The Last Message


Parking next to her neighbour’s faded BMW, Arpita stepped out of her car and locked it. In her hand was a loaded carrier bag. She walked across the parking lot of the residential complex of forty units located in one of the city’s outlying suburbs. Two girls seated on a bench waved to her as she passed by.

The middle-aged script-writer glanced upwards at her flat which was located at the very top of the multi-level apartment block. She had purchased the unit eight years back, shortly after marrying Rahul, a small-time actor she had met on the sets while working for a friend. She could see no lights glowing from the windows of her abode.

The elevator took her up ten floors and she let herself in and dropped her handbag on the side-table before heading to the kitchen with her groceries. It took her all of a minute to register the sounds, and she tracked them to the master bedroom.

A shocked gasp erupted from her throat when she saw the naked couple on her bed. She gaped when she recognised her husband and turning at the sound, Rahul stared back with wide, horrified eyes, the sweat on his face gleaming.

Arpita sagged against the doorframe, choking back a sob.

Rahul struggled to his feet and began lurching towards her, uncertainty writ large across his features. She stiffened at the movements of her husband then backed away from him, her expression transforming from shock into anger.

He shook his head, wetting lips that were dry. “Arpita-”

The sound of his voice made her flinch, and then she turned away, stumbling, hand against the wall seeking support as she made for the kitchen. She grabbed a knife, and headed back to the bedroom.

Rahul was near the doorway where she had left him. He blinked when he saw the knife and the elderly man who was still on the bed blurted out: “O my God!”

Rahul raised both hands in a placating gesture. “Take it easy, Arpita.”

Still sobbing, she lowered the knife. “Get out.”

Rahul exchanged a glance with his lover, Arnab and nodded. Both men pulled on their discarded clothes in a matter of moments, and swiftly left the apartment. They descended in silence and Rahul pushed his way into the coffee outlet located on the ground level of their building. “I need something strong.” He muttered, and Arnab nodded in agreement.

They slid into a booth with their brew. Arnab still looked nervous and when Rahul’s phone rang, he jumped. Rahul looked at the phone, clearly not recognizing the number. He answered anyway and his face went taut as he listened. “Don’t call the police! I’m coming up right away!” He swung off the seat. “Arpita’s on the roof, threatening to jump. Come on!”

The swimming pool was located on the terrace and when the two men burst from the lift there was already a crowd, gesticulating and whispering loudly. The group parted when they saw Rahul. Arpita was straddling the parapet and she still held the knife. She held it out threateningly, holding the onlookers, mostly neighbours, at bay. When she saw her husband, her grip wavered.

Rahul spoke gently. “Come away from the edge, Arpita. Let’s sit and talk this over.”

She wiped her tears away with her free hand. “Talk? What could we possibly to talk about, Rahul?” Her voice was hoarse. “I come home this evening and find you in bed with a man!” Shocked gasps greeted this revelation. “My life is over, Rahul! I loved you with all my heart from the day I met you – and in return…” She covered her face with the same hand and Rahul inched forward, ignoring the startled faces turning in his direction. “I still love you, Rahul, and if this is what you want, then I’ll kill myself so you can live your life on your terms.” Her shoulders slumped and the knife went down. “I love you so much! Tell me what you want me to do…”

He rushed her then, perhaps seeing his chance. In his haste, it was apparent he did not see the wire on the ground. Tripping, he was thrown forward onto his wife.

The several witnesses at the fore later recounted the subsequent events, with little degree of variation. The knife was in her hand as he fell atop her, and he cried out loudly and tumbled sideways, on to the parapet. That was when everybody sucked in their breaths or screeched in alarm.

Both Rahul’s hands were clutching his chest, from which the handle of the knife could be seen clearly projecting. Arpita’s face was a mask of horror, and seeing him go limp, she shrieked loudly and reached out to yank the knife from his chest. The movement caused him to roll away and in shock, the onlookers saw Rahul topple over the edge and off the building.

Arpita turned towards the group, still holding the knife, now bloodied. Nobody approached her; no one said a word, fearful yet mesmerized by what they had witnessed. Arpita looked back at where Rahul had last lain. For several moments, her breathing was labored.

It seemed like forever before her eyes lowered to the blade in her hand. Shaking herself, as if emerging from a trance, she dropped the knife and slumped to the ground. Knees drawn up toward her chest, she stared out into the distance, oblivious to everything around her.

That was how the police found her when they arrived twenty minutes later.

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Assistant Inspector (Crime) Sinha was still thinking about the knife hours later on his way to the Commissioner’s office. The senior officer gestured to a chair.

In reply to his query, Sinha shrugged. “It seems straightforward: there were ten witnesses, and there are few discrepancies in the individual accounts. The knife was clearly lowered. She was telling him how she still loved him, not the words of someone about to commit murder. He then tries to disarm her, but midway, trips. He falls forward, is accidently stabbed in the chest, and perhaps in a futile attempt to correct matters, she yanks out the knife. He then topples over.” He sighed. “We have the murder weapon, and the killer, who waited for us. There’s blood on her blouse and the knife. We’ve presently confirmed it’s his blood group. She hasn’t said much, except that it’s her fault. But from the general mood of the witnesses, she was not at fault; she was even ready to accept him back despite his cheating ways.”

His boss seemed to digest this. “So we can’t hold her.”

Sinha shook his head. “It was an accidental stabbing. Even the lover-boy opined that when she walked in on them and grabbed the knife, it seemed more an act of defiance than a real threat. And on the terrace, the suicide-threat was likely a show to get Rahul’s attention. We’ll tell her to stay close, but I don’t see that we have any cause to suspect anything untoward.” A frown creased his features. “We were unable to recover the husband’s body.” Seeing the other’s surprised look, he went on: “Rahul went over the parapet. Directly below was the balcony of his apartment. Judging from the shards and the blood spatter, he crashed the glass railing and went straight down. Now, there’s been on-going sewerage-maintenance in that zone over the last two weeks. Directly below, the area has been dug out and cordoned off. We think he plunged into the open pit, and into the huge sewers beneath the city. He’s likely to end up in the Situ River.”

The Commissioner nodded, recalling a similar case two weeks ago. “The wife must be devastated by his death. Does she seem suicidal?”

Sinha hesitated. The thought had not occurred to him. “Uh, she didn’t speak much…”

“Well, have a few words with her before you let her go.” He nodded by way of dismissal.

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Arpita waited three days to be certain that both police and the media had lost interest in her before making her move. The route she took that night led her out of the city. Thirty minutes later, out of the clutches of the heavy flow of traffic leaving the city, she took a turn-off leading through a district composed mainly of shanty-like dwellings. At this time of the night, few people walked the roads and she found the place she was looking for.
She parked on the road outside a whitewashed building with a board proclaiming it to be a lodge and waited in the car. At the time they had decided on earlier, he turned up and opened the car door.

“Hi, sweetie,” said Rahul, and getting inside, he gave his wife a kiss. He saw her looking at his bound palm and made a face. “You said the topical anesthetic would help numb the pain. It didn’t. It hurt like hell when you pulled the blade out from between my palm.”

It had been the only way to produce the blood needed to convince the witnesses that Rahul had actually been stabbed. While everything else had been role-play, she had actually drawn blood when jerking the knife from his clutched hands.

What had happened after that had been meticulously and carefully rehearsed several times before the final event. From the terrace at a spot which had been intentionally selected, in the failing light and before a shocked, disbelieving audience held at bay by the knife in Arpita’s hand, Rahul had carefully dropped down into his balcony below, his fall broken by a double mattress. The glass railing had been broken beforehand; after allowing his blood to smear the edge, he had bound his hand and hauled the mattress inside before pulling on a jacket with a hood and exiting the building.

“I did everything just the way you instructed me to.” said Rahul. “I checked into this so-called lodge three days ago, and I paid by cash. They didn’t even ask for ID, just like you predicted. I’ve been living inside, keeping a low-profile, surviving on room service and watching television non-stop ever since. I hope you brought some clothes. These are the only ones I have…” He chuckled at she wrinkled her nose. “What about you? Have you met the insurance firm yet?” When she shook her head, a look of concern appeared on his face. “But shouldn’t you have made contact? How do you know there won’t be a problem without an actual body?”

Her tone was firm, reassuring. “I’ll have the police report of the investigation and that’s the main thing. It says you’re officially dead, Rahul. And we’ll get the settlements from the policies we made over all these years!” Every year since their marriage, they had made fresh policies for hefty cover amounts, knowing they wouldn’t be young and earning forever. At the time, Arpita had never suspected they would be resorting to actions as criminal as this, purely for personal gain.

“As my nominee, you get all my assets. And after a while, unable to live with the scandal, you sell our apartment. We secretly start anew in some other city.” He looked at her with admiration. “How did you even dream this up, Arpita?”

She shrugged. “I write scripts for a living. It’s all in a day’s work for people like me…”

“What now?”

“Now, you settle your bill at the lodge and check out.” She gave him some cash. “Then we’ll check in over the border for a few days. Some nice place.”

“Yeah. This place is the pits.” He looked through the window at the shabby-looking structure that had been his home for the last few days. “It’s at the border of that stinking river. Situ River, right? No one in his right mind would come here to stay. I can see why you chose it.” He got out of the car and headed for the lodge.

When he returned, she was leaning against the car. “Follow me.” She said and led the way into the shrub. As they moved further from the road, the sound of flowing water became loud. The smell was foul, to the point of being overpowering.

Rahul looked about, bewildered. “What are we doing here?” He had a hand over his nose, trying to keep the stench at bay.

This is where they find your body, thought Arpita and struck him with all her strength on the back on the head with the length of steel piping she had taken out from her car. Her husband toppled instantly, falling onto the ground without making even a sound.

It was her fervent hope that the forensics team would attribute any tissue damage to his fall from the terrace of their residential building, where a group of witnesses had seen him plunge to his death. But of course the main thing, she thought, crouching over him and turning his face away, is the knife wound.

She selected a spot between the ribs and slid the blade in with all the force she could muster then she waited until there was no pulse. Arpita patted his pockets; there was only his wallet and mobile but she would need to leave them. They would have to be found on his corpse. The ID in his wallet would also help the police identify the body. After all, she thought, rolling his body down the river bank, the only thing missing in her perfect plot was the corpse. She straightened and checked the site of his murder. It was too dark to see anything but she felt confident that any blood spilled would be washed away by the rain.

She headed back to her car, surprised that she felt no remorse by what she had done. Nothing could have been further from her mind about three weeks ago. All that changed when she heard the rumour from a colleague: Rahul had a lover, and it was a guy. Her investigations confirmed the story and after she recovered from the shock, she began to wonder how to react. If Rahul had begun to stray then she no longer wanted him to be a part of her future life. But she decided that there would be a price to pay, and that was when the idea came to her. She had lured Rahul with promises of riches and the poor fool had played his role in her plot, never suspecting there was a larger game in motion.

Her role was complete. All she had to do was to wait for the body to be discovered.

That call came two days later. The corpse had been snagged on some fishing nets, and the harbor patrol had pulled it out of the river. They identified him through his driver’s license.

When Arpita reached the police station, she was quickly shown to Inspector Sinha’s office.

He looked up at her arrival and nodded to a chair. Opening a drawer, he took out a wallet and mobile phone. “Did these belong to your late husband?” When she nodded, he went on: “This morning, I received a call from his uh, friend – Arnab. It seems that yesterday, Arnab accidently had sent a message to Rahul via WhatsApp. I think you know how it works. Two ticks means the message has been delivered. So when Arnab saw two ticks he was confused. You see, Arnab had seen Rahul put the phone in his trousers before he was killed – six days back. He said they had been sitting together at a coffee shop when Rahul received the phone-call alerting him that you were on the terrace, threatening to jump.” Sinha leaned back in his chair, eye never leaving her face. “Now, even if the water had not damaged the battery, one wouldn’t expect Rahul’s phone to be still alive after six days. So, when Arnab saw the double-ticks against the text message that had gone out to Rahul’s phone, he was confused. He was so confused by what it could mean that he contacted me.

“The first thing I did when we recovered the body this morning was check Rahul’s phone. Even though it was water-logged, my technician managed to recover some data.” He pursed his lips. “I was told that from his time of death on the terrace of your building until we recovered it, one text message was sent from this phone. You can imagine my surprise at this revelation. How does a dead man use a phone whose battery should be dead? And then I read the message…”

Arpita stared at him in growing confusion. “Message? I don’t understand what’s going on…”

His eyes narrowed. “The message he sent you last night. I don’t have all the details, but I’m beginning to understand how you planned it.”

Arpita was shaking her head. “I don’t understand…” she said weakly.

“Give me your phone.” He said. Taking it, he checked her inbox. “24 unread messages. I guess you haven’t had the time… Here: the last message Rahul sent you – before you killed him.”

Arpita stared at the screen of her phone and the words that were on them.

Arpita baby, have I told you what a gem you are? No, I suppose not – not lately. Lately I’ve just been an idiot, starting with Arnab. That’s why, on the day of our little plot, before you ‘killed’ me on the terrace, I told him it was the last time. I only agreed to that tryst because you insisted we needed him as a witness for the bedroom scene, and the event we staged later on the terrace. I told him I loved you and that it was over between us. I want to go back the way things were – if you will have me after what I’ve done to you. I’ve offended you in a way I can probably never fully comprehend, and sitting in this wretched lodge next to this stinking river waiting for you to meet me once the heat is off, I’ve had time to contemplate how I’ve wronged you. Forgive me, my darling, and let me make it alright for you once again…

The tears that rolled down her cheek and onto the Inspector’s desk were the first of many.