At 5227 San Augustin Street, Makati City, after dark, there were no yellow ribbons for me nor a line of concerned people praying and clutching the rosary.
A maid answers the door and looks surprised rather than pleased to see me. As if Dr Crippen receiving his wife, a short while after thinking he’s strangled her. Or a wealthy widow or two calling on Mr Harris a few hours after he thought he’d drained them down the acid bath’s plug hole.
Or more likely, as if a missing house guest had bluffed his way out of jail a bit too promptly after being caught and incarcerated. I’d been searched while smuggling mild pain killers (as an act of charity for the inmates) during visiting time and had been detained.
Inside is Issa the attorney. We are alone, or alone as we ever can be, hers’ being a busy home and an ‘open house’, as she lives in the capital whilst being part of an extended provincial family. Her sister, my business associate Gisele, is out speed dating to rattle up investment for our ‘Anglo Philippine Friendship and Enterprise Company’, especially plugging our Computer Club / Gateway Business Park computers containing our ‘trap door’.
Another sister, who is honeymooning at the property, has gone to a show for the evening with her new husband, a big, impressive chap from the south, Tagum city, only about thirty miles from Davao where I’m usually based.
Pleased to have someone to chat about Mindanao with, I’d fallen into the good habit of conversing with him to keep up with the news while I was in Luzon. Davaoenos regularly asserting that the Tagumenyo are too thick and useless to be of any harm, I’d also fallen into the bad habit of (as with an iffy memoir) boasting and exaggerating in his company.
Meanwhile, Issa’s husband is out networking and her young children have already been settled down to sleep. Life has gone on without me.
There are a couple of maids about. Myself and Issa talk quickly and in very correct English to stop the maids from understanding what we say.
There being no need for a fire, we sit around a stand-up fan drinking iced water. We’ve kicked off our shoes. The houselights are dim. Outside, a giant moth (or twenty) bump against the glassless window grills while a bat sweeps through them. A couple of streets away a shotgun goes off.
If Gisele is a bit of a Tomboy then Issa is a bit of an elegante. Tall and thin, immaculately turned out even about the house, she wears a long dress, little makeup and a few small pieces of jewellery. She is striking, both personally and professionally and has already been mentioned in connection to a seat in the Senate, which senior law officers in Manila are expected to aspire to.
I mention my visit to jail and describe her and Gisele’s close relative (and murder suspect) Hubert Webb’s morale and demeanour.
‘Ranting with the passion of a man wrongly imprisoned?’ she asks.
‘Not at all’, I remark, not quite at that moment realising her point, ‘very calm and collected.’
Hubert’s defence is based upon alibi. His legal team claim to have documentation to show that he was in America at the time of the Vizconde massacre, of which he is one of the accused.
All the crime scene evidence has been destroyed, allegedly by a corrupt police officer called Biong. He was first to the Vizconde property and is rumoured to be a driver and bodyguard for the Webb family when off duty. He has been arrested too, as an accessory.
‘So that leaves an alibi, versus a witness statement’, says Issa, stating the obvious.
The witness is Jessica Alfonso who, years after the event, came forward and made a statement to the police, implicating Hubert Webb and seven other members of well-known Manila families (plus Biong) in what Alfaro’s testimony will suggest is a drug fuelled ‘Brat Pack’ rape murder.
Issa confides in me,
‘The judge will be Amelita Tolentino.’
‘There will be no jury.’
‘Is it a political appointment?’, I wonder aloud, asking a question expecting the answer ‘yes’.
‘Of course. And Tolentino is a paranoid, she thinks she is being followed all the time and last week opened fire on a passer-by. There is a lot of pressure on her for a conviction. It’s the ‘Crime of the Century’ and for years there is no solution’.
A lizard ran up the wall.
‘But Hubert has an alibi,’ I respond, ‘in the United States surely? Cast iron. A formality. Entry and exit Visas, airline tickets, documents from over there?’
Issa held the silence. A gecko called out.
‘Tell me about yourself, mister. We weren’t expecting you back so quick-quick.’
I tell her that I’d bluffed my way out of jail by showing a previous week’s indelible visitor’s pass stamped on my palm. I held it up for her.
I’d adjourned to a nearby Dunkin Doughnuts, where the Manila crime families meet between prison visiting hours, picked up the ice cream tab and asked their advice. They doubted I’d be pursued for long, but suggested I lie low for a while until forgotten about. I’d cadged a lift back to 5227 San Augustin Street, from a notorious kidnapper of all people, at an extortionate price.
‘The desperate man and his deep pockets’, Issa observed.
En route, the area was being improved for the Holy Father’s visit. There were flowers, trees and newly laid turf by the road side.
Myself and the kidnapper noticed police on the streets, cars with flashing lights and uniformed men with nightsticks. The dashboard shortwave radio had cackled into life on the police waveband. Although the FX’s windows were smoked, I hunkered down in the passenger’s seat anyway.
‘No, they aren’t looking for you, Joe,’ my driver assured me.
The police were guarding the improvements. The barangay residents fed the Pope’s turf to their donkeys and stole the plants to sell from their stalls. Right on cue we passed a squatter area. Wooden and tin shacks were packed together, all the way to a wire fence, with a row of hungry but sleeping bulldozers parked next to them.
I was able to reach our contact at the airline, Ding, on the shortwave. I instructed him to lay a false trail for me. Two tickets, Mickey Mouse airlines from Manila to Mickey Mouse island, for a Mr and Mrs M. Mouse. Make sure they think it’s me, put it on my account and keep the change.
Simultaneously I would head somewhere remote for a spell, did Issa have anywhere in mind? In case it helped, I showed her some fake ID I’d bought at Dunking. I was now licenced to drive a car, Filipino style, and could breed donkeys on public land north of Caloocan City. My name and address were a bit different and the photos could have been anybody. She shouted for a maid who brought a writing set.
While she wrote me a letter of introduction to a distant (in every sense of the word) relative, she remarked about Hubert’s case.
‘Alibi is a clever defence in that it avoids having to answer any questions at all about the events. Just keep on saying ‘I wasn’t there’.’
She folded the sheet of paper and put it into an envelope. It was very rude to stick the tongue out and lick things. A local custom I had discovered the hard way at the main post office in Davao while doing a mountain of faxes. Yes, faxes were written out on fax paper, put in sealed envelopes and then sent airmail, as the fax system never worked. I did escape alive – just. It would have been a strange citation on the wall of honour, beaten to death licking envelopes containing his outrageous expenses. Issa shouted for the maid to bring a sponge.
‘The danger is, mister, that no matter what evidence for alibi is presented, Judge Tolentino will say the Webbs are a wealthy and influential family and could obtain all kinds of documentation fraudulently.’
She sealed the envelope and gave the letter of introduction to me. It was addressed to a relative in a province I’d never even heard of. I presumed it far away, cut off and very suitable for my purpose.
‘Do you believe Jessica Alfaro’s witness statement?’ I asked Issa.
‘Of course not. She’s not even the graduate she claims to be. It’s a join the dots of the evidence the NBI have gathered. Alfaro is a stool pigeon, paid to inform, or invent, on criminal gangs. She is also a drug addict desperate for the NBI’s money.’
‘I always thought it strange’, I replied, ‘that Carmela Vizconde had a boyfriend at the house while her mother very protective.’
‘It explains some vehicle movements remembered by witnesses’, noted Issa, ‘and puts Hubert in a jealous rage. It joins dots for the prosecution’.
‘Does it mean all is untrue?’
Since Jessica Alfaro had made her statement other witnesses, previously too terrified, had come forward and also made statements. In places they contradicted Alfaro who, as the dots of witness evidence moved about, had had to make a second statement contracting her first.
It was looking like a dog’s dinner. One I’d prefer to be away from. Perhaps while I was lying low a smoking gun might emerge which pointed suspicion elsewhere?
Issa offered to order me a taxi to Tondo Docks, from where the Superferries fanned out across the archipelago overnight. I declined. I’d make my own way and absolve Issa from knowing my exact movements.
A maid had been packing for me and brought my blue Berghaus pack down from the room I’d been staying in. I asked, but there was no gun for me.
I said my farewells and wandered down the street, turned a corner or two (until I couldn’t possibly be seen from 5227).
I squatted down on the floor and addressed my pack.
Sure enough, in a side pocket was a folded note, on the front my name was written next to ‘telle message’, meaning there’d been a phone call for me and a message left. I opened the note. It was written in the immaculate, spidery handwriting of a young girl from the provinces taught by the nuns, now in Manila working as a maid in Issa’s property, grateful to the English gentleman who was kind, always smiled and gave her little perfume samples in return for information and little confidences, especially messages discreetly taken without Issa or any of the other important adults finding out.
The note read: ‘Dane, tandangsora, regarding Mr Cortez, plz call by.’
Now ‘tandangsora’ means all kinds of different things depending on where the spaces or pauses are. This caused endless confusion the first time, and a day and a half in a taxi, wondering what the place name clue in ‘ta da ng sora’ was. A visit to the fire station ensued, where they informed me that Tandang Sora was a famous patriot with a street named after her, near the University of the Philippines. They were kind enough to print our one of their routes for me (as per finding Santo Tomas).
I readjusted my pack, pulled myself up and held my arm out to the horizontal and waggled my fingers to stop a jeepney. I was familiar with the routes and places to change, and climbed aboard one going in a different direction to Tondo. Not to complicate the trail but because I had no intention of leaving Manila, yet. Amongst the yin and yang of these things, there was no reason why events shouldn’t have fallen nicely for me. I had to show face quickly at Tandang Sora and explain the situation. Trust me, the last thing I needed was to upset Dane and especially their most valued customer Mr Cortez.
To be continued….
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© Always Worth Saying 2019
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