(J02E06) Bad Trips – III

One More Time With Feeling

“Having trouble keeping up, old man?”

Her voice her fucking voice crisp and clear and undimmed by traffic and still alive.

You drop the frayed yellow paperback you were half-heartedly ruffling and run forward, run without second thought through a disinterested gaggle of tourists arguing over lunch in German.

Not push through or break through. Run through, quite literally, like they were a ghostly image projected upon the piles of old books stacked on the Daryaganj sidewalk.

You turn back to see Jimmy still dawdling over the paperback you had dropped, a single noncommittal grunt before he goes back to reading the back flap.

You know the book he is looking at.

The hideous irony will reveal itself presently.

Manavi standing at the mouth of the next alleyway, shielding her brow with a single slender hand, eyes crinkled against the sun beating down on her lime green shirt (formerly your lime green shirt), painted toes curling and uncurling over the lip of her sandals, other hand impatiently tap-tap-tapping a cloth bag with the day’s spoils pressed against her shin.

You stand as close to her as you possibly can, try to take in as many details as you possibly can, try to breathe in her perfume before getting a noseful of chlorine disinfectant.

A small voice in your head tries to remind you where you actually are and is shouted right the fuck down with the loudest yell your lungs can manage.

Nobody at the Sunday market gives a shit.

Manavi balances on one foot and scratches her ankle with a big toe, the gesture so familiar and unexpected you burst into tears.

A pigeon lands on the ground beneath your feet and idly pecks at something under your ankle.

“I’m sorry, I thought we were browsing, not sprinting,” Jimmy says, dirty looks from the Germans as he breaks through.

“Gesundheit,” he says to the nearest old lady, and Manavi stifles a giggle.

“Any luck?”

“Two Dilbert Principles.”

“You know full well that’s Scott Adams, not Douglas.”

They are gathering copies of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for their friends.

Jimmy has two of each and stole one from the other, but Manavi knows and loves dozens of people, and they pull Jimmy into their lives with the same graceful ease that pulled them into hers.

Jimmy assumes this to be an enrichment exercise for Manavi’s friends. You know now that it might have been the other way around, the girl in the faded jeans wiser than she had you believe.

“What you got there?”

“Oh, this thing? Well it’s-”

Drop it now you stupid shit drop it

“-Illness As Metaphor by Susan Sontag. Nice little book discrediting people’s tendency to associate debilitating diseases with suppressed personality flaws-”

He drones on and on and on.

You listen in, appalled by this longwinded declamation of twenty-four carat bullshit about a book he hasn’t read by an author he doesn’t completely understand.

Manavi listens in, too – listens with the same rapt slightly wide-eyed expression she adopts when trying to delay sarcasm.

You will her to change the outcome of this conversation, to say something sharp about Wikipedia and low attention spans, to kiss him or kick him or heft the bookbag at his head, to give you anything sweet and sudden and unanticipated to take back to the clusterfuck that is your life without her.

Instead she touches his elbow, gently, and says, “It sounds like a good point she is making, probably be a better point once we actually read the damn thing-”

Ha-ha! Take that, wankstain!

“-but everybody copes with grief differently, you know? And with something as soul-sapping as cancer people probably prefer to believe they have agency. How is it different from prayer? Or the greens you stupid baseheads keep whining to legalize?”

“Greens make for better lovin’ than prayer, for one,” Jimmy laughs, slipping an arm around her and dropping the tiny yellow paperback in the overstuffed bag she is lugging.

“Or they make you think your lovin’ is better,” she snorts. “Tumhe dawaon ki nahin, duaon ki zarurat hai, meri jaan.

You need blessings, not medicine, my love.

She walks down to the slightly upscale wooden stall at the corner, the fresher paperbacks making for a higher asking price.

Jimmy stands where he is, absently rubbing the spot where she touched him, unable to pull sparks the way she just did.

“I love you,” he mutters, almost to himself.

She didn’t hear you fuckhead say it louder

But he doesn’t hear you, doesn’t need to. That Sunday morning marks ten months of them living together. They have worn the novelty off the phrase.

Casual understatement looks cooler and makes for better callbacks.

Say it again please I beg you just one more time with feeling

He bends to sift through the haphazard stack beside the last alleyway, finds a copy of Douglas Adams’ final (unfinished) novel, straightens.

“Hey Manavi!” He bellows. “You wanna know what happened to Desmond?”

No!” she replaces the hefty Lawrence omnibus she was inspecting, mock glowers from the corner. “No Salmons of Doubt or I’m heading back to my parents’!”

They laugh at the bleak joke isolating them from the sea of browsers, laugh even as you start sobbing and look away, laugh until her eyes roll up into her head and she topples into the oversized column of hardbacks beside her.
Instruction Manual

Blinking – twice for good measure, thrice for luck – but no change.

Back in chains for the time being.

Face wet, beard damp, but no Doctor standing over you with cattle prod or brass knuckles. No one else in sight but tie-dye-headphones-Jeremy turned away from you, tapping disinterestedly on a touchscreen the size of his torso.

“The m-monitor changes its rhythm when you.. emerge,” he doesn’t look up. “The fact that you stopped bawling is also a good sign.”

You close your eyes and keep ’em shut. You concentrate on breathing deep, on the wet jolts of pain coursing from the freshly cut meat of your finger.

No point falling back into nightmares just because you were playing dead too long.

“You in some kind of limbo between states, dude?” hot breath on your cheek. Onions, cinnamon, vodka standing too close to whisper: “See a bathroom in your dream? Go to it, Jimmy. Ain’t no trap. Go p-pee you sonuvabitch.”

Finger twitching involuntarily.

“Well, that’s a sign.”

Good sign or bad? Breath caught in your throat.

Footsteps shuffling away across the tiles.

Think of the next part in terms of an instruction manual. Not happening to you. Not there in your cage. Not anywhere.

First: open your eyes. See the harmless little fuck absently resume pecking at his oversized toy.

Second: concentrate every thought every feeling all the panic rising like bile in your throat. Concentrate every single pickled brain cell still at your disposal on the length of bone between your left shoulder and elbow. Concentrate on moving this limb gradually across the width of the limited arc available to it.

Concentrate on the bone, because thinking about the ball-and-socket joint above the bone will leave you nowhere.

When you are ready: jerk your arm down, down, down beyond its natural limit.

Do not scream. Do not yell. Do not grunt. Think of the bone itself, white and intact below the shoulder you just dislocated. Think of the chains going slack down your left side.

Your poor maltreated arm will do most of the rest itself. Let it fumble for the chains still on your right shoulder and arm.

Your silence is only necessary until the first loop falls free.

That is all the margin you will need.

Hoist up your right arm as the chains fall away entirely. Enjoy the sight of Jeremy’s tie-dyed shoulders suddenly scrunching up as he hears the clank of chains on tile.

Stop stalling like a PowerPoint Detective in some flashy TV show and rush the pipsqueak, flailing your dislocated arm as a distraction. Then, as he raises both hands to shield his face, grab his tablet with your good arm and smash him over the head.

Watch him sprawl awkwardly over his battered old folding chair.

Wait for some sign of consciousness like he originally should have.

Then – after relieving him of his phone, walkie-talkie, wallet, Netflix membership card, garish hospital gown (his trousers too tight for your organs of generation) – bind him to the chair with a single loop of the purple bike-chain that held you.

Tell yourself you wouldn’t, under any circumstances, listen to the small voice inside your head snarling for you to strangle him with the purple-bike-chains.

No, hide that small voice someplace deep, someplace special, for your new best friend the Doctor.

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(J02E05) Bad Trips – II

In Chains

Startled awake on an upright gurney before Jeremy in tie-dyed scrubs.

“S-subject returning to consciousness,” his voice muffled by a surgical mask with skull-and-crossbones motif, “in the loosest possible sense of the word.”

“Nice dis, Jer. Did the Rev write it for ya?” Trying to move. Prevented by an industrial-grade chain in hideous purple tubing. “Real nice, the whole animal-on-short-leash motif.”

“Y-you sure took some putting down. Remember that dude you almost killed? The Doctor says he’ll never walk again.”

“That just broke your little hearts, didn’t it? Untie me and I’ll make a broken leg look like a picn-”

“Hello, what seems to be the problem?” older gent cutting in before introducing your thigh to an electric cattleprod. “We ready to play nicer, now?”

Snarling thrashing yanking at chains. Teeth bared.

“I guess not.” Light glinting off older gent’s spectacles, crispy white labcoat too white making eyes hurt. “You remember that whole bit in Tom and Zerry with with Ispike chained to the doghouse?”

“It’s called a fucking kennel.” Temporary quiet as Doctor’s hands rush back into focus: left hand grabs your right ear and right hand swings across field of view with brass knuckles shiny on fingers.

Vision snapping hard from left to right, blinding light, red.

“Nobody likes a smartass,” voice of Doctor receding into fog.

Silence.
Project P

Coming back with bed slightly reclined. Connected to a bunch of machinery beeping steady and sharp just like an actual hospital. Heartbeat faster as vision clears.

Afraid for the first time.

“Now,” Doctor coming forward with clipboard, “Your bloodwork shows an eventful few days in your immediate past. Pity about that. Would have made a better subject if the tox was clean.”

“Then again, I’m pretty sure sober-me would take one look at your face and throw up.”

“Still wisecracking. Interesting! Humour suggests brain is intact, and the heartbeat confirms a healthy fear mechanism. We will need both for Project P.”

Low-hanging joke. Almost too easy. Keep mouth shut and avoid compounding misery.

“Project Pee? Seriously? Pee? All this trouble for a golden fucking shower!”

Vein twitching in Doctor’s forehead. Composing himself before continuing slower.

“There are meny ways to break a mind,” taking more pleasure as he goes on, “You seen Betmen Baggins? Fear toxin used by Iscarecrow on everyone? That is easy. We know how fear works. Poke around the amygdala, amplify using specific pheromones and boom! You are iscared.”

“Pisces, actually, but thanks for noticing.”

“Haha yes, continue humour. We are not getting enough in subjects. Best way to break mind is to unlock its particular fears. And you know what we use as keys?”

“Long speeches about pissing on people?”

This time he laughs along for real.  “I like how you are thinking, Jimmy! Is funny because not far off the mark! We study your response to a generic fight-or-flight situation – in most cases, a standard issue electric shock – and then ease off until we can isolate the human impulse from rat bastard one. Your own DNA in the cocktail ensures full absorption into bloodstream and… shall we say, some very specific effects on brain.”

“Wait, so you want me to piss on you? Could’ve just asked, you sicko!”

“Usual procedure is to use urine sample, yes. But you are right. Too diffuse. Maybe that is why others broke before we were able to observe full force of the mechanism. We will try something more immediate.”

“Aren’t that many lines to do with blood. Gimme something to work with, man!”

“No, blood is less diffuse but not much. Let us try something more tangible.”

Small wrench in his right hand closing over your left brief grunt of effort and then something pink and bloody held up to the light.

No pain. No pain.

Fucking terrified.

“I am a bit diseppointed, personally, Jimmy,” Tiny splash over a small beaker filled with clear purple liquid. Viscous white tendrils emerging from the spot where your nail hits bottom. Beaker cloudy. “You were first bookish mongrel we acquired as subject. Thought you would appreciate where P comes from.”

“Seriously, man? It’s like you can’t hear the words coming from your mouth!” Still no feeling. Somebody else’s finger tracing crimson patches on white sheet.

“Curious why no pain? That comes later. You read Herry Potter books, Jimmy?”

“It’s pronounced Hairy, actually, and can you fucking stop with the pop culture?”

“Soon, soon. You remember stone memory basin Dumbledoors was keeping in his office?”

“The Pensieve?” you offer, in spite of yourself. You see where this is headed. You see exactly where the fuck

“Twenty points to Greffindor! Or Hufflepuff, come to think about. Yes, Jimmy, The Pensieve. That’s where we got the idea for the name.” Beaker held up to light busy with indistinct formless grey motion within. “This is your cocktel, Jimmy. Yours and nobody else’s. What you find at bottom will also be yours. Nobody else’s. What you think you will find in there?”

No. Nononono

“Probably these ten minutes of my life that I’m never getting back.”

“Wisecracking to the last. Very good! Now, the painkiller will recede just as the P hits your brain. See? Now we are both making jokes!”

Cloudy solution transferred to tinier glass container. Held overhead for last brief moment. Attached to a hypodermic.

Knowing what comes next you are sorry you turned up to collect Saturday’s result, sorry you offered to help Bharadwaj, sorry you ever came to this fucking city, finger tapping SOS in bloodied Morse

“Don’t worry about that hangnail, Jimmy,” syringe plunging into arm, “You will feel it soon enough.”

Then after maybe a dozen seconds you do.

(J02E04) Bad Trips, OR The Death of Gwen Stacy

Break on Through

Big multi-storey carpark near Kamla Nagar that they’ve been building for a couple years.

Work starts and stops once a month. You are no expert but the terms dihaadi and living wages seem to stand in direct opposition, the lean tanned workforce a stream instead of a lake.

It is the perfect spot to stage a rendezvous: witnesses will be harder to track down than actual parties involved.

The deep thrum of a bassline from somewhere underfoot, keeping decent time but still rough around the edges.

A tin drum swings a miss.

A bang. Then a hiss.

“Sonofabitch!” You stop near a makeshift wooden ramp and examine your wheels as the players try a few more variations.

Three nails jut from the rear tire.

A handful of rusty pointed ends still scattered over the path of your approach.

“Jimmy!” A voice nearly as deep as the bass calls from the darkness. “Break on through, man! We’re almost done here.”

You park the wounded Gwen gingerly beside the ramp, half expecting a murder of crows to fly out and hit you in the face; but the air inside is cool is and dry and empty.

The bassist finally picks a no-nonsense line and sticks to it.

You walk through a wooden doorframe, down a concrete stairwell, into the basement proper.

The basement is cooler, unfinished and slightly damp.

The darkness is near-total, sole light hung beyond a large blue sheet of tarpaulin in the far corner.

Up close the bass is joined by an acoustic guitar. The tin drum becomes a metal canister being thumped rhythmically.

“Take it from the top,” the Crow says on his mic, “and for fuck’s sake let’s stop sounding like death by rickets.”

It is an old, sprightly Bollywood tune made seething and funereal.

A dirge for a time and place that wouldn’t know subtlety from a sex montage.

You lean on the brickwork and let the serrated rendition replace all thoughts of a gyrating Mithun.

This will soon be your last happy memory.

The music drops.

The Crow dials back his wordless crooning and then stops.

You walk up to the tarp just as he emerges from beyond – same shirt as before, eyes a little more bloodshot, but otherwise the same slightly-larger-than-life myth who fluttered down the rafters before your big fight scene.

“Is this where the magic is made?”

“Oh yeah. Another week or four and they build over our corner. Nice impromptu deadline.”

“Going for a full-length album, then?”

“Depends on who’s asking.” He flicks his cigarette butt into the darkness. The orange light traces a near-perfect semi-circle as it goes out. “Got anything greener on you?”

You pull one of the Reverend’s joints from behind your ear. A corner of his mouth creaks upward.

“Fuckin’ A.”

 

To The Other Side

“So how many dudes you fight that day?”

“Whaddaya mean, ‘that day’? It was yesterday, man!” The smoke dissipating in plumes from his nostrils. “Two hired brawlers and a knife enthusiast. Could’ve stuck around to help, you know. Saved my last pair of uncut jeans.”

“Lover not a fighter, Jimbo.” He passes the J. The roach is a little wet. “Plus I had to know if you minded gettin’ your knuckles bloody. Had to know you were up for it.”

“Just tell me what the job is.”

“Ok, look. So most of the equipment I work with ain’t too fancy, right? We aim for sound jagged enough to cut your fingers picking up.”

“Ergo all the cassette demos in an era of lossless audio?”

He nods. “Most of it is analog, because that’s us. That’s our sound. But I also got a digital voicebox and amps. Good if you want your harmonies worth a shit. Cost roughly six figures. And some jerkwad nicked ‘em before soundcheck on Friday. If it weren’t for the crowd’s weird megaphone fetish we’d be thrashed senseless or worse: booed off.”

“Uh huh.” You have nearly finished your lap of the basement. The band has stopped completely. The lightbulb beyond the blue tarpaulin is nothing but a blurry afterimage on your retinas. “And where was this gig, exactly?”

“This rooftop bar off campus. Secret midnight show. We were previewing new material.” Something about the Crow’s speech pattern rankles. You don’t know what or why. His gaze leaves you and follows the patter of feet leaving the basement. “Better’ve picked up your leaky ghee can, mister!”

“W-why don’t you make me, birdbrain?” calls a thin voice from the very edge of your vision, halfway up the staircase, skinny jeans and sneakers framed in some fresh, warm, flickery lightsource beyond the wooden doorframe.

You squint hard but cannot see the other side.

“Say. Was that the mousy headphones guy who spoke in class today?”

“Sessions musicians can be a pain,” the Crow says, only half to you, and you realize that his words are no response to your words, are a smoother variant of your patter when talking down a drunk friend or Bharadwaj wrangling irate cops. “We had a killer percussionist. Did eye-popping things with them sticks. Kept yawning like it was kid stuff. Can’t pay for that sorta style.”

“Oh yeah?” You stroll towards the peeled-back tarpaulin, away from the warm flicker upstairs that’s becoming brighter by the moment. You flick the smoldering roach into the Crow’s studio. The wobbly orange arc lights a battered dalda tin and dies on the concrete. “Why isn’t he here, then?”  

“Oh, he fudged his graduation again.” His words sincere as a Styrofoam sandwich.

Or rusted nails scattered before an entranceway.

“Currently getting bombed with his other no-good junkie friends. Some marathon.” The Crow sniggers. “I mean who even cares that much about academics?”

A delaying tactic.

“Say, Jimbo, is that your I-get-it-now face or are you suddenly constipated?”

You do not respond. You do not have time for a response.

You turn and run back up the stairs.

“Thanks for the greens, man!” he calls casually after you, and you don’t need to know what’s coming next to wish him dead.

 

The Death of Gwen Stacy

Stop. Take a deep breath.

What is coming next has happened before. It had happened before even when it was happening for the first time. It will happen again in your head, will keep happening, regardless of whether you care to recount it.

It will happen whether in the first person or the second. It will happen.

And now you have said ‘happen’ too many times and it doesn’t seem like a real word.

Happ-pen…

Happen.

Half pen.

Had pen. Pierced scab.

Puns are ok. Puns are good.

Let’s say you aren’t weeping right now.

*

“What the fuck.” It isn’t a question you are asking. It isn’t even an observation. It’s the absence of a response. The warm flicker beyond the frame grows into a brow singeing sweat vaporizing fire.

And Gwen Stacy blazes like a wooden effigy rather than a twelve-year-old scooter.

“Who did this, man?” Honest question this time. “Who killed my fucking scooter?”

“Me,” says the asshole with the knife from Sunday, standing just beyond the pyre that was Gwen, a taser in his left hand and a plaster on his right. “Who’s the one armed bandit now, bitch?”

“Still you, man. Except I’ll be killing you now.”

You step around Gwen and within punching range. He points the taser, waits the split second it needs to charge, sees something in your expression, raises the plaster to defend his face.

That is the only mistake he needs to make.

Your first touch breaks some toes. A hard whack on the plaster cracks his nose like a leaky faucet.

“Those wheels-”
you kick aside the taser
“-were worth-”
introduce your heel to his gut
“-a hundred shitheels like you!”
are about to kick him onto Gwen when

“Chill out, Johnny boy,” the Crow murmurs in your ear, and a thousand volts wrap around your spine and rock you to sleep.

 

(The second volume of Bloody Thursday, Bad Trips (J02E01-10), drops tomorrow).

Scooter? Check? Greenery? Check. Blurry camerawork? Fuckin' A. That's a wrap, people. Man do we need a better artist.

(J02E03) Gwen and Mary, OR Off the Record

“You’ve put on weight,” the beardo driving the scooter said.

“That or your goddamn engine has made peace with this life,” the short man riding pillion responded. “Weren’t kidding about Mary Jane, were you? Smell like a fucking greenhouse.”

“I told you to ditch the lackeys.”

“Do you even read the news, man? Whole fucking city’s got lackeys right now.”

“Yeah, I know. With us, for us, always, that crap.”

“This is off the record, Jimmy, but there’s a crackdown coming. And it’s gonna be swift and severe. Should I worry for you?”

“Let’s save the grilling for drinks, yeah? Where to?”

“Dunno. The old place still standing?”

“Define ‘still standing’.”

*

“Well, fuck,” Mandy said, a little later. “The fuck happened here?”

“Told you,” Jimmy said.

The flea circus carpet store and plywood warehouse were gone, as were the dozing smackheads.

The three-storey den of garbage and bloodstains that used to be the opposite of a landmark now stood clean and renovated and painted a hideous orange.

The old, rusted __BILE_ HALL sign had been replaced by a brand new black-and-gold  JUBILEE THEATER billboard.

A parking lot to the left and glitzy eateries to the right completed the façade.

“All this renovation and they kept that fucking font,” Mandy said.

“Let’s save the indignation for drinks, yeah? Come on.”

“Back in my day we had to wade through three miles of shit just to reach the alley.”

“And yet: here we are.”

“…Well, fuck.”

*

“Look, Mandy! A monogrammed bar menu!”

“Fuck that, dude! They’re serving food! … is that a fucking pitcher?”

The young boy fetching their beer knew a cop when he saw one. He grinned nervously and fucked off into the shadows.

Jimmy and Mandy filled their mugs and started in without toasting anyone or anything.

Around them the newly-christened Jubilee Street went about its noisy business.

*

“Are we going the reevaluation and re-exam route again?”

“Not sure, man. Not yet, at least. This friend needs my help. You still chasing arsonists through political rallies?”

“No such luck, man. They subbed me back into Narcotics. Old powder trail just turned fresh again. Got any friends who enjoy nosebleeds?”

“Not since last year, I’d say. Plus they preferred horse tranquilizers anyway.”

“Ketamine mohabbat hai?” They stewed in the horrid pun as Jimmy refilled their mugs. “Don’t get caught with any hard shit right now, okay? The guys we’re tracking are professionals. Any failure will bring the heat down on clueless college kids.”

“God knows we got enough of those,” Jimmy said. Slash lit the fuse on a familiar riff. A gaggle of kids two tables over clapped and whooped. “Can’t believe I’m old enough to be doing this, but – Hey! Yes, you! Keep it down, man! The fuck is wrong with you kids?”

Their second mugs were downed in silence.

“Well,” Jimmy said after Axl had stopped wondering where to go now, “We could go outside and fire up a J.”

“Don’t tell me they sealed off the rotbox!”

“Um.” Jimmy couldn’t meet his eye. “There’s a proper basement now. No stag entry.”

“Alright, that’s it.” Mandy walked over to the bar. The kid who’d been whispering to the bartender scampered off again. “Hey, man, what’s with the fucking march of progress over here, huh? What’s this fucking LCD? Why are there eight speakers instead of one homecooked amp? And why the fuck do you look like you’ve had a bath this week?”

“It is you,” said the bartender.

“With the fucking clean tables and the- what did you say?”

“It is you,” repeated the bartender. “The guy who sold me the place said you’d be back, sooner or later.”

“Where is that old wanker?”

“Retired,” said the bartender. “Moved to Jaipur. Or Jodhpur. Somewhere in Rajasthan, anyway. Follow me.”

“The fuck?” inquired Mandy as the bartender switched places with the kid and led them in the direction of the washrooms.

“The fuck?” echoed Jimmy, bringing their final mugs. “Didn’t know there was a time limit on beer rentals.”

“The previous owner said change was necessary to surviving this city,” the bartender said, unlocking what looked like a broom closet with a stick figure in a wheelchair stenciled unto the door, “But he also said change didn’t have to be absolute.”

“Never saw him string together a complete sentence myself.”

“If we get mugged, Mandy, you should probably quit the force.”

The western-style lavatory jammed against the back wall looked like a cardboard prop. The bartender took a key from his pocket, felt around in a crack beneath the murky mirror, and then swung his wrist.

There was a click.

“Well,” he said, stepping aside so the two men could look into a long, poorly-lit room behind the recessed doorway,  “Here you go.”

“Oh, momma,Johnny Jimmy said. “What a lovely day!”

Mandy stood looking into the secret hallway. He saw a dingy makeshift table with cigarette holes and two overflowing ashtrays, an old man in the far corner cradling his bottle, man and bottle looking like they’d keel over at any moment.

There was a long stretch of silence.

The barman left after checking the old man’s pulse. Jimmy Page laid down the opening licks of Kashmir. His namesake wiped a solitary tear on the shoulder of his trenchcoat.

“I am home,” Mandy finally said.

*

“Anyway,” Jimmy said eight and a half minutes later, “Speaking of my friend. Is there any way to find out who framed him?”

“Depends on the charges,” Mandy said. “Small cases like mugging or petty larceny, it’s usually local dimwits who figure my turf just because they ain’t been caught yet. Violent charges are harder. Case needs to shut like a well-oiled mousetrap before anyone sees the clink. What they in for?”

“Was. Trumped-up drug charges.”

“Uh. Mary Jane?”

“No,” said Jimmy, blowing a thin plume out of his nose. “Coquina.”

“The Caribbean mollusk?”

“No, man, The white stuff Tony Montana was motorboating into Miami. And his face.”

“Hmm.” Mandy thought long and hard as the old man exhaled into his beard.

The grey smoke rising from his snowbank was too cool not to look at. They paused their conversation a while. “That looks fucking beautiful, Reuben.”

“…Aksai Chin…”

“His name is Reuben?”

“That was the only word I caught when we last met. Or maybe he said Rubaiyat. How much coke we talking?”

“Half a kilo. Taped to the inside of his gas-tank.”

Mandy turned so fast he knocked an ashtray over.

“This friend of yours. Would he happen to be a dim oversized nutter who pops pills to stay coherent and goes by Big Moose or Malay?”

“Uh, he don’t like either of those. We call ‘im Bharadwaj.”

“Jesus, Jimmy, I thought I told you how serious this was.”

“…Longewala…”

“Thank you, Reuben. What the fuck are you talking about, man?”

“This right here,” said Mandy. “This fucking case brought me back to Dilli, Jimmy. Big-ass haul of misplaced coke. Five bricks total. The package they recovered from your friend was half a brick. I brought in one. A task force at Hauz Khas got another half. You any good at math? Did Malay tell you anything?”

“Uh, Bharadwaj. And just that he was no fucking dealer, man.”

“And you believe him.”

“Fuck, what I can’t believe is how many times I’m having to go over this. Yes.

“With what proof, apart from your gut?”

“Come on. He is not dumb, man. Had too much to lose. Wouldn’t get involved in shady bullshit like this.”

Mandy smiled mirthlessly. “You know why we’re friends, Jimmy?”

“Because I don’t judge you for being a hypocrite?”

“…Redcliffe Line…”

“Touché, Reuben. We are friends, Jimmy, because you are usually a rational man. Even when the world you inhabit is a rabid cuckoo’s nest of batshit.”

“You think I am going soft because I claim my friend’s innocence.”

“No, Jimmy, I think you are ignoring what your brain is pointing out to you. Why is he out right now? Why do I bring up impending crackdowns? Why am I here, Jimmy?”

“I… Uh…” And the single bulb in the room was dirty, and Reuben’s beard was not literally luminous, but Jimmy finally saw light. “He is bait.”

“Bingo was his name-o.”

“You assholes are gonna get him killed. And pardon me for asking your help, man, I know it’s only a matter of time before those cogs of yours turn a bit further and you take me in as accessory.”

It was a stupid line, and he regretted saying it almost instantly.

Mandy’s eyes narrowed to slits. It wasn’t a healthy look. “Accessory to what, Jimmy?”

“Nothing, man.”

“I’m serious, man. What’s on your mind?”

“A puh-packed schedule, for one,” Jimmy said, and thankfully there was an honest-to-God anonymous message with an address in Kamla Nagar buzzing up his phone. “You should dial it back, Mandy.”

“Speaking of which… You seem awfully calm for a man who lost ten months of sobriety days ago,” Inspector Doshi said. “Too calm, almost. What are you not telling me?”

“I’m not telling you to trust me, Mandy, because they taught us to cut out needless clichés. Back me up here, Reuben.”

“…Youm-e-Takbir…”

“Hey no need to get defensive, dude, I’m just trying to.. Wait, are you leaving?”

“The only thing worse than a DUI is a DUI with a drunk ossifer behind me,” Jimmy said, making for the door. “Kids have smuh- smargh- cameraphones these days. Can’t be too careful.”

“You were my ride, asshole! What sort of fucking welcome is this?”

“Don’t take it personally dawg,” Jimmy said. “Don’t even trip. You just need change of puh-perspective. Life getting you down? Thuh-third person, baby! Shift to second if it gets worse! Derp-deepuh-depersonalalization helps cop! I mean cope!”

“Puns were my thing, man,” Mandy muttered, “and so was this bottle.” Reuben glared at him darkly. “Fucking leave then, Jimmy, you piece of shit. I don’t need you!”

“Love you too, Mandy.”

“Fucking don’t call me that!”

“…Barrackpore…”

“I am sharing, Reuben, I just wanted that asshole outta my face.”

*

And so at roughly 2PM on Monday you stumble out the alley, flip the bird to JUBILEE THEATER, and ride Gwen across the Yamuna for the last time.

(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.

(J02E01) “Johnny Mera Naam”

I have a confession to make, Mandy.

I don’t write too good.

I mean sure, the words been comin’ – just as the steady IV drip been comin’ – now ten drops of glucose, now a nice drippy anaesthetic haze, now another wave of phrases bearing whatever trash I manage to salvage.

Jagged pieces of shell. Burnt retinas. Used syringes.

Do you see why I hesitate?

On day one of writing class they grouped us according to genre and made us list the absolute worst clichés we needed to avoid like the plague. I almost got in a fistfight with the guy who wanted “It’s always about a girl” as item one.

I mean, it’s overused and melodramatic, sure, but can’t it also be true? Don’t things become clichéd for a reason?

Maybe I should’ve stayed till the end of the course. There went the merry band of misfits struggling to become better writers. And here lie we.

Stuck in a bloody hospital for all eternity.

I used to write to her, Mandy. This woman who called me hers. She was my constant reader, my audience of one, and with each passing day it gets a little harder to believe she’s still out there, somewhere, listening.

I mean writing to you is fun and everything, but I always have to contend with the possibility that the reader might not necessarily be just you.

And I still need to run out the clock on this bloody Thursday.

*

“Inspector Doshi here. May I know-“

“Mandy! How goes the routine extortion of chaatwallas?”

“Sure beats shaking down junkies, I tell you that. Whose number is this, Jimmy?”

“I’m fine, thanks for asking. Number’s a burner.”

“… Are you working a case?”

“Gotta beat off the everyday horror of existence somehow. Why’s that nice lady mispronouncing your name?”

“Last call for this flight I’m supposed to be on. Your result’s out today, right?”

“Got posted Saturday. No luck this time either. Where you flying?”

“Back to Dilli. Look, just hang on for a few hours, okay? We’ll talk over oat soda, get you straightened out.”

“I’ll do one better, old-timer. Call off your lackeys and I’ll come get you with Gwen and Mary.”

“Jesus. You still riding that deathtrap?”

“Don’t knock my bae, bey. He’ll outlive us all.”

“That would be my number one fear. It’s wheels down at noon. Don’t be late, okay?”

*

And just for the record, Mandy, I’m not fond of the crap you gave my scooter.

We were lugging around a basketball team worth of miscreants long before you got your first uniform. Or college degree, for that matter.

And sure, you could call him Gwen Stacy (my scooter was male, goddammit) and take odds on his time of demise, but the old boy easily outlived my soulmate, my academic ambitions, hell, my old life.

I hadn’t fancied my own odds (or yours, to be honest) but Monday’s loss still hits the hardest.

*

I went down to the corner panwadi near my other place, loaded up on Silk Cuts, folded my old worn trenchcoat into Gwen’s dickey, and yanked him from the dingy cul de sac where I’d hidden his dented ass.

Anvesha still refused to pick up her phone.

I dropped a text enquiring about her general well-being and the specific whereabouts of the Reverend Ma’am.

Then I drove four kilometres of crowded campus bylanes to Bharadwaj’s old place.

*

The pile of trash outside the gate had been fruitful and multiplied. I stepped over a frayed wicker basket that might once have contained kiwi or some unspecified variety of bird egg.

“Ah, Johnny boy! Welcome, welcome! I was wondering when you’d turn up!”

I thought of correcting him but he handed me a square glass with three pegs of whiskey and a purely cosmetic ice-cube and it was Johnny mera naam for the foreseeable future.

“Let’s get you caught up,” he said magnanimously.

I nodded quietly, the glass already half empty in my hand.

“This is damn fine hooch, sir.”

“Please, call me uncle. Or kaka. That’s what the kids go with. I’d offer you dry fruit but I left the basket uncovered overnight. The ants had a happy Diwali.”

The house didn’t look like it had seen a happy anything in years. I kept my mouth shut.

“What’s the deal with Vrinda’s room, kaka?” I finally asked. “I mean if she or that oaf are still there, I could get a different one.”

“Oh, you know Bharadwaj, then.”

His expression darkened. I drank a little faster.

“I kept asking Vrinda why she couldn’t find a nicer guy, you know? I mean kids will be kids, but who lives with a fucking gorilla?”

“Didn’t like him much myself,” I said, a little sheepishly. He refilled my glass and topped up his own. “Used to tell her his sorry ass would land them in jail.”

“Looked like a career criminal, too,” the landlord said, more to himself than me. “There were drug charges, you know. Got pulled over at Vidhan Sabha with white dust all over his jacket. Cops found half a kilo of cocaine taped inside his gastank.”

“Wait, he actually got arrested?”

“Oh yeah. Put him away for a long time, they did. Then two days later Vrinda just up and vanished. We got a postcard from Nagpur saying the girl’s family had found out about the whole shady business and taken her home.”

“But you thought something was off.”

“Well not me personally. But… Janaki thought the handwriting wasn’t a match. I remember thinking he got someone to get rid of her while he was inside.”

“You still have that postcard?”

“Probably. Haven’t tossed any,.. leftover belongings. That used to be-”

He didn’t complete his sentence.

I sat bobbing like a rat in a cage at the bottom of the Yamuna, sipping his fine whiskey from his fine glassware, wondering how long the transition from is to used to be his wife’s job had taken.

Eventually he got up to empty the bottle and didn’t sit down.

“I’ll fetch thap-postcard, Johnny,” he slurred, “and maywe becan masense offit togethr”

I nodded and nursed my drink while he stumbled deeper into the flat.

*

The weight of absence in that room was palpable.

I knew the weird taste on the air at last: it was just like the chunk of rocksalt that had been jamming up my throat for the better part of an year.

By the time the big hand on the clock had covered a third of its trip I was done snorting cobwebs and misery.

“You alright in there, kaka?”

There was no response. I stumbled into the footsteps of my host.

*

Kaka hadn’t responded because kaka was busy blurring the line between on and off the bed, his legs on his pillow, his torso buried under a landslide of photocopied affidavits and identity proofs on the floor.

The documents rose and fell softly as he snored.

The image would be comical if it weren’t for the impeccably-made spread and (clean) pillow marking his wife’s side of the bed.

I presumed it was her staring balefully from the portrait behind the headboard – a hawk-eyed old lady with the ghost of a smile dulling her sharp jawline.

They probably made a good team back when she was around, I thought stupidly.

Then I quit warming my thumb in my arse and began rummaging through the loose pages.

*

There wasn’t much to go on.

I found enough documentation on Bharadwaj to make Vrinda’s papers redundant: the same semi-fake permanent address he’d given the cops on our final bender after undergrad, the initials spelling out a four-letter word that set my inner five-year-old chuckling.

I was wondering whether to fling my useless haul back onto kaka when I saw it – the torn half of an A4 sheet wedged under his head.

It was a photocopy of the WiFi agreement for Bharadwaj and Vrinda’s room. The handwriting was a bit too legible to be Bharadwaj’s. There was nothing remarkable about her semi-childish curlicues or the semi-fake permanent address (69, Parag Industrial Street, Shyamnagar – if that helps your investigation) but there was a rusty staple in the top-left corner.

Attached to the back of the receipt was a passport-sized photograph.

I unhinged the staple and squinted at the flax-haired woman in the image.

She seemed… young. Younger than us bloodshot beardos by half a decade at least. The aquiline nose and brown eyes seemed vaguely familiar. The mouth looked like it belonged on a poster. The expression was somehow defiant but also… inviting?

A small voice in my head suggested I’d used up my quota of sleaziness. I stared down the photo one last time before pocketing it.

I had either seen her up close and in person or I didn’t know her at all.

Sounds infuriating, doesn’t it?

Especially after that bullshit in the last notebook about knowing yet not-knowing Anvesha?

I’m afraid this is as true as that was true.

*

That jackhole in writing class who objected to It’s-Always-About-A-Girl later stood up and loudly proclaimed that he was sick as cancer of Red Herrings, and the day writers stopped treating their readers like infants we would achieve world peace and find our rightful place among the stars.

I remember him being the primary reason I dropped that course two days later.

I still think about him, sometimes.

That jackhole might well have been the best friend I never had.

*

Monday morning in the landlord’s bedroom I decided the photo was lead enough.

There was no point snooping through two giant almirahs full of unsorted knick-knacks in search of Bharadwaj and Vrinda’s perfect little life.

The real question was – could I locate kaka’s stock of single-malt?

And, if yes, would he miss a bottle or two?

Anvesha buzzed with map coordinates and a license plate just as my conscience was trailing off into an embarrassed silence… and, just like that, the hunt was on again.

Stage Three

Out of all the things I have lost

I miss my mind the most.

 

Out of all the times I have havered

on the verge of plasticky profundity

and then swapped out

my quotidian bleed

for a banal quote

Tonight’s the night

I feel worst about wasting.

It’s your paintbrush I drip from.

It’s your halfsmile I am tasting.

 

Of all the times I let go too soon

because I could not stop being me

Today’s the first I honestly wish

I could stop being me

 

Even at the cost of some poor sod

Having to audition for my role

Having to consciously unlearn

everything they understand

about body language

and to miss a thousand social cues

and to drop a million plates that are

microwave-safe but not

tested for gravity.

 

I don’t even care if they throw up

in their mouth and basically

quit the whole life-

swapping business for good.

 

I would wear the face and

wear the life and I would

run to you. In a heartbeat

I would run to you.

 

I would not care

if my stubby otherperson legs

refused to carry

my swollen head

I would not care if you didn’t want me

in your public library

or your personal shed

 

It would be enough, it would be enough

To press my nose on your window,

see you pull froth

from the surface

of a watercolor sea

to see you toss your hair back

and lament the ruining

of yet another artwork

at stage three.