Draping the pallu of my saree around my waist, I tucked the loose end of it into the petticoat to avoid getting ketchup and oil stains on it as I helped serve piping hot samosas, ordered fresh from Narula’s bakery in Indiranagar, into the Corelle plates. The whiff of the spicy mint chutney I dolloped into each plate made my mouth water. Next, I served vegetable spring rolls, paneer tikkas and semolina idlis flavoured with mustard seeds and curry leaves into each plate, adding chicken tikkas into the plates for the two non-vegetarians in our group of friends.
“Umm,” said Mira, tasting the cream of mushroom soup from the ladle as she leaned over the stove where the soup had been simmering.
“Careful, darling,” I said, grabbing her pallu as it slipped down her shoulder and nearly licked the flames of the stove. “You should tuck it in.”
Mira turned around, facing me as she smoothed her lavender Chiffon saree. “What do you think?”
The layered diamond necklace around her slender neck and the diamond studs in her ears shimmered under the bright kitchen lights. The make-up, expensive and excessive, had done its bit in covering the fatigue that comes from working long hours in an HR leadership position at an IT services multinational corporation, but it couldn’t camouflage her dissatisfaction with nearly everything in her life, including her husband, who I thought doted on her.
“You look stunning,” I lied. “Beautiful saree.”
She scoffed, rolling her eyes. “One thing Raj does well after years of practice—picking up the right gifts for me.”
“You’ve trained him well. You know, Adi doesn’t even know what the various fabrics of sarees are, let alone buy a saree for me.”
There are many other things my husband, Aditya Gulati, does not know, including the surprise I’ve planned for him tonight, which he should be receiving any minute now.
“Oh, come on. So what if he can’t buy a saree for you. He brings home enough money,” she said, winking at me.
Well, that’s true and an added incentive for what I was about to do tonight. I’m his only family and the next in line to inherit his business empire should any misfortune befall him.
I would’ve preferred to sit on one of the cosy couches in the living room, sipping wine with the rest of our friends, pretending to be interested in the gossip and the conversations, but if I didn’t help in the kitchen tonight—as I usually did when our fortnightly get-togethers were held at Mira’s place, just like she helped when the parties were held at my place—everyone would notice. And tonight was not a night I would want to be remembered for behaving oddly in any way, however inconsequential. People adhered to patterns and routines unless something was on their mind and there was absolutely nothing on my mind. Nothing I could talk about, anyway.
As we carried the plates to the living room to serve the five women gazing hungrily towards the kitchen and I accidentally glimpsed at the wall clock, my heart raced with the knowledge of the unfolding events at 211, Palm Springs. It was 9.02 p.m. He would be breaking into the house right about now with his expert gloved fingers working the lock on the back door. The light click of the lock would go unnoticed by the two adults in the bedroom or in the bathtub, enmeshed in each other’s arms, oblivious to everything except the immediate, stark sensations of the flesh. He would then go to one of the rooms and rummage through the drawers and the wardrobe for jewellery and other valuables and keep at it until Adi, finally alerted by the strange noises coming from the adjacent room, would cover his toned body by a robe or a towel and go to the next room to investigate. My breath caught in my throat as I pictured the long-bladed dagger piercing Adi's torso, quick stab wounds, at least five of them. As the victim’s wife, I’d receive a detailed post mortem report and my contact would receive the full payment only if the work was satisfactory. After finishing off Adi, he would then stifle the woman’s impending scream with a hand over her mouth and a dagger in her heart. The spicy tang of the mint chutney flooded my mouth as I pictured blood splattering white walls, the Police dubbing the double murder as a burglary gone horribly wrong, and closing the case after being unable to find any trace of the suspect at the crime scene or any other lead even after months of the investigation.
Just as Tanya, our plump saree-clad friend with diamond-studded stubs for fingers, began waving her pudgy hands in the air and describing the sordid details of a high-profile divorce case her husband was working on, my phone began vibrating in my purse. Not my ordinary phone, but my burner phone, the one I’d bought recently for one specific purpose.
My heart plummeted on seeing the name Sheela Sharma flashing on the screen.
I’d saved the investigation agency’s number by this name to avoid any suspicions at home. Even if Adi had stumbled upon the phone by chance, I would have told him it was my new office phone.
The subject was seen entering house number 211, Palm Springs at 2 p.m. in the afternoon on March 19th. The subject and the female resident of 211, Palm Springs were seen on the balcony having drinks at 2.35 p.m. and embracing at 2.49 p.m. Holding hands, they went in towards the bedroom at 2.55 p.m. The subject emerged from the house at 4.45 p.m. and left the house in his car.
There were many such reports I’d received in exchange for the total bill amount of Rupees 450,000 I’d shelled out over three months. My husband was cheating with a much younger unmarried woman who worked as a receptionist in his office. He hadn’t yet brought up divorce, but I had a feeling it was on his mind and he was looking for the best opportunity while building up his courage to talk about it.
I stepped into the cool air on the balcony and closed the sliding door behind me.
“Hello,” I answered the phone.
“Mrs Gulati,” said a deep, cultured voice at the other end.
I immediately recognized him as Mr Arora, the managing partner of the agency. But why would he call me himself? It was usually the manager assigned to my case who communicated with me. The protocol was that the secretary would first call me up and set up a meeting with the case manager at my convenient time. At the allotted time, she’d call me again and patch me into the call with the case manager.
“Mr Arora,” I said. “What’s the matter?”
“I’m really sorry to be calling you up at this time and I apologize if this call has caused you any inconvenience,” he paused. “I’m afraid I have some bad news.”
“What?” I blurted out.
My mind was spinning. I had made the last payment to the agency a week ago and terminated our contract after receiving all the evidence they had collected over the past three months, everything I needed to set my plan in motion. What could have possibly gone wrong?
Mr Arora cleared his throat. “There was a mix up at our end. The file and the evidence we gave you was for another case, not yours. It’s a grave mistake, I know and I personally take full responsibility. We are willing to refund your full amount...”
My knees buckled under my weight. What did he mean? Was my husband not cheating on me with the pretty receptionist? But even before I had hired the investigation agency, all the signs were there. Adi was returning home late every day, many a time with his clothes smelling like a woman’s perfume. He was distracted and extremely possessive of his mobile phone, taking it with him to the toilet as if he needed it to wipe his ass. No, my husband was certainly cheating on me. All the signs were there.
“I want the correct file,” I said, finally finding my voice.
“Of course,” said Mr Arora, his voice heavy with relief. “I have it here with me. I can have it delivered to your office tomorrow morning. Would that be okay?”
In my purse, my other mobile began vibrating.
Why was Roy calling me at this hour? I had spoken to him two hours ago on my way to Mira’s house. He knew I’d be occupied today and how critical it was for everything to be perfect tonight. One call in one evening could be attributed to work discussions—we worked together, after all—but two calls on the night my husband got murdered could arouse suspicion.
I groaned inwardly. “Sorry, did you say you have the file on your desk?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Read it out to me.”
A pause. “Sorry, Mrs Gulati. Transmitting this information over the phone...”
My head was exploding with fury, splotches of red blurring my vision. “Listen to me, Arora. You’ve fucked me by giving me the wrong information. I could sue you for lakhs of rupees. I could have your ass arrested. Read me the information right now or you’ll pay dearly for your mistake.”
I could hear his mind’s machinery whirring over the mobile phone. “Arora,” I said in my best intimidating voice.
“Just a minute please,” he said.
Some papers rustled.
“Your husband indeed is cheating on you, Mrs Gulati. The address of the woman in question...”
“Yes,” I said breathlessly.
“C-401, High Garden, Indiranagar. The woman is...”
“I’ll call you back.”
I snapped the phone shut, holding my head between my hands. Mira! My best friend, Mira. Adi and Mira. I could not believe it. I was going to ask them to bring photographic evidence this time. I wouldn’t believe just the report like I did the last time.
With trembling hands, I dialled my contact’s number. Maybe it was not too late for the couple in 221, Palm Springs—somebody else’s cheating husband and his mistress. Maybe, the dense Bangalore traffic had delayed my contact. Maybe...
Call waiting. He was talking to somebody else. Fuck.
Roy’s name flashed on my mobile once again.
“Hey, is everything okay?”
I froze on hearing Mira’s voice behind me. She had appeared silkily out of nowhere and was now standing less than three feet away. I gazed into her brown eyes, trying to find the answers to my questions. Was it really you who was having an affair with my husband? Why did you betray your best friend?
“Uh, all’s well. I need to use the washroom,” I said, sliding in through the door past her.
I went directly into her bedroom and closed the door. Two or three minutes was all I had before she became suspicious. I began rummaging through her jewellery box on the dresser. If she was the woman Adi was having an affair with, she’d be missing a leaf-shaped diamond stud, one of which I’d found between the bed and the mattress while changing the sheets in our guestroom. So many earrings and rings and chains in gold and diamond, and the woman was still unhappy.
Aha, there it was! A single leaf-shaped diamond stud, just one. I closed the jewellery box quickly and went to the washroom to splash some water on my face. So it really was true, huh. My husband and my best friend. Unimaginable.
I grabbed my burner phone from my purse and dialled my contact once again.
Thankfully, this time he picked up on the second ring.
“Ma’am,” he said in his hoarse voice. “The work is done. I’m out of there. Everything went according to plan.”
I sat on the toilet seat and began hyperventilating. Somebody else’s cheating husband and his mistress were dead, thanks to me. If I got rid of the burner phone, there still wasn’t anything to link me to the murders. In fact, given that I had no idea who the victims were, there was no way the murders could be tied back to me. The investigation agency would keep quiet. I’d make sure of that. I’d pay the contact discreetly as I’d originally planned. Anyway, he was a professional killer who wouldn’t get caught. There was nothing else.
Roy’s name flashed on my mobile for the third time in the past ten minutes.
Roy was my married colleague, my long-time friend and now my lover for the past six months, ever since I began suspecting that Adi was cheating on me. He’d been such a source of comfort to me and had become a very special part of my life. Did I love him? I don’t know. I certainly missed his ribald jokes and his infectious laughter, the confidence he exuded and the affection he showered upon me, his sharp intelligence and his precise meticulousness when he wasn’t around. Once I’d got rid of Adi, I looked forward to spending more time with Roy. Our first night together would be very special, I was sure of it.
“Hello,” I answered.
I was greeted by a sputtering sound.
“Roy? Are you okay?” I asked, alarmed.
“I’ve been...” The rest of the sentence was wiped out by a fit of violent coughing.
I stood bolt upright. “What’s wrong? Where are you?”
“Stabbed. I’ve been stabbed,” he managed to blurt out.
“What? Where? Have you called an ambulance?”
“He said... when he stabbed me...”
“Roy!” I screamed into the phone.
“When he stabbed me, he said... courtesy of Mrs Gulati.”
My phone slipped through my fingers and clattered to the tiled bathroom floor.
My first instinct was to scream, but I simply collapsed on the cold, hard floor. As the sound of the wailing Police sirens pierced the night air, I stared bleakly out of the window, contemplating the swiftly approaching karmic retribution.