The pistol was pointed at his forehead. Karan could see down the muzzle…. All was dark….
He closed his eyes. Death would be so sweet…. Sunny….
“That’s good… resign.” The shooter was savouring the moment.
Resign…. Sunny…. her killer….. No….
Karan opened his eyes, a new motivation in them. He must fight. He must go on.
But it was too late. CRACK! The sound pierced Karan’s ears, he squeezed his eyes by reflex. Blood wet his cheek, warm on his skin. A pain shot out in his temple, like metal crushing his skull, and Karan lost consciousness.
His head hurt like hell. So much pressure round the skull… like a hundred cello-tape rounds were squeezing it in place. This must be what Hell feels like.
Lub dub…. Lub dub….
His heartbeat was getting normal. Great, let’s go see Hell!
The pain kept throbbing. His head was really beginning to kill him…. just an expression…
“Karan?” A voice broke through his tour plan of Hell.
Jeremy?! What was he doing in Hell? Of course! That’s where he would go too. God.. that shooter… got to Jem too, huh.
Matters of a different world, Karan ignored them. “Hey Jem. Can you see?”
“You can too, Karan. Just open your eyes real slow. The lights are already low, it shouldn’t be a problem.” Nice setting in Hell!
Karan tried to open his eyes. It took some time to gain control of his eyelids. When he finally pushed them back, his temples hurt again.
“Wait, I’ll increase the light. I’ll do it slow, give you time to adjust.”
Slowly, lights came switching on. Switching on?! Soon it was as bright as day. Nice! There own light-control!
“Hey Jem, did he get you too?”
He didn’t get a response. He heard Jeremy scuffle over. Then his face blocked the nearest light.
“You look good. Why does my head ache, Jem?”
Karan suddenly realised. That light…. a hospital ceiling… A Hospital Smell.
He turned his head. He jerked his head. “Jeremy?”
“It’s OK, Karan. You’re here.”
And Jeremy lunged forward, overcome with emotions so. He hugged Karan like his life depended on it.
From beneath Jeremy, Karan managed, “Jerrmii, jusst becoss I’m stuc to the bedd dusnt mean you can take advantage uff mi.”
Jeremy laughed away. “Man, I almost lost you.” He was, thankfully, not gonna cry, Karan noted.
Jem got up. “Hey, you rest… I got to go check with the desk… anyway, I still got to deal with Officer Yadav.”
“Ya… that.” Karan groaned. His head hurt!
“Hey! What hit me?”
“His gun. I didn’t exactly see it would drop right on you… when I shot him. Dude, straight in the heart. Another thing to explain to Officer Yadav.” Jeremy rolled his eyes and walked away.
Karan closed his eyes. My man, Jem.
“Karan. It’s Room 207.” Jeremy said, from the door.
My man, my man.
“Get down.” came a hurried command.
“Sorry?” asked Karan.
“Get off the ledge, and sit against the wall. Now.” the shooter replied, still not stopping with the work he was doing, which Karan could now see. He wished it wasn’t true.
What the shooter was furiously hustling with was the most diverse amount of ammunition and arsenal Karan had ever seen together. He saw weaponry in the Army all right, but never in such an eccentric pile- a barrel going through a trigger, bullets lying under a rifle, a poor quality walkie-talkie, which could only be described as a frail box with an antenna, incongruous and chilling. Karan knew who all of that was planned for. A neon-blue bag lay incapacitated, a little distance away. It seemed a marvel that all this had actually been contained in that shabby thing, but it must have been.
Karan looked properly. A rifle, three pistols, bullets for each, the “walkie-talkie”, a small cell-phone, a pair of good binoculars, and a tripod. That was all there was to it, yet it seemed all so dangerous, lying there that callously.
As he was looking, the shooter flung a few sheets of paper on top of it. There was no other word for it, he just flung the papers. Then having collected everything he probably had on him in the pile, he started readying the guns… putting in the mags… the bullets…. in ALL of them.
What a douche! Who the hell handles weaponry like this! And what the hell did he need the whole cavalry for?!
Calm as the shooter was, it WAS very strange, such a panic. And then the shooter stopped. Crouched on his toes, the shooter was going through the cell phone, one of the pistols dangling in one hand. Karan wrestled with the belt…
Jeremy had decided. Screw the shooter! Just as he was in the house, he would use his advantage of cover and carry out HIS plan. The shooter wasn’t helping, and he wasn’t going to get himself dead.
His trained mind set off on the routine tracks. Scan the Officer for guns. Just the usual police gun in the police gun-holder. It was to his side, the move would be easy. Two policemen standing behind him. Each with a gun. He should shut the door behind him. Controlling everyone at once would be a problem. As it is, Mrs. Virmani was a big black blot on any plan he made, however noble. Damn that lady! Jeremy got ready.
The door was opened, by another constable. Why one was INSIDE the house, Jeremy would have wondered in usual circumstances, but right now he was just dancing that it wasn’t Mrs. Virmani.
The two men went in, Jeremy shut the door. He thrust Officer Yadav just enough to pull out his pistol and still not knock him down. The constable had pulled out his own, and was aiming it at Jeremy but that was not his concern. They must not speak!
Having carried out this part of the plan properly, he handed the pistol back to Officer Yadav. The aim was to draw their complete attention. Quickly, Jeremy put a finger on his mouth, the traditional symbol of ‘quiet’ that was only too well ingrained in Indian children.
Both policemen were baffled. But now that they had their guns and Jeremy was begging them to keep quiet, they were at least not defensive. Suddenly, Jeremy started speaking. He was still miming that they don’t speak.
“Yes, Officer… yes, I tried to find Ankur… I had some phone numbers… common friends… no sir, I came up with nothing….” Jeremy knew he had to keep talking, just like a real conversation was going on. The shooter could still hear.
At the same time, he waved frantically for a pen. Another traditional gesture, joining the thumb and the forefinger and shaking the hand like one was scribbling. Only, this one was international! The constable was hooked. He saw his senior lower his gun, ready but not aiming. He took that as permission to give the boy the pen he had in his pocket. Jeremy found a flier on the center-table. Furiously he scribbled and scrawled a little note and rushed to give it to the Officer.
Marksman nearby. Kidnapped friend. Armed. Don’t call Mrs. Virmani.
With that he started gesturing to his shirt. The mic!
Officer Yadav understood. This mission kept surprising Jeremy. He felt so patriotic then, he wanted to give Officer Yadav a big bear hug. He didn’t because the mic would be muffled.
Jeremy had been murmuring fake dialogues throughout. He snatched the paper and wrote- Fake a conversation. Stall.
“I know…. Ankur has been a real mystery… He didn’t even reply to Mrs. Virmani’s calls, she told us.” Officer Yadav couldn’t tell Jeremy the real news anymore.
“Constable Mishra, I want you to go out, at your post. Rather, why don’t you three go back to the station, I don’t think there is any more need for supervision…”
The constable had been under Officer Yadav for seven years. He read the finescript. Inform the station. Prepare them for the shooter.
“… and anyway, I’m going to be here for the time being…”
I am waiting for you, here.
“… with Jay.”
I’ll get to the root of it.
Constable Mishra went out, fast but not rushed. The shooter saw the three constables walk out of the colony. So far, things were good. The shooter waited for information. He waited for his shot, his guns ready.
“Wait here, Jay. I’ll go see if Mrs. Virmani can talk to us… my last talk with her didn’t go very well…. She won’t like us being in her house so often… but it’s necessary…” Jeremy nodded. He knew Officer Yadav was cutting them some slack. He welcomed the break from the double-timing thinking, the make-believe conversation.
As Officer Yadav went into a corridor, Jeremy spoke into the mic, for good measure- “What do you want me to do?” He waited for a phone call.
Karan was sitting a few steps away. The shooter had had to put the phone and the mic-transmitter on the floor, on loudspeaker, he was busy aiming two guns.
From the conversation he had picked up in the past few minutes, Karan knew that Jeremy was up to something. He could feel it in Jem’s words.
About time too. The belt was breaking slowly.
“Jay?” Officer Yadav said.
“Sir?… Good morning.” said ‘Jay’.
Jay?! Oh good, very very good! thought the shooter. And I was worried I was letting him easy. Deal with it Jeremy, let’s see how you do it.
The microphone was buzzing. The shooter listened attentively. He slipped the cell phone back in his pocket, he had no intention of getting Jeremy out of this rut.
“Didn’t you have to catch a flight back to Bangkok, Jay?” Officer Yadav didn’t waste any time casting his suspicions.
“Yes sir, I did. But I couldn’t leave Mrs. Virmani in this state, sir… so I called up my brother and told him to handle trade in Bangkok for a few days. It’s family business sir, I could delay it a little.” Jeremy didn’t like his excuse. He had no back-up, no proof to support anything he had said. How he would set up a ‘family’ in Bangkok, should the Officer want to know, was a horrendous vision.
“Hmmm… Very responsible, good. But you haven’t visited her Jay, my men would have told me otherwise…”
“No sir, I haven’t.” This time, Jeremy had a perfect answer, but he still wasn’t the least happy. He was going to give too much information to the shooter… What the hell?! As if dealing with Officer Yadav wasn’t enough!
“I spent a day trying to find Ankur, sir… he’s her son. She said she hadn’t heard from him… it felt strange.” Jeremy saw the officer stiffen.
“You said you were neighbours, Jay?” Officer Yadav was phishing for something.
“Yes sir, my family and hers were neighbours… ten years back. Ankur and I practically grew up together.” Jeremy replied. This was one lie he had had time to make earlier.
“Hmm… usually I don’t do this, you must understand. But the old woman doesn’t have any other close relative, family member, anyone. I am afraid I have news for you, bad news. Let’s go somewhere and talk.”
If it hadn’t been for the current circumstances, Jeremy would have jumped right in the opportunity. He could lie his way through a conversation easily, and would definitely want to if he could gather information. But the dilemma he was in , rather catastrophe, did not permit him to even sit by his own will.
Like a loyal servant, the cell phone rang at the perfect cue. It was the shooter. Of course.
“I must take this call, Officer.” Having got approval, he turned his back to the Officer and walked a little ahead. Nothing suspicious, nothing obvious.
“What do you want me to do?”
“I was wondering when they would pick up a case on that one. Go with him, but not beyond a two kilometres radius of this place. The rules still apply, Karan dies if you try anything. I want you back here in an hour. And you still have to sell him the weed.” The conversation was over.
Jeremy cursed the shooter heavily. Wait till HE is under the gun!
“Yes, Officer. Let’s go.”
“Anything serious?” Officer Yadav wasn’t used to other people walking away to take their calls, civilians usually didn’t have to want privacy.
Jeremy shook his head, aware that the shooter could still see him.
“Ok. Let’s go…”
And Officer Yadav started walking. Jeremy followed. But Officer Yadav turned right.. into Mrs. Virmani’s colony. There were no coffee-shops there… no place to sit and talk… just houses. Jeremy stalled.
“C’mon. We are going to her house. She knows you… it shouldn’t be a problem. Anyway, I need to talk to her too.”
She knows me, THAT IS the problem!
“You want to go to Mrs. Virmani’s house?” Jeremy said, more to the mic than to Officer Yadav.
“Yes. Is there a problem?”
Jeremy waited for the phone to ring, but it lay silent in his palm. Unwillingly, Jeremy took a step forward. Call god-damnit!
He went all the way to the door he had grown to hate, the bell was pressed, and they were waiting… but the phone did not ring.
“Jeremy and an Officer just entered Mrs. Virmani’s house.” Karan reported, his own thoughts rushing furiously. None of them were any bit happy, all completely terrified. Being able to open his eyes was not seeming any better an option.
The shooter was rushing with some things behind him. He was making a scuffle, but Karan couldn’t see just what.
He had finally had to use his trump card, the best part of his plan. But why, Karan was thinking? What was the unpredicted problem? And why was Jeremy in Mrs. Virmani’s house, that too with a police Officer?
Karan was as blind as before.
Karan was alive. At least till then.
Fifteen minutes had passed, and his hands were now going numb. The belt was digging into his wrists, and his eyes were hurting. Blind, literally and metaphorically. He really couldn’t hear anything the shooter was saying. Just random words- “sell” among them. Sell? What the hell did the shooter want sold?! And right now?
Things were not okay. The shooter was up to something really evil. Karan wasn’t sure how long he would live.
Think Jem, think!
It was hard to fill two meters distance with a successful escape route, especially when his thoughts kept flickering to Karan… and his fate.
What if I defied…? What if I said NO? But Karan….
Jeremy turned away. He was now a meter away from the blue-shirt man. He took out the cell phone. He would call the shooter and-
His thoughts were interrupted by the phone vibrating. It was the shooter. Of course, he was looking.
“I want to hear Karan’s voice. Before I do anything else.”
“You surprise me, Jeremy! That was smart. Here you go…”
There was some ruffle, it seemed that the shooter was pulling Karan.
“Speak to your girlfriend, fussy.” He heard the shooter say.
Jeremy waited for Karan’s voice. “How long Jem?”
His heart fell. Karan’s voice- so low, so tired. Sitting right under the sun, on a slim edge, blind, and bound…. seemed less dangerous than it was. Had it not been for their past training in the Army, Karan would long have been unconscious.
“Hold in there, Karan. I’ll get us out of this-”
“How sweet. Nothing beats two love birds, specially in a cage. Time’s running Jeremy. I’m beginning to think I won’t have to shoot Karan after all. I’ll just leave him to the sun. Poor guy… anyway, you do the trade, I might ease things for him, fair deal?” The phone clicked.
Jeremy turned and walked towards the blue shirt. Use those drama skills. Sell him the packages. Just sell it.
Once again in native Hindi, “Sir? ‘Scuse me, sir?”
The man turned. Jeremy almost fainted. It was Officer Yadav.
It made complete sense! The flurry in which he had come to Mrs. Virmani’s house in the morning, was obviously because of something serious. It was only natural that he would want to stay around… He was in plain clothes… he might be on guard… or gathering information.
But there was trouble. It was Officer Yadav, and he had recognised Jeremy.
Karan focused on every sound he could hear. He had felt the shooter move away, and was wondering what sort of gun was aimed at him at that moment. He was sitting on the edge of the roof, on the wall that marked it’s boundaries. Karan thought if jumping off would leave any of his bones intact. He decided against it. The only way he was going to ‘take a leap’ that day would be if he was shot. Then, at least, the crash won’t hurt.
His thoughts diverted to Jeremy. Never before in their life had the situation been remotely similar. In the fifteen years they had known each other, even before they had joined the Army, Jeremy had never ever needed to do something of which Karan was unaware. It was either both, or neither.
Karan was afraid.
Jeremy raked his brains. What the hell? If I pay the man so much extra, he might just create a scene! What does the buffoon want, to have me noticed?!
Jeremy crossed the street, towards Mrs. Virmani’s colony. How he wished he were twenty paces inside it, and not in this rut! He walked past the entrance, and stopped at the roadside shop, set up by two wooden poles and a scrap of tent. Business was low. Not many people cared to stop for packaged tobacco in the heat. All the worse for Jeremy, the magnanimous pay would be noticed.
Jeremy spoke, in native Hindi, and the microphone relayed the conversation to the shooter on the roof.
“How much for that white one, brother?” boomed Jeremy’s voice.
“This?! No, no sir, that’s not the one for you! I’ll show you- Ya, this one, sir will like this one good. Not that one sir, low quality stuff.”
“Is this your best?” Jeremy asked, playing along. “What’s it cost?”
“Won’t fool sir, this poor fellow! Yes, yes sir, just for you… The price is nothing…petty for sir…”
The shooter could hear the apprehension in the shopkeeper’s voice. He thought he was losing the deal, Jeremy had inquired about the price so quick . Anyway, he was in for a surprise.
“Hmm…. okay, I’ll take… let’s say, three packets. Here.”
The shooter looked down the roof, through the binoculars. The kit he had kept ready on the roof was very important for this stint to be carried off. He saw Jeremy handing over the money. The shopkeeper was hidden under the tent, but the shooter waited to see what happened.
It had been twenty-four bucks. Jeremy had given fifty rupee note. More then half, he had been right. More than half… what excuse would he make?
There were no buses for Jeremy to ‘suddenly catch’, and anyway, that wouldn’t go well with the shooter. The shopkeeper was counting out the change….
“Keep it. Keep the change.” Jeremy wanted to rush off with that but the man had heard.
“But sir, it’s too much.” For the first time in his life, Jeremy didn’t like honest people.
“No, no… you’re a good man. Buy something for your family…. You have a family, huh?”
The shopkeeper was alert. His eyes were wide.
“Yes, sir….. two sons… and my wife….”
“Good. Treat them out. Keep it.” Jeremy turned and walked away, breathing sharply. He knew that with that much profit, the man would be able to have a full meal that day, and still probably save some. A treat, as he had said.
Jeremy felt grateful for poverty. Yet another first.
Nice one, Jeremy. Nice one. The mic had faithfully relayed the conversation to the shooter, and he had heard all of it. Good dealing…. But let’s see you tackle the next!
He picked up the cell phone, and speed-dialed 1…. It was ringing….
Jeremy had walked a good distance away from the tobacco shop, when he took the call. He was expecting only more crap.
“Not bad…. but let’s see you manage this. There’s a man in a blue shirt standing about two meters ahead of you. See him?”
“Go and sell all the tobacco to him. Doesn’t matter how much he pays, just make him buy it.”
“What the hell?! Do you even want anything from this place or are you just playing us?! Damnit, it-” But the line was dead.
Jeremy knew they were just being tossed about. The shooter was just going to kill them, he wanted nothing.
He thought about Karan, sitting so near his end, and oblivious of any such thing.
But then, was he even alive?
The general opinion among the masses, about crime, is that it is a trade of the night. ‘The city is not safe in the dark’, hence they say. What usually follows in this prejudice is that “these criminals”, born a different breed from everyone else, are not people from the crowd of course. They live in shady corners, and walk in the streets only when their “animal minds” seek harm, and evil.
Defying all these beliefs, in an ‘innocent’ colony in Paschim Vihar, in broad daylight, three men stood, one gun pointed, thinking AND acting like criminals. Whose aim is nobler we are not to decide.
The unexpected visitor pressed his gun to Karan’s forehead, calm but not smiling anymore. Though the one in command, he knew he had to deal smartly. These weren’t just some Delhi-boys, he had seen that night.
Jeremy was only thinking about attacking the assailant by surprise, when he said, “Oh no you don’t. The time you’ll take to hit my leg, I will have pressed the trigger twice, sending at least one bullet into Karan’s brain here. Instant death for him; and you still get to deal with me. But good try.”
Jeremy hung back. It was Karan’s turn at epiphany. “Jem… It’s him…”, he whispered, suddenly understanding. The shooter who killed Varuna, shot at Mrs. Virmani, and probably also arranged Ankur and Sunny’s death.
“Ya, that’s better. Let’s start with introductions. You two are nuisances who are constantly creating trouble for me, and my best interest is to eliminate you once and for all. Of course, that won’t suit the two of you. So YOUR best option is to help me with what I want from you. Matters of the game, you will understand.”
It was a master plan. In fact it was so smart, even the collective brains of Karan and Jeremy couldn’t find loopholes. More than anything, the simplicity of the entire deal was baffling.
Jeremy would do the what the shooter said. A few necessary things before we move, he had said. He would only take the phone the shooter had brought for him, leaving behind his own. Some money, the shooter gave him. Before going, he would tie his belt around Karan’s hands, in front, not behind his back. And a piece of black cloth to Karan’s eyes, which the shooter had brought. Only a precaution, the shooter had said, to delay you. And anyway, my finger is faster than your wrists can be.
Jeremy would then wear a small microphone and walk out on the road, while the shooter took the blind, maimed Karan up to the top floor of the building they were standing under, to watch as Jeremy moved around, doing what he said. Via stairs. Lifts had a way of proving sticky in such situations.
“Any funny things with the mic, I pull the trigger. Anything happens to my view, I pull the trigger. You try and waft off the course, of course, I pull the trigger double quick. Not one task will take you away from the main road, not once out of sight. So don’t try,” he said.
And then he threw the bomb shell. The plan could not have been better. Sheer marvel.
Karan would not hear anything the shooter told Jem to do. Instead, he would report what Jem was doing, looking down the roof, when he was needed to. This gave the shooter immense power to deal with any other things that may come up, while not losing control on his prisoners.
Should Jeremy try a stunt, Karan would have to report fiction, and the shooter would know that instructions were not being followed. And from the opposite end of the roof where he would be managing the other business, he would send a bullet through Karan and make off.
Trying to find some way out, both men reluctantly went their ways. Jeremy was chillingly conscious of the shooter’s heavy dependence on his gun. No way he was carrying just one, he thought. He was right, as the shooter stepped back towards the building, Jeremy could see the outline of at least two more guns under his kurta, one on each side. Jeremy turned away.
Karan couldn’t see anything. It was no use trying to hit the gun out of his captive’s hand, he could feel another on him. Anyway, the nozzle was too steady to be sent flying with one’s hands bound, and eyesight blocked. The trigger would be pulled by then too.
Karan hoped then, that they somehow be intercepted on the stairs. Some civilian, some kid, someone. At the same time, it was strange the shooter hadn’t thought of it. Did everyone really use the lift?!
They continued hurrying up the stairs. The shooter was fast. And he steered Karan quick too. I could try slipping. It would look an honest mistake. Create some sound somehow! But he never found one pot-plant to break, one metal plate to bang. The stairs were made of the usual cement and stone, so popular in Paschim Vihar. God, how he wished someone had opted for marble, it echoed so good!
Either the shooter was being very very smart, or these people really didn’t care for the staircase. Karan didn’t like how things were going. He didn’t like being blind.
Jeremy’s mind was the model of speed. In fractions of a second, he was formulating plans and rejecting them, unable to find just the thing. All he knew was he had to get Karan and himself out of the shooter’s reach, because their was no foresight on what they would be in, once they left this locality. Their was no hope whether they would even live.
Jeremy stood still, waiting for the call and a joyous thought.
His speculations were cut short by the shooter’s cell vibrating in his palm. Please God, let something go wrong in his ruddy plan! Jeremy took the call. “Ya.”
“First job, there’s a dinghy shop on the road. Selling tobacco primarily, and other trivial stuff. Go to the man on that shop, give him fifty bucks, take three packets of his most expensive weed, and don’t take the change.”
“Why not? I will be paying him way above double.”
“Try not to think that much, it just itches me to finish you two quicker. And just wanted to let you know, I have my rifle aimed at Karan’s heart. And he doesn’t know it.” The phone clicked.
Geez, the lunatic even had a rifle!
Jeremy was sweating.