FICTION: Fear by Debasree Banerjee

“Tony Carvalho, that’s it!” the young man dressed in khaki uniform occasionally peered into one of the hovels on either side of the filthy, wet and slippery alleyway up which he walked towards the ‘90 Feet Road’.  It was a strange name for a road but Mumbai as a city is strange in character, and presently as a landscape was drowned in foggy vapour emanating from everything. Mumbai rains, as people who know the city often joke, are about the most unpredictable and unrelenting things behind women, of course.

Dharavi was an apt area for such grisly happenings as the latest series of violence that had brought Inspector Carvalho here on the early July morning. Any of the one million faces of the ones residing in the world’s largest slum could be that of the perpetrator, or it could very easily be anyone among the estimated twenty-two million living in India’s most populous city that like the worlds other famous cities had a dissociative personality disorder. While Mumbai thrived with the milling ebb of humanity that went about their business through the day in seemingly normal aspirations against the rat race with oneself and others, there was a darker and more sinister alter ego to the tinsel town of people’s dreams, where movie production alone entailed an annual turnover of approximately one hundred thousand billion dollars.

Inspector Carvalho was a young man in his early thirties with the healthy outdoor tan of an average Mumbai resident and his sharp questions and swift movements showed that he was no rookie in homicide. The woman had been found bound and gagged with her throat slit open. Half of her entrails had been strewn out onto the dirt floor while she had been secured into a rough sitting position, her legs sprawled in front of her, the camp bed having been propped against the slimy green wall as a means of tying her wrists against it. This wasn’t the first case of a prostitute getting murdered in this area; it was the fourth in fact. All four murders had the similar modus operandi and the crime scenes more or less replicated one another.

The victim in this case, Pinky was a seventeen year old, who had taken to the trade not more than a year back and these details were also similar to the previous three victims’. It seemed as if the perpetrator had taken a liking to underage and inexperienced prostitutes who served clients mainly in and around Dharavi. This could mean two things; either that the killer came from a not-so-financially-sound background, or that he craved inconspicuousness. However, one thing baffled Inspector Carvalho; the pimps individually confirmed in each case that it had been the girls’ evening off and they hadn’t taken any client on the night of their death. Additionally, in Pinky’s case the old woman who lived in the shack just opposite hers swore that she had been sleeping outside until about half past two and hadn’t seen anyone unusual loitering about. She insisted that she personally knew everyone who had been in and around Pinky’s residence since early evening on the night of the murder. She vehemently repeated that it had been an unusually humid evening and she hadn’t been asleep till a heavy downpour was there sometime after half past two. It was then that she noticed the door to Pinky’s shack whamming about by the sudden gusts of wind and she had gone to wake up the girl and ask her to latch it. What met her sight was ghastly; and so it was, conceded Tony Carvalho casting one last glance at the unfortunate girl’s corpse.

He exited, carefully avoiding the urine-drenched walls that ran along the entire alleyway; people had also spat out at them as evident from the betel-stains creating sordid murals on them. Pinky’s pimp, a man named Saeed, in his mid-forties, was standing with his back to one particularly rank segment of the wall, chewing something. As soon as he saw Tony emerge, he spat out whatever it was, leaving a disreputable blob on the wall. Tony Carvalho sighed. These people were getting on his nerves; if it weren’t for his compulsion, he would be happy cooking fish for tourists back in his hometown of Madgaon in Goa. However, he knew that he had grown used to the power associated with his profession, as much as a tiger who had taken to human blood.

Saeed grinned baring a set of yellowing rotted teeth; Tony only knew this type of smile very well. It meant that this man had something to offer but it wouldn’t be overt, and it would require remuneration of kinds that would be beyond the confines of what one might call legal. Tony nodded imperceptibly, indicating the man to join him as he walked along the alley towards his waiting jeep.

“Saab, you found who killed the girl? A good one, she was” Saeed began in an oily voice that nauseated Tony.

“Cut the crap and spit out your requirement”, barked Tony.

Saeed’s attempt at an ingratiating laughter was even more infuriating; he leaned conspiratorially towards Tony and spoke while rubbing his right ear in mock supplication; “Actually Saab, Bhagat’s men owe me fifty thousand rupees. I’m in a crunch right now, and would be grateful if you arranged….”

“Depends on the information I receive”, Tony’s patience was waning after a sleepless night.

“So be it, Saab…. So be it” Saeed grinned, churning Tony’s insides.

*

The lead had been worth tracing and it certainly lent a new angle to the investigation. So far, the discovery had conformed to three of the four victims’ details. The women, it appeared had no qualms about their sexuality and, seemed to have enjoyed the company of other women too. Whether it was sheer professionalism or a deviation on their part wasn’t clear, but such deviations while considered as euphemisms for liberalization, and therefore hardly consequential for the enlightened upper-class, it was unusual among the middle and lower classes, and therefore had been easy to discover.

Tony realized that he had automatically driven home while pondering upon this recent discovery. It comforted him to think of Shreya, who would surely be ready to snuggle up beside him under the covers and instantly relieve him of all his professional challenges. She was a bomb and was the only thing beside his dope that made him explode into an ecstasy beyond any. It also made him proud to think that she wasn’t all body, and it made Tony wonder as to how a woman of her intellect had gone so wrong, because juxtaposed against her social-service, her whole personality seemed a weird combination of recklessness and wisdom.

He found her cooking when he arrived; they weren’t married but it hardly posed a hindrance to their social arrangement. It was a win-win relationship with no strings attached and full satisfaction; or was it so? Of late, Shreya’s presence at home had become more like Tony’s second nature. He hardly realized when she had encroached upon his private space and he had started loving it.

*

They lay sweaty in each other’s arms, and Tony played with Shreya’s thick luscious mane, stroking her back with his other hand, occasionally pausing to nuzzle into the valley between her breasts. Shreya titillated him with her fingers, letting him suck on them. Tony suddenly noticed the discoloured bangle on her wrist. It was unsightly; he made a disapproving chuckle pointing towards it. Shreya giggled and told him that it was a memento from one of the girls her NGO was working for. Tony refrained from commenting on the issue anymore because he respected her level of commitment towards her work and her attachment with her subjects. She was touchy about it.

He was tired and shut his eyes still clutching her but she was in no mood to let go. She began stroking his face with the back of her hands and Tony laughed with the tickling sensation he felt. He snapped his jaws and bit into her finger, but was deterred by an unsightly ring she had on her index finger. He gestured towards it and she raised an eyebrow implying that she had been receiving too many unsolicited gifts from girls her NGO was helping.

*

Tony had strange dreams that night about rings, bangles, dead girls, and pimps. It was only when he woke up that he found he was suffering from a terrible headache. He didn’t know what strange mixture of drugs he had been receiving from the big Spaniard of late, but as much as it seemed to have reduced the urge for regular crack, it was giving him brain-slicing headaches. It was making him weak and he’d told Shreya about his predicament. He was now surprised to find her side of the bed empty.

He was feeling a bit dizzy; no wonder, Shreya had made him do it six times. Tony was no stickler for regularity or discipline and certainly had the wild streak about him that would have made him shine even on the other side of the law. Most certainly, he ensured that he did a few things that would generally have categorized into the other side, and there was nothing like a cop’s uniform for that. There was nothing unfair or illegal if you had the khaki, and he relished the fact. How could he have gotten hold of so much stash and booze if it weren’t for his dress?

And that applied to his sexual life too. He had a way with women and his own philosophy to substantiate and justify his own actions, which meant that he wasn’t very particular about the age factor either. A few years under the line was fine by him, even excellent. He loved virgins, and there was no dearth of them around.

Shreya was different though; he had rescued her from a night joint; she wasn’t the average Mumbai whore. Even in her profession, she exuded a certain command over her customers and Tony had loved the feral quality in her. That was even before he came to know that she had dreamt of running away from home with gypsies, and had done exactly that at the age of thirteen, when she got pregnant for the first time. She had confided in Tony that she had been pregnant thrice in her life, but she seemed to lack either her maternal instincts or humanity, or both; for she had gotten all three pregnancies aborted. That was another streak that attracted Tony towards her; he loved people who had no qualms in being nasty. Tony actually loved nasty people; they were more fun to be around with.

However, the recent happenings at Dharavi had started getting to his nerves; it was more than nasty, it was ghastly, and fearsome. It shook the foundations of the belief that one million people had invested into the city and made it their home, and it made Tony shudder to think of the dead girls. Not about their deaths, because their lives would have been far miserable had they lived well into old age; it was more about the savagery, the lack of decency and the sheer audacity with which the murders had been committed. Tony had certain intuitions himself, and he always paid due regards to them. Now, it seemed to him as if the perpetrator was challenging the law, or more specifically the police, and that was Him. This was what he disliked the most about the entire affair. He had heard of serial killers who kept on killing and with increasing malignancy and frequency just to taunt the law. That was what this string of events pointed to.

The bed was damp and smelly; it smelt of sweat, sex, hormones, and…. something else… Looking at himself in the mirror, Tony saw a sallow looking man. He looked positively unwell; he was even considering if his resolution to stop drug abuse had indeed been a good one. It seemed to have done more harm than good to him. What had suddenly given him pangs of conscience? He was too proud to admit that Shreya had something to do with his decision. Even as he kept staring at himself in the mirror, he wondered what had compelled Shreya to run away from a conservative and safe life. What had forced him to abandon his own family back in Madgaon and lead the kind of life he was leading with vengeance? Was it money? No! Was it lust? No! Then what was it? He remembered the day the police had called to tell them of Robin… How old had he himself been? Sixteen? That would mean his brother had been eleven at the time; what threat could an eleven-year-old pose to people, so as to compel them to brutally murder him? The police evidently didn’t have an answer, and his parents, who were too conservative and careworn, were too afraid to dig deeper. They wanted to ‘save’ their other son. Tony remembered the sleepless nights he had spent, wiping off tears of fury, and his endless experiments snorting cocaine at Anjuna, and then eventually progressing to heroin. He realized that was what had prompted him; the dissatisfaction of living an illusion of a sheltered life, where the illusion could be shattered in a matter of moments. What had happened to Robin could very well have happened to anyone; as such, from whom were his parents shielding him then?

Shreya’s father was a diplomat; she had been to one of the best schools in the country, and had been the topper in her class. She had been the perfect daughter until she was nine that is till she had considered her parents to be the ‘perfect’ parents. That was before she had come home from school earlier one day to discover her mom lying in another man’s arms. She said she could never forget the rhythmic shaking of the four-poster bed; that scraping noise had tormented her ever since. She didn’t know what to do, and had stewed in her own guilt for two years. She pitied her father, but then one day, her only haven of refuge was shattered. Her father had called her to him and told her that her mother and he had decided to officially annul their marriage. He had also admitted that they had both meandered off their nuptial resolutions and that neither resented the other’s infidelity. He had known all along about her mom’s various affairs, as she had known about his; but where love itself had been lost, there was no reason for crying over spilled milk. What did they think about themselves, by being so blatant? Was it that simple? Was marriage such an inconsequential institution; and if it were, why the hell did people even have children? Shreya had decided right then that she would abandon all vestiges of the so-called normalcy, and would live her life her own way. And thus had she ended up meeting Tony…

Tony suddenly realized that the elusive smell was that of Fear. He couldn’t describe it; nor could he help others recognize it, but he had seen enough crime scenes to discern the smell. Where was Shreya, he suddenly felt frantic. He didn’t bother to pull on his trousers as he ran to the balcony. The rain hit him straight, and his headache felt somewhat alleviated, but Shreya wasn’t there. The city of Mumbai; a city that never slept…. The landscape stretched in front of his eyes hardly fitted this picture; all the windows around the complex were dark. Sheets of water descended over a deserted parking lot; where was the city that never slept, wondered Tony. If the city indeed stayed awake and watchful, how did the girls die? He ran to the front door; Shreya had certainly left, but he had no way of kowing, considering the two way lock. He suddenly resented this no liability agreement; why did he renege upon right to ask Shreya her nocturnal whereabouts. Why should he have to pretend that he didn’t care about who she was sleeping with? Why didn’t he give Shreya the right to demand an explanation when she found lipstick marks on his clothes? He looked at the clock; it was half past three in the morning.

*

It had taken Tony less than half an hour to brush his teeth, take a shower and get dressed. All the while, he had been disturbed by the smell of Fear. It was following him everywhere, he thought until he realized that he himself was exuding the odour. His insecurity and yearning had finally beaten down his wild streak; that was the problem with being a ‘good man’. It always harms you, but it boiled Tony’s blood to think that a bastard was roaming about Mumbai, searching for hapless girls, to vent his frustration upon, and he was letting him enjoy eluding the law. But it was something else; he hadn’t been so disturbed when he had been at the crime scene that morning. He hadn’t been one bit afraid until he came home. There was something niggling behind his mind and he was trying to lay a finger on it. What was it?

*

The bangle! That was it! And the Ring! He felt a sudden wave of nausea sweep over him. The murderer was targeting him; or Shreya to be precise. At least two of the dead girls had been in contact with Shreya before their death, and the mementos were proof of that. He felt stifled by his limitations. The rain seemed to be drowning Mumbai under a fiery roar of chaos and visibility was nearly lost by the time he neared Dharavi. It was again his intuition that had pulled him here; he knew by the way, the vein behind his ear was ticking. He felt the palpable atmosphere of fear all around him. Knowing not what to do, he parked his jeep on the road, pulled on his mackintosh and started walking along the alleyway nearest to him. He could see the water seeping through cracks and crevices into the one-room shacks. Most of them were so dilapidated that rainwater flowed in torrents right under the plastic doors. Tony shuddered as he thought of the thousands of infants who were being brought up amid such unsanitary conditions.

He resented himself for developing a conscience but he had lost all hold on his life; he was the sixteen year old boy again, insecure and afraid….

*

The figure came hurtling towards him out of nowhere. If the girl weren’t so small and frail, she would have sent him sprawling on the ground.

“What the hell?” Tony shouted in the split second before he realized that it was a girl, hardly fourteen, who looked frightened and broken; even hysterical and was bleeding profusely. A laceration on her neck was oozing ample quantities of blood, soaking her pale blue salwar kameez. She was shaking violently, and then she collapsed in his arms.

Tony took the split second decision; he hauled the girl in his arms and started walking towards where he had parked his jeep. He had taken only a couple steps when a sudden movement along the rooftops to his right caught his attention. It appeared that someone was moving along with him. The rain made it impossible to see clearly, but he was sure that someone was there. Tony had no other option but to lay the girl down, and he did that before drawing out his service issue 9 mm and pointing it towards where he thought the stalker was.

“Hey, whoever you are, come down. Now, or you’ll be dead before you can call your mother”, Tony shouted, but the rain distorted and drowned his voice. He repeated, and then he cocked the gun.

*

“Are you searching for me?”

The voice behind him startled Tony to such extent that he might have jumped if it weren’t for the voice itself.

“Shreya!” he exclaimed even before he could turn around.

Shreya’s face was nearly covered by her hair that had been plastered across it; she was wearing the same white flimsy negligee she had been wearing while in bed. Tony felt his face grow hot as he realized that she would have been better off naked.

“What the….” He began, but was cut midway.

Shreya’s voice was hoarse; “Remember our no interference arrangement? I am not yours to command, but Darling; let’s not waste these precious moments speaking about trivialities. Come on, ask me the questions your eerie sense of intuition has been nagging you to ask me. Aren’t we kindred spirits?”

“I was so afraid for you….” Tony started pocketing his gun, but Shreya stopped him.

“Why? Your intuition told you that something bad might befall me? Or you knew that the damage had already been done?”

“Let’s get this girl to the hospital, Shreya….” Tony pocketed his gun.

“Oh…. She doesn’t need to live Tony; why don’t you realize it?”

Tony stopped dead; “What do you mean, Shreya?”

“She died the day her father sold her off to the pimp; she died on that smelly backseat of the car when her first client took away everything that was pure and innocent in her with a single vicious thrust”. Shreya laughed and the mirthless humour looked ghastly.

She continued, “Oh come on! Don’t look so shocked, you too know a damn lot about deflowering maidens, don’t you, Darling? And yet, you care about saving someone like me, someone who deserves to burn in hell…. You care for yourself, when you should have been the one who ended up dead, instead of your brother. You remember last month. When you took me to the masked party? You remember the large tattooed Austrian. Well, we kind of hit off…” Shreya bit her lip in mock shame.

Tony felt his hand sting where he had hit Shreya even before he realized that he was about to do that. She cackled with laughter, and Tony suddenly saw a flicker of red in her eyes.

She spoke tauntingly, as if relishing each word as it hit him; “You don’t believe much in supernatural, do you? Well, you probably don’t, because we both are atheists, and probably heretics too. But being that, we never knew when we stopped believing even in ourselves, until life was left as an endless and meaningless joke to us. With so much to set right around us, self-destruction brought us to a point where we set out to upset even the little that was still right with our lives. I realized that sex didn’t give me pleasure anymore; the thrills had to be upped. I had this…. this hunger in me. My need to experiment with the worst had taken the little cache in my heart that had been left empty with God gone from my life. So, the big guy asked me if I wanted to try something new; something that was much more painful and pleasurable…. Being the Bohemian that I am, I was eager. Oh, how good it felt the first time we drank each other’s blood…. It was the kind of bliss that someone like you could never give me. The dude made all other guys on earth seem impotent”.

Tony retreated a few steps until he hit the walls of one of the shacks. He felt like vomiting.

Shreya’s eyes had caught an even deeper hue of red as she spoke in her raspy and taunting voice. “It was only when he suddenly disappeared one day, after our beautiful nocturnal trysts that I felt some changes coming in me.  I no longer felt inclined towards men, and believe me, I hated myself each time you forced yourself on me. But there was something else; I thirsted for blood, and I seemed to have got some supernatural capacity as far as my sexual prowess was concerned. I pretended to enjoy along with you, forcing you to come again and again, and then, I felt like laughing my guts out when I watched you falling asleep with the exhaustion. Speaking of guts, you liked the gut-spilling episodes, Tony? Didn’t they look beautiful?”

“What are you speaking about?” Tony’s voice was barely audible, and he shivered.

“Strange… how insistent God is…. Even when sinners like me try to forget Him, he refuses to budge out of our hearts completely. I lusted for women, Tony… some kind of pathological change seemed to have come into me. Call it madness, call it paranormal, occult, vampirism or simply call it my blood-lust… But I couldn’t resist devouring them and gutting them after I had broken and shattered their young bodies that were no match for my libido. I relished seeing the light go off their eyes; I didn’t feel sorry for them though. A bisexual whore hardly stands a chance towards a long and fulfilling life, and I just tended to end their miserable existence for a good cause, but I felt sorry for myself afterwards. I had let the bastard drink my blood, and yet I couldn’t keep him. I felt impotent… I felt sorry that the nine-year-old schoolgirl had failed. I felt sorry that I couldn’t drive away God entirely…. Thus, a part of me still yearned to get caught so that it could stop, but people like you are hopeless. How do you invest your faith in soulless devils like me? I had been wearing the bangle for days, and yet, your blind faith in my goodness prevented you from stopping and thinking that even I was one of the faces for whom you were searching. Thankfully, I was able to find a pair of matching rings among the other girl’s measly belongings, or God knows how long an idiot like you might have taken to be shaken awake from your slumber….” Shreya’s voice had grown icy cold.

“Shreya, we can set everything right. I love you, please… believe in me”, Tony croaked.

Her red eyes were burning, and her breasts were heaving like bellows scattering raindrops all around her, as she stood there. She spoke with a suppressed violence now; “Your gun is no match for me, Tony. Don’t you realize what has happened? You’re a badass cop, a drug abuser, a paedophile, and a murderer at heart. You are speaking about helping a murderess escape the clutches of law. You don’t give a dime about the girls, same as me. But what ruffled you was someone’s insolence that had challenged your power. I loved every minute of your torment; it’s good to find people as rotten as myself, once in a while, and I was lucky in finding you. Nevertheless, if you’re of the opinion that your miserable whining is going to do any good, you’re mistaken. Be the tough crook; I love that, because this is what I do to weaklings”. Shreya pointed towards the girl.

“Shreya, you need psychiatric….”

“Shut the hell up! Now you’re starting to irk me, Tony. If you hope to earn fame by capturing the most wanted killer; you’re a loser, because as much as I hoped to get caught, I am in fact enjoying my abnormality now. Look at yourself, Tony Darling…. Wouldn’t we make a wonderful rotten couple? So, why try to set right those things that are better off wrong? Why the change of conscience? We both wanted thrills in life; something that a secure and sheltered existence couldn’t give us… So, here’s the deal… I shall keep on playing Hide-and-Seek with you as long as you live. You’ll love peering over your shoulders every time you walk around a dark corner. You’ll love the insecurity, Tony…. Believe me…”

Tony kept staring up as Shreya jumped over the rooftop and disappeared into the night….. He knew this wasn’t their last encounter, but suddenly he yearned for a sheltered life that he had lost forever in the throes of his FEAR…..

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My twitter handle is @debasreeluvsgod.
Website – www.debasreedb.wix.com/lifenotes
A few recent literary achievements are-
Appearing second in ToI Write India contest for Durjoy Dutta and appearing among top 10 another two times.

Publication of SF short story ‘Sentience’ on Metamorphoselit.

Publication of ‘Geraldine Hall’ and ‘Deep into the woods’ in Legends: Paranormal Pursuits published by Greywolfe LLC.

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