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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?”
“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?”
“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?”
“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!!!”