By William Wetherall

An Okinawan police officer faces his past

Original 1985 (4,460 words), last revised 1996 (8,200 words)

Placed 11th in 1985 Asiaweek Short Story Competition.
Rewritten in 1996.


By William Wetherall

Police Superintendent Higa studied the petite woman on the stage as the husky man behind her untied the knot in the strings of her red bikini top. Her breasts, milky against her hazel chest, bounced out of the cups and, although she could not have been older than twenty if that, settled on her ribs with a slight sag. The man pulled at her mahogany nipples until they were stiff, then he slid his hands along her waist and released the knots at her hips. Her tummy was firm, but the flesh above her shaved mons was marbled with wrinkles. Then it all made sense to Higa, who felt a certain tightness in his stomach despite his awareness that the woman would hardly be the first Filipina to come to Japan to feed a child and the kin in whose care she had left it.

The woman seemed too young to be his niece, Higa thought, even if Nida, his sister, who had stayed in the Philippines with Sabina, as his father had always called his mother, had given birth to a daughter at the age this woman had borne a child. Yet the very thought began to haunt him, and he wondered what Nida looked like now as the apparitions on the stage ground their hips to the music from the speakers.

Higa had left the Philippines in the summer of 1948. He had just turned five, and had been so proud of his new sister Nida. How hard he had tried to get her to watch him wave at her and Sabina from the rails of the Liberty ship that would take him and his father, and hundreds of other repatriates, from Subic Bay to Okinawa. Nida, though, had kept her tiny nose buried in Sabina's breast, and her eyes closed to the tears that he had watched fall like tropical rain from Sabina's chin even as Nida's mouth, still sucking, screwed into the start of a cry when Sabina's convulsive sobs wrested the swollen nipple from her lips.

Higa was now 53, and two years had passed since his father's death. In one of his father's old trunks, there had been a letter in the school-girl English of an aunt he could not even remember. "Sabina die. I take care Nida," was all it had said. It was signed "Christina Santos" and postmarked 1951. He had found no others. Nida would be in her late forties. He wondered if Christina had ever told her that she had an older brother in Japan.

Next, the man began to disrobe. Could he, too, be a relative? Higa winced at the thought, at once repugnant and sobering, but then surmised, from the gaudy tattoos that covered the pale, hairy skin of the toro's muscular body, that the man hiding his face behind the vermilion lacquer mask with a phallic nose was Japanese, maybe Korean.

The audience grew restless. Some men in the front rows began to jeer. "Gimme my money back, she ain't no virgin!" "She lost it to me in Manila!" "Then you're a papa!"

The woman glared into the forest of luminous eyes which stalked her from the shadows beyond the purple lights that rimmed the stage's apron. Her own eyes had begun to glisten as she stroked the toro until he became hard, and an eerie silence fell when she presented herself to him as a cow would to a bull.

There was a time when Higa had looked forward to such monitoring duties. The first time he had checked the place out, during a sweep of the street two years ago, he had left with the start of a bachelor's boner, and had thought, why not? What's the harm in letting them really do it now and then? A small token, he had reckoned, for the division of labor between the police, and the yakuza who ruled the world of the night but at the same time kept it orderly. This show, though, was picking at the scab of an old sore that started to fester all the more as he saw his own father sewing him into the furrows of Sabina's womb.

Then suddenly every cell of Higa's brain was torn from these intrusive visions by sirens and shouting outside. The town's entire motor pool seemed to be converging on the corner just up the alley.

Many patrons were looking around. Some stood up and started for the exit. Others began to follow as the noise outside crescendoed over the clamor of the music, the cries of mock pleasure from the stage, and the cheering of the dedicated voyeurs still vying around the apron for the most revealing angles.

The last few rows were sparsely occupied. Higa sat in the very back row, near the curtained entrance, head against the wall, arms folded across his chest, taking everything in. He had the whole row to himself. The sole occupant of the row in front of him was trying to steady a pair of racing glasses with one hand, while his other was moving up and down under an overcoat.

More patrons stumbled up the aisle and slipped out the curtain, averting Higa's probing eyes. Most seemed to be alone. He recognized a few locals, but knew them all. Weekend farmers, college students, truck drivers, store clerks, construction workers. Maybe a Shinto priest or kindergarten principle. Perhaps even a gynecologist.

Higa unfolded his arms and glanced at his watch. There'd be no retreating to the sanctuary of his dormitory quarters tonight. Whatever was going on outside, he knew he'd be up till dawn interrogating people, filling out forms, fighting off sleep, wondering why he'd become a cop.

Higa shifted to the edge of his seat but did not stand. The man in front of him had lowered his glasses and was zipping his fly. Even the men still crowding the apron were beginning to pay more attention to the exodus from the back of the theater than to the rhythmic gyrations on the stage.

The music suddenly stopped, yet the spotlit smacking of groin on buttock continued until the ceiling lights came on. The couple finally disengaged as the heavyset owner stepped out onto the stage, and while he strutted down the apron in his coconut-brown suit, apricot shirt, strawberry tie, and creamy patent-leather shoes, scowling at the backs of the fleeing audience, the man and woman just stood there heaving, sweaty, flushed, two stray dogs just stoned apart, and they scampered off stage only when the owner impatiently waived them away.

The moment the lights came on, the man in front of Higa had sprung to his feet, pushed the glasses into his overcoat pocket, and darted through the curtain without once blinking, so intent was he not to acknowledge the presence of either Higa or the owner. Higa himself was all but unaware of the man's departure, engrossed as we was in staring down the owner, who was searching his face while swiping his own with a handkerchief, and seemed to be asking Higa, hadn't the police tacitly agreed to the shows so long as he kept the patrons out of them? The plainclothes officer held the owner's gaze a blink longer before he finally climbed to his feet, nodded at the owner, ducked through the curtain, and stalked out into the cold, clear night.

Higa filled his lungs with the wintry mountain air he had come to love since being posted to the Nagano headquarters nearly three years ago. In the moonless sky above the roofs of the buildings to the south, Orion was chasing Taurus. To the north, where the whole street was rushing, the dome of the night was aglow with a smoky aurora that just had to be coming, he thought, from the town's most combustible landmark.

Higa plunged into the flow of people pouring from the myriad eateries and bars that lined the streets and alleys of the amusement quarter. From the intersection at the top of the alley, he saw the old wooden hotel, all three floors in flames, and he paused to regard the mantle of snow that burned on the surrounding grounds. Firemen were working a couple of ladders along the second- and third-story windows, where a number of people, some perched on the sills, were waiting their turn to be rescued. One, then two others, jumped into the bushes below.

Higa spoke with two uniformed officers who were setting up some red plastic cones across the driveway that led to the entrance of the hotel, and then he hurried down the driveway to the hotel parking lot, already congested with fire vehicles, patrol cars, ambulances, and hordes of old men and a few young women, some clustered together, others milling around alone, all in various states of undress and pandemonium, waiting for treatment and evacuation. Higa sighted his deputy, a Police Inspector, overseeing the placement of two blanketed stretchers at the side of the parking lot furthest from the hotel.

"Firemen pulled them out of 307," the inspector said when Higa had come abreast of him. "They were on the same futon. Cover thrown off, sheets and blankets all messed up like they'd been struggling. So the firemen thought maybe they'd just got too much smoke or something. But they were on their backs, side by side, as if they'd been sleeping."

Higa pulled the blanket off the body on the first stretcher. The woman was in her late twenties to early thirties. Round face, high cheekbones, amber complexion, thick closed eyelids, full lips slightly parted, no makeup. Her neck was tightly wrapped with a sash, from her own sleeping yukata, he guessed. Her throat was adorned with a gold locket on a fine chain that had somehow survived the strangling.

"She's from the show," the inspector said.

Of course, Higa thought, as he recalled the lead folk dancer in the Night in Manila show that had opened at the hotel the night before.

The Identification Team, dressed in blue fatigues and caps, black rubber boots, and purple armbands declaring "Investigation" in yellow script, arrived on the scene. Some of the ident techs screened the two stretchers with a plastic tarp tied to poles, while the others broke out cameras and evidence kits from several large aluminum cases.

"First time we've had a Filipino Buddha," the ident chief said as he joined Higa. Then, spotting the van of the pathologist who served as the town's medical examiner, he added, "The ME's here."

"Morning, Doc," Higa said to the man who had come up beside him just as he had lifted the blanket enough to bare the face of the body on the second stretcher. The other police and civilian officials had crowded around it, and all were greeted by the stare of a liverworted man with a mouth that gaped open so wide they could see his molars.

"Was he with the girl?" the ME asked, feeling the man's jaw.

"More likely she was with him," Higa said. "They were pulled out of his room. He's one of the Battle of Manila survivors."

"One of the what?" the ME asked.

"A group of Pacific War vets are in town to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the surrender of the Imperial Army in the Philippines," Higa explained. "They booked up the entire hotel, which is featuring a Night in Manila show this week. It premiered last night. Most of the veterans came in white barongs. Some even wore their campaign medals."

Higa had gone to the show in lieu of his chief, to represent the prefectural police. Public relations, international goodwill, all that. Most of the vets, he recalled, had paid the show very little attention while they drank and carried on, as though all the dancing and singing were just background music.

"Let's do the man first," Higa said, as he lifted the entire blanket off the body. The man's sleeping yukata was still sashed at the waist. The top part, though, had been slipped off his shoulders and arms, exposing a collapsed chest and a very bloody abdomen. The handle of a large pocket knife protruded downward from just below his sternum. Many scratches, slashes, and puncture wounds covered his abdomen. His cyanotic head was capped by a hairless, ice-blue scalp.

"Whenever you're ready," the ME said to Higa, who would direct the scene-of-death examination and then witness the postmortem. Both men pulled on latex gloves while the forensic photographer took a series of pictures of the man's body as it lay on the stretcher. The photographer stepped back to allow the ME's assistant and driver to move the body to a clean sheet. All clothing was removed and sealed in a paper evidence box. The physical traits and condition of the body were described on a standard form, then the body and the sheet were zipped into a large bag.

"Okay, now the woman," Higa said.

The initial photos taken and her body on a sheet, Higa knelt down beside the woman, opened her sleeping yukata, and ordered another round of pictures. He unwound the sash and unhooked the locket, putting each in a separate vinyl evidence bag, and then he wrote out tags while the photographer shot some closeups of the woman's head and neck. The sash had left a necklace of cherry-pink bruises around her pale throat, but nowhere did the marks rise to a point of suicidal suspension.

"The blood on the garment doesn't seem to be hers," Higa said, after the assistant ME had removed the woman's sleeping yukata. Except for her neck, her body was unmarked. Most of her pubic hair was fluffy and dry, as though she had recently bathed, but parts of it were moist and matted. The postmortem would confirm the ME's impressions that the woman had never had a child, and that very shortly before their deaths, she and the man had engaged in sexual intercourse.

While the woman's body was being prepared for transportation to the morgue, Higa examined the locket. He could just make out traces of a bloody fingerprint on the case. A strand of black hair was caught in the clasp, which oddly, he thought, was not firmly closed. He worked the cover open. The body of the case held a silver Madonna, and the cover framed a faded black-and-white photograph of a woman who may have been Filipino standing beside a man wearing what Higa immediately knew was an Imperial Japanese Army uniform. The soldier was holding a baby.

Higa's mind was abruptly filled with visions of his father, who had been a corpsman with an Imperial Japanese Army field hospital near Sabina's village on the Bataan peninsula in the spring of 1942. His father had told him the story the day Christina's letter had come, as they mourned before a simple altar he had made with a candle, a cup of tea, and a bowl of rice with two chopsticks standing in it.

"I became a hero to the local people after treating some wounded civilians and talking a band of Japanese soldiers out of ravaging the village for harboring an American Signal Corps officer," his father had told him. "When MacArthur left, the fighting stopped. Very few locals welcomed us, or our martial law, but at least they were able to get on with their lives, and relations were generally peaceful if not friendly. I helped set up a small clinic in the village, and Sabina was among the girls who assisted us with the nursing. We fell in love, and for the next few months we lived in our own world, mindless of the war."

Higa remembered how his father had closed his eyes for a minute and taken several slow, deep breaths before continuing.

"All this ended that fall when my hospital moved north to support the campaign against the guerrillas. We exchanged a few letters, until such mail became impossible. The war dragged on, and there were rumors that we would have to fight our way off the islands. I began to doubt that I would ever see Sabina again, and I often thought of deserting. Then in January 1945, the hospital was ordered back to the Manila area, and of course I went straight to Sabina's village, where I found her nursing a two-year-old boy I knew at first glimpse was mine. I wept with relief that she was safe, and with joy that I had created new life in the midst of all the death that even my medical mission had helped bring about. I resolved not to return to my unit, and the underground agreed to shelter me. Then suddenly the war was over, and the months of peace began to stir my longing for Okinawa. By the time I was was ready to join the stream of other Japanese who wanted to repatriate, Nida had come into the world. So we decided that I would take only you, and that Sabina and Nida would come a few months later. Now this."

Higa pictured his father waving Christina's letter and shaking his head as he said, in a trembling voice, "I don't even have any pictures."

Only now did he understand the extent of his father's grief, Higa thought, realizing how unclear his own memories of Sabina had become with time, not to mention his images of Nida, who he had scarcely seen as a babe in arms. He almost envied the woman's relatives, who in this age of the camera would have plenty of snapshots to remember her by in life. Police and diplomatic protocol would probably spare them the pain of viewing her bruised remains in the forensic and postmortem glosses, yet he would have welcomed almost any likeness of his mother, even a rubbing of the death mask he had often imagined that she had worn as she lay in state, regnant in her robe of roses, awaiting interment in the graveyard that would be by the village church.

At length Higa put the bagged locket in the evidence case. Not until he had stood up and pulled off his latex gloves did he notice the commotion from the other side of the police line. The tarp had been taken down. The ME's assistant and driver had lifted the bodies, both now in bags, onto two low gurneys for removal to the forensic pathology department of the prefectural medical school. More hotel guests and employees had been evacuated to the parking lot. Some were being examined and treated by teams of doctors and nurses. Others were hanging around the police line, among them a group of elderly men who were looking toward the gurneys and talking in elevated voices.

Most of the men wore hip-length robes over sleeping yukata, and some had shed their inside slippers for outside clogs, all bearing the hotel's logo. The man doing most of the talking, however, had fled in only his underwear. Higa remembered meeting him last night, but couldn't recall his name. His long, meatless arms were hugging his slight chest too hard for him to shiver, and his sockless feet took turns abiding the frosty pavement. One of the other men in the group offered him his robe, but he refused it. A tough old critter, Higa was thinking, as the man caught his eye and beckoned him over.

"Detective Higa, isn't it?" the man said when Higa had reached the police line. "I'm sorry to disturb you at a time like this, but it's urgent. My name's Mihara. We met last night. I'm a member of the Battle of Manila Survivors Association."

"Of course," Higa said. "You're the president, right? Terrible thing to happen. Looks like you had to get out in a hurry."

"It was a perfect reunion until this," Mihara lamented, nodding toward the blazing hotel. "And now one of our members is missing. Captain Tanabe. We're hoping he's not in one of those body bags."

Higa studied Mihara's face for a moment and then motioned for him to step inside the police line and follow him to the gurneys, which were about to be loaded into the ME's van.

Higa knelt down and unzipped the bag containing the larger body, just enough to show Mihara the dead man's face.

Mihara's lanky frame stiffened, and he clenched his fists at his sides. Tears beaded in his eyes as he held them unblinking on Tanabe's twisted face. His trunk and limbs began to shiver as he pressed his hands together, thumbs against his chest, and bowed his head so low that his nose touched the tips of his fingers.

"I'll probably be handling the arrangements," Mihara said when he had lifted his face and stopped shaking enough to meet Higa's eyes."What's the earliest you can release the body?"

"Tomorrow," Higa said while rezipping the bag. "Around noon, barring complications. Right after the postmortem."

"An autopsy?"

"That's right."

"Something wrong?"

"He's got a knife in his chest. We want to know who put it there. Apart from the knife, though, having died in the fire would itself require a formal determination of cause of death."

Despite Mihara's efforts to hug away his shiver, his whole body continued shaking. This time he accepted a blanket from the inspector, and while caping it over his shoulders he studied the other body bag.

"A woman?" he said, spitting the words out like phlegm.

Again, Higa showed him only the face. With the violence done to her neck out of sight, the woman seemed to be just sleeping. Higa now saw in her face an almost angelic cast. Had his mother looked this peaceful in death? He saw that her lips, dark in the play of the red and orange lights on the tail of the ME's van, were now closed, as though she had been about to tell him something a while ago but had changed her mind.

Mihara shook his head. "Called herself Maria," he said, almost whispering. The bitterness in his eyes was gone.

Higa rezipped the bag over the woman's face.

"You can take them now," Higa said, nodding to the ME's driver, then back to Mihara, who had turned to regard the fire. The flames had engulfed the entire south wing, which suddenly collapsed in an eruption of flares arching high and hanging a moment before falling, and machine- gun tracers hugging the ground in gentle arcs. A live coal struck a patch of snow beside the parking lot. The two men watched it smolder.

"It was just like the Intramuros up there," Mihara said in the dull, spent voice of a battle-weary soldier as he gazed at the fiery rubble where his room had been. "The remnants of my unit holed up in the Treasury Building with a number of locals. It was not a very glorious last stand. The Americans were blowing us apart and roasting us with weapons we'd never seen before. The Filipinos, of course, got the worst of it. We used them as shields, until it became clear we were doomed. Then we began venting our wrath on them. We pushed them into the crossfire, or just shot them. The less fortunate women were raped first, and it didn't matter how old they were. After killing all the locals, we expended our last bullets and grenades on ourselves."

Mihara's voice cracked as he choked back his tears.

"The next thing I knew I was in a hospital," he continued. "When I woke up, all I could hear was English. I was sure I'd gone to hell or somewhere. Captain Tanabe was on the cot next to mine."

The ME's van slowly pulled away. Mihara saluted it, and while watching it leave the parking lot he said, "But you wouldn't know about such things, would you." Then regarding Higa again, "You're much too young to have been there. Were you even born yet?"

Higa started to say something but waited until Mihara's lips had stopped trembling.

"Did Tanabe ever mention a Filipino woman?"

"He may have, but I can't remember. I met him for the first time in the POW camp. You'd better ask someone who served with him. He did act a bit strange tonight, though. At the party we had after the dinner show. Several of the dancers joined us, and Captain Tanabe kept talking about how much Maria resembled a girl he had known in Manila. Someone remarked that all the dancers looked like the girls we had known during the war, and everyone laughed, except Captain Tanabe, who kept staring at Maria, as though in a trance."

Higa continued asking Mihara questions until some minibuses came to take the veterans to other hotels. Before rejoining his comrades, Mihara assured Higa that the Battle of Manila survivors would do all they could to assist him in the investigation.

After holding a conference with the inspector and the ident chief, Higa began studying the other people still waiting for transportation. The Filipino dancers had flocked around the stout Japanese man who at last night's opening performance had introduced himself to Higa as the show's promoter. Curiously, Higa thought, the young woman he had seen in the strip joint was with them, and only she and the promoter were fully dressed. Higa's eyes were then drawn to a Filipina, of medium height and slight build, who was standing just off the pavement in the garden. The woman seemed to be wearing nothing under the blanket that she had wrapped around herself. She was craning her neck as though looking for someone. Her eyes, though, were fixed on him.

Theresa clutched the blanket to her breasts and belly so tightly that her knuckles were as white as her breath. She danced on toes splayed by years of barefoot play on canefield roads. The flesh at the throat of her long Visayan neck was taut as a drum. Yet she saw no sign of Maria or Tanabe in the sea of bobbing heads. The youngest of the dancers was standing with the promoter on the other side of the parking lot, but Theresa decided not to join them until she had found Maria.

Mihara, who was talking with a middle-aged man in a suit and hooded coat, continued to pretend not to notice her. He had left her standing on some frozen soil in the garden, and her toes were now so numb she could no longer feel the cold, though her soles arched every time they struck a stone as she rocked on the heels and balls of her feet, trying to wiggle a little color back under her unpainted nails.

She tried to quell her tears, but they came anyway with memories of her childhood. The soles of her feet had been so tough that she had chased her neighbor's carabao wherever it lumbered. Her calluses were no longer thick enough to have cushioned her feet from even the sun- baked clods of dirt that had covered the barrio roads when the sugar markets had been sweeter. Several weeks in Cebu, two years in Manila, and one month in Japan had left those relics of her youth too thin to insulate her feet against this alien soil, so hard was it frozen, except where her toes had kneaded the hoarfrost into a slippery ooze that might have felt, were it warmer, like the mud on Negros island when it rained. And how she wished she were back there now, with her mother, her father, more comforting even in thought than to be standing in this cold hell, in a blanket that barely reached her thighs, in sight of the arrogant fossil who had lusted between her legs, then shunned her like a leper.

Theresa watched Mihara, and the man in the hooded winter coat, as they lingered beside two gurneys, looking down with the countenances of mourners peering into a grave, at what appeared to be victims of the fire. The self-respect that she had always guarded when bartering her body still smarted from the way Mihara, after they had crossed most of the garden and were almost to the parking lot, had pulled his arm from her the clutch of her hand and, while shaking his head and waving his arms, shouted at her with his eyes not to follow him any further. He had then stepped onto the pavement and walked away, without turning to give her so much as a breath of thanks for having helped him into his underwear and steering him to the veranda window, from which a fireman had taken him down a ladder. She herself had gone down the ladder alone after managing to grab only a blanket. Some tears formed in her eyes as she recalled how, while descending the ladder, the reflection of the fire on the white earth below had reminded her of the clouds she had seen at dusk through the window of the plane on her flight to Japan.

A very shaky Mihara, still supported by the fireman who had helped him down the ladder, had seemed glad enough to have her hand when she stepped off the bottom rung and took his arm. The fireman had pointed them towards the parking lot on the other side of the garden, and off they went, trekking through the snow along a path already beaten by others, looking every bit like a young wife nursing her old husband.

Theresa now saw that a few of the other dancers had arrived at the parking lot and had found the youngest dancer and the promoter. She herself was about to go over an ask if any of them had seen Maria when some shouting from behind her caused her to turn toward the hotel. The flames were now licking the lips of all the windows in the south wing. She was trying to recall which one she had climbed down from when the whole structure suddenly buckled and exploded.

While watching the night light up in a fountain of fire, her saw again, as she had many times since arriving at the parking lot, flashing unwanted on the screen of her mind, Mihara's asthmatic chest ventilating against the moonlight from the veranda window. His sluggish but steady pumping was pushing her buttocks so deeply into the futon that she could feel the firmness of the tatami under the foam mattress. Then came the thumping of feet in the corridor, the shouts and screams in pidgins of Japanese and English, even Tagalog, the hammering on doors, one after another, coming down the hall, closer and closer, then theirs.

Mihara's wheezing, and with it the draft of his bilious alcoholic breath on her face, abruptly stopped, and she opened her eyes to catch him jutting his head toward the door, cocking his ears and flaring his nostrils like an alarmed giraffe. Then she, too, smelled, the smoke.

The moment Mihara slid off her belly, she closed her legs and momentarily rolled into a fetal ball. Even as he was wobbling to his feet, with the elegance of a newborn calf, he was ordering her to help him grope for his underwear and other symbols of dignity as he knew it.

Now Mihara was reveling in the company of his wartime comrades, who were getting on a bus, oblivious to her stare, and to the playful glances from the other dancers who had gathered around the promoter. After the bus had pulled away, Theresa again tried to spot Maria, but seeing her nowhere, she scrutinized the officials still standing around where the van had been parked. The man in the hooded coat, who had been talking to Mihara, was saying something to a police officer and someone wearing blue fatigues. The man then began to scan the crowd. When his eyes met hers they stayed, and in a moment he was walking toward her.

After lunch the next day, Higa questioned Theresa in his office, which he preferred to one of the interrogation rooms. He had motioned for her to sit in one of the stuffed chairs by the window, and she had no sooner settled into its cushions than she started squirming. Her back was to the window, and the morning sun spilled over her shoulders, warming them on its way to the mahogany coffee table between her and Higa, who offered her a bilingual business card. The English side read: Makoto Higa, Superintendent, Criminal Investigation Division, Nagano Prefectural Police Headquarters. She was now wearing her own clothes, having been allowed by Higa to retrieve them from the small two-bedroom apartment into which the Night in Manila show promoter had squeezed nine of the ten women. The youngest dancer stayed at his apartment.

At the end of the table to Higa's right sat the detention hall matron who had brought Theresa to his office. To his left, a police clerk had readied a tape recorder and was poised with pad and pen to transcribe everything said.

The preliminaries finished, Higa removed the locket from one of the evidence bags on the table.

"This was Maria's," he said, observing Theresa's face.

"I know," she said while nodding.

"Did you know her well?"

"We met in Manila a few months ago."

Theresa let her chin drop to her chest, then she lifted it so high that Higa could see her throat. Backlit by the sun, she looked less defeated than proud.

"If we hadn't switched partners, she'd still be alive," she said.

Her voice broke. She wiped away some tears with her fingers, then leveled her head but still avoided Higa's eyes.

"Switched partners?"

"After the show, the promoter told us to change into our cabaret dresses and go to the Wisteria Room. Twenty or so of the Battle of Manila survivors were having a party there. It was their last night, and some of them wanted to take us to their rooms. So they made a list of our names and held a lottery. I was drawn by Tanabe, and Maria ended up with Mihara."

"The promoter made you do this?"

"Yeah. Not that we didn't want the money, but yeah, we had to."

"And what happened to Maria?"

"Tanabe started mumbling that he knew her. Carried on as though she were his mistress or something. We just figured he was drunk and was confusing her for someone he had met during the war. Tanabe asked Mihara to trade, but Mihara refused. Tanabe wouldn't give up, though, and he pestered us all until finally Mihara relented. I even helped persuade him, and Maria went along with it just to shut Tanabe up."

"She was murdered, you know."

Theresa looked right at him how, her brows deeply furrowed and her lips tightly pursed.

"She was strangled."

Theresa's mouth opened as she shook her head.

"By Tanabe?"

"His blood and fingerprints were on the locket."

"May I see it?" she asked.

Higa let the locket fall into Theresa's hand. She examined the engraving on the back of the case, which had worn smooth where it had graced the necks of three generations of Ilocano women.

She opened it, knowing what she would find. The Madonna was as radiant as when Maria had shown her the locket in the illumination of the sun setting off the port wing on the plane to Japan.

"Did Maria tell you anything about the photo?"

Higa's voice fell like a hammer on Theresa's thoughts. She looked at him, and she felt he was staring right through her. His eyes focused on hers, and he moved his lips, she thought to speak, but he bit them instead as he gestured toward the locket and raised his brows. She studied the faces again, and when she was ready, she told him a story that he listened to with the attention of a cat tracking a bird.

Higa ended the interrogation with questions about Theresa's life in the Philippines and why she had come to Japan. He then instructed the matron to take Theresa back to the detention hall.

While watching Theresa recede through the door, Higa pictured the man she said had recruited her in a Manila dance hall, baiting her with tales about Japan, where she could make more money than she had ever dreamed of, merely for dancing the way she had in village festivals when a young girl. Higa then tried, though with little success, to view the world through the eyes of a woman who had been gullible enough, if she had told the truth, to believe that a Japanese man would pay the what would have been a months wages in the Philippines, simply to see her perform native dances in the comfort of a resort hotel dinner club.

Higa returned the transcriptions of all the testimonies, and the autopsy and lab reports, to the file folders on his desk and removed his reading glasses. He rubbed his eyes with his palms, fists, and fingers. He tried to focus on his nails, but both eyes began throbbing again, and the crow's-foot in the corner of his right eye resumed its spastic kick. The tic had started when he was in high school.

"You must've gotten it from your mother," his father had told him while they were walking along the beach on the eve of his departure for the police academy. His father couldn't think of anyone on his side to blame. It had been the first time he had talked so much about Sabina since the letter from Christina.

"Was she pretty?"

"You've got a lot of her in you."

"Some of the kids say I don't look Japanese."

"What do you think?"

It had never been put as a question before. His father had been insistent that he never speak of his part-Filipino origins, especially in front of his stepmother. The Chinese blood in her Okinawan veins should have given her reason to understand such things. Yet either she hadn't been able to, or she had simply concluded, from her own adverse experiences, that keeping track of bloodlines wasn't worth the trouble.

"I'm pure Japanese!" Higa had replied, knowing that his father would be pleased. The claim had served him well, until a few years ago he had read a book on ethnography which had sunk barbs of doubt into his mind and left him suspicious that all those who had so readily swallowed his lies about who his mother had been were equally pretenders or sorts.

Just two evenings ago, the promoter of the Night in Manila show had joked about how much Higa resembled one of the dancers. Grinning as he always did when pressed to defend himself against even the most unintended doubts of his Japaneseness, Higa had lectured the promoter, and the others at the table who seemed to take the implication of the remark seriously, that Yamato gene pools were amalgams of every Asian and Pacific people east of the Urals and north of the Coral Sea.

"I'm from Okinawa," he had added. "And skin pigmentation studies have shown that Okinawan armpits are only slightly darker and hairier than the esteemed axillae of the Imperial Family."

"That explains it," nodded the director of the Japan-Philippines Friendship Association, too impressed with the scholarly tone and anthropological sense of Higa's remarks to notice the impish smile that spread across his face as he turned his eyes back to the stage.

After putting the folders in the drawer of his desk, Higa looked out the window at the manicured stand of cedars on the mountainside. The snow was rapidly melting now. It would soon be summer, then fall, when he'd be taking another vacation overseas. What country would he venture to this year, he wondered. But after a moment's thought, he left for another day the brochures his travel agent had dropped off. The only place in the world he really wished to go now was to bed.

Higa briefed the Immigration Bureau officials as soon as they arrived the second morning after the fire to investigate the dancers. The women had been in Japan barely a month, so none had as yet overstayed their three-month entertainer visas. They had been admitted as performers in the Night and Manila show, yet all were found to have engaged, willy-nilly, in unlawful activities, ranging from otherwise legal work like hostessing and topless dancing, which were simply beyond the pale of their visas, to the performance of obscene acts in public and prostitution. Two of the dancers, including the woman Higa had seen in the sex show, turned out to be minors, contrary to the claims of their documents. Hence the following day, they would all be taken to the Yokohama Immigration Center and processed for deportation.

In his twenty-odd years with the police, Higa had come to accept the view, prevalent among his peers around the world, that laws prohibiting sexual behaviors that were deemed to offend public morals were never intended for urban pleasure zones and resort towns that provided afterhours and holiday relief from the stresses of daily life. All manner of critics objected to the sex industry, mostly because they thought it was wrong to sell favors of the flesh on a par with food, drink, concerts, ball games, amusement park rides, language lessons, clinical counseling, sutras and prayers, and all the other forms of gratification and release that were dignified by names like nutrition, exercise, recreation, education, and enlightenment. Higa, though, remained unconvinced that the human body was less dignified as a sexual commodity than it was as a mindless organ of state, party, army, family, clan, school, factory, corporation, sect, or cult.

Human bondage and extortion, however, were not among the acts to which Higa was willing to turn his cheek for the sake of the local economy and its proclivity for at once exploiting and titillating the male ego and the libido that ruled it. The Task Force on Control of Criminal Activities Involving Aliens, which he headed in his capacity as chief of the Criminal Investigation Division, had targeted anyone, free agent or crime syndicate members, who enslaved imported performers, most commonly by confiscating their passports, thus keeping them from running off, or even from returning to their home countries when their visas expired, and then threatening them with exposure and violence should they refuse to moonlight as hostesses, strippers, and prostitutes, and kick back the bulk of their earnings to pay off an endless list of interest-inflated fees for recruiting, documents, transportation, shelter, food, clothes, makeup, condoms, AIDS tests, and abortions.

Hence Higa felt particularly elated days later when, to wrap up his own investigation, he sent the public prosecutor papers on the Night in Manila show promoter, an itinerant yakuza who, despite his youth, had already acquired a full-body tattoo. He had arrested the gangster at his apartment very early the first morning after the fire. The suspect had been loading his clothes and other belongings into his car; and the trunk had produced a suitcase stuffed with ropes, whips, handcuffs, dildos, tengu masks, and several mail-order catalogs of other adult-toy tools of his trade and stagecraft.

The gangster had nothing to do, however, with the tragedy in Room 307. Tanabe had apparently stabbed himself before the fire began, and he was rapidly dying from massive hemorrhage when smoke from the fire infiltrated his lungs and asphyxiated him. Higa speculated that Tanabe, who was already hallucinating at the time he brought Maria to his room, about her being his wartime lover, might have been driven to murder her and then execute himself after seeing the photograph in the locket and concluding that he had just violated his daughter.

Several of the veterans who had served under Tanabe stated under oath that he had kept two Filipino women and had been especially fond of one of them, but none could be certain that her name had been Maria. All of them, however, and Mihara, were emphatic that the soldier in the locket photograph was not of Tanabe, whoever the woman and child may have been. The identity of the Maria in 307, and whether her mother had really been the daughter of a Filipino woman and a Japanese man, was being pursued through the Foreign Ministry and the Philippines Embassy.

As for the fire, officials suspect that it started in the space above the ceiling of the first floor, probably from an electrical short caused by mice eating through the insulation. The sparks from the short presumably ignited an explosive mixture of dry wood dust and air.

On the morning of the third day, Higa went to see the dancers off. And what a sendoff it was, with the police fence between the dancers and the crowd of civilian well-wishers, including some local representatives of the Japan-Philippines Friendship League, and even a few members of the Battle of Manila Survivors Association, all standing stiff and pompous, their gesture of international goodwill, perhaps in recognition of the contribution the dancers had made to the enrichment of Japanese culture, Higa thought, as he watched the women file out of the front of the building where they had been detained, emerging one at a time, each woman escorted by a female immigration officer who would serve as her personal tour guide on the long bus ride to the Yokohama center.

The first dancer to come out the vestibule was the woman who had been in the sex show. She caught Higa staring at her, held her gaze a second or two, then turned to whisper in the ear of the dancer behind her, who in turn glanced at him. Had the woman remembered seeing him watch her from the darkness in the back of the theater? Higa felt his whole face flush, as though he'd just been caught masturbating.

Theresa was the sixth to appear. She searched the crowd, and made eye contact with Mihara, who furrowed his brows and drew the corners of his mouth down but did not avert his eyes. She then spotted the cluster of police, and the instant she found Higa she smiled, as if to say she'd be okay. Yet the longer she held her smile, the wetter her eyes became, and by the time she had reached the door to the bus there were tears gushing down her cheeks.

Halfway between the building and the bus, the last dancer began waving her arms at the phalanx of TV crews that flanked the procession of dancers and their uniformed escorts like a reception line. Just before she mounted the steps into the bus, she beamed straight into the NHK camera and shouted, "I shall return!"

A few evenings later, after watching a video of the TV coverage, Higa studied the travel brochures that he'd brought back to his dorm. One described a tour to the Philippines. It was not that he had never wanted to go, but his father had always urged him to leave his past be. As recently as last fall, one year after his father's death, he had turned down a trip to the Philippines in favor of Thailand.

This time, however, he'd go. He'd write Theresa and ask her to accompany him when he visited Maria's mother and expressed his personal condolences. Above all, though, he'd implore her to help him search for Christina and Nida. He'd tell her all he knew about Sabina and his father, and all the other things that had gotten only as far as his lips that morning he had interrogated her: all those things about his past that wanted release but had always retreated into the folds of his soul, where they had been too long tethered by fears that no longer mattered.


This version, at 8,880 words, weighs roughly twice the 4,460 words of the original version. I'm still not satisfied with it. At times I feel like cutting it back to its original size. At times I feel like expanding it into a novella or full-length novel. I've even dreamt of a movie version. Any number of hot springs could serve as the location. Any number of older hotels could be destroyed for the purpose of filming the fire. There'd be no shortage of authentic extras, whether Filipinas or veterans, though the Filipinas are increasing and the veterans are rapidly dying off.