As a rule, said Holmes, the more bizarre a thing is the less mysterious it proves to be. It is your commonplace, featureless crimes which are really puzzling, just as a commonplace face is the most difficult to identify.
– Arthur Conan Doyle
This is not supposed to happen.
If was there anything I could count on, it should have been my people’s lethargy. They are slow to move to action, suddenly to burn with nearly explosive force and then to burn out again quickly. We can go insane with rage – mag-amok – the word from which ‘to run amuck’ is taken. The frenzied Malay. In the heat of murderous passion, there is no guilt, no hesitation, a man is gloriously free.
But until that moment, they will endure. They will bottle it up, they will trust that in the end God will account for all in all balance.
“He looks scared, Berto.”
The other, taller Guardia furrows his brows to look at my face, then grips his rifle with both hands. “How do we know you are not the thief?”
“If I were the thief, why would I be waiting here?” I reply.
“It is much easier for a well-dressed man to be a thief. No one would suspect him,” Juan adds. His face is broad, dark, and thuggish. “If he runs, we should chase him.”
I nod. “Wise.” That was surprisingly insightful, I did not expect it from someone with such a thug-like face. Have I actually met that rarity, a competent man of the Guardia Civil?
Damn it, now I cannot even go off to look for the boys. Them… I do not even know what they look like. [Googol] why are you so useless right when you are most needed?! I need your knowledge less than a dog’s nose!
All right, fine, so I have been too arrogant throwing money around! Boasting as if it were my own, the knowledge others have earned with their own hard work! There are some things that I cannot solve by myself! Just because it is my dream to see this nation strong does not mean I have the power or the right to treat people as mere tools to my goal. Of course there are things beyond my control!
Now please! You have made me care, I am afraid – please, help me!
You do not live here, spirit of the twenty-first century! But if I cannot save even just these two boys… if this little thing fails, then how can I hope to succeed in the greater trials? I do not know what happened, what has changed in the inexhorable march of history? Do not do this to me!
You do not need to teach me humility.
I can hear it.
What is that? I recall that in Rizal’s work, Basilio learns of his brother’s death through a dream. In this time, we believe that premonitions come to those who need them. The skepticism for psychic phenomena you have shared with me, but hardly can I discount such a possibility when I am a living a persistent psychic phenomenon.
Basilio… has a very open mind, strong and resolute even in its youth. There – a distant whisper – I can feel it. He is alive, and he is afraid. What of Crispin, the younger? Is it still his fate to die early? No… Basilio is concerned, not grief-stricken.
I exhale in relief.
So I see. My mission, therefore, is to find them and place them under my… under Maria Clara’s protection, before someone causes them harm. But I cannot do that without first finding out what has happened.
“So be it.” I nod my head. I slap at my thighs and pick up my cane. “Well then, I suppose I should go with you! But it would be pointless to come here and not go inside, so take me with you to make sure I do not run away.”
While Juan has that odd sensibility that could only be self-destructive in these times, Berto is more practical. He knows there is little he can do to stop my intrusion into their investigation because they are not here to investigate. They are here as proxies for the unspoken war between the alferez and the curate as masters of this town.
I smile thinly. And just because I might find them interesting, does not mean they are not actually horribly abusive people in their own time.
Better if I have these people at my back than in front of me.
This is not possible.
It is the late afternoon, there should always be something going on in the rectory. Someone should at least be waiting in case there is a visitor looking for the parish priest. Someone should be looking to tend the church’s goats.
There is blood in the dining hall.
Damnation! If I make a prayer “Please let not that boy die”, what sort of useless angel would think brain damage is good enough?! This had better be not that boy’s blood.
The offering box is here, and it is empty.
“Should we start asking you to turn out your pockets, señor?” Berto quips.
I let out an amused ‘heh’. “My pockets are not big enough for this.” I rub at my chin. “This is strange.”
“Murder usually is,” Juan comments dully.
“Nobody is here, this makes no sense!” I hiss through my teeth. The boys are safe, but they are not here. I can feel it in my bones, this is my mission. How glorious it is, to live a life with meaning – how annoying it is when said meaning is locked behind compulsory stages!
“Why do you think that, señor?”
“From what I have heard of Padre Salvi, he is a very constientous person, you know? From the outside he looks like a frail man suffering from self-inflicted starvation, but inside those sunken eyes you can almost hear his mind going click-click, everything in its proper place, click-click, you might think a man like that has no strong feelings, but you can’t try to be a saint without strong feelings.”
“Surely!” Berto haws, “what a fine thing it would be for San Diego to have its own saint!”
“Everyone in their proper place under heaven. But a saint isn’t afraid to suffer the ills and the contempt of temporal powers. No wonder the alferez and the cura butt heads. I do not think it was the same during Padre Damaso’s time. It would be a pain to live with a saint, don’t you think? They always expect the most out of people.”
Juan the Guard squats and runs his finger down the floorboards. “The alferez would catch a sacristan sometimes, and order him to clean our barracks. It’s the only time the place gets clean, really-” He looks up and says still in that bland voice that unintentionally sounds impudently judgmental to the ear, “then the cura would fine him for abandoning his duties.”
I chuckle. “Saints sure a troublesome existence, yes?”
“Señor? Should you be saying that in this place? That sounds like…” Heresy, he mouths out. Ibarra, now he remembers, was I not the son of the man cast out for being a heretic?
“Oh please, like the alferez himself sees it is only convenient to pay to have a saint pray more efficaciously for his sins. Him, and I, and you, we are men comfortable in our skins. Do not worry about it. I do not mind you hearing it from me, because only women delight in gossip. Are we not men able to speak freely to each other?”
For a change, Juan says “I have nothing to say.”
“Heh.” I lean against the wall and put my hands in my pockets. This would be a fine time for a cigar, specially since tobacco is one of the Philippines’ main exports. It is a manly habit in these times. Unfortunately I know better, it is a filthy habit, and I will not approach Maria Clara stinking of fumes.
“… why would they all be away? Someone should have remained behind.” I begin pacing around the bloodstained ground. “With this table disturbed here, it looks like someone was injured hitting their head against it. If there was a body here, it would have been moved. So why would there be no one behind to answer or at least delay questions?”
Berto points out “You were here.”
I wave that aside. “There are plenty of people who can witness that I have just arrived from the cemetery. Whatever happened here… this blood, it is dark. It happened hours ago.”
The dining hall is a simple one, with wooden tables and benches. It is lit by large windows with grilled wood shutters, and hanging from its ceiling is a candelabra. Sunlight is streaming and rebounding off the whitewashed walls. Damn it, Rizal, this is a far too positive an atmosphere for a murder mystery.
“It could be tulisanes!” Berto suddenly cries out in alarm and raises his rifle. “They are all gone because they are being held hostage!”
“In the middle of the day? How?” Juan blandly objects.
Berto starts pointing at the exits with his rifle. “Or… maybe they are all stabbed to death, and locked in a room somewhere. Maybe the bandits are still here.”
Juan points at me at me again. Berto follows, aiming at me with his rifle.
I groan but carefully keep my cane pointed away. “If you must accuse me, know that in a crime, the one who fits the three Ms is most likely the culprit. The Means, the Motive, and the Money.
The means – how could I have done this, when I have only just come from the cemetery on the carriage? The motive – what reason have I for doing this? I am wealthy enough that the offerings after mass are nothing to me. The money – where is it?” I pat my sides. “Offerings are mostly coins, I have a billfold of my own money. I am your ally here, not your enemy.”
“Maaaybe…” Berto lowers his gun. “What do you know about this?”
“Nothing. Who told you that a robbery has happened? When were you notified?”
“Should you be so asking so many questions here?”
“Why not? It is no crime to ask. Let us truly be frank with each other here, as uninvolved observers. I will owe you both each a bottle of good wine after this.”
Berto purses his lips, and then gives up to the shameless bribe, saying “One of the sacristan, early in the morning. But the alferez was asleep, so we waited. And then it is only now that he sent us off.”
Ah. It is a calculated insult, then. The alferez was trying to tell Padre Salvi; you who preach from the pulpit denouncing me as a person of degenerate ways, cut down your pride before you dare ask me for help. You have no power over me.
“I see. But this does not look like two hundred pesos missing from the offertory box. If this is a murder, then it I believe it happened in between that complaint, and now.” I look up. “Shall we look at all the rooms to see if there is a person conveniently tied up somewhere that could tell us what happened?”
Of course such a convenient solution would not happen.
After going around opening doors, we have returned to the dining room. I sigh as I slump on a bench. I am getting nothing from this place. This is a bit bullhockey. I have knowledge of what happens a continent away, but I have no post-cognition for something only a few hours past? Why is it that magic should have rules. Why do miracles allow for the possibility of failure? This is crowbites, [Googol]. This is blankshoots. Why are you so inadequate in moments of crisis?
Rizal wrote of my life as a tragedy, please do not change genres on me so suddenly.
“Something so close to a church should be holy, right?” Juan asks. Belatedly I realize he is asking me. “If the priest goes to sleep here, it should be blessed?”
“… no? The church is sanctified because saying the mass invites the Holy Spirit, but just any room isn’t made holy because a priest lives there. If it were that simple, saints wotuld not be a special existence.”
“We are not safe here. We should leave.”
Berto agrees. “The walls are eating people.”
I tilt my head. “Really? Really, gentlemen?” This is the conclusion you have reached on this bright sunny day?
“We should go,” Juan insists with rare force.
Berto shrugs, turns to me and says “I must ask you to come with us, señor.”
“Of course, of course, but someone should stay. If people knew there is no one in the church, would they not start stealing its treasures?” Aaand I can just see their eyes light up with opportunity. I narrow my eyes.
It really should be an unacceptable risk for this place to be so empty. There must be a non-supernatural explanation.
“Look, one of you has to stay behind and the other should accompany me back to your barracks to let the Alferez know about this, because of course I cannot clear myself as a suspect.”
The two guardia look at each other. Though they are cousins and old friends, they know that the one left behind would be blamed for anything missing. It is, in fact, inevitable. No one would believe their honesty.
On the other hand, it is well known that Juan was a person who rarely spoke to the point of being called dumb, better that than open his mouth and start offending everybody. It is always Berto who was expected to deal with people, he provided the muscle.
Juan, who is called Juan Bolok, depending on intonation meaning either ‘bull’ or ‘rotten’, nods. He is prepared to take the blame, his body is strong and his face already ugly. He has no fear of beatings or being made to pay fines. His is not a nature bent to cruelty, but expecting no mercy from others he is just an unwilling to give it to anyone under his hand.
He volunteers to stay behind.
In this place with the walls that are eating people.
This insight you offer me, spirit of knowledge, it is not just about technology and history, is it not? The soul is timeless, and it is through that connection that my mind is awash with extrasensory information.
I see. Small as it is, as unformed and mundane as it may be, even this young man with a face more like a boulder than a human being has a dream. Even though he may have committed more heinous acts than that poor gravedigger, for some mysterious reason it spurs from me more empathy.
The Dream is different from ambition. It certainly is not a desire or a craving for more things. It has nothing to do with greed or lust.
Who is the Alferez? The Alferez is a Spaniard, born in Spain, and sent to the Philippines through no virtue of his own. Broad and bellicose, and from him I do not detect the dream. This is a man who does not wish to break through into tomorrow.
Unlike Tiniente Guevarra, he knows how to play the game. Only a pure-blooded Spaniard can hold command higher than Lieutenant, and this is why Guevarra for his honor and long service is seen as a shame upon Spanish dignity. The alferez is a rank equivalent to sub-lieutenant or chevalier, and he rose through the ranks simply by being… accessible.
There are nearly seven million souls in this country, and only about eleven thousand soldiers to keep the peace. Forget police work. If the Guardia Civil were actually required to make the effort, they would die from overwork.
He is satisfied here in this town, for as town chief of the Guardia Civil is rulership is supreme; people plied him with gifts and flattery so that he does not feel any need to flex his authority. All except Padre Salvi; who has spurned all his gestures of friendship, and instead levies litanies about his sins. He detests this immunity like a little king of Italy grousing at the Pope’s lack of willingness to play nicely.
Even more than that; Bernardo Salvi is young tree, strongly rustling in the wind. Insuffrable. The Alferez, though also a peninsular, is like one tree already claimed by the tropical jungle, choked with vines and eaten hollow from the inside by termites. Yet if it falls, there will be no sound.
He married, while still but a corporal, a washer-woman of the Guardia Civil – a decision that he now deeply regrets. Though she is perhaps more conscientious in reading the reports sent to him than even he. For this, she is called the ‘muse of the guardia civil’, despite her nasty temper, able to command the men with all the authority of her husband who beats her. His life, once so conveniently at ease when not broken by the bitter haranguing of his wife, now sees as his only ambition to inflict upon Padre Salvi whatever small inconveniences he could ply. In this, the torment of their social betters, at least this sinister pair finds temporary conciliation. So goes the dreamless life of the Alferez Luis Gaspar Espina.
“A murder in the church?! Tell me more!” his aquiline visage lights up with interest.
Berto and I glance at each other. “Sir -“ he begins to say.
“I will hear Don Crisostomo-,“ he waves away the report of his own soldier.
Wow, really? I spend a few moments thinking about it, then it occurs to me that it is probably as much about institutional racism as that his men, deliberately trained to lack initiative lest there be another uprising, are appallingly inept at giving reports. Even a civilian could phrase things more easily for his ears. This is a man who does not disguise how he despises the men under his command, and it is well returned.
I cough into my fist. “Then with your permission, let me briefly lay out the known facts of the case –
To speak of my involvement in this case: I had recently arrived in San Diego from Manila, little more than an hour ago. After a brief visit at the cemetery, I had the carriage bring me to the church. There I had hoped to pay my respects to Padre Salvi. But seeing no one in the church, I had decided to wait outside in the breeze and watch the scenery of my hometown I had long missed. It was there that I met your two men, who had come to respond to the report of two hundred pesos missing from the church.
Fact one. The report was given in the early morning, while I was still en route. Therefore this case of the empty church and the broken offertory box is separate from the case of the missing two hundred pesos.
Fact two. I accompanied Guardia Berto and Juan inside the rectory because while I can prove that I was at the cemetery during the time this case might have happened, it is not something that can be proven in situ. Thus, I commend their shrewdness in not letting a suspect out of sight.
There we verified that there is no one inside the church or the rectory; not in the kitchens, not in the yards, not in any of the rooms. It was completely deserted.
Fact three. This makes no sense. Padre Salvi would not leave the church completely unattended. There are too many things to steal in the place, far more than just the offering box.
Fact four. The blood on the floor was dark and dry. It is several hours old. But if so, why was it not ordered to be cleaned?
Fact five. The broken offering box. Though it is conceivable that two hundred pesos could be stolen from the offering box after mass, the box is rarely left unattended. I have said that there are many more valuable things that can be stolen from the church – but offerings have one advantage. They are mainly coins and some small paper bills, much easier to dispose of than having to sell off gold and silver wares. So why only break open the results of the morning mass?
The breaking of the offering box could not have occurred at the same time as the blood on the floor, for the same reason as before – Padre Salvi or anyone of course should have picked it up and put it away.
Fact six. In a crime, the one who has the Means, the Motive, and the Money is most likely the one to have committed the deed.
From here on, I will speaking of my conclusions – they are not fact, but merely what I believe to be the most likely explanations for the case. Would you care to hear them?”
“Ha! Interesting!” He studies my face as he rests his face on his knuckles. Padre Damaso and this man are still good friends, if San Diego be a miniature of Rome in effect, then theirs was a rule of both earthly and heavenly authorities in perfect accord. This happy balance was cracked by my father’s arrest and death. The plague that is Padre Salvi; it is Ibarra’s fault. “Is this the sort of study you had done in Europe?”
He wonders now if I would become to him another painful annoyance. He does not have the energy anymore to deal with two precocious brats.
“I can say that I acquired these skills sometime before I returned to the Philippines.” Surprisingly, the distillation of all those detective stories and videos you have crammed into my skull has nothing to do with it. All mystery cases are completely arbitrary for the sake of tantalizing the reader. The Guardia Civil is nothing like . “May I sit down?”
“Go on,” he says with another wave of his hand. “Do not be coy about this, Don Crisostomo. With only having seen some blood on the floor, a broken offering box, and an empty church… without having spoken to any of the people involved… tell me, how do you find the culprit?”
I sit on the padded chair set next to the wall, lace my fingers together and lean forward, the cane head of the cane just under my nose. All you might see of my face are my eyes, glowering at you with the Kubrick Stare.
“We have several facts, but some of them can actually be discarded as part of the first event which forced the second to happen. The important thing is that we have completely empty building where a crime has occurred. Theft, murder, it matters not.
Padre Bernardo Salvi would not leave this place unattended.
Therefore someone should have remained behind.”
I raise and slam my cane against the floor. Berto, still standing in attention in front of the Alferez, flinches back in surprise. For this place is not the barracks; of course the chief would not stay with the common soldiers unless he needs to order them about. This is his home and I am attacking his floor.
“Who is that man that is trusted to man the fort in the cura’s absence? The suspect.
Who would break open the offering box? Someone who is left alone. The means.
Why would he do this? Because he is desperate to run and needs to be able to pay for things. The motive.
Why the offering box instead of the gold furnishings or anything else? Because it is easier to carry and spend. The money!
The only person who fulfills all these criteria is – “