It was a cold December evening. Inspector Maya was about to wind up after a particularly tiring day. 5 pm was pretty early to call it a day, but she desperately wanted to. She locked her drawer and picked up her purse, dreaming of a long-awaited, much-delayed, quiet evening with a coffee and a book, when a middle-aged couple walked in.
Maya’s heart sank. Now what?
The man looked familiar. Where had she seen him? Of course yes. In the business news every other day. He’s Rajesh Gupta, owner of a pharma business conglomerate and one of the richest businessmen in the country.
What on earth brings him to the police station of a small town a hundred kilometres away from his home in Mumbai? And why is he so distraught? Maya’s curiosity drove away her exhaustion and she sat bolt upright.
Once the couple was seated, Rajesh began, “Our daughter is missing.”
Maya raised a brow. Rajesh continued.
“Sharvi was staying here, at the Mahila Working Women’s Hostel, a stone’s throw away from this police station. She works as a junior system analyst at an IT firm….”
Maya raised the other brow. Rajesh smiled weakly.
“Ah, Madam, you’re wondering why a rich businessman’s daughter is staying at a hostel and doing a low paid job…” Rajesh shifted uncomfortably in his chair and continued, “You see, I’m the fourth generation of my family in the business line. By God’s grace, we have been wealthy since the beginning and our children grow up getting all the comforts of life.
“My forefathers wanted the children to be capable of facing hardships too. So they decided that any youngster in the family who is to be inducted into the business must undergo a year of working as a junior employee somewhere. They must stay away from the family and fend for themselves during this period. We call this a survival training, because it teaches them the value of money by making them slog for their basic necessities. Sharvi was two months into her survival training.”
“Was she okay with it or was she pushed into it?”
Rajesh’ wife opened her mouth to say something, but the businessman quickly cut her. “Malti, don’t worry, I’ll talk.” He turned to Maya and stammered, “O-of c-course, it was a family decision. All three of us were agreeable.”
Maya stared hard at Rajesh. “Tell me something about her looks, her nature, her past….”
She’s five feet tall, slim and has a medium complexion. Looks like me.”
Maya looked at the photograph he showed her. Sharvi was beautiful, with big eyes, sharp features and shoulder length black hair. Though she was smiling, there was a fiery determination in the eyes that was hard to miss.
Rajesh continued, “She got her commerce degree from St. Xavier’s and then did her MBA. Above average student. Multi talented, she also participated in school plays….”
Malit suddenly interrupted, with a touch of pride in her voice and a twinkle in her red-rimmed eyes, “Remember that cartoon show which aired recently on television? Sharvi voiced both the lead characters. She’s very versatile….”
A glare from Rajesh made her clam up.
“Now tell me how she went missing.”
“As you know, my company has taken over a rival entity. The approvals were received yesterday and we, Malti and I, decided to celebrate the occasion with Sharvi. But her phone was switched off.
“After waiting through the night, we called the hostel in the morning. They rang the doorbell of her room for hours in vain. Then they opened the door with their master key and found no one inside.
“CCTV footage showed her leaving in a great hurry the previous evening, at around 7:30 pm. We called all her friends and also asked everyone in the hostel. She hadn’t told anyone anything.”
“Was she staying alone?”
“No, she had a roommate. Namrata. Seems she is currently out of town.”
“Anyone who hates her?”
“Not that we know.”
“Okay, we’re coming to the hostel.”
Mahila Working Women’s Hostel was a fairly well-maintained three-storey building with sixty rooms, each having two occupants. It was run by a charitable trust and was known as a safe haven for working women staying alone. Located in a small town which was fast developing as an IT hub, it was fully occupied, mostly by young IT professionals.
Inspector Maya and her two assistants were greeted at the main gate by the warden, a portly middle aged, bespectacled woman who looked exactly like they did in the movies.
Maya came straight to the point. “Show me Sharvi’s room.”
The room was located on the ground floor at the back. It was spacious, with a bed, a wooden cupboard, a chair and a desk on either side. At the entrance, to the left, was a bathroom. And at the far end was a balcony enclosed by a grill.
While the right side of the room looked neat and organised, the left side was cluttered.
The warden said, “Right side Namrata, left side Sharvi.”
Maya and her assistants searched the room thoroughly, but couldn’t find anything worthwhile.
A quick round of questions to the warden and other hostelites yielded some information.
“Sharvi and Namrata were like best buddies and staunch opponents rolled into one. Both had a volatile temper. You could hear them fight tooth and nail inside their room and would almost expect one of them to be thrown out. The next day, they would be inseparable friends again.“
“Sharvi would mostly be seen wearing the same pair of ripped jeans and pink T-shirt with the words ‘F*** OFF’. The warden had requested her more than once to wear something with decent words, but in vain.”
“Namrata’a parents live in Indapur. She has a sick father and younger siblings into higher studies. She sends money home.”
“Both girls love the nightlife here.”
Maya raised a brow at this observation.
“Yes, Madam,” continued the young girl whose room was next to Sharvi’s. “I’m working and also doing my MBA. I stay up late studying and hear them return in the wee hours almost everyday.”
“Well, do they disturb anyone?”
“No, but their fights, whenever it happened, would be loud, though they kept it all behind closed doors.”
“You could hear them, right? You share a common wall.”
“Y-yes, but I cannot make out the words. I can only hear noises.” The girl seemed nervous.
Maya said, “Call Namrata from your phone.”
It was answered at the first ring.
“This is Inspector Maya from Radha Nagar police station, behind your hostel.”
“What happened?” There was a hint of fear in her voice.
“Your roommate, Sharvi, is missing.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m home. Papa is not well…”
“Did you intimate the….”
“Yes. I had attended a wedding last night, when I got the news that he’s very sick. I called the hostel, let them know and left right away.”
“In which hospital?”
“At home. He’s too sick to be transported.”
Maya raised a brow.
“Whose wedding did you attend? Which hall?”
“My colleague named Chaitanya. At Darshan Hall.”
“Around 7 kilometres from the hostel, off Market Square.”
“When did you reach there?”
“Around 8 pm. Why are you asking me all this? I went alone on my own business. Not with Sharvi.”
“Okay, okay, please don’t get irritated. I’m just doing my job.”
“Damn your job, disturbing people’s peace.”
“Madam, please calm down or we have to send someone down there.”
Maya thought she heard a gasp, ever so softly. But the girl quickly composed herself and came back on the line. “Okay, ask!”
“What kind of a person was Sharvi?”
“Fiery on the outside, sweet on the inside. We’ve enjoyed many great moments together.”
“Um, going out together…”
“You seem to know a lot, copwoman!”
Maya ignored the remark. “Tell me, how were your relations with her?”
“Why the hesitation?”
“I’m exhausted by your questions.”
If they were face-to-face, Maya could have burnt her down with her stare.
“Okay, good means what?”
“Like best buddies..”
“You used to fight, too.”
“Ah, fights between friends. We would make up quickly too.”
“You both had a fight the evening of her disappearance, before you left to attend the wedding.”
“Normal buddy fight.”
“Kindly elaborate.” This girl was driving Maya up the wall.
“She wanted us to go out together that night. But I had forgotten to tell her that I was to attend that wedding.”
“Did you let her know that you went home straight from the wedding?”
“I called. Her phone was switched off.”
“Did it not concern you?”
“No. I thought her battery had run out. I just dropped her a message and left.”
“Did you take a bus?”
“No. Cab. No bus was immediately available. Cab reaches in four hours.”
Maya raised a brow. “Hmmm..”
“Can I go now? Dad’s calling..”
“Yes, but remain available..”
“Over the phone.“
There was so much to do.
It was afternoon the next day. Maya was sitting at her desk, face in hands. Though she was a seasoned cop, the pressure of this high-profile case was taking its toll.
Maya’s superior had called earlier that day. “People are already talking about the case. Solve it before someone sounds the media or you can look forward to a coffee and a book everyday.”
But what could she do? Investigations had revealed that Namrata had indeed attended the wedding. Even her sim card was traced to Indapur. So her prime suspect was off the list.
People in the area were hotly discussing “that hostel girl wearing a T-shirt with bad words on it, who had gone missing.”
Sharvi’s parents decided to return home after leaving behind a trusted employee to follow with the cops. They didn’t want the media to sniff out the case and dissect their lives.
There were absolutely no clues at the hostel that could help. Maya was at a dead end. She thought hard. Never before had she hated the thought of curling up with a coffee and a book so much as she did now.
Social media profiles! They may contain clues! Maya brightened up and started searching in her phone.
But there was minimal information in the public domain. She was about to log out when she saw a photo of Sharvi and Namrata together, standing in front of the hostel building. She raised a brow.
A cough made her look up. A young autorickshaw driver, complete with uniform, was standing in front of her, grinning unbearably.
“Medam,” he began in a highly accented tone, “that girl who disappeared..”
“Sarvi Medam is missing….you keep any reward for her?” His grin grew wider.
Maya could have throttled him. Need or greed? Or both? She decided to hold her temper and extract information from him.
“Yes, we’ll reward you, but after you talk. What do you want to say?”
“Sarvi Medam and her phriend Namarta Medam..”
Maya raised a brow.
“I take them to the nightclubs and back.”
“That night, Sarvi Medam was alone.”
Maya controlled the urge to raise her other brow.
“It’s 10 kilometres from here to the club. Through Market Square. But that day, she picked up Namarta Medam at Market Square and asked me to drop them on the outskirts, near the jungle. Then they sent me away.
“I noticed that Namarta Medam was wearing a lehnga and was dressed as if she’d attended a wedding. I could also sense tension in the atmosphere as these two were unusually silent that day.
“So after I was sent away, I went some distance, then turned and looked back I saw them having a big argument. Then Sarvi Medam dragged her into the jungle. I drove away. That’s all.”
Maya said, “Take us to that spot.”
Fifteen minutes later, Maya and her two assistants, accompanied by two sniffer dogs and their trainers, reached the place. Maya sent off the auto driver with a reward that made him grin from ear to ear.
Ten minutes later, the dogs had led the team to a bush deep inside the woods.
In between the bush lay the fast decomposing remains of a woman dressed in ripped jeans and a pink T-shirt. The lettering on the T-shirt was very clear, despite the mud. “F*** OFF”
“Sharvi!!” exclaimed a fellow cop, till they pulled out the whole body.
Maya raised her brows, then smiled.
Looking at the puzzled expressions around her, she said, “It’s not rocket science. Just arrange a cab. I’m going to Indapur now. You,” she pointed to one of the assistants, “Come with me.”
“And one more thing,” she added once inside the taxi. “Keep the body in police custody. Call Sharvi’s parents to the police station and say that we found a body wearing ripped jeans and pink T-shirt. Watch their reaction.”
On the way back, Maya got a call from her assistant.
“The parents are distraught. But why…”
Maya cut him short. “Keep silent. I’m coming.”
It was 12:00 noon the next day. Maya was in her cabin. The only sleep she had had was in the form of power naps during the cab ride to Indapur. But she was not exhausted. Rather, she was ready with the answers. Today she could relax with a coffee and a book, after all.
“Time to talk to Sharvi’s parents. Send them in.”
Rajesh and Malti entered the cabin, clinging to each other for support. They had aged years in the last few hours.
Once they were seated, Maya began.
“I have both good news and bad news.”
“What could be good now? Our purpose in life is gone forever,” lamented Rajesh.
Maya rang a bell. An assistant brought in Sharvi, handcuffed, head bent and hiding her tear-stained eyes.
Rajesh and Malti gasped.
“B-but h-how? What happened? Who’s that girl you found? Why did you fool us?”
The questions poured out in one go.
Maya continued, “The good news is that she’s alive. The bad news, well, you’ll have to wait a bit for it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Tell me one thing. Sharvi didn’t want to do this ‘survival training,’ right?
“How can you say that?” began Rajesh, but Maya noticed Malti nodding ever so slightly.
“Tell the truth.” Maya was firm.
“Y-yes,” admitted Rajesh. “It was our fault. We had made her so used to getting whatever she wanted, that she could resort to any means to get out of what she didn’t want. It was only the threat of disowning her from the family business that got her into this training.”
“It got her into many other things, Rajesh. Are you even aware of it?”
Rajesh was blank.
“You sent her to this hostel and asked her to fend for herself. She needed money to sustain her lifestyle. She got into drug trafficking.”
Malti gasped. Rajesh sat still.
“A couple of weeks after moving here, Namrata came in. Sharvi realised that her privacy was in danger. But then, she discovered that Namrata also was in need of money beyond her salary, for her family. But the girl also had a live of the good life she knew she couldn’t enjoy.”
“Sharvi coaxed her into becoming a partner-in-crime. The two made good money, ill-gotten wealth, so much that Namrata had enough to go clubbing, even after meeting her family expenses.
“Namrata soon realised the dangers of staying in the world of crime. She wanted to come out of it. That was the cause of their frequent fights, which would always end with Sharvi offering some more money, more to keep herself safe than anything else.
“Sharvi realised that this partnership couldn’t go on much longer, but the end came sooner than expected.
“The duo had a fight that fateful evening, with Namrata threatening to approach the police, just as she left to attend the wedding. Sharvi decided that something must be done and called her. They decided to meet in the woods near the wedding hall, where Namrata repeated her threat.
“They got into a scuffle, which ended with Sharvi strangulating Namrata. Once the deed was done, she panicked. The last thing she wanted was jail. So she got an idea. She exchanged their clothes and belongings and hid Namrata in a bush. To her panicked mind, it would be days before anyone came that way and discovered the deed and by then, the remains would have decomposed.
“Sharvi then took a cab to Indapur, carrying Namrata’s phone with her. You,” Maya pointed to Malti, “had said that she was a versatile voice artist. Well, she impersonated Namrata over the phone. While talking to us, she was ‘in Indapur.’ While talking to Namrata’s parents, she was ‘in the hostel.’ We discovered this when we visited her parents last night.
“I had noticed in their social media how the two of them shared a similar height and build. I also observed Sharvi’s hesitation when I said I’d visit Indapur. She was afraid of being discovered.
“And yes, now for the bad news. Sharvi won’t be home for a very, very long time. She’s going to have a ‘survival traning’ of at least twenty years now,” concluded Maya.
Note: This is a work of fiction.
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