Authors: Alexander Yates
And with that he leads Efrem down the line, right in the direction of Charlie Fuentes, Tough Knocks, Snaggletooth, the hero of his childhood.
THE FIRST TIME
Efrem ever saw an Ocampo movie was the first time he left his tiny island home. They had no cinema, of course—no electricity, no roads. The only running water was a sulfur-tasting spring that bubbled below dry cliffs inland. But Efrem had an uncle, and his uncle had a boat. The
was big enough to sleep three adults, four if they were skinny, and whenever his uncle and cousins got the outboard working they’d disappear down south to Tubigan, around the far shores of Jolo, and due east along the southern coast of Mindanao. Stopping at every island along the way, they did unofficial mail rounds and traded what they could. At Davao City they’d unload pearls, deep-water fish and clamshells big enough to bathe children in. They’d buy plastic in the port market, scrap metal, tinned food, cane syrup and underpriced imported rice. Then it was home again, starving themselves to have some of it left when they got there.
When Efrem turned nine his arthritic mother gave him permission to go along. He still remembers how his older cousins, wise about the city, brought him to that outdoor movie house. The slick feeling of
dropping two long-saved pesos into the palm of the shirtless usher. The wooden benches were full, so he sat cross-legged in the grassy aisle. His cousins explained what a double feature was. They pinned him when the projector sputtered up, alive, and his instinct said run. A man made of light stood before the crowd like a giant. It was Reynato Ocampo, played by a younger Charlie Fuentes, tall and dashing and mean as a motherfucker. For three hours he defended women on the screen and children in the audience from kidnapping kingpins. Efrem shielded his face from splinters as Old Snaggletooth kicked down a brothel door, Truth in hand, and gut-shot the fattest pimp so that his belly exploded into the hair of screaming topless go-go girls. He clapped and cheered at the finale when Reynato tied the kidnapper’s head to rail tracks, extracting a confession just before a freight-and-passenger came roaring through his ear. Tough cop for a tough world.
As the brief credits rolled, as the crowd lingered in the bloody afterglow, the usher made his way up to the stage and reminded everybody to come back next month for the premiere of
Ocampo Justice XIII:
Reynato travels back in time to castrate Jap invaders!
“HELLO,” CHARLIE SAYS
, cracking a warm smile. “So, you’re the one I’ve heard about?”
Efrem is unable to speak. But that’s fine—he’s not supposed to.
“This is him,” Brig Yapha says. “He’s our boy.”
“Good to meet you, son,” Charlie says. He offers his hand to shake. Efrem finds it surprisingly soft, and moist, melting pleasantly between his fingers. He tries to say “Hi” but it comes out as just a sigh. There’s an empty canteen in his chest. His heart slows intolerably. His knees actually bounce together.
“Don’t sweat it,” the short, homely man says. “Charlie gets that look all the time. From ladies.”
Everybody laughs at this and Efrem flushes at being so quickly embarrassed in front of his hero, but he doesn’t dare snap back. The jokester, for his part, seems to realize he’s riled. He stares at Efrem intensely, as though trying to read foreign words tattooed across his face.
“Well, let’s go ahead and get this over with,” Charlie says, turning to the idling caravan of jeeps.
Brig Yapha, still gripping Efrem’s elbow, leads the way. They cross the stretch of empty grass and pass the officers without a word. A murmur goes up as the Boxer Boys notice Efrem among the important men, and it makes his bones tickle. “You’re doing fine,” Yapha whispers. “This won’t take long.” When they reach the caravan he sets Efrem loose, rummages through the lead jeep and produces an electric bullhorn. He throws his arm around Charlie’s shoulders and turns to face the division. The few reporters jostle for space, framing their shots so as to include both speakers and crowd.
Yapha greets the assembled soldiers several times before realizing that he has to hold the switch down, but once he does, his “Good morning Boxer Boys!” echoes across the green. “I’ll keep this short, especially because I know it’s not me you’re excited to hear from.” He pauses to wink, though Efrem can’t tell if it’s at the cameras or at Charlie. “As you know, I spent the last week in Manila, educating the high-ups at Malacañang as to the excellent work you boys are doing. And the president herself wants you to know how very thankful she is for your bravery against the Moro insurgency. Fighting double fronts with the Abu Sayyaf and renegades from the MILF is no easy task, but your good work is essential to the health of our nation. In this light, her office deeply regrets to continue extended deployments for all—” here Brig Yapha is drowned out by boos and hissing from the crowd, and he makes no attempt to speak over them. The reporters turn their cameras and microphones on the Boxer Boys. The soldiers seem to notice this and, in a moment of spontaneous savvy, they play up their own displeasure. When the brigadier general continues, it’s with a smile and a touch of mechanical levity. “But on to better news. You see, of course, that we have a very special guest with us here today. I’m honored to introduce Charlie Fuentes, though I suppose you all know him better for his role as the one and only
Cheers shake the assembled division.
“Save it. Save it.” He waves them down, good-naturedly. “Hey, now. Hey. Come on.” Finally he just quits and hands the bullhorn off to
Charlie, who steps forward to redoubled cheering. Charlie shakes his head, grinning, like: What? All this? For me? Then, as the ruckus fades he does a sad double take, like: That’s it? Done already? And the crowd goes wild again; laughing at themselves and at Charlie, delighted to participate so intimately in his joke.
Then, by degrees, they quiet down.
“Well, well, well, well, well,” Charlie says, chuckling and easy. “I tell you … if our dear president could see how mean you boys look then there’d be none of this stupidity about extra months in the jungle.”
He pauses briefly for some appreciative hollers. The short man, standing beside Efrem, gives a disgusted little snort. “That’s a tough one,” he whispers to Brig Yapha, who smiles and shrugs, just slightly.
“But for real,” Charlie goes on, “no joke. One man to many. I want to say thanks. You know … one of the best things about deciding to run for the Senate, I mean, maybe
good thing, has been that I get to travel all through these islands, meeting real men like you. Men who put everything on the line for the good of the country. And I tell you what, not everybody up in Manila takes you for granted. And I’m hoping that, come May 10, even fewer of them will.”
Charlie goes on to say that he’s come on the advice of his good friend, the brigadier general, to see the best that the AFP has to offer. He understands that the Boxer Boys are second to none in this fight, and he’s asked one of them up here today to show these Manileño reporters what real soldiering looks like. “I think most of you probably know him. Your very own killer—
Efrem Khalid Bakkar
.” He pronounces the name so poorly that Efrem takes a minute to process it. When he does, he feels woozy with nerves.
Charlie stows the bullhorn and everybody turns to face Efrem. “Look at him,” the short man says. “If he weren’t such a darkie, he’d be white as a ghost.”
“So,” Charlie says, ignoring his companion. “Tell us a little something about your wonder boy, General.”
Brig Yapha claps a hand on Efrem’s shoulder, cheating him out toward the cameras. “Bakkar here is our undisputed best,” he says.
“A graduate of the Scout Ranger School, he’s a tactical sniper with the highest number of confirmed kills in Boxer Division history. And, while I haven’t crosschecked this with AFP records, I wouldn’t be surprised if he has the highest tally of anyone, in any branch of our armed forces, ever.”
Charlie lets out a long, appreciative whistle, and the short man’s creepily intense stare grows more creepy, and more intense. Efrem feels like he really needs to sit down.
“And what’s he going to show us?” Charlie asks.
“Well,” Yapha says, “as he’s a sniper, it’s probably best if he gives us a little shooting demonstration. We have some targets up, and I think you’ll all enjoy watching him pick them off.”
His hand tightens on Efrem’s shoulder and together they turn to look into the far clearing. Sure enough, sometime during the brief speech one of the LRB soldiers had quit his chameleonic guard and set targets along the green at increasing distances, from 800 meters to about 1,800. More than just the traditionally crude wooden silhouettes, these targets are pasted over with the likenesses of regional and international terrorists—Kumander Robot, Abu Bakar Bashir, and old Osama himself.
“No point keeping us in suspense,” Yapha says, taking a step back. Charlie and the reporters step back as well. The short man stays where he is.
Everybody waits. Efrem looks at the distant targets. He fingers the safety catch on his empty Tingin rifle. He levels the empty rifle at the targets, and then lowers it again. What on earth do they want from him? Finally, Yapha comes to the rescue.
“What’s the matter, soldier?”
“I can’t,” Efrem says, his voice cracking like it’s old. Or very new.
“The hell you can’t,” Yapha says. “I’ve seen you hit harder than that, plenty. No need to be shy, son.”
“I’m not …” he waits. “I can’t. I can’t because my rifle’s empty.”
Some of the reporters gasp a little, and Charlie looks down at the ground like he’s really sad. Efrem feels like he could die.
“Jesus,” Yapha says, turning to Charlie. “I’m sorry about this, I should have—”
“Fuck no,” Charlie says. “This isn’t your fault, Tony. You were
up there. It’s not your job to beg for their help.” He turns, speaking now to the reporters. “Forgive the language, but it’s shit like this that drives me crazy. I hate being reminded so often why I,
, have to run for office when our country’s in the state it’s in. To come down here, and see arguably our best soldier standing around with an empty weapon, utterly helpless … it just makes me so angry I can hardly put words together. It seems that under this administration, the only soldiers who get any kind of support are the Americans. While our own troops are underprepared and underequipped. I mean, do you see the state of his gear?” Without looking at Efrem, he points back at him. At his dented helmet. At his oversized hand-me-down boots. He goes on a little while longer, but Efrem can hardly hear it for the blood filling his ears. He has never been so humiliated in his life.
But he keeps quiet, like Yapha told him, and the ridicule doesn’t last much longer. Charlie Fuentes finishes up with the reporters and then shakes hands all around. Some of them return to their jeep while others head down toward the division to get some stock footage. Charlie and Yapha start to wander off as well, when the short man pipes up.
“These games are fine and good,” he says. “But
like to see what he can do.”
THE EXPRESSION ON CHARLIE’S FACE IS STARTLING
. He seems almost afraid of this small, insignificant person. “Now’s not really the best—”
“Fuck that,” the short man interrupts, plucking Efrem’s magazine right out of Yapha’s vest pocket. “You got your little scene. And I already wasted a whole day on this. You owe me.”
He crosses to Efrem, snatches the custom Tingin out of his hands and drives the loaded magazine into the assembly. “So,” he says. “Khalid Bakkar? Does that name mean that you’re as Moro as you look?”
“I’m sorry, sir?” Ashamed as he is, it’s all he can do to look this ugly little man in the face.
“Where do you come from?”
“Western Mindanao. A little isla—”
“Of course you do. You’re a regular Mohammed.”
Efrem’s back tightens.
“And what kind of rounds does your service weapon fire?”
“Fifty-caliber BMGs, sir.”
“Fifty cal? Shit, with a fifty cal, even I could hit those targets.” He gestures vaguely at the plywood and paper terrorists dotting the field.
“If you say so, sir.” Efrem speaks through clenched teeth.
“Easy, son.” Yapha says.
“No worries.” The short man grins. “I’m fine with lip, long as it backs itself up.” He looks down at Efrem’s Tingin, running his fingers from stock to barrel. “No scope?”
“The field issue comes with one. I shoot better without it.”
The short man moves up on him, so close that the bill of his cap grazes Efrem’s forehead. “Well shit, Mohammed, now it just sounds like you’re bragging.”
“It’s better if you don’t call me that, sir.” Efrem says.
That’s too much for Brig Yapha, who puts himself between them. “Button up,” he hisses, glancing back at the reporters. “You have any idea that’s
Reynato Ocampo you’re talking to?”
Efrem blinks. He looks from Yapha, to Charlie, to the short man. Are they having another joke on him? The short man laughs and rubs a hand against his stubbly chin, making a sound like sand underfoot.
“What,” he says, “you think they straight-up invented that shit? Mohammed … don’t tell me. I mean, movie people get paid to lie, but could some Manila hack have dreamed
up?” He steps back so he and Charlie are side by side. “I give you this, they found an actor who looked plenty like the real thing, but you really think this pretty boy earned the street name Snaggletooth?” The short man—
—bares his twisted metallic smile. Beside him, Charlie grins, sheepishly, perfectly.
For a moment Efrem feels disoriented. To him—to
of the Boxer Boys—Charlie Fuentes and the supercop Reynato Ocampo were always the same person. And to see them now, standing side by side,
gives him a feeling like seasickness. But the moment passes, and just like that Efrem’s lifelong esteem for Charlie Fuentes withers. Charlie is nothing to him. Charlie is worse than nothing. Charlie is a pretender—just one among a long line of false prophets. Nothing but a soft-ass Manileño who more than likely kisses boys. Reynato is the real thing.