The recipes had survived centuries, passed down through plague, famine, and genocide. After the war, Adam’s Nani smuggled them across the Pacific in a shuddering jet. Her wrathful samosas turned Aunty Ghita’s sinnery into an institution. Locals would walk an extra block on their way home just to steal a whiff of her finely spiced sins.
Adam’s earliest memories were of the kitchen. He was rolling samosas before he could read. When he flunked out of school, Nani taught him everything she knew. The sinnery had suffered since her passing, but Adam still used her original recipes, producing passable imitations of dishes once served to imperious rajahs and majestic sultans. Nani had always prepared her own dough, kneading flour into buttery ghee. Adam used a shortcut: he bought his from a dingy little grocer on 42nd Street.
Nani would be smouldering in her urn if she knew, but Adam could barely taste the difference. The samosa filling was simple yet flavoursome: ginger, garam masala, green chillies, and a pinch of finely diced wrath. A good samosa fizzled across the palate like a firecracker, and Aunty Ghita’s samosas were legendary. Or they used to be, anyway.
Adam wiped the sweat from his brow. He was sweltering in the kitchen, standing over the stovetop. He folded the samosas the way Nani had taught him. Not like that! Stupid boy! Did you fold these with your toes? He still heard her when he cooked. Cruel. Callous. Demanding. He couldn’t blame her. Adam had always been a slow learner. He always needed extra motivation.
Good samosas took four minutes to fry. Just long enough for a quick smoke. Adam left the fryer bubbling and pushed out into the cool night air. His expert fingers rolled cigarettes as easily as they folded samosas. He’d been rolling his own for quite some time. Name-brand cigarettes were a luxury Adam just couldn’t afford.
Aunty Ghita’s barely made enough for the warden’s weekly bribes. There was always another bill to pay. Rent. Water. Electricity. The wheel rolled on, crushing Adam underneath. Some nights, he would just sit on the back stoop and weep. Once, Adam tried to bottle his grief, but the taste was too sour to cook with. Like sucking fermented lemons.
A red neon sign blinked in the distance. It belonged to the new Seven Deadly Spices, which had just opened down the street. That was their seventh location in the city. Their franchise was successful, sure, but only because they’d bastardised their recipes to appeal to a broader audience. A Western palate. The sort of people who wanted bacon with their burritos and cheese from a can. Seven Deadly Spices didn’t serve sin. They barely served minor character flaws: churlish vindaloo, butter garlic vanity. Their food was bland, mushy, and inauthentic, but the uncultured masses went crazy for it.
Maybe that was the solution to Adam’s financial woes? The way to save Aunty Ghita’s? Cook even worse food.
Adam’s timer pinged inside. He ground his cigarette out against the asphalt and tucked the dregs away for later. The samosas were cooked pretty well. Crispy, but not cracking. Adam dabbed away the excess grease with a paper towel. Cooking was the only thing Adam had ever been halfway decent at. Not great. Not even good. Certainly not as good as Nani. Just decent.
Adam garnished the plate with banana leaves and arranged his samosas around a dollop of cilantro yoghurt—a little bit of coolness to counter the fiery heat of spiced wrath.
• • •
It was quiet, even for a Thursday evening. There was only one customer: an elderly man with wispy white hair and a cataract clouding one eye. He scowled as Adam plonked the plate of samosas down before him.
“Half an hour for three samosas?”
It wasn’t half an hour. It was barely twenty-seven minutes. Adam had specifically checked. He’d had complaints before. “It’s just me back there, sir. And we make all our food to order.”
The old man shook his head. He plucked a samosa with his bare hand and dipped it in cilantro yogurt. The morsel disappeared behind his chipped yellow teeth. Chew, chew, chew, but not swallow. The old man grimaced.
“Where did you get this sin?” The old man spat into his napkin. A strand of saliva dangled from his mouth.
“From a killer.” Most of Adam’s sins were harvested by the warden of the local prison. Free-range would taste better. Fresher. Purer. Less muted by the hopelessness of incarceration. Free-range would be legal, too. Nani had always insisted on free-range, but Adam didn’t have time to be hunting down psychopaths, and the warden offered very competitive prices. “That’s good quality wrath.”
“Are you sure?” The old man slid his plate away. “Go on. Try one.”
“Sir, I’m not sure—”
“Just eat one.”
Adam relented, popping a samosa into his mouth. Good wrath was hot and savoury, like tandoori chicken tossed in peppers. Good wrath singed the throat and flushed the face.
Adam did not have a mouthful of good wrath. He could certainly taste rage, but not enough to incite violence. So very bland. The old man had been right to spit.
“I’m so sorry, sir. I was assured that this wrath was harvested directly from a murderous psychopath—”
“Clearly, you need to find a better hunter.”
Adam nodded. The warden was more swineherd than hunter, but it was a bad idea to correct the old man. Officially, all of Adam’s produce was sourced from anonymous donors. A simple lie to keep his bottom line alive. “Can I get you something else? Gluttony vindaloo? Or greed gulab jamun, perhaps? They’re good. Delicious, actually. Sweet as honey and soft as warm butter.”
The old man looked doubtful. “You get all your sins from the same source?”
“No. Well, yes. Mostly. But I promise he’s never made this mistake before.”
“Forget it.” The old man stood to leave. “I’m not waiting another half an hour for more flavourless crap. Might as well just go to that place down the road.”
Adam cast about for a dish that didn’t use prison stock. “How about a nice bowl of lustful korma? There’s a brothel on the next block. Sometimes they harvest extra lust for me.” Adam followed the old man to the door. “I can offer you a ten percent discount. Please. Twenty percent. Twenty-five.”
The old man waved him away and shoved through the door.
Adam collapsed into the nearest seat. “Fuck!” He should have tasted the wrath before cooking with it. That was a stupid mistake. Nani would have screamed at him, smacked him on the head. Always taste! Bad ingredient makes bad meal, idiot!
Adam’s eyes stung. He left the ruined samosas on the counter. He could finish cleaning later if he had the energy. For dinner, Adam finished his cigarette and ate a few old tomatoes, cutting away the fuzzy grey patches. They didn’t taste nearly as bad as they looked. Most of his customers never even noticed.
As Adam ate, he considered the jar of wrath sitting on the shelf. The label read PRISONER 48296. Whoever they were, Prisoner 48296 had just cost Adam seventeen dollars. His stomach grumbled angrily. Three half-rotten tomatoes weren’t much of a meal after a full day of work.
Adam grabbed the offending jar. Upon closer inspection, the jar clearly contained basic anger, yet to ripen into full-flavoured wrath. Anger was a little darker. A little slimier. Still, it was an easy mistake to make, especially for an inexperienced carver like the warden.
Adam scooped the raw anger out with his bare hands and licked the juices from his fingers. Anger wasn’t dangerous to eat. Just very bland. There was no way he could serve it to customers. It tasted of watery porridge or plain bread. How was that possible? According to the warden, Prisoner 48296 had wandered into a bodega one night and shot everyone inside. How did someone murder three fellow humans without the barest hint of wrath?
Adam stopped eating and stared at the half-empty jar. A dreadful thought clawed up from the pit in his stomach. A horrible, horrifying thought. Adam tried to ignore it, but he knew. He knew. It was obvious, really.
He couldn’t taste the prisoner’s sins because Prisoner 48296 was innocent.
• • •
When Adam was little, Nani had told him stories about the old country, where sin eaters had once been more than cooks. They were healers, devouring sins to help people lead good and noble lives. They were avengers, sniffing out sadistic criminals by the scent of their guilt. Revered by those they absolved. Reviled by those they hunted. Above all else, sin eaters were important.
Adam didn’t feel very important as his van spluttered along the gravel roads. The prison rose in the distance—a scattering of squat grey cubes surrounded by chain-link and razor wire. The jar of anger was strapped into the passenger seat. It didn’t seem safe to let it roll around the back. That was a man’s innocence, after all. His future.
Adam only owned one suit. It smelled vaguely of mothballs, and the sleeves were frayed around the elbows. He had been married in that suit. Adam had lost a lot of weight since that day, but the full extent had never been clear until he saw the slack around his waist. When he tightened his belt, the excess fabric bunched up about his waist like pleats on a sloppily folded momo.
There had been days when Adam had considered looping that belt around his neck and escaping it all. What did happiness taste like? Was it sweet and sticky like gulab jamun? Rich and creamy as fresh kheer? Adam had never tried to cook with happiness. Nani never taught him. It probably wasn’t traditional.
Adam had been happy once. At least, he was pretty sure he remembered being happy. Back when he still had Nani, Mum, and Sreya. They had all left him, eventually. Sreya’s abandonment hurt the worst because it had been her choice. Adam couldn’t blame her absence on cancer or a car crash.
“You’ve just given up, Adam.” That was the last thing Sreya said as she left. Adam didn’t even have the energy to argue. He wore his wedding ring for three years after signing the papers, though. He’d only taken it off when he’d heard about Sreya’s second wedding.
The guards waved Adam straight into the car park. They didn’t ask any questions about his business with the warden. They didn’t care. No one cared about what happened to the men in orange suits. That was just the way of the world.
• • •
The warden made him wait for two hours. Adam sat in the sweltering hall cradling the jar of anger in his lap. Orange-clad inmates milled about the yard outside. Pigs in their sty. Chickens in their coop. A veritable feast. The condensed scent of so many sins was utterly intoxicating.
Once, Adam had been lucky enough to taste the wrath of a serial killer—a proper freak who picked up hitchhikers and kept their genitals in his fridge. Adam sliced that man’s wrath razor thin and ate it raw. The flavour was indescribable. Just the memory made his stomach grumble. There had to be at least a dozen serial killers in the yard below.
The door swung open, and Warden Thompson emerged. He had a kind, honest face, ill-suited to his disposition. Deep smile lines. Modest, wire-frame spectacles. Wispy, straw-blond hair. He reminded Adam of a parson or perhaps a Little League coach.
“Mr. Singh, so sorry to keep you waiting. Come in, please.” The warden’s smile was sharp enough to draw blood. He waved Adam inside.
“Thank you.” Adam slumped into the chair he was offered.
“To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“I think, um…” Adam cleared his throat. “I think there’s a problem with the produce.”
The warden’s smile widened. “What sort of problem?”
“Just… taste it. Please.” Adam offered the jar to Thompson.
The warden chuckled. “No thank you, Mr. Singh. You people are welcome to eat whatever you want, and I’m happy to carve up as many prisoners as you need, but I’ll stick to nice normal food for myself, thank you very much.”
“Please. Just… This isn’t wrath. It’s only anger.”
“I see.” The implication was clearly lost on the warden. “I’ll be honest, Mr. Singh. They sound like very similar ingredients to me.”
Adam took a deep breath. “I think Prisoner 48296 is innocent.”
“I see.” The warden adjusted his spectacles. “Well, obviously that’s nonsense. I probably just carved the wrong piece. Accidents happen, as I’m sure you know.” His smile was nearly ear to ear.
“But that’s the problem. Anger ripens into wrath. Wrath replaces anger. You can’t just harvest one from someone with the other.”
“Listen to me, Singh. That Paki bastard isn’t just guilty. He’s subhuman. He’s a vile, loathsome beast. Shot three people for forty bucks and a packet of Twizzlers.”
“But that kind of wrath would be unmissable.”
“So maybe he’s been reformed? Rehabilitated? Hallelujah, the system works!” The warden was no longer smiling.
“That would still leave an aftertaste.” Adam took a deep breath. “I think we should tell someone.”
“I don’t know. Someone. A lawyer, maybe?”
“Christ! You’re going to give me an aneurysm! What would you tell them? That a convicted murderer might be innocent because his sins taste funny? Do you really think that will hold up in court?”
There wasn’t much difference between the warden and his charges. Thompson just hadn’t been caught yet. Of course, he didn’t see it like that. In his mind, an orange jumpsuit made someone less than human. Harvesting sins from a prisoner was no morally worse than plucking grapes from a vine, albeit noticeably less profitable.
Adam couldn’t meet the warden’s gaze. “I think we should try.”
“No. Do you know what will happen when you report this? Lawyers won’t care. Journalists won’t care. But the tax men will. They’ll come knocking on my door to ask how long I’ve been selling sins for, and why I’ve never paid tax on a single jar.”
“I wouldn’t know anything about that,” lied Adam.
“You do. Of course you do, or you’d have asked why my prices are so low.” The warden leaned in close. Close enough for Adam to smell the sins lurking beneath his cedarwood cologne: the rich tang of pride, the saccharine sweetness of greed. Not a whiff of guilt, though. “No one cares about helping that animal. To the outside world, he’s already dead. You tell anyone, they’ll just come for us. And mark my words, you won’t last two days in prison.”
The warden was probably right. Adam did not resist as Thompson pulled the incriminating jar from his fingers. In that moment, he despised himself.
• • •
But Adam had to know. Paki bastard. That was what the warden called Prisoner 48296. Plenty of people had shot up bodegas, but that certainly helped narrow it down. Adam lay in bed, scrolling through the search results for Pakistani shooter bodega three dead. His phone had a cracked screen and a purple, pixelated corner. When his first search produced nothing of interest, Adam tried Indian shooter bodega three dead. Then Afghan shooter bodega three dead. The last search revealed what he was looking for.
Ahmad Malik. That was his name. Ahmad Malik. Prisoner 48296.
The headlines were less than subtle: ‘Muslim Immigrant Slaughters Three,’ ‘Jihad on Aisle Nine.’ Of all the articles Adam read, only one mentioned that Ahmad Malik had briefly worked as a translator for Coalition forces. He hadn’t flown westward by choice. He was fleeing Taliban retribution.
Ahmad Malik had arrived with his wife and two young daughters. He spent four years driving cabs to support them, till the day someone sauntered into a little bodega and shot everyone inside. The police picked up Malik three hours later, smoking by the bins where the offending revolver had been dumped. There was no eyewitness testimony. No DNA evidence. No fingerprints on the gun. Just some grainy surveillance footage of a nondescript brown man entering the bodega, but that was enough to convince the jury.
Adam studied Malik’s mugshot, searching for signs of guilt. Something to soothe his conscience. Anything. Anything at all. He found nothing. The police could have picked up any brown man out smoking that night. Hell, they could have picked up Adam himself.
The ceiling fan spun overhead, each blade endlessly chasing the next. How many times had Adam considered dangling himself from that fan? Enough to know it wouldn’t hold his weight. The entire apartment was crumbling around him. Mould on the walls, stains on the carpet. Tax fraud carried a maximum sentence of five years in prison, but how much worse could things really get? He already had bars on the windows.
Adam had never held another man’s fate before. What would Nani do? She wouldn’t have bought sins from a crooked warden in the first place. Adam dialled the first number that came to mind and waited for Sreya to pick up.
“Hello? Who is this?”
Adam’s words caught in his throat. He hadn’t heard Sreya’s voice in a long time. “I need help,” he croaked.
“Adam? Adam, is that you? How did you get this number?”
Adam heard a high-pitched voice in the background. “Who are you talking to Mummy?” A daughter. Sreya’s daughter. She had always told Adam she didn’t want kids.
“No one, sweetie. Go back to your crayons.”
“Sreya, please. There’s no one else.”
“You can’t keep doing this, Adam.”
“I don’t know what to do.”
“Well, you’ll just have to figure it out yourself.” Sreya hung up on him.
Adam called her again and it went straight to voicemail. “Sreya, please…” He whispered. They had always been there for each other. Always. She was his first kiss. First love. They used to skip fourth period together and smoke beneath the bleachers. It was Sreya who had taught him how to roll cigarettes. Sreya had been there to catch him after Mum’s crash. After Nani’s diagnosis. Adam had grown so used to Sreya catching him, he barely noticed when he kept falling. Then one day, he just hit the pavement.
Adam tossed the phone away. How was he supposed to save Ahmad Malik? He couldn’t even save himself. He wished he’d just thrown the jar away and never gone to see the warden. It was so much easier to ignore a man before you knew his name.
The name bounced about Adam’s head like a basketball. He lay awake in the gloom, watching his ceiling fan spin round and round and round.
• • •
The new pride was delicious. Gamey and tender. Warden Thompson had clearly gone above and beyond to find a proper narcissist for Adam’s most recent delivery. It was a peace offering of sorts. See, we can be friends. This can still work out. Adam sliced the pride into thick chunks, trying not to think about Ahmad Malik. Trying not to think about the innocent man languishing in a cell he didn’t deserve for a crime he hadn’t committed.
Adam braised the pride with a lovely garlic and ginger gravy. The air was heavy with aromatic spices: cinnamon, cardamom, cloves. Everything Adam needed for a delicious pride rogan josh. The scent was almost strong enough to mask his own pungent guilt. Almost. Guilt emanated from his every pore, sour and sulphurous as rotten eggs. Adam had basted himself with deodorant before work, and even that wasn’t enough.
The bell on the counter dinged. It was a customer. A young woman. She recoiled as Adam approached. “Do you smell that?”
The deodorant definitely wasn’t enough. Adam had hoped it was just his professionally trained nose, but no. It must have been a pungent guilt indeed if even the customer could smell it. “Smell what?” he asked.
“It stinks like rotten eggs.” The woman grimaced. “God, it reeks.”
“It probably blew in from outside.” What was Adam supposed to say? You’d reek too, if you let an innocent man rot in jail. “Can I interest you in today’s special? We just received a fresh shipment of pride from a true narcissist. Very tasty.”
“No, thank you.” The woman looked ill. “I think I’ll try somewhere else for lunch.”
Adam didn’t even have the energy to beg. He just stood at the counter, fighting tears. When Adam finally returned to his rogan josh, he found the pride had burned, blacked beyond salvation. Such gorgeous produce ruined by a moment of carelessness. Adam should have turned the heat down, but of course he hadn’t. His entire life had been a long string of failures. Who was he kidding? He couldn’t keep Aunty Ghita’s afloat. Sink in a few months. Sink today. What difference did it make, really? May as well fail on his own terms. At least then, he could do a little good before he went. At least then, he had one last chance to matter.
• • •
Adam spent the whole night crafting his email. He drafted and redrafted each sentence, trying to sound eloquent, impassioned, consequential—but Adam had never been any of those things. In the end, he settled on truth, served simple and plain:
To whom it may concern:
My name is Adam Singh, and I am a sin eater. I own and operate Aunty Ghita’s sinnery on 39th street. For the past three years, I have been buying my sins from Jeffery Thompson, the warden of the county prison. During this time, I have tasted the sins of a great many killers. This is how I know that one of the warden’s prisoners, Ahmad Malik, is in fact innocent…
Adam wondered whether Nani would have been proud of him defending the downtrodden dreamers. Had she not travelled west seeking a land of equal opportunity, where people could thrive free from unjust persecution?
Adam sent the email to lawyers and judges, police, politicians, and reporters. Anyone who could possibly help. Doubt struck the moment he pressed SEND. What if the warden was right? What if no one cared about the innocent man languishing in jail? It was too late to change anything. He couldn’t unsend the emails. Adam could only wait in the gloom with the ceiling fan creaking overhead.
• • •
Adam stood on the pavement where he always waited for his deliveries. Part of him hoped that the warden’s driver was still en route. It was always possible that his emails would be dismissed as an odd joke. Or perhaps all those important people were too important to care about locking up a poor, pathetic grub like Adam? He didn’t really believe that. If anything, he suspected the opposite was true. Adam glanced at his watch. Nearly an hour late. His phone buzzed. It was the warden. Adam picked up and said nothing, letting the angry tirade wash over him.
“You little shit! You little roach! We had a good thing going, but you had to ruin it! And for what? Do you really think anyone cares that he’s innocent? Are you really that stupid? Malik will never walk free. Never! But you… I told them all about you! Do you have any idea what the other prisoners will do to you? You harvested them. You fed on them. You’re a parasite–”
Adam hung up and crushed his cigarette underfoot. That was it, then. It was done. For better or for worse. Adam went back inside the store and turned off the ovens. There was nothing left to cook. Aunty Ghita’s had served its last meal. He wanted to tell Sreya he loved her, had never stopped loving her, but the call went straight to voicemail. He didn’t leave a message.
Adam locked the doors to Aunty Ghita’s and stole one last look at the restaurant his Nani had founded all those years ago. He had just enough tobacco for one final smoke. Adam sat in the gutter, rolling his last cigarette. He had spent so much of his life in a sweltering kitchen. It was nice to just sit in the fresh air as the stench of guilt began to fade. Sirens sounded in the distance. Adam wondered how long it would be before they came for him.