In six weeks Dexter Giles would be finished with the Philippines, finished with the audit, finished with Imperial Petroleum, and finished with Norbert Steinhoff.
Perspiration trickled down his spine. His shirt clung to his skin, and wet circles appeared at the armpits of his blue, pinstriped suit of worsted wool, but he didn’t remove his jacket. He did remove his wire-rimmed glasses, to mop his cheeks and brow, because the salt in his perspiration burned his eyes. It seemed ironic to him—the perfect finish to a disappointing career—that he should have to come to such an impoverished, inaccessible region on his last audit before retirement. Including the layover in Tokyo, the flight from Chicago to Manila had taken twenty-three hours. He had hoped for a final assignment in northern Italy or the North Sea—where the food and customs were less exotic and the political environment was more stable.
He stood, exhausted, next to the exit in the faint breeze, away from the herd of people positioning themselves for their luggage. Airports were worse than bus stations these days: the crowds were larger.
A stabbing sensation at the top of his calf suddenly buckled his left knee.
“Sorry, Mister.” The small woman in the soiled blouse peered at him as if she expected to be struck. She had bumped him with her suitcase—a flimsy cardboard affair held together loosely with rope that allowed pieces of washed-out material to stick through the seams. With a flick of his wrist Dexter waved her past, and after she had shuffled away he shook his head wondering where such a ragged creature had procured the funds for air travel.
Outside, jeepney drivers solicited passengers for the ride into the city, and he stepped through the door to get a closer look. It had been over forty years since the American military abandoned these jeeps at the end of the war, nearly half a century since the natives appropriated them for public transportation, but most of them were still in service. Dexter couldn’t imagine where they got replacement parts for these contraptions, then grunted, thinking about the sad state of the American automobile industry.
“Hey, you need a fast ride into the city?” The man smiled, exposing an upper row of gold teeth. With a sweeping gesture, he pointed to a garish station wagon—orange and green with silver trim. Yellow lights adorned the flat surfaces, there were hand-painted designs and slogans on the side panels, and a smooth spare tire without the memory of a tread rested on the running board. Dexter counted nine people already inside. Despite a preponderant sun, rain began to fall in heavy, swollen drops from patchy, black clouds, as the driver stepped toward him. Other drivers, mistakenly assuming that a contract was about to be made, also moved forward, prompting Dexter to hurry back into the airport.
Being a full head above the plain of brown faces facilitated his search for Steinhoff, who had insisted on meeting him. In fact, when Dexter made the transoceanic call, to discuss the details of his impending arrival in the Philippines, he had been so surprised by Steinhoff’s cordiality that he had failed to say anything for several seconds. In his thirty-three years as an auditor for Imperial, this was his first trip to the Orient, but not his first experience with Norbert Steinhoff.
“Christ, Giles, what the hell you doing in a damn suit? I’ll bet you dress for dinner too.”
Dexter turned, certain that Steinhoff had come from behind to confuse him. “It was chilly when I left Chicago.”
“We’ll have to fix you up with some barongs,” said Steinhoff. He clenched his cigar between his teeth, stretched his arms, and turned, displaying his pastel blue shirt with short sleeves: a garment embellished with embroidered patterns that fit tightly around his obese stomach. It looked to Dexter like a pharmacist’s coat.
“Do you like slant-eyed pussy, Giles?”
“Do you like Oriental women? This is the real Disneyland. Filipino girls love American men.”
“I think I see my luggage,” Dexter said.
Inside his eighth floor room in the Hotel Intercontinental, there was little to remind Dexter that he was 8,159 statute miles from home, on the other side of the world. The bed, king-sized, had a slightly soiled beige spread on it, the television included cable and American movies, the desk drawer was loaded with stationery, and the bathroom included the standard basket of toiletries: several bars of soap, hand and body lotion, shampoo, conditioner, a shoe cleaning cloth, and an undersized plastic shower cap trimmed with inferior quality elastic.
His inventory also revealed that he had only one hand towel and no wash cloths, so he penciled a note for housekeeping. Other than that, things in the room were as they should be. As long as he stayed in a newer hotel, he could usually sleep as well as he might in Houston, Texas or Cheyenne, Wyoming—or in his one-bedroom apartment that overlooked Lincoln Park back in Chicago. It took a few nights to adjust to the particular noises and specific characteristics of a room. In Salt Lake City, the air was so dry he had to throw ice buckets of water on the carpeting to prevent the violent static shocks he received when he touched metal; in Cairo, the air conditioning vents rattled until he stuffed strips of newspaper between the metal slats; in Glasgow, he had to purchase a portable electric heater to remove the chill from the room. Generally, it took a night or two to identify the problem, and a night or two to fix it. The number of time zones he crossed determined how long it took to adjust to the jet lag, so Manila might be a problem. It was still Saturday night in Chicago, but here, it was Sunday afternoon.
Broad, palm-lined avenues crisscrossed the area below: Makati. This affluent district of office towers, condominiums, and hotels had temporarily been seized by rebel army forces less than a year ago, but things appeared normal now; he could hear the noise of traffic through the glass. Beyond Makati were narrower streets and modest buildings of one and two stories. Beyond that, barely visible, were the tin-roofed shanties they had driven past on their way in from the airport.
Here in the Philippines, Norbert Steinhoff occupied the top position: Director of Exploration and Production. Twenty years ago, when they first met, he’d been in charge of Materials Procurement at the Company’s Houston refinery, and if it hadn’t been for that one invoice, Dexter might never have caught on to him. The very next day, after he’d called the supplier with his questions, Steinhoff invited him home for dinner. That’s when Dexter asked Mrs. Steinhoff about the fresh wallpaper in the den.
“Thank you. Yes, I just had it done. Call me Shirley. Would you care for a salty dog? It’s vodka and grapefruit juice.” She licked her upper lip and winked. “They’re scrumptious.”
Dexter studied Mrs. Steinhoff’s teased coiffure, black as shoe polish. He couldn’t recall having ever seen a middle-aged woman with so much hair, and her earrings were so large they brushed against the shoulders of her dress when she laughed.
None of the refinery offices were papered, and he had covered the conflict of interest in his audit report to management who, after careful consideration, reprimanded Steinhoff and promoted him to Trinidad where he lived better than the British had in India.
Dexter returned to the bed and began to unpack. Since six weeks had been allocated for the audit of accounts payable documents and drilling progress reports, he had packed exactly forty-two pairs of boxer shorts and undershirts. Hotel laundries in foreign countries were notorious for their failure to use fabric softener, and with his propensity for rashes he couldn’t take a chance on the services in a place like this. He arranged the underwear neatly in the bureau drawer, then took the silver -framed picture of his two Abyssinians from his suitcase and placed it on the desk in front of the mirror.
A thin, crisply-dressed woman with a broad, flat nose came into the lobby and extended her hand. “Mr. Steinhoff is on the telephone to Chicago at the moment. I’m his secretary. Rose Santana. Would you like a cup of coffee while you wait?”
“No thank you. If you could show me the office I’ll be using.”
“Mr. Steinhoff wants to show you around. Are you sure? We have decaffeinated.”
Dexter watched her disappear through the doors, then stooped to check the contents of his audit bag. Number two lead pencils, thirteen-column spread sheets, erasers, paper clips, a stapler, the corporate audit manual, a comb, a lint brush—and the magazine. The boy’s face leered up at him. Dexter had forgotten to leave the magazine at the hotel. He withdrew the key from his vest pocket, locked the bag, and straightened. Buttoning his suit coat, he glanced at the receptionist, and was relieved to see her occupied with a telephone call. He went to the louvered window that overlooked Quezon Street, moved his neck from side to side and forward to relieve the stiffness. The company doctor had prescribed Naprocyn, but after the long plane ride and a sleepless night, the 375 milligram tablets were not lessening the soreness.
There was a Honda dealership across the street and next to it a Suzuki service center. Japanese automobiles were everywhere: in the show rooms, in traffic, parked. The only exceptions were the loaded jeepneys which clattered past. A skinny yellow dog, its tail curved backwards in a circle, dodged one such vehicle to cross the street. The dog glanced up at him, lifted its leg, and peed on the curb before continuing his journey. It baffled Dexter that stray dogs always seemed so sure of where they were going.
“Mr. Stein-hoff will see you now,” the receptionist called. She pronounced the two syllables distinctly, as if they were separate names and somehow incongruous. “Through these doors, and to your right.”
The tension on the metal-framed glass door was adjusted too tightly, and the door slammed shut on the heavy audit bag before Dexter could pull it through. The motion stretched his neck painfully, and he yelled: “Damn! Who’s the monkey in charge of maintenance?”
“Having a little trouble this morning?” Dexter looked around to see Steinhoff’s stomach encased in a lemon-yellow barong. He had come from his office to greet Dexter and stood silently while he struggled to free the audit bag. “I expected you an hour ago.” Steinhoff smiled. “We start work at eight o’clock.” Dexter brushed past Steinhoff and around the partition that shielded the work area from reception. The room, large and open, was arranged in rows of desks occu pied by Filipinos. The noise of their calculators ceased when Dexter burst into the room, and the workers looked up. “This is our accounting department,” Steinhoff said. He raised his voice. “Everyone, if I could have your attention for a moment. This is the auditor from Chicago. He’ll be checking to make sure y’all are doing a good job.”
Dexter felt the beginning of a sinus headache. The windows on the street side of the office were open, and the air was heavy with mold. Ceiling fans seemed barely to turn. Dexter cleared his throat. “As President Harry Truman once said, the buck stops at the top.” A young man at the first desk smiled, and Dexter nodded an acknowledgment. Addressing Steinhoff, he said: “Perhaps you could show me where I’ll be stationed.”
Steinhoff’s expression hardened. “We’re a little short of space, you’ll have to work at a table in the employee lunch room. Manny, show him where it is.” The boy who had smiled jumped to his feet.
The lobby of the Intercontinental was a cavernous, two story affair, filled with lounge furniture and tropical plants. Except for a few businessmen though, and a bored-looking pianist playing “Raindrops” on a baby grand in one corner, the space was deserted. One man, a Westerner, sat isolated on a sofa reading a book, and a group of four Japanese men sat together around a coffee table loaded with cocktails and filled ashtrays. They laughed and talked among themselves until a fifth man approached, at which point they rose and began to bow energetically. They paid no attention as Dexter passed.
He wasn’t sure how far away from the hotel he should venture—Steinhoff had warned that army rebels, communists, and Muslims were only a few of the dangers, and that anti-American sentiments were on the rise—but he thought a walk might relax his stomach. The meat in the hotel dining room tasted gamy and all he could think about were the strange smells in the hot lunch room where he had worked all day. People had offered him food throughout the day, but Steinhoff also told him Filipinos ate dog meat, joking that they ate a delicacy named Queenie Almondine. He didn’t believe they would serve dog at an Intercontinental, but after one bite all he felt he could keep down was something the waitress called pan de sal.
The street in front of the hotel was lined with idle taxis, and the drivers parked closest to the entrance began immediately to seek his business. Dexter kept repeating: “No. No. No.” To the left, he saw a building with an enormous NCR sign on the roof, and to the right, one that said Toyota. The immediate area appeared safe, so he decided to go toward the NCR building, since it was an American company. He saw some flowering shrubs with pink blooms that he was curious about as well.
As he approached the shrubs, a boy came out from among some trees on the opposite side of the street and walked towards him. Dexter didn’t stop to examine the pink buds, but increased his pace.
“You are looking for someone, Mister.”
“You are looking for a woman perhaps.”
“No.” The sidewalk sloped uphill, and Dexter began to perspire.
“Where are you from, Mister?”
“I have cousins in Los Angeles, Mister. Where do you come from in the United States?” the boy said.
Dexter slowed a bit and glanced at the boy. He looked about fifteen. He had clean, healthy looking black hair; Dexter imagined his skin was quite soft. “Chicago. I live in Chicago,” he said.
“Rattatatatat.” The boy laughed and held his hands as if they cradled a machine gun.
“Yes, I know.” Dexter smiled at the boy. He could be from Costa Rica were it not for his almond-shaped Oriental eyes.
“You are looking for a boy, Mister? Do you like me, Mister?”
All week Dexter had difficulty sitting up straight in the plastic chair with the metal legs; it was shaped like a soup ladle and he kept sliding to the middle. The heat from the vending machines and his backache made it especially difficult to concentrate on this particular morning, as he bent over his green-lined work sheet. He had chosen a large sample of invoices to review—more than a hundred and fifty. Normally, the tedious itemization of specifics was a favorite task. He enjoyed seeing patterns emerge: how long on average it took to pay a bill, who the big vendors were, whether or not the expenditure seemed reasonable.
At the opposite end of the lunch room three girls from the accounting department were having their morning coffee break, speaking Tagalog, an odd and distracting dialect, the sounds emanating from the head and nose rather than the chest. The women alternately chattered and whispered, and, occasionally, giggled. Dexter scowled at them.
He took the pocket calendar from his jacket and crossed off the first week, one day at a time, using a red felt marking pen. “It’s a little early to be counting the days, isn’t it?” Steinhoff slapped Dexter on the back.
Dexter threw the marking pen into the air. “Don’t you ever knock?” He twisted his head until his neck cracked, and tightened his tie.
“Didn’t mean to scare you. Let’s get together at five-thirty so you can bring me up to date on the audit.” He made as if to leave, then hesitated. “How are the accommodations working out?”
“Fine,” Dexter lied. He removed his glasses, fogged them with his breath, and polished them with his handkerchief.
“Listen,” said Steinhoff. “Manny’s going to Baguio on vacation next week. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if you used his desk while he’s gone.” Again he started to leave, then added: “You should get a driver and go up there some weekend. To Baguio, I mean. It’s beautiful. Or better yet, go up to Banaue and see the rice terraces. There’s not a spot on earth more beautiful.”
Norbert Steinhoff’s office was air-conditioned. The window behind him held a large, powerful casement model that kept the room chilly. The space itself, though, was much too small to accommodate the credenza and the giant walnut desk and the high-backed leather chair. Steinhoff had photographs of his daughters next to a vase of stale flowers; the girls had narrow, acned faces and chemically-damaged hair parted in the middle, which in Dexter’s opinion, caused them to resemble Afghan hounds. Next to them was a picture of the girl’s mother standing on the veranda of the house in Trinidad.
Steinhoff had managed oil production activities on the island, and Dexter recalled how the man had thrived there as an expatriate, in spite of the languid humidity. The house had perched on a mountaintop, overlooking the sea: a mansion Steinhoff called “Tara of the Caribbean,” staffed with plenty of servants.
“We have a full-time cook, two housekeepers, and a gardener all for less money than we shelled out for a once- a-week cleaning woman in Houston.” Steinhoff had itemized them on his fingers, using exaggerated gestures, the smoke from his cigar encircling their heads.
“That must be quite helpful to you, Mrs. Steinhoff,” Dexter said taking a step backward.
“Honey, please call me Shirley. Cocktail before dinner? I’m having a rum and Coke.” She looked at the shiny black girl and added: “Lots of ice, right?” The girl nodded, handed her the tall glass, and disappeared into the kitchen.
Later in the evening, after dinner and several more cocktails, which became progressively paler, Shirley Steinhoff had confided with fermented tears: “There’s nothing for me to do, but eat and gain weight. The girls are in school in the States, and I hate golf. Norbert has his job, but I don’t have any friends here. There’s no place to shop, there are no good movies, and one darned television station. My God, I’ve read Madame Bovary three times.” Then Steinhoff came back into the room, and she was silent.
Back at the office in Port-of-Spain, Dexter found all of the household employees on the Company payroll. He disclosed the expenditure violations in Exhibit I of the audit report, Steinhoff was demoted to Cairo, and that was where, only three years ago, the unfortunate incident had taken place.
The harsh rays of the Philippine sun streamed through the window above the air conditioner. The slice of light progressed slowly until it shined directly in Dexter’s eyes and backlit Norbert Steinhoff, making the features of his face indistinguishable. Steinhoff leaned back in his chair; it jammed against the credenza. For ten minutes now the man had been looking through half-spectacles at a memorandum while Dexter waited in the chair across from him.
“Perhaps you’d like me to come back next week.”
“I’m sorry, Giles. It’s this damn memo from the general office. They don’t have any idea what it’s like to do business in the Orient.” He took a long cigar from a wooden humidor trimmed in brass. “Cigar?” He held one out to Dexter.
“No. Thank you.”
Steinhoff lit it himself, turned and took two glasses from the credenza, and set them on his desk pad. Without a glance at Dexter, he took a bottle of Wild Turkey from a lower desk drawer and poured a shot in each glass. “To the Philippines,” he said raising the glass in grandiloquent fashion. Without matching his enthusiasm, Dexter raised his glass and drank.
“This is the goddamnest place I’ve ever been,” Norbert Steinhoff began. “If your house catches on fire, you’ve got to line the fireman’s palms with pesos before he’ll hook up the blasted hose. If your house is robbed, they won’t fill out a report till you’ve made it worth their while…Do you know what I’m talking about, Giles?”
“There are certain expenses of doing business here, certain entertainment expenses…The customs here are such that—”
“Company procedures outline with a high degree of specificity those expenses which are allowable. I’m afraid IRS regulations are also quite specific.” Dexter took another swallow of whiskey.
“Naturally. But if you have any questions during your review, if anything seems unusual, I would hope you would come to me first. I’m sure there’s a reason behind all our expenditures. The Filipinos work like beavers, they’re damn good workers.”
“As you know, our drilling is done by contractors.”
“What’s your point?”
“I believe we can avoid the unpleasant situation that arose during the audit in Egypt.”
Dexter felt a surge of blood in his temples and his ears rang as if the air pressure in the room had unexpectedly changed. “I see,” he managed to respond.
“If you would only learn to work with me instead of sneaking back to Chicago with your confidential reports. We both know people make mistakes. To err is human.”
“I tried to discuss my findings with you.”
“Let’s not open old wounds. This is a new job, your last job. It would be a shame for anything to mess up your pension. Listen, why not let me take you to dinner, to celebrate your retirement.”
“I won’t take no for an answer. I’ll pick you up at the hotel at eight.”
French doors lined the far wall of the room. Through the glass, Dexter saw a lush flower garden and several stone benches. Flanking the doors on the inside were enormous urns with palms that touched the ceiling. Three chandeliers lit the room with an amber warmth. White jacketed waiters stood at attention, coming to life whenever a diner beckoned. A string quartet struggled through Mozart.
“Do you like history, Giles?”
“I prefer science,” he replied. Steinhoff slumped across from him in the green leather banquette. His grey eyes were bloodshot and his lids drooped. He wore a pink barong with long sleeves, this one fit him better than the ones he wore to the office. Dexter pulled the cuffs of his white shirt over his wrists, smoothed his silk paisley tie, and unbuttoned his coat.
“Mac had his headquarters right here in the Hotel Manila. Top floor. He lived like a goddamn potentate. How things change.” He laughed to emphasize his remark. “You know, you could go to Corregidor while you’re here. Course the Japs swarm over the place like locusts.”
I’m afraid I only have enough time allocated for the audit review.”
“What about the weekend. What do you do on weekends?” The waiter refilled Dexter’s wine glass, then Steinhoff’s.
“We’re ready to order now. What’s that, Giles?”
“Books,” Dexter replied. “I read books.”
“Hey, me too. I like that King fella.” Steinhoff lit a cigar. “Read one about this car that was haunted. I think I used to own that car. A LeBaron…with crushed velvet upholstery. Fancier than the inside of a damn coffin.” He laughed louder and his cigar smoke hung over the table, motionless.
“Are those things like the Filipinos’ answer to the leisure suit?”
“Your barong.” Dexter emphasized the gee.
“Now that you mention it, kind of like that. Shirley bought me this one.” He finished his wine. “She thought the pink was dressy.”
An image of Shirley Steinhoff came to Dexter’s mind. At the dinner in Houston, she had worn a muumuu. “Where is Mrs. Steinhoff?”
“Back in Texas with her mom. I’m afraid all is not well on the home front. I’ll tell you about it when we go out for a nightcap.”
“Oh no. I’ve got to get back after dinner.” He looked at his watch. “It’s already ten-thirty.”
“Dexter, drink up and shut up.” He raised his glass and removed his cigar. “To Pilipino poontang,” he toasted.
Rain had turned the unpaved shoulder of the road to mud. The front wheel of the Mercedes sedan slipped into a hole, sending a spray of dirty water past Dexter’s open window, and twice Steinhoff went off the road, only managing to get the car back on course with several violent turns of the steering wheel, as the lip between the road and the apron was quite high. There were no street lights in this section of the city. A full moon illuminated the surroundings—when it wasn’t hidden behind one of the dense rain clouds scattered across the sky.
On Dexter’s right a barangay of shabby housing sat protected and isolated by industrial fencing—ten feet high and anchored in concrete. Immediately behind the fence was a paved recreation area with a net-less basketball hoop and beyond this lay hundreds of houses wedged improbably together. There was no consistency of color or materials in the design of these structures to tell where one house left off and another began. Only occasionally did he see a patch of color, a weak yellow, a bleached blue. Sheets of rusted, corrugated tin covered scraps of weathered lumber; tattered clothing hung on makeshift clotheslines; primitive, uncomplicated television antennae sprouted from the roofs like weeds. During the past week, Dexter had been surprised at the suddenness of the heavy winds and rain that had come frequently without warning. Meager housing like this would be flattened during the monsoon.
Steinhoff broke the silence. “Shit, this is plush. They got people living in the garbage down by the bay. They call it Smoky Mountain. It breaks your heart.”
“I insist you take me back to my hotel,” Dexter said. The air held so much moisture; it seemed to him that it would begin to rain at any moment.
“Enjoy yourself for once.” Steinhoff burped.
They entered an area with intermittent street lights, and traffic signals which were suspended over the intersections. When one such signal abruptly changed from green to red—there was no yellow stage in between for caution—Steinhoff skidded to a halt, and the car slid sideways on the gravel-covered concrete. For an instant Dexter had feared he would not bother to stop at all in his drunken state. As they waited for the green, children and adults swarmed upon the car like insects to beg for pesos, and a dirty arm, covered in bursting sores, snaked in through Dexter’s window, the hand undulating in his face. The beggar’s splayed fingers expanded and contracted like the legs of a dying beetle. Dexter put his window up.
“Where is this place?” he asked.
“Not far.” Steinhoff had developed hiccups and his body convulsed with turbulence as he gripped the steering wheel with one hand and an unlit cigar with the other. “Relax,” he said, “the neighborhood gets a little better.”
Shortly thereafter, Steinhoff pulled into a muddy lot next to a long, wooden, two-story building. Five teenaged boys descended on the car, but he waved them away. “We know where to go, boys. Let us through.”
Dexter stepped around the puddles and trailed Steinhoff up rickety stairs on the outside of the building and into a darkened barroom. The space was practically devoid of decor; the unpainted wood walls soaked up most of the sickly light radiating from the single bulb that dangled from the ceiling. There were two rusted metal tables with chairs, but the focal point of the room was a bar and three stools against the far wall where three unescorted women sat together drinking beer from bottles and smoking. A display of liquors graced the wall behind the bar. One of the women, a squat, primitive creature in pink lipstick, smiled at Dexter. He moved his shoulders rapidly in a circular shrugging motion to relieve the itching under his arms, and checked his coat pocket to make sure he still had his medicine.
“Buenas noches, Señor Steinhoff.” The proprietor, an older Filipino man, dressed in a white one-piece suit, entered. “Everything is prepared.” He led them down a darkened corridor, past several doors, and into a narrow room, which unlike the barroom and the hallway, was bright, fluorescent white, its walls draped in faded, red fabric. A bench the length of the room was fastened against the far wall, and a few feet from the bench anchored against the opposing wall was a bed-sized platform upholstered in red vinyl.
Steinhoff grinned. “Iced tea.” He clapped his hands and stumbled off-balance, still wrestling with his hiccups.
The Filipino smiled, put his hand on Steinhoff’s shoulder, and replied: “Already ordered. Por favor, sientese. Make yourself comfortable.”
“I taught them how to make Long Island iced tea,” Steinhoff said to Dexter, when the girl, balancing two drinks on a plastic tray, appeared. She was followed by a younger girl, about fifteen, and an older woman of indeterminable age, both of whom wore satin weave robes. Once the drinks were distributed, the barmaid left, closing the door behind her. Dexter took great gulps to empty his glass, in the hope that he could adjust to the mingled odors of sour alcohol and perspiration permeating the room.
“Let the show begin,” Steinhoff called, waving his arms. The bench sagged under his weight with a splintering sound. The girl and woman dropped their robes and, now naked, approached him. The older woman, heavier about the arms and shoulders and with short cropped hair, turned the young girl around and directed her to sit between Steinhoff’s legs so that her back rested against his chest and stomach. Straddling her like that, and with a face more flushed than usual, he began to pinch her nipples between his thumbs and forefingers. The child sat impassively until the woman dropped to her knees and began licking the girl’s navel, slowly following the trail of light hair to her vagina. As she probed her with her tongue, Steinhoff sipped his drink. The room became a vacuum, swallowing sound.
Without taking his eyes off the three, Dexter inched backwards until he was trapped in a far corner. The dinner and wine seethed in his stomach, and he feared that if he didn’t relax he might have to make a dash for the toilet, an undesirable prospect in such surroundings. When he sat down, the woman got to her feet and led the girl by the arm to him.
“Oh no,” Dexter shouted. Jumping up, he kicked a beer bottle across the sticky linoleum floor. A cockroach flew off and disappeared into a crack at the base of the wall.
“Christ, Giles,” Steinhoff grumbled. “Don’t be such a pussy.” He clapped his hands. “More action.”
The man in white waved the older woman to the door and stood in the opening frantically motioning until a lean, glabrous boy, clad only in a towel, entered. The adolescent dropped the towel and approached the girl, who seemed more enthusiastic with this pairing, lying at once on her back in the middle of the platform. As the youth mounted her, Steinhoff moved up close, arms akimbo, mumbled something about the boy being hard, and grinned. From his spot on the bench, Dexter watched the muscles in the boy’s hips and buttocks contracting and flexing as he made immediate love to the girl; his cheeks were smooth and brown like the rest of his body. When Dexter shifted his eyes to Steinhoff, he confirmed a suspicion that instead of observing the two lovers, the man was regarding him; his unsavory smile glaring in the harsh light of the airless room. Dexter dropped his eyes to the floor, and was perturbed to discover his best shoes caked in mud.
“Gago! Pinapaalis mo ang magaling customer,” the man in white yelled. The boy got up from the platform; judging from the look of embarrassment on his face, Dexter gathered that he had been unable to delay his orgasm. The boy held his hands in front of his genitals, as if he had only that moment discovered his nudity, when the enraged man shoved him from the room. Dexter glowered at the proprietor stationed once more at the door, shouting yet again his instructions down the hall. He imagined himself jumping at the man, tearing the styleless, white suit from his wrinkled, sagging body and forcing him at knife point to dance a gross and humiliating dance up on the platform. He would push his sickening face in the crotch of the first woman and make him perform like a trained dog.
The barmaid placed two drinks on the bench, and pulled on Dexter’s sleeve. With concerned eyes, she said: “I am very sorry. He is a young toro. He does not put on a good show. This man is a good toro. He is our best toro.” A short, thickly-built man had entered the room.
Dexter pulled free from her grasp and sat down. He gazed at the man’s back and arms—thinking that it must have taken a long time to get so many tattoos, and wondering if the young boy would end up like this: vile and mutilated.
“These guys get a tattoo every time they’re in prison,” Steinhoff slurred.
The toro wasted no time. Like a mongrel, he dominated the girl, relentlessly pounding her. Steinhoff watched with apparent delight. As her young body slapped against the platform, Dexter studied the dirty soles of the man’s feet, the placement of his tattoos, and the lack of expression on the girl’s face as her head jutted rhythmically against the wall.
“Do you like the show?” The barmaid suddenly grabbed Dexter’s crotch, and angrily he pushed her away. The slapping, grunting, groaning got faster, louder, more intense. And monotonous. This man was having as much difficulty achieving an orgasm as the young man had had postponing his. At last, he climaxed and pulled out, whereupon he strutted across the room, tore a piece of fabric off the wall, and wiped his penis. When he was finished, he dropped the material to the floor, and started toward Dexter. Dexter immediately sat forward from the wall and arose.
The barmaid grasped Dexter’s trouser pockets. “You have pesos for me? You liked the show?”
Dexter struggled past her and the man to the door, where Steinhoff was attempting conversation with the man in white, who in turn pointed at the young girl. “May we go now?” Dexter interrupted.
Steinhoff turned to him. He wore an expression Dexter did not recognize. When he opened his mouth to speak, his jaw moved sideways, not up and down. He gestured over his shoulder and managed a smile, but remained silent.
“Yes, have your fun,” Dexter said. “She’s much prettier than your daughters…and she probably smells better.”
The rain fell with increasing intensity, but Dexter couldn’t run any further. He had twisted his ankle when he fell into the ditch. An insane picture of that time at the Marriott in Cairo kept recurring in his mind when he landed face down in the water. The fear that there were probably snakes in the tall grass and water left him no choice but to walk up on the road. He had to risk being seen. Besides, at this point nothing looked familiar. He had retraced the route as far as he could remember. Nothing was familiar. His suit was ruined. Even his body seemed not his own.
It had happened so fast. It was difficult to recall the exact sequence of events. Despite his effort to back out of the way, Steinhoff had caught him by the lapel. So fast. The ripping sound of his favorite suit, the wrenching pain in his back when the weight of Steinhoff’s body slammed him against the wall, the guttural sounds Steinhoff finally made, as he stared hatefully into Dexter’s eyes, the young girl’s screams, the macabre dance the two men did as Dexter tried to loosen his attacker’s fleshy hands from his coat. Then he covered his eyes, tried to protect his glasses, was aware of people rushing into the room, but the blows he expected never came. Other people came, the girl’s screams were combined with deeper voices, other men, other females. Scuffling sounds in the hall, doors slamming, running, the pain in Dexter’s temples , then the fingers letting go. The weight was gone. Then silence, mumbling, confused conversation, until it built again, higher and higher. Then the screams again. Dexter opened his eyes. Steinhoff looked at him from the floor. Eyes open but unfocused.
The headlights from the rear grew brighter. Ahead, Dexter saw streetlights and an area more heavily inhabited. He couldn’t run. He turned toward the approaching vehicle. The rain washed over his face. The car pulled alongside and slowed.
He had never seen a dead man before. He’d seen dead people in coffins, but he’d never seen anyone freshly dead. And Steinhoff was dead. Unexperienced as he was, Dexter knew dead when he saw it. Steinhoff was dead. He knew when he first saw him there on the floor, ash gray and rigid. And he knew it when he stepped away from the wall and over the body and into the hall. He knew it when he ran from the bar, down the steps and across the parking lot and into the driving rain and gusting wind.
“Luko-loco ka ba? Anong ginagawa mo sa bagyo?” the driver of the jeepney yelled.
“Take me to the Intercontinental?” Dexter yelled back over the noise of the storm.
“Sí, sí, Señor. Delawang pesos.” He pointed to the back.
Soaked, Dexter limped to the rear of the jeepney and struggled inside. A bolt of lightning lit the sky. A scrofulous woman and four small children huddled together like mice, close to the front, away from the rain.
Sprawled on the bathroom floor next to the toilet, Dexter tried to tell himself it was the shrimp he’d had for dinner. But the shrimp had come up right after the Long Island iced teas and he still didn’t feel any better. It was as if his abdomen was stretched tightly over a sack of gravel. He struggled to his feet, flushed the toilet again and turned on the cold water at the sink. His skin felt sore to the touch and he was sweating harder now. He held the cool wash cloth against his eyes and forehead for a minute and decided to try again to rest in bed. He took the chocolate from the pillow, tossed it in the wastebasket, and pulled the blanket back.
He wondered how much money was involved here. The payments he had uncovered in Egypt revealed how well Steinhoff had been compensated for his influence in the Middle East—the bank in Cairo had showed its appreciation for the Imperial account by making consulting fee payments in excess of $100,000. And Dexter had had no choice but to let him get away with it. There was no telling how much Steinhoff had received here in the Philippines for seeing that invoices from the drilling contractors were approved without question.
Suddenly chilled, he pulled the blanket up to his chin. If he had only double-locked the door at the Marriott, Steinhoff would not have been able to gain entry with the pass key he’d bribed the desk clerk for. He began to shiver under the blanket and covered his head now as well. There hadn’t been any time he’d been so completely taken by surprise. He hadn’t even heard the door open. Then the room was flooded in light and there he was not ten feet from the bed. He must have been a ludicrous sight on his hands and knees like that.
“This is my room,” Dexter had screamed. “Get out!” He tried to hide himself with the sheet and reached for the robe he had discarded on the chair next to the bed.
Steinhoff leered like a duelist who had just knocked the sword from his opponent’s hand. “You must like that little Arab boy, Giles,” he yelled. “You’re stiff as a board.”
Shirley Steinhoff had aged. Chemically coloring her hair, black as ever, accentuated the heavy lines in her face; applying eye shadow and mascara highlighted the dark swelling around her eyes; smearing lipstick beyond the lip lines emphasized their thinness.
“Honey, he was very unhappy at first,” she said. She leaned back on the sectional sofa clutching her glass of Southern Comfort. “We found this apartment right after Norbert was transferred to Manila. I’d never lived in a high rise before.” She looked around the living room, nostalgically, it seemed to Dexter.
“It’s kind of like an ant farm,” Dexter said.
Shirley Steinhoff looked confused. “Beg your pardon?” she said.
“Living in a tall building. It’s like living in an ant farm.”
She frowned, paused, then continued. “Poor Norbert didn’t want to look around; he took the first thing the agent showed us. He thought he should have had a staff position in Chicago, you know. Course he never complained…He told everyone the Cubs were going to move with him to the Philippines and they were going to rename them the Manila Folders.” She laughed lightly, then began to dab at the corners of her eyes with a cocktail napkin. “But he really started liking this place. He really liked the people. He said they’d been through so much—”
“How long will you be staying in Manila?” Dexter inquired.
“Well, I must arrange to have Norbert’s body shipped home, I have to close up the apartment; fortunately, I had most of our things sent back when I left him…Did Norbert tell you I left him?”
“He said something to that effect.”
“Did he tell you why?”
“No, I’m afraid not. I should be getting back to the office. I still have to finish the audit and issue—”
“I caught him, right here in our house, with the housekeeper. She was just a girl. Boy, did I get that little bitch’s ass out of here fast.” Shirley Steinhoff looked angry. “I should have suspected something when he got those French uniforms for her. He never took any interest in the servants before.” Her expression softened. “I understand you had dinner with him that evening.”
Dexter sipped his wine. “Yes. He wanted to take me out to celebrate my retirement. We went to the Manila Hotel.”
“Oh, Norbert’s favorite. So elegant. Isn’t it beautiful?”
“Yes. Lovely. Then he drove me back to my hotel.”
“And that’s the last you saw of him?”
“Yes, till, they called the office…for an identification. He hadn’t been to work for several days. Rose said he’d gone to Palawan, but when he didn’t return—”
“And they were certain it was a heart attack? Norbert was a little overweight, and he did smoke those cigars…But what was he doing driving down by the bay?”
“He’d been drinking and was lost, apparently. They found him slumped over the wheel on Smoky Mountain—”
“He’d been stripped of all his valuables. They stripped the car too, but left the registration. No one reported it for a week. The body had already started decomposing by the time someone notified the authorities, and it goes without saying the place is infested with rats.”
Shirley Steinhoff paled and covered her mouth.
“The registration showed the car belonged to Imperial,” Dexter continued. “That’s what prompted the authorities to call the office. He was practically naked, and covered with flies. A person has to pull the flies off his face when he walks the streets, so you can imagine what it was like at Smoky Mountain.”
“Oh Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” Shirley Steinhoff wailed.
“I was able to identify him from his barong. For some reason no one had taken it off him. It was pink. He had worn it to dinner that evening—”
“He was wearing the barong I gave him. The barong I gave him.” She began to sob convulsively. “His beautiful barong. His beautiful barong,” she keened.
Dexter glanced around the apartment. A floor to ceiling stack of open shelving served as a room divider separating the living and dining areas. The shelves contained very few books. There were photos of the Steinhoff family; the daughters had been captured at various stages of their development; there were curios and mementos of Norbert Steinhoff’s career; there were vases of artificial flowers; there were stacks of records; lots of video tapes; and a collection of miniature ceramic chickens. A large, beige recliner sat next to the divider; it was placed directly in front of the television and video recorder. The room was covered with olive-green shag carpeting, and the furniture was cheap and tasteless as well. The sofa shook under the weight of Shirley Steinhoff’s lowing. Dexter crossed his legs and contemplated her ensemble. She wore a white tent-like dress with large black spots. She was dressed like a Holstein. Behind her, the sliding glass doors to the balcony were opened, allowing the noise of Makati rush hour traffic to drift up into the room.
The stiffness in Dexter’s neck had abated. Even his sinuses felt pretty good. He missed his babies though. They were highly intelligent cats. They sulked when he was gone, punished him for awhile after he returned. He hoped the boarders were taking proper care of them. After this audit, he wouldn’t have to leave them again. He should be back at the office, working. Once he finished his analysis, he could begin the draft of the final report. The report would be easier this time. There would be no excuses, no apologies. Nothing to stop him from disclosing the payments, the waste, the greed, the lack of principles. Nothing to stop him from expressing his opinion that Steinhoff had been ethically and morally unsuited for any executive position.
Shirley Steinhoff had quieted somewhat. She took a big swallow of her drink and snuffed her nose. Dexter looked out onto the balcony behind her. A light breeze whistled through the fronds of a large, potted palm, and the sun, now golden, neared the horizon. It promised to be a perfect evening for a walk.