Trapped by the Triad
1. Old Business
This story picks up approximately two glasses of wine after "The Secret of Morolonago"
Watching water has always helped me think and tonight was no different. Bong and I were dining in the courtyard of an almost century old Spanish villa turned high-end restaurant, enjoying wine and cuisine we usually couldn't afford and taking in the place's spectacular view of a crimson Manila Bay sunset.
A half-century ago an American squadron, some of the nation's first steel warships, stormed this Bay on an early morning and with but a casualty to themselves sent a Spanish fleet to the bottom, where those ships still reside in the world's finest deep water harbor. It was the beginning of the end for Spain's three hundred years of rule in the islands.
Six years ago Japanese aircraft sent American ships to join them and the islands switched hands again. Two years ago the Americans returned the favor before turning the islands over to the Filipinos. Now Liberty and Victory cargo ships, merchantmen built by the thousands in the War, shared space in those beautiful waters with a flotilla of half-sunk burned-out hulls. At the table beside ours a stuffed bird in a colonel's uniform commented on how they marred the view. They reminded him of the horrors we'd overcome at great cost, like open wounds on the water inviting onlookers to take a peek.
I didn't need a flotilla of dead ships to remind me what happened, what we did, what had to be done. What I did with a flashing bolo and all manner of firearm. My bare hands. All I have to do is close my eyes and something inevitably comes up. The ships, living and dead, got me thinking, though not as the colonel. They reminded me of something else. As I am want to do, especially while drunk, this thinking was very introspective.
To me, the dead hulls were loose ends of a battle that ended two years ago. My loose ends were Tsujimoto and now that damned gold.
After leaving Morolonago I looked into Smith's story about "Yamashita's Gold." During the early victorious days of the War General Tomoyuki Yamashita led an unstoppable army over the Asian mainland that robbed it's people of both freedom and valuables. Supposedly that amazing stash, the wealth of Asia, was hidden here in these islands. Some of it was gold bars, trinkets, teeth and coins. Golden Buddhas bigger than life and all manner of ill-gained wealth were also rumored to be part of it.
The horde may have been at Morolonago at one time and transferred via that leviathan submarine I found to somewhere else in the islands, possibly elsewhere. I wouldn't know until I could get the ship's log translated. The unknown fate of that horde was a loose end like the hulls but far more valuable.
Though I am usually not an adventurer, at least not on purpose, the gold caught my imagination. I could use it to tie up the last loose end that mattered. The one that mattered to me anyway- locating and killing Heihachiro Tsujimoto. My father was a Federal Marshal, a professional man hunter, in the Oklahoma and Indian Territories when that still meant something and he'd never let such a man escape him and neither would I. Even if the price on Tsujimoto's head had been withdrawn and the war criminal pardoned thrice over I wouldn't stop until I got what I wanted from him and he was dead.
The dying sun played off the water mixing with soft blues and yellows and casting the silhouetted hulls with ruddy borders. As the sun dipped below the horizon it’s powerful red and orange glow flared up suddenly then died, leaving faint red embers to play across the water before they too cooled and vanished. After Tsujimoto whatever loose ends still in need of ending were no more important to me than those now blackened hulls on the bay.
"Miss Matilda?" Bong's voice shook me from my revelry. I straightened up in my seat and looked at him.
"You're slouching," he said like a semi-stern, semi-drunken school master. "Do not slouch in such a fine dress."
He was right of course. I adjusted my posture if not to be more ladylike then at least less Mattie-like. We were surrounded by the country's elite, politicians, military men and the kapitans of industry, as it were. We may not have respected them but we could at least fit in for the evening. I wore my finest and only dress, a gold-trimmed red silk quipao. It's the Chinese-style that was all the rage in Shanghai, high-necked, no sleeves, the hem almost to the ground and with side slits perhaps too high. Honestly I just felt poured into the damn thing but it seemed appropriate for the locale. My auburn hair was up in a badly attempted bun with chopsticks.
Bong borrowed a friend's brown two-piece suit which I'm fairly certain was bought second-hand. It was slightly too bulky for his slender frame and the sleeves a touch too long, but he wore it with quiet confidence and dignity which in my opinion makes up for any lack of proper tailoring. He wore his own hat with it, it was a little beat up but dressed as we were no one stopped this odd pairing of lady pilot and aged veteran at the door.
I and Bong are not blood, but our bond just as close. He worked for my father before the war at Grumman Air Transport Service, his inter-island seaplane business. Though his brother was killed by American troops in 1901 Bong surprised us by bearing no ill will, and as a self-taught mechanic he quickly became invaluable to the business. My Ma and younger siblings died of malaria shortly after we moved to the islands but Bong and his family treated us like their own to help us through the time. I grew up around him and his family, played with his sons and daughters and when we saw the War coming it was his brother's family I was sent to live with in Hawaii to ride the it out.
I left the Philippines late in November 1941 on board the Philippine Clipper, one of the last Pan-American flying clippers to depart the islands before the War started. I was with his family on Sunday morning a week later when they went to get Tito Cesar, Bong's brother, for church. He was a mess steward aboard the super-dreadnought Oklahoma moored at Pearl Harbor. I was excited for the visit as I'd never been aboard a real active service warship before, only that decrepit old cruiser New York berthed at the Olongapo Naval Reservation which was a relic of the Spanish-American War. It also didn't hurt Oklahoma was named for my home state. That December day was my second time seeing Oklahoma and her kind, the first was departing the Philippine Clipper, but I'll never forget the sight of that double row of battleships at Pearl. They looked so powerful and indestructible, nothing like New York. These massive ships made me feel optimistic, like no matter what happened we could take it.
Fifteen minutes later all Hell broke loose and I watched the indestructible ships die. During the carnage and running for cover my Tita stopped in her tracks and let out a scream. Amidst the burning battleships billowing smoke, Oklahoma had capsized, turning over completely with her belly exposed above water.
Sometimes I jump awake with the phantom scent of smoke in my nostrils and the horrible sound of battle in my tinnitus-plagued ears. That battle was over in two hours, but Tito Cesar was not among the living nor was his body found. There existed the possibility he was still trapped inside the overturned ship and we held onto that slim hope. Shipyard workers worked tirelessly to rip open Oklahoma's armored hide to rescue survivors. The family and I spent much time together during those days praying for him. Thankfully Tito was among the 32 pulled from Oklahoma two days later. The event brought us close and the cascade of events back in the Philippines, it's invasion and battles brought us all closer still. Pa was an expert horseman and shootist so he had joined with a Filipino cavalry unit the moment he sent me to be with Tito's family. Bong had sent his family to Pampanga and enlisted. We worried together for our loved ones, even if they had never met Pa.
Now Pa is gone, it eats at me that I do not know the particulars. So a third loose end. I'd accepted he was dead a long time ago, either on Bataan, during the Death March, in Camp O'Donnell or on a Hell Ship. Still, occasionally I get drunk and/or in a mood and it bothers me. Once I found Tsujimoto I could use the remaining treasure to find his body and give Pa a proper burial. Thankfully it is one I wouldn't have to go alone as Bong and his will be there with me to do it.
"Matilda!" I jumped at Bong's bark. He tipsily shook his wine glass at me, chiding me as he did when I was a child. "No brooding at the table."
"Yes, kuya." I rolled my eyes. He was enjoying his wine, perhaps a tad too much. I couldn't begrudge him for it as I was happy for his company.
"How is Lola?" I asked since he missed out on all the Morolonago fun to look after her. His Lola, or grandmother, I'm certain is pushing 100 and has sporadic bouts of ill health, but she's always bounced back.
Bong's lips tightened before he spoke. "She's mostly returned to health, the kids are watching her now."
"When this is done let's swing by Dinalupihan to see them, it's been too long."
"You know what?" He asked rhetorically. "If the treasure is ours, then I want to buy a nice house with room for everyone and give Lola a private nurse to take care of her. When we get the gold we will do that. Have the nice things."
The drink had made him more agreeable. Another glass and he'd say this adventure was his idea.
I nodded in agreement. "Like more of that nice wine?"
"No! Finer!" He joked. "We will start our own winery and no longer be shot at or be at the whim of whimsical men," I assumed he meant our clients. Then solemnly he added, "No more manhunting."
"But I like manhunting," I whined.
"Then manhunt you a husband. You're not getting any younger or any less scarred."
Playing indignant I replied, "I like my scarring, thank you very much."
I'd thought he was joking but Bong wasn't. He shifted gears and his response was serious. "Not that kind Miss Matilda. The other kind," He tapped his heart then his head. "I've heard you at night. This lifestyle isn't healthy."
"Then it's good I'm not in it for my health."
"Then what for?"
His question made me think, it was valid. I thought and gave him the truth of the matter.
"Because it's what I know."
He shook his head at the answer. "Should have never let Romel teach you the bolo."
"It kept me alive. If he was alive today I'd thank him." Romel was Bong's younger brother. He taught the family's fighting style to his nephews and with some begging and cajoling he let me watch them and then later participate. Those long hours of practice with bolos, sticks and empty hand paid off in the years to come. He gave me a skill just as valuable as the ones Pa taught me.
"At least... we avenged him." Bong sighed. Romel was suspected of guerilla activity, which probably had something to do with his being a guerilla. (Then again, who wasn't?) He was tortured and executed by the local Japanese garrison commander who tied his body to a pole in front of the garrison headquarters. He was left on display for a week after death as a warning to all other guerillas.
Through the local guerillas I'd learned there was another prisoner at the station fitting Pa's description, though he'd long since gone, either killed or shipped to Japan. I had want dearly to have a personal "meeting" with the local garrison commander to talk about that man. The commander was a lieutenant colonel who'd massacred his way through China, Indochina and the Philippines. Supposedly he'd even once been a colonel but was busted down for committing an act too unspeakable even for the Imperial Japanese Army.
That was 1943 and there was no way we could do anything about it. Any attempt at vengeance and the Japanese would burn down the whole village, but only after executing its inhabitants. To ensure his policy had teeth the garrison commander summarily executed the town mayor and three of its leading men before reading his policy aloud to the gathered at bayonet-point locals.
Then MacArthur returned in 1944 and it was open season on Japs. What they threatened us with was visited upon them. We burned down the garrison headquarters, gunning down the staff as they fled. We beheaded the survivors then tied them to their goddamn poles. I had that personal meeting I'd waited months for with garrison commander Lieutenant Colonel Heihachiro Tsujimoto, but his skill with a blade and treachery matched my own. He tasted my bolo but once before escaping into the jungle. We vainly searched for him through the night and next morning but he was gone. By war's end we hadn't found him again.
"Excuse me, miss," said a waiter. He had sidled up beside me as Bong and I conversed. "You have a phone call."
I looked at Bong. We'd only told a few close associates were we'd be tonight. I'd put out a few feelers to see who might be able to translate the log for us. He shrugged.
"Who is it?" I asked.
“I didn’t catch the name miss, he just said he was interested in being a client.” The waiter replied.
“We should post business hours.” Bong said wryly.
“He said sir James directed him to you for help.” The waiter added.
“I should tell James no favors until he gets me that .30-30 he promised.” I shook my head. James owned a small hardware store and after doing some favors for him that involved moving a few... "duty free" items onboard my Catalina flying boat he owed me a '94 Winchester lever gun. “I’ll put him down gently.”
Bong grabbed my wrist as I got up. Don’t. Let me.”
“I have it Kuya.” Sometimes it annoys me when he gets fatherly like that. I've been an adult for some time, you know.
“But what if we want this client later?” He chided.
Indignantly I told him, “I can talk to clients.”
“Oh, is that why you shot the last one?”
My face reddened and I gave the waiter a nervous grin. “Kuya likes his Tanduay a bit too much.”
The waiter led me into the villa's lower floor and to a wall-mounted phone mounted in an alcove besides the kitchen. The powerful smells of cooking and the back-and-forth shouts between chefs and wait staff made the location less than ideal for talking. Waiters constantly bustling past with trays both full and empty also kept me from fully focusing on the call. Bong had been correct in his assessment of my mental state earlier.
The voice on the phone was unfamiliar, yet similar. He introduced himself as James' cousin and half-muttered, half-stumbled through a statement I couldn't understand in the slightest.
"Is your cousin there?"
He mumbled a response then there was a pause as the phone was handed over.
"Miss Grumman? My cousin is looking for a job and I was thinking he's a good trade-"
"Hindi!" I exclaimed, drawing the attention of a passing waiter. I smiled politely and nodded to him. He returned the smile and went on his way. "If he doesn't speak Japanese or can't make pesos appear in my hands I've no interest in having your cousin around. I don't operate a charity, James."
"And I don't speak or read Japanese, yet I try to help you with your... situation."
"And yet you still owe me a .30-30 and then some for that special delivery-"
"Not over the phone!" He half-shrieked. I shook my head and decided after this to never deal with James again. His hardware store was legitimate, but discreetly he also ran a few other businesses under the radar that were not. Bringing them up got the man squirrelly. I'd made him a deal after he insisted he couldn't quite get me the rest of my payment as he was being shook down hard by the Triad, which I understood and was why I was forgiving as I was. The Triad was the Chinese equivalent of the American Mafia, just as ruthless and violent, a group I'd for the most part been able to avoid dealing with.
So our deal was, if he could find someone reliable and discreet to translate the ship's log I'd forgive the money. Suffice to say his debt to me was not inconsiderable and I myself was living on the edge with the cost of avgas and maintenance being what it was. The Cat was long overdue for a new paint job, which like with the regular non-flying variety of boat is vital to maintaining seaworthiness.
"Next time you call you better have either help or cash."
"I will! Look, I'm talking to people, asking the things, if I can find a man who speaks Japanese and has an unslit throat I will direct him to you."
We traded the usual parting pleasantries and ended the call. It was strange, but then James will kind of weird so I wrote it off. Still, I felt more alert for reasons I couldn't place. I'd always credited my subconscious mind with being faster and smarter than my conscious one, it allowed me to notice subtle changes and patterns I didn't directly get and has saved my life in the past so it is a feeling I ignore at my own peril.
Peeking out of the phone alcove I looked around but nothing jumped out at me as a threat. The staff rushed to and fro as they had been, and at the same pace. I left the alcove and returned to the courtyard yet the feeling stayed with me. I looked the whole yard over, checking the patrons and staff, trying to figure out why I suddenly had this bad feeling. It didn't pass and I couldn't pin point it so I gave up and went back to the table where Bong and his cousin Boy were talking rapidly and laughing.
Boy was off early and offered us some 'special reserve,' which we took him up on. It was fine pre-War Tanduay he'd squirreled away for special occasions. We toasted and made small talk, dropping Bong and my's business, substituting it for generic chatter on the air transport business. Then they got to talking about family matters and the odds of Bong's prized fighting cock bringing in big money, typical stuff. A couple more slugs of the good stuff and I was in a lightly drunken haze, but I still felt something out of place. I'd hoped by sitting down and going about my business normally I could pick out the nuisance that had set me on alert but it wasn't happening. So I cut into Bong's chatter and told him my feeling.
"Drink more," he said. "It will pass."
"I've drank enough to be loose," I told him. "But I won't drink enough to get sloppy."
Bong turned to Boy and shook his head. "The War."
Boy nodded with understanding. "Then you must drink more. It will help it pass. It always does for me."
Bong agreed. He poured a shot and raised a toast. "To Romel!"
"Romel!" Boy echoed, waving the bottle. They clinked glass and bottle, sharing a chug.
"Hay naku ay buhay," I gave up. "I'm going to clear my head."