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A man and a rooster exit a taxi idling on a crowded street. The man is short and thin, and the rooster is green, and the rooster belongs to him. The taxi belongs to him as well. He's wearing a fresh shirt, the blood all washed out, and his polyester slacks shine a little in the afternoon light. He's too young to be balding, but is. His mouth is a rotten mess, owing to bad hygiene and a shabu habit. His name is Ignacio. He and the rooster are villains.
Ignacio grips the open taxi door and stretches his legs. It feels good to be standing. The drive south from Manila should have taken only an hour, but he demanded that Littleboy--his idiot brother--make wrong turns so they'd be harder to follow. He'd barked instructions from the backseat, where he and Kelog pored over a soggy map and planned intricate double-backs. Kelog is the rooster. He's named Kelog because he's green, with red and orange in his tail, and a blood-red comb, like the rooster on the cereal. He used to be a fighting cock. He still would be, if not for the onset of blindness. He's retired now.
Littleboy stays in the family taxi, drumming his fingers on the wheel and singing along to the SexBomb Girls on the radio. Littleboy loves the family taxi. He never minds picking up Ignacio's shifts, and people tip him better, because he's a safer driver and doesn't look so scary. He looks big and soft. When the song ends he leans out the window and calls over to his brother.
"Is this it, Iggy? Are we there yet?"
"Not so loud, dummy!" Ignacio shouts. "What did I tell you?"
Littleboy looks embarrassed and squints. He hadn't been loud at all.
Ignacio holds Kelog tight and releases the open taxi door like a mother's hand. He steps into the after-lunch foot traffic, searches out a number above the shops and checks it with the address he'd written on his palm the night before. They're in the right spot--or close to it at least. They'll walk the final distance on side streets, just to be safe.
"Go park the car," Ignacio says. "I'll make sure we're alone."
"Be careful," Littleboy says, thumbing the scented Virgin Mother statuette on the dashboard. Ignacio watches him courteously reenter the slow moving traffic and then signal--who signals?--at the intersection ahead. He again thinks that maybe his brother isn't up to today's challenge. On a whole bunch of levels. Like maybe he's too softhearted. Or maybe he doesn't have sense enough to know he should be scared. Ignacio sure has sense enough. He's terrified. He appreciates the seriousness of the shit he's starting.
Ignacio shifts Kelog to his other arm, leans against the concrete wall of a store selling toilets and bathtubs and tries his utmost to look nonchalant. He scans the noisy street, all bathed in sweat from an unusually hot mid-May, even for the Philippines. Power lines sag dangerously low over speeding buses and jeepneys. Women hawk cool juice and duck eggs from tin kiosks, while men in a repair shop fold up their shirts to air out their guts. Two children chase a scalded cat down the sidewalk, but they get distracted by Kelog, and the cat escapes. "Is that a fighting cock, mister?" they ask. Kelog eyes the general area of the children with hungry disdain, and Ignacio tells them to beat it.
"Who are you talking to, pussy?" the smaller one says in a high, lovely voice. "This isn't your neighborhood, Manileño!"
The boys goose their crotches, spit near his shoes and run down the gravel sidewalk laughing. Ignacio presses himself into the shop wall and watches them go. He knows he looks out of place. But he's on the lookout for people even more out of place--scanning the street for the Americans that he's sure are following him. Men in suits ill-suited to the climate, peering out from behind menus in the karaoke bar and the buko pie shop. Pale men or maybe black men with sunglasses on their eyes and wireless earpiece-things in their ears. Blond freckled athlete virgins hiding in the lengthening shadows of stop signs; ready to pounce, ready to pull him into an SUV with diplomatic plates and tinted windows and take him somewhere dark and dress him in something bright and deprive him of sleep, ready to drag him screaming to ocean-distant rooms of electrified genitals and nudity-near-dogs, ready to lock him up with the real hardcore types at Guantanamo Bay, ready to laugh and eat pastries as they watch him get ass-raped through one-way glass. He's afraid of those Guantanamo types--his maybe future cellmates--the most. He isn't hardcore. And they'll know it in a second.
"How far is the mosque from here?" Littleboy's voice startles him so much that he drops Kelog, whose fighting spur--attached today for the first time in years--makes an ugly noise against the gravel.
"Idiot," Ignacio says as he reaches down to recover Kelog and coo to him. "Don't say that. Keep your mouth shut."
Littleboy shuts his mouth and breathes through his whistling nostrils. He takes obvious glances over each shoulder and then puts on what he must think is a nonconspiratorial expression. He looks like he's trying to pass something so big it hurts a little. He makes Ignacio sick.
"Come on," he says. "Walk behind me, and don't say anything to anybody."
Without another word, they make their way along the street. Ignacio slips down the first pedestrian alley they come to and walks the labyrinthine footpaths in the general direction of their destination: the Blue Mosque. He's not happy to be getting so many curious glances from passersby, and his hands shake, his long nails scraping audibly on his cheap slacks. The paranoia and the shabu have kept him awake for days now. The bags under his eyes are swollen so dark it looks like he's weeping tar. People avoid him in the narrow corridors between shanty walls; sometimes stepping in sewage to do so, as though they're afraid what he's got might be catching. When they pass Littleboy--dutifully a few steps behind--they've got no choice but to keep hugging the walls. He's almost as big across as Ignacio is tall, his head large as a breadfruit. He's got to duck every few steps to avoid do-it-yourself power lines, stolen cable and jagged aluminum siding.
But of the three of them, Kelog by far gets the most attention. Ignacio expected this--bringing him along is a calculated risk. He's conspicuous, but if shit goes down he'll be needed for protection. Even in retirement he's an impressive bird. His comb stands erect as a crown, the plume of his tail is thick and his talons are solid as a fat kid's fingers. Back in his heyday he put larger opponents away in the first round, leaving them open and disgorged like fancy unpacked handbags on the arena floor. He has thirty-three wins to his name, which may as well be thirty-three thousand considering the lifespan of your average working gamecock. If he hadn't started going blind he'd still be at it. And Ignacio would still be spending his earnings unwisely. And he wouldn't be doing something as dumb, and risky, as this.
The alleys widen as the villains get farther from the main road. Palms compete with makeshift antennas for canopy space, each a perch for sooty pigeons and wild sparrows still dyed red and green from the holidays. Shanty windows breathe talk radio in the heat, their corrugated roofs shimmering like skillets. The squat buildings seem more solid out here, built of concrete masonry blocks and insulated with mortar and foam. Some have fenced-in gardens; sunny resting places for chained dogs or old men chained by gravity to rattan lounge chairs. The old men heckle passersby as though it's charming.
"Hey!" one of them says, noticing the spur fastened to Kelog's foot. "You're going the wrong way, pal. The arena is that way." He points.
Ignacio quickens his pace. He can see a blue-capped minaret ahead and it's all he can do to keep from gawking. The alley opens further and they come abruptly to a white outer wall with a sprawling low dome beyond. The area around the mosque is quiet, save for a pair of shirtless teenagers in black-and-white crocheted caps playing basketball on the pounded dirt. The one with the ball freezes mid-pivot to look at the strangers and then, as though he's deemed them boring, shoots against the plywood backboard.
Ignacio and Littleboy walk along the wall to the arched entrance. It is trimmed with indigo and a vein of stone-inlaid Arabic script. "You'd better wait here," Ignacio says. "Don't come in unless you hear me yelling. Or, if I don't come out for a long time, then you can come in."
Littleboy bites his bottom lip and it quivers under his front teeth. His eyes glisten.
"Don't do that," Ignacio says as he hands Kelog over. "I'll be just fine. But if I'm not, then don't you dare run away. Come in and help me."
Littleboy gravely tries to shake Ignacio's hand, but Ignacio pulls away. He walks through the mosque entrance and finds himself in an empty courtyard surrounded on all sides by a white colonnade made featureless and bright in the midday sun. Dark arched doorways lie at irregular intervals beyond the columns, some of them open and others closed. Ignacio peeks inside one and sees a pair of concrete tubs filled to the brim with water, ringed by shallow troughs and drains. A young man in reading glasses sits on a stool beside one of the tubs, running water from a spigot over his bare feet. He looks up at Ignacio and smiles warmly. Hoping to look like he knows what he's doing, Ignacio stumbles into the room. He dips his hands into one of the tubs and washes them. He wets his forearms and his face and the back of his neck. He exits, dripping, and hears the young man behind him chuckle.
Ignacio peeks through arched doorways until he finds the large prayer room--confident that the Imam should be in there. He kicks off his shoes, grabs a knit cap from an empty desk by the doorway and walks inside. The carpet is the color of sand and feels good against his feet. It bunches up, here and there, around several white pillars garlanded with strands of beads. "Hello?" Ignacio calls. The prayer room replies with quiet. He looks about the walls and sees more beads, some prayer mats and unintelligible script running upward in a continuing frieze. It's nothing like the church in his old seminary, where the wooden eyes of the saints and Mary and baby Jesus and grownup Jesus were everywhere to stare you down. As frightening as he's always found them, the absence of faces here disturbs him even more.
"That was a quick ablution," someone says. "Are you in a rush?"
Ignacio spins to see a figure framed by sunlight in the doorway. It's the young man from the washroom--fully laced and dressed in a crisp white shirt. His slacks are ironed and wisps of a goatish beard cling to his chin.
"I'm sorry . . ." Ignacio looks down at his toes, and as he does a few greasy droplets of water drip from his head and spatter the carpet. "Am I doing something wrong?"
"It's all right. Come on out, why don't you?" The young man steps aside so Ignacio can exit the prayer room. He accepts the cap back from him and drops it on the desk, slightly apart from the other caps. Ignacio is jarred by the realization that this young man is the Imam he's come to meet, and he takes a moment to recover. He'd expected a transplant from the savage south; a bearded asskicker streaked with gray like molten stone. But this young man has a coffee-shop softness. He looks even more like a Manileño than Ignacio does.
"My name is Joey," the Imam says.
Joey? Ignacio thinks. Joey?
They shake hands and look at each other for many moments.
"You don't wish to tell me who you are?" the Imam asks.
"You can call me Mr. Orange."
The Imam smiles. "I love that movie, too," he says.
Ignacio sputters. "I telephoned you," he says. "I telephoned you. Yesterday. About that thing. The thing I'm selling?"
"Oh." The young Imam looks let down, disappointed in his new friend. "I said on the phone I wasn't interested."
"That's because you don't understand what it is."
"Even so. Even if I wanted it, this isn't a place to sell anything." The Imam begins walking through the bright courtyard, back to the washroom. "Please leave," he says without looking back.
Ignacio chases after him, the courtyard tile burning his bare soles. "Wait!" he calls. "Just take a look."
"No, thank you." The Imam makes to close the heavy washroom door but Ignacio jabs his naked foot through the frame. "Please go away," he says in an angry voice.
The door presses--not too hard--against Ignacio's foot, and he panics at the thought of having taken so many risks only to fuck this up now. He fumbles in his pockets, grabs a small rigid card and shoves it through the door so the Imam can see it. The pressure on his foot ebbs. The Imam is silent behind the door. When he finally speaks his voice echoes pleasingly against the tile walls and floor.
"What is this?"
Ignacio feels a brief flutter of confidence. He asks the Imam what it looks like.
The door opens slowly and the Imam plucks the card from Ignacio's fingers. It's an Illinois driver's license, three years past expiration, picturing an overweight white man with glasses and a full head of sandy hair. The Imam backs into the washroom and sits again on the wooden stool. He looks from the license back up to Ignacio.
"I told you that you'd be interested." Ignacio slips inside and sits on the wide rim of one of the concrete tubs--acting cool and awkward.
"I don't know what this is," the Imam says.
"Of course you don't." Ignacio winks. He taps the side of his nose twice, significantly. He kicks the washroom door closed and seals them both in hot half-darkness.
"No." The Imam drops the license on the tile between his feet. "I really don't know what this is."
Ignacio stares at him. He can hear Kelog crowing impatiently outside. The chain net jingles as the teenagers shoot hoops. Engines rumble distantly on the main road.
"I have that," Ignacio says, pointing down at the license.
"You have what?"
Ignacio puffs his cheeks in frustration. For all he knows, there is a team assembling on the corrugated rooftops outside. They'll be waiting by the exit with a bag for his head and shackles for his wrists and legs. He doesn't have time for these games. Ignacio scoops the license up and mashes his finger into the white man's face. "That!" he yells. "This! Him!"
"You have the person?"
"I understand," the Imam says, in a crackly voice. The crackly voice encourages Ignacio. He's caught him off guard, and that's always a good position to bargain from.
"So I was thinking, that, you know, you, being who you are . . . I watch the news. I have subscriptions. I follow what's going on. It wasn't a leap for me to imagine that someone like you would be interested," Ignacio says.
From the Hardcover edition.