The night of the chameleon
The night of the chameleon23 mins 254 23 mins 254
The bearded man with the red eyes was not a stranger in the tavern weirdly named as MedusaEyes. The patrons gave the bearded man a stink eye for all of them were criminals and the bearded man was a captain in the royal guards. His name was Shomesh and he was infamous for his angry tantrums that had caused many people to lose their limbs. The moment Shomesh and his soldiers entered the tavern, many tables were emptied rapidly and three of the men suddenly got up and left the tavern but the captain was not there to raid the place. It was not his job and frankly he never cared much for the scum who were in various stages of inebriation around him. If it were up to him, he would have killed every single one of them and burnt the whole place down but his hands were tied. He was there to find someone. His boss Bhanu trusted him the most and for that he was grateful but he hated to visit MedusaEyes tavern and he did not care to hide his disgust.
"Why? Isn't it the most affable captain of the royal guards?" Vasan hailed the captain who kept barrelling his way towards him. As the owner of the poor establishment, Vasan had made peace with the fact that his patrons would always belong to the underbelly of the criminal world. He was not much scared of reprisals from the government for he kept important people happy so that they kept their gaze averted. He was scared of the bearded captain though for he knew first hand what the captain could do when he got enraged and there was no doubt that the captain was in a bad mood.
"Heard you are entertaining spies from Abitsar?" barked the captain. Vasan flinched. That sort of rumour could take his establishment down in the blink of an eye. Anyone hailing from the neighbouring kingdom of Abitsar was treated as a spy in Amravati, the capital of Tribhanga kingdom.
"That's an outrageous lie," Vasan met the fiery gaze of the captain unflinchingly.
"I knew that you would feign ignorance," the captain muttered as he gestured to his soldiers to go around and question the patrons.
Vasan watched the soldiers harass his customers but he bit his tongue and waited for the ordeal to be over. It took some time but the soldiers soon converged around the captain and updated him with their reports. The captain seemed to expect the negative reports for he did not even throw a glance around the alehouse. He just kept staring at Vasan with a disgusted expression but then turned on his heels and marched out. He had been told by Bhanu himself that the deadliest assassin working for Abitsar had been spotted in Amravati and it was to be expected that he would keep the company of the gutter so as to avoid standing out and MedusaEyes tavern fitted the bill to a T.
Bhanu would not have sent for Shomesh if he did not trust the information. The informer had arrived two hours back, all battered up and burning with fever. There was no time for a healer to treat him and the informer asked for Bhanu and spent his last hour sharing the information that he had obtained at such a great cost. The kingdom of Tribhanga stayed safe because of the heroic acts of spies and soldiers who risked their lives on a daily basis to keep the citizens and the king safe. Shomesh learnt that the informer was able to enter the forest near Narwhal safely but then the bandits captured him. Bhanu had been suspecting the bandits to be in cahoots with the spies of Abitsar and the capture of their spy in the forest of Tribhanga confirmed his suspicions. The bandits tortured the informer to know what the informer had learnt but then, by a miracle, some villagers chanced upon the spot and the altercation between the bandits and the villagers caused the bandits to disperse. One of the villagers brought the informer to Bhanu's house for which act he was rewarded handsomely. When Bhanu learnt of the dastardly plan hatched by Abitsar kingdom, he immediately sought Shomesh.
Shomesh stood outside the tavern and took some deep breaths to collect his thoughts. He was disappointed but not discouraged. He was, after all, on the trail of the deadliest assassin who had been in the business for the past ten years or more. There were rumours that Marko was a chameleon, that he was a master of disguises and that he was able to turn himself into a man or a woman on a whim. There used to be an apocryphal anecdote about Marko's skills. Once he came to Amravati to assassinate a businessman who had insulted the hunchback prince of Abitsar in a public gathering at Amravati. The word reached the ears of the king of Abitsar and he sent Marko to avenge the slur cast on his son.
This businessman had been warned of reprisals from the spies of Abitsar and he hired many guards who he placed around his house to thwart any attempt on his life. Three days later, his young wife went to the market to buy some jewellery. She was accompanied by some maids and two guards. They returned in high spirits. On her return she called upon her husband to show him her purchases. The young wife faced her husband and smiled beatifically at him.
The businessman felt that the smile was off, that there was something wrong with his wife. He stared at her face and was horrified to see the face morph into the face of a young man with a creepy smile. The businessman was not even able to scream for Marko impersonating his wife moved quickly and stabbed him in the throat with his trademark stiletto. The young impostor left his prey dead and went out of the house without making anyone suspicious. Two days later the dead body of the businessman's wife was discovered in the sewer behind the market. The story was simply too fantastic to be true but the assassination of the businessman gave birth to the legend of Marko. Halim, the head of foreign spies division, was hell bent on tracking and killing Marko but so far all the men and women who he had sent to find Marko had been killed and they had never been even close to capture Marko.
Shomesh looked up at the crescent moon and the inky blackness of the sky and felt cold and lonely. He thought of the dead informer and wondered what pushed the young man to seek death in the pursuit of his duty. He wondered how would the parents of the young informer deal with the news of their son's death. His thoughts went to his family as he thought idly about their reaction should they learn of his death in the line of his duty. He shook his head to shake off the morbid thoughts. There would be time to mourn the sacrifice of the young informer.
As of now, he had to think of how to track Marko. He thought of his boss and how he found that Bhanu had been left emotionally distraught after his encounter with the dying informer. He had never seen Bhanu's face so pale and his eyes so listless. Death had a way of casting a pallor of gloom around when it visited humans. All Bhanu could tell him was that he was to immediately begin his search for Marko but Shomesh could never learn the target of Marko. That information was to be shared only with the target and Halim. The target was a high profile person and all Bhanu would admit was that if Marko were successful in his bid, then the kingdom of Tribhanga would be in uproar, mourning the loss of a great man.
Shomesh was jolted out of his thoughts by the sight of a man stumbling outside the door of MedusaEyes tavern. The man saw the soldiers outside and instantly set his course to steer himself away from the soldiers. Shomesh watched the man with burning eyes. He felt as if he had seen the drunk man before. When the man turned a corner, he turned to stare at the soldiers. At that particular moment he was right under a lamppost. The man met Shomesh's gaze fearlessly and then he smiled impudently. There was something vile in that smile, some strange mixture of loathing and disgust and it irritated Shomesh. However before Shomesh could react, his attention was drawn to a ruckus at the door of the tavern.
Two men tried to walk out of the door at the same time and they ran into each other with the end result being that one of the men was pushed aside. The man who was pushed aside saw red and threw the first punch. The man who had done the pushing was not a pushover either and he retaliated as good as he got. The drunks who were inside the tavern shouted their encouragements to both the fighters and began spilling out on the street to watch the fight from close quarters. Shomesh was appalled by the scene that unfolded in his august presence and he asked his men to clear the street. The sight of the advancing soldiers frightened the onlookers as well as the fighters and they ran helter-skelter leading to a pandemonium. Shomesh was jolted aside in the fracas and the audacity of someone assaulting him enraged him. He tried to grab the man who had pushed him but the man turned out be quite slippery. He brushed aside Shomesh and kicked down a soldier. Then he made a dash to safety. Shomesh pursued him in a blind rage.
The man turned a corner and the moment they were away form the soldiers he turned around to face Shomesh. The daring foolhardiness of the man caused Shomesh to see red. He took out his sword and tried to stab the man but the very next moment someone collided with him and his feet left the ground. Someone had attacked him from behind. The two men subdued the captain with some effort. When Shomesh finally stopped resisting, the two men tied his arms and legs. When he was finally turned around to face his persecutors, he realized that one of the attackers was the same person who had stood under the lamppost and smiled mockingly at him. There was a hint of smile persistent on the man's lips.
"What do we do now, Bosho?" The second man looked around fearfully for the soldiers were still around. Bosho was a term used in Abitsar to address a superior. The men who had attacked Shomesh were from Abitsar.
"We follow the plan," The Bosho sat on his haunches and grabbing Shomesh's chin he inspected the captain's face closely.
"His body is on the bulkier side," he muttered. "And his eyes are red. Eeyuck! No scars on his face! Just whiskers! The ears are hidden in the cap. Well, that will be a great help. The nose! Bulbous! Typical of soldiers! The teeth! Have to be careful there! The neck! Hmm! It is stout and thick! Maybe I will try turning the collars up. I hope that works!"
The man observing Shomesh then began kneading his face, pressing at some spots and pulling at others. Soon the face began to morph into a face that closely resembled the captain.
Shomesh realized then that he was staring at the face of the chameleon himself. Marko was studying Shomesh's face so that he could impersonate Shomesh giving him easy access to his actual target.
"I have seen you somewhere," Shomesh growled even though he was terribly scared.
"You think so!" Marko whispered gently. He was now looking closely at Shomesh's shoulders. "I have seen how you stand and how you walk. I think I will be able to copy your mannerisms. Nothing complex there!"
Suddenly Shomesh realized where he had seen Marko earlier. He was the villager who had escorted the informer to Bhanu's house.
"You are the villager who was there at Bhanu's house?" Shomesh gulped.
"Well, not exactly!" Marko smiled. From where Shomesh lay on the ground, he sensed the evil lurking in Marko's eyes that got accentuated every time Marko grinned. He was reminded of the story of the businessman who saw his young wife smiling at him and then realizing too late that he was in great danger.
"I was with the villagers," Marko smiled. "I led them to the place where the bandits were thrashing the living daylights out of the informer. Poor young thing! He was beaten so badly that I thought he would die in the horse carriage itself. I had to administer some medicines to him to keep him alive. His meeting with Bhanu was absolutely critical for our mission." He took out a stiletto from his sleeve and then with a wink, he stabbed Shomesh in his neck. There was no need for a second blow. The two men quickly undressed Shomesh. While Marko got dressed in the captain's dress, his partner tied stones to Shomesh's body and then dumped the body in the sewer. It took Marko some moments to do the final touches to his face and to his body. His team had been studying Shomesh for quite some time and all the props had been made ready. The false beard was fixed and eyedrops were put in his eyes to dye them red. The effect of red eyes would last for about an hour but that was more than enough for Marko to finish his job. The boots of Shomesh were thrown in the sewer. Marko wore boots that were almost identical to that of Shomesh. Some years back he had developed gangrene in his right foot and since then he could only use shoes that were made specially for him.
By the time the soldiers found them, Marko had turned into Shomesh. As Shomesh, Marko slapped his partner around and then pushed him on the ground. Then he took his sword out and delivered a blow at the right hand of his partner. The man was able to move his hand away avoiding critical damage and yet the wound was so severe that blood began to pour out. The man ran away screaming loudly. The soldiers felt their stomachs turn at the wanton display of violence and their hearts went out for the unfortunate man but they did not have the guts to challenge Shomesh.
"He got what he deserved," Shomesh gave a jerk to his head as he took out a rag cloth from his left pocket to wipe the blood off his blade. The soldiers had heard that phrase at least twenty times by then. Shomesh sent them to patrol the streets and he let them know that he was heading to Fahim's house and if they needed him they should first try there and on failing to locate him they should head to Bhanu's house. Fahim was the head of the internal affairs and he reported directly to the king. The soldiers wondered why their captain needed to rush to Fahim but they knew better than to question Shomesh and risk his wrath.
The soldiers went back to their patrolling duties and none among them noticed the reaction of Shomesh's horse when Marko impersonating Shomesh tried to mount him. The horse had been with Shomesh for years and it was treated like a son by the hotheaded captain but that night the horse seemed upset with Shomesh and whinnied as it was goaded to move by the spurs. If the soldiers had been attentive, they would have recalled that Shomesh never hurt his horse, that he never wore spurs on his boots but that night none among the soldiers noticed it and Shomesh was allowed to ride away. It was a catastrophic mistake but though the soldiers were inattentive to the cries of the horse, there was someone who noticed it but he neither protested nor moved out of his place to stop Shomesh.
The man who was deeply perturbed by the plight of the captain's horse stood hugging the shadows and yet whenever he would turn his face around, light would glint off the iron mask that held his jaw together. He had forced the ironsmith to make an iron jowl for himself that resembled the strong jaws of a dog and he displayed it fiercely and proudly. He was known as the man with the iron jowl in Amravati. Everyone knew him and feared him for there were rumours that if someone ran afoul of him that person was made to pay a horrible price for his indiscretion. He kept many people on his payroll to act as his eyes and ears. Vasan was one of his men and had let him know about the captain of the royal guards visiting the MedusaEyes tavern.
The man with the iron jowl had dropped everything and rushed over to the tavern to find out more about what made the royal guards roam about on the streets. His initial reaction was that a theft might have taken place in the palace but when he saw the number of soldiers accompanying the captain Shomesh, he realized that the matter was of a grave importance. As he stood there watching the ruckus between the soldiers and the drunkards, his eyes fell upon Shomesh and he heard the plaintive cries of the horse that none around him cared to listen for. He rushed in the tavern and grabbed hold of Vasan. After giving instructions to Vasan, the man with the iron jowl dashed away to where his own horse was tethered.
From the information gleaned by Marko's team, Marko knew that Fahim would be cooped up in his house. He knew what the informer had told Bhanu about the target. Bhanu believed that Marko's target was Jayesh, the queen's aide, for that was what the informer was meant to convey. The thought of Bhanu bolstering the security of Jayesh made Marko grin. The poor informer never suspected that he was being led on a garden path, that he was allowed to learn about Marko going after Jayesh and that he was meant to mislead Bhanu. That was why it was imperative for Marko that the informer got to meet Bhanu. The royal guards and the soldiers should not know about the actual target for then the task of killing Fahim would have become desperately challenging.
There were three guards posted outside Fahim's house. They saluted smartly at Shomesh who did not acknowledge them, staying consistent to how Shomesh treated people around him. There was a servant who recognized Shomesh and opened the door for him. Then he ran inside to alert his master about Shomesh's arrival.
Fahim was in his bed and he was immensely upset at the sudden arrival of a captain of the royal guards on his doorsteps so late at night. He let out a litany of curses as he got dressed and dragged his feet to the drawing room where he met his visitors. When he entered the drawing room, he found Shomesh staring intently at the frescoe that had been painted only two days back. The frescoe depicted the queen of Tribhanga with her two kids. The queen's face was brilliantly painted so that her sharp features were clearly outlined. Her young kid was painted as an infant and her eldest son stood abashedly behind her throne with only his face visible.
"Marvellous," Shomesh remarked even as Fahim entered the room and it brought a frown to Fahim's face. "You should have asked the painter to paint a recent picture of the queen. I have heard that she is still very beautiful."
Shomesh turned to face Fahim and a little, cryptic smile played on his lips. He did not salute Fahim. He just stood rooted at his spot, staring at the fat face of Fahim. His intent gaze made Fahim uncomfortable.
"What brings you here at this blasted hour?" Fahim barked at the captain of the royal guards who was lower in hierarchy than him. The captain's lack of courtesy made him cross.
While Fahim was entertaining Shomesh inside his house, two men were rushing towards Fahim's house. They had left their horses some distance away, choosing to cover the distance on foot rather than on horses so as to not alert the enemy about their arrival. The soldiers posted in front of Fahim's house spotted the two men approaching them. From the way they carried themselves towards the soldiers, it was quite clear that they were in the habit of ordering men around them. The two men were once peers but their paths had diverged. The one with the blue turban went on to become the head of the spies working in foreign land. His name was Halim and even though he had aged visibly he was still sharp and pretty good with his sword. The other man with a tawdry blanket around him was Bhootnath, a name that his father had bestowed upon him. Bhootnath became an elite soldier and conducted himself with great aplomb in the now forgotten war with the monsters.
His jaw was destroyed in the battle with the supreme commander of the monsters. The healer had to craft an iron jacket for him to hold his jaw together. The layers of iron jowl was his perverse idea. He worked as the head of secret agents, content to live among the scum of the underworld, doing his job to the best of his abilities. It was to the credit of his infamy that the soldiers recognized him as the man with the iron jowl before they recognized Halim. The terrified soldiers stepped away from the approaching duo.
"Stay here," Halim barked at them, "and don't let anyone escape."
"Fat chance of anyone doing that," Bhootnath snarled.
They strode inside the drawing room and found Marko and Fahim together. Marko had not yet killed Fahim. The sound of footsteps stopped him from killing Fahim. He was able to recognize Halim for he had done his homework. The sight of the man with the iron jowl made him frown.
"What's a criminal doing here?" He barked, still trying to play the role of Shomesh.
"Well," Bhootnath clapped his hands in delight, "His stance exposes him. Won't you agree, Halim?"
Halim nodded once as he moved around Marko to flank him.
"Marko!" He shook his head. "I can't tell you how much I had dreamt about this chance of meeting you once. How many sleepless nights I had to endure, spent in planning and plotting to capture you. Every time I lost an agent, I seethed in an impotent fury. I prayed to my god to grant me one meeting with you so that I could tell you how much I have suffered at your hands."
Marko did not panic when he found out that his game was over. His men were posted some distance away from Fahim's house. All he had to do was to get out of the house but first he had to finish his job. He glanced at Fahim's fear-stricken face who on knowing how close he was to his death had lost all his courage and Marko reckoned that Fahim was still in his range.
Marko lunged at Fahim with his stiletto in his right hand but Bhootnath outran him. Before Marko could plunge his stiletto in Fahim's fat neck, Bhootnath came in between him and his target. Marko uttered a cry of despair and tried to stab Bhootnath but he found out soon that he was no match to the man with the iron jowl. He then turned on his heels and went to attack Halim but his gambit failed spectacularly. Halim had been expecting Marko to make a run on him and at the very first opportunity he ran his sword into Marko's body pushing it inside till only the hilt was visible. Marko stumbled back and was struck on the back of his head by Bhootnath effectively killing him before he hit the ground. Halim dragged his sword out of Marko's body and then decapatitated him.
"Good!" Bhootnath approved. "He could be a monster. This way he would stay dead."
He turned to face Fahim who stood staring at Marko's dead body with unseeing eyes. When Fahim saw Bhootnath approaching him, he believed that Bhootnath wanted to do a welfare check on him so he began muttering that he was ok but he was shocked to see Halim grab Marko's stiletto and throw it towards Bhootnath who grabbed it in one smooth go. Fahim uttered a cry of despair and tried stepping away but Bhootnath was too fast for him. The stiletto was plunged into Fahim's neck and left there. As Fahim fell to the floor with a glazed expression, he saw Halim pat Bhootnath on his back.
"Nicely done," Halim praised Bhootnath, "but you should take the stiletto out now."
"We can always say that we disturbed Marko and he left it there," Bhootnath replied carelessly.
Halim sat on his haunches next to Fahim's dead body and shook his head once.
"I was not too fond of him but he was not a bad apple," he remarked.
"He used to sit comfortably and send soldiers to their death," Bhootnath countered. He was not a fan of Fahim or Jayesh to protect whom Fahim was sacrificed.
When Halim saw Bhootnath hacking at Marko's face, he was astounded for he never thought of Bhootnath as a vindictive person, as someone who would take out his anger on a dead body. He got up unsteadily on his feet and approached the macabre scene. When he saw Bhootnath dig in the face of Marko and drag something out, his stomach churned.
"I knew it," Bhootnath smiled at the two bloody stones in his hand. These stones were dug out from under the skin of Marko's face. Bhootnath held them up and displayed them to Halim. "Look closely at these." Then he pressed the stones and they changed shapes. "This is how Marko used to change his face so drastically. The stones can be kneaded to get the desired shape. He could become anyone he wanted to."
"But what about his bones?" Halim could only whisper. In his line of work, he had seen some really fascinating and disgusting scenes but the one unfolding in front of his eyes simply took the cake for being the most atrocious of them all.
Bhoonath gestured to him to take a look at Marko's face. From where Bhootnath had dug out the stones, the face had sagged in.
"There are no bones in there," Bhootnath shook his head. "His teacher was able to take out all of them and replace them with these malleable stones."
"Imagine the pain that he would have suffered," Halim had a new found respect for his mortal enemy.
"It seems we did a big favour to him," Bhootnath wiped the stones clean on Marko's body and pocketed them. "We put him out of his misery."
"Who could have done this to him?"
"Who else but the one-eyed crow?" Bhootnath referred to the most innovative inventor of Abitsar who had ever lived, the one and only Manishi, the woman who had been churning out strange weapons and experimenting on humans and monsters. She had lost an eye during a failed experiment and it had resulted in her getting the moniker 'one-eyed crow'. She was aware of it and she hated it.
"So where to now?" Halim asked Bhootnath.
"Back to where I belong," the man with the iron jowl smiled, his eyes full of affection for his old friend. "The king would be mighty upset at you for failing to protect Fahim."
"The queen will handle the king," Halim chuckled. "I am now used to the curses that the king flings at me."
"So who will take over Fahim's job?"
"Most likely, Parnesh."
"Is he harmless?"
"Power drives everyone crazy," Halim sighed. "It is but expected that Parnesh would lose his head a bit."
"Let me know if you want me to step in," Bhootnath walked out along with Halim.
He left Halim at the door to handle the aftermath of the assassination of the head of internal affairs. He knew that he would not get dragged in the sordid drama. Halim would take care of that. His role as a free agent was too important to be meddled with. He spotted the horse of Shomesh and approached it gently. He patted it once and whispered in its ears that its master had been avenged. The horse neighed sadly and it made Bhootnath wonder if the horse understood the import of his statement. He untethered the horse and took it along with him. This would be his payment for taking out the threat of the chameleon. Such were his ways, for he was the man with the iron jowl.