I decided to keep the overall structure intact and instead try translating it into a completely different genre. This involved going through each paragraph and altering is appropriately. At first I intended this to be quite minimal and restrained but ultimately couldn’t resist the temptation to add a few extra bits and pieces here and there.
So here’s his story. I like the way this one is spun, with quite a few changes to the original text.
What do you think? Does it work in the altered genre?
Sal and Ema
Sal glances over his shoulder across the road where neon signs offer every kind of food, tech and sim at discount rates. Smells of the market infuse his clothing, the burnt silicon of the tech stalls mixing with spices and alcohol and smokes of all varieties. The sellers work as a hive, huddling behind their merchandise which fills the street, all of them networked for signs of trouble or a customer with deep pockets.
Music blaring from doorways. Counterfeit passes for off-world travel, never going to work but cheap as you like. A garbage drone hovers just above head height, watching for litter and swooping down with its arms at the slightest infraction. At the edge of the market cars trundle past in regimented lines, occupants gazing out idly or asleep, happy in their bubbles of quiet security, walled off from the hustle of the streets. This used to be Sal’s territory, in the middle of the Asian district, where he knew every face and shortcut, where to get breakfast for nothing and a bed for little, yet now he feels more exposed than a naked woman in Palder Square.
As long as Sal stays on the grid – under the eyes of the watchmen and anybody else that has hacked in today – he knows he can remain safe. Nothing to stop them using the grid as well to watch him, waiting for him to make that mistake of stepping into one of the city’s tracker dead zones, but they’d know that if he was on the grid, then so were they and they wouldn’t try anything with that kind of tag. Even here, where some of the sellers employed constantly moving wobblers to hash the signal and give them a more open market, there was enough data to keep him secure. The grid makes it so much more difficult to meet Ema, but there isn’t much choice. Going off-grid would be more discreet, but here he hopes at least he can meet her without a direct threat.
‘Watchboy.’ The word hisses through his link, disembodied and glitched as all hacked comms tend to be. Could have been sent by anyone, maybe not even in the market. He knows the obscenity is directed at him from someone who wants to kill him, someone from his own community, someone daring him to go off-grid. Only people down here use the term offensively – topside it’s a compliment, here it’s more likely followed up with a fist or blade or neurohack. Sal’s dealt with that before, sure, beaten up anyone who’s tried it on, left them bleeding on the road or mirrored the hack right back at them. He’s had his fair share, too, like most kids down here – knives to the throat, configuration scramblers, fake grid alerts. Whether it was tech or physical, there was always a grudge waiting to be worked out.
Politicians have other things to talk about. In this city it’s all about the weapons trade anyway, and that goes on over in West district, where it’s all suits and briefcases. Petty crime and underground tech doesn’t get their attention.
He has a nagging sensation he’s out of his depth. With no follow-up to the link message, he assigns the comment to his trash. Finally, a car pulls up. A taxi. The door lifts up over the roof and a girl makes a move to get out, then pauses.
She gestures for him to come to her, the subtle and teasing tilt of the wrist. Black hair, black trousers, sari. Gold and red bangles skittering around her wrist link like she’s stepping right out of a the sims he buys in the market. Sunglasses at night. This girl is the one. She’s his future. Next to her he feels like he can be anybody, do anything, go anywhere. His link identifies her and brightens her up, putting a light glow around her face and hair like in the sims.
Cautiously, she beckons him to the car—a small gesture, a tilt of the wrist. He looks around, straightens the collar on his jacket, flips up his sleeve to reveal his ink. Then he struts.
Her name is Ema and she’s all he ever dreamed of. Trouble is, like most dreams, she’s almost out of reach.
The car door slides closed. Moving off smoothly, the taxi heads out away from the market, up towards the Ring with a gentle motion that only comes through automated transport, so slick you barely know you’re going anywhere. Inside the car they kiss, unable to let go, tongue sliding over tongue. It might be out of sheer desperation for their situation. Might even be the danger. Or it could simply be because they’re teenagers in love. Sal can’t be certain of which.
He looks at her, then to dashboard display, at the GPS map, digital eyes scanning the road and keeping the traffic flowing.
‘I’ve missed you,’ Sal says. ‘I tried to message—’
‘He took me offline. Can’t access anything in the house.’
She nods. ‘I’ve not got long.’
‘Where we going?’
‘Who knows,’ she says, despite the taxi clearly having a destination locked in already, and he doesn’t want to think about any of the double meanings behind her words.
When they kiss again he notices something’s not quite right, the texture of her lips perhaps.
With all the suddenness of an emergency stop, she lurches back, holds his face, and says, ‘Sal, he’s going to kill us.’
‘Baseema, you have brought upon this household great shame,’ her father said, his eyes full of contempt, hands energised like those of a prophet. His usual pose, in his usual grey trousers, blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up.
‘I know, Father, I’m sorry.’ She looked left. She looked down. She looked anywhere but at him. Her link blurred his face so she couldn’t see how angry he was. He didn’t know that she’d set it to do that.
‘This will not do. He is Sikh.’ ‘He doesn’t take it seriously though,’ Ema said.
‘This is supposed to make it better, no? A boy with half a faith? A faith that has no place in this modern world? Accha! I have lined up for you a good Hindu boy, a boy with ninety five per cent connection, and this is how you treat me. You kiss him, your hands all over him. And in public! And your wedding to Anish is entering the planning stage. And do you know what people will be saying about me? This isn’t good for business.’
‘But I love him!’ Ema said, tears pooling on the tip of her chin.
‘I won’t hear anymore of it.’ He moved to strike her, then paused, as if to think better of it, something he seldom did. ‘Go help your mother. Now.’
‘But, I do. I really do love him.’ ‘His reputation is bad. He has no future.’ ‘He’s got a job—’
‘Selling sims and link trinkets, no? He is only seventeen per cent match! Useless boy. I won’t have it, and that’s my final word. Would you dare go against my word? I’ll beat you.’ He stood, gesturing towards his belt as if to say, Try me, just try me, and maybe he would next time.
She shook her head, then left the room while her Uncle Indra nodded his head to the silent rhythms playing over his internal link as if in a permanent state of trance.
‘I can’t run forever,’ Sal says. ‘I can’t keep hiding like this. We’re always, like, having to get from place to place really quickly. I don’t like it.’
They are running through the city centre, trying to keep ahead of anyone that might be tracking them, heading towards the bus stop, the rain fizzing on the pavement. Old ladies in wet coats. Young ladies in soaked summer dresses. Men standing near sim stations, laughing at everything, smoking. White, black, brown—every colour with something to live for except Sal and Ema, whose dangerous love affair has become the talk of their neighbourhood, filling the live feeds and trends, leaving them nowhere left for privacy. Salam is annoyed. No father to turn to, no mother to help him out. All he has is Ema, and she’s part of the problem.
‘But he’ll kill you,’ Ema says. ‘He’s said as much. If he sees us together he’ll beat me again. Look at this—’ She lifts up her black shirt to reveal a bruise across her hips.
‘Ema,’ Sal says, in a state of shock, his link analysing the bruising and overlaying a medical diagnosis. ‘How could he—’
‘He gets what he wants. You know how important his reputation is. I’ve overheard him talking, you know. Now people are, like, looking for you.’
‘We could leave the city,’ Sal says, filling with hope. ‘We could go together. Go anywhere! Make a start. Go completely off-grid, somewhere away from the city where they can’t find us.’
‘We couldn’t live outside the city! You’ve heard what it’s like. And anywhere else he’d find us.’
‘Then what d’you suggest?’ Sal says, his hands out wide, rain streaking down his shirt.
‘I’ve told you, you’ll find out when we’re there.’ ‘Where the hell’s there?’
‘Here.’ She scrolls the map on the transit stop and stops at Palder Square.
‘Why would we go there?’
‘To solve our crisis, right?’
They clamber onboard the transit, condensation on the inside, rain on the outside, a cluster of faces damp and miserable. Pneumatic hiss. A slight rocking as it pulls away, not as smooth as a car. Older and stiffer. They head west across the city, holding hands, staring around, examining every face for signs of murder.
Luckily, there is none, and upon realising this, in the sanctum of the transit, they kiss again, Sal’s hands sliding in an explorative fashion along Ema’s thigh. There are so many words for love in his link’s multi-language thesaurus, yet he’s never found one to describe what he feels. What she is to him transcends language, transcends culture. Nothing can describe this most simple of emotions.
If only her father would agree, he thinks, realising that not all fathers in her culture think like he does.
Ten minutes later they disembark at Wannaton, near the small cluster of retro shops the other side of the Ring and some way from Palder Square. No transits went all the way there. They walk underneath the Ring’s main entry loop, then back down a lane of houses much more glamorous than Sal’s bedsit. Maybe one day he’ll save enough to live somewhere this nice, somewhere for him and Ema. The rain clears here, dispersed by moisture converters up on the roofs, leaving the air a little fresher than before. This is how the rich live. Ema pulls him down an alleyway, then another, until they emerge into Palder Square, all old buildings, half derelict and faded, husks of their 2010s glory days, all built with grid-blocking materials – accidental, coincidental, but effective. They’d never bothered to fix it or rebuild. Shadowed figures moved between the buildings. Even the dealers were careful here. Palder Square was as off-grid as you could get.
‘Here we are,’ she says. ‘What?’
‘The answer to our problems. Now, Salam, I want you to be careful. Treat this woman with the greatest of respect.’
‘Who is she?’ He stares into her bright round eyes that seem nestled more than usual into the dark delights of her face. All he wants is to be with her. Is that too much to ask?
‘Black Hat.’ The word strikes Sal hard. A tech witch.
They enter an apartment building that overlooks the square, crumbling and cracked so that it might collapse inwards at any moment. Down a corridor then Ema knocks on the door. She points out paintings lining the walls, leading up the door. Roses. Buddleias. Mint. Rosemary. All of them augmented through the link in luscious 3D, waving in an imaginary wind. They could have been a live feed but were probably records. You didn’t see those sort of plants much anymore.
The dull churn of the road in the distance.
The door opens of its own accord, like some ridiculous horror sims Salam plays with Dave after shifts in the stockroom. Smells of pizza. Dense plumes of incense smoke. A vague drone of music, a system playing real, live audio over the air, not just through the link. And there is something otherworldly that Sal can’t place. Apart from that one sensation, it doesn’t much look or feel like the residence of a witch.
‘Kaminay! Well don’t just stand there,’ a voice shouts, heavily accented in Indian. ‘This house is still gas central heating. I’m not made of money!’
With more bustle than a street market crowd, Sal and Ema enter the house and shut the door. A person hobbles down the stairs, disguised by overlaid with constantly switching avatars, first an old woman in Hindu clothes, then a young man naked but for a loincloth, then a goblin carrying an axe, then a child, then a young woman nude but censored out in the key areas. The floorboards are creaking with each step, as the apparition shifts and changes. When the figure reaches the bottom he/she eyes them with an intensity Sal hasn’t known since his before his grandmother died three years ago. ‘Salam. Baseema. You’re here at last.’
‘Knowing our names isn’t anything special,’ Sal says. ‘Anyone can see that in our tags.’
‘Silence!’ she says, waving her hands in despair, her voice modulated and undulating in pitch, so that he can’t figure out his/her age or gender. ‘Baseema messaged me yesterday,’ now in a Spanish accent. He/she regards Ema. ‘Where did you find such a bright one, no?’ The figure limps into another room, indicating for them to follow. ‘Come, come.’
After they are seated on the floor in a room covered with drapes, the woman—the Black Hat— brings drinks and smokes.
‘What is it you want? Tell me,’ the witch says. Sal shrugs, stares at Ema, who, with a sigh, begins their story.
After ten minutes the witch gazes towards them, and it occurs to Sal that his/her eyes are stereophonic, pointing in different directions. From another room, the music drifts past, invitingly.
‘You wish for protection only? Or full identity switch? Or a new character entirely?’
Sal feels a panic rising inside him. ‘I don’t want to be someone else,’ he says, ‘I want to be me. Why should I have to change for them?’
A silence. The tech witch points to Ema. ‘Speak!’
Ema says, ‘I don’t want my father hurting. I just need to know that Sal and I can be safe. Safer, at least. We’re desperate. Please, help us.’
‘Protection is a simple task, though rerolling would be wiser,’ the witch says with a sigh, then the crackling avatars abruptly deactivate, revealing balding, middle-aged man in crazy electrogarb. He reaches into a compartment and pulls out a board, swapping it out with another one that he gets from elsewhere. Sal’s link, though offline, reads the barcodes and he notes symbols of a tiger and an eagle. The witch rubs his temples and the avatar spring back to life, enveloping his body in the illusion of a four-armed Kali, naked but for a headdress, then begins an incantation in a language that Sal’s link can’t translate, a hushed murmuring that possibly transcends any understanding. Smoke sizzles up from the deity’s fingers as it rubs them together and for a brief moment Sal isn’t sure whether he’s seeing augmented visuals or ghosts that have entered the room. It happens so quickly he can’t be certain.
‘It is done, isn’t it,’ the witch says.
‘What, just like that?’ Sal says. He wants to ask more questions, but the tech witch vanishes with a snap of multi-armed fingers, leaving nothing but a small glowing spark that floats in the air.
Ema smiled awkwardly at the introduction. It wasn’t as though he was offensive, was it? It was more the fact that he hadn’t asked for the introduction at all, and neither had she.
She liked to decide things for herself. She decided to watch the latest popsims when Uncle Indra wanted to play everyone sims from home, again—and when he wasn’t watching that he was trying to share his awful music with everyone, whether they liked it or not, so Ema was perfectly entitled to stay private and watch her own thing, thank you very much. Besides, it wasn’t as though he didn’t spend enough time with that stuff, what with his repair shop, sitting there in the back room tinkering with one eye viewing a sim. Every other month he’d find a new sim producer, claiming to be more immersive and more interactive then ever before. Sometimes she thought Uncle Indra would prefer to live in a sim permanently, if he could afford it. In her happier days she remembered him dancing through the lounge as her mother cooked samosas, picking her little frame up and spiralling her around to some tabla beat. The sims were maybe not such a bad place. Sometimes she felt an urge to join him, for the endless heroics.
Her father insisted on her studying Business Studies on LinkU, that it would give her a head start. Business was important, young lady, business will get you places. She said she didn’t want to do that, but study fashion, then it started the biggest argument, raised voices, and where her mother would end up crying. To stop her mother being upset, Ema agreed to do what her father instructed. She knew her place. She didn’t get to make many of her decisions.
He was one of the most well respected Hindus in the district. A man at the helm of dozens of businesses, and even had his own personal taxi, yessir. His empire included car manufacturers, curry houses, a string of student and first-time properties. Fingers in other daals, too, but she rarely knew about those, and he never spoke of them. A proud man, he was a noted member of the community, a donator to charity when he could afford it, and a demon leg-spin bowler on Sundays, in the fashion—so he always claimed—of the great Subhash Gupte, with a best of 8 for 34—howzat! Ema didn’t know who Gupte was and didn’t care.
It was her father who had made this next decision, to arrange for this meeting with this boy, someone no older than she was and who seemed more frightened than was really necessary for the occasion, despite scoring well on communications.
‘Hullo,’ the boy said.
They held each other’s gaze for about a second, maybe less. Whilst their families clustered like storm clouds, she looked away into the distance, with troubled thoughts. Would this be the man she spent the rest of her life with?
She was so bored of him already, and he’d only said the one word.
‘This is Anish,’ her father said. ‘He is being training for programming, isn’t that right Anish? Top cent- per-cent.’
Her father slapped the young lad on the back. ‘Anish’s father owns several electronic shops from Birmingham to Leicester. I think such a union would be proud for our family, no? Don’t you think so?’
Too skinny, she thought. No muscles. Too quiet. Too ugly. His nose is the size of Rajasthan. She wondered if augmenting could help. More to the point, he wasn’t someone she chose. She wanted Sal. Handsome, dangerous Salam. An air of mystery about him. Someone who could make her laugh. He didn’t need any kind of upgrades. It didn’t matter he didn’t have a proper job. He made her feel so wonderful, so aroused. When he kissed her, new realms were opened up. Sal was a passionate man. And his eyes were to die for.
Would there be any choice in this? Is this really how things were in the Twenty-second Century? It wasn’t as though she hated arranged marriages—she had known some very happy outcomes. Years of bliss. Some of her friends still wanted to be wed in such a way, made things easy for them. It was just that it wasn’t for her. Her heart wasn’t in it. Her heart was elsewhere. Her heart was with Sal.
The boy in front of her was nothing more than a business transaction.
‘Baseema?’ her father said. ‘You would think this would serve our family well, this union? Ninety-five per cent connection?’
Forest Gate, 4a.m. Ridiculous name for the place. Sal doesn’t have enough money for the taxi ride back because his link’s paycard is fried since whatever the tech witch did, so instead he’s forced to shamble across streets he knows aren’t safe. Back on the grid, at least, his link overlaying the way home onto the streets. At least that’s working, even though it’s a long way. He doesn’t care. Tonight he has managed to see Ema in Media, best nightclub in the district for real DJs. Echoes of the whole Organic Underground scene of a few years back, but this time a bunch of butchered remixes and none of those wannabe DJs should be forgiven for their sins. However, he has, for the moment, got his fix of love.
It comes back to him in staccato drunken images—
Dancing with Ema. Hands on her waist for much of the evening. Standing in shadows, his lips over hers as the strobe light and the music thump in time, all of it heightened through unsubtle use of aug, hiding the room itself and dropping the dancers onto a disc spinning through space. He remembers licking up her neck. Remembers her sitting on his lap near the sofas. Five credits a pint, a bargain, especially on her link. The two of them. No one else. No family interfering, denying them the only thing they want.
Now, his coke drunk and him needing to urinate in the next half hour, chips beginning to form a not- unpleasant starchy residue in his gums, his link pointlessly informing him of rising cholesterol levels and alcohol units, Sal stumbles, largered up, across the vacant roads of the city. How much longer will he have to put up with this secrecy, this torturous hiding?
Two clicks—he knows knives have been drawn. His link tells him as much, taking only a second to pin-point the threat behind him. Sal looks around, can see nothing but the harsh sodium glare of the streetlights, but his link draws the body outlines in the glare.
‘Sal . . . ‘ The voice is vaguely recognisable although three figures walk in front of shuttered windows behind which last summer you could buy Indian World Cup shirts for the price of a single sim episode.
The streets are a blur. The link struggles to track his vision, finally IDing the three figures. He doesn’t recognise the names. ‘Who—?’
‘Leave her alone, watchboy. You’ve already been told to get away from her. Call this your final warning, yes?’
Chip wrapper falls to the ground as Sal lurches backwards from the three tall men. Asian, scarves around their mouths, baseball caps drawn down low. They don’t need any augmenting. Six inch blades in the hands of two of them.
The other holds a long metal pole, points it in Sal’s direction. ‘Leave who alone?’ Sal says, thinking it a useless thing to say.
‘If it isn’t you, Salam, it’s gonna be her, innit. You’ll both be dead. You don’t want that. Just leave her alone.’
Before he knows it the metal bar is brought into his stomach repeatedly, folding him to a right angle, his link screaming a useless warning. He throws up down his shirt. Sal falls backwards, clutches the wall for stability, the link providing a velocity vector and horizon line that does nothing more than complicate things. The bar is brought across his back and he falls forward into the wall, then onto his knees, vaguely aware of his grazing, glad that the alcohol is numbing his pain. He crouches like a dog, spits the last of his sick on the pavement. A boot into his ribs, into his face, and Sal coughs blood. His link tells him it isn’t serious, that he’ll be fine, and he knows that the assailants’ links will be telling them the same. That’s how they know how hard to hit and for how long without getting into much trouble. The link makes beatings pretty accurate.
To one side he suddenly notices a shape—notices it only because it glows white. It is an ethereal business, a brightness not even the streetlamps can match. His pummelling ceases as the three men step back. The glow forms the shape of a tiger, only it’s twice the size of anything he’s ever seen on a sim, possibly four times, and makes Sheer Kahn look like a kitty. A white tiger. Growling. Walking forwards, muscles gliding beneath the fur. Through metal railings that remain intact after it passes. The three men are stationary, cemented to the spot by this most ghostly of glares from the tiger. Sal shakes his head, expecting the tracking delay of augmented graphics, but there is none.
The animal gazes across them as if it’s reading a menu. It chooses the one with the bar in his hands, leaps forwards with an almighty spectral pounce, forces the assailant to the pavement. A crunch of spine, a smash of skull. Blood pools darkly across the road. The other two sprint away from the unexpectedly physical augmented vision, arms windmilling, their footsteps loud in the absence of sounds before the dawn.
‘What,’ Sal says, staggering upright, ‘what took you so long?’ The tiger ghost regards Sal for what seems like a day before commencing with the meal.
Uncle Indra watched his brother open the container. From where it was hidden, you could see the old mine site in the distance. No one had passed by for ten minutes, a child on a bicycle the last figure fading into the dusk. Wind rippled across a darkening field of grass. Terraced cottages stood behind, waiting to become derelict.
‘Bhai. Come closer.’
Indra walked around to see inside the box, and his eyes widened in shock. He never expected a handgun to be so big. His brother smiled, placed a hand on Indra’s shoulder with a firmness that said, It’s okay, trust me.
Indra spoke in Hindi. ‘You want me to do it?’
‘I’m her father. If this doesn’t work, I’ll get involved. I want to try getting some young men to rough him up a bit first. See how that goes. It might be enough. This is our second plan. I want you to know about it now, early, so you have time to prepare mentally. Third, I’ll deal with Baseema personally, okay? Keep it in the family, though, no?’
Indra said, ‘Where did you get the gun?’
‘Best you don’t ask.’
‘When is a good time?’
‘Whenever you feel it necessary,’ his brother said. ‘Just bear in mind our reputation if she persists with this Salam boy. Think of the business lost. I’ll give her a chance, but we must find an appropriate time, and place, of course.’
‘Where shall we get rid of his body?’
‘I have any number of business channels through which to dispose of it. I know of construction companies . . . ‘
‘A good choice,’ Indra said.
A flock of starlings began to carve arcs into the sky, liquid-like movements. Their calls heightened Indra’s sense of isolation. This sort of business was messy, but necessary. Shame would cast a shadow on their family for years. They would lose money, respect. He knew it would be difficult for other people to understand. If this ever got into the newspapers, he would be called evil. Let us hope, he thought staring at the weapon in the boot of the car, that Baseema sees sense quickly, so I don’t have to use it.
Sal, on the long walk home from work. Friday evening, people climbing aboard transits, cruising in cars that he can only dream of affording. There’s an air of anticipation for the weekend, something he lives for, a misplaced energy where maybe anything can happen, and the city is alive on it.
Women walk by, skirt material in obvious short supply, but he isn’t interested, even with the body curves mod that Dave installed when he was asleep at lunch. He has plans with Ema, has been saving up for three weeks to take her out to dinner. Pizza, as it happens, only the best. He must go home to change first. A new black shirt, new black trousers. He’ll be a Bollysim looker, that’s for sure.
Half an hour later he criss-crosses three alleyways, scanning the local area for anyone broadcasting, hears four different types of music from reggae to rock. Puddles float the spectrum-glitter of dirty rain. His link tracks the time with a progress bar: plenty of time yet.
A sudden kick sees Sal fall forwards.
He grasps the metal railing of a fire escape for steadiness, turns, is confronted by an old man holding a gun.
‘Enough, Salam, lad,’ the man says. ‘Just don’t move a thing, no?’ Brown waistcoat, white shirt, a heck of a grey beard. His voice is uncertain. This is obviously no professional. ‘If you move I’ll shoot, okay?’
‘What?’ Sal says, eyeing all the time the barrel of the gun.
‘You have come close to Baseema too much, no. You have brought much shame.’ The link clicks the ID, and Sal knows the name Indra. Ema’s uncle.
‘We’re on-grid,’ Sal says hopefully, ‘you can’t do anything to me.’
‘Check your connection, Salam,’ Indra says. He’s right, they’re in a black spot. Maybe the fire escapes above? Sal can’t remember when the connection dropped.
The alley is long. No escape route. When playing those horror sims, his friend Dave says that in real life that people know better than to interfere with a scene like this. No one will rescue him. It’s just him and the old man.
Shadows seem longer, darker than before.
‘I love her,’ Sal says.
‘Accha! How can someone so young know what love is, eh? You tell me?’
‘I know what it is. I love her. I want to look after her.’
‘Love is being able to pay for food, pay for a houses, a car. Well-being for children. That’s love. You youngsters think you know it all, isn’t it.’
‘No, that’s credit you’re talking about,’ Sal says, a hint of daring in his voice, ‘not love.’
Sweating, Sal glances above, sees the shape of an eagle swooping between buildings, the same ghostly texture as the tiger from the other night. It is immense, the size of a car, and plummets just as quickly. Within seconds its claws penetrate the back of the man with the gun, the weapon firing into the ground, forcing Sal to jump several steps backwards. He has never considered the weapon could’ve been loaded.
A scream, and the man is lifted into the air, the draft from the wings scattering coke cans and newspapers around the alleyway. Sal watches their faint shadow move across the sky until it is out of sight. For several minutes he sits on the fire escape, staring at the gun, on the edge of throwing up, realising that, somehow, it’s because of the witch that he’s still alive.
The eagle returns, empty clawed. Sal doesn’t hear it, only notices its approach with the displacement of air. He wonders how and where the bird disposed of the attacker.
‘Enough of this,’ Sal says. ‘Enough hiding. Enough running. It’s sick, innit?’ The eagle stares blankly. ‘Let’s go to Ema’s house. I wanna confront her father. You’re on my side. You with me?’ The eagle squawks something that could be a reply, leans forwards as if to beckon Sal onto its back. Sal obliges, says, ‘Drive steady, all right?’
With another thick downdraft that sends a bottle skidding into the wall, they rise from between the buildings, at rooftop level then far beyond, providing Sal with a view of the city. Its call is loud enough to shatter glass. Slowly, from the other side of clouds, other white eagles follow. Wind ruffles his hair, threatens to pull him to the ground, but he feels bizarrely safe in this bird’s care. He feels liberated. No one can touch him. Down below a white tiger meanders through the traffic jams. Can people see them? Are they caused by my imagination? Does the tech witch charge for these things by the hour?
A few minutes later, Sal lands outside a detached house in Maple Park. Posh. A tiger bounds over the gate. Exotic birds spiral down from the sky. A door opens: a man in a blue shirt runs forward screaming, his arms waving as if he’s on fire. A white bear chases him, growling. The garden soon becomes a zoo for ghosts. Bears, rhinos, tigers, eagles, condors and things more bizarre, horses with arms, elephants with six trunks, they all gather in their powder-white glow, and tread a circle around the man who is rapidly identified as Ema’s father.
Ema runs out shouting. ‘What is going on? Salam? What’s this? What are you doing here?’ Sal says, ‘This is our doing. This is what the Black Hat has done to help. We asked for it.’
A scream. Her father is on his back, an eagle resting on his chest. ‘Get off! Accha! I’m sorry. Help me. Help!’ He begins to sob, and prods tentatively at the eagle’s talons.
Sal approaches, calls back the ghosts. Waves his hand to pull them away. Ema’s father gets up, a look on his face that suggests he is astounded Sal has the power to control the creatures. He rubs his eyes to regain some pride.
Sal struts like a cocky, urban Mowgli. ‘Mister, this is all because you won’t let me and Ema be together. I’ve got news for you. We’re protected. Every time you try to do something, they save me. They’re on my side. I reckon you should let us be. They’ll follow you everywhere. They’ll never let you win.’
‘And what if I do not? You think you can come into my garden and—’
Salam clicks his fingers and the eagle pounces, thumps Ema’s father into the floor in a sliding arc of mud. The bird hisses. Feathers brush his cheek.
‘Arey! All right! Just get it off.’ There’s something in the old man’s eyes to suggest he doesn’t accept this fully, something between confusion and fear.
Sal calls for all the creatures to back off, for the eagle to give some space.
‘If you hurt her,’ her father says, ‘I won’t let any creature stop me from getting you.’
‘You’ve been hurting her enough already, don’t you think? I’m the one she cries to every time you beat her, every time you stop her doing what she wants to. It’s her life. I’m the one who holds her softly, tells her it’s okay, innit. I’ll do anything to keep her happy. These animals are here to keep her happy.’
‘Fine. Whatever.’ ‘So you’ll get rid of this Anish dude?’ Salam says.
A tiger roars as if to back up the point. Ema’s father nods. ‘Come on, Ema, we’ve got dinner plans.’ She stares at her father, the look on her face indicating she’s too fearful to even move. The eagle screeches into his face.
‘Go, go,’ he says, waving his hand to her, unable to take his vision off the muscled creature pinning him to the ground.
She runs over to Sal, holds his hand, and the ghosts disappear one by one, with Ema’s father rubbing the back of his head in disbelief at the scene. There are muddied claw marks on his shirt. The front fence is demolished. He stomps towards his house kicking plants along the way, cursing in both English and Hindi.
Baseema’s father sits sulking in his study, door locked, hundreds of photo frames scattered across the floor being the only evidence of his tantrum. He stares at a picture of Baseema, to the right of a miniature, signed cricket bat. Both items take centre stage on his desk basking in the glow of the computer screen.
He seethes with anger. He looks out the window onto his back lawn. It is night time. The moon forces bold shadows across his lawn. He contemplates what had happened earlier. Could it be true that these animals are protecting his daughter’s interests? How is it possible? Why can a father not show love for his daughter anymore?
An image of the Sikh boy, Salam, enters his mind. He reaches into his desk, moves to draw out a knife. As soon as his fingers touch the blade, he hears a sudden noise from the back garden. Strangely, he senses it’s his own voice screaming, a twisted premonition that injects him with fear. He walks over to the window, shaking, to look out into the night. There, nestled in the blackness of the bushes, a faint glow. Two white eyes, staring back him. He pushes the window out, fractionally, the air chilling the room.
If you listen carefully you can hear a growl.
That weekend, Sal and Ema return to the house of the Black Hat to say a thank you. They find no one there, no trace of his existence. No answer at the door. No smells of spices, no drifts of incense. They peer through the window and can see nothing. The walls are bare.
Sat at a mayo-stained table in McDonalds, Ema in the queue for two chicken burgers, large fries and a coke, Sal searches the grid, curious to find out a little more about the witch. You can find anything on the grid, he thinks, even where the crazy old guy went, but there is no information. All he discovers is that Black Hats can be sentenced without jury if they’re identified.
Ema approaches with her scent mingling with fried food. ‘I hope you’re not looking up pictures of Aishwarya Rai again. Reskinned actors are so creepy.’ She feeds him a chip. ‘You have me to look at now, and there’s no one to stop you doing that.’
He grins as she pecks him on the cheek. A promising Saturday opens up. A promising year.