Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Bhatia, P.I.

It’s a few minutes before seven on a cold October evening and I’m just reaching into the bottom drawer of my desk for the Old Monk and my well-thumbed copy of The Big Sleep when I hear footsteps hurrying up the stairs. A new case, has to be. I sigh, give the drawer a regretful look and shut it again. I sit up, awaiting the knock. It never comes. Instead the door swings open, slamming into the wall, sending plaster chips flying everywhere. Then I see her standing in the doorway.

You can tell a lot about a client by looking at them. How they walk, talk, dress, all of it tells you something. Like how much you can charge. The woman on my threshold is silver-haired and short. Typical West Delhi aunty, the sort who demands her son leave work to play driver when she goes vegetable shopping and then spends an hour negotiating a one rupee discount on peas. Somehow she’s got past my secretary. I make a mental note to have a word with Sandhya later. Back to the woman in my doorway, she’s wearing a pastel-pink salwar-kameez, fake-gold earrings, and an ugly frown. The sort of look I’m all too familiar with. A badge on her kameez spells out her name.

I rise to my feet. “Mrs. Bhatia, I presume.”

“You presume? I’m your mother, you good for nothing lout! Have you applied for a job yet?”

“But Ma, this is my job!”

“No it isn’t, Zorawar! A job pays. In money. Not promises or silly advertising posters. ‘No case too small,’ it seems. What a clichéd line. Almost as stupid as paying for silly business cards that don’t make sense.”

“It’s not my fault they misprinted my cards! I’m using them anyway, aren’t I?”

“You’d better. I’m not paying for you to print new ones. Did you apply for jobs or not? I’m telling you, if you don’t start paying me rent by the end of the week, you can go find another place to stay, understand?”

“Yes, Ma.”

“I could be renting this flat for so much money!”

“Flat? It’s a one room studio with no bathroom.”

She glares at me. “It’s a great location!”

“In Vikaspuri?”

“Well, it has a great view. People pay a lot for view.”

“It has one window. That overlooks a slaughterhouse.”

“Suresh at Mother Dairy said he knows someone who’ll give me 5000 rupees a month for it. If you don’t give me at least that much by the end of the week, I’m telling him he can have it. Are we clear?”

“Yes, Ma.”

“Good. I’ve had about enough of you pretending to be a private investigator or whatever up here.”

I sit up straight and fix her in a look that’s hopefully both cold and hurt. Curt.

“I’ve told you so many times, I’m not a private investigator, ma, I’m a paranormal investigator. Bhatia, PI.”

“You’re a pain in my backside is what you are. Paranormal it seems. Abnormal, more like it.”

She cackles, pleased at her own wit. “Worse than abnormal. What a disappointment you have turned out to be. With such great expectations your dear departed father and I called you Zorawar, thinking you too will do great things like that general from history, instead you have fully wasted your name, thoo.”

“I’m telling you Ma, once word gets out, my services will be in demand. It’s going to be the next big thing. I’ll be the pioneer in the industry.”

“Oho, what a great pioneer. Go explore some other place then. And why is Sandhya here? I pay her to cook for me, not waste her time playacting with you.”

“She’s already finished her cooking for the day. And she’s my secretary.”

“Secretary? Do you even pay her?”

“I do, as a matter of fact. She’s an equal partner in the firm. Fifty percent of all earnings.”

“So, nothing?”

“Well, actually, what happened was—”

“For the past three months you’ve been squatting here pretending to be some hotshot detective, but enough is enough. Have you even had one person hire your services?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact.”

“Other than that fellow who came here by accident thinking you were a real estate agent?”

I look coldly at her. “I’ll get you your rent by the end of the week.”

“5000 rupees.”

“I’m not paying 5000 for this. 3000.”

“3500.”

“Are you a mother or a slum lord?”

“Are you a son or a cabbage?”

We stare at each other for a long minute. Finally, I nod, eyes suitably lowered. She’s got me.

“Fine, 3500.”

She emits a satisfied grunt. Or maybe it’s a snarl, it’s hard to tell the difference when your mind is consumed with financial worries. She turns to leave, then stops. “Oh, and throw away that stupid detective novel. That’s what’s putting all this kachra in your head.”

I draw myself up very straight, mustering what dignity I have left. “I’m not discussing my taste in literature with you,” I say. “You’ll have your rent by Sunday.”

She looks hard at me for a moment. “Sunday, Zorawar.”

And with that, finally, mercifully, she’s gone, although I can hear her yelling at Sandhya downstairs about not encouraging foolishness.

I walk over to the door and slam it. It swings back open. I slam it again. It opens once more. Now I see that a hinge is busted—it won’t close, like it’s mocking me too.

I disregard the insubordinate door and go back to my desk. I reach into the drawer, grabbing the Old Monk and a glass. I pour myself a peg, knock it back, feeling the welcome burn of cheap rum. With a glance at the door in case she’s returned, I defiantly reach for my copy of The Big Sleep. Then I pour another peg.

I’m raising the glass to my lips when I hear the knock and see Sandhya poking her head in, her thick black hair oiled and pulled neatly back into a plait, a pair of bright inquisitive eyes looking at me from above a mouth which as always, has the hint of a smile about it, as though its wearer is perpetually on the verge of amusement. I beckon her in; she doesn’t move.

I turn back to look glumly at my drink. “You heard all that? This is it, Sandhu. We’re pretty much fu—”

“Yes, I know we’re full up, sir.”

“Full? Full of sadness, that’s what. No, what I meant to say was we’re fu—”

She clears her throat loudly, interrupting me again.

“We can discuss scheduling later, Mister Bhatia.”

Something’s off. Emphasis apart, she never calls me mister. I turn to her again, and as I do, she steps back to give me a good look at the man standing behind her.

“We have a new client, sir.”

It takes all my self-control not to rush over and give her a high-five.

“Ah, yes, of course,” I stammer, quickly propping the book against my glass, hopefully obscuring it from view.

Sandhya leads the man in. He’s tall, slim, fifty-something, with a worried face only partially hidden by his neat goatee. He’s wearing an impeccable hand-tailored suit. Hand-tailored, mind you, and I don’t mean by one of those masterjis with the portable sewing machines down by the Metro station either. As he strides forward, snakeskin shoes leaving a trail of footprints on the dusty floor, he glances at a gold watch. Definitely not from Vikaspuri.

“Have a seat,” I say in what is hopefully a casual tone, waving a hand at the plastic garden chair on the other side of the desk.

He looks at it distastefully. “I think I’ll stand.”

“Of course, of course.”

“You are Mr. Bhatia, I take it?”

“Yes, yes, the one and only. Well, not only, I was reading an article in the Times of India today that says Bhatia is the third most common surname in Delhi, but I’m the only one here.”

I chuckle. He doesn’t. This isn’t going as well as I’d planned.

“Here, have my card,” I say, handing him one. He looks at it, his forehead scrunching up like spinach wilting in a tawa.

“Isn’t there just one N in the word investigator?”

“A misprint,” I say hastily. “Never mind, you can just keep the card. And what can I do for you today, Mr—?”

“Duggal. Amit Duggal. And I’m not sure if I’m actually in the right place-”

Thankfully, Sandhya takes charge. “Of course you are, Mr. Duggal. Now don’t be shy. If you came all the way here, it’s because you have a problem, and a serious one. As paranormal investigators, we’re the last resort, and our clients know this. As do you, Mr. Duggal. How did you hear about us anyway?”

“I saw a poster. No case too small, it said.”

I file away a triumphant glare to throw at Ma later. Meanwhile, Sandhya’s still talking to him. “. . . and I can promise you, if anyone can aid you, it’s Mr. Bhatia here. It’s what he’s best at, helping people.”

She’s even said it with a straight face. What a marvel this woman is. And she isn’t done yet.

“But we can’t help you if you won’t let us, can we, Mr. Duggal? Now, just stand over here, like so, and I’m going to sit here, and write down everything you tell Mr. Bhatia, OK? Don’t worry, everything you say is strictly confidential.”

The man sighs and wipes his forehead with a fancy lace handkerchief. I glance at Sandhya, who gestures towards Mr. Duggal with her eyes.

“Yes, tell me,” I say.

He sighs again. “It’s my son.”

“Yes, what about him?”

He shakes his head. “It started about two weeks ago. And it’s been getting worse ever since. My wife is beside herself with grief.”

“What’s getting worse?” I ask.

He wipes his brow again. He’s actually sweating, I realise. In October. He leans down over the desk, eyes locked on mine. When he speaks he’s whispering so softly I can barely hear him.

“Mr. Bhatia, do you have any experience dealing with possession cases?”

I wave a nonchalant hand. “Oh yes, many times. The trick is to never admit it’s yours and then unless they can prove—”

“I think Mr. Duggal is referring to demonic possession,” says Sandhya hastily.

I stop and look at Mr. Duggal. “What? Are you sure it’s demonic possession?”

“Of course I’m sure!” he snaps at me. “He rages, he screams, he blasphemes, he uses the foulest language at us, his own parents!”

“How old is your son?”

“Nineteen.”

“Well, it could just be typical teenage behaviour.”

“Could a typical teenager levitate? Or pick up a grand piano and throw it on a roof three stories up?”

I ponder the question. “Well, not a typical teenager,” I admit. “How did this begin? Tell me everything you can remember.”

“We thought he was just acting out, but it got worse and worse. We called in doctors, specialists, psychiatrists, nutritionists, everyone we could. None of them could do anything. But once I discovered the truth it all made sense.”

There’s a heavy silence in the room.

“We can’t even stay at our own house anymore. We’re desperate, Mr. Bhatia. Can you help us?”

Before I can answer, Sandhya does. “Of course we can! This is what we do, Duggal saab.”

“So you’ll take the case?”

“Certainly we will,” says Sandhya, glancing at me. My turn.

“Yes, yes, certainly, certainly,” I say, wearing my best welcoming smile.

He looks like he’s about to cry in relief, but recovers himself.

“Excellent. Follow me, please.”

“It’s like Sandhya said, this is what we—wait, you mean now?”

“Of course. My car is outside.”

I blink. There’s something about the way Mr Duggal’s been talking, like this isn’t the sort of easy job I’d envisaged. I shoot a worried look at Sandhya but she’s already following him down the stairs. With some reluctance, so do I.

We descend the stairs in single file, because they’re too narrow for anything else. Right before we reach the bottom, Sandhya turns to face me, beaming, and flashes a triumphant thumbs-up sign. I don’t return it, I’m too busy recalling what Duggal said about chucking pianos onto roofs. I can feel some sort of obstruction in my throat.

“Hold on,” I call out. “I just remembered something.”

I scamper back upstairs, head straight to the desk and knock back the abandoned drink.

A minute later I’m back outside, where a uniformed driver is opening the door of a luxury car. I get in, enjoying the feel of plush leather against my back. Quite the welcome change from my plastic chair. Then I realise there’s someone else in the car, a tall, stately woman, dressed in a chiffon sari.

“This is my wife Noor,” says Mr. Duggal. “Noor, this is Mr. Bhatia and his secretary, Sandhya. They’re ghosthunters.” He hands her my card. Her face assumes a familiar disapproving expression as she reads it.

“Investigator is spelt with only one N.”

“A minor printing error,” I start to say, and then realise I’m talking through gritted teeth. Sandhya once again leaps in to fill the breach. I leave her to it and, for the umpteenth time, make a mental list of all the things I want to do to Sapna Printing Press.

“Where to, sir?” asks the chauffeur.

“Home. The Aurangzeb Road house, Nitin. Fast as you can.”

I whistle. Aurangzeb Road. We’re in some high-flying company. As we drive, I turn to the Duggals.

“When did you realise your son was possessed?”

Mr. Duggal sighs. “We didn’t, not for a long time. Until my son fought off the beast long enough to send my wife a message from his phone.”

“May I see it?”

Mrs. Duggal looks at me, reaches into her purse and pulls out a cellphone. She hits a few buttons and hands it to me.

“Poor baby! He fought the demon long enough to send me this. My Monty’s still in there, I just know it.”

I take the phone and start reading.

“No more doctors. Find an exorcist. Please.”

“GO FUCKING DIE YOU OLD HAG”

“I’m sorry. That wasn’t me. Please help. It’s getting worse.”

“YOURE UGLY!!!!”

“I’m getting weaker. Hurry! Please!”

That’s it. I hand the phone back.

“Well?” says Mr. Duggal.

“It clearly appears to be written by two authors. You’re right, he’s fighting it. What happened next?”

“I did what it asked,” says Mrs. Duggal. “I called in the family priest to look at Monty and he told us our son had been possessed by a demon.”

Mr. Duggal interjects. “Then Panditji went back into the room and never came out. We never saw him again. When we sent Nitin to the temple looking for him, his wife said he hadn’t been back.”

I gulp again, glancing out the window. The car is picking up speed.

“Then I screwed up my courage and went upstairs to Monty’s room. And do you know what I saw, Mr. Bhatia?”

“Tell us,” says Sandhya. I shoot her a look but she ignores it. She’s actually enjoying this.

“Blood. The pandit’s blood. Everywhere.”

I make a high-pitched, involuntary squeaking sound, and turn to the window once more. We’re on the highway now, and the car’s moving too fast for me to jump out. Plus, the doors are locked. We draw alongside another car, a blue sedan. I lean against my window and stare hopefully at the sedan driver, a kind-looking elderly gentleman. He turns to face me. Our eyes meet.

“Help me,” I mouth.

He looks sadly at me for a moment, then gives me the middle finger as we overtake him.

The car keeps going, faster and faster. And I’m trapped in it.

• • • •

It’s over two hours later when we pull up in front of the large iron gates on Delhi’s most expensive street. I’m so sick of the traffic by now, I’d almost rather face this demon. While we make our way down a winding, paved drive to the big white house, I work on our exit speech. The Duggals lead us up the portico stairs to a large front door. Its designer had not lacked diligence, judging by the intricate nature of the hideous coat of arms in its centre. As a finishing touch, the not-so-original motto of “Together Forever” was emblazoned underneath. I turn away from the nightmarish door, eyes squeezed shut, but when I open them again, it’s still there.

Mrs. Duggal notices me staring. “Oh, you like it?” she says proudly. “We designed it ourselves. We’re in the real estate business, you know, so we really understand these things. You’ve heard of Amit’s company, I’m sure. Duggal Enterprises? We do all the best work. You like the design?”

“Very nice,” I hear myself say weakly.

Mr. Duggal unlocks the door with a large key. He reaches to push it open, then hesitates. I don’t blame him, I wouldn’t want to touch that door either.

As he does, from somewhere in the house, a low howling sound resonates. I jump, and when I return to earth, I see both the Duggals looking shaken.

“Your dog?”

“No,” says Mr. Duggal. “We don’t have a dog.”

“Wolf?” I suggest hopefully. They shake their heads.

“We don’t have any pets,” says Mrs. Duggal. She points up at the second floor. “It’s coming from Monty’s room.”

“I see.” And I do, because as far as I’m concerned that pretty much settles it. I look at Mr. Duggal.

“Look, sir, there’s been a mistake.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. You see, I’m not sure we can take this case.”

“You have to take it! Save my son! I’ll pay whatever you want. How much do you want, anyway? Ten lakhs? Twenty? It’s yours!”

“No, the thing is we’re—did you say twenty lakhs?”

“Not enough? Twenty-five then.”

“I am at your service, sir,” I say, bowing with a flourish. “Don’t you worry, we’ll be—”

I’m interrupted by a high-pitched shriek.

“Maybe we should take it from here,” says Sandhya quickly.

“Didn’t you hear that, Sandhya?” I say.

“Yes of course. Time to go to work. Now you both just wait in the car, okay? We’ll be back shortly.”

I open my mouth to protest, and then it hits me. Smart girl. She’s found a way for us to sound professional while saving face too. Now we can get in, wait on the other side of the hideous door for a few minutes, then get the hell out of here, hopefully with a consultation fee.

“Yes, indeed,” I say.

Mr. Duggal’s face collapses with relief.

“Are you sure?” says Mrs. Duggal.

“Of course they’re sure,” snaps Mr. Duggal. “Let’s not argue with professionals. We’ll wait in the car. It might be dangerous inside.”

Sandhya pushes the door open and we go inside, entering a large drawing room.

The inside of the house looks like it’s been done by the same artist as the door. For the interior, he’d apparently been given free access to several buckets of colours and one of LSD, with instructions to make sure he finished them all. I hear Sandhya gasp audibly and with some effort, I shut my mouth.

“Who . . . did this?”

“The Duggals,” I inform her.

“Are we sure it wasn’t the demon?”

Right on cue a bloodcurdling scream comes from upstairs, followed by a voice raised in obvious pain. Apparently he’s noticed the decor too.

“I can’t take it anymore!”

“You and me both, buddy,” I mutter.

“Help me! Please help me!”

The voice breaks off, replaced by a constant, low moan.

“Let’s wait he—” I say, then stop talking, because Sandhya’s already started up the staircase towards the moans. I hurry after her. No way I’m staying alone in that drawing room.

“What are you thinking?” I hiss. “This is clearly something beyond our—”

I stop, surveying the carnage around me.

Books lie scattered on the floor, torn pages fluttering in the breeze from smashed windows. The carpet and paintings are stained all over with spots of something dark and crusty. Deep scratches mar the paint on the walls, running all the way down to the closed bedroom door at the far end of the hallway.

The moans are coming from behind it.

I quickly grab Sandhya by the arm and point. “Over there. That window’s big enough to squeeze through, it’s not too far down and with a bit of luck we could be well clear of this place while those two are still sitting in their car and dreaming about their door.”

“Why? This is what we wanted.”

“To die in the world’s ugliest house? Speak for yourself.”

“Well, you started this detective agency.”

“Yes, to do a few stakeouts in abandoned houses, expose a fraudulent astrologer or two, that sort of thing. This is a real demon!”

“If it is a real demon.”

“You think it’s a hoax?”

She shrugs. “That’s the most likely explanation, isn’t it?”

“He threw a piano on the roof!”

“Or so they think. Maybe it’s an elaborate insurance scam or the kid faked it to bunk exams. We won’t know till we get in there and look.”

With that, she wrenches her arm free and is off down the corridor.

With a last, longing look at the window, I follow her. There really isn’t anything else to do, short of abandoning her to whatever’s in there. Much as she deserves it, I can’t do that.

With each step, Sandhya’s words make more and more sense. Demons aren’t real. Must be the teenager pranking his folks to avoid college. Part of me regrets not thinking of this when I was in school. The more I dwell on the thought, the more sense it makes. By the time I reach the end of the corridor I’m feeling positively rejuvenated. Taking a deep breath, I slowly turn the doorknob and follow her in.

The first thing I notice is the boy, flat on his back, levitating in the air two feet above what looks like a blood-soaked bed.

I can see the writing on the wall. No, literally. Macabre red lettering, spelling out something indecipherable in an ancient script.

A creeping sense of terror grows in my chest as I stand frozen, eyes transfixed to the words on the wall. It’s not until I find myself mouthing the words that I realise with a horrified thrill that somehow, impossible, unfathomable as it is, I’m standing here reading a mystical language I never knew existed. Then it dawns on me that this is because the writing on the wall isn’t an ancient script, just a sentence in really bad handwriting:

“BRING ME PLAYSTATION 5.”

I look accusingly at Sandhya. “Scam, huh?”

As we speak, the boy sits up. His eyes flip open and they’re completely white. A slow smile spreads across his face. “At last! Someone’s finally here.”

It’s a deep, low, rumbling voice, and yet it’s frenetic somehow, like someone put pebbles in a blender and cranked it up to max. I recoil, whirling towards the door. The boy-demon gestures and it slams shut.

“Wouldn’t want us to be disturbed,” says the boy.

He’s floating towards us now.

Only one thing left to do. “Help! Help!”

“Exactly,” agrees the boy-demon. “After all, that’s why I sent for you.”

“Help!!”

Sandhya steps forward. “Stay back, demon!”

“Demon?” he says indignantly, swiveling his head 180 degrees to frown at her. “Demon? There’s no demons here. Djinn, if you please.”

“Sorry, did you say djinn?”

“I did say djinn.”

“Djinn?”

“Djinn. Now will you be quiet and listen? We’re running out of time. I’m holding that creature off for now, but he could be back any moment.”

Even with all that’s going on, this bit of news demands my attention.

“Holding him off? So you’re not the demon?”

“Again you call me demon! What demon? Who do you think you’re calling a demon? Told you, I’m a djinn.”

I clutch at Sandhya. “He’s back! The demon’s back!”

“For the last time, I’m a djinn! And not just any djinn, either! I tried not to say it, the attention gets so embarrassing, but you leave me no choice, so I shall.”

He clears his throat.

“Mortals, you are in the presence of Wahid the Great. Yes, the very same, the one and onl—”

“Who?” says Sandhya.

“Excuse me? Did you say who?”

“Yes, who?”

“Wahid the Great. You’ve probably heard about me.”

“No, not really.”

“You’ve never heard of Wahid the Great, Igniter of Flames?”

“Nope.”

“Well, you probably know me by a different name. What about Mahasura, Thief of Time?”

“Doesn’t ring a bell, sorry.”

“Nagadanga, Breaker of Walls?”

“I’ve never heard any of these names.”

His smile fades. “Typical,” he mutters. “Look, it doesn’t matter. Bottom line, I need your help.”

I blink. “You need our help?”

“Exactly. You see, there’s been a bit of an administrative accident. A bureaucratic bungle, if you will. You might even call it a coordination catastrophe. Bottom line, there was a mistake and I’ve been trapped in this boy ever since and I’ve had enough.”

“You mean Monty?”

A look of anguish spreads over his face. “Don’t say his name! If he hears you he might wake up!”

“Who, Mon—”

“Didn’t you hear me? I’ve had enough. He’s horrible. Absolutely insufferable. Most traumatic experience of any of my lives. I can’t take it anymore. I need to get out.”

“Let me get this straight,” I say. “You need our help getting out of the body you possessed in the first place?”

“Yes, exactly. You have no idea what it’s like, being stuck in here inside this kid! All he does is complain and whine, and demand things he’s done nothing to deserve, and say horrible things to hurt people and look for attention over his imagined problems and be awful to everyone. It’s unbearable. Do you have any idea what it’s like sharing a mind with an internet edgelord?”

“Who, Monty?”

His face contorts, like it’s fighting with itself, and then settles into a self-satisfied smirk.

“Feminazis! Fuck your feelings!”

His features contort again. “No, I won’t be silenced! Freedom of speech! This is reverse casteism! Fuck you, beta cucks! I’ll—”

He stops, mouth jerking from side to side like a centrist politician asking for civility, and then emits a low howl. Finally, his face stops moving around and settles into an annoyed look.

“Didn’t I tell you not to say his name?”

Sandhya and I look at each other.

“That was the Duggals’ son?” I ask.

“Yes! He’s an absolute monster. Get me out of here, please! I’m begging you!”

“Wait—so it wasn’t him who sent for us?”

“No! What’s wrong with you people? Why would he send for you? He’s sharing his body with Wahid the Great!”

“So it was you?”

“Well, duh!”

I turn to Sandhya.

“I think it was this djinn who sent for us.”

“That’s Wahid the Great to you, thank you very much.”

Sandhya studies the boy’s face. “Well, Wahid doesn’t seem evil.”

“No, not at all,” he says, floating closer. “Far from it.”

“Oh yeah?” I say. “What about the priest then?”

“What prie—oh that one? He jumped out of the hallway window and ran away.”

“And this blood?”

“Fake. From Amazon. Look, if I was evil, I wouldn’t even be allowed here. Even us supernatural beings of immense power have to follow the rules.”

“Hold on,” says Sandhya. “If you’re a supernatural being with all these powers why don’t you just leave?”

The boy’s head droops a bit, looking defeated. “It’s not that simple. I don’t have anywhere else to go.”

“What do you mean?”

He pauses. “That’s personal.”

“And the rest of this isn’t?”

“Well, it’s like—Look, do I have to tell you?”

“If you want our help.”

“Fine, fine, if you really must know, the spirit realm is a little beyond my means these days. There was a time I could afford to live beyond the veil, but those days are over. And there are plenty more like me, I’ll have you know. Just way too many supernaturals and not enough room. The market’s gone through the roof.”

So Wahid too had fallen prey to a spirit-Suresh who’d rendered him homeless. I nod sadly. “Rent is a curse.”

“A stain on the supernatural realm,” agrees Wahid.

I pause. “A pox on people.”

“A plague on paranormal society.”

I beam at him. “A blight on beings everywhere.”

“A curse on the cosmos.”

“Yes, I already said that.”

“No, you said curse. I then vastly broadened the scope by introducing the concept of a cosmos.”

I’m no longer beaming. “Yes, well obviously I meant cosmos when I said—”

“Hold on, you two,” says Sandhya quickly. “Wahid, when you say there are plenty more like you, you mean here? Around us?”

“Where else? If you lot only knew just how many of your fellow humans were a lot more than that, well . . .” He chuckles briefly. “But that’s enough about that, I’m not going to recite the history of every event to have befallen me since my . . . ah . . . departure, yes let’s call it that, that’s a nice way to put it.”

“So you can always recognise if a human is possessed by a djinn?”

“Can I? That isn’t half of it! I mean, I knew times were hard, but I had no idea just how many folk had moved here. Some you’d never have expected to see here either. Why, just the other day I saw, well, anyway, you wouldn’t know, would you, you don’t even know Wahid the Great.” He sniffed.

“Oh, that’s interesting,” says Sandhya. She sure cares about the vagaries of the djinn housing economy all of a sudden. Me, I have more pressing issues to worry about. Such as the housing economy here and the twenty-five lakhs that will prevent me from becoming Wahid 2.0, but without powers or the ability to possess anything. More like Wahid 0.02. Time to cut to the chase.

“So what do you want us to do?”

He beams. “Now. You’re talking. That’s simple. You’ll just need to find me a new host.”

“Come again?”

“A new host,” says the boy, speaking very slowly. “Look, I know you lot aren’t smart or anything, but this can’t be that hard to follow.”

“Why can’t you just find another for yourself?”

“Consent.”

“Huh?”

“Consent. Don’t humans have the concept? I need my new body to consent to me being there, or it’ll just be me forcing my will on whoever I inhabit, and let me tell you that never turns out well. I mean, look at my situation now. It’s not like one just takes over a body, you know? It’s a constant effort at collaboration, cooperation, you often have to discuss and negotiate. Not an easy task, no sir. I’ll need a body I can work with, one that’s suited to my personality.”

“Your personality. I see.”

“Yes, exactly. It’ll be easy as anything, I’m sure there’s no shortage of mortals desperate to share with Wahid the Great. Who wouldn’t want the benefit of my talents, after all, and mind you, I’m supposed to share them.”

“Supposed to?”

“Yes, by law. Djinn with hosts must compensate for the hospitality. If we don’t, well, we have to, there’s no choice. We can exercise discretion in the how, but we must compensate or else.”

“I knew it,” I mutter. “Rent is a curse.”

Sandhya rolls her eyes.

The boy seems about to go on, but then his face twists up, nose lurching about from side to side, eyes rolling violently.

“He’s coming back!” he shouts. He waves a hand, and the door flies open. “I’ll try and hold him off as long as I can. Get out, now! Hurry!”

We start moving towards the door.

“And don’t forget my new body! I’m counting on you!”

We get out of the door, and there I pause, glancing back at him.

“Cocksucker!” he snarls at me. The next moment a potted plant is flying at my head. I duck, and it smashes against the wall, sending earth and disemboweled flowers everywhere.

“Run!” I yell at Sandhya.

We race down the corridor and pound our way down the stairs and through the house, ignoring the screeches and banging noises behind us, not stopping till we’re back at the car, collapsing into the backseat next to the Duggals.

The iron gates to the compound are rattling. I can hear the screams all the way from the house.

Mr. Duggal looks startled. “What’s happ—”

“Drive!” I yell. “Drive! Now!”

Nitin hits the accelerator and we zoom off, screeching down Aurangzeb Road and back into the bustle of traffic, leaving the hideous house with its even more hideous heir in the distance.

• • • •

My cellphone is ringing. I glance at it, then set the ringer to silent and flip it back over on my desk, face down.

“Mr. Duggal again?”

“Who else?”

We’re back in my office-cum-flat, where I’ve been ever since we got the Duggals to drop us off and leapt out of the car, mumbling promises of how we’d get back to them.

“He’s been calling you for three days. Don’t you think you should answer it?”

“No.”

“You can’t avoid answering the phone forever, you know.”

“I can try. Anyway, I’m still not done trying to find a solution.”

“You mean a body.”

“It’s not a body if it’s alive, Sandhya. It’s a person. And you’re not being very helpful, you know.”

“Because you playing around on Facebook all day is helping?”

“I’m not playing, I’m recruiting. I’ve posted in job offer groups, Help wanted groups, real estate groups and even in one writing forum.”

“How’s that working out?”

“Way better than I hoped. I’ve had at least two dozen responses. Just let Duggal put down the phone and I’ll show you.”

We wait, and then when the ringing ends, Sandhya peers over my shoulder at my phone as I pull up the Facebook app.

“Okay, that’s quite a few.”

“And most of them have even posted their phone numbers. Time to start making some calls.”

“Who will you start with?”

“This guy here. Rahul Srivastav. Look at his profile picture. Smart, well dressed, and it says here he’s a financial expert specializing in investments. That’s just what we need, a career man with drive and verve. Could be just the match we’re looking for.”

I dial the number. Nobody picks up. I hit redial.

It rings for a while and then a bright, enthusiastic voice answers.

“Hi!”

“Am I speaking with Rahul?”

“Good afternoon, sir! Thank you for calling!”

“Hi Rahul, this is Zorawar Bhatia, calling from—”

“Are you a father or mother with kids?”

“What? No.”

“Looking for a secondary source of income?”

“Well, more like a primary source but here’s why I called, Rahul. You responded to my post on the Jobs For YOU Facebook page and so I’d like to discuss whether—”

“If you want to support your financial situation through binary, you’ve come to the right place!”

“What does that even mean? Am I speaking to a person?”

“Just contribute 5000 Rupees and within one week get back 15,000 Rupees guaranteed and tax-free!”

“I—”

“We also have a Special Offer Just For You! If you invest 50,000 Rupees you can take home over five crore Rupees within just seven days!”

I hang up.

“What happened?” asks Sandhya.

“He’s a scam artist. No matter, I’ll call the next one. Plenty to choose from.”

The next number turns out to be a woman who wants me to know I could make up to 3000 US dollars a day posting social media accounts. The one after that wants me to send him 25000 Rupees for a special shipment of a single bottle of Available For First Time Ever And Guaranteed To Work penis enlargement pills. The next two calls I make are both answered by Rahul again. The third one goes straight back to him too, only this time he’s also offering penis enlargement pills.

I start to throw my phone across the room and then I remember I can’t afford another. I toss it disgustedly on the table instead and turn to Sandhya. “Is everyone in Delhi a scam artist?”

“You’re sounding like an American tourist now. Maybe you should talk to him.”

“I don’t want—”

A dull banging sound interrupts me. I cock my head to the side, and we both listen for it, but just as quickly, it’s gone.

I turn back to Sandhya to finish my sentence.

“I don’t want penis enlargement pills.”

It sounds even more ridiculous without the immediate context of her question, but to her credit, she only smiles a bit.

“No, I don’t mean Rahul. Mr. Duggal. At least tell him.”

“Tell him what? That for some inscrutable reason literally nobody’s willing to sacrifice their body to free the djinn that’s trapped inside their hellspawn? It’s hopeless, I tell you! We’re fuc—”

The phone rings again. I sigh.

“Fine, I’ll tell him.”

I flip it over and hit a button. “Mr. Duggal! I’m afraid I have some bad news. You see, we—

“Duggal? Calling me Duggal now? I’ll give you Duggal, you ungrateful wretch!”

“Ma?”

“Ah, he remembers his mother’s voice. I should feel so honoured.”

“Listen, Ma, I can’t talk now, I have a client—”

“No, you listen, and don’t feed me your lies about clients! I need you to vacate the flat by tomorrow, OK?”

“Vacate the flat by tomorrow?”

“Yes, by tomorrow.”

“What? But, Ma, you said Sunday!”

“Yes, but that was long back.”

“Long back? It was yesterday!”

“Yes, anyway, doesn’t matter, I’ve changed my mind.”

“Changed . . . your mind.”

“Exactly. And stop repeating everything I say, Zorawar, you sound like an echo. Anyway, I’m giving it to Suresh’s friend, he’s increased his offer to 6000 but he wants it immediately.”

“But Ma!”

“Ma, ma, ma! You sound like a goat! It’s my flat and I can give it to whoever I want, can’t I? Yes, I can! And I’m giving it to Paras. He seems like a really nice young man, and unlike you, he has a real paying job. Works with a real estate firm. Duggal Enterprises, I think it was called.”

“Did you say Duggal?”

“Yes, that’s what it was called. Very good company, I believe the owners actually live on Aurangzeb Road or something. They have a beautiful house there, Paras was telling me.”

“Beautiful.”

“You’ve started repeating everything again, is it? Anyway, I already took deposit from Paras, so make sure you’re gone by twelve tomorrow, OK?”

“But, Ma—” I start, but she’s already hung up. I start to throw the phone across the room, then remember I don’t have the money for another so I toss it onto the desk in disgust.

“Well, we’re screwed now, aren’t we? She wants me gone by noon tomorrow. With nowhere to go. Me, her own flesh and blood!”

“Yes, well, I wouldn’t go around boasting about that bit.”

“But what do I do? I have nowhere to go. I’ll be as homeless as that djinn if he left the hellchild’s body. And probably die faster because I don’t even have superpowers, like not freezing, and what, what is it?”

I stop because she’s clutching at me, positively quivering with excitement.

“I’ve got it.”

“Got what? The ague?”

“No, I know how to fix everything.”

“You do? How?

Sandhya’s eyes narrow, and now she’s smiling at me.

“You, of course,” she says.

“Me? What do you—Oh no! No way! Absolutely not!”

“It’s the best option.”

“It’s not an option! I’m not giving myself up to be some receptacle for a demon!”

“He’s not a demon, he’s a djinn. He was rather insistent on that point, if you recall”

“I’m still not doing it.”

“Because you’d rather freeze?”

“I’ll find another way.”

“No, you won’t. This is the only way we can fix this—and make some real money for a change. Money with which we can open a real office, in a real proper area, and open a real business with real prospects.”

“And you know all this because?”

“Because you heard the djinn. He can recognise other djinns. There’s lots of them. More streaming in every day, looking for compatible hosts. And a city full of unhappy people we can connect them to. Statistically, at least some will be rich, see? Rich enough to give us lots and lots of rupees to help them out. It’s not just win-win, it’s win-win-win.”

“Easy enough for you to say. You’re not the one who has to give up your body as to a dem-ah- djinn like a bloody supernatural guest-house.”

“Just think of yourself as a paranormal innvestigator then.”

I fall silent, musing at the injustice of it all.

“Oh come on, It’ll even mean you won’t need new business cards!”

And that’s when it hits me. She’s right. This really just might work.

Right then, we’re interrupted by my phone ringing. I look at it. It’s Ma again. She’s reconsidered! I knew it. She might be crotchety and mean sometimes, but a mother’s love always shines through in the end.

“It’s Ma”, I say triumphantly to Sandhya. “So much for this scheme of yours. Excuse me, I need to talk to my mother now.”

“Hi, Ma,” I say, answering the phone.

“Zorawar? I just called to say don’t forget my desk and chairs. Bring them before one, I have a kitty party to go to. Okay bye!”

There’s a click, and I’m left holding a phone on a line that’s almost half as dead as me on the inside.

This time I do throw the phone across the room.

“Good thing we cancelled the plan then.”

“Oh, shut up.”

We sit in silence for a while, while I go over scheme after scheme in my mind, each more guaranteed to fail than the last. Finally, my shoulders slump, I hang my head, and from that position I look up at Sandhya.

“Fine, I’ll do it. I hope you’re happy.”

“I am. And you’ll be too, trust me.”

“I don’t know about this supernatural matchmaking idea.”

“As opposed to the booming paranormal detection trade we just spent three months in? Think of it as real estate if it makes you feel better. We’re borrowing from our friend Mr. Duggal. Paranormal Properties—come to us, and no being will ever live rent-free in your head again. Even the ads write themselves.”

“I’m really glad you have this all figured out,” I say bitterly.

“Oh, I do now. All of it. “

“What do you mean?”

“There’s one little thing I’ve been wondering about this since the beginning and I think I’ve finally figured it out.”

“So now we go talk to the djinn?”

“No, now you call Mr. Duggal, tell him to get that twenty-five lakhs ready. Tell him we want it in cash.”

“Cash?”

“He’s a Delhi property dealer, what do you think?”

“Cash it is.”

“Also tell him we’ll be there to pick it up soon.”

“And then?”

“Then we go talk to that djinn.”

• • • •

We’re back in front of the World’s Ugliest House, exiting the sleek black car.

“Should I wait, sir, madam?” asks Nitin.

I shake my head. “No, it’s fine.”

“Very good, sir,” he replies.

“Just a moment, Nitin,” says Sandhya.

“Madam?”

“I just had one quick question for you.”

“Yes, Madam?”

She leans forward, so her head is almost through the driver’s window. “How much did that priest pay you to say he was missing, Nitin?”

“Madam!”

She smiles. “It’s ok. I won’t tell your employer.”

She pauses. “Unless you lie to me, of course. Did he pay you to say he was missing?”

Nitin looks exceedingly unhappy. A bead of sweat appears on his forehead. His eyes flicker from side to side, like he’s looking for somewhere to run to, which is pretty silly, considering that if he really wanted to run away, all he had to do was hit the accelerator.

“No Madam.”

“Nitin. Do you want me to talk to Mr. Duggal.”

“6000 rupees, Madam. To say he was vanished and in case Mr. Duggal wanted me to file police complaint, to say I had done that also.”

Sandhya smiled with quiet satisfaction. “I thought so. Thank you, Nitin. You can go now.”

She’d barely finished the sentence before the car zoomed off with a screech, leaving behind a tyre trail and the smell of rubber. Nitin had been only too eager to comply.

I look admiringly at Sandhya. “How did you guess?”

“Well, there had to be some explanation for the missing priest. For one, his family didn’t seem too concerned, did they? Just said he was missing and that was it? I’m not that stupid, even if the Duggals are. Also, what happened to the body? There was no smell in the room, or anywhere in the house. Bodies rot. This one hadn’t. And Wahid didn’t strike me as the sort to be murdering priests anyway.”

“I’m so impressed right now.”

“Why, thank you, Zorawar Bhaitoa. Now, let’s go talk to our djinn, shall we?”

A few minutes later, we’re walking into the room with the levitating boy again. He sees us enter and immediately begins showering us with abuse.

“SJWs! Beta cucks!”

“Hey, Wahid,” says Sandhya. “If you’re in there, we need to talk to you.”

“Snowflakes!”

“Wahid?”

Once again, the face does its left-right-left quick march before settling into a look of equanimity. Wahid beams at us.

“Ah, you’re back. Finally! I thought you’d abandoned me. Wouldn’t be the first time a human’s been a disappointment, you know. Brought me a body?”

“Maybe.”

He’s no longer beaming. “Maybe? What happened to our deal?”

“It’s not a deal if only you get something out of it.”

“I saved you from Monty! Twice! Thrice counting just now!”

“After begging us to come back? I think not. You’ll have to do better.”

Wahid’s face falls. “Typical,” he mutters bitterly. “Just like a human to kick you when you’re down. And they call us djinn mercenary.”

“Who does?”

He waves a dismissive hand. “What does it matter? You’ll just use it against me. What do you want? Money? Jewels? Beautiful lovers?”

“You can get us those?” I hear myself ask.

“No, of course not. I mean, I could steal them, but I’d still need a body. But isn’t that what humans usually ask for?”

“Not these humans,” says Sandhya.

“Now hold on a minute,” I say quickly.

“He literally just said he can’t get them.”

“Oh. Right.”

“Excuse me, shouldn’t you be talking to me instead of each other?” says Wahid. “A little attention here, hello? Thank you. Now, what are your terms? What do you want from me in return?”

“Cooperation,” says Sandhya.

He eyes us suspiciously. “What does that mean?”

“It means that if we give you a new body, you’re going to help us find other djinn.”

“You wish me to point out others like myself to you?”

“Exactly.”

“Certainly not! You think I’d just betray my kind? My brethren? My very family? Just to benefit myself?”

“Yes.”

“Well, you’re right. But I want it known that I only do so reluctantly.”

“Well, we wouldn’t actually need you to out all djinn. Just the ones looking for hosts. And the ones who, like you, are trapped with incompatible hosts. And we’ll help them find a match . . . um . . . ‘better suited to their personalities,’ I believe the phrase was. And I’m sure you’d be pretty good at figuring that out too.”

“I’m good at almost everything. So I do everything? What do you do?”

“Put up with you. Think of it as the rent we pay if it helps.”

“It doesn’t.”

“Yes, rent is like that. So, do you agree or not? It’s this or Monty.”

There’s a long pause and then he sighs heavily.

“I agree to your terms.”

“So, we have a deal?”

“Yes, we have an accord.” He smiles. “Well, at least you’ll be a more interesting mind than most I’ve had to suffer with.”

“Yes, of course, your new host.” She points at me. “Here he is.”

The smile vanishes. “Oh.”

I’m feeling mildly insulted by the lack of enthusiasm, but I swallow my pride. “Yes, I’m game. I’ll be your host.”

“No, hold on. Is this really the best we can do? Is there no one else?”

OK, now I’m properly insulted. “What’s wrong with me?”

“What isn’t? I’m used to higher standards, you know.”

“Like Monty there?”

“Yes, take advantage of a poor djinn in a terrible situation. That’ll get you classified as a good soul for sure.”

“Hey, he’s not so bad when you get used to him,” says Sandhya. Even she’s miffed. The thought makes me happy at first, until I recall we’re literally negotiating handing my body over to a supernatural creature.

“So no deal? Ok, fine, we’ll just be off then.”

She turns, and I follow suit.

“No, wait!”

We turn back around, looking at Wahid.

“I accept your terms,” he says, somewhat sulkily. “Now, are you ready?”

“Yes. No, wait! You’re sure I can share space with you, right?”

“Of course.”

“And you being there won’t hurt or anything?”

“No, no, not at all. The pain will be all mine, I assure you. But this is how one learns humility, I suppose. As for you, you won’t want me gone. After all, I am Wahid the Gre—”

“Yes, yes,” I say hastily. “I get that.”

“Very well, then. We shall commence.”

The boy’s eyes roll over and over in his head, like marbles rolling down a slope. A strange blue light begins to build, bathing his face in an eerie glow.

“What the—” I say.

And as I do, a ball of blue light courses from the boy’s face, into my mouth. I can feel it, bouncing around my throat, like a gob of very warm rum.

“Oops,” says the voice of Wahid in my head. “Wrong turn.”

I feel the bouncing move upwards, back up my throat, through the roof of my mouth, and into the top of my skull, where it settles. Slowly it settles, leaving me with this slightly lightheaded, warm, fuzzy sensation, like I’ve just taken a big puff of ganja, and I mean actual ganja, not that crap Mathur sells me for ten bucks a pudiya.

“There we go,” says Wahid in my head. “Lots of empty space here, huh? Nice, I like it when there’s room to spread out a bit.” I can hear, no feel a wet, squelching sensation, spreading across the inside of my forehead.

“Here, what are you doing?” I ask

“Oh, don’t worry, I’m fine. We’re fine. We’re a team now, you see?”

“Zorawar!” cries out Sandhya, a warning note in her voice.

We look up, Wahid and I, together, as one, and see Monty, eyes looking normal, with an expression on his face ugly enough to have been part of the décor downstairs.

“Who the fuck are you?” he shouts. “Get out of my room! I’m calling the cops!”

“I’ve had enough of this brat,” mutters Wahid. And I agree.

We lift a hand, a shockwave leaves it, blasting the boy back onto the bed, where he bounces off the mattress and onto the floor.

“Zorawar!” says Sandhya.

“What did you do?” I yell at Wahid.

“Sorry,” mutters Wahid to me. “Just need to calibrate things a bit, shouldn’t take too long.”

“You killed him!”

As I say it, Monty jumps back up to his feet, face now contorted with rage. “Motherfuckers! Cocksuckers! Bloody jihadis!”

“Unfortunately not,” says Wahid.

“Cucks! Antinationals! Immigrants!”

“We’re leaving now,” says Wahid. And then, without words, I know what he wants to do, and I agree.

We reach out, grab Sandhya, and crash out through the window, with so much force the backdraft knocks Monty onto and off the bed again. And then we’re flying, through the window, soaring up and out. And we’re flying, soaring up, up, until we start slowing, and eventually stop moving entirely.

Now we’re falling, plummeting straight down, I can see Sandhya screaming, only I can’t hear her because I’m screaming louder.

Then with a gut-wrenching jerk we stop, a dozen feet or so from the ground, hanging in the Delhi air like noxious particulate matter.

“Oops,” says Wahid.

“The hell are you doing?”

“I think I’d like to walk,” says Sandhya firmly.

“Relax, relax, it’ll be fine,” says Wahid, as we begin to rise upwards again. “Told you, we just need some calibrations. Where to?”

“Home,” I think to him, and we veer off, over the gardens and Aurangzeb Road. zooming away from that hideous house and its awful occupant, sailing away across the sky and back home.

“Hold on!” yells Sandhya. “Where the hell do you think you’re going?”

“Home.”

“No, head to that hotel! We have twenty-five lakhs to collect.”

She’s right, so I bank left, towards a happier future.

“And after that?” asks Wahid.

“After that?” I echo.

Sandhya smiles. “After that we get to the good bit. We’re going to see your mother.”

“I thought you said it was the good bit.”

“It is. Because I’m going to tell her she needs to find a new cook. And then you’re going to tell her she can find a new occupant for that flat. There’s a great office space available for rent in Malviya Nagar, by the way.”

She smiles. “I made a call earlier. They’re expecting us tomorrow, to look over it.”

“You’re incredible,” I say.

“I know,” she says.

I take a deep breath, filling my lungs. I don’t know when I last felt this cheerful.

“Hey, Wahid,” I say. “How would you like to meet my mother?”

“I wouldn’t.”

“Well, you’re going to.”

Still arguing, we sail away, across the smoggy sky.

And so that’s how I ended up with Wahid the Djinn living in my head. And the ability to fly, and shoot bolts from my fingers, and a whole lot else, including a new flat, office and career, and everything that came with them.

But that’s a different story.

Shiv Ramdas

Shiv Ramdas is an Indian storyteller. His short speculative fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Fireside, Podcastle, and other publications, and has been nominated for the Nebula, Hugo and Ignyte Awards. He currently lives and works in Seattle, USA. You can find out more about him at https://shivramdas.net/ or find him tweeting as @nameshiv.