Qwertyman No. 23: The Glass Sibuyas

Qwertyman for Monday, January 9, 2023

(With apologies to some of our readers who might not catch the reference to Benoit Blanc. A little Googling will help.)

THE INTERNATIONALLY famed detective Benoit Blanc knew immediately what he was up against the minute his airport limousine stopped in Manila’s infernal traffic and he found himself staring at a Burger Queen outlet with an unusual sign: “NO ONIONS TODAY.” It seemed inconceivable that Wimpies could be sold anywhere in the world without onions, but here it was, the living proof of the mystery he had been engaged to figure out. He had initially declined the assignment, being more interested in the case of a dusky Brazilian heiress who had gone missing on a yacht off St. Tropez after imbibing vodka laced with one-carat diamonds—that sort of intrigue being more down his alley—but the anonymous party who had hired him (wiring a million euros into his Bahamian account) had been persistent. 

The sudden shortage of onions in the Philippines was proving to be nothing short of a national embarrassment that was threatening the stability of the new government, and it had to be explained. Local law enforcement could not be trusted because they had long been in the pocket of the onion lobby, explained the other party (whose voice had been digitally distorted, but whose cadence of speech—punctuated with many uhms and uhhs—sounded strangely familiar to Blanc when he looked up some YouTube videos on the Philippines). Blanc didn’t bother to verify his suspicions; detectives of his caliber could not afford to be distracted by politics, which was messier but also simpler than murder, with the perpetrator often in plain sight, and where crime was rarely followed by punishment.

On the first of his three days in Manila, Blanc put on his best disguise as a French tourist in search of the best onion soup in the city. Even in the poshest hotel, all he could find was a tepid bowl of caramel-colored water with a few token rings of the spice and the grainy evidence of flavored powder. When he queried the chef about the omission, the exasperated man urged Benoit to go to the public market and see for himself what the real situation was. 

So the detective got his driver to park a block away from Farmers Market; he could go no further, because large and noisy crowds had massed around the block, bearing placards decrying the severe shortage of onions and demanding social justice. A fat lady in a polka dot dress emerged from within the market nervously clutching a big bag that was clearly marked “RICE,” but the little round bulges in the bag gave the ruse away and before she could make it to her car, the crowd pounced on her and her bag like a pack of wolves, spilling onions that rolled onto the ground, for which grandmothers and little boys socked each other to grab. Benoit gasped as he saw one onion being thrown like a football from a quarterback to a receiver, only to vanish into the heart of chaos as the latter was tackled by a chorus of slipper-shod defensive linemen. Goodness me, said Blanc, something terrible is happening in this country. If I can’t unravel the mystery of the missing onions soon, a bloody revolution could follow.

The following day, Benoit Blanc visited with Dr. Luzvimindo Bimbo, Chief Research Scientist of the Omnibus Institute, to get a more scientific handle on the problem. Dr. Bimbo flashed a series of PowerPoint slides onscreen to orient the detective. “Among 151 countries surveyed, the Philippines ranked 135th among 151 countries in onion consumption per capita, varying from an all-time low of 0.42 kilos in 1964 to 2.47 kilos in 2018, according to Helgi Analytics. Compare that to the Americans, whose consumption rose from 5.53 kilos in in 1982 to just over 9 kilos in 2018. And even that’s nothing compared to the Libyans, who couldn’t survive without consuming 30.3 kilos per person—the highest in the world. On average, people eat 6.2 kilos of onions every year.”

“Well, I’ll be,” said Blanc. “So we can safely conclude that Filipinos actually don’t consume onions as much as most other countries in the world.” 

“Certainly not,” said Dr. Bimbo. 

“And yet there’s a shortage?”

“Apparently so, as we can see from the onion riots that have now led to five deaths and countless injuries. Part of it may be artificial demand—when people hear something’s in short supply, the more they want it—but that doesn’t explain the lack of onions at Burger Queen. Even my wife can’t get onions for my bistek Tagalog!”

“Bustique Tagawhat? Never mind…. Someone’s been hoarding the commodity, for nefarious reasons we have yet to establish. Who, why, where?”

Later that day, Benoit mulled over the possibilities as he nursed his Hennessy in his hotel suite overlooking Manila Bay. Quite likely, the solution was in plain sight—like a many-layered glass onion which you still could see straight through. The plain-sight answer was profit—someone was making a killing retailing the stuff at P1,000/kilo—but it seemed too simple, too prosaic, for him to have been brought into the picture. 

But as the sun dipped into the horizon in a spectacular display of radiance, Benoit forgot all about onions as his memories drifted to another sunset he had spent with his girlfriend in the Maldives, just before he flew off to another mystery in Copenhagen, and before the tsunami struck. His eyes welled with tears at the thought—and then he realized he had his answer.

The next morning, before packing his bags for his flight home, the detective called the number of the one who had engaged him to report on his findings. Again he was answered in a raspy digital voice, but Blanc knew exactly who it was. “You already know who has all the onions, probably stockpiled in a high-security warehouse next to a top-secret manufacturing facility. Syn-Propanethial-S-oxide. Onions release this chemical irritant to produce tears. I estimate that with the onions taken out of the market, you would have synthesized a metric ton of the substance by now. Why did you need to bring me in?” he asked with obvious annoyance.

“Because I wanted someone else to appreciate my predicament,” said the voice after a pause. “It gets very lonely when you and you alone can’t cry. Where have all my tears gone, Mr. Blanc? Answer me that, and I’ll give you another million euros.”

Benoit thought of saying something like “Where has your heart gone?” but it felt too mushy for someone of Blanc’s sangfroid, and he decided that his job here was done, and shut his suitcase for the next flight to Dakkar.