by Cécile Rischmann
The eerie scream cut into the silence, startling Colonel Chris Santiago awake, forcing him to drag his clothes on and go and investigate. So what if he was on vacation and it was in the early hours of the morning? His job called for action, and as he tucked his gun in its holster attached to his hip, he heard a whimper and quickly left the safety of his apartment.
He already knew where the sound had come from. The building in which he stayed was one of those modern glass and chrome structures with inbuilt swimming pools and other amenities. It had ten floors, and he had rented the apartment on the ninth floor.
The noise came from the penthouse of Jitendra Malhotra, an Indian businessman who was married to Katia, a French lady and they had two daughters, Roopa and Samitha. Often, Samitha, the younger one, would chat with him in French as he bought his groceries from Superstores downstairs. Roopa, who was more reserved, would come and haul her sister away.
Chris took the stairs, crouched, his mind alert as he slid the gun in his hand, ear against the door. There was silence. He tried the door. It opened. Surprising! But he was trained for surprises.
A female yelled. He moved slowly and carefully, conscious of his surroundings. He felt someone behind him and turned, grabbed and punched him in the stomach. The gun slipped to the floor. From the corner of his eyes, he saw another movement and swerved. Roopa had picked the gun and was aiming it at him.
Chris wrestled the gun out of her hand; he always had the safety latch on. He gave her a shove, pointing her and her sister to another room while he secured the attacker.
He entered the bedroom. Katia, their mother, was on the floor. The blood on her body, the torn clothes, and the marks said that she was assaulted. He dialled Aide aux Victimes, French Embassy, Delhi.
Roopa was in the kitchen. She had toasted bread and applied butter, and as they ate, he questioned them on the visitors in the last 24 hours.
‘Only the driver was here,’ Roopa said, indicating the man who’d attacked him earlier and was now arrested. Samitha was eating quietly.
Chris didn’t have children of his own, but he had nieces and nephews, and right now, the girl was showing symptoms of fear, and if handled well, could help them in their investigation.
‘Did you see anything extraordinary? Like Superman diving from the window?’
She looked at her sister who’d gone to the fridge to fetch a glass of milk and was stirring generous portions of Bournvita in it.
‘I saw Papa in a boogieman costume jumping on Mama. She was crying and pushing him. He said “I bought you”.’
Chris looked at the elder girl. Her hand had stilled in the process of stirring. She didn’t say a word.
The French team of experts arrived along with their Indian counterpart and started to examine the woman. He came back to the bedroom, wanting a quick word with the victim before they took her away.
‘Madame Malhotra, can you hear me?’
One swollen eye opened, and she whispered, ‘Raoul.’
‘Madame Malhotra, your husband was here a moment ago?’
Chris wiped his forehead. He was starting to think he was wrong about Katia Malhotra. Why was she framing the chauffeur when her daughter had confirmed that her father was dressed like Boogieman? Surely a child wouldn’t make up a story like that?
He called his friend, who was an attaché at the French Embassy and discussed the case with him. Ron was one of those experts on Human behaviour and would often, for the heck of it, buildup and teardown cases. After an exciting exchange, Chris found himself escorting the children to the nearest mall.
MGF MALL housed a mix of Indian and international brands and sold everything as far as he knew, from cosmetics to electronics and had multiplex and several restaurants. It was equipped with indoor games for children, and Samitha lost no time in making friends with a little girl.
‘Where’s your dad now?’ He turned his attention to the less talkative brat, Roopa.
‘He’s the director of our company; he’d naturally be at work.’
‘Doesn’t he sleep?’
‘Sometimes.’ Her eyes hadn’t left her younger sister. He watched too as Samitha drove the motorized car round the track. Of course, it was remote-controlled, but she gave every impression of concentration.
‘Roopa, I know you love your dad. It is only normal that you’d want to protect him. But if he has something to do with your mom’s condition, he’s in trouble.’
‘Dad would never do that. He’s too classy to beat up a woman.’
‘You mean he’d get others to do it for him?’
‘Don’t put words in my mouth.’
‘Papa says Mama is beautiful like Asha Parekh,’ Samitha said, as she neared the rail where Chris and Roopa were talking.
Chris smiled. Jitendra wasn’t wrong there; Katia did have a certain resemblance to the beautiful yesteryear actress. But after being battered and left to bleed, she might have scars on her face. He’d have to go to the Hospital and draw a statement from her as a favour to Ron. He’d asked if he could look into the case since he stayed in the same block and was there on-site when it had happened.
‘Where were you when the intruder came inside?’
‘Sleeping,’ Roopa said.
‘Watching Cartoon Network,’ Samitha said, as she jumped out of the ring. Chris paid for her ride, and they walked back home.
‘So you heard something and woke up your sister?’
‘I heard Mama screaming and came out to see why. Then I saw Boogieman.’
‘How do you know he is your papa?’
‘He was singing Yeh Shaam Mastani. Papa always sings that song when he climbs on Mama.’
He was being followed. His sharp reflexes sensed the constant shadow. He halted at L’Opéra, a French pâtisserie, bought himself a yummy croissant and sank his teeth into it. His head gave a casual twist. He saw the tall, well-built man, wearing shades. He was an image of the chauffeur. He’d have to find out if Raoul had an identical twin.
But it still didn’t throw light on why Raoul was at Katia’s place when her husband was or wasn’t with her. How did Jitendra manage to leave the house without anyone seeing him? And why was Roopa covering for her father while Samitha was letting him down?
A loud gunshot interrupted the morning serenity of the park dwellers, and they ran for their lives. His training had taught him to anticipate, and that was what saved him. The shot came from long range and not from the man who had distracted him. It was someone from a running car.
Gurgaon, it appeared, was highly influenced by the movies as it was exactly as it would be in a film. One minute Chris was enjoying his croissant, the next minute he was on the pavement, not dead, luckily, but wounded on the shoulder. He got into a moving cab and took himself off to the Hospital.
The bullet had grazed him, leaving a bloodied shoulder, and as he gave a detailed account of it to his friend, the doctor cleaned and fixed the wound. Katia was awake, and he needed to get her statement.
Green eyes with shades of hazel gold surveyed Chris through puffed lids. Her mouth was swollen. Her skin was torn as if the aggressor had sunk his nails into her flesh. She must be in great pain.
His heart shifted. When she’d come to India, he was sure that she didn’t have this in mind. She must have thought marrying a wealthy Indian businessman would secure her life financially and emotionally.
Chris smiled as he took the stool next to the bed. She didn’t smile back. She couldn’t. Her lips were cut and sore.
‘Madame Malhotra, this is Chris Santiago, I stay in the same block, one floor below you. Can you tell me what happened?’
‘I heard a knock on the door,’ she began with an agonized groan. ‘The children were in their room. My husband was still at work. It was our chauffeur.’ Her eyes started to fill. ‘He said that his boss asked him to stand guard until he returned home.’
‘Did you find that odd?’
‘Yes, I told him that my husband would have to drive all that way and it was already late. We could take care of ourselves.’
‘Did you call your husband?’
‘He doesn’t like to be disturbed. Also, I didn’t want to complain about the chauffeur unnecessarily.’
‘And your children were in their room all through?’
‘Roopa came out to see who it was.’
‘Roopa or Samitha?’
‘Roopa, she went to the kitchen for a glass of water.’
‘How long has Raoul been in service?’
‘What happened after that?’
‘I went back into the bedroom. Suddenly, I saw him looming over me. I was so shocked that it took a while to register. By that time, his hand was on my mouth, cutting off my scream.’
‘Where were Roopa and Samitha?’
‘In their room, I guess.’
Chris looked into her frightened eyes. The doctor had patched her up, but it was doubtful if she would continue to look like Asha Parekh. The attacker had made sure of it. And that was another reason he was inclined to think it was her husband.
Jitendra had not introduced his wife to many people in the apartments, and they said that he was pretty possessive of her. On the same note, why would a man who was so possessive of his wife allow a young male, even he was their trusted chauffeur, to watch over his glamorous wife?
‘Thank you, Madame Malhotra. I’ll let you rest now.’
Ron returned early that evening, eager to know the happenings.
‘So the victim claims it is Raoul, their driver?’ He drew a table and put Katia’s name and wrote Raoul on one side with a tick and Jitendra on the other side with a line across his name. ‘Roopa, the elder daughter confirms it is not her father.’ He wrote her name and drew a line against Jitendra’s name for the second time. ‘Samitha, the younger daughter, says it is her father.’ He wrote Samitha’s name and Jitendra beside it and then ticked it. ‘Hmmm, interesting.’
‘Who do you think is telling the truth?’
‘Well, I’d take the younger girl’s story as she seemed sure of her information. She gave evidence about the costume, the song and the words her father said before he jumped on her mother. None of the others did that.’
‘So why am I getting this bad feeling that they are framing him?’
‘You tell me. It is a cut and clear case of Jitendra’s involvement. We have already deduced from his behaviour that he is a possessive man. He threatens his wife and sometimes locks her inside. We already know that he treasures her and doesn’t want to share her. What if she was having an affair with the chauffeur and he came in and saw them?’
‘So where was he when I arrived?’
‘He could have been in one of the rooms and slipped out. After all, you were attacked by the Raoul and Roopa. You’d have been busy fighting them and could have missed him. We’ll have a look at the cameras and confirm that.’
Chris was granted ten minutes with Jitendra after the French Embassy sought permission from the Commissioner’s office. Jitendra didn’t seem upset by what had happened. He seemed more impatient than anything else that they were preventing him from working.
Chris gave him a brief smile. Jitendra sat back and folded his arms against his chest.
Was this man a suspect in detention, or a CEO in detention? He was wearing his official suit and had removed his coat and unbuttoned his shirt. A closer glance at him, however, gave another story.
He was afraid. The dark eyes shifted from Chris’ face to the file in his hand.
‘Monsieur Malhotra,’ Chris shook his hand and took the seat opposite the small desk. ‘I believe your chauffeur attacked your wife. Is that right?’
‘She was having an affair. Raoul found out and told me. I asked him to stay there until I got back as I didn’t want that man in my house. In the meantime, I got this call about Katia. Raoul would never do something like that.’
Chris noted the name of a fellow he mentioned. He knew him. Denzil was a journalist and a good one. They stayed in the same block. Why would Denzil want to get involved with a married woman was his first thought. But then, supposing he was into an investigation, it was only natural that he’d talk to Katia often. Maybe Jitendra had been afraid and tried to silence Katia?
‘Are Roopa and Samitha your children?’ He knew it was a pretty personal question, but suddenly it struck him that it would explain the children’s different recounts of the events.
‘Roopa came from Katia’s first marriage. I accepted them as my family, never showed a difference between the girls. Did they indicate otherwise?’
‘Monsieur Malhotra, if I take Roopa’s testimony, you were at work. If I take Samitha’s testimony, you jumped on your wife. If I take your wife’s testimony, Raoul is at fault. And now you say that Denzil, the journalist, is involved. I’m yet to interview Raoul!’
That night, Chris and Ron sat on the balcony of their condominium sharing the latest developments over a glass of fine whisky. Chris told him about the meet, and Ron added the new name to his table.
‘Ask the girls if Denzil is a frequent visitor. The younger one would be more inclined to talk. By the way, the Ambassador has invited you for the French National Day.’
‘Sure! If I’m in town.’
Chris rode the escalator to the Malhotra’s Penthouse and knocked on the door. An unknown woman opened it. Roopa was behind her, and Samitha followed. It was after seven o’clock in the evening.
Why were they dressed as if they were taking off?
Chris flashed a smile and his batch. The woman looked at Roopa and then at Samitha. The latter needed no encouragement. She darted under the lady’s arm and showed her teeth at Chris.
‘Come in, Colonel. Mama is resting. Papa is at the police station. Raoul is in prison. Uncle Denzil called. This is my aunty Bridgette from France.’
‘When did you arrive?’ he asked, as he scribbled her name in his notebook and the information about Denzil’s call. The case was getting more and more complicated, he thought, as he eyed Roopa.
Why was she trembling? And why was the little one so immune to the happenings? And where was Lady Bridgette when Katia was assaulted?
‘Does uncle Denzil come often?’
Roopa’s eyes fired with some kind of dark emotion. ‘My mom and Denzil are in touch, yes.’
‘Are they close?’
‘You can say that.’
‘Mama didn’t like him,’ Samitha said in a shaky voice. ‘She left and came to Boogieman. Boogieman took care of Mama, Roopa and me.’
‘Wait a minute. Was your mom in a relationship with Denzil?’
‘He’s my father.’ Roopa said with reluctance.
Chris bit back a startled gasp and made a note of that, wishing that he’d brought Ron along with him. This case was churning out more twists and turns for his rational mind.
Why hadn’t Jitendra elaborated that the man he suspected of having an affair with his wife was her ex-husband? And why was Bridgette so silent? He’d asked her a question, and she was yet to answer.
Could it be that her English was limited? Well, fortunately for her, he spoke French, but she didn’t give him a chance to use his linguistic skills as she left them in the hall and headed to the bedroom.
‘When did your aunt arrive in town?’
‘Aunty Bridgette is Uncle Denzil’s girlfriend,’ Samitha told him with a glance at her sister. Chris dropped into a chair and made a note of that. ‘When Aunty Patty goes to work, she goes to their house.’
‘Samitha! My dad is not like that. She is the one running behind him. He has never been unfaithful to mom.’
Chris needed a break. He also needed to talk to Bridgette. What if she and her lover were involved in bringing Katia to that state for some mysterious reason?
It was late when he’d returned home. He couldn’t talk to Katia and Bridgette as they refused to be questioned. The children were tired and sleepy. He was glad in a way that their aunt was with them. They needed a familiar face around.
Ron grinned as he arrived for breakfast the next morning. He seemed quite confident that he had the “framer” in mind.
Could it be Denzil? He was the only one who was unavailable when they’d called and wasn’t returning the calls. He was the one who hadn’t got over Katia and had taken up residence in the same building so he could be close to her and their daughter. He was the one who would want his family back.
At the same time, why would a man in love marry another woman and on top of it take his ex-sister-in-law as his mistress? Why would he take off on an assignment instead of clearing his name from the suspect list if he was guilty?
And then suddenly, the realization hit him. He looked at Ron and said through his teeth, ‘It is her, isn’t it?’ He pointed to the suspect on his pile of notes.
‘It is.’ Ron said, ‘She hasn’t forgiven her mother for having left her father. She hasn’t forgiven her father for having an affair with Bridgette, leading to the split. She hasn’t forgiven her stepfather for having come in the way and married her mother, thus ending all possibilities of her parents patching up. She used her step-sister by feeding her information from time to time so she would throw us off track. The only person she trusted and loved was their chauffeur, Raoul, and had convinced him to help her.”
Unbelievable! But coming to think of it, she had been brilliant. She’d always taken her stepfather’s side, knowing that they would eventually discover that she wasn’t Jitendra’s real daughter and all eyes would turn to her. She made sure her sister saw the boogieman costume and heard the song and the “I bought you” dialogue.
‘Do you have anything to say in your defence?’ They were seated in a private enclosure at the police headquarters in the presence of the Inspector General of Police.
Jitendra sat in shocked silence. The man who had been calm and collected hearing about his wife’s assault was unable to take in the fact that his daughter had tried to frame him. Roopa, on the other hand, was composed. Now that the truth was in the open, she seemed relieved.
‘Raoul is not to blame. I asked him to help me.’
‘You ungrateful girl! Do you know how I fought to have you with us when your parents wanted to send you to the boarding? And this is how you repay me?’
‘Do you think it is normal what Raoul did to your mother?’
‘No, he lost control. He was supposed only to frighten her and be there until Stepdad walked in.’
‘I wanted him to divorce my mother so she’d be free to remarry my father. Is that so wrong?’
‘Your mother was bruised and battered. Your stepfather was held in custody. Raoul won’t be out for several years—’
‘I’ll wait for him.’
Jitendra rose and came threateningly towards her. Two security officers held him back.
‘Monsieur Malhotra, I’ll have to ask you to leave if you continue to hinder the progress.’
‘Your parents have been divorced for a while. Why was it so important to bring them back together now?’
Samitha, who had been holding her silence until then, came towards Chris and climbed on his lap. ‘Aunty Bridgette said…’ she looked at her sister, who was glaring at her, ‘shall I tell?’
Chris forgot that he was supposed to wait and allow the little one to make up her mind. He whispered in her ear that he’d take her to MGF once again if she told him. He didn’t have to wait for a second after that.
‘Aunty Bridgette said that she and uncle Denzil are going to Las Vegas to marry.’
About the Author:
Cécile Rischmann is a writer and a foreign linguist with two novels and five short stories to her credit. One of her short stories has won a nationwide romance writing competition as a part of which it was not only selected and edited by best-selling author, Anuja Chauhan but also released by Rupa Publications in an anthology, An Atlas of Love (2014).
She lives in Chennai and shuttles between France and India. She is presently working on her next novel, scheduled for a 2021 release, and a collection of short stories. She also freelances for a vanity press. Here’s are links to her work: www.cecilerischmann.com https://www.amazon.com/author/cecilerischmann