My best buddy Xavier always said, “If you have a hobby that you really enjoy doing, then do it.”

Before going out for a jog at 5 o’clock in the morning, I downed a cup of tolerably hot coffee to warm up my stomach while I watched the news on T.V.

For 24 years, I accepted the fact that news will always deliver disturbing and depressing stories, no matter what time or day it is. I watched with disinterest, regretting not applying for that cable T.V. connection, until the news started to feature a familiar place.

I cranked up the volume a few bars higher, and my body leaned towards the screen.

The good-looking female reporter wore a solemn look to imply the graveness of the news she was about to tell.

“In Bacoor city, authorities are struggling to keep up with the increasing reports of missing people…”

So this is the reason why there were fewer people jogging outside for weeks. A year ago, it seemed like the fitness trend made people rise early for a solitary morning jog before heading off to work or school. Now they’re mostly in groups of three’s, sometimes two, but rarely ever alone. It’s stressful for me; it’s more difficult for an awkward guy like me to strike up a conversation with a group.

A man clad in a blue police uniform appeared on the screen. His face was dispassionate, not minding the microphones and reporters that surrounded him.

“We are currently reviewing every angle on this issue--”

I turned the T.V. off. I laughed dryly at the policeman’s statement. As if that would calm the public.

I went into my bedroom, grabbed the stun gun I bought at a bazaar and placed it in my pocket. Given the situation, you’d never know when you’d need it. The news was somewhat disturbing but it was not enough to keep me off from my new-found hobby.

I’m positive about that.

Heading for the door, I took note of my reflection in the full-sized mirror. I inspected closely, mostly due to insecurity and some for an objective look at my progress. I guess I looked pretty average, nothing to make heads turn or brows raise. I wore a black muscle shirt, a pathetic attempt at hiding the excess bulge I gained in the midsection since college, and grey nylon shorts. I had worn-out running shoes that my parents gave me 5 years ago for my footwear.

As soon as my foot hit the road, none of these things mattered anymore. My hobby fulfilled me; it gave me great satisfaction and boosted my self-esteem. I would not let anything hinder me from feeling unstoppable.

I started with a light jog and admired the tall and imposing trees of Fillenia Estate: A quiet neighborhood in Bacoor city where houses are literally blocks apart and streets are clean and empty most of the time. Fillenia definitely delivered its promise on its brochure, “A haven for the quiet.”

The best social contact you can have with your neighbors is intentionally short, intentionally dull conversations: Fillenia residents’ way of politely asking people to bugger off. In my opinion, even if these houses were built right next to each other, social activities in Fillenia still wouldn’t have raised a notch. The residents eerily minded their own business. Good thing Fillenia had tricycle drivers to act as a form of conversational relief in this neighborhood for me.

I picked up the pace. I felt my calves tense and sweat started to make contact with my shirt. I sucked in the cold air that hit my lungs like icy spikes. I started to worry about getting side stitches; I tried to shake it off by reminding myself that I’d been running for three months already. My body had improved enough to handle side stitches by now.

My path is now headed towards the other end of Fillenia Estate. This place could be aptly described as desolate, since even the delinquent kids from neighboring subdivisions won’t even get near the area. Stories about ghosts and otherworldly entities inhabiting the area made things worse, now even garbage collectors and tricycle drivers swore that they heard screams from the area.

I couldn’t blame the stories; the area is filled with unfinished buildings, ripe for horror gossip. The rumors from the tricycle drivers were that the buildings were supposed to be commercial tenements, but investors backed off halfway through completion. The project was abandoned immediately. The landfill made for the commercial area became Fillenia’s makeshift dumpsite for the lazy garbage collectors for a few years until the rumors of ghosts began to spread. Nobody from Fillenia cared about this, maybe because its 2 kilometers away from the nearest Fillenia residence and the putrid smell wouldn’t reach them.

My breathing a little heavy, I finally reached the desolate place. Hollowed-out buildings towered over me from both sides while cement and sand blanketed the road. I walked towards the dumpsite with my hand covering my nose. I should have brought a flu mask or a handkerchief at the very least.

Then I heard a loud thump behind me.

I turned around and saw a man holding his knees, groaning in pain. I intended to approach him but, remembering the news earlier, decided against it.

“Sir, are you okay?” I hollered at the man.

He just groaned in reply.

Damn it. The news I watched on T.V. earlier forced me to have second thoughts on approaching him. But it would seem suspicious to him or, most unlikely, to a passersby that I, the only person around, wouldn’t help him. So I approached him slowly, examining him in the process. The man was in his late 20’s or early 30’s. Stubble and sideburns covered half of his face. He was rather skinny. He wore a black shirt with no logo, denim jeans and brown boots. The top half of Marlboro red pack showed in his pocket. Maybe he’s from a rock band or something.

I hastened when I realized that his clothes couldn’t conceal weapons. Besides, someone who’s dumb enough to slip in this terrain while wearing boots is easily harmless. By the time I reached him, he looked like he had mostly recovered from the pain. Sweat had easily attracted the sands and cement to his black shirt.

He smiled weakly at me. “That was one hell of an entrance. I’m sorry if I surprised you.” I helped him up.

“I’m sorry I hesitated,” I told him. “The news has me a little paranoid.” For a moment, I saw his eyes registered a hint of surprise, maybe panic or maybe both. He regained his composure as quick as he lost it.

He offered his hand. “I’m Anthony, by the way.”

I took it. “Dominic.”

He limped towards an empty building near us. Not knowing what to do, I followed him until he sat on a window sill facing me with his legs stretched out.

“I’m really curious,” Anthony said. “Why the hell are you out here?”

“I could easily ask you the same question.”

He looked at me in the eye, as if calculating whether he should lie or tell the truth. After a few seconds, he lets out an exasperated sigh. “I’m a writer.”

“A writer?” I asked him.

“Of sorts, yeah.”

I'm no expert when it comes to lie detection or deciphering body language, but this guy was a walking red flag: he avoided my eyes, crossed his arms, his body slightly turned away from me and his pitch changed in his last statement. The man was not a good liar.

I casually placed my hands inside my pocket and discreetly probed for my stun gun. I commended myself a little for bringing my self-defense weapon with me today. I walked away a little, trying to put a little distance between us. “So what do you write about?”

“Ghost stories.”

I laughed. “So you heard about the stories here in Fillenia and decided to investigate?” He shook his head. “I’ve been here for a week now. Sadly, I haven’t heard any screams my sources promised.”

'He’s been here for a week?' I thought with alarm. 'How could a writer stay here for a week unnoticed? Tricycle drivers are keen to gossip but they never mentioned anything about a writer who came to write about this desolate area of Fillenia.'

“That’s a bummer.” I offered.

“I know.”

He jumped off the window sill and motioned for me to follow. He limped as he walked towards the stairs of the empty building we’re in. I know I should come up with excuses to leave, but if my suspicion was right, he might step up things dramatically. I analyzed the situation: if circumstances forced me to run, I’d have the upper hand. I’m in my running shoes and familiar with the terrain, while this guy wore heavy boots, smokes, and is limping slightly.

I considered that he might have hidden his weapon somewhere nearby and I didn’t know if my stun gun could save me from his attack, if ever he planned on doing that.

“Where are we going?” I asked him.

“I want to show you something.”

“Something?” I said as calm as I could.

He stopped and turned to face me. “Let me ask you again, why the hell are you here?”

“I jogged, got tired and decided to rest for a while.” I replied.

“Here? With this awful stench?” He asked. His forehead creased.

I shrugged in reply.

He chuckled. “You’re weird.”

We continued walking. He labored throughout due to his limp, murmuring something about arthritis every now and then.

We finally reached the third level of this building where he set up his makeshift base. Now I understood why I couldn’t see any writing materials on him earlier: he left everything in here. Looking around, I noted his laptop, bag, camera, pens, and notebook, but even with this evidence, I still suspected him. My instincts told me that something was a little bit off.

I walked towards the window and scanned the area surrounding the building. I saw a navy blue VTEC parked nearby. My heart sank. There goes my chance to outrun him.

I walked back towards him and he began booting up his laptop.

He grinned apologetically. “My laptop sucks. It turns off whenever it wants to.” Anthony turned to his laptop and keyed in his password. I took advantage of his distraction to peek into his open bag and what I saw made my heart sink lower than before: I saw a pistol inside his bag. My suspicions were right.

I closed my eyes thinking about how the hell it ended up like this. I just wanted to check the fruits of my hobby, now here I am, scared to death that everything would come to an end. I drew in deep breaths, trying to stay calm so I could think of a way out of this mess.

“Take a look.” He turned the laptop towards me.

I leaned closer and he paced behind me. My body felt suddenly cold when I saw the slideshow on Anthony’s screen. Twelve pictures of rotten dead bodies, one picture of a body for each slide, and every picture showed a man, eerily familiar, smiling at the dead bodies. It was apparent that the man was unaware that his picture was being taken, DSLR quality.

Then I heard a click. I didn’t have to guess, it’s the pistol I saw in his bag.

“Is this some kind of a sick joke, Anthony?” My voice quivered.

“I don’t know, Dominic. You tell me.”

I looked at him. Anthony’s smiling, victorious. He’s walking, his limp gone, while the pistol was aimed at my chest, trying to judge the best distance to take a shot.

“It’s pretty hard, you know, trying to get you to—“

I didn’t give him the chance to finish his sentence. I flung the laptop at him, which he dodged quickly. I used that moment to lunge forward and attack him with my stun gun, but I tripped on his camera at the attempt. I tried to get up, the stun gun still in my hand. I looked up and saw that Anthony regained his composure. The pistol still aimed at me.

“I thought you were something to be wary of, Dominic.” He pronounced my name with sarcasm. “But it turns out you are just like them, unbelievably stupid. Thanks for allowing me a self-defense angle on my report later.”

I saw his hand pull the trigger.

Nothing came out of his gun.

I attempted to attack him with my stun gun again, this time hitting him squarely in the chest. He dropped heavily, his eyes dazed. I hit him again for good measure.

I looked around, searching for something to hit his knees with. When I found no rocks or hollow blocks, I settled for his laptop, its screen badly damaged and some keys missing. I closed it and started to smash it on Anthony’s knees. Whenever he made a sound or tried to move, I just stunned him back into oblivion.

I returned to the dumpsite, the place where I hid the tools of my hobby and the dead bodies Anthony saw me smiling at. I took my time getting the things I needed: lying on the floor with his banged up knees, Anthony wouldn’t get anywhere. Shouting was futile; this was a place that nobody wanted to go. I checked Xavier’s body before heading back. I remembered fondly how he inspired me to continue my hobby, which started as torturing cats for fun.

A roll of duct tape and a huge transparent plastic bag with me, I returned to Anthony who had started to regain consciousness. I’ve always hated using sharp tools, they’re awfully messy. I preferred baseball bats, shovels or rocks with my hobby.

Since the victim today is special, I wanted to try something new: death by asphyxiation.

I checked his bag again and found a card identifying him as PO1 Jason Velasco. I shoved aside bullets I emptied from the gun’s magazine earlier and found a golden badge bearing the name and insignia of the Philippine National Police. So I was right all along. He was really an undercover cop, albeit an inexperienced one.

What concerned me is how he reached to the conclusion that I’d been dumping the supposedly-missing bodies here at Fillenia and how many from the force had actually responded to this theory of his. I checked out his notebook, flipped through the pages till I saw a roughly drawn mind map. It is hastily made but somehow it ended up concluding that the missing bodies must be hidden at dumpsites rarely passed by people on foot or in a vehicle. He had three suspected sites, one of them Fillenia’s dump site. From Fillenia, a line connected to “Ghost screams”. From “Ghost screams”, another line connected it to “Victims?”

I tried to suppress a smile. Boy, was I impressed! He was good but not good enough, considering the situation he was in. I checked his phone, no messages received or sent. I checked his files and saw a picture of him, to his left, a beautiful Chinese girl smiling brightly and an average-looking Filipino guy with an awkward smile to his right. It was the only picture on Anthony’s, I’m sorry, Jason’s phone. I wondered why he left that picture on his phone: was it a ploy to get my defenses down or was it just plain important to him?

I kicked him hard in the ribs “Hey, Jason!”

He let out a groan, his eyes stared back at mine with pure hatred.

“Do you recognize these guys?” I showed him the picture on his phone.

I enjoyed the moment when his expression of hatred turned into fear in an instant.

“Motherfucker!” He tried to grab at the phone but I easily stepped out of his reach. So they are important to him.

“I can have their bodies placed beside you if you want it that bad, you know” I offered. He just closed his eyes in reply. Tears started to roll down towards his ears. He kept saying “I’m sorry” in a way that assures me those words of apologies are not meant for me but to his friends. I shook my head. What a way to accept defeat.

I rolled him over and tightly rolled my duct tape around his wrists. He offered no resistance; he just kept on crying silently. I scooped up some sand and poured it over the transparent plastic bag. I rolled him back so now he’s facing me, his eyes shut. I placed the plastic bag over his head and taped the open end of the plastic around his neck. The plastic started to slightly bob up and down. This kill was so easy, so boring, so I offered him parting words before asphyxia took his life.

“PO1 Jason Velasco,” I started. “I admire your serene acceptance of death, I really do.” No reaction.

“But I can’t quite imagine how you could calmly accept the fact that I have the intention to ravage your beautiful girlfriend’s tight little holes while your other friend is watching me enjoy every thrust.”

I got the reaction I wanted: Jason opened his eyes, his face a mixture of horror and sudden realization. I don’t know what got into him, maybe love or sense of duty, but he has completely shed off his serenity now, struggling and squirming, doing anything to save his life so he could save his friends.

Jason was squirming so hard he was like a worm bathed with salt. I taunted him more by telling in detail my future plans with the Chinese chick and the Filipino guy. He squirmed harder. After a few minutes, the plastic bag and his body didn’t move anymore.

I hauled his body down to the dump site and placed him beside Xavier.

“I thought you were something to be wary of, Jason.” I said to his dead body. “But it turns out you are just like them, unbelievably stupid.”

It was 7 am on Jason’s phone. I placed the phone in my pocket along with my stun gun and started to jog away from the desolate place, away from my hobby. I smiled while thinking of ways to track down Jason’s friends, my final act before leaving the sleepy city of Bacoor.

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