“Don’t get me wrong,” I said. The road had more glowing lamplights then, children shooting from one side street to the next, playing tag, some occasional clumps of housewives meeting for their daily fix of gross, men and women in uniform from work, clutching their bags close, walking straight ahead, to a house. Gina and I walked like them, like we had somewhere to run once things turned against our favor.
“Ugh. What now?” She had been clinging on my arm, and presently she detached herself to narrow her eyes at me, a look further compounded when I said:
“I love that you’re saving my ass all the time.”
“But, I don’t know, couldn’t you go easy on them?”
“So now I’m speaking to Mr. Human Rights. Hi! I’m an advocate for the Commission of Human Wrongs.”
“You’re the funny one. You don’t want to get killed but you don’t want to kill.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Hate to burst your bubble, but, oh, man,” she said, “you’ll die if you keep on like that in
“Would it help if I ship myself off to another?”
“You could try.”
“On a serious note: Self-defense is one thing, vengeance and murder is another.”
“I didn’t kill any of those boys. They’ll be alright. I don’t think…oh…now I get it. You like your boys dirty.”
“If that makes you happy, why not.” I said, exasperated. “All I’m saying is they’re humans, too. They have lives to live and some messed-up situation that led them to where they are now, and where they couldn’t shake themselves out of. If a guy does you one thing, won’t it be just to do something equally bad as that thing, and nothing more?”
“You are strange, strange man. But I’ll answer your question: It is just, but who cares? I do my job and my job right now is to keep you alive. I couldn’t do that if I keep letting those who’d be glad to plant a bullet in your head just run. This world doesn’t work that way anymore. Be happy that I got no funny ideas about using the gun you asked me to bring.”
“Now you’re scaring me,” I said.
“And now you’re making me want to laugh, like, seriously.” Then her smile left her face, a look of sudden grimness replacing it. “Bossing, I have to tell you, you have to know how to defend yourself. I can’t be around all the time. You don’t even know how to shoot a gun.”
“Because I don’t need to.”
“You haven’t made the right enemies yet, one who could really hold a grudge and bump
you at the wrong time.”
“I doubt some cuckold would kill me for being found out.”
“You know I’m not talking about those.”
I paused, thought it over. Then I said, “It’s just once in a while. And they do get resolved, at least most of the time. The bad man lands behind bars, all’s good, we live happily ever after.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“I’m a lucky guy.”
“You’ll run out of luck soon. Think about it. That luck is not even yours. Without Nino,
without me, you’re nothing but ash in a stinking jar.”
“Fine, fine.” I said, not only because we had neared the street where the young man lives, but because we were broaching a topic I’d rather not touch on that night. “Firing range, tomorrow. You will teach me.”
I smiled and that was that, at least for the night.
The street was much like the alley where we got mugged. More silent than the road we turned from, lesser lights, and just a few residents lounging about. The lights through the windows of the houses were on, those with opened windows mostly showed families gathered around tables while the TV blared on with the evening news. A sari-sari store in a corner, where a couple of men were just sitting, talking on a bench giving us no heed.
A front yard with an empty clothesline, a house with a tin gate rattling in its frame as the wind whistled through the alley.
“34 Maligaya Street.” I said, reading the words haphazardly written with black paint on the tin sheet. Behind the low gate was a small lot were dracaenas, santans and some other potted shrubs I couldn’t name. There was a small walkway to the door. Beside this door was a wall with a closed window. The house had a tin roof like the others, but we couldn’t hear anything inside the house. The jalousie window had light from the inside. Below the window was an array of pots with blooming chrysanthemums.
“So, what are we now?” Gina said. “Census takers? Or do you want to storm in, hold everyone at gunpoint, beat the answers out of the boy?”
“By God, what’s with you tonight?”
“I’m fired up. Those punks got me going.”
I shook my head. “No, we’re going to wait this time. We haven’t brought any prop with us to pretend to be anything. Also, the guy has been through a lot now. Remind me to count his fingers.”
I told her again that we just needed to wait. We stood by a busted light post, hid ourselves and just stayed observing the lot, four houses away. It was almost eight o’clock. I had no expectations, I just wanted to observe, see if anything was going to happen. We stood there in the dark, taking pains to seem like we were talking whenever someone passed by. Once when I felt like a passerby was taking interest, I took Gina by the waist and pulled her in for a kiss on the cheek. That got the curious man scrambling on his way.
“You know,” she said after letting her go. “We could make a great couple.”
“You’re crazy,” I muttered, chuckling.
It was around eight thirty when she said, eyeing the gate, “Is that the boy?”
I looked up from the concrete road to the gate now being closed by a slim youth of about seventeen. He had on a singlet and a pair of shorts cut above the knees. We watched him head to the sari-sari store and walk back, bypassing his own house, and then leaning on the wall of another house, couple of houses away. The part of the road where he stood was barely touched by the light from the nearest post. But we could see him all right. And it was him, the guy in one of the photographs the old man gave during his visit earlier. I showed the photo to Gina before pocketing it back.
“That’s our guy, indeed,” she said.
I walked to him, letting Gina follow.
He didn’t notice us at first, or at least that’s what I thought he’d like himself to appear. He looked seventeen, all right, but something about him seemed to hint on an edge that wasn’t supposed to be there. Perhaps it was the dark playing tricks, or the way he leaned on the wall, upper back touching the unfinished cement block surface and a knee tipped forward, the nonchalance.
A few beats after we have walked up to him, he took out a box of cigarettes from his pocket, shook out a stick. He placed this between his thin lips, a mouth unadorned by moustache. He raised a lighter to it. There was a spark, and within that brief flash of firelight I got a better view of his smooth young face. Smooth and angular, jaws taut as if in expectation of a blow. He looked like a young swimmer skilled enough to cross channels. His left hand, which had held the Bic, was missing a pinkie.
We knew that he knew that we walked up to him. And yet he won’t look at us.
Not until I said, “I’ll trade a hundred pesos for a stick.”
He raised his head and finally met my eyes, blowing smoke to one side. “You can get some at the store, Sir.” He nodded at the store he just walked from.
“I want one from you” I said, this time with a smile.
He looked at me from head to toe, then quickly at Gina. He held out a palm, “Alright.” I handed him the bill and was handed back a stick. It felt strange. This small stick of nicotine. “Light me up, will you?”
He was about to give me the torch when I said, “I think I deserve better service?”
He got the hint. I moved my face, now with a stick between my lips, for him to light the end. All the time I was looking at him.
I inhaled, the way I think people in the TV are doing it. Puffed, then inhaled again. It felt good for the first few seconds. Then there was the burning in my throat. I took the filthy object out of my mouth, held it like Satan’s curse away from my body, and coughed like a hellhound choking on a ball of fire.
The cough lasted for what might have been a full minute. Gina took the stick out of my hand and smoked it herself as I made a fool out of myself.
When I recovered, the boy was smiling. “Not a smoker, Sir?”
“Huh…you got me there.”
“Hm. May I know what you really want?”
“I just want to talk.”
“A friend of yours.”
At this, a look of surprise and disbelief passed over his face. And then exasperation settled in his eyes. He sighed, stood straight, and faced Gina and me. “Can’t you just leave me alone? I’m done answering questions. I told you everything I know. And I know nothing, that’s the truth. You got my little finger. What, next?”
He said that without anger. Just pure weariness, one that turned his chilly voice into slow, dragging sentences. He began to slouch.
“I’m not here to cause trouble,” I said.
“The others told me that too, Sir. Look at what they meant with ‘no trouble’.” He held up his hand with four fingers, a stump in the place where the littlest finger was supposed to be.
I didn’t know what to say for a while. Then just for the sake of saying something, “I’m sorry that happened to you. I’m here for everyone’s safety.” I took out my badge and showed it to him.
“I honestly don’t care who you are.” He turned his back to us. “I don’t know what you want me to say. I’m not even that close with that bastard.”
He was about to step further away, perhaps back to his house, when Gina quickly moved to block his way. Gina said, lighted cigarette between teeth, hands on her hips, “Talk to the nice man, Charlie.”
He looked at her, and then slouched further, like he was defeated.
He turned and looked up at me. “What is it that you want now?”
“I just want you to answer some questions for us,” I walked to him and placed an arm on his shoulders, like pals on the way to some club. He smelled of smoke and talcum powder.
“Where are you taking me, Sir?” Fear in his voice.
“Fine if we talk in the dark?”
“P-please. I don’t really know anything.” I felt his body trembling. I had him in my grip, this young man, rough-cut by misfortune, but still a kid. “Please, don’t hurt me anymore. Please.” Voice shaking too, as if he emerged from a freezing pool.
“No one’s going to hurt you tonight, I promise that. It’s not my thing, unless you refuse to answer my questions. My friend here, Gina, she knows how I’m not crazy for harsh methods. Right, my lady?”
Gina grunts as she followed us a few steps behind, a silhouette now with an orange speck brightening with each drawn breath.
We reached the part of the street where we had hidden earlier, just beside the broken lamppost. The alley was still placid with inactivity. At the store the two men were still talking, taking no interest in us, while another man, wearing a panama hat, walked to buy something and to talk to the person behind the mesh wire of the store.
I faced the boy. We only had the light of a waxing moon, but this was enough for me to see the discomfort and fear on his face. The houses around were now quiet. A tricycle passed by beyond the entrance to the alley, and then nothing else.
“The name’s Viktor,” I said, offering my hand. He didn’t take it.
“I…I know you know me, Sir.”
“I want to know more.”
“Let’s say someone’s interested.”
“Alright. I don’t have any choice, do I?”
I ignored the question. “Tell me, how long have you been friends with Timothy Chua?”
“You’re supposed to know that by now.”
“Let’s say the person interested said he didn’t get much from you the last time.”
“That’s because I was telling the truth. We were college batch mates, yes. We even had a paper done as a pair for a subject. But I’m not a cool kid, I don’t have my own ride, I don’t hang out with any of them. I work at the library. I stack books for the school and arrange them and I get my scholarship for that. Timothy doesn’t need to do that. None of his friends need to do that. What part of that couldn’t you understand?”
He didn’t blink much as he talked, and there were parts in his response when he’d give an emphatic look, as if what he really wanted me to understand was he had said this before and now he’s exhausted. He wanted to get it over with.
“Timothy told his grandparents that he’ll be out on a sleepover, in your house.”
The boy just laughed. “In my house, right? Have you seen my house?”
“Just answer my question. Was he here on the night of April 11, a Saturday?”
“Where were you?”
“I had a Saturday class until one pm. Then I rendered a few hours at the library. I think I went home at around 5 and never went out. Never even received visitors.”
“When was the last time you saw the guy?”
“Uh, the day before. Yes, that Friday afternoon. I saw him lounging in the student center with some of his pals. I was there to meet a professor, get some papers for the class. I was waiting for the elevator when I felt something hit the back of my head and drop on the floor beside me. When I looked I realized it was a balled sheet from a notebook. It was thrown by someone at a round table, kids who had nothing better to do than to slip money to some willing professors. I know their kind. There were about five of them at that table. All of them grinning, while one said sorry. ‘That was supposed to be in the trash,’ he said. The trash was a silver can at the wall between the elevator doors. One of the boys on the table was Timothy. That was the last time I saw him. And he seemed to be happy.”
“Would you happen to know the name of the guys he was with?”
“No. They were from another program, some of them in uniforms from another college. I don’t even know why they’d even look at me that way. Well, maybe Timothy told them about me, the way they talk about some folks they could pick out like flies.”
“Say, can you do me a little favor? Find out the names of those boys. A thousand pesos for each name you could drop who would be a friend of Tim.”
He looked like he was considering it. He had finished his first stick and was now lighting another. After a few drags, he looked at me. “Alright, Sir. We have a deal.”
“Good. I’ll get back tomorrow. I’ll give you my number but don’t text me the names. I don’t like any information to be tapped by intels. Just tell me you have the info and we’ll get here to take note of it. Or we could meet somewhere, whatever. That cool?”
“I’m cool with that, Sir.”
We exchanged numbers, then I asked him some other questions, which he answered peremptorily. Mostly stuff the old man already told me.
When I was satisfied, I said: “Okay then, we’ll leave now. Thanks for the time, Charlie.”
I tapped him on the back. He looked surprised.
Gina and I had just taken a few steps when the boy suddenly said, “Uh, sir?”
I turned to him at once, expecting to hear something else to help us with the case.
He was standing there, by the streetlamp, looking at his slippered feet. He looked up to me then, breathing hard. With an almost inaudible voice, he said “Thanks for not hurting me.”
I didn’t expect that. I just said, “Let’s see if it’s going to be the same tomorrow.”
He shrank back. Didn’t say anything anymore.
“Also,” I said. “I suggest you don’t talk to anyone about what we talked about.”
“But what if someone else comes? Threatens me?”
“No one will come, I guarantee. Consider me your new torturer.”
Gina and I went on our way.
The first thing Gina and I did upon meeting at the office the next morning was to head out for a ride to Hotel Calibur in Santa Mesa, where Point Blank, its underground indoor shooting range, was then occupied by just a single trainee. Calibur was owned by Frederico Dumangas, another bigshot who once hired me to find his missing Maserati.
The range supervisor was a stern woman in her late 40s with a figure qualifying her for the role of Pantagruel. She wasn’t too happy when I told her that Gina will give me the lessons.
“We have range officers, Sir Viktor,” she said. “It’s our policy. Only trainees in this area. Ms. Gina can stay at the viewing lounge, or do some shooting on her own.”
“But my assistant’s more qualified than anyone else,” I said with a wink at Gina, who was standing beside me.
“I’m sorry, Sir. I really wish we could do that.”
“Come on,” I looked at the nameplate on her chest, “Martha. I know your Boss. No need to prolong this conversation.”
“Okay, we’re doing this then. Gina, get Fred on the line.”
Martha’s eyes formed perfect circles at the mention of her superior, and when Gina began sifting through her mobile phone for the number of the guy, the supervisor hastily waved her hand, her skin jiggling. “Oh, no, oh, no, we don’t need to do that. Please suit yourselves, Sir Viktor, Ms. Gina.”
“Thank you,” I said.
We began the training then. We were at the pistol bay for the first hour, and then at the rifle bay for the next hour. My assistant showed me how to draw the gun from the holster, position myself and prepare for the shot, pull the trigger, et cetera, et cetera.
“You’re just too soft,” she told at me one point, when the force of the shot once pushed my entire body a few steps back, missing the target, set at seven feet, completely. “Don’t bend your elbows. In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, don’t slouch.”
I said, still focusing my eye in front, “Maybe it’s a mistake to have you do this training, after all?”
“Shut up and focus.”
I grinned. “That’s why I like you.”
At two p.m., we left the firing range, walked through the viewing area, and then chose a table in the gourmet café just beside it. We had lunch, perhaps the most expensive one I’ve had so far.
We were about to stand up to leave when Gina, after a few minutes of scrolling through her phone screen, held me back to my seat. She looked disgruntled. “Boss, look at this.”
She handed me her phone.
She had been scrolling through the feed of a state-sponsored news network, and what she saw was this picture of a body with its head wrapped with tape. Beside the picture was an excerpt of the report: “Drug pusher kidnapped and killed by vigilante…” The body was propped on the ground, upper back leaning on a wall. One of the slippers was missing. Singlet riddled with blood from stab wounds, shorts grayed by grime.
At the lower left corner of the photograph was another picture. This one was a headshot of a guy against a white backdrop, the kind you’d expect from rush IDs.
The face belonged to a handsome young man with angular features. He wasn’t smiling, his thin lips set in a poker face, hair combed back. My eyes darted below the picture, at the caption identifying the young man.
“Seventeen-year-old Charlie Nolledo was found dead on the spot by his neighbors…”