This is about a strange encounter I had many years ago. It’s a lengthy one, but allow me to narrate it to you just the same. I came from a middle-class family and although I should be able to live comfortably enough as a student, things went sour after my father’s passing. Tuition payments could be intense and so I had no choice but to find work to help out with the expenses, luckily, I was able to land one nearby. The place was open 24-hours, however, it was not as popular as compared to the big names you’d usually go for. But they had decent food choices, making them a good-enough alternative for those who worked at the nearby commercial buildings and for the students who went to the university. I worked on the graveyard shift, which meant, foot traffic wasn’t as high compared to daytime. Needless to say, it worked pretty well with what I needed — a peaceful place where I could focus to do a bit of studying while earning. The only setback was that the public transport wasn’t available during wee hours, either you’d wait it out until daybreak or walk for a few kilometers to get to the nearest bus station which was ill-advised. On that particular night, when I clocked in to relieve the last guy, I remember feeling anxious about schoolwork but nowhere near the right mood for it. I was on a deadline and felt that I should hit the books the first instance I could jump into, it’s just that my mind wasn’t in the right place so to speak.
There was quite a downpour making the mood sort of slow and quiet. Past midnight, the number of customers decreased as expected and the last of the customers were a couple making a last stop bite before heading home. After serving their food, they still hung around though, standing there by the counter. Usually, they’d just go, but they didn’t. They were probably waiting for the rain to let up. Figuring that they’re through, I went on to my other routine wiping off the counter surface, I got the mop and started with the kitchen floor. And when I ducked down reaching for something on the lower counter compartments, I heard someone say hello to me. It sounded like it came all the way from the front entrance but when I resurfaced, instead of seeing the couple, an old man was standing there in front of me. The couple was gone and was sort of replaced by this new customer. Naturally, I was taken aback by how the man snuck up on me like that. I didn’t see him entering nor standing in line, he was like a stealthy cat.
The old man had a transparent plastic poncho on and a fedora. Under his raincoat, was a tweed jacket over a white button-down shirt and what appeared to be a faded brown tie. He looked nice enough, he could as well be one of the university professors, at least that was my initial impression, but I don’t remember seeing him around the campus nor elsewhere. When he took off his hat, most of his hair was gone, and he had a creased smile that shrunk his Asian features all the more. He was very polite and should I say, still full of energy for his age. As he leaned on the aluminum counter and surveyed the menu overhead, his brows met, as if that meal was of a great deal of consequence, muttering to himself as he read through the list.
“I think I’ll take one of each.”
“I’m awfully sorry, which one?”
“I could be very indecisive, so please indulge me.”
Dumbfounded, it took me a few beats before I was able to respond.
“Very well, Sir, I suppose this is to go?”
“No, I prefer to dine here.”
At this point, I didn’t pursue the matter anymore. I thought, the sooner I started working on his orders the sooner I could get him off my back and probably begin my schoolwork. I thought of giving a recap of the order but doing that would just make me sound rather silly. Instead, I went on to work right ahead. I preheated the fryer and griddle, cleared the prep table, and started working. “Of all the nights it had to be tonight,” I complained to myself while watching the old man leisurely reading a folded newspaper through the tray rack.
I ran back and forth serving each of the meals on the menu. And each time I went to the old man’s table, he’d turn to me with the widest smile which crept me out a little bit. I know he was just being polite, it’s just that it was a little too much for me I guess.
Considering his medium-size built, the old man didn’t look as if he’s slowing down, I even thought he looked determined finishing all of that food.
I forgot to mention that while preparing his food, apart from the newspaper he brought, I also saw him flipping through a small pocket notebook. It looked pretty worn-down like it’s been with him for a very long time. It looked like one of those notebooks sleuths would carry around in their pockets. The old man was seated just across from where I stood behind the counter and I saw him intensely reading every bit of it. At first, I didn’t think it was anything at all, but he kept on whispering to himself, kept on looking through the glass window, his gaze off to somewhere very distant like he’s onto some deep serious thoughts.
He didn’t pay cash and so, through the card that he used, I thought I should be able to look his name up on the web but it turned out nothing.
I didn’t know what came over me. But it seemed odd that I couldn’t find any trace of him. You’d usually find most people online. But then again, maybe not all people are fond of being found at all.
“I don’t think I could finish all of these,” the old man turned to me after some time.
“Can you wrap the rest to go instead, please? But you could do that later, I’m not backing down just yet.”
“No worries, please do let me know if you’re about done.
“Oh yes, I will.”
Under the light, he looked strangely familiar. When I thought about it, he really did look like John Wayne, except, he’s Asian.
“Say, do you mind me asking a few questions?”
He pulls up a small colored photo of a woman in her twenties and started asking questions about the woman’s whereabouts. Of course, I didn’t know anything.
“Any chance you that it may have just slipped out of your mind?”
“I think I would recognize a beautiful young lady like that from a distance.”
“So you’re saying you would have pursued her, that you’re attracted to her?”
“No, I didn’t say that.”
“But you admitted that you think she’s attractive.”
“Yeah, sure, but I didn’t say I would approach her.”
“What would you do then?”
“What do you mean?”
“If you’d seen her walking through that door, sitting here this late, what would you have done?”
I didn’t say anything for a while and sort of composed my thoughts.
That’s when it hit me. Just a few nights before, a woman’s lifeless body was found in some abandoned warehouse, somewhere near the outskirts of the tech hub. The police working on the case had a few leads but nothing certain came out of their investigation. Truthfully, I wasn’t surprised at all given their unimpressive track record. The area where they had found the woman was a cesspool for delinquents and they’re hinting that it was the cause. Of course, they could be right, after all, the warehouse was in a secluded vicinity. Runaways and many homeless people use the place for shelter all the time since the government hasn’t reclaimed the area yet. But the manner to which they found the woman’s body didn’t exactly correspond to that assessment. According to the official report, she was probably mugged, drugged, and tortured, suffered for days before finally being put out of her misery. It was so gruesome that the family decided to have a closed casket funeral instead. Based on what my friends and I have heard, her skin, except for the head, had been peeled off. And what’s worse, she was alive when this diabolical act was done. It was like some sick dark ritual, nothing a common criminal would do.
“Is that the same person who I think it is?”
“Why? Do you know her?”
“I may be wrong but is she the one they found just a few nights ago?”
“So you did see her?”
“If she’s the one on TV, then yes. But only on TV.”
At this point, our conversation took a sharp turn. I may or may have not told him that he looked like John Wayne. Anyway, I explained to the old man the truth that I memorized his name through the receipt and looked him up online.
“Seems like I have a competition right here. Have you considered serving?”
I thought hearing that question was quite odd. I may not know who that old guy was, but there were clear indicators that he was working on the case.
“Please forgive me for snooping, Sir, I was just curious that’s all. As you can see, I am alone here, no security guards around, I hope you could see where I’m coming from.”
Although I didn’t know the woman or anything about the case, I stayed in the conversation because I was intrigued. Besides, I knew I wasn’t guilty of anything, so I thought I’d get more out of the conversation than he would.
“Probably there was something that she’d said, maybe she went against the wrong people. I mean, if you’re working on this case and interviewing people uptown, there must be something more than the angle of mugging.”
I must have been deep in my thoughts when I was explaining this that I didn’t realize sooner that he was taking notes.
“Do you believe that’s what happened?”
“It’s just a thought,” I clarified.
Then he showed me another photo. A photo of me in a rally.
“Can you confirm that this was you here?”
I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was confused. What in the hell is happening? Why does this man have a photo of me?
“Where did you get this?”
“Just answer the question kid.”
Beads of sweat began to build upon my forehead, this was so unexpected. He dropped a few more names, names whom I’ve heard were part of an underground group attempting to topple the government and some I only heard that night.
“I didn’t take you for a thought police.”
The old man’s expression suddenly changed.
From cheerful and friendly, it became perplexed.
His Asian features, as well as his facial lines, deepened.
We sat there in silence for quite a long time.
It was an uncomfortable stare-down, but it was a kind of conversation that I also enjoyed, you could say.
Probably the juice I needed to finish my school paper.
I know that the old man knew that the woman and myself didn’t know each other.
That he was there for me. That the woman was a reminder.
If there was one thing I realized was that, whoever that woman was, she got to them deep where it really hurt.
I later found out that she was suspected of smuggling drugs and what happened was apparently a rubout. Of course, with how things went down that night, nothing could be further from the truth.
It was the last time I saw the old man. After a few months of working at the food joint, I eventually quit.
But I couldn’t help but feel that I’m still being followed. I think I see or rather sense people watching me here and there. They’d be standing by an electrical post or walking meters away following me, pretending to have phone calls or eating tables away from me, reading my mails. Of course, it could just be my imagination, but I get that same strange feeling every time, the same feeling I’ve got the night I met that old man.
As for the woman, the news eventually stopped covering updates about her case and as with all things, life had moved onto other things.
Two weeks ago, I got reacquainted with an old friend who is still involved with our school. I told him my experience but I rather not share the details with you here. But If there’s anything I would say it’s that, we had an even stranger conversation that would go further deep down the rabbit hole.