Big Mike’s Grill is a small bar offering imported beers and grilled meat specialties, the location is a hidden ridge at Shrine Hills which overlooks the vast Matina suburb.
Shrine Hills is leafy high ground that juts out of Matina. a growing suburban center south of Davao City’s central business district, The hill is named after the shrine of the Holy Infant Jesus of Prague built by the wife of the former city mayor.
Aside from the shrine, broadcast and telecommunication towers are situated along the main road, which bisects the hills.
The hillside forests are slowly giving way to residential communities cause-oriented groups have been calling for the preservation of the natural environment of the hills fearing that if the hillsides are stripped of forest cover the slopes would give way and cause a massive landslide.
Big Mike’s Grill is owned by Mike Mueller, a former PBA import who relocated to Davao City six years ago; The bar was a former residential bungalow whose owners sold to Mike when they migrated to Canada.
Mike who first settled in his wife’s hometown in Digos, would stay in the house whenever they would visit the big city. When they resettled in Davao City, they bought a house and lot in a gated subdivision in Matina and converted the house in Shrine Hills into a bar.
“This is where I will put the function room.” Mike points out to the vacant space adjacent to the former bungalow, a mango tree stands in the middle of the space flanked by a vegetable garden slowly being taken over by weeds and grasses.
“What will happen to the tree?” Ellen asks Mike.
“Of course it has to go. We need the space Ellen, if we can have the function room, we can accept private parties and meetings. We got so many inquiries about hosting private parties but we can’t make the bar exclusive, we have so many loyal patrons who will feel left out. And besides we are surrounded by trees, that’s just one tree.”
“How about the sprits residing in that tree?
“Here we go again Ellen, you and your superstitions.”
Mike had fallen in love with the country of his wife, he had been smitten with the friendliness, the smiles, the genuine warmth of its people, however if there was one trait he didn’t like was that the people were a superstitious lot, a fact which annoyed him during their stay in Digos.
Their house in Digos was an old-two storey structure inside Ellen’s family compound, Mike wanted to landscape the front yard but was prevented by doing so by their neighbor, Ellen’s uncle because of the presence of a termite mound, which in vernacular means punso. A mythical being called nuno sa punso is known to inhabit the mound.
In another incident Angela’s yaya or babysitter was scolded by Mike’s mother in-law for allowing the kid to play around the compound during night-time. The spirits would not like children playing around the trees during sundown. This didn’t make sense to Mike.
“Back in New Jersey, we used to play until the dead of the night, the reason I got good in basketball was my folks didn’t believe in grumpy spirits who don’t want children to play at night.” Mike protested to Ellen.
Michael Mueller was big 10-year old kid, when their new neighbors, the Murphy’s built a basketball ring around their garage. During summers He and his brother Jack along with the three Murphy boys and Scott, another neighbor would play basketball from early afternoon lasting to the night. Mike learned to love the game and became good at it, a talent he parlayed to high school, college and overseas professional leagues.
“You don’t understand Mike, that’s our age-old beliefs, it is hard to change these people. ” Ellen gently argued her point.
“That’s why this country is still stuck in Third World Ellen, you believe in things that doesn’t exist and doesn’t make sense, you make it a part of your lives.”
When one of his home improvement project was stopped because of his meddlesome mother-in-law, Mike decided to pack up and move to Davao City, he was also getting bored and restless in the small provincial city.
Davao City would have provided a more urban and cosmopolitan environment, well suited to him.
“ I am sorry Mike, it was just a joke.” Ellen smiled at Mike trying to appease him. Her husband was an easy person to please.
“Nahhh, come here, let’s not fool around, I’m talking about serious business len, I already got the cash to start the expansion.” Mike grabbed Ellen to his side and hugged her then giving a smack on her forehead.
Two days after, the contractor came to Big Mike’s Grill and began to inspect the proposed site of the expansion.
“This property used to be two separate lots, the original owners brought the other lot at a bargain price.” Mike said to the contractor.
“The expansion of the bar is a good idea sir Mike, this is a large space too good to be left idle.” The contractor said.
Mike and the contractor discussed the mango tree standing in the middle of the space, the contractor gave him an alternate plan of preserving the tree by building the structure around it but it would be expensive. Mike shot the idea down, the tree had to give way.
It was one fine evening at Big Mikes just a few days after Mike’s meeting with the contractor, when an angry customer demanded to meet the bar owner. Someone has stoned his parked SUV, its windshield shattered.
The police investigator from the Talomo Police Station which had jurisdiction over the Shrine Hills area, arrived at the scene, he checked the SUV, it had been hit by two large stones, there were no witnesses as to who threw the stones. The policeman questioned Tikboy, the stay-in all around helper at the bar.
Tikboy is the only person who lives in the bungalow, a small room had been assigned for him at the back of the bar. Aside from cleaning chores, He guards and maintains the property when the owners and the staff leaves for home. One of his tasks is to assist the customers during parking, sometimes he goes checking on the parked cars.
The parking space in front of the bar was full; the Mitsubishi SUV was forced to park a few meters from the vacant space. Tikboy was at the storeroom when the customer noticed the rocks that shattered his car’s windshield.
Tikboy vouched for the good character of the nearby residents, they wouldn’t do such a thing of throwing rocks at parked vehicles, and it was the first time it happened he told the investigator.
The policeman asked the owner, a doctor if he had some personal enemies or people with grudges against him. The owner answered in a negative.
Mike, Ellen and the car owner met and had a settlement, the bar agreed to pay for the shattered windshield. “Napag-tripan” the car owner might have been a victim of a random mischief.
Mike admitted lapses in the bar’s security, he immediately hired a security guard for the evening shift, and the security agency deployed Roland, a 35-year old security guard to Big Mike’s.
The following week, the contractor arrived with his foreman and some of the carpenters to do an ocular of the proposed project site, the vacant lot. They agreed that site clearing would be done by the next week, their priority was to cut the tree.
By the following morning, Mike was awakened by Ellen, Tikboy has called and said that burglars might have struck Big Mike’s.
Mike rushed to the bar, saw the upturned tables and chairs, the broken shards of glasses strewn all over the place. The wine, rhum, whiskeys and imported beers on display and the glasses were thrown all around the bar, it was as if a drunken customer went berserk inside Big Mike’s.
The same police investigator arrived at the scene and checked the bar in awry.
Tikboy said he was awakened at around 4 a.m. by strange noises coming from inside the bar, thinking that of burglars, he got up to check the inside and saw the bar in disarray.
Except for broken liquor bottles and glasses, there was no attempt to steal anything, the cash register was left untouched and not equipment was missing. What baffled the police was that the bar’s doors remain closed, the windows were still secured, no one had entered the bar nor gained forcible entry.
The cop quizzed Tikboy and Roland, the security guard had not noticed something unusual when he left the premises at 3 am after his shift.
“ I finished cleaning the bar at around 3 pm sir, when Roland left after his shift, I locked the doors..” Tikboy answered the cop who was quizzing him on the nature of his job at Big Mike.
Tikboy said he was late to react to the noises because he had done heavy cleaning at the bar, Big Mike was full-house that night. He was in deep sleep after a tiring evening.
They decided to check the CCTV but strangely it stopped recording at around 3 am. The time Tikboy had finished cleaning and had locked the door.
The police investigator met up with Mike and Ellen, and told them that since the doors and windows were locked and there was no sign of forced entry, with a defective cctv not helping in the investigation he had reasons to believe that Tikboy was the main culprit.
“ Must have been Tikboy helped himself to drinks at the bar, had one drink too many and went wild and concocted the tale that he had been awakened at 4 am. Or we won’t discount the possibility that he tinkered with the cctv, he invited his friends to come over for a drink, they got drunk.” The cop theorized.
“Sir Mike, do you really know the background of Joel Bayo? Based on past records he was twice detained at the Sta. Ana police station, where he was involved in gang riots, he was one of the gang leaders. But since he was a minor they had to set him free.” the cop shared Tikboy’s past transgressions.
“I’ve checked out this kid officer, he had a rough past but he has been all good since he started working for this bar.” Mike told the policeman.
19-year Joel Bayo alias Tikboy was a former street kid who once roamed the streets of downtown Davao, sniffing rugby and solvent and engaged in riots with his gang. He was encouraged to join a street-based alternative learning class program initiated by the Jaycees, wanting to straighten his life, he actively participated in the street class and by the time the project was completed he was already assisting the street classes.
Impressed by his progress, some Jaycees helped him out, a regular customer at Big Mike’s brought Tikboy to Mike, the former PBA import was impressed by Tikboy’s demeanor and touched by his life story. He decided to hire him and sponsor his education at a Sunday high school program in a local school.
But with the recent incident he had doubts that Tikboy had a case of a backslide
“ Tikboy, please be honest with me, are you doing drugs again. Sniffing rugby, smoking marijuana… tell me” Mike asked his ward.
“No sir, I stopped it for a very long time. Why sir Mike? I am being pointed to as a suspect? I am innocent sir, I did not do it, I was cleaning the entire time after the bar closed at 1 am. It was very tiring sir I slept in the room after I had locked the doors. I did not drink sir, I know it is against your policy. Believe me sir, I didn’t do anything. I didn’t even know how to manipulate the CCTV.” Tikboy explained in perfect English, he was in the verge of tears.
Mike believed in Tikboy’s story. Except for the recent incidents, the former street kid was exemplary in his work ethics. Tikboy was Mike’s underdog, he was genuinely rooting for the former street kid’s success.
One sunny Saturday, 13-year old Angela visited Big Mike’s Grill she accompanied her mom Ellen. Her dad Mike was playing in a golfing tournament at the Apo.
She watched as a dump truck squeezed along the narrow private road that connects the bar to the main road. The truck headed straight to the vacant space, it unloaded river sand at the weed-infested vegetable garden tended by Tikboy, Mike had told Tikboy to discontinue with the garden as construction will soon take place in the space.
Angela called the attention of Tikboy, the two were watching the sand being dumped on the erstwhile garden.
“What’s happening kuya Tikboy?” Angela was unaware of the recent developments at Mike’s Bar it was her first visit to their former house after two months.
“Didn’t you know Gel, your father is expanding the bar, he will be building a function room.”
“How about the tree?”
“They will cut it down gel.”
“Hah. Didn’t they ask permission from King?”
“Ambot lang gel” (I do not know)
After the truck had left, Angela went to the space and took a look at the stockpile of river sand, which will be used for construction. Afterwards she went to the mango tree and walked around it.
Tikboy watched as Angela slowly walked around the tree, she was wearing a pink shirt and white shorts, and was clutching her Iphone. He remembered the Mueller’s daughter, during her visits would go to the tree and sit at the bench he built under the shade.
Tikboy went inside the bar when Ellen called him for some errands.
Mike arrived at the bar at around 5 pm. He was again greeted by the sight of the police investigator and Ellen. Maybe the cop got new leads in the bar incident. Mike surmised.
“ I tried calling you Mike.” Ellen face was visibly worried.
“What happened? batteries on my phone is empty, what’s with your face?” Mike sensed something was seriously wrong.
“Angela is missing.” Ellen relayed the news to Mike.
“What missing? When? Angela?” Mike initially was confused by the news.
“We arrived here at 10 am, when we were about to leave at 12 noon, I came looking for her, I couldn’t find her till now, I became worried I decided to call the police.”
“Maybe she just gone somewhere, have you tried contacting her? Huh.”
“Her number cannot be reached, Tikboy was the last person to see her, he said she was looking at the newly delivered sand and was walking over the mango tree.” Ellen was on the verge of tears.
“Tikboy what the fuck is happening here?” Mike raised his voice at the hapless helper.
“I last saw her walking around the tree, then ma’m Ellen called me inside the bar, that was the last time I saw Angela.” Tikboy stared helplessly at the glaring Mike.
“We decided to check out the vicinity, they have not seen a girl with pink shirt and white shorts, nor seen something unusual. “ the cop said.
Mike was pretty sure, her daughter was abducted by kidnappers perhaps, Davao City despite a haven of peace and order is located in Mindanao where several kidnap-for-ransom groups operate. Maybe his worst nightmare was coming true.
The next morning Mike met with the City Mayor in a clandestine location. The Mayor was the best hope in finding his still missing daughter. The Mayor in turn was worried that a potential kidnap-for-ransom group had infiltrated the city and the victim, the daughter of a former PBA import was high-profile case that would unduly worry the citizens of his city.
“I will be looking closely on this Mike.” The Mayor assured Mike that solving the case is a top priority. The mayor immediately ordered the city’s police chief to assemble a crack unit of top detectives.
Police Inspector Jumail Kadon went to the meeting place to represent the unit and to meet the victim’s father.
“Mike, this is police inspector Jumail Kadon, he will be the lead officer for this case. These are very competent policemen, I am very confident that they will find your daughter, so trust them, just trust them, they will need your full cooperation.” The Mayor told Mike before leaving.
“You and your fucking spirits again Ellen.” Mike raged. Ellen has theorized that Angela was taken by the engkantos angered by the plans to cut the mango tree.
Ellen wanted to take her opinion all by herself but each day the police were facing a blank wall. Her family and relatives in Digos had shared the same thought.
“Gi-dagit siya sa mga di ingon nato (She was taken by not–like-ours) Estrella mentioned this to her daughter Ellen.
“ I know, but Mike wouldn’t believe in it, he believes she was taken by kidnappers. He just won’t listen to me.” Ellen in tears voiced out her frustration.
‘This American, he thinks he knows it all, remember when he was living in Digos he always makes a point to mock our tinu-uhan (beliefs) Gago nang imung bana Ellen (Your husband is a fool).” Ellen’s elder brother Vicente butted in the conversation.
At Camp Domingo Leonor, headquarters of the Davao City Police Office, Mike was meeting with Jumail for updates. With a huge chunk of the city government’s budget going to the peace and order fund, the city was able to establish a wide and reliable intelligence network which has served the city in good stead. It allowed the police access to reliable information on activities of criminal groups operating along the region.
Inspector Jumail told Mike that based from intelligence sources, no kidnap for ransom gang had infiltrated the city in recent weeks, even years.
“Reports from Cotabato they are all in the negative, your daughter is not in central Mindanao. The New People’s Army had denied they have conducted any operations such as this.” Jumail briefed the hulking American, who covered his face with a hankie to mask his tears flowing from his eyes.
“Her iphone is turned off, the last known ping from the phone tracker app was at the bar two days ago, the day we reported her as missing.” Mike had put a phone tracker app on Angela’s phone so he could keep tabs of her whereabouts. He had always asked her to carry her phone always.
Jumail feared that some local criminal or thug might have abducted her, raped her and left her for dead. He deployed his detectives around the residential community along Shrine Hills, he employed K9 tracker teams to scour the vacant lots, farms and forests that crisscross the hills.
Angela was a pretty young girl, her dusky complexion she got from her mom, but the aquiline nasal features and deep set blue eyes, she got from her dad, she was slender and tall.
Jumail had information that Angela had many admirers in her school. Maybe one of her admirers is crazy enough to do one nasty deed.
They zeroed in to one person-of-interest, a 14-year old teen named Kobe Guevarra who was Angela’s classmate; he was identified by Angela’s friend as her most ardent suitor.
“Yes sir, Angela was my crush, we communicate a lot on Viber and Facebook.” Kobe Guevarra told Inspector Jumail when the police task force visited the school.
“And? That is all, just a crush?”
“Angela would not entertain suitors at the moment sir.”
“So she is not your girlfriend?”
“No sir, but we are close, we always text a lot.”
“Since you always text a lot, do you have any idea where she is?”
“I haven’t heard from her since Saturday noon. She just stopped replying to my text messages.”
“You two were texting Saturday noon? Inspector Jumail sensed a lead. “Anything unusual you noticed?”
“We were talking about the tree at the Big Mike’s. She told me she was sad and worried that it would be cut down. She said that King would really be angry.” Kobe’s answer lit up Jumail.
Who is King? Jumail asked the 14-year old boy.
Mike, Ellen her mom Estrella, aunt Lucia, her brother Vicente and Inspector Jumail together with a police colleague watched as Manang Insiang spread chicken’s blood around the Mango tree to start her ritual, she was assisted by Tikboy who was holding the dead chicken from where the blood was sourced.
Insiang was an 80-year old healer from Malita whom Estrella contacted to help appease the supernatural entity named king.
The healer explained that the tree was a portal to the world of the engkantos, a friendly being named King lived as guardian of the portal, he was a benevolent engkanto who had befriended Angela.
“He is confused, he wants to protect the portal but he is friends with your daughter. He has taken your daughter to their world. But she is safe, she is treated as a guest. When will she be returned, we do not know” Insiang told Ellen and a disbelieving Mike.
The healer burned some herbs in front of the tree. A plate of unsalted steak was offered to King, She kneeled while offering the unsalted food, speaking incantations in front of the mango tree.
Mama!!! Ellen screamed as her mom suddenly became unconscious and then began jerking violently, she was being possessed. A confused Mike watched as Jumail, his fellow detective and Vicente trying to restrain the 70-year old Estrella.
“The engkanto had entered her. Bring her here.” Insiang in vernacular ordered the men restraining Estrella, she was brought nearer to the mango tree.
“Do not cut down the tree. I will bring back your Angela.” Estrella spoke, her voice sounded more like a man which shocked Mike.
“Where is Angela, asa si Angela?” Mike and Ellen frantically asked King who had possessed Estrella.
“She is in our world. Don’t worry She is well.” King said in perfect English.
“Alright, alright I will not cut the tree. That tree is all yours, Just bring my daughter back.” Mike sounded desperate as he cut a deal with King.
“I trust you Michael, we are friends.” The possessed Estrella answered before passing out, which freaked Ellen, Vicente and Lucia.
Minutes later, a policeman detailed at Mike Mueller’s house called Jumail that Angela mysteriously reappeared and walked out from her room.
With her daughter’s reappearance, Mike Mueller’s disbelief and annoyance gave way to a deeper appreciation of his wife’s customs and beliefs, a compound of fervent Catholicism with a heavy dash of animism. It is said that we live among the spirits, the engkantos, however their power and malevolence reined in by a much powerful God.
Mike, abandoned his expansion project. To appease King, he landscaped the vacant space surrounding the tree and planted varieties of tropical flowers. Insiang told Mike that King is a friendly engkanto and he will be watching not just the tree but also the whole property.
Two weeks after Angela was found, Mike was with the entire task force formed by the Mayor to search for his daughter inside the bar. Mike had treated them to dinner and drinks. The conversations rambled into the paranormal experiences of the policemen.
“When I was a young boy in Maganoy, I heard of a village girl who was said to be kidnapped by an engkanto. She was never found again.” Jumail recounted his childhood days in Maguindanao.
“Basig ni-taban to sa inyo ser.” (maybe she eloped with you) one of the policemen quipped.
“ Dili jud dong, kay lake pa gusto nako sa una.” ( It cannot be because that time I used to prefer men) Jumail joked
His men reacted with boisterous laughter. Mike joined in the laughter when the policeman explained the remark.
The cops mood was jovial, they were not able to crack the case but the girl was found, safe and well.
Big Mike’s Grill was filled with customers, four nights in a row they had a full-house, they had to add tables outside and hired an additional cook and two waiters.
“Sir,” Tomas the waiter gently tapped Mike’s shoulder.
“Yes, Tomas” Mike saw a customer standing behind the waiter.
“Sir Mike this is sir Jun. He wants to have a picture taken with you.”
Some of the policemen instantly recognized Jun and shook hands with him. Jun was a former policeman who struck it rich in the gold mines of Mt. Diwalwal. He had become a big-time businessman and had recently invested in a sprawling banana plantation in Compostela Valley.
“You were my idol in the PBA sir.” Jun greeted the owner.
“That was a long-time ago and it was just one conference for Anejo.”
“I am a huge fan of Jaworski sir, way back in the 1980s, you were a great import, you should have played more than one conference.” June complimented the former import.
“ Yeah but I promised to myself that after playing in the Philippines I would quit playing basketball overseas and stay in the States to save my marriage. But unfortunately my first marriage didn’t work out.”
The two had their photos taken by Jun’s bodyguard. Jun asked Mike if they could a brief chat outside before he leaves. He wanted to talk business.
“Mike, I have Japanese investors for our new banana plantation in Compostela, we are planning to build a seaport in Pantukan for our banana shipments to Japan, I know your company is into building ports, I am interested in getting your company for this project. Let’s schedule a meeting soon.”
And ever since Mike had peace with King the engkanto that inhabits the Mango tree in his property, unexpected blessings had come his way.