Phnom Penh, Cambodia
My name’s Madison Dupre, people call me Maddy, but Your name is Mud pounded in my head like a bad rap beat. I hadn’t heard the taunt since I was a little girl. It came back now as I sloshed in dirty water above my ankles down a dark street, worrying over the fact that I just killed someone.
I was in a strange city, one that made the list of the world’s most dangerous places. No one would believe me if I told them I had only fought back. The thought of dealing with the police just added to my fears. In this small, poor country, police were not here to "protect and serve." They had a gun in one hand and held the other out for a bribe. And I didn’t have the money to buy my way out of a murder charge.
Hell of a day, Mud. You sure know how to have fun.
If I was at home in New York sitting on a couch with a glass of Merlot, I would have had a lot of different emotions spiking through me like electric shocks. After all, I never killed anyone before. But cohesive thoughts about what I’d done didn’t gel. I just kept pushing them to the back of my mind. The man was a pig, for sure. Someone tough like Tony Soprano would have said he got what he deserved. But I’m not tough.
Why me, Lord?
Things went to hell at a place I never should have been, but desperation makes you do crazy things. We all have that panic button in us, a point where even the most timid of us will explode with fear and strike back.
I was scared. And wet. Really scared, really wet. Rain didn’t drizzle and pour in Cambodia—it exploded from the sky. I was grateful that it washed the blood off my poncho and let me hide under it. Right now I needed that anonymity. For sure, I’d be spotted as a Westerner from the color of my skin, but Phnom Penh—pa-nom-pen is how I pronounced it—had a regular colony of free-living, free-loving, free-drugging young Westerners from places like Phoenix, Sydney, and London hanging about. When you leave your own country to live in a foreign one, they called you an "expat" for expatriate. Freewheeling Cambodia, where any kind of sex can be bought, called them "sexpats."
That’s what the bastard was who I killed, a sexpat who preyed on children.
I’m a thirty-something businesswoman, an expert on antiquities from New York, in town on business. Dirty business, though not of my making. I’d been sent undercover to get information on criminals who looted antiquity sites even though I’m not a cop or even a detective—just an art expert who ended up in a city that was a pit stop before hell because I was too broke to turn down a dangerous job.
It wasn’t long ago that I’d had it all—a high-paying job, a Manhattan penthouse with a closet full of Jimmy Choo shoes and Versace dresses, jewels from Harry Winston’s on Fifth Avenue. Then I’d lost it all. That’s why I was walking in the rain in pa-nom-pen with blood on my hands...
They say you should never shop for food when you’re hungry because you’ll pick up things on impulse. The same thing could be said about taking a dangerous job when you were broke.
I came to the Cambodian capital to resurrect my life, to get back to where I was before I fell from grace with the haughty world of priceless antiquities, to redeem my reputation—and bank account—with a feat that would stop antiquity looting from this small, poor third world country in the Far East.
But all my good intentions won’t buy me out of a murder charge.
My feet kept moving faster than my mind as I sloshed in the dirty water. When it rained like this, the gutters overflowed and brought garbage and other foul things onto the sidewalks. And there was plenty of stuff in the gutters to float out. It was a tough town, a dirty, sullied one, not user-friendly, with a history of violence few cities could equal.
The most lasting impression of the city was illicit sex—it came in all varieties here, from two-dollar whores past their prime at twenty, to thirteen-year-olds who supplemented family income by spreading their legs for tourists who came halfway around the world to stick their cocks in places they’d do twenty-to-life for Stateside.
The city sported old-fashioned whorehouses, go-go bars with pole dancers, "date" bars with lap dancers, blow job bars with knee dancing, and a city dump where the scavenger families were so poor, a certain type of man could buy a child to do things considered unimaginable by sane people.
Like I said, Phnom Penh wasn’t a nice place.
The whole region was also a mass of startling conflicts: Indochina— countries like Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam—had some of the world’s most conservative social customs. It included a tradition that women wear conventional clothing, appear modest and demure, with a taboo on showing romantic affection between the sexes in public.
But those old-fashioned traditions were combined with some of the most beautiful women on the planet being available for hire for almost any imaginable sex act, involving any bodily orifice, usually for an amount of money most Americans called chump change and Cambodians called salvation.
While America had abandoned cowboys for astronauts as heroes after Star Wars, the Old West was hot stuff here where go-go bars often had names like Dodge City and Roundup Club, and featured thong-wearing pole dancers with cowboy boots who were able to shoot Ping-Pong balls out of their vaginas.
Buddhism’s Noble Eightfold Path to enlightenment—right views, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right-mindedness, and right contemplation—was practiced Cambodian style side by side with banditry, lawlessness, civil war, and endless varieties of illicit sex, some of which involved young girls who should have been in classrooms rather than back rooms.
With the endless varieties of sex available, household pets probably even got into the act.
Violence and political turbulence were also not strangers to the city. It wasn’t uncommon to see men in battle dress, packing AK47s, swagger out of two-dollar whorehouses as serene Buddhist monks carrying begging bowls flowed by in their red- and saffron-colored robes.
AHEAD, TWO CITY POLICEMEN huddled under a portico as they smoked and jabbered with prostitutes. I tried not to look away, but kept my chin up and eyes straight ahead. The thought of being locked up in a Cambodian jail terrified me. If the city was a pit stop before hell, a prison here must be frightening enough to raise the hair on my soul. I began trembling despite the warmth of the monsoon rain.
A moto driver rolled by me with a passenger. Motos were a modern version of a rickshaw—they looked like a wheelchair being pushed by a small motorcycle. He stopped in front of a hostess bar and let off his passenger.
As I approached, the driver asked me, "Cowboy, you want girl for boom-boom?"
I pulled back the poncho hood enough so he could see I was a woman. "No boom-boom. I need a ride." I climbed into the passenger chair.
"Where you go?" he asked.
"Take me to the quay."
The river quay was a five-minute ride halfway to my hotel. It would give me a chance to think. I needed a plane ticket out of this nightmare, but I couldn’t get on a plane without a passport and it was back at my hotel.
I didn’t feel safe going directly back to the hotel because it was the first place the police would go if they were looking for me. The quay was the restaurant and tourist nightlife area of the city. I could slip into a restroom there and clean up any blood left on me. Then drive by the hotel in a regular taxi and see if a police car was outside. If it was clear, I could dash in and get my passport from the front desk and make a run for the airport. I wouldn’t even go to my room to pack. Just leave it.
Jesus. My mind wasn’t geared up to deal with this. It all sounded so complicated. And scary. What would I do if the police were already at my hotel? I had no place to go, nowhere to hide.
One foot in front of the other. That was how I took tough times; I just kept moving forward, putting one foot in front of the other, not looking back for fear the hounds of hell were yapping at my heels. My biggest regret whenever I felt miserable was not being rich—the rich weren’t any happier than the rest of us, but at least they could afford to choose their miseries. Or buy their way out of them.
Police cars ahead had parked sideways in the street, creating a roadblock. All traffic was being stopped.
They found the body?
"Pull over, I’m getting off." I had to tell the driver twice before he understood.
He started yapping about the fare. I pulled dollar bills out of my pocket and gave them to him and hurried away. American dollars were more welcome than Cambodian currency.
Another police car came down the street behind me.
I was in front of a boom-boom joint with large plate-glass windows that showcased provocatively dressed women and girls lounging on couches. A pulsating lipstick red sign flashed "La Petite Khmer." Khmer was the ancient name of the Cambodian people.
I took a deep breath and stepped into the whorehouse.
Excerpted from The Deceivers by Harold Robbins
Copyright © 2008 by Jann Robbins
Published in September 2008 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.