25th June 2022 16:00 Hrs IST
The falling rain thudded onto the roof of Akshay’s car as he cruised towards his home through the roads of Mumbai. Today has been a special day, mused Akshay as he absent-mindedly navigates the traffic and the turns on the road. He had woken up that morning knowing it would be a good day, but he didn’t expect it to turn out as amazing as it did. He turned up the volume of his music system as his fav song “Tujhme rab dikhta hai…” started playing. Yes, he thought as he agreed with those words. He could see God through them. He wanted to get through the day quickly. As the song tempo rose, he pressed the accelerator harder and started to replay the day that went by in his head again.
The alley I was walking through was deserted, but much nicer than the crazy alleys I was used to. That’s the life of the rich, I observed. Even the alleys behind the houses are nicer. I had money, but I hadn’t had it always. Whatever money I had, I didn’t like to flaunt around, not because I didn’t like it, but because I didn’t like the way I earned it. I didn’t mind the methods but didn’t necessarily like them. The day since that morning hadn’t been usual. It was a unique day not cos it was extraordinary but because it as out-of-ordinary. I put my head down and increased the pace as I started reflecting on the events since that morning.
25th June 2022 0700-1200 Hrs IST
A creature of habit is how his family and friends would describe him. For Akshay, routines mattered. From the time he wakes up, to the time spent on the morning tea, reading the newspaper, amount of time spent in the bathroom to even the number of strokes he needed with the razor to get the clean-shaven look. It was all about routines and habits. Tell me a man’s habits and I would tell you about him, Akshay would tell his friends.
That morning was no different. His cook noticed a spring in his employer’s step that morning, but the routines didn’t falter. The breakfast was slightly heavier, noticed the cook, but that’s the usual during days when his boss had something positive to look forward to. Akshay was easy to decode if you observe him enough.
He left home around 9:00 am and noticed that his new neighbours were moving in. The name board at the entrance read “Dr. Ravi Narayanan, Senior Scientist, ISRO (retd.)”. He had heard from his cook that the new family were from Tamil Nadu and the head of the family was a retired senior scientist at ISRO. The cook also stated that there were rumours that the person had lost his memory and got it back after 15 years. Akshay had neither the time nor interest for these rumours.
He started his car and cruised to the main road towards his publisher’s office. He was so brimming with excitement that the route was a blur for him. Upon reaching the building of his publisher, he was accorded a royal treatment right from the valet parking to the salute from the security guard to the good morning salutations from almost every staff he passed by from the elevator doors to the publisher’s room. Well, when you are the author of the recent best-selling novel, you are treated like royalty, pun unintended.
“Hello Roopa, nice to see the best publisher in Mumbai”, said Akshay as he entered the door opened by Roopa’s secretary.
“Aha, there is my new hot-shot author, who finally found time to meet me between his various print, and social media interactions and book reading assignments” replied Roopa returning the admiration.
“Did we get it?” asked Akshay anxiously.
“You get right to the point always, eh?” Roopa stated rolling her eyes dramatically.
“The story takes off from the word go. Isn’t that the most received comment for my book. As is the author, so is the story and vice versa.” Akshay was a last word freak and Roopa knew it.
She smiled and handed him an envelope.
Inside the envelope was a letter address to Akshay from ‘Ramesh & Raj Films’. Akshay’s hands trembled as he read the contents of the letter. Yes! There it was. Akshay’s heart leapt with joy, but he wanted to finish the letter fully. An offer to make a two-part movie based on his book from the #1 production house in Mumbai. When he came to the section where the consideration was mentioned, Akshay dropped out of the chair. It must have been an unheard-of amount to be paid for the right to a book. But this wasn’t any book. This was the new bestseller across India both in stores and online. His book was a rage, and he was the #1 author in India now.
He thanked Roopa profusely, made plans with her for a lavish celebration dinner and wanted to complete the next task, before heading home.
What all did the world speak? What all was said about him and his mother? His mom, the noblest of souls who never spoke a wrong word nor thought anything wrong about anyone. But when you don’t have money or worse when you lose the money and status that you have had, that’s the worst curse according to his relatives. 2 decades ago, he had resolved to himself and promised his mom that he was going to win it all back. If money is the language people understand, then that’s how he would speak. He wanted to let his mom know that her son has arrived and that too in style.
He felt he was walking on air or gliding rather. He felt his feet weren’t in contact with the floor. He reached the ground floor, got into his car, and headed to the bank. This was the part of the day he was most looking forward to.
My cell phone rang. I picked on the second ring as am a light sleeper, and the business I am in, my senses must be on high alert even in sleep. There is a joke in the organisation that I always sleep with one eye open. The call was from AJ.
Ajay Singhania or AJ as he preferred to be called by those close to him. He was my boss, mentor, and benefactor. The reason I had everything once upon a time and the reason I currently don’t have my family. I am his number one hit man, and by his own words, the man who never misses. I had built that reputation. From being a no one in Mumbai to have grown to this stature, I should feel proud of my achievement. But am I proud now and could I ever be?
“I have an assignment for you, JM” he said and gave instructions for me meet him at his house within the next hour. He also said that the job was too easy for it to be assigned to me. But the guy who was assigned to do this had a family emergency and was out town. Hence AJ wanted me to do it.
I reached AJs residence at Juhu as the clock struck 9 AM. I got an update on the various happening during the night and the events planned during the day, including the important assignments our folks were on.
Upon entering the house, I met Kaka saab in the drawing room. Kaka saab, as he was lovingly called by everyone, was the Rajguru of AJs empire. He was the advisor, guide and the key person in various deals and negotiations. AJ listened to him, well atleast most times. Kaka had such a power and influence with various politician and specially the police.
Kaka had a different look on his face today and I couldn’t help asking.
“Good morning, Kaka saab! I am hoping all is well.”
“Yes JM, all well. Why do you ask?” replied Kaka saab.
“Your face has a worried look. I know you too well to not recognise it or to ignore it after I see it.” I replied.
“Ah, JM! either am losing my guard due to age or your trained eye is good as usual. And knowing you it is probably the latter. Things haven’t been going well, JM. AJ is worried about something, but I am not able to place my finger on it. He isn’t opening up to me, but there is something running in his mind. I am specially worried since yesterday because Raj saab’s watch is back on AJ’s wrist.” said a worried Kaka.
This caused my senses to pique. Things recently haven’t been great. Government crack downs, action taken by the new Chief of Mumbai police etc have been causing pressure on the system. We were all on top of it, taking care of it. There have been various discussions on actions to be taken. But Raj saab’s watch coming out means something seriously is up.
There is a folklore behind the watch. Raj saab was AJ’s father and a big don of the Mumbai underworld. He was very feared and widely revered as he was a don like Robinhood. He did a lot of things for the poor and downtrodden. The empire flourished under his leadership, and he brought AJ into ranks and thought him the ropes. Whatever AJ knows today, is Raj saab’s teachings. On his death bed a few years ago, he handed over his prized watch to AJ and said, “Ajay beta, wear this watch during times of great trouble or when you have a dire need for guidance or just need courage to do something extreme. When you wear this watch in your hand, it is like me holding your hands and guiding you.”
AJ was very good at what he does and hence the watch rarely came out. Over the last few years, it had come out only twice that too when the going was very tough. Why had AJ taken it out now? What was the trouble? What guidance was needed? What was AJ going to do that was extreme? Having these thoughts in mind, I climbed the spiral staircase that led to the first floor which had a large dining hall apart from multiple bedrooms.
AJ was already at breakfast and beckoned me to join him. After initial pleasantries, AJ explained the assignment.
“I need you to take out someone, JM”.
“Who is it, AJ? And what is the background?”
And AJ explained the background which I analysed in my head. Yes, the base issue was that AJs pride, and his word of honour was at stake. It needed me to take out someone so that an obstacle in AJ’s path is cleared. I reflected on the obstacles I had cleared for him over the year and thought just another one. But this wasn’t cause enough for the watch to make an appearance. AK kept rubbing the watch absent-mindedly while talking to me. He didn’t notice me eyeing the watch.
“Ok AJ, I shall take care of it. Let me leave now and start my recce and next steps.” Saying this I got up to leave.
“No JM, we have a party to attend. Saran singh has become the MLA again and he is hosting a party,” said AJ.
“But I need to recce the location, start following the quarry and make my plans.” I protested.
“No Buts, I need you at the party to protect me” said AJ with a finality that, I knew from years of experience, meant argument is closed”.
I walked to the ground floor to talk to the guys and have tea while AJ got ready. I was looking forward to the assignment.
25th June 2022 1200-1600 Hrs IST
The car screeched to a halt outside the bank. Akshay stepped out on the road and quickly climbed the steps of the bank. He had already made an appointment with the chief of the bank as he had an inkling of how the morning would pan out.
He was ushered into the bank chief’s office, and he got straight to the point.
“Shankar uncle, I am happy to let you know that I have done what I promised.” said Akshay.
“Your father was also a man of his word, Akshay.” Replied Shankar. He continued “I first met him almost 4 decades ago when I was the newest employee of the bank who was trying to find his footing. He was a very revered in the area, thanks to the successful businesses he ran, the philanthropies he did and the fact that he never broke his word. I don’t know what he saw in me, but he moved his accounts to this bank through me and made me popular overnight.” Akshay thought he saw a glint of moist in Mr Shankar’s eyes.
“Thank you, uncle. It wouldn’t have been possible with you. Hadn’t you let me know that the property was back on the market and that you were the escrow agents, I wouldn’t have known. I owe this to you uncle.” said Akshay.
“I owe my career to your dad, Akshay. This is nothing”
“Thank you, uncle. Is the paperwork ready?”
“Yes, I had it all drafted yesterday. You can sig today and then you would have 24 hours to deposit the payment.”
Akshay read the documents in detail for a good 20 minutes. Then signed at the bottom of each page. He was overwhelmed with emotion. But didn’t want to show it. How much better can this day go.
He thanked Shankar and started back from the bank. Now he wanted to head home, freshen up and leave to meet the love of his life with whom he wanted to start his life in his family property that he was going to reclaim in 24 hours.
We started to Saran Singh’s house in AJ’s car. The security was tight at the venue that not even an ant could have entered without having an invitation. I couldn’t see why AJ insisted on my presence to be covering his back at this event. My mind wasn’t in the event but on the assignment that afternoon.
After meeting people I didn’t want to meet, saying greetings that I didn’t mean and having a meal that I didn’t quite relish, AJ took me to the spot in his car and dropped me at the alley wishing me luck. He had told me about the route from the alley to the house. The house belonged to someone who was standing in AJs way. There was an old bungalow in a prime area that was on the market as the current owner had severe financial issues. A builder who was a close friend of AJs had been eyeing that property for a while and had solicited AJs support to ensure a smooth purchase.
The current owner had huge outstanding loans and hence the property was attached to the bank. The chief of the bank was a very popular man and being the head of such a large bank, he wasn’t easily cowed down by threats or show of power. AJ also received inside information that the bank’s chief was leaning towards ensuring the original owners of the house were able to reclaim the family property. AJ had given his word and wanted to keep it up. As he understood that the bank couldn’t be forced, he decided to take out the person who was buying the house. That’s where I came into the equation.
As I walked through the alley, I thought about the nemesis who was going to meet his end at my hands.
25th June 2022, 1700 Hrs IST
Akshay and JM
The alley was quite deserted at that time, and I walked quickly. I had committed the route given to me by AJ to memory and easily followed the complex maze that led me into the apartment through the back door. The house was empty, and I had no difficulty in finding the walk-in-closet. Had I got a few more minutes, I would have looked around to know a little bit about the man I was about to kill. But I only had enough time to dash into the closet as I heard the key turn in the main door of the apartment.
The closet was positioned in such a way that through a small crack in the door, you could see the full bedroom and through the bedroom door you could see the drawing room and the main door.
A man looking like a cook entered the house and walked to the kitchen. A few minutes later, someone who could only be the owner of the house walked in and sat on the sofa. From where I was positioned, I could see him clearly.
It immediately struck me that I had seen him somewhere. I couldn’t quite place him, but I vaguely remembered seeing his picture somewhere. He got up, moved calmly across the apartment and had a glass of water from the table. I took out the knife I had brought with me for the job. Knives didn’t make the sound that guns did. Even with suppressors, guns left a trace with their distinct marks and gave jobs to all those experts at forensics. Knives were virtually untraceable and what mattered more for AJ was the pain they caused to the victim and the slow death that he preferred to give them. Guns were too quick for AJ.
The cook was taking his time and my patience was running out. Should I take out both of them? No, I wasn’t that impatient. Patience is my virtue, and I shall wait, I resolved to myself. The man was on back-to-back phone calls and bits of sentences wafted through and hit my ears.
“Yeah, thank you, appreciate your call.” “Yes, it is a big deal….. not sure who the hero would be…… Haha no, I can’t act as the hero…. hey, you are being too kind” “Yes signature done…..payment in 24 hours….”
This was the confirmation I needed. He was my mission.
The cook soon left, and it was only him and me in the apartment. I moved my body slightly in slow motions to ensure the blood flow was normal as I had been standing for too long. I observed him carefully from my hiding sport. He wasn’t moving much. Maybe browsing the phone, I thought to myself. I knew that time was running out and wanted to get this done with. I gripped my knife tightly in my hand and took a deep breath and started counting in reverse under my breath. “Ten, nine, eight, seven…”
I gripped the handle of the knife “Six, five, four….”
“Three, two, one……” and the doorbell rang.
He got up and opened the door to which I had a view. I wasn’t happy with this intrusion and cursed to myself. As he opened the door, I froze as I saw a sight that would be etched in my memory forever.
On the other side of the open door were my ex-wife, Richa, my daughter Anaya who was 9 and son Ishaan, who had just turned 7. On Richa’s hands was a big birthday cake with enough candles to make me jealous. Anaya had more gift-wrapped boxes than she could carry. Ishaan gleefully held on to the strings of the multi-coloured balloons. There were a few other people behind them, maybe friends and acquaintances who I either didn’t know or didn’t care to register now.
All I could focus on was the smile on the faces of the three people, I could ever love in this world. The smiles I had elicited from them were from pain, longing, separation, hurt and sorrow. With me, for a husband and father that’s all they could muster. The smile they sported now, though, was of pure joy and the word that sprang to my mind was ‘unadulterated’.
The man, the main reason for me hiding inside this walk-in closet displayed shock, surprise, awe and exhilaration all at the same time. Again that same word leapt to my mind “unadulterated”. He hugged Richa, then bent down and kissed Anaya and Ishaan. Anaya felt turned red with embarrassment. But Ishaan returned a bear hug and planted a loving kiss on both cheeks. My hands instinctively went to my cheeks, trying to remember the last time I had my cheeks wet by the little man holding on to the balloons.
I reminisced into the time I had with them in the past as they started a chorus of “Happy Birthday Akshay…Happy Birthday Akshay ….” sung in various tunes and decibels. This song which was sung off key still sounded good and brought a smile on everyone’s face, except mine. I was riveted on the one man, my purpose for the day. No, he was just my assignment.
I can fool myself into thinking that I had a self-purpose for being here. No, I was just a soldier doing the bidding of the king of the underworld. The kind who was the undisputed cause for everything that was wrong with Mumbai today. A name that instantly spawns fear, caution, and reverence at the same time.
I generally don’t take on an assignment without enough lead time for me to cover all bases, think of all possibilities and go through all scenarios including multiple escape routes. Even AJ is made aware of only my plan A and B. Plan C and D are only in my mind and I never commit anything to paper. I was the one putting my life on the line and preferred to do things on my terms. But in this case, I had only few hours of lead time which I could have used to recce the area and the target, but AJ kept insisting he needed me at his house followed by Saran Singh’s house. It didn’t surprise me then. AJ was a control freak and always wanted things done the way he wanted.
During the time in the closet, I played various scenarios in my head as to how I would surprise him, his reaction, where I would strike, his defence, and my counter offence. He didn’t look like someone who could fight against me. It would be over in seconds I decided. Before a kill I always bring my senses to a single focal point, which is the victim. I control my breathing to just one per minute. Just when I was about to start my action, the doorbell had been rung by Richa with cake in hand.
The sound from a bursting balloon brought me back to the present. What was my ex-wife and kids doing here? Though we were divorced, I had a good friendship with Richa and regularly met Anaya and Ishaan too. I spent weekends with them and took them to IPL matches every year. The kids had not mentioned the presence of this man in their lives, but Richa had said she was seeing someone. I was jealous, but knew she had to move on. Was this the guy? Probably, he was. The smile on their faces and the hugs and kisses could mean little else. I had been supportive of her moving on and of my kids having a father who came home every day, who spent time with them over breakfast, who read stories to them every night and who was available in their time of need. I was none of those. I was at the beck and call of AJ.
As the party carried on with jokes and laughter and pieces of cake passed around, I considered the reason why AJ wanted this man dead. He seemed like a kind loving man who liked to have family around. He seemed considerate in his movements and had something to say to each person in the room that made them laugh. Yes, AJ was my boss. I owe everything to him. But with my family involved here, could I go through with the assignment? Had Richa rung the bell 10 minutes later, what would she have seen?
Could AJ have made a mistake? Would he have avoided this assignment if he knew of my family’s involvement? Surely this assignment can’t be more important than me. I reflected on the last few hours. AJ communicated this to me personally. The guy who was supposed to do this job was unavailable since last evening. Still AJ waited till morning to inform me. AJ had kept me with him since morning, i.e. in the car, at the ceremony and during the meal. He dropped me at the alley giving me just minutes to reach the closet. I had time to think about the assignment but didn’t have time to plan. I, for the first time, didn’t have an elaborate plan B and C and D. Was this by chance or was it designed by AJ to be this way?
I always relied heavily on my instinct. That had helped me survive the initial years in Mumbai and get a foot hold in the bustling city. I chose to rely now on my instinct. The situation I was now in reeked of things that couldn’t be coincidence. The lack of time for me to do a recon of the location. My not having spent time on analysing the quarry or his background. The fact that AJ kept me busy all morning. And finally my family being in the middle of it all.
Of late there had been few issues between AJ and me due to the conscience I had or rather a semblance of it. I had a policy not to do acts and assignments if it would affect children. AJ had only 2 rules, more power, and more money. I played along but ensured certain plans failed if they involved harm to children. No one suspected my hand in such failures as I was AJs right hand man and he trusted me implicitly.
Once during a dinner meet at AJ’s house, one of his partners started lamenting.
“The failures are happening too often and too expensive, AJ bhai. This is not how we do business.”
“You are drunk too much, Kapil.” said AJ.
“I am in perfect senses. You only seem to be too blind to the happenings. Police is on our heels. New people are mushrooming in the underworld. If we don’t consolidate our power, we would be soon spoken in past tense.” replied Kapil
“I know all this and am top of it. Failures do happen. The wind cant always blow in our direction. We have been in this business for far too long for us not realise it. Do not worry. I am on top of it.” Assured AJ
Kapil didn’t seem to be in a mood to listen. He downed the peg he had in his hand and said
“Our strength is our planning, AJ. Good planning means good execution. JMs planning is too precise for such misses to happen. I have a feeling that maybe the police have made a clone of JM to think like him.”
Everyone was starting at me until Kapil started laughing and I joined the laughter too. I noticed AJs eyes shine for a second before he joined the laughter.
Why did I think of that moment now, I wondered? Maybe it was nothing. But my instinct said otherwise. The situation was sticky. Was it just coincidence my family was here? Had they been few minutes late, what could have happened? Did AJ know they were going to be here? My thoughts at once branched in various directions and analysed every remote possibility. The result each branch came back with stated “This isn’t a coincidence”. This seemed to have AJ written all over it.
Did he want to hurt me? There’s little that could hurt me physically as I had seen it all from hand-to-hand combats, bullet wounds, knife injuries and the like. AJ was aware of this. Did he try to get back at me through my family? Would he cause harm to my family? He was godfather to Anaya for heaven’s sake. Could he stoop down to this level to get back at me?
Maybe I am cynical, but I really don’t think any of that stuff works for anyone who is truly broken. Serves us better to just keep barrelling forward and hope the demons can’t keep up, so you might as well be who you are.
I chose to listen to my instinct. I returned the knife to its place inside my coat. It would serve its purpose later, but not on this man who was celebrating his birthday. Not on this man who could make my family smile in a way, I had never managed to. Even if he was hated by AJ, he was loved by Richa, Ananya, and Ishaan and that’s all that mattered to me.
The party ended a short while later and I overheard them discuss the venue for dinner. As they all left, I watched Anaya and Ishaan hold onto each hand of this man with so much love. I swore to myself, that so long as I was alive, I would never let this man die at the hands of a hit man. My children finally have a chance at having a real father in their lives. I walked out of the closet and traced back the route through the alley to the main road. I decided I was going to get to the root of this. I was going to investigate this my own way and go to scenarios E and F if required. And in the end if everything pointed out to AJ, then he better guard himself as he chose the wrong man to double cross – The Man Who Never Misses His Mark!
Connect with Penmancy:
Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!