Archive for Fiction in progress

The Jeepney Murders, Chapter 11

Inspector Lee spent his weekends doing what he called “Sherlock Expert Exercises” or SEE. He would sit down for hours in one of the sidewalk benches in Universal Studios on Sentosa Island and watch adult tourists taking selfies beside Sesame Street characters. He would pick out a number of these tourists in his mind and guess their nationalities, ages, occupations, and hidden desires. Of course, he could never confirm the correctness of his deductions, but it was good practice in case he had to use his observation and reasoning skills as Singapore’s version of Sherlock Holmes to solve some intriguing case that no one else could solve.

This morning, however, he could not focus on his SEE. He kept thinking of the woman who did not belong and, therefore, of the green jeepney driver. Instead of looking up and around, as he would usually do, he looked down at his computer tablet and started surfing “Green Skin.”

His search turned up quite a number of things that had been missing from his education.

There were old beliefs, for example, that identified green skin with female virgins. The misogynist prejudice was so widespread that, as late as 1887, male physicians in England believed that adolescent girls having their very first menstrual period turned green. They offered what at that time looked like a rational scientific explanation: the loss of menstrual blood caused a deficiency in iron, which would then turn the color of blood from bloody red to something more or less green.

It wasn’t too implausible, Lee thought, recalling the lectures in forensic medicine that he had to attend to qualify for inspectorship. The color of blood came from a protein called haemoglobin, found in red blood cells. The cells contained iron atoms. Iron, of course, was colored red, and therefore gave normal blood its color. The color had something to do with the wavelength of the light that illuminated the skin, but physics wasn’t his strong suit. He didn’t really understand what a wavelength was and how it determined color. He preferred intuitive but intelligent guesses to the mechanical though exact formulas of physics.

He knew, nevertheless, that the medieval physicians and physicists were pretty good in optics. That was, after all, long before Einstein or computers ruined the blind faith of scientists in their neat models of the universe and the human body. When light hits the skin at a certain angle, the red color of the blood changes to blue or blue-grey. That theory of the medieval physicians he knew to be accurate because he had seen blue blood himself during his training sessions in Europe. He smiled to himself when he remembered how naïve he had seemed when he asked a question during a seminar about blue blood and nobility. The instructor, a German academic with no sense of humor, very much unlike the friendly German cops he drank blue-labelled Rachmaninoff with after the seminar sessions, answered him gruffly, “Everybody has blue blood if seen from right angle. Nobility just a myth.”

What about green blood, Lee wondered. Was there such a thing? To his delight, he discovered that, indeed, there was green blood, but not in human beings. Some worms and leeches had something very similar to haemoglobin, but it wasn’t red but green. It was chlorocruorin. He loved the word. It was a word you could read but never speak, because it was unpronounceable, at least as far as he was concerned, despite his facility with different languages.

The skink lizard in New Guinea also had green blood. Human livers routinely recycled haemoglobin into green biliverdin and red bilirubin, but the skink lizard couldn’t handle bilirubin, causing their blood to remain green. Lee regretted that he didn’t pay enough attention in his high school zoology and chemistry classes. He preferred reading detective fiction to figuring out why the whale is not a fish or which elements had valences that were negative. He spent his book allowance on books by Ellery Queen and Agatha Christie, not on books about Madame Curie and Rosalind Franklin. He thought that the questions his chemistry teacher asked were as inane and useless as the questions his philosophy teacher would ask whenever the class would get unruly, which was how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

Maybe, just maybe, Lee thought, it was possible for someone’s liver to stop processing biliverdin and, therefore, have green blood, which would then show through the skin. He made a mental note to ask a chemistry professor at the National University of Singapore about the possibility.

Lee kept surfing. The mainland European male physicians were more upfront about their prejudice against – or desire for – female virgins. In the sixteenth century, they thought that green skin was a condition due to lack of sexual intercourse. That bias persisted all the way to the nineteenth century, when the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1811, defined “green sickness” as “the disease of maids occasioned by celibacy.” The cure for this alleged disease was, needless to say, sex. Lee could not help smiling at the not-so-hidden agenda of the male physicians, who must have been obsessed with being the first to penetrate young girls.

Lee discovered that there was an even more sexist interpretation of green skin. Some male physicians thought that, being virgins, adolescent girls masturbated excessively, causing their iron levels to decrease and their skin to turn green.

Although he had momentarily given in to his basic instincts in Manila, when he had hoped that he could finally experience orgasm that he had not himself caused, Lee was not convinced of the curative value, nor even the sheer pleasure, of sex with women. He had enough gender sensitivity sessions to realize that many of the so-called diseases of women were nothing but manifestations of the male fantasy that women lacked penises and, therefore, craved for them.

He was fascinated, nevertheless, with the etymology of the word chloris, which was from the Greek term for green. Chlorosis was the name given by the Renaissance to what they thought was the disease of adolescent girls. The scientific name of the condition, which after the First World War was finally no longer considered a disease, probably because too many male soldiers having their Rest and Recreation realized that asking young girls if they were virgins was not the best way to get laid, was hypochromic anemia. Lee learned that the condition was demythologized by, he should have guessed, the Harvard Medical School.

Lee looked up from his tablet just in time to see a group of schoolgirls walking towards the entrance of The Lost World. He stared at the girls. They were just at the right age to be having their menarche. But he couldn’t see any tinge of green in their faces. He kept watching young girls and even older girls as they filed past him. He did not see a single one with any touch of green on their skin at all.

He went back to his tablet. There really was such a thing as hypochromic anemia and it was indeed due to iron deficiency. So the medieval doctors with their dirty minds were on the right track, Lee thought. They were just wrong in their attribution of the cause. Green skin was not caused by having sex alone or by not having sex with a man. It was caused, Lee discovered from a medical website, by a variety of possible causes – bacteria, heat, injury, radiation, exposure to heavy metals, and yes, of course, changes in hormonal levels.

Since the jeepney driver he saw was male, that ruled out menarche and hormones. It was certainly hot in Manila, but if heat were the cause, then everybody, including himself, would have turned green. Radiation had to be ruled out, because it would not have been limited to the driver, but certainly would have affected the passengers sitting beside him. Bacteria could have caused it, but Lee did not have the results of the autopsy, and he even doubted if an autopsy had been performed, because as far as he knew, autopsies were not routinely done in the Philippines. Anyway, bacteria would have spread just like radiation. As for injury, he had not seen any wound on the driver that he examined.

That left only heavy metals.

Lead was well known for poisoning little children; a concentrated amount of lead could kill an adult. Other heavy or almost heavy metals could also be the cause, such as arsenic or mercury. The metal – and it didn’t have to be heavy – could have been capable of incapacitating the liver, making the body retain biliverdin. But the driver was in full view of everyone, including him. Nobody could have injected the driver with any metal, heavy or not heavy, without someone noticing it.

Lee had eliminated all the possibilities. It was time, he realized, to apply the dictum of Sherlock Holmes to accept the implausible. Now, what exactly was implausible now that he had eliminated everything as impossible? There was nothing that remained!

One of Lee’s mobile phones rang, interrupting his thoughts. This was the mobile phone dedicated to the AIP.

“Lee,” he said.

The voice on the other end of the line was frantic. “You need to go now, okaay. Fugitive heading Singapore.”

Lee said, “Han nah han nah. So what?! Like that also want to see.”

The voice said, “Very jialat. Suspect in serial murders in Philippines. Victims turn green. Fugitive name Grace King.”

Lee stood up. “Har? Kanna sai. I go airport den call you.”

Lee went at once to Chiangi Airport, wondering if duty and pleasure were about to mix.

The Jeepney Murders, Chapter 7

Police Chief Inspector Johnny Santos of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group of the Philippine National Police was as bored as his men playing cards in the adjoining room. He had solved just about every major crime involving prostitution syndicates in the National Capital Region, to which he was assigned. He had received the expected medals and merit increases, risen in rank, and been interviewed ad nauseam by rookie reporters just aching to get out of their obligatory police beat. About the only thing that got him excited these days, except for the anticipation of his nights with his five girlfriends, one for every day of the week, the weekend being reserved for his wife, was his increasing portion of the month’s protection money from illegal gambling syndicates.

He had even been nominally assigned to be the AIP liaison. The Philippine National Police couldn’t care less about the AIP, but the Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs had signed the ASEAN General Agreement on Security, and somebody had to host all the foreign AIP officers that were on acculturation visits. Since Santos was the best cop not only in terms of reputation, but also in terms of English language ability, he became the one-man Philippine AIP contingent.

When AIP Inspector Lee emailed him about some green jeepney driver, Santos sat up. When AIP officers came to town, all Santos had to do was to brief them a little bit about the human trafficking syndicates, the crooked politicians, and the big-time smugglers, and that was that. He never heard from them again. For him to receive an email from an AIP officer after a visit was definitely unusual. Maybe, his mind raced ahead, maybe he was going to be invited to a command conference in Singapore, a nation with huge malls selling the latest electronic gadgets that he loved to spend his ill-gotten wealth on.

“Any developments on the green jeepney driver?” went the email on his smartphone.

He did not want to admit that he knew nothing about a green jeepney driver, but he could not pretend either that he knew something about it, not to a Singaporean cop, not to an AIP officer.

“Haven’t heard about that. Will investigate,” he typed on his smartphone.

Santos loved the unusual. He fancied himself the main character in all the crime series he followed religiously on cable television. He adored Sherlock Holmes and often quoted the famous detective’s “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” At one point, he even wore a deerstalker. He dropped that only when his five-year-old daughter from his second mistress told him that he looked silly.

He loved replaying in his mind the most famous case he handled, that of the beheaded politician. He got a presidential commendation for that one. Although it had nothing to do with prostitution, he took it on because it happened in a café in downtown Manila, just a few blocks from where his fourth mistress lived. It took him less than six months to figure it all out. He had followed the book all the way during the innumerable press conferences – blaming terrorists, criminal gangs, political opponents, the jealous spouse, equally jealous lovers, just about everybody. He could not find any solid evidence implicating anyone wanting to kill the politician, who was reputed to be a shoo-in for the vice-presidency in the next national elections. He had to think outside the box. Eventually, he hit upon the idea of examining the kitchen of the fast food place next door to the café. There he found the clue to solving the mystery. The rest was police history and urban legend.

Santos racked his brain to see if he knew anything at all about a green jeepney driver. Yes, he suddenly remembered reading some headlines in the tabloids about it. He never really read tabloids, but their headlines screamed at him from the hands of the newspaper vendors that roamed the streets.

In the Filipino language, the headlines had read, “Driver Becomes Martian,” “Driver Turns Into Frog,” “Mystery in Heavy Traffic,” “Jeepneys are Death Traps,” and stuff like that. He had heard casual remarks about it from his staff. Sometime in the last month, a jeepney driver had turned green in the middle of traffic and had died. Bystanders had brought him to a nearby clinic, where he was pronounced dead. The police had arrived too late to save him, if he could really have been saved. No one knew how or why it happened, and no one really cared to find out who did it, if it had been done at all by someone or something.

Until it happened again. And again. Santos did not know how many times it had happened, and he hadn’t really cared before. He did not handle cases involving ordinary people or non-entities, as he called them. He handled only cases involving highly visible people, such as politicians,  movie stars, and bishops caught in the arms of call girls or boys. In every one of these cases, he either got a lot of publicity as The Living Robocop or a lot of money to look the other way. Besides, he was too busy nowadays trying to appease one of his mistresses who had accidentally met another one. He could not understand why his lovers wanted him to be faithful to them, when he was married and was obviously a born cheat anyway.

Santos shouted to one of his men who was playing cards in the other room.

“Efren, come here.”

Private First Class Efren Santiago came running, still holding some peso bills in his hand.

“Do you know anything about the jeepney drivers who turned green?” asked Santos in the vernacular.

Santiago stuttered, also in the vernacular, “Yes, sir. There was news about one on radio just this afternoon. I think it was the seventh driver so far.”

Santos hated the news. If he had believed even a fourth of the news on radio or television, he would never have solved any cases. He knew that quite a number of news reporters were on the payroll of organized crime. They were being paid to lead police investigators through time-consuming paths to nowhere. The only times he really bought a newspaper were the times his picture or his name appeared in a news story. Even in those stories, he was almost always misquoted, but bad publicity was still publicity and he let all the inaccuracies pass. He loved public attention on his good deeds, because it covered up his misdeeds.

Santiago stuttered, “The cops in Station Five found the cause of the deaths. It was the exhaust of the jeepney that seeped into the seats of the drivers. The fumes killed the drivers. They were nobodies. Nobody bothered to file a complaint or a case or even a request for an investigation of any of those deaths. The cases were closed on the same days the drivers died, Chief.”

Santos never believed what other people told him, and certainly not what his underlings said. He made his reputation being a total sceptic.

“That can’t be,” he said. “If exhaust fumes killed the drivers, then the drivers would not have turned green. And the passengers beside him would also have died.”

Santiago shrugged. “Just quoting the reports, Chief. They were just jeepney drivers, Chief. Nobody cares about them. We don’t care about them, unless they don’t fork over their daily goodwill.” Santiago smiled broadly, showing his teeth blackened by cigarettes.

Santos waved him away. Yes, he thought, that was rather strange. A man does not turn green. Poisonous gas may turn a man black, but not green. He wondered what shade of green it was. Maybe it was dark green, almost black. Maybe the witnesses were just color-blind. He had long ago stopped believing witnesses, because they were either bribed, threatened, or just plain dumb.

He googled “green jeepney death Manila” and came up with nothing. He logged into the AIP files. As the AIP Manila officer, he had access to all the confidential files of AIP. AIP had tapped into the computers of all the police stations and hospitals in the ASEAN region. The Singapore data scientists had created analytics software that was able to take big data from everywhere in ASEAN and find patterns that might be helpful to security officers.

A check into the police records of a recent murder – which happened just that morning – came up with a name, Dean Grace King of Saint John Paul University. She was at the scene of the crime in the morning and left her business card with an AIP officer. The AIP officer was not named, following standard procedure; in case the AIP site was hacked, the undercover officers would not be compromised. Who was this Dean Grace King? Probably just some do-gooder who wanted to do the right thing by volunteering to be a witness, in case there was someone to be charged with the crime, if it was indeed a crime.

The Alert icon on the computer started blinking. Anything remotely suggesting criminal activity activated the Alert icons of all the AIP officers.

Santos looked closely at a record that was being typed into the computer of a small police substation in Manila. The name of the person being interviewed was Grace King, Dean Grace King of Saint John Paul University. There was a marker beside the name, indicating that the police officer doing the interview was wary about the behavior of the woman, who was either just a witness or perhaps even a suspect.

Santos called the station immediately. They still had Dean King in custody. He told them to hold her until he could get there. His instincts told him that there was something there. Perhaps, at the very least, a trip to Singapore.

The Jeepney Murders, Chapter 1

CHAPTER 1

I smell of oatmeal, she said to herself, as she vainly tried to hail one cab after another on the crowded Makati street. She hadn’t had time to moderate the amount of oatmeal-based skin lotion that her dermatologist had prescribed for her pruritus – a fancy word, as far as she was concerned, for the itch that violated her entire skin every single blessed day of her harassed life. What really got to her was not the itch on her external skin, the largest organ of her body, but the itch down there, on the most sensitive organ of her body.

She wouldn’t have been on the street this early, or this late, had it not been for her driver who had texted that he had a bum stomach and could not come in today. She would have been, as she had every single weekday for the last ten years, sitting comfortably on the back seat of her old Mercedes Benz, putting on her make-up, sifting through the papers that she had brought home from school, getting a few more minutes of much-needed sleep. Her work as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences of Saint John Paul University was not really that much, but with six hundred teachers and five thousand students knocking on her office door at least once every semester, she had no choice but to work in the car. The two-hour ride to the university – which should have been only a half-hour, were it not for the traffic that defined and defiled the streets of Metro Manila – was a chance to rest or to work or to daydream.

Daydreaming had become her most precious escape from having to read through undergraduate theses that she had to sign as Dean. There was really no need for her to torture herself with the two-hundred-page manuscripts – most of which had been cut and pasted from various Web sources anyway – that students had routinely submitted as partial fulfilment of the requirements of their degree programs, as the formula went, but she had unthinkingly issued a memo last year to all teachers that she wanted personally to see if her university had become a diploma mill. It was her fault that she wanted to micromanage, or as she once overheard her secretary say, she was nothing if not obsessive-compulsive.

She had to get to the university board room in less than an hour. The Executive Vice President of the holding company of the richest tycoon in the Philippines was going to meet her, together with her own Executive Vice President. The tycoon wanted to get an honorary doctorate from the university, in exchange for a library building that he would build named after himself. She wanted to be there to object to such an obviously mercenary arrangement. She would have every right to object, because the degree would be Doctor of Arts and Sciences, and that was the very name of the college she managed. There was no such degree to begin with, but then, there was no library building either. My loyalty to my university ends when my loyalty to academic excellence starts, she repeated as a mantra to herself.

At the moment, however, she had to think not of academic excellence but of getting to the university at all. I have no choice but to ride a jeepney, she told herself, and jumped up the first jeepney that looked like it could squeeze in an extra forty-year-old female. She shouldn’t have worn her favorite skirt, but it was the first thing she could get hold of in her stuffed closet. Had she worn slacks, she would not have felt so exposed with her pale legs, still shapely as her driver kept flattering her when they were in bed, attracting so much attention among the males in the jeepney.

There were eighteen of them passengers in the jeepney, two more than the jeepney could accommodate comfortably. It was rush hour, and it was not unusual for two or three men, sometimes women, to hang on for dear life standing on the step board. The jeepney had two seats, more like benches, that faced each other. Everybody stared past each other, pretending not to notice that they were not only packed like sardines, but smelled like sardines. Well, she didn’t smell of sardines, she thought, but of oatmeal.

The jeepney wound like she expected it to through the streets of Makati. Makati’s streets were, at least, still recognizably streets, where motor vehicles could move faster than joggers. When the jeepney got to the city of Manila, however, the streets ceased to be streets but more like parking lots, with vehicles hardly moving, if at all, and people moving around the vehicles in steady streams. There were more people on foot than in vehicles; these were beggars, vendors, pickpockets, snatchers – the very people she wanted to avoid by moving to upscale Makati.

There were pedestrians who at least looked like they were really going somewhere, but it seemed to her that most of the street dwellers were just moving around the virtual parking lot, selling various things to the passengers of jeepneys, tricycles, buses, delivery trucks, horse-drawn carriages, and cars. One can buy anything on Manila’s streets, one American tourist had once written, leading to massive protests on social media from Makati’s rich residents, who had never been on a jeepney ride through Manila and who were in complete denial of the state of poverty in the metropolitan center. She had followed the barrage of insults on Facebook both against the American and against the Manila mayor, but it was only now that she saw, just a few inches from her face, a real street vendor selling not cigarettes, not bottled water, not newspapers, but condoms.

Then there were the beggars. They came in very imaginative forms. One had an amputated leg and walked around with an umbrella for a crutch. One had an eye that was obviously supposed to be blind, because there was a massive red spot where the eye should have been; she could not tell if the red spot was only red paint, but it sure was gory. Another was really blind, or at least pretended to be really blind, and had a tree branch that served as her walking stick. One had a baby in her arms; the emaciated baby did not look anything like the presumed mother, who was much fairer and had larger eyes. She had heard of beggar syndicates that passed babies from one woman to another, or even deliberately blinded or maimed beggars to make them more pitiable. She knew, however, that it was against the law to give money to beggars, so she did not budge when one of them nudged her.

A passenger got off at every street corner, apparently because no one wanted to walk one meter more than necessary, but someone would immediately come up and fill in the space. To pay the driver, passengers had to pass their money up the benches through the hands of other passengers. Nobody seemed to mind, she thought, as she herself took a fifty-peso bill and passed it on to the passenger nearer the driver. I have to tell my mathematics professors to research on the native way of counting, she reminded herself, for surely jeepney drivers must have a system of remembering who went in and who went down, how much the fare was according to the number of kilometers each passenger stayed on board, not to mention deducting discounts due to students and senior citizens. Since she was neither a student nor a senior citizen, she did not expect any discount. Not knowing how much the fare would be, she decided just to give a large bill and hope that the driver would not give her change in too many small coins.

A street vendor came up and sold the driver a garland of flowers. They were sampaguitas, common white flowers easily made into necklaces by the homeless. She noticed that the driver gave the boy too many coins for such a paltry necklace. The driver hung the necklace on the rear-view mirror. She had heard of the contributions the police extracted from every jeepney driver, and this must be it, she thought.

After what seemed like an hour but was really only five minutes, the jeepney driver suddenly uttered what seemed like the cry of an ape standing over a fallen prey or Tarzan finally beating the poacher in one of the old movies she loved watching on television.

“Aaaagggg!”

Then the driver spat something yellow on the windshield. It didn’t look like sputum, because it looked rock solid, like a piece of food that one would cough out after having been subjected to a Heimlich choking rescue maneuver.

The driver must have slammed on the brakes, because the jeepney lurched forward and she was pushed against the woman to her right.

“Sorry,” she instinctively said, but no one paid attention to her, not even the woman, because they all saw what was happening to the driver.

The driver had suddenly turned green, literally, then crumpled like a rag doll.