by Aneeta Sharma
I stare at my tormentor, the knot of fear in my stomach tightening with each passing second.
‘She was a school friend. One of the few I had. That is why I asked her to meet me’. I have repeated the same sentence so many times that it sounds rehearsed and totally fake to my own ears. I can see that he doesn’t believe me. I can’t believe it either. What a travesty, I think. A crime reporter was arrested for a crime that had been making the headlines for the past week.
I am on a short official trip and get embroiled in the most sensational murder of the decade—if it is a murder. In my mind, I underscore the word if.
My thoughts wander.
The beautiful Avantika Kukreja had fallen to her death from her fourteenth-floor penthouse. It would have passed off as another suicide bid except for the fact that she was young, beautiful, happily married to her childhood sweetheart, and for the fact, that her husband, Mr. Kukreja, was the potential candidate of the ruling party for the Legislative Assembly. The pressure was on from both those in power and those in opposition– through their favoured media channels—the former to exonerate Kukreja and the latter to nail him for the murder of his wife.
And here I am, seated on a stiff chair with two impassive faces staring at me from across the stained, metallic table which separates us. We have been in this dingy room for what seemed like ages. The tall, gaunt man is clearly in charge. The woman is obviously there as an acknowledgment of my gender; certainly not because of any professional caliber. I christen them Holmes and Watson.
‘You were the last person she was seen with…alive.’ Holmes’ eyes bore down into mine.
‘That doesn’t make me the murderer, does it?’ I retort back wearily.
‘So why did you contact Avantika madam on the 18th?’
We are moving around in predictable circles. The same questions–I know the gimmick–sooner or later I will trip–if I am lying. I take a deep breath and launch into my story, ‘I am a free-lance crime reporter based in Kolkata. I am following a lead on a drug mafia which has brought me to Lucknow. This is where I did my schooling. I had some time on my hands, so I decided to look up some old friends.’
He looks sceptical. ‘And Avantika madam was the only one you thought of catching up with after eight years? Our investigation tells us, you were never in her circle. She moved with a completely different set and none of her friends even remembers your name.’
I knew this was coming. They will never understand the connect which had formed between the vivacious, bubbly, and sought-after Avantika and a skinny, non-descript, and awkward loner.
I wind back for their benefit.
Throughout our two years of senior school I had idolised Avantika from afar; her trendy dresses, her petite figure, her confident charisma. And she had not even been aware of my existence. Till the day before the Valedictory Function. They had all been excitedly discussing their dresses and Avantika had caught sight of me hugging the back wall of the classroom and clinging with wistful eyes to their happy chatter. On an impulse, she detached herself from the group and joined me. What followed had been a modern take on Cinderella and her Fairy Godmother. Avantika had taken charge of me completely; from my dress and hairdo to inviting me to the extended party at her penthouse. Later on, I moved away to Kolkata with my parents. This assignment was a chance of revisiting old times. However, my excited attempts to contact her had drawn a mechanical response informing me that the number was no longer available. But Avantika was a public figure and a popular one at that. I had tracked her from one of the many NGOs she patronised; only to be stalled by a secretary. I had left my number and a message “Cinderella wants to thank her Fairy Godmother.’
Sure enough, I got a call.
A shrill voice jerks me back to the present.
‘We know about the call and every word you spoke,’ the female cop butts in sharply.
I assess her through half-closed eyelids. A typical bully of a woman, who thinks that her too-tight uniform comes with inbuilt super sensory intelligence. Everyone knows that the first thing the cops do is trace every single call on all numbers which the victim may have used. Elementary my dear Watson! Which is what had put them on my track in the first place.
The harmless conversation with Avantika is far from incriminating.
The faces in front of me have deadpan expressions. I am aware that in a murder investigation of this dimension, rules can be twisted, bent, or thrown out of the window. I push away the paranoia which the thought brings in its wake. Will I become a scapegoat for want of a better solution?
‘Hello Fairy Godmother. Remember your little Cinderella? ‘You changed my life completely that valedictory year.’
Of course, she remembered. It was she who had named me Cinderella and appointed herself as the fairy godmother.
Her voice had been guarded. ‘What can I do for you?’
I checked back a hysterical impulse to laugh. ‘I want to meet you….. once.’
She was reluctant.
I was determined. I told her I was a crime reporter but had contacts with a number of society tabloids and Page 3 journalists. I was planning to do an article on how the roots of her benevolence went back to her school years. It would enhance her image and boost her husband’s electoral campaign. I had some awesome pictures from our school days to supplement the story.
‘You drove out of the café together. Don’t try to deny it. You both were seen and noticed.’ It is the sideling blustering.
I loathe these bumbling, overaggressive cops. In all my years of crime reporting, they are the ones who bungle up the case and destroy evidence that is staring them in the face.
I muster up all the patience I can, ‘I wasn’t denying it. I asked Avantika to give me a lift as she was going in my direction. I got off near the Methodist Church.’
‘And then…..’ she prompts.
‘I walked around then went to my room at The Piccadily.’
‘Did anyone see you going up?’
‘How would I know that? I didn’t speak to anyone– if that’s what you want to know.
‘And when did you come down for dinner’?
It is a charade. They know fully well that I had not come down for dinner nor ordered room service. As a matter of fact, I have no alibi from six in the evening of the 18th to the next morning when I had gone down for breakfast.
If I have masterminded the crime, wouldn’t I have catered for an airtight alibi? The very fact that I have no alibi is the biggest evidence of my innocence.
I try another line of reasoning. ‘What motive could I possibly have for murdering her’? My question stumps them. That is perhaps the one missing link between the jigsaw puzzle and my saving grace. Motive.
I am hot, sticky, and tired. I long for the luxury of a hot bath. They are holding me on the flimsy grounds of circumstantial evidence—my detention is illegal—I know it as well as them. I have the right to a lawyer. I also know it will be futile to remind them of my rights. Mr. Holmes is drumming the table meditatively while Ms. Watson looks on hopefully. She is done for the day and wants to get back home and switch from an aggressive cop to a submissive housewife. Clouds are clashing overhead and if she is delayed any longer, she will be caught in the deluge. I feel sorry for her. And for myself. I am exhausted, hungry, and drained.
The interrogation continues. Their repetitive questions and my monotonous answers. The hands of the monochrome wall clock inch forward behind the murky glass. The cops recede from my vision and I clutch at the empty air in an effort to grip the table.
When I come to, only Watson is there. There is a glimmer of sympathy in her eyes. She offers me a glass of water and I slurp thirstily.
‘He’ll be back first thing in the morning. He’s tough as nails. When he decides someone is guilty, he makes sure they are proven guilty,’ she confides and my heart sinks.
She departs and I am alone. It is on the 20th. I have to catch a flight tomorrow. But it doesn’t look as though I am going anywhere. I will sue them for illegal arrest, when I leave.
If I leave.
I suppress the morbid feeling that I may not leave.
The night darkens and the clouds finally let go. The rain pounds deafeningly.
I lean against the wall and shut my eyes.
My mind travels.
It had been sheer magic. Avantika had taken me home and rolled back the sliding doors to her huge wardrobe. She asked me to choose any dress. I was bewildered. She finally picked out what she said would look absolutely smashing on me. And then she had generously done up my face and hair. She spent so much time on me that she barely had time to pull on a simple shift herself and pull back her hair into a high ponytail. I was ecstatic. I was wearing a silver lame dress which I had seen on Avantika once. She looked like a princess. And now I was the princess.
Our class teacher stood at the entrance to the auditorium, welcoming the students. She had always been warm but that day she looked at me coldly and with a hint of distaste. I had pulled at the hem of the dress which was riding above my knees. I was a good four inches taller than Avantika and plump to boot. Maybe the dress was a little too tight and a little too short. So What? Forget Miss prim- n -proper, I told myself and stumbled through the evening on stilettoes which were a couple of sizes too small and bit into my toes, as I smiled bravely.
Once, I caught my reflection in a glass door and could hardly believe that the tall, fashionable creature with heavily shadowed eyes and scarlet lips was me. The rest of the evening was a blur of Oohs and Aahs as classmates who had never given me the time of day, complimented me effusively. The magic didn’t end there. We had moved to Avantika’s penthouse to continue the partying.
With a flourish, she had pulled out a key from the mouth of the ornate lion’s head impaled on the outside wall and her gang trooped in. It was an alien life and I had given myself up to the moments of revelry.
I squash an annoying mosquito. Those transitory moments of the past have become my nemesis in the present. My mobile has been taken and I have no contact with the outside world. I could vanish from the face of the earth and no one would be wiser.
My thoughts recede.
I knew Avantika would come to meet me at the cafe. The mention of the article had done the trick. Publicity was food for her. She eased herself into the chair across me, as beautiful and as poised as I expected her to be.
But I was no longer awed by her presence.
She smiled at me. ‘So you want to do an article on me? A nice one I hope.’ Her voice was cautious.
‘Is there any reason for you to doubt it?’ I responded without missing a beat.
She hasn’t changed much. Or perhaps she has. More beautiful, more elegant…..she radiates confidence. But then, she always did.
I remember everything as if it were yesterday.
That night, I had been standing in the shadows of the terrace when she had come out with her faithful troop. The music stopped for a moment and her clear voice had rung out, ‘Stop teasing girls. I just took pity on that poor frump. She looked so pathetic that I gifted her something she can only dream of.’
Each word had been like a nail hammered into my heart. I spent agonising hours, huddled in that corner. Nobody missed me as the dancing reached a crescendo and then, well-fed and humoured, the crowd started thinning. I detached myself from the wall and went looking for Avantika. Like it or not, I needed this last favour from her. She had promised to drop me home.
However, Avantika had decided to spend the night at another girl’s place and I presented a problem. But she was never one to be stumped with problems. She whisked away, instructing Sahil, her boyfriend of the month, to drop me home without bothering to affirm whether it was okay with me.
Beautiful, self-obsessed Avantika.
She looked even more beautiful now. ‘It’s been a long time. You did get dropped home safely? They didn’t attack you?’ she laughed lamely at her own joke.
‘What did you expect? You left a naïve girl in the midst of a bunch of boys with high libidos, who were tipsy. They had a flat to themselves and a hapless girl who was dressed as though she was begging for it. What do you think they did?’
I had the satisfaction of seeing the colour drain from her face as she sucked in her breath and stared at me in disbelief.
‘And to make my humiliation complete, one of the rats clicked pictures and mailed them to me the next day as a parting gift. Believe me, they are not beautiful. We all have not changed much over the years. Those are the pictures I was talking about.’
Avantika expelled her breath slowly and asked me to name my price. No apology. No regret. Not a word of concern.
I was not surprised.
‘You know Avantika, I came to terms with what happened. It took me years, but I eventually forgave those bastards for what they did. But I could not forgive the reason why it all happened—you. So now it is pay up time’.
‘How much do you want, you blackmailing little…..’
‘Cut it out. I know you’ll not grudge me a chunk of your unlimited wealth but surely I deserve a little fun before we say goodbye. Just humour me for a while.’
I pushed my hand into my jacket pocket and her heavily made-up eyes widened. She probably thought I was carrying a revolver. What a joke!
We had left together and driven to the Whispering Palms. It was only when we were going up in the capsule that it dawned on her that we were headed towards her penthouse. The key was still in the brass wall mount. I told her to unlock and we stepped in.
I demanded a drink.
She was getting restless. She wanted the deal to be closed quickly.
I was in no hurry. When she proffered the drink, I changed my mind and ordered her to drink it. She obeyed reluctantly, her eyes still on my right hand, buried in my jacket pocket.
I walked onto the terrace and she trailed behind like a puppet on a string. I reminded her of the game of ‘truth and dare ‘we had played that night. When my turn had come, they had asked me to walk the parapet. The horror I had felt at that time came back to swamp me. Self-preservation had made me refuse.
I whirled around on her, ‘Why don’t you show me how to walk the parapet?’
She recoiled as if stung. But I hoisted her onto the narrow ledge. She took one tottering step and I slowly withdrew my hand from my pocket. She caught the movement and froze. I smiled. A gentle nudge with the heel of my palm and she flipped over. As her body hurtled downwards, I felt an immense calm sweep over me and I walked out of the penthouse; out of Whispering Palms, and out of the past which had been strangulating me for eight years.
That was two days ago.
A rat runs over my foot and jerks me back to the present. I have been left alone and the solitude is choking me. I prefer the interrogation to this. The silence is driving me insane.
A hand roughly shakes my shoulder. I must have drifted away. The cops enter and stand over me.
‘You never told us Mr. Kukreja was also your batch mate?”
I look at them blankly and reply that it was common knowledge. Avantika and her husband were school-time sweethearts. I am informed that he could not place me but would be there shortly to identify and expose the real me. They will finally have the missing link–my motive.
He walks in an hour later and stares blankly at me. Of course, he doesn’t recognise me.
Mr. Holmes is disappointed. He wants Mr. Kukreja to pull out some memory that would pin a motive on me.
I decide to help him.
‘Mr. Kukreja,’ I say, ‘I was at your wife’s party after the valedictory ceremony. It also happened to be your birthday. You dropped me back home. On the way back, you called her and told her that it was the best birthday gift she had given you. Your friend Gary sent me the pics he clicked on his iPhone. Remember?’
I sit back and watch as Sahil’s face turns ashen and his eyes mirror his absolute recollection. I know he remembers everything but will admit nothing. There is too much at stake. He looks like a trapped rat as he shakes his head at the cops and slinks out.
I step out and breathe deeply. The smoggy air is refreshing and rich. It is the 21st and I have a flight to catch.
About the Author:
Aneeta Sharma is an alumnus of Delhi University and has a master’s degree in English Literature. She has her roots in Himachal Pradesh and hails from a family which is steeped in military tradition. An educator by profession and a writer by choice, she has published two books in 2022. The first, titled Home Run, is contemporary fiction set in an Indian backdrop and the second, A Handful of Dewdrops, is a collection of poems inspired by real-life visuals. Her work has also been published by Kitaab International and Story Mirror on their platforms. Her blogs appear under Random Musings@ TOI.