It’s midnight and I’m backing away from a decapitated corpse.
8 hours earlier
My plane touched down on the runway at Phnom Penh airport. Bit of a bumpy landing but we made it. My intention had been to continue holidaying for another fortnight before taking up a six-month post with the World Bank in Hong Kong. Birding is my life. Based primarily in northern Cambodia in a forest cabin and living off the grid, I’d been successful in my quest to photograph the endangered Giant Ibis and abundant woodpeckers of the dry dipterocarp forest. To my delight I experienced the entire forest simultaneously blooming, producing a profusion of exotic flowers and winged fruits. My plans were, once in Phnom Penh, to take a riverboat ride up the Tonlé Sap to the Vietnamese border.
I’d enjoyed the brief and peaceful flight across the country. Strolling through the airport, I found that the contrast between the empty plane cabin and the terminal couldn’t have been greater. A thousand scurrying Westerners. I shrugged it off though. After going off the grid for a few months, as I routinely do, it’s not unusual to find disconcertion in something as simple as the crossing of a busy street. The nature of my work as a financial analyst allows me to avoid humanity and work primarily alone and online.
Even that would be unbearable if I didn’t get to spend six months of the year birding in lush grasslands or alpine meadows, boating on crystal-clear lakes or wandering through glacial-carved valleys and over rolling hills and forests,where the bison, mountain lions, bobcats, grizzly bears and wolverines roam free to hunt or be hunted in a never-ending engagement where only the strongest survive. My role on this planet is solitary and purely voyeuristic. I prowl, I stalk, I pay witness and a kind of homage to the avian world above.
I exited the airport and headed for the taxi rank. Someone had his eyes on me. A scrawny local. The weasel type. He had a slight hump on his back, wore wraparound sunglasses and a grubby shirt.
“Tuk-tuk, sir? My name Trig and I only charge four dollars to city center.”
The going rate was ten dollars, so I nodded and handed him my bag. “I need a hotel near the river. Reasonably cheap and very quiet.”
Typically the tuk-tuk ride from the airport is a jarring passage through busy highways and cluttered little thoroughfares. It’s all dust, zigzagging, sharp turns, beeps and honks.
On this occasion, however, the peculiar reality of my environment put a crease in my forehead. I sat up, slipped my glasses on and, glancing over Trig’s sweat-stained shoulder, studied the streets and buildings. Something was different. Something had changed since my last visit in 2019. The metropolis had vaporized. No people, no cars, no hum of traffic or scent of gasoline. No heaving markets, textile vendors, spice sellers and fried fish hawkers.
Phnom Penh was a ghost town.
Police barricades were everywhere. We turned into 41st Street and I ordered Trig to pull over and let me know what the hell was going on. Via a series of broken sentences and hand signals, he described the flu epidemic. Coronavirus crisis. Certain parts of town were locked down.
“So where are you taking me?”
“Room going at the Western Inn.”
I had a fellow birdwatcher called O’Kelly, an Irish guy, who stayed at that joint, located behind the Night Market near Riverside. I didn’t know O’Kelly well and avoided the red-light end of Riverside like the plague, but Trig said the inn was peaceful. “You sure they’ve got vacancies?”
“Sure, sure.” That morning Trig had been tasked with transporting the belongings of a Norwegian fellow whose room the housemaid had to clear out after the police detained him. I slapped an extra dollar in Trig’s hand and on we pressed. Some streets were ruled over from gutter to skyline by gilded temples with golden spires, others little more than shantytown, a cacophony of rickety walls and rusty tin roofs.
The sun set. We turned into Seng Ang Street and were not a stone’s throw from the inn when Trig slowed down, then abruptly pulled over. He sprung out from behind the wheel and shared words with a character standing in the doorway. When he returned, a grim look marked his face. I held out my hands as if to say, “What’s up?”
“That man called Gunshot. He make finger gesture at you, so I ask him, and he tell me no Western pimps allowed in this street.”
Well, that I did not expect, but I didn’t take it too seriously. In truth, I couldn’t help but smile. I hopped out of the tuk-tuk and approached the fellow, ready to clarify my status as a law-abiding tourist, but nothing prepared me for what happened next. He slammed me in the face. I saw stars and realized I was flat on my back. Trig helped me into the tuk-tuk, and we drove on. I’m no martial artist but never expected to get knocked out with a single blow for pimping.
“Where are you taking me?
“Don’t be scared.”
“I’m not scared now where are we going?”
“I take you to safe place.”
“The hell you will.” Maybe I had a headache and a sense of shame but that didn’t mean I was about to run away. “Take me to the Western Inn.”
Couldn’t look Trig in the eyes as I handed him his cash. He made sure I was okay. Then, at the wheel of his rickety little tuk-tuk, Trig shot off down the street.
I gazed into the distance. Gunshot was too far away to see clearly, but I could sense his presence. On more than one occasion in the jungle I’ve had a wild cat at my back. Had to unsheathe my Randall knife and take care of business. And I did. But Phnom Penh was no jungle and I resigned myself to forgetting the incident and getting myself settled in at the inn.
I slid the iron door open and stepped inside. Well, it was definitely a cowboy joint. Hank Williams’ stoned ramblings drifted lightly from speakers above the bar. The chairs were wicker and roomy. The mahogany wooden walls were a nostalgic celebration, featuring photos, the Stars and Stripes, a dusty wagon wheel, a Telecaster and a couple of acoustic guitars. Beneath the widescreen monitor at the end of the bar stood a blackboard emblazoned with the daily specials. Huevos rancheros, tortillas, refried beans—that sort of thing.
Eight or nine Victorian miners’ lamps hung from the low ceiling, and in the air I recognized the reliable scent of sausages ‘n’ mash. As with all bars of that kind, the most striking features were the hunters’ trophies. A snarling wild cat, boar’s head and a buck. On the floor to my left, I noticed the obligatory shrine to the Buddha, complete with rice balls, incense sticks and flowers.
I wheeled my bag inside.
And there she was, leaning against the back wall.
The Khmer girl had lustrous black hair that shone like the mane of a sun-bound Pegasus. Her eyes were wide and innocent. The glow of her soft skin gave her complexion a smouldering appearance. But nothing prepared me for her smile. The girl’s whole face lit up as those full, sensual lips opened to reveal an ivory white horseshoe of teeth. Her slim figure had a gorgeous symmetry, and the desire—one I’d never experienced before—to cross the bar and slip off the red cotton frock masking her beautiful body completely overtook me. Naturally, I picked my jaw up off the ground and composed myself.
“Hi,” she said.
“Hello. And you are?”
“Veata is my name.” She studied every inch of me before noting, “You’re bald.”
“Need room or drink?”
“Both,” I replied, ambling to the bar. “A glass of your finest milk, please.”
I shook my head and dropped into a seat. “My name is Bernard Halibut. Does O’Kelly still live here?”
“Irishman? No, he away to watch the birds.”
I never cared for Riverside and all the creepy nightlife, and though we weren’t smack bang in the thick of it, I needed a bit of clarification before I committed to staying there. “I just had an unpleasant encounter with a local. The tuk-tuk fellow did his best to explain, but perhaps you could throw in a few more details. What’s going on in this town?”
She handed me my drink and then laid it all out for me. The country was now in lockdown as the government battled the proliferation of COVID-19. Of Phnom Penh’s two million residents, almost a million were the underclass from the provinces and they’d been ordered to evacuate the city and return home. Most of them originally drifted into the inner city in search of work and were reluctant to return to the abject poverty of the jungles and shantytowns. Thus, the police and army had moved in and strong-armed them out. The day before I arrived, operators in the red-light district defied the order to close up their clubs, so the cops pulled the plug on the power grid, plunging those sordid streets into darkness.
“So disease is here, Mr. Halibut.”
“Humanity—now that’s the real disease on this planet.” Maybe Veata took that as a joke but I’d never been more serious. Gunshot planting one on me, as he did, really pissed me off. “The world can keep its loving families. Give me a dark forest and a barn owl any day.”
“So you no like people?”
“People don’t realize the mandarin duck is one of God’s most exquisite creatures. They think it’s something you eat over a bed of white rice.” Adopting a more serious tone, I asked, “Are restaurants open in the evenings at least? I mean, can I go out for dinner?”
“No,” replied Veata, with a firmness that told me who’s the boss. “All police leave city at five. That’s every day.”
“They got families to protect too. Nights are dangerous, you know.”
“As can be the days,” I replied, rubbing the freshly emerging lump on my cheek.
“Power goes out every night. Come now.” Veata rounded the bar and beckoned for me to follow her. She was barefoot and wore glitter nail varnish on her tiny toes.
We ambled through the beige paneled saloon doors out the back and up the stairs. The room was modest but comfy.
“Sorry about tools beside cupboard. Workman fixing air conditioner and fans.”
A double bed, wardrobe and battered air conditioner. It whirred like a horde of insects droning in the forest at midnight. Strange how one doesn’t need to check the rooms to know a hotel is deserted. Suited me just fine, but the situation in the country was a little too chaotic and I made up my mind to fly to Hong Kong in the morning.
“Will pay you for tonight, then I’ll have to be leaving tomorrow.” I took out some cash, then turned around to face Veata. Couldn’t believe what I saw.
She had tears welling in the sparkling diamonds that were her eyes. Before I could enquire as to the source of her distress, she collapsed into my arms and was sobbing uncontrollably. I held her tightly. Veata’s body was velvet soft, and her hair had a sweet lavender fragrance.
She slipped her hand into mine and led me to the balcony. The sultry night air washed over me. Darkness had settled on the urban metropolis. Random pinheads of lights flickered like a handful of luminosities strewn hither and yon across the grey concrete landscape.
“That doorway.” She pointed to an entrance at the base of a grimy building about fifty yards down our narrow, cobbled street.
“Wait a second.” Too dark to use my spotting scope. From my bag I removed my new night vision goggles, strapped them on, scanned the building, and there in the doorway stood Gunshot. Couldn’t bring myself to tell her he’d decked me with one punch. “Just a man in a doorway,” I mumbled.
Veata took a step back. “Listen to me.”
According to her, Gunshot had been selling methamphetamine from that doorway for months, bringing all the Khmer lowlifes into the inn and scaring the Westerners away. His drugged customers would order drinks they couldn’t pay for, then use the bathrooms as a shooting gallery. She’d tried to reason with him, but he’d told her to get lost. Two weeks ago he’d been arrested by cops who beat him to within an inch of his life. They released him. He returned. He blamed Veata for ratting him out and swore vengeance.
“From sunset until very late he always in doorway. Always watching me.” She trembled and whispered, “Now no police around at night. He coming for me.”
I wanted to confess to being one of his pathetic victims but couldn’t bring myself to recall such a pitiful story. “Can’t the other staff here support you in all this?”
“Who? The sixty-year-old maid? They all back in provinces.”
I led her inside and slid the balcony door shut. “When and how do you think he’ll come for you?”
“Tonight, I think he watch me. He enjoy my fear. Could be any day after then.” She dropped onto my bed, cupped her hands over her face and gently sobbed.
I caught sight of myself in the mirror. The classic nerd. Thirty-one years of age, prematurely bald but still reasonably nimble from all that swinging around in trees. Bookish, polite, no trouble to anyone. I’d had a lifetime of it. The world never once sitting up and taking notice of me. Now humans felt free to kick my ass whenever it suited them.
Veata slipped out of her red frock. She reached for my arm and pulled me down onto the bed. Have to admit I’d never enjoyed making love before. Tried a few times as a younger fellow but sex meant nothing to me. The most extraordinary lovemaking I’d ever known had been an entirely vicarious experience back in 2010. Two bald eagles were hunting snakes. They then engaged in a ritual known as the cartwheel courtship flight. They flew high, locked talons and went into a cartwheel spin as they fell to earth, breaking apart at the last minute, not fifty yards from my post behind a Douglas fir tree in west-central British Columbia. Never thought that could be topped until Veata rocked my world with her warm tongue and sensual touch.
An hour later, as Veata took a shower and I lay on my bed drenched in sweat and staring at the ceiling, it occurred to me that I had to do what needed to be done. Wasn’t hard for me to summon up enough hatred to go after a scoundrel like Gunshot. A drug dealer who’d attacked me without reason. The cops wouldn’t be around to do a damn thing about it. Phnom Penh was no longer a city; it was the jungle. Gunshot had blundered his way into my world.
Veata had reached out to me with the hand of destiny. I wasn’t about to slap it away.
The voyeur had to become the hunter.
There’s a certain moment on any kind of expedition into the wilds when a man realizes he’s on his own. He’s vulnerable. Nature, wild beast or malevolent foe could get you in its crosshairs and you’d better watch out. That’s the sense of risk and freedom the outdoor wanderer, whether he’s a mountaineer or a bushwalker, craves. I felt it in spades that evening, sitting on the floor of my balcony and gazing into the night in a city the police had deserted. Random chatter and shouts and the soft weep of a baby crying fluttered across the night air. Suddenly, what sounded very much like a burst of gunfire down by the river’s edge caught my ear. Could have been nothing more than the grease monkeys making a noise at the local chop shop, but whatever that clatter was, it sparked the formulation of my modus operandi.
Years ago, in an African everglade, I witnessed one of the most vicious birds in the world plying its trade. Balaeniceps Rex—commonly known as the shoebill—is a huge stork-like bird. It stood deathly still, zeroing in on its game. A tiny crocodile glided across the swamp water. The shoebill powered towards it and then struck, using its powerful clog-shaped bill to snatch up the croc and rip its head off. Following a kill, the call a shoebill makes is like no other in the avian world. A sharp machine-gun-like blast. Then it drifts away into the reeds and shallows to feast on its prey.
I needed a weapon. Had left my knife and a few other things back in the forest cabin. My eyes turned to workman’s tools stacked neatly beside a wooden box in the corner of the room. I flicked my cigarette, shut the balcony door behind me and examined the box. Inside was the new air conditioner. For transportation purposes, the box had been secured with prong-edged banding—sharp prong-edged banding. I used a screwdriver to pry the banding away. Ten minutes later had a length of very sharp metal banding to play with. That would be my garrote. Handles. I’d need handles as the damn thing was too sharp to get a firm grip on.
I removed a portrait of noted Khmer singer Keo Nisa from the wall and extracted two of those small plywood slats you can find in the back of any framed picture. Gaffer-taped them to both ends of the banding. That would make the garrote easier to grip without tearing my hands to ribbons.
With the weaponry prepared, I stepped out onto the balcony and scoured the streets below. Could barely make him out, but there was definitely a silhouette lurking in the dark entryway.
A knock at the door caught my attention.
“He’s there; he’s there.” Veata’s eyes were pleading with me.
“So how do I get the hell out of Dodge once I’ve taken care of him?”
“I’ve left the back door and the back gate open.” She handed me a set of keys. “Leave your bag in my blue Camry. It’s parked in back lane. When you finish you drive to airport. Leave car by the south gate. Keys under seat. Rumor is borders are closing tomorrow night. When they open again, promise me you’ll come back to me.”
“When they reopen I’ll be back.” I slipped the keys into my pocket.
She kissed me, then reached for a glass on the landing shelf. “Here. Dutch courage. Wild Turkey.”
I knocked it down in one.
Ten minutes later I had on my lightweight safari clothing and balaclava. I scurried out the backway. Slipped my travel bag into the backseat of the Camry. Made my way through the lanes.
A deafening silence hung over the neighborhood. Having tucked myself into an alcove across the street and around sixty yards from the doorway, I settled myself down, closed my eyes and focused on my breathing.
Somewhere in the block behind me a cockfight was underway. No mistaking that sound. Manic flutter and boisterous gamblers. The sour odor of rotten meat hung in the air. I strapped on my night vision goggles and scanned the layout. Saw the remains of a couple of rats that had been squashed by tuk-tuks as they scuttled across the street or tossed from rattraps by some scraggly cleaning lady. Rodent roadkill is not an uncommon sight in Phnom Penh, and it accounted for the foul odor.
In the doorway, the flash of a cigarette sparking caught my attention. I took a moment to examine the target. He really was a big fellow, his gaze transfixed on the inn, waiting, no doubt, for Veata to show herself. For a moment I didn’t move, zeroing in on him the same way my old friend the African shoebill sized up that croc. Confident the two of us were alone, I pulled off my night vision goggles. From my pocket I removed the steel band I’d fashioned into a garrote. Made my way towards him. My heart beat faster, then faster still like a crazed prisoner banging on his cell door.
At the doorway I stopped and turned to face him.
“Why’d you insult me, brother?”
With my mind racing at a thousand miles an hour, I didn’t take the time to ponder what a curious question he’d asked.
Leapt on him.
Took his back.
Secured the garrot around his neck.
He cried out in Khmer but only briefly as the band cut into his throat. In unison we tumbled to one side. Gunshot was more powerful than I, but the more he struggled, the tighter the garrot secured itself.
My forearms shook.
I screwed up my face.
Spittle foamed on my lips.
He backkicked me.
He jammed his fingers into my eyes.
A torrent of blood shot out of his neck. The gurgling sound of him drowning in his own plasma and gore will stay with me forever. I pulled the garrote tighter, kicked his body to one side and gasped as his head separated from his neck. The events of the past eight hours flashed before my eyes. Jesus, I really did it.
A check of the watch. Midnight. I scan the street. No apparent witnesses. Race back to the car, rip off my blood-spattered garments and change into a set of clean clothes. Bag up the bloody ones—I’ll toss them on the way to the airport. Am about to slip into the driver’s seat but I notice a figure at the back gate looming in the darkness. He’s coming my way.
“You’re Halibut, right? Bernie?”
“I must go.” I get in, fire the engine and prepare to gun it all the way to the airport. Without invitation O’Kelly hops into the passenger seat.
“Give me a lift. Please give me lift.”
I step on the accelerator and head down the bumpy laneway. Do my best not to appear like a man who has just beheaded a dope dealer. “Where you going, pal?”
“Airport, where else? Last flights out of here leaving tonight.”
The adrenalin dump ties my guts into knots and a woozy sensation begins to overtake me. “What were you doing at the back gate?”
“Had to sneak in and get my passport. That Veata bitch is crazy. The Gardaí nicked that Scandinavian fella today. ’Twas enough to get me running.”
A fireball of dread begins to spin in my guts. The streetlights are a never-ending blur of yellow. A fresh film of salty sweat covers my face. Drips from my chin. I can barely make out what O’Kelly’s raving about. Veata has her sights on taking over the drug trade south of Riverside. She knows the police will take the word of any Khmer over a Westerner and accordingly has made a habit of drawing gullible British and American types into doing her dirty work for her.
Right now I can barely breathe. My arms, my shoulders, they’re going numb.
“You okay? What would be wrong with ya?” O’Kelly is shouting but his delivery is a whisper in the wind as my eyes roll back in my head and the world spins around and around.
“What in the bejesus might these be?” From the backseat he grabs the bag filled with my bloody clothes and holds it aloft. “Pull over. Pull over!”
I slump forward, my footsteps on the accelerator. Can no longer keep my hands on the wheel. There’s a thud as we come to a crashing halt, and a jarring pain rivets my back and neck. I glance at the vacant passenger seat. O’Kelly’s fled into the night. I whisper to myself, “That drink Veata gave me,” and I succumb to a sleep blacker than the blood in a dead nun’s heart.
“You awake?” asks the police officer standing guard in my hospital room.
“I guess.” Sure I’m awake but I can barely sit up.
In Khmer he orders a witness to enter the room.
Trig, the sweaty little tuk-tuk driver has lost the weasel look as he strolls confidently into the room. Somehow he appears taller. Stronger. His back ramrod straight. He points his finger directly into my face. “No kuchea keat. That him! That him! He fight with Gunshot.”
I’m too dazed to react. Now she too enters the room. Veata’s glare is hot and hard as hell. She turns to the cop and says in English, “Yes, he the man who booked the room, then stole my car.” She waltzes away with Trig. I can read body language okay. They’re together.
For now my wings have been clipped. Those vultures think they’ve got me caged forever. The hell I am. In Cambodia you can pay your way out of anything. This bald eagle’s got snakes to hunt.
Bernard Halibut and the Bird of Prey by Peter Abram copyright 2021 originally appeared in The Blue Lotus magazine special issue 5 in February 2021.
The story was edited by A.E. Schwartz. Find more of Ashley’s work here: http://www.authoraeschwartz.com