Authors: Alexander Yates
The target is a well-known smuggler of knockoff medications—sugar tablets sold throughout the provinces as cancer medicine, heart drugs, antibiotics, even boner-pills. The right size and color, packaged up in bottles looking just like the real thing. “But they’re as good as rat poison to people who are sick,” Reynato says. “He’s moving a shipment from producers to a distribution warehouse tonight. They’ve already escaped three raids by the Manila Police, so the NBI has requested that we come in for the assist.” Lorenzo gives an appreciative hoot at this, and Reynato grins. Everybody, it seems, is hurting for some action.
Ka-Pow collects just after sunset on the garbage-strewn banks of the Pasig River, some hundred meters upstream of the warehouse. They hide behind the hull of a rusted, mudsunk jeepney, awash in stinking
steam rising off the green water. Efrem uses his fantastical peepers to gaze up the loading ramp, under the door and into every corner of the warehouse. Three men await the pirate—two playing Pusoy Dos in the back office, another sleeping on a chair just inside the loading dock.
“Three doesn’t sound too bad,” Racha says, furrowing his welted brow, maybe wondering how bad his injuries will be this time around. Efrem feels little sympathy for him. Knowing that only Racha will be hurt tonight is calming.
The moon intrudes on twilight, and stilted shanties on the opposite bank go dark, snuffing their electric and oil-fueled lamps. Finally a little truck turns a corner and wrecks the quiet with air-brakes. The loading dock opens and men inside wave the pirate up the ramp. A second engine in the warehouse barks and a small forklift emerges. The pirate opens his truck and loads boxes onto an empty palate. Efrem tenses. Reynato grabs him by the wrist.
“Easy, killer. You see any weapons inside?”
His eyes are all pupil. “One shotgun on a desk in the office,” he says. “And the pirate has a Colt in his belt. That’s it.”
Silence. Warehouse tenders finish loading the pallet and the pirate follows them inside. “Elvis!” Reynato hisses. “You first. Get inside. You’re on that shotgun.”
Elvis stands, kicking mud off his toes. He performs the first half of a high jump and disappears. A bald starling fills his spot in the sky. Wings beating air like a swimmer, he flies clumsily over the riverbank and into an air vent on the warehouse roof. Efrem watches him negotiate the rafters, perching beside pigeons above the open cubicle office. Then, following Reynato, he creeps through syrupy garbage. Edging along the wall, they stop just short of the dock. Reynato takes Glock out of his belt. “Be loud,” he says. “Scaring them is more than half of it.” He breathes long and deep, cramming air, chambering a shout. When it comes it’s big enough to wake shanties on the opposite bank. “Police!” Lorenzo, Racha and Efrem shout as well. Guns drawn, Ka-Pow pours in.
The pirate and three warehouse tenders stand wide-eyed about the forklift, loose fingers on celebratory San Mig shortnecks. One makes
for the office but stops at the sight of shirtless Elvis in the doorway, shotgun leveled. Reynato chants orders. “Hands on heads. Knees on the ground. Hands on heads. Knees on the ground.” He breaks rhythm to shoot out the forklift tires. The pirate and warehouse men let their beers shatter. They put hands on their heads. They put knees on the ground. They look at Efrem, horrified, and he imagines himself a man made of light. Tall as a palm tree. Towering over cheering children in the outdoor movie house.
Reynato orders Racha to cuff them and Racha knows it’s time. His snubnosed pistol shakes as he edges toward the pirate. Snatching the Colt from the pirate’s belt, he lets the magazine fall, ejects a round from the chamber and throws the empty piece to the other end of the warehouse. He cuffs the pirate. He cuffs two of the warehouse tenders and turns to the third, a chubby man in an informal, short-sleeved barong. He has a fountain pen behind his ear, and when Racha reaches for him he stabs it clean through Racha’s palm, where it protrudes like a sixth finger. The snubnosed pistol falls and the two become a tangle of arms and cursing as they grab for it.
Efrem’s silenced Tingin makes the sound of whipped air. His shot nicks the chubby man’s earlobe and the tiny wound is enough to get him down and sobbing out of a scrunched-up face. Racha blinks at the pen half through his bleeding hand. He recovers his snubnosed and beats the chubby man’s face with it. Reynato grabs his gnarled scruff like a puppy and pulls him back. “Easy!” he scolds. “Man needs a mouth to answer questions with.” Racha goes easy. He handcuffs the man and gives him a final slap with his skewered palm.
What happens next is mostly a blur. It doesn’t go by quick, but it doesn’t go the way it should. Elvis discovers a pleatherbound briefcase full of pesos in the office. A quick count puts it over twenty million. Everybody goes silent. Reynato fans himself with a stack of bills. He talks to the pirate in his polite voice. He asks about suppliers and contacts. He asks why there’s so much money. He asks about dates, weights and destinations. All he gets back is a mess of beer-thick spit on his shoes.
Lorenzo approaches, flamboyant, heel-toe. He does a little bow, a flourish and lays the pirate out on concrete. Then, from the folds of his clear plastic poncho he produces a singing handsaw. Warehouse men scream as Lorenzo halves the pirate just above the waist. It takes no time at all. Lower half kicking, upper half shouting a past-tense protest, just a finger of red space between. “You killed me,” he shouts. “You killed me. I died.”
Reynato encourages the upper half to get ahold of itself. “This isn’t what you think,” he says, “this is just an illusion. The fear you’re feeling is real—the pain isn’t. Pain never is. Just tell me what I want to know and we’ll put you back together, good as new.”
The pirate’s upper half stares about, wildly. Surnames, nicknames, middlenames jumble in his mouth. Reynato pulls the fountain pen the rest of the way through Racha’s palm and takes dictation on a thousand-peso bill. He fills both sides with tiny block lettering, gore blotting the ink. After that the halved pirate has trouble breathing enough air to make words. “That’s enough,” Reynato says. “Fix him.” Lorenzo prances back over, hamming it up for the trembling warehouse men. He unclasps his poncho and lays it over the pirate. He pulls a string of multicolored kerchiefs from his straw hat and waves them about in the air. He taps once on the poncho, above the sawslice. “Pesto!” He pulls the poncho off with a flourish.
The pirate is still neatly divided. His lower half no longer kicks and his upper half just blinks. For the first time, Reynato looks concerned. “Enough goofing,” he says, “the man did what I asked. Fix him.”
Lorenzo repeats the routine with less flair. Now neither half moves at all. Blood snakes about the warehouse floor, seeking a drain to the Pasig. Lorenzo puts a finger on the tip of his chin and looks contemplative. He announces that the only kind of news he has is bad. He’s never, come to think of it, tried this on a man. “Only ladies,” he says. “Correction—only pretty ladies. It works on them, honest to God.”
The weather outside gets bad and some garbage blows into the loading dock. Reynato uncuffs the pirate’s upper half. He uncuffs the warehouse men. They look at one another, confused. He tells Lorenzo to
try one more time and Lorenzo tries one more time. The pirate remains dead in two pieces. Reynato squats and massages his temples. One of the warehouse men messes his pants. Another prays in Latin. Reynato plucks a pack of cigarettes from the pirate’s shirt pocket. He snaps the filter off of one, clusters it with three more in his fist and has Ka-Pow draw lots. Efrem loses the game, and he doesn’t know what that means, at first.
CELEBRATION ON THE RIDE
home starts out a little forced. Racha blinks at them through the hole in his palm, grinning because he considers this getting off easy. Lorenzo sings along to English tunes on the radio. He stomps to the beat, muddy feet on a bright blanket of spilled money. Back at the high-rise flat they pile into the kitchen for beers. Efrem washes his hands a long time and fills a glass with the tapwater that only he dares drink. He retires to his room, sits on the edge of his bedroll and listens to toasts and roughhousing down the hall.
Efrem wipes away the signs of his crying when he hears Reynato coming. He walks past the open door twice, cigar backward in his mouth, before looking in and saying: “There you are, Mohammed. We’re missing you.”
“I’ll be right there,” Efrem says. But what he wants to say is:
What I did tonight does not feel like sticking up for the unstuckup for
“Hey. Hey.” Reynato sits beside him, taking his measure with a long, sympathetic stare. “I see the look behind that look. No need to fake happy, if it’s fake. But I’ll tell you what; I’m a little surprised at you, Mohammed. Not in a bad way. It’s just …” Reynato puts a hand on Efrem’s knee. “Given the time you spent killing rebels, given your tally … I guess I assumed this’d be business as usual for you. Hardly thought you could
anything about it—figured if you let even a splinter of that in then you’d have hung yourself with your army belt years back. But you know, I’m kind of touched that I’m wrong. It’s good to know this isn’t easy for you. It shouldn’t be.”
Reynato’s hand tightens, just slightly, on his knee. When it lifts Efrem sees a neat stack of thousand-peso notes. On top is the one with the pirate’s network written all over it in blood and ink. Efrem wonders:
Will I be asked to execute these people, as well?
Will I do it, if I’m asked?
“Get some rest,” Reynato says. He squeezes Efrem’s shoulder, and leaves. Efrem turns out the light and lays down on his bedroll. His room is fantastically large, but empty of furniture. With the bedroll unfurled in the middle of the floor, it feels just like camping. Just like when he was a boy.
Ignacio sits in the ablution room, negotiating Howard Bridgewater’s sale to Joey, the Imam. He tries hard to keep his poker-face from crumbling into a big, stupid smile, but it isn’t easy. Not since Kelog’s heyday as a gamecock has his life ever vibrated with so much promise. The Imam goes into a huddle with the two young ballplayers and they whisper in a foreign language. Ignacio imagines they’re discussing pricing, timing and delivery. He leans back on the edge of the concrete tub, confidence cutting a quick track through his belly like alcohol.
The Imam breaks the huddle and turns back to face him. “Please forgive me,” he says. “I just want to be sure I’m not misunderstanding you … so, you have, in your personal custody, a kidnapped American businessperson?”
“And you want to
this person to me?”
“To you, or to someone else. I have other prospects,” Ignacio says. He runs his bare foot through the trough at the base of the concrete tub, so as to look relaxed. But he is not relaxed. No one has answered his coyly worded postings online, other than to ask if he’s for real or to call him an idiot. He has no other prospects.
“Is the American nearby? Did you bring him with you?” one of the
young ballplayers asks. The thinly veiled desperation in his voice is promising.
“Never mind where he is now,” Ignacio says. “If we come to an arrangement then he’ll be here. As soon as tonight.”
The Imam sits beside Ignacio, leaving a half-space between them. “And how do I know you didn’t just pickpocket a tourist? The license is even expired. You could have found it on the street.”
Ignacio grins at this. He takes Howard’s ear out of his pocket and holds it out so the Imam and ballplayers can see. It’s become wrinkled, but hasn’t completely dried, and it smells. “You think I found this on the street?”
“You’ve hurt him,” the Imam says, his voice getting crumbly.
“Not hardly,” Ignacio says. “This is nothing compared to the shit you people will pull. I saw that video on the news—that unlucky motherfucker in Iraq. Sick stuff, if you ask me …” Ignacio pulls a pack of cigarettes from his slacks. “Do you mind if I smoke?”
“Yes, I do,” the Imam says.
Ignacio lights up anyway, because it’s essential to never cede ground while negotiating.
The Imam watches him smoke and does nothing. “He needs to be healthy,” he says, finally. “I need to know that he’s alive and in no medical danger.”
Ignacio’s grin widens. He’s made ready for this question and is therefore happy it’s been asked. He takes out his cell phone, extends his arm, snaps a picture of his own smiling face and sends it to his wife. He hands the phone to the Imam, and in less than a minute a picture of Howard arrives in reply. His head is bandaged and the front page of the
is pasted to his chest. Wednesday, May 12—today.
“Is that the kind of proof you’re looking for?” Ignacio asks. It strikes him that he should do this for a living.
“Yes,” the Imam says, looking down at the photo. “Just one more thing, before we can talk about money. We need to know that you are not a policeman. They’ve tried to entrap us before.”
“Hey, that’s fair,” Ignacio says, his palms flat in concession. “That’s a reasonable, smart request. Search away.”