It all started with a desperate phone call from a Yamaduta.
Doesn’t it always? The new recruits are the worst. Madhav should have stuck to cleaning the Vaitarna River. It attracts debris from all the worlds. But someone had decided he deserved a promotion and transferred him to the most demanding unit of all: the Yamadutas, tasked with escorting the souls of the dead from the human world to the afterlife. Why they thought picking up trash was the same as picking up souls is beyond me.
He sat opposite me in my airless office above Auntie Nimmi’s curry shop: a round, baby-faced man with curly hair, sweating profusely, his gaze darting left and right, as if he expected the Afterlife Police to soul-cuff him already. Anyone less like a messenger of death was difficult to imagine. “Save me, Roshni,” he begged. “You’re my only hope.”
I leaned back on my ratty old chair and blew a series of soap bubbles. I don’t smoke, and Auntie Nimmi would never stand for it anyway, but detectives ought to blow rings of something. Soap bubbles are a good, cheap substitute for cigarettes. They smell nice and throw people off. Sure enough, Madhav stared at the bubbles, his shoulders sagging.
I contemplated my options. On the one hand, Madhav wasn’t much in the way of a honeypot. He had a decent job, yes, but he’d barely started. And it was dangerous to get involved in anything in the human world. There are strict rules governing what someone like me can and cannot do. I’d come close to that line enough times that a certain police officer who shall remain nameless had escorted me to the edge of one of the twenty-eight hells and given me a glimpse of what awaited should I foolishly cross it. It was not a pleasant memory.
On the other hand, I hadn’t had a case in months and was behind on my rent. Nimmi makes amazing curries, and she gives me a special discount, but she’s nobody’s patsy. A couple of weeks, at most, and I’d lose my discount. Another two weeks, I’d lose my home. It was only two poky rooms permeated with the smell of curry and soap, but it was all I had.
“It’ll cost you,” I said at last, setting down my bubble wand.
“I can pay,” he said eagerly, pushing a small red velvet pouch across the desk.
I loosened the strings and peeked inside. One gold, one silver, and one bronze coin: the traditional amount offered for a contract. Madhav boy was serious. I closed the pouch, hiding my elation. I would pay Nimmi tonight and eat curry to celebrate. “Tell me what happened.”
He leaned forward and began to speak in a terrified whisper of a voice, as if Yamaraja himself was standing behind him, trying to eavesdrop.
It was a familiar tale. I’d been expecting something like it. Madhav had been tasked with escorting a newly wed, newly dead woman to the afterlife. She’d begged to see her husband one last time. Like a sop, he’d agreed. And she’d vanished. Typical.
I sighed. “Where did you lose her?”
He shifted on his chair. “Her house. I waited outside for fifteen minutes. When she didn’t return, I went inside to fetch her. But she was gone.”
I eyed him in disbelief. “You let her go back into the house alone? Why?”
He lowered his gaze bashfully. “She said she wanted to kiss her husband and needed a bit of privacy.”
I rolled my eyes. “You’ve been had. She probably scarpered through the windows.”
“I know,” he said. “Will you find her for me?”
I chewed my lip. “Why didn’t you go to the Afterlife Police?” Why a private detective down on her luck who’d been kicked out of the force, I didn’t bother to add.
His eyes went round with horror. “I can’t let them know. I’ll lose my job. You know how strict my boss is. I don’t want to go back to the trash collecting boats.”
Losing his job was the least of his worries. He’d also face a disciplinary hearing. If the soul went rogue, he’d have to share the karmic burden of every crime it committed. And if I took his money, at least a portion of that burden would be mine. I really didn’t need any more of that crap. I have enough karmic burdens of my own.
Still, how hard could it be to find one lost, frightened soul? She was probably still drifting around the neighborhood, mooning after her husband. I took a deep breath. “Okay, I’ll help you look for her.”
A smile lit his face. “I knew I could count on you. When can you leave?”
“Midnight,” I said. “Make sure you have a token for me.” Yamadutas have a special pass, but everyone else needs a token to move between worlds. Unless you want to spend a torturous year on Yamamarga, the road between Earth and Yamaloka.
He nodded, his head bobbing like a puppet. “I have lots of those.”
I picked up my wand and blew more bubbles into his face. “Run along. I need to make preparations.”
He left, and I headed downstairs. Mostly, I needed to eat.
It was still early, and the diner was empty. Cracked plastic chairs crouched beneath gray Formica tables, and hideous paintings of Yamaloka concealed the peeling white paint of the damp walls. Auntie Nimmi could afford to renovate but, as she pointed out, why bother? She made the best food this side of the river. And on the other side was Naraka, where you were more likely to be eaten than to eat.
Fact. Sarameyadana has seven hundred and twenty vicious dogs—sons of the dog-goddess Sarama—with razor-sharp teeth who devour sinners, again and again. Maharaurava has carnivorous deer. And if you think deer can’t be that bad, picture a twelve-antlered, red-eyed, slavering monstrosity with teeth as long as your forearm ripping the flesh off screaming men and women. And of course, there’s the classic being-boiled-in-oil in the hell known as Kumbhipaka.
The hell to which I’d been escorted was a class apart: Asipatravana, the forest of sword leaves. For the heretics, the rebels, the unfilial. People like me. Even now, the memory of those blades darkened my dreams.
“You’re early.” The gruff voice brought me back to my senses. Auntie Nimmi stood behind the kitchen counter, large and glowering, fixing her beady black eyes on me. A pot fragrant with spices bubbled on the stove before her.
I walked up to the counter and slid the pouch across it. “One daily curry special, please.”
She loosened the pouch and examined the contents. Her gaze narrowed. “Have you done something senseless?”
“Not yet. I’ve got a new case.” I told her about Madhav.
She smacked my shoulder with a spatula. “How many times have I told you not to get involved in the human world? Nothing good will come of it.”
I rubbed my shoulder. “Not much for me to do here.”
There must have been over five thousand beings in Bahubheeti, but most were law-abiding workers like Madhav. This close to hell, even the ghosts kept their heads down. The Afterlife Police took care of any serious matters. My last case involved finding a ring dropped in a vat of cow dung. Don’t ask.
Nimmi pursed her lips. “At least you’re here, not there.” Across the river in one of the twenty-eight delightful hells, she meant.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be careful,” I assured her. “And now I can pay my rent.”
She gave me a sour look. “Don’t use that as an excuse. I wouldn’t throw you out.”
I grinned. “You’re only saying that because I’ve got the money to pay you now.”
She didn’t rise to the bait. “You’ve taken the case because you’re bored and fidgety. You always get like that, this time of year.”
I looked at her, surprised. “What do you mean? What’s the time of year got to do with it?”
“Ashwin,” she said, ladling curry on a bed of white basmati rice. “The seventh lunar month. After the rain, before the cold. The in-between time. That was when you came here.” She pushed the plate toward me. “It’s jackfruit, your favorite.”
I bowed and accepted the plate, the aroma taking away the sting of her words. I ate at a table near the stained, cracked windows so I could look outside. The jackfruit was dense, chewy, and delicious, the gravy rich and thick, but I barely tasted the food. Dusk in the month of Ashwin. Why do we have seasons in this, the last city on the road to Yamaloka? Why do we have time?
Perhaps to give an illusion of the world we left behind—the world none of us can go back to, not unless we cross the river and face the judgment of Yamaraja. There are ghosts who have been here for centuries. They fade, inch by inch, until only a shadow is left, an echo, or a memory. The soul erodes unless it has purpose. That’s why I’m a detective. I solve people’s problems, large and small. It makes my own problems recede. For a while, anyway.
Once, I had a rather more official status. Sub-Inspector Roshni Chaddha, that was me. Why were you kicked out, you may ask. None of your business, I’d answer.
The first customers of the evening trickled in, and the diner became livelier. Nimmi put an old Bollywood tape in her battered cassette player, and one of the regulars beat time with his hands. She’s from the 1970s, so that’s the level of technology she’s comfortable with. I tried talking to her about the superiority of CDs once, and she gave me a flat stare that shut me up real fast.
I finished eating and sat back with a cup of chai, more for the feel of it in my hands than anything else. The diner clock struck ten. I still had a couple of hours to kill before my rendezvous with Madhav.
The chair next to mine creaked, and I started.
A tall, thin, cadaverous man with sunken cheeks, shiny bald pate, and a crisp white dhoti kurta sat next to me, his dead eyes fixed on mine. From somewhere, I dredged up a dreaded name: Dandapani, the ancient chief of the Yamadutas, who reported directly to Yamaraja. I swallowed and shifted my gaze away from him. I sipped my chai, determined not to let my fear and discomfort show. Dandapani was famously reclusive and evil-tempered. He’d certainly never come to Auntie Nimmi’s curry shop before. What had I done to draw the attention of the most powerful being this side of the river? Apart from existing, of course.
“You, girl,” he rasped.
I continued to sip my chai. Auntie Nimmi was busy serving a couple of customers. She hadn’t noticed Dandapani yet.
“I’m talking to you,” he growled, tapping long black fingernails on the table. Fingernails that could easily rip my throat out. Not that I would have such an easy end.
I turned to him, raising my eyebrows. “Oh, were you? My name is Roshni, not girl.”
His lipless mouth stretched in a ghastly smile. “I know your name. It is written in my book. Five years we’ve been waiting for you.”
Five years. Had it really been that long? I set down my cup, trying not to shake. “Sorry, you’ll have to wait a bit longer. I have work to do here.”
“Do you?” He leaned toward me, his fetid breath nearly knocking me out. “You were dismissed from the Afterlife Police eighteen months ago. What have you been doing since then? Besides being a burden on our society?”
“I’m a private investigator,” I gabbled, leaning as far back from him as possible. “I help with small stuff that the police can’t be bothered with. Finding rings in vats of cow dung, that sort of thing.”
He gave a dry, hacking laugh that sounded like Death coughing. “True, you are beneath my notice. But I heard reports that one of my junior staff was here earlier today. Why was he here, Roshni?”
My name in his mouth sounded like a curse, a promise of violence. “This is a curry shop, sir. Very popular with your staff. It’s jackfruit with potatoes today. Would you like to try it?”
He frowned. A shadow fell over us, and I looked up. Auntie Nimmi. I could have cried with relief.
“It’s not often we get such an important personage in our humble shop,” she said with an oily smile that was one hundred percent fake. “Please try my food. I will give you special discount.”
Dandapani rose, knocking his chair back against the wall. The diner fell silent, multiple eyes glued on us. “No, thank you,” he said, brushing imaginary crumbs off his kurta. “Eating is an indulgence a Yamaduta must learn to renounce. I will rebuke my staff for engaging in such frivolous pleasures.” He stalked out, the door swinging wildly behind him.
“Asshole,” muttered Auntie Nimmi under her breath. She trudged back to her cassette player and flipped the tape. The lyrics of Gulzar, sung in the deep, melancholic voice of Bhupinder Singh, washed over the room, cleansing it of Dandapani’s malevolence.
I slumped back on my chair, my heart rate slowing. Nimmi came back and threw the pouch at me. “Return it,” she rasped.
I caught it. “Why?”
She laid her thick, calloused palms on the table and glared at me. “Because this is the first time in over forty years that he has seen fit to visit my establishment. Because I worked my butt off to open this shop, but he could close me down in less time than it takes to say Yamaduta. Because something smells bad—”
“That was him. He smells awful.”
“Roshni. Don’t take this case.”
I stared at her. I’d never seen her so worked up before—except that time a bunch of ferrymen got drunk and tried to take her across the river for “sightseeing”. She stopped serving alcohol after that incident.
The clock struck eleven. I grabbed the pouch and rose. “Too late, Auntie. I already took the case.”
I slipped out before she could berate me further. It was a warm, moonlit night. A thick breeze blew from the river, laden with the stink of grief and garbage. I walked away from it, but the reek followed me down the street, into the alley, and through a tunnel into the lone city park.
Such a thin slice of life between the river and the road. Why did I persist in hanging around here? I’d forgotten much of my human existence, except that there was blood at the end of it. But whatever I’d done, there was a fixed price to be paid. Once paid, I could be reborn. I didn’t want to become a ghost. I didn’t want to disappear, inch by inch, into nothingness. If only I could rejoin the force. But there was no hope of that. I’d broken the rules, disobeying a direct order.
I walked between rows of amaltas trees, wishing I could forget how I’d lost my job, like I’d forgotten so much of my past.
A mother and her child had stood on the banks of the Vaitarna River for days, begging for a ride across on one of the boats. The ferrymen had ignored her. She didn’t have sufficient “payment”—the good deeds that allow a soul safe passage to Yamaloka. She would have to swim across, braving the crocodiles that lived in its depths. She didn’t want to be parted from her child, so she stole a boat. Can you blame her?
I was tasked with capsizing the boat, casting the two souls adrift to struggle in the Vaitarna’s waters, which turn to blood and pus for sinners. I didn’t. Can you blame me?
My Superintendent certainly did. You’re not supposed to feel empathy for sinners. Everyone gets what they deserve. If she’d swum through the blood and pus and had her flesh ripped by ravenous crocodiles, as she was meant to, the burden of her sins when she faced Yamaraja would have been that much lower. I’d interfered, and there’s nothing worse than interfering with a soul’s cycle of death and rebirth.
Close to midnight, I exited the park and climbed the grassy hill behind it, a winding path that led to the city gates. Madhav was waiting halfway up the path, his face tense with anxiety. He broke into a relieved smile when he saw me.
“I thought you wouldn’t come,” he said, clutching my hand as if I might run away.
“Why would you think that?” I shook his hand off and walked ahead of him.
He ran to catch up. “I heard Big D himself visited the diner today.”
“Yeah, I told him you’d come to eat the curry.” I glanced at him. “He doesn’t know about the missing soul, does he?”
Madhav shuddered. “Not yet. I reported the soul safely delivered to Bahubheeti, vacillating on whether to cross the river or not.”
That excuse wouldn’t work for more than a few days. Sooner or later, the ferrymen—and Dandapani—would realize there was a missing soul. That would be the end of Madhav’s brief and inglorious career as a Yamaduta. Yamadutas could make mistakes—although they rarely did—but they weren’t supposed to lie about it.
It might also be the end of me for aiding and abetting his lie. But that was a worst-case scenario. Thousands of souls made the journey to Yamaloka every day. Why should Dandapani take a personal interest in this one? We just had to find the soul and bring it back before the ferrymen did their weekly quota count.
We arrived at the end of the path and were confronted by Sharvara, the massive dog who guarded the gates of the underworld. He glared at me out of four fiery eyes and emitted a bone-chilling growl that thrummed the air and made me want to run back to the safety of Auntie Nimmi’s curry shop.
“Now now, Sharvara,” cooed Madhav as if he was talking to a cute little puppy and not eighty kilos of muscle and meanness. “I have a token for her. See?”
He held out a small bronze disk under Sharvara’s dripping fangs. For a moment, I thought the dog would snap Madhav’s hand right off. I could hardly bear to watch. But Sharvara gave a suspicious sniff and stepped aside. Ornately carved black metal gates materialized behind him. Madhav pushed them open and beckoned. “Let’s go, Roshni.”
I hurried through the gateway before Sharvara could change his mind. Madhav grasped my wrist. “This may be a bit disorienting. You can close your eyes.”
I didn’t close my eyes. This was a mistake. We whirled through the air, spinning in dizzying circles over the city of Bahubheeti. Stars and planets flashed before my staring eyes. My head swam. “I’m going to be sick,” I screamed over the wind.
“What?” shouted Madhav, cupping his ear.
I gathered my breath to scream again, and landed with a thud on a patch of prickly grass. Madhav bent to haul me up, but I put up a warning hand. “Stop before I throw up half-digested jackfruit curry on you.”
He took a prudent step back. “Surely you have traveled this route before.”
“Yeah, but never so fast.” I rubbed my forehead and rose cautiously to my feet. My stomach pitched. Settle down, I scolded. We have work to do.
We stood before a decrepit old bungalow in the middle of an overgrown garden. A single bulb threw a weak yellow light on a porch filled with potted plants and an assortment of plastic lawn chairs.
Madhav walked toward a flowerbed. “This is where I was standing.” He pointed to the door. “That is the last I saw of her.”
“Roshni? What are you doing here?”
I leaped around, and Madhav fell into the shrubbery with a squeak of alarm. I groaned inwardly when I saw who was standing behind us: Inspector Ishkaan, as tall and handsome as ever, with cheekbones you could cut yourself on and eyelashes you could trip over. Out of all the officers in the Afterlife Police, why did it have to be him? In case you’re wondering, no, I do not and never did have a crush on him. And yes, he was the officer who escorted me to the edge of Asipatravana, the forest of sword leaves. Not something I’ll forget or forgive.
“I’m with Madhav,” I said.
He frowned. “That does not answer my question. What are you doing here?”
Madhav scrambled up from the shrubbery and opened his mouth, no doubt to bleat everything out and beg for help. I grabbed his elbow, pulled him toward me, and gave Ishkaan my sweetest smile. “We’re here on a date. Madhav is showing me his favorite haunts in the human world.”
Both of them gazed at me in slack-jawed surprise. “I am?” said Madhav. “I mean, of course I am. Isn’t this a lovely house?”
If you liked them one storm away from falling down on your head. “Beautiful,” I said. “Shall we go to your favorite Coffee House now?”
“Wait,” said Ishkaan, looking like someone had socked his beautiful jaw. “You’re dating a Yamaduta?”
“So what?” I snapped. “It’s allowed.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s not,” said Ishkaan. “Does his boss know?”
Madhav shriveled visibly. “Please do not tell him,” he begged.
“Yeah, don’t,” I said. “Not unless you want Madhav in several semi-conscious pieces. You’re not that cruel, are you? Come on, Madhav darling, let’s go get some coffee and leave the policeman to do his important police work.”
“You’re not supposed to eat or drink anything here,” said Ishkaan in a hectoring voice.
I refrained from sticking my tongue out at him. “I know. I meant metaphorical coffee. What are you doing here?”
He gave me a measured glance. “Following a lead. On a date, are you? Please don’t let me keep you from all the delights you have planned together.”
I sauntered out of the gate, pulling Madhav along behind me. We walked down the road in silence. The night was quiet and still, interrupted by the occasional roar of a car that made me flinch every time. Cars do that, I don’t know why. Overhead, ancient peepal trees formed an arch over the road. I put a name to the place: Lutyens’ Delhi. Home to dilapidated old colonial bungalows that cost more than entire buildings in other parts of the city. Madhav’s missing soul must have been the daughter-in-law of a minister or a judge. How had Ishkaan gotten wind of trouble? What “lead” did he have? I didn’t relax until we’d put a few hundred meters between ourselves and him.
“We may as well go to a Coffee House,” I said. “In case he follows us.”
“We aren’t really on a date, are we?” asked Madhav anxiously.
I threw him an exasperated glance. “No, you nincompoop. It was the only thing I could think of to shut him up.”
He gave a sigh of relief. “There’s a Coffee House open until three in the morning not far from here.”
“You can hide us from humans, right?” I asked.
He nodded. “They won’t notice us.”
Madhav’s Coffee House was, if anything, even more dilapidated than the bungalow. It stood in an alley in the outer circle of Connaught Place, a forlorn blue billboard advertising its simple fare: filter coffee, idli, masala dosa, vada, and cheese sandwiches. I couldn’t remember the taste of any of these things, although I must have eaten them while I was alive.
We went inside and sat at a table by a grimy window. It was a large, fairly empty place with three customers, one server, and one middle-aged ghost. The ghost slumped on a bench, staring morosely at a glass of cooling coffee. She must have evaded her Yamaduta and refused to leave. I wondered if she regretted it. Ghosts don’t last long on the earthly plane. This one was already translucent, the patterns of her worn yellow sari fading into the background.
Madhav looked at the ghost, looked at me, and we both had the same idea at the same time.
“Take her,” I urged. “You’ll be saving a soul and buying yourself some time. Two fish, one fly.”
“Dandapani will kill me,” he whispered, devouring the ghost with his avaricious gaze.
“Only if he finds out, and why should he?” I countered. “Besides, you’re doing a good deed here. Cleaning some other Yamaduta’s mess.”
The ghost must have sensed our regard, for she looked up, a frown on her once-pretty face. Her eyes widened, and she rose, melting toward the wall behind her.
Madhav leaped to his feet with a speed I wouldn’t have believed possible and tossed a flaming lasso at her. The ghost gave an ear-splitting scream as the lasso settled around her midriff. The humans in the room shifted uneasily, sensing something amiss.
“Does that hurt?” I asked, appalled. I’d never seen a Yamaduta in action before.
“It hurts the ego.” Madhav hauled the struggling ghost up to our table. “Calm down, dear lady. I’m here to take you home.”
The ghost stopped screaming. “Saale chutiye,” she spat. “Get lost! This is my home.”
Madhav tut-tutted. “A Coffee House where you cannot drink the coffee?”
“I can smell it,” she snarled.
“Soon, you will lose that, too,” I said. “Then you will lose yourself. Why not accept the ride and a chance to live again?”
She gave me a scornful up-down glance. “You’re nothing but a ghost yourself, waiting for oblivion.”
“I have a job,” I said, stung.
She cut her eyes to Madhav. “As his lackey? They’re all liars and hypocrites. Talking of the subtle body through one mouth and gorging dosa with the other mouth.”
“What?” I tried to make sense of what she’d said. “Gorging dosa?” I gave Madhav an accusing stare. “Have you been eating here?”
“Not him,” the ghost sneered. “Another chutiya Yamaduta. He ate six dosas and drank three filter coffees. I hid behind the wall and counted.”
Madhav frowned. “Impossible. Yamadutas cannot eat mortal food. When was this?”
“Three days ago.” She jerked her chin at the lasso around her. “Are you going to take this bloody thing off?”
“Sorry, no.” Madhav met my gaze. “Three days ago was when she vanished.”
We looked at each other with wild surmise. Was there a connection? A vanished soul, a dosa-eating Yamaduta, and an unreliable ghostly witness. This case was a lot more complicated than I had thought.
While we were staring at each other, the ghost wriggled out of the lasso with a triumphant screech and flew to the door, straight into Inspector Ishkaan’s arms. She tried to wrench herself away, but he twisted her hands behind her back and cuffed her. We hurried over, Madhav clucking like a concerned hen.
Ishkaan pressed the caterwauling ghost down on a chair. “Hush, Madam. If you continue to hurt my ears, I shall charge you with obstruction of justice and deposit you in the underworld prison. It is not a pleasant place.” The ghost fell silent, directing hate-filled glances at each one of us.
Ishkaan looked at me coolly. “Enjoying your date?”
“Mixing work and pleasure,” I said, matching his tone.
“Your work was running away from you,” he said. “You’re lucky I happened to come along.”
I glared at him. “You just happened to follow us?”
His lip curled. “Following you is the last thing on my mind, Roshni.”
“It must be a very small mind, seeing as how quickly it reached the last item,” I said.
Madhav plucked my sleeve. “There is no need to be rude to an officer of the law. We must thank him for capturing our errant soul.”
“Yeah, thanks,” I said. “Now give us our ghost so we can continue on our work-date.”
His eyes narrowed. “This one isn’t on your list, is it, Madhav?”
Madhav gave a nervous smile. “No, but it would be a good deed, cleaning some other Yamaduta’s mess.”
Ishkaan fixed Madhav with a pitiless gaze. “You were supposed to deliver a soul three days ago. What happened to it?”
A sheen of sweat appeared on Madhav’s forehead. “What do you mean, what happened to it?”
“It’s gone missing, right?” said Ishkaan. Madhav’s face crumpled.
“What makes you think that?” I snapped, stepping between them.
Ishkaan transferred his cold gaze to me. “The fact that you were both at that house. He’s obviously asked you for help locating the soul. And once again, you’re interfering in a matter you shouldn’t.”
I controlled myself with difficulty. We hadn’t managed to fool him after all. “You’re the one interfering in a matter you shouldn’t. It’s his job to find the soul and bring it back.”
“He won’t,” said Ishkaan.
“What do you mean I won’t?” Madhav bleated.
“I did a trace,” said Ishkaan. “Using a bit of ash from her funeral pyre. She’s nowhere on the earthly plane, and she’s not on the road to Yamaloka, and she’s not in Bahubheeti either.”
Madhav groaned. He was in deeper shit than either of us had imagined. Souls didn’t vanish. Not that fast. And even if it had dissipated, an official soul trace should have told Ishkaan exactly what happened to it.
I folded my arms. “Why did you do a trace, Ishkaan? Thousands of souls pass through the realms every day. What led you to this one?”
He stared at the ground, the tips of his ears turning red. “That is unimportant.”
I peered at him, my mind working fast. “You have a personal connection with this soul, don’t you?”
Madhav shot me a look of alarm. “Don’t accuse the officer baselessly, Roshni.” It was forbidden for officials to use their powers to track souls they’d known while they were alive.
“Who was she to you?” I pressed.
He sighed, raking a hand through his hair. “My niece.”
We stared at him, dumbfounded. Madhav cleared his throat. “Most irregular,” he said sternly.
“Yeah, how come no one comes looking for me?” said the ghost. “Where are my ancestors?” We ignored her.
“The only reason I did it,” said Ishkaan, “is because this isn’t the first time a soul has gone missing from around here. There’s one every few months, all in a radius of five kilometers from this Coffee House. And each time I request an investigation, I get denied. When my niece died, I…well, I was worried about her.” He shot a glare at Madhav. “This is your fault. You were supposed to escort her safely to Yamaloka.”
Madhav drew himself up to his full height of five feet two inches. “I accept that it is my fault,” he said with dignity. “I will find her. But you, Inspector, are in breach of Section Three, Article Six, Law Five Hundred and—”
“Stop,” I interrupted. “Both of you. We all want to find her, so we should call a truce.”
“I can help,” said the ghost, banging her cuffed wrists on the table to get our attention. “I’ve heard rumors of my sisters vanishing from around here. But what’s in it for me? Will you let me stay?”
“Certainly not—” began Madhav, when the blue fluorescent lights flickered. A chill wind blew over us, carrying with it the stench of blood, smoke, and rotten flesh. The humans sipped their coffee, untouched by the supernatural wind. Madhav clutched my sleeve, and the ghost coughed.
Ishkaan frowned. “Looks like we’re not supposed to be here.”
I rubbed my arms and shivered. “Let’s get out, then.”
We spilled out into the street, but the coldness followed us. I made the mistake of looking back, and my gut clenched. Eyes and fangs glittered in the shadows of the Coffee House, nightmares made real. The streetlights switched off, one by one, and we were plunged into darkness.
“We must return home immediately.” Madhav tugged the ghost, attempting to lead her away by her bound wrists.
The ghost pulled back. “I’m not going anywhere with you lot. Untrustworthy, that’s what you are, breaking the law, troubling innocent ghosts.”
There was a tremendous crack, and the road split down the middle to reveal a yawning black abyss. Kakola, the poison pit? I teetered at the edge, my mouth open in a soundless scream.
Someone grabbed my arm and hauled me back. I bumped into Ishkaan’s hard chest. “We don’t have time for this,” he snapped to Madhav. “Leave the ghost and get us out of here.”
Behind us, a series of bone-chilling howls rent the air.
“No, don’t leave me,” wailed the ghost, throwing herself on Madhav, nearly toppling him into the abyss.
“Hold hands,” shouted Madhav, pushing the ghost off himself. “I’ll get us home.”
“Oh, will you?” came a voice colder than the cutting wind.
Dandapani walked toward us from the direction of the howls, his white dhoti kurta gleaming in the dark. Madhav made a choked sound. The ghost whimpered, and Ishkaan whispered, “Hush.” I couldn’t move at all.
Dandapani came closer, his face skeletal, his eyes glowing like twin rubies.
“I’m sorry, sir,” gabbled Madhav. “I’ll find the soul, I swear.”
“You have deceived me,” said Dandapani, his voice tight with fury. “You will pay for this deception—all of you.”
Ishkaan started. “But I am not under your command, sir. I simply happened to be investigating—”
Dandapani gave a nasty smile. “What were you investigating, Inspector Ishkaan? You think I do not know that you tried to trace your niece? This is a violation of one of our most sacred laws. Consider yourself stripped of your rank. You are in my domain, and I know exactly which hell to send you to.”
The wind sharpened, cutting into my skin. The ghost keened.
“You’re overstepping,” I said, trying to keep my voice even. “You don’t have the authority to send us anywhere, not until we’re ready to go.”
His gaze fell on me. “Ah, Roshni. Liar, unfilial daughter, murderer. Have you no shame? Keep your silence.”
“I’m not,” the words stuck in my throat. “Not those things you’re calling me.”
“No?” He showed his teeth in a horrible grin. “Why else have you stayed, year after year, when the rest of your family has moved on? It’s because you know, in your heart, that you do not deserve to be reborn.” My chest squeezed at his words. A scene flashed through my mind. A car, lying on its side, the front crumpled, the glass shattered. Blood pooling on the ground. The broken bodies inside.
Ishkaan gripped my shoulder. “Don’t listen to him.”
“Why not? It is time she remembered why she is here. Remember, Roshni. Remember the accident that killed you, your parents, and your younger brother. Remember that you are responsible for all their deaths.”
Each word was a shard of glass cutting into my soul. I closed my ears with my hands, but I couldn’t unhear his words. I couldn’t unsee the past.
There’d been a fight. Oh, there were always fights, but this one had been nasty. I was desperate to move out, to have my own place, to be free. But I was broke—out of college, out of work, and the despair of my parents. I wanted to start my own investigative agency, but they were dead set against such a seedy venture. We’d been returning home after a disastrous lunch with their friends. I’d been bullied into going to meet the son, who was my age and some sort of marketing manager with an obscenely high salary. I’d acted out, of course. I always did when they tried to foist potential grooms on me. They should have known what to expect. But they’d been so bitter, railing against me on the way back, telling me I wouldn’t amount to anything, that I was an embarrassment and a shame to the entire family. I’d hated them in that moment, both for being wrong and for being right.
So I’d lashed out. Said I didn’t want to end up like them, trapped in a tense, loveless marriage and dead-end jobs that didn’t mean anything. My mother began to cry, and my father turned around to berate me, and that was when the car skidded off the rain-slick road and smashed into the trees.
If I could, I’d take back those words. I’d stay silent, like I’d been silent for all twenty-five years of my unexceptional life. I’d even marry that marketing shit. Anything, for that accident to not happen. Anything, for my parents and my little brother to still be alive.
Ishkaan pried my hands away and said sharply, “Focus, Roshni. Stay in the present.”
“Yes, enjoy the fleeting, pain-free moments before the forest of sword leaves closes over you,” said Dandapani.
I wiped the tears from my face and summoned my strength. “You’re in the wrong line of work, old man. Yamadutas aren’t supposed to delight in the suffering of others. You should have been born a dog of Sarama.”
His eyes widened in shock. Probably no one had been stupid or reckless enough to talk back to him in centuries. My satisfaction was short-lived. He flicked his wrist, and a lasso of flame flew through the air toward me. I stared at it, petrified. But before it could reach me, Ishkaan threw himself in its way. He gasped in pain as the lasso tightened around him, binding his arms to his body.
“Ishkaan, you fool.” I grasped the lasso, trying to tug it off, but it burned my palms, and I flinched away.
“You could just say thank you,” wheezed Ishkaan, struggling against the burning rope.
“Don’t touch it,” cried Madhav as I made to reach for it again. Ishkaan trembled as flames licked his body.
“I thought you said it didn’t hurt!” I shouted, torn between panic and anger.
Dandapani smirked. “I am an expert in pain. First: an individual hell to suit your crimes. Second: Kakola, the black pit of no return.”
My insides shriveled at his words. Kakola was the hell reserved for the worst criminals. There was no coming back from there, no hope of expiation or rebirth.
“Wait,” said the ghost, leaning forward and peering at Dandapani. “I’ve seen you before. Three days ago, wasn’t that you hogging dosas at the Coffee House?”
What? I stared at the chief of the Yamadutas, and the pieces of the puzzle fell into place, making an awful picture.
Dandapani’s eyes bulged. “How dare you?”
The ghost cringed. “I have nothing against anyone eating dosas and drinking filter coffee. I just wish I could do the same. Lucky you, sir. Was it good?”
Dandapani’s face swelled. “Did you want the sons of Sarama? Then you shall have them.” He snapped his fingers. With a dreadful roar, four massive dogs prowled out of the darkness behind him. Black-furred, red-eyed, and slavering, they were as tall as my shoulder, with fangs as big as my hand. The ghost screamed and fell to her knees.
“Stay strong,” quavered Madhav. “Pain does not last forever.”
Dandapani gave a demonic laugh. “Oh, it can. It will.” In which century had he lost his marbles? And why had no one noticed?
As the beasts closed the distance between us, I raised my head to the sky and shouted with all the breath in my lungs, “Yamaraja, I invoke you! With all the good deeds I have done, I invoke you. Hear me, Yamaraja!”
“You dare call HIS name?” raged Dandapani. “Rip the tongue out of her mouth,” he commanded, and the dogs leaped. I closed my eyes in terror.
The ground shook, and a deep growl vibrated the air. I opened my eyes. Before us crouched a huge black dog, bigger even than the four who had been about to attack us, and who now stood with their heads hanging, looking sheepish.
“Sarama?” said Madhav in disbelief. The dog-goddess turned her head and curled her lip, revealing the elegant white daggers of her mouth. He bowed at once. “I mean, your ladyship! This is such an honor.”
My knees buckled, and I fell to the ground, weak with relief. Ishkaan and Madhav knelt beside me. Sarama’s presence could mean only one thing.
Clip-clop came the sound of hoofs, and Yamaraja appeared, riding a black water buffalo. Blue-skinned, four-armed, garlanded by flames, and dressed in gold, he bore an expression of wrath on his stormy face. My stomach curdled. What had I done?
“My Lord,” said Dandapani, sounding stunned. “You did not have to trouble yourself. I was about to punish these sinners on your behalf.”
Yamaraja ignored him. He dismounted and fixed his fiery gaze on me. I wanted to disappear. “What is this?” he rumbled in a voice like thunder. “No ghee, no soma, and you have invoked me? Is this how you welcome the god of death?”
I bent my head, heart hammering. “I beg forgiveness, Lord. I have nothing but myself. I offer you all the good deeds I have done as a present.”
“Good deeds? You?” said Yamaraja. “Are you sure you’ve done any of those?”
“I volunteered at an animal shelter,” I said, beginning to sweat.
“Ah. No wonder Sarama was keen on helping you.” The dog-goddess nipped his hand, and he gave a gruff laugh. “All right. I accept your offering, although you may regret it when you finally stand before me to be judged. Why did you invoke me?”
Dandapani stepped forward. “Do not listen to them, Lord. They are liars and sinners, deserving of punishment. This woman who has invoked you was responsible for the deaths of her entire family. Now she lingers in Bahubheeti, refusing your judgment. The policeman has used his official powers to track a family member on Earth. The Yamaduta is a disgrace to me and our entire profession. He has lost a soul and lied about it.”
Yamaraja raised his bushy eyebrows. “Is this true?”
“Yes, Lord, it is true,” I said. “But it is not the whole truth. I didn’t mean to kill anyone. It was an accident. And Ishkaan only used the trace because souls have been vanishing from this area for a while now, and he was worried about what was going on. As for Madhav, he made a mistake, and he repents it. But the real sinner is him.” I pointed to Dandapani.
“What do you mean?” demanded Yamaraja. “Speak quickly and to my satisfaction, or the fate my minion has reserved for you will surely come to pass.”
I swallowed. “Lord, Dandapani has been eating mortal food, as witnessed by this ghost.”
“She lies!” roared Dandapani.
Yamaraja raised a hand, cutting him off.
I continued, “How is it possible? The more years we spend in the afterlife, the more we lose of what we were. Dandapani has been a Yamaduta for centuries. He should not be able to eat or drink in the human realm. The only way for him to do that would be if he…” I took a deep breath and made myself say it, “if he sucked the soul out of another human to steal their humanity.”
Madhav gave a horrified gasp. Dandapani looked at me with murder in his eyes.
Ishkaan’s head shot up. “The villain,” he said hoarsely. “Is that what he did?”
I nodded. “I asked myself why souls had been vanishing so regularly around the Coffee House, and why your requests for an investigation were always denied. Dandapani is an ancient Yamaduta of great power and authority. He is the only one who could have suppressed your requests. Besides, the ghost saw him eating.”
“A lie to besmirch my reputation,” sneered Dandapani. “I have worked for you for hundreds of years, my Lord. Do you not trust me?”
“Of course I do,” said Yamaraja, and my heart sank. “And I am grateful for all your years of service.” Dandapani preened. “That is why I think it is time for you to retire.”
Dandapani looked at him, confused. “Retire, my Lord?”
“Do you remember what it was to be human?” said Yamaraja. “I think not. You crave it, but not a single memory remains to you of your time as a mortal. It is time to rectify that. You will go to my court, face my judgment, and bear the burden of your sins. And then you will be reborn.”
Dandapani fell to his knees, his face a rictus of terror. “No, Lord, no! Anything but that.”
Yamaraja flicked his hand. “Take him.”
The dogs Dandapani had summoned fell on him and bore him away, screaming. Silence returned to the scene of our near-annihilation. The flaming lasso around Ishkaan vanished, and he rubbed his arms, wincing. The streetlights came on, one by one, and the road knit together.
Yamaraja sighed. “This is my fault. I should have seen it coming. No mortal can stay in the afterlife as long as Dandapani and remain sane.” He gazed at Madhav contemplatively. “You, child, are relatively young in the afterlife, are you not?”
“Six years, Lord,” quavered Madhav. “A river cleaner for most of it.”
“Good,” said Yamaraja. “You can take Dandapani’s place.”
“What?” Madhav’s eyes went round with horror. “Me?”
“Report to my court tomorrow to take the oath.” Yamaraja’s gaze shifted to Ishkaan. “A promotion to Chief Inspector, I think, is called for.”
Ishkaan bowed low. “Thank you, Lord.”
Yamaraja looked at me. “And you, I think, would like to rejoin the force?”
The words yes yes oh god yes bubbled up inside me and died before reaching my lips. “No thank you, Lord. I like being a private detective. It was my dream to be one when I was alive.”
“Ah.” Yamaraja grinned, revealing filed, blackened teeth. “You prefer being outside the law.”
“Alongside the law,” I said in as humble a tone as I could manage.
“So be it,” said Yamaraja. “What boon would you ask of me?”
I didn’t have to think. “One evening at the Coffee House for all of us, eating and drinking as if we were alive once more.”
“Me too?” said the ghost, perking up. “Please? After all, I’m the one who identified the dosa-eating chutiya.”
Yamaraja knitted his brows.
“It’s only fair, Lord,” I said hastily before he could take offence at the ghost’s colorful language. “I’ll take her to Auntie Nimmi’s afterward. She can stay with us until she decides to cross the river.”
“Oh, all right. I feel generous tonight.” Yamaraja waved his hand. “Enjoy the meal, children. But don’t make a habit of it.”
He vanished along with Sarama and his water buffalo. The world popped. We stood before the Coffee House, staring at the menu written on the billboard outside.
“Come on.” The ghost pushed open the door. “Does anyone have money? Or are we going to eat and run?”
“I have money,” said Madhav, as if waking from a dream.
“Your treat.” I propelled them all inside before we could lose our courage.
The Coffee House was empty. The clock showed two thirty in the morning. We had thirty minutes to eat and drink to our hearts’ content. We sat at a table, and a bored-looking server came up to take our order. We asked for four of everything, making the server’s eyes bulge in distress.
“I can’t believe he asked me to take Dandapani’s place,” said Madhav. “He must have been joking, right? I’ll go to his court, and he’ll have a good laugh at my expense. Right?”
Ishkaan and I exchanged a meaningful glance. Madhav boy was in for a shock. I patted his hand. “Yeah, sure. Let’s enjoy the meal.”
“Isn’t this fun?” said the ghost happily when the server returned with four glasses of steaming, aromatic filter coffee. “Like a double date, yes?”
“No,” Ishkaan and I said together.