B squeezes himself into the far corner of the back seat, his arms tightly around his torso, hugging himself. He wishes he could disappear, from the world, from himself, but mostly from the other four in the car.
Atul stamps on the accelerator, swinging the wheel as hard as he can. The off side tyres mount the edge of the pavement before coming back down on the street hard enough to rattle them around like dice in a box, but nobody notices; they’re too busy shouting.
“What the hell did you do that for?” Rudal’s face is all mouth and eyes as he screams at Sundeep. “Why did you shoot that cop?”
Sundeep glances at him and back at the rust-coloured pistol in his hands. He’s broken the barrel open, slid the spent cartridge out, and loads another one into the breech. A wisp of smoke rises from the barrel like a waking snake, and is instantly whisked away. “It was him or us,” he snaps. “What else should I have done? Given up?”
“Look,” Pradeep yells, pointing at a man on the pavement holding up a mobile phone. “That bastard’s trying to take photos.” Sundeep leans across him, sticks the barrel of the gun through the window, and fires. There’s a deafening blast and the man falls to the ground, kicking spasmodically, a pool of blood already forming around him. The mobile phone is an oblong of shattered plastic on the street.
“That’s taken care of him,” Sundeep says with satisfaction. He stuffs another of the thick brass cartridges into the pistol. “Anyone else?”
“When you asked me to get that katta for you,” Rudal screams, “I never thought you were going to do a robbery with it.”
“So what did you think I’d do with it – defend myself?” Sundeep shouts back. “If I’d wanted a gun to defend myself with I’d have applied for a firearms licence and bought a proper revolver, you idiot.”
Atul glances back over his shoulder long enough to snarl at them. “Didn’t it occur to any of you that the cops will be after us now?”
“It was him or us,” Sundeep repeats. He lifts up the sack of money to show them. “We got this anyway.”
Pradeep glares at him. “What did you have to rob for?”
“I didn’t see you holding back when I told you to take the money,” Sundeep says. “Any of the three of you. And you won’t hold back when it comes to taking your share either, I’ll bet.”
“That doesn’t make a damn difference,” Rudal says. “If I’d known you were planning a robbery...”
“...you wouldn’t have bought the katta for me,” Sundeep finishes. “As though I don’t know that you made a nice profit on it, and on the bullets. And as though just anyone knows where one can buy illegal homemade guns. Right?” He pauses to see if anyone will answer. “Just like this car,” he continues. “It’s stolen goods, which is why it was cheap. The dealer Atul bought it from is crooked, as we all know.” His mouth twists viciously. “Don’t you get it? All of you are crooks, it’s just that you aren’t ready to admit it to yourselves. Well, I am.”
“We aren’t crooks,” Pradeep says. His sparse moustache doesn’t quite cover the scar on his upper lip, and it’s livid against his pale skin. “We’re college students, and you’re one too.”
“Yeah, right, college students,” Sundeep laughs shortly. “Do you think a college degree’s going to get you a job, huh? Shall I tell you what’s going to happen when you go with your degree to a job interview? Shall I?” He points a thick finger at Pradeep. “Some stuck-up bitch with a fancy upper class school accent’s going to waggle her tits in the interviewer’s face and then it’s thanks for coming in, better luck next time, for you. Well, I’m not planning to spend my life selling ice cream or listening to abuse from fat foreign sluts at a call centre. I want to live.”
“We aren’t going to live unless we get somewhere safe,” Atul says. They’re headed into the old part of town, narrow streets with straggling houses, but beyond them the land rises into the forested hills. “They must be after us by now.”
B stirs at last, forcing his clenched fists to relax, letting his arms drop away from his torso. “All I wanted was a lift,” he says. “Why didn’t any of you tell me anything about this?”
Pradeep glances at him as though surprised he exists. “About what?”
“This...gun,” B says. “This car. This robbery. All of you knew something or other was going on, but none of you told me anything. And all I wanted was a lift.”
Nobody speaks for a minute or two. They’re in a lane so narrow that Atul has to slow almost to a stop to let a car coming from the other side pass. Sundeep sticks the gun under the seat.
“Where are we going?” Rudal asks when they’re past the lane and out on a more open street. “Do you have any idea?”
“I have a relative near here,” Atul says. “He can put us up for a bit.”
“No,” B says. “No,” he repeats, more loudly, to make sure they’ve heard. “The police will find us there.” He looks around at them. “They’re probably after us right now. They know exactly where we are.”
“Take it easy,” Rudal says. “Relax.”
“What do you mean, take it easy?” B snaps. He feels a rising tide of paranoia. “That car,” he says. “The one that passed us just now. It couldn’t have put a tracker on us, could it? A radio tracker, like the ones on TV?”
“You’re crazy,” Rudal says. “Totally bloody insane.”
“No, but he’s right,” Pradeep bites his scarred lip. “They’ll track us down here for sure. There are too many eyes and ears around, and someone must have got the car number.”
“That’s right,” Sundeep agrees. “We need to hide the car.” He looks at Atul. “You can always get the dealer to come out and fit new number plates. It’ll be all right then.”
Atul turns the car on to a narrow dusty street between a row of houses and fields. On the other side the road goes up into the hills. “Can you see any police?” he asks, as the ground below them begins to rise and the houses fall away behind.
“If they’re tracking us,” B says, “they won’t be chasing us. They’ll set up roadblocks and wait for us to walk right into the trap.”
They all look at him and uneasily at one another. “We’d better dump the car,” Rudal says.
Atul swings the wheel over and the car bumps into the scrub at the side of the road. “Damn you all to hell,” he says. “It was a good car.”
“It can’t be traced to you, can it?” Sundeep asks him. “So what are you worried about?”
“I know this area,” Pradeep says. “There’s a restaurant up the hill a little bit. It’ll be crowded in the evening. We can mix with the people there and nobody will find us.”
Sundeep begins to stuff the gun down the small of his back. Rudal stares at him. “Haven’t you done enough damage? Leave the damn thing here somewhere – and wipe it down first.”
Amazingly, Sundeep obeys, wiping the gun on his handkerchief before flinging it into the forest as far as he can. They push through the scrub up the slope. B walks behind the others, his eyes fixed on the ground at their feet. He’s wishing he hadn’t asked for the lift earlier. How could things have gone so wrong?
Momentarily, the policeman’s body flashes in his mind, blood spurting from the bullet hole in its throat. Sundeep’s crude pistol had nearly shot the man’s head off. He swallows hard. What will the police do if they catch them? His mind boggles at the thought.
They come out near a small marketplace, incongruously strung along both sides of the road in the middle of the scrub forest. A couple of long distance lorries are parked nearby, the drivers leaning against the side of one, talking, and B has a sudden intense desire to go to them and ask for a lift out of there, away from the city and never to come back. But where could he go, and what could he do with no money and nothing but the clothes on his back?
The restaurant is a large and rambling place, a series of long shed-like huts with thatched roofs and walls made of bamboo posts and cane mats. From outside it looks bucolic, like something from a hundred years ago. Inside, of course, it’s as modern as they come.
“Spread out,” Pradeep hisses over his shoulder. “Mix among the customers. Don’t stick together and show everybody how scared you are, damn it.”
“How long do we stay here?” Atul asks.
“Until the crowd begins to leave, of course. Then we slip away with them. Nobody will know who we are.”
“How do you know so much about how to behave while hiding out from the cops?” B wants to ask, but there are people around now, and, besides, Pradeep is already walking away towards one of the huts.
B selects one of the largest huts, a round one with a conical roof that reminds him of a circus tent. It’s in the middle of the restaurant, with music playing inside. It’s dark and cool, and when he enters he has to pause a little o allow his eyes to adjust.
He hears his name called, in a familiar nasal voice. It’s Haleel, from the college, his thin face and spatulate ears waggling. “Hey, man,” he calls. “How come you’re here?”
“I could ask the same about you.” B walks over. Haleel is with Vipul, and there are a couple of open bottles of beer on the table, and a bowl of salted peanuts.
Vipul sees B looking at them, and gestures. “Be my guest.” He’s big, with a kindly face marred by a scarred chin. B knows him hardly at all. “So you dragged yourself away from your books? How come?”
B shrugs and takes a deep gulp of beer. His stomach, empty since morning, cramps around the bitter, frothy, ice cold fluid. He licks his lips. “It seemed a good idea at the time,” he says.
“But it doesn’t any longer?” Vipul grins. “We all need a break sometimes, and you might as well learn that now as later.” He takes some peanuts and pushes over the bowl. “Here.”
“Break, yes,” B says. He gulps more of the beer. He’s feeling light-headed, the alcohol already rising in his blood. “You know what?”
“What?” Haleel asks. He’s cradling his beer protectively. Haleel isn’t famous for knowing how to share.
“Everything is crazy,” B pronounces. From the corner of his eye he sees Atul come into the hut, and for a moment feels like calling him over. But Atul sees him and walks out again. “Everything,” he mumbles.
“Of course everything is crazy.” Vipul yawns and rises. “I’ll get another beer.”
“Make it two.” B fishes in his wallet and gives Vipul a hundred-rupee note. He has almost nothing left, but Sundeep is rolling in money. He thinks of the money Sundeep is carrying, enough to buy all the booze in the restaurant twice over, and giggles.
“What’s so funny?” Haleel demands. “If you are having a funny joke, tell, man.”
“Nothing.” B tries to listen to the music. It’s half familiar, a rock tune that was popular some months ago, but he can’t name the singer and can’t make out the lyrics. Perhaps it’s a knock-off, a copy by some South Indian film music director.
“So did you come here alone, man?” Haleel asks. He looks resentfully at B’s fresh bottle of beer. “You going back afterwards?”
B shrugs noncommittally. The beer is buzzing in his head. “Don’t mind me,” he mutters, looking into the glass. The froth seems to twist and form faces. Atul’s face, with its strip of moustache and its wavy cap of hair. Sundeep’s, square-jawed and truculent. Rudal’s, gap-toothed and thick-lipped, and then Pradeep’s, narrow and long, like a jackal’s. But instead of his own face, the froth next shifts into a semblance of the dead policeman’s countenance, mouth open and eyes staring. B shakes his head and looks away, and when he looks back again it’s just a glass of beer.
Draining off the last of the beer, he realises he’s alone at the table. Haleel and Vipul have gone, and when he looks around he sees them at the bar, talking to a couple of girls. The bar is full, but he feels alone, eyes everywhere looking at him. Surely they all know he’s hiding. They must be.
Suddenly, he has to pee. Moving with some care, he blunders away from the table and out of the hut. It’s sunset, the last reddish rays lying slantwise across the thatched roofs.
From the toilet – thatched roof and bamboo outside, white tiles and shiny fixtures inside – B walks around for a bit, and towards the gate. People are coming in, but fewer than he’d have thought on a weekend evening. He looks outside at the shops of the little market. The lorries are gone.
All of a sudden, B has a bizarre image, almost a vision. He sees himself, a middle sized figure standing in the gate, the sunlight flashing off his spectacles. Someone is watching him, as in a video, the camera zooming in closer and closer, picking up the smear of dirt on the right knee of his jeans, the dust on his sneakers, the dried sweat tracks on his face which he forgot to wipe away in the toilet. He sees through these other eyes, feels them measuring him, noting everything.
They’ve been found, he thinks. The police are just waiting, making sure, getting ready for the right moment. He’s got to get away from here.
He’s got to tell the others, too, to warn them. They have to know.
Hurrying, suddenly stone cold sober, he goes back into the restaurant. It suddenly seems much smaller than he’d thought, the huts a flimsy hiding place, the crowd thin, almost nonexistent. He goes into the first hut, the one Pradeep had chosen, but none of the four is at the tables. Quickly, he goes to the next hut, and the next. They’re nowhere.
Finally he checks the big hut again. Vipul is just leaving, a giggling girl with a mass of black hair with her arm wrapped round his. She glances at B out of the corner of her eye and grips Vipul’s arm possessively.
“I thought you’d left,” Vipul says. He smiles, more than half drunk. “Come back for another round?”
“No,” B replies. “Not now. Did you see Atul or Rudal? How about Pradeep or Sundeep?”
Vipul belches gently. “Oops. No, why, did they come with you? They probably left long ago. Do you want me to pass along a message if I see them?”
“No,” B says despairingly. “It doesn’t matter.” He walks into the hut to make sure anyway. The big hut is empty, except for the barman, who’s wiping glasses. He looks at B expectantly. “Yes, sir?”
B shakes his head and sits down at a table. He can see it clearly in his mind, the four of them getting together, looking over their shoulders to make sure he isn’t around, and making quick whispered plans to get away with the money. They’re probably far away by now – or maybe, more likely, they’ve simply gone back to the college, pretending nothing happened. If anyone’s caught, it’s going to be him.
“But if I’m caught,” he tells them, in his head, “I can tell the police all about you, that you did it.”
“Tell away,” they reply, in one voice, sneering. “Who’s going to believe you anyway? It’s your word against ours. The car can’t be traced back to us, nor can the gun, and as for the money –” They look at each other and laugh, shaking in unison. “And meanwhile, you sat getting drunk in public. Everyone saw you do that. It’s hardly usual behaviour for you, right? People notice.”
How many years will I get? B wonders to himself, his hands clenching. Twenty years? Forty? Most likely life without a chance of release. And I’m just starting out! I have my whole life ahead of me! What will my parents do? Suddenly he can’t breathe.
B stands up so abruptly his chair falls over. He rushes out of the hut, towards the gate, determined to run somewhere, anywhere. It’s full dark now, much darker than it should be, and as he runs on to the street he realises why. The shops are all shut, the lights are out. And surely it can’t even be seven in the evening yet?
B stands in the middle of the street, no idea which way to run. He takes a couple of steps back towards the restaurant, but the lights are going off there, too, the gate swinging shut. Everything seems to be getting ready to hide.
Footsteps come towards him, scuffling. It’s someone, running, scrambling footsteps almost falling over themselves in their hurry. B moves aside quickly so the racing figure doesn’t collide with him. It’s someone small and thin, dressed in cheap kurta and pyjamas.
“Wait,” B clutches at his arm. “Wait just a moment.”
“Let me go!” The man’s eyes, huge in his thin face, roll with fear. “Let me go, master.”
“What’s going on?” B asks.
“Police,” the man gasps. “The Crime Branch is about to make a raid. Let me go!”
“But you haven’t done anything, have you?” B asks. “So why are you running?”
“Do you think they care about that?” the man says. His entire face twitches. “When they make a raid, anyone they find is finished. They’ll find something to hang on you.”
“Such as?” B asks, his mouth dry.
“Anything!” The man peers at B’s face. “Especially college kids like you – they like nothing better than one of you, nice and soft. It gives them a real kick.” With a quick wriggle he frees his arm from B’s clutch and disappears into the darkness.
Moments later B hears noises coming.
B stands in the middle of the street, listening to the approaching engines, watching their lights. They’re coming from both sides, and he wonders briefly whether he should make a run for the scrub forest. Maybe he can make it to the shelter of the forest before they can see him.
But, with the certainty of despair, he knows there’s no point to running, any longer, at all.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015