"We're here, Rax."
Rakesh took one more look at the sheaf of papers in his hands, the notes neatly scrawled across them like a trail of inky black ants, and took his first step out of the car. He immediately felt his shoe withering from the dust and grime that splattered itself across these streets.
If the city was a fish tank, this neighbourhood would be one of the bits in the corner where all the fish poop and discarded scales collected. Every city has at least one of them - the poor, shabby part, the black sheep of the districts that never gets invited to their birthday parties. These were the slums; the nurseries of crime and neglect.
Rakesh stood in front of the building for a while, his weathered, off-colour clothes wishing they could flutter in a gentle breeze but having to do with flapping at the occasional swirl of dust. The building itself looked like it really didn't want to exist - on a scale of 1 to 10, it would be too embarrassed to show up at the judges' table for a score. It managed to have not just paint, but even pieces of cement peeling off the walls. Tiny windows and cramped balconies lined with dust broke up its mostly worn out, pock-marked facade.
"The faster we get this done, the better, Omar," said Rakesh.
"Just finishing, Rax," came the gruff reply.
Omar was Rakesh's right-hand man, officially; he was really more of an overgrown minion. Omar had the built and durability of a brick wall, built with much better bricks than the ones inside the building in front. Omar wasn't stupid, but he was more at ease with someone else calling the shots for him, and preferred to flex his considerable muscles more than his brain. He finished his slightly drooping cigarette, stomped in into the ground and joined Rax as they both entered the building.
They were here to see a man by the name of Sanjay, on behalf of the fearsome Devkandh Basu, a respected industrialist to the public, and a businessman of a far darker nature to those who worked within dark alleys and inside shady cafes. Very few crimes, large or small, were carried out in the city without the touch of Devkandh's ring-laden fingers.
As is common practice with rulers of a criminal empire, Devkandh was a firm believer in the system of what he liked to call 'insurance' - when he found unsavoury characters with a source of sizeable income that probably wasn't a great idea to put in a form under "occupation", he asked them nicely for a regular donation of a share of the profits - and in return, he promised security and freedom to operate without worrying about trivial issues like the law and the police (which left the non-trivial issues to worry about, like Devkandh). If the people under his grip didn't pay up, he stopped being nice. And then made those people briefly reminisce about the days when he was nice before the memories were violently knocked out of them.
Rakesh started banging on the door to Sanjay's apartment as Omar stood beside him, every blow carefully aimed so as to avoid getting splinters, and carefully controlled so as to not unwittingly fling a hinge off. As he waited, he wondered why people like Sanjay, who made the kind of money that could fill a small room if it was in cash on a monthly basis, lived in places like these where even the electricity and water had to be persuaded to show up on a regular basis. He saw the need for privacy, especially for someone in Sanjay's line of work, but there weren't many worse places to find it in than this.
The door slowly shuffled open. A set of wide, bloodshot eyes looked out from the crack.
"Time to pay up, Sanjay," said Rakesh with the blunt abruptness of a steel bat to the face.
In that instant, from the moment the words left his lips, Rakesh knew from the shifting gaze of those sleepless eyes that Sanjay didn't have the money ready - or worse, he wasn't willing to part with it. Omar sped off to go around the back and Rakesh kicked the door down even as Sanjay began dashing madly for the fire exit.
Rakesh wasn't guilty. With the right defence attorney and against the right prosecution, he should have been found innocent, and should have continued his burgeoning career as a financial consultant. But Lady Luck seemed to have driven headlong into a car crash and been hospitalised on her way to the courtroom, and he was wrongly accused of a money laundering scam and sentenced to 6 years in prison.
When he finally got out again, he had tried to get back into the financial sector, but a prison sentence can do wonders for career advancement. When he had finally had it with the faces that went pale and the voices that went frigid every time his criminal record came up, he had turned to a friend of a fellow inmate - and thus taken his first steps into the world of crime, organized and otherwise.
His knack for crunching numbers and his reasonably maintained athleticism had helped make him a favourite of the emperor of the shadow world in these parts, Devkandh Basu. One day, over a drink of spirits so strong they could knock out a fly if it buzzed too close, Devkandh uttered words that would define his life for years to come.
"I want you to keep track of my investments, Rakesh, and I want to make sure they pay their dues on time. You will become... the Tax Man."
As Rakesh clambered down the fire escape platforms, they vibrated uneasily as they bore the impact of his footfalls. These were just as shoddily made as the rest of the building, and it was a miracle that they didn't collapse on a weekly basis. Somewhere below him, Sanjay was making good use of the wings that fear can provide, and was almost at the bottom.
Then came the drawn out sound of metal tearing itself apart (which, given the structural integrity of the platforms, was probably destined), followed by the kind of echoing crunch that would get shushed into oblivion at a theatre and a strangled yell that could be mistaken for a hungry cat loitering in a dark, lonely alleyway.
Sanjay was trying to crawl his way out with the madness of a pack of hyenas condensed into one shivering body when Rakesh landed softly onto the ground. He didn't get far before Rakesh picked him up by the collar, knocked the wind out of him with a knee to the stomach and slammed him against the wall, dislodging a few bits of plaster in the process.
"I'll have the money by tomorrow night, Tax Man," blurted Sanjay tearfully as Rakesh pinned him against the wall, "please, give me one more day - I promise - "
"Your promises have no meaning after that little stunt you just pulled, Sanjay," said Rakesh, as Omar briskly walked up to them, "you know what happens when The Big D is not paid his dues. Your punishment awaits."
Omar cracked his knuckles with the wide grin of a boy about to receive a big fluffy teddy bear after winning it at a carnival. Sanjay whimpered as he slumped to the ground, kicking up a cloud of dust as he hit the dirt.
Rakesh walked away as the punches started flying. He didn't like violence, and the constant presence of it in his livelihood hadn't neutered his distaste for it. Omar had been an excellent resolution to the issue - Rakesh could trust those meaty fists to be flung with glee when the occasion called for it. And in this line of work, the occasion called very often.
When Omar had delivered just enough punishment for Sanjay's memories to be permanently scarred by it, Rakesh dialled the number to a hospital not too far away. The place was one of Devkandh's top picks - they never asked about the before of their patients, and were very good at ensuring an after for them. After giving them the location, Rakesh and Omar strode back to the car.
The Tax Man had many more people to meet.