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Chapter Four: Fire

TMO-Garuda

Vikram came back home, feeling a crushing urge to have a drink and ease the pain running through his body. He looked in the kitchen and found a fistful of rum left. He took out a bottle of water and poured some in the bottle of rum. With the sun baking the terrace, he reconsidered drinking upstairs and sat down by the window.

He sipped the rum and a streak of warmth ran through his sweaty body. He set the bottle down and turned on the room cooler. The rum’s heat did burn his throat and belly a little, but the gradual easement of pain in his joints made him feel better.

After two more sips, he took out his notebook and wrote what Shakeel had told him. He would have normally dismissed such stories from Shakeel. However, the fear Vikram saw in Shakeel’s eyes, the anxiousness with which he talked about the Aghori made him almost certain he was telling the truth. 

He went over his previous notes.

‘A child kidnapped at the seventh of each month’ he muttered and grabbed his phone to check the date. ‘June 15. 21 days until the next victim. July 7’

‘Wait’ he said out loud. ‘July is the seventh month of the year’

He noted it down and made a circle around the number 7. Then he took a large gulp from the bottle of rum and lit a cigarette. To check his wounds, he softly ran his hand around the bruises on his face and chest, each wound stinging upon touch.

His phone rang. He saw Chaubey’s name flash over the screen and sighed. As Vikram lifted the phone to his ear, a searing pain shot through his arm. He hissed and put his phone on the speaker.

‘Sahab! Hello! Hello!’

‘Yes. What is it Chaubey?’

‘Just checking in sahab. I thought you’d have bored yourself to death at home’

‘I’m fine’ Vikram said.

‘Acha acha. Sahab, can I come over? There is something I want to discuss with you’

‘What?’ Vikram asked irritably.

‘It would be better if I could speak in-person’

Vikram took a deep breath and shook his head. ‘Fine. Don’t bring along anyone else’

‘Haan ji sahab. I’ll be there by seven’

‘Chaubey! Bring a bottle of whiskey too’

‘Sahab, I can’t drink today. I have to take memsaab for a movie. There is some new Salman Khan movie she wants to see’

‘The whiskey is for me. You can leave later if you want’ Vikram explained.

‘Oh acha’ Chaubey muttered. ‘Okay. I will bring the whiskey. A pack of cigarettes too?’

‘Yes. That too’

‘Ok sahab. See you’

He cut the call and slid back into the chair. The cooler’s noise after a time almost seemed melodic to him.

Vikram rose from the chair, the pain striking him again. He ran the rest of the rum down his throat and trudged to the front of the cooler. The cool breeze slammed over his sweaty body going through the stinging scars and bruises, making him sigh in relief.

He stood there for a few more minutes and then went to the kitchen. He stood and ate leftover food, some stale rotis and chicken curry. Then, he took a painkiller and washed it down with a glass of milk.

He came back to his bedroom and saw the empty bottle of rum. ‘Fuck’ he said. ‘What have I done?’

With as much vigor as he could muster, Vikram went back to the kitchen and checked the painkiller he took. Though there wasn’t any explicit warning on the strip not to take it with alcohol, Vikram assumed it was implicitly implied.

‘I could die’ he said emphatically. A part of him wondered whether subliminally suicide was all he wanted.

Vikram shook his head and went to the washroom. He knelt down at the toilet pot, his back aching as he did so and stuck three fingers down his throat.

As he threw up, Vikram went through all the times he had thrown up before. One time, he had thrown up in front of his son. The boy was seven then.

Guilt swamped him as he spat out vomit into the pot. Why did I drink in front of him? A seven-year-old boy. Why? Was it the last thing he remembered about me?

Dazed, he fell on the floor. His eyes were open. He could see his empty room, the bottle of rum on the table beside the window gleaming against the sun through the open window. He kept repeating the same question in his head. Was it the last thing he remembered about me? Did he only remember his father vomiting?

He blinked slowly. The sunlight receded, and the room grew dimmer. He felt someone’s hand running through his hair. He heard a voice. No, father. I remembered you taking me out to dinner. I remembered playing ludo with you. I remembered the time you took me to Shimla. I remembered the time you snuck chicken in the house when Ma was sleeping.

‘Varun?’ he said, coughing.

He blinked again. In the dim room, he saw a man. The man wore a black cloak around his body and over his head. Vikram couldn’t make out his face, as water clogged his eyes to make everything blurry. But he guessed and whispered. ‘The Aghori’

The last thing he saw was the man walking towards him through his watered eyes. Then, he passed into a deep sleep.

****

When his eyes opened, Vikram lay on his bed. His doorbell rang loudly and with force. Amidst the ringing, he could hear Chaubey’s shouting. ‘SAHAB! KANDPAL SAHAB!’

He rose from bed. There was no pain in his arms, nor did he feel the sting from the bruises he had on his face and chest. In fact, he felt rebuilt, as if somebody had swung a wand and cured him.

Vikram wriggled his arms and legs to make sure the lack of pain wasn’t an aberration. He ran his hand over his face to feel the bruises and the swollen eyes. The wounds were there, but the pain no longer remained. He pressed on the bruise below his lower lip and felt nothing. He walked to the door, even quickening his pace to check whether his knees hurt. They didn’t.

‘Sahab!’ Chaubey screamed, horrified. ‘What happened to your face?’

He stuttered before finally arriving at an explanation. ‘I fell from my scooter. Come in’

Chaubey walked in, his face tense. ‘Where did you fall? When did this happen?’

‘Uh, the night when I called you for Aarti madam’s address. I ran into a tree a few streets away’

Chaubey glanced Vikram from head to toe and nodded. ‘Well, I’m glad you’re fine. Sahab, whenever something happens, please call. I feel scared for you’

Vikram waved him off. ‘Enough Chaubey. I’m a sixty-year-old man. What brings you here?’

Chaubey looked around the room and said. ‘Sahab, I’ve never seen your house so clean’

Vikram hadn’t noticed the state of his home. His eyes widened as he glanced over the clean floor. There wasn’t a speck of dust. The dirty window was closed and clean. He walked to the kitchen to find all the dishes washed and arranged in the stand. The slab shone against the yellow light of the bulb. He paced to the bathroom, remembering the mess he made while throwing up. Nothing. The bathroom was even cleaner than the kitchen and smelled of lemons.

Then he went to the mirror to look at himself for a second. He was in a sparkling white vest and pajamas. There were no marks of vomit or saliva.

‘Is everything okay sahab?’ asked Chaubey as he placed a bottle of whiskey and a cigarette pack on the table. Too confused to notice anything, Vikram bobbed his head and sat down on the chair beside the table.

‘So, how are you?’ asked Chaubey.

Vikram pressed his temples and said. ‘You said you wanted to discuss something Chaubey. Go ahead’

‘Uh, well, I’ve wanted to come over ever since you got suspended sahab. I j-just, I want to make it clear that I didn’t know it was a fake encounter. I know you’re angry at the CO, but know I had nothing to do with the cover up’

Vikram grimaced as he held his face in his hands. ‘Uh, yeah. I knew Chaubey. You’re too good to get caught in this mess’

‘Sahab, you don’t look well. Should I get you some medicine or get a doctor? My brother-in-law is a dog doctor, but he says he can treat humans too’

Vikram chucked as he turned to Chaubey. ‘No no. Why are you standing? Sit down. I’ll get a glass of water. Or whiskey. You want whiskey?’

‘No, no sahab. Remember, I told you I have to go to the movie with memsaab. Can I smoke, if you don’t mind?’

‘Yeah yeah. I’ll get a lighter’

They lit cigarettes and smoked. Vikram asked. ‘So how are things at the chowki?’

‘Nothing much. The CO is wearing sunglasses to cover his eye. Rat bastard! You were right to punch the asshole’

Vikram nodded. ‘Vishnu, Aarti madam’s son. Is someone looking into his case?’

Chaubey shook his head. ‘No. The CO told all SIs not to bother. Think about it sahab. She dragged our name, your name, into the CBI investigation. The CO is making no efforts to help her.’

Vikram remained stone-faced. He was hardly surprised that the CO wasn’t helping the widow.

‘Sahab, I almost forgot. Why were you asking for her address that night?’

Vikram shifted in his chair. He stubbed his cigarette in the ashtray and stared at Chaubey for a second. ‘Chaubey I need your help’

‘Anything sahab. Tell me’

‘I am looking for Vishnu, the missing boy’

Chaubey, who stood by the kitchen door until then, walked to the chair across Vikram and sat down. ‘Really?’ he asked feebly.

Vikram nodded.

Chaubey remained silent for a few minutes. Vikram wondered whether he would ask why he was looking for the missing boy. He hoped he would understand.

Chaubey pressed his lips and shook his head. ‘I get it sahab. I get it. You’re a good man sahab’

Vikram felt queasy at being called good. He half smiled and sat back in his chair. ‘You can’t tell the CO about this’

‘Of course’ said Chaubey.

‘Also, I need to access police records of the city. Is there a way you can get me in?’

‘For finding the boy?’ Chaubey asked.

Vikram shrugged. ‘What else?’

Chaubey nodded. ‘Yes, I can help you. Most records are digital now. What type of records do you want to look into?’

‘Missing kids. Since January this year’

Chaubey bit his lip and moved his head around. ‘Hmm, I know a guy in the cyber cell. I can get you there, but you’ll have to give him something to keep his mouth shut’

‘Of course’ muttered Vikram. ‘Get me your man. When can I meet him?’

‘Now would be a great time. Most officers in the cyber cell leave by six. My man, he is some weirdo. Stays at the station late in the night curled up on his computer. If you go now, nobody would notice. I can call him and say you’re coming.’

Vikram rose from the chair and said, ‘Make the call and send me the address. This guy, what is his name?’

‘Shanta Kumar. I’m calling him’

Chaubey made the call as Vikram changed into a loose grey T-shirt and trousers.

‘Ok sahab. The weirdo has agreed. He says to come by around ten. I’ll text you the address in a while.’

Vikram nodded. As Chaubey left, Vikram called after him.

‘Yes sahab. What happened?’

‘When I met Aarti madam, she told me the CBI wallah had cleared me. Have you heard about this?’

‘Really! She said that!’ Chaubey said. ‘All we know at the station is that the Delhi wallah went back to Delhi. We assumed you asked Vidhayak ji to intervene’

Vikram scratched his head and sighed. ‘Fine. Thank you Chaubey’

****

The man Chaubey spoke of worked in Shivpurwa. Vikram felt like having a few drinks again, but decided against doing so. After Chaubey left, he went through his home again, amazed at how clean it was. He checked the toilet pot to see if any marks of vomit remained. There were none. Everything had been scrubbed clean.

He checked the mop used to clean the floor in the washroom. Most days it was dry because Vikram hardly ever wiped the floor. That day, it was wet. 

‘The Aghori’ Vikram murmured.

He went to his door and opened it. There was no one. He walked to his neighbor and rang the bell. A large woman in her nightie opened the door. She took a step back at seeing Vikram’s blackened eye.

‘Kandpal ji what happened?’ she shrieked.

‘Oh this, nothing. I fell from my scooter. Bhabhi ji, were you at home this afternoon?’

Distracted by Vikram’s eye, the woman frowned and replied. ‘Yes, I was here’

‘Did you see anyone come to my home? Anyone strange? Wearing a black cloak?’

‘What? No.’ she said.

‘Are you sure?’

She nodded, still distracted by his eye. ‘Yes, I’m sure’

Vikram shook his head. ‘Ok, thank you. Also, have you seen any Aghori baba roaming around near the building?’

‘Aghori baba?’ she said shrilly. ‘I see many here and there. No one comes near the building though.’

Vikram thanked her and came back to his home. He opened his window and sat down on the chair.

‘Wait’ he said to himself. ‘Who closed the window in the afternoon?’ He frantically opened the window and looked down.

On a narrow street, there was darkness but for a small street lamp. The shops were shuttered and closed. There were no cars or bikes driving through. Hawkers and shopkeepers usually flooded the street. That night, it was empty. Vikram didn’t notice the empty street though. He stared in horror at the man in a black cloak standing beneath the street lamp.

His black cloak shone under the white gaze of the lamp. He looked slim; it was difficult for Vikram to tell underneath his heavy cloak. He couldn’t make out his face either as he stood with his head lowered.

‘Aey!’ Vikram shouted.

The man slowly raised his head and met Vikram’s gaze.

‘Motherfucker!’ screamed Vikram and dashed out of his home. He sprinted downstairs and behind his building to the empty street.

The Aghori had left.

****

Vikram walked back home, still struck by the Aghori’s face.

He didn’t fear the Aghori. Having lived in Varanasi all his life, seeing Aghoris here and there was normal.

‘The eyes’ Vikram muttered. The eyes of the Aghori on the street made his skin crawl. There was something about them, something inexplicable. Vikram had seen nothing like it.

He came back home and saw his window. Not daring to look down at the street again, he closed the window and bolted his door. He checked the lock on the door twice before sitting back down and lighting a cigarette.

Inadvertently, he took out his notebook and wrote what he saw.

The eyes, they were like mine, like anyone else’s. But they shone. They shone like the fire of a pyre. And I felt it. I felt the pyre burning through me. In that one moment, the moment his eyes met mine, flames set my heart ablaze.

He looked over what he wrote and promptly tore out the page. He took the lighter from the table and set the page alight.

As the page burned, Vikram grabbed the bottle of whiskey and drank some. He turned on the TV and turned up the volume. A news anchor was screaming on the television as the panelists tried to scream louder. The whiskey and the screaming from the TV helped him recompose his senses. He lit a cigarette and lay down in bed when the doorbell rang.

He sprang from bed and dashed to his cupboard. A Glock 17 pistol lay underneath his pile of underwear. The UP Police had never issued him a weapon, but for an air rifle, as he was only a constable. He had bought a pistol a few months back when the CBI investigation began.

Vikram took the pistol out checked if the magazine was intact. It was. He turned the gun to the door and took a step back.

‘Who is it?’ he shouted. He wished he had a keyhole.

‘Vikram bhai. Shakeel bhai sent me’

Vikram sighed in relief and put the gun back in his cupboard. He opened the door.

‘Yes. What is it?’ asked Vikram.

‘Vikram bhai, Shakeel bhai told me to bring your scooter around. I’ve parked it downstairs. Do you want to check?’

‘No’ Vikram said. ‘Just give me the keys’

 The man handed the keys and left. Vikram checked the time. It was nine. He stuffed the bottle of whiskey and cigarettes in his pocket and the pistol at the back of his waist.

He drove to Shivpurwa. The address was of a public school. The Varanasi cyber cell was one in name only. In operation, it was under the central government in Delhi, one of many around India used as a base of operation for counter-terrorism activities. Every cop in Varanasi knew about it, even though the government had tried to hide it. There was almost nothing the government could hide from an entire police force.

He reached the school at a quarter to ten and parked his scooter at the gate. Despite the repairs, the scooter was still in a bad state with its loud coughing noise and rickety balance.

‘They just painted it over’ he said glancing over the scooter.

Vikram went to the gate where a security guard sat beside a cooler. He said. ‘I am here to see Shanta Kumar’

The guard didn’t look up at him and waved his hand. ‘Third floor. Take a right from the main staircase. There is a computer lab at the end of the corridor.’

Vikram walked up to the school. He climbed the staircase and turned right on the third floor for the computer lab. There wasn’t a soul in the school.

He entered the computer lab. Like any standard computer lab, there was an array of systems lined in the room. In the corner, there sat a fat man laid back in a sliding chair.

‘Shanta Kumar’ Vikram said loudly, his voice echoing in the empty lab. The man didn’t respond.

Vikram walked up to him and saw him immersed in his laptop wearing earphones. He tapped his shoulder. The man frantically jumped from his chair, kicking a row of chairs to the side and lashing at Vikram.

‘Hey hey’ Vikram said, taking a few steps back and raising his hands. ‘Chaubey sent me. Are you Shanta Kumar?’

The fat man didn’t say a word as he clutched his waist and breathed heavily. He motioned Vikram to sit down.

‘You scared me’ Shanta said finally. ‘I am Shanta Kumar. Yes, before we begin, ten thousand bucks is my flat rate. If I have to get in somewhere, you must pay a thousand bucks for every ten minutes the job takes, on top of the flat rate’

Vikram shook his head and took out his wallet. ‘Here is ten. There is no need for any getting in. I need to access the local police database’

Shanta nodded and took the wad of notes. ‘Good. I don’t enjoy doing illegal stuff either. Ok, what information do you need?’

Vikram leaned forward. ‘I need missing children records…’ Shanta interrupted him.

‘That is a tall order. Kids disappear every day in Varanasi. You need to be specific’

‘Let me finish. I need records of the seventh of each month since January. Children aged seven who went missing on the seventh of each month since January.’

Shanta, puzzled, turned to his computer and typed. Five minutes, he said. ‘This is weird’

‘What?’ Vikram asked, pulling his chair closer to the computer.

‘A seven-year-old child has disappeared on the seventh of each month since January. This is the funny part. On the seventh of each month, no other child disappeared.’

‘What is the average number of children disappearing?’

‘Well, ten or twelve. In most cases, kids disappearing on other days of the month were found. But these kids, the ones disappearing on the seventh, they remain missing.’

‘Can you get the case records?’

Shanta smiled. ‘What else did you pay me for?’ He printed the records and stacked the sheets in a folder before handing it to Vikram.

‘Easy money’ remarked Shanta. ‘I wish more people who came were as specific as you. Most of the time, I have to work my ass off for two hours to get what people want. With you, just ten minutes. Tell you what, just because you were so specific, I will charge five thousand bucks for the next job, and five hundred bucks for every ten minutes of extra getting in

Vikram thanked him and left, holding the heavy file by his side. He reached his scooter and stuffed the file under the seat. Before he turned the key of the scooter, his phone rang. It was Chaubey again.

‘What happened?’ asked Vikram without saying hello.

‘Sahab! The SP has called all cops to gather at the ghats. All cops, on duty and suspended. Everyone has to report at the ghats in ten minutes’

Vikram could hear sounds of shouting and screaming in the background.

‘Chaubey calm down. Where are you? What happened?’

Chaubey’s voice grew thin. ‘Sahab! I’m at the Assi Ghat. Sahab come quickly!’

‘Chaubey! What happened?’

His voice grew thinner. Vikram could hear the screams growing louder. ‘Sahab. Someone has set the Ganga on fire.’

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