There was no bright color in the room.
Outside, there was plenty. Through the bars of the window, Sean could see sunlight on drifting litter and flashes of foliage in the narrow gaps between squatter shacks. But inside, nothing. Beige and khaki, faded by age, muted by the hopelessly dim
lamps that sat on each side of his bed.
"Stains," said Sean under his breath. It was something that the hotel room had in common with the street two stories below. In both places, there wasn't a single surface without some kind of grubby scar; everything marked by rain or dust, smoke, the overspill from the open sewers, the open fires that burned on the pavement. And blood. There was blood on the bedsheets. The spatter had paled from a few hard scrubs, but
it was still rustily recognizable for what it was.
The other thing that his room shared with the city. Oozing out from the sun, heat like molasses. Once it touched you, you were stuck with it.
It had touched Sean that afternoon as he sat on Manila Bay's low harbor wall, looking out at the cargo ships and their fat anchor chains. Up to then he'd been protected by the reassuring air-con of an Ermita McDonald's. He'd gone there for breakfast, around ten A.M., with a copy of AsiaWeek rolled in his fist. At eleven-fifteen he'd stood up to leave and walked toward the exit, where the blue-uniformed McDonald's security guard had obligingly lowered his stockless shotgun and held the door open. Or obligingly held the door open and lowered his stockless shotgun. Either way, one blast of the scorched air and Sean had spun on his heels and marched back inside.
But cool as it was in McDonald's, after a couple of hours Sean could feel the edges of his mind starting to fray. It wasn't the obsessive wiping and washing and ashtray removing so much as the sprawling children's party that had commandeered half the seating area. Overweight rich kids with sulky faces and stripy sailor shirts, shouting at their nannies. No more than eight or nine, most of them, and already groomed for a life in politics. Why did this tubby elite choose to celebrate in a hamburger joint, Sean had wondered as he burst a balloon that had been bounced into his face. The sound made a dozen adult heads turn, and had one of the minders reaching under his barong tagalog to the bulge in his waistband. So, time to go.
Armed with a milkshake, Sean had left the McDonald's and walked to the waterfront, where he'd hoped he might kill time in the company of a cool sea breeze. But there was no cool sea breeze. There was an executive-bathroom hand-drier blowing down his neck. The milkshake had turned to chocolate soup before it was even a quarter finished, the bench he'd chosen was like leaning against an oven door, and the sparse canopies of the palm trees had offered nothing more than a rumor of shade.
Yet somehow, Sean had managed to stick it out until four. He couldn't remember much about how the time had passed; he was simply glad that it had. Ships and water were good for distracting a head that needed to be distracted. Good for a blink and a mild frown, and a glance at a watch that said half an hour had swept by. Sean's only clear memory of the afternoon was standing on the harbor wall and looking down at the beached jellyfish and acres of floating refuse. Like little islands, he'd thought, watching the polystyrene chips and plastic bags that bobbed in the swell. The two archipelagos beneath me. One too big to think about, and the other too big to see.
Back in his room, some of the wetter stains on the street began to glow red as the sun dropped from the sky. Dropped, because the sun didn't sink in these parts. At six-fifteen, the elastic that kept it suspended started to stretch, and at six-thirty the elastic snapped. Then you had just ten minutes as the orange ellipse plummeted out of view, and the next thing you knew it was night. You had to watch out for that in Manila. Ten minutes to catch a cab to the right side of town if you were on the wrong side.
"Like now, for example," Sean murmured as the red puddles blackened and disappeared. Miles from Ermita or any place he knew, holed up in a hotel that didn't know it was a hotel, or had forgotten.
No other guests. No air-con or even a fan. No lobby. Just a chair and a desk and a man downstairs, with his T-shirt always rolled up to his chest and a belly like a brown boulder. A man who usually had a sweat-soaked cigarette tucked between his right ear and the stubble of his shaved head. A man who kept one hand permanently out of view and never returned Sean's smile, simply slid his key toward him with a flick of the fingers.
What sort of hotel had no other guests? Walking down the corridor, through flickering pools of light where there were bulbs instead of hanging wires, Sean had noticed the quiet with growing confusion. He'd also seen open doors, and through them, rooms without beds. Sometimes rooms without walls. Only a few wooden slats, the guts of the walls, or the bones. And past the bones, the neighboring room, equally bare and broken.
Everything weird was the bottom line, and Sean had reached it quickly. Within an hour of his arrival, everything weird; every corner, every noise, every object.
The telephone, sitting on his arthritic bedside table. It didn't work. Of course it didn't work. If the hotel management weren't bothered about missing walls, they were unlikely to care about telephones. But whether it worked or not, did it have to be so mysteriously burned? Cigarette burns, and not from carelessly held butts. These were in patterns, lines and curls. These were the results of someone practicing their torturing skills. Sean had known it as surely as he'd known that the line would be dead. Known it, but refused to accept it until he'd spent five minutes listening to the utter lack of dial tone, pushing the receiver button and jiggling the base in the hope of provoking a little static.
Sean had needed three temazepam to get to sleep that first night. And he'd read over the address he'd been given as compulsively as he'd smoked, examining the bit of paper for anything resembling an ambiguity. Screwing up his eyes, Sean had tried to read Alejandro Street as Alejandra Street, or Hotel Patay as Hotel Ratay. He'd tried even after the sleeping pills had dissolved his focus and his lips were too numb to pull on a cigarette. He'd tried in his sleep, his dream a liquid continuation of the preceding hours.
So difficult to believe he was in the right place. Patay being patay, difficult to believe. But he was in the right place. The next morning, Sean discovered that a note had been left at reception. Don Pepe's elaborate handwriting, confirming their meeting at eight o'clock the coming night. A meeting that was now exactly sixty-eight minutes away, assuming the mestizo arrived on time.
At seven o'clock, Sean moved away from the window. Dark room to a light street, you see everything, but dark street to a light room, you see nothing, and everything sees you. So Sean moved away from the window and sat on his bed.
He wasn't feeling good. The sun, the long afternoon on the low harbor wall, had left him drained and dehydrated. Irritable, if there'd been anyone to be irritable with; jumpy, seeing as he was alone. And the waiting didn't help. It made Sean tense at the best of times, hanging on someone else's arrival. In general he organized meetings so that he was the one arriving, particularly in places where lack of punctuality was a source of national pride. But in this case, Sean had acquiesced to the arrangement Don Pepe requested. Acquiesced in the way you acquiesce to a tank, requested in the way a tank requests
you move out of its path.
No, that wasn't quite right. Don Pepe was tanklike only to the degree that he made Sean feel powerless. Past that, the similarity ended. He wasn't a large man, slighter than the average Filipino, and he didn't blunder or shout or even raise his voice. He just nodded and smiled, and sapped your will like a hot bath.
Sean sighed and lit a cigarette.
Odd, nicotine. At the moment Sean had lit up, he'd been gazing vacantly into space. One drag on the cigarette and his gaze zoned straight to the peephole straight like a zoom lens, nicotine clarity. The peephole was blocked.
For some reason, there was a small steel plate screwed over it on the corridor side, and, judging by the silver scratch marks on the metal, the plate had been placed there recently. Fairly recently. More than forty-eight hours ago, because he'd noticed it when he first saw his room.
He hadn't been worried about it back then. Relative to everything else in the hotel, the blocked peephole had seemed pretty inconsequential. Now it seemed different. It seemed strange. Three or four drags into his cigarette, it occurred to Sean that blocking the peephole couldn't be of any benefit to guests. Couldn't ever be good, not knowing who was knocking at the door. In fact, the only person who could benefitwould be someone outside the room.
At the expense of the person inside. That was what was strange.
Sean frowned. Removing the plate would be two minutes' work. He could get out his Swiss Army knife, fiddle around a bit, and the strange thing would be history. The hotel would be marginally less strange.
He stared at the tiny useless circle, but stayed on the bed. Not about to get paranoid, beaten by sun on a harbor wall and a few hours' waiting in a weird hotel. If it hadn't bothered him last night, it wasn't going to bother him now. And anyway, it wasn't like peepholes were such a lot of use. You hear someone at the door, you go to check who it is, you don't want to see them, what do you do? Not answer? Chances are they heard you as you walked across the room, so you can't pretend you're out. And if it's trouble, the best you can do is slip the chain on the lock. Which buys as much time as one hard kick.
The cigarette was down to the filter. Sean watched the red glow eat into the butt for a couple of seconds; then he stubbed it out.
Nine past seven, nine minutes since he last looked at his watch. Nine times sixty seconds, easy, ten times sixty minus sixty equals five hundred and forty seconds, just under one-sixth of the time before the mestizo turned up, assuming he was on time, which meant there were fifty-one times sixty seconds to go, which was ...
A cockroach zipped across the carpet like a miniature skateboard.
The rats and mosquitoes had packed their bags and checked out. With a citywide network of slums on the doorstep, there was no sense in hunting for food scraps or skin here. A parasite could afford to be choosy. But the cockroaches had decided that the hotel still had something to offer. They'd stuck around, multiplied like crazy, seething in the gap between the mattress base and the floor, slipping through the vent of the long-dead air-con unit. Completely indifferent to everything, happy in a pile of shit. Hard to find a creature that cared for the company of cockroaches, hard to find a cockroach that cared.
Hard to kill too. Corner them with a lighter flame and they strolled through the flame, whack them with a newspaper and they laughed in your face. And didn't they have an incredible tolerance to radiation? Ten million times higher than every other animal, or something close. The animal best suited to life after the bomb. Amazing, to be able to cope with atomic fallout so well and a shoe heel so badly.
Sean slid off the bed.
Seven seventeen, four dead roaches, flattened, burst, floating in the toilet bowl, the world a better place.
The flush made Sean wince and he tapped his foot impatiently as the cistern refilled. The noise was as loud and awkward as a cough at a funeral. Noise didn't belong in Patay. The quiet inside the hotel was so absolute that it appeared to have infected the street outside. Unprecedented in the city, cars and jeepneys laid off their horns when passing, motorbikes eased off the throttle, balut vendors didn't bother calling out. The rest of Manila rippled with these sounds twenty-four hours a day, but not Alejandro Street. Patay existed in a cocoon of silence.
Virtual silence. Sometimes it was broken. Curious sounds, difficult to place, unnaturally amplified and confused by the vacuum around them. Trapped air in the water pipes that sounded like footsteps, barking dogs that sounded like crashing cars.
Two of the roaches didn't make it down the U-bend. One turned out to be still alive, struggling with the surface tension and its leaking innards. Brown innards, Sean noticed, thoughtfully thumbing the sweat out of his eyebrows. So, sure enough, you are what you eat.
Back on the bed, Sean lay with his head propped up on his elbow, looking at the blood on the sheets. Inhaling, he thought to himself: Connections. The telephone, the blood-stained sheets, and the peephole. The three things came out of nowhere; they were non sequiturs. But nothing comes out of nowhere, and non sequiturs don't exist. There had to be a connection.
Sean traced around the rusty spatter with his finger.
Start at the beginning. There had been someone staying in the room, obviously. And judging by the phone, the someone was a torturer, possibly by trade. Which, more than likely, made the person a man. So a man in a room, and a room that smelled of melted plastic. A blue haze clinging to the ceiling. A full pack of cigarettes in the ashtray, burned down to the butts.
The man was breathing that smoke, smelling that smell, when he heard the sound of screws turning, splintering the dry wood as they pushed into the door.
He sat up abruptly, cocked his head to hear better. He looked around the room with widening eyes until he pinpointed the source. Then he stood, taking care to move quietly, and padded over to the peephole. He peered through. He saw only blackness.
He'd have asked himself, what was out there that he shouldn't see? What was passing or arriving?
Probably he'd have slipped the chain on the door to buy the hard-kick time. Carefully, because, in Patay or anywhere else, no noise carries like that of scraping metal. Then over to the bars on the window to give them a tug. No joy there, sunk deep into the concrete, about the only things in the hotel that did the job they were meant for. Then into the bathroom to see the width of the air vent. Which was way too narrow. A macaque
monkey could barely have squeezed in.
He abandoned stealth. He probably had a gun. He went to get it, put it in his hand if it wasn't there already.
With the peephole blocked, he didn't know how many were on the other side of his door. But he knew he was stuck in the room and there were going to be enough outside to be able to get him, gun or no gun. As a torturer, he knew exactly what that meant. He was familiar with that scene.
So that was the thing he was familiar. He went back across to the bed, sat down, and blew his brains all over the sheets.
"A shaving accident," said Sean. "An unexpected menstruation. A nosebleed. A miscarriage." His throat hurt from too much tobacco. He lit another cigarette off the stub of the last one.
Seven twenty-four. Sean had often heard people joke about the number of blades on Swiss Army knives, how no one could ever find a use for all of them. But Sean had found a use for all his blades within the first two months of purchase, and sometimes wished the knife had a few more.
He worked as quickly as he could. He'd had to close the door in order to have something to push against while he unscrewed the plate, and he felt exposed in the corridor. It gave him the creeps.
The steel plate was purpose-made. About the size of a playing card, around the thickness of a door key, with edges still rough from the hacksaw. Unfiled, and sharp enough to cut a finger.
Its purpose had ended. Sean closed his door behind him and made as if he were about to chuck it onto the bed, but instead he threw it at the wall. A flash of anger had hit him as he'd pulled back his hand, irritation at having been beaten by the sun after all. The steel plate spun toward the rotten plasterboard and sank in like a throwing knife.
Immediately an alarm sounded. An urgent buzzing that filled the room, breaking on and off without rhythm.
At first Sean was too surprised to react. Then he lunged forward and pulled the plate out. He thought he must have severed a wire, triggering an arcane fire-warning system.
The alarm continued to sound. The wires had to be rejoined, quickly, before the shaven-headed receptionist came to investigate. But seconds later, clawing rubble from the hole he'd just punched, Sean saw that there were no wires.
The walls were hollow. No brickwork, just wooden slats and the smell of trapped air. And bizarrely, the buzzing seemed to have become even more urgent. The rhythm was less regular and the gaps between the buzzes were shorter.
He dithered, stupidly tugging at the torn wallpaper, then realized that if there were no wires, the steel plate was irrelevant. In which case, there actually was a fire. Sean swore and darted back across his room to his bag, imagining the speed at which flames would rip through the old hotel.
He stopped as he passed his bedside table.
It was the phone. The phone was ringing.
Sean gripped the receiver hard. He told himself: No time for shock.
Keeping his voice steady, catching his breath between words, he said, "Don Pepe! Hi! Kumusta po kayon?"
Don Pepe made a sucking sound. He was chewing a matchstick, as he always did. His matchstick was one of his weapons. Ask him a question and he'd suck his fucking matchstick, always making you wait for the answer.
"Kumusta ka, Don Pepe," Sean repeated, in an attempt to cut the mind game off before it started, but the sucking continued. Don Pepe wouldn't speak until he was ready.
"Well, Sean:' he eventually said. "Eeeeh, I'm okay, lang. How about you?"
"I'm fine. Okay, din po."
"Okay din..." Suck. "You like the hotel?"
Sean smoothed down the damp cotton of his shirt. "It's quiet."
"Yes, quiet. But you know, Sean, I made a mistake. Last year the hotel was, ano, a bery good hotel. But now my associate tells me it is palling down already. This was my mistake. I thought it was still a good hotel."
"Oh, you didn't know," said Sean, hardly able to keep the disbelief out of his voice. "Really."
"Talaga. Pero, if we are meeting in only tirty-pibe minutes, eeeh, it's already too late to change, di ba?" "well ... maybe it's not too late. We could meet in a bar.
We could meet in…" Sean paused to think of somewhere public and open. "We could meet in the Penguin Bar. I could get to Ermita in half an hour. It would bc easy. Madeli po."
This time the sucking lasted for at least twenty seconds. Sean gripped the receiver a little more tightly each time the smack of a lip crackled down the phone line. He was determined not be the one to break the silence. But when his knuckles were the color of his teeth, he heard himself saying, "Maybe we should just meet in the hotel, Don Pepe."
"Yes," said Don Pepe. "Let's just meet in the hotel. I think it will be easier, and we will have the pribacy to talk."
"So anyway, aaaah, I was really teleponing to let you know,
I will be, ano, a little bit late por our meeting."
...Late?" "Yes. " "Uh, okay ... How late?"
"Maybe pipteen minutes. One quarter an hour. That's ayos?"
"Ayos na. No problem, po."
"Okay, so, aaaah, eeeeh, good. See you then."
Don Pepe put the phone down.
The dial tone sounded for six or seven seconds; then the line went dead.
Sean struggled with himself. He was trying to neaten the hole he'd made, trying to pat the wallpaper back over the gap. It wasn't possible. His hands were shaking too much. They contradicted themselves, the fingers feeling fat and clumsy, the steady tremble feeling tentative and delicate. Helpless, he found he was only adding to the rips. In a burst of frustration17 he tore off a strip clean down to the skirting board.
"I'm losing," Sean said, stepping away from the spreading disaster area.
No question, but spoken out loud it sounded like a revelation.
For a few moments, Patay was in perspective. He had arranged to meet a man in a hotel, and the man was coming. Past that, nothing had happened, nothing had gone wrong. During those moments, the furniture was teak. Beneath the grime, the lamp fittings and curtain rings were brass. The headboard on the bed was handcarved, a relief of coconut trees and fishermen and nipa huts. He was standing in faded splendor. Then his vision clouded. Teak was a crime and fishermen were poor. Arranged to meet a man whose name was a black joke, told quietly in bars around Manila. Don Pepe's prayer before he sleeps? Forgive me Father for I am sin. If Don Pepe slept at all.
Dropping to his knees, Sean grabbed his overnight bag and jerked open the zipper. A change of clothes spilled onto the carpet, followed by a pair of sunglasses he never wore and a fresh pack of cigarettes.
"Come on," Sean hissed. He gave the bag a shake. A toothbrush joined the pile, then a single AA battery, then a spare magazine. He paused to put the magazine to the side before shaking the bag again. A ballpoint pen, some coins, a loose shell, a flashlight, another AA battery, and a charm.