As if to put a stop to their discussion,
the ‘boys’, Anuj and Anant just walked over. Anuj, Anant, Alka and Anju were classmates
in school. Anuj and Anju were first cousins, but could easily pass off as
twins, due to their close sibling like bond. Anant and Anju, who joined the same
engineering college after graduating from school, had grown quite close to each
other, after Anuj moved to Australia to pursue his graduation. Alka, who was
pursuing her BA in psychology in the famous MH College, ended up becoming a
holiday adjunct. Anju called her a poor little rich kid, as Alka had lost her
mother as a child, and her father, who had remarried and now had a family of
his own, showered her with plenty of money, but little love.
It was early June and Anuj had come home
for summer; the four, along with Anant’s cousin, Anusha, who had come from a
village in Tamil Nadu to pursue her BAMS, were at the mall, ‘chilling’.
“We did not get the tickets for the 2 PM
show guys,” Anant announced, “so we instead picked up the tickets for the five
PM show. Let us grab some lunch and roam around the mall instead. We probably
can visit the house of horrors where Anusha worked for a short while”, he
added. Before the girls could say anything, Anusha quickly paled and said, “Let
us please not got there, that place is haunted. There have been deaths”. “Is
that so? Then let us all go together and meet the ghosts”, said Anuj
laughingly, before pointing out that it was almost 1:00 PM and they’d better
move over to the food court.
At the escalator, Anusha stopped,
hesitating. She somehow was still not comfortable riding them. Laughing at her
discomfiture, Alka gave her a push from behind. An already wobbling Anusha fell
awkwardly, hit her head and collapsed in a heap.
Anuj quickly rushed to her rescue.
Thankfully, Anusha was not badly hurt except for a bruise on her forehead and
some lacerations on her palms which she used to fend her fall. Her dress had
gotten torn and her bead bracelet broke, with beads strewn all over. Anusha knelt
down, and began gathering those beads, tears streaming down her face. Ignoring
her protests, they quickly helped her to her feet, and took her to the MI room.
The doctor at the MI room who seemed to
know Anusha well, did a quick check, dressed her wounds and prescribed her some
pain medication. The nurse at the MI room was a friend of Anusha’s. She took
Anusha and went off to the chemist’s shop to pick up the medicines. Anju
dragged Alka with herself to the pick up a dress for Anusha, while the boys
moved over to a shop aptly named ‘Crazy Costumes’,
Alka was unrepentant. “You don’t understand
Anju”, she burst out, “Anusha is not all she seems. She is coy and all, but secretly
has the ‘hots’ for Anant. Now that she knows Anant and you are a pair, she is
throwing herself at Anuj. Have you seen that ridiculous red and black necklace
and bracelet? They are made of seeds. See, I even picked up a couple!” She held
out her hand. Ignoring the bright red and black seeds or beads, Anju said
firmly, “I know about her feelings for Anant. Anant does not reciprocate them.
He thinks of her as a sister. I am sure, given some time, she will get over
them and move on. Her feelings and fashion sense, however do not justify your
mean act at the escalator, Alka”.
The five of them met at the food court on
the top floor, where both the movie theatre and the fabled ‘House of Horrors’
were located. Being connoisseurs of South Indian food, Anju and Anant went and
stood in the line for the famous South Indian snack thali, while Anuj walked
over to the pizza counter to order his pizza and Alka sashayed over to the
dingy, dark health foods counter at the corner. Anusha excused herself and
moved to the nearest washroom to change into the new attire that Anju picked up
for her. Soon the five were busy gobbling a hearty shared lunch that comprised
of pizza slices, dosas, idlis and salad.
Alka took a sip of her ‘health drink’, made
a face and said, “It tastes ugh! I can’t have it. Can I share your cold coffee
instead?” “Of course”, replied Anuj with a display of false magnanimity, “you
can take a sip from each of our glasses Alka.
In any case, you never have more than a few sips of any drink”. Anusha
who was sitting quietly till then, said very seriously, “how can people waste
food and drink. Don’t they realize the hard work involved? The amount of
resources it takes to grow all the ingredients? The amount of effort that went
into the preparation of this juice?” Before Anju or Anant could make any
pacifying statement, Alka caught the barb and snapped out, “In that case, why
don’t you drink it. You definitely seem to be in the need of some energy”.
Seeing Anusha’s hesitant and shocked glance, she grabbed the opportunity and
went, “Yeah, now that it comes to you, where has all your idealism gone? Or is
this poisonous drink meant for me? You behaved almost like you prepared it -
the effort that went in, the resources it takes, and blah!” Alka’s mocking
words and condescending tone snapped something inside Anusha; she picked up the
glass and emptied the evil looking concoction in a single gulp. Anuj whistled
aloud and said “Anusha one – Alka zero”!!
Alka stood there looking stumped for a few
moments, before gathering her wits and retorting, “yeah, big deal. If she wants
to consume her own poison, let her. After all, if I remember right, she did
work in that health-foods counter for some time”. Let us now go to the
‘haunted’ ‘House of Horrors’. Let us see who has stronger guts. Anusha first
dawdled, but agreed. The five of them walked over, picked up the tickets and
‘entered’ the ‘House’.
It seemed derelict, except for a pair of
lovers, who were making out in a dark corner. They walked past the hooded
figures, opening coffins, screaming skeletons, locomotive ‘zombies’, walking
suit of armour, giggling and teasing each other and reached the exit; at the exit, Anju turned around and noticed
that Anuj was no longer there with them. After waiting for a couple of minutes
for him to come out, Alka suggested that they went inside and brought him out.
“He probably found a girl to fondle. We can’t wait forever while he is busy
enjoying himself,” she added. Anusha excused herself, saying that she was feeling
a bit unwell. She went on sat on the nearby bench, while the other three retraced
their way back into the ‘house’. Just as the four of them were going past the
‘zombies’, one of them rushed over and grabbed Alka from behind.
Alka let out a loud scream, extracted
herself out and ran out of the ‘house’ like a crazy maniac. The ‘zombie’, who
actually was Anuj in disguise, quickly removed the mask and the overalls and
ran along with the others towards exit, laughing. The sight that met them at
the exit, was comical. Alka had crouched down there, shivering and rambling, in
a state of delirium. She refused to be calmed by Anuj’s ministrations and
insisted that she was in a great pain and wanted to go home to her mummy.
Ignoring her protests, they literally dragged her to the movie theatre. At the
entrance of the theatre, they realized that Anusha had not tagged along with
them and they had forgotten all about her. Anuj who went back to bring Anusha
along, found her slumped on the bench, choking and frothing from her mouth.
The four, with the help of the mall
authorities, immediately called for an ambulance and rushed Anusha to the
hospital. By the time they reached, Anusha’s condition was so bad, that she had
to be rushed to the ICU, where the doctor quickly inserted the tube into her
stomach through her mouth, administered activated charcoal, polyethylene glycol
and did gastric lavage. He then quickly got the contents of her stomach
analysed, ascertained the toxin and quickly administered the appropriate antitoxins.
Anusha’s condition stabilized, but she
stayed unconscious and critical. When the doctor came out of the ICU, the four
along with Anju’s father and Anant’s parents, who had reached the hospital by
then, crowded around him. The details given by the doctors came as a shock to
all. A concoction of belladonna fruits and leaves, along with finely ground
rosary seeds and oleander kernel were found in Anusha’s stomach. “She
thankfully consumed it after a heavy meal. Else, she would have been dead by
now”, he added.
On hearing the words ‘rosary seeds’, Anju
gave a start and looked at Alka – the bracelet that Anusha wore, was made of
rosary seeds and it did have an oleander kernel as a charm. She immediately
asked Alka where the seeds she had picked up were. When Alka looked a bit
nonplussed and told her that she threw them away, while waiting for her health
drink, Alka’s mind took a double-take. It was Alka who got the drink that
possibly contained the poison.
Anant, who seemed to have caught on to the
same idea, asked Alka dubiously, “Are you sure you threw those seeds away and
did not get them included in the drink?” Alka paled on hearing Anant’s
question. “Why would I do that? Why would I get something obnoxious included in
my drink? Wait, a minute! Are you by any chance insinuating that I got the
drink for Anusha and tried to kill her? Why should I do that? Why on earth would
I want to kill that miserably crazy girl,” she wailed.
Anju’s father, Mr Mathur, an IG of Police,
calmed everyone down. “I am sure it must have been an accident. Let us not go
about accusing each other and spoil the situation further. Anuj, I suggest you
take Alka and drop her back home,” he said, in a strong authoritative voice
that brooked no argument. Anuj looked nonplussed, but complied
After they left, he took Anju aside and
asked her, if she could come with him to the Mall. “I want to get to the bottom
of this matter as soon as possible. I do not want the happiness of you
youngsters marred due to any misunderstandings”, he added.
At the mall, they quickly went through the
CCTV footage. Alka’s claim that she threw the seeds turned out to be false. The
footage clearly showed her handing over the seeds to the person at the health-food
On Anju's father's request, the mall management called that person down to the CCTV room and questioned him regarding the
same. He looked surprised. “Yes, I found those red and black beads pretty. The
lady was playing with them while waiting for the order to be delivered. She
readily gave them to me, when I asked for them. I have them right here, in my
pockets.” He then explained that he merely took the orders for the drinks and
entered them into the system. The ‘drink maker’ reads the orders, on the
large screen in the kitchen, makes the drinks and places them on the kitchen window,
for him to simply collect and serve. “The drink maker and I hardly interact,
sir, except when there is a delay. Even then, I just give a missed call to her.
You see sir, she is expecting, and hence goes to the restroom quite often”, he
clarified. He confirmed that he saw Alka for the first time, that day, and
definitely did not know her from before.
Mr Mathur and Anju visited the counter, the
kitchen and the workers’ restroom area. The kitchens and the restrooms were
segregated from the general mall area, to ensure that the workers, cooks and
the others could work and rest without being disturbed or disturbing the
visitors or the shoppers. The area even had lockers, shower rooms and couches
for the comfort of the workers. Mr Mathur noticed that the area did not have
any CCTV cameras, advised the Mall management to get the same installed, took
their leave and drove back to the hospital.
At the hospital, they learnt that Anusha
had regained consciousness and had been moved to a private ward. Smiling in
relief, Anju ran into the ward; Mr Mathur followed her, with a grave expression
on his face. Inside the ward, he found Anant and his parents around Anusha’s
bed. Their expressions indicated that they were unhappy about the whole affair.
They clearly still suspected Alka. Ignoring their angry expressions, Mr Mathur
went straight to Anant, and said, “Anant, it was not Alka who made that
poisonous drink. It was someone else. You would be shocked if I tell you. The
guy at the counter saw that person mixing the drink”. Before Anant could
answer, Anusha gave a start. “That is not possible; he is lying! He was too
busy chatting up with that female Alka”, she blurted out.
Anant’s expression muddled for a second,
before comprehension and wrath took over. “How could you, Anusha? And Why?” he
asked, his voice reduced to a shocked whisper. Anusha burst into tears, “Because
that girl is a real menace. She is a bully. She hurt me and made fun of my love
for you; she made fun of our traditions; that rotter deserves to die”, she bawled.
Before Anant could answer, his mother
butted in. “Anusha, the girl is a bully, I agree; she did hurt you; I also
dislike her for disrespecting our traditions; but by plotting her murder, you
proved that you are the real rotten menace! I am ashamed of calling you my
niece”, she said, her eyes flashing.
On Anju's father's request, the mall management called that person down to the CCTV room and questioned him regarding the same. He looked surprised. “Yes, I found those red and black beads pretty. The lady was playing with them while waiting for the order to be delivered. She readily gave them to me, when I asked for them. I have them right here, in my pockets.” He then explained that he merely took the orders for the drinks and entered them into the system. The ‘drink maker’ reads the orders, on the large screen in the kitchen, makes the drinks and places them on the kitchen window, for him to simply collect and serve. “The drink maker and I hardly interact, sir, except when there is a delay. Even then, I just give a missed call to her. You see sir, she is expecting, and hence goes to the restroom quite often”, he clarified. He confirmed that he saw Alka for the first time, that day, and definitely did not know her from before.