After the training, Vishwas enthusiastically started calling his old friends, relatives and acquaintances asking, for the business meeting. Vishwas’ enthusiasm soared high like Mount Everest. 

But soon, Vishwas started realizing that the people whom he was counting on to be the potential clients didn’t turn up or looked the other way after he explained them the business. His leads never converted into clients. Hardly two or three clients got enrolled in the company. Many of those who came for the meeting thought it was a fraud and Ponzi scheme. 

Vishwas’ enthusiasm began to drain quickly and the instalment of loans were very high. It was 5% and that summed up to his monthly instalment of 20 thousand. 

“Your instalment will be due next week.” Bobby said as the three were sitting in Bobby’s office. 

“But sir, I have not got my commission of the three clients I brought in.” Vishwas spoke with a shaky appealing undertone. He knew that he could not raise his voice against the people who had supported him. At that moment, Pratap told him that, the commission will be given only after he gets 6 clients on board. 

“But sir, how I’ll be able to pay the instalment if I don’t get the commission?” Vishwas was shocked on hearing what Pratap said.

“That’s the rule of the company. And I can’t let my instalment wait till you get your commission. I hope you understand what I am trying to imply.” Bobby got up and kept his hand on Vishwas shoulder who had slumped himself in the chair. Bobby walked out to have his smoke, leaving Pratap and Vishwas behind.

“Pratap, can you please convince Bobby sir to give me some relaxation for this time. I promise I’ll pay the next instalment in nick of time.” Vishwas implored with moist eyes. He didn’t realize his tears had lined up his eyelashes.

Pratap took a deep breath and with puckered lips kept thinking for the solutions. After a few mins, which seemed liked eternity for Vishwas, Pratap spoke.

“I’ll get your commission directly waved off for the loan instalments. Although it will be for this time only. Next time onwards, you make sure not to delay. Bobby is not a kind of guy you wanna mess with when it comes to his money.” Pratap indirectly threatened Vishwas about Bobby’s reputation as finance mafia.

“I promise bro, I promise.” With supplicating urge in his eyes and hands clasped, Vishwas replied. 

Pratap walked out lighting his cigarette and joined Bobby who was still standing out. They discussed the matter outside and all the while, Vishwas kept praying for Bobby to agree. 

“Bobby has agreed this time only on my word as assurance. You better not let me down next time or else…” Pratap, as usual, kept his words in the air.

“Thank you, thank you very much, bro. You are my only true friend.” Vishwas thanked him and left. 

The pressure for loan repayment was mounting on Vishwas. He started losing his focus on his job too. He desperately tried to get more clients. He called anyone and everyone whom he had met once or twice also, to get them enrolled in business. With a handful or more clients that he could bag, the commission was waved off for loan repayments. 

The continuous warnings and threats from Bobby scared the daylights out of Vishwas. His ability to think and function as a normal human being was deterred. He was at his wits’ end. With no one around him to share his problem, he started getting edgy and restless. His life was turning into a vicious cycle as Pratap kept pushing him more and more to get the new clients. With such a mental torturing, Vishwas broke down.

“Vishwas, this is not the first time the instalment is due. If you won’t pay it now, then I have other means to recover my loan.” Bobby spoke with Pratap and Vishwas sitting in front of him in his office.

“But sir, I am trying hard to get more clients. I don’t know why people cannot get it in their heads that this is the best business. The future.” Vishwas spoke without meeting Bobby’s gaze, who was staring at him without blinking.

“I don’t care about the bullshit. I don’t give a damn about anything. I want is my money back.” Bobby suddenly launched forward and banged his fist hard on the table, rattling everything lying on it and making the water spill from the glasses. Vishwas was shocked by Bobby’s sudden rage of anger. Pratap kept his cool all the while Bobby behaved barbarian like.

Finally, Vishwas could not control the reins on the horses of his emotions and broke down. 

“Sir, you tell me what should I do? I don’t have a dime to repay you.” Vishwas spoke between his sobs. Bobby quickly glanced Pratap quizzically to which Pratap gave a brief node. Bobby walked out with Pratap for the smoke and Vishwas stayed behind, contemplating his decision of taking the loan. 

“What do you think?” Pratap asked in a low tone to avoid eavesdropping. 

“It’s time now. He doesn’t have any other option nor any liberators and guardian angels. He has run out of options.” Bobby winked and grinned wickedly. Pratap smiled, he understood. It was time to put their plan into action.

“I should better go and talk to him.” Pratap took another long whiff of his smoke and smouldered the butt of his smoke under his leather shoes. 

“Good luck, and make the chance count. I am leaving.” Bobby left the ball in Pratap’s court.

“Vishwas…” Pratap sat on the edge of the table and kept his hand of Vishwas’ shoulder.

“There is a way out for you but…” As usual, Pratap let his words in the air and for Vishwas to gain the gravity of the situation. 

Deep in the heart, Vishwas felt that he was being dragged even deeper into a mess he was already in. He felt he won’t be able to come out but he was left with no other choice. He briefly nodded with moist red eyes.

“Bobby can wave off your loan but you’ll have to run some personal errands for him without any questions.” Pratap spoke with raised eyebrows.

“Is it possible?” Vishwas could not believe what he heard. Waving off the loan amount… That was the biggest relief he wanted right now to happen.

“YES…” Pratap said loud and clear for Vishwas to believe him. 

“And what work will I have to do?” Vishwas immediately asked. He was even ready in his mind to scrounge or work as a low life at Bobby’s house or to be Bobby’s driver too.

“Don’t rush for the things. Sleep over it and we will talk about it in a couple of days. Till then, try to get more clients.” Pratap patted Vishwas’s back and both finally left.

For the whole night, Vishwas kept on thinking about what work he will need to do for Bobby. He tried thinking of all the possibilities he could but couldn’t rest his thoughts on something very concrete. He relieved his mind from pursuing the thought any further. He had to rest the cogs of his body and mind. They had been under tremendous stress for the past few weeks.

After a couple of weeks,  Vishwas received Bobby’s call. Like an evil omen of ill-fated future: A parrot sitting on a deserted tree sang. Bobby’s husky voice echoed and reverberated through Vishwas’s ears and the entire body.

“Come to my office, today evening at 8. And don’t be in a hurry to leave.”

Vishwas’s heart started pounding faster he could feel it against his ribs. Deep in his heart, he wished for eternal time clock would somehow stop and he would not have to meet Bobby. He even begged to God to get him more clients so that he could repay the loan but that never happened. Finally, Vishwas took a deep breath and tried to calm himself down. He finished his work early at the warehouse and went home to get ready for the meeting.

Vishwas reached on time. Bobby and Pratap were already busy in enjoying their drinks in the office. 

“There you are… Come, come, have a seat.” Bobby said in a loud and cheerful tone. Vishwas saw the bottle of Jack half empty and glasses full. Pratap was smiling even from ear to ear in between the munches of the salted cashews. 

“Are they conscious to talk?” Vishwas asked himself.

“Pratap, make a large peg for Vishwas too.” Bobby said sipping his drink and munching the handful of nuts.

“No, no, I don’t drink sir.” Vishwas had never smoked in his life, drinking was like a taboo in his family.

“Don’t be so downtown boy. Jack is the best friend any time.” Pratap handed the glass to Vishwas’s whose unclenching spirit made him clench the glass even more tightly. Pratap gestured him to have it. The first sip made him cough, the taste was so pathetic that it burned his gut.

“Easy boy, easy, Jack needs to be handled with care.” Bobby laughed out loud at his lame joke. 

Vishwas had no choice but to have small sips of the first peg of his life. He was, however, waiting for the work he had to do for Bobby. Pratap sensed the nervousness of Vishwas and lightly winked at Bobby to initiate the topic.

“Relax Vishwas, work can be done anytime. Let’s enjoy the moment while we can, work can be done later.” Bobby laughed again.

“Ya, but it would be better if the terms and conditions of the task are discussed hand in hand with these drinks.” Vishwas gave a rueful smile, raising his peg.

“Fair enough, you are one of a kind for whom work is worship.” Bobby laughingly leaned forward and patted Vishwas on his shoulder.

“The work is simple. You need to resign from your current job first.” Bobby’s tone was stern and serious. Vishwas felt a tight knot in his stomach on hearing it.

“Relax, you will get the salary more than you are drawing from your current job.” Pratap immediately held the reins of the conversation and situation along with Bobby.

“Okay, but what do l have to do?” Vishwas swallowed the heavy lump down his throat. Biles rising to his gut. 

“Basically, nothing, you’ll have to travel the world, my boy.” Bobby got up from his chair and rested his back on the table edge near Vishwas, keeping his hand on Vishwas’s shoulder.

Vishwas was trying to comprehend what Bobby had just blurted out. His mind was pacing ahead, trying to figure out what would be the purpose of sending him on foreign tours.

“I will give you a small package that you have to carefully carry with you to the place where we will send you.” Bobby looked straight into Vishwas’ eyes. It was a staredown. Vishwas didn’t have the balls to match the shining glint of Bobby’s cunning and shrewd eyes. He stared at the wall trying to comprehend the matter at hand before his lips parted, asking the question in a shaky voice.

“And what would that package consist ?” He knew he would have been better off not knowing the answer to that damned question.

“That’s none of your beeswax. Someone will come to your hotel room and collect it.” Bobby’s voice was stern. 

Vishwas swallowed another lump and replied in a faint voice.

“Okay…”

Vishwas was sure that the package contained contraband items. He closed his eyes tightly, cursing his fate and the day he met Pratap. He gulped down his drink in one go. It burned his gut to the core but somehow it felt soothing.

After another peg, Vishwas started feeling a bit tipsy and he was about to leave when Bobby spoke.

“Remember one thing, you are not going to talk about the package we gonna give you. If the word leaves this office than I won’t hesitate to…” Bobby opened his drawer and pulled out his Smith and Wesson. A shiny barrel, he ran across his jawline. Vishwas was aghast. It now dawned on him that he had signed a deal with the devil himself. He had never thought that his so-called business partners would be criminals dealing in contrabands. He left quietly without making any eye contact.

That night he lay awake on his bed, staring at the ceiling fan above him. What he had dreamt of becoming and what he was going to do, were the two extremes of his life and his ethics but this situation seemed like Hobson’s choice. He pictured his face attached to the body of a mule, who would carry anything laid on his back. A Drug Mule.

As per the given instructions, Vishwas was to pretend to be a tourist who visits the places and takes the pictures and enjoys his life. The package would be collected by unknown associates from his hotel rooms. The packages were hardly the size of a novel. 

Every time Vishwas thought of spilling the beans to someone. The hulking image of Bobby with his Smith and Wesson reared up at the back of his mind, sending severe chills down his spine. He was at his wits end grasping at straws.

After a few trips to Bangkok, Sri Lanka, and Nepal, Vishwas was about to travel to Thailand again. He was at the Mumbai airport, clearing the customs. It was easy for him. His looks, an innocent boy on tour deceived the customs. However, luck was not in his favour this time.

“Mr. Vishwas, please step aside.” A custom officer said once Vishwas picked up his bag from the luggage belt. He took a deep breath before looking at the officer. Vishwas knew that this was the end. He had been busted. Narcotics department grilled him for the package but he kept his mouth shut. 

News about Vishwas’ arrest reached his Dad and he couldn’t stop cursing himself for not being able to save his son. With trembling hands, he sent a text message. 

“Vishwas has been arrested by Mumbai police.”

A WEEK LATER…

Pratap was sitting with Bobby in their office, discussing who could be their next Vishwas. They had been in the business of luring and trapping innocent people into taking loans and would later use them as drug mules when they failed to repay the loans.  

Pratap was lost in his thoughts ruminating about their next drug mule on his drive back from Bobby’s office. Monsoon was in its full swing and it was pouring down heavily. The traffic was thin on the roads as many motorists and drivers had taken shelter under trees or shade to avoid the rains. 

Pratap saw a beautiful girl walking on the pavement. She looked gorgeous even after her makeup was messed by the rain. Pratap slowed down to get a glimpse of her. He stopped near her and lowered the glass of the window to talk to her.

“Can I help you?” 

The girl didn’t look at him and kept walking. Pratap drove slowly and asked her again. 

“No, I am fine. Leave me alone.” The dark black mascara smeared circles beneath her eyes with raindrops dripping down her eyelashes had a mesmerized Pratap. He drove his car a bit ahead, stepped out and stood in front of her.

“Ma’am, it’s raining cats and dogs. You might catch flu? Let me help you. I’ll drop you wherever you want to go. You will not get the cab in this weather.” Pratap was enchanted by her strange enthralling beauty. 

Left with no option, she reluctantly accepted the lift. Pratap kept driving without asking anything more. He kept his curiosity within his bounds and the girl didn’t show any signs of interest in talking to him. It seemed she was battling with her demons in her head.

The very next day, the same girl walked into the cafeteria. She was busy digging in her purse as she walked in and bumped into Pratap. 

“I’m so sorry, I didn’t see you coming.” The girl apologized for being careless.

“That’s absolutely fine ma’am.” Pratap did not take his stare off her. She was the one, that had made his heart skip a beat just a few hours back.

“Hope you have not caught with cold and flu.” Pratap smiled at her as their eyes met.

“Oh, you’re the one who dropped me home safely yesterday. Sorry, I couldn’t even thank you then.” The girl said sheepishly, realizing how rude she had been the previous day.

“That’s fine ma’am. You can thank me now over a coffee.” Pratap sounded flirtatious now but the girl didn’t mind. 

“Hi, I am Shraddha.” She introduced herself once they settled in the cozy armchair round a corner table. She sipped some water and continued.

“Thank you so much for yesterday’s lift.” She sighed with closed eyes. Something was still running at the back of her mind.

“You seemed quite disturbed yesterday. I hope everything is copacetic now.” Pratap was trying to keep the conversation going on. Shraddha didn’t say anything, a lopsided smile pasted on her face. 

“Can I buy you a coffee?” When the verbal communication had been down for a couple of minutes. It seemed like an eternity for Pratap before he broke the silence with his question.

“Ya, fine. I’ll have a Mocha.” Shraddha thought for a while and with little hesitation, she agreed. Pratap called the waiter and ordered their coffees. 

“I am Pratap.” He pulled his hand out for the handshake to which, Shraddha slid her hand for a gentle shake.

The casual conversation started and slowly drifted to the hobbies and goals in life. Pratap seized the opportunity to dig more about her. And like any other ordinary inane girl with a lot of beauty, she started opening up easily without hesitation or suspicion.

“If you don’t mind? Could please tell me why you were so fazed yesterday?” Pratap leaned back and let the ball roll in her court.

“Nothing much, just some business issues.” Shraddha pulled out her clutch and let her hairs fall loosely in front, partially covering her face.

“If you don’t mind. You can share it with me. Maybe, I could help.” Pratap masked his face with an assuring smile. Shraddha sighed and took a few deep breaths before speaking.

“Everything is a mess. I had recently set up my small business of herbal cosmetics but…” She, biting her lower lip, kept staring at the cup of her coffee.

“But… It didn’t work out and now you are kind of struggling to keep it going.” Pratap completed her sentence.

“My dream was totally different but now, it seems I have lost all the passion I started it with.” Shraddha pinned her fingers to her temple to ease the headache.

“Well, I have an offer for you.” Pratap’s words kindled a  shimmering light of hope in her eyes. Pratap smiled and leaned forward. At the back of his mind, he knew that he found a perfect replacement for Vishwas.

Like a ray of hope in the dark phase of her life, Shraddha agreed to listen to Pratap and what he had in store for her. Like Vishwas, she too began to walk into the parlour of the spider. 

They both exchanged their numbers and Pratap promised to give her the call for the new business meeting, the business of E-Commerce.

After a week, as scheduled, Shraddha met Pratap and he explained the business its terms and conditions to her, just like he had done to Vishwas. Alike Vishwas, Shraddha too had a finance problem, a big problem as she has lost much in her previous venture. 

“That won’t be a problem, I can arrange a loan for you from my senior partner.” Pratap slightly winked at her. It made her feel light-headed. She was finally with someone who’s gonna be the torchbearer for the path of her dreams.

Bobby and Pratap gathered for the final meeting with Shraddha and all the formalities were done. Shraddha, like Vishwas, was on cloud 9 to start the new business.

Soon, she realized that things did not work out as planned and the loan repayment began to crush her like a road roller. Alike Vishwas, she too broke down and Bobby and Pratap took the charge of the situation. She now took up the legacy of her predecessors the drug mule, another in the chain of drug mules for them.

Shraddha’s first trip was finalized and she was quite nervous. Pratap was at the airport, observing her from close quarters but remained hidden, but always kept her in his sight to check whether she passes the customs without getting busted or not. 

The nervousness in her eyes and beads of sweat on her forehead were enough to hint the custom officers to corner her for more thorough checking.

“Ma’am, could you please step aside?” A female custom officer spoke standing next to her.

“Damn it…” Pratap who had been sipping his coffee and keeping an eye on Shraddha cursed his luck. Without wasting a single second, he immediately walked out. Shraddha who was in tears now was scanning the crowd as every single person was staring at her. 

On the way, driving out of the parking lot, Pratap called Bobby and informed that their mule had been busted.

“God damn it… These custom guys are on to us now.” Bobby banged his fist on his table. 

“Let’s stay low for a while. Things are not in our favour.” Bobby ended the call. 

Pratap thought it would be better to take a small vacation break from his work. With nothing much to do as of now, he could spend some of his leisure time outside India. Pratap booked his ticket for Bali that night and packed the luggage to leave for the late morning flight. 

Next morning, Pratap was all set for his vacation. He made a last-minute check before stepping out of his house. He had barely stepped in the parking lot when he was surrounded by A.C.P. of the crime branch and his staff accompanied by the Narcotics department people.

“Mr. Pratap, you are under arrest.” Before Pratap could comprehend what was here at play, he had been forced against his car and handcuffed by one of the constables. 

Pratap was stunned when he saw someone stepping out of the police jeep. Shraddha walked straight to him. Before Pratap could say anything, she slapped him tightly across his face once and back again. 

“Sorry… I couldn’t introduce myself properly to you in the previous meetings.” 

“I am Shraddha, a freelance journalist and… Sister of Vishwas.” With those words, Vishwas too stepped out of the car followed by Bobby with a sheepish look on his face. Two brutish policemen with brawns holding onto his hands.

Written by: Hemang
Sketch: Paranj Sankdecha

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