It is all very well to be able to write books, but can you wiggle your ears?
I posted a first chapter of this story online a while ago, except that it turned out not to be the first chapter at all. The early focus of the story shifted from New York to Cambodia. The story returns to New York later. I thought you might be interested in the first chapter as it now stands? And so here it is.
The police helicopter touched down in the middle of a tiny market square in a remote village in Svay Rieng province. It only rested on the dusty ground long enough for a man called Lim to spill from its belly, and then it lifted away into the dark night sky. Lim watched it disappear, and then melted into the shadows at the corner of the square. The village was remote and isolated, and the tiny marketplace was the only flat surface for twenty miles in any direction. It was not the first time Lim had arrived this way. There was yet some lingering support for the old regime within the police force, and the loyal ones were still willing to turn a blind eye to Lim’s comings and goings. So from time to time, the helicopter would touch down in the marketplace just long enough to unload, never stopping its engines. Then it would soar away again, and none of the villagers would pay any attention to it at all.
Lim slipped along an alleyway between two rice farmer’s houses. The buildings were traditional, anchored in the sloping ground with bamboo stilts. He slipped underneath them as he headed towards the river, careful not to cast shadows in the moonlight. When he reached the water, it was a thick muddy soup, waiting to be swollen and diluted by the approaching monsoons. A rickety wooden boat was staked on the opposite bank, and Lim cursed his luck. He slipped off his shoes, and began wading through. He did not like the water at night. The clay on the riverbed cloyed and sucked at his bare feet, and he shuddered as he imagined strong silent water snakes wrapping themselves around his ankles and pulling him down. The water reached his waist, sticking to him like oil, and still he pushed on. It reached his chest, but there was no time to find a safer place to cross. He inched forward through the water, careful to keep his balance as the current began to pull at him, until eventually the stream began to shallow. When he reached the other side, he found the mud path between the trees and pushed on into the thick rainforest.
Lim always arrived in the dead of night. He was the only person Ta Penh trusted to make the journey; but even that honour was not enough to stop him shuddering as he pushed into the dense leaves and hanging vines. As the mud path narrowed, he began to hear noises in the darkness. There were tigers here, high in the Cardamom Mountains. Animals with better eyesight than his, stalking through the trees. Leaves brushed his against shoulders and he imagined deadly spiders dangling from the trees and crawling onto his skin. Despite fear tingling in his spine, Lim pushed on. He quickened his pace and headed further into the trees. He could not afford to be late for the old man. Ta Penh was far more dangerous than anything else lurking in the trees.
Lim stopped walking when he heard the spring gurgling in the darkness, and followed the sound until his outstretched hands felt water trickling down the cool rock face to the right of the path. It was a sign that he was heading in the right direction, and he took a moment to wash his face and clean the clay from his feet. It would not be a smart move to arrive at the camp caked in mud. Especially as he was delivering bad news.
Once he was clean, Lim pushed further into the heart of the rainforest. The leaves became denser until the moonlight was blocked out altogether and he had to stretch his hands out in front of himself to keep on the path. Torches were forbidden and although he could no longer see the path at all, he knew better than to break the rules. Especially now that he was so close. Ta Penh’s place was hidden below the jungle canopy, out of the view of any prying eyes that might fly overhead. More than once, hanging vines brushed across his face and he lashed out at them in panic. The third time it happened, he heard laughter in the trees high above him. Someone was watching.
He reached the clearing three minutes later. The canopy opened and in the moonlight he could see huge holes in the earth where the trees had been ripped right out of the ground. A familiar smell began to perfume the air. A sickly fragrance, masked by the stench of burning wood. The sweet smell was oil. Tree roots were being boiled up in the giant cauldron, and the liquor slowly distilled. The smell of burning came from the giant fire under the cauldron. Lim stepped into the moonlit opening, walking between huge piles of felled trees. He took a moment to catch his breath and to let his pulse settle. Then he waited. After a minute he turned on the spot and stared back into the blackness, but he saw nothing. In the silence, he began to rehearse his message. He imagined how the old man might react, and what instructions he might have to take back out of the forest with him. Before long he became aware of movement behind him. A voice called out to him in Khmer.
‘It’s Lim,’ he replied.
A torch shone through the darkness and he squinted. Four men approached and set about searching him with rough, workmen’s hands.
‘You should know me by now,’ he complained.
‘Just stand still,’ one of them said, ‘and let us do our job.’
Soon enough it was over, and the man who had spoken took Lim across the clearing towards the glow of the fire. As he got near, he could see the heavy forest machinery caught in flickering light. Machines with teeth that could grind through root and soil. Saws that could chew through the giant trunks in seconds. Soon he was close enough to hear the cauldron bubbling away, breaking down the roots of the Mreah Prew Phnom trees until they released the Sassafras Oil that the men in the camp were producing. He could feel the heat of the flames on his face. The fire was at the heart of the operation. Soon enough the oil would be carried away over the border to Thailand, and Ta Penh would make enough money to compensate them all for the noise and the smell and the dangers of the Cardamom Mountains.
It took them nearly five minutes to reach the house. The clearing is growing, Lim thought as he trudged along, and he wondered how long Ta Penh would stay in this place. It took four trees to produce a barrel of oil, and another six to keep the fires burning. They were producing a lot of barrels. They were felling a lot of trees. If the clearing got big enough, someone would notice. Even out here, in the middle of nowhere. And Ta Penh was a man who valued his privacy.
His house was constructed in the traditional fashion, but it was much bigger than those Lim had passed in the village by the stream. Dim light spilled from small windows and made the place look warm and welcoming. The centre of the spider’s web, Lim thought. A huge man stood guard at the front door. His head was completely shaved and his scalp was covered in ugly scars. Lim knew that he had been a decorated soldier back in the days when Ta Penh had been a great General, in the time before history had chosen a new future for Cambodia and sent the old man into exile. The soldier’s face was set in a permanent scowl, and his jaw was crooked where it had been broken and badly reset. He set about searching Lim all over again.
‘They already did this in the forest,’ Lim said.
The soldier shrugged.
‘Maybe I don’t trust them,’ he said. ‘Or maybe I don’t trust you.’
He was old and grizzled and Lim knew that he had killed many people in his life. Lim was wary of him the same way he had been scared of the water snakes in the stream, because he suspected the soldier had the same reptilian instinct for lashing out without fear of consequence. For most people, an argument with the soldier would end very badly indeed. Even thought Lim was favoured by Ta Penh, which meant nobody in the camp would dare to cross him, he was still wary as hell of the soldier.
‘You don’t trust me?’ he asked.
The old soldier glared at him and grunted, not committing himself to an answer either way.
‘Ta Penh trusts me,’ Lim pushed. ‘Are you doubting his judgement?’
The solider looked uncomfortable. He knew that Lim was important. Ta Penh was a cautious man and nobody came or went in the camp except Lim. Nobody in the camp used a telephone, because telephones could be bugged. Government satellites could intercept cell phones. And the Internet. And television. And email. So all of them were all banned by Ta Penh. He ran his entire empire from the middle of the forest using one connection with the outside world: Lim.
‘Well?’ Lim asked again. ‘Do you think Ta Penh is a fool?’
The soldier swallowed.
‘No,’ he said. ‘Of course he is not.’
Lim nodded tersely. The soldier led him into the heart of the building, without saying another word. He ushered him into the usual reception room, with its heavy rug and European furniture. For a temporary place, it was luxurious. Lim imagined it was how Emperors used to live on the battlefront. Despite having won the argument, he had to force his hands to stop shaking as the gnarled old solider made his way back outside. He tried to make himself comfortable in a leather back chair. Sometimes Ta Penh kept Lim waiting for hours, but not today. The old man swept into the room seconds after Lim sat down. He was near seventy, but discipline and drive had kept him lean and sharp. Lim stood up when he entered the room, but Ta Penh waved him down.
‘Lim,’ he said, greeting him as a father greets a son. ‘How are you?’
Lim nodded. ‘I’m fine.’
He wondered if his tone would be enough for Ta Penh to guess that all was not well. The old man looked at him carefully. He said nothing else, but sat down at a low table in the middle of the room. With a sweep of his hand, he invited Lim to do the same. He took a teacup from a tray in the middle of the table and set it down in front of Lim, and then did the same for himself. Then he put a third in front of an empty chair next to his own. He poured tea, slowly and deliberately, into each of the three cups. Lim shuddered, because he knew what the empty seat meant. He knew who it was for.
‘I don’t have it,’ he said, when the silence became unbearable.
Ta Penh’s hand faltered, but after a moment he resumed stirring his tea, and looked up at his messenger.
‘Why not?’ he asked quietly.
Lim was honest. After all, none of it was his fault.
‘They couldn’t find it.’
He glanced nervously at the empty chair.
The old man frowned. ‘And the money?’
Lim took his time. Chose his words carefully.
‘They can’t be sure where it is,’ he said. ‘It wasn’t in the case.’
Ta Penh said nothing, so Lim pushed on with the worst of it.
‘There is something else,’ he said quietly. ‘She wasn’t on her own.’
Ta Penh took a sip of tea, suppressing his anger.
‘She should have been on her own,’ he said.
Lim swallowed. After a moment, he half nodded and half bowed his head in contrition.
‘Who was with her?’ Ta Penh asked eventually.
Lim took a breath. He had not been looking forward to this part.
‘A man,’ he said slowly. ‘A tourist. They walked through the airport together. She took the bus to Kep and he hired a dirt bike for himself. Chhan followed the man on the bike, because they already knew where the bus was going.’
As he spoke, he could see the anger building in Ta Penh.
‘Chhan left the girl?’
Ta Penh’s brow hooded his dark eyes, and for a moment he looked more frightening than ever. He looked like a devil. Lim reminded himself that he was just the messenger. His job was simple: tell the truth, no matter how difficult. If he did that, he would stay in Ta Penh’s favour. If he stayed in Ta Penh’s favour, no harm would come to him.
‘The tourist drove to Kep and hired a place on the beachfront,’ Lim continued. ‘The girl rented a place in town.’
Ta Penh spoke quietly: ‘They checked her hotel?’
‘They are doing it now.’
The old man put his finger to his lips, thinking. After a minute, he drained his teacup and stood up. Lim did the same. The old man moved to the window and stared out into the blackness. During the day the view stretched across the clearing, and Ta Penh had become accustomed to staring out into the valley when he was thinking. But tonight the window was black and his face was reflected back into the room. Lim watched his features for a sign of his mood.
‘Call New York,’ the old man said eventually. ‘Make sure the case was loaded onto the plane.’
Lim nodded, and stood up from his seat.
‘I will call him tonight,’ he said.
He bowed to Ta Penh, and bowed to the empty chair too. Then he turned and started for the door. He was almost there when the old man called him back.
‘Don’t forget Chhan,’ he said. ‘He must learn from losing the girl.’
He pulled a worn black pouch from inside his clothes, and held it out. It was well used and frayed at the edges. Lim took it nervously, folding it with care and tucking it into his pocket.
‘Take an eye,’ Ta Penh said. ‘It will remind him to use the other one more keenly in future.’