“The police say the face had been mutilated with a serrated knife after she was killed. How frightful!” said Sultana Mishra, fanning herself vigorously with her small, pink handkerchief.
Zeba shivered under the light of her desk lamp. She held up a hand to stop the cosmetician from applying foundation on her cheeks. She sat up to face Mrs.Mishra.
“That is so terrible! Poor Heera. You know, I talked to her on the phone only last week! And now...” she said, her voice fearful.
“Yes, yes. You were old friends, no? I heard that the two of you got into movies from the same casting company,” Replied Mrs.Mishra, her round body fidgeting on the couch as she adjusted her large frame. Though the Air Conditioner was in full blast, a thin line of sweat dribbled down her large forehead, and she mopped it with her handkerchief as she spoke.
Zeba lay back on her chair, her eyes seemingly vacant. “Yes, we knew each other,” She said quietly.
There was silence for a while as Mrs.Mishra checked her cell phone for messages, the many rings on her fingers gleaming and winking as the light caught them. Zeba felt the brush pass gently over her cheeks, the unmistakeable scent of thick makeup invading her nose as the burly cosmetician worked on her face. She risked a glance at his face and shuddered inwardly.
“The man looks like a criminal,” She thought, and immediately hated herself or thinking so. Never judge people by appearances alone, her father had told her. But she was helpless in this case. With his swarthy moustache and big, bulky body, the man looked like one of those thugs you find as a movie villain’s right-hand man. He had a nasty scar down one side of his face, and when he opened his mouth to speak in his guttural voice, Zeba noticed he had brown, crooked teeth.
“Foundation ok, madam?” he said, holding up a small, handheld mirror in front of her face and tilting it, so Zeba could see what he had done. She nodded to say it was fine. The man put the foundation brush down and started to apply concealer, and Zeba stared at thick veins on his muscled arms, and suddenly felt very weak.
“When does shooting start today?” asked Mrs.Mishra, smiling down at Zeba.
“Oh, let me see,” she said, and took out her cell phone, going through her agenda. “It’s at 4 pm. About 3 hours to go, I think.”
“It is going well, I presume? Is the director giving you a hard time?” Said Mrs.Mishra. She was almost fifty years old, twenty years older than Zeba, but her boisterous nature and talent for gossip had made her something of a legend both on the screen and behind it. She had been a late starter, shooting to fame only in the last couple of years or so. Jovial and supporting, Zeba liked her very much.
“No, no, Mrs.Mishra. He’s a nice person.” She said, smiling. The cosmetician was applying blush now, and Zeba watched her cheeks grow steadily pinker with each stroke the brush made.
“If you say so.” Laughed Mrs.Mishra again as she started to get up. “I have to go. I have a meeting with my agent in half an hour.” She said. She gripped the armrest and stood up slowly. She adjusted her sari and took a quick look in the mirror to see if her makeup had come undone. Apparently satisfied, she turned to Zeba.
“You’ll watch out for knife-wielding lunatics, won’t you?” she said, her voice genuinely concerned.
Zeba gulped. She had temporarily forgotten about Heera’s murder. “Of course, yes,” She said. For a moment, Zeba thought that the cosmetician’s hand trembled a little. She looked sharply at his face, but it was devoid of any emotion, his dark eyes fixed on her face.
Mrs.Mishra nodded and walked out of the door. Zeba let out a long sigh and gripped the sides of her chair tightly. She felt extremely uncomfortable around this man and vowed to have him replaced the next day. She let her thoughts wander, and it latched on to the subject she had tried to keep out all morning.
Zeba suddenly felt tears fill her eyes and blinked them back before the cosmetician could notice. Heera had been her best friend when she started out at the casting company ten years ago. Heera, Vidya and Zeba. The Three Musketeers, everybody had called them. They had been inseparable.
And now Heera is gone, thought Zeba sadly. For a moment, she wondered if it had anything to do with that incident. Impossible. She told herself. It had been well covered up. Nobody could know. But it didn’t stop her from trembling a little as she thought about the horror of it.
A body hanging from a fan. Swaying slightly, two pale legs from under a plain, pink nightgown, a head with its chin on its neck, and long, flowing black hair, obscuring her beautiful face.
“Death by suffocation, is what it says in the doctor’s report,” Vidya had said, the day after Priya’s body had been found. The girls were in their room.
“That’s what it says, and that’s how it will stay. It isn’t our fault she killed herself. We didn’t force her into the noose.”
Zeba never believed it.
The three of them had gotten minor roles in a movie barely a month later and went their separate ways, shedding many tears and promising to write. They had never spoken to each other again. Zeba wondered whether Vidya knew about Heera’s death when she was jolted back to reality by the cosmetician patting her shoulder.
“Madam...madam.” he called.
She shook herself from her reverie and looked at him. His scar seemed to glint in the lamplight, giving his face a surreal look. “I have to go out a bit, madam. The makeup should settle before I apply the next layer. Will you please wait for ten minutes? I will be back right away.” He said, his tongue clicking slightly as he spoke, his face still impassive.
Zeba blinked a couple of times, taking in his words as she stared at his evil-looking scar. “Oh, yes. Yes, of course. Be quick.” She said and folded her arms.
“Thank you, thank you, madam. Please wait here.” He said and rushed out of the door. Zeba listened as the squelch-squelch sound of his sandals faded away. She sighed again and looked around the room for a magazine to read, and her eyes fell on a cell phone. It was a cheap phone, equipped with a camera. A thrill of surprise coursed through her veins. This must be the cosmetician’s phone!
Her hands trembled as he switched it on. She knew it was an invasion of his privacy, but the tension was too much to bear. Her fingers shook as the phone booted up, displaying a simple wallpaper of Lord Ganesh. She pressed the menu button and entered the images folder. The first picture made her gasp. It was a bloody knife. It had a serrated edge, and it shone with blood, a couple of droplets frozen in the act of dripping from it. She dropped the phone in horror, and stood up shakily, her legs trembling.
“Madam...?” came a low voice from the door. Zeba looked up in terror.
The cosmetician was standing there, his eyes looking at her, and then at the phone on the ground, putting two and two together. He scowled, and it made his scar twist and turn, as he gritted his teeth and stared at her.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” He said quietly. His hands had balled themselves into fists, and he slowly approached her.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” He repeated, and as he moved, Zeba almost fainted at what she saw in his pant pocket.
A knife with a serrated edge. It was half tucked into his pockets, but a good four inches still jutted out, attached to a blood-red handle. He took a couple of steps towards her, and his hand reached out. All this time, Zeba had stood frozen and now, she snapped back to reality.
With a scream, she pushed him away and ran towards the open door, grabbing at her cell phone. He grunted as he lost balance and went crashing into the makeup kit.
Zeba fled down the corridor, her legs pumping as she looked this way and that for someone, anyone who could help her. But of course, no one had come yet. The shooting wasn’t supposed to start for a good 3 hours. She had come early to practice her lines.
She raced down some stairs, whipping out her cell phone to call the police. It was off. She pressed the power button with all her might, but it was of no use. The batteries were dead. She flung the phone in despair as she leapt off the staircase and landed hard on the floor. The man’s heavy footfalls were right behind her!
Suddenly, she remembered what floor this was. This was where the storage room was! She ran towards it and twisted the doorknob as hard as she could. The door opened and she flung herself inside, just a strong hand clamped her shoulder. He had got her! He squeezed hard, and she wriggled herself out of his grip, not before he had torn off a big chunk of her t-shirt. She tried to close the door behind her, but he was too strong. He pushed her hard, and she tripped as she fell hard to the ground.
It’s over. She thought. They were both breathing heavily, Zeba on the floor, and the cosmetician standing over her. He was bent double, letting out his breath in long wheezes. There was only a dim bulb in the entire corridor. The lights in the storage room were out. Zeba pushed herself back and tried to scream, but no sound came out. Her hands clutched at papers strewn on the floor.
The man seemed to regain his breath and he stood straight. He seemed very tall now. His eyes were boring into her, glinting with malice. “You almost escaped there, madam,” He said, grinning now. He took out the blade from his pocket. It was about 7 inches long, and he wielded it expertly.
“Now, there is something you need to know about this,” he said, still grinning as he raised the knife. Zeba closed her eyes and waited for the end.
Zeba’s eyes flew open. The man was still standing, his hand still held the knife, but his eyes were wide open. His legs were shaking as he started at Zeba, his face contorted into a grimace. “Ah...” he moaned. CLANG.
He dropped the knife. It hit the floor and bounced away. He clutched the back of his head with both hands and went down on his knees, his mouth open in a silent scream, as Zeba understood what had happened.
Sultana Mishra stood behind him, her eyes wild, wielding a long iron rod as she breathed hard, her arms poised to attack. The cosmetician fell to the floor in agony, writhing and shaking. He rolled this way and that, and finally lay still.
Mrs.Mishra dropped the rod. She walked up to the man and checked his pulse. Her face was impassive as she looked at Zeba and mouthed dead. Zeba got up and flung herself onto Mrs.Mishra, crying and thanking her, as she slowly stroked Zeba’s hair.
“There, there. It’ll be alright. It’ll be alright,” she was saying soothingly.
“You sit here. I’ve got some medication in my purse. It’s right outside. I’ll go get it and call the police. Don’t look at him, dear.” Zeba nodded, still sobbing. Mrs.Mishra got up and walked around the corpse, her footsteps echoing in the eerie silence of the room.
Suddenly, there was a beep, and an automated voice said “New voicemail for you. Playing now.” Zeba stared blankly. Apparently, the man’s voicemail had been activated somehow when he had fallen. A mellow voice filled the room. It sounded like a young man.
“Hello, there. I’ve managed to get you the part of the villain’s sidekick. Shooting starts at ten tomorrow. Remember to bring the toy knife to the set. It needs to have a serrated edge, mind you. Ciao!” Zeba listened to it quietly. Surely, she hadn’t heard him right. Toy knife with a serrated edge? She slowly turned and looked at the man’s knife which had fallen as Mrs.Mishra had hit him. She reached out and grasped it by the handle. She pulled it towards her and felt the tip.
It was made of rubber. Zeba dropped the knife in horror. It was a fake knife. Then the man had not been a murderer after all! He was probably running after me to explain that it was a toy! What have I done? She thought. Tears fell silently down her cheeks and onto the papers which were on the floor.
The cell phone light had illuminated them, and Zeba saw that they were newspapers. Then, she saw something she couldn’t believe. There was a picture of Mrs.Mishra in the newspaper. But with some notable differences. She was much slimmer, looked younger. In the distance, Zeba heard the sounds of a door being locked.
Zeba read the date on the newspaper. It was dated almost ten years previously. She started to read it, and by the time she finished, her hands were shaking so badly, she dropped the paper.
"SUICIDE IN THE CITY!!!"
“There has been a suicide in the city’s most famous casting company. A young aspirant named Priya Kumar was found hanging in her room. Foul play was immediately denied by the police, but they also refused to comment on the fact that the girl might have been ragged by three other girls. Given below is a picture of the girl’s mother, Mrs. Sultana Kumar (nee Mishra), who is an actress in travelling shows. Mrs. Kumar had lost her husband a year ago in a car accident and was in a state of total loss as she was handed over her daughter’s body by the hospital...”
Zeba put a shaking hand to her mouth. No... she thought. She opened her mouth to scream, but was cut short as a thin wire was looped around her neck from the back, and Sultana Kumar started to squeeze.
“No way out,” she whispered hoarsely.
Zeba’s legs were flailing as she brought both hands to the wire and tried to tug on it. But the wire was too slim, and the strength in her arms was slowly fading.
“She sent me a letter before she died, you know. She told me what foul, evil things the three of you did to her. You drove her to suicide.” She said as the wire tightened, drawing blood from her neck. “Die. Die like my daughter died.”
Zeba’s efforts to fight back were becoming more laboured. Her arms felt numb, and she felt pain like never before. The thrashing of her legs slowed considerably and stopped all at once. Zeba never moved again.
Sultana slipped the wire off Zeba’s neck and placed it in her purse. Then, she picked up a knife with a serrated edge from it and started to go to work on Zeba’s face.
“The police say Zeba’s face had been mutilated with a serrated knife after she was killed. How frightful!” said Sultana Mishra, her eyes wide.
Vidya Sharma shivered as she listened to Sultana’s accounts of Zeba and Heera’s deaths. For a moment, she thought if it could be related to that incident.
Of course not. It has to be a coincidence. She thought as her cosmetician applied blush on her cheeks, and she caught a glimpse of Sultana Mishra staring resolutely at her face, smiling slightly as if imagining it in a different way.