“Lucky Guy”: a short story

Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 9.46.50 AM 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.

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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.

He won.

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.

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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.”

Scratching the underbelly: Christopher G. Moore and Vinny Calvino

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 8.03.11 AM(Appears in this week’s Phnom Penh Weekly,  free at all good coffee-shops in Phnom Penh; look also for Kevin Cummings’ review of  Lawrence Osborne’s Hunters in the Dark.)


The genre of Asian noir seems to be flourishing just now. With established writers like John Burdett, Tim Hallinan and Thomas Hunt Locke continuing to explore the dark side of human nature in Thailand, and Tom Vater, Bob Couttie and Steven W. Palmer setting their adventures in Cambodia, fans of the genre have a wealth of material to choose from.

But head and shoulders above all of these is the Godfather of Asian noir; Christopher G. Moore.

A Canadian and formerly a lawyer, Moore has now lived in SE Asia for 25 years. His first book, “His Lordship’s Arsenal”, was released in 1985 to critical acclaim. Since that first release, he has written over 20 novels, 200 essays and a book on the Thai language as well as other collaborations and editing jobs. But Moore is best known for his Vincent Calvino series, now standing at 13 novels – with a new one due in 2106 – perhaps the first in the genre to feature a Western protagonist in a South East Asian setting.

His writing style has been praised globally, with such eloquent descriptions as: “The Hemingway of Bangkok” (The Globe and Mail), “Dashiell Hammett in Bangkok” (San Francisco Chronicle), and “W. Somerset Maugham with a bit of Elmore Leonard and Mickey Spillane thrown in for good measure”(The Japan Times).

The Weekly sent along Phillip J. Coggan, himself the author of “Sweet Nights of the Naga King”, to find out what makes Moore and Calvino tick.

Ladies and gentlemen, readers and gawkers, inhabitants of the steamy Phnom Penh night; please plug in your ear-buds, because today we have a rare treat, a double interview with Christopher G. Moore and Vinny Calvino, the latter of whom doesn’t really exist except as a fictional character.


Click on Chris for the link to his author-page on Amazon. Vinny refused to be photographed.

Vinny: I what? Chris, what’s this guy saying?

Chris: Shut up and listen, Calvino, and you might learn something of use.

Vinny: That’s my line…

First, how long have you and Vinny been together?

Vinny: Been together? What’s this guy implying? Chris, if he keeps this up I’m gonna have to do summit. Summit serious.

Chris: Shut up Vinny. Seriously, I’ve been cleaning up your English and related messes for the last 25 years, and now I get nailed with some kind of Brokeback Mountain allegation.

So Vinny never had any real childhood? I mean, he just sort appeared out of nowhere?

Vinny: Hey, now he’s callin’ me an illegal! Serious, Chris, I’m gonna have to do summit about this guy.

Chris: He’s an ex-New York lawyer, who got on the wrong side of a Chinese Triad gang in Manhattan. He was trying to protect a friend, a young Thai guy named Pratt. His turf in Bangkok extends from the shopping malls, to Nana Plaza, Patpong, and Soi Cowboy, to the slums of Klong Toey, the racetrack at the Sports Club, and even the swanky shopping malls. His client list is as thick as a crooked cop’s wedge of notes. The clients are expats who live and work in Thailand: some live the good life on a fat package; others get by day to day on a nickel and dime. They are the kind of ordinary people who have no clue about the culture, law enforcement and justice system or language. A set of non-skills guaranteed to land them in trouble. Cheated or killed. By the time they or their next of kin walk into Calvino’s office they are damaged and look to Calvino to patch them up. In Calvino’s world, most of those who survive don’t go home after one tour of duty. They become addicted to the front. Like Calvino, they volunteer for just one more tour and forget about New York.

Vinny: Noo Yoik.


Slums of Klong Toey, from Silent Tapes, a project by two photographers documenting and helping the people of the Bangkok slums and similar places around the globe. An excellent website – click on the picture for the link.


Vinny: I said Noo Yoik. Dat’s how we sez it in Joysey.

He doesn’t talk like that in the books.

Chris: I had to clean him up. Taught him there’s no joy in Joysey.

And there’s not much in Bangkok either. Chris, what is noir?

Chris: Noir, like porn, has many definitions. You know it when you see it. The characters in noir live under a dark shadow where intimidation and violence are part of the fabric of life. When the outcome is hopelessness, desperation, sorrow, you can be certain you are down a noir road. The powerful forces with the guns are the winners; others yield or are destroyed in their path. A sense of doom prevails. A good example of what represents noir for me is found in Georges Simenon’s novel titled Dirty Snow.

51PUOedFNKL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Cambodia would seem to be the perfect home of noir. In fact you edited a collection of short stories, Phnom Penh Noir?

Chris: I tried to bring together a community of writers and artists in Phnom Penh Noir, publishing their stories, lyrics, and photography. I had the rare chance to work with legendary creative talents like Roland Joffe, James Grady and John Burdett along with a young generation of Cambodians. The best thing about the collection is the diversity of noir tales told through multiple points of view. Truth, mortality, regret, betrayal, and loss play out in these stories, poetry and lyrics.

Do you have any favourites in that collection?

Chris: That’s like picking threads out of an incredibly intricate Persian carpet as favourites. What makes Phnom Penh Noir work is the whole of the anthology creates a small universe of feelings, thought, motives, behaviour, and along the horizon of these experiences you find how storytellers carry history inside their imagination.

Vinny, you visited Phnom Penh, what did you think of our lovely city?

51Kl9XND76L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Vinny: I think you mean Zero Hour in Phnom Penh? That takes me back to 1993. I’ve been to Rangoon and Saigon. Okay, that amounts to handful of times I’ve left Bangkok since I arrived back in the 80s. It does a man good to get shot at in other places. You don’t take Bangkok so personally after that. These places are like Bangkok but not like. Back then it was…

He’s not talking like a cheap Al Capone knock-off any more, Chris! He sounds almost educated!

Chris: Vinny has a NYC side of his brain that does this sumo wrestling thing with the educated side. They flop around inside his muddy skull and after awhile you can’t tell one from the other.

Vinny: Can I go on? Thank you. Phnom Penh in 1993 was dirt back streets where chickens scratched, slums overrun by rats, and UNTAC forces chasing women, ghosts, and drugs.

I especially liked the visit to T3 prison. Chris, was that a real visit?

Vinny: Was it a real visit? This guy is seriously starting to annoy me.

Chris: Keep calm Vinny. He’s not armed. Yeah, the T3 prison scene was based on a real visit with UNTAC officers in 1993.


Inmates of T3 voting in the 1993 elections, covered by Chris Moore. The prison was demolished in 2000 and replaced by Prey Sar.

And the bit where you eat the dog?

Chris: Dog? I don’t remember eating any dog?

Vinny: Yes you do, it was that little place outside the jail, just a little street stall. I think the Golden Soyra is there now. That Golden Sorya place, that’s noir! We were trying to get on the good side of those Cambodian cops. They served us something brown and I put it in my mouth and all the Cambodians raised their glasses and toasted me, and I asked why and they said it was because not so many foreigners liked dog. Street mutt special someone said. Pratt was with us, he said it reminded him of New York.


Chris: He’s that fair pair of dice in a rigged casino called justice. Forget about climbing Everest. Even pushing a ladder against what looks like a molehill in Thailand requires an experienced Sherpa. And even then an avalanche has been known to bury a man if his chit cup is knocked over.

And Pratt is a cop who isn’t corrupt? All Thai cops are corrupt, aren’t they?

Vinny: Seriously, Chris, this guy is starting to annoy me.

Chris: Think of corruption as a plumbing problem. Pipes leak. Someone figures out putting bucket on the leak is profitable. Once that happens repairing leaks becomes difficult, if not impossible. And where are all of those pipes? Behind walls with nice pictures on them so you never know they’re there. You turn on the tap, water comes out. The leak doesn’t seem to hurt you. You move on.

 Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 9.14.30 AMYour latest book was Crackdown, right?

Chris: Came out in March 2015.

I remember there were some Cambodians in that.

Chris: Yes. It’s set in Bangkok but a major figure is a Cambodian named Munny. He’s an illegal migrant, living in a derelict apartment building with about a hundred squatters. The basement is flooded and filled with fish, and the squatters make a living catching the fish and selling them in the market. So they start off, you see, in a condition of communal innocence.

A bit like the Garden of Eden?

Chris: You could say the Garden of Eden in dystopia. But then corruption starts. Some of the squatters form themselves into a council and start imposing rules. Let me read a bit and you’ll see what I mean:

The meeting-calling men referred to themselves as the Eight-Nine Safety Council and made it clear to everyone squatting in the building that from now on they were the ones who ran things …. A couple of men from other floors who challenged them were beaten up. After that no one, including Munny, risked offending the council.

 So society is based on the rule of violence ahead of the rule of law?

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Phnom Penh, behind the Night Bazaar.

Vinny: The rule of law is based, ultimately, on violence, or the threat of violence. That’s half of what noir is about. Those officials with the monopoly over violence figure they can do a lot to improve their own position. About then things start to roll down hill and people get flattened.

And the other half?

Chris: Let me read you a bit more, about Munny’s wife, Chamey, when she tries to buck the system:

The Eight-Niners … set a quota on the number of fish each family could take from the basement pool for personal use. Beyond the quota, residents now had to pay for the fish…. The leaders of the Eight-Niners supplied the fish market from the pool. They also collected a “tax” to pay off the police and the owner. But as the new rules and demands increased, Munny said nothing.

Chamey wasn’t quiet. No one owned the fish in the basement. Anyone could see the massive numbers were sufficient for all to take as many as they wished. She complained, and her discontent reached the eighth and ninth floors. The Eight-Niners didn’t frighten her. They watched her taking fish from the basement, and when they told her to stop, she flashed a knife. She threw her last hundred-baht note at one of them.

“Here’s your tax,” she said. “Now leave me to feed my family.” She earned money frying and selling fish harvested from the basement.

“You owe us one thousand more. We want our money.”

Vinny: That’s just background. But that’s where it starts. And what Chris is saying is that the Munnys of this world matter. You should read that book by that guy Evans. Chad Evans. He just wrote a book about me. Nice guy. You should learn from him.

Screen Shot 2015-09-27 at 11.05.11 AMWhat’s it called?

Chris: Vincent Calvino’s World. One of the points he makes is that there are two ways of responding to the noir. One is Henry Miller’s way – withdraw from public life, create a private world of personal self-indulgence. That’s what old Henry did in Paris. The other way is George Orwell’s way – engage and fight. In Crackdown, Munny is taking Henry Miller’s way, and Chamey’s way is Orwell’s way. Not that things stay like that. Without conflict there’d be no story.

Oh, I don’t like conflict.

Vinny: Sure, buddy. That’s exactly the way the Eight-Niners want it.

Mr Moore, I wanted to ask you about Reunion, because it’s set in Cambodia. What’s it about?

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 9.44.22 AMChris: It’s an unsentimental story of friendship, one formed in desperation, and nurtured by deception. It’s about the lies that are part of life when survival is in a killing field. Two men, one a journalist and the other a survivor, meet again years later. Both seek redemption and discover that the past, with its lies and deceit never morphs into the truth. This is a post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia story that explores friendship and survival, and how peace and justice remain unfinished business.

Oh right. Chris, I wanted to ask you something really personal here, if that’s all right.

Chris: Sure.

How can I become a noir novelist? I mean, if I had the right table to work at, and all that. Bought myself a black beret, lightweight trenchcoat. Can you teach me?

Chris: It’s not that easy…You could join the Bangkok Noir Authors Facebook page that I just launched with 8 other authors. That might be useful.

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And Vinny, just one last question for you.

Vinny: Shoot.

Vinny, in Chad Evans’s book about you, he calls you “an existential bachelor” with a self-made moral code. What does he mean by that?

Vinny: That does it. I’m really gonna do summit about this guy right now!

Chris: I wouldn’t worry, Phil. There’s nothing to worry about in the analogue world. We are all digital in the expressions of our emotions, right? To be on the safe side, it would be wise to keep your precise location to yourself while in Bangkok. Sit with your back to a wall. That’s always a good precaution whether in New York or Bangkok. You just never know.

VINNY: At last Chris said summit that I can agree with. I mean that last sentence.