Sunday, November 22, 2015

Fiction - Coffee Break

There I was, minding my own business, slurping my Java Chip Frappuccino and staring at the Kindle in my hand, lost in a medieval fantasy far removed from the sweltering streets of New Delhi -- when she walked in. It was the sound of her heels on the wooden floor that made me glance at the woman, but it was her striking beauty that made my eyes follow her to the faux-leather couch a few metres away.

My brain, jerked back to reality from the walls of Winterfell, registered her silky voice as the barista took her order for a cappuccino grande, non-fat. She laughed as the man behind the counter asked her name a second time. "Sheila," she said. "Sheila, with an e and an i." She looked back and caught my eye; her wide smile partially obscured by strands of thick, black hair. I held her gaze and smiled back.

She was in her 30s and dressed for the Indian summer, teaming a white lace shirt with blue palazzo pants and a black stone necklace that matched the sparkle in her eyes. She was the prettiest woman in the room and way out of my league.

The next thing I knew, Sheila was asking me something, but I didn’t quite catch it.
"Are you alone? May I join you?"
"Well, sure"
"Good! I need to speak to someone," she said, easing into the seat next to mine.

Before I could regain my composure, Sheila burst into laughter. I stared, nonplussed, until she pointed to the side of her coffee cup where the barista had scribbled 'Sila'.
"They misspell it all the time," she said. "I've been called everything from Seela to Shayla."
"Oh, that’s nothing. I’ve been called Bony."
"Really? How awful," she said. "What’s your name?"
"Ah, it doesn’t make sense till you know my name. I’m Tony."
"And I'm Sheila, although you knew that already."

I smiled sheepishly as she rummaged through her handbag, pulling out a blue silk scarf and a small package wrapped in a newspaper.

"Tony, are you married?"
I stared at Sheila, too startled to respond. Beautiful women don't strike up a conversation with strangers in public places. At least not in India. Even if they do, they don’t ask invasive questions to break the ice. If I had done the same thing to a woman, she would have probably told me I’m a creep and left the place in a huff.
"Just confirming. I noticed you don’t wear a wedding ring. It's OK if you don’t want to talk about it."
"No, I was just a bit taken aback. I am not married."
"Don't mind me. My friends tell me I’m weird and ask the first thing that pops into my mind."
I smiled. But she didn't smile back, and pursed her lips instead.
Sheila leaned towards me, and dropped her voice to a whisper.
"The thing is I've just killed my husband."
"I couldn't take it anymore. I stabbed him."
She unwrapped the package in front of her, revealing a kitchen knife, its blade stained red with blood.
"I need your help," she said.

I stood up. I didn't know what to do. No one else seemed to have heard Sheila. Her words had been lost in the babble of caffeine addicts. I could make out the strains of Audrey Hepburn's "Moon River" in the background. Over at the next table, a pair of young lovers was lost in each other's eyes. A young man hunched over a laptop with headphones plugged in. At the back, giggling schoolgirls were busy smearing birthday cake on the face of their victim.

I looked at Sheila. Her words had shattered my perfect Saturday afternoon. It couldn't be. This was a joke. It had to be. Perhaps it was part of a TV show. I remembered switching channels once and chancing upon pranksters preying on unsuspecting people, telling them outrageous things to gauge their reaction. I looked around, hoping to spot TV cameras or spy cams or anything suspicious. Nothing.

Sheila was looking at me with her beautiful kohl-rimmed eyes. I sat down, my brain in overdrive, thoughts flying and connections being attempted and failing. I needed more information.

"Is this true?"
"But why are you here?"
"I wanted coffee. I couldn't think without a cup of coffee."
"You should go to the police."
"They'll arrest me."
"Obviously, you've murdered your husband."
"He deserved it. He was assaulting me."
"Why are you telling me this?"
"I need to tell somebody."
"Why the hell were you laughing earlier?"
"I don't know what to do. When I'm stressed out, I react in unexpected ways."
"What do you want from me?"
"To hide the body and give me an alibi."
"Dream on. I'm not crazy."

I picked up my Kindle and left, rushing out of the door and ignoring the security guard, who was holding his hand out for a tip. I crossed the road before I turned to steal a look.

She sat in the Starbucks cafe, sipping her coffee and staring out of the window. The blood stained knife lay next to her handbag, covered with her blue silk scarf.

This was crazy. This had to be weirdest thing that ever happened to me. And in a strange way, I found it thrilling. This was the most excitement I’d had in years. After we broke up, Priyanka had moved on with her life. She now lives in Mumbai with her husband and two-year-old son. I was stuck in a dead-end journalism job, a couple of dates which went nowhere, and now this mysterious woman wanted me to help cover up her husband's murder. Weirdly enough, it made me feel wanted. Do not judge me.

I returned to the café. She watched me as I walked back to my chair and sat down. Over at the next table, the young couple hadn't noticed my absence. The man twirled a strand of the woman’s hair, while she caressed his ears. The guy on the laptop was furiously typing something. The schoolgirls, finished with their merrymaking, were huddled up on the couch and talking animatedly.

I looked at Sheila. She had finished her cappuccino.
"Do you want another?"
"No, thank you"
"What do you want me to do?"
"Why did you come back?"
"I don't think you are the kind of person who goes about murdering people."
"Well, this is definitely my first."
"I think I'll help you."
"You will?"
"I've my car. We'll get rid of the body. And we'll go away to a new city and start over."
"Why should I go with you? We've only just met."
"Ah, you think that's creepy. Asking a stranger to get involved in a murder is way creepier."
"And why do you assume I want to go with you, just an hour after killing my husband."
"Do you want my help or not? We have to leave. We need to go to your house asap."
"No, we can't. I'm waiting for somebody."
"Ah, there he is."

Sheila got up to greet a bearded man in a T-shirt and jeans. He looked at me, smiled and held out his hand.
"Hi, I'm Rajesh, Sheila's husband."

As I stood there, speechless and unmoving, Sheila whispered something to him. Rajesh nodded and sat down, his eyes still on me.

"Please sit down, Tony," said Shiela.
"I can explain everything"
"Is he your husband?"
"So you didn't kill him?"
"And the blood on the knife?"
"Fake. Calm down. Everything's fine"
"Why did you tell me you stabbed him?"
"I'm sorry. The thing is…"

And Sheila explained it all. How she was a forensic psychologist delving into criminal minds. As part of her research, she spoke to random strangers at cafes and restaurants, analyzing their responses to potential situations that could involve breaking the law. Rajesh wasn't part of the study, but he helped her occasionally.

I was still having trouble taking all this in.
"You expect me to believe you go around telling people that you've killed your husband."
"Well, it's a different scenario each time - rob a bank, assault somebody, smuggle cocaine."
"And do people help each time?"
"They rarely do. It was a shot in the dark, and I didn't think you would agree to help."
"Wait a minute. You said yes?" said Rajesh, his smile waning.
"Well, yes. I'm sorry. I have no idea why I agreed. I'm a really nice guy if you get to know me."

Sheila leaned forward and clasped my hands.
"Why did you agree, Tony?"
"I don't know. I still can't believe it."
"You were ready to risk prison for me. Do you trust people so blindly?"
"You didn't seem like a bad person."
"A wise man once said that if you give your trust to a person who does not deserve it, you actually give him the power to destroy you."
"I've learned my lesson."
"Trust no one, Tony."
"That I won't. Not after this."
"I wish you the best in life. It was nice meeting you."

And with that, Sheila and her husband walked out of the café and out of my life. I sat there for a while, breathing in the aroma of coffee beans, and thought about what she had said. The sun was setting when I left, but I was ready to face the world again.

(This short story was originally written for the TOI Write India: Chetan Bhagat contest)
Creative Commons License
Coffee Break by Tony Tharakan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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Photo credit: I don't have a grinder :( via photopin (license)

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