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By K.T. Medina
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Tess Hardy thought she had put Luke, her violent ex-husband, firmly in her past. Then he calls from Cambodia, where he is working as a mine-clearer, and there’s something in his voice she hasn’t heard before: Fear. Two weeks later, he’s dead.
Against her better judgment, Tess is drawn to Cambodia and to the killing fields. Keeping her relationship to Luke a closely guarded secret, Tess joins his team of mine clearers, who are shaken to the core by Luke’s sudden death. Even in their grief, the group remains a tightly knit and tightly wound community in which almost everyone has something to hide.
At the same time, the circle of death begins to expand. Teenage mothers are disappearing from villages around the minefields, while others are being found mutilated and murdered, their babies abandoned. Everywhere there are whispers about the White Crocodile, a mythical beast that brings death to all who meet it. Caught in a web of secrets and lies, Tess must unravel the truth, and quickly. The crocodile is watching, and Tess may be its next victim.
Combining the technical expertise of military suspense with a richly drawn sense of place, White Crocodile forges new ground in the thriller genre. Medina’s internationally acclaimed debut announces the arrival of a prodigiously talented novelist whom readers will be discussing for years to come.
Table of Contents
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Tian was woken by a noise. A brief cry, like the sound her mother let out when she saw a rat between the huts at dusk. Silence followed, and she wondered if she had dreamed her mother's voice. But sleep wouldn't come, even when she tugged her sarong right up to her chin and closed her eyes.
She could picture Mummy sitting motionless on the top step with the empty look she got in her eyes sometimes, on those afternoons when Tian would call and call her and she wouldn't hear. She pulled the sarong down again and sighed. Night was framed in the glassless square of window above her.
Jumping up, she pushed the cloth curtain aside and tiptoed across the hut. The doorway was empty. The moon slid from behind a cloud, lighting a bare sleeping roll.
For a few seconds, Tian stood there mystified.
She turned and scanned the room. It was barely seven metres across and her eyes ran along the walls, searched every corner.
Outside the doorway, the night was black and full of the trill of cicadas.
'Meak?' Mummy. Just a whisper.
She took a step forward.
Tian hugged her arms around herself. Biting her lip, she began to walk towards the doorway.
On the top step she paused. It was colder outside than she had expected. A light wind rustled her sarong and brushed grey clouds across a sliver of moon. The rough wooden boards chilled the soles of her bare feet.
Her mother had warned her never to bother the neighbours. Even at six, Tian knew that she and her mother were not like the others. Bastard. She had heard the word and though she didn't understand its meaning, she recognised the contempt.
But where else would Mummy be?
It was only twenty metres to the next hut, but there was no light. Tian glanced in the other direction. There was just enough moon for her to see the still edge of the jungle. Quickly, she dropped her gaze down to the five wooden steps between her and the ground. Something glistened on the bottom step. She bent down. It was a knife, its blade glassy in the moonlight. Recoiling, she sucked in a breath. She would run, as fast as she could. Ten seconds and she would be there, safe inside the neighbour's hut with her mother. Then she noticed something else next to the knife, something carved into the wood of the bottom step, the gouges deep and uneven. She couldn't quite see what it was at first. But it stirred a memory.
Instead of running as she had planned to, she sank into a crouch, wrapping her arms tight around her knees, feeling the chill on her bare shoulders. She remembered why she recognised the carving. The last time she had seen it, it had made the men of the village fall to their knees and pray.
The sign was a square of painted wood nailed to a post at the edge of the minefield, hanging crooked, as if it had been hurriedly tacked up. The stick figure of a reptile daubed on a black background. Needle-sharp teeth, a splash for an eye.
Tess realised that her hands were tattooing a rhythm against her thighs. Curling them into fists, she jammed them into her pockets. There was something written in Khmer beneath the drawing. She couldn't read it. But she knew what the thing meant.
'White Crocodile minefield.' A Khmer in mine-clearance fatigues was standing watching her, his flat brown face expressionless. 'You heard about the White Crocodile?'
Tess shook her head, and thought back six months to an English spring morning: trailing a hand along the sleek lines of a young man's coffin.
'No.' She was surprised at how steady her voice was. 'What's the White Crocodile?'
The Khmer slotted some betel nut into his mouth, his saliva reddening as he chewed. 'It come to Cambodia at time of important change. Present at birth of Cambodia. When Khmer Rouge took country, White Crocodile seen. This minefield.' He gestured towards the red-and-white warning tape. 'When this minefield found, White Crocodile here.' He stared past her, out across the spoiled fields. 'Seen here.'
'So it represents fate, does it? Is that what people in Cambodia think?'
The mine clearer levelled his gaze at hers; he hadn't understood.
'Fate,' she repeated. 'Something that is meant to be. Something that you can't change whatever you do.'
'Bhat.' Sudden understanding lent a gleam to his dark eyes. 'Fate. The White Crocodile is fate.'
The call had come early one morning.
She had stayed up late the night before because it was a Friday, a precious evening before a weekend with no training, no exercises, the end of a gruelling week where her troop had spent four days in the field sleeping rough.
The phone woke her just before five, still almost dark outside, the white curtains beginning to turn grey-tinged pink. She fumbled for it, dragged from a dream that disappeared from memory the moment she woke, just the wisps of something warm and comfortable remaining. She was about to ask Luke if he knew what the hell the time was–let alone why he was calling her anyway–but when she pressed the receiver to her ear there was no static crackle, no pause while she waited for the words to lurch down the line from thirteen thousand miles away.
The memory of what happened next was as clear in her mind as if she'd received the same call every morning since.
'Don't listen.' A voice cut in, a confident English voice, and a muscular arm folded around her shoulders. Johnny leaned into her, his breath hot on her cheek. 'It's just peasant bullshit.'
Tess twisted out of his grasp, raising a hand to shield her eyes from the sun, meeting his gaze and catching his grin.
'Jonathan Douglas Hugh Perrier–our resident toff!' Bob MacSween, the MCT boss, had told her yesterday, taking her through the staff photographs tacked to the team-room wall. 'Parents own a couple of thousand acres in Shropshire. My parents' estate is a two up two down in the arse end of Glasgow. He's a bit of a joker; comes with the posh-boy domain, I suppose. Never needed to take life seriously. Johnny swears he wires his house with trip wires, changes their position every few days just to keep himself on his toes.'
MacSween had laughed when he'd said it, but Tess had sensed a slight unease. Jokes and mines: it was dangerous territory. She lowered her hand to her cheek, smearing Johnny's breath into her palm. His touch had felt too personal; she hardly knew him.
'What's bullshit? The Crocodile?'
'It's a Cambodian myth. A stupid five-hundred-year-old myth that's got completely out of hand.' He rolled his eyes. 'They have crocodiles running around in their heads. The betel nut they all chew is hallucinogenic.'
'Is that what the sign's about?' She tilted her head towards it.
'I've no idea who put that up. I was going to come out here with a tin of paint and give it one less leg and a crutch, but MacSween would kick my arse if he found out. He's into the locals and their idiosyncrasies.' Smiling, he pulled a packet of tobacco from his pocket, rolled a cigarette and lit it. 'Actually MacSween's furious because he chose that fucking croc as our logo when he set the charity up five years ago.' He pointed to one of the Land Cruisers where a sleek white reptilian insignia wound around the navy-blue letters, MCT, on its bonnet. 'And now the villagers see it as their harbinger of doom. Not quite the image he was trying to create. Personally, I don't care what the villagers think as long as my Khmer clearers don't start believing that shit too and getting jumpy.' He caught her eye and suddenly seemed to sense her anxiety. 'You're a bit edgy as well, aren't you? Has something upset you?'
'No. I'm fine. Just a bit spaced out by the time change.' Her hand rose to finger her ear as she smiled up at him, a smile she hoped reached her eyes. 'I should be going to bed about now.'
Johnny nodded, measuring her denial with a steady gaze.
'Don't worry,' he said finally. 'You're only stuck with me for the week until you're used to the foibles of the Cambodian fields, then you get your own troop.' Taking a final drag of his roll-up, he dropped the butt and crushed it under his heel. 'So let's try and make it interesting for you. See what we can find.'
He looked past her. She followed his gaze, checking out the field as a mine clearer this time–a professional–trying not to look at the black sign with its crude drawing. Below them was a huge expanse of mined land that took in jungle, waterlogged paddy fields where rice once grew, cassava, maize and soybean fields, grazing land for cattle, dirt roads and pathways, and two deserted schools, the buildings derelict, windows blank. The land stretched five kilometres north to south, three east to west, linking a network of twelve small villages, each at starvation level, ravaged by the lack of safe land to farm.
It would take years to clear fully. Every centimetre–jungle, flooded paddy fields, footpaths, thigh-high elephant grass–had to be covered by a trained clearer, sweeping his detector from side to side across a metre-wide clearance lane, bending to investigate any alarms by hand, probing the earth with a steel wand to see if he could make contact with metal. When that happened, a hand would go up, and all the teams would have to pull back to safe ground while the clearer lay on his stomach and gingerly uncovered the suspected mine with his trowel and his fingers. If a land mine was found, it was marked with a red cone, the clearance lane closed for the rest of the day and the clearer taken to a different part of the field to continue work. At the end of the day, all the mines found were wired with explosives and detonated in situ.
It was early. Mist still clung in hollows. Johnny's Khmer clearers, slight figures in pale blue MCT fatigues, were already working in their lanes, flak jackets and helmets on, visors down, eyes locked to the ground. Total concentration, and just the ambient hum of insects to mar the silence.
'Tess.' She felt Johnny's hand on her arm. He had fastened his flak jacket. 'I'm going to check something out in the field. One of my clearers has seen something in the lane next to his that he wants me to have a look at. Huan, the guy who's clearing that lane, isn't here today.'
'What's he seen?'
'Nothing, probably. It's usually nothing with these guys in this damn field. Are you happy to wait here and keep an eye on the rest of my teams?'
'Yes, of course. But what is it? What's he seen?'
Johnny had crouched down and was checking his detector, passing his hand around the metal coil to ease off the dirt, tracing his fingers up the shaft to the test button, which screeched a warning signal into the silence. She thought he hadn't heard her.
'He thought it was a skull,' he said, straightening.
A tight little laugh caught in her throat. 'A skull? A human skull?'
'That's right. A human skull.' Johnny grinned. 'You've heard of the Khmer Rouge, haven't you?' His voice was heavy with sarcasm.
'Of course I've heard of them—' She broke off, aware that her own voice was rising, becoming shrill. He'd start wondering again–why she was so anxious–and that was the last thing she wanted to happen.
'They killed millions. Marched their countrymen out to fields just like this, made them kneel and beat them to death with wooden clubs so they didn't waste bullets.' He pulled a face. 'It's probably just a fucking rock. So sit back and sunbathe and I'll be back in a minute.' Shouldering his detector, he turned towards the minefield. 'Just don't get burnt,' he cast back over his shoulder. 'I certainly don't intend to.'
Tess watched Johnny cross safe ground to the edge of the minefield and the start of Huan's clearance lane. He looked relaxed, his detector swung over his shoulder, visor propped over the top of his head. She almost called out to him–told him to pull it down before he entered the field–but she thought better of it.
Her gaze moved past him to the lone tree in the middle of the mined land. Its tight mass of branches and leaves cast an almost perfectly circular disc of shade, so dark that in this bright light it looked like a stain on a projector image. Beyond the tree, Johnny's clearance teams were still working silently, the heat staining their armpits with circles of sweat even though it was barely 8 a.m.
Tess hadn't noticed the heat while she'd been talking with Johnny, but now, standing alone, she felt its intensity. She dragged a hand across her forehead, wiping sweat into her hair. Somewhere near her ear an insect buzzed. She swiped at it, heard its buzz fade then become louder. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she noticed a mine clearer standing looking towards her, his hand raised in dumb show. A mine had been found. Pulling her visor down over her face she walked swiftly towards him.
The explosion was just a muffled, insolent little bang.
Later, the only thing Tess would be able to recall clearly was the lack of noise: the absolute silence. She had been here before, in this exact moment, in this exact minefield, but with another man dying, over and over.
Each nightmare had been different.
Sometimes the colours were extraordinary, the ravaged grass in the mined paddy fields an unfeasible shade of emerald, silvers and golds ringing the burnt-out craters. At other times, the landscape had been washed to watercolour by a monsoon rain. Still others, the scene had been monochrome–one man, alone, bleeding his life into a strange lunar wasteland.
But whichever dream, there had never been this overwhelming silence. She realised, when she was able to think back, that it must only have lasted for a second or two, but in that moment–the moment after Johnny stepped on a mine–each second had stretched and gaped.
Gradually the sound of her own ragged breathing crept around the edge of her consciousness. And suddenly there was mayhem. Panicked mine clearers dropped kit and sprinted down their lanes towards safe ground, some screaming and stumbling, others running, silent, fast. The smell of TNT filled the air. Somewhere to her left she could hear someone yelling–helicopter, helicopter.
And there, twenty metres in front of her, lying under the lone tree in the middle of the field, was Johnny, moaning, broken. His right leg twisted and sheared off mid-calf. Shrapnel wounds ploughed his face and neck and even from this distance she could see that his skin had gone dead white. His eyes were wild with panic.
Move, Tess, move. Her flak jacket felt heavy, constricting, a buoyancy aid filled with sand instead of air, a sensation, a memory she hadn't had since home: a frivolous memory of dancing around the living room in Luke's flak jacket, nothing else on but red lace knickers and a wicked smile.
Metal detector? Where was her detector?
But she couldn't see it, and now that she was moving her blood began to pulse again, bringing with it energy–pure adrenalin. As if her legs belonged to someone else she felt herself begin to move, one foot and then the other, carrying her forward, towards the edge of the minefield, towards Johnny.
Hands grabbed at her suddenly, hauling her back.
'No.' A voice was screaming in her ear. 'You no go in.'
She fought to free her arm. 'We have to get to him now. He'll die.'
'No. Stop! You no go in. No go in!'
She could see Johnny panting now, gulping, as if there was not enough air in the world. His chest heaved and lifted and heaved again and then he was sobbing.
The other clearers–his clearers–were huddled in silence around the Land Cruisers. No one was moving. Why was no one doing anything? What the fuck were they waiting for?
The young man holding her arm had a face distorted with fear. She jerked back, fighting against his hands.
'Wait? Wait for what?'
'Lady. Listen–you listen.'
'No! For God's sake, we have to get to him now.' She was yelling, she realised, her throat raw with it. She could see the other Khmer men drawing back, retreating from her, shutters closing over their faces.
'Lady, this field. The White Crocodile came here.' He was pointing at Johnny. 'Twelve times. Mr Johnny thirteen—'
She wrenched her arm from his grasp, shoved past him and broke into a run, her feet slipping, heavy combat boots dragging at her legs, flak jacket pressing against her chest, making it hard to breathe. Her heart lurched as she passed the red-and-white mine tape marking the edge of the field, but she didn't stop.
He looked calm now. Sit back and sunbathe. Don't get burnt. His eyes were closed and he was silent, his breath slow and shallow. I certainly don't intend to. Only the blood didn't fit. She couldn't believe how much there was.
It poured from the ragged remains of his calf and the shrapnel wounds on his face and neck, slick underneath him, forming a glossy halo around his head. His skin had darkened to navy blue around the edges of the wounds. A stain was spreading across the front of his shorts. The burnt, twisted case of the anti-personnel mine lay a couple of lanes away, and next to it, a boot–a splintered, sopping boot.
Forcing her mind to blankness, Tess lowered herself gently down beside him. Knelt in his blood. Smelt scorched flesh and fear. Felt the shade of the tree on her face. Gripped his hand. Gestured for the first-aiders to come forward–It's clear! I just ran down the fucking lane, there's nothing else here! It's clear!–listened to the slop of their boots in the mud, to the rustle of the stretcher, to the static from a radio somewhere in the distance, to Johnny saying something that didn't come out as words, just babble, before he groaned and coughed a red mess on to his flak jacket.
She looked from his jacket to his face and saw that his eyes were open now, flickering blue lights that were brightening, dimming.
The complex was situated on the fringes of central Battambang, on a potholed road, tree-lined and oddly peaceful given its location. Tess drove through the gate into a dirt courtyard shaded by palms and a huge, spreading frangipani tree, and hemmed in on three sides by shabby, single-storey whitewashed buildings. Each building was rectangular, with a deep covered veranda running down the side that faced the courtyard. Their glassless windows were dark behind mosquito mesh.
Cutting the engine, she slumped forward, pressing her forehead against the steering wheel and closing her eyes. The pain in her skull, which had come on the moment she'd seen Johnny loaded into the ambulance, refused to subside. She fought a wave of nausea, panicky at the thought of seeing him again, maimed–bitten, she found herself thinking, remembering the boot. She had tried to maintain her professionalism at the field–ducking behind a Land Cruiser, out of sight, to throw up–but she knew that she must stink of it. Vomit, and his blood, which had dried to brown paste on her trousers.
Sitting back in the seat, she opened her eyes and took a few long breaths, sucking the hot air into her lungs. For a moment, her mind flashed back to England, where winter would now be approaching. She suddenly yearned to be cold. Flipping the rear-view mirror down, she glanced at her reflection. Drawn and pale. She shoved a strand of hair behind her ear, moistened her fingertips with her tongue and scrubbed at the tracks on her cheeks, until the lines merged into the rest of the dirt. She detested herself when she cried, couldn't start out in Cambodia like this, whatever had happened. The woman who cried had to be left behind with the bills on the mat and the rancid milk she'd forgotten to empty from the fridge. Giving herself another quick glance in the mirror, she climbed out and slammed the door.
The three buildings facing the courtyard were nearly identical. The one to her right was in semi-darkness, wooden slat blinds pulled low over the windows. The building at the back of the courtyard was also deserted, but a couple of metal chairs rested on the veranda and two lines of faded washing hung listlessly. To her left, doors were open and she could see the outlines of people moving around inside, hear the gentle hum of conversation. Two Khmer men were sitting on a low bench in the shade of the veranda, watching her in silence. She made her way over.
One was young, in his teens she guessed, with dark curly hair. The leg-hole of his green shorts sagged around a pinched stump; his other leg was pitted with scars. The other man was old, white hair, eyes glazed by cataracts. His right arm was a knot of rough skin hooked over a wooden crutch, his left ankle a swell of distorted flesh, with no foot attached.
'A man, a white man, Barang, was brought in here a few hours ago. He trod on a land mine. Could you please tell me where he was taken?'
The young man gave a shy smile, the old man nodded and grinned, but it was clear that neither had understood.
'Un homme blanc. Accident. Il arrive ici, deux heures…' She waved her hand. 'Ago… Where… Où? Où est-il?'
It was poor. She waited, chewing her lip. Slowly a hand was raised. The old man pointing, with his good arm, across the courtyard.
'Ça c'est l'hôpital.'
At the far end of the building, the corridor opened out into a small waiting area, where narrow wooden benches were set against the wall.
A dark-haired man was slumped on one of the benches, legs stretched out in front of him, head hanging, smoke curling from a cigarette in his hand. Butts made a pile on the floor by his feet. He was wearing navy-blue MCT fatigues, shorts and shirt, long-sleeved despite the heat, faded and stained with tidemarks of sweat. As she walked through the doorway, he lifted his head and she recognised him from his photograph on the team-room wall. Alexander Bauer: early thirties, dark brown hair, eyes so dark they had looked almost black. 'Croatian,' MacSween had told her. 'Keeps himself to himself. But he's good. Tough, reliable and knows his shit.'
In the photographs he had seemed a broad, tall figure. Here in the hospital waiting room, his size was magnified–the bench he was sitting on seemed absurdly small and delicate by comparison.
'Alexander, Alex? I'm—'
'I know who you are.'
He took a drag of his cigarette and blew the smoke slowly through his nostrils, dark eyes fixed on her face.
'What's happening?' she asked. 'Where's Johnny?'
He answered with a tilt of his head. She glanced towards closed double doors on the far side of the waiting area, which bore a sign written in Khmer.
'Operating theatre. No entry. Operation in progress,' he read, slowly, sardonically.
'How did you hear about… about Johnny?'
'Radio, it is open band. We all heard.'
'Do you know where MacSween is? Is he coming?'
'He's meeting local military commanders. Sweet-talking. He won't know yet probably. When he does, he will come.'
She nodded. 'I followed as soon as I could.'
'You didn't need to.' His eyes were hard.
Tess slumped down on one of the benches; Alexander stayed where he was, smoking, looking at his hands.
The double doors to the operating theatre swung open and a small Khmer in green surgical robes slipped out. Head down, eyes fixed on the floor, he hurried up the corridor, and returned a few moments later clutching two transparent sacs of blood.
Alexander held out his arm. 'Ohm.'
The orderly paused; Alex spoke quietly in Khmer. The orderly replied in monosyllables. When they had finished speaking, he whirled past Alex and into the operating theatre.
'What did he say?' she asked. 'How's Johnny? Did he tell you?'
Alex stood without answering and moved over to the window, where he raised his arms, using splayed fingers to rest against its frame, staring through the mosquito netting.
'Is he OK? Is he alive?'
Alex nodded. 'Alive.'
She fell silent, stared at his back, at the contours of his shoulders and arms tense against the material of his shirt. Her gaze slid past him to the outside, where a group of Khmer mine victims were walking around a brightly painted obstacle course, some stumbling at every hurdle, others coping better on their prosthetics and battered wooden crutches. Alex watched them. After a while he cast the butt of his cigarette to the ground, reached in his pocket for the packet, opened it, but didn't take one. Instead, he turned back towards Tess, leaning against the windowsill.
'Why are you here?'
'What? In Cambodia? Or in this hospital?'
'What brought you to Cambodia? Why are you doing this?'
Tess waited a beat before answering. She had never worked for a humanitarian mine-clearance charity, but had five years in the Royal Engineers under her belt, including three tours of duty clearing mines in Afghanistan. She had more than enough experience to make her valuable to a small charity like MCT–and to provide a convincing cover story for her being in Cambodia. She wasn't about to open up to Alex, or to anyone else, about the real reason.
'Why not? There's nothing else I'm good at.'
He was studying her face, searching it for clues. She met his gaze unblinking. There was truth in what she'd said, and the rest was none of his business.
'What about you? Why are you here?'
He didn't speak for a few moments. 'It's a long story, and not one that is very interesting.'
'You've never been injured clearing?'
He shook his head. 'I've been lucky. But once, almost—'He broke off, turning back to the window. It had begun to rain, a soft patter against the mesh. Somewhere out in the street a tinny radio blared hip hop, and a rooster squawked. 'I got too close to someone else's fuck-up.'
Her mouth was suddenly dry. 'What happened?'
'Not important.' His fingers tapped against the windowframe. 'You should go home.'
She shook her head. 'I'm happy to stay.'
'Go home. There is no need for you to be here.'
'I want to stay, see that Johnny's OK.'
- "Hard to put down . . . Those who liked Paula Hawkins' The Girl on the Train should also appreciate K.T. Medina's White Crocodile."—Margie Romero, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
- "Medina's writing radiates with adrenaline. . . . Supernaturally sinister and convincingly gripping . . . An atmospheric and disquieting crime thriller."—Shelf Awareness
- "An exciting first novel, from a huge new talent."—Mo Hayder, Edgar Award-winning author of Gone and Wolf
- "A dark tale of the way our past haunts us, and the revenge it can drive us to take. K.T. Medina knows her war torn landscape intimately, in all its complexity and desperation. Medina does for Cambodia what Timothy Hallinan does for Thailand, and I anticipate more from this intriguing new author."—Jenny Milchman, Mary Higgins Clark Award-winning author of Cover of Snow and Ruin Falls
- "Operatic ... the most ambitious of canvases [with] the fraught psychological territory of Joseph Conrad's Africa in Heart of Darkness ... a vulnerable buttenacious heroine ... a strongly written thriller and a passionate meditation. There is yet another accomplished crime writer joining the sizeable throng of names to which attention must be paid."—Barry Forshaw, The Independent
- On Sale
- Jun 30, 2015
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Mulholland Books