Short story collection


From Cyberspace
October 29, 2011, 10:56 pm
Filed under: Short Story | Tags: , ,

“Damn it, there are no taxis around”, said David Lim twirling the stud on his left ear lobe with his forefinger and thumb. The traffic flow along the road had thinned, as expected on a Sunday night. The footpath was devoid of pedestrians.

Tony Chia looked at his watch. “It is eleven o’clock. These guys are waiting to get the midnight surcharge”. There was an eerie silence around them except for the occasional whirring of motorcycle engines.
The humidity of the warm night engulfed the two teenagers, who had spent the best part of the last fifteen minutes waiting along the roadside to hail a taxi.

“I have to be back home by half past. You shouldn’t have spent so much time at the Seven -eleven store snuggling up to that girl at the counter,” said David, wagging his finger at Tony.

“I was not talking to her. I had to wait for her to be at the cash counter to buy cigarettes. She doesn’t ask for identification – the other old man does. Here, take a puff. It’ll calm you down.” Tony handed him the lighted cigarette from his mouth.

“Nothing’ll calm me down. I’ll be in shit if the probation officer calls home to check on me. What do we do?” asked David. David had got into trouble with the law when he was caught shoplifting. Since it was the first offence, he had been put under probation. Both the teenagers were premature school leavers, who spent the days sleeping and the nights roaming around aimlessly at shopping complexes.

“Call home and tell them some story. It works with my mom,”said Tony. Tony was the only son of a mother who doted on him, especially after his father had deserted the family. This dolorous event caused Tony to lose all interest in his studies; the promising student ended up playing truant frequently for which he was expelled from school. Mother had tried to enroll him at many non-academic courses, but none succeeded because of his obdurate nature.

“And get an earful from my old man. Don’t know who is worse – my dad or that probation officer?” said David. David knew that his father’s main concern was not about him, but that the parents will be held to account if their ward broke the probation curfew. The probation officer had given this peremptory warning to all legal guardians at the Police station.

“We’ll try the train and then take a bus from the interchange. The new Woodleigh station is round the corner.” Tony pointed to the alluring bright lights which adorned the station entrance.

“Will I be home by half-past?”

“What choice have you got?” asked Tony, tossing the cigarette on the footpath and stubbing it out with the heel of his right shoe. They hastened their steps and walked to the station. The escalator to the underground station started rolling when they set their feet on it.
“It’s much cooler here. The next time, I won’t wear this jacket- should have worn shorts and turtleneck singlet like you, “said Tony. While Tony was fastidious about his appearance and dressed decorously, David was lackadaisical about his appearance.

The new station appeared spick and span. The air was redolent with the smell of a fresh coat of new paint. At the platform entrance, they both whizzed past after tapping their fare cards at the entry gates.

“Your fare card beeped twice. Whose concession card are you using?” asked Tony.

“Definitely not my dad’s senior citizen card. It’s a student card that I found at the bus interchange last night,” said David. He looked at it and said, “It belongs to a Nooralizah .”

“Careful- she might have reported the loss of the card,” said Tony.

“Well, she hasn’t yet and there is still seven dollars and forty cents in it. My luck hasn’t run out yet”, David laughed.

Just as they entered the platform, the chimes announcing the impending closing of the doors of the waiting train sounded. They tried in vain to rush into the train carriage before the doors closed.
“What do we do now?” asked David with an air of resignation when the train pulled away.

“What else? Wait for the next train.”

Both of them took their seats beside each other on one of the marble-lined stone benches in the middle of the platform

The platform was completely deserted. The teenagers could not help noticing the lone passenger who had got out of the train at the station. He was what you could describe as an anomaly in appearance. The middle-aged dark-skinned bespectacled stranger wore a white long-sleeved shirt with an ill-fitting loose blue necktie. His dark blue long pants with a tight belt around his waist accentuated his paunch. He wore white sports shoes with white socks. He was balding with streaks of gray here and there on whatever hair was still left on the head. The thick graying moustache gave him a stern look.

“ Hey, this Say rayng goon Station? “ he called out to the teenagers. They were riled by his beckoning them thus.

“This is Woodleigh, “replied Tony.

“Where is Say rayng goon?”

“Serangoon. Look over there on the map,” said Tony pointing to the free-standing information board next to the columns.

“Why be so helpful? He was rude to us”, whispered David to Tony and elbowed him on his arm.

After inspecting the names on the board, the stranger came and sat next to them. His breath reeked of whisky- both the teenagers had no difficulty in identifying the smell, they had consumed alcohol before, although they were under the legal age to drink.

“Next stay shun , next stay shun”, the stranger muttered to them. After sitting for a couple of minutes, he lay down on the bench. He let the briefcase that he was holding under his armpit fall on the floor with a thud.

The bench was not long enough for the three of them, especially when one was lying down. The teenagers winked, smiled at each other and moved to the next bench. Within the next few minutes, a near-empty train arrived at the station.

“ Hey uncle, the train’s here,” hollered Tony, but the stranger made no effort to get up.

“Hey uncle, “ Tony went over and patted on the sleeper’s shoulders, but he was oblivious to the shaking.

“He’s stone drunk. He may be waiting for the train in the other direction. Let’s go,” said David.

“This may be the last train tonight. They’ll lock up the station after that,” said Tony, shaking the stranger hard on the shoulders.

“We can’t look after him. When he gets up, he can walk all the way to Serangoon. Or the taxis may start again after midnight”, said David, “I am leaving. You can stay here and nurse him.”

David entered the train carriage, but when the chimes sounded for closing the train door, Tony was still standing beside the stranger at the platform. Reluctantly, David jumped out of the train before the doors closed.

“ That was stupid of you, “ David yelled at Tony, “You made us miss the train. You and your do-good actions!” He punched the advertisement board on the free-standing board of the platform a few times until it rattled.

“It was stupid of you to get out of the train,” said Tony. “You could have gone home.”

“Well, now I just pray that the probation officer will not choose this night to call. My dad is going to holler at me- that’s for sure. But I will make this guy pay.”

David grabbed the stranger’s fallen briefcase from the floor and started walking out towards the exit gates without looking back.

“What are you doing? There are cameras all over the platform,” said Tony looking upwards in all directions to search for them.

“So what ? Did cameras ever stop us from shoplifting at the department stores? The station staff are probably all snoozing at this time of the night. Come let’s go”, said David.

“They can identify your concession fare card if you pass the gate,” said Tony desperately. He might have been involved in petty misdemeanors, but he did not want to get mixed up in robbery of this kind.

“So, Noorlizah or whatever the name, came and went from the station, not David Lim. Don’t be a sissy.”

Once outside the station, David held on to the briefcase tightly. It was not heavy but the rattling sounds as he ran out indicated that there were many small things inside the briefcase .He could sense that Tony, who was following him a few steps behind, was peeved about the whole episode. All David’s attempts at polite conversation were rebuffed.

When they were sufficiently far away from the station entrance and there were no other pedestrians in sight along the road, David stopped and ventured to unzip the briefcase. It was evident that there was a laptop computer inside it and a few bric-bracs that he could not identify in the dim street light.

“ You shouldn’t have stolen the briefcase,” said Tony. He regretted ever suggesting to David to ride the train; they should have waited for the taxis.

“I see nothing wrong. He made me miss my train. This is my way of taking revenge,” said David.

“Missing the train was your fault, not his.”

“ Anyway, it’s done now. If you like, we can share whatever is inside,” said David trying to make up for his rash actions.

“No, you keep whatever you find,” said Tony. He did not feel comfortable at all and had a foreboding that the camera footage at the station would identify them as the robbers. Although he was not the one who stole the briefcase, he was an accomplice.

Fortunately by this time, taxis had reappeared on the streets and both managed to reach home about an hour after midnight. They lived in adjacent apartment blocks in the same neighbourhood at Toa Payoh. That is how their friendship had developed – by hanging out in groups in the evenings along the void decks of the adjoining blocks.

David’s parents were all fast asleep when he entered the house with the spare key, which meant that the probation officer had not checked up on him. When Tony arrived home, his mother was waiting up and started lamenting on why her only son had mixed up with bad company , indulging in smoking, drinking and keeping late nights.
*****************
David woke up late on Monday morning with a splitting headache. He had imbibed two cans of beers on the previous night, although he knew that he was easily susceptible to hangovers..Still in his pajamas, he went over to the first-aid cabinet and swallowed two panadol tablets with a glass of ice water. His parents had already left for work. David’s elder siblings had all set up successful careers, started their own families and moved out of the house, leaving him as the only one living with his parents. He could not totally put the blame on his father for his despotic behavior towards him. David had been a bright student until he started mixing with the teenage members of a street gang. He became rebellious at home and in school, resulting in expulsion and cessation of his studies. As of now, he had neither the wish nor the inclination to conform to the norms of society, which was a great source of anxiety for his parents.

After gulping down a few spoonfuls of cold porridge of oats that his mother had prepared for him, he returned to his air-conditioned bedroom to inspect the contents of the stolen briefcase. For a moment, his bravado deserted him. Had the stranger reported the loss of the briefcase to the station master? They would have checked the camera footage and noticed two boys making off with the briefcase. He doubted whether the footage would be sharp enough to identify their faces. In the “Crimewatch” series on television, he had noticed that whenever camera footage of suspects at ATM machines appeared, they lacked clarity. After dismissing these baleful thoughts from his mind, he brought out the contents of the briefcase.

The bounty consisted of a Fujitsu laptop computer with a charger and mouse, a Nokia hand phone with charger, two large neatly folded beige-coloured cotton cloths and two packs of playing cards. The first cloth had the inked markings of a central circle with nine rings round it and the second one had markings of triangles, rectangles and circles drawn randomly. He could recognize the face cards on one pack of playing cards because he had tried his hand at poker sessions occasionally ; the other pack bore the title of “Tarot” with the face cards that appeared unintelligible to him. Delving deeper into the recesses of the briefcase, he brought out many pieces of shiny white cowrie shells. From a small side pocket on the side, he retrieved a thin stack of black name cards. On each black card was inscribed in golden letters

Viswas Koirala
Magician , Savant , Fortune Teller
Katmandu, Nepal

The card bore no address, but only a telephone number. So the stranger was a foreigner; no wonder he was attired in a queer outfit. David could do with a new laptop; he would sell the one that he had for the past three years and keep this one. If Tony so wanted it, he would give the Nokia hand phone to him.

To find out the telephone number of the stranger’s phone. David dialed his own hand phone with it. With the ring tone, the message “number withheld” appeared.

Tony was still fast asleep when his hand phone rang. The display on the phone read “number withheld”. It was probably the money lender Ah Long who required him to harass the Teo family about the loan that they had not repaid . The last time Tony had been running errands and harassing borrowers for that loan shark, he was nabbed and let out with a severe warning at the neighbourhood police post. Tony decided it to be wise to ignore the phone call.

The phone rang again. Tony had half a mind not to answer, but when he looked at the identity of the caller on the display, it was David.

“Did you receive a call just now?” asked David

“Yes, from an anonymous caller”

“It was from Mr. Viswas”, David said. He hoped he pronounced the name correctly.

“Who? I don’t think I know such a person. How do you spell his name?”

“V I S W A S – he is the drunk foreign guy we met at the station,” said David, “I was using his handphone to call you. It’s a new Nokia model. Do you want it?”

“ No. I don’t receive stolen property. You keep it,” said Tony.

“This guy is from Nepal. He is a fortune teller, magician blah blah. He has also left me a new laptop computer. Why don’t you come over and we can go through some of his things in the briefcase?”

“No, I’m not interested in searching his briefcase.” Tony switched off his handphone.

Obviously Tony was still cross with him. David decided to explore the workings of the new laptop. On switching it on, the display asked for his identification and the password. He was caught off guard by these basic computer security requirements. He decided to try his luck and under identity, he entered “viswas”. The laptop blanked off for about thirty seconds and then delighted him by lighting up again with all the desktop icons in view , without the need for a password.

If it were that easy , he wanted to check Viswas’ e-mail account; there could be some valuable useful information. But try as he might with different identities and passwords, he was unable to gain access to viswas’ e-mail account.

David’s first visit was to the “My documents” icon. The first few articles varied from financial and tax statements to palm reading, tea- leaves reading, face reading, numerology, Chinese feng shui and astrology . He deleted most of the files because they did not interest him. The next few articles on card magic, coin magic and mind-reading were more suited to his taste. He took a cursory look at some of the articles before deciding that he would return to scrutinizing them at his leisure. This could be the start of something new- especially mind-reading which he could use to con a few gullible persons.

He opened the files in the “My music” icon. They were all strange chanting, which sounded like a cacophony of sounds to him.

He diverted his attention to the “My photos” icon. There were images of mountain ranges, rivers and animals with dates imprinted on them, probably indicating that Viswas was adroit with his camera. The next lot of images were of various women in states of undress or half-clad in clothes. The dusky skinned beauties were probably Nepalese, he surmised. So Viswas also had a dark naughty side to his nature. David smiled , now he had the “hook” to lure Tony to invite him over.

Finally, he decided to check his webmail for any messages. There were a couple of bogus mails that he had won a lottery and that his handphone was eligible for a gift. He deleted both messages as he always did, wondering how people could fall for such a simple ruse. Just as he was about to close the webmail, a message appeared with the title “ Warning.” He clicked on the mail and it read:

“I know what you did”

He did not understand what the message meant and so he searched for the name of the sender. It was from viswas. His heart missed a beat and he felt his palm sweating. Suddenly, he laughed- it was Tony trying to frighten the daylights out of him. He picked up his handphone and called Tony.

“That was very funny indeed. Sending e-mails to me from viswas. You gave me a fright, “ said David

“Not me. I haven’t gone anywhere near my computer today,” said Tony

“Then who sent it? Let me check the address. It says “viswas@ oblivion.com”.

“Ha ha; don’t you see it? This guy sent an e-mail to his laptop hoping to frighten you. He’s quite a clever guy,” Tony said.

“ Yes, that’s correct. Why didn’t I think of that? Aren’t you also cleverer than Viswas?” said David. He was pandering to Tony’s ego.

“It didn’t take me long to figure it out. Did it?”

“No. As I said, finders keepers,” said David.

“You stole the briefcase, you didn’t find it”

“You mean both of us stole it. Of course, no, I am only joking. Why don’t you just drop by and see the photographs that this guy took…… including girls in suggestive poses,” laughed David.

“You mean porn?”

“Not porn exactly, but you’ll love them,” David said, “you should also see the other weird things viswas had in the briefcase.”

It was past three o’clock when Tony arrived at David’s house. He joined David who was in the sitting room ensconced in the arm-chair, in watching a Michael Jackson video on MTV .

They retired to David’s room to inspect the contents of the briefcase. Tony opined that the cowrie shells, the drawings on the cloth and the Tarot cards were used by fortune tellers. He had read about such practices on a website. When he was otherwise unoccupied, Tony spent time surfing the internet incessantly.

“Now let us get to the exciting part……. girls,” said David as they turned their attention to the laptop screen. The first thing David did was to check his webmail, more out of habit than anything else- there was yet another new message from Viswas, which again read:

“I know what you did”

David laughed and said ,” Our friend doesn’t give up, does he? Too bad , Mr. Viswas, sir.”

Tony scanned the mail closely, “Wait a minute. This mail is to your address, not to Viswas’ own. How does he know your address? Did you e-mail him?”

David was filled with trepidation, “No. How does he know my address? That means he knows us. How’s that possible?”

“ He only saw us once, we have never seen him before,” Tony said, “Isn’t he a magician also? May be he knows black magic. Switch off the computer. Let us return the briefcase and all before he reports on us .”

“ We’ll return it at the Station. We’ll say we found it ,” said David.

“No. Our photos may be on the station’s cameras and it will be difficult to explain. Especially when you are on probation. It’ll be bad for me also although I did not steal the briefcase. I have a better idea. We’ll return the briefcase to the “Lost and Found “ section of the Train Company, They might not ask any questions, “said Tony. He felt proud at taking control of the situation and suggesting workable ideas.

“How do we inform this Viswas that we’re returning his things? He is the one who is harassing us,” asked David.

“Just before we turn in the laptop, we will send him an e-mail from it, apologising for the mistake and asking him to check at the “Lost and Found “section” , said Tony.

“What, if he has informed the Police? The moment that we return the briefcase, they may detain us,” said David.

“Maybe. But we have to return the briefcase to Mr. Viswas or whatever his name is. It is too dangerous to keep it. He knows who you are. It is scary”, said Tony. He was getting impatient. He had to ensure that David did not get caught because he might also be implicated as an accomplice in the robbery.
*****************************
At the “Lost and Found “section at the third storey of the Headquarters of the Train Company at Buona Vista, there was a lady in a smart uniform at the counter in front of a door which led to a room where the lost articles were kept for safekeeping. She was attending to a couple who were gesticulating wildly, probably about an unhappy situation. While he was waiting to be served, David had a premonition that Mr. Viswas might suddenly appear at the counter and accuse them of stealing his briefcase. He tried hard to block out such thoughts from his mind.

After an agonizing fifteen minute wait, it was their turn.
David told the lady, “We found this briefcase on the staircase at Woodleigh station and are returning it here.”

“You should have informed station master there”, said the lady.

“Yes, we didn’t think of that. Can we return it here?” asked Tony.

“Yes,” she said, accepted the briefcase and handed them a form, using a pencil to mark a few sections , ”Just for the record, please fill in – your names, contacts, where and when the briefcase found . Just one name will do. You can use that table over there. “

The two teenagers looked at each other in bewilderment. They had not bargained for this turn of events. To complete the form was to provide incriminating evidence unless they were prepared to lie. They walked to the nearby table.

“We will pretend to fill in the form and take our own time. When she goes into the room , we will leave without handing in the form,” whispered Tony.

They had to wait for a few more agonizing minutes before a group of persons approached the counter. The lady went into the room to retrieve something.

The teenagers took that opportunity to slink away with the uncompleted form. They ran into the stairwell and walked down the staircase instead of using the lifts.

“Phew , that was close,” said Tony.

“Damn it. In our excitement, we forgot to e-mail Mr. Viswas from his laptop,” said David. He kept on looking behind whether any one was following them. He was apprehensive that the lady might have given the alarm by now.

“Never mind, we’ll go to the nearby internet café and send him an e-mail straight away . You know his e-mail address, don’t you?”

As they reached the stairwell of the first storey, Tony’s mobile phone gave a beep for a message. The message read :

“ I know what you did”

Tony stopped and showed the message to David, “He’s now sending SMS to me. Where did he get my number?”

“I used his phone to call you this morning… remember the anonymous call. His hand phone has your number and mine also in memory. Not to worry…that message may mean that Viswas has just collected his briefcase,” said David and smiled.

“Can’t be . We just left two minutes ago. We didn’t see him there. Also if he collected the briefcase, why is he still harassing us?” said Tony.

“He might have been in the office room with them. He may be just testing us. Can you reply to him? ” asked David.

Tony rushed out of the stairwell in anger, “ No sender details to reply to. He knows my phone number because of you and I did not even steal .”

“Sorry, Tony. Let us rush to the internet café and get the whole thing over with,” said David.

It was then that both of them spotted an announcement typewritten in large font on the notice board at the exit of the building. It read :
“ A middle-aged man, probably of South Asian descent was discovered dead at the platform of Woodleigh Station around midnight on Sunday 26th June. He was wearing a white long sleeved shirt with a blue necktie, black pants and white sports shoes at the time of his death. The deceased was slightly bald and sported a grey moustache. There were no identification documents on him. Anyone who knows his identity is requested to contact the Police at 999 immediately”

David’s face turned deathly pale and Tony began to tremble. It was now the turn of David’s mobile phone to emit a beep . In his heart, David already knew what the message would be-
Mr. Viswas had only just commenced stalking the two hapless teenagers.

[All characters in the story are fictional and any resemblance to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental. Names of streets, places and institutions have been mentioned only for authenticity and it should not be taken to mean that any of these events took place at these locations]

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