Lost In A Murder

“The world is a great place. You may not know it right away by looking at it, but it really is!”

Soon as Usman said the last word, the two friends began to laugh, Usman’s high octave laughter rising above the thin and reedy voice of Nathaniel.

Usman passed the cigarette to Nathaniel who waited until he could get his laughter under control before taking a deep drag. “Is that really what he said?” he said.

“I swear! I am telling you- that man was certainly not born to be a cop!”

They were standing under the gulmohar tree- aflame with blossoms of red, just about the only colorful thing in the drab surroundings. The tree stood at one lonely corner of the soccer ground- or rather the empty plot of land which the kids in the colony used as a football ground.

They were talking about Usman’s recent exploits as a petty thief, or more precisely the astonishing thing that happened after he was apprehended by a cop after a pick-pocketing attempt went wrong. The cop, instead of beating him up or calling him bad names (or both) just took him aside and gave him moral directives before letting him go with just a warning.

“No one can say now that miracles are just fairy tales!” Usman said and laughed out loud. The two friends started walking back to their homes at the far end of the football field. Nathaniel dribbled the football like it was a basketball.

He couldn’t help but smile at his friend’s comment.

**

“Grandpa, we won today!” Soon as he got into the small one room apartment that he shared with his paternal grandfather, Nathaniel shouted at the top of his lungs, trying his best to put as much enthusiasm into his voice as he could. Ever since his grandpa lost control over his legs after a freak accident (involving an aluminum roof in the neighborhood toppled by a mangy dog that was being chased by a beggar for taking away the slice of bread that he was saving for his dinner), it’s been Nathaniel’s singular purpose to do everything to make the life of the old man- now confined to a wheelchair, as cheerful as possible- even if it meant putting more happiness into hos words than he actually felt.

The old man has been watching the television at a loud voice. A reality singing show was on and with a glass of hot coffee in one hand and a bidi in the other, the man got as much enjoyment out of these shows as he could.

As for the fatigue lines that were drawn on his face-most of them had appeared after the accident, even though his life as a factory worker before that was no walk in the park either.

“Hey, so you won!” he said upon hearing Nathaniel’s cheerful voice. The boy put the ball in a plastic cover which he had slung on the edge of the broomstick which jutted out from behind the shade in the room. He rushed to his grandpa and bending down, hugged him.

The Oldman patted him on the hand with just the hint of a smile- not very emotionally expressive, this was the extent to which he would openly show how much he loved his grandson.

“Ew, grandpa, why do you watch these crappy programs!” said Nathaniel looking at the telepod screen. “Why don’t you watch some sports channel!”

“I like playing sports better than watching them!” said the old man, and the sadness inherent in the words, even though well hidden was only too evident for Nathaniel.

His grandpa was one of those rare old people who still believed that there was a lot left in their lives. He played soccer with the kids once in a while- or rather he used to. His was an odd personality which was a mix of reserved emotions and an enthusiasm for life which was as rare as the rarest of gems in a king’s treasure.

And Nathaniel, who has been his ward since he was a little kid-ever since his father was killed in one of his ‘expeditions’(that’s what his father called them. In fact, it was just one of his armed robbery attempts- this one at a bank, one that went horribly wrong) didn’t just love him. He was devoted to him.

A devotion which made such things as wiping the shit after he took a dump and bathing him less than a chore and more of a pleasure. But it still saddened him to see his dear grandpa confined to a wheelchair. He was someone who loved to be outdoors- and the small apartment didn’t exactly afforded him a large space to move around in.

Nathaniel hugged the old man tighter. The man didn’t take his eyes off the telepod.

Nathaniel had seen the ad for an exoskeleton model on the telepod many times. But such a device- sleek and functional- was way too expensive. Which was why Nathaniel kept at his studies with a vigor which sometimes surprised even himself, so that he could grow up and earn a good job that would enable him to pay for the exoskeleton, and also to get himself and his grandpa out of the colony-which no matter how much he liked it was a hell hole: a place where all the society’s losers ended up, where cuss words were part of the fabric of everyday language and regret a constant in the emotional landscape.

**

It was on the second day after that, on his way home from school that Nathaniel’s eyes fell on the woman for the first time.

He judged her to be no more than 30, though what with the advanced dermatological procedures which were ubiquitous these days, it was hard to tell anybody’s age precisely. And the fine dress that she wore as well as the ornaments-minimal yet striking- made it evident that she was someone who could easily afford such look-enhancing processes.

Tall and slim, the woman was strikingly beautiful too. But it wasn’t her beauty that caught Nathaniel’s eyes. It was the pair of exoskeleton on her legs.

**

In the following days Nathaniel came home later than usual though his grandfather didn’t ask him anything about it- assuming that he might be hanging out with friends after classes.

He had always asked him to choose his friends wisely though. And on multiple times he had discouraged him to spend time with that no good Usman, the son of Mohammed Khasim.

Khasim was a very close neighbor but everyone in the colony knew that he was a no-good who just lazed around at home, lost in a stupor of drugs and alcohol while his son- Usman indulged in petty criminal activities to look after both his father and his younger sister. Usman’s mother had died a long time ago, from heartache or some other disease, no one really knew.

But Usman and Nathaniel- both of them orphans in their own way grew up together- they have been friends from a very young age and it was hard to break up friendship that ran so deep- even though the both of them were young.

However, it wasn’t with Usman- or any other friends that Nathaniel hung out with on those evenings he came home late .

He was hanging out with himself, checking out more about the woman-to learn who she was and where she lived, and did she live alone? For the moment his eyes fell on her that first time on a pleasant evening when the sun shed a beautiful red cast on everything and the birds chirped beautifully songs that formed part of the heritage of nature, an idea was planted in his mind- the idea to steal her exoskeleton.

**

Night never truly came to the colony.

What with the harsh yellow glare of the streetlamps which would barge into the houses the windows of which had to be kept open owing to the incredible heat, and the innumerous sounds that drifted across the length and breadth of the colony- from the sound of plates clanging and people farting or fucking-sounds that carried easily across the buildings that were stacked against each other like carefully arranged cards-looking like it could all topple at any moment.

Nathaniel sat awake in his corner of the bed- his grandpa lied asleep beside him, gently snoring. Looking out of the window the boy stared right into the heart of the lightbulb on a streetlamp. For a long time he sat like that, barely blinking, wondering if what he thought of doing was actually right.

It certainly felt right to him.

The woman was a reasonably wealthy robotics engineer who lived alone in a plush house complete with a swimming pool and bougainvillea garden. If he took away the exoskeleton from her, she would be able to afford another one. She might experience hardship for a couple of days – until she could replace the stolen pieces.

But for his grandpa, the exoskeleton would prove to be the end of his hardships.

Yes, it felt right. But from some corner of his mind rose a voice that admonished him, telling him how a robbery was just that- a crime.

**

“Are you serious, Nattie?” There was more surprise than a tone of questioning in Usman’s voice.

Among all his friends it was only Nathaniel who stood by him, who had no qualms about him doing ‘things that kids shouldn’t be doing-like robbery.’ For Nathaniel knew that he was left with no other options, and more importantly he accepted it.

The adults who look down at Usman- they do nothing to help him, do they? Though his friend has never put this in words, Usman knew that Nattie acknowledged the fact. Why else would he stick with him even though his grandpa had told him multiple times not to hang out with Usman. In fact, a couple of times the old man even gave the directive right in front of Usman.

But never before had he expressed any desire to mingle in anything that could be remotely termed criminal. And what he was proposing now- breaking and entering and robbing certainly fell in that category.

“Are you sure?” he said again.

Nathaniel nodded immediately, imploring him to help him out “with the locks and stuff.” Nattie has heard enough about Usman’s exploits to know that his friend could beat sophisticated security systems. The way he put it, such systems were more placebos than anything- “You know, just so that the owner of the house has an illusion of a protecting presence.”

And when he went along with Nathaniel to check out the woman’s house-situated on the first floor of an 8 storied apartment- a remnant from an earlier era when flats were all the vogue- a plaque at the entrance gave the construction date as 2019, to Usman’s delight, he found that the security measures on the woman’s house was negligible. In fact, except for the lock on the door he couldn’t find any other entry barrier. Sure, there was a CCTV camera at the entrance to the building. But it’s easily beatable- as they demonstrated today: all you had to do was manage your movements depending on the to the to and fro sweep of the camera.

And the lock?”Being a traditional lock with steel rather than electronic key, I would need to get an exact print of the thing using some old fashioned methods. I would need a couple of days to assemble the required materials for that. But, no sweat,” Usman winked.

The confidence in his friend’s words delighted Nathaniel.

**

“Usman, I wanted to ask you something.”

“Ask!”

“Well, it’s kind of personal.”

“When have you asked me anything that’s not personal?

Natnaniel looked up at his friend’s eyes.

Usman-with his easygoing manner and the fact that he never went to school beyond the second standard never came across as a particularly intelligent boy to those who didn’t know him. But Nathaniel would get surprised by the adult-like statements he sometimes made.

“Yes, you are right,” Nathaniel said. “Anyway, what I wanted to ask was this- do you ever get guilty pangs from doing crimes. I don’t mean to say that you are doing wrong things- I know that you don’t have much in the way of options. But do you…?”

“All the time!” Usman’s voice was devoid of regret, as if it’s something that he has accepted a long time ago.

They were walking through a sidewalk where water pools were left over from yesterday’s rain. Usman playfully jumped over one of them.

“So, how do you get the yucky feeling out of your mind?”Nathaniel wasn’t ready to let go of the topic. Not yet. Now that they were on their way to the woman’s house to commit the robbery, the guilty feeling reared its head again in his mind.

He was surprised to hear his friend laugh. “You sound like someone consulting a psychiatrist- like they show in the movies, you know a girl has a shitty experience-like she lost her boyfriend or something and then she has to see this counsellor to get over it!”

Nathaniel didn’t like the insinuation that he was like a girl. But he decided not to press the matter. His mind was chock-full at the moment with thoughts about the impending robbery, and the guilt associated with it- not to mention the worry about something going wrong.

He had made sure that his grandpa was asleep before he left the house like a thief in the night. But he worried if some sound or a sweat bead that trickled down the forehead and fell into the closed lid of his eye would bring him awake .

And when his eyes fall on the empty side of the bed, he would worry a lot…

Nathaniel felt hot sweat beads sprouting on his own forehead.

His worrying thoughts were momentarily broken by Usman’s voice: “Every time after I do something bad, I go and stand under the gulmohar tree- you know the one at the edge of the football field. I usually do this early in the morning- before many people in the colony had come awake, and when the red flowers look particularly bright against the pale blue of the early dawn. Then, it’s easy to imagine the flowers as huge splotches of blood. Blood spilled from some giant’s body which I slayed!”

Nathaniel frowned. “I don’t understand. How is it that you committing a crime would be like slaying a giant!”

A tender smile graced Usman’s face. “My mother used to tell me a story. I the story, every element of goodness in you is a giant. And with every crime that I do, I kill one. I have found that seeing the blood of the giant with my own eyes makes it easy to accept its death. And accepting it, I find is way better than not accepting.”

“Wow, that’s deep!” Nathaniel said after a few seconds of silence. For some reason both of them found Nattie’s statement funny and they started laughing.

No mention of the impending crime was made until they reached the flat.

**

They had to wait-hidden behind a low ornamental pillar some distance in front of the flat before they could go in: A young man- a tenant stood near the gate with a couple of friends sharing a cigarette among them.

“Should we go back and come again tomorrow?”

Usman could sense Nathaniel’s nervousness even before he said this. For one thing, now that they were at the flat, his friend’s breathing has become noticeably more rapid.

“Relax,” said Usman, “You don’t have to worry. You just rehearse what you have to say to your grandpa tomorrow morning when you present him with the thing- I am fairly certain that the old man would have a few questions of his own.”

One of the students in my class- his uncle is a doctor who runs an NGO. They give medical assistance to those who cannot afford it. I gave your name to them through my friend a long time ago. I never really thought that anything would come of it- just thought that there was no harm in trying. Even when my friend told me the other day that they have got the exoskeleton for you, I didn’t believe it completely. But he brought it to me today. And I couldn’t wait to bring it to you! he rehearsed the words in his mind.

By the time he finished repeating the words silently to himself the third time around the young man near the front gate and his friends were leaving.

From their previous visits, Usman knew that they never kept the gate shut. They apparently relied on the concept of neighborly vigil- this being a reasonably populated area. However, this late at night(it was well past midnight) there was barely a soul awake to keep vigil. And the two boys had no problem getting past the gate.

They made their way up the stairs to the first floor making as little noise as possible.

The door to the woman’s door was shut. Usman couldn’t help but shake his head at the sight of the arcane lock on the door. “I must tell you, for a robotic engineer, the lady is so low-tech,” he murmured as he sent glances to either side, watchful for anyone coming and spoiling their party.

The woman’s name and designation were given on a notice board in the ground floor- on the wall to the left just as you enter, just like all the inhabitants’ names and designations along with their door numbers were mentioned. Though Nathaniel remembered her name-he didn’t think he would ever forget it, he has already forgotten what her job was- somehow that detail felt too inconsequential, though it’s probably the good pay she drew as a robotics engineer which helped her buy the expensive exoskeleton.

He tagged along with Usman, the sound of his heart beats sounding too loud in his ears. They were just a few feet away from the door to the woman’s apartment(painted brown with a silver number ‘1C’ on it) when they heard sounds coming from the door to the left.

At first, vague human voices followed by shuffling of feet.

Soon the door opened and a middle-aged woman in a nightie, looking back into the house, whispered to someone, “Let me just go and ask Anushka-she might have some gauze with her!”

Soon as they heard the noises, Usman and Nathaniel had retreated and went to hide themselves behind the railing by the landing. And soon as he heard the woman say the name Anushka, Nathaniel knew that she was coming to 1C- for that’s where Anushka Ramanujan, the robotics engineer(29 years old as he found when he looked her up the internet) lived.

Soon enough, they heard the sound of the calling bell coming from behind the closed door.

They heard the woman on this side- who looked disheveled and distressed in the sole glimpse that they got of her- murmur “Oh, god!” under her breath: something that the two young boys would have loved to say, in the vein of, “Oh, God, make this woman go away so that we can get into our act!”

It took a few moments before they heard the somewhat muted question from the other side of the door” “Who is it?”

The neighbour introduced herself. No sooner had Anushka opened the door than she got down to business, telling her about how her son’s gauze came off and how she wondered if Anushka had one to spare. Apparently, the neighbor’s boy had taken a fall while playing which necessitated the gauze, and his gauze had come off now- making both Usman and Nathaniel curse the unknown child under their breaths.

“Hold on a minute, I think I have some.” Nathaniel found Ansuhka’s voice as beautiful as she looked. And guessing from the way Usman’s face lit up with a smile, his friend too had the same opinion.

After giving the roll of gauze to her neighbor, Anushka followed the other woman into their apartment, saying, “Let me give you a hand.”

A pretty, intelligent lady who is helpful to her neighbour– Nathaniel found his spirits sinking even further at the thought of robbing a woman like her.

His dark reverie was broken when he felt Usman tugging on his sleeve, whispering, “She merely left the door shut without locking it. We can get in now!”

Now that they were getting closer to the principal action-so to speak, Nathaniel felt the blood pumping in his heart with a rush- a feeling that gave him a thrill. Along with Usman, he walked into Anushka’s living room which was more spacious than the entire apartment where Nathaniel lived with his grandpa.

“That’s great!” Usman’s exclamation was directed at the telepod at the far end of the hall- it was the latest  model, one which projected the characters on screen as holograms, making you feel like you were walking through the field of action. The pod was essentially a small cylinder the size of a water bottle. But Usman had seen in the adverts how you could unroll it like a sheet of paper and stretch it over the wall if you wanted to project something 2D on it.

“Cutting.Edge!” whispered Usman as if he were in a hallowed presence. “I have half a mind to steal that pod.” But one look at Nathaniel’s face told him that that wouldn’t be on the agenda for tonight.

A chandelier the glittering crystals of which were the most gleaming objects either of them have seen  outside of s movie hung from the ceiling, and the various pieces of furniture in the room looked more to them like pieces of art than furniture. “Nattie, I am telling you. This lady is rich, and I don’t think I will have to go meet the gulmohar tree afterwards. I mean, you don’t have to feel guilty about robbing a rich person, do you?”

I hope so, thought Nathaniel though he didn’t say it out loud. Right now, they didn’t have time to get into an argument about whether they should feel guilty or not about this, not when they were in the thick of it.

“Come, we better hide somewhere!” he said as hoarsely as possible without raising his voice.

The hiding place they found was just beyond the corridor that led from the living room to what should be the kitchen(since the light was on only in the living room and in what they took to be the woman’s bedroom, it was hard for the duo to make out the details in the rest of the house). There was a wedge in the wall along which was painted a mural that depicted the Greek goddess Venus-Anushka certainly believed in tasteful living.

It was in the wedge that the two robbers found a temporary hiding place.

“I hope that she wouldn’t walk in to the kitchen, or whatever that room is,” whispered Nathaniel in a tense voice.

“Don’t worry. Even if she did, we have these.” Usman’s teeth gleamed in whatever light from the chandelier reached this place. Nathaniel saw the objects he held up in his hand- a small bottle and a wad of soft cotton.

The bottle contained something the breathing of which would render Anushka unconscious- one of the things that Usman had assembled for the ‘mission.’

Nathaniel certainly hoped that it worked.

**

Anushka was back in the house soon enough.

And to Nathaniel’s relief( and Usman’s, of course) she went straight into the bedroom without visiting the kitchen or anywhere else.

From where they sat hidden-which became even more of a hiding spot now that the light in the living room was off, Nattie could see the woman crawl into the bed, her eyes heavy with the sleep which was still far from complete.

She soon fell back on the bed- the mattress of which looked so fluffy from the way she bounced that Nathaniel immediately made the decision that he would buy grandpa one just like that once he got a job.

The light in the bedroom went out soon after.

A pale white light streamed in from a window over the two robbers’ heads, illuminating the blank wall opposite.

Nattie and Usman looked at each. Without a word being exchanged, they knew what they had to do- they simply must wait for Anushka to go to sleep before making any move. Usman made himself comfortable by stretching out his legs and leaning against the mural. As for Nathaniel, he kept checking the time on his vidwatch-one which he found lying on the roadside one day-tarnished but still working.

He checked the watch every five minutes or so.

After about 45 minutes, they began to hear the soft sound of snoring rising from the bedroom. The fact that she snored didn’t take away anything from her beauty in the two lads’ minds though Usman did smile, giving Nathaniel a wink.

Nathaniel was not in the mood to take things lightly.

Once again his mind was filled with worrisome thoughts about things going wrong-what if the solution that Usman brought, of which Usman was so confident failed to work? He did see the woman take off the exosleleton which we put on a stool by the bed before going to sleep-but what if it came with some technology that made it possible only for the original owner to benefit from? He had never heard of such a thing but then again, he didn’t exactly keep a tab on all the latest technological advancements- it was with much effort that his grandpa has saved up enough to send him to school. And to justify that he spent most of his time at home studying and not looking up the internet to know about all that’s happening in the tech world.

God, I hope nothing would go wrong! Nathaniel prayed in his mind. You know that I wouldn’t have done anything like this if I had a chance. I would even go and look at the gulmohar tree first thing in the morning, stand there for quite a while like it’s a punishment-even if the sun has come up!

No sooner had be finished the prayer than the loud sound, ‘Thwang!’ reverberated inside the house.

God, he thought has a very bad sense of humour.

For the clanging sound was that of a lamp-something else that looked like an art piece than a utility fall down when Usman, not seeing the piece in the darkness walked right into it-like this were a farce movie than a slice of Nathaniel’s life.

The snoring immediately ended and they heard an audible gasp even before the echoes of the lamp’s fall  faded completely.

The light came on in the bedroom. Nathaniel was in direct live of view of Anushka-who looked at him with an incongruous expression on her face.

Even though her legs were covered by a blanket(one with rainy clouds on it as though it were a defiance against the hot weather outside- the AC keeping everything inside chill and dandy), Nathaniel could see from the outlines of those legs how absolutely rigid they were-and how much she was at the mercy of  the two intruders she looked at with horror.

The horror, for the time being suffocated her to an extent- enough to render the possibility of screaming impossible. However, Nathaniel didn’t have to be a  behaviorist to know that the horror won’t hold for long and that she would start screaming any time now.

He took his attention away from the rapid beating of his own heart and focused on the adrenaline rush it implied. He had two options in front of him- just leave with Usman and the woman would be fine, though his grandpa may not get the prosthetics anytime soon, or do what they came here to do, in which case too the woman will be fine-or she would be after a while, and his grandpa would wake up to a prosthetic the very next day.

“Come on!” he shouted to Usman and surged ahead, which was when Anushka started screaming. But the sound of her screaming was abruptly cut off as in one swift movement, Nathaniel jumped on to the bed and clasped an arm over her mouth. Usman began to uncap the bottle so that he could soak a piece of cloth in the liquid. However, before he could do it, the bottle slipped from his hand and hit the ground.

“Hurry!” Nathaniel shouted. The woman’s skin felt too soft against his palm, almost as though she were made out of soft fabric than flesh and blood- an aspect that made it easy for him to imagine that she was inanimate, which made it easy for him to use as much force as he could to douse whatever feeble resistance she put up.

He was only too aware of the fact that he had her nostrils and her mouth covered- she was having trouble breathing. But he didn’t feel like taking his hand away either. It felt good to be in control of a situation for once- unlike in the colony where you cannot do much about the shit that floated in the open sewage system or the ramshackle apartments in which everyone lived- they were the destitute, the disenfranchised.

But not here. Here he was king, he was in control.

“What’s taking long?” his eyes beamed with an intensity that Usman had never seen before. Usman knew what it meant- it was what those in the robbery business termed as “getting smitten.” Nathaniel was smitten with pleasure of doing the forbidden.

Usman couldn’t help but smile. “I am on it!”

The two had covered the lion’s share of their faces with black clothes before entering the flat. But Nathaniel’s eyes were enough to make anyone know that he meant business, if at all they doubted before. As he doused the liquid onto the wad of cotton Usman even thought about having Nattie along for some of his future exploits.

I could use someone as spirited as him, he thought.

But for now, he had to concentrate on getting this liquid on the clothe and make the woman breathe it in. They ought to get this over with soon and-

Before he could finish the thought , he heard a gasp escaping Nathaniel. When he turned to look, a gaps escaped his own lips as he saw Anushka- who had already stabbed Nattie on his cheek with a kitchen knife once raising it yet again, this time aiming for the eye.

The knife didn’t connect this time- or rather, it didn’t connect with the body that she intended.

For, by taking his hand off her mouth and clasping her arm and pushing it towards her all in one fluid movement, Nattie succeeded in plunging the knife deep into Anushka’s throat. He certainly didn’t plan that to happen, though now that it did, a perverse pleasure at what he did took over him. He basked in that dark glory for a few moments, still seated on top of the woman’s limbs as he watched her spam, blood gushing forth from the wound in her throat so profusely that it felt like a cinema technique.

Nathaniel’s T-shirt turned damp with the blood. It was only when the slight heat of the blood began to turn cold on his skin that he realized the gravity of the crime he just committed.

Letting the woman’s lifeless body plop into the bed, he moved away, throwing the knife at the ground- the same knife with which the woman had sliced an apple while she read at bed, what was to be the last thing she ate in life.

His gloved hands suddenly looked like they belonged to someone else.

“Oh, my god, Usman. What have I done!” he muttered, still looking at his arms.

Usman’s breathing now rose to levels it rarely reached. He was staring at the dead body on the bed, both the mattress and the blanket with pictures of clouds soaked in blood.

The room felt incredibly cold, a cold which he knew had nothing to do with the AC being on.

Committing a robbery was one thing. But this.. this was quite something else.

Willing himself to breathe slowly and collecting his thoughts, Usman said, “Get the prosthetics.”

With a numb heart, Nathaniel looked at the exoskeleton which gleamed under the stark light of the bulb. Fast feeling alienated from everything around him, the object too looked like a strange artefact to him- one without any bearing to the reality of his existence.

“Take it!” hissed Usman. “We have to go!”

Usman’s words which were imbibed with force had their desired result- Nathaniel sprang into action.

With the prosthetics under his arm he followed Usman out of the house. The passage from the dead woman’s bedroom to the outside world looked to him like a path that wound its way through a dream- one in which he had very little participatory role, one in which he was a mere witness.

“We must hurry!” Usman said once they were quite far from the flat. “We need to leave the prosths at your place and then leave. Did the woman scratch you or something, Nattie?”

Nathaniel was in a daze. A mannequin on a shop window which they passed by-one which was wearing an orange floral patterned dress brought back memories of the beautiful lady he just killed.

Perhaps, this was where she came to shop for clothes. Perhaps, she liked clothes with patterns just like that..

“Nattie!”

Usman’s voice brought him out of the reverie. “Did the woman scratch you or anything during the fight?”

Fight. For some reason, Nathaniel found the word funny. Instinctively he brought his hand up to his cheek where the woman had hurt her with the knife. There was blood but only a little. The cut wasn’t as deep as he had feared. But the tears that floated down his cheek, when they got into the cut, stung.

He hadn’t realized that he was crying.

Now, what was it that Usman asked? Yes, did she scratch him? Maybe, maybe not. Everything happened so fast.

He told Usman as much.

Reflecting on this Usman said, “So, there is a chance that your hair or fragment of your skin had gotten under the woman’s nail-which would be enough for the cops to identify who you are.” Usman has been speaking in a low murmur so far, even though there was no one else on this empty stretch of the road. However, after just the briefest of hesitations, he added in a loud voice, “Shit!” Loud enough to make even Nathaniel look up.

“The knife!” said Usman. “It will have your blood on it, mixed with the woman’s. I don’t know if they would be able to get your DNA from such a mixture but if I were to bet, I would say they could. Science, man, it has made life of all criminals so hard!”

It was all Nathaniel could do to keep from laughing, hearing the almost casual manner in which Usman now spoke.

He realized that Usman was coming out of the initial shock, and wondered when the same would happen to him. If at all.

**

Nathaniel left the ‘bounty’ near the bed and even kissed his grandpa on his forehead before leaving. When he got out of the house, Usman was already waiting at the foot of the stairs, leaning against a wall on which was graffiti the words, “Bitch world!”

The words were clear enough under a harsh yellow streetlamp.

Usman had just paid a quick visit to his own home.

“I don’t have much money. Only this much,” he pulled out a few crumpled bills from his jeans pocket.

“You can just lend me the money, Usman,” said Nathaniel. “After all, it was I who..who did it.”

“You have to be joking!” hoarse whispered Usman. “One. Friends never let friends down- and you are one of the few friends that I have. Two. Friends never let friends down.”

Nathaniel couldn’t help but respond to Usman’s smile with one of his own.

The sound of a bottle being broken followed by vague laughter from afar. And soon, the sound of approaching footsteps- from the sound of it, the steps sounded more like shuffle than steps, like the person was drunk.

It was early for someone to be drinking-way too early, just around 2 in the morning according to Nathaniel’s vidwatch. But in the colony, there was no such thing as too early- one may wake up hungry  after midnight and having nothing to eat at home would decide that what’s left in the bottle may help  them go back to sleep. Nothing unusal about that.

“Come on,” murmured Usman, “Let’s get out of here. The less the number of people who see us leave, the better.”

**

Usman had a plan. Sort of.

For the next two days they were to stay with a “friend” of his. “Well, really an acquaintance.” And later, “No, actually, I assisted him in a couple of jobs.”

The person in question was a grown-up, someone who walked on the wrong side of the law and apparently relished that sort of walking. Usman had been of “instrumental help” to the man in a couple his “missions” though how exactly Usman came in touch with the guy, Nathaniel didn’t know. Neither did he feel like learning about it.

In fact, as he sat watching the passing sceneries out of the bus window- mostly shuttered shops and empty vistas of land, Nathaniel felt like he didn’t want to know about anything anymore-as though the threshold of knowledge has been reached by the knowledge of how it feels to be a murderer.

As he looked at his own face reflected in the window, he saw fresh tears forming in the eyes.

**

He woke up to Usman shaking him by the shoulder- not all that slowly.

They stepped out of the bus to be greeted by  warm air which belonged more to the hours between noon and the evening than  3 o clock in the morning. Looking around, Nathaniel saw that they had arrived at a square- which should be called a circle really- the central point of which was a 5 meter high clock tower.

A few trucks were parked on the side of the road though apart from a few mangy dogs, no other living things were visible.

“Come on.”

Nathaniel followed Usman up a small lane which led them further beyond the realm of lights and habitation to a place which looked to be the unofficial dumping grounds  in the locality- and which stank bad enough to push out the last vestiges of sleep from Nathaniel’s system.

Usman had said that his friend(sic) stayed at the “edge of the town.” Nathaniel didn’t know where exactly this was. All he knew was that he has never come this far away from home.

“Is it farther yet?” No sooner had he asked it than they turned around a corner and his eyes fell on the first of a number of huts that lined both sides of a small street which seemed to culminate in a dead end.

Looking ahead, Nathaniel felt that if there was any place that fitted the description of “the last place on earth” this was it.

There was only one hut where the lights were still on and Usman walked up to it.

He hadn’t called the man from either of their phones for fear that the cops may trace the calls. So he had a bit of explaining to do- introducing himself and reminding who he was(“You know, the kid who opened the window for you on that co-operative bank job?”) before the door was even opened.

And when it was opened, Nathaniel’s eyes fell on the most imposing figure of a man he has ever seen. Bare torsade, the man had thick moustache and curly hair. He stood above 6 feet and was broad, and ripped enough to instill terror in anyone- or so it felt to Nattie. He looked to be in his late twenties.

The zipper on the man’s pants were open, partially revealing a yellow pair of briefs.

Once Usman told them about their predicament- without giving away the identity of the woman who died, the man-whose name was Stoppa-Nathaniel learned, frowned and shook his head.

“I don’t think I can afford the trouble of harboring two murderers as well!” he hoarse whispered.

Usman was pretty good when it came to pleading. This Natttie found out when he saw his friend making their case-two young boys with nowhere to turn to, the crime an accidental crime- an offshoot of something one of them did for the sake of his grandfather. “Please, please, won’t you take us in? Just for a couple of days before we figure out what to do next?”

Usman’s overt sentimentalism made Stoppa wince though he did let them in after just a moment of reflection.

“I will let you stay in the store-room for two days. No more,” the man said in a gruff voice.

Before they were being led into the store-room(pushed, more like) Nathaniel’s eyes fell on the naked woman lying on a bed in a room the door to which was partially open. Plump and dark skinned the woman was sweating profusely and he could see a hand beside her, a man’s hand though the hand didn’t touch her.

When the woman saw the two kids passing by the door, she winked at them.

And later, once they were lying down in the torn straw mat on the store room floor, they heard the woman speak from the other room of the hut in which the walls were for namesake, “Woman, man, and now you want kids too. Pervert!” The woman spoke in a coquettish rather than an admonishing tone which made Stoppa laugh out theatrically.

Though they were both tired after the night’s excitement, the two boys found it hard to sleep what with the continual sounds from the other room that lasted well into the wee hours of the morning. They heard the woman being fucked, and fucked hard repeatedly to the accompaniment of the woman’s moans which  even the kids could were largely put-on.

At some point, Stoppa swapped the woman for the man in the room(the one whose hand Nattie earlier saw) and the woman’s moans were replaced by grunts from both the men.

At this, Usman- who thought man on man was a funny way to have sex couldn’t stifle a small laugh.

**

By the time the two boys woke up, it was almost noon. And neither of them came awake on their own. Stoppa had to nudge Usman with the toes of his leg before the boy sprang up. The commotion brought Nathaniel out of the soft padding of sleep- though the mat was by no means soft to the touch.

“There is some coffee, and I also made some puttu which you can have with bananas!” Stoppa spoke in the same gruff tone which he used with them last night though there was no fluctuation in the tonality this time. Nathaniel reckoned that that was the extent of mellowness they were going to get from this tough-looking man.

For his part, Usman looked at Stoppa with a frown, as though asking, ‘Why are you being so nice to us?’

They had the food in silence while Stoppa watched them, a tooth pick being rolled from one end of his mouth to the other- that’s probably something he picked from a movie, thought Nathaniel.

‘So, where are your friends? Are they gone?” Usman asked after he sipped the last of the coffee. He asked the question more because he found the continual silence awkward than for any other reason. But Stoppa’s eyes widened with pleasure at the question as though that’s exactly what he has been waiting to hear all this while.

“I wanted to talk to you about that,” he said. “You see, my friend- I don’t think you met him last night, but he had to leave abruptly for…err… an urgent matter.Now, I would like you- one of you to help me do something.”

As soon as Stoppa said this, Usman took a couple of steps back and instinctively reached a protective hand towards Nattie.

“No!” said Usman. “We are just not that sort of chaps, Stoppa! I know that you can easily overpower us but I beg you, please please don’t use us like that! Our fate has given us so much to complain- a life in a deprived colony, a life of petty crimes and now…a murder, accidental though it is. Please Stoppa, don’t give us this too, please. It would have been okay if either of us liked it but-“

A raised hand from Stoppa- like a traffic cop showing a stop sign in the old days(traffic cops went obsolete when automated traffic system became universal), brought Usman’s impassioned monologue to a halt.

Tilting his head ever so slightly, a frown creasing his brow, he asked, “What are you going on about?”

Now, Usman looked as befuddled as him. Nathaniel stood to one side, looking from one party to the other, wondering what anyone was going to say next.

But then, when realization dawned, it wasn’t talk that came out of Stoppa but laughter- a wild laugh which thundered inside the hut, threatening to blow the thatched roof off or so it felt to Nathaniel.

When Stoppa clapped on his shoulder the force made Usman take a couple of steps back, a smile appearing on his own face though he wasn’t completely sure about the reason for the smile.

It just felt right to be at least smiling while the man laughed so loudly.

**

 

“Usman!Usman! You are a funny fellow!” Stoppa said, looking at Nathaniel as if asking, Isn’t that so? Turning his attention back to Usman he added, “The man who was here last night- a long time friend of mine,” he smiled lasciviously, “he was here because I asked him to be. I had a job to do today for which I needed a lookout, a helping hand. But last night, I got a bit carried away, if you know what I mean…And he felt so bad that he left, claiming a lot of body pain..Not that I could blame him.” A grin appeared on his face again, the tips of his unkempt moustache getting into his mouth.

“So, you need us to be his replacements?” Nathaniel could detect relief in his friend’s voice- relief at the idea that Stoppa wasn’t going to invite them into his bedroom.But he could also detect a faint trace of tension beneath the voice.

“I actually need just one of you,” said Stoppa, rubbing his moustache. “You know how in our business, it’s always better to have the least number of people involved. But seeing how you two are just kids, I think it’s okay if you two came along.”

Usman didn’t like anyone calling him a kid.

 We have just been involved in a murder, you petty robber! Which is far more than what you can do! Even though these thoughts ran through his mind he kept mum and presented his best smile to Stoppa.

Even though he smiled Nathaniel could sense a certain tenseness with which Usman now stood. And he could easily guess the reason- they were recently involved in a crime that got out of hand. Whatever ‘job’ that Stoppa asked them to ‘come along’ has got to be something that the law wouldn’t find white.

He must be contemplating if we should get involved in another crime so soon.

Yet, on the other hand it may not be prudent to say no to Stoppa- someone who was giving them a place to stay at considerable risk to himself. Sure, the area where Stoppa stayed was devoid of almost any sort of modern surveillance- including the police drones. This was an area which didn’t made the cut in the government’s progress plans when it wanted more number of people to migrate to the cities, leaving such suburbs in desolation. But that still didn’t mean he wasn’t taking any risk by taking them in.

Nathaniel could almost see the two arguments fighting for victory on Usman’s face- his expression ranging from a puzzled frown to an awkward smile and everything in between.

“What do you say?” There was an added gruffness to Stoppa’s voice or so Nathaniel imagined.

Usman glanced at Nathaniel briefly before giving his answer, “I would come.” Then turning to Nathaniel, he looked with a questioning frown.

Nathaniel didn’t have to think long to give his answer. Usman had stuck his neck out for him. He was not going to let his friend go on any perilous adventure on his own.

The sigh of relief escaped Usman when he heard Nathaniel say, “I will come along.”

**

The ‘job’ involved robbing the house of an elderly couple- “a rich elderly couple” according to Stoppa. The elderly man was a reasonably successful businessman who sold off his business once he turned 60 and decided to settle in the suburbs where things were quieter and which was still accessible from the city.

Not that they got many visitors from the city.

Stoppa has been observing them for quite a while now and had rarely seen anyone paying them a visit. Being wealthy, the couple did have a decent security measure installed- biometrically activated and of the latest generation.

“They seem to have an awful lot of confidence in this security measure. For an old couple, they travel quite a lot. In fact, they are away for at least 10 days every month- as they are now. They leave the house shut and the dog behind when they go. Yes, they have a pug- the size of a small grocery bag. When the owners are away, one of the neighbors come and feed it and take it out for a walk. But the dog shouldn’t be a problem. For I got these!” Stoppa raised a small white bottle and a parcel of meat. “Meat mixed with this and the dog would be knocked off.”

Nathaniel and Usman exchanged a glance, unable to repress the memory of their own “bottle and cotton” method to render a certain woman unconscious.

**

Similarities with their criminal outing from the other day were even more when the trio set out in the dark of the night. For one thing, the sky was filled with stars –just like the other night, as though a million eyes were observing their nefarious activities, silently judging them.

Also, much like the previous night, nothing stirred- not even a leaf. It was as though the wind had forgotten how to blow.

Sitting beside him in the run-down car, Nathaniel could feel Usman’s body tensing.

“It is going to be alright,” he whispered, though he had no idea if that was indeed how things would turn out. If there was one thing that Nathaniel learned from his outing the other night, it was that things could go wrong regardless of your best laid plans.

And as far as he could make out, Stoppa had everything meticulously planned.

He knew that inside Stoppa’s bag which lied on the backseat, looking so innocent  were such things as a slide with the old man’s thumb impression- Stoppa had one day obtained this off the bar counter of a pub which the old man just vacated with a couple of his fellow-drinkers.

“There are two places where a man leaves his fingerprint for sure- at the bar counter where he drank and the back of the neck of the woman he just kissed,” Stoppa had told them with a grin, extolling his own cleverness.

Other items in the bag included a small box of white powder the name of which Nathaniel now couldn’t recall. The powder would enable them to determine the presence of laser invisible to the naked eye. Then, there was an assorted paraphernalia with which one could disable the laser, unlock the door and do other sorts of things none of which would be looked at leniently by the law. (Though far more leniently than it would on a murder, Nathaniel couldn’t help but think).

“I do hope that everything will be alright,” said Usman. “But what I am worried about is the right to defend to whatever extent required which exists around these parts.”

“What is that?” Nathaniel asked, hearing the incongruous name of the right.

“It means if someone breaches into your territory- as in your home, you can do anything, even kill that person, even if he is not intending to harm you, even if he is not carrying any weapon or anything with which to attack you!” It was Stoppa who said it. There was a spite in his voice which was virulent.

“It’s a rule that the government came up with once wealthy people began to move to the suburbs and the villages when the cities became too congested and dirty for comfortable, stylish life! A rule applicable for such zones- they even have a fancy term for such zones. They call them ‘Highland suburbs’ though they needn’t be highlands nor suburbs- they could be low lying villages.” Stoppa laughed loudly as though he just made a great joke.

“Don’t’ worry, little boy!” he said seeing how tensed Nathaniel now looked. “Where we are going, there is no one home. And even though I would not divide my bounty with you- I already did a favour for you by letting you stay in my home- I would give you both some money, enough to help you leave for a far off place and start over-isn’t that what both of you?”

Nathaniel nodded, though that was more an automatic response than a thoughtful one. “Yes, that is what we want,” he said though he could barely recognize his voice anymore. It sounded so feeble, chocked out of vitality by circumstances.

**

“What a silly mutt!” Stoppa’s laugh following these words were feeble enough but in the stillness of the night, it felt to Nathaniel as though the sound echoed throughout the neighborhood, across the street and the town and indeed throughout the known universe.

The words were directed at the couple’s pug which barely even looked up now that Stoppa had presented it with the sedative soaked meat- the reason why Stoppa laughed so.

The trio had approached the gate after parking the car a while back.

Echoes of their previous outing of crime reverberated inside the two boys’ minds as they used the same maneuver of walking out of synch with the camera movement to approach the gate(The camera was barely bigger than a human eye but Stoppa who had staked out the house so many times that he had lost count of it knew its position; from the way it gleamed in the moonlight, he could accurately gauge its movements though both Nathaniel and Usman had trouble reading the movements accurately. )

“Come, lets go!” hoarse whispered Stoppa. Leaving the dog to its food, they walked to the front door. Nathaniel noted how greedily the dog was nibbling on the food, as though it hasn’t been fed in a long time.

Stoppa was surprised to learn that the security-which he disabled at the gate had affected the front door as well. All he had to do was push the handle down for the door to open. “Seems like the people who live here are as silly as their dog!” he muttered under his breath as he entered the living room- a hall which was large enough to accommodate at least three entire houses in the colony, thought Nathaniel.

As he entered he could hear faint gulping sounds coming from the dog who still stood in the lawn, bathed in moonlight, grappling with the meat as though it was the first time it was having anything sumptuous as meat.

“Why is the dog still not unconscious?” he said.

“It will be, soon enough,” Stoppa said off-handedly. “You two guys stand here, look out for anything suspicious. A patrol goes by here every half an hour or so- just to keep the wealthy happy. So, you better close the door and go stand near that window and keep an eye out.”

“Patrol! You didn’t say anything about any patrol!” said Usma, whose voice rose against his wishes. “You do know how big a trouble we could get in if the police gets to us, don’t you?”

Stoppa smiled. If the smile was intended to placate the boy, it wasn’t working. For Usman glared at him, breathing heavily. This scene which took place under the pale moonlight took on the theatricality of a shadow-play to Nathaniel.

“But they won’t know you are here as long as we are careful, right?”

No sooner had Stoppa said this than Nathaniel heard a low rumble behind him. Quickly turning around, he saw nothing that could be the source of the sound-until he looked down and his eyes fell on the pug whose outline had a ghostly appearance with a little help from the moonbeams.

“Stoppa, why is the dog still not unconscious?” he asked as the rumble rose into a low but menacing growl.

Since they had come in, none of them had actually heard the dog make any sound in particular. For that reason alone the growl struck them as particularly menacing. But there was also a tinny undertone to the sound, which made both Usman and Stoppa exclaim at the same time, “Pubic hair!” (which was the  expletive in vogue in Kerala currently.)

The dog took a threatening step forward which corresponded to a step back by Nathaniel. Before Nattie could ask the other two what the hell was going one, the pug pounced straight at Stoppa. Going straight for his neck, the dog bit, sinking its sharp teeth deep into the jugular- as though it knew the precise area of the human neck to attack if it needed to kill.

“Shit, it’s a robot!” shouted Usman, at the same time taking hold of Nattie’s hand, pulling him out of the house as he ran.

Nathaniel looked back just once, saw Stoppa pulling out a gun from his bag. But that’s as far as the criminal got. For the dog, which clutched to his body like a monitor lizard to a wall bit his neck with even more violence, rupturing his veins, breaking bones and shedding a lot of blood, making Stoppa’s youthful body slump to the ground like a heap of clothes.

The right to defend to whatever extent it requires, the words shot across Nathaniel’s mind like a bullet as he made it past the gate. He heard Usman closing the gate behind him.

They were not mindful of the camera anymore.

**

“Shit, this is the house of a grown-up man and I can’t find a single paisa here! Not anything of value either, can you believe it!” shouted Usman as he went through Stoppa’s bedroom looking for something of value for the nth time.

As for Nathaniel, he wasn’t yet out of the shock of having witnessed the second murder in two days.

The difference from the first one was that this murder was legal- something that the law permitted. They have breached into someone’s private property, and that someone, with the aid of a robot had done what needed to be done.

As though reading his mind, Usman, who at the present moment came out of Stoppa’s bedroom, looking upset said, “That old man must have been even richer than Stoppa had thought. Did you see that robot? We couldn’t even tell that it was a robot-maybe in daylight, yes, but at night, even a moonlit night like this, it was impossible. How much do you think such a thing would cost?”

“So, what- it is like programmed to attack anyone who gets into the house?” Nathaniel’s voice was shaking as he posed the question.

“I don’t know. I don’t think so. Didn’t you see how it went straight for Stoppa, and also how it waited until we were all in the house before it attacked? I don’t think even the most advanced models would be that intelligent. No, I think someone was controlling it- a private security officer in charge of the house, perhaps, I don’t know. And why does it matter anyway? All that matters now is for us to get away from here as fast as possible. We took a risk by coming back here- a risk we had to take because we needed money. But now that we have found that the motherfucker didn’t have any money at home, we better not waste any more time here. The police would be here soon. Maybe even this very night!”

As though Usman were cursed with the ‘gift’ of seeing his words come true soon as he spoke them, three policemen entered Stoppa’s hut without ceremony right at that moment.

“Raise your hands, both of you!” one of the cops shouted, raising at gun at them.

“I think we under-estimated the rapidity with which the Kerala Police Force functions these days,” Usman muttered with a wry humour.

Nathaniel though couldn’t find much humour in his friend’s words. His body shook with spams as he began to cry.

**

Nattie’s face fell when he saw that his grandpa was in the wheelchair.

He had hoped to see him walking down the jail corridor on his own legs, with the aid of the exoskeleton. Now that the woman was dead, she wouldn’t need it, would she?

But of course, that was just a fanciful thought from a 14 year old, Nathaniel realized that as he saw his grandpa being wheeled down the corridor by a stern looking cop-one of the prison guards.

Having brought his grandpa to the other side of the table, giving them some space the cop went and stood a way back from them.

Grandfather remained silent for a long time, staring at the blank surface of the table before speaking. “I actually thought of not coming here. Of letting you remain here without seeing me.” He looked up and continued, “But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. You see, I couldn’t bring myself not to see you. God only knows how long I have left on earth….I don’t have much to say, Nathaniel. All I know is that I didn’t bring you up to do this. If only you know of the hardships that I went to-“

“-But I did it for you, grandpa!” There were tears in Nattie’s eyes.

“Don’t say that! Don’t ever say that!” the old man’s voice rang so loud that it made the cop who wheeled him to the table turn his head and look in their direction.

All the other tables at the visitors’ room were empty. It wasn’t a visiting day. His grandpa had got special permission to see him-owing to his disability, perhaps. And  Nathaniel was glad that they had the place practically to themselves, he wouldn’t have liked any of his prison mates to hear his grandpa yell at him. Not when he had told them all about how wonderful a person his grandfather was, how he never really liked any of the movie actors too much because “none of them are as great as my grandpa!”

Tears flowed profusely from his eyes. Their table fell into another silence as his grandfather once again sat gazing at the empty surface of the table. It was a long time before he spoke.

The sound of the soft intake of breath before he spoke made Nathaniel hope that he was going to say something placating, something that showed that everything would be alright between them once he was out of the juvenile prison in another 7 years time- “Lesser, if you behave well,” as one of the prison guards- the same one who raped him first since he came here has told him.

But all his grandpa said in parting was this: “It is a hot day outside. The funny thing is tha, the atmosphere was finally beginning to cool off  with the coming of winter when it went back to being hot. It’s like the weather cannot decide on a right course of action.”

And looking up at his dear grandson whom he had looked after-fed, clothed, schooled for so long on his own he added, “It’s as though the weather is lost.”

**

Nathaniel remained in the visitor’s room for a long time even after his grandpa had left. Not until a cop called him, telling him “Maybe you should go now!” did he stir.

Wiping the tears from his cheeks with the back of his hand, Nathaniel  walked slowly to his cell.

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