A warm gust blew in from the south, the kind that brings with it foul smoke that dries the throat. It didn’t help my countenance that the morning sun was already as unforgiving as it had been all summer, and that sweat was running down my back and soaking the seat of my pants. Standing on concrete in the Manila heat in May is never a good idea, but today there wasn’t any choice.
I waited on the corner of Meralco Avenue and Onyx Road in what little shade there was for my mentor, Lucas Marquez. He disappeared into the corner building an hour ago but had not contacted me since. Never mind. Never mind that he went off without any specific instructions. Never mind that the onlookers beyond the yellow line had begun to take pictures. Never mind that the retrieval techs were late again. Dealing with them was not my job; she was.
She lay on the hot pavement like a discarded statue of the Virgin Mary, swaddled in flowing blue muslin. Her pale skin almost looked like ivory. Freshly curled hair framed her round face, and her rigid hands were clasped on her chest as if in prayer. But her wrists were bound together with a thick brown cord and where her face was turned slightly to side, a trickle of greenish fluid ran out of her cracked lips. And around her neck, the final sign, a small golden cross on a fine chain.
The fifth victim, Nerissa G. Soriano, 28.
The press had dubbed it the Virgin Killer case. It was not so much the murders themselves that grabbed attention, as more brutal ones had certainly been seen, but their ritualistic nature. All victims were poisoned and left supine on the ground posed like Soriano. And each had a gold cross on a chain around her neck that the friends and family would later swear was not hers. Never before had a killer so boldly left victims like this, and in high-traffic areas no less. The perversion of the Virgin Mary’s image invoked both fear and morbid fascination, to the chagrin of the NBI. By the third murder, everyone from casual bloggers to the president of the Philippines thought that the NBI wasn’t doing its job.
The case was given to the NBI’s Death Investigation Division’s ritual murders expert, Moluccas “Lucas” Marquez. He is why I’m here. He obtained the permit for me to participate in the case as a special consultant. I was nineteen and didn’t have enough criminology units to join the division, but they’ve needed me before and they need me now. Although how I got to this point is no bedtime story.
“Maccha,” someone behind me said in a low register. I turned around.
Close cropped hair, angular jaw, eyes that arched slightly upward. “Hi Agent Zamora. Are you doing the press conference now?”
“Yes,” she said in the same discreet manner. “And you can’t let anyone see you here. It’s lucky none of the reporters have recognized you yet.”
Trying to assert my relevance to the bureau’s spokesperson, I said, “Agent Marquez left me here and I was observing the crime scene.”
She shook her head. “Go find Lucas, and quickly. Hide your face. We can’t have any more bad publicity.”
I nodded and walked towards the corner building with my cheeks burning from heat and shame, despite years and years of various people, including myself, telling me that none of it was my fault. Bad publicity, indeed. Participating in a couple of ritual murders yourself can do that.
But I do wish they would let me forget it sometimes.
I found Lucas slumped on the floor against a post in the building’s lobby. He wore a creased white shirt and a deep frown, making him look older than his fifty years. I counted three coffee cups by his feet and another one in his hand. A couple of younger agents gave him the side-eye.
“You give cops a bad name,” I said when I was close enough to be heard.
He just chuckled. “Can’t break something that’s already broken.”
“That’s not how that saying goes.”
A shrug. Another sip of coffee. “Let’s run through the victims.”
“Don’t you want to go to the office before we do that?”
Sip. “No, here, here is better. Here is action. Here we visualize.” He drained the cup.
I fished out the tablet from by satchel, tapped the file labeled 2014-27643, and began to rattle off the case notes.
Buena Vista, Agusan del Norte, 2001. Do you know what it’s really like to be afraid? I was standing on the tips of my toes trying to see over the low wall that enclosed the sacred space in the middle of the clan’s village. The forest air felt cool on my bare arms and legs. I could see the Elders gathered around the raised stone table, their faces illuminated by an old gas lamp. The cicadas were singing too loudly and I could barely hear what they were saying. An old skull was set in front of the seer Aurora, and she stared into its eye sockets as if the truth of the universe was being shown to her there. Then she raised her head to the sky and said, “A caelo usque ad centrum.” A caelo usque ad centrum, the other Elders murmured in reply. We all knew those words. There was movement from the left as a man led two blindfolded figures into the clearing. One was tall, a grown woman, in a red dress. A weight dropped into my stomach as I recognized the smaller figure, a girl. Estrella. She and her parents became one with the clan two full moons ago. What were they going to do to her? The unfamiliar woman seemed sickly and swayed where she stood, and heaved twice as though she was about to vomit. Aurora came forward and pressed the handle of a long curved knife into Estrella’s right hand. “You of pure body and mind are here to absolve this woman from her sins of the flesh…”
“Maccha, your thoughts, please?” Lucas said, lightly tapping his pencil once on the top of my head.
I shook off the night memories and Lucas’ dingy Taft Avenue cupboard of an office came into focus. There was laughter outside, undoubtedly other agents enjoying an afternoon break. Lucas’ assistant, the increasingly ferret-like Joaquin, was nowhere to be found.
“Religious fanatic, highly organized, probably has an accomplice. These don’t feel sadistic or sexual at all. The perpetrator doesn’t want to do all this but is compelled to,” I said.
He nodded. “And the victims? Why them?” This was beginning to feel like a quiz.
“All were female, late twenties to early thirties. Three worked voice accounts at nearby BPOs, two were unemployed. Beyond that, nothing obvious, they lived in different parts of town, went to different universities, and none of their social circles overlapped. Cause of death is the same for all five cases, arsenic poisoning. Dump sites are spread across a wide area, so the killer is mobile. As for the why…” I left that thought hanging.
Lucas closed his eyes and sighed. “The perp’s also knowledgeable about security cameras, because we haven’t managed to get anything on that end. Why are the dump sites in these BPO hubs? Everything points to the perp being obsessed with the Virgin Mary. Shouldn’t the sites be a little more… Orthodox? A church or a grotto maybe?”
I thought about that too. “I think it’s because he or she thinks that these places have become unholy. By placing the likeness of the Virgin Mary there, these places are being purified. It’s all about purification and a return to the sacred. That’s what they, well we, did before, you know.”
He nodded. “We need to know the point of contact with the perp.”
“Maybe it’s online,” I said.
“Intelligence is trying, but the initial report said that their social media presence seems completely normal.” From his tone I could tell that he didn’t really know what that meant and couldn’t really bring himself to care about cyberspace.
The week wore on. It was the summer vacation so I was free to spend my time at the NBI, although that wasn’t always a treat. Dark stairwells, endless halls with cracked and peeling paint, and far too many people. Those who knew me gave me curious stares and stayed away, those who didn’t tried to be too friendly. I didn’t know which was worse.
They found the sixth body at the close of May, a 30 year-old BPO agent named Trina N. Salazar. On the same day a break came in the form of the second victim’s sister, Angela Calayan.
“She wasn’t a bad person, my sister, she worked really hard for all of us. I didn’t want to tell you earlier because I just wanted her to be at peace,” she said nervously.
I watched the interrogation from behind a dust-streaked glass wall. Psychological disorder? Drug trade? Local terrorism? What?
Angela clasped and unclasped her hands.
“Go on, Ms. Calayan, I’m listening.” Lucas.
“She was what you would call a PSP.”
Lucas sat back in his chair. Finally. A motive. A personal service provider, cyber-speak for prostitute, is an extremely high risk individual.
“And did she advertise her services openly?” he asked.
“She was on this website–” She handed a post-it with a URL on it “–and went by the name Untamed Ellie. But she did have photos on her profile, eyes blurred, but I guess you would be able to recognize her from that.”
“How did you know all this,” Lucas said while looking at the address.
“She told me everything. She was afraid of her clients sometimes, she would always tell me exactly where her ‘walks’ were so I could find her if something happened. But that night, nothing, she didn’t text me at all. Then she went missing for a few days and…” Angela swallowed and fought back her tears.
I turned away from the room. Punishment for sins of the flesh. My little flashback wasn’t so far off after all. They might not all be PSPs, but the first victim was a single mother and the third had been living-in with her boyfriend. They’re all sinners to a religious fanatic’s mind. But how did the killer find them? We needed all their online records. I hoped against hope that the NBI’s intelligence unit could give us something soon. The perp didn’t look even remotely close to being finished.
I walked into Lucas’ office on Saturday and found him with Zamora staring at the department’s crumbling whiteboard. There were seven cups of coffee on the table. Zamora didn’t drink coffee, and Joaquin was still out, so in all probability Lucas was close to a caffeine overdose. But at least he was still standing; disheveled, testy, but standing. Written in red ink on the board was:
1. Risa T. Soriano, 31. Unemployed, single mother of three. Reported missing February 1. Found in Bonifacio Global City on February 3.
2. Eleanor N. Calayan, 25. BPO worker, single, no children, lived with her sister. Reported missing February 10. Found in Bonifacio Global City on February 12.
3. Patricia C. Aranas, 29. BPO worker, single, no children, lived with a boyfriend. Reported missing March 7. Found in EDSA Central on March 9.
4. Emily F. Ferran, 26, BPO worker, lived with parents. Reported missing April 18. Found in Ortigas on April 20.
5. Nerissa G. Soriano, 28. Unemployed but sidelined as a multi-level marketing agent, lived in a boarding house. Reported missing May 20. Found in Ortigas on May 22.
6. Trina N. Salazar, 30. BPO worker, estranged from husband. Reported missing May 29. Found in Bonifacio Global City on May 31.
Beside each name were two photographs: the woman’s photograph used in the missing persons report, and a crime scene photo of the body when it was found. I remembered the day they forced me to look at crime scene photos like these, lifeless bodies that seemed to ask so many questions but give very few answers. The more I stared at the images the more the sound of their bodies struggling and the scent of their fresh blood came back to me. I wasn’t nauseated. I wasn’t afraid. I was just right back in my childhood.
Setting my bag on my usual chair in the corner, I asked, “Where are the online records?”
Agent Zamora turned to look at me; she had deep dark circles under her eyes which were unsurprising. The media backlash against the bureau had been even more relentless in the past few days.
“On the table. Feel free to peruse. Intelligence says that they all applied for jobs in a series of BPOs. They have three in common. And oh, the fifth vic was also a PSP. She was in the website Calayan’s sister gave us.” She turned back to the board.
E-mail addresses, social media accounts. Inbox after inbox yielded little.
Calayan’s and Soriano’s PSP profiles were dripping with the usual acronyms. Untamed Ellie’s “Do’s” were BBBJ, HJ, FK, GFE, DATY, CG. Soriano, a.ka. Persuasion, was a little more adventurous, with MMF and PSE on her tab. Both charged upwards of 5000 pesos per “walk”.
There were also copies of their JobStreet and LinkedIn profiles and histories. The three BPOs they had in common were Sykes, Stream, and Accenture. But these were extremely large companies with thousands of employees, so there was not much to go on. More pages. I took a quick trip to the floor’s water dispenser, found it empty, decided to hold the thirst in for another hour. On the way back, something hit me with the force of a cartoon piano falling on a wide-eyed anthropomorphic cat.
“REPENT!” I shouted when I got back to the small, stuffy room. The air seemed heavier now than when I first walked in, or maybe it was just the blood pounding in my head.
Lucas and Agent Zamora looked at each other nervously. I rolled my eyes. “I’m not having another breakdown. R-E-P-E-N-T. Look at their names. The perp is literally spelling out repent.”
“Okay. Okay,” Lucas said with a furrowed brow. “The victims were picked out because their names began with the right letter and their profiles fit the perp’s idea of immorality.”
“So the perp was probably looking at lists of names, probably checking and cross-checking their information, and when one fitted the pattern he struck! This means access to sensitive information about them. Full names, educational background, e-mail accounts, phone numbers, addresses, personal records.”
Zamora voiced out what we were all thinking. “So human resources.”
“It’s likely that he or she talked about obsessions with sin and repentance at work,” I said, “Or kept images of the Virgin Mary in plain sight. This level of fanaticism is hard to hide.”
Lucas reached for his phone.
“And you need to hurry,” I added, “Because the word might be ‘repentance’ and we’d have four more bodies to deal with.”
For the next few hours, Lucas assigned his detectives to get everything they could about the human resource personnel of the three companies, and to figure out who’s a likely suspect given the profile we had. There wasn’t anything I was authorized to do at this point so I remained in the office, breathing in the stale coffee, old paper, and sweat.
Unlike on TV, there was very little chance that they were going to catch this killer in the few hours after we made the connection. Knowing where to look is one thing, finding is another matter entirely.
I felt thirsty again, but I found it hard to get up. I finally felt gloom and exhaustion settling over my body. My shoulders ached with the phantom weight of the deaths around me, and I asked myself again why I say yes to aiding in these investigations. Why I’m studying to make a career out of it. But of course I already knew the answer to that.
If I wasn’t on this side, I knew I would be pulled, helplessly, or perhaps willingly, back to the other. Because there are monsters that live in us, monsters that feed on sharp blades, wild eyes, warm blood, cold hands. Once they are awakened they do not rest. And in quiet moments I hear them moving inside me, trailing unbidden thoughts, making me fear what I know I can do. Making me fear myself.
Do you know what it’s really like to be afraid?