The eerie scream cut into the silence, startling French intelligence officer, Chris Santiago, awake, forcing him to drag his clothes on to rush and investigate. So what if he was on vacation and it was the early hours of the morning? His job called for action, and as he tucked his gun in its holster, attached to his hip, he heard a whimper and quickly left the safety of his apartment.
He already knew where the sound had come from. The building he stayed in was one of those modern glass and chrome structures with fancy swimming pools and other amenities. It had ten floors, and he had rented the apartment on the ninth floor.
The noise was coming from the penthouse of Jitendra Malhotra, an Indian businessman married to Katia, a French lady. They had two daughters, Roopa and Samitha. Samitha, the younger one, would often chat with Chris as he bought his groceries from the supermarket downstairs. Roopa was less friendly and would always haul her sister away.
Chris took the stairs, his mind alert as he slid the gun in his hand, ear against the door. There was silence. He tried the door. It opened. That was surprising! But he was trained for surprises.
A female yelled. He moved slowly and carefully, conscious of his surroundings. He felt someone behind him and turned. The unknown person grabbed and punched him in the stomach. The gun slipped to the floor. From the corner of his eye, he observed another movement and swerved. Roopa had picked up the gun and was aiming it at him.
Chris hastily wrestled the gun out of her hand; he always had the safety latch on. He shoved her out of the way while he secured the attacker—a tall, well-built man in his late twenties—and pushed him into one of the guest rooms.
Chris entered the bedroom. Katia was unconscious on the floor, covered in bruises. Her expensive kurta was torn, and the salwar was drawn to her ankles. Her lacy underwear was shredded. Chris covered her body with a sheet.
He dialled Aide aux Victimes at the French Embassy in Delhi. His close friend, Ron, worked in the embassy as an attaché.
Roopa was in the kitchen, toasting bread and applying butter, seemingly in a trance. Samitha was playing with her toast. Chris questioned them casually about any visitors in the last twenty-four hours.
‘Only Raoul, our chauffeur, was here,’ Roopa said, indicating the man who’d attacked Chris earlier. Samitha was eating quietly but kept looking at Chris now and then as if wanting to share something. Although Chris had no children, just a bunch of nieces and nephews in France, he was good with children.
He shot Samitha a broad smile. ‘Did you see anything extraordinary? Like Superman diving from the window?’
She looked at her sister, who had gone to the fridge to fetch a glass of milk and was stirring generous portions of Bournvita. She then leaned towards Chris and said conspiratorially, ‘I saw Papa wearing a boogieman costume and jumping on Mama. Mama was crying and pushing him away. He said, “I bought you.”’
Chris’s gaze shifted to Roopa. Her hands had stilled in the process of stirring. She didn’t say a word, but her body language screamed anxiety.
A team of experts arrived in the meanwhile, so Chris decided to continue his questioning later. The team included an official from the inspector general’s (IG) office. Since Jitendra was a powerful and influential businessman and his wife was French, the case had attracted attention.
Chris spoke with the officials and introduced himself. He briefed them on his presence there and mentioned Ron, who was a part of their team, and then returned to the room to have a quick word with Katia before they took her away. They dressed her wounds and were about to move her when Chris entered the room. It was now past 10:00 a.m.
‘Give me five minutes,’ he said to them and went down on his haunches. ‘Mrs Malhotra, can you hear me?’
One swollen eye opened, and she whispered, ‘Raoul.’
‘Raoul did this to you?’
She gave a slow, painful nod.
Chris wiped his forehead. Something did not sound right. She was claiming it was Raoul, while Samitha seemed sure it was her father in a boogieman costume jumping on her mother.
He called his friend Ron from the French Embassy. He was an expert on human behaviour and would often build up and tear down cases for the heck of it. After an interesting exchange, Chris escorted the children to the nearest mall at Ron’s suggestion.
MGF Mall housed a mix of Indian and international brands and sold everything as far as he knew, from cosmetics to electronics, and had multiplex and several restaurants. It was equipped with indoor games for children, and Samitha lost no time in making friends with a little girl.
Chris turned his attention to the less talkative brat, Roopa. She had hauled herself on the wall that ran around the playpen and sat there seemingly lost in thought.
‘Where’s your dad now?’
Chris swallowed an angry gasp. What kind of a cold-hearted man was this? Shouldn’t he have been by his wife’s side? But then again, if Samitha’s story was right, he must have a strong alibi to save his skin.
‘I know what you’re thinking,’ Roopa said, giving him a sideward glance. ‘Dad is a workaholic. But he provides for us and loves us to bits.’
Her eyes fixed on Samitha. The little one was driving a motorised car around the track as if she were a racer. Never mind that it was remote-controlled, she was absorbed, giving it her full concentration.
Chris lowered his voice and whispered, ‘I know you love your dad. It is only normal you’d want to protect him. But if he has something to do with your mom’s condition, he’s in trouble.’
‘Dad would never do that. He’s too classy to beat up a woman, leave alone his wife,’ she said in harsh tones.
It was admirable the way the girl stood up for her father. But Chris couldn’t let emotions come in the way of justice.
‘You mean he’d get others to do it for him?’
She gave him a long, penetrating stare that unnerved him. ‘Don’t put words in my mouth.’
Samitha ran towards them with flushed cheeks and glowing eyes. “Can I play on the sliding board?” she asked her sister. Roopa shook her head.
‘Papa might come home. We have to be there for him.’
Samitha looked at Chris and said, ‘Papa says Mama is beautiful, like Asha Parekh.’ Roopa tightened her grip on her hand, and Samitha winced.
‘You’re hurting me,’ she said loudly.
‘And you’re talking too much,’ Roopa responded.
Jitendra wasn’t wrong there, Chris thought. Katia did have a certain resemblance to the beautiful yesteryear actress. But after being battered and left to bleed, she might have permanent scars on her face. He’d have to visit the hospital and take a statement from her. Ron had requested that Chris stay on the case.
Since Chris worked for the French intelligence, Ron had roped him in without guilt even though Chris was on vacation. He’d laughed and said, “There are no vacations for French intelligence officers.” Chris was only too pleased to assist. Moreover, the victim stayed in the same block, and he was already involved.
‘Where were you when the intruder arrived?’ He addressed the question to both the girls, carefully noting their responses and reactions.
‘Sleeping,’ Roopa said with a shrug.
‘Watching Cartoon Network,’ Samitha said, earning a glare from Roopa. Chris squeezed Samitha’s hand with an encouraging smile. He went to the counter and paid for her rides, and they walked back home.
‘So, you heard something and woke up your sister?’ he asked little Samitha, who was skipping at his side, seeming enthralled with everything around her. Didn’t their parents take the girls out on walks?
Samitha tugged at his hand and said conspiratorially, ‘I heard Mama screaming and crawled to the bedroom door and peeped. Then I saw the boogieman.’
‘How did you know the boogieman was your papa?’
‘He was singing Yeh Sham Mastani’. Papa always sings that song when he climbs on Mama.’
Someone was on his trail. Chris sensed it. He halted at L’Opera, a French pâtisserie, bought himself a delicious croissant, and sank his teeth into it. He turned casually and spotted the man. He was a tall, well-built man wearing shades—he bore an uncanny resemblance to Raoul, the chauffeur. Chris continued walking, entering a lush park.
Did Raoul have an identical twin? Coming to think of it, why was Raoul at Katia’s place? Did Jitendra use him to spy on his beautiful wife? How had Jitendra managed to leave the house without anyone seeing him? Why was Roopa covering for her father while Samitha was letting him down? It didn’t make sense.
A loud gunshot interrupted the morning serenity of the park, and people ran in all directions. Chris dropped to the ground, rolled over, and crawled behind a car, gun in his hand. The shots came from a long-range, not from Raoul’s twin. He was there to distract Chris while gunmen shot at him from a moving car.
Gurgaon seemed to be highly influenced by the movies as the scene played out exactly how it would have in a Bollywood film. One minute, Chris was enjoying his croissant, the next minute, he was on the pavement, not dead, luckily, but wounded on the shoulder. He got into a moving cab and took himself off to the hospital, spoke with the IG on the way, and reported the gunshot.
The doctor patched him up after cleaning his bloodied shoulder. In the meantime, he telephoned Ron and gave him a detailed account. Once his wounds were dressed and he was discharged, he made his way to Apollo Hospital, where Katia was admitted.
The hospital was crowded, and it took him a while to get any information about her. They asked if he was a relative. Since it was a police case, Katia was under guard. He called Ron, who spoke to them, and they allowed Chris a brief visit.
Katia was awake. Green eyes with shades of hazel gold surveyed Chris through puffed lids. Her mouth was swollen. Her skin was torn as if the aggressor had sunk his nails into her flesh. She must be in great pain, thought Chris.
His heart shifted. When Katia had come to India, she would have definitely not had this in mind. Marrying a wealthy Indian businessman meant security. Who would have thought the wife of a famous businessman like Jitendra Malhotra would have been attacked, that too, by someone close to them?
Chris smiled as he took the stool next to the bed. Katia didn’t smile back. She couldn’t. Her lips were cut and sore. It must be agony for her, thought he.
‘Mrs Malhotra, I am Chris Santiago. I stay in the same block. Can you tell me again, right from the beginning, what happened?’
She licked her sore lips and winced, closing her eyes. ‘I heard a knock on the door. It was Raoul. He said his boss had asked him to stand guard until he returned home.’ She swallowed and shuddered.
‘Did you find that odd?’ Chris asked in soft tones.
She nodded. ‘I told him to return to the office as Jitendra would need him. I also said we could take care of ourselves. But he said his boss had asked him to stay with us, and the office car would be dropping Jitendra back.’
‘Did you inform your husband?’ He noted how her hand crawled to her throat and rested there.
‘No,’ she whispered.
‘I didn’t want to complain about the chauffeur unnecessarily.’
‘And your children were in their room all through?’ He watched her swallow again, her green eyes luminous as he mentioned her children.
‘Roopa came to see who it was.’
‘Roopa or Samitha?’ Chris asked with a frown.
‘Roopa. She went to the kitchen for a glass of water.’
‘How long has Raoul worked for you?’ Chris’s mind was still on Katia’s response. Hadn’t Roopa told him that she was asleep?
‘One year.’ Katia cleared her throat, picked up a glass of water on the corner table, and sipped it.
‘How is his conduct?’
She let the air out of her parted lips slowly. ‘Quiet and respectful.’
‘After you asked him to leave, what happened?’
‘I went back to the bedroom and assumed he had left. But suddenly, he was looming over me. He placed a hand over my mouth while he …’ Her eyes started filling with tears.
Chris looked into her sad, frightened eyes. The doctor had sewed her up, but it was doubtful if she would continue to look like Asha Parekh. The attacker had made sure of that. And that was another reason he was inclined to think that it was Jitendra.
According to some of the residents, Jitendra had not introduced his wife to anyone. He was possessive of Katia. On the same note, Chris wondered why Jitendra, who was so suspicious of his wife, allowed the young, strappy chauffeur near her when he was not around.
‘Thank you, Mrs Malhotra. I’ll let you rest now.’ So many questions were on his mind, but she looked tired, and the nurse was glaring at him.
Chris gave Ron a brief recount when he returned from work. Ron would sometimes drop in for breakfast or dinner. He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes.
‘So Katia claims it is Raoul?’ Ron drew a table, penned Katia’s name and wrote Raoul beside it. ‘Roopa says it is not her father.’ He wrote her name and drew a line across Jitendra’s name. ‘Samitha says it is Jitendra.’ He wrote Samitha’s name and Jitendra beside it. ‘Hmmm, interesting.’
‘Who do you think is telling the truth?’
‘Well, I’d take the younger girl’s story as she seemed sure of her information. She gave evidence about the costume, the song, and the words her father said before he jumped on her mother. None of the others did that.’
‘So why am I getting this bad feeling that they are framing him?’
Ron grinned, ‘Because you are French intelligence, a part of the DGSE. I’d be disappointed if you reacted otherwise.’ Then he clapped him on the shoulder and said, “Here’s what I think. Jitendra is a possessive man. He threatens his wife and sometimes locks her inside the apartment. He treasures her and doesn’t want to share her. What if Katia was having an affair with the chauffeur and Jitendra came in and caught them? He could have roughed up Katia.’
‘So where was he when I arrived?’ Chris asked.
‘He could have been in one of the rooms and must have slipped out. After all, Raoul and Roopa attacked you. While you were dealing with them, he might have escaped.’
Chris was granted ten minutes with Jitendra at the IG’s office after the French Embassy sought permission. Chris was astonished to see Jitendra working on his laptop as if nothing had happened. He didn’t seem upset—more impatient than anything else. When he saw Chris, he gave him a polite smile.
Was this man a suspect in detention or a CEO in detention? How cold and arrogant he looked. Poor Katia!
Chris shook Jitendra’s hand and took the seat opposite the small desk. ‘Mr Malhotra, I believe your chauffeur attacked your wife. Is that right?’
‘She was having an affair,’ Jitendra snapped. ‘Raoul found out and told me. I asked him to stay there until I returned as I didn’t want that man in my house. Then I got a call about Katia being assaulted. Raoul would never do something like that.’
Chris noted the name of the man he mentioned. Chris knew Denzil D’Souza. He was a journalist—a good one—and stayed in the same block. Why would Denzil want to get involved with a married woman was his first thought. But then, supposing Denzil was doing an investigative story on Jitendra or his business, it was only natural he’d talk to Katia. Maybe Jitendra had something to hide and didn’t want Katia spilling the beans.
‘Are Roopa and Samitha your children?’ Chris had no idea why he had asked that question; it just came out! It was quite a personal question, but it struck him that it would explain the children’s different recounts of the events.
‘Roopa is from Katia’s first marriage, but I accepted her as my daughter. You can confirm that with her.’
‘Mr Malhotra, if I take Roopa’s testimony, you were at work and are innocent. If I take Samitha’s testimony, you jumped on your wife. If I take your wife’s testimony, Raoul assaulted her. And now you mention that Denzil is involved with your wife.’
That night, Chris and Ron sat on the balcony of Chris’s condominium, sharing the latest developments over a glass of fine wine. Chris told him about the meeting, and Ron added the new name to his table. Then, suddenly, Chris stood up, excused himself, and pelted to the Malhotra’s apartment. There were some unanswered questions, and hopefully, the kids weren’t asleep.
When the door opened, a strange French woman stood before him.
‘Bonsoir!’ she said in clipped tones. She didn’t seem too pleased with the late evening visit.
Chris flashed a smile and his badge. The woman looked at Roopa and then at Samitha. Samitha darted to Chris’s side and said in her usual style, ‘Mama was discharged from the hospital this evening and is resting. Papa is at the police station. Raoul is in prison. Uncle Denzil just called. And this is my Aunty Brigitte from France.’
‘When did you arrive?’ he asked the woman in French.
He scribbled Brigitte’s name in his notebook and the information about Denzil’s call. The case was getting more complicated, he thought, as he eyed Roopa. She seemed very quiet and somewhat vulnerable. Samitha took Chris’s hand and invited him to enter. Brigitte strode back to the guest room after excusing herself.
‘Does Uncle Denzil ring often?’
Roopa’s eyes flashed. ‘My mom and Uncle Denzil are in touch, yes.’
Chris looked at her in surprise. Why had she gone on the defensive? ‘Are they close?’
Roopa gave him a long, considering glance. ‘Do you know you are too curious? Why are you on the case anyway? Do you work for the French Embassy?’
‘You can say that,’ Chris said with a smile. Something was definitely fishy with her reaction, Chris thought. Then he turned to Samitha and gave her a wink.
‘Mama didn’t like Uncle Denzil,’ Samitha said in a shaky voice. ‘She left him and came to the boogieman. The boogieman took care of Mama, Roopa, and me.’
‘Wait a minute.’ Chris leaned forward in surprise, turning his razor gaze on Roopa. ‘Was your mom in a relationship with Denzil?’ She did not answer at first, and then, her shoulders drooped.
‘He’s my father,’ she said with reluctance.
Chris bit back a startled gasp and made a note of that. This case was churning out more twists and turns than an Agatha Christie novel.
Why hadn’t Jitendra elaborated that the man he suspected of having an affair with his wife was her ex-husband, Denzil? And why had Brigitte walked off so abruptly? Shouldn’t she have wanted to know about the progress of the case?
‘When did your Aunt Brigitte arrive?’ he asked Samitha.
‘This evening. Aunty Brigitte is Uncle Denzil’s girlfriend,’ she elaborated.
Roopa, sitting in sulky silence, leapt to his defence. ‘My dad is not like that. Aunt Brigitte is running behind him. He has never been unfaithful to Mama.’ Tears were streaming down her cheeks.
Chris Rose. It was time to conclude the case. He also needed to talk to Brigitte and Denzil.
Ron grinned when he saw Chris at breakfast the following day. “You seem confident you have the “framer” in mind?’
‘Not yet, but trust me, I will. Just a few more knots to tie.’
Denzil was unavailable when Chris called and wasn’t returning his calls, and neither was Brigitte. Could they, by any chance, be the ones behind the assault?
Maybe Denzil hadn’t gotten over Katia and took up residence in the same building so he could be close to her and their daughter. He was the one who would want his family back, right?
At the same time, why would a man in love have an affair with his sister-in-law? Wouldn’t he be trying to keep a clean slate if he wanted his family back? And if Denzil were guilty, wouldn’t he try to clear his name? But he was not even answering calls.
And then, suddenly, the realisation hit Chris. He looked at Ron and said through his teeth, ‘I have found the “framer”.’
Chris drove like a madman to the IG’s office. The Malhotra family had assembled there at his request. Jitendra looked frustrated, and there were lines of tiredness around his eyes. But, when he saw Chris, he smiled in relief.
‘Are you any closer to solving this case?’ he asked.
Chris gave a nod. He turned and looked at little Samitha playing with her doll in a corner. She turned and smiled at him. Then his eyes shifted to the quiet girl sitting on the red couch, ignoring them.
‘Why did you say you were asleep the day your mom was attacked?’
Roopa looked up and shrugged. ‘I was!’
‘Your mom said you went for a glass of water.’
‘I don’t really remember all my movements.’
‘How about Raoul’s?’
‘What do you mean?’ She looked at Chris with genuine surprise. What an actress! There wasn’t a trace of fear on her face.
‘You gave him the boogieman costume, Roopa.’
‘What costume? Are you okay?’
The IG stopped working at his desk and listened to the happenings with interest. Jitendra’s mouth had fallen wide open. Samitha turned and looked at her sister in silence.
‘You told Raoul to sing that song, ‘Yeh Shaam Mastani’, and made sure Samitha would see and hear him.’
Roopa stood up and clenched her fists at her sides. ‘I love my father. I would never do that to him.’
Jitendra interrupted hesitantly, looking from his trembling daughter to Chris. ‘Are you certain of your information, Chris? Roopa has always been a good daughter. I believe she loves me.’
Chris shook his head, his eyes never leaving Roopa’s. ‘You are right when you say you love your father—Denzil! You wanted to bring your parents back together and project your stepdad as a villain so that your mother would leave him. You didn’t count on your mother unmasking Raoul so quickly and Raoul turning violent.’
The IG turned a dark, ferocious gaze on Roopa. ‘Do you have anything to say in your defence?’
Jitendra breathed with difficulty. He was pale as a ghost and seemed unable to digest what he was hearing. Samitha’s eyes were wide and apprehensive as they riveted on her sister. Chris softened his tone when he saw Roopa drop onto the couch and cover her face.
‘I didn’t ask him to rape Mama. He was supposed to frighten her and be there until my stepfather returned. But when it went out of control, I rushed to protect Mama. That’s when you entered. I attacked you so that Raoul could escape. It wasn’t his fault. I discussed our family issues with him, and he offered to help. So he planted doubt in my stepdad’s mind about Mama having an affair.’
‘Your mother was bruised and raped, and your stepdad was held as a suspect.’ Chris shook his head. ‘I’m at a loss. Why would you do this, Roopa?’
‘I wanted my parents together again. Is that so wrong?’ she asked in a broken voice.
‘But they have been divorced for years. So why do this now?’
Samitha, who had been holding her silence until then, got up and came towards Chris. Chris knew he had to play his cards right with the little one as she might have the answer.
‘Do you want to go to MGF after this?’ he whispered. Samitha gave him a wide grin.
‘Aunty Brigitte…’ she looked at Roopa, ‘shall I tell?’
Chris said softly, ‘Go on…’
‘Aunty Brigitte and Uncle Denzil are going to Las Vegas to get married.’
‘Oh!’ That explained the urgency of the plan.
Roopa had wanted to get her parents to get back together, but Katia adored her second husband, Jitendra. To break them up, Roopa had planted doubts in Jitendra’s mind through Raoul and was about to do the same with her mother. She hadn’t counted on Katia unmasking Raoul and Raoul getting violent. And to top it all, her father had not arrived on the scene. And to make matters worse, she hadn’t expected Chris to interrupt the act.
Jitendra shot Chris a grateful smile. ‘Thank you,’ he said. Then his eyes settled on Roopa. She refused to meet his gaze.
‘I forgive you, darling,’ he said in a choked voice. Her head jerked, and she rose and stumbled towards her stepfather. Jitendra wound his arms around her and kissed the top of her head.
She broke into sobs. ‘I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me. When Aunt Brigitte confided her plans of going with my dad to Las Vegas, I saw red. You see, my dad often rambled about always loving Mama. He said you came in the way, flashed your wealth, and stole her from him.’
‘I did no such thing, darling. You can verify that with your mom.’
‘I know now. Mama told me he had a drinking problem. I wish I discussed it with her before I did such a horrible thing.’
Chris slipped out of the room and closed the door behind him. The IG joined him outside.
‘That was impressive.’ He shook Chris’s hand. ‘Are you staying long?’
Chris grinned and shook his head. ‘Not really. I leave at the end of this week.’ Neither noticed that Samitha had slid between them. She looked up at Chris.
‘Shall we go to MGF?’
Chris took her hand with a smile. ‘Sure.’ He messaged Jitendra and Roopa on their whereabouts. He was going to miss the Malhotra family.