Angkor Wat complex, Siem Reap, Cambodia
IT IS A TUK TUK RIDE at four in the morning from nearby Siem Reap where we gather at a small hotel that is located away from the subtle Las Vegas style hotels along the wide French boulevards, far behind the gate-like shrubs that keep the undesirables away because they serve the wealthy tourists. The out-of-tune motor vibrates my body throughout, my butt and lower extremities now numb, my teeth chattering in reaction.
In the pre-dawn darkness I profusely sweat in the backseat, informally dressed in my khaki pants and short sleeve cotton only white shirt. A constant tropical heat requires me to skip formal business attire. The instructions are that I am to arrive alone, but Saigon Bear Cub convinces me he and a support crew should come along, not out of loyalty, but to protect their meal ticket. They are assembled in several tuk tuks behind me as we make our way to the Angkor Wat main entrance gate. Amazingly, there is a traffic jam at this time of the morning. Apparently this is a daily tourist ritual to watch the sun come up over the main wat, which is considered the largest religious complex in the world, even greater than Vatican City.
But I am not here to admire the view, take pictures or socialize as there is urgency to this situation. Once I am comfortable that my back-up can see me from their vantage point, I jump out of the seat with my laptop weighing me down, make my way to the two main tall stone markers onto the causeway over the moat that once insulated this original Hindi, now Buddhist, temple from the first millennial world.
Throngs of people move pass me as I make my way among them. There are groups of every possible nationality, different languages, conversational gestures, tour guide voices filling the air like a United Nations assembly. Somehow they will find me here in this mass of humanity. Exhaling a breath, I glance at the main temple in the distance where the sun will rise over its apex. Looking around, I barely see my crew in the gray morning light. Briefly I go blind as the flash bulbs start going off nearby. It becomes a festival of lights.
The tour guides wave their little flags of their respective countries and lines of Asians snake around me, their exhortation to please stay together evident as the elbowing, foot crushing begins. For a moment, I think it is a ridiculous sight when a voice with an Asian accent says to me, “All great civilizations must come to an end. This is what history tells us if you study it. You think the Ottomans were going to rule the Middle East forever? Alexander the Great’s experience should have showed them that wasn’t possible. But the clash of civilizations is inevitable, allows humanity to move forward in progress.”
Turning to the voice, I see a man who must have got separated from his Japanese tour group. He is small, in his fifties, with black socks and flat shoes. His belly is big and his light blue short sleeve shirt matches his shorts. A cloth with wide brim hat covers his balding head and to complete the cliché ensemble, the digital camera is on a thick band of cloth around his neck. “You see,” he says, stepping up and down on his tippy toes in seeming exercise, “even the Khmer were a great empire for many years that built this magnificent palace that now stands to the ages forever.”
His eyes never look at me, instead gazing at the temple in the eastern background which faces us in the western entrance. “And look at their descendents, killing each other for how many years, cutting off the heads of statues and selling them so they can eat?” His head shakes sadly, looks up at me. “It’s a tragedy that their legacy comes to that. That’s the problem with communism. It works on paranoia and fear. How many millions did Stalin kill to achieve his aims?”
“I’m sorry, are you a tour guide here?”
“No... no, I’m not but I think I can help you in what you are looking for.” He indicates with his head to follow him, which is what I do, down a naga-lined causeway. Nagas are mythical creatures from Khmer history with six or seven heads that man the bridge between man and gods, guardians of wealth. While heading towards the main wat itself, he asks finally, “I see that you are one of Her Majesty’s subjects. God save the Queen and all that bollocks.”
“I’m American actually.”
He frowns. “I am Yamamoto, and no, I am not related to him, the admiral who attacked Pearl Harbor. This is the first question Americans will always ask.”
“Not to be abrupt but I don’t know who’s running this circus and I have a deadline I am trying to make.” My sense of desperation seems to have no affect. He stops to take photos and is oblivious to my presence. Yamamoto glances at me as he unconsciously presses at his shirt, the belly jutting out like an unwelcome sight he has to retract. Somehow I get the feeling he does not like me, but I am not running for class president and ask again for the information I have travelled this distance for.
“As I was saying, Angkor sees all, knows all, because Angkor is the people, the Khmer, before politics got involved and destroyed the harmony of the people. The Year Zero? Only that dead idiot Pol Pot could have come up with such a stupid idea to create a new empire. So many people lost their lives … for what?”
“Look Yamamoto, I know you are going somewhere with this but I am really in a rush here. Can you understand this? Now, I paid good, very good money back in Saigon for that transfer authority and I’ll compensate you well for whatever information you have--”
“You’re an American?” a young woman abruptly asks, looking up at me. Her accent sounds Spanish.
“Yes, I am, but I’m kinda busy right now, ma’am,” I reply, moving along, hoping Yamamoto follows me.
She follows behind me as we head to the main structure. “What is wrong with your country? Huh? What is wrong with you all? You bring nothing but disaster to the Middle East and the world for your oil needs,” she states in a pissy tone. “You bully the whole world for your oil demands! Have you not read Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society?”
Agitated and out of time, I snap, “Look lady, even Reinhold Niebuhr said Christianity needed military force and not just pie in the sky love to cure life’s injustices. And I don’t have the time. Get the hint! Bugger off!”
“You arrogant little …” She goes about how wrong America is, how we have taken the wrong course in global politics and how can I vote for such war mongers? This is not the first time I have heard this in my travels but I really have no patience, nor time for further rebuttal.
“Ok, that was random, but I’m here for a reason, Yamamoto.”
“We know where the boy is … Ireland.”
“He’s no longer in Vietnam? You have more specifics?”
“Yes, Mister Fagin. We are working on the new transfer.”
“There was a second transfer? How soon can I get this info?”
“We are hoping within a day or two but we may have a problem.”
“And that is?”
“O’Reilly has changed up his methods since you found him in Saigon. He has taken all records of his wiring and bank accounts and destroyed them. He has taken photos of the accounts and it is now the only known record available. We have to find that film negative to find the accounts.”
The idea sinks in my head. This is going to be a nightmare tracking down a roll of 35mm negative. Who even uses film in this digital day and age?
“There were also two reasons why we asked you to meet here in Angkor and to be alone. One, we had to make sure you are not working for the government as an undercover plant. The government likes nothing more than to have show trials to reveal that communism is the perfect system and that greedy bureaucrats are the worse examples of what Uncle Ho preached against, corruption from within. Second, you cannot return to Saigon.”
We climb the stairs of the main temple. The gray light of morning has turned visible as I see SBC and his crew keeping an eye on me. The crush of people earlier has dissipated into the surrounding jungle and temples. A lithe, brown Cambodian man in a brown shirt and black pants set too high smile as he approaches us, hands clasped together. Bending down, both Yamamoto and myself return the hand gesture. Handing us smoking incense sticks, we offer it to a small, gray Buddha statue with a garland of yellow flowers around his neck and nod before it with clasped hands together. Yamamoto slips the man some cash. Making our way to a far corner, we are alone, and though we keep our voices low, it still amplifies within the ancient stone walls around us.
“It’s far too dangerous for your return to Vietnam as too many eyes and ears are there. You do not have friends there. Someone may be after you.”
“We don’t know but they are not friendly towards your goal.” Yamamoto’s eyes are sharp, piercing black pools of knowledge that draw me in. He rotates his shoulders to relax them. “
“And you are sure, very sure Sean is in Ireland?”
“No place like home. He is in Dublin, taking side trips to Belfast.” He takes the camera from around his neck, messes with settings and hands it to me as he presses forward through the digital pics. “This is O’Reilly in the Temple Bar section yesterday afternoon local time. Looks like he’s enjoying a pint or two. You know the Irish. Never try to drink them under the table. You’ll lose every time.”
I do not comment on the cliché. As I check my messages on the iPhone after finding a weak signal, Yamamoto shows me to a bare bones diner nearby as he arranges transportation for me from under a long, grass covered roof hut, which some of the over exerted tourists have taken refuge from the tropical sun that now seems to be melting everything in its path.
Lesley says she has been spending even more time helping Sir ‘I-have-a-title-and-you-don’t’. My stomach cinches on itself. Jealous I should not be but I am. That news and the heat have taken my appetite and carrying around my laptop conspires to zap what’s left of my energy. The local kids are immune, walk around with homemade wares of all kinds hanging from their little arms. They know how to sell; they head straight to the women who fall for their little pitches who are so busy oohing and awwing over their little brown cute faces, they’ll buy anything offered up.
“Now that is the job for you,” Yamamoto remarks. A barefooted, young, twentish bald headed Asian monk in a gold and red robe walks with his bowl and nods to every little venue he stands in front of. Clasping his hands together, nodding his head, he is fervently whispering some kind of prayer. A woman walks out from the shaded roof with a bowl of what she sells and empties into the pot. With her hands together, she nods rapidly like the monk who is thanking her for her contribution. Then the scene repeats itself until the monk finishes with all the stalls for the morning.
“What I like about Buddhists is that different factions have not been killing each other for millennia over a piece of land that belongs to everyone. But a life of piety is not for me anyway.”
“Me neither, Fagin,” Yamamoto says patting at his rotund belly as he lays into a hammock while nearby rows of chimes ring unobtrusively in the small breeze.
After reaching Dr. Patel, I tell him Ireland is my destination and to have the corporate jet waiting for me in Phnom Penh. He reminds me the pressure is mounting. It will not be long before the theft becomes public knowledge; our client’s firm was afraid of their business name being sullied. He emphasizes we have to bring this one in now. It will not be good if our own firm is associated with such a catastrophic failure, our reputation permanently tarnished.
Our client has brought in other forensic accounting firms but Dr. Patel has heard our competitors are equally stumped. Meanwhile, he is using his societal and professional connections in a discrete manner to see if we can find out the end destination of the money after it left Vietnam, save our self this hunt for the rogue trader.
After grabbing a tuk tuk, every time we stop at a sign or light, a gaggle of local Cambodian women run up and try to sell me what looks like bread loaves and some things I can not describe even if I have a Khmer dictionary next to me, and so it becomes a slow forward progress. To add to my delay, before we reach our Mekong Delta destination where the high speed river ferry is, a funeral requires us to pull over to the side of the road. There are three lines of chanting monks carrying brass incense burners swinging them back and forth on chains. The aroma is intense but at least it covers the fetid smell of decaying garbage and trash filling the local surroundings.
As an odd tangential thought, I ring Lesley but stop myself. We both need our space as well as I observe family members walking in the procession behind the monks with an urn where the deceased now resides. A young guy holds high the placard showing the dead man’s immense black and white photo with black ribbons hanging from corner to corner. A gong somewhere amongst the people is being clanged. People stand respectfully aside, bow for the recently departed.
Lesley would not like me butting into her business, thinking I am trying to control her time with Sir ‘I-have-a-title-and-you-don’t’. She already knows I barely tolerate his existence. His faux cosmopolitan charms do not work on me and he knows this, for just beneath the veneer of the polished manners and high society in jokes lays an anti-Semite. They come in all colors and all cultures.
But I can dismiss that as I do not consider myself a real member of the tribe. Instead, what agitates me are the snide remarks that Lesley is out of my class, that I am a Yank commoner, not from the genteel British aristocracy of which she belongs and should pro-create with. Get the hint, mate, birds of a feather flock together, he actually told me once. It took everything in me not to punch him out.
While we wait, the driver puts into the gas tank two large soda bottles filled with petro that is sold on magazine metal stands. The fumes make me gag. Now I cannot wait to get my hands on O’Reilly. He has a lot to answer for. All those people he stole from deserved to have their money back, lives to be lived satisfactorily and to be buried with the same dignity and decorum this unknown Cambodian had just rendered onto him.
I DO NOT TELL DR. Patel I am not going directly to Dublin or Belfast, returning to London instead. It is an insane move since it will take a day from my schedule, but I have to do it, despite possibly losing O’Reilly’s new locale, as sometimes life intervenes when you least expect it. I re-read the e-mail that came in while I had been in-country:
I hope this message finds you well. You know, I am not much for these e-mails outside of what is necessary, but it’s a sign of our times, is it not? They invent a new contraption and we must all conform or be left behind. But this is not the reason why I write you. I got your e-mail address from Lesley and I hope you do not mind me contacting you out of the blue like this, and if I am bothering you, please accept my most humble apologies.
I am somewhat conflicted contacting you about a sensitive topic, but I also have somewhat of a moral obligation to reach out, so to speak, and let you know that we have a situation that may be getting out of hand. Lesley did mention to me that you knew what has transpired recently with the organization, the accusations and innuendoes. Needless to say, this has been a dreadful time for all of us involved with the charity’s admirable goals that Lesley and her team have produced during her tenure as its director.
I do not know if you have been following the matter from where you are now, and I do not know what my niece has told you, but I will say, the press attention has increased and I am afraid Lesley is not faring well with this development. There almost seems to be a siege mentality now not only at her office, but at her flat as well. The reporters, or what passes as them, even disguise themselves as custodians and show up at her children’s ward. It shows to what length these dodgy newsmen will go to, if they are even qualified to be called that.
And the questions? They are incessant and personal, almost shouted at her as she tries to get away. It looks absolutely horrid on the telly when it is broadcasted. I almost fainted when I read one editorial in The Daily Mail yesterday. Because of these impossible conditions, she now employs minders.
Her advisors are stating that she should issue a press release indicating that this is nothing more than a tempest in a teapot. She is receiving conflicting information from her employees and the committee overseeing the charity. The poor dear, it may be getting to her now. Oh, she’ll never show it; her manners are impeccable, you know that. But I am afraid we may be getting into a stage of which the organization cannot completely recover from without losing some major donors in the process.
Personally, I think she most worries over is the effect this matter has on the children that come to depend on this organization to survive. Lesley would never forgive herself if one child was turned down from admission because funding was withheld because of a baseless accusation.
Sir ‘I-have-a-title-and-you-don’t’ tried to help out with his social connections but he’s too incompetent to be of any help in the real world. Rather, I know my husband has your firm on retainer because of your stellar results. I bring that up only as I believe your professional acumen can give us some guidance here. If I am not mistaken, you monitor these books as a gift to Lesley and the charity; you can prove to everyone that these rumours are scurrilous at best. If you feel you cannot get involved because of the reputation of your firm or because of your personal relationship with Lesley, I’ll completely understand. Perhaps you can recommend someone that can help us in this situation, if so?
Again, I do apologize for abruptly contacting you. Please advise as how I should proceed on this inquiry. Thank you for taking the time out to read my inquiry.
It has to be serious. It is not like Poppy to reach out unless she absolutely had to: Lesley needs me and she needs me now.
“THERE’S ME FAVORITE WANDERING JEW. Aren’t you supposed to be in Dublin or Belfast?” Oona asks when she sees me come through the office door, sniffing the fags in the air. She is wearing no make-up but her green eyes are still brilliant against her natural pasty white face, her naturally bright red hair pulled back into a ponytail.
“I had to drop by and grab some things before I head out. What are you doing working on a Saturday anyway? Snooping again, gossip gangster?”
“Taking a break from Izzy for a few hours. He was bloody pissed up again last night. Bloody prat wouldn’t shut his gob all night. And he calls me the gobby cow?” Her phone starts vibrating and she looks down at it. “Speak of the devil. He probably wants me to fetch him ‘im somethin’ like I’m his bloody maid, the little shite.” She looks back up at me, her eyes suddenly serious. “You’ve told no one about that thing I told you?” Her eyebrows arch up.
“Öbergemau?” I shake my head. “My lips are sealed, I can assure you.” An awkward silence develops as she muses on my answer. “But I don’t think you overheard it right.”
“Whaddaya mean, luv?”
“Öbergemau is probably a twist on the Bavarian town of Oberammergau. The story is that back in the 1600s in the time of the black plague the residents of this town promised God that if they were spared the effects of the plague they would perform the Passion play every decade to thank Him. That German name would make more sense as that language rarely allows a word to begin with an umlaut.”
The serene smile returns once more to her face. “Isn’t you the clever one, figuring that out all on your own.”
“It’s what I get paid for, Oona. But the real question is, what is Öbergemau?”
“It’s an arseload of quid if you can figure out the mystery.”
“Why must you snoop?” I ask in a smile. “Now this thing is always on my mind.”
“I’m adorable that way, luv,” she replies, shrugging her shoulders. “Hey, I finally looked up that Elvis Presley is a Jew thing. Google must be taking the piss. Bloody gobsmacked I is!”
“That’s gotta be the first time ever.”
“You cheeky git,” she replies, exhaling some smoke. “How’s your lady friend? Shagged her yet?”
“Must be no then from the way your face is flushing red. Close the deal already, luv.”
“Thanks for the unsolicited advice. I’ll see her in a bit. Do me a favor, don’t tell the Doc I am here. He thinks I’m in Ireland right now.”
“Have you seen the rags today?”
“Do I want to see them?” Oona scoots today’s Sun across her desk. Picking it up, I read what she points out to me in a small blurb next to a dated black-and-white photo of Lesley in an angel costume:
It isn’t enough that Lady Lesley’s registered charity is accused of financial mismanagement by anonymous internet pundits and this reporter but apparently this has not stopped her efforts to acquire even more monies to fritter away on an extravagant lifestyle not already fuelled by the annual multi-million pound industries collectively known as Woodruff Hall.
She claims to be a born again Christian, saved from her life of debauchery by a belief in our Lord and Saviour and the Church of England. I ask you, my loyal readers: are these the actions of someone who claims an affinity for Jesus? What WOULD Jesus do?
What makes this episode even more shameful is that she takes a symbolic one pound salary as to justify her carefree spending, and then dangles these obvious orphans on her website with dirty faces to elicit sympathy and donations. I dare say it’s time to demand a probe to weed out any financial improprieties that have occurred on her watch, even if it means her resignation. This is one Lady we would like to see commanded by Her Majesty for an audience to explain her actions, or more like, lack thereof.
“Bloody twats is what they are. All they write is rubbish to sell papers. They’ll be onto something and someone else tomorrow. They’ll sell anyone out to make more quid, like the Prime Minister says they do.
“This isn’t right. Lesley loves these kids. She treats them as if they are her own children. Listen, don’t share this with anyone, but I checked it out as soon as I found out about this matter. I did an invisible audit with the information I have access to. Guess what I found? There was no movement internally of monies that raised flags until after the accusations first started. Coincidence?”
“Not bloody likely.”
RINGING THE BUILDING BUZZER, I wait forever before Lesley allows me up. Meanwhile, I spot a burley, bald headed man dressed in a uniform with an apparent wired earphone sitting in an unmarked car nearby looking at me steadily when he speaks into his hand mic. Another younger man, pale, tall and lanky, also in uniform, stands up from an impromptu desk after I come through the second door. He seems almost right out of the police academy while he apologies, frisks me, asks my name, checks my identity.
“I understand you’re a private accountant for the posh set, sir,” he asks, handing me back my identity card.
“Yes, I am. How did you know that?”
“Detective Inspector Sky Tew is running this operation, sir. We had to background check all residents here and their regular visitors. The building management, at DI Tew’s recommendation, also installed panic buttons for all residents who did not already have them.” After a few minutes more of small chatter, I am on my way and when I get to Lesley’s top floor door, I knock softly. This is the ritzy Kensington part of London. No loud voices or emotions, please.
It takes a while before the door slowly opens and the prize I seek cautiously looks at me, her hazel eyes not gleaming, dull in their interaction with the world, her hair slightly matted as if she has been sleeping, the professional make-up still evident from the previous evening’s soiree. She almost seems in mourning despite being decked out in a sleeveless pearl white satin dress with a large, smart black bow to separate the top and lower halves. This is haute couture, if I ever seen it. Only the shoes are missing. Last night must have ended a couple of hours ago. As always, she is wearing her favorite necklace. Caressing her for a while, I feel her body’s warmth, tell her it will be alright in the end. It is us two against the world.
The gleaming wood floors creak as she walks away in her bare feet from the door entrance while her amber perfume flows over me like a silk scarf; I remind myself I need to manage my expectations. She must have seen the article as I see today’s discarded Sun. Slowly following her into the living room, she lays back down on the couch which matches the walls. It is a Victorian-era built, white-based bordered flat with a royal blue coloring kitted out by in classic furniture two centuries old.
Lesley brought in two interior decorators to make this place ooze additional class and wealth. The cathedral high ceilings always did appeal to me. All the velvet heavy curtains are slightly unloosened making the environment darkened. Still, I am able to see the large squared English countryside painting hung in the middle of the main wall; in the distance is Woodruff Hall in its very beginning, before the family’s legends are born.
She stares into the distance making me wonder if she knows I am even here. Her naked legs gleam despite the half-shadows. When the mobile rings, she does not acknowledge it, instead still staring out into an oblivion only she sees. Wanting to reach out and touch her, I have to stop myself as Lesley can be skittish in that way. Considering the state she is in, I have to be extra delicate.
As some kind of ominous accompaniment, Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie Number 1 begins playing from the iPod stereo, its melancholy piano reaching out from the nineteenth century to remind us soul searing pain is immortal.
“Look... I know it has to be hard for you ... I know... but a lot of people know how dedicated you are to those kids... that anyone would question your motives... that is hard to understand... but what you have to understand is that these kids need you... they really do... to allow these tossers to get under your skin gives those false charges traction... everyone has bad days... we all do... but you love those kids and because you do... you have to fight these wankers for them... stand up... do not allow these buggers the satisfaction to think they are right... they are just trying to sell papers... sleezemongers... that’s all they are...”
Her eyes occasionally glance at me so I know she recognizes my effort. Never have I seen her like this, and so because of this, am treading into new water. How to calm a catatonic woman? There is no playbook here, not that I am a female expert. Even Oscar Wilde said women were meant to be loved, not understood.
After a few prolonged minutes of quiet, I tell her about my trip to Vietnam and how I am on my way to Ireland to find O’Reilly. Whether or not she hears me, I do not know but I want to fill the silence that lingers between us. She finally gets up, pulls the curtains back, letting in some light, goes into the kitchen to clean some glasses in the sink. At least she is coming back into the present as she speaks about the present weather. The hazel eyes still do not lock into mine as she goes about her routine. The falling rain makes me wonder if it is equally dreary in Dublin and Belfast.
In her bare feet, she seems smaller in stature as she approaches me after restarting the same Satie song. We move slowly together, our own intimate cotillion, dance a while longer after the song ends. Lesley suddenly pulls back, says in a low tone, “I stepped down temporarily from the organization yesterday until this matter is resolved. We are releasing a public announcement today. It will be released on the website afterwards.”
My hands move up onto her bare arms, of which goose bumps rise and set her back a bit more so I can see her better, her eyes still lingering into mine. “Are you sure that’s what you want to do?”
Her nod is ever so subtle. “Yes, I think this is the best way until we know the results of what the auditors find. I told them to also cover all of Woodruff Hall’s ancillary businesses just to make sure.” She can still see the quizzical look in my eyes, so she continues, “If they find nothing, then I’ll come back onboard. If they do find something, then I’ll be the responsible party. There has to be accountability. If I am the head of the charity, then I am that person.”
Nodding my head in understanding, we exchange a gaze that communicates more than words do. Her standard diamond encrusted circle necklace grabs my attention as know I have to support her in her current turmoil, love her, though I have yet to use those latter words out loud to her.
“Do you have to go?” Her tone bespeaks how she feels about my pending departure. How I want to stay but I have work to do. Damn O’Reilly and his bullocks. “Do you really have to go now?” Lesley asks again.
She has never done that before, revealing such emotion, and I so want to share this moment with her forever, forget the world outside the door with its problems and complications. Sometimes a man is meant to love a woman and that is all.
“I understand,” she says softly responding to my nod, glancing down. Suddenly, I put both hands on the garment’s bow and unloosen it, so it slips away along with the dress which falls to the ground. This is the first time I have ever been so bold to see her nude which makes her seem smaller, a fragile porcelain doll within my hands. Pulling her closer, she does not resist; her half-breaths remind me moments like this in life are far too few.
“Celibacy is overrated,” rushes out from my mouth just before I kiss her hard and she returns the effort with both her hands pulling my back towards her until we are squeezing and breathing through the other. Then I kiss her cheek, down to her neck that makes her sigh heavily for this is her sweet spot. She is back from that void she retreats into earlier. Looking into her hazel eyes, that gleam is evident once more, so I seriously have to ask myself, have I ever really loved a woman until I met Lesley?
Like a mangy dog in the lane, if Sir ‘I-have-a-title-and-you-don’t’ ever marked his territory, his reign is now officially over. With Lesley’s amber fragrance wrapped around me, and her emotions finally unleashed, I slip in a call to my pilot, tell him to take the night off.