You know that feeling when you have a moral dilemma between choosing what is right for you and what you really want to do when both are poles apart. That is how I felt as I sat listening to my best friend of twenty five years spin me a story of magnanimous proportions as we sat across the table that day. I had dropped the cigarette off my finger and spat the water on the wood. I let out an exclamation laden with profanities. The cigarette burned an ash mark on the table but I couldn’t care less. Such was the scale of what he had told me. Let me rewind about two months ago, far away from where I sat, inside the fourth house of the fourth floor of a four-storey, concrete apartment.
I sat in the computer room, as we called it. It was nothing but a small square box with nothing significant in it except the Mac that stood at the end, resting on the curtains behind it. The room was dark. Just the computer lit it like a light beaming at the end of a tunnel, a small speck of brightness in an otherwise dark room. My wife lay on her bed in the other room, one leg atop another in a scissor like position, reading the romance novel she had picked up that evening. I stared at a symbol displayed on the screen. It was a circle with a line diagonally cutting it across in two. The heading on the web page read ‘The Symbol Killer’. Very creative, I thought sarcastically.
He was a mystical maniac who had been causing terror in the minds of women across Bangalore for over seven months now. A serial killer who murdered women late in the night and then carved his trademark symbol, the circle sliced in two, across their chests. Reading that sent shivers down my spine, then to my leg and finally to my feet which were already cold from the chillness of the marble below. He had begun murdering women, who had no other significant similarity other than their shared gender, out of the blue on a festive Easter night. It shook the city hard. Cops scampered across, desperate to find the elusive mad man on prowl. He didn’t stop with one. He had killed four women in irregular intervals across different parts of the city. Residents were losing their minds, awfully scared to step out. So was I.
‘Come to bed.’ She said standing on the doorway behind. I turned back and found her standing exhausted, one hand gripping the wood above and her head resting on her arm. I could afford a sheepish smile which cloaked the fear beneath. What if something were to happen to her? It frightened me. I shut the system and followed her to bed.
The next morning, I kissed her goodbye and hurriedly walked out the door. The Uber was at my doorstep. I boarded it and said ‘Koramangala’ to the old man sitting in the front. He stopped in front of a Starbucks café. Crackpots behind us honked restlessly. An auto rickshaw glided past us. The driver screamed profanities in Kannada to which the old man up front obliged with similar retorts. It seemed to be of no use as the three wheeler was now submerged in the vehicular mess ahead. I stood on the pavement for around twenty minutes when a black Skoda halted in front of me. The window rolled down smoothly.
‘Hop in’, said the headless man within; I could just see a body from where I stood. I got in the car. ‘So, where are we headed?’ I asked ‘Some multinational company wants to shoot a marketing video.’ He replied. He was Srikanth, my best friend. We owned an ad firm together for around 12 years. I was the director; he took care of the production part of the business. He was married too.
His wife was a gracious woman who would always greet me with the tastiest snacks every time I dropped in. They had been married for seven years. It seemed to be a happy marriage to me but he rarely talked about her. We were buddies for a long time, since our school days and the bond I shared with him was of a special kind. And it kind of grew stronger with the fact that we pretty much saw each other every other day at work. I turned the radio on. A static blared followed by the constant chatter of a young woman. The road was blocked with vehicles as far ahead as I could see. Nothing had changed since my yesteryear. If anything, the traffic had gotten worse with the increase in population. Of course, the horns blasted behind, forward and just about anywhere. Bloody idiots. I took the coffee he had bought for me and sipped the liquid. I placed it on my lap and bit my tongue which had developed a burning sensation from the hot coffee.
‘So what’s it about today?’ I asked. ‘They need a video shoot for a marketing campaign. We got to go and discuss it with them, set the whole thing up and stuff.’ He said turning the steering wheel to make a sharp turn as he cut across the vehicle behind. I envisioned the man behind shrieking with all the might he can muster. The signal ahead was green. He rammed the pedals trying to making it across before it turned red as the countdown approached zero on the LED display above. Sadly, we ended up at the front of the line as it turned red. He sighed.
‘You know the Symbol killer? I was reading about him yesterday.’ I said.
‘Everybody knows him. Crazy s#it right.’ He said.
‘Yeah. Scary stuff man. I mean, anything could happen to anyone right. Our wives. I can’t imagine a situation if that happens. I would be devastated.’ I said, not wanting to cover the fear inside.
‘Ah chill. As long as we take care and enough precautions it should be fine.’ He said. ‘Hopefully he gets caught soon.’
We approached the building. A huge, triangular shaped glass building stood behind the gates. Far ahead there was another massive circle shaped hole carved onto a normal looking rectangular office building. We smirked at the same time. ‘Weird architectural work.’ he said. He placed the car in the designated spot in the basement of the parking lot. We got out and headed towards work.
It was three days later. I lay slumped on the couch staring at the television in front of me. My eyes were drooping slowly. The atmosphere emanated a sooty, warm feeling. Just as I fell into a slumber, the phone under my buttocks startled me with its buzzing. I sprung up. It was Srikanth. He was in a hysteria on the other side. All the laziness in my body was gone now. I tried calming him down and wanted to understand what he was going on about. Then I managed to structure his words to a sentence of coherence. ‘She’s dead man. My wife is dead!’
‘What?’ I thundered. I heard my wife drop a steel dish behind. ‘Calm down. Tell me what is happening.’ I said marching up and down the hall.
‘Just come here. I’ll tell you it all.’ he said. I cut the call and shoved the mobile phone in my right pocket and picked up my car keys from the stand beside the television.
‘What’s wrong?’ she asked, standing next to the door.
‘He has lost his mind. He says his wife is dead.’ I said rushing out the door.
‘Should I come?’ she asked. I was far down the stairs to reply anything and left her standing concerned at the doorstep. I turned the corner of 5th street. A bunch of white jeeps with police sirens atop their roofs stood outside his house. One of the cops stared at me as I halted beside him. Inside, there were many more of them, whispering like school girls with one another. As I walked, one of their hands popped up against my chest, halting my movement.
‘It’s ok. Let him in.’ came the order from an unfamiliar voice ahead. As I made my way through, Srikanth and a police officer came into my view. They were seated on the dining table. The police officer was probably the superior of the lot. A moustached, medium built man he was. I sat beside Srikanth after hugging him in condolence. The khaki clad authority asked me a few questions and then turned his attention back to the man in grief. Once the interrogation cum consolation session was done, he got up and left, not before affirming us that the killer would be caught and hanged by the noose until his eyes popped out of his socket and his nerves burst through. Graphic yet consoling.
‘She’s dead, man. Gone.’ He said, crying.
‘You got to tell me what happened!’ I said in a confused tone.
‘Yesterday she called me at around 10. She was in the Olive Garden. You know, the one around the 1st street. She said she was going to walk home. I said no. But she said it was a two minute walk and she needed to sober down a little. I also heard her refuse a man beside her, possibly her colleague, who wanted to drop her home. Stupid me. After all that I told you that day about staying safe and sh#t. She never returned, man. I called the police. They ended up finding her dead body lying disembowelled beside a garbage can in an alley around the corner of 3rd street.’
They had indeed found her body, slit across her throat, lying shabbily on the ground. On her chest was the ominous mark of the serial killer, the circle sliced in half. He had struck again. This time, it was someone close to me and I was shaking inside. It drove me nuts. Thoughts flew across my brain rapidly. What If this was my wife? How must he be feeling? He lit a cigarette and slumped on the couch. He was distraught. His face was shallow, pulled inwards. I sat beside him in silence.
The city was in a hysteria now. Newspapers blared the death on their front pages. Some of them cheaply used the death to stir up controversies, such as the one that featured a famous actress chastised for her lack of opinion on the issue. Police were in and out of Srikanth’s house quite often. They desperately needed clues. Nothing was turning up. There was the time when Srikanth got fed up with the same question being repeated over and over to him. He had burst out in a fit of rage. They replied that they were just following procedure. It was over a month since the death and the city had now moved on from hatred and hysteria to hopelessness.
I grabbed my wife’s palm one night as she read from the same romance novel that seemed never ending or that she was a horribly slow reader and stared into her dark brown eyes. ‘You are never going out alone, ever. Do you understand?’ I said
‘Sure. I get it.’ She replied.
‘I mean for anything. Even the groceries. You will get it ordered. Or if you want to go to the parlor. I’ll get it arranged for you at home. You are never leaving this house miss.’ I said, playing with her.
‘Oh, you want me house arrested basically?’
‘Maybe. As long as you are safe here it doesn’t matter.’ She placed the book on the table beside her and switched the night lamp off as I held her head in my palms and kissed her on her lips.
It had been two months now since his wife’s murder and Srikanth still looked disturbed. I insisted that he not come to work though he said that it was probably the only thing that kept him sane. Everyone knew about the case at work and the office lay solemn despite the odd person trying to cheer things up. Srikanth himself was that person once and people joined in a rather surprisingly jovial manner. He later told me in an exasperated tone, as we ate lunch at a café near work, that it seemed like a form of pity show that people tried to look happy and joyful around him, many failing rather awfully.
‘So, how’s things going with the toothpaste commercial?’ he asked
‘Pretty good. We are flying in a model all the way from Colombia so that she can beam her fake white teeth at gullible young people sitting at home.’ I said.
We both smiled. His phone rang. He excused himself and went across to a secluded spot. I couldn’t hear the words clearly but he seemed rather angry at the caller. Quite abruptly he cut the call and sat back in the plastic chair. ‘Who was it?’ I asked curiously.
‘Ah. Just the police again. Got to go to the station tomorrow apparently.’ He said, annoyed.
‘Well, you did seem awfully angry to a policeman. You got some guts in you.’ I said, tapping him across his stomach.
‘Well, it was one of them constables. I didn’t need to be nice to them after all those questions they heralded at me before. Don’t you remember?’ he asked.
‘Yeah. But if they going to find the maniac then it’s all for the good isn’t it.’ I said.
‘Let’s see.’ He said, tucking into the final bite of his chicken sandwich.
Two months and twenty three days since the murder. I sat at home, slouched on the couch in a similar position to when he had called me hysterically. And lo and behold, he called me again. The phone was now in my hand and I wasn’t that surprised as the last time though I did wonder curiously as to why he’d call.
‘Come over’ he said without any explanation. I asked him why. He refused to tell me. That increased my curiosity but I didn’t pester him. My wife was fast asleep on the bed; a novel lay open atop her stomach. It was a different novel. She had finally completed the previous romance novel. Gosh, that took time. I took the keys off the stand next to the television and scooted out. I turned around the corner of 5th street. It was empty. He had dozed off on the couch with the television still on. Bruce Willis stood perplexed as he came to terms with the fact that he was a ghost all the while.
‘Ah. My friend!’ he said, waking up from his slumber. Boy, was he ecstatic. Far from the solemnity he displayed up and until then. I stood motionless as he hugged me. I smelt a hint of rum on him. Three in the afternoon, I thought. He sat me down on the dining table and then offered me a cigarette. I dragged it out of the box and asked for some water. He obliged, again with a gleeful smile plastered across his face. Something odd with all that happiness, I thought. He sat down opposite me. ‘You are my best friend right. For how many years?’ he asked, reminiscing the past. ‘Twenty five years!’ he said, landing a thud on the table that shook the glass on it. ‘And I am just so happy that you are you, man. After my wife’s death, I came to terms with the fact that you are not just a friend but much much more than that.’
He was drunk. If this was just about him appreciating me for helping him out emotionally, it was a bummer. But then he uttered something out of context. ‘So, what I am about to tell you is totally confidential right. I know you wouldn’t do nothing about it. You are my best friend.’ He said, uttering those two words for the hundredth time.
‘What the hell are you talking about?’ I asked.
‘Let me start here. Around a year back I came to know that my wife was having an affair with an old school friend of hers. A well-built guy who worked as an accountant. He is dead now. From cancer. I kept tabs on him all the while until he died. I never ever confronted my wife about her infidelity. Instead, I wanted her killed. But, you know with all the cops sniffing around nowadays you can never get past a month or two post a murder, how much ever well you plan it. So, supari killers or poison or any of that shit was out the window at the very beginning. Then, as I sat on that sofa – I very clearly remember – it struck me.’ he said, pointing towards the cushion behind me.
‘The idea just popped into my head out of nowhere. What if I planned it over seven months? You know, I would create this fictional serial killer who eventually was christened the symbol killer; that’s the name they gave, stupid stuff. I expected much more from copywriters at least. This guy, this killer would kill women. Four to be exact. Right from Easter of 2015 until now. Four women, unrelated and from different parts of this city. That would be convenient such that when the fifth women came, that is my wife, she would just be one among the list of victims. The fuzz would never find out that I murdered her for personal reasons. In fact about three months from now I plan to commit another murder just to make her death look even more random.’
By now I had spat the water out and the cigarette ash had seeped its way through the timber. He continued.
‘So, you know the call from yesterday. He was Ravi. Ravi is a guy I know from a long time back. Used to work as a driver for me. And do you know why he stopped working for me?’ he asked.
‘Rape.’ he replied to his own question.
‘Yeah. And he was out in around 7 years or so and went on doing odd jobs. So, when this thought popped into my head, I needed someone to do this for me. After all, say the cops did find out something, I needed an alibi. And this guy fit the bill perfectly. He was filth. I offered him money that he would never see in his lifetime. He accepted. His job was to listen to my instructions and murder women whom I pointed out on the day I ordered him to do so. Man, he was hard to handle. A dumb idiot he was. I had to take lessons to teach him on how to carve the symbol on the women. And, by the way, he calls me yesterday on my phone, which I told him to never do so, and tells me he wants to meet. Now you know the reason behind the anger. I told him I’d meet him later. So, where was I – ‘
I was bewildered at this revelation. The person I thought was my friend was in fact a serial murderer, a sociopath.
‘ – So I planned it all along so that she would be number five. A normal wife who wanted to walk her way home but sadly met her death at the hands of the symbol killer. For once, I broke my rules. Obviously I had to. I never was at the scene of the crime when it happened. But I had to be there. You should have seen her face. She was shocked out of her wits. I actually managed to laugh hysterically looking at her. I told her the whole deal. And then she tried talking me into my senses. The usual. Apologies first, then anger and pleading. I watched the filth murder her in front of my eyes and carve the symbol on to her chest. And then I ran back home and called the police.
Neat isn’t it?’ he asked me. I couldn’t muster an answer.
‘Why am I telling you this? After all, I really could just keep this to myself. It’s always better that way but I needed this out of my system and you are my best friend, man. I know for sure you wouldn’t go to the authorities. Twenty five years. I want you to keep that in mind. I needed to talk this out. It bugged me like a termite inside. You seemed stunned, I can clearly see. The water on the table. The ash. You are astonished. But hey, how about this? You may never fear again. I wouldn’t hurt your wife. You know that now. See, that’s also why I wanted to tell you this. You can walk freely with her again. Let her be.’ he said as if that made me happy though he was right. It did make me fear less.
‘So…. What’s going on in that head of yours bro? ‘
‘Well, I do want to go to the cops you know. You are an insane sociopath murderer.’
A frown grew across his face. ‘I sincerely hope you refrain from doing that man. I know you are not as insane as me but you got to back me up on this one. At least just stay out of it and be my friend.’
‘Well, that I can’t be. Your friend. A friend to a sociopath is murder. Infact, you may have a knife lodged underneath this table and may stab me any given moment for all I know. But here is the deal.’ I said. ‘I will let you be. Despite any of the crap you get yourself into, I want no part of it. So, I won’t go to the cops. But, neither do I want to hear your shit anymore, you understand?’ I said, forcefully.
‘Well – ‘
‘Yeah. As far as being your friend, let’s see where that goes. Twenty five years, as you said, just almost went down the drain now. But despite what you doing clearly being wrong I got to go back and be with my wife. Matters more to me than you and anything you do. So, I hope you understand and leave me and anyone related to me out of this.’
He seemed defeated. ‘Well, if that’s what you want.’
‘Yeah, that is. I am done here. I will see you at work tomorrow and nothing about this shall ever be heard by me.’ I said and got up. I walked out the front door as he followed me to my car. He peeped through the window as I turned the key in.
‘Don’t stop being my friend man.’
‘I shall see you tomorrow’ I said, not having any clear consensus on what I wanted to do. The engine rumbled to life and I glided forward towards the corner of 5th street leaving him behind as he stared at me.
Elsewhere, a cop had the victim’s photos pinned on a board that he stared carefully at. He was one of the guys assigned to look into the murders. He was the one who didn’t want to look at this case as a generic serial killer murder spree. He was the one who decided it was going to take a while before he figured out who was behind all the murders but he knew he had all the time in the world.