Happy Thursday, everyone! If you missed the Introduction to Disconnect: A Novel , the PrologueChapter 1, Chapter 2, or Chapter 3, do check them out before reading Chapter 4. Disconnect is fiction, comprised of a prologue, an epilogue, and 13 chapters. Every week, on every Thursday, a chapter will be posted on the blog, non-stop, until the entire book is up. Chapter 4 of Disconnect, my second novel, begins right below! Remember, let me know how you’re liking the story so far in the comments below! Thank you! Love you all! And Happy Reading!

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CHAPTER 4 – 1 P.M.

BAHAR is totally convinced. The website she has spent the last thirty minutes on has diagnosed her with food poisoning, merely confirming what she already knew. She meets all the symptoms of the disease. She can’t keep anything down, not even water. Shecan only stagger around her flat, using the walls and furniture for support, while the world conspires and spins around her. She is also running a high fever. Even the air blowing in from her windows triggers her gag reflex. The initial drafts of warm air are not so bad, but then they give way to the Chowpatty Beach breeze. It comes as a nauseating reminder of the washed-up sea-life and seaweed rotting across the sand, and so it is all she can do to close all the windows and bake in a stuffy flat.

All she has besides a burning stomach is a burning desire to storm into Chez Nous and alert its diners to the poison that is being passed off as food. But she is scared of passing out if she steps even a foot outside her door, so she won’t be doing something so heroic anytime soon.

She logs off her laptop and closes it when she gets a call on her cell-phone. Woah, Bahar thinks, staring at the flashing screen. It is her editor calling, Reshma, and Bahar wonders what she could possibly want, given that weekends are when Reshma falls off the face of the earth.

“Hello?” Bahar answers, incredulous.

“You need to get started on a review ASAP, darling.” Reshma has never been one for preambles.

“I’ve already submitted this week’s–”

“Chez Nous is gone.”

Gone?

“Yes, gone. Overnight. Packed up. Shut down.”

“I… why… how?” Bahar cannot digest this piece of news. Or anything for that matter, it strikes her.

“Doesn’t matter, darling,” Reshma says airily. “Before we go in for print tonight we need a new review. Get on it pronto. Mail it by ten, tonight…”

Bahar is barely listening. She’s completely incapacitated. She can’t stand right, let alone forage the city, today of all days. It’s the last thing she wants to do. Matter of fact, it’s the last thing she can do. It’s Chez Nous’ fault, she thinks bitterly. Everything is Chez Nous’ fault. She thinks of the reason for their demise. It was only a measly four-day run. Reports of food poisoning must have done the trick.

Of course it did, she tells herself.

“Reshma, listen.” Bahar clutches her stomach. It is already on strike, but it threatened to revolt at the thought of Indian food. “I’m indisposed. I’m really sorry but you’re going to have to find someone else to cover for me. I’m not in the right state to–”

“Are you out of town?”

“No, I’m not. But–”

“Is there a family emergency?”

“No, but list–”

Reshma carries on breezily. “Then there’s nothing stopping you, darling. We need this from you. Remember the last time we had a vacant space on page 23? It didn’t go well for the columnist. Remember, darling, ten o’clock. Ta!”

Bahar launches into her argument, trying to explain her situation, her crippling sickness, her inability to meet any sort of deadline, but her editor ended the call a long time ago. It takes her a few second to register that, and once she’s done with the one-sided conversation and realizes there’s no use losing her voice over this, she furiously slams her cell-phone on the coffee table.

Bang!

Bahar’s mind goes still. It is almost as if that sound she made brings her thoughts right on track. Instantly calm, she gathers herself and begins to think this over, drumming her fingers on the laptop.

Her first option: she can order in. She’d just have to find an unreviewed place. Any place will do really, and with Reshma having slapped her with such short notice, her editor hardly has the right to complain if Bahar chooses a Burger King outlet. Pictures from the internet could help her paint a picture of an ambience. It is a teneble idea. No one ever needs to know she didn’t actually visit the place. But I would know, she thinks sadly. That the idea even occurred to her abhors her. It may not be unethical per se, but it no doubt falls short of a standard expected of her. Her readers deserve better than that.

So she comes to the dreaded conclusion and her second option: she must hunt for a place, head out and brave the elements that could very possibly be the death of her. Her palate places her in a unique position of comprehending subtleties of the gastronomic variety and today it is her enemy. But she has no choice. She has to keep this job of hers–her dream job–because she loves it to death. Perhaps quite literally considering how she is prioritizing it over her health. She’ll hardly be nibbling on a tiny morsel of anything, but she will still go out into the world, even if she might absolutely collapse somewhere along the way.

It’s decided. Let’s get a move then, she sighs miserably.

With a mind to hit the shower, she pushes herself up from her armchair. Her legs gave barely straightened under her when her head sways and her legs wobble violently. Unable to stay standing, even with support, she collapses dizzily on her knees. Then, her stomach twists. Particularly grotesquely, feeling like her guts are being pulled out through her mouth, she throws up, the projectile spraying on her couch, curtains, and her hands. Seeing the mess she made, she starts to cry, and she almost feels like she deserves this. Who was she fooling? She got as far as half a foot before breaking down.

Delivery it is.

*

ASHNI’s lips are sealed, and they will remain that way. Her resolve will not waver. Not with the goofy noises and faces that her father makes at her from across the table. Not with the lunch on her plate. Not with anything. All her favourite items have been cooked for her: deep-fried cheese poppers, spaghetti in cream sauce, home-made pizza, tiny buns of soft dough slathered with a double helping of Nutella. On any other day she would wolf t down all of it because her father slaves away in the kitchen to prepare them–but certainly never all of these things in one day. He is really trying his best. But he will not cheer her up today.

Not today, Ashni thinks.  Not until he gives me what I really want.

She must win this war. No longer can she lose sleep to the fear of being eaten whole. She hopes her face is not letting her down, but there’s no way of knowing it. She worked on this despondent look for over an hour in her mirror as she isolated herself, careful not to make it seem like she is looking at her father with disdain–no, she could never–but adjusted and moulded just right way to give him a clear view of the hurt that his hard blow left on her heart.

She slightly regrets stalking out of her room to press the STOP button on the music that her father was playing on repeat, though she loves that song like crazy. She wishes Barbie Girl was still playingin the living room.

Suddenly, her father pipes up, saying something for the first time since they began eating lunch. “Aren’t you hungry, sweety?”

Her single-worded answers from behind her bedroom door were a moment of weakness. She will not repeat that mistake again.

Ashni keeps mum. For a very long time after that, the only sound in the room is the eternal ticking of the wall-clock.

*

SR. INSPECTOR KAPADIA is approached by the technical analyst whom he enlisted to dig deeper into the Shahs’ past–going back as far as fifteen years–and as he had done so he thought the odds of uncovering a vital piece of information were in his favour. Apparently, he is destined for disappointment today. The report the analyst hands him is thinner than a strand of hair. It doesn’t look longer than two pages, and he was expecting something large and unwieldy. He gives the analyst a questioning look and she merely shrugs to convey she has done all that he had asked, and then crosses the study to return to her station.

Curiously, he thumbs through the pages. The wife, a housewife all her married life, has an ordinary history. He expected to extract something from the husband’s professional background, perhaps a disgruntled patient or a surgery that went awry and triggered a lawsuit or spawned enemies. But there is nothing of use. Absolutely nothing, he thinks, his face puckered in irritaton. The Shahs are quite literally the perfect family with the perfect life that has been earned with hard work, patience, and love. He wonders if this is the clue he has been looking for. After all, this family’s perfect picture is capable of inspiring envy in the hearts of many. Maybe the answer is hidden in plain sight…

Kapadia gets distracted from his theories when he catches sight of Dr. Shah as he enters the study. The man steps into this hive of activity, wearing a strong look of import that puts Kapadia on high alert. The doctor scans the study for him, cuts through the room, and approaches Kapadia so purposefully that his behavior quickly tells the Inspector that there has been some development.

Maybe we make some headway now, Kapadia thinks hopefully.

“I need a word.” The doctor’s voice is hushed. He looks over his shoulder like he doesn’t wish to be overheard. “In private.”

“Yes, of course, Dr. Shah.” Kapadia says, equally quietly.

The two men exit the study and slip into the massive and well-stocked library of the Shah mansion. Dr. Shah slides the heavy wood-paneled doors behind them to seal them in. Unnoticed, I hope, Kapadia thinks. When Gautan turns around, he looks apprehensive, fidgeting with his hands, like he doesn’t know where to begin. Kapadia doesn’t like this.

“Doctor…” Kapadia prompts impatiently. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

“You… you need to help me. You need to keep an eye on… my wife,” the doctor stammers.

Kapadia blinks at him. “I don’t understand.”

“She just left through the back. She… came to me and said she needed to leave.”

Kapadia stares at him dumbly still. This is not what he expected to hear. “Did she say why? Or where she might be going?”

“No. If you hurry now, you can still follow her. Please.” Dr. Shah’s voice cracks. “I must stay here for the second phone call.”

One moment Inspector Kapadia doesn’t know what to think of this, and the next second he does. He has obeyed his orders to the letter, but his patience has snapped. There is nothing more for him to do here in the mansion, clearly. He refuses to be bogged down any longer. Furthermore, Mrs. Shah needs supervision. He can’t imagine where she has planned on going at a time like this. She is too vulnerable, both physically and mentally, to be allowed such independence with everything that is going on. Right now, there is only one answer he can give the doctor.

“I’ll keep you informed,” he says tightly.

With a renewed sense of purpose, Kapadia exits the library, races through the mansion, and heads out through the back door in the kitchen. He does it so swiftly he feels winded within seconds.

The back-yard garden path leads to an old rickety gate. He follows it, doubling his pace to find Mrs. Shah when he doesn’t spot her immmediately. He makes a mental note of the need for policemen to stand as sentry at this backyard entrance into the property–the police should not have missed it. The media must not be knowing about it, he thinks. Or else I’d be crashing into them right now.

Kapadia charges out the gates and looks down the little gully that borders the lee of mansions of Carmichael Road. By dint of her bright white dress, Kapadia quite easily spots Mrs. Shah: she is currently turning into a corner at the end of the gully. As she disappears from his sight, he sprints after. Soon, after making the turn too, he has her eyes on her again. She is a few yards ahead of him, unaware of being pursued. Though they are not the only ones walking down this by-street, he keeps a fair distance from her, to keep from giving himself away. He notices how her gait is weak and unsteady, and he is able to understand that. Though he wishes she had stayed put at the mansion. For the second time he wonders where she needs to go at a time like this. It doesn’t make sense.

The sunshine is warm on the Inspector’s skin, and the heat of the afternoon buzzes in his ears. It is a welcome change from the centrally air-conditioned residence of the Shahs where the air felt stiff and manufactured. Twenty feet ahead of him, Mrs. Shah reaches the busy intersection that opens up into Peddar Road, the main road. Traffic is shooting past her, and she waits for it to clear before she can cross, standing at the edge of the pavement. Kapadia closes the distance between them by ten feet and holds back too. He balances his weight on the balls of his feet to move at a moment’s notice, keeping his eagle eyes trained on his charge, his body angled behind other pedestrains to shield himself from being noticed.

When the pedestrian crossing signal lights up green, Mrs. Shah makes a move to cross. She steps off the pavement and onto the road, and Kapadia mimics her movements some distance behind her, not taking his eyes off the woman in white.

His feet barely touch the road when he hears the screech of tires and he is knocked bodily off his feet. Everything goes spinning.

The world rolls around him. The asphalt becomes the sky. The sky becomes the asphalt. That is the sequence which repeats itself like a rolling film reel displaying the same images over and over again in front of his eyes.

Kapadia rolls to the other end of the road, the divider stopping his body’s momentum. Near the pavement, a biker is gliding parallel to the ground on his motorcycle. Sparks fly as the body of his motorcycle grates hard against the ground until it skids to a stop. He is trapped between the road and his toppled bike until he heaves it off and tries to frees himself. Kapadia, sprawled on the road, watches as his arms and face burn. He has sustained some scratches, but none of them have drawn blood. Collecting his bearings, Inspector Kapadia gets back on his feet dazedly, back and legs aching. You had an accident, he realizes belatedly, shaking his head to recalibrate it in the aftermath of the accident. He crosses the road toward the biker, but the young man has already wriggled out from under his motorcycle and is setting it on its stand. He then takes off his helmet, which is strangely strapped over a turban, and marches toward Kapadia, meeting him halfway.

“What is wrong with you? Is that how you cross the road?” he shouts in Kapadia’s face, seething.

Inspector Kapadia knows it was his damn fault, crossing the road without looking. Looking he was, but at his charge, and in the wrong direction. He winces from the dwindling shock of it all. Crahsing into an oncoming motorcycle had jarred his entire body

He looks down at his feet, where an electronic tablet lies. It seems to have detached itself from a holster on the motrcycles fuel tank. Kapadia picks it up. It has a few dents in places.

“Shit!” the biker swears, grabbing the tablet from him. “Look what you’ve done!”

He is a delivery man, Kapadia realizes, noting the young man’s company uniform and food container-box fixed to the back of his motorcycle. “It still works,” Kapadia retorts. The screen of the table is still functioning. But I don’t have time for this, he thinks irritably. “Look, I’m really sorry for this, but I can’t stay here. You aren’t injured badly, are you?”

You crash into me, and you’re just going to walk away? Just like that?” The biker bangs the tablet in his hands. “After this?”

Inspector Kapadia glances around. The accident has drawn the attention of many people, and some spectators begin to swarm around them in a circle, mumbling. Many seem to agree that the fault was his and that the poor biker needs to be recompensed by this reckless man. They seem about to gang up agasint him. That’s when it dawns on Kapadia: he is no longer wearing his khaki Junior Inpsector’s uniform that distinguishes him from the general public. Now that he is a Senior Inspector, he is clad in a shirt and trousers. People are mistaking him for just another civilian. Which he isn’t.

I really don’t have the time for this.

“I’m a police inspector,” he announces boldly, quickly brandishing his badge pin. “And I’m on duty! Let me through! Now!”

He makes off, clumsily elbowing through the growing crowd. Thankfully, no one tries to hold him back, and the biker too doesn’t bring himself to object.

Inspector Kapadia stumbles across the road, darting around traffic. His head rotates wildly in every possible direction, looking for a woman in a bright white dress. But all sees, with blood rushing to his head, is stars.

*

MAHINDER scraped his right leg when his motorcyle toppled and he slid across the road under it. It is bleeding freely, evidenced by the blazing pain and a growing red stain down the length of his cream trousers. But it pales in comparison to the damage sustained by the electronic delivery pad. The device seems to be rebooting itself, and with every flicker of the screen he finds himself simultaneously cringing.

He kneads the heel of his hand into his head. Just when things are looking up, it all comes crashing back down, he thinks.

The crowd of concerned pedestrians gathering around him looks on, and some inquire if he could usesome help, but he feels so frustrated with what happened that he simply ignores them. The man who caused the accident and called himself a police inspector took off like he couldn’t be bothered to deal with Mahinder. And as a matter of fact, Mahinder realizes, I have more important things to do, too.

He mounts his motorcycle, kick-starts it, and sets off again, zipping through the crowd as it scatters to give him a wide berth to leave.

He has a delivery to make. He’s made ten successful deliveries today. And that streak is going to keep going, so help me God. His job depends on it. Hopefully nothing serious happened to the six pizzas stored in the box at the back of his ride. The motorcycle had toppled only briefly. They could be fine. He sincerely hopes so.

As he twsist the throttle to speed up, he glances down at the fuel tank, where he re-fixed the delivery pad. Its screen still seems to be hanging and glitching. It’s a good thing that he has this latest delivery address memorized.

*

SR. INSPECTOR KAPADIA has travelled up and down both sides of the main road, and he has had no luck. Every little boutique, salon, and shoppee he has searched, and his charge appears to have disappeared into thin air. Thinking he should start over, he retraces his steps to where the accident took place. When he reaches the spot, he notices the biker is gone and so is the horde, like nothing had ever happened. He works his way from there.

Mrs. Shah could have gone only one way and it’s the same way he took after he lost her. He starts down the road again, past the line of little general stores and chemists and flourists, scouring every possible street and gully again.

He walks further down the main road than he did before, and yet the only possible route is the one he is on. It is a straight road up until here. He crosses the road again, running his fingers nervously through his hair. He doesn’t believe she could have turned down into Gamadia Road, because then he would have been able to see her with a direct line of sight. But she may have climbed the little hill of residential buildings at Cadbury House, if she is meeting someone and hasn’t told anyone about it. It is also possible that at any point after he lost her she may have taken a taxi or the bus.

Kapadia stamps his foot. Dammit.

If it weren’t for the accident, he wouldn’t be in this position now. His breath is ragged and erratic, and he is sweating so profusely his shirt is starting to cling to his skin.

Reluctantly, he decides to give up, wondering what sort of an explanation he will give to Dr. Shah. He lost track of the man’s wife. And then there’s his ACP to worry about. But all that later, he thinks tiredly. For now, all he wants to do stay exactly where he is and catch his breath, stop panting before has to hike up the main road again and head back to the mansion.

He stands outside the gates of Jaslok Hospital, hands on his hips, idly watching an ambulance drive into the building. As the bustling traffic of the main road zips past him and slows down again for the next red light, he takes his time to gather himself, normalize his pounding heart and shallow breaths, or at least trying to. He is always in peak shape, but the damn accident knocked the breath from him, and with the frantic hunt he has been on, it refuses to return. His legs, especially his ankles, feel sore. He hopes that biker was as fine as he looked. He didn’t seem to complain about any injuries anyway.

As Kapadia stares blankly across the road, a bus rolls up and stops at the signal, obstructing his view of the other side. In front of him now, there is an advertisement of mirrored aluminium that is plastered long the length of the bus, and Kapadia gazes at it, trying to discern the odd shapes and colours it reflects to him. He loses himself in it for a moment.

And when he notices it, his heart skips a beat.

He can see a distorted reflection of himself, and he looks weary and unkempt. But something more startling captures his attention. In that shiny advertisement displayed on the bus, there is also a reflection of the face he thought was long lost. He wheels around on the spot, to look behind. He doesn’t understand how he could have missed it. The coffee shop is pushed back from the main road, located cozily in a little niche of a by-street, but he should have seen it nevertheless.

And there she is. His charge.

Mrs. Shah is seated at a table against the glass walls of the coffee shop, alone, quiet, and absorbed in a world of her own, looking at nothing but her hands as they rest over the table. Suddenly, as though she realizes she is being watched, she turns her head sedately, looking directly at Kapadia as their eyes meet. She offers a small smile, and finally beckons him inside.

Breathless, Kapadia enters the coffee shop and approaches her table. Her eyes have been on him since she noticed him, and it makes him feel awkward, like he is intruding on her privacy and isn’t allowed here. But her eyes are warm and welcoming. She motions for him to seat himself at the same table, facing her.

“I’ve been wondering where you’ve been,” the woman in white says softly. “I hope that biker didn’t graze you too badly.”

So she witnessed the accident, he thinks. So much for stealth.

Mrs. Shah looks at him, and he knows he should say something, but he doesn’t know what he is supposed to say. He is dimly aware of a waitress coming to the table to place a cup of espresso between them. He doesn’t know why he is speechless or what has gotten into him. He has found her, now. He doesn’t have to return to the Shah residence with bad news. He allows the relief of that realization to sink in.

“I gave up caffeine seven years ago,” Mrs. Shah says, her voice barely more than a whisper. “When I fell pregnant with my son. But today, I can’t seem to… I feel… I need to.” Her fingers wrap around the hot drink like they crave to touch it.

Inspector Kapadia is not sure what he feels because a million and more things are welling up inside him. But above all the confusion and uncertainty and exhaustion, there is the deepest sense of sympathy. It has a kind of deadening effect on him, like he couldn’t possible have the right thing to say or the right to say anything to this woman whose life is on the verge of crumbling. Taking a deep breath, Kapadia shakes off his uneasiness and finally pushes himself to speak.

“Mrs. Shah–” he starts.

“Please,” the woman interrupts him, but not unkindly. “Call me Payal.”

*

MAHINDER is extremely unhappy to see that outside the Shah residence of Carmichael Road T.V news vans, reporters, and what looks like half of the police force of Mumbai are all milling around. He parks his motorcycle and ventures into the throng, feeling overwhelmed as he tries to make himself heard over the ruckus of everything. He asks people to kindly give him way and move aside. They don’t. Even when he yells, they yell louder. Finally he hurls and shoves his way through the crush of bodies, trampling feet when he has to and also getting trampled in return. In the struggle, the pile of pizza boxes in his hands wobbles precariously, threatening to topple every few seconds just like his motorcycle did in the accident moments earlier.

Once he wades to the periphery of the crowd near the gates of the mansion, he meets a police officer.

Mahinder shouts over the commotion, “Delivery for Gautam Shah!”

The officer nods, grabs Mahinder by the elbows, and painfully yanks him out of the crowd like he weighs nothing at all. Once safely inside the premises, he escorts Mahinder to a security check-post where the boxes are handed over in exchange for payment. The accident did pose as a set-back, but not a successful one. Mahinder swells with relief and satisfaction, letting the warm feeling course through him. Besides, this delivery address is outside the time limit zone. There was no chance of not getting paid. But he knows the pizzas he just delivered may not be warm enough–or even still be resembling pizzas–to be nicely enjoyed.

It is a near-fatal undertaking to squeeze into the crowd once again and come out alive on the other side, and the police officer who helped Mahinder in seems to have forgotten about him. Mahinder thinks, as the rowdy mob spits him out back toward his motorcycle, limbs and life still intact, that something of great significance must be happening at this address to warrant such inordinate police and media presence.

He doesn’t think about it for long. The delivery pad in his hands bleeps to inform him of the wireless update of his quota as he mounts the company motorcycle. He scrolls through the list. Orders are storming Pizza Paradise, even more so than yesterday, and several are within the time limit zone. As he taps each order to view the addresses the device flickers on and off, preventing him from reading more than two words at a time, so it takes a while to gather he information he needs.

Many addresses are within the time-limit zone.

Mahinder considers his situation briefly. He decides the accident is a minor hiccup and something that Vivian does not need to know about, especially since it was not just the police inspector’s fault. Mahinder was driving like a horse with blinders, with tunneled vision, focused straight ahead and on making quick and hot deliveries, so he shares the blame for not giving pedestrian crossers due attention. He should have noticed the inspector attempting to cross the road. But he can’t afford to give Vivian another excuse to make sacking threats. He can get away with the malfunctioning tablet and inconsequential damage to the motorcycle. His leg seems to have stopped bleeding, too. It does not hurt anymore. He can carry on like this. It shouldn’t be a problem.

The tablet bleeps for a second time. Then a third. Then a fourth.

He needs to get moving.

*

END OF CHAPTER 4

© Amaan Khan, July 26, 2018.

To continue reading Disconnect, head on over to Chapter 5.

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