Are You There (A Short Story)

Notes From The Shadows:
Are You There

Chapter I: Great Expectations

I: That Almost Goodbye
I walk into my apartment and I hear cries, almost feline in nature, coming from the bathroom. After countless hours of searching for her, she was in the last place I’d look. God knows if she has always been there. Gave her the keys, after all. Gave her free reign on entry and exit. Told her that if she needed to escape from everyone, she was more than welcome to hide here. I just didn’t think that she’d be here after recent events.

I see her lying in the empty bathtub. Hair a mess from combing with her weak hands. Left sleeve rolled up, her arm displayed for the whole world to see. Blood pooling on the ground from her open wrist. She’s still barely conscious and sees me. Smiles at me like nothing had happened. A delirious and half smile, like she’s weighing in that I may be a figment of her imagination or not.

“Are you there? Are you really there?”

A part of me wants to walk out of here and let her assume that I was just her imagination. A part of me wants her last thoughts to be of me, or the idea of me, walking out on her. Karmic payback. A part of me wants to sit by her and watch her bleed out. Just staring at her almost empty, vodka laden eyes, until the love that we have completely dies out.
This was all that she ever wanted. To be free from everything and everyone. To be free from the mess I admittedly dragged her in. To be finally free of me.
But I won’t give her that satisfaction. I grab my phone from my jeans pocket and call for an ambulance. I’m too selfish. I’m too obsessed with her. I’m too in love with her.

I’m not letting her go that easy.

II: One Night In Portugal
People routinely ask me why I’ve stuck with her for the past year. They tell me that I should have hightailed out of the relationship the first time she lost her shit and cut my arm open. Insisted on it, in fact. It reached a point where they intentionally sabotaged our relationship. It was truly impressive how they did that. It was carefully planned for months. One must appreciate the scheming they did. And I do. And they don’t know that I know what they did.

I’d return the favor and slowly deconstruct and destroy their lives if they weren’t my friends. I am nothing if not loyal. And an idiot. They’re just watching my back, right?

I never answer them whenever they ask me why I never left her. I should have. I should have told them that they don’t see what I see in Marissa. That I don’t see what she is now, but what she becomes. That I’m willing to endure every heartache and every blood loss and every fracture to my sanity and patience for the magnificence that she will become.
I don’t think they’ll even understand this kind of love. It may seem masochistic in their eyes, and I do sometimes see it as such, but it’s so much more.

I never told Marissa about what they did or what they’ve advised me to do. I don’t have the heart to. Girl’s already got too much to deal with. There’s also the chance that she’ll kill me if told her.

Looking at her now, almost lifeless in the hospital bed, I can’t help but wonder where she’d end had I let my friends’ machinations run its course. Dead in the ground, perhaps. Or in a beach in Uruguay, sipping vodka on the rocks and flirting with bartenders. Yeah, no. The latter seems unlikely. She and I are the same. We won’t survive without each other.

And if how things are now is any indication, then maybe we won’t even survive each other.

III: That First Night At The Hospital
The makings of a great love story begins with any three of these five elements: A grand gesture. The naked truth. Souls laid bare. The purity of hope. And the fear that what once happened in a past love affair will happen again.

Marissa and I never had any of these elements when we met. Nor in the first six months of our love affair, if you can call it that. The foundation of our relationship was founded on withheld truth and tragic circumstances.
Her father hired me to locate an abusive boyfriend of hers. And to “deal” with him the way he dealt with her. But that wasn’t what I do. I dealt with cases from afar and from the shadows. It wasn’t until her father showed me her almost lifeless body, beaten and bruised to the point of death that my methodology drastically changed. I’ve seen cases of abuse before, but that was something else. That was pure evil.

That was the first time I ever laid eyes on her. Lying in a hospital bed, just a few rooms from where she is now. Almost lifeless. Almost gone.

And, as twisted as is sounds, I think that was the first time I fell in love with her. Come to think of it, we did have three of those five. It was all just rooted on the depravity of the base human condition.

IV: The Deal With God And The Devil
I decide to keep her sedated until I figure out my next move. The doctor looks at me all funny when I say that it is what she wants. It is the truth, anyway. It is what she wants. To be asleep and to be liberated from the world that betrayed her. “Better than the finality of death,” I said.

I manage to convince him that it’s not the right time to send in the hospital shrink. That she’d seen all the good ones in the Metro without any form of resolve and that the underpaid hacks won’t even survive ten minutes getting lost in her immensely fragile and immensely frightening mind. Even I, the only person who is voluntarily around her, is barely surviving. I tell him that her father, God bless his soul, has been gone for a few years now and any next of kin that exists are either unknown to me or wouldn’t want anything to do with her. I am the closest thing that she’s got to family. And even I can barely stand her sometimes.

I walk the streets looking for the nearest bar in the hospital’s vicinity without any concept of time. Sun’s barely rising and I realize that every place that serves alcohol at the moment in this part of town are either clubs filled with drunken revelers hoping for some last minute hook-up (be it drugs or sex) or convenience stores. I opt for convenience store alcohol. Cheaper. Less chances of running into people from Marissa’s past life. Less chances of them raising questions like “How come we don’t see M anymore?” or “You got any on you right now?” or “Can you hook us up with those hookers you know?” Less chances of me politely telling them to fuck off and answering raised questions with “Because you shitheads ain’t good for her” and “No, all my drugs are with the cops now. Who I occasionally work with. Want me to give them a call?” and “They’re called ‘escorts,’ and no, I’m not helping you to get laid.”

Marissa and I have a penchant for rooftops. Our first kiss was on one. Our first fight happened on top of a thirty four story high rise. The time she told me that about the miscarriage was at the rooftop of her father’s office building (a place we used to frequent before he passed away.) Even when we weren’t together, we often found ourselves on rooftops. I do my best thinking on my apartment’s rooftop. I’ll have my case files spread around the floor and I’ll be sitting on the ledge with my back away from the crazy world with The National or Chopin’s Nocturnes playing in the earphones. I’ll think about how deal with the case or how I’ll track whoever I’m tracking or if can still come back from the line that I once crossed. I’ve never had a problem that I hadn’t dealt with while I’m at rooftops. Every case I’ve done and solved happened at my rooftop. Save for the question of coming back from a certain incident a few months ago.

I find myself once again at one. At the hospital’s, this time. It’s hard for me to admit, but thoughts of that incident still haunts me. More so now that Marissa’s suicide attempt (or cry for help) was possibly brought on by that. The bottle of Maker’s Mark isn’t helping with vanquishing the thoughts, either. The sun rises behind me and for the first time since our first kiss, I feel lost.

V: The Night I Saw Death
I never once feared death. In the innumerable times that I’ve dodged bullets and survived knife fights, not once did I ever fear for my life. Not once did my life flash before my eyes when a bullet whizzes by mere inches from my head. Not once did I flinch when an obnoxiously pimped out M1911 pistol was pressed against my forehead. I don’t fear death. I welcome it with open arms.

Marissa may have survived her suicide attempt, but I question if she’ll survive the aftermath. This is much different from the times we’d play Russian Roulette with a dummy round in the barrel in one of our many many drunken stupors. This is much different from her last attempt; a murder/suicide. Those, she and I recovered from. Hell, we laughed about it weeks later.

It’s the combination of factors that led to this that frightens me. The miscarriage, the affair, the betrayal, that case I foolishly brought her in. We can survive a lot of things, but the hits we survive from do take its toll on us. On her, especially.

That case. That’s the one that haunts me. That’s the one case I never should have let her in on.

A little backstory: Marissa and I share the love for black and white photography. She ran an art gallery up until a few weeks ago when she disappeared. She was heavily into the arts. Her mom was an artist. A painter by trade. Did the most spectacular post romanticist paintings my untrained eye has ever seen. She taught Marissa everything she could teach her. But with her father’s business influence over her, she never did more than the intermediate, as she admitted to me once. She was good, but she said that she could have been better.

That’s why after she put up her own art gallery after she graduated from art school. She still painted, but she never showed it to anyone but me. It felt good knowing that I was the only one who knows about that side of her life. I never told her this, but I used her paintings to gauge how close to getting fractured her psyche got. I’ll admit that I stopped paying attention to her art and refocused on her beauty, but she’s too damn intoxicating to ignore.

Anyway, she held photography exhibits in her gallery every once in a while. She said that she loved how still life got in the monochrome photographs that were sometimes in her gallery. I’d regularly visit her there to check up on her after her case using the photography exhibits as an excuse. But she saw right through me. She knew that I was there for her, just not the reason she thought. She said once while we were staring at a black and white photograph of an empty hallway that I had no reason to see how she was doing. She had badly applied make-up on and her face still healing from the beating she took, but she was still ethereally gorgeous. I looked into her eyes and said “dearie, I’m here for the beauty as a respite from the ugliness out there.”

Which brings us to that case. That incident. She was already into photography by that time. We even shot black and white portraits of each other every chance we got. We were each other’s favorite subjects. She admired the shots I took of the people I was tracking or investigating. I never considered those photographs as art, but she did. She even jokingly offered her gallery to exhibit the stills of those strangers I shot without them knowing. “Vile Manila,” she said to call the exhibit. She saw the beauty of the candidness of those shots. I never saw them as anything other than evidence for the cases I worked on.

She wanted to experiment on doing the same. She became obsessed with it, in fact, that she pestered me until I gave in. I didn’t, at first, but she started to follow strangers to take photographs of them. That’s when I knew that I had to give her what she wanted. To be honest, though, I do find the photographs she took beautiful. I saw what she saw in my photos. I saw, and learn to appreciate, the voyeuristic nature of it all.

The case itself was nothing special when it started. It was a cheating spouse case, the bread and butter of our group’s operation. I handled the case solo since it was elementary in nature. When I told Max and Angel, my friends and colleagues, that I was letting Marissa assist me in the photography, they understandably said no. “No fucking way,” to be exact. In unison. They were already wary of her then because, among other things, I broke the cardinal rule of what we did. Never get personal with the case. They argued that getting her involved with the cases we did would only mess her up even more. They did raise fine points on why I shouldn’t. And I let them think that they won the arguments. I should have listened to them. I should have said no to Marissa. I instead damned her because I was too stupid and in love with her.

I always prided myself in seeing how things will end up. Evidence, human nature, backstories, events. These are all how I make assumptions on things. And my assumptions are rarely wrong. My mind is as sharp as finely crafted switchblade. Marissa was, is, my one and only blindspot.

That case was supposed to be simple. Until it wasn’t. It led us both to a seemingly endless labyrinth of twists and turns that brought us to places in the Metro that I never knew existed and to people whose sociopathy even I was fearful of. And in the end of the rabbithole was Marissa, standing over a corpse with my revolver in her hand and a look on her face that I’ve never seen before.

I never once feared death. Until I saw her that night in the pier. Her eyes were empty. Her face blank, devoid of any emotion. She became death.

VI: Angel
They never stopped blaming me for what happened to Marissa. Max, Angel, Valdez; Three fourths of Horus Investigations. Angel was the most upset. Regardless of her feelings in regards to my relationship with Marissa, she’s always had a soft spot for her. She likes her, in fact. No surprise that she booked the first flight from Hong Kong when I told the team that I’ve found Marissa and about her failed suicide.
Angel rushes towards me from the elevator, almost running over an elderly patient, and predictably slaps me.

“How’s the Hong Kong case?” I ask her. “You didn’t have to drop out from the case just to be here.”
“Fuck you,” she says under her breath as she reaches for the knob that opens the door to a still sedated Marissa.

I try to hold the door shut and tell her that the doctor says that Marissa needs to rest. A lie. She throws me a look, one that I’ve only seen thrice in the seven years that I’ve known her: when Valdez almost screwed up a case we worked on, when a client withheld information that almost led to Max’s death, and when I told them about what happened to Marissa during the Montano case.

“You caused this,” she says as she looks at Marissa. “You have to make this right, Jack. You gotta let her loose, you gotta let her go. You can’t do this to the poor girl anymore. Nor to yourself.”

I only wish to hell that Angel learns to stop blaming me for “breaking” Marissa even more. I already feel guilty enough as it is. Don’t need the silent animosity she gives me whenever Marissa’s name, or the Montano case, comes up. But she’s right. I did cause this. I deserve the animosity. But will ending things with her suffice as rectifying what I had done?

I had plans for Marissa and me. I was going to prematurely retire from the job that I was great at and be a civilian again. For her. I was going to leave the shadows that I held dear and fix her and myself. I’m not an idiot. I know that the life I lead isn’t good for her. The night she disappeared, I was going to tell her that I was going legit. I was going to ask her to marry me.

VII: Remember Your Light
I’m not good with people. I’m not comfortable being around them. I often say the wrong things. Things that are inexcusable. Shit I should not say in proper company. Or any company. And by “shit,” I mean my observations on people. I see someone being an ass, I tell that person that he’s being an ass. I see someone beautiful, I tell that person that she’s beautiful. People often misconstrue my intentions. They think I’m being rude or I’m flirting with them.

Hence my preference for isolation. I only let myself be surrounded by people when it’s absolutely necessary. Mostly when I’m working a case. Almost always when I’m working a case.

I did learn to filter what I say. Took me a while, but Angel helped a lot. She was a theater actress in her old life. Taught me how to act “normal.” Taught me how to be around people. I owe her for that and I’m still looking for the right time to pay her back. I don’t like owing anyone, even though our line of work requires a lot of favors.

With Marissa, though, everything went easy. Not just because she was the case when I met her. She was like me. Straightforward. No pretensions. No bullshit. She calls it as she sees it. She has an uncanny ability to see through everything and everyone. It was hard to lie to her because of that. It was hard to hide things from her.

But I could be myself when I’m with her. I didn’t need to filter what I say when I’m talking to her, seeing as she didn’t have one herself. Whatever argument we had, even about the smallest of things, were quickly dissipated because we didn’t hold back and let everything out. Whatever scars the quarrels made, be it physical or emotional, quickly healed.
I did have to set limitations on what I can say to her. She understood that my work is sensitive in nature. It wasn’t a problem at first. But she eventually adapted to my secrecy. Started to lie and keep secrets herself. Even lied to herself every now and then. It wasn’t such a bad thing. That’s what normal people do, right? Lie and keep secrets? It was, after all, her open book nature that caused her ex-boyfriend to abuse her. She let only a select few in. She toughened up. Gotta admire that.

Even I was changed because of her. I started to ease up a bit. Smiled more than I should. I became part of a world that I couldn’t stand. Saw people more differently, while still keeping my reservations. I don’t know precisely how that worked out, but it just did.

That’s why it was a no brainer to ask her to marry me. It seemed right. It seemed to fit. A part of me do thinks that proposing to her, and eventually marrying her, would fix her (and me, eventually.) Yeah, I might be proposing to her for the wrong reasons, but who dictates what the right reasons are?

Am I being crazy, though? Everything, signs, stars, premonitions, dreams, friends, all tell me to break up with her. To let her go. Maybe she’s better off without me. Maybe she can survive on her own. I sure as hell am not better off without her. Before her, there was a clear definition of myself. The one who sees things differently. The one who was reliant only to his instincts and to himself. But that definition changed when I met her. Everything I’ve ever done from that point onwards was for and about her. All the cases I did and all the people I’ve helped was for her. All the bad guys I’ve taken down was for her to feel safe in this vile Metro. I became hers. I became her man.

I suppose that the verdict is not mine to decide. I’ll have her woken up. I’ll ask her what my next move should be. I’ll ask her to marry me. Darkness be damned.

VIII: Every Me, Every You
“Are you there? Are you really there?”
She echoes the last words I heard from her two nights ago. Her voice graveled. Her eyes halfway between open and dead. Her face still beautiful as hell. My heart skips a beat when she looks right at me with those brown eyes. My failing memory sends me back to the night I first saw her. The first meeting with the damaged masterpiece. The beautiful damned.

And I smile. Like I did that night. Jack Mendoza: Socially inept in the most inopportune of times. It’s a reflex. I smile whenever I see true beauty that overwhelms me. Much like a gag reflex whenever I smoke a cigarette and don’t breathe right again. Painful and awkward at the same time, but happens.

“Angel was here earlier. Had to rush back to Hong Kong. You were out for two days,” I tell her, purposely ignoring the question. The last place I ever want to be in is at a hospital. Tried avoiding it as much as I can. Too many memories I’d rather not relive. Memories of my mortality, mostly.
She just shrugs and looks at the hospital gown she’s wearing. Too pristine for her. Too clean. I had the nurses’ change her when her night terrors kicked in and she started wildly flailing her arms and legs and the stiches on her left wrist reopened. “It’s raining,” she says as she stares at the hospital window.
“That’s just your eyes playing tricks on you, love. It’s not raining. Hasn’t rained in months, much to my chagrin.”
“Like you right now.”
“Oh, I’m here. I’ll always be here.”
“You weren’t two nights ago.”

She utters those five words like it was my fault she’s here in the first place. In a way, yes, it was my fault. But I wasn’t the one who made her disappear. I wasn’t the one who laid her on the bathtub two weeks later. I wasn’t the one who cut her wrist. I’m far from in the mood to argue. Breathe in. Exhale. Walk out the door. She leans forward, her arms reaching out to me, a gesture indicating that she wants me to stay. I’d leave if I didn’t think that her arm movement would open her wound again.

She apologizes and blames the meds and the vodka that she pretends that’s still in her system. I cave and sit back beside her. She holds my hand. Cold. Too cold. Deathly cold. “I know you’re here,” she says. “I know you’re always here. Even when you’re not, you’re always here.”
I reach for the engagement ring that’s been burning a hole in my denim jacket’s inside pocket.

Moment of truth. The moment that decides where we go from here. The moment that the rollercoaster ride of the past two years have been leading up to.

Marissa, will you marry me? No. No. Nothing is ever that easy. Nothing is ever that black and white. The engagement ring will have to continue to burn a much deeper hole.
“Marissa, where the fuck were you?”

Jack Mendoza: Romantically inept at the most inopportune of times.

IX: Dear Death
My mind is the first tool that i use. I use my brain before anything else. Before my heart. Before my feelings. Before fickle emotions. Not much use for them. Not anymore. Logic over love. Common sense over sensitivity. It’s simpler that way. No bullshit. No unnecessary factors to taint unbiased opinions and decisions.

That’s how I see everything. As data to analyze and deconstruct and reconstruct and nitpick. Even people. When it comes to them, I factor in every single thing about them in my interactions and analyses. I factor in their histories, their upbringing, their environment, their natural disposition. I know what makes them tick. I know what makes them act the way they do. I understand them. It’s both a gift and a curse. When they wrong me, I understand why they did that. And I can’t be upset at them for it.

“People fear what they don’t understand.” It’s the same with ill emotions. How can one be upset with something that they understand, right? I’m pragmatic to a fault. I understand how things are and that leaves no room for my emotions. Emotions are black and white. I live in the grey. I’m my best in the grey.

The right thing to do is to just propose to her. The logical thing to do is to not factor in her whatever it was that she was up to in the two weeks that she disappeared. Those data has no consequence to what I want to achieve. To marry her. To be her husband.
In this moment, however, I am an emotional wreck. Everything that I ever learned and everything that I had ever taught myself bled out from my veins and pooled with her own blood that’s still on the bathroom tiles of my apartment. MY apartment. MY place of solace. One of only two places in this vile Metro that I feel safe in. The other one is right in front of me, looking straight at me like headlights and I’m the deer.

I am an emotional wreck. Love over logic. Sensitivity over common sense. I am now in the black and white.

“…where the fuck were you?”
It’s the freshly sharpened double edge sword in this moment. It’s the .45 caliber round that should pierce through Marissa’s emotional Kevlar vest. One that’s shot point blank over her chest and right on the heart.
Nothing. Of course she won’t respond. It shouldn’t surprise me at all, but as I said, I am currently an emotional wreck. All the blacks and the whites that I have purposely set aside, for my own sanity, are all rushing in. This is weakness. This is helplessness. Asking Dear Death where she’s been is pointless. Death does what she wants. Death does what she needs to do.

And I do what any mere mortal in my position would do. Grab the Maker’s Mark I hid in the closet, walk out of the hospital room, drive away while tempting the actual Dear Death by ignoring traffic lights in between swigs of bourbon, and head to my apartment to clean up the blood she left behind.

X: I’ll Be Your Lover, Too
Blood doesn’t really come off. You can clean it a thousand different ways with a thousand different substances and it will still never come off. You can scrub and scrub and scrape and scrape and nothing will happen. It will always be there. Once you know, once you see it there, it’s there for good. Your memory will always let you see it. Your mind will keep reminding you of what was there. And how it came to be. And the form it took when it settled. And the stain it left in your soul.

I’ve been around blood long enough to know this. I’ve seen the different variations of how blood vacates the human body. I’ve seen the mark it leaves. It’s all I see sometimes. It’s all I can see now.

I don’t know why I kept removing it for a solid 5 hours last night. It will never get clean. I only stopped because I got exhausted. Or I passed out from the bourbon. Or both. I woke up on the bathroom floor, back aching like fuck, head throbbing, eyes bloodshot from the Maker’s Mark and my own tears. I must have slept a good 12 hours.

Haven’t slept much since she disappeared. An hour nap here and there in my car and planes and airports and rooftops. There was even one time I slept in an alley behind a brothel. The bouncers would have kicked me out if the Madam didn’t owe me a favor or two. They insisted that I rest in one of the rooms their girls use for “entertaining” VIPs and politicos. Couldn’t tell them that I can’t stomach being in the same room where all that shit happens. “I’ll be fine. I’ve slept in worse conditions,” I told Mam Amy.

I must have gone to all the places we used to go and talked about going. I knew she didn’t leave the country as I had her passport with me. Still, the Philippines is too big to search for the woman who you were supposed to propose to even though you know her like the back of your hand. Things still slip in the cracks.

I was looking for her in Cebu when I decided to come back to Manila to end the search. Decided to just wait for her. Decided that if she’d want to come back home, she would. I was going to wait until I can. Judging by what was missing from my fridge, she’d been in my apartment for three days, at least, before I found her. I don’t know how the staff at the lobby didn’t see her (I had instructed them to call me if they spotted her.) I guess she was paying attention when I taught her how to walk a room without being detected. Gotta give her that.

“Happy Valentines, love,” she says as she walks towards me on the rooftop where I’ve been smoking my second pack of smokes since I woke up. Didn’t even realize she was in the building already. The girl is good.

I ignore her and take a long hard drag from my cigarette. She takes it from my mouth and I almost choke. Marissa puts it in between her lips, pulls the smoke in closer to her lungs, and blows it to the weeping city below us. An offering to the gods who let her live.

She wraps her arms around my body and leans her head on my nape, like she often does when she’s tired of fighting me. And whenever she does, I lose it. I flashback to the moment of our first embrace when she wasn’t a case anymore. That time when she and I were hopeful for what the world had to offer us, both as individuals and as a couple. It’s no different this time. Even after the pain inflicted on both sides, even after the blood-letting and the mindfucks and the torture, I still go back to that moment. That moment, like the blood on the floor, is imprinted in the deepest recesses of my soul. I know I’m screwed.

“We can’t keep going like this, Marissa”
“I know.”
“Something has to change. Something has to give. There’s only so much that I can do. There’s only so much that I can take.”
“You knew what you were getting into when you asked me out. You knew what I am. You knew that I wasn’t like every other girl.”
“I knew. I knew all that. I knew that all we’d go through and all that would happen to us will be worth it. I knew that you were worth it all.”

She turns me around, looks dead straight into my eye and asks “am I still worth it?”

In the two and a half years that I’ve known her, there are only five things that’s forever imprinted in my failing memory. When I saw her in the hospital bed when I took her case. When I caught a glimpse of her smile for the first time since her assault. When we kissed at New Year’s last year. When the Montano case ended with us in the pier. When I saw her bleeding on my bathtub.
These things, like blood, can never be unseen. These moments can never be forgotten.
This exact moment becomes the sixth.
The moment when I asked her to marry me and she smiles and says “fuck yes.”

Chapter II: The Disappeared

I: Where The Fuck I Was
“Where the fuck were you?”

Oh, Jack. You’ve always asked the wrong questions. “Are you still happy?” “Do you want to get out of here?” “You want to go to the XX concert?” Stupid questions. Wrong questions.

“Where the fuck were you?”

If only the answer was easy, anyway. I don’t even know where I was myself. I mean, I know where I was physically. I know what I was doing. But everything seemed like a waking dream. I felt like I was on hallucinogens half the time I was away. I did things that I thought I couldn’t do. He taught me those things. But I can’t blame him for what I did. I can never blame him for the things he did for me.

I can lie to him. I can tell him what he wants to hear. I can tell him that I just had to get away for a while. Away from him and away from the Metro, but he’ll know that it would be a lie. I can come up with something so grandiose and believable but he won’t be satisfied with the answer. So I say nothing. I say nothing and ignore the love of my life because I know he hates it when I do that and he’ll walk out.

And he does, giving me time to think about coming clean or not. If I do come clean, do I embellish the truth? That’s what he’d expect from me, anyway. That’s what he’d expect from anyone. If I don’t give him the answer he thinks he needs, he would just seek it out. It would him and destroy everything we built in the process. For all his faults, he does have faith in me. He does trust me. Even when I lie to him, he trusts that I lie for a good reason. But he won’t let this go. He won’t leave this stone unturned. The man loves the mystery and the chase more than me. And I think that’s alright with me. If it wasn’t for the mystery and the chase, we wouldn’t have met.

I don’t even know how to tell him where I was without him blaming himself after. I know he will. He’ll shoulder the blame much like he shoulders the weight of the world. That’s how he’s built. That’s how he is. He’ll be a martyr for a dying cause if the situation calls for it. He’ll martyr himself for what I did. He’ll take full responsibility for me killing my ex-boyfriend.

With that in mind, how can I look him in the eye and tell him the truth?

II: What Was Left Behind
It’s in the eyes. Everything you need to know about the person is in the eyes. If your quote-unquote soulmate is just gonna fuck you over. If a waiter’s gonna spit in your food because you had to be a bitch to her since she’s an incompetent little shit. If the person you just met only wants to get into your pants. You can tell all that just by looking in their eyes. And by the way their eyes look at yours.

I’ve never met Colleen until two and a half weeks ago. I’ve heard of her from mutual friends (shitty human beings but I keep anyway because they make me feel good.) I stalked her a bit online just to see if she was better than me (she wasn’t.) From what I’ve been told, she seems like a decent girl. God-fearing, not a bad bone in her body. Smart, but not “life smart.” Colleen’s an idiot pushover, if I were to be frank. I was like her in a way. Didn’t know how to maneuver myself in this crazy world. I was completely naïve and thought that the world owed me something. And like me, Matt decided to take advantage of that.

She sought me out. Well, not me, originally. Jack. I was supposed to be the bridge to him. Colleen heard about what Jack did to Matt and wondered if the same could be done again. Had I introduced her to him and handed on the case, there would indeed be a rehash of events. Jack has a penchant for damsels in distress. The cases that really ticks him off are crimes against women and children. If he knew that Colleen was pregnant when she got beaten up, he’d do a lot worse to my son of a bitch ex than what he did after he saw me at lowest point of my life. Colleen’s miscarriage was the straw the broke the camel’s back. It was the moment when she said that enough was enough.

But that wasn’t Jack’s fight. That wasn’t his cross to bear. It was mine. Mine and Colleen’s. We were victims of the same devil and if we didn’t stop him, there will be more victims. It did dawn on me that stopping him for good would be cost me my very soul. Jack told me once that whenever a case had to go to the extreme and he had to take a life, he loses a bit of his soul. I’ve been a witness to that. Too many times, in fact, that there were fleeting moments when we’re together that I know he’s not entirely there. It broke my heart every single time. What can I do? It’s part of his job. It was necessary.

I took me three days to decide if I should help Colleen. I weighed in how much I was willing to lose and which parts of my soul I was willing to sacrifice.

At times, it did feel like I was in way over my head. I knew everything that I was doing. I learned from the best. But I was still having doubts midway about actually going through with it. I had taken a life before, but it was accidental.

It was Colleen’s eyes that reminded me of what was at stake. It was her eyes that told me that it had to be done. Her eyes assured me that I was in the right. I saw in her little beady eyes who I was before my eyes were opened: A pathetic little child who thought the world owed her everything.

After seeing who I was in her eyes, I was more than certain that my soul will be left unscathed.

III: There Be Monsters Here
The cab’s odor is unbearable. I wanted to open the window but the smell out there is a lot worse, I’m sure. Four missed calls. Twenty eight text messages. I’m not up for human contact just yet. Telling the driver where to go was the limit. The driver speeds off and I ask him to slow down. My head is still woozy from the vodka and the meds. Come to think of it, it feels like that’s all I’ve taken in since Colleen and I embarked on our journey. Not that I’m complaining. The attempt for finality aside, everything makes sense when I’m under the influence.

I thought it would be challenging to leave the hospital under my own volition. Jack had walked out after I ignored his idiotic question. Not that I had to rely on him to sign me out. I rely on him on some things. Many things. But figuring out ways to escape from hassles is an expertise of mine. I didn’t need him for that.

I called a shrink that I was seeing. Dr. Karen Salvacion. The only psychiatrist I saw whose head I didn’t want to rip off. I like her. She’s gentle. She’s grounded. She’s not like all the others who spouted holier-than-thou bullshit up in their high horse. She’s got issues of her own so I felt comfortable with her. She’s also damaged. I find that beautiful. A shrink with a fractured mind? There is certainly beauty in that irony.

I had wanted to be friends with her, but I didn’t think it would be right. You see, the only reason why I know she’s got demons of her own is because I did a background check on her. I became fascinated with her the first time that I saw her. When I first came in her office and she guided me to the patient’s chair and I saw her eyes scanning the room, I knew that she was different. Her eyes were looking around like she was in search for something that completely eluded her.

Our first session was nothing special. Just the basic getting to know each other crap. But I ranted and raved about her to Jack when he drove me home. I casually implied that I wanted him to look into her to see if she was worth seeing. He just scoffed and said that it was inappropriate for a patient to investigate her doctor. I agreed, but I didn’t care. I had to know her. She was a mirror image of myself and I had to look into her. Karen would see how it would have benefited me. She would see that I was taking initiative in restructuring my broken psyche.

Obviously, I didn’t tell Jack what I had done. At that point in our relationship, we started keeping secrets from each other. There was a mutual understanding that some things are better kept for ourselves. He had his cases and I had my extra-curricular activities outside of the gallery. I stopped asking him about the cases he was working on and he stopped pestering me with questions on what I do with my time when I’m not with him. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the secrets we kept from each other was good for us. It strengthened us.

I was seeing Karen for months. During the course of the treatment, I dug deeper into her background. I found things that fascinated me even more about her. Talking to her and, yes, stalking her in my spare time, helped me a lot. The more I learned about her, the more I learned about myself. I felt good. I felt like I was on the right track in fixing what was broken inside of me.
And then that track was derailed by what I had learned about her.

Karen and I once talked about how we humans become monsters when we’re pushed to the edge or when we’ve done heinous things that we can never take back. When we do evil things that we can’t fix. We become broken, hollow monsters who have done things that all the conversations and the shrinks and the meds and the vodka and the drugs and the meaningless sex can never fix. We stop being humans after doing things that are too evil to comprehend. We become monsters.

Our paths didn’t start to cross when I walked into her office. It happened when Jack and I were arguing in his car late at night and I took the wheel from him and we swerved and almost hit a car that was driving across the other lane. We didn’t know it at the time, but that other car crashed into a lamppost, injuring the passengers. Karen, as it turned out, was a passenger of the other car. The crash led to her miscarriage.
That’s when I stopped seeing her.

Looking out into the city from a dilapidated cab, I can’t help but wonder why I don’t feel bad about calling her and asking for her help to bail me out of the hospital. Why I could still look her in the eye as she talked to me and the attending doctor. Why I could still make small talk and embrace her and kiss her on the cheek as we said our farewells.

My soul was intact after what Colleen and I did to Matt. My humanity, however…well that’s a completely different story.

IV: Clusterfuck
The cab got me to my apartment thirty minutes longer than the ride should have been. The cabbie wanted extra since my place was “out of the way.” I gave him one of my “go fuck yourself” looks and didn’t stop even when he insisted. It was a good five minutes when he finally conceded and called me a crazy bitch. I was bored. I had all the time in the world. Almost dying changes how you see life.

There’s two week old dust everywhere. No sign that anyone’s been here since I was away. Except for the faint smell of Jack’s cigarette that still lingers in the air. Stubborn son of a bitch. I keep telling him to smoke out in the balcony when he’s here. I can let this one slide. He was losing it while he was looking for me. I’ll be honest, it was funny watching him lose his shit.

I had some downtime while Colleen and I handled our business. And in that downtime, I stalked Jack for a bit while he was looking for me. I needed to know if he knew what I was up to. If the last thing he said to me before he stormed off is any indication, he’s still left in the dark.

I didn’t think it was easy to follow him around without him noticing me. It was barely a challenge. The great Jack Mendoza was one upped by his girlfriend. That is an achievement in itself. There was one moment when I thought he’d spotted me. I was already feeling uneasy as I was running late from one of the plans Colleen and I had made. I was already paranoid and crashing from the meds. Kept bumping into café chairs and people as I followed him around. I was even inches away from being run over by a motorcycle while I was taking photos of him. But not once did he look back. Not once did he ever see if there was anyone trailing him. It was the only time that I’ve seen Jack’s training and instincts fail him.

Now that I think about it, there was another person following him while I kept myself entertained. I rifle through my purse and grab the memory card I used in my camera while I was following him around in case that other person is in one of the shots. God knows why he didn’t go through my things while I was incapacitated. I fire up my laptop, insert the memory card, and pour myself another double of Absolut.

Two dozen photos later and I spot the other pursuer. I’ve seen him somewhere before. Not in person, but from a photo in one of Jack’s old casefiles. The only one he let me be privy to. That one case that I forced him to let me be a part of. The Montano Case.

The man who was following him was Eddie Montano. The brother of the man that I had accidentally killed. The lone killing that Jack, in all his years of doing what he does, covered up. And just like that, the vodka I have left in the apartment won’t cover me from the shitstorm we’re about to face.

IV: Russian Roulette Times Three
There was a time when Jack and I were completely honest with each other. It seems like forever ago when we set aside a day where we tell each other every single thing that might destroy our relationship. Second Tuesday of every month. It never lasted too long. Just half a year into our relationship. But those five months are one of the few things that I’d never thought I’d miss. It was, in his words, a threat assessment.

Everything was on the table. No hesitations, no restraints, no empty wine/vodka/bourbon glasses. The alcohol fueled everything. The threat assessments sometimes got heated, but the make-up sex more than made up for the literal slaps in the face and the bruises made to our skins and to our egos.

The weight Jack and I carried the past month gets tossed in the trash along with the baggage and the bottles the night before. We feel refreshed. We feel clean. Hungover, but clean.

How I long for those Tuesdays when I can say whatever I wanted without it jeopardizing everything. How I long for that morning after where he’d smile at me like the first time he did. How I long to be clean again.

How I long to tell him of the discovery I made before the bottle of vodka I downed knocked me out last night. I can’t tell him, of course. He’d know that I was following him. He’d know that he was mere meters away from the woman he searched the whole Metro for. He’d think that I was taunting him and his skillset and his ego. He’d think me cruel. He’d think me a monster. He’d see what I see now when I look at the mirror.

For a dilemma like this, the decision should not be mine to make. I’ll leave it to the fates. I grab the revolver from my purse and empty the cylinder. I slide in three bullets with three spaces in between. If the gun goes off, I won’t have to tell him. If I get an empty space, today will be my Tuesday. I contemplate on pouring myself a glass of red wine. The good one that I keep for special occasions. But, no. I have to be dead sober for this. My mind has to be clear for this. This has to be done by me and me alone.

I roll the cylinder and gently close it. I offer a short prayer to whoever is listening to show me the mercy that I can never show myself. Breathe in, breathe out. Come on, Marissa, pull the trigger. You’ve done this before. Gun to head. Pull the trigger.


Empty space.

VI: What Happened Next
I pour myself a glass of that red wine. The fates made the decision for me. Whoever was listening to my prayer showed me mercy. Breathe in, breathe out. One more glass. And another one. And another one. Until the bottle dries up. Tell Jack what you know. Tell him what he needs to know. Not everything. Only enough to keep his unending curiosity satiated for a bit.

He’s bound to ask more questions, but he’ll forget about them until he figures out why Eddie Montano was on his trail. The mystery will have to become my stay of execution from his interrogations.

I shower in a feeble attempt to sober up and to get rid of the hospital smell that I loathe so much. My thoughts go back to three nights ago. Blood oozing out from my wrist. My mind was deliriously thinking of Jack. And Colleen. And Matt. And my father. And Chris Montano. And that night at the pier when I changed, when the seeds of my monstrosity were planted by circumstances that I could have prevented. Had I reacted quickly, or differently, then all of this would never have occurred. I wouldn’t become the monster that Jack and I swore I’ll never become. I’d still be human. Tainted, but human, nonetheless.

Dwelling on all that is of no use now. Those play no role in what comes next. I have to focus on the task at hand: tell Jack about Eddie Montano.

I put on his favorite dress of mine. He always said it broke his heart everytime he sees me in this. Not that he’d notice it now, what with is uncanny ability to zero in on questions that he never got answers to. I still put it on, anyway. If today, Valentine’s Day, of all days, will be my Tuesday, then I have to look the part.

There’s only one place in the Metro where he’d be right now. He’d be in his rooftop, drowning his sorrows with a bottle of bourbon with the world looking up on him. And he’ll look down on the world with eyes that scream “when will this all end.” For all his needs of finality and the words he wrote down as his dying breath, Jack could never do it himself. Jack could never end it all himself. He could never take a straight razor and slit his wrists or eat the barrel of his own gun. He tries, though, in his own way.

The mystery. The chase. The way he goes after bad guys and put himself in front of bullets, he does it all to court death. He doesn’t know it yet, but he will. But, by then, it will all be too late. Death will have him. He gets what he’s always wanted. He wins, and I lose him.

He’s standing on the edge of his rooftop, as anticipated. “Happy Valentine’s, love,” I say as I inch towards him without fear for what may come tomorrow. I take his cigarette from his mouth (something that annoys him greatly) take a whiff, and exhale it to the world he looks down upon. I embrace him like I always do when I want something from him. I want him to live. I want him to stop chasing after death and start living for me. I want his all. I want him.

I love you, Jack.
“We can’t keep going like this, Marissa”
“I know.”
“Something has to change. Something has to give. There’s only so much that I can do. There’s only so much that I can take.”
“You knew what you were getting into when you asked me out. You knew what I am. You knew that I wasn’t like every other girl.”
“I knew. I knew all that. I knew that all we’d go through and all that would happen to us will be worth it. I knew that you were worth it all.”

To be worthy. It never once crossed my mind that I was worthy of anything, much less his devotion. I’ve lived in this world not thinking about anything much except for my own hide. I love him dearly, but it was always about loving him for my own survival. Loving him meant that I was capable of something else other than the heeding to what the voices in my head tell me.

“…am I still worth it?”

He shoots me a long hard look that I’ve never seen before. From anyone. It frightens me to death and I don’t know why.

“Marissa, I’m tired of fighting. I’m tired of chasing after things that I can never catch up with. I’m tired of thinking that you’re not by my side, or if you’ll disappear or do the usual shit you do again. What little sanity I have left, I leave it all for you. To you. What little emotional resolve I have left, you’re the only one who can find it. You see me. You see through me. See me for what I am now: A man stripped naked from his logic and his walls and his perpetual need for things to makes sense. All for the woman he loves. You’re my fate, Marissa. Will you marry me?”
“Fuck yes.”

Chapter III: A Short Life

I: Fire Escape
“Fuck yes.”

She says those two words with a tone of voice that I’ve never heard from her. I don’t even know how to properly describe it. Maybe I’m just too consumed with the answer. It was an answer I was not expecting. Hell, I expected Marissa to just ignore me like last time. I expected her to disappear right before my very eyes. Like a ghost who’s got nothing better to do than to kick me while I’m already down.

I suppose I should be happy that she said “yes.” I suppose I should be over the moon with delight. I suppose I am. I’m just surprised. She’s not the marrying type. Nor was I. The proposal. The wedding. Marriage…these are all logical next steps for our relationship. This would fix us. This should fix us. This makes sense.

“You’re blankly staring at me,” she says.
“Sorry, love. Just…”
“…caught you off guard, didn’t I?”
“You always do. I know this proposal wasn’t ideal, or…shit, wasn’t even romantic now that I think about it, but…”
“But it’s real. After all we’ve been through, we’re past what’s ideal and romantic. We just need something real.”

Real. Right. This whole night has been surreal. The past two weeks have been surreal. That’s what happens when you’re with someone who’s too surreal for words. When the person you’re with, and want to be with for as long as humanly possible, is phenomenally surreal.

I do the only thing I can do right now to snap me back to reality. I embrace her. I kiss her lips. She smiles at me and tells me she loves me. Words I’ll never get tired of hearing. She then asks me to walk the streets with her because “…it’s Our Tuesday.” Then it hits me. Something’s wrong.

Every bone in my body is screaming “what the fuck did you do, Marissa?” I silence the screams. I don’t want to ruin this night. It’s one of the few real things we have in months and I am not gonna ruin it, no matter how badly I want to get to the bottom of things myself.

The elevator ride downstairs was too quiet. Too awkward. It was one of those times when I wish to hell that I can read her as well as I can read other people. The reflection of her face on the elevator door provided no answer. She was calm. Eerily calm, in fact. Every facial tic was precise. Her face and demeanor gave no clues as to what she wanted to say. It was frightening.

No more frightening than when she says “I saw you a week and a half ago” as we turn the corner that’s littered with post Valentine couples exchanging lover’s spit. A week and a half ago. I was in Old Manila a week and a half ago. I was searching for her a week and a half ago.
“What do you mean ‘you saw me?’ ”
“I saw you. I laid eyes on you. You were within my line of sight. My eyes were–”
“Damn it! I know what those words mean, Marissa!” Calm down, Jack. Calm down. Let her speak.
“While I was away, and please don’t ask me where I was, I can’t tell you. Yet. Anyway, while I was away, I spent several hours following you around.”

It’s taking all of me not to explode right now. The woman I almost lost my mind searching for, the woman who I found lying in the bathtub, delirious and bleeding to death, was in the same immediate vicinity as I was. The woman could’ve ended my suffering and just came to me. I wouldn’t have—she wouldn’t have tried to off herself had she made her presence known to me. I could’ve stopped her. I could have prevented my bathroom tiles from being stained with her blood. That memory wouldn’t haunt me for the rest of my life.

“What are you getting at, Marissa? Get straight to the point because– …” I want to say ‘because I don’t want to regret asking you to marry me,’ but I don’t. This must be what emotional growth is.

She just looks at an empty park bench. If she’s trying to figure out what to say, it’s not obvious. She leads me there and she grabs the pack of smokes I keep in my left front jacket pocket. She sits down, crosses her legs, lights up a cigarette, and looks up above at the stars. If she’s testing how far my patience can go, she’s doing a bang up job of it. “Marissa, I…”
“You were being followed by Eddie Montano. Jack, he’s Chris Montano’s brother.”
“I…I know who he is.” The possible repercussions of what I’ve been just told causes me to sit down beside her and take my cigarette back from her and take a drag from it. It causes me to look up above at the stars with her.

I won’t even bother asking her how she knows that Eddie Montano was following me. If there’s one thing I learned in the past hour, it’s that Marissa can hold her own in the surveillance aspect of my line of work. I think I fell in love with her even more. If that’s even possible.

“I have proof. I have photos of him tailing you,” she says, never taking her eyes off of the stars.
She has photos. Of course she has photos.
“You gonna hang it up at your gallery?”
“I’m serious, Jack!”
“I know, love. Just trying to lighten up the mood.”
“How can you—this is serious! The brother of the man I mur—”
“Hush it, Marissa! Jesus. I thought we agreed never to talk about it.”
“Just because we don’t talk about it doesn’t mean it never happened,” she says under her breath. She has a point. That has got to be why she took her own life. That has got to be one of the flimsy pieces from the house of cards that came crashing down on her. On us.

We watch the dark sky turn dark blue as the sun creeps in on us. My head still throbbing from a hangover and I am in desperate need of alcohol for the hurt to go away. She looks at me and asks if everything’s going to be alright. I look at her and I come to the realization that I’m looking at my fiancée.

“Everything’s gonna be alright, Marissa. It has to.” I lie.

II: Righteous Kill
Marissa and I spent the whole of Sunday in bed. We let the world go on without us for a day. The rest was needed, anyway. A rest from searching and running and lying and painting smiles we can’t paint for the people out there. Aside from Angel and the rest of Horus Investigations, no one knows that she’s back. No one knows that I had found her. Rather, she let me find her.

We talked and talked in between rounds of make-up sex (the first ones as betrothed.) Certain topics were off limits. Her choice, not mine. Topics like where she was when she disappeared. She said she’s not ready yet to “confess her sins.” That, of course, got me troubled. I didn’t let her see that it affected me. Not that it worked. She knows me too much.

The future was mostly our topic. Where we’d go from here, what happens next, those kinds of shit. The past was irrelevant moving forward, right? But there was one thing from the recent past that I had to bring up: Her suicide attempt days ago. That was one of the topics that were off limits. Again, her choice, not mine. Her disappearance, that I can let go for a bit. Her wanting to end her life and leaving what we had and the people who loves her, that has to be confronted before certain steps forward have to be taken. I merely wanted a guarantee that she won’t do it again, really. I don’t want get woken up by a gunshot, Marissa beside me with a .45 cal shaped hole in her head. I don’t want to wake up years (months, even) from now to see her hanging from a tree in the yard of our new house.

I don’t want my recurring nightmares to take form and become a reality again.

“I can’t guarantee that it won’t happen again, Jack. But I can do my damn best not to let it happen,” she said. It devastated me, and she saw that. She got a cigarette from my pack and lit one, then passed it to me. As far as peace offerings went, that was a lame one. I stubbed out the cigarette without even taking a drag, so she just embraced me tightly, her heart beat too fast, as if the damn thing wanted to escape her naked body. “That’s all I can offer, love. I’m sorry.”
“I’ll take what I can get,” I said. That’s the only thing I can say at that terrifying moment. “I should have let you die” was the unspoken close second.

I told Marissa before she went to her gallery a couple of hours ago that I’d ask around why Eddie Montano was following me. She said she wanted “in on the case.” Like it was even a case. If anything, finding out what he wants is an exercise in futility. I know what he wants. I know why he was following me. I saw it coming while I was protecting Marissa by covering up his brother’s murder.

He wants revenge on what he, and everyone else, knows about what really happened: That it was me who pulled the trigger, not Marissa. That it was an act of self-defense against an assailant who wielded a knife. That it was a by the book, righteous kill on a pedophile who sold street children to become sex slaves abroad. That was the narrative I weaved then and there. Even my teammates at Horus is unaware of what really transpired that night.

Was it a righteous kill? Damn right it was. But it was anything but by the book. I’ve skirted around the rules of law in the past. I have even bent them when the necessity of it presents itself. But purposely broke them? That was a line I vowed to myself never to cross.

That line from what I thought was long ago brought me here to the pier to revisit everything that happened that night. The sun’s about to set so sneaking into the pier is easy. Not that I ever needed to sneak in. I’ve done a few jobs and did a couple of favors for the company that operates it. I just prefer this trip to be off book.

Funny how life goes on around here. Shipping containers moving in and out of ships, workers pacing back and forth pretending to work, it’s relatively easy to fade in the background here. No one’s looking for anything out of place. There’s a system, a flow, that’s been set long before the Montano investigation ended here. Death happens and life goes on. Children, fragile little creatures, were freed from one of the shipping containers and life goes on. This pier is the perfect representation of the world I live in. A world I can fade into the background of, watching over who needs watching. Protecting the ones who need protecting. Marissa.

Life goes on. Except when she doesn’t want it to go on.

“You might as well reveal yourself. Your cheap cologne gives you away,” I say as Rod peeks from the shadow of a shipping container he’s hiding from. “I told you to stop wearing that when you want to attempt the impossibility of sneaking up on me.”
“I have a date tonight. This better be important, Jack.”
“Another one? Same girl? Eh why did I even ask? It’s a different one, isn’t it? If you want to impress a girl, any girl, do yourself a favor and dispense of that horrid cologne you have on. Your birthday’s coming up, right? I’ll just gift you a good one.”
“I do fine by myself. Last thing I need is relationship advice from someone who can’t even keep a girl without her wanting to run away.”

If someone made that joke by anyone other than Rod, I’d lose my shit and beat him to a bloody pulp. But it’s Rodrigo Guzman. He and I go way back. I’ve known him long before Horus Investigations was even conceived. He’s my police contact in the MPD. One of their best, in fact. A distinction that they never acknowledge nor see. We even offer him a place in Horus a number of times. He declined each and every time. Said that someone needed to be on the inside to make sure everyone’s on the up and up and to watch over the anomalies done by the crooked cops. I never have the heart to tell him that that’s what’s gonna get him killed.

“I found her days ago,” I say.
“Shit, you did? Why didn’t you tell me? How’s Marissa?”
“She’s alright, Rod. But I didn’t call you here for that.”
“It’s the Montano case, isn’t it? That’s the only reason I can think of why you wanted to meet me here. Here, of all places.”
“You asked me during the case to quietly look into the brother. Then, a day later, you told me to stop. And I did. I uncharacteristically stopped. You know why, Rod? Because you told me to. I knew back then that there was something going on with Eddie Montano. You cops cleared him so I didn’t sniff it out any further. But when you asked me to look into him, you with razor-sharp instincts that are definitely underappreciated in the MPD and best suited in Horus, I knew that he was worth looking into. But I didn’t because you asked me to stop. So, Rod, tell me why that is. Tell me why you asked me to stop.”
“Don’t go there, Jack. That stone should be left unturned.”
“I’m already there, my friend. I’m already there. I found out yesterday that Eddie Montano was following me while I was looking for Marissa.”
“Fuck…he was?” he says as he looks around the pier.
“I wasn’t followed, Rod. I made sure of it this time.” And I am sure. There is no reason for me to unintentionally let my guard down now that Marissa’s back in my life. For the time being, anyway. “I’m not gonna ask again. What did your instincts tell you about Eddie Montano?”
“My friend…I…shit, Jack. You’re putting me in a tough spot here.”
“Tougher than the spot I’m in? I highly doubt that.”
“Fine. But don’t say that I didn’t warn you. I wanted to keep mum on this because this goes way beyond the usual shit we work on.”
“Oh, please. I’ve been around the block one too many times to know that ‘way beyond the usual shit’ doesn’t exist in our world.”

‘Beyond the usual.’ Nothing in what we do is ‘beyond the usual.’ Everything that we see and everything that happens to us while we’re working on a case is the usual. Hell, even when we’re not working a case, we still see and experience what regular people never do. People like me and Rod, people like my family in Horus, are always minutes away from death. Every week, we update our wills and rerecord farewell videos to leave our families and our loved ones in the event that death finally comes for what she’s owed.

Rod says, “Have you ever worked a serial killer case before, Jack? Because once you hear what I have to say, you will. And, for sure, it will be the last case you’ll ever work on.”

III: The Earth Is Actually A Cold Dead Place
A serial killer case. That’s the one case I’ve always wanted to work on. But serial murders in the Metro are rare. There were only three serial murders in the last twenty years. Not once in my career has one ever popped up in my radar.

Just the prospect of it sends shivers down my spine. The kind I get once I’m wholly excited about something. When I’m all giddy like a child in a toy store. That, for me, is the ultimate case. And Rod may be correct. It may very well be my last case.

I am fully aware that is wrong to get excited about this. People have died, if, in fact, Eddie Montano is a serial killer. Innocent people have lost their lives. Again, if Rod’s instincts are correct. But one must understand, I do what I do because of that kind of case. I am what I am because of that.

Growing up, I had an inkling that I was different from other people. Saw things differently. Thought differently. The colors in life that people see, I was blind to. The black and whites that represent good and evil didn’t mean anything to me. I only saw the gray. It was my default setting. I saw the necessity of evil and the irrelevancy of certain good. I had my own moral compass, albeit it was skewed.

This disposition led me to the fascination with the criminal mind. And seeing as I had the potential to be one, I studied them. I studied crime and philosophy. I studied psychology and murders. I studied what makes a human being devolve and succumb into his base nature so I could prevent the same from happening to me. I immersed myself, from a distance, of course, in a world that I arguably belong in so I would understand the ramifications if I went down that path. And I did. I foresaw the consequences. I understood myself more. I laid the foundation to the moral compass that I still follow to this very day.

And so like anyone in their early twenties did back then, I started a blog. It was unlike the usual blogs that tackled food or fashion or their insignificant lives. It was a crime blog. The Metro section of local dailies were my sources. I started writing about the possible hows and whys of the crimes. The potential suspect pools. The murder weapons. Everything I could think of to solve the crimes that were before me. To prevent legal issues, the blog was under an anonymous name. There was also a disclaimer in the front page that stated that the contents of the blog are purely fictional.

Not that those precautions were ever effective. A rookie cop sought me out and brought me in for questioning. It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. Imagine being seconds away from making out in a bar with one of the most beautiful women you’ve ever seen when a full squadron of policemen comes in and walks over to you and drags you to the ground and puts handcuffs on you and forcibly escort you out to their squad car. All under the suspicion that you had something to do with the crimes.

That’s how I met Rod. It was under his then green instincts that made his superiors look into the direction of my blog. I was closing cases they couldn’t close. I was solving crimes they couldn’t. They thought that I was involved in the real life crimes that I wrote about. I felt honored when I was under interrogation and that came to light, truth be told. Starting that blog was just my way of putting what I learned about myself to good use. When I was cleared of any suspicions, his career that just started hit a snag.

He never blamed me for the speed bump his career endured. Nor did I blame him for ruining the third date with the girl I was seeing then, which, looking back, seemed pretty trivial. A week after the incident, he sought me out again. For a round of drinks, this time, not for another round of interrogations on crimes I had nothing to do with and only wrote about. He profusely apologized for the hassle the week before. He explained that he showed my blog to his superiors as source material to help in the investigations. That it was the seasoned detectives that jumped to the conclusion that I was either an accomplice to the crimes or that I facilitated them. An idiocy considering that the crimes couldn’t be any more different. That writing about them was a way to taunt the police force.

Several rounds later and he somehow convinced me to live outside my blog and actually become a cop. I changed my mind on the eight round. I sobered up and snapped out of it when I realized that the gray has no place in the police force. So I asked him what the requirements are to become a P.I.

A decade later, I find myself shielded away in the Horus offices with what passes of as a casefile on the possible serial murders committed by Eddie Montano that Rod handed me hours ago. My apartment’s rooftop isn’t enough for a case of this magnitude. Also, it’s raining. The rest of Horus is still working a demanding case in Hong Kong so I have the offices all to myself for a week, at least. I can’t read them into this because, as selfish as it sounds, this is MY case. This is the case that I was born for.

There are two questions that bothers me. Well, three: One, how did I not realize that I’ve consumed half a bottle of bourbon and am still sober enough for coherent thoughts? Two, where does Marissa fit in all of this? It is obvious that I can never involve her in another Montano case. Hard lessons were learned from the last one. This case will require my full attention. Weeks, months even, will be spent on this. I can’t shut her out now since we just got engaged. Things between us are different now. Our relationship has progressed. I think. And the third question, am I to be the hunter or the hunted?

IV: A Fractured Smile
“Hi, Nina! Marissa around?”
“Hey Jack! She’s at the back office catching up on what she missed. I guess you found her, huh?”
“Yeah. Sort of.”
“Sort of?”
Nina. Marissa’s second in command at the gallery. AKA the one who bore the brunt of managing everything in Marissa’s absence. “Yeah, sort of. You heading out already?”
“Yup! She’s gonna close shop.”
“Alright, then. You take care, now. It’s a crazy world out there.”
“So you keep reminding me, Jack. See you!” Nina says as she blows me a kiss goodbye. Lovely, gorgeous Nina. Cute as a button. Petite, but has big dreams and a personality like no other. No other I know. Full of energy. Full of life. The perfect complement to Marissa’s near fatalist view of life. Lovely, gorgeous Nina. Nina who I once had an indiscretion with. An affair I never regret.

The gallery has a sterile feel to it. One that’s like a hospital. Too white. Too bright. Too clean. Dark marble tiles and ceilings painted white. Marissa spent days here sometimes. She’d obsess over every detail in the gallery. Even the ones not worth obsessing about. She’d make sure every piece was aligned, every installation was up to her standards, and every photograph hung was in accordance to a certain pattern she developed in her head. She occasionally bumped heads with the artists, but they didn’t really mind. Her gallery is the hottest one around. It does pay being the daughter of one of the greatest local artists.

The back office is the opposite of the main floor. Faux brick walls painted red. Low light hanging from even lower ceiling lamps. Smell of coffee and cigarettes permeating the air. It feels homier.
“Hey love, I need to talk to you.” I say. She’s slumped on her desk. Her eyes completely fixated on the photographs from the two gallery events she missed. She’s got heavy, tired eyes, but the smile on her face tells what I need to know. “Marissa? Marissa!”

She looks at me startled, says “Oh, hey love! Sorry, didn’t see you there.” She goes back to her own little world with the photographs.
“Marissa?” Nothing. “Marissa, I’m calling the engagement off.”
“Sure, love.”
“Wait, what?!”
“That got your attention, though, didn’t it? Heh.”
“Sorry, Jack. I’ve got a lot to catch up on.”
“You want me to come back or—”
“No, no. It’s fine, I need a break, anyway,” she says as she puts the photographs away on a folder marked ‘Stillness Of The Soul.’ She looks at me and says “I’m glad I missed this. Installation ‘art.’ Glad we weren’t here for this pretentiousness. To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?”

I decided to be honest with Marissa regarding the new Montano case. As honest as I could, rather. I couldn’t exactly lie to her about it since she was the one who brought it to my attention. The epiphany of Eddie Montano being a serial killer painted me in a very dark corner. “I’m looking into Eddie Montano. I’m treating it as a case now.”
“Oh. Ok. Good. Good. Can I be—”
“No, you can’t be in on this Marissa.”
“Come on! I handed you this case!”
“So? Clients who hand me cases almost always are not part of the investigation process!”
“I’m not a client here, Jack. I’m part of the case since…since I’m a part of that.”
“That was then, Marissa. Your role in that case has no bearing on this new one. And besides, none of us want a repeat of that case.”
“You’re still on that, aren’t you? You’re still blaming me for whitewashing the case?”

I don’t blame her. Of course I don’t. I blame myself for that. Her almost getting hurt that night is on me. Before her father died, he made me swear that I’d protect Marissa at all costs. No matter how screwed up our relationship was, he still believed that his daughter and I were good for each other. A vow made to a man on his deathbed is one that I intend to keep. No matter what. Even if that meant lying to Marissa.

“Jesus, Marissa! You could’ve gotten yourself killed that night! I told you to stay in the car, and you didn’t! I told you about everything that can go wrong. I warned you that we were dealing with dangerous people. I warned you that innocent lives were at stake. Should something go wrong, we’d all be screwed!”
“You didn’t answer the question…”

“Yeah, I blame you. What happened that night, Marissa, is on you. I filled you in on everything about the case. What you did after knowing all that is on you. You’re a grown woman who’s responsible for her actions.” This is not how I pictured the days after our engagement. This is not how I wanted to start a new era in our lives.
“Fuck you, Jack. You’re lying to me! You were all weird this morning. Something’s up and I can tell. I think I’d know by now if you’re covering something up. What the hell is going on, Jack?”

Damn you, Marissa. Rock, meet hard place. I’m uncomfortably sandwiched between you two. “You’ve just settled in here, back to regular programming, but I need you to stay at your cousins in Cebu for a while. I need you out of the Metro for your own safety. There’s a target on my back and it has to stay there.”
“I’m not going anywhere, love! I can more than handle myself!”
“Could you stop being so fucking stubborn! Eddie Montano is a lot more dangerous we thought! He’s a lot more dangerous than his brother, alright? I can’t have you here when he digs deeper into his brother’s cause of death. And he will, Marissa. He’s that good.”
“Jack…what are you talking about? I’m suddenly really worried right now…just…just tell me what I need to know.”

Here’s what I found out in the twenty four hours that I’ve been awake: Eddie Montano isn’t just a serial killer. He’s also the hitter for the criminal organization that ran the human trafficking operation Horus, and Marissa, accidentally stumbled into. He’s a pro. He makes people disappear from the equation when their organization needs people disappeared. Cops, lawyers, judges, witnesses, other criminals. Men, women, children. No one was spared when the hit called for it.

“You should be worried, love. You should be damn worried. I know I am.”

V: Words Left Unsaid
“Cebu, huh?”
“Yeah, love. Cebu.”
“And I really have no say in this?”
“No, you don’t, Marissa.”
“If he is who you say he is, if you say he’s a serial killer slash hitman, then wouldn’t I be as unsafe in Cebu as I am here?”

It’s not about Marissa being safe. It’s about her being away from what will happen next. It’s about her being away from Eddie Montano’s radar. Eddie’s coming for whoever is on the record for killing his brother. Eddie Montano’s coming for me.

“It’s less unsafe there than it is here.”
“And what about you?”
“It’s part of the job. I can handle it.”
“You’re lying again.” She sees through me and it infuriates me. I don’t even remember how or why I let her in in the first place. Why I wanted to let her in. Is it to share my darkness with someone who’s been through the same ordeal? Did I want to change how I lived my life then? Or was she just too impossibly beautiful, a fluke in nature’s grand design, that I wanted to know more of her and see what makes her who she is. Decipher the undecipherable. Know the unknowable.
“Yeah, I am.”

She looks around her office and sighs, says “Cebu, huh” again as if she intends to replay this whole conversation. “Alright, Cebu it is,” she adds, seemingly wanting to just fuck with me by not arguing with me. Could she be starting to better herself for us, much like I did, since the proposal? She could be playing mindgames again.
“Good. I already booked you a flight.” I say
“Of course you did, Jack. I love you, but fuck you.”

I watch her as she cleans up her desk. Everything neatly aligned to her own specification. She looks around, wall to wall, floor to ceiling, memorizing everything again, and says that it was nice to be back to what’s normal. I apologize and she cuts me off, admitting that what’s happening is her fault anyway. I don’t bother correcting her. The less words that are spoken, the better.

The cab ride to her apartment is too silent that not even the cabbie’s 80s local pop songs blaring out the speakers can slice through. A dark cloud hovers above us as we speed past bridges and tunnels and other speeding cars. People become blurs, echoes of who they were milliseconds ago. Streetlamps turn into red lights shining down on the cab, inaudibly screaming ”STOP.” But there’s no stopping what is going to happen in the next few days.

There’s a sense of urgency in wanting her out of the Metro. I don’t want her here when I have to do the inevitable. I don’t want her here when I finally get what I’m owed: A cautious peek into the mind of someone that I’ve been fighting tooth and nail not to become.

Words aren’t exchanged as she methodically packs her clothes and travel essentials into a bag. Just knowing looks. Smiles and non-smiles. Frowns and sighs. Even as I open another cab door for her, the one that will take her to the airport, no words are spoken. It’s too silent. Everything’s too silent. This is the proverbial calm before the storm. This is the moment before the downward spiral into madness.

“I’ll come back for this,” she says as she removes the engagement ring and carefully puts it in my palm, effectively putting an end to the silence. As far as ending silences go, this is the equivalent of a 12 gauge shotgun blast fired directly on one’s ear. “Don’t overthink this gesture, Jack. It is what it is. An unnecessary distraction granting you freedom for the darkness that you alone have to become.”

Her generosity overwhelms me. There’s really no point in saying anything now. She already said what needed to be said. I feel her look at me as she tells me she loves me. I can’t even look her in the eye to say the same words. I’m already overthinking the gesture. Not because of the reason she stated, but because of what it could mean when this is all done and over with.

Our future was never certain. Even when I was thinking of proposing to her, even when I bought the ring, even when the moment came and I proposed to her, our future was never certain. It was all a maneuver to fix our broken natures. An attempt to fix two broken souls by uniting them as one. But wouldn’t uniting two broken souls only result in one massive broken soul with even more shattered bits and pieces of what were once skin and bone falling off?

She kisses me goodbye and all I can feel is myself bathing on the blood that’s caused by a sharp knife slicing through the neck of our tumultuous relationship.

VI: Conversations With The Dead Pt.1
Three days into the investigation and patterns present itself. Whatever’s missing, my mind can fill in. Forms are taking shape. Scenarios run through my eyes like an old black and white movie; the Horus case board acts as a silver screen. The Horus case board is now my board. My board is now my life. I am the evidence. I am the case reports. I am the photographs. I am the people in the photographs. I am the string that connects one victim to the next. I am the gun that snuffed out the lives of the victims. I am the hunting knife that penetrated the skin and chipped the bones of the victims. I am the victims. I am the perpetrator.

My life is sprawled across me. My office chair a meter away from the silver screen. A one day old coffee mug, an hour old bottle of bourbon, and three packs of cigarettes (two unopened, one halfway empty) and an ashtray that’s filled to the brim on the end table to my left. My revolver, which has seen better days, and a dim lamp on the other end table to my right. These are all I require. Everything that’s in this room is all I require.

There will be no one to disturb me. Marissa’s in Cebu and what happened in our last encounter allowed me the focus I need for this. Horus Investigations is still in Hong Kong; I had asked Rod not to inform them about what I’m working on. He’ll comply. His silence on the matter became the currency that I collected on one of the favors he owes me.

This is my world for the time being. I am the victims. I am the perpetrator. I close my eyes to live it all in my mind.

I am Ruby Calderon, 32 years of age. I am an ER surgeon whose only mistake was to celebrate the engagement of a friend in a bar and witness a crime syndicate head talking to a judge. That “mistake,” if you will, cost me my life. My body was found in the trunk of my own car in the middle of nowhere. I was gagged and bound with a bullet hole between the sockets were my eyes once were.
I am Richard Chua, 26 years of age. I am a nurse for a government hospital. After my night shift, I was never seen again.

I am Felipe Samson, 56 years of age. I work as an aide for a city councilor. I was bribed by a businessman to steal legal documents for the man I worked for. I said no. My wife and two daughters were slain right before my eyes. Our bodies were found in our home by my visiting brother.
I am Freddie Santos, 48 years of age. I work as a file clerk for the LTO. I was never seen again.

I am Carmina Umali, 12 years of age. I am a student. I love taking selfies at the mall. I was taking a selfie and didn’t know that one of the people in the background was wanted for murder. Me and Mommy and Daddy were run over by a car while we were walking to Family Mart for ice cream. I miss them so much.
I am Christian Uy, 15 years of age. I want to become a professional photographer in the future. After school, our driver picked me up. It turns out, he wasn’t our driver. I was never seen again.

I am David Baltazar, 45 years of age. I run a small import/export business. A representative for a larger import/export business approached me to buy my company. It’s a company that’s been in the family for four generations so I said no. They persisted and each offer was more generous than the last, but this is the family legacy and I’ll pass it on to my children when I retire. I told the representative that. I wish to God I didn’t. I came home one night after work and the lifeless bodies of my children were seated on the dining table. The killer was on the head of the table. He was smiling while pointing a gun right at me. That was the last thing I remember.
I am Denise Billones, 37 years of age. I operate a small restaurant where my husband works as a cook. I was closing the resto for the night when someone knocked. He just wanted a quick take out. I took his order and my husband cooked the meal. My husband never saw me again.

I am all these victims. I am the 18 other people whose lives and deaths are on my board. I am living their lives and living their deaths. I am the missing. I am the innocence that was taken. I am the history and the memories and the future that were stolen.

I am the perpetrator. I am Eddie Montano. I watch them. I study every movement they make. I take their measly lives in the palm of my hands and crush them. They are a means to an end. The contract hits are there to fuel the need to assert my dominance over those who hired me and to instill fear in them. The kills they provide me are gifts. The other kills exist only to provide me purpose. Their lives are mine to take. Their blood, mine to spill. Their soul, mine to consume.

I am them. I am him. I am everything and everyone in the board. I open my eyes and I’m Jack Mendoza again. I open my eyes and there’s a specter lurking in the corner of the room. The too-pale a figure stares at me with hollow eyes and an even hollower soul.

“You’re not supposed to be here, love. You’re supposed to be in Cebu.”
“I’m supposed to be with you. So here I am.”
“Here in my mind?”
“Here with you.”
“I don’t want you here. I don’t need you here.”
“Yet, here I am. Tell me Jack, why am I here?”
“I don’t know why you’re here, Marissa. I purposely sent you away.”
“To what purpose, exactly?”
“You know why. I told you.”
“You told me nothing.”
“I told you what you needed to know.”
“You told me nothing. Why am I here, Jack? Why am I here?”
“Goodbye, Marissa.”

Before I can say “I love you,” the specter that took Marissa’s form disintegrates into ashes.

VII: The Descent Into Madness
“Jacob Mendoza! It’s been too long! How long has it been? Two years? How is my favorite problem solver doing? Tell you what, I’ve got two new arrivals. Fresh off the boat. I’ll give you first dibs on the one you like.”

Bartolome Lim. A boorish, bear of a man. Rude, flawed, and tempered by three decades of being the Metro’s go-to for all kinds of sexual deviancy. Two decades of those spent as the better half of Amy Lim, the Madam of Aben Cabaret. Their occupations aside, I consider both as friends. For all intents and purposes, Aben Cabaret serves as a neutral ground for the black and whites and grays of this town. Both criminals and law enforcement spend their time and money here. This place is sacred, with an unwritten rule in effect stating that cops can’t be here with the intention of taking criminals into custody and criminals can’t be here to cause ill will on others.

Information passes through Aben like a bird of prey swooping down for the kill. Swift and treacherous. That’s what I’m here for. But I do have to mind my manners. A bit of small talk get you far in this world.

“Bart, it’s only been weeks. And you know I don’t go by that name,” I push. ‘Jacob.’ I’ve always hated that name.
“But it’s a beautiful name! Biblical!” he says. The irony of a Biblical name in a whorehouse isn’t lost on me. He yells to anyone listening “…send in the two new ones! Let Jacob choose!”
“Maybe next time, Bart. How is Mam Amy?” He looks rather disappointed as he looks at an assistant who came in. He motions his right hand left to right on his neck, cancelling the delivery.
“’Next time?’ You always say ‘next time!’”
“I don’t pay for sex, my friend.”
“When you’re in my house, it’s free!”
“Heh, maybe next time, then!”
“Fine. Fine. I’ll hold you to that. Drinks, then?”
“That’s more like it.”

The drinks arrive as Bart tells me that Mam Amy’s at home minding the kids. Sweet little brats, those two. Their son, 8 years old, was kidnapped by a rival operation. Bart contracted Horus to help out since the cops were incompetent enough to fuck up the case, almost harming the kid. For that, Horus was owed big time. We talk about Marissa for a bit. How I already found her since my last appearance here. I tell him that we just got engaged and that he and his wife are invited to the wedding. “That ‘next time’ will never come now, will it?” he ask as he laughs with all his breath. I laugh in unison, confessing that it was never really gonna happen.

Small talk done. Time to get down to business.
“Bart, I wish I could say that I’m here on pleasure, so to speak. But I’m here on a more pressing, life and death, matter,” I say.
“You’re breaking my heart Jacob. You’re only here when you need something! Haha! I’m kidding, my friend! You know, you could learn a lot from Valdez. He knows how to mix pleasure and business! That boy knows how to have a good time! One time he was here, the boy—”
“Bart, I have to cut you off, and I sincerely apologize. But I wasn’t kidding, nor exaggerating, when I said that this is a matter of life and death.”
The mood in the room suddenly changes from unorganized whimsy to dread. He notices the grim in my face, says “Everything about you is life and death, Jacob. Okay, let’s hear it.”

I tell him what I can about the Eddie Montano case. How Eddie is on my trail with, quite surely, every intention of killing me. I tell him that I had to send Marissa away to keep her safe. I tell him that I left Horus in the dark on the case. I tell him what I learned in the course of my investigation, about the victims and the seemingly disappearances soon after the deaths. He doesn’t look too surprised at the revelation, says that when he met the man and looked him in the eyes, he couldn’t sleep for days.
“I’m gonna say a prayer for you tonight, Jacob. How can I help?”
“I need intel. You’ve had dealings with Chris Montano before, haven’t you?”
“I have, much to my regret. That last transaction with him cost me more money than Amy and I were willing to part with. We even lost several of our best sellers cos of him. I haven’t thanked you yet for taking him down, by the way.”
“As long as the drinks keep pouring, Bart, there won’t be any need to thank me. Look, I need to find Eddie Montano. I’ve been looking over my shoulder even more since I found out,” I say. “As far as I can tell, he hasn’t been following me for days now. I’ve exhausted every info I could get from law enforcement so I’m turning to the other side of the coin. I’ve gone to all the Montano safe houses that’s on the case reports. Even made quick visits to their known accomplice’s place of business to see what I can find. The man is a ghost. You have or know anything that I could use? I know that what I’m asking of you might hurt your reputation, but as you mentioned, there’s no love lost between you two.”

I hand him a list of the all places I’ve searched for Eddie Montano. He looks it over, opens his mouth to say something. Stops before words could even come out. He looks at me with what seems like pity as if he’s about to send me to the firing squad.
“There’s a couple places I know that’s not here,” he says as he grabs a pen from his coat’s front pocket. He adds the addresses to the list. “Now, Jacob, you have to be extra careful on this. This is a dangerous path you’re crossing. Don’t hesitate to call me if you need help on this.”
“Thank you, Bart. You’re a godsend.”

We finish our drinks with the feeling of dread still lingering in the air. We raise our glasses together on the last shot, making a silent toast to the past…to the things that brought us here. We say our goodbyes and exchanged last minute small pleasantries as he walks me out of Aben. I tell him to send my best to Mam Amy. He says to do the same to Marissa.

I wave goodbye as I disappear into the shadows of the buildings that tower over us. Before I could go any further into the shadows, familiar scents catches my attention. Marissa’s perfume and her Menthols.

“It’s not too late to change your mind, love.”
“Is this becoming a thing now? You showing up when I least expect it?”
“Maybe. Yes.”
“Which is it, Marissa?”
“Yes. Maybe.”
“Fuck off, love. Leave me be.”
“I already have, Jack. I’m not really here. Are you? Are you really there?”
“I love you, Marissa. See ya around.”

VII: Not Enough, Never Enough
I forgot how damaging that process is to the psyche. Getting into the minds of the victims and the perpetrators and seeing things through their eyes, touching what they touch, feeling what they feel. I haven’t done that since Horus was created. With Horus, it was a collaborative process. I’d have them to bounce ideas off of. I didn’t have to dive into the abyss alone.

We all had our specialties, my role being the “analyst” of the group. Valdez is the tech nerd. Max the hitter/heavy lifter. Angel the one that keeps us glued together and keeps us from getting lost in our respective minds. She’s the “mother” of the group. Slaps us back to reality when needed. Literally, sometimes.

Her maternal instincts are unparalleled, despite not being a mother herself. Makes me think of Marissa as a mother. And of myself as a father.

Marissa and I were almost parents once. “Almost” being the operative word. “Could have been” a close second. She was three months in on her pregnancy when she had it aborted. Didn’t bother to tell me what she had done until a week later.

I got furious, of course. We hadn’t talked about parenthood or raising a family then, but it still stung. Not that I wanted to become a parent back then. Or now, for that matter. I’d be insane to raise a child in our world. The cruelest thing two people can do is to bring a child into this world with how things are now. I’d have been on the same page as her. I’d have recommended her to terminate the pregnancy. But the least she could have done was to inform me; ask for my thoughts on it. Least she could have done was to have me there so she won’t have to go through the procedure alone.

We had already established before that that our lives were intertwined and that living our respective lives alone wasn’t an option anymore. We had each other.

About two months later in one of our Tuesday confessionals, she confessed that it wasn’t my seed that bore the fruit. I guess that explained why she kept the whole thing to herself and why she felt that she had to endure it alone.

Would I have reacted differently had she found the will to come clean before the abortion? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I’d still have been furious. More furious. I’d still have recommended that she terminate the pregnancy. I’d still have been there with her holding her hand during the procedure.

But here’s the thing. Had she decided to keep it, my recommendation aside, I’d still raise the child as if it were my own. Would it have still been insane to raise a child in this world? Definitely. But Marissa and I are far from sane, anyway. We’d have found a way to make it work for us. And as for the cruelty of bringing a child into this world? Cruelty can be worked on. Cruelty can be diminished until it is left bare and vanishes on its own. And what remains is a semblance of a self-sacrificing good.

After her admission of the infidelity, we didn’t fight about it anymore. I should have broken up with her or at least asked for some time off away from her, but she had told the truth on our night where all the cards were on the table and we can’t cry foul when we’re given a shitty hand. Those Tuesdays were sacred, after all. We never really talked about it afterwards, either (looking back, I guess we should have.) Even on succeeding Tuesday confessionals, none of us brought it up again. The topic remained dormant. Save for what she considered as a resolve for her infidelity: she cheated, and so should I.

In her twisted mind, that was the right thing to do. And in my twisted mind, it was right as well.

I wish I could say that I’m one to take the high road and not complicate things even further by doing what she did. But I can’t. What she proposed made sense to me. “Do unto others what has been done to you” and all that.

I’ll admit, I was angry at her infidelity. I was livid. If I was to do the same, even if it was a permissible infidelity, I’d make sure it hurt her. I wanted her to have a daily reminder of the time she had wronged me. Enter Nina.

I’ve always been attracted to Nina. I never told Marissa that, but I think she felt it. The attraction was mutual, much to my delight. The arrangement was beneficial for Nina and me. No strings attached. No complications afterwards. She was fresh from a breakup and needed a distraction. I needed to make real the sexual fantasies I had about her and needed to gratify my vindictiveness towards Marissa’s crime.

If only my effort for vindictive gratification had worked. I told Marissa who I had slept it and all she said was a resounding “K.” Things weren’t even awkward for her when she was around Nina. I was even more furious, borderlining on wrathful, but coming up with another way to get back at her would all have been for naught. Her mind works differently, as I should have remembered.

I shouldn’t even be thinking about all this again. I should be focused on the case. I should be focused on the search for Eddie Montano. But it can’t be helped. I am powerless against nostalgia as I look at the staged photos hung up on the walls of one of his safehouses. As far as safehouses go, this one is pretty impressive. The dedication to the deception is remarkable.

If a visitor, or in my case, a trespasser, was blissfully unaware that Eddie Montano is a psychopath, he or she would assume that Eddie’s a family man with a beautiful wife and two beautiful children. But the illusion is pierced through by someone with a trained eye for detecting deceptions. There is a definite “family” vibe permeating in the air. The props are dead on. Refined furniture everywhere (too modern for my taste, but I’m appreciative of it.) There’s food on the fridge that would feed a family of four. Three rooms (one master’s bedroom) with beds neatly tucked in and a den that serves as a home office. There are children’s toys almost everywhere that are carefully staged to fortify the illusion. What gives it away are the photographs themselves. Eddie Montano is not on them. Thirty one picture frames of his “family” strategically placed around the house and he’s not in any one of them.

Whether the people in the photos are his victims or not, I can’t say. They could be actors, for all I know. I can’t assume anything right now. I can’t let this mystery sidetrack me from the purpose of this break in.

Unfortunately, the house is empty of any warm bodies and there is nothing here that I can use to locate him. Every detail in this house points to a man wearing another man’s skin. That man is definitely not the man that I’m looking for. I can only hope that the second location that Bart gave me would offer me something definite.

As I walk towards the gorgeously carved wooden door to end my intrusion in this “home,” she calls out to me. Says my name ever so lightly.
“This could have been us, Jack.”
“Yeah? How’d you figure?”
“In a different world, in a different life, this could have been us. It should have been us.”
“We live in the real world, love. ‘Should’ves and ‘could’ves’ don’t exist in the real world. They don’t have a place in the real world.”
“We dictate what’s real and what’s not.”
“You’re not real.”
“No more real than you.”
“I want to agree with you on that so much, Marissa. God knows I want all of this to end. But things can’t end just yet. What do you want, love? Why do you keep haunting me?”
“Goodbye, Jack.”
“Goodbye, Marissa.”

IX: Too Bright To See
I feel my mind slipping away from me. Slowly. I’m seeing people who aren’t supposed to be there. It does bother me. I don’t have to put up a brave face and say that it doesn’t. I’m man enough to admit the limits of my mortality. I’m man enough to admit when my body and my mental faculties are betraying me. I wish I could say that the recent hallucinations are new, but it’s not without precedence.

Conversations with the dead is something that I’ve done before. Not by choice. Back when I still worked cases solo, the victims whose lives I’ve inhabited would come and talk to me. They’d come after the cases have been solved. That’s the frustrating part. That’s the harrowing part. They have no reason to haunt me any longer, yet, they still cling to man who possessed them in order to give justice to their deaths.

I’m not insane. Clinically. I don’t believe in ghosts, nor in the afterlife. I know that it’s all happening in my mind. But the sincerity of the hauntings and the conversations led me to the wanton state of denial regarding the breakdown of my mind. I couldn’t admit it back then, but since I met Marissa, I’ve accepted that even my mind does slip.

I am in deep gratitude for Horus because I didn’t have to do things on my own. The dead stopped appearing to me. The dead stopped talking to me. My mind was awarded a respite from factors that would sooner fuck my mind up.

And that is why I miss them. That is why I miss Marissa. They keep my mind in check. Keeping Horus in the dark on this case and pushing Marissa away are bringing back those ghosts. I feel perturbed about talking to phantoms again, particularly one that took Marissa’s form. I feel that I betrayed the oath that Angel, Max, Valdez, and I took years ago; that we have each other to rely on, lest our respective inner demons take control.

Driving to the second location that Bert gave me, I can’t shake the feeling that I shouldn’t have kept everyone at arm’s length on this. That I shouldn’t have gone back to old habits. Those habits, no matter how screwed up they seem, felt comfortable to me. Observing the decay of my mind was frightening, but it made me feel comfortable. It was all I’ve known for years. The state of solitude was a part of me. That state was me.

But it’s too late for regrets now. I feel like I’m getting closer to Eddie Montano. I feel like I’m getting closer to the end. And, like I said to the phantom that took Marissa’s form earlier, should’ves and could’ve don’t exist in the real world.

Not in my world. Not in the shadows. Not in the line between good and evil. The choices and the judgment calls I’ve made are something that I’ll have to live with.

The roads are rain soaked for me to speed towards the second location. I’m five minutes away and I’m too excited about what I’ll discover that I want those five minutes to be cut down to two. Visibility’s shit due to the rain and my beat up car’s windshield wiper is almost incapable of clearing the downpour. There’s also where I am that I have to consider. It’s a part of town that the government has forgot. There are no streetlights and the roads haven’t been repaved in years. It’s too dark to make anything out of the darkness. I have to lower the exhilaration a bit or else I won’t make it. I have to play this safe. Have to be cautious on the road.

Five minutes. Seems like an eternity when you’re awash in the idea that the answer you’ve been looking for your whole life is about to present itself to you. The answer to the question “who would I be had I not suppressed that one primal voice inside of me and took the path that that I arguably should have taken?”

Five minutes. Four minutes. Three minutes. Two minutes. One minute. And I see it. An abandoned factory that was once used to make and store fireworks.

As I drive closer to the factory, I switch the headlights off so whoever’s inside (Eddie Montano, hopefully,) won’t be alarmed to my presence. I pray to whoever’s out there that the car won’t bump into something or fall into a ravine of some sort. That’s all I am capable of now: prayer.

The sound of rain falling down on tin roof masks the sound of my car’s engine until I turn the ignition off. The rain masks everything. I won’t be heard coming. I won’t be seen coming.

I exit the car, not rushing towards shelter. The rain falls down on me and I look up at the heavens with a beaming smile on my face. I hear her say “don’t go in there. What you need is not in there.” This isn’t the time to converse with ghosts so I ignore her. She appears to me as I near a blue door. She’s right in between me and that which will unlock everything. I remove my revolver from its holster and phase through her, open the knob, and push the door ever so slowly so it won’t make a sound. Not that it can be heard because of the rain, but my training is still kicking in.

Nothing. Darkness. Except for lights flickering on the window of what I can assume is the office on the second level. I click my flashlight on for a bit just to get a short visual of the place. I’ve walked in the dark one too many times that, with only a short flash of light, I can get a sense of a place bereft of any light source without stumbling or bumping into anything. A flash of light. That’s all I need in the dark.

I stealthily walk up the stairs. The hair on my arms rising. A chill on the back of my neck. I’m seconds away from the source of the flickering lights. The lights grow stronger as I move towards it. I can almost see the metal surface I’m walking on. I see another blue door that’s slightly ajar.

I raise my revolver as I push the door wide open, the light blinding me. Damn it. Rookie move, Jack. I hope that it won’t get me killed. My eyes slightly adjusts to the light and I’m still alive. I can see formations making sense to my eyes. A desk. A few unlit lamps. Standard office equipment. And candles. Lots of lit candles. The source of the light.

My eyes fully adjust to the light, and on the wall facing me hangs a painting that I’ve seen before; a painting that I’ve admired and loved. The artist I’ve long admired and loved. The air in my lungs freezes. It takes several seconds for me to move even a fraction of an inch. That chill on my nape becomes an icy stab. What’s right before my very eyes is a painting of the cityscape from my apartment’s rooftop. Above the painting – the words “are you there?” – written in blood.


X: Conversations With The Dead Pt.2
“Are you there? Are you really there?”
God damn it. My mind used to be a lot sharper than this! I should’ve picked up on it!

“Are you really there?”
I thought that she had to reinforce that statement due to her perception becoming compromised because of the mixture of the vodka and meds. I thought she just needed to assure herself that I was indeed there.

“…really there?”
God damn it!

The painting that’s been locked away in the storage room of Marissa’s gallery…the words written in blood…Eddie Montano was at my apartment when Marissa attempted to off herself! Marissa must have seen him before I ever came in! Only she was too fucked up to even comprehend that the intruder she saw wasn’t me, but a man even more dangerous. She thought he was just a hallucination! Was he the one who – no…no…he couldn’t have been the one who cut Marissa’s wrist open. He was just an unwilling spectator. That was all Marissa.

Which means that he was there for me. He’s been following me. Knew I was heading home. He came to my house to kill me. But what he saw was Marissa drunk and high and bleeding to death. I can only imagine what was going through his mind when he saw her. “Should I hasten her death?” “Should I watch Jack suffer?”

Oh God…he must have been watching us. He must have been watching from the rooftop of the empty office building across my apartment as I came home and found her. He must have been watching as I called for an ambulance and when the EMTs stretchered her out the building. He must have. It makes sense. It fits. I’d have done the same if I was in his shoes.

I drive back to the metro, to my apartment, speeding like my life depended on it. He’s there right now. That’s where he wants to end this. Not on his turf, but mine. Ah, the brashness of it all. I gotta admire that.

The rain worsens, but it doesn’t stop me from speeding. It’s an hour drive back to my place but I can cut that down to half. The streets are empty at this hour, less risk of getting into an accident.

I should’ve seen all of this. I should’ve known what was happening; Eddie Montano following me with an act as petty as revenge on his mind. Instead, I was preoccupied with what was going on with Marissa and…

“…I thought there weren’t any ‘should’ves’ in your world, Jack?”
Marissa. The phantom that took Marissa’s form. She’s at the backseat of my car. Still exceptionally beautiful, and an exceptional annoyance, for someone who isn’t really there. “Shut up, Marissa. I’m driving. You know I hate it when you’re blabbering on about whatever while I’m focused on the road.”
“You love it! I know you do! Keeps you awake.”
“I’m wide awake now, love.”
“Are you?”
…are you really there…
“…are you really awake?”
“Shut up, Marissa! Just shut the fuck up!”

My mind’s toying with me. My mind’s fucking with me. This is what I get for not seeing the signs. This is what I get for not figuring it out sooner. Arguments with ghosts and phantoms and the dead and … and myself. When all of this is over, I’m done. I’m done with this life and the chase and the cases and the bad guys and this vile metro. It’s just gonna be and Marissa starting a new life somewhere. She and I will disappear. It’s a big world. It’s easy to disappear in it. It’s easy to get lost in it.

We’ll start a new life. We’ll start a family, if it leads to that. London. We’ve always talked about going to London. We could move there. We could disappear there. She’ll go back to painting or photography. I can…do something there. I’ve never been particularly good at anything else aside from doing what I do, but I’ll figure it out. I can learn the guitar. I can be a busker. I can work the music scene there.

Money’s not an issue, anyway. I’ve saved up enough (wouldn’t have proposed to her if I haven’t.) I’ve got money on the Horus fund that I can easily get. There’s also the money that Marissa’s father left me when he died.

She and I will make it. We’ll be safe. We’ll be free from it all.

I finally reach civilization. I’m back to driving on properly paved roads and lit lampposts and traffic lights with flashing yellow. I’m back to seeing the homeless seeking shelter below bridges and flyovers. I’m back to the Metro that’s gracelessly decaying, in spite of the government says. I’m back to the metro where demons hide out in the shadows and in the cracks on the wall.

God, this Metro. It’s disgusting and vile and should be burned down to the ground. But I love this metro. I love every cell and every fiber in it. I love every angel and every demon this town has. I just can’t stand it sometimes. I just have to remind myself that for all the Montanos and the corrupt officials and crooked cops in here, there are the Rod Guzmans and the Horus’ and all the others who just want to do right by this town.

This Metro can survive without me. I don’t need to be here. My role in this metro is done. My role in this Metro is over.

Well, almost over. One last case. One last mission. To put down the demon that is Eddie Montano.

I get a sense of dejavu as I walk the hall that leads to my apartment. The feeling I got as I walked towards the blue door in the factory returns. That chill on the back of my neck. Trailing down my spine. Travelling to my extremities.

I reach for my keys, then for my revolver. I unlock the door, open it, raise my revolver, walk in. Nothing. Darkness. Save for a light flickering below my closed bedroom door. This all seems too familiar.

No. Marissa…

A note in between a blood stained knife and the door reads “There should have been candles … much more melodramatic. You’re welcome.”

My mind suddenly flashes back to everything about Marissa. The awkward half-smile when I met her for the first time. The look on her face when she puts one over on me or when she wins an argument. The scent of her hair. The way she says my name. The times we’d look down at the Metro from rooftops. When we’d get drunk in bars and pretend we’re Japanese tourists. That time she asked me if she could join me in the first Montano case. The hospital after her attempt. Her wide eyed bewilderment when I first told her that I love her. That night at the pier. That magical kiss on New Year’s that assured us that we’d be together until the moment we’re gone and dead.

Are you there? Are you really there?

I am there. I am here in my bedroom, candles illuminating the walls and the bed and everything that I should have realized. Candles leading a path to the bathroom.

Candles in the bathroom illuminating the wall in front of me, the words “you weren’t” written in red. Written in blood.

Candles illuminating Marissa’s dead body in the bathtub. Left wrist sliced from wrist up to her shoulders with surgical precision. Blood pooled on the tile. So much blood.

“Are you really there?” the ghost of Marissa asks.
I am, love. Too little, too late.

Epilogue: Our Endless Numbered Days

I: Days Go By
I had a case some years ago. It wasn’t remarkable in any way. It was nigh pedestrian. Didn’t really exert too much effort in solving it as it was already solved by the cops then and there. The client was a man in his 40s. A businessman. Wore a crisp baby blue dress shirt, a striped gray and red tie, and a pricey suit and pants when we had the meeting. I was wearing my standard dark jeans, a ragged shirt, a black jacket, and a week old beard. I remember him saying something about me not being really an investigator because of how I looked. I told him that an artist didn’t need to wear a uniform of some kind to create art. He looked at me all bewildered. I think I was drunk then. Yeah, I think I was indeed drunk. It was a night much like this. It was cold. The smell of August rain permeating the al fresco restaurant we met at. I needed to take the edge off.

Anyway, the case. As I said, it was unremarkable. The cops already solved it. The client’s wife committed suicide. Cops ruled it as such. Open-shut case. Only he didn’t believe that his wife could do such a thing. He believed that someone had killed her and made it look like a suicide.

He showed me photos of them from a vacation a week before the suicide. He showed me how happy they were. Insisted on it. He also showed me transcripts of their text and email conversations, and, as he once again insisted, nothing was telling of a woman who’s at the end of her rope. Had I been drunk enough that meeting, I’d have asked for a notarized document wherein the wife states that she is of sound mind and is far from taking her own life.

The client also handed me the official incident report from the police. Everything seemed on the up and up. Everything was detailed: the report, crime scene photographs, et al. There were no indications that anything were amiss. Nothing screamed “foul play.” The cops didn’t even suspect the husband.

Every bone in my body told me not to take the case. But I did. He seemed genuinely distraught. And if me taking the case were to give him some sense of closure, then who am I to rob a grieving man of that? Also, he said that he’d pay me double my usual rate. Can’t say no to that.

I spent a week on that case. Triple checked every single detail and info he and the police gave me. I combed through their history going back five years. Went to the crime scene and spent two days and two nights there just to get into the head of the Mrs. No affairs, no third party, no business rival or anyone who had any motive to kill the client’s wife. The client didn’t beat her up or abuse her, emotionally or otherwise. I didn’t find any red flags. I didn’t find anything that would indicate that it was anything but a suicide.

She was in a happy marriage. She was in a happy and stable point of her life. She was happy. She just took her own life for God knows what reason.

And that’s what I told the client. He was disappointed. He was crying. Caught me off guard, truth be told. Didn’t expect a man of his stature to cry in public. We talked for a while after he composed himself. I told him that unexplainable things happen, that even the seemingly happiest people in the world are capable of ending their own lives. I told him that we’ll never find out what demons she felt she had to escape from. I reminded him of the life and the happiness they shared. I reminded him of the vacations they took and the dinner dates they had and the Valentine’s they spent. I reminded him of all the great memories they built. Everything, from the moment they met at a conference to their wedding day and to her last day. I had gotten to “know” the wife inside and out so it was easy.

He got all choked up and tore up a bit, smiled and thanked me and paid me the agreed upon amount. In cash. It was a good day.

Two days later, I found out that he killed himself. He was found the same way his wife was found. With a noose around his neck.

I thought it was pathetic at first, what he did. Took the easy way out. Out from the pain and the anguish. Later that night, I realized that it was kinda romantic. He was a God fearing man. Religious. Straight up Catholic. He and his wife believed in the afterlife. They believed that when we die, we join our loved ones in the realm after our own. He wanted to join his wife in hell where they’ll spend eternity loving each other, even if that meant getting tortured and getting ass fucked every other day by winged demons and dead genocidal dictators. At least they were happy.

I was envious of him. I was envious of the final sacrifice he did for her, just to be with her. I was envious of his belief system. I wanted so bad to believe that there was a life after this. I wanted to believe in fairy tales where, even in death, we’d end up in the company of those we love. They’ll be waiting in the gates of heaven or hell with arms open when you’re seconds away from death. They’ll be there with wide smiles on their lips as you make your way towards the light or the darkness, a choir of angels (or Swedish Death Metal playing from the ribcages of demons) climaxing until you reach their arms. I wanted to believe that, even in death, we’d get a happy ending even though we don’t deserve even a sliver of it.

But I don’t. I don’t believe in such bullshit. When we die, we’re dead. We don’t wait in the wings of angels or demons, nor do we end up as ghosts here on this dismal world awaiting further instructions until the rapture comes and incinerates our bodies til only our souls are left. When we die, we’re left to rot in the ground with absolutely nothing and no one. I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now.

It’s been six months since last I saw Marissa. Her body, to be precise. The Marissa I saw dead in the bathtub wasn’t her anymore. That pile of flesh and bone and blood and beauty was a merely a postscript to the life she had lived. That’s how she should have ended up in the first place had I not been selfish and wanted her in my life. She should have died by her own hand, as she once stated. Instead, she died by the hands and knife of Eddie Montano.

It’s been six months since I last saw Marissa. Six months since I hailed the cab that drove her to her doom. Six months since I hailed a cab that was cunningly commandeered by Eddie Montano.

Is it too late for a sinner like me to believe in the afterlife? Is it too late for me to believe that I’ll see her again? I suppose it is. I’m too weary to overhaul my belief system. I’m too set in my ways. I prefer it like this, my beliefs are based on reality. Grounded.

“You still can see me, Jack,” the phantom that took Marissa’s form says. “It’s not too late. You can still see me.”
“I can’t anymore, love. You’re gone for good,” I reply. Not the first time I’ve talked to her “ghost,” and it won’t definitely be the last.
“But you still can! Trust me! You’ll love it here! It’s peaceful, it’s quiet! It will be just the two of us. We can shape our reality here. We can dream up our own life here. We can shape the darkness here and turn it into London! Or a beach in Uruguay! Or any place we want it to be. Any place is better than this decrepit shack in the middle of nowhere that you exiled yourself in. All you have to do is-”
“Ugh leave me alone, Marissa.”
“Don’t you love me anymore? Don’t you wanna be with me again? You can fix this. You can make this right. All you have to do is point that revolver you’ve been holding for hours now to your temple and pull the trigger. Then we’d be together,” she says as she half laughs. A half laugh that’s close to becoming demonic in nature.
“You’re dead, Marissa. I’ll always love you, but you’re dead and gone. You’re just a decomposing body now.”
“And what of you? You’re no different than me. A decomposing body. That’s what we both are now. Only you’re still breathing. Care to rectify it, love?”

I point the revolver to my temple, tell her to fuck off, and shoot at the void where the phantom quickly disappears from. “I miss you, Marissa, but I’m not done yet.”

II: Gotta Do What You Gotta Do
“It feels like years has passed since Marissa’s death. The past six months have been cruel to me. There was not one moment when I had a reason to smile. Or frown. Or be sad. Or show remorse. I’ve been on autopilot. I do feel the weight of it all deep inside. It’s down there with all the shit and the baggage that I’ve buried and labeled ‘useless.’ The misery and the grief and that stinging feeling that I should have seen it coming, it’s all there. I just have yet to access those. That’s what’s troubling me. I should feel. I should be angry. I should lash out. I should lock myself in a room and cry for days. I should cry for the loss of the woman that I love. But I’m not doing those things. I don’t think I even want to. God knows what will happen if I do feel it all. God knows what’s gonna happen if I finally decide to lash out. The people I’ve let in, I’ll poison. The Metro I’ve come to love, I will burn. Have I gone too far into the deep end that my humanity switch has been finally turned off? Maybe I haven’t made sense of everything yet. Maybe it hasn’t hit me yet. Maybe this, maybe that. Blah blah blah.

…or maybe I just need to finally take your life like you took mine. Marissa was my life. That’s what was taken from me, Eddie.”

“Do you have a point in all of this? You’re boring me to death, boy.” Eddie Montano says.

I’m staring at Eddie Montano, the civilized madman who took lives and destroyed everything he touched. We’re at the basement of this shithole that resembles a house 6 hours away from the Metro. His arms are chained to the ceiling. Legs chained to the ground. Blood dripping down his mouth. Freshly stitched slits on both wrists. Cuts and bruises all over his body. The cuts resembling a map. The bruises resembling ink blots on paper. It’s almost beautiful.

There’s a makeshift prison constructed on one side of the room. Steel bars, toilet and sink, single bed with mattress, everything that one can find in a prison cell. No windows, of course. On the other side, a chair, a desk, a lamp, a first aid cabinet, a hanging lightbulb that’s two weeks past its expiration date, and the chains that’s bolted on to the floor and ceiling. There’s also a drawer with an assortment of knives and other…interrogation devices that’s neatly arranged. I can’t take credit for the elaborate construction of this room. It was all Max. This was a remnant from a past life of his. A past life where he was a hitter and an enforcer and an interrogator for whomever had the money to pay his admittedly exorbitant fee. This house is one of the things he secretly kept in his life before Horus.

It’s cold out there and even colder in here. Storm season, thankfully. Eddie Montano’s screams are drowned out by the thunder and heavy rain falling down on everything in this part of the country. Not that anyone will hear him scream. We’re miles away from town.

We’ve been going at this for two weeks now. I still don’t feel anything. I had hoped that by bringing him here and working on him would give me a sense of release or pleasure, but there’s nothing. I feel as empty as when I buried Marissa myself.
“…well, Mr. Mendoza? What’s next? You’re looking as bored as I am. You’ve done everything that you can to me. You should just finally do it. Or are you still not gonna cross that line that you’ve been tiptoeing? Do it. I know you want to. Take that hunting knife over there and plunge it into my heart. End it. End your suffering. End my boredom.”
“I’m not done with you yet, Eddie.” I say.
“What’s your endgame here, Mr. Mendoza? I’ve watched you. I’ve watched you then and I’ve been watching you now. There’s absolutely nothing in your eyes. You’re just a monster masquerading as a man. Just like me.”
“I am nothing like you!”
“Oh yes you are! You are! You are just like me! You’re a mirror image of myself! I’ve done my homework on you ever since you killed my brother. And let me tell you, it wasn’t hard, boy. You’ve been in our radar and we have a file on you. Your cases, your history, we have all that in a file. Our organization has files on everyone that’s a threat. And I’ve studied all that. And you know what I’ve learned? You are this close to becoming me. All it takes is one push, one trigger, to put you where you belong. In our side.”

He’s right. I am this close to becoming him. That’s always been there, that nagging feeling that I’m this close to opening the door to his side of our world. That’s been there since my youth. Only I was smart enough not to open it and walk in. But here I am with my hand on the doorknob, every punch to his face a knock, every cut I make on his body a tap. “I’m a threat? You flatter me, Eddie. I guess I’m doing my job right, then,” I say, “But I’m never gonna switch sides.”
“You will, boy. You will. I’ve seen firsthand the darkness in you. I’ve seen what you’re capable of. Experienced it. This, what you’re capable of, it has no place on what you call the ‘good’ side. And I know that you know that, too. You’ve always felt like you never belonged in the light. You’ve always felt regret over that one moment in your life when you chose the side you’re in now.” He says.
“I don’t regret being unchained in this side.”
“That doesn’t mean you’re not chained like me.”
Before I can say anything, my phone vibrates. A text message from Max that reads “I’m outside.”
“I’ll be back. Don’t go anywhere.” I say, laughing at the empty victory of my attempt to make a joke. He says nothing and looks blankly at me.

I walk back upstairs to the first floor and towards the window that faces an empty field of gravel that acts as the parking lot. I see Max’s pickup. He flashes the headlights and I wave at him to come in. I open the door and watch him exit his pickup and rush in towards shelter.
“Long drive?” I ask as he wipes away the rain from his soaked clothing. “That’s not gonna help, Max.”
“Every bit counts, asshole,” he says as he hugs me, intentionally getting the rain from outside on me. “I miss you, man. We all do.”

Max Ortiz. Six feet, two inches tall. A man made of pure muscle. The only man taller than me that I didn’t despise. Hair still cut short from his military days. He’s wearing a black long sleeve shirt, a hoodie that he didn’t pull over his head when he rushed in, dark jeans, and his combat boots. He’s on time, as expected. Should’ve realized the time while I was down there. But when you’re face to face with the devil, time moves differently.

“Is he still down there?” he asks as he head towards a cabinet. He opens it and grabs a dusty bottle of scotch. “So this is still here. Good.”
“I don’t drink scotch,” I say as he opens it, cracking the seal, and takes a swig. “You need a glass for that?”
“Nah, I’m good. So, he’s still down there or what?” he repeats himself, almost annoyed.
“He is.”
“What do you want me to say, Max?”
“Whatever you want, Jack. We just need to know that you’re alright.”
“He’s still alive. Have you told the others yet about what’s happening?”
“That you found him and kidnapped him and are keeping him prisoner and are torturing him while I pretend that we’re still out there looking for him?”
“Nope. Haven’t told them that. God, it’s been two weeks, Jack. I can’t keep lying to Angel. How long are you gonna keep this up?”
“Not too long, Max. Don’t worry.”
“Fuck, man, ‘don’t worry?’ You think I can’t not worry about what you’re doing here? I built this house for one reason! I built this house for what you’re doing now! Jesus fucking Christ, Jack. ‘Don’t worry.’ Shit.”

I disappeared from everyone after the funeral. Couldn’t bear being around anyone. Angel, especially. She was already blaming me for everything that happened before Marissa’s death. I figure she’d want me to share the same fate. She did hug me tight when we saw each other at the morgue. It was followed by a slap, then a punch. Then words like “fuck you” and “you selfish bastard” and “you should’ve done what I told you.” All justified.

I went off the rails for months. Told my liver to go fuck itself as I went on a drinking binge. Fucked Nina for weeks. There were times when I just sat on my bed and gazed at the bathroom where I found her. The blood was cleaned by the crime scene cleanup crew but I could still see it. I could still see her there, with her beautiful face and her arm sliced open. I felt nothing as I pictured her there. I felt empty, like whatever light I had in me was extinguished when she died.

So I moved to Davao for a bit just to find some sort of reason for the nothingness. Some form of clarity that could perhaps answer the question “why can’t I feel anything?” I had no contact with anyone, left my phone and laptop at the apartment. I wasn’t even sure if anyone knew where I was. Horus did, for sure. They just left me alone. But the phantom that took Marissa’s form followed me. Talking to her kept me sane, as ironic as that sounds.

The phantom somehow talked me into finding Eddie Montano and to do to him the same thing he did to Marissa. It seemed simple enough. She said that I’d find the answers I’ve been abusing the bottle for. And so I sobered up a bit and went back to join Horus on the hunt for Eddie Montano.

Tensions were high between me and Angel while working the case. But we decided to set aside whatever we felt and kept things professional. It was easy for me. Wasn’t feeling anything other than the drive to find Marissa’s killer. I had to fake the grief I should have been feeling at the time. After a while, we did find him. Well, I did. I had a good lead that I followed on my own. I ran it and found him. After an intense knifefight that almost cost us our lives, I somehow got the upper hand. I didn’t think I had it in me, to be honest. It had crossed my mind that maybe he let me win, but the wrath I felt in those moments consumed me that I had no control over my mind and body. I was on autopilot. When he was down and out, I took him to this house, a house that only Max and I know about. I contacted him when I settled in here. Told him what I had done. I pleaded that he not tell anyone what happened and tell them that I had to get away again and couldn’t be a part of it. I’m surprised that he actually did what I asked him to do.

“You done?” I say.
“Fuck you, Jack. This isn’t you. And before you say ‘yeah it is,’ listen to me. This is not you. You’re not a killer. You don’t torture people, even the ones who deserve it. You’re not like who I was. Even on your worst, you’ve always found the strength not to become that guy. What you’re feeling now is just grief. Grief that you’re turning into anger. Look, I owe you for what you did for me back then. If it wasn’t for you, I’d still be in this house torturing people and digging more holes in the backyard. You pulled me out from that darkness. Because of you, I walked away from this house and turned my life around. Because of you, I met Angel, the woman I love. Because of you, I met Valdez and I met Rod and all the others who never gave up and still fight the good fight, despite all the shit that happened to us. You’re one of the good ones, Jack. Don’t waste that. Let me repay what I owe you by walking you out of here. Let’s turn him in. Let’s write the narrative: you went back on the hunt alone. You found him and beat him up. Tortured him out of anger. The cops would understand, for sure. Everyone will. Jack, end this. Run the mission right.”
He makes sense. What I thought was emptiness is anger. It’s what’s in my bones. “Alright. Alright, I’ll end this. Let me have a talk with him first. Alone.”
“Sure, man. Whatever you need,” he says.

I walk back down to the basement with a clear mind. Six months I have lived without clarity. Six months I have lived picturing Marissa in that bathtub, all bloody and beautiful. Six months I have lived with nothing but rage inside me. It wasn’t emptiness. It was never emptiness. It was rage. It was wrath. I’m face to face with the devil and he grins at me. “What’s next, boy?” he asks.

I close my eyes and think of Marissa. I think of all the great times we had. I see her in an apartment in rainy London. I see her from across a dark room. She’s by the window, light from a lamppost outside falling on her face ever so gently. Ever so softly. Beautiful Marissa. Beautiful Marissa with blood streaming down her eyes. Blood dripping down on a baby she’s cradling in her arms.

I open my eyes and I see her ghost standing in front of me. She’s in between me and the devil. I do the only thing that makes sense to me here in the gray. I grab the Sig from the small of my back and empty the clip on her and Eddie Montano. And for the first time after six months, I find a reason to smile.

III: Full Circle
My ears are ringing from the blast of the 12 rounds, but I still hear loud footsteps coming down the basement. The thud of the footsteps are accompanied by the words “what the fuck did you do” and “fucking hell Jack.” Everything’s too loud. The metallic ting and the screams and the footsteps are too loud. The voice in my head are too loud. In this moment, I miss the silence.

“Jack, what the fuck did you do?!” Max says. “What the fuck did you do?!”
“I heard you the first time,” I say.
“What the fuck did you do?!”
“Stop repeating yourself, man.”

He punches me square in the jaw, almost dislocating it. I almost forgot that he boxed in his spare time. The punch bloodies my lower lip. The coppery taste of the blood excites me. “What the fuck was that for?” I ask, even though I already know the answer.
“Jesus fucking Christ, Jack! What did you–” he says, stopping when he sees the fate that has befallen Eddie Montano.

Two hollow point rounds in the chest. 10 hollow point rounds in the face. A ghastly bloody mess. The only merciful gift I could offer the now deceased Eddie Montano.

“What?” I say.
“Have you lost your fucking mind?! I thought we were gonna turn him in? We agreed on–”
“No such agreement was made. I didn’t say that I was gonna turn him in. I said that I’ll end this.”
“You’ve lost your fucking mind!”
“Do I sound like I’ve lost my mind? Look at me. Do I look like I’ve lost my fucking mind?”
“Did you really think that I’d let him walk out of here? After what he did? After all the shit he did? Did you really think I’d let him walk out of here after what he did to me?! After what he did to Marissa?!”
“What the fuck happened to you, Jack…this…this isn’t you.”
“Then shit, you don’t really know me at all. What if it was Angel? What if he had his crosshairs on Angel? Wouldn’t you have done the same? Or, fuck, wouldn’t you have done a lot worse? I’m sure you would, Max. Why else did you keep this house? Why else haven’t you demolished this fucking kill house if you didn’t think that you’d wind up here when what happened to me happens to you?”

The scorn on his face turns into a quiet sadness, like he knew I was right. Damn right I was right. “Don’t be a fucking hypocrite Max. It’s unbecoming.”
“You’re a fucking asshole,” he says. “Jesus Christ. Look at him, Jack! Look what you did to him! You can’t even see his fucking face anymore!”
“I’d have done worse if you hadn’t been here. I was given a deadline. I had to work with what I had in that deadline.”
“You would’ve…God…what the fuck.”
“You would’ve done the same, Max. Had it been Angel instead of Marissa, you would’ve done the same.”

Everything becomes silent again. Max has stopped freaking out. Eddie Montano stopped existing. The voices of the dead stopped speaking. The rain outside, while it still pours, has taken upon itself to give me the quiet I need.

“You’re done,” Max breaks the silence. ”You’re done. You’re out of Horus.”
“I know.”
“You hear me? You’re on your own.”
“Heard you loud and clear.”
“God, I fought for you, you asshole. Angel wanted you gone after Marissa died. Did you know that? She was gonna fire you from Horus! And I fucking fought for you! Told her that we owe you for bringing us together. Shit, man, you’re the reason why Horus exists! Angel, Valdez, and I, we were aimless. We needed a purpose, and you gave us just that.”
“You three don’t owe me anything. I sought you all out of necessity. The case I took needed more manpower. The case needed specific skillsets that I don’t have.”
“Then why the hell did you propose to band together when the case was done and the money was split?”

It made sense to me that I needed others to walk the path I chose. I needed support. It was all for my own sanity. If I was to survive the darkness, I knew I needed people around me. Selfish reasons. In the end, I fucked it all up by pushing everyone away.

“Does it matter? Does it matter now?” I say.
“No, it doesn’t. Just get the fuck out of here. I’ll clean up your mess. One last body to bury out back. Then I’ll finally rid myself of this house. I’ll square everything with the others. I’ll figure out how to sort this out. Did you even have an exit strategy for this clusterfuck?”
“You’re a good man, Max. You’re a good friend. Take care of the others for me. Haven’t said this before because in our line of work, not saying the words is easier, but I love you guys.” I reply. I turn around and walk back upstairs, leaving his question unanswered.

I grab the things I brought here, hastily put them in my go bag, walk out the front door. The sun is about to rise, but you can’t really tell with the storm. “This is how it ends,” I say to myself. “This is how it ends.”
“Not quite, love,” says Marissa from behind me. “I’ll see you at home.”

I get back to my apartment and everything’s too serene. The last time I was here, it was filled with people. Cops, CSUs, nosy neighbors, Horus. Even ghosts. The noise was unbearable. The last time I was here, Marissa’s body was lying in the bathtub.

I’m sitting on my bed, still soaking from the storm. I’m staring at the empty bathtub and picturing her there. Alive. Looking right at me, smiling. Her left arm still unopened. The floor tiles clean. I died that night with her. I died when the life was snuffed out of her. I died when she took her last breath.

“Nice to see you again, Jack! What took you so long?” Marissa says as she sits beside me. She’s wearing that dress of hers that stops my heart cold.s
“EDSA traffic. You know the deal.”
“Even with the storm?”
“Especially with the storm.”
“Things are never gonna change around here, huh? Everything’s gonna be the same. EDSA will still have horrendous traffic. People will still die. People will still do bad things to each other. The streets will still rot, buildings will still decay. Nothing’s gonna change in the Metro.”
“It doesn’t have to change. It just has to be.”
“Be? Be what?”
“Be itself, Marissa. The Metro just has to be the Metro.”
“I guess you’re right. But things are better here when you’re not alone. Life here is better when you’re with someone.”
“Someone like you?”
“You’re gone.”
“You can be, too.”
“It’s lovely out here. It’s London out here. You’ll love it! It’s cold! Come with me! We can start over! We can start a whole new life, we can be whoever we want to be! No more pain. No more looking over your shoulder. No more Metro to drag you down to hell.” She says as she wraps her arm around my shoulder.
“I can’t. You know I can’t.”
“Jack…tsk tsk. I know you want to! Why else would you have your revolver in your hand?”

I look at my hands on my lap. I didn’t even realize what I was holding until she pointed it out. Is this my way out? Is this how it ends?

“London, huh?” I say. “I’ve always wanted to live there.”
“Then let’s!” she whispers to my ear. Then kisses me on the lips. I kiss back, one last time.
“I’ll see you soon, Marissa.”

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