Randeep and I reached the park on a rickety two-wheeler which we had borrowed from the owner of the Andhra mess. We were halfway through our rather late lunch, when we had got the tip-off. We had no particular plan in mind. ‘Mustaq, in the laughter club’ is all that Guna had said to me on the phone. I had barely gotten off the call and found Randeep already washing his hands. How quickly these young fellows learnt. He didn’t say a thing till we were on the bike. Then he asked me if the call had something to do with Gafsar. I told him it was about Mustaq, one of Gafsar’s closest aides. Though there must have been many questions running through his mind, he kept his silence for the remainder of the 20-minute ride.
The park was located opposite the Town Hall and it was popular among the city’s retirees. It was well-maintained and was buzzing with activity in the mornings and early evenings. There were laughter clubs, yoga groups and several joggers who frequented the park. We parked the scooter in the lot and casually walked towards one of the many side entrances. We were both carrying firearms and were wary of alarming civilians or alerting any of Mustaq’s men who might be keeping watch, outside the park.
We split up and began to circle the park, agreeing to meet halfway around. I continued in the same direction and began scrutinizing each group. We had been investigating the murder of a well-known journalist and Mustaq was one of the names that had a red circle around it. He belonged to a breakaway faction of a larger crime syndicate. The faction was led by Gafsar, an illusive figure, whose photos were circling around in the media and on the net, but we weren’t sure of his whereabouts or even if he existed in the first place. Mustaq on the other hand, was real, active and wanted in several cases of murder, extortion and abductions in the last couple of years. Getting intel on him was a breakthrough.
I had circled halfway around and had not come across anyone that fit Mustaq’s description. Randeep had not yet reached the halfway mark. This worried me for some reason and I began to quicken my pace. I wondered if this was because I feared Randeep would find him first and do something hasty. Though, that was unfair of me to think, given that his journey to our unit was far more testing and arduous. I had simply been commissioned to this unit because of seniority. He, on the other hand had gone through several examinations, training modules and even a gruelling 6-month camp before he made it to this unit. But he could still be a trigger-happy lad and I had no way to tell.
People in our unit, didn’t last long. Either they were transferred for ‘unknown’ reasons or simply lost their minds while on duty. Fatalities were unusual in our unit since we were normally tasked with intel work and on field, our only responsibility was to assess whether a situation warranted the need for the Special Unit to be called in; they were the real ‘action’ men, we were more like scouts.
Randeep and I had spent the last two months on Mustaq’s trail. The killing of this particular journalist had been a breaking-point for the public and media, who had been seething with anger for sometime now. The manner of the killing, which was done with open disdain and in broad daylight, had enraged the masses and they had come out pouring onto the streets. The home minister was forced to make a promise and we were called-in to close this ‘ugly’ chapter.
We were aware Mustaq was operating in the region, with little fear of the local police, but always found ourselves one step behind every move of his. This frustrated Randeep and he often said things that gave me the impression of him being impatient. Off the field, impatience was a virtue in a way, but out here, it could only result in something undesirable, like the target sensing the heat before we could get intel or worse, an incident in a public place.
I sighted Randeep leaning against a tree and eating peanuts from a paper cone. This lad was a cool-headed one, I couldn’t help thinking to myself. He had probably got a sight on the target, and instead of rushing to meet me, he had calmly bought some peanuts and maintained a frequent but inconspicuous gaze. As I reached him, he nodded with a smile and without breaking his expression, asked me to look just right of the laughter group. I slowly turned and noticed a group of five men. I steadied my gaze for a while and was puzzled to not see anyone who fit Mustaq’s description.
Randeep had walked a few steps away and now returned and said that there was no Mustaq, but one of them was familiar to him. Randeep couldn’t place a finger on where he had sighted him or what the intel on him was, but he knew these were ‘involved’ people, as we liked to call them. We stood facing the road, but maintained an alternating rhythm of keeping a watch. Randeep wanted to get closer so he could get a better look. I was slightly apprehensive but soon conceded, since we had nothing on our hands.
We circled towards the place along the fence that would give us the closest look. This wasn’t the best thing to do, because, at least one of the five, would surely be keeping a steady watch on any passerby that lingered for too long in that spot. We agreed to take turns in walking past the point, scanning the group for no more than 5 seconds in one go. Randeep went ahead and I followed a good 30-feet behind. I was watching Randeep closely, half-anxious to know if he was able to identify the man and half-worried that he would stare too long. Randeep reached the spot and casually turned to begin his 5-second gaze. I began to count to five and to my surprise, Randeep turned his gaze away even before I had counted to four. He was sure about something.
I reached the spot and began methodically looking at each face. I could sense that I had gone beyond the count by the time I reached the last face. As my eyes settled on the fifth man to the left, I realise why Randeep had abandoned the count. He, like me, could not mistake Gafsar from even a mile. I walked excitedly towards Randeep. So this man wasn’t simply a fable. He was here in flesh and blood. We would call the Special Unit in, and we could save months of work. Who knows, perhaps years.
I reached Randeep even as these thoughts had not subsided and found him grinning. We both knew we were onto something big and it had simply fallen in our laps. The informer had probably got the name wrong in his haste; Mustaq was nowhere in the vicinity. I reached for my mobile to alert our contact, who would then summon the unit. Randeep gently held my forearm and motioned a ‘no’. I had no idea about what was running in his head.
He began to explain in a forced whisper. He said that both of us knew that Mustaq was merely the man who pulled the trigger, but it was Gafsar who must have ordered the killing. The Special Unit wasn’t in high alert and there was no way they could make it in the next hour. Randeep felt Gafsar would leave shortly and we would be tailing him in busy streets. We would either lose him or end up attempting to nab him in a more crowded location and risk collateral damage.
Also, Randeep wasn’t going to let them ‘close’ the chapter. The home minister surely wasn’t ready for an intervention that went any deeper than nabbing or encountering Mustaq. Randeep didn’t want the real people responsible for this to get away and he declared that he would not merely appease the public or media with a head on a plate that actually hid them from the truth.
I knew what Randeep was suggesting and it didn’t sit well with me. Us being ‘scouts’, we were forbidden to engage unless we were attacked or cornered. In a situation like this, our protocol was simple: inform and update. ‘Squatting’ is what Randeep called it when I told him the same. He reasoned that I may have served long enough and the protocol had worked almost every time. But this situation was unique and it deserved some thinking-on-the-feet. I was getting annoyed now with his arrogance. He was new and had already decided that the protocol was inadequate. That was the idea of a protocol; avoid an impulsive action that could jeopardize, more than resolve.
But he was adamant. He said this was a situation wherein if we acted, we would save countless lives and years of department work, but if we waited – and though nothing would be pinned on us – the outfit would strike again and we alone would live with the guilt of our inaction. We both agreed that Gafsar, who had never been sighted off-guard so far, had taken a rare risk of coming out into such an open space. Mustaq was known to use public places, counting on the anonymity that comes with being in the crowd and also the reluctance of the Units to engage amidst civilians.
I knew he was ambitious and I tried using that knowledge to dissuade him. I explained that the action he was proposing wouldn’t go down well with Command. He calmly told me that if it worked, Command would have to go to the press and treat it as a victory, and we would escape with a mere warning.
When I asked him what we would do if we botched up, he said he was sure we wouldn’t. I told him that now he wasn’t even bothering with a practical answer. We were silent for a while and then he muttered under his breath that if things should go south, we would say that they had engaged us first. About the going south bit, in all probability, that is what I believed would happen. He had made up his mind; he didn’t really care what I thought; my official nod was all he needed.
There was an entrance right behind the bench around which the group had gathered. We made for that entrance in a determined and yet easy pace. Our plan was to wait until the group split up and then simply walk up to Gafsar and apprehend him. Of course it sounded fool-hardy. But Gafsar wasn’t expecting company and once he headed for one of the entrances, we were quite sure he would not be accompanied by more than one aide. If there were more, they would follow at a distance. We would corner him and his aide a little before they reached the exit. Things could go wrong in many ways; but we felt this was the only way to get within a safe distance so we could either completely surprise them, or at worst, have to immobilise them with a couple of bullets to their legs.
At the entrance, Randeep and I stood on opposite sides and began to take in the surroundings. Randeep seemed a lot more at ease than I would have expected a rookie to be. Though he appeared restless on most occasions, I realised just then, that he was extremely comfortable in a tense situation. That was a relieving and unsettling thought at the same time. One thing was for sure, he had a good career ahead.
The group split up and to our surprise, none of them accompanied Gafsar. He made his way along the cobbled path in a brisk and fearless manner. We waited motionless to avoid him seeing a sudden movement out of the corner of his eye. Once we had fallen behind the line of his vision, we began to move in the direction that he was headed. He suddenly veered to his right and was now headed for the entrance that we were walking towards. We were 10 seconds away from surprising him.
No matter how much you train to slow your mind down, once things tip over, you always fail to keep pace. Gafsar saw me first and my purposeful walk must have alerted him. He reached for his firearm and at the same time saw Randeep raising his arms. Gafsar didn’t turn or freeze as we may have secretly hoped, instead he calmly drew up his gun and without any dilemma, he shot twice at Randeep and then turned to me and shot me. I was jolted back and my legs simply buckled. I felt that I had shot him earlier, I felt I should have held Randeep back from this, I felt I should have never taken the call; but all those thoughts began to swirl into a kaleidoscopic mix of colors and then suddenly drained out into a black hole.
A month later, I had recovered from the bullet injury in my shoulder and was receiving a felicitation for my bravery. The media were relentless in their praise, even for the home minister. As the minister began his speech, my thoughts wandered to Randeep. While I was the first to shoot Gafsar, it was Randeep’s bullet that had eventually killed him. Randeep had died minutes later from excessive bleeding. He had emptied all his bullets and in a way was responsible for this honour that I was receiving just minutes before the sun was to set on my career. I would never have ventured this far from what I had considered my duty. He had not hesitated even for a moment. His ideology, the things he said and his final actions were all true to one another. Maybe that is what it takes to get a job really done.