The Secret of Morolonago

Part III: Ancient City- New Occupants

Night came down cool and moist.

Smith and I walked side by side through one of Legaspi’s many broad avenues, reddish cobblestone streets spotted with moss and small flora. He believed his guys went to the city’s keep so that was where we headed. A light breeze kept us company. Well, that and my bolo.

“The view from up above doesn’t do this town justice.” Smith commented.

“It’s hard to convey this level of creepy from hundreds of feet up.” I spat back. He saw us engulfed in classic Spanish architecture, cracked white walls and crumbling red tile roofs in a beautiful state of decay. Most of the buildings even had balconies, a trademark of the Spanish style. In the half-moon lit night I’m sure some would even consider the scene romantic.

All I saw was a ghost town. A European ghost town smack dab in the middle of the Philippine jungle. Open windows and balconies provided a thousand observation points; the narrow alleys that cut between buildings would allow anyone or any thing to come up behind us. Little plazas popped up at regular intervals, the gardens were over grown with unruly foliage that poured over the little walls and into the street creating yet more places we could be monitored or ambushed from.

From what I saw overhead this fortress city was triangular in shape, like a spike jutting off the north side of Morolonago. The buildings were laid out in an orderly grid. High walls and another moat separated Legaspi from the heavy jungle that covered every other inch of the island, though it had overrun the eastern moat and walls; as if the island itself was slowly pushing the Spaniards into the sea.

The actual bastion formed an arrowhead at the tip. A moat cut it off from the rest of Legaspi effectively surrounding it on all side with the sea. At the time of our survey the draw bridge looked to be down, so my intrepid passengers wouldn’t need to be too ingenius to investigate its historical value.

Typical of Spanish colonial towns Legaspi was built around a large central plaza, this one dominated by a massive stone fountain, and beside it was a thick-walled fortress-like cathedral with over-sized buttresses and a detached bell tower. As we passed by Smith noted the hardwood doors were intact and if properly barred could withstand an assault with anything short of artillery and air strikes. The Spanish really built those old churches to last, come earthquake or revolution.

“It feels like folks here just up and left one day.” I commented. Oddly some plazas still had strings of lanterns and décor strung up in them, like the city was having an afternoon siesta and not something abandoned in 1898.

“They pretty much did, didn’t-” I covered his mouth with my hand, then motioned him quiet. I heard some insects and the normal bird calls, a motley collection of alien sounds Martin Denny could only dream of mimicking. Just typical night sounds in the jungle but something was amiss. The aroma of tropical fauna, moist and heady, filled my nostrils. I was used to the smells, though every place has its own unique blend and having never been to Morolonago its particular scent was new to me. Smith slowly turned and looked behind us as I scanned around us. Satisfied it was nothing I calmed.

“Something in the air.” I explained. “Any of your guys smoke cheroots or cigars?”

“Norton dips.”

“Just a plant then.”

Smith sniffed the air comically. “I don’t smell it.”

“Don’t expect you too. It’s nothing; or maybe a Kapre.” He gave me a weird look. Of course bringing up Kapre demands an explanation so as we started walking again I explained, “According to Lola Rivera they’re big, hairy, bearded demons, lives in trees.”

“And they likes to smoke cigars?”

“Yeah, if you pass under him he blows his smoke on you and you get lost. Which in a place like this where every street looks the same wouldn’t be hard.”

 “Let’s avoid passing under trees then.”

“Lets.” I agreed.

***

We continued on through the monotonous town and I found myself thinking just how perfect an ambush could be set up here on a dark street.

The tobacco-scent strengthened and though the feet made nearly no noise I knew what was about to happen. A dark, loinclothed native, stout and muscular, brough his bolo down in a slash at my back, turning I fed him my rifle, his blade bit down into the wooden furniture. Caught wrong footed I shoved it at him and went for my own bolo. More of his friends joined the party and swarmed me from those swell side alleys to my left and to my right.

A single gun shot rang out from behind me.

Forget everything Errol Flynn ever taught you about swordplay. Once the blades are out its pretty much over. Strike and kill. Block and kill. Maim then kill. That’s it. My bolo swung out of its sheath and clanged loudly against a foe’s. I brought it back over my left shoulder from the half-strike and checked the opponent, grabbing his elbow and pulling him off balance. Falling forward I brought my blade down on the back of his neck, disarming and taking his bolo with my free hand as I did so.

I swung around with naught a moment to spare as his two comrades bore down on me. The closest of the pair slashed left to right at my mid-section, forcing me to backpeddle. The moment his blade cleared me I pushed forward, my left bolo coming down on his wrist and with my right I gave his partner’s shot a rising horizontal block. My left swung clear with a spray of warm crimson and opened the man’s belly. He dropped to the cobblestones with his innards spilling across my boots. The fight was over. I admit to enjoying a bit of violence every now and again, though I dislike killing but when it's necessary I've no qualms.

Looking down  I realized my bolos were both dripping blood and the gunk had liberally stained my skirt and blouse.

The survivor screamed and held his bloody stump as he lay crumpled on the ground.

“Masama ba ang pakiramdam mo?” I asked him. Are you feeling unwell?

He mustn’ have spoken a lick of Tagalog because he didn’t respond in any tongue I knew. For good measure I chopped him off at a knee. I collected my rifle and rushed to Smith, who lay against the tall carriage entrance of the nearest villa.

Smith was in shock, as if he couldn’t get his head around what had happened to him. His left shoulder was torn up from a stroke that continued down his chest. His dead foe lay on his back, the upper part of his skull gone.

“Looks worse…” Smith groaned and bit back a howl. I checked my back. The man I’d left alive screamed and made a ruckus in the street. “Shut him up…”

“Irrelevant, they know we’re here.”

To hell with it, I thought as I reached for my small medical pouch. I cracked open a morphine vial and filled a syringe. I was fairly certain I sterilized it since I last used it.  “A wounded warrior is more work for them. Buys us a moment.”

“A moment to-” He yelped as I jammed the morphine syringe into his arm. Then he calmed way down. “Feel good.”

“Yeah, but there may be some side effects. Constipation I think.”

“Thanks doc.”

The blood still flowed freely from his wound, and to my dismay I’d forgotten to put a bandage roll in my first aid kit. (I’d used the last one in an engine. Long story.) The movie heroine in me said, “Rip off some cloth from your shirt and make a bandage!” But I really liked this shirt so instead I yanked the bahag, or loin cloth, off the dead guy. Judging  by the simplicity of the design it’s previous owner wasn’t that important anyway.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Smith asked.

I took a length of the bahag; a blue affair with a black and red pattern stitched on and wound it around Smith’s wounded shoulder. Good enough. The chest cut was superficial.

“You need it more than he does.”

I paused and stood stock still, taking in my surroundings again. They were coming. 

"We have company," I said quietly.

"How can you tell?"

"Woman's instinct."

Inset in the carriage door Smith lay against was a smaller man-sized one that with a few solid kicks came open. That got us in, but now we wouldn't be able to lock it behind us. We were in the villa's carriage room, the large main space that dominated the first floor of most old Spanish homes. We did a quick search of it and the adjoining supply rooms it but they were all bare and we could find nothing to block or bar the door.

"No good," Smith muttered in whispered tones.

"Reckon we should have stayed with the plane," I said in agreement.

"Too late for regrets."

"Remains to be seen, but follow me, there should be a back way out of here."

 

Villa layouts are pretty similar all over the country and this one, in the heart of a city surrounded by others in a precise lay out, was typical in every way. The door at the end of the carriage room led to the villa's private courtyard,  coming out under and behind a grand exterior staircase that connected the upstairs family quarters directly with the garden.

A half-century of neglect had rendered the courtyard a miniature jungle with tall grass, shaggy bushes and trees with toppled statues dotting the landscapes. It was surrounded by a tall brick wall topped with spikes and had a wrought iron gate that lead into a narrow back alley. The gate was rusted shut.

 “We move this and they’ll hear the metal squeal for miles.” A glance at the courtyard wall told me what needed to happen next.

“I’ll boost you.” I told Smith.

“Good idea but I don’t think I can pull you over.”

I shook my head. “I’ll find my own way out. Get back to the plane, there’s a .50 machine gun in the nose compartment, mount it, protect the plane and wait for me to come back.”

“You’re crazy.” Smith said incredulously.

“That’s why you hired me, isn’t it?”

“You were cheap.”

“Remember that when it comes time for payment.”

Taking a knee I boosted him onto and over the wall. He landed with a thud on the cobblestones and a small ‘oomf!’

 

I was almost across the garden, heading to the house when the front door creaked open. Not chancing that it was just the wind I quickened my step toward the house and the grand staircase. I couldn't hear movement or even breathing but I knew they were in the house, probably doing as we had done. My own footfalls near silent I flew up the grand staircase.

I peeked back at the top and saw two men moving with the swiftness and silence of jungle cats as they tried to pick up our spore.

The staircase emptied onto a grand balcony with only low column-like balusters for cover. I crouched behind one and readied my rifle. The hunters found the spot I boosted Smith over the gate and inspected it.

Tactically I was in a bad spot, the balusters provided negligible cover, I had two hunters before me and if any more were about and took the interior staircase to the second floor they would come up behind me. With the two I saw preoccupied I made for the house and carefully eased the main door open.

Turning my back to the known threat I could just feel their blow gun darts coming for me. At least that's how I felt. My biggest foe wasn't the men here but my own fear. Fear of not knowing what was beneath me or unseen around me.

Peering into the house I saw the main dining room, an elongated space with open doors leading to bedrooms and a parlor. Moon light poured through the windows illuminating the otherwise colorless scene. I let myself in and closed the door behind me as quiet as I'd opened it. The other staircase led right up to my position and if anyone was downstairs I didn't want the sound to carry.

I froze as the old hardwood floor, polished glass-smooth from long use, groaned sharply under my weight. I listened hard, but heard no one come to investigate. I could have tried going downstairs and running through the front while the men where in the back but I had a feeling there were more of them and I'd be cut down the moment I barged through the front door.

Ignoring the floor I moved through the dining room and parlor. I discreetly looked down through a window and saw a small hunting party waiting in the street. Two had long blow guns that ended in bayonet-like spears under the muzzle. Two without blowguns crowded around their injured man and rendered some kind of aid. Or maybe they just got him high on local happy plants, couldn’t tell.

Wanting a better view I went to the master bedroom and getting on my hands and knees I snuck onto the balcony. The next few minutes were spent dampening my clothes with further perspiration and enjoying more of those weird jungle bird calls. The two blowgunners looked about as edgy as I felt. Of course they had the luxury of standing at ease and enjoying the breeze while I lay prone caked in fifty years worth of accumulated dust and muck, propped up painfully on my elbows just enough to peek over the balcony edge. The low, black metal railing around the balcony did nothing to conceal me.

The hunters then dispersed, one sprinted faster than I’ve ever seen a person (who wasn’t me of course) away and the two blowgunners began searching the immediate area with intent. I rose up and as delicately as possible worked my way over the rail and onto the roof.

I cursed myself again for not getting the boots re-healed as I nearly slipped off with my first step. The slant of the roof was barely enough for me to stand up on, the tiles so smooth my boots had little grip so I’d no choice but to keep moving forward, toward the next balcony over, at a fair clip. Little pebbles and bits of dust came free each time I put a foot down, the debris bounced and clattered then it was over the edge and nothing.

The hunters, two long, painful stories below thankfully still gave me no mind. It was a minor miracle they didn’t hear me. As I closed on the next balcony I heard their own chatter pick up and I assumed they found the body in the house.

A tile disintegrated under me and the slip finally came. For a wild moment I’d lost my balance and could almost feel the impact of the pavement down below. Flailing and sliding with sheared red tile announcing my iminent fall I threw myself forward, reaching for the balcony railing.

The instant fingers touched metal I clinched, my full (undisclosed) weight jerked down on it, near pulling my arm painfully from the socket but my hand was like a vise and adrenaline is a powerful compensator. The rest of me banged mightily into the roof.

That saved me for a moment, I pulled myself up and the metal groaned. My weight began to peel it back and I felt myself falling backwards in slow motion.

Cue the poison darts.

Blowgun darts breezed past my head while I struggled. I threw my weight forward and went over the rail head first. I came down in an undignified heap, but an alive one.  Another blowgun shot breezed by my neck. I got prone and touched my head.

“SON OF A BITCH!”

They shot my hat off. It was just above me, tagged to the doorjam of the balcony doors with dart. I reached up and jerked it down, anotherdart struck where my hat had been. I rolled off the balcony and inside the house.

On my feet again I unslung the rifle and made a discovery: Not only had the wooden stock been cut but the barrel had a nice deep gash in it too, something I hadn’t noticed earlier but it stood out like a massive scar now.  The welcoming committee burst through the door downstairs and would be on me in seconds.

I worked the take down and the rifle came apart, giving me what amounted to a large, awkward bolt-action handgun with no sights to work with. I raised it anyway and made ready to fight, the useless length of barrel still attached to the weapon’s fighting half by the sling didn’t help none much but there wasn’t time to take it off. A hunter came into view at the base of the stairs. I eased back on the trigger and-

A loud explosion downstairs threw me on my ass and set my ears to ringing. It felt like a grenade went off far too close for comfort. Neither the natives nor Spaniards that lived here used land mines or grenades. The US and Japan never occupied this fortress either. At least officially. Damn Communists? Max?

“I’ve got to do a better job screening the carry on bags.”

I discarded the useless barrel and re-attached the sling to a ring mounted by the takedown lever, slinging it cross-wise before heading down.

The explosion did my work for me. The hunters lay dead on the floor, a chunk of which and the base of the stairs were blown away. I chalked it up to Communists, it made the most sense. Godless Communist guerillas giving the natives hand grenades, but being the inhuman scum they are didn’t bother to train them in their proper use on account of the Communist having no regard for human life and all.

         

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