Mandig village is small and may look peaceful with its verdant hills and forest around it but crime had set foot on this exact village two days ago painting its reputation red. Crimes know no sizes, after all. They happen anywhere, to anyone, anytime.
Standing in front of a medium-sized grocery store I order a soft drink –black liquid poison, as they call it. I stopped drinking this stuff months ago –sugar problem, but today I could use one. Blame it on the scorching mid-noon sun.
“You’re not from around here!” a woman in mid-forties states. The owner I assume.
“Yes!” I flip open my ID. “Markus Abaca, private investigator from Lighthouse Investigations. I’d like to ask a few questions regarding the murder two –,”
“Ah, Fred Castro!”
“Yes! Do you have a few minutes?”
“Sure! Anything for a good man, sir!”
“Ask anybody around here and you’ll hear the same thing. He bought one of the local farms. The owner migrated to Canada.” She pauses. “Fred was friendly but not that friendly, you know. He’d be here only for business and never stayed long. Comes morning, heads back home long before dark. That was his routine. No vices! I’ve never seen him smoke or drink a beer or as light as a coconut wine. Didn’t cause any trouble! Still very good looking at his age –I had a big crush on him, you know.” With all that long narrative, fondness is drawn all over her face.
“A good man, indeed! Anything else you can recall? Peculiarity. Anything unusual?”
She’s quiet for a while. Thinking. Recalling.
“Yes, there’s one.” I turn a page of my notebook. “He never left the village. Gamay used –,”
“Yeah, yeah! He found Fred’s body at his doorstep.”
“Oh! Just making sure I get this right. Please continue.”
“Gamay takes care of his needs.”
“Fred’s errand boy! Was there anyone else before him?”
“Oh, yeah. There was Raul. He stole some rubber. It was a bad end for both of them.” She shakes her head in disbelief.
“Very! Fred announced to the whole village what Raul did. Claimed ‘twas the third time. The entire family was humiliated. Did it for his daughter’s school fieldtrip, you know. Makes me so sad.”
“Would have saved him the trouble if he’d asked Fred instead of stealing!”
She just shrugs and drifts someplace for a while.
“These needs. What are they?”
“Oh, just house supplies, among others. I didn’t ask much, you know. It’s rude!”
“You did the right thing! But why can’t he go to town himself? He is –wasn’t an invalid, was he?”
“Nah. He was as strong as a buffalo! Just hated towns and cities. Too much pollution. Too crowded. Too much noise!”
“Hmm. You must be very close then!”
She doesn’t answer. Her saddened eyes are about to shed tears.
“I never told this to the police, you know!” she continues, sniffling.
“Well, for one, he didn’t ask me those questions you asked me. Then he was rude! Like he was just here to show to the community that his department is doing something. He never really did ask a lot of questions.”
“That’s why I’m here.”
“To find the killer!”
Nope! I nod. “How about this Gamay, any strange behavior?”
“Oh, he’s just a young farmer –a generous farmer, that too! Used to bring Mrs. Onares some of his produce for free.”
“Yeah. An old widow. Died in her sleep a week ago. Peaceful death –unlike Fred’s.” She sighs deeply.
“Guess that’s life!” I mutter softly. She doesn’t comment. “So where does this Onares live?”
“Down the road, after the mill.”
I look at my watch, finish my drink, and pay her. “You’ve been very helpful, Ms. –,”
“Mrs. Agnes Victoria!”
“Keep the change, Ag–. Can I call you Agnes?”
She smiles widely. “I like the sound of my name on your lip!” I grin. Yeah, I get that often. It must be the ID!
“One more thing. Does Raul still live around here?”
“Not anymore. Sold everything and left. No one knows where.”
“I see. What’s his full name?”
“Raul Ramirez.” I write down his name and draw a circle around it –twice!
“Thank you for your time, Agnes. Here’s my card if you can remember anything –anything at all that will help me solve this case.”
She takes it and examines it front and back.
“Anything for Fred, detective!”
I would have corrected her but there was no point. So I just bade her goodbye.
Heading towards the village’s community hall to talk to Ricardo Garcia, I call my buddy, Jovin.
“I’d like you to take a look at the houses within 300 meters after the mill.”
“Should I ask around?” he asks.
“Do that! And ask Janet to also run a profile check on Raul Ramirez. Talk to you later!” I hang up.
In a room, a folder sits on a square Mahogany table; two rattan chairs face each other. One is tucked under it and on the other sat Ricardo “Gamay” Garcia.
Garcia found the body and reported the murder to the police. But my gut says he is the killer! Mandig people may not suspect him at all. No motivation, they would say. But not to my boss’s boss!
I get in. The earlier I get the information I need the earlier I get to go back to my boring investigative life. And that’s according to my mother who never approved of my profession in the first place. But I like my job. It’s been what I wanted since the first time I read Agatha Christie.
“Ah, the famous Markus Abaca! I knew they’d send you in!” Gamay acknowledges.
Gamay in Bisayan language means small. Yet nothing small about the man. At 5 feet 10 inches tall, his height is more than the average height of a Filipino man. His physique –lean and muscular but never bulky, is the result of toiling his land. His muscles are not the results of hours of lifting weights in the gym and gulping whey powder or injecting steroids. They’re the consequences of hard labor. He’s the exact image of my self! In my dreams! Yet poor diet is affecting his age badly, for at the age of thirty he definitely looks a decade older. His eyes look weary, evidence of sleepless nights. Probably agonizing over what had happened.
“You know me?”
“I read your book.”
“Books are my company at night, sir!”
“Any plan on writing one?”
“Don’t have the talent!”
I stare at him. Then turn my gaze at the file report. “You stated, ‘If I didn’t leave that day, he would not been murdered.’ Why did you say that?”
He shrugs, lowers his gaze, and say, “The perpetrator would have –,”
“Yeah! The police said so!”
“Right! So, in what way your presence would have made a difference?”
“Well, he might have had a second mind to carry his mission?”
“Most killers are men, aren’t they?”
“Maybe! But you could have been shot to death as well!”
Gamay doesn’t counter. He probably sees the point. But ‘what ifs’ or ‘could haves’ don’t matter now. His friend is dead and all he knows why he was murdered.
“You said earlier. Were you supposed to meet him that night?”
“Yes! We dine together every Sunday night. Last Sunday was at my house!”
That explains the mess on the kitchen floor. The inhabitants of the forest must have had a feast from the death of the host.
“Which is around 500 meters from where he lives –lived!”
“How long have you known each other?”
“Six months. Roughly!”
“And you became friends immediately?”
Gamay gives me a sharp prodding look. I meet it with two raised eyebrows.
“In the mountains, hostility has no place. And there was no reason not to befriend the only person who lives next to your farm. Besides, Fred was kind and friendly.”
There is silence.
“I’m a busy man, Mr. Garcia! So, let’s hear your theory,” I demand.
“Revenge! First, a man lost his reputation for 1000-peso worth of rubber. Sec –,”
“Yeah. But let me finish. Second, he was a murderer himself! About fifteen years ago he killed an innocent man –a husband and a father of two. Mistaken identity!”
“The Serrano case! So do you think this is about revenge?”
“I don’t think. I know it is revenge. And it has finally caught him!
“How are you so sure?”
“Because he said so. He told me that he received threats. Notes that say ‘your days are numbered’.
“Have you seen these notes yourself?”
“Yes! He showed me once!”
“Once! Yet you said notes!”
“He showed me three notes at one time!”
“Hmm. How did he receive them?”
“Door delivery! Weighted with a rock right at his doorstep.”
I scan the report. No found threat notes.
“Hmm, were they handwritten?”
“No! They were letters cut from newspapers and magazines!”
“Some of the letters were glossy. Newspapers don’t have glossy prints!”
“Good observation! But you still remained friends with him?”
He glares at me. “Everybody deserves a second chance. The man I befriended was a reformed man. He used to read Bible passages to me after our dinner together and talk about them with vigor and enthusiasm. I just listened, you know because I’m a good listener. He liked that about me. He said he’d wronged many people. Most of them surely deserved it. A few didn’t. He didn’t know any better then, he said. And I could see remorse embedded deep within his eyes. Well, I am not the one to judge him. Nobody is innocent in this world.”
I gape at him intently, trying to find any clues of lies. But the man in front of me shows none of that. Instead, I see concern and agony on his face. Or maybe he’s just acting. One that could win him an Oscar. His alibi is his absence in the area when the killing happened. A story that is collaborated by, not one, but ten people who was with him in a jeep while leaving and ten more people while coming back. And the only way to get through Fred and his farm is through the bridge. And unless the murderer knew how to cross a fast-flowing river with turbulent rapids, the only safe way of passage is through the bridge and no one passes that bridge without being noticed.
“Is that all your theory?”
“I can’t think of any other else.”
“Then maybe I should tell you one that you forgot to mention!”
We eyeball one another.
“Where are you hiding the money, Mr. Garcia?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You know exactly what I’m talking about!”
“No, I don’t!” he says sternly. Film directors would queue for his great acting.
“Yet, it says here,” I tap the file in front of me, “that a month ago you exchanged 5 one hundred dollar notes!”
Gamay’s face softens.
“So where are the rest?” He’s hiding the money somewhere. That I am sure. But intuition isn’t evidence. I need him to confess.
“That’s all I know about his money. Fred asked me to do it. Brought him his supplies. That’s all!” Nothing can match with his calmness and confidence. “He said it was his brother’s money. I didn’t ask anything more!” he continues.
“He didn’t have a relative, Mr. Garcia. Let alone a brother,” I reveal. He looks surprised. Hmm, very convincing!
“And that 500 dollar is only point one percent of the total amount in his position! Now, the 499, 500 dollars –,”
“He had what?” he asks, astounded.
“You heard it.”
Dazed and frowning, he states, “But that amount is too big! How’d –,”
“He was a hired killer, Mr. Garcia! And I find your innocence about the matter very incontestable!”
“Weren’t you listening? I told you I don’t know anything more about his money!” he blurts almost yelling.
“You’re a great liar, Mr. Garcia!”
“If I am lying, where’s the money?”
“My men’s on it!”
“You’re just wasting your time!”
“I don’t think so!”
“Suit yourself! Can I go now?” he blurts irritatingly.
“Not yet!” I flip two pages of the report one after the other. “What’s with the Quran and the Bible? You have what –all the versions? Do you plan on becoming a religious scholar?” I smirk. I hear chuckles outside the room. I’ve read enough of those stuffs to make me a non-believer.
“Fred lent them to me to read. Saved his soul, he said!”
With no further questions to ask, I leave with a mind full of dollars. My gut says Garcia has it. Location? No clue. Then there’s the question of how. I just can’t figure out how he’s going to use it without sounding the alarm. And he is no fool. That I could make out.
Jovin is calling.
“There’s a small hut a few meters away from the main road. It’s near the river bank. An old woman used to live there. I met her granddaughter, Rebecca Onares, while packing.”
“Yeah! Grandma’s belongings. Donating them to a charity. But she denied knowing Castro or Garcia. She used to come twice a month to see her grandmother. I was told the same by the mill guy.”
“Agnes?” he clarifies; his voice in playful tone.
“She’s a fifty-year old vibrant woman who runs a business here.” That should stop him from teasing me about my love life.
“So what about her?”
“She hadn’t mentioned about a granddaughter.” I pause. “Anything suspicious about the young woman?”
“None, really! Aside from a few bags which she said were her grandmother’s clothing and some boxes, nothing seemed offbeat about her.”
“Utensils, breakable items –that kind of stuff. And pocketbooks, about seventy of them, and two versions of the Bible!”
The Bible is no surprise. Mandig is a religious village. But pocketbooks?
“For rent! That’s her business!” Jovin answers.
“Is her leaving a concern?” he queries.
“I don’t know yet. Garcia used to bring that old woman some produce. Shouldn’t the granddaughter inquire whom the produce from?”
“If she was bothered!”
“Right. Or the grandma could have told!”
“Talk to you later.”
The moment I ended the call, my phone rings again. It is Janet.
“Hey, boss. Garcia and Ramirez’s profiles are as clean as newly-done laundry. One thing about Garcia is odd though. There’s no record of him voting ever!”
“That’s odd?” I quip.
“And his ex-wife is a Filipino–Indian”
“Yeah, it’s in the report. Anything else?”
“That’s all, boss!
Damn! I just hate unsolved cases. Not the ‘who killed Castro’-kind of cases because that’s solved, for certain. A professional killer involved in all kinds of crimes was shot dead and if he rots where he lay dead, no one would really care. But not when he’s hiding a large amount of money –the money that my boss’s boss wants and the money that I am paid for to find.
With no evidence linking Garcia to Castro’s death, the former was later sent home. But with the office’s reputation at stake, a team of intel was sent to monitor and spy on Garcia’s activities. Twenty days later, the same team was pulled off empty handed. It’s frustrating! But such negative results are part of the job. How peaceful the world would have been if all criminals are locked up in jail or rotting in coffins.
That is just not the case.
One week later, I am told that Garcia left the farm to forget what happened. Who killed Fred Castro will remain a question amongst the residents of Mandig. But this case is never about his death. It’s always been about the money! And the people of Mandig don’t know that. Problem is no one has a lead or a clue or an idea on the money’s whereabouts. I myself am left with a white board in front of me where the names Serrano, Ramirez, Castro, Garcia, and Onares are written around the figure $499,500 that doesn’t connect to anywhere. And it’s been a month since that interrogation. So far, all efforts have failed. The money could have been buried. But my men had surveyed both farms and not a single sign of it anywhere. Their houses had been swiped clean to no avail. So it’s either Garcia was telling the truth or Castro had been shrewd enough to hide it somewhere before he was killed.
Every possible exit of that money is monitored and that kind of amount cannot be transacted so easily. Unless –unless it is spent overseas!
Overseas! But how? The more I think about it the more my head spins in pain.
Two more weeks later I sit in my chamber holding a robbery case file. Janet comes in to ask if there’s anything I want before she leaves the office. I say no.
“That file is upside down!” she remarks.
“Oh! My mind’s somewhere else!” I justify. My eyes go to her hand leaning on the door jamb.
“What are those?” I ask.
“Oh! They’re customized bookmarks! Laminated fake money with my face on them. Do you want one?”
Laughing, I shake my head. Janet can be crowned The Queen of Originality!
“I’m giving you one, just the same! Here!”
I take it.
“You don’t stare at it, boss. You insert it in a book!” She marches out of my office; her high-heels click-clack down the hall.
That’s when everything comes to light. “Son of a bitch!”
With all speed I run towards my white board and write Bibles, pocketbooks, and Onares in reverse.