They moved along a track in the grass to the north. A flock of ravens burst from a nearby tree, intent on killing one of their own, filling the air with a harsh war cry. She sat on a forlorn bench, watching the maddening fury of the night black wings. The sun burnt through a wisp of clouds.
‘Please forgive me, Hazel. I’m used to keeping things in my books: sometimes a letter, sometimes a photo, a petal or a rupee. Few know it better than Vernon.’ Amar said when the ravens flew away in pursuit of their prey.
‘What good will it bring to me, Amar? What comfort?’ She said. ‘Yet, I must clear the grime so that you can look at the bottom of the cesspool. Vernon was still here when all that happened and like the whole of the city, he too believed that Daniel’s hands were tainted. It was said he was colluding with criminals and drug peddlers and he silenced Anna when she chanced upon his secret.
‘Then one day Walter approached me in the store where I had resumed work after Joe was gone. He said something was terribly wrong with the way Daniel was framed because the truth was that Anna had committed suicide. She had written a farewell note too to Daniel which had fallen in unscrupulous hands before anyone could see it. He took me to Whitcomb hotel where he told me he was one of the financiers who had given a loan to Daniel for buying a house. Daniel seemed to have been in a bit of stress and he had indeed mixed up with the riff raff to pay off his dues quickly. It would have earned him a couple of years in jail at worst. But Anna got so perturbed she killed herself. Then he showed me a photograph of a fraction of the suicide note written in the distinctly calligraphic style of Anna. It was hard to deduce the message of the letter from that photo but its intent was clear enough. It was addressed to my brother and referred to her father and forefathers being in the army, and things like when I’m gone, carry on living, can’t help, forgive me, etc., and signed, Anna. He said the letter was in possession of a dangerous gang that was demanding a very high price for it and he would try and get it for me, if possible. Then he came and stayed with us for a few months and of course it made Joe’s mom livid. The twins hated him too.
‘He got those drapes and furniture in the living room replaced saying he knew we deserved much better stuff than that. Then he used his influence to get me a job at Wells Fargo and our conditions did improve quickly. But the ace of it all was still to come. One day he told me that I needed to go to Padre Hotel at Turk and collect a can of tobacco from a slut living there and leave it in a trash can in Alder Alley at exactly 08:00 in the evening. He said it will get us closer to the suicide note of Anna. It’s hard to describe how I felt doing that but every time I thought of Daniel in Alcatraz, my heart leapt to the throat. Walter returned to stay at Whitcomb Hotel after that but he made me repeat the job a couple of times more. My heart was already shrieking that I was taken for a ride and then there was that letter in the unmistakable handwriting of Anna somewhere. But the brute never gave me even the partial photograph of the note. The wolf had the hots for me and I did stoop lower than I thought I ever would, Amar. Many, many times.’
The silence was broken only by the ravens who had now returned without their unfortunate mate.
‘Then Vernon returned with you and it only deepened my woes.’ She said after a lull that hurt. ‘And I lost my job at Wells Fargo for no reason. Walter was carrying away a whole heap more than he had given. Then I received this message from him the other day saying he could be moving out of the states forever and I must meet him, at least for the sake of the letter, on the Golden Gate Bridge. Every inch of my body was revolting, yet my feet carried me there, hoping against hope that I’ll get hold of that letter. I couldn’t believe my ears when that devil proposed to me after all this! I shuddered with rage and told him I had decided to go the police and unmask him, after all. You know what he said then? He said no one can pin anything on him and his hands were cleaner than mountain streams. Moreover, he said, he had enough proof that I had passed on critical films about the shipbuilding yards to the enemies of this nation, more than once!’
She sat choking on her words, said and unsaid, for a while and then she left abruptly.
Amar moved to the other end of the park, looking towards the Twin Peaks and Buena Vista Heights with sightless eyes. Someone nudged him in his ribs. ‘What a delicious little meeting!’ Vernon appeared out of nowhere, his face twisted in an ugly smirk. His wheezing breath was laced with beer and tobacco.
Amar was baking in a rage simmering in his guts. Something pounded at his temples and ehoed in his limbs.
‘I am not surprised for your anger, Mr Singh.’ Vernon had never addressed him like that before. ‘None of us knew she’d fall so fast and so low. But then I guess it is in her blood. So you think you know about the killer in Alcatraz?’
‘Maybe I do,’ Amar said.
‘Maybe you don’t!’ Vernon spat with a force. ‘Go home, my friend! Go home! The Pacific Ocean out there will return you to Bombay. You are from a land of simpler people.’
‘Maybe I am not,’ Amar said in a guttural tone. ‘What do you know about the land of the simpler people and their thousand maharajas? What do you know about their glories and treacheries? Their victories and defeats? The blood and sweat washing the street, year after year? Of riches as big as the hunger there?’
Vernon was already ambling down the stairs but Amar kept hissing to himself. ‘It is said there is a human for every star in the sky. And they have the same beating hearts under the sky. The heart can be good as gold and the heart can be black as tar and none of it is because of the star up there. And none of it comes from the breasts of a mother. None of it comes from the grass we stand on either. I may be standing on alien land, among mighty people. But I will do what I can to help out Hazel.’
A giant grey rug was descending on the city, bursting at the selvedge, snaking its way around the hills and trees, erasing the houses and buildings with a swirling white brush. Sojourners of the park were petering away into the streets. A group of children ran past him, chattering excitedly. A little girl in pigtails stopped to look at Amar. ‘You’re a G.I.?’ She asked, her little arms akimbo.
‘Am I not, little one?’ he said.
‘Will you kill the bad ones?’ She asked.
‘I promise I will.’ Amar said firmly.
A woman grabbed her arm and pulled her back towards the group of cavorting kids.
The grey white wind swelled and surged and sponged him damp to the bones. A chill clung to his chest and limbs like some invisible gossamer. He knelt on the terrace, algid and cold, and shivered from time to time. The smell of dense sugarcane fields enveloped in fog, where he used to hide to escape the flogging by his potbellied grandfather, returned to fill his nostrils. One day he had hurled a stone that flew right into grandfather’s eye and he had to run away to the nearby town. It was a blustery day and the wind had whooshed and roared about his ears lashing him for what he had done. Today though, he had no clue where to go, no urge to seek a shelter. No fog or wind could sting deeper than humans, turn him away from its walls. He let the swirling force rinse his scars and burns, and drown him with its tincture and tinge. Long after it was gone, the tempest danced in his heart.
Amar walked down to California Street and boarded a cable car, and took a transfer for the Market mechanically. The evening was alive with people gliding past the thoroughfare and squares of the glittering district. Except for the fading orange sky mottled with clouds, there was no evidence of the turmoil he had faced on the lofty park. Perhaps it had settled about his heart in a hard, crusty shell, never to leave him alone. He tried to gauge the smiling faces of people, wondering what doldrums, what miseries, what betrayals, they might be up against under the placid facades. How many of them were spurned and shunned by a friend they cared for the most? Were they being sucked too by the leeches who posed as humans? Did they too have siblings or spouses, languishing somewhere in trenches, or incarcerated in hell-holes?
He meandered aimlessly about the streets, not knowing where to go, or how to begin. His bowels were in knots and he realised he was hungry but food was the last thing on his mind. He ran into a gang of rowdy men as he was drifting down Grant Avenue. They started walking uncomfortably close to him, crowding him on both sides. ‘Hey, Pancho!’ One of them said in a thick voice. ‘Let’s send you back to Sleepy Lagoon!’
Amar had had enough; he froze on the spot he stood, his hands hanging limply. He could feel the blood thumping in his veins.
‘You want bad business, Pistol?’ The one with rusting teeth and long whiskers growled.
‘Go home to your women and children, morons.’ Amar said in a grating tone, mimicking the local accent. ‘I hate to convert people into bags of broken bones. It won’t take me long.’
They kept glowering at him for a few more seconds before breaking away. ‘The fuck is no fun!’
This did lend a purpose to Amar’s pointless journey as he hurried his steps towards Kearney, realising that it was where he had wanted to go all this while: the Hall of Justice. Charlie had to be the key.
Charlie had had more than a few sleepless nights of late, thanks to a spate of automobile thefts from his beat. Fortunately, he had managed to lay his hands on the kingpin the same morning, a sixteen year old boy! He was driving all those cars out to Los Angeles bearing the same fake number plate. He cheered up like a kid when he saw Amar standing before him with his colleague who had ushered him to his table.
‘Hola, mi amigo! How do you do?’ He embraced him warmly.
‘I’m doing fine, Charlie. But I think I am hungry.’ Amar grinned.
‘What a shame! Let me see if I can curb that old crime.’
They walked down to a restaurant in Chinatown and ate hungrily.
‘Any news from Dragon Fang?’ Charlie asked, slurping his coffee noisily.
‘None.’ He replied.
‘How’s life been to you?’
‘Not good. Not good, I’m afraid.’
Charlie put his cup on the table. ‘What’s bugging you, my dear Gypsy?’
‘It’s a long story, Charlie.’ Amar said. ‘The solution can be longer still. But I know I can count on you. Can I come home with you tonight?’ He looked fervently at him.
‘My pleasure, Amar!’ Charlie jumped up from his seat. He waved a couple of dollars towards the waiter who rushed to the table. Charlie took him back to the Hall of Justice to tend to the ‘unfinished businesses’ of the day but soon they were driving to Bernal Heights in his Buick. Charlie wore his gold-rimmed, green goggles even at night. Amar felt sorry to catch a glimpse of the void where his right eye had been.
‘What’s wrong, Amar?’ Charlie said, looking intently at the road with his left eye.
Amar began with Vernon and how he had become increasingly suspicious of Amar, and went on to recount the fates of Hazel and her twin brother incarcerated at Alcatraz. It was when he mentioned Julius Walter and how he had trapped Hazel in his net that Charlie whistled and stopped the car. ‘Jesus Christ! I think that man is under the lens already!’
Charlie called his colleague ‘Winfred’ over the telephone the moment they entered his house. He looked grim when he disconnected the call. ‘Amar,’ he said heavily, ‘I don’t like the sound of it. This Walter was a highly active member of the Bund in San Jose but a few years ago. Going by Hazel’s account, we could be looking at nothing less than espionage. Winfred feels he could be on the watch list of the FBI too. This is bad business indeed.’
‘I hope no harm comes to Hazel.’ Amar felt alarmed.
Charlie ignored Amar’s concern. ‘Ideally, this is the point where we should be calling in the G-Man. But we have to be careful about that bastard, if that letter has to be recovered ever. It is clear he has played his moves meticulously and he might slither out clean if we press charges now. The missing suicide note is yet another crime here: suppression of evidence. Of course we may negotiate a price for it but I’m not sure. Is there anything else Hazel might offer in exchange?’
‘Poor thing has already given everything she could have and even more. The leech has sucked her dry. Do you think we can lure him with bogus military documents?’
‘Now that is something we need to give a serious thought! Thank you for sowing that seed in my mind. You do know some magic after all!’ Charlie grinned from ear to ear. ‘Now give me a few minutes.’
He cleared the table of empty glasses and an ashtray choking with cigarette butts and fetched a geometry set and a roll of paper from the next room. ‘They say there is a bomb in making that can bore a mile deep hole, a hundred miles wide.’ He reached up to switch on a lamp hanging from the ceiling. ‘What if we know of a mission that will use special planes to drop a dozen of them on Germany at the same hour, say from somewhere in Turkey? Something tells me that if the whole damned Germany were to be wiped off the face of the Earth, Julius Walter should be worried!’
Charlie measured and sketched, drew and redrew the belly of a twin-engine plane with an outline of a huge door exactly in the middle. He drew an ominous looking bomb complete with fins and tails next to it. He put in pointers and descriptions and wrote ‘Black Hole Maker’ under the bomb. Next he drew a perfect map of Germany, marking the major cities – Berlin, Hamburg, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Munich, Cologne, Dresden… Measuring the distance in the map, he carefully put a dot where Ankara should have been on the fake mission plan and drew twelve flight paths branching away from the point and ending at the German cities. By the time he finished ‘Mission Black Silence’ it was half past two in the morning. Then he cut off the chart in two equal halves with a sharp razor.
Charlie turned right at 9th and Market. ‘Remember, that is the old City Hall you are headed to. They still have the jail cells in the basement.’ He chuckled. ‘Off you go, then. Battle Speed!’ He stopped the car near Whitcomb Hotel.
Amar was a bit awed by the imposing lobby of the hotel. It reminded him of a cathedral in Calcutta, except that the hall was filled with a diaphanous light. Sparkling chandeliers hung from the ceiling.
‘I have an important message for Mr Julius Walter,’ he told the man at the desk.
‘430,’ the man said curtly, pointing towards the elevator.
‘430.’ Amar repeated to the elevator operator.
Amar remembered the deity who played flute, as he would often do in his childhood, but his heart was playing a tune of its own as he trudged towards room number 430. The room was in a quieter corridor, far from the elevator. He tapped at the door.
‘Who’s that?’ A muffled voice asked from within.
‘A messenger from Hazel.’ Amar said loudly.
The door opened to reveal a huge man in a silk gown. His sharp blue eyes scanned Amar up and down the length, his face switched colour at the sight. He motioned him to come in and banged the door shut.
‘Who’re you?’ he demanded sharply. ‘Have we met before?’
His heart was pounding in its cage, raring to break free. This is the moment, it yelled. Quiet down, little boy! He said. Here is the king of serpents. Kill him! The heart whispered.
‘Won’t you speak?’ Walter demanded.
‘My name is Amar Singh, Mr Walter. I am an Indian serving the United States Army.’
‘Indian? Funny things war can do. Guess it was you on the bridge the other day. When did the broad hire you?’
‘She hasn’t hired me, sir. Listen carefully to what I say. We both have little time to react.’ Amar put forth his best tone. ‘That suicide note you are hiding is important. But we have got much more to do than that. The Allies are about to annihilate Germany by raining Black Hole bombs on its cities.’
Walter’s eyes were darting fiercely. ‘I am hiding nothing,’ he hissed. ‘And why should I be bothered what happens to Germany?’
‘Because it may earn you a truckload of money.’
‘Why don’t you get that yourself, scarecrow?’
‘Because I am looking at something bigger than money. My country is a slave to the British rule. They are plundering my beautiful land. I don’t like what Mr Hitler is doing to some people. But he is supporting our quest to freedom. I also don’t want innocent men and women and little children to burn like straw.’ Amar carefully took out the envelope from his left pocket, unfolded the paper titled ‘Operation Bl-‘ and offered it to Walter. ‘It is an exact copy of a top secret plan, ‘Operation Black Silence’. The other half of the chart reveals the location of the bombs and the special planes with possible dates’.
Walter pulled out a loupe from a bureau and stuck it to one of his eyes. He pulled the chart close to the loupe and pored over it, stopping at the stencilled stamp of ‘Barksdale Field, Louisiana’. He slipped the lens back in the drawer. ‘This is pure bullshit. You think I am a fool?’ He growled.
‘Is it also pure bullshit that I am working for the U.S. Army, counting my days for a chance like this?’
‘Anyone can get hold of that uniform and ride a ferry into San Francisco illegally. I am in a good mind to inform the police, Mr Scarecrow. Wait till they put you in Alcatraz too.’
Amar took out the pocket watch that Charlie had given him from his pocket. ‘Unfortunately, Mr Walter, there is little time we are left with. I must report back for work at Presidio within the next hour. Give me back that chart if you don’t want to take the chance.’
‘You have still not said what that letter has got to do with it.’ Walter growled.
‘You will get the rest of the chart when you return that letter to me, before the sun sets tomorrow.’
A smile spread the cruel lips, a glint crossed the eyes. He slipped a hand in the pocket of his gown and took out a pistol and aimed at Amar’s head. ‘Get out of this room, scarecrow. Go bang that broad if you want to. Or go bang your mother before I bang your brains on the wall behind you.’
Amar’s fingers trembled and the pocket watch fell on the floor and came to rest between him and Walter. He took two steps towards it and stooped down to pick it up and before Walter could comprehend anything, he rose like lightening and landed a resounding kick on his sternum. So vicious was the force of the kick that Walter hit the wall behind him and collapsed on the floor. Amar was standing with the pistol in his hand when Walter caught his breath moments later.
‘Never insult anyone’s mother, you glob of shit.’ Amar’s voice shook with fury. ‘How long do you think you can continue this double life? I had given you the chance but you have blown it.’
‘Hey –relax!’ Walter scrambled up to his feet, his smirk gone. He looked amazed by what had happened in a flash.
‘I can kill you too with this toy but I like it doing it with my bare hands and legs. I can also time the death, make it quick or slow as I want, unlike the pistol that will kill you instantly.’ Amar pressed on.
‘Wait, Singh, wait…’ Walter faltered.
Then Amar threw the pistol on the bed. ‘All I had wanted was peace and freedom for all.’ He said ruefully.
‘I know that country of Buddha!’ Walter tried to placate him. ‘Can I have the other half of the chart tomorrow?’ He was trying to regain his composure.
‘Should I come back tomorrow, then?’ Amar asked.
‘No!’ Walter said quickly. ‘You give it to a man wearing a fedora with a red ribbon. At the Greyhound terminal in Sausalito. 07:30 in the morning. He will give the letter to you.’
‘Remember, not to mess with me again.’ Amar said coldly and left the room.
The Buick was waiting for him at 8th Street as promised. Charlie sat in the driver’s seat, his hat pulled low over the goggles, a copy of The San Francisco Chronicle splayed on the steering. Amar flashed a thumbs-up sign at him.
But it was bad business just as Charlie had said. He had a long meeting with his superiors at the Hall of Justice and FBI was informed of the plan towards the evening. Fortunately, they agreed with the original plan of snaring Walter with the fake document for the sake of Anna’s letter. Several FBI men checked into Whitcomb hotel the same night nonetheless.
Amar reported late at the railway and was informed by Sergeant Hull that he had been relieved from duty and must report to Major Russell in Building 35 immediately. The major was waiting for him and this time he smiled when Amar stood before him. ‘Hull says you have done a great job here. But you are expected to do a better job in Burma. You are to leave for India, three days from now, aboard the ship leaving Fort Mason at 10 in the morning. Thank you, Singh.’
Three days to go! He looked up at the trees of Presidio as he walked towards the Marina. Will he ever see them again? He tried to focus on the momentous tryst with the man in red-laced fedora next morning.
Hazel brightened up at the development and insisted on accompanying Amar to Sausalito, agreeing to travel separately under her veiled hat. So they all boarded the same bus from the Greyhound terminal near 7th and Market, Amar, Hazel and Charlie in plain clothes, ignoring each other. As the bus trekked its way through Van Ness Avenue, Presidio and the Golden Gate Bridge, Amar wondered if those places were going to haunt his memories for the rest of his life.
He noticed the man wearing a red-laced fedora even before the bus came to halt in Sausalito. He walked with firm steps towards him and handed him an envelope containing the remainder of the chart Charlie had drawn. The man gave him a thick yellow envelope in turn and walked away briskly towards a bus headed back to San Francisco. Amar didn’t lose a second in opening the seal and took out the pale blue paper under the cover. For once, Walter had played the gentleman. It was a sad little letter, written in a beautiful, slanting hand:
‘My beloved Dan,
I’m sure you know of my childhood ambition of donning the army shades in the tradition of my father and forefathers. When I met you I was blown away by your kindness and grace, and your sweet and angelic face. I am sure my heart still beats for you and it will keep longing for you even when I am gone. Yet, it is impossible for me to carry on living after learning about your association with felons and villains. I had always admired you for your fortitude and I still do. What shatters my hearts in a million shards is the thought that I no more stand shoulder to shoulder with you in our battle against adversities. Goodbye, my love, and do forgive me for slipping away midstream but I can’t help but think that I am not needed anymore.
Hazel took the letter quietly from his hands. ‘Yes, it’s Anna!’ She mumbled. Tears rolled steadily as she read its contents. ‘It’s true!’ She fell on her knees and choked.
‘Officer Charlie from San Francisco Police!’ Charlie announced himself to Hazel, taking off his hat and tipping his head to her. ‘I’d request you to hand over that piece of evidence to me now and let the Law take its course.’
Officer Winfred in plain clothes boarded the same bus to San Francisco; FBI men were already seated within. The man with the red ribbon in his fedora found his way straight to room number 430 of Whitcomb Hotel from the bus terminal. Walter was stunned to be mobbed by over a dozen gun wielding men in his room a minute after that. He admitted to stealing the letter from Anna’s bedside the morning of her suicide. He said he stole the letter because he wanted the show to go on and had managed to trap Hazel in his net. He revealed the name of the girl in the hotel at Turk who was collecting photographic films for a price, which he was selling to an Abwehr man living in a narrow alley of Telegraph Hill.
He called himself ‘Clark Smith’, the Abwehr spy, but his name was Rolf Werner. The rest of his cronies were rounded up from North Beach, Sunset and Hunter’s Point by evening but by the time the sun turned up again in the east, not even a bird knew about that ‘bad business’ ever. The scandal was hushed to silence by the authorities because the Germans switched their allegiance to the Bald Eagle and took a vow to fool their own.
The pier at Fort Mason stirred with a silent throng of fathers, mothers, wives, children and girls come to bid adieu to their beloveds. Occasionally, the air squirmed with a barely suppressed sob. Many promises were whispered at either ends, many of which would wilt in a dusty trench. Amar had a bunch of well-wishers too: Vernon on his feet, Carrie and Ron holding flowers, Charlie in his gold-rimmed goggles and straw hat, impressive Sergeant Hull in his uniform, and Hazel. Vernon held him in a long bear hug, saying he was sorry, over and over in his ears. Charlie hugged him and said, ‘Goodbye dear gypsy –live forever!’
Just before he moved towards the gangway, Hazel held his hand and put a shiny pocket watch on his palm. ‘Remember us,’ was all she said.
Amar looked at the pocket watch with a beautiful gold-filled case and a white dial. It said ‘Hamilton Railway Special’ under the figure of twelve. ‘I will.’ He said.
Carrie began sobbing uncontrollably. Amar picked her up in his lap and straightened her chin. ‘Listen, little fairy, if you shed so many tears, my ship will sink in the middle of the sea. Don’t you want me to come back and make trillions of chairs for the cats?’
It worked like a charm and Carrie covered her eyes with her palms and smiled even as her tears flowed. ‘Yes, yes, yes!’ She croaked.
But that was not to be.
Amar remained glued to his bunk, fighting a cavernous hollow that kept staring at him. He went out and stood on the deck sometimes and looked at the sea and it was still there. Sometimes when he was alone he whistled a tune. Someone once asked why he looked so blue when he was going home. He said he didn’t know where he was going and what home meant. He had nothing to look forward to so he kept looking at the past. But the past was shiftier than quicksand and kept changing shapes like a faithless dune. Love, hate and anger changed into one another till it was all a hazy fugue.
Within days of his reporting back at Ledo, he was air-dropped in Northern Burma in a mission headed by Lieutenant Paul Barker. Their descent was sighted by a Japanese infantry squad and they came rushing in, raining bullets. Amar held them alone, shooting intermittently from the curved mouth of a steep natural culvert for over an hour, allowing the rest of the men to disappear into the tracts held by Kachin tribesmen who favoured the Americans. He was a lethal marksman and he managed to kill most of them except one, who somehow scaled the tall cliff and descended at the other end. He shot a lone bullet in Amar’s heart before he fell himself.
Amar kept looking at the inky blue sky from where he lay, expecting more bullets to hit him but nothing happened. The blood seeped out of the hole in his bust and mixed with the stream. His heart beat feebler and feebler till the stars of the morning swooned with the night and a fog enveloped his bones. He could see The Bay clearly now with his eyes no more open. He heard the clear call of the fog horn too, his fingers felt the ripples. Then his hand moved to feel the pocket watch, thudding faithfully in his left breast pocket, in place of his heart.
* * *