The Mountain Shadow, Page 2Gregory David Roberts
‘Tell me what?’
He flinched. I was hard-faced on him, because he’d talked about the prison break, and I wanted him to get to the point.
‘He was my friend, in college,’ he said evenly. ‘He liked roaming, at night, in dangerous places. Like I do. Like you do, or else you wouldn’t have been there, to help him out that night. I thought, maybe, you’d like to know.’
‘Are you kidding?’
We were standing in thin shade. We were inches apart, while the churn of the causeway wound around us.
‘What do you mean?’
‘You put prison escape on the table, just so you can bring me the sad tidings of Aslan’s demise? Is that what you’re telling me? Are you nuts, or are you really that nice?’
‘I guess,’ he said, hurt and getting angry, ‘I’m really that nice. Too nice to think you’d take what I’m saying for anything but what it is. I regret that I troubled you. It’s the last thing I would want to do. I apologise. I’ll take my leave.’
I stopped him.
‘Wait!’ I said. ‘Wait.’
Everything about him was right: the honest stare, the confident stance, and the light in his smile. Instinct chooses her own children. My instincts liked the kid, the young man standing in front of me looking so brave and hurt. Everything about him was right, and you don’t see that often.
‘Okay, my fault,’ I said, raising a hand.
‘No problem,’ he replied, relaxing again.
‘So, let’s go back to Vikram telling you about a prison break. See, that’s the kind of information that might raise Interpol’s interest, and always raises my interest. You see that, right?’
It wasn’t a question, and he knew it.
‘You’re a detective.’
‘Fuck detectives, too. This is the kind of information about a friend that you don’t hide from a friend, when you come to know it. Didn’t anybody ever teach you that? I grew up on these streets, right here, and I know that.’
‘But we’re not friends.’
‘Not yet,’ Naveen smiled.
I looked at him for a while.
‘You like walking?’
‘I like walking and talking,’ he said, falling into step with me in the serpent lines of people traffic.
‘Fuck Interpol,’ he said again, after a while.
‘You really do like talking, don’t you?’
‘Okay, so tell me three very short walking stories.’
‘Sure. Fine. Walking story number one?’
‘You know,’ Naveen laughed, dodging a woman carrying a huge bundle of scrap papers on her head, ‘that was my first time there, too. Other than what you saw with your own eyes, I can only tell you what I’ve heard.’
‘So heard me.’
‘His parents died. Hit him pretty hard, they say. They were loaded. They had the patent for something, and it was worth a lot. Sixty million, to Dennis.’
‘That’s not a sixty-million-dollar room back there.’
‘His money’s in trust,’ he replied, ‘while he’s in his trance.’
‘While he’s lying down, you mean?’
‘It’s more than lying down. Dennis is in a state of Samadhi when he sleeps. His heartbeat and his breathing slow down until they approach zero. Quite often, he’s technically dead.’
‘You’re fuckin’ with me, detective.’
‘No,’ he laughed. ‘Several doctors have signed death certificates in the last year, but Dennis always woke up again. Jamal, the One Man Show, has a collection of them.’
‘Okay, so Dennis is occasionally technically dead. That must be tough on his priest, and his accountant.’
‘While he’s in his trance, Dennis’s estate is managed in trust, leaving him enough to buy the apartment we just visited, and maintain himself in a manner suitable to the parameters of his trance states.’
‘Did you hear all this, or detective it?’
‘Bit of both.’
‘Well,’ I said, pausing a while to let a car reverse in front of us. ‘Whatever his gig, I can truly say I never saw anyone lie down better in my life.’
‘No contest,’ Naveen grinned.
We both thought about it for a while.
‘Second story?’ Naveen asked.
‘Concannon,’ I said, moving on.
‘He boxes at my gym. I don’t know a lot about him, but I can tell you two things.’
‘He has a mean left hook that bangs a gong, but it leaves him dipping if it misses.’
‘Every time. He jabs with the left, punches with the right, and always brings the left hook straight over the top of it, leaving himself wide open if he doesn’t connect. But he’s quick, and he doesn’t miss often. He’s pretty good.’
‘Second, I can say he’s the only guy I met who got me through the door to see Dennis. Dennis loves him. He stayed awake longer for him than anybody else. I heard that he wants to legally adopt Concannon. It’s difficult, because Concannon is older than Dennis, and I don’t know if there’s a legal precedent for an Indian adopting a white man.’
‘What do you mean, he got you through the door?’
‘There’s thousands of people who’d like to have an audience with Dennis, while he’s in his trance. They believe that while he’s temporarily dead, he can communicate with the permanently dead. Almost nobody can get in.’
‘Unless you walk up, and knock on the door.’
‘You don’t get it. Nobody would dare to walk up and knock on the door, while Dennis is in his trance.’
‘Nobody, that is, until you did.’
‘We already covered Dennis,’ I said, pausing to let a four-man handcart pass. ‘Back to Concannon.’
‘Like I said, he boxes at my gym. He’s a street fighter. I don’t know much about him. He seems like a party guy. He loves a party.’
‘He’s got a mouth on him. You don’t keep a mouth like that to his age without having something to back it up.’
‘Are you saying I should watch him?’
‘Only the wrong side of him.’
‘And the third story?’ he asked.
I left the road where we’d been walking, and straddled the hand-width footpath for a few steps.
‘Where are we going?’ he asked, following me.
‘I’m going to get a juice.’
‘It’s a hot day. What’s the matter with you?’
‘Oh, nothing. Cool. I love juice.’
Thirty-nine degrees in Bombay, chilled watermelon juice, fans too close to your head turned up to three: bliss.
‘So . . . what’s with the private detective thing? Is that for real?’
‘Yeah. It started by accident, kind of, but I’ve been doing it for almost a year now.’
‘What kind of accident turns someone into a detective?’
‘I was doing a law degree,’ he smiled. ‘Got most of the way there. In my final year, I was researching a paper on private detectives, and how they impact the court system. Pretty soon, the only thing that interested me was the detective part of it, and I dropped out, to give it a shot.’
‘How’s it working out?’
‘Divorce is healthier than the stock exchange, and way more predictable. I did a few divorce cases, but I stopped. I was with another guy. He was teaching me the ropes. He’s been scoping divorce for thirty-five years, and still loves it. I didn’t. It was always unique for the married men, having the affairs. It was always the same sad movie for me.’
‘And since you left the lush pastu
res of divorce?’
‘I’ve found two missing pets, a missing husband, and a missing casserole dish so far,’ he said. ‘It seems that all of my clients, God bless them, are people too lazy or polite to do it for themselves.’
‘But you like it, the detective thing. You get a rush, right?’
‘You know, I think at this end of the story you get the truth. As a lawyer you’re only ever allowed a version of the truth. This is the real thing, even if it’s just a stolen heirloom casserole dish. It’s the real story, before everybody lies about it.’
‘Are you gonna stick with it?’
‘I don’t know,’ he smiled, looking away again. ‘Depends on how good I am, I guess.’
‘Or how bad you are.’
‘Or how bad I am.’
‘We’re already on story number three,’ I said. ‘Naveen Adair, Indian–Irish private detective.’
He laughed, white teeth foaming in the wake of it, but the wave faded quickly.
‘Not much to it, really.’
‘Naveen Adair,’ I pronounced. ‘Which part kicked you in the arse more, the Indian part, or the Irish part?’
‘Too Anglo for the Indians,’ he laughed, ‘and too Indian for the Anglos. My father . . . ’
Jagged peaks and lost valleys, for too many of us, are the lands called father. Climbing one of those peaks beside him, I waited until he crested the conversation again.
‘We lived on the footpath, after he abandoned my Mother. We were on the street, until I was five, but I don’t really remember it much.’
He raised his gaze to the street, eyes floating on the tide of colour and emotion, moving back and forth.
‘He had tuberculosis,’ the young detective said. ‘He made a will, naming my Mother, and it turned out that he’d made a lot of money, somehow, so we were suddenly rich, and . . . ’
He looked at me as if he’d told me too much.
The fan, only inches from my head, was giving me an ice-cream headache. I gestured to the waiter, and asked him to turn it down a notch.
‘You’re cold?’ he scoffed, his hand on the switch. ‘Let me show you cold.’
He turned the fan to blizzard five. I felt my cheeks beginning to freeze. We paid the bill and left, hearing his goodbye.
‘Table two, free again!’
‘I love that place,’ Naveen said as we left.
‘Yeah. Great juice, nasty waiters. Perfect.’
‘You and I might get along, detective. We might just get along.’
The past, beloved enemy, has bad timing. Those Bombay days come back to me so vividly and suddenly that sometimes I’m shaken from the hour I’m in, and lost to the task. A smile, a song, and I’m back there, sleeping sunny mornings away, riding a motorcycle on a mountain road, or tied and beaten and begging Fate for an even break. And I love every minute of it, every minute of friend or foe, of flight and forgiveness: every minute of life. But the past has a way of taking you to the right place at the wrong time, and that can be a storm inside.
I should be bitter, I guess, after some of the things I’ve done, and had done to me. People tell me I should be bitter. A con once said, You’d be a top bloke, if you just had a little spite in you. But I was born without it, and I’ve never known spite or bitterness. I got angry and I got desperate and did bad things too often, until I stopped, but I never hated anyone, or consciously wished anyone harm, not even men who tortured me. And while a small measure of bitterness might’ve protected me from time to time, as it sometimes does, I’ve learned that sweet memories don’t walk through cynical doors. And I love my memories, even when they have bad timing: remembered minutes of sunlight staking out patches on tree-lined Bombay streets, of fearless girls flashing through traffic on scooters, of handcart pullers straining under the load but smiling, and those first memories of a young Indian-Irish detective named Naveen Adair.
We walked on the road silently for a while, passing between cars and streams of people, swaying back and forth between the bicycles and handcarts in the dance of the street.
In the wide doorway of the Fire Brigade building, a group of men in heavy navy-blue uniforms chatted and laughed. Inside the firehouse there were two large fire trucks, shimmering sunlight from every polished red or chrome surface.
An extravagantly decorated Hanuman shrine was fixed to one wall, and beside it a sign said:
IF YOU CAN’T STAND THE HEAT,
GET OUT OF THE BURNING BUILDING.
Further along, we entered the shopping district, spilling out from the Colaba market. Glass merchants, picture framers, timber and hardware stores, electrical goods, and plumbers’ supplies gradually gave way to clothing, jewellery and food stores.
At the wide entrance to the market itself we had to stop, as several heavy trucks made their way out into the maul of traffic on the main road.
‘Listen,’ he said as we waited. ‘You were right, about Vikram talking too much. But it ends with me. I’ll never talk about it to anyone else but you. Never. And if you ever need me, hey, man, I’m there. That’s all I’m trying to say. For Aslan, and what you did that night, if you don’t want it to be for you.’
It wasn’t the first time that I looked out from the red exile my life had become, into eyes alight with fires, burning on cliff-tops of the word escape. In my fugitive years, I sometimes found fast friendship in the song of rebellion: in the loyalty others pledged to my escape from the system, as much as to me.
They wanted me to stay free, in part, because they wanted someone to escape and stay free. I smiled at Naveen. It wasn’t the first or last time I went with the river inside.
‘How do you do,’ I said, offering my hand. ‘I’m Lin. I’m not a doctor in the slum.’
‘Pleased to meet you,’ Naveen replied, shaking my hand. ‘I’m Naveen, and thank you. It’s always good to know who’s not the doctor.’
‘And who’s not the police,’ I added. ‘How about a drink?’
‘Don’t mind if we do,’ he replied graciously.
Just at that moment I had the sense of someone standing too close to my back. I turned hard.
‘Hang about!’ Gemini George protested. ‘Easy does it with the shirt, mate. That’s fifty per cent of my wardrobe, I’ll have you know!’
I could feel the bones of his thin body against my knuckles as I released my grip.
‘Sorry, man,’ I said, straightening the front of his shirt. ‘Creepin’ up on people like that. Should know better, Gemini. It’ll end in tears one day.’
‘My fault, mate,’ Gemini George apologised, looking around nervously. ‘Got a bit of a problem like, y’know?’
I put my hand in my pocket, but Gemini stopped me.
‘Not that sort of problem, mate. Well, to be honest, that is a problem, but it’s such a constant problem, you know, bein’ broke, that it’s become more of a meta-cultural statement, sort of a grim but compelling penury soundtrack, know what I mean?’
‘No, man,’ I said, handing him some money. ‘What’s the problem?’
‘Can you wait? I’ll just get Scorpio.’
Gemini looked left and right.
I nodded and he ducked away past a nearby stall that offered small marble figures of gods for sale.
‘Mind if I hang with you?’ Naveen asked.
‘No problem,’ I said. ‘No secrets are safe with Gemini and Scorpio, especially their own. They could have their own radio station. I’d listen, if they did.’
Moments later Gemini reappeared, dragging the reluctant Scorpio with him.
The Zodiac Georges, one George from south London and the other from Canada, were inseparable street
guys. They were mildly addicted to seven drugs, and completely addicted to one another. They slept in a relatively comfortable warehouse doorway, and made a living running errands, sourcing drugs for foreign customers, and occasionally selling information to gangsters.
They bickered and fought from the first yawn to the last stumble into sleep, but they loved each other, and were so constant in their friendship that everyone who knew them loved the Zodiac Georges for it: Gemini George from London, and Scorpio George from Canada.
‘Sorry, Lin,’ Scorpio mumbled, when Gemini dragged him close. ‘I was under cover, like. It’s this trouble with the CIA. You must’ve heard about it.’
‘The CIA? Can’t say I have. But I’ve been in Goa. What’s up?’
‘There’s this geezer,’ Gemini cut in, while his taller friend nodded quickly. ‘Snow-white hair, but not an old guy, with a dark blue suit and tie, a businessman type –’
‘Or the CIA,’ Scorpio cut in, leaning close to whisper.
‘For Chrissakes, Scorpio!’ Gemini spluttered. ‘What the fuck would the CIA want with the likes of us?’
‘They have these machines that can read our minds,’ Scorpio whispered, ‘even through walls.’
‘If they can read our minds, there’s no point whisperin’, is there?’ Gemini demanded.
‘Maybe they already programmed us to whisper, while they read our minds.’
‘If they read your mind, they’ll run screamin’ through the streets, you fuckin’ twat. It’s a wonder I don’t run screamin’ through the streets n’all, innit?’
There was no reliable map of the sidetracks the Zodiac Georges took when argument meandered, and no time limit. I usually liked it, but not always.
‘Tell me about the white-haired guy in the suit.’
‘We don’t know who he is, Lin,’ Gemini said, returning to the moment. ‘But he’s been askin’ about Scorpio at Leopold’s and other places for the last two days.’
‘It’s the CIA,’ Scorpio repeated, his eyes looking for somewhere to hide.
Gemini looked at me, his face crying why-was-I-born. He tried to be patient. He took a breath. It didn’t work.
‘If it’s the CIA, and they can read our minds,’ he shouted at Scorpio through clenched teeth, ‘they’d hardly be goin’ round askin’ questions about us, would they? They’d just walk right up, tap us on the shoulder and say Hey! We just read your mind, old son, with our mind-reading machine, and we didn’t have to ask questions about you, or follow you around, because we have mind-reading machines that read people’s minds, because we’re the fucking CIA, wouldn’t they? Wouldn’t they?’