The Secret of Morolonago
Part V: The Treasure of Morolonago
The unnecessarily tiny entrance widened slightly, just enough for me to walk in a stoop or crouch. It was still narrow though and the stones here, like outside were carved roughly. I felt along the walls and guided myself down them, stepping light to avoid falling or tripping on the uneven floor stones. Outside the pitter-patter of little feet evaporated, they seemed to have not noticed my escape route. In retrospect it may have been something else.
The eerie feeling set in almost immediately though I ignored it. Dark, damp places underground tend to have that quality. At this point there was little light; I was at dungeon level, the passage occasionally widened out to a full sized open room with small barred slit windows at top. Light glinted off metal shackles along the wall. I also could have almost sworn I smelt gasoline fumes walking past some of them.
After the dungeon I descended a twisting set of stairs. I set down on a loose rock and took a tumble over the last few steps, sending me down on knees and palms for my trouble. My skirt protected the knees somewhat but my palms stung.
My glasses had also fallen off and clattered somewhere nearby. I couldn’t believe it, I’d fought that maniac and he threw me for a loop and I hadn’t lost the thing, but one bad trip and there they go. A clumsy swing of my hand sent them flying further away. After that mistake I began pawing carefully at the ground so as not to send them away any further. Not finding them before me I slowly turned around as I felt for them.
I touched a smooth lens then placed my fingers about it, starting to lift but stopped as it was caught on something. A wire. I traced it back to the wall and my heart skipped a beat as I felt a metal studded cylinder. I gingerly worked the glasses off the line and put them back on.
I thought of the explosion earlier, Max wrote it off as natives playing with hand grenades. But what if it had been a setup like this? It didn’t seem like something he would do, Max is a smash and grab tomb raider. Jeb also said someone opened the gate, which is something no one accounted for would do.
Hay naku ay buhay. How many more players does this game need?
I continued on down through the tunnel, really more a labyrinth than a straight shot. Several times I came to junctions and had to decide what way to go. As I’d walked I’d become aware of a feint electrical hum coming from deeper in the tunnels so I followed it.
The hum was a small comfort to me; it was familiar, though it felt to be leading me down a sinister path. I made out little down here with next to no light but the air circulation ebbed and flowed lightly through the tunnel, I couldn’t see the doorways branching from the path and occasionally found myself in a dead end room then backtracking, but I felt the change in the air and half-expected something to reach out and grab me each time I passed one. My mind turned from the real dangers around me to the fanciful ones, the Kapre and other mythological folk of these islands played through my head. Now I knew how maidens trapped in the Minotaur’s labyrinth on Crete felt, except of course the Minotaur doesn’t exist in the Philippines. Tikbalang does.
I tried to cast aside the thoughts and sought solace with the bolo in my hand and my bits of luck; an old Spanish coin given to me as an anting-anting years ago and the crush cap. Then I stepped on air and almost fell into a pit, only bracing my hands on the wall kept me from taking the spill I’d deserved.
I didn’t need to worry about the tikbalang, a giant half-man, half-horse who can turn invisible, killing me; I needed to keep alert for a man and his traps trying to kill me. Suddenly tikbalang lost all menace.
The pit meant some backtracking and then more meandering. After a walk that seemed to only grow deeper, danker and darker I finally hit a metal door that dead ended the tunnel. There was a lever and lots of metal protusions spaced around the outside. Fearing another trap I routed around my pouches for a book of matches. Tearing off a match I struck it on the book, it provided just enough dim yellow illumination to make out the words “Don the Beachcomber” on the book and little else, though I’m sure it gave me away from a distance down the tunnel, pratically turning me into a Mattie shaped shooting range silhouette.
I played my light around the door and oddly found it to be a naval style hatch, typically found on ships. Kind of an oblong oval shape with little metal tags, called ‘dogs’ spaced around the hatch to keep it shut, when pulled the lever opened all the dogs at once.
If I’d stayed in the dark without this quick investigation I would have blown myself up. The lever was not actually connected as it should have been but instead held another Jap grenade, strung up in such a way that moving the lever would have pulled the pin, and yet tied up so well I couldn’t remove the grenade from it.
I tried one of the dogs and it moved autonomously. Then another, then the next and soon I had undone all of them and the hatch swung open with a silence shattering creak of metal. Inside was still the rough, almost cave like stone of the underground passage but now overlaid with modern accoutrements. Metal mesh grates were installed over floor and wiring was pegged to the stone walls. Small, dim lights were mounted at intervals along the walls.
I closed the hatch behind me and reset the dogs before continuing. The rooms down the corridor were all empty save for a few wall mounted sleeping racks.
“A Jap base under a Spanish castle, wonder what Max wanted down here,” I muttered to myself.
Looking about I reckon all the copper in the wiring would fetch a good price but otherwise I was finding nothing out of the ordinary or worth going on this deadly hunt for. Living quarters, a kitchen, then a communications room. It had a bulky radio receiver and transmitter set up spread across a table with more electronic doodads on a nearby shelf in a room no bigger than a large, long, walk in closet. There was no code book, which given this base’s abandoned status made sense. A worn uniform jacket rested on the chair situated before the radio table. I picked it up and held it to my face, it was warm. I gave the room another once over and now other things became apparent to me, such as a small photograph of a Japanese woman in a kimono under the microphone. There was also a wrapper of some sort on the floor; a sniff said it was salted meat. “Hello Mr. Tikbalang.”
Armed with this new knowledge I listened very carefully before stepping back into the passageway. There was still a faint electric hum but also something else, from where I’d come. Feet on old metal, no matter how quiet still made noise.
My heart rate found a new high. Alone, underground and hunting for something unknown is not how I was going to go out. I reached over and yanked the microphone off its stand and ripped the head from the cord. Next the rifle was unslung and I flicked the safety off. What I was about to do wasn’t the worst plan I’d ever devised, the great train robbery still had that particular honor, but it was close to it.
I flung the microphone head around the corner like a grenade.
“OH SHIT!” Smith screamed in a high pitched voice out in the passageway. The microphone clanked against the grate and he bounded for the nearest living quarters, slamming the hatch shut behind him.
I aimed my half-rifle at the door and called out, “Smith you dumb bastard get out here.”
A long pause. The door knob turned, the barrel of a .45 poked out followed by his head. I kept my aim at his forehead without wavering.
“Put it down or I’ll put you down.”
“Mattie…” He said, beginning to emerge from the door. “It’s-”
“Not a request.” Shaking Smith complied and set the piece on the floor grate. His shoulder bandage had been replaced with a proper one and he’d donned a fresh shirt but was otherwise the same.
I ordered him back and put his piece in my pocket. He was unarmed but for the loaded weapon and an empty magazine.
“I want to know what it is we’re looking for, seeing as how Max felt it was worth trying to kill me over and as we have company I want the short version.”
“I don’t know.” He said in the most unconvincing voice I’d ever heard come from a man with a gun to his head.
“So killing you now is an option. Swell.”
“What about the other half of your payment?”
“Max has a decent bounty on his head, how much is on yours?”
“Less than Yamashita’s treasure… if we find it.”
“Si ano? The Jap general that burned Manila?”
“He has a stockpile of gold plundered from Asia. Max thought it was down here.”
“That so.” I took my aim from him and he breathed a sigh of relief. “Good enough for me.”
“Can I have the piece back?” He asked.
“After the field trips over. So there’s gold here is there?”
“Maybe. I don’t know where, we never got this far. Max thought it would be hidden higher up in the armory. I followed you down here, well, didn’t know it was you… it seemed like the thing to do at the time. Maybe we can radio for help.”
I shook my head, “No good, that little grenade of mine was made of the microphone.”
I didn’t trust Smith in front of or behind me nor was there room for him beside me. I settled on in front and ushered him before me.
“I thought it was ladies first.” He said in passing.
“I’m not much of a lady.”
“I can smell.”
“By the way, we have company. At least one, if not more Japs in here with us. Reckon they unbarred the gate and set the booby traps so stay alert.”
We went ahead and searched a few barren offices, like the living quarters they had accoutrements, desks and chairs but nought else. After a few of these we came to a T shaped intersection in the tunnel.
“Split up?” Smith asked.
“Then how can I protect you? Now get to gettin’. We go right.”
“Because I have a gun and you don’t.” I muttered, “And they mock us Okies for being slow.” Still, being in a generous mood I added, “According to the sign it’s where the important stuff is.”
“I didn’t know you read Japanese.”
“I don’t, but right had the most arrows, so I figure it was the more important of the two paths.”
Like most he was unable to fight my infallible logic and we went down the right. The corridor widened again, enough to manuever a pallet jack around. The walls here were solid concrete and lined with many thick metal doors leading into large chambers, perfect for storage but no gold. At the end of the passageway was a pair of closed doors, these mounted on rails to be slid sideways.
“This better be it.” Smith said to himself. He shoved with a grunt and groan; the door slid a grudging few inches. Exerting himself further did’t help. He looked at me with annoyance, “A little help would be appreciated.”
His eyes fixated on his pistol as I pulled it from my pocket. “I pushed as hard as I could! I’m injured, remember?!”
I ejected the magazine and shoved it into a pouch then put the piece away. “With my hands occupied I didn’t want you to get any ideas.”
“What about the Jap?”
“He can have you when I’m done and not a moment before.”
He wasn’t joking about door being stuck, our combined pushing eaked out a few more inches before we couldn’t push anymore. We paused to catch our breath. As I leaned against the door Smith stole a peek in.
“Is it the gold?” I asked.
He replied, grinning from ear to ear. “It’s a treasure all right, but not gold.”
“Like silver then?”
He backed off and ushered me over for a peek. “Come and see.”
I came over and took a peek. We found the treasure.
The room was expansive; the ceiling two stories up and hundreds of feet long. There was a dock and we found ourselves looking at the biggest submarine I’d ever seen. It looked like most subs, long black cylinder with a sail on top, but much, much bigger and with an odd hump aft of the sail.
“Maybe the gold’s in there.” I said thoughtfully.
“Never seen one of these before,” Smith commented. “Too big to be a I-19, but similar so an I-400, which is real coup. If that humps what I think it is we may be able to fly our way out of this labyrinth.”
“They kept airplanes on submarines?” I asked incredulously.
“Yeah, a scout plane or two, float planes with folding wings. If there’s any avgas around we could try fueling one up and hoping for the best.”
“How would we get it out of here?” I asked. This space didn’t connect to the outside, I guess it was a hollowed out cavern beneath Fort Legaspi with an underwater entrace/exit for the sub. I suddenly remembered the gas fumes from earlier in the dungeon.
“Point.” He replied.
“I think this was a fueling station.”
“Bit elaborate for that.”
“A very special fueling station then.”
“Well Ms. Grumman, gold or none, this is a find. Our little expedition is now at an end.”
I nodded, pondering the market value of an out-sized Jap submarine and matching float plane set. Then I began thinking about how much fuel was possible down here and the compatability of their avgas with my airplane…
My attention fully occupied with the sub Smith made his move and grabbed for the half-rifle at my side. He swung the butt upward, catching me dead center in the chest and his elbow hit my jaw just right, snapping my head back painfully.
I staggered back. He pushed the barrel back at me. I grabbed it and used my full size against him to push the bastard back. He let go of the rifle and hopped away, the pistol I’d pocketed earlier was back in his hand. A .45, even with a round in the chamber, couldn’t fire without a magazine inserted. That’s why I took the magazine out earlier. Unfortunately I’d forgotten about the empty magazine he had, the one now in the weapon.
We fired in near unison. Him with a wild shot, just point and shoot resulting in a clean miss. I shot from the hip using an old cowboy trick I knew. Since the rifle had no barrel it spat a tongue of flame from me to Smith, as if guiding the shot into his midsection and explosively through the other side. It let loose a roar that turned me deaf.
Smith hit the cement wall behind him and fell face down. His blood gushed liberally through an ungodly exit wound in his lower back. I’ve been told a gut shot is the most painful way to go. Pa had done it once and though the fella deserved it for what he done even he could stand by and let him die like that. So I worked the bolt, feeding a fresh round into the chamber, and followed his example.
Another tongue of fire and an explosion, this time not just of sound but of Smith’s head. Then there was nothing to do but sigh.
“There goes the other half of my payment.”
And that’s about when the Jap shot me. It was a hell of a shot too, from the other end of the corridor. Before he’d fired I’d held up the half-rifle like a pistol, butt in arm pit and stubby barrel skyward. His shot struck it, driving it into the side of my face and getting splinters all in my collar and neck. If I had my finger on the trigger I could have accidentally took my own head off.
I fell on my side with the splintered piece, bullet still lodged in the metal firing mechanism, still strapped to my side by the sling. The soldier rushed in, firing two more wild shots and spouting Japanese. Closing he dropped the pistol, which I’d later discover had jammed, and drew his kitana.
He brought it down with a mighty two-handed swing while I got up. He showed surprise when my bolo met his blade. From where he had shot the bolo had been on my opposite side, blocking it from view, I’d even landed on it, keeping it from his sight until the moment it clanged on his steel.
He jabbed at me and I went sidelong, trying to tag his exposed side. The soldier was quick though and he matched my move. The blade came for me again with my response being a half-step forward and inward. He ran his razor-like blade along my side, drawing blood but without enough depth to hit vitals. The pain sent a jolt through me and ruined my own cut. I gouged his arm just above the left elbow.
Kendo is a two-handed sword style requiring finesse for results. His arm injured he lost some of said finesse but it didn’t stop him from coming back with another blow I barely parried. The blade slashed inches from me; I couldn’t get a good shot in of my own so I fed him pommel as I’d done Max. I guess that’s dirty boxing in Japanese sword fighting because he didn’t see it coming. The shot sent him reeling. Keeping my own momentum going I jammed my blade in under the arm pit.
My opponent’s clattered harmlessly to the ground and then so did his lifeless corpse. I finished him cleanly as I’d done his kinsmen years before. Done with the treasure hunters and the Japanese alike I could now finally take stock of the treasure that until a few hours ago I didn’t even know I was in the hunt for.
Bong took another drink as I brought my tale to an end. We sat on the terrace in one of Manila’s upscale restaurants. Though the buildings on either side of it had been reduced to smoldering rubble we dined in the courtyard of a grand Spanish mansion, surrounded by the over-stuffed elite of the city, military officers in full dress and public servants alike. On a polished black band stand in the middle of the merriment a skilled pianist played Laura, a slow and pleasant tune, while a bass thumped along. Under the sounds of music and laughter Manila Bay’s lazy sloshing provided a steady backbeat. Sweet perfumes masked all other unpleasant smells. In such a beautiful environment my tale seemed almost implausibly surreal.
Money was still tight, but I had a small windfall after returning from Morolonago. I still had friends from the War now in government positions who would pay well for information on the Japanese submarine. Apparently the I-400 is kind of a big deal in bubblehead circles.
“Smith had planned to double-cross us all from the beginning. He sent those other guys ahead, let them do the work and when he thought maybe they crossed him he went after them and I happened to tag along. That’s my theory anyway. It’s happened like that before. If I hadn’t he’d probably have done me in too when we got back and we wouldn’t be here now enjoying this over-priced ‘gourmet’ dinner.”
“But it’s really good over-priced dinner.” Bong added. He was like me when it came to putting on airs, we hadn’t the time for people like those around us or settings like this, but his cousin worked here once and raved about the perfection of its food. Food of course being his passion in life Bong had always wanted to come here and try it. He’d even been willing to put on a borrowed suit and comb his hair for the occasion and I pulled out an old red silk Chinese quipao I had stored up for reasons I do not recall.
“Nice adventure, eh?” Bong said with a smile. His face was perpetually tired yet gleeful. I believed him to be near thirty years my senior, but for his tired eyes he looked barely ten years older than me. He worked hard as a mechanic and before that with carabao his whole life. He was short but wiry and aged for a Filipino. Having been around him since I was small Bong was the closest thing I had to living family. “I lined up a client while you were away. Some college guy from America.”
“Didn’t dress like one.”
“I’ve my fill of those. He can take a slowboat for all I care.”
“Money is money, Miss Matilda.” Bong jokingly corrected me.
"Then here's our chance at real money." I took a dusty satchel from under the table and set it between our plates. It noticeably stained the fine crimson tablecloth. I produced two books from it, a blue bound log with Japanese kanji characters all about the cover and a small leather diary.
“I brought this back with me. Smith’s journal and the deck log from that Jap sub. Once it's translated we'll know the last place it off-loaded and we can start our search there."
Bong gave a little smile and shook his head.
"The treasure is real," I insisted. "We should find it.”
Bong, unsurprisingly, just shrugged. He wasn't a big believer in secret treasure. “Why not? Have we not risked our lives enough already?”
"Whatever happened to 'money is money?"
"This is not money. This is maybe. We do not risk our lives for the maybe."
Kuya could be so stubborn, though not as stubborn as I. "Maybe beats definitely. Right now we definitely are barely staying above board, money-wise. If we don't chase this then this is it- low pay runs and praying desperately nothing expensive breaks. We lucked into that B-25 for spare parts, when they run out what then?"
Bong thought on this. He looked at me with serious brown eyes.
"More importantly, if we do this and get the treasure..." I added. "We can finish what we started."
I didn't have to state what I was referring to. There was much he could have said about the matter, but didn't. He knew me too well to argue the finer points of what I suggested.
"Why?" He asked somberly.
"Because I don't leave things undone."
"That's not what I meant." His dark eyes looked more tired than I'd ever seen them. "And it's not undone. They pardoned him."
"Collaborators like Laurel and Aquino are still up for treason yet the butcher himself gets a pardon." I said, referring to the President and Speaker of the "Second Philippine Republic" Japan created during the War. "Truly we live in enlightened times."
"I didn't say it sits well with me. I know what Tsujimoto did better than even you," Bong looked away and closed his eyes. A memory flared up and its pain was written on his face. He shook it off with a generous gulp of wine.
"Tsujimoto was the last man I know who saw Pa alive. I need to find him if only for that."
"It's not going to bring him back," Bong said. "It won't bring any of them back."
"I do not care."
"And you think he can really tell you what he did with one prisoner of so many after all this time?"
"Again, I do not care. If Tsujimoto tells me then I can find Pa's body and bury him right. If he does not then I'll at least have the satisfaction of ending the monster."
"No one has seen Tsujimoto in months. We may as well hunt the Kapre."
"We hunted him before," I reminded him. "And near bankrupted ourselves to do it."
"So we find the treasure and bankrupt ourselves again?"
I gave him my sweetest smile. "That's what I love about you kuya, you understand me."
Bong drank some more and thought a spell.
“Why not?” He said in resignation.
"One last big adventure?"
He held up one finger and pointed it at me. "Isa pa." One more.
We went back to eating and I watched the sun smolder over the Bay, casting its final red glow over the waters and ships from the large Liberty ships to the small bancays and the Bay's multitude of half-sunk hulls. I knew this here, this false pleasantness was like a dream and my reality was out there somewhere along with more trouble than I’d ever bargained for.