The Jeepney Murders, Chapter 17

Chief Inspector Johnny Santos was still furious at his subordinates for not having told him that it was the driver who spirited out Dean King from the hospital right under his nose.

Santos had a real problem with that driver. He once wanted the driver to confess to being a courier of the country’s drug godfather. It was only a matter of time before the driver would cave in after a few sessions of the usual “routine interrogation.” If not for the call of the Undersecretary of the Interior, Santos would have gotten a signed confession. That would have been enough for him to do what he wanted to do, which was to leak the confession to the media and get media to force the Secretary of Justice – he wasn’t sure if the Secretary was on the payroll – to go through the motions of inspecting the National Penitentiary, discover or pretend to discover the drug factory right in the middle of the maximum security compound, and deny the drug godfather income for at least a few months. That was all Santos could hope to do.

The drug godfather was already serving a life sentence. Since the death penalty had long been abolished, another life sentence would have been absurd. In fact, the drug godfather had twice rejected a presidential pardon: running the drug trade outside prison was much more difficult than running it from within fortified walls with free government-provided security and guaranteed three meals a day. The drug godfather had built himself a suite inside the prison compound, complete with air-conditioning, a huge television screen, a Jacuzzi, and a gym. He had even asked, and of course was granted, three nights a week with various models of varying ages and sexual experience. Santos could never shut down the drug trade, since the drug godfather was certainly going to be able to rebuild his empire, what with the prison warden, most police officers, the port and airport authorities, and even many of the President’s staff all being paid monthly “allowances” or being scared of being shot by professional killers riding in tandem on motorcycles.

But at least, for the few months that the media would pay close attention to the issue, Santos would have had his revenge.

He could never forget the day he opened the door of his daughter’s room and found his daughter – the only child of his legal wife – dead of drug overdose. At that time, he was on the payroll of a small-time drug lord, but his daughter’s death made him reject any more drug money. He shot and killed the local drug lord and ironically received a million pesos from the drug godfather in gratitude. He could not return the godfather’s money without becoming an ingrate and therefore an obvious target of assassination, so he used the money to take a cruise around the Mediterranean with one of his mistresses. He thought he could forget about his daughter as he walked around the ruins of great empires, but he could not. He was haunted by his obsession with smashing the drug trade, the modern world’s great international empire.

Because he needed money to replace the drug allowance, what with five too many households to maintain, he asked and was given a portion of the weekly protection money being given by the gambling syndicate. At least, he rationalized, the gangsters running the illegal daily lotteries did not kill people with their drugs. They even allowed poor people a chance to win big money. Of course, since they would always choose as winning numbers only the numbers that had the fewest bets, these syndicates raked in money hand over fist. What did it matter to him anyway if everybody made a lot of money, as long as he himself got his unfair share?

At breakfast, Santos got a lot of ribbing from the other Chief Inspectors at the Officers Club in the headquarters of the Philippine National Police. “You let a woman outsmart you,” they said. “She was right in front of you and she vanished from your sight.” “You’re losing your touch with women.” “You could at least have fucked her before you let her go.” “Why didn’t you handcuff her at once?” “Don’t tell us you assumed she was innocent until proven guilty?”

“What the fuck!” he bellowed at Efren later that day. He pointed to a blind item in a column in an afternoon tabloid. The columnist had written that “A multi-awarded police officer allowed the main suspect in the serial killings of jeepney drivers to leave the country.”

“Who forgot to pay this son of a whore?” Santos cursed in the vernacular.

Nobody said anything. They were used to their chief’s temper tantrums. They all knew that he was just letting out steam. They knew about his daughter dying of drug overdose. In fact, they were keeping an eye on him, making sure that he did not get very far in his quixotic quest to rid the country of drugs. After all, they also needed money, and the take from the gambling syndicate was not enough. The drug trade paid much more.

All the men and women under Santos kept quiet for another reason. They had been sworn to secrecy by the driver, to whom they had mentioned the impending arrival of Dean King on board a Thai Airways plane. Like Santos, they assumed that Dean King was guilty because she had flown the coop, but her being guilty or not was not particularly important to them. After all, they had put a number of the usual suspects in jail just because the media were after them to act quickly on some murder case.

Sometimes, when coffee money ran out, they would stage a fake arrest, stopping an expensive car in the middle of the street, throwing a bag of methamphetamine, which they called shabu, inside the car when the driver would open his window, then scaring the shocked rich woman in the back seat about having to spend overnight in the police station while they investigated why the bag of shabu was in her car. Invariably, fearing scandal or rape, the woman would give them whatever cash was in her purse. They would then demand that she hand over her bank ATMs and give them the PINs, with a threat that if the PINs were wrong, they would raid her house, taking with them television crews, and embarrass her in front of her high-society neighbors. It was such a common police operation that there was even a local term for it – hulidap, a portmanteau of the Tagalog word for arrest (huli) and the English word holdup.

After she left the country, Santos became doubly sure that Dean King had killed all those jeepney drivers. How she had done it was not a question that he had to bother with. That was for all those know-it-all prosecutors to worry about. His job was to identify and arrest a suspect. He would have pursued her all the way to her condo in Makati, but that was a different jurisdiction. He had to inform the Chief Inspector of the Makati police about the suspect before he could go to her condominium. The Chief Inspector of Makati, however, could not be located, because he had left strict instructions not to be disturbed while he was dancing in his favorite gay club. As a result, Dean King had been able to take a flight. Santos was too late the hero when he got the hold departure order the next morning. He did not even know, at that time, that Dean King was no longer in the country. He felt like a real fool.

Despite being corrupt and a human rights violator, Santos still vaguely remembered the original reason he went into police work. He wanted to stop crime, put criminals in jail, give justice to victims of crimes, make the world safer and better. As he went up the officer ladder, however, he gave in to the Filipino trait of pakikisama, a distorted version of being a team player. To be promoted, you not only had to kiss ass, but you had to do as the Romans do. If your teammates got protection money, you had to get protection money, too, or when push came to shove, they would not protect you. They would not give their usual false statements when Internal Affairs or Congress investigated you for shooting handcuffed criminals who were “attempting to escape.” They would frame you for all the false arrests they had made planting drugs and guns in the cars of innocent people. They would feed you to the gossip columnists, who would put up sex videos on the Web, with your face professionally superimposed on the faces of the professional sex performers.

Santos developed his own personal moral code. He considered accepting bribes from drug lords as immoral, but accepting bribes from gambling syndicates as moral. He considered shooting unarmed witnesses immoral, but shooting unarmed suspects as moral. He considered prostitution as immoral, but he considered his own one-night stands with prostitutes as “research” and, therefore, moral. He considered violating women’s human rights as immoral, but he considered beating up his legal wife and his mistresses as moral. He considered the kind of carnage that was 9/11 or the beheading of journalists in the Middle East as immoral, but he considered the water treatment, electrocuting the balls, and cutting off a fingernail as moral. With his complex but not so unique moral code, Santos was able to live with himself.

In the beginning, Santos really wanted to make a difference, but when he discovered that one cop could not take on the whole government bureaucracy, he fell in step. Since he couldn’t lick them, he joined them. Soon, he could no longer live without the bribes sent by the small-time drug lord and, after his daughter’s death, by the gambling syndicates. The prostitution rings gave the least amount of protection money every week, so he ran after them to get his citations, medals, merit increases, and public acclaim. He wasn’t too greedy; he had to draw the line somewhere. He was, after all, AIP.

He was elated when the Singapore AIP officer texted that Dean Grace King had been arrested in Bangkok and was going to be turned over to him in a couple of hours. He did not know that his staff had already been alerted by airline officials about Inspector Lee and Dean King. As in any other office, the boss was always the last to know.

He immediately called the police reporters hanging around waiting for something to write about.

“Come,” he told them, “Let’s go to the airport. I shall show you how quick justice is because of AIP. We arrested the serial killer only two days since she escaped. Write this down: Chief Inspector Johnny Santos is the sole AIP officer in the Philippines.”

The reporters dutifully wrote down the Who in the Who-What-When-Where-How lead paragraph in the news story that they were going to file to meet their quota for the day. “Chief Inspector Johnny Santos, the sole AIP officer in the Philippines,” they typed into their mobile phones, and left the rest of the sentence for the night to fill in. They got their video cameras ready, took a few sandwiches each from the station commissary, and rode in their respective media cars. Santos took one voluptuous policewoman with him, “the better for the media coverage,” as he put it.

At the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, they waited until the Thai Airlines plane had landed. When Inspector Lee came out of the passenger tube, his hand holding the arm of Grace Lee, Santos beamed. This was going to be yet another of his medal-winning ten minutes of fame.

Unknown to him, however, in one corner of the airport just in front of the immigration counters for non-ASEAN citizens stood the driver. He had been alerted by the same policewoman that Santos brought to the airport. They will bring your boss to Terminal 2, she had texted him.

The driver was there, way ahead of the police. He had talked to the airport police, who were also beneficiaries of his largesse with the drug money. After all, drug mules could not enter or leave the airport without the consent of the airport police. If all went as the driver planned it, Dean Grace King would be able to slip out of the dirty hands of Chief Inspector Johnny Santos.

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