A grimy nylon string dangled from a hook in the ceiling that was once the colour of ivory but was now an indeterminate brown. The man standing inside the bar counter cage grabbed a piece of newspaper from the bunch of squares shoved onto a nail on the wall.

The punter tossed his first cutting of Old Admiral brandy down his throat as he watched the bar attendant hold aloft a boiled egg on a piece of paper and use the string to slice the egg so that it burst into bloom. He marvelled, as he always did, at the artistry. The egg was no longer an egg but a frangipani flower with fat white petals and a yellow heart. He watched the man sprinkle onto it a mixture of pepper and salt from a greasy blue plastic bottle.

Gulping his second cutting, the punter took the paper plate heaped with the sliced egg. He ate it slowly, relishing each bite. The egg-flower followed the Old Admiral into a happy place inside him.

He gestured for a refill. This time a 90 ml, he indicated with his thumb and forefinger. The brandy sloshed against the glass as he walked to the island of tables at the centre of the bar. He plonked himself down in a chair. He had had a good day and had decided to treat himself to an afternoon of pleasure. He looked up, still flushed with a sense of well-being, at the man seated opposite him.

“Namaskara,” the punter said, jumping to his feet and joining his palms together to indicate his total subservience. He gave the man a nervous smile as he took his glass and himself to one of the counters that ran alongside the wall of the dark, dingy bar.

He stared at the brandy in his glass and told himself that he was lucky to have got away without having his nose broken or his teeth on the floor. No one sat at Oil Mill Jaggi’s table. Not unless he invited you to.

There was a time when Oil Mill Road was just a road. No one knew it by name. People coming in from the city took it to get to the newly built Jal Vayu Vihar, an apartment complex for naval and air force officers. The military, not to be left out, had set up Sena Vihar across the road, soon turning Kammnahalli into this bustling area with people from different parts of India and foreign countries. It was difficult to walk through this stretch without running into Arabs, Africans, Koreans and God knows who else, the punter thought. Not that it bothered him one bit. He liked crowded places.

But Oil Mill Road was still his territory. He knew most of the shop owners by name and could even squeeze them for a ‘temporary loan; return guaranteed’. The punter felt like he belonged there. Usually. But not this afternoon. The presence of Oil Mill Jaggi had unnerved him and made it seem as if he was trespassing on an area he should have steered clear of.

The curtains parted and a man walked in. Even though it was three in the afternoon and the sharp light of the November sun blazed in the street outside, the punter felt a chill down his spine. He recognized the man by face. He wasn’t a regular at this bar or at any other. But the punter knew him; knew of him. He was called Military. He didn’t speak much but you knew when Military was in a good mood. For he would sponsor a quarter for anyone who caught his eye. You also knew when Military was in a bad mood. The punter had seen him smash an argumentative drunk’s face into the wall and drag it against the surface, all without a bead of sweat popping up on his brow.

Military walked to Oil Mill Jaggi’s table and sat across him. He gestured to the man in the cage.

“Jaggi,” the man said. “What are you doing here?” Oil Mill Jaggi shrugged.

“Do I need to state the obvious?”

“Don’t forget . . . it’s a big day – the day after tomorrow. This isn’t when you drink yourself into a state where you don’t know your elbow from your knee.” Oil Mill Jaggi narrowed his eyes, and then, as if he had changed his mind, ignored the presence of the glass with some alcohol in it and said blithely, “Chill, Military. I haven’t been drinking. This is where I come to think.”

The man frowned.

“My boss won’t like it.”

“Your boss and I go back a long way. Long before you started calling him boss.” Oil Mill Jaggi yawned loudly and stretched. “Relax and have a quarter, Military. Why are you getting so worked up? Or is it that you don’t trust me anymore?”

“It’s big stakes, Jaggi. I can’t relax. I have a lot riding on this,” the man said, pulling out a chair.

“You will be a rich man and so will I,” Oil Mill Jaggi said and pushed the plate of mudde and mutton curry from the next-door Naidu restaurant towards him. “Or we will be fucked. It can go only two ways, so why stress?”

Military looked at the ragi balls as if they were pieces of dog turd and said, “I just had lunch. Besides, how can you eat this? It gets stuck in the throat.”

Oil Mill Jaggi flexed his enormous biceps at Military. “Mudde is what began this and mudde is what keeps it going.” He tore a piece off the purplish-brown ball, daubed it in the mutton curry, forked a piece of meat with his fingers and popped all of it into his mouth, almost defiantly. Then he swallowed it with a convulsive movement of his throat.

The punter would have liked the mudde. He looked at it hungrily. And without thinking, he let his gaze wander to Military. For a fleeting moment, their eyes met. His two cuttings dissipated into a thin vapour of fear.

The punter took his glass and moved to the farthest end of the counter. Any further and he would be in the toilet. But it was best to keep his distance from those two, he decided. He didn’t want to be accused of listening in. Or get caught in between if the two of them broke into a fight. The punter wondered at their power equation. It was hard to tell who feared whom and who would survive if they got into a fistfight.

He saw Military toss his rum down his throat and leave the bar, squeezing Oil Mill Jaggi’s shoulder on his way out. A little later, Oil Mill Jaggi followed. The punter heaved a sigh of relief and finished his drink in one gulp. What a waste of money! He had treated himself to a better brand instead of his usual Silver Cup. It felt like he had drunk one-quarter of rasam rather than brandy. “Thoo, bosadi magane,” he swore, spat into his hand and wiped it on his shirtsleeve. There was something immensely satisfying about calling those two men sons of a whore. It didn’t make up for the wasted afternoon but it was some compensation, he told himself.

Then, because it was prudent to do so, the punter drew out a brand-new razorblade still in its sleeve from beneath the multiple red threads wound tight around his right wrist. He took the blade out and popped it into his mouth. It would buy him enough time to escape and flee if either of them decided to pounce on him for being in the bar when they were there.

The punter chewed on the blade as he walked on to Oil Mill Road with the furtive step of a rat on the prowl.

Excerpted with permission from Hot Stage: A Borei Gowda Novel, Anita Nair, HarperCollins India.