If Kristina was still alive, Mindy would have asked her to be her shopping companion. Her friend had needed a break from being a struggling writer. Moreover, the exercise would have done her a lot of good. Kristina had never been ill when they were in high school and college. Her decline in health could be attributed to stress after months of looking after her mother, Aunt Ana.
The findings from the investigation had concluded that the source of the fire was a gas leak. Kristina’s death was a huge blow to their batch and a rude awakening for Mindy. Her whole outlook changed as she realized how short life is. One could never know when someone will die; so, she determined to live to the fullest. Mindy missed her friend terribly in the days that followed after the funeral. Four months had passed and the loss eased gradually to a dull ache.
Mindy, with Nica’s encouragement, had a makeover. She had her hair straightened; replaced glasses with contact lenses, and wore nail art. Her parents had accepted it as a phase she was going through and didn’t dare comment. The staff at the office and people who knew her before didn’t recognize her at once until she spoke. They were surprised and at times complimented her new appearance.
The two men in front of her didn’t have the same reaction as the others. Mindy had thought to surprise Uncle Reno, who she hadn’t seen in a while, except during the funeral. It was weird to see him there. They hadn’t had the chance to talk then when Aly made a scene.
As they were still on the road, Mindy explained how Arty became part of their group before they left college. She learned then that Reno and Arty had attended the same schools ever since they were children although the former was five years older. The men lost contact with each other in the early years of their career. Their most recent case had reunited them as the firms they worked for were hired for a joint project.
“What is it about?” Mindy asked.
“A conspiracy,” Reno replied unhelpfully.
“Sounds intriguing. Is it a murder case?”
Reno steered the jeep into a parking space.
“It’s confidential. It would be a breach of our contract. Right, Art?”
“Sorry, Mindy.” Arty met her gaze in the rearview mirror.
He wasn’t at the funeral, she thought. Aly had said that Arty had called to say he was dropping by the house the afternoon before it went up in flames.
It wasn’t the right time to ask him. She would have to phrase her question carefully, as well, without it sounding like an accusation.
She leaped out of the vehicle while her two companions alighted in a more sedate manner.
At the mall, several people stared as the trio walked past. Mindy couldn’t help imagining how the strangers viewed the men walking behind her. Alone in a huge crowd, they could blend in seamlessly. As a pair, they were too conspicuous. Arty could be a model gracing magazine covers and TV commercials. Her uncle, on the other hand, could be the intimidating and dangerous bodyguard. He looked like the bad boy type some girls would go crazy for. Not exactly brooding, there was an air of recklessness about him, especially when he grinned. She would see it in the times he talked excitedly about a case he’s working on.
Mindy had called Reno weeks ago to get him to hang out with her. It was difficult to get in touch with her Uncle and his family, let alone take him out to have fun.
She was six years old when her parents brought her to the annual family reunion and met Reno. His mother, Aunt Teresa, and he attended these gatherings religiously. They made small talk but gave little information about themselves. His father, Uncle Gary, an antiques dealer and art collector, was always away on business trips for weeks or months at a time. The profit they made from their business seemed more than enough to have enrolled Reno in a boarding school. Mindy, young and impressionable then, thought his whole situation lonely that she started approaching him during these functions; mostly to play with her and the other children or tell them stories. As time passed, it changed to discussions about topics they were both interested in. He didn’t have a clue about showbiz celebrities, movies, and TV series, but he was updated with news around the world and the latest technology. It felt like he was the older brother she never had.
Seeing Reno with Arty; the easy manner they conducted themselves; the tolerance of each other’s attitude; and the unnerving way they predicted one another’s next move indicated that their friendship was deeper than they claimed it to be. In fact, they were more like twins than childhood friends. She found it hard to believe they had lost communication for years.
Reno has always been reserved around their relatives, but he was more open to her that it was safe to say that she knew more about him than most. Despite that, there was something about his behavior that she hadn’t noticed before. It was almost intangible that she wouldn’t have seen it if not for Arty’s presence.
Her uncle was more generous in giving compliments and smiled more often than his friend, but the invisible wall they put up, separating them from the rest of society, was ever present. They even have the same keen awareness – a sixth sense, which bordered on eerie when it frequently turns out right. Still, Reno would always be her favorite Uncle. They come from the same family with the added bonus of having the same swarthy complexion and almost black eyes. So, why did it feel like she was the outsider in this group instead of Arty?
Why did Uncle Reno bring him here anyway? she thought, glaring at no one in particular. Mindy rushed to the entrance of the department store leaving them trailing far behind.
Several boutiques had been visited until Mindy’s annoyance disappeared entirely. She had bought herself a body-hugging dress and a pair of pumps to wear for the Christmas party at the office.
“Isn’t it too early to buy a party dress?” Reno asked. He popped a sushi into his mouth.
It was two o’clock pm. They were taking a late lunch. Both men have been good humored the whole morning as she dragged them everywhere and asked their opinion on the dresses she had tried on. She hadn’t noticed the time until she saw Arty nodding off on the couch. By then, she was deciding whether to buy the pumps or the sandals. Reno had discreetly informed her that Arty had been flying back and forth across continents. The poor man had arrived early morning before they came to fetch her.
“I know. I’m months ahead of schedule. I hate shopping too close on Christmas Eve. The traffic; the mass of people crowding the malls during a sale; just too much hassle for little me. Anyway, I get to pick some really good items in advance.” Mindy picked her California Maki between chopsticks.
Arty ordered black coffee and pasta in pesto which he methodically ate in silence. Reno glanced at him and rose.
“I’m going to the restroom. You two catch up while I’m gone, alright?” He Uncle winked at her and threaded between tables of Food Choices.
“So,” Mindy began. “What have you been doing so far?”
“The usual. Taking care of things at another part of the world then returning here when I’ve time.” He paused, his expression turning serious. “I’m sorry about Kristina.”
“It’s not every day you wake up and hear that your best friend just died.” She crossed her arms at the memory of seeing the remains of Kristina’s house. “Where were you? Aly said you were supposed to come over that day. The fire even made it to the local news.”
“I did. I only stayed for fifteen minutes. Something came up at work and I had to rush to New York. It took me a month to get back, but then it was too late.”
“You could’ve called any of us.”
Arty gave her an unfathomable look.
“You were blaming yourself,” she realized.
“I could’ve prevented it from happening.”
“Look, Arty. What’s done is done and no one can stop what’s meant to happen. Don’t prosecute yourself for something you can’t control. If you still feel bad about it, why not try to make it up to her by moving on with your life and finding happiness. I know Kristina would want that for you.” She bobbed her head.
“Hear, hear,” Reno agreed from behind her. To Mindy, he said: “Since when did my niece become so wise in the world?” He patted her shoulder.
Mindy rolled her eyes at him.
“I didn’t realize Arty could be so…dramatic.”
Reno looked at her fondly and glanced at their common friend.
“Dramatic is a term we wouldn’t dare pin on Arty,” he replied with a wry smile.
The drive home was quiet. Reno had dropped Arty home first. The latter’s house looked the same: a new-looking house surrounded by wilderness.
Are there actual snakes hiding in there? she mused. The last time she had gone to the house, Kristina didn’t seem to mind its appearance. Mindy had thought the two would soon get together. They suited each other. If only Arty’s job didn’t include traipsing around the world and Aunt Ana didn’t get cancer, maybe they would’ve ended up as a couple.
“You have that dreamy look in your face,” Reno interrupted her thoughts.
“Just thinking of what-ifs.”
“Don’t tell me you’re falling for my best friend,” he teased with mock astonishment.
“Nah. He’s too serious for my taste.”
“Believe me, he wasn’t always like that.”
“What happened to him?”
“Life.” The traffic light flashed green. Reno’s focus shifted away from her to the car ahead of them. By the tone of his voice, he wasn’t going to elaborate on his answer any further.
“By the way, I’ve been dying to ask. Why were you in Kristina’s wake?”
“I was there out of curiosity. I saw the news and sensed something off.”
“And did you find anything?” Mindy frowned. She had the same feeling that the fire wasn’t just a simple accident.
“Nothing I could put a finger on. It’s probably just a false alarm.” He steered to the right and pulled over in front of her house. “The funeral, however…”
“Aly, right?” Mindy grinned. She had never seen her Uncle so clueless in the face of a woman like Kristina’s sister.
“Yes,” he admitted. “And a man you seem to dislike very much.”
“Peter,” she sniffed. “Nothing new there. He was being a jerk as usual.”
“He’s a player. He broke Ina’s and Tina’s heart in college. And he was fooling around with another girl when he was courting Liza.”
“Tina is Kristina’s short name?”
“They were a couple?” He turned off the engine and faced her. “Wouldn’t his attendance at the wake be considered as a thoughtful gesture?”
“It would’ve been if he wasn’t asking details about the incident. It was horrible enough that we all knew who perished in it,” Mindy fumed.
“What kind of questions?” Reno leaned on his seat.
“About the findings from the investigation. He was questioning its accuracy as if he was convinced that Kristina was with someone when the fire started.”
“Could you remember his exact words?”
Mindy paused, recalling what she had overheard. “He said, ‘Are they sure there was only one body inside the house?’” Mindy’s forehead wrinkled. She felt disturbed after repeating Peter’s statement. She had been overcome with grief at the time to analyze his words. Why would someone who wasn’t at the scene say that? “Uncle, are you saying there was foul play involved?”
“It would have been simpler if it was,” he said in a low voice.
There really is a conspiracy, she thought.
“If Peter is one of your prime suspects, I have another.”
“Arturion is innocent,” Reno said quickly.
“Who’s that?” Mindy asked. She didn’t know anyone by that name. “I meant Arty. Arthur Menesarios. He was the last person Kristina saw before the fire.”
Reno didn’t react.
“I know he’s your best friend. He’s my friend too but he came to her house before leaving for New York.” She waited for an answer. “I’m not accusing him that he killed Kristina but we barely knew him and his background. I’m just trying to look at the situation objectively.”
“Objectively,” he repeated. “Yes. It is one of the reasons I have broached this subject with you. Mindy, I want you to tell me directly, if by any chance you see Peter behaving oddly and if he approaches you. If he does, act civilly. However, do not accept his invitation if he offers to take you to a location he would not disclose.”
“Alright. I’ll keep an eye out. And Arty?”
“I shall see to it myself, though he has a credible alibi.” He shrugged.
“What’s his alibi?”
“It’s classified.” Reno smiled mysteriously.
“I assume it has to do with his work.”
“Okay.” She lifted the door latch when Reno placed his hand on hers.
“Mindy, this case is dangerous. Please understand that I’ve only shared this information to protect you. There would be instances that curiosity would try to get the better of you. We are not certain who are involved and I would not want you to endanger your own safety. Leave this job to me and my people.”
She had never seen him this dead serious except during one awful reunion when one of their older relatives had a heart attack. He, with the help of his mother, Aunt Teresa, pushed their way and applied first aid to Grandpa Diego. Everybody thought the old man would die but Grandpa Diego miraculously survived. In fact, he became stronger after the incident and now walked without a cane to support him.
“I will.” A recollection of this conversation would be enough to keep her from making her own inquiries. Hopefully.
Wattpad code: 58366003
©MC Babasa 2014
A/N: Feel free to post your feedback as this is the first book. Your comments and suggestions may influence the story as it progresses up to the second book.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.