The Cross-talk20 mins 119 20 mins 119
Lying on the foam bed in a small, non-descript, old hotel room, Azeez stared at the antiquated, brown-coloured leather suitcase. ‘Could anyone imagine even in his wildest guesses that this decrepit leather box is worth 50 crore rupees?’, he wondered. It is full of one-thousand US dollar bills. Even as he continued to stare at it, the past events had flooded his mind…
It was exactly a decade ago, at the age of 20, that Azeez had set his foot in Dubai with a fake Identity and a forged passport. Soon the rosy picture that got painted in his mind about the wonderful life in Dubai had started waning off. Without a proper job to do, life became miserable. In the beginning, he could manage some odd jobs to sustain himself. Later, fate drove him to a drug peddler, as a courier. It was there that he met the trio – Saleem, Banerjee, and Pillai. They were already working there as couriers.
The 40 plus Saleem was tall and sturdy and with his unkempt looks, frightening too. He was a ruffian whom even his colleagues dreaded. He originally belonged to the old city in Hyderabad in India. Banerjee, a thin but strong-structured man was younger to Saleem at least by 5 years. Though sober-looking, his fierce looks betrayed him. His voice was coarse like that of a crow. He was a native of Kharagpur in West Bengal. Pillai, on the other hand, was neatly dressed, gentle-looking, and soft-spoken. He was of the same age as Banerjee. Fair and medium-built, he hailed from Dharavi in Mumbai. By his well-kempt looks, he passed off as a gentleman and no one could suspect him to be an active member of a dope-peddling racket.
Hailing as they were from India, all the four became close pals soon, true to the proverbial ‘thick as thieves’. They nurtured almost similar plans and ambitions about their future. The foursome was far from being happy and contented with their present life, for it fraught more with risks than anything else. Therefore, they aspired to net a big fish on their own, so that they could leave the racket and settle down happily for the rest of their lives.
Saleem had come up with a plan to rob the American Bank in Dubai. Zubeda, his girlfriend, was working there. He had collected vital information through her about the Bank’s building plan, security details, cash transactions, etc. He had evolved an action plan. Once it was successfully put through, all of them could leave the country with the booty even before the robbery could be discovered by the Bank. The friends wanted to go to Switzerland, share the ill-gotten money, and deposit it in the banks there, as the banking rules in that country did not insist on revealing the source. Thereafter, they wanted to start their lives afresh, away from crime, under assumed names.
All the offices and establishments – both public and private – in Dubai, had Fridays as their weekly holidays. Saleem and his band had planned the break-in when 2 other holidays followed the weekly holiday much to their joy…
Azeez was awe-struck at the unexpected visit of Zubeda to him, on the night before the planned break-in of the American Bank. Zubeda was around 25 years. Fair, slim and tall, she was a beauty to reckon with. Especially her charming smile was mesmerizing. Excepting seeing her occasionally in the company of Saleem, Azeez never talked to her before.
Sensing that he was under the spell of her charms, Zubeda flashed a bewitching smile. Fast as she was, she sat beside him, took his face into her hands, and pressed it against her soft breasts. This had sent a high voltage current into his body. He felt suffocated. Azeez knew that Zubeda was having a live-in relationship with Saleem. If Saleem were to come to know that Azeez got intimate with his girl, he would not hesitate a minute to kill him, even if he were a friend and a partner in crime. But Zubeda could easily dispel Azeez’s fears and suspicions and entice him. What she said, lying in his lap and playing with his hair, had stunned Azeez. It sent shivers in his spine. It made him utterly confused and frightened too.
Azeez was the youngest of the friends and handsome too. Zubeda said that she secretly loved him and nurtured the desire, and was only waiting for an opportunity to express her love to him. She proffered that Azeez and she could double-cross Saleem and others, and disappear with the looted money. They could go to the United States where they could marry and live as husband and wife under assumed names for the rest of their lives.
Azeez was damn scared. Though she sounded serious, he was not sure whether her proposition was real, or was a ploy being played by Saleem to test him… Azeez knew that Saleem blindly believed his love, Zubeda – more than anyone else. This was evident from the fact that he had assigned a very important – albeit risky – role to her in the scheme of their bank robbery. According to the plan, the looted money was to be handed over to Zubeda, who would at once leave Dubai for Switzerland. She would wait there with the money for other members of the gang to join. Since the Bank would be having 3 consecutive holidays, it would be well 3 days before the robbery was discovered. By then all of them could leave Dubai independently and safely, for Switzerland to join Zubeda. If by any mischance, the gang was to be caught by the police, at least the loot could be safe! It was at this stage that Zubeda wanted to double-cross the gang. ‘Perhaps it is easier to deceive those who blindly trust!’ thought Azeez.
Zubeda sensed the unease in Azeez and his fears and misgivings over her proposal. It was really hard for her to dispel them and to convince him of the genuineness of her intentions, and to secure his consent. If it was not for the fear of Saleem, Azeez was not the one to bother about the scruples and ethics. He was not a fool, either, to say ‘no’ to the prospect of getting millions of dollars easily – that too, accompanied by a damsel like Zubeda, as a bonus! The plan was hers, after all. He was merely to be bold enough to accede to it. He mulled over it. The offer was too tempting to turn it down…Mustering courage, at last, he had imprinted his consent on her rosy lips. That night became their first, hot night – as it turned sensual!
Everything went according to plan, as was meticulously carried out. The robbery at the American Bank took place on the night of Thursday. Earlier in the evening, the Bank’s warning alarm system was caused to be tampered with, with the help of Zubeda. The booty was assigned to Zubeda who had disappeared with it from the scene in no time. The gang then dispersed in different directions.
The Bank would be reopened on Monday morning and until then there was no danger of the burglary being noticed. In the meanwhile the four could leave the country independently to different destinations, only to regroup in Switzerland, where Zubeda would be waiting for them with the money – if everything went on right.
Zubeda’s offer had altered the thinking of Azeez and his thoughts assumed altogether a new dimension... As planned, Zubeda arrived at the hotel where Azeez took refuge after the crime, along with the booty. She made necessary arrangements for both of them to fly to the United States.
“In the honour of Dubai... let’s have a drink,” proposed Azeez, even as he mixed one. She gladly joined him. After the drinks, they had intense sex.
After that, they had another round of drinks. This time he had mixed poison in her drink. Zubeda was dead even before she could realize it. He dumped her body in the bathtub and filled it with water.
Azeez sat in the bedroom for a while soothing his nerves. Smoking, he poured himself another drink. Sipping it slowly, he collected his thoughts… If Zubeda could easily betray Saleem, who was her long-time friend and a live-in partner, there was no guarantee that she would not dump him (Azeez) too after a time. Besides, he was not inclined to share the booty with her – for that matter, with anyone else. Greed took better of him. So, he got rid of her. He was certain that when Zubeda was found to be missing, the others in the gang would assume that she had cheated them by running away with the money. “No one can suspect me, even remotely’ he assured himself.
Azeez acted quickly. He transferred the booty into an old leather suitcase and sealed the box. He booked the same as scrap on a ship that was to sail shortly to India, through an agent. The consignment would take 4, 5 months to reach the destination. By that time the entire episode – the news about the bank robbery – was sure to be forgotten by one and all thought he.
Earlier he had booked a seat for himself on a plane to Hong Kong under an assumed name and identity. On his way to the airport to catch the flight, he telephoned the police and tipped them off about the bank robbery. He had also revealed the names of his pals and as also their hideouts. After an hour, the news of the American Bank robbery was hot on the Television. A faint smile appeared on Azeez’s lips as he watched on the airport T.V. screen, his friends being produced before the media at the Police Headquarters.
Azeez spent the next couple of months in Hong Kong from where he went to the Maldives. After whiling away his time there, he reached India by the time the shipment reached. Greasing the palms of the Customs officials at the Mumbai Port, he could smuggle the consignment out safely and reached Hyderabad with it. In order not to draw undue attention from any quarter, he quietly moved into an old, insignificant hotel in a lane in the old city to stay…
The loot was in hard currency. It needed to be converted into Indian rupees without drawing suspicion. It took some time for Azeez to establish the right contacts in the city for the purpose. Lying on the bed in the hotel room and smoking away into the evening, Azeez was waiting for the telephone call from one of his contacts. Impatiently. Then the landline rang. He sprang up and reached for the phone. It got disconnected even as he said ‘hello’.
‘Shit!’ Cursing bitterly, he sat in the chair, when the telephone rang again. He picked up the receiver instantly. As he said ‘hello’, it went silent for a few seconds but was not disconnected. Wondering whether it was a code, he held the receiver and waited.
After a few seconds, there came to be heard a conversation between 2 males. An apparent cross talk! Swearing under his breath, he was about to bang the receiver on to the rest, but then something in the conversation stopped him. He held the receiver to his ear and listened silently and intently.
“Rahim! Listen carefully,” said one of the voices with an air of authority. “Go to the Dilshuk Bar in Ameerpet tonight at 8. There will be an Anglo-Indian girl sitting at the reception counter. Walk up to her straight and ask for change for 2 thousand rupees, by presenting a one-hundred rupee note. She will hand you over 10 one-hundred rupee notes and along with them, a sealed envelope and a movie ticket too. The ticket is for the night show of an English movie that is currently screened at the Manju theatre in Secunderabad. From Dilshuk Bar you proceed to the theatre directly and enter it only after the show began. Occupy the seat as indicated in the ticket. You will find the seats on both sides to be vacant. When the show is midway through, a lady would enter and occupy one of the side seats. She would ask you for change for one hundred rupees and give you a 2-thousand-rupee note. Give her the change - 10 ten-rupee notes – and along with it, the sealed envelope you are carrying with you. After a few minutes, she would quietly slip out of the theatre in the dark. And you are not to move out of your seat till the end of the show…”
“Who is that lady, bhai? Is she beautiful?” Rahim, the second man, enquired enthusiastically.
“Don’t be silly, lest you may land yourself in trouble,” cautioned the first man sternly.
“What is there in the sealed cover, by the by?” queried Rahim with curiosity.
“Are, bevakoof! Don’t risk your life by trying to probe,” the man said curtly. “You should do as instructed. And quietly. A small mistake, you are done with! Understand?”
“Oh, yes. Why should I bother about the contents, after all! I shall be happy if I am paid sufficiently for the work done,” Rahim tried to make amends.
“Good. Meet me after the show is over to collect your fee,” the man disconnected the phone.
It took Azeez a few seconds to recover after the phone went dead. The unexpected cross-talk which he had just heard had greatly baffled him. He mused over it. It took him some time to assimilate it. ‘Does the sealed envelope carry a secret?!’ he wondered. “No doubt, it certainly contains an important matter or a message!’ he told himself. The very thought had kindled his curiosity. Since he had the ‘code’ of the operation, he wanted to probe it. He decided to outwit Rahim, the operative, and steal the envelope… He consulted the watch. It was 6 pm. He had 2 hours still, to go to the place.
The much-awaited ‘phone call from his ‘contact’ was still elusive. He waited for an hour and decided to venture out. The call could wait. He had discarded his mobile phone before leaving Dubai for obvious reasons, and he did not acquire one to date. He tucked the leather suitcase under the cot and covered it with a bedsheet.
He changed into a white shirt and faded jeans and tucked it. Sporting dark glasses, he wore a felt hat… A sudden doubt had crossed his mind as he was about to leave. ‘Since he did not know how Rahim looked like, could he successfully impersonate him? What if the lady at the reception counter knows Rahim?’ It was just a fleeting thought which he had dismissed at once, as he was not averse to taking the risk.
Locking the room carefully, he walked out of the hotel and hailed a cab. It was 7-50 when Azeez reached the Maitrivan, the sprawling Municipal Corporation Building which was abuzz with commercial activity… The Dilshuk Bar was located in a broad lane between the Maitrivan and S.R. Nagar. The colourful neon signs and the lights of the bar could be seen from a distance.
Azeez walked slowly in the lane. He stopped in front of the Bar which looked quite busy and glanced at his watch. There were still 5 minutes to 8. Standing at the entrance, he peeped through the glass on the closed door. There was a buzz of activity inside. A pretty-faced, young Anglo-Indian girl was behind the reception counter. And she was alone.
Mustering courage, Azeez entered the bar and walked straight to the girl. She wished him with a charming smile and enquired gently what she could do for him.
“I want change for 2 thousand rupees,” Azeez said carefully observing her face and producing a hundred rupee note.
Suddenly the colour on her face had faded slightly even as she stared at him. Composing herself in a split second, she said with a smile, “Oh, sure, sir!” and accepted the note.
Azeez surveyed the bar through the corners of his eyes, while she was counting one-hundred rupee notes. The fear that Rahim might drop in anytime now, made him a little uneasy and urgent.
The lady placed before him the notes and a movie ticket. As he was collecting them she thrust into his hands an oblong size sealed envelope. He had put the money and the movie ticket in the pocket and tucked the envelope inside his shirt. He did not waste a minute thereafter. He hurried towards the exit. As Azeez opened the door, a craggy young man of around 30, forced himself in. He mumbled ‘sorry’ as he brushed against Azeez, and rushed towards the reception counter.
Azeez stopped outside and glanced through the glass. He saw the man talking to the girl at the counter, and her face paling. Azeez had no doubt that it was none other than Rahim. He should leave the place before the hell broke, Azeez told himself. He ran to the road and entered the lane beside the bar. He threw the hat into the drain nearby and tossed the specks away. Disturbing his hair to look unruly, he walked fast and turned into another lane that led to the main road. On reaching the main road, he jumped into a vacant auto that showed up.
As the auto headed towards Balanagar as instructed by him, he kept a discreet watch on the road behind in case he was being followed. He got off from the auto at Balanagar, crossed the road and boarded a city bus going in the opposite direction… Then he got down at Begumpet, and walked towards the railway station, making sure all the time that no one was shadowing him. There at the station, he bought a ticket for Falaknuma and boarded the MMTS train that arrived from Lingampally after 10 minutes.
Inside his shirt, the envelope had been touching his body all the time, jacking up his curiosity. He was longing to open it and see its contents but dared not to do so in the public. He was certain that it would unravel a mystery - some kind of ‘treasure’, or a clue that could lead to a ‘treasure’.
Azeez did not want to go straight to his hotel as it was too risky. For, by now, the game would have been blown out and Rahim and the gang must be scanning the whole city for the ‘fraudster’, with the description provided by the pretty one at the reception counter. Once it was known that the ‘envelope’ fell into wrong hands, all the hell would break… This was the reason why Azeez had chosen to use different modes of transport, going round, to reach his hotel.
Alighting the train at Falaknuma, Azeez did not head straight to the hotel. Instead, he went to a restaurant in the vicinity and spent some time there enjoying the Hyderabadi biryani which he missed all these years and the Irani chai that had become scarce these days. After some time he came out of the restaurant, surveyed the area with his eyes, and took an auto to Charminar. From there he walked leisurely towards Shalibunda. Having wandered aimlessly for about half-an-hour through the gullis, finally, he made it to his hotel. By then, it was past 11.
The 3-storeyed old hotel building had no lift. Climbing the stairs 2 at a time, Azeez reached his room on the second floor. As he climbed the stairs, the yearning to open the envelope grew even more. He was dying to open the envelope to unravel the secret inside. He felt the envelope with his fingers while unlocking the door.
As he entered the room and switched on the light, he found the Urdu eveninger, Khabar, lying on the floor. The hotel boy had pushed it inside through the gap under the door as usual. Azeez picked it up and was about to toss it on to the teapoy when the boxed item on the front page caught his eye. It was a news report printed in bold and colour under the heading -
‘Beware of high-tech burglars!’
He became curious and quickly went through the report. His face changed colours even as he read it.
The news report ran like this – ‘Of late the twin cities have been experiencing a new kind of burglaries, with high-tech thieves on the prowl. The ‘modus operandi’ of the gang is that it would first choose a vulnerable house of a probable victim who is staying all alone. Then they use technology to cause a ‘cross-talk’ over the victim’s landline. They talk about something interesting pretending to be using a code, thus inculcating curiosity and interest in the listeners of the ‘cross-talk’. As the telephones are notorious for their wrong calls and cross-talks, people would least suspect of any mischief. As the tricksters generally talked about a sealed envelope that is indirectly suggested to contain something important or a secret, the gullible and the greedy would fall easy prey to it. They try to lay their hands on the envelope hoping to reap an unknown windfall. As the victim ventures out on the mission at the appointed time, the gang would burgle the house at ease and make a clean sweep. By the time the cross-talk is found to be a hoax, it would be too late!
As several such incidents had come to their notice, the city Police have issued an alert and caution to the general public against falling prey to the high-tech burglars. The City Police Commissioner has urged the people to inform the Police Control Room at once whenever they came across such a cross-talk over their telephones…’
Azeez was stunned at the news report. Suddenly a bout of unease surged in him. He took out the envelope at once and opened it eagerly. It contained a light pink-coloured paper on which was written in black and bold – ‘GREED LEADS TO GRIEF…!’
Startled, he hurried to the cot and peeped under it... The leather suitcase was missing…!
His heart missed a beat, even as he collapsed into the chair.
Not one or two, 50-crore rupees worth of US dollars…disappeared into thin air!!
He felt like crying. He pulled his hair like a lunatic. ‘Who knew about the money? And how did they come to know??...’ were the questions that confronted him. His mind became numb as he was under utter shock.
He did not know how long he had remained motionless thus. The doorbell startled him and brought him to his feet. Assuming that it was the hotel boy, he opened the door.
And he had another shock of his life. The second one in a span of a few minutes.
The trio pushed themselves in, brushing Azeez aside. All of them – Saleem, Banerjee, and Pillai – carried pistols with them.
Azeez was dumb-founded as though he suffered a paralytic attack.
“You bloody betrayer! How dare you try to double-cross me!? You wanted to snatch away the entire loot, betraying our trust,” thundered Saleem furiously.
“You have killed Zubeda and ran away with the money. How could you be so sure that you could get away with it?” Banerjee fumed.
“You got us arrested by tipping off the police. You had assumed that that would be the end of us, eh?” Pillai was sharp as a knife.
Azeez trembled like a leaf. He wanted to say something. But the words did not come out as fear gripped him.
“At first we thought that Zubeda had double-crossed all of us. But we were puzzled when you were not picked up by the police. Later when Zubeda’s corpse was fished out of the bathtub of the hotel where you were supposed to stay, the entire picture had become crystal clear to us,” Saleem’s voice sounded harsh and cold-blooded. “We managed to escape from prison to teach you the lesson of your life. And it took us so long to trace you”.
“Bolo, Badmash! Kahaan chup rakhaa hai saare paise?” both Banerjee and Pillai demanded in chorus.
“The money…the suitcase…” Azeez mumbled incoherently as his voice did not cooperate with him.
“Tell me, you…the son-of-a-bitch! Where did you hide the money?” roared Saleem.
“Mujhe maaf kardo bhai!” Azeez could utter with great difficulty. “The money…was…stolen away…”
Saleem dealt a heavy blow on Azeez’s face. The latter stumbled backward at the impact. Blood oozed out of his nose, mouth, and lips. A couple of teeth had come out too.
“Mai sach bol rahaa hoon bhai! I am telling you the truth. Allah ka khasam!” Azeez’s voice sounded as if it was emerging from a deep well. “I made a mistake… Er, it was actually Zubeda’s idea…” He paused for a moment and said, “Burglars have stolen the entire money…just a while ago…”
Banerjee and Pillai who were scanning the room for the booty returned to Saleem.
“Saleem bhai! Don’t believe this pundaakore. He has stashed away the money elsewhere, and is trying to trick us once again,” they said bitterly.
Saleem’s cruel looks pierced through Azeez. Frightened, the latter pleaded with folded hands, “Nai, nai… Mai bilkul sach kah rahaan hoon, bhai!”
Saleem slapped him hard again. “Don’t you know, you bastard, that double-crossing Saleem is like cutting off your own throat?”
“Please Salim bhai! Please trust me…I shall tell you what had happened…” Azeez pleaded frantically, fearing for life.
As if in response, the pistols in the trio’s hands rose slowly…