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Kyle West is a wanted man. Having fled the country to escape the false charges filed against himself and his former boss, billionaire government contractor Christopher Chandler, Kyle’s hiding in Cambodia, living on borrowed time and finding more and more reasons to be paranoid.
When a mysterious stranger named Julian Robinson walks into Kyle’s favorite cafè and offers to swap passports with Kyle, Kyle can’t believe his luck. Robinson looks so much like Kyle it’s almost unreal, and seems in every way the yin to Kyle’s yang: self-assured, charismatic and wealthy beyond measure. Traveling on business, Robinson needs Kyle’s passport to get to Africa, where a lucrative deal awaits. Kyle needs Robinson’s passport to safely flee Cambodia. The swap seems almost too good to be true.
Unfortunately for Kyle, it is. This one decision plunges Kyle into a Pandora’s Box of intrigue that threatens to swallow him whole. Suddenly he finds himself being pursued by Russian oligarchs, Chinese operatives, the CIA, and a beautiful woman trained to kill — all because Robinson certainly isn’t who he seemed. And time is running out for Kyle to discover who he is.
PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA
Kyle West lies atop stiff sheets with his eyes half closed. It burns to keep them open, but shutting them is a paradoxical tease. He would kill for distraction, for the benevolent throb of a headache.
There's nothing worse than insomnia in a tropical climate.
He can't go much longer subsisting on stolen naps, he thinks. Falling asleep for five minutes on public transportation, chickens pecking his hands, children picking his pocket, and a background of hacking lungs.
His brain and body work overtime to fend off the inevitable systemic collapse.
His arms and legs vibrate, a plucked violin string beneath his skin replacing the beat of a pulse. He's hyperaware of the world around him, keyed in on an almost cellular level but unable to take in anything specific, the environment reduced to a passing blur in a rearview mirror.
He turns on his side and thinks, Maybe not sleeping is a blessing. Maybe I'm looking at this all wrong. Because when he does sleep, his dreams are ruthless, rooted in fact, absent of unconscious properties. There's no fever logic, no abstract questions answered, no deviant acts banned during waking hours fulfilled.
He tried to end the pain, picked up some natural remedies at the pharmacy. All they did was give him a dull drone of a headache and an erection lasting three and a half hours. He bought some capsules off the black market, purported pharmaceutical grade. Turned out to be expired Tamiflu.
He rolls onto his back and listens to the singed symphony of bug zappers.
The heat in the room is unbearable, a constant reminder. If you can't sleep, you can't forget your body, and forgetfulness is sleep's universal gift.
The walls around him are slathered in a white gloss. There's extensive water damage underneath. In response, the hotel management keeps adding more coats of paint. The wall is now several inches thick with subterfuge.
The only art is a print of Buddha in a chrome frame. The Bodhisattva sports almond eyes and an android smile. Behind him, the jungle explodes in plumes of purple and pink and green, its vines falling around his shoulders like fairy-tale hair.
The air-conditioning is a collapsed lung, helpless against the heat. The time before the rainy season. The time no one wants to be here. The daily room rate, normally twenty-two dollars, has dropped to sixteen while everyone waits for the storms to come and drown the city.
Even at sixteen dollars a night, the room is starting to strain Kyle's purse strings.
He exhales, puts his hand over his heart, hoping to slow it down.
This is how you measure the length of your exile, he thinks, by the topography of your hotel rooms.
He rises from the bed, runs his hand through his hair, and gets it caught in a knot. He hasn't cut it since he got here; hasn't shaved either. Which is fine. The expat populace isn't famed for their grooming. The West's prime export to Southeast Asia is tall blond surfer girls with unshaven armpits who do nude yoga on the beach while their scraggly boyfriends case the waves, looking for the perfect one to die in.
Kyle turns on the LCD television, flips the channel to CNN.
He was never a news junkie when he lived in the States, but now CNN has become a reminder of a world he misses terribly; Senate hearings trigger a warm rush of involuntary memory. Even though—as of late—those hearings have been focused on him and his former boss Christopher Chandler.
Kyle hears the rooster start up outside. Bastard lives on the balcony one floor below. One morning Kyle stood above him, ready to douse his head with ice water to cut short the dawn sonata, but after they locked eyes, Kyle decided it was best for them to peacefully coexist.
The rooster didn't look like he fucked around.
The tub is stopped up, filled with water that rose during the night. Kyle asked maintenance to take care of the drain, but they snaked the toilet instead. The hotel manager borders on Basil Fawlty when it comes to the operational side of things.
Kyle pours bottled water over his toothbrush, dumps the rest over his head. He should be immune to the tap water by now, but he sticks with the bottles. He still hasn't quite conquered the trauma of his first bout of sickness. The fever, the auditory hallucinations, the feeling there was a ball growing in the pit of your stomach and you had to keep throwing up until it burst.
Two days and ten pounds later, he had learned his lesson.
Don't drink the fucking water.
He goes back into the bedroom, brushes his teeth while watching the news-crawl at the bottom of the screen. National news, local headlines, human-interest stories, all interspersed with the postmodern cant of perpetual Tweeting. Viewers commenting on the news as it happens, present turned past in thirty seconds. His best friend, Neil, was right: Revolution is pointless today. The world moves too fast; we've fucked time. When the revolution finally figures out what it wants, it's already too late—the opposition has factored it into its own plan. The revolution becomes another cog. We're all working for the opposition now.
Back in the bathroom, Kyle spits out his toothpaste and avoids the mirror—a safety precaution. If you don't want to crack, shun surfaces, be a mystery to yourself.
He walks over to the desk and boots up his computer. While the laptop launches, he goes to the fridge, pulls out an Angkor beer, and holds the cold can against his forehead.
He taps his finger against the tab, trying to decide whether or not to pop it.
The pounding starts again in his chest. Hot fingers tight around his heart and squeezing. His heart hurts. Not metaphorically. It genuinely aches, like a leg muscle cramping with lactic acid after a hard mile.
His breaths are shallow. He can't take in air. His heart sends electric reminders down to his fingertips.
The air-conditioner starts to heave, a biometric groan suggesting imminent collapse.
He pops open the Angkor. It may not do much for his heart, but at least it's cold. He swallows, feels the alcohol start to build a barrier between his brain and body.
The panic goes gauzy, alcohol dulled but still there, bubbling.
These are the worst moments, the moments of clarity, the bone-deep time when Kyle knows, knows it and can't tell himself different:
I'm gonna die in this place and no one even knows my real name.
He stands before his laptop, signs onto the Internet, and activates his self-designed proxy server, hiding his IP address so he can't be tracked.
He scrolls around some music-downloading sites, finds a few tunes he likes, then opens up a real-time news stream and turns the volume up.
Christopher Chandler, his former boss, sits before a Senate subcommittee. He looks right in his element, like a lizard perched on a rock offering its throat to the sun. His suit is tailored to reveal only three-quarters of an inch of cuff. Chandler doesn't give anything away without a fight, not even fabric.
Chandler crosses his legs, blinding onlookers with a recent shoeshine, while a righteously indignant Democratic senator from Maine—utterly out of his depth—attempts to grill him about financial records no one seems to be able to recover.
Chandler's lawyer, Thomas Lozen, keeps putting his hand over the microphone and consulting with Chandler, who is preoccupied writing the first chapter of his memoirs on a yellow legal pad, finishing sentences with a fountain-pen flourish, not paying a bit of attention to the senator's questions.
Kyle knows something no one in that room except Chandler knows.
Chandler's been working on his memoirs for twenty years and has never gotten past the first chapter. He just keeps writing and rewriting, finding the joy in repetition, finding nothing but pure narcissistic renewal in waking up every day and sculpting the story of his own creation.
There are no references to his parents, to his childhood, nothing. It's as if Chandler were hatched fully formed, as if he hadn't required the traditional means of begetting.
He can exist as pure fact.
Besides, no one would ever let him publish his autobiography. He told Kyle once:
"Do you think it's an accident George H. W. Bush never wrote an autobiography? He's the only former president who hasn't. All we got were a series of letters he wrote during his time in office. That's it. Well, he and I have the same problem. But it doesn't take away the fun of writing it."
Kyle mutes the subcommittee, shrinks the window, moves on to a cluster of bookmarked news sites, and the panic starts again.
This morning, like too many mornings, he's headline news:
"Megalomaniac with Mommy and Daddy Issues."
"Tech Fascist Had Red Parents."
"Irony: Engineer Traded in Commie Parents for Chandler."
Kyle can't read the articles; even skimming causes the room to spin. He knows what they're about, knows where the information emanated from.
While working for Chandler, he started suffering from severe anxiety attacks, panic so intense he was sweating right through his skin; so intense he wanted to jump out a window to make it stop. Chandler sent Kyle to talk to the company's retained psychiatrist, and then, Daniel Ellsberg–style, someone from the inside leaked those files to the press.
He feels violated, vivisected for ratings, his personal tragedies reduced to casual breakfast-nook conversation.
Thank God his parents aren't around. Of course, if they'd been around, he never would have gone to work for Chandler in the first place.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK
Neil O'Donnell sits at his desk and pours himself a Jack and ginger, raises his glass to a framed shot of Lech Walesa, and then goes a few inches to the right and stops at the one of Stalin. Neil's not a Communist, but he loves the way Stalin's photo kills conversation the minute someone walks into his apartment.
His desk is his mind made manifest. Envelopes opened but their contents never read. Magazine back issues featuring his most searing articles. A boneyard of half-smoked cigarettes. He can't concentrate long enough to finish a whole one.
He turns around and rests the drink on his treadmill, a relic of a valiant attempt at clean living, then gets up to fetch his computer from the bedroom.
Tangled in electric-blue sheets, bathed in the fluorescent glow of his fish tank—which is completely devoid of aquatic life and consists solely of cacti, coral, and sunken treasure—is his intern, Katie, a nineteen-year-old journalism student at the New School. Neil unplugs his laptop from the outlet on his side of the bed, and Katie stirs.
"When are you going to get some new fish?"
"Never," he says.
"The fish were a test."
"What kind of test?"
"Doesn't matter. I failed it." He runs his hand through her raven hair. "Go back to sleep."
Neil has a predilection for—actually, correct that, an addiction to—fucking his interns. He looks good for his age: thick, curly hair; skinny body in a uniform of ripped jeans and T-shirts preaching irony. But his fuckability bona fides come courtesy of being a bit of a rock-and-roll cyber-muckraker. And that's what makes the leftist undergrads look at him like some kind of sexual Ellis Island. You've got to fuck Neil O'Donnell when you're in New York if you want to be taken seriously at the next WTO protest.
Truth is, politically, Neil would label himself a Zen anarchist. In fact, he'd tell the Progressives after a few whiskeys that people had to worry about the health of the Left when its most prominent mouthpieces were an ex-rightist formerly married to a gay oil tycoon, and a socialist billionaire who'd sunk the British pound.
Neil started out as a freelance political journalist, contributing pieces to the likes of Mother Jones, the New Republic, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair. But he got sick of the lag time between his articles and the events of the real world, got sick of his big stories becoming sad commentary instead of news. He wanted his stories delivered moment to moment, fresh and uncut. So he became one of the first big-league bloggers, posting news in real time, making it a living, palpable thing. He had gotten his undergraduate degree at MIT, and no, he had to keep telling the interns, he didn't study with Chomsky. What he studied was international relations and computer science. So setting up the site and networking and server was no problem. And besides, he had all-around tech genius Kyle West, his college buddy, helping him out free of charge.
Neil bankrolled the site out of his own pocket and luckily it moved into the black before he went red—but, man, was it was close. Now he's got on-site advertisers; he's got sponsorship, as he puts it. He's got a whole army of freelancers who sit in their apartments all day waiting for something to happen so they can upload it instantly. He has his own media fiefdom, which he runs out of his two-bedroom in Greenwich Village while frequently naked and even more frequently drunk.
He lights a cigarette, watches the smoke coil around the bare bulb in his ceiling fixture, hears the steel-cello chirp of a connected call, and knows exactly who it is.
"How's my favorite exile?" Neil says when he sees Kyle's face in the corner of his screen. "Today the day you're gonna tell me where you are?"
Kyle's voice is low, suffused with fatigue. "Safer you don't know."
Neil puts out the cigarette. "I can't help you if I don't know."
"You can't help me. Not only can't you…you shouldn't." Kyle exhales hard. "See the news today?"
"Yeah." Neil nods. "Waited to hear from you. Wanted to give you some breathing room."
"Why the fuck didn't you tell me this was coming?"
"I didn't know."
"Bullshit," Kyle says. "You're the king of alternative media."
"When it comes to you, no one tells me shit. Look at my site…one of my freelancers posted the article. When it comes to you, man, I'm in the dark. They're afraid I might leak it back to you. I'm—you'll love the irony of this one—considered a security risk."
This has been a sore spot in Kyle and Neil's friendship for the past year. Ever since Kyle became permanent front-page news, Neil's been forced to sit on the sidelines, to farm the story out to freelancers. Too many people know about their shared history; know they were college roommates, know they remained best friends, know Kyle put up some capital to help Neil start his site.
And this kills Neil, kills him, because he'd love nothing more than to be out there eviscerating Chandler in print. Taking down guys like Chandler is the reason he got into the news business.
Kyle snaps his fingers, nothing rhythmic, a nervous tic. "What do you think?"
"Of what to do. Can we do any damage control?"
"You're already damaged."
"Why are you talking to me like this?"
"Like you don't care."
"'Cause I'm trying to hold back how much I do care. Because you're not the only one with insomnia…you're not the only one in exile."
"Why are you upset? I'm the one who just got creamed."
"I haven't seen my best friend in a year. I don't know where you are…"
Kyle tries to focus Neil. "My question was, what do I do now?"
"Same thing I told you on day one. You never should have gone to work for Chandler. Guy's most printable nickname is the Prince of Darkness." Neil picks up the half-smoked cigarette and relights it. "Remember the article I posted. The one about how on the eve of the Baghdad invasion Saddam sent out an urgent telegram. He was willing to make oil concessions, to let the UN in and inspect? He capitulated to all of our demands. And who does Saddam send this telegram to? Not Cheney…not W. …not Rummy—he sent it to Chandler. He knew Chandler was the one with the power to stop the war. And you went and fucking worked for him."
"Where is this getting us?"
"Nowhere. This is me venting my frustration with you."
"I can't believe the legs this story has…"
"And you really shouldn't have run."
"What do you mean? I'm named in suits by Judicial Watch, Truth and Justice Watch, the ACLU…top of that, I was handed subpoenas from two different Senate subcommittees. I'm facing, at minimum, two years of jail time for contempt of Congress. I've been accused of helping to transform America into a fascist state. What did you want me to do? Sit on the couch and wait it out?"
"It made you look guilty, running."
"I should have stayed and fought?"
"If you didn't do anything."
"I didn't. That's why I ran."
"I've told you a thousand times, I did my job. That is all. I worked on weapons proliferation."
"Then come home, man. Come home. You are missed."
"You can. Cut a deal with the government."
"They're not offering."
"Make them an offer."
"Stop acting like this is some fucking choice I have."
"You need to make a deal with someone. It's your only option."
"Kyle…you worked in DC. You know this. Somewhere, someone wants to cut a deal."
"Chandler is the government."
"Then why is he on TV being grilled?"
"Public relations. Why do you think he agreed to show up? Does he look worried to you? This is a dog-and-pony show. They asked him to show up. He gave them his permission to do this to hide the really big issues."
"Make a deal."
"I know that sound," Neil says. "Means you think, somehow, you give it another year, this shit's gonna blow over. Listen to me. Chandler put a live tap on every telecom circuit…and you've been accused of building the network to slice through everything his taps sucked up. You think this is blowing over? Even England, CCTV capital of the world, thought a live tap was nuts. They backed off. This makes Bush's FISA scandal look merely indecent. Reach out. Make a deal. Or don't reach out and make a deal. Just come home."
"Minute I get off the plane in the States, they'll throw the cuffs on me. I'm obstructing justice with my absence."
"And I'll be there for you, with a lawyer, and then I'll run an exclusive."
"No way, man…I'm not some martyr."
"Why'd you do it in the first place?"
"Go work for Chandler. Why? You had to know how it was gonna go down; everyone around him has a habit of self-immolating."
"I thought I could make a difference…maybe."
"Right. Change-the-system-from-the-inside kinda thing, am I right?"
"But at what cost?"
"Right," Kyle says.
Then the call goes dead.
PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA
Kyle signs off Skype, closes the window with Chandler's testimony, logs onto one of Neil's feeder publications, and is greeted by a color photograph of himself wearing a tuxedo that could charitably be called ostentatious. He remembers when the photo was snapped. Chandler was in the habit of holding seasonal banquets in his own honor. This particular fete celebrated his philanthropic endeavors, and Kyle was there to introduce several disadvantaged teenagers who would be summer interns at one of Chandler's sixteen companies.
Kyle looks at himself in the tux, clean-shaven, hair sculpted, genuine grin, and he shudders at what he must look like to most people these days. Above the picture, the headline shouts:
"From Revolutionary Son to Corporate Fascist: Kyle West in His Own Words."
Kyle sees all the trigger words below: born in Palestinian training camp…grew up in East Berlin under Stasi protection.
The feeling starts again. The heart squeeze, the arterial tightness, the cold sweat.
He slides open the balcony door and gets, instead of air, a gut punch of heat and haze.
The sky is pregnant with rain, ready to pop. The sun presses down like an anvil. Two bougainvillea plants rest on the balcony, one on either side, dying. Their plumed purple faces have turned pale.
A branch of heat lightning bisects a cloud.
April certainly is the cruelest month.
Kyle rests his hands on the metal railing and then withdraws them in shock. He can't believe the surface has soaked up so much heat this early in the morning.
He peers over the rail at the Mekong River. The lifeblood of the Khmer people. The water is a shade of rusted brass stained by silt carried in from Laos. Houseboats bob along, ramshackle materials, collage art as shelter. Gnarled doors, beach towels as curtains, rusted roofs, NGO-donated tarps, bullet-riddled plaster walls, torn screens, empty oil drums for furniture.
Several houseboats have been pushed together to form a floating village. The suburbs of the postapocalypse, a hellish atoll.
His skin starts to burn.
A naked child stands on a jagged metal plank jutting off the side of a houseboat and pisses into the river. His mother—a land-mine victim, Kyle assumes; she's missing her right arm and foot—pulls the laundry off a clothesline running between her boat and another. The father dumps their waste into a welcoming wave.
Fishermen are caught in the Mekong's version of morning gridlock. Some have floated farther from the dock than others, and Kyle can make out only the shadows of their straw hats, dozens of Tom Sawyers steering splintered wooden boats. Fishing as a family business. Fathers steer, sons paddle, wives and daughters unfurl nets.
He feels the first buds of cold rise on his skin, signaling a deeper burn.
He puts on his sunglasses and tries to find a thought to hold on to, to ride out. His thoughts go in circles now. Extended exile opens the door to that habit. Actually, it opens the door to two habits: endless reflection and alcoholism. He tries to remember what his favorite philosopher in college—E. M. Cioran—said about exile; something about it beginning with exaltation and ending in tuberculosis and masturbation.
He raps his fingers against the railing, decides to head out to anywhere with people. It doesn't matter if he can't understand what's being said. He needs sound, needs to hear speech.
Heat shimmers on tin roofs. Everything's gone aqueous, doubled.
Kyle sprints out the back door of the hotel. He needs to keep moving, feels as if he's exploding out of his skin. Staying embodied is his main challenge these days. He wants to burst out, to become free of himself.
Across the street, there's a makeshift village of slum houses built side by side, no breathing room between. The shanties seem to wilt in the heat and lean on one another for support, a series of dislocated shoulders. Laundry stretches from window to window. A hunk of steel—probably the side of a building at one point—stands before the structures, the gateway to a cardboard kingdom.
But what dangles from the top of the steel stops him dead.
Ropes of human hair tied into perfect individual ponytails and drying in the sun like smoked meats. All the hair is the same length and color: dark brown and long enough to reach the small of a woman's back. It looks like the work of an executioner bored with lopping off heads and searching for a new thrill.
Kyle drifts, wonders where all the hair is going, then decides he doesn't want to know. There are some truths that don't enlighten, and he figures the ultimate destination of the hair is one of them.
He moves down the street, passes a shirtless teenager dragging an overflowing sack of iPhones and iPods, the weight too much for his growing bones to bear.
Kyle rounds the block, and a line of tuk-tuks compete for his attention.
"Where you go?" a driver calls, following him.
"No, no…it's only ten minutes to walk."
"It's too hot. You die in five." The driver slows down. "Fifty cent. I take you anywhere."
"People die in this heat. Especially American. You not made for this."
The driver has a salient point. Kyle gets into the tuk-tuk, a small motorcycle attached to a separate passenger carrier complete with a ramshackle roof.
"Wha's your name?"
"Jim," Kyle says. Every day he tries a new one.
"Sok," the driver says. "Today my birthday."
"Every day my birthday. I born in the jungle. Khmer Rouge come and take everyone there. No one knew what day it was, what month, year, nothing. No calendar. I was born in no time." He laughs. "Have lots and lots of birthdays."
Kyle sinks into the back of the tuk-tuk.
Born in no time.
That's his existence in Phnom Penh boiled down. No time. He's lost twenty pounds of muscle since he touched down here, lost his resolve, his desire to get off the ground, his will to re-create rituals from home, those moments that personalize one's world.
But the most crushing loss has been losing his ability to write code.
Kyle's always felt that language, not the body, is the true prison house of the soul. When he lost coding, he lost his Edenic native tongue. Now he's forced to rely on the same words everyone has to work with.
- On Sale
- Jul 30, 2013
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Mulholland Books