Every Bright Star – Part II

Every Bright Star
A Short Story by
Tony Killinger

Part II

With Emily and her gaggle of Christmas presents in tow, our luggage piled on a cart and an absolute mob of people ahead, behind and on all sides of us, we headed for the shortest of the customs inspector and passport check lines. We were more fortunate than some, our luggage had dropped onto the revolving conveyor belt relatively early on, but there had to be more than one arriving flight being processed given the size of the crowd.

I was pleasantly engaged in a conversation with a young man directly behind me; Emily was busily chatting with an elderly lady ahead of her. We moved slowly but steadily forward, and before too many minutes had passed Emily was standing in front of the passport official and gesturing back towards me; the officer motioned me forward. “Have a Merry Christmas,” I said to the guy I had been talking to and I pushed the cart up to the counter.

“Passport please,” the officer ordered, without any particular emphasis or emotion. My passport was nearing the end of its scheduled life and was completely full of arrival and departure stamps, visas, notations and whatever else all those stamps meant. The Philippines does not require a visa of U.S. Citizens, although we practically go out of our way not to return the favor. Filipinos go through a mild form of humiliation getting a visa from their former colonizer.

“A business trip, Mister Daniels, or are you just here for the holidays?” The officer showed just the slightest hint of a smile.

“No business this trip,” I replied. “Just visiting old friends, hopefully.”

“Have a very Merry Christmas, then, and welcome back to the Philippines. Please proceed to the customs inspection area.” By this time his smile seemed quite genuine.

Emily was having a hard time containing herself. She knew she was only minutes from seeing her family if we didn’t run into problems, and I didn’t anticipate any. I think Emily was thinking she might have to unwrap each and every one of those tiny gifts and we would be there the rest of the afternoon. It wasn’t to be. The customs officer pawed through a few things, smiled, opened my laptop, switched it on and watched the screen light up, smiled, closed the cover, handed it back to me, smiled, wished us a Merry Christmas and waved the next individual in line up to the counter.

Walking through the double swinging doors from the customs area to the reception area is slightly akin to walking out of the dugout and into Yankee Stadium, I imagine; a cheer goes up from the crowd for each appearing traveler. The cheer, in our case, seemed to come from a group of people about half way down the line behind the roped off area. I nodded to Emily for verification, but she was already headed in that direction on a full run. Funny, I felt her happiness and anticipation, and it felt quite good. I stood back a few steps while she embraced her mother and then her father, and then a young guy I imagined was her younger brother, and then she went into the subset of smiling, waving faces.

Her father approached me first, but I met his outstretched hand with a quickly cobbled up greeting. “Mister Garcia, let me tell you that you have an absolutely wonderful daughter there; she has been my nurse, my dietitian and my companion for the last 20 hours and it has been a complete joy to be with her.” I felt quite proud of myself, given the short time I had to prepare. Telling the truth made it measurably easier though.

Mister Garcia took my hand in both of his and smiled broadly. “She is our pride and joy also,” he grinned. “She has always been a helpful, caring child and we wouldn’t want her to be any other way. She seems intent on taking you under her protective wing and she seldom takes no for an answer. I am Gilbert and I and my family welcomes you.” He half-turned and took the diminutive little woman next to him by the arm. “May I present my wife and Emily’s mother, Emma. A man’s fortune can be measured by the beautiful women who surround him, and I am doubly blessed.”

It was easy to see where Emily got her looks; her mother was a small, trim and quite lovely woman who looked at me through eyes half-filled with tears. “Thank you for watching out for our little girl,” she smiled. “You may have thought she was taking care of you, but I am sure your presence provided her with protection also. A mother must sometimes count on the assistance of kindly strangers; we are so pleased you were watching out for her.”

I was starting to get a little choked up myself from all this intimacy, but I was genuinely touched. In all my years traveling the world, I have found that I am often impressed by people who are open with their feelings and seem to have little to gain by being that way. Maybe it was just the approaching holiday season.

After that I met Christian, or Chris, as they called him; Emily’s brother, then Uncle Hector, then a crowd of extended family member and old classmates, etc., etc., etc.

“I’m going to call you Tio,” Chris announced, “if that is cool with you; I don’t know if I can handle Carlton all that well,” he laughed.

“Well almost everyone calls me Dan,” I offered in relief.

“Nah,” Chris laughed again, “that’s too informal; I’ll go with the Tio thing. I’m going to drive you over to Uncle Hector’s apartment building and get you set up. I’m sure you are ready to relax after this long haul. We’ll give you a day or so to get settled in, and then I’ll be in touch.” With that he reached into his pocket and handed me a small cell phone. “These things are cheap as dirt here,” he chuckled, “I picked this up for you. I’ve got all our numbers keyed in already. We’ll stop on the way over to the apartment and exchange some money, if you want. There are a few fruits, a couple of San Miguel beers, and stuff to make coffee with; anything else you need will be within easy walking distance from the flat.”

“You’ve done all this since Emily called while we were on our layover in Tokyo?” I asked.

“Well you have probably already figured out that when Emily gets something in her head, you’re a whole lot better off to just get behind her and make it happen,” he said, quite seriously. “My folks have never been really comfortable with the fact that she is way over there in the states, working and being on her own without some family member close enough to check on her if she needs help. You may not realize it, but you might be putting yourself in line for that position.”

“Oh, I’m quite sure there are plenty of people who are concerned with her welfare, but I’d gladly volunteer to be one of them,” I chuckled.

“Not anyone who they have met and had a chance to get to know,” Chris smiled. “That makes a big difference. Besides, I don’t know that you have much choice; Emily seems to have nominated you already.”

After more hellos and goodbyes and a minor grilling from Emily about taking my blood pressure pills, drinking plenty of water and getting at least eight hours of sleep, Chris and I headed for the parking lot. I made one quick stop at the duty-free shop and picked up a bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon, the best they had.

Manila was dressed to the hilt for the holidays. Snowmen adorned the telephone poles, blinking red and green lights hung from the shop fronts, the streets were jammed with traffic and excitement filled the atmosphere.

“Just one more week until Christmas,” Chris volunteered. “Things are tight this year, but they always are here, and we’ll make the best of it. Have you ever spent Christmas away from home, Tio?”

“More times than I care to remember,” I said. “Often in countries where there isn’t much of a Christmas season. Not having a family, I was usually the one person they could send out on a job that wouldn’t object a whole lot. It seems good not to have a project dogging me this time. Maybe I’ll feel more like celebrating this year.”

Uncle Hector’s apartment was so cozy it bordered on being downright cramped. It was sort of an efficiency set up in that the living/sitting room doubled as a bedroom. There was also a small kitchen and a bathroom. Inside the shower was a large plastic garbage can filled with water and a gourd dipper. Chris explained that there was no hot water, so the best thing to do was to fill the garbage can and let that warm up during the day, shower using the dipper and replace whatever water you had used when the level got too low. Believe me, I’ve had worse conditions in some of the old Soviet bloc countries, I could make this work just fine. The bed was a fold-up and there was a colorful cover that sort of hid the whole thing during the day. The refrigerator was about the size of a picnic cooler and the kitchen table and two chairs filled that end of the flat.

The apartment building had 4 units on each floor and there were three floors. My flat was at the far end of the second floor. The apartments were side by side so I had the luxury of an extra window in the sitting room. I also had the disadvantage of being right next to the street, but I thought it was an even trade.

Out in front of the building was a partially vacant lot and then a large open air café or lunch counter. We were quickly approaching the dinner hour and the place was bustling. The cement counter formed a perimeter and inside the counter the cooks operated around a huge open stove, smoke and steam billowing into the early evening air from their woks and fry pans. The aroma was wonderful, but largely unidentifiable. There was also a large sink where girls and boys washed, rinsed and dried an endless parade of utensils, plates and silver. There was no doubt about the quality, everything was open to inspection. Even after Chris had left I watched, utterly fascinated with the beehive of activity below me.

Oh yes, I forgot to mention that I had my very own television in the sitting room. I turned it on but didn’t increase the volume. First of all, the broadcast was all in Tagalog and, secondly, my neighbors had their audio levels turned up to the point I didn’t even need my own. I took the cover from the hide-a-bed, opened it up and sat up looking at the evening news between my outstretch legs. I drank a double shot of the Maker’s Mark, took my pills and relaxed.

Sometime during the following hours, none of which I was even remotely aware of, the din from the lunch counter ceased, the traffic in the street quieted down, and I think perhaps it might have even rained softly. I was completely unaware of any of it; I slept like a baby and, for some strange reason, I was remarkably at ease.

The traffic and kitchen noise stirred me between six and seven the next morning, but I was able to ignore it until the seven to eight time frame. Kids were playing on the walkway in front of the building, pots and pans were rattling and staying in bed was out of the question. I put together all the pieces necessary for a pot of coffee, set it on a low flame of the single burner stove and headed for the shower.

Apparently the night had been relatively cool, the water in the plastic garbage can was a little on the frigid side. The little coffee pot was perking merrily along as I threw on a tee shirt and a pair of Bermuda shorts.

I had coffee, a banana and a delicious mango for breakfast while I watched the news. I know a few words of Tagalog and along with the few words of English that were mixed in the narrative, I was able to basically understand that the world had not come apart since the last time I watched CNN on the monitor in the United Lounge in Tokyo. That was really all I cared about at that point.

Somewhere around 9AM, Uncle Hector stopped by and asked if there was anything I needed. I used the opportunity to ask him what I owed him for rent. Uncle Hector was kind, but he was no fool. Almost sheepishly he asked if I thought fifty U.S. dollars a week would be satisfactory. Considering that a room at the Inter-Con Hotel would probably run me close to $100 a night, I agreed it was a bargain, the traffic noise notwithstanding.

The morning was rapidly being used up with idle chatter and rent negotiations and I hadn’t even had time to come up with a basic plan of how I was going to start this quest. I had all but reconciled myself to the fact that it was going to be a long, drawn out process and that as long as I was logistically well supplied, the priority could slip a little without causing any great setback.

Chris and Emily showed up just after noon. They had driven separate cars. Emily had begged or borrowed a blood pressure monitor from somewhere and Chris had the first step of the mission all mapped out, thanks to his mother. Apparently the whole family now knew the Reyna story. Emma suggested that since we knew Reyna came from the entertainment sector; we should start by checking with some of the booking agents in the city. I had to admit, it sounded like a good place to start in my estimation. Chris had the names and addresses of a couple of the agencies and he said that if we weren’t successful, they could surely put us on to others.

Emily’s wrinkled nose and brow indicated she was not liking what the monitor was telling her. She scowled at me as she unwrapped me from the cuff. “You had coffee this morning,” she frowned. “And whiskey last night, I’ll bet. Did you take your pills?”

“I took one last night,” I said, truthfully, “I haven’t had one yet this morning. I wasn’t sure if I should stick to my Virginia times or switch over.”

“Get back to your regular schedule,” she ordered. “Have you missed a medication in the course of the trip?”

“I think I might have,” I admitted. “We’ve been gone from DC about 32 hours and I’ve really only take one day’s medication.”

“That would account for the blip,” she explained. Finally she let loose with one of her radiant smiles. “But I don’t want you getting all excited and worked up,” she beamed. “Just take it easy.”

It was just about 1:30 when Chris and I walked into the second floor office of the Spotlight Talent Agency; it was the first one on Chris’ list. A pretty receptionist sitting behind a large laptop at a work station looked up. “I’m Carlton Daniels,” I announced. “I wonder if I might be able to speak to a Mister Hernández for a few minutes.”

She smiled and took off the compact headset she had been wearing, stood up and smiled again. “Let me see if he is busy,” she said. “If you are looking for holiday entertainment, we are pretty well booked solid,” she frowned slightly.

“Nothing urgent,” I sort of lied.

She walked a couple of steps into the hallway behind her and rapped softly on a door before she opened it and entered. Within a few seconds she reappeared and motioned for me to follow her. Chris took a seat in front of the receptionist’s work station.

Mister Hernandez and I shook hands and he waved me towards a chair in front of his desk. The walls of his office were nearly covered with head shots and group pictures of various artists. Mister Hernandez himself was a portly sort of gentleman, wearing a white dress shirt, a green tie and a flame red vest. The holiday spirit was alive and well in this particular counting house.

“How can I help you, Mister Daniels?” He asked, quite seriously.

I decided not to be coy with Mister Hernandez. “I’m looking for information about a singer named Reyna De Santos,” I said flatly. “She had a couple of accompanists and they performed under the single name, Reyna.”

Mister Hernandez settled back into his chair and studied me for a moment. “She left the business,” he said flatly, “several years ago. Had some trouble with the law, as I recall. She wasn’t my client and I didn’t keep track of her. To tell the truth, I’m not sure if she was with an agency or not. Why are you interested?”

The news sounded foreboding and it caused an immediate knot in my stomach. I decided I’d better lay it on a little thick for Mister Hernandez who might just take a proprietary attitude and try to protect a member of his profession. “An old fan of hers, an American who I represent, is considering mentioning Miss De Santos in his will, if she is still alive and can be found.”

Hernandez brought his chair up to the upright position. “It must be a sizeable amount to go to all this trouble,” he smiled.

“My only instructions were to learn her situation and find her, if possible. I really don’t know any of the details.” It was a lie, at worst, but I was content with the fact that there were several parts of the explanation that had an element of truth to them, at best.

Hernandez hesitated. “I wish I could be of more help to you, Mister Daniels, but I’m afraid that’s all I know about it.” He paused for a moment and then reached for a small pad of post-it notes. “However, I know someone who might have a little more information.” He scribbled on the post-it. “Here is his name and address. Take a bottle of scotch with you when you see him, tell him I sent you and give him my regards.” He tore off the note and handed it to me.

The name on the slip was “Lord Bentley” and an address in Quezon City, a suburb on the other side of town.

“Lord Bentley?” I questioned. “Is he some sort of royalty?”

Hernandez laughed. “He is British and he was treated like royalty in this city for many years, but he is more or less just an old newspaper man. He likes history. Go see him; hear what he has to say.”

We exchanged Christmas greetings, shook hands again and I showed myself out. Chris was doing his best to make the pretty receptionist a bit more receptive and having little luck with it, I assumed.

“Where can we pick up a medium price bottle of Scotch?” I asked when we were back in the car.

“Lots of places,” Chris laughed, “but it isn’t going to be medium priced. “I know a few places where we can get cheap stuff that’s been relabeled, but I don’t know that I’d want to drink it or give it to anyone I cared about.”

“We’ll stick with the genuine stuff,” I chuckled. “We may have a lead to work on. Mister Hernandez knew of her and wants me to contact a guy in Quezon City. Can we do that in any reasonable amount of time?”

“Sure,” Chris reassured me. “I know a pretty good liquor store there too; you have an address?” I gave him the pink post-it note. “Hmmm,” he hummed, “I’ll have to stop and ask for directions to this anyway. I think it is in the old section, lots of old bungalows and places that were upper class a generation or two ago.”

He was right, on both accounts; but he missed the time line by at least one additional generation. Lord Bentley’s bungalow had known better times, but probably not since the 1950’s or 1960’s. Behind a chain link fence, that seemed to be well maintained, and old Jaguar town-car glistened in the late afternoon sun. Either it had been recently polished or it hadn’t been driven in ages, but in any case it was a beautiful piece of machinery.

“You coming with, or do you just want to sit out here?” I asked.

“I’ll wait out here,” he laughed. “I don’t think this Lord Bentley will have a pretty secretary. I’ll just listen to the radio.”

“I’ll be as quick as I can,” I said.

While it was true that the older lady who came to the door was no stunning beauty, she had a look of quality to her; old family, probably money at one time, nice clothes but a bit outdated, and that unmistakable aura of class. I would have bet the bottle of Scotch I had in my hand that she had relatives who were prominent in Filipino history books.

She looked at me without saying a word. I waited what seemed to be just a second too long before I decided she wasn’t going to speak and I had better. “Good afternoon,” I said softly. “I am Carton Daniels and I wonder if it might be possible to speak to Lord Bentley for a few moments.”

She studied me for about 20 seconds and then apparently decided I was okay. She stepped back from the door and I entered the old house. For a moment I couldn’t recall what that odor was, but it came back to me in a flash. It was newsprint; I recalled it from my youth when I delivered newspapers. Every day I would have to go to the basement underneath the print room and wait for the small daily paper to come off the presses. It is a semi-sweet smell, not unpleasant, but certainly not something I would want to live with on a twenty-four hour basis.

“I’ll take that,” she scowled and reached for the bottle of Scotch. “Thomas is in his archives, at the end of the hall,” she nodded.

The hardwood floors creaked as I walked the twenty feet to the double doors at the end of the hall. I wasn’t sure if I should knock or not, so I just rapped lightly and opened one door a bit and peeked in. The inner room was huge, interspersed with shelves and tables everywhere, and every available space was piled high with large, flat books, about the size of a family scrap-book, or something of that nature. Two girls sat at one table behind desk top computers, busily pounding away on keyboards.

“Come in, come in,” a voice with a heavy British accent bellowed from just alongside the door and close to my ear. I did as the voice directed.

“Thomas Bentley,” the small, thin man standing over a table said. The British seem intent on beating you to the punch when it comes to introductions.

“Carlton Daniels,” I smiled, extending my hand.

“How can I help you Mister Daniels?”

I frowned. “I came looking for information about an old friend,” I said truthfully, “but I guess I don’t understand what I’ve come upon here; is this some sort of library or something?”

Thomas Bentley laughed a full belly rolling laugh. “A library? Yes, but much more than that; it is more of an historical archive. And it is one we are trying desperately to transfer to computer records before my allotted time on earth is finished.”

I looked around the room, amazed. “I hope you live a long time, Lord Bentley, because it seems there is an awfully lot of material in here. Just what is it that you archive?”

“Come and sit down, and forget all that Lord Bentley stuff,” he chuckled. “It was my moniker when I was a young reporter on the Manila times.” We made our way to a coffee table that had two sitting chairs on either side of it. “You see, Mister Daniels, not too long ago the Philippines went through a golden age. Whatever the world needed in the way of manpower, they came to the Philippines for it. Maritime seamen, domestics, teachers, nurses, entertainers, wives, girlfriends and hookers. We had them all here, and in quantities that guaranteed you could get exactly what you were looking for. They left by the boatloads and planeloads, headed in every direction on the compass. When they got to where they were going they worked, sent back money to their families, provided the entire country with a foreign currency exchange that was the envy of all Asia. They were the base of the Philippine economy.”

“I see,” was the only response I could think of.

“A large portion of our population was living abroad and they were all hungry for news from home. I began by writing a weekly column, and in each column I would feature some few individuals who were working at some other place in the world. Families here would buy papers, clip those articles and send them to their relatives. It was so popular that I had to go to two columns a week, then three, and finally it became a daily feature. Lord Bentley’s bright stars, they called them. I had a staff larger than the city desk, larger than the international desk and far and away the biggest money making division of the paper.”

It was beginning to dawn on me. “And you saved all those articles?” I wondered.

“Oh, much, much more than that, Mister Daniels. You see, they all thought I was real, that I knew all these people and I was their link to home. Every day I would receive hundreds of letters telling me that so-and-so had picked up a new gig at the latest disco or that Lourdes Makapagal had met Esteban Avilla in Cairo and they were going to be married; and they all wanted me to be aware that they were still out there, still part of what they had left behind and that, one day, they were all coming home with enough money to open a kiosk stand or buy a nipa hut in Fernando. It’s all here, all saved for posterity if posterity ever decides they want to read it.”

“Amazing,” I barely breathed. “And when the golden age passed, did they all come home?”

“Many have,” Thomas said, sadly. “Mechanization has reduced the number of crewmembers required to sail a ship down to practically nothing, and they all must be computer operators, no oilers or boiler tenders. Some countries finally got their nursing programs up and running, thanks to Filipina nurses who set up those systems; the electronic age made everyone sound like a rock star, the law of supply and demand finally caught up with us.”

“And your bright stars are gone?” It sounded even sadder when I said it.

The older woman from the front door walked into the room with the bottle of Scotch and two crystal glasses on a tray and brought them to the table.

“I want you to know, Mister Daniels, I am a drinker, but I am not a drunk. There is a huge difference. Will you join me?”

I laughed. “I too am a drinker, but unfortunately, not a Scotch drinker. Please don’t hold back on my account.”

He took a long gulp of the Scotch. “And who is your bright star, Mister Daniels? Which one of these thousands of stories is it that you want to hear?”

I was immediately struck with the absurdity of it all and I hesitated even going any further; she would be lost in the vastness of all of those personalities, but something made me say it anyway. “Her name is Reyna De Santos,” I blurted out.

Thomas paused for a moment and let the whiskey bite at his tongue. He looked up at the ceiling and then down again. “Ah, the lovely Reyna,” he said finally. “Her beauty and her talent should have made her a wealthy and happy woman, but in the end they only served as her prison.” Without another word he got up and walked to a large table with several wooden file boxes on it. He pulled open a drawer, fingered through a few cards and then walked to another table. From a stack of several, he selected one volume and brought it back to the coffee table. He leafed through a few pages and then laid the book in front of me.

There, on a taupe colored page was a newspaper photograph of Reyna and myself, apparently taken on that fateful night of the movie premier in Kuala Lumpur. My left arm jumped visibly from the tremor that pulsated through my body. It was the very first verification I’d had in nearly twenty-five years that it hadn’t all been imagined.

“Some bright stars were brighter than others,” Thomas smiled. “Some of them were dazzling in their beauty, don’t you think?”

I was speechless for a full minute, my eyes locked on the image in front of me. I was shocked by how I had aged, how the photograph seemed to come from another era, which of course it did. As a distraction, I turned to the next page and was shocked again. “Local star arrested, held overnight and released in bizarre case of murder and torture.”

“Murder?” I said aloud. “They thought she murdered someone?”

“She was never prosecuted,” Thomas explained. “Her husband, a leach of a man, had held their daughter hostage for years, forcing Reyna to perform as an entertainer, outside the country while he lived the good life here. Whenever he needed money he would threaten to kill the child and to subject her to the same sadistic treatment he apparently visited upon Reyna whenever she would come home. He was known to have a pistol, often brandishing it in front of people to impress them. Then, one day, as the story was told, he was beating her and cutting her skin with a knife; she was screaming and apparently someone came into the house, shot and killed the husband, took his gun and some other valuables and ran. When the police arrived, Reyna was tied to the leg of a large table, unconscious and the daughter was weeping and screaming uncontrollably. They arrested Reyna and questioned her for several hours, but in the end they released her. She never went back on stage after that.”

I listened to the story as if it were being broadcast on the radio, my mind was numb. It all sounded so alien, so impossible that I couldn’t get my brain to attach reality to it. The one thing that made it seem genuine was remembering those three ‘x’ mark scars I had seen on her torso those many years before. Why hadn’t I asked? Why hadn’t I demanded an explanation? Because it was none of my business? Could I have put an end to all this and prevented it from happening?

“Mister Daniels,” Thomas said, quietly, “are you sure you wouldn’t like a drink of this whiskey? You look quite pale.”

“Can I borrow this book?” I said, nearly begging. “I need to digest this at a little slower rate; I’ll be very careful of it.”

“It is already archived,” Lord Bentley explained. “I’ll have one of the girls burn you a CD and you can go over it at your leisure.”

Chris saw me exit the house a few minutes later and apparently my appearance was enough to bring him running to my assistance. “You okay, Tio?” He demanded.

I wasn’t okay, I was shaky and exhausted. “You’d better take me back to the apartment, Chris. I’ve had a few too many shocks for one day.”

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Responses

  1. Wow, I am enthralled by your writing as always. What a talent you have – absolutely awesome. I can’t wait to read the next chapter.

    Your writing is so realistic, it makes me wonder if it’s fact or fiction? That is the true mark of a great read. I imagine it’s a bit of both! Well done!


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