J.J. Hospital was a quiet place at the hour of the morning that Virkar walked through the corridor on the third floor, making his way to the ICU. He stepped around the morning cleaning crew that was busy scrubbing the floors, the antiseptic smell of the disinfectant tickling his nostrils. He heard a door open to his right and turned his head in the direction of the sound to see Naina exiting the ICU from a side door. He walked towards her and her anxious voice welcomed him. ‘Richard’s surgery was successful. He’s out of danger. And thank God you’re safe, Virkar. What happened to you?’
Virkar didn’t reply immediately. Instead, he held her hand and gently guided her towards a table and chair in the waiting area. Motioning her to sit down, he lowered his tired body into another chair opposite her. ‘Sharad Lal is now in police custody,’ he said, his tone absolutely flat.
‘What!’ Naina erupted. Her voice rose another decibel. ‘Why didn’t you call me?’
‘Well,’ Virkar’s voice was as cool as ever. ‘I was too busy trying to save my head from getting bashed in.’ Naina suddenly noticed the bruise on Virkar’s forehead and raised her hand but Virkar stopped her before she could touch the bruise. ‘It’s okay. It’s not as bad as it looks.’
Naina gave his hand a slight squeeze but on receiving no response, she retrieved her hand and put it back on her lap. She looked into Virkar’s eyes and for the first time, noticed their coldness. She fell silent but held his gaze for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, she asked quietly, ‘So, you know?’
‘Yes,’ Virkar replied without hesitation.
‘He told you?’
‘No.’ Virkar shook his head.
‘Then how?’ asked Naina, confused.
Virkar took a deep breath. ‘I first got suspicious when I received that video. I wondered why he only sent a video of me in your room. After all, he must have had footage of both of us together in bed. Could it be possible that he didn’t want your naked image to be seen? But I found the thought too outrageous until…’
‘Until what?’ Naina’s voice sounded choked.
‘Until I found a Ruger 9mm pistol kept in a drawer in a roomful of servers,’ Virkar continued.
Naina’s expression did not change. Virkar waited for her to say something but she remained silent, keeping her eyes firmly on Virkar. Finally, she sighed. ‘He’s a very troubled young man who has been obsessed with me since his childhood. But I only treated him like the brother I didn’t have. I was nice to him and tried to help him, even when I came to know through Sagarika that he and his friends were indulging in this…sextortion. I wanted him to stop. I wanted him to get psychiatric treatment.’
Virkar raised a hand and signalled her to stop. ‘But you knew about all the people who got murdered along the way and you still did not tell the police. You didn’t even tell me.’
Tears welled up in Naina’s eyes. ‘I didn’t want him to get killed,’ she said.
Virkar’s eyes looked dejected. ‘So all that happened between us was…’
Naina cut him off before he finished. ‘It’s not like that. Initially, I thought that if I could be a part of the investigation, I could prevent Sharad from being harmed. I thought that Richard could somehow hack into his machine, delete all the files and end this mess. But later as…as I got to know you, I realized that I didn’t want you to come to any harm either.’
Virkar shrugged. ‘You know, Naina, it all sounds so plausible and, until a short while ago, I was in such a vulnerable position where it came to you that I would have believed anything you said. But my gut said something else when I found the Ruger. Did you know that the Ruger is nicknamed the “Lady Handgun” because it’s so small and compact? So, I thought, what if this Ruger actually belongs to a lady? I left the pistol in the drawer of the table in the server room when I called you to join me. I wanted to see what you would do when you found the room unattended. And, sure enough, you came to the room and set fire to it.’
Naina shook her head vehemently, opening her mouth in protest, but Virkar didn’t allow her get a word in. ‘Don’t try and deny it, Naina. Vitthal, the watchman of the building, has taken pictures of you entering and leaving the building on his cell phone shortly before the fire broke out.’
Naina fell silent. Her eyes grew dark, but her expression was unreadable. ‘You didn’t know about Vitthal’s room under the stairs, did you? Anyway, I guess you were too focused on setting fire to the room and destroying the evidence. But you couldn’t resist taking the gun, could you? I knew it. And I can bet that the bullet that Dr Ranadive has taken out from Sharad Lal’s shoulder by this time will be a perfect match to this one, which I took out from the gun before placing it back in the drawer.’ Virkar took out a live snub-nosed bullet and placed it on the table.
Naina looked stumped as Virkar continued, ‘I wanted to see how much loyalty you and your accomplice would have for each other when the game was up. Clearly, you had none.’
By now, all fight seemed to have gone out of Naina. She looked like a punctured balloon. Virkar looked into her eyes and saw the murky darkness dissolve into vulnerability. ‘By God, you are good. You can change at will, can’t you? But, Naina, your deviousness will not work on me any more.’ She looked hurt, but Virkar wasn’t buying her act. ‘Tell me everything, Naina. Tell me now. Or they will subject you to narco tests to get the truth out of you’.
For a while, Naina silently scrutinized the floor, her eyes downcast. Then she began to speak, still keeping her gaze fixed on the floor. At first, lips moved but no sound came out. Slowly her voice became audible, but it could only be heard as a rasp. ‘These young people today…they are so free with sex. It just doesn’t make any difference who they sleep with and when. They change partners as if they are changing underwear. I felt jealous of their freedom; angry at the way they squandered their bodies to let all and sundry feed off them. And then they would come and cry on my shoulder. They wanted me to make it all go away. I would do my best, give them the right advice, but they would soon get back out there, frittering away their gifts. They made me sick. And slowly…slowly, they tempted me. If everybody was benefitting from their sexual promiscuity, why shouldn’t I? I wanted to teach them a lesson. Show them how sacred sex is. I wanted them to pay. Only then they would realize what I had been saying all along.’
Virkar interrupted, ‘Spare the psycho talk for the psychiatrists. Tell me how you set up this whole racket.’
Naina swallowed, her throat dry. Her voice was now like two sheets of sandpaper being rubbed together. ‘I have know Sharad since he was ten years old. His family had moved to the apartment opposite ours in Pune. Over the years, I had tutored him, played with him, given him little gifts out of my pocket money and, when he reached his teens, shared my pocket money with him. We found that we were both growing up in dysfunctional homes, where our anger and fears were repressed beyond imagination. While I had a drunkard, wife-beating, beast of a father, he had a mother who was in denial about his father’s philandering ways. After his parents’ death five years later, he moved to his aunt’s place in Meerut, but I kept sending him letters and gifts. When he was eighteen, he ran away from his aunt’s home and took up with a gang of local kidnappers. Luckily, one day, he called me and I convinced him to give up that life and come to Mumbai. At my reassurance, he made his way to this city, and I made sure that there was no break in his education. I ensured that he got admission in the best college and I got him hostel accommodation, so that he could lead an independent life. But I also made him so dependent on me that he would do anything I said.’
Naina sighed, and then continued, ‘He was a genius at computer programming. When I thought up my sextortion idea, he was my first choice for the person who would put it all together. I would identify young, vulnerable students and he would target them. After a while, we realized that we needed more than just those I could identify. So Sharad included Rajesh, Akhbir, Kshitij, Nayantara and Philo as part of the extortion group for collection and intimidation. Nayantara was the eyes: she would spot and entice potential targets. Rajesh and Akhbir, with their good looks and smooth ways, were the tempters. They would seduce girls and shoot them having sex with them. Kshitij was the one who would contact them over the net and extort money from them. Philo would collect and, if need be, threaten them with dire consequences. Most of them knew each other, but Sharad had kept Philo a secret from everyone else.’
‘What about Sagarika? How does she fit in to all this?’ Virkar asked.
‘Sagarika was a bystander. Sharad had come up with a program that could hack into people’s computers and shoot their pictures and videos through their own webcams. You know, the one that Richard found on my computer. We realized that we didn’t need to use the traditional methods any more. We were really raking it in until Sagarika came into the picture. She was one of the students I was counselling and had been contacted by the ASN and asked to cough up a large sum which she didn’t have. That had disturbed her fragile psyche. She was thinking of going to the police but luckily for us, she shared her thoughts with me. I convinced her not to do anything, but I realized that, in our greed, we had become careless and there could be others out there who were thinking along the same lines as Sagarika. I decided that we had to slow down and get really selective about who we targeted, focusing only on the very rich, who were sure to pay up. So I told Sharad to shut things down for a while. But Rajesh and Khistij had become too greedy. They didn’t want to shut it down. In fact, they wanted to form their own group and were trying to get Akhbir and Nayantara to join them. Sharad and I realized that this was going to affect us badly. Then Sharad came up with the idea to use Philo to eliminate the others. Philo was in love with Sharad and readily agreed. Sharad asked me to find someone who resembled Philo in body structure and, coincidentally, that was Sagarika. Philo eliminated her and took on her persona to eliminate the rest of the group.’ Naina fell silent, not meeting Virkar’s eyes.
Virkar said, ‘So Nayantara the spotter gets her eyes gouged out, Rajesh the seducer gets his penis cut off, and Kshitij the negotiator, his tongue.’
Naina nodded. ‘It was Sharad’s idea. It also made it look like the work of a psycho killer.’
Virkar’s voice dripped with sarcasm as he said, ‘Yes, a fact that you stepped in and managed to convince everyone of.’
Naina didn’t say anything. Virkar continued, ‘And all those emails between Kshitij, Sagarika, Nayantara and Rajesh?’
‘Sharad faked them all and put them up on the Internet to fool you and Richard. We needed someone believable who would ensure you thought that only Rajesh, Kshitij, Nayantara and Sagarika were involved. So I contacted Richard and got him so obliged to me that he had to help. But he’s innocent. He’s not a part of the ASN at all. I needed him to be genuine because he was interacting with you. It was all working very well. Even after the failed attack on Akhbir, Sharad convinced him to go off to Punjab but Akhbir, being the hot-headed loose cannon that he was, decided to attack Philo for revenge before he left. That was when Sharad made the call to Akhbir and was exposed for the first time.’
Virkar raised an eyebrow. ‘That night at SuperTrance…’
Naina cut in, ‘Yes, you saw Sharad in the crowd. He had tracked Akhbir through his cell phone signal and was going to shoot him after Akhbir shot Philo, but you stepped in and did his job. And Philo, too, got shot and went into a coma. While we were attending to Philo, Sharad took advantage of the crowd, grabbed Akhbir’s fallen cell phone and left. So all loose ends were taken care of.’
‘But you didn’t take care of one loose end—me. I began chasing the mystery man all by myself and, in the end, he turned out to be a puppet in the hands of a mystery woman—you, the woman I was involved with,’ said Virkar.
Naina didn’t respond. She just looked exhausted.
Virkar took a deep breath. ‘You used me.’
‘I didn’t mean to,’ Naina replied.
He looked away in the distance and he could feel her eyes on him. Neither of them said a word for an inordinately long time. Finally, Virkar rose from the table.
Naina looked up at him. ‘What do I do now?
Just for a second, he stopped and shot her a glance. ‘If you have even a single shred of feeling for me, just do the right thing.’ With that, Virkar turned and walked away. His legs felt like lead. Naina stared at his receding back and called out to him. But Virkar was already out of earshot.