The Girl In Room 105[CHAPTER 22]

 


Chapter 22


‘Keep him engaged,’ Saurabh said. ‘No more questions. Just be friendly.’

I nodded. We had come to the reception lobby of Heevan Hotel. I dialled Sikander’s number from the hotel landline.

‘Salaam, Sikander bhai,’ I said, when I heard someone pick up the call.

‘Kaun janaab?’ It did not sound like Sikander.

‘Is Sikander there? This is his friend, Keshav.’

‘You are Sikander’s friend?’

‘Yes,’ I said.

‘Are you in Pahalgam?’

‘Yeah,’ I said.

‘Can you come here? Moonview Resorts.’

‘Where’s Sikander?’

‘He’s here. Can you come?’

‘Yeah, sure. Who are you?’

‘Ahmed. Come soon, please.’

Saurabh and I walked towards Moonview Resorts, which was around a kilometre away from Heevan. We had called Inspector Rana the previous night, updating him about Sikander being the prime suspect. ‘You guys restarted that Zara case? And went to Kashmir? Mad aashiq you are,’ is what he said first. Fortunately, he listened to our entire story and finally agreed to help us, if for nothing else but concern for our safety. ‘Get the hell out of there as soon as you can. Kashmir isn’t Hauz Khas. And no more meeting that Sikander alone,’ he said before ending the call.

I called Rana again.

‘We are on our way to meet him at Moonview Resorts,’ I said, panting due to the steep climb.

‘I already informed sub-inspector Saraf at the local Pahalgam police station. He’s ready when you need him.’

‘He should come there with us now,’ I said.

‘Relax. You sound tense,’ Rana said, as I continued my climb.

‘Of course, I am tense. Someone called Ahmed picked up his phone. He told us to come to Moonview Resorts.’

‘Oh, there are other people there?’

‘Yeah,’ I said.

‘Then definitely let Saraf reach first. Don’t go in alone. You guys are such idiots. You should have told me before planning a trip to Kashmir.’

‘Sorry, sir. Yes, we will wait for him,’ I said.

‘And listen, Keshav.’

‘Yes, Inspector Rana?’ I said. I expected thanks and some words of praise as we had taken huge risks but might have finally solved the case.

‘Once the police get Sikander, call me first. I want to break this to the media. I don’t want Saraf talking to anyone.’

The grey-haired Inspector Saraf stepped out of a police jeep that seemed even older than him. Two constables accompanied him. All of them were in plain clothes, to avoid any suspicion. Saurabh and I met the three of them at an empty parking lot outside Moonview Resorts.

‘Stay calm. Pretend to be normal guests at the hotel,’ Inspector Saraf said.

A wiry bearded man in his thirties manned the reception desk.

‘I am Keshav. Is someone called Ahmed here?’

‘I am Ahmed,’ the man said. ‘I am the manager here. You are Sikander’s friend who called?’

Then he noticed the plain-clothes cops and Saurabh. ‘Who are all these people?’ he said.

‘My friends,’ I said. ‘Where is Sikander?’

‘Follow me.’

Ahmed and I walked up to a room on the second floor. Saurabh, Inspector Saraf and his two men walked a few steps behind us. The corridors of Moonview Resorts did not get much sunlight and were cold. Ahmed used a master key to enter the room at the end. He switched on the yellow ceiling light.

Sikander lay on the bed, face covered in blood, his gun next to him.

‘Oh,’ Saurabh gasped out loud. The lower half of Sikander’s face was disfigured beyond recognition. A putrid smell came from his body, which mixed with the musty smell of the hotel carpet, making it difficult to breathe.

I saw his blown off face and turned numb. Everyone around me seemed to move in slow motion. A white noise in my ears blocked out all other sounds.

Inspector Saraf calmly picked up Sikander’s wrist, as if picking up a TV remote.

‘Dead,’ Inspector Saraf said. ‘Shot himself in the mouth.’

‘I called you here because I don’t want to deal with any of this,’ Ahmed said. ‘This hotel is all I have to make a living. If news gets out about a suicide here—’

Inspector Saraf cut in. ‘When did you find the body?’

‘Housekeeping found it three hours ago. I told them to keep quiet. I kept his cell phone, hoping someone would call. You did.’

‘When did he first arrive here?’

‘Five days ago. Can you please take care of his body? Or inform his family? I don’t want the police here. Please,’ Ahmed said, his composure cracking.

‘We are the police,’ Inspector Saraf said. He took out his ID card.

Ahmed fell at Inspector Saraf’s feet.

‘I don’t know anything about this. Please, sahib.’

Inspector Saraf grabbed Ahmed’s shoulders and pulled him back up.

‘You know who he was or what he did?’

‘No, sahib,’ Ahmed said.

Inspector Saraf slapped Ahmed. I don’t know why the police think it is okay to go around slapping people, particularly from a lower economic or less powerful class.

‘You guys know these people are terrorists, still you give them rooms.

You don’t inform the police,’ Inspector Saraf said.

Ahmed had tears in his eyes.

‘Sahib, we locals have no choice,’ he said, hands folded. ‘They come and leave whenever. They show us a gun if we refuse. The police and the Army show us a gun if we allow them to stay. What are we to do? I have little children.’

‘Do you hate India too?’ Inspector Saraf said, as if Ahmed would own up if he did.

‘No, sahib. I make my living from Indian tourists. Why would I hate them?’

‘What did this man do in the last few days?’ Saraf said, pointing to Sikander.

‘He would go out every day for a few hours. Sometimes, he would meet young boys in the lobby.’

‘Recruiting new terrorists?’

‘I don’t know, sahib.’

‘Did you find anything in the room?’

‘We didn’t touch anything,’ Ahmed said. ‘You can check whatever you want.’

‘Keshav? Are you there?’ Inspector Saraf said, snapping his fingers in front of my eyes. He had already said my name three times before I paid attention. My eyes went back to Sikander’s mangled face. The same face I had spoken to yesterday.

‘Sorry, inspector, what is it?’

‘The prime suspect you wanted me to arrest is dead.’

‘Ye…ah,’ I said, unable to speak in a coherent manner. I saw Saurabh’s face contort. He ran to the bathroom. I heard him vomit.

‘Call an ambulance. Remove the body,’ Inspector Saraf said to one of the constables. He turned to another one. ‘And check the room for any suicide notes.’

I sat down on the study chair in the room. Saurabh’s puking sounds were making me feel nauseous too. One of the constables lifted the pillows on the bed to check underneath. He also opened the desk drawers.

‘If people leave the room, I can search better,’ the constable said.

Saurabh and I sat on a sofa in the lobby, both of us unable to talk. Inspector Saraf sat across from us and spoke to someone on the phone. Half an hour later, the constable who was searching the room came downstairs. He had an envelope in his hand.

‘Found this in his pocket,’ he said. ‘It says, “For Hashim bhai. Please give it to any of my brothers at Tehreek. They will come looking for me”.’

Inspector Saraf opened the envelope. He found a sheet of paper inside. It only had a handwritten web address on it.

www.Bit.ly/AlvidaTehreek

‘What’s this?’ Inspector Saraf said.

‘It’s an abbreviated web link. Let’s check,’ Saurabh said, finally finding his voice.

Saurabh typed in the web address on the desktop computer at the hotel.

The page redirected to a private YouTube video, which showed Sikander sitting in the same room where we had found him dead. He mumbled some prayers and then spoke into the camera.

‘Hashim bhai, maafi. I let you down. Some people are after me. They will hand me over to the police for a crime I never did. Of murdering my own aapa. Allah kasam, Zara aapa was like my second mother. I didn’t do anything.

‘If the police catch me, they will torture me until I tell them more, not just about aapa, but also about Tehreek’s activities and mission, I just cannot let myself be in that situation. I would rather give up my life than put you all in danger. I am happy to sacrifice myself for the greater good, as you taught us.

‘I feel sad I won’t be there to see the smile on your face when Kashmir finally becomes free. I love you, Hashim bhai, and the Tehreek family. Please take care of my Ammi. I know you will.

‘Zara aapa, I will see you in jannat soon. With you gone, one less reason to be on earth for me.

‘For the rest, Khuda Hafiz.’

Sikander mumbled another prayer. A few seconds later, he pulled out a gun. He placed the nozzle in his mouth. My eyes scrunched and my face stiffened in anticipation of what would happen next.

However, he simply waved and the video paused. Of course, he had to stop recording, upload the video and create the link before he shot himself.

‘Wow,’ Saurabh said, his mouth open, after the video ended.

‘Suicide notes have become hi-tech,’ Inspector Saraf said.

One hour later, the constables and the hotel staff had loaded Sikander’s body into an ambulance in the parking lot.

‘Take him to the morgue. Keep it quiet. Just inform his mother,’

Inspector Saraf said.

He turned to speak to Ahmed once the ambulance left the hotel compound.

‘He was a rat who died. Nothing to investigate here. Clean up your hotel, and inform us if anyone like him ever comes to stay here.’

‘I will, sahib. Thank you, sahib. Allah khair.’

Ahmed melted back into the hotel. The two constables who came with Saraf got into the jeep.

Only Saraf, Saurabh and I remained in the parking lot.

‘Doesn’t look like he killed his stepsister,’ Saraf said, stroking his chin.

I nodded.

‘They never lie at the end,’ Saraf said, getting into the police jeep. He stuck his head out of the window.

‘May I say one thing?’ Saraf said.

‘Sure, sir,’ I said.

‘Investigation is not everyone’s cup of tea. One should stick to what one is capable of.’

‘Say something, bhai,’ Saurabh said. ‘You haven’t spoken all day.’

‘Did you check the flights back or not?’ I said.

The bus taking us back from Pahalgam to Srinagar spiralled down the hilly roads. I closed my eyes. The view of Kashmir’s blue skies and snow-capped mountains meant nothing to me anymore. I wanted to go home.

‘Six flights to Delhi every day. Getting back is not an issue,’ Saurabh said.

We became quiet again. I knew I sucked as an engineer and teacher. I now realised I sucked as a detective too. Maybe this was really why Zara left me. She saw the perennial loser in me. I couldn’t deliver to her earlier. Now, I couldn’t even deliver on one promise I had made to her—to find her killer.

‘What are you thinking, bhai?’ Saurabh said after half an hour.

‘That I hope Chandan Classes still has a job for us.’

I tossed my sweaters into the suitcase.

‘Did you buy the tickets?’ I said. ‘I am packed.’

‘Internet is not working. Neither on Nizam bhai’s SIM nor the Wi-Fi.’

‘Fine, we will buy them at the airport,’ I said.

I noticed Saurabh’s clothes still hanging in his closet.

‘What is this?’ I said. ‘I told you to pack.’

Saurabh came to stand in front of me. In his white sweater, he looked like a polar bear. Polar bear placed his paws on my shoulders.

‘First Zara. Then Sikander. It is scary. But to run away like this?’ he said.

‘I am not scared. I am leaving because I don’t think I am capable of doing this. Or anything in life, really.’

‘Nonsense. We had a setback. It doesn’t mean we quit.’

I shrugged. ‘Anyway, there’s nothing left for us to do here.’

‘Why? We still haven’t found the killer.’

I walked away from him and sat on the bed. I spoke without looking at him.

‘We can’t. We are not smart enough.’

Saurabh came and sat next to me.

‘We came so close,’ he said, his voice soft.

‘No, we did not. We were miserably wrong. And Sikander died because of me.’

‘What?’ Saurabh said, his mouth open.

‘I pushed him and threatened to report him. That is why he killed himself. Even though he didn’t kill Zara.’

‘He was a terrorist. A rat, that’s what Inspector Saraf said.’

‘He was Zara’s brother. Would she have ever forgiven me for this? And his mother, waiting at home for him…’

Saurabh placed his hand on mine.

‘I really thought Sikander did it. I thought I had the evidence. Our theory added up,’ I said to myself.

‘I had zero doubt too.’

‘I wanted to do this right, Golu. And not just for Zara. For once I wanted to win. I never ever fucking win.’

I kicked my suitcase in disgust. The cover of the unzipped strolley flew open. The upper flap of the suitcase had the packet with the contents of Zara’s safe.

‘All this,’ I said, pointing to it. ‘Just nonsense. Who did we think we were? Some desi Holmes and Watson jodi? A loser like me can’t get a coding job at a body shop. How can I solve a complex murder case?’

‘Stop calling yourself a loser, bhai. You are not.’

‘Have you ever seen me achieve anything remarkable?’

‘You made it to IIT.’

‘A fluke. Evaluation mistakes happen. A computer error.’

‘Stop it, bhai.’

‘We killed an innocent man.’

‘A terrorist is dead. We did the country a favour.’

I looked at Saurabh. He shrugged.

‘Bastard would have only taught more people how to kill.’

‘Anyway, what is there for us to do now?’ I sighed.

‘Let’s go back to the basics. Look at Zara’s digital footprints. We didn’t check her Instagram posts properly.’

‘There’s nothing there. Her Instagram is like that of any other twenty-something girl.’

‘Let’s go through it again, based on what we know now. Also, we got lost in the big stuff in the safe, like the cocaine and the bullet. What about the rest of the items?’

‘Like what?’

‘These pregnancy kits,’ Saurabh said, opening the packet that held the safe’s contents.

‘That bastard Raghu and Zara must have been fucking without protection. What else?’

Saurabh looked at me sternly.

‘Bhai, control yourself. She’s dead now. And you loved her.’

‘Sorry,’ I mumbled. ‘I am stressed.’

‘And what about these earrings?’ Saurabh said. ‘We never considered them so far. They look expensive.’

I held the earrings in my palm. Each of the gold earrings had a dangling pendant the size of a ten-rupee coin. The pendants had an inlay of diamonds and precious stones. Sunlight fell through the window of the houseboat’s room, making the gems glisten.

Nizam knocked on our door.

‘Janaab, may I disturb?’

‘Huh?’ I said looking up.

‘Sure, Nizam bhai,’ Saurabh said, quickly placing a pillow on the pregnancy kits.

‘Just wanted to say the internet is working again. Government shut it down after stone-pelting yesterday. It is back now,’ Nizam said.

‘What? More stone-pelting?’ I said.

‘Don’t ask, janaab. We are sick and tired. People were only protesting because two innocent boys were picked up by the Indian Army last week.

News like this reduces tourist flow. I suffer,’ Nizam said.

‘I can understand,’ I said. ‘Anyway, glad the internet is back.’

Nizam noticed the earrings in my hand.

‘Mashallah,’ Nizam said. ‘What beautiful jhumkis. You are taking them for bhabhi?’

‘Bhabhi is dead,’ I almost said, but tried to smile instead. ‘These are typically Kashmiri, right?’

‘Definitely, hundred per cent Kashmiri,’ Nizam said and extended his hand. ‘May I?’

Nizam sat on the bed next to me and took the earrings in his hands. He lifted them close to his eyes.

‘Very fine work. Must be really expensive. Only in Kashmir will you get something like this.’

‘They belong to a friend,’ Saurabh said.

‘We wanted to get another pair like this. Any idea where?’

‘These days jewellers all over India will copy any design for you,’

Nizam said. ‘But if you want them to be truly authentic like these ones, they should come from one of the top shops in Srinagar.’

‘Which ones?’ Saurabh said.

‘I can give you a list of local jewellers,’ Nizam said, ‘and tell them Nizam from Shelter Houseboats sent you. They will help and serve you better.’

‘Thanks,’ I said.

‘So what happened at the protest?’ Saurabh said, changing topics to take Nizam’s attention away from the earrings.

‘The Army retaliated, which they say they did in self-defence. Like always, they fired back with those nasty pellet guns. Some kids were hit in the ears. They may go deaf. Only made things worse. People are now even more upset with the Army. The Army cuts internet. The cycle continues.’

Nizam sounded resigned. ‘Ya khuda, when will this ever end?’

‘What’s for dinner tonight?’ I said, invoking my no-politics rule before it became too late. But Nizam wouldn’t stop.

‘How does the rest of India live in peace? Why can’t we find a way too, Keshav bhai?’

‘We can, we can… By the way, will you give us the list of jewellery shops by tomorrow?’

‘Oh,’ Nizam said, surprised at my switching to a mundane topic. After all, we did seem awfully close to solving the Kashmir problem, which experts and world leaders hadn’t been able to for the last seventy years.

‘I will give it you by dinner. Actually, I better go check things in the kitchen. We are making our special biryani tonight.’

Nizam returned the earrings to me and left the room.

Saurabh looked at me and smiled.

‘What?’ I said.

‘The internet is back. Should I book the next flight out?’

‘Wait.’

‘Why?’

‘I think we should visit some jewellery shops.’

‘Why?’ Saurabh said, with a sly smile.

‘Maybe to buy a pair of earrings for my bhabhi,’ I said and winked at Saurabh.

‘Tinder bhabhi, you mean?’

Both of us laughed for the first time that day.





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