This story appears in the current Phnom Penh Weekly at restaurants, cafes and hotels throughout Cambodia (but not online).
Yama, the god of death and judgement, holds up a mirror to the dying soul. In it the soul sees all its past actions, and how they lead to the present.
This is only the case if the man dies a peaceful death, mindful of his own passing.
The man who dies by violence has no such good fortune. Unable to collect his mind, he becomes a haunting ghost, a khmouch, tied to the spot where he died.
Doug had a hard time getting settled in Cambodia. The work was ok, an accountant is an accountant no matter where, but outside the office nothing was like home.
His second Monday in Phnom Penh he had a bit of bad luck. He rented a motorbike, had an accident. Another bike, young kid looked like he couldn’t be over fourteen though they said later he was seventeen, ran into a car at an intersection. Right next to Doug. Wasn’t Doug’s fault at all, kid just whizzed past just as the lights changed and swerved and the car hit him. Police took Doug into custody, well, good thing, saved him from the mob, they would have lynched him, everyone at the office said so and the Country Director was on his side, just advised him to take tuk-tuks in future. Kid died, but it was ok for Doug because the kid’s father was so mad and making threats and everything but the office paid compensation to him and it was ok. Every man has his price.
Everyone told Doug he’d been lucky, but still, he felt bad. The guys at work tried to help. On Friday after work they took him to street 104, street 136, and street 51, finishing up at Pontoon.
Doug woke up with a girl in his bed and he couldn’t remember how she got there. She told him she was his for the weekend, a gift from his friends. “You lucky guy, such nice friends. Today I take you some places.”
At the Russian Market they found a stall selling lucky charms. The girl picked up a green naga and slipped it over her head and down her cleavage. She stroked the spot and said, “You like?”
“You buy, you buy,” said the stall lady. “Is jade. Good luck for you. Cheap-cheap!” It was getting to the end of the day and she hadn’t sold a thing all afternoon.
“I don’t believe in luck,” said Doug, because the charm looked like plastic and anyway accountants believe in logic not magic.
The girl pouted. Her lips were full and moist, her breasts were large and soft, and Doug’s belief melted like ice-cream. He paid the lady and the girl gave him a chaste kiss on the cheek while her nipples pressed against his shirt. “Now we eat,” she said.
At the restaurant Doug got sentimental and held the girl’s fingertips across the table. She slipped her hand out of his and pulled the lucky naga out for one more look. “We have good luck, sure,” she said.
They took a taxi to the casino. Doug had never been in a casino in his life before, and he was surprised at how tacky it looked, in an expensive sort of way. The lobby had red carpets and crystal chandeliers and there was an indoor fountain with a cardboard apsara. There were uniformed attendants, and Doug was sure they were looking at the girl’s bum tight as two onions in her jeans. He felt underdressed himself, and wondered why he had come here. He decided they’d leave when they’d lost fifty dollars.
An attendant showed them the gaming rooms, full of grim-faced men taking their pleasure like pain. They scared him. He decided to ease his way in with the slot machines. The machines stood in long rows in a huge dim room, flashing and buzzing. There were many people, men in polo shirts and women in pastel blouses with lots of bling, but nobody spoke, each saw only the screen in front of him, and there was no joy in the room.
But the girl was excited. “I never come before,” she said, skipping around like a little fawn. The attendant explained that the machines took notes, and when they wanted to collect their winnings they should call her and she’d take them to the cashier
Doug gave his girl a dollar note and the symbols whizzed round and she lost. Her face fell. “No good!” Then she brightened. “Ok, you turn now, you lucky too!”
Doug fed a dollar in. He wished it were larger, so he could lose faster and they could leave. The lights flashed and music played. “You win, you win!” cried the girl, jumping up and down like a kid on a trampoline. “Again one more time!”
Every time Doug pressed the button he won, whee-whee-whee. He used bigger notes, and kept on winning. People were starting to stare. A man in a suit spoke into his lapel and two very tall girls appeared. Identical twins, Chinese, so beautiful that, when Doug noticed them (his eyes were on the screen), he gasped. They looked like a dream of princesses and magicians, skin like ivory, long glossy hair, aristocratic noses. One wore a dress of ruby silk, the other a dress of emerald.
“Hello,” said Ruby.
“Hi”, said Emerald.
“Beat it,” said Ruby, to Doug’s girl, in Khmer.
The man in the suit escorted Doug’s girl out of the casino and helped her find a tuk-tuk.
“You’re a lucky guy,” said Emerald as she took the seat Doug’s girl had vacated. “You come here often?” Her English was perfect, and charmingly accented.
“No,” said Doug.
“Sure,” said Ruby. “Maybe some of your luck can rub off on us, huh?”
It was uncanny. Every play Doug made, he won. Ruby and Emerald had to take him to the ATM in the lobby for more money. After a while the man in the suit spoke into his lapel and Emerald suggested they try the roulette table. On the way they stopped off at the cashier and Doug collected his winnings, in cash, in a bag.
Doug felt a little bit happy about moving to roulette – surely now he’d lose faster and be able to go home, because these girls and this place intimidated him. But also he had begun to feel a little excited. So he took a chair and started placing five-dollar bets.
Pretty soon they were twenty-dollar bets. He just couldn’t lose.
The man in the suit followed them, keeping discretely in the background. He muttered into his lapel and Emerald suggested they try a private room.
They went to the private room. Doug played poker with three serious men in polo shirts, two Khmer and one Thai. Ruby and Emerald gave him instructions on the technicalities, but he placed his own bets. He won. They played again, and this time he decided to bet everything. One big bet and he’d either go bust or … or what? He wasn’t sure any more.
The Thai stood up. “Finished,” he said. The two Khmers stood up. “Finished,” they agreed. One of them patted Doug on the shoulder. “You very lucky, my friend. Take care.”
Ruby and Emerald escorted Doug to the cashier, who counted the money out in bundles of hundred-dollar bills. The man in the suit was standing nearby, and when the money was all counted he coughed discretely to attract Doug’s attention. Would our honoured guest like a complimentary night in our Naga Suite?
“Yes,” said Ruby, and smiled.
“Oh yes,” said Emerald.
They took the elevator up to the top floor, the man in the suit and Ruby and Emerald and a room-boy with a bottle of Champagne in an ice-bucket. The man in the suit opened the door and showed them how the Jacuzzi worked. He opened the drapes and Phnom Penh was spread out below them with the river like a black dragon. Nothing like home.
The room-boy placed the ice-bucket on a low table by the window and stood at attention next to it. Ruby put the bag of money on the table, took two hundred-dollar bills from it, and gave one each to the room-boy and the man in the suit. They bowed and smiled and expressed their hopes that the honoured guest would have pleasant night and shut the door as they left.
Doug was alone with Ruby and Emerald and the little old man, pot-bellied and naked from the waist up, who had been sitting in an easy chair next to the window all along. Doug had thought that was pretty strange from the moment he’d come in.
The second strange thing was that nobody seemed to see the little old man.
At least, nobody mentioned him. They didn’t even glance at him. When the man in the suit opened the drapes the little old man got up and stood aside for him, and then sat down again. Emerald and Ruby too had ignored him, likewise the boy with the ice-bucket. So Doug decided not to mention him. Perhaps he was the casino masseur. He looked like a masseur.
“Drink?” said Ruby.
“Jacuzzi?” said Emerald.
The little old man gave the three of them a little wave as they went into the bathroom. The ruby and emerald dresses were a tangle on the bathroom floor, and the girls looking better than ever.
The little old man was still there in the chair by the window when they came back to the bedroom. Doug was sure now he must be the masseur. Yes, they’d have some kind of complicated massage, for sure.
“Champagne again?” said one of the twins. Doug could no longer tell which was which.
“I’ll get it,” said the other twin.
“Cheers,” said one twin when they sitting together on the bed. She raised her glass.
“Chin-chin,” said the other, raising her glass.
The old man raised a hand and gave an ironic salute. He seemed to be looking straight at Doug.
Doug woke up. Sunlight was streaming in the open window. For a second he wondered what place this was, and then he remembered. He looked around for the twins, but there was nobody in the room.
Nobody except the old man sitting in the chair by the open window.
“Good morning,” the old man said. His voice was dry and rasping, and he spoke perfect English, with an accent not unlike Stephen Fry dealing out jokes on QI.
Doug, who wasn’t thinking clearly, stretched his neck out and put his head under the bed until it came out the other side. There were no twins, but the old man was still there.
“They’re gone,” said the old man.
That wasn’t all that was gone. The table where the money had been was now bare.
“There’s been an accident,” said the old man, raising one knee and placing a fist on it, in the manner of a man holding a stick. “The plan was that you’d be drugged and robbed. The casino would have apologised and offered you compensation, maybe a thousand dollars. Most customers are happy enough with that – they get a nice evening to remember and a thousand dollars. And if they don’t like it, they have to explain to their wives.”
“Wives?” said Doug, who wasn’t married.
“Even if they’re not married, it’s pretty embarrassing explaining it to their friends. Every man has his price, or so it seems. So that was the plan.”
“Whose plan?” said Doug. Then he said “Ouch!” because he’d just bumped his head on the ceiling.
The old man sighed. “Their plan. It’s a scam they’ve been working for years. Come down.”
Doug realised that he was standing with his feet on the ceiling. He turned right way up and drifted gently back to the floor. What astonished him most was that this didn’t astonish him at all. It seemed perfectly natural.
“But the girls slipped a little too much into the Champagne,” the old man went on. “Dreadful mistake, as they’ll find out in an hour or two when the room-boy brings your complimentary breakfast. Are you feeling hungry yet?”
Doug realised he was feeling hungry. Ravenous, in fact.
“It’s normal for someone in your situation to feel hungry,” said the old man. “Get used to it.”
Doug looked down. On the rumpled sheets he saw himself, peacefully sleeping, except that his eyes were wide open and staring at nothing. He tried to scream, but found he couldn’t open his mouth beyond a small hole.
“You can’t open your mouth properly,” said the old man. “That’s part of your condition. Long neck, tiny mouth, huge hands, huge pot belly. Situation normal.”
Doug cupped both huge hands over his new pot belly, which had begun rumbling with hunger. “Why?”
“Have you forgotten that boy you killed?”
“I never,” Doug screamed, so far as he was able. “It was an accident! Everyone said so!”
“You mean that’s what you told everybody. The truth…”
“No!” squeaked Doug.
“The truth is you swerved in front of him without warning, he swerved to avoid you, and, well, you know what happened. You killed him.”
“No!” Doug whispered. “I wasn’t responsible!”
“That’s what they all say. Makes me sad. But don’t worry, I’m not here to punish you, I’m here to hold a mirror up to your soul. We’ll be spending a long time together in a nice deluxe hotel room. Not like that poor boy, wandering up and down the street at this very moment. You’re a lucky guy.”