Aman Malhotra peeped through the eyehole on the door. The corridor of the fourth floor was empty, just like it had been twenty minutes ago. What could change in twenty minutes? Not much, maybe. Or a lot, perhaps. He wasn’t sure of too much these days.
Over the past six months he’d grown obsessed with the Falerios, particularly Mrs Donnae Falerio, who lived on the floor above. His ears had gained a degree of sharpness in all the time he’d spent as a recluse in this rented apartment, and he was sure of this: the Falerios, who lived on the fifth floor of Harmony Cooperative Housing Society, were sharpening their fangs for him.
They were monsters who had crossed over to the human realm. Even now, he could hear their voices ringing with malevolence.
About three years ago, when Aman was twenty-four years old, he landed in Mumbai from Gurgaon where his father owned a car rental business that had been adversely affected by the onslaught of multinational cab aggregators which ran their fleets through apps. Like so many others, he had come to this city to become a film star. He had done some groundwork for it, taking acting classes and working out in a gym.
Aman’s physique had the bulk of the north; and he preferred the gym to akharas as he wanted to be an action hero with six-pack abs, not a pehelwan doing the dhobi pachad on his opponents in a ring full of mud. He had the muscle, yes, but so did everyone else who was chasing the Bollywood dream in this city. What was worse? His dream was crashing at a maddening pace.
He couldn’t think about all that right now though, he needed to focus on the Falerios. They had long hidden their true selves and put on a nice family facade for everyone else in the society, but they couldn’t fool him now. He knew who they really were. He only needed a close-up picture of those monsters in their true avatars to prove it.
Now that he could hear the Falerio kids on the stairs, it seemed like a good moment to clinch the evidence. It could be done, yes. Four simple steps would get him through the job.
Unlock the door. Climb up to their floor. Click the photographs. Get back home. And, oh yes, turn off the flash. He wouldn’t want them to see him. And then, the police would know. The newspapers would know. The whole fucking city would know. He counted off the four simple steps on the tips of his fingers again. But he needed to prepare for this mission.
Aman rushed to his bedroom. He jumped over a pile of clothes and pulled open the drawer in his cupboard. A silver-plated box – his “Vampire Defence Kit” – with an intricate carving on its lid, glittered in the dark. Now to open the box he needed a key that he’d kept safely in ... damn.
Where was the key last night? In his pocket, yes. He had felt it with his fingers time and again until the whisky had taken over and he had collapsed on the floor. Pockets, yes. Lots of them. He had worn the faded six-pocket jeans last night. He rushed into the kitchen, straight to the washing machine. He opened the dryer and found nothing. He went back to the bedroom and saw that the unwashed six-pocket jeans were folded neatly and placed on the top shelf of the cupboard.
His life had turned topsy-turvy ever since the Falerios had shifted to this building. He crumpled the denim in his hands, trying to feel for the metal of the key. The jeans reeked of his sweat. And the whisky. He could drink a lot – none of these Mumbai mulgas he’d met so far could match his capacity. He found the key in the deepest pit of one of the pockets and inserted it into the box.
He lifted the lid of the Vampire Defence Kit, which he had purchased from an amazing online store. He gazed at the wooden stake. This was not the time for hesitation, he told himself sternly. This mission demanded action. Stealth. And renaissance. No, no. Reconnaissance. He cursed his confused state of mind.
The kit had other tools: a vial of holy water and bulbs of garlic that would keep him safe. These he would hold in his left hand. In his right hand would be his phone – to click pictures, of course. He walked to the main door of his flat.
When had he stepped out last? He couldn’t even remember. He only hoped the layout of the building would come back to him once he was out of his apartment. He unlatched the door. The light from the corridor revealed the dark circles under his eyes.
Outside his apartment the interiors of the building seemed different. Had the walls been painted with a darker colour? And the lamps in the corridors weren’t as bright as they used to be. He smiled to himself. The patterns were elementary for anyone who wanted to see. These monsters, they thrived in the dark, didn’t they?
And Mrs Falerio, she’d been elected as the general secretary of Harmony CHS at the last AGM, where everyone ate free samosas and sipped on cold drinks while fighting with everyone else. Now she did as she pleased and made these minor changes that she thought no one would notice. But he knew her dark secret, and he was going to tell the world about it.
He put his back against the wall and moved slowly up the stairs. The tiles were cold against his naked feet. He strained his ears and listened. The two batlings were out there. One tiny step after another he climbed, until he reached the threshold of the fifth floor. He opened the camera on his phone. Then, he peeked upstairs.
Vessels clanged in the Falerio kitchen. He could smell it all. Mrs Falerio was garnishing the meat chops. And the batlings were sitting in the corridor, drawing pictures on yellow chart paper. Aman pointed the camera at the little batlings.
Don’t let them see you, he thought. These were vampires of the new world, after all. They had evolved. You could see their reflections in mirrors. And their blood wasn’t blue. All of that only made good cinema.
Now, through the lens of his camera, Aman could see the sharp fangs of the little batlings.
He waited, his thumb trembling over the camera button. Seconds passed. He was sweating and his knees ached. The batlings scribbled with their crayons in furious frenzy. And then the little boy and the girl both stood up and howled for their mother. The moment that Aman was waiting for had arrived. He clicked the red button on his phone. And a flash lit up the floor!
The Falerio kids swiftly turned their necks to look at him. He stood there, frozen. Turn off the flash, what step was that? Five? Fuck. Now the batlings would come flying down the stairs and sink their teeth into his neck. He imagined dying there, suspended between the fourth floor and the fifth, with an entire family of vampires feasting on his body. They would rip out his flesh and drink his blood.
But even if he had led a meaningless life, his death would serve a greater purpose. The truth about the Falerios would be out in the open. The cops would certainly investigate his death, and the photograph on his phone would lead them to the demons who had killed him. He would be remembered as a martyr who’d saved humanity from certain destruction.
The Falerio kids clapped and jumped up and down. Then they rushed towards him, and Aman knew this was the end of his life. He tried to turn around and run down the stairs, but his heels seemed to be glued to the floor. His scream was blocked by a growing lump in his throat. But the batlings weren’t flying after all. They ran at breakneck speed but stopped when their mother called out.
“Stop right there you little monsters!” Mrs Falerio said.
She tightened the knot around her robe as she stepped out of their home. Beads of sweat dripped down her neck, down into her cleavage. She caught Aman’s gaze. His eyes darted towards the floor. Mrs Falerio used two fingers to pull the neckline of her robe higher, but he could also see that she wasn’t annoyed; no, not at all. Her eyes were red. A knife gleamed in her hand.
Aman cursed himself for not bringing with him a fistful of rice. Legend had it that vampires were obsessed with counting, and someone’s best chance to throw a vampire off their tail was to sprinkle a fistful of rice in its path; the monster was certain to get distracted and begin counting the grains of rice.
Right now, though, Aman only reaffirmed with his eyes what he already knew, which was that Mrs Falerio had such fair skin with such smooth texture that any man would fall head over heels in love with her mesmerising beauty. He wondered what it would be like to touch her. Aman quickly reminded himself of the secret to her beauty. It was blood. For these monsters human blood was a source of great nourishment, with its high content of proteins and lipids.
“Aman?” Mrs Falerio said.”What brings you here?”
“I needed some ... garlic.”
“Dear lord,” Mrs Falerio said. “I’m quite sure I don’t have any.”
Excerpted with permission from Mortuary Tales, Kashif Mashaik, Westland.
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