It turned out Harry Barnes was on his way back to the States from China. His friend Barney Jenkins had died from an infection of the kidneys the doctors in Hong Kong had been unable to diagnose properly, and at the end, when Jenkins was in very real pain and knew he would not last long, Harry Barnes had promised that he would get his remains back to his wife and kid in Los Angeles.
Harry had developed a real affection for Jenkins, who was a reporter. Jenkins had once persuaded him to join him on a flight up the Yangtze to Hankow when he was covering the Jap assault on China in thirty-eight, and together they had waited in the city, feeling with the Chinese that one wonderful moment of temporary unity and direction. Jenkins had covered China for news agencies on and off for years. He had been at the Shanghai Insurrection in twenty-seven. He had interviewed Sun Yat-sen and Borodin—stuff like that—and he taught Harry Barnes a great deal. Even though they had almost gotten killed when the Japs clamped a pincers movement on Hankow, Harry kept a special fondness for his friend. Besides, along with burdening him with the body, Jenkins had paid his passage. China had gone sour for Harry, and he didn’t mind leaving a bit. He had Jenkins cremated to make him more portable.
His ship docked in Manila just as the first Jap bombers were leaving to destroy the American military force in the Philippines. He had been in Manila before and he thought it was a rotten town. “Too damn many black bugs,” he said. “The sweet smell of copra on the docks and the damn black bugs.” Now he was stuck in Manila with the black smoke pouring into the sky out of Nichols Field and Cavite Naval Depot and Jap Zeros dive-bombing and strafing the harbor and anything they could see along the Pasig River.
He got a room at the Manila Hotel and stayed there off-and-on for a couple of weeks. But it was like a refugee station, people crowding in from all over the city and then scattering out in all directions like so much chaff in the wind. Still, it was all right while the bar was open. But it was getting near Christmas, and somehow Christmas seemed important this year. He could never have said why. It might have been Jenkins dead and his family waiting for him in the States, or the way the Japs were tearing hell out of the Port Area, or being in a tropical city where he had no roots, or just some irrational sinking feeling he was developing about the whole bloody mess. He called some friends who were supposed to be in town, but the lines were overloaded, and when he did manage to get through, nobody was home. Spending Christmas in the Manila Hotel was not his idea of the Hallelujah Chorus. He grabbed Jenkins and went for a walk.