Detective Kar had slept badly. He had eaten nothing during the long hours of interrogation at the NIS headquarters and the raw beef at dinner hadn’t gone down well. His stomach was aching when he awoke. He didn’t feel like getting out of bed but the phone had been ringing off the hook.
It was Kim at the other end of the line. They had planned a lunch meeting with the investigation team but now Kim was saying that the police was too busy with the case and could only meet him late in the evening. Kar made some sounds meant to convey that he was okay with the new schedule but kept quiet when Kim apologised again for the harassment he had to face the previous day.
His insides rumbled and the dull ache was getting worse by the minute. He felt bloated. Tongues of fire were licking his chest. He lay down again rolling from side to side on the spring bed but the aches grew worse still. His intestinal emanations were bubbling through the undigested food, the borborygmi filling up the hotel room like the protestations of a hurricane trapped in a mountain pass. He cursed loudly and scrambled again for the latrine.
The ceiling with its giant love mirror revolved slowly as he lay on the hotel bed watching himself with tired eyes. Long ago when he was with the communist party his mentor had instructed him about the efficacy of triphala powder in curing stomach ailments. His mentor, a Bengali comrade of the old school, had demonstrated how to prepare the infusion. But there was another herb he had mentioned whose name eluded him.
It was hopeless. He knew he was going to die in this far away country, killed by a stomach bug, probably a biological weapon engineered by powers across the border. He was seized with panic and rushed to the door and was going to step out in the corridor when he saw the headless man. He was walking calmly towards him from the other end of the dimly lit passage. Smartly dressed, he was holding his head in his hand. Kar stepped back quickly and bolted the door. He heard voices outside but didn’t dare to investigate its source.
The belly ache was becoming unbearable. A knife being slowly twisted in his gut. What irony, he who had once believed in selfless dedication and sacrifice for the socialist cause, had dedicated his best years to party work, was now being eliminated by a weapon devised by comrades from the edge of the continent. He rubbed his eyes sadly as the aches crowded back, growing with renewed belligerence. He rummaged through his bag but for a few strips of Crocin, there was no other medicine there.
It was dark inside his room. Daylight had faded but the terrace of a hotel block across the road was a bar of molten gold floating among the heavens. He had rice and chicken soup in his room and took a short nap. Now he was feeling better.
He lay on the bed thinking about the developments of the last two days. Kim’s ideas sounded almost out of a fairy tale but the defector angle. What could he make of it? Did they fall into a trap laid by northern agents? Could it be so that this bunch of innocent vacationers were caught in this crossfire between two nations?
There were no more calls from Kim or the embassy. He washed his face, took out his laptop and tried to connect with the hotel Wi-Fi. The service was down so he had to call the hotel desk. They apologised for the problem and told him there was a PC Bang, five minutes’ walk from the hotel. If he could come down to the desk, they would give him a map with directions. He needed to do some research about the area where Tara was found by the campers, besides he had to send emails to Chaitanya and Abul.
He left a note for Kim saying he will be back in an hour, just in case he called the hotel. Then he took out a scissor from his bag and reluctantly snipped a strand of his hair which he carefully pasted across the zipper of his bag. He put the bag back into the wardrobe. Throwing on a fleece jacket, he left the room.
Two rough-looking men were inside the elevator when it reached his floor. Kar put his head down and stepped into a corner as the mirrored elevator box shot down to the lobby. After his brush with the NIS he had to keep a low profile. Time was running against him.
Kar went to the reception, collected the map and left the note for Kim. When he walked out on the pavement, it had become very dark and cars and buses had switched on their headlamps. A wind had also picked up and it looked like it would storm soon.
He stepped back into the hotel and borrowed an umbrella. Checking the street map, he began walking down Hibiscus street. He had hardly gone a few steps when a gust of wind slapped hard on his face almost blowing his umbrella away. Buffeted by strong winds, he began to walk faster as silvery knives of rain slashed sideways on his face.
Soon it was raining hard. The evening traffic crawled for miles as sheets of rain reduced visibility to a few metres. The stop lights blinked desperately through the torrents and in the midst of all this Sejong the Great stood defiantly braving a typhoon that had made landfall near Incheon.
He had missed the weather report. His jacket was okay but his trousers were getting soaked all through. His shoes were not made for this kind of weather.
As he strode down the street, pummelled by ice cold raindrops, he didn’t fail to notice the gingko trees, their fan-shaped leaves had been turning crimson with the fall. It was tempting. If he could sneak up and clip a few young branches, he would have enough stock of leaves to last him a few months. The Chinese doctor back in Calcutta charged heavily for the gingko extract and he suspected it was adulterated with less potent stuff. He was not going to miss this opportunity to pack in a few months of hair fall prevention supply now that he was in Seoul. But this would have to wait.
His face was freezing in the chilling winds. He walked for a few more blocks, all along thinking when to collect the leaves and how to secret his stock through airport customs on his way back home. Just before he entered the internet cafe he noticed the duo he had seen in the hotel elevator. They were stepping inside a convenience store a few buildings away.
The PC Bang was on the ground floor of a shopping arcade. A large hall divided into sections for smokers and non smokers, loud at this time of the evening with a mix of young and old.
Kar purchased a card from the woman at the reception and went and sat at a terminal. The internet cafe was throbbing with energy. The hall was divided into sections and there were coin-operated machines near the entrance dispensing Coke, green tea and a host of soft drinks. Though the cafe was slightly rundown, the computers all looked new. Teenagers were glued to the terminals playing Blade & Soul, Lineage and other MMO games, some were chatting with friends. Older people pored over their emails.
Kar crossed the hall and turned left into the smokers’ section which was partitioned away with glass doors. There were tea stains on the shiny red tables but the leather chairs looked comfortable. The bright circular lamps, the blue and gold coloured tables, the dark brown leather chairs, the billowing chatter of the young and the occasional thump of Coke cans landing in the dispenser of the coin-operated machines gave this place the character of a halfway house between a railway station waiting room and a coffee shop.
Everything on his screen was written in Korean so he asked for help. The woman at the reception showed him how to select the language. He logged in with his card and typed gmail.
There was a message from Abul. The subject line was direct. ‘Tara is dead.’
Kar took a moment to let it sink in before reading on.
‘She passed away in her sleep. The doctors are trying to ascertain the cause. For the last two days she had been suffering from a wheezing cough. She was finding it difficult to breathe. They put her on life support but they could not save her.’ Nothing about her psychological appraisal or the amnesia.
He began to write an email. Who was with her when she died? What does the friend, she was staying with, have to say? Was the psychiatric evaluation completed? Then an email to his assistant Chaitanya, asking him to go through the old file on Harvinder Singh which their agency had handled. Finally he opened a document and noted down a few points for the client reports. Then he logged out of gmail, leaned back in his chair and lit up.
The ventilation in the smoking section of the PC Bang was struggling to cope with the cigarette fumes. A pall of smoke floated in the middle of the room, hanging from the ceiling like ectoplasm, undecided which way to escape. There were twenty terminals in here, all occupied. The clients, mostly local, except for an American soldier playing patience. The gamers were firing up Starcraft and chatting while taking swigs of imported beer from silvery cans.
Kar took a few more drags and stubbed out his cigarette. He could hear the storm howling outside whenever someone pushed through the glass doors. The streets were emptying out fast. Inside, the smoke and games and the beer-fuelled conversation continued.
Kar focussed back on the screen. He needed to look at a few maps of the area where Tara was found and buy a bus ticket for the journey. He was fiddling with the mouse buttons when a white screen with a text box popped up with the message — ‘You are connected to a stranger. Say Hello.’
What? He hadn’t pressed any keys. But then he noticed he had somehow got connected to Omegle, a random video chat site. He was going to close the new window when a small video screen popped up with a woman in a deep blue-and-white hanbok. He could see she was typing.
The woman was sitting on an old fashioned chair, the kind you would find in English pubs, and behind her was a garden table laden with food. There were two glass jars of orange juice, heaps of melons, yellow persimmon, figs, a heap of apples and clementines. Pork ribs and portions of meat were piled on large plates and a row of smaller plates of seasoned vegetables and kimchi were lined on one side. The video woman had the head of a fox.
‘Who are you?’ Kar typed. His gaze was fixed on the screen as she responded.
‘Annyeonghaseyo,’ the woman typed it slowly. ‘I am the stranger.’
‘Hello, but how did you connect with me?’ Kar asked. He looked around. No one was watching him. An old man next to him was typing away vigorously, he had lines on his forehead. A young woman with a plain hairstyle was at the next terminal.
‘Now that you are in Seoul, I thought I must talk with you,’ the woman wrote.
‘Aren’t you the detective?’
The LEDS ringed around the webcam were shining like blue stones on fire. Kar made an unconscious effort to cover his face. He tried not to look surprised.
‘Where did you get that from?’ He typed it slowly while his mind raced, searching for explanations. Other than the embassy, only the security agencies knew about his visit.
‘I will find out soon,’ the fox-woman typed. ‘Can you use the headphone please?’
Kar was intrigued but tried to keep a straight face. He could disconnect and walk away or he could wait and see where this was going. He put on the headphones and spoke into the mike, ‘Is this a game?’
‘Nope. I am completely serious. Please can you tell me, Sir, if you are the investigator.’ She had a soft and pleasant voice.
‘I have been investigating all my life,’ Kar said ponderously. A vague statement, he will keep it like that till he can wrench out some information from whoever this was at the other end. He hoped the other customers wouldn’t notice.
‘Then I know who you are,’ the woman said.
‘Why should I believe you?’ Kar said and studied the room where she was sitting. Behind the table was a bright yellow wall with a green double window fixed with a big red lock. The wall reminded him of a kid’s playroom.
‘Please don’t misunderstand me. Come with me, I will show you something.’ The red fox eyes gleamed and he could feel her penetrating gaze through the screen.
She pulled her chair back and stood up. The embroidery work on her blue chima skirt caught his eye. She turned slowly, went around the food table and walked towards the wall which was the colour of ripe melons. Now he could see a double door, green like the window with an identical lock fixed to it. She pulled out a bunch of golden keys. The keys jangled in her hands as she put a key into the lock. The door opened with a screech and now she was in another room.
A red room with a red paper lamp hanging from the ceiling. Three slightly weathered plain wooden chairs pushed against the wall, all occupied. In the middle chair sat Chaitanya, staring blankly.
On each side sat a burly man with Korean features wearing white baggy pants and loose white shirts. Looking at the back of their hands Kar decided they were farmers. Chaitanya was wearing a checked half sleeve shirt and slightly worn trousers.
The woman began to talk rapidly in Korean with the two men while Chaitanya kept staring blankly ahead as if he was oblivious of what was going on around him.
She turned to speak with Kar. ‘See your friend is with us. Do you need any other proof.’
Kar knew he was in a tight spot. If he walked away from the terminal he wouldn’t be able to find out anything from this woman. Obviously she knew something. He tried to talk with Chaitanya through the microphone but he didn’t seem to hear him.
‘No use, he doesn’t have headphones. But you need not worry. He will be fine.’
Blood rushed to his head as he spat out the words, ‘Stop playing games, whoever you are! Why are you keeping him prisoner with these two jokers?’ He pulled out his mobile and dialled the office number. It would be afternoon at home, so Chaitanya should be there. But he couldn’t connect. He leaned back on his chair and sighed.
‘Okay what do you want from us? Who are these people in the room?’
Kar noticed that the room had vanished from the screen and the woman was again sitting on the pub chair he had seen earlier. His head reeled.
‘You are looking for the lost travellers, aren’t you?’
‘Yes but first I want to be sure my friend is safe.’
‘He will not come to any harm,’ the ruby eyes glistened from the fox-head, ‘you can call him once you leave the cafe.’
Kar was lost for words. Should he call Kim? He still didn’t have a local connection, the call will be terribly expensive. What will he tell him? That he was being tricked by a vixen. Never. He will play on for some more time.
‘Okay. So where are they? Do you know that you can get into serious shit if this is a practical joke? The security agencies of this country and mine will be hot on your trail and they will get you one day.’
‘Please don’t bother about me. I can help you reach the travellers. Some of them have fallen ill.’ There was a ring of genuine concern in her voice.
‘Ill?’ He remembered something and asked, ‘Who?’
‘A few of them. And much more has happened than I could ever be able to explain to you.’
‘What is happening? Are they all right?’
‘They are managing right now but I don’t know beyond that. You come with me and see for yourself. Maybe you can help.’
‘How? Where do I find you?’
The fox eyes lit up again as she spoke. ‘Listen to me carefully. You can thank me later. Go out and look across the road. There is a Shinsegae store to your right. A red Tucson is parked on the adjacent street.’ She gave him the registration number.
‘But I need to be sure my friend is okay before I come with you. I will make a call first,’ Kar said.
‘You will have enough time for that. You have seen he is fine, now don’t delay this any further. If you come with me you can see the travellers tonight. Perhaps you can help them.’
Kar cursed under his breath, ‘But who are you and why are you pretending to be kind while holding my countrymen prisoner. Where are they now? What do you want from us?’
‘I want nothing but your help. You will see for yourself when we arrive.’
‘Okay, I will come with you,’ Kar said and rose to leave. There was a plop on the screen and the video window closed. He looked around. Everyone was engrossed with their terminals. The soldier was still absorbed in his card game while a noisy group of youngsters fought giants on computer screens.
The street was deserted and except for fast cars shooting through the rain, there was no one in sight. He checked the stop light and quickly crossed over to the other side. The Shinsegae hypermart was still open but there were no customers outside. He went around the shopping mall to the narrow street. The gleaming red Tucson was third in a line of cars. It had scratch guards on its doors. He sneaked in from behind and knocked on the window, on the passenger side.
It was too dark to see who was sitting inside. The window was rolled down just a little. ‘How do you do?’ a voice from inside asked.
‘Good question, after being led out in the rain by a fox,’ Kar said while trying to shield himself from the gusts of wind beating against his umbrella.
‘Jump in,’ the voice from inside said. She sounded like the vixen alright but he couldn’t see her clearly through the tinted glass.
‘You want us to start off now? But I haven’t informed the hotel.’
‘No problem, Sir. Your luggage is in the boot. You can see for yourself. I have checked you out of the hotel.’
‘What!’ Kar was going to burst but resisted the impulse. He was getting drenched despite the umbrella as the wind hard-slapped the rain against the car. The trees on the avenue were flailing their branches in the wild wind. He quickly ducked into the front seat and turned to look at the driver.
She was wearing a long sleeve T-shirt over black denims and rain boots, the blue-white hanbok nowhere in sight. Instead of the fox, it was a young woman at the wheels. She had a small oval face and her dark hair was cut in bangs. Her shining eyes were fixed on the road. She turned the key in the ignition. In the low light of the dashboard he realised she was attractive.
‘Who are you?’ Kar barked at her at the same time unmindfully brushing his thinning hair. ‘I am not going anywhere unless I get some answers.’
She didn’t seem to hear what he had said but then her eyes narrowed seeing the gleaming steel of the Makarov levelled at her. ‘Change in rules. From now, I will be giving orders around here,’ Kar said coldly, cutting the engine and snatching out the key from the ignition. He checked the back seat again to make sure there was no one there. ‘Now get slowly out of the car and come around. No more games, darling. We are switching seats and I need a good navigator.’
Kar turned the key and the Tucson’s engine came to life with a low growl. Walls of rain tumbled down from the sky. She barely spoke, except to give directions as Seoul dropped back behind them into the night.
Excerpted from The Butterfly Effect by Rajat Chaudhuri (Olive Turtle, an imprint of Niyogi Books, August 2018). Reprinted with permission.
Rajat Chaudhuri is an Indian novelist and short story writer.