"MY WALLET. IT’S GONE,” Buen told his nephew. In the hush of the camera shop, Buen’s words sounded to himself like the click of cheap cuffs. He and Lean were fair game here, unlike in their hometown of Kapetera. By indulging in the anonymity of Quiapo, with guard down and mind unclenched, he had let someone get the better of him, had put himself and Lean in a position that may negate the whole point of their trip to the city.
What were his options? With his small salary, it had taken Buen a good year to save up for a camera. An excuse to bring Lean out of Kapetera might take another while to roll around. And Lean was at an age when interests were quick to flare and fade. By the time Buen would have enough money again, his nephew might no longer be interested in photography: unacceptable to Buen, who wished for Lean to refine the talent, the knack for images so unlike any in Kapetera—lighting harsh, colors unfiltered, subjects unposed and raw—the one early chance for him to jump the family rut.
He could fix things himself, but what that would involve equally appalled him—interacting with the local police, revealing his identity, appealing exemption. It would be just like Kapetera.
“We have to tell papa,” his nephew said. Buen felt Lean’s shoulder tense up. He wished he could see more disappointment in his nephew’s face. All he saw was a combative hope. Buen wanted nothing more than to return home.
Asking help from Lean’s father was out of the question. He took Lean’s hand and led the way out of the camera shop, into the press of Sunday churchgoers, he and his nephew carried by momentum up Hidalgo and finally into Plaza Miranda. There a line of fortune-tellers sat on short monobloc chairs, behind them vendors of small clothes for Sto. Niño icons, herbs and strange bottled brews, mysterious amulets, embossed with pidgin prayers, of the kind worn by Buen’s colleagues, misshapen candlesticks grotesque because recognizable as human. Two men dressed in robes, one white, the other maroon, preached salvation to his own indifferent half of the main plaza.
Buen saw a policeman in the distance. He felt Lean’s grip on his hand relax.
His voice catching in his throat, Buen began to tell the policeman about his wallet. He was not surprised by the other’s polite disinterest. It was the same stance he and his colleagues assumed in their detachment in Kapetera every day, talking to people in various states of distress or anger. It was a practiced, practical indifference that helped ease them into coming to work every day.
The policeman began to process Buen’s complaint: Where were they when they noticed the loss? How long ago? Where are you from and do you have money to go home? You should have been more mindful; there are many negative elements here. In his mind Buen heard himself performing variations on the same theme, in the same tone: You should have installed a sturdier lock. Your father should have known better; everyone is armed around here. There is nothing we can do until we find the body. Words he would never have said when he was younger, when belief was an infinite resource, when will was all the currency you needed to invest in faith.
“My father is police chief of our town,” Lean said then, cutting into the policeman’s words.
Buen had been reaching into his pocket for his own badge when the boy spoke up. He did not know whether to slap or hug Lean. In a small voice he told his nephew to show the other his dependent’s ID.
Lean brightened, pulled out his own wallet and an ID from it. He said his father’s name, his father’s commission, his father’s serial number. The boy sounded like an adventurer speaking the secret words to a magic door.
The effect on the policeman was immediate: house pet suddenly presented with treat. “Then there won’t be a problem, Sir,” the cop said, addressing Lean directly.
Relief had flooded Buen when his nephew stopped after giving his father’s service details. But the policeman’s last word smothered Buen worse than the crowd that had earlier swept them into the plaza. He remained anonymous; his nephew was on his own.