(A Short Story... somewhat!)
Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth: as he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again. – Leviticus 24:20
I opened my trump card – Seven of Spades.
An involuntary groan escaped Anil’s throat. Jack of Clubs and Ten of Clubs lying on the mat – and an Ace of Diamond too.
Daylight robbery – that’s what it was.
George was whooping with delight. You’ve got to grant it; at times you can have the perfect telepathy in a game of cards.
Abhishek looked pissed off. Classic case of loser blues.
“Abhi, if you cant appreciate genius, get out and while you are at it, get a life.”
God, I loved giving that cold, steely edge to my voice
“Ok, losers pay for today’s dinner. At Geoffrey’s”, George said showing off his hand. There was no point in playing anymore. The game was won.
At the age of twenty-three, happiness is very easy to find. When the biggest choice you have to make is whether it’s the blue or black tee you are gonna wear, you can safely say that living is an easy piece of shit. Life is just starting to happen and it hasn’t had the chance to show off its sharp fangs.
Twenty-three- now that’s an age when you have the luxury of believing that growing up is a clerical error which would eventually be rectified.
Four guys nestled in the warm confines of a rented house in the city of Mumbai.
Three of them employed and living their dreams.
One unemployed and still busy dreaming. That would be me. No issues.
On that evening, as we dealt cards and the wind did its walk and talk outside, we were just biding our time; waiting for someone. There was that palpable sense of excitement, the smell of intrigue in the air. And when the clock struck six, Eric came.
It rained steadily for the next two days. The city got flooded and my friends took their day off. We talked and talked and then did some more talking. While the cd player, in shuffle mode, belted out old hits in the background, and while beer bottles got empty by the dozen, we sat down wide-eyed, listening to Eric, trying to make sense of what he was talking about.
“Its just a matter of three days. And when the cruise liner docks at the harbour, I will be the first one stepping inside. The papers are ready. I am not. Three days; that’s 72 hours. And when the time is up, I want to be as ready as my papers are.”
Eric lighted a cheroot and blew a ring of smoke.
“Finding Dandipur wont be a problem”, George said.
The air was saturated with the sharp smell of smoke. With the smell of beer, sweat and somebody’s fart thrown in, the place was stinking like a shit-house. And nobody seemed to bother.
Eric had a contented look in his hazel eyes.
“I owe you all big. Hell, I am an outright stranger to you and the same applies here too. And despite that…” Eric let the words hang in mid-air. He flicked the ash and passed the cheroot to George.
There was a grace in the way he did it. And even in those tees (which read the legend ‘Keep your distance coz I stink!!’) that looked as bad as it smelt and the faded khakis, sporting his unkempt hair and unshaven face, he still managed to have a charm and grace in his movements. A cool air of confidence, which said that life could very well throw a truck-load of coal at him and he would bake his day’s bread with that. To say we were hooked would be an understatement. We were enchanted by this wonderful creature in our midst.
Anil sneezed again and Eric muttered a ‘bless-you’.
“The cold is getting bad. I feel like a snot rag. I am gonna turn off for a while”.
Anil sounded bad and I feared that I would be the next. George yawned and that was contagious. Soon everybody was yawning and moving to their beds in drunken stupor.
I was feeling surprisingly clear-headed. So was Eric. Something was swimming behind the indecipherable features of his face.
The hands of the clock crawled its way to eleven. A night breeze was blowing outside. The newborn next door broke into a cry and was silenced immediately. Eric was rummaging his knapsack. He pulled out a bottle of scotch. Its green body glimmered in the light.
“Are you feeling sleepy or do you care to join me for one final sonata?”
“Would love to”, I said.
“I hate beer. They say you never own it. You just rent it”
He poured two inches of whiskey into each glass. I added water and ice cubes converting what had been liquid dynamite into a civilized drink.
We pulled our chairs to the balcony. The silence was welcome for a change. We gazed at the late night commuters moving about.
“How bad was it?”. I ventured.
Eric smiled – “ Seventeen bullets. That’s about three rounds of a 0.45. When you do a body count, all they needed was three bullets. And they fired three rounds – three bloody rounds, goddamnit.”
Eric was clenching his glass tight. Nerves were bulging out the side of his throat. When the focus falls on those in your heart’s neighbourhood, I guess you lose the façade of the calm composure. Next door, Anil muttered something in his sleep and followed it with a sneeze. I looked back at Eric and saw that he had got his act together.
“Sorry I lost it there. But when what little you had that passed for a family, is down and six feet under, you better let them rest in peace. You don’t fiddle with the graves and let the dead walk over you”.
He settled back in his chair and lighted another cheroot.
“I knew who I was against. And it would have been a David-and-Goliath revisited. So I kept my senses and kept quiet. For the time being at least. I wanted to get out of the scene. Badly. For more reasons than one. And I made my plans. I had my share of contacts. Two can play that game, right? I was smuggled out of my place. I got it done. From LA to Canada to France and then to Zurich. If I had delivered the shit to the authorities, I would have got a clean slate. Hell, they would have protected me, given me a new identity. I could have started all over. Do some silly job, live an innocuous life in some part of the world. And then one day, I go out to buy a six-pack or drive to the school where I would be teaching some third-graders. And some nondescript passer-by pulls out a colt and feeds me lead. I would lie there with my guts out, painting bloody designs on the sidewalk. I would any day trade that pseudo safety of my life for living it the way I want to, doing the things I’ve got to do before I buy my ticket.”
I shuddered at the very thought of living a life where you’ve got to look behind your shoulders every minute. Every damn minute of it.
“At Zurich”, Eric continued, “I finished my last few pending jobs. And then I had to unwind. I was so strung up that I would burst at the slightest thing. I knew my calling. I had to get to India. You could call me crazy but I sensed that my time was almost up. I had to make peace with my past. Hell, what do I have to lose? At the least I would be journeying through a new place, enjoying one holiday, which, God knows, I deserve! Ok, I know its no holiday while the skeletons in my closet is making one awful ruckus.”
Eric poured the third ‘two-inches’ into his glass. I hadn’t finished my first.
“ Nice place. I feel strangely settled, after months. I know. Not for long but its good as long as it lasts. So tell me. How do you feel?” Eric asked.
“Great. At the age of 23, life is an easy piece of shit”
“Don’t you say that”, his voice sounded gruff and his eyes bored into mine. “ If you feel so, consider yourself among the blessed few.”
Silence pervaded as we gazed at the road. A rick passed by and the guy inside yelled at some non-entity.
“ I am sorry”, Eric said, “ its not your fault at all. When you start to feel thankful for every extra breath you take, that’s when you appreciate life. That’s when you appreciate living”
“You don’t but that’s fine. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight to you too”
I lay on my bed. My joints were aching like hell. It felt so good to just lie down. The light from the balcony was filtering into my room and I could see Eric’s elongated shadow on the wall. I wondered how it would feel when a bullet rips your flesh apart. I tossed and turned and when I finally decided that I was not gonna fall asleep, I slept. It was a troubled sleep and I dreamt. I dreamt some of the most vivid dreams I can remember.
In one, I was sitting on the mat playing cards. It was my turn and the best of spades were for the calling. I didn’t have one. I opened my trump and dropped it. Abhi was groaning at the loss and George was screaming with joy. Anil was sneezing and muttering some swear word in between. I looked down at my trump and blood froze in my veins. It was the Jack of Clubs but it was no picture of the smiling knight in armour. It was a human face: scrawny, ashen, cadaverous, dead. It was Eric’s.
It was already past eight when I woke up. The sky seemed livid, thoroughly spent out after the incessant raining for the last two days. George and Abhishek had already left for work. Anil was getting ready. His movements seemed laboured.
“If you are not feeling well, take another day off yar”, I suggested.
“You so badly want to see me cool my lazy ass for good, do you. My project manager is gonna scream bloody murder if I take another day off. Ive taken my meds. Guess I will be alright.”
I watched him leave and then ambled along to the teashop. My guess turned right. The chaiwallah knew where Dandipur was.
When I got back, Eric was standing at the porch. He had had his shave. He looked good, immaculately dressed in a white shirt and beige chinos.
“Wanna join me?” I asked.
“To one tiny village called Dandipur.”
He smiled and then laughed and held me tight in a bear hug.
It was a six-hour journey. The bus seemed like some monstrosity spitted out of a factory line somewhere in the late sixties. But Eric seemed to be enjoying it. His knapsack lay on his lap and a small bag rested on mine. I had a feeling that bad roads and bad weather lay ahead. It was pretty obvious that we won’t be returning for the day.
“So how do you find India?” God, who was I kidding here? This was no goddamn tourist. Far from it.
Eric smiled as if he read my mind.
“It has got a charm. It definitely has. Quaint old buildings rubbing its concrete shoulders with the high rises. Rickshaws and Lancers sharing road space. But not many know about this new look. No kidding, there are friends of mine who still believe the place is all about pagan cults, snake charmers and the like.”
“Ya, I guess so”. I smiled at the thought.
“But I wanted to savour that taste. I had to. And I did. At Haridwar. The place was teeming with yogis and pundits.”
“Yes, the place is in a sorry state. Religion is commercialized like anything.”
“Not religion”, Eric said. “ Death. Death is commercialized and the cadavers are the commodities. In those three days, I saw pundits bargaining over dead bodies, bitching over who’s gonna do the last rites. But the place has got a feel to it. It kind of grows on you. And you wont believe what I did.”
I was puzzled and then it flashed and I was dumbstruck.
“You didn’t”, I said.
Eric smiled back. “ I sure did. One of them was nagging me throughout and I decided to play along. With the two dollars I paid, he has bribed St.Peter and the gates of Heaven are thrown open for me. And till I cross that threshold, I remain to be the walking dead. That’s a nice thought. The Walking Dead.”
Eric laughed at himself. It sounded hollow. I looked out of the window. The bus had left the city behind. We were passing through some village.
“Well, I didn’t find him there”, Eric continued. “But I got track of his whereabouts and followed the cue. From Haridwar to Pune. And there I got to know that he had moved on to Dandipur. In Pune, I met Vikram. Nice chap. He insisted that I stay with you guys when I get to Mumbai. I am happy I didn’t argue out the offer.”
The bus had a stop at Shantivan. We got down and walked in. No one seemed surprised at seeing Eric. I guess, the sight of a foreigner is not uncommon there. I myself spotted one tending the garden.
I waited outside while Eric stepped in and conversed with the ‘in-charge’. Don’t know what they call him – Head saint, guru, swami. But I was sure that he would be having one ‘ananda’ tag to his name. Eric came out and the swami followed suit.
“This is Nithyananda, the guruyogi”. Eric introduced him. I inwardly smiled.
“And this is my friend, Aalok. To wax eloquent, the beacon who showed me the way”.
It was the swami’s turn to smile. For a second, the sharp eyes behind those thick specs appraised me and then dismissed me off.
He said and led the way. His accent, surprisingly, seemed polished. On second thoughts, not much of a wonder though. I noticed that Eric was lost in his thoughts. The place was calm and serene. A cool breeze blew and thunder rumbled in the distance. Swami stopped in his tracks.
“Here it is. I shall take my leave now. Do take your time.”
The sound of bhajans drifted through the air. The sky was getting cloudy and the rumble of thunder sounded closer. Eric was gazing at the unimpressive gravestone.
“Lo and Behold. Here lies the Saint. He who had his calling and traversed many miles to attain Salvation. He who forsook his better half and those she bore. He who followed The Way and let them live pathetic lives. Here lies the sorriest bastard who ever walked the face of the earth.”
I kept silent. Eric had to let go. He knelt before the gravestone.
It had started pouring and I stood there wet and dripping.
“I’ve make my peace with you, dad”, he said.
Beyond the curtain of the downpour, I saw Eric kiss the grave.
We spent the night at a lodging. Pretty shady place but that was all we could get. Eric was drinking from the earthen kulla that the room-boy had left. I was sitting on the cot fiddling with his knapsack.
“Eric?” I said holding it up. It was lying in the inside pouch of his bag.
“Oh that!”, he smiled. “That’s a Smith & Wessons. Sigma make. 0.38 caliber. Semi- automatic”
He laughed at the quizzical expression in my face.
“What did you expect? That I would be roaming around with a couple of Chases and Jeffrey Archers in that knapsack?”
I smiled and pointed the gun at the kulla.
“Easy man”, Eric said. “ The safety catch is locked alright. But that’s a monster in your hands. And often its not you that hold it. It’s the gun that holds you.”
“But why? And here of all places!” , I said.
“Not necessarily here. And don’t get freaked out. I know their power only extends to so much. But it’s a fool who underestimates his foe. And I am no fool. My dad was one. Progeny of the Hippie era. Nothing wrong with that. Flower-power, peace symbol, colour-beads, marijuana, sex, karma, yoga, salvation; searching the absolute truth and the meaning of life. Hell, they didn’t even know which end of the joint they were smoking. Vietnam happened, Beatles happened and then Mark Chapman happened. But for my dad, life was one never-ending sixties.”
Eric sat down on the cot and lighted a cheroot.
“ Mama was from Tennessee. Village gal. Always voted Republican. And always busy with some odd job- mashing up potatoes or knitting socks. It was a hell of a struggle for me. Didn’t want to lead a life in the sewers. I worked my way up. By God, I did!”
“Lucky you”, I said.
“I busted my ass. I wont thank the stars”
We lay there in the darkness. The fan sounded as if it was cursing us for every extra round it had to take.
“You’ve got a girlfriend?” Eric asked.
“Na. All the girls are mine. I don’t believe in exclusivity.” Eric laughed at that.
“Ya. A darling she is. And when she nags, I love her all the more. Takes good care of this zombie here.” I smiled.
“So how is she doing?”
“Fine. Five of those seventeen shots went inside her. An undertaker’s field day.”
Eric stubbed out his cheroot.
"Don’t get me wrong. I am no Robert Ludlum hero avenging the death of his near and dear. I am saving my own skin. I want to breathe. I want to live! But in the cold nights, when sleep is the farthest thing from mind, I think about it all and revenge sounds good. Revenge sounds sweet. But then you bide your time coz revenge is one dish best served cold!”
By the time we reached back, I had a running nose and was sneezing like hell. I had caught the virus. The ship had docked at the harbour. Eric was sailing that night.
By evening, I was having a raging fever. Every joint felt like a lead block. I kept falling in and out of sleep. Next door, I heard Eric and the others laughing at some inane joke of George’s. I badly wanted to join them. I fell back into a slumber. Then I felt someone touching my forehead, checking the mercury. I opened my eyes.
“Sleep dude”, Eric said. I slept.
I woke up in the morning, feeling much better. Everyone had left for work. Eric’s knapsack was gone. I went out to have my tea.
On that day, on our way back from Shantivan, I had asked Eric why he cared to tell me all that stuff. Eric smiled and replied slowly as if he was picking the right words.
“I came here to make peace with my past. But I feel I won’t be around to watch my present take sepia tones and become a thing of the days gone by. So, Paul Jannings makes peace with his present too.”
“Paul who??” I was confused
“Never mind. Thanks brother. Thanks for being there. Thanks for just being. And now I am ready. I am ready for my voyage.”
Eric Anderson died two months later on November 11th. The passport named the dead as David Brown. The news-portals ran an article on the thirty-one year old American tourist shot dead in a hotel room in Singapore. They followed it up with a picture. It was Eric alright. The murder seemed like an amateur’s job. Theft and burglary followed up with an impulsive lead shot, the authorities postulated. I believe it needs a professional to make the job look like an amateur’s. The shit hit once again, when the genuineness of the passport came into question.
But the news was soon overshadowed by a lot bigger scoop. On November 30th, Wall Street nosedived to an all time low, and repercussions were felt all over the world.
The reason was attributed to the fall of Stanley & Morris, a big fish in the American tobacco industry.
The ‘Giant of the Decade’ corporation (courtesy Newsweek) had its interests in several other sectors and when it fell, it pulled Wall Street down with it.
Heated discussions between stock analysts were aired on prime time and I could make out this much.
Some clever entity had bought big chunks of Stanley & Morris stocks over a period of time operating through accounts scattered in Canada, France and the offshore banks in the Caribbean. And on November 30th, all those stocks were dumped into the open market.
But the bigger damage was done elsewhere. On November 28th and 29th, all the shareholders of Stanley & Morris, received a sealed folder from Grand National Bank, Zurich. It came with a covering letter stating that the Bank was executing the written instructions of Paul Jannings, the account holder. The letter ended with the bank manager’s unabashed campaign, enticing the recipients to ‘Bank with the Grand’.
Stockholders made a beeline to their brokers. A selling spree ensued causing the Domino effect.
The FBI correspondent made a curt comment that the sealed folder “contained papers of highly incriminating nature that can bring down both Stanley & Morris and the Vittori family.”
On December 10th, George Morris, co-partner of the corporation, stuck a gun in his mouth and sucked a bullet.
In the end, David killed Goliath after all. And I bet somewhere, six feet under, Eric is laughing his dead heart out. And I am happy for him.
Life is back to its mundane routine. My pocket money is almost over. Life has started giving small glimpses of its sharp fangs, but that’s enough to make me terrified. Got an interview next week and crossing all my fingers for that.
Our card games still go on. My winning spree had ended the day Eric left. After all the humiliating losses that followed, I badly wanted to have my revenge. And yesterday, we sat down to have one last game before winding up for the day.
The second deal was on. The best of spades were for the calling. I didn’t have one. I opened my trump and dropped it. Abhi groaned at the loss. George was screaming with joy. Anil muttered some swear word. I couldn’t bear to look down as an awesome sense of déjà vu was sending shivers down my spine. And then I looked down at my trump.
It was the Jack of Clubs and the knight in armour was smiling at me.
I felt happy, but I didn’t smile back. It wouldn’t have been decent of me to do that.
I owe him that much. I owe him that last laugh.