It sounded like something out of the ante-bellum South: a runaway slave. At least that was the story I was being told.

Fed up with waiting for the return of my wife Mouse and increasingly anxious about her, I had finally decided to act rather than just wait and mourn. “When in doubt,” some fool had advised, “don’t just stand there. Do something.” So like the ass who said that, I set out down the beach in a random direction to see if I could find any trace of my suddenly missing wife.

When I got past the headland, the other side of the island came into sight. In the far distance, a mile or two away, someone was walking on the beach. That might not sound earth shaking except that this was supposed to be a deserted island and this was the first person, aside from Mouse, that I had seen in five days.

I started running. Maybe whoever it was knew something about Mouse. Maybe he or she could help me. It didn’t occur to me that this person would be equally likely to hurt me. After all, this was Cambodia, land of the former Khmer Rouge, site of a genocide that relative to the size of the population had been greater than the Holocaust, where good little bureaucrats, ordered to save bullets, had rid themselves of someday-potentially-vengeful infants by smashing their skulls against tree trunks.

I am not in the greatest condition and it took me some time to run more than a mile in soft sand. After a while, the guy—it was now clearly a man— noticed me running toward him. As I neared them, I saw he wore a police uniform. I also noticed he had a pistol. I saw too that, as far as I could tell from a distance, the gun was pointed straight at me.

As I came up to him and shouted, “Don’t shoot. I need your help,” I actually had a bit of good luck, if it can be called that, which I wasn’t sure of. He spoke English. He introduced himself as Captain Attith, the head of police in the closest city, Sihanoukville, a big commercial port on the mainland several hours away. He said he had just come from a Thai commercial ship, called the Nit, or Night, in Khmer. I knew better than to ask why a Thai ship was fishing in Cambodian waters.

Attith kept a good-humored smile in place while speaking quietly, enunciating carefully and clearly and in formal English. His name in Khmer meant sunny, and he seemed determined to live up to the name no matter how unpleasant the task at hand. And this day of wandering around on a pretty tropical island was surely not the most unpleasant job he had ever had to do.

It took a half-hour for me to grasp the complicated story. The captain kept leaving out bits of information that he figured I already knew or had no business knowing. Key bits of information. Like that he was searching for a missing person named Ahme. Like the person was a boy. Like the boy was in reality a slave. Like the slave had fled after a whipping. Like the ship’s owner was paying the captain a subsidy over and above his police wages to help find his property—that is, the boy—and return it—him—to his ship.

Ahmed was a14-year-old Indonesian working on the fishing ship. While it was anchored off the other side of my island, he had swum a half-mile to shore and then disappeared. The ship’s captain wanted the boy back. Losing a slave could cost him his job. After all, the boy was a valuable possession. The boy’s father had signed a contract essentially selling his son to the ship’s owner for one million rupiahs, about $70.

Atith wanted me to accompany him and help search for the boy. He thought because I’d been living on the island for five days, I might know some places to look and some trails to follow.

“I can’t do that,” I said in a pleading voice. “My wife has disappeared and I must find her. I’m afraid something may have happened to her.”

Attith looked at me. For the first time, his smile disappeared. “I invite you to accompany us,” he said. “We’ll find the boy and then worry about your ‘missing’ woman.” He emphasized the word “missing” with a crooked sort of ironic smile as if this was all a game and I knew exactly where my wife was.

“I’m sorry,” I repeated, “I can’t.” When I looked in his eyes again I quickly added, “Not now. Sure, after I find my wife I’ll be glad to help you.” Hypocrite that I was. I was going to help him find a slave boy that he would probably beat half to death—and only half because he was more valuable alive than dead.

“I am sorry but you do not understand,” Attith said. “My invitation was not a request.”

Once upon a time my wife and I had both been diplomats. Really. I knew a bit about bargaining. When you don’t have a leg to stand on, you don’t try to stand on it. The best I could do was give in. “OK, I’ll help you find the boy now, but will you agree to help me find my wife later?”

“I will assist you,” Atith said, adding after a pause, “in any way I can.” Whatever that meant. He made it sound like more of a royal dispensation than a policeman promising to do his job. I wondered how much the ship’s owner was paying him. And how much I’d have to pay him for his “help.”

So that was that.