This is set in the same universe as my novel in progress. I hope you enjoy. -D.G.D.
The sages tell us that time is a cycle. Epochs and eons arise and pass away, yet always return, for the universe is but one vast, slowly turning wheel. A man’s life is much the same: years flow by, but the same events happen time and time again. A personal example—days pass, and I grow steadily older, but I still regularly find myself flat on my back with a pistol in my face. Formerly, this happened once a month. Now it’s once a week.
The muzzle of the Jericho 941 dug into my forehead, and pain shot across my skull. The pain didn’t distress me, and the finger on the trigger didn’t distress me. What distressed me were my brand new gold-embroidered kurta and pyjama, pressed against the ground and getting dirty. I had just bought these clothes.
Well, “bought” is something of a euphemism. And that is why I was lying on the ground in the first place.
The girl holding the gun was Miss Rags, a half-human hybrid and an incarnation of Devi Durga. Everyone calls her the Ragamuffin. She is only a little younger than I, and I am fifteen, but she looks much younger on account of the potions that doctor sahib fills her with. She was not the one holding me to the ground: no, holding me down was her enormous dragondog, Muffin, who had his fangs dug into the front of my kurta, no doubt making holes. This also distressed me.
“Shiva Sharon!” Miss Rags shouted. “This is the third time this week I caught ’cha stealin’!”
“Indeed,” I replied. I mentioned before that my present situation happened once a week—but that’s an average. This had been an above-average week.
I didn’t tell her that, with her standing over me as she was, I could see straight up her skirts and get a full view of her pantalettes. It would only have made her angrier. Besides, the view was not particularly exciting. Just a lot of rumpled cloth. But it interested me for one reason: I could glimpse the Kevlar pack she wore over her buttocks, the pack in which she kept her money. Even though a vicious beast held me down and a gun muzzle pressed my face, I could reach it, and I could do so unnoticed.
Because I’m that good. I am, in fact, Godtown’s best pocketmaar, or what you call a pickpocket.
And Miss Rags must suffer so, wearing as much hardware as she does: body armor, two handguns, a backup pistol, a fighting knife, retractable tonfa swords, two stilettos, six extra magazines of ammunition, and a lace-hemmed and frill-covered dress over all of it. By taking her money pouch, I relieved her of some extra weight. It was an act of mercy.
I almost wept a single tear over my generosity to the poor girl, but then her pistol dug yet deeper into my skin, so I withheld it.
“Gimme one good reason,” she hissed, “that I shouldn’t kill ya right now.”
I said, “Because you are in love with me.”
The crack of my skull against the pavement told me that was the wrong answer. White flashes like fireworks went off in my eyes.
“Try again.” Her pretty voice took on an ugly undertone. I didn’t think she wanted to shoot me, but if her temper flared high enough, she might do it anyway and regret it later.
I said, “Because I’ll buy you ice cream.”
Why not? Baksheesh is the currency of Godtown, and a man can bribe even the Ragamuffin if the price is right. Besides, I had already slipped her money into my pocket, so I might as well spend some of it on her. Am I not magnanimous?
The canine teeth remained affixed to my shirtfront, but the gun pulled away. Rags’s big, green eyes were moist, and though her receding rage still flushed her round cheeks, her lip trembled. “Really?”
“Good ice cream?”
She backed away, taking her exposed pantalettes with her, and shoved the gun behind her back. I knew exactly where she kept it: in a hollow in the back of her corset, underneath her clever, spring-loaded Swiss belt. I knew where she kept everything. Maybe I was the only one who did, besides herself.
Muffin, with a reluctant growl, let go of my kurta, and I sprang to my feet.
“Kumari-ji,” I said, bowing and gesturing up the street, “follow me, please. Your ice cream awaits.”
A tiny but hard finger jabbed into my chest, right where Muffin had left a patch of drool. “I’ll letcha get me ice cream, Sharon, but I’m still gonna take ya t’ jail afterwards.”
Ah. The generosity of the Ragamuffin knows no bounds. Well, I thought as I patted the newly acquired bag of silver in my pocket, neither does mine.
The world is an ugly, dark place, but it would be uglier and darker if not for that humble institution called the dhaba. Without it, many a bold adventure into the uncharted waters of gastronomy could never take place. The dhaba—the roadside food stall swarming with flies and surrounded by pariah dogs, where chickens or chickpeas are mixed with spices, cooked in mysterious ways, and served in old newspaper—is the great equalizer. Even the sadhu, who has surrendered all worldly possessions and left the strictures of caste behind, cannot demolish man’s natural-born boundaries of rank and station as thoroughly as the dhaba can. In the dhaba, the great and the small, the clean and the unwashed—mostly the unwashed—rub shoulders indiscriminately. Marjaras of every color and humans of every mark are there.
“This place,” said Miss Rags with a deadly glint in her bright eye as she surveyed the grungy men in sweat-stained T-shirts and frayed kurtas munching rotis and noisily ripping meat from bones, “does not serve ice cream.”
Perceptive. Some say the Ragamuffin’s speed and strength are matched only by the thickness of her wit, but they lie. Her strength has its upper limit, but her foolishness knows no bounds. Foolishness never does.
“Kumari-ji,” I said, taking her soft hands in mine while ignoring the warning growl from her dragondog and the scandalized looks from the dhaba’s patrons, “you are about to send me to a reeking prison where I will, at best, get one small, maggot-infested plate of rice a day. Surely you will allow a condemned man a last meal.”
“And I’ll buy you lunch.”
That settled the matter. I said before that a man can bribe the Ragamuffin if the price is right. The price is food. I know from observation that she can eat her weight in bhindi masala and mango pickle.
We soon had a feast before us on one of the battered steel tables fronting the food stall. From dented metal plates probably nicked from a military mess, we devoured this particular dhaba’s specialty—lumps of chicken fried and boiled and who-knows-what-else in a mysterious array of sauces and spices. The result is unidentifiable but tender and unquestionably delicious. No one but the cook knows the recipe, and the wise do not want to know: the cook is from one of the desert tribes, and rumor has it that his secret ingredients are antifreeze and cow piss.
Miss Rags is not only a living goddess, but an Elysian memsahib, born to wealth and prestige. She puts on airs and looks down on the rest of us, but she drops this façade whenever passion gets the better of her, such as during her frequent bouts of anger, or more especially when she is eating. At mealtime, a typical sahib is lost without his fork, but Miss Rags can take up food with her fingers as skillfully as any normal person. Her skill, however, does not prevent her from eating so rapidly and with such abandon that she smears sauce all over her face. Whenever I see her eat, she performs the act as if she has not done it in over a week.
I tore half a roti from the stack in front of us and chewed my food meditatively. Curried chicken is sweet, but curried chicken bought with someone else’s money is sweeter still.
After she finished off the more solid food, Miss Rags wiped up what sauce remained on her plate, and most of what remained on her cheeks, with two rotis. Then she leaned her elbows on the table and watched me.
“You eat slow.”
I heard a rhythmic thumping from under the table and realized she was kicking her feet. Her dragondog, coiled around her chair, growled and grumbled.
I said, “Last meal, remember?”
She leaned her chin on her hands. “You’re takin’ too long. I got a lot o’ homework to do, an’ I gotta go beat up a cocaine ring before I go home.”
“You should enjoy the food and the company. We are eating together, and I am paying. I believe you Elysians call this a date.”
Her eyes narrowed and took on that dangerous look again.
“Or perhaps I am mistaken.”
“I’ll get the tip,” she muttered through clenched teeth.
I quickly raised a hand to stop her as she reached for the hidden pocket leading to her Kevlar pack. “Please, kumari-ji, allow me. I have recently come into a great deal of money, and I wish to share it.”
As a pocketmaar, I am an ustaad, a man skilled enough to play single-O. But even though I work alone, I don’t mind having Miss Rags by my side. Every pocketmaar should have a girl like Miss Rags: she perfectly combines two of my favorite things, obliviousness and distraction.
For all her training in the mystic fighting arts, she is not aware of her surroundings. Just to amuse myself, as we walked down the street, I divested her, one after another, of each of her weapons, inspected it, and put it back, all without her taking notice. She wore a different dress every time I saw her, but they differed only in superficial externals; the secret compartments were the same.
This kind of trickery has less to do with nimbleness than you might think. Miss Rags knows a little sleight of hand herself, able as she is to produce her weapons from thin air. But in my business, clever fingers are less important than distraction. The trick is to read the mark’s body language, guess his thoughts, and then redirect his attention without his realizing it. Against someone with my skills, there is no defense: I can steal from an ustaad as well as from a paplu, and an ustaad can steal from me. Even the most alert of men can’t pay attention to everything at once.
While I played Miss Rags, I also lifted from passersby three gold necklaces, five earrings, six hundred and forty-three rupees, and—just because I could—one anklet. Miss Rags and Muffin unwittingly served as my thekbaaz, or what in English they call a stall: wherever they were, everyone focused on them, and as long as everyone focused on them, no one focused on me, so I was free to stroke any chhatis and lift any pokes I liked. It was like a holiday.
Of course, I didn’t keep the goods with me for the cops to find. I had to improvise my drops, so some were sloppy. It was likely most of the goods wouldn’t be there when I returned, but this bothered me only a little. As the sages tell us, all things are fleeting.
Then a whim struck me. As with most whims, I acted on it. I was going to jail anyway, so why not play the ultimate play first?
I slid up to Miss Rags and said, “Kumari-ji?”
“What is it, Sharon? Just how far is this ice cream shop o’ yours?”
“Not far. But first—”
She made a faint growling noise.
“—But first, if you would not mind stopping at a temple, it will be my last chance—”
She jumped in front of me and grabbed a bunch of my kurta in her fist. “Sharon—”
“This is a small request, and if you grant it, the gods are sure to smile on you.”
She closed her eyes for just a moment, so I took off her miniature top hat and then put it back on.
“Okay,” she said, “but that’s it.”
“Kumari-ji,” I replied, “you really are a goddess.”
I had one chance at this. It would not bring me wealth, since I would have to abandon my treasure soon after I got it. But that didn’t matter: when one is advanced enough in the techniques, the play itself becomes the thing.
At my urging, Miss Rags and her dragondog escorted me to Arunachaleswarar Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva. The dog had to wait for us outside, but Miss Rags and I marched together up the temple’s many steep, marble steps. We removed our shoes and left them on a rack just inside the gopuram. As I had hoped, the temple’s kumari, a pretty young hybrid named Miss Padmini, was granting darshan to her devotees.
My pulse quickened.
The hybrids are a wondrous breed. Half human and half marjara, they alone are fit to fill the role of living goddess, for they alone have the power of Sammohana, the means by which they grant visions of the divine even to base men disinclined to meditation. Being such a base man, I much admire them. Of course, it helps that they are also very pretty. Miss Rags is one herself, though she belongs to no temple.
In one of the many mandapas, a crowd had gathered around Miss Padmini’s golden throne. Bedecked with jewelry, with hair tied up in a topknot, and with eyes outlined in kajal, she used her Sammohana on each one who approached her and placed a small offering in the golden pan at her feet. Like most kumaris, she wore a bright red Banarasi sari and a heavy necklace of gold. Joining the back of the crowd, I fidgeted, afraid she would end the audience before I got my chance.
At last, it was my turn. As I walked toward her, I edged to the left in order to avoid approaching straight on—a typical way to prevent a mark from becoming defensive. I bowed at the waist and dropped a few of Miss Rags’s coins into her pan. Fortune was with me: she noticed Miss Rags standing behind me, and her attention briefly turned from me entirely. The two priests standing behind her throne were similarly distracted.
Then her eyes slid back to me and met my own eyes. I steeled myself. This was what would make the play especially challenging—not the crowd of people, nor the priests carefully watching the worshipers, but Sammohana.
Warmth spread into my body. I was under her spell. She disappeared, as if she were nothing but a mist that a cool breeze blew away. I knew then that the veil of Maya was parting. The world of illusion dissolved.
Before me arose a goddess, tall and graceful, with a trident in her left hand. Her eyes looked heavy, as if she had just arisen from deep meditation, but they were full of love. She raised her right hand in the gesture of Abhayamudra and reached toward me—
And the moment passed. The darshan ended. I was again looking at a delicate little girl encased in jewelry and makeup, seated on a throne. In her tiny fingers was a marigold blossom; she tore off three of its petals and handed them to me.
My mind was murky from the darshan, but I knew what I needed to do. Taking the petals, I turned my left shoulder toward her, turned my eyes to a spot above her head, and arced my fingers through the air. Her gaze followed the golden petals in my hand, and so did the gaze of the priests behind her.
That’s when I stole her necklace.
Do not be surprised. I can steal even the eyeglasses off a man’s face. Does this sound impossible to you? That is because you do not know my techniques, and because you do not appreciate just how limited is a man’s consciousness: no man can think about his glasses all the time, though they are, quite literally, right in front of his eyes.
The necklace was enormous, but my clothes were roomy. I had succeeded, but I was not quite finished: I had only a short time until someone would notice that the necklace was missing, so I made haste to the exit, and Miss Rags followed.
I gave a generous tip to the man guarding the shoe rack, and then I put on a pair of shoes better than my own.
As we descended the temple steps, I sighed in satisfaction. “Thank you, kumari-ji. Now—”
“Jail,” she said.
“Hm? Do you not want ice cream?”
A scowl brought her eyebrows together. “You took too long! I got other stuff t’ do!”
Roughly, she grabbed my arm and hauled me away. Muffin joined us.
“Kumari-ji, I promise you, now I have nothing else I want. We shall go straight to the—”
“Jail time, Sharon.” Her voice took on that dangerous edge again. “Do not pass go. Do not collect two hunn’erd rupees.”
She pulled a gun and prodded me with it.
“Ah. There are times, kumari-ji, when you can be most persuasive. Suddenly, I have a profound urge to go to jail.”
“Glad t’ hear it.”
The nearest station was only a few blocks away. In front of it stood a marjara Sikh dressed in the khaki shirt and dhoti that made up the uniform of the police. He fingered a heavy bamboo lathi and gave us an appraising glance as we approached.
“This,” he said, “is something you do not see every day.” He bowed at the waist. “Namaste, kumari-ji.”
She put a hand against the small of my back and shoved me in the policeman’s direction. “Book ’im.”
The policeman looked to me for explanation, so I smiled. “It’s true.”
He reached a hand for my shoulder, but I wasn’t quite ready to go yet, so I slipped his grasp and took Miss Rags’s hands in mine again. “Kumari-ji, the prisons are full, so I will be out again in a few months, I am sure. Still, it will pain me to be unable to see your face.”
Her eyes narrowed. “If I catch ya again, Sharon, I’ll break your fingers.”
“No. You won’t.”
As I spoke, I noted her posture, her eyes, her expression. I calculated, and then I moved in at a speed and at an angle that guaranteed she would not stop me. I kissed her cheek.
Shocked, she allowed me to linger. And because her mind was entirely focused on the spot where my lips touched, I took that moment to do three things. First, I returned her money pouch to her pack. Second, I hung Miss Padmini’s heavy necklace around her neck. Third, I pulled a gun from her back and slipped it inside my kurta.
When I stepped back from her, her face was bright red, but her lips were parted and her forehead was smooth.
I spun around. “Officer-ji, I am ready to be arrested now.”
The officer looked amused. He placed a meaty hand on my shoulder. Miss Rags touched his other hand briefly, and then he led me inside.
I had a pistol, but the police had only lathis because they kept their guns locked up when not in use. Thus, it was a simple matter to hold them up by waving the pistol and breathing wild threats. I had expected to make my escape this way, but it surprised me how passive, how calm, the policemen looked. They simply raised their hands above their heads and watched as I shouted like a madman and backed toward the station’s rear entrance. I slipped out the door and into an alley, chuckling to myself.
“Stop there, Sharon. Game’s over.”
The voice came from behind. I turned slowly to see Miss Rags, her dragondog by her side and her other pistol in her hand.
At that moment, I felt something I had never felt before, even when gazing into the eyes of a hybrid using Sammohana. I felt as if the world had changed shape while I wasn’t looking, as if everything I took for granted had turned out to be a lie.
“You stole my money,” she said, “an’ you stole from most ever’body we passed while we were walkin’.”
She fingered the heavy gold chain around her neck, which was quite becoming on her. “An’ you stole from a temple.”
The Sikh policeman stepped out the door behind me and again dropped a heavy hand onto my shoulder. He leaned down and held out a crumpled piece of paper, which, in a childish scrawl, read, “He’s got my gun, but it’s empty. Do what he says and I’ll make sure you get him. —Rags.”
Speechless, I simply stared down the barrel of the Jericho 941 in her hand.
“I played you,” she said.
I was numb. I ran my tongue across my lips. “How? You couldn’t possibly see—”
“Nope.” She laid her free hand on the furry head of her dragondog. “But Muffin could. He let me know what you took and where you hid it. While you weren’t payin’ attention, I gave back everything you stole today.” She fingered her necklace. “’Cept this. This is evidence.”
“We’ll return it to the Arunachaleswarar Temple as soon as we’ve put him away,” the policeman said.
Of course. Miss Rags knows some of the techniques herself. She doesn’t have the skill to play single-O, but with Muffin as her thekbaaz, she can play.
And against these techniques there is no defense. Together, Rags and Muffin are better than I. Together, as machine and thekbaaz, they can equal an ustaad.
“Why,” I said, “did you let me take your money, and why did you let me take you to lunch—?”
At that, she dropped her eyes, and her cheeks flushed red again. That was all the answer I needed.
“Let’s go,” the policeman said.
I handed the pistol back to her. I began, “When I’m out—”
“Don’t, Sharon.” Slowly, she shook her head. In the blink of an eye, her guns disappeared. She put a hand on Muffin’s neck, and she turned and walked away.
The policeman made me spread my legs, lean forward, and put my hands behind my back. This time, he cuffed me before he led me inside.
Ah well. So the game ends, at least for now. But I smiled secretly as I marched toward my fate: thanks to Muffin, Miss Rags had caught me in many thefts today. But she had failed to notice the fine new shoes I wore, courtesy of a pilgrim at the temple.
In time, I shall be free, and then Miss Rags and I will play the game again.