(J02E02) Incognito Mode

There was a time when the hilly uneven bough known as the Ridge circled the city. Old-timers insist you could go clear around Delhi without stepping from the shade once.

All that remains now is scraggly patches where the land folded too sharply to build upon, jagged chunks melded into North and South Campus for curious students and shelterless lovers and disaffected slummers to congregate, fornicate, defecate.

College administrations and planning departments commission walls as and when they see fit; the Ridge simply lingers, like any forest in a fairytale.

Don’t believe me? Ask your other no-good city-dwelling friends.

They will all have at least one story beginning in college and ending on the Ridge with no discernible transition.

*

Somewhere along the Northern Ridge runs a road where you can watch the dense, beautiful, haphazard trees of the Ridge give way to the dense, beautiful, haphazard sprawl of old Delhi.

Somewhere along that road stood the black, unmarked RV whose plates and coordinates I had been texted earlier.

I parked Gwen next to the van, won an awkward staredown with the occupants of the nearby Police Control Booth, and popped into a bubble of cool air and fluorescent light.

“Nice of you to rendezvous beneath the comforting gaze of law enforcement.”

“Don’t flatter yourself, Jimbo.” The Reverend was putting final touches on her idea of incognito mode – scuffed leather jacket, grey shirt and trousers, faded green running shoes. “There’s been a cop car trailing me 24/7 for months. I just… did them the courtesy of stopping at an outpost. Told ’em to get breakfast, maybe go home and change.”

“Awful nice of you.” I walked to the nearest window. Her assistant stood smoking outside, oversized headphones and clipboard replaced by bluetooth headset and styrofoam cup of chai. I kept an eye on him. He was probably returning the favor. “They trust you not to skedaddle?”

“Yeah.” She put on a peaked cap and oversized shades. “Especially since I volunteered our keys at the outpost.”

“You know, Rev… I don’t get you, man. Seem to have your shit together. It intimidates me, a little. Why don’t you tell me what the fuck happened to Vrinda so I don’t have to aggravate you any longer?”

Aggravate me? Couldn’t get a rise at a nympho convention, doofus.”

“Don’t go by that name anymore, Rev. Nice burn, though.”

“Let’s make it simpler. You’re lovin’ this hardboiled-private-eye bullshit, right? Gimme a snappy aside about decay or innocence lost. Ready? Go!”

You ever gone to a stand-up special, waited until a lull in the set, then yelled Now make a joke!’ ?

Yeah, me neither.

We stood in silence for fifteen billion years a few seconds. Her mousy assistant strolled away from the window, towards the outpost.

“You’re smarter than the average talking head on TV,” I finally said. “Obviously a good enough judge of the human condition to acquire a cult. But this character you picked? This prolonged fucking dead-man-walking tribute? Too hyperbolic, man. Too over-the-top, even for a talking head on TV. Nobody over thirty will take you seriously.”

“Full marks for effort, but you’re gonna talk over-the-top to me, manchild? With your fucking exclusionist male circlejerk? Your routine privileging of bros over the women who pay for knowing you by being branded ho’s? Maybe it’s more subtle to bond with strangers over a hot piece of ass. And ain’t nothing wrong with playing slut-finder general for an abusive pusher fresh outta Tihar, right?”

“Hey man, nobody called her a-”

“Wrong answer. Tell me why your jailbird so badly needs to know what became of his ‘wimmin’. Or try another fucking tautology! Men will be men, how’s that for taste? I shudder to think what passive-aggressive reptiles you lot will become by thirty.”

I opened my mouth to interrupt.

“-if you hit thirty, I know. Fucking idiot.”

You ever burst into tears in the midst of a failed interrogation?

Yeah, me neither.

“Vrinda wanted out, Jimmy. Don’t have to agree with her reasons, but trust me when I say: you can’t help her. And you sure as shit can’t help Bharadwaj. He has brought reckoning unto himself. You would make unfortunate collateral, manly tears notwithstanding.”

“You, uh, mind if I do a J in here?”

“Knock yourself out.” She pulled the fancy gilded case from her sleeve and offered it to me.

“These roaches look clean,” I said, picking one of the three blunts. “Wish I could say the same of the box.”

“Yeah. I was gonna gift it to a friend but-”

“Stolen goods don’t go as far as they used to?”

“Look who grew a tongue.” She pulled a long drag and filled the van with sweet smoke deja vu. “That shaker you filched yesterday was a five year sentence. How far will two J’s of sativa get you?”

“Uh. Does the city of Nagpur ring any bells?”

“Crack wise about oranges, Jimmy, go on. I don’t mind feeding you your walnuts.”

There was a sharp rap on the window. I jumped through the smoke like a fogbound periscope.

The mousy assistant gave a brief thumbs-up and vanished from sight again.

“We’re done here,” the Reverend said. “What the hell, Jimmy. Keep the case. Maybe you’ll be better off looking for the guy who gave it to you.”

“You heading out?”

“Well. Another minute and our cover detail will be late from breakfast. Jerry will then gun the throttle and get me the fuck out of dodge.”

“Is his name really Jerry?”

“Jeremy, actually, but you seen those ridiculous headphones?”

Seemed a harmless little fuck,” I quoted, eyes red and throat parched. The Reverend gave a brief snort that sounded halfway like mirth. “You hotwired your van?”

“No, Jimmy. Always good to carry spare keys. Now skedaddle.”

“Um.” I reached into my inner pocket. She stiffened. My hand emerged with the last bent J with letters on the roach. “The heart is a dumb pump, Rev. It doesn’t make the best calls. Maybe my friend’s arrest seemed critical to your friend’s well-being. But Bharadwaj would never hurt Vrinda. You can’t know him and believe otherwise. Here’s your card.”

She took the J from me. In the smoky fluorescent light she suddenly looked a hundred years older.

“… Safe passage, Jimmy.”

“Fare thee well, Ma’am.”

That was the last I saw of her.

*

I walked out into the reheated remains of the morning.

Jeremy approached from the PCR van beside the outpost, clutching a battered Dalda tin larger than his torso.

“You always miss the important bits, Jerry.”

“At least I don’t s-snort ‘em.”

“Look who grew a tongue!”

“Y-you know the difference between gasoline and water?”

“I’d say… four minutes, judging by your time.”

“Or f-five years, judging by yours.”

He gave a nasty smile. I raised a bleary grin.

Then I saw the cops from the outpost passed out on their bench, a single blanket spread over their knees like an elderly married couple, and legged it to Gwen doubletime.

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