Arjun called Khush immediately after Harry ended his call to continue with his recollection. Khush told him about a call from Raima that went blank, leaving Shom worried. Khush and Shom tried calling Raima, but in vain. Shom panicked and Khush suggested patience. In the meantime, they could take a walk on Marine Drive. They did that but Shom kept looking at his watch and imagining the worst. He sensed that the phone was snatched from Raima before she could even say ‘hello’.
He did not know why Raima was still in Jaipur, long after the conference had drawn to a close. He was deeply engrossed in thought when his phone buzzed again. It was a call from Raima. Dying to hear her voice, Shom hurriedly answered it.
“Hello, Shom,” replied a thick male voice.
“Who is this? Where is Raima?” demanded Shom. He was shocked and nervous. There was something unpleasant about the man’s voice.
“She’s with me,” said the man gruffly.
“Who are you?” yelled Shom. “Give Raima the phone!”
“One thing at a time, sir,” said the man. This time he spoke in a levelled voice. “I am Saif aka Iqbal, nephew of Abdul Rauf Asghar the second-in-command of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terror group. Raima is my girlfriend, has she not told you that? Just keep away from her.”
Without waiting for Shom’s reply, Saif disconnected. Shom stared at his phone, stunned in disbelief.
“What’s the matter, Shom? Who was it?” Khush demanded, noticing that Shom had gone pale.
“I have to get on to the next flight to Jaipur,” Shom said. He called the driver and they left for the airport. In the car Shom told Khush what had happened.
“Saif?” Khush shouted, almost lunging out of his seat. “He is Iqbal Asghar!”
Khush was pissed off. Shom’s heart was racing for Raima’s safety. He imagined her in the worst possible situation with the dangerous creep. Controlling his emotions, he planned a strategy with Khush to get Raima out of the clutches of Saif. It was clear she was being held hostage by a hard-core terrorist group.
Before leaving for Jaipur, Shom changed the settings on his phone to forward all calls to Khush’s number while he was in transit. This was in case Raima called or there was a second call from Saif. Khush knew Akshay Rathod, an up-and-coming journalist in Jaipur who was indebted to him and was more than ready to help Shom.
When Akshay met Shom at Jaipur airport, he already had the printouts of Raima’s photo. They went about covering all the likely places, quickly but systematically. They charted a route that led to Diggi Palace, the venue of the Jaipur Festival. With Akshay’s knowledge of gang hideouts, the two of them set off on a recce.
What no one had realised thus far was that ever since Raima had spilled the beans on Saif ten years ago, she had been on the radar of Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, chief of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). Though JeM was more active now, both, JeM and LeT had the same antagonism towards India. Both groups ran terror training camps in Manshera in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
Shom realised what they were up against and he desperately tried Raima’s phone again. But by now, her mobile had gone dead. Shom was distraught with grief. All his efforts seemed to be in vain. Khush sent an update to the Chief of Police in Jaipur regarding the situation and continued to monitor the developments parallelly.
Shom informed Khush that Akshay and he were conducting a recce to find places that were either isolated, almost neglected or too crowded for the cops to scan in the south, south-east and south-west parts of the city.
Aneesha cut short her Poona holiday and she and Khush joined Shom. Having been a frequent visitor to Jaipur in the past, she knew the roads like the back of her hand. She would give directions to the driver, making him take shortcuts known only to her. When they reached a hideout in a dingy back alley, Aneesha would transform into a run-of-the-mill chakka and inconspicuously look around. After three dead ends, she struck gold! As she entered Saif’s lair, she caught sight of a shivering Raima, huddled in a corner on the floor. Aneesha immediately left the premises before Saif could set his eyes on her. She quickly alerted Shom and Khush. Shom rushed to the address while Khush spoke to the police.
The police cordoned off the entire area while Khush and Aneesha positioned themselves a few metres away from the hideout. From there, all Khush could see was the backs of a wall of policemen. Shom was still on his way. He had Khush on the phone giving him minute-by-minute updates. His feelings were the same as when Aruna was taken away from his life. Khush tried to get closer to get a better view of the proceedings when a string of bullets shattered the silence.
No one knew what had transpired. The policemen entered the hideout and found that Saif had fled the scene. Before doing so, he had sprayed a round of bullets, three of which had hit Raima straight in the chest.
It was only her determination and divine help that made Shom reach her in time. Raima was breathing her last, as if only awaiting his arrival. Shom broke down, saying she that he wanted to die too. Without her, his life would be purposeless. But the look on Raima’s face clearly told him that being a strong-minded man, he should not give up on his goals. He looked at her again.
“Believe in our souls, Shom,” she said, lying limp in his arms. “We will always be together; nothing can keep us apart.”
A beautiful smile appeared on Raima’s face. In that smile, Shom saw Aruna. And then her smile remained fixed. The last smile.
Shom stayed transfixed, watching every ounce of life drain out of his beloved’s body. His gaze stayed unhindered on her still face. When he looked at her beautiful, angelic face again, something possessed him and his whole outlook changed. His life was no longer purposeless. He could do something to balance the scales of life. Immediately, he took charge of the situation.
“I want Saif. He couldn’t have gotten far,” he said.
“We will,” said Khush. “The entire walled city is under surveillance. It has the latest high-tech security cameras that revolve 360 degrees, mapping every movement, every minute. I have already surveyed the place. The city is on high alert. The police are putting up posters of Saif with a complete description of him as we speak. The citizens have been asked to report any sighting of Saif.”
“And I have friends in my biradari who will lay down their lives for me,” added Aneesha, clapping in a typical style, the male in her becoming dominant.
Just then Shom’s phone rang. It was Akshay. “Saif has contacted one of my sources known for finding the remotest of hideouts when criminals are being chased. I have the address. I am mailing it to you. I shall join you after the cremation.”
There was no way Shom was going to leave without giving his soulmate a proper funeral. He had already asked Akshay to get the arrangements started, so they didn’t waste any time.
“I like that spirit, Shom,” Khush said, his hand on Shom’s back.
“Yes, and rest assured, we will get the devil at any cost,” Aneesha added with total confidence.
Just before Khush left, Shom called him aside and said, “Don’t ever call me on my official number. Call me only on Shom’s number, which should not be given to anyone.”
Khush nodded and took off with Aneesha.
With a heavy heart Shom went through the cremation, while his mind worked overtime. As Raima’s body disappeared into the electric incinerator, his thoughts went back to his honest father, who worked all his life sincerely, but bore the brunt of being a total misfit in the corrupt environment. He thought of his business, where he had to fight the wretched thugs of corruption every step of the way; of Aruna and the injustice done to her when she had to pay for their deep love with her life; and finally, to Raima, his beautiful, wonderful Raima, lying lifeless in his arms because she had deemed it fit to report what she considered a threat to national security. Someone had to stand up and do something. And that someone was going to be him.
Shom thought he could never be alone since he hated himself. He loved everyone except himself. He hated himself for being a slave to worldly ways and to the big trap called life. He sympathised with everyone but himself. When he was wronged by someone, he did not get angry. He would do exactly what Harry would do. Just sympathise with them for being in a trap. His only enemy was himself. And now for the second time in his life, his inner self reposed anguished and outraged. First, at the people who separated him from Aruna. And now, Raima’s departure from this ruthless world had left him harrowed. He wanted to get even with Raima’s killers and if he died in the process, so much the better. He would also be doing service to mankind. This motivated him to get cracking. His mind turned into drawing board where he put his plan together. He had the money, the passion, a trustworthy friend like Khush and Harry as his guru to see his plan through. He had all the weapons he needed. Nothing could stop him now. He decided to go underground.
Shom was already a changed man. He realised that being underground was a state of mind. It meant one had let go of everything. One didn’t have an image to protect. No ego, no responsibility and no concerns left. An existence that meant non-existence to the world.
Just at that moment, Khush called, all excited. “Aneesha and her friends have located Saif and she has befriended him too. It’s a very basic place, not at all to his standards and not a safe place either as the cops are hovering around. Also, he has a gunman with him.”
“That’s great news,” said Shom. “Tell Aneesha to take him and his gunman away to a place where she and her friends can join them. She must convince him that her biradari will keep him safe and camouflaged from the police. Saif will welcome this idea, Also, I want his room completely wired with four hidden cameras. Every angle must be covered. Is Saamiq good at this?”
“He’s the best I know,” replied Khush.
“He will have to dress up as one of them.”
“That’s no problem, he has hair up to his waist!” grinned Khush.
“Great. Let’s get him here pronto with all the hardware he needs. Aneesha is to handle everything from now on, she is in charge of this operation. And look after her well. She is a nice kid.”
Khush smiled. Before he hung up, he said what was on his mind. “Shom, I can see what you are up to and I totally support you. But don’t you think it’s too risky? I mean we’re dealing with the underworld here. We can’t underestimate them.”
“I know what I have to do. I am worried about you, as you are dear to me. You’re the one who will have to look after your interests back home and mine too. Hereafter, there shall be no direct involvement from your side, and no debates please, do as I say. I have the perfect plan and I am going to be directly involved. I don’t have to worry as I have nothing to lose anymore, so I will be at my best.”
Khush gulped at the severity of Shom’s words. “I have total faith in your abilities. I know you can do anything when you single-mindedly go after something.”
“Thanks buddy. I couldn’t have done it without you. And one more thing, Khush, you were right, Saif does look a lot like me,” said Shom with a wicked smile only he could see.
“Take care, bro, he is the devil. Just call me whenever you need me. I will be alert 24/7.”
“Thanks Khush. With your support I can do wonders. I want you to get an untraceable cell number and text me on this cell, never on my official number. Please don’t call until you hear from me.”
There was a much bigger plan formulating in Shom’s mind. He was engrossed in his thoughts when Saamiq called to say that he had set up the place and was on his way back to Bombay. He had simply created a site where the recordings would directly get uploaded. He had mailed the password to Shom. Shom downloaded and found it perfect and thanked Saamiq for what he had done. Shom spent rest of the day studying Saif’s mannerisms and later superimposed the image of his own face on Saif’s, using Adobe Photoshop. The major disconnect was the nose and part of the chin. The other problem was that Shom’s right earlobe had a mole on it. He had to keep that in mind.
The next day, the stage was set. Shom went to meet Aneesha and thanked her profusely for what she had managed.
“Where is the gunman?” he whispered.
“He’s downstairs, having his tea and Saif is in his room.”
“Great. Ready to go?” Aneesha nodded.
Shom walked to the adjacent house with Aneesha. From the narrow opening of the door that Aneesha had left ajar, Shom spotted the gunman and tiptoed up to him from behind. In one swift motion, he put his right arm around the gunman’s neck, choking him, while Aneesha moved in quickly and pressed a piece of rag soaked in chloroform to his mouth. Shom’s left hand took over and pushed the rag harder, covering his nose and mouth. The gunman could barely move, uttering only muffled sounds. In a deft manoeuvre, Shom broke his neck and he was dead. Aneesha watched in terror and awe. Shom was astonished at what he did, but he smiled, knowing Raima was by his side all along. He then signalled Aneesha and they walked up to Saif’s room and knocked on his door.
“Kaun hai?”(Who’s there?) asked Saif.
“Hey sweety,” said Aneesha and Saif opened the door, but only slightly. She quickly ducked to the side. He froze, staring at an unknown face smiling back at him. Before Saif could react, Shom kicked him hard in the balls, as a striker would shoot a penalty goal. Saif crumpled to the ground and passed out. Shom was relieved not to have used the Webley-Scott he carried on him. Just to make sure Saif stayed on the ground, Shom hit him hard on his head with the butt of the .32 revolver. Aneesha kept a close watch as Shom battered Saif’s nose and chin. He then cut off his own right earlobe. While Saif was writhing in pain, Shom killed him the same way he had killed the gunman.
“Please remove his clothes,” he asked Aneesha and undressed himself in the corner. He then switched his clothes, driving licence, credit cards, wallet and even the rings on his fingers with Saif.
“You know what to do,” Shom said and asked Aneesha to leave. Within minutes, she had cleared off all her belongings and her friends who had no idea what had transpired in that room. That was the only way she would completely be safe. And that was also the last time she ever saw Shom.
Shom abandoned Saif’s body in the room. Because of the room’s remote location, he knew that the bodies – Saif’s and the gunman’s on the ground floor – would be discovered only after a few days. By then Saif’s fingerprints would not be classifiable. However, before leaving the room, Shom replaced Saif’s mobile lying on the table with his official one and kissed goodbye to his favourite Webley without erasing his finger prints, intentionally. He then switched off the cameras, took the recordings, removed the wiring and took it all with him. Once he had covered a sufficient distance from the scene of crime, he sent Khush a text from his unofficial (Shom’s) phone and asked him to arrange for Rs 10 lakh to be transferred to Aneesha’s account.
Sure enough, three days later, Shom’s body was found. It was identified by his son Kavish and Khush. The body was in a wretched state and the object that confirmed it was Suman’s body without further doubt was the Webley Scott attached to it. Suman Bhatia was dead at last. And so he did as decided. He was truly underground now.
As Shom watched the coverage of Bhatia’s death on TV, he at once thought of Khush and called him from his new number. Khush was shocked, but instantly relieved to know that Shom was alive.
He realised that Shom was the mastermind behind the sequence of events.
“I cannot believe you’re alive!”
“I’m so sorry. I just did what I had to do.”
“Okay, you slimy dog. Does Harry know?”
“Yes he does. I concurred with him about Saif’s finger prints, how long after his death could they be identified. Accordingly, I had to see that the body would be found only after three days. I am going to be in touch with only Harry and you. Don’t contact me unless it’s an emergency. I am a dead man to the world now. You are very close to my kids and I have total faith in you. My will clearly states that my wife is the sole owner of everything I own and after she is no more, it would go to my kids. You are their caretaker and the caretaker of my will, with my power of attorney, which entitles you to be the CMD of my company. In that regard, I have signed all the documents and just completed all the formalities with my legal department. Moreover, your cost to the company is going to be roughly double that of mine, since you will not be entitled to any dividend as I was. I hope that’s a decent proposal, Khush.”
“Not at the cost of losing a friend,” said Khush in an emotional tone.
”Khush! Calm down, you have such a strong mind. This is our destiny! Let’s accept it. I know I am asking for a lot from you. Yours is a tough situation to be in, but if there is anyone who is capable of handling, it is you. I am indebted to you for this and for the emotional stability you have imbibed in me. You have rubbed off on me a lot. I am really grateful for that. We will be in touch soon. All this is temporary, so do not worry about me. Adios amigo,” he said and hung up.
For the first time Shom felt that his friend was disheartened. Khush was always free-willed, he had never known him otherwise, and now it was his turn to be so. Shom was happy and content at last.
To be continued…