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Crime Fiction Mystery

Warm yellow light illuminated the gilded dining hall while rain thundered across the hills of the Darjeeling. The plush scarlet rug felt soft under the sandals and the boots. The smell of cardamom and cloves filed the mouths of the guests with bile instead of water. A lavish dinner was placed upon the burnished wooden table that winked darkly at the guests. Rajdeep sat at the foot of the table, studying and watching with alert eyes. The dinner comprised of seven guests. At the head of the table was Professor Sanwar Ahmed, the man responsible for this eclectic congregation. Dressed in a navy-blue suit over a white polo shirt, the fifty-year-old man was handsome but lines of wrinkles at the corner of his eyes and near his mouth gave away his wisdom. His dark eyes gleamed as he stared at his guests.  To his left was a wiry man in a gray suit named Mr. Arun Banerjee who chewed his food in inexorable silence. His squinty eyes surreptitiously went to the woman who was seated beside him. Mrs. Rita Banerjee, dressed in a blue silk sari, had a round stoic face and furiously cut into her chicken with violence. Her knuckles were white as she stabbed the chicken with her fork and her jaws were clenched with violent emotions. Mr. Sunil Rastogi was seated on the other side of Mrs. Banerjee and nursed his wineglass in his hand. Heavy, tall and dressed in a wine-red suit, he had an athlete’s physique and a face that turned the heads of the ladies. He ate very little and drank too much. But the man was still in his senses, his dark hard eyes fixed on the lady in emerald-green silk saree who sat opposite to him. Rajdeep felt regret as he stared at the same lady who also happened to be his best friend.

Meghna avoided the eyes of Sunil’s as well as Rajdeep and stared at the fried rice and chicken on her plate. The rhythmic patter of rain soothed her psyche as she cut into the chicken with precision. She ignored Rajdeep who was on her left and was trying to catch her eyes. To her right, a voluptuous woman in scarlet chiffon sari was seated. Nandita’s doe eyes and innocent smile didn’t deceive Rajdeep. He knew a wolf when he saw one and Nandita was a Lycan who loved to hunt. Her sister Anindita, dressed in a demure pale blue tunic and white trouser with a white scarf wrapped around her shoulder, sipped her wine while her vulpine eyes studied the faces of her guest. The moment her eyes locked with Rajdeep, she decided to play dead and smiled shyly at him. What a rot! Rajdeep chuckled in his mind as Anindita’s eyes returned to her plate.

It was Sanwar who broke the ice, cutting viciously into the silence, “Today, Nina would have been thirty-nine.”

All heads snapped up at the mention of Nina, their eyes full of fear and violent emotions. Rita said, her grip on the knife hard and a faint edge in her voice, “Can’t we have a pleasant dinner and not talk of the dead?”

Rita’s husband, Arun barely managed to control the single tear that rolled down his cheeks and garnered the glares of his wife. He pulled a handkerchief from his coat and wiped the tear off his cheek.

“Rita is right, Sanwar Sir. I don’t think any of us are capable of talking about her without feeling…”, Arun left his words unfinished as he sniffled.       

Rajdeep decided it was time and said nonchalantly, “It was sudden, wasn’t it?”

Anindita said hesitantly, her eyelashes batting coyly at Rajdeep, “Yes. We never knew she was sad. We woke up and heard that she took a lot of medicines.”

Sunil’s bass voice boomed across the table, “Sleeping tablets! She took prescribed sleeping tablets. Nina had insomnia.”

Sunil’s blazing eyes settled on Meghna who continued to cut her chicken into tiny pieces. Rajdeep leaned back in his chair, holding his wineglass in front of his eyes and staring at the red light that filtered through the glass, and said, “You knew her, didn’t you, Miss Basak?”

Anindita said with a hesitant smile, “Yes. But fleetingly. Nina lived across our apartment. She was a lively woman and we were cordial to each other.”

Nandita added, “We never had troubles with her. The other residents of the building disliked her because she was so chiq. Posh and fashionable! And her parties were wild!

Rita said, the venom in her voice quite evident, “That was the problem with her! She worked hard and partied harder. She indulged in debauchery and dragged others too.”

Her hard eyes settled on her husband who was weeping silently and dabbed his eyes with his handkerchief.

“You have all got it wrong.”, Arun said, “Nina was not a bad person. She was terribly lonely. All those parties and booze were to numb her pain. She was never loved by her parents and she was unfortunate in love.”

Rita said, razor edge in her voice, “Who could love a woman like that? Disrespectful. A bully! A drunk sybarite!”

Rajdeep interjected, “Nina once called you an ugly cow and gold-digger!”

Taking a sip from the glass, Rajdeep met the blazing eyes of Rita. She said with a crooked smile, “Yes. It was in a party – the party of my first marriage anniversary. It was quite a shock. She said it right on my face and then laughed, saying it was a joke. But her eyes said otherwise.”

Arun shook his head, “She was only joking. Nina wasn’t mean. She was looking out for me.”

Rajdeep murmured loudly, “I wonder why!”

Sunil, who had slightly lost his inhibitions under the influence of liquor, boomed, “Why talk about that whore? Why, Sanwar Sir? This was a nice dinner but you destroyed it by taking the name of that wretched woman. Even in death, Nina torments us.”

Rajdeep said with feigned astonishment, “Really? I wonder why is that!”

Sunil glared at him, “Why do you care about, Nina? Were you one of the men she was shagging? Still missing her soft skin? Her luscious kisses?”

Meghna dropped her knife on the plate with a loud clatter that stunned Sunil into silence. Her jaws set grimly and her eyes hard as garnets, Meghna said in a calm but stern voice, “Sunil, mind your words!”

Sunil’s anger dissipated under Meghna’s stern watchful eyes. Even Rita went pale and murmured something to herself. Nandita and Anindita were clearly disturbed with Meghna’s words and fidgeted in their chair. The only ones who weren’t affected were Sanwar and Arun, both looking rather grateful towards Meghna who picked up her knife and returned to shredding her chicken.

Rajdeep decided to pounce on the Basak twins, “Both of you frequented her parties, didn’t you?”

Nandita said in a conspiratorial tone, “No human could say no to her parties. They were fun!”

“That’s where you met Rishi, isn’t it?”, Rajdeep said with a crooked grin.

The smile and colour from the faces of the twins disappeared. Anindita said, her voice cracking a little, “You know Rishi? I was never aware of it.”

Sunil said, irate at the conversations, “Can we stop talking about her? The dinner would be ruined.”

“The dinner was never a success, Sunil.”, Sanwar said nonchalantly, “Why bother pretending? It is evident that none of you wanted to be here and each of you have been hating every moment of this dinner.”

Rita said acidly, “Then why invite us? To insult us? To make fun of us?”

Sanwar smirked, “Nina has made enough fun of each of you. I can’t outdo her. She had a penchant for cruelty. Her subtle remarks could shred a person’s heart. But she never deserved to be murdered.

Nandita laughed, “Is that why we are here? You think one of us killed her?”

Rajdeep answered, “Sanwar doesn’t think that. He knows that because I know it. All of you were present on the night of murder. You had all rooms booked in this hotel, had your dinner at this very spot and bade each other goodnight. The waiters who served you remembered the night. It was a jovial dinner, filled with laughter and jokes. Rita toasted to the good health of Nina because it was her birthday. Anindita toasted too and called Nina ‘my soul-sister’. Sunil ordered a huge cake and you, my dear Nandita, sang her favourite song – Strangers in the night. It was a magical night and Nina was at the centre of it. After dinner, she returned to her room and tragedy struck. A great despair that would make Shakespeare weep and Nina decides life has lost its lustre. She takes a handful of sleeping tablets, crushes them with God-knows-what, puts it in her milk and drinks it. Next day, Nina is dead. Did you never find it odd? Or the entire lot of you are as dumb as you look?”

Each of them glared at Rajdeep except Sanwar and Meghna. Sanwar said, “No, Rajdeep. None of them are fools. This is a group of clever men and women.”

Sunil said arrogantly to Rajdeep, “Who are you? What right do you have to insult us with this riff-raff?”

Rajdeep said with a wise smile, “I am a private detective, hired by Nina’s half-brother, Sanwar Sir.”

All eyes, wide with shock, settled upon Sanwar who took a sip from his glass and said, “Don’t pretend! You knew the day I introduced her. We looked exactly the same. I rue the day when I introduced her to vipers like yourselves.”

Anindita said as she threw the napkin on the table, “This is nonsense! None of us killed her. It is an outrage. Nina killed herself because her secret boyfriend swindled her and broke her heart.”

Rajdeep shook his head and said calmly, “Not an outrage, my dear! Nina’s secret boyfriend had no part in her death. The suicide letter was a forgery. A very good one, I must say! It took five handwriting specialist and a year of digging through her finances to come to the conclusion of her murder. Let me tell you how each of you are perfect for the role of the murderer.

“Starting with Arun Banerjee. He met Nina through his colleague, Sanwar. A shy reserved man, he is taken up with the lively woman that was Nina. Her sharp wit and complete disregard for societal norms fascinates Arun. Before long, he is completely engrossed in the persona of Nina that he had forgotten about his wife who watches him fall out of love with her and in with Nina. Next is Rita Banerjee – the scorned wife. Not an ugly cow or a gold-digger like Nina believed. She doesn’t have the beauty or the wit or the persona of Nina. She can’t dazzle the people around her and is relegated to the corners while Nina shone, taking the centre stage of every party. But there was passion in her heart. Passion for her husband. Rita could have forgiven Nina for her sharp words if she hadn’t gone after her husband. Furious but helpless, she watched her husband dance to the tune of Nina, the woman she hates the most.   

“Next the nieghbours, the Basak twins. Each of them is a beauty. They are as sharp as Nina and share the same cruel streak. With Nina, they bully the less fortunate, hurt the feelings of the vulnerable and party like wild animals. But unlike Nina, who is amoral, the twins are immoral. They hurt others because they like it. They had a nice prey – a young naïve man named Rishi. First, Anindita would break his heart after she had her fun. Then, Nandita will swoop in, have her share of fun and discard him. In the end, he’ll be left with reduced monetary means and a twice-broken heart. But Nina didn’t allow it. She stepped in and foiled your plans. You were furious because no one messes with you. But Nina was different. She didn’t care. She kicked you out of the nice society, maligned your name. In the end, the two of you had to grovel and apologise to Nina. That must have been hard!

“Next is Sunil Rastogi. A man who hates Nina. Or does he? There was a time he loved her. Loved her so much that he partook in a very nasty prank. He sweet-talked a young naïve girl who studied with Nina when she was in college. He manipulated that young girl into believing that she was in love and convinced her to elope with him to Patna. The girl left her home, disgraced her family and arrived at Patna Station but he was nowhere to be found. When the young girl returned her home, she was thrown out on streets to die. Fortunately, she survived.”

Rajdeep’s eyes settled on Meghna who had put down her cutlery and stared at him. He said, his eyes soft with love, “You survived, Meghna. But you hated her.”

Sunil said, his jaws twitching with anger, “It is neither me nor Meghna. I accept that I had been a brute to Meghna and for that, I am truly sorry. But none of us, present in this room, hurt Nina. It was that secret boyfriend who swindled her and broke her heart.”

Sanwar said, “There was no secret boyfriend. She would have told me.”

“She left a bloody suicide note!”, Rita screeched.

“Forgery, Mrs. Banerjee! A nice forgery! There was no secret boyfriend. There was no secret lover. There was only Nina and the person who couldn’t pay her back her money.”, Rajdeep said.

“But why?”, Arun said, his faced laced with tears, “For money? Nina was a rich woman. She helped her friends from time to time and never asked for repayment.”

“But this was different. This was a friend who cheated her out of her money. The money that was meant for Meghna!”, Rajdeep said.

Sunil said, “Meghna? Why would she give her money?”

Finally, Meghna broke her silence and said, “Because she regretted hurting me.”

Staring at Sunil with eyes void of emotions, she said, “There was a rumour about me that I liked Nina. Nina was a social creature and such rumours could have harmed her stature. To stop the rumours from spreading, she decided to play a nasty prank on me. But it turned deadly with me on the streets. I was on the verge of being exploited when my sister’s in-laws intervened. Rajdeep, here, is my sister’s brother-in-law. Another person who was aware of my fallen conditions was Sanwar Sir. He berated Nina. I was the reason why he didn’t speak to her for two years. Nina was overcome with regret and wanted to reach out to me. Sanwar Sir wouldn’t help her and she had no idea where I was. But one her friends promised to speak to Sanwar Sir on her behalf. She gave that person a sum of twenty lakhs which was meant for me.”

Rajdeep said, continuing from where Meghna left it, “Fifteen years later, Nina met Meghna again. She tried apologizing but Meghna is a creature of pride. For a year, Nina reached out to her but Meghna didn’t respond. A year of nagging later, Meghna finally answered to her calls and the truth about the money came out. Nina was shocked to realise that her friend swindled her. But, instead of going to the police, Nina tormented the said friend for three years, threatening him with police if she didn’t receive the money. Her friend was going through a dire financial crisis and couldn’t pay. On the other hand, Nina continued with her games until it was too much and the friend decided to kill her. What do you have to say about it, Mr. Arun Banerjee?.”

At that instant, men in uniform burst into the room and apprehended Arun who said with wide eyes, “No! No! Let me explain! I needed the money! I wanted Rita to be happy. I couldn’t pay her back. Nina forced me! It was Nina! Nina made me mad! Nina made me kill her!”

Rita shushed him, her eyes full of tears and fears, “Don’t! Stop it, Arun! Stop! Please don’t take him! He is ill. Don’t take him.”

But the police were already holding him by the shoulder and dragging him across the hall with Rita on his heels. The room fell silent the moment the police and the killer departed. The soothing patter of rain failed to calm their frayed nerves. Adrenaline coursed through their veins as Anindita took a sip of water, her hand shaking. Nandita fidgeted in her chair, picking on to the threads of her handkerchief and Sunil stared with wide eyes at his plate, unable to comprehend what happened. Rajdeep and Sanwar were least ruffled and continued drinking their wine when Anindita said, her voice brittle, “But it doesn’t make sense! There was a boyfriend and she gave him money.”

“She wanted to pay Meghna as reparations. There was no boyfriend!”, Rajdeep said in an even tone.

This time, it was Nandita who said, “But there was one! She said it! She said that she found forgiveness and love in the same person. She said that she had hurt him once badly. But this person had eventually forgiven her. She was desperately in love with this person. Nina was over-the-moon when this person finally said yes to her.”

Rajdeep said as his as well as Sanwar’s eyes settled on the lady who still maintained her silence, her eyes filled with unshed tears, “Yes. She did find love in the end.”   

July 02, 2021 18:18

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