The man unbuttoned his jacket as he took three steps down to the main floor of the club. Before he could even reach the bar, Hank had already prepared a shot glass, poured the tequila and set the salt and lemon on a little plate. He then reached into the cooler, past the sea of ice cubes for a bottle of San Mig Light.
The man sat on the bar stool and started to mutter, “A shot of tequila please and…” And he noticed what was in front of him. “And a bottle of… beer.”
Hank smiled. “Looked like this is what you needed.”
Denim Jacket Guy didn’t even bother with the salt and the lemon. He downed the shot of tequila and quickly gulped most of the ice-cold beer.
“Another shot?” Hank asked.
“Make it two.”
An hour and four bottles of beer later, the customers in The Diabolical had started to pay for their bills and move to the nearest Starbucks, head home, puke in the alley outside.
“So, where you spending Christmas?” Hank severed Denim Jacket Guy another beer.
“Huh? Um, no. Not really. Family’s out of the country. I couldn’t get a visa in time.”
“You from around here?”
“Ummm, no. I’m from Quezon City. I’m house-sitting my aunt’s apartment here in Malate. She’s the paranoid type. Thinks someone will break into her house, so I’m now her security guard. But she was paranoid enough to take photos of all her stuff with her digicam, just so she can compare when she gets back and make sure I didn’t damage any of her stuff. Paranoid matrona, is what she is. At least, she gave me some `shopping money` to make it worth my awhile.” And he finished his fifth bottle.
Hank quickly took it away from him and wiped the bar clean. “Well, it’s mostly a quiet neighborhood, as long as you’re away from Nakpil and the other streets with the bars.”
“Yeah, quiet,” the man laughed nervously. “Can I have another beer?”
Hank placed the bottle in front of him. He gripped it, but didn’t drink it. He cleared his throat and looked at Hank. “Do you believe in ghosts?” he asked.
Hank smiled and just shrugged.
“I was a skeptic myself, but ever since I started sleeping in my aunt’s house two weeks ago, well, weird stuff started to happen.
“On my first night, these kids –three of them, I think—came to the gate of the house and started singing Christmas carols. They didn’t sound so bad. Sounded okay, really. So I went out to give them some spare change. By the time I got the gate, they were gone. I thought it was some crazy prank.
“On the second night, I heard them again. I looked out the second-floor window and saw them—maybe there were four or five of them. They were all dressed in nice clothes. They were looking up at me and were singing `Silent Night`, which was weird cause street kids usually sing carols in Tagalog. So, I went downstairs, got some coins and by the time I opened the gate, they weren’t there anymore.
“The next night, I came home from a gimmick-- that was around three in the morning. I was about to lie down when I started to hear this humming. Don’t know if I was just too buzzed with beer, but it sounded like the humming filled up the room, like some sound-surround THX stereo! I soon realized that the voices were humming the first chords of `Silent Night`.
“I looked outside and saw them. More of them. And that was the first time I noticed her.”
“Her?” Hank raised an eyebrow.
“Yeah, this little girl in a red dress, like she was going to some Christmas party. I don’t know if she was there during the first two times, but I saw her that night `cause she was standing in front of all the other kids. She was singing… and crying. I mean, she looked like she was sobbing, but she had the sweetest voice. Under the yellow streetlights, they looked… I don’t know… kind of pale? Kind of sick? Like they shouldn’t have been out that night but they just had to be there.”
He stopped and finally took a sip from his beer.
“I opened the window and told them not to go away; told them I was going to give them money and food. I rushed downstairs and, well, yeah, they were gone. I walked up and down that street and looked down the other side-streets. I yelled for them to come out, but couldn’t find them. My neighbor across the street woke up and told me to shut up.
“They just kept coming back, night after night. And every night, it seemed like there would be more kids, enough to fill up the front gate of the house; all of them singing `Silent Night` like it was the saddest song in the world. And every night, I’d see her –the girl in the red dress. She’d look at me, as if she wanted to tell me something, but had this great need to sing this song, to finish the song and maybe if she did finish the song she tell me that thing that she wanted to tell me, but she just never gets the chance to do so.
“The other night, I slept in the car in the garage, so if they do come back, I’d get to quickly run out the gate and catch them. It must’ve past four AM when it suddenly got colder than usual. I was about to go up to get my jacket when I heard the humming.
“I didn’t here any footsteps come to the gate, but there they were. I saw their feet and I saw the red shoes of the girl in front. I quietly walked to the gate and opened it! They…
“They weren’t there.”
He took another sip of beer. “They simply were not there.” He closed his eyes and gulped down the San Mig Light `til there was nothing left. He slammed the bottle on the bar. “Maybe when I get home tonight, I’ll be so plastered, I won’t hear their signing, won’t hear them even if they sang some blasted rock `n roll song.”
He suddenly noticed that he was just talking to an empty beer bottle. Hank had gone to the other end of the bar to serve a cup of coffee to a lady dressed in black. Hank came back and announced, “That’s my boss over there, Alexandra Trese. Owns the place and all the skeletons that came with it. She’d like to buy you a drink.”
“Um, sure. One more drink should get me drunk enough.”
Trese was in a black dress typically worn by Chinese wives when mourning; its fabric seemed to have been woven from the night sky. He looked at her eyes and her eyes were black pools where many secrets have been drowned and kept. She spoke in a hushed tone, as if offering one condolences after such a tragic affair.
“Good evening, I do hope you’re not driving home.” She extended her hand and they shook. He quickly noticed her strong grip and it made him worry if he was too drunk to even hold the next bottle of beer. “I heard you telling your story to Hank and would like to know where you live.”
He laughed. “Why? What do you have in mind?”
“Because the carolers you’re talking about might be connected to a case that I’m working on.”
“Oh, really? What kind of case?” he smiled and started to wonder what kinky stuff the lady in black had in mind.
“The police sometimes consult me on certain matters.” Trese said as she pulled out her cellphone.
He smoothed back his hair. “You want my number? Okay, it’s 0917…”
She shoved the phone in front of his face and on the phone screen he saw the picture of a little girl in a red dress. “Is this the girl you’ve been seeing at your front gate?”
He looked at the image on the phone and started to hear the humming of a choir. He gripped Trese’s wrist and demanded, “Where you get this picture? Who is she?”
Trese twisted her wrist and slipped out of his grip. “Her name is Mary-Anne Alvarez. She was last seen at the Magna Mall during the midnight sale. Ever since December 1, children have been disappearing in the malls of Manila. No ransom is demanded. No body is found.”
“Hey! I didn’t do anything! They just come to the gate and sing that damned carol over and over again.” He started to walk away, but his path was suddenly blocked by two men in dark business suits. He blinked and thought he was seeing double and soon realized the two men were twins. He also notice a glint of metal inside their jacket. Was that a gun? One of the twins said, “Answer the bossing’s question, please.”
He turned around and ended up facing Trese again. She asked in the calmest of tones, “Where do you live, sir? We are running out of time.”
He blurted out his address and sat back down at the bar.
Alexandra Trese started to walk towards the kitchen door, the twins flanking her, when she turned to Hank and commanded, “Everything he ordered is on the house. Make sure he sobers up before he leaves.”
Before he could even say thanks, Hank already placed a hot cup of coffee in front of him and Trese had disappeared through the swinging doors.
Hank smiled at him. “Seems like you’re going have a merry Christmas.”
***** *** *****
When he got home, it was far from being a silent night. Police cars were parked across the street and a crowd had formed in front. Radio and TV reporters were running around, trying to get comments from the neighbors.
He went inside his aunt’s house and quickly switched on the television. The door of his neighbor’s house was busted open. He saw bodies of children covered with black, trash bags being carried out by the police. He squinted when he saw a flash of red cloth from one of the bags. Was that her underneath that black bag? He wasn’t sure.
A very excited, very out-of-breath reporter on the scene was doing a recap of what just happened. “That’s right Korina, the PNP just RAIDED THE HOUSE of a certain MR. HANNIBAL CAPARAS and found the remains of OVER A DOZEN CHILDREN in his bodega. They also found video tapes of the children being forced to sing Christmas carols before they were brutally –BRUTALLY!-- murdered. The INTERNAL ORGANS of the children were FOUND in the refrigerator.
“We got a chance to take some footage of Mr. Caparas’s bedroom and THAT’S WHERE WE SAW SEVERAL SANTA CLAUS COSTUMES. Since all the children were last seen in the malls, the police can only surmise that Mr.Caparas lured the children using the Santa outfit.
“Mr. Caparas’s BODY WAS FOUND on the rooftop on a house six blocks away; HIS BODY RIDDLED WITH BULLET HOLES. No one has come forward to the shooting, but the police say some neighbor must have thought Mr. Caparas was A ROBBER, a member of the Akyat Bahay Gang.
“A neighbor, WHO REFUSED TO BE IDENTIFIED did say he woke up because of a commotion outside his house. When he looked out the window, saw a man in a Santa suit floating –YES! FLOATING!—or probably running very fast on the rooftops of the houses. He was followed by two men and a lady –YES! A LADY DRESSED ALL IN BLACK! They all kept running and was soon out of the sight of the said neighbor. If you ask me Korina, I think that neighbor had just TOO MUCH FRUITCAKE this Christmas! Back to you, Korina!”
He switched the channel to JACK TV and tried to not think about his neighbor. He was worried that he was too nervous and anxious to fall asleep, but before he knew it he was snoring and was dreaming of eating hamon and keso de bola with his family in San Francisco. The food and the dining table faded to a snow-covered park where a choir sang “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”.
He noticed one little girl who wasn’t singing. She just starred at him, smiled at him. The girl in the red dress slowly mouthed the words, “Thank you.” The choir started to hum a new tune that sounded almost like a series of beeps and chirps.
He woke up to the sound of his cellphone ringing। It was his family, calling from abroad, to greet him a Merry Christmas.
TRESE: The Choir
Story by Budjette Tan
Art by Elbert Or
Story by Budjette Tan
Art by Elbert Or