This story is selected as Editor’s Choice and won INR 500
Hurrying out of her sister’s house, thirty year old Hilda walked as quickly as her skinny legs could carry her, across the lawn and to her own home next door. In the light of the early morning, she glanced about warily, but saw nothing untoward or suspicious.
She burst into the kitchen and found her husband Bart digging into an omelette. “Come quick!” she ordered. She grabbed a rolling pin and left the way she had entered. Startled, he got up and followed his wife out of their home.
The two houses, identical in all respects, had been built by his father-in-law for Hilda and her elder sister Doreen. They stood next to each other, with no wall separating the two. The two sisters were just as inseparable, and with Doreen on vacation in Kerala with her husband Jack, Hilda had promised to keep an eye on things in her absence.
“What’s wrong, Hilda?” asked Bart, struggling to keep pace with his fitter wife.
But she didn’t answer. In her mind, she was recalling her last telephone conversation with Doreen, two mornings ago…
“So everything’s okay back home?”
“Nothing to worry about, Doreen.” Hilda assured her. “I’ve been coming over here and watering your plants. How’s Jack?”
“Having a good time.”
“See that you enjoy yourselves. Don’t bother about home. I have everything under control here.”
“Thanks, Hilda, you’re wonderful and I have every faith in you, but I still feel obliged to phone. Don’t be offended.”
Hilda sighed. “No, of course not. If it will make you feel better…”
“Is your home phone working yet?”
“It’s working this morning, but you never know with the telecom people. Such idiots. I mean, this is 1995 – you’d think they be able to keep the phone system running without a breakdown every few weeks…”
Since their departure six days ago, Hilda had been over daily to tend to the indoor plants. It had been a quiet, dreary chore, the routine monotonous and unexciting. Until-
She led him to the front. “I was unlocking the door when I heard a noise from inside.” Without waiting for an acknowledgement, she pushed the door open, stepped in and stopped, listening. They both heard the sound at the same time, like a drawer closing. Bart grabbed his wife’s arm, alarmed. Shaking it loose, she strode confidently into the next room, rolling pin raised.
It was Hilda, as usual, who got in the first word. “Jack!” she exclaimed, staring at the man in the dining room.
Bart looked at Jack, then at Hilda, then back at his brother-in-law, speechless.
“Good morning.” said Jack, stepping away from the cabinet.
“What are you doing here?” She looked puzzled. “Where’s Doreen?”
“Still on vacation, I suppose.”
“You suppose?” said Hilda, startled. “What does that mean? You’re supposed to be with her!”
He shook his head, almost tiredly. “We were never together. We just pretended. The minute the taxi dropped us at the airport, we parted company.”
“But on the phone, Doreen told me that you were with her.” objected Hilda, distressed.
“We didn’t want you to suspect the truth. Well, she didn’t; I personally don’t care who knows.” He gave Hilda a searching look then shrugged. “Our marriage has fallen apart. I suddenly discovered that I don’t love her anymore. I don’t mean a little less or differently. I’m talking about all gone. That old magic has just disappeared. I told her I wanted out. You can’t blame me: I’m fourteen years younger than her and I still have a chance. I asked her to consider a divorce – she refused. It’s obvious her chances for bliss after two failed marriages are poor.”
Hilda frowned. “You know about – him?”
“Her first husband? Not a lot. Before we got married, she told me a bit. The shocker of course was that they weren’t officially divorced yet; he was on chemotherapy, she said, and that he insisted she go ahead and he would see to his divorce after the therapy. She said she was in a hurry for us to become man and wife, and we could get married right away. I was so much in love with her at the time that I said yes without a thought.” He shrugged away the memories. “We’ve been married four months now, and for reasons she hasn’t bothered to explain, her first husband still hasn’t signed their divorce papers.”
“So that’s why you sneaked back here.” realised Hilda. “You’re hoping to get out of this marriage on the grounds that Doreen’s married to another man.”
Jack nodded. “I was looking for certificates, diaries, photos – anything to give me a clue as to his identity.”
“She’s not going to be happy when she hears about this.”
“So you’re going to tell her?”
Hilda gave him a nasty look. “Not only that, but we’re going to keep you company tonight.”
Bart was sleeping on the couch in the living room and so he was the first one to awaken by the doorbell ringing. He rubbed his eyes and looked about blearily, realising with a start that he was in Doreen’s house. He looked at the door as the bell sounded again. From beyond, Hilda entered, wearing a house-robe.
The man at the door was wearing a police uniform. He told them his name was Thomas, and that he had arrived that morning by train from Kerala. In his hand he held a photograph of Doreen. He asked gently if either of them was related to her.
Some emotion flickered across Hilda’s face as she processed this information, and she sagged against her husband as Bart introduced them both. Some distant part of her seemed to hear the man’s words as they flowed out in a slow, kindly fashion, of how her sister had fallen to her death two days ago from her hotel balcony. The police had tried repeatedly phoning the residence but no one had answered. As a last resort, they had dispatched Thomas to the address on the hotel register hoping to locate her next of kin.
Bart showed the officer to the couch, hurriedly pushing away his pillow and sheets.
Thomas looked around before speaking. “I have a few questions, and I apologise in advance at the timing. Let me clarify the situation, explain why I’m here. Though Doreen checked in alone, she was seen in the company of a young man, on more than one occasion. We haven’t been able to trace him since the accident.” He took a pad from his pocket. “I have a description of the man.” He read out the details from the page slowly.
“That’s Jack you’re describing!” burst out Hilda, astonished. She looked at Bart. “But Jack said-”
“Did someone mention my name?”
The three of them turned to see Jack enter the room. He caught sight of Thomas then.
Thomas got up. “You’re Jack – Doreen’s husband?”
“That’s right.” Jack said, looking at him, then at Hilda. “Why? What’s going on?” He saw the silent, strained faces, and frowned. “Well? What is it – tell me.”
It was Bart who spoke up. “Jack, Doreen’s dead.”
Jack stared at him for some moments then sank into a chair. “How?”
Thomas told him. He grimaced. “Poor Doreen. How unexpected… Still, I suppose it’s for the best.”
Hilda gave him a startled look. “Jack!”
He shrugged. “This will simplify matters for me. I won’t need to get a divorce now. I’ll be free to get on with my life.”
Thomas sat up. “You were seeking a divorce?”
Jack turned to him. “Hardly matters now.”
Thomas looked grim. “It does, sir. Because if she was pushed, you’re our prime suspect.”
Jack managed to look incredulous. “Because I wanted to divorce her?”
“Because you’re her husband. You stand to gain the most from her death.”
Jack began to chuckle. “That’s a good one. Doreen’s legally married to another man. I won’t get a rupee.”
Thomas looked startled. His eyes sought Hilda’s. “Is this true?”
Hilda looked uncomfortable. “Yes.”
“I see.” Thomas looked undecided for a moment. “Give me his name and address.” He handed the pad to her.
Hilda scribbled on it and passed it back.
“Hugo Gonsalves.” read Thomas, brow furrowed. “I better meet him right away.”
Hilda shook her head slowly. “Hugo died three weeks ago.”
Barely an hour later, at the breakfast table in their own house, Hilda straightened in shock. She blinked her eyes rapidly as she went through the facts in her mind, trying to make some sense of them. Slowly, she turned to Bart, who was wolfing down an omelette. “Doreen’s not dead.”
Bart looked at her, concerned. “Hilda, I realise how hard her death-”
She silenced him impatiently. “It was all a charade! Even Thomas. He was not a real cop.” She saw the puzzled look on Bart’s face. “Doreen’s not really dead. Jack arranged things to make it look to us like she was. That ‘policeman’, even Jack ‘breaking’ into the house. It was an act for our benefit, and we fell for it.”
Bart looked unconvinced.
“Remember when you told me today that you found the telephone plug out? Jack must have done it because he didn’t want Doreen – alive – phoning me. That would have spoilt the whole act. He wanted us to think she was dead. More to the point, he wanted us to think she’d been murdered. That’s why he had Thomas brought in.”
Bart still didn’t understand. “But why?”
“He was after the name and address of Doreen’s first husband. I gave it to Thomas, remember?”
Bart clapped a hand to his forehead. “You’re right! He was after the divorce right from the start, and we gave him exactly what he needed. Doreen will kill us!”
Hilda stood up. “I’m going to give him a piece of my mind!” She marched out of the house and strode over to Doreen’s house. Bart scurried after her, panting and calling out for her to wait. She froze suddenly then turned to face Bart. “I’m an idiot. Doreen’s alive and I’m rushing off to confront Jack. The number of her Cochin hotel is stuck on the fridge. Call it and leave a message for her to call me as soon as she can.” She didn’t wait for his reply, turning to her task.
Finding the front door open, she walked straight in. Jack was on a sofa, reading a newspaper.
“I’ve uncovered your scheme, Jack.”
He lowered the paper, face blank.
Hilda crossed her arms and stared at him. “You cleverly got the information you needed, but of course you’re too late: Hugo died, almost a month back and obviously Doreen never told you.” She gave him a pitying look. “All your scheming was for nothing…”
Jack folded the paper. “I told you I was after proof for a divorce. Sorry, that was a lie. So was the fact that I ever loved her.” He smiled at her mouth dropping open. “What I’m really after is her fortune, the one left to her by Hugo…
“I knew more about Hugo than you might suspect. I knew he was on his death-bed, and about his therapy. So I maneuvered my way into Doreen’s life, and suckered her into falling for me. And that she did, big time. She told me she was still married, but that he would agree to a divorce once he was well enough. I told her I didn’t care, that I loved her and wanted to marry her. Once that happened all I had to do was make sure she didn’t go ahead with the divorce with Hugo. I knew Hugo wouldn’t last forever. All I had to do was to wait. Once he died, she would inherit his whole estate, and that’s what I was after. About two weeks back, Doreen said something that made me think Hugo had died. But she didn’t elaborate. I think she suspected something about me, about my motives.
“So I hatched up this scheme. Thomas is a friend of mine, and he’s no cop. That act was for one thing only: to confirm his death. And now that I know Hugo’s expired, all I have to do is produce his death certificate to become a rich man.”
Hilda’s face was a picture of shocked disbelief. “I can’t believe it! Everything about you is a lie! We welcomed you into our homes, our lives…” A spark of defiance flickered in her eyes. “But… even if all that is true, you can’t touch Doreen’s assets while she’s still alive…” Her voice tapered when she saw the look in Jack’s eyes. She suddenly realised she was alone in a room with a man who was turning out to be a total stranger. The thought prompted her to turn and rush out of the house.
She ran into Bart on the way back.
He was shaking his head, and there was worry in his face. “I contacted the hotel. When i told them who I was, the manager came on the line.” He caught her hand. “Doreen fell off her balcony 2 nights ago. That guy Thomas wasn’t lying, Hilda. I’m so sorry, Doreen really is dead.”
Hilda looked back at Doreen’s house and shivered. “It was Jack.” She whispered. She told him what Jack had said to her. “He said he was waiting only for the news that Hugo was dead. That was why he planned the vacation to Kerala. Doreen told me it was his idea. He wanted to kill her. Because now he becomes the beneficiary of whatever Hugo left her…”
Bart too was stunned at her news. “What kind of a man is he…” wondered Bart uneasily. “We better keep out of his way.”
Hilda snorted. “Right! Let him get everything Doreen owned!” She looked furious. “He doesn’t deserve any of it. The marriage itself was a plan to grab her fortune. And now, unless I stop him he’s going to get it all.”
Jeremiah Johnson shook his head again, saddened by the news of his client’s death. The lawyer glanced at Hilda who was seated across his desk. “And if what you’ve told me about Jack is true, it’s terribly shocking…” He looked into the distance. “I had counselled Doreen not to marry again unless her divorce was final, but I presumed she had ideas of her own.” He sighed loudly. “I met Hugo once, before his illness. As you know, they separated because he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. It was his wish that she move on, without him to worry about. She didn’t like it, but he gave her no choice. Soon after, she met Jack and told Hugo. He told her not to wait, to marry him. The moment his therapy ended, he’d see to the divorce. But the divorce never took place, and from what you’ve told me now, I know why. Doreen met me after Hugo died. He died a rich man and left it all to her. He had a daughter from a previous marriage but she got nothing.”
Hilda nodded patiently. “You’re aware of the contents of Doreen’s will. Is Jack the major beneficiary?”
“It’s improper to divulge the contents considering Jack’s her husband, but after what you’ve told me…” He shrugged. “She bequeathed most of her assets to: ‘my current husband, Jack’.”
“So he gets it all?”
“In the context of the present circumstances, I’m afraid so.”
Hilda shifted her legs. “Can I contest the terms of Doreen’s will?”
“On what grounds?”
“How about the fact that legally, he can’t be married to Doreen – because of Hugo, I mean.”
He studied her face. “But Hugo’s dead.”
“But he died after they were married. At the time of their marriage, Doreen was still very much married to Hugo. Surely that makes the second marriage illegal in the eyes of the law?”
The lawyer hesitated before answering. “These are peculiar circumstances…”
“But it was still illegal.” insisted Hilda.
“I would have to research this, if you choose to contest. I can’t make any guarantees.”
“My only intention is to ensure that Jack doesn’t get her fortune.”
“As I said: no guarantees…”
She looked thoughtful. “What about Hugo’s daughter? She’s entitled to a share of his fortune. If she comes forward, she could mess up Jack’s plans.”
“There are too many improbables. Even if she’s interested in contesting for money, don’t forget: she was banished from the family, and the court will want to know why. Plus, she was never part of Doreen’s life whereas Jack was her husband.” He looked apologetic.
“I owe it to Doreen to try.” said Hilda. “It’s something you said earlier: there are no guarantees. I could lose. But so could Jack.” She allowed him to escort her to the doorway. Looking into his waiting room, she suddenly stiffened. Jack was seated there. He looked up and saw her. “What are you doing here, Hilda?” he murmured, approaching them.
“I could ask you the same thing.” She hissed.
Jack nodded, and looked at Jeremy. “My intention was to inform you of my wife’s death, but presumably Hilda has done the needful. I plan to fly to Kerala this afternoon to see to the arrangements for bringing her body back.”
The mention of her sister made Hilda break into tears and she rushed away. The lawyer watched her go, visibly disturbed.
Jack cleared his throat. “When can we meet to discuss her will?”
Johnson looked at him, no sign of friendliness. “I’m not happy about how things have turned out. I’ve known Doreen and Hilda a long time. Doreen’s death has pained me, but what’s worse is hearing Hilda’s insinuations about you.”
“What are you going to do about it?”
“Only my duty and that is to see to the will’s obligations. Hilda is another matter. If she’s determined enough, she can hurt you. She just has to find Hugo’s daughter.”
Johnson’s eyes narrowed. “You probably feel you have all the cards in your favour. But bear in mind that even if Hugo’s daughter doesn’t win in the end, her mere decision to contest will be sufficient to bring to life your worst nightmares. You know how our system operates. The court could legally tangle up Doreen’s estate for years.” He straightened. “All Hilda has to do is find her.”
“You seem very sure of yourself.”
“Take my word for it, they won’t find her.” Jack allowed himself a small smile. “There’s a flaw in the information Hilda was given.”
“What do you mean by that?” Johnson asked in a low voice.
“Hugo didn’t have a daughter. Just a son.” He watched Johnson’s mouth slowly fall open. “Me.”