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THE ORCHARD ON FIRE
 
FICTION

The gates of the mansion were large and bounded by tall ashok trees. As they drew open slowly, hauled by two turbaned men with dauntingly oiled moustaches, the twins exchanged a look.
The van started forward into the darkness.
"I've got a bad feeling about this," Nabi Ali Khan spoke in a low, urgent voice trying to look away from the stern Balochi gunmen.
His twin, also having latched himself onto the back of the van, shrugged. "You VENDOR CHRONICLESalways get these feelings. Have you considered consulting a shrink?"
"I'm serious, Raheel!" Ali said angrily, except he couldn't very well slap him off the van – they would surely be found out. "This one might blow your cover. Get out of here, now."
Raheel considered him amusedly for a few moments. "And what exactly do you suppose you'll accomplish without me on this nighttime trip?"
Ali could think of several replies, all of which included clobbering his twin's head with his trusty sandal. Since he could either do that or hold on to the van, he chose the latter and fumed in silence.
They were driving through what seemed like a limitless garden to most pairs of eyes. But the Nabi Khan brothers had been born on the mountains of Swat. For them nothing in the city was as limitless as the mountains. Except perhaps the traffic, the squalor, the misery and the criminal entrepreneurship of Karachi. Be as that may, the lawns were huge, with clumps of tall trees crowding into the darkness. Ghostly forms promenaded the turf and arbours and the pretty little bridges arching over little ornamental ponds.
Ali shivered. The night air was cold despite August, like Fate's apology for the monsoon that had gotten lost along the way and left the city high and dry. But that wasn't why Ali shivered. He shivered at those pale forms prancing one moment and then vanishing into the darkness.
"They're peacocks." Raheel told him on a smile, as if reading his mind.
And then, sure enough, Ali saw them too – the lacy crown on the head, and the swishing tails: albino peacocks scattered all over the estate.
It was such a large place that the electric lights all appeared to punctuate the gloom rather peremptorily and, it must be said, ineffectually, really.
Suddenly there was a low growl. It made the hairs on the back of Ali's neck stand on an edge, petrified. And it did not sound like a dog.
Ali froze; it was not coming from the van he was presently serving barnacle to.
"Be very still." Raheel recommended him calmly, as if closing some petty business deal.
"What is it?" Ali tried his best to obey.
Raheel considered him a long moment. "It's multiple."
"What are they?" Ali asked, grinding his teeth.
"Lions."
Ali nearly fell off the van in shock.
Then he saw them, prowling in the shadows, stretching their long, lithe bodies, watching the van intently.
"Well, lionesses, actually. They're the ones that hunt." then, as if not enough damage had been done, Raheel added impartially. "It's said they can smell your fear."
VENDOR CHRONICLESAli tried to pretend he was carved out of stone the rest of the way. The way, now that we come to it, seemed interminable. In reality it was probably only five minutes at the pitiable pace the driver allowed himself, but to Ali who was terrified – and indeed without the protection afforded by a closed vehicle, being as he was on the outside of it – it seemed like a journey into the Underworld. He wondered in the middle if indeed he had died along the way and entered that state of disembodied confusion called limbo.
It might seem hilarious to think of an obscenely huge full-grown man with a fulsome beard hanging onto the back of a van, clutching it for dear life, as if an abyss had yawned open at his feet. In real life it wasn't quite so funny: his life was as dear to him as a child's would be to that strange creature. In fact it was dearer, for he had seen more in his life than the hypothetical child, and planned to see much more.
Finally, the van rolled to a stop beside a huge set of steps leading to a marble porch awash with light.
Ali hardly noticed what he was doing till he had mechanically jumped off the van and backed into a veritable bank of shoes and slippers under the lowest stair. There must have been close on a hundred pairs.
"Take off your shoes!" the driver hissed at him in shock, as Raheel bent to undo his own with all the serenity in the world.
Men in starched white clothes milled about the porch and some now looked to the van with interest.
The twins might have been invisible for all the attention anyone paid them.
"Dude." Ali sighed, ever-vain, "I think we're a bit underdressed." It was the understatement of the century: compared to the starch parading the terrace, their shabby dark clothes looked as if they shouldn't have been allowed on the same planet, let alone the same porch.
"What are you doing here?" the driver asked uneasily, at pains not to look suspicious and ruining the whole effect by glancing at them suspiciously.
Ali never batted a lash while manufacturing lies. "Maulana Waleed sent me to help with the animals. My brother had to come along too, of course."
The driver muttered uncertainly to himself then said in a louder voice, "He didn't tell me. You would imagine that he would, after all my services and loyalty to his schemes."
"Is this the final destination of these animals?" Raheel asked, tilting his head to one side, on an unblinking stare.
The driver gawped at him, "Wasn't he a mute?" he looked at Ali suspiciously.
"He talks when he's had his fill." Ali sympathetically patted his twin's arm. "He's not all up there, you know."
At this point Raheel felt it necessary to reinforce his brother's claim. "Nice animals." He commented, still gazing at the driver. "Is this their home?"
The confused driver now replied, scratching his head, "No. They are to be sold."
"Really?" Ali betrayed his curiosity almost giving them away, "I mean maulana sahib thought it better if I saw the whole thing in person."
If the driver's jaw could indeed have hit the ground on some level it would have now. "I've never been allowed to go in!" he said accusingly.
A man in a black mirrored velvet waistcoat hurriedly clambered down the steps, so uncomfortably that Ali was forced to consider that the poor guy's clothes must have been starched in all the wrong places. He positively exuded impatience and had a manner that showed he had lots of power and was used to getting his way. His moustaches were oiled so lavishly and set so perfectly that the imaginative Pathan was reminded very strongly of dog that had jumped into a barrel of fat. His obsequious movements on the porch, particularly the deferring way he held his head tilted when anyone there had talked to him, savoured strongly of sycophancy.
And when he got to them and addressed the driver coarsely, it was plain he was no owner but an employee who had been indulged too far and been made responsible for too much.
"Who are these men?" he barked in a furious undertone to the driver who went forth to unlock the back of the van.
"Handlers." The driver stared his feet uncomfortably, shifting his white shawl from one shoulder to the other. Then he found himself obliged to add, "For the animals."
"We don't need handlers." The mirror-man glared at them in shock. Then he turned on the poor cowering driver with all the wrath of a vengeful demigod: "When have we ever used handlers?"
"We represent potential clients." Ali said coolly, slipping into Sindhi for the benefit of the mirror-man.
Surprise had flickered in the man's eyes, but he was so well-trained that he schooled his face into haughtiness with only a faint expression of distaste.
"This is a closed auction." he told them coldly.
"Our client is most insistent." Raheel drawled now, also slipping into the same language.
But Ali had caught sight of a jeweller on the porch, and now smiled, "We're good with gems."
"You might be policemen for all I know." Mirror-man shrugged though he had been sufficiently taken aback.
Ali was forced to notice the bulge on his side, under the bright cummerbund which was undoubtedly a firearm.
"We might." Raheel agreed. "Though we would hardly be idiotic enough to venture into a nest of smuggling without firearms or back-up if we were." As usual he had gleaned Ali's thoughts from the atmosphere in the way that is peculiar to twins.
"Noorullah Bakhsh knows me." Ali added, gesturing to the porch, "Ask him if we're policemen." There was no way on earth he was stumbling back through limbo in the dark without an armoured vehicle or a dictator's artillery at the very least. He had already decided that he would rather be shot dead by men than be torn to bits by lionesses and then be lunched upon by the haunting albino birds.
The man with the mirrored waistcoat considered them for two seconds and then abruptly made up his mind. "Does Noorullah Bakhsh known your client?"
Ali decided to play the rancorous card. "Why don't you go ask him since you are inclined to disbelieve everything we say?"
"What use is it to me to allow you to witness the proceedings?"
"No use to you, my good man," Ali winked familiarly, putting an arm around the mirror-man's shoulders, "But perhaps to your bosses."
He towered above the mirror-embellished minion, so much so that even the man was forced to realise it himself and removed the arm sullying his shoulders with a pained look. But his attention span was great. "What use is it to you to witness it – when there is no way on earth your client can participate tonight?"
"It's called 'quality control', saaeen meray." Ali told him grinning, deeply pleased with the way things were going.
The man left them abruptly and crossed the steps again in a soundless, gliding manner, zeroing in on VENDOR CHRONICLESNoorullah Bakhsh. The sharp ex-jeweller looked over at them swiftly and waved a curt greeting, nodding to the mirror-man, then resumed his conversation.
Mirror-man descended and joined them, trying very hard not to look as pleased as pat with himself. "I will allow you in tonight," he announced grandly, "But try any funny business and I will have your manliness suffer."
He looked so much like a preening parakeet that Ali did not have much problem refraining from giving him a sound beating. It was annoying and pathetic at once.
Raheel was having trouble hiding his most amused smile.
"You can pretend to be handlers." Mirror-man said at last, "Otherwise your presence will raise suspicion." He looked hard at Ali, "You can handle animals, can you not?"
"I can." Raheel nodded, utterly neglected throughout the macho male's conversation, but blithely unaffected.
And so, directed by the mirror-man himself, they hauled down one of the two boarded up cages from the van, while the servants took the second. Having removed their shoes already, they were free to enter through the wide glass doors that were thrown open at the porch.
Inside was a veritable palace, with polished marble floors in which the twins could see their own bearded reflections, and plush carpets bigger than any they had ever actually seen so up close, and chairs lined with velvet. There were vast tables of carved dark mahogany, and glittering chandeliers that descended a good ten feet from the high ceilings.
Ali looked about him with a critical appreciation, forgetting to even fear the feline beasts clawing their wild way inside the cages, while Raheel the art-lover paradoxically seemed utterly unimpressed.
Noorullah Bakhsh quickly walked in and joined them. "A-ha haha ha ha! Beasts of burden today, my fine fellows?" he tittered, rubbing his plump hands together in the style that was so peculiarly his own.
"As you see." Ali smiled, glancing at his twin who hadn't even had the courtesy to respond with a facial acknowledgement.
"Why so taciturn today, Raheel?" Noorullah grinned impishly, correctly identifying him. Despite the similar cast of features the twins were very different: Ali large and hearty, and Raheel smaller and slighter as if he had been the neglected and underfed child.
Raheel shrugged.
"But why aren't you admiring your surroundings?" Bakhsh appeared genuinely shocked, "You like art! Look at those paintings!"
"He doesn't like it when it belongs to the rich." Ali explained apologetically.
Whatever was inside his box shook it with a wild hiss.
Ali shuddered, rolling his eyes as a substitute for crossing himself, and relapsed into meaningful silence.
"According to the mirror-lover we're supposed to pretend we're handlers." Raheel told Bakhsh softly, "If you're seen with us, we blow our cover."
"You're here for your client, then?" Bakhsh looked from one twin to the other, brow creasing in disbelief.
"What else, brother, what else!" Ali winked.
But the puma had had enough disobedience after expressing its will. Now, judging from the way the box jumped, it lunged inside its cage towards Ali.
Chortling and shaking his dark bald egg of a head, Bakhsh fell behind to join his party.
They were led past open and closed doors giving on to more and more grandeur. Ali thought, unverified by his artistic twin, that this place was done up tastefully. Unlike most of the manors of the wealthy that they had been inside, this one didn't look like the 3 dimensional model for a Pakistani House of Horrors. No, there was taste here, indicating brains, and that made Ali suddenly remember his discomfiture at the gate. It came back to him with redoubled force now. He glanced at Raheel.
He didn't really care about getting himself into trouble; he had pulled himself out of plenty of scrapes worse than this one felt instinctively. But his twin was his main priority: he'd protected his sibling like a guard-dog since they were in diapers, and he would never have let anything happen to Raheel. But the cursed idiot was getting more reckless by the day, aside from his tendency to get into trouble. Ali cursed him inside his head roundly, hoping devoutly for telepathy to work. If they were caught here, and this did not look like a very pleasant place to die – well, not emotionally, anyway – those would be the last words he said to Raheel. He wished the git had listened to him. He was getting too jumpy for this job, he thought, trying to calm himself down. Instincts were silly things. Despite the fact that his, though turning up terrified only rarely, always turned out to be right.
Finally a large metal-studded door creaked open.
Ali took a deep breath.
They entered, Raheel looking absolutely impassive, and Ali trying very hard to look so.

to be continued...

FICTION
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