Asher waited for the bats. The little rats, he thought, where the fuck were they? All day long the bats took shelter in the eaves of the National Museum, waiting for dusk, waiting for the heat to die. Asher paced. The bats were late, and to be late on this particular evening was unsettling. Bad luck, bad karma, bad what? He did not know. He paced his porch, sweating. Asher's porch had a commanding view of the National Museum. It faced east and received good light in the late afternoon. At around six o'clock, give or take twenty minutes depending on the season, the bats took to the local skies in a great cloud of squealing motion.
When it came to his life in Phnom Penh, there were few things of which Asher was proud. One was his third-floor porch with its view of the museum and its back gardens; another was his Honda Dream; and the last was a rule he'd never broken: no drinking until the bats flew. He checked his watch. It was a little past six-thirty.
"Fuck," said Asher.
This evening was of considerable consequence for him and he badly needed a drink. It was late March and windless. The dry heat of January and February had intensified into stupefying weather, and though they were more than two months away, already he'd begun to pray for the rains.
Asher had originally arrived in Phnom Penh as part of a UNESCO restoration team. His first assignment had been the thankless chore of cleaning bat shit off Khmer statues housed in the National Museum. Back then he had been no friend to the bats and their shit. He'd quickly fallen into the camp of "preservation experts" that wanted to see the bats driven from the rafters. His ally in this camp was a Pakistani who would smoke anything handed him, and who like Asher had washed up in Phnom Penh for easy UN money and to get away from a woman.
It evolved that the French preservation community was quite fond of the bats and their shit. From their UNESCO compound computers they spewed memos in nearly perfect English arguing that to rob the bats of their "indigenous setting" would be cruel and unusual. Apparently the National Museum bats weren't just any bats. They were a rare species. Besides, the French argued, it was charming how a handful of the natives were making a good living selling organic fertilizer derived from the bat shit. The debate raged for nearly eight months and engendered a surprising amount of ill will and accusatory letters to the editor in the two local English-language newspapers. The French eventually prevailed, and Asher and his ally Alex were kicked up north to the town of Siem Reap, where they helped reconstruct the earthquake-damaged Elephant Wall, an infuriatingly complicated Khmer bulwark that had fallen into several hundred pieces some centuries ago. The pay was better in Siem Reap, but eventually the two friends, Asher and Alex, fell out with their project supervisor, a pedophile from Rotterdam with a yen for his young Khmer employees. Alex went into the hotel business and Asher into almost nothing at all.
Through his Nikon binoculars Asher watched a lovely Khmer woman he'd nicknamed Lovely Lane Lily sweep the pathways that meandered through the museum's gardens. Ordinarily this view of Lily would be standard enough but tonight he needed her more than ever because her serenity was a powerful antidote to the transaction upon which he was about to embark. Lily was as stunning as ever. She wore a baby-blue dress and looked like a sexy nurse. It had white buttons down the front and was cut fairly low to the breasts by Khmer standards. It had a nice slit at the back. Asher watched Lily sweep. Unlike Asher and the country at large, Lily was at peace, at peace with herself and her work. Asher wondered if she'd ever slept with one of King Sihanouk's many offspring. The Royalists and their FUNCINPEC party--oh, how they'd blown it. It was really kind of sad to see how that murderous bastard of a fascist dictator Hun Sen had muscled them out of power despite the Royalists' victory in the UN-sponsored election. The only ministries FUNCINPEC now controlled were Tourism and Culture. The National Museum was one of the few undisputed bastions of Royalist patronage. The employees were said to be hired for their looks and nepotistic connections to the royal family. It was considered a good job.
Asher put the binoculars away and wiped the sweat from his brow. He walked into his kitchen, drew a bottle of Stolichnaya from his freezer, and returned to the porch. Tonight it would be necessary not to get drunk. He poured a measure into his water glass and waited. The city was nearly silent but for the distant hissing of street stalls and the clattering yelps of his landlord's children playing soccer on the street below. Heads of green palm trees were catching the orange light from the river. It was a windless dusk.
Nervous and impatient, Asher lit a cigarette. The day had dragged horrendously. He'd had breakfast at a noodle stall at the foot of Wat Phnom, where he'd been harangued by street urchins and amputees. An elderly man had offered him an elephant ride. The elephant of Wat Phnom was drugged and lumbered around the circular hill occasionally carrying intrepid tourists.
Asher had arrived at the Bank Indo-Suez five minutes before opening. Standing in the blinding courtyard light he'd felt stupid and criminal. The guards had eyed him suspiciously. Phnom Penh was a secretive town, and when hungover, Asher was susceptible to the distrusts and paranoias that informed the place. The bank had been his only errand of the day, and with it over well before noon, he'd had nothing to do but return to his apartment and wait--wait and try not to drink. When he stood up to put something on his stereo, the bats suddenly took to the skies.
"There you are, you little rats," he said, draining his glass. "I don't know what I see in you."
The bats rose up black against the vermilion roof of the National Museum, a Halloween pictorial, a horde of flying freakery, kinetically connected, swooning above his head before they disappeared in the direction of the river. With three hours to kill he paced and refilled his glass. A massage; he couldn't believe he hadn't thought of it before. Of all hours this one was tailormade for a massage. He lit a stale, two-day-old joint and listened to the seeds crackle and pop. The marijuana in Cambodia was as legally bountiful as it was weak. It was necessary to wet one's papers with hash oil if one wanted to get high, but Asher's hash oil had run out months ago. No matter; it would be necessary to balance drugs tonight. Balance was the theme. Nimbleness and balance. If he wanted to come out on top, nothing must dominate. He stubbed out the joint and went inside to change. His bedroom smelled of himself, of his sweaty socks and months of compounded cigarette smoke. On his bedside table sat a high-end tourist replica of the four-headed statue that guarded the ancient city of Angkor Thom. Four Buddha faces in the likeness of God King Jayararman VII stared in four directions.
"North, south, east, west," said Asher. "Watch it."
Typically Asher took his four-headed Buddha bust as a discourse on perspective. It was a reminder, this bust, that most problems could be solved if approached from varying perspectives, from the perspective, say, of one's enemy. "Know thy enemy, know thy self," that kind of thing. Tonight, Asher touched the lips of the God King and went with a more literal translation. He went with vigilance. The heads had been used as watch towers to guard the sacred city. There were unreliable people in Phnom Penh, people to watch out for in all directions.
His bed was a mess, sheets crinkled and soiled. It occurred to him that it had been months since anyone but himself had frequented this room. White, or what the Khmers referred to as barang, Phnom Penh society had begun to bore him with its predictability. It was dominated by journalists who indulged in all the clich*s of their trade. Asher was friendly with a handful but collectively called them "journos" behind their backs. These journos seemed primarily to interview one another, and drank at the same bars. If desired dead, they would be easy to find. He pulled on his jeans and took a gray button-down shirt from a closet hanger. Then came athletic socks and a navy-blue windbreaker. From beneath his bed he took out a worn leather satchel that had been left behind by a Flemish World Health Organization field coordinator, a terrible house guest. In the bag was three thousand dollars in cash, wrapped in three equal bundles.
At the top of the stairs he slipped on his sneakers and clambered down to the street-level workshop of his landlord, Mr. Hang. Mr. Hang specialized in the mass production of canvases depicting iconic Khmer landmarks for the burgeoning hotel trade. Asher suspected Mr. Hang for an opium smoker but had no evidence to back up his suspicion. Tonight Mr. Hang was swaying softly in a hammock listening to Khmer music on the radio. One of Asher's arrangements with Mr. Hang was that he was allowed to keep his Honda Dream parked in the landlord's workshop. It cost him a few thousand extra riel a month, but he was glad of the security. He wheeled his bike out the front door, kick-started it, and was shortly on the move.
The evening, as usual, calmed him. There was something special in the night air, a feeling of lassitude and excitement that endeared him to the city. You made your own arrangements here, and the outcome was your personal pleasure or problem. It was a city of twists, a town of secrets, a wonderfully lawless place, a good city for a motorbike. He took a right along the river. The Foreign Correspondents Club was alight from above. He could hear the din of chatter. The journos and their dates were in high cocktail hour, going at it again. Asher shook his head. The female AP correspondent was said to be dating the new Reuters guy. They gave each other scoops, so to speak. Asher took another right onto the road fronting the Royal Palace. It was a wide, low-lying boulevard that got swamped in the rainy season and was often impassable. Tonight it was dry and uncrowded. Guards in khaki uniforms stood idly at intervals, leaning on their guns, biding time by the palace wall. On his left Asher passed the Renakse Hotel, which had recently opened an outdoor restaurant he had no interest in frequenting. Gaudy high-wattage Christmas lights were strung up over the bar, illuminating the ads for Angkor and Tiger beer.
At Independence Monument he hit a crowded roundabout. The French and their former colonies. . . . This was Phnom Penh's equivalent of the circle surrounding the Arc de Triomphe. Built in the Haussmann style, it was a heavily trafficked affair with a tall, honeycombed monument in the middle. Asher found it difficult to manage. There were no rules at Independence Monument. He was nearly sideswiped by a white Toyota with tinted windows. Asher cursed the vehicle and was glad to finally be heading down Norodom Boulevard, one of the major thoroughfares off the circle, which led to many things, including Mr. Hawk's massage parlor.
The lobby of the Apsara was furnished with black leatherette love seats. Unzipping his windbreaker, Asher felt goose bumps from the air-conditioning. A fresh breeze had perhaps never visited the Apsara. There were mirrors on doors, mirrors on the back walls and on various tables. There was a full-length mirror behind the bar. A few of the ladies of the establishment looked into their own handheld mirrors. They were all huddled together inside a Plexiglas box at the far end of the room. Mr. Hawk greeted Asher with his usual obsequious affability.
"You have come later than usual but still you have come," he said. "It is good to see you, Asher. Would you like a beer?"
"Perhaps afterward, Mr. Hawk."
A massage, after all, is a banal enough private moment for a man and not terribly worthy of exploration. Asher chose number 36, a good running-back number, and disappeared into one of those soiled little windowless rooms.
Upon hearing the good news that UN personnel were to be given $120 per diem, Nuon Hauk, known as Mr. Hawk to the Westerners who knew him, flew to Saigon, where he spent several days recruiting country girls off his cousin, a pimp from Cholon. As luck would have it, his cousin was in debt to a consortium of Chinese businessmen who'd lent the man a considerable sum of money to acquire virgins. When word got around that many of the so-called virgins were not virgins at all but had instead used pig's blood, the cousin considered suicide. Not only had he lost much face, but his loan was shortly called due. And so Mr. Hawk, who had nothing but secret disdain for the extravagant falsities of the virgin trade, picked the girls up on the cheap. Fortune had smiled on him, and before he returned to Phnom Penh, he paid a visit to the Phung Son pagoda in Cholon, where with trembling hands he lit stack after stack of votive dummy money in thanks.
And so in those halcyon days of the UN presence in Cambodia, the Apsara prospered. A trickle of overweight Finns and Danes were the first regulars. They were the most disinclined to the heat and seemed to take just as much refuge in Mr. Hawk's air-conditioning as they did in their fifteen-dollar massages. They were followed by Russian helicopter pilots. The Russians were known for their criminal sociability and saw their stay in Cambodia as a financial boondoggle. They were thieves, and the UN was a great unguarded henhouse for the fox. No one seemed to own anything. All of it, the Land Cruisers, the video cameras, the demining equipment, the mobile phones, the cases of canned goods, the frozen steaks--they were all up for grabs. Sometimes Morris Catering, the UN's food supplier, could be a difficult institution from which to thieve but, Morris aside, pilfering from the UN was like taking candy from a baby. For the Russians the only problem was unloading what they had stolen, and this is where the Apsara came into play.
The local Cambodian powers-that-be in the black market distrusted and feared the Russians. Perhaps they were resentful of the imperial attitude the Russians had taken toward Cambodia in the wake of the Vietnamese invasion. In the 1980s Phnom Penh's streets were filled with drunk Russians, patrons of the occupying Vietnamese. The Russian pilots took a dim view of the indigenous Khmer population and the feeling was returned. Yet the Russians needed a broker they could trust to help them unload the stolen Land Cruisers and other UN paraphernalia. They went to the Tamali Tigers, a close-knit group of Sri Lankan separatists who'd taken up residence in Phnom Penh in order to trade arms. Quantity not quality was what Cambodia was known for in the arms department. There were American grenades and M-16s, Chinese handguns, Vietnamese armored personnel carriers, Russian mines, a wonderful bazaar of Cold War armaments augmented by more modern UN equipment. Supply greatly outstripped demand.
Excerpted from Lightning on the Sun by Robert Bingham. Copyright © 2001 by Robert Bingham. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.