SMOKING CAN KILL
Fiction Short Story
From my Creative Writing Archives:
I wrote this story more than 15 years ago.
Those were my nascent days of creative writing when I was trying my hand at different genres of prose and I wrote this rather amateurish “thriller” under a pseudonym for a competition and, wonder of wonders, this story won a prize.
That’s why this story remains one of my favourites.
Do tell me if you like it.
And do remember to transport yourself back in time to the early 1990s – an era when modern gadgets like cell phones and laptops did not exist and internet had not yet made its appearance on the scene, at least in
I wasn’t nervous at all.
I always make my plans alone and with the greatest of care.
Murder is a serious business and you cannot afford to be careless.
For Amrita I had chosen Ricin.
Yes, for Amrita I had chosen Ricin – the deadliest of biotoxins.
Six thousand times more lethal than cyanide.
Ten thousand times more deadly than cobra venom.
Impossible to detect.
No trace and no tell-tale symptoms.
Safe for the murder and certain death for the victim.
Ideal for Amrita.
Stupid and unsuspecting Amrita.
How easy she had made it for me.
On Friday evening she would unsuspectingly smoke the specially prepared cigarette I would offer her.
And then, she would take the night flight to
Delhi to catch the early morning flight to Ladakh on Saturday and begin shooting her ad film in the high Himalayas.
On Sunday the Ricin would begin to act on her.
First, she would experience a slight shortness of breath, a bit of a cough which was nothing abnormal at those altitudes.
Most likely, the workaholic that she was, she’d pop in a pill for flu, feel okay, and continue working.
Suddenly late on Sunday night she’d be in distress – high fever, severe cough, vomiting, respiratory failure and circulatory collapse.
By Monday morning Amrita would be dead.
Of course there will be a post-mortem at some remote hospital in Ladakh.
The Diagnosis: High Altitude Pulmonary Edema.
HAPE, as they call it over there.
Quite a familiar illness at those high altitudes where oxygen is scarce – especially for plainsmen who rush up and overexert themselves.
“Sad,” they would all say, “she should have acclimatized herself properly.”
It was as simple as that.
A precise threshold dose of Ricin which was just enough to initiate the cytotoxic action.
An overdose would be disastrous – she’d probably drop dead on my doorstep.
And an under-dose would be exercise in futility.
If I waited, it may be too late, before I could get such an opportunity again.
My husband Mohan would return from his business trip on Tuesday, and life would be normal once again.
I looked at the calculations in my notebook.
The exact concentration, the timing, the exposure route, delivery mechanism.
I cross-checked everything, there was no room for error.
The work of perfectionist – everything would happen like clockwork like it had happened before.
Each of my previous murders were a work of art and an exercise in subtlety.
Amrita’s cigarette was ready.
Specially processed with a carefully calibrated dose of Ricin.
The weight of a single grain of salt.
The precise amount that would manifest itself after a 72 hour incubation period.
I put the cigarette in the pack and placed it next to the ashtray on the table.
Suddenly a thought crossed my mind.
Suppose she didn’t smoke the cigarette?
I had plenty of back-ups my sleeve.
Aflatoxin, for instance.
A drop of aflatoxin in her tea or drink.
Three days to certain death due to severe jaundice followed by irreparable cirrhosis of the liver.
Or maybe I’d give her a face tissue.
To freshen up before she left.
A lavender scented face tissue laced with zombie powder – Tetrodotoxin.
Trans-dermal delivery through her rosy cheeks.
But that would be a last resort.
Tetradoxin was too dangerous.
Dr. Bhatia had dropped dead even before the train reached Dadar.
The tabloids had said: “Massive Heart Attack” as the cause of death.
Just imagine – that’s the state of forensics out here.
You can get away with anything.
Amrita. Ajay and Dr. Bhatia.
The three persons who knew the one secret I had kept safely hidden from my husband.
Only Amrita remained.
She was the only surviving link to the dangerous skeleton I had kept safely locked up in the cupboard of my heart.
I was just 19 then.
The last year of college.
Moments of indiscretion in the flush of youth.
A few lapses, and a peccadillo that cost me dear.
It had been easy to kill Dr. Bhatia and Ajay.
No pangs of conscience – both of them were just crude blackmailers.
One wanted my money, the other wanted my body.
But with Amrita, it was different.
She had been my closest friend.
Amrita knew things about me that no one else did, not even my mother.
It was Amrita on whose shoulders I had wept when Ajay ditched me, and Amrita too had wept.
She was the one who had arranged everything, and held me and tried to calm me when Dr. Bhatia performed the clandestine abortion.
After college was over, she suddenly disappeared to
for higher studies and we lost contact. America
Till she surprised me in the lobby of the Taj Hotel the other day, cigarette dangling from her lips.
Amrita looked vivacious, in tight jeans and a close-fitting T-shirt.
“It’s been a long time,” she said.
“Eighteen years,” I said. “Let’s go home.
She looked around my luxurious flat on
Marine Drive, and from the shelf, picked up the framed photograph of my husband and me.
“Your husband. He’s very handsome.”
“Yes. His name is Mohan. He’s gone abroad on a business trip.”
“Kids?” asked Amrita.
Two. A boy and a girl. They’re studying in Mussoorie.”
“You are really lucky, Anu. You’ve got everything and I’m still struggling,” Amrita paused for a moment, and then she suddenly smiled and said, “Okay. Let’s celebrate. Let’s get stoned.”
“You still do hash?” I asked, incredulous.
“Once in while,” Amrita said.
She took out a cigarette pack and small pouch from her purse and started meticulously preparing a joint.
I went inside to get the soft drinks.
When I returned I instantly sensed the sweet smell of marijuana.
Amrita had already lit up.
She held out the cigarette pack, “Come Anu, I’ve made one for you.”
“No,” I said
“Come on, Anu. At least have a drag from mine – for old times’ sake!”
“No,” I said firmly.
I had vowed to never do it again.
I can never forget that dreadful period of my life.
Amrita, Ajay and me.
Lying stoned for days.
Doing all sorts of things till one day I suddenly came crashing down to reality when I discovered that I was pregnant.
It was terrible.
The clandestine abortion.
The trauma I had to undergo.
I was determined not to mess up my life again.
Amrita kept taking deep drags on her cigarette and as she got stoned, she talked about herself, her divorce, her success in the ad film-maker and then she suddenly asked me, “He knows?”
“Mohan. Your husband. Does he know?”
“What?” I asked.
“About you and Ajay?”
“No. Let’s have dinner,” I said, trying to change the topic.
“That quack did a good job, didn’t he? Bhatia – Dr. Bhatia – that’s his name isn’t it?” she slurred, and said teasingly, “I’m going to tell your husband. There’s no place for secrets between husband and wife.”
I shuddered to think what would happen if she told Mohan everything about my past life that I had so carefully kept hidden.
My world would come crashing down.
The fairy-tale marriage, the “social triumph” (as my mother put it), the opulent lifestyle, the flourishing career, the perfect husband and lovely children studying in the best boarding school in the country – everything would fall apart like a pack of cards.
I could not allow Amrita to meet my husband at any cost.
She was too much of a blabbermouth.
Especially when she was drunk or stoned she was sure to blurt out everything.
Before she left, Amrita said, “Anu, I am dying to meet your cute husband.”
“Not this time,” I said, “Mohan is returning on Tuesday.”
“No sweat, I’ll meet him on my way back to the States. In fact, I’ll stay with you in your lovely house and we’ll all have a good time together, okay?” Amrita said.
“Okay,” I said.
Amrita gave me a hug and walked to the door.
“Hey, you’ve forgotten your joint,” I said, picking up the half open cigarette pack. It contained just one cigarette – the joint she had prepared for me which I did not smoke.
“Let it be,” Amrita said, “No point carrying it around. I’ll smoke it when I drop in tomorrow evening on my way to the airport. I love to be high when I fly,” she said with a wink.
Suddenly she stopped at the door, turned around and said, “You’ve met Ajay?”
“No,” I replied, frozen. I recovered my composure and said, “I lost contact with both you and Ajay ever since you left for
after college.” America
“It’s funny,” Amrita said, “I unexpectedly ran into Ajay at Seattle airport sometime last year and he told me he was relocating back to Mumbai and that he would track you down.”
“Well, he didn’t,” I said firmly.
What Amrita did not know was that Ajay had indeed showed up in Mumbai and that I had killed him.
“Strange. He’s just vanished, disappeared into thin air. Now we’ll have to track him down when I come back next week,” Amrita said, as she left.
It was at that moment I decided to kill Amrita.
Bhatia was dead.
Ajay was dead.
Once Amrita was dead, the ghosts of my past would never ever haunt me.
On Friday evening afternoon I took half a day off and hurried home from my boutique to get ready for the evening with Amrita.
I opened the door with the latch-key and was stunned to find Mohan sitting on the sofa.
“Hi,” my husband said casually, “come home early?”
“What are you doing here?” I asked, “You were supposed to come back on Tuesday.”
“I cut short my trip.”
“But you could have called me.”
“I took a last minute decision and everything was so uncertain. In fact I just reached an hour back and wanted to surprise you,” Mohan said.
Then, looking a bit irritated, he said, “Anu, I thought you would be happily surprised to see me.”
“Of course I am happy to see you, Mohan. I’m sorry I was rude,” I said.
I sat on the sofa and it was only then that I smelt a trace of that sweet aroma.
Instinctively, my eyes went to the ashtray and I saw the smoked cigarette butt.
It was the joint I had spiked with Ricin.
The open empty cigarette packet lay next to the ashtray.
An indescribable fear drilled into me.
“Who smoked that cigarette?” I asked.
“I did,” Mohan said.
“Oh, My God…” I barely managed to whisper.
“By the way, Anu, since when have you started smoking? And such an expensive imported brand?” he asked.
“Not me. My friend. She forgot it here last evening,” I stammered.
“Friend?” he asked.
“You don’t know her.”
“Amrita Khare?” he asked.
I was stunned. I felt as if I had been pole-axed.
I stared dumbstruck at Mohan.
“She rang up just before you came.”
“Yes. She said she won’t be coming today. Something important has come up. But she said she would definitely come over on her way back to the States next week.”
I felt a sense of relief.
And then my mind became clear all of a sudden and I was panic stricken.
Mohan had smoked that cigarette but he did not look even a bit stoned.
Maybe the Ricin had neutralized the hash.
Oh. My God!
There was nothing I could do except watch my husband die in front of my eyes.
It was terrible, unimaginable mental agony.
The day passed.
Mohan did not die.
In fact, he seemed healthier than ever.
The Ricin hadn’t worked.
I wondered what had gone wrong with my calculations.
As for Amrita, I will have to think of something different.
Maybe a nondiscernible microbioinoculator.
A tiny scratch at the airport on her arrival.
Death in three hours – multiorgan failure in her hotel bed.
She would be dead before she could meet Mohan.
So with Ajay dead, Dr. Bhatia dead, once I killed Amrita, my secret would be buried forever.
On Tuesday morning I open the newspaper.
The news item is tucked away inside the newspaper.
It is a small item: “Award winning internationally famous Ad Film Maker Amrita Khare (38) dies in Ladakh. Ad-world shocked at sudden death. Post-mortem indicates Lung Failure due to High Altitude Pulmonary Edema High Altitude Pulmonary Edema”.
My mind goes into a tizzy.
Mohan smokes the Ricin laced cigarette but Amrita dies.
Puzzling, isn’t it?
Strange chilling thoughts start perambulating in my brain.
I put a stop to my train of thoughts.
It is best not to delve too much.
Let bygones be bygones.
It is time to forget the past and get on with my life.