THE EYE OF GOD
Jess Colter opened his eyes, and without lifting his head, squinted in the direction of the voice. He hadn't heard her approach, and now the unexpected appearance of the young woman standing there startled him. Her hair, bound in a series of serpentine braids, formed a Medusa-like halo, an effect heightened by the sunlight streaming over her shoulder. As she leaned over him, the braids swayed ominously back and forth across her face.
Colter reached inside his tattered fatigue jacket to reassure himself his belt bag still encircled his waist. He knew anyone foolish enough to fall asleep here announced themselves as an easy mark for the thieves that preyed on the pilgrims and tourists that frequented this hillside above the temple. Not that his bag contained anything worth stealing, other than maybe his watch and the dog-eared paperback he had stolen from a tourist's backpack earlier that day.
"Hey, man, you speak English? Cigarette," she said, pantomiming with her fingers. "Can I bum a cigarette?"
Colter propped himself up on one elbow and pawed the ground in front of him until he found his glasses, then gazed up and studied her more carefully. She looked much younger than he first thought. Eighteen at the most. She wore a muslin shift, garishly tie-dyed in the colors of the rainbow, and a string of trade beads looped loosely around her neck. Gauging from her expressionless eyes and lazy grin, he guessed she had just stumbled up from one of the opium dens along the river. He considered her for another moment before glancing around. Other than a pair of monkeys grooming themselves atop the low stone wall that separated the embankment from the river below, they were alone. As Colter sat up, the larger of the two monkeys looked up from its task and yawned menacingly in his direction.
"M'name's Starshine. You American?" she asked, her voice slurred. "I got some hash if you wanna party," she added when he failed to answer.
Colter ran his fingers through his long, unkempt hair, then reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the crushed box of cheap Nepalese cigarettes. He counted how many remained, selecting for himself the one that appeared the least crumpled before tossing the box at her feet.
"Gotta light?" she asked, picking up the pack and removing one of the cigarettes.
She weaved back and forth as she stood up. Colter raised his left arm. A small, cylindrical brass cigarette lighter dangled from the elephant-hair bracelet encircling his wrist. As she reached for the lighter, Colter pushed her hand away, and with one swift movement, swung the lighter into his left hand and flicked the flint. She grinned and leaned down to light the cigarette, her hand lightly resting on his. Her grey, feral eyes seemed to study him for a moment before she tilted her head and leaned into the flame. He could smell the rancid, sour bouquet of opium on her breath as she exhaled. She leaned back on her heels, her hand still cradling his.
"Now get lost," he said.
She started to say something, then rose to her feet and scurried off down the hillside. Colter wondered if this was how Ren had approached her benefactors. A casual request for cigarettes, one thing leading to another. He shook his head in an effort to erase this image and glanced around. The wall of the small stone chapel against which he reclined sat atop an embankment overlooking the Bagmati River and the temple complex of Pashupatinath. By this time of day, the pilgrims had dwindled, most of them gone to seek shelter before nightfall or to prepare their evening meals over the small charcoal braziers set up in the maze of alleys surrounding the temple. Colter always enjoyed strolling amongst the families of these wayfarers as they dined, if for no other reason than the vicarious sense of belonging. He was long past simple homesickness. Now even the slightest expression of kinship or goodwill filled him with an overpowering melancholia. Occasionally, one of the women would look up from her cooking and offer him some of her meager provisions. More often than not, he would smile and refuse, embarrassed by his predicament -poorer than the poor.
The times when his hunger overcame his pride, he would linger and contribute what he could, usually cigarettes or some vegetables pilfered from the produce stalls in the Thamel. He never ate in the presence of his hosts, instead he gratefully took what was offered, secreting the food in a scrap of paper or rag to bring back to Ren later that night. Now as he sat on the hillside, he watched in despair as the smoke from the cooking fires spiraled upwards into the thin mountain air to blend with the haze formed by the tens of thousands of other cooking fires of the ancient city. He often came here at this time of day to escape the heat of the cramped streets and savor the quiet tranquility of the dusk, the stillness broken only by the muted chattering of the women washing dishes in the poisonous green waters of the river.
When he and Ren first arrived in Kathmandu, they and their friends often visited the temple to gaze in perverse wonderment at the daily activities that took place along the banks of the river. The most popular of the attractions were the cremation ghats, a series of semi-circular stone docks that lined either bank. They whiled away the hours smoking hash and watching in fascination as the saffron-robed relatives of the deceased placed their loved ones atop the pyres of brush and logs, then set them aflame. As the corpse burned, the mourners tossed offerings of coins and flowers onto the pyre. Once the flames had turned to embers, the family would shovel the ashes into the placid waters, the start of their beloved one's long journey to the Ganges.
Colter could still recall their revulsion that first time when they spied a lone beggar, a spindly old man dressed only in a tattered loincloth, wade into the shallow, murky waters and begin to grope on all fours for the scorched funeral coins. The old man was joined almost immediately by a pair of scrawny cattle that had meandered into the river to lick the oily sheen from the water's surface. In deference to the cows, the beggar patiently withdrew to await his turn. As he gazed up at the gallery of voyeurs, his eyes met Colters'. The old man smiled, a toothless satyric leer, and saluted him. Even now, the memory of that moment haunted Colter. For some reason, he found the beggars's casual fatalism both comforting and disturbing.
He brushed these thoughts aside and peered at the sun setting over the crumpled ridge of mountains to the west. It would be dark soon, he thought as he reached into his belt bag and retrieved his watch. He held the watch up by its one remaining strap and squinted at the dial. Its shattered crystal forced him to hold it at an angle in order to see the hands, a task made even more difficult by the scratched lenses of his wire-rimmed glasses.
"Come on, you prick. I don't have all day," Colter muttered.
Ledoux was late as usual. Colter should have known better than to expect him to be on time, for the Frenchman rarely ventured out before dark. Colter attributed this as much to Ledoux's eccentricity as to his occupation as Kathmandu's premier street dealer of heroin. Ledoux's nocturnal nature reminded Colter of the bats that by day hung like overripe fruit from the trees along Lazimpat, the main boulevard leading into the Thamel district. With nightfall, their frenzied screeching transformed the murky skies of the city into something malevolent. Ren steadfastly refused to accompany Colter along the boulevard after dark. Not so much out of any fear as her superstition, a sentiment Colter found both annoying and inconvenient.
He picked up the canteen beside him and took a long swallow of the brackish water. It tasted like the greasy soup he had purchased that morning with the last of their rupees. The street vendor, a pudgy Tibetan whose stall reeked of cabbage and spoiled meat, had wanted to barter, offering to throw in a slab of roasted buffalo meat in exchange for Colter's lighter. Colter had refused, settling for the small portion of porridge the Tibetan had ladled into Colter's canteen. He hadn't eaten since then, and now his hunger only heightened his anxiety. He had spent the morning weighing their options, hoping he had overlooked some way out of their dilemma. But in the end, Ledoux seemed their only chance. Five hundred dollars was all Colter needed. He might as well grow wings and fly them out himself, he thought as he picked at his chapped and peeling lips. He figured they needed at least that much to get them back to Goa and a new start. If they could take a bus, maybe a hundred would do. But as sick as Ren was, she might not survive the grueling, two week bus trip across India. Flying remained their only option, but an expensive proposition at best.
Six months ago, when they first arrived in Nepal from India, they had four hundred dollars between them. Since then, they had schemed and hoarded, but still never managed to scrape together more than enough money for another fix. Now nothing mattered to Ren except the heroin. He sat up and pulled the cigarette from behind his ear. Somehow, they needed to score five hundred dollars from a two-bit drug dealer who didn't really give a rat's ass if they lived or died. He cursed and lit the cigarette with the small brass lighter that dangled from his wrist. As he cupped his hands around the flame, he paused for a moment to stare at the inscription on the side of the lighter, then leaned into the flame and inhaled. The tobacco burned his throat and made him cough. He took another puff, this time careful to hold the cigarette loosely between his lips. He raised his wrist and glanced again at the lighter and the words engraved on its side worn but still legible.
"Onward through the fog. Padre Island. June 16, 1969"
Closing his eyes, he could almost hear the breakers and smell the salty air of the Gulf of Mexico. That had been three years and a lifetime ago. He couldn't help but smile at the thought of them sitting around the fire, smoking Sensimilla and laughing at a evangelical minister spouting hell fire and damnation over the small portable radio. Brig and Ren had huddled beneath a blanket while Colter and a girl whose name he no longer remembered lay naked in the sand. Brig and Ren had given him the lighter that night as a birthday present. Now as he touched the lighter to his lips, he wondered how different their fates would be if that night had never happened. What if he and Ren had never strolled down that dark beach? If he hadn't blurted out his feelings would Ren's kiss have remained nothing more than fantasy? And if he had known the price of this indiscretion, would it have stopped him from loving her? Or betraying Brig? At the time there was no way of knowing that his duplicity would result in his best friend rotting away in a Mexican prison. Or that the girl they both loved would be dying of hepatitis and remorse in a rat-infested hovel in Kathmandu.
He winced at the thought of her lying alone and ill in their room. Even the surreal beauty of the pagodas, their golden, stacked roofs glinting in the fading sunlight, seemed only to deepen his despair. He wiped his nose on his sleeve and flicked his cigarette at a weathered, stone statue of Shiva. The butt bounced off the statue's base and fell into the grass. One of the monkeys ambled over to retrieve this unexpected prize. The monkey examined the cigarette for a moment before loping off to share it with its mate who sat nursing an infant beneath the thin mantle of a stunted papaya tree. A breeze ruffled their fur, carrying with it the sickly sweet smell of ordure and charred flesh that wafted up from the funeral ghats. The simple domesticity of the monkey's gesture stirred a fleeting, elegiac image.
As he turned his gaze to the narrow stone bridge that spanned the river, he spotted Ledoux. Colter watched him as he made his way up the embankment towards him. The Frenchman paused for a moment and appeared to scan the shadows of the trees that lined the crest of the small hill behind Colter before turning to glance back at the bridge and continuing up the slope.
"How are you, mon ami?" Ledoux said in his heavily-accented English as he drew near.
Colter didn't reply, and instead looked back at the river. The Frenchman stepped in front of Colter and held out a pack of Winstons.
Ledoux wore his customary black leather jacket, no shirt, and black stove-pipe jeans stuffed into a pair of well-worn cowboy boots. The boots, also black, had been dyed, the original tan showing through the scuffed toes. An Aussie-style bush hat, also black, sat atop his large, goat-like head. His clients knew him only as the Razor Man. He was tall and like his nickname, razor thin. Colter found this attire overly melodramatic, even laughable. Still, the Frenchman always managed to exude an aura of malevolence just as practiced and intentional as his wardrobe.
Ledoux enjoyed near legendary status among the community of young travelers and drug aficionados of Kathmandu. Even the cheaply-bound tourist guide books sold in the curio stalls mentioned him. When he and Ren first arrived in Nepal, they found hashish and opium on every street corner. However, the Nepalese authorities still frowned upon heroin and the hordes of young, bedraggled Americans and Europeans who flooded Nepal's southern border in search of Shiva and cheap drugs. So when Ren graduated to heroin, Colter decided she needed a reliable supplier. All his queries pointed him in one direction. The Razor Man.
The word on the street was that the Frenchman's nom de plume referred not to his lean physique but instead to his former profession as a Parisian street performer, renowned for his ability to consume handfuls of double-edged razor blades chased with the occasional light bulb. Upon arriving in Nepal, Ledoux had attempted to ply his trade only to be forced into the more lucrative industry of drug dealing when his peculiar showmanship proved no less bizarre than the Hindu ascetics that roamed the streets with their contorted appendages and nail-pierced lips. For the past three months, Colter had sought him out twice a week, often buying on credit in exchange for information on potential clients. In time they developed an odd, symbiotic relationship.
"So, mon ami," Ledoux said, his voice gentle and ingratiating. "What may I offer you today? I have some very good opium and a small amount of China."
Colter took a couple of the proffered cigarettes and placed them in his shirt pocket. "I need money," he said as the Frenchman sat down beside him.
Ledoux laughed. "You want me to give you money? So you can then give me the money back? Crazy. I am sorry, but I am not in the business of loaning my customers money. Being my own middleman wastes my time."
"I don't want it for drugs. I need to get us the hell out of here."
"Even less reason for me to give you money. I would lose a good customer. Besides, why leave? The drugs are cheap. You go somewhere else, you just pay more."
"I need your help. You owe me."
"I owe you nothing," the Frenchman said, turning away.
"Hey. Who do you think got you that contact at the hotel? You made a shit load of money off that deal."
"You are right. I did make money on that deal. And I paid you with a shit load of opium."
Colter didn't reply, his irritation with the man's ingratitude already spent, replaced instead with weary resignation.
"And your lady friend? How is she?"
"Sick. She's real sick, man."
"I warned you about the heroin. It is not for her, I told you. You did not listen. Now she is l' addict. A junkie who must sell herself on the streets."
"You shut the fuck up," Colter yelled, grabbing the Frenchman by the lapel of his jacket. "You hear me? You don't even know her. So shut up!"
Ledoux smiled, then reached up and pulled Colter's hand away with exaggerated fastidiousness. "Careful, mon ami. Or you lose a good thing," he crooned in a falsetto voice, and then laughed. Neither of them spoke for a moment. Ledoux lit a couple of cigarettes and handed one to Colter.
"You want money. Okay. There is a job you can do for me. A delivery to a customer in Bhaktapur. A simple job."
Ledoux scratched the stubble on his chin and thought for a moment. "It would be worth maybe fifty American dollars."
Colter snorted and shook his head. "I need a lot more than that. I need enough to get us home."
"Take it or leave it. I am not a charity."
Colter stood up and started down the embankment.
"Okay, okay." He grabbed Colter's arm and pulled him back down. "You want more money? There is something else you can do for me. If you do it, there will be a great deal of money. More than enough to get you and your girl home."
"And what do I have to do?"
"Have you heard of a man called Pinkner?"
"Yeah, I've heard of him. The English guy. Lives up in a big house up past the monkey temple."
"What else do you know about him?"
"I hear he deals."
"Yes. That and more." Ledoux inhaled deeply on the cigarette, then flicked it into the air, watching as it arced down the embankment into the shadows along the river bank. "He is a dealer, yes. He also collects things. Antiques, jewels, exotic drugs. They say he even has drugs that will make one live forever. Others that allow one to see their own death."
The Frenchman paused a moment as he swatted away some flies, then pulled a small packet of cellophane from his pocket. He unfolded it to reveal a small amount of white powder. "I have arranged to meet with him tonight. I have a business proposition to offer him."
Colter watched as Ledoux dipped the tip of his forefinger into the powder. He held his finger in front of his face for a moment as if he were examining a morsel of food, then placed his finger into his nostril and sniffed.
"I need someone to come with me," he said as he ran his finger over his gums. "I need a…." He paused to roll his tongue back and forth in his mouth. "How do they say in your American cop cinema? Backup. Yes?"
"Backup? For what?"
He sniffed again and looked around for a moment before answering. "I have a friend, a business associate in Bangkok. There is a lot of money to be made selling heroin to your American soldiers. You see, Jess. I want money also. You think I want to stay in this place forever?"
"So what? You're planning on smuggling heroin into Thailand?"
Ledoux didn't answer. He sniffed and rubbed his nose, then looked at Colter. "No, that is not my plan."
"Okay, I get it. You want to rip off this Pinkner guy. That it? Well, count me out. I'm not into any rough stuff. Besides, if he's got that much money and shit lying around, he'll have protection. I sure as hell would."
"Tonight, he will not have protection. I have made arrangements. So, you will come?"
Colter thought for a moment. What choice did he have? If they waited much longer, Ren might be too weak to travel. What else could he do? Rob a bank? Not that he hadn't thought about it. Once, he and acquaintance, an Army deserter from Tennessee, had gone as far as to case a small bank in Bhaktapur. Despite his bravado, the deserter had balked at the sight of the guards with their antiquated but still lethal looking automatic rifles.
"What exactly do I have to do?" Colter asked.
"You told me once that you were a drug dealer back in the states? No?"
"Man, I sold pot. I didn't do any damn holdups."
"You just need to look like a tough guy. Maybe more if it comes to that," he said, looking at Colter. "You can do that, can you not?"
Colter looked back at the river. Was there anything he wouldn't do at this point? Rob somebody? Why not? He had already resorted to that on more than one occasion In the past few months, he had stolen, conned, sold drugs, even been Ren's unwitting pimp. Armed robbery would just be another venial sin compared to the cardinal sin of deserting his best friend in order to possess the woman they both loved. But robbing a tourist was one thing, ripping off some dealer was another thing. And if it came to something worse than simple robbery? At this point, he would sell his soul to save Ren.
"It's karma, man," Colter muttered.
"Bad karma," Colter said, shaking his head. Those were the exact words Ren had used when he finally told her the truth about what really happened in Piedras Negras. "It's our karma now," she had said over and over.
"Okay, I'm in," he said after a moment. "As long as nobody gets hurt. I'm not shooting anybody. You understand?"
Ledoux smiled and nodded, then folded up the packet of heroin and held it out to Colter. "For your lady friend. No charge. Tell her to be careful. It is very good. Meet me at ten o'clock at the bottom of the stairs to Swayambunath. And don't be late."