Midnights In London, Part 8

The Second Midnight

It had only been a week since the events at Murdstone & Co, but despite his better senses, duty forced Captain Robertson to stare into the crimson eyes of trepidation yet again. For the past week, he had been in covert conversation with the Eighth Duke of Argyll about the upcoming meeting with Spring-Heeled Jack, unbeknownst to his companion Mr Daim.
Part of him felt guilty about going behind his charge’s back, but the truth was that any loyalty Captain Robertson felt towards Mr Daim was overshadowed by that which he had towards queen and country. After all, the jinni was but a means to an end. If everything went to plan in the coming hour, then Captain Robertson would finally be able to put all this madness about ghuls and jinn behind him. He even considered requesting a leave of absence to visit his parents in Scotland before being shipped off to another far-flung colony.
For Mr Daim, the past week was spent in secluded contemplation on the possible implications of Spring-Heeled Jack’s assertion of innocence. He had assumed that this would be yet another routine hunt, but then again, there was nothing routine about it.
For starters, he had been approached by Europeans. It’s not that Mr Daim didn’t like Europeans; it’s just that they were usually blind to the possibility of the unseen, opting to explain away the existence of jinn with flawful human rationality. So, when that letter arrived from the Viceroy requesting his services, Mr Daim was caught by surprise, his untamed curiosity driving him to comply with the Viceroy’s wishes.
The second red flag was the insistence of a bodyguard. Mr Daim was used to working alone, and governments would usually give him free rein to go about his work unhindered. The Ottomans were so hands-off to the point that Mr Daim felt as though he had impunity. The British, meanwhile, were crippled by bureaucracy. Whenever he requested more information on Spring-Heeled Jack, it was classified. Whenever he wished to leave the hotel alone, it was unsafe. Even when he finally got down to work, there was always the threat of Commissioner Henderson’s interference. The British were indeed a well-oiled machine. They ran an enterprise of such proportions even the jinn were put to shame. But at the same time, one always got the feeling they were being watched.
Then there was his conversation with Spring-Heeled Jack himself. Experience had taught Mr Daim that ghul’s weren’t usually so hospitable. The average ghul would attack you and rip you to pieces the first chance they got. The fact Spring-Heeled Jack was willing to converse instead gave credence to the possibility that he was telling the truth. Guilty people don’t talk; they run. Then again, there was always the chance that perhaps Spring-Heeled Jack was just a particularly cunning ghul. If so, what game was he playing? Regardless, something larger was afoot, and Mr Daim was going to get to the bottom of it.

“Of all places to meet, why here?” Captain Robertson gesticulated towards the large glasshouse bathed in the faint glow of the crescent moon.
“I’m guessing he must be a plant enthusiast,” hypothesised Mr Daim.
The pair found themselves standing amongst the foliage of Kew Gardens. The building that stood before them was made of clear crystal glass roofs pitched by wrought-iron ribs, the penetrating moonlight halted by the thick vegetation that lay within. Just as the Koh-i-Noor was the centrepiece of her majesty’s crown jewels, the building that stood before them was the centrepiece of her majesty’s botanical gardens: the Temperate House.
“How can you be so sure he’s going to show up?” asked Captain Robertson.
“The word of a jinni, ghul or not, far outweighs that of a human,” answered Mr Daim.
This wasn’t true. Jinn were just as cutthroat as humans; he just didn’t want to be made a fool of. Mr Daim was gambling the entire investigation on the word of a ghul. A ghul who was either extremely cunning or extremely honest. He prayed it was the latter.
“If he said he will show, he will show,” insisted Mr Daim, more so for himself than his companion.
A few moments later, Captain Robertson consulted his pocket watch, “it’s midnight.”
“Very well. Let us see what Jack has to say for himself. And, please, try not to shoot him this time.”
“I’ll try.”
Mr Daim took the lead. Captain Robertson followed.

The Temperate House

The Temperate House was packed with flora retrieved from around the furthest extremities of the globe, which together transpired to create its humid atmosphere. There were enough exotic specimens in that greenhouse to rival the grandeur of Babylon’s Hanging Gardens, from the brightest azaleas to the rarest lilium, all of which were towered over by the jubaea tree, primed to burst through the ceiling. Mr Daim was impressed.
Captain Robertson, on the other hand, couldn’t care less. To him, the greenhouse was just a greenhouse. Albeit a large greenhouse – most certainly the largest he’d ever seen – but a greenhouse nonetheless. The variety of flora it exhibited were not rare specimens to be goggled at but rather potential hiding spots from which a ravenous ghul could pounce on you with the ferocity of a panther. Captain Robertson kept his wits about him.
After a few minutes of aimlessly wandering about in the darkness, Captain Robertson decided to snarkily puncture the jittery silence of the night, “it seems as though the word of Spring-Heeled Jack isn’t worth much after all.”
“YOU WOULD DO WELL NOT TO DISHONOUR ME,” bellowed a guttural rasp that reverberated throughout the Temperate House.
Captain Robertson froze to the spot, an unsettling chill running down his spine as he remembered what it was like to be petrified. On the contrary, Mr Daim was unphased, exhibiting the epitome of politeness.
“Jack, it’s good to see you! I’m glad you could join us. How have you been?”
The jinni was staring into the rafters. Captain Robertson tracked his eye line to find Spring-Heeled Jack, donning his mangled tailcoat and contorted top hat, leaning against the balcony of an iron walkway in the moonlight’s bluish tinge. Just like before, his attire failed to obscure the fear-inducing countenance of his crimson fire eyes, resulting in a hauntingly peculiar appearance that made a mockery of the ideal Victorian gentleman.
“I see you brought the human,” averred Spring-Heeled Jack.
“He insisted he come,” explained Mr Daim, “he owes you an apology after what happened last week and wished to express his regret in person.”
“Is that so…”
Within the flutter of an eyelid, Spring-Heeled Jack dived off the walkway, gliding across the ground before coming to a halt, looming his slender frame over the terrified Captain Robertson with the agility of a formless shadow. Captain Robertson could feel the monster’s putrid breath against his forehead as he eyed its menacing claws, his fingers grasping for the clasp of his revolver’s holster.
“I’m waiting, Beni Adam. I believe there’s something you wish to say,” sneered Spring-Heeled Jack, licking his chapped lips.
“S-s-sorry.” Captain Robertson gulped down the urge to scream, “I’m sorry for shooting you. Please don’t eat me.”
Spring-Heeled Jack let out a grisly guffaw, “Oh, aren’t these humans just delightful? For the record, young one, I was never going to eat you.”
Captain Robertson breathed a sigh of long-overdue relief.
“I’m not particularly fond of the taste of Scotsmen.”
The Captain was now confused as to whether he should be relieved or offended after that last remark.
“Okay, great. Now that we got that out of the way, shall we get down to business and discuss what we came to discuss?” offered Mr Daim, attempting to steer the conversation away from Spring-Heeled Jack’s discriminatory diet.
“We shall,” accepted Spring-Heeled Jack as he leaned against the wrinkled trunk of the jubaea tree.
“Very well. Why don’t you begin by telling us how it is you came to be living in Albion?”
“I have always lived in Albion. This island has been my home for millennia, long before the arrival of the Beni Adam.”
“If your claim is true, then explain why we’ve never heard your name until now?” interjected Captain Robertson, immediately regretting his pronouncement.
Mr Daim shot his companion a glare that said: Stop agitating the ghul and let me handle this. The ghul, on the other hand, wasn’t agitated but simply amused by the Captain’s boldness. Especially considering that it was only a moment ago that he was terrified beyond measure.
“Oh, but what you fail to realise, young one, is that I have been given many names throughout the ages. It wasn’t long ago that the people of Albion revered me as a great wizard by the name of Merlin. Of course, this was many centuries before I came to be affected by my current affliction.” Spring-Heeled Jack, formally known as Merlin, stared into the abyss of darkness in abject woe as though he suddenly remembered a life that had been snatched away from him. “I wasn’t always a ghul, Mr Daim. I was once a jinni just like you. But then I was betrayed.”
“Betrayed by whom?” inquired Mr Daim.
“The Company.”

The Betrayal

“I was approached by The Company in the early spring of seventeen fifty-five. To my surprise, their board of directors were well acquainted with the existence of jinn. I have no doubt that their agents abroad had their fair share of run-ins with the unseen. My job was simple: use my knowledge and power to expand the territories of The Company.
“I set sail for India alongside Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Clive. By this point in his career, the Lieutenant-Colonel had already achieved great feats of warfare over the previous decade, but these would pale in comparison to those he achieved when I was in his service. We arrived in Madras to find The Company’s holdings to the north in a sorry state. Fort William had been captured by the tyrannical Nawab of Bengal, who subjected his British prisoners of war to conditions that violated every modicum of moral decency. With a righteous fury, we made our way to Calcutta and, from the jaws of defeat, liberated the city from the tyrant’s grasp.
“By this point in our expedition, the Seven Years’ War was well underway against our arch-rivals: the French. I remember the time King Richard and I spent fighting Philip Augustus with great fondness and jumped at the chance to wage war against our perpetual nemesis. Together we travelled up the Hooghly and laid siege to their colony of Chandernagore.
“With the French out of the picture, we turned our attention back towards the tyrannical Nawab and dealt him a whopping defeat at Plassey. In time, the entirety of Bengal was liberated from his despotism, and we placed our own puppet on the throne. Clive soon found himself made Commander-in-Chief of Fort William while I returned home with the satisfaction that I had brought honour and glory to king and country.
“You may think my motivation was purely economic, but the truth is that I did it out of sheer love for my people. I have lived amongst this island nation from its very inception. In that time, I had grown to love the British like a father does his children. I was prepared to do anything to help them become the greatest nation amongst the Beni Adam. You can imagine my heartbreak then when I was betrayed by those I had dedicated my life to nurturing.
“As time went on, our rule in Bengal was cemented, and I returned to Calcutta in seventeen seventy. To my dismay, the state of the country was far worse than it had ever been under the rule of the tyrannical Nawab. The streets were filled with starvation, entire towns were deserted, mothers sold their children into slavery, and the land was wrought with vile bandits looking for an easy score. I was appalled by the turmoil I helped create.
“Yes, it was true I wanted Britannia to rule the waves, and I was even willing to do it at the expense of other nations, but the scenes I witnessed during that great famine etched themselves into the deep rifts of my consciousness. We were meant to bring peace to that region that had so far been ravaged by ceaseless war. Yet, we depredated that land for our own senseless greed.
“Upon my return to Albion, I left The Company, but of course, they were not willing to let their most valuable asset leave so easily. The directors begged me to stay. After all, I was the real determinant behind Clive’s success and had turned The Company from a group of mercantile holdings into a fully-fledged sovereign state. However, the horrors of famine were a burden too cumbersome for my spirit.
“A month after I left their employ, The Company, on the brink of financial ruin, began sending envoys to my door, each of whom I turned away. Then one day, Clive, now a Major-General, paid me a visit. He had with him a wooden box that I assumed contained some sort of farewell gift. Owing to the fact we had served together on the battlefield, I welcomed him into my residence and poured him a glass of ale. He begged me one last time to return to The Company’s employ. I refused.
“With great remorse, he opened the box to reveal a golden oil lamp carved upon with emerald runes written in the old tongue. Many centuries ago, I had heard tales of such vessels built by the Beni Adam to imprison jinn. How he came to possess one such vessel, I do not know. What I do know is that it is a fate I would not wish on my worst enemy, for it is a fate I was subjected to for over sixty years.
“For decades, I was bound to the will of the directors, forced to do their bidding. I was compelled to commit acts of great evil for the pursuit of wealth, the most wicked of human vices. The only respite I had was the confines of that abhorrent prison. My torture continued until one day a Governor-General, in service of The Company, required my usage in the summer of eighteen thirty-six. He was concerned about recent complications in neighbouring Afghanistan and compelled me to intrude upon the heavens to ascertain the trajectory of future events.
“There is a reason this act is forbidden amongst the jinn. To intrude upon the heavens is no small feat, and it almost cost me my life. I had made it as far the gates before I was struck down by a blazing comet, reducing me to my current ruin. As painful as it was, it did free me from my servitude. I’ve spent the last forty years wandering the streets of London attempting to bring an end to The Company. I even travelled back to India for a short time and instigated the Sepoy Mutiny. As it stands, The Company is still operating, albeit in a vastly vestigial state, but I fear the directors are in the process of attempting one last grab at power, right here in London.”
“Well, that was most certainly a lively tale,” jested Mr Daim, the only laugh being those of the crickets nestled amongst the Temperate House’s collection of flora.
“This is no laughing matter, Mr Daim. If their scheme succeeds, it could spell the end of the jinn,” warned Spring-Heeled Jack.
“You still haven’t explained what happened with that poor lad in the East End,” chimed in Captain Robertson with a renewed interest in the conversation that was slowly dispensing with his fear of the ghastly ghul.
“That’s a good point,” seconded Mr Daim, “I was just about to ask you the same thing. What happened in White Chappal?”
“Whitechapel,” corrected Captain Robertson.
“What happened in Whitechapel?”
“That poor man worked as a clerk at the India House and had some information regarding The Company’s nefarious plans that reached all the way to the top. It was supposed to be an easy, straightforward exchange, but we were intercepted. Just when he was about to give me names, someone attacked him.”
“Did you manage to catch a glimpse of the attacker?” probed Mr Daim.
“No, but he was most certainly a Beni Adam, dressed in all black.”
Mr Daim wasn’t sure what to make of the ghul’s claims. For one thing, they didn’t explain how the body came to be so mutilated. Spring-Heeled Jack seemed the most obvious suspect, given his menacing claws. However, that conclusion seemed to fit a little too easily for Mr Daim’s taste. After all, who’s to say a Beni Adam didn’t take a knife to the body to make it look like the work of a ghul?
“What were you doing at the bottling factory?”
“I was following up on a tip I received from an insider about a new contract The Company had signed. They had ordered a batch of golden flasks studded with emerald inscriptions written in the same old tongue that confined me to my prison. Murdstone was tasked with acquiring those flasks. Mr Daim, I am convinced The Company may be planning to do what they did to me, but on an industrial scale. And I have good reason to believe you have been lured to Albion as their first victim.”
This revelation was met with scepticism from Mr Daim. There was no way The Company had the means to embark on such a venture. In that same moment, Captain Robertson came to a guilt-ridden realisation.
“Gentlemen, I fear I’ve made an egregious error.”
All at once, the western wall of the Temperate House burst into a thousand shards of angry glass that nicked at the Captain’s skin. Chaos filled the empty air as policemen stormed through the thick jungle, firing sporadically towards the jinn. Captain Robertson was caught in the erratic barrage as a stray bullet collided with his clavicle. He instantly buckled over in agony, his consciousness receding.
He spotted Commissioner Henderson, through the smoke of gun barrels, giving orders to secure Mr Daim, who lay on the ground in a befuddled heap. Upon seeing Captain Robertson’s predicament, the Commissioner ordered a medic to be brought forth to tend to his wounds. Once he was turned on his back, the last thing Captain Robertson saw was Spring-Heeled Jack perched atop the jubaea tree. Within an instant, the ghul was gone. And within the next, so was the Captain.

To be continued…


This is part of a larger series called Midnights In London

The Fourth Battle of Panipat

Jayadeep and Arbaaz were sitting beneath the shade of a mango tree in deep discussion. They had just completed their first academic year at the English college and were due to embark homeward the following week. Jayadeep, the son of a Marathi moneylender, would be travelling southward to the beaches of Bombay. Meanwhile, Arbaaz, the son of a Pashtun subedar, would be travelling northward to the mountains of Peshawar.
The topic of discussion was of utmost importance, controversial in nature, but in need of urgent conclusion, for the honour of two great religions was at stake: Who had really achieved victory at the Third Battle of Panipat?
Being a proud Muslim, Arbaaz contended that it had been a great victory for Islam because Ahmad Shah Abdali had only one lakh soldiers against the Marathas’ six. This was the general consensus among the practitioners of history. Even the firangi British, who counted the Pashtuns as a martial race, agreed that Islam had triumphed over Hinduism that day. As far as Arbaaz was concerned, the strength of a Muslim Pashtun was worth ten times that of a Hindu Marathi, so there was no doubt the superiority of Islam had prevailed. Of course, you couldn’t expect a Hindu to accept the truth for what it is the same way a Sayyid, like Arbaaz, can.
Being a proud Hindu, Jayadeep countered that the real victory belonged to Hinduism because even though they may have lost the battle, the blow dealt to the Muslim invaders was enough to halt their advance further south. In other words, a victory to the vanquished. No more than a decade later, the Marathas had reconquered what they’d lost and installed their own puppet emperor. Thereby symbolising the inevitable triumph of Hinduism over Islam and the relegation of Muslims to their natural state beneath the heels of superior Hindus. Of course, you couldn’t expect a Muslim to see the bigger picture the same way a Brahmin, like Jayadeep, can.
“Bhaijaan, what happens after battle is of no importance,” asserted Arbaaz as he ripped into the sweet flesh of a ripened mango with his bare hands, “the fact remains that we Muslims defeated your people on the plains of Panipat that fateful day.”
“Arbaaz Ji, my dear friend, what you fail to realise is that what happens after battle is of the most importance,” rebutted Jayadeep as he carefully peeled away the skin of his mango with a pocket knife, “after all, as the great General Sunzi said ‘sometimes one must lose a battle to win a war.’ We Hindus did not set out to win the battle, but to simply halt your people’s advance so that we could claim the ultimate victory.”
“I do not know of this Sunzi you speak of, but if he really said such a thing, then he is not of sound mind. How can one claim to win the war if they fail to win the battle? It is a delusional fallacy,” argued Arbaaz with a mouth full of mango.
“You would do well not to speak ill of General Sunzi. He is the most respected figure amongst the Chinese,” warned Jayadeep.
“Then the Chinese are a delusional bunch, and if you really believe what he says to be true, then you’re Chinese too,” quipped Arbaaz with a mango-stained grin stretching across his face.
Jayadeep politely smiled, but deep down, he was disgusted. This man lacked all forms of etiquette. Just look at the way mango was dripping from his unkempt beard. And while yes, it was true they had been classmates for the past year, he was just another unclean Muslim at the end of the day. It amazed Jayadeep that the man had even managed to pass his exams, given his obscene insolence towards men of far greater wisdom.
“I wouldn’t expect you to understand anyway. Let us discuss another subject,” offered Jayadeep.
“Don’t be like that, bhaijaan. I meant no offence with my last remark. I was just playing with you as brothers do,” apologised Arbaaz, “Why don’t you explain to me how your people were the real victors of Panipat then, Pandit Ji.”
Jayadeep ignored the twang of sarcasm in his companion’s voice and went about enlightening him to the truth of what happened on the plains of Panipat more than a century and a half ago. But not before he sliced off a chunk of mango and plopped it into his mouth with satisfaction.
“As I mentioned before, our aim wasn’t to win the battle. It was to halt your people’s advance into our heartland. You may recall that the Muslim army of Ahmad Shah Abdali had sustained such heavy losses from the battle that he was obligated to send an envoy to the esteemed Balaji Baji Rao, begging for forgiveness after killing both his son and brother. Tell me, Bahadur Ji, which man asks for forgiveness after waging war except one who cowers before the prospect of retribution? In fact, he was so terrified of the courageous willingness with which the brave Hindu warriors gave their lives to martyrdom that he fled back to the mountains of Kabulistan and never dared step foot in Hindustan ever again. No more than a decade later, we Hindus reclaimed Delhi for ourselves and installed a puppet emperor so that your people would be none the wiser. It is for this reason that the Battle of Panipat was a great victory for Hinduism. Such is the ingenuity of the Hindu mind.”
After concluding his lecture – for Jayadeep considered himself an enlightened individual whom others would do well to listen to – he returned to slicing and consuming his mango in neat little chunks.
Arbaaz was rankled though he did not show it, instead opting to return a polite nod of recognition to his companion’s words. This man thought himself to be God’s gift to the world. Just look at the way he ate his mango, too afraid of getting his hands a little dirty. And while yes, it was true he considered him a dear friend, he was just another pompous Hindu at the end of the day. It amazed Arbaaz that the man had even managed to pass his exams, given his foolish delusions about clear-cut historical events.
“Do you finally understand why it is you are wrong, Arbaaz Ji? Or would you like greater elaboration to widen your limited scope of view?” taunted Jayadeep, the corner of his mouth curved into a sly smile.
“Bhaijaan, it seems to me that you have been carried away by your own delusions,” retorted Arbaaz, “the truth of the matter is that one lakh Muslims had defeated six lakh Hindus upon the plains of Panipat that fateful day. Let us not forget that the real reason the illustrious Ahmad Shah Abdali marched into Hindustan was to deal with the troublesome Sikhs. He was not concerned with the Hindu Marathas. After all, what threat could your people possibly pose? He had just defeated them six to one! Upon concluding his business with the Sikhs, he returned to Kabulistan but not before extracting an annual tribute of four million rupees from the Mughal Emperor. And so, you see, we Muslims were never subject to a Hindu Peshwa but a fellow Muslim Padshah just like ourselves. It is for this reason that the Third Battle of Panipat, just like those that preceeded it, was a great victory for Islam. Such is the dignity of the Muslim Ummah.”
After putting an end to the matter – for nobody could deny that Arbaaz was right – he consumed the last of his mango before nonchalantly tossing away its empty husk.
“You Muslims are too busy thinking like the mindless empty-headed ants that Jains take care to avoid soiling their feet with to ever see the bigger picture,” scoffed Jayadeep.
“And you Hindus are too busy stuck up your own arse sniffing the psychedelic fumes of your own excrement to ever tell reality from delusion,” retaliated Arbaaz.
A heated moment of quiet hostility passed between the two students. The only sound was the drip, drip, drip of mango juices from Arbaaz’s unkempt beard onto the sun-dried grass.
“Bhaijaan, it seems there is only one way to settle this,” ventured Arbaaz after enough time had passed for the two young men to cool down. “We must conduct a Fourth Battle of Panipat to determine the true victor once and for all.”
“Very well, Arbaaz Ji. What are your conditions?” inquired Jayadeep.
“The conditions will be as follows: on the first Saturday upon our return from term break, we will meet on the outskirts of Panipat. I will bring with me seven hundred Muslims as there are seven crores of Muslims living in Hindustan, and you will bring with you twenty-two hundred Hindus to represent the twenty-two crores of Hindus. The proper thing would be to disallow the use of guns, tanks or bombs. Only the use of swords, javelins, spears, daggers, and bows will be permitted. Seeing as the inclusion of Pashtun Muslims would be an unfair advantage, I will only recruit Hindustani Muslims of good repute. I, myself, will be the only Pashtun you’ll have to face on the battlefield. Agreed?”
“Agreed.”
The pair shook hands, Jayadeep wincing at the sticky mango residue left on Arbaaz’s fingers.
“So, it is settled then. We shall meet again after the term break,” concluded Arbaaz. “May Bhagwan bestow his ever-glorious favour upon you. And may your travels be both smooth and free of hindrance. Be sure to pass on my best wishes to your parents. Khuda hafiz, bhaijaan.”
“Likewise, Arbaaz Ji,” seconded Jaydeep. “Pass my salaams onto your family. May the all-merciful Allah bless you all with a thousand blessings. As-salamu Alaykum, my friend. Until next time.”
And so, the two students bid their farewell before going their separate ways. Arbaaz northward to the mountains of Peshawar and Jayadeep southward to the beaches of Bombay.

On the first Saturday, upon their return from the term break, Arbaaz and Jayadeep met on the outskirts of Panipat in a large field just south of the town. Jayadeep had with him twenty-two hundred Hindus recruited from the surrounding villages. Arbaaz kept to his promise too and was accompanied by seven hundred Hindustani Muslims of good repute recruited from the nearby city of Delhi. Neither army possessed guns, tanks, or bombs and only employed the use of the agreed-upon weaponry.
The Hindu army approached the field from the east while the Muslim army approached the field from the west. Once they were a suitable distance apart, both armies closed ranks and made preparations for the upcoming battle, but not before their two generals had a chance to negotiate.
“Arbaaz Ji, your army is outnumbered. You would do well to surrender and spare your mens’ widows a lifetime of mourning. Simply relinquish your claim to victory at the Third Battle of Panipat, and we can be done with this mess. Why must we waste precious lives when Muslims and Hindus are already slaughtering each other across the country?” entreated Jayadeep, his hand fiddling with the bejewelled dagger strapped across his chest.
“Bhaijaan, you are well aware that I cannot relinquish the honour of the Muslim Ummah. I am too moved by the atrocities that have enveloped the country. That is why I beg you to withdraw your delusional claims and spare the lives of your good, honest men. Remember that Panipat is the battlefield upon which Islam always achieves victory,” adjured Arbaaz, his hand resting upon the hilt of his steel sabre.
Neither man could bring themselves to surrender and forfeit the honour of their respective religions. Having reached an impasse, there was only one course of action: war. Both men rejoined the ranks of their troops and steadied themselves for battle. Adrenaline seeped into Arbaaz’s bloodstream as he tightened his grip on his sabre while sweat dripped down the brow of Jayadeep as he slowly unbuckled his dagger.
Cries of Allahu Akbar and Har Har Mahadev rose into the still, humid air as both armies charged towards each other in a blind frenzy. The cries of battle were suddenly cut off by the thunderous roar of gunfire from the south. Plumes of red vapour erupted into the sky as warrior after warrior collapsed to the ground in a petrified heap of death. The bullets did not discriminate as they tore into the flesh of those seven hundred Muslims and twenty-two hundred Hindus.
As it turns out, a local cantonment of British troops had witnessed the gathering mass of natives armed with swords, javelins, spears, daggers, and bows. Fearing another potential cross-communal rebellion, they rode out with a machine gun in tow to swiftly put an end to the uprising. And so it was that the British were crowned the victors of the Fourth Battle of Panipat.
When all was said and done, and each cartridge had been emptied, there remained a field of lifeless corpses. At the centre of which lay the bodies of an unclean Muslim and pompous Hindu.


The inspiration for this short story came from multiple places, so I thought it’d be interesting to share with you the thought process that led to this piece. If anything, the following will illustrate to you just how strange my brain is.

If you haven’t guessed already, I’m a huge sucker for South Asian history. And any student of South Asian history will be able to tell you about the three Battles of Panipat, each of which led to dramatic political shifts in the Subcontinent.

The First Battle of Panipat (21st April 1526) saw Babur, descendent of Timur and Genghis Khan, defeat and kill Ibrahim Lodi, leading to the end of the 320-year-old Delhi Sultanate (1206-1526) and the establishment of the illustrious Mughal Empire (1526-1857). It also served to introduce the use of gunpowder arms and field artillery into the Indian Subcontinent.

The Second Battle of Panipat (5th November 1556) saw the 13-year-old Akbar defeat the Hindu King Hemu, who had previously served as a general and chief minister of the short-lived Sur Empire (1540-1556). Emperor Akbar would go on to become the greatest Mughal ruler, beloved by both Hindus and Muslims.

The Third Battle of Panipat (14th January 1761) saw Ahmad Shah Abdali of the Durrani Empire (1747-1823 and 1839-1842), alongside a coalition of Mughal, Oudh State, and Rohilla forces, defeat an army of the Maratha Confederacy (1674-1818). It was one of the largest battles of the 18th century, involving over 125,000 troops (lower than the exaggerated 7 lakhs of my story but still significant nonetheless) and lasting over several days. It was also the last major battle between South Asian-headed military powers until the Indo-Pakistani war of 1947.

I had only decided to write a short story centred around this topic because I am currently reading the works of Saadat Hasan Manto. For those who don’t know, Manto is regarded as one of the greatest writers of the Urdu language. Perhaps one of the greatest writers of all time. He is most famous for his short stories about Partition that capture the brutality and savagery of the times without obscuring the humanity of those lost to the violence. Manto had also written extensively about life in British India as well as post-independence Pakistan. I intend to dedicate an individual post to Manto in the future, but for now, his work inspired the setting, theme, and style of this short story.

The actual plot was inspired by something I read about in B.R. Ambedkar’s Thoughts On Pakistan. Again, for those who don’t know, Ambedkar is one of the giants of the Indian Independence Movement and one of the leading voices who campaigned for Dalit (untouchable) rights. In his book, Thoughts On Pakistan, published in 1945, Ambedkar explains both the case for and against the creation of Pakistan without being partial to either side. In chapter 12, Ambedkar referenced an absurd event that stuck with me.

It turns out that, in 1925, the controversy surrounding who really won the Third Battle of Panipat caused a certain Maulana Akabar Shah Khan to challenge Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya to a Fourth Battle of Panipat in order to settle the score. The challenge was issued in all seriousness with conditions laid down as to the types of weapons and number of men allowed. They never went through with it, but the absurdity of the event laid the basis for my short story. What if some people were really mad enough to go through with the proposal?

The names Jayadeep and Arbaaz were taken from the video games Assassin’s Creed Syndicate and Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: India, respectively. According to Assassin’s Creed lore, Arbaaz Mir was a Kashmiri Master Assassin of the Indian Brotherhood of Assassins at Amritsar. He ended up marrying Princess Pyara Kaur, with whom he had a son, Jayadeep. Jayadeep Mir, a.k.a “the Ghost” or more commonly Sir Henry Green, was a member of the British Brotherhood of Assassins, based in London, during the 1860s. He assisted the twins Jacob and Evie Frye in thwarting a Templar scheme to assassinate Queen Victoria. He later married Evie Frye, and the two moved back to India.

I was in conversation with my friend Isaac, who is from Tamil Nadu, about a new character coming to League of Legends, another video game we play obsessively. The character goes by the name Akshan and is most definitely coded as a South Asian. This led to a general discussion about South Asian representation in video games which allowed me to recall Arbaaz and Jayadeep from Assassin’s Creed. When I came to writing this story and needed character names, these two were already floating about inside my head, inevitably making it onto the page.

The consumption of mangoes was inspired by the chopped mango my lovely mother prepared for me while I was writing this story. It goes without saying that my mum is most definitely better than yours ;P

Midnights In London, Part 7

The Truth

One moment, they were there, in the confines of that little office in Murdstone & Co. The next, they were somewhere else entirely. Within the blink of an eye, the moonlit interior was exchanged for a starlit sky, the hard oak floorboards were exchanged for damp blades of glass, and the scream that got stuck in Captain Robertson’s throat was exchanged for vomit that generously slopped to the ground.
“It’s okay. Let it all out,” Mr Daim comforted his companion with a gentle slap to the back, “everybody vomits after their first place-jump.”
“Stay the hell away from me, you devil spawn!” roared Captain Robertson, stricken with fear. The force that sealed his lips was no more.
“You’re in shock, Captain. Take a few deep br—”
“NO! Stay back!” The pistol now had its eye on Mr Daim, “You were about to sell me out to that thing.”
“Excuse me?”
“Don’t play dumb with me. I saw you speaking to that monster in the devil’s tongue.”
“First of all, that was Cymric. And, no, I was not about to sell you out. You’re my friend.”
Captain Robertson wasn’t going to fall for Mr Daim’s sentimentalism, “if I was really your friend, why didn’t you tell me you were a genie?”
“I did!”
Captain Robertson raised a sceptical eyebrow as if to say: Are you sure about that?
“I did tell you. At the tea house,” the more Mr Daim thought about it, the more confidence he lost in his own assertion, “at least I’m fairly certain I did,” until eventually, he lost it all, “Okay, maybe you’re right, I may have forgotten to mention it,” the Captain was pulling back the hammer of his revolver now, “but in my defence, it was fairly obvious from the start.”
“Really? How so?”
“I mean,” Mr Daim chuckled nervously, “my name is Mr Daim.”
Captain Robertson returned a blank stare. He wasn’t amused. Or maybe he just didn’t know.
“Um… Daim means immortal in Urdu. Jinn are… well we’re not immortal… but compared to your human lifespan, we may as well be.”
Mr Daim gifted his companion one of his award-winning smiles along with a thumbs up for good measure. Unfortunately, that was the very end of the Captain’s tether.
“I’ve had enough of your games, Mr Daim. Tell me the truth right now, or I swear to God, I’ll shoot you where you stand.”
“Very well,” the jinni had his hands up now, “what do you wish to know?”
“First, you can begin by telling me where we are and how we got here.”
“After you ruffled Jack’s feathers, I thought it prudent that I get you out of there before you ended up missing a face.”
Images of that poor sod lying in the soot-smothered East End crossed Captain Robertson’s mind yet again as bile crept up his oesophagus. Part of him was surprised he contained so much vomit, given the number of times he’d puked these past forty-eight hours.
“So, I transported us to this hill,” continued Mr Daim, “I believe it’s called Green Witch Park.”
“Greenwich,” corrected Captain Robertson, gulping down the creeping bile as he surveyed his surroundings. The observatory behind them confirmed that the jinni wasn’t lying.
Mr Daim nodded in recognition before eyeing the gun still levelled at his chest, “I see that my efforts in preserving your life do not warrant your trust.”
“You see correctly. Now, tell me, Mr Daim. Who are you?”

The Jinni

Long before the advent of humankind, the Earth was ruled by jinn, beings made of smokeless flame. Like their younger siblings, the jinn were a divided people, separated into many nations from the Titanian Empire to the Republic of Atlantis. However, none could surpass the might of Mount Qaf, the city of shining emerald, the conduit between the terrestrial and celestial.
It was here, at Mount Qaf, that a jinni, whose birth name has been long forgotten even to himself, was born. Unfortunately for the jinni, he came into existence during turbulent times. The Creator had conferred stewardship of the Earth to a new people: the Beni Adam. As you can imagine, this sent shockwaves across the world. If the Beni Adam were to rule, then what would become of the jinn?
Many jinn saw this as a new beginning and decided to live amongst their counterparts of flesh and blood. Others were fearful of the Beni Adam’s bestial nature and retreated into their own realm. Some jinn, those of the more disobedient kind, saw it as an opportunity and began to take on the Beni Adam as worshippers, building large monuments to false gods. However, the most pre-eminent amongst the jinn, one who had come closest to the Throne of the Creator, refused to accept the sovereignty of the Beni Adam and was subsequently cast out of Heaven. As revenge, he vowed to spend eternity tempting the Beni Adam to do evil.
And so, the jinni, born at Mount Qaf during turbulent times, watched humanity emerge from caves to build cities of magnificence. He watched humanity commit deeds of great malevolence with one hand and deeds of great benevolence with the other. He watched them build machines that could transport people over great distances and others that could transport messages even further. He watched them build weapons that could take a life with the single flick of a finger and others that could tear through entire battalions as they screamed in terror. Every day, he was inspirited by their ingenuity, their tenacity and their nobility. Every day, he was appalled by their cruelty, their brutality and their barbarity. Through better times and worse, he watched them grow from lighting their first spark of flame to generating their first spark of electricity.
As time marched on and millennia after millennia passed by, the jinni grew restless. For all the places he’d visited, all the loved ones he’d lost, all the poetry he’d read, he was still missing something crucial: purpose. It is in search for a purpose that the jinni began wandering aimlessly from one end of the Earth to the other. He was looking for a sign. Any sign that could point to a greater meaning to his existence. What was his place in the world?
One day, while passing through the labyrinth of a busy city, the jinni overheard the most beautiful of recitations. Day after day, he would return to that exact same spot to hear its message. It spoke of a gracious and merciful God who would reward those that did good deeds and exhibited the qualities of the righteous. It was then that the jinni finally found his purpose. From that day on, he vowed to break the shackles he had placed upon himself and dedicate the remainder of his life in service of his God.
In the proceeding years, as the empires of yesterday were replaced by those of tomorrow, the nations of the Beni Adam grew in strength while those of the jinn fell into decline. Without safe havens to offer protection, the jinn became victim to the greed of the Beni Adam. Thus, began the Great Upheaval. In the proceeding centuries, countless jinn were captured and enslaved by the Beni Adam within the confines of enchanted ornaments, forcing those that remained to go into hiding. In retaliation, some jinn began to torment their counterparts of flesh and blood, fuelling the fear that drove humanity’s enterprise.
Amidst the chaos, the jinni, as old as humankind, took on a new role. He would hunt down those that spread corruption in the world, whether they be amongst the jinn or Beni Adam. He would free the enslaved and relieve the tormented. He would take on many names. The most recent of which was Mr Daim. An arbiter between those of sounding clay and smokeless flame.

“… and that more or less sums up my life story.”
Captain Robertson was astonished by what he’d just heard. The being that stood before him was as old as humankind itself. There was no telling the wealth of knowledge the jinni had stored away. The things he’d witnessed. The people he’d met. The life he’d lived.
“Is that all?” asked Mr Daim, hoping his companion was satisfied enough to lower his weapon.
Captain Robertson shook his head, partly to answer the question, partly to joggle his blown mind. “No, tell me exactly what you discussed with Spring-Heeled Jack.”
“Okay,” Mr Daim took in a deep breath before barraging Captain Robertson with a complete transcript of what was said, “I introduced myself by saying, ‘pleasure to meet you. My name is Mr Daim, and you must be the infamous Spring-Heeled Jack everyone is talking about.’ He didn’t reply, so to break the ice, I said, ‘Depressing weather this week, wouldn’t you say?’ To which he responded, ‘Why are you here?’ If you ask me, I found that rather rude so to display my dissatisfaction I replied, ‘Sorry?’ To which he res—”
“Daim!” Captain Robertson halted the jinni’s word-for-word transcript, “I’m not in the mood for this tomfoolery. You know what I mean. Tell me what it is you said in Cymric.”
“Oh, I see,” but he didn’t see, “I said, ‘Daethpwyd â mi i’r wlad hon i’ch olrhain i lawr.’ Then Ja—”
“IN ENGLISH!” Captain Robertson was turning red with frustration, “Tell me what you discussed in Cymric, but in English.”
“Ohhhhhh,” Mr Daim finally understood what his companion was asking for, “why didn’t you just say so?”
Captain Robertson held back the urge to scream. The respect he had just accumulated for Mr Daim was quickly dwindling.
“I explained to Jack that I have only been in Albion for a week and that I was brought here to bring him to justice. However, it appears that things are not as straightforward as they seem,” Mr Daim’s mischievous demeanour was replaced by one of grave seriousness as he pondered how to break the news, “Jack claims that he was set up.”
“But that makes no sense. Didn’t you find evidence to prove Spring-Heeled Jack was at the scene of the crime?”
“Yes, I found his residual aura at the scene of the crime, but that’s not sufficient enough evidence to prove he committed the crime. Without witnesses, there’s no way to prove what happened. For all we know, Jack may have been acting in self-defence.”
“You’re seriously taking the side of the ghoul here?” Scoffed Captain Robertson, “that thing tried to eat me!”
“Only after you shot him. Besides, I’m not taking anyone’s side; I still need more information. If what he says is true, there may be greater forces at play here than I initially thought, which is why I agreed to an audience with our friend Jack a week from now.”
“You can’t be serious,” sighed Captain Robertson as he lowered his revolver.
“I most certainly am.”

To be continued…


  This is part of a larger series called Midnights In London

Midnights In London, Part 6

The First Midnight

Captain Robertson slowly drew his revolver from its holster, the moon glistening off the sweat that trickled down his brow. Images of the mutilated face lying in that hazy alleyway somewhere in the soot-smothered East End flashed across his mind. The prospect of having a closed-casket funeral wasn’t one he looked forward to. For the first time in a long time, fear began to rear its ugly head. Mr Daim, on the other hand, was far more relaxed. In comparison to what he’d witnessed all those years ago in Cuba, this was child’s play.
“What now?” inquired Captain Robertson, trying his hardest not to betray his inner turmoil.
“Now, I shall head inside and have a chat with our friend.”
As much as Captain Robertson would have jumped at the chance to sit this one out, the Duke had tasked him with keeping a close watch on Mr Daim. Orders were orders, and good soldiers followed them.
“And what shall I do?”
Mr Daim took a moment to consider the question. So far, the Captain had proved himself quite capable, and his eagerness was a promising sign. He was also a military man, making him far more reliable than some of Mr Daim’s previous companions. Not to mention the fact, he’d manage to stick around this long. That being said, they had yet to actually encounter Spring-Heeled Jack, and so there was no guarantee that he’d be able to hold it together when confronted with his first ghul. Having reached an impasse within his own thoughts, Mr Daim decided to err on the side of caution.
“You’ll come with me, but stay close, and it’d be preferable if you were to refrain from doing anything rash.”
Captain Robertson didn’t need his companion to spell out the fact he was referring to yesterday’s incident with Commissioner Henderson with that last remark. If the circumstances were different, he would’ve answered back that he was only acting in defence of Mr Daim’s honour, but they were not. Anxiety held his tongue.

The inside of Murdstone & Co was vast but not sparse. Moonlight trickled through large rectangular windows bathing everything in a bluish tinge. Machinery, whose purpose was too complex for our duo to discern, lined the length of the factory in neat, orderly rows. A giant clock was prominently displayed on the far wall, both hands pointing straight up to the heavens. It was midnight. Whoever ran this operation certainly prized efficiency above all else. Multiple splodges of dried blood served as a testament to the fact that health and safety were most certainly included in the list of things efficiency ranked above.
As agreed, Mr Daim took the lead, Captain Robertson following closely behind, finger itching by the trigger. A bitter chill ran through the factory and up his spine, causing him to uncontrollably shiver for a fleeting moment. Once the sensation ceased, he went back to scanning the rows of machinery for any sign of their quarry. Silence occupied the room until the faint crackling of glass beneath his boot sat still in the empty air. Mr Daim turned to look down at the broken glass bottle then back up to his clumsy companion. Captain Robertson quietly mouthed his apology, making a mental note to pay more attention to where he’s stepping.
They were only halfway across the factory when a glass bottle flew past, missing Mr Daim’s head by a hair’s breadth before shattering against the wall, specks of solid, liquid sand flying in all directions. Together they searched the darkness for whatever threw the bottle but turned up nothing.
“It seems he must be a little shy,” murmured Mr Daim before turning his attention to the darkness, “COME OUT, JACK! WE ONLY WANT TO CHAT!”
Captain Robertson screw his face at his charge as if to say: what the hell is wrong with you?!
“What?” shrugged Mr Daim, “I told you not to do anything rash. I didn’t say I couldn’t do anything rash.”
But alas, his smug invitation was met with an eerie silence. At least that was until another bottle found itself flying across the room. And then another. And another. Until eventually, the entire factory was filled with flying bottles; the duo left stranded in the middle of it all.
“Perhaps we should depart from our current location?”
“Good idea,” answered Captain Robertson as he dodged yet another bottle coming to take his head off, “lead the way, my friend.”
Mr Daim obliged, leading his companion through the cacophony of shattering glass to the far wall and up a steel staircase before diving into an office overlooking the factory floor. Captain Robertson slammed the door shut behind them, drowning out the chaos as glass bottles continued to fly about outside. Convinced they had reached safety, the pair slowly sank to the oak floorboards and went about catching their breath.
“Well, that didn’t exactly go as planned,” remarked Mr Daim between short, calculated gasps for air.
“You can say that again,” seconded Captain Robertson, equally in want of much-needed oxygen.
“It’s been a while since I’ve seen another of my kind,” announced a third unfamiliar voice.

The Ghul

Captain Robertson swivelled around, the barrel of his gun firmly tracking the owner of the third unfamiliar voice. The creature – human did not seem to be the appropriate noun for the being that stood before them – was of both tall and slender stature with a diabolical countenance that could instil a primal fear into even the bravest of men.
“You’re under arrest by order of her maj—”
“SILENCE BENI ADAM,” bellowed the beast in a guttural rasp.
Captain Robertson’s lips froze shut, cold sweat trickling down his brow as his hand began to cramp around the pistol’s grip. He dared not pull the trigger. It seems hunter had become prey.
“It’s okay, Captain. I’ll handle this,” Mr Daim signalled his companion to lower the weapon before turning his attention to the creature with eyes of crimson fire.
He stood up off the ground, brushing shards of glass off his personage to regain some sense of presentability, and made his way across the room until he was within striking distance of the ghul’s menacing claws. The same claws that mutilated that poor sod in the soot-smothered East End.
Mr Daim extended a hand in greeting, “pleasure to meet you. My name is Mr Daim, and you must be the infamous Spring-Heeled Jack everyone is talking about.”
Captain Robertson was perplexed. Of all the ways he imagined this meeting going down, this was not one of them. It seems he wasn’t the only one who was confused, as the infamous Spring-Heeled Jack stared blankly at the hand that was offered to him. And there it remained, long enough to deem the situation awkward. It took Mr Daim a few moments more to read the room before finally retracting the hand he so freely gave in greeting. He had to save face.
“Depressing weather this week, wouldn’t you say?”
“Why are you here?” The ghul demanded an answer.
“Sorry?”
“What are you doing here in Albion? It’s been decades since I’ve seen another jinni.”
Captain Robertson’s eyes widened. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing; however, no matter how hard he tried to speak, his lips wouldn’t budge.
“It’s a long story. Would you like the short answer or the long answer?”
“I have no time for frivolity. Cease your antics now, or I’ll devour that pathetic excuse for a human,” threatened Spring-Heeled Jack with a sneer that revealed a set of yellowing skewers perfect for ripping into both meat and bone.
Mr Daim turned to look at the pathetic excuse for a human whose face had now been flushed of all colour. He looked like he’d seen a ghost. To be fair, he was looking at a ghul, which is arguably even more frightening considering that, unlike their nebulous counterparts, ghuls are real. Mr Daim decided to switch to another language; perhaps that would help calm down his terrified companion and save him from having to hear Spring-Heeled Jack’s disparaging comments.
Unfortunately, just like at the tea house, this had the complete undesired effect. For where comprehension is lost, imagination rules supreme. Captain Robertson was now left to panic while two very real, very scary jinn conversed in a tongue he couldn’t possibly fathom. For all he knew, they could be plotting to kill him or worse. What if Mr Daim was considering offering him up as a full course meal? A closed-casket funeral was far more desirable than being digested and excreted. The thought made him shudder from top to toe with disgust.
After a few more minutes of utter despair, the conversation seemed to reach its conclusion. Mr Daim turned around with that smug grin of his as Spring-Heeled Jack stared intently at the silent Captain Robertson. The ghul smiled a sinister smile before licking its cracked lips.
Oh Jesus, Mary and Joseph! He’s actually gone ahead with it! He’s offering me up to that monster!
But Captain Robertson wasn’t one to give up without a fight. Within a split second, he raised his pistol and fired at the ghul. Just like that, a single moment was dragged out into eternity. The entire room flipped inside out as a lone bullet marched from barrel to target through a cloud of smoke. Amidst the ceaseless ringing of his ears, he could make out the creature’s faint maniacal laughter. Once the smoke cleared, the already widened eyes of Captain Robertson grew even wider as the marching bullet bounced harmlessly off Spring-Heeled Jack’s chest.
Realising his mistake, Captain Robertson didn’t even have a chance to scream as the monster lunged towards him, teeth and claws bared forth in the slim streams of moonlight coming through the windows. However, Mr Daim got to him first, gripping him firmly at the shoulders. Then everything went quiet.

To be continued…


This is part of a larger series called Midnights In London

Midnights In London, Part 5

The Hunt

Captain Robertson awoke to find that he had overslept. The Duke’s impromptu visit meant that he had lost valuable hours of sleep. Valuable hours that would cost him dearly. He sluggishly sat up in bed to find that the hour hand was fast approaching eight. Cursing under his breath, Captain Robertson swiftly jumped out of bed and got himself dressed. It seemed he’d have to forgo his morning bath. Part of him wondered if the events of last night were real or if they were just a dream, but after spotting the sweat stains that lined his shirt collar, he was more than certain they weren’t the product of his imagination.
Captain Robertson exited the hotel to find a clean-shaven Mr Daim leaning against a growler, reading Shakespeare.
“I must say these English poets of yours are quite talented.”
He resisted the urge to remind his charge that he was Scottish, not English, so he didn’t claim the Bard of Avon as one of his, opting instead for the far superior Bard of Ayrshire. But he had no time for trivialities. The Captain was keen to get down to business, “So where are we off to today then?”
“Wherever this points us,” Mr Daim pulled out an antique compass from the coat Captain Robertson lent him just over a week ago, “that is where we will be off to.”
The triumphant grin on Mr Daim was met with perplexity by the confounded Captain Robertson. To him, the old compass was just that: an old compass. So old, in fact, it seemed to have a broken axel for the needle no longer pointed north but south. But to Mr Daim, to whom the needle glowed a fluorescent violet, it was the key to tracking down their quarry.
“Let me guess, another one of your nifty tricks, I presume?”
“Indeed,” the grin growing even wider.
“Well, what are we waiting for? Lead the way, my mystical friend.”
The pair bundled into the cab, and off they went, growling along the cobblestone roads.

Silence occupied the carriage for the duration of the drive. Mr Daim put this down to the events of the previous day. It was a long day after all, not to mention the incident with the Commissioner, which was sure to have weighed heavily on Captain Robertson, likely subjecting him to a restless night. Mr Daim had enough life experience to understand not to force conversation out of a tired man. Overall, He was rather impressed with how the Captain handled the whole situation. Previous companions would have forsaken him after such a reality-bending event. It was partly the reason why Mr Daim navigated the Earth alone. But he was glad to retain Captain Robertson’s company, especially in this strange and foreign land.
With the Captain predisposed in his own thoughts, Mr Daim took his attention to the world passing by outside the carriage window. London’s bazaars were half a world away from Lahore’s. Then again, London itself was half a world away from Lahore. Instead of open stalls lining the road in perfect chaos, each store was self-contained within four walls in perfect order. The chime of doorbells composed a pleasant symphony amongst the chatter and clatter of customers passing to and fro. Glass panes allowed Mr Daim to peer into each of these microcosms and catch sight of the goods within. Bakeries would feature an assortment of different loaves, the pleasant smell of baker’s yeast wafting through the air. Tailors would display the finest threads, many a gentleman passing through to achieve the pinnacle of sharpness. Barbers would have several men at a time reclining back upon leather seats, the faint snipping and snapping of falling hairs coating the floors in a thick jungle.
Every now and again, Mr Daim would consult with the old compass and issue orders to the cabbie to ensure they were still on course. This stage of an investigation was always the most arduous. Lesser men would have given up by now, but determination drove Mr Daim forward, and duty dragged Captain Robertson along. Many a time, Mr Daim had been led over many miles in pursuit of rogue jinn. He was even led across continents a few times, once starting a hunt in the Mongolian Steppe and ending it in the Atacama Desert, but with limited ways to track down a being that didn’t want to be found, this was the best method there was. Mr Daim was just thankful that Captain Robertson wasn’t the type to complain. The man had a lot of patience for someone whose lifespan only lasted several decades.
A group of intoxicated lascars bundled out a nearby tavern, one of them almost stumbling into the path of their growler.
“Watch it!” shouted the cabbie.
“Tor pode ekta tiktiki dhukiye debo,” replied the stumbling lascar before spotting Mr Daim in the back as they drove past, “tumi ki dekhacho?”
Mr Daim didn’t need to know Bangla to know that unpleasantries were exchanged. Regardless seeing his fellow countrymen did instil a sense of comfort in him. It felt nice to know he wasn’t the only Indian currently on the British Isles.

Eventually, the sky began to darken, and the smog began to thicken. The cabbie, who up until this point had become progressively irritated with the constantly changing directions, kicked them out onto the street. He wasn’t getting paid enough for this nonsense, plus he had a family to get home to. And so, our pair were left wandering the streets of London while the cabbie returned home bracing himself for the inevitable abuse his missus threw his way. Soon after, the chill began to bite, and the night began to blind. The only light was the occasional sliver that slipped through bedroom curtains.
After a long walk, the pair found themselves outside a wine-bottling factory that had been abandoned after the working day, ready to be back in operation the following morning. They could just about make out the words Murdstone & Co arching over two doors tall enough and wide enough for an elephant and its mahout to pass through. Mr Daim had yet to see one during his stay. An iron lock lay shattered upon the ground, leaving one of the doors slightly ajar. Meanwhile, the compass pointed straight ahead, which could only mean one thing. Mr Daim locked eyes with Captain Robertson. The hunt was just about to begin.

To be continued…


This is part of a larger series called Midnights In London

Midnights In London, Part 4

The Visit

With one last burst of courage, Captain Robertson swiftly slipped into the room, pistol raised, to find a figure by the window dressed in black as thick as the midnight sky. He was ready to open fire, but something made him hesitate. Unsure of whether it was his keen intuition or if he’d just been out of practice, the Captain decided to go with his gut instinct and held off from pulling the trigger. After the confusing day he just had, he wasn’t sure if he could trust his head anymore.
And oh boy, was he glad he did, for the figure dressed in black was none other than the Eighth Duke of Argyll with his bright orange hair being the only splash of colour to his otherwise rather dull attire.
“Bloody hell! Put the gun down!” hissed the Duke.
Captain Robertson realised he still had his gun levelled with the Duke’s chest and quickly returned it to its holster, “My apologies, Mr Secretary. I’m rather on edge today.”
“Indeed. I’ve read the reports. It seems that our friend, Mr Dame, hasn’t been entirely honest with us, doesn’t it?”
Captain Robertson didn’t answer but didn’t object either. It was somewhat true. He’d been running around with Mr Daim for nearly a month now, and everything he knew about him was dwarfed by what he didn’t.
“We believe it’s time you were filled in on what’s been going on, Captain,” continued the Duke, “and by we, I mean the Prime Minister, the Viceroy and I, but first, why don’t you recount the events of the past few weeks. And please, don’t leave out any details, no matter how absurd they may seem.”

While the Captain conversed with the Secretary of State for India, Mr Daim was downstairs in his hotel room preparing the vial containing Spring-Heeled Jack’s residual aura. He started by removing the vial from the coat that Captain Robertson had lent him. Unlike his companion, Mr Daim could see the aura swirling about inside, a light pinkish-red vapour like the petals of a rose found in the gardens of Damascus. He gave it a quick but gentle flick of the finger. Satisfied with the way the pinkish-red vapour dissipated then coalesced, Mr Daim moved onto the second stage of this well-practised procedure.
Grabbing his battered old briefcase from the opposite side of the room, he unbuckled the clip and rummaged around inside. There, nestled between Hafez and Ghalib, was an old compass, so old it could be no younger than five centuries, so old it was engraved with symbols whose meaning was remembered only by those who engraved it. Mr Daim carefully removed the crystalline glass cover protecting the glinting metal needle beneath, the only part of the device that hadn’t succumb to rust. It was really time Mr Daim got his hands on a new one, but this particular compass had been given to him by a dear friend. Or was it a lover? Truth be told, it was so long ago he couldn’t remember the exact status of the relationship, but he could still feel the remnants of the affinity he had for this long lost person and so opted to hold on to it. At least until it stopped functioning or fate forced him to part with it.
The final part of the well-practised procedure was the one that required the most concentration. Mr Daim placed the compass in the centre of the oak desk beneath the mirror opposite his bed. He looked into the eyes of his reflection, then down to the sprangled inky hairs of his unkempt beard and decided that he’d commit himself to a grooming session before bed, but first, he had to focus his mind and free it from the distractions of the material existence.
Firmly gripping the glass vial, Mr Daim began chanting in a language unknown to the Children of Adam. Continuing the incantations, he tightened his grip shattering the vial into a thousand tiny pieces. The pinkish-red vapour tried to escape but was trapped by the prison that was Mr Daim’s clenched fist. Any small fragments that tried to escape through his fingers were forced back in by the rhythm and tempo of his incessant chant.
The vapour suddenly expanded, engulfing the entirety of Mr Daim’s fist, the pinkish-red now a deep burning purple, but this didn’t interrupt the sweet melody of his tongue. With the vapour reaching a fever pitch, Mr Daim hurled it into the compass, firmly sealing it shut with the crystalline cover. With nowhere left to go, the aura began aggressively swirling around inside the compass like the wheels of the steam engines back in India before being sucked directly into the compass needle itself. It was only once all the vapour was consumed, the needle a glistening violet, that Mr Daim ceased his incessant chanting. He tapped the crystalline glass cover twice, and the needle began spinning rapidly before grinding to a complete halt; however, this time, it wasn’t facing the magnetic north but rather in the direction of his quarry: Spring-Heeled Jack. Convinced everything was in working order, Mr Daim removed a bar of shaving soap and razor from his battered old briefcase and went about his long-overdue grooming session.

Meanwhile, upstairs, Captain Robertson’s jumbled thoughts were finally ordered into something a little more coherent. The mental fogginess that had been plaguing him since he left Lahore for London had faded away, leaving him with a crystal-clear picture of everything that had happened since he met the mysterious Mr Daim. Anything he couldn’t rationalise was packed away in a box labelled “lunacy” and shelved in the recesses of his mind. He was just glad to finally have someone to talk to. Someone who’d actually listen to him and give him straightforward answers. A welcome break from the ambiguity of Mr Daim.
As it turns out, the Eighth Duke of Argyll and his associates, the Prime Minister and the Viceroy, had been keeping tabs on Mr Daim for over a year now. Rumours of an individual possessing extraordinary abilities had been circulating around Lahore for weeks in the monsoon of eighteen sixty-nine. Of course, these sorts of rumours were commonplace in India. Still, they had to be investigated nonetheless should the individual in question utilise the superstition surrounding them to rile up the discontents. After the events of the Mutiny, Lord Mayo, the Viceroy and Governor-General of India, wasn’t taking any chances.
He immediately put Mr Daim under temporary surveillance, as was routine protocol, until it could be determined the size of the threat he posed to the British Raj. Expecting Mr Daim to be deemed a none-threat, it came as quite a surprise when reports started piling in about a disturbance in one of the city’s outlying villages…

The Exorcism

The monsoon had arrived late this year but arrived it did, and to the people of Mallianwala, it was most welcome. Harpreet was worried. Local merchants had been speaking of famines to the south. Famines meant food would become unaffordable and unaffordable food meant Harpreet and her family would go hungry. But luckily, by the grace of Waheguru, the famines to the south were halted by the cascading rains that blessed the boundless Indo-Gangetic plains of Northern India. No, Harpreet was worried for an entirely different reason.
Aamir, the older brother of Harpreet’s best friend Zainab, was seriously ill. The whole of Mallianwala could hear his panicked wailing at unseemly hours of the night. The first time it happened, Harpreet had mistaken the pain-stricken cries for the local Muezzin. Now it had been a week since, and the poor boy was still unwell. According to Zainab, he had even become uncontrollably violent, forcing her father to make the difficult decision to confine Aamir to his room.
Harpreet had never talked with Aamir at great length. Like most of Mallianwala’s Muslim population, Aamir and his father worked for Harpreet’s father. The daughter of a Sikh landowner conversing with the son of a Muslim peasant would be the scandal of the decade, but that didn’t stop Harpreet from catching a glimpse of the muscular boy with black wavy hair whenever she could. In the real world, a Muslim would never marry a Sikh. However, the real world didn’t apply to Harpreet’s fantasies.
And so, when Zainab told Harpreet about her brother’s condition, it was Harpreet herself who pleaded on Zainab’s behalf, asking her father to see what he could do for the boy. As always, Harpreet’s father gave in to the demands of his princess. That very evening, Harpreet’s father called a village meeting. Women weren’t allowed to attend these meetings but seeing as it was being held in her family’s courtyard, Harpreet eavesdropped from her bedroom. The local Mullah had concluded that Aamir was possessed by a jinni, evidenced by the scars that ran down his cheek after being scratched for reciting his holy book. The men decided that the best course of action would be for Aamir’s father to travel to the city in search of an exorcist. Harpreet’s father generously agreed to accompany him and cover the costs of the journey. They set out the following morning and returned by nightfall.
It wasn’t every day that something this eventful occurred, and nearly the entire village had gathered to witness the exorcism. Harpreet could even spot a few unfamiliar faces in the crowd. Intrigued spectators from some of the neighbouring villages, perhaps. Children watched from the rooftops while men and women crowded around the wall demarking the boundary between the private domain of Zainab’s family and the public domain of Mallianwala. Fortunately, with the help of Zainab, Harpreet was able to sneak in and get the best view in the house: a small window located in the far corner of Aamir’s room.
Harpreet watched Aamir lying face down on his charpai as his father, her father, and the Mullah entered the room along with a fourth man she didn’t recognise. Harpreet deduced that he was the Exorcist her father went to fetch. Aamir let out a long inhuman groan that almost sounded like the whimper of a wounded wolf. Aamir’s mother, who was standing by the door, tried rushing into the room to tend to her only son but was subsequently shooed away by her husband.
The Mullah began reciting something in Arabic under his breath which started to rouse the sleeping Aamir. The four men surrounded the charpai, ready for anything that might happen. Suddenly, Aamir’s back arched upwards, and his head slowly turned towards the newcomer. Harpreet gasped. Aamir’s eyes were no longer the beautiful bright hazel she was used to but instead a deep crimson red like the blood of a slaughtered animal. His pupils were absent, making it impossible to tell what it was he was looking at. For all she knew, he could be staring directly at her. Or rather, it was staring directly at her. This was no longer the muscular boy with the black wavy hair but something else entirely – a demon.
The Demon began to slowly uncurl itself and rise up, like a puppet being lifted by its head, its limbs hanging limp in the candle-lit room until it was levitating two inches above the charpai staring down at the four men. Sweat trickled down the side of Harpreet’s face. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Fear forced her eyelids open and froze her to the spot.
The Demon started talking in a language Harpreet had never heard Aamir speak before. A language nobody had spoken before. Except for the Exorcist, for he not only understood what the Demon was saying but was speaking back to it in the same strange language. Harpreet had visited the city often, but she’d never heard a language with a melody quite like this. Everyone was startled yet entirely engrossed in the conversation they couldn’t understand. Even the Mullah’s attention was stolen away from his recitation as he remained fixated on the creature that stood before him.
The Exorcist and the Demon that was not quite Aamir went back and forth like this for several minutes. All was silent save for the whispers travelling through the gathering crowd, the gentle whistling of the wind passing through the trees, a clap of thunder in the far distance and the pitter-patter of the monsoon rain slapping against the ground. The Exorcist let out a sigh of disappointment, the kind of sigh one let out when their hand is forced. With a nod, each father grabbed one of the Demon’s arms, dragging him off the charpai and onto his knees before the Exorcist. The Demon let out a blood-curdling laugh that reverberated loudly into the midnight sky, blowing out the candles, bathing everything in the moon’s glow.
The Exorcist folded up his sleeve, concentration etched into the wrinkles of his face as he forced his hand down the Demon’s throat as it began to violently choke. To Harpreet’s amazement, the Exorcist was almost elbow-deep, something that should have been impossible unless he was able to shrink his own arm on demand. She was either dreaming, or her eyes were deceiving her. The thing began trying to shake free, struggling against Harpreet’s father’s tight inescapable grip, but it proved futile.
The Exorcist began to pull his arm back out, dragging something along with it. Now that it was removed from Aamir’s body, the Demon looked like a dark cloud, and it let out a deafening shriek as it attempted to resist the Exorcist’s grip. Meanwhile, Aamir fell unconscious at the foot of the charpai, his father by his side. The Exorcist walked towards the window, the same one Harpreet and Zainab were crouched behind, the shrieking cloud in hand. As he got closer, Harpreet could finally make out what looked like a face with the sharp teeth and pointed ears of a cat. Once the Exorcist reached the window, he launched the dark cloud up towards the sky, Harpreet and Zainab ducking to avoid the ungodly monstrosity. As the shrieking faded away into the distance, so too did the fear and tension of the past week. The ordeal was finally over.

“And you’re sure this is all true?” asked Captain Robertson.
“It was witnessed by one of our own. The same officer that was assigned to keep an eye on our friend, in fact. An Englishman, so I’m certain we can trust his rational judgement. If it was an Indian, I’d be sceptical too,” verified the Duke.
“I see… so what of Spring-Heeled Jack?”
“That’s what we’re trying to find out. Gladstone says whatever he is, it must have something to do with Mr Dame, hence why he ordered the Viceroy to bring him here.”
“So, where do I fit in in all this?”
“You’re the most important part, Captain. We need you to gain as much information as you can about our friend, Mr Dame, and see if there is indeed a link between him and Spring-Heeled Jack. In essence, your orders are to spy on him. I didn’t tell you this before because I wanted to see, for myself, if the reports were true. Today’s events proved that.”
It was all made clear now. Captain Robertson wasn’t just being brought home to be put on guard duty but was instead being made part of something far greater. But did he really have it in him to be a spy? And could he really betray his friend’s trust?
“Is that clear, Captain?”
“Yes, Mr Secretary.”

To be continued…


This is part of a larger series called Midnights In London

Midnights In London, Part 3

The Body

The first thing to hit Captain Robertson was the pungently repugnant smell. The second was the abhorrent sight of what he believed used to be someone’s face. The third was the burning sensation of bile creeping up his oesophagus. The fourth was the sound of the Lorne sausages he had for breakfast splatting against the pavement. The fifth was the bitter aftertaste left in his mouth as he pulled out his handkerchief to plug his nose and wipe his brow.
Whilst serving in China, Captain Robertson had spent time in an infirmary as men of red with holes in their chests were carried out in stretchers of white in wailing fright. To this day, he had yet to distinguish the red of their coats from the red of their blood. But even the carnage in the aftermath of battle wasn’t enough to prepare him for the brutal fate that befell the poor sod lying before him in that hazy alleyway somewhere in the soot-smothered East End.
Mr Daim crouched down beside the body and muttered a few words. Words that he had repeated many times in his long life. Words that Captain Robertson could understand but in a language the Scotsman couldn’t recognise.
“Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un.”
And so, as the angel Azrael guided the soul on its journey to the afterlife, our duo were left to ponder what had happened to its now vacant vessel. According to the officers, who had set up the cordon, the body was estimated to have walked the Earth for a grand total of eighteen years before it was left lying limp in a back alley amongst all manner of gutter trash one would expect to find littering the streets of London. It wasn’t uncommon to see unnamed labourers lying dead in unmarked alleyways. What was uncommon, however, was the nature in which this particular labourer met his fate. Not a victim of the endless march of industrial progress but instead something far more sinister, far more gruesome.
“Ghul.”
“What was that?” asked Captain Robertson, the handkerchief muffling his voice.
“Ghul. The being that killed this young man was a ghul,” answered Mr Daim as he carefully examined the deep gashes that mutilated the body’s face.
“A Ghoul?”
“Jinn that try to intrude on the heavens but are struck by comets for their transgression. They are condemned to walk the Earth for eternity driven mad with insanity.”
“Genie? Like in the Arabian Nights?”
“Those are children’s tales, my friend. But believe me, the jinn are more real than you know, and whatever did this was one of them.”
“So you mean to tell me that Spring-Heeled Jack, the criminal who’s been giving us the runaround this past week, is actually a genie gone mad?”
“Yes, Jack is a ghul. If he was scum and villainy of the regular sort, you wouldn’t have been tasked with bringing me here all the way from Lahore.”
Captain Robertson wasn’t quite sure what to make of this. Ghuls and jinn were the work of fiction. Mr Daim was treating them as fact. On their journeys, he had come to accept that the mysterious Mr Daim was a keeper of great wisdom. However, this bordered on lunacy.
“Are you sure you’re not just messing with me?”
“Well, I could be wrong. It may have been a mardykhor that murdered this poor child but last I heard, they were hunted to extinction by the Sasanians. Not to mention this climate is far too cold.”

The pair were finishing up with their perusal when they heard the sounds of commotion coming from the cordon. Captain Robertson went to see what was happening while Mr Daim remained to tend to the body. After covering what was left of the young man in a white shawl, Mr Daim left the hazy alleyway to find Commissioner Henderson giving his officers a bollocking.
“With all due respect, sir, they had permits signed by the Indian Secretary himself.”
“I don’t care who signed those documents, sergeant. This is the city of London, not the backwater slums of Delhi. No one is permitted to interfere in police business without my say so. IS THAT CLEAR, SERGEANT?!” Commissioner Henderson admonished the officer, who replied with a sheepish yes, sir though you wouldn’t be wrong in assuming the Commissioner preferred to be addressed as sire. He now had his sights set on Mr Daim, “well, if it isn’t the Indian faqir himself. I don’t recall giving you permission to operate in this area. In fact, if I remember clearly, Mr D, I said quite the contrary. I should have you arrested.”
“You will do no such thing. Mr Daim is under my protection and authorised to work here by order of Her Majesty the Queen. You lay a finger on him, and you’ll have to deal with me,” Captain Robertson chimed in to defend his charge.
“Are you seriously going to take sides with this Mohammedan? Disappointing. I expected more from a fellow member of the British Armed Forces,” scoffed Commissioner Henderson.
“Unlike you, I actually saw combat, so I wouldn’t test me if I were in your shoes.” Captain Robertson was in his face now.
“Is that a threat, Captain? Are you threatening an officer of the law? I should have you both arrested. Officers! Arrest them!”
The officers reluctantly obliged, stepping towards Captain Robertson with their batons in hand. The veteran was already bouncing on his toes, ready for a fight, when Mr Daim suddenly appeared beside the Commissioner, firmly gripping his wrist. Locking eyes with his adversary, he sternly dictated the following:
“By the power of the jinn, as ordained by the almighty, I hereby order thou Child of Adam to let us depart freely from this place without molestation.”
Captain Henderson stopped his struggling, staring straight ahead as though he was hypnotised and gave his men the order to stand down in a dreary, monotonous tone. No inflexion. No intonation. Confused though they were, the officers were thankful they needn’t have to apprehend a member of the British Armed Forces. After all, they were civilian police, not military police.
“Hurry. We must leave. This only works for a few moments,” Mr Daim briskly led the way, the dumbfounded Captain Robertson trailing behind.
“What in the hell was that?”
“You shouldn’t refer to the place of punishment for evildoers when asking for an explanation.”
“Oh, right. Sorry about that,” Captain Robertson apologised and waited for elaboration. Realising none was coming, he continued, “so are you going to explain what just happened?”
“As I said before, you will not be able to fully grasp the extent of my talents.”
“I guess I should take that as a no then.”
“You should.”

The Tea House

That evening, the pair found themselves in one of London’s many premier tea houses, the kind diplomats would use to host foreign dignitaries. Tea had only arrived on the British Isles two centuries prior and had since taken Britannia by storm. Everyone from pauper to prince relished the piping hot beverage that travelled all the way from China, and soon it came to represent the quintessence of British culture. Ever-present at their greatest victories as well as most embarrassing defeats. Some even went as far as to say that to defeat an Englishman, all one must do is dump his tea in the sea. To Mr Daim, tea was just another drink in a long list of drinks consumed by mankind, from the mead of the ancients to the sherbet of the shahanshahs.
“Would you like something to eat, Mr Daim?” asked Captain Robertson as he scanned through the menu. He hadn’t eaten anything since those Lorne sausages he had for breakfast. Of course, they were now splattered all over a hazy alleyway somewhere in the soot-smothered East End.
“No, thank you,” replied Mr Daim whilst jotting down some squiggles into a brown leather notebook. At least that’s what it looked like to Captain Robertson. To Mr Daim, it was Persian.
“So, where do we go from here?”
“You may order what you please. I do not find myself currently in need of sustenance.”
“You know that’s not what I meant.”
Mr Daim let out a long-drawn-out sigh, the kind an irritated father would when tired of their infant’s endless stream of inquiries and shut his notebook closed before giving Captain Robertson his full attention. He knew the veteran needed answers. The man had just witnessed something that defied the boundaries of his limited knowledge. Like the Mayans when they were confronted with fire-breathing Spaniards riding atop strange four-legged beasts.
This wasn’t the first time Mr Daim found himself with a gobsmacked companion. It always happened the same way. In the heat of the moment, Mr Daim would brashly call upon one of his abilities, usually to get them out of a situation brought about by said companion, leaving them confounded and in need of answers. There was no sure-fire way to give them answers without shattering their very perceptions of the material world. Up until now, Mr Daim had been putting off the inevitable. So he decided this time he’d just try answering the Captain’s questions as straightforwardly as possible without confusing him any further.
“What is it you wish to know?”
Realising he could finally get some answers out of the mysterious Mr Daim, Captain Robertson put down the menu, crossing his arms, “so according to you, genies are real?”
“Yes.”
“And Spring-Heeled Jack is one such genie?”
“Yes.”
“So, where is his lamp?”
Mr Daim burst out laughing, breaking the quiet, relaxed atmosphere of the tea house and drawing the attention of their fellow diners. One such diner in a black bowler cap, complete with a golden monocle and bristly mutton chops representing the pinnacle of English sensibilities, loudly coughed and ruffled his newspaper to indicate his disapproval. Captain Robertson was beginning to feel like a fool.
“Oh wow. That’s a new one indeed,” Mr Daim wheezed with laughter before collecting himself together, “not all jinn live in lamps, my friend. That went out of fashion centuries ago.”
“I see that now. So how are we going to stop him? We barely got anything from the crime scene before that bastard Henderson showed up.”
“Relax. You needn’t worry, for I have everything I need right here,” Mr Daim pulled out a glass vial from his coat pocket, the same coat Captain Robertson had lent him.
“It’s empty.”
“To your eyes, maybe. But I assure you this contains some of Jack’s residual aura, which I can use to track him down.”
“Let me guess, another talent whose extent I won’t be able to fully grasp?”
“Yes.”
“I take it you’re some kind of genie hunter then?”
“Yes, you could say that.”
“And you’ve done this sort of thing before?
“Many a time.”
“What is Spring-Heeled Jack doing in London?”
“My guess is as good as yours.”
“How many other genies are there?
“Millions.”
“Then explain why I’ve never met one before?”
“The chances are, you probably have. Perhaps you just weren’t open to the possibility that they could be a jinni.”
“Are all genies evil?”
“Are all humans evil?”
“You just answered my question with another question.”
“And the answer to both is the same.”
Captain Robertson remained in quiet contemplation after that. Satisfied he’d managed to sate his companion’s curiosity without confusing him any further, Mr Daim went back to writing in his notebook. Unfortunately, Captain Robertson was even more confused than before, with a multitude of questions bouncing around in his head.
Are genies really real? Can Mr Daim really track down Spring-Heeled Jack using his residual aura? Why did genie lamps go out of fashion? How did Mr Daim even get his hands on Spring-Heeled Jack’s aura? Have I really met a genie before? What did Mr Daim do to Henderson? WHO IN THE HELL IS MR DAIM?
The realisation began to dawn on Captain Robertson that he didn’t really know a thing about the man sitting across from him. But that didn’t matter. His orders were to provide Mr Daim with protection, not wrap his head around the madness the world seemed to have devolved itself into. The more he could focus on his job, on what was right in front of him, the less his head would ache. Speaking of which, it was really time he had something to eat. Captain Robertson called over the waiter and ordered the day’s special. The men spent the rest of the evening in silence before hailing a growler to take them back to the hotel they were staying at. After seeing Mr Daim safely back to his room, Captain Robertson retired for the night.
Ascending the staircase, trying to force the day’s events out of his head, the veteran was met with an uneasy feeling. Something was off. His door was ajar. Adrenaline kicking in, Captain Robertson carefully unclipped the holster strapped to his chest and slowly pulled out his revolver. Staying extra vigilant, he steadily ascended the final steps. A loud creak reverberated from beneath his feet. Curse these rickety floorboards! Pressing flat against the wall, he crept down the hallway, finger twitching by the trigger. Upon reaching the door, he took a deep breath like a diver about to collide with water and, little by little, he pushed the door open on its squeaky hinges. With one last burst of courage, Captain Robertson swiftly slipped into the room, pistol raised, to find a figure by the window dressed in black as thick as the midnight sky.

To be continued…


This is part of a larger series called Midnights In London

Midnights In London, Part 2

The Capital

After their long journey westward, Mr Daim and Captain Robertson finally arrived in London, the capital of the ever-expanding, ever-glorious, ever-mighty British Empire. To Mr Daim, like many visitors hailing from the colonies, London seemed a lacklustre cesspit of poverty and desperation. Not the centre of culture, science and wealth, one would expect to be befitting of the globe-trotting Britannia whose trident commanded the waves in pursuit of her god-given right to rule the world: Dieu Et Mon Droit. Wherever Britannia’s trident pointed, her subjects would go. It just so happened that in the case of Mr Daim and Captain Robertson, her trident pointed home.
To Mr Daim, the man who’d travelled as far as the imperial courts of Peking, London was the lump of coal amongst diamonds when it came to seats of power. Babylon had the Hanging Gardens, Baghdad the House of Wisdom, Constantinople the Hagia Sophia, but what did London have? A murky river polluted by the scourge of an industrial revolution, cobbled streets with festering horse faeces interposed between its furrows and a neglected palace disliked by its supposed inhabitants – one of whom tried to pawn it off on his own parliament. Speaking of which, perhaps the macabre Clock Tower protruding into a sky choking on smog was the only redeemable feature of this depressing landscape. After all, it was here that the fate of hundreds of millions of the Earth’s residents was decided.
As the duo made their way across Westminster Bridge in a horse-drawn carriage, the macabre Clock Tower looming over them, it was Mr Daim this time that had trouble adjusting to a foreign climate. He had spent so long in the burn-inducing weather of northwest India that the frostbite-inducing weather of southeast England gave him a chilling shock from skin to bone. To remedy this, Captain Robertson had loaned the use of his winter coat to his charge despite the fact that summer was only right around the corner and ignoring the fact that this must have broken some form of protocol written in some kind of handbook somewhere at some point. Over the course of their journey, he had developed a burgeoning respect for his travelling companion, and his endless stream of ghazals, with the belief that the mysterious Mr Daim was a keeper of untold wisdom. The man carried himself with an aura of easiness that one could only achieve if they were to sever their connection from the pursuit of fame and glory, something Mr Robertson felt incapable of, and it is for this very reason that he began to hold Mr Daim in such high regard.
The pair were due to meet with the incumbent Commissioner Henderson, of the Metropolitan Police, for a top-secret meeting at the India Office that would shed some more light on the letter Mr Daim received from the juxtaposing sepoy back in Lahore. And so off they went, through the dense crowds, past the gothic drab of Westminster Abbey housing the rotting corpses of long-dead kings and queens, past the young boy perched atop an empty crate selling copies of The Daily Telegraph he couldn’t read, and northward towards the offices of Her Majesty’s government. There, sandwiched between the overflowing treasury and the oft-vacant number ten, lay the gears that kept Britain’s imperial machine running: the Home Office, Foreign Office, Colonial Office, and all-important India Office. It was from these very rooms that Britannia commanded her vast empire. Mr Daim was about to enter the belly of the beast.

The Meeting

At the gates to the India Office, Mr Daim and Captain Robertson were greeted by the Secretary of State for India, the Eighth Duke of Argyll, who led them through the building, across the marble Durbar Court overlooked by interlocking crescents and crosses, up the Muses’ Staircase flanked by the fossils of millennia-old sea lilies frozen in stone, and briskly ushered them into his office, where the Commissioner was waiting.
“Pleasure to meet you,” Commissioner Henderson welcomed the men with the shake of his hand. Mr Daim could tell from his vice-like grip that the man that stood before him had spent some time in the military.
“I take it you are the fabled Mr Dame who has come to save us?”
“Daim.” This wasn’t the first time Mr Daim had to correct someone on the pronunciation of his name. He was certain it wasn’t going to be the last, so long as he remained on the British Isles.
“We’ll just call you Mr D for the sake of convenience,” tension emanating from the tendons that pulled Commissioner Henderson’s mouth into a tight grin.
“Let’s not dilly-dally, gentlemen. Please, Mr Dame, take a seat,” the Duke motioned for Mr Daim to take the remaining chair beside the Commissioner, while he sunk slowly into the leather armchair located on the opposite side of the large mahogany writing desk littered with theses, pertaining to subjects as wide as ornithology to economics.
It seemed to Mr Daim that the Eighth Duke of Argyll shared a greater affinity for science than he did politics. Captain Robertson remained standing by the door with the stalwart grace one would expect from a member of the British Armed Forces.
“Unfortunately, Her Majesty Queen Victoria is indisposed at the moment and will not be able to greet you personally.”
Mr Daim wasn’t surprised by that revelation. He had become used to the eccentric procedures of royalty and didn’t expect to be granted an actual audience with Her Majesty Queen Victoria. At least Mr Daim wasn’t being given the same runaround afforded to him by the Emperor of Mali.  
“I must confess that I am pressed for time, and so I’ll try my utmost best to be brief, succinct and to the point.”
In Mr Daim’s experience, politicians were rarely brief, succinct and to the point, but he awaited amazement nonetheless.
“Recently, there have been… unusual sightings of… some kind of… well to be perfectly candid, I’m not quite sure how to explain it other than as some kind of supernatural phenomenon. Some sort of flying creature, to be precise.”
“It doesn’t fly, Mr Secretary. It jumps. And if I may be so bold as to inquire why you saw it fit to seek the aid of a foreigner in what is clearly an internal matter concerning MY department?” the Commissioner was clearly agitated by Mr Daim’s presence as if it signified the undermining of his authority in some way.
“Well, the answer to that question is quite simple, Commissioner,” the hard C hiding a dozen tales of contempt, “the Met has proved itself to be quite out of its depth and now…” The Duke paused to fiddle with one of the desk drawers before pulling out and slapping the front page of a newspaper onto the ever-increasing bundle of disjointed papers that littered the varnished mahogany. “And now, the tabloids are getting wind of your failure to put an end to this threat. Hence, why Mr Dame, who is specialised in matters like these, has been brought here to see this menace dealt with. Does that satisfy your question, Commissioner?” The Duke accepted the ensuing silence as a sign of his victory. An ever so sly smile flitted across his face as he turned his attention away from his wounded quarry and towards the patiently waiting Mr Daim. “Apologies for my colleague’s rudeness. I trust you know what needs to be done?”
Mr Daim nodded in agreement.
“Great, well, I’ll let you get to work. Captain Robertson will remain by your side to assist you in this endeavour as your personal bodyguard. Should you need any extra support, Commissioner Henderson has been approved to allocate you any resources that could be of assistance. Although I’m not quite sure how effective his help will be. Any questions? No? Very well, I must really be off now to attend to an important matter. Thank you for your time, gentlemen,” the Duke bid his farewell to Mr Daim and Captain Robertson without extending the same courtesy to his now silent rival.
The Duke was just about to walk through the door when he remembered he had one last request for Mr Daim. “I trust you understand how sensitive this matter is and would greatly appreciate it if you were to do everything within your power to keep things quiet.”
“Of course, Mr Secretary. Rest assured that this menace will cease to plague the streets of London.”
“Good man.” And with that, the Eighth Duke of Argyll was off to attend to an important matter.
As soon as the Duke left the room, Commissioner Henderson turned blood-red hostile. “Look here, Mr Dame,” Mr Daim turned to look here, “or however you pronounce it, frankly I don’t care, but what I do care about is the safety of this city and if you so dare interfere with police business at any point during your stay, rest assured I will bring the full might of the law down upon your helpless soul.” The tip of his finger was thrust between Mr Daim’s ribs now. “So you can go out there with your little trinkets and incantations, or whatever it is you Indian faqirs do, while I’ll lead my men in capturing that… that… thing and bringing peace to the city of London. Just make sure you stay out of our way.” Was that spit Mr Daim felt splash against his cheek? “Good day, gentlemen.”
Commissioner Henderson stormed out the door, down the Muses’ staircase flanked by the fossils of millennia-old sea lilies frozen in stone, across the marble Durbar Court overlooked by interlocking crescents and crosses, and briskly through the gates of the all-important India Office. It wasn’t until both men had left that Captain Robertson finally caught a proper glimpse of the newspaper. SPRING-HEELED JACK STRIKES AGAIN.

To be continued…


This is part of a larger series called Midnights In London

Midnights In London, Part 1

The Letter

Dear Mr Daim,

It is with the utmost urgency that I write this letter. Her Majesty The Queen requires your presence in London to see to a sensitive issue in which your particular expertise and discretion are much-needed. An armed escort has already been dispatched from Calcutta to Lahore and is due to arrive in the coming days. It is imperative that you be ready to leave upon their arrival. Time is of the essence.

Yours sincerely,

Lord Mayo

Viceroy and Governor-General of India

Mr Daim was sitting on his charpai reading Ghalib when the sepoy, clad in his juxtaposing redcoat and navy blue dastar, handed him the above letter. The sepoy was most certainly a Sikh, a conclusion Mr Daim arrived at after spotting the cast iron kara encircling the wrist of the hand that graciously gave him the above letter. No more than three decades ago, the Sikhs were at war with the British. Back then, a Sikh serving the British was unheard of. Then again, so was the distribution of the above letter to individuals such as the aforementioned Mr Daim.
Many of the sepoy’s fellow countrymen wanted nothing to do with the British. Not long ago, sepoys, much like the one in the dastar of navy, rebelled against their British overlords. They were joined by the likes of Maharani Lakshmibai of Jhansi and, for a brief moment, even the esteemed Emperor Bahadur Shah the Second. They lost. Why? Well, because anyone that could defeat the Sikhs, India’s greatest warriors, were able to defeat anyone. And that’s exactly what the British did. So as far as Mr Daim and the juxtaposing sepoy were concerned, India’s fate was sealed, and they had no qualms serving Her Majesty The Queen.
“Meharbani,” Mr Daim dismissed the sepoy and went about packing his things. A few days later, two Bengali sepoys accompanied by a certain Captain Robertson arrived at Mr Daim’s charpai to find him reading Rumi. As instructed, the party immediately left for London.

The Voyage

This wasn’t the first time Mr Daim found himself voyaging halfway across the world. The nature of his work had taken him all over the globe, from the imperial courts of Peking to the dense jungle forests of the Amazon. He was sure that he must have ventured to the British Isles before. Unfortunately, the details of his last visit were so long ago that they had escaped his memories.
After arriving at the foot of Mr Daim’s charpai, Captain Robertson and his two Bengali sepoys began the second leg of their long journey, this time with their charge in tow. They took a train from Lahore to Multan in the oppressive heat of India’s pre-monsoon skies which proved far too much for the rosy-cheeked Captain Robertson, who had his head hanging out the window for most of the ride. In comparison, the two Bengali sepoys, one Hindu one Muslim, remained unphased, fingers firmly wrapped around their Enfield P59s with the certainty that they needn’t grease their ammunition in pig fat nor beef tallow.
The coach remained quiet among the four men. The two sepoys could speak neither Hindi nor Urdu, communicating with their commanding officer in an amalgamation of banglarised* English and anglicised Bangla. That was, of course, only when and if communication was absolutely necessary for Captain Robertson was a man of few words.
In contrast, Mr Daim was a man of the world. He could speak many languages, from Xhosa to Danish. In fact, he could speak so many languages he wasn’t even sure which one it was that he spoke first. Unfortunately, Bangla was not one of them. Mr Daim decided then and there that he’d spend a few decades living in the winding streets of Calcutta upon his return so he could add another language to his ever-expanding repertoire.

It wasn’t until they reached Multan and boarded the steamboat to Kotri that the party’s silence was broken when Mr Daim pulled out some Hafez from his battered old briefcase. The Bengali sepoys spotted the poetry and, in their banglarised** English, asked for Mr Daim to read it aloud. He obliged. And so for the duration of their trip down the Indus, past the Tomb of Bibi Jawindi and its glazed tiles of blue and white mutilated by nature’s scorn, past the sand smothered mortared brick of the dead city of Mohenjo-Daro waiting to be found again, the words of Hafez brought a little life into a dying world. The Bengali sepoys, despite not knowing a word of Persian, gourmandised on the sweet ghazals with awe that transcended the borders of language. Even the reserved Captain Robertson revelled in its joy, the ecstasy of Hafez soothing the burden of a foreign climate that refused to bow down to the will of an Englishman.
Before they knew it, the party had arrived in Karachi, the ghazals having carried them off the steamboat and onto the Scinde Railway, all the while blinding the men to the passing of day into night and night into day. At the city’s port, the Bengali sepoys bid their farewell to Mr Daim, Captain Robertson and the sweet ghazals of Hafez. They had served their purpose; Captain Robertson had made it to Karachi unharmed by the disgruntled natives. The Bengali sepoys, one Hindu one Muslim, would return to Calcutta, fingers firmly wrapped around their Enfield P59s with the certainty they needn’t grease their ammunition in pig fat nor beef tallow. The responsibility fell to Captain Robertson alone to see Mr Daim reach the British Isles. And so, wasting no time at all, they boarded the first passenger ship leaving port.

The ship sailed westward along the Makran coast before turning southward, weaving around Arabia and slipping into the Red Sea. They were not the first to follow this route, and neither would they be the last. Indian and Roman ships had been making this journey for centuries carrying trinkets and treasures to be sold and bartered in addition to gossip and gospel to be shared and broadened. However, one thing was different: the Suez Canal had opened, bridging the gap between what is Red and Mediterranean, shortening the distance between what is Atlantic and Indian, and more importantly, bringing Mr Daim all the more closer to his destination.
And so as they passed through Sinai, sailing the thin line that divorced Africa from its beloved Asia in the cool ocean breeze, Captain Robertson was cured of his rosied cheeks. The absence of the harsh Indian sun signified the end of the Captain’s conversational reservations. In this relaxed state, Captain Robertson, the man of few words, became a man of many relating the story of his life to Mr Daim amongst a backdrop of long-forgotten kings encased in tombs waiting to be ransacked by ever-enthusiastic explorers.
As it turns out, he wasn’t an Englishman at all but rather a Scotsman born to a fisherman who crossed the boundary of Hadrian’s Wall in search of fame and glory as a rifleman in the British Army. He soon worked his way up to the rank of Captain during the latter half of the Second Opium War and had only been stationed in Fort William for four months when he was tasked with escorting Mr Daim to London. During this time, he learned how to speak his anglicised Bangla and a little anglicised Hindi too. Captain Robertson even went as far as indulging in the local cuisine, something his English colleagues were not too fond of. The one thing he hadn’t become accustomed to was the weather, and he was glad to be out before the height of India’s pre-monsoon season.
A little while after the ship left Port Said, Captain Robertson asked the mysterious Mr Daim a question:
“So, Mr Daim, I’ve told you about me, but what about you? What’s your particular area of expertise?”
“I fear you may not be able to fully grasp the extent of my talents, but you needn’t worry, my friend. All will be revealed in good time.”

To be continued…

Maybe.

*I made this word up, lol. If you know what the Bengali equivalent of “anglicised” is, do let me know.

**Yes, this is indeed a word now.


This is part of a larger series called Midnights In London

Shaheen

Fiction. Its an interesting thing isn’t it? Inherently false yet at the same time often truer than even the truest encyclopaedia. Not quite real yet not quite fake either. A kind of no man’s land between the reality that we witness before our eyes and the jumble of threads that make up the complex machinery behind our hardened skulls. A half-existence.

It is in this land of half-existence that we find our protagonist: Shaheen. A being neither old nor young. Neither bright nor dull. Neither handsome nor ugly. Neither fat nor skinny. Neither fast nor slow. Neither man nor woman. Neither real nor fake. A truly – yet at the same time falsely – half-real half-fake being. Well, that depends if you even consider Shaheen a being. For how can something that only half-exists, “be”?

You see, Shaheen knows that she is merely the product of an author’s imagination. And an underdeveloped product at that. He knows that she half-exists. She knows that what he knows she only knows because the author has decided that he knows. She is aware that the boundary of his half-real half-fake half-existence starts and ends with the page upon which her author has written. He will never be more nor less than that. She will forever remain constant. Trapped by the page never really existing but never really not.

Shaheen got his name from her father. A father that didn’t exist until just now when the author decided they did. The name Shaheen means “falcon” in Persian. However, it is not from Persian that the author got the name but instead another language: Urdu. In many ways, Shaheen is like Urdu and Urdu is like Shaheen. A half-real half-fake language in a state of half-existence. Upon laying their eyes on Urdu, one may be forgiven for mistaking it for Persian. Upon hearing Urdu, one may also be forgiven for mistaking it for Hindi. However, regardless of how one encountered Urdu, they would not fail to realise the beauty of the language. And as with all beautiful languages; Urdu is famous for its poetry.

شاہین کبھی پرواز سے تھک کر نہیں گرتا
پُردم ہے اگر تو‘ تو نہیں خطرہ اُفتاد

Shaheen Kabhi Parwaz Se Thak Kar Nahin Girta.
Pur Dam Hai Agar Tu To Nahin Khatra-e-Uftad.

The falcon is never tired of flight, Does not drop gasping on the ground:
If unwearied it remains on wings, From huntersʹ dread is safe and sound.

Allama Iqbal

The author originally came across this poem from their father. Not Shaheen’s half-real half-fake father but instead a fully real non-fake human being. One not confined to the page as Shaheen and his father are. It is from this poem that the author picked out Shaheen’s name for Shaheen’s father to give to her. Neither Shaheen nor his father would really have any choice in the matter. They thought what the author wanted them to think and did what the author wanted them to do. They were only aware of this fact because the author allowed them to be aware. Perhaps, they felt grateful for being given this awareness? Or maybe they felt resentful? Neither Shaheen nor her father nor the author nor the author’s father knew the answer to this question. Could Shaheen and her father even feel? Nobody knew because the author hadn’t decided yet.

The poet who brought the couplet into existence went by many names. “Shair-e-Mashriq” (“Poet of the East”), “Hakeem-ul-Ummat” (“The Sage of the Ummah”), “Muffakir-e-Pakistan” (“The Thinker of Pakistan”) were just a few of his titles. Shaheen found that last title interesting. It is said that the poet envisioned a nation. One that didn’t exist yet at the same time always existed. Not quite real yet not quite fake either. A half-existence just like him. However, unlike Shaheen, the nation wasn’t confined to a page. In fact, the nation was able to elevate from a place of half-existence to a full existence. And this made her feel jealous.

The author had finally decided to let Shaheen feel. Whether Shaheen’s father could feel or not was a different question. The author decided they’d leave that up to the reader to decide. The author was fond of leaving loose ends after all. What is certain is that the author and the author’s father could feel. They were fully real non-fake beings that lived a full existence. But was this true because it was indeed true or was it true because the author said it was true? This left the author puzzled.

While the author struggled to contemplate the truth of their own existence, Shaheen was well aware of the truth of his existence. She was a half-real half-fake being living a half-existence. He was an idea. But just like a nation, ideas could become a reality.

Perhaps one day, the author may name their child Shaheen. Thus, elevating Shaheen from a half-existence to a full existence. At least in name anyway. Perhaps, the author might invest more time into making Shaheen a more fully-fledged character like in the novels they read as a child. This wouldn’t elevate her to a place of full existence, but it would make his half-existence more bearable.

Unfortunately for Shaheen, she was but a skelf of a thought in the author’s head. They had only bothered to bring him into her half-existence because the very idea of Shaheen was keeping them awake at night. Having done so. Having expunged Shaheen from their mind, the author will move on with their life. Thus, leaving Shaheen to her half-real half-fake half-existence. Whether he would ever become anything more than her current state would depend upon the author’s author. For the author only thought what their author wanted them to think and did what their author wanted them to do.