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V. Too Late to Call it Off
I know, I know what you’re thinking, this sounds fucking insane. But at the time it all made sense. I just had to get some money for reserve. Epol would go to his business partner and get all the money we needed. Ms. Niko, we’re going to win was all that echoed in my empty skull. To me this was the only way out of this mess, the only way to escape…
I guess at this point it’s too late to bail, huh?
We go back into the room and I perk myself up and Epol tells Mr. Aziz our plans. Since the banks are closed now and I don’t carry that much cash on me, I will go to my business partner and he will give me the money. Just like that. Mr. Aziz nods his head, understanding.
It doesn’t strike him or me odd that my business partner’s name is Mr. Leeko. Ms. Niko and Mr. Leeko, rhyming real estate business partners from New York City, in Cambodia with $40K in cash just in case a gambling opportunity arises. Right.
“I will give you one hour to bring back the money” says Mr. Razak Aziz.
Next, Epol instructs us both to seal our cards in envelopes he’s just procured out of thin air. He is very strict about the manner in which we slide our cards into the envelope, making sure the cards are perfectly face down and unable to be seen by anyone. Then he instructs us to sign the back of the envelope with black sharpies he’s also procured out of thin air, as if that ensures its validity somehow. I’m not the type of person who has a bonafide signature, so I just scribble my name illegibly. I forget where I am and get lost wondering if it was really my hand that created my signature. It’s fine.
Epol collects both of our envelopes and locks them in the safe with Mr. Aziz’ $40,000 in stacks and his own crumbled $200. The formality of the whole process seems a bit overdone. Like a signature or a sealed envelope means the game is fair square. Like Epol is trying desperately to prove shit isn’t rigged. I wonder if this is how they always do it, like on the gambling cruise ships. Like if someone has to pee in VIP, they all gotta seal their cards up and John Hancock it. Then I wonder how much integrity there can really be at an underground blackjack match in a windowless room down a dusty alley in Phnom Penh?
“I believe it is only fair I keep the key” says Mr. Aziz. I can’t argue it. I mean, I physically can’t.
“And, how do I know you will return, Ms. Niko? Maybe you will just run away and not finish the game because you are too afraid to lose to Mr. Razak Aziz of Brunei?”
Epol looks at me desperately and says, “Mr. Razak Aziz, of course she will return. Ms. Niko understands the rules of Blackjack.”
“Yes but how can I be sure?”
“My nephew Sunny will accompany Ms. Niko to her business partner, and her tour guide Mie will go along too–for good luck.”
“I will require something else to be sure.” Mr. Aziz looks at me. I get the chills. His eyes are so transparent. Like I can see right through them. His eyes gaze downwards and I follow. My hands are still shaking under the table. My pack of Winstons is almost gone, sitting next to my useless phone.
“Is that an iPhone 5?” I realize he’s staring at my phone too.
“Um, actually it’s just an iPhone 4. It’s useless really, I just-“
“New iPhones are what, $600 US dollars?”
I knew he was sizing up whether my phone is valuable enough collateral. It wasn’t. I couldn’t even use it unless I had a wifi connection, which I didn’t. And what’s a $600 phone to an oil billionaire anyway? Let him have it.
“We will lock Ms. Niko’s phone in the safe until she returns. I will wait here for her to return. Is that okay Mr. Razak Aziz?”
Mr. Razak Aziz is now pensive and serious: “You wouldn’t lie to me, right Ms. Niko?”
I shake my head. I’ve never been more terrified in my life. “No Mr Aziz, never.”
“Give me your passport so I can find you if you decide to run from this game of Blackjack.”
I watch my hand reach into the pouch around my neck and pull out my passport and hand it over to Mr. Aziz. I swear my brain is screaming No! No! No! furiously inside my head. But my body doesn’t seem to hear it. He locks my passport in the safe with my phone.
“One hour,” he says. He repeats it. “One hour”.
My life feels like a movie, like a psychological thriller that you shouldn’t watch before bed.
“I must return to my boyfriend at my hotel. I will return in one hour.” Mr. Aziz picks the key to the safe off the table. He slips it in his pocket. He picks up his snakeskin briefcase and walks out of the room. Just like that. It’s fine.
All of a sudden, I come to and I’m in a tuk tuk. It’s night but still hot as ever. The air is thick and dusty and dense as steel. I’m sitting next to Mie who has her arm entangled with mine. Sunny sits across from us. I don’t know where he reappeared from and I don’t remember leaving the house or getting into a moving vehicle.
“What a wild night in Cambodia,” says Sunny with a nostalgic look on his face. “A night you will remember for ever.”
I feel a little stab in my gut. “This isn’t the kind of night I want to remember. I want to go home. I don’t feel good.” I pause. “I feel like you put something in my spaghetti to make me feel stupid.” I pause. “I don’t wanna play the game anymore…”
Sunny and Mie look shocked. “Why would we ever do anything to harm you?” says Sunny. “We just want to help you, we like you, you are a very good smart American girl. And you are helping our family. You are making Mie’s dreams of San Francisco come true!”
Then Mie adds, “and you are going to win!” She looks like a child excited for an amusement park. Sunny is whistling. Neither one of them seems the least bit concerned about the situation I have found myself in. This really didn’t feel like some kind of game to me. But because they are so confident, I assume it’s true that I’m going to win, whatever that means.
I assume I can trust Epol about Mr. Aziz having 20, that he wasn’t lying to me with his hand signals. And I know I have 21. I know I sealed a 10-5-6 in my envelope. I know it. But the what ifs are alive and well anyway. And multiplying. But what choice do I have?
I had not a shred of trust or faith left in my weary bones. How did I get into this tuk-tuk? Where are we going? What does Sunny keep whispering to the driver? When will this be over?
All of a sudden the streets look familiar again. We pull up a block away from the hostel I had casually admitted I was staying at, like my life wasn’t in danger or anything.
“Now”, says Sunny, “you go in there and get your other card. Then we go to ATM and get money for reserve. We will wait here for you because we don’t want police to think it’s a drug deal.”
“A drug deal? Why would the police think it’s a drug deal?”
“American with nice Cambodian family looks like drug dealer to the police. Don’t talk to anyone or tell anyone what you are doing. Gambling very very illegal here, very bad. Secret, Ms Niko! And hurry back, Mr. Aziz knows what hostel you stay at, and we do not want to make him angry.”
It does not strike me that it had nothing to do with looking like a drug deal. It does not strike me that maybe Sunny and Mie are the ones scared to be seen by the authorities. That maybe they don’t want to be identified as being near my hostel with me. Because maybe they are the criminals, not me. But it doesn’t strike me.
I walk down the street and into the lobby of my hostel. I see the same friendly face from earlier working at the front desk but I can’t remember his name. He’s talking to a guest, but I think he sees me and gives me a slight head nod. It would be so easy to run to him and confess everything. I might be protected in the hostel and the police could easily find the tuk tuk with Sunny and Mie just down the road. I could confess everything and the police could go retrieve my phone and my passport and see that I’m not lying. That I’m an innocent girl, just in the wrong place at the wrong time. That I didn’t mean to get myself into this situation. That it all just happened so fast.
But Sunny had said be careful because gambling is very illegal. And earlier in conversation, Epol had mentioned how notoriously corrupt the Cambodian police force is. They weren’t to be messed with, he said. How would I explain myself? I had played the game, I had gambled the money. Even though the whole time it didn’t feel like me.
And it still doesn’t feel like me.
I don’t feel like me.
I might get into trouble if I come clean now, but I might get killed if I don’t. Decisions, decisions.
Decisions are a bitch.
Digging the hole to my grave deeper and deeper and deeper, I decide I’ve officially passed the point of no return. It is too late to somehow get out of this mess. There is no rescue about to happen. No one is coming. No one.
I had chosen to go to this family’s house, I had chosen to eat their shady ass spaghetti and play Blackjack with them, I had chosen to go along with the lies to Mr. Razak Aziz, I had chosen to be a part of this con game. It had all been my choice, hadn’t it? Now I had to suffer the consequences. It was too late. Too late to call it all off. Too late for me.
So I walk directly past the front desk and up the stairs to my dorm room. Luckily, there is no one inside. I wonder if anyone saw me in the lobby. There were a handful of travelers hanging out there. I wonder if someone did see me, if it would be the last time anyone ever saw me. If they would report to newscasters later that I had looked panicked, scared shitless, disoriented, manic, like I was in grave danger. I wonder if my face told them that I’m in the deepest shit storm of my life, if my eyes gave it all away, if my trembling footsteps showed my fearful impending defeat.
I look in the mirror, but am shocked to see that I appear cool, calm and collected. Like it really had all been just a dream. Like I had just taken a nap and had a bizarre nightmare and now I’m just waking up to my real life. Like I still have a clean slate in Cambodia and everything hasn’t gone terribly, terribly awry. My pupils look a little constricted and there are tiny beads of sweat on my upper lip, but beyond that I look fine. “One hour”. For reserve. It’s fine.
In the mirror, I don’t look terrified. I don’t look drugged. I feel like a brainless zombie but I look alive and alert. My eyes aren’t bloodshot. My movements appear sound in the mirror. I don’t look like I’ve just been bamboozled into a underground Blackjack game. I don’t look like I’ve chain-smoked two packs of cigarettes because it was the only thing keeping me from losing my fucking mind. I don’t look like I’ve been held against my will or eaten voodoo spaghetti. To say I’m having a hard time coming to terms with reality would be an understatement. I can’t stop staring at myself in the mirror. I can’t tell if it’s me or an imposter staring back at me. I feel suspicious of myself. I can’t trust my thoughts or my eyes. I can’t trust me.
How? How could this be happening? How could this be real? Were Sunny and Mie really waiting for me in a tuk tuk around the corner? Was Mr. Razak Aziz really sitting in a fancy hotel somewhere with his boyfriend, counting down the minutes of one hour like the grains of sand in an hourglass? Was I really about to win $80,000? Or was it all a dream? I have to seriously consider this as I no longer know what’s real and what’s just in my head. I feel like I’m Tom Cruise trapped in Vanila Sky. I keep looking at myself in the mirror waiting for answers to come. But they don’t.
I unlock my locker. I take out my Charles Schwab debit card and place it in the pouch around my neck that holds my Bank of America debit card. It’s like I know exactly what to do without knowing why. I wonder how and when I ever admitted that I had more than one bank card and that one of them was still at my hostel. I don’t remember divulging that information, but it’s apparent I most certainly did.
My memory is playing tricks on me. My eyes are swimming in tears now, as I watch a cockroach scuttle across the floor. Deja Vu. I bet it’s the same cockroach from my nap earlier. I wonder if I’m perceiving time accurately when I realize that it’s been just hours since that nap. I wonder if this air conditioned room of bunk beds and cockroaches will be the last room I ever laid my head to rest. I wonder if I’ll ever make it home again. Home. The faces of my family members pop into my head. I wonder how ashamed they’d be if they could see the trouble I’ve gotten myself mixed up in now. I can hear my mother’s voice in my head from when I was little. “Don’t talk to strangers!”
I wish I could go back to that moment in the streets, going cross-eyed from the intensity of the sun, when Sunny invited me to come to his home. Back to when the world still made sense. I wish I could go back and say no. Thanks, but no. Maybe next time.
Now there might not be a next time…
But I didn’t say no, I said yes. And I can’t go back, I can only move forward. So, I wipe away the tears. I shake myself off, tell myself to act normal. I walk back down the stairs. I walk by each person in the lobby with my lips sealed. I walk down the block to where I left my companions. When I find Mie and Sunny waiting inside the tuk tuk, I must accept that it wasn’t a dream. That no amount of pinching can wake me up from this nightmare.
“Hurry Ms. Niko, time is running out!” Here we go. It’s fine.
Next: VI. Aeon Mall