PRANAB GHOSH - CHECKMATE
Pranab Ghosh is a journalist, blogger and poet. His poems have been published in Tuck Magazine, Dissident Voice, Leaves of Ink, Hans India, Literature Studio Review and Scarlet Leaf Review, among others. He also writes short stories. He has co-authored a book of poems, Air & Age. He has also translated a book of Bengali short stories into English. The name of the book is Bougainvillea And Other Stories. He, at present, lives in Kolkata, India.
In another 48 hours he would be gone. And with him the money trail. He had planned it all almost four years ago. It would be a perfect crime. He was on the verge of realizing it. The planning, the groundwork, the execution and the cover-up – he had thought out everything in great detail. He had planned it to perfection. He had executed it with a surgical precision that would put the best brains in business to shame. And he was not a hardened criminal. He had never committed a crime before. This would be his first and last crime. He would never have to look behind! Or so he thought.
The plastic surgeon has done a marvelous job. And why wouldn’t he? Isn’t he the very best in the town? He has played with his face – has recreated it as a clay artist would remodel a mound of clay to make a new figure. And indeed he was a new figure, a figure admired and envied, liked and disliked by his comrades-in-arm. He had given them the idea. Made them work as per his instructions. And he would take the lion’s share of the booty that he would rustle up.
It’s another 48 hours now. And his life would change for good. From a manager in a multi-national bank he would become a respected investor settled in Sweden, where he would be known as Peter Sampras, a man who has inherited his aunt’s property. The Duchess of Norfolk – Norfolk, a place somewhere in Scotland – had left him a fortune upon her death. Could he not be the Duchess’ only nephew? Could not his aunt be the Duchess of a never-known place in Scotland? Who is going to question? Who would crosscheck? And if there be any question raised ever, would he not be ready with a fitting reply? His imagination, his friends used to say in school, even put a Lewis Carroll to shame. Isn’t Norfolk his wonderland?
He got the idea from a Hollywood flick. Just an idea. He had given it flesh and blood. He had breathed life into it. His comrades just loved it. Wasn’t he the best of the masterminds they have ever worked with?
He used to manage high net worth clients’ portfolios as an investment manager. And wasn’t his bank’s credibility beyond any doubt? They had faith in the bank. They had faith in him as well. And he had the ability to talk everyone to submission. His voice was deep and it came from the depth of his naval. He had the face of a Greek God. His built was that of a Gregory Peck and his manners were regal. His clients loved him. Ladies especially. And three of those ladies, the widows of Ramesh Goenka, Ram Madhav Lohia and Yogeshwar Yadav, country’s top businessmen, were his biggest clients. These three businessmen, to his greatest fortune, had died during the last three years,. These three ladies together had invested close to a billion US dollar with his bank. And why wouldn’t they? Did he not mesmerize them in such a way, as a magician would his audience that they never even thought of an alternate advisor? He was their Buffett.
And he invested their money in two little known companies operating from Mauritius. Little known they might have been but they had strong fundamentals and promised excellent return on investment (ROI). All the papers that he produced were impeccable. The return twice than that of the ongoing market rate. And the companies delivered. They had invested with his bank three years ago. And for these three years the Mauritius-based companies have been beating market trends and have been returning an ROI that made the ladies swoon on him. They had brought in more customers. All high net worth individuals. And the Bank did not intervene in his work, because everything just looked so fine – as marvelous as the Taj on the banks of Yamuna. His corpus had grown to an astonishing $3-billion and all within a span of three years. His employers were really happy with him. He was their best asset manager who had brought in more investments than the rest of the team put together. He was having a ball!
He is looking at the mirror now. Every time he looks into it he gets a shock. He is slowly getting accustomed to his new look. He has a high cheekbone now and dimples that were not there before, on his both cheeks. He has grown a moustache. Earlier he used to be clean-shaven. He had curly black hair. Now he is bald. Never will a hair grow on his head ever, the plastic surgeon had assured. And he knows that he had told him the truth. Thirty days have gone and not a hint of hair. He is a happy man. The colour of his eyeballs is butcher blue now. Earlier it used to be black. Had his mother been alive, even she wouldn’t have recognized him. The surgeon was a real good hand. He is rejoicing at the surgeon’s success.
In another 48 hours his dream would come true. He would be far away from the clutches of law. Far, far away. It’s about time he wound up the net. A corpus of $3-billion wasn’t at all bad. He will have to part with $1.5 billion – that has been the deal, a 50:50 ratio between him and his comrades-in-arm. But what he would be left with is good enough to feed his sons and grandsons. He is dreaming of having a family of his own, complete with a son and a daughter. And hasn’t he the intellect to build on the booty that he would get? In five years’ time he would double the corpus, he had promised himself.
Even after he disappears his clients would be getting returns on their investments – say for another six months. And then it would be all gone. Gone with the wind. They will never see the Greek God again. His baritone will be lost forever, as will be the two-Mauritius-based companies. Not a trace will be left behind. The companies will just disappear and so would all the money. Not a penny left, with no trail of the money too. It would be a clean operation. He lauded himself.
They stumbled upon the body while digging up a land to lay the foundation of a multistoried apartment. The land was very close to the house of Rohit’s inlaws. Two days ago, on a Monday, Rohit came to meet his wife at her brother’s place. Ritu, Rohit’s wife, suspected Rohit of carrying on with a clandestine relationship with Seema, one of Rohit’s acquaintances. Ritu hardly knew Seema. She had met her once in a New Year picnic, organized by Rohit’s rowing club. Rohit and Ritu and other club members had posed for a group photo after the bon fire was lit at the end of the picnic. Seema was also there in the photograph. Ritu had a copy of the photo.
Ritu, a few days ago, had found a letter in Rohit’s drawer. It was written by Seema. She wrote about her accompanying him to someplace else, where they could live on without getting detected. Ritu wasn’t spying on Rohit. She had just wanted to tidy the drawer. But there she stood now. Letter in hand. She was in two minds initially. At first, she didn’t want to read the letter. She kept it back where it was. But the sender’s name made her curious. What on earth had Seema to tell Rohit? Moreover, Rohit didn’t mention the letter to her at all. They generally shared each other’s stories. But Seema was completely absent from their conversation. And there she was with a letter written by Seema in hand. Curiosity had got better of Ritu. She opened the letter and read it. Where on earth would the two go and why? Was Rohit unhappy with her? Ritu’s mind raced. But she hadn’t any convincing answer to any of her queries. She decided to face Rohit.
It was a Saturday. Rohit had come home early. At around 5.30 pm. It’s usual, given it was a Saturday. His office closes at 1 o’clock. At 1.30 pm he reaches his club, a 30-minutes drive from his office. There he drinks a jug of beer, plays cards and leaves the place at around 4.30 pm. It takes around an hour for Rohit to drive back home from his club. It’s a rowing club but Rohit doesn’t row any longer. It’s four years now that he has stopped rowing. He is 38 now. He has developed asthma. He was a chain smoker. Doctors suggested he gave up rowing and smoking. He did. But he hasn’t severed ties with the club. He visits it every Saturday. Seema had also been a member of the club. She, however, was an active member. She had, all along been a champion rower. Ritu, however, did not know this.
Rohit had just kept the keys of his car in place. Ritu appeared from their bedroom. She blocked Rohit’s way as he was about to come out of their apartment’s second living room that doubled as his study. “Rohit”, there was fire in her voice. “Where do you intend to go with Seema?” she demanded. Rohit was stung. How on earth could she …? Rohit hadn’t any clue. “What Seema? What are you talking about?” Rohit mumbled. Ritu pushed Rohit aside. Went to the table – flung the drawer open and fished out the letter. Rohit had no answer. Ritu left that evening.
Rohit tried to call her up on Sunday. She didn’t take his call. She was at her brother’s place. Rohit visited Rakesh’s place on Monday evening. It was 8.30 pm. Rakesh, Ritu’s brother, had just returned from his office. He was self-employed. He had a small business and earned enough to keep his family of four going. He, his wife and two teenaged daughters. He wouldn’t mind Ritu staying with them. Money wasn’t any problem. Rohit knew that. He, infact, had always envied Rakesh for his up-scale life. He must be doing very well in his business, Rohit used to think. It’s not that Rohit was poor. His bank job paid him enough to make his both ends meet. But he wasn’t happy. He had always wanted to live life king-size.
Rohit had pressed the doorbell. It was 8.30 pm. Ritu opened the door. Rohit was surprised. Rakesh must not have come back, he thought, because it was always Rakesh who answered the doorbell if he was around. But, this time he was wrong. “Who is it?” Rakesh’s voice billowed from the drawing room. “Rohit”, was Ritu’s curt reply, as she turned and made her way toward the drawing room, leaving the door open. Rohit left the door open and followed Ritu.
“What’s all these, brother?” Rakesh demanded. Rohit had come prepared. He admitted to his having an affair with Seema. He even said that they, he and Seema, could settle for a new life only if Ritu permitted them to do so. Rakesh exploded. He had no idea that the affair had gone that far. “What do you mean, Rohit?” His eyes were glowing with anger. “How dare you cheat on my sister? How long has this been going on?” He was yelling at the top of his voice. Rohit was not to be put off. He matched Rakesh’s voice and screamed, “Your sister is responsible for all this! We had been leading a vegetable love life for almost three years now. She is hardly even a company. I needed someone and Seema … . You know what I mean”. Rakesh wanted to hit Rohit. He flew at him but Ritu intervened. But Rakesh had lost control. “I’ll beat the shit out of you, Rohit,” he screamed as he was pushing Rohit towards the door. “Leave immediately,” Rakesh demanded. “And mind you, I’ll see an end of you. You will pay with your life for the dishonour you have done to my family.”
It was 9 pm then. And that was the last Rohit was seen. It’s Thursday. Two days have passed since Rohit visited his inlaws. But there was no trace of Rohit. No one knew where he was. He had not returned home for two days now. Neither had he gone to his office. Rohit’s father was alarmed. He informed the police.
Police started investigation. One of Rohit’s colleagues with whom he was last seen after office on Monday informed the police about Rohit’s plans to visit his in-laws that evening. Police was at the in-laws’ doorstep. Ritu and Rakesh had nothing to hide. They told everything, barring the death threat. They told about Seema as well.
It’s 35 days now that Rohit had gone missing. Upon enquiry, police found out the details of the altercation Rohit had with Rakesh and the death threat that Rakesh issued. Ritu’s next-door neighbour had told police everything. Rakesh was interrogated. Ritu wasn’t spared either. Police, however, failed to find out Seema. She somehow had disappeared. Ritu had given police the group photo featuring Seema. Police had alerted all police stations but Seema as if had evaporated. Ritu, in the process, had also become a suspect.
On the 36th day, the construction workers digging up the land, near Rakesh’s house stumbled upon a body. The face was badly mutilated and the body decomposing. The body had only a brief on it. A blue innerwear. Rohit’s father was informed. He couldn’t say anything at first but upon scrutiny said that the blue innerwear, almost new, was undoubtedly Rohit’s. He had chanced to see it when Rohit had bought it more than a month ago. Even Ritu identified the innerwear as the one belonging to Rohit. It was Rohit’s body. Police was certain now. After all the formalities Rohit’s body was handed over to his father. Police arrested Rakesh and Ritu. The charge was that of murdering Rohit. Rohit was cremated the following Sunday.
The police have been grilling Rakesh for two days now. “It’s you who had threatened Rohit with dire consequences. It’s you who have killed Rohit. You have killed Rohit. You… You did it to avenge your family’s honour. You killed Rohit. You…,” the investigating officer wouldn’t have anything less than Rakesh’s confession. Rakesh was crumbling. He admitted that there had been a fierce altercation. He admitted that he had threatened to kill Rohit. But he wouldn’t admit that he had murdered Rohit. He hadn’t. He hadn’t murdered Rohit. He had been consistent in his denial. For the past two days he had been only saying this to the officer.
The investigating officer was in two minds now. He was even willing to believe Rakesh. But if he hadn’t murdered Rohit who has? And why? The officer revisited all the relevant documents. Read them. Re-read them. Poured over every minute detail. Every small point, lest he missed anything vital.
He contacted all his “sources” – five in all – to whom he had given Seema’s photograph - the group photo in which Seema featured. He re-contacted them one by one. He drew a blank with the first four, and was disappointed. Seema, it seems, have evaporated like a spirit. No trace could be found of her. News from the police stations was also not encouraging. And these four ‘special’ sources have let him down. He called up the fifth and the last one. He had little hope in him. But what was he saying? He had spotted someone who looked like Seema in the other part of the town. She was spotted in a popular café, with a bald man in tow. She had been seen there for three consecutive days now.
The ‘source’ had run a check on the man as well. There was something unnatural about him. He was a bald man with butcher blue eyes, high cheekbone and a short moustache. These were all fine. But what had struck the source was his activity. He seems to be doing nothing. He had taken up a house on rent about 20 days ago. He called himself Peter Sampras – his landlord confirmed. He doesn’t go anywhere. No office, no clubs, no friends – nothing. Only this woman visits him everyday and the two spend an hour or two at the local café. Every evening the two could be spotted in the café.
The officer set himself on the job. He had monitored the two for three days now, and was fast losing hope. But on the fourth day he hit upon a novel idea. He brought Ritu along with him. They were sitting in a private car just outside the café. It was around 5.30 pm. Seema and the bald man was inside the café as usual. The bald man meant nothing to Ritu. The officer felt helpless. But decided to sit the evening out in the car – at least as long as the two were inside the café.
At 5.45 pm Seema and Peter walked out of the café. They were walking towards Peter’s home. They were walking in the opposite direction of the car in which Ritu and the officer were. Ritu turned back. She was watching them both walk away from her. Suddenly she clutched the officer’s sleeves. The bald man had exactly the same gait as that of Rohit’s. It was as if, a bald Rohit was walking away from Ritu. The officer looked straight at Ritu. “It’s him! It’s him officer!” Ritu could hardly breathe.
Peter was put on a round-the-clock observation. He was monitored as if he were a terrorist who had planned to bomb the city.
On the eighth day the ‘sniffers’ on the observation post informed the officer that Peter had left his home with a backpack and was headed towards the airport. The police carried out a hasty check on the passengers’ lists and it was found that a Peter Sampras had booked a flight to Mauritius.
The officer rushed to the airport. He dashed towards the counter of the airline that was flying Sampras to Mauritius. And there he was, slowly walking towards the counter to collect his boarding pass. The officer thought on his feet. He tiptoed up just behind Peter and softly called “Rohit”. Peter turned around. The officer’s hunch had come true. Peter was Rohit! He detained Peter.
Peter was taken to the police station. The officer knew how to bring out information from even as clever a player as Rohit. Peter confessed. He told everything. How he duped his clients, without them knowing it. How he plotted Rohit’s ‘murder’. How he ‘sourced’ a body. How he mutilated its face; stripped it and put his new innerwear on it and buried the dead body deep inside the ground near Rakesh’s home. He told everything. He told exactly how Rohit became Peter. He told how he had indeed played the game and had almost won the match. Almost. He is in custody now. Rakesh is a freeman again. Ritu is staying with Rakesh. Rohit’s dangerous game is now over.