(Not My) Interview with Kathy Reichs #AskWednesday #atozchallenge2017

As I am typing this now, I just clicked on a subscription confirmation link sent to me through email. The link for what? Well, I just signed myself up for inclusion in author Kathy Reichs‘ mailing list, that’s what.

Kathy Reichs is really the reason I restarted my Maya story (although I still have to work more on that). Or maybe the more appropriate word is “cause”, not “reason”. You see, my story had been sitting around for years because several things discouraged me and I did not know how to proceed. I could, but the mere thought that it would probably just look like another Filipino story due to elements very similar to many others’ works discouraged me. I wanted something different.

Then I met BONES. If you’re not familiar with it, it was one of those earlier forensic science TV shows. Kathy created and produced the show. It ran for 12 seasons, but recently ended for good, sadly (yet, who really knows?). Now, I’ve always loved sci-fi and other science-related shows, plus I’m a sucker for adventure and detective stories. So. when those interests collided, BOOM! Bones got me so hooked!

It took me a while to learn that the show was based on a novel written by an author named Kathy Reichs. Google did its thing and I learned that Author Kathy is actually Doctor Kathy, forensic anthropologist extraordinaire. Of course, I was so impressed. I mean, since she knew her stuff, then surely, the science in her book (and the shows) was more real than fictional. And that’s when it hit me. I realized what I wanted for Maya.

It was not going to be just a fantasy-paranormal thing. I was going to add more mystery and throw in forensic science as well! I mean, currently, in the local setting, no one has done anything like that yet. If someone comes up with one in the future, remember, I thought of it first. If it’s very similar to my idea, s/he and I will need to talk.

It’s science-meets-paranormal and they don’t have to overshadow each other. Kathy caused me to do a kind of story overhaul to fit my idea. I was going to make a better version of Maya. I went back to previous drafts, totally changed several parts, and continued. I changed scenes, added characters, improved characterization, began doing research (I need to be credible after all). Well, the story is far from done, but I am working on it. I have Kathy to thank for it…

Now that that little background story is over, I am sharing an early interview with her that I found online. In fact, it’s posted on her own website. It talks about why and how she started writing, her main character Dr. Temperance Brennan, and what she thought of the show.

Kathy Reichs Interview

“I just thought the time was right for a strong female heroine and for forensic science…I started ‘Dejá Dead’ in 1994. I had made full professor at the university so I was free to do whatever I wanted to do and I had just worked on a serial murder case which had some pretty intriguing elements to it, so I thought I would give it a shot. I thought it might bring my science to a wider audience.”

I was part of that wider audience, thankfully. If my request to receive the entire Brennan book series in my Dream Crate isn’t proof enough that I’m a fan, I don’t know how else to show it.

Has any writer/author ever influenced a story you wrote?

 

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This post hits two birds with one stone. It’s a post for #AskWednesday, and it’s a post for the A to Z Challenge. Yes, April is gone, but as promised, I am going to finish the challenge, starting with this letter I skipped:

K is for “Kathy Reichs”

This piece serves as my Letter K post for the A to Z Challenge 2017. I am currently catching up with other A to Z participants. I owe them that, first of all. Second, I do want to connect.

For my previous 2017 challenge-related posts, kindly visit my A to Z Challenge 2017 page.

MAYA [CHAPTER 3: REUNIONS, Scene 4]

For past chapter pages, CLICK HERE.

CHAPTER THREE: REUNIONS (Scene 4)

AGENT Gabriel Gatdula tried not to frown but he had not much patience today. “In common English, Doc,” he reminded. “If you can tell me in Tagalog or Bisaya, that would be nice.”

Dr. Rivas, the forensic scientist in his lab attire, looked at him with a mixture of irritation and mild surprise. He probably had no patience to deal with Gabriel as well. Too bad, though. They had to deal with each other today.

I’m sorry,” Dr. Rivas said, not looking sorry at all. “It’s just you’re from the NBI, so I thought you’d be well-versed on this already.”

We’re the field guys, Doc. We collect what might be evidence from the crime scene, but we don’t interpret these types of evidence. You do,” Gabriel explained patiently, not looking patient at all himself.

Oo-kaaayy….” The scientist cleared his throat and began to explain once more. He directed Gabriel’s attention to the two tables in front of them, each with bones neatly assembled to form skeletons on them. “As I’ve told you, here we have the victims. This first one, we have identified quickly enough through the Automated Fingerprint Identity System, which is, if you know it, is the AFIS. This guy’s name is Rolando Orneza.”

Gabriel looked at the first formed skeleton, its head and limbs detached from the trunk. “Orneza. Yes, I read the initial reports. The body parts were found in various locations. The trunk was found at the pile of trash at the back of a restaurant in Tomas Morato. The legs found their way to the field near Los Baños. One arm was floating in Manila Bay. One arm along NLEX—I bet that’s the one that’s a bit flattened out, so that makes that other one over there the one from Manila Bay. And the head, it was found—no—sent to the NBI in a box wrapped like a Christmas gift.”

Correct.” The doctor seemed ready to yawn.

But something like this isn’t new. How can you be so sure these parts were all his?”

Well, aside from the DNA matches, all the ‘kerf marks’ match.”

The what?”

The marks that any particular saw or anything similar to it leaves, left by the sharp tooth of the tool used to cut something in pieces. Or to cut someone, in this case. In Orneza’s case, they all match like puzzle pieces. We didn’t even have to look hard to guess his own tool was used against him. He’s a carpenter, as you probably already know.”

Putting on a surgical mask like the doc, Gabriel bent down to observe the ‘kerf marks’. “That’s not the weapon used to kill him, though, right? Not unless he was tied up and slowly tortured with the cutting.” He straightened up to find the doctor studying him. He felt like one of the specimens.

He was hanged, based on his hyoid. That’s the bone at the base of the tongue, a U-shaped bone, and it broke…Before we peeled away the flesh, there were visible marks around the neck.”

P-peeled away…?”

Yes. We can’t determine the marks yet, though; certainly not rope or any material we can already identify. Anyway, his tongue was sticking out, too, so you know, as they say, we ‘put two and two together’ …,” Dr. Rivas explained, then added another popular phrase, “It doesn’t take a scientist to guess that our guy died ‘hanging on to dear life’, right?”

He continued, “It’s like this. In young people, the hyoid is not easy to break, not by simple choking. Orneza, we found, was just twenty-two. That means, it took a lot of strength to kill him by breaking the hyoid. He is tall by general Filipino standards, six-feet-one, so it should have been a really strong or tall person, or maybe device, that did him in.” The next thing he said, Gabriel noted, somewhat made the specialist uneasy for some reason. “He—uh—has a hole on his head, by the way.”

He was quick to say, “Bullet.”

I have my doubts about it…There are no exit wounds anywhere and we didn’t find any bullet at all in his head. No one could have retrieved it either as it would have created more damage on his skull. So I really doubt that the killer has been walking around for days with paraffin residue on his hand.”

The doctor stopped, seeming to be waiting for him to say something. He could not think of any, at least not anything intelligent, and he did not want it to be obvious.

Dr. Rivas moved on to the next skeleton which, when assembled like that, seemed to have been rather tall when he had flesh and was still a living person. “No name yet for this one, he’s new. We’re waiting for the DNA test result. The man was so badly burned, though, I am not sure how accurate the result will be.”

What about the teeth? People can be identified by their teeth, right?”

Sure. That’s called forensic odontology.”

Who cares what it is called?, Gabriel almost blurted out.

Unfortunately, we don’t have forensic odontologists here. Those I actually know aren’t from here. Also, his teeth had all been pulled out, anyway.” His grimaced did not escape the doctor’s eyes. “Yes, ouch. Well, we are still doing something about it, but that eats time and we want to identify this guy the shortest time possible. Anyway, our best chance for now is on the DNA results. One thing is for sure—he’s Caucasian.”

And you know that how?”

It’s the skull. For instance,” the doctor started pointing at parts of the specimen, “see here—high-bridged nose, long and kind of narrow nasal aperture. Indicative of Caucasian features. Here, too. If he was Filipino, the jawbone should show Asian mandibular traits. This one does not at all come in contact with the surface of the table when Asian jawbones should. Jawbones are really helpful in forensic investigations such as this…Basically, we identify ancestry, age, gender by looking at the bones, particularly the skull. So far, what we know is this skeleton belonged to a fifty to fifty-five year old Caucasian man.”

What if the DNA results turn out to be inaccurate?”

Then we might have to reconstruct the face with clay. That will eat time, too, as sculptors and creative artists need to consider a lot of things. We are not talking about artists’ interpretations of what a face should be, and this is not for some movie where they can just cast clay over an actor’s face. They need the most accurate facial depth measurements and to approximate muscle structures here and there for the reconstruction to work. This time, it’s not all about art. It’s science at work.”

Gabriel had to admit to himself he was thankful for science. He hadn’t been a man of science ever since he could remember, but it did not mean he never appreciated technology. There was a time, though, that there was no need for such a thing. It was so much easier. Now, would he have preferred that time? He was not at all sure. Maybe he would rather not need reasons such as identifying skeletons to prefer anything.

How about I show you the flesh we peeled off from these skeletons?” Dr. Rivas asked.

Yes, Gabriel would rather not need to prefer anything, if he could.

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*Bisaya or Visayan – the collective term for the dialects of people living in the Philippines’ Visayas region

*nasal aperture – the opening that externally connects the nose to the skull

*mandibular – pertaining to the mandible or lower jaw that is U-shaped

NEXTMAYA [CHAPTER 3: REUNIONS, Scene 5] 

MAYA [CHAPTER 3: REUNIONS, Scene 1]

For past chapter pages, CLICK HERE.

CHAPTER THREE: REUNIONS (Scene 1)

MAYA did not exactly wake up refreshed. A few hours of sleep was not the problem; she was used to it. Nor was it the hour of the day. It was her fitful sleep, that was the problem. She had trouble falling asleep at first as her mind was filled with thoughts connected to her and Santi’s newest discovery.

She had been waiting for news from Santi, news that could confirm that the holes in the skulls were, in fact, made by at least one monster. She had lent him the concoction. But he had not called or sent a text message and it was keeping her anxious. Then she fell asleep only to wake up abruptly from a nightmare. First, there was Santi literally offering her a human heart, then cut to a scene with giant mosquitoes having a wonderful time in Boracay and sipping juice, except they were not holding coconuts, but human heads!

Maya shook her own head to send the image away. I must really have the most active imagination…Defeated, she went down to go to her personal gym and de-stress.

She loved her house. She found an ideal lot in a quiet subdivision two years ago and put up her ideal place, complete with enough space for a garden. The walls and gate were high enough to keep people away. She had even put up a ‘Beware of Dog’ sign when she did not have a dog. The yard had space for a garage but she kept her newly acquired car parked outside the gate. It was a safe neighborhood, so far.

The house itself appeared to have only one storey with the living room greeting guests (which was not often, she could hardly remember the last time she had company), the kitchen-slash-dining room at guests’ right, and four steps leading to two rooms elevated from the ground. In truth, Maya had a basement as well, the gym with sound-proofed walls covering the entire floor area. It could only be accessed from her bedroom, one of the elevated rooms. A secret door and stairs led to her secret training room. She had thought it was better to keep it a secret in case, for some reason, a guest wandered into it.

It was where she practiced her combat skills and other unconventional things. It was also where she kept her weapons and it would not be easy to explain, for instance, what a buntot-page was doing in her collection, or how she acquired a real katana, and weren’t bottles of water and condiments supposed to be kept in the kitchen area? She could make up stories, but that would really be such a bother. She had made up too many stories already.

On the right side of the spacious gym was a very worn-out punching bag that Maya boxed, kicked, kneed, and elbowed to practice her martial arts on whenever she was not attending actual classes outside. She had learned these intense fighting skills long before they became the “in” things in the Philippines. Joining classes was not for her to be considered “cool”, though. She was much too old to care about such things. But still, the best way to master her martial arts was to practice on others, at least with one sparring partner. She just could not anymore count the times she was asked to join competitions for women, to which she always said no. To accept would be fool-hardy—she did not want the attention as much as possible, plus it would be downright cheating, her being her. She knew her opponents would not stand a chance. It was hard enough trying not to hurt a sparring partner.

Besides, despite what she did, Maya never took pleasure in hurting other human beings. Whenever she had to, it was in self-defense or to defend someone else, and never lethal. It was, after all, what all the martial arts were about. They were made for the purpose of self-preservation and defense, not for destruction. Too bad that many times, Maya had to use them to destroy, however just the cause.

What could she do? Fate brought her there. And if self-preservation wasn’t a human instinct, perhaps she should already be dead. People would most probably call her immortal if they knew, yet that was far from the truth. There was no such thing as immortality. That was the myth. There was only longevity and the incredible will to survive, probably even coupled with a lot of skill and luck. Survival of the fittest.

Her personal circumstances just happened to be different. It was not that she could not get hurt. Her aging may had been in slow motion five or six times more, and she could heal much faster than the average person, but dying was just as possible to happen to her. It was also her reality. She could get hurt, shot, stabbed, hit, and anything fatal could be the end of her. Surviving was simply the result of human instinct. She, instinctively, simply refused to die.

But the scars were there as constant reminders of her mortality. In a sense, she loved what her scars reminded her of. Meanwhile, they were also what reminded her of people’s fragility, and that was what kept her reluctantly alive for so long. Fate brought her there for a purpose, and maybe it was hers alone to bear. How many people like her did she know? As far as she knew, Gabilani was the only other person alive on earth who existed like her. That was, granted that he was still alive.

Gabilani, where are you…?

Thinking about him only made Maya angry, she realized, as she boxed and kicked, elbowed and kneed her poor punching bag with much more intensity. Of all the people in the world, why was she the one given this mission? Why did the only person she could count on choose to leave her side?

Well, not exactly the only person I can count on, she remembered, her blows softening. There was Santi. Sweet, ever-dependable Santi. He was reluctant at first, unable to accept the new reality he faced. But once he realized his possible role in the whole scheme of things, he became her willing ally. Sometimes, she even had to stop him from overdoing it.

As an initiative, Santi took an extra two-year training abroad, learning more from the other branches of forensic science, to find out more beyond what bones could tell him. It was almost a never-ending occurrence of overseas calls between them just so she could consult him on things related to his expertise. However, he also found time getting trained in Muay Thai. The better to help Maya with. It became their cause of argument when he got back, though, with him insisting on helping her hunt, with her insisting that he did not.

Once, she let him accompany her and it almost got him killed. “That’s it!” she told him. “I will not endanger your life…Santi, you can help me more with your brains. Your place is in the lab. Either you stay there or you don’t help me at all!” With that, Maya won her argument. He knew he could not change her mind.

That was three years ago. Santi had since concentrated on the forensic side of things and set up a laboratory in the Philippines. Which only made Maya feel guilty. Santi had a potentially successful career abroad and yet, he gave it all up so he could help her. He even partnered with the NBI to gain access to some cases and mainly, to avoid probable suspicion against him. Someone investigating bodies and bones when he was not yet supposed to would have definitely alerted the authorities. So why not make it more “legal”? Meanwhile, like a couple on dates, Santi would meet Maya at funeral parlors in a kind of twisted trysts involving dead bodies. How lovely.

He had complained about that countless times, but Maya could not see anything to go around it. Whenever she found bodies that bore marks suggesting non-human causes, she had to act fast before the authorities could be alerted, if at all. She knew they would not be considered victims of the non-human kind. The cases would be simply treated as murder or manslaughter, then good luck if they would be solved, or if no innocent got wrongly convicted.

No amount of investigation, however modern, could help unless the authorities were open to accepting the supernatural as facts. And so, Maya was left with no choice but to convince, in any way possible, the victims’ families that she could help bury the dead properly for free. She was unsuccessful with some, particularly the rich or well-to-do, but so far, her success rate was also impressive, given that most of the families were poor. For instance, having established the idea that she was “like SOCO” people, it was easier to convince Anita Subido to let Maya take everything from there.

Normally, the dead was left untouched until the forensics team arrived. Onlookers were kept meters away from the body by yellow tapes covering the crime scene, or at least the area where the remains were found. The assigned entrance would be the assigned exit as well. These were to keep unauthorized people away and avoid contaminating or compromising the area that could destroy or rid of any possible evidence. Even the smallest matter mattered. That was the normal SOP. But being killed by any aswang was far from the normal world that many times, Maya knowingly violated this whole primary investigative procedure…

Maya stopped hitting the punching bag. That seemed like one already-dead body, too, so badly beaten up, she would have to replace it for the nth time.

A quick glance at the wall clock told her it was way past three in the afternoon. She decided to stop training entirely and drop by Santi’s lab for her answers.

In half-an-hour, she was on her way.

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*Boracay – a beach island in the Philippines known for its white sands and that has become a popular tourist destination

* buntot-page – tail (buntot) of stingray (page)

* katana – sharpest and most deadly samurai sword

NEXTMAYA [CHAPTER 3: REUNIONS, Scene 2] 

MAYA [CHAPTER 2: DEAD AIR, Scene 4]

For past chapter pages, CLICK HERE.

CHAPTER TWO: DEAD AIR (Scene 4)

HE straightened up from examining Mauro Subido’s naked body and checked his watch. A quarter to seven. Knowing Maya, she would be there soon, coming from her broadcasting shift. Except at times like this or other emergencies, she normally went hunting for monsters before going straight home to sleep for hours.

Awoke, she practiced her martial arts and what she called ‘non-martial things’ till around lunch. In the afternoons, she visited museums, exhibits, libraries, the Reader’s Thrift Corner where she bought interesting reads, or her psychiatrist—all depending on what mood she was in. Sometimes, she did read the purchased books, surfed the Internet, and watched TV. In the evenings, she often went to her favorite place, the Barakofé Blends & Deli, which she secretly co-owned, and went on-air three times a week for DWZS. Then the cycle would start again, with her hunting till the wee hours of the morning. Not completely unsociable, though, Maya did have time in-between the hunting and her solitary activities for the few friends she had, mainly him. It’s a cycle that even Santi had memorized.

It would still seem to be the normal routine of an active individual, if not for the hunting being a glaring and regular part of her almost-daily to-do’s. Given her background, Maya was easily one of the most fascinating people one would ever meet, if not the most.

As Santi continued his examination, he could not help but smile. He had made sure to read her initial findings before he went there, and she made sure it would amuse him. It did. It said,

Heart missing, possibly acquired through blunt force. Weapon unknown. Marks around the legs, indicative of legs bound together. Absence of such marks on the arms. Probable upside-down suspension of body, pre- or post-mortem. More thorough autopsy should reveal stress fractures around the fibula and tibia. Microbes may have caused faster decomp while cannibalistic organisms may have gotten to the flesh, broken phalanges as probable evidence, observation made possible due to absence of flesh. Fracture could be due to self-defense, as also suggested by the presence of lacerations on the arms. Blunt force trauma. Calculation suggests Mauro Subido has been dead for two to three days.”

And then she added at the end,

But of course, Teacher, by all means, feel free to debunk my findings. I am but your faithful student. Should my findings be correct, however, you owe me and I shall come to collect.”

Santi laughed upon remembering her email. Show-off! She had spent enough time with him to know of terms like ‘blunt force trauma’, ‘fibula’, ‘tibia’ and ‘phalanges’. He was sure she did her own research on the Internet as well. If he did not know her at all, he would have seriously thought she was showing off. Santi would not be surprised if one day, she decided to get a degree on forensic science, too. It would not have been impossible for her to be good at this science either. Maya could do everything she set her mind to, if she wanted to. Maya did have an advantage—she had all the time in the world to learn things and perhaps, perfect them. So a future Dr. Maya de Alano? It may not really be far behind.

Something stirred at his right and Santi caught himself from chuckling again. He did not yet want to wake the mortician snoring on the hard concrete table beside the one Mauro’s corpse was on. The man was only one of the only three other live people in the place. There was the old guard who seemed just about ready for his turn to be embalmed; the boring manager who offered Santi ten-percent off for any coffin reservations; and the mortician who thought it appropriate to ‘sleep with the dead’.

The anthropologist told the manager he was there to check on the body for more clues. He was not asked any questions and was left alone to deal with the corpse in the meantime. Perhaps flashing his National Bureau of Investigation ID did not really make a difference. They would not have really cared. As long as they were paid for their services, they did not care. After all, Maya had already paid for Mauro’s embalming as well as his wake and funeral. She had promised to Mauro’s widow.

The doctor went back to concentrating on his specimen and was in the middle of an interesting find when something made him straighten up again, pausing from his investigation of the victims’ head. “Good morning,” he said. Slowly, he turned around to find Maya waving two cups of Barakofé coffee at him. He’d recognize the logo anywhere, personally designed by Maya.

The image included characters from the ancient Filipino alphabet called alibata, or baybayin,which others would say was the more politically correct term to use. It used to be practically obsolete, except in some still-existing tribes, until recently when using alibata characters had become somehow a fad—something to make a tattoo look more mysterious and interesting, or to spice up some TV or movie plot—and yet, still not understood. It was proof that unlike what the Spaniards claimed, Filipinos were not an uncivilized race before they arrived and conquered. It was only what they made everyone believe.

Maya had scoffed at that in a conversation saying, “Ha! I was learning my A-Ba-Ka-Da loooooong before I met any of them. My father taught me that and his father taught him, and so on. If I had my way, I’d put learning alibata in the grade school curricula.” She would, too, knowing her. In fact, her journal notebook was filled with things always written in alibata, one way to keep most people away, ironically.

Maya raised an eyebrow at his morning-greeting. “Maybe you’re the psychic and you’re not telling me. How rude,” she kidded as she watched him take off his gloves and inch towards her, his five-feet-ten frame towering over her five-feet-one. She would always insist on the ‘-and-a-half inches’ but he was rather skeptic of it.

“Psychic? Maybe. Or could it be that I smelled the coffee?”

“Over all the stink here?” Maya asked then whistled her admiration.

“One develops such skill in such an environment.” And he realized he developed a keen sense of recognizing her perfume when she was around as well. He wasn’t about to tell her that.

Maya took a sniff, grimaced, then shrugged. “I guess that’s what ‘acquired taste’ really means. But still, yuck…I think my problem is my sense of smell is too developed that I can’t block out certain odors I don’t want to smell at all.” She handed him his cup. “There you go. Freshly brewed kapeng barako, the beans right from Batangas. Just the way we like it.”

Santi took a sip and immediately found pleasure in the warmth that traveled from his lips to his body. Nothing like strong brewed coffee on a cold January morning. “And my donut?” he demanded.

She stuck out a tongue at him, but took off the small and light sling bag that always hung from her left shoulder and across her body. She put it and her coffee down, beside Santi’s own paraphernalia, on the unoccupied concrete table beside her and started rummaging. Santi knew what were typically inside of it. Along with her iPOD and cellphone—both normal-people gadgets—were only a few yet not-so-normal stuff, if one knew what she did with them exactly. There was a wooden yo-yo, the balisong—that he had thought would kill him—disguised as a pen, a large pair of shades, and a curious little piece of transparent crystal kept in one of the pockets.

Maya still carried around the ebony stick that turned out to be a staff made out of the dark and strong kamagong wood. It was used for the ancient Filipino martial art called arnis, more known in the new world as kali, which was actually the more original term. Arnis was the self-defense technique now simply and appropriately called Filipino Martial Art. Maya’s stick was now paired with a newer one and they had their own case that she also kept slung from her shoulder. She took the case off her as well.

None of the said contents she produced. Instead, she handed a paper bag to Santi. “O! There are two donuts. I knew they’d put them in plastic bags so I came prepared. And you’ll find my latest creations in there as well, the Kesong Pilipit and Ampao Barako, free for your tasting pleasure.” Indeed, the said creations that were modified local products were there when he took a peek.

He liked the aroma already but pretended otherwise. It earned him a poke on the rib. “Don’t give me that face. I know you like them. They taste much better, too, I promise. In fact, they are doing pretty well at the deli. Plus, you have no right to be picky. You EAT around corpses, alright?” She picked up her coffee, covered her nose, perhaps to keep the other odors away, and with much effort, took a sip.

“Okay,” Santi agreed and took a huge bite off a donut, munched and swallowed. “Point taken.” He managed to keep crumbs away from Mauro’s body.

Maya watched him devour the pastries, which were surprisingly good as she promised, and gulp down his coffee. “Have I ever told you that sometimes, you don’t act like a doctor?”

“Have I ever told you that you often don’t act like a girl?”

The girl considered his retort then said, “Okay. Point taken.” Maya suddenly gasped. “Tell me that dead man over there did not just move…!”

“That’s the mortician.” On-cue, the man made a loud snore and shifted to a more comfortable position.

Maya snickered a little, crinkling her nose. Santi just realized that Maya crinkled her nose whenever she laughed and crinkled her nose whenever she squinted her eyes, usually during observations. Weird, maybe, but he found it rather endearing.

“Good. I have no idea how to deal with zombies yet,” she told him.

Lucky us, then. Anyway, sorry I could not examine the body sooner. I was busy identifying and investigating two skeletal remains for the NBI the whole day. You know how it is. The AFIS was not much help either. Lots of Filipinos unrecorded…Why did we change funeral homes, by the way?” he asked, lowering his voice and taking a furtive glance at the sleeping mortician.

She lowered hers as well. “Oh, the last one was getting suspicious, I could tell. I would be. Just imagine, four dead bodies in just seven months? I was running out of friends and relatives to ‘kill’. Too bad we can’t bring this new one to your lab. It could be easier with all the equipment there.”

“You forget. One, there are not a lot of equipment. Two, this is unofficial so we can’t make the medico-legal team examine the body. Three, if I were to make a more in-depth examination, I would have to peel away the flesh to make more accurate assumptions on the actual cause of death, and—”

“Which is why it’s good this is not a pile of bones. We don’t have to do too much guesswork. Stab wounds, missing heart…What mortal wouldn’t die? Cause of death: A hungry beast or a psycho on-the-loose. No need to identify the body as he is easily identifiable in this state, plus he was identified by his wife. No need to bother ourselves with his fingerprints and DNA analysis. Really, consider us lucky. All we have to do is identify who and what the killer is.”

“If you ask me, that’s the hardest part of all, and with you being the one who actually hunts them down, I salute and feel sorry for you at the same time.”

“Hmnn. Somehow, I don’t think I’m supposed to say a thank-you at all…Come to think of it, maybe I am sort of good at being an ‘unsub’ profiler, don’t you think?”

“Huh?”

“Hel-loooo?!! An ‘unsub’? And to think you worked for the FBI! ‘Unsub’ — UNknown SUBject?”

“I know that. But you’re not a criminal profiler.”

“I said ‘sort of’. Hay, naku, di ka rin istrikto, ano? I just meant that instead of criminals, I profile aswangs and malignos. You know, I saw this feature on the Discovery Channel once about serial killers? They said that studies have shown that many of these serial killers have an extra Y-chromosome. Isn’t that like a kind of mutation? Then that should mean they are like our malignos and aswangs, if you think about it.”

“I don’t want to think about it, frankly. It’s bad enough that people kill people. I just want to continue this examination.”

“Oh, I forgot. You don’t believe much in the power of psychology! Did you even read my initial findings?” Santi nodded and stifled a smile that did not escape Maya who kept a poker face as well. “So how was it?”

“You’ll be glad to know that so far, I support most of your findings, though for obvious reasons, I would not recommend a ‘more thorough autopsy’ at this point,” he replied, quoting her words. “I have bagged his clothes to gather trace evidence which, you know, is standard operating procedure. My assistant does not tend to ask as long as it’s not a dead body I’m hauling in for an unofficial investigation. Got particulates for analyses. I scraped off samples from his nails, too, and hope we get lucky and find DNA traces of the assailant. I will be sending parts of the clothes to UPLB. My entomologist-friend there may be able to find insect activity and identify of which insects exactly from Mauro’s clothing. May help us retrace his footsteps and find out his whereabouts before his body was dumped. As for the bound legs, yes, I believe he was suspended upside-down after he died…At least, let’s take comfort in that.” Santi stopped, giving Maya and himself time to do take comfort in that particular knowledge, however small.

He harrumphed after a few seconds and got a new pair of clean gloves to put on. Maya hated drama, he reminded himself. “You know, why don’t you just report the way normal people do, anyway?” he continued. “All you had to do was to say that somebody attacked him with something sharp, he defended himself with his arms, was over-powered, killed. His heart was taken out, his legs were tied together, then he was suspended upside-down for some reason, maybe bled out to dry. There! You could have simply stated it that way.”

“You forget,” Maya mimicked him. “One, I am a lot of things, good or bad, except normal. Two, normal is boring. Three, where’s the fun in that? And no, Two and Three are not the same. Three was for your benefit, he he he…

“Yeah. I’m sure.” He sounded sarcastic, but he did know she was right. “You were not-so-correct about the time of death, though, at least by my calculation. I checked body temperature and my conclusion would have been two to three days, too. Well, three to four days now since almost a day has passed. Anyway, it’s January and the snow abroad is melting so our waters are cold as well. Decomp may not have been that fast, actually. The colder the environment, the slower the decomposition. Plus salt tends to slower decomp as well and the ocean is salt-water. So I believe he has been dead a little longer than three days. Now, if I were a real medical examiner, I’d probably be able to tell the exact time he was killed, but—” sniff, “—I am not much good except with bones.”

Maya looked forlorn. “True. Well, we make do with what little we have.” Then she made a grand display of sighing. This time, Santi laughed loud enough that the mortician stirred a bit. Maya shushed him and whispered, “Susmaryosep. You are so easy. I’m weighing between slapping you on the head and letting you continue.”

Having composed himself, Santi took another pair of gloves and handed them to the girl who put down her cup and eagerly put them on. He went to the side where the body’s head was, where he was examining something really interesting before Maya arrived. He motioned to her to come near and said, “Tell me what you see,” so Maya obediently stood beside him. Santi handed to her a tiny penlight and pointed at Mauro’s crown. She bent to study the specimen.

It was obvious from her reaction she missed that one in her initial investigation. “Oh. I didn’t notice this hole. Bullet hole?” She parted the patches of hair around it and poked a bit, as if by poking, she would find her answer. “Eeew…His head feels too soft…”

“I have yet to find a bullet and I haven’t found an exit wound. Plus I did not find traces of gunpowder, but it’s not proof enough that he wasn’t shot. If it was caused by a gun, though, that should explain the softness as the impact of the gunshot, especially if executed at close range, would have exploded the bones of the skull due to sudden surge in pressure. The skull that burst into fragments should also explain why he has a mottled, swelling face.” Maya studied Mauro’s face and nodded in agreement. “Then again, whatever else that caused that hole was just as strong to result into all that…But that’s not the surprise. Peer in.” Maya again followed, using the light. The sound of surprise from her satisfied him.

She straightened up with a look on her face. “W-where…Where is his brain?”

“Surprise.”

“Y-you don’t think…? Was it…siphoned out?”

“That would be my assumption, yes, and that should explain the slight indentations, if you’ve noticed. Not much to keep skull fragments in place, I guess.” He watched her give a little shudder, which was uncharacteristic of her, he thought. “You have no qualms about slaughtering the bad elements, some you may have even chopped off to pieces, but now you’re close to gagging because of this?”

She raised a hand to make him stop and took time to calm down only to say, “I just would like to point out that though I’ve done some gruesome things—reluctantly, I should add, even if not obvious—I have never done them to consume their hearts or innards, or…tosucktheirbrainsout…” At the last mentioned, which she had said so fast that he did not get it at once, she did look almost ready to throw up. “I mean, it’s not even really the sight of them. I’ve made myself used to that. But it’s the thought of them actually being…I mean, something about eating…Son of a…! Now, I’m going to have this sick image in my head of blood and brain matter being sucked out—Excuse me!!!” This time, Maya ran out of the room. Santi guessed she went looking for the restroom to vomit.

She returned after a minute or two. “You know, there’s a sink right here, Maya.” He was rewarded with a glare. Maya picked up her unfinished cup of coffee and threw it in the bin. “I never said somebody sucked out his brain to eat. So far, all we can assume is it got siphoned out.”

“Yeah. Then served on a platter later.” She looked sick again.

Santi waited until color returned to her face. “Can you handle it now?” he asked although he really could not hide his amusement.

“How do you even do it? How do you deal with the yucky stuff?” she asked back, nodding her affirmation at the same time.

“Same thing with what you do before a hunt. I prepare myself. If you had asked me five years ago, I would have thrown up as well. Now? Not anymore. Sometimes, I do have lapses, but it’s part of the job…I seem to remember you being the one mentioning about aswangs gathering to feast on people.” And me about to vomit.

“I have lapses, too. Everyone’s entitled to give every now and then, I suppose…So! Now that I’m calmer, I’m thinking there’s a possibility that there was no consuming done at all. Maybe this murder was all man-made. That is probable, right?”

“Absolutely,” he said truthfully, but then added, “except we really have to do more print and DNA analyses to determine. You’ll have to wait much later. The last time I did that during work hours, I had my assistant asking me all kinds of questions. The discovery of such a DNA strand intrigued her so much, I had to lie and say I was joking and messed with the specimen. I don’t even know if she bought that story.”

Maya stared at him. Stared past him, thinking. “I know how we can be sure NOW.” She rummaged once more through her bag and this time, produced a small bottle of translucent liquid. Before he could say anything, Santi watched her open the cap and pour a drop on Mauro’s chest.

There was a fizzling sound and smoke arose. “Ano’ng—?!! HOY!!!” Too late. She had already done it and there was a burnt area created near the hole on Mauro’s chest. “What did you do? Was that acid?”

“Cotton swab, please,” was not the answer he was looking for, but Santi handed her a Q-tip anyway. Maya then explained, holding up the bottle between them. “A strong mixture of holy water, crushed garlic and salt. That should save us time and keep prying eyes away. I got the idea from TV. See? TV is not useless, when used wisely, and should therefore not be called ‘boob tube’. Anyway, I thought it best to combine all these to make a much more potent potion. As we know, aswangs hate these three things—holy water, etcetera. That’s simply because of the chemical reactions that happen when they come in contact with aswang bodily fluids like saliva and even as simple as sweat. I tested this on one of those monsters the other night. It worked! Like you said, it was like acid…So I do believe I deserve a high grade in Chemistry, what do you think?”

“And…this will help us how?”

“Chemistry?”

“No, the potion. How will that help us? It scorched Mauro, that’s all. Is that toxic? Maybe you forgot to mention about adding something like muriatic acid as well. That can’t be good if we get splashed on.”

“Watch. I will dip this swab here and wipe it on my arm.”

“No, wait!!!” But Maya had always been stubborn. She did it before he could even stop her. Nothing happened, it seemed.

Maya held out the swab to him. The cotton was blue. “Our ‘lithmus test’. It turned blue. Basic reaction. And now,” she took a new cotton swab from him, dipped it in the bottle, and applied the compound around the hole on Mauro’s head. Immediately, there was the fizzle then the little smoke. Maya held the swab out again. “Red. An acidic reaction.”

Santi caught up with her idea. “That means that his assailant did inevitably leave traces on him when it touched or ate some parts of him. And that means whoever did this was not human…Good work!” he beamed at her as she beamed back. Suddenly, an unwelcome realization hit the doctor. “I just remembered why I wanted you to check out his head.”

“You wanted to show the hole and say the brain was missing.”

“The skulls I was examining back in the lab?”

“What about them?”

“They have similar holes as well…”

 

 

****************************************************************

*blunt force – a hit caused by a usually large outside object

*pre-or post-mortem – before or after death

*stress fracture – fracture of a bone due to a heavy, constant activity applied on it

*fibula – hind leg bone or the human leg’s outer and smaller bone

*tibia – shinbone or the human leg’s inner and larger bone

*phalanges (also phalanxes) – finger or toe bones

*blunt force trauma – injury caused by a large object hitting a body

*forensic science – a field of science that uses various methodologies and applications to gather possible evidences and analyses of such for legal or criminal investigation purposes

*A-Ba-Ka-Da – Filipino ABC, read as such, with the letter K replacing C as third letter

*kapeng barako – a variety of coffee found in the Philippines called Barako, belonging to the species Coffealiberica, mostly grown in Cavite province and particularly in Batangas; due to its strong flavor/taste, the term ‘barako’ has also come to mean a male stud (man or animal)

*Kamagong – also called the Mabolo fruit tree found in the Philippines and famous for its dark, iron-hard wood that is almost impossible to break

*‘kesong pilipit’ – a coined term by the author for a supposed modified pilipit, a crunchy local snack that is a twisted sugar-glazed bread; for this story, it is larger, more chewy, glazed with ‘keso’ or cheese, with cheese also found inside the twist

*‘ampao barako’ – a coined term by the author for a supposed modified ampao, sugar-coated rice crispies normally sprinkled with peanut; for this story, it is round and coated with kapeng barako

*AFIS – Automated Fingerprint Identification System

*“Hay, naku, di ka rin istrikto, ano?” – “Wow, aren’t you a strict one!” said sarcastically with a sigh at the start (Hay”) and an expression, naku”, which is short for ina ko” or “my mother”, said in the same vein as “Oh, brother!”

*maligno – normally interchanged with the aswang, but based on what I’ve known so far, this could be supernatural beings that do not necessarily have to be monsters and not necessarily bad

*UPLB – University of the Philippines Los Baños

*Susmaryosep – short, Spanish version for the expression “Jesus, Mary, Joseph” although for some reason, Joseph, which should be Jose, is called Josef

*“Ano’ng–?!! HOY!!!” – “What the–?!! HEY!!!”

 

NEXTMAYA [CHAPTER 3: REUNIONS, Scene 1]

MAYA [CHAPTER 2: DEAD AIR, Scene 3]

For past chapter pages, CLICK HERE.

CHAPTER TWO: DEAD AIR (Scene 3)

Santi had come home from the United States for his annual vacations back in the Philippines. It was the first time he and Maya crossed paths. And, perhaps, it would be relevant to note that it was the first time he crossed paths with one of the largest, fiercest dogs he had ever seen, one that unfortunately chased him to a dark, deserted alley.

He would not have gone there at all had his car not chosen to break down at such an ungodly hour in such an unsafe place. It broke down right after he swerved trying to avoid a drunk crossing the street. Just his luck, his cellphone battery died on him, too. Santi had no choice but to look for a payphone while keeping on the lookout for passing vehicles. Back then, convenient stores didn’t have recharging stations, while all the establishments near him were already closed.

He wished he had stayed home rather than party with old friends who did not seem to have mentally matured. They still tried to live it up and live off their parents’ riches and it made him wonder why he was still friends with them. On the other hand, maybe going to the party was not a bad idea and staying there would have been wiser. There were still some interesting and tolerable people at the party. There was, in fact, a particular young woman that interested him.

A morena, with lovely Asian features and nice, dark, curly hair. She was a rather smart and funny conversationalist, quite the type he would go for. She exuded a rather mysterious aura, too, and he hoped it was not all for show, after all, Santi was well-aware she was as interested in him as he was in her.

Santi was tall and well-built enough, with dark and yet somewhat-mestizo features. He was not a bad-looking fellow at all and definitely not new in the art of flirting. When he asked what the woman did for a living, though, she told him she “earned a living in the evenings” and then laughed. Santi took it as a joke. She seemed too sophisticated to be in the oldest profession known to man.

They left the place but not together, although they did manage to exchange numbers. Flirting or no flirting, Santi was not in the habit of taking advantage of women. He liked to know them better first before going to second base, if he thought they were ready. So they drove separate cars and went separate ways. He regretfully wondered, maybe if he stayed longer, she would have stayed longer as well and he would have learned more about her rather than gotten stranded in God-knew-where!

So there in that dimly lit place, Santi’s car brought him, the car that seemed to have ran smoothly much earlier only to conk out on him at such an hour. He was still mulling over his lost opportunity when he saw the dog—black, snarling, the size of a grown person. “GRRRR!!!!” it growled angrily with its eyes fixed on him. Santi, dog-lover that he was, knew that dogs would not normally attack unless provoked. However, this one was huge! It seemed eager to pounce the second any movement was made. True enough, no sooner had Santi taken a step back that the dog leapt and attacked, sending him running for dear life!

Santi ran and ran, trying to lose the dog that kept on coming. He ran and ran pass streets and corners, but the dog kept closing in. “Help!” he yelled as he passed a few vagrants, but no one helped or they were too stunned themselves to do anything. There were no police stations nearby. No patrol car passed by either.

The dog was too intent on chasing him until Santi found himself alone and cornered somewhere he did not even know. Was this how he was going to go? How he was going to be remembered? ‘The doctor mauled to death by a dog’?!!

Santi frantically looked around but kept alert should the dog made its move. No, he was not going down without a fight, not this way. There had to be something, anything. He was not exactly planning to hurt the animal, but hopefully, he could find something to frighten it with. Maybe there was a stick he could throw that could send the dog running away from him. Unfortunately, all around, he could only see trash thrown about.

Papers? No, they would not do, not in bits and pieces. What was he to do, threaten the animal with paper cut? And even if it was possible, there was still the matter of closing the distance between them with also the possibility of getting devoured in the process. Cans? Hardly useful. Staring at the dog, Santi thought that throwing cans that would cause moise would probably anger it more instead of sending the dog away with its tail between its legs. So how, how, HOW???

Santi watched it walk from side to side as if keeping sentinel. Its sharp, scary teeth were snarling and, to Santi’s surprise, its eyes seemed unusually red and angry. And wow, was it big! It was not even a St. Bernard! I need a stick, he prayed, please, please, please! Give me one. Now! If he could hurl one, maybe the ‘nice’ doggie would go fetch?

When—SWOOSH!!! A long stick indeed flew out from nowhere and threw the dog hard on the ground.

What the—?!! Santi barely had a second to grasp what happened when there was another surprise. The stick boomeranged back into the hands of its owner! How could a long, straight stick boomerang?

And yet it was possible for some reason, as evidenced by its owner, the hooded figure standing meters away from behind the dog. Santi had failed to notice him until then; he was too preoccupied with thinking of ways to escape. He tried to get a closer look at the figure but the light against his eyes only allowed Santi a silhouette. Besides, to his disappointment, the dog recovered quickly and stood up, facing its new enemy, angrier, fiercer.

“Run!!!” he shouted at the figure, forgetting for a moment that he, too, should try and escape. Still, that would have been useless. There was nowhere to pass through except the way blocked by the dog. What if it didn’t run after the culprit? Then he thought, what if it did? “Run!” he shouted again. He was not going to have another person mauled to death because of him.

The figure, however, did not budge. Instead, he took a fighting stance, pointing his stick at the dog, as if offering a challenge.

“What are you doing?” Santi could not believe his eyes. “Are you crazy?” What was the guy playing at, a sick version of fetching sticks? Never mind that Santi thought about the same thing a while ago. That was entirely different. Santi watched in horror as the dog attacked the other man. Oh, God!, he cursed and wanted to close his eyes but could not. It seemed like time went in slow motion as he expected to see it sinking its teeth into human flesh. Oh, my God…!

Three hard, calculated blows. Perhaps there were more, but everything went so fast. It seemed like three blows with the stick and the large canine fell once again on the ground.

Santi gasped. How…? He expected it to recover quickly once more but unlike earlier, the dog did not move to stand. It kept still on the ground. Slowly, Santi cautiously attempted to see if it was dead. It wasn’t. It appeared to be stunned, its now glazed-looking eyes and mouth open, yet it seemed hardly breathing. Santi became more bold and touched its chest to check its heartbeat. If there was any beat at all, it was too faint even for him to feel. Poor dog…Despite the danger he was in, he could not help but feel pity for the animal. Surely, there were other ways? Like running away from it?

He turned to face the dog’s assailant, but only in time. Knife attack! The sharp point glinted pass Santi’s eyes. “HEY!” He fell sitting on the ground.

He was wrong, though. The knife, a fan-knife called balisong, hit its target, the dog’s heart, dead on, killing it for good. Not contented, the killer sliced through its chest and down to its stomach, causing spurts of blood. Having witnessed such act mortified Santi even more. He had hoped to escape the dog, but not like this. Enough was enough! He did not care if the man saved him. That was, in more ways than one, an ‘overkill’.

“Was that even necessary?!! You had it down already! Isn’t there a law here that prohibits animal cruelty? Are you out of your—Oh…!” Santi exclaimed. “Oh.” What he witnessed was a total departure from what he thought he knew. A transformation was quickly taking place in front of him. As he watched, the animal on the ground turned into a full-grown, naked woman, and then everything dawned on him. The figure standing before him did him a favor—probably did a lot of people a very big favor—by putting down the monster that lay near him.

Santi stared down at the dead woman, his eyes unbelieving. She was young and beautiful, brown-skinned, and with dark, curly hair…And he knew her! She was the same girl he just had a great evening with, the same girl whose number he got, whom he wanted to date and get to know better. What was her name again? ‘Marie’? ‘Ma…-something’…? His genius memory failed him this time due to trauma. Did his wish just come true in some twisted way? Not only did he get to know her better, she almost ate him alive! So that was how she ‘earned a living’ in the evenings…!

The immensity of this realization made his head spin. He was a man of science, but never had he witnessed such a thing, ever. “I met her at the party earlier. I thought we connected. I never…” Does anyone ever…?

Santi looked up and was then more able to view his savior. Loose, black sweatshirt and blue jeans, rubber shoes, a bag pack from where an end of the ebony stick now protruded, joining its partner. But he could not see the face hidden conveniently under the hood, so much like a masked, modern-day superhero. The figure bent down to take back the knife, seeming to take care of keeping his face hidden. He straightened up to leave, bringing the young doctor back to his senses.

Santi scrambled to his feet. “W-Wait. I haven’t thanked you yet. Thank you for saving my life! And—uh—I’m sorry I yelled at you and said all those things.” The figure stopped for two seconds, nodded to him, then began to walk. Santi tried to follow but he was not as fast, add the fact that he was still in a little state of shock. “Please, wait!…I mean, well, it’s embarrassing, but please. I don’t know this place and clearly,” his eyes swept their surroundings, especially at the dead body, “it’s not the best place to be eaten.”

But the figure would not stop. Santi’s brows furrowed, observing the retreating figure, his mind racing, boggled for a moment, until he remembered his plea. “Uh, wait, please. E-Excuse me…Hey…Hey, MISS!!!” Santi’s superhero stopped. He could tell he said the magic word to make the figure listen, finally.

It surprised Santi a bit to hear a voice coming from under the hood. “How did you…?” She sounded young. It felt good to hear her voice. It felt good to hear any voice!

“Your hips. Well, pelvis, to be exact. I was looking at it and—”

“Wait!” The girl suddenly turned around to face him. To confront him, it seemed. “What? You were looking at my—? Well! Isn’t that just typical of a guy? Ogling at women at times like this. Maybe I should teach you a lesson you won’t forget!”

“Huh? Wha—? Oh, no, no! I’m sorry. You don’t understand. I-I didn’t mean…I’m a forensic anthropologist.” The girl put her hands akimbo and tapped a foot, a silent demand for a more elaborate explanation. He could feel her eyes boring through him. How could he tell her things like that came to him automatically, that it came with the territory? “Uh, I’m the kind of doctor who studies bodies. Bones, actually. But even with your clothes on and all, I could still imagine—er—distinguish your gender. When we have to identify skeletons, the pelvis tells us whether it is male or female…Uh, here, I have a card.” He went closer but carefully as he produced a company card from his suit’s inside pocket and handed it to her. It was from his job abroad but that should do it.

The girl studied it for a while. He wished he could see her expression if only for a bit. “So! Dr. Rivas,” she finally addressed him again, and he was glad to detect amusement in her tone. “Did you really find out I’m a girl just by ogling at my swaying female hips? That gave me away?”

“I told you, I wasn’t…,” he started defensively then stopped. Did he just hear her snicker? Perhaps that was her way of apologizing. “Yes, that gave you away…aaaand the pink shoelaces.” This time, he did not only hear her snicker. He heard a wonderful, little laughter. After such a harrowing experience, he needed to hear something as beautiful as a girl’s laughter. Especially since he just met Ms. Could-Have-Been-Perfect that night and got heartbroken in a matter of hours because it became apparent, she was after his heart.

“True. Though I do prefer teal, that’s my favorite color. Do you know that color? It’s a specific shade of blue and green. You know, it’s that the certain blue-green shade that is often the color of vehicular plate numbers?”

“It is? Oh. I will have to check that out then.”

“Well, a lot of times, they don’t get the exact color shade…You know, if not for the pelvis, I could have been a guy who happened to love pink,” the girl bounced back to the topic.

The brief exchange was followed by an awkward silence. Santi could not think of anything more related to say. There was one thing that came to mind, but he did not know how she would take it if he told her his first-ever clue of her possibly being a girl: the whiff he got of the sweet scent of her girly perfume when she bent down to retrieve the knife.

“Oh, wait.” The girl pulled out a marker from her pocket and picked up a large piece of carton to write on. Having done so, she went back to the dead woman and placed the sign on top.

It read: “PUSHER. ‘WAG TULARAN.” A warning to all to not follow the woman’s drug-pushing way of life or else.

Santi’s bewilderment did not escape the girl’s notice. “What?” she asked matter-of-factly, as if killing monsters and placing such signs on them were but natural hobbies. “Do you think all those ‘salvage’ victims you see on TV are really tortured to death just because little signs like this imply so? Many have been victims by this woman’s kind. Signs like this just throw off the scent from them, to keep humans from guessing what is really happening so they can operate more easily. This is my own way of keeping people safer. If they knew aswangs were real, then monsters like her would know they know, so what would there be to hide anymore? It would be one giant fiesta with people making up the menu and the aswangs trying out everything on the table.”

Santi’s stomach wanted to turn but he controlled it. He did not say a thing. She was the expert in that particular field, not him. He could explain to her all about forensic science and bones, but to attempt to explain aswangs?

Sige,” the girl bade goodbye and began to walk away again, sending Santi on his toes to match her fast pace.

“I’m serious, Miss.”

“About?”

“Don’t leave me here.” Oh, wow, I sound so pathetic, like a scared fool. Which I am, at the moment. “I mean, I know about self-defense. I’ve worked with the FBI. But this? I don’t know how exactly to handle this. I don’t know how I can handle an…,” he tried to find a more appropriate word. There was none.

Aswang,” she filled in the blank for him.

“It sounds so weird, hearing that word in a conversation that I am actually a part of. But yes, an aswang. If I knew how to handle it, maybe I’d be reacting differently, like how you reacted, except maybe I wouldn’t be that great at it. I was already practically helpless being the intended victim. That’s embarrassing enough to admit.”

“Nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s a normal reaction. All the people I’ve helped got too scared as well.”

“Okay, again, I admitted that already. I’m not exactly proud of myself right now.”

“Sensitive.”

Santi could feel his face getting all red with embarrassment. He guessed she guessed right. He was a typical man, too typical to admit he was not tough enough and too proud to accept a girl saved him instead of him being the savior. “Yes, well, I don’t know how you did it—I mean, I saw how—but, I did not expect it. Even so, I’m thinking I’d be safer with you. So, I’m asking if I can stay with you? Even just until we find busier streets, then I won’t bother you anymore.” There, I said it. Hard to accept, but mature people always said that what made a better man was his humility and ability to admit his weaknesses. Santi wished she would see it the same way. Her silence appeared to be a sign that she was contemplating it.

There was hesitation in her voice when she spoke. “Aaaal-right,” she said, stopping to face him. He was glad because he was getting a bit flustered trying to follow her, plus he had been running as fast as he could not so long ago. He appreciated the break.

“Yey, thank you!” The pounding of his heart was beginning to normalize. All that running and those new-found bits of incredible information kept his adrenaline pumping. He was glad to feel a bit more normal again, and he knew that part of it was due to relief gained from knowing she was taking him with her. “Do you have a car parked somewhere?”

“The only wheels I have are roller blades which I don’t even have with me right now, sorry. I get by like any other commuter. Would that be a problem?”

“No, no. Walking would be fine with me.”

“Actually, I run, jump and leap. Have you ever heard of Parkour, what they call ‘the art of movement’?”

He had, but the idea of it was not so inviting to him. “I just wish my car had not broken down. We could get away from here faster.”

“You didn’t say you have a car!” she exclaimed.

“It broke down so it’s useless.”

The girl thought for a while but he had no idea what was in her head. He could not even see the face! “Then I guess you really have to go with me. Judging from your surprised expression earlier, you did not know the dog was the woman, so I’m guessing she did not ride with you. I’m guessing you told her where you’re heading, or maybe gave her your card, too. Then conveniently, your car broke down, not too far from where you came, but far enough to get you stuck in this horrid place and not be able to get help…She was not alone.”

Santi’s heart leapt. What did she mean? There was at least one other aswang out there that could be watching them right now? The girl laughed and punched him on his shoulder (it hurt a bit but pride did not let him complain).

“Relax! Breathe! I was just scaring you…Well, actually, that was true. She had an accomplice to take care of your car while she worked you up. They knew fully well what would happen to the car. Ha! Even they have their modus operandi now! These days, even the aswangs have to help one another to survive…Hey, you’ve turned pale. It’s funny the way you keep jumping from pale to flushed.”

Maybe it’s because you and your aswang buddies keep springing surprises at me?

“But don’t worry. Whoever’s been helping her is long-gone by now or there would have been another attack.”

“Maybe you scared him. Or them.” But he wasn’t ready to believe that and he looked around. If anything, this girl seemed to have encountered more monsters than necessary that she could already tell how they did it. Santi thanked God that he did not let the monster inside his car or he would not be there still breathing.

“Come on, let’s find your car,” she began and he followed.

“B-But it’s not working.”

“I can probably make it work.”

“Oh, you know how to fix cars?”

She smiled at him. He could see her smile from under the hood. “No. But I know how to hot-wire them.”

Santi gave a nervous chuckle. “I’m not going to complain. Anything to get out of here.”

The two of them set out to find his car and found it parked in a corner. True enough, the girl proved to be an expert in hot-wiring. She knew what to do—only two sparks and the engine roared to life. He didn’t know exactly how his car was sabotaged but it was not important anymore. Santi could not help but be impressed. Dubious of her character, but impressed.

Soon, they were on the road with Santi on the wheel. He was pretty shaken up but driving became a bit therapeutic for him. He did drive like a lunatic the first few miles that could have earned him a driving ticket. He was to drop the girl off somewhere and then he could go home to his warm house, eat his warm food, sleep in his warm bed, and then by morning, he would find out the previous evening was all a bad dream.

“Hey,” the girl said after a while. “I’ve been thinking. You did say you study bodies and bones, didn’t you?”

He corrected, “Mainly bones. Why?”

“I could use your help.”

“What? H-How? Why?” Was there no end to this nightmare?

“The what and how, I’ll explain later. The why is you sitting here beside me, alive and driving, because I saved you.”

Santi thought about it. He did owe her. Perhaps she was not going to ask for something big. Maybe she would only like to see how a forensic anthropologist worked. “Okay, fair enough.”

“Good!”

“Good. Then, since I’ll be helping you, can I at least have a name I can call you by? I mean I could call you Darna or whatever you want, just tell me. If we’re going to be communicating, wouldn’t a name be important? You have to at least give me one.”

The girl gasped. “I thought you had one already?!!” Santi stared for a moment and then, getting her meaning, laughed. “There you go! I was beginning to think you had no sense of humor. Are all scientists that serious?”

“I’m sorry, really. I do have a sense of humor. Many of the scientists I know are quite funny. It’s just that it’s not everyday that you go through what I went through. Of course, I don’t exactly mean you by ‘you’.”

“Maya.” Huh? What did she say? Was that a word? A sound?

“Excuse me?”

“That’s my name, Maya de Alano.” With that, the girl took off the hood of her sweatshirt and looked straight into his eyes.

For the nth time that evening, Santi’s heart leapt, and the car dangerously swerved to the curb. He cursed out loud and tried to get his bearings together. “Oops! Sorry,” he apologized, taking another glance at the sweetest face he had ever seen. Not the prettiest, but something about her…And those eyes!

“No problem. That was new, at least. No one’s ever cursed upon seeing my face before.”

“Oh. No, I didn’t mean to. I was just…distracted. I thought I saw something on the road…” He felt a warm flush on his face again and he could tell she could tell.

“Hmnn,” Maya hummed, squinted her eyes and crinkled her nose, studying his face more closely as he tried hard not to swerve again like a drunk idiot. He wished she’d keep still! Maya smirked and sat back contentedly on her seat, looking ahead. “Did you know that blushing is exclusive to humans alone?”

“What?” What???

“It often starts at around the age of ten although it can also start as early as five. Teenagers blush the most, perhaps due to their high level of self-consciousness. But adults are capable of blushing as well. It has no particular use but can be extremely uncomfortable in certain situations. I think it’s cute.”

Santi felt he had never blushed so much in his entire life. Right then, he knew he could never be the same Santi Rivas ever again. No one had ever made him blush like that. To him, that amounted to something: a lot.

.

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*morena – mocha-skinned or of light-brown complexion

*mestizo – bearing (normally) Caucasian physical features

*“PUSHER. ‘WAG TULARAN.” – “ILLEGAL DRUG DEALER. DON’T EMULATE.”

*’salvage’ –  in the Philippines, the word’s meaning has evolved into practically its exact opposite due to bad and popular media hype. A ‘salvage’ victim now means someone who had been tortured and killed

*fiesta – feast

*aswang – Philippine folklore’s mythical creature considered to be the equivalent of the West’s vampire. It is the general term for various monsters, which are called by other names, depending on the regions. They are said to be generally evil carnivores feeding on human flesh and believed to be able to change into normal human and animal forms

*“Sige” – “Alright” or “Okay” in the context

*modus operandi – Latin for “method of operation”

*Darna – a Filipino superheroine

NEXT: MAYA [CHAPTER 2: DEAD AIR, Scene 4]

MAYA [CHAPTER 2: DEAD AIR, Scene 2]

For past chapter pages, CLICK HERE.

CHAPTER TWO: DEAD AIR (Scene 2)

DR. Santi Rivas put the phone down. He had just listened to a lecture on the history of donut holes and it made him laugh imagining Maya animatedly discussing her piece of trivia. He would not admit it, but though some people were put off by Maya’s sometimes-off-tangent stories or found her an arrogant know-it-all, that was one of the things he liked about her.

Her love of knowledge was evident and indeed, she was knowledgeable. Many years of existence made her that. She could probably add more information to history than any expert could, and debunk long-accepted facts as well. He loved listening to her, loved seeing the nostalgia and excitement in her eyes, and he knew she knew it. No wonder she bombarded him with information as much as she could. That was her idea of friendly bonding.

Fulfilling his promise, he decided to drop by the funeral home an hour earlier, giving himself only a few hours of sleep. He wanted to examine some things in his lab before he went, but Maya was persistent about making him examine the body she found first. He might as well grant her request. Not that Santi needed a lot of persuasion. Santi was a man of logic and science and yet, somehow, when it came to Maya, all logic came out the window, and who cared about science? That was the usual case except whenever she needed him to help find answers important to her, he had to keep remembering to do care again.

Truth be told, he could have been better off without her if not for one thing: he could not believe—could not accept—such a thought. She was trouble, mystery, joy and wonder rolled into one, at least, to him. Not meeting her would have made his life quite boring.

They first met five years ago, a first meeting that was rather out of the ordinary. Extremely out of it.

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NEXT: MAYA [CHAPTER 2: DEAD AIR, Scene 3]