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LAST SCENE OF CHAPTER ONE: RIGOR MORTIS
SHE could have stayed that way, transfixed with memories of a long time gone, if not for a blood-curling scream that brought Maya back to the present. On instinct, her body sent her running towards the source before she could even think. Force of habit, she would later realize.
Maya’s feet brought her to a group of modern-day nomads who gathered around a wailing woman near the shore.
“Maurooo!!!” the woman cried out, cradling a lifeless man in her arms, shaking him as if trying to wake the dead. Maya wondered if he was killed right there, or killed somewhere else and later washed ashore. “Mauro, don’t leave us! What will become of us? What will become of our children?!!” the woman wailed on.
“What happened?” Maya asked the thin, gangly old man standing beside her, fighting the urge to sniff. He badly needed a bath. Then again, so did most of them around her.
“We don’t know yet. We just…” he started then stopped upon glancing at her, mild surprise registering on his face. She could tell he was wondering why an obvious ‘outsider’ like Maya would venture to such a dangerous place as theirs, a young and vulnerable girl at that.
But she was not interested in what he thought, only in what he possibly knew that could help her. “Yes?” she urged the old man to continue.
“Oh. Uh…We just got here and found him like that already, dead.”
“Would you have any idea why?”
He gave her a curious look then shrugged. “My child, this is Breakwater. In case you have not noticed, here, anything can happen any day, everyday. Bad things. This man? He might as well have been murdered before our eyes, but nobody—apart from his friends here and family—nobody would really care. Nobody cares about people like us. We’re dirt. Nobody cares about dirt, except to wipe it off.”
It was nothing Maya had not heard before and she would have uttered a sympathetic reply, but she was more interested in the corpse at the moment. Squeezing through other spectators, she was able to get closer to it. As expected, the body was already rigid and a bit bloated. Maya was disappointed to find that Mauro, indeed, was killed somewhere else and dumped into the water. It was harder to inspect that way. Murders were always harder to solve because water could not only wash bodies ashore. It could wash evidence away as well and speed up decomposition.
She looked closer. Judging by the level of decomposition, “Rigor mortis set in just days ago. He has been dead for two, maybe three days…” she thought out loud and said to no one in particular. People looked at her quizzically that Maya remembered where she was and offered a simple explanation that was half-true. “I, uh, work for the authorities so, you know, I know things like this.”
“Oh?” the old man she spoke to earlier asked from behind. “Like SOCO?”
Barely had she answered, “Yes, like SOCO,” that everyone—save from him, the woman, and the dead—scurried away. Obviously, authorities were not welcome there, if not avoided.
He squinted his eyes at her. “You look awfully young. What are you, eighteen, twen—? ”
“—ty-five. I’m baby-faced, yes, it’s possible. I was in that SOCO show on TV one time, I guess you did not see that. Who was that guy again with the distinct guttural voice? I forget.”
“So…is that why you’re here? They sent you?”
“No. I simply happened to walk by and heard the scream, so here I am.” At least that one’s true.
“Ah, yes, that is correct. We have just found him. Anita,” the old man pointed at the crying woman who was reduced to weeping by now, “was just wondering where Mauro had gone. He was supposed to be back last Saturday after scraping rust off a ship for two months. Then someone screamed and, well, here we are…What a pity. He was a good man, always tried to earn a decent living. Not easy as around here…”
She did not let the old man’s thoughts trail off. “Has it—uh—he any marks on his body?” Her query was greeted with a confused expression. “Marks. Like, uh, bruises, or stab wounds, maybe? Anything that may explain how he died or how he was…killed…”
Parts of Mauro’s clothes were torn or with holes in different places. They could be due to blows inflicted on him before he died, or simply due to sea creatures that ate at his clothes and body (a notion Maya did not especially like entertaining in her head). Letter C, she pushed in her mind. His clothes got caught up with sharp, inanimate, floating objects, that’s it. Take those unsavory thoughts off your head!
“His heart.” It was Anita who answered in-between her weeping. She could have been pretty but at the moment, grief and agony were written all over her face. “His heart was carved out.”
The old man gasped in horror. “Diyos ko!” He did try to regain his composure. “You said you are like the SOCO people, right? Maybe you can…check his…” he half-suggested, as if wishing he had not suggested it at all.
But that was exactly what Maya had in mind. She kneeled down and asked permission. “May I?” Anita answered with a nod, mutely loosening her hold on Mauro’s upper body, allowing Maya to see the large, gaping hole on his shirt. True enough, his heart was not where it was supposed to be. “Did Mang Mauro have any enemies that could have done this?”
Anita shook her head. “I don’t know of anyone who would be angry enough to do this. I don’t think he had enemies, not really. He was a good man who hardly argued with anyone…Still, there are those who treat people here badly, so maybe…”
“Who? Can you give me their names?”
Anita did not answer and studied Maya instead, seeming to be weighing her options: to tell or not to tell. Indeed, that would be Maya’s question, too, if she lived amongst these nomads. They were always at the mercy of those in power, at least those who had power over poor, desolate souls like them.
“Let me guess,” she directed the question back to the old man, “the police?”
He stared at her for a while then with hesitation in his voice, “T-They own this place, what can we do? They…But you are not like them…?”
Maya gave him a small, reassuring smile to appease him. “You have nothing to worry about me, that I can tell you.” They, however, have a lot to answer to me, they should start worrying already.
Of course, they still looked at her with extreme doubt. She would.
Maya turned her attention back to Anita. “If you will accept, I have a suggestion.”
*Rigor mortis– stiffening of the muscles when a person or animal dies
*SOCO. – Scene of the Crime Operatives
*“Diyos ko!” – “My God!”
*Mang – informal Filipino term synonymous to “Mister”