Z for Zero-sum (Part I)

Freida Dantas stepped out of the queue to look around. The machine wasn’t that far from here–only a few hundred more. She looked behind. The queue went on for as long as she could see. She too had started from the end of the queue many hours ago. The machine took only a second to judge, so the queue had kept moving continuously. But she worried if there were more hopefuls in the queue than seconds in a day. She had been queueing up religiously for her pronouncement every day since she had died.

She’d learned of the system the day she had arrived at the purgatory. Learned is probably not the best word to describe the process. She had woken up in the purgatory a week ago knowing about it instinctively, with no recollection of her prior life. She knew exactly when and where to queue up for the machine. The machine would tell her if it was her time to ascend to the heaven yet. She’d witnessed thousands of ascensions on her first day. The ascendants one after the other had stood under the

X for X023

Sheena Zavheri was in the bathroom touching up her make-up when she heard the muffled explosion of a gunshot from the corridor. She instinctively grasped at the gun hidden expertly under her saree and slid towards the entrance--instincts one would hardly expect from the socialite wife of an a-list actor. Sheena, born Hridi Quazi and codenamed X023, was a sleeper operative for the Bangladeshi secret agency. Hridi had married Toufique Zavheri--recognized popularly by the pseudonym: ‘Milan’--after a short affaire planned, funded and effected by the agency in coffee shops and fancy restaurants. More than fifteen years later, Sheena and Milan were at a resort on their wedding anniversary at her insistence trying to resuscitate their gasping relationship.

Hridi spied through the fisheye a muted tussle going on in the large corridor between two dark figures almost out of her field of vision. It could be an unrelated murder attempt on another guest. It would have been risky to step out. But what were the chances that an unrelated tussle would end up on their private floor, she thought.

She peered hard. It was Milan! Hridi hurried into the corridor. Milan, startled to see her, pointed his gun at her and she out of instinct, responded with the same. The other man lay unconscious between the two of them.

It was clear from the way he had moved that he had had specialized training like her. RAW? CIA? Who was this man she’d spent fifteen years with, she wondered. They circled like a fan’s blades around the dizzy man on the floor guns aimed at each other scanning the area for any potential weapons.

“So, how many more do you have hiding?” he asked, kicking the body on the floor.

“You would know,” she replied.

He frowned. “What was the point of all this now?”

“Point of what?”

“This”

“This?”

He kicked the man again to clarify.

“How would I know?”

“He’s a RAW agent,” he said.

They stopped. “And you?”

“Me?” he said incredulously. “No”

She stared at him. She would have known if he were lying. like when he’d said that her Landhi tasted great, or when he’d gone to watch the India-Pakistan match without telling her or the time when he'd told her that he didn't want children even if it were medically possible for her.

“I guess you’re not RAW either?”

She wondered if she trusted him after what she’d just seen.

“Are you worried we’re being recorded?”

Hridi nodded sheepishly. It didn’t really matter; if they knew, she wouldn’t even get a court trial anyway.

“I’m a Pakistani spy, Sh--”

Before he could complete, Hridi had let go of her gun, stepped over the unconscious body of the possibly Indian agent and jumped towards her Milan (which was foolish considering that he was pointing a fully-cocked gun at her) and embraced him with a passion she’d not felt for him since the first day of her assignment when she met him at the coffee shop.

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