Saving Up to Die

Short Story by Steve Bunk

Saving Up to Die

Jia arrives on the arm of Horst and I look away but they’ve noticed me, so I look back and lift my chin. It’s the usual assortment at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, including a few Chinese like Jia and an overrepresentation of Australians like Bruce Colley next to me at the bar. Colley is in Hong Kong on business for his family, which owns a media empire based in Sydney. He’s higher up now than when I first met him a few years ago. Back then, he was in charge only of the company's travel and lifestyle magazines but already had assumed the distracted manner of someone ever eager to attend more important events just past my shoulder. Watching Horst and Jia approach, Colley thumbs his suspenders underneath the three-piece.

Horst says to me, “Hey, fantastic to see you.” He lays a hand on my shoulder as he signals the bartender and grabs the stool on my right, which keeps him between Jia and me. She tilts her head around him to say hello and her black hair touches the polished wood. Her eyes are kind and I forgive her but try not to show it, because he’s watching.

I introduce Colley to him, a stratagem. When Horst hops up and goes around me, I slip off my stool and stand close to Jia.

“You look tired,” she says.

It bothers me that the Manila thing attracted her to Horst, who would have been in the Philippines for the women and clubs as much as the travel pictures when the car bomb went off. All he had to do was click, click, and suddenly he was a syndicated war photographer, the toast of Honkers, or of our gaggle at any rate. Ah, but the truth is I’d already lost Jia by then. Weeks earlier, she delivered her tearful judgment of me as culturally and spiritually adrift. Sometimes it does seem that anywhere other than where I am beckons to me. But what, Horst is grounded?

No doubt torn between an urge to woo Colley and the danger of my face being too close to Jia’s, Horst leaves a business card with him and retrieves her. Their drinks come and as they make for a clutch of his new fans, she gives me what looks like a brave little wave.

I remount the stool and drag my attention back to Colley.

“You mentioned Umar Wahid,” I say.

“Yeah. He wants to talk. All you have to do is contact Angus Maxville at Asiapost when you get to Jakarta. He’ll have the details.”

Asiapost is owned by the Australian publishing conglomerate Colley’s family controls.

“Why me?” I can't help asking. “Why doesn’t Maxville do it himself?”

Colley holds up his drink and looks away, as if it’s a stupid question. This irritates me almost as much as the sight of him drinking gin and tonic.

“Maxville’s a lifer,” he says. “He’s grown dependent on servants. The broken glass sticking out of the walls around his house makes him feel safe. His wife’s a society star like she’d never be back in Adelaide. So long as he does nothing to offend the party, he gets tips on policy shifts before anybody else in the foreign media. Angus Maxville is definitely not the man to interview our little mate.”

Neither would I be Colley’s choice to interview a guy wanted by the Australian, Indonesian, and American governments, if not for one thing: Umar Wahid is an American who took up a second citizenship in Australia, like me. His birth name is Benjamin Nelson. We’re both outsiders, even though nowadays I have a sliver-view of Hong Kong's harbor from my bedsitter in Mid-Levels while he’s holed up God knows where with a cell of the region’s scariest radicals. Colley hopes the countries Wahid and I have in common will open him up.

“He’s lucky they haven’t pinned a killing on him yet,” I say. “Actually, putting his case to the press may not be a bad idea.”

“You can work out the details of your compensation with Maxville,” Colley says, snapping his suspenders. He scans the room. “There’s very little danger.” It sounds like he’s talking about the club crowd. Cocking his head toward Jia, he says, “Used to be your sheila?”

“How did you know?”

“Mate, it’s written all over you. Maybe you’ll make a big splash with this job and impress her.”

Maybe that’s written all over me, too.

“You can tell me to pull my head in,” he says, “but do you really want her back, or is it just wounded ego?”

“Who says I want her back?”

He shrugs, digs into a pocket of his vest and pulls out a flash drive. “Press reports on Wahid and photos," he says, handing me the drive. “There's also a bio-cum rap sheet on him that includes his activities with the extremist group he joined, Jemaah Islamiyah.”

Back at my apartment, I call Angus Maxville in Jakarta. He tells me what he'll pay for the job, and we agree to meet in two days. Grateful for something to do, I sit at the desk and begin reading the material on Wahid, much of it about him as Ben Nelson. He’s from a blue-collar family that moves around when he’s little, but he goes through high school in rural Michigan, where he gets along fine, according to his yearbook: a cross-country runner, secretary in the Christian Fellowship Club. He does a couple years at Michigan State and then holds a succession of sales jobs. Keeps on the move, never owns a home, even when raising two kids with his first wife. Colleagues describe him as extroverted and enthusiastic but hard on himself and others, given to outbursts of temper, yet also capable of sudden tears. A former coworker says she once saw a sentimental movie with Nelson during which his sobbing was so loud it disturbed everybody in the theater.

Jia cries at movies. It always made me uneasy, because she cries when it’s appropriate, when the scene is truly sad, while I’m cold to the real thing but have to defend against the sappy moments, when sentimentality overpowers any hope of true sentiment. This reaction perplexes me, as does the feeling that I’m all branches, no roots, another thing Nelson and I seem to have in common. Maybe Colley is right; at thirty-four, this might be my chance.

In the morning, once the plane is aloft, I open my laptop and reread the dossier, starting from when Nelson’s first marriage breaks up and his company reassigns him to Australia. Management tries to bring him home when the work visa runs out but he doesn’t want to leave Sydney, even though he rarely sees his kids in America anymore. He quits the job and wangles a new one with a domestic firm that arranges his permanent residency. A year later, he remarries but it falls apart and he starts drinking heavily. He joins a fundamentalist Christian group. The drinking gets worse. He puts on forty pounds.

Jia was drinking too much, rebounding from a bleak marriage, when we met at the club. Her job as graphic designer for a local publisher of in-flight magazines was suffering, and at first I was a shoulder to lean on. I kept her out of the bars, but I should have cut down on the travel. Or maybe if I had spoken more of love. And now Colley has me wondering if I care about her as much as I tell myself I do. His crack about ego bothers me.

I keep reading the report. Interviewed for his company’s in-house newsletter, Nelson affirms “faith in our people, which convinces me we can achieve this goal.” He’s talking about higher sales. It doesn’t happen. Sales decline and he gets the boot. He moves to Darwin, where the behavioral mean begins with excess and deteriorates. Yet his acquaintances there—interviewed by the anonymous compilers of his dossier—point to efforts at self-control even before he meets his third wife.

I put away the laptop as my plane prepares to land at Soekarno-Hatta. After Customs, I emerge to the unprecedented sight of a man holding up my name on a placard. Reflecting that the best reaction to this would be nonchalance, I beam. He takes my baggage off the carousel and leads the way to a tarnished Pontiac, which carries us to a downtown skyscraper surrounded by three-wheeled bajaj swarming through the city’s foul mugginess. The driver makes sure I know the number and I go up, trailing around a warren to the door of 1608: Asiapost, Angus Maxville, Bureau Chief. The “bureau” is an unattended receptionist’s counter in front of a half wall, behind which Maxville rises from his desk to shake hands. Plump and pasty with thin white hair, everything about this guy—stooped posture, pained smile, weak grip—contributes to the portrait of surrender. He gives me a phone number to call when I get to the hotel.

“Everything will go fine,” he assures me when I regard the number a little too long. He pushes a piece of paper across the desk and says, “Here.”

“What is it?”

“Just a formality. Sign at the bottom. It releases Asiapost.”

“From what?”

“Oh, everything. You know how corporations are.” He laughs.

My gaze has shifted from the phone number to the piece of paper.

“It’s just a formality,” he repeats. “You still get paid.” He laughs again.

I sign, and a taxi takes me to the hotel. When I call the number from the room, somebody phones back within five minutes, giving thickly accented instructions to take a morning flight on Merpati to Banjarmansin. Get a room at the Swiss-Belhotel, he says, and wait to be contacted. As soon as the guy hangs up, I call the airline to confirm the ticket is waiting.

Back in the dossier, I learn that Nelson stops drinking hard booze and wine in Darwin, restricting himself to beer, but of course everyone in Darwin drinks beer, a lot of it. He tries to lose weight with a diet involving stripped-down foods like chicken without the skin but then eats the whole chicken, according to one acquaintance. He becomes an eager pursuer of young women, offering free massages (he buys his own table) but that’s not too successful and he takes up regular patronage of a local escort service. He sees a psychologist, who diagnoses borderline personality disorder, so he doesn’t go back. He finds a job managing the Thai outlet in a fast food court near the outdoor mall, where he fights a running battle against the charms of the neighboring doughnut shop and meets Manaar, who wears the hijab.

The time comes when he’s been a permanent resident long enough to become a dual citizen, which he does. A few months later he and Manaar go to Afghanistan, supposedly as tourists but more likely for training. They stay three months, marrying in Kabul. When they return to Australia, he’s grown a beard, lost the extra weight along with his indulgences, has a new name and kneels regularly to Mecca. A half year later, the couple leaves Darwin and soon Umar Wahid starts appearing in intelligence reports on Jemaah Islamiyah doings throughout Southeast Asia. When an American oil rig is sabotaged in Borneo, Wahid is identified as the ringleader and becomes big news in Australia. Luckily for him, nobody dies in the rig’s bombing, but now he’s a notorious terrorist.

In Banjarmansin, the streets are lined with matted tangles of garbage, like a city version of swamp-forest peat. Schoolgirls in blue and white hold kerchiefs over their faces as they pick their way along puddled footpaths. The river, brown and choked with brush, moves a mélange of sampans, houseboats, and klokoks in and out of the pressing jungle. The taxi from the airport brings me to the Swiss-Belhotel, which is frequented by oilmen. My room looks down on an outdoor market where hairy rambutans and dried fish are piled beside jackfruit mired in mud. A knock turns me toward the door, which I open to a slight fellow in a bellman’s uniform who asks if I need anything. No. Do I want a girl? No. He shrugs and, almost as an afterthought, hands me a hotel card. On the back is written: “Black Orchid Café, Balikpapan. Wednesday, six p.m.” The bellman checks the rupiah I hand him and pockets them with ill-concealed scorn.

“Can you get a driver to take me to Balikpapan tomorrow morning?” I say. “Nine o’clock? Make sure he’s on time.”

“OK, boss. No girl? Boy, maybe?”

He’s probably thirty but has a wispy moustache like that of an adolescent. When he grins, I notice an extra tooth lodged behind an incisor. I shake my head and close the door.

The driver is waiting when I come down in the morning. I give the bellman a tip big enough to forestall disdain and get in the car. We head up the coast and by early afternoon, we reach Balikpapan. My hotel has a pond in front that looks clean but is clouded by mosquitoes even in the sun. It’s still hours until the meeting. I drop my bag in the room, go outside and start walking. A long oil truck barrels past as I step along a plank laid across a sewage ditch.

I find the Black Orchid without having to ask. As I approach, a bemo truck ambles by, covered in hand-painted movie banners that show someone who probably is meant to look like Stallone or Schwarzenegger kissing a woman while a blurt from his gun causes an Asian’s face to erupt redly. The bemo is playing Arabic music amplified to distortion, over the top of which a manic voice on the loudspeaker manages to climb. The cinema is across the street from the restaurant. I buy a ticket and go inside.

The movie is not the one advertised by the blaring truck. It’s Chinese, made in Cantonese with Mandarin subtitles, below which are Indonesian subtitles, with English below all that. I follow it without reading. The bad guy is an American Chinese from Los Angeles who gets cocaine all over his face, beats and rapes and shoots women, cheats everyone, swans around in a Cadillac wearing diamonds and upturned collars, and cackles constantly. His moll is equally crass but there’s also a young woman from a good family who’s interested in wearing blue jeans and smoking cigarettes. In the morality of the movie, she still seems salvageable if she can get away from capitalism and back to the hero, who’s able to knock out four men at once with his hands and feet. She just needs to stop using lipstick and give her money to her father. In the end, she shoots the bad guy six times in the back and throws the coke money to the hero but also takes a fatal slug in the gut, which I assume relates to a late-scene change into a V-necked blouse.

When I come out, the sun’s getting low. An oil flare rises over the city, and behind the canvas walls of the roadside warungs, diners are silhouetted by sunrays, like shadow puppets. I go across the street and enter the Black Orchid. It’s still a half hour before the meeting, so I sit down and order. Maybe the effects of the film are lingering, but I feel like an actor. I’ve felt that way ever since touching down in Jakarta and being met by my name on a placard. Living in Hong Kong can be dramatic, too, but Jia is there, which until lately made it home. Going away puts up a wall, even if it’s only canvas.

Sipping tea, I think of Wahid when he was still Ben Nelson, moving to Australia after the collapse of his first marriage. Did management transfer him or did he lobby for it? In either case, he brought his drinking problem and voracious appetite with him. I wonder how he’s getting along with his Muslim wife, who went underground beside him. Is she alluring under the long dress? And what of Jia and Horst? She’ll never get from him whatever it is she wants. He’ll promise but won’t deliver.

My rice and vegetables arrive and I try to concentrate on them for a while. I’m jittery. Why Balikpapan? Maybe he thought we’d blend in with the oilmen. Or maybe his group intends to attack the rigs again. If so, not advisable. ExxonMobil has a hill full of employee houses that look like the officers’ quarters of a U.S. military base, the gates guarded by the Indonesian army. I can imagine what the rigs look like.

Out the window, I see a military jeep skid to a halt in front of the cinema and a bunch of soldier boys jump out. Three or four go inside while the others stand around in their tight uniforms, brandishing automatic rifles. Their showiness would make me smile if they weren’t so heavily armed. When the soldiers come out of the cinema, they talk with a corporal or lieutenant who’s older than they are, maybe twenty-five. He looks around and seems to stare right at me, although I’m pretty sure he can’t see into the café. He walks across the street and a half-dozen of his men follow.

I look around for a back door, can’t see one, and tell myself I haven’t done anything wrong. The soldiers hesitate outside, then someone shoves the door and they surge in. The corporal looks around and points in my direction. They rush over but go right past me to an emaciated Indonesian sitting in the corner. They hoist him under the arms and hustle him outside. He hangs limply between them, his flip-flop sandals barely scraping the street on the way to the jeep.

I go to the window with the few other patrons in the place. One of the boy soldiers says something and his buddies all laugh. Another pokes the captive with his finger, everybody roars with delight, and they toss him into the back of the vehicle. They cuff his hands and put a blindfold on him, which makes the other diners murmur among themselves. The captive appears to complain and, bam, somebody whacks him in the back with the butt of a gun. Now the other diners yelp, and two of them start shouting at each other. The captive goes down on his side and shuts up, but it’s too late. The soldiers set to kicking and smacking him with their gun butts as he squirms on the floor. They laugh and whoop, as if the whole thing were a prank. His head is half-hanging out the back of the jeep, and even from the window I can see blood on the blindfold. Somebody grinds a boot sole into the back of the guy’s neck. The jeep starts up but doesn’t go anywhere. Everybody’s yelling. Finally, the corporal barks a command, they set off, and the boy soldiers start singing.

Inside, we go back to our tables. The two men are still grumbling at each other, and the waiter brings them beers. I’ve lost my appetite. What if they had been after me? How would I have responded to real endangerment? Jia once said her ex-husband was a moral coward, although she gave no details. Well, this situation didn’t have much to do with morals. I drift into a brief fantasy of the soldiers coming for me, and my stoic bravery.

Two hours later, nobody has showed. I pay up and walk back to the hotel. It’s a warm night and I lounge on the verandah, but child prostitutes try to sit on my lap, forcing a retreat to my room.

In the morning, I go to a warung across the street from the hotel. As I eat rice and eggs, two skinny Indonesian guys approach and one of them shows me a pistol under his shirt. I look blankly at it. The men take my elbows, rather gently, and guide me outside.

The guy who flashed the gun puts me in the little back seat of a jeep and the other one blindfolds me. Figuring this must be the meet-up with Wahid, I don’t complain. After a while, the road gets bumpy. We stop, and they nudge me forward through brush. I fall down and they pick me up. They tie me to a tree with a rope around my waist. Dread slices through me. They take off the blindfold and use it to gag me. We’re in the jungle. A bunch of soldiers are standing around.

An anecdote someone told me at the club floats into my mind: an old Indonesian man, very poor, receives the first water buffalo he’s ever owned and immediately kills himself, so his family can slaughter the animal and hold a feast in his honor. I try to talk through the gag but the soldiers are arguing, and everyone ignores me.

One of the skinny guys searches my pockets. He brings my passport to a corporal, who takes a long look at it, and then drops it on the ground. He stands there and everybody waits. A conviction arises in me of something I had begun to suspect. They think I’m Umar Wahid. It's true, he and I are roughly the same size, and in pictures of him taken a few years back, before he had a beard, when he was Nelson, there was facial similarity between us. I make a noise and the corporal looks over. He holds his weapon at arm’s length, pointed at me.

The corporal growls something, at which two soldiers untie me. They all get in their jeeps, turn around and drive away. I take off the gag and throw up. Shuffling a few feet to a less compromised segment of forest, my head and lungs storming, I sit against a tree. After a while, I hear something. In the gloom, a bearded figure stands over me with a gun.

It’s Wahid.

It turns out he’s decided he has nothing to say to the West, because words are useless. But he has brought me here and is obliged to protect me. His men give me a lift to the city’s outskirts.

Back in Hong Kong two days later, I file the story. It describes the skullduggery of the thwarted meeting in Balikpapan, the guy getting arrested at the Black Orchid and beat up by the military cops, the two soldiers bringing me to the forest. It explains that Wahid reneged. I put in stuff from the research Colley gave me and add plenty of local color. Asiapost prints it, and I am uncomfortably reminded of passing tests in college without having done the reading.

After it’s published, a few people at the club who were never interested in talking to me now act chummier. When Jia and Horst arrive, she elbows past a couple of my new pals to say it’s a fine report.

“I knew you had it in you,” she says, putting her hand on mine.

“What, a scoop?”

She removes her hand, takes a breath, and says, “I mean doing something that matters. That’s why you went out there, isn’t it?”

Before I can come up with a response that might salvage the moment, Horst says, “Don’t drink the rent.” He grins. “Really, though, you made a good piece out of, well, you know.”

He leads her off to dinner with friends.

Someone asks what I’m going to do next.

About the Author

Steve Bunk

As a freelance journalist, Steve Bunk reported from places throughout Asia, including Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, China, and Sri Lanka. For years, he freelanced in Australia, while based in Sydney, Darwin, Perth, and Hobart. He co-authored a nonfiction bestseller in that country (The Stump-Jumpers), wrote two travel books, and contributed to numerous other magazines, books, and newspapers. He also wrote for The Scientist while based in Philadelphia, Albuquerque, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. Other work includes a YA novel (The Uprising) and a nonfiction book about a standoff in the Northwest between environmentalists and big business (Goliath Staggered). Steve is now Managing Editor of Idaho Magazine and a guy who appreciates what being a father has done for him.