“Sometimes,” said Sternmeyer, “I get into that gym and I just sweat.” And then he shone his successful face at them. Everything about Sternmeyer was successful—the titanium watch, the oiled trekking shoes, the clear tan skin; everything shouted—I have never lost!
“What does he want with the likes of us?” Willet wondered.
“He’s bored,” was Hudson’s explanation. “You get these people with trust funds, and they’ve got all the stuff.”
Sternmeyer, then, was bored of stuff. Incredibly to Willet, he was bored of his condo-with-a-pool and his Italian clothes and his German car. He wanted experience.
The day before, sitting on plastic stools drawn up to a noodle cart, Hudson had waved his chopsticks at the fragility and squalor of the small border settlement—the semi-naked children heedless in the mud, the haze of flies worrying at the fish heads and banana skins rotting in the open drains, the pats of buffalo dung hardening in the road, and waiting in the gathering clouds, the tropical rain that would whisper down all night, making more red mud that would have dried into red dust by late afternoon. He said, “To him all this is exotic.”
And so it proved a day later when Sternmeyer turned up. He sat at the same noodle stall, his big upright body tuned and ready, his mind delighted. “I’m in Thailand,” he marvelled.
“This is nowhere,” said Hudson. “It’s not Thailand and it’s not Cambodia either. It’s just a border no one wants.”
“Cool,” said Sternmeyer, who was not to be denied. Willet sat very still and said nothing. He was conscious of not wanting to disappoint the man. He had never been so close to so much success and the idea startled him. It was like standing next to a tiger, but in this case wanting to be eaten.
“Thinks he’s Indiana Jones,” Hudson said. “We have to let him not think any different. But we’ve got to keep him alive, obviously.” Obviously, because only Sternmeyer knew the collector, and only Sternmeyer had the funds to grease the palms to get the stuff out. They didn’t need him in the jungle at all, but Sternmeyer’s fantasies were part of the package. It seemed far too risky to Willet.
“A Khmer temple,” Sternmeyer said, sounding like a film trailer.
“Not a temple,” said Hudson, “Just a small shrine. But there’s got to be something. And if it’s Khmer it will sell.”
“Hey, who’s to say? There could be like a bigger shrine behind this one. Maybe they built this one as a decoy.”
“Maybe,” put in Willet to stop Hudson from disagreeing.
Sternmeyer hadn’t jetted in from New York or Albany or wherever it was he’d jetted in from to be disagreed with. He twisted round on his stool, as though noticing Willet for the first time. “So did you always want to be an explorer?” he asked.
Explorer, thought Willet, and pictured June at home and her bitter emails and the cockroach-infested rooms strung out across South-East Asia and the visa runs and disappointments and the dysentery. “Always,” he said.
“We’ve got the spades,” said Hudson, who never liked talking in abstracts. You had to nail down facts.
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