This is another bit from the book, “Running Girl,” introducing the assassin Mohana Das. She plays a recurring role.
The brutal sun churned Karachi’s open sewers, diesel fumes, rotting trash, bubbling asphalt and smoke from a million charcoal cooking fires into a exotic, noxious stew that spread 50 miles downwind, into the great Sind Desert. The monsoon season was brewing in the warming waters of the Arabian Sea. It was only mid-morning, but thermometers shimmered. They could hit 115F by early afternoon.
The city would bake like a rock on a grill, day after day, until the monsoons brought drenching rain that could drown a child, bring insane winds and monstrous, otherworldly clouds. For a while, this was better than the heat. It filled reservoirs, flooded rice and wheat fields, refilled the aquifers, ran in sheets from the mountains to flush new life into rivers, flushing the filth of the city out to sea. They also brought misery and death with drownings and malaria and cholera when slum sewage was flushed into hovels of the destitute, of whom there were millions.
In April, though, from early morning through the muezzin’s call to evening prayer, nothing moved outside by choice unless driven by greed or hunger or bad intent. Only the insane or the criminal or the desperate slipped from shadow to shadow when Sol hurled death onto the unprotected below. But when the he wearied of the game and moved away over the edge of the ocean in the west and onshore breezes carried cooler, saltier air over the city, the city’s millions emerged to celebrate. Cafes filled with the sounds of jangled chatter and shouts of greeting, of street vendors singing of fresh vegetables for sale, playing children and all the complicated noise of life in all of its joy and brutality.
A man and a woman made love in a darkened bedroom. A window air conditioning unit rattled softly. The woman straddled him, hands on either side of his head and pumped her hips faster and faster with him inside. Her café au lait skin glowed with a light sweat from the exertion, small breasts swaying, nipples hard. The man, flushed and breathing loudly, grabbed a breast and squeezed it roughly. She didn’t seem to notice except for eyes that flashed briefly in anger at the sudden pain, a look he did not see.
She finished with short whimpers, sighs and finally a long, shuddering moan. After a pause with closed eyes and mouth slightly opened and smiling, she lowered herself and lay still. He pushed himself into her hard a few more times and she tensed again to receive him, ignoring his grunting, looking bored. After a moment, she rolled off. He turned away with no more notice of her and was almost instantly asleep.
Mohana Das’ black eyes flicked with contempt and frank appraisal, even as a small smile played across her lips. She sat up and straightened the silk scarf that was wrapped tightly around her short-cropped hair. Then, utterly still, she watched him until she was sure he was asleep. Slipping slender legs over the side of the bed, she moved into the shower to bathe his smell away and flush all traces of him down the drain.
Upon return, still naked and damp, she pulled a long, thin blade of black carbon steel in its leather sheath from hiding under the bed. A rush of heat flashed down her abdomen and up to her breasts, as it always did at moments like this. She closed her eyes and relished the tremor of a second orgasm, feeling her legs go weak for a moment.
The blade, honed so finely that the edge reflected no light, resembled a long, deadly letter opener. Tiny parallel lines were etched down the middle, forming a channel for lubricating fluids. The raised metal sides were polished to a mirror finish. But the true genius of it was the purity of the edges and the hypodermic tip. A custom-made Rosewood grip, inlayed with a cat’s head made of ivory, nestled perfectly in the palm of her hand.
It was the creature of a Japanese master. His handiwork was known only to a small and exclusive clientele willing to pay the price of a modest house for such a weapon. It was said he worked on only one blade at a time, and sometimes took weeks to complete it. He didn’t take orders, so much as listen to a visitor and decide whether he felt the person was worthy of perfection. Das had sat with him daily for two weeks, sharing tea and silences, the first time. She waited on his judgement, willing herself to utter calm and acceptance. Then one day, he handed the blade he’d been working on to her, along with a custom scabbard.
A year later, she returned, with the same result. And again a third year.
The master’s wizened old wife waited in the outer room of the house, bowing as Das left. She took the cash Das offered with many mutual bows and smiles, tucking it quickly away in the folds of her kimono.
One blade was hidden in London. The third was her gift to someone who had trained her, loved her and, finally, betrayed her.
Das gently pulled the sheet down from her bedmate’s neck, looking with detachment at the structure of his spinal bones. He stirred in his sleep and his hand reached blindly for her bare thigh. She moved his hand away with a shushing sound, and murmured ‘No. Later.” She waited motionless a few minutes until his breathing slowed.
She finally moved one finger until it barely rested on his skin. The other hand positioned the point of the blade in the slight hollow between the bones, palm on the rounded silver inlay of the handle. She pushed it in, the movement of the blade barely perceptible as it slipped though his skin and ligaments as though moving through damp gauze, and cut the spinal chord between the 3rd and 4th cervical vertebrae. He woke, but too late. A quick flick of her wrist killed all motor control below that point and stopped his diaphragm. His brain would die quickly, starved of oxygen. He was paralyzed and powerless, but aware he was dying, only able to stare at the wall. He could hear her behind him, but was paralyzed and bewildered. His eyes darted wildly and his mouth made soundless screams.
She examined her work. There was very little blood, just seepage from the sliver of a wound. With any luck, he would not be found for days. The more time zones between her and this spot the better. It wasn’t absolutely necessary, but professional caution was the rule. Disappearance without leaving a trace was one of her specialties.
But she could take a moment. She slid to the floor and moved languidly around the bed where he could see her. She stood and watched without expression as his eyes flickered around in fear, slowly clouded and became still as his worthless spirit floated away.
She washed and dried the blade and slipped it into its sheath.
She glanced around and with quick, practiced movements, wiped down every surface she had touched with a hand towel. She switched off the air conditioner and sealed the windows tight, knowing the aggressive heat of April would soon turn this room into an oven and speed the decomposition of the man’s body, obscuring what few clues she’d left. Not that the police in this slum had the tools or competence or even interest in solving this crime, of course.
The man in the bed was a smalltime crook and occasional drug dealer, smuggler and pimp who lived on the underbelly of society. In the complicated world of Karachi’s poor neighborhoods— which is to say, most of them— he also dealt stolen weapons to whomever had the cash. He didn’t care what they did with them. Unfortunately, he had cheated the wrong person, a person with connections— the details were not her concern. Word had been sent through a cutout that her services were needed.
In short, she knew the police would not investigate this man’s passing very enthusiastically. His death simply removed one more vermin from the streets, and any hint that his exit was expedited by powerful people would further discourage inquiry.
Besides, the same Hawala bosses that had hired her also paid bribes which purchased official blindness. It was a very efficient system, if corrupt. If you were the one with the cash.
Her brief passage through this man’s life, for all practical purposes, would be as if it had never really happened. It was the natural order of things since ancient times in her land. Though not from Karachi, her ancestors were here to meet Alexander, and many still showed the blue eyes and hair coloring of the Greek and Macedonian and Persian genes deposited in the wombs of women in the valley of the Indus. Babies survived, even if their fathers had their throats slit by the brothers of the women they raped. Like all invaders since, the Greeks left only the results of couplings, either voluntary or forced. But they all left eventually.
The assassin slipped on light cotton pants and pulled tight the drawstring at the waist, shrugged on a blouse and stepped into open sandals. After tying a small pouch around her waist, she slipped the sheathed blade and the rest of her effects into it, threw a black chador over her head and pulled the floor-length semicircle of fabric together in front. She fastened a dark ruband veil on her ears and over her nose, which left only her eyes exposed. She was now, to any prying male eyes, a married, conservative Muslim woman: invisible and untouchable.
Das glided into the glare of the day, breathed in the stench of the city born on superheated air, and stepped delicately through a partially open wrought-iron gate in the wall of the compound.
Across the empty street, she opened the rear door of a battered yellow and black taxi and folded herself inside. The driver had been pretending to sleep in the afternoon heat, then started the engine as soon as she left the gate. He had the old car in motion before she closed the door.
They did not speak. In seconds, the taxi pulled onto a main street, trailed by a cloud of blue smoke. Their first destination was a small, poor-looking mosque, tucked in a side street nearby. She would slip a coded message through a slot in the door, word that the mission was compete. Payment would appear in one of several numbered bank accounts in Switzerland. Then she would pack a small bag and board a flight to London, and from there on to America for her next assignment.
Belching a cloud of fumes, the car soon blended in with dozens of others just like it, with trucks and cars and scooters in the vast honking chaos of the city of 15 million. In seconds, it was lost in the crowded, churning haze.