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Lightning on the Sun (Robert Bingham)


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  Out on the street it was late dawn. Though he hadn't really slept, he felt strangely rested. It was a light, ephemeral feeling, a by-product of the drug. A yawning waiter with a hose was washing down the sidewalk. Ah yes, the drug; in a while its synthetic reverence would wear off and it would be a fight not to seek its relief again. Asher had kicked once before. He did not want to do it again, but now he would have to watch out. The sooner you move it the better, he said to himself.

He took an outdoor table at the Rendezvous and ordered coffee and a bowl of morning noodle soup. He bought a Cambodia Daily from a street kid and found out that it was Easter Sunday.

"Well, how about that," he said.

Holidays. He thought about his mother for the first time in months. She'd always liked Easter. Perhaps she'd call. It was not yet seven in the morning and already the sun was beginning to blister. March and April were the hottest months and, feeling the premature heat, a harbinger of the simmering stew of a day to come. He paid for his breakfast and strolled down the riverfront road considering the weather. It was always around this time that he began to need the rains to cool things off. The rains, the rains‹people would soon be anticipating the rains to deliver them from this terrible heat. But then when the rains finally did come, things would begin to be a drag. The roads would flood and melancholia settle in on the soaked town. Only the cyclo drivers liked the rain because they could pedal through the flooded streets, while the moto drivers ruined their spark plugs. The rains. Already he was sweating through his shirt. He could use the rains.

The path along the river was fairly wide and composed of pale red sand he called Jupiter crimson. Up ahead came two Mormon missionaries biking to work. They were sporting identical black aerodynamic helmets, black shorts, and white button-down shirts over black jackets. Insane, thought Asher. Mormons in AC/DC outfits.

"Happy Easter," hailed Asher as they passed. "And God bless the Great Salt Lake and the deep powder skiing of your native state."

The Mormons did not reply. They were like termites, these missionaries, termites slowly eating their way into the fabric of the country. And it wasn't only the Mormons. There was the Assembly of God, rumored to be the largest nongovernment organization, or NGO, in the country, the Seventh-Day Adventists, Gatholics of various stripes‹the whole holy hodgepodge. Most did not waste their time in the capital. They fanned out into the provinces preaching crop rotation and the Word of the Lord.

Asher turned inland at the FCC and was passing the Samart mobile-telephone outlet, when he noticed activity on his periphery. He turned. Down the street a throng of people were marching toward the National Assembly building. It was a demonstration of some sort. Banners attached to bamboo poles fluttered against the sky. There were a few Buddhists in saffron but, by and large, it looked to be a secular crowd. Asher wondered if anyone in the crowd knew it was Easter. He approached. Ah, it was Sam Rainsy's people, the opposition, vocal government critics with little real power. One could always tell Rainsy's people by the large numbers of women. Most of them were textile-factory workers in simple wraparound dresses and flip-flops with Kroma;aahs about their heads to ward off the sun. The crowd was large but relatively quiet. At the front of the procession was their leader, Sam Rainsy. The press had tagged him as "outspoken," but Asher had always found him a gentle man, not one for amassing troops and guns. Rainsy was a great hater of Hun Sen. After the UN election, he'd been forced out of Prince Ranariddh's FUNCINPEC party, which had then been forced into a power-sharing arrangement with Hun Sen's Cambodian Peoples Party. But the CPP had never given up power, and as FUNCINPEC finance minister, Rainsy had never stood a chance of keeping his job for long. He was an intellectual, relatively clean, and was said to own a sizable property in Paris. Rainsy. The man had style, but he was swimming upstream. His support was Phnom Penh based; they didn't know him in the provinces.

Now the crowd began to circle and chant in front of the National Assembly building. What they were protesting, Asher could not make out. His Khmer was poor and many of the banners were in the confusingly curvaceous Khmer Cyrillic. He wondered where the journos were; obviously in bed. Rainsy had picked a poor time to march, coveragewise. Every single foreign journo was sleeping it off. Still, a march by Rainsy's people--there wasn't much news there, not for the wires at least, not for the foreign barang press. Probably there were some Khmer reporters from the local sheets. Now the crowd was beginning to attract collateral attention. A woman rolled her sugarcane stall to the shaded side of the street and began to do business.

Asher headed past the Royal Palace and took a left onto his street. His apartment depressed him. He turned on his fan and walked into his bedroom. From beneath his bed he pulled out Mao's bamboo pole and then came back into his living room. The fan was on rotation mode. Obviously that would not do. Asher pointed the fan to the ceiling and went into his kitchen for a knife. He cut open one end of the bamboo pole and, standing at his desk, watched as the powder descended onto the table. The sight of the drug drove him to a rumination that was not unlike a prayer.

He was doing this to get back on his feet, right? To land back in the world. Three and a half years was a long time to be away from home, and still the powder descended in circular clumps, flattening slightly as it landed on the table. Home, Chicago, it was an abstraction. Even his mother had stopped calling at Easter. The last two years they'd only spoken at Christmas. Without his fan he began to sweat on the drug. Home was a ship getting farther and farther out to sea or an industrial-strength rubber band stretching itself out from his fingers. If he didn't get home soon, Asher considered, the thing could snap. And as for supply and demand, well, he hadn't created the cold calculus of that one, and he wasn't in any position to alter it either.

"That would be arrogance," he said out loud.

In the distance he could just hear the soft din of the Rainsy demonstration. From the sound of it, the crowd had arrived outside the National Assembly. No, he could do nothing about demand. Faced with an American world, there were just too many taxpayers who demanded to get high. If not he, someone else would satisfy. Still, it was a cop-out and, baseline, he knew it. He took his L.A. gym card out and began to scoop the powder into the envelope. He considered Katherine. Now there was an expatriate, but her expatriatism had a grounding. She was a Brit who hated Britain. Asher was an American who had no strong feelings about his country except that it was home. It was home, yes, home. That was a very strong word. It was important not to forget home. For years now he'd been listening to the seductive calls of the Asian Sirens. They'd lulled him, the Sirens and the Lotus Eaters. Now he had awakened to the necessity of reengagement with home. A man needed a home that was not this apartment in this dusty, witchy little city of which he had tired. But a home in the context of America meant money. America equaled money and, right now, he didn't have enough money to even buy a ticket home. He continued to shovel the drug. His thumb and forefinger were dusted with white and he took a tiny sniffle.

No, he would return to America as a Merchant Prince. He would not return to America penniless. That would be very un-American. As he shoveled powder into the envelope he remembered tossing his mother's cat, Allistair. Asher hated Allistair but for the way she landed on her feet. Once Allistair had been crawling all over an old, old girlfriend, sniffing at her privates as they lay on the couch, and generally being a nuisance. Asher had taken to throwing Allistair high up in the air. No matter how many times he flipped, Allistair landed, still Allistair, on the ground. He went over to the turntable and put on "Year of the Cat." No, America certainly equaled money, and money equaled supply and demand. What he was shoveling now was the only substance in Cambodia where supply vastly outstripped demand, and wasn't that the key to money? Sell high, buy low, the law of supply and demand. They were irrefutable American concepts, iconic canons of economic life. If he fell on the battlefield of this deal, another soldier would fill the gap. If he could, he told himself, he would, but he could do nothing about demand in his native land. It was not his mission to interrupt the market of need. A three-thousand-dollar investment minus whatever he'd end up owing Mr. Hawk turned into eighty to a hundred grand. The whole transaction had to it the power of exponents. Amazing. How many hot dogs would one have to sell in New York for that kind of money?

He could land safely back home. It would buy him time. Katherine had been right when she'd said by the river that he should go home. He'd get the money wired from Julie's boss and send Julie her cut once he'd landed safely home. He'd go back home to Chicago and rest. Asher shoveled and rationalized. This deal was all about landing back on his feet. That was all. Landing on his feet. If he could only...

An explosion hit. Was it thunder? No, this was the dry season. It had come from the direction of the Rainsy demonstration. Percussion grenades, no doubt about it. The sound roared in his ear. Asher ran downstairs and jumped on his Dream. His landlord was standing on the sidewalk.

"What the fuck!" screamed Asher. "What the fuck."

His landlord looked at him blankly, one side of his face twitching with disorder. The old ghosts, thought Asher, the twitch, the death thing. He roared past the palace and shortly was on the scene. About one hundred yards away lay the dead and the soon to be dead. In the grass before him sat a leg blown off at the knee. He watched as the plastic sandal on the foot turned red against the grass. There was a silence. A woman with a shrapnel wound walked slowly toward him, expressionless, bleeding from the shoulder. As Asher ran to help her, he noticed a man in a black T-shirt running toward the crowd with his arm cocked to throw something. Against the blue sky Asher saw two grenades arch through the air.

"Get down!" he screamed, tackling the wounded woman. A glint of light penetrated his closed eyes and then came the horrible sound. It was biblical. The ground shook beneath him. Asher stood up. The grenade thrower was standing near the edge of the park admiring his work.

Asher ran after him. In the bright light he sprinted across the grass, feeling nothing, feeling not his legs nor any sense of anything whatsoever. He ran at a diagonal toward the man with the intent of tackling. The grenade thrower did not see him coming. He was staring straight in front of him. A whistle sounded, and suddenly the man in the black T-shirt's head twitched toward him. He turned his back to Asher and began to run in a diagonal. For a moment Asher was still gaining on him. Then they were crossing a street at the back of the park and had entered the grounds of the Botum pagoda. There were no monks to be seen, only Garudas standing guard beneath an ornamented gateway, the lintel of which Asher had always admired and through which the soldier was now running. Once through the gateway he found himself in a section of Botum with which he was unfamiliar. They were running down a narrow path with walls on either side. Now the soldier was gaining ground on him.

"Hey!" screamed Asher. "Hey!"

The alleyway gave out onto a small square with a yellow pagoda building. There were other soldiers here, all armed with M-16s, and as they saw Asher coming, they closed in on him. Asher stopped and raised his hands. The grenade thrower ran up the stairs of the pagoda and disappeared. The chase had come to an end. Three soldiers dressed in olive and black camouflage, all of them of the Hun Sen variety he'd seen the previous night, had their guns pointed directly at him and were saying heated things in Khmer. One of them withdrew a pistol from his holster and approached Asher. So here it came, death time. Strange that this was how it was going to end, a bullet in the head on the grounds of the Buddha on the day Christ Rose From the Grave. The man with the pistol was of higher rank than the others. He didn't wear a helmet, and was sweating beneath a red beret. He took Asher's hands in his and pressed the palms together in formation of Buddhist prayer or greeting. Then he took his gun and pointed it at Asher's forehead.

"No!" screamed Asher.

He closed his eyes, his hands still in prayer. Suddenly he felt a great stinging pain against his knuckles. He opened his eyes. The commander was pistol-whipping his hand. Asher took another hit to the hand. No sooner had he knelt to the ground then the commander grabbed him beneath the arm and started moving him toward the alleyway. Asher stood up and turned to face the scene one more time. A soldier fired half a dozen rounds at his feet.

"I'm leaving now," said Asher.

As he ran down the alleyway, he saw a figure sprinting in his direction. From the gray outfit and lack of armaments it looked to be one of Rainsy's bodyguards. He had cropped dark hair and a compact build. His eyes were blown wide open with adrenaline and he was running right at Asher.

"Don't go in there," said Asher. "They'll fucking blow you away."

Asher tried to stop the man. He tried to short-arm him, but Rainsy's bodyguard cut Asher's forearm away with a short, chopping martial arts move. Asher watched as the man entered the square. He could hear a tearful shout from the man, a high-pitched insult. There was something about a brother in there. Shots rang out. Asher did not wait to see if the man would return. He ran down the alleyway, back to the front entrance of the pagoda, crossed the street, and stood panting against a tree at the perimeter of the park.

"Call a fucking ambulance," he screamed at the scene. The walking wounded were trancing out. He saw a man standing in the park alone, just standing there, a solitary figure bleeding from the head. Then he fell to the ground. Okay, said Asher, catching his breath. The time has come to assume the mantle of the rational man. Running after a killer, into the lion's den he realized, was not the mantle of a rational man. Suddenly Asher felt a calm. In the distance he saw two men load a mangled body into the back of a pickup truck. The sun was hot, beaming down on scores of other bodies flopping in the street, moaning in the grass.
 
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Excerpted from Lightning on the Sun by Robert Bingham. Copyright © 2000 by Robert Bingham. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.