Folks don’t look at me much. That’s fine by me. In my line of work, it’s a gift to be invisible: to hover over some poor blurcock’s shoulder, eyes following his every blunder till you’ve enough evidence to hang him twice.
Still, every now and again you get a client like this one. Face like an angel, body like a porn star. Smile like a killer rosebud, breath that somehow smells of jasmine, all wrapped up in a girl-next-door Isetan sundress. And you’re ready to curse the moon and shit at the sky, ‘cos you know she’d sooner look death in the face than blink halfway in your direction.
But I’m one of the good guys. And being one of the good guys sometimes means keeping your trap shut, as my partner says. And god, I owe that man. Haron bin Aziz, your mouth is one of the world’s primary natural resources for bullshit, but you’re my own personal savior.
He’s handling the client now. Patting her hand, giving her tissue to mop her eyes. God, I hate him sometimes.
‘It’s okay, Miss Chan,’ he’s saying, in that deep, chocolaty voice of his. ‘It’s a natural part of the grieving process.’ He’s in that long-sleeve batik number he wears so well, with that amulet and that lady-killer moustache. Probably wetting her panties as we speak.
Suddenly, she goes all stiff.
‘What’s what, Miss Chan?’ Still all mellow and rich.
‘That thing on the shelf. That baby doll…’
‘Oh that? I use it for rituals.’
Rituals my ass, I think, and crack a grin.
‘Its face changed.’
I can’t help it. There’s this lady in the shop, this perfect ten-out-of-ten covergirl, and she’s actually looking at me. What are the odds? Haron’s getting twitchy, though, trying to figure out how to get her eyes back to level one.
‘Let’s discuss your case.’
‘Its eyes are moving.’
‘You’re playing with fire, Miss Chan. You know we’re not your typical detective agency. We deal with forces beyond the scope of what the police even dare to say they believe in, let alone control.’ He fishes a cigarette out of his shirt pocket, lights it in front of her with only his fingers. ‘We’ll finish the job. No problem. But you ask too many questions, sooner or later you’ll get an answer you don’t like.’
Turns out my partner doesn’t know much about ladies after all. Fundamental rule: the harder you bluster, the more they want the truth. She’s standing up now, arms akimbo, trying to look bigger than she is. She must’ve been impressed by the fire trick, everyone is, but she’s doing a pretty swell job playing it cool.
‘Mr Haron. I’m your client, and I hired you because I trust you. I’d like that level of trust to be mutual. In other words, don’t treat me like an idiot.’
Haron blows a smoke ring and rolls his eyes at the ceiling. Finally, he calls out, ‘Tony? We’ve got a customer. Miss Erica Chan.’
A moment’s silence.
‘Say hi, Tony.’
I put up a teeny-tiny paw.
‘Pleased to meet you, Miss Chan.’
She’s in shock, but waves back. Not a bad start. No screaming or fainting and banging her head on the floor and bleeding into the magic carpet.
‘Is he a…’
‘A toyol. A stillborn baby, reanimated.’
‘I thought they were made up.’
‘Miss Chan, he’s right here. How would you like it if I challenged your existence in front of your nose?’ He’s clenching his cigarette between his teeth now, ruining the filter, like he always does when he’s trying not to laugh.
‘But he’s a –l’
‘Partner. He’s a partner in this agency, and a bloody good detective too. Cigarette, Tony?’
I’ve drifted off the shelf now, and floated over to his side so she can get a good look at me, in all my forty cm, three kilogram glory. A cigarette doesn’t sound half bad, though I’ve never been able to do the rings.
Haron lights one up for me and sticks it in my mouth. ‘There’s weird stuff everywhere in Singapore, Miss Chan,’ he continues. ‘Everywhere in the world. More strangeness than you – or any guy out there – can handle on your own. Trust us. Shut one eye. We’ll do all the dirty work. All you have to do is pay the fee.’
Finally, it looks like she’s got the message. She sits down, spreads her skirt across her perfect thighs, and looks up at me. Nervous-like, but smiling.
‘Good to meet you, Mr Tony.’ And now her eyes are on Haron. ‘I like to know what I’m getting into. I won’t have to sign my cheques in blood, will I?’
‘Nothing so corny.’
‘But payments in cash. Two fifty an hour, plus expenses.’
She doesn’t flinch at the price. Rich kid, I think. She’s got a nice handbag on her, too. Shanghai Tang. Glamorous, but functional. A mark of taste.
We’re finishing up the paperwork when her phone goes off. She excuses herself and flings open the shophouse door, ducking outside to carry on talking. The last beams of the day beat in on us, and I instinctively swoop out of the way – it’s just six o’clock sun, no harm done – and hover in the safety of the shade, letting her finish.
The azan sounds from the Masjid Sultan. She tries shouting over the classical Arabic, then hangs up and marches back into the office.
‘I’ve got to go. When can you start?’
‘Anytime you like, Miss Chan.’
‘How about tonight? Nine o’clock? My place?’
And Haron’s rising out of his chair, all gallant and gentleman-like, jumping at the chance to lend a hand to his damsel in distress. But her eyes dart around the room till she sees me, hiding in the gap between the door and the filing cabinet.
‘I’ll need all the help I can get,’ she says. ‘Perhaps Mr Tony could come too?’
Sure, I’m a monster. But at times like this, when the world smiles down on me, I just want to cry whoopee and turn a somersault, right here in the air.
They say the city never sleeps. Not true. Once a year, on the hottest day of the calendar, when the air shimmers off the mirrored skyscrapers like pale flames; when reservoirs sizzle and air-conditioners spontaneously combust; when grass-cutters flood their protective masks with the salt of their foreheads and bankers pull at their funky ties and sticky pantyhose; then even the best of us can do nothing else but set down our heads and snore.
All over the island: cashiers at conveyor belts, surgeons in their ORs and sisters in their cloisters; gamblers at their baccarat tables, firefighters on their poles, CEOs in their boardrooms mid-Powerpoint; even the discipline mistresses in detention rooms and the sergeant-majors in parade squares; even the maids hanging out laundry on bamboo poles and pilots cruising at thirty-six thousand feet. Even they stretch their faces, put up one arm then the other, fold it into a makeshift pillow and curl up in place. Even they know that enough is enough is enough.
And while they whistle in dreamland, the bob-bob-bob of the tides somehow jerks, the shoreline sinks, and the seas around the island drain to reveal fresh sand, new shells, bleached corals. Like a boudoir curtain drawn sideways, the waters expose new nakednesses: a world of ancient horseshoe crabs and turtles scuttling amidst ugly derricks and trawler nets.
And there, in their huts of shipwreck jetsam, are the Orang Laut.
They are the original fisher folk. They who lived in the littorals of the island, housed in houseboats, their generations extending back for centuries before the settler folk came.
They who were brown and sleek and healthy, fed on a fat-rich diet of slippery bright souls. They who swam with the squid and fucked with the dugongs. They who wrote nothing, claimed nothing, built nothing, knew nothing save for themselves, till white man, yellow man, India man came.
If the historian should wake now in the nest of her office, lined with stacks of books and microfilms, she might tell you the fate of their tribes, drawn from obscurity into the commerce of the global emporium. She would say how they made their homes in the swamps, chopping mangroves for heat while their wives sold fruit and beeswax to sailors in the bay. How they drifted away, dying of smallpox or else sharing their blood with the landlubbers, stowing their hearts into flats, jamming their dreams into punch card clocks.
She does not know the truth. How could she, when she naps, peaceful as a corpse?
Besides, they look different now. See how scales have grown at the edge of their lips, how fins adorn the fringe of their toes and whirlpool-eyes and navels. See how their nostrils flare in amazement at the sunlight, mistrusting it as an allotrope of water.
But with a blink, blink, they recall their duty. Clambering into their sampans, they gather their tools and wait.
Then the wind rushes in, and like long balloons, their boats are aloft, hopping across the air, into the city, coasting through the mighty towers and steelworks, mere metres above the ground. They chuckle as their barks narrowly miss collision with construction cranes, concrete malls, playground equipment, abstract statuary, scalps of citizens still snoozing below. They clench their knuckles as the wind blows them higher, higher, flipping them wave-like, stringless kites. The sun bakes their skins and they laugh, the quiet, gurgling laughs of those whose years outnumber any heap of salt-grains.
And they bask in the open air for a moment, gazing with wistful bliss at the land below them, all spiked and grey. But the sun is high and can go no higher. They must set to work. Before the hour is out, the harvest must be complete.
So they throw out their nets: and what nets they are, knotted from the finest of silks, more nimble than any worm or spider might purge from her belly. And they cast out their hooks, and what hooks, smaller and sharper than the spark in the eyes of a cornered cat.
And these traps fall. They fall into the laps of those of us sleeping below, at their desks and their workstations. They fall into our mouths. But we do not wake. We do not catch hold of these hooks and ride them, heavenward, to say hello. We only toss our heads, smiling undisturbed, as magic covers us.
But something is caught. Their nets become heavy, their fishing lines taut. And we frown a little as they reel in their bounty from above, as if, in our unconscious slumberland, something has been irrevocably lost.
The boats of the Orang Laut drift back downward. The waves blanket them as they pass.
The sky cools a tick, and as if on command, the city wakes. We gaze downwards at our hands, guilty that we have allowed ourselves this lapse of judgment. We reproach ourselves, privately promise it will never happen again, that it was not in character; that no-one noticed anyway, therefore it never happened at all. We shall forget it ourselves by the evening.
And if the eyes of a few of us are a little emptier, our smiles more false, our chests more hollow, what of it? Nothing has truly changed. And look: our work is not even halfway done.
Below, they laugh at us, rustling the depths. They count and celebrate their spoils. But we shall pay them no heed. Whatever has happened, we are convinced we are none the poorer.
We can afford to be magnanimous, anyhow. We are wealthy sons and daughters of industry.
If something was taken, we are sure it will not be missed.