He spotted something move behind the rosehip bushes in the playground.
A large concrete elephant loomed in the centre of the ground; on closer inspection this revealed itself to be a children’s slide. Toddlers climbed up the butt and surfed down the trunk, the metaphorical implications of which were lost on Barsk as he dashed wheezing and grunting past a line of swings and a merry-go-round and took cover between the elephant’s legs.
Fast forward: Most of the adventures of Barsk, the book’s protagonist, take place in Gautampuri, once the town of Gothenburg. AFP
He rubbed his chest to steady his breath. Running was not part of his lifestyle. He took another deep breath and tried to sprint across the open ground, clutching the pistol in a double-handed grip. But his boots sunk in the wet sand, getting heavier with every step. It was an excellent opportunity for the psycho to blow his guts to high heaven.
When he came around the bushes he saw the suspect’s apron hanging from a twig. He risked raising his head, and looked around, but there were few other hiding places. Across the walkway was a sandbox that dated back to the time when there was snow on earth and the walkways had to be sanded. Scanning his surroundings he observed a tiny speck of movement on the dark hillside, on the steps leading up to the top.
The figure was too far away to tell if it was really her. There was only one way to find out. Though he had a premonition that his heart wasn’t going to be happy about this—he was too old for his job—he shuffled, duty-bound as a dog, up the cobbled footpath to the foot of the steps. The hill smelt of acid after the rain—carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, photochemical smog residues—or perhaps this was the smell of modern nature?
Drooping wet leaves on low branches licked his face just like Bobby once had with his tongue. He wondered if this was what it was like when life was coming to its end. If he died he might be reunited with Bobby (who might be waiting for him in the next life); officially his husky had died of liver disease (Barsk used to share his tipple with the beast), but he never quite got over the suspicion that it was global warming and the absence of snow that had turned his dog into a depressed alcoholic. He would have to get over Bobby’s death.
Meanwhile the suspect was jumping from one step to the next, higher and higher. No doubt about it, she was a healthy meat-eater. Barsk wished that he hadn’t skipped the compulsory gymnastic programmes the Servicemen’s Health Samaj had initiated in the department, and which Doctor Patel recommended to him every time he went for a check-up. Too many of his colleagues—(health food was a strict no-no in Barsk’s line of work)—had died of cardiovascular complications. It had higher mortality rates than shootouts with antisocials.
There were, of course, some healthy officers within the Public Intelligence Department. Barsk’s junior colleague, the semi-sophisticated and Uppsala-educated Persson, lived in a rather expensive flat in suburbia He wrote reports that nobody read, participated in team sports, was the office humorist and spent a lot of time thinking about psychological profiling.
Barsk belonged to the old school, which meant that he kept his zip zipped and was used to reflex and never-too-well-thought-out decisions. He raised his pistol and fired. He really did hate shooting people in the back, it was against his pious upbringing and perhaps the only Christian tenet he tried to follow, mainly because he didn’t want to be killed that way himself and he believed that what went around, came around.
The suspect stumbled and fell. Barsk was lucky. He knew well enough that he wasn’t a marksman—he should have been wearing glasses but couldn’t bring himself to do it, so he had bribed the optician to give him a 20/20 vision on paper.
He blinked, double-eyed. His vision was good enough for him to see the psycho get up again and look down at him. His heart thumped in his chest. He fired again—but the pistol clicked, empty of bullets. The girl dug her hand into a cheap jhola of the sort popular among rebels without a cause. She was probably armed. Homemade soup-can grenades with a lethal concoction of hydrogen peroxide and chapatti flour and Thums Up bottle bombs containing an explosive cashew fenny-kerosene mix, were more common among the kids than parents knew.
Barsk fumbled in his raincoat pocket for another clip, found it, reloaded and shot without taking aim. The gunshots urged the suspect to continue her climb. Barsk followed wearily up the steps, his chest and neck burning from the exertion. He dragged himself up holding the railing, his heart whirling like a Kathak dancer, ready to spin right out of his ribcage. At least he would die in the line of duty and not on the bathroom floor like some Elvis Presley. He was barely conscious of his feet moving.
Reaching the top of the steps he had to sit down for a while. What he saw from the hill had once been Gothenburg. Now it was Gautampuri. And yet it was the same.
‘Same, same, but different,’ as people said.
The Old Citadel Hill was known for its panoramic view of the town, a small hillock a little higher than the rooftops of Babuganj. From this angle the waters of the Ganges of northern Europe, far below, cut up the town, like an overripe jackfruit, into two stinking halves.
In the west, under an ozone hole the size of Denmark, it was possible to discern an ancient fortress at the mouth of the river. It stood there on its island like an old chowkidar who refused to take off his uniform. More than a thousand years ago, the Vikings had taken their long ships up this waterway. Like industrious beavers they had built their dirty villages upriver, always without appropriate sanitation: these were places where no enemy dared to attack for fear of being ambushed and castrated. In their time the Vikings had been the UFOs of the world, hulking moustachioed aliens who landed out of nowhere on the holy Lindisfarne Island, at the outskirts of Paris or somewhere in the Middle East. Churches all over Europe rang their bells and held prayer meetings asking God to protect them against the beastly bastards, but to no avail. The Vikings burned down libraries, raped harems, colonized Greenland and discovered America. Barsk’s ancestors had been quite a tribe of karmic misfits.
The nineteenth century had seen close to a million Swedes migrate through this harbour to North America, where your average Gothenburger arriving in Nebraska had founded the town of Gothenburg (population: 3,347 inhabitants), with the intention of creating a self-contained world where nobody would have to speak English. But a hundred years later English became the Common Language of mankind.
Zac O’Yeah is a Bangalore-based writer of crime fiction. He writes a monthly column, Criminal Mind, for Lounge.
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