When the Crime Fiction Author Met the Criminal

He sat across the table from me, his appearance since I was gone in the bathroom a shock. It was obvious he came to speak to the local sexpats who had taken up residence at the table next to mine, but the half bottle of Khmer labeled booze—brown more than honey—the missing tooth, and the arms covered in red stars and other meaningful items reminded me uncomfortably about the film Eastern Promises.

But this was no Viggo Mortensen facing me. He may have short brown hair, and a face that resembled a floor mat trampled on by a daily supply of liquor and drugs, but he was not nearly as literate, nor as sophisticated as the one time star of Alatriste.

“Finnish,” he stumbled a few times over the English pronunciation of the word.

Only later did I find out that he was likely a member of the local biker gang One Percent—after confusing my breakfast neighbor’s comment with an accusation and defending myself with my lackluster salary cap—and that he had come to Phnom Penh for the easy access to crime and criminals.

Anteov, or something similar, was his name. He seemed insistent on the fact that someone had stolen two motorbikes from outside the very establishment in which we sat. And the damned “Neegar” with his little Rasta hair had stolen his phone. This he repeated multiple times and it wasn’t until he mentioned the Rasta hair that I realized he wasn’t just saying black in Finnish.

I had seen a high yellow fellow strutting up and down the same street earlier in the day, his hair banded in little tails, like he was a baby Rasta trying to grow up. It took me a few passes to determine he was likely black, at first wondering if he might be aboriginal somewhere, but I connected the two men together and realized by asking my tuk-tuk driver for a cheap guesthouse I had landed myself in a sleazy part of the city.

When I lived in Phnom Penh I splurged on a $20 a night hotel near Wat Langka, in the NGO area of the city. I had heard rumors about Tuol Kork, outside of town at the time—it was now an integral part of the city, the place having expanded greatly over the last ten years—and knew that the Riverside was a mixture of beggars, tourists, expats and sexpats. But I forgot that such places exist where the scum of the earth gather and get drunk, high, and sated as cheaply as possible . . . every night.

Luckily, my stay in Phnom Penh was short, and I spent most of my time engaged in other activity. Like sitting on the toilet dealing with a case of diarrhea I’d picked up back in Vietnam. I did get a decent Mediterranean meal, though, falafal and hummus, and rediscovered the joys of cheap fruit.

But the criminal. The Fin, Anteov, kept asking to borrow my phone so he could check Facebook. I imagine he thought I carried an expensive smartphone, possibly an iPhone, that he could easily “borrow” and not give back. I hated to trample on his illusions, but I pulled out my ten dollar Nokia handset and held it up. “I call and I text. Nothing more.”

He seemed disappointed by revelation. I didn’t mind. He had to be rather drunk as in the ten minutes since he’d appeared he’d managed to down half of what was left in his bottle. A one dollar purchase, he insisted, saying it was really worth five dollars—which suggested he was either a thief, running a protection racket, or otherwise unduly influenced a vendor in the area.

The sexpats left, and after I refused to readily engage Anteov and his practically nonexistent English he decided it might be more profitable if he did too. That left me alone—in a comfortable chair—to consider the book I was reading and watch the people who motorbiked around the corner. Last time I decide where to go in Phnom Penh based on the comfort level of the seating.

Did I mention he was missing his little finger on his right hand? Talk about creepy.

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