By: Shreesha S. Bhat (LT Heavy Engineering)
I could scarcely believe that the human heart could beat so fast.
The sheer power of the rhythmic percussion of the heart spread all over my body, causing it to tremble like brambles caught in a hurricane. Perspiration flooded through my skin, and soon I could visualize myself drowning in my own sweat. I had to set the scene right before panic conquered my mind. The scene was a swanky corporate office of a finance firm in the heart of this great city, high up in a skyscraper, whose window offered a stunning vista of the entire city, and the only flaw in the scene was the operations manager of the firm who was lying dead in the middle of the room, from where a dark crimson stain was spreading across the the pearl-white Carrara marble on the floor.
The only thing worse than the dead operations manager was the fact that it was me who had murdered him, a few minutes ago.
Two years ago, when I was as capable of committing murder as a camel, I was off, swimming across the Arctic Ocean as I had been fired from my job. It had been in the offing, of course, with rumors of a downsizing due to a fall in my company’s fortunes doing the rounds regularly, but I had been a star performer, responsible for bringing in most of whatever sales the company had seen that year. But apparently the top brass had decided that everybody below a certain cadre had to go. And I had just joined the company two years previously, which meant I was far below the cut-off cadre when the axe fell. Like the fingertips of a hand about to be severed from the arm.
So, I went hunting in the forest. Job-hunting, that is, in the forest of a booming economy. This took quite a while, and meanwhile I had been reduced to munching whatever the local eatery in the vicinity of my interviewing office had to offer. I had been munching a mediocre pizza in one of these eateries, wondering how great it could be to have some plush French dinner right then.
That was when I realized that the words ‘plush’ and ‘French dinner’ went together. Why were some foods proprietary rights of the rich? Why couldn’t the slum-dwellers enjoy royal cuisines from around the world? French dining was always something done in fancy ‘up-market’ restaurants, by people wearing Armani suits and Rolex wristwatches. A poor slum-dweller could only dream about such a dinner. Something could be done to fix this.
And so was born Royal Cuisines, a restaurant set in the heart of the biggest slum area in the city, dishing out French, Italian, Oriental and Arab cuisine at prices affordable by the local populace. A leading financier in the heart of the city’s business district seemed to find the idea quite exciting, and agreed to support me.
The restaurant and the cuisines caught on like wildfire. It was a simple restaurant with a spartan like décor; people went to restaurants to eat, not to look at the fancy chandeliers and Italian furniture. It was only the food and quick service which mattered. The restaurant was soon as crowded as the slums themselves, and I was minting money. A poor taxi driver and his family could now relish embré du poimouffle (whatever it was) on a Saturday evening and a daily-wage earner could grab a bite of win chin mochoo (or something like that) on his way back from work, without causing a dent on his pocket. But after the leading newspaper of the city gave Royal Cuisines a 4.5/5 rating – a rarity, those Armani suit-wearing, Rolex-wielding billionaires in their Mercs started queuing outside the restaurant, waiting for a piece of the freshest cuisine in the slum.
Thus, when everything was hunky-dory, a hunk landed on my door one day and demanded that I repay the full amount of my loan within a week, failing which the bank would take control of my restaurant. I rushed to the bank, and explained that this was not the condition agreed upon when the loan payment had been made. But the rules have changed, the operations manager explained, because his bank was facing bankruptcy. There was an urgent need to reclaim all the outstanding loans. The only way he could salvage his business was by sinking mine.
I begged. I pleaded. I threatened. He nodded at the security officer who escorted me out of the bank by the lapel of my suit.
That evening, patrons of Royal Cuisines were welcomed by a board which proclaimed ‘Last Week In Business! Enjoy It While It Lasts!’ and ‘Going-out-of-business Discounts!’ On hearing the news, the entire slum seemed to come flooding in, expressing support, sympathy and solidarity with me. But what I wanted was a huge amount of money within a week, and there was no way of putting it together without borrowing again. And then, a genius offered something more practical than emotional support.
“Shall I break into his office and get back your mortgage papers out? Then there’s no way he can take control of this place! No no no!” he stopped me as I was just opening my mouth to retort, and went on. “Listen. I know you’ll tell me this is crazy, criminal and all that, but listen up: in a week, you’ll lose the best thing this area has seen in decades. These people deserve a place like this in their backyard. So think of them. Think of the love you’ve received. Get on your ass and go get the documents right out of his office. Any planning and logistics help you need – you only have to ask for it. I have been breaking into banks for two decades, and have never been caught. I’m your man for this job.”
I thought over this. Curiously, this logic made sense. Why was I, and the thousands who flocked to exotic dinners every evening, being made to suffer because some idiot banker could not keep his bank in business? I DESERVED to be in business! This was the way to go!
But I decided I’d give it one more shot before considering stealing the documents. I called him and pleaded him for another appointment. After a lot of coaxing, he agreed, and told me to meet him in his office at around 8 AM, before the bank would open for business. I promptly turned up before him at the appointed hour and tried to explain my situation, armed with innumerable ideas regarding how I would go about repaying the loan. But he was as interested in me as Mozart would have been in listening to Eminem. The panoramic view of the city from his window did nothing to quench my anger at his flat refusal even to listen to me– and before I knew it, I had grabbed a heavy Chinese flower vase adorned with French lilies from his Burmese teak table, and had coshed him on his bald head with all my strength.
Before my anger had subsided, I had hit him thrice more, and as I sat back to look at my handiwork, I realized that I had just committed murder. That was when my heartbeat went berserk and the Carrara marble began getting desecrated with his blood. I was rooted to the spot, unable to move, my entire nervous system going kaput like traffic on a busy expressway where a trailer-truck had just overturned.
I must have stood there for about fifteen minutes or so – but given my complete system shutdown, I had failed to sense the passage of time. And then, in the fraction of a second, I was brought back by Bryan Adams who began proclaiming, “Here I am, this is me, there’s nowhere else on Earth I’d rather be!” It took me a while to realize that it was my cellphone ringing. And I was pretty sure he would not have wanted to be here at this instant.
The caller was the genius from the slum who was responsible for the entire mess. “You –” I was swearing at his whole family when he cut me short – “Listen, dude, you need to relax. Tough, but that’s the thing you need the most right now.”
“I can only –”
“No! First tell me you’re relaxed and only then I’ll talk to you.”
I took some deep breaths, looked out of the window at the sprawling city spread across all the way to the horizon, and some sense of calm permeated into me. “Ok, I’m calm.”
“Listen. Just wipe your fingerprints off everything. Make sure there’s no evidence of you ever having visited him today or yesterday. Then get the hell out of there. There are several hundred murders in this city daily, and the cops are not going to waste time on this one alone. You’re safe.”
His words had a soothing effect. I moved quickly, wiping my prints from every surface of the room, and soon, I was confident no trace of me having been in that room was left behind. I quickly opened his safe, and found, among others, my mortgage papers which I swiftly pocketed and walked out of there as if this was routine to me. I could live with my conscience – it would not trouble me so much, but I was shit scared of getting arrested and the long procedures of the law and the jail term. I reached the ground floor after what seemed like an eternity in the elevator, and walked calmly out of the lobby, though I was in a runaway hurry to get away from that confounded building.
After I had moved several hundred feet away, I heard police sirens tearing past the next street, heading towards the building. Somebody (probably somebody from housekeeping) had come in for an early-morning clean up. This meant I had not been ten minutes too early.
As I was relishing my future with the Royal Cuisines, my friend (he had just become a friend for life) called me again. I told him of my apprehensions. “Don’t worry, as I told you, the cops can’t lay a finger on you or anybody else. There are no clues. The suspect could be any of the hundreds of people set to lose their businesses or homes – all whose documents are stashed in his safe. By the time the cops interview all of them, they’ll be worn thin. You just keep calm when they turn up to interview you.”
“They won’t – because I flicked my documents from his safe!” I proclaimed triumphantly.
“I took my documents.”
“Are you freaking CRAZY?” he yelled.
“I’d just murdered him, so I’d to make the murder worthwhile, didn’t I,” I said, not sounding all that confident. I was a total novice in the crime world, so probably had goofed up something real bad. “You PSYCHO!” he screamed. “The cops will find out that among all mortgaged properties, only your file is missing! They’ll lay a finger on you faster than you can say ‘finger’! You could have put up a neon sign around your neck saying you are the murderer and there was still a chance it would not be noticed! But now you’re done for!”
I was dazed. There was no way I could go back and replace the file, because the cops would already have been in his office by then. I could see the long arm of the law coiling around my neck like a boa constrictor, and despite it being a warm sunny morning, I felt like I was in the middle of an Antarctican winter. “Help me!” I wailed into the cellphone.
“All I can do now is to find you a good lawyer and – ” he was going on, but something distracted me – was that aircraft flying too low or was it my illusion? Before I could put my finger on anything odd about the aircraft, it had headed downwards and then there was a shattering explosion as it rammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Centre which I had left scarcely ten minutes ago – somewhere between the 70th and 80th floors, the 73rd being the floor which housed the finance company’s office, where I had stood admiring the view of Manhattan after committing the murder half an hour ago. A blinding fireball went up, and New Yorkers stared at the terrifying spectacle with their brains going numb, as mine had done a while ago. Oddly enough, though this was the most horrifying scene in America’s history, I felt a strange sense of calm. Still unable to tear my eyes off the inferno which raged on the North Tower, I disappeared down the avenue.