Please find below the first chapter of my novel Behind the silicon mask, to be launched in a matter of weeks. Hope you like it.
The serial killer kept the passenger window ajar so that he would hear the approach of his next victim. But outside his Chevy Bravada, Campus Drive remained quiet and subdued by the bone-crushing chill and early hour, not showing signs of life even when a rare car whizzed past.
He checked his watch. 3:04. Half an hour since the last cop car had driven past him. An hour since it had stopped snowing. Almost two hours since he’d switched off his engine and let winter into his car. He shivered and contemplated rolling up the window. Better still, he could switch on the engine and the heater. Just for five minutes. He mentally cursed himself. This was no time to be weak.
He shook off his woollen gloves and rubbed his palms together. Unsatisfied, his hands instinctively reached into his jeans and held his crotch. A shock of dry heat greeted his hands. He closed his eyes and began playing with his penis. Before he knew it, it wanted more room. He unzipped and
admired its ability to kiss the dashboard from where he sat. Leaning back, he let his left hand do the work. He pictured Jennifer Lopez, Cameron Diaz and Pamela Anderson in quick succession, as if this in itself would make him normal. None of them did it for him. So he thought of Susan Sarandon. She
was better, and it felt like she would go the distance with him tonight. But no. He lost her when he was too deep in the act to withdraw. He sighed, succumbed, and thought of his wife. Ex. The woman he could no longer access. He thrust his helpless present into his rich past and felt her welcome him,
hold him tight. It didn’t take long after that. The first squirt of semen hit the bottom of the car’s windshield. The second, he aimed at the brake—because he was better off getting his foot
stuck on the brake than the accelerator.
‘Gooey glue,’ he told the windshield, trying to sound like his elder brother. ‘Gooey glue,’ his brother had said that evening all those years ago, moments after the live demo. The best lesson an eleven-year-old could ask for. The words had stuck; they had been gooey glued to his brain.
He zipped up. Studied the white, sinister night. Drummed the steering wheel. Wished he could have a smoke. Checked his watch again. 3:21.
‘The night’s wasted,’ he thought, and was surprised to feel relief rather than disappointment. He wondered if it was time to quit. Maybe it was. He could simply get rid of the cleaver. And just drive away. Become an enigma, a phenomenon that Milwaukee cops would forever talk about during the graveyard shift. Their tone would be reverential.
‘Wonder what happened to the bastard. Farley was this close to nailing him.’
‘Yeah. Farley would have caught him all right.’
Fuck! That was anything but reverential. And Farley couldn’t nail him even if he gooey glued himself on the revolving door of the police HQ. Who the hell was Farley? The smartest cop in Milwaukee, according to the local media. That didn’t make him Agent Scully, did it? Nah.
‘Farley has a fuck-face,’ he thought, reaching for the ignition. But before he could turn it on, he heard a car—an Accord by the sound of it—screech to a halt. A door opened. A woman’s voice cut into the still air:
‘Didn’t you hear me? Get out.’
‘We talk it out, lah,’ a guy replied. ‘I li you very much. I know you li me also very good. True anot?’
‘Cannoh anihow go liddat. We talk. Li good frens.’ He paused. ‘Can? Oright. Doan push. I go oready.’
A rotund, spectacled man got out of the Accord. Through his rear view mirror, the serial killer saw him shut the door softly and peer inside with hope. The car, however, sped away. The serial killer waited for it to turn the curve and then got out, cleaver in hand. He no longer felt cold or afraid or
sleepy. He scanned the surroundings as he approached the man, and then scanned the man himself: he was young, perhaps in his early twenties, although you could never be sure with Chinese faces. And this man’s face was especially confounding. It was a fat boy’s face on a fat man’s body. Only
the eyes didn’t look fat. They were forlorn, weak, glazed with recent loss.
Eventually, the man sensed his presence and looked at him.
‘Hi there,’ the serial killer said. ‘You from Singapore?’
The man nodded vacantly.
‘Been there myself. Are you here on a scholarship?’
‘Yeeaaah?’ the Singaporean said, waking up to the situation and finding himself puzzled.
‘A full scholarship?’
‘Dat’s right. Hey listen . . .’
‘No time for that,’ the serial killer said. He scanned the surroundings again, unsheathed his cleaver from its leather pack, saw the Singaporean’s eyes come alive with the fear of death, steeled his voice and continued: ‘You don’t have universities down there, huh?’
‘I study American history,’ the Singaporean said quickly, hoping that this piece of information would save him. ‘Civil Woh and all dat.’
‘And you be what, lah? Professor in Yay University, lor?’ the serial killer asked, bringing down his cleaver swiftly in one straight, uninterrupted line from the man’s throat to his stomach. A cold wind pinched the leafless pine trees, as if to ask, ‘Did you see what I just saw?’ The trees jittered.
It began to snow again.
Detective Farley was sleeping on his office bed when his phone rang. He rose briskly without appearing to be in a hurry, noticed the flurry of snowfall outside his window and answered the phone.
‘We have a homicide on Campus Drive,’ Larry Oates, his assistant, said. ‘Chinese student. Five feet seven. Cleaved from throat to stomach. He was found hoisted on top of a Nissan Sentra.’
‘Chinese or Chinese-looking?’ Farley asked.
‘How far is Campus Drive from the campus?’
‘It’s right there.’
‘Really?’ Farley asked, which Oates knew translated to: ‘Be more precise, you moron.’
‘I don’t know the exact distance.’
‘Go there. Find out.’
‘Aren’t you coming to the spot?’ Oates asked, unable to hide his incredulity.
‘It’s snowing,’ Farley replied.
‘Find the guy’s friends. Ask them two questions. One: did he speak in a marked foreign accent? Two: was he on a full scholarship? You got that?’
‘It’s the immigrant thing, isn’t it?’
‘It’s the immigrant thing,’ Farley agreed and hung up. He then dialled Josh Eiken—his other assistant, the one who, like him, preferred working indoors and insisted on going home to sleep.
‘Yeah?’ a scratchy voice answered.
‘You better have the entire list of immigrants for me,’ Farley said.
‘We were doing air passenger lists and car rentals yesterday,’ Eiken said, taking advantage of the hour to sound grumpy. ‘You asked me to put the immigrant list on the backburner.’
‘Bring it to the front. I need separate lists from the INS and Social Security.’
Farley hung up, visualized Oates and Eiken shouting F-this-Farley, F-that-Farley, chuckled for five seconds, and then lay carefully on his bed. He fell asleep as he was counting the seventh sheep.
As her cameraman drove their OB van to the crime scene, Stephanie Zachary saw a weak sun pop into the passenger-side rear view mirror. Ahead of her, an unmarked car pulled up from the University side of the road. Larry Oates got out of the car before it came to a complete halt.
‘Your man Oates is here,’ the cameraman said, winking. ‘Can you call the studio and give them a heads up? We should be ready in ten minutes.’ Alighting from the van, she said: ‘Make that fifteen. We’ll make a nice interlude to Breakfast News.’ She ran towards Oates, shouting: ‘You’ve had
a busy morning.’
‘Tell me about it,’ Oates replied, smiling broadly.
‘But your boss is nowhere to be seen.’
‘He’s doing his bit,’ Oates said, lighting a cigarette.
‘I hear he’s put a queen-size bed in his office.’ Oates’ smile weakened. Stephanie continued: ‘Is it true that he sleeps even while driving? I mean, he sees a one-mile stretch on the freeway and’—she snapped her fingers—‘he’s dozed off, just like that.’
‘If it’s true,’ Oates said, ‘he must be waking up before the next curve.’Coz he wasn’t dead as of an hour ago.’
‘A real puzzle, that. So what can you give me?’
Oates gave her so much input that, a little later, Stephanie stood before the camera, ready to break the biggest story of her career. She shivered from the cold and excitement; she decided not to brush off the flecks of snow latching on to her hair—they would accentuate the new auburn hair-dye she’d
‘Gimme a byte, sugar,’ a male voice said from the studio.
‘Hear you loud and clear, Ned,’ Stephanie replied.
‘Sounding good. Looking good. All right, you’re set.’
‘Two minutes nine seconds.’
Stephanie used the time to fantasize.
She’s in Times Square, sharing the studio with Peter Jennings. Variations of this fantasy features Dan Rather, but today, Jennings sits next to her. He’s mesmerized by her presence. He blushes. The blush spreads even to the usually colourless half-moons under his eyes. Without warning, the title music
for News at 9 begins playing. The side camera does an arc and zooms into her face. She’s wearing crimson to make her debut grander, more memorable. The prompter flashes text. She doesn’t miss a beat. ‘Good evening. I’m Stephanie Zachary.’ ‘And I’m, ah, Peter Jennings.’ The next moment, she’s with Regis Philbin, co-hosting Good Morning America. ‘Look at her. Isn’t she gorgeous?’ Regis asks the camera.
From half-closed eyes, she noticed her cameraman motioning to her. She gave herself a vigorous shake and smiled at the camera.
In apartment B-506 in the Downtown Crescent condominium, Partho Sen awoke feeling tired and restless, as if he hadn’t really slept at all. He had dreamt of arguing with Rashmi and quarrelling with Varun, and the two fights had kept his brain on high alert the whole night. On waking up, he felt relief. It was just a dream. Then he remembered. He had quarrelled with Varun more than a week ago. And he had fought with Rashmi just the other day. So the two people in Milwaukee he could talk to, really talk to, weren’t on talking terms with him anymore.
‘So I now argue with them in my dreams, is that it?’ he asked himself, clenching his teeth. He looked to his left, at Varun’s bed. It was neatly made, as always. Clearly, it hadn’t been slept in.
‘Another night-out,’ Partho thought, shaking his head.
He rose from the bed and felt indecisive, so he went to the living room, plonked on the couch and switched on the TV. It was tuned to a local news station.
‘So let’s go right away to Stephanie Zachary,’ the anchor said. ‘Stephanie, what do you have for us?’
‘Linda, I’m here on Campus Drive, where the serial killer claimed his fourth victim last night, a Singaporean student named Charlie Wang. Charlie was studying American History at the UWM, his friends describe him as a warm and emotional person, quite popular in his class, and this news has shaken them hard, as you can expect, now Linda, we also know that Charlie was an only son and we can only imagine what a loss this will be to his parents who, as we speak, are being contacted by the police.’
‘Any idea how this happened?’
‘Linda, as you can see behind me, the police are still collecting evidence, and the constant snowfall is making their job doubly difficult, but it’s possible that the serial killer was driving either a Chevy Bravada or a Honda Accord because they found tyre tracks of both makes leaving the spot in a great
hurry. Again, we can’t be sure as of now. Of course, we still don’t know what Charlie was doing at this spot at around 3:30 in the morning, which is when the incident possibly happened. All we know is that Charlie had a date with his girlfriend of three months, an American, a Milwaukeean in fact, whose name we can’t give out. But the cops are contacting her as well and she might hold a clue for us.’
‘Stephanie, are we sure that this is the serial killer’s handiwork?’
‘There are no doubts about that, Linda, because the cleaver was used, and I’m told that it was a clean and brutal strike, as if he or she wanted to finish the job and scoot, and Linda, there’s another reason why we know this is the serial killer’s, er, handiwork, as you put it. Now, this is as yet unofficial, and
we’re expecting a statement from Town Hall later this morning, but I have it from reliable sources that the serial killer is targeting immigrants. And that’s the big development, Linda.’
Linda took a while to respond.
‘Stephanie, that is indeed a huge development, but how does Gerry Maier fit into all this?’
‘Good question, Linda. Gerry Maier, as our viewers will remember, was the second victim and he was killed exactly a week ago, and his killing threw the cops off the track. Linda, remember that no identification was found on Gerry. In fact, he wasn’t identified till his colleagues saw him on TV and they knew next to nothing about him except that he was a gifted software programmer, a shy true-blue geek, if you will. They, the colleagues, had heard him mention that he was from Michigan, but we now know that he was actually from Saskatchewan in Canada. The police discovered this late last night, after which it was quite easy to spot the pattern. The first victim was Alonso Vasquez, the Mexican janitor, rather, a janitor from Mexico who had become a naturalized American citizen. Gerry Maier came next, after which came the Iranian preschool teacher . . . I forget her name. And last night, it was Charlie Wang. Four clinical kills in eleven days. Linda?’
‘Wonder who would do such a thing,’ Linda said, with a clear intent to move on to the next story.
‘Linda,’ Stephanie said, interrupting her, ‘it seems to me that this must be the work of a totally deranged man, someone who studies his victims for days, maybe weeks, before striking. How else could he have known that Gerry Maier was Canadian? Even those close to him hadn’t discovered that. But this pattern is also a good thing because the immigrants in Milwaukee needn’t fear an abrupt strike. You don’t have to worry unless a stranger has tried to befriend you of late or unless you have a feeling that you’re being tailed. And stay indoors over the weekend, which, in this weather, is a good
‘Thanks, Stephanie. That’s sound advice. And I see you’re bundled up,’ Linda said, turning to another camera, ‘which is how you should be if you’re heading out today and over the weekend because our friendly neighbourhood weatherman John Galt has the other big story for you. John?’
Partho picked up the phone, punched numbers and heard the phone in Apartment B-909 ring. A sleepy voice answered on the seventh ring.
‘Vish,’ Partho said, ‘can you call Varun and see if he’s all right?’
‘You have to wake me up so much early for that?’ Vishnu Reddy asked.
‘What time is it? Oh, sorry. I thought it must be seven already.’
‘It’s not seven. Asshole.’
‘The serial killer is targeting immigrants.’
‘I knew that would wake you up,’ Partho said, laughing.‘Will you call Varun?’
‘Behaving like school kids, you two. And why I should go between?’
‘Call me back and let me know if he’s unreachable.’
‘Yeah, yeah. Listen, you were joking about serial killer, right?’
‘No. It’s on the news. He’s planning to kill all immigrants and return the land to the Native Americans.’ He remembered Rashmi. ‘Yeah. He’ll reserve the last bullet for himself.’
‘Hold on. I’ll switch on TV.’ Vish paused. ‘They’re talking about weather. Look at that. The whole map is covered in white.’
Watching the snowstorm swirl on the screen reminded Partho of Kolkata during the rains. Of rain water forming swirling eddies in overflowing gutters. Of returning from school with his mother and kid brother, with the rain pounding on yellow cabs, caterpillar-like trams, potato-laden pushcarts,
his mother’s rainbow-coloured umbrella, his cheap plastic raincoat, the even cheaper canvas schoolbag. Rain in Kolkata could be deafening. Why didn’t the world melt under its onslaught, he had asked his mother when he was seven. A couple of years later, he informed her that, in cold countries, rain was solid and white. People could use the rain to make ice creams. That kind of rain, his mother added enthusiastically, would make washing clothes so much easier. And, and, he interjected, wanting to make his point, that kind of rain wouldn’t slip through his fingers. No, it wouldn’t. It would stick firmly to his palm.
Seventeen years later, he was still seeking something that stuck. An idea he could devote his whole life to. Or perhaps a complete family, with a father and all. Or a job that excited him. But was he doing anything to get closer to those desires? Of course not. Instead, he was burning his bridges—how else could he explain the fact that he was sabotaging Rashmi’s love and Varun’s friendship?
He gazed vacantly around. His eyes came to rest on photographs he had taken, photographs that presented the eternal conflict between light and darkness. Photographs, to be precise, of shadows thrown by objects.
‘Trust you to be interested in shadow photography, Partho,’ Rashmi had told him about a month after they first met. ‘It’s as if you can’t look at things directly. You’re only interested in what they do to the world around them.’
The persistent sound of a dead telephone line brought him back to the present. He realized that he was still clinging to the cordless phone. He flung it down on the carpet and focused on the TV.
‘So John,’ Linda was saying, ‘Super Susan might, just might, miss Milwaukee and hit Sheboygan instead?’
‘Linda, the depression building up further east of Super Susan makes it difficult to predict where she will strike. Mind you, even if she’s centred on Sheboygan, we’ll still see plenty of action, but not as much as Sheboygan would.’
‘I know you are a betting man, John. So where’s your money?’
‘I’m a weatherman, Linda. I have no option but to be a betting man,’ John laughed. ‘So I’ll stick my neck out and say there’s an eighty per cent probability that Susan will blow down on us, here at Milwaukee. The good people of Sheboygan won’t have it so bad. So in effect, I’d follow Stephanie’s advice and stay indoors the whole weekend, whether you’re an immigrant or not.’
Partho lit a cigarette, picked up his cordless phone and called his mother.
‘Ma,’ he said when she picked up, ‘I’ve started smoking again. Is it raining in Kolkata?’
Varun felt a hand softly waking him up. His subconscious mind decided that it was his sister.
‘Inondu nimisha,’ he said in Kannada. ‘Just a minute more.’
‘Vahrun, wake up.’
‘Onde nimisha, kane!’ he said, before realizing that his sister wouldn’t speak to him in English. He felt wood on his forehead, raised his head and found himself in his office. He stood up in a hurry, causing his chair to wheel back.
‘Becky!’ he said, embarrassed, reaching for his spectacles. ‘Sorry. So sorry. I was . . . I don’t know how. You’ve come early.’
‘Big day today,’ Becky Dalton, his client and project manager, replied. ‘Here. I got you some coffee.’
He took the Styrofoam cup, decided not to tell her that he hated coffee, and took a sip.
‘Thanks,’ he said, smiling with pursed lips, acutely aware that he hadn’t brushed his teeth.
‘I finally have proof that you’re human,’ Becky said. ‘You sleep!’ Varun smiled again and studied the floor, as he always did in the face of a compliment. Becky continued: ‘The last six months have been rough on you, yeah?’
‘Same as you. At least, I don’t have to go home and take care of two kids,’ Varun replied. He considered asking her about them. ‘Becky, why don’t your kids look like you or each other? Do they have different fathers? Or do they take after grandparents whom you don’t resemble?’ But of course he didn’t. You’re supposed to admire cubicle photographs, not conduct a code walkthrough on them. So he stuck to safe words: ‘Really, you’ve worked hard.’
‘Coming from you,’ Becky said.
‘It’s different for us,’ Varun said, not bothering to explain that ‘us’ meant employees of CIKS—CIKSons.
‘You mean I work hard for an American?’
‘No, no, I didn’t mean that,’ Varun said. What he meant had nothing to do with nationality. It just so happened that Indian software professionals were amongst the best academic performers in the country. They were survivors of a ruthless education system that had taught them, above all else, the
virtue of slogging for its own sake. Many Americans did exactly the same thing. But unless those Americans were based in the Silicon Valley, they usually didn’t work in IT. They practised law, managed PR, studied the economy or the universe, created new corporates, etc. Very few of them became techies. So, clearly, if one pitted all the Indian software professionals in a duel against their American counterparts, there could only be one clear winner. ‘No, I didn’t mean that.’
‘I know what you meant. You don’t fool me,’ Becky said, laughing. She paused. ‘This is nice, isn’t it, talking about something other than the project? We haven’t been able to do that, what with the meetings and deadlines and all. Know what? We should go out for a drink. The whole team. This evening, after we go live.’ She saw a shadow flit across Varun’s face. ‘What’s the matter? Something I should know about?’
‘Huh? No. Nothing,’ Varun said, running a couple of fingers over the bristly ends of his moustache.
‘So the drink is on?’
‘I go out after one peg.’
‘Go out where? Oh, you mean you conk off.’
‘Conk off,’ Varun agreed, rolling his eyes. ‘But not tonight. The implementation will begin only at midnight.’
‘We have to let the nightly batch jobs run before we push in our new code.’
‘In that case,’ Becky said, standing up, ‘I suggest that you go home and sleep for a bit. I’ll meet the business users and get the formal signoff.’
‘Actually, I was thinking . . .’
‘That’s an order, kiddo,’ Becky said, trying to sound like a GI and failing. In a softer tone, she added: ‘I spoke to the users. They’re thrilled. They don’t even want to test the system today. We’re there. Just go home. Come back fresh.’
‘Okay,’ Varun said. ‘I’ll return by noon. Will that be fine?’
‘Take your time,’ Becky said, leaving for her cubicle.
Varun donned his jacket and fished in his drawer for his monkey cap. His phone rang.
‘Are you alive, asshole number two?’ Vishnu asked.
‘So far. Why?’
‘Asshole number one wanted to know.’
‘Oh,’ Varun said, not knowing what else to say. He wished he hadn’t fought with Partho, especially now—he could have used his help to solve the goddamn bug that was threatening his project. ‘Yeah. I’m alive. Bye, Vish.’
‘Wait. Party tonight at our place. Seven.’
‘OCHRE’s going live tonight. Can’t make it.’
Varun checked his watch. 6:55. Big Boss Laks Deshpande would be riding the elevator any moment now. It was time to get a directive from the top.