Devendra Brahme had been a sports shooter once upon a time. He had almost made it to the Indian shooting squad for the 1998 Asiad, but politics had worked against him and he was left out. Bitter and disappointed, he had given up shooting and anything to do with guns, till hard times had knocked on his door. Having had no source of income, he had become easy prey to the illegal arms network that operated in Mumbai. All he had to do was apply for an import license for sports model guns—a license that was easily issued to him as he fell under the category of ‘Renowned Sports Shooter’. He was allowed to import any pre-approved firearm and up to fifteen thousand cartridges per year duty-free. Of course, he was under no obligation to reveal how he utilized the ammunition he imported; nor did the authorities really check upon the actual details of the guns he imported. Brahme had worked out a system where he only declared the details of the calibre of the gun and imported assault models instead of sports models.
Brahme was able to conduct a tidy little business that fetched him enough to live well. He was careful to screen his buyers, making sure that they were out-of-towners who would disappear after the purchase and use the gun in a far away state so that it could never be traced back to him. The sale of a couple of guns a year, with a few packs of cartridges, was enough to get him through the entire year.
But this year had been lean. Customs had started cracking down on imports and his contacts in customs had warned him off. As a result, he hadn’t been able to bring in an assault gun for fear of getting noticed. Six months into the year, he had decided to sell one of his own sports guns to sustain himself until things became easier. Now it had almost been nine months since his last sale and he still hadn’t got a customer that fulfilled all his requirements of a ‘safe’ buyer.
Today, though, his luck seemed to have turned. He had received a call from a man with a strong Punjabi accent who had said that he urgently needed a gun with a silencer to fire at a close range. ‘Where are you going to use it?’ was the only question that Brahme asked, not interested at all in what it would be used for. ‘Punjab,’ was the single word answer that was music to Brahme’s ears. Setting up the clandestine rendezvous was easy. The Darukhana ship breaking yard had served him well as the maze of rusted metal and timber had long been his tramping ground. The ease with which he could slip in and out undetected had been no match for any customer unfamiliar with the terrain.
But as he pocketed the money and handed over the Swiss-made Hammerli sports pistol with a crude country-made silencer and a box of .32 wadcutter cartridges, a sliver of doubt entered his mind.
His fears were confirmed as the young buyer cracked open the gun’s bullet chamber and loaded it with the wadcutters even before he could turn to leave. The man raised the Hammerli and lined it to the centre of Brahme’s head. Brahme shivered, unable to believe that what he had been expecting every time he stepped out for his transactions over the past twelve years had finally happened. Shutting his eyes tight, he braced for the silenced pop of the gun. But just then, the buyer’s cell phone rang. The few seconds of distraction were enough for Brahme to duck behind a shed and then into the unused porta-toilet that led into the hidden open mouth of a man-sized cast iron pipe. He had always imagined that his would be his escape route should things ever go bad and today, they were as bad as they could be. As he ran headlong through the length of the pipe, he could hear the gun-toting buyer desperately trying to find the entry point into the pipe. Frustrated at not being able to find the pipe’s mouth, the buyer ran alongside the pipe, taking random pot shots at it, hoping to hit Brahme. But, of course, the cast iron pipe was too thick for the wadcutters. Brahme reached the end of the pipe and plunged headlong into the open hull of the MV Matrubhoomi, an old rusting ship from the south that had just about enough skeleton left to offer Brahme the protection he needed. During all this time, the buyer’s cell phone had been ringing; at the base of the hull of the ship, he finally stopped to catch his breath. Shooting one final round of wadcutters into the iron maw of the old ship, he picked up the call. In the still of the night, the voice on the other side of the phone was clear enough to be heard.
‘Are you on the train?’
‘Not yet,’ the buyer panted into the phone.
‘Why are you panting, any problem?’
‘Are you sure, Akhbir?’
Akhbir, the buyer, replied, sounding slightly irritated now, ‘Don’t question me. I don’t report to you any more.’
The voice on the other side of the phone didn’t say anything for a few seconds. Crouching low in the shadows, Brahme could hear Akhbir breathing heavily as he waited. After almost thirty seconds of silence, the voice crackled through the night again. ‘But I will still look after my best man. Just leave everything to me, go and lie low in Punjab. I’ll get your share to you.’ Akhbir seemed to be considering this; he spoke after a few moments, ‘Okay. I’ll do what you say. But not until I finish what she started.’ He sounded calmer now.
Now the voice on the phone became agitated. ‘What are talking about? Don’t do anything foolish. Just do as I say and leave Mumbai tonight…’
Akhbir cut the line. The phone went silent but Akhbir didn’t turn and leave immediately. He stood there listening, waiting to hear anything that would have give him an indication of Brahme’s location. Brahme held his breath in an attempt to minimize all sounds that could betray his whereabouts. Fortunately for him, his shooter’s training still held him in good stead and, after a few minutes, he heard Akhbir turn and leave, his footsteps crunching on the debris strewn on the ship breaking yard’s uneven floor. Only when the steps were completely out of earshot did Brahme dare to take his next breath.