There may not be a Santo Domingo and Macapagal intersection, suitable for bus spotting after a courier drop. There is a Roberto Orca and Bonifacio Drive and that’s where we’re stood right now this minute, waiting for a real deputy head of chancery, really allowed to drive a car with CD plates, who’s just been pulled out of bed by the Embassy’s night watchman after taking my call.
We? Gisele, dressed as a Catholic priest, yours truly and Ramzi Yousef, bomb maker, terrorist, suspected car bomber of the World Trade Centre. A chap, and our intelligence-gathering effort thus far has been a bit flawed (relying on cousins and contacts), who might have a two-million-dollar ransom hanging over his bomb-damaged, one-eyed, burnt head.
I don’t look much better. It has been a long day and the lower right-hand side of my face is still bashed and scabbed from a previous appointment with Yousef, when his bomb-making ingredients ignited during our raid on his apartment.
I look up and down the road rather nervously. The Embassy should be able to spot us, the only two non-Filipinos in the district alongside, you’ll recall, a girl dressed as a boy, dressed as a Catholic priest.
How did we get here? At the end of the papal vigil, while the other fathers were heading for the mini busses, enjoying the limelight crowds and TV cameras (or strolling over to the village hall for post vigil clergy tea), we were jogging through the old Japanese occupation tunnels and scrambling across the piles of rubble that breach the Manila’s Spanish quarter’s Intramuros’s encircling walls. Under feeble light from tiny brown-out torches, we ran across the dilapidated golf course and the squatter’s shantytowns that encroach upon it. We crossed a dual carriageway, pretending to be invisible, and then hid up a side street, in an industrial area, near to the docks.
Is there a reason for of this? Let me explain.
Partway through the Litany of the Saints at the papal vigil, the cornered terrorist offered me a bribe via cell-phone. He, stood next to Gisele in the aisle, I, hid in the choir loft. You may say that this might be a good point to canonise Judas Iscariot, attribute a miracle to him, and add him to that Litany of Saints. I say, ‘not so fast’. I turned him down, but before you bin the Blessed Iscariot’s paperwork, hear me out.
‘A very good idea. But I’ve got a better one,’ I replied, ‘Why not come and work for us?’
His organisation was completely compromised, riddled with infighting and informers. How did he think we’d been able to catch him? Anything was possible.
‘We’ve got people inside Manila International Airport and at Karachi. We can get you back to Pakistan, no problem. See your family again? We know exactly where they are. Or let the Americans mush your brain before the Jews boil you in pig blood? You decide. By the way, Dr Mohammed at BCCI sends his regards.’
Back at the street corner, I try polite conversation.
‘And what do you do?’
‘Bring death to America and curse the Jews.’
‘Have you travelled far?’
‘Kuwait, Pakistan, Waziristan, Swansea, Baluchistan, Peshawar.’
I’ve never been to Swansea, apart from that we’d been following each other about a bit.
He cursed the Jews a bit more.
‘There is a better way,’ I suggest to him.
One of the secrets of the good salesman is stealing other good salesman’s good ideas. I recalled an hour at an orphanage with an Irish nun, during which she’d parted me from far too big a share of the anticipated reward from this particular piece of derring-do. One admires her. Her information however, turned out to be an essentially useless, but inciteful, false trail.
‘We can live together in peace and harmony. There is a way. I sponsor a project in the south, a Utopia, where our two peoples meet. We have found a way. In its faith and peace centre, there is a plaque for the donors. There is a space for your name. You might want to think about that.’
On cue, a colourless FX with smoked windows pulled up. Yousef disappeared into it and headed back towards the traffic in less than an instant.
Did I hear ‘Good show’ or ‘Well done that man’ as the doors slid open and two big guys each put one foot on the floor, one hand on each of Yousef’s shoulders, and pulled him in?
Probably not, self-employed contractor types get no recognition and don’t expect any. They’re loathed by the suits and the uniforms as they are paid too much and have little accountability. Furthermore, they rather enjoy it, which makes them hated even more. There’s a debate over whether they should even be allowed diplomatic immunity. For the time being, they cling to their extra passports, travel on the normal ones and pretend they don’t know where they’ve put the other one if asked to show it. Can I now get back to the Orchid for a good night’s sleep? Gisele steps out of the shadows.
‘And the rewards?’, she asks.
‘Settle up at the end of the month. I’ll put it into the Anglo Philippine kitty via the Remittance Bank. Won’t be anywhere near the would-be two million. He’s coming to us, not the Americans, good day at the office all the same. By ‘us’ I mean Her Majesty’s Government, who don’t do deals with terrorists. Thanks Gisele, I couldn’t do any of this without you.’
I shook her hand.
‘Shall we wander back to the Orchid?’, I ask, ‘perhaps a little celebration?’
‘Sure, I’ve ordered a car.’
While waiting for the Embassy FX she had been standing to one side, in the darkness, chattering away on her cell-phone. A cab crawls past, does a U-turn and pulls up beside us. The taxi driver pushes the front passenger side door open for me.
‘For the Orchid?’
I climb in beside him, a signal for polite conversation. Gisele sits in the back alone, eyes closed, a signal for being left in peace. Simultaneous with his small talk, the taxi driver takes a cell-phone call and chatters away in the national language. Or does he? It sounds more like an island dialect. I’m very tired. It’s been a long, strange day. I recognise one or two overheard words but can’t make sense of them. Anyway, I’m off duty, job done. It’s been a long day. Exhausted, I feel myself nodding off. The lights, the sounds, the bouncing of the car, the jingly-jangly music from the standard-issue un-switch-off-able Manila taxi FM plays a lullaby to me. Never mind a dusting of sprinkle, the sandman hits me on the head with a hammer and I’m off to sleep. My head slumps at an uncomfortable angle, cricking my neck against my shoulder.
I wake, not knowing where I am. In bed at the Orchid? No, not there. What was I doing? Papal vigil, turn a terrorist, get him picked up at a street corner, thank Gisele and feel a protective tenderness towards her. Get into a taxi. Fall asleep, only five minutes from my hotel room, with its busy Arab speaker hacking from a captured laptop. By the time I open my eyes properly and have a little stretch, I realise I’m outside the Orchid and the taxi’s stopping. I shall pay the driver and head for my room with Gisele. Or rather not. I’m in the taxi, yes, and it’s stopped, definitely. But we’re not at the Orchid. Unless the Orchid’s been moved to a narrow street in a derelict area of the city, whose residents can afford guns but not street lights.
Ah, I was dreading this, Gisele is in the back of the cab dressed as a priest. I wondered how long it would be before she was collared for a confession. I knew what to do.
‘I’m sorry my son, but we have to be at the Orchid.’
It was only five minutes in a taxi from Bonifacio, goodness knows why we were tucked into a narrow road in among shanty shacks. Perhaps a sin so heavy it had to be hidden even when revealed? Unburdened in a maze of tin huts, the ether carrying it only to the ignored local poor. No thanks, get us to our comfy beds.
He repeated that he was sorry.
Can any adult Catholic in an emergency hear a confession? I doubt it. Likewise, can they absolve the sinner? I very, very much doubt it. They can baptise in an emergency, and sometimes did, on the steps of the churches where the unwanted tiny dead were left during the night, wrapped in dirty paper swaddling.
Gisele was uncharacteristically quiet, so I answered for her,
‘Fr Gerald can listen as a friend my son, but you must see your own priest for absolution, perhaps tomorrow morning?’
All of which was completely true. I felt rather pleased with myself,
‘Now, we must head for the Orchid, my son, chat as you drive, it’s in Ermita, on the way to the American Embassy, I’ll tell you when to stop.’
He made no attempt to drive. He looked genuinely upset. What on earth had he done I wondered? I found out.
They say that every time you sleep you dream, although you don’t always remember the dream upon waking. They also say that the subconscious runs ahead of the conscious and that there are all kinds of things that the mind knows that the conscious doesn’t realise. Dreams can be revealingly informative. I suspect that my forgotten taxi nap dream might have involved me getting out of a cab and running like hell.
‘No, I mean I am sorry, I want the money for my family, I want to buy them nice things.’
He pulled a gun on me. With his other hand, he flashed the taxi’s headlights.
I asked, ‘Is this about money, friend?’. I was genuinely surprised. We were in a proper taxi, with a number and a meter with a seal on it. It had a radio. Prices were painted on the taxi’s side. His ID was hanging from the rear-view mirror. He was called Glenn. How on earth did he think he would get away with this? Me a white foreigner and my companion apparently a priest? Unheard of in this territory.
Outside two figures lumbered towards us in the gloom. On at least one of them, I could see a cap and shiny badges. The cavalry perhaps?
‘The police now, Glenn, perhaps we say no more about it, and an extra ten dollars when we get to the Orchid. Nice things for the family anyway?’
But cavalry they were not. The back doors opened.
Gisele got out and ominously signed off with,
‘Don’t apologise to him, he deserves it.’
Two large chaps, sure enough, one in police uniform, got into the back seat. They were big enough to make the car sink. Not a good sign. I could look over my right shoulder and see the man in uniform sat behind the driver. Before you try to catch me out with my lefts and rights, the taxis were often dirt-cheap right-hand drive, second-hand ones imported from Japan.
Over that right shoulder, I could see a lot of gold braid, belonging to a better class of off-duty police department hired muscle. I could also see his service revolver pointing at me. At this range, it would be awfully noisy for the other occupants and I’d be cut in two. As for the chap sat straight behind me, I couldn’t see him but, immediately he spoke, recognised the voice and island dialect.
‘Put your gun away and drive,’ he instructed the taxi driver.
We reversed, the shanty road ahead being blocked by another vehicle, which Gisele was climbing into.
As the tin and wood buildings passed alongside me and my entire life passed in front of me, the voice behind asked the obvious question.
No, not what happened to your face? Not even why was Gisele dressed as a girl, dressed as a boy, dressed as a Catholic priest? Or why are you selling terrorists to embassies instead of presenting them to the local authorities? No, a much more obvious question, one that had been troubling me too, and which I’d begun to suspect might, one day soon, be written out in blood and pinned to my cold, dead body.
To be continued …….
© Always Worth Saying 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file