“But Neerav, what are you saying?”, she could hardly hold the phone in her hand.
The sudden gush of sweat countered the friction between the phone and her palms and the handset slipped from her hand. She picked it up, hurriedly wiped its aberrated screen and laid it on the counter. She steadied herself against the balusters of the staircase as the caller’s amplified voice wafted in through the speaker.
“Are you alright, Tara?”
“I can’t believe what you are saying, Neerav.”
“Yes, Tara. It’s a shock to me as well. Are you home?”
Tara nodded her head, not realising that Neerav would not be able to see it.
“Tara, are you there?”
“Yes, I am home. I… I don’t know what to do? Where should I come?”
“Don’t worry Tara. I am coming to your place right away. Now, you be calm. We’ll try to sort things out.”
Tara sat down on the cold marble floor. How do you sort things like this?
The windows were wide open and a late January sun was sinking beyond the spires of the city. A chilly wind whipped the curtains inside, veiling our young lady who was in a stupor.
Her brown Retriever, sniffing the despondency in the air, crawled under the curtain and rested its face on her lap. “What’s wrong?”, he seemed to ask.
“Oh Cookie! I’ve had the most dreadful news!” She proceeded to scoop the dog up in her hands and laid it in the soft bowl created by her kurta over her crossed legs.
“I just can’t understand! How can Arjun be dead? It’s impossible!” She whimpered to the dog. It replied with a mellowed woof, rubbing its brown cheek against her thigh.
Her mind was blank and the only thing that kept echoing in her ears were Neerav’s words.
“Tara? Tara? I have some bad news. Arjun was involved in an accident. And from the looks of it, he didn’t make it.”
“Arjun was involved in an accident. And from the looks of it, he didn’t make it.”
“…. accident…. he didn’t make it.”
“…. he didn’t make it.”
“…. he didn’t make it.”
“OH! STOP IT!” She screamed.
The dog hopped off her in surprise. He surmised that she was not having a good day.
She heard the clock strike six. The clock…. the lovely piece they had bought on their visit to The Black Forest. She laughed unconsciously as she remembered it was called The Mother-in-Law clock. At the strike of the hour, an old lady would come out of the small hatch above the dial and hit a man drinking beer, on his head! Twelve O’clock was especially fun!
Snapping out of her delusion, she decided it was time to confirm what Neerav had said.
She dialled her husband’s number and waited nervously for the usual click and then his husky voice.
The familiar click did come, but a lady’s voice succeeded it.
“Am I speaking to A…M… Double O….C…. H…I …. Amoochi?” The unknown voice asked her doubtfully.
Tara sighed. Amoochi was Arjun’ s term of endearment for her. It was supposed to be a well-kept secret.
“I thought I should be asking who you are and what my husband’s phone is doing with you?” Tara replied sharply.
“Sorry, Ma’am. It is the Police. Now kindly identify yourself.”
“Police? It’s the Police?” She asked stupidly.
“Yes, ma’am. May I please know your name?”
“So Neerav was right! Oh my God! Please tell me this is not true!”
“I’m sorry ma’am. I just need to know your name and relationship with Mr Arjun Mathur.”
“My name is Tara – wife of Arjun Mathur.” She mumbled into the phone.
“Just hold on a second.” The lady on the other end then continued to speak in a hushed, but audible voice to someone else.
“Sir, she says she’s the wife of that guy.”
“The run-over drug bloke?”
Tara’s ears were suddenly tuned up.
“Yes Sir, she is his wife.”
“But we have already informed his people, right?”
“I believe we have, Sir.”
“Well, then just inform her again and get back to business!”
Before the lady could speak to her again on the phone, Tara interjected.
“What do you mean drug bloke?”
“I’m sorry to inform you Ma’am, but your husband died in an accident, minutes after he was apprehended for possession of illegal drugs.”
“What? Just what?” She spat at the receiver.
“Please remain calm, ma’am. The inspector will speak to you later.” With that, the line was cut.
Tara called the number again for another four times, but it simply went unanswered.
She then called up Neerav.
“Neerav, where are you? I am waiting.”
“I’m sorry Tara. Terrible traffic today. I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
“Neerav… they’re saying…. Arjun was found with those things. How…How I tried to dissuade him from them! And he died because…. because of them! I can’t take it anymore!” She faltered.
“Tara, please wait. I’ll be there in a few minutes. We will talk then.”
As promised, the doorbell rang after some time. One quick look through the crack and Tara unfastened the door chain and let the visitor in. Cookie clambered all over his legs eagerly and welcomed him with a slimy lick.
“Oh, Neerav!” She cried. He held her for a few minutes while her tears drowned in his T-shirt. He stroked her hair and let a solitary drop of tear run through her silky strands. He then led her up the spiralling staircase to the drawing room above.
“Come Tara. You’ve had a shock. Sit down. There, make yourself comfortable. Have you had anything to eat?”
Tara shook her head slowly. “I don’t care anymore, Neerav. Why should I bother?”
“I knew you wouldn’t have had anything. Here, have an apple.” He ordered, giving her no choice but to obey.
“Just today morning, I chided him for not wearing his tie properly. How very naïve it seems now!” She whispered. Neerav only managed to nod his head.
“Why Neerav? What happened? I was always afraid that the police would catch him! But how did he manage to die?”
Neerav took her left palm in his and murmured, “I’m sorry, my love. I only have myself to blame.”
“Why? What do you mean?” She looked into his small hooded eyes and implored the soul within.
“I’m really sorry, Tara. I wish I’d been there earlier. It might have made all the difference. So all I can tell you is why he was murdered.” He breathed, the last words almost dissolving in his own throat.
Tara gave him a cold hard stare.
“I…. I can explain.” He stuttered.
“Well, today morning, I was on my usual rounds when I spotted him coming out of one of the dens. I decided to follow him and warn him about it. He noticed me through his rear-view mirror and gunned his way through the traffic. Of course, he didn’t know it was me in the Police van.”
Neerav paused to take a small sip of water.
“But as luck would have it, I was held up at a traffic signal while he made a clean getaway. I winced and tried to somehow catch up with him, but within a few minutes, it was obvious that I was nowhere near him.”
“Go on.” Tara egged him.
“Here comes the hard part.” Neerav sighed, “About half-an-hour later, I received a communication to head immediately to National Highway 82, near the State Industrial Park. When I reached, it was too late.”
Neerav allowed himself a breath of fresh air and continued. “The Customs people were already there along with other Khaki enforcements. Apparently, he had been found with illegal narcotics worth four crores. They had surrounded Arjun and he looked like a deer in the headlights.”
“I could see pain wringing his face and traced it to the gunshot wound in his calf. He was bleeding, but not heavily. And then, he saw me.”
“He had the look in his eyes, Tara. I can’t really explain. He knew he was guilty and his eyes were full of penitence. He looked at me and smiled his last smile. Then, he made a swift turn, jumped over the barricade and dived into the bush beyond.”
“We all knew that the wounded man wouldn’t get far, but all our hopes were dashed, when we made it to the highway.” He mumbled. “It was a hit-and-run case.”
Tara was now standing by the window and watched the night set in. The clock announced seven pm and the Mother-in-law appeared and whacked the poor man dutifully.
“Can I see him?” Tara asked quietly.
Neerav put a comforting arm around her, “There is hardly anything to see, my dear. I wish there was.”
“But, he was your brother! How could you do it? How can you be so cold-hearted?”
“Yes, I’m terribly sorry…”
“No! I am asking you why did you kill him?” Tara snapped.
She did a whirling dervish and whipped out a gun at him. Neerav threw his hands up in bewilderment.
“What! What are you doing, Tara! Don’t lose your mind! You don’t have to do this!”
Tara cackled loudly and spoke, “My dear Arjun, did you think I would be fooled? You forcefully injected a hallucinogen, Ambien I presume, when he actually met you. Then, you made him exchange your outfits and vehicles under the influence of the drug. Also, it wasn’t exactly a hit-and-run case, was it? One of your henchmen, I suppose.”
Arjun was shocked. He managed to whisper hoarsely, “But how did you guess?”
“Very simple, sweetheart. Neerav was a restrained man and would hardly have called his sister-in-law, love. Also, the dog was ecstatic to see you and gave you away. His affectionate licking confirmed my suspicions. He never liked Neerav much, you see.”
“But the most incriminating of all, you used the word ‘murder’, instead of killed or died or any other word that would have made sense. Lesson learnt: never try hallucinogens before committing a crime.” She laughed wickedly.
A bead of sweat meandered hurriedly down his forehead, breaching his eyebrows and stinging his eyes. However, he was too scared to move.
“I thought you would be happy! We have gotten rid of him and can continue our business peacefully! Don’t kill me! I know you can’t. What is the point?”
She fingered the gun passionately without taking her eyes off him.
“That’s the point, honey. There isn’t any.”
She gave him a slight peck on his cheek and hissed into his ear, “I was your employer for three years and your wife for three more. And I will be your murderer forever.”
“Are you going to pull the trigger?” Arjun asked, hoping that the supplication in his voice would sing through.
“Of course not, Sweetie.”
A few hours later, the police were all over the flat at No 8, Greenways Road. The lady was inconsolable, having lost her husband and her brother-in-law. Inspector Neerav Mathur had fallen headlong to the floor after he had tripped on the spiral staircase. Decidedly, fate was working against the Mathur family, the policemen concluded.
It had been twenty-four hours since the events of the previous evening. The clock struck six and the mother-in-law performed her job with finesse, as usual. Tara grinned and opened the hatch behind the clock and fished out two packets of a white powdery substance. Four crores was a sizeable loss, but they would still break-even.
Her phone rang and she answered promptly.
“Yes, yes. Tell the new customer his order is ready.”