Sunday, December 30, 2012

Tales of the Durian

This is the first chapter of my novel, Tales of the Durian.

Chapter 1
A durian, in general, is a South-east Asian fruit. It is named after the Malay word for ‘thorny’ for obvious reasons. “The Big Durian” is the nickname of Jakarta, and the Esplanade in Singapore carries the same name. 

I was drinking at the Heart of Darkness, a gangster bar in the center of Phnom Penh. Darkness is Victorian; black walls, red velvet drapes, brothel atmosphere. Unless you happen to be a nineteenth-century English vampire, or have the taste of one, the decor is creepy. I was the only woman in the place who wasn’t a pro.
I’d taken a hugging taxi to the bar, then had to turn around when I realized what I’d left in my bag. The Heart had the only nightclub metal detectors in the city, and I couldn’t afford to be refused entry that night.
Returning, I again sat side-saddle on a motorbike, locally known as a moto-dup. I kept my arms wrapped as loosely as possible around the stinking tank-top wearing driver. There is a delicate balance between trying not to get some driver’s sweat all over you and holding on tightly enough so you don’t get your brains bashed into the pavement from falling off. I could have just taken a tuk-tuk, but the streets were crowded at this time of night, and the moto-dups were faster.
We sat in the far left-hand corner of the bar, away from the dance floor and the hustle of the pool tables. I was drinking Tiger beer, and buying shots of fluorescent blue poison that were lit on fire and drunk through a straw. In South-east Asian sleaze bars I only drink what I see opened in front of me, and I always keep my hand over the bottle.
No-one cared what I did as long as I paid. I stayed out of the way of the rich mobsters who laid claim to the best tables. And I never made eye contact with their country-thug bodyguards, many of whom were old enough to have killed for the Khmer Rouge. I was also practiced at not stepping on the prostitutes’ children who napped under the shadowy tables. Hopeful grins from drunken tourists were met with a flat stare.
Our battered leather satchel leaned on the bar stool next to me. My Tiger was in my left hand, the shot was singeing my right, held low beneath the bar. The straw snaked through the water-stained flap of the bag. I propped a leg up on the bar stool’s rungs to shield the sight of my bag apparently sucking down drinks.
The bag twitched, the fire licking against the stitching. The shot was drained and the blue flame extinguished. The straw pumped in and out of the bag.
“For God’s sake, I’m running low on petty cash,” I apparently said to the wall. “Slow it down.”
The straw jerked up and down harder.
“Fine, one more, then we need to focus.” The straw nodded its apparent assent.
Score another round for the satchel. I was still recovering from an unfortunate experience in Malaysia, and inclined to be generous.
“Here’s the deal. The Russian knows I’m coming. We’re waiting for his minion to give us permission to talk to him. Pay attention and tell me if it looks bad. I especially do not trust this guy. Bastard’s kept me waiting for three hours already.”  
I picked up the satchel and put it on the bar so that it would have a better viewing angle. I reached into it as if I were looking for something and tilted the bag so it could get a good look at the room.
The bag rustled as I waved to the bartender for another round. I grabbed the shot glass and pretended to take a last sip while I put it back on the bar. Taking a real drink from the straw could have been fatal. I knew the chemistry.
We surveyed the room. Dim lights flickered above smoky mirrors. Teeny girls in teenier skirts lounged against the walls, casting insolent glances. Other girls were playing pool, their dresses riding up as they went for their shots. One local girl, only a little bigger than my brother, gyrated slowly, her fake blonde braided extensions grazing her knees. She was an island of self-possession, dancing as if for herself alone, while surreptitiously watching the bar in the reflection on her cell phone. My brother, sick in his wheelchair, was in our family home in the Spanish sun. I couldn’t see the Russian, but I knew he was in here somewhere, concealed behind the haze of smoke and greed. 
I turned to watch someone else three bar stools down. Loud and lobster-like, he was yet another of the sex tourists that crawled the town. Beige shorts, shirt opened to expose a little more sunburned flab than I could handle on a beer-filled stomach, he was being systematically removed from his money by a disturbingly young teenager with a blank gaze and a cheap lace top. His friend, a young guy who looked like he could have gotten a real date in his home country, gulped his drink and leered without shame at the next girl’s cleavage.
I sucked down my fresh beer and arranged the new shot glass in the desired vicinity.
“I’m going to have to go to the ladies’ room after this to pull out more money. Plus I’m about to burst.”  
The bag’s sole response to this was to down the shot even faster than the previous ones.
I carry reasonable amounts of money in two easily accessible wallets, one in my pocket, another in the bag, but I keep a third emergency stash under my clothes. I hate the leg wallet, strapped itchily to my left thigh, but it is hard to pick-pocket. In the event of a committed mugging, I would of course lose it, but I like building redundancy into my travel system.
The room was pulsing with techno. With the low ceilings and crush of people, it was migraine pounding loud. As long as I shaded my mouth, no-one would notice me apparently talking to myself. Even if someone did catch on, who would care about yet another foreigner drinking and acting strangely? That was the whole point of coming to the Pen, as the city was also known.
I returned to conversing with no-one, pulling my beer up to my mouth as I spoke.
“I just hate the whore-tours. Those poor girls are fourteen, fifteen tops. Old enough for a place like this, but still. Pervs.”
The sex tourists were slathering away at their new friends. I watched a hand disappear up the lace girl’s skirt. From inside the satchel, I could hear angry scratching noises. It concurred.
I nudged my bag in response. Two small fleshy green spikes extended from the satchel and rubbed themselves together like the hands of a cartoon villain.
I talked to the spikes. “I agree with your sentiments, but I’m not sure that we need the distraction right now. We don’t want to risk too much attention and blow the meeting.” 
The bag wrinkled up like a person raising his eyebrows.
“I know, I know.”
The spikes reached for the shot. One spike leaned into the drink, and flicked out a last drop with a come-hither gesture.
“They are pigs, aren’t they?” The satchel and I regarded the drunks next to us. 
The bag shook with agreement. One spike nicked the other and a drop of milky fluid oozed out. 
“Hmmm. What the hell. You’re right. We shouldn’t abandon our principles just because we’re busy. Let’s go get ourselves some more cash.” 
I handed the bartender five bucks to hold my seat, and hoisted up the satchel. A waitress leaned in next to me, nodded at the tourist behind her, and slipped a twenty in the bartender’s hands. She was taking a little time off from her shift to score a quick trick. Kicking back ten or twenty U.S. to a high-end club in return for using it as a pickup joint for foreigners was a pretty standard practice. Waitress/prostitute was a legitimate job description. Elsewhere, this sum was two weeks wages for a regular person.
I muttered to the satchel, “We’re bailing out the ocean with a teaspoon, but hey, it’s your blood, or equivalent thereof that we’re using, so it’s up to you.” The bag did not reply.
“I’ll take it that you haven’t changed your mind. All right, just don’t get too dehydrated.”
We pushed through the throng, squeezed around the strip pole, and past the pool players. I ignored the inevitable ass-grabs en route. In front of the ladies’ room I took a deep breath and opened the door.
I stepped into a stall, a typical filthy little box. Shrugging off the stench, I removed my cash and relieved my bladder. Used toilet paper and tampons over-flowed the trash bin next to the toilet. The plumbing can’t handle toilet paper, so it is placed in a bin, not flushed. The stall reeked of piss and stale blood percolating in the heat. Microbes were breeding furiously all around me, the refuse almost shimmering. There was nowhere to hang the satchel so I had to maneuver with it, angling it over my shoulder and clutching it to my chest as needed. It was squirming in disgust, which didn’t make matters any easier.
When that pleasant business was concluded, I stepped out to refresh my appearance. The other girls in the bathroom were doing their makeup and hoisting their breasts even higher in their push-up bras. I stood at the back of the room, and still could easily see myself in the mirror above them. Even wearing their five-inch hooker heels, I was more than a head taller than the Cambodian girls, and I’m not that freakishly tall.
I didn’t even bother to reach for the faucet. There was no soap, and the handle was at least as filthy as the rest of the room. No-one else touched it either. I whipped out my hand sanitizer, and solved that little problem. I’d need to use it again after touching the doorknob on the way out. 
I smoothed down my below-the-shoulder blonde hair, ignoring the hostile glances. Foreign men were a mark, a walking pay-day, useful. Foreign women were mostly just competition. The few times that local females had tried to pick me up out of curiosity to sample a white girl had been unusual in the extreme. Lesbian sex tourists, as far as I could tell, were nonexistent.
My favorite red lipstick emerged from my bag. I keep buying it from this little shop in Beijing, located in a winding dusty hutong just inside the second ring road. It was probably ground-up scorpion mixed with the liver of some unspeakable thing, but I just loved the color. It accentuates my pale blue eyes and paler coloring.  
My Nordic fjord queen look doesn’t exactly allow me to blend in with the locals, except in Iceland where I am routinely greeted in the native language, but there’s not a hell of a lot I can do about it. I’ve gone full burqa in some parts of the world, hiding my skin tone and adding brown contact lenses to disguise my eyes, but even with this, my height gives me away. Above average height for a European female translates into taller than a local man, and dead-giveaway taller than a local woman, in quite a few areas of the globe.
I reapplied my lipstick and straightened the black silk jacket that I’d had bespoke in Hong Kong. I can roll that suit into a ball, shake it out, and after ten minutes in the hundred percent humidity it is fresh-looking and ready to wear. While the other foreigners in the club were dressed in T shirts and shorts, that was not an option for me.
I always have my rugged expedition clothes, because my job is to explore, but no-one takes a slob seriously. Back-packer scum are not well-regarded in Asia. If you want to get anything done, it helps to not look like an amateur. With the amount of money I was tossing around, and the tolerance, if not actual trust that I was trying to buy, a good suit was de rigeur. Rich, well-dressed professional placing strategic bribes equals potential business associate. Rich, sloppy fool throwing around cash equals victim.
Time to buy more drinks. More U.S. dollars in hand, I returned to my seat. I couldn’t pay for anything in Cambodian Riels in a place this mobbed-up; this bar was hard currency only. Back on my stool, it was time to get the boys a round. They were still engrossed in their exploration of the hookers’ underwear.
I put my hand under the bar and signaled to the bag. 
“Remember, not too much. We only want to make them sick, not kill them.”
The bag ignored this comment, so I rattled it.
“I mean it, you little maniac. Dead men attract way too much attention, and these guys don’t deserve death, not for what we’ve seen so far. Play semi-nice or I won’t play at all.”
A spike shot out in what I chose to interpret as a thumb’s up, and not the finger.
“That’s better. It’s more fun like this anyway. You’ll see.”
Another spike with a glistening drop of fluid on its end emerged. I carefully rubbed a tiny drop of the fluid onto my finger, then signaled for three of the flaming shots.
“Watch this,” I said to the satchel. 
I wiped my finger quickly against two of the straws, then slid the drinks down the bar.
The men looked over in surprise. I raised my shot and winked. In some part of their alcohol-fogged brains they realized that they would need to free at least one hand from the prostitutes’ panties if they were going to pick up their drinks.
“Down the hatch!” They slurred their thanks and resumed the groping.
One of the little spikes now popped out in a definite thumbs up sign. The satchel hummed with glee.
“See, I told you that you’d like it. I shouldn’t have to remind you, of all creatures, that vengeance comes in many forms.”
I blew out the flame on my drink and discreetly tipped it into the bag. I then thoroughly sanitized my hands and waited.
“With the amount they’ve had I give it about a minute. Two, tops. Considering that liquor plus you are toxic to everyone else on the planet, I’ll never understand how you can put it away like this. You either have no liver at all, or nothing but.” 
I thought for a moment. “God knows what it says about me, that that’s what I consider strange about you at this point.”
The bag shook with laughter.
A minute passed. The drunks started sweating and turned pale.  They looked at each other in confusion, the first light of panic gleaming in their eyes. They took their hands off the girls and began holding their stomachs, then their heads, rubbing at their upper lips as they fought the nausea.  
The girls seized this opportunity and deftly picked their pockets. The drunks staggered to their feet and ran for the door, almost, but not quite making it. Instead, they burst through the velvet drapes and puked at the feet of the armed doorman. He did not look amused. The goons next to him reached for the tourists’ necks.
“They’re going to take one hell of a beating for that. Good call, that was definitely worth it.”
From within the bag came a series of snickers.
“Yes, they did have it coming. Them and half of the bar, unfortunately. And, your opinion not withstanding, we just can’t poison them all. Damn, this is going to be another long night. Where’s the Russian?”

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