Monday, February 04, 2008

Finding Emotion


1. Strangled, the man was strangled. Eyes and tongue out, neck marked by fingers and palm. Murdered, the man was murdered. Murdered in an abandoned warehouse. Luis Heruela scratched behind his right ear. He had been with the Constabulary of the Philippines for fifteen years now. He had seen it all. He had seen this scene before: a corpse lying on the ground, a message written in blood beside it. Twenty percent of the hundreds of crime movies created in the country yearly had the bloody message for a plot point. But this was no movie. The message was a name, a sign with a referent in real life.
George Jorge killed me.
In the movies, the bloody messages were usually incomplete. That was the gimmick, the film would be about how the detective found the letters to complete the words, the words to complete the sentence. No letters missing here, and that was why Luis kept on scratching the back of his right ear. The man had been strangled. He had no wounds. Where did the blood come from?
Luis took his eyes off the corpse. He surveyed the warehouse. All around him were fellow members of the Constabulary. Most were walking around having coffee and pan de sal. Some lingered near the dead body, a few were taking pictures. About five were playing hide and seek among the empty barrels in the middle of the warehouse. One policeman was writing graffiti near the left-most exit. Another one was walking towards Luis.
His younger brother, Borgy. At last bringing coffee and pan de sal.
Luis took the cup and paper bag. He took a sip, then returned his eyes to the corpse. "GJ, a killer. Who would have thought?"
His brother coughed, then took a piece of pan de sal and broke it into two. "We are not going to pursue this. I just got off the vidphone with Deman." Borgy offered Luis half of the pan de sal.
Luis snorted. He hated that arrogant, fat, saliva-expeller. He used his position in the Constabulary to smuggle arms. One day, Luis knew, circumstances were going to force him to kill the Lieutenant. His superior was a symbol of all that was wrong with the thirty year-abolished Philippine National Police. He looked straight into his brother's eyes. "I'm not afraid--"
"To walk this world alone?"
"I would have left this all alone had he not ordered me not to."
Borgy motioned towards the warehouse's right-most exit. "Come on then. The portal won't come to us." The portal was about a block away.
"Get your hair off your eyes, and then we'll go."
Not even bothering to look back, Borgy gave Luis the finger. "You're just jealous because you're bald."

2. Luis turned the vidphone off. According to forensics, the man in the warehouse died between ten and eleven in the evening yesterday. The warehouse was in Pasay and Luis knew, for a fact, that George Jorge was in Quezon City during that hour. To be specific, GJ was at the Diliman Mall from eight seventeen to eleven fifty six in the evening. Luis knew this, because he was the policeman assigned to the Mayor yesterday. Now, the Philippines' portals were the envy of nations from Asia to Europe, but as far as Luis knew they still were incapable of allowing one person to be at two places at the same time.
He was, it seemed, the primary witness against the case he was trying to build. And yet here he was, walking up GJ's brown red lawn, formulating questions, traps, snares, quips, retorts and threats. Thirty years old next month, he enjoyed the life of a detective. Sure, Blue Bill, the Philippines' computer adviser, was always assigning him to guard politicians. There was no way to deny that the Random Assignment Program wasn't random at all. But during the days he was allowed to function in the position he chose for himself, days like today, he was happy.
"Would you please stop smiling?"
Luis turned to his brother, who was walking right beside him. Borgy had one ear plug on. Luis took the free one and put it inside his ear. "French," he thought. "Lord God, he's at it again."
"Why are you frowning?"
Luis took the ear plug off. "Why are you so mad at the world?"
"My bed was made for two." Now Borgy had two ears plugged.
Luis sighed. He remembered his second divorce. That was terrible. At least the first one didn't end in bloodshed. Still, he should be thankful. Borgy's ex-wife burned down the house. Hell hath no fury like a woman who wants out.
At last they reached the front door. Stupid Mayoral privileges! Ordinary citizens like him and his brother, in accordance with the Law, had portals in their backyards. "No," Luis thought, "Borgy doesn't have a backyard anymore." He pressed the doorbell, and the vidphone at the door came alive.
GJ's butler, again the Mayoral privileges, was an Englishman from York. Sideburns clutching his jaw, eyebrows all over his forehead, the man spoke to Luis as if he were a cockroach. "The Mayor does not accept solicitations."
Luis held up his palm. The internal beep of his identification chip helped him hold his tongue. It would simply not do to get mad at the househelp. He smiled as the door's computer recognized his position. Seconds later he was looking at the English butler in the flesh. "Mayors," he said, "have their privileges, but the Law leaves no door closed." He stepped inside the mansion, Borgy right behind him. Luis glanced at his brother, breathing a prayer after seeing the ear plugs were out of sight. It simply would not do to look shabby in front of the prime suspect.
"The Mayor will be with you presently." Sidebrows directed them to the waiting sala.
Borgy whispered to Luis as they walked, "Waiting sala? This guy is worse than Deman."
Luis shook his head, then nodded. He was going to kill Deman in the future... But perhaps the Lord God, or maybe Chance, would help him put GJ in prison now, in the present. He took a throw pillow, put it under his ass and sat on the sofa. Borgy remained standing. Luis whispered into his palm. He always sent Aiko a text message every time he used a portal. He prided himself in being a scientific man, but some superstitions were worth following. Or: just weren't worth violating. That would be how Borgy would put it.
Seventeen minutes passed. Borgy finally took a seat and the Mayor walked into the waiting sala at the same moment. Luis disciplined his face, hiding his smile. He stood up, pulled Borgy up and forced his brother to bow down with him.
The Mayor held a hand up. "Please, please Luis. Yesterday night you were protecting my life, now you're relating to me like a servant? Please, please. There is no need for bowing. Sit down, my friends, sit down." 
Borgy sat down. Luis stopped mid-air when the Mayor held his other hand up. The left one, the charred one.
"On second thought, why don't the three of us have a walk in my garden?" Before either of the brothers could speak, GJ turned his back on them and walked away.
Still in mid-air, Luis scratched the back of his right ear when he saw his brother following the Mayor. "Heaven help us, he's going to give one of his lectures." Luis considered going up to the mansion's master's bedroom, but decided he shouldn't abandon Borgy. He followed the two men.
There was a balete tree in the middle of the garden. And plastic flamingos. Last night Luis learned that the Mayor was a fanatic Americanist collector.
"He's going to give one of his stupid lectures," Borgy whispered to Luis.
"If you knock him out," Luis whispered back, "I'll hang him from the tree."
 "Do you know what day it is, gentlemen?" Though they were in open space the Mayor's voice echoed. "Today is February 9. Five days before this year's America Day. If you know your history, you know that this year's America Day marks the three hundredth anniversary of America's disappearance." GJ sat down on the grass and gestured the Heruelas to follow him. He pointed his charred forefinger upwards. "Do you see? Do you see?"
Borgy's eyes remained fixated on the Mayor's figure, but Luis looked up. It was an ordinary thing, part of the landscape, but still he could not help but cringe. He shook his head and joined his brother in staring at their suspect.
"Do you see?"
"See what, Mayor?"
"The sky."
"And what else?"
"Yes, China." GJ wagged his finger in front of the brothers. "You know the motto for America Day, right? 'There are mysteries that cannot be solved,' remember? It's to remind people to think twice before trying to figure out and investigate America's disappearance. To stop obsessing about those Canadians and Colombians and Chicanos... To accept that the continent just disappeared... And what follows America Day? China Day, June 12. And do you remember the saying for China Day? Well, do you?" The Mayor put some grass into his mouth and chewed. "Do you?"
It was Borgy who answered. "You shall not fly."
"Yes, yes!" Grass flew out of the Mayor's mouth. "You shall not fly!" Once more he pointed to the sky. "China is up there, gentlemen. Developing their technology, stockpiling weapons unimaginable, probably the people have mutated beyond the recognizably human. They are up there because this," he pointed to the ground beneath them, "this is hell. China forbids airplanes, rockets, hot air balloons. They own the sky, and space. Only the Philippines does not suffer from this prohibition. And you should know why."
Luis cursed the Mayor in his head. Not only were they given a lecture, GJ was serving them a bragging session.
"Because of my great grandfather's portal technology!" The Mayor stood up. "I know why you two are here! You think you are powerful enough to take on me? You think you are important enough to match a Jorge? Get out of my property! Heruelas! First become Mayors! Amass power first! Then maybe you will be capable of solving a mystery!"
Luis remained silent all the way back to the portal. Borgy whistled.
When they got back to Constabulary HQ he said, "I'm going to Deman" at the same time that his brother said, "There goes the case, I guess." They stared at each other, they shrugged in unison. Borgy headed to his table. Luis marched towards Deman's office. He kicked the door open.
"You dog!" Deman shouted. "You evil man!" The Lieutenant had no pants on.
"Good Lord, you probably thought the Mayor was going to kill us." Luis took out his revolver. "You're under arrest."
Deman tugged at his moustache. "You will pay for this!"
Luis smiled at the child sitting on Deman's table. "Are you okay?"
"Sir?" She couldn't be any older than ten. "I... guess so."
"Of course she's okay! I didn't touch her!"
Luis shot Deman's left knee cap. "I'm going to personally handle this one. I swear on the grave of my mother, you will get the hot air balloon for this."
The trial lasted more than four hours. In the end, Luis was fined 100,000 pesos for assaulting a superior officer. Deman was not punished by being put on a hot air balloon. The judge decided he be thrown into a Portal to Nowhere. The Random Assignment Program sent him to Antarctica. So it was a very disappointed Luis who went out with Aiko that night. "I swore," he said as they arrived at Rambutan Resto, "I swore on my mother's grave. What am I supposed to do?" They headed for their usual corner table.
Aiko shrugged. "Order dinner? I'm going to the comfort room."
Luis watched her back sway away. His vidphone rang. He signaled to the waiter, his good friend Huck.
"The usual?"
"The usual."
Luis answered his vidphone.
It was Borgy. "The child is with the Caregivers."
"Good. Good. And the fine?"
"Good. Good."
"But not by me."
"The Mayor paid for it. He said there should be more police officers like you. Unafraid of superiors, crusaders against child prostitution. I think he's leaning on Deman's replacement to give you a promotion."
"Jesus save us!"
"I know." Borgy grimaced. "I'm guessing he handed Deman's head on a silver platter for a reason. Get off this case, brother."
Borgy disappeared. The vidphone died. Aiko had returned. She was the one who turned it off. "I thought we'd agreed, no work when you're with me."
Luis nodded.
Huck arrived with two orders of burgers and fries, Aiko's favorite. She too was an Ameracanist. Unlike the Mayor though, she was not a fanatic. She was not a Mystic but a Realist. She wanted to know what made America disappear. She was part of an international organization devoted to bringing the lost continent back. "Oh," she said, going through her bag, "I almost forgot. This is for you." She handed him a pair of gloves. "Blue, see. Your favorite color."
"What's the occasion? America Day's still four days away."
"Oh, well, you're getting a different gift for that. Those gloves are for being the best member of the Constabulary ever."
"I thought we'd agreed, no work when I'm with you."
"Just this once, let's break the rules. The Philippines needs more crusaders against child prostitution. We need more people like you." She chomped off a chuck of her hamburger. "I'm so proud of you."
"My God," Luis thought, "she's in his pay." Immediately after stepping off the portal onto the Heruela's backyard later that night, he vomited. Before midnight struck he broke up with Aiko through text messaging.

3. The next day Luis was assigned to bodyguard Senator Pascual of the Navotas Collective. A descendant of the known fictionist and critic, the Senator dabbled in poetry. A guest at New MalacaƱang that night, he read his 1,000-line "scribble" "Ode to Navotas" for one hour and forty two minutes. Luis fell asleep midway and lay on the floor until fellow bodyguards doused him with water to wake him up. He didn’t understand why he fell unconscious in the first place.
The next day he and Borgy were ambushed as they stepped off the portal onto Constabulary HQ. After taking his brother to the hospital Luis took a portal to GJ's mansion. The Mayor was not there. Luis used truth serum on the English butler. The man didn't know where GJ was.
His right ear bleeding, he wandered about the mansion. He ended up under the balete tree. Rubbing at his palm he considered sending Aiko a message. He took out his vidphone and watched her final call to him instead. This was her reply to his breaking up text: for three hours she gave him the finger.
"I shouldn't have been so paranoid, Aiko," he said to the vidphone recording, "but everything fit. Or looked like they fit. No mysteries for you and me, everything has an explanation."
The recording went on giving him the finger.
Luis left the vidphone under the balete tree and went a portal. He walked one block to the abandoned warehouse. There he found the chalk outline of the corpse, and the bloody message. And Mayor GJ, and three policemen bodyguards. "You couldn't just leave things alone, couldn't you?"
The bodyguards had their revolvers aimed at Luis. Luis had his pointed at the Mayor. "I swear on my mother's grave, you will pay for what you did to Borgy."
GJ held up his charred hand. "Maybe you should swear on your brother's grave."
The revolver trembled in Luis's hand. "You dog!"
"Wait, wait!" The Mayor chuckled. "Your brother doesn't have a grave yet. He's still in the morgue!" GJ and his three men laughed.
Luis shot two of the three straight at the heart. The third he only hit in the stomach. This one shot his left ear off. He fell beside the chalk outline, erasing the strangled man's bloody message with his pants. He lost hold of his revolver.
The Mayor put a boot on his back. "I want to thank you, Heruela, for helping me get rid of Deman. He was using the children far too frequently, ruining business. I'm so sorry I had to kill your brother. It was supposed to be only you. But he was persistent too, see? He went snooping around my bedroom yesterday. You two have poor memory capabilities. Didn't I lecture you on the necessity of power?"
"You heartless man! I swear on my grave I--"
Luis Heruela's corpse was dumped into a Portal to Nowhere. The Random Assignment Program sent him to Alethea, former Demilitarized Zone, United Korea.

Philippines Graphic
February 4, 2008
(Originally published as "Finding Emo")