Monday, May 29, 2017

SWAPPED

PART I

Priya swiped the card at the KFC counter and punched in the pin #1122.  The prompt 'wrong pin'  flashed back.  Her friends kept chatting behind her, laughing, unaware of this.  Priya tried again  and it flashed the same prompt.  Confused, she took a closer look at the card.  It looked the same  except it didn't have her boss' name on it.  She spun around and told her best friend, Anu, that  there was something wrong with her card, and Anu used her own card to pay the bill.

A few moments later, her friends except Anu left in an Uber bringing their get-together to an end.
"Everything alright?" Anu said noticing the look on Priya's face.
"I think someone accidentally swapped our card," she said.
"Was it the pani puri guy??" Anu said.
A few hours ago, they had come across a teenager selling pani puris on a push cart.  They had been  surprised when they found out that he accepted cards.  It was a new trend that was catching up.  Almost  every small shop seemed to have a card machine these days.
"Lets go back there!" Priya said.  They caught a rickshaw and were on their way to the spot where  the pani puri guy had been.

About 10 minutes later, they were at the spot, and there was no sign of the push cart.
"Shit!" Priya cursed.
"Its late.  May be he went home," Anu said noticing that it was 11 p.m. "May be we should come back  tomorrow."
Priya thought for a moment and said,
"Better call up my boss.  Ask him to block the card."

On her speed dial was a contact which was plain without a picture and the name "Boss."  His phone  rang for a long time before he picked it up.
"Why are you calling me at home??!" the Boss said in a forced whisper.
"I am sorry, but its an emergency.  I.... I lost your card. I was just..."
"What?? Great!" he said sarcastically.  This was followed by a distant feminine voice asking him  who it was.
"I will call you back!" her boss said hurriedly.
"Block it!" Priya shouted urgently before the call went dead.

Priya sighed.
"Have you talked to Ajay about... you know..." Anu said.
"The divorce? Ya, I am working on it. I can't seem to get myself to have that talk. Its so  diffic...." Priya's phone began to buzz.  The call was from an unknown number.  She received the call.
"Didhi, have you changed your mind?."
"Who is this??"
"Its me, didhi, from the hospital.  My dad's condition is getting very tough.  Only you can save  him."
"Listen!! You can't keep calling me like this.  This is harassment, okay? I will file a complaint  against you if you call me again?"
"But didhi, you are a donor."
"That means, when I die, they can harvest my organs, not before that. Do you understand??"
"But, didhi, my dad's quite old.  He doesn't have time to wait, didhi.  Lemme take you home so that  you can meet him and have a...."
"Fuck off!" Priya shouted and ended the call.

"Him again???!" Anu said frustrated.  Priya nodded, trying to calm herself.
"You know, you should file a compliant against the hospital for giving them your medical info," Anu  added.
Priya opened her mouth to say something when her phone buzzed again.  It was her boss this time.
"Its all gone! The money is all spent at some jewelry stores!" he said, irritated.
Priya was shocked.  It took her a moment to collect her thoughts.
"Can't.... can't we get it back??"
"Its gone, Priya!  Wait, I will come ov....." the voice began to break and then silence.
Priya tried calling him back, but the call wouldn't go through.
"Guess it wasn't an accident.  The pani puri guy robbed us!" Priya said to Anu.

***

Ajay, Priya's husband, was 10 minutes into Game of Thrones.  Crumbs of potato chips and a couple of  caps of beer bottles were scattered all over his living room floor. He took a sip of the beer and  took a bite of the potato chips when the door burst open.  A couple of guys rushed in holding metal  rods and machetes.
"Hey man, what the fuck! Who are you!?" Ajay said almost falling to the floor in the confusion.  One of  the men getting irritated by the loud noise of the TV pulled its plug from the wall socket  forcefully.
"Hey, be careful with the TV maan." Ajay said while one of the men caught him by his collar and  punched him in his face.
"Stop it, maan! Who are you guys??" he said, as the man continued to pound him across his face.

***

Priya and Anu decided to do some investigating.  A shopkeeper nearby knew where the pani puri guy  lived:  At a nearby slum.  With the new information of the pani puri guy's name and a vague idea of  where his house was in the overcrowded slum, Priya and Anu were on their way.

A few minutes later, they were walking in the slum.  There were no lights except the glare from the  TVs and the light from low watt bulbs burning inside the worn down houses filtered through their  windows.  Rowdy looking men sat outside watching the 2 women walk by.  Anu's fingernails dug into  Priya's hand as they walked.

Priya gathered up the courage to ask some of the men about the pani puri guy's house.  After about  half an hour of asking for directions and walking, they finally noticed the push cart parked  outside one of the rundown houses.

Priya felt a mixture of relief and dread. Before they could take another step, the door opened and  out came the pani puri guy with a busy look on his face, and he headed towards his pushcart.  From  inside his house came the noise of a woman shouting at him.  He stopped in his path when he  realized someone was watching him.  He turned around and faced them.  A few seconds passed as they  looked at each other.  The guy spun around in an instant and bolted.

"Hey wait!!" Priya shouted running after him.  The woman from inside the house, the pani puri guy's  mother, rushed out to see what was happening.  Anu ran after them.  The woman too followed suit  although her age slowed her down.

The guy zigzagged through the tiny pathways of the slum.  There were rubble all over the place.   The guy seemed to be very familiar with it and jumped at the right places avoiding the obstacles.   Priya hit her foot on a stone lying right in the middle of the path and fell down.  Anu helped her  up.  Without wasting another moment, Priya brushed aside her bruises and continued to run after the  guy, shouting.

After a couple more minutes of exhausting running, the guy ran out of the slum's edge and onto what  seemed like a mud road.  Just as he did that, a mini van slammed into him hurling his body to the  side.  Priya and Anu who witnessed this stood stunned.  They rushed to him, but he was lying still in a pool  of blood.

There was a lot of shouting from the slum.  A crowd was gathering from the slum and headed towards them.  The mini van driver, realizing what was about to happen, sped away.

"Lets go!" Anu urged Priya who was knelt beside the guy, shocked.  Anu pulled Priya up.  It took  another minute for Priya to snap back into her senses, and they both ran down the dark muddy road.

They kept running till they reached a more familiar and quieter part of the city.  They both sat  down at an abandoned bus stop.  Both breathing hard.  Priya's phone vibrated.  She took it out of  her pocket.  It's screen foggy from her sweat.  She wiped the screen and saw that she had 14  missed calls from "Boss" and 7 missed calls from an unknown number.  She also had 2 msgs from the unknown  number.

Unknown Number:  We are with your husband at your home. All you have to do to save his life is come  home within an hour.  If you try to get the police involved, we will just leave his body for you to  find.
Unknown Number:  [Video]

The video was of Ajay with a bloody face and looking scared, sitting on the couch in their living  room.  Burly men sat on either side of him shouting at him and threatening him.

As the video ended, Priya and Anu looked at each other with blank looks on their faces.
"Was it the...." Anu was interrupted by an SUV racing down the abandoned road, then screeching to  a stop in front of them.

"Priya babe? Is that you?" a familiar voice came from within the SUV.
"Oh, thank god!" Priya said filled with relief and jumping up.  "I need your help. I am in soo much  deep trouble!"
"Get in.  We will sort everything out!" the Boss said smiling and unlocking the doors.

Even though she felt relief, she couldn't brush aside the tiny gnawing  feeling that things were only beginning to get worse.

TO BE CONTINUED.
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