Plastic ink and liquid paper, Precious tools for today's writer, Strings of black on a field of white, Typing words till sunrise. Letter and words are bricks and mortar, Wheels to carry the story further. Till the last full stop has been entered, Wont stop, wont sleep in this venture.
The 18th Man is India's first online serialized novel. A chapter will be posted on the Facebook page www.facebook.com/the18thman every Friday and Tuesday at 6 P.M. IST. The following is the first chapter of the novel, which is technically a science fiction thriller. New York City, 11 : 13 P.M.
Arthur Wallace took a deep breath and opened the door. He sighed in relief. The alarm didn’t go off. Now only if the next three doors were just as easy.
Tiptoeing across the tiled floor of the bank’s back office, Arthur reached another, far more imposing door. He would have to break the lock in under five minutes. He glanced at his watch. Damn it, just over half an hour left.
As beads of sweat trickled down his forehead despite the frigid air conditioning, Arthut Wallace’s mind was racing. The fingers were stubby, he thought angrily. And he was pretty sure the ears weren’t as sharp as they should have been. Thankfully though, the legs seemed to compensate. Yes, he thought, surprisingly fast legs.
There was a small beep. For the first time that day, Arthur smiled. 36 million dollars awaited him.
Just then he heard – in a muffled way, he suspected – a cry behind him. Whizzing around, he saw a security officer peering at him through the peep hole in the door across the room.
Keep calm, he reminded himself. Lift the stupid, heavy arm and wave. Gently.
The officer’s eyes went wide, and he began yelling vehemently.
The legs carried him across the next two corridors. The locks weren’t a problem anymore. He merely shot them open. Stealth was no longer an option.
Arthur checked his watch as he panted down a flight of stairs to the basement. Less than 20 minutes left. He had to hurry. After reaching the basement, he headed towards the server room. The schematics of the floor was imprinted in his head. Actually his mind, he thought wryly. Pulling out a USB, he got down to work. As his fingers clumsily pulled out wires and plugged in cables, he could hear the sound of footsteps. They were coming for him. They’d be here any minute. He had to decide on what to do.
Use any means necessary, he had been told. He might have to.
“Hey, whoever you are, stop what you’re doing RIGHT NOW!” the security officer bellowed from the stairs. Arthur took a few deep breaths. He would have to get it right. He stopped what he was doing, and stepped forward. “Don’t shoot, please!” he cried.
The officer, followed by two others, entered the basement, pointing their guns at him warily. “Who the hell are you? And what are you doing here?” they asked. In four years of service, they’d never had such a break in.
Arthur’s face began to quiver. “I need help…”he started, chocking as he said the words. “I – I cant remember how I got here. I was sleep walking…and then…oh god, where am I?”
Two of the guns were slowly lowered. The man with the third gun took his eyes off him. Big mistake. In a flash, Arthur gunned down all three men with a shot each. That would give him more time. He checked his watch. 10 minutes. Might just be enough.
He checked the progress on his laptop. Most of the server’s encryptions had been broken. Now all that remained was uploading the needed files. Just as a quarter of the files were uploaded, however, an alarm sounded.
Oh great, Arthur thought. They’ve called the cops. Now this would get interesting. Thankfully, there was just five minutes left. It would all be over by then.
As squad cars came to a halt outside the New York branch of Goldman Sachs, police officers ran across the lobby, yelling at the receptionist to clear the place. “There’s a madman up there, and he’s armed!” they snarled.
One minute to go. Arthur inspected the laptop one last time. All the files had been uploaded. Mission accomplished. He was relieved it was all over.
“We’ve got the entire place locked down, sir,” an officer reported to the man in charge. “We’ll get this son of a bitch. He’s got nowhere to go.”
“Let’s be careful though,” the man replied, “we don’t wanna face a desperate man with a loaded gun. It could get messy.”
It wouldn’t. Arthur chose the corner of the basement, and sat against the wall, eagerly looking at his watch. Half a minute left. 20 seconds. 10 seconds.
He’d be back home now. The stupid contract would be completed. He’d never have to work for the rest of his life.
But nothing happened. The basement remained where it was, and Arthur opened his eyes to see the servers humming around him. Oh shit, he thought. Now he could panic.
Stuffing his stubby fingers into his pocket clumsily, Arthur tried several times till he managed to pull out his phone. Dialling the captain, he spoke, trying to remain as calm as possible.
“It’s – it’s not working!” he squealed. “It’s 11: 46 – 11: 47 now, and – and it’s still not happened. Cops are swarming all over, and I’ve already killed three men. I need to get out, captain!”
The voice at the end of the line was calm and soothing. “Don’t worry, it might be off by a few minutes.” It was reassuring. Arthur reasoned. Maybe his watch was fast.
“All you have to do is stay calm. Panicking will affect everything. Stay still, take a deep breath. You’ll be over with it in a second. Besides,” the voice said cheerfully, “I’m looking at your cheque right now. 6 million dollars. Enough for a lifetime.”
Arthur smiled, realizing that he’d needlessly panicked. A part of him still heard the yells and shouts emerging from the corridor outside. They were closing in on him. But it would be fine. Everything would be fine.
He closed his eyes, and took a deep breath. After what seemed like an eternity, he opened them. Instinctively his hand reached for his gun. Instinctively the cops fired a dozen shots at him. Arthur Wallace spent the last second of his lifetime, wondering how things went wrong…
Chennai, 10 : 10 P.M.
His eyes followed his mother as she paced from the kitchen to the dining table. He’d have to play his cards well. That meant spending less time looking at her and more at his textbook. It’d be difficult, but he was experienced enough to pull it off. Dinner was served, followed by a lecture session from his father. He took it all the right way. By the time it was 10:30, both his parents were tired and heading for the bedroom.
“You sure you’ll be fine?” his mother asked one last time. “You sure you don’t want me to make you some more coffee?”
He glanced at the clock. No way. “No thanks, mom,” he said, smiling softly.
The door slowly swung close. He waited to hear the click. Click. He waited to hear the air conditioner switching on. Hmmm. It was on. He waited for some chuckling and a few stray conversations. The second hand kept ticking away. It would be tight. He’d have to take Carter Road. It was one way. He checked his pocket. He had just enough for a policeman. Drinks would have to be on Kevin.
He paused. The hall was still. No sound. Slowly his feet touched the ground, and without sticking to it, hopped towards the balcony. The door slowly swung open, the grill was unlocked, the adjacent wall pipe was used. By the time his father placed his large arm around his mother, Ralston Davies had sprinted up to the main road, searching for an auto that would take him to Dublin. The club, not the city.
“You made it!” Kevin squealed as Ralston got out of the auto. “Yup, but bad news buddy, tonight’s gonna be on you.”
Kevin nodded his head cheerfully. “If that’s the price for your presence, so be it!” Ralston smiled. After an entire day’s worry and over three hours of planning in the evening, he’d finally made it. He’d witness the biggest all night rave in Bangalore. For free.
Along with a couple of friends, some drunk, others discreetly pulling their tiny skirts down, Ralston entered the club. Within a few minutes, he was tipsy. By the end of the hour, he was yelling along the lyrics to a pop song. Life was good.
The Crime Scene Investigation unit spread out, making sure the basement was cordoned off and all evidence documented. Half a dozen squad cars were posted outside the building with their lights still flashing. Detective Stanley Cooper made his way through the corridors, wondering how Goldman Sachs became a venue for multiple shootings and a break in. He signaled to the officers at the crime scene, and they duly let him through. He glanced at the three dead security officers, and shook his head sadly. But then his eyes rested on Arthur Wallace’s face. And he almost dropped his cup of coffee.
“What the – alright, get me Detective Bennet!” he yelled, turning to one of the officers. They rushed to make the call. Half an hour later, Bennet pushed his way through the crowd of officers, and reached the dead bodies.
“What’s the matter?” he asked Stanley. They were both familiar with dead bodies. But this time was different. Stanley was shaken. He pointed towards Arthur Wallace.
Bennet’s eyebrows were raised. “What the – he did it?” he asked incredulously.
Stanley shook his head, still unable to believe it.
“So he’s the one responsible for breaking into a high security office and gunning down three security officers,” Bennet declared, summarizing the case in the hope that it’d make some sense.
Stanley stared at Arthur Wallace’s black robe and white collar. He couldn’t accept it.
“This is ridiculous!” he snapped. “Why the hell would a priest break into an office and shoot three men to death? That too, Father Wallace?”
Ralston opened his eyes, and almost immediately his head began to throb. The image was blurry, but slowly the red wall and elaborately designed furniture pieces took proper shape. The heavy beige curtains thankfully shielded the sunlight from his eyes, giving the room a dim hue of gold. Thank god for the curtains, he thought. His head hurt. He shook his head. It didn’t make sense, he thought. He never had beige curtains in his room.
He groaned as he sat up in the bed. Fluffy bed. With fluffy pillows. A girl’s bed? Oh, a girl’s bed, he thought, as a delighted smile formed on his face. So what if he couldn’t remember any of it. It had happened. That’s all that mattered.
But where was she? He looked around. Did she leave for work, letting him sleep away? Unlikely. But then again, if she was the kind willing to sleep with him, not much would surprise him anymore.
Ralston got out of bed, and felt tired. He felt heavy. Much heavier than the last night. Alcohol could do that to you. He shuffled across the room, wondering where he was. He didn’t have any money, so he’d probably not get home right away. Maybe he could nick some from this girl’s house.
He opened the bed room and peered outside. He was on the first floor. Below was the hall of the house. He suddenly felt the need to urinate. Odd, he never felt his bladder so heavy before. The things that alcohol could do to a person, he thought.
Opening the adjacent toilet door, he entered and relieved himself. He felt weird for some reason, maybe because his head was throbbing.
He stood next to the wash basin, trying to stand still. His body was too heavy.
He splashed water on his face. His hands threw the water up, and his face jerked forward, wanting to be drenched. But then his eyes opened. The image, blurry at first, crystallized.
With an ear splitting yell, Ralston fell backwards and hit the wall. The pain didn’t register. Only the shock did. He stared at the mirror again.
He was looking at a middle aged man, with slight wrinkles near his eyes and white strands streaming all over his full head of hair. Beige colored skin with two small fair spots at the bridge of his nose and flabby cheeks that drooped over a strong jawline. The face stared back, in equal surprise, at Ralston.
Woah, he thought. What the hell had he drunk last night?