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Chapter Three: The Guardian

TMO-Garuda

Vikram waited in the meeting room at the Central Prison in Varanasi. Being suspended meant he couldn’t go to the chowki. So he sat in plain civilian clothes, a lightly striped beige shirt and brown trousers, the only clothes he had which resembled khaki uniform.

‘Arre Vikram bhai’ echoed a voice.

A short man emerged from the door at the enclosed end of the waiting area where the prisoners stood. The area was barricaded by iron grills. 

The man was clad in a white kurta and pajamas. He kept smiling at Vikram ‘So Vikram bhai. What made you think of me?’

Vikram approached the man, stone faced.

 ‘How are you Shakeel?’, asked Vikram.

‘You know bhai, just relaxing. Even the best of us need to take a break once in a while’

‘I know’ sighed Vikram.

Shakeel eyed Vikram. ‘Bhai, is something wrong? You look very tense’

‘No’ replied Vikram, slightly surprised by the concern shown by Shakeel. ‘I need a favor’

Vikram put his hand inside his front shirt pocket and took out the photo of Vishnu. ‘This child is missing. I need some information’

 Shakeel took the photo through the barricades and his eyes immediately lit up. ‘Arre Vishnu!’

‘You know him?’

‘Of course! Krishna’s son na?’

Vikram nodded.

‘Yes yes I know him. Poor boy was devastated when Krishna died. All thanks to you’

Vikram felt a jolt of embarrassment.

‘So he is missing?’, continued Shakeel.

‘Yes’

‘Why are you investigating?

Vikram frowned. ‘What do you mean?’

‘You killed the boy’s father. If I were you, I would stay away’

‘You are not me’ hissed Vikram. ‘You are a lowly scum rat who was stupid enough to get caught. Now, can you help me?’

Shakeel smiled. ‘Yes! There is the Vikram bhai I know. Rude, insensitive and purely instrumental. I can help you Vikram bhai, I can help many people. Have you ever heard the saying that there is no free lunch?’

Vikram felt like pulling his hair out, but resisted and said through his teeth. ‘What do you want?’

‘Oh, straight to business then’ gushed Shakeel and whistled to the policeman guarding the waiting room. The policeman promptly went away to give the two gentlemen some privacy.

‘So this is what I need you to do. Tomorrow, some business is going down in Baragaon. Two parties are meeting and there will be an exchange of goods. The first party will come and keep a bag at a decided location.  Now, I want you to go and get the bag left by the first party before the second party arrives’

‘You want me to disrupt a deal’

‘Only to save a poor boy’ gleaned Shakeel. ‘This is child’s play for you Vikram bhai. I know you will be up for the task. Do we have an agreement?’

Begrudgingly, Vikram nodded.

‘Excellent. One of my men will call you today and give the exact location I’m about to help you now. Vishnu was seven years old, right?’

‘Yes’

Shakeel looked in both directions and then motioned Vikram to stand closer. He then spoke in a hushed tone.

‘For the past six months, kids are being kidnapped in Varanasi. Now this is India and children are always getting picked up, but here is the strange part. Kidnappings are happening on the seventh of each month, and each child getting picked up is seven years old’

Vikram grimaced. ‘Have you been watching movies huh? Stop telling me stories’

‘Arre bhai I’m not lying. Go check your records. On the seventh of each month a seven year old boy is getting picked up in Varanasi for the past six months. I’m not a genius, but the number seven is important here’

‘So this has been happening for six months, meaning six children are gone. Probably a seventh is about to be kidnapped then?’

‘If I were to put my money, yes’ Shakeel said.

‘Where did you get this information?’

Shakeel shrugged. ‘I’m not lazy. I observe things. Go check your records and see where these kids went missing. I bet there will be something related to seven’

Vikram wrote down what Shakeel had told him. Considering his old age and drinking habits, Vikram deemed it best to note down everything important.

‘Anything else?’

‘Some free advice if you’re looking for some. Forget about this case’

Vikram frowned at the statement. ‘Have you heard something?’

Shakeel again moved closer to the grill making sure nobody listened. ‘Vikram bhai, think about it. This is not a random gang. Why would a kidnapper kidnap only seven year olds, on the seventh of each month. Who in his right mind would be so predictable. Some psycho out there is doing this for some jaadu tona. Stay away from such people bhai’

‘Stop it Shakeel. You’ve been watching too many movies. This is some idiot with a connection to a trafficking gang’

Shakeel shrugged. ‘You may be right, even though I find it hard to believe. Child traffickers are lazy and careless. Your kidnapper is neither. He has been doing this for six months without your smart colleagues noticing any trace. Anyways, it is free advice Vikram bhai. Take it or leave it’

…..

Vikram was on his way to Baragaon, still trying to come to terms with the fact that he was acting on the word of a known conman and felon. His scooter powered through the dusty roads of NH 31, guzzling fuel and billowing smoke

It was 10:30 in the night and the highway was crawling with transport trucks traveling at terrifying speeds. When he was a child, Vikram had always been fascinated by the lives of truck drivers. To have a job which required one to travel the breadth of the country seemed to Vikram an amazing prospect. Of course when he grew up and realized that the actual job wasn’t as romantic and much less forgiving. He gave up that pipe dream to become a constable in the Uttar Pradesh police, which in his eyes was the least romantic job in the world, but forgiving nonetheless.

He drove his loud scooter through the swarm of trucks, trying to remember the details Shakeel’s aide had given him. A few minutes later, he took the left exit near Sanmukh Hospital and stopped at the tri-junction a few miles away from the highway. 

Vikram drove around the area where the deal was supposed to happen.The official time for the drop was 11:05 PM. It was still 10:40 PM.

There was no sign of any party having arrived yet. The area was largely empty, except a tea seller a 100 yards from the target location. Vikram parked his scooter near the tea shop, from where he had a perfect view of the site.

At 11:05 PM, a Scorpio dashed through the streets at deathly speed came to a sudden halt at the given location. A masked man emerged, dropped a duffel bag and promptly got back in the car and left.

Vikram kick started his scooter, drove to the site and picked up the bag.

He charged though the streets and was back on the highway in no time. At the highway, he slowed down and drove at a slow pace. Minutes later, he noticed the Scorpio from the drop off location following him.

He slyly adjusted his mirror to get a view of the Scorpio and didn’t speed up his scooter. He knew there would be a PCR van near Sehmalpur. Being a policeman was wonderful for getting away with the worst type of activities, and this was simply a matter of a small package pick-up.

He reached Sehmalpur and his skin froze. There was no sign of the PCR van he was expecting. Vikram didn’t accelerate. He knew if there was a chase, the Scorpio would catch up with him on the highway inevitably.

The Scorpio, in no mood to maintain a leisurely pace sped up and squared beside his scooter. Vikram looked sideways at the black opaque windows of the Scorpio to guess the emotions of the people sitting inside. He didn’t have to wait for long.

The front window opened and a man wearing a mask emerged, screaming.

‘TRYING TO FOOL US, MOTHERFUCKER!’

The man pointed a gun at Vikram and for the first time in the evening, Vikram was out of his depth. He contemplated the idea of holding on until they reached the nearest police chowki, but deemed the proposition too risky. He would be shot by that point of time.

The only option left to him was to use his police credibility. The men in the Scorpio would think twice before killing a policeman, even a constable at that.

He slowly moved his scooter to the side and stopped. He knew he would have to give up the duffel bag and take a few punches. The Scorpio stopped in front of him and three men emerged. All of them were masked and had guns in their hands. Vikram raised his hands in the air, surrendering to the armed men.

‘Before you do anything stupid’ announced Vikram, ‘You should know that I’m a policeman’. Unfortunately for Vikram, this pronouncement didn’t stop the men.

The punches hurt, but the kicks to the stomach hurt even more. He took the blows in silence, even going to the extent of wishing that his life would end in the maelstrom of pain.

‘Shakeel’ he whispered. ‘Shakeel you asshole!’

…….

All he remembered was the sound of screams in a jungle.

Vikram lay on his bed in his house near the ghat. It was two in the afternoon. He started to squirm in pain when his eyes opened. His stomach hurt the most, a perilous pain shrieking through his abdomen up to his chest. He remembered fragments of what happened the night before, a deal he disrupted, the punches and the kicks he was subject to, and the jungle. The jungle and the screaming.

He slowly sat up straight on his bed, wincing at the pain in his joints. As he ran his fingers across his face and stomach to ascertain the exact extent of his injuries, his mind strove to remember the events which transpired last night.

He racked his mind a little more to come up with a better explanation over how he reached his home, safe and wounded. Before anything could resurface, his phone rang.

‘Vikram bhai!’

‘Shakeel! You asshole!’ seethed Vikram. ‘You have the nerve to call?’

‘Vikram bhai’ pleaded Shakeel. ‘I’m sorry about last night. One of my men will arrive at your home in a few minutes. We need to talk’

‘We don’t need to talk about anything’ scowled Vikram.

‘Vikram bhai, please. One last time, I promise’

Vikram had half a mind to throw Shakeel to the wolves, but knew he might need his help later. He agreed to meet.

Slowly and with great difficulty, Vikram got up from his bed and began to change. He looked at himself in the mirror. His right eye was blackened, and there were bruise marks below his left eye and lower lip. Scars sat across on his hairy chest and paunch. Vikram changed into fresh clothes and put on a pair of black sunglasses to hide .

Shakeel’s men arrived and chauffeured him to the Central Prison. Shakeel sat on the floor behind the iron barricades, tense. When he saw Vikram, he sighed with relief.

‘Vikram bhai!’ cried Shakeel.

Vikram’s expression remained stern. ‘You fucker. Why have you called me here?’

Shakeel whistled. The policeman standing in the corner of the room promptly fetched two chairs one for Vikram and the other for Shakeel, and left the room.

‘Vikram bhai’ sighed Shakeel. ‘What happened last night was, was…’

‘Dangerous?’ helped Vikram.

‘Yes’ said Shakeel, ‘And much more. You passed out, I believe’

Vikram told him everything he remembered, from the pickup point in Baragaon to the road chase, the punts to the stomach and the screams in the jungle.

‘Oh’ said Shakeel. ‘Not much then. I told one of my men to follow you to the drop. Those men in the Scorpio, they beat you for about five minutes on the highway. They also punctured the tires of your scooter and smashed its headlights. Then they dragged you to their car and drove off, taking the bag with them’

‘My scooter?’

‘I told my men to return it to you, repaired and polished. It will be dropped off at your home this evening?’

Vikram nodded. ‘What then?’

‘They kept driving for an hour or so, until they reached Chandra Prabha’

‘The jungle’ whispered Vikram.

Shakeel nodded.

‘Your man followed them?’

Shakeel nodded. ‘He reported what was going on and didn’t intervene. You can understand Vikram bhai. He couldn’t have risked his life going against the whole Scorpio gang. So he called for backup from a safe distance. I told all my men to reach there and help you’

Shakeel stopped for a moment to look at Vikram, narrowing his eyes. ‘My men, they were reaching there, but it seemed that they wouldn’t reach in time. The men in the Scorpio took you out in the jungle and started punching and kicking you again. They kept asking who sent you. They wanted you to say a name, Vikram bhai! My name! But you didn’t answer. You kept taking the blows. For this, I am eternally indebted to you’

Vikram waved him off, ‘Just tell me what happened’

Shakeel continued, ‘What happened next is as astonishing a thing as I have ever heard. They exhausted themselves after thrashing you for answers. Finally, one of them took out his gun and pointed it to your head. And then, then….’

‘Then what?’

‘I didn’t see it, but what my man described still chills my bones. A man appeared, not dressed in shirt or pant, but in a black cloak. He was slim, medium height with a sword, yes. With a big fucking sword in his hand’

Vikram was stunned by the revelation ‘Shakeel, I swear to God if you’re messing with me again, I will break your bones’

Shakeel ignored Vikram’s threat. ‘He moved like a ghost, like Bruce fucking Lee, and beheaded the man who had the gun pointed at you. Oh Vikram bhai, that man. That man! He killed the men like it was nothing. Like he had been doing this for a long time. This fucking Bruce Lee incarnate cut through them within four bloody seconds!

You were unconscious, of course, so you don’t remember. He lifted your body up like you weighed nothing more than a bunch of leaves. He approached my man and dropped your body in front of hm’

‘Did your man get a look at him?’

‘Yes. His body was covered with the black cloak, but his face was visible. His face was smeared with ashes Vikram bhai! ASHES! He wasn’t some god-damned Samurai. He was an AGHORI!’

‘Why did an Aghori save me?’

Shakeel snapped. ‘This is what I told you that day. Don’t get messed up in the Vishnu case. These people like to do jaadu tona and wreak havoc!’

‘Calm down Shakeel. Did the Aghori say something?’

Shakeel looked at Vikram nervously.

‘He said, “Take him home. Garuda is yet to be redeemed’’’

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