The Masked Criminal
Rima reached Mumbai safely. Her makeover gave her such a different appearance that she failed to recognise herself when she first looked into the mirror. Her hair was tied in a traditional bun. Ample vermilion covered her middle parting. A heavily padded bra, puff sleeved blouse and multiple petticoats made her look fat. She wore a red bordered off-white sari, stiff with starch, in typical Bengali style. Gold framed round spectacles, a big red 'bindi' on her forehead and flat heeled Shantipuri slippers completed her look. She partly covered her head with the 'pallu' of her sari and slightly limped as she walked towards the airport gate. Any onlooker would mistake her for a fat, middle aged Bengali married woman, suffering from arthritis.
Once inside the airport, she hastened to the washroom and changed into her own clothes. She silently thanked Mr Nandy as the flight started moving.
Aniket came to receive her at the airport. On her way she bought a big box of chocolates for Monika. She couldn't bring the one she bought earlier for obvious reasons. There was a small birthday party in the evening. Monika had invited a few of her college friends. They had a wonderful evening chatting and watching a movie on the home theater.
At night Rima unfolded everything to Aniket. He was shocked to learn about her narrow escape.
"Thank God Rima, nothing happened to you. I told you before, these people are dangerous."
"I don't understand why they are after me," said Rima.
"Do you know any of their secrets Rima? Tell me frankly."
"Believe me, I know nothing."
"Something must have happened that made them suspicious of you. Think hard. Can you remember any unusual incident?"
Rima thought for some time.
"Nothing unusual. Or maybe there is. Sarbari said that the detestable woman has suddenly disappeared."
"Really? Where? People will get some peace now.””
"Actually! Sarbari said she is not seen on social media too."
"Anyway, don't worry, I'll call Anil and discuss the matter with him today. Being an IPS officer he will be the best person to help us."
The next morning the matter was disclosed to Aniket's elder brother Sohom and his wife Kavita. They were shocked as they realised how grave the situation was.
"It would have been better if all of you could stay back here till the matter is solved," said Sohom.
"But for how long Dada?" asked Aniket. "I have to think of my office and Rima has her patients. Hiding will never solve the problem. No, we must return. But yes, as Mr Nandy suggested, we can make the tickets a day earlier."
"But the children cannot return now." said Sohom. "They'll remain here till the peril is over.
"What about Ronnie's school and Aishi's college?" asked Rima.
"Let them stay till the end of their vacation. After that, if situation doesn't improve we'll see what can be done."
"Okay, if they so wish."
"Don't worry. I'm sure they will wish it more than you can imagine," joked Kavita, to which everyone laughed.
He smashed the glass on the floor in intense fury.
"Your men are nothing but a bunch of fools!" he screamed.
"I'm sorry Sir. But we did exactly as you instructed us to do."
"Shut up! How could your men allow her to get away?"
"My men watched her residence and chambers but she did not go to any of these places. She did not even attend the medical conference. How she managed to hoodwink my men in the airport is a mystery. We tried our best, Sir."
"Best my foot! Now she'll tell her husband and he has friends in the topmost echelon in the police force. Her brother is married to the daughter of a minister. You understand what soup we're in, you fool?"
"Get lost before I lose my head and do something violent. And don't expect a single farthing from me anymore. You and your men are dismissed."
"Please Sir, give us one last chance. I know the date and time of their return. This time my men won't fail. Their cab will be blown away."
The man thought for a moment.
"Okay, one last chance. If your men fail, never dare to show your face to me again."
"You may go now."
"Theres one more thing, Sir."
"My men saw her with another woman in a shopping mall. They spent quite some time together in the food court. This woman was with her when she bought the pepper spray. She might have told her something."
"Your men knew she had a pepper spray?"
"No Sir, they learnt only after she used it on them."
"Disgusting! Who's the other woman?"
"My men had no instructions to follow the other woman Sir."
"I see! Let me think. You go now and make sure your men don't miss this time."
"They won't Sir."
After the man was gone he lit a cigarette and thought hard. It was unlikely that the doctor woman had anything to do with the sending of the photos. He had the number checked secretly. The SIM belonged to some Imtiaz Malik from Murshidabad. Undoubtedly it was a false account. The doctor did not appear the type who would involve herself in such shady affairs. But it would be unwise to take any risk. The woman was already suspicious enough to buy a pepper spray. Next she might even get the license to buy a firearm. The attempts on her would surely induce her husband to go to his police officer friend and begin a thorough investigation. No, it would be unsafe to keep them alive. But the question was, if she did not send the pictures, who did?
Mrs Chaki called her friends after a weekend holiday at Mandarmoni.
"Friends! I'm back!" she wrote in the Ladies Whatsapp group. "To celebrate my homecoming let's all meet at the club."
Her announcement was followed by a number of happy comments from her friends. Anyone going through the messages would think she had returned from the Mars after aeons and not from a weekend holiday at Mandarmoni.
"Oh it's so nice to get you back darling."
"We terribly missed you dear."
"Life was so boring without you."
"Hope you won't leave us again on another vacation immediately."
"It's a long time since we had a get together. Looking forward to it."
"Will it be Dutch, like always?"
"Of course it will be Dutch. We can't dream of burdening a friend with a huge bill."
"Right. What's the date and time dear?"
Mrs Chaki replied after two full hours.
"Dear friends! I'm overwhelmed at all the love and affection you have showered upon me. I really don't deserve it. I am equally impatient to meet you all. Let's all meet at my club next Saturday at 7 pm. We will chat over snacks and drinks. Oh yes we'll go Dutch. I don't want my darling friends to feel guilty by paying a huge bill all by myself."
"Of course darling. We're all there with you. It's done then. Saturday at 7 pm."
"Yes, I'll come."
Some of the group members remained silent. Sarbari was one of them.
The get together turned out to be more crowded than usual. Mrs Chaki had brought mother-of-pearl key rings for all her friends from Mandarmoni.
"I hope she doesn't charge money for these too!" whispered one of the guests to another woman.
"I won't be surprised if she did," replied the other. "She seems overtly fond of the Dutch."
"What a miserly bitch!"
The party began in full swing. By ten most of the women were fairly drunk. Mrs Chaki asked for the bill. The women handed over their shares to her and stumbled outside.
Many of them grumbled at the exorbitant sum they were made to pay.
"She asked fifteen hundred rupees per head for a few pegs of gin and those paltry chicken pakoras and fish nuggets! This is open robbery!"
"This is my first and last. My husband doesn't have black money. She didn't even show us the bill."
"She never does. She just tells us the amount."
"Why doesn't anyone want to see the bill?"
"Nicety I suppose."
"Nicety my foot! Someone robs you and you show nicety to her? What sort of nonsense is that?"
"Why didn't you ask for the bill?"
"How could I? I attended for the first time. And I promise there won't be a second."
"Right. Same with me too."
Their grumblings continued till they reached their cars. Some of them called Ola Cabs. Within fifteen minutes everybody was gone except two women. These two were in no hurry to return home. They seated themselves in the first floor balcony and enjoyed the silence of the night over another drink.
"So, how's life dear?" asked one of them as she leisurely sipped her drink.
"Not bad," replied the other, feeling quite tipsy.
"Good. This is the age to enjoy life."
"Sure. By the way, did you get any more photos?"
The first woman slowly turned her face to look at her companion. Due to darkness the latter did not notice the mixed expression of surprise and shock on her face. It took a few seconds before she replied.
"No. I did not get any more photos."
"Any idea who sent you these indecent photos?"
She looked into the dark and slowly nodded her head.
"Initially I did not know and made a mistake... But now I know the truth. Anyway, it's getting late. Let's leave now." There was something in her voice that made her companion feel uncomfortable.
They returned home in the same car in silence. The first woman, though quite drunk, felt fairly steady. She changed into her nightgown and retired to bed. She closed her eyes but could not sleep. She was trying to solve the puzzle going on in her head.
'I did not tell anyone about the photographs except him. Then how the fucking bitch came to know about them?'
Suddenly she got the answer. A few months back she and a few of her friends had attended a kitty party at a common friend's house. While returning, the other woman had taken a lift in her car. The driver dropped her in front of her NGO and went away to drop her companion at her home. She had mistakenly left her cell phone on the back seat of her car. It was probably not locked either. Her companion must have taken advantage of the situation and surfed through her photo gallery. She found the pictures and simply forwarded them to her own mobile. Then she deleted the messages from the sender's mobile. It was as simple as that! And she lost her mind thinking about a hacker! She felt immensely relieved that her contact numbers were safe. Next day she would confront the guilty woman and make her confess her sin. She would also force her to delete all the photographs from her mobile. That would settle the matter. Yet she failed to understand why a friend should want to blackmail her. If she was in financial trouble she could have discussed it with her. That was what friends were for. She must to talk to her and know her problem. Soon she fell into a dreamless sleep.
A voice from the adjacent room woke her up. He was speaking to someone on the landphone. Though he kept his voice low, she could hear him. She got up and tiptoed to the connecting door to eavesdrop. She could hear only one side of the conversation, but it was enough to give her the goosebumps.
"You should explain the job clearly to your men.
“I won't stand a failure this time.
“She, her husband and children.
“A girl and a boy, probably in their teens.
“How the hell should I know?”
“Either jeans or salwar kameez.
“Tell them to enter Bangladesh through Itindaghat.
I can arrange for a fishing boat.
“That's your headache, not mine.
“I'll transfer the money after I see the news on the TV.
“No need to do that, I have explained everything.
“Don't call me on my mobile.
She heard him replace the receiver on the cradle. She tiptoed back into her bed and tightly closed her eyes, feigning to be in deep sleep. Soon he entered the room. She heard him drink some water and lie down on the bed. Soon he started to snore.
She lay on the bed wide awake, still trying to absorb the shock of the words she just heard. Should she tell him the truth? But no, why should she? She hated her. Moreover she was not supposed to know anything. But was it necessary to assassinate the others too? She had no hard feelings towards them. Why was she feeling so guilty? She would not be doing anything. He did not even consult her. It was silly of her to suffer from such guilt pangs.
In spite of the air conditioner, the bed seemed like a furnace. Her throat felt dry as blotting paper. She badly needed some water. She got up from the bed and drank water in big gulps, spilling and wetting the front of her nightdress. Her head felt heavy. She needed fresh air. She came out into the adjoining balcony, softly closing the door behind her. The city in front was shrouded in darkness. The sky was partially cloudy. A cool, wet breeze announced the approach of a possible shower. She settled down on an easychair and inhaled the fresh air around her. Soon her eyes became heavy and she fell asleep.