A writer's hunt for a best-selling muse takes him on a crazy ride across the universe.
“I’m afraid there aren’t any Chefs available on such short notice” said the restaurant manager to Vikram.
“Not even one?” he asked.
“I’m sorry, Sir. Not even one.”
“But I’m desperate! I really need a chef for my book!”
“Pardon me, did you say you needed one for your book?”
“Yeah, I’m writing a book – a novel if you please, which takes an in-depth look into a chef’s life gone awry. It’s gonna make me millions! Since I don’t know anything about chefs, I thought it would be nice to do a bit of research on them. You know how any writer worth his salt is supposed to research his characters to make his writing more believable? It’s called 'getting under the skin of the character'--”
“You want to hire a ‘Grandioso’ chef- one who is sought after by the biggest restaurateurs in the business, for some lousy two-bit book? It’s preposterous!”
“What? It’s not like I won’t pay him. In fact, he can have one percent of the royalties from the book sales, and an honourable mention in the book, although I can’t guarantee that I’ll use his real name. Makes it seem more mysterious, you know?”
“I’m going! I’m going!”
As he walked away, Vikram was still as determined as ever to get his writing career off the ground. He believed that he had found the easiest gimmick to get rich quickly – a writer was always only one best-seller away from becoming a billionaire, after all. And even though he didn’t know much about writing, he believed that 'researching the character’ was absolutely essential. And since he was planning to write a mystery trilogy with a chef as its protagonist, he needed a chef!
Vikram looked around as he plodded on towards the bus stop. The street was chock-a-block with fancy restaurants with glass windows. His eyes lit up as he saw a sign on one such window. “Kitchen Help Wanted”, it read.
That amounts to a front row seat to a Chef’s performance, Vikram thought. What better place to observe a chef than in his kitchen.
“I hope you have the requisite experience for the position?” the manager asked him after the preliminaries were complete.
“I can boil eggs.” Vikram ventured.
“You’ve studied cooking at college, of course?”
“I boiled eggs when I was at college.” replied Vikram.
“I’m sorry, but you’re unsuitable--” the manager was interrupted midway by a voice from behind the kitchen door.
”Send him in,” the voice said.
“But Caesar, he doesn’t have the skills or the expe--” the manager began, but was stopped yet again.
“Just send him in!”
“You heard the boss.” The manager shook his head and pointed Vikram towards the kitchen.
Vikram opened the kitchen door and walked in to see a man in a Chef's hat chopping some vegetables on a slab. He strode out towards him and stuck out his hand in greeting.
“Hi, I'm Vikram. I saw your want ad outside and--”
“Tell me Vikram, can you boil eggs?”
“Done it all my life.”
“You’re hired,” Caesar said quickly.
Vikram scrutinized the kitchen. It was rectangular in shape and had cabinets at one end and washbasins at the other. A large marble slab encircled a pillar in the centre of the room where the major cooking-related activities seemed to take place. A bunch of wires were plugged into a switchboard near the washbasins. The other end of the wires vanished under a door to the side.
“Where is the rest of the staff?” Vikram enquired, looking around at the empty kitchen.
“What staff?” Caesar said distantly. He seemed to be busy scribbling in a small notebook he had just taken out.
“The cooking staff. You couldn’t possibly run a restaurant kitchen with just two people, can you?”
“Oh, we manage to get by.” His scribbling intensified.
“How?” asked a bewildered Vikram.
“I suppose I’d better tell you all.”
Caesar walked across the room to the door and opened it. Vikram followed him and peered inside with anticipation.
Vikram tried to make sense of what Caesar was pointing at, but all he could see in the room was a bed. A pretty bed. A pretty pink bed covered with yellow polka dots. A pretty pink bed covered with yellow polka dots that was nailed to the ceiling. He was about to utter a bunch of words in Caesar's direction, mostly beginning with 'wh-', but he had to stop himself. It had come to his sudden notice that the bed had turned into a human form and had floated down to face him. Caesar thought for a moment, decided that no answer from Caesar would be good enough for him at this point, and promptly fainted.
When Vikram came to, he found himself lying on a bed in an unfamiliar room. He tried to recollect how he got there. He looked down at the bed and thought that it reminded him of something but he couldn't quite put his finger on it. He shrugged his shoulders and closed his eyes to go back to sleep. After all, he was tired and the bed was really comfortable. It wasn't just comfortable, he thought, it was in fact the most comfortable bed he had ever slept on. He was making a mental note to go and seek out the owner post-nap and find out where he could buy himself one, when he remembered.
Caesar heard the loud shriek followed by the even louder banging on the guest room door. He allowed himself a little smile before turning to his companion. “He's up. Let's get ourselves introduced.”
His companion floated mistily to the drawing room door and waited patiently as Caesar opened the door and asked Vikram to calm down. He wondered if Vikram would be able to help Caesar out. But then he remembered the others that had come before him. This would end the same way too, he thought. Horribly.
“Morphy, meet Vikram. Vikram, meet Morphy,” Caesar said with every bit of nonchalance he could muster. He always enjoyed these first meetings.
“What is tha-that thing?” squeaked Vikram, as he pointed an accusing finger at Morphy.
“He's an alien. And stop pointing, it's rude.” Caesar slapped Vikram's hand down.
“Nice to meet you, Vikram,” said Morphy.
“Uh,likewise,” was all Vikram could manage to splutter out.
"Maybe you should sit down."
Vikram looked at the bed nervously.
"Don't worry, that one's just a plain old regular bed." Caesar chuckled.
Reluctant, Vikram sat on the bed. I won't be able to trust any beds for a while, he thought, but was immediately conscious of what an absurd fear that was and tried to compose himself. He looked up at the alien and studied him properly for the first time. Morphy wasn't very tall, in fact he was probably a few inches shorter than him. He had an perfect, round face and an even more perfect spherical nose to complement it. The other 'human' features were pretty run-of-the-mill too. He was dressed in a simple but smart striped t-shirt and long oxymoronic shorts. Morphy could almost have passed as one of us, Vikram thought, if he didn't have just one eye. Of course, there was also the small matter of his skin being pink and yellow polka dotted and the fact that he can float.
Vikram was trying to sift through his limited encounters with science-fiction novels to remember whether Martians were supposed to be green or pink, when his thoughts were interrupted by Caesar.
“Let me try to tell you all. Again. Please try not to pass out this time.”
“It all started on April 20th, 2054. It was a bright and stormy night. With a full moon which was the cause of the brightness. I think I also saw a shooting star or two go by. Great set up, right?” Caesar began.
“Yes, it was. I should have known something big was going to happen to me that night. I was engrossed in perfecting my signature recipes when I heard something crash... wait, this doesn't feel right. A story like this deserves to be told--nay experienced--better! Morphy, prepare the time machine! We'll let Vikram see the events as they transpired that night in their full glory: in person.”
“I'm afraid the Sinetransmorgodor, or what you call the 'time machine', did not survive the milkshake incident. And since I cannot contact my planet anymore, the only recourse for us is to wait until your people invent inter-planetary travel so that I can ask the manufacturers to deliver the spare parts here.”
“How long will it take for us to invent it again?” Caesar asked with hopeful eyes.
“The same time as when I told you last. Five hundred and twenty-four more years.” Morphy said, glowering at Caesar. Vikram couldn't help thinking that it was an impressive feat to achieve so effectively with a solitary eye.
“Don't look at me like that! How was I to know that your alien technology is so susceptible to milk-based drinks? And why don't they have a service centre in this part of the solar system? They're the people you should be mad at!” said Caesar.
“You guys have a time machine?” Vikram asked.
“Where were we?” said Caesar, changing the subject. “Ah yes, the crash. It wasn't very loud. I don't think anyone except me heard it. I went to the back of the restaurant to investigate anyway. I opened the rear door to a sight out of a science-fiction movie. The entire area was covered in smoke and there was a small crater in the backyard. In the middle of that crater, lay what looked like a spaceship – black, orb-shaped, with smoke coming out of its various crevices.”
“It was a spaceship,” Morphy interjected.
“I'm telling it. Let me tell it my way!”
“All right. Go ahead.”
“In the middle of the crater was a spaceship,” continued Caesar while scowling at Morphy. “and before I could do anything, a small door slid open on one side, and a mysterious misty figure stumbled out of it.” Caesar paused for effect.
“It was me,” said Morphy.
“Why did you have to ruin it? Why?” thundered Caesar.
“It's okay. I kinda guessed it was him anyway. Please continue.” Vikram tried to calm him down.
“Anyone else in my position might have been scared on seeing an alien walk up to them, but I stood my ground. He looked and walked kind of funny – in a sinister manner.” Caesar continued.
“I had just crash landed on an alien planet after travelling for days, maybe even months. I was tired and disoriented.” said Morphy.
“Yeah, yeah. Don't get your antennae in a bunch.”
“I don't have antennae! Are you blind? I've warned you about the stereotyping before. If you do that again, I'll--”
“What happened next?” Vikram intervened before the argument could escalate any further.
“I asked E.T. here where he came from. At which point he mumbled something incoherent and passed out. I had to drag his scrawny alien body inside and wait for him to come to. I kept expecting a knock on the restaurant door from someone in the government or the neighbouring establishments, but no one came. Luckily it was almost closing time, and I didn't have any customers to worry about.”
“By that logic, it's always closing time here.” Morphy winked at Caesar, or he may have just blinked his eye. It was hard for Vikram to tell.
Caesar pretended not to hear the jibe and continued. “When he finally came to, after zoning out for a few hours, I tried to find out where he was from and what he was doing here. I was surprised to find that he could understand and speak English pretty well and--”
“It's not that hard. My planet's language had one million, five hundred and twenty eight thousand, three-hundred and twenty-eight consonants and vowels at last count. And I'm sure a few hundred thousand must have been added since I've lost contact. I was easily able to master hundreds of your languages, if you can call them that, during the journey.” Morphy said. “Oh, and I wasn't mumbling incoherently before I passed out, that was Kannada – I was very well prepared.”
“You learned English and Kannada and hundreds of other languages during the journey. Right. That is, if you remember that part of the journey correctly, and I doubt you do.”
“Why do you say that?” asked Vikram.
“He says that because he's a jerk, and also because I seem to be suffering from what you call short-term memory loss. I suspect it may be because of something that happened during the journey, but I can't be sure.”
“Oh, how bad is it?” asked Vikram.
“He can't even remember why he came to our planet.”
“All I remember is that I'm on an extremely confidential mission and my presence must not be detected at any cost. At any cost whatsoever.”
Vikram felt a small shiver down his spine as he heard that even though there wasn't a hint of malice evident on Morphy's face.
“You still haven't answered my original question.” Vikram turned to Caesar.
“Ah, yes. How do we manage without any staff, you ask? We manage because no customer has set foot in this restaurant for weeks. Not since that cretin, Lily Legume, wrote that scathing review of my restaurant in her Bestaurant Guide.” Caesar clenched his fists. “Oh, how I despise that woman.”
“But, if there aren't any customers, why did you hire me? How do I fit into all this?”
“Very snugly, Vikram. Very snugly.”