A police sharpshooter with Asperger’s syndrome is tasked with cleaning up the streets of Mumbai in this “gripping thriller” (Booklist).
In recent decades, ostensibly to combat the rising tide of criminality in Mumbai’s underworld, the Indian Police Service has carried out many hundreds of extrajudicial assassinations of suspects. Karan, an expert sharpshooter in an elite branch dispensed with dishing out this vigilante justice, has a difficult choice: should he continue to blindly follow orders from his superiors, regardless of their moral standing, or take matters into his own hands and do what he believes to be right?
Belonging to a hit squad whose members all fall somewhere along the autism spectrum, Karan is notorious for his ruthless precision and efficiency, yet he remains aloof and distant. Gradually, his impenetrable façade begins to crack, and Karan’s emotional and psychological depth reveals itself as he is forced to make decisions where the stakes are literally life-and-death.
“A melancholy cop’s obsessions are just the tip of the iceberg as he leads a two-fisted team determined to clean up Mumbai’s mean streets . . . Kumar’s style, blunt but often by turns poetic and droll, is arresting . . . As unusual as it is compelling, this entry lays the groundwork for an entertaining series.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Kumar has created some thoroughly intriguing characters . . . but the most fascinating of Kumar’s characters is Mumbai itself—enormous, crowded, hyperactive, roiling, stunningly rich and grindingly poor, and teeming with almost unfathomable energy. International-crime fans should flock to this one.” —Booklist
|Publisher:||Akashic Books (Ignition)|
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THE FIRST ENCOUNTER
Some Months Later
The priests lit a fire in his house and fed it some cow fat. Flames leapt and the smoke licked the ceiling before spreading to the corners of the large hall. The small group of guests coughed and sneezed as the chanting reached a crescendo and tapered with, "Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti." They looked around the hall for Swamy, their host. Swamy was seated on the floor in a hidden chamber, head bowed, his legs folded beneath him. He was breathing deeply. "Shanti, Shanti, Shanti," chanted the priest corps. Swamy scowled. It wasn't working. What was the point of having priests on his payroll?
He left quietly, a thief in his own house. Three bodyguards checked for any signs of trouble, ushered him into a black SUV, and then got in behind him. Swamy jockeyed for space to breathe. "All clear," said the driver. They pulled away. The vehicle weaved its way through lanes and alleys before arriving at a nondescript building. Inside was Swamy's lifeline. A doctor escorted him up some stairs and they entered a white-tiled room where Swamy rolled up his sleeves, exposed his veins, and submitted himself to the machine. A middle-aged man who was already waiting in the room shuffled over and sat beside him. It was a practiced routine. They spoke occasionally, cracked some jokes over the next three hours before their heads dropped and they dozed. Swamy's phone rang, breaking his stupor. He peered at the number absently.
"Would you like to live longer, Swamy?" asked the caller.
"What?" Swamy stared at his phone in horror. The SIM card was half a day old and they had traced him already.
"Take a deep breath, Swamy Anna."
He took one. He wanted to kill the call. The tainted SIM would give away his location very soon.
"You need blood, Swamy Anna, good clean blood. Stand up now, go take a piss."
He couldn't and they knew it. "How much longer?" he asked the nurse.
"We are done," she said. She massaged his wrists and his feet.
He stood up abruptly and his head swam.
"Go see your granddaughter, Swamy. She is traveling soon."
He rubbed his temples as he grew furious. He slumped on the bed, opened the back cover of the phone, and pulled out the SIM card. His hands shook as he broke it in two.
"They are threatening me." He pointed at himself. "Me." The bodyguards who stood near the door snorted in unison.
The middle-aged man spoke softly: "That is their job, Anna. They wouldn't dare take on someone as important as you."
Swamy wanted to get up and leave. He half rose before falling back, his head hitting the backrest. This new police encounter team bothered him. It was headed by Ranvir Pratap, a name that brought bile to Swamy's lips. He coughed and almost retched.
"Get me a damn towel — you, quickly!"
A burly guard brought a white towel. In his hurry he dropped his automatic weapon and it clattered on the floor. The doctor jumped first and the nurse jumped next as the weapon's snout raked the room and came to rest pointing at their feet. Swamy glanced at the ceiling and then slowly lowered his gaze. His outburst was preempted by a pinging sound. The middle-aged man pulled out his phone and he read the message aloud. "A week from now is an inauspicious date. Message from Mumbai police."
"That would be the eleventh," said Swamy, his voice down to a whisper. "They have even declared a bloody date." He ruefully examined the veins in his hands. What had they done to him?
They left the makeshift dialysis clinic. It was night in this obscure middle-class neighborhood with its crowded streets, where the local population worshipped the Don of Wadala, who now sat in his SUV and allowed himself some filtered coffee. He took a couple of sips and his body relaxed, relieved to be away from the stern gaze of Mrs. Swamy. They headed to a small temple where a bare-chested priest was waiting impatiently, watching the clock reach the appointed hour. The priest lit some camphor as Swamy crossed the threshold, right foot first, head bare, hands folded. He then rang a small bell and made three circles with the flame chanting a Sanskrit shloka. The priest would often offer some fruits and flowers to the deity on Swamy's behalf. The stone deity was small and black and the sanctum was dimly lit. Roaches and rats scurried in the dark reaches.
* * *
In the first floor of his chawl Karan flung off the covers, brushed his hair, and threw on his uniform. He slammed the door behind him, took the stairs two at a time, and ran across the quadrangle down a narrow lane into a small nook where he parked his dented car with one wobbly wheel. His Fiat had bucket seats and a floor-shift and it rattled as he drove down the western arterial. When he exited at the office blocks near Haji Ali and headed toward the sea, he saw another version of the chawl. The chawls came in various shapes and sizes and this one was built on common land. The roadside here was a public convenience. Power was available on tap and water came in tankers paid for by the brotherhood. Everything (his car, the chawl) seemed makeshift and temporary and rightly so, because in Mumbai poverty was considered a temporary affliction. This was the faith, the one illusion that kept the murky reality at bay.
A single command before the voice on the other end of the line hung up: "Head to the seaface."
After a while the Worli Seaface turned genteel. Karan parked his car, locked it, and got down to his favorite pastime: watching. A rain- bearing cloud hung over the sea, thinking about landfall. The tide was low and the rocks jutted out of the water near the shore, where two men completed their morning ablutions.
"Don't get out of your car yet."
In a holster near his midriff, Karan carried an American pistol, a Ruger, just like his infamous predecessor, Inspector Pradeep Sharma — Karan admired his senior because of how he stood, hands folded across his chest, the matter-of-fact way he spoke, and above all the uncommon reputation he left behind him. Pradeep Sharma was from the Class of 1983, a Mumbai police class that eliminated hundreds of gangsters but subsequently did not age well.
At the stroke of nine, just as the second hand of his watch aligned with the hour, his phone rang again. Karan waited for three rings, flipping the cover open as he took it to his ear. After a small pause someone spoke.
"I hope you are not wearing your uniform."
"I am," he replied. He thought the uniform would help.
"Have you lost your mind?" shouted the caller. "Is that how you meet an informer?" There was a murmur in the background. "Well, because of your stupidity we'll have to change the location. Start the car and drive slowly past the Worli Dairy. There will be a traffic signal up ahead." The caller spoke again to someone who was with him: "Yes, that light will turn red when you approach. Don't worry, it will. Someone will come up to your window selling magazines. Keep your window down. You will buy a magazine from him. Inside there will be a message that will tell you when and where to go. Got it?"
"Why all this drama?" asked Karan.
"You do your job, I'll do mine. I have to keep the informer alive."
Karan looked to see if there was anybody around. The seaface was deserted. He did as he was told.
That night he reread Swamy's bulky folder. It was incredible how someone like Swamy had survived for so long despite the attention shown by the police and the judiciary. The court case against him began twelve years ago. Two witnesses were dead, one had gone missing, and fourteen had turned hostile. A decision was due next month and the file said it was likely the prosecution would lose.
* * *
Swamy began his career as a porter in a railway station. Tired of small change, he began to loot goods from trains that passed through it. In all he killed three people as he rose to the top of the heap in the railway yards. Each of the deceased was tied to the tracks and left to the vagaries of the overnight express train. Soon his leadership was undisputed. He granted people favors and in return he adjudicated their lives. His gang collected a daily or weekly fee from most commercial establishments in Wadala. He had the traders by the balls. Even Muruga, the ruling deity, was a lesser entity than Swamy in Wadala, a god with a weaker sovereignty. Swamy's followers knew that while Muruga might be a superior being above, in this life they'd have to reckon with this bloody goon.
Swamy was a Tamilian from the south of the country and built up his fearsome network between 1975 and 1985. A phone call from Swamy was a dagger to the heart. People who answered his call died twice. Every year Swamy would conduct a show killing and the press built his mythology by going into a feeding frenzy every time, making him out to be the most fearsome don since Haji Mastan and Karim Lala.
Meanwhile, nobody dared search Swamy's pockets, and for some decades they swelled with ill-gotten gains. Some of it went to cops and some to magistrates. The rest was naturally seen with a blind eye. Who the fuck cared?
"I do," said Ranvir Pratap.
A couple of years back a reputed astrologer told Swamy he was past his due date. Swamy disappeared and went underground. Nobody had seen him since, though it was rumored he came out at night in an SUV with tinted windows and that he visited temples where he prayed for his own longevity.
He had reason to feel threatened. The Bombay police had taken out a contract on Swamy, after all. That was just how it was done. The local term for this practice among the crime gangs was supari. No one in the police force wanted this particular supari, and so it landed in the lap of a greenhorn, a relative newcomer in a new squad who had a reputation for never missing in target practice. His name was Karan and he was reported to be a little mental. He had agreed on one condition — the encounter would not happen in Wadala. There was no question of challenging Swamy on his own turf.
"Do we have a date?" asked Karan.
"Yes," said Desai, his controller. "The eleventh. Boss likes the eleventh."
Because on January 11 Surve died. He died, man. They were waiting for him and they waylaid him. He lay in an ambulance and cursed till the moment he went. Karan saw the body and the grimace in a grainy photograph. Surve was a burly figure with a chestful of hair. They trapped him when he emerged from a taxi near the Ambedkar College junction. The police had been tipped off and two cops got him. Surve was armed; it seems he fired first, but he missed. Raja Tambat and Isaque Bagwan entered history books by firing a clip of bullets into Surve's chest and shoulder. This was history, the first encounter killing carried out by Mumbai police. And it happened in Wadala on January 11, 1982.
* * *
It was said of Karan that he seemed like a "decent" person when he joined the force. The fact that he would kill people would color his résumé somewhat but that was a departmental thing — a job description — and something he had to do to get a salary and a promotion. His boss Ranvir Pratap had ground to make up. Too many hoods who had practiced mayhem for so long had lived well into their eighties and nineties. It felt unnatural, almost a failure for cops like him that so many of them died from natural causes.
Karan was an unlikely specialist. He was prone to stand for hours on the roadside, an uneaten dish in front of him, speaking in a monotone to either his wife Nandini or to his controller, a disembodied voice named Desai. And this would happen in the midst of an assignment. It was scary that he could still execute successfully.
"What was in the magazine?" asked Desai later that night.
"A list of two things: the temple he will visit tomorrow; and his preferred seat inside his car."
"Is that enough for you?" asked Desai. He sounded skeptical. "Do you need backup? Should we get you a semiautomatic weapon?"
"No, it will be too obvious. His people will spot me." There was no point in telling Desai that he had never used an automatic weapon.
"Who was that?" asked Nandini when he returned to the table. They were having dinner.
"No one important," said Karan. He sat down heavily and stared at his plate.
He couldn't. He poked at the food. "I'm not hungry."
"Then go to sleep," his wife said.
The night was too quiet and the chawl was full of furtive sounds. In bed, he couldn't toss and turn as he wished because Nandini was a light sleeper. He stared at his phone in the dark and watched time pass slowly.
"Why aren't you asleep?" she asked at one point.
He found an excuse to walk into the outside corridor where he could glimpse the city lights. Beyond the chawl Bombay was shape-shifting. The factory worker and the trade unionist had walked into the sunset, pulling down the curtain on the era of local manufacturing. The militant political party had thrived using jingoism and strong-arm tactics. Spiffy office-goers arrived, and they too thrived thanks to liberalization and the opening up of the economy. A certain licentiousness had seeped into the city, a rowdy good nature exemplified in its cuisine and its festivity. Then, with the arrival of immigrants, Bombay retired, its suburban identity prevailed, and the city called Mumbai found its voice. Mumbai turned its back on Bombay, then dropped its pants and showed its rump. One survivor in this transformation was the chawl. It was a distinctively Bombay creation, and a hardy piece of architecture that was now a curious remnant in Mumbai.
The next morning Karan stood in the shower and let the hot water burn his back and his arms till they reddened. He toweled himself down slowly and deliberately. This would be his first kill. It was a strange assignment and he had been told if he had a clear shot he should take it, even if it was fleeting. He knew that it would happen near his home, too close, but still ... it would be public and brazen.
"Aren't you going to the office today? It is raining, Karan, so you better leave early."
What should he tell her, that he was waiting to find an auspicious time for a kill? She left for work after packing his lunch. He stood by for a call that never came, and finally at noon he sat at his dining table and ate his lunch. And later, he snuck out like a thief.
It was raining hard on his chawl in Parel. The chawl was covered with blue plastic sheets held down by bricks. Beneath them was a tarpaulin cover and the few cracks in the tiled roof were filled with black tar. Karan waited under an awning but water still found a way to drip onto his head. From his vantage it seemed parts of the city were literally going down the drains.
His thoughts traveled back to a time when the city bled. It wasn't long ago when Bombay was divided on religious lines. The Mumbai riots were terrible and right here in this gully there was arson and looting. Today no signs remained; nothing except the figureheads and their sycophants. The shakhas were still around, and then there were the local mukhyas and prajapatis. These were the true satraps of this city. They sponsored the revelry on the streets. At festival time they would take money from the residents and fund their pandals and processions.
He was meticulous in his preparation. Karan had readied his weapon the night before but keeping it dry in the monsoon was a challenge. The roadside gutters had flooded into streams. A large, ungainly rat looked on as the swirl consumed its hideaway; a child gleefully watched the animal get carried away by the deluge.
Umbrellas formed herds at traffic junctions. The office workers waited impatiently for the traffic lights to change before heading to the new gleaming towers that had sprung up where the mills once stood. When he got tired of taking practice shots Karan joined them, walking with them for a couple of kilometers before returning, a black umbrella hiding his head. Another hour passed and still no news, so he zigzagged across the road, visited some shops, and returned to his spot once more. Occasionally he stood in the open, defying the driving rain.
A few vehicles clattered past the chawl, splashing water and making waves, a street vendor shouted in vain as his wares were sodden, and the gears of a double-decker bus clashed as it rounded a bend. This was getting tedious. The delay continued. He held his umbrella high and negotiated a crossing. When he tired of holding it he folded it, exposing his mop of soaking black hair.
He was just another tall man wearing a gray raincoat and plastic shoes.
The day departed and the rain mercifully eased. Nightlife arrived in a taxi, an old yellow-black Fiat, a braveheart that had seen three engine changes. The cab and the cabbie idled by the roadside, their engines ticking, keeping an eye out for cops. Their passenger was clearly a woman on the make.
"Mangta kya?" she asked passersby, thrusting a hip, parting her lips, and twirling a bag around her right wrist. She posed next to the Fiat, trying to entice. The interior of the taxi glowed and was playing a song from the film Pakeezah. A drunk leered at her. "Chal phut!" she shouted. Get lost.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Third Squad"
Copyright © 2017 V. Sanjay Kumar.
Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Somewhere Outside Pune, India,
The First Encounter,
Encounter Twenty-Five: Gonzales,
Cast a Lazy Eye,
Encounter Twenty-Eight: Panduranga,
Department Records: Counterintelligence,
Inside or Out?,
The Minds of Men,
The Bahurupi Sena,
Department of Counterintelligence,
Day Four: Encounter ThiRty-four,
The Next Day,
About V. Sanjay Kumar,
Copyright & Credits,
About Akashic Books,