1 | Kruger, our distiller monk and a member of the local mafia take their seats at a small restaurant just before sunset. They order Tom Yum and steamed fish.
When the waiter brings their drinks, Kruger turns to the mafia member. The monk had once told him about his father’s escapades when he was young, a ruby hunter and millionaire, and he was keen to hear more from the man himself.
“We were digging during war in Cambodia. The jungles were thick, nobody lived there. There were no roads, we made the roads. Caterpillars cracked through tall wooden walls as we followed in their plough.
“Back then I was the first person with a license to dig. But what does a license mean to men at war? What do you tell a starred and striped commander and his platoon? That it’s okay, you’ve got a license? There were times we’d cover up to hide from the planes dropping grenades. Sometimes it rained hard. Mud and madness beneath and beyond. But we made a lot of money.”
Kruger remembered Hemingway’s ‘bullfighters and boxers, hired hands and hard drinkers, gangsters and gunmen.’ Ruby men were family men, digging despite danger, on retreat under fire on foreign land, who looked forward to a hot meal waiting for them back home, some day.
2 | The monk said his father always had three guys accompany him in the car. The driver, two bodyguards. The backseats carried cash. The jungles didn’t have banks and double dealers didn’t take VISA. You bought in cash, bribed in cash. You saved your neck with cash. You got back to see your kids with cash.
“The seats were full of dollar rolls wrapped in newspaper. No matter which side of the war you ran into, cash was an ally. I guess it’s still like that…”
3 | Kruger grew up hunting and knocking off bottle necks with his pistol, and his dad has a gun collection that survived, with him, the war in Angola. Kruger knows weapons to be a force of aggression and dislikes to honor the industry, but he leans forward to learn more about the monk’s dad’s WWII Browning and other vintage gear he picked up during his Cambodi years.
“He also has tank bullets in his bedroom. Whole parts of a tank, for that matter. They once dug into a tank, saw off the shooter, threw it onto the truck, brought it back over the border. Wanna see it?”
“War is what it is,” the monk’s mafia dad interrupts. “And the world’s the way it is. For them or against them, the barrel and the bullet is woven into the fabric of conquest and survival. I sleep with a 9mm under my pillow. What can I do?”
4 | Up to the Kruger, the monk and his father walk men from another table who challenge them to a game of darts.
“One of us versus one of you,” they say.
“Let’s see what you got,” the monk tells Kruger.
“What’s at stake?” they ask.
“Nothing. We just play,” Kruger says, then steps up, takes three darts and starts the game.
5 | Kruger’s 20 points down, but a good darting game takes time, so it’s far from over.
“I hear your tree’s starting to wane,” says the monk’s dad when Kruger pulls out his play and hands over the darts to his challenger.
“Looks like it. We’ll have to harvest pretty soon.”
He was taken aback by the question. He didn’t realize people knew his business, or even thought they knew about the death of an oud tree and what that means.
“You’re up. You’re on 79, gotta go for the double.”
6 | “You should have seen what we dug through to get to the rubies. If I had known then what I know now about your wood, I’d have doubled up on trucks and carried back more wood than rubies.”
“I can only imagine,” said Kruger. “I heard you had a hand in the release of Mr. Dhai from prison. Is that true?”
“I had my hands in many things.”
“He’s been in the agarwood business ever since he got out of Cambodia. If only he brought back some of that….. he too must really look back in regret at the wood he left behind?”
“I’m sure. But he made his money. Not in black wood back then, but bright colors. Had to struggle more than many of us did, down in that iron bar rathole, but he got out and got on with business before the rainbow turned to dusk. Besides, he got into the wood game early enough. He has some crazy stuff stashed away, you know…”
To be continued…