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Count to Ten
A Private Novel
By Ashwin Sanghi
Read by Sartaj Garewal
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One by one, people are missing. Find them before they’re dead.
Santosh Wagh quit his job as head of Private India after harrowing events in Mumbai almost got him killed. But Jack Morgan, global head of the world’s finest investigation agency, needs him back. Jack is setting up a new office in Delhi, and Santosh is the only person he can trust.
Still battling his demons, Santosh accepts, and it’s not long before the agency takes on a case that could make or break them. Plastic barrels containing dissolved human remains have been found in the basement of a house in an upmarket area of South Delhi. But this isn’t just any house, this property belongs to the state government.
With the crime scene in lockdown and information suppressed by the authorities, delving too deep could make Santosh a target to be eliminated.
THE KILLER EMPTIED the final bag of ice into the bath and shut off the cold tap.
With the tub full he stood back to admire his handiwork, watching his breath bloom. Winter in Delhi, it was cold, but the temperature in the small bathroom was even lower than outside and falling fast, just the way he wanted it.
From outside came the sound of footsteps on the stairs and the killer moved quickly. His victim was early but that was fine, he was prepared, and in a heartbeat he left the bathroom and crossed the front room of the apartment, scooping his hypodermic syringe from a table as he passed. A scratching sound announced the key in the lock and the victim opened the door.
The killer attacked from behind, grabbing the victim, pulling him into the room, and smothering a cry of surprise with one gloved hand. He used the syringe and for a second the victim struggled, then went limp. The killer let him drop to the carpet, checked the corridor outside, and then kicked the door shut. He bent to the victim and began to undress him.
Ten minutes later the victim awoke, naked and gasping in the bath. The bathroom light was off and his eyes hadn’t yet adjusted to the gloom but he heard the clicking of the ice cubes and knew instantly where he was. His arms had been hoisted overhead, handcuffed to the taps; submerged in the ice, his feet and knees were bound. As he began to struggle he heard someone enter the room and then a gloved hand pushed his head beneath the cubes. He inhaled icy water, feeling his airways fill and his heart constrict with the shock of the sudden cold. When the hand allowed him back to the surface, his coughs and splutters were punctuated by the violent chattering of his teeth.
The figure loomed over him, a shadow in the darkened bathroom. “You’ll feel it in your toes and fingertips first,” he said. “Tingling. Then numbness. That’s your body redirecting resources to protect the vital organs. Clever thing, the body, it can adapt quickly. If you were an Inuit, an Aborigine, even a Tibetan Buddhist monk, then withstanding this kind of cold would be simple for you, but you’re not those things, you’re…”
The killer moved into view. In his hand was the victim’s name badge, taken from his shirt. “Rahul,” he read, and then tossed it into the bath. “Oh, I do apologize. I’m sure you know all about the effects of cold on the human body. You know all about the slow shutting down of the various functions, how the brain dies before the heart.”
“Who are you?” managed Rahul. He squinted. “Do I know you?” The attacker’s voice was familiar somehow.
“I don’t know,” said the attacker. “Do you?” He perched on the edge of the bath and Rahul could see he wore all black, including a black balaclava. Opaque surgical gloves seemed to shine dully in the gloom, giving him the appearance of an evil mime.
“You’re wondering why I’m here,” said the man, as though reading his thoughts. He smiled and removed from his pocket a tiny little tool that he showed to Rahul. “Are you familiar with a procedure called enucleation?”
JACK MORGAN ENJOYED risk. Why else would he be standing outside this door at 4 a.m., barely daring to breathe as he used a tiny lubricating spray on the lock and then went to work with his pick, nudging interior tumblers into place?
But not blind risk.
Again, that was the reason the owner of the world-renowned Private investigation agency had arrived in Delhi two days earlier than his official schedule predicted, and more discreetly than usual. It was because he liked his risk with a little forethought.
He liked calculated risk.
He slid into the darkened apartment like a shadow. From his pocket he took a rubber doorstop, closed the front door as far as he could without making a sound, and then wedged it.
Next he listened. For close to five minutes Jack stood in silence by the door, letting his eyes adjust and taking in the scant furniture—a sofa, a television, an upturned packing crate for a coffee table—but more than anything, listening—listening to the noise that emanated from the bedroom.
What he heard was the sound of a man enduring a fitful sleep, a man who mewled with the pain of nightmares.
Jack trod noiselessly through the apartment. In the kitchen he opened the fridge door and peered inside. Nothing. Back in the front room he went to the upturned crate.
On it stood a bottle of whisky. Johnnie Walker.
Oh, Santosh, thought Jack to himself. Tell me you haven’t.
From the bedroom the sound of Santosh Wagh’s nightmares increased, so Jack Morgan finished his work and let himself out of the apartment and into the chill Delhi morning.
IN THE UPMARKET area of Greater Kailash in South Delhi, in a row of homes, a young couple stood at the gate of an abandoned house.
“This is it,” said the boy, his breath fogging in Delhi’s winter air.
“Are you sure?” asked the girl at his side.
“Sure I’m sure,” he replied. “C’mon, let’s go inside.”
They climbed over the gate easily and made their way through overgrown grass to the front door. Padlocked. But the boy used a pick to crack the lock in less than two minutes. Not bad for an amateur, he thought to himself.
He went to open the door, but it wouldn’t budge.
“What’s wrong?” asked the girl. She was shivering and cold and desperately wishing they’d decided to go to the cinema instead of opting to make out here.
The boy was puzzled. “I thought it was unlocked…”
“What do we do now, then?” said the girl.
Like all young men governed by their libido, the boy wasn’t about to give up easily. Yes, it was cold, but he’d come armed with a blanket and the garden was sufficiently overgrown to screen them from the street.
“We don’t need to go inside. Let’s just stay out here,” the boy suggested.
“But it’s so cold,” she gasped.
“We’ll soon warm each other up,” he assured her, leading her to an area close to the front of the house. The grass was damp but he covered it with the blanket from his backpack, and the foliage not only screened them but also protected them from the chill breeze. She tried to imagine that they had found themselves a secret garden, and when he produced a spliff, it sealed the deal.
They sat and spent some minutes in relaxed, agreeable silence as they smoked the spliff, listening to the muted sounds of the city drifting to them through the trees. Then they lay down and began kissing. In a few moments they were making love, cocooned in weed-induced sexual bliss.
“What’s that?” she said.
“What’s what?” he asked, irritated.
“That noise.” Then her senses sharpened. “It’s the ground. The ground is—”
She didn’t get to finish her sentence. Suddenly it was as though the grass were trying to swallow them. Subsidence. A sinkhole. Something. Either way, the earth gave way beneath them, and the two lovebirds crashed through the lawn and into a nightmare beneath.
DAZED, THE GIRL pulled herself to her hands and knees, coughing and gagging at a sudden stench, a mix of caustic chemicals and something else. Something truly stomach-turning.
The floor was rough concrete. She was in a low-ceilinged basement. A gray patch of light in the ceiling indicated where they’d fallen through. Plasterboard, turf, and rotted wooden beams hung down as though in the aftermath of a storm.
And pulling himself up back through the hole was her boyfriend.
“Hey,” she called. “Where are you…?”
But he was gone.
Naked, wincing in pain, and consumed with a creeping sense of something being terribly, terribly wrong, the girl looked around, her eyesight adjusting to the gloom. She saw gas masks and coveralls hanging from pegs. A small chainsaw. Dotted around the concrete floor was a series of plastic barrels with some kind of toxic chemical fumes rising from each one. And even in her traumatized state she realized it was those fumes that had eroded the ceiling structure enough for it to collapse.
And then she saw other things too. They seemed to appear out of the darkness. A table, like a butcher’s block, with a huge meat cleaver protruding from the bloodstained wood. And from the plastic barrels protruded hands and feet, the skin bubbling and burning as though being subjected to great heat.
Bile rising, she knew what was happening here. She knew exactly what was happening here.
A CHARNEL HOUSE, thought the Commissioner of Police, Rajesh Sharma, when he returned to the office the next day, with the stink of chemicals and decomposition clinging to him. Rarely had he been quite so grateful to leave a crime scene. Those poor bastards who’d had to stay.
The call had come in at around eleven o’clock the night before. A neighbor had heard screaming, looked out, and seen a terrified young woman, her clothes in disarray, running away from the house.
A short while later it was sealed off. The team had been inside for eight hours and would be there for many more days. They had determined the perp was using hydrofluoric acid to dissolve the bodies in plastic tubs. There was no way of counting how many, but say one for each barrel, that made eleven at least. Quite a death toll. What’s more, it didn’t take into account any corpses that might already have been disposed of.
But here was the bit that had really taken Sharma by surprise: the house was owned by the Delhi state government.
Mass murder. On government property. He would have to ensure the press did not get hold of this story; in fact, he’d have to make sure the news reached as few ears as possible.
Sharma had washed his hands. He’d rubbed at his face. But he could still smell the corpses as he sat behind his desk at police headquarters and greeted his guest.
The man who took a seat opposite was Nikhil Kumar, the Honorable Minister for Health and Family Welfare. Photoshoot-perfect, not a strand of jet-black hair out of place, Kumar wore simple khaki slacks, an Egyptian cotton shirt, a Canali blazer, and comfortable soft-leather loafers. His very presence made Sharma feel overweight and scruffy by comparison. Well, let’s face it, he was overweight and scruffy. But Kumar made him feel even more so.
“What can I do for you, sir?” Sharma asked the minister. It paid to be courteous to ministers.
“Thank you for seeing me at such short notice,” said Kumar.
“I’m happy to help. What’s on your mind?”
“I am given to understand that your men searched a house in Greater Kailash today. I was wondering if you could share some information regarding what you found.”
Sharma tried not to let his irritation show as he considered his response. On the one hand he wanted to keep Kumar satisfied; on the other, experience had taught him that it was always better to keep politicians out of police inquiries.
“How about you tell me what your interest in this matter is?” he said. “And how you found out about it?”
“As I’m sure you’re about to remind me, I have no jurisdiction with the police. You and I stand on the battlements of two opposing forts in the same city. But I have contacts, and I find out what I can. You want to prevent leaks, run a tighter ship.”
Sharma chortled. “This is your way of buttering me up, is it, Minister? Coming into my office and criticizing the way I run my police force?”
“Let me be frank with you,” said Kumar. “It may not be wise to delve too deeply into this case.”
“Minister, we’ve got at least eleven potential murders here.” He was about to reveal he knew the building was owned by the state but stopped himself, deciding to keep his powder dry. “While I appreciate the need for discretion, we will be delving as deeply as we need to in order to discover the truth.”
“Suffice to say that you would be adequately compensated,” said Kumar.
Sharma was taken aback. “For what?”
“For your cooperation.”
Sharma sat back and made Kumar wait for a response. “I tell you what, Minister—you leave now, and I’ll think about your offer.”
Sharma watched with satisfaction as Kumar stood and tried to leave the office with as much dignity as he could regain.
Only when the door had closed did Sharma allow himself a smile. This was what they called an opportunity. And when life gives you lemons…
SANTOSH WAGH OPENED the front door of his home to find Jack Morgan on the doorstep.
“Santosh!” said Jack, and before Santosh could react he had stepped inside.
As ever, Santosh was happy to see his boss. The thing with Jack was that as soon as he appeared, whatever the time, whatever the place, you were simply a guest in his world. It was impossible not to feel reassured by it. It wasn’t just the gun Jack carried; it wasn’t just the fact that Jack was enormously wealthy and could boast powerful and high-profile friends. It was just Jack, being Jack.
“Welcome to my humble abode,” said Santosh. Looking around, he saw his living quarters through Jack’s eyes: hardly furnished, dark, and a little musty. “I would give you a tour, but I believe you know your way around already.”
“I don’t follow,” said Jack quizzically.
“Years ago when you hired me you told me you thought I was an exceptional detective. Did you really think you could break into my apartment and I wouldn’t notice?”
Jack relaxed, allowing himself a smile. The game was up. “Well, I’m an exceptional cat burglar, so I played the odds. How did you know?”
Santosh’s cane clicked on the wooden floor as he made his way to the kitchen and then returned with a bottle of whisky that he placed on his makeshift table. He pointed to the bottle with the tip of his cane. “Perhaps you’d like to check it.”
Jack leaned forward, holding Santosh’s gaze as he reached for the bottle, inverted it, and studied the almost invisible mark he had made with a small bar of hotel soap two nights before.
“It’s just as it was the other night,” he said, replacing the bottle. “And I’m pleased to see it.”
Santosh blinked slowly. “Not nearly as pleased as I am.”
“I had to check, Santosh. I had to know.”
“You could have asked me.”
“But addicts lie. That’s what they do. Besides, why even have it in the house if you don’t plan to drink it?”
The answer was that Santosh preferred to face temptation head-on. He would spend hours just staring at the bottle. It was for that reason, not his renowned detective skills, that he had seen the soap mark, and having spotted it he’d studied his front-door lock and detected the odor of lubricant. One phone call to Private HQ later and his suspicions had been confirmed.
Jack had been checking up on him.
But of course he couldn’t blame Jack for that. Private was the world’s biggest investigation agency, with offices in Los Angeles, London, Berlin, Sydney, Paris, Rio, Mumbai, and, most recently, Delhi. Jack had invested a huge amount of faith in Santosh by making him Private’s chief of operations in India.
Santosh had been an agent with the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s external intelligence agency, when investigations into the 2006 Mumbai train blasts had brought him into contact with Jack. It had been only a matter of time before he’d recruited Santosh to establish Private in Mumbai. Setting up Private’s office in Mumbai had been challenging; his last case had almost killed him and at the very least it had looked as though he might have lost his ongoing battle with the bottle.
Jack had come to his rescue by persuading him to go to rehab, the Cabin in Thailand. Six months later, Jack had persuaded Santosh to move to Delhi to establish Private in the capital.
So Jack had to know that Santosh was still in control of his addiction. And he was. The bottle of whisky had hung around his home untouched for the whole three months he’d been there. Every day Santosh had resisted the temptation to open it and banish his private pain. And every day it got a little easier.
Privately, though, he worried if he could truly operate without it. He worried that his brain might not be able to make the same leaps of logic it once had; he worried that kicking the booze might make him a worse detective, not a better one. These were just a few of the things keeping him awake at night.
“I don’t drink it,” he told Jack. “That’s the important thing.”
JACK LOVED TO drive in Delhi. First of all he always made sure to hire an old car, one that already had its fair share of bumps and scrapes, and then he’d climb in, wind down the window, and plunge headlong into the sheer mayhem of one of his favorite cities.
He liked to drive fast. Or at least as fast as he dared, leaning on the horn like a local and winding his way through lines of busses, scooters, cyclists, and auto rickshaws, past glass-fronted buildings and ancient temples, broken-down housing and luxury hotels with glove-wearing staff at the gates. Delhi was a vibrant, colorful mix of cultures old and new. A genuine melting pot. To Jack it felt as though Delhi’s entire history—Hindu Rajputs, Muslim Mughals, and Christian Englishmen—all came to him through the open window of the car, and he breathed it all in—good and bad—breathing its very essence.
At times like that, Jack felt most alive. Blessed. He thought that being Jack Morgan in Delhi was just about the best thing you could be in this world.
Usually, that is.
But not today. Because one thing stronger than his love for driving fast through Delhi was his respect for Santosh Wagh. It was in a car accident that the investigator had lost his wife and child, Isha and Pravir. So, for that reason, Jack drove slowly, with the window closed.
As they made their way through the streets Jack cast a sideways glance at his passenger, a man he was proud to call a friend.
In his early fifties, Santosh looked older than his age. Sleep deprivation and alcohol abuse had taken their toll. His salt-and-pepper stubble was more salt than pepper and the brown wool jacket with leather patches at the elbows gave him the look of a university professor. His eyeglasses were unfashionable and his scarf should have been replaced years earlier. Not that he seemed to care. Aloof and cerebral, permanently ruminative, Santosh was far too preoccupied to care about such trivial matters.
“Tell me about Delhi’s political makeup,” Jack asked him, more to keep his passenger’s mind off the journey than genuine ignorance on his part.
Santosh cleared his throat. “Delhi’s a strange place. It’s not only a state in the Indian federation but also India’s capital—like Washington, DC. The city’s government is split down the middle: civic administration is managed by the Chief Minister, Mohan Jaswal, while law and order is managed by the Lieutenant Governor, Ram Chopra.”
Jack slowed to allow a pair of motorbikes to pass, and then immediately regretted it when a cab and an auto rickshaw nipped in front of him as well. Any other day…he thought ruefully.
“The Chief Minister and the Lieutenant Governor. Do they see eye to eye?” he asked Santosh.
“Jaswal and Chopra?” mused Santosh. “Do they see eye to eye? Now there’s a good question. Before I answer it, how about you tell me which one of them we’re due to meet.”
Jack laughed. He loved to see Santosh’s mind working. “I tell you what, my brainy friend. How about you tell me what the beef is all about, and then I’ll tell you which one we’re due to see.”
“Very well,” said Santosh. “The answer to your question is no, Jaswal and Chopra do not see eye to eye. As Chief Minister and Lieutenant Governor respectively, they’re supposed to run Delhi in partnership, but the fact of the matter is they agree on nothing. There is what you might call a difference of opinion when it comes to interpreting the rules of their partnership.”
“They hate each other?”
“Pretty much. A jurisdictional war is not the best path to a lasting friendship.”
“One of them would dearly like to put one over on the other?”
“As a means of wresting complete control, no doubt.” Santosh flinched slightly as a pedestrian passed too close to their car. “Now, how about you tell me which one it is?”
“Chief Minister Mohan Jaswal.”
Santosh nodded. “Has he told you why?”
“Nope. Just that he wants to meet. He asked for both of us. What do you know about him?”
“Jaswal started his career with the army and was part of the Indian Peace Keeping Force sent to Sri Lanka in 1987. He opted for early retirement upon his return—traumatized at seeing Tamil Tigers blowing themselves up with explosives strapped to their chests.
“He then became a journalist for the Indian Times in Mumbai, working as the newspaper’s senior correspondent in New York. A plum posting that most would have coveted. But not Jaswal. He returned to India to enter the political arena, claiming he wanted to ‘make a difference.’
“We were acquainted in the days when he was a journalist and I was with the Research and Analysis Wing. He used to try to pump me for information.”
“Were you friendly?”
Santosh looked at Jack. “I didn’t particularly trust him, if that’s what you mean.”
THE CHIEF MINISTER’S Residence at Motilal Nehru Marg occupied over three acres of Delhi’s prime real estate, a sprawling white-stuccoed bungalow reminiscent of the colonial era, surrounded by sweeping lawns.
Santosh and Jack stepped out of the battered Fiat and into the cold Delhi air, where Jaswal’s secretary waited for them. They were whisked inside without any of the usual security checks, and then ushered into a book-lined study where the Chief Minister, Mohan Jaswal, sat behind his desk.
Now in his early sixties, Jaswal had a youthful vigor that belied his age. He had not an ounce of fat on his body and he sported a neatly trimmed white mustache. His crisp white kurta pajama and sky-blue turban indicated his Sikh faith.
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- On Sale
- Nov 14, 2017
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