“He put her in the showcase.”
“He did what…?”
“He dressed her up as one of his mannequins, and put it up in front of the store.”
“His wife’s corpse?”
“Was I speaking in Hebrew till now?” said Manav.
Manav loathed to repeat himself, especially after divulging all the details of an affair. However, Tony had a knack of forcing people to repeat themselves again and again until they had severed their tongue, or worse, they are left with bleeding ears.
“Why did he dress up his wife’s corpse like this?”
A smile conjured across Manav’s face, but in no way did it seem to be a result of the pleasantness, instead it stemmed from Tony’s query. Then, the manner his fingers gripped the edge of the counter table, and the low moan they made when he slithered them a little, solidified his irk.
“To send a message to the Reich.”
The owner-bartender’s voice reached their ears with a briskness that it left them wondering for a substantial number of seconds. Their eyes, enriched by a fresh curiosity, turned autonomously in the big man’s direction. They first thought it was a joke, but the owner’s large, unmoving eyes, and tight, fissured lips, concealing his clenched jaws, told them he meant business.
“Reich?” said Manav, “Now what does this has to do with the Reich?”
“Everything.” Replied the owner.
The gaunt had no reply. He scratched a rudimentary stack of hair on his head and thought for a while.
“Well, it’s Reich,” he said, “It has to do everything with it.”
Tony slammed his glass on the table. It was not the answer he looked for, “As usual, old Martin’s whiskey has gotten the better space of his head.”
“And this old Martin is enduring your freeloading,” he said, “Which reminds me when you are cleaning your tab?”
“It’s a subtle rebellion.”
A voice distracted them. It permeated from the dimmest corner of the room. They looked about that direction and found a short man leaning on his table. His boater covered half of his face and his over-sized coat gave him the semblance of a leprechaun out for a mischief.
“People are boiling over Reich’s undeterred muddling in their beliefs and privacy.”
Tony’s eyes widened on hearing Reich being associated with muddling and negativity. His fingers ran along the table, his nails mauled its surface, while his lips twisted downward to an extreme in an unsavoury fashion. The man in boater, an insignificant man of meagre origins and of obsolete personality otherwise sometimes and derogatorily addressed as Skunk, shot Tony a prudent smile. Tony punched the table and jumped on his feet.
“Now, hold it there, mister!’ he said, “No one thinks about the Reich that way! What it does, it does for the betterment of the citizens.”
Skunk chuckled, “Oh, and what that must be?”
“Well, for your information, apart from individual miscreants, I haven’t seen anyone complaining.”
“A lack of complaint never certifies the absence of the unrest,” said Skunk, “And silence not always results from mirth,”
Tony’s fingers curled inward in a fist. His nails threatened to tear his own flesh off his palms. The man in the boater noticed his angst and relished it wearing a thin smile.
‘What time was 2020s, 40 years ago, right?’ he said, ‘People were free, technology that could make your life feel like heaven. It was just like living a great American dream! But people…’ The man gave out a croaky chuckle, ‘But people have a knack of exploiting their freedom. Though they don’t want to admit it, they crave for the shackles. Why shouldn’t they? At least, this gives them a chance to put blame on someone else.’ He heaved a sigh and resumed, ‘Then the last great war happened and rest we all know.’
By now Tony’s inconvenience had turned into uncontrollable trembling of his body.
“Well, they indeed reigned unobtrusively for 15 years, I give you that,’ said the Skunk, ‘but then their sins festered this strange and inexplicable malady; the corpses stopped decomposing! Their expressions of grief and joy survived way long after their deaths.’
Tony took a step and two towards the man. Manav noticed his apprehension and intervened to avoid any further escalation of the situation.
“Don’t pay any attention to Skunk,” he said, “His words are mere battering of his self-idolatry.”
Skunk scoffed. Manav smiled on achieving this sweet victory in this rather inconsequential scenario. It, however, was short lived.
“As much as I want to disagree with Skunk,” began Martin all of a sudden. Tony and Manav reformed the probable sentence and signalled him to stop, but the latter was clueless of their desperation. He scratched his head, thought for a few seconds, and then resumed, “I agree with him on this one. Have you forgotten about Miles incident?”
“Miles incident?” asked Tony, “What Miles incident?”
Manav nudged him in his stomach, “How clueless are you? The famous Miles square incidence?” Tony again shook his head. Manav sighed, “Where one morning over 200 burning bodies were found?” Manav stared into Tony’s eyes as though trying to dig up his memory.
He succeeded. Tony slapped his forehead, “Oh, that incident! At the Miles Square! Why didn’t you say it before?”
“What I have been saying till now?” Manav shifted his focus on Martin, “But wasn’t it all a hoax? Didn’t the papers say so? I mean even though the Reich has sacked the internet, computer, and television channels, out of their incompetency, the papers must report the truth. Why would they print lie?”
Martin chuckled. He had no answer to that, but as they say when you can smell nothing else, there will be always a skunk. So, here, Skunk spilled his entrails.
“If that so, then why suddenly all the next day’s prints of the newspapers were pulled off the shelves? You hardly saw any one of them for the next two days.”
Martin chimed in, “You know what, you are right. The papers were really pulled off the shelves that day. Heck, even I saw the boys beating the heck out of a few people who were unwilling to let go of their copies.”
Martin, when he finished his sentence, an inexplicable silence enveloped the bar. It occurred that everyone from both the fronts had come to an agreement regarding the matter. Then, when the situation seemed to arrive to a resolve, Tony jumped in again.
“So what?” he said, “Every discipline requires punishment and every achievement requires a sacrifice. If this world has come to an agreement, with no religious buffoonery and disparity, it is because of these sacrifices!”
Skunk sniggered and finished another glass of his whiskey. Martin, till now, was so much engrossed, he refilled the glass without even being asked.
“If you term this butchery as sacrifices and achievements,”
“For a man of numerous words but negligible actions, you top the charts.” remarked Manav. Now even his fingers had curled into a fist.
“Who said that I don’t intend to do anything?” The Skunk chuckled and cocked his head to his left.
Others autonomously followed the direction of his cocking and gasped in unison. There rested a case; small enough to entertain the police’s disinterest, but big enough to conceal a corpse.
It seems the gentlemen of the pub somehow fathomed my above written words. For the air immediately dropped morose, the stillness eclipsed their bodies, and their lips, once again, fluttered in unison. The situation remained such for a few seconds. Then, Manav mustered some strength and spoke:
“What’s in that?”
His inquiry brought another dubious smile on Skunk’s face, “Why don’t you look for yourself?”
Manav gulped and exchanged looks with the other two inhabitants. His fists tightened as he dragged himself towards the case. Each step he took, he took two backwards. He had reached halfway, when he came to a sudden halt.
“What happened? Aren’t you desperate to see what lies inside this case?”
“What’s in it?”
“See for yourself.”
Manav didn’t move. He stood firm (I’d rather say petrified) on his spot, crippled of speech and movement. It is then Tony jumped in.
“Is there a body in it?”
“What are you planning to do with it?”
Skunk grabbed a nearby liquor bottle and poured it over the case.
“Alcohol can have other purposes too, you know,” With this Skunk pulled out a lighter and began playing with it.
For the next many seconds, the other three’s eyes kept moving about Skunk. Silence wrapped the atmosphere, and the only thing made any activity was the sound of the clicking of the perpetrator’s lighter.
A little while later, another sound joined the clicks. It was a low groan and resembled a slow tear of bamboo. Tony looked about and found Manav on the ground gasping for breath. Without wasting any moment, he rushed to him. He pulled out Manav’s inhaler and shoved it in his mouth. Manav took a few deep breaths and pulled himself up.
His breath calmed down, but panic shot through the roof. For the fear of unknown with a definite consequence hit his mind. He took a step towards this inconsequential madman who was about to commit something ravenous. Skunk nearly dropped the burning lighter on the case and Tony froze in anticipation. Manav and Martin threw themselves under the table, for reasons unknown even to them. Even the air became still in the anticipation of something ominous.
With each moment, the distance between the lighter and the case decreased, and so did their heartbeat. It was just inches away from it, when Manav, out of nowhere jumped in between and grabbed the lighter, while the other two pinned down Skunk.
“You little rat, how did you dare try to throw us under the bed?” said Martin.
He bent down and opened the suitcase, and the moment he did so, a shock hit him. He struggled a few steps back and hit his knee against a chair. This mild commotion grabbed the other two’s attention.
‘What happened?’ asked the gecko-eyed Tony.
In response, Martin pointed at the suitcase. Both Manav and Tony peeked into it and were left with a surprise similar to Martin. There was no body in it, only a pair of torn toddler’s dress.
“W… What the hell?” exclaimed Manav, but before others could chime in his curiosity, Skunk’s laughter started echoing around.
“Look at your faces! Who ever said that there’s body in it?”
Tony’s apprehension suddenly disappeared and angst took its place. He grabbed Skunk’s collars and pins him to the counter table.
“You asshole, what are you playing at?”
Skunk, for a few moments, looked at Tony’s ravaged expressions and then chuckled again, “Me? I’m just a sorry father who had to look at her daughter’s corpse, again and again till my wife committed suicide out of depression. What can I possibly do?”
Skunk’s confession sent a morbid shiver down everyone’s spine. Tony loosened his grip on him, but still kept him in his grasp.
“I can do nothing! But…but they can do it, what I can’t.”
Tony cocked his head and looked straight in his eyes, “They? What do you mean, they?”
A mischievous smile emerged on Skunk’s face.
“What did you do?”
Skunk twisted his head a little, so as to further loosen Tony’s grasp.
“Tony, you are lucky. You have the gift of being orphan in these turbulent times. So, you don’t know what it’s like to see your loved ones’ corpses in front of you all the time, but you Manav, you can understand the pain. Didn’t your folks got murdered out of a hate crime? You know, this is funny, even in such a calamity, people found a reason to hate each other.”
Skunk’s words enraged Manav. His fingers curled into a fist. His feet gained momentum. It appeared that any given moment, he would pound on the blabbering person and would reduce him to nothing. He didn’t have to try though. It was Martin this time who had done the honours on his behalf. He had Skunk pinned to the wall.
“What did you do?”
Martin further pulled Skunk’s collars, thereby making it hard for him to breathe. The former thought that this increased discomfort might motivate the receiver to be a bit more facilitator of the truth. He received his wish, well, just not in the way he imagined. Skunk chuckled.
“Well, nothing important, you see. I merely motivated them. Who is willing to wish his child’s corpse remain forever fresh? Especially if they are a magnitude of people, ain’t Manav?”
Tony and Manav gasped, while Martin delivered a powerful blow to Skunk’s face.
“You monster! How could you do this to that child?”
Skunk spat blood and then chuckled once again, ‘Infant.’
Another wave of shock hit the cohabitants, and the sneer which Skunk gave, elucidated that he desired exactly the same type of response from them.
Martin let go of him and slumped in a nearby chair. He buried his head in his hands. Tony and Manav, on the other hand, were too petrified to flex even their eyes.
He wasted no moment in putting the final nail in the coffin, “Wait a minute! Did I say infant? I meant infants. Wards full of them, across the city.”
Martin’s eyes immediately snapped on him.
“No! No! How could you?”
“Oh, only I wasn’t alone,” said Skunk, “After all, grief does bring people together.”
The moment Skunk finished his sentence, he broke into a maniacal laughter. For next many moments, the whole pub was immersed into silence, spare his laughs. Then, Tony somehow mustered enough strength to put forth his thoughts.
“W… We can’t be a part of this. W… We have to inform the authorities.”
The word authority pulled Manav back to reality, “No! We all will be persecuted. You know the law!”
“No, we won’t. We will explain it to them. We will explain it all!”
“Oh, you people worry so much! I told you. Soon, you won’t have to worry about the Reich.’
The moment Skunk finished his sentence. The pub’s door burst open, and entered a man of small height but of massive height, almost like a ball. Marvin spun around.
“Elias! How many times I have to press it that you ain’t allowed to barge in here!”
“There’-there’s riots all around!” Elias skipped the decency of either an apology or an explanation.
“Riots! They are everywhere! Some mob even ransacked the city’s Reich Control Headquarters!”
“Don’t believe me? Go see for yourself!” Elias shot back, “My cousin said they broke out in Mexico too!”
With this, Elias turned around and shot out of the pub, mumbling to him.
“If that I have to be to shake out the truth, I may as well be monster.” Skunk’s voice echoed across the room and returned hollowed to him. No one was any more interested in him, or was appalled by him. They assembled by the counter to discuss the fresh development over a few drinks. Well, of course, over many drinks.
– Nishant Verma