Nikhil and K$!^^eej seem to be two normal guys but the situations they end up in are anything but normal!
The rays of the afternoon sun illuminated the dusty room. There was a couch that hadn’t been sat on for a long time. A few papers lay scattered on the table, many of them empty and the others contained what inconspicuously looked like endless hours of doodling. The office chair was occupied by a hefty woman, in her forties. Her lips protruded, her eyes magnified by the lenses of the glasses she wore, her nose small and markedly bent downwards. Her hair were short and fizzy, giving her a somewhat unusual appearance
It had been years since Neela had last opened the office. It was decrepit, situated in an aging building in the outskirts of Mumbai that looked feeble and ready to collapse.
She had been busy with other things in life, including raising her children and taking care of her sick relatives. She had been away from India, staying in Muscat for the past couple of years. Muscat was a very peaceful town, with golden beaches, palm trees, people with humungous houses and cars, enormous shopping malls, street side shops, and charming schools and offices. The inhabitants were consummately satisfied with their lives and lived peaceful and prosperous. There wasn’t room for detective work in a city like Muscat and while Neela was pleased with the way of life the people of Muscat had adopted, she sorely missed the sheer pleasure, the thrill of detective work.
It was an intellectual activity for her and an indispensable part. She couldn’t live without it, she felt like a painter who hadn’t picked up a paint brush in years or a writer who had been denied of pen and paper for several years. She yearned for the arrival of a new case now that she had relocated her office to Mumbai. Mumbai had plenty of detective work and Neela waited for the opportunities to present themselves.
Presently, two youngsters entered her office and she sprang up from her chair in delight.
“Kshiteej…Nikhil…you guys are here finally! I have been tired of trying to reach you guys…come have a seat.”
The boys wondered that how, several years had transpired since their last case, they had reached the dawn of adulthood, and yet, Neela still managed to tower over them. She was tall, carried herself erect and seemed more dignified than before.
“It’s been busy over the past years,” Kshiteej said truthfully.
Nikhil nodded. “Can’t believe it’s been such a long time.”
“Five years to be exact!” Neela said, beaming at them. “And you two have hardly changed, except for that you’ve put on some weight and have a stubble.”
The three had a good laugh, discussed about how life had progressed over the last five years.
“So you two want to study abroad do you?” Neela asked them.
“Yes, very soon both of us plan on studying abroad.”
“You were making such plans the last time I met you…may you succeed now. I don’t completely approve of you going abroad, I mean our country has such wonderful colleges, why not study here? Anyways, that’s beside the point why I called you here.”
“Yeah Neela, how is the detective work going?” Nikhil asked.
“Like I described the life in Muscat, not much room for detective work. However, since I have re-established myself in Mumbai, I have been receiving quite a few mails enquiring about our services. One of them is a particularly good case…I want you two boys to help me.”
Kshiteej and Nikhil looked at each other and grinned.
“Sure enough we will help you. I would be thrilling to be back in action.”
“Now now…I must get a few things lucid clear right now. This is not Bell Temple…this is Mumbai…this city is swarming with people who couldn’t care less about being humane…they are corrupt, immoral and they are plaguing this city like ants in an anthill…the number of them is overwhelming. You guys have been living in this city for some time now so I won’t have to discuss this extensively…hope you understand what I am trying to say. In India, it is Mumbai which is known for its underworld which is sprawled across this city. The people here are trained to kill…they are ruthless…you two must understand that this is no place like Bell Temple…its far more dangerous. Bell Temple looks like a kindergarten playground in a place like this. You must forget the past and start afresh…be vigilant all the time. Be very careful!”
“Oh…don’t worry Neela, we can take care of ourselves!” Nikhil said emphatically.
“That is what I am worried about…that is precisely why I have changed the manner in which this agency performs.”
Kshiteej narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean by…’changed the manner’”?
“I won’t be going out on field work anymore…at least not as long as possible because frankly age has taken its toll on me. I am not the same as before.”
“We’re good with that.”
“I am not done…from now on, Kshiteej will take care of field work while you Nikhil will take care of back office.”
“Back…what?” Nikhil asked, stunned.
“Back office. This means that you Nikhil will be in charge of recording missions, keeping a minute by minute tab on them, gathering information, doing research and compiling data from the very beginning of the case till the very end.”
“You mean…it’s a…”
“Yeah it’s a desk job,” Neela interjected.
“But Neela we are a unit. We work together and that’s how we succeed. This doesn’t seem like a good idea,” said Kshiteej.
“Boys like I said you have to let the past go. You cannot hope to work in a similar manner for the rest of your lives. The times are changing and we have to adapt ourselves accordingly. Nikhil you will take care of the back office. Meanwhile you Kshiteej, learn body combat, focus on physical and mental wellbeing. You’ll need it.”
Kshiteej grinned. “You mean the usual stuff.”
“Not the usual stuff,” Neela said sharply. “I am afraid…the latest case that I have received is very delicate and will require you to be alert all the time and be at your hundred percent.”
The next case turned out to be rather tricky. And the client was one of the most influential men in Mumbai. Bumbani had everything he had asked from life, he was a multi-billionaire, had an empire of companies which manufactured products from toothpaste to space shuttles. And his wife was a Bollywood actress. In short, he was one of the most influential AND one of the most envied men in Mumbai. The union with his wife, Mina had been blessed with one daughter, and his daughter was the very centre of the storm that had begun to form.
Natasha was the apple of her father’s eyes. Bumbani was not known for straightforward dealings, he was a man with a slick business acumen which included greed, trickery and several vices. He was a contributor to the corrupt system that pervades the whole of India. But it was his daughter who had brought out the best in him. He felt extremely protective about her and she was one weakness that this powerful man had. Unfortunately, his darling had been taken away from him.
This was not the first case of kidnapping that Kshiteej and Nikhil were facing but it was certainly their first high profile case. Neela had managed to bag the case thanks to a few useful connections she had from the past. Her style of detective work which relied heavily on simplicity and alertness had been praised by her prior clients and had managed to convince Bumbani that she would be of great help. Bumbani found it difficult to breathe not knowing where his darling was, in what conditions had the kidnappers kept her. The kidnappers had threatened Bumbani that if they came to know that he had reported them to police or taking help of someone, they would chop off little Natasha’s little fingers one by one.
“We’ve had a similar kind of case before,” Kshiteej told Nikhil at the rundown tea stall. He was a sea of confidence. “In Bell Temple…don’t you remember? I mean yeah this might be a high profile case but that is not the way we should look at it. We have saved children before, we will save them again. We just have to keep doing our job as we used too.”
“You’re right, but somehow things feel different,” Nikhil said, his voice quivering slightly.
“Don’t worry man, everything will be alright.”
Neela had arranged for travelling, she said that they would use the vehicle for further missions.
“Maybe it’s a Toyota Qualis!” Kshiteej said excitedly.
The vehicle turned out to be a pair of Atlas Cycles.
“I tell you…she is taking her principle of simplicity too seriously,” Nikhil said as they stood gaping at the cycles outside the office.
Travelling around Mumbai on the cycles turned out to be a huge challenge given the traffic conditions and the distances that had to be covered from one point to another.
“Five years…property rates have doubled…food is expensive…universities are charging jaw dropping fees…Osama is dead…India has a new state…but yeah, some things never change,” Kshiteej said during a ride, struggling to catch his breath. He was drenched in sweat and so was Nikhil. The heat was excruciating.
Both of them, however, fought through the heat and exhaustion and had the ground work prepared for the Natasha rescue mission.
“Hmm,” Neela said, going through the data Nikhil had compiled on a very short notice. “It all looks fine to me. Tomorrow we get to meet Natasha…hopefully! And these kidnappers seem like intimidating.
If Neela found anyone intimidating, it meant they were serious trouble. “Alright listen up, Kshiteej you will go to this place the kidnappers have mentioned, Inorbit Shopping Mall. They don’t know that we have been keeping a tab on them. Nikhil, you have to help Kshiteej with the identities, but not by accompanying him. We will be using gadgets to our advantage from henceforth.”
Neela took out a pair of wireless earphones and a camera, both the size of peanuts. “Both of you will use this during the mission tomorrow. Listen to me very carefully, Nikhil you will be in the courtyard outside the mall, guiding Kshiteej to the location the kidnappers will specify and also help him to identify them in the mall. Tomorrow is Sunday and the mall will be very crowded. We have a tricky situation in our hands. Nikhil, keep in touch with Bumbani all the time through your wireless headset. He will be at the mall as the kidnappers think he will be handing over money to them.”
Neela inhaled deeply. “Here comes the trickiest part…Kshiteej…you have to complete this mission without the kidnappers identifying you.”
Kshiteej’s jaw dropped. “You mean I’ll have to get the girl without the kidnappers coming to know about me.”
“Yes that is exactly what I mean. Buy a mask at the mall, camouflage yourself, be discreet do whatever necessary to avoid identification. You never know what nightmares these goons will bring upon you and your family if they come to know about you.”
Kshiteej gulped. “This should be easy.”
“Why does Kshiteej get to go inside the mall and I don’t?” Nikhil asked.
“I won’t discuss this any longer, the decision has been taken. Now off you go.”
“I am ready,” Kshiteej said in a dour voice. He stood outside the entrance to the mall, with a firm resolution to do his absolute best.
“Alright,” came back the reply in the headset “you have the camera pinned in your shirt. Try moving slowly once you are inside the mall, I’ll help you identify the crooks.”
“You don’t need to actually, I have seen their pictures on your laptop,” Kshiteej said curtly.
“You-“ there was a brief silence “you what? You went through my laptop! How dare you! You saw the pictures I had saved! What else did you see?”
“Stuff I would rather not talk about now.”
The silence on the other side was overwhelming. Then there was some clacking of keys.
“Okay, since you have let out your little secret, I’ll let one out too. Look behind you.”
“Seriously man, I really don’t have the time for- whoa!” Kshiteej stopped midway, staring at the lanky figure that headed his way through the atrium.
“What are you doing here? You are supposed to wait outside!”
Nikhil had his hands in the pockets of the brown jacket he adorned. He looked calm and composed, far from what Kshiteej was feeling.
Kshiteej was feeling agitated; Neela could spell trouble for him, it was one thing she was good at. Nikhil managed to calm him down and the two had chicken Frankie in the food court. Everything was pretty much hunky-dory from then on.
“Does anyone look suspicious around here?” Kshiteej said, scouting for the kidnappers.
“A lot of them, but we’ll need conformation.”
All of a sudden, a steady stream of people started filling the mall.
“It’s not a Sunday…what are so many people doing here?” the boys wondered. It turned out that a popular television soap opera Kya Hua Tera Vada Pav was shooting in the mall. People went berserk once they spotted their favourite stars in the mall, especially superstar Riddhi who played a central part in the series.
Fans swarmed like bees, many of them hanging on the balustrade just to catch a glimpse of their idols.
“This…is what being famous is like!” Nikhil said. The boys waded through the crowd, trying to frame a coherent plan in the situation.
“What should we do?”
“Yeah and then Neela will abort us.”
The shooting for the latest episode of the show began. Cameras rolled; Riddhi’s character was roaming in the mall with her love interest, holding hands and sharing intimate moments on the escalator.
The audience watched their each moment with rapt attention, they oohed and aahed whenever something interesting happened. Soon, an elderly woman, evidently the mother Riddhi’s character’s boyfriend appeared on the scene. An argument ensued between the three with a lot of acrimonious dialogues which strangely also involved swishing the head thrice each time a shocking comment was made.
And then it happened: a high pitched scream rang through the mall. People looked at the shooting surprised. None of the characters had screamed. Riddhi and her fellow actors paused shooting, and looked around perplexed.
The scream had originated from the top of the open lift, the kind that existed in many malls. Two grown up men stood atop, trying to restrain a girl of about six years old: Natasha.
“Hey!” one of them whispered to the other. He was short, had crew cut hair and wore a denim jacket. “Shouldn’t we abort? I mean trying to carry out such orders in this crowd would be suicidal.”
“You go tell that to boss,” the other one said gruffly. He was bulky, had dark stubble, wore a skull cap and had studded ears. “Besides,” he said with a smile that revealed crooked teeth “with Riddhi in our presence it wouldn’t hurt to show our might.”
The short guy puffed his chest. “Darn right. I’ll take Riddhi out for a candle light dinner tonight!”
The bulky guy looked at him menacingly. “Ye better be careful talking about Riddhi like that you maggot. She is mine! Forever…”
The short one chose to remain silent. Natasha looked troubled. Her hair were matted, her face matted with dirt and tears. She was wresting with the bulky guy, trying to get free which would hardly mean anything as the lift began moving up.
There was gasps and cries of horror around the mall, people stared and pointed out, and as was the case no one bothered to take an action.
But Kshiteej was quick to react. He slid through the crowd and lunged onto the escalator in as discreet a manner as he could.
A burst of a bullet silenced the murmurs and whispers running through the crowd. Smoke emanated from the bulky guy’s pistol which was pointed skywards.
“No one will move! And if anyone calls the police, a lot people will die…it will be a massacre people so be careful. We had called Bumbani with our demands. Where is Bumbani? I want Bumbani at the top floor…and only Bumbani. Dare any other cheeky fellow try to creep up, he will be dealt with appropriately.”
The people were terrified by now, many of them tried to exit the mall but it was cordoned off by the goons who possessed enormous guns. People feared few more than they did guns.
The top floor was relatively empty as the crowd was concentrated in the lower floors. Presently, the lift opened and several goons strolled out, armed with guns and artillery of various kinds and promptly the entire floor was evacuated of people except the goons.
Nobody made an attempt to move upstairs. Except for one guy.
He was agile, he leapt from one hand rest on the escalator to the other with the deftness of a leopard. Some people had noticed him doing so and began pointing out at him. Soon, he had appeared on the stairwell of topmost floor.
The leader of the small gang, the bulky fellow who had Natasha in his vice grip looked at the new arrival with hope. He had expected a short, stocky guy sharply dressed, sweating profusely with a briefcase loaded with money. What he received was about half of it; the guy was of a similar built, though taller and leaner, and his shirt was drenched with sweat.
His eyes narrowed. “And who are you?”
Kshiteej realized at that moment that he had leapt up all the way upstairs to rescue Natasha without a strategy, like a rabbit entering the lion’s den to ask the lioness out on a romantic evening in the forest. And at the very though he nearly peed in his pants and his brain began to function as quick as it could.
“I..er…Bumbani reporting!” he said, giving a strange salute, his face contorted with fear. He heard the goons laughing. It wasn’t working.
The leader smiled. “Oh so you’re Bumbani. May I have my money?”
“Sure! Here…five rupees…”
“Fool!” the leader said with genuine menace. “Now I’ll make an example out of you.”
He grabbed Kshiteej by the scruff of his neck and led him to the balustrade where a thousand eyes were set upon them.
Nikhil was looking at the situation from downstairs with horror. Kshiteej had remarkably gone upstairs…a brave move that was proving to be a foolish one as the moments passed. There he was, whimpering at the balustrade, in the grasp of the goon. All the physical training...down the drain. The goons were too many in number compared to one man. And yet Nikhil believed Kshiteej could pull a turnaround, throw the leader over the balustrade and into the abyss. But nothing of that sort happened as he continued to watch the horror unfold.
“I had warned people…now witness how we deal with people,” the leader said, brandishing out a knife and placing it on Kshiteej’s throat. Several people screamed, including Natasha who was being held down in a chair behind the leader.
“What is your name? Tell me you name!” the leader bellowed, a millimetre more and the knife would have drawn blood.
“Look people, now this young man Kshiteej will be remembered forever in annuls of history as the guy who gave up his life…all for nothing!” the leader laughed. “Now Kshiteej…tell us what do you do and where do you live.”
Nikhil watched as the goon continued interrogating Kshiteej. He would have to do something fast. Kshiteej was paralysed in this situation, he couldn’t act if it persisted.
“You can have my address…and my phone number as well…once you let me go. We can go and have dinner in a nice place.”
“What did you say?” the leader said, his eyes widening.
“Hold on…why I would go out on a dinner with you. Do you have a daughter? Or better still a hot cousin…because that will-“
“That’s enough!” the leader bellowed.
“No seriously, name and address? Where can I sign the declaration?” Kshiteej said and he laughed a little. “I think this is a Know Your Customer contest. You got me there you know…with all the guns and all…”
The leader was red with rage. “The guns…and my men...are all real,” he said, his voice quivering. He turned around to face his men. “Shoot these people; maybe that will treat them a lesson.”
Downstairs, there were screams and shouts. But not because the leader was giving orders to kill. But a lanky boy had suddenly grabbed Riddhi and had what suspiciously looked like a water pistol pointed to her temple.
“Game over,” he said as loud as he could. “One wrong move and Riddhi is history. Imagine the trouble.”
“Nikhil!” Riddhi said. “What the hell are you doing? How dare you touch me?”
“It’s for Kshiteej,” Nikhil said pleadingly. “Just this once help me save him, I will remember this gesture forever.”
The leader’s face turned from red to white. “Wha…no…my Riddhi! Oh not my Riddhi, my poor little Riddhi I love you!” Tears escaped his eyes and splashed across his vest.
Somehow the little act managed to worsen his anger.
“That’s it maggot! Say goodbye to this man…in your name Riddhi! This will show how much I love you!”
“Wait!” Nikhil said alarmed. “If you kill my friend, Riddhi will be very upset with you!”
“What? You must be kidding me,” Riddhi said, her arms folded across her chest. “It is Kshiteej isn’t it…I hardly like him.” Then she raised her voice. “I don’t care about Kshiteej! I remember him in the tuition. He used to make fun of me. He would make farting sounds behind my back. He is such a torture.”
The leader looked at Riddhi, his face gleaming with tears and yet a smile crossed his face. “Oh…so she doesn’t care about Kshiteej does she? That does it, but hold on! What if that boy ends up shooting her?”
Riddhi seemed to have interpreted what the leader was mumbling. “Don’t worry about me! It’s a water pistol. It was Holi last week, don’t you remember?”
The leader added two plus two and clapped his hands. “You!” he said pointing to Kshiteej “are history!”
Meanwhile, the crowd looked from Riddhi to the leader as the exchanged words, confounded by the situation.
Kshiteej was highly anxious. Throughout the trade of words, he stood budging nervously. He looked at Natasha and signalled to her. Natasha didn’t pay any attention to him. She expected to see her father and now that he hadn’t appeared, she felt crestfallen. She sat on a chair staring at her feet, her mind far away from the commotion in the mall.
Finally the trade of words ended and the leader took out his pistol. He dragged Kshiteej away from the balustrade towards the back where his men stood leering.
He aimed the pistol at Kshiteej’s forehead and was about to pull the trigger but he stopped when he saw the expression on his face.
Upon hearing the words of Riddhi, Kshiteej’s countenance had turned from sweaty and anxious to stony. His attention was far away from the pistol that stared at him right in his face.
“How…how dare…” Kshiteej said, shaking slightly. Hot rage flashed across his face for a moment and then he turned as still and solid as a rock.
“Captain…what is going on with him?” asked one of them goons with uncertainty.
“Oh nothing! This is what the fear of dying looks like on man!” the leader said.
But he couldn’t brush aside the concern. Everything seemed to have fallen silent, even the thousand people on the mall didn’t make a sound. The air felt heavy, behind the goons were gigantic glass panels where an overcast sky could be seen. Clouds were accumulating with great vigour. The men held onto their guns, afraid to make the slightest movement. Everybody held their breath, their attention drawn towards where Kshiteej stood.
Then there was a resounding crash and the sound of an explosion. A mighty bolt of lightning shattered the glass panes and struck Kshiteej, as the frightened men would later report, squarely on his back which was followed by a huge explosion and a blinding light. Chinks of glass and the bodies of the men flew through the air and fell at a distance. Their ears ringing, the men struggled to gather their wits and decipher things as they struggled back to their feet. What they saw before them changed their lives forever. Kshiteej stood exactly where he had a few minutes ago, the blinding light had encompassed him and illuminated his silhouette. Electricity ran through his limbs wildly.
Chaos ensued, the people in the mall screamed in terror at the burst of light and the explosion. They ran towards the exit like a herd of wild buffaloes, crushing the armed militants in their wake.
Gradually, the light phased out and the electricity paused running through his limbs. There he stood, intact as ever. His expression grave and stony. His magnetic eyes hidden behind the darkest of glasses. His attire had changed to jet black trousers, glossy black shoes, a black t-shirt and a large leather overcoat.
The leader lay on the floor for a while, having been swept away by the mysterious force. He then gathered his senses, leapt up and shouted: “Attack men, attack!”
The infiltrates looked at one other nervously and after repeated insistence of the leader, they formed a chain around Kshiteej. Kshiteej wasn’t paying any attention to the men. He stood still as a boulder, his fists clenched around his tough gloves.
Nikhil stumbled through the lift and into the line of action. He was curious and wanted to know what had become of his friend. When he noticed Kshiteej his jaw dropped.
The militants took another step towards Kshiteej, pointing their guns squarely at his chest. Kshiteej made his first move, with a swift roundhouse kick he had knocked all the guns out and he followed it with a flurry of punches. Within seconds the militants lay groaning and clutching at the damaged parts.
“Kshi….Kshiteej?” Nikhil asked, awed and intimidated at the same time.
“Name’s Kshaun…Kshaun Corleone.”
Kshaun swiftly grabbed the terrified Natasha and handed her over to Nikhil. “Take good care of her,” he said curtly and without emotions.
“But what about…” Nikhil said but his words hung in the air and Kshaun ran to the balustrade with two swift steps and leapt over.
“Wait…NOOO,” Nikhil shouted, aghast.
Kshaun hurled through the air like a shooting star and landed incredulously on his feet with a huge impact that sent cement and mortar flying through the air.
Incidentally, Riddhi was one of the last few who were making a beeline for the exit. Kshaun grabbed her by the scruff of her neck as she ran and leapt over the teeming crowd with a swift jump and disappeared into the darkening day.
Nikhil clutched Natasha as he made his way down with a few of the militants snapping at his heels. He ran through the centre of the atrium and at the exit he ran straight into the police and Mr. Bumbani.
The police took over and in no time had the goons in their custody. Nikhil stood outside the mall with Inspector Roy as it began to drizzle slightly.
“I’ll need you to accompany me to the station Nikhil and give a full account of what transpired inside. I am trying to get some other witnesses as well.”
“Very well Inspector, but I am afraid you just might not believe me,” Nikhil said perturbed. “I have to look for my friend.”
The van carrying the goons paused where Inspector Roy stood and he had a brief chat with the policeman who was driving it.
“It’s not over yet,” the leader said through the small grilled window probably meant for air, his mouth bloody. “The Ameytheist will strike back.”
“Who is The Ameythiest?”
The leader smiled. “You’ll come to know soon enough.”