Story 42: Life is But a Day

My name? Anthony Gonzalves.

Profession: dispute settler. Freelance.

Don’t bother looking me up. You will find three men in Mumbai with that name. One of them is a fourteen year old kid who has no idea what it means to be a heathen but wishes to become one when he ‘grows up’. The second is a twenty-seven year old man who works in Solaria as a junior engineer. In charge of panel management. He has one son, aged two. His wife is four months pregnant with a girl.

The third is a forty-eight year old widower with nineteen credits in his account. Depressed. He waits for Renunciation Day, thinks he will meet his long-dead wife on the other side. He won’t make it. Unless his son gives him a hand.

I am none of them.

And I will tell you this; next month my name will not be Anthony Gonzalves. It will be something else that you need not bother looking up. I am the shadow that you hope will never darken your door. Mine is the face that you have maybe seen but definitely don’t remember.

It is not about my name, anyway. It is what I do.

A government official was in my office less than an hour ago. His name, he said, was Sudhakar Mundle. Before he began to speak he held out his credit card, downloaded a thousand crisp ones into mine. Money does not buy you happiness, but it cuts out a lot of bullshit.

I smiled when my card blinked green, indicating the transfer went through.

‘Anthony,’ I said. ‘Tony for people like you.’

‘Real name?’

I shook my head. ‘Neither is yours.’

He leaned into the light. There is a horrible squint in his eyes. When he looked straight at me, I wondered for a moment whether I was here or there. His pupils were milky, and the parts which should have been white were green.

A thing of beauty, said Keats, is a joy forever. This man drowned everything he met in sorrow. No two ways about it. Some broad would clench her teeth and link arms with him, yes, because there are always people in the city like me, who measure a man’s worth by the weight of his pocket – the one thing you can measure – but would it give her joy?

No chance. I will tell you right now, if I was a woman of fair standing – heck, any standing – I would not be seen within forty furlongs of this guy.

But I am not a woman. And he was here on business. That changes things.

He did not react to my statement. That means it’s true. I held his gaze for a minute, though it made me creepy all over. The fake name does not bother me; life has taught me the hard way that everything about people is fake. Except credits. Those are real. You could buy stuff with them.

‘I came here because of a referral,’ he said. There was a slimy feel to his voice. If I could cut open his throat and peep inside, it would be all green and gooey. Dripping all over. The insides of an insect.

I nodded. Didn’t need to ask who referred him to me. Didn’t need to know. In my line of work, the less you know, the better.

‘He was,’ said Sudhakar Mundle (I will use the name he gave, if you pardon me), ‘er – happy with your services.’ Podgy fingers interlocked, came to rest on the table. Smooth hands. The hands of a furless teddy bear. ‘What I gave you just now is merely a deposit.’

‘A non-refundable deposit,’ I said.

‘Perhaps,’ he said, and a smile of cruelty crossed his mouth. It was not a bad mouth, given how ugly the rest of his face was. Had a strange symmetry to it. As if you could take a knife and slit it right across the middle and he would still be sitting there, the smile untarnished. ‘I have ways,’ he said, ‘of getting them back from you.’

‘Many before you have said this,’ I said, ‘and yet, here I sit.’

‘There is a couple that wants their baby back,’ said Sudhakar, getting to the topic with a light twitch of the left eye. I have a theory with left eyes; when they twitch, good things happen. Here too it checked out; a left eye twitches, my credit account is richer by a thousand. Can’t complain.

Their baby?’


‘And you don’t want to give it to them?’


‘Don’t want to.’

‘Fine. Don’t want to.’

‘You want me to go over,’ I said, ‘have a chat?’


‘Shall I kill them?’

The man did not react to that with any shock, which told me that he was used to considering other people’s deaths with detachment. Someone powerful. With links to the Centurions.

He shook his head, with the petulant irritation of a kid not allowed to do his favourite thing.

‘No.’ His eyes blinked once. ‘Too many questions to answer. Just scare them.’

‘I can take care of the questions,’ I told him. ‘Will cost you more, is all.’

‘How much more?’

I gave him my figure, service tax included.

He said, ‘Whoa, that much? It’s more than I make under the table in five years.’

I shrugged. ‘The easiest way to settle a dispute. Can’t have a dispute with a dead man.’

‘But there are two of them here. Will that cost me extra?’

I made some mental calculations. ‘Do they live in the same house?’


‘Then no. It’s one night’s work at one place.’

‘There is a kid involved too.’

‘Yes, you told me.’

‘No, another one.’

I looked across the table. ‘How old?’

‘Five, I think.’

‘He will cost extra,’ I said, trying to keep my voice steady. I had never done three in one year, let alone one night, but Sudhakar was not going to bite. He was just curious. Well, I scratched his itch. Bravado was good for business.

‘No no,’ he said, shaking his head of the thought, pleasant as it was. ‘Just get them off my back. Pay them off. Yes, yes, pay them off.’

‘All right,’ I said, and pulled out my pad to ask him my regular battery of questions.

In an hour he was gone. If he ever comes knocking on my door again, he will find it locked. I never stay at the same place from one assignment to the next. Make yourself invisible and only those who need you desperately will find you.

You also stay out of trouble.

* * *

I ease myself into the Shettys’ (or is it Shetties’) living room, edgewise. My lock-scrambler works on the first try, dissolves enough of the main door for me to slip through. I fumble for the contact on the side wall, and at a touch I am bathed in white, cool light.

They are sitting at the dining table, the three of them. Papa bear, Mama bear and baby bear. They look up at me as if I am someone weird, while it is they who are eating in the dark.

‘Who is this uncle?’ says baby bear. His name is Malhar, after the monsoon. Never mind no two people can agree just when it happens anymore. Father bear calls himself Kishore. Mother bear Navya.

They are both dumbfounded, and they blink once up at me. And then once more, just for effect.

At this point I am feeling it too, because of all the situations you visualize before breaking into a dark room, finding the whole family gathered around a loaded dining table is among the least likely. But here I am, and I figure I have to roll with it. Nothing ever came of questioning fate’s fickleness.

So I pull out my knife and press the button. The serrated blade, almost as long as my arm, swings open, snaps into place. It is a primitive weapon. Not something you’d find often in the hands of a greenhorn. But I’ve been in the business long enough. I know how much sheer visceral shock value a carving knife carries.

The eyes of the missus grow big as she takes in the sight. Mr. Shetty reaches for a fork, fumbles with it. It falls to the glittering marble floor.

The Shetties. Just a normal, self-respecting feeder family. They have never faced a man with a knife before, not in the streets, not inside their home. Wouldn’t surprise me if they let themselves believe that such things did not exist. That is the way of idiots; frogs in wells, every single one of them.

‘Now,’ I say, opening up my wrist just enough so that the edge of my weapon catches the light and glints. ‘Are you going to listen or not?’

‘Listen to what?’ says the boy.

I give him a smile. Some men of my ilk have an assortment of smiles that they pull out at various times. Sardonic. Sly. Cool. Nervous. I just have the one. It doesn’t faze him.

‘If you listen,’ I tell the adults, ‘this will be the last you will see of me. But if you don’t, we will have to meet again – but just one more time.’

‘Who sent you here?’ says the father. ‘How did you – the security –’

‘There is no wall a wad of credits cannot breach,’ I tell him. ‘There is no house in Mumbai that I cannot break into at an hour’s notice. That is the least of your worries now, Mr. Shetty, because I am already here. Your surveillance will not pick me up on its own, not unless you press the contact over there. And you won’t do that, will you?’

They both shake their heads. The boy follows my gaze to the blinking square panel on the adjacent wall. A flash of rebellion in his young eyes. Then he’s back to playing the obedient child.

‘You have one child,’ I say. ‘Why do you need another?’

‘I gave birth to her,’ says Mrs. Shetty. The first words I hear from her mouth, and I am smitten for a moment. It strikes me at once that she is beautiful. Rich black hair. A sensuous mouth. A voice soaked in pain. Nothing attracts me more than pain.

Deep within those blue-green eyes, I sense moving shadows.

Heard melodies are sweet, I remember, but those unheard are sweeter.

‘And you decided to give it away.’ A weight hangs about my heart. There is nothing sadder than a mother giving up her baby. No, there is one thing: a mother giving up her baby by choice. She is one of those mothers, I remind myself, and at once my entire being hardens.

‘Her,’ she says.

‘It doesn’t matter. First you decide you do want the child, and then you decide you don’t. Then you say you want to give the baby away but want to keep the credits – which is really –’ My words catch, and the knife goes limp on me as I realize the futility of it all. It’s like lecturing an errant cat. ‘You know, I’m wasting my time. Just stop badgering Mr. Mundle.’

That draws blank looks, which confirms it further that the bastard had not used his real name. Then I remind myself: it does not bother me. Just another fake particle in a fake universe.

‘Do not badger the man at the hospital who gave you the death certificate,’ I tell them. ‘He has told me that you’ve been – threatening him with action.’

Mama bear and Papa bear exchange looks. How much does this man know, asks Mr. Shetty with a raised eyebrow. I don’t know, replies Mrs. Shetty, with a cute little twirl of her pupils.

I engage in some eye play of my own, tell them that I know enough to fry their asses if they piss me off. From the freezing of the woman’s features I guess they got my drift.

‘We thought,’ says the father lamely, ‘that Malhar would need some company.’

I bring my eyes down, real steady, at the boy. ‘Do you need company?’

He shakes his head.

‘He says no.’ I level my gaze at the father again.

‘You know what,’ the man said, wetting his lips and swallowing. Oddly, that seems to fill him with some courage. Not much, but enough to say, ‘If I complain to the police about what they’re doing at the hospital – well – it’s illegal.’

A hot anger fills my eyes, and I blink rapidly to blow it off. But it remains. ‘Illegal, you say, Mr. Shetty. Why, was it not illegal to bribe him in the first place and get a death certificate done in the name of your daughter?’ For a moment the daughter’s name escapes me, and I swear at myself for that, under my breath. These little touches do matter. Now I have to reach into my pocket, bring out my device, swipe a few screens – it breaks the rhythm of my speech. Breaks the moment.

But thank the lord, it comes back to me. I grasp at it.

‘Avantika,’ I say, and the first syllable comes out strong, desperate. I rush into the rest of my sentence, hoping they do not notice. ‘Is that not what you named her? As far as the Centre is concerned, your girl is dead because of accidental food poisoning, Mr. Shetty. I have a copy of the certificate they issued for you in my pocket.’

‘I will confess to bribing them,’ says Mr. Shetty.

‘That will not be enough.’ The whole thing smelled of smelly things. You get twenty thousand credits for having a child. A five thousand bereavement bonus if it dies before the age of six. Twenty five thousand cool numbers in your account if you could have a child, then have it conveniently die on you.

There are complications. Of course. You have to find an employee at the hospital willing to forge a death certificate. But for a cut of the loot – say three thousand credits – you will have no trouble finding one.

And then there is the bigger issue: what is to be done with the baby? Where there is a seller, there is a buyer. That is the law of business. Capitalism. The broker who gets paid from one side gives a death certificate and gains a baby. On the other hand of the deal, there is always a woman who cannot get pregnant and is desperate for cash. She is willing to receive the baby and a birth certificate in exchange for a small portion of her birthing bonus – say three thousand credits.

The broker makes six thousand barely moving a finger. He’s happy. The parents who wish to get rid of the baby are happy. The parents who wanted a baby but couldn’t have one are happy. The baby itself is happy, for it knows no better. Both parties have the required documentation, just in case someone comes asking questions. Everyone wins.

In theory.

Every once in a while, though, those parents who let go of their child wants it back. They go to the broker and make their demand. They offer to pay back the money, as if it were that simple. The broker breaks into a sweat. The receiver of the baby, if she comes to know, gets jumpy. Everyone starts whispering to one another, and someone tells one of the affected parties that a guy called Anthony Gonzalves looks into these things.


Right. Everything about the whole stinking business is unofficial.

‘If you confess to bribing them, Mr. Shetty,’ I say, my tone now formal, as if I am wearing a suit and a pair of leather shoes polished to a sheen. A pause. ‘Then they will put you in prison. They will take away all the credits you made out of this deal, and I dare say they will fine you too.’

‘But they will give my daughter back to me,’ he says. The dog.

‘They will, probably,’ I venture, ‘but how will your wife manage to bring up two children on her own with no money?’

‘She will give them up to the state,’ he goes on. ‘They won’t let us starve. They will give us enough to live on. The Centurions always do.’

‘The hospital will deny everything,’ I tell him, and it is true. They will. What did Papa bear think? That bug-eyed Mundle will come forward and confess to his wrongdoing in an outpouring of remorse? ‘As far as they are concerned, your daughter Avantika is dead, and the daughter of the other woman is another girl altogether. Her name is Spandana.’

‘She will have my DNA,’ says Mrs. Shetty, and the earnestness in her voice makes me melt. ‘We will prove it with a DNA test.’

‘DNA testing is only used if you have a case, Mrs. Shetty,’ and suddenly I realize that I sound like the Shetties’ lawyer. I came here to take them off Mundle’s back, and here I was – well, that is what I am doing, but not in the way I am used to. ‘You have a death certificate, issued by the hospital. The other woman has a birth certificate, also issued by the hospital. Everything is above board.’

Well, not quite. You could paper over a crack as much as you want, but you will not remove it. A government official at the hospital might do everything to give the appearance of everything being just peachy, but if you scratch the wall at the right spot with the right finger and you will expose the fissure.

The Shetties know this, quite by instinct.

‘I will fight all the way to the prison,’ Papa bear was saying. ‘Even if I have to die for bringing back my daughter, I will.’

This is typical of parents who want their children back. I have always wondered where all the love went when they package them up and hand them over, I will keep the change thank you very much. But once they decide to correct their mistake, they are hell bent on taking everything down with them.

‘There is one thing I forgot to tell you,’ I say then, and I make sure that I linger for a moment longer on the boy than on the parents. ‘If you decide to keep pressing against Mr. Mundle and the hospital, I will kill you.’

I say it with complete nonchalance, and for a moment they don’t move or speak. I wonder if they heard what I said.

‘You cannot,’ says Mr. Shetty. ‘They will catch you.’

‘Like your surveillance caught me entering your house?’ I say. ‘I have hijacked the security system. I am in now. I can kill all three of you and leave. No witnesses. Just three dead bodies inside a house locked from the inside.’

‘But why?’ asks the boy. ‘Why do you want to kill us?’

‘I don’t want to kill you,’ I tell him. ‘But I’ve been paid enough to do so if you refuse to listen to reason.’

The mother now sits up, erect, her shoulders stretched out wide, and fixes me with a stare. Her eyes sparkle like stars on a moonless night. In another time, in another place, if I ever take a wife, it will be such a woman.

‘Did you say he paid you to kill us?’ she says, frowning.

The last time I hesitated while telling a lie was when I was eighteen, and it put me in prison for seven months. Never again.

‘Yes,’ I tell her, smooth as you like.

She shakes her head in disbelief once, as if some secret pact that she had signed had been violated. She half gets up, then stops and asks, ‘How much?’

‘Five thousand for the three of you,’ I say. The words spill out of me like oil.

The teeth – small, white teeth – clench together for a bit, and I get the feeling that she’s keeping a lid on her temper. She wants to say the bastard, but she cannot find the words.

If she had said them, I would have agreed. Mundle is every bit the bastard. But then, who isn’t? Me. The Shetties. All of us.

‘I will give you seven and a half,’ she says then, and there is stunned silence from the husband. The boy, of course, is clueless.

Seven and a half thousand. Add the thousand that Mundle had already paid and I am sitting pretty. Might not need to get back on the horse for five years. Even ten.

‘Seven and a half for what?’ I ask her.

‘To get rid of the man you call Mundle,’ she says, and there is cold ruthlessness to her voice. She has gone in a moment from wishing to get back her daughter to killing the man who took her away. Without batting an eyelid. And I cannot even tell what flipped the switch.

‘Make it eight.’ I coax the blade of the knife back into place. These people are not targets anymore. They’re clients. And one does not point knives at clients. Bad business.

‘We will give you four now,’ she says, ‘and four after the job is done. And after it all blows away, we will need you to pay the other woman a visit. What’s her name?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘We will find out,’ says Mrs. Shetty. And I have no doubt that she will. ‘We don’t need any more money. We just want our daughter back.’

‘There is a right price for everything,’ I murmur.

She takes out her card, and asks me for my identification number. I give it to her. In less than a minute, the holder in my pocket beeps, and I’m richer by four thousand credits.

‘You will tell us when the deed is done?’

‘Yes, ma’am,’ I say, and bow to the boss.

‘Will there be trouble?’

I want to tell her that yes, there might. Mundle is a government servant. There will be certain formalities to the investigation once he dies. So it won’t be as straightforward as extorting money from a feeder, for example. But it is not as hard as pulling the moon down to Earth either.

‘I will manage it all,’ I tell her, and there is the slightest flicker of a smile on her face. It warms my heart.

There is nothing stable in the world, I remember, uproar’s your only music. When the earth shifts beneath your feet, why, you shift with it.

I can take this offer back to Mundle, I think now, and see if he is willing to match or even raise it. But hello, greed, old friend. Leave me alone tonight, and I promise tomorrow is all ours.

On my way out of the Shetty house I press the necessary buttons to get in touch with Mundle’s man. I tell him that the trap is set. The Shetties have been managed, but the rest of the money needs to be paid. How much, the man asks. One thousand, I say.

Would I be okay with a transfer?

Cash would be better, I tell him.

Would it be okay if he himself came in person and delivered it?

Better if Mr. Mundle came over, I reply, on his own, like before. There are some more business matters to consider.

The man rings off, and I pat the knife in my thigh pocket as I board the train. Sudhakar Mundle is destined to come once more to my place, and sit on the same chair he did last night. But he will not leave it the same way he enters; if it all goes well, he will not leave it at all.

As always, the simplest way to settle a dispute: eliminate one of the parties. You cannot have a dispute with a dead man.

And then I can disappear. Anthony Gonzalves will cease to exist, and will while away his time reading Keats until the credits run out. And when they do, there are always people in this crude, cruel world that are willing to pay him to take care of something or the other. He will rise again, under a different name, perhaps in a different city.

My fingers itch, in anticipation of the coming period of rest. People think I love this job. I don’t. The train roars over the tracks. I settle back in the empty compartment, and sigh at the solace that had entered my soul in the last twenty four hours, solace worth five thousand credits, with five thousand more on the way tomorrow. I wonder at how easily a well-fed mind leans toward poetry.

Life is but a day, I hear a voice say, a fragile dew-drop on its perilous way.