chapter 1

1. Unsafe Alleys…among other things.

People don’t know when to quit.

I slammed the door to the dressing room shut and cursed lowly, under my breath.

Outside, Tara pounded hard against the door, screaming my name in that coquettish husky voice of hers I loathed.

She could just leave me alone.

I tore off the weird program badge they had sort of pinned to my black T-shirt and rubbed off the glittery eye shadow thing that itched every time I blinked my eyes. My hair had already come out of the knot the make-up guy had tied it into, and lay in snaky tendrils that stuck to my neck and increased my irritation. Outside, there was commotion, madness. I heard Royce’s voice, asking what’s with her…And Tara’s reply, one of her episodes.

Episodes. That’s what they called them.

I sniggered at my image in the mirror, wanting to throw something at it so it would just shatter and then (possibly) regroup to show me a different reflection.

It wasn’t an episode. My problem was that I didn’t want to be me. Anyone else would do. I just didn’t want to be eighteen year old wholly messed-up Saaya Roy.

‘Saaya, just come out! We’ll send him away’

Empty promises, I wanted to say.

I gazed at the mirror, willing myself to take calming breaths. It didn’t mean anything, really. I had severed any relationship I had with Jai almost a year back, when I found out that he was not just ripping me off my money, he was also trying to get me kicked out of the only thing I cared about: the band, Valhalla.

Why was he stalking me then? Maybe he wanted money for his boozing. Maybe he wanted to be back on board as the manager of the band. I didn’t know, and I didn’t care.

I just wanted to rip his head off and stick it in the dustbin along with his booze, and paint that fake smile of his on his face with Tara’s precious Lakme lipstick.

Calm down. Deep breaths. Maybe he’s just here to listen to the band.

But that had always been my problem: the calming down. I couldn’t calm down, until I had vented my anger on something, mostly on inanimate objects that could break. Like glass. Or mirrors.

‘Saaya… cut this shit! Just come out, damn it!’

That was Nishan of course. Nishan was the one who cursed in fancy English. The rest of them preferred the less effective but equally rich in meaning Hindi expletives.

I used one of his favorites back at him now.  ‘Just’, I said, as a prefix, then added the suffix ‘, off!’

Silence on the other side. They must have been surprised by my latent vocabulary skills.

I weighed my options. I could go out there and sing with that (insert expletive in English) sitting in the front row, leering at me. Or I could walk out and face the rest of the guys back at our group apartment.

Fine. I’ll hear them out later.

I stood up, grabbing my purse and my jacket which I threw over the over-glittery clothes Tara had picked for the gig at the Royal Hotel, and then opened the door. Tara grimaced at me, her mouth tugging into a frown. Royce was pacing, and looked up hopefully when I walked out of the room. Nishan just glared, his arms folded, his long hair half obscuring his face.

‘I’m out’

Nishan kept glaring; Tara kept frowning; only Royce looked a little sad.

‘Jai is going to replace Shia’, Nishan informed me coldly. ‘, He can get us better gigs than in these third class hotels, playing for dumb screaming kids. Then what will you do?’

I glowered at him. ‘Then I’ll quit. This isn’t the time for this conversation.’

‘Saaya, be a little reasonable- ’

‘Jai owes me my college fund! I am not going to just close my eyes and try to sing when he’s sitting there in the front row sneering at me!’ I screeched at him, sounding more juvenile than I wanted to.

I pushed Tara out of the way and side-stepped an indignant Royce before pulling the back door open and heading out into the alley behind the hotel. The door closed with a bang behind me, and I heard Tara gasp and say a word that would make Nishan awful proud of her.

My footsteps sounded abnormally loud as I walked. I tried to resist the urge to scream in frustration and break something. Why was I always at the receiving end of everything? I wondered what I would do if Jai did replace sweet, well-meaning Shia. Would he kick me out? I knew the answer to that myself. He wouldn’t, of course. He would keep me so I could beg and depend on him wholly.

Before that, I’d leave the band by myself.

I kicked a can of Diet Pepsi around as I walked; exulting in the chaotic bangs it made clattering against the concrete buildings on either sides of the claustrophobic little alley. I could try and adjust; I told myself, and then snickered.

Yeah, right.

In my nineteen years of pathetic existence, I have never tried to adjust with anything. I am not a compromising person. Things get done my way, or they don’t get done at all. Perhaps I was arrogant, I didn’t know. Or perhaps it came out of a need to keep at least one world going the way I wanted it to go.

Try as I might, I couldn’t change the other world I knew.

I turned my phone on and started the mp3 player, tired of the silence and the clatter bang-bang of the metal beverage can. A loud and wild Black Eyed Peas song began to echo off the walls of the alley. The phone had been a gift from the previous foster home. A bribe, actually, so I would compromise.

Compromise.

Another word I absolutely couldn’t allow to exist in my dictionary, along with “adjust”. Compromising and adjusting often led to the same end for me. True, I lived right then in a run-down leaky two room apartment with two girls and two boys, but if I had compromised and adjusted, I would have ended up in other alleys of Mumbai. These alleys had a name, a name I wasn’t willing to let stigmatize me. That was the only explanation for the nearly ten foster homes I have been to since nine years of age.

I hummed along as I walked. If Valhalla kicked me out…well, hell. I could sing. I could play the guitar. Some third-rate band will be willing to have me as long as I paid them with a little…hard drinks.  And I had plenty of money for that.

Right then, all I wanted was to calm myself down. Walking alone at night with a wildly thumping heart wasn’t good. Some of the other world might hear. Might read my mind and know that I already know all about them. About their wild, savage habits. About their animalistic rage and absolute lack of control.

The music changed to an eerie tune from a recent vampire romance movie. I smiled to myself. Vampire romance seemed a popular theme these days. I had friends who simply drooled over the handsome vamp dude in the front cover of those books, and then drooled in the movie theatre when they made a movie out of the same book with a similar looking vamp dude acting in it.  The dudes were all the same too…broody, given to moods, driven by some noble and pure motive, the perfect gentleman…I sniggered to myself.

The perfect gentleman. A vampire.

I didn’t go to the movies nor read the books, but I liked the music. It was usually eerie, a rising and falling crescendo, climbing to clear soprano most of the times. There was something in the music at least that hinted at the other world. Beautiful, unpredictable and given to strange, hair-rising stillness at first…and then a steady climb to the pinnacle of action, to the utmost zenith of violence. It was…empyreal, to say the least.

I stopped dead at the first moan.

I didn’t turn off the music: there was no use in alerting anyone that I had heard something. The eerie soprano kept playing, a strange background to the rapidly cooling temperature of the alley. I took out the cigarette lighter from my bag and flicked it. It wasn’t working.

I tried it again, clicking it on again and again, hoping to see a flicker of light blue. Save for the scraping sound, no light ignited in the lighter.  That didn’t bode well for me or anyone.

Shit.

I took a few steps back, and then stopped dead again.

Don’t run. Don’t do anything that will attract them. Running, screaming…chaos attracts them.

The voice in my mind sounded so sane, so calm and rational and sensible. I wasn’t panicking…I had no room to panic with that sane voice sounding annoyingly in my head. I checked my bag.

No steel. No wood.

That was good. Steel and wood would have been suicide.

A can of pepper spray, another can of hairspray, keys, aspirin, an old school ID…heck I had no torch, and I had no matches. Pepper spray, I thought, irately.

I rolled my eyes at the cold darkness. With humans, maybe pepper spray was useful. With them though…

The second moan sounded, rising to a slow, shrill keening.

A girl, I realized with a stab of guilt. It was a girl’s voice.

She said something in panic, some weird language I didn’t exactly know. Whatever it was, she sounded so, so frightened. I raised the volume of the stupid Bombay Vikings song that was playing now, and kept myself utterly still. The Hindi rock song sounded even stranger than the soprano in the near darkness of an alley that had transformed to a lower version of hell…

Everything was still except for the guitar strings of the Vikings.

I waited, anticipating. I knew what would happen now. I knew the speed at which the low keening would rise to a shrill scream and then subside into silence.

I closed my eyes, hating myself for not trying to stop it, knowing that whatever I did would only end up killing myself as well as the stranger-girl.

The Vikings sang cheerfully over the shrill scream. I bit back rage and helpless tears.

A shuffling, scraping sound…the body being moved? I winced at the slam and shut of a dumpster lid. Rats scurried by, probably smelling the new addition to their garbage universe.

A grotesque image of them feeding on her jumped into my mind, along with a wave of nausea. As the Vikings changed to Falguni Pathak, I leaned onto the dirty concrete wall on the right of the alley and covered my mouth to muffle my helpless urge to retch. The concrete felt cool, so good against my clammy forehead.

I waited there endlessly. Unless I moved before the predator was out of earshot, I was safe from him.

I heard footsteps. They sounded surprisingly light and quick. Not a man, then. A woman or someone young. A boy or a girl maybe?

I didn’t know of any nizari boy or girl in these areas.

Newcomers, maybe.

The light footsteps were so sure. Completely self-assured.

I breathed in and out with as much calm as I could muster, relieved when the footsteps began to sound farther off, and then not at all.

Whoever it was had left the playground. They wouldn’t come back now, I was sure.

I walked on, shaking and feeling cold. The music kept playing, a cheerful and absolutely despicable Hindi number. It was so wrong…something funereal should have been playing. I should have been running to see if the girl was still alive.

Of course she wasn’t, I was sure about that. But at least, I should have been screaming and running to the police…

So some innocent homeless guy could get caught. Yeah. What a service to humanity that would be.

I hated this. This need to remain mute and blind to what I had just (almost) seen. This almost primeval instinct that told me to just shut the heck up and not do anything that would attract unwanted attention.

I walked past the dumpster, not checking inside, knowing what I’d find: exactly what I didn’t want to find.

Out in the street, I swallowed a couple of aspirin tablets (yes, I didn’t care about stomach ulcers) and wondered longingly if Nishan had left any of his beer lying around. I needed a keg, pretty bad. It always affected me…talking about them or seeing them or just thinking about them.  Affected me enough to do things I’d regret doing, later, when I woke up with a black headache and a blacker mood.

I stopped in front of one of those vamp-romance movie posters and made a face at it.

Yeah, right.

A shiver ran up my spine. A girl was dead, and I was standing around making faces at movie posters. A girl was dead.

Another cold chill spread… this time down my back and up my scalp, raising my hair. I swallowed dryly, a couple of times. Nothing I could do, I told myself firmly. Nothing at all that I could do except be as far away from here as possible and then call the police from some phone booth.

That was their power.

They killed a girl, and they’d get away with it!

I walked on, looking both sides for a phone booth.

Lady Gaga bragged about her Poker Face to any of the other world who might be watching me.

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