The beautiful patch of Orchids, in the neighbourhood of Neeta’s Hyderabad home, was mysterious. Rich women were vanishing. Here’s a short story by Tapati, that unfolds the mystery, exclusively in Different Truths.
Neeta checked her watch, “Hurry up Vasu!” she started uttering a monologue in her mind narrating to unfold the mystery she was working on.
* * *
Neeta came to Hyderabad when Abhijit, her husband got a transfer here; Abhijit being a top government official, they stayed in the guesthouse for few days. After a week they were allotted a big bungalow in the posh Banjara Hills area. Neeta, an ardent nature-lover liked the spacious garden which accommodated her favorite plants nurtured over many years and still had ample place for new ones; more excitedly, next to her house was a lavish mansion of a famous industrialist who was also a passionate gardener. His garden was an amazing extravaganza to impress any onlooker. Neeta was keen to get an entry; but thinking of her husband’s position, she avoided. Watching from her third-floor terrace or through the windows, she especially admired the “Orchid corner” in her neighbourhood. Quite often new orchids with gorgeous blossoms were imported to enhance its beauty.
“It must have cost a fortune, beyond our reach”, Neeta sighed! But luckily she managed to hire Raghu, the same gardener who worked in her posh neighbourhood; the only minus point was that he was to take frequent unannounced leave whenever any new orchids would arrive.
“My neighbour is a fanatic, mad after expensive orchids!” — Neeta murmured.
* * *
After children had left for school and Abhijit for his office, Neeta was browsing the newspapers. Her cell started buzzing. The caller’s familiar voice was a big surprise, “Hi, Vasu calling!”
“Vasu! What are you doing here?”
“The same question I would ask! Being DIG in the police, this is my area and it is my duty to check who is coming in or going out!”
“You are the still the same! No change at all!”
“But I must complain that you entered Hyderabad so discretely without informing me! When did you arrive?”
“A few weeks back; everything happened so suddenly. Did your informers not tell you?”
“They are meant for criminals!” Both laughed while enjoying the teasing.
“Please come to my place in the evening. Do I need to invite your Husband especially?”
“No, it’s okay. We’ll come over”.
* * *
The evening started recounting their old memories. Vasu and Neeta were childhood buddies, hailing from UP.
“As a child, she thought she was a boy and used to bully other boys. Being the first daughter born in the house in many generations Neeta turned into a bossy little lady. Does she do the same even today?”
“That she is even now,” Abhijit agreed.
Vasu and Neeta graduated from the Allahabad United College. Both were close friends; being voracious readers, they preferred being in the library, reading, not classroom books but fictions of different nature while skipping lectures. Neeta was hooked to detective and crime thrillers her favorite authors being Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton, Edgar Allan Poe and Satyajit Ray. But that resulted in her being quite often teased by the boys: “Are you going to be a detective, foraying into male domains?”
“Any problem if I become a detective end up chasing one of you guys becoming criminal?” She had mockingly answered.
“Even now she loves to do a cop act as a hobby when called as a private detective to solve cases, and she has been brilliant!” Abhijit was basking with pride.
“Is it? Then don’t share all your secrets otherwise someday you will be in gallows chased by her.” Vasu winked though being pinched by Neeta as she did in their childhood days.
The evening progressed with fun and talks galore.
Suddenly the phone started ringing; Vasu took the call: “Once again? Which area?”
The conversation went on for few minutes. Vasu came back on his sofa. Neeta observed worry lines on his forehead.
“Is anything wrong?” She asked.
Vasu’s wife smiled: “The life of a cop is full of problems, robberies, murders, kidnappings, rapes, what not! We have become used to it. Just relax! Like to have some more drinks?”
But Vasu, looking at curious glances of Neeta, explained, “Recently, a new sort of kidnapping is taking place! Ladies from high society and also call girls are just vanishing into thin air! No trace, no clues! Just now the call came from an influential man that his wife is not traceable! Another mysterious disappearance!”
Anyway, the evening ended well with sumptuous snacks and food and the children also enjoyed together.
* * *
Next morning after Abhijit left for his office, Neeta was basking in the sun in her new terrace garden wondering about the missing lady she heard of at Vasu’s place: “how is it possible!” Suddenly distracted by her neighbour’s greenery she was awed by the vibrant orange flowers of one newly planted orchid: “Wonderful! Wherefrom does he get them!”
Now Neeta started getting jealous. She spotted her neighbour walking in his orchid corner, enjoying his well-manicured garden. She ran down to meet him….What was his name on the name plate? “Sharma’s Residence”. She recollected.
“Good morning Sharmaji, you have a beautiful garden!” Neeta greeted.
Encouraged by his reciprocal charming smile, she pointed to the new orchid, trying to be friendly: “Your orchids are beautiful ones! I admire your aesthetic sense!”
Raising his brows, Mr. Sharma gave a grim stare: “It takes a lot of pain and labour. I have to ensure the right kind of nutrients, the organic manures, the bone meal etc. at the right time.”
He signaled and his driver took him away in the Mercedes waiting on the porch without showing any hint of friendliness or courtesy to the new neighbour. Neeta returned to her chair, disappointed with her friendly attempts being ignored.
* * *
Few months passed. Now Neeta and her family got used to the lifestyle of Hyderabad. Neeta’s pastime was gardening, reading the daily newspapers with detailed look at the crime page and visiting Vasu’s family. She missed her group of friends she had in Bangalore. Now, every morning she sits in the terrace and enviously, adores the neighbouring orchids. Also, she observed a fair lady mostly in blue saris watering the Tulsi plant at one corner of the garden and praying at dusk as she lit a lamp at the Tulsi-Manch, a daily ritual. Neeta appreciated the awesome shades of blue she wore, but surprised at the same time at the sharp contrast of this ritual and the culture of the mansion.
Every weekend there were glitzy parties, big swanky cars arrived and elegant ladies emerged showing off their glittering diamonds making it a glossy affair. Popular beats continued loudly with foot tapings while fun-making, laughter and brews flew in abundance and beautiful crystals and imported cutleries added to the glitter. Witnessing these merry-making scenes, Neeta’s envy grew as she started missing her circle of friends.
These days even Vasu was having hectic time trying to solve the mystery of the missing high-profile ladies which remained unsolved. In fact, every Sunday dawned with traumatic news of fresh disappearances adding to his worries.
* * *
One morning as the lady in her blue came out, Neeta decided to start a friendship. She smiled and wished her and the lady, in turn, smiled back, a friendly smile, unlike her husband.
“I am Neeta, your new neighbour for the last few months.” Neeta introduced herself.
“I am Tulsi,” she smiled through her beautifully curved lips: “Why don’t you come over?” She invited Neeta through a small opening near the back door; both started talking sitting in one of the marble benches on the lawn.
Neeta became over-friendly: “Tulsi is a nice name!”
“No, my real name is Vrinda; but, my mother-in-law fondly called me Tulsi; she only taught me to worship the Tulsi plant; this is her gift!” she showed her beautiful pendant depicting a Tulsimanch with a plant etched on it.
“Wow, Beautiful!” After some time Neeta came back, but with their daily meeting and chatting both became good friends.
* * *
This Sunday was no different with the news of another missing lady, Neeta called Vasu: “I can help if I rekindle my detective’s brain?”
Vasu answered: “So you are gearing up for a cop act now? Don’t get into troubled murky water of this new city,” he sounded perturbed.
“If you are free, why don’t you join us for dinner?” Neeta requested.
“Nope, Neeta, next time”, Vasu sounded worried.
* * *
It was the following Saturday night. The neighbourhood party ended around midnight. Abhijit was out of town, scheduled to return next morning. Children were sleeping in their room. Neeta felt restless, sleep eluding her. She got up and came to the balcony – it was a lovely moonlit night.
Suddenly, loud screams and shouts from her neighbourhood ruptured the serene silence of the beautiful night. A lady’s voice screeched, crying aloud: “What have you done with Nisha, my young niece?”
“Don’t stir up the issue, Leela, my darling! I love you so much!” Isn’t it the voice of Sharmaji, her rich neighbour?
“Don’t mess up with me! I’ll tell the world how you have allured ladies and dumped them!” the lady shouted. “I’ll expose you are a playboy, flash it in the media! Even I know some influential people around!” Leela became frenzied.
“Are you threatening me?”
“Did I not help you to keep your deadly secret and create the bed of orchids, you murderer, a criminal!”
“Don’t try to be over smart, Leela!”
Another female voice interrupted the loud fight: “Sharmaji, What is going on? I always knew of your illicit relationships. Now I hear – you are a murderer, a criminal?” It was Tulsi’s voice to protest.
“How dare you spy on me?”
“But you have crossed all limits!”
“Shut up! … And forever!”
“You stabbed her! No, not me, spare me, please!” Leela screamed hysterically.
“Sorry, darling! Can’t spare an eyewitness!” The male voice shrieked and an eerie silence followed.
Neeta could hear every knee-jerk word—a chilling shiver went down her spine; with a flash of horror, she got into her room hurriedly, by mistake banging the door behind; sitting on her bed she could see a torch light trying to locate the source of the banging sound. In horror, she kept awake the whole night: “Should I call Vasu? Let me wait till morning!”
She rang up Vasu at the crack of dawn narrating her spooky nightmare. Vasu was out of town but assured: “Hmmm, these things keep on happening in so called high society! I’ll look into after I return.”
The Sunday morning was dull. The gardener was absent; in the neighbourhood, she spotted two more new orchids were planted, one with an exquisite blue blossom. For a moment, the amazing shades of blue saris of Tulsi flashed in her mind! She tried to forget the last night’s incident, hiding it from her husband and children, they will be unnecessarily scared. Even her friend Tulsi was absent.
The gardener came after a week; Neeta enquired about Tulsi: “Madamji had left last week for Shimla, her father, a cancer patient, was not well and Sharmaji left for some foreign country.”
Neeta’s family was in a hurry to visit a nearby national park; Raghu pleaded: “Madam, are you going out? Can you please give me a lift near the park you are going?”
* * *
They dropped Raghu near a farm house; at the entrance was a newly erected pillar with “Tulsi-Van” written on it. Apprehensive Neeta asked for a glass of water to ensure almost a forced entry inside; her detective mind was at work! Inside were only tender Tulsi plants around the posh cottage. As she looked curious, the gardener said: “All these are in the memory of my Madamji!”
“But she is in Shimla, so why in her memory?” She became suspicious.
“Sharmaji loves her so much!” the gardener looked nervous trying to hide his mistake.
Neeta’s family left and proceeded towards their weekend destination.
* * *
Almost two weeks passed. Neeta could see there was nobody to water the Tulsi plant of her friend; as it wilted slowly. “Sharmaji loves his wife. So I will surprise him with a new Tulsi plant – this may change his alien attitude towards us” – Neeta thought. Next day, before sunrise when her family was still asleep and so were the guards at her neighbour’s front gate, she grabbed a fresh Tulsi sapling and entered her neighbour’s garden through the small gap near the back door, her familiar entrance. As she started digging the hard soil, her finger touched something metallic. Curious! She fast removed the soil and found a small bronze casket. Without losing courage she planted the new Tulsi plant and ran back fast with the box. Holding her breath she opened it to discover a blood stained knife, covered fully with dried blood in different hues of red, pitch black, blackish red, maroon, dark red, some are bright, looking fresh! And the gem-studded pendant with Tulsi-Manch!
She took out the blue silken scarf gifted by Tulsi and wrapped the knife to avoid any finger print and called: “Vasu, I’ve some clue! Meet me at Starbucks immediately!”
* * *
Vasu came rushing. Neeta unfolded the panorama of serial killings of vanishing ladies and handed over the knife for DNA test: “We must check the bed of orchids!” she was almost certain about the latest blue orchid, the shade Tulsi was fond of.
Suddenly her daughter called up: “Next door uncle has returned and asking abusively who planted the new Tulsi plant! Mummy, please come back fast.”
She returned and Vasu did the rest, unveiling the mystery; hidden beneath the orchids’ bed were carcasses of the vanishing ladies. Handcuffed Sharmaji and Raghu boarded the police van staring sternly at Neeta.
* * *
After few days, while sipping hot coffee at Neeta’s terrace garden, Vasu explained: “Psychopaths and sociopaths are social monsters. A psychopath shows lack of patience, impulsiveness while a sociopath plans his crimes to the minutest detail, taking calculated risks. The smart ones leave few clues towards being caught, making fewer mistakes. They hide among us sometimes as the most successful charismatic people; they’re superficially charming having no regard for others’ feelings like Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, Norman bates in Psycho and Annie Wilkes in Misery. Do you recall?”
“It was beyond my wildest imagination. My paranoid neighbour was behind the mystery of vanishing ladies, committing this heinous crime months after months, pretending to be a nature lover, a good humanitarian involved with many charitable organizations; being a famous business magnate, his charming face frequently flashed in newspapers.” Neeta’s mind whirled around the web of bizarre incidents over the weeks as she glanced at the beautiful orchids ruefully! They were not so beautiful anymore!
Photos from the Internet.
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