Bhargav Ram Bakshi wasn't going to let a traffic jam keep him waiting, seventeen years were long enough. Sitting in the back of an auto-rickshaw, he dried his face with a sodden kerchief, staring at the carbon it collected. Air slick as grease simmered over Chetan Avenue that connected Chanakayanagar's midtown and downtown. A gridlock meant emergency. Vehicles choked the Avenue like the shapes in a game of Tetris, hissing and honking, exhausts painting people in soot. The scene could pass for a painting—albeit unpleasant to behold.
Bhargav coughed at the sting of burning rubber, his gaze dropping to the office bag on his lap. In it, a letter signed by his boss, also the prosecutor of the district's sessions court. It'd lead Bhargav to the bottom of a case that also claimed the lives of his parents. He knew who killed them, also when and how, he was there—a helpless, scared six-year-old. Now, he'd begin to learn why they were taken. He coughed again, flinching at the suffocating pungence.
The library, his destination, wasn't far. It'd be a mission to walk in this heat at noon but, already covered in grime, he didn't mind. He fished the wallet to pay the driver when a booming sound ruptured the ambience, culling every other noise. It was the staccato of a gunshot, only ten times louder, its shockwave rippling over fuming chassis and caged hearts. 'What's that?' Bhargav said to nobody in particular; the rickshaw's driver sat mute.
Temples pulsing, Bhargav slipped out of the rickshaw and caught a column of smoke shimmying into the rust-brown sky. A couple people returned from farther ahead, faces white as milk. 'Run!' one of them screamed. 'Fucking crooks!'
'Ravi's back!' another yelled. 'They're his men, say his birthday's today.'
Ravi. Bhargav gripped his bag harder as a sliver of rage teased his spine. Ravi Thakur, the man who murdered Bhargav's parents, was back after seventeen years on his birthday? Bhargav didn't know how many notes he grabbed from his wallet but threw them at the driver before weaving between vehicles. Screams wailed like siren in the distance as more bombs exploded. Some people shrieked, others joined Bhargav in finding what was happening.
He broke into the clearing where bystanders tussled against each other in a ring. A fallen motorist, helmet intact, squirmed clutching his bleeding chest, a sedan and an auto-rickshaw lay mangled beyond repair, roads littered with bricks and stones, and two multi-storied shops burned, glass facades shattered. At the center were four men in pocked shirts and trousers, hurling into two shops scores of kerosene bottles plugged with burning cotton wicks. Tall flames turned wood, clothes—and people—into smoldering cinders.
A man dove out of one of the burning shops as fire shredded his clothes and melted his face. A kid ran to douse him with a pitcher of water, his mother screamed and pulled him back as the man stilled. Having witnessed life leave his parents' eyes, death never rattled Bhargav; he eyed the kid's mother. She could relax now. It wasn't a burning man, only a cremated corpse.
A band of khaki-clad policemen punched through the ring of bystanders and an officer drew his pistol, aiming at a heavyset man wielding a bloodstained wooden club. Drawing a firing weapon with innocent people in range? The officer was crazy. Of course, panic and fear often rode shotgun with chaos. Ash bellowed from the buildings and fell on the road like black snow. 'Hands up, the four of you!' the officer yelled, pistol still pointed. 'Drop the bottles!'
The men cared not to flee. Instead, they looked at the heavyset man, probably their leader. When he nodded, they dropped the bottles. Ill-equipped constables shuffled, labored by the weather, and manacles snapped. The heavyset man howled as constables prodded him into the crowd and towards the police vans stuck in traffic. 'Look at this charade!' he cried. 'It's Bhagwan's birthday and not a soul dares pay him respect! What a fucking shame considering all he's done! Is this how you repay him? Each of you will regret! Each of you!'
Bhargav's eyes tinted red. Bhagwan—meaning God—was the title given to Ravi, Chanakyanagar's most nefarious mobster. His crimes had ceased as of seventeen years ago but his name and title still traveled in the confines of people's lips and ears. Few bystanders took the liberty to smack the men and tug at their hair, hurling obscenities and curses like greetings on a festival. The men laughed; funny were the people who locked their windows and doors at night despite trusting the law that men like Bhargav had sworn to defend.
Bhargav coughed again and wiped his face with his sleeve. Sweat and grime smeared the fabric of his shirt an ugly black. His tongue tasted strange, as if it was coated with sand. A wind gust flourished the towering wall of fire that grew more ferocious. Bhargav's entrails knotted at that; it wasn't sand but the taste of burning bodies, or what remained of them. He recalled the funeral pyre of his parents at their cremation. Water streamed down his eyes—from grief or fire, he didn't know. Did it make a difference?
However, the worst was yet to happen. Sounds of crumbling cement and mortar wafted from one of the two buildings. The trapped people sang a strange song of prayers and cries for help, a collective breath of agony that'd scorch the earth as much as the sun that day. Iron beams sagged and concrete blistered. A final trickle of people stumbled out and Bhargav lunged to pull them to safety. The three-storied building dropped to rubble, raining a curtain of ash as a fiery ball rocketed skywards. Silence roared in Bhargav's ears. The world was black, senses were blank, and the concept of time and place withered away.
Then, the world was a translucent grey; Bhargav was caked from head to toe in a fine white powder that he didn't dare to name. He splayed his arms and hit a few bodies that he hoped were alive. He drew in a breath but his chest didn't expand. The throat itched from the inside and he choked, coughing up snot and spittle.
Someone splashed water on the face and he gasped. Eyes stinging red, as if pricked with a thousand needles, he blinked to find the kid with the pitcher from earlier. His mother stood behind, eyes big circles. The kid lent his pitcher and Bhargav rinsed his mouth, drawing in more snot and hawking down to the road. The cops returned, this time to contain the public that seethed in anger at the gross injustice. Someone ordered the men to be hanged and others picked it up, hurling fists into the air even before the fire engines arrived.
Ten minutes later, Bhargav sat on the median and mopped his face dry with his kerchief, dabbing his eyes that he bet looked like pruned grapes. The kid and mother were gone but he'd remember their kindness. Fire engines wailed now and people scooted their vehicles to let them pass. Mediapersons began peppering the crowds to cover the ghastly act.
A band of protestors barked slogans. The cops engaged in crisis management, setting up barricades as ushering bystanders away even as reporters heralded the grand return of the infamous Bhagwan, glorifying the beast with little to no regard for the lives lost.
But it begged the question—was Ravi truly back? This crime, which reporters dubbed "Chetan Avenue Attack," didn't fit the pattern of previous crimes where he went to elaborate lengths to keep his name out. This was brazen, open, public. Bhargav unzipped his bag and ensured the letter was tact. He'd go home now, only to shower, change, and hit the library. The world buzzed with Bin Laden's death from last month and Jimmy Bulger's capture few days ago. If Ravi was back from the woodworks, maybe his time was up too. Bhargav would be more than eager to ensure it—by dialing his clock back by seventeen years.
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The Devil Within: Looking for Beta ReadersMystery / Thriller
The Series: Eight friends and two allies from a secret society are embroiled in the schemes of a mysterious power-hungry mastermind, and in their quest to find why, discover horrifying truths about their families and their town. The Devil Within: Ra...