MY INTEL WAS spot on. The shivalayam on the edge of the village was deserted. A little black cat had perched on the compound wall and watched me change. It mewed suspiciously when I’d put on the fake whiskers and beard. I said ‘shoo’ a couple of times, but the bastard did not budge.
Cats are impossible to love. Until they come and rub themselves by your feet. Then they’re impossible not to.
I was once contracted to take care of a cat. A fat orange Cheshire that I hated at first glance. But just as I was about to take care of business the lousy thing paws at the barrel of my Beretta, and purrs. I still finished the job. Of course I did. But my eyes did blink when I pulled the trigger.
This line of work is like any other. Some days you go home convinced you’re going to hell. Some days you sleep like a baby.
I wore a pair of khakhi shorts over an inserted dirty-brown tweed shirt. I had one of those old Kodak cameras hanging off my neck. I’d been told that this village got tourists now and then, the kind of people who liked to absorb the ‘village experience’ of Incredible India. Walk around the paddy fields. Watch toddy being drawn from palm trees. Go back home and hang pictures on the wall. Tell friends quaint stories over wine and caviar. That sort of thing.
I got on Venkayya Veedhi and counted the number of cross streets until I got to fourth. Right next to the library, I was told.
Not a soul in sight. This did not surprise me. Villages of this sort went to sleep during late afternoons. If you wanted to move about unnoticed, disguised or not, you took your time and came around after a late lunch.
The bus that brought me here from Dhavaleshwaram had four passengers. That meant a total of six possible witnesses. All of them would remember a portly priest who belonged to the Vaishnava tradition, smeared all over with sandal and carrying a blue-green satchel around his left shoulder, hair oiled and tied behind the scalp in a small plait, bargaining with the conductor about the ticket’s price.
Those who would see me here in Palem would remember a bearded tourist who seemed like he was ‘from foreign’. They would recall my shikari’s hat, sunglasses, my white socks pulled up all the way to my knees, black pointed shoes and the cigar in my mouth.
Unless they found and interviewed that black cat, no one would know that I was both men. That I was also neither of them.
And if that bastard cat did tell on me, I’d come back to wring its neck.
I reached the house in question. I checked my watch. Six minutes ahead of schedule. But it was all right. Not like I had a train to catch.
There were three pairs of footwear outside the closed front door. All of them belonged to the woman I was seeking. I’d asked for a picture and they’d said they didn’t have one. I had a name. Gisele.
As I opened the gate and allowed myself into the compound, I smiled a little. Here in this little village where no one spoke English, a woman named Gisele lived alone. And she lived with enough spunk that someone out there needed her gone.
I’d asked if I should be prepared for surprises – a bodyguard, a boyfriend, a father. I was told that if I called in the afternoon, she’d be by herself. Another of those quirky little details that made up life on this miserable planet: when you napped, you napped alone. No matter who you were.
As I approached the door I found myself lightening up. The revolver in my pocket was unlicensed. The silencer was brand new. Instructions were to throw both into the disused pit by the shivalayam on my way out. Most likely another man would come by and collect them later.
Twenty five grand on delivery of the news. Twenty five grand on confirmation.
That should take care of one of Anjali’s chemo sessions. We’d fallen behind a little lately. If I remembered right we’d skipped a couple in the last month.
I looked around just with my eyes from under the shades, keeping my head level and relaxed. No movement or sound. I climbed onto the porch and rang the bell. In my mind I rehearsed my little speech. As I did that, I wondered if chemotherapy could be accumulated. Like sick leaves. This business waxed and waned; could I, for instance, purchase a full year’s worth of chemo when I land a juicy goat?
Must ask Dr Chitale.
The latch made a sound. The door opened. I had my smile already plastered over my mouth. My right hand closed around the butt of my revolver, inside my pocket.
I recognized the woman immediately. Her name was not Gisele. And she was pointing a gun at me.
* * *
‘Five,’ she said. ‘Four.’
This sort of thing happened. People who were marked often knew they were marked. They stayed on their guard. Industry estimates that about one in seven greeted their assassins with a weapon of their own. In roughly half those times, they killed their prospective killers. So you could say that there was a one in fourteen chance that I could get killed each time I went on an assignment.
But see, that’s the thing with statistics. I’d been on the payroll seven years. Forty seven successful missions and counting. I was still here, wasn’t I?
‘Three,’ she said. She held the Colt with assurance. I had the feeling that she had shot the weapon before. At people. And hurt them.
But she wouldn’t shoot at me. Not if she knew.
‘Madam,’ I said, in my real voice. ‘Remember the paper boats of Dhavaleshwaram Barrage?’
Sharmila – her name before she’d become Gisele – frowned. Her grip on the gun wavered. ‘Who are you?’
In response I pulled out my right hand, without the revolver, and took off my shades. So that she could see my eyes.
She did, and she said, ‘Pavan?’
* * *
‘I hate your beard,’ she said.
I showed her that it was fake.
We stood six feet apart in her front room, facing one another. When had I seen her last? Did I remember? Of course I did. Every moment. Did she?
Her house was bigger than it appeared from the outside. I caught a certain odour that I’d long loved to hate. What had intel called her, the cocaine queen of Palem? Such grand names for such petty things.
I shook my head.
I nodded. ‘One. Daughter.’
Her face went soft around the cheeks. The Sharmila that I knew as a fifteen year old loved children, was always spotted walking around barrage quarters with one in her arm and one holding her hand.
‘Anjali,’ I said. ‘She is nine.’ For a merest moment I considered if I should tell her about the chemo – maybe Sharmila would have fifty grand or so lying about – but I didn’t.
‘What happened to the mother?’
‘She died,’ I said.
‘Right,’ said Sharmila. ‘That sucks.’
I took a good look at her. She was younger than me by two years, so that meant she could not be much older than forty. And yet she looked like a woman in her fifties. She wore her greying hair short now, like a man. Her hands retained some of the old femininity, but the rest of her was long gone. She wore a white buttoned-up shirt and a lungi. Her legs had not been shaved in a while. Her face was pockmarked.
‘It sure does,’ I said. ‘Aren’t you gonna ask me to sit?’
‘No,’ said Sharmila. ‘I’d rather not. Whatever you came here to do, let’s finish it standing.’
‘Did Govardhan send you?’
‘I don’t know,’ I lied. ‘The boss gets the contract. I execute it.’
Sharmila grinned, and some of the old fire burned in her eyes. ‘In my operation I am the boss,’ she said. ‘I employ twenty seven boys.’
‘Impressive. I am one of the senior pros. We get some benefits.’
‘Oh yeah? Like a health plan?’
‘Life insurance,’ I told her. ‘But it’s a pain to claim. How are you ever going to prove that you didn’t kill yourself for the money?’
‘Would you like to work with me?’ she asked, her blue lips curling into a sneer. ‘I could give you a no-questions-asked policy.’
‘Your boys won’t like it.’
That insight seemed to strike her as being accurate. She nodded. ‘True. I could say you were my first cousin or something.’
‘Why not brother?’
‘That’s too low, Pavan, even for us. What name do you work under?’
‘I’d rather not tell you.’
‘Ah, but you know mine.’
‘Only by professional necessity. I like Gisele.’
‘Yeah,’ said Sharmila, and sighed. ‘I like Gisele too.’ Then she fixed me with an eye. ‘What now?’
‘Well,’ I said. ‘I didn’t sign up for this.’
She laughed. It was a cruel, nasty kind of laugh. All life had been carefully drained out of it. ‘Tell me about it,’ she said. ‘We did speak once about how I’d employ you if I ever started a company.’
‘We spoke of many things,’ I said. ‘I don’t want you to die.’
‘Yeah?’ she said. ‘What do you remember of all the things we spoke about?’
‘What do you remember?’
I paused for just a moment to collect myself. Then I said, ‘I remember nothing too.’
‘Good,’ said Sharmila. ‘Oh, Pavan. You haven’t changed a bit, have you?’
‘Did you listen? I don’t want you to die.’
‘I am not going to,’ she said. ‘I have protection.’
‘Well, your protection doesn’t seem to be working.’
‘How do you figure that? If you were anyone else you’d be dead by now.’
I did not tell her that I could have drawn on her and shot her through the head when she’d turned her back to me. When she’d invited me in. I’d thought of it. I’d even considered it.
We stood watching each other. There are times in life when words just flow over your tongue. You just know what to say and when and how to say it. This was not one of those times.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘It is Govardhan.’
‘I know,’ said Sharmila.
‘You’ve been undercutting his cocaine business here in Palem. He is afraid that you will expand into Dhavaleshwaram after.’
‘I fully intend to expand into Dhavaleshwaram.’
‘If you give me an assurance that you won’t, I may be able to talk him into giving up Palem for you.’
Sharmila laughed. ‘What are you, a negotiator in your spare time?’
Her teeth were brown. Her eyes were shot. She was still beautiful, though. Somehow.
‘I am not a negotiator,’ I told her, ‘but I will negotiate. Govardhan has someone else behind him.’
‘I have my own power,’ said Sharmila. ‘My stuff is purer than his. We have a whole room in here with disposable syringes. You want a sniff?’
I was tempted, god I was tempted. But I said no.
‘My stuff is better than his,’ said Sharmila, shrugging. ‘Our clients like us. As for who is behind me, I pay Devender Reddy double what Govardhan does. Money talks.’
‘Is Devender Reddy the big shot of this village?’
‘Headman,’ said Sharmila. ‘We have the police on our roll too. Of the twenty seven employees we have, five are on the force.’
‘What are their names?’
‘Get out of here!’ said Sharmila, laughing. ‘You sound like a reporter all of a sudden.’
‘No, you don’t understand,’ I said. ‘I have a feeling that Govardhan has bought out some of your men. Maybe Devender Reddy even. How else did he get me all the info on you?’
Sharmila thought about what I said for a minute. Then she shook her head. ‘No. Impossible. You’re bluffing.’
‘What will I get from bluffing?’
‘Maybe you have ulterior motives,’ said Sharmila, with a small smile. ‘Maybe you want to take me away from here. Marry me?’
I am ashamed to admit it, but the thought made me want to retch. I kept a straight face and said, ‘I am not going to marry you.’
‘Ha!’ said Sharmila. ‘It’s true, Pavan. You truly haven’t changed.’
‘But I don’t want you to die here, in this hole. I would like to take you away – I have a place of my own in Dhavaleshwaram. Anjali lost her mother quite young –’
‘Oh, I get it,’ said Sharmila. ‘So you don’t want a wife but you do want a mother for your kid. A kid that is not mine.’
‘She has cancer.’
There was another of those damned pauses, where her eyes went soft for just an instant and then became inscrutable again. I was way off my rails here; if the boss knew I was negotiating with a target I’d be fired right on the spot. Seniority or not. But you do crazy things for people you love. Or once loved.
‘What kind of cancer?’
‘I don’t know. The kind that needs chemo.’
‘You need some money?’
I began to nod. Then I shook my head.
‘You still have your pride about you, Pavan.’ She went to the large safe deposit box in the corner. From underneath her shirt she produced a bunch of keys. She threw open the heavy door and stepped aside.
Packets of white powder were piled to one side of the box. The room filled with their smell. Soft one moment, prickly the next. I took slow, measured steps to where she was standing. Currency notes were stacked on top of one another too. And some gold coins.
‘Take however much you want,’ she said. ‘I won’t look.’
‘And what do I tell my boss?’
Sharmila shrugged. ‘I don’t know, man. Come work for me and we’ll get your girl all cured and treated. I know some doctors in America.’
‘You?’ I asked. ‘Doctors in America?’
‘I know people who know people, who can pull some strings,’ she said. ‘What do you say?’
‘What do I have to do?’
‘I don’t have a fucking prospectus if that’s what you’re asking.’ She stood erect with one hand on top of the safe, and the other holding the corner of her lungi. Try as I might, I could not think of her as a woman. Even her voice had curdled in these years. Maybe it was the cocaine. Maybe it was deadening of another sort.
‘Can you give me an idea?’ I asked her.
‘You could be my personal bodyguard,’ she said, smiling. ‘So you will be available for – all my needs.’
‘Right,’ I said, swallowing. I took a stack of five bundles of currency notes in my hand, and turned them over. They looked real all right. But then I thought of the toy boats that we had made together one rainy afternoon by the barrage. When she was twelve, I fourteen. Sharmila had insisted on keeping the pink one. Mine was yellow.
I put the money back. ‘Look,’ I said. ‘It’s not too late. Come away with me. Leave this all behind.’
‘And we’ll live happily ever after on your contract-killing income?’ she asked.
‘This is not my only gig,’ I told her. It was not quite a lie; I did have other things going. But they didn’t bring in any money. Not yet, I would have said. Ever the optimist.
‘Trust me,’ said Sharmila. ‘If you had options, you’d not do this.’
‘That is true. But why are you doing this? You have options. You’ve always had options.’
She was a straight-A student at school. The daughter of a senior supervising engineer. Part of a respectable family. I wondered if I should ask what happened.
But what did it matter? Something or the other happened to all of us. First something, and then something else, and before you know it it’s a fucking chain to nowhere.
What had happened to me? I’d gone to university, hadn’t I? I’d secured a nice job, hadn’t I? I’d gotten married, had a child… we went to the movies, we ate ice cream and chicken on Sundays, we paid our bills and taxes on time… we were a normal family to anyone who looked from the outside.
But on the inside there was this rot, this slow tumour that throbbed and swelled. Anjali got the visible part of it, and it was eating her up. But there was one inside me too. Inside Sharmila. Inside every one of us.
‘It’s fun,’ Sharmila said then, and it took me a while to realize she was answering my question. ‘This work is fun. Admit it, don’t you think it’s fun?’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ I said.
‘Yes you do,’ said Sharmila. ‘But enough talk. I am not going to come with you. Will you join me or not?’
‘No,’ I told her. ‘And you should get out too.’
‘Why? You think my work is immoral and yours is not?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Yes! There is a certain honour in what I do. You – you on the other hand –’
Sharmila threw her head back and laughed, in the old way. ‘Honour in killing! And here I am, giving people what they want and you think I am the bad one.’
‘I have not come to argue with you,’ I said. ‘All I know is that if you continue, you are going to get killed.’
‘And who is going to kill me? That Govardhan?’
‘These people are more powerful than you are, Sharmila,’ I told her. ‘Why do you want to play with fire when you can – come away with me – away from it all? We’ll be happy, the two of us!’
Sharmila took me by the hand and walked with me to the front door. She stood up on the tips of her toes to kiss me on the forehead. When she retreated I saw that her eyes were moist. So were mine.
And I knew then, of course, how wrong I was. Sharmila and I would never be happy together. We would never be anything together.
I left her as I had found her. At the gate I looked over my shoulder, half-expecting to see her figure framing the doorway. But it was closed.
It was almost evening by the time I reached Dhavaleshwaram. I went to sit with Anjali for a while, read her a story to put her to sleep. I asked Dr Chitale about the therapy sessions (his answer was no, you couldn’t), and ate some fried rice in the hospital canteen before heading homeward.
Through it all, I thought of Sharmila. Over and over and over again…
After a third peg of rum, I made a call.
‘Boss,’ I said, ‘any chance we can have one of the younger guys pick up this job?’
‘What happened? Getting too soft, old man?’
‘Yep,’ I said. ‘Nah – okay if I don’t tell you just this once?’
‘Sure. Policy has changed a bit on passovers. You get twenty, he gets eighty. All right?’
I didn’t say anything for a bit. Twenty per cent would mean ten thousand. Not enough to pay for Anjali’s chemo. But another assignment would come along. There was an evergreen market for this sort of thing.
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘That’s fine. Hey, boss?’
‘It was not Govardhan that brought you this contract, was it? Any chance you could tell me who it is?’
‘Okay if I don’t? I could bend some rules for you, Pavan. Not all of them.’
‘That’s cool. Okay if I take one guess at it?’
A pause. ‘You can have one guess.’
‘Is it Devender Reddy by any chance?’
‘I won’t deny that.’
As I downed another two glasses and made my way to bed at around midnight, I found myself seeing one pink and one yellow boat floating away on the Godavari that faraway afternoon. We did not make any promises to each other, Sharmila and I. We did not swear to look out for one another. We did not once say those three dreaded words that young people liked to avoid until they were sure. And yet, something about our friendship had been implicit. Your boat and mine on this vast river, Pavan, she seemed to say to me right now – all we have is each other.
Gisele was right and wrong at the same time. She was right that Govardhan was not powerful enough to try something like this. She was wrong that Devender Reddy would not play games. She was paying her tribute to the king, and she thought the king would behave. Indefinitely.
What was it that she might have done to piss him off? Who knew? Maybe he wanted to fuck her and she didn’t let him. Maybe he wanted a bigger share of the pie and she demurred. Maybe Govardhan came to him with a promise and a gift. Maybe it was all fun and games to him. A cat plays with the tail of a mouse until it gets bored, and then eats it. Not for us to ask why now and why not a minute before or after.
If I had taken her money – or her job offer – I’d be dead in under a month. I’d known it then in her house. I knew it now.
How? I didn’t know. Call it intuition. You get this way after a while in the trade. You sniff out things.
I dreamed of her that night. She is in her pink boat, me in my yellow one. Hers is sinking and I am shouting at her to give me her hand. And she shakes her head and says she is just fine. She tells me not to touch her. She seductively asks if she wants to fuck on her pretty little pink boat. I shake my head and she misunderstands. She thinks I am rejecting her. She promises me that I will never have her. Never, never, never.
And I am telling her that she must jump now or else –
I woke up in the middle of the night, and I murmured, both to myself and to her, ‘I tried.’ Even though there had been no promise, no words of honour given or received, I had tried.
* * *
Four days later, I spotted a news item on the top corner of the third page of the Dhavaleshwaram Times. ‘Navaratna Bar and Restaurant’ owner Gisele has been found dead in her bedroom. Two bullet wounds: one to the head, one to the heart. Police say that they suspect the hand of an insider in the crime. They’re rounding up all of Gisele’s employees, and they will ensure that justice is done. As soon as possible.
‘We have found a large amount of cocaine in the house,’ the sub inspector told the reporter. ‘We are confiscating it all and we’re launching an investigation immediately.’ The report also explained that there were rumours that Navaratna Bar and Restaurant was a front for a cocaine operation, and that Gisele had earned an underground nickname of ‘Cocaine Queen’.
Some witnesses saw a strange priest in a white cassock descend from a Dhavaleshwaram-bound bus and make his way toward the shivalayam. He had a bible tucked under his arm. He was described as a long, angular man with a pointed beard – and he was wearing a pair of round black-framed glasses.
They always remembered the disguise. Not the man wearing it.
That afternoon, ten thousand rupees were deposited into my account. I paid my rent with half of it. The remaining would have to see me through the end of the month. The grocery bill needed to be settled. And a certain something had to be sent to Dr Chitale, to begin paying for Anjali’s next session. With luck I’d make it with two or three grand left over.
I called boss after lunch.
‘You saw the news?’ he said.
‘I did. Which of our boys did it?’
‘You don’t have to know,’ said boss, but I could hear mirth in his voice. ‘But I am sure you can guess.’
‘Sure can,’ I said. ‘Listen, boss?’
‘If a contract ever comes for Govardhan or Devender Reddy, will you make sure that I get it?’
Boss didn’t say anything for a bit. ‘You know we don’t like mixing in the personal with the professional.’
‘Sure. But still. For old time’s sake.’
Boss was weighing up the pros and cons. I could almost hear his brain tick. Then he said, ‘Sure thing.’
I hung up and poured myself a carefully calibrated peg. Couldn’t drink too much. Had to visit Anjali in the evening, read her a story, and be all cheerful and funny around her. Pretend that she was not dying. Pretend that we were all going to be all right. She had begun to ask about god lately. I’d begun to tell her that he was a kind bastard. Loved all of us. Now sleep, honey. One more day has come to an end. Another one begins tomorrow.
Another day of this great fucking miracle that we call life.
I raised my glass to the wall. I said, ‘Cheers, Gisele,’ and fell on the bed. Before I knew it I was asleep.