The End Is Near – Chapter 1

Please steal a quick glance at your watches. That’s precisely when this story takes place.

We zoom into a fairly run-of-the-mill banana republic in East Asia and find ourselves inside a military command room. A control panel takes center stage. It’s studded with a bunch of glowing thingamajiggies, which radiate the most sinister intentions. A big, bright red button, sits in the middle of the console, daring itself to be pressed.

A group of people in military uniforms surround the control panel. They’re led by a small-ish, big-boned figure, dressed impeccably in a black two-piece ensemble, straight out of the latest issue of The Despots’ Weekly. All of them sport Nationally Approved Hairstyle #1 with flair. There is no Nationally Approved Hairstyle #2.

At this precise moment, a highly decorated General decides to let out a cough.

“Are you sure you want to do this, O’ Supreme Leader?” he asks.

Kim raises a displeased eyebrow in his direction.

“Of course you are, of course you are,” he flounders, and steps up to the control panel with haste.

The drama reaches its peak. One of the military men lets out a gasp. Kim shakes his head and makes a mental note to execute the bumbling lot when they’re done.

The General closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, prays to the Nationally approved God, and presses the red monstrosity.

For a moment, nothing happens.

Slowly, the control panel comes alive. A stream of characters flash on the large curved screen. The General peers in and reads them.

“Answer the security question to proceed: What is Hyun-Ki’s favourite flavour of ice cream?”

Everyone turns to look at Hyun-Ki. Then they remember. Then they slowly back away from Kim.

Hyun-Ki is the retired former Head of Defense who’d been sent as a diplomatic ambassador to a neighbouring country a couple of years ago, as reward for his years of service. He had been in constant touch with his fatherland, until sometime last year, when he sent out a cryptic message that read, “Have you heard of this thing called Amway?” No one has heard from him since.

Kim shoves the General away and enters one of the 15 million Nationally approved ice-cream flavours in the country. The control panel whirs for a minute, then begins to wail like a petulant child nearing naptime, before completely shutting down.

We zoom out of the bunker to avoid the imminent sounds of gunshot that would echo through it shortly, and zoom into an innocuous looking house in the suburbs of the city.

A girl sleeps fitfully on a tattered mattress on the floor. She’s awoken by the sound of her phone.

“Hello? Who is this? Oh, yes sir…yes, this is she. Yes…I did say that. Yes sir, given enough time and the right resources, I can hack into any computer on Earth.”

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The Twist

The steak was succulent. The chicken juicy. The entire meal had a certain…character to it. Vikram tucked into it with unusual abandon.

Ana finally spoke when Vikram had finished licking his fingers.

“You like it?”

“Like it? It’s magical! Where did you find this genius chef?”

“Oh, he’s good, no doubt. But the magic here lies in the ingredients and also,” she hesitated before adding, “the meticulousness with which they were sourced.”

#

“Stop!” My companion smashed his fist on the bar counter, spilling some of his beer in the process. “I’m not going to listen to any more of this tripe – I can see the twist coming a mile away. This Ana lady served him a human being, didn’t she?” he asked.

I smirked in that annoying way which always got on people’s nerves.

“No, she didn’t. How predictable would that be? And who said anything about there being a twist anyway?”

“Fine. Continue then,” he said.

“Where was I? Oh right, the source.”

#

“Where do you source your food from?” Vikram asked.

“We grow it ourselves,” Ana replied.

“What’s your secret?” he asked as he not-so-discreetly mopped the remnants of the thick meaty sauce from the plate with his fingers and licked them.

“Our animals are on a special diet. So are our vegetables. We don’t use ordinary feed or fertiliser.”

#

“She grinds humans up into the fertiliser and the feed, doesn’t she? Is that it? It’s even lamer than I thought!” My companion raged.

“Why are you being so morbid? And I do agree — that would have been very lame. Now, if you don’t have any more theories, shall I continue?”

He took a large gulp of his beer, and nodded. A cold determination had crept into his eyes.

I smirked again.

#

“I’d love to meet and compliment the chef in person. This was the best meal I’ve had in my life,” Vikram said.

“I’ll summon him immediately,” Ana made a couple of gestures at the server.

A few seconds later, a voice coughed behind him. Vikram looked up to see a tall slender man in a chef’s hat standing over him.

“Well, that was quick. I didn’t even hear you come in,” Vikram said to the chef as he shook his surprisingly cold hand.

“Meet The Count, our head chef. He has apprenticed under a lot of culinary masters and is now a man who possesses the sum of their skills. He’s absolutely lapped up their talents, so to speak,” Ana said.

The Count smiled at him. Vikram smiled back. The Count’s teeth glinted.

#

“Vampire!”

“This, sir, isn’t chic-lit!” I said with as much indignation as I could muster.

#

“What’s your secret?” Vikram asked.

“Would you believe, cauldrons? I always cook in cauldrons. And I like to sing with the other chefs while I do it. That helps immensely,” The Count replied.

“That’s…interesting,” Vikram said.

“Surely, there must be something else?” Vikram probed further. He knew The Count was hiding something.

The Count hesitated for a bit, then leaned into Vikram’s ear and whispered.

#

“Warlock?”

“Nope,” I said.

#

“Salt. Lots of it,” The Count said. “And a shitload of MSG,” he added with a wink.

#

“You’re horrible at spotting the twist,” I said to my companion. And then I ate him.

Telling that story always gives me the munchies.

The Right Swipe

Vivek’s finger moved across the phone screen in a rhythmic dance that had been perfected over many a bored night.

Too tall. Left swipe. Too thin. Left swipe. Too short. Left swipe. Obscure quote. Left swipe. Pet as their profile picture. Left swipe. Too out of my league. Left swipe. Too…

Just right.

Trying to reign in his excitement, Vivek clicked on the icon to bring up the profile information.

His heart sank when he read the first line.

Sorry, but I’m not here for hookups.

Vivek shook his head in disbelief and swiped left. His betrayed mind wrestled with a lot of questions.

Why would anyone using this app say such an absurd thing? What were these people even using this app for? And which app DID they use for hookups?

His gaze moved to the night sky that streamed in through his bedroom window. His fingers did not stop even as his eyes latched onto something in the darkness.

A shooting star. Or at least it looked like one. It wasn’t a regular occurrence in the city’s polluted skies. In fact, now that he thought about it, Vivek realised that he’d never seen one in person before.

Maybe I should make a wish.

Vivek chuckled to himself, acutely aware of how childish that thought was. His reverie was interrupted by a loud ding from his phone.

It’s a match! You’ve both liked each other.

Vivek felt the familiar rush of dopamine which always accompanied that notification. It was instantly replaced by the also usual mixture of dread and despondence.

Probably a bot, a man masquerading as a woman, or even worse – a crazy, desperate woman, he sighed, completely missing the irony in the last bit.

He wished it was someone likeable for once. Someone funny, intelligent, beautiful, and crazy, smoking hot. Someone he could finally quit the app for.

The screen flickered. Vivek adjusted his glasses.

Well, that’s never happened before.

He thumped the phone on the side with his palm – an instinct that had carried over from the days of bulky malfunctioning television sets.

The screen stopped flickering. The notification popped up again. Vivek quickly clicked on it to bring up the profile – a little more anticipation than usual writ on his face.

Violetxa Archionniz, 145.

Uranian. Pilot. I hate people that discriminate on the basis of species. Interested in males with two legs/tentacles and compatible reproductive paraphernalia. Strictly no Martians – I’m allergic to their tongues, bad breath, and general lack of intelligence.

Vivek smiled. In his experience, a weird sense of humour usually translated to a penchant for weird things in other departments.

He scanned the screen for the option to send her a message. To his bewilderment, he could not find it anywhere. But, he did notice an option that he’d never seen before.

Bl454Hasdsadrwk, it read.

That makes no sense.

Putting it down to a glitch in the system, Vivek clicked on the unintelligible option anyway.

He let out a scream as an invisible force lifted his body off the bed, suspending him in mid air, his loose pyjamas dangling off his scrawny legs. He swirled in the air for a long couple of seconds before vanishing into the proverbial thin air.

When Vivek reopened his eyes, a universe full of darkness stretched before him in every direction. His legs flailed in a futile attempt to find the familiar comfort of solid ground. A few silent seconds, maybe even minutes, passed by as Vivek called out into the dark void. And then, an unfamiliar form materialised in front of him. His eyes finally had something to focus onto.

The thing, or creature, looked nothing like he’d ever seen, or even imagined, before. It was majorly composed of what could only be described as sharp, pointy, drill-like things whirring on the ends of several tentacles.

The creature bellowed. A petrified Vivek couldn’t even figure out which part of the creature that eerie sound originated from. One of the drill-laced tentacles stretched towards him, doing a strange dance. The creature bellowed again.

Come to me, you handsome piece of meat.

A bewildered Vivek looked around instinctively to see who said that. There was no one else around.

Come to me, human. Don’t make me wait.

That’s when it dawned on Vivek. The voices came from his own head. The creature put them in there somehow – maybe it was telepathic.

Violetxa doesn’t like to wait.

Vivek looked at the tentacles that made their purposeful way towards him. He put up his hand and opened his mouth to speak. There was only one thing left to say.

“Sorry, but I’m not here for hookups.”

What if(but not really)

Priya looks at him. He’s just a stranger sharing the same blanket now. She lies awake wondering why she let Him go so many years ago.

She doesn’t know him is actually Him after he lost his memory and got plastic surgery to look like Him.

She’s always wondered why her name is spelt with three silent K’s.

The Heist – Short Story

“We need thirty-one of those,” Rahul pointed inside the store, “The Boss was very specific about that.”

A well-aimed brick sailed through the helpless glass window with a loud crash.

Rashi tiptoed in, her svelte figure deftly avoiding the glass remains. She picked up The Loot with her gloved hands and carefully stashed it away in an airtight container in her backpack. She wished she could contain her nervousness in a similar manner, but her trembling hands wouldn’t listen. After all, The Boss had personally asked for these. One mistake and her partner would have to deal with a gooey mess. Her hands trembled a little more.

“Nice job back there, Rashi. How many did we get?” Rahul asked between deep puffs of breath after they had put a decent distance between themselves and the crime scene.

“Thirty,” Rashi replied, grimacing from a mix of fear and pain. She knew that The Boss never settled for less, even if it was only one less. She also knew, a bit too late, that heels weren’t the most appropriate footwear for a heist. She proceeded to curse The Boss and every actress that had been part of a heist movie under her breath.

“Are you sure you haven’t missed counting one?”

Rashi nodded, massaging her traumatized foot.

“Not good.”

Rashi nodded again.

Rahul paused to catch up with some more of his breath and thoughts. The Boss still hadn’t approved his request for company conveyance and he was too old for these post-heist sprints. He brushed his hands through his graying hair, out of nervous habit, before looking at his mobile phone’s clock. It was two hours to midnight. Not only was he already too old, he constantly continued to get older. The last of his twenties would sail out of reach in a few minutes. He should have been partying with his friends, getting drunk beyond recognition, yet here he was, carrying out dangerous nocturnal heists instead. The thought of his friends jolted him out of his musings. It reminded him that most of them had been bumped off over the years because they had failed to carry out The Boss’ missions. He needed to focus, regrets could wait until he sponsored the next installment of his shrink’s obscenely generous pension plan.

“We must find one more,” Rahul said.

“But…from where? We just got every single one, didn’t we? We’ll have to wait until the next batch.”

“We can’t wait that long. We have less than two hours to get these to The Boss. He explicitly mentioned that he wanted them by midnight. He even had The Glint in his eye when he mentioned it.”

“Not The Glint, no,” Rashi backed away instinctively.

“Yes, The Glint,” Rahul assured her.

“Do…do you have a plan?”

“I do. We’ll need another brick.”

***

The second well-aimed brick of the night sailed through the Jaguar’s windshield, making the obligatory loud crash. The security alarm wailed into the night. Rahul and Rashi receded into the proverbial underbelly of a dark corner in the driveway and waited.

The Maker, as his patrons called him, stirred in bed. Years of paranoia, arising from a mix or real and imaginary attempts to steal The Formula, had turned him into a light sleeper. The frantic cries of his Jaggu did not go unheard for long.

The front door of the duplex house soon opened with a thud. Rahul waited intently behind the bush. A generous belly poked out of the door as if to scout the area, before being followed by the rest of The Maker’s middle-aged figure out into the adjoining driveway. He let out a scream as his eyes fell on the grisly remains of his Jaggu’s windshield, or at least tried to, before he was ambushed by an age-defyingly nimble Rahul. A quick tap on The Maker’s head by Rashi, using the multi-talented brick, brought the driveway scene to a close.

The Maker woke up a couple of minutes later, a little groggy, and tied to one of his own chairs.

“Give us The Formula, if you want to live,” Rashi growled on cue.

“Yes, give us The…um, no, that’s not what we want,” Rahul scowled back.

“No?

“No! What’ll we do with The Formula? He’s The Maker, not us. Only he knows how to make more of them the right way.”

The Maker, interjected at this moment, “Are you saying that you’ve broken into my house, at this ungodly hour, to make me make you a…”

“Yes, and it should be done in the next sixty minutes,” Rahul interjected.

“Impossible. What if I refuse?”

“That Jaguar of yours still has a few windows left, I notice,” Rashi replied.

“Nothing’s impossible for The Maker,” The Maker corrected himself.

Rahul untied The Maker and walked him to The Workshop.

“Now, don’t get any ideas. Just do as you’re told and no one or thing shall get hurt,” Rahul spelled out the standard threat.

The Maker rolled his eyes, “Who do you think I am? Iron Man? I assure you that I won’t create suit-of-war in there. Now leave me alone. I need to concentrate.”

Rahul stepped back with his hands raised in a mock gesture.

“Sheesh. This one has a temper, doesn’t he? I certainly wouldn’t want to break into his home again anytime soon.” Rashi said.

Rahul looked at his phone’s watch. Ninety minutes to midnight. They might just make it in time.

That’s when another one of the clearly overworked brick fraternity made its way through the workshop’s window. They knew how to make an entry, one had to give them that. They could have taught a thing or two to the burly men in masks, who ungainly followed the brick in, negotiating the remaining bits of glass.

The leader of the burly pack scanned the occupants, “Rahul? What are you doing here? You know you aren’t supposed to be part of this mission.”

“Don’t tell me what I can or cannot do, Sharma. You’re not the boss of me.”

“Well, no, but The Boss is the boss of you. Didn’t he explicitly forbid you to mess with this heist?” He paused before adding, “Oh, and thanks for outing my name, you idiot. So much for my disguise.”

“Right,” Rahul rolled his eyes, “The Maker now knows that his house has been broken into by one of the two million Sharmas in the city. You’re done for.”

“Yeah? Well…whatever,” Sharma retaliated as best he could.

Sharma looked at Rashi’s backpack and eventually two and two were put together, “Hold on. What’s in there? Is that The Loot? Were you responsible for the break-in at the Master’s store?”

“Um…”

Sharma pointed a gun at Rahul’s head. “I should have known. You’re always trying to one-up everyone in front of The Boss. Well, not this time. I’m not as stupid as poor gullible Verma. Hand the goodies over.”

“What happened to Verma?” Rashi couldn’t help but ask.

“Not now, Rashi,” Rahul snapped.

“Don’t want to tell her about Verma? I guess there is some remorse in there after all.”

Rahul gritted his teeth. “Let it go, Sharma.”

“Never. Verma and I had a bond that went beyond rhyming surnames. It still pains me when I think of what you did to him.”

“What…happened to him? He’s not dead, is he? Did Rahul kill him?” Rashi asked the most obvious question considering her present company.

”Dead? Hah. If only. No. Verma is very much alive. If you can call that a living.” he paused, trying to power through the pain. “He’s now a…a…soft…software developer,” he blurted out.

Rashi cringed. A sudden wave of nausea swept over her.

“And Rahul here was the one that told him he should become one. He even funded his education,” Sharma added.

“He was good at it! You didn’t see how his face lit up every time he made those Matrix-like things happen to his screen.”

“The things from the bullet scene?” Sharma interjected.

“No, not the bullet scene! I mean those green moving things…you know…the stuff hat…hack…hackers do?”

Sharma shrugged.

Exasperated, Rahul looked at Rashi, searching for support.“It was his calling dammit! Surely you understand why I did that, Rashi? He was not good enough to be one of us. He had…other talents. Surely, in this day and age, we can allow a man to live life as he pleases, even if it is strange and unnatural, without judging him.”

Rashi continued to give him an admonishing stare.

“He told me he wanted to become a full-stack specialist!” Rahul tried going all out in one final attempt at justifying his actions. “He said his idol was Bjarne Stroustrup!”

“Those aren’t real words and you know it,” Sharma interjected.

Rashi nodded in agreement.

Rahul looked crestfallen.

Sharma smirked.

Rashi took this opportunity to snatch the gun from Sharma’s outstretched hand.

“Son of a…,” Sharma began.

Rahul kicked his legs from under him in one smooth motion.

“…unnggggh,” Sharma ended as his head hit the ground, the impact knocking him out immediately.

Rashi cocked back the gun.

The rest of the group, displaying an alertness clearly lacking in their leader, quickly clambered out the window.

“Take your boss with you!” Rashi cried out after them, to no avail.

“Those guys were really bad at their job,” she said.

“Rashi, you must believe me about Verma…” Rahul tried again.

“I couldn’t care less about Verma,” Rashi stopped him mid-sentence.

“She is done,” The Maker announced as he walked onto the erstwhile battle scene.

He held up the finished product such that the tube-light glinted off its shiny edges.

“A thing of beauty. As usual,” he remarked, clearly satisfied.

Rahul snatched it out of his hands and added it to the contents of Rashi’s airtight container.

“Number thirty-one. We’re done,” Rashi said.

Rahul looked at his watch. “Fifty minutes to midnight. Let’s go.”

“Wait…what should we do with Picasso here?” Rashi asked.

Rahul thought for a bit, and replied, “Kill him.”

The Maker, petrified, took a step back.

Rashi looked quizzically at Rahul.

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding. You should have seen the look on your face!” he laughed.

Rashi rolled her eyes. The Maker tried to stop hyperventilating.

“Let him be. He won’t call the police. He knows better than to mess with The Boss’ people.” Rahul said.

“He does, doesn’t he?” Rashi looked at The Maker. The Maker nodded between gasps of breath.

“And what about Sharmaji here?” Rashi pointed to the limp figure on the floor.

“Ugh. I guess we’ll have to take him with us. I think I saw a dumpster around the corner.”

“All right then. Pick a side and lift.”

***

The Lair had an air of celebration around it when Rahul and Rashi got there. Rahul spotted The Boss immediately. He was tough to miss, dressed in a crisp white suit – the staple of mafia bosses and fashion-challenged youths through the ages. Rahul went up to him and greeted him with perfectly executed pecks on the cheeks that would have made the author of The Dummy’s Guide to Mafia Etiquette proud. Rashi was too low in the organizational hierarchy chain to act as if she existed and decided to stand behind Rahul while resolutely staring at her feet.

“Aren’t you early? I thought The Secretary would have called you in a bit later,” The Boss said, surprised.

Rahul dramatically took out the container from Rashi’s backpack and held it up to The Boss.

“Tell me that’s not The Loot, Rahul,” he said, his mafia boss sense tingling.

Rahul shrugged.

“Damn it, Rahul. You know I had assigned this to Sharma.”

“I’m sorry for disobeying you. But this was the first time that you’ve ever asked Sharma to lead an important job instead of me. I may be getting older, but I’m still better than Sharma. I had to prove to you that I could beat him to it.”

The Boss let out a disappointed sigh before raising his hands to get the attention of The Secretary. She seemed to be in panic mode.

She came over when she saw the wave and began, “Neither Sharma nor Rahul is picking up my call. I don’t know what…” she stopped when she spotted Rahul and Rashi.

“Why aren’t you picking up my calls?” she asked Rahul, agitation writ on her thin, pointed eyebrows.

“I was…uh…a bit busy,” Rahul replied.

“Yes, he was busy getting us The Loot,” The Boss interjected, making no attempt to hide the exasperation in his voice, and handed over the container to her.

The Secretary took The Loot and inspected its contents. It caused her to stretch her already furrowed brows to the limit.

“What happened to Sharma?” she asked.

“Nothing permanent,” Rahul replied, with as much nonchalance as he could manage at the moment.

The Secretary shrugged her shoulders and walked away with The Loot.

“Wait here and don’t move,” the Boss gave the two of them a curt order and walked away in The Secretary’s direction.

Rahul and Rashi suddenly became very aware of the fact that The Lair was now empty. The gang hovering around them had disappeared at some point during their conversation.

“Should we be panicking right now?” asked Rashi. She had been watching the proceedings from afar and quietly evaluating alternative professions.

“Probably…”

The lights in The Lair turned off, plunging the entire place into darkness.

Rashi clutched Rahul’s trembling hand.

“Shhh…” Rahul shushed her, trying to listen, his ears sifting through the silence for danger.

Rashi reached for her phone in her bag in order to use its backlight.

“Don’t,” Rahul whispered. ”The darkness is a disadvantage for them too.”

“Them?”

“Yes. We’re surrounded. And they’re slowly closing in.” Rahul’s instinct honed by years of training which included playing dark-room with his cousins in his ancestral home, had notified him of the tip-toeing figures that had probably encircled them by now. He searched his lint lined pockets for something that could be used as a weapon. Rashi took out the pocket knife she always kept in her socks for emergencies.

The figures came closer.

The lights flickered back on. Rashi picked a direction randomly and flung her knife. An explosion reverberated through the air. Someone screamed.

“SURPRISE!!!” The figures yelled in unison.

The Boss led the cheer from the front. The Secretary appeared startled, one of the balloons in her hand had just exploded. She shrugged it off and joined the shrill rendition of ‘Happy Birthday dear Rahul’. No one noticed the knife sticking out of the wall behind her.

Rahul looked at his watch. It was midnight.

The Boss walked him to the table where The Loot was spread out waiting for him.

“There you go. Thirty-one cupcakes and thirty-one candles. Make a wish and blow out the candles.”

Rashi had snuck out in the meantime and removed the evidence of her heroics from the wall.

She looked towards the table as Rahul paused to make a wish.

“Why cupcakes?” she asked the goon standing next to her.

“Cakes are for sissies. And besides The Boss hates them,” he replied.

“Of course,” Rashi joined in the chorus.

Rahul looked at the offending thirty-first cupcake that had ruined his day.

“I’ve only turned thirty – why did we need thirty-one cupcakes?” he asked the Boss.

“Isn’t it obvious? The last one’s for good luck.”

“Of course,” Rahul let out a tired smile, before proceeding to blow out the candles.

 

The Twist

The steak was succulent. The chicken juicy. The entire meal had a certain…character to it. He tucked into it with unusual abandon. She finally spoke when he’d finished licking his fingers.

“You like it?”

“Like it? It’s magical! Where did you find such a genius chef?”

“Oh, he’s good, no doubt. But the magic here lies in the ingredients and also,” she hesitated before adding, “the meticulousness with which they were sourced.”

#

“Stop!” My companion smashed his fist on the bar counter, spilling some of his beer in the process. “I’m not going to listen to any more of this tripe. I can see the twist coming a mile away. She served him a human being, didn’t she?” he asked.

I smirked in that annoying way which always got on people’s nerves.

“No, she didn’t. How predictable would that be? And who said anything about there being a twist anyway?”

“Fine. Continue then,” he said.

“Where was I now…oh right…the source.”

#

“Where do you source your food from?” he asked.

“We grow it ourselves,” she replied.

“What’s your secret?” he asked as he not-so-discreetly mopped the remaining juices off the plate with his fingers.

“Our farm animals are on a special diet. So are our vegetables. We don’t use ordinary feed or fertiliser.”

#

“She grinds humans up into the fertiliser and the feed, doesn’t she? Is that it? It’s even lamer than I thought!”

“Why are you being so morbid? And I do agree — that would have been very lame. Now, if you don’t have any more ‘theories’, shall I continue?”

He nodded. A cold, steely determination had crept into his eyes.

I smirked again.

#

“I’d love to meet and compliment the chef in person. This was the best meal I’ve ever had in my life,” he said.

“I’ll summon him immediately,” she made a couple of gestures at the server.

A few seconds later, a voice coughed behind him. He looked up to see a tall slender man in a chef’s hat standing over him.

“Well, that was quick,” he said.

“Meet The Count, our head chef. He has apprenticed under a lot of culinary masters and is now a man who possesses the sum of their skills. He’s absolutely lapped up their talents, so to speak,” she said.

The Count smiled at him. He smiled back. The Count’s teeth glinted.

#

“Vampire!”

“This, sir, isn’t chic-lit!” I said with as much indignation as I could muster.

#

“What’s your secret?” he asked.

“Would you believe, cauldrons? I always cook in cauldrons. And I like to sing with the other chefs while I do it,” The Count replied.

“That’s…interesting,” he said.

“Surely, there must be something else?” he probed further. He knew that The Count was hiding something.

The Count hesitated for a bit, then leaned into his ear and whispered.

#

“Warlock?”

“Nope.”

#

“Salt. Lots of it,” The Count said. “And a shitload of MSG,” he added with a wink.

#

“You’re horrible at spotting the twist,” I said. And then I ate him.

Telling that story always gives me the munchies.

THE END

The Rewrite

She showed him the horror again.

Clear as crystal. His own. It can really affect you, that.

It was the curse, she told him.

He had heard about the curse before. From her as well as the elders. Three centuries ago, an ancestor had burnt a witch in cold blood. The witch’s sister, who plied the same trade, hadn’t been impressed. Every male heir since then had met with a gruesome, albeit creative, end.

He believed what he’d seen. He believed in the curse. But he also believed that he could undo it.

*****

It had required a lot of effort, but it was finally ready. He sat at the controls and drew in a deep, purposeful breath. This was it. He was ready to rewrite history, and his own future in the bargain. He pressed the button, the science did its thing, and the machine hurled back into time.

*****

He peeped through the window again. The witch still lay asleep. There was no sign of any tip-toeing ancestors in the vicinity. He guessed he had some time to kill before he’d have the opportunity to prevent the deed from being perpetrated. He sat down in the bushes, lit himself a cigarette, and waited.

The screams jolted him out of his nap. He rushed to the source. The machine was up in flames. So was the witch. She must have gotten inside, curious to determine what the contraption was. Maybe she had fiddled with the engine. Maybe there had been a short-circuit. It was too late to save her, or the machine, which would soon become her coffin.

A cold tap on the shoulder caused him to turn around. It was who he’d thought it’d be. And she was mad.

Forbidden fruit

“Don’t eat that pear,” she said.

“But why?” He asked, giving it a look over.

“It’s forbidden.” She tried to snatch it from him but he dodged her attempt.

“Who are we, Adam and Eve? And this isn’t even an apple!” He chuckled, taking a huge bite out of it anyway.

“Well, it isn’t a pear either.”

He was too busy choking on the wax to notice her joy at having nailed the punchline.

Dear Know it All – Being on the wrong side of offside

Welcome to yet another edition of ‘Dear Know it All'(or DKIA as my millions of readers like to call it). I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise to my millions of readers(have I mentioned them before?) for the slight delay(six months) in getting this edition out. So hold on, sit tight, and say goodbye to those pseudo-know-it-all hacks that you may have turned to in the interim.

Our first question comes from a cricket fan who finds himself lost in the football fever that has gripped the nation. Very current-affairs and all:

Dear Know-it-all,

I am an honest, god-fearing, hard-working and simple cricket fan. My life was going absolutely brilliantly – I was the life of every party with my abundant knowledge of cricket trivia. People were always in awe when I rattled off scintillating facts like the number of times Sachin Tendulkar has been out on 17, while playing with his collar up, in the second innings of a match, which started on the third Monday of a month. But off-late, things have changed. People don’t seem to be interested in listening to my detailed analysis of Sachin and Dhoni’s favourite nursery rhymes, and how they’ve applied the learnings from them to improve their cover-drives. All they want to talk about is football and some guy with cleanliness issues(messy, I believe he’s called) and Ronaldo(who seems to have made a comeback after fixing his tooth and having grown some hair – people have conveniently forgotten that Sehwag and Bhogle were the pioneers in that field). I decided to watch a game or two but I was extremely disappointed by what I saw. How can I ever get behind a game where mastery over off-side play is considered to be a bad thing? I am losing friends at a faster speed than Ravi Shastri’s tracer bullet and I’m very unhappy. Please help.

– feels like the perpetual thirdman in this cricket match called life

Dear feels like the perpetual thirdman etc. etc.,

This is an extremely serious epidemic that has plagued the cricket-buffs in the country. The ICC has sponsored a lot of research programs to find a permanent cure, but they’re no closer to one yet. One home-grown solution that seems to have worked in alleviating the associated stress for some people is to lock oneself inside a room for a month and watch that channel which shows Sachin making his Sharjah century, all day long. Chanting ‘Whadddaaplaaayaa’ in Tony Greig’s voice seems to bring relief too.

If you absolutely must go out and mingle with the football fanatics in this period, it is advisable to take proper precautions which include memorizing a few phrases:

‘Cricket has been become so commercial! Everything’s fixed!. That’s why I switched to watching a proper sport like football when I was 4.”

“Baichung Bhutia is not the only good player that India has produced, okay? There’s also that guy. You know who I’m talking about!”

“Brazil are favourites. But I wouldn’t discount Argentina,  Germany, Italy, Uruguay, Cameroon, Ghana(just list the names of all the teams that are still in the running). This world cup has been so unpredictable!”.

If all else fails just scream the following every couple of minutes:

Is the referee blind??! That was clearly not off-side!”

And now for the most important tip of all – while bluffing your way through these conversations, it’s very important to remember that Manchester United is not playing in the World Cup. Many a reputation has been sunk that way.

You’re welcome.

 

The novel challenge – Chapter III

The reception for the first two chapters has been very positive and encouraging. A big thanks to everyone who’s stuck around and sent me their comments! Here’s the third chapter of the instalment. Please share it with friends if you like it so that I can reach a wider audience and get more feedback in the process!

The Proposition

Vikram couldn’t get himself to fall asleep. A lot had happened that day. He had landed a new job, met a being from another planet, and most importantly, had prevented himself from making the biggest mistake of his life – making a chef the protagonist of his impending bestseller. The market was obviously ripe for the epic saga of a stranded alien with amnesia, fighting his way back to his home planet against the odds. He was surprised he hadn’t thought of it earlier. Even though Caesar had been very mysterious about what his actual duties would be, Vikram couldn’t wait for the next morning.

He was jarred out of his thoughts by the loud cry of the doorbell, followed by a deluge of impatient knocks. It could only be that infernal interfering neighbour of his, coming to complain about his exercising in the midnight again, Vikram thought. His indignation grew in harmony with the knocking and he opened the door determined to give the man a piece of his mind.

“It’s not even exercise night, you ignorant…” Vikram began.

“Hello Vikram. We need to talk. Can I come in?” Caesar said.

“Uh…sure. Please come in, Caesar.” Vikram said.

Caesar made his way into the drawing room and sat on the sofa. The room, like the entire house, screamed bachelor-pad from every upturned cushion and dirt laced window. It was minimally furnished with the bachelor’s essentials – a recliner, a beanbag, a large television screen and a table to place the junk food on (there were three empty pizza boxes containing the remnants of a thick chewy crust lying on top).

“Please excuse my tone back there, Caesar. I thought you were someone else.” Vikram apologised as he plonked himself on the beanbag.

“It’s all right. I must apologize too – for paying you a visit at this late hour. But I had no choice. I have to talk to you about something that I cannot bring up when Morphy is lurking around.”

“Go on. I’m listening.” said Vikram, intrigued.

“That alien is my chance at redemption, Vikram.”

Caesar paused for dramatic effect.

“Uh…redemption?” Vikram asked.

“I have to get back at Lily and show to her that I have the skills to run a successful restaurant. Do you know what I did the day the review was published?” Caesar asked with clenched teeth.

“Cried yourself to sleep?” ventured Vikram.

“I fired my entire staff.”

“Okay. A tad harsh, perhaps?”

“How was I to know that I wouldn’t be able to hire any replacements? Every chef in the city I’ve approached since, has refused to join my restaurant for the wages I can offer them. And believe me, I’ve approached everybody. Even the guy who listed baking Lego doughnuts as his speciality. I was about to shut shop and resort to adopting a writing career, when I found my saviour.”

“Now look here Caesar, I don’t know what you overheard in the afternoon, but my skills are kinda limited to boiling eggs and microwaving…”

“I meant Morphy.”

“Oh. Right. He cooks well, does he?”

“What? I don’t know. I mean…it doesn’t matter. That’s not what I meant! Just hear me out, will you?”

Vikram looked a bit hurt by Caesar’s tone. Caesar took a moment to regroup and continued.

“You see Vikram, that crash I heard that night – it wasn’t just the sound of an alien spacecraft crash-landing.”

“It wasn’t? I thought you just said it was!”

“It was also the sound of opportunity knocking, Vikram. Opportunity.” Caesar added with a glint in his eyes. It was hard to tell whether it was the glint of a person with a dream in his heart, or of a maniac with homicide on his mind.

“Oh. I see what you did there. Metaphors – such tricky little devils they can be.” Vikram chose to play it safe until he figured out which one it was.

“Do you know how many alien encounters Earth has had in its entire existence, Vikram?”

“None! That’s how many.” Caesar announced emphatically before Vikram could take a stab at it.

Vikram did know the answer to this one – his favourite cartoon strip had carried a series of gags on that last week. He had been amused to learn that the people of Earth had suspected alien handiwork in the creation of the Stonehenge, Easter Island and someplace called Area 51. This had of course been debunked a couple of decades ago – they were just elaborate hoaxes planted by the Mermaids. They were notorious for this kind of humour, and also, they lived for hundreds of years and got bored very easily.

“I could have told the government about Morphy. But what would that get me? A firm handshake from the President’s secretary? No, I knew that someone would be willing to pay through their nose for a genuine certified alien in relatively mint condition. And that’s when I decided to approach the biggest gangster in the city – Michael Smith a.k.a. KorqueScrew. Getting to him wasn’t easy either – I now owe a lot of shady people a lot of shady favours. KorqueScrew jumped at the chance and I’ve negotiated a deal with him that will help put my restaurant back on the culinary map. He’s promised me a lot of money. A lot. Not only that, he’s guaranteed me that he’ll convince any chef I want, to join my restaurant’s staff.”

“You’ve sold Morphy to the Mafia? But what would they do with him? To him?”

“He seemed to be torn between having his scientists perform medical experiments on him, and adopting him as the alien son he never had. I believe having him stuffed and mounted over his fireplace was also an option in the running. Ah well, who really cares?”

“But how can you do that to him?” Vikram asked incredulously.

“What? Do you think that alien wasn’t planning to do something similar to us? He’s not our friend, Vikram. Why else would he have instructions to prevent being detected at any cost? It’s just dumb luck that he lost his memory and couldn’t remember what he was actually sent here for, otherwise we’d all be enslaved and having our cavities probed by prickly little things at this point. Do you want to let them do that to us once he regains his memory? Is that the kind of world you want to leave your children?”

“I still don’t understand why you’re telling me this, Caesar. What does this have to do with me?”

“I like how you get straight to the point Vikram. Very admirable trait. Very.” Caesar moved closer and lowered his voice for effect.

“I want you to do the exchange for me.”

“The exchange?”

“I want you to help me immobilize Morphy and then go and deliver him to KorqueScrew’s people in return for the money. And a written IOU for the chef-convincing. There’ll be a hefty monetary reward waiting for you when the deed is done.”

“Why don’t you do it yourself?”

“I’m a prominent restaurateur Vikram. I was voted ‘Most likely to be yelled at by a celebrity chef in a reality show’ at college. Imagine what’ll happen to my reputation if word gets out of my involvement with the Mafia. I can’t afford to take the risk.”

“I don’t think I’d want to be involved either. It sounds dangerous and I don’t like the idea of throwing Morphy under the proverbial bus for money.”

“You’re a writer, aren’t you Vikram?”

“Yes. How’d you know? Have you read my line of coloring books?”

“The guy you approached earlier to hire a chef from, called and warned every restaurant in the neighbourhood about you.”

“What a grouch!”

“Do you know what’s common between the last four books on the NYT bestsellers list? They were all crime novels. And for a writer who likes to get under the skin of the character, this would be an opportunity of a lifetime. Picture this – you reach the drop-off point in the dark of the night in a…in a?”

“Auto-rickshaw.”

“You reach the drop-off point in the dark of the night in my pickup-truck. Maybe it’s been raining. Maybe it skids on the puddle as you screech it to a halt. You gesture his henchmen to take Morphy’s limp drugged body from the back. You take the briefcases of cash from KorqueScrew. Maybe you smile at him. Maybe he smiles back. Maybe you become friends. Maybe he invites you to one of his famous parties later. Maybe you meet all his Mafia buddies there. Maybe you get in their inner circle. Maybe they give you an in-depth account of their lives, their crimes, their escapes, their triumphs, their failures. You’ll be so deep in the skin of a criminal that it’ll take a very fine pair of tweezers to get you out. Can you see it? Can you afford to lose such an opportunity? Will you?”

Vikram had a dazed look on his face. Caesar did paint a very vivid and enticing picture.

“It’s getting very late, Vikram.” Caesar said as he looked down at his watch. “Why don’t you sleep on it and let me know?”

Vikram nodded instinctively and followed Caesar to the front door.

“Oh, there’s one more thing. The standard disclaimer, as is customary in these kind of dealings, applies. Before you think about refusing my offer or telling anyone about what I spoke about tonight, remember that the head of the Mafia wants something I have, which means my requests to him for tiny favours, however gruesome, will not be refused. So choose wisely. Unlike the three who came before you.”

Vikram was conflicted. On the one hand he would have access to enough material for at least a trilogy of crime novels, with room for a couple of prequels to be thrown in later. But what about Morphy? Could he do this to him? Was he really a potential prober of human crevices? Maybe he’d be doing mankind a favour by turning him in to the Mafia.

Lost in these thoughts, Vikram hadn’t noticed the figure that had shimmied up to his bedside in the meantime.

“Hello.” it said.

Vikram leaped up like an eager student’s hand on hearing a question he finally knows the answer to.

“Relax, Vikram. It’s just me, Morphy.” the figure chuckled.

“Why would you do something like that?!” Vikram shouted once he had managed to gather his wits again.

“I have something very important to discuss with you.”

“Why couldn’t this wait until tomorrow?”

“Because Caesar cannot come to know about it at any cost.”

“At any cost?”

“At any cost.” Morphy replied expressionlessly.

There’s that shiver up the spine again, Vikram thought.

“Go on then. Tell me what this is about.”

“You remember when Caesar and I told you about me suffering from memory loss? It’s not true. It’s a lie I tell Caesar to keep him from suspecting anything.”

“What is there to suspect?”

“Lots. I was sent to Earth by my people for a very important mission. And I need your help to complete it successfully.”

“You’ll have to tell me more.”

“Let me start at the beginning. I’m from Konnit, a planet in the Zimmer galaxy, which is about four thousand light years away from Earth. I was part of the…” Morphy suddenly broke into a coughing fit.

“Would you like a drink of water?” asked Vikram.

“That…would…be…great.” Morphy managed to eke out between his loud coughs.

Vikram got up to make his way towards the kitchen. He stayed in the kind of apartment people tend to describe as ‘small but cosy, with paper thin walls’. So thin that the neighbours could actually listen to each other’s conversations in the quiet of the night, if they really put their mind to it. In fact, Pierre, his neighbour, was awoken by the loud thud even though he was in deep slumber. He attributed it to his peculiar neighbour’s midnightly exercise routine and went right back to getting his eight hours. Vikram did not have the liberty to hear the thud, of course. He was unconscious long before his body slumped to the floor. Morphy was trained to kill a man in fifty-two different ways and to render him senseless in seventy-three. Vikram never stood a chance.