It's 1979 and Morgan O'Reilly, a dispirited CIA desk officer, is desperately trying to bury his memories. Sent to Cambodia as a Marine and then as a CIA operative during the Vietnam War, he had been given the unlikely task of pulling together a secret spy unit of orphaned street children. At the end of the war, he was only able to get one child out of the country, his surrogate son, Sophal. Years later, Sophal, now a CIA agent, disappears on a secret mission in the Cambodian refugee camps in Thailand.
Tom Dillon, the dashing young superstar of the White House foreign policy staff, asks O'Reilly to find Sophal and bring him home. O'Reilly's search takes him deeper and deeper into the politics of the Thai-Cambodian border and finally into the deadly Khmer Rouge zone - a place where all foreigners are forbidden from entering and where cruelty and death are omnipresent.
Filled with the fascinating workings of the refugee camps, the life or death politics of Washington, DC, and the inner workings of the personalities that are drawn to such extreme circumstances, Jamie Metzl's The Depths of the Sea is a thriller that both entertains and educates.
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About the Author
Jamie Metzl has served on the National Securtiy Council at the White House, in the State Department, and as a United Nations Human Rights Officer in Cambodia. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School and holds a Ph.D. in Southeast Asian history from Oxford University. A marathon runner and Ironman triathlete, he lives in Kansas City, Missouri. His books include The Depths of the Sea and Genesis Code.
Jamie Metzl has served on the National Security Council at the White House, in the State Department, and as a United Nations Human Rights Officer in Cambodia. He is the author of The Depths of the Sea. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School and holds a Ph.D. in Southeast Asian history from Oxford University. A marathon runner and Ironman triathlete, he lives in Kansas City, Missouri.
Read an Excerpt
The Depths of the Sea
By Jamie Metzl
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2004 Jamie Metzl
All rights reserved.
Streaking through the Berkshire Hills Conservancy in Manassas, Virginia, Morgan O'Reilly waited, prayed even, for the click. The crunch of his step on pine needles, the ebb and flow of his breath, the musical chirping of birds, formed a symphony of sound, a facade of harmony.
The click, the shift into overdrive. More than a second wind or a runner's high, it was the wind filling his sail of being. The hope of reaching it drove Morgan's thirty-five-year-old legs along the nine-mile trail, even now that time and experience had taken their toll on his wiry body. The click, the escape from the ghosts, from the nightmares.
Morgan's nightmares weren't triggered by the swirl of helicopter blades or the crackle of fireworks like the other vets. Smells wafting from Asian restaurants brought him back, smells carrying memories of meals simmering in clay pots over charcoal. Samlaa m'chou, nyoem moen — was it tamarind or curry? or was his mind playing tricks on him, drawing him back like a siren to a sunken reef? Seeing children in the grocery store, watching them think that they were separated from their parents — their eyes desperately searching the empty aisles for familiar faces. Could the pampered American children ever understand how it would feel to never see their parents again?
Their faces were with him, in his dreams, on his runs, in the dark spaces of the forest. Six of them, streetwise, rambunctious, remarkably precocious. Cambodian orphans lost in Phnom Penh. His job had been an impossible one. It was '71, just eight years before, and the Khmer Rouge communists were already beating Lon Nol's army. America's help wasn't turning the tide. Everybody knew that the KR were stirring up trouble in Phnom Penh. Everybody knew that the communists had infiltrated every level of Cambodian society — the US-backed Lon Nol army, the government, the press. How to get them out was anybody's guess.
Morgan's boss hit upon the idea when he'd realized his wallet had been lifted by the unassuming Cambodian shoeshine boy working just outside the gates of the American embassy. He had hardly noticed the kid was there. Who ever noticed the ragged children eking out a living on the desperate streets of Phnom Penh? Colonel Bauer didn't know if the Agency had ever done anything like this before, but what chance did Lon Nol have if the CIA station chief couldn't muster a little creativity?
Morgan first thought Bauer's assignment was a joke.
"An intelligence unit of orphans? You've got to be kidding."
Bauer wasn't kidding, and he had picked his man carefully. Bauer had once been concerned that O'Reilly was "going native," getting even too comfortable in his operating environment. The moment he'd hatched the idea, however, Bauer knew that this liability was what made O'Reilly perfect for the job.
Morgan hit the streets of wartime Phnom Penh with a vengeance. The street kids he was looking for lurked in the dark alleys of the city, in the refugee camps just outside. They lived in cardboard boxes, lived by their wits — stealing, charming, cajoling, surviving. He patiently observed the tiny details of life on the streets that most people missed, looking for some special signal, a divine spark that showed through even the direst of circumstances. He selected them one by one.
He found Phim in a dark alley forging government ID cards with an unwavering attention to detail. From the shadows he watched Vuth surreptitiously remove thirteen pairs of brake-light covers from cars parked at the Norodom hotel. He saw Rithy transfer three loads of fish from the submerged net of a fisherman on the Tonle Sap river to his own burlap sack without ever being noticed. Sophal, the invisible shoeshine boy who'd lifted Colonel Bauer's wallet, it turned out, was supporting twelve other street kids with the forty-seven wallets he'd stolen thus far. Morgan's was the forty-eighth. Sophal opened it that night to find a photograph of himself on the make with a long note written in stilted but readable Khmer. The children proved the ultimate secret weapon. Who would ever suspect that these pestering street children were undercover agents?
But they became more than that to O'Reilly. Morgan hadn't been born such a careful observer of human nature. He'd learned it by necessity. How else was the quiet child to know when his father would explode from silent brooding to explosive rage? How else was he to know when to stay away as his mother locked herself away in busy isolation? Morgan had never imagined that this was even a skill before he left the marines and the CIA sent him to Phnom Penh. He had never imagined how much he would find once he got there.
There was something about the children that felt so empowering to Morgan. Some of them were dreamers, others con men of the highest order. Given half a chance, they could have all been doctors or businessmen, certainly great actors. But what Morgan offered them was still better than what they had. It was a way out, a purpose, a team. They would no longer face the elements alone. None of them would. They could fight for their country, not just passively suffer its destruction. He wasn't offering them the world, that he knew. But it was much more than what they had.
The children seemed to have all been raising themselves during the war years. No matter how well they had done, they needed more. Morgan knew he had to be a leader, perhaps a parent. The small incentives drew the children in. Morgan gave them a place to stay, some decent and reliable food, the types of recruitment offerings described in the CIA field guide. But nowhere in Morgan's training had anyone ever mentioned sitting up with a young boy remembering his dead parents or fighting through a drug overdose. With patience, determination, and care, Morgan built a network, a unit, a team. At times he felt, against his professional judgment, a family.
Phim, the ID forger who had learned to fake perfectly a missing leg and a deformed shoulder, was the ultimate insider. He could work his way anywhere. Who in the Lon Nol army's strategic planning division would have suspected the reed-thin, disabled waif with the sunken cheeks begging at the gate? The colonel in the Lon Nol army passing war plans to the Khmer Rouge certainly didn't. That was his mistake. Vuth, the thief, could invisibly follow his target for hours. The Khmer Rouge spy walking through Phnom Penh's Central Market probably never knew that the orders he was to deliver had been taken from him and replaced with new ones by the little street urchin he'd hardly noticed. Rithy, who'd spent his first years in a floating fishing village on the Tonle Sap, could frolic on the waterfront for days at a time, recording the comings and goings of boats and men with uncanny reliability.
They were all special, but Sophal was somehow different. Though by Cambodian standards short and scrappy for his fourteen years when Morgan had recruited him, Sophal's indefatigable spirit burst through everything he did. How many other fourteen-year-olds would sneak into a Khmer Rouge safe house, handcuff the Khmer Rouge's sleeping leading spy to the bed, then hit play on the spy's cassette recorder as he climbed out the window? The gongs and chimes were still blaring as Lon Nol's secret police arrived a few moments later.
Sophal didn't become a leader in the group because of his mind or even his spirit, but by looking after the others. When the corrupt Cambodian police officer found Vuth, the indistinguishable delivery boy, rifling though his papers after returning from the toilet, it was Sophal's rock through the window that allowed Vuth to escape. Sophal had a sixth sense about when he was needed, and an uncanny ability to be there when he was.
Sophal also had a sense about Morgan. Though the powerful American seemed almost invincible to the other children, Sophal innately understood that Morgan was both more determined and more vulnerable than any of the others could know. Sophal was the child who understood the parent, who recognized that just as the children needed Morgan, Morgan needed the children. Though the others wouldn't have guessed that their leader needed teaching, Sophal quietly taught the older American the Cambodian power of silence, patience, and invisibility. He also taught him the ways of the street, Cambodian slang, and, with a fiendish wink, how to cheat at gambling.
So many memories, the planning, the execution, the celebration of successes — breaking the air force spy ring, foiling the bomb at the national assembly. The successes brought them together, drew them in from their solitary worlds apart. They were all orphans, Vanny, Phim, Sophal, Rithy, Choeun, Vuth. Sometimes, in a way, Morgan.
Morgan could still picture each of them vividly. Why is caring so painful, Morgan wondered. Hadn't childhood taught him to build a wall around himself? Seeing so much death in Vietnam and Cambodia had prepared Morgan to face the terrible things. But the good memories now seemed the most piercing. It was so much easier to be haunted by bad memories.
Morgan focused to try to clear his racing mind. The click, the wings to soar away from it all, blindly, deliriously, freely. Morgan longed for his body's simple chemistry to carry him away, even for just a moment. But the memories raced alongside Morgan, weighing him down, holding him to the haunted earth. Phnom Penh's defensive wall breaking down in '75, the earth shaking from the pounding of bombs, the Khmer Rouge moving closer, the panic, the chaos, the wailing in the streets, the incessant swirl of helicopter blades as the once proud Americans withdrew. It had been abundantly clear what the Khmer Rouge were planning to do. They had essentially announced it in advance. There would be no room for the old ways, the old people in the new Cambodia. Anyone perceived as an enemy of the state was in grave danger. The Khmer Rouge, everybody knew, had been killing off their enemies for years. Morgan knew they all had to get out, that he had to get them all out.
"Fuck your priority list!" Morgan screamed at the lance corporal handling the evacuation. "Where's Bauer?"
Morgan found the station chief frantically burning documents in the embassy compound.
"These kids have given everything they've got for this damn war. Don't give me goddamn bullshit priority list. We've got to get them out of here. You know what the Khmer Rouge are all about. You know what's going to happen!" Morgan's throat went dry.
"Hey, I'm sorry Morgan," Bauer said softly, "I'm really, really sorry. This whole war, the whole goddamn thing, breaks my heart. We've got a set number of people and a certain number of planes, and not a lot of time. You know as well as I that Lon Nol's top people — generals, the prime minister for Christ's sake — have much more to fear from the communists than a bunch of kids in a secret unit nobody even knows about. We're leaving some of the best people behind and I feel like shit about it. I'm sorry, Morgan."
"God dammit ... Sir. That is unacceptable."
Bauer pursed his lips and looked Morgan in the eye.
"Sir ... please." The desperation broke through Morgan's voice.
"I'm sorry, Morgan." The colonel's voice was barely audible.
Morgan's mind raced as he wandered the chaotic city in desperate thought. There was no way, no goddamn way, he was going to leave them behind. He'd read the intel reports from the countryside — peasants' heads sawed off with razor sharp banana leaves, forced labor, torture, executions — the KR wouldn't rest until they had tracked down everyone from the Lon Nol side and anyone who'd had too close a relation with the Americans or the old guard. All it took was one confession, one file left behind, and they would hunt them down.
A shiver ran down Morgan's spine.
He had to think — but what? Could he send them down the Mekong River to Saigon? Then what? A bunch of Cambodian orphans as that city falls. By land? Where could they go? The only place was Thailand, but that was two hundred and fifty miles though KR territory filled with angry soldiers and land mines. The idea hit him with the sad, humiliating realization that it was all he could think of. He raced back to the embassy grounds.
"Sir, I know you can't get my team out" — Morgan winced inwardly — "I accept that. But you have empty planes flying north to Battambang to pick people up. Just let me send my team up there on one of those planes."
"O'Reilly, that's madness," Bauer said, still tossing piles of papers into the fire. "Battambang's just as vulnerable as Phnom Penh. Why would you want to do that?"
"Battambang is sixty miles from the Thai border. At least there they'll have a fighting chance of getting out. Here they'll ..." Morgan could not finish the sentence.
The colonel took a deep breath. He owed Morgan and he knew it. He too had once believed.
"OK, O'Reilly. It's a terrible idea, but OK."
"When's the last flight today?"
"If it can take off it'll be at 1700, but the airport is getting pounded pretty hard."
"We'll be there."
"Not you, O'Reilly." Bauer knew Morgan O'Reilly. "The plane won't fly if you're on it, period. There's nothing for you in Battambang."
Morgan hated to admit it, but the colonel was right. The kids' only chance was to work their way invisibly toward the Thai border. Morgan had once seen himself as their protector. Now proximity to him would mean their death.
"1700 then ... sir." It was a fifth-rate plan. The kids deserved to fly the hell out of here in one of the hundred Huey helicopters dominating the Phnom Penh sky, not be thrown in the rapids and forced to swim.
Morgan worked his way to the meeting point in an alleyway near the Old Market. After everything they had been through together, how, he tortured himself, could he offer them so little? He felt his passport pressing against his chest in his shirt pocket. This random paper, the difference between life and ... No. Focus Morgan, think. It was up to him to change the outcome — to do whatever it damn-well took to change the outcome. Could he give his passport away? The US army wouldn't leave a white American behind, passport or not. But an Asian with an American passport still had a fighting chance of getting on a helicopter. How could he save just one? How could he choose? His subconscious had long since made the choice.
He found all six of them at the meeting point. He'd never promised any of the kids that they'd be taken out of Cambodia, but Morgan had promised himself that he'd take care of them no matter what happened. A deep shame overcame him as he described the plan.
The six looked at Morgan blankly. They'd all been survivors before they'd met Morgan and their lives had changed so abruptly. They were still survivors, but they had begun to dream that life could be different. Hope had softened them. Now it was clear — there would be no California beach parties, not even the regular meals they had slowly become accustomed to. They would revert to the lives they had previously known, to the selves they had struggled so hard to overcome. What, after all, had they ever really expected?
Vuth turned down his face. His breathing became heavy. Morgan perceived a look of fear on Vuth's face he had never before seen.
Rithy, Choeun, and Vanny stared at Morgan with wide, uncomprehending eyes.
"So what do we do once we get to Battambang?" Phim asked, disappointment bubbling beneath the surface calm of his face.
"You work your way toward Poipet on the Thai border and cross into Thailand at Dalat Klong Luk. When you get there, tell the Thai army to contact the US embassy in Bangkok, and I'll be there." Morgan felt the hollowness of his words deeply. "I'll be there" had meant something a few weeks before.
Morgan brought out the maps he'd taken from the embassy and a stack of fifty dollar bills. They only had an hour to get to the airport, they'd plan on the way. The thunder cadence of dropping shells, the human panic pouring through the streets, made the drive impossibly hectic.
Sophal took the map of northwest Cambodia from Morgan and began charting different routes from Battambang to the border. From the Jeep's rearview minor, Morgan watched Sophal rising, once again, to take care of the others. He felt the passport in his pocket. Was he doing the right thing? He had built this family, how could he now take it apart? Flashing his ID at the nervous marine manning the airport's perimeter, Morgan raced the Jeep onto the runway.
"You O'Reilly?" The lieutenant shouted above the chaotic din of twirling helicopter blades.
"Well get your fuckin' people on this bird 'fore we get shot to shit."
Excerpted from The Depths of the Sea by Jamie Metzl. Copyright © 2004 Jamie Metzl. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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