Quiapo Church

Chapter 2: Franco: Lost, Then Found

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OXD operatives doggedly pursue Anding–now named Franco–until they get to abduct him in a shopping mall. De Gracia who, as always, is with him when the abduction happened, alerts his friends in the military, led by General Dimas Uy, about the kidnapping. Uy sends composite teams to major streets he anticipates as the kidnappers’ likely escape routes. Uy’s men are able to track the OXD operatives a few kilometers before the latter could reach their safehouse. Their operation having been compromised, OXD operatives hastily drop Franco—hogtied in a bag—in a storeroom at the back of the Quiapo Church.

But still on the hunt of a big payday, OXD does not give up on its quarry. Having known that Franco will be fetched by Quiapo police from the Tepeyacr of Quiapo Church, who has taken custody of the boy when Hijos discovered him at the storeroom, and to be transported to the nearby police station where Police Chief Sir Dikomo has arranged a news conference for next day, the OXD sets up a trap. At the precise moment that Franco and his police handlers are about to cross the Lanciano Boulevard enroute to the police station, OXD stages a commotion to distract the police handlers from their grip on the boy. Unfortunately for the OXD, the commotion goes out of control as gunfire explodes inside the Castro Underpass. People panic and each one races for the nearest exit. Franco’s handlers lose him and, a few minutes later, the toddler finds himself seated beside Teresa inside a bus bound for Aparición, a one-to-two-hour ride from Quiapo. For the next several years, Franco is under the care of another mother in Teresa, who gets him baptized as Boy Deo.

Anding was on his way to a family that would adopt him fourteen days after he was baptized. He could have been shipped earlier, but on two occasions Father Andoy paid a visit that made it impossible to arrange trysts with the assigned receiving and disbursing agents. Sylvia did not want to arouse suspicion in him that she had other plans for the child. On his first visit, the priest had discussed the compensation for her heroic and compassionate services, which to her was almost a token. He also mentioned that a family among the Hijos was ready to adopt the child. On the second visit, he assured her that adoption papers were being finalized by the parish lawyer in collaboration with the Social Welfare Office of the city government.

Rattled, Sylvia wrapped the baby in a towel and whisked him out of her living quarters a few minutes after Father Andoy’s last visit. She then checked into a decrepit, low-budget motel in nearby Sta. Cruz, but only after explaining to the front desk attendant who demanded upfront payment that she was waiting for her husband and that she would pay as soon as he arrived.

Inside the motel room, she weighed her options on how to proceed. It was clear to her that she needed to get paid and had to get out of the motel fast. The longer she stayed in that room, the higher the risk of her gold turning to stone. She knew she made an impression among the motel staff that something unusual was going on with her and the child. She could not afford any slight hint that would alert people to call the police, because a search for the baby’s records in the civil registry would expose her complicity to a crime. Kidnapping— “flagrante delicto,” caught in the act—if she correctly remembered something her lawyer of bygone days liked to say.

She could not leave with the child for a few minutes to see Sir Dikomo—that would most likely invite the motel to call the police. She could not leave to see any of her prospective buyers for the same reason. She could not leave the child inside their room, regardless of whether the front desk might suspect she was slipping out to dodge her bill—that would not only invite the police, but probably the Social Welfare Office and even medical personnel as well, given the vulnerability of the infant that suggested his need for medical care.

Probably the safest route for her, legal complication-wise, was to admit that the baby was under the custody of a Quiapo priest, go back to the store, and say goodbye to the promise of a greener pasture abroad. But she needed a corroborating tale to support this line; unfortunately for her, in her haste she left at her Quiapo residence a copy of the tabloid that featured Father Andoy and the child. Would people believe her if she told them they were on page one in a newspaper less than a month ago?

Lost in her thoughts, she did not realize that her time to settle her bill for a short-time stay was up. She decided to approach the front desk.

“I wish to extend for another two hours,” she said. “And can I use your phone, please?”

On the phone, she tried to control the uneven tone in her voice, lest she invite questioning from the motel staff—even from those who might show empathy.

She called her employer first, telling her the lie that a member of her family was in an emergency and that she needed to see him in the hospital. She also said that she might be away for the whole day. Besides Sylvia, two other store attendants were in the owner’s payroll. She asked one of the two to take her place while she was away.

Up next was a ring to Sir Dikomo’s office.

“Can I talk to Lieutenant Colonel De Mozo, please?” The emphasis on the rank was deliberate to keep anyone within hearing distance from even thinking that she was an outlaw.

A voice told her that Sir Dikomo was out of the office for something. She could not leave a telephone number for the police officer to return her call; she also could not give the address of the motel where she was holed up.

“OK, thanks, please tell him when he comes back that I will call again in thirty minutes.” She hung up.

One after the other she called up the two other prospective buyers, but both told her that they could not produce the money on demand. She explained to both that there was an emergency in the family and that she needed to leave for the province immediately. She also disclosed her location, citing the address of the drug store right beside the motel, assuring them that she and the baby would be around to meet them in the event they were able to raise the money.

In a sense, she felt relieved that the delays would give her more time to carefully consider her options. She waited for one hour before calling Sir Dikomo’s office again. She could not hide her excitement when she heard his voice on the other end of the line.

“Where have you been?” he asked, in a tone that, although calm and gentle, sounded like a prelude to scolding. “Our agents have been trying to get in touch with you these past few days.”

There was little time to even apologize, especially since she had been busy practically the entire past week building her list of prospective clients. This was a make-or-break situation for her. She looked around to see if somebody was listening. No one was. “Please send them to Perseverance Drug, near My World Motel and Venus Medical Supplies, Rizal Avenue, Manila. Please tell them to rush over. I cannot stay in this place for longer than an hour. Bye, sir.” Then she hung up.

She felt like hugging Anding. She was now close to believing what she said when she talked Father Andoy into her scheme: that the baby had supernatural powers. In almost six hours that they had been missing in action, moving like fugitives and all, he had shown little discomfort or irritation, except to seek his bottle of milk. Inside the motel, he was asleep most of the time.

After thirty more minutes, she gathered the baby in her bosom, then stationed herself and the child outside the motel, close enough to the entrance and exit door so that the front desk could see them. After fifteen minutes or so, Sylvia saw one of the buyers approaching them. They got the deal done in less than three minutes. What took them a long time to close the transaction was the unsteady hands by which she counted the money. Then she gave the baby to the middle-aged couple. Just like that.

After paying her bill (which was loose change compared to the three-thousand-pesos tip she generously gave the attendants and security guard) and collecting her personal effects, she had just taken a few steps outside, enjoying the scents of her newfound freedom, when she saw a brand-new Toyota Corolla pull up right beside Perseverance Drug. An elderly woman was in the passenger seat. The driver got out of the car as he spotted her.

After greeting each other, she apologized. “I’m sorry, I thought you would not be able to come. Somebody has already taken the boy. They left just minutes ago.”

“How much did you exchange him for?” the driver asked.

She told him the truth. “A hundred thousand pesos.”

“Tough luck,” he murmured, “grandma here is ready to part with one hundred twenty-five thousand.”

For a moment, Sylvia could not say a word. Almost by impulse, she bit her lip and instinctively looked away to hide her facial language. As she spun her head, she saw the middle-aged couple at the counter of Perseverance Drug. Quick-witted, she thought that this was a win-win opportunity for her clients.

“Oh, look, over there! I can ask them to discuss things over with you,” she suggested, pointing at some customers of the drug store. She then approached the middle-aged couple, who undoubtedly were rummaging for baby items.

“I’m sorry to disturb your shopping,” she greeted them again. “I’m also sorry if this sounds awkward, but somebody outside wishes to propose one hundred twenty-five thousand for the baby. You make twenty-five thousand on the spot for the trouble of your coming over…”

The man looked puzzled. The woman looked irritated, almost annoyed, as if asking her what kind of scam she was up to.

“Again, I’m sorry.” Sylvia sounded calm and professional. Talk about what money did to self-confidence. “It’s all up to you, sir and madam. He is over there, outside; you can discuss his offer with him if you so desire. Else you can just ignore him or wave him off. Thanks again for your trust.”

As she left for good, she passed by the driver to tell him that she discussed with the couple his offer. They might or might not consider it, she said, and that he might do well to wait a while for what would come next. Sylvia thanked him for coming over. She said goodbye with a graceful wave of her hand.

As the middle-aged couple, with the woman carrying the baby, stepped out of the drug store, they saw him talking to an elderly but charming lady inside the car. Back inside the store, they had decided to keep the baby, but when they saw how the old lady talked to the driver, they could feel she was almost like anyone’s grandma.

The woman did not resist when the man pulled her arm to guide her toward the car. He felt that a little gesture of courtesy would not hurt, and informing her of their decision would produce a feel-good vibe for all of them.

“Good afternoon,” greeted the woman. “We understand you are looking for this baby, just as we are. We have been married for fifteen years but are still childless. We have made the decision to keep him.”

“Oh, wonderful,” the elderly woman greeted them back. “Can I at least take a look at him?”

Maintaining a safe distance, the woman opened the baby’s hood and showed his face to the elderly woman, who remained inside the car.

“What a soul. I just lost a son who died of cancer. He was a priest. I dreamed of raising a boy to replace him. It would have been nice to see him reach at least the seminary before I die.” Her face was slightly wrinkled, but the couple could see that her eyes were sparkling with childlike optimism.

Between the husband and wife, the latter was of firmer resolve not to part with the baby, but when she saw and heard the elderly woman, she kept looking at the facial expression of her husband for clues. As conversation among claim-makers became lighter, the infant responded by kicking his legs and flashing what pundits would call a “killer” smile. He brought peace and eased the build-up of tension among panicky adults. The husband was now leaning toward keeping the child as his own, while the wife’s inclination shifted toward favoring the grandma.

Grandma was about to give in when a young woman butted in. “You must be Sylvia Monir?” she addressed the wife.

Nobody noticed that three people in casual clothes had approached them. The trio were in fact close enough to hear what they were talking about.

“No, the one with that name has left,” the wife exclaimed. “And who are you, if you don’t mind, sir?”

A burly-built man butted in. “We are Metrocom, and you are under arrest!”

Stunned, the wife had to restrain herself from yelling. “I told you this was a scam!” she accosted her husband. Their faces stared blankly at how shocking the last couple of hours had been. Hopping from one taxi to another just to save time, coughing up borrowed money, then losing all of it just like that. They wanted to raise hell in protest, but there was no one to protest to.

The driver delved into a rescue attempt. “Can I see your badge, sir?” he demanded.

Feeling insulted, the hulk showed him handcuffs instead.

“We are undercover agents,” the reply came from the young woman.

“That’s all right, Officer,” Grandma calmly butted in. With a stern face and unblinking eyes, she addressed the bully. “We are all—all of us here—going to the precinct with you.” She then turned to the couple, asking them to hop inside the car.

For a second this stopped the intruders in their tracks. The third member of what looked like a team, a slim middle-aged man, spoke for the first time. “OK, follow us. Our car is parked across the street.” He briskly pointed a finger to a heavily tinted, burgundy-colored Lancer.

He barely finished what he was saying when he saw a police patrol car turn the corner at the nearest block, red and blue lights blinking.

“Come quick, we will look for Sylvia Monir instead,” the middle-aged man shot a crisp command to his companions.

Grandma and company, who were now all inside the car, looked puzzled at seeing the three speed off without taking the child. Their confusion was compounded when a police patrol car parked brusquely in front of them.

Two uniformed men got out and they proceeded to My World Motel. They were met at the door entrance by the motel security who assured them the problem had been settled, explaining in so many words that goons had attempted to kidnap the child, but they just fled hastily when they saw the car with blinking lights.

The two policemen then approached the car, and one of them asked the elderly woman politely, “Is everything OK, madam?”

“Well, yes, it seems so, Officer. They just left. Thank you for your prompt response. May God bless you. And take care.”

The uniformed policeman was genuinely pleased to hear those disarming words from her. “OK, and take care also. You are just like my mom.”      

The police patrol car left; its lights were now turned off.

Inside the Corolla, the couple was hushed not by lack of emotion and feelings of gratitude, but by the dramatic turn of events they just experienced. But Grandma—“My name is Maria Vida Corazon De Gracia, but call me Vida,” she said—as always, was quick to make heavy loads lighter. “I can ask David here—he is my nephew—to drive you to your place in—Lanciano City is it, right?”

“We are thinking—my wife and I—that you are more deserving of the baby than we are. Even if we just get our money back—without markup—we would be happy with it, and we will remain thankful and forever be indebted to you for saving us…” the husband said.

“…we really are not sure of what could have happened without you,” the wife added.

David, a first-year law student, passed by the Iztapalapa Police Station to file the report of attempted kidnapping against the trio that confronted them at Sta. Cruz. But before that, Vida invited the couple for some refreshment drinks in her home, which was about half a kilometer away from the police station.

Aboard the car, they already talked about the future of the child. Vida agreed to the couple’s compromise proposal that they would take custody of the child for a month, after which they would surrender the boy to her. They also agreed that Vida would reimburse them with the amount of 100K pesos, and that she would also be the one to complete the adoption papers, with herself as the designated adoptive parent.

Feeling more at ease and secure, their conversation became lively and freewheeling. They again introduced themselves, complete with short biographies.

Vida offered, “I used to be a judge—at one point also dabbling as university professor—but I retired early to take care of my sickly son, my beloved Dante. He was a priest. You know, priests have no families of their own that could look after them under those situations, although dioceses have provisions for medical care. My son was in pain for so long, and I knew he needed me by his side. So I sacrificed my career for him. I could have just taken a leave for one or two years, but I simply didn’t have the same professional drive anymore after he died.

“Anyway, I was qualified for early retirement, so I just sort of vanished from the maddening crowd. Besides, my late husband, who was a military general when he was taken hostage and eventually killed by a separatist rebel in Mindesaba, also left me relatively well-off with his retirement benefits. He died in the service of the country and is a hero. My son left me nothing financially, but he gave me the kind of peace that lifts my spirits high even when everyone else around me is down.”

The wife said, “My full name is Gertrudes Superales. My friends and family call me Trudie.

“We have been married nine years, not fifteen like I told you earlier, but we remain childless. We have consulted as many doctors as we could afford. We are not Catholics, but we have been to Obando in Bulacan, to Baclaran and, of course, Quiapo. We have even consulted faith healers, even plain kibitzers. Somebody said I could conceive if we adopted a child first, provided he or she was not a blood relation. So we went to orphanages, including Hospisyo, the one Jose Rizal referred to in one of his novels as where Spanish priests brought their illegitimate children to. It is a nice place, by the way.”

Vida laughed. “I heard this news on the radio—I think a month ago—about an abandoned child supposedly fathered by a priest. I actually inquired about it at Plaza Roma, but most of the people there whom I talked to said I needed to go to the parish office because Father Andoy or something has custody of the child. I have a soft spot for abandoned children”—she paused, noticing that the child had kicked his foot again—“because when my son was assigned to a parish in Sagrario, I saw how deaf and mute people radiate with hope and optimism despite their difficulties to communicate, which is how endearing abandoned children are, despite their frustrated longing for their parents.”     

Trudie continued, “Like I said, we are more of the kind among protestants than Catholics, but because of you I might just ask Jovy here to visit your churches and attend mass more frequently. We are impressed with the life-support institutions that the Catholic Church has built over the years—schools, hospitals, charities, orphanages, even prison ministries. That is why we trust in Catholic orphanages.”

The husband said, “Me? I am Jovito Bonayon. My nickname is Vito. I have been a construction worker in Saudi Arabia for five years.”

Vida noticed that Vito was not inclined to say much, so she did not press him to open himself up. Instead, she reverted to their hair-raising escape from an attempted kidnapping.

“What do you know about Sylvia? Could she have something to do with the rogue trio?”

They were totally clueless, the couple admitted. “We were resigned to the fact that we had already lost our money… probably even our lives… until you saved us,” Trudie said.

“Maybe I will just privately investigate with my contacts in the police community,” Vida replied, “but in the meantime, you need to feel out of danger too, you know, because of what happened this past hour.”

“We are thinking of leaving the infant in your care now and not next month or in the future. Maybe he is more secure here,” Vito suggested.

“I will agree to that if that is your wish—the security concern is definitely a strong point—although I will be glad to hear some plan for the two of you to bear a child,” Vida teased.

“There is none yet,” Trudie admitted, “but that should be next in our to-do list, for sure.”

Vida offered to close the conversation. “Here is the thing,” she said, “you now know our address, and you are more than welcome to come over any time you wish and see the baby.”

THE STORE OWNER TOLD Father Andoy that Sylvia, who left with the baby at least a couple of times, had in those occasions explained to her that she needed to get the baby vaccinated for polio and chicken fox, and some other diseases which she could no longer recall. 

The following day, Sir Dikomo also showed up looking for Sylvia. Told that she thought there was no sign of her coming back anytime soon, Sir Dikomo asked if he could search her room.

There were a few personal effects and old copies of tabloids, one of which had headlined Father Andoy being rumored to be the father of the baby.

Then there was a crumpled piece of paper beside the trash bin. Sir Dikomo picked it up and unfolded it. He saw randomly written names and what appeared to him to be telephone numbers, but most of them were crossed out. He slid the piece of paper into his pocket.

Back in his office, Sir Dikomo tried to call the numbers written on the paper. When Sir Dikomo could not get a ring from any of the numbers he dialed, he decided that either the numbers were typos, or they were not in use. He was left with no other recourse but to hunt Sylvia.

FOR THE NEXT FIVE YEARS Anding was called Franco. Vida had him baptized as Francisco De Gracia. His adoption was completed through a judicial process, including affidavits supporting his late birth registration. Date of birth was a product of conjecture: 14 March, 1985.

One night, Vida had a dream. She saw unknown creatures leaping out of the water as she and Franco were resting under a tree in a Batangas beach. As the creatures—which looked like a cross of scorpion and centipede, but with legs of an octopus—approached them, she quickly gathered Franco and scampered away. But, to her horror, one of those deceptively agile legs snatched Franco away from her.

The creatures taunted Vida as they totally ensnared Franco, who could not wiggle out from their grip. If it was any consolation to her, Franco’s facial language told her he was OK. 

SIR DIKOMO TRACKED HUSSIEN THO MUNIR at the Scout League of the Philippines (SLP) dormitory in Manila. The dormitory had been popular among transients from the provinces, especially Visayas and Mindesaba. In that dormitory, there were also three to four “permanent” dormitory residents. They were given special concessions as either national executive officials or major benefactors of the SLP. One of the permanent residents was Munir, who had been calling the SLP his home for the past eight months.

Aside from being relatively cheap, the dormitory was convenient for travelers from Mindesaba to see Munir for a variety of reasons, the most common of which was deploying contract workers to Middle East countries. Tho also brokered for politicians—some of them at the national level—which explained why his callers sometimes comprised of politicians and would-be politicians from Mindesaba. It had been a long time since schemers like them had made some seasonal business out of politics. But this time, talk was loud that the country’s president was calling for a general election in 1972. No one profited from commerce more than he who planned early for it, so the saying went.

It so happened that a policeman from Lanao del Sur, an acquaintance of Munir, had called on Sir Dikomo for an election-related operation in Mindesaba. The policeman casually mentioned Munir in passing, and asked Sir Dikomo if the latter knew him. Munir had extensive contacts in Mindesaba, he assured Sir Dikomo.

“He can help us further develop our network of election operators, down to the provincial and municipal levels,” the policeman suggested.

“Where is he?” Sir Dikomo asked, referring to Munir.

Dormitory guests were surprised to see four men in uniform looking for Munir. The front desk ushered them to his room. Despite his relative popularity, Tho Monir could not hide his surprise (perhaps more embarrassed than irritated) when he knew Sir Dikomo was looking for him. It must have been at least two years since they last met in downtown Quiapo. He suggested a cup of coffee at Fricky’s.

“I did not know you were hiding here,” Sir Dikomo joked. “I got lucky somebody from my hometown tipped me on your whereabouts.”

“Let’s find a cool place outside,” Tho suggested.

Sir Dikomo started talking on the way out of the dormitory. “It’s about Sylvia,” he said. “Any news about her?”

“I can inquire about her at the recruitment agency tomorrow.” Tho picked his words in between steps.

Outside, along Natividad Street, a police car was parked. Three men in uniform casually chatted nearby. “I’ll be back in a minute,” Sir Dikomo told them.

Tho Monir and Sir Dikomo walked toward Fricky’s—on Tho’s suggestion—which was some hundred meters away. Tho could sense the information Sir Dikomo sought was important enough that he was willing to walk that far for this meeting.

“That place is tension-free,” Tho said, pointing to the SLP dormitory, and at the same time changing the topic for a moment. “Seeing somebody in uniform could arouse antennas, you know.”

“I know,” Sir Dikomo replied. “Besides, it has been a while since somebody treated me to free lunch at Fricky’s,” he said, smiling.

“I don’t think they have lunch at eight thirty in the morning,” Tho retorted, surprised to see Sir Dikomo had suddenly stopped walking.

“But the truth is, this is going to be a short visit, Tho,” Sir Dikomo said, implying there was no need to go anywhere else. “I just really want to know if you know where Sylvia is.”

“In that case, we really need to have a lengthy talk. Besides, it has been a long time,” Munir insisted.

Munir had been indirectly mentioned in one of the cases against separatist rebels in Mindesaba. Although that case had been resolved and Munir had disentangled himself clean from any allegations, Sir Dikomo still avoided being seen in public with him. Thus, he could only accept the invitation with reluctance.   

Munir, of course, had his own agenda. Being seen in public with police officers in uniform—him without handcuffs—bolstered his image as a law-abiding citizen, especially in places like Manila, where prejudice was preponderant against goateed Muslim-looking men.     

At Fricky’s, Munir sought some assurance that Sylvia would not be hurt in exchange for the information Sir Dikomo was seeking. Munir knew that Sylvia had double-crossed Sir Dikomo. Fortunately for him, Sir Dikomo knew nothing more than the fact he and Sylvia had separated five or six years ago.

“I learned from the recruitment agency that Sylvia is back in Hongcau. She left three weeks ago.” Munir told Sir Dikomo the truth.

“I will go and ask my contacts to find her in Hongcau,” Sir Dikomo warned Munir with a whisper. Munir thought this was a bluff, and justifiably so, because he did not know that Sir Dikomo, while known as “boss chief with the ninja moves” among the underworld, was also working for OXD, and OXD had headquarters in Hongcau. While it was true the 100K pesos or so that Sir Dikomo would get for delivering an undocumented Panatag Baby to OXD was insignificant, one never knew if such a collaboration, should things turn out well, would land him a bigger role in the organization.

Just to make himself clear, Sir Dikomo repeated to Tho what it was that he needed from Sylvia: anything that would lead him to the Panatag Baby. “So you better be square with me, Tho, or you can pack your things up at the SLP.”

With an almost imperceptible nod, Munir said he understood. “Give me your contact number so I can call you when something comes up.”

Five years ago, Sylvia asked him to keep her personal belongings for her. She felt at the time that her security in the Philippines somehow depended on it, and it was Munir, more than anyone else, who could offer to her the best guarantee that those belongings would remain in her possession when the time came up for her to need them again.

The items included a hastily done directory that showed the names of people and their telephone numbers. Three of those names, including that of Sir Dikomo, transacted with her in her effort to bid out the Panatag Baby, a.k.a. Leandro Deo Renato “Anding” Moscavida, a.k.a. Francisco “Franco” De Gracia.

Two days after Sir Dikomo met Tho Munir, the policeman was in his office when he heard his assistant talking on the phone, asking who the caller was.

Sir Dikomo rose from behind his desk when the assistant, cupping the speaker of the telephone, told him someone named Munir wanted to talk to him. Sir Dikomo found Munir worth an ounce of trust when he checked with the Bureau of Immigration to see if somebody named Sylvia Munir departed for Hongcau on the date Tho said she left. Tho’s information was accurate.

“Yes,” Sir Dikomo hollered in his baritone voice.

“I have something here which you might find useful to follow through,” Tho Munir said, an air of triumph perceptible in his voice.

“What is that?” Sir Dikomo asked.

“Names and telephone numbers—they may lead you to where Sylvia has consigned the baby,” Tho said.

“Dictate them to me.”

Sir Dikomo listed five names. He scanned the yellow pages for the next two hours but could not see entries that matched his list. He instructed three of his men to do the same. After three hours, they still could not find them in the telephone directory. He knew the last recourse was to try to contact them through the telephone numbers given to him. He did the dialing himself.

“Good afternoon, can I speak to Ms. Vida Corazon De Gracia, please?”

“Yes, sir! Sorry, she is not around,” a man at the other end of the line replied.

“Thank you! This is from DHL Express. We have a parcel mail for her. Can you confirm the delivery address, please?”

“Please call again when she comes back, in about two hours.”

Sir Dikomo tried another number.

“Hi, good afternoon. This is Eugene from the Social Welfare Office Manila. I understand you are interested in adopting a child?”

“Yes, but that was a long time ago. We already have our own child. Bye.”

Sir Dikomo thought the Social Welfare Office line was working. He dialed another number.

“Hi, good afternoon. This is Mr. Cabangon from the Social Welfare Office Manila. I understand you are interested in adopting a child?”

“We do not know of a Mr. Cabangon from the Social Welfare Office, sorry,” a lady replied.

“Wait…” Sir Dikomo pressed, and the line went dead.

After two hours, Sir Dikomo dialed Vida’s number again.

“Hello, this is from DHL Express…”

“Hello,” Vida answered. “Yes, what about?”

“We have a parcel for you, but it seems there has been a mishandling in transit. The delivery address was defaced; we cannot read it. Can you provide that to us, please?”

“Yes, but how come you have our telephone number? You should find our address in the same place you found our number. Besides, I am not expecting any registered mail or parcel from anyone. Sorry, but I need to be excused. Bye.”

Sir Dikomo was about to give up on the Sylvia Munir caper when he thought about confirming how much was in it for him. He was resigned to moving on to another case—possibly even outside of the OXD, like the upcoming national and local elections—if the trouble was not worth it.

He arranged for a meeting with his OXD agent. Sir Dikomo negotiated for 2 million pesos for the baby, now a little more than 5 years old, saying OXD saved more than five years’ worth of babysitting him. When the new deal was closed, he offered 125K for each of the same three operatives that attempted to kidnap Deo Renato, a.k.a. Anding, in March of 1966.

The three OXD operatives were known by their aliases: Punzi, 35, a former track and field Olympian and a college physical education instructress; Benjo, the burly-built man who introduced himself as Metrocom; and Ivanho, the hulk. All three used to be members of the police force but had been dismissed for a variety of offenses.

While in the service, both Punzi and Benjo reported to the logistics command of the Integrated National Police (INP) somewhere in Central Luzon. They issued trip tickets for the use of a chopper that ended up being used to drop a corpse stuffed with a concrete mixture inside a cylindrical steel drum from 500 feet above the sea. Nobody knew Sir Dikomo, in cahoots with a former classmate at the military school who had the authority to sign papers, was behind the request to commission the chopper for such a dubious mission.

Personal motives and professional rivalries within the command later led to a string of investigations of alleged irregularities, such as the unofficial use of police assets, including choppers, being committed by uniformed and administrative staff of INP. The investigations eventually led to the dismissal of several personnel that included Punzi and Benjo.

Through his network, Sir Dikomo recruited both Punzi and Benjo to OXD. Both recruits, of course, had no idea that Sir Dikomo was the root cause of their downfall. In his desire to help them recoup lost income, he asked an ally of Makatigbas to introduce them to the underworld.

With cunning, Punzi was able to extract the addresses of two of the five names given to them by Sir Dikomo. But after a week of surveillance, they found no one resembling a five-year-old-something boy. They were also on the lookout for the Toyota Corolla whose owner they had encountered in Sta. Cruz, Manila, some five years ago. There was none.

At the telephone company, they found the address of Vida Corazon De Gracia—the fourth entry in Sylvia’s list. Her house was located in between the boundary of Lanciano City to the north and Manila to the south. From Paquito’s Chicken—located a block away from the gate—they could see what came in and out of Vida’s gate.

For three weeks, they took turns looking at Vida’s gate from Paquito’s Chicken. They were able to establish some kind of a routine. On eight occasions they tailed the Toyota Corolla and found that the three of them—Vida, David, Franco—were always together. They went to Santo Domingo church on a Sunday. On Fridays, they either went to Senhora das Neves, Sau Paulo, or to Cubao for shopping; when in Cubao, they also dropped by at Fiesta Carnival for Franco’s fun rides and frolicking. David went out of the house for several hours on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. He commuted whenever he went out alone. Most days of the week Vida and Franco were at home.

Given the routine, they figured that the best day on which to execute their plan was either a Sunday or a Friday. For some reason, either influenced by superstition or anything no one had an ample explanation for, they ruled out “working” on a Sunday.

The following Friday, 13 April 1990, the plan to snatch Franco was set. Sir Dikomo’s directive was to bring the boy to his apartment in Quiapo. The OXD guys thought it was odd. But there was no place more secure than an apartment one hundred fifty meters away from his office at the police station. When Punzi asked him if Quiapo could be a problem on a Friday due to traffic, Sir Dikomo assured them that he would deploy enough men to ensure traffic would flow smoothly along Lanciano Boulevard on the designated day.

But three days before Friday, the OXD operatives, convinced with their assumption that the would-be victim was good for at least a 3-million-peso ransom, had decided to double-cross Sir Dikomo in the event something went wrong with the extraction procedure. They knew what double-crossing OXD meant to their overall health and security, but they also believed that they had the kind of talent and daring that otherwise would get paid several times over than what they were getting from Sir Dikomo. Their OXD training and experience had brought them to places around the world. They thrived in high-risk and high-reward contracts. And this was just one of them.

FRANCO, DAVID, AND VIDA were out strolling in Senhora das Neves Shopping Center in Sau Paulo to buy something for the boy. Vida had no way of knowing Franco’s exact birthdate, but by conjecture she thought he was close to a month old when she took him in March of 1985. She picked March 14 from his adoption papers. The last two weeks she had been thinking of buying a birthday present for Franco.

The bond between Franco and Vida had grown stronger as the days went by. The boy was good-natured and cheerful; not once had Vida seen him scowling or doing anything to suggest that he was complaining. To her amusement, she also saw signs of him being an odd man out, sort of, or one that just did not go with the flow. For example, the two of them, by chance, passed by a sparse crowd watching a sidewalk magician. While almost everyone had their eyes focused on the magician, Vida saw that Franco was intently watching the faces of spectators instead.

Despite Franco’s autistic nature (a physician friend convinced her that he showed signs of a kind of autism that disappears on its own as the person advances in age), Vida thought the toddler could be a good priest someday, which was the sole motivation that inspired her to keep him at all costs.

The OXD operatives scanned the parking lot. They saw the red Corolla, and they parked their car along the walkway that led to it. They waited for less than an hour before they spotted the three approaching their location. Benjo and Ivanho alighted and left open the passenger door of the Lancer (the same car they used in 1976, but this time thoroughly repainted in black) to the side of the walkway. Then they stood a few meters away from the open door of the car, looking at a nearby newsstand and acting as if they were attracted to a picture in a tabloid. Punzi was at the wheel.

Just as Franco, David, and Vida came close to the Lancer, Benjo shoved Franco toward the open door of the Lancer while Ivanho pushed David away. With their .45-caliber pistols drawn, Benjo and Ivanho aimed their firearms at both David and Vida.

With hardly any resistance from the toddler, Benjo tossed Franco—who must have weighed less than fifteen kilos—to the back seat of the Lancer, after which he also hopped in. His back to the Lancer, Ivanho again pointed his gun at the still-shocked David and Vida. Ivanho then turned and scurried back toward the other side of the Lancer, climbing to the front seat beside Punzi, who pumped the gas pedal in a manner that caused the Lancer to furiously dart forward, its doors dangling from the side.     

In less than twelve seconds, David and Vida lost Franco to kidnappers. Vida motioned to David to look for a public telephone booth. They found one at the far end of the shopping mall. Vida dialed the number of a high-ranking police officer whose mother was a family friend. She also dialed the number of another high-ranking military officer whose father was in the same combat unit that was led by her late husband. For good measure, she also called yet another active police officer whose father was a fellow judge in the appellate courts.

She told them the plate number, color, and make of the kidnappers’ vehicle. She also told the would-be pursuers that the kidnappers were heading toward Sta. Mesa, Manila.

As soon as Vida and David were inside their home, she dialed retired Army General Rosendo Dimas Uy, one of her late husband’s closest friends and “mistahs”. He owed his life to her husband when they were young, fighting communist rebels in Bolibar Occidental. The help she asked from everyone else might not materialize, but Gen. Uy was one she could rely on all the time. Also, among Vida’s acquaintances in the military, both active and retired, Ros Uy was the go-to guy on matters that involved kidnap-for-ransom cases.

“Ros,” Vida blurted out, trying to control her voice, “something happened to Franco. Kidnapped about thirty minutes ago.”

After providing him the details—plate number, car make and color, features of kidnappers (they were in bonnet), etc.—Ros Uy assured her of his help. “Let’s see what I can do,” he said. “I will set something up in my network to track new movements. In the meantime, call me as soon as somebody contacts you for ransom.”

AS THE KIDNAPPERS APPROACHED the intersection of Magsaysay Boulevard and Victorino Mapa Streets, they saw parked police cars with overhead blinking lights some five hundred meters away. It looked as if a hastily improvised checkpoint had been set up. As vehicular traffic started to slow down in bunches, Punzi spun the Lancer around until it did a 360. To their surprise, another patrol car came into sight, some six hundred meters away, directly opposite their path. There was an intersection between them, and a decision needed to be made in seconds.

“Let’s go… to the right,” Ivanho suggested.

Punzi was about to turn the wheel to her right when she saw a jam just ahead of them.

“Back up a little and turn left instead,” Benjo ordered.

Turning right would have led them to Aparicida in Ocaranza, then Sta. Ana toward Quiapo. Turning left meant reaching Manila through Iztapalapa, onward to España Boulevard, then finally Quiapo.

In Iztapalapa, the streets were clear. They headed for Trabaho Street where, upon reaching the España intersection, they saw a police officer reaching for his handheld radio, frantically yelling to it. They knew Sir Dikomo was within four kilometers and felt they could dash for home base unscathed. Within minutes they heard sirens blaring and patrol lights blinking some three hundred meters behind them. Punzi pushed the gas pedal harder.

A couple of minutes later, while turning left from España to Lanciano Boulevard, heading toward Quiapo, they heard more sirens from atop the Tepeyac Overpass. They reckoned that unless they traversed Quiapo fast enough, at least three groups of police patrols could intercept them—one from Legnica Street and two who were closing in from behind them.

On reaching the corner of Legnica Street, the OXD operatives were blocked by vehicular traffic. In front of them were hordes of devotees of the Black Nazarene, who were blocking one-fourth of Lanciano Boulevard. Even astute logistics planners like the OXD operatives did not expect this swell of human and vehicular traffic in the area on such a crucial day.

As traffic crawled to a halt, Punzi saw from the rear mirror the doors of a police car opened. Three men in uniform rushed out, armed with short weapons. Ivanho turned to his right just as more patrol cars positioned themselves, from which he also saw policemen leaping out, fully armed as well.

There was no time to lose. They left the Lancer in the middle of the road, Franco in tow. They hurriedly moved inside Mamiluk, a popular mami house in that part of Quiapo. At the sidewalk, Ivanho hurriedly bought an assortment of clothing items.

Inside Mamiluk, Benjo took Invanho’s props and brought Franco to the comfort station, where he changed the boy’s outfit to make it look like he was a girl. He also put on a cap and jacket on top of his T-shirt. Then he and Franco slid out of the comfort station.

A waiter was about to take their order when Punzi and Ivanho saw Benjo coming out of the comfort station. They politely apologized to the waiter, saying they forgot something outside and needed to leave. In seconds they left Mamiluk, one after the other.

Ivanho was the last to leave. He lingered for a while among the throngs of passersby at the sidewalk fronting Mamiluk. He saw several traffic cops, probably the ones assigned by Sir Dikomo, but instead of facilitating the flow of traffic, they kibbitzed on the sudden appearance of fellow cops. This was understandable: Sir Dikomo, working on his own private and secret agenda, had not informed them beforehand that something like this could happen. The black Lancer, now deserted, was surrounded by cops and onlookers. Ivanho saw and heard policemen asking witnesses as to which direction the Lancer’s passengers went.

He casually walked away when he saw the uniformed men making moves to disperse themselves, some of them heading directly to Mamiluk. Around fifty meters away, toward Quiapo Church, he met Punzi and Benjo, who were waiting for him.

The eleven thirty a.m. mass had just ended. They crept inside the church as devotees milled out, whose hands reached up to the heavens to bathe in the sprinkling of holy water. The sea of churchgoers was perfect for them to blend in and to conceal themselves away with the crowd.

The team needed some quick huddle time. They felt the place was right for it.

In whispers, Ivanho proposed that they could go and tell Sir Dikomo that they lost the child while trying to escape from pursuers. 

“Where… at which point of the chase?” Punzi asked. “We need to have a matching alibi.”

“At Mamiluk, of course,” Benjo said, also in whispers but with evident conviction.

“And that?” Punzi motioned to Franco, hand clamped by Ivanho, with her kisser.

Looking around, Benjo spotted a closet at the back of the church fronting the altar. He walked toward the area and tried to open it. Pleasantly surprised, he found it unlocked. From what he saw, he could tell that it was a storage room. He could also see what he thought were dried and withering sampaguita flowers that had been collected from the foot of images inside the church.

He signaled Ivanho to tie Franco up with packing tapes and to deposit him in the dark part of that storeroom or service area box, whatever it was. Punzi and Benjo stood close to each other, trying to cover Ivanho and Franco from the sight of churchgoers, whose focus, deep in prayer, was fixed at statues of saints. Ivanho then locked Franco, whose mouth was also sealed with an adhesive tape, inside the storeroom.

“Watch over it,” Benjo directed Punzi. “We will go find Dikomo and tell him we lost the child. We shall be back in a few minutes.” 

SIR DIKOMO HAD FELT UNCOMFORTABLE for the last half an hour. He had been expecting a call from the OXD operatives. That he had not received any meant most likely that something went wrong with the operation. When instead he got a call from the substation informing him of the massing of troopers around the Lanciano Boulevard area, he felt worried, tense, and alarmed.

He directed five of seven of his subordinates to follow him. They hurriedly left for Lanciano Boulevard, which was just about a hundred steps away. Then they crossed the now crowded street, passing through the Aguinaldo Underpass. On reaching Plaza Roma, Sir Dikomo saw that all vehicular traffic was at a standstill. Over at the vicinity of Legnica Street, police patrol cars were blocking all other vehicles.

He and his men rushed to the densely crowded area. On meeting the uniformed men, he introduced himself, firmly stating that he was the Chief of Police in the Quiapo area and that he was in charge. The tone was authoritative, suggesting in more ways than one that he felt offended that no coordination was conducted with his office before the whole ruckus in his place erupted.

When informed that a hot pursuit operation against three kidnappers was ongoing, he demanded more details.        

Who were the suspects? How many? Where were they? Sir Dikomo wanted to know.

Informed that the suspects and their five-year-old-something victim went inside Mamiluk and had not been seen since, and that no one could tell if a toddler had ever come out of the restaurant, Sir Dikomo’s team stormed the place. They saw about ten policemen inside the restaurant; three were descending from the stairs that led to the second floor, and at least three were inspecting the comfort station.

“It was locked from the inside,” an investigator informed Sir Dikomo, “so we forced it open. There was no one inside.”

Sir Dikomo and his men rushed outside and walked briskly toward the Quiapo Church. Had the OXD guys reached the apartment? He certainly had hoped so.

Beside the church and wading their way toward the street side entrance of the Aguinaldo Underpass, Sir Dikomo and his men were slowed down by the growing density of churchgoers who were now mixed with onlookers curious to know what the combined police and military operation was all about. One could sense that even the policemen in the area had the look of an amused spectator. At Legnica, Sir Dikomo had earlier directed all uniformed men to block all traffic coming in and out of Lanciano Boulevard.

Fortuitously, Sir Dikomo took a quick glance to his right, and there he saw Benjo and Ivanho stepping out of the church. Then there were two youngsters who followed them from Legnica who shouted, “There! The kidnappers!”

Almost everyone heard this, and all eyes turned to Benjo and Ivanho. Before Sir Dikomo could move a muscle, he saw his men, along with several other patrolmen he did not know, pulling out their pistols and sprinting toward Benjo and Ivanho.

Weaving themselves behind the throng for cover, the duo slipped swiftly back inside the church. People scampered away as policemen charged in the direction of Benjo and Ivanho.

Inside the church, Benjo and Ivanho stealthily passed by Punzi. They told her to leave the hidden treasure behind and to scurry out of the church as fast as she could.

Sir Dikomo knew every alley in Quiapo, even the narrowest of them. From the Lanciano Boulevard side of Aguinaldo Underpass, he walked briskly toward the middle of Plaza Roma, where he knew he could spot the fleeing rats. It certainly helped that the crowd here was not as dense as it was at Lanciano Boulevard. Like a raptor, he scanned the field, looking for his prey. He saw not even a shadow of the trio.

He needed to trust his instincts. Eyes darting from alley to alley, Sir Dikomo focused his gaze on a familiar gait. Ivanho! He was not fleeing, just acting like a usual buyer of herbal products and candles peddled at a sidewalk leading to Padre Pio.

It occurred to Sir Dikomo that the OXD operatives were blending well with the crowd. They were taking advantage of it. He also thought that the pursuing officers were looking for the child more than they were hunting the suspects. He wondered on whose authority these fellow law enforcers were operating. He wondered why they showed up so fast, and in such an emphatic force of at least ten patrol cars. Yonder at the foot of the Lanciano Bridge, minutes earlier he had seen the arrival of the armored vehicles of the Philippine Army.

He wondered if he might have come in conflict with another government official, perhaps one who was more influential than he was.

His sly idea of sneaking beside Ivanho to ask him where one could find the boy was dashed by those thoughts. Witnesses, including friendly forces, establishing his contact with the suspect could doom his fate. That OXD and Sir Dikomo were associated in some way could be alleged against him. He could not accept the thought that he might end up being investigated for such an allegation.

He had to settle with an empty bag, at least for now, and let Ivanho go. The former bemedaled cop, discharged from the service for a botched cocaine haul that threatened to expose a high-ranking politician, had just appeared to him to be the ultimate pro. One who did not panic, Ivanho to him was simply grace under fire. 

Sir Dikomo followed Ivanho with his intermittent and glancing gazes as the latter casually made his way toward Sta. Cruz, Manila. Sir Dikomo saw, like he expected, both Punzi and Benjo waiting, in the guise of rummaging through bargained sidewalk merchandise, for their associate. Sir Dikomo could tell with certainty that they were not in possession of the boy.

Baffled, Sir Dikomo retraced his steps toward Legnica. Although often lost in his own thoughts, he sometimes talked to his subordinates. Up to this point, he hardly noticed that they were keeping their noses close to him as much as they were tracking the suspects.

At Legnica, Sir Dikomo—being the man in charge—answered questions from press reporters who had just arrived at the scene.

“My information is that, and we still need to further investigate this, we have a kidnap situation here. That one”—pointing to the unoccupied Lancer—“is the alleged kidnapping vehicle. Three suspects and a child—a boy this tall—were seen by witnesses to have come out of that vehicle. Then they fled to this area”—pointing in the direction of Mamiluk—“but since then we could not track the suspects. Witnesses again pointed to the supposed suspects over there”—pointing to Quiapo Church— “and I was there. But we could not pin them down due to the swelling crowd…”

“Yes, we have been told you did your best to apprehend the suspects at the entrance of the church…” a press reporter interrupted. “Do you have an idea in which direction the suspects fled?”

“No, but based on the zoning of the area, either Mediatrix here or Sta. Cruz there are likely places where they can find refuge… or take jump-off points for other sanctuaries. I need to buzz the Chief of Police in Sta. Cruz now, if you’ll excuse me, please…”                                    

Sir Dikomo conferred with fellow police officers who converged at the area aboard patrol cars. After securing the help of witnesses (mostly bystanders in the area) who agreed to join them in their cars, Sir Dikomo and the troopers also agreed that the chase would proceed to Sta. Cruz.

Minutes later, brandishing a megaphone, he instructed traffic enforcers to open all lanes for traffic to resume its flow. Applause and honks followed Sir Dikomo’s command. Motorists had been stuck in their vehicles for at least forty-five minutes.

After talking briefly with Police Major Andrei Mosende, the Chief of Police in Sta. Cruz, Sir Dikomo and his men left for Quiapo. The pursuing patrol cars could be seen lining up at Avenida and Mediatrix streets.

In Quiapo, he directed his men to proceed to the police station while he made his way toward the church’s convent. Always accorded with warm welcome by the priests, one of the parish staff members ushered him into the Rector’s office.

“Please sit down, General.” Monsignor Hoben Ubanon greeted him as they shook hands inside the latter’s office. “What’s that commotion about?” Ubanon did not know what Sir Dikomo’s actual rank was, but he always addressed the cop “General” anyway.

“Apparently a kidnap situation, Monsi,” Sir Dikomo retorted. “And I need your help.”

As usual, Sir Dikomo did not leave Monsignor Hoben’s office without finishing a cup of Batangas coffee. The essence of his request was for Monsi to report to him should any of his priests or staff members, including the Hijos, got wind of somebody resembling the kidnap victim.

A PAIR OF HIJOS—BOY NASIONALES DIAZ, a.k.a. Boynas Diaz, and Elodon Haropoy, a.k.a. El Odon—alternated at collecting trash, consisting mostly of wilted Sampaguita flowers wrapped around the foot of revered statues and images inside the church.

Boynas Diaz would usually dump his collection of trash inside the closet. At the close of church services around ten in the evening, El Odon, and sometimes one of the salaried church workers, would collect all trash from bins and closets inside the church and the surroundings outside.

At nine o’clock p.m., churchgoers thinned out inside the church. The last mass had concluded fifteen minutes earlier. In about thirty minutes, half of the lights inside the church would be turned off. At ten, the church doors would be closed.

The light was still on at one of the confessional boxes, which meant that a priest was still inside, waiting for remorseful souls to unload their burden. Inside the confessional was Father Revo, the confessor. For the past hour he had not heard any client. But in this private world, he multitasked. When he did not hear confessions, he read books. That day he was trying to finish Rubem Alves’s Towards a Theology of Liberation. 

When Father Revo finally stepped outside of the confessional, Boynas Diaz hurriedly approached him. Boynas Diaz said a lady was asking him to open the storeroom at the back.

The lady in question was Punzi. She and her teammates found their way back inside the church. They had changed clothing and donned facial props. They took seats far from each other, each one keeping a watchful eye on what went on at the back of the church.

Asked to explain, Boynas Diaz said there was something that looked creepy, and he did not understand what that something was. Father Revo looked around and saw church security staff at the main gate. There was also one at the Lanciano Boulevard side. Another one with a K-9 patrolled the aisles, picking up litter left by churchgoers.

About fifteen, at most twenty, were inside the church, but Boynas Diaz could not find the lady when Father Revo asked the other to show him where she was.

El Odon, pushing a cart, appeared from the back entrance and went straight to the storeroom. He opened it with a key and, with his hands in gloves, gathered the trash inside and dumped it into his cart.   

Boynas Diaz and Father Revo met El Odon at the exit door facing Padre Pio as he was stepping out.

“What’s inside that storeroom?” Father Revo asked.

“Where, where, why, why?” El Odon (also nicknamed “Doblete” because he often said his words twice) asked, puzzled.

“There,” Boynas Diaz said, pointing at the back of the church, “at the storeroom where you collected that trash. Did you leave that open this morning?”

El Odon’s growing bewilderment was evident.

Boynas Diaz said, “A stranger just asked me to open that storeroom. This morning I found that something inside looked different. I did not check what it was. Is there something in that room that would be of interest to anybody?”

“Well, I think the answer to that question is to go there and check,” Father Revo said. He then proceeded to ask the security personnel to request the remaining churchgoers inside the church to leave and close all doors. Everybody knew it was closing time anyway, except perhaps Benjo and Ivanho, who left with perceptible hesitation. Before dumping Franco, they strapped his body and covered his mouth with packing tape. They knew that the boy remained immobile inside the storeroom and hoped he would still be alive the next day.

As Father Revo, Boynas Diaz, and El Odon checked the dark portion of the storeroom, they noticed a bulging bag or something on the floor. El Odon dared to touch it and was as frightened as he was surprised to find that it was not a bag; rather it was the body of a human being, and it slightly moved.

Almost by instinct, Father Revo called security. In seconds, the three were surrounded by some three or four security staff members, one with a K-9, and at least two more Hijos. There was hesitation, but eventually a security staff pulled out the hog-tied boy. The sight of a half-dead Franco unfolded before everyone’s eyes. His mouth was plastered with packing tape. His wrists and ankles were wrapped to his body—like a pig ready for roasting—also with tape.

Father Revo, again almost instinctively, moved to unzip Franco’s mouth, but a security personnel stopped him and volunteered to do the unwrapping himself. With a pocketknife, he cut the tape around Franco’s body. Franco slumped to the granite floor like a heap. The same security personnel picked Franco up and rushed him to the parish clinic, going through the altar door which was a shorter distance than going through the main door.

Through the metallic railings of the church doors, Benjo and Ivanho saw that Franco had been discovered. The OXD duo had waited outside to keep an eye on him.

Father Revo and the Hijos gave Franco the best first aid care they could offer. The first time they saw Franco’s face exposed to the glare of light, it looked as if he had been starved of oxygen for days. The parish medical staff was not available all the time, and during this time of day the closest doctor they could call might at best arrive in only about thirty minutes. Father Revo reckoned that the child would be fine as soon as a medical professional got to see him within that span of time.

Forty minutes went by and not a shadow of a doctor or a nurse was within sight. Father Revo decided to take Franco, accompanied by Boynas Diaz, to a nearby hospital. They used the parish vehicle; the priest himself was on the wheel.

By some coincidence, the OXD trio’s car—this time a white Gemini—had been navigating the lanes of Cupertino Avenue for more than five hundred meters alongside Father Revo’s Toyota Tamaraw. The trio (who sank themselves into a recapitulation of how policemen had thwarted them twice already in their attempt to snatch the child, the first one being in 1985 at Sta. Cruz) could have recognized Franco had they gotten around to spot him, but the Tamaraw’s door covered him from their line of sight. At the League of Nations Avenue intersection, Father Revo’s car turned right toward the Singhua Doctor’s Hospital. The Gemini turned left toward the Kapatagan Police District headquarters.

After a couple of hours, Father Revo and company were back in Quiapo Church. Franco this time was looking fine, in quite a stark contrast from the way he looked just three hours earlier.

Church staff helped them get Franco a meal. They also provided him with temporary sleeping quarters in one of the vacant rooms for guests in the rectory.

The Rector, Monsignor Ubanon, had called it a day at ten p.m. He would be informed about Franco on the morning of the following day.

Three days after Franco’s abduction, Vida was baffled that no one had contacted her for ransom demands. The day after Franco’s abduction, General Rosendo Dimas Uy had briefed her that authorities lost the child in a chase somewhere in Quiapo Church. The kid was nowhere to be found, but General Uy assured her that he would continue to sniff around for unusual movements. Vida offered him as much as one million pesos which he could use any way he pleased just so he could help her bring Franco back.

Although Sir Dikomo knew that the OXD had botched their operation, he expected them to report to him right away. They did so only the next morning, through an emissary. Somehow this caused him to feel wary about the trio being loose.  

At least three groups were now looking for Franco, namely the OXD trio of Punzi, Benjo, and Ivanho (who at this point thought they were now working on their own); Vida’s hired troopers; and Sir Dikomo’s strike force. Most members of the last two groups were receiving government salaries, but the potential extra income they could earn enticed them to put in person-hours for an undertaking that could be argued as more private than public.

THE DAY AFTER FRANCO WAS FOUND BUNDLED inside the church, on 13 April 1990, Monsignor Ubanon asked his secretary to dial Sir Dikomo’s office. He wanted the police chief to see if Franco was the one he was looking for.

In minutes Sir Dikomo was at the rectory and saw Franco for the first time. He had no idea if indeed Franco was the child he was looking for. But firsthand accounts by Hijos, Father Revo, security, and clinic staff convinced Sir Dikomo that Franco was the kidnapping victim.

All this time Franco had not spoken a word.

“What’s your name?” No answer except a dismissive look on his face. “Where do you live?” This sounded to him an even tougher question. “Who is your mommy?” Still nothing; maybe he knew but did not know how to say it.

Everyone had tried to coax him to say something. No one succeeded. If it was any consolation, however, Franco did not look worried or stressed.

Sir Dikomo told Monsi Ubanon that he would send somebody from his unit to fetch Franco, who would eventually bring him to the Social Welfare Office. Sir Dikomo explained that the Social Welfare Office not only would be in the best position to help de-traumatize the child but also to facilitate his return to his family.

Back at his office, Sir Dikomo’s staff informed him that General Makatigbas called when he was out. The latter said he would expect Sir Dikomo to return his call.

“That boy you told me about,” General Makatigbas said after greeting Sir Dikomo, “is Judge De Gracia’s adopted child.”

For a few seconds, Sir Dikomo was too embarrassed to say a word. It now made sense to him—how it happened that too many troopers he had no idea where they came from had converged at the crime scene almost instantly two days ago.

Makatigbas added, “I got the info from no less than General Uy.”

The two of them did not need to say anything more. The OXD operation involving this child was done, finished, and out of the way.

“It is good that I now know where the child is,” Sir Dikomo replied, with not a trace of emotion noticeable from his voice. “I can send for Judge De Gracia to confirm his identity, then proceed to announce to the press that the kidnapping case is solved.”

It might not have been the best outcome for Sir Dikomo, but surely losing a few million pesos or so in this manner was more than compensated for by seeing how his legend as Manila’s finest could further soar.

“And by the way,” Sir Dikomo felt he had momentum, “I expect the trio to be completely out of this too. They used to be your operatives before you assigned them to me.”

“Of course,” General Makatigbas replied, sounding irritated and resigned. “Take out the whip. They were my men before they got separated from service. Not mine now. But I will talk to them if they call me.”

FATHER REVO ASKED MONSIGNOR Ubanon in private if the Rector thought it was odd for Sir Dikomo to take Franco away before he could announce to the press that the kidnapping victim had been found. They agreed in the observation that the media had to some extent turned the Quiapo kidnapping into a high-profile case, therefore it would have been a tremendous image-booster for Sir Dikomo to once more edify yet another sterling accomplishment of his in a press conference.

Monsignor Ubanon agreed with Father Revo that it might have been better to talk Sir Dikomo out of his plan to take the child away without first informing the press. However, he decided against Father Revo’s suggestion that the child be brought to the Hospisyo instead of the Social Welfare Office, until his parents were identified so they could reclaim him.

“I miss Father Andoy,” Monsignor Ubanon told Father Revo. Like priests who had been open target for tabloid items, Father Andoy was shipped to another diocese where he was deemed less known by parishioners. He could return to Quiapo after five years, however. Or he could have been sent to Rome for advanced studies in Theology, but his academic profile hardly endorsed him for such an opportunity.

Very likely Monsignor Ubanon was referring to what happened in an all-star baptism of an abandoned infant about five years ago.

“Yes,” Father Revo chimed in. “He had a way of putting himself in the middle of anything that others would shy away from.” And they both chuckled.

THE OXD TRIO TOLD General Makatigbas that they needed to be reimbursed when the latter directed them to drop the operation involving Vida’s child. They asked for half a million pesos for a month-long surveillance and for the Lancer which they deemed condemned. The general commented that the person to talk to on OXD matters was Dikomo. When they replied that Dikomo might have lost trust in them and were therefore asking the former boss to relay their sentiment to Dikomo, Makatigbas assured them of his help. But he also explained that the more immediate concern was to establish the parentage of the child, and to re-unite him with Judge De Gracia if indeed he was her surrogate child.

The trio adopted two contingency plans. One was to remain with OXD provided they got compensated within the next twenty-four hours. The longer it took for them to get paid, the higher the odds that they would never be paid at all. The other required a tougher decision-making process. They assumed that, given General Reg’s telling them that the child was assumed to belong to Judge De Gracia, it had become too risky to reclaim the child due to her connections within the law enforcement agencies. But in the event they would indeed find a way to reclaim the child—against all odds, that is—they could demand no less than a 3-million-peso ransom, given Judge De Gracia’s rumored wealth.

At five thirty p.m., 14 April 1990, Punzi received a call from El Odon. On the night of the previous day, she closely studied the mien of both El Odon and Boynas Diaz. She thought El Odon was easier to negotiate with. She discreetly approached him and showed him her duplicate badge. She offered him two thousand pesos in exchange for information on the whereabouts of the child. Another five thousand pesos would be given to him if any information he gave to her was deemed helpful for her work.

On the phone, El Odon told her that he heard the police would transfer the boy from the rectory to Sir Dikomo’s office across Lanciano Boulevard.

“A press… press conference had been… been set… set at eight p.m. eight p.m. in his office… office,” El Odon reported.

The distance between the rectory and Sir Dikomo’s office was less than three hundred meters and, in the trio’s assumption, Franco’s security would probably use the Aguinaldo Underpass to cross Lanciano Boulevard.

Benjo and Ivanho moved quickly. Benjo had earlier talked to the Warden of Manila City Jail, who was a friend from a long time ago when Benjo was still in the police force. They started as acquaintances when Benjo was attending court hearings. Benjo offered the warden five thousand pesos for the services of three prisoners, preferably petty criminals from the Quiapo area, and another one thousand pesos for honorarium of the guards who would be assigned to secure the detainees. The task was for the prisoners to clean the streets from Sunday’s litter around Quiapo in the evening, escorted by prison guards who however did not know what was going to happen except to prevent any escape. Three prisoners would normally require three guards, but in this instance, only two guards had reported for duty.

The prisoners tripped each other for the opportunity of being sent out on errands like this. They knew that a number of hours of community service would be deducted from the full length of their jailtime. There had been other assignments aside from the so-called Good Conduct Time Allowance incentives, such as those that entailed payment of “professional fees.” They mostly referred to renting prisoners as hired assassins, whose cells functioned like safehouses.

At about seven thirty p.m., Benjo, who had disguised himself as an itinerant vendor, stayed close to the entrance of the Aguinaldo Underpass at the Plaza Roma side. He was assuming that Sir Dikomo and his men would take this route to transfer Franco from the convent to his office across Lanciano Boulevard.

Punzi and Ivanho were at the Lanciano Boulevard side of the Underpass, just across from where Benjo was. The trio planned a scenario where a commotion, to be triggered in large part by Quiapo’s habitués—so that Sir Dikomo would not suspect somebody was on the loose trying to snatch Franco—could create enough distraction for the toddler’s security.

Unknown to them, Sir Dikomo had his own counter-security steps all planned out and set for execution, in the event something untoward happened. Plan A was to bring Franco in on board a secure car, from the convent then south toward Mediatrix Street and back to the other side of Lanciano Boulevard. Plan B—in the event there was heavy traffic at Mediatrix—was for the fetching unit to cross Lanciano Boulevard on foot via Legnica Overpass. The Aguinaldo Underpass route was the last and the least likely option.

Sir Dikomo had the foresight not to inform Vida about Franco before the press conference, because that, to him, was a sure way to invite unknown forces at the behest of General Uy. In the eyes of the venerable Judge Vida, and most especially before the press, he did not wish to share the limelight with any law enforcer to whom one way or the other she could be indebted for the rescue of Franco.

Benjo could be seen next as if he was in an earnest conversation with a bystander. The latter would move toward another huddle, this time involving what appeared to be two loose groups—a game of dama (a local derivative for chess) was in progress in one of them while a card game was about to begin in the other. These diversions often morphed into drinking sprees as evening progressed deeper into the night. At least two, one after the other, followed the bystander’s prompting; they got up to have a better look at a street sweeper some sixty meters away.

“You looking for Bodabil?” one of the card wagers asked the bystander.

“No, he was asking if anyone remembers Bodabil, the snatcher of Sta. Cruz…” volunteered an onlooker of the dama game.

“I remember the name, but not the face…” shared another. “He stabbed the friend of a friend. Let me correct myself, my guess is that he is a member of a big-time kidnap-for-ransom syndicate with reward money on his head.”

The unwritten rule among gangsters in the area was that there was hostility toward anyone who harmed their kind. Often what determined which gang ruled over a territory was the clandestine support given by some members of the police who demanded protection money. Whichever gang delivered on a consistent basis their end of the unwritten contract with the police was assured of continued operation of whatever underground business they were into.

Quiapo had been a prime location for gangsters as it was for men of the cloth. It need not be said that in this church, clergymen collected bumper harvests from devotees—although they represented just a small portion of total donations collected during mass—that flocked to the church every day. Those harvests were made more abundant during Sundays and Fridays. Even priests from faraway places could request, especially if they had connections to the hierarchy, to officiate one of the Friday masses on the ground that they needed extra funds for their respective parishes, such as when they got hit by calamities. The immortal joke was that the calamities included fellow priests getting their girlfriends pregnant.  

The crowd attracted predators of all kinds—snatchers, swindlers, sellers of fake items, petty criminals, organized criminals, etc. Like barracudas that ambush a school of mackerel, these predators, some of them itinerant just like many of the churchgoers who came from faraway places, freely pounced on unsuspecting prey.  

Quiapo was also a haven for beggars. Devotees who came to either ask or thank the Black Nazarene for whatever favor they felt had been granted to them were likely to cast sympathetic eyes upon the downtrodden.

“Let’s take a look, shall we?” It was a command, not a question, from the one who most likely was the boss.