This short story is selected as Story of the Month May’2015 and won INR 1000
This story is selected as Editor’s Choice and won INR 500
There was, I thought as I stared at the woman who had rung my doorbell, nothing in the least extraordinary about her. She looked to be in her thirties. Her spectacles were framed by hairy eyebrows that looked almost masculine.
I was standing in the doorway of my flat, having answered the bell. “Yes?”
“Are you Jason Antao, the owner of this building?” She was soft-spoken, her accent sounded South Indian in origin, very likely Kerala.
I nodded, curious. “And you are?”
“My name is Cecilia.” She held up a brown envelope which had my name scrawled on it. “Please read this – now. I’ll call you in five minutes.” She thrust the cover into my hands and as I stared, perplexed by this sudden event, she wheeled about. By the time I looked up again, she was heading down the stairs.
I closed the door. Still standing, I opened the envelope to find two papers. One was a blow-up of Antao Apartments, my current residence and the building I had inherited from my folks. The second page was foolscap, filled with numbers. Math had never been my strong point, but I was bright enough to realize they were financial figures. My simple mind was still trying to work the numbers out when the phone rang.
“This is Cecilia.” said the soft-spoken voice. “Should I come up?”
I stared at the figures a moment longer, and knew I had to find out what they meant.
What did I have to lose: the price of a Coke? “Yeah, come up.”
She walked into my living room. “You’re a bachelor, aren’t you?”
That was when I felt a sudden doubt. How did she know so much about me? And why? I suddenly wondered if I had made a mistake in inviting her in. “What is all this about?”
“To help you solve a problem that’s been troubling you for some years now.” She looked around. “May I sit?”
I pointed at the sofa, but remained standing, close to the front door. Physically, I was a lot more solid, but hey, what if she was a martial-arts expert or something? I’d only realize my mistake hours later, in a hospital bed, hung up in traction. I was taking no chances. “What problem are you talking about?”
“We’ll come to that later.” Her smile was disarming. “The first part of my task is to impress upon you the utter seriousness of my endeavour here. You’ve seen the papers I gave you and have invited me in. Naturally, you’re curious which means I’ve partly succeeded in my task. As for the other part…”
She crossed her legs then stared at the ceiling. “Let’s see… Jason Antao, 37 years old, bachelor, only son of Patrick and Judy Antao, both deceased. You work for the government. You are the sole owner of this apartment block, a 30-year old tenement which consists of 12 two-bedroom flats and 10 ground floor shops, presently occupied by a florist, two general merchants, a stationery mart, a jewellery store, a caterer and a wine trader. The income from these tenants hasn’t risen proportionate to current trends. By today’s standards, the rentals are very meager.”
She got up and went to the window, overlooking a busy thoroughfare. “You’re located in the heart of the city. Break down this building and you could easily get two flats and two shops free with virtually a zero-investment on your part, if you call in a builder. If you were to take up the project yourself, you could easily earn thrice that. The fact that you haven’t already done either, means you have a problem.” She looked me in the eye. “That’s the problem I was talking about earlier: your tenants.”
She had my complete attention now, and I knew that she knew it. Whatever she was after, it didn’t have to do with breaking any of my bones. I had been apprehensive. Now I was dying to know what was on her mind.
She took her place on the sofa. “This is where I come in. If you decide you’d like to go ahead, my job will be to ensure that within a period of four weeks, your tenants will one by one, voluntarily begin to vacate their flats and shops. I will do this without the use of force, terror, without the use of threats or violence. My methods have had a 98% success rate. The only time I failed was when one of the tenants was deaf and dumb.”
I smiled humorlessly. “What are you going to use: mass hypnosis?”
Cecilia returned my smile. “So you’re interested?” My nod was hesitant. “The deal works like this: if I can successfully evict one of your tenants within three days, you agree to let me go ahead for the whole deal. I’ll start with Mrs. Rodrigues, your next-door neighbour. If she’s out by this Friday, the deal goes ahead. In four weeks, if I’ve cleared your building, you pay me the cost of one first-floor double-bedroom flat at today’s prices at this location. Following this, I disappear.” She took a document from her bag. “This is the agreement. Read it.”
I admit it: I was hooked. Her deal sounded like a winner. The building and the paltry turnover from the rent had been getting on my nerves for years. I had tried, without success, to evict the tenants. Now, out of the blue, in my sitting room, no less, was this lady, who was willing to do the impossible. On my part there was no risk or investment, unless she succeeded, in which case, I figured I would be only too happy to cough up as my end of the deal.
I had read the draft of the agreement she had drawn up twice to see if there were any hidden clauses. Everything seemed clear-cut and above-board. I finally looked up. “What about witnesses to sign the final agreement?”
“No witnesses, obviously.” She looked wryly at me. “If this ever gets to court, you’re going to be in big trouble…” She got up. “Two more things: one – to save me the time it would take to build an identity, you must introduce me to your neighbours as your cousin. Second, you’ll have to give me a room in your flat.”
I almost jumped. “In my flat? Here?”
“Let’s be clear about this: to do my job, I need a first-floor flat. I also want a room that has a common wall with your neighbour, Mrs. Rodriques. How else am I to scare her?”
“Scare her?” I was beginning to sound like an echo.
“That’s right.” She snapped her fingers. “Which reminds me: I’m expecting some luggage this evening, six cases of it. I call it my ghost equipment. I’ll ask the freight company to deliver it to this flat.”
“Wait a minute!” I got to my feet, taken aback at the way things were moving. “This is going too fast-”
She stared me in the eye. “Life’s like that, Antao.” She said quietly. “You have a choice: continue to live the way you have, quietly, and with no risks involved. Or take a chance, let me move in with you for four weeks, and watch your life change for the better.” Her gaze was pure flint. “Decide.”
I was still uncertain. “I’ll be working during the day…”
She nodded. “Lock your valuables in your own bedroom. Of course, you can’t lock everything away while I’m here, so if it makes you feel better, I’ll give you a cash deposit of twenty thousand – refundable when my work is complete. That ought to cover anything I steal, misuse or break.”
I had the grace to look embarrassed. “This is all happening so fast-” I stammered.
She cut me off. She was getting quite good at it. “I’ll be on your doorstep tomorrow morning, 7 sharp, before the neighbours are awake, with my baggage. Try to make up your mind by that time.”
I’d already decided I wanted to give it a try, so I shifted all my valuables into the room I used as a bedroom, and locked it by 7 the following morning.
She turned up with her six cases, as advertised, and promptly walked into the other bedroom. Examining it, she pronounced it fit for her needs as it had a common wall with Mrs. Rodrigues. I had no spare bed, so there was only a folding mattress in one corner for her use. I showed her the toilet and shower, and handed her two keys, one to her new room, and one to the main door. She would have her meals outside. Just before I left to work, Cecilia asked me to take her next door, to introduce her to Mrs. Rodriques…
The next thing of import that happened was two days later when, returning from work, I noticed a padlock on Mrs. Rodriques’ main door. I was stunned. In all the years I had lived here, I had never seen the old widow venture out into the open, not even to Church. Everything she needed was delivered to her door. What did this mean?
Suspecting this to be the result of Cecilia’s efforts, I quickly let myself into my flat. The door to her room lay open. She was squatting on the mattress, sorting out her tools. I stared at the equipment on the floor: coils of insulated wire, extensions cords and sockets, at least four mini-speakers, an amplifier, directional mikes, a bottle of some chemical.
“What is all this stuff?” I breathed.
“The tools of my trade.” She said, selecting pliers. “Oh, Mrs. Rodrigues will be calling you the day after. She wants to hand you a Vacate-notice.”
“What?” I exclaimed. “You’re not serious?” And when she nodded, grinning, I had to ask: “How? How did you do it?”
“Years ago, when you were just a child, someone committed suicide in her flat.” That startled me. What suicide? She went on: “This was information shared by your mother with her sister, my mother, at the time. Because of your sensitive nature, your parents never divulged this to you. But my mother told me the story when I was a girl and quite naturally when I met Mrs. Rodriques, I just happened to mention how brave I thought she was, living all alone in a place where a troubled young man took his own life so many years ago. The old lady was taken aback, said she had never been told about this. Naturally, I apologized, saying I hoped this would not upset the poor thing in any way… And then last night, she says she heard vague noises, almost as if someone was weeping…” She shrugged. “She tells me she didn’t sleep all night.”
I stared, dazed. Ghost tactics! Scare out the tenants, one by one. What could not be done by angry words or years of persuasion was being achieved by the use of a more powerful force: psychology. I felt my hopes rising suddenly. This might actually work…
“You might get some complaints from your tenants about drilling noises.” She pointed to a hole in the wall. “I had to drill that to insert the wire. Since the building’s going to come down anyway, I’m sure you won’t mind how many holes I make.”
“That’s good, because I have to make another one, in your kitchen. This one will go through your ceiling, to open out on the kitchen floor of the flat occupied by Naik and his family. I’m aiming for the hole to open under cover of the kadappa platform, close to the wall. Now that word of the suicide story has gotten around, it should be interesting to see what transpires when the Naik family members see blood oozing out from under their kitchen storage cabinets.”
My eyes opened wide. “Blood?”
“One last thing: you don’t work on Saturday, do you? I suggest you take the weekend off; go stay with your friends. Once these weird things start happening, tenants are going to want to meet the landlord. If he isn’t around to reassure them, panic will set in.” She smiled. “And that precisely is what I’m counting on.”
I stayed the weekend with a cousin, spent most of it wining and dining and engaged in idle chatter with his social circle. We had fun but my mind was focused on the riches that were coming my way once the building was emptied of its tenants and could be handed over to a builder. It looked like it was only a matter of time now.
Monday was a working day and I could have gone to the office directly from my cousin’s place, but I was anxious to see how far Cecilia had progressed. How many more tenants had she managed to scare over the last forty-eight hours? It was strange how after waiting so patiently for all these years, time suddenly seemed of such essence now. But then before there had been no hope, and now Cecilia had suddenly appeared as if in answer to a prayer I had not known I was making.
I walked up to my flat. It was not yet 7, and I was not sure if Cecilia would be awake. It depended on how late she had been working, I thought with a malicious chuckle. The laughter abruptly died on my lips, and my step faltered. The padlock on Mrs. Rodriques’ door was gone. She had come back.
I stared at it dumbly, not understanding what this might mean. Cecilia, I thought. She would know. It could be a very simple explanation. Maybe the old woman had forgotten something and had come back for it. Some clothes, bank certificates…
I unlocked my door. Rodriques must have been listening, because I heard the door-bolt being drawn back and then she stepped out of her flat. “Hey, where’s your cousin?” She demanded. “She owes me four thousand rupees!”
That stopped me in my tracks. “Four thousand rupees?”
“Yes. She said that your birthday was over the weekend and she wanted to give you a surprise party with lots of music and noise, and she didn’t want me to be inconvenienced by it all and that she would pay me to spend four days at a hotel.” She put her hands on her hips. “I want to talk to her.”
So do I, I thought, feeling blood beginning to pound in my ears. What had she done? I flung open the door and rushed into her room, determined to raise hell. But the room was empty. Empty that it, except for two things: a big drill, on the floor, and the extension cord trailing away under the mattress. I stared at it then pulled the mattress aside.
My breath caught in my chest as I stared at the hole in the floor. The bloody woman had drilled a huge hole in my floor! If this was one of her ‘ghostly’ pranks, she had gone too-
It was then that I realized what lay beneath my flat.
Time seemed to stand still as I sank to my knees and with a torch, shone the beam through the hole into the shop below.
I could only stare, stunned beyond all measure. Cecilia had robbed the jewellery store below my flat.