Rajesh Bharani looks at his wrist-watch and frowns.
“Churchgate jaane waali ek baje ki local platform kramank chaar par aane wali hai. Yeh local Andheri Se Bandra, Bandra se Dadar, Dadar se Mumbai Central, ke beech kisi bhi sthanakon par nahin rukegi.”
This is the fifth time the announcement for the impending arrival of the last local to Churchgate has been made. Rajesh swats away yet another mosquito hovering around and yawns widely.
Of late, work has been holding him back at the office at ungodly hours. Despite being paid a handsome salary and the advice of his well-meaning boss and colleagues, he doesn’t believe in taking a cab from Andheri to Marine Lines. The way he has been raised, even hailing an auto to his office, 10 minutes away from Andheri station, will be seen as a waste of money. So he walks to the office, come rain or scorching summer.
So he braves the mosquitoes, the discomfort, and the sweltering Mumbai crowds to reach home. And on nights like today, bear the deafening silence while waiting for a train which seems to be ‘arriving’ for the last ten minutes.
Finally, he feels the platform rumble beneath him. At the end of the platform, a shape emerges from the darkness. Two squares of illumination—the engine windows. The train’s pulling in.
Rajesh boards the gents’ compartment in front of him as soon as the train halts. He has become a creature of habit, having learnt to board a crowded compartment when there are ten others trying to board with him.
The compartment is empty.
Rajesh doesn’t have a problem, because he doesn’t always need human company. He has his books. In his office bag, there is always a book or two, mostly pulpy thrillers.
Rajesh takes a seat and makes himself comfortable by putting his feet up on the opposite bench. He takes out a James Hadley Chase book from his bag and opens it to the page last read.
Beneath him, the train starts to move. As stations whiz by, fleeting centres of light followed by long periods of darkness, he barely pays attention, engrossed in his book.
He only looks up when the train pulls into Dadar, that too because the lights inside the compartment flicker briefly. Dadar station seems deserted. Seconds later, the train moves again. Rajesh goes back to his book.
He looks up again, but this time, it’s not the flickering lights. It’s rather the feeling that he’s not alone.
Few rows away, he can see the back of a head.
Rajesh remembers that the local is on its way to Mumbai Central and it’s a fast one. So it won’t stop at any stations after Dadar and before Mumbai Central. He also remembers seeing no one board at Dadar. His seat faces all four doors of the compartment.
Then where has his co-passenger come from? And when? He would have heard someone board, at the least.
Perhaps he has been too engrossed in reading.
Rajesh tries to focus on the book, but he has a tingling feeling in the back of his neck. He has boarded an empty train after midnight dozens of times and he has never felt this way before.
Rajesh shakes his head.
Which is when he hears a noise and is forced to look up again.
The head seems to have moved a few seats closer, but whoever it belongs to still has his back to him.
While being fairly used to indifferent Mumbaikars who always seem occupied in their own world, Rajesh wonders why the other passenger hasn’t approached him yet, given that they’re the only two people on board. Sure, he may too be a lone wolf, but what’s the big deal in making small talk with a stranger?
Rajesh shrugs. He doesn’t believe in forcing his company upon people, so he will wait till the other person stops pussyfooting around, takes the seat in front of him, and says hello.
He goes back to the book.
And is forced to look up yet again.
A man is sitting at the edge of the seat in front of him, dressed in a white shirt, black pants, and floaters. He carries a bag very similar to Rajesh’s. He’s smiling at him.
“Hello,” Rajesh ventures. He wonders how the other man got up and came sit right opposite him, without making the slightest of sounds. And Rajesh has been paying close attention. He would have heard.
“Hello, Rajesh,” the fellow commuter replies. And Rajesh feels gooseflesh erupting on his arms, in addition to the ones on the nape of his neck.
Because the man has replied in a whisper. A hissy whisper.
And how does he know his name?
Rajesh removes his feet from the seat, so the other man can sit comfortably. Suddenly he finds himself not wanting to talk, but to get on with his book till the train halts at Marine Lines.
Instead, in the blink of an eye, the man is sitting right next to him. He still has a smile on his face, which is now starting to look creepy. White teeth flash at Rajesh, who can’t help think of a lion’s jaws.
“Hey, mister, what the hell?” Rajesh asks, indignant. This is getting ridiculous. What is the other man up to? And how the hell is he moving so quickly, without making any noise?
The man opens his mouth.
And reveals razor sharp teeth.
His eyes start to turn red.
What look like scales start to erupt on the man’s exposed skin.
A voice in Rajesh’s head says to run, but his body seems to have been petrified, his legs turned to jelly.
As if on cue, a forked tongue sneaks out from between his fellow commuter’s saber-like teeth.
Rajesh sees the lights in the compartment flicker.
A a white hot bolt of pain sears through his body. The world starts to dissolve in front of him.
Then all is dark.
Man Found Dead Inside Churchgate-Virar Local
A man was discovered dead, early yesterday morning, on board a local headed for Virar, by commuters boarding at Churchgate. The corpse of the seemingly young man was, as witnesses describe, completely pale, and his face seemed to have frozen in an expression of horror, his eyes wide open. He was clutching his heart with both hands. There were no other visible signs of injury on the body.
This is the fifth case, in as many weeks, of men being found dead, under seemingly mysterious circumstances, on the first morning Churchgate-Virar local—which is the last Virar-Churchgate local at night.