Tehelka Magazine, Vol 8, Issue 1, Dated January 08, 2011
|ORIGINAL FICTIONS 3: PULP&NOIR
How To Be A Good Serial Killer
BY ZAC O’YEAH
ILLUSTRATIONS BY SAMIA SINGH
MOST PEOPLE don’t anticipate their own deaths.
I’m sure Aunty Lämmell doesn’t think of it even as a remote possibility, although for me she’s forever associated with death. She’s a regular at Hotel Hilltopi Lodging & Boarding Attached Permit Room, in fact our only regular. I’ve been seeing her for the last decade – she’s like a ghost who appears once a year to remind me of the past.
My job isn’t like being a manager at The Oberoi, but I think of it as a safe job. The owners can hardly fire the last man standing. Woman, I mean.
The Hilltopi used to be a quite decent resort until it got a bit of a bad reputation after Chakra’s death. Nowadays our lodgings, or rather the alcohol permit, attracts the occasional couple conducting illicit affairs, for it is sufficiently far from the city to offer privacy; but there are times — like the hot season — when I see a bit of a quote-rush-unquote when city families who can’t afford genuine hill stations drive up to drink and eat, and sometimes stay the night. So this isn’t a totally dead place.
My husband Chakra, or Chakraborty, used to be the chef and he was always hungry for a nibble. The apparent cause of his death was, ironically, a bag of chips. That day, ten years ago, Aunty Lämmell was going for a walk and hired Chakra to prepare a picnic. He went along with the tiffin carrier. We had been married for five months. I’m not the jealous type, I should add.
After a few hours of fending off naughty monkeys that scavenged for edibles along the trail, she sat down for her tomato sandwiches and blurted that they would have tasted great with potato wafers.
The little shop by the bus stop was within sight from where they were. They agreed to draw lots: she took two matches, broke one off. If he drew the shorter, he’d go. If not, she’d go. It was as simple as that.
Chakra lost, but she told me that he was smiling as he walked back; he had bought a cigarette and two bags of chips. He would frequently quit smoking, afraid of cancer, so it gave him pleasure to buy cigarettes in singles. That way he thought he’d cheat death.
He was munching on chips and about to light a Gold Flake, so I assume that life must have seemed perfect from his point of view – what more can one ask for? At that moment, a pack of monkeys came swinging down from the trees.
They were after the chips.
The plastic bags were torn to shreds and Chakra got deep cuts on his hands. Back at the hotel, we disinfected the cuts with Old Monk rum. Aunty Lämmell kept repeating how sorry she was. He said it was no big deal, just a scratch. I felt he should see a doctor.
The hospital is more than an hour’s drive away, at the outskirts of town, and the last bus had left at 3 pm, so we would have to call for a taxi. Chakra was adamant and refused to go. Who would cook dinner for Aunty Lämmell? Duty came first.
Within a few days the scary episode was forgotten. Aunty stayed for another week before she took her leave, promising to come back again, but since foreign tourists often make such promises, we didn’t set much store by her parting words. Life went on in its humdrum way.
About a month later, Chakra got sick, deteriorating rapidly into a serious condition that forced him to hospital. The doctor diagnosed it as rabies. He died.
THE TIME of the year when I miss him most is between the rainy season and before the winter, when there are very few guests – except for Aunty Lämmell who comes for her annual holiday. She says she likes to keep me company though she mostly sits in the garden, chewing on a pencil. I used to wonder how she could afford to take leave for a month every year. Didn’t she have a job? For the longest time, I thought those notebooks were diaries.
She says she likes privacy and so she always rents the whole lodge. There are three rooms, all facing the garden and with a great view over the plains. She always sleeps in the middle one. Together with her meals and tiffins and plentiful drinking, her monthlong stay brings in enough revenue to prevent the proprietor from deciding to shut down Hilltopi.
It’s not that the place lacks tourist potential and there are offers from interested buyers, I’m told. But their bids aren’t high enough. Give it some time and there’ll come along a builder who hasn’t heard of the chef who died of rabies, for bad reputations only last so long, the proprietor thinks. I was summoned to his city office two weeks ago, just to be told of his resolution to not give me an increment, but as long as I didn’t complain I was free to stay on and run the hotel.
I thanked him and he dismissed me with a bonus of five hundred rupees. The Diwali season was upon us. I strolled down Race Course Road, back to the bus stand. On the way, I stopped at the booksellers’ carts and browsed the latest titles. They were printed on bad paper, with pages missing, but cheap. One that I hadn’t seen before caught my eye — The Hotel on the Lonely Hill, which, according to the blurb, was a murder mystery set in India. When I read the note on the author, I must have turned pale, because the bookseller asked me if I wanted to sit down; he offered his own stool.
The author, Ann Lämmell, was described as a former Swedish journalist, who worked for many years for The Gothenburg Post. The Hotel on the Lonely Hill marked her commercial breakthrough as a crime queen — selling over a million copies and now available for the first time in English translation. No wonder Aunty could afford the whole hotel!
Although it irked me that she hadn’t gifted me a copy of her bestselling crime novel, I decided to spend part of my bonus on it.
Getting off the bus from the city I saw the Hilltopi for what it was: a rundown ramshackle block of rotting concrete. The permit room, which (or so the proprietor insists) used to be rather happening in the 1980s when filmi people came, is boarded up and booze is nowadays served in the ‘family’ restaurant: ten Sunmica-topped tables with plastic garden chairs. The only good thing is that at sunset the lights twinkle in faraway places. The few customers who come are satisfied with Egg-Fried Rice and Egg Pakoras to line their tummies. It’s only when Aunty Lämmell arrives that I go to the nearest village to buy fresh chicken for curries and biryani.
Aunty appreciates the food. I think it has something to do with her first stay, when Chakra was cooking – he was a charmer.
Later that night I started on The Hotel on the Lonely Hill and was rather disturbed by the first lines:
He was munching on chips and about to light a Gold Flake. At that moment, a pack of monkeys came swinging down from the trees
You didn’t want to go to India. You detested the idea, which surely was the primary reason for Chuck, your husband, booking the air tickets, and that too after you had fought hard against it. You wanted to walk along Hadrian’s Wall across England, like you did every year, and stay at quaint bed & breakfasts.
You hated Chuck for taking you on holiday to the developing world, but his father had once worked for SKF in India, and Chuck wanted to discover his ‘roots’. He had seen some documentary on TV.
Later you changed your mind and nowadays if anybody asks, you claim it was the best thing that could have happened. For the hills of India are dreamy places, verging on nightmarish, ideal for dark minds like yours. In that forlorn hill station, a place so unimportant that in colonial times it had been the refuge of petty officials, a getaway from the heat of the plains, you could see for miles and miles from the seedy bar.
Since Chuck’s death, you had become quite fond of India.
As far as I know Aunty Lämmell has never been married, so who is this Chuck? I dismiss her writings as nonsense. But every evening, even if it makes my blood pressure go up, I have to turn another page to see what happens.
SOME TIME later, just when a couple had checked out — they had taken the middle room, ordered a plate of Egg Pakoras and a quart of Old Monk and spent the afternoon indoors, curtains drawn, and come out a little after 5 pm — I see a taxi pull up and stop next to the Ambassador car that’s leaving. later, just when a couple had checked out — they had taken the middle room, ordered a plate of Egg Pakoras and a quart of Old Monk and spent the afternoon indoors, curtains drawn, and come out a little after 5 pm — I see a taxi pull up and stop next to the Ambassador car that’s leaving.
While Aunty sits down for her customary sunset cocktail — a Fresh Lime Soda, sweet and salt, with Blue Riband Gin — I change the sheets in her favourite room. There are minor stains on them and a decorative bindi has fallen off. Back in the restaurant I ask, “Aunty, would you like me to refresh your drink?”
She moves her head vaguely; it’s her customary way of not taking responsibility for her actions. I interpret it as a yes, while she can tell herself that although she said no there was some communication glitch.
I pour myself tea and sit down. We often talk when there are no other guests. Which is mostly all the time. “Do you remember my husband — Chakra?” After her first return here, when I had told her the sad news, Chakra had been the one subject we never touched upon. But since buying her novel, I had to find out what, if anything, had taken place between them.
She nods, “Of course, Pinkie, he practically died in my arms.”
I take a sip of tea, my lips suddenly dry. It is, of course, not true. He died at the hospital and the seizures were so severe he couldn’t even speak my name.
“It was a sad day,” she says.
It is black outside and the roads radiating out of the city are like blood vessels, pulsating with silver drops, those streams of cars that keep the city alive. She talks at length about what a lovely man Chakra was.
“Time to hit the hay,” she says after some time.
“Good night then, Aunty,” I say and go to my room to compare her remarks about Chakra with her description of what she felt about “Chucky”.
You were surprised by how fast it all went, once it started going down. You hadn’t imagined that he would die just because of the matches. Match-fixing had been an old hobby of yours, a way to control things, have it the way you wanted. It was a simple trick that always worked. You discovered that it was possible to murder somebody by a mere sleight of hand.
The case with Chuck, like with most people, is that you must manipulate him into taking a certain decision.
SHE’S WAITING for breakfast, sunglasses perched on her hair like a Greta Garbo from hell, her notebooks spread out, and I proceed to the kitchen to toast bread slices and fry a triple-egg omelette with chunks of Amul-tinned cheese, and a tall glass of Nescafe. She always eats the same breakfast. And she always sits at the same table with her back against the wall. She asks me to sit down and tell her about my life before the hotel — growing up in a small-town, studying at a small college, tourism and catering. Luckily my marriage was arranged to Chakra who had similar career ambitions, and once upon a time Hilltopi had appeared to be our slice of heaven. But then he died.
I stare at her notebooks. “What is it that you’re writing, Aunty?”
“I’m glad you asked, Pinkie. These are notes for a crime novel. I get so inspired here in India and it gives a lot of local colour to my stories, a bit like how you put green chillies in the cheese omelette for flavour, if you know what I mean.”
“I think I do,” I say and play around with a used match that has fallen beside the ashtray.
Aunty Lämmell needs no encouragement to go on. “You see, crime fiction is a big industry over there in Sweden and I’m known as the ‘crime queen’. The critics feel I am renewing the genre with my exotic locales and foreign customs…”
Around 11 o’clock I have to excuse myself to do kitchen work, but I am getting a fair idea of what smutty trash she writes.
The hill hotel is a depressing place where people go to do dirty business, the staff acting in whole-hearted complicity. Any normal day you see couples come, order drinks to their rooms, and check out within hours. Few stay overnight, unlike you, and you’re treated like the ghost of a better past. They get nervous and add up your bills wrong. You don’t like to think of them as cheats.
Your reasons are purely sentimental. This is the place where the man you loved died.
Loved? She couldn’t have loved Chakra. But once the seed of doubt is sown, I can’t stop obsessing about it. Maybe she tried to seduce him, and he turned her down — in the sort of books that I like to read rejection is enough for a woman to poison her lover. The kitchen chores suffer and so lunch is served late. When I finally put the chapattis on the table, Aunty Lämmell looks at me with feigned concern as she pours herself beer, “How are things, Pinkie? Tell me honestly — you seem different somehow this year.”
“We all change with time.”
She herself has put on weight; I guess that’s what happens when somebody earns too much money, they eat too much Amul cheese.
“You Indians are steeped in wisdom and speak such enigmatic profundities all the time. I love it how you put complex ideas in simple terms. Now I’m writing a new thriller and I…,” and she goes on and on while I tie a napkin into knots.
“Why do you need to write another one? Was something wrong with your first book?”
“Oh, it was just too autobiographical. It’s a common error among new writers.”
I could have told her about one lakh things she had got wrong, starting with the recipe for chicken curry. “So what was it about?”
“A woman who’s out travelling and her husband falls sick. Everybody is led to believe that she murdered him.”
“And did you?”
“Did I what?”
“I didn’t mean that kind of autobiographical… I haven’t been married. In the novel, the couple play a cat-and-mouse-game, setting traps for each other, this is what makes them tick. Both suspect that the other might be plotting a murder, though they’ve never gone so far. It’s more of an intense psychological drama of relationships than proper crime fiction. I guess that is the autobiographical element, the psychological insightfulness.”
“I wish I could pen made-up stories like that. But why don’t they speak openly about their problems and solve them?”
“Maybe you can go for a creative writing workshop with some skillful master,” she tries to flatter me, ignoring the question. “It must be terribly lonely up here. Really, spending too much time alone isn’t good for mental health.” She finishes her beer.
“Would you fetch me another?”
The way she speaks is eerie. Is she trying to figure out how much I know about what had happened between her and my husband?
The way she speaks in a clipped voice is eerie. Is she trying to figure out how much I know about what had happened between her and my husband? Right then a car stops outside and a family on a Sunday drive steps in. I make pakoras for the kids and the man drinks pegs of Royal Stag with Club Soda. When the kids run out to feed crumbs to the monkeys, the man asks if there’s any room available and looks disappointed when I say we’re fully booked.
This is the day when it must happen. The weekend tourists have come and gone, and there are lots of hungry monkeys down by the bus stop. You prepare, you practice with the matches and try to appear calm and quiet.
Lately things have escalated between the two you.
You had to find out the truth. Did he really not love you, and if so, did he deserve to live? There was only one solution, to place it all in the hands of fate.
Chuck smiled an unhappy smile. That smile had become a habit with him, and it was a smile that scared you. For wasn’t it just a reflection, an echo of your smile? Chuck was too smooth, like a second skin, spread over your own. Even when you made love he was soft and slimy, like he tried to become you. Lately he was anticipating your reactions, almost reading your thoughts. It was terrifying.
It wasn’t at all as if you decided to murder him. But he turned out to be too easy to kill. He didn’t know anything about rabies. Ignorant type. If a normal person is bitten by monkeys, he would go to see a doctor. But Chuck is too macho.
The next morning Aunty Lämmell is sitting in the garden, scribbling frantically, and I’m not feeling good about it. I’m late because I had to heat bath water on the gas stove — thanks to load-shedding the geyser isn’t working — to wash away the coconut oil in my hair. I do it every Monday morning. Besides I had been up reading all night and overslept.
As I’m drying my hair in the sun on the terrace Aunty sees me. “Pinkie! Good morning to you too! Would you like to go for a walk?”
“Great, I’ll just finish this chapter while you get ready,” she says.
The customer is always right.
I’M SO used to solitary strolls that I don’t know how to keep up a conversation while walking. We’ve been going at a frantic pace, when she turns to me and smiles, “Tired?”
“No, Aunty,” I say. “Would you like to turn?”
“Let’s walk a little more. The air is crackling fresh, isn’t it?”
“So where are we heading?” I ask, though I have a fair idea. Occasionally there’s loud rustle from above. The monkeys are jumping between trees.
“Don’t know, what do you say?”
“Anywhere,” I suggest.
“The shop?” she says, panting a bit now, she too.
“The one at the bus stop is the only shop hereabouts.” I try to sound cheerful. I’m surprised at how aggressively she walks. When we reach the slope above the shop, from where it is a steep hundredyard climb down, I must rest.
She says, “It would be nice to have something salty to eat and maybe a cold drink, wouldn’t it?”
“I’m not sure, Aunty.”
“We could draw lots. Does that sound fair?”
Prepare to die, I think and nod. She’s kept the matches ready in her pocket, she shows me that one is broken, and shuffles them around.
I watch Aunty Lämmell’s outstretched hand. The one to the left or to the right? It’s impossible to tell, so I look at her face instead.
Her eyes flicker and there’s an almost imperceptible movement of pupils, as if she involuntarily glanced to the right, which would mean it’s the match she hopes to get for herself. But having been up all night studying her novel, I know she’s transmitting a subliminal signal, gambling that I’ll be perceptive enough to pick the one she just indicated. Then her eyes are like stone again and that’s all I need to be sure — she has set up a psychological trap.
If it is impossible to predict the exact moment of death, it may be a good idea to be cheerful always: whatever emotions one has at the moment of death will influence the next rebirth. She too wears a funny kind of expressionless smile.
The monkeys shriek.
My fingers hover over the matches, first to the left for a fraction of a second, while all along watching her face, and it doesn’t change, no disappointment, so I go for the one on my right, her left, and pull the unbroken match from her hand.
“Oops, I lost,” she says. “But fair enough.” To conceal her perturbation she turns to walk. “Shall I get you potato wafers?”
“No, I’m on a low-salt diet, Aunty.”
She stops. Perhaps she thinks that she has found a new partner to play the game with. Of course, a second later she realises her error.
“But I’ve been told to eat a lot of potassium, so could you buy bananas?”
She has no option but to follow the rules. If she didn’t, she’d admit to being a murderer.
“Though if you’re very tired we can go back and I’ll prepare lunch,” I offer.
“No, no,” she says, desperate to prove her innocence, “let’s get you bananas.”
That’s the least you can do, I think as I watch her go. Down there the shopkeeper is fending off nosy monkeys with a bamboo pole.
There is, I’ve come to realise, one thing that just might save my job and keep the Hilltopi Lodging & Boarding off the real estate market, and that is an even worse reputation. With most people being a bit superstitious, they’d think it inauspicious to take over a hotel where foreign tourists may catch rabies.
I shut my eyes and hear her greet the shop-keeper in the distance. Minutes later, I sense the monkeys growing excited. Then a moment of silence like before a thunderclap.
I open my eyes wide, I see her a few steps away, a banana in each hand. Something hairy passes before her, obliterating her for a fraction of a second: then she’s a blur, and there are no more bananas. Her hands are like raw meat.
She screams, stumbles and starts rolling downhill. The shopkeeper comes running up. I reach her first. There are about a thousand things on my mind. But I keep it simple and tell her what I’ve been dying to say for days, “If you’re such a crime queen, Aunty, you should have kept the match trick a secret.”
O’Yeah has published 11 books since 1995, including the bestselling biography Mahatma! and his English debut with the 2010 detective novel Once Upon A Time In Scandinavistan. He is presently writing some books and the screenplay for a zombie film. More at www.zacoyeah.com