The motorcycle wound its way through the buzzing streets of Girgaon, weaving through the traffic, passing the decrepit wadis that stood at each corner, clinging on to whatever little bits of traditional architecture they could hold on to, mourning the good old days. The bike turned into one such corner and entered a world where time seemed to stand still, unaffected by the din of modern life just around the corner. The young Goan man riding the bike knew his way around the narrow lanes between the beautiful houses owned by the Pathare Prabhus and the East Indian Christians. He was called X. Simply X. Perhaps his name stood for Xavier, or Xerxes, or perhaps his name was something entirely different. But the people who knew him were happy to refer to him as X as they didn’t really want to know more about him or get closer to him. This was because X was one of the city’s shadowy cocaine dealers. X’s clientele consisted mainly of young college students with spare time and lots of spare change. He specialized in ‘doorstep’ delivery, with no questions asked.
But today, unfortunately, he had been asked questions. In fact, not only had he been asked questions, he had been threatened with police action by the woman who currently rode pillion behind him, Professor Naina Rai. That morning she had phoned X on the number that he kept exclusively for business transactions. In a few short sentences, she had laid out a scenario that had compelled X to do her bidding. After all, X didn’t want to go jail, something that Naina had clearly said would be his destination if he chose not to cooperate. X, being the smart young man that he was, decided to toe the line in exchange for her silence. After all, all she wanted was to be taken to one of his client’s secret hangouts. Normally X’s motto was that information about his clients was privileged and not accessible to anyone else, but this particular client happened to be his second cousin, Richard.
The motorbike now turned into an even narrower lane that lay between two yellow-coloured wooden Khotachiwadi Portuguese houses. The lane then became so narrow that it was difficult for even a single motorcycle to pass through but X, being an expert rider, managed quite well. Stopping outside an unmarked door at the end of the lane, he honked once. He threw a furtive look towards Naina who, by this time, had got off the bike and was standing right in front of the door. She knocked. After a full five minutes, the wooden door opened just a crack. A scrawny young man peeped out. The jaw in his thin face dropped almost comically as his eyes skipped from Naina to X and then back. He reluctantly opened the door and stepped out. The T-shirt and cargo shorts he wore hung on his body as though they had been thrown over a scarecrow, and the hair on his head was as curly and unruly as a bird’s nest. His eyes hid behind the thick soda-bottle lenses of the stylish spectacles he wore. No one said anything for a few long seconds. Finally X said, ‘Sorry, bro, this khadoos aunty threatened to go to the police if I didn’t bring her here.’
Naina looked daggers at X. ‘Aye, who are you calling aunty, haan?’ Not wanting to engage any further with the feisty Naina, X revved up his motorcycle and said, ‘You’d better keep your word, aunty.’ With that, he zoomed off, leaving Richard to face Naina all by himself.
‘And now, Richard Menezes, when are you going to come for your next counselling session? You’ve missed three already,’ Naina said, glaring at him.
Richard stuttered, still in a spate of shock. ‘Uh…Naina ma’am, please…I’m sorry that I haven’t, but you didn’t have to come all the way to my house.’
Naina was sarcasm personified. ‘That’s right, I should have just let the letter of expulsion be sent from the college office instead.’
Richard stood staring at her, opening and closing his mouth like a fish. Naina now pushed him aside and flounced into the small room, exclaiming, ‘So this is the hangout that no one else seems to know anything about!’ She glanced around, quickly taking in all that lay inside the small, bare room. All sorts of computer parts was strewn about on the few rickety tables, and three large flat-screen monitors were on at the same time, flashing images from unknown websites. One of the screens that kept beeping from time to time was open on a webpage that said ‘Bank of Western India’. A line of numbers and amounts in rupees kept scrolling on the screen next to a list of names. A line written at the corner of the screen caught her attention: ‘Summary of retail deposits: Access only to certified staff’. Naina raised an eyebrow at Richard. ‘So, Richard, apart from having a cocaine habit you are also a…hacker? I wonder if the police would be as interested in this room as I am!’
Richard’s eyes were downcast and he mumbled something incomprehensible. Naina frowned, ‘What? I didn’t catch what you said.’
This time, Richard spoke up. ‘I really am trying to kick the habit.’
‘Which one? Cocaine or hacking?’
Richard looked sheepish. ‘Cocaine…’ he mumbled.
Naina’s expression turned soft, and her voice suddenly grew warm with reassurance as she said, ‘Look, Richard, I don’t chase many students to their hangouts. But you are a very intelligent boy and I know that you can change. You can achieve a lot and I want to help you.’
Richard, looking shamefaced, nodded his head. ‘Yes, I know, ma’am. Thank you for your efforts.’
‘So promise me that you will make it to the counselling session tomorrow.’
Richard looked up and nodded a yes. Naina smiled for the first time, flashing a glimpse of her perfect teeth. She cast a last look at the computer screens and then back at Richard. ‘As far as I’m concerned, you’re just playing computer games here.’ Richard smiled back in the response to her infectious smile. She turned and walked out of the room. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow,’ she said, waving goodbye.
As soon as Naina left, Richard grabbed his cell phone and punched a number. The phone was picked up but before the person on the other end could even say hello, Richard barked into the phone, ‘You chutiya, X! You’re lucky you’re my cousin otherwise… Anyway, now you owe me a month’s worth of free supply.’
From the other side, X sounded extremely apologetic. ‘Sorry, bro…yeah, no problem. But has that bitch left?’
Richard’s temper immediately flared up. ‘Aye, you cunt of misery! Don’t call her names, she’s a nice lady. I’ll talk to you later. Chal, fuck off now!’ He cut the line but found himself still agitated at what had happened. He casually walked across to one of the wooden tables and slid open a drawer, from which he took out a plastic vial. Reaching for a CD lying on the table, he emptied the contents of the vial on to the CD and cut them in two perfect lines. Then he quickly snorted each line, letting the buzz hit his brain.
He turned to the computer screen and mumbled to himself as his fingers began to fly over the keyboard. ‘Scarecrow is back… after a short break.’