The setting sun outside the window glows a feeble orange as Radha and I stand by our teenage hacker, Hamid Khan. He is a thin boy with an equally thin moustache. His life-long struggle with agoraphobia has confined him to his room, which he leaves only when his tutor arrives. At all other times, he can be found online, in a world of his own, a world that doesn’t frighten him.
‘So?’ Radha asks him. ‘Anything?’
Not looking up from his laptop, he mutters – ‘Give me just a couple seconds more.’
‘You’re doing great,’ says Radha. She has an almost maternal relationship with Hamid. I think, other than his father, Radha is the only person he truly trusts. It took him a long time to even address me directly without looking away.
‘Got it,’ he finally says with a frown. ‘I don’t like this.’
‘Whoever sent that text to Nadeem’s phone, they bounced the signal through enough relays to make it a pain to find them, but not enough to be adequately protected.’
‘You think they wanted us to find them.’
‘Yes. They’re in Basirhat.’
‘That’s almost two and a half hours away,’ says Radha.
‘Yeah,’ says Hamid, handing back Nadeem’s phone. ‘If you leave now, you should be there by eight.’
‘By eight,’ sighs Radha. ‘Fine. Come on, Aditya. We need to go.’
There is a strange silence for a moment. Leaning against the wall with my arms crossed, I get the feeling I’m supposed to do something now. But what? What is even happening? Where am I?
‘She’s talking to you, Aditya,’ says Aratrika. She’s standing a few feet away, our eyes fixated on each other. I can’t look away. Do I want to?
‘What if I left all this behind?’ I mutter, my mind entirely absent.
‘You want to run away with me?’ says Aratrika, touching her chest in faux surprise. ‘How romantic.’
‘Aditya?’ cuts in Radha’s voice, and still I can’t avert my eyes. There’s an eerie high-pitched whistling in my ear I know no one else in this room can hear.
Am I losing my mind?
All of a sudden, someone touches my shoulder, and I flinch. Eyes wide, breathing loud and uneven, I stare at the room in wonder. When did I get here? What’s going on? Panic wrings my veins, my heart, my mind, my throat. I feel like reaching into my skull and tearing out my brain. Crushing it, just to make the pain cease.
‘Are you okay?’ asks Radha.
‘What happened?’ I ask, my heart still racing. ‘I remember people speaking. “Don’t like this”. Who doesn’t like what?’
‘We brought Nadeem’s phone here, remember? So that Hamid could see who texted him?’
‘Right,’ I mutter, the fog in my mind easing. ‘Basirhat. Did I hear that right? It’s in Basirhat?’
‘Yeah. Listen, go home, okay? You’re in no state to do anything right now.’
‘I’m fine,’ I say. ‘Let’s go.’
‘Aditya, I can’t in good conscience allow you to keep pushing yourself like this.’
‘She thinks you’re weak,’ whispers Aratrika into my ear. ‘Are you, Aditya?’
‘I’m fine,’ I repeat, more forcefully this time. ‘Just need two sips.’
‘No,’ says Radha firmly. ‘Go home.’
‘You’re wasting time,’ I say, settling back into my detached, laconic persona. I need to stick to my internal regimen, no matter the cost. The slightest deviation could reopen the wound I’ve managed to stitch up so haphazardly. I need consistency, a routine. I wish I could explain that to Radha, but words fail me too often nowadays. I can’t trust what I say. What I want to say and the words that come out of my mouth are two very different things.
Ignoring Radha’s infuriation and Hamid’s confusion, I leave the apartment and head for the stairs. I’ve made it through one flight before Radha grabs my coat and pushes me up against the wall.
‘This has been going on too long,’ she says, clearly trying to keep her frustration in check. ‘Go home. That’s an order.’
‘What’re you gonna do now, Aditya?’ asks Aratrika, enjoying this standoff. ‘You’re too weak to carry on, I know that much. Buckle. Go home.’
Finally, it all becomes too much to take. I roughly shove Radha away. She takes a couple steps back, more stung than hurt.
‘Touch me again,’ I growl, blood pumping in my ears, ‘and I’ll break all your teeth. Understood?’
Radha stares at me, betrayed, indignant. Looks into my eyes, searches for a trace of the old Aditya. The scream is back, taking over my senses, shutting me down. I need to apologize. What did I just say? No! I need to apologize. That wasn’t me. But my anger keeps me from making a move. Radha is still staring at me dumbfoundedly. She opens her mouth to retaliate. Then, suddenly, she gives up. The shift in her expression is only accentuated by the deadness of her voice when she says – ‘Understood.’
Leaving me standing alone in the stairwell, she sets off down the stairs. As rage gives way to crushing regret, I’m barely able to contain the choke in my throat.
‘Do what you did just now,’ whispers Aratrika from behind, slowly sliding her hands round my shoulders, my chest. ‘Give in. To me. Tell me you love me. Do it.’
If I had a gun right now, I would’ve used it on myself. It’s too much – the shrill, paralyzing scream in my mind, the debilitating headache, the pain in my chest. It’s too much for anyone to bear. I have no choice now.
I reach inside my coat and grab one of the two nips of whiskey I’d bought this morning.
‘Why won’t you give in, my love?’ asks Aratrika, nibbling my ear. The scent of her hair, the feel of her breath on my skin, the bewitching aroma of her, it’s driving me insane, bringing back buried memories, toying with my sanity. It’s all I can do to keep from collapsing. I empty the bottle, the bitterness and ensuing burn now nothing more than a habitual annoyance. For a few seconds, I stay standing here, eyes closed.
When I open them, Aratrika’s gone. Struggling to walk straight, I begin descending the stairs, praying I can make it through the night.
To keep Hamid from panicking, Rathore and Nadeem had stayed downstairs. Now, the latter is home, while Vikram Rathore sits in the passenger’s seat beside Radha. I silently took my seat in the back after the stairwell incident and haven’t exchanged a word with either Radha or Rathore the whole journey. It took us a good two hours and forty-five minutes, but we’re finally close to the abandoned factory the phone’s signal originated from.
The world spins around me and the car’s motion makes it worse. Radha has her eyes stoically glued to the road in front while Rathore keeps glancing at her and then me once in a while. Purposefully avoiding his gaze is no less awkward now than it was when we started the ride, but I can’t bring myself to look anyone in the eye yet.
Shit, the alcohol’s beginning to wear off. I’m more aware, more present. Dammit. I know I shouldn’t, but I gulp down the other nip as well. That should keep Aratrika away for the rest of the night. Radha’s eyes stray to the rear-view mirror, but her lips remain firmly shut.
After another three minutes, we stop beside an abandoned and overgrown stretch of land, far from the highway. A factory stands at the center, its façade coated with a slimy, disgusting layer of moss and fungus. Four soaring chimneys tower menacingly over us and the whole place reeks of motor oil, machinery, and bleach.
‘They produced combustion engines and other vehicular components here,’ says Rathore, as if sensing my question.
‘Right,’ I slur, unsteadily stepping out into the chilly, windy, moonless night. The only sources of light here are streetlamps, and they prove to be inadequate. No cars travel along the road, no civilians roam by; as far as I can tell, we are all alone here.
‘Let’s go,’ says Radha once she and Rathore are out of the car. I gingerly make my way to her side.
‘Listen, Radha, I’m so sor –’
‘Shut up,’ she snaps, her glare boring a hole through me. ‘Let’s just get this over with.’
Watching her march forward, Rathore says – ‘Should I ask?’
Slowly shaking my head, I begin after her. Rathore sighs, before following suit. The closer we get to the factory, the more the feeling of dread intensifies in my stomach. Something will happen inside, I know it.
Radha is about to switch on her flashlight when Rathore jogs forward and places his hand on hers.
‘Don’t want to give ourselves away,’ he whispers quietly. ‘If there is indeed anyone here, betraying our presence will only put us at a disadvantage.’
‘Right,’ mutters Radha. ‘Sorry.’ She ties her red hair in a tight ponytail, a nervous tic I’ve been noticing for a while now. Is she getting the same presentiment I am?
We eventually reach the large iron front gate. Squinting in the dark to make sure the area is indeed deserted, we gently slide it open and step inside.
I realize now I half-expected gunfire to erupt as soon as we set foot in this place, but all we encounter is an unnerving silence. Forcing myself to ignore the sharp sting of insomnia in my eyes, I take a quick look around. The gravelly, overgrown path we stand on leads forward to the main building, before banking right to wind through different outbuildings and equipment. The air is thick with a haunted, ghostlike aura, interspersed with a strong sense of danger. My heart rumbles in my chest as I move forward with my two companions, getting the lay of the land.
We explore for twenty minutes, weaving in and out of buildings, walking around the chimneys and various embankments. Apart from a lot of gravel and stray equipment, there’s nothing. No one.
My head hurts too much. Feel like I’m going to collapse at any second. It was a mistake coming here.
‘Maybe Hamid was wrong,’ says Rathore as we come to a stop near the center of the four chimneys. ‘Maybe there really is no one here.’
‘Hamid is never wr –’ begins Radha, but stops mid-sentence, her eyes wide.
‘The gate,’ she says. ‘Why wasn’t it locked? There was no padlock, no chains.’
Before Rathore can respond, we hear a strange sound. Something metallic falling on the ground. ‘Shit,’ says Radha as a creepy hiss emanates from our right. ‘Smoke bomb.’
She’s right. We’re soon engulfed in an impenetrable mushroom of smoke and mist. I can’t see a foot ahead. ‘Guys?’ I call out in panic.
‘Stay sharp,’ says Rathore. ‘They could be –’ A thud. He never finishes the sentence.
‘Vikram?’ calls out Radha, but the old man doesn’t answer. Frozen in fear, all I can do is listen helplessly as someone drags off his body. Flesh on gravel.
‘Aditya, listen to me,’ says Radha, but there’s a distinct smack, and she falls silent. Once again, I hear a body being dragged away. Fear has completely paralyzed me. My insides are deathly cold, and I can’t move my limbs. I keep waiting to feel a strike on the back of my head. But the seconds pass by, and I’m still standing.
When the infernal fog finally dissipates, I find myself completely alone. The factory is deserted, the only sound the whistling of the cold wind. My heart flutters violently as my mind attempts to figure out what to do next.
You’re with me, right? Don’t leave me now. Please. I need you. I’m not strong enough to do this alone.
Okay, Aditya, focus. I can’t, can I? I have too much drink in me. You can. You’ve dealt with worse before. Come on. What did you hear? Two thuds. Two. Two attackers. Shit. They knew. They knew all along. This was a setup. They went off in opposite directions; one toward the main building, one toward the eastward boundary.
Instinctively, I turn to the left. Radha was dragged off this way. I’ve only taken a few steps when someone hits me on the back of the head. I tumble to the ground, motionless for several excruciating seconds. The whistling in my head intensifies, and I lose my vision. When I’m finally able to recover my senses, I find my phone missing.
They took my phone. Why? You idiot, Aditya. So you don’t have access to your flashlight, obviously. Right. My phone’s flashlight. They want to keep me in the dark. Literally. But they had me. Why not finish me off?
This is a test.
They’re messing with me, assessing how I react. Who are these people? Focus. The main building. Go there.
Painfully staggering to my feet, I stand still for a few seconds while the world sways frenziedly beneath my feet. Suddenly overcome with an uncontrollable mesh of fear and rage, I let out a deafening bellow, the desperate howl of a tortured soul pushed beyond its limit. There’s a loud thunderclap, and it merges with my scream. Breathing heavily, a tear rolls down my cheek as I detect the faint whiff of moist earth in the air. It’s going to rain soon.
Move, Aditya. For fuck’s sake, move. Radha needs you. Don’t let her down again.
I totter forward, constantly expecting another blow to my head. Lights out. But none come, and I reach my destination unscathed. It’s a large building, almost the size of an airplane hangar. Stepping inside, I find myself in pitch darkness. I can’t see even an inch ahead of myself.
Cautiously stepping forward, I collide into several boxes, production apparatus and a staircase, probably leading to a catwalk upstairs. There’s no use stumbling around in the dark. Instead, I stand still, close my eyes, listen. Seconds become minutes, and still nothing leaps out at me. Are they all gone? Am I alone? Are you here? Or have you deserted me as well?
All of a sudden, the barrel of a gun juts into the back of my skull, sending a burst of panic through my veins. ‘Who are you?’ whispers my assailant, and I breathe a sigh of relief.
‘It’s me, Radha.’
‘Aditya?’ she whispers, grabbing my shoulder and spinning me around. My eyes have adjusted enough to the darkness that I can vaguely make out her outline. I want to wrap my arms around her, but something tells me the gesture would be unwelcome.
Instead, I ask – ‘Where’s Rathore?’
‘No clue. He was dragged off to the other side of the factory.’
‘We should try to find him.’
‘Yeah. Let’s go.’
Suddenly, the gate to the building slams shut, trapping us inside.
‘Shit,’ whispers Radha. ‘Now what?’
We need something to dispel the darkness. Without my phone, I feel helpless.
Idiot. I’m such an idiot. I don’t need my phone. Reaching into my pocket, I extract the thing I could’ve used all along – my cigarette lighter. Flicking on the flame, Radha’s face becomes illuminated in an ethereal, reddish-yellow glow. We can see just a little bit ahead of us. The flame keeps flickering, and along with it my field of vision, but something’s better than nothing.
I’m just about to ask Radha to move toward the entrance when a kick comes out of nowhere and swiftly knocks the lighter out of my hand. It falls to the floor and the flame goes out. Another kick to my stomach sends me down, winded and wheezing, while our assailant turns his attention to Radha.
Her military training ensures she doesn’t go down as easily as I did. Several seconds later, they’re still going at it, each trying to overcome the other. Radha sends the man crashing to the floor, and for a horrifying second, he and I are face to face. I can see nothing but his eyes; the rest is covered by a mask. He performs a leg sweep and instantly brings down Radha as well. He gets to his feet, and the fight exits my vision once again.
Crawling on all fours, I slowly inch toward the lighter. Blood pumps in my ears and the panic intensifies with each passing second, but I keep moving forward. A wave of relief crashes through me as my fingers finally touch metal. Standing up, I flick open the lid and light the flame again.
I can make out two figures locked in a deadly scuffle. The man throws a punch, which Radha sidesteps and counterattacks with a kick, which is blocked. She hurls her arm forward, but it’s jammed, and her throat’s jabbed. Temporarily out of breath, she staggers backward. The man mercilessly grabs her by the hair and throws her toward me.
My reflexes are too slow; I’m unable to step around Radha as she smashes into me, sending the both of us hurtling to the floor. The lighter slips and clatters, and we’re ensconced in darkness once again.
The next few seconds are a fuzz, a muddle of scrambles and stomps. All of a sudden, I’m grabbed by the scruff of my neck and brought up. With one hand, the man jams a knife against my throat, and with the other, he holds my head back by the hair. Radha flicks on the lighter and holds it aloft while pointing a gun at our attacker.
‘Let him go,’ she demands.
‘You’re not calling the shots here,’ replies my captor. He has an incongruously small, almost mousy, voice. Which makes this all the more terrifying.
‘What do you want?’ I slur.
‘This was a warning,’ comes the reply from behind. ‘You’ve been meddling in affairs that’re better left untouched. If you continue, there’ll be repercussions.’
‘Let him go,’ says Radha again. ‘Then we’ll talk.’
‘This isn’t a negotiation. This is an order… soldier.’
A beat. Two beats. Three. ‘How do you know about that?’
‘You think you’re the only one who can research? Tell me, Radha Bose, do you still blame yourself for your brother’s death?’
‘You’re not getting in my head.’
‘No? Let’s turn our attention to young Aditya here, then. Poor Aratrika. She counted on her friend, and you let her down. She’s dead because of you, you know. Don’t believe what Radha tells you. Deep down, you know it was your fault.’
‘Hey,’ Radha says to me, ‘don’t listen to him. Keep your ears focused here, okay?’
‘All you have to do is say you’ll stop,’ says the man, ‘and so will I. This doesn’t need to get ugly.’
‘We’re not saying shit,’ I spit.
‘That’s too bad. Imagine how your mother will feel when she loses her precious son. Maybe half as guilty as you feel over Aratrika.’
‘Aditya, no,’ says Radha urgently. ‘Don’t listen to him.’
‘Imagine. She called you six times. Six. How desperate must she have been to talk to you. And you turned off your phone like an inconsiderate asshole. What kind of heartless bastard does that?’
I feel weak. Like I’m going to collapse any second. Like I’m going to throw up. I want this to stop. I need this to stop. I need everyone to disappear. This is too much.
‘All you have to do is say it,’ he breathes, ‘and I’ll stop.’
‘Fine,’ I whisper, defeated.
‘Aditya, no!’ exclaims Radha.
Taking a deep breath, I say – ‘Fine. You want me to say it? I’ll say it. Fuck. You.’
In one fluid motion, I drive my elbow into his groin, while simultaneously jerking my head forward. A round goes off, but it doesn’t hit me. Even as I bend forward, Radha pulls her trigger four times, each one sending my captor into desperate spasms. He finally releases his grip on my throat and hair, and falls to the ground, lifeless.
This time, I can’t help myself. I gratefully run forward and hug Radha. The familiarity of her body, her scent, her aura, brings warmth to my heart and tears to my eyes.
‘I’m so sorry, Radha,’ I whisper. ‘Please forgive me.’
But she doesn’t hug me back. When I finally pull away, she isn’t even looking at me. Oh no. No, no, no.
‘No. Radha. Please. I can’t take you not talking to me. No. No. Please talk to me. I am so, so sorry.’
‘Actions have consequences,’ she says simply, and walks away.
Rooted to the spot, tears flow freely down my cheeks, and I do nothing to stop them. No. It’s like someone pulled the rug out from under my feet. I can’t live without Radha. I can’t. What if she never speaks to me again? No. I can’t.
Just then, Rathore screams out in agony from somewhere in the factory. Furiously wiping my eyes, I dash toward the gate, which Radha has gotten open by now. We run out into the night, rushing in darkness toward the source of the wounded cry.
‘Stop,’ says Radha after a while, and we both quietly come to a standstill.
In the distance, I can make out Rathore on the ground, clutching his thigh in pain while another man stands over him.
‘You need to help Vikram,’ whispers Radha. ‘Go when I ask you to.’
The only sound in the air is Rathore’s heavy panting. Squinting, I try to make out the source of his agony. There’s a knife stuck in his thigh.
They stabbed an old man.
‘Be ready,’ says Radha, and tosses my lighter to the man’s left. Hearing the clang, he swivels toward it. ‘Now!’
I dart forward as the he walks toward the sound. I’m careful to keep my footfalls silent. By the time I reach Rathore, his attacker has not been alerted to my presence. Glancing toward him, I see Radha tackle him to the ground. There’s nothing I can do now. I need to let Radha handle it. I focus my attention on my other partner, who’s grimacing from the pain.
‘I’m gonna pull out the knife,’ I say, trying to sound calm. ‘This is gonna hurt. Blood will flow out. I have a handkerchief which I’ll tie around the wound for now. We have a first aid kit in the car. Nod if you understand.’
Thankfully, Rathore nods. While the brawl continues to my left, I slowly pull out the knife. Unable to contain his agony, Rathore screams out in pain. Nothing I can do about that. I keep pulling, until the knife eventually slides all the way out. As I had expected, blood comes pouring out of the open wound. Frenetically reaching into my coat, I pull out my handkerchief, grab two diagonally opposite ends, and pull. It folds in two, and I wrap it around the thigh. The ends only barely meet, requiring some force on my part to pull them together and tie a knot. But I’m able to do it.
The handkerchief is immediately soaked, but the blood flow has been reduced. This’ll have to do for now. Turning my attention to the fight, I see Radha has emerged victorious. She stands over her kneeling quarry, barrel pressed against his skull.
‘Who are you?’ she asks. ‘What do you know about this case?’
The man remains silent.
‘Answer me,’ bellows Radha, but still he doesn’t speak. His eyes are closed, and he’s muttering a silent prayer.
Finally, as if coming to a decision, he looks up into Radha’s eyes.
‘Good luck,’ he says, grabs her hands, and pulls the trigger. Blood splatters across the ground before he hits it, limp and unmoving.
‘Fuck!’ screams Radha. ‘Who the fuck are these people?’
The ensuing silence is filled by more thunder, this time preceded by a flash of lightning.
‘Do you smell that?’ Rathore grunts.
‘Smell what?’ I ask, sniffing. ‘Shit. Kerosene.’
‘Run,’ says Radha, and I raise Rathore to his feet. Radha wraps an arm around one side, I around the other. Together, we stumble toward the gate. No sooner have we gone a few steps than the air around us is lit ablaze in a brilliant fire. There’s someone else here, getting rid of all the evidence. We quicken our pace as the flames speed toward us.
Ignoring the urge to run, Radha and I further quicken our pace. Smoke fills my lungs, and I cough uncontrollably. Sweating from the immense heat, we continue on our path, praying the flames don’t engulf us.
‘Just a little more!’ shouts Radha, grimacing from the heat. I feel like my skin’s burning off, like I’m being cooked alive. There are flames all around us, closing in frighteningly quickly.
‘Leave me,’ mutters Rathore. ‘You won’t make it unless you leave me.’
‘Shut up, old man!’ I yell as my jeans catch fire. I stamp it out, and continue moving. It’s too hot. The fires are everywhere. We won’t make it. We’re going to be burned alive. ‘We’re not gonna make it!’
‘Yes we are!’ shouts Radha. ‘Just a little bit more. We’re almost there!’
We make it out just in time. Turning around, I quickly survey the gigantic flames. The whole factory is ablaze now. A few more seconds would’ve spelled catastrophe.
‘We need to get him to the car,’ I say, as Radha and I heave Rathore on.
‘You don’t say.’
Grunting and grumbling, all three of us make it to the car. We set Rathore down on the bonnet. Radha opens the trunk and takes out a large first aid box.
I’m about to take off its lid when Radha says – ‘No. I’ll patch him up. You look through this. Nicked it off the guy who killed himself.’
She hands me a relatively old phone, its screen cracked, its body marred with scratches. It’s not a smartphone, so it doesn’t have a lock. I simply press the red button and the phone comes to life.
Over the next few seconds, I cursorily look through its text messages and call log, but find nothing of any importance. Just pleasantries with acquaintances, friends, and family. An ordinary life. This doesn’t track. There has to be something in here.
I open the contact list next, overcome by disappointment, when I stop and stare at one particular number. It’s named as “Boss”, but the number’s familiar. I’ve seen it before, I’ve seen it before. Think, Aditya, think. Wrack that useless lump you call a brain and think. Where have you seen this before?
With a thunderous bang, it comes to me. But that can’t be it. This has to be a mistake. This can’t belong to…
‘Radha?’ I call out.
‘What?’ she replies, dressing Rathore’s wound. I show her the number. As I’d expected, her eyes light up with recognition, then confusion.
‘This can’t be right,’ she says.
‘What can’t be right?’ asks Rathore.
‘This number,’ replies Radha, showing it to him.
‘Why, whose is it?’
‘It belongs to my… my mother. My biological mother. Subhangi Nayyar.’