’ll have to excuse us now. Sedona, follow me.”

That, Sedona clearly did not expect. She sprung to her feet, grabbed his arm and shouted, “Don’t be a dick; we just got here.”

From behind the counter the barista said, “Keep it down a little please.”

Hastings didn’t want to draw attention to himself or his company.

Slowly Sedona returned to her seat, all the while staring at him with eyes that asked him to give Diva a chance. Reluctantly, he did.

“Now we all be friends,” said Diva.

“No. We can’t.” Hastings didn’t object to people living their lives anyway they wanted, provided they didn’t harm others and most importantly, the more peculiar types stayed away from him. “Tell Sedona what’s wrong then then kindly leave.”

Diva tapped the edge of the table with her fingers. All ten were tipped with broken, badly polished nails. Her voice went up as she said, “Before we starting, you think I should be tough guy like you, right?” 

“I don’t want my Sedona around your type.”

“Stop talking about me like I’m ten.”

“Never mind, Sedona,” said Diva. Her voice went down. “Check this out.”  She unzipped her tracksuit top, raised her T-Shirt to reveal a purplish discoloration across her ribcage and liver.

Sedona gasped.

“In the morning that will turn black. He did that only two hours ago.”

“Cripes, we gotta get you to a hospital.”

“I banned from all hospitals.” Diva zipped up her tracksuit top and smirked at Hastings. “This is what happening when a cowboy wakes up beside me in the afternoon and realizes what he’s done. I had to smash him with a lampshade to get out of there.”

So heavy was the bruising it did cross Hastings mind to call his own personal doctor for Diva. But he didn’t.

“Cowboy like him is tough guy I should be Viscount Hastings?”

The conversation had gone on for long enough. “Tell Sedona your troubles and then leave.”

Diva poured a glass of San Pellegrino, took a sip and said, “You been asking around about the twins. Helena and Ruth. Yes?”

What the hell business of hers was that? “Word on the street travels fast.”

“Ruth, Helena, Marie and a couple more girls and three of the homeless boys have all gone missing. All linked to Pussycat. And all with the same two Chinese men. But this old European guy came and got the twins himself.”

What was this now? Hastings didn’t like her making observations about his enquiries, but he knew Diva could have information for him. He didn’t know a Marie and he hadn’t been aware of any missing boys.  

“This is moving along,” said Sedona. “Now we’re all on the same page and can help each other.”

He wanted to tell her to pipe down but thought better of it. “Miss Diva, why do you concern yourself with this?”

“Maybe I ask you the same question, eh?” She let out a deep sigh. “Look, everybody missing come from a village in Kampang Cham up in Ratanakiri Province. I must find them.”

For the first time, Hastings examined Diva’s features without judgement. Her eyebrows were heavily painted, her skin ashen and she didn’t look particularly well, but in those moments when she dropped the attitude, her eyes were deep and kind. With a heavy heart he acknowledged to himself that only one option, one professional choice existed. “You know more, don’t you? We have some ideas about how to approach this and you have some of your own, right?”

“I do.”

“Would rather not continue this conversation here. There’s a well-known English language bookstore across the river.”

“Near the Japanese Pavilion?”

“Yes, Miss Diva. I’ll leave first with Sedona and get a tuk-tuk. Give us a ten-minute start, then we’ll see you there. Upstairs.”

“I’ll go with Diva.”

“Oh no you won’t. I want to speak to you. Privately.”

The lights went out.

“What on earth?” Hastings turned to the front window. Absolute darkness outside too. “Stay here girls.” Out front he scanned the street, raised one eyebrow and shook his head. The Khmer were useless. Couldn’t even manage to keep an entire power grid from shutting down. With the sound systems having collectively died, annoying chatter rang out loudly. He squinted and observed a group of girls aspiring to turn the situation into a fun-filled moment, dancing and displaying the goods. The wind had picked up the stench of garbage and it burnt his nostrils.

“This is something, eh?” Sedona and Diva were standing behind him.

“I told you to stay inside.”

Diva caught someone’s eye and waved. Hastings recognized the middle-aged lady across the street. Madam Lea, the owner of the Pussycat bar. Looked like Vera with her but he couldn’t be sure, not in that darkness. What he could see was every whore and tourist from every bar and dive gathering in groups on the pavement.

Sedona and Diva turned their attention to the riverside end of the street.

“What’s this now?” said Hastings.

A convoy of police officers rode motorcycles slowly in single line formation behind a sluggish armored police van. Heavy silence descended on the men and women of 118th Street as a cop in the van bellowed militantly, his commands crackling from the loudspeakers. He sounded off in Khmer. He paused. In a thick Cambodian accent, he hollered, “Foreigners return to your hotels. Khmer citizens not from Phnom Penh have 24-hours to return to their home province. Local citizens are confined to their homes. Clear the street. These bars are closed until further notice by order of the Royal Gendarmerie.”

*

As they climbed the stairs in the bookstore, Hastings said, “Anyone can see Diva’s a disaster zone. This could be very dangerous so it’s up to you to convince her to let us take care of it. Alone.”

Sedona slammed a hard-back book down on the reading desk and dropped into her seat. “She speaks Khmer.”

“You speak Khmer.” He didn’t like arguing with Sedona because of her stubbornness and refusal to take the best decisions. Everything with her was emotional.

“Hastings, you just don’t get it.”  Though they were alone upstairs in the library, both kept their voices down. “We’re not locals. No one’s gonna trust us, not like properly, so Diva can do all that stuff. You’re still in charge but I say we work with her.”

He pointed a finger in her face. “I want you to think about finding that boy who identified the Pole as Jakub. Get yourself focused.”

“The city’s going into lockdown, but Diva can help us.” 

“She’s probably from the sticks and that’s where she’ll have to return to. There’s nothing she can do that we—.”

Diva emerged from the stairwell with a boy in tow. About eight years old, he had sallow skin, sloppy clothes and ruffled hair, but his eyes and his smile were bright.

“Who is this? Another prospective business partner?”

“This is Brad Beckham,” replied Diva. “Can we sit.”

She’d found the boy. The boy who knew the Pole by name. Sedona wore a triumphant smile. Okay, so the women had won—for now.

Hastings let out a deep sigh. “Sit. Does the boy speak English?”

“Yes.”

“So what’s going on?” asked Sedona.

“A lot,” replied Diva.

A voice from the stairwell. Diva and the manager shared a few words that were not harsh, but they weren’t pleasant and as the manager retreated back to the ground floor of the store, Diva shook her head.

“Manager’s saying the boy can’t stay. Maybe he steal things.”

Before he could suggest that they all leave, Sedona said, “I’ll take him out the front. You two talk and meet us outside in fifteen.”

This Hastings did not expect, and he raised his eyebrows as he watched Sedona take the boy by the hand and trundle off down the stairs. He wondered why it was so important for Sedona to bring Diva into their fold.

Diva didn’t need any prompting; she got straight into it. “In my province, Ratanakiri, nobody lives past forty. We can’t read or write. No police, no government. A year ago, a Polish businessman with a Chinese partner and Cambodian wife—she comes from one of my neighbor villages—started buying up the land. Kampang Cham has rubber plantations where they do zircon mining in same place.”

Hastings raised one hand and frowned. “Hold on a second. How can you have a mine in the middle of a working rubber plantation?”

“Mines just small holes in between the lines of rubber plants, and one man goes down not more than ten yards. They bring up dirt and search through for zircon crystals. Is safe mining for a man but not a child. Takes maybe a month. Then seal up hole and move on.”

“Okay. So one can be a farmer and a self-employed miner too.”

“No more in Kampang Cham. Not if the monster Doctor Jakub Valski has his way.”

Now Hastings had the full name of his enemy. The opponent he had to erase from existence. Diva went on to tell him of Doctor Jakub’s method of dealing with families who wouldn’t sell their plots to him and wouldn’t allow him to put their children to work clambering up and down through tunnels in the dirt. Small tunnels were best suited to small, nimble bodies and not the adult men. The zircon mines had given the poor in that area a chance to educate their children and turn away from the heartbreak of sending their daughters to sell themselves in the city. Now, ironically, uncooperative families in Diva’s village had to once more send their children out of the reach of Jakub to the relative safety of the city. He’d tracked them to the city, scooped them all up and the families were having to sacrifice everything if they wanted their children returned. 

“Are they all being held in the same place?”

“The boy he tell me small kids they work in mines, but Marie and the twins are with Doctor Jakub in his Dharmasala.”

“Dharmasala?”

“House of Fire. I don’t know where—Brad Beckham thinks he knows—but I know he with a Khmer wife, our girls, two other girls, six guards and lots of guns.”

Hastings checked his watch and rose. “Sedona will be out the front. I’d better go.”  Reluctantly he held out his hand. “I want you to know you can count on Sedona and I to take care of the Doctor Jakub and his gang.”

Diva did not shake his hand.

“Something wrong?”

“We must raid the House of Fire together, with boy’s help or I’m dead and the girls are lost.”

“Why you?”

That brought a wry grin to Diva’s face. “Mr. Hastings, I didn’t find the boy Brad. He look for me. Jakub and his Chinese guards came to town to take the daughters of my village. He couldn’t find me, so he left a message with Brad Beckham whose parents know my parents.”

“The village is your only connection to this?”

“Not only.”  Diva hesitated, then took a deep breath and said, “Marie doesn’t know it but she’s my sister.”

What? Was this a lie? A set-up? “She’s your sister but she doesn’t know it.”

“My father take many women, including Marie’s mother. Before he die, he told me. I see his face in Marie’s face, but I never spoke of it. Many club girls hate ladyboy. They think we’re crazy. So I just say nothing.” She fixed Hastings with a determined stare. “She still my sister. I get her back for my late father.”

For the first time Hastings now considered pulling out of the entire operation. He simply didn’t want to get mixed up in a ladyboy’s business. “How bad can it be letting Jakub control the area? I mean it’s virtually feudal out there anyway.”

“Doctor Jakub likes sex with no legged or no arm girls.”

Jesus Christ. The conversation was beginning to make him a little ill as he felt himself being pushed into a corner. He’d have enough of sharing company with that freak of nature and wanted her gone.

“Are you guys coming?” Sedona peered over the bannister.

“How much of this did you tell her? That message she received through a friend of a friend last week.”

“Just one truth. I need help.”

He glared at Diva. “Do you know what we’re involved in? What we’ll have to do? Killing. Professional cold-blooded killing. Do you know how long it took me to get Sedona up to speed? And she’s a girl. You’re a—” he eyed Diva with disgust. “I don’t know what you are.” 

Diva stood and strolled slowly towards the stairs, all the while gazing at Hastings. “You foreigner Mr. Hastings. You can’t leave Phnom Penh except for airport. I can get you in and out of the city. Brad is useful too. I must get my sister and the twins back.”

As Diva departed, the well-lit store seemed to descend into darkness. A certain and very painful realization dawned on Hastings. He couldn’t find the House of Fire without Diva and Brad. He wouldn’t even be able to get out of town to his country cabin without Diva. His shoulders slumped, with one hand he covered his eyes and ever so slightly he shook his head. Viscount Hastings had himself a couple of new team members.

*  

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