Thursday, December 01, 2011


(Short story by Chua Kok Yee from Without Anchovies)

I suspect my boyfriend, Joe, is a murderer.

That said, it does not diminish my love for him. Nothing could ever come between us, because we are the same person inside two separate bodies. If you flip my body inside out, you will find Joe. We were born for each other. His passion for horror books and movies matches mine. We both love spicy Indian cuisine more than our own ethnic Chinese food. His music hero is Kurt Cobain while I idolise Layne Staley. T-shirts and jeans are our clothes of choice. But the most compelling argument is the fact that both of us are insane.

Our love story began in an act of mutual madness.

One evening about two years ago, I went to the McD near my workplace to buy dinner. It was late, so only one counter was open. In front of me, in the queue, were an iPod-listening teenage girl, a man in office attire and a middle-aged lady. The middle-aged lady was at the counter, taking forever to make up her mind. She pointed to the Big Mac set-meal, but changed her mind four seconds later. After a pause of fifteen seconds, she asked the boy if he knew what kind of fish they used for their Filet-O-Fish. The boy shook his head. Another forty seconds passed as the lady studied the menu.

Damn it! It’s just dinner. You’re not choosing a husband! I cursed silently.

“Do you know if the beef is from India, or if it’s local?” she asked. The boy said he had no idea. “Aiya, you should know your products lah. How’re you supposed to sell anything if you don’t know this and don’t know that?”

“Oi! Can you hurry up? You ask too many questions; this is McD’s, not an Italian restaurant!” a male voice boomed from behind me. He was a short, stocky guy, in his mid-twenties, his forehead furrowed above his thick, dark eyebrows. He would have been a handsome man, if not for the thin beard and unkempt hair. I had not noticed him before. Let’s be honest, how many of us ever care who is behind us in a queue?
The lady turned around and shot him a poisonous glare.

“Just wait for your turn, young man!” she said, before returning to the counter boy. She pointed to an item on the menu and nodded her head. As the counter boy was keying in the order, she glanced over her shoulder.

“Wait, I have changed my mind again. This may not be fine dining, but a paying customer still has a right to do that, doesn’t she?” Her voice was raised, no doubt, with the intention of irritating the guy behind me.

“What a bitch!” I murmured.

She turned around with hands on her hips and glared, “What did you just say, young lady?”

“I said you’re a bitch, you bitch!”

The two other people ahead of me in the queue quickly shuffled aside, leaving a direct path between the lady and me. We stared one another down with steely eyes. I felt like a gunslinger in a cowboy movie.

Without warning, I raised a middle finger at her. Her head jolted backwards as if she had been shot! I gasped in surprise when I saw her nose bleeding. For a second, I thought I had poked her with an invisible beam that had shot out from my finger. The lady’s eyes bulged in shock, but before she could open her mouth, another splatter of red landed on her forehead. She yelped, and raised her arms to protect her face. But it was too late to prevent another splash hitting her eyes. The last shot forced her to clutch at her face as she screamed.

“Take that, bitch!”

It was that guy who had scolded the lady earlier. He poured a dollop of chilli sauce onto his hand, and flung it at the lady. With a grin, I snatched the bottle from his hand and emptied the sauce on the lady’s hair. She slapped and clawed wildly at us, and screamed for help. Everyone around us simply stood there in disbelief. As the guy and I raced out from the McD’s laughing, the counter boy smiled and gave us a double-thumbs up.

That was the first time I met Joe. We moved in together three weeks after the incident.

About six months ago, we saw a movie about vampires and werewolves. The movie was so cool, we could not stop talking about it. In bed later that night, we debated on the virtues of these creatures. Joe preferred werewolves as he thought they were strong and passionate. I disagreed, saying that vampires were elegant yet dangerous, hence much cooler. For hours we preached and tried to convert one another until, in the end, we gave up. Joe said he would remain a werewolf, and would still love me even if I wanted to be a vampire. Like a horror version of Romeo and Juliet, he said. We had the best sex ever that night.

Since then, we have been playing our roles in earnest. Joe has grown his beard thicker and his hair longer. During a full moon, he would sit next to our bedroom window and howl. He would then rip off his clothes, and prowl around our apartment with shoulders hunched over, snarling. More often than not, he would pounce on me after that. Of course, he never hurts me, not that much anyway, and I do enjoy the occasional rough love-making.

For my part, I have changed my job, and opted for the graveyard shift. I now work at a 24-hour call centre. This way, I can sleep during the day and come alive at night, like a vampire. I have painted my nails black to match my attire. Besides staying out of the sun, I am double-dosing on skin-whitening moisturiser for a paler look. I have even filed my teeth to create ‘fangs’.

Joe works regular office hours as a merchandising manager in a shopping mall, thus we see one another only from six to nine most evenings. This limited time together makes us miss each other more, and this makes our relationship more passionate.

I do not profess to know the clinical definition of insanity, but after living on this planet for twenty-five years, I do know that Joe and I are different from most people. We do not care much about other people’s expectations and opinions. Our life is ours to do as we please, and the last thing we want is an ordinary life. We make outrageous plans and play crazy games, like this vampire-werewolf love stuff, to make our lives interesting. But I never expected Joe to elevate it to such an extreme level.

The first murder was a few months ago. According to the newspaper, a thirty-year old woman jogger was found dead in a recreational park in Petaling Jaya. There were so many bites and scratch marks on her body that the police initially suspected that she had been attacked by a wild beast. Later, an autopsy revealed that the victim’s heart was missing. The case remains unsolved, but not much attention was paid to it after a while, and everyone thought it was an isolated incident.

Alarms bells went off when the bodies of two more victims turned up in a similar conditions in the following months. An investigative reporter from a local newspaper noticed a pattern in the murders; all of them were committed on a full moon night. The reporter dubbed the serial killer ‘The Full Moon Monster’. Despite the teeth marks and saliva stains all over the victims’ bodies, the police have not found a lead.

Tonight there will be a full moon. I have taken a day off from work without telling Joe. He comes home at six-fifteen with packets of briyiani rice and chicken masala for our dinner. We are halfway through eating when he suddenly jumps onto the chair, and howls.

“Oh, no! You are turning into a wolf!” I gasp in mock horror.

“Grrrrllll …”

“Don’t come near me!”

“Ggggrrrrrllllll ...”

Joe begins to undress. I run screaming from the dinner table into the living room. We race each other around the furniture, before he eventually catches me. When he pins my arms to the floor, I sink my fangs onto his forearm.  He lets out a deep grunt and bites me back on the side of the neck. It sends warm tingles down my spine, arousing me. I thrash about in protest for a few seconds before relenting, and letting my big, bad wolf have his way with me.

Later, as I lie spent on the sofa, he goes into the kitchen and returns with a glass of my favourite drink. I take small sips; savouring every drop in my mouth. Its tangy taste invigorates me, and I pull Joe closer to kiss him on the mouth. He pulls away; telling me I should be getting ready for work as it is already seven-thirty.

“I’m on leave today,” I say.

His eyebrows come together for just a fraction of a second, but that is enough for me. I am convinced my sudden day-off has intruded into his plan for the evening. Joe shrugs, before pressing his lips against mine. The kiss is devoid of the usual passion and enthusiasm, so I push him away. We stare at one another briefly in silence.

“I think you should stop it. It’s too dangerous,” I say.

“Since when has kissing become too dangerous?”

To let him know I am serious, I do not respond to his teasing by pinching his arm as I usually do. The smile drops from his face.

“You know about the killings, then?”

“I’ve suspected.”

“Yeah, I did it. But I prefer to be known as ‘The Werewolf’, not that lame ‘Full Moon Monster’!”

“But why?”

“Because that’s the nature of werewolves. We love to hunt and kill.”

“I can understand that. But why did you have to cut and take out their hearts? Was it for me?”

He does not answer me.

“Was it for my drink?”

Joe nods. “Removing them is the quickest way to collect blood.”

At that moment my love for him becomes so strong and intense that it makes my body shiver. With my arms wrapped around his neck, I shower his face with kisses.

“I love you, Joe.”

“I love you, too, dear.”

“Please don’t go hunting anymore. It’s too dangerous. You might get caught. I don’t want to ever lose you.”

“I have to, dear. You need fresh blood; you’re a vampire, remember? That’s the best way to get it.”

I say nothing, and pull his head to my chest. I know I will never love any other person in this world, or even beyond this world, as much as I love him. Could there be another love story that surpasses ours? I doubt it. Nothing will ever be as great as the crazy, burning love between this vampire and her werewolf.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Shoe bags

(This is a story from The Female Cell by Rumaizah Abu Bakar.)

Kak Teh and I take off our rubber slippers and put them in two lime green shoe bags with our name tags and tighten the strings to secure it. Our travel agent has provided them to us when we checked into the hotel and advised us to take them to the mosque. It is common for pilgrims to lose footwear left outside.
    At the entrance, a woman security guard in black looks into our bags. She mumbles something in Arabic as she returns them and gestures for us to proceed. I take my sister's hand as we enter we admire the floral motifs carved on the entrance arch, the walls are of white marble that have light grey strokes in them, the high ceiling is carved in arabesque and the white marble floor we walk on while pilgrims shuffle around us hurriedly.
    We ignore the shoe racks around the pillars as we have our footwear in our bags. Yesterday, we had trouble finding our shoes at the racks. We have, also, carefully hidden our flat purses in the deep pockets of our robes as a precaution. We go up a flight of steps to another large area and down again to another. The joints in my knees wobble from fatigue and I see that Kak Teh is a little out of breath.
    We had planned this journey for a long time, depositing a part of our monthly salary into our Tabung Haji accounts. When we learned we had made the Malaysian hajj list for the season, Kak Teh and I were very excited. Tabung Haji also appointed an ustaz from the group as our muhrim as we had no male family member with us. After our husbands passed away, we have both been on our own.
    The giant cube at the central courtyard looked majestic Al-Haram mosque takes my breath away. The Kaabah is fifteen meters high and is draped in black silk with gold-embroidered calligraphy. According to Islamic theology, Al-Baytul Ma’mur was built by angels before the creation of mankind as ordained by God, to be a place of worship on earth to reflect the one in heaven.
    I feel like the Kaabah is waving at me, welcoming me to the house of God. I wave back and move closer. Thousands of pilgrims are performing the tawaf, going around the Kaabah seven times, keeping their left shoulders parallel to it. It is crowded. Pilgrims walk back to back, with chests touching the backs of those in front, chanting in high spirits, “Allahuakbar! Allahuakbar! Allahuakbar!”
    We see the Hijir Ismail, separated by four foot high semi-circular wall on the Southwest side of the Kaabah. It is the place where one asks God to grant one’s wishes, but we have to skip it as it is too crowded.
    It is a clear and sunny outside, a warm dry day in December but everybody seems oblivious to it. There is much hustle and bustle as people hurry around the mosque, but it is neither chaotic nor noisy. I look around and absorb it all. It feels serene.
    It is still two hours away from the Zohor prayers, but rows of people are already seated. We find a space on the floor next to three young women. From their crisp white embroidered telekung and baju kurung, we know that they are Malaysians.
    “Assalammulaikum,” We greet them and extended our hands in the customary salam.
    They smile and rise a little, offering their hands, “Waalaikumsalam.”
    We spread our sejadah to face the Kaabah, the qiblat. Outside Al-Haram mosque, jemaah or group prayers are performed in straight rows with everybody standing behind the imam. However, here people stand in circles around the Kaabah.
     “Where are you from?” I ask one of the young women.
    “Kuala Lumpur, and where are you from Auntie?”
    “Kedah. You can call me Mak Su. This is my sister, Mak Teh.”
    “I’m Iza and these are my cousins, Siti and Ayu.”
    “How long have you been in Makkah?”
    “Two weeks. How about you?”
    “We arrived two weeks, as well, but today is the first time we have come by ourselves. Our roommates will be here later for maghrib and isyaq prayers. ”
    “I see.”
    I open my copy of  Quran. Kak Teh takes out her tasbih beads and starts to recite the zikir. Halfway through the first chapter, I look up and see waves of water approaching us. I hear a whistle and a man shouting, "Hajjah! Hajjah!" He gave instructions in Arabic. People already seated rise and hurry towards the steps nearby. The three young women next to us get up, grab their sejadah and bags, hold one another’s hands and rush behind the crowd. I struggle with my stuff, help Kak Teh and dash for the steps as well.
    Though I have witnessed this scene several times, it never seizes to amaze me. The group of men in jade green uniforms march closer with a tanker mounted vehicle. I see the words ‘Haram Captor’ printed on it.    Three men hold up a thick red rope to isolate the area being cleaned. One man pours pails of soapy water onto the floor while two others mop. Then, finally, a machine with bristles at the bottom polishes the white marble to a shine. They are quick and efficient and they do not leave behind a strong smell of detergent when they are done.
    This troop is responsible for keeping the grand mosque clean twenty four hours a day and seven days a week. They have to work while pilgrims go about with their devotional duties and the grand mosque is never empty. I am amazed at how enthusiastic they are. I have never seen another bunch of janitors so proud of their work.
    I smile and turn around to say something to Kak Teh. To my horror, I see a stranger stands behind me. My sister is nowhere to be seen. Panic overtakes me. I run around  like a headless chicken, yelling, “Kak Teh! Kak Teh! Where are you? Kak Teh!” Heads turn to look at me. I run from one pillar to the next. I go around in circles, as they all look the same. I sweat profusely and my heart beats violently. Where is she?  An old woman in black speaks to me in Arabic. Several more approach, all talking in Arabic. Their voices are kind but I cannot understand a word they say. Tears flow down my cheeks.
    Then, I catch sight of three familiar figures in the middle of the mosque where rows of zamzam water containers line the floor; Iza and her cousins. I approach them, panting, and tap Iza's shoulder. She turns around, startled and looks at me.
    “Have you … did you see my sister?”
    She shakes her head. “Wasn’t she with you?”
    “No, she was holding my hand when we rushed up the steps. Then, when I turned around, she was gone.”
    “Oh, dear!”
    “I have looked around this area already.”
    “Mak Su, why don't you wait here? We'll look for her.”
    Having seen her only briefly, I am worried that they would not recognise her. But they are sure that they would know my sister from the silver embroidery on her white telekung that they had so admired, and her matching bag. Iza talks to the other two women.
    “Let’s try that floor,” she points up the steps. “You can take the left half and I’ll take the right. We meet here in twenty minutes.” She points to the steps on the other side of the mosque, across the circular courtyard downstairs. “You see the sign there?” The four corners of the Kaabah roughly faced the four cardinal points of the compass; Hajr-al-Aswad, Rukun-al-Iraqi, Rukun-al-Shami and Rukun al-Yamani.
    They look up, squint and nod.
    “We meet at Hajr-al-Aswad.”
There is a long queue where she points. Pilgrims are waiting for their turns to touch and kiss the sacred black stone that is set four feet above the ground towards the east of the Kaabah. It is believed to have been white when it fell from heaven and turned black from absorbing the sins of millions of pilgrims. Now cracked and in pieces, it is held together within a silver frame.
    “Recite the salawat while we look for her,” she says to me.
    I nod meekly as they spread out.
The Tabung Haji officer has told us that the Al-Haram is large enough to house almost four millions worshippers, indoors and out. The mosque was built around the Kaabah during the reign of Caliph Omar Ibn al-Khattab in 634 CE. It was rebuilt twice after natural disasters. To accommodate the increasing number of pilgrims, it has gone through at least four major renovations under several rulers, with more being planned. Currently, it has nine minarets and is one of the world’s largest air-conditioned buildings.
    I spread my sejadah on the floor, sit down and lean against the marble pillar. Kak Teh could not have ventured too far in such a short time. I continue reciting the salawat softly. I recall stories of pilgrims losing their way in the mosque. They say one has to watch one’s words in the holy land for Allah's punishment would come swiftly. I wondered if my sister had said something that she should not have without realising it. I should have held on to her hand instead of assuming she would follow me.
    It feels like a long time before the three women return. They are all out of breath and, to my horror, Kak Teh is not with them.
    “Oh my God! What do we do now?” I hope they would have a solution.
    The area around the Kaabah is crowded. People have laid prayer mats on the floor to reserve their places for the zohor jemaah prayers in one hour. The area upstairs, where we are, is full too. The walkaways are blocked; there is no way we can get out.
     “It’s impossible for us to go anywhere now,” Iza says.
    Tears stream down my face. “Oh, what about my sister?”
    “Let’s sit down and recite the solat hajat; may God help us find her and may she be okay. Afterwards, when the crowd will eases, insha’Allah, we look for her again then.”
    I nod, reluctantly.
We spread our sejadah on the narrow space on the floor between two Arab women in bright clothes. After completing our prayers, we wait for a while for pilgrims to leave before the group launches another search for Kak Teh. The three women tour the whole of the ground floor before checking the basement and the first floor.
    After a long while, they return to the big pillar next to the women’s entrance where I am.
    “Where do you keep your shoe bags, Mak Su?” Iza asks.
    “We will see if Mak Teh’s bag is still there. We will know then if she is still here. Maybe she met someone she knows and is back in the hotel.”
    I shake my head and show her my green bag. “We carried them with us into the mosque.”
    “Oh! Mak Su, let us take you back to your hotel. I think it is best that we report this to Tabung Haji, and get their help.” She tries to smile.


I sit on my bed and leaning against the wall. Six single beds with clean white sheets occupy the room, four in a row, with another two laid perpendicular to them. I am still dressed in my embroidered black robe. My white telekung lies next to me.
    My four roommates look at me from their beds, awaiting the full account of what happened to my sister.
    “I lost her at Al-Haram,” I start. “We were running from the cleaners. Then, when I turned around, she was gone.”
    “Ya Allah!” They gasp.
    “We’ve reported this to the Tabung Haji Officers. They’ve recorded her name and details in the Missing Person Log Book.” Then I start crying.
    “Be patient, Mak Su.” Minah gets up, sits on my bed and hugs me.
    “The Tabung Haji officer said they would notify the other hotels. Since she has been missing for less than twenty hours, they will not notify the Saudi Arabia authority yet.”
    “Oh dear.”
    “Yes, they say that many missing persons are found within a few hours, or a few days at the most.” I sob.
    After a while, everyone starts talking at the same time, shooting questions at me, curious about the incidence and concerned.
    “Do you think she is still at the mosque?” Minah says.
    I shrug, “I don’t know. I only hope she is safe.”
    I do not follow my roommates to the mosque when they leave two hours later. I am worried of Kak Teh coming back and not finding me here. There is not enough space to pray in the room, so, I spread my sejadah on the landing outside the door, with my tasbih beads at the right corner and with my Quran raised on a tissue box. After completing the mandatory maghrib prayers, I continue with others and conclude by reciting the solat hajat to, specifically, request God’s help to find Kak Teh and protect her from harm. I sit on the sejadah, with prayer beads in my hands, pleading to Allah to bring my sister back safely.


When I go downstairs for breakfast with my roommates the next morning, I do not feel hungry.  I see a black and white poster on the lift wall with an enlarged passport photo of my sister:

    Missing Malaysian pilgrim:
    Zalina Mohamad, 64,  staying at the Qurtubah Baraqah, has been reported missing on 23 December 2006. She was last seen at Al-Haram before zohor. Anyone who has seen her are advised to report to the Tabung       Haji Administration Office.

    My eyes filled with tears again. I have not slept at all. I have, instead, been up all night praying.
    “Don’t worry, Mak Su. Allah will take care of her,” Minah says and hugs me again.
    “Insha’Allah,” I nod.
    When we reach the hotel’s dining hall on the ground floor, four of them join the queue for roti canai and fried noodles while Minah and I proceed to the next counter to trade our beverage coupons for six mugs of hot teh tarik.
    We head for the only available round table in the corner where I sit next to Minah. For a long while, I can only stare at the food and drink in front of me, as my roommates open their plastic containers and start eating their roti canai and noodles. I, finally, sip my teh tarik.


It has been five years since I last saw Kak Teh at the Al-Haram Mosque. I have not stopped trying to find her. Tabung Haji Officials and various ustaz, tell me to pray for her soul, and hope that she is in heaven, Insha’Allah.
    I miss her so much.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Beruas Prophecy

Here are the first two chapters from the latest publication by Silverfish Books, The Beruas Prophesy by Iskandar Al-Bakri, a lawyer who lives (and has a practice) in Ipoh. See if it whets your appetite for more This is historical fiction; a swashbuckling tale of silat and sorcery, piracy and plunder. And magic. (Malaysian style.).

The Beruas Prophecy is now available from Silverfish Books (online and in-store) and (soon) in all major bookstores in the country and as e-books from, Kindle store, Nook store, iBook store, etc.


Balik Pulau, 1823. Friday evening just after eight. Yaakob lives with his wife and three daughters in a village in the west of Penang Island. His house is a modest, timber one that has just two rooms. Yaakob built it with the help of his neighbours a week before his wedding, many years ago. His wife has planted vegetables and tapioca in the front yard, and banana along the sides.
Yaakob opens his silat ring behind his house, as he does so every night. It is a routine. In the mornings, his daughters sweep and clean the ring, or gelanggang, an area measuring about thirty feet by forty, with a base of sandy soil, although they are not allowed to watch their father teach the martial art at night. The entire area is surrounded by a six-foot high bamboo fence to deter curious onlookers and spies. Since the lessons are always taught at night, the ring is lit with several torches.
    As Yaakob walks into the ring, he notices that all twenty of his students have arrived for the night’s lesson. He is a firm believer in the importance of imparting the basic tenets of the art and not just teach the stances and movements like other teachers. He has instilled in his students the values associated with the word silat: its philosophy, its meaning of ‘brotherhood’ in Arabic, besides the basic techniques of hand and foot movements, stances, and the execution and evasion of attack used in this ancient Malay martial art. Yaakob’s particular variant of the art is called silat gayong, one honed by the Bugis of Sulawesi in the late fourteenth century, before spreading it throughout Southeast Asia. Historically, warriors trained in martial combat used their skills primarily to protect empires in the Malay world.
    The seni silat gayong has been passed down through many generations, with its technique of intelligent attack and graceful defence, which is one meaning of ‘gayong’. Silat is the art, seni is the fine-tuning of the art, and gayong is the ability to adapt it to any situation. It is commonly said that, ‘Silat without knife is not silat’. Silat gayong is no different. It is, primarily, a weapon-based art, with the most common implements used being the knife, the short stick (simbatsop), the long stick, keris, parang, cloth, chain, spear, kerambit (a curved dagger), the sword and the sai.
    His students called him Guru, teacher.   
    Yaakob started learning silat when he was ten under a Grandmaster, Panglima Saod who insisted he mastered the techniques of the ‘Twelve Beatings Game’ for three years, before moving on to the ‘Tilting Spring’ and ‘Seven Beatings’. When he was twenty, he was drafted to serve the Sultan of Kedah as the captain of his guards, a post he held until his retirement five years ago.
    Yaakob had never intended to teach silat after his retirement. However, his reputation as the former captain of the Sultan’s guards created much excitement in his village when he returned to Balik Pulau following the end of his formal employment. He was constantly approached by the parents of adolescents, and young men who wished, one day, to become Sultan’s guards. After much persuasion, Yaakob relented and reluctantly opened a silat ring behind his house.
    Yaakob recites a prayer before he starts his class, as he does every night. His sessions are always held after the Isyak prayers, at about a quarter to nine. He then performs the daily routine: cutting a lime in half, dropping the pieces into a jar of rain water and walking around the ring, sprinkling the lime water on the ground with his fingers. He walks in a peculiar style, too. Starting from the centre he moves to the front-right corner, and then across to the extreme front-left before walking backwards past the centre to the rear-right, then cross to the rear-left, and finally stopping at the centre. Walking backwards is a gesture of respect to the ring; one never shows one’s back to it. Additionally, as a sign of humility, it is important that he remains bowed throughout the procedure.
    Yaakob, being a firm believer in rituals, has explained the importance of all this to his students. He has made sure that every one of his silat gayong students has been initiated properly with a mandi tapak ceremony before being accepted as a novice and, when a student graduates to a higher belt, and before beginning weapons training, he makes him go through mandi seni ritual for protection. He also insists on a brief silence at the opening and closing of his classes, to clear the mind and to acknowledge one’s religious beliefs.
    Yaakob greets his students with a salam and invites them to enter the ring. They walk in and stand silently to attention in the centre. When they receive the nod from Yaakob, they recite their oath together, aloud.

    I do hereby swear that I will be a loyal student and member of silat gayong,
    I swear loyalty to God and the Prophet,
    I swear loyalty to the Grandmaster of silat gayong and its representatives,
    I swear loyalty to my own mother and father and my family members,
    Oh God, please show me the right path, distance me from the wrong path,
    Oh God, please ease my good fortune, distance me from the dangers of Satan who wishes me and my people  harm,
    This is my oath of loyalty to my people.

    “Good evening, my students,” the teacher greets them again, some of whom have travelled ten miles for the class.
    “Good evening, teacher!” The students say, clasping their palms at their chest.
    “Tonight, we will learn the art of locking. It is an important defence technique,” Yaakob says, walking around the ring.  
    “These techniques are derived from observing the motion of everyone’s best friend … the python.”
    His students laugh.
    Yaakob, then, walks to the front of the ring and calls out to Jasin, his most advanced student. Jasin is eighteen, the son of Yaakob’s cousin. He is five-foot-five and weighs ten stone. The young man is the oldest of his cousin’s five children, and the most ambitious. He, too, wants to be a Sultan’s guard after completing his training, for he wants to leave the village and see the world.
Jasin, who is in the last row, runs towards his teacher and bows fractionally.
    “Assume your stance and attack,” Yaakob commands him.
    The young student drops to an attacking stance, winds up his right arm, makes a ‘Hammer Fist’ and throws a punch at Yaakob’s chest.
    In one swift movement, Yaakob traps Jasin’s arm inches before the boy’s fist reaches his chest, bends it outward and folds it towards the elbow. With both hands on the young man’s fist, Yaakob pushes him back. The young man loses his balance and falls.
     “Like a python, you must not lock your opponent but squeeze …” Yaakob says, pushing Jasin back a little further. “Once you trap your opponent’s limb, the next step is to break it.” Yaakob moves Jasin’s arm to the side.
    Yaakob demonstrates the technique twice more and orders his students to practice it. He then demonstrates several more manoeuvres for evading the Back Fist, Cobra Head, Knife Hand and the Palm Heel attack.
    “Make sure you focus on speed, accuracy and fluidity.”
    The class continues until eleven o’clock, after which his students go home with his permission.
    Jasin stays behind to help his teacher put out the torches.
    “Teacher, have you heard they are holding trials at the wharf tomorrow?” Jasin says.
    “What trials?”
    “Trials for the Sultan’s guards. Do you think I’m ready?”
    “Oh, those trials. Didn’t you try out last year?”
    “Yes, but they said I was not ready. I feel more confident now.”
    Yaakob shrugs.
    “You don’t need my permission for that.”
    “I need your blessing, Teacher”
    Yaakob rubs Jasin’s shoulder.
    “Go and make this school proud. Be a good example to your friends. Now, go home and get some rest. You’ll need an early start tomorrow.”

It is early Sunday morning and the Governor’s Office is closed. The sun hasn’t peeked over the horizon when Jasin and two of his friends, Jemain and Yunus, are on a bullock cart, travelling to the other side of the island. Yunus’s father has given them permission to use his cart as he wants to see his son become a Sultan’s guard, too; life in the royal palace would certainly be better than living as a paddy farmer or a fisherman.
    The three young men decided to attend the trials six months ago and their day has finally come. The trio of friends friends are Yaakob’s top students and have won three local silat competitions in the last six months. It is not uncommon for kampongs to hold such tournaments during festivals, with many young men from neighbouring villages pitting their skills against each other. Jasin is confident of his chances after receiving Yaakob’s blessing. He cannot stop talking about what he intends to do after he becomes a Sultan’s guard. They laugh and cheer all the way to town, and their behaviour catches the attention of many on the road.
    Yaakob has just completed his dawn prayers and is rolling up his prayer mat when the noisy young men pass by his house. He brims with pride as he leans against his bedroom window and sees his students in such high spirits. He is confident they are physically and technically ready. Jasin waves to his teacher.
    “We’ll make you proud, we promise,” Jasin shouts, punching his fist in the air.
    Yaakob waves back and watches as the cart slowly moves out of sight.

James Randwick Lowe wakes up in The Regency Bar where he fell asleep, slumped over a table last night after getting thoroughly drunk while drowning his sorrows with some friends in three bottles of cheap scotch.
Lowe had been summoned before the Governor for refusing to escort a group of surveyors from the Colonial Office in London who had come to map the West coast of the Malay Peninsula, particularly Perak. He despises outdoor activity, especially survey work, and is convinced that his lot is to work in a cool office, and to be free to indulge in his passion for merriment later in the evenings in the town’s clubs and bars. The Governor had taken Lowe to task over his attitude and had threatened to post him in an outback more remote than Perak.
    Lowe’s head spins and he is reluctant to open his eyes; he wants to delay his return to reality as long as he can. Mr Townsend, the pub’s owner, has woken him and his friends.
    “It’s morning lads, time to go home. I’m locking up for church.”
    Lowe and his friends pull themselves together and get up. Terry and Michael are junior officers at the Governor’s Office, long-time friends of Lowe. Franklin, on the other hand, is a teacher at The Hutching School, which opened two years ago. Before that, Franklin was a teacher at the Penang Free School, which was established in 1816 as the first school in the Malay Peninsula to provide English education.
    Despite their friendship, Lowe still insists that they address him as Mr Lowe due to his higher rank; he is a district officer. Terry, Michael and Franklin had learned of Lowe’s predicament and decided it was indeed a dark and shameful day for their friend.
    They wipe their faces, thank Mr Townsend, and slowly leave the pub, squinting in the morning sun.
    It had rained in the night. The morning air is cool and clear. The streets, however, are muddy with large puddles in some sections. Lowe and his friends leave the pub to make their way back to their quarters. It is just then that Jasin and his friends pass them on their bullock cart. Unfortunately, one of the wheels of the cart runs into a pothole filled with the night’s rainwater and creates a splash. Lowe and his friends get their boots and trousers wet.
    “Hey, you black boy! Stop!” shouts Lowe.
    Yunus’s heart drops. He knows that he and his friends are in trouble. They could end up in the stockade for what has happened. He quickly stops his cart and jumps off.
    “I’m sorry, sir. It was not intentional. It was an accident. Let me clean your boots, sir,” Yunus apologises.
    “Do you think your apology is enough? You’ve ruined my trousers, blackie,” Lowe barks. He has found a target on which to unleash his anger and frustration.
    Jasin and Jemain jump off the cart and stand beside their friend.
    “I’m sorry, sir. I’ll clean your trousers too,” Yunus trembles.
    He bends down and wipes some mud off Lowe’s shoes. However, with one quick action Lowe kicks the young man in the head. Terry, Michael and Franklin find this terribly amusing, for some reason, and laugh. Their laughter eggs Lowe on, and he kicks Yunus a second time.
    “Go on, blackie. Wipe my boots,” Lowe chides him.
    Yunus bends down again. Lowe, again, kicks Yunus in the head. Terry, Michael and Franklin laugh even louder.
    Jasin has had enough and wants to help his friend but Jemain stops him.
    “Come on, blackie,” Lowe says, pulling his trousers up.
    Yunus bends over for the third time. Lowe kicks at him with greater force. However, this time Yunus uses his silat training and catches Lowe’s right leg in a lock. He twists the leg and the Englishman falls to the muddy ground. It is Jasin and Jemain’s turn to laugh.
    Lowe becomes enraged. This native boy has embarrassed him more than the Governor yesterday. Lowe pulls out his pepperbox revolver from its red sash-bag in the inside pocket of his coat.
    Lowe points the gun at Yunus and pulls the trigger.
    “Don’t shoot!” Jasin shouts, and jumps in front of his friend.
    The bullet hits Jasin in the stomach, the force of the shot throwing him back several feet, where he lands on Jemain’s arms. Everyone simply stands there, frozen. Terry and Michael pull Lowe up to his feet.
    “Let’s go. You’ve finally gone too far, Mr Lowe,” Terry says.
    “He’s just a boy!” Michael says, grabbing his collar.
    Lowe puts his revolver away and, the four flee. Lowe catches a ship to Perak that day.
    Yunus kneels and presses his palms on the bullet wound in Jasin’s stomach. While Jemain holds his friend’s head and shouts for help. None comes as they are in the British part of town and everyone is in church.
    “I’m so sorry, Jasin,” Yunus cries. He tries to stop the bleeding with his palm but to no avail.
    “It’s all right. It doesn’t even hurt. We can still make it to the trials,” Jasin’s breath is shallow and his voice is weak. His shirt is soaked in blood, which is black. The bullet has hit his liver.

Two hours later they are back at their village. The trip home has been quiet. Yaakob is on the verandah of his house with Jasin’s father, smoking nipah cigarettes and talking about the young man’s future, when he hears screams from his neighbours’ yard. He stands and sees Yunus and Jemain in the returning bullock cart. His heart drops. He senses that the day is about to get worse.
Jasin’s father drops his cigarette and looks up. When he cannot see his eldest son on the cart, he jumps up and runs towards it, followed by Yaakob. By then, other villagers are running towards the cart as well. Yaakob pulls at the reigns to stop it.
    “Yunus, where is my son?” Jasin’s father asks.
    Yunus does not reply, but sobs instead.
    Jasin’s father passes out when he sees the dead body of his son slumped at the back of the bullock cart. Some women start screaming and weeping hysterically. Everyone in the village knows him. Their screams attract the attention of even more villagers. Yaakob holds his cousin, who regains consciousness briefly only to faint again at the sight of his dead son. By this time, Jasin’s mother has heard of what has happened from a neighbour, and runs towards the cart, screaming. Three women have to hold her as she shakes uncontrollably.
    “What happened to my boy? Jasin! Don’t you dare leave your mother! Jasin!”
    Yaakob remains quiet. He asks a friend to hold his cousin while he jumps onto the cart and kneels before Jasin. The base of the cart is drenched in blood. He hands tremble as he lifts Jasin’s shirt and sees the bullet wound. Yaakob asks four men to help him carry Jasin’s body to his parent’s house.
    They bury Jasin later in the evening, at about six, according to Islamic law, which forbids the keeping of a body for more than a day. The village imam reads the funeral rites, leaving almost everyone in tears. The villagers are closely knit. Everyone treats everyone else’s child as his or her own.

The next night, Yaakob sits at the front of his silat ring alone, smoking a nipah cigarette, starring at the ground. He has cancelled the evening class and is contemplating closing his school, entirely. He blames himself for what has happened.
    “If only I had never opened this silat ring.”
    “If only I had told him he wasn’t ready.”
    “If only …”
    Then he hears Jemain and Yunus call out their salam as they approach.
    “We’re sorry to disturb you, Teacher” Jemain says.
    “That’s all right. I have cancelled the class for this evening. Quite possibly, I will close this ring, too,” Yaakob says.
    “You’re probably wondering who shot Jasin,” Yunus says.
    “It was a bullet shot from a pistol, probably a revolver,” Yaakob blows a long stream of smoke. “Only white men have those pistols.”
    “You’re right, Teacher. His friends called him Mr Lowe.”
    Yaakob sucks on his cigarette one more time and throws it away.
    “Then, it’s my task to find Mr Lowe.”


Penang, 20 August 1824. James Randwick Lowe lights a thin cigar with a match as he leans against a lamppost at the end of Light Street, while continually tapping his feet on the pavement. A peacock of a man, Lowe wears a dark grey morning coat over a plain white shirt with puffed sleeves, his green high cravat matching his pinstriped trousers. When Lowe lifts his top hat, it reveals lavishly curled red hair.
    “No more pesky mosquito infested rivers for me,” Lowe thinks. “I am a district officer, not a bloody surveyor. I deserve a slice of the easy life.”
    He takes another long drag on his cigar.
    “No matter. With Uncle Robert’s help, I’ll become the Resident of Perak before I turn forty,” he dreams.
    Light Street is quiet, with few pedestrians. About fifty feet away is The Admiralty House, the largest building on the street and the centre of public administration on the island. Notably, it houses the office of the Governor. The two-storey building with its long verandahs and rattan louvres was built during the administration of Lieutenant-Governor Robert Townsend Farquhar in 1805, and is considered a benchmark of nineteenth century Anglo-Indian architectural opulence. The building of bricks and teak is painted white; its tiles and chandeliers custom made and shipped from India.
Lowe watches as the staff of The Admiralty House, all thirty of them, file out of their office and form a line in front of the foyer. Even the gardeners store away their brooms and join the queue in a hurry, everyone straightening their clothes and smoothening their hair as they wait. At the head of the queue is the Resident Councillor of Penang.
    They are waiting to welcome the new Governor of the Prince of Wales Island. Early rumours spreading through the office had caused much anxiety and trepidation amongst many in the queue. The new Governor was said to be a stern disciplinarian with a determined character.
    At ten minutes to eight, an open-top black carriage, drawn by a single brown horse, pulls into the courtyard. Lowe straightens, puts out his cigar, picks up his large brown leather case and walks towards the entrance of building. The carriage stops a few feet from the queue and a distinguished-looking gentleman in a velvet coat with a neat waist cut, a high collar that accentuates his face, and sleeves that taper down to his wrists, climbs down. Double-breasted coats are very much in vogue. He wears a dress shirt with a high upturned collar, with a white cravat tied in a wide bow fastened with a gold pin, and beige trousers. His clothes exaggerate his broad shoulders. His receding hairline, thin lips, and clean-shaven face project a stern personality.
    The new Governor, Sir Robert Fullerton, 51, is a Scotsman from Edinburgh, where he was born in 1773, the son of Reverend William Fullerton. Rising through the ranks at the Colonial Office which he joined aged twenty, he acquired a reputation for being an energetic administrator who’d stop at nothing when it came to the greater glory of the empire. He is confident that he will have no issues adapting to his surroundings quickly;  he already knows the Malay language and has a collection of native literature. He received his appointment from the Colonial Office in London two months ago: an order of travel to Penang to become Governor of the Prince of Wales Island.
    Governor Fullerton pauses and studies his surroundings before offering his hand to the Resident Councillor of Penang, who shakes it firmly. He then walks calmly past his staff, shaking the hands of all of them, and watching as they smile nervously.
    After this rather ceremonious welcome, the Resident Councillor escorts Governor Fullerton to his newly refurbished office on the first floor whereupon his new secretary, Roland Howarth, throws open a large teak door to reveal a spacious chamber that still bears the smell of fresh paint. The Governor enters his new office and looks at the long balcony on his right.
    On the other side is a big hand-carved teak desk and, in between, are two sofas and three armchairs, all in burgundy velvet, clustered around a low wooden coffee table with a vase of fresh red hibiscus. Governor Fullerton sits on the armchair facing the door, and invites his Resident and his secretary to sit. He wastes no time on pleasantries.
    “I want a full report on the activities surrounding the Siamese encroachment of the territories in the North,” he says, looking at Howarth.
    His secretary opens his diary and writes something.
    Governor Fullerton then looks at the Resident Councillor of Penang.
    “Mr Northam, I am well aware that you are busy with your duties here on the island, so I propose that you appoint a representative, an agent if you will, to serve as my liaison officer in Perak,” he says.
    Conrad Northam nods in agreement, unconvincingly.
    “Do you have anyone befitting that role to represent the Colonial Office?” Governor Fullerton asks, but before Northam can make a suggestion, his superior continues, “If I may suggest, I am confident in the abilities of Mr James Randwick Lowe.”
    Governor Fullerton surprises everyone with this. The others know of Lowe, a district officer who has been in Penang for only two years and whose duties include, among others, surveying the rivers and interior regions in Perak. However, Lowe is considered low in the pecking order in the Governor’s Office. Northam feels there are other officers more qualified. Nevertheless, he realises some arrangement had already been made, and any show of dissent could sour his relationship with the new Governor.
    “Mr Lowe is an exemplary officer. A wise choice, Your Excellency,” Northam says, nervously.
    “Let it be known that I have two priorities; matters of utmost importance. First, I want full assurance that the Siamese and the Malays aren’t colluding, or conjuring any plans for a takeover of the island. His Majesty wants me to confirm the safety of this island by the year’s end,” Governor Fullerton demands.
    Northam pauses before answering.
    “We have received intelligence reports about recent extensive communications between Kedah and Siam. However, I do not believe the Siamese have the capacity to mount a naval offensive against the island,” Northam says confidently.
    “Can you assure me that they will not collaborate with Kedah and attack us with Raja Hasan at the helm?” Governor Fullerton asks.
    Northam is stumped. The new Governor knows about Raja Hasan, the heir to the throne of Kedah, and an annoying pebble in the shoe of the British in Penang. Raja Hasan has already openly declared his intentions to reclaim the island from the British invaders. Northam tries to think of a quick reply. The British have only to fear if Raja Hasan manages to persuade Siam to finance the attack on Penang.
    “All reports are to the contrary, Your Excellency. Kedah still remembers the 1821 Siamese invasion. Any collaboration between the two would be impossible,” Northam says, bowing.
    A knock on the door spares Northam from further inquisition. A young officer with a large brown leather case walks in, followed by a Malay servant carrying a tray with a silver tea set, and announces the arrival of Mr     James Randwick Lowe, whose black leather shoes can be heard thumping loudly on the timber upper floor of Admiralty House.
    The young officer places the leather case on the Governor’s desk and leaves the room. The Malay servant pours tea for his new master and his guests and then stands silently to attention next to the door. No one notices the Malay servant’s jaws clench imperceptibly, nor his swift glance, with narrowed eyes, in the direction of Lowe who has just entered the room.
    “Ah, speak of the devil.” Governor Fullerton greets Lowe with a smile and offers him a seat.
    “Thank you, Your Excellency.”
    Lowe sits across from Governor Fullerton and nods at the others. Lowe is conscious of a sense of unease in the room: probably, as a result of his sudden promotion.
    “Howarth will take care of your Letter of Authority. I want you to report to Perak immediately. The Colonial Office has warned me against intervening in the affairs of Perak. However, I’m determined to prove them wrong.”
    “But, Perak is in constant chaos, Your Excellency. The Malay aristocrats and the Chinese mining clans constantly fight, not to mention the pirates; let’s not forget the pirates,” the Resident Councillor says. He has opposed earlier attempts by the British to intervene in Perak. “Their aristocrats tax us arbitrarily and if we don’t pay, they set fire to our offices in the middle of the night. I would like to remind Your Excellency that two of our officers were murdered in Perak last year,” Northam continues.
    There is a moment of silence. Governor Fullerton does not tolerate dissent.
    “Your views have been noted. However, I’m confident that the Colonial Office will be very pleased with my progress in Perak,” Governor Fullerton says.
    Northam sits with his head bowed, regretting his outburst.
    “Of course, Your Excellency,” he says, his voice trembling.
    Governor Fullerton looks displeased. He folds his arms and leans back.
    “That will be all. Thank you, gentlemen, for your time,” he says.
    All rise, except Lowe, and leave the room, looking relieved. Howarth, who is the last to leave, closes the door behind him.
    “Allow me to congratulate you on your appointment, Your Excellency,” Lowe smiles.
    “Let’s get to the important issues,” Governor Fullerton says, clasping his hands.
    “I trust you have the information I require?” He rises from his armchair and walks to his desk.
    “It was difficult, Your Excellency. Two of my men gave their lives for this,” Lowe says, shaking his head.
    “But, you did triumph over adversity, as a British officer should, didn’t you?” the Governor says.
    Lowe nods and hands Governor Fullerton a piece of paper with some markings. Governor Fullerton’s hands tremble as he reads it.
    “Yes, we have found the location of the treasure,” Lowe declares.
    “So, the legends are true. I can’t believe they are true,” Governor Fullerton’s deep-blue eyes light up.
    He opens his big leather case and takes out an old book with torn binding: the Malay Annals, a book which Governor Fullerton has taken a deep interest in for ten years. He had become interested in Malay folklore and legends following conversations with his servants  and prisoners when he was in Salang, a trading post near Phuket. They would tell him fantastic legends of kings and queens, their adventures and, most importantly, of treasures.
    The Malay servant, who has been at the door the entire time, turns his head. His nose flares slightly as he regards his new master.
    Governor Fullerton hadn’t believed any of the legends until a missionary, whom he met, also at Salang, gave him a copy of the Malay Annals and persuaded him of the existence of at least one hidden treasure mentioned in the book. It was the chapter on the lost Beruas Dynasty in Perak.
    Governor Fullerton flips pages of his well-worn book and reads to Lowe, “There shall come a day when a prince of my line shall possess this treasure, and it is that prince who shall make all lands below the wind subject to him.”
    He has been in touch with Lowe for four years now, feeding him information and news about other treasure hunters, an endless stream of whom flocked to the Malay Peninsula after the opening of Penang by the British, especially those who were tired of the dry Egyptian desert. Governor Fullerton has used his position as a high ranking British officer to spy on them and learn.  He has also used his influence in the Colonial Office to promote his nephew, twice-removed, rapidly through the ranks; an arrangement the young and ambitious officer has found extremely agreeable.
    The Malay servant pours more tea for his master, mentally recording everything being discussed. He has been a member of staff at the Governor’s Office for six years, and was recently promoted from sweeper to servant.
    He is sixty years old, and his name is Yaakob.