December 26, 2008
His name was Gopal, a taxi driver by profession.
Gopal was about forty five years of age. Being frivolous he had lacked the substance, the direction and the sense of responsibility when he was young. His interest towards school curriculum had diminished when he was in high school. The game of cricket had proved to be the culprit. The school cricket team captaincy was given to him when he was in grade 9. He had dreamt of representing the nation and earning in millions. His dreams were not fulfilled and his hope proved to be impractical. When he was in his early thirties he tried his luck in view of making a living in Dubai. His father’s hard earned money was wasted on a fraudulent employment agent. He was deceived, which had left him low and dry.
The state of building castles in the air had come to an end. Gopal had stopped dreaming.
His cab came to a halt on the opposite side of a bar and restaurant. It was 11:00 pm as the duty came to an end. He needed a peg or two after the duty hours. He believed in the relaxation which would get activated by the intoxication.
As he stepped out of the car it started to drizzle. Gopal locked the door and moved quickly into the bar. He picked up his seat, wiped the drops of water and stroked his hair. The first peg was served. The sip made him feel good. He lit the cigarette.
Gopal was still a keen follower in the game of cricket. There were times when he had skipped work and watched some keenly fought matches on TV. He enjoyed the electrifying moments. The intense excitement and thrill would pump his adrenaline. He was addicted to the pleasure of the game and he always wanted more. But then he had his moments of sadness. The very thought of his present state of social and financial condition would turn him off especially after a couple of drinks.
He had lost interest in studies due to over attachment in cricket. He had broken the rule of a lower middle class family by neglecting the school work. A degree from any college would have enhanced his status. Gopal regretted. He was ignorant when he was young and then it was too late. He had seen a good number of his school mates well settled with stable jobs and family life. His parents had pushed him hard at the studies. Gopal had ruined his chances. His financial condition prompted him to live single and unattached.
A weak smile appeared on his face when he ordered for the second peg. After all he was living in adverse conditions. In the game of life the competition between victory and defeat always existed. The line connecting the success and downfall could be often a narrow one. Unfortunately he was trounced in various stages of life.
Was there any possibility of redemption?
Gopal took a drag at his cigarette and slowly expelled the smoke. He had gained very less from life, lost most of it and the recovery seemed impossible. Present existence was restricted as cab driver and perhaps it would continue for the rest of his life. In this materialistic world, the gauging factor for human success had always been the amount of money and wealth. His state of mind was caught in sullen anger and irritability. The third peg became a necessity.
He turned to his left to call the waiter. A lady with a mug of beer caught his attention. She was the lone lady customer in the bar. Gopal could not resist his eyes. She was conspicuous perhaps due to her stunningly beautiful blue colored dress and some typical high society attitude in her appearance. Her presence carried some kind of magical attraction. The attraction had the pull to draw anyone for a second look. The intoxicating effect in her eyes was inexorable.
She was engaged in a conversation on her cell phone. She looked at her wrist watch in between the talk. At times her expressions turned anxious and uneasy. Gopal shifted his attention and requested the waiter for a drink.
The cricket match on the TV drew his concentration. A test match was being played in England and the Indians were batting in wet conditions. The weather was cloudy and windy. The ball swung appreciably. The opening batsman was cleanly bowled and the couple of next batsmen were caught in the slip region. Gopal was so absorbed in the match he did not realize how quickly the third peg got over.
He signaled the waiter for the bill. He looked at his left. The lady with the blue dress smiled at him. Gopal could not believe for a while. What made her to make him comfortable? She was a stranger and she had no reason to radiate any kind of grin. Gopal felt the uneasiness. He always had experienced the discomfort while dealing with unfamiliar women. He remained blank and unfriendly.
At this moment a strongly built man resembled more to a thug pushed the door and entered the bar. He looked around and then walked straight towards the lady. They whispered in each other’s ears. The lady removed cash from vanity bag. The strongly built man collected the money and rushed out of the bar.
She emptied her beer mug.
Her facial expressions turned austere. The cordial look vanished and the grim face took over. She was unnerved. Something terrible must have had happened. Gopal controlled his over inquisitiveness, paid the bill and moved off. Heavy downpour greeted him when he stepped out. The rainfall roared with flashy lightening and deafening thunder. The parked car was on the other side of the road. He waited in anticipation for the weather to calm down. The atmosphere was stormy and he did not like to be wet.
“I have an umbrella.” He heard the soft voice of a lady.
He turned to his right as if struck by the lightening.
She was the same lady with the blue dress from the bar and restaurant.
“Could I help you to the car?” She unlocked the umbrella.
“Thank you.” He replied after a while. ‘How did she know that he had the car?’ That certainly puzzled him.
He walked with her underneath the umbrella. A game in wet conditions was in close proximity.
“I live in Palace Orchards. Could you drop me?” She requested. “I am ready to pay you double the charges. It may not be possible to get any other taxi.”
How did she know that he was a taxi driver? He tried to study her game. Gopal was tested by her bowling. The swing checked him. He decided to be watchful.
He stepped in and occupied the driver’s seat. She entered the taxi without his consent. The ignition was switched on. The heavy shower continued. He set the wiper blades into action.
“Where do you want to go?” He questioned her.
“I told you that I live in Palace Orchards.” She reminded him. “I am in no hurry. My husband does not wait for me. He is busy in his own life, so am I.”
Was she joking? Palace Orchards was a housing locality dominated by affluent and wealthy families. The address categorized her status. The irregularity in the incident bothered him. Something was shady. All depended on his batting. The bowling had to be tackled with plenty of prudence. He pressed the accelerator to gather the speed.
The cell phone buzzed from her vanity bag. She hurriedly opened her hand bag, removed the instrument and just looked at the number. She was not keen to speak to the caller. The ringing tone stopped after a while.
What made her show the disinterest at the caller? Gopal was baffled by the mystery.
“Would you reduce the speed?” She appealed him.
It appeared as if she was not happy with the pace. The options of spin still existed. The speed was brought down.
“I am hungry.” She expressed her wish. “Could you stop near any fast food joint?”
Her wish sounded more like a command rather than request. If she was hungry why didn’t she eat at the restaurant where she was enjoying her beer? The bowling had too much of swing. He had to be careful while batting in wet conditions. Gopal’s mind had turned active. The intoxication of the three pegs had dissolved. He was alerted by deceitful and two-faced nature of the wicket. Gopal stopped the car opposite a burger joint.
“Could I bring a burger for you?” She asked him while opening the umbrella.
“I am not hungry.” He politely refused.
She walked briskly into the food joint. Gopal could see the counter through the glass door. She spoke to the cashier. The cashier pushed the telephone instrument towards her. She lifted the handset and pressed some number. He was taken a back by an element of surprise.
Why did she prefer the land line? Where was the cell phone?
She had left the cell phone over the passenger seat. His hand vibrated uncontrollably when he picked up the device. There was a missed call. This was number which she had refused to accept. She could be speaking to the same caller through the land line.
Why the land line and why not the cell phone? The circumstances truly looked suspicious.
The rainfall continued at consistent force. It wasn’t easy to bat in wet conditions. He picked up the cell phone from the passenger seat. The button to read the missed call was pressed. The number appeared on the screen. He wrote the number in a slip of paper. Gopal pushed the folded paper into his shirt pocket and replaced the device back on the passenger seat. He blew the horn twice as if thwarted by the holdup.
“I am sorry. I was delayed at the counter.” She entered the car with the take away packets of hamburgers. She wiped the water after folding the umbrella.
Gopal continued his silence. He did not know what to reply. The drive was carried on. Her behavior had aroused suspicion. The game was in progress. Gopal could sniff the smell of wet soil.
The lady placed her cell phone in her vanity bag. She did not bother him and ate the burger during the journey. They reached the locality of palace orchards. Gopal was guided to the building. The car was stopped outside the gate.
The force of the rain had diminished. The drizzling was on. The soil had turned wet and soft.
She paid him more than the normal night taxi fare.
“Thank you.” He restrained his joy while collecting the money.
“May I know your contact number?” She asked him. “I will call you whenever I need the taxi.”
Gopal gathered his card from the dash board and passed on. She collected and walked off with her belongings.
Gopal did not move and just waited at the same spot for next few minutes. Most of the apartments in the building were in darkness except for couple of them. He waited and watched. Exactly after seven minutes an apartment on the fourth floor illuminated as the lights were turned on. She must have had been living there. Unexpectedly the silence in the building was broken by a loud piercing high pitched fearful cry.
Gopal was terrified by the scream. He did not know the reason. The fright prompted him to act rapidly. He vacated the place. The cab was driven at high speed without any second thought.
The day after the mystifying night was spent without any significant event.
The third day’s news paper carried a news column on a business man’s murder in Palace orchards. The slain was Mahesh Khurana. The execution had taken place in the same rainy night when Gopal had dropped the blue dressed lady at Palace orchards. Mahesh Khurana’s wife Radhika was reportedly not at home at the time of the gun shot. Cash and jewelry were stolen by breaking the vault. The police had suspected theft could be the cause for the crime.
Mr. Mahesh Khurana was a well known steel merchant. He had lost his first wife about five years back and his only son was managing their London office. Three years back he had married Radhika and there was no offspring from the second marriage. Mahesh Khurana’s only son had announced a reward of one million to anyone who could lead them up to the killer.
Gopal was stunned when he read the news. He was suddenly haunted by the wet conditions of a stormy night. He remembered every moment of it. The blue dressed lady with a mug of beer was unforgettable. The unknown visitor in the restaurant, the payment, the lift to Palace orchards, the missed call, the visit to the burger joint and the scream from the apartment were the part by part incidents of the dramatic night. The seed of his imagination was sprouting into an embryo. His thoughts were germinating into a tiny plant. The thick root was pushing the stem upward. The possibility which was apparent could be the hidden reality.
He harked back to the number which had written in a slip paper. This was the missed call he had noted down when the blue dressed lady had gone to the burger joint. Gopal came out from his house and tried the number from a public telephone booth. The line was connected.
“Hello…” A robust voice from the other end roared.
“I have a message from Ms.Radhika Madam.” Gopal tried to confuse the listener. “May I know who is speaking?”
“This is Mallik Bhai. You have reached the right person. What is the message?” The person curiously inquired.
Gopal felt the chill, gasped for breath and disconnected the line. The shuddering feeling of coldness remained for some time. Mallik Bhai, a hired killer by profession was well known for his criminal activities. His name was often referred in newspapers and news channels. The nexus between Radhika and Mallik Bhai was indicating the existence of a hidden motive.
Everything was a part of a plan. Radhika wanted a witness to prove her innocence. She must have had become friendly with Gopal with the intention of using him as evidence. His connection was just a co-incidence. After all she needed a perfect stranger to prove to the cops that she was away at the time of the crime. A simple unknown taxi driver fitted perfectly. The shrub of his imagination grew into a single stem tree.
She must have had monitored him when he had parked the car out side the bar, kept a watch on him inside the restaurant and followed him when he stepped out to face the wet conditions of the night. It was pre-planned murder. She did not know that he had observed her while releasing the payment to Mallik Bhai or perhaps Mallik Bhai’s associate. The killer had called her after the execution. That was the missed call which she avoided to speak in front of Gopal. She made him to stop the car near the joint and called the killer by using the cash counter landline. A well thought infallible plan sustained suitably except for the one small little error. Radhika had committed the blunder by leaving her cell phone over the passenger seat. In very simple words Radhika had hired Mallik Bhai to exterminate Mr. Mahesh Khurana. She could be inheriting millions in terms of bank balance, business, property and insurance.
If the persisting thoughts in his mind were close to reality, he knew she would call him. He trusted his imagination. As a cricketer he always had the competency to study his opponents. Otherwise why the heck she took his contact telephone number?
His belief did not go wrong. As anticipated, next morning he received a call from Radhika Madam.
“Hello.” Her voice was familiar. “Could I speak to the taxi driver, I do not remember his name?”
“I am the taxi driver.” He replied. “My name is Gopal.”
“I need you.” Her voice was affected by the mental stress. “My name is Radhika. I hope you remember me. You dropped me at Palace orchards. It was late night and heavily raining.”
“Yes, I do remember.” Gopal tried to be relaxed. “Do you have any problems?”
“When I reached home that night my husband was not alive. He was shot dead by an unknown killer.” She did not sound regretful. “Cops have been checking my whereabouts at the time of the crime. You are my only witness and you know where I was. Could you please meet me at Palace Orchards Police station tomorrow at nine in the morning? You may have to give your statement.”
Radhika had planted a witness to prove her innocence.
Gopal was destined to be the strongest evidence in a plot centered on deceit and betrayal. She had intended to use him.
“I do not want to be harassed by the police.” He hesitated.
“You will be richer by couple of millions.” She wheedled him.
“I will come.” Gopal agreed.
“Thank you.” She was thrilled.
He was playing his game in wet conditions. The element of uncertainty existed.
Mahesh Khurana’s son had announced a reward of one million to the person who could help in trapping the killer. Radhika madam wanted to come out clean by paying off double the reward. He had a strong enough story to nail Radhika madam and Mallik bhai. The rest could be easily investigated by the cops.
As a cricket player he always had played fair game on or off the field. As a human being his integrity was never questioned. His honesty had remained intact in testing conditions of life.
He looked out from the window. The atmosphere had turned cloudy, rainy and windy. Gopal mentally prepared himself to play one of the finest innings of his life.