For Kate and Ate Koko, the awesomest Intel-mates anyone can ever ask for.
And for Ma’am Chupungco and Sir Jun, who put up with us for an entire school year, which is a feat in itself, and who were always there to help us clean up after every mess.
Note that names were changed to protect the innocent. Those of the guilty, however, are an entirely different matter altogether.
We had brought food. We were late, but we had brought food, and that should have been enough for our classmates, or at least for our classmates' stomachs. Kate had for a moment caused some discord by saying that the food we had brought was chicken, as though she had forgotten where we had gotten our peace offering from- what we brought did not resemble chicken in any way, no matter how genetically-modified said chicken may have been.
“So,” said Benjie, forking pasta in his mouth the way not even one who has not eaten for three days can, “why were you late? You weren't able to go swimming!”
I wanted to go swimming, Christmas temperatures be damned. “Research.”
“What did you do?” He radiated honest curiosity. I doubted he would have bothered asking had Kate not been our groupmate.
“Well, we had to send our corals back to the Marine Science Institute,” Kate started, cutting up pasta and ignoring the meat on her plate. “And we had to finish our paper by today.”
“Ah, Intel,” Benjie said, quicker on the uptake than I had expected him to be, and that should have been the end of it all, only my mouth opened and I heard myself say, “It's all Ate Koko's fault!”
Ate Koko choked on her iced tea.
Igi plopped into the chair beside Kate's, perfect timing as always. “Why? What did Ate Koko do?” There was no this time. The this times of research were always reserved for me.
“Long story,” I said. No one insisted- there was food at hand, after all. I gave the slice of meat on my plate a tentative poke. It wobbled. I was glad to ignore it, and glad that everyone else seemed to appreciate it. We had gone out of our way to get them food- Kate had insisted, with an unusual amount of determination. Then again, you can't arrive late at a class party and not bring food, particularly because by the time you arrived there would be none left.
It was a long story- it had started in the early days of September. This was the year Hillary lost the Democratic bid to Obama, Beijing hosted the Olympics, and one of the Philippines' major TV networks ripped off Gossip Girl. It was a cold, heavy Tuesday morning and the streets of Manila had smelled of the previous night's rain, and 1 had been found dead, floating down the creek, as much as a dead body could float down the creek. If the rain had been slightly harder his corpse would no longer have been inside school premises. As it was, his foot had snagged on a rock, and he was stuck in the last place anyone, dead or alive, would have wanted to be.
Kate had shaken me awake. I had fallen asleep during my shift with our neoplastic corals, and our lab notebook's spirals left marks on my face just permanent enough to give my groupmates a chance to laugh at me.
“1's dead,” she said.
I rubbed my eyes awake. “Good morning.”
She repeated herself. “Jillian! 1's dead. He was killed last night.”
Her joke was so absurd I had to laugh.
We all knew 1, at least by the time the six-thirty news had rolled about. He was in my elective. He was my best friend's object of affection. He was my second-year classmate. He was one of the people I met during our freshmen orientation. He was killed by a batchmate over their common object of affection. He was the commanding officer of a sadistic cadet. The gossip spread more quickly than the panic. In this school, the easiest way to become an instant celebrity is either to get killed, or to fail the UPCAT.
Fingers pointed to his rival for X's attention- an unlucky fellow by the name of Y- like a compass to the north. The poor guy was dragged out of Ma'am Chupungco's STR class- Ma'am glaring daggers at the escorting guards all the while- and interrogated for three days straight. He was set free on the fourth morning. Smog had crawled into the campus the night before, and this time around it was Koko, called Ate on account of her 1991 year of birth, who relieved me of combined coral-and-Soxhlet-extractor duty, and delivered the news.
“Jill. Wake up.”
I turned my face away from her, and heard her strangled expostulation of frustration.
“Jilliaaan!!! They found another body this morning!”
I knew it wasn't a joke, this time. “Whose?”
“2's. She was stabbed to death here, too. The body was in the middle of the field, this time.”
I also knew I was supposed to shudder at the thought of being left alone in the STR lab in the dead of night. What I was supposed to do at the thought of being left in the STR lab in the dead of night with a murderer for company, I had no idea, but it was probably more extreme than shuddering, and definitely not what I ended up doing. I ended up having a smile on my face and the hopes of one who was aiming for Intel but wanted a break. “Does that mean we don't have classes today?”
Koko looked like she was torn between amusement and exasperation. I laughed.
Rumors flew thick and fast- the more material there was, the better. The killer was a student with a hate on CAT (both victims were COs). The killer was a teacher who had had enough of our batchmates' obstinacy. The killer was from our batch. The killer worked at the caf. The killer worked at the Ombudsman's. The killer was a mutated STR project crawled out of the creek. Y was set free. Y was still stuck at the Quezon City Precinct- Philippine red tape again. Y was being held for lack of any other leads. (Y had turned up halfway through his class's math long test, disproving the last two rumors and ensuring his second quarter math grade was both failing and a multiple of 2.)
The funerals were held within five days of each other. Most of the batch had turned up for both- parents tended to be less forbidding and more humane when death stared them in the face, probably in the hope that others would make the same considerations when their own times came. Stories were exchanged. The I-nevers. The I-wish-I-could-haves. The memories and the old punch lines and the what-could-have-beens. But even though no one, for the sake of tact or otherwise, brought up the whys and the who-could-have-possibly-done-such-a-
In the Admin’s dreams it is efficient, effective, easy to deal with: the epitome of excellence. It posted more guards around the campus, had school security check students’ bags for pointy objects, and forbade wandering around the campus at night, except in the case of the guards. After a week the guards had stopped guarding, I managed to bring a rather large kitchen knife to school so that we didn’t have to annoy our beloved lab tech every time we had to chop up siling labuyo for our project, and all was right with the world again.
The next death- or, more accurately, set of deaths- involved us, our sili juice, and the research lab's famous smells. The research lab is as famous for its smells as it is for the strokes of genius conceived in it. My class last year had the misfortune of taking every single periodical test in the research lab, and as a result all our scores had been significantly lower than everyone else's. We had all breathed more freely- both literally and figuratively- when the fourth quarter had rolled about, because that meant no more ongoing projects. Only someone had decided to turn the mice loose, tumors, extra tails, and all.
Ma'am Chupungco did not look happy when she called Kate, Ate Koko, and me to the STR lab, and I took this to mean that we didn't get into Intel. (The only other option was that we had exploded another Soxhlet extractor, and I actually thought I caught the distinct scent of capsaicin together with a new, oddly familiar stench. And then Ate Koko reminded us that we didn’t do any extracting that week. Part because we were still smarting from injuries, but still.) Only she took out not a rejection letter but a mouse cage, and that was when I realised what the new smell was. It was the odor of slowly decomposing rodent.
Ma’am Chupungco had a flair for the dramatic, no matter what she said- she placed the cage on top of the revered teacher’s table and managed to uncover it just when the electric fan blew the mingled odors of rat and capsaicin into our faces. Her facial expression was priceless. (It doesn’t matter what sort of trouble we got into- seeing Ma’am Chupungco’s facial expressions as we mopped up spilled capsaicin or rushed an unlucky member of our Intel team to the clinic for burn ointment was worth it all.)
She gave us a few seconds to look at- and smell- Z’s amazing decaying rats. (I knew whom they had belonged to, since I had once tried coaxing Kate and Ate Koko into feeding them siling labuyo just to see what would happen. Nothing happened, partially because their dorm manager threw away that week’s siling labuyo supply. It was a shame.) And then she said, “What do you have to say about this?”
I was startled. So were they, but I was more startled than they were because we all knew that if anyone was to be going around poisoning lab rats it would be me, and I didn’t remember doing anything this week, unless bringing the knife to school counted as doing something.
Kate’s facial expressions were better than Ma’am Chupungco’s. She looked at me. “You didn’t.”
“For once, we agree with each other. I didn’t. I really didn’t.”
Ate Koko turned to the both of us. “Jill, what did you do?”
“Nothing! Honestly nothing! I know I said I wanted to feed them siling labuyo, but you don’t actually think I’d do that- oh, wait a minute, you do…”
“Who else would have done?” asked Kate, and I was honestly stumped for an answer.
“We’re dead,” I heard Ate Koko say.
Ma’am Chupungco’s facial expression changed, but only slightly. “Who else could have gotten access to your extract?”
“Everyone, really,” I said. “It’s just there, in the bottle beside the sink.”
“You don’t have a locker?” (We were all supposed to have lockers in the lab.)
“Well… no,” Ate Koko conceded.
“We are halfway through the second quarter and you still don’t have a locker?!”
“Something like that, yes.”
Ma’am Chupungco forgot about the rats at hand. “Why don’t you have a locker?!”
The truth was that we just kept on forgetting to get one, but that wasn’t the kind of thing you said to your research adviser. Saying that you didn’t want to be the only one to blame if someone poisoned lab rats using capsaicinoids wasn’t such a good idea, either, and it was the only other thing I could think of.
Ate Koko saved the day. “We store our extract in the dorm once we´re done working in the lab. Iit’s safer there, too.”
Ma’am Chupungco remembered why she had called us to the lab in the first place. “So anyone could have fed the rats capsaicin?”
“Yup. And besides, Ma’am,” Kate put in, “we wouldn’t spend half a day extracting capsaicin only to poison Z’s rats. His project would have failed even without our intervention.”
Surprise of surprises, Ma´am Chupungco continued to allow us to extract capsaicinoids from siling labuyo. She even allowed us to take turns watching over our corals at night (we were the only re rchgeasroup that bothered to monitor their experiment twenty-four hours a day, but that was because our control group was dying, and dying fast). I took the graveyard shift the next Wednesday, mostly because I didn´t understand our Economics lesson and was willing to do anything to escape from the quiz, and 3 was found dead in one of the gazebos the morning after. Well, his body was found in one of the gazebos. His head had gone AWOL.
Kate was by this time seriously suspecting me of being a mass murderer. As a result she had categorically refused to accompany me to have our capsaicinoids analyzed unless Ate Koko joined us as well. I was tempted to ask her what made her so sure I wouldn´t kill them both, but common sense prevailed. Instead I asked her, ¨Who don´t you suspect, anyway?¨ expecting her to say everyone except me.
She said, ¨I suspect everyone except me and- nah, I suspect thee. I suspect thee so much I want to write to request that your hearing be scheduled so that it wouldn´t clash with Intel. The only thng that´s stopping me is that I don´t know who to write.¨
Ma´am Chupungco stopped allowing me to take the graveyard coral shift. She stopped allowing Kate and Ate Koko to take the graveyard coral shift as well, but there was the fact that she had said ”Jill, you are no longer allowed to stay at the research lab at night” a day before telling me that the same followed for my groupmates that meant that she did not think I was entirely innocent. Then again, no one thought anyone was entirely innocent- we had lost three batchmates, and they had nothing in common, no feature to indicate what the killer could have been targeting, except for the fact that they were (my) batchmates. The killer killed with impunity and at random, and that was the worst combination of traits in the world, if you were a paranoid public.
The second quarter exams came and went, and it might have been testimony to the effect of the series of murders that students were more worried about getting killed than they were about failing, but it may as well have been the laziness that came with the last year of high school. For the first time in recorded history the school gave us a sem break, but to everyone´s chagrin we were not allowed to enjoy this rare burst of freedom from stress and research the way we all wanted to- the last day of our second to the last exams was greeted by news of a fourth murder. 4 had gone to get a book he had left in the Boys´ Dorm lobby, and their legendary dorm manager was found him with his throat cut open right there several hours later. The jokes about 4´s Halloween luck spread as fast as the news did, but during this funeral the suspicions were louder than the reminiscing was.
By this time the news had gone out of the school gates, and the issue of security was snatched out of the Admin´s hands by those of the officials of Quezon City. The grounds were patrolled at all hours, both students and teachers ran late due to the fastidiousness employed in bag inspections, and students caught outside after dark without adult supervision were terrorized so thoroughly everyone scurried in the caf the moment the clock struck five, and though we all knew that this was just political grandstanding not a few of us were grateful for the additional safety measures, but that may have been only because more guards meant lower probability that we´d be next.
Things quieted down around the middle of November- it was research season, when no senior could admit to not doing anything without earning the ire of everyone within hearing distance, and we all knew that that was the only reason why we were spared, no matter what whoever in the city council said about better security. Kate, Ate Koko, and I caused a temporary panic by allowing our extract to evaporate. Truth be told, Kate had turned on the heat and left me to lower it, and I hadn´t bothered, not thinking it was necessary. The result was that the concentrated power of eighty grams of Capsicum fruticens was released into the research lab. We were forgiven when it was found that we hadn´t destroyed any project results, though Z never stopped reminding us that he was unable to photodocument that day´s results properly, on account of his having to run out of the lab with everyone else, coughing like crazy.
The Quezon City politicians relaxed their security measures, thinking the murderer would have lost his or her nerve by now, but unsurprisingly, they were wrong- we lost 5 and 6 the next morning. It was a dual murder this time- they had been talking outside when they were attacked. 5 went ahead by around ten seconds. Those ten seconds were enough to give 6 time to scream for help, but not enough to allow help to arrive, and by the time the rest of the world had arrived at the scene- and they were pretty fast, even for the school´s standards- the killer had gotten away again. 7 was killed a week later, as if the murderer wanted to show the world that the reinstated security measures had never been a problem. I wanted to make a joke about using the murders to keep track of dates, but that did not seem like a wise course of action at the time. Stress born of the continuous stream of research, physics, calculus, and murders filled the air with tension so taut the smallest thing could snap it, and I didn’t want to be lynched by my classmates.
The first issue of the school paper came out on the first day of December, and 8 was killed by silver nitrate several hours later. Kate had both the easiest and the hardest job in the history of the school’s editors-in-chief- she was never at a loss for topics to write about, but she had the additional task of handling said topics tactfully, for lack of a better word, and tactfully wasn’t something you could count on if Kate was involved. I had offered help with the tactfully, to which Kate said that I was no better at being tactful than she was.
“I was just offering!” I said. “I don’t want to be left with only one research groupmate!”
“No one would murder Kate,” said Ate Koko. “Once the murderer was caught he or she’d have to be protected from all of Kate’s admirers.”
Ate Koko then proceeded to enumerate them (the list filled two leaves of our research lab notebook- two leaves Kate had later torn out and fed to Z’s rats), which earned her a bonking on the head.
With December came cooler weather and research results. Our control group had died, the way we had always expected they would, and our treatment seemed to be working, which was more than the rest of the world could say about their projects. Ma’am Chupungco talked about sending us to Singapore and Taiwan early the next year, seeing as the Intel first-place slot was filled by another group. We managed to get permission to stay overnight in the research lab for our last ever coral shift, albeit permission only granted because 1. Ate Koko would be taking the shift, not me, and 2. someone else would be staying overnight as well. (That someone else happened to be Z, which made me glad that I wasn’t the one taking the shift. If I had to spend a night at the research lab with only Z for company it would probably end with me being a murderer.)
I woke up early the next day. It was probably the first time I had woken up early of my own volition in all my years of life, but then again we were going to bid goodbye to our formerly neoplasia-infected corals, the source of our research glory, and I didn’t want to arrive exactly five minutes after the people from the Marine Science Institute had picked them up. Due to excessive global warming rain had poured the night before, and I found myself trailing mud all over the corridors, wishing for breakfast.
I pushed open the door to the research lab, expecting to see Ate Koko taking our final measurements, headphones in her ears to drown out Z’s voice if he happened to be awake at the time. I was met with a smell that resembled that of cage of dead rodent, only magnified a hundred times, and Z’s open corpse on the almighty table Ma’am Chupungco stood behind every research period. He was more meat than person, only recognizable on account of the blubber that could only otherwise be found in the body of a blue whale. His intestines had been split open (which explained the smell), skin and blubber hanging over the side of the table, blood dribbling on the floor. Flies were attacking his insides with impunity, and Ate Koko was standing over one of the lab sinks, headphones in her ears, cleaning two knives.
She whirled around, fast as a bullet, and I wished I had kept my big mouth shut. I backed out of the doors and into Kate, my hands raised in surrender. “Don’t kill me! I’m your research groupmate!”
“Beloved research groupmate, what the hell-” Kate started, marching into the lab. “Ate Koko!”
Ate Koko had by this time dropped the knives, leaving running water splashing over them. “I didn’t intend to kill him! Okay, I intended to kill him, but I didn’t intend for it to be this messy! And you arrived early! I’m not going to kill you, Jill!” This last part was because I was still backing away from the lab door.
Kate dared venture further into the room. ”How... how did you do all that?”
“Angrily,” Ate Koko said. “Don’t tell on me, okay? Or at least let me go to the class Christmas party?”
I entered the room, walking across the lab to turn off the faucet and making sure to walk around the pools of blood. “Ate Koko, what are you going to do with the body?”
She threw her hands up in despair. “I don’t know! I told you I didn’t intend to kill him! This time I can’t just leave the body, Ma’am Chups knows we’re the only other ones here!” She leaned against the teacher’s table. “We’re dead.”
“Not really,” I said. “He is, though. Come on, let’s get to work.”
“Let’s get to work,” I reiterated. “We have twenty minutes before the people from the Marine Science Institute arrive, if they’re not early as well. Now, where is that stupid mop?”
“We disintegrated it, remember? When we used to to clean up the spilled capsaicin?” Ate Koko said.
“That’s okay,” Kate said. “I know what to do with the body.”
“Research,” Igi said, when we were standing by the table chosen to hold all the food- the shrine of the dinner hour. It sounded like swearing. “At least we have till next year to finish our paper. You have to get yours done by when?” He started loading food onto his plate.
“Next week,” I said. “And we just got our final results today! And Ma’am Chupungco takes an eternity to edit our papers. Not that I blame her, with all the work she has to do, but still.”
“Meat, Jill?” Igi offered a spoonful to me.
I shook my head. “No thank you.”
He turned to my two groupmates, who both rejected the food they had brought. He shrugged, dumping the meat on his plate. “Your loss. Good thing you thought to feed us.”
“Good thing we’re not aiming for Intel. We just want to graduate.” Benjie spoke with his mouth full. “Where did you get this from, anyway? Too much fat for my taste.”