IT’S HIM AGAIN. This is his third call already, he said to himself. He grabbed his mobile phone. “Hello, Ariel. Yes?”
The voice on the other line sounded tensed and scratchy. “Jeric! I’ve been calling you for a number of times earlier. Did you get it?”
“Yes, I did, Ariel.”
“You’ve read it?” Ariel asked.
“I just skimmed through it. I’ll read it when I get home,” Jeric said, his hand rubbing his chin.
“You’re fine with it?”
Jeric sighed. “I’ll tell you tomorrow, Ariel. What’s the hurry?”
“Really sorry to bother you, Jeric, but ah…”
“Could you call back, Ariel? My son’s calling me,” Jeric interjected.
“Yeah, sure, Jeric. I’ll just wait for your call.”
Jeric almost threw the phone to his table. He silently rebuked himself for answering the call. He sat back to his table and tried to get back to his work. His eyes now glued back to the monitor screen, another sound disrupted his concentration. It was another call. He grabbed his mobile phone.
“Yes, Chief,” he said as he heaved another sigh.
“Jeric, are you finished with the draft?”
“Ah…actually,” he said, then paused, coughing out violently. He cleared his throat. “Sorry, Chief.”
“You feeling well?”
He cleared his throat again. “Yes, yes, Chief. Ah, as I was saying…I have actually finished the draft, but I need to review it again.”
“When can you give me the draft? I need it by tomorrow.”
“All right, I’ll give it to you tomorrow afternoon.” He felt another urge to cough, but tried not to. Then, abruptly, he felt a strong itch in his throat.
“Are you feeling OK, Jeric?” the Chief repeated.
“Yes, yes, Chief.” By now, his voice sounded hoarse. There was a frog in his throat.
He was cursing again as soon as he ended the call. “I should have turned off my cell phone,” he was muttering to himself. He bent down, and spat out the phlegm into the thrash can below his table.
It was already half past ten of that Sunday evening. And he still had not eaten his dinner. He stood up and stepped around his table. His hands on his hips, his body straight, he inhaled deeply, then exhaled. He did this breathing exercise for two minutes. Yawning, he began to feel sleepy. He looked back at the pile of papers on his table, then gently shook his head. “They’re really unbelievable. Hypocrites. They’re good at it, showing off their immaculate appearances. Deep within, they’re full of worms!” he said silently. He walked to the window which overlooked the business district of the city. He loved this view of the city. Every night before going to bed, he would peek through the window, standing there for at least half an hour. His eyes would roam throughout the business streets of the city, admiring the shapes and lights of the modern buildings, or skyscrapers as they were now called, that lined Ayala Avenue. The city had, indeed, made great progress in the twilight decades of the last century.
Jeric had been living in the city for five decades already. He knew the city like the back of his hand, its ins and outs, its viscera, its entrails, its good side, its darkside. He knew its history. He knew the city’s original inhabitants as well as those who had transplanted there. And he was a witness to the city’s rise as a financial powerhouse.
Back in the sixties, the avenue consisted of just a few mid-rise buildings. Almost all the areas surrounding it were full of bushes or grasslands. At the southern tip of the avenue, which bordered the circumferential road-highway, formerly known as Highway 54, later re-named EDSA, there were already a cinema, a supermarket and some trickling of establishments. Beyond this area, across the highway, there lay the residences of the aristocratic, the private subdivision named after an American, William Cameron Forbes, a governor-general in the early 20th century Philippines. Forbes Park, as it came to be known, was the home of the powerful and the mighty, the prominent and the wealthiest. This gated community was the first village developed by one of the most powerful families in the land, the Ayala family, whose ancestors descended from Spain. Already well-entrenched in business as early as the onset of the Spanish colonization, the family displayed tremendous amount of foresight in developing the areas—which it owned—that were adjacent to the posh village. Thus, nearby villages were created as exclusive residential communities too; they were later populated by the rich and famous. In the vacant grasslands, careful, thorough and ambitious planning was done on how to develop and transform these wastelands into a bustling center of business activity. The best engineers and architects were hired to put into reality the blueprint of a modern financial centre—the hub of business, the home of banks, stock markets and other financial markets. In the seventies, huge corporations, businessmen and investors took notice. Soon, first class or five-star hotels found their home in the city’s best confines. Big businesses put up modern edifices in the sprawling business and commercial district. Shopping malls began to rise. In the eighties and the nineties, almost all major businesses in the country found the force of the area’s magnetic field too overpowering to resist. To be located in the city’s business area was synonymous with prestige. Near the turn of the century, the family developed the city’s center (known as “Ayala Center”) as a “mixed-use industrial development” flanked by the major business avenues (Ayala Avenue, Makati Avenue, Paseo de Roxas and Sen. Gil Puyat Avenue)—this had come to be officially known as the “Makati Skyline.”
Well into his late sixties—he was a widower—Jeric had decided to live the remaining years in his life in the city. While most of his friends, who were of the same stature and age as him, opted to live somewhere in the quiet atmosphere of high-end subdivisions away from the choking traffic flow that engulfed the major thoroughfares during rush hour, Jeric chose the opposite. In fact, he loved being caught in traffic in city; he loved seeing the hordes of the city’s workforce driven to madness travelling to or from work—he loved seeing the multitude of reactions displayed by ordinary labor force during that particular hour of the day. These were the scenes he enjoyed best. At times, when he found himself wedged in gridlock, he would—after commanding his chauffeur to just proceed home and meet him there—climb out of his car, then walk leisurely along Ayala Avenue, like strolling in the park. The daily sidewalk crowds at the famed avenue were something of a kindred spirit to himself. Oddly it might seem, Jeric drew strength out of the scenes he would behold along the way. He also would join groups of commuters that crowded around a street food cart parked near a covered bus stop, partaking of the mouth-watering fishballs or squidballs and relishing their tastes. Once he reached home, which was at the posh condominium that stood at the corner of Ayala and Sen. Gil Puyat avenues, he would dismiss his chauffeur (who would report back to him the next morning) and proceed to spend the rest of the evening alone in his condo unit at the 20th floor.
His mobile phone suddenly rang again. He swung around and strode to his table. It was his chauffeur. A missed call. He put the phone down, deciding it was time to sleep.
Monday morning, start of the work week. He arrived early in the office, intending to finish the task he had promised to give to his colleagues. Around lunch time, he stopped; they were to have a meeting at around half past one in the afternoon. He had already printed the paperworks needed. But then, his cell phone rang. He grabbed it, talked to the caller, then decided to leave. He would not attend the scheduled meeting. He talked to his staff personnel, informing them of an urgent matter he needed to attend to. It was an emergency. He directed his confidential assistant to relay his message to the Chief. He left his chambers in a huff, dialed a number on his mobile phone. In a minute, he was at the drop off area in front of the lobby of the imposing building of his office. Soon, a late model metallic gray Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class appeared, slowly entered the courtyard and rolled to a stop. He grabbed the door and quickly plodded inside.
“Get me home,” he barked. It was already twelve noon. As they sped along Roxas Boulevard on their way to Sen. Gil Puyat Avenue, his mobile phone rang. It was the Chief.
“Where are you, Jeric?” The Chief’s voice sounded irritated.
“Something came up, Chief. Sorry, I won’t attend the deliberation.”
A pause intervened. “Where’s the draft?”
Jeric smiled. “Almost finished, but it still needs some revisions.”
“Mind telling me if you’re up to it? I could ask another to do it, Jeric.” The exasperation in the Chief’s voice was mounting.
“No need to, Chief. Tomorrow, I’ll give it to you first thing in the morning, all right? I’ll try to call you later—” Jeric stopped when he realized the line had been abruptly cut. He cursed.
As they neared the Sen. Gil Puyat-Chino Roces intersection, he ordered his chauffeur to stop near the McDonald’s store outlet at the corner block. “I’ll buy a burger. Just wait there along the edge of the street,” Jeric said.
“But, sir, there are traffic enforcers there. They don’t allow cars to stop and wait along—.”
Jeric cut him short. “All right, all right! Just proceed home, wait for me there, OK?” he said as he slammed the car door shut.
Jeric left McDonald’s half an hour later, after consuming his burger-and-fries lunch. As he started home, it was only a ten-minute walk along Sen. Gil Puyat Avenue, he received a text message in his cell phone. It was from his friend, a doctor who worked at the nearby Makati Medical Center. Since the hospital was just along the way, he decided to visit his friend.
He reached home at past two o’clock, finding his driver at the lobby of the condominium tower.
“Sir, somebody came. She was looking for you,” the chauffeur said.
Jeric frowned. “Who? Did you get her name?”
The chauffeur shook his head. “I think the security guard at the lobby talked to her.”
Suddenly, something flickered in his mind. He checked his mobile phone. He almost cursed himself when he discovered it was shut off, its battery already drained. He raced to the elevator.
“Donita! Hello!” he said. He was now pacing in his condo unit.
“Oh, hello, sir,” came the voice at the other end of the line. “Sir, I was trying to reach you, but it seemed your phone was off. So I decided to come over, but…”
“Yes, my apology, Donita. Maybe we can meet later again, here at my place. Are you free?”
“Ah, sir,” Donita said, “is it OK if I go there at around four?”
Jeric looked at the big clock mounted on the wall. “Yes, four is fine. See you.”
TAGUIG LIES AT the south of Forbes Park. It once thrived on fishing, being bordered by the shores of Laguna de Bay. It was not until the close of the last century when Taguig—which was not unexpected it being a neighbor of Makati, the country’s financial center—began to rise as a major residential, commercial and industrial center. This was primarily due to the rapid development of the area known as Fort Bonifacio, an erstwhile army camp. Christened as the Bonifacio Global City, the newly developed area now boasts of upscale residential condominiums, ultra modern office buildings, trendy restaurants and a host of store outlets that sell pricey items. The same powerful Ayala family is one of those behind the quantum-leap rise of this modern hub now known as “The Fort.”
As the business world now eyes Taguig as the new premier financial hub, big businessmen have begun a feverish scramble to get every piece of idle property that lies in the surrounding area. This was exemplified in their mad struggle to gain possession of a large prime property that lies at the back of the posh Forbes Park subdivision, the 40-hectare area formerly known as JUSMAG compound, which stood for the “Joint United States Military Assistance Group.”
Years back, this land served as the housing area for active and retired military officers. At the onset of the nineties, with the transformation of the area now known as The Fort, the JUSMAG land naturally became the object of interest of investors, property developers and big corporations. But then, as the property was entangled in a legal battle between the retired military officers and the government which claimed to own it, the businessmen waited. Finally, when the courtroom smoke cleared with the occupants being finally evicted, the government conducted some sort of an auction as to whom the right to develop the prime property would be given. The most powerful businessmen in the land joined the auction. Eventually, the winning bidder, a rich business tycoon, began to mobilize his resources after getting the government nod. It would not be long before this idle land would be transformed into another focal point of business and commercial activity in Taguig.
Another area these ever hungry big businesses had “stumbled upon” was the vast idle land, also inside Taguig, that adjoined the JUSMAG property, whose size is much larger, almost double than that of JUSMAG’s.
This “newly discovered” prime land was actually a part of vast Hacienda Kakalsan that formed part of the Rizal province whose territorial area in the middle part of the past century extended to this part of what is now Taguig. The land’s original owners, Don Jose Kakalsan and Doña Genoveva Kakalsan, bequeathed the land to their two children, who were brothers. However, neither one of them attended to have the property formally halved and, thus, to have each child’s respective share registered in the Register of Deeds. It was not until the demise of the younger child, Mario, that appropriate action was made by the older son, Lauro to title the entire land—in Lauro’s name only since Mario had died single, without leaving a wife or child.
It turned out, however, that Mario had had relations with a woman before he died; this woman subsequently bore a child, an illegitimate child. Soon after Lauro had obtained the title to the land, Mario’s wife and child filed suit in court to get the child’s share. This was in the late part of the 1950s. The case dragged on until the 1960s when the trial court dismissed the case for alleged failure of the child to prove paternity—there was simply no evidence that the child was indeed the son of the deceased Mario.
In the late 1970s, the child’s heirs revived the case. Trial again ensued. In the late 1980s, the trial court decided in favor of the child’s heirs, ruling that these heirs were entitled to get a share in the land. An appeal was made by Lauro’s heirs in the higher court that sought to overturn the trial court’s decision. For one reason or another, the appeals court’s decision came out in the late 1990s, almost a decade from the time the appeal was made. The appeals court revoked the decision of the trial court and ruled that the child’s heirs could no longer revive the case.
It was in the year 2000 when the child’s heirs brought the case to the Supreme Court where the legal battle continued. No decision had yet been issued.
Business moguls—powerful men that virtually control the country’s economy—kept constant watch on the developments on the case. Each of them had vowed to get this huge piece of property no matter what it would take.
“JERIC, WHERE THE hell are you?” the growling voice demanded at the other end of the line. “You failed to come to work yesterday. You said you’d be coming today. Still, you’re not here! Anything wrong with you?”
“Chief,” Jeric sighed, “I’ll get back to office tomorrow, I’m just not feeling well since Saturday.”
Short of cursing Jeric, the Chief spat out a few profane words directed to no one in particular. He repeatedly asked if Jeric would still want to write the draft decision on the Hacienda Kakalsan case, insinuating that, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, it was well within his power to take the case from Jeric, the assigned associate justice, and re-assign the case to another associate justice. When Jeric gave the assurance that he would submit the draft decision by Monday, then and only then did the Chief relent on his insistence.
Jeric knew the stakes. He knew the Chief had already received a huge amount from one of the parties to the case, which precisely explained the great deal of interest being shown by the Chief.
“You dirty bastard,” Jeric shouted as soon as he dropped the phone on the couch. He was watching a DVD movie in his condo’s living room when he got the Chief’s call. “You’ll get your comeuppance, Chief! Just wait, just wait,” he blurted out.
It was already two o’clock of that Thursday afternoon. He had just taken his lunch and his medicine. Earlier, he had received a visitor. Donita, who had failed to meet Jeric the other day, came back. They talked at length. It was almost lunch time when Donita left. They would be meeting again the next day.
IT PRIDES ITSELF as an alternative to the mainstream media. Organized as a non-profit media outfit some two decades back, it specializes in investigative journalism, funding investigative projects for both the print and broadcast media. Where the mainstream media fails, this media outfit—Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism—dares to go beyond the day-to-day media reportage. Its own journalists go deeper and deeper, much wider, than the ordinary journalists’ efforts, purposely to show the larger, broader picture.
The media center’s office, which is somewhere in Quezon City, closes usually at eight in the evening. At times, though, the closing time gets extended when the person in command, Donita, decides to stay a little longer.
And so it was on this particular night: Donita, who had arrived late in the afternoon, was still aborbed in the task of writing an article she had started to work on some two weeks ago.
“Donita,” called a voice.
Donita looked up. “Yes, Lalaine?”
They were the only ones left in the media center’s office. Donita, it seemed, would be the last to leave the premises on this Thursday night.
“It’s already 9 P.M. You have plans of going home?” Lalaine asked. She was standing in front of Donita’s table.
“I’ll be off at ten. Just need to finish this. It’s due on Monday.”
“But, Donita, you have enough time tomorrow,” Lalaine said, her face showing deep concern.
Donita, though her eyes tired and her face haggard, managed to let out a smile. “Tomorrow’s a big day. I won’t have time. Remember?”
“Oh!” Lalaine gasped. “That’s tomorrow! But you think Justice Jeric would be true to his word? Remember, he himself is a member of the Supreme Court, it still is unbelievable on the supposed stunt he will do tomorrow.”
Donita’s smile broadened. “I’m sure, very, very sure, Lalaine.” She stood up, grasping Lalaine’s shoulder. “If I get ‘electrocuted’ here,” she was now laughing, “I’ll resign as the Executive Director come Monday morning.”
After Lalaine bid goodbye, Donita sat back behind her desk, her mind pondering on Lalaine’s remark. What if indeed she got ‘electrocuted’? If Jeric failed to appear the next day, what face would Donita still have? She definitely had to step down as the media center’s executive head.
After coming out of the bathroom, she decided to leave. It had been a tiring day. She needed to have a full night’s rest for the next day’s affair.
CLUB FILIPINO IS a social club that came to exist at the twilight of the 19th century. It was formed by elite members of society. Located in the heart of San Juan, a city east of Manila, the club is the most chosen for venue of historic or notable events in the country’s history. It served as the venue where Corazon “Cory” Aquino took her oath in 1986 as the new president of the land in the aftermath of the “People Power Revolution” that overthrew the dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
When he was asked by Donita as to where he wanted to conduct his press conference, Jeric’s reply was immediate, almost out of instinct. “Club Filipino,” Jeric said. To Jeric, what he intended to do had the trappings of something “historic”, something that would rival the significance of Corazon “Cory” Aquino’s taking her oath of office in 1986.
Presently, Donita was having a tough time reaching Jeric on his mobile phone. She had taken a few cups of decaffeinated coffee in the club’s Café Amorsolo earlier, trying to stay calm and composed. Afterwards, she gulped a glass of red wine at the club’s Calle Alix bar. Eventually, she decided she just would wait in the function room, the Centennial Room, where the press conference would be held.
As the reporters from most of the print and media outfits arrived one after another, Donita’s pulse throbbed violently. Almost all of them, who were her friends, were full of anticipation of the momentous event that was now bound to transpire. Surely, the executive head of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism would not invite them over to attend a press conference that would delve on something less than earth-shattering.
What if Justice Jeric does not arrive? What if he has a change of mind at the last minute? What I get ‘electrocuted’ this time around? Donita’s mind was packed “what ifs” scenarios. She now wished she had not organized this event, that she had just simply written an article about it and published it in the broadsheet newspapers.
It was exactly a minute before 2 P.M. when Jeric Arbitado, an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, strode into the now topsy-turvy function room. A sudden silence enveloped the people inside. They were not expecting a magistrate of the highest court in the land to be there. Up to that very minute, the hordes of press people had no idea what the press conference was all about.
A Supreme Court justice holding a news conference? Everyone struggled for breath; everyone’s eyes were gaping wide. What on earth is this? They had been accustomed to see politicians, famous celebrities like movie stars, singers, sportsmen, etc., conduct press conferences, talking incessantly about themselves, about events or scandals where they are involved or about their achievements. But not a justice of the Supreme Court. Just what the heck is this? everyone was asking himself. This was certainly odd, if not bizarre.
Jeric flashed a comfortable smile as eyed the inquisitive stares of the press people now frozen to their seat.
Donita, who had begun to feel relieved when she had caught sight of the Jeric, sat beside the now seated Jeric and slowly grasped the microphone.
“We are all gathered here to hear the Hon. Justice Jeric Arbitado speak.” There was a slight quaver in Donita’s voice. She cast a look at Jeric, her eyes ranging over to the media people. “First of all, I thank you for taking time to come here. Though I actually arrange this press conference, it was all upon the instruction of the good Justice Jeric Arbitado...”
The dozens of cameras kept flashing; the TV video cameras of the big news organizations remained focus on the seated lady and the curmudgeon-looking man beside her.
“I will not hold you in suspense anymore,” Donita continued saying. She again glanced at Jeric, who remained calm and unperturbed. “Justice?” she asked as she motioned to Jeric the microphone now resting in front of him.
“By the way,” Donita suddenly said, interrupting Jeric. “Please, let the good Justice speak, do not interrupt him. Let him finish his statement. Afterwards, when he’s done, then he will try to answer all the questions you wish to propound. Is this understood?” Donita abruptly felt like being a gradeschool teacher when she heard a collective “Yes, Ma’am” reply to her question.
“Good afternoon,” Jeric began. His wrinkled hand seemed to tremble. “Again, my gratitude for your presence here in this event.” He nodded his head to the statue-like figures now peering at him. “I am here to talk about the corruption in the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land.”
[Read the entire story in the forthcoming book TREE AND OTHER STORIES by AMADOR F. BRIOSO, JR., to be available in June, 2011, in selected bookstores in Manila. Another book, LOVE AND DESTINY, a novella written by the same author, will also be available in June, 2011. The author's previous book, "YOU FILIBINI?" Stories And Other Writings, is currently available at all Powerbooks bookstore outlets in Metro Manila.]