Monday, December 14, 2009

Tough Luck

t was the night before Christmas. Captain Jack Pierce had just finished dinner with his wife and two daughters when the phone rang. Jack listened for about ten seconds, scratched his forehead and replied, “I will be there in ten minutes”.  His wife Coleen stood in the hallway with folded hands. This wasn’t new for her.

Jack strapped his shoulder holster and checked his gun. Coleen got him his jacket.

He kissed her and left.

* * *

Janice Stallman was driving the beat down ’93 Caprice on northbound I-75 when her boyfriend Brad Jenkins pulled out the SIM card from the cell phone, broke it into two and threw it out the window into the snow that was piled up on the roadside.  Ten minutes later Janice pulled into a rest area. The only other car in that rest stop left as Janice parked the Caprice.

Brad headed to the men’s room while Janice stayed in the car. He threw the brown bag containing the cell phone into trash can and headed for the urinal.

When Brad returned, Janice was standing with her back to the driver side door lighting a cigarette. “You drive”, said Janice throwing the keys to Brad and walking to the other side. Brad got into the driver seat and turned to look at the back seat. He lifted the blanket. Little Billie lay there with his mouth gagged. His hands and legs were tied. His eyes were filled with fear.

The Caprice picked up speed.

* * *

“Yes, this is Captain Jack Pierce from the Royal Oak police department. We know they are northbound on I-75 and should be in Flint city limits by now. They have the kid!”. Jack looked at the Interstate map spread on the coffee table. Billie’s parents, Tim and Anna Smith, sat on the couch listening to Jack on the phone with the Chief of Police, Flint, Michigan.

Jack hung up the phone and turned to Tim and Anna. “Don’t worry about the ransom call. We will get them soon!”

* * *
Janice was caught for shoplifting eight months ago and spent time a few months in jail. Brad was convicted for trying to rob a liquor store. They met each other two months ago after they were released from jail. They were both now in the interrogation room, sitting on their chairs with their hands cuffed behind their back.

“How the hell did they get us?” asked Brad turning to Janice.

“Let me help you with that”, said Captain Jack Pierce closing the door behind him with a smile on his face.

“I must say the two of you were ingenious in your execution of the plan. You made the ransom call from the cell phone, which we traced by the way. We knew you made the call near the I-75 and I-696 interchange. We couldn’t track the phone from the towers a minute after the call. You must have switched off the phone or discarded it. You could have been driving off in any direction, leaving us perplexed! Isn’t that right, Brad?”

‘Yes, that was the plan’, thought Brad.

Jack walked up to the door, opened it and turned to Brad and Janice.

“Unfortunately for the two of you, Little Billie was a homing beacon! He had a heart condition when he was 4 years old and had an internet-enabled pacemaker installed that sends a Twitter message every few minutes! We knew where you scumbags were all the time! Merry Christmas, y’all!”

Captain Jack Pierce slammed the door shut and walked out whistling ‘Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer…’

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Monday morning blues

he alarm clock rattled for about ten seconds before Raghavan could reach out to turn it off. It was a swiss handwound alarm clock that his grandfather got in the 1920s and he grew up waking to the sound of it every day. Raghavan lay flat with his eyes closed trying to extend his weekend by another minute. He knew his Monday had begun and reluctantly got off from his bed. He went straight to the bathroom and looked at his face in the mirror and stroked his two day stubble, thinking whether he would look good with a beard. ‘A French beard maybe’, he thought to himself reaching out for the toothbrush.

He emerged from the bathroom a few minutes later and walked across the hall and opened the main door to his house. The milkman had dropped two sachets of milk, his usual. He picked them up and walked to the kitchen. He poured the milk into the utensil, turning on the stove thinking about the filter coffee that his mother Rajam used to make. She was an expert in making traditional Kumbakonam Degree coffee that was the favorite amongst her friends and neighbors. Raghavan sighed. The milk came to a boil by that time.

He reached out for the switch and tried to turn on the light. The sun was out and it was getting brighter outside, but it was still dark inside his house. The light did not turn on. Raghavan flicked the switch a couple of time. Nothing happened. ‘Must be a power cut as usual’, Raghavan told himself. That means his morning routine of watching the news on cable TV cannot happen.

Just then he heard his neighbor Ambujam yell at the watchman of their apartment complex that there was no water flowing from the taps. The watchman said he would have to turn on the motor pump to fill the overhead water tank, but the power was out in the entire area. Ambujam had two young children who went to a school nearby and the mornings were a very stressful time for her as she got them ready. Ambujam accused the watchman of failing to turn the motor pump during the night and started fighting with him. Their voices faded out slowly as Raghavan walked into the hall from the balcony.

Raghavan opened the tap in the bathroom and heard a water droplet plop confirming the reality of that morning. He picked a bucket and hurried downstairs to the underground sump that was the storage tank that held water pumped by the metrowater authorities. There was a posse of people there, many in their night clothes, who also had buckets in their hand and a simmering anger in their faces. It was apparent why they were angry. A car was parked with its handbrake on, right above the manhole covering the sump and there was no way to move the car and access the sump below.

The crowd almost erupted in cheers as someone located the car owner who came running with the car keys jingling. He opened the car door, got in and turned the ignition on. The car wouldn’t start. There was a grumble from the crowd and someone suggested that they push the car after releasing the handbrake. Raghavan had different plans.

He knew about the only well in that apartment compound and walked towards it. The well was a modern day surprise in Chennai. It still had water and legend was that it never dried up, even during the severe water scarcity in drought hit Chennai. The builder of the apartment complex left the well intact and that was going to save Raghavan's day. When Raghavan reached the well, he was frustrated to discover that at least ten of his neighbors had beat him to the punch and were already in a queue. Sathyanand, the apartment association secretary was trying to regulate the queue and ensure that people got their water in turns.

After ten minutes, many flared tempers, verbal abuses and what not, Raghavan drew water from the well and headed back to his house. He finished his bath, taking care to use the water effectively. He picked a blue shirt and dark trousers to go with it, got dressed up. He picked his laptop bag and cell phone. His cell phone battery had also died; there was no way to charge it. He unplugged the cell phone charger from the wall, deciding that he would charge it in his office. He locked his house and went down the stairs, jumping two steps at a time holding the keys in his hand, hoping to make up for lost time.

He located his motorcycle at the same place that he usually parks. He sat on the motorcycle, released the stand and pushed it forward a few feet with his legs, getting out of the slot where it was parked. He turned the keys and kick started the bike. It won’t start.

Raghavan felt an unexplainable sense of uneasiness spread in his stomach. He got off from his motorcycle and pushed it to get outside the apartment complex into the main road. The road was empty. Unusually empty for this time of the day, whatever time it was. He knew the motorcycle mechanic shop two blocks away would be open and wanted to try his luck. Raghavan started pushing his motorcycle towards the mechanic shop when he saw Ambujam’s two children in their school uniforms riding their bicycles and on their way to school.

As he crossed a block, he found a few others like him pushing their bikes towards the mechanic shop. He also noticed that the traffic signal was down and the traffic constable was standing there helpless, scratching his head. Lucky for him, the traffic wasn’t heavy except for the cyclists and bike riders pushing their motorcycles. There was something eerie about that. There were no cars on the road; just bicycles and motorcyclists pushing their bikes.

Raghavan stopped and let his motorcycle fall to the ground. He looked up at the sky all around. In the northwest direction, he noticed the orange glow from the thermonuclear device that exploded in the upper atmosphere at 6:28 AM. Raghavan looked up, took a deep breath and exhaled. He pulled the cuff of his shirt to look at his digital watch. He tapped it twice and shook it a little. Nothing happened. The watch was frozen and showed a time of 6:2…


t started drizzling just as Aftab and I reached the Leeds train station. A bus left the stop and a girl in her early twenties was deeply engrossed listening to her ipod. “Let me have a cigarette before we go in”, said Aftab. “Sure”, I said looking around as people walked out of the station in different directions.

“So, what do you think about our visit today?”, asked Aftab lighting a Marlboro as he spoke. “It is probably a waste of time! This is the third meeting with them and they are nowhere close to a decision. I don’t think these guys will close the deal anytime soon”, I said. There was a fleeting moment where I thought Aftab was annoyed at my blunt observation, but he deftly hid it flicking his cigarette and nodding his head in agreement.

“Our train will leave at 5:05 pm. We have still have about half an hour. We should be in King’s Cross by 7.30 pm. Do you have any plans for the evening before you leave for India tomorrow? You should probably do a tour of London. Have you done any sightseeing at all?” asked Aftab.

“No”, I replied. “This is my 4th trip to the UK in a year and believe it or not, I never felt like going around like a tourist! It is terribly boring without friends or family accompanying you”

“That’s true. Let us plan something for your next visit”, said Aftab extinguishing his cigarette.

We walked into the station. A train had just arrived and a stream of passengers walked out through the turnstiles and out the door.

We found our train and got seats with a table. The train was fairly empty with only a handful of occupants. We settled down and the train left the station. Fifteen minutes into the journey, a stout lady walked in with her vending cart. Aftab ordered a Stella Artois and I got myself Coke and chips. The train pulled into Doncaster station. The train halted there for a few minutes.

Two men came and sat in the seats adjacent to ours. One of them was in his late thirties, wore a nice suit and the other was much younger, probably twenty two and just had a black tie with no jacket.  The young man loosened his tie, rolled up his sleeves. I noticed that his shirt wasn’t tucked in properly. He pulled out a few cans of beer from the brown paper bag they brought in. In the next twenty minutes, they finished a couple of drinks, joked amongst themselves and laughed out loud.

Aftab and I talked about our work plans for the next three months and when I should visit London next. Our neighbours were down to the last four cans of beer when the man in the suit got up and came towards us.

“Would you mind if we joined you?”, he said.

“No, not at all!”, said Aftab and we shifted slightly to accommodate them at our table. “Good evening, gentlemen! I am Eddie and this is Steve.”, said the older man sitting next to Aftab. Steve sat next to me.

“I am Aftab and this is Giri”. We shook hands.

“Jerry, is it?” asked Steve.

“No, it is Giri… G-I-R-I… more like ‘Gary’. If you say ‘Gary’, you wouldn’t be far off!” I said.

“Are you guys heading back to London after a hard day of work?”, asked Eddie. “Would you care for a beer?”

“Thank you”, said Aftab taking a can. “Yes, we are returning from Leeds after a business meeting”, I said, politely refusing the offer.

“Okay, that’s great. We are also returning after a business meeting. We make signs, you know, neon signs, plastic signs, name boards etc., Steve dragged me to Doncaster today saying he had identified a great prospect, but it turns out they are a competitor and they source material from the exact same supplier in Canada as we do. There is absolutely nothing that we can do for them, so we had a good chat and are returning to London empty handed.”

“Yes, Eddie has been teasing me all this evening. But that’s okay. He has been like a big brother to me”, said Steve.

“That’s right. I got Steve out of trouble and offered him a job. He has picked up nicely and one day he will be a great salesman!” Eddie remarked. “But I cannot forget your first day at the warehouse when you were standing on top of the pallet and asking the forklift operator to move it. You were crazy!” laughed Eddie.

“Are the two of you from India?”, asked Steve.

“Yes, we are! I have moved to the UK about a year and half ago with my family and Giri lives in India. He traveled from India for this business meeting”, said Aftab.

“I haven’t been to India, but my girlfriend has”, said Eddie. “She said Indians are very hard working people… and very resourceful, I might add”

“That’s generally true”, acknowledged Aftab.

“I say resourceful because she had a very surprising story that she told me about her time in Mumbai. When she walked out from her hotel, she would find kids who would point out ‘hey, your shoes are dirty’ and invariably they would be with cow dung! They would offer to clean her shoes. The first time around she let them clean her shoes and just after she paid them a few rupees and walked a few yards, another kid would throw a ball of cow dung on her feet! Then they would come back and make the same offer… They got this brilliant scheme going. She was quite upset about this, but I found it ingenious!”, remarked Eddie.

“That’s an old trick”, I said. “I come from the southern part of India, a place called Chennai and we would have guys who would throw nails on the road and set up a makeshift tire repair shop a few yards from there. Cars and bikes that get a flat tire will stop to get them fixed there. How convenient is that?!”

“That’s very cunning”, said Steve. “Do you know Eddie gave me my first job? I would have gone to jail if I had continued my old ways!”

Eddie was silent for a moment. “That’s right, you know. I bought him the shirt that he is wearing today. He came to me last week talking about this huge prospect that he has found and said we should go to meet them. I told him he has to get a nice shirt and got him one. Today is the first day that he is wearing a tie, you know. I had to knot the tie for him!” laughed Eddie.

The train slowed down and eventually stopped for a signal clearance. There was a wall with graffiti. I was looking at it trying to decipher what it said.

“Did you know when I was a teenager, I was a graffiti artist?”, said Steve. Aftab and I looked up a little surprised.

“That’s right. There were many gangs that fought for turf and I was part of one. I would go around with a spray can drawing stuff. Each artist had their own style and we could tell who wrote what just by looking at it. Once I boarded a train—no ticket of course—and traveled for four hours to paint graffiti. Then there was this time when I almost got caught by the cops, but escaped narrowly by getting into an underpass and hiding there for thirty minutes. Man, that was awesome!”

Eddie took a slightly serious look and said, “You see! This is what I had to change. I had to explain to Steve who was very young and inexperienced that there is no future in being a graffiti artist, being chased by the police and ending up in jail as a vandal. He has now changed a lot and mellowed down.”

Eddie looked Steve in the eye and said, “You continue being what you are now and work hard, you can be a good salesman!”

Steve pulled out a notebook from his bag and took out his pencil. He went to a seat a little farther away from us and got to work. A few minutes later, he tore off that sheet from his notebook. He walked up to me.

“It is Gary, isn’t it?”, he said handing over that sheet to me. There it was. G-A-R-Y, penciled in graffiti.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Welcome to Storywheel!

Dear Reader, Welcome to Storywheel!

I will be posting my short stories on this blog. These stories are a work of fiction, some of them inspired by life experiences. I hope you enjoy these stories as much as I did writing them.

Happy reading!

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