The man walked slowly, barely glancing at the mob of people who were jostling each other while standing in a queue outside the sprawling expanse of the movie theatre. His eyes wandered over the crowd, looking for someone he could talk to, to keep the plan in motion. The plan was all that mattered. He patted his jeans pockets, feeling the bulge of the movie ticket against his thigh and nodding to himself. His eyes wandered over the mob of people who were trying to move forward in the queue. It was mostly composed of youngsters, and a spattering of middle aged men and women. He looked up at the giant movie poster which was stuck on to the hoardings. It was some sort of a slasher flick – Serial Killer 7. A movie about a serial killer named Serial Killer? The man grimaced and resumed searching for his target.
He needed someone different, someone who looked capable of believing his story. Someone who wouldn’t smell a rat if a complete stranger walked up and started talking to him. His eyes scanned the whole theatre, while a small voice in his head reminded him about the plan. He looked at his watch. 3.15 p.m. Forty-five minutes till the movie started. He needed to find someone, and fast. He walked slowly, looking at each and every person’s face, and stopped suddenly. There.
A young man was standing all by himself on the far side of the ticket counter. He wore a simple shoulder bag, and was fiddling with the strap with one hand. The other hand was holding a phone, which he was staring intently at. He was dressed plainly, a yellow t-shirt over faded blue jeans. The man walked up to him, and he realised his target was spot on. The man didn’t look too old, twenty-one at most. The man approached the guy with the shoulder-bag, and stood next to him. The guy looked up at him from his Smartphone, and smiled politely.
“What phone do you have there?” asked the man, pointing a finger at the guy’s phone. The guy looked down at his phone and grinned up at him.
“Oh, it’s the latest model. Want to see?” he said, and held out his phone. The man took the chance and picked the phone up from the guy’s hand. He pretended to fiddle with the phone, opening up apps and closing them, flipping through them till his thumb ached.
“Cool, eh?” asked the guy, who was still fidgeting with the strap of his bag. The man handed the phone back to him and forced a smile. “Very,” he said. Keep talking, he thought. “You’re here to see Serial Killer too, are you?” he asked. The guy was still looking at his phone, his fingers tapping out rhythmically as he replied, “Yeah, I am. I’m not a big fan, actually, just taking a break from university.” He looked up and smiled lopsidedly.
“You’re studying, then?” he asked. “Man, I sure miss my college days. I work six days a week these days, you know. I got back from Delhi just yesterday, in fact. I wanted to watch a movie with Ashish, who is a friend of mine. He’s into this stuff a lot, so I thought I’d come watch it.” The guy had finally put his phone away, and just for a moment, his expression changed into a serious one. The man blinked, but the guy looked no different, still with that stupid, lopsided grin of his.
“So you’re here with your friend, Ashish, then? Where is he?” asked the guy. At the mention of Ashish’s name, the man felt his insides tighten. Blood roared to his ears as his fists clenched and unclenched. He chided himself for losing his cool. Stick to the plan, he said to himself.
“Ah, he’s not here yet. I didn’t want to keep him waiting, so I had to rush through the park to get here. Turns out he’s late. Excuse me a minute, let me call him.” The man took out his phone and dialled Ashish’s number. The phone rang twice and he picked up.
“Yo man, been waiting for your call. Have you reached the hotel, then?” he asked. The man bit down on an angry retort, and managed to look calm.
“Yeah, I have,” he said. “Get here soon, the movie’s about to start.”
“Huh, movie? What movie? You asked me to come to the hotel next to the IMAX theatre, right?” asked Ashish, sounding confused.
“Yeah, that’s what I meant. Get here soon, I’ll be waiting.” He said, looking around to see if the guy was eavesdropping. But the guy was immersed in his cell phone again, hardly paying attention.
“Alright, then. Be there in fifteen minutes.” Said Ashish and hung up. The man heaved a silent sigh of relief. Almost there. He thought about the murder that was going to happen in fifteen minutes. He smiled.
“Is your friend on the way?” asked the guy, still looking at his phone. He was seriously starting to tick the man off, constantly looking into his phone all the time. It was time to cut him off. “Yeah, he is. Say, can you help me?” The guy looked up with a curious expression on his face.
“Sure, what is it?” he asked. The man smiled. “I just bought this phone yesterday,” he said, and held up his phone. “I think there’s a problem with the secondary camera in front. Do you mind if I took a picture of us with the secondary camera? Just to see if it’s alright?”
“You want to take a selfie with me?” the guy asked. “Sure, I guess.” He said. The man moved next to the guy and raised the camera over their heads. He clicked a picture and gave it to the guy. “Think it’s okay?” he asked.
The guy studied the photo for a second and nodded. “Yeah, looks good. Nice and clear…oops!” The guy’s finger accidentally flicked the screen, so the photo disappeared and another one popped up. The guy looked at the screen, where the photo depicted a man and a woman holding hands and grinning up at the camera. The man was the same guy who owned the phone. The woman was small and pretty, with wavy hair. She was clutching a newspaper in one hand, and holding the man’s hand in the other.
“Who is this?” asked the guy, holding the phone up. The man’s face had gone pale. The words seemed to have stuck in his throat. His legs trembled suddenly, and he almost thought he’d crash on to the pavement. He managed to be steady, and said in a thick voice.
“She is…was my girlfriend.” The guy nodded his head, as if in understanding. His face put on a curious expression. “Ah, I see. Anyway, here’s your phone. Camera works well.” He said, and handed the phone back. The man took the phone back and tried to regain his composure. After a couple of seconds, he put the phone back in his pocket and looked up. “I’m heading out for a while.” He said. The guy merely nodded, still looking curious. He turned back without a word, whipped out his Smartphone and started typing again.
The man walked briskly out of the theatre, his hands stuffed deep into his pockets. His face burned with anger. Isha, he though. His Isha. Taken away from him in the blink of an eye. By the man whom he had thought of as his best friend. Ashish.
The man smiled again, and this time there was a cruel sense of purpose in the smile. You’ll someone to join you there, Isha, he thought. Nobody was going to stop the murder that was going to happen. It would be the perfect crime.
He walked right up to the three-star hotel opposite the theatre. He entered the building and made his way to the elevator. He had booked a room here a day previously. He flashed his key-card at the reception and suddenly, the phone rang. He stopped, and pretended to be surprised. He picked the phone up and listened intently.
“WHAT?” he said in a loud voice, making the receptionist jump, and other people to stare at him. “Come to the terrace? But why?” he said, continuing to speak in loud tones. “Fine, fine.” He said, and hung up, shaking his head and walking into the elevator.
“Close friend of mine,” explained the man to the bellhop. “Wants me to go up to the terrace. Why does he want me there, I wonder?” he said, seemingly to himself, as the elevator closed. The bellhop nodded in a knowing kind of way. After the elevator had closed, he exchanged a knowing glance with the receptionist. Psycho, they thought.
Meanwhile, the man marvelled at how smoothly the plan went. His breath quickened at the thought of the murder that was about to happen. It’s all coming to an end, Ashish, he thought gleefully. The elevator reached the top floor. The man got out and walked up the small staircase that led to the terrace. He stepped on to it, and sighed softly. The whole city was in full view. He turned a full circle as he viewed the city in all its glory.
“Say, what’re you playing at?” rang out an annoyed voice. The man’s brow furrowed as he recognised it. He turned to see Ashish walking towards him.
“You called me today morning and asked me to meet you on the terrace of this hotel at 3.45 p.m. Just now when I called, why did you act as if it was I who had called you?” he demanded, his hands in his pockets.
It took every ounce of will power the man had to not go charging at Ashish. All he wanted to do was stride up to him, and throttle the life out of him. How easy that would be, he thought. He exhaled slowly. No. Follow the plan, a voice said in his head.
“Sorry about that. You know, me, always scatterbrained.” Said the man, shrugging bashfully. Ashish’s expression softened. “Yeah, you are,” He said, and half-smiled. “I haven’t seen you in what, six months? After the…accident.” he said.
The man clenched his teeth and willed himself to be calm. “Yeah. That’s why I wanted to meet. To settle an old debt.” He said. The words came out harsh, and Ashish’s face became worried.
“Hey, hey. It was an accident. I mean… you’re not… still thinking about it, are you?” he asked, his voice panicky. The man regretted his harsh tone immediately. Don’t freak him out. He shook his head.
“No, no. I mean, I just wanted to meet and say that things are alright between us.” He said. Ashish’s face underwent an immediate transformation. He smiled wide, and shoulders loosened.
“Oh! Well, yeah. That’s great. It’s great you don’t have any hard feelings about that. So, where do you want to go, then? Want to catch a movie…”
“I can’t.” Said the man. “I have to meet someone. Someone whom I haven’t seen for six months, actually. I’ve got you a present, though.” He said.
“A present? For me?” said Ashish, grinning. “What is it?” he asked.
“Turn around. I’ll give it to you right away. Go on, then.” He said. Ashish shook his head and turned around obediently. The man strode towards him, his hands outstretched. Ashish was standing close to the edge of the terrace. The man crept up behind him, his hands inches from Ashish’s back. One push, and it’s all over, he thought. His heart started to beat, as the final piece of the plan fell into place. He thrust his hand out.
“Here,” said the man softly. Ashish turned around, and saw that the man’s had was outstretched. Curled on the palm, was a crisp movie ticket. Ashish picked it up, and exclaimed in delight.
“What! Serial Killer – 7! But how? I stayed up all night to book tickets for this. Wow, thank a lot, man!” he said. The man nodded and forced a smile.
“Anything for my best friend.” He said bitterly. “You’d better hurry. The movie starts in ten minutes.” Ashish looked at the time and swore.
“Damn, you’re right! Okay, see you, then! I’m glad to have you back, man. Hope we can catch up soon. Give me a call, alright?” said Ashish and sped down the staircase. The man watched his retreating form, and once it disappeared, he let out a huge sigh. The plan worked, he thought gleefully. He walked up to the railing, and peered over the edge of the terrace. It was a long way down. He gripped the rails tightly, and threw one leg over it. There was barely enough space to rest one leg. He sighed and looked up.
“I’m coming, Isha,” he said. “You don’t have to be alone anymore.” He tightened his grip on the railing. He closed his eyes, and willed himself to jump.
“You won’t get away with it,” said a soft voice from behind him. The man froze. That voice… It seemed familiar. He turned around slowly, and got the shock of his life.
There, standing with his back to one of the metal ladders, was the guy from the theatre. He was leaning on the ladder, and his eyes were looking right at the man. His hands were crossed in front of his chest, and a finger was tapping on his bicep. The man faltered, and nearly lost his grip on the railing. He clambered back on to the terrace, and tried to smile.
“What… no. You- you’re mistaken. I just… just climbed to get a better view, that’s all.” He said, sweat beginning to form on his forehead. He wiped it off with a hurried gesture.
“Really,” said the guy, smiling slightly. “You’re going to commit suicide, and leave behind a load of circumstantial evidence, making it seem like it was your friend who pushed you from the terrace. Wasn’t that your plan all along?”
The man’s mouth opened and closed silently. His heart beat faster, as the guy looked him straight in the eye and started to talk. “Not ready to confess, then? I’ll detail your plan out. First, you came to the theatre and picked out a random person; in this case, me. Then you took a photograph with them on your phone and kept it with you. After that, you’d call your friend to the terrace on some pretext, but make sure others heard it the other way around. I asked the receptionist about you, you know. She said you were waiting in the hall when you received a phone from your friend asking you to come up. After you met your friend on the terrace, you’d make some excuse and make him rush out. After that, you planned to commit suicide. When the police find your body, they’d obviously check your phone. There, they would see the selfie taken just minutes before your death, and they’d come question me. At this point, I’d paint a vivid picture of how you seemed lively and vibrant, and didn’t possess the least bit of suicidal tendencies. Then, on checking with the receptionist, the police would get numerous eye-witnesses who saw you receive a call from your friend who called you to the terrace, and then saw that very friend rushing out of the hotel. With all the evidence against him, your friend would be charged with your ‘murder’. Am I right, then?”
The man’s heart dropped like a stone. His plan was foiled. He wasn’t going to get his revenge after all. The world seemed to be closing in on him. He grimaced and shook his head. “Two months,” he said. “Two months it took me to plan it all out. I took every precaution. Apparently, it wasn’t enough. How did you know?”
The guy shrugged and spoke in a calm voice. “It was the tremendous pack of lies you fed me outside the theatre. Obviously, you were in a hurry. You were looking for someone to establish a witness, and you found me a little too late. You’d planned to get a witness as soon as possible, and you couldn’t find the right guy. So, you wasted time. By the time you found me, you got all flustered and hardly noticed what you were saying.”
The guy took a deep breath and ran his fingers through his hair. “You said you’d only recently arrived from Delhi. It’s the month of May, and the summer has peaked there. If you really did work six days a week, you’d have had an appreciable tan. But when I took a peek under your collar when it shifted, I could see you didn’t have one. So I figured out you were lying to cover up where you had been, though there was no reason to. I became curious. Then, you said you’d rushed to the theatre, and that you’d come through the park. Again, that was a lie. The park is being repaved, and the people walk on the grass to cross from one to the other. If you had run all the way as you had mentioned, your shoes should have had blades of grass sticking to them, but they were clean. So I figured you lied to cover up the fact that you had actually arrived earlier than you said you did, and that you were scoping the place for a likely person to talk to, namely me.”
The guy smiled again and walked towards the man. “The real clincher was the photograph, of course. The one with you and your girlfriend in your phone. I happened to glance at the date of the newspaper she was holding. It was exactly six months ago, to this date. There were no other photos between that one, and the selfie we clicked today. So I figured you hadn’t used the camera in a while, and I wondered why. Adding that to the other deductions, I concluded that you hadn’t left your house for a long period of time. Six months, I bet.”
The man laughed. A slow, hacking laugh. It sounded like his whole soul was in pain. He looked up, and his eyes were shining. “Brilliant,” he said hoarsely. “You’re right of course. I haven’t come out of my house in six months. I was a recluse. I hardly ate, hardly slept. All because of that incident.” He said, and his tone turned harsh.
“Your girlfriend died, didn’t she?” asked the young man quietly. “And your friend was somehow involved.”
“IT WAS HIS FAULT!” hollered the man. “He was supposed to bring her to the theatre! And he was going at almost double the speed limit! He didn’t bother to check the road while he was crossing, and he didn’t see a truck coming side on, and…and…” The man dropped to his knees, and hugged himself tight. He was shaking uncontrollably now, and his voice had a dangerous undertone to it.
“So I decided to make him suffer. I didn’t want to kill him, no. That would be too easy. Too quick for him. I wanted to him to spend the rest of his miserable life in prism. So yes, that was the reason for this elaborate plan. I didn’t want to live anymore. I decided to die, and I would condemn him with my death. He deserves it. He deserves this and worse. He…”
“Fool,” whispered the guy. His eyes were burning, and the man saw that the guy wore a disgusted expression. “Cowards commit suicide. And you wanted to punish your friend for something he is obviously regretting as well. Fool.” He said.
“Regretting? You think he’s regretting? Ashish is the most selfish person you’ve met. He doesn’t care about anyone.” Said the man with a careless shake of his head.
“Get up,” said the guy. He strode to the man and pulled him up by the arm. “Come with me,” he said and led the guy down the hotel. They walked out of the hotel and towards the theatre. The sun was setting, and the whole street was bathed in an orange light.
“Did the accident happen close to here?” asked the guy. The man nodded, and pointed to the spot where the accident had occurred. It was a small turning, where a lamppost stood tall. But as they neared it, they could see a spot where it was terribly dented, and on some spots, the paint had come off, clearly suggesting that a vehicle had rammed against it.
The man put an arm on the lamppost and lowered his head. The guy put a hand on his shoulder. The man looked at him. The guy was pointing at something at the foot of the lamppost. The man bent down to see what it was, and when he recognised it, his heart gave a jolt.
There were two things. One was a movie ticket, and the other was a photograph. The man looked at the latter, and gasped. The photograph showed three people. Ashish, Isha and the man himself. They were standing shoulder to shoulder and grinning at the camera. The man looked at the movie ticket, and recognised it immediately. It was the same one he had given to Ashish minutes ago.
“How-“ he whispered.
“Your friend left them here about ten minutes ago. I watched him from the terrace. I think it’s his way of saying sorry. He wants to tell her that you had reconciled with him. That he’s happy the two of you are friends again.”
The man’s head bowed in shame. As the guy watched, a thick tear drop fell on to the pavement. The man clutched the photograph to his heart and wept. He gripped the movie ticket tight in his hand. The guy put a hand on his shoulder. As the man’s tears wet the muddy ground, a gentle breeze drifted across the street. It reminded the guy of a silent tune, both happy and sad, an air of melancholy only the man would understand.