The Shooting Party
The town was just a long curve of hotels and nightclubs on the Gulf of Siam. Sandwiched between the tourist spots and the smouldering wall of trees beyond was a second curve of corrugated shacks and thatched huts, where the regular folk lived.
Truth be told, I felt more at home among the huts than the hotels. For two years, I’d been working with rural farmers in the northeast to improve vegetable production. I was happy enough to stay in the village year-round, but I had been obligated to come to the city for a conference. The meetings were over for the day, and I was now on my own.
I stood in the hotel lobby, my back pressed against a tiled pillar. It was Saturday night, and the thudding pelvic beats of the disco on sixth floor were making the hotel shiver. I watched the endless coming and going of men with wide collars and bare chests and gold jewellery, women with high boots and miniskirts. Twice already, I’d politely declined the offer for “a private party”. These places made me uncomfortable. I left the hotel.
Streetlights pierced the sidewalk here and there, bronzing rivers of silt that trickled towards the beach. Below the road, closer to the water, was a restaurant of bamboo and thatch, strung up with coloured lights and studded with a Boy Scout’s sash of round metal beer logos.
There were people milling beneath the sherbet-hued lights. A slight breeze carried the smell of smoke and char-grilled fish over the wet sand. I listened. There was no thumping dance music, just the quiet murmur of voices, so I went closer.
As I approached, a woman moved to the top of the steps leading to the tables. I guessed that she was in her sixties — hard to tell in that light — and probably European, dressed in a light sarong and cotton top. She eyed me as I crossed to the bar and ordered a drink. Pineapple juice with just enough vodka to make it worth the five bucks I’d pay for it.
The woman came up alongside. Her face was flushed, as though she’d already had a drink or two. She smiled in an awkward way that made me nervous.
“Excuse me,” she said. “I wonder if you might be—”
I waited for her to finish. But when she said nothing, just looked at me with nervous and expectant eyes, I shook my head and sipped hard on my pineapple juice. I hoped that when I took my eyes out of my glass, she’d be gone.
“Probably not,” I said.
She frowned, wobbled a little. I think she was contemplating whether or not to retreat. But instead she wiped her hands on her sarong and said, “Well, in that case, I guess I was stood up.”
“Sorry to hear that,” I said, and drained the glass. You’ve got to understand, I didn’t mean to be an ass, but the woman was at least thirty-five years my senior. I set the glass on the bar with a few bills and made for the stairs.
The woman followed me, first with her feet and then with her eyes as I moved across the sand. Fifty paces later I stopped, turned to look. She was standing at the railing, lonely eyes still on me.
“What’s your name?” I asked, feeling a little guilty. My voice was flat against the rolling surf.
“Hilda,” she said.
Then I had visions of my grandma standing there, all alone since my granddad passed away, and I softened. As long as she kept it friendly, didn’t try anything gross, she could tag along. “I’m gonna take a walk,” I said. “Care to join?”
Hilda smiled again. She tiptoed a little unsteadily across the sand and took my arm.
“I’m Dutch,” she said.
I nodded. Waves tumbled on the glassy strip at the water’s edge, stirring up the algae, making it glow speckled-green. Palm fronds hissed in the breeze. The moon was sliding up over the sea, filmy behind the clouds, chipped and gnawed like a waxy jawbreaker.
Hilda told me then about her weaving consortium, International Hands. It was based in Rotterdam, with offices on every continent. Hilda was struggling to record the disappearing art of local basket weaving.
“What do you do, dear?” she asked. She patted my arm.
“I work with vegetable farmers,” I said.
Hilda smiled again. “That’s nice, dear.” She rested her head on my shoulder.
The beach narrowed to a point where the street was only a dozen yards off. A streetlight burned, yellow light catching on shards of broken glass embedded in a wall that followed the sidewalk. Beyond it, an ancient villa crumbled like graham crackers in the tropical night.
A gate split the wall, two panels of corrugated tin. A man called to us from the gate, an American by the sound of it. He wore slacks and a loose-fitting collared shirt, Kromah knotted around his neck.
“Hey, over here,” he said. “Got a real party going on inside.”
Hilda led the way, across the street and through the gate, to a courtyard where a row of stunted papaya trees hugged one wall. From the villa I heard music, trickling through slats high in the wall and pouring over the veranda. It was mellow, the sort of saccharine jazz that twists my nerves, makes my teeth ache. One of those parties, I thought.
At the side of the house was a fleet of cars — everything from Toyota Corolla to Land Rover to Mercedes-Benz. A cluster of men hung beneath the awning, local drivers, the embers of their cigarettes pulsing in the darkness.
Hilda was speaking with a couple on the steps, a man and a woman, both of them horrifically tanned. Their skin resembled smoked sausage. They spoke together in French, a language I can sometimes understand if the conversation topic is right. On this occasion, I understood nothing.
At length, Hilda turned to me, excited. “There’s a famous American actress inside,” she said. “Eva Daggert.”
Even I, a total dunce cap when it comes to pop culture, knew of her. The only movie I’d seen with Eva Daggert — the name of which I couldn’t remember — she played a woman on the run from the CIA. She’d witnessed some crime, or committed it maybe. Either way, the movie ended with her balanced on the lip of a dam in Kazakhstan, clothing soaked to her curvy body, helicopters hovering overhead. At least that’s what I remember. She’d gotten a big name lately for the work she’d been doing in along the Gulf. Mobile reading rooms for kids, or something like it. There was talk about a Nobel Peace Prize.
Inside the villa it could have been anywhere — Hanoi, Casablanca, Paris. Paris in August maybe. Hanoi for sure. Strips of track lighting dangled from the ceiling like bats, illuminating the Warholian prints that clung to the yellow walls. There was a bar at one end of a vaulted room, and a kid in white laid out drinks with apparent apathy. I thought about some of the farmers I worked with. They had never been to a place like this. I suddenly wanted nothing more than to be back in the village.
So far I had avoided looking at people. But I looked now. They were clumped along the fringes of the room, leaning on chairs, sipping on drinks. I thought I could label them on sight — the Aussies, their sunburned chests gleaming like polished leather — the Dutch oil experts, in from the platforms on the Gulf — the Canadians, desperate not to be mistaken for Americans. Some were laughing, others were nodding in that serious way people do when they’ve had a few. The music was loud, and they leaned in close to hear one another.
“Can I get us a drink, dear?” said Hilda, putting her lips close to my ear. I felt her fingertips move along the curve of my spine.
“No, thanks,” I said, flinching.
A young boy slipped past my elbow, balancing a tray of drinks. Hilda took up a tall sleeve of champagne and put it to her lips. She tilted it back, and just as the last sip disappeared into her mouth, she winked at me. Then she stumbled towards me, wrinkly old hands grabbing for my shirt, and every nerve in my body, every tendon, was tight. I was a mousetrap, ready to snap, ready to make a dash for the door.
But I didn’t have to run. Before my eyes, Hilda’s face morphed from an aging caricature of seduction to one of total enthrallment. She tugged my sleeve, then pointed over my shoulder. She was gesturing in the direction of a massive stone head, something that belonged in the National Museum, not here. But Hilda wasn’t looking at the statue.
“There she is,” she said, hissing point-blank into my ear. “Eva.”
And so she was, standing beside the head with her back to us. She was dressed for the Oscars, and I suddenly felt unforgivably shabby, as if I were wearing nothing but a fur loincloth.
We stepped closer. I felt myself melting in the heat of the woman’s presence. I wasn’t fighting it anymore. I couldn’t. There was something electric about her, about her back that gleamed beneath the track lighting like the hood of a sleek, bronze sports car. We were close — so close I could have reached out and touched her, could have shammied her hood.
The music was quiet now. It had devolved into what I believe is called ambience, but could have been the soundtrack to a journey into the black depths of the Mariana Trench. The music was quiet enough for us to hear the conversation that surrounded Ms. Daggert.
“That’s wonderful,” said a woman, lips glistening. “So wonderful.”
“Well,” said Eva, “if we don’t work together for a solution, then the children will suffer.”
A man spoke up, a man whose throat looked as though it had been speckled with corned beef. “Ms. Daggert, I understand that you’ve also been working with a project concerning laptops. Could you share a few words?”
Eva paused. “Our hope is to bring about technological convergence. To level the playing field, so to speak. A laptop for every child.”
The little nucleus of people about her sighed, and she continued. “Every child should have access to the internet, wherever they live, so that they can communicate with other children around the world. Imagine! A girl living right here could talk with a girl in Seattle or London. They could share their hopes and dreams, their fears—”
At that point, I audibly scoffed. I couldn’t help it. Maybe I should say that my body scoffed as an auto-response, the way a person will shut their eyes when a bee flies at their face. I scoffed, loud enough for everyone to hear. The circle went silent.
Ms. Daggert turned to face me. I don’t think she was used to being scoffed at, because her expression was almost curious. “Something wrong?” she asked.
I shook my head. “No.”
“But you scoffed.”
“Yes, I’m sure you did.”
“Just a bit of phlegm in my throat, I guess,” I said. “Dusty in here.”
“You scoffed,” said Eva.
Hilda was staring at me with fear in her eyes. I shrugged. What the hell, I thought. “Alright, I scoffed. So what?”
“I’d like to know why.”
I thought a moment. “Ms. Daggert, I work in this country. It might surprise you to learn that most people here don’t have track lighting or Pop Art or open bars. They don’t have drivers waiting for them outside.” I waved my arm towards the stereo system. “They don’t have these kind of luxuries. Might not even know that they exist. You know what I mean?”
Eva stared at me with her mouth open. The others looked ready to lynch me.
“Listen,” I said. “It’s just that half the kids you’re talking about don’t get enough to eat. Laptops aren’t much good out here.”
A freckly woman beside Hilda spoke out. “How can you say that? You’re just trying to keep those kids out of the twenty-first century. You’re nothing but a neo-colonialist.”
I sighed. “Lady, where I live, there are no power lines, let alone internet access. Jeez, I don’t even have running water. And you want those kids to hop into a chatroom with Sammy from Duluth?”
I felt as though I’d just stomped on a nest of rotten goose eggs. The air was thick.
“What about solar power?” suggested Corned Beef.
No one said anything. Eva’s skin had a ruddy glow to it that I realized was probably anger or embarrassment, or both. I wished the lights would just go out.
And they did. At that moment the music and the lights both died. A power outage, as common in those parts as starfish at low tide. For half a second, no one made a sound. We were parrots with blankets over our cages.
From somewhere at the back of the villa, a loud growl started up, the generator roaring to life. Then the lights came on, blinding us. No music this time.
Ms. Daggert was staring at me, ready to say something, but she didn’t have the chance. Just as her lips began to move, the air shattered to a thousand pieces. World War III, or the closest thing to it. Machine gun fire, very close. In real-life it never sounds the way it does in the movies, rich and chocolaty and masculine. This was the real McCoy, high-pitched and hollow, like strings of firecrackers in a tin can.
Someone screamed, and the kid with the champagne dropped to the ground with a splash and a spray of glass. Corned Beef jumped on Eva — probably spent the rest of his life dreaming about it — and pressed her to the floor. Me, I took Hilda.
We laid there for what felt like hours, the rattle and pop of automatic weapons creating a new sort of ambient noise. Hilda took the opportunity to get a few unwanted squeezes in, until I finally clamped her hands to her sides. We waited. The sounds didn’t come any closer, and I felt my pulse slowing.
It was only later that we learned about the rich Singaporean who owned the villa next door, about how he took special joy in collecting firearms from across the world. And just as the little party for Ms. Daggert was losing steam, his troupe of visiting Russian investors was really getting into the scotch. It seems that they persuaded Mr. Chen to open one of his gun cases, the contents of which they took to the roof in an attempt to shoot down the moon.
I ended up apologizing to Eva. I said I hadn’t meant to make her look like an idiot. And I definitely wanted what was ‘best for the kids’. It’s just that people need to eat. And you can’t eat laptops. Not without a lot of salt.
About the Author
Jack Frey is a Canadian who lives in Beijing, China with his wife and two young boys. He finds the letter K to be the most aesthetically pleasing of all the consonants, in both its upper and lowercase forms. Bits of his work have appeared or are forthcoming in Shelf Life Magazine, Writers' Bloc (Rutgers), Fractured West, Lowestoft Chronicle, and The Last Man Anthology, among others. Like many of us, he is currently working on his first novel. http://jackfrey.wordpress.com/.