How is everyone doing today?! And who’s ready for this week’s instalment? If you missed the Introduction to Disconnect: A Novel , the PrologueChapter 1Chapter 2Chapter 3Chapter 4, Chapter 5, or Chapter 6, do check them out before reading Chapter 7. 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 7 of Disconnect, my second novel, begins right below! Sound off in the comments so that I can know how the story is going so far? Who’s your favourite? What are your theories? Let me know! And thank you!

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CHAPTER 7 – 4 P.M.

SHAAN’s options boil down to just two. There are two possible routes he can take. He is walking down the steps of his second option when he hears himself getting dangerously closer to the voices of the Bad Men. He quickly makes an about turn and scrambles back up the stairs, scurrying along the paint-shedding hallway and back into his dark room, closing the battered door behind him.

That decides it. That route, which probably ends in a basement where his kidnappers are, is also blocked.

His only means of egress seems to be the half-open window at the top of the stairs of the hallway of his room. It has to do. Since he learned that his door had been left unlatched–a mistake of one of the Bad Men, or both–he was determined to make his escape. His parents said they were going to come for him, but now he thinks he needs to go to them. Now that I can, I will, he thinks. He kept taking a risk by leaving his dark room and venturing far from it, till he discovered that window at the top of the stairwell. But he made it back every time, in time, to close the door of his room behind him. The Bad Men have the habit of walking up and down this paint-shedding hallway every couple of minutes. They haven’t checked on him or caught him once, and he is ever so grateful for it. Now, he is glad he only has to step out of the dark one final time.

And after that, he will never return.

The time is now. He cracks open his battered door and keeps his eyes and ears wide open. He cannot hear any footsteps and if there are any voices they are well clear of his proximity. He peeks out, makes double sure that the coast. Before he knows it, his feet have got to work. He has scrambled halfway to his escape point, propelled by fear and hope and desperation.

He pants after climbing the stairs. The window is in front of him now and the sunlight outside gives him new hope as he sees sections of the blue sky between rooftops. The gap of the open window is wide enough for him, if he bends in a u-shape. He manages to wriggle through. There is a scaffold outside that gives purchase to his feet as they land one by one. Once on the other side he stands up straight, looking out into the world. He is on a metal ledge on the second storey of a building. Fresh air blows at him, and the sun beats down on him and bakes his skin. He wants to take it all in, having been confined for so long, but he realizes he doesn’t have the time for that. He is still not safe. All this will have been for nothing if he doesn’t keep going and stops for even a moment, giving the Bad Men a chance to find and catch him again. It only takes a few seconds to climb down the metal ladder and hop onto the paved ground.

And then he’s done it. He’s out.

He takes off toward the main road, charging around the corner of the building he has just escaped from…

…. and crashes into the world.

There are so many people everywhere. The crowd before him looks like a many-headed monster, morphing as it constantly moves and shifts. Every face he looks at is so unfriendly. Many people don’t bother to acknowledge him, and some get repelled by his shabby appearance, probably mistaking him for the poor who soil their pants and have head injuries. They merely walk around him to avoid him, like he isn’t worth their attention.

Shaan’s scalp prickles with fear. He doesn’t know what he is supposed to be doing. He has to find his parents but none of these people seem approachable. In the amount of time he was removed from the outside world, it took the opportunity to transform into a more scary and unreal place than he remembers it being.

But nothing is scarier than the faces of those Bad Men.

Shaan can’t afford to stop now.

He weaves through this strange commotion of people, elbowing his way till he finds a clearing. A particular bus-stop don’t seem to be attracting anybody, so he collects himself there. His fear of getting smothered in this crowd trickles away once he can breathe without being squeezed by anyone.

He scans the area, and his eyes land on something that triggers his memory: he realizes he knows the thoroughfare where he is standing. He looks around for familiar signs and finds them: the traffic signals, the petrol pump, those movie posters and hoardings.

Shaan knows exactly where he is. His parents have brought him here countless times to watch movies. He doesn’t know how he didn’t see it before. It is the only other theatre he has ever been to, aside from Inox theatre from last night.

After he makes a run for it in the direction he thinks he should be going, a fresh crowd of movie-goers pours out from the doors of Regal Cinema.

*

SR. INSPECTOR KAPADIA watches as the doctor emerges from the mansion and embraces his wife at the front door. The doctor nods his appreciation for the Inspector’s help. Kapadia nods back to the doctor. Payal is safe, back home, and the doctor can now breathe easy again.

Following the doctor’s appearance, Kapadia sees his superior emerge front the front door and advance toward him, side-steping around the husband and wife. Inspector Kapadia walks up the front yard to meet the ACP halfway, demonstrating that he will not cower and is ready to face him. He has prepared himself what for whatever is coming.

The ACP snorts. “I foresaw this. Your next step. You would go behind my back to get what you want.”

“With all due respect, Sir,” Kapadia says evenly. “I did no such thing. Dr. Shah had requested me–”

“You are not here to babysit depressed women. You were given a direct order and you failed to obey it.”

“If you knew I’d be as incompetent as you think I am why did you promote me?” Kapadia asks him bluntly. “You shouldn’t have approved my application, should have let me be a Junior.”

“If you keep forcing my hand like this, I will personally make sure you are demoted to a position way below that. How would you like to be made a member of the Technical Team? Permanently?” The ACP sneers. “I don’t know how the man you worked for before ran things, or how he managed to solve any cases with your penchant for cutting corners. Now, you belong to me. And we do things my way. Am I making myself clear? Or do you still think you’re better than all this?”

Inspector Kapadia’s jaw clenches. He is beginning to tire of this, yet he experiences a spike in rage.  Any Senior Inspector in his position would not be suppressed like him, but be delegated a great deal of authority and discretion to do what they deem necessary, even on their first day. Even Juniors handle more important matters than the Inspector has been handling so far. In fact, Kapadia was handling far more important matters only yesterday. His fist curls at his side, twiching. He can’t believe he is so outraged that he is contemplating violence against his ACP. It is only his strength of will and sense of respect that is stopping Kapadia from throwing his fist. He relaxes his hand, flexes his fingers, his jaw. He realizes the man in front of him will end up having his way.

Kapadia’s words of surrender are just at the tip of his tongue when from inside the house the landline begins to ring.

*

GAUTAM and his wife freeze, the smiles on their faces falling away in a split second, prematurely ending this small moment of tenderness between them. Payal is hardly back into his arms, smiling, safe and secure at the threshold of their home, when this happens. He doesn’t know what changed her mind, but he is relieved she isn’t repelling his touch anymore.

They look around at the same time to find their landline waiting to be answered. His heart begins to hammer hard against his sternum just like it did the first time, and he can sense a similar reaction from his wife, her breaths quickening.

“Gautam,” she whispers.

Almost like he remembers he can move, he takes her by the hand and rushes inside the mansion, by which time the ACP and Inspector Kapadia are marching by their side, guiding them to the study. With a signal from the analysts who are ready at the network station, the ACP gives Gautam the go ahead.

Gautam lifts the receiver to his ear. “Hello?”

Gautam Shah.”

The voice comes as an unpleasant reminder that his little champ’s fate is in its hands. Hands capable of the unimaginable Gautam thinks with a shiver. “Yes…”

What of our demands?”

“Ten crore rupees…” Gautam says shakily. “It’s ready… It’s all ready.”

Nine o’clock. Tata Garden. Wear a dark jacket and a red cap so you can be identified. The duck pond is your position. Do not stray from there, and you will at all times be facing the pond. You will be approached, you will maintain your position, and in exchange for the duffle bag your son will be returned to you.

Inspector Kapadia is speculating at the map pinned on the wall, trying to pinpoint the kidnappers’ possible position from the given locations of the Shah residence, Tata Garden and Inox theatre. Shock blindsides Gautam when the phone is ripped out of his hand. He had a crushing hold in it, but there is someone more desperate standing next to him.

“Please, let me see my son,” Payal cries into the phone, her voice shrill. “Please, show him to me again. I beg you. Please…”

*

ADIL notices Ismaeel bhai hesitate for a moment. He is considering giving them what they want. There is no reason not to. But Ismaeel bhai isn’t one to offer comfort to sinners.

Your boy is safe,” his guardian says into the modulator, and finally gestures to Adil to flip the switch.

Adil obeys.

A moment later, both of them gasp because of the image that pops up on the screen.

Where in the world is he?

Shaan?” the mother screams. “Where is he? What have you done to him?

Adil goes stiff as a statue. He does not dare look in Ismaeel’s bhai’s direction. He can feel the thrashing he has been expecting the entire day coming on. Adil has not the slightest notion of where the boy is. He is supposed to be right there, in that room, on that screen. He cannot fathom how the boy could possibly have disappeared into thin air.

Where in the world is he?!

Adil can’t look away for long, and he strains his eyes to th side. His guardian looks like he just swallowed fire. Ismaeel bhai is failing to hold at bay all the anger and rage that has built up to this moment, his teeth grinding hard. Their mission has been compromised. He wants to scream and yell and lay his hands on Adil, but with the call underway Adil is spared from it. Only momentarily.

Like I said,” Ismaeel bhai fights to keep a steady voice. “Your boy is safe. Moved to a better environment. A sign of good faith, as you had called it.”

“Let us speak to him,” the father’s panicked voice returns.

Nine o’clock,” Ismaeel bhai repeats. “No police, or your son dies.”

Once Ismaeel bhai switches off the software and the phone call is disconnected safely, he brings his fist down hard onto the table. All the equipment bounces off the table for a quick second, and Adil jumps out of his skin.

YA ALLAH! TAUBAH!” Ismaeel bhai screams. “WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR! GO FIND HIM!

Adil stumbles up the stairs and teeters down the paint-shedding hallway. This doesn’t feel real to him. This can’t be happening. The unlocked battered door is standing slightly ajar. He yanks it open. The closet is empty save for discarded cardboard boxes. He doesn’t know what to think. Part of him feels happy for the boy, if he did manage to get away. But a larger part of him fears his guardian’s wrath. He doesn’t want to pay for something he didn’t have a hand in doing.

Where in the world is he?

Adil rushes back downstairs to relay the news to his guardian, but Ismaeel bhai doesn’t pay attention to him, like he doesn’t care what Adil has to say, like Adil is a nonentity. Ismaeel bhai is busy working the computers, bringing up the camera footage that neither of them thought important enough to keep an eye on.

“There,” he points at the time-stamp when the boy left the room for good, after many comings and goings, like he was trying to get a sense of the building. “That was eight minutes ago. Take the van. Find him and bring him back here. He couldn’t have gotten far. I’ll search the south. You drive around the vicinity.” He pauses, so that he can add the next threat sincerely. “If you had any thing to do with this….” Adil’s hands come up in front of him, palms out, denying any involvement. “If he isn’t back here, may Allah help you, Adil. May. Allah. Help. You.” He growls, moments away from snapping at him like a rabid animal.

Adil nods to show he understands his orders, and the threat, and backs up to leave through the basement door that opens out into the garage. He yanks off the blue tarp that covers the white van, gets in, and starts the ignition.

Where in the world is he?

The boom boom boom in Adil’s head returns, coinciding with Their invasion of his mind again. The voices are relentless. They expect him to bring the boy back to show his true worth. It doesn’t matter how the boy managed to escape, or whose mistake it was. They will not spare Adil until the boy is back in Ismaeel bhai’s possession. They ask him if he understands.

Adil reverses out onto the busy streets. “Y-y-yes, I understand.”

*

MAHINDER is the happiest he remembers being, aside from maybe when he landed the job. Not only have all deliveries been on time but they have been eagerly anticipated by their customers and he knows they are in store for a nice hot meal.

He rings the doorbell of the next address that he has now arrived at. A woman draped in a long black garment opens it.

“Pizza Paradise delivery!” He hands over her pan-pizza and pet Mountain dew bottle. She tenders the amount down to the precise paisa. “That’s not needed,” he says cheerfully.

“Oh, it is,” the woman in the black burqa informs him. “My mother always taught me to give exactly what is owed. No more, no less.”

Mahinder is amused, and then grateful for a moderate tip. “Enjoy your meal, madam. And thank you for choosing Pizza Paradise to take you away on a heavenly journey.”

“You too!” she says with as much gusto, and closes the door of her small flat.

Mahinder skips down the stairs of the building, feeling so exhilarated that he leaps over every second one. But he is in no hurry. He is returning to the restaurant. He is not returning empty-handed. That stupid accident did not set him back one bit and so there is no reason to not swell with accomplishment.

Then the scraped flesh of his leg starts to sting a bit, causing him to ease up. Hissing through his teeth, he decides there is no harm in taking it slow.

*

SHAAN sees the open opportunity waiting for him.

He has been searching for a good ten minutes and he has finally found what he is looking for. He races across the road, stopping on the divider to look both ways before continuing like his papa has taught him, and races the rest of the way too. He pulls on the handle, opens the door, and hops into the taxi, closing the door with a bang.

The driver, who did not see Shaan sneak up on him, takes his Lord’s name. He twists around to face Shaan with a scowl. “What are you doing, little boy? Scaring me like that!”

“Carmichael Road,” Shaan says, sounding small and brittle.

The driver narrow his eyes at Shaan, and all Shaan wants is for him to start the taxi and take him home. The man does not look pleased to have a raggedy boy in the back seat of his taxi.

The diver raises an eyebrow. “And do you have any money, little boy?”

Shaan shakes his head. Please, Shaan prays, please.

“Then I’m sorry, little boy, I cannot take you anywhere.” He peers outside the taxi, and around it. “Are you alone? Where are your parents?”

Shaan swallows hard. This was a terrible idea. He doesn’t know what he was thinking. He started going down roads he didn’t recognize, and so when he saw the taxi, the solution seemed obvious: take a taxi home. But now he realizes that was a bad idea. If any one knew he is all alone, he could be taken. Again.

The driver seems to sense his fear. “Hey, no need to fret, little boy.” He extends an arm toward Shaan. “Are you lost?”

That does it.

Shaan busts out of the taxi faster than when he busted in.

The driver starts to call after him. “Hey, little boy! Where are you going?… Little… come back…”

When he can no longer hear the taxi driver and has reached a safe distance away, Shaan slows to a lazy amble on the footpath. He cannot afford to draw any attention. He is alone. Noticeable. Anything can happen.

But if he can’t approach anyone, how will he get home?

Two parents walk past Shaan, their brood of three little toddlers waddling obediently in tow. It reminds Shaan of a mother duck and her ducklings.

He sees in it his next opportunity. He catches up to the family, staying unsuspectingly close to the children.

He thinks he blends in well enough.

*

YASHWANT feels puzzled. The boy’s face said it all. He thinks of going after him, to help that terrified little soul. He should have taken him to Carmichael Road. If he couldn’t pay Yashwant, wherever it was he was going someone would have covered the fare, to be sure. But it is too late to find him now, because the boy’s incredible speed has put Yashwant to shame.

Regretful, he starts his taxi and pulls into the closest petrol-pump for a top-up.

*

ADIL is scolded when the voices overhear his prayer for the boy’s safe escape. Nothing is private from Them, nothing is safe. They call him a blind fool for not wishing the boy dead. It is only his loss that Ismaeel bhai put a dud weapon in his hands. If it wasn’t for that, the boy would have been killed and then Adil would have really known what it feels like to have a sinner’s blood on his hands. It was the only thing that could have opened his eyes, and They wish They could tell Ismaeel bhai of his unchanged perspective on their mission.

He can’t take them anymore. “Shut… up… Shut… up…” he yells over and over again, banging the steering wheel in frustration.

They taunt him of never doing it.

Adil has combed through Kala Ghoda, the Mantralaya, and back again. Now he is at the Regal cinema, where he first started.

Ismaeel bhai said he would cover the south, so now the only place to look would be Apollo Bandar.

Adil wishes he could let the boy go, even if he is lucky enough to come across him after all this time–the chances are slim. They warn him against it. Besides, Ismaeel bhai made it clear he would make his life a living hell if the boy does not return with him. Adil would have no choice but to bear it all until Ismaeel bhai loses his voice. Then there is the thrashing. Though the man has never laid a hand on him before today, there is no guarantee that he will not. With the boy gone from their possession, their mission is ruined and Ismaeel bhai could physically beat him till Adil can feel no more pain. Adil’s body, as weak as he thinks it is, may actually have been toughened over the years, his tolerance strenghtened. He might be able to take and feel a lot before the numbness sets in.

They order him to stop daydreaming and focus on the job at hand.

*

SHAAN begins to notice that the people are thinning around here, near the bay area, where a lot of small boats are docked. He can detach himself from the family, but before he can do it he must have another plan of action. No taxis are in his close vicinity, but the possibility of hailing one by himself makes him weigh the option of repeating what he did earlier. With no money, he has no prospect of success.

As he is walking along with his safe-haven family, an enormous stone monument grabs is attention. Detailed and expert carvings are on every edifice of this archway. He has never seen anything like it. So beautiful. He is so taken by this grand structue looming over him that it fills is entire field of view, his head craning up to admire it’s sheer height. With his dazzled eyes clinging to the stone engravings in pure awe, his steps slow, and he knocks into something, not looking where he was going. The force pushes him back and he falls.

“Oh my God, I’m so sorry! Are you hurt?” A lady is bending over him. She is the one he bumped into.

Shaan is afraid to open his mouth. He shakes his head in answer. The lady helps him to his feet. There is a man with her, and both of them are smiling down on him. Shaan looks around. His camouflage, that nice family which hadn’t noticed him, has moved on without him.

“Where are your parents?” the lady says, brow furrowed. Shaan sees something in her soft eyes, something warm and inviting, resembling a virtue his mother holds. Something tells him she cares. She may be the one he is looking for.

“Are you lost, buddy?” the man with her repeats her question.

“Please help me,” Shaan says softly, not wishing to be oveheard. “I have to go home.”

The man and lady trade questioning looks. “Where is home?” the man inquires.

“Carmichael Road.”

The couple frowns. “How did you come here? Were you with someone?”

“I’m alone,” his voice drops to a whisper. “I was with mummy and papa, we went to see a movie. The Bad Men. They hurt them. They put me in the dark–”

When Shaan cannot bring himself to say more, he wraps his arms around the lady’s legs, latching on to her. She jerks a little.

“Oh, it’s okay,” she says gently. “We can take you home.”

The man draws in closer to the lady. “This sounds bad.”

“I think this is serious,” she tells him. And then, holding Shaan’s shoulders, says to Shaan, “Hey, what’s your name?”

Shaan tells her, fisting his hands around her harem pants. “I want to go home. Please, take me home. Mummy and papa said they would come for me but…” Tears threaten to pour like rain.

“Shaan, listen to me. Don’t cry, okay? We will take you home to your parents. Now, try to remember. Do you know a phone number that we can call?” The lady brings out her cell-phone. “We can call them for you.”

No. Shaan cannot bring forward any memory of a phone number. He knows that of his home’s landline, but at this moment it is nothing more than a scattered mess inside his head. But he fights to steel himself because he understands this is how he will get back home to safety, and because he can almost imagine hearing his mummy and papa’s voices in the next few seconds. He wills the number to the forefront of his mind. Slowly but surely, the numbers come together in the right order.

He takes a long breath. “0-2-2-2…” he begins, and the lady begins to dial.

*

ADIL wants to burst into tears when, under archway that is the Gateway of India, he spots the little boy.

They commend him for his keen eye. But They also tell him to hurry. The people he is talking to can ruin it all.

Adil parks the van across the street and races, when all he really wants to do is look the other way and forget the boy even exists.

Adil strolls casually when he nears the trio. He almost walks past them when he whips his head around and inquires, in mock confusion, “Shaan?”

The couple whips their heads, staring at Adil in surprise. So does Shaan. He looks like he can barely believe his eyes.

“Adil?” Shaan says in awe.

Adil tries to exude an aura of complete hostility and aims it toward the couple. It isn’t a feeling he is much acquainted with, so he prays the best of his ability is working. He needs to put on this act.

“I thought that was you, Shaan. What are you doing here? Who are these people?” He eyes the couple with suspicion.

“You know him?” the young man asks Shaan.

“Yes, of course,” Adil says like he is offended. “I work for his parents. But I don’t know you. Shaan, do you know these people?” It surprises him how is stutter vanishes when he is speaking to anyone other than his guardian.

“No,” Shaan says and makes a tentative move for Adil, but the young woman holds him back.

“I know him,” Shaan explains to her. “Adil comes to my house to work.”

“What’s going on, Shaan?” Adil says, his voice hard. “Where are your parents? Do they know who you are with?”

“Can you take me home?” the boy looks up to him piteously.

“Wait a minute,” the young woman says loudly. “Shaan, you were giving me the number.”

“So you’re lost?” Adil pretends to figure out the problem on his own. “Oh, I can take you home, Shaan. We can go there right now.”

The couple seems unconvinced, not ready to accept how Adil has just appeared out-of-the-blue. Almost like it is too convenient.

It is.

The young man asks Shaan, “Do you really know him?”

“Yes, he is my friend. I want to go home, Adil. Let’s go now, please.”

The young woman tells the young man under her breath, “What do you think? Maybe we should go with them?”

Adil overhears and panics. “It’s okay, you don’t need to worry. I’ll handle it.” His tone is light and casual now. “I can take Shaan to his parents. They must be wondering where he is. Here, I’ve got their number stored in my phone. I’ll call them right away.”

Adil loops an arm around Shaan and draws him closer, to indicate his control over the situation. His phone in his hands, he scrolls through the contacts to find the number as he said. He calls out the number, and Shaan confirms it.

“Let’s go,” Shaan says, tugging at Adil’s long white sleeve.

He is very adamant to be on his way to his parents. Anyone can see that. And so the couple does. They finally relent, though seemingly reluctantly.

“Be careful,” they say to Shaan as a goodbye.

Adil and Shaan start down the road together, and he can feel the boy’s relief radiating from him as if it is a tangible thing. Adil cannot believe how easy that was. He curses the couple for not fighting harder, for not seeing through his charade. As he walks away with a hand clamped on Shaan’s shoulder, he keeps hoping they will raise their voices and come running after him, stop him, follow him to make sure he takes the little boy back home. But they don’t. He is walking away with the boy and they are not doubting his intentions. Damn them.

As they cross the road, the white van enters Adil’s view, and he roughly spins Shaan, reflexively.

Adil wasn’t thinking. It would have been one thing for Shaan to have adversely reacted on seeing the white van. But now, it is quite another for Adil to lose the van altogether: Six police officers have flocked to it, inspecting the missing license plates, the cab, the smashed break lights, and the insides. One officer talks into his radio, probably calling the find in.

They will have to walk back to Ismaeel bhai.

“What happened?” Shaan says after being handled so strangely.

“We’ll walk a little. Let’s walk.”

“But we can take a taxi,” says Shaan.

“Let’s walk. We’ll take one soon.”

*

NAZNIN presses the DELETE button on her phone, erasing the number the boy dictated halfway. The whole thing does not sit well with her. The bandage around the boy’s head was a bad sign. Something seemed off about that man, Adil, too. She stares at her phone, chewing on her lower lip.

“You okay?” GoodGuy187 says.

“Yeah, I think so.” She thinks a little. “You think that boy will be fine?”

“Why won’t he? Didn’t you see how happy he was to have been found? That guy will get him home.”

Naznin wonders if she believes that. But then she remembers the surge of relief she felt rise within the boy’s tense body while he clung to her, and how safe he felt with Adil. That was real.

Reassured, she shakes her doubts away, resumesing her stroll along the bayfront with GoodGuy187.

     “I bet if you had your polaroid with you you’d be obsessed with all this,” she says, holding a hand over her eyes to shade it from the declining sun.

“The Gateway has been a muse of mine for a long time now,” he says, brushing his fingers along the stone engravings. “Everytime I come across new angles which put things in a new light. You know what I mean?”

“Do you see one now? An angle you’ve not taken before?”

“As a matter of fact, I do.” He frames her in his fingers, like a film director framing a shot. “Perfection.”

She nudges her elbow into his ribs for being silly, not sure if he was joking or not.

When Naznin’s phone rings in her hands, her mother’s flashing name reminds her of their plans. It is almost half past four.

Oh no. How did I forget?

GoodGuy187 allows her to excuse herself as she answers the call, stepping away a few feet to be out of earshot.

“I’m sorry. I know I’m late. I’m sorry,” she says profusely.

“I’m not home, I’m out,” her mother huffs out.

“So no pizza?” Naznin wonders.

“No pizza from this place, that’s for sure.” There is anger in her voice, and a derisive laugh. Somewhere in the background there is the noise of traffic.

“Why, what happened, Ammi? Are you going somewhere?”

“I can’t even explain it to you. I’ve got to go. I’ll see you when I come home.”

“Um, okay Ammi,” she says, nonplussed. “Allahafiz.”

The second she ends the phone call, she becomes acutely aware of her backpack. It suddenly weighs too heavy, as though it’s going to drag her down. For the first time since she left home she finds herself thinking about the thing inside, awakening in her a tiny sense of shame. It is only fleeting, and so she finds it easy to shrug it off like it is nothing.

She wanders over to GoodGuy187, who is on the corner of the footpath standing next to his parked motorcycle, tossing his helmet in the air and catching it.

When she approaches him, he says, “Have somewhere to be?”

She pauses, thinking it over, and then smiles. “No.” She cannot contain her glee. “Just here.”

“Good,” he says, smirking. “Because I was thinking we’d have some fun. That is, if you’re up for it.”

Naznin cocks an eye-brow at him. “Fun? Like….”

His smirk grows, ear to ear, and he tosses his helmet at her, which she catches in both hands.

Patting the seat of his motorcycle, he says, “Do you know how to ride one of these?”

*

SHAAN can hardly believe his luck. Stumbling into Adil is the single most amazing thing to happen to him in his life. It almost makes him feel like he is home. That is exactly where he is going now–home. He can’t wait to be with his parents again.

He spots an available taxi and points to it. “We can take that one,” he says.

“We’re going somewhere else first.”

Shaan thinks they are going to a shop to buy something when Adil opens a door on the ground floor of a building and ushers him inside. It looks like some sort of garage where cars are meant to be parked. After going down a flight of stairs and taking another door, they enter a room dominated by computers and machines, and wires snaking across the floor.

“Where are we…” he starts, before stoping short on account of what he sees on the table in the centre of the room. It’s unmistakable. The green face of the mask turns his legs rock hard. The muscles at the back of his neck tighten as his breathing stops. From the staircase on the other end of the room, which looks oddly familiar, he can hear the sound of footsteps. Someone is coming here, downstairs. When the Big Bad Man materializes, Shaan’s blood runs cold.

“Run!” he screams, racing for the door they came through, but Adil’s iron-clad hold on his hand brings him reeling back.

“Sorry, Imaeel b-bhai,” Adil apologizes. “I l-lost the van. I had to–”

“I couldn’t be prouder, Adil,” the Big Bad Man says, voice thick with pride. “You’ve changed for good. You brought him back. That forgives it all.”

Adil receives a pat on the back, and it puzzles Shaan. That doesn’t make sense. Adil is his friend. He is the gardener. Weekend mornings and practically every evening they play football in the garden, until Shakuntala scolds Adil for not doing his job and wasting his time. If Adil knows the Big Bad Man… and if he knows about the green faces… and if he is wearing the same white kurta the small Bad Man also wears… then Adil is not his friend.

A friend doesn’t try to shoot and hurt you.

Shaan looks up, the tears welling in his eyes distorting Adil’s now cruel face. Before he knows what’s happening, the familiar white handkerchief is pressed to his face again. He doesn’t struggle now, even though it’s pungent. He knows what to expect. He lets it happen. There’s no use resisting now.

His body is soon floating. He sees flashes of a familiar staircase, a paint-shedding hallway, and a battered door. He gives in to his limp eyelids, swallowed by inky darkness once again.

*

YASHWANT is hailed by a woman in a burqa. Her destination is Churchgate and he steps on it. She doesn’t seem to be in the mood to squander any of her precious time, and the Mohamed Ali Road traffic looks like it is going to worsen in the approaching rush hour. She also looks livid, like someone tried to kill her and she is now out for revenge. Yashwant is afraid to strike up a conversation, as is his wont to. He feels a touch of déjà vu as he notices a pizza box that she has placed beside her.

He swallows dryly. “Um… yummy pizza time… behenji?” He feels as though he is trying to prod a bear with a stick.

His passanger looks offended when his eyes follow her reflection in the rear-view mirror. Like how dare lowlife like him speak to royalty? She responds by pulling over the veil of her dress across her face, so that just her scorching eyes are visible to him.

Yashwant gives up.

He drops her off where she tells him to stop, is paid his fare precisely down to the paisa, and guns it as soon as she begins to cross the road, wheels screeching, rubber burning and turning to smoke.

It is just his luck to find takers who don’t really want him.

*

END OF CHAPTER 7

© Amaan Khan, August 16, 2018.

To continue reading Disconnect, head on over to Chapter 8.

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Glossary

  1. bhai: meaning ‘brother’, a term of endearment or respect for a gentleman
  2. Allah: God in Islam
  3. Taubah: and exclamation of repentance
  4. burqa: a black long garment worn by Muslim women to cover their bodies in modesty
  5. paisa: an Indian currency denomination (as cent is to dollar, paisa is to rupee)
  6. The Gateway of India: a monument in Mumbai to commemorate the country’s Independence Day
  7. Ammi: meaning ‘mother’
  8. kurta: a long white ethnic garment for men