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08 - 14 Sept, 2012
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THE ORCHARD ON FIRE
 
FICTION

The glass slipped from his fingers and smashed into smithereens. The water was all over the floor. Zafar jerked around viciously, heart ramming away in his chest, wild eyed with fear. He could feel her presence. He had seen her again, not two inches away this time. Four feet tall, black hair, pale skin. Would she never leave him alone? She was always watching, always waiting.
The cracked, age-stained tiles of the miserable kitchenette were so completely wet that he could see reflections in it. Reflections and shadows. But none of VENDOR CHRONICLESthem showed her. She came so close, she was so cruel. What made her even more frightening was the fact that she would show herself to nobody else. He knew not what she was, but he was afraid as he had never been in his life.
She was a little girl only, but she controlled his every action now.
Except when he was at work – he had freedom to breathe there, at least. He was a waiter at the Marriott Hotel. But now, she had started following him there too. She only came when he was alone. He had considered it a few times, but he could not run away from her: she would follow. And he did not want to raise her to wrath. He had seen only a glimpse of it; it had made him tremble and choke. The sheer rage with which she had flung about the plates and pots and tools… he shuddered in remembrance. No, her anger made his heart stop dead. Her very presence gave him palpitations. It was not even safe to plan an escape: she could read him like an open book. So he simply had to follow her orders. His associate, Jamal, had to do what was required.

* * *
Ali Nabi Khan strode down the crowded Korangi street, one great jovial Pathan holding the hand of a little girl named Faryal. Faryal had already started to put on a little weight in the past week that she had spent with the Nabi Khan twins. Which wasn't a surprise: Ali took just about as much nonsense from kids as he did from anyone else, and he forced her to eat. Compared to before she had almost lost that hunted look, but if you hadn't seen her priorly you would still think the child oddly haunted.
The twins had known the girl couldn't stay from day one – people would talk, besides the fact that theirs was no home for a child: they seldom even came to it. And though they had hit upon the perfect foster home for her, they had prolonged Faryal's departure as long as they could. They couldn't, any more; Raheela's disguise was too difficult to keep up at such close quarters under the absolute scrutiny that can only be a child's.
So presently, while Raheel rested for one last complete day, Ali walked the child to the house of one Jamila. She was a jolly middle-aged widow with a large family who was always very hard up. But she looked on the twins as her own sons, and they often helped her out with more than just bills. Ali had talked to her explaining Faryal's circumstances – as much as he deemed fit, anyway, and Jamila had agreed to take the child in.
At Raheel's skeptical air Ali had been goaded into replying, extremely incensed, "Fine – we'll check in on them every week, ass. We'll take Fairy out for cross-questioning. You're such a cynical douchebag, Raheel. Don't you trust Jamila?"
Raheel had been supremely unperturbed by the abuse. "Oh, I trust her," she'd replied with a smile, "I just don't trust her circumstances."
VENDOR CHRONICLESAnd so it was that Ali found himself in that particular shady alley, escorting the fragile little thing to her new home. She was so nervous of everything, it was really quite pitiful. She clutched his hand hard, and shrank towards him whenever the traffic doubled, or when a rickshaw blew its harsh horn, or when the strange dark characters that roam all such alleys appeared.
Suddenly, a window was thrown open with a bang like a gunshot.
"Bhagwaan ray!" a man's hoarse voice screeched, echoing down the alley. "Have you taken to haunting other men too?"
Faryal had jumped like a frightened colt and clung to Ali, quaking with terror.
Ali held the child protectively, and looked up bristling in fury. "Have you gone mad, you –"
But what he saw made him stop short.
The man in the window wasn't jubilant or jeering, he wasn't even angry: he was afraid. His face was drawn into taut lines, and there were dark circles under his eyes. He was almost as afraid as the pitiable creature that clung to Ali's leg now. And there was something about that in itself that brought a frown of puzzlement into the man's expression.
Ali was suddenly sure he had been mistaken. "Were you talking us?" he asked, his tone at a crossroads between apology and hostility. "Were you addressing this child?"
The man looked on him, too astonished to speak for a few moments. "You can see her too?" he breathed in wonder.
Ali realised he had never seen such a funny pair of moustaches; long and drooping on either side to below his shaved chin.
"Well," he replied with a sarcastic grin, "I'm not blind, man. Good day to you!" and then he strode off down the alley muttering, "Wacko."

Three days later the twins stood in the office of the Police Superintendent Anwar Kareem. Well, it is to say they should have been standing there. However, Ali was too lazy and easy-going, and Raheel was simply too indifferent to know his place in the world – the world that is the tightly regulated and rather brutal social order binding the country.
But the inspector, aside from the bristling grey moustache, made no demur. These boys, who basically looked like sleepy idiots, were useful. Every man is a merchant in his line of work, and the inspector knew they were advantageous assets in his. His jurisdiction was mainly Lyari, but they brought him news from all over. No doubt only when it suited them, he knew. But he also knew the intelligence they brought was worth his while.
"The smuggling ring," he said abruptly but with total frankness, "is too fat to fry. It's big fish, and my pan's not big enough."
"You sound like that fat douchebag cook on TV," Ali returned with equal frankness. "They're stealing our natural resources – mineral and wildlife. You can totally put them behind bars for that and stop – yaar," he pounded his fist into the table, "it insults my intelligence to know such people run around wild and free, and no one will do anything to change it."
But Anwar Kareem had sons too who spoke like their brains were boiled eggs. "And what then, two hours after I put them behind bars – considering I can even break into that fine mansion without being ordered off the case? They'll simply bail themselves out ten thousand times over, and my whole unit will be left jobless." he shrugged, "This is a democracy. People have contacts. So deal with it."
"Do you realise that clock loses ten minutes a month?" Raheel asked pleasantly, apparently having ignored the entire conversation.
But Ali was glaring at him. "Democracies are fairytales."
The spasm that passed over Inspector Kareem's lips was a slight smile: he had been unable to repress his amusement this time, "People have contacts, nevertheless."
Ali scrunched a shoulder.
The inspector cleared his throat. "Now I have a case – which you might find interesting. I have too many men working too hard around the clock to solve this."
"You mean your men tried really hard and failed miserably, and we are your only unexplored option now." Raheel corrected him apathetically.
"No such thing!" the inspector drew himself up dignifiedly, all flustered and annoyed.
"What's the case?" Ali grinned. Apparently his brother's victory had made him recover his spirits.
"Missing silverware at a hotel." The policeman tried not to look mortified, "It turns up in odd places. Like under the guests' pillows."
Ali stared in disbelief, "What are we – the silverspoons' nanny service? Tell them to replace their staff."
"That's not all. Lately the jewellery has also started going missing. They need to recover it."
Raheel's eyes had narrowed interestedly, "Did you question the employees – raid their houses?"
"We questioned them, but as to raiding – do you know how many employees there are?" the inspector demanded testily.
"What would you have us do, then?" Raheel asked peaceably.
Superintendent Anwar Kareem smiled dourly, "Mingle. Catch the thief."
His own men had failed so deplorably.

So that was exactly what the Nabi Khan brothers did. They mingled. As vendors from an undecided line, most doors were open to them anyway, they had found. But not those of high class places like the Marriott Hotel. No, the Marriott catered to a whole other class of vendor. So this was a place where introductions from the Superintendent would have been highly esteemed – by all sets of twins other than the highly insensible Nabi Khan brothers. These two simply took it in their stride, rather to the policeman's amusement.
Two days into their undercover assignment as waiters at the hotel, Ali had discovered that his twin had grown even more idiotic through his weeks of resting. He had also discovered a man with a strange moustache and deft hands. And his twin seemed to have an odd affinity for the fellow; he seemed to have simply forgotten the reason they were even there in the first place. Ali was amazed at some of the phrases he had caught. The man was speaking what Ali classified complete nonsense – what others would have said was personal stuff.
It was just before tea when the kitchens were amok with activity as the chefs cooked up delicious delights to rip open the purses walking into the hotel, albeit gently.
Ali stood in a corner sipping a cup of tea, glowering at his twin and his new best friend, when he suddenly remembered where he had seen that funny moustache. Spluttering in surprise, he choked on the tea.
"Raheel!" he beckoned.
The moustache man scuttled off as if scalded. Ali sometimes had that effect on people, so he just shrugged.
Raheel raised a brow slightly irritated.
Ali was irked, and said sarcastically, "I'm sorry to kill your party with moustache man."
"I'm sure you have a reason." His twin said smoothly.
But Ali was adamant not to let his annoying sibling ruin the mood. "I've just placed who this guy is!" he whispered, eyes alight with fun. "You'll never believe it!"
Raheel looked at him curiously. But Ali knew that look: his twin wasn't interested in the discovery as much as he was in the time it had taken Ali to arrive at it. Which was extremely aggravating since nobody could have recognised the fellow: Jamal had a spring in his step, and a calmness about him that the man VENDOR CHRONICLESin the window could not have been expected to have. He was so merry indeed that you hardly noticed the shadows under his placid eyes.
Supremely annoyed, Ali said, "You're not going to ask, so I'll tell you anyway. He's the dude from the window – the one who shouted at our Fairy."
"Really?"
At least there was a twinge of surprise in the tone. Not the utter amazement Ali had felt, but a trepid sort of interest.
"I've discovered something too." Raheel smiled. "Where Jamal lives."
Ali shook his head, frowning, "That… just came out so wrong, yaar."
When they walked out of the back exit late that evening, Jamal the moustache man was standing by the gate, twisting his cap in his hands.
He started to come up to them, then spotted Ali and changed his mind.
They were a fair way down the street when he hollered, running up to them, breathless. "Raheel! What about that kahva then?"

* * *
Three hours and many cups of honeyed kahva later the twins found themselves entering the flat behind the waiter they knew as Jamal.
It was a dark, gloomy place. The only thing bringing any light into it was the flickering street light way down the alley outside.
Jamal had walked into the centre of the room and started trembling violently. Raheel paced up to him calmly and steadied him with an arm. "She can't do anything to you while we're here. Ali's good with kids."
"Human kids. She's not human." The man whispered, changing before them into a quaking lump of jelly. The dark circles blazoned like ugly bruises on his fast-withering face.
Ali had convinced Jamal, at Raheel's encouragement, that he was well-acquainted with his associated – a man called Zafar. Lying was second nature to Ali Nabi Khan; it was for a good cause. What would the world do without its forks after all?
Jamal had told them the flat belonged to Zafar who lived in the Korangi neighbourhood Ali had mentioned.
And now, before them, the man snapped. He let out a violent howl and cowered behind the lone chair in the room, shielding his face with his arms. "No, no, no." he moaned slowly, turning to the window.
They could see his silhouette heaving against the window frame in pent-up emotion. Then they saw him quiet down somewhat.
Raheel broke the silence in his unmoved voice. "Where's Zafar?"
The man at the window slowly turned, transformation complete. "I am Zafar." He said hoarsely.
Ali recognised him in an instant – it was the man from the window; from this window. The ferocious eyes, the disorderly hair, it was amazing how much an expression could change a man.
But Raheel appeared impassive. "Do you know a man called Jamal?"
Zafar spat at the ground in wrath, "He's a crook – a thief!"
"He wants to turn himself in." Raheel spun it up effortlessly, "He brought us here. He wanted you to give us what he stole."
A wild fear awoke in those haunted eyes, utterly unnerving Ali.
"I cannot!" it was wrenched from him as if in pain, "She will hear you, she will find you – and me – and –"
"She will not find you. We're taking you to a man who can help you banish her forever." Raheel said quietly. "Now show us the spoils."
Sure enough they found them there; hidden in the mattress – half a dozen handfuls of glittering jewellery, real and paste, and forks. Dozens of forks. And the man who was christened Zafar at his birth simply stood in a corner, crying over them helpless with fright.

* * *
Ali was still bemused late that night after the man had been handed into Superintendent Kareem's custody shortly to be referred to a psychiatrist. "So what's the deal? He was an escaped Bollywood lunatic or what?"
Raheel slowly drew a handful of almonds from his pocket, and chewed with a teasing smile, "Are you proposing a career change? Jamal was a cheery kleptomaniac, and Zafar was a psychotic hallucinating ghouls."
"Just because we're grown up now doesn't mean I won't break your nose." Ali threatened.
Raheel grinned. "He just had a split personality disorder."

to be continued...

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