Posted in Fiction

Pandora’s Box

It was barely a quarter to nine, and yet the streets of Mumbai were almost deserted. The last few shops were closing their doors. There would be no customers at this hour anyway, and the employees and the shopkeepers needed to reach home before the curfew started.

A young woman walked along these lanes. In a black fleece jacket with a hood covering her head down to her eyes, straight black jeans, and black combat boots with heels, she seemed to have tried to dress to be inconspicuous. It might have worked, if not for the fact that she was the only woman on the road at these hours. Still, with everyone hurrying to avoid the curfew, nobody spared more than a couple of quizzical glances at her.

The woman, in turn, did not pay much attention to the men around her. Her steps were firm, yet swift and light. Occasionally, she would look at the overcast sky as she walked. She could smell the coming rain in the air. It was going to be one of those nights.

The city was falling silent fast. As the woman approached the famous Marine Drive of Mumbai, the roar of the sea became quite prominent. A decade or so ago, the whole area would be bustling with crowd around this hour. But now it was empty and silent as a graveyard.

Though she was adamant to not be distracted, something caught the woman’s eye as she passed one of the vacant buildings in the area. You could see such buildings everywhere in the country- half-burnt or half-demolished, with the other half kept as a warning to the people. It must have once been a business or a house owned by a Muslim, or a homosexual, or any of the other minorities that were now branded undesirable by the High Council.

What the woman noticed, though, seemed to be a graffiti at the corner of the wall. It looked fresh, as if someone had just drawn it- a bleach white buffalo skull, with the word “RESIST” written underneath it in red. She looked at it for a moment, her expression unreadable. Then she started walking again, and as she did, it began to drizzle. The rain was already here.

Pandora 02

A loud gunshot rang across the night. Then another one. The woman flinched a bit and stood still in her tracks, as did the few men she could see around her. They looked panicked, but nobody ran or yelled. They knew better than to do that. Gunshots were a common daily occurrence now. It just meant that the watchmen had taken care of another undesirable. Maybe it was the graffiti artist? After a few seconds of silence, everyone started walking again, noticeably faster.

“The curfew begins in 5 minutes.” A female voice sounded across the wet night over the nearest loudspeaker. Then the same message repeated in Hindi. The announcement seemed to jostle the woman into walking faster. Her destination, the five star hotel called the Oberoi, was just in sight.

The woman removed her hood as she approached the hotel. Her jet black hair  was shoulder length and seemed unusually straight. The security was stricter than usual. Many of the junior members of the High Council were reported to be staying here for their monthly conference next morning. The woman was asked to hand in her papers. When her name and registration checked out, she was asked to hand in her phone and other metal objects she might have, and then she had to walk through a metal detector and a state of the art X-ray security scanner.

At the end of the security checks, her phone, coins, and keys were returned to her. A clean shaved young man dressed in a white suit stood there to greet her. He flashed a toothy smile, which seemed fake at best. His eyes seemed to be judging her attire and her manners. He said, “Welcome to the Oberoi. How may I help you?”

“I have an appointment,” said the woman quietly as she fished out a card from the pocket of her jacket, and handed it to the man. He courteously accepted it. As he read the name, his eyebrows seemed to rise a bit higher.

“Of course,” he said, with a polite nod and a noticeable change in his tone, “Mr. Kapoor is waiting for you at the bar. I’ll show you the way.”

The bar was dimly lit and moderately crowded. Unlike the road outside, there were women here as well. The woman was guided to a table at the corner. The man sitting there seemed middle aged, and was good looking and well groomed. He wore a tuxedo and had an expensive watch on his left hand. There was a glass with brown liquid held in his right hand. The ice cubes were still melting. He did not get up when he saw the woman, and merely smiled.

“Please, take a seat,” said the man named Mr. Kapoor.

“Thank you,” said the woman, with half a smile and a nod, and sat down opposite him.

Kapoor stared at her face for what seemed like a long time, before remembering to talk. He cleared his throat softly and asked, “Can I get you anything…?”

“No, thanks,” said the woman at once, “I don’t drink.”

“That’s good,” nodded Kapoor, “Alcohol isn’t a good thing for women to indulge in.” He stared at her face for a few more moments and then said, “So… Priya, it’s been a long time, huh?”

Pandora 03

“Actually,” said the woman, looking downward, not meeting his eyes, “I go by Pandora now.”

The man chuckled. “Seriously?”

“I had to give up my past life when… I joined the Underground,” she said, finally looking up.

The man stopped smiling. He looked solemn for a moment, but he seemed to relax as he looked in her eyes. “So it’s true then?” he said.

The woman nodded. In the dim light she seemed to be emotionally exhausted.

“But… why?” the man asked, his brows furrowing a bit, “We were best friends, remember? Before you started to get involved with that ridiculous boyfriend of yours. How did you end up joining the Underground? What happened?”

“I don’t know,” she sighed. Her eyes looked sad and full of regret. “You remember how I was? Always feeling guilty about not doing anything, or not having strong enough political views. They kept saying that standing by and doing nothing was as big a crime as doing wrong things yourself. So I joined up when my friends did.”

The man seemed to understand. He couldn’t remain angry with her, not when there is such sadness in her eyes, not when she had asked for his help. “And now?” he asked.

“I… I don’t know.” Her voice threatened to break. “I just can’t take it anymore. I’m too tired and too scared.”

When he sensed that she was about to cry, he put down the glass and extended his arms to hold her hands. “Hey… Shh… it’s going to be okay.”

“I’m ready to tell you everything,” she said, letting him console her, “Everything I know. Just please get me out of this mess?”

“You don’t have to worry,” he said, the smile creeping back to his face, “I can guarantee your safety. You just come with me to the meeting tomorrow.”

She looked into his eyes and even though her eyes glittered with tears, she seemed to gain some composure. “Thank you,” she said, with an attempted smile, “I knew that if anyone could help me, it would be you.”

Hearing that, he smiled and sat up a bit straighter, smiling contently. He left her hands and drank the last of his drink. “Of course, I will help you,” he said, looking at her face, “You’re my old friend. I’ll protect you.”

The woman smiled a little more clearly this time.

“Anyway…” said the man, clearing his throat, “We will meet tomorrow in the morning and sort everything out, okay? But now…” His seemed to be weighing his words, trying to be careful what to say next, “Well… I mean, I guess I can drop you off, since it’s past the curfew, but it may be better if you preferred to… you know… stay here? I mean…”

He was about to jump into a bunch of poorly constructed explanations trying to justify why it would be best for her to stay in his suite for the night, but she cut him off, “Oh, I’d love to!”

“You… you would?” he failed to mask his surprise.

“Yeah… I mean,” she said, “We have so much to catch up! A decade and half. We could stay up and… talk.” She seemed to smile coyly at the last word.

“Alright, then,” he grinned broadly, “Let’s go. We can order dinner from the room.” He offered her his hand as he stood up.

They walked together, hand in hand, to the elevator and took it up to the twentieth floor. His happiness and excitement was apparent. He made small talk as he walked. She just smiled and nodded.

As they entered the suite, lights automatically turned on. It was massive and beautifully decorated.

“Wow!” she exclaimed.

“Make yourself home,” he said with a smug smile, letting go of her hand, “I’ll just…”

Pandora 04

But he never got to finish his words. As soon as he had turned, she slammed into him, throwing his body against the wall. Being caught off his guard, he was dazed. Before he could regain his senses, she grabbed at her right boot and jerked the heel free. What she held in her hand now, was a sharp blade. She held him up against the wall and brought the blade to his throat.

His eyes rounded as he saw the blade. “How…” he stammered.

“How did I get it past the security?” she said, with a very prominent smile now, “How sweet of your to ask! It’s not metal. It’s made of cow bone. I thought you might appreciate the irony.”

“I… what…” he looked more confused and scared.

Without one more word, she slashed at his throat. It took more effort than an actual knife would have needed, but it got the job done. Blood gushed out from the wound. He desperately tried to grab at something, but she head butted him, breaking his nose and disorienting him completely on impact. He fell on the floor, helpless, and bled out.

The woman went to the bathroom. She cleaned the blood off herself. Then she cleaned the weapon and sheathed it back in her boot. She casually walked to the body lying in the pool of blood, completely lifeless. She took his phone from his tux and dropped it in her left pocket. From the other pocket, she took out her own phone. Taking a last look at the body, she smiled once more and dialed a number.

“Hey boys,” she said in the phone, “Pandora here. The box is open.”

Earlier this year, I initiated a project on Facebook that I would create something for each of my online friends who wanted me to. This story is a part of that project. All the characters involved are fictional, except the protagonist, who is based on my friend.