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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Flipping out – Chapter 1

“Do you want fries with that?” I asked the guy in front of the cash register.

“Huh?”

“Do you want fries with your burger?” I repeated, contorting my face into a smile.

 The gentleman proceeded to think long and hard. His thick eyebrows furrowed as his brain processed the many variables required to solve the riddle I had thrust upon him.

I wished I’d given so much thought into choosing my college major. 

In hindsight, a degree in Fijian Art History with a minor in Shakespearean Sonnet Appreciation did not exactly set me up well for the world of employment. But hey, you know how it is. I was a young, cocky, generally unbathed, upstart of a man, fresh out of college, armed with an unfinished draft of my ground-breaking fantasy, sci-fi, gothic romance novella. The world was supposed to be my oyster.

Thirty five generic template rejections from publishers, followed by an attempt at self-publishing that was widely panned by the two people who read it, followed by the refusal of unemployment benefits by my now ex-girlfriend, I found myself in the exciting world of flipping burgers.

I still remember my first day at the job – you never forget these things, do you? I stood in a circle with seven fellow aspiring gourmands, in the mechanised underbelly of the McWendy’s kitchen, at the ungodly hour of 5 AM. In the centre, stood a rotund young man in his late-twenties, dressed in the McWendy’s standard-issue ensemble – a shower cap, t-shirt and apron adorned with an image of the iconic McWendy’s smiling burger, and a badge that had the words, ‘Steve – Shift Manager and Trainer’ written on it.

We were surrounded by a cornucopia of cooking paraphernalia – an aluminium fryer that bubbled like something out of Macbeth’s opening scene, a large burger assembly station holding stacks of buns and toppings, an ice-cream machine with spigots for the four standard flavours, a large refrigerator, and myriad other contraptions that beeped and burped moodily.

For the next 3 hours, Steve trained us in the dark arts of fast-food production.

“You’re doing it wrong,” Steve said pointing at me.

“Am I?” I replied, picking up the unfortunate burger patty from the floor with my spatula.

“It’s easy – it’s all in the wrist. Here, let me show you.”

The burger patty leaped in the air, performed a triple somersault, and nailed a perfect ten-point landing on an awaiting bun.

I won’t lie. I was quite impressed with the man.

Untitled Short Story – Chapter 1

An expectant hum permeates the air. Or maybe that’s just my jangling nerves. A man in a black gown sits beside me, intermittently whispering instructions into my ear. He’s my court-appointed attorney, a luxury granted only to the poor and defenceless, and in rare cases, the indefensible.

The prosecution has set up shop on my immediate right. The prosector looks like something straight out of a Netflix drama, right down to the generously gelled hair and pointed leather shoes. He says something to the plaintiff seated next to him. She’s a confident, middle-aged woman dressed in a conservative black pantsuit, which is complimented by her tortoise-rimmed spectacles. She also holds the highest office in the country’s Department of Intelligence. They let out a collective chuckle.

To the prosecution’s right, inside a wooden enclosure, the members of the jury are in various stages of settling into their chairs. Some of them have smiles on their faces as they make small talk with their neighbours. Others stare blankly ahead. One of them, a young man wearing a crisp white shirt and tie, shuffles his feet and steals a glance at his watch. His face crumples into a frown. Things aren’t moving as fast as he would like. I do not share his impatience.

Straight behind, a wooden barrier, also called the bar in courtroom lingo, isolates us from the audience gathered to watch the trial. They’re a motley group – reporters looking for a headline, law students forced to attend a trial for a passing grade, and voyeuristic members of the public hoping for a good show. A lady thinks about dumping her jacket on one of the empty chairs in the front row. She eventually resists, possibly realising they’re meant for the defendant’s family and well-wishers.

Straight up ahead, across the well of the court, the judge’s bench towers over us. The witness box is to its right, comprised of a chair within its own wooden fence. Isolating things inside enclosures seems to be the guiding tenet of the courtroom’s architecture.

An abrupt silence falls on the proceedings as the bailiff announces the judge’s appearance. A tall, imposing man, in his sixties, or even older, makes his way to the bench. The oversized judicial robes and wig do nothing to temper the sense of purpose and authority that he relays even in this short walk. I feel a tap on my shoulder and turn to see that it’s from my attorney. His gestures make me realise that I’m the only person in the court who’s still seated. I hasten to my feet and brace myself for what’s about to come.

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 Noise

I’ve grown up in a very old house. You know, the kind where the floor, the wall, the cupboards…everything creaks. I’ve long been used to the creepy sounds they make. One interesting side-effect of growing up in such a house is that I’m never impressed by the so-called horror movies Hollywood churns out. If you really think about it, ninety percent of the scares are just that – creaky furniture. Hah. I’m not losing any sleep over that.

But, tonight’s different. I was jarred awake in the dead of night by something I’d never heard before.

Complete and utter silence.

When I look up, my eyes catch something pacing the room. Yet, I don’t hear the floor groan in complaint. It stops to scratch something onto the wall. But, the walls don’t screech.

As the silence becomes deafening, I slide back into bed, and pray for something…anything…to creak again.

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 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.

The Novel Challenge – Chapter II

A huge thank you to everyone who took the trouble of reading the first chapter and contacted me to tell me how they felt about it! Furthermore, there haven’t been any casualties reported since I’ve posted it and incidents of eye-gouging seem to have been below the prescribed limit. So, with nervously intrepid feet – here comes the second chapter.

The Mission

“Send him in,” Goloxinout said to his secretary.

Goloxinout was in a cranky mood. Konnit’s elections were due in another millennium, which meant that he had been forced to do some actual work again. He had twenty meetings lined up in the day and wasn’t looking forward to any of them.“Good afternoon, Mr President.” the visitor said as he threw in a well practiced bow of courtesy.

“What is this about, Xylon?” Goloxinout gestured him to sit.

“We still haven’t been able to establish contact with General Wingo.”

“Ah yes, General Wingo…uh…where is he again?”

“It’s been a year minus five minutes since he set out on his mission to Earth.”

“Right, right. Th-aaat general Wingo. Of course. How does General Wingo like the place?”

“We don’t know. We lost contact with him as soon as he left our atmosphere.”

“Ah. Hate it when that happens. So you want me to name a day after him? General Wingo day? It kinda rolls off the tongue, you have to admit. Maybe a parade too..”

“All in good time Mr. President. But first, we must bring his mission to closure.”

Goloxinout groaned and braced himself. This was generally the point where Xylon gave him a long-winded ‘briefing’ and asked him to make a decision. Oh how he hated making decisions. He had become the president by religiously avoiding making them at every turn. They historically had a knack of coming back to bite him in the behind.

“General Wingo’s was no ordinary mission.” Xylon paused.

“Go on, I’m listening. What was it about?”

“Unfortunately, that’s almost all we really know about the mission.”

“All we know about the mission is that it wasn’t ordinary and that it involved General Wingo going to Earth?”

“You must understand that this mission was commissioned during the Wizium administration, Mr. President. Most of the relevant records were a casualty of the Great Digitizing Fiasco of last year.”

“The one where they shredded all the documents before scanning them?”

“That was the year before last, Mr. President.”

“Ah yes, this was the one with the Unicorn, the barrel of gunpowder and the firefly.”

“And the banjo,” added Xylon.

“Yes, the banjo. Of course,” Glouxinaut stifled a shudder before continuing, “But, I still don’t understand why we’re talking about this mission Xylon.”

“Well, there is one more thing that we’ve been able to find out. I’ve double-checked the information and there’s no doubt about its authenticity,” Xylon added.

“What’s that?”

“The only mission guideline that we could find, explicitly states that if Captain Wingo doesn’t return or contact us in another…” he looked at his watch and continued, “…ninety seconds, we are supposed to destroy Earth immediately.”

Their eyes darted to the clock on the desk simultaneously.

“Well, hold on a minute. Surely there must be someone who was part of the original mission’s planning committee who should be able to tell us what the mission is actually about?”

“They were all a casualty of the brutal military coup that immediately followed the Great Digitizing Fiasco.”

“The one that I led.”

“Yes, Mr. President.”

“Well, at least I guessed that one right,” Goloxinout said with a sheepish grin.

Their eyes darted back to the clock.

“It looks like he isn’t back in time, Mr. President,” Xylon said as the clock’s hands ticked over the dreaded mark with an air of nonchalance.

Goloxinout furrowed his only brow in deep thought. He liked to think of himself as a man of peace and wiping out an entire civilization always made him feel uneasy. On the other hand, if he acted quickly, he would be able to take a quick afternoon nap before the next meeting.

“Who can take care of this for us?”

“It sounds like a job for the Uranians.”

“Where do I sign?” Goloxinout asked.

“Here, there and there,” Xylon said as he pushed an official looking piece of paper towards him.

“One more thing, Mr. President.”

“There’s more?” asked an exasperated Goloxinout.

“The deadline for announcing the nominations for the Lifetime Award For Excellence In Galactic Science is almost upon us. I’ve scrutinized the contributions and careers of all our eminent scientists and one name stands out – that of Kintonx Goulin.”

“Nominate whoever you please Xylon. I couldn’t care less. Hang on…isn’t he the time machine guy?”

“He called it The Sinetransmorgodor – after his pet dinosaur, I’m told.”

“I’ve read about him. Did he ever remember how to make another one of those contraptions?   Anyone who lays their hands on one of those would have access to insurmountable power.”

“I’m afraid the memory loss caused by his journey to the future was quite permanent. He was only ever able to create one. And the whereabouts of that machine, despite extensive search operations that have been carried out in the last few centuries, are still unknown.”

What a pity, sighed Goloxinout, as he stared out into the mesmerizing view of the galaxy that his cabin afforded him. He could have used it to go back and cancel all those meetings. And there were those few years when he had tried to make it as ‘Golo –the mime who talked’ that kept cropping up in the press from time to time.

Yes, he told himself, he could definitely have found good use for the device.

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