Blood dripped from his bruised nose onto the floor forming a speck shaped stain on the wood. He sat, farthest among his comrades, back to the wall, his legs folded upwards and his knees strutting outwards. The house around him was marauded. The centre table lay overturned, its four legs facing the ceiling like a startled kitten. Yellow-orange light from the chandelier illuminated the dilapidated room. His face was beaten, the skin beneath his eye purple-red in color. He could feel his skin burning from the cut across his cheek. It felt like hot oil dripping onto his skin, slowly seeping its way through. His lips were swollen and heavy. Seated across the room, on a wooden chair, was his captor whose eyes lay fixated on the group. His legs shook violently, up and down – up and down. The firearm on his thigh followed suit. And with that so did many eyeballs carefully centered on the bullet hole.
Both of these men were to witness changes in their lives. It was destined for them to meet that rainy night and so they did.
The clock struck 2, the wooden cuckoo dancing in and out twice. A few hours back, Varun stood leaning against a rusty pole in his university parking lot, a rundown piece of wasteland masquerading as a ground to keep automobiles secure. It was his friend, Archana’s birthday. Archana was a tall, beautiful woman who always let her hair down. It fell beside her face and onto her shoulder until it stopped forming neat little curls. She also always looked a few inches taller than she actually was courtesy her heeled footwear. As the rain battered down on the asbestos roof that was destined to give way sometime soon, she suggested “Why don’t we go to your farmhouse Varun?” They agreed unanimously that it was a good suggestion. They were to drive down in Naveen’s vehicle. Naveen was a muscular, broad-shouldered man whose car matched his stature. It was a bulldozer of a machine that his father, a fat, bespectacled, mustached entrepreneur who had made a lot of money through his liquor venture, had lent on the agreement that nothing go wrong with it. He had nodded in affirmation.
Varun had always cherished long drives. The wind beating down on his clean-shaven face gave him a pleasurable sensation inside. He’d let his mind wander off into imagination. It would almost always end up in the mythological realms of the middle-earth. Once the windows were rolled up though, he’d suffer splits of headaches and heavy breathing. ‘It’s your claustrophobia’ they’d say. He’d disagree. It was his sinusitis, he’d insist.
The same moment, a distant fifty kilometers away in one of the narrow alleys of a beat up dingy slum three men stood. Raman,Selva and Muthu they were named. They had grown up together in that very slum in neighboring huts. Selva and Muthu had alcoholic fathers who’d beat them up at the drop of a hat. Raman had no father. Right from their early days, the three learnt the ways of the street. Crime was injected into their veins by the elderly who bequeathed all knowledge of lawlessness onto them. They formed a bond as well as a social structure. Selva was their de facto leader given his superior intelligence and tenacious demeanor. Muthu and Raman would be his second in commands. Uneducated, they found their way through crime and odd jobs. That day, standing in the lane that smelt of dog pee and human excretion, Selva brought out a gun.
“It’s a .22 caliber Nidar revolver. Do you even know what that means Ram?”
Muthu scoffed. “What does he know, mutta payan”
[A muttal payan would imply one who is an idiot. The L goes silent when spoken rapidly in the local slang.]
“I got it off a guy I know. Three of them”
He reached for and brought out the other 2 revolvers from a crumpled, white plastic bag producing a crispy sound and handed one to the each of them.
“Tonight we shall party” he beamed at the other two, his lips parting just enough to show his twinkling golden tooth.
“Where?” Raman questioned.
“Let’s go on a lookout. You know that street that leads up to the main road near Bannerghatta forest. The one with the big bungalows. We’ll hit one of them.” Muthu suggested.
“All right. Keep them safely. Meet out here at 10 sharp.”
They placed the tiny brown handled firearms into their torn khaki pockets and left the stenched alley to itself that is until a stray dog came to relieve himself.
They honked multiple times.
“There comes Chandru. Caretaker Chandru rather.” Varun said.
An old man came running towards them, one hand waving at them and the other desperately trying to button his shirt on. He was wearing a dhoti and atop his grey hair lay a towel that functioned as a make shift turban.
“Kaise he saab?” he asked panting. The twenty meter run for the tobacco addicted old man was akin to an Olympic sprint. He did that once in four years.
“I’m fine uncle. How are you?” replied Varun.
“Fine. Acha hu” he said pulling the massive steel gate open.
Varun smiled as the car glided past the beaming old man. The muddy road split two sets of large farm land that lay home to a plethora of flowers and vegetables. They depicted a delightful picture though the darkness diminished their beauty. ‘The road splitting the farms looked like Moses splitting the ocean in half for the Hebrews to pass through’, Varun thought. ‘We are the Jews in search of freedom, our freedom being alcohol’, he continued. His train of thoughts was now slowly getting lost in imagination. He snapped back to reality though when the car sieged to a halt in front of the bungalow.
The house was a monolith compared to the houses they had seen on the way. It was very English in design, something his parents had passionately revered on their visits to the British countryside. The exterior was painted in a muddy brick color. Wooden steps led up to the porch that generally housed a circular table with chairs placed around it for the family to sit and sip tea staring at the garden ahead. It was missing now. They entered the bungalow via a glassed door. Varun flicked a switch on. Yellow orange light sprung to life from 20 different oyster shaped bulbs that made up the chandelier. Wooden floor lay beneath their feet. Cream colored sofa’s sat to their left forming an L shape. The longer part of the L faced up to a modern-day idiot box that did away with any form of support, just stuck to the wall. A cabinet full of books stood to the right, a little dusty from their lack of use.
Murder, I say. I being me, the author. A spiral staircase led to the floor above that had two bedrooms and a theater room that housed one more of those idiot boxes flanked by two large speakers. ‘Wow’ some exclaimed offloading the cans of beer and bottles of vodka on the center table.
‘This is some place.’ Archana said, emphasising the ‘some’.
“We may have to move out amma.”
“What do you mean?”
“I am not going to elaborate. We may have to move out of this slum soon. Just be ready when I tell you to do so.”
He kissed her on the cheek and exited the hut they had resided in for twenty seven years in search of his two friends. They met at the alley.
“Got your guns?”
They checked, pressing the metal against their thighs.
“Then let’s go”
“You guys out on your little escapades again?” the man, sporting a salt and pepper hairdo and emanating a nausea inducing smell of old rum, asked while maneuvering his auto rickshaw through a maze of watery puddles.
“Earn well and come” he said, laughing out loud. The stench from his widely open mouth sickened the three at the back but kinship has taught one to be courteous so they laughed along. Their laughs echoed across the dimly lit street.
“Stop right there anna.”
They waved him ado and proceed on foot. Their tattered shoes splashed water from the recent rain as they walked in search of potential targets.
“That one?” Raman asked, pointing his finger to right at what looked like a house to him.
“That’s the abandoned church mutta payan” Muthu smirked slapping Raman across the back of his head. He jerked forward from the impact.
They crossed three different bungalows before they ended up at Varun’s. Faint sounds of techno music reverberated from within, hard to hear amidst the chirps of crickets. The yellow light crept out of the windows. They gaped at a lady adjusting her hair against a mirror on the first floor. They tried scaling the glass laden walls to no success. They proceeded to move across to the main gate.
“Looks neat.” Muthu grinned peeping through the gate clasping the metal bars. His head bent forward like it had slipped of his neck.
“Ay. Who’s there?” came the scream. Caretaker Chandru scampered across brandishing his wooden lathi stick. He let it strike the steel right next to Muthu’s hand, an inch of it getting the thug’s index finger. Muthu yanked his hand back in pain.
“Get your head off the gate you filth. Go on, get lost” Chandru implored.
It only took a matter of seconds for Selva to grab Chandru’s grey hair through the steel bars, bring his knife, lodged in between his undergarments and his belt, out and pierce it into the old man’s neck. A jet stream of blood sprouted from the knife cut onto the three men. Muthu and Raman hurriedly wiped it off their faces. Few dandruff from the veteran’s mane dropped onto his fingers. Chandru gasped for air as Selva continued to stab him multiple times across his neck. His eyeballs slowly rolled backwards over. The limp attempts of his legs to gain strength began to recede. The gasps slowly died out and with it any resistance.
“Jump the gates.” Selva said dropping the body to the ground. The three jumped across, landing near a stiff Chandru and his wooden lathi stick. “There” Muthu signalled towards a tiny box sized cabin that stood to their right. A small tube light flickered within, a moth circling it restlessly. Inside, a man lay fast asleep oblivious to the horror around him. He was seated on a chair, head submerged in his hands that were placed on a crooked table, the shorter leg made long by a crumpled ball of paper. He had his khaki cap on and his torch light lay beside his hands. Selva slid in, grabbed the man’s hair and pulled his head back. This woke him up from his slumber but before any significant reaction broke out the knife was lodged in his throat. The deed done, Selva dropped his head back where it lay, in dream land.
The three men then went back to Chandru’s lifeless body that lay across the mud and picked it up, a tough task given the old man’s bulbous paunch.
The bell rang, a ting then a tong.
“I’ll get it.” said Varun still giggling from a joke. He looked through the peep hole. “It’s caretaker Chandru”. He smiled and opened the door.
“Peek – a – boo” beamed Muthu evilly as he dropped Chandru to the floor. He then pistol whipped a startled Varun across his face sending him crashing across the wooden floor.
“Get down. Get the f##k down!” Selva yelled at the stunned group making his way through his two partners whilst stepping over the body. The three brandished their revolvers around the room. Varun crawled backwards on his buttocks, his hand alternating between gripping the floor and soothing the pain on his face. Few spilt the drinks they held, some dropped the cigarettes on their feet. They didn’t flinch. A few scampered across to their friends.
“Don’t you fu##ing move! I’ll kill you all in a blink of an eye like I did him.” came the order, finger pointed to the dead man. Movement seized. Screams, shrieks and cries of help didn’t.
“Shut up!” Now they did. The three men stood menacingly, Selva in center, Muthu to his left and Raman to his right a step back. All had their pistols aimed ahead at chest height. Once the group came to terms with the position they were in, the orders to them seized.
“Go check upstairs.” Selva instructed, moving neither his head nor body.
Raman sprinted up the stair case. Selva turned irritably over his shoulder.
“Not you, you idiot. You stay here. You!” he screamed, twisting his head even more to the right, almost at a three-sixty degree turn to signify Muthu. It was strenuous. Muthu complied. Raman dropped back in position, firearm pointed forward.
“You all. Go there” he ordered, pointing the revolver to the left side. The group of shocked, partying twenty something’s abided, moving across the wood in their high heels and leather shoes. Further instructions made them form a line, back against the wall.
Muthu came back beside a crying woman, the one they had seen through the window. She too fell in line.
“Throw out all you have. Money, jewelry. All”
Wallets, necklaces, watches and purses were flung across the hall landing in between the two factions. He flicked them all to the left with a swipe of his foot. “Sit down” he said. They did. Varun still held onto his face, bruised from the pistol whip. Selva glanced across the hall past the kitchen and the cylindrical pillar that blocked the sliding window that lead to the veranda outside.
“Grab a chair and sit down. Watch them. Me and Muthu will check the top.” He said turning to Raman. He gave him a pat on the cheek and proceed upstairs followed by Muthu.
Raman grabbed hold of a wooden chair that lay next to the book cabinet to his right and dragged it along the wooden floor leaving scratches on the timber. He placed it around 10 yards from the seated group and sat down. He seated the pistol on his thigh, handle pointing to the left, bullet hole forward. A lump went down Naveen’s throat as the bullet hole pointed to his temple. Should it go off, he thought, there wasn’t a fraction of a second to react. He’s be dead as a doornail. Raman scanned the lot, left to right. Scared, rich kids he thought. Money, he then thought. Varun sat at the end of the line, holding on to his face. Blood dripped onto the floor. He stared at his captor with annoyed, defeated defiance. His captor stared back as if to say, ‘Don’t stare ba##ard. I’ll shoot your white teeth off your face.’
There was a moment of awkward silence across the hall, something weird to everyone there given the mayhem that preceded it. The first floor was different. Sounds of glass breaking and metal clanking were heard. Varun’s eyes rolled upwards miffed with the destruction. Raman sat still. Eyes fixated, he let his mind wander.
He was always the silent of the three. That was how he’d been since a child. His father died while he was an infant leaving his mother to take care of him. A tough task for anyone in a slum. He had needed emotional support and he found it in the playful duo from the neighboring huts. They took him in. They were a trio now. They always mocked him for his shortcomings, always chided him for his incompetence and always made him the butt of their jokes.
They bullied him. They referred to him as ‘Mutta Payan’, a name they conferred on him. He didn’t like it. He didn’t like them. They built in him a strong inferiority complex. This made him depend on them in return. But all that was to change for now he had a purpose. His mother who had cared for him under immense financial strain was now facing death. She had confided in him that she was down with cancer. No one would help an old lady from the slum, she told. He wanted to, desperately.
His heart pounded against his chest inside as the thoughts ruminated through his head. His leg was now shaking violently. His eyes filled with rage, nerves bulging outwards.
On top, the two were almost done.
“Hey you know the girls down below. Can I –“asked a hungry Muthu signifying sexual violence.
“Alright, go ahead” replied a nonchalant Selva busily stuffing goods into the gummy bag.
“Thanks brother.” Muthu beamed. Throwing the bag on his shoulder, he merrily skipped down the spiral stairs humming an old Tamil song. Once down he stopped. His eyes scanned the group like Raman’s did a while back. It stopped at Archana. An evil smile grew across his face. Resuming the maniacal humming and skipping, he moved across to her. On the way, he patted a still, sitting Raman on his back.
“Good job Mutta Payan” he congratulated.
“What?” came the stern acknowledgement.
He stopped in his tracks and turned back and then laughed. He stood in front of Archana, his legs a few inches from her face. A stench emanated from his pants that made her flinch in disgust. Selva stepped down the stairs and moved across the wooden floor watching his comrades have a go at each other.
“What did you say?” Muthu asked.
“I asked you what you said”
Muthu scoffed. “Big guy here eh.” He told Selva pointing at Raman.
“Shut it out guys” Selva intervened to no avail.
“I said Mutta Payan“
“Say that one more time” he dared, his hand moving towards the firearm.
“Mutta Paya – “A bullet zipped through Muthu’s chest, puncturing his left lung and lodging itself behind it. He flew back ramming the wall behind him. A picture frame above shattered falling down on his head. He fell on top of a freaked Archana who let out a scream of terror as blood dripped onto her.
Raman turned to his right and fired at Selva who had his gun, which he liked placing between his belt and his hip like the knife, out in an instant. The bullet graced his left cheek leaving a cut then dislodged a sizeable chunk of his ear that fell to the ground. Varun watched the bloodied cartilage drop down beside him. Before the pain took over Selva flicked the trigger of his revolver sending a bullet to fire out the hole into Raman’s skull, dead center. Raman flew back into the wooden chair shattering it on impact. Selva roared in pain, clutching his ear. Blood oozed out onto his hands. The pistol rolled out his finger and tumbled to the ground.
“Run!” the group screamed. They took off, nearly causing a mini stampede in the process, bolting for the door. Bodies banged into one another like soccer players. Varun, seated closest to a now flinching Selva, rose to flee briefly slipping on the blood below. He found himself a couple of steps ahead before he ceased to run, pegged back by the hands of Selva who forcibly tugged onto his denims. He, in an instant reaction, turned around and clubbed his rubber shoe into Selva’s face finding him right on the open cut across his cheek, the toe of his shoe touching the nerves within. Selva squirmed in pain, letting go of his pant.
Varun scrambled across to the door. His buddies now seated in the car, urged him to run faster. The back door of the automobile lay open for him to climb on. A hand clutched the top of the door, ready to shut it the moment he jumped in. Just as he found himself safe among his comrades; just as his hand clamped the top of the open door, a bullet flew past him striking the metal nearby. It resonated a clunky ringing sound in his ear. Silver stood where blue once was. The source behind it stood on the doorway, one hand stemming the blood flow from his cheek and the other holding the pistol. Varun ducked.
His cohorts didn’t care much about taking him in as Naveen, in the front seat, rammed the pedals sending the vehicle to skid across the muddy track. Dust flew across the porch blinding any vision Selva had. It didn’t matter to him. He shot blindly into the open farm ahead. Varun, still ducking, ran across the garden. Magnolias and muskmelons meant nothing to him as he trampled them at will. A grass snake lived its last moment watching a Woodland boot smack it into oblivion. He heard bullets fly past him. His heart pounded hard against his chest. It felt like the town bell striking atop the tower. Bulky, heavy pounds.
He ran and ran as long as his eyes saw open space. That ceased to exist when he found himself staring at a dead end. A huge concrete wall stood separating the sewage drain that lay beyond it from the farm house. ‘F##k’ he exclaimed. He turned around. No sight of Selva but he could still hear the bullets. Was it in his head or was it real? He didn’t know or care. All he knew was the only getaway, the gate, was a fair distance from him and a maniacal murderer was chasing him desperate to kill him. He turned to his left. He found a generator rumbling atop a concrete slab. Beneath it was a small latched wooden door that had cobwebs hanging from the metal lock. It was pointless to hide in there if the killer was behind him. He looked around again.
No way out he thought. He unlatched the door and crawled in. It was a small dingy hole. He huddled inside and shut the door. His knees touched his nose and his cheek. The scar burnt. It felt like a lit match stick kept against his face, something he wished he had in the pitch blackness. The moment that tiny door opened and the black pistol peeped in he was done for he thought.
But then something unexpected happened.
He felt his stomach beginning to churn within. It pulled itself inside. He felt uneasy. Food and alcohol grumbled. His heart began to pound faster. Not heavy as before but rapid beats. Any power he had over his muscles seemed to weaken. He felt his body go cold and weak. His head began whirling about. He placed it against the concrete for stability. He stared down at the darkness. He felt dizzy. He was about to throw up. He didn’t know what was happening. The killer out there was to enter this steaming hot box any moment but that was not his primary concern any more. What he was having though was his first claustrophobic attack. So much for the rolled up windows and sinusitis. Slowly things around him began fading. He fainted.