“The Abyss” – Thriller Short Story
“Surprise me” shouted the Ghoul, spitting mouthfuls through blood stained tooth. Madhav lay prostrate on the ground, seemingly unable to move. Trying to gauge his position, Madhav looked askance at his surroundings. The hard cold ground was not the unassuming concrete floor in any haven; the slightly undulating and uneven ground strewn with stones and steeped in dust, seemed more menacing and held a strange power over him. It was nightfall. The cold night had a mist which hung like a torn, abandoned blanket, heavy for effect yet seemingly frail in that it allowed some moonlight to stream in. The blood curdling yells from the monster reminded Madhav of his precarious position, he struggled to move, yet he failed again. It was as if some invisible chains held him down on the wet earth of the cemetery. Presently he heard a few hyenas in the distance, his visibility rendered poor due to the dark mist which lent a macabre effect to the whole situation. The ghoul was barely a few feet away and was advancing with undisguised hatred in its eyes. Madhav was spellbound; he was unhurt otherwise but was sure his well-being was severely threatened now and his existence in extreme danger. He lost consciousness as the ghoul jumped on him and tore at his heart.
Madhav woke up with a jump! It was pitch dark and he could still hear the jackals calling out in the night. He thrashed around wildly but soon realized that he was back in his bed. Adjusting his pupils to the limited light, he realized that he was covered in his own sweat and his heart was trying to breakout out of his ribcage. He stood up and looked outside the broken window. The distant farms looked dark and dreary, the moonlight unable to illuminate enough to re-assure him of no immediate mortal danger. He tugged at his towel and wiped himself dry. The cold seeped through the many cracks in his ground floor room and the broken window. He checked his clock on the table, it was 4 am. Deciding against trying for another bout of sleep which might be marred by some other imagined monster’s ferocity, Madhav lit a candle. Even though it was mid-winter, load shedding was notorious for its daily certainty in his locality. Sauntering slowly still rattled by his dream, Madhav ventured into the courtyard with the candle in his hand. The backyard bore signs of going to waste on account of negligence of the owner. Having thrashed some cold water onto his face, Madhav walked back into his room.
He lived alone; he had rented this room in the ground floor of a dilapidated building in the outskirts of Kolkata. One reason being that he could not afford much better, the more important fact being that he did not need anything bigger or grander for his daily sustenance. He was 23 years old, 6 feet tall, wheatish and well built, with an innocent face, albeit with creases across his forehead which bore signs of a strenuous and complicated life. He was a man of simple wants; he still used an old Nokia “Non-Smart” phone. Presently he noted the light dark bluish-pink hue in the hitherto black sky; the darkness was over, at least seemingly. He proceeded to cook his lunch in the verandah beside the backyard. He had to catch the 7 am local train to Howrah, part of his daily schedule, to reach his office.
Madhav worked in the accounts department of a local shipping company. He was a bright student in school but had never harbored any grand illusions about his future. His father had died of cancer when he was preparing for the high school exams. He had secured record marks for his district high school and had decided to settle for a degree in commerce in a local college. Most of the insurance corpus had been used up in his mother’s treatment, till her death a few months back.
As Madhav walked up the stairs to the old rickety building, his office, he checked his mobile. He was just in time, as always; there was a very stringent penalty designed by his employer for habitual latecomers. With a downcast glance, he tried to surreptitiously bypass the others and reach his desk at the corner of the seventh floor in the building. As always he failed in his ridiculous endeavor and was met with loud guffaws and snickers coming his way. He mouthed silent hellos to the others and sat down exhausted in his seat. There was a huge pile of files on his desk already, from the corner of his eyes he saw the peon walking up with a snigger and a few more files in his hand. The files were unceremoniously dumped on his table with a loud thud. Even before he could ask for a cup of tea, the peon had already disappeared in one of the innumerable mazes of cubicles on the floor. Madhav knew it was going to be another long day at work, with a quick gulp of water he quickly set to the pending work.
His colleagues had coined a rather rude moniker for him “Laloo”. Laloo in the local dialect symbolized a rather listless, idiotic person, sort of a humorous attempt to lend it some sort of decency by not using the term “mentally challenged”! Madhav was used to it now and it did not hurt as much, or so he liked to believe. With no worthwhile stakes left in his current life, he doubted the veracity of his own doubts about his existence. He assiduously avoided trouble and had long since decided to lead a sedentary existence which verged on non-existence. However despite all his endeavors at making peace with his fate, he failed. Indeed he failed miserably.
Absent mindedly, he turned his head to look at his watch, his only remaining inheritance from his long dead father. The only thing he found was the light skinned outline of the watch on his sun burnt wrist. The watch was so incongruous with everything else attached to his existence that Madhav had needed to explain about it to all and sundry for years. Well the old gold plated Rolex was indeed nothing short of a collector’s item and had belonged to his late father. Madhav did not like to talk about it and tried to avoid thinking about the watch or rather the lack of it now. It created an uncomfortable knot in his throat and a freezing feeling in his gut to even think about it anymore.
His father had belonged to the descendants of an erstwhile Zamindar (local landlord) family in hinterlands of West Bengal. His father was the elder son of the three that his grandfather, a hot tempered man had sired. An ugly family dispute had caused his grandfather to disinherit his eldest son from all existing properties, which included lands et al. Madhav’s father’s crime was to have decided to marry the girl he loved from his college days in Kolkata. Madhav’s father had met his mother during his undergraduate days in the reputed Presidency College back in the 1980s. A whirlwind romance had followed, which was dismissed by Madhav’s family. Ultimately Madhav’s father had set up his marital life in a small two room rented house in the outskirts of Kolkata, while working in a private firm. Madhav’s maternal grandparents belonged to the middle class and they had tried their best to help in the initial set up for their only son-in-law, who had fallen on hard times, being disowned by the family. However the watch was the only remaining item from that legacy. Madhav’s parents had dreamt a lot of dreams, one being a bright future secured by means of their intellect and perseverance; the other being having children who would make them proud. None of the dreams materialized in the end. Madhav’s father had acceded defect to cancer and Madhav’s life, well the less said the better.
Madhav decided to take a small break to sip some hot tea in the narrow street facing his office building. Perched precariously at the end of a narrow wooden bench, his mind wavered again, while he clutched onto the hot steaming tea cup with both hands. Madhav’s father had a close friend from college, who had done well in life. Rathin Mukherjee was a self made man and had established businesses in various parts of Kolkata. Madhav’s father had made but one request of his friend, while he was on his deathbed. He had asked for a reference so that Madhav could get a job, right after college, at that time Madhav was still in high school. The promise from Rathin had endowed a moment of peace on the shrunk, cancer ravaged face of Madhav’s father. The promise was cavernous and it was all sound for the sake of it. Madhav had not disclosed it to his mother, who still thanked Rathin for helping her son start on his career after college. Rathin on his part never set foot in their tiny rented room again. Madhav had forgotten all about him and had learnt to struggle on his own. Well he knew he could very well secure a comfortable life on his own and had begun to tread assiduously on the path.
It had all changed 2 months back. Madhav had already been working for almost 2 years and had decided to move to a more comfortable house, for his ailing mother. One night, she suffered a fatal stroke and Madhav officially became an orphan. Back then he had shifted to his current abode, well suffice it to say he was trying to run from his memories, or so he thought.
Suddenly he started; the hot tea had spilled onto his hands, which were now clasping the tea cup with wrung fingers. Wiping the scorched skin with his handkerchief, Madhav asked for another cup.
That night, Madhav had called on Rathin at his house. He had requested a small loan to help him in completing a decent funeral for his mother. A sum of twenty thousand rupees was too paltry to even deserve a denial. But that is what Rathin had done!
Blowing on his hot tea, Madhav’s mind fast forwarded to last month. Madhav had a talent for writing, he was well known in his school and college literary circles for his hard hitting and practical pieces, both fiction and non-fiction. In what seemed like another lifetime to him now, Madhav had had a passion for writing and he was sure he would excel in it someday. He had finished editing his first work of fiction and had sent the manuscript to a few well known publishers. Surprisingly after few initial encouraging meetings with the editors, last month he had been told that his book could not be published! He had visited all of their offices but to no avail, he had not been able to secure meetings. Just when he was about to give up, one of the personal assistants in those offices had asked him for an audience, someplace else.
The revelation had confounded him and he had literally fainted. It seemed that one of the more influential publishing houses had made it a personal mission to ensure rejection of the manuscript by all parties. The name of the owner was Rathin!
Madhav had made one last attempt. He had visited Rathin’s residence to speak to him. One part of him wanted affirmation that it was all a misunderstanding; the other had wanted to understand the reason behind this heinous back stabbing. Rathin had welcomed him warmly in his house and after a few feigned attempts at displaying generosity and benevolence, with questions about Madhav’s well-being, he had been ready to answer Madhav’s direct question.
Of course he had seen the manuscript, being the most influential and famous publishing house it was an easy task to lay hands on manuscripts from budding authors, he had mentioned. He had liked Madhav’s plot, he had said; all that was needed was a twist. “Surprise me”, Rathin had demanded with a sly, seemingly ingratiating smile on his lips. Madhav had managed to regain his composure and had left promising the next draft in a week’s time.
The same scene was played out 3 weeks back in Rathin’s office. Rathin had made a few more suggestions and remarked that it was all for improving the prospects of publication of the book, after all wasn’t Madhav his dear friend’s son? By now Madhav had an increasing suspicion gnawing inside him and none of the placatory advice from Rathin seemed genuine.
He had had more or less the same experience in the last two weeks for his modified manuscripts. Rathin had bellowed; he handled hundreds of manuscripts a day and wasn’t he supposed to realize if a seemingly great manuscript (all and sundry aspiring authors believe they had submitted a masterpiece) was ready yet or not? The convulsions on Rathin’s enraged and vexed face had imprinted an uneasy image on Madhav’s mind; he had failed to fathom the reason for the outbursts, which had seemingly increased with each passing encounter in his office or home.
“Surprise me or do not bother”, these were Rathin’s exact words from last week, in fact it had become a constant refrain. Madhav was in a fix. The book was his dream, his only passion left in the otherwise suffocating and dreary existence. Hell, he thought, it was also his only reason for existence, for being, he owed his parents at least that much! Nobody was going to miss him if he dropped dead the next instant, his abandoned and unclaimed corpse would be unceremoniously dumped in some electric furnace by the public department workers. The more he thought about it, the more agitated he became, his face twitched and breathing became almost impossible. His confidence had taken a direct hit and he could not help but dwell for a few moments on his growing doubts about the quality of his work. He had worked on the manuscript during dark days, having to deal with his ailing mother and securing his own career prospects. In a way this manuscript was to be a testament to all which he had experienced, it was to be epitome of proof of all sacrifices made and hardships which he had endured, to fulfill his one dream.
“Hey, look Laloo is having a heart attack”, loud sniggers in his office brought him back to reality. Chastising himself for being unable to control his emotions, Madhav went to the washroom to splash some cold water on his face.
That night, Madhav sat in the unkempt courtyard listening to the incessant chirping of the crickets. It was pitch dark and even the stars were hidden by the clouds. Madhav stared ahead blankly, with wet eyes. He was still in a daze and had a distinct vision of being in hell. In his limp hand, he held a yellowish crumpled piece of paper.
With a herculean effort, he forced himself out of the stupor. With his other hand, he wiped away his tears and crushing the paper into a ball with the other, threw it into the courtyard. He realized early dawn was breaking in and shoving out the dark unhappy night. That night he felt something snap inside him, something long repressed burst forth, it was as if a raging forest fire had devoured every shred of green and turned it into grey ashes. His mind drew a complete blank; there was nothing to turn to for steering his path. He knew what he needed to do and to his own dismay he realized, he knew that he would succeed.
Madhav brushed and took a longer bath than was his custom. He ironed new shirt and trousers and wore his new formal shoes. He had a quick but filling breakfast and decided there was no need to cook lunch; he somehow knew that his plan was destined to succeed.
He bowed his head in front of his parents’ faded wedding photo and took one sweeping glance at his room. Whistling between his teeth, he hailed an AC cab from outside his house. He went to the local dockyard where he had a childhood friend, Michael. Having spent an hour there and collected the package and bouquet, Madhav took another taxi and alighted in front of Rathin’s palatial house. He checked his watch, it was around noon. Was his mind playing games already or did the summer sun really shine brighter today?
Striding ahead with purpose, Madhav rang the bell. When the servant answered the door, he was ushered in. Noticing the large bouquet and another gift in a smaller packet in his hands, the servant curtly mentioned that Rathin was in office and he should rather call upon there to meet him. Sitting comfortably in the sofa in the drawing room, Madhav smiled, the servant must be so used to receiving aspiring authors and influential people who offer gratuity to Rathin in exchange for different favors.
Madhav asked for the publisher’s wife. The servant cast a suspicious glance in his direction, before he went about his task. Rathin’s wife entered the drawing room in an elegant sari, with an air of somebody accustomed to moving in the higher echelons of society, she had a bewildered expression on her face.
“Man, they are so vainglorious! She made me wait for 30 minutes again and managed to put on heavy makeup, befitting an evening party. But she does look pretty every time I see her. I wonder how she lives under the same roof as Rathin” thought Madhav.
He stood up to greet her, handing over the bouquet and gave her a charming smile. Rathin’s wife was impressed, again! She was curious, she knew that Madhav was well built and handsome from his earlier visits, however today she was surprised by the well dressed young man in front of her, one who had always claimed to be her husband’s close acquaintance. Her husband was sorely out of shape, she had given up on him now. She had never managed to elicit any details about this melancholic looking mysterious young guy from her husband either.
After convincing him to stay over for lunch (a first for her), she attended to him personally, fussing that he should eat more copious amounts. On his way to the washroom, Rathin commented on the beautiful design of the landline phone handset in the house.
Finally Rathin left an hour later. He turned around to find her smiling and waving from the room upstairs. Madhav nodded and with a conspiratorial look, tapped his wrist to indicate time to which she nodded affirmatively. Madhav strode outside. It was 3 pm; he still had three hours to kill.
Madhav decided to watch a movie in a nearby multiplex; after all the events planned for later today would warrant celebrations, abstaining would simply not do! It had been ages, however he was able to select upon a movie called “Taken 6” at the ticket counter, well Liam Neeson could teach him a trick or two with firearms he guessed and a quick crash course would never hurt.
In a few minutes, he was sound asleep; he needed the rest to focus better he thought. The shrill alarm on his mobile phone two hours later, woke him up groggy eyed. After having freshened in the washroom, he sat in an AC cab with the small packet in his hand. He felt strangely light headed, if only his acquaintances could see him now. Chuckling aloud, he provided directions to the driver to arrive at Rathin’s office. He checked his watch, it was 6 pm and everything had gone to plan so far.
Madhav smiled effervescently at Rathin’s personal assistant and commented on how beautiful the tight figure hugging dress looked on her. When she enquired about the gift wrapped object in his hands, he conspiratorially mentioned that it was a gift for her boss, for the special day and reminded her about 7 pm! He even proffered a few gym tips to her to work on accentuating her curves and a full ten minutes later was ushered into Rathin’s chamber with a paper chit containing the assistant’s name and mobile number in his pocket.
Rathin was seated behind his big mahogany table, working on his laptop. He did not look too happy to see Madhav walking into his office; however he had to admit there was something different about Madhav today. While Rathin appeared in a foul mood and even grumpier upon seeing him, Madhav smiled widely and helped himself to the chair facing Rathin.
“Why do you keep wasting my time”, growled Rathin, without even bothering to look up from his laptop. Madhav did not stir. When no reply was forthcoming, Rathin was forced to look up and he did not like repeating his questions to scum of the earth, a specimen of whom he believed was seated opposite him.
“Did you not hear me?” barked Rathin, barely able to keep his temper in check.
“Shut up you bastard!” said Madhav in a slow menacing tone. There was a manic gleam in his eyes today.
Rathin was too taken aback to respond, what was going on he wondered.
Taking advantage of his opponent’s momentary confusion, Madhav pressed forward his advantage. “Today is the day, I speak and you listen.” Madhav’s face had undergone a complete transformation and his cold piercing look was making Rathin uncomfortable.
Madhav continued with his tirade. “Finally, I know now why you behaved like a scumbag all this time. My parents never mentioned it to me, but I guess they would never have been able to see the real you, a mix between pathogenic bacteria and a life threatening parasite! So you were mean to me, simply because my mom had thwarted off your advances and instead fell in love with my dad in your college. After all these years, you still nurse that hatred for my father inside you. The old letter which I found yesterday explains everything now. So this is why you would make false promise to your best friend on his deathbed, the same friend who had helped you out of all sort of tricky situations in college but had stood firm on the question of his true love. This is why you wanted to ensure that his son fares no better, this is the reason you made it your mission to make sure that my book never gets published. And all this after I had confided in you about the importance of getting this book published! This is the reason why you did not lend me the loan upon my mother’s death and you are the reason I had to pawn my dad’s last memory, his watch.” Madhav said in his cold, measured tones.
Rathin was flabbergasted; he had never expected this dumbass to figure it all out. What in the name of the devil had happened, how did this transformation happen? He felt goose bumps all over. This could not be happening, is it some sort of a nightmare? He decided to slow things down and take charge.
“Madhav, calm down. I am sure you are mistaken about all this, I can explain” was all Rathin could muster in a weak voice.
“Don’t bother lying through your teeth. All this ends here, all this ends today, all this ends now. You had asked me to surprise you, not once, not twice but enough number of times to hammer it into my sub-conscious. So I do have a surprise for you Mr. Rathin, but I am not sure if you would like it. You see earlier today I kidnapped your wife and son.” Madhav was smiling now.
Rathin could take it no longer; his veins were clearly visible in the temple of his head and looked like popping out anytime now. He barked “What nonsense is this?”
Madhav was calm and made himself more comfortable in the chair. “You see earlier today noon I had visited your house” he said.
Rathin vaguely recollected the unexpected phone call earlier in the afternoon from his wife’s mobile, mentioning something about Madhav visiting their house. He was having lunch it seems!
With trembling fingers, he dialed the landline phone number in his house, when nobody answered he called on his wife’s mobile number. It seemed to be out of coverage area. What the heck was going on here?
Madhav seemed to be enjoying this and for some reason was checking his watch often, was he a mad man in a hurry? Rathin wondered if this was Madhav’s alter ego seated in his office today and if so, how had he missed at guessing about it in the past few months.
It was 6:45 pm. Madhav said “It is a pity that you under estimate me so much. As you can see, what often appears to the eye is not what it might really be! You order plain vanilla ice cream but expect a few brownies thrown in for free. Guess what? Today is your lucky day. I am about to fulfill your wildest imaginations today. On one hand I helped you re-enforce your belief about split personalities and you must be wondering how you would report it later, alas it will not come to pass! Again, you demanded surprise and I am about to deliver more than you ever wished for! I have killed your wife and son; you or the police will never be able to guess where the corpses are, so really save your breath, no point in getting all worked up and in trying so hard. This is my surprise for you, but why do I have this vague feeling that you still do not like it?”
Rathin was having palpitations now and he presently stood up.
“Sit down.” ordered Madhav, still maintaining his cool, menacing tone. When Rathin had obeyed him, he said “Now, let us move on to the next surprise, I hope you like this at least!”
Slowly Madhav unwrapped the gift box and then leveled a revolver towards Rathin. He said in an intimidating tone “Now there are ideally two possible outcomes, but I am sorry this is a Zero-Sum game too, what I mean is whatever you choose, I win. Option one being, you apologize and publish my book, so that I do not kill you. But you see your wife and son are dead already and you will never find their severed bodies, so you lose. You don’t even get a chance to bid them farewell and cremate them properly. Option two being, you don’t do option one and I kill you, here and now; I have nothing to lose in my life, so you lose again. So, what will it be?”
Still trying to reach his wife’s and his son’s mobiles, Rathin thundered “You think I will be played by your bluff?”
Madhav had stood up now and had a better aim at Rathin’s temple; strangely his pose looked like an exact replica of James Bond on the kill, just another day’s job.
Calmly he said “Believe what you want to, but you will decide on an option. Now!” His voice made a hissing sound; there was something oddly honest in his tone, undisguised and pure malice which was loud and clear for Rathin to comprehend.
Rathin said unconvincingly “I do not need to select anything, I can call the guards outside and they will be here in a blink.”
Madhav seemed thoughtful. He said “I still get the feeling that even this surprise did not amaze you! Though I am pretty sure from my earlier several recces that your room’s heavily padded walls are soundproof; on my part did I indeed forget to lock the door on my way in? Oh man, it indeed was your beautiful secretary who ushered me in. Man she is so beautiful, she distracted me from my plan. Tell me the truth, are you screwing her?” Saying so, he turned around towards the door.
In an instant, Rathin was on his feet; he grabbed the heavy paperweight from his table and lunged towards Madhav. Before Madhav could react, he hit him on his head, bludgeoning with the improvised weapon repeatedly on the back of his head. The clock struck 7 pm and suddenly his office chamber door was opened loudly.
His wife was wearing a beautiful evening gown; looking resplendent she entered holding a huge cake with candles lit atop. His son was holding balloons and looked oddly boyish for his 10 years of age. There were also many other faces behind them, the various employees from his office, with gifts and cards and balloons in their hands. They all entered the room shouting in unison “Surprise!!”
PS – Madhav died on the spot due to grievous head injuries, before any help could arrive. The police discovered the “revolver” in a cardboard box on the table, which had been unwrapped off the usual gift wrapping papers and a ribbon. They would later find Madhav’s fingerprints on it.
Rathin’s wife’s testimony said that Madhav had visited their house earlier in the day and made her a collaborator in a secret birthday bash planned for her husband, which Madhav had mentioned included several others in the office too; that he had asked them to specifically turn on the flight mode on their phones to lend credibility to a secret birthday treat.
On being prodded further, with tears streaming down her pale but beautiful face, she said that she could not fathom any rational reason for her husband killing Madhav. Madhav had been frequenting their house since the last two months and as far as she knew he was regular visitor to her husband’s office too. Did she know Madhav? Through intermittent sobs, she said that of course she knew Madhav since the last two months and that he was a close acquaintance of her husband through some personal ties about which she did not have any idea whatsoever.
The police later found that the landline phone cord in Rathin’s house was neatly severed; his wife could not explain the same.
The CC TV footage in Rathin’s office chamber was not available, since the feed was not being recorded. It was common knowledge in the office; the apparatus was scheduled for vendor repair the next day.
Rathin’s personal assistant was taken aback by the entire turn of incidents; she could positively remember the jovial handsome young man flirting with her moments before he entered her boss’ room. He had indeed mentioned that the gift wrapped box contained an imported toy revolver, a gift for her boss’ son.
Nobody in the office could provide any insights regarding any untoward incidents in the numerous occasions when the victim had visited their boss in the office; they knew that the victim’s father was a close friend of Mr. Rathin, the victim had said so himself on numerous instances.
On further prodding and assurances about conditions of anonymity, some of the employees mentioned that they had heard “rumors” of an alleged affair between their boss’ wife and the victim. The servants in the house attested to the fact that the victim had frequently visited the house and in most instances they recollected their boss was not present.
Mr. Rathin was booked on homicide charges of wilful manslaughter and remanded to police custody for 14 days while the case was being investigated further.