She Sleeps

‘She sleeps.’ A weary guard adjusting his armor whispered. ‘Not too far from here, deep into the woods, past the babbling creek just into the dark side where no light enters.’

‘I heard she’s dead, on the day of her first blood.’ The other guard said, leaning against the stone wall of the castle.

‘Draw the bridge!’ A shout echoed from above, moments later a cacophony of horse hooves, clanging armor and grunts filled the air. The two guards stood aside and gave a straightened salute to the entourage.

The king, a weary look on the face of square jaw and glinted skin, he gave the two guards a glance and urged his horse forward. The courtyard was cluttered with a festive gone by, fruits, roasted meat, decorations and in the middle of it all, his queen.

She had commissioned a new dress for this special day, it was a baby blue with rich embroidery from the hem to bust, on her hands she wore white gloves with the sigil of their house finely stitched, not a thread out of place. Her hair, yellow as the sun, her skin pale as her dress, the only color was the chaffing of the rope around her neck, supporting her lifeless body from up above.

‘Take her down.’ A knight mentioned to his page.

The king looked up at his queen, she was still even more beautiful. ‘Call the sorceress.”

***

In the dark wood, a figure laid at the center of the forest. Atop chopped up wood, a make-shift open coffin, still fresh from her celebrations, she smelled of the jasmine her hair and wrists were adorned.

Branches broke, leaves cracked, the swing of a sharp blade and the look of a man lost and looking for a way out. He was royally dressed, had a look of nobility, his chest glistened, his throat parched.

‘Where am I?’ The prince mumbled under his breath. He looked around for signs of life. ‘I know I heard some people here earlier.’ He scanned the area, but could not see anything, except for some candles that burned in the night. They shone on the lifeless body of a girl.

The prince moved forward, his horse trotting slowly in the darkness, he sheathed his sword and slid off his horse.

He swore to himself that he hadn’t seen a more beautiful woman alive. Her face was fair, still rosy, her prim dress was tattered in places, but he saw the blood, stained on her dress, between her legs. ‘Oh what a pity.’

He lifted her dress and touched her leg. ‘What a pity.’

***

She walked in, tall and slender, her black dress hugging her every curve. ‘Dusty.’ She said, running her finger on top a wooden dresser. ‘Very dusty, what else should I expect from a decrepit castle?’

‘Shut your mouth.’ The King took his seat, and grabbed a goblet of wine. He waved his steward to leave.

The woman in black, she went by many names, all of them reminded people of the darkness in the night, the woods and in their hearts. Despicable names, names of horror that terrified children.

Stories were told about her manipulative power, she could control life and death, and she was the queen of serpents and wild animals.

It was said that she lived in the dark part of the wood where no one could enter, or no one dared enter. Many said that the princess died of a curse of the evil sorceress, the witch that took the lives of young beautiful women when they came of age.

The King knew better, he knew the woman, the black sorceress.

‘I don’t think you called me in to celebrate.’ She poured some wine into a cup. ‘It’s a little too early for that. ‘Your daughter is now gone, your wife took her life like a fool!’ She took a small sip, tapped the edge of the cup and sat down. ‘What are you to do now? You don’t have anybody, no one to sire you a child, no one to join kingdoms with.’ She look around the great hall. ‘All of those who came to give you favors have gone, as quickly as flies leave when their host can’t feed them anymore.’

‘Shut up.’ The King said, and poured himself more wine.

‘Is that all you’re going to say?’ She dropped her cup, the wine spilled on the stone floor. ‘How boring.’

The sorceress stood up and paced around the great hall, stretching out her arms and danced. ‘This must be the feeling, dancing your first dance as a woman.’ She shot a gaze at the King. ‘With her father.’

She stopped short at a wooden cart with a spike in the middle, dried blood stained the old wood, a face, scowled sat on the sharp end. ‘Unless your father was a pig farmer.’ The sorceress chuckled.

‘How did it feel to finally find out the truth?’

‘Shut up!’ The King screamed and threw his cup at the wooden cart. ‘Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!’

***

The prince was drenched in blood, he could still feel the cold against his thigh. He never felt that way before, it was the first time he felt excited, and it was unusual.

‘We’re here sire.’ A scruffy man bowed and reached out his hand. The prince gave him a couple of gold coins and waved him off.

The man, a travelling merchant offered to take the prince home, he collected a reward from the King, the prince’s father a handsome reward that would let him open a shop and end his days as a travelling merchant. The prince gave him something to forget what he saw in the forest.

‘The dark woods can turn men into monsters.’ Said the merchant as he guided the prince back to his castle by the mountains.

‘Father!’ The prince ran and embraced the King, it was a tight embrace that lingered on for far too long. The prince felt the warmth of his father, and he pulled away.

‘Now that you’re here, come.” The King led his son towards the great hall, an entourage waited eagerly. Four men in colorful attire, wearing the sigils of their kingdoms, behind them a band of handmaidens, each wearing different colored outfits, their busts ballooning from their dress.

Four lovely women, sat on a litter each, the sigils matching those of their entourage. One was plump, the other was svelte, another wore a skimpy dress, and another, coughed loudly as the prince stared.

‘The plump one may look rich, but their lands are in ruin, they need us more than we need them.’ The King whispered. ‘The one next to her would be good to lay with, but their army is weak, we can take their kingdom and rape her in front of their King.’ The prince said back to his father. His father patted the prince’s back. ‘She’s already betrothed to me.’ He said with a smirk. ‘Our army is already marching to her father’s kingdom, they will be razed and pillaged by daybreak.’

‘What about the other two?” The prince stared at the one who coughed a lot. She was near death, breathing haggard, her dress was festooned with jewels and ornaments that he had never seen.

‘Marry her for the money.’ The King suggested.

‘And then keep the other one as my queen after this one passes on.’

The King elbowed his son. ‘You may make a good King someday.’

***

‘Milord, I…’

‘Can’t you see I’m busy?’

The sorceress buried her head in between the King’s thigh and bobbed her head, the King’s hand on her head, shot his messenger a stern look.

‘I’m sorry Milord.’ The messenger trembled as he spoke, there is a visitor outside the castle, people are terrified, and they said they saw a ghost.

‘A what?’ The sorceress stopped, her mouth glistening. ‘What does this ghost look like?’

‘The princess, they said the ghost looks like the princess.’

***

At the courtyard, there were mumbles by the folks of the kingdom, everyone came around to see the ghost, and some said that it was a monster, others said that it was the doing of the evil sorceress and her enchantment. The king stomped out of the double doors and into the courtyard, behind him the sorceress dapped a cloth on her face.

There in broad daylight, under the hanging corpse of the queen, sobbed a girl, her clothes tattered, soaked with blood, she looked up at the body of the queen and continued sobbing.

‘This can’t be!’ The king bellowed. ‘Who is this impostor?’

‘Father.’ The princess said weakly. ‘It’s me, your daughter.’

‘I have no daughter!’ The king screamed. ‘You’re not my daughter, who are you?’

The sorceress glided forward, her steps were quiet as night. She bent down to look at the girl. ‘Interesting.’ The sorceress said. ‘The color has returned to her face, and her skin is warm as the sun, but something’s different about her.’

The princess pulled away from the sorceress and scampered to a nearby chair. ‘You! You did this to me, you cursed me!’

The sorceress smirked. ‘I didn’t do anything to you my child.’

‘I’m not your child!’

‘Yes, you’re hers.’ The sorceress pointed to the corpse of the queen and then laughed. ‘You’re also the child of a pig farmer, you don’t deserve these!’ The sorceress reached out and tore the dress of the princess. She grabbed the dagger from her sleeve and cut off the jasmine that adorned her hair, wrists and slashed the dress to the point that the princess was now naked.

‘You’re a pig farmer’s daughter, and you deserve to be treated as such!’

The king turned around, and walked back into his castle. ‘Come, you haven’t finished your duty.’

‘Of course my liege.’ The sorceress cackled and then motioned the guards to take the princess away.

***

The cold stone floor of the cells felt cold against the skin of the princess. Her hair had been chopped up and she looked more boy than girl. She had never been to this part of the castle before, she was scared to go down to the cells, her father always told her that traitors, thieves and murderers had stayed in the dungeons. She never thought that she would one day stay in one.

‘Why don’t you come over to this side?’ A man with a pot-belly and scraggy beard said as he slipped his hand in his crotch. ‘It’s warm.’

The princess held her knees tightly, scared that the man would have the strength to break through the steel bars that separated them, she thought he looked like a bear and hoped that he wasn’t as strong as one, she didn’t know if a bear had the strength to break through the steel bars, but she prayed nonetheless.

‘Why are you treating me this way?’

‘You’re dirt!’ The guard told her.

‘I’m your princess!’

‘You’re a pig farmer’s daughter, you’re nothing!’

The princess sobbed, she remembered what happened earlier today, it was her day of womanhood, her mother had been preparing for the day that she got her first blood. She didn’t remember anything about it, only that the chambermaid saw her sleeping in her blood-stained clothes. She wish she knew what happened.

‘She told the king.’ An elderly woman spoke softly, with enunciation that was immaculate.

The princess leaned forward and peeked through the bars next to her, she saw another woman, naked with chains bound to her ankles and arms that pinned her to the ground.

A soldier strapped on his trousers and locked the cell as he left.

‘The sorceress.’ The old woman said.

‘Grandmother?’ The princess said, recognizing the faint smile of the old woman. ‘What are you doing here?’

‘I raised a bad seed, that’s what she said, the mother of an adulterer, a philanderer, I have to suffer the crimes of my daughter, and so shall you, and all of the children that you bear, until eternity.’

‘What did I do wrong?’

‘The sorceress accused you of being a child of adultery, that poor man admitted, your mother denied but the king issued his command.’

‘I don’t remember any of this.’ The princess said as she rocked in her place.

‘You fainted into sleep, everyone thought you dead, your mother had to suffer my fate and you had to be hanged.’

‘Instead, mother was hanged and you have to suffer her fate.’

‘Everyone thought you to be dead, but I fear it is all the enchantment of the sorceress, the king is not thinking straight, his mind is clouded.’

‘Keep quiet.’ The guard yelled to the princess’s grandmother. ‘You!’ He turned to the princess. ‘Lie down quietly.’

‘What are you going to do to me?’

‘What you deserve.’

‘What I deserve!’ The scraggy man yelled in delight.

***

The king and the prince dined with their guests, the seat of the deceased queen was vacant. The most recent one married by the king, decapitated for being too old, the one before burned alive and the first one, died at childbirth.

The prince took the queen’s seat, knowing well that the one that the king had set his eyes on would be the next queen, until they got tired of her. The princesses seeking the hand of the prince sat, across each other in pairs, they waited patiently for the king to start his meal, before they consumed theirs.

The king noticed that there was a vacant seat at the end of the table, he waved for his minister.

‘There was one that was supposed to come my liege, we haven’t heard from them.’

‘Humph! Who dares refuse my invitation to wed?’

‘The kingdom beyond the woods, their sigil of a thorny rose.’

‘That won’t do, we need to see this princess, and I need to set that king straight!’

‘Yes my liege.’

The prince listened to the hushed discussion and then asked. ‘Why does it matter? We can have our fill with these wrenches right now.’

‘One more wrench won’t hurt.’ Cackled the king. ‘Prepare the horses!’

***

Days passed and gloom dawned over the kingdom of the thorny rose, the two guards however didn’t notice much difference. They still stood in their posts idling away at the silence.

‘Did you hear about the sorceress?’ the guard on the right asked, his brow sweating under his iron helm. ‘They say that she enchanted the king and made him crazy.’

The guard on the right shrugged. ‘Doesn’t matter to me, he let me shag his royal grandmother.’

‘Everyone in the kingdom has shagged her more than once!’

They both laughed.

‘Have you tried the young princess yet?’ The guard on the left asked.

‘No, the king has left her for the rapists.’

‘Nice gift for her day of womanhood.’

‘Incoming!’ The sentry on the watchtower yelled.

‘What is that?’ The guard on the right looked on.

‘It’s an army!’

***

‘Who dares come to my doorsteps?’ The thorny rose kind asked.

‘The king of the mountains.’ Said the messenger. ‘And his prince.’

‘What business do you have here?’

‘Your princess, she did not come at my invitation.’

‘I don’t have a princess!’

The king of the mountain consulted his adviser. ‘I’ll have your head if you’re lying!’

‘Sire, he has a princess, but from what I hear from the local folk, there was a scandal on the day of her womanhood.’ The minister explained the story involving the pig farmer, the queen, and the sorceress.

The king stared up above the head of the king of the thorny rose, a decaying body still hung there, the stench filled his nostrils. He turned to look at the king, and behind him in the shadows, he noticed a woman, dressed in black, her face as pale as the wind. It’s as if she walked through the shadows, she was hardly noticeable, like a ghost.

“I want to see this princess!’ The prince demanded.

The king hushed his son. He felt an ominous cloud surrounding the area, it was the cloud of fear and lunacy, the fire in the king of the thorny rose’s eyes meant that he would go berserk at a moment’s notice.

‘You want my princess, I have none, but I have a pig farmer’s daughter, a whore for the rapists.’ The king commanded his soldiers to bring out their prisoner.

In a matter of moments, two naked women were dragged out and thrown in the middle of the courtyard. The elder one was weak and could hardly stand up, the other one was bloody, not only from between her legs, but on her face as well.

The prince studied the woman’s face carefully, it was round as the full moon, and rosy. She had long arms and legs, and a modest bosom. A shiver went up his spine and he recognized the girl, she was different when he last saw her, pale and cold, a corpse that wouldn’t speak. He hoped she wouldn’t speak now.

The princess looked up, her eyes swollen, cheeks black and blue. Her skin was tender and even the gushing wind stung. ‘Help…’ She muttered but was hit by the prince.

‘Two filthy whores, and a dead corpse if you wish.’ The king pointed up to the body of his late queen.

‘Please, help me…’ The princess crawled on all fours and reached for the leg of the prince.

The prince kicked her and the princes stumbled back, she arched at the pain of the boot on her chest.

‘Do you not know who I am?’ The prince asked, he tried to hide the tremor in his voice.

The princess shook her head, she tried to speak but the air had left her lungs.

‘I’m the prince of the mountain!’ The prince yelled, there was a sign of relief, a weight lifted from his chest, she didn’t know him. How could she, she was practically dead, she was cold as stone and pale as ice.

‘A trade then?’ said the king of the thorny rose.

‘Don’t insult me.’ The king of the mountain retorted.

‘You can take these lot for free, it would be of a service to clean my kingdom of these wretches. Maybe you can give them to your guards for entertainment.’

The king of the mountain sneered and turned away.

The prince glanced at the princess, he remembered her cold thigh against his, her blood on him. ‘Oh what a pity.’ He mumbled, and then followed his father and their entourage head out of the kingdom of the thorny rose and back to the kingdom of the mountain.

Glenda

It struck in hard and fierce, the whispers of “Mommy” whistled in my ears. “Mommy!” she said the whisper grew louder. I pulled my sheets over my head trying to ignore her petulant cries.

KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK

The rasping at my door startled me, the whisper grew to a faint scream, beautiful in its misery. I got out of my bed, my naked body drenched with sweat in the middle of the night.

It was just hours before dawn, I could see the sky trying to yawn as it always does before the bright morning, but terror filled the horizon.

There she was, Glenda, tiptoeing onto the streets below me, a silent figure in the dead of night, the only one that dared walk the dangerous streets at this hour. I could hear her whisper my name, it was seductive in the darkness.

“Mommy” I heard it again, this time it wasn’t a whisper or a faint scream, it pounded in my chest as I watched Glenda come closer. The dark streets wet with her fury, debris scattered on the asphalt, trees pushed and pulled trying to stay in their place.

KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK

There she goes again, that bitch, rasping at my door, looking at me from my window. Sweat trickled down my forehead, the power was out and I was alone in the darkness, alone to face Glenda as she unleashed her fury.

For what reason? For what purpose? I don’t know, not of jealousy or pride, not of a broken heart, but I was miserable, she made everyone miserable. She had the power to wield and she did. Power, equivalent to that of the gods, and she could do anything she wanted with it, yet she was here, looking at me, whispering at me, knocking at my door, destroying everything in front of me so that I could see how strong she was.

She smiled from the distance, I knew it was a wide grin, the whispers and the knocking became stronger, relentless in its destruction. The sun had finally come out, cowering out of its bed, peeking from the skirts of the clouds. As powerful and bright and far as the sun was, Glenda still reigned supreme.

It’s empty down there except for her, there was not a soul in sight, no one dared to peek out of their windows, except me, stupid me, who dared to answer Glenda’s call. The witch wielded supernatural powers, she controlled the elements and she wanted my heart, my flesh, and my soul.

I’m tempted to give it to her, to hand her my life to save everyone else. Strangers I barely met in this concrete jungle, condominiums, malls and office buildings that reached the sky, powerless stone giants that stood its ground to the pounding of Glenda, some of the older ones caved, their glassy eyes broken and shattered.

But I still dared to look, the mixture of anticipation, fear and a little bit of courage to look Glenda straight in the eye, to show to her that I wasn’t scared. But I was, and I had half a mind to just go back to bed and let it be. I knew though, I knew that she wouldn’t let me be, she wouldn’t let me sleep, she would keep on knocking and screaming and poke the glass eye of my stone giant.

She’s giggling now, her hair floating in the air around her, surprisingly beautiful and yet disturbingly horrific. She’s strong, stronger than I imagined, I’m trapped here in my giant, I don’t know for how long, but it would seem that it would be forever.

I realized that I don’t have much food, if not Glenda maybe starvation would get to me, not much water either, I would dehydrate in due time. She was cruel, but she did give me a choice.

In the stone giant or out on the streets with her.

Her offer is tempting like sweet honey. I turn away from the window, I could feel her look at me, her touch creeping up the back of my neck. She whispers my name once more. It was seductive and inviting.

I could go down there I thought. I could embrace her and all her glory and go with her wherever she wanted. It was a freedom that she offered and she offered to me of all people. I was the special one, I was the one that could save all of them and be free at last.

I turned my back at the window. Glenda frowned, she knew what my answer was. She knocked once more, whispered sweet nothings in my ear. But she knew the look in my face.

I mouthed “Sorry” to her and bid her to go. I knew what her freedom meant, I couldn’t leave my mortal shackles just yet, there were things that had to be done, there were people that had to be cared for, there was a legacy that needed to be built, strong and firm to withstand all of the witches that would come knocking at my door.

I slept, not thinking about Glenda, not dreaming of her, I just slept and when I awoke, she was gone. The terror was still in the air and on the streets. But people started coming out, shivering and shaking, one boy looked up from the street and at me. Straight into my eyes, anger burned in his eyes.

“Why didn’t you save us?” I heard him ask in my head, “coward!” he screamed, “selfish bastard!” He kept on screaming at me over and over again. “It wasn’t my time yet.” I told him quietly. “Glenda only wanted you.” He said. “Only you! No one else but you!”

I shook my head and looked at the direction that she left, her path was clear and I could have followed her. Anger, sorrow, frustration was on the young boy’s face, he was distraught and he knew who to blame. She will be back and I know it, she won’t give up, she is relentless and next time her sisters will come, one after the other, they won’t give up until they had finally enticed me to be their groom in the abyss.

Invitation

‘Welcome Sunil.’

Sunil shook the hand of Rakesh and took a step forward the gaping doorway. ‘Hi Rakesh, I got this for you guys.’ He handed over a bottle of red wine and smiled as the plump hands of Rakesh gripped the bottle neck.

‘You didn’t have to.’ Rakesh smiled. His teeth had signs of excessive tobacco stains.

‘My pleasure.’ Sunil glanced around the room and noticed a golden chandelier hanging from the ceiling.

‘That was an anniversary present from Anjali’s parents.’ Rakesh whispered. ‘Well practically everything here comes from her parents.’ Rakesh pointed at a large wooden shelf on his right. ‘That was given on our first year anniversary. And that..’ He pointed at a large beige sofa set on his left. ‘That was given just after we moved in…just goes to show you that her parents have no taste.’

Sunil chuckled. He sat on the beige sofa and crossed his legs. He noticed that there was no television set in the living area which was very different from his small apartment.

‘Beer?’ Rakesh pushed a sweaty bottle of beer towards Sunil.

‘Thanks.’ Sunil wiped the mouth of the bottle with his sleeve. ‘Where is Anjali?’

‘Getting ready.’ Rakesh dropped on the chair across Sunil and rested his leg on his knee. ‘You know how girls are.’

‘No not really.’

‘Single guy? You are lucky! Hold on to that.’

Sunil sipped on his beer and wanted to say something until he heard a light clanging from the room behind him.

‘Hi Sunil.’

Sunil stood up and turned to greet a beautiful dark skinned girl. She wore a tight black dress that exposed her curves and her wrists were adorned with silver bangles. ‘Hi Anjali.’ He noticed the room she came from had a single bed and wondered how the couple slept at night.

Anjali embraced Sunil and kissed him on his cheek. ‘How are you Sunil?’

‘I’m good.’

‘When did you get here?’ Anjali looked furiously at Rakesh. ‘I told you to tell me when he arrived.’

‘I…’ Rakesh waved his hand.

‘I just got here.’ Sunil interrupted. ‘Rakesh was just giving me company.’

‘Oh I see.’ Anjali was sitting down on the couch when she saw the beer on the table. ‘Wait a minute! Where is the coaster?’ She turned to Rakesh and screamed. ‘I told you to always use a coaster!’

‘I…’ Rakesh waved his hand in the air again.

Anjali pulled out a coaster from under the wooden coffee table. ‘That will leave a ring. You know how mom likes to inspect the things she gives us.’ She placed the beer bottle on the plastic circle. ‘What are we going to say then?’

‘Maybe tell her to stop sending us stuff.’ Rakesh mumbled.

‘What did you say?’

‘So Anjali it was nice of you to invite me over for dinner.’ Sunil spoke with a slight trepidation in his voice.

Anjali shot a glaring look at Rakesh before her face relaxed at Sunil. ‘Oh no problem at all Sunil.’

‘I really appreciate it. I still don’t know anyone here.’

‘You are not from Delhi?’

‘Oh no I am from Mumbai. I just moved in here about a week ago.’

‘And you have no friends here?’

‘No not yet.’

‘Rakesh darling.’ Anjali crossed her legs. ‘Maybe you could introduce Sunil to some of your friends.’

‘Maybe.’ Rakesh grumbled.

Anjali touched Sunil’s hand. ‘He will try to introduce you to some of his friends.’ Anjali flipped her hair and smiled. ‘Do you have a girlfriend Sunil?’

Sunil looked at Anjali’s hand on his and felt her fingers clasping to a tender hold. He looked at Rakesh and noticed that he was just looking at the beer bottle on the table. Sunil turned to look at Anjali’s eyes and was mesmerized by the light hazel circles that looked endearingly back at him. ‘No…no girlfriend.’

‘Oh that is too bad.’ Anjali ran a thin finger down Sunil’s cheek. ‘Such a good looking guy should have a girlfriend.’ She turned to Rakesh. ‘Don’t you think so darling?’

‘Uhm…I guess.’

‘It is agreed then, I will introduce you to some of my girlfriends.’ She leaned close to whisper at Sunil. ‘You can pick any of us.’

Sunil gulped as he tried to understand the words of Anjali. ‘Any of you?’

‘Any of us.’ Anjali winked. She leaned back and looked at the clock on top of a large abstract painting. ‘Oh my! Its eight thirty already. I have to check on dinner.’ Anjali stood up and walked toward the kitchen.

‘She’s a charmer.’ Sunil sipped his beer.

‘Bah! She’s more than a handful…and her mother! Oh man!’ Rakesh clasped his hands together. ‘Everyday I pray that her mother would never bother us, but how can you stop a typhoon that lives two apartments down?’

‘Your in-laws live here?’

‘Unfortunately yes.’ Rakesh shook his head. ‘Trust me Sunil don’t get married. The honeymoon never comes and all you are stuck with is a wrinkly girl that is slippery with all the creams that she puts on her body. Do you know how much creams she has?’

‘How much?’ Sunil moved at the edge of his seat.

‘A whole room! She has a whole room of moisturizers, cold creams and maybe a thousand shades of lipstick. That is probably the only thing that her parents never gave us.’ Rakesh laughed.

‘Dinner is ready.’ Anjali yelled from the dining area.

Rakesh and Sunil got off their seats and walked to the dining area in the center of the apartment. Sunil noticed that there were three rooms that surrounded the dining area. The first was the room with the single bed that Anjali came from. The second room which was on the perpendicular wall had Rakesh’s name written on it while the third room which stood in between the other two rooms had a bolt locking it in place. Sunil thought that this was where the couple kept their valuables.

Anjali walked in from the kitchen on the right of the dining area and carried two huge platters. The first was filled with steaming mixture of rice and peas. The second was a collection of various meats cooked in spices. ‘I hope you like the food.’

Sunil looked at the food on the table and his mouth whet at the appetizing colors and smells that flooded his senses. ‘Uhm…Anjali.’

‘Yes Sunil?’

‘I am actually a vegetarian.’

‘What?’

‘Sorry.’

‘I told you to ask him what he could eat.’ Anjali raised a finger at Rakesh.

‘What? You never told me to do such a thing!’

‘I did ask you. You just told me that he eats everything!’ Anjali shook her arms in the air and tried to mimic Rakesh’s baritone voice.

Sunil could not help but smirk at the poor impersonation. ‘Hold on guys, it is fine. I can skip my vegetables for one night.’

‘No Sunil! You are our guest and you deserve to be treated well.’ Anjali said.

‘He wants to eat the meat then let him eat the meat dear.’

‘Dear? You are calling me dear after you messed this up?’

Rakesh whispered. ‘I told you honeymoon never even started.’

Sunil pulled a chair and sat down. He took a large spoonful of what seemed to be chicken breast and mutton cubes. ‘Don’t worry Anjali I’m sure that they taste great.’

Anjali frowned and sat beside Sunil. ‘I’m sorry about this.’

‘It’s not a problem.’ Sunil smiled as he took a large helping of rice.

Anjali gripped tightly on Sunil’s thigh and whispered. ‘You seem to work out.’

Sunil blushed. ‘So…uhm Rakesh what do you normally do with your friends?’

‘I know what my friends would do with you.’ Anjali whispered seductively.

‘We just normally share a bottle of whiskey when we are free.’

‘You can be the bottle that I share with my friends.’ Anjali ran her hand higher up Sunil’s thigh.

‘Oh hey!’ Sunil yelped.

‘What is wrong Sunil?’ Rakesh asked.

‘Yes Sunil what is wrong? Is it too hot for you?’

Sunil’s mind ran at a thousand miles but always stopped at Anjali’s red pouty lips. ‘No it is fine.’ He took a sip of his beer before he continued. ‘You have a nice house.’

‘Thank you Sunil.’ Rakesh took a spoonful of food. ‘As I said, almost all of the furniture here came from Anjali’s parents.’

‘Yes at least my parents are stable enough to furnish our house.’

‘I never asked them to furnish the house!’

‘How could you?!? You are always gambling away our money!’

‘Well don’t blame me if the stock market is down. I can’t control that!’

‘Oh what can you control then Rakesh? You can’t even control yourself in the…’

Sunil interrupted Anjali before she could finish her sentence. ‘Why don’t you guys show me around.’

Anjali bit her lip. ‘I would love to.’ She held Sunil’s hand and pulled him out of his seat. ‘You already saw the living and dining area.’ She pointed at an open door on the right. ‘That is the kitchen but it is a bit of a mess so let’s skip that.’

‘Is that your room?’ Sunil pointed at the half-open doorway where he noticed her come out of earlier.

‘Yes it is, come let me show you.’

Sunil noticed that single bed and a large dressing table which was adorned with an oval mirror and several jars of make up. ‘You only have a single bed?’

‘Of course silly!’ Anjali sat on the bed and patted on the small space on her left. ‘Come join me.’

‘What about Rakesh?’

‘Let him finish eating his food.’

‘I mean where does he sleep?’

‘He has his own room.’ Anjali leaned close toward Sunil and breathed heavily on his neck.

‘You sleep in separate rooms?’

‘Stop asking questions.’ Anjali grabbed Sunil’s hand and placed it on her bosom.

Sunil felt the mixture of satin and the soft supple skin of Anjali. His fingers closed down on Anjali’s bosom as he felt her fingers pushing them together.

‘Eeeek!’ Anjali screamed.

‘What is going on here?’ Rakesh pushed the door wide open and saw Sunil squeezing Anjali’s bosom.

‘What? Wait!’ Sunil stood up and fell on the bed.

‘He was taking advantage of me.’ Tears welled up in Anjali’s eyes.

‘We invite you to our home and you try to take advantage of my wife?’ Rakesh’s eyes flared up. ‘What kind of person are you?’ He clenched his fists and punched the wall to his right.

‘She put my hand on her breast!’

‘Oh yes my wife showed you her room and told you to touch her breast.’

‘Yes! She did! She had been flirting with me all night!’

‘He told me that he wanted me on this bed.’ Anjali ran to Rakesh and sobbed on his chest.’

‘No that did not happen!’ Sunil stood up from the bed and walked slowly toward Rakesh. ‘Listen there is a simple misunderstanding.’

Rakesh glared at Sunil and breathed heavily. He punched the wall once more and his knuckles turned slightly red.

‘It is better if I get out of here.’ Sunil walked slowly and tried to circle past Rakesh and Anjali.

‘I think it is better…’

Anjali whispered something in Rakesh’s ear.

‘Wait Sunil.’

Sunil took a step around the couple and was at the middle of the doorway when he saw the large hand of Rakesh come at him from his left. He blocked this with his forearm but then he felt his hair being pulled from behind him. He saw the large twenty inch biceps of Rakesh clenched as Anjali continued whispering in his ear.

‘Hold on Sunil!’ Rakesh ground his teeth and squeezed tighter at Sunil’s hair. ‘You are not going anywhere.’

Sunil raised his hands and contorted his face at the pain of his roots being ripped from his scalp. ‘Ok ok ok…what do you want?’

Anjali smiled at Sunil and walked a step closer to him. She planted her hands on his chest and looked longingly at his eyes. ‘Rakesh baby let’s take good care of our guest.’

Rakesh pulled back on Sunil’s head and slammed his face repeatedly against the corner of the doorframe until Sunil’s face bled and his legs went limp.

Moments later Sunil woke up in a dark room that was lit with candles. The scents of the candles mixed into a strong musk which woke him up. He noticed that his clothes were gone and his limbs where tied to leather straps. ‘What…ooo…’ Sunil felt his head throb. He tried to open his eyes but his right eye opened only halfway. His vision was blurred but he could notice to naked figures on a large bed.

‘Oh baby.’ A feminine voice spoke in a low tone.

‘You like that?’ A more masculine voice which was a deep baritone.

‘What is going on?’ Sunil pulled on his arms. He looked at the straps and noticed small streaks of crusted blood on his arms. ‘What the hell?!?’

‘He is awake Rakesh baby.’ Anjali sat on top of Rakesh and turned to Sunil. ‘He is finally awake.’

‘Yes he is.’ Rakesh sat up and picked up a bullwhip from the table on his right. ‘Ready for more loverboy?’

‘What do you want?’

‘Hmmm…nothing that you can give me.’ Anjali arched her back. ‘I have my big man for everything I need.’

Rakesh smiled. ‘What shall we do to him baby?’

‘Hmmm…I don’t know. Let’s ask him.’ Anjali got off Rakesh and crawled to the end of the bed. ‘What do you want to do handsome?’

‘I want to get out of here!’ Sunil pulled his arms and shook the bounds on his limbs.

‘Maybe…not.’ Anjali giggled.

Rakesh hovered over Anjali and kissed her shoulder.

‘Why am I here?’

‘You are in our little lover’s room.’ Rakesh spoke before kissing Anjali’s neck.

‘What am I doing here?’

‘Foreplay.’ Anjali reached her hand behind her and ran her fingers through Rakesh’s hair.

‘Foreplay?’

‘This makes making love to my wife a little bit more exciting.’

‘But you were screaming at each other earlier!’

‘Angry sex is the best!’ Rakesh replied.

‘Yes it is baby.’ Anjali turned and kissed Rakesh passionately.

Sunil felt cold. His body trembled and his hairs stood up. He felt the pain of his skin parting and closing several times. He looked down at his legs and noticed more streaks of dried blood. His abdomen had many scratches and he winced at the thought of Rakesh and Anjali torturing him.

‘Let me go.’

‘Awww…he’s no fun baby.’ Anjali pouted.

‘Now you get her off mood.’ Rakesh grumbled.

‘Please let me go…I did not ask for any of this.’

‘Don’t you want to have a little fun?’ Anjali asked.

‘What is fun about being tied up?’

‘It is lots of fun.’ Rakesh smirked.

‘Just let me go…you got what you wanted out of me.’

Anjali slid from under Rakesh and walked to Sunil. ‘You really want to go real bad?’

‘Yes please.’

‘So sad…I thought you could be the one.’

‘The one?’

‘Yes I thought you could be our new sex toy.’

‘What?!?’

‘A little pain and pleasure…pain for you pleasure for us.’

‘Let me go please…I’m begging you.’

Anjali placed her finger on Sunil’s lips. ‘I don’t like noisy toys.’

‘I can fix that.’ Rakesh got up from the bed and rummaged through the drawer in the sidetable.

‘Can you baby?’

‘Anything for you baby.’ Rakesh pulled out a small black case and slipped out something shiny from the center holster.

‘That is sharp baby.’ Anjali giggled.

‘What are you going to do with that?’ Sunil pulled on the leather straps.

‘Make you shut up.’

Sunil watched as the warm glow of the candles bounced off a cold glimmer from the knife. The glimmer grew close as Rakesh advanced with each step. ‘I…I…’

‘No noise!’ Anjali stomped her naked foot on the floor. ‘I hate noisy sex toys!’

Rakesh ran the blade across Sunil’s bare chest. ‘You know it’s too bad. I thought we could be friends.’

‘We can be friends Rakesh…just let me go.’

Rakesh tapped the edge of the blade on his chin. ‘Maybe…what do you thin Anjali baby? Shall we let him go?’

Anjali kissed Rakesh’s chest. ‘Hmmm…maybe…if he gives us the correct answer.’

Rakesh pulled roughly on Anjali’s chin and kissed her passionately. ‘I like how you think baby.’

‘I know you do.’ Anjali turned to Sunil and touched the scratch marks on Sunil’s chest. ‘You sure you don’t want to play a little bit longer?’

‘Please just let me go.’

‘Where do you want to go?’

Sunil thought for a moment and wanted to say out of there.

‘You have to give us the correct answer.’

Sunil took a deep breath. He wanted to say that he wanted to go home, but they didn’t know where he lived and he didn’t want to tell them. Maybe they would drop him naked in the middle of the street and he would be ridiculed by passerby’s and he might even go to prison for indecent exposure. Those options were better than him staying in the room with the psychotic couple. ‘Just out of here…drop me off in the middle of the road for all I care.’ Just as Sunil finished the sentence he realized that he had to give the correct answer, not the answer he desired but the answer that the couple desired. He cursed himself for not thinking it through.

‘Awwww…Wrong answer.’ Anjali hugged Rakesh and looked up at him. ‘He got the wrong answer baby.’

Rakesh smiled. ‘Yes he did, but I think we should still let him go.’

‘Awww…’

‘Thank you…thank you…’

‘But we have to take you ourselves…we can’t let you tell anyone about this you know.’

‘I won’t I promise.’

‘Where are we taking him baby?’ Anjali asked.

Rakesh chuckled before answering. ‘To his grave.’

Blackmail

‘Meet outside.’ The message was clear and direct. Lorenzo placed the phone on the wooden bench and fixed his floppy hair. His heart raced not because he had just finished a game and he knew that the coach would scream at him for letting in three goals. At the moment this did not concern him. The only thing that concerned him was Adriana.

The phone rang and the name Gia blinked on the bright screen.

‘Ciao Enzo.’

Lorenzo smiled at the sweet voice of his wife. Somehow even the crackle of the phone she reminded him of honey. ‘Ciao Gia. I am still in the stadium.’

‘What time are you coming home Enzo?’

‘I don’t know Gia, I played very bad today.’

‘How bad?’

‘You did not watch the game?’

‘If you watch Alberto then I will watch your game.’

Lorenzo laughed. It was a nervous laugh and forced. ‘I let in three goals.’

‘Three goals? Who did play against?’

‘Some team in Serie C.’

‘What?’

‘I know.’

‘Even I would scream at you! You are playing in Serie A and you let in three goals from a team in Serie C?’

‘We still won the game.’

‘That doesn’t matter!’

‘Gia…’

‘You better make this up! I don’t want you to be sold off to some bad team down the line.’

‘Gia they won’t do that.’

‘You listen to me Lorenzo.’

Lorenzo shut his mouth. In just a moment Gia’s voice had turned from honey to vinegar. He knew he was in trouble and it didn’t matter what he said at this moment. He placed the phone down and continued fixing his hair. He rubbed a dollop of gel in his hands and quickly styled his hair with the tips of his fingers. He grabbed the tight white shirt in his locker, this shirt was very raggy and he hoped that no one would recognize him in it. He picked up the phone. ‘Gia…’

‘Capito Lorenzo?’

‘Gia?’

‘You heard everything I said?’

‘Yes Gia.’

‘Good! Stay there as long as you want. Make sure you are playing in Serie A until you retire!’

‘Yes Gia.’ Lorenzo let out a loud sigh after Gia slammed the phone. ‘Maybe a mistress wasn’t a bad idea.’ He started thinking about the last conversation with Adrina.

‘I am pregnant Lorenzo.’

‘What?’

‘It is your child.’

‘No! I am married…I already have a child.’

‘Our child…I am carrying your child.’

‘No not our child!’

‘If you don’t support us then I will go to Gia!’

‘No!’

‘You better take responsibility.’

‘I…’

‘I will come at your next game…supporting you.’

Lorenzo shook his head. ‘What have I got myself into?’ He slipped on the shirt and stored his black gym bag in the locker. He took out an identical bag beside it and closed the door shut. He shook the handle and made sure that it was locked. ‘It’s time.’

‘Lorenzo!’ A man with graying hair walked into the locker. ‘I need to talk to you.’

‘Coach…I…’

The coach folded his arms across his suit. ‘Let’s talk in my office.’

‘Coach I am sorry but I have a pressing engagement…It’s about Gia…’

‘Gia? What did you do to my daughter?’

Lorenzo raised his hands. ‘Uhmm…Nothing coach.’

‘Then?’

‘I told her about the game and she got angry with me…’

‘She is a smart girl.’

Lorenzo scratched his head. He did not see it then but Gia took after her father even upto the screaming and throwing of vases. Lorenzo thought of the poor vases. ‘Coach I want to go out and get something special for Gia to say I am sorry.’

The coach looked at his watch. ‘At this time? Everything is closed by now.’

‘That is why I have to hurry.’

‘Hmmm…Ok but first thing in the morning I want to talk to you.’

‘Yes coach.’

‘Listen Lorenzo you are not getting any younger anymore.’

‘Yes coach.’

‘How old are you now?’

‘Thirty nine in December.’

‘Goalkeepers hardly last until forty you understand what I am saying don’t you?’

‘Yes coach.’

The coach tapped his watch. ‘Don’t you have to go somewhere?’

‘Yes coach.’ Lorenzo jogged past the coach.

‘By the way Lorenzo.’

Lorenzo stopped at the doorway and turned. ‘Yes coach?’

‘I’m having lunch with you and Gia tomorrow.’

‘Excuse me?’

‘You remember my favorite right?’

‘La…lasagna.’

‘Good.’ The coach closed the gap between him and Lorenzo. He squeezed Lorenzo’s shoulder. ‘It won’t hurt you to call me papa.’

‘Yes coach.’ Lorenzo turned and ran up the tunnel. He took a few turns and reached the lobby. He thought that he would not have anymore time. Between the meeting now and the meeting with the coach in the morning he wouldn’t catch Gia while she was awake. He pulled out his phone and looked at the time on the digital screen. ‘Ten fifteen.’ He decided to call the last dialed number.

‘Enzo?’

Lorenzo thought that maybe the storm blew over.

‘Lorenzo what did you do now?’

He was wrong. ‘Gia I talked to the coach.’

‘You talked to papa?’

‘Yes he said that he wants to have lunch with us tomorrow and that to prepare his favorite lasagna.’

‘Papa is coming? Sure I will make some lasagna.’

‘Ok good. I think the coach will be there around one or two.’

‘Enzo you can call him papa you know. He is like a father to you.’

‘Anyways he is coming for lunch tomorrow.’ Lorenzo hung up before Gia could reply and continued his run through the lobby. He passed the shimmering displays and pushed the glass doors open. The chilling autumn air slapped Lorenzo’s contorted face.

‘You are late superstar.’ A tall black man announced his presence with his deep baritone voice.

‘I hurried here.’

‘Doesn’t matter, the boss is waiting.’

‘Massimo is not here?’

The black man lifted his cap and revealed a balloon of curly hair. ‘You should not speak his name here.’ He waved his hat in the air. ‘We have to go superstar.’

‘Where are we going? Where is Massimo?’

The black man frowned. ‘Varese.’

‘What?’

‘He is waiting for you.’

A black van pulled over on the curb and the passenger door slid open revealing another black man. This man’s head was shaved and he gripped on a large gun.

‘Wait! What is this?’

‘Protection.’ The black man slipped the hat back on his head and neatly tucked his hair.

‘Whose?’

‘Yours.’ The black man approached the van and tucked a gun from the empty seat in his pants. ‘Come on in superstar.’

Lorenzo looked around and walked slowly toward the van. He sat in the middle seat and placed the bag on his lap.

‘You can put that in the back.’ The bald man spoke.

‘No it is fine.’

The black man wearing the cap slid the door shut. ‘Go.’ He turned to Lorenzo. ‘You can take a nap. It is going to be a long ride.’

Lorenzo groaned. ‘No it is ok.’

‘You don’t understand.’ The bald man spoke. His voice was not like the other man. It was very squeaky and he wore pajama shirt and pants not like the loose shirt and jeans of the man with the cap. ‘If you don’t sleep then we will make you sleep.’

Lorenzo leaned back and closed his eyes. He did not fall asleep but he just thought of Adriana.

##

‘She’s into you.’ A scrawny man wearing a shiny shirt and red shoes bumped his elbow into Lorenzo’s back.

‘I don’t think so.’ Lorenzo turned toward the bartender. ‘Negrito.’

The bartender mixed a few alcoholic liquors into a glass to Lorenzo together with a note.

‘What is this?’

‘It is from Adriana.’

‘Adriana?’

The bartender pointed to a girl in the background. She sported long black hair that fell loosely on a crystal embedded red corset.

Lorenzo unfolded the piece of paper. A string of numbers ended with the words ‘call me.’

‘If you are not going to call her then I will.’

Lorenzo grinned toward Filippo. ‘You said she was interested in me.’

‘I did didn’t I?’ Filippo raised his glass. ‘Drink up. It’s going to be a long night.’

##

‘Wake up superstar.’ The bald man nudged Lorenzo. ‘We are here.’

Lorenzo opened his eyes and looked out the open door.

‘This is Varese?’

‘Not exactly?’ The capped man cracked his neck.

‘We’re not in Varese?’ Lorenzo slipped out of the car and looked around. A row of two storey houses lined the road. The street lamp above him had no bulb. He looked at the street lamps down the street…they were working. Lorenzo thought that this particular streetlamp had a purpose. It was supposed to hide the people in the house. No one could look at their faces and this worked their advantage. He looked at the house where the capped man stood in front of. It had a low swinging green gate and two strapping black men smoking in a tiny garden.

‘Open up!’ The capped man screamed.

The two guards ran to the gate and pulled it open.

‘Go on through superstar.’ The capped man pulled Lorenzo’s arm into a narrow paved driveway.

Lorenzo nervously walked through the garden path. The two guards flanked him and one of them spoke.

‘I am a big fan.’

The capped man struck the back of the guard’s neck. ‘Do you want him to fuck you now?’

‘No…’

‘Where are we?’ Lorenzo asked the guard.

‘We are…’

The capped man struck the guard again.

‘What did I tell you?’

‘Sorry…’

‘I swear they see a celebrity and they act like little girls.’ The capped man pushed Lorenzo. ‘Go on superstar.’

Lorenzo pulled the bag to his front. He held it tightly as he walked up the driveway. The flowers had wilted beside him and were replaced by butts of cigarette, hashish and marijuana.

The door swung open and a black man with dreadlocks appeared. He spread his arms and spoke with a thick Jamaican accent. ‘Hey brother.’

‘Hey…’

‘I’m Massimo brother.’

‘You are Massimo?’

‘Welcome brother.’

Lorenzo shook Massimo’s hand. He noticed a Rastafarian wristband of red, yellow and green.

‘Come in brother.’

Lorenzo followed Massimo into the house. He walked into a living area with a wooden counter. Two handguns were laid out.

‘Do you want one brother?’

Lorenzo shook his head. He turned to his left and saw a living area. It looked fairly normal with maroon couches covered by white knitted triangles. He took a step forward.

‘Brother.’ The man pushed his hand against the black bag. ‘Is this it?’

‘Yes…yes it is.’

Massimo pulled out the toothpick at the corner of his mouth and pointed at the floor. ‘Show me.’

Lorenzo knelt on the carpeted floor and unzipped the bag. Several stacks of money were stuffed and crumpled in the small space.

Massimo knelt beside Lorenzo and picked up a stack. He flipped notes with his thumb and smiled. ‘Very good brother…very good.’ He zipped up the bag and walked through the living area toward a stairwell. ‘Varese!’

The capped man walked through the doorway behind Lorenzo. ‘Yes boss.’

‘It’s time. Bring our guest.’

Varese pushed Lorenzo’s back. ‘Let’s go superstar.’

‘You’re Varese?’ Lorenzo looked around the room and found some bongs on the side tables and a small marijuana plant on the terrace. ‘So we are in…’

‘You are in my house.’ Varese chuckled. ‘Come on.’

Lorenzo staggered forward and followed Massimo up the steps with Varese not far behind. His legs wobbled and his heart raced. Each step grew his anxiety and when he reached the second floor he felt that his heart was about to explode.

‘Varese go fetch the girl.’ Massimo dropped the bag on the table to his left.’ He turned to Lorenzo. ‘Make yourself comfortable.’

Lorenzo sat at a nearby couch. The room had a slanted roof and skylight. The moon shone a silvery light on a solitary chair in the center. This room was not as decorated as the living area. The room only had the table, chair and couch as furnishings. The walls were fitted with a wire mesh that hung several guns, blades and blunt instruments.

‘Get your hands off me!’ A woman shrieked from across the room.

Varese pulled a dark skinned woman with long flowing hair and pushed her into the chair. ‘Boss.’

‘Here.’ Massimo threw a rolled up rope to Varese. ‘Make sure it’s tight.’

‘What are you doing?’ The girl squirmed in her seat.

‘The less you move the faster this will go.’ Varese tied the girl’s wrists behind the chair and worked on tying her ankles.

‘Finished?’

‘Yes boss.’

‘Brother.’

Lorenzo stood up closer to the skylight.

‘This is Adriana.’

‘Who are you bastard?’ Adriana jumped in her seat and skipped the chair an inch forward. ‘What do you want from me?’

Lorenzo walked into the path of the moonlight and revealed himself. ‘Adriana.’

‘Lo…Lorenzo?’ Adriana leaned forward. ‘They got you too.?’

‘No…not really.’ He turned to Massimo. ‘What now?’

‘Brother. That is up to you really.’

‘Lorenzo what is going on?’ Adriana inched her chair forward trying to get into a better hearing distance.

‘Adriana.’ Lorenzo spoke in a low voice. ‘About your phone call.’

‘I am carrying your baby.’ She smiled.

‘About that.’

‘I love you.’

Lorenzo shook his head. ‘Listen…It cannot work between us.’

‘But…We love each other.’

‘I love my wife.’

‘If you loved your wife why did you sleep with me?’

‘I…ummm…’

Varese pulled Adriana’s chair back. ‘Women are trouble aren’t they superstar?’

‘Brother.’ Massimo lit a joint. ‘We can do whatever you want.’

Lorenzo bowed his head. ‘Adriana…are you going to tell my wife?’

Adriana bit her lip. ‘If I can’t have you no one can.’

‘You are going to ruin my life?’

‘You ruined mine.’

‘You want a drag brother?’ Massimo reached out the joint to Lorenzo.

‘No…no…’

‘You sure? It will clear your mind.’

Lorenzo shook his head.

‘Varese you want a drag?’

‘Yes boss.’ Varese took the joint and puffed rhythmically. ‘This is a good batch.’

‘Massimo.’

Massimo took the joint from Varese and turned to Lorenzo.

‘I don’t want her to ruin my life.’

‘What do you want me to do brother?’

‘Just make it stop!’

Massimo smiled. This was his favorite part. He turned to Varese and gave the big man a quick nod.

Varese pulled Adriana’s hair. ‘Are you carrying superstar’s child?’ He pointed at Lorenzo.

Adriana shrieked. ‘Yes!’

‘Wrong answer.’ Varese cracked his knuckles and slapped Adriana across the cheek.

‘Wait!’ Lorenzo screamed. ‘What are you doing?’

‘Brother.’ Massimo wrapped an arm around Lorenzo’s shoulder. ‘You want this to stop?’

‘Yes…I do…but…’

‘Then let Varese do his job.’ Massimo took a drag from his joint. ‘He is very good.’

Varese slapped Adriana across the cheek. ‘Where were we?’

‘You asshole!’

‘Oh yes! Are you going to tell superstar’s wife about your child?’

‘Yes!’

‘Wrong answer.’ Varese balled up his fist and punched Adriana’s stomach.

‘Ungh!’

‘Now let me ask you again. Maybe I should go slowly?’ Varese pulled Adriana’s hair and leaned close. He breathed heavily on her face. ‘Are you carrying superstar’s child?’

Adriana spit at Varese. ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’

Varese wiped the saliva from his cheek and chuckled. ‘I like girls with spunk.’ He squeezed her cheeks. ‘But that is the wrong answer.’ He smashed his head into the bridge of her nose.

‘Ahhhhh!’ Adriana jumped in her seat as the blood trickled from her nose and down her yellow shirt.

‘Is this necessary?’ Lorenzo ran to Adriana and wiped the blood with his shirt. ‘Varese this is too much!’

‘Brother we can do whatever you want.’

‘Yes but you are hurting her.’

‘We can let her go and ruin your life brother.’

‘No…I don’t want Gia to know.’

‘Then move aside superstar.’

‘Lorenzo! Please help me.’

Lorenzo stepped away from the chair. He looked at the blood on his shirt and frowned.

‘You could stop this right now woman.’

Adriana looked up at Varese with tears welling up in her eyes.

‘Just say that you are not carrying superstar’s child.’

‘But I am carrying his child!’

‘Wrong answer.’ Varese pulled out the gun tucked in his pants and smacked the side of Adriana’s head. ‘You want me to continue?’

‘No…please stop.’

‘I’m going to ask you one more time.’ Varese pulled the gun to his left. ‘Are you carrying superstar’s child?’

‘I…uhm…’

Varese smiled. ‘What did you say?’

‘No…no…’

‘Awww…I was hoping to play with you a little bit longer.’

Adriana turned to Lorenzo. ‘I won’t tell Gia that I am carrying your child.’

Lorenzo smiled. ‘Thank you.’

‘But everyone is going to know what kind of coward you are!’

‘What?!?’

‘Look at my face! I am going to tell them that you beat me up!’

‘I did not beat you up!’

‘Coward!’

‘Wait!’

‘Coward! I can’t believe I loved such a pitiful excuse for a man!’

‘Brother just say the word and I can take care of this as well.’

‘What are you going to do? Beat me up! Hah! Give it to me all you want.’

Lorenzo pulled his hair. ‘No! No! No!’ He felt his life slipping away from him. His career was close to the end but he couldn’t end it like this. His name would be ruined, Gia would leave him. ‘No! you can’t do this Adriana!’

‘Yes I can and I will!’

‘Please don’t’

‘Leave Gia and be with me.’

‘I can’t’

‘Coward!’

Lorenzo turned to Varese. ‘Make her stop! It ends now!’

Varese smiled. He pushed the barrel of the gun against Adriana’s temple. ‘You heard superstar. It ends now.’

‘What?!?’ Adriana squirmed in her seat. ‘No! Don’t!’

BANG! The bullet left the chamber and mashed the brains of Adriana. Her neck drooped over to her shoulder as her stiff limbs turned limp.

‘What did you do?!?’ Lorenzo screamed at Varese.

‘You told me to end it.’ Varese tucked the gun in his pants. ‘Boss you got another joint?’

Massimo pulled a joint from his ear. ‘Let’s celebrate.’ He turned to Lorenzo. ‘You should be happy brother.’

‘Ha…Happy?’

‘Yes now you are a free man brother.’

‘Free man.’ Lorenzo dropped on his knees. ‘She died because of me.’

Varese puffed on the joint. ‘No she died because of me.’ He chuckled. ‘But you know it is really funny.’

‘What is so funny?’

‘She wasn’t pregnant.’

‘What?’

‘No she did not have your child.’

‘What?!?’ Lorenzo jerked to his feet. ‘Then…then why did she?’

‘We told her to do it brother.’

‘What?!?’

‘Yes she worked for us superstar.’

‘Then why did you kill her.’

‘She was a loose end brother.’ Massimo puffed on the joint. ‘We don’t like loose ends.’

Lorenzo’s mind raced. He tried to recall the time in the discotheque it seemed so real. He knew it was too good to be true. But Adriana was voluptuous and he was mesmerized.

‘Are you going to be a loose end brother?’

Lorenzo looked at Massimo. ‘No…no…’

‘Right answer superstar.’

‘What now?’ Lorenzo asked.

‘Now you go back brother.’

Lorenzo nodded his head.

‘Remember superstar…this never happened.’

Lorenzo turned to walk down the steps. He pulled out his phone and checked the time on the digital screen. It was three hours past midnight. It was the witching hour…Lorenzo couldn’t believe that this actually happened. He took a deep breath and mumbled. ‘A dream…this is all a dream.’ He reached the living area. The guards sat down and lit up a bong.

‘You want a hit?’

Lorenzo shook his head. He was possessed. All he could think about was what Adriana said. ‘Coward!’ Lorenzo agreed. He was a coward. He could not stand up to his wife, not stand up to his coach and now this. He continued walking past the living area and reached the main hallway. He turned to the wooden counter and picked up the gun on the right. It looked like the same gun that Varese used. It was smooth to the touch and slightly heavy. ‘This is all a dream.’ Lorenzo mumbled. He pushed the gun down his mouth with handle facing the ceiling and pulled the trigger. BANG! In an instant Lorenzo’s body fell on the floor and rested on a puddle of his own blood never to wake up again.

Paraiso

Off the curb of Paraiso street, three young men are sitting down, holding a bag of plastic. All three are wearing shorts and sandals, two of them are wearing loose fitting t-shirts and one of them a collared polo. They are Andre, Angelo and Henry all children of foreign diplomats living in this particular subdivision.

Andre wears a white t-shirt with an emblem of his school. He opens the plastic bag and takes out a beer; he pulls out his lighter and wedges the butt between the bottle cap and his thumb, with a swift flick he pops the cap free and hands the beer to angelo. He repeats this again twice and now all of them hold a beer in hand.

Angelo sports long raven hair, and always wears black from top to bottom, his shirt has the imprint of an old political figure, and although he knows nothing about the history or the achievements of this person he likes the design of the shirt… especially the slogan at the back.

Henry leans back and looks around, the houses are big and so are the trees, there is so much history yet, here they were young kids who know nothing about the country they are staying in.

‘Guys, have you ever thought about this place?’

‘What do you mean?’ asks Andre

Angelo drinks his beer.

‘Think about it, there is so much history, there was war, and then there was unity, the religion, the people, diversity, so many things.’

‘What are you mumbling about now Henry?’

‘Where we are sitting now, this street is old, as old as our parents, maybe older, and these houses, the trees? I mean what was this before the houses? What were the people like?’

‘Are you drunk?’ asks Andre

‘No.’ Henry replies.

‘Listen why does it matter?’ Andre pauses before continuing ‘in a year or two we wont be here anyways.’

Angelo nods, empties his beer and asks for another.

Flicking the bottle cap open Andre speaks ‘who knows where we will be, maybe Switzerland, Indonesia, Brazil? Do you expect us to sit and learn the history of these places as well?’

‘Have you even tried to understand the country?’ Henry asks.

‘Nope.’

‘Language?’

‘Nope.’

‘But you have a Filipina girlfriend.’

‘Yup’ Andre smiles and drinks his beer. ‘That is a completely different scenario altogether.’

‘How so?’

Andre opens another bottle and takes a sip.

‘Aren’t you drinking Henry?’

Henry looks at his bottle, beads of cool sweat trickle down the smooth surface; he takes a sip and looks at Andre.

‘She is just a girl-friend, I mean I don’t need to know her history or language now do I?’

‘You have been together for two years now right?’

‘Yeah so?’

‘And you have met her family, brother, parents.’

‘What is your point Henry?’

‘It’s serious isn’t it?’

‘I don’t know, maybe.’

Henry takes a sip of his beer. ‘Next year you are going to college right?’

‘Yes.’

‘Have you applied to the local universities?’

‘Of course.’

‘If your dad leaves, will you leave with him?’

‘I don’t know, if I am already studying then maybe I will stay, it will be too difficult to keep on changing universities.’

‘And you will be here with Lanie yes?’

‘Henry you are losing me.’

Angelo asks for another beer.

‘Think about it Andre, you have a two year relationship, you are entering college and that is four years, most likely you will work here as well, you might be living all by yourself.’

Andre opens the beer and hands it to Angelo.

‘Yet you don’t want to learn anything about this country, not the history, not the culture, not the language?’

Andre empties his beer and looks at the plastic, only one bottle left, he looks at Angelo, he is lying down, the bottles of beer scattered around his legs.

‘Go ahead take it, I don’t want it anyways.’ Henry says as he takes a sip from his beer.

The three boys sit there for some time, finishing their booze. Angelo finally speaks ‘lets walk around, I am bored.’

They stand up, leaving the empty bottles on the ground, Angelo is Zig-Zagging, while Henry is still persistent about Andre.

Andre dismisses Henry, and just continues looking at the houses. All the houses here are old, most of them converted into embassies, the first one they recognize as the Indian embassy. The security is fairly tight, and the houses quite large, which leads to the preference of the diplomats and ambassadors.

They reach a corner house which is a duplex, fairly new, the driveway is tiled and the house is painted in a mixture of pink and orange. Angelo bumps into a black sedan and leans. ‘Guys, I need to pee.’

Andre shakes his head ‘wait till you go home.’

‘No I have to go now.’

Henry says ‘why don’t you do it by the tree.’ And he looks around for a good spot, walks over to an empty lot and there is a tree at the far end ‘Angelo there, you can pee there, Angelo?’

Angelo is halfway up a black iron gate.

‘Hey get down from there!’ screams Andre

Angelo falls onto the marbled driveway and breaks out in laughter ‘I gotta pee, this will be quick.’

‘We have to get him’ says Henry

‘Why? He is getting himself in trouble, my house is just at the end of the street, I can go home.’ Replies Andre.

‘Come on lets go.’ Henry drags Andre and they climb over the gate. They land on their feet and raise Angelo. ‘Up we go.’

‘No! No! I really have to go.’ Angelo shakes off their grasps and runs to the main entry way. The door made of solid Narra wood, there is a gold plated lever, and Angelo presses down on the lever. It is locked, he shakes the door hard and the clattering noise shocks Andre. ‘Keep it down, come on lets go!’

Angelo runs to the side of the house and goes through a narrow passageway leading to a large swimming pool. Henry runs after him with Andre not far behind.

On the right is a small shed, there are some discarded boards, a pail of nails and a makeshift ladder. Behind the shed the shower rooms are situated, Angelo enters and opens the door; it is unlocked and relieves himself at the solitary toilet.

The pool is deep blue, and is illuminated by small pin lights at the bottom. Splashes and giggles can be heard, which by the arrival of Henry and Andre turned to moans.

There is a couple in the far end of the pool, their clothes are piled up on a bench behind them.

Andre notices a familiar figure in the pool ‘Lanie?’

‘Andre?!?’ Lanie shrieks, trying to cover herself behind a bald muscular man.

‘Hey! Who are you guys? How did you get in here?!’ The man lifts himself out of the pool, wraps a towel around his waist and brisks his way towards Andre.

‘Andre.’ Lanie speaks

‘I thought you were visiting a childhood friend.’

‘I was.’

‘Who is this?’

‘He is Miguel.’

‘Who?’

‘He is my ex.’

‘Your ex is in the states.’

‘Now I am back, and who are you?’ Miguel stands in front of Andre, cracking his knuckles.

‘I am her boyfriend.’ Andre tries to push Miguel aside.

Miguel smirks ‘not anymore.’

Andre throws a punch at Miguel, but the latter has dodged the futile attempt and now twists Andre’s arm behind his back.

‘I think you better leave bro.’

Henry approaches them trying to calm them down. ‘Ok ok we are leaving.’

Miguel releases the arm of Andre, rubbing his sore arm and filled with rage at his philandering girlfriend he swings a right hook towards Miguel.

Miguel expertly dodges the strike and punches the gut of Andre, knocking the wind out of him.

Meanwhile Angelo has finally relieved himself and steps out of the shower room, he watches the confrontation evolve. He lunges at Miguel, surprising him and striking the side of his knee.

Miguel bends over clutching his leg, then Andre makes several strikes at the head of Miguel, Miguel pushes him away and prepares a massive strike.

A loose four by four board with rusted nails pierced through hits Miguel’s head skewering his eye and he falls backward splashing into the pool, his blood release into the calm blue water.

‘Lanie?’

‘I’m sorry Andre, we kept in touch, but I told him I have a boyfriend.’ She drops the board ‘he invited me over to talk, and he made me drink, and one thing led to another.’

Andre pulls her close and caresses her, rubbing her naked back and then raising his hand to her head, grabs a clump of dark hair and drags her to the pool ‘its ok Lanie’

With both arms he throws her in the pool.

Lanie submerges and bobs back up, swimming to the edge, trying to catch her breath as she gurgles on chlorinated blood. ‘A Andre? I’m…’

Andre leans over and holds Lanie’s head firm, he dips her head in the pool and she fights, her arms flailing about making wild splashes. ‘It’s ok Lanie.’

Henry runs towards Andre, trying to pry him away from Lanie. ‘Andre, Andre! Stop it man!’

‘It’s ok Henry, don’t worry about it, Lanie and I are ok.’

In the corner Angelo is rocking back and forth and chanting ‘Holy Mary mother of God…’

Green Haze

‘Hey! What are you doing out there?! You’re letting him skin you all over! Wake up Ganz!’

Ganz breathed rapidly and watched his sweat drip on the cold locker room floor. ‘Stupid Laurence’ muttered Ganz.

‘What?!?’

Ganz looked up at the cherry red face of his coach. The mismatched navy suit and gaudy purple scarf covered Ganz’s vision.

‘Ganz! Are you listening to me?’ The coach threw a water bottle across the room. ‘You’re the captain for God’s sake! You know how Laurie plays!’

‘Laurie.’s Ganz muttered. ‘Fucking bastard!’ Across him a scrawny young man shook his head.

‘What is it Kite? You want to say something? Say it!’

‘It’s your fault that we are one goal down! You are supposed to mark Kite! But…’

‘But what eh!?!’

‘But you let him score without even a scratch!’

The image of the deliberate feint and the contemptuous smirk played in Ganz’s mind. He saw all too often in his football career. In his prime he would have pummeled Laurence to the ground but his legs were giving in. ‘Fuck you kid! What do you know?’ Ganz threw the wet towel around his neck and stood. ‘Fuck all of you! Get back on the pitch and score the fucking goal!’

‘And what about you?’ Kite stood face to face with his captain.

‘My job.’ Ganz pushed Kite away and walked out of the room toward the tunnel.

The coach straightened his posture and smiled. He turned over to his assistant. ‘We have to shake things up.’

‘He really fired them up eh boss.’ The assistant revealed a notebook with some figures.

‘Ganz is a good captain. Too bad this is his last game.’

Ganz stood in front of his team. The purple jerseys stood in line like jittery eggplants in a field. He continuously beat his chest trying to get his heart pumping. ‘Forty five more minutes.’ Ganz thought about what he said. He had only forty five minutes. The final forty five minutes of his playing career. ‘I have to win this.’

A lanky man wearing a light blue number seven jersey patted Ganz’s back. ‘Gon’t beat yourself up old man. You’re getting slow and well I’m just too good.’

‘I still got enough to kick you around Laurie.’ Ganz kicked the air lightly. ‘Or have you forgotten?’

‘Show me.’

Ganz turned to Laurie and looked him in the eye. ‘See you on the pitch.’

The referees called in the players and ran out the tunnel. Their yellow and black uniforms made them look like falling leaves on the lush green field.

Ganz jogged on the field and commenced his good luck ritual. He bent low, touched the field with the tips of his fingers and lightly kissed his clenched fist. This was the last time he would perform his good luck ritual. Every second counted for him.

The team dispersed on the field. Two players dropped deep into the pitch and stood close to Ganz.

Ganz scanned the area infront of him. The defense lined up with five, three in midfield and two in offense. He realized that the coach wanted to defend. ‘He’s bloody giving up!’ thought Ganz. ‘Hey!’ Ganz pointed at the two side players. ‘You two! What are you doing? Your panzy asses can’t stay here!’

‘Captain!’ Screamed the player on the right. ‘The gaffer wanted us to help you out.’

‘What did you say?’

‘The gaffer…’

‘Are you going to listen to me or to the gaffer?’

‘Captain…’

‘Shut up and go up!’

The players knew better than to argue with Ganz and jogged to join the midfield.

‘Good lads.’ Ganz looked straight at the opposition. His sight created a beeline toward Laurie. ‘Time to dance.’

##

The coach smoothed over his pressed suit and tightened the scarf around his neck. He made sure that the club logo was visible for the cameras.

‘Boss you think Ganz should play?’

The coach raised an eyebrow at his assistant.

‘He looked like a bit player in the first half. And now he moved the guys back up.’

‘Ganz will do the job.’ The coach squeezed the shoulder of his assistant. ‘He does his best work under pressure.’

‘But boss if we lose then we head to the playoffs. And we have never won the playoffs.’

The coach smiled. ‘Either way Ganz will fight to the death.’

##

The referee looked over to his assistants and blew the whistle.

The blue team strikers passed the ball back to the wingers. Number eleven on the left broke through the blue side midfielder and ran down the flank unopposed. Laurie dropped back slightly and let his marker chase after number eleven.

‘Hey what are you doing!?!?’ Ganz screamed.

Laurie ran through the center and raised his hand. Number cut inside and released a low short pass to Laurie.

Ganz stood his ground. ‘This is it.’

Laurie engaged in a silky run. He drifted in and out of the center pitch drawing the defenders away from their marks. Number eight popped at the right and Lauie performed a one two pass.

‘Oye! What the hell are you doing?’

Laurie had the ball and two defenders were trailing him. He picked up speed and was one on one with Ganz. He noticed that the goalkeeper was out of his line. He thought about taking a shot but then decided against it. He wanted another go at embarrassing Ganz.

A purple jersey blitzed back. He had passed his two trailing team mates and closed down on Laurie.

Laurie looked to his right. The purple jersey was within sliding distance. Laurie deftly dinked the ball and it bounced off the defenders leg. Laurie turned around the player and regained control of the ball. He sprinted at full speed toward Ganz.

‘Not this time!’ Ganz ran toward Laurie.

Laurie was now in the opposition box. He creates some space between him and the ball.

Thud! Ganz clattered Laurie on the ground. He extended his arm at Laurie and pulled him up after the referee called for the physiotherapist.

‘Ouch that had to hurt.’

‘Not as much as the first goal.’

Ganz growled. ‘Well see who gets the last laugh.’

##

The coach sighed. ‘That was close.’

‘Ganz is really up for this. But Laurie knows how to handle Ganz.’

The coach mind went back to the time he first signed Laurie and Ganz roughed him up. ‘Ganz always called him a pansy.’

‘Ganz calls everyone a pansy.’

The two men laughed.

‘But boss why did you sell Laurie? He could have brought us up to the top.’

The coach shook his head. He knew that his assistant was right but the board forced him to sell. ‘We have other great potentials.’

‘Not like Laurie.’

‘We have Ganz.’

‘He is on fire isn’t he?’

‘He is a bull! Laurie better watch out.’

##

Laurie limped toward the sidelines.

‘Lie down Laurie.’ A man in a track suit knelt on the ground and pulled out a spray from his bag.

Laurie tilted his head as the cool mist sprayed at his knee.

‘Laurie, you should not even be playing we can sub you.’

Laurie pushed himself up and stretched his leg. ‘My knee is fine.’

‘I’m not talking about that.’ He pointed at his chest. ‘That could stop any minute!’

Laurie turned and stared at Ganz. ‘The most I can do is give him the game of his life.’

‘And what about your life? The doctor told you to hold off until they get more tests done.’

‘I owe him this.’

‘What is so special about him?’

‘He was my mentor.’

##

Ganz looked at the scoreboard. ‘Tie game.’

The assistant referee flashed a digital board indicating five minutes of extra time.

Ganz wheezed and massaged his thighs. ‘Five minutes. Five minutes until the end.’

Laurie received the ball from his team mate number eleven. He dribbled past two purple jersey players.

‘Oye!’ Ganz screamed.

Kite ran in from Laurie’s left and stole the ball.

‘You buggers push up! Support Kite!’ Ganz screamed at his defenders.

‘Captain you will be left alone.’

‘Less talking and more running!’ Ganz pushed their backs. ‘Make me proud.’

Kite ran with the ball through the center, three blue jerseys streaked across him. He passed back to the deep lying midfielder. The midfielder held the ball for a minute. Blue jerseys were circling around him. ‘Crud!’

‘Here! Pass back!’ The defender with number four ran with all he could. His lungs struggled to bring in oxygen and he could feel the stitches on his side. He received the ball from the midfielder and pumped it across the field.

‘Oye what are you doing?’ The midfielder screamed at the defender.

‘Look up you wanker!’

The midfielder turned and watched as Kite cleanly controlled the ball on the left flank. ‘Go! Go!’

Kite controlled the ball with the perfect mixture of guile and skill. ‘We have to win…I have to win!’

##

The referee blew his whistle and pointed toward the blue team.

‘Corner!’ Ganz ran up the field and called the goalkeeper. ‘Get up here! We have no time!’

The blue players surrounded the referee and screamed at him.

Laurie walked to the goalpost. ‘It’s almost over.’ His leg ached and he struggled to bend his knee. But this was not as painful as chest. A searing pain spread from his heard to his whole body. He looked over the sidelines to Tim. ‘Just one more minute.’ He mumbled.

Kite ran over to the corner flag. He set the ball down and took three deep breaths. Three breaths that would either decide glory or failure. He looked at the packed box. Ganz was running in late with the goalkeeper. This was it. He knew that his kick had to be perfect.

##

The ball curled toward the sideline barely passing it and flew in outward to the far post.

Laurie launched at the ball. He tried to jump but his knee jerked slightly and he barely left the ground.

Ganz sprung his knees with full force. This was the last move he would ever make in professional football. He spread his legs as his body suspended in mid air. He leaned his waist forward against the opposing body and snapped his neck at the incoming ball.

The referee blew his whistle and waved at the sidelines.

Ganz looked at the scoreboard. ‘It’s in! It’s in!’ He was surrounded by his team mates as they congratulated him. He fell on the ground and heaved. ‘It’s over!’ He turned his head and saw Laurie lying on the ground. ‘Shit!’ He stood up and ran to Laurie. He shook Laurie’s body. ‘Wake up!’ He slapped Laurie’s face lightly. ‘Wake up dammit!’ He stood up and pulled on Laurie’s arm. ‘Come on! Get up!’

The physios rand across the field with a stretcher.

‘You are not taking this away form me!’ Ganz kicked Laurie’s chest. ‘Get the bloody hell up!’ He kicked harder. ‘Get up you pansy!’

The physios knelt beside Laurie. Tim placed his fingers on Laurie’s wrist.

The purple team led by Kite pulled Ganz away. ‘Relax captain.’

‘How can I relax when the wanker is faking it!’

‘Captain!’ Kite blocked Ganz.

‘Wake up Laurie! Wake the bloody hell up!’ Ganz screamed.

Tim looked up at Ganz. ‘He can’t…’

‘What do you mean he can’t?’

‘Because he is dead.’

Escape

Raj manoeuvred through cratered streets surrounded by three-storey apartments, scooters and huddles of grown men chewing on betel leaves.

Seeking refuge for the refuse he came across a t-point junction. On his left was a makeshift basketball court daftly bordered with worn out tyres and illuminated by an odd array of terrace lights.

He limped toward a corner general store on the opposite direction. This was one of the many set-ups along this particular street.

An ogre looking man with a clean shaved face sized Raj up. His light brown shirt was lined with patches of scarlet drippings and his stained teeth were still full of the half-chewed betel concoction.

##

Raj’s modular desk was cluttered with papers and magazines. Organized chaos he always reminded himself. The papers were to make him look busy while the magazines were to impart my clients with dreams of yachts and private jets. He also had a Mercedes car key on his desk. He always told his clients that the car was with his Brazilian girlfriend. In reality he didn’t have a Mercedes nor do did he have a Brazilian girlfriend.

A dark pot-bellied man accompanied by a much younger man approached Raj’s desk. The man folded his hands before breaking into a worried smile.

Raj wheezed at the thought of entertaining this particular client. He received many clients like this who unknowingly paid for his whim and fancy.

The elder gentleman was seemingly a shadow of his former glory. He wore a cheap shirt and loose trousers. His son on the other hand sported a tight tee, unkempt beard and tattered jeans. He seemed like a twenty-something wannabe. Who was still living out his high school fantasy of binge drinking and fast women.

This client was no different from the others. Over the past three months the elderly gentleman had lost a significant chunk of his fortune. ‘Hi Raj, how are you today?’

Calm before the storm Raj thought. He smiled. ‘Coffee or Tea sir?’

The man waved his hand and kept the frown on his face.

‘How can I help you today sir?’

‘Listen last week you said that we have to invest more money to get our investment back on track.’

Raj nodded his head. He knew where this was going. He pulled the script he had ready in his mind.

The old man continued. ‘But I checked the market today and we are losing more money than before!’

Raj sensed a follow up.

‘Raj…’ The young man spoke with a shrill.

Raj looked at the young man’s shirt. It was white with a black print of skull and crossbones. The shirt seemed to be quite tight and the print stretched out to form inkblot shapes. ‘Clowns…I see two clowns.’ Raj snickered at this thought.

‘I think we should reinvest the money on T-bills or something similar.’

Raj’s mind disappeared for a second. All he could think of were clowns. Raj thought of three clowns stacked up in a tall column as the two men rambled on.

‘Raj?’ The old man asked. ‘Raj please explain the situation.’

Raj’s mind returned to the present and he straightened his tie. ‘I understand your concerns very much Mr. Bhardwaj.’ Nice interjection Raj assured himself. ‘Believe me when I say that you have invested in the best performing products in the market.’ Secure their confidence Raj thought. ‘Give them hope.’ He told himself as he read the script from his head. ‘And right now the market is correcting itself. Soon enough you will reap the benefits.’ Raj finished with some business school terminologies that he got off the internet.

The two men bobbed their heads in unison.

Funny clowns Raj thought.

##

The small five-by-five store was lined up with yellow, green and red colors of snacks with cartoon images of potato and celery sticks dancing. Several drinks were stored in a white refrigerator, colas, fruit-flavored fizz and water.

Raj rubbed his thigh. The pain returned to his leg and he closed his eyes for a moment hoping that the pain would disappear. But it did not. He looked down at the protruding blade in his calf. The wound was still fresh. Even fresher was the image of the lunatic that stuck the knife in him.

A red turban frantically floated on the other side of the counter and stopped every so often at the various items for sale.

Raj coughed for attention.

The turban continued moving.

Raj coughed louder.

The turban stopped and rose. A short man with wide brown eyes and an unkempt beard tiptoed to meet Raj. He spread his fingers. ‘What?’

Raj pointed at the water bottle in the fridge and poked around hi pockets for some money. He pulled out a handful of change and slid them across the wooden counter.

Raj picked up the bottle of water and gulped down the contents hurriedly. The cool liquid dripped from his mouth and quickly drenched his shirt. His thirst quenched, Raj released a loud ‘Ahhh.’ He wiped his mouth and continued walking down the narrow street. ‘They will be here soon.’ He muttered.

The brown-shirted and red-stained ogre joined a newly formed huddle across the street. The men wore striking colored head towels and stroked their stroke their beard in a hypnotic motion.

Raj limped past them and took heavy breaths. The cold air pierced through his lungs as the rough concrete crackled under his uneven footsteps.

##

Raj’s second meeting today was with his co-worker Ankit. Ankit was graduate of some business school and was amazingly good with numbers but not with people. He had been busy lately as a financial analyst. His job was to study the markets and with the current mess he was on overdrive.

Raj thought that Ankit must have not been with his girlfriend for a while. He almost felt sorry for them…almost.

Raj thought about Ankit’s girlfriend. She had nice baby pink lips, dark eyes and hair as slick as night. He smiled as he thought of that magical night with Ankit’s girlfriend. A couple of glasses of wine and she was straddling Raj on his couch. He felt his pants get tight.

Ankit slumped on the chair next to Raj with a sullen look.

Raj liked the fact that he sat beside Ankit. He had an easy access to the latest information before anyone else. Not that Raj needed it. He had a fund manager that he used to funnel the investments to. ‘That reminds me, I have to call Nikhil up.’ Raj flicked through his contacts under the letter ‘N.’

‘Raj…’ Ankit rolled his seat closer to Raj. ‘Something is wrong with Anita.’

Raj placed his phone down and smiled at the name of Ankit’s girlfriend. She was same girl that he bedded not too long ago and the same girl who worked as the receptionist in the bank.

‘I tried calling her the other night but she was not answering.’ He turned to his left and glanced at Anita in her station. ‘And she is not returning any of my calls.’

Raj knew who she was calling over and over again that night. He craned over Ankit’s shoulder and looked at Anita. His loins grew warm as he watched her bejewelled hands stroking the smooth desk.

Anita turned and noticed Raj’s longing stare. She mouthed a shy ‘hi’ and smiled slightly.

##

Angry footsteps splashed through the streets. The huddles attention turned to shadowy figures in the dark.

A property dealer was set side by side a small gym. In the background Raj heard a cricket match and food-filled conversations about the latest IPL news. Just on the slight nook behind the gym was an open staircase that led up to the third floor. Raj looked up the rundown building and noticed plastered posts and overhanging laundry. ‘Good cover.’ He thought.

Adjacent to the marbled steps was a squat room. Inside a family was about to have dinner. The pungent scent of cooked onions mixed with local spices brought pangs to Raj’s stomach.

Raj shook his head as he heard the footsteps draw claser. ‘The heat of the chase grows closer.’ He thought. He turned around and his heart raced as he saw the shadowed figures pushing men and kicking stools. ‘Shit!’ He thought.

Raj dragged his leg back. The huddles pointed to his direction and he needed to hide. He looked at the marble steps. ‘Not enough time.’ He watched the shadow figures running and screaming toward him. The smell came back to him and his mind wandered. He looked to his right at steaming stacks of bread. A family of three was about to sit down for dinner. ‘I could hit them from here.’ He mumbled. Raj lifted his half-filled water bottle and threw it at the house to his right. The bottle twisted and twirled toward the house. The water shifted from neck to base and the bottle bounced off the side wall only inches away from the window pane. Raj bounced his head against the wall. ‘Shit!’ He dragged himself closer to the stairwell and caught his limp foot on something. It was a loose tile on the ground. He picked it up. It was heavy and fitted perfectly in his palm. ‘Perfect!’

Raj excitedly hurled the tile through the air. He whispered a prayer as he watched the tile slice a path toward the window. The window shattered into jig-saw pieces and landed smack in the middle of lentil soup. Raj smiled and dragged himself into the stairwell.

An angry stream of words followed and the door to the house swung open.

Raj sensed an altercation and quickened his pace. He lifted himself up the marbled stairs. Five steps up and three steps right thrice in repetition led him to the terrace.

##

After meeting with Ankit the big boss wanted to see Raj. His boss was a very stout fellow, always glaring at the movement of the markets and listening to every blameful comment directed at his company. ‘What is going on here? Our clients just lost a bundle with our investments!’ He was referring about the father and son Raj had met earlier.

Raj wince at the familiarity between his boss and clinet. ‘Boss! Boss! You have to relax and not listen to these people. If they knew anything they would be the ones working in an esteemed bank like yours. A bank that you built to the top with nothing more than spare change and your sharp mind.’

‘That is true.’

Raj complimented himself on his charm. He thought that his boss was an idiot. He knew that his boss did not know the difference between a chicken and an egg. The man inherited this company from his father who cheated people of their life savings. Raj was just continuing the tradition.

‘Then why is this happening?’

‘Boss! All my advice and recommendations came from the reports of our research team.’ Raj paused for a minute as he sensed the shift in anger. ‘I would not advice our clients otherwise.’ Raj covered his tracks. He knew the boss would blame Ankit and not suspect him of swindling his clients with the help of his fund manager.

‘Whose reports did you read?’

‘Ankit’s.’ Raj answered while trying his best to show an innocent look.

The boss growled and picked up his intercom. ‘Anita call Ankit!’

Raj left the office and walked past Anita’s station.

She curled her orange tinted lips.

He waltzed his hand temptingly close to her dainty fingers.

She tilted her head and smiled shyly.

Raj thought of the other night once more. Anita seemed very rough and in control but today she was demure. He smiled back at her and returned to his desk.

##

Raj leaned up against a plastered post under overhanging women’s laundry. A set of floral skirts and dark toned underwear provided subtle urban decor.

Down below a balding man in his fifties confronted the puzzled shadow figures. He wore a white vest-undershirt and checkered bed sheet of purple, orange and yellow. In his hand he held the lentil covered tile and screamed while flapping his arms.

A dark huddle circled him. Their beady eyes were red with anger and confusion. They pushed the man around and screamed back at him.

‘ARGHHHH!’ The vested man shrilled and dropped on his knees. Blood seeped from his shirt and he held tightly on the tile.

‘Oh shit!’ Raj ducked behind the wall. He covered his mouth with trembling hands. ‘Fuck! Fuck!’ He repeatedly struck the marble floor with clenched fist. ‘Why? Why did this have to happen to me?’

##

‘How could you tell them it’s my fault?!?’ Ankit thumped hi fist on Raj’s desk.

Raj looked away from the latest Eddie Izzard video and smirked at Ankit. ‘I did not blame anybody.’

‘Yes! Yes you did! You told them you used my reports.’

Raj stood up and glared strait at Ankit. The difference in height was obvious and he had to tilt his head slightly. ‘I did use your reports. So did everyone else in this office. Are you saying that they didn’t? Are you then saying that it is their fault for the mess you are in?’

Ankit looked nervously around the office.

‘Listen Ankit!’ Raj poked Ankit’s chest hard. ‘If anyone is blaming anybody it is you! Take responsibility for your mistakes! We sell what you tell us to sell.’ He took a deep breath before increasing his voice while maintaining the same ferociousness in tone. ‘Man up! Like how you should have manned up to your girlfriend!’

Ankit’s face turns red. He contorted his face which stretched little goatie. ‘What did you say?!?’

‘Man up Loser boy! No girl wants to be with a stammering George Michael wannabe!’ Raj looked around the office, everyone was staring at them. He decided that he should leave and grabbed his coat.

‘You… You… You Bastard!’

Raj turned around fell back at Ankit’s tackle. He flew through the doorway and collapsed on a table.

Ankit swung successive punches, starting with a left and continuing with a string of right jabs.

Raj raised a knee and kicked Ankit off.

The boss walked out of his office followed by a group of clients. He powered through a group of shocked employees. ‘Ankit! What is the meaning of this?’

Ankit stopped and looked up at his boss.

Raj’s lip had been cut from the vicious punches.

Ankit’s pointed at Raj. ‘He is the reason why the customers lost all their money.’ He stood up and staggered for balance. ‘He neglected my reports and embezzled their money!’

Raj pushed himself up and turned to his boss. ‘Boss…’ Flabbergasted he turned to Ankit and cursed the righteousness bullshit. ‘Stupid guy was jealous!’ Raj leaned on the nearby table and caught his breath. His hand touched a pocket knife. ‘Fucking bastard!’ He grabbed the knife and charge at Ankit. ‘Your girlfriend was really wild.’

‘What?!?’ Ankit twisted Raj’s arm.

‘Ahhh!’ Raj screamed and tried to squeeze out of the hold.

‘Is this true? Anita! Is this true?’

Anita yelped and tears rolled down her cheeks. She covered her mouth with her bejeweled hands and shook her head. ‘Ank..it…I’

With knife in hand, Raj swung backwards at Ankit.

Ankit dodged the strike and kicked Raj on his rear.

Raj fell flat on the ground and released his grip on the knife. He gasped for breath and lifted himself from his knees. ‘Argh!’ He felt a sharp pain and fell back on the ground. He turned and watched the young client dig the knife deep into his calf. ‘You clown! Why did you do that?’

‘You fucking bastard! I knew you squandered my dad’s money!’ The security guard locked his elbows with the young man and pulled him away. ‘You took his money didn’t you?!? Where is the money you fucking bastard!’

Raj struggled to get up from the bloodstained blue carpet. He turned to the young man and shrugged his shoulders. ‘If you were smart enough you would be in my position you little prick!’ He gave his boss a haughty look. ‘All of you need me! Especially you!’

The boss ground his teeth. ‘Get out! Get out of my sight!’

Raj limped out of the door and into the parking lot. He retrieved his keys from his pocket and slipped into his Maruti SX4. He turned the key in the ignition and screeched onto the main road. ‘I need to go to the hospital.’ He played the whole scene in my head. ‘I guess I am now unemployed.’ He released a distressed laugh. ‘All I needed was a few months.’ He reached an intersection and the light turned red. He relaxed and turned on the stereo. Raj heard a loud crash. He looked at the stereo and the volume was low. He looked back and noticed that his windscreen had been shattered.

‘You’re not getting away!’ The young man held a rusty blunt pipe and stalked toward the front of the car. Behind him a hoard followed.

Raj stepped on the gas and ran through the light. He quickly picked up speed and weave through traffic. He Glanced at his rear view mirror and noticed the boy stumble as he adamantly ran. Raj switched his attention to the road. A passenger car cut in front of him and two taxi-cabs blocked him on either side. ‘Get out!’ Raj blared his horn.

The passenger car waved his hand.

‘I have nowhere to go! Hurry the fuck up!’ Raj watched the distance close and he stepped on the brakes. His car was still closing in and he decided to steer his car to avoid an impact. The wheels locked and he spun out of control.

The taxi cabs tried to move out of the way but were too late. Raj’s car struck both vehicles and the three cars spiraled into a deadly three way dance

Raj’s car broke from the lock and smashed tire first onto the concrete sidewalk of South extension.

In the distance the taxi cabs collided head on to form a makeshift barricade.

Dizzy and confused Raj watched as the pileup formed from the edge of his tire tracks.

The young man leapt forward and the two taxi drivers joined in the horde running after Raj.

Raj jumped out of the car and ran toward Dayanand Colony seeking shelter.

##

Breathing heavily, Raj clutched his head in his hands.

The horde slowly dispersed under the shadow of night swallowing their presence.

He peered over the wall trembling.

The man laid there in his bloodsoaked shirt. A young boy and older woman knelt beside him and tried to shake the dead body into life. The piercing wail of the woman pierced the darkness and into Raj’s heart.

Raj scanned the scene. The huddles from the entrance of Dayanand Colony crept around the lifeless body. Not far from him was a trail of blood. It was the same blood that would be traced to Raj. ‘I need to get out of here.’

The stairwell was the only way in or out. On each floor there were two thick doors that led to apartments.

Raj pulled on the handle of the doors, they were locked. He pushed on the doorbell but received a shock instead. He looked at the scene once more and he saw the little boy stare back at him with a scream. ‘Shit!’ He checked the windows. All windows were dim and locked except one. ‘Yes!’ Raj quietly entered through the gap and hopped in a lightless room. He closed the window and felt his way around.

A light suddenly turned on and revealed a plush interior. Deep set Persian carpets crept on the ground while beaded chains hung from the ceilings. The light reflected a multicolored tint from stained glass adornments.

A slender figure patiently sat cross-legged on the ground.

Raj noticed that the figure wore a rubber suit. There was a slight cleavage at the chest and Raj thought that the figure was a woman.

She slowly crawled to Raj.

He watched as she stalked toward him. He swallowed and tried to speak. The combination of fatigue, pain and shock left him tongue tied for the first time in his life.

She tilted her head and silently mouthed a ‘Hi.’

‘I…’

She rose and pressed a leather gloved finger on his lips.

He relaxed as the cool leather soothed his chapped lips. ‘I…’

She rubbed her leg against his and lightly kicked her heel at the knife.

‘Ouch!’

She kicked it harder.

‘Argh!’ What are you doing?’

She tilted her head and walked away.

‘Please help.’ He sputtered. ‘Please.’

She stopped at a cloth covered table laden with lit candles of varying colors and sizes. She glided her hand over an array of bottles and jars. She mixed several bottles into a glass and sprinkled some powder from an open jar. She turned to Raj and called him over with her finger.

He limped forward and took the glass from her. The liquid was milky and it had a strong scent. He could not identify what it was but its stench stung his nose.

She tilted her head and pushed the glass from under the base.

‘Thank you.’ He muttered under his breath and sipped the drink. He thought that the drink was quite refreshing. But he was curious at the woman. Her body was very curvaceous. But what was she hiding under her body suit. He then thought that maybe there was something wrong with the drink. He decided to take slow sips. ‘I’m still ok.’ He told himself. After several sips he gulped the whole glass down. The pain in his leg had reduced. He smiled. ‘Thank you.’

She placed the glass on the table and slinked off toward a narrow door.

He followed her and glanced around the room. He noticed very unorthodox interiors. Wood bordered walls adorned with stuffed animals of different sorts, from small furry woodland creatures up to disgusting urban cretins. He dragged himself through beaded strings. The room he entered was not much different. It had more stuffed creatures and two life sized furnishings on the each side of a large bed. He did not recognize any of them except that one of them resembled an Iron Maiden.

She pointed toward the bed. A lover’s seat sat at the edge. He sat down and sighed in relief. He had been dragging his leg around for so long and he finally had a chance to rest.

The woman shut the door and crawled toward him.

He watched the woman slink from the door and he rubbed his eyes at what he saw.

The door was like any other common door. It was made out of wood and painted with a glossy white finish. Except for one minute detail.

‘What is this?’ He screamed.

She rubbed his leg and whimpered.

‘I’m sorry.’ He leaned down. ‘But what is my picture doing on your door?’

She pointed her finger toward the ceiling.

He looked up and saw see more beads. The light shone brightly but the stained glass covered the room in a slight haze. There was something odd however. Directly above him there were cables that suspended something. It seemed like shiny hoops. He focused his eyes closer. ‘What is that?’ The shiny hoops were attached to something outstretched. ‘A… Ankit?!?’ He screamed. The suspended body of Ankit hung loosely from the ceiling. The hooks pierced through the naked flesh and pulled the bloody skin apart. ‘What is going on?!?’

She tore off her gloves and revealed dainty hands bejewelled with bracelets and rings. She sat beside him and kissed him through the opening of her mask. Her tongue swirled inside his mouth.

He released his mouth from hers and pulled off her mask.

The woman had slick black hair, succulent orange tinted lips and dark-set eyes.

‘Anita?’

She smiled.

He tried to jump but he could not move his legs. He raised his arm to touch her face but dropped it mid-way. ‘What?’ He tried to raise his arm again but it felt like lead. He breathed deeply and he could not feel anything at all not even the stinging pain of his leg.

She placed her finger on his lips once more. Her eyes pierced his. She leaned closer and licked the cut on his lip. ‘Your blood tastes better than Ankit’s’ Her hand caressed Raj’s face and slowly travelled down his body. She wiggled the knife. ‘Does it hurt?’

‘Ugh…’ Raj’s mouth was getting numb and he could hardly string a sentence.

She gripped on the knife and jerked it loose. The upward pull tore more skin and sinew.

‘ARGHHH!’ He screamed. ‘Wha..What…’ He took a deep breath. ‘What do you want from me?’

She straddled him and licked the blood from the knife. Her hair whipped around in excitement. She leaned close to his ear and whispered. ‘I want to hear you scream!’