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The Adventure of the President's Lawyer
I met Adolpho Leon through my high school friend Kikoy. He’s a bit of an oddball, Kikoy had mentioned, but his spare room’s been vacant for a while and it should be going for a good rate.
The room was on the second floor of a modest home on Baker Street in the middle of Little Manila in Los Angeles. Adolpho and I would each have our own rooms on the second floor while the Filipina landlady Marta had her own room on the first.
While this was a bit of an odd arrangement, Kikoy had assured me that having Marta in such close quarters was to my advantage as a tenant. Apparently, she prepared breakfasts at no cost to Adolpho and likely would for me as well - as long as she liked me enough.
But when I visited the room on Baker Street, Marta wasn’t home and only Adolpho was there to greet me.
“Just arrived back from the war?” Adolpho asked as he shook my hand. Adolpho was a tall, thin man who Kikoy had said was in his early thirties, but Adolpho seemed decades older given his sunken eyes and hollow cheeks.
“Just a couple weeks ago actually. I’m guessing Kikoy mentioned it?”
“He didn’t,” Adolpho replied. “But with the tiny cuts on your forearms, presumably from the razor-sharp elephant grass that populates the jungles in Vietnam, I figured you’d been in Vietnam at most a few weeks ago.”
Taken aback, I looked down at the barely visible cuts on my forearms, which I had obtained in Vietnam when sprinting through tall grass amidst a hasty retreat.
No one had told us about the fierce resistance that we would face in Vietnam, whether it be from the Viet Cong, the mosquitos, or even the grass. Nor did anyone tell us about the torrential downpours or the hellish underground tunnels that were filled with rats, scorpions, and corpses - usually American ones.
“Since coming back, I’ve been drinking quite a bit,” I said to Adolpho. “Trying not to though.”
“And I smoke too much,” Adolpho said, shrugging. “So, you want the room?”
“Oh ya, sure. But, shouldn’t we talk to Marta the landlady -”
“Ah don’t worry about her,” Adolpho said, waving his hand nonchalantly. “Since I helped her figure out where her now ex-husband was spending all his time after work, she’s been pretty happy to have me do as I please.”
“Fair enough,” I said, a bit surprised at the ease in which I had found my own place. “I’ll take it then.”
“Perfect! Then the matter is settled,” Adolpho said as he stood up and walked towards the front door. “Also, it seems as though we have another guest today. You’re welcome to come meet him if you’d like.”
I frowned as I followed Adolpho outside to the front porch which overlooked the evidently empty front yard and a quiet Baker Street. “I don’t think there’s anyone here.”
“A keen observation,” Adolpho said with a hint of a smile. “But there’s been a gray Volkswagen Golf, circling the block for the past twenty minutes, probably waiting for you to leave.”
As though on cue, a gray Volkswagen slowly made a left turn onto Baker Street. Adolpho waved at the driver, motioning him to come up to the house.
“You must be the detective,” the driver said to Adolpho, breathing heavily once he made his way up the long staircase. He was a stout Filipino man in his forties whose messy hair and disheveled appearance stood in contrast to his designer suit and Rolex watch.
The man then looked at me. “And you are?”
“He’s my friend John Watson,” Adolpho said, answering for me. “And you’re Ting Bautista, the personal lawyer of the Philippine President.”
“That’s me,” Ting responded as he wiped sweat off his forehead.
“And you’ve just made the long flight from the Philippines because another one of the President’s associates has died,” Adolpho said as he lit himself a cigarette.
“Well,” Ting said, shaking his head in disbelief. “I’ve heard from half of the Philippines about your work, but it’s different witnessing it in person. How in the world did you know all this?”
“Your Yves Saint Laurent suit is wrinkled at the elbows, a common sight amongst cheaper suits but very unusual amongst suits of this quality - unless of course you were recently in a seated position for an extended period of time.”
“And what about the death of President Marcos’s friend?”
Adolpho shrugged as he flicked the ash from his cigarette. “You’ve only ever visited the States twice, and those two times came in the past few months for the funerals of Manny Mendoza and Alberto Bintuin, friends of the current administration. It stands to reason that you would only make a third visit because of a similar occurrence.”
“Well then,” Ting said. “I suppose it will be of no surprise to you that Edwin Romualdez was found yesterday in his bathtub with a gunshot wound to the head.”
Adolpho let out a low whistle. Although I had just met Adolpho, I got the sense he wasn’t one to get surprised often.
“Edwin used to run security for the Marcos administration,” Adolpho explained to me. “Seems as though the killer has struck even closer to the President this time.”
“Edwin was a friend of mine too,” Ting said, his voice shaking slightly. “But more importantly, he was a good man. Edwin worked hard to keep the Philippines safe from the radicals who would want to see our country torn apart.”
I frowned. I had heard news about protestors marching against President Marcos, a man who resembled an American-backed strongman more than a president. These protestors hardly seemed like radicals, I thought to myself.
“Like the other victims,” Adolpho said to me. “Edwin was a member of the President’s inner circle, which is why he was entrusted to manage the assets that the President has here in the States.”
“What makes you say that’s what Edwin was here to do?” Ting asked, frowning.
“The President’s tax filings, which are public, show a large number of assets here in the States. A close advisor like Edwin wouldn’t just move to the States on a whim, unless it were on behalf of some matter important to the President.”
For what seemed like a long while, Ting stared at Adolpho with his mouth agape.
“It seems,” Ting said once he had recovered. “That you will be the right person for this job. Give me information leading to the killer’s whereabouts and I’ll give you ten times of what’s in here.” Ting then pulled out a thick envelope from his pocket and handed it to Adolpho.
Once Ting had left, Adolpho insisted I spend time with him in the living room to debrief.
“So, what are your thoughts?” Adolpho asked as he sat down on the living room couch.
“First of all,” I began. “What is it that you do exactly?”
“I’m a consultant,” Adolpho replied. “Some would say detective even, but I’m not particular about titles.”
“Ok fair enough,” I said slowly. On the one hand, I had a feeling that private detectives probably made messy roommates. Yet, I was quite enjoying the sense of excitement that seemed to trail Adolpho.
“Back to my earlier question,” Adolpho said. “What are your thoughts on the case?”
“Well, from what I’ve seen in the news, President Marcos is starting to look a lot like a dictator.“
“You’re not wrong.”
“Ok,” I said. “And you have no concerns about working on behalf of a budding dictator?”
“At the end of the day, a man was murdered in his own home, leaving a wife with no husband and four children without a father,” Adolpho replied. “That’s all I need to know to take the case.”
I would have maybe brought up my hesitations again, but I hardly got a chance to speak to Adolpho during the next few weeks. He was in the house so infrequently that I was worried I would soon have to find a new roommate. And on the rare occasions that we did overlap on Baker Street, he would be deep in conversation with some visitor in the living room on the first floor.
These visits must have been related to the murder of Edwin Romualdez, but I was still surprised by the diversity of the guests. One day, there was a tall black man in his early thirties wearing a tank top and jeans. The following morning, there was a young, puffy eyed Asian woman, dressed in a slim black dress - the kind of woman to turn the heads of married men when she walked into a room. There were also a handful of older Filipinos who came in to speak with Adolpho, presumably relatives or family friends of Edwin.
Perhaps inspired by the busy schedule of my new roommate, I worked with a counselor at the Veterans Affairs office to get an interview for a job at the Filipino grocery store Pinoy City. Located near MacArthur Park on Alvarado, the grocery store was just around the corner from my new home on Baker Street.
“So what brings you here John?” Ramon Morales, the owner of Pinoy City, asked me. With his slim build, circular rimmed glasses, and hopelessly cluttered office, Ramon would have looked like your stereotypical college professor if it weren’t for a thin, jagged scar on the right side of his face.
“I just got back from Vietnam, so I’m looking for work.”
“Sure, sure,” Ramon said. “But I took a look at your resume and I saw that you have a college degree. You could be a manager at another retailer or get an office job downtown. So why this job?”
“I want to walk before I run, if that makes sense,” I replied.
“Well, this job fits the bill of walking. You’ll be bagging groceries and greeting customers,” Ramon said as he stood up and extended a hand. “We’d love to have you on the team.”
We shook hands.
“Oh and one more thing,” Ramon said as I was leaving his office. “I don’t mean this as some throwaway comment, but if you need anything or anyone gives you any trouble, you let me know alright? I’ll handle it.”
It wasn’t too long before I fell into the day-to-day rhythm of working at Pinoy City, which turned out to be the unofficial social club of the Filipino community. Wait times at the cash register dragged out longer than they should have because of gossip exchanged between customer and cashier. A corner of the parking lot, meanwhile, was taken up by a half-dozen folding tables where retired Filipino men - likely veterans of World War Two - exchanged crumpled dollar bills after games of chess, checkers, and cards.
The welcoming social environment at Pinoy City was perhaps best exemplified by how Ramon often asked me to join him for lunch. I initially wasn’t all that eager to spend my lunch breaks with my new boss, but Ramon and I had good rapport. He told me everything I needed to know about the neighborhood - how I should never ever play chess against Ding Revilla for money no matter how dumb he looked or how the church coffee meet up after the 9:00am mass was the best way to meet girls in the neighborhood.
Most importantly though, Ramon said, make sure you go to the beach to see an LA sunset. They’re some of the most beautiful in the world, he insisted, and most people in LA don’t ever take the time to see them.
Over one of these meals, I asked Ramon about the scar on the right side of his face.
“I was one of the protestors against the Marcos regime at the University of the Philippines,” Ramon said somberly.
“Oh I see.”
“Masked men with machetes swarmed our crowd, beating and hacking at us,” Ramon sighed. “Believe it or not, I was one of the lucky ones.”
We ate the rest of our lunch in silence.
But all in all, I was surprised by my first few weeks of living in Little Manila. Maybe it was the morning breakfasts with Marta, the banter with co-workers at Pinoy City, or the general liveliness of the neighborhood, but for the first time in a long while, I had achieved a state of contentment.
One day after work, I finally ran into Adolpho again. I saw him sitting on the front porch tapping his feet impatiently as I made my way up the long staircase.
“Tonight seems like a good night to solve a murder, doesn’t it, Watson?” Adolpho said as I made my way up the final steps.
“Can’t say I have more exciting plans for the night.”
“Wonderful,” Adolpho said as he stood up and began walking down the staircase. “Then we’re off to meet Rick Tresvant.”
I cocked my head to the side. “The same guy that plays for the Lakers?”
“No time for questions,” Adolpho said from halfway down the stairs. “We’re already running late.”
As he drove us to our destination, Adolpho explained what he had been up to for the past few weeks.
“Edwin Romualdez lived a hectic life here in the States. He had many business ventures, not all of them legal. He also had multiple girlfriends, as well as a wife, four kids, and a large extended family. Needless to say, it’s been a busy few weeks for me, tracking everyone down.”
“So you’ve got it all figured out then?” I asked hopefully.
“Edwin’s mistress Luneta puts Edwin leaving her apartment at around 5pm on the night of his murder to meet up for dinner with Rick Tresvant, who Edwin does business with.”
“So Rick was the last person to see Edwin before his death?”
“Not quite,” Adolpho said. “Luneta claims that Edwin opted for an early dinner with Rick so that Edwin could make time for another person coming over to his house later that night.”
“So Rick might have a clue as to who this guest was,” I said nodding.
We arrived at a bar on Prairie Street, across from the Forum stadium where the Lakers played. Rick Tresvant - who I recognized from watching Lakers games - was at the corner of the bar, trying to wave down the bartender for a drink. He was already accompanied by three empty shot glasses.
“Rick,” Adolpho said, smiling as he approached him.
“This is the last time I’m talking to you about Edwin,” Rick muttered through gritted teeth without looking at Adolpho.
“You’re right,” Adolpho said as he sat down at the barstool next to Rick. “The next time you talk about Edwin might be to the cops.”
“Listen, I’ve seen a lot of rich Filipinos dying in the news lately. I don’t want any more part of this.”
“Secret stays between us,” Adolpho said. “We just need to understand if there’s anything you might know about who Edwin was going to meet after your dinner with him.”
“You know,” Rick said, taking a deep breath. “If I tell you anything else, I could end up two feet under - ”
“Rick,” Adolpho said. “There’s a murderer on the loose.”
“I got no beef with this guy - that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you,” Rick said exasperated.
“But the murderer might have beef with you, especially if he knows that you have information that might lead to his arrest.”
Rick slumped against his chair with his giant frame as he put his hands to his face. At that point, the bartender arrived with a shot of tequila, which Rick handily downed. In Rick’s hands, the shot glass looked like a mere thimble.
“Edwin was going to meet the grocery store guy, Ramen or Ramon or something,” Rick said in a hushed tone as he leaned towards us. “Edwin wanted to apologize. Wanted to get something off his chest.”
We didn’t stay much longer at the bar.
“There’s gotta be a misunderstanding,” I told Adolpho on the ride back home. “I’ve only known Ramon for a few weeks, but I just can’t imagine - “
“He’s got the motive as you know,” Adolpho said. “Who knows how many of his leftist friends were beaten or murdered by the cronies of Marcos and Edwin Romualdez?”
“I mean, he had to have some sort of reason…”
“A murder’s a murder, Watson. The law’s pretty clear about this sort of thing,” Adolpho said, looking at me with a raised eyebrow.
While I wasn’t certain of Ramon’s innocence, I knew there had to be more to Edwin’s death. Edwin, after all, wasn’t your ordinary victim. As the former head of security for President Marcos, Edwin likely had a hand to play in all the disappearances, the beatings, and murders that the administration used to keep order. Could a guy like that really be a victim?
Surely, there was some piece of information or some bit of context that I was missing, something that could maybe even convince Adolpho of some alternative resolution to the case, something that didn’t involve the blunt justice of the police or Ting Bautista.
Early the next morning, I woke up knowing that I needed to meet with Ramon to get his side of the story, so I tiptoed past Adolpho’s bedroom and down the staircase, taking great care to close the front door softly. I then walked towards Ramon’s apartment, which was conveniently just a ten-minute walk away, right across the street from Pinoy City.
But when I was a block away from Ramon’s, I was surprised to see several cop cars double parked outside his apartment. And speaking to one of the officers was the tall, lanky figure of Adolpho who greeted me with a thin smile.
“Watson, I thought you’d be making a visit to Ramon’s,” Adolpho said. “Unfortunately for you, it seems like you’re a bit late.”
“The cops? Seriously?” I said, trying to hold my temper. “We still don’t know for sure if Ramon had anything to do with all of this - “
“The day after the murder, Ramon took a day off from work at Pinoy City, the first he’s taken in years. Also, the bullet in Edwin’s skull matches precisely the caliber of the revolver that Ramon had registered to his name.”
“But more importantly,” Adolpho continued. “Ramon fled his apartment last night and left us this letter.” Adolpho reached into his pocket and took out an envelope, which he handed to me.
It was addressed to Adolpho Leon and John Watson. I opened the letter and began to read it aloud.
To Adolpho and John,
I must admit, I became worried when I heard that the great Adolpho Leon would be investigating Edwin’s death. But once I began having lunchtime chats with John, I learned about each of the guests meeting with Adolpho, allowing me to get a good sense of where he was in his investigation.
That said, I truly hope you don’t beat yourself up over this error, John. To be quite honest, I expected better from Adolpho who, I’m sure, takes greater responsibility for this oversight.
At this point, you might think that these killings were done out of revenge, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Edwin, Manny, and Alberto were all managing Marcos’s businesses here in the States and sending money back to the Philippines, money that was undoubtedly being used to further oppress our people.
You see, doing good sometimes requires the destruction of evil - even if it means committing the greatest of sins.
Your neighborhood grocer,
“Well that’s one way to implicate yourself in a triple homicide,” Adolpho said dryly as he took the letter from my hands.
“That’s really your takeaway from the letter?”
“Listen Watson,” Adolpho said more softly as he put a hand on my shoulder. “I’ll admit that the world is varying shades of gray, but we need to draw the line somewhere between black and white. Murder isn’t a bad place to start, don’t you think?”
I brushed off Adolpho and began to walk down 8th Street.
I walked past the packed Korean barbecue restaurants in the strip malls on Western where the smell of marinated meats permeated even the sidewalks. Eventually, the Korean strip malls gave way to bustling pupusa shops and small Pentecostal churches where impassioned Spanish could be heard from blocks away.
For hours, I walked mindlessly, barely noticing the Forum in Inglewood and hardly hearing the shrieks of descending planes landing in nearby LAX, an audible sign that I was on the westside of the city.
Soon, the smog from LA traffic was dispersed by a pleasant breeze that heralded the transition from busy boulevards packed with heavy traffic to quiet streets filled with children riding bicycles, as though suburban life itself was brought out by cool weather and crisp air.
But when I finally arrived at the beach, I found that I had just missed the sunset.
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