June 23, 2019
Last of two parts
THE thought of killing Ricardo Reyes buzzed in my mind for the rest of the day. The hours passed slowly. I had trouble focusing on much of anything. My body felt sluggish all day, too distracted by the weight of what had to be done. Once the sun set, I couldn’t escape the fact that I was terrified.
Our group of four waited inside a narrow alley unlit by anything but the moon. We were two blocks away from the movie theater that Reyes had fired Papa from. We planned to wait for him leave his nightly bold movie showing and catch him on the way home. The alleyway reeked of piss, both animal and human. Plastic containers, candy wrappers and scraps of paper littered the ground. Presidential posters covered the wall. The man in charge looked down from his poster, promising me that Change is Coming.
I turned the safety off on my pistol. I’d never actually fired my gun before. Simon warned that at first my ears would be ringing from the blast. He promised I would get used to it.
“It’ll be just like the movies,” he told me.
As the hours crept by, I thought about those old movies. I felt stupid for being so afraid. FPJ wouldn’t have been cowering at the thought of killing another man. If someone deserved to die, then someone had to do the killing. If the police wouldn’t, then it fell on us.
“Here he comes,” said Simon. I didn’t know how long we had been waiting.
I could hear footsteps on the road beyond the alleyway. They were heavy and uneven. Slurred singing echoed through the narrow spaces of our village. Ricardo Reyes was drunk.
I looked to Simon and the other two men in the alleyway with me. I tried to read their expressions as they waited for their prey to come into view. The other two men looked scared, but focused. I couldn’t see any fear on Simon’s face. His mouth had hardened to a straight line, his brow stiff with concentration. For a second, I saw the same sad exhaustion in his eyes that he had in my father’s painting. But then it was gone, replaced by steely resolve.
Ricardo Reyes walked into view.
The bang of a gunshot filled the alleyway. I don’t know who fired but he missed. Reyes turned to us, cussing and tumbling over his own two feet. His eyes, glazed from the drink, seemed shocked back into horrified sobriety. I shot. The bullet hit his thigh, dropping him to a knee.
Simon charged forward and fired his gun thrice.
Reyes fell, his last words lost to a gurgle of blood.
“Run!” screamed one of the others. They shouldered Simon and I out of the way as they tripped over each other to flee from the alleyway. Simon held his ground, watching them run. He turned to me and said.
“You all right?”
I didn’t respond. My eyes refused to turn away from the dead body on the street. The air tasted of stale sweat and the sharpness of blood. I tried to think of my mother, and how I’d never gotten the chance to know her because of the dead man before me. Instead, I only thought of how black blood looked in the orange street lights.
“Come on,” he said. “We have to call the police.”
“Yeah,” said Simon, putting his gun away. “Who do you think’s paying?”
* * *
My father glanced at the envelope I placed at his side. “What’s that?”
“It’s for you.”
He set down his brush and pulled back the flap to peek inside. The envelope was full to bursting with cash. Simon said that we’d all received a bonus of two thousand each for how high up Reyes was in the drug trade. I placed eight thousand pesos of my money in the envelope.
Papa looked up from the cash and eyed my CPA T-shirt. He took a deep breath and I wondered if he could smell death on me. Did the gunpowder stain my hands as deeply as paint stained his?
He pushed the envelope away. “Your money is yours. You can keep it.”
“Come on, I know you need it. I have more than enough to spare.”
“I don’t want it.”
“Don’t be like that.”
“I said I don’t want it, anak.” He fixed me with a hard stare. “You may want to share your guilt with me, but that’s not mine to bear. Live with what you’ve done.”
My resolve melted under his anger. I snatched the envelope back and turned away. My eyes began to water. I sucked in a deep breath, trying to force the tears back. I didn’t say a word as I got up. Before I left, I went into my collection to find my mother’s portrait. She leaned against the edge of the page, her eyes downcast.
I folded the paper and stuffed it into my pocket with my pistol.
As I left, I realized that my father was painting me.
* * *
They let me stay at CPA headquarters, which was better than the trashy dump my father and I called a home. I felt safe at headquarters. I knew how dangerous things were now that the CPA were going after the drug lords. The police valued our help enough to not interfere with our business. The problem was that we had cornered the drug dealers and nothing was more dangerous than a frightened animal.
“I wouldn’t worry,” said Simon. “They’re running scared now.”
The first week after I left home, I dreamed of Ricardo Reyes and the blood bubbling up his throat. I watched him die in my dreams over and over. I tried to run, but I found his body lying dead on every corner. Sometimes if I turned the wrong corner, Simon would be waiting for me and the flash of his gun would go off.
The nightmares followed me through those first few months. I’d wake up sweating, wondering if someone had come to get me from a dark alleyway. It became a habit to sleep with my gun on my chest. Better to have it close by.
The money was good, though. After a month with the CPA, I was able to get enough to rent a small apartment in the village twice as big as my old house. I taped my mother’s poster on the wall. She slept more often these days, leaning against the edge of the page or wandering off toward the back until she was no bigger than a thumbprint.
I blamed Papa for that. His own feelings must have bled into his work somehow, infecting the magic that made his pictures move. It had never worked like that in the past, but he must have done something new to make it happen. Even from far away, he wanted me to feel horrible.
Even then, I knew that I was lying to myself.
Sometimes I thought about going home to see Papa. Just drop by to see what he was painting. It might have been nice to see what my portrait kept up to, what secrets it revealed about me. But then I’d see my mother avoiding my gaze, and I’d get angry all over again.
The bodies continued to drop. Simon and I went on more jobs, refining our technique. Instead of piling into a single alley, we learned to corner our prey. One person guarding each potential escape route, so that a bullet waited at the end of any path.
The new strategy worked.
We cleaned up the streets with blood. The criminals tried to hide, but they always came out of the cracks like roaches. I bought something new with each job. One corpse got me a new phone, another got me a television set.
Things always went smoothly for Simon and I. We got the target, called the police, and left before anyone could give us trouble. The other men of the CPA weren’t quite as skilled. Sometimes they made mistakes, and the wrong people died. I tried not to listen to their stories. It wasn’t my fault the others were careless. As far as Simon and I were concerned, we did a service to our village and we did it well.
After about half a year, the nightmares stopped. Somehow that made me feel worse.
* * *
The news thundered onto the television set at headquarters. The top story for the night involved two men who had been arrested for murder. The police chief had called a big press conference to announce the arrest and share the police’s findings. The chief stood at a podium far too small for his large frame as his bald head caught the light of the camera flashes.
The two men under arrest were part of a vigilante organization responsible for multiple drug-related killings. Among those deaths, a fourteen-year old student who had been shot three times. The chief gestured at the two killers standing handcuffed on stage with their heads hung low. He held up a black shirt for the reporters to see. It had “Citizen’s Protection Army” on it. Only then did I recognize the two men they’d arrested. They were the same two who had helped Simon and I kill Ricardo Reyes.
“Sons of bitches,” muttered Simon as he turned the TV off.
“What’s going on?”
“The police are getting heat for all the deaths so they take it out on us. Those sons of bitches.”
“So what do we do now?”
Simon took a deep breath, his hand on his gun. “Nothing. The work continues with or without those bastards.” He would never say it but I could tell that he was scared.
We waited for our target that night by a sari-sari store that he frequented. Simon and I positioned ourselves in two separate alleyways. We had a good view of each other, as well as of the store. Children came and went, buying soda and candies at the store before running off home before it got too dark. After the children came the drunks, shirtless and whistling at the woman behind the counter as they demanded beer. They settled around the store, drinking and being loud.
I moved to approach Simon to change our plans, but he held his hand up. He wanted to finish the job to prove that he wasn’t afraid. I sighed and stepped back into the shadows, waiting.
The obnoxious loudness stopped all at once. I glanced up to find the drunks had gone quiet. They looked to each other and got up to leave as two uniformed police officers walked toward the store. The officers laughed as they watched the drunks shuffle away. They went up to the woman behind the counter and ordered beer.
“Putang ina,” I cursed, hoping the cops would take their drinks and leave.
Instead, they sat down in front of the store to drink and laugh just as the drunks had. Simon and I must have waited for over an hour, but still the police officers refused to leave. Instead they kept drinking, happy to have the night to themselves.
Footsteps sounded down the road. I checked to see immediately if it was our target. It wasn’t. Instead, an old man came walking down the road. At first, I didn’t recognize him. In six months, it looked like my father aged a decade. The lines around his face had grown bolder. His footsteps now seemed more unsteady than before. He headed toward the store and I shot Simon a look. We had to abort.
Simon dropped his cigarette and crushed it. He stepped out of the alleyway and started to walk away.
“You!” called out one of the officers. “You’re CPA, aren’t you?”
They must have known Simon’s face because neither of us had worn our CPA shirts that night. The two policemen charged toward him, hands dropping to their holsters to draw their guns. I rushed out from my spot in the dark, gun raised and firing. I had the element of surprise on my side, but the cops moved too fast and I missed.
All four of us drew and bullets started flying. The initial bursts of gunfire got drowned out by the ringing in my ears until all I could hear were muffled bursts. My heartbeat pounded in my ears, and I started screaming as I fired at the cops. An eternity passed in thirty seconds. Then the policemen dropped dead.
Simon glanced at me, nodded then ran.
I started to run after him when a bit of movement caught my eye. An old man, leaning against the wall of the store, trying to get up. Papa had his hand at his side pressing against a bloody bullet wound. I would never know who shot him.
I ran to him.
“Anak,” he said, blood dripping from his lips.
“Pa. Pa, wait, don’t worry. I’ll call for help. You just have to hold on.”
He smiled and reached out to touch my face. I pressed his palm against my cheek, feeling skin rough with years of dried paint.
“It’s good to see you again,” he said before swallowing back a gasp of pain.
His hand began to fall from my cheek. I gripped it tight in both my hands before it could.
“No,” I said.
Papa’s eyes shut, the smile still on his face. He went still. Somewhere in the city, a carabao stopped chewing, a fiesta of dancers froze in place, and my mother cried a final tear before dying a second death. Papa blurred before me as tears started to pour. He looked like a washed-out watercolor, all light colors faded. I squeezed his hand tighter, feeling the years of work on his skin. My tears fell to the ground, mixing with my father’s blood as it poured out to paint the streets.
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