Inspector of Police (Crime) and his Assistant Inspector Naik left the meeting at the same time. Avoiding the lifts, they headed to the steps that led to the ground level of the HQ. It was early Friday evening, and neither man wanted to linger a moment more than necessary.
“Going to Lonavla. My friend has a cottage there.” answered Naik when his boss enquired of his weekend plans. “Every monsoon, we go trekking in the hills and the valleys. It’s a surreal experience, utterly magical. And getting away from the city is a big plus.”
Dougan made a face. “I prefer the city. Too much wilderness drives me crazy. I need to be someplace with wi-fi access.”
“Get a data-pack.”
“-and flick a switch and see the lights and fans jump to life.” growled Dougan.
“City-dweller.” grinned Naik.
They parted ways at the garage. Dougan unlocked the front door to his green Maruti Alto and got in. Besides his case, he had no other baggage. And besides a detour that would take him about thirty minutes away from home, he had no further plans for his weekend.
The car eased out into the busy evening flow disgorging from the city to the periphery. Dougan found himself drawn along, like a paper boat in the sway of a raging river current. He sped along the highway, knowing that his turn-off was a long way off. Even though they were choked most of the time, these flyovers and highways served a useful purpose, he thought. Above, dark grey cloud cover moved in over the skyline, looking ominous. The roads were still wet from some previous downpour. He kept his window slightly ajar, grateful for the cool breeze swirling into the warm interior.
His destination was a gated community in the suburbs. He paused at the security post and showed his ID badge to the bulky uniformed individual who walked out to eyeball him. The pudgy man stiffened when he saw the badge and hastened back to open the gate, throwing him a messy salute as he drove inside.
Dougan found an empty slot in the visitors parking area and got out and stretched. The car was too small for him but he suffered it because most of his driving was over short distances. But trips like this made him wonder. He peered upward to the seventh floor of block D. He could see the lights in the flat were turned on. It looked like Rahul was in. Not that Dougan would have minded if he hadn’t been home; he thought of these visits as more of an obligation.
Something he had to do rather than something he wanted to. It was no wonder his last visit had been so long back.
The door opened within less than a minute of his pressing the buzzer.
The man who opened the door was wiry and spectacled which had the effect of making him look even more dignified, even in his kurta-pyjamas. His face lit up when he saw who his visitor was.
Dougan entered and clasped hands with his older brother, who had retired from the police force several years back. “Am i in time for your evening stroll?”
Rahul nodded, looking into the flat. “I was waiting for the place to be swept but since you’re here, let us not delay. She’ll let herself out after completing the housework.” A plump woman in her mid-forties or so put her head into the living room and nodded with a smile when Rahul put forth his plans. She waved at Dougan, who she recognised.
Dougan nodded graciously at the woman. “Martha, isn’t it?”
Rahul took his arm and led his into the alcove. “Excellent memory considering that your last social visit to me was over six months ago.”
“Some of us have work to do, Rahul. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but the local crime rate has dropped since i took over this city.” He shrugged. “And yes, i do remember: she’s the same maid who has been in your employ the last few years now…”
“Six years, to be exact.” They walked slowly down to the outside. “She used to come in every three days when Sunita was alive. Now she’s in daily.”
“You’re obviously happy with the services she provides.”
“Reliable, responsible, trustworthy: you won’t find anyone like her, I guarantee.”
“You sound almost admiring, Rahul.” They migrated to the walking path skirting the center of the huge residential complex.
“She’s a gem of a person. One who has gone above and beyond the call of duty.”
“You’re a hard person to please. What has she done to make you go so starry-eyed?” asked Dougan in surprise.
Rahul paused before speaking. He halted and turned to his colleague. “I’ll tell you, brother. And because you are a loyal sibling and a decent human being, I know it won’t go any further.” He looked at Dougan firmly, and when the other nodded, he gestured that they should continue walking. “Martha works for a few other families, mostly in this community. One of those individuals is a lady called – well, let’s call her Isabel…
“The story I am about to tell you took place a year ago….
Martha was in the living room, sweeping when the doorbell rang.
It was four in the evening, and Isabel was the second-last employer of the day. Martha had turned up later than usual, mainly due to a doctor’s appointment that had not stuck according to schedule. But Isabel had been very understanding. She had made Martha a cup of strong tea, no sugar, and enquired about the reason for the medical visit. Only when she was certain that it was nothing serious did she permit Martha to carry on with her household duties.
Isabel was a dear. Martha had worked for her – and her husband – since the last three years when they shifted into the complex. The gated complex had been the newest residential structure to spring up and the couple, newly-wed, had moved in. The husband, whose name she could never remember, worked as a line manager in a factory in the nearby industrial sector. Isabel did freelance work, doing copy-writing for friends who owned an advertising firm. As the hubbie was usually late and Martha declined any offers to work on weekends, she had not spent much time in his company, and had not much of a clue of his nature or his personality.
Moving to the door, Martha wondered if he had come back early from work today.
Opening the door, she saw that it was Isabel’s brother. His name was Mark, and about this one, Martha did have an opinion: he was like a rattlesnake. There were people who you instinctively felt you couldn’t trust, and even though she had set eyes on him only once before, Martha felt a sense of unease run through her as she smiled at him. “Oh, I was expecting Isabel’s husband…”
Mark was dressed smartly. He was a manager in a private finance company. Right now he looked stressed. “Is she in?”
Martha opened the door wide. “She’s in the kitchen, frying samosas.”
Mark stepped past her without a word of thanks. She closed the door and took the cloth with her towards the bathroom, where she would quickly complete an once-over. She had already washed it before doing the sitting room. Two minutes more and she would be on her way.
The sound of a raised voice made her freeze, just outside the bathroom door.
“I want my money now!” It was Mark and he sounded furious.
“Mark please… you can’t keep asking for money!” The sound of Isabel’s voice, imploring and pitiful, made Martha wince. “You said that would be the last time.”
“I lied.” snapped Mark.
“Why are you doing this, Mark?”
“How many times do i have to tell you? Our father was unfair when he left you all that money after he died. What did you do to deserve it, huh? I looked after him for ten years, even through his illness. All you did was get married and walk out of his life!” He snorted. “And yet, when the old fool died, he left you all that money. And so, with these pictures of you fooling around so obligingly with another woman, I’m getting my inheritance back!” He slapped something down on the table. “You were supposed to give me the money yesterday! I will wait only one more day and if you don’t come though, your husband will get some photos sent anonymously to his office.”
“It wasn’t serious! It wasn’t even an affair! And it happened long ago – and never since.”
“It doesn’t matter that your little fling happened before you got married. The fact is, it happened. And you know your husband well enough to have paid me to buy my silence. Because you know what his reaction will be if he sees those photos! It won’t be just his ego that gets shattered if he ever sees his naked wife wrapped so lovingly around another woman…”
“How can you be so cruel?”
He laughed. “How could you be so stupid? Leaving those incriminating photos around to be discovered! I found them when i was clearing out box after box of trash after our father died. I couldn’t believe it when i found those photos. And then I saw a way to get back what was rightfully mine.”
“O God, Mark! Please understand my situation! I am down to my last penny! You have already bled me dry! In six months, you’ve taken away all my earnings, always promising it was the last time. And now I am broke! I have nothing left for you to take, don’t you understand…”
Mark’s voice was pure hatred. “Tomorrow: have the money for me – or else.”
Martha heard him march out and leave the flat. She stood there, heart pounding, hearing only the sound of heated oil sputtering.
She didn’t know what to do. If she went to the kitchen to check on Isabel, there was no telling how she might react if she realised that Martha had overheard. Perhaps it would be better to quietly exit.
It took her about ten minutes to reach block D but she barely noticed the passage of time, so engrossed was she in her thoughts. The poor woman, she thought. A wave of misery and pity washed over her as she recalled Mark’s cruel words. How could any sibling be so unkind, so very remorseless towards a sister, and that too, a person as gentle and kind as Isabel?
It must have showed because when Rahul coughed, she jumped.
“What’s wrong, Martha?” he asked gently. He was sitting in his favourite chair, a novel on his lap. “You’re half an hour late, you didn’t wish me good evening, and you don’t usually mop on Fridays.”
She told him. She knew he had been a police officer before retirement, and not only did she trust him implicitly, enough to know that he wouldn’t gossip, she had to tell someone what she had heard. It was too big, too overwhelming to keep to herself. She didn’t tell Rahul the name of the parties involved and she had no concerns that he could find out: the community had over two hundred families living in that large space.
Rahul looked down at the cover of his novel. “Human nature never fails to surprise…” He murmured, with a sad shake of his head.
“It is unfair.” She said fiercely. “To be made to pay for something she did before… we all make mistakes! She deserves better than this!”
Rahul looked at her quietly. “You really think so?”
“Yes.” Martha said firmly. “She helped me, not once but twice. The last time was three years ago when my niece was getting married. I needed funds and she was there for me.” She lowered her eyes. “And there was one time before that…”
Rahul looked into the distance for a long while. The clock ticking sounded loud in the ensuing silence. “I have friends who might be able to – help. I’ll need a few details from you; the rest they should be able to find out.” He put aside his novel. “The only trouble is: their services don’t come cheap…”
The next day, shortly before three in the afternoon, Sheila opened the door to find two police men standing there. She felt a moment of panic, fearing that something terrible had happened to her husband, when the officer in front smiled and held out his credentials. “Inspector Mishra from Cyber Crimes unit. This is my colleague, Ali, who is a technician.” He studied a sheet of paper in his hand. “You are Mrs. Mark Fernandes, yes? Sorry to trouble you. We are investigating reports of increased internet traffic from this building and we have been going from flat to flat, checking all the wi-fi devices, looking for any proxy servers that have been set up.” He shrugged apologetically. It’s more complicated than that, but that’s all I am allowed to tell you. Basically, we need to check your modem, if that is alright…”
Sheila’s son Patrick appeared behind her, curious. He was five years old, and his eyes became big when he saw the police uniforms. She led them to the sitting room. The modem was located there, close to the land-line.
“Any other landlines here?” enquired Ali.
Sheila shook her head. Patrick held back, standing behind his mother.
Ali went on: “I will need you to switch off any laptops, tablets and cell phones.”
Sheila shrugged. “My husband has the laptop and tab. It’s only my mobile. Patrick, can you go get Mama’s mobile for me?” The small boy swung into action and was back within less than a minute.
Ali took out a laptop from his bag. “Just to be on the safe side, please remove the battery too.” He powered on his device. “This will take about fifteen minutes. Please carry on with whatever you were doing, madam…” He grinned at Patrick. “Do you like computers?”
As manager of the finance company, Mark had his own cabin. It was not large, but it was big enough to give the feeling of importance. And it was private. He looked up as someone tapped at the glass door and entered. He gave his customary welcome smile as a large man with grey hair sat before him.
“I’m not a customer.” said the man in a gravelly voice. He stared direct at Mark. His expression was notably lacking in any emotion. “I represent a client who I won’t name. It’s about some private photos that she would like to be returned.”
Mark stared and then, as understanding came his jaw dropped. He looked about, as if refusing to believe what he had heard. “Has she gone crazy?”
The man held up a hand. There was a mobile phone in it. “Look at these photos before you say anything more.”
His words caught Mark off-guard and he stared at the image on the touch screen. The blood drained from his face as he realised he was staring at a picture of his living room.
“Yes, my associates are inside your flat.” said the burly man flatly. “I have come to negotiate. You give me those photos – and I will return Sheila and Patrick to you unharmed.”
Mark’s mouth opened, but no words came out.
“I want you to understand what you’re dealing with here.” The man went on calmly. “Call your wife now.” He leaned forward, tone icy. “Do it!”
Mark grabbed his phone and tried. He couldn’t get through. His eyes flickered to the man opposite him, not trusting himself to speak.
“Try the landline now.” The landline jack had been pulled out of the wall-socket. The call would not go through. Mark lowered his phone slowly, licking lips that had gone bone dry.
The man nodded. “As you can see, Sheila isn’t answering. She isn’t answering because she’s a little-” His eyebrow went up. “- shall we say, tied-up?” He saw the other man stiffen and held up a finger. “You want a picture to prove what I’m saying, Mark? Be careful what you answer to that, my friend: after all, pictures have a way of coming back to bite you in the ass when you least expect….”
Mark stayed silent.
“Now that I have your attention, down to business. I want the photos – now.”
Without any hesitation, Mark opened the bottom drawer in his desk after unlocking it and took out a brown envelope which he slid across. The man checked. “Any copies of this?” He nodded again, clearly pleased. “Next, you are going to call your sister. Keep the call short. All you tell her is that you are going to post the pictures to her – and that she will never hear from you again. Nothing more.” He sat back. “Do it now….”
After that was done, he gave Mark a small smile. “We’re almost done. There is one other matter left: payment for my services. Ordinarily, it’s the client who pays but in this case, you’ve sucked her dry and she can’t, can she?”
Mark said nothing.
“Use a check or whatever it is you people use these days, withdraw this amount from your account here. You have ten minutes…”
Rahul stopped at a bench and both he and Dougan sat. “I called Martha the next morning and told her to give the envelope to Isabel when she went in to work. She was to say that someone had handed the envelope to her while she waiting for the door to open. I thought it might be safer than posting it – and having it fall into the husband’s hands by mistake.
“Martha did as I suggested, and some time later, Isabel called her to the kitchen and said to her: you saved my life.
“Martha said nothing. Isabel went on: after Mark left that evening, I walked to the bathroom with a bottle of sleeping tablets. To my mind, there was nothing left to live for. My life was over and there was only one way out.
“And as she stood in the bathroom and opened the bottle of sleeping tablets, two things struck her. One was that the floor tiles were damp. The second was the smell of lavender in the air.
“She realised then that Martha must have been there, and heard everything, and in that moment she knew she could not do what she had intended. She just could not…”
Dougan exhaled slowly. “And I was worried for you, thinking retirement would be the end of you…” He stared into the distance. “You took a hell of a risk, involving outside parties like that.” He felt the other nod gravely. “Was it worth it? Was she worth that risk?”
Rahul swallowed. His eyes were moist. “When Martha said Isabel deserved better and told me why, that was when I knew she was right. She asked Isabel for help twice, both times for money. The first time was for me, for my dying wife. Martha knew I needed the money and she asked Isabel.” A tear rolled free from his eye. “And Isabel came through for me…”
Dougan walked back to his car, not bothering to hurry. He wondered if Naik had reached Lonavla.