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Authors: Nick Seeley

Cambodia Noir

BOOK: Cambodia Noir
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For Kate, who made it possible.

June 28, 2003

Airports kill me.

I need to stop thinking about Paris, which is close to impossible at the best of times. But in the farthest wing of Frankfurt terminal, a couple of hours before dawn, as I'm waiting for a plane to carry me away to a city whose name I cannot properly pronounce . . . well, it's a terrible place to be alone with one's thoughts. The lights went dim sometime after two, taking the incessant chatter of Sky News with them, so I have no way of knowing quite what time it is. It feels like the heat's gone, too, and I'm sitting wrapped like a bonbon in souvenir scarves, scribbling nonsense.

For the first hour or so I kept my eyes closed and tried to picture beautiful things: the quiet terraces of Machu Picchu at dawn, or the minarets of Istanbul from the window of a descending plane. But all I could see were the catacombs, with their walls of silent skulls and femurs. In the air-conditioned chill, I felt like I was still down there, rubbing elbows with six million Parisian dead. It was peaceful. No war or massacre filled these halls with bones: they were carted here at night to clear out the city's teeming cemeteries. In one spot, where the remains didn't quite reach the low ceiling, someone had installed electric lamps on a wire, so you could see how far back the charnel house went: row upon row upon row, under glowing bulbs that swept into the dark like the lights of the Vincent Thomas Bridge. . . .

That's when I smelled it: that perfume, like copper and roses, saturating the air around me, and my eyes snapped open. There was no one there, of course: just an airport, scented with nothing but industrial-strength cleanser and heartbreaking loneliness.

I have to think about something else!

Write something. Anything . . . eeny-meeny-miney-moe . . .

Keeping this journal is supposed to . . . I don't know, make me aware or mindful or something. These days I'm not certain that's such a good idea. A lot of my life would be better off forgotten. Perhaps I can find a certain ink that will fade, slowly, into the cream of the paper, taking all my history with it. Or just a marker: I can be like the post office girls in the war, inking out indiscretions from soldiers' mash notes and love letters. My diary will read like the NSA's Greatest Hits: page after page of neat black lines.

I've written things here I've never said out loud, things I've barely dared to think. Surely I could put down why I had to leave Paris?

But you would just think I was being ridiculous. Someday you'll read this, laughing, shaking your head at the silly girl you used to be. You'll wrack your brain, totally unable to imagine where you were when you wrote it, or what you might have been thinking.

Isn't that what I'm hoping for, really, as I fill these blank pages? They hold the promise of that day: when I will be long gone, and you will have forgotten what it's like to be haunted.

CTOBER 3, 2003

I used to be good at this goddamn job.

Most guys act like there's some big secret to shooting news, but that's bullshit: 90 percent of everything is just being there. I was always there. I don't buy the superstitions, the prayers or the signs and portents crap, but I had something: luck, a nose for it—whatever. Blood hit the street, I was the first one with a camera out.

Now I'm stumbling downstairs at 5:00 a.m., wondering how much I've missed. I should have known something was going down tonight, should have smelled it on the wind—

Instead I was fucking dreaming. Can't remember what, but it felt important. Violent. Then the phone, and I was fighting, kicking, clawing my way back through last night's whiskey and cigarette tar and dirty sheets, until I found the fucker under a pillow. Khieu's voice on the line: that meant police stuff, probably drugs. Still, I almost went back to sleep. Fucked if I was getting out of bed to watch Cambodian cops score a few baggies of Captagon and yaba, and I told him so.

“This different,” Khieu said, voice calm as a telemarketer's. “Police make raid on army.”

That got me up. Fortunately, I was still dressed.

I bounce off the wall at the bottom of the stairs and shove through the door into the garage. It's packed with the low-grade touristic paintings and fake temple carvings my landlord sells on the street, and I try not to fall on my face as I squeeze past them. Fumble through the three padlocks on the security grate, morning air damp on my face.

The street outside is empty, silent. Mist hovers over the lawn of the National Museum across the road. On the corner, the motodops are sleeping on the seats of their bikes, knees in the air. They're the hungry ones: nowhere else to go. As I hit the sidewalk, one of them wakes, pushes off his kickstand and starts nosing toward me. I shove past him—bad manners, but he drives too slow.

Prik's still snoring. I swear, the Khmer guys call him Prik: means “hot stuff.” He's got the most crapped-out two-stroke scooter I've ever seen, but he drives like he's found a way off this rock. I shake him awake.

“Street 602—hurry!” He pivots into the seat like a gymnast. I jump on back and we're off, spraying gravel over the dirt road.

Maybe we'll make it.

I shut my eyes and feel the morning glide over me. As soon as I do, the dream comes back—like it was waiting. There's a river, wide and dark and slow. Towers on fire in the night. And again that feeling it means something, that the world's about to change—

The smell of rotting vegetables drags me back to the present. We're passing the traffic circle where the neighborhood brings its garbage. This city hasn't had regular services in decades, but the Khmers cling to some crazy sense of order, piling their trash in neat mounds on curbs and medians, sometimes seven or eight feet high before someone finally hauls it away.

Buildings flow by—shadows in the dark. French-colonial apartments from the fifties and sixties, peeling plaster, wrought iron dripping rust. I check my cameras as Prik slaloms around mud and potholes. At the corner a chunk of road is missing, and we have to slow to a crawl in the uneven dirt. Light a cigarette.

Khieu said the cops were going after the army. That's messed up, even for Cambo. It's no secret the army controls most of the drug trade—the stuff going overseas, anyway. The police have their own rackets going, and they leave the army alone. If this bust is for real, it's a message—but who knows what it means? Maybe some general overreached, and this is a slap on the wrist from on high? Or a dumb show for the foreign governments that pump money into the war on drugs? The cops have been talking tough about trafficking lately. Good for business, with the government the way it is: roust a few pill factories, show the world Cambo hasn't totally fallen apart.

But it could be something else completely. Since the election went bad, everyone's a little wild. The PM didn't get his majority, can't form a government, so the state looks weak. All the old deals are breaking down. Hun Sen won't fall—he's been prime minister for twenty-five years, no one's laying a glove on him. But who's in his corner, who's out in the cold? It's all up for grabs, and the dogs are circling.

A little action would be nice: I gotta sell something.

Try to remember the last time I sold a picture that was actually

There is no news from Cambodia. These days everyone's jazzed on Iraq, Bush's war starting to go bad. I wanted real work, I'd go there, get embedded. Should be good for some bang-bang.

If anyone'd take you. Nine years out here, what are you?

Not much better than those empty fuckers hanging around the riverside, calling themselves journos as they shoot portraits of their hooker-girlfriends and blag for gear. Another ghost, whose luck ran out a long time ago—


There's stuff I'm not allowed to think about.

Lean forward so my mouth is by Prik's ear. “Faster,” I say, in Khmer.

No more war zones. I can die here just as easy, and it's more fun.

The address Khieu gave is in the middle of Phnom Penh, off a main road near the university. The streets are still dirt, but there's more road than pothole. New apartments, villas with lawns for well-off businessmen and foreigners. Not the place you'd expect a drug bust. I lean forward again as we turn onto the side street:

“Slow down.”

Prik nods and eases off the gas. For a minute we're coasting as I scan the silent houses: uneasy. It's more than the square-john neighborhood, something else is making me nervous—a hint of warning in the air? In the distance I hear the crackle of a megaphone; shouted orders I can't make out.

We turn the corner, still cruising slow, and I see the scene up ahead: beat-up cop cars lining the street, headlights picking out a house in the middle of the next block. More shouting from that bullhorn.

Now the feeling hits me full on: danger. I can almost smell it, coming from that lit-up house and blowing down the street, drifting over the cops huddled behind their cars and making the hair on their arms stand on end, slamming windows all along the block until it reaches me, setting the blood rushing to my hands and pricking like needles in my fingers—

It's the smell of nerves on edge, of tempers frayed; of drawn knives, and fear, and things about to go very bad.

Prik feels nothing, doesn't even tense, and I start to tell him to pull up, to wait, but as I open my mouth I see the nearest police car flash white—

For a second, everything stops. Then the air splits and shivers around us, and we're spinning, unstuck from the pavement and skidding sideways off the road—

Crashing takes forever: Prik struggling with the handlebars, sparks flying as the chassis hits the ground. Numbness as we start to slide, in my leg and up my arm. I'm still hanging on to Prik, weightless as the bike drifts away from us, finally coming to a stop against a wall, and over and over in my head I see that car turning to fire. My ears are ringing—eventually I realize it's the explosion, grenade probably, nothing big, but if we'd been closer—


The word snaps the world back into focus:
You are in shock.

Sound comes back first: deafening spatters of gunfire. Screaming. Then pain, racing up my side where I've slid through the dirt. Prik's a few feet away, up on one elbow, staring at the flaming wreckage of the police car. I grab his arm.

“Move! Now!”

We drag ourselves off the street, behind the corner of the villa we've crashed into. I run my hands over him, checking for wounds, for bones out of joint—his left side is a mess of scratches and blood, but I don't see anything permanent.

BOOK: Cambodia Noir
4.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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