WANTED: Victim

“Victim needed. Woman. Age 30. Natural Burgundy hair. 5ft 6inces. Sharp nose. Fair skin. Distressed by depression. Euthanasia free of cost. Wait in front of the Shyambazar metro station’s 2nd gate at 6 AM sharp, on the coming wednesday, with a weapon of your choice, with your name engraved on it. Most importantly, it’ll be on a first come first serve basis. See you.”

Under the job section, on the 7th page of the Kolkata’s Daily Dose, once again, there’s the same advertisement. Twice in 2 weeks. This is kind of unsettling.

It’s a Tuesday, the 5th of December, and the wintry wind is swarming through the big window with the empty beer bottles lining the ledge, with the warm coffee mug, pressed on my lips, as I take in the aroma of it and my, just lit Marlboro Red. I’m sitting in front of our shared desk space, which by the way, my roommate hardly ever uses. She is one of those who apparently get their inspiration by bending their spines by working on their beds. Oh! And on that note, Sania, my roommate, who is strikingly similar looking as me, is still under her blanket, and the 4th time I tried to wake her up, for her job interview, she gave me her puppy bitch eyes while saying, “please wake me up in an hour Roohi. There’s still 2 hours left. Love you Rooh,” and she fell asleep again. What could I do but smile?

I got back to my desk and started the timer for an hour, just when my first novel’s 18th rejection email arrived. I guess you can understand that the writer career of my life isn’t really taking off or anything. Though, I do have something going well for me. A few magazines and newspapers are regularly publishing my short stories and articles on literature, which to my shock and awe, is actually paying pretty well. Of course, there is no job security, but that is the life I wanted while living in Darjeeling, with my parents, and that was the main reason I moved to the City of Joy, Kolkata.
After emailing my article on “The Silent Killer,” basically on the topic of Covid-19, my eyes stop on the aforementioned advertisement, and suddenly a brainwave.

What if I was the one who unraveled the mystery and wrote an article about it? Could it make the front page? This could just be the break I was looking for. I could even write a novel on it.
The next thing that hit me was that Samar could help me out, as by now, this must be an ongoing investigation.

The first time the advertisement had appeared, a rumor of a girl gone missing was circulating a city wide panic. And today it is back in the newspaper.

I am just about to pick up my old battered Iphone 4s, when it starts ringing. The name says, “Samar LB landline.” It is a coincidence like no other, or you can even call it telepathy, though, I don’t know why, but in the pit of my stomach, I feel that the coincidences aren’t gonna stop here.

. . .

After an hour of rigorous meetings at Lal Bazar PS, I am driving back home,in my mega dusty, and highly dented Hyundai I10, with a thick file that I’ll have to mug up. Apparently my new identity for the next few days.

Basically, like I had thought, the Lal Bazar PS was actually investigating this case, and Samar himself was appointed to the case. It is his first big case, and he seems to be extremely giddy about it. I still love seeing him like that.

Now back to the business at hand. Apparently, Samar or his team doesn’t know a lot of women who look absolutely like the girl that the advertisement writer wants, and it was Samar, who actually thought of me. I am to be their mole. I’ll do what I am asked by the supposed killer, all the while, staying in contact with Samar and his team, who’d shadow me in civil dress. And out of this favour I’m going to do for the cops, by changing the names, and i can write a book or an article about it, that the PS themselves will push for it to be published. So a win win situation. After all, they too need good publicity, now don’t they.

Now on a sad note, I really need to buy a new car. Firstly it’s filthy here, and not to mention the carpet, which is littered by bits and pieces of old food and coffee stains. And most importantly, it stinks as if someone threw up in here, which is literal, as that someone was Sania, just a month ago, after one of her all night raves, which I was taken to by force, as, apparently I don’t have any fun.

Also, you can’t be broke and buy a car, so I really hope things go well with this case and the book I write makes me rich enough to at least buy a Tata Nano.

. . .

Wednesday arrived in a flurry, and before I can even wake up properly, I am up and am being wired at the moment, while questions are being asked about my new identity, which is Sunaina- A loan officer for The Imperial Bank of Kolkata.

Sania didn’t come home last night as it was her boyfriend’s birthday, thus the apartment is empty, and all the cops are in civil dress, which means no way anyone can know about our clandestine meeting.
Samar was briefing his team, when the alarm on my phone rang. It’s 5:45 AM, and my signal to leave.
As I’m about to walk out of the apartment, Samar grabs my arm and pulls me closer. For a moment I thought he’s gonna kiss me, and to be honest, I wouldn’t have minded it, but he said, “please stay safe. Ok?” To which I smile and nod, and pick up my handbag that has a gun, with an engraving of my name. I mean my new name. Sania Shikhawat.

. . .

The walk from my house to the 2nd gate of Shyambazar metro, approximately takes me 10 minutes, and what I see upon reaching there, shocks me to my core. Sania’s standing there with a handbag. What the hell is she doing here? Fingers crossed, I walk towards her, hoping over hope, she isn’t here for the same reason. I am.

“What the hell are you doing here?”

She gives a nonchalant look at me and counters with her own version of my question. “Victim needed,” we both say in unison. The way she says it, it feels like we’re out shopping and we both ended up at a clothing sale. Something like a 70% sale.

“Are you crazy? Or are you all drugged up again?”

“None you’d know of. It’s the drug of thrill. Though, what are you doing here?”

I’m here to see what’s going on, so that I can write an article about it, and seriously, you need to leave.”

“You’re not my guardian,” she says defiantly.

“No I’m not. I’m your friend.”

This seems to have stopped her short of words, and by the time I could conjure up from my brain file of “things to say to someone depressed, on the verge of killing herself,” something strange happens.
We both hear a whistle from somewhere, and as we look up, we see a paper plane gliding towards us, which I eap and catch.

I am just about to hurl it back up, when Saniya stops me.

“There is something written on it,” and indeed there it is. A little letter from the paper plane pilot, who I’m sure, as I read it out loud, to be the same guy who wrote the advertisement.

“I asked for one victim and I got two. God must be very pleased with me.
Now let’s do what we’re here to do. Huh?

I hope you’ve got your weapons of choice with your name engraved on it, so walk past the lamp post and dump them on the green backpack lying on the left side of the path, and now, the most important part. Turn around and get back home. And wait for your turn to be visited by the Reaper.”

. . .

“Why didn’t you heed my warning when I kept shouting in your ears to back off and not go ahead with the green bag weapons dump?” Samar blares and slams his fiston the living room wall, that makes all of the handcrafted mask’s shiver from the impact, as soon as we get back into our apartment,
Sania did take it as a shock as I totally forgot that the cops were waiting for me in their civil dress.
After explaining what has been going on with that advertisement to Sania, I apologize to Samar, which, luckily, decreases his temper, while hanging both out coats on the rack.

“You two,” he points at us, “I need to explain some stuff to you, so sit here and listen carefully.”
The two of us sit down on our plush pillowed couch and he sits opposite us, and what he says next, sends chills down both our spines.

“This is no ordinary murderer. He is a hunter. And if you don’t listen to what I say and heed every word of mine, meticulously, I can assure you that both of you are destined to get hunted.”
In short, he tells us that we aren’t supposed to leave our apartments, and in case one of us has to, we must ask one of the lookout guards to shadow us.”
After we agree to his terms, he divides his team in groups of two and assign their jobs, and then he’s gone.

. . .

I just woke up, and my smartwatch says its 6 in the evening, but knowing Sania, she’ll be sleeping till 8 at the least, so, while pulling myself out of the blanket, and glancing at her bed, I definitely am in shock and to be honest, a bit proud as well. She’s up before me.

Thinking she might be speaking to her boyfriend on the verandah, I walk out to get something to munch on, I realise she isn’t outside either. She isn’t at our apartment. Then where did she go?

I ask Alexa to call her, and she returns with “her phone is switched off”. Now it’s chilling my spine and also, I feel a little lightheaded, which might be the aftermath of the 4 vodka shots we had in the afternoon, just after lunch, which was our usual microwaved Paneer (Cottage Cheese) Dopiyaza, and chapati.

I try her number again, but the same robotic lady answers the same bullshit.
She could be with her boyfriend and might have switched off her phone. Should I give him a call? As far as I know, he is in business, and he never shuts his phone. What the hell! Let’s do it.
My heart has already answered the question I have in my mind. His phone is switched off too. I think I’m having a panic attack.

But there’s no time for that now. I need to know that my friend is safe.
I run down to the road, and as soon as I see a familiar face of a lady cop in her civil dress, I run towards her. Seeing me running frantically at her, she realises something must have gone wrong, and before I even cross the road, she runs towards me and meets me halfway.
Before she can ask me what has happened, I blabber about the entire thing to her, and ask her if Sania was accompanied by anyone on their team, and her answer turns my panicked state up, at least 10 notches.

She calmly asks me to get back to the apartment and as I turn, she calls in her team towards her.

. . .

She is fine. She is totally fine. But the repeating words from my mouth don’t reach my heart and brain, and by the time i reach up to our apartment, my phone rings. A call from a blocked number. My heart, pounding against my chest, I pick up the call, and before I can ask who it is, my heart tells me the identity of the caller.

“Hello Roohi! Hope I don’t have to tell you who I am. All that you need to know now, is that 2 lives rest upon your decision. You made a mistake getting the cops involved, so, your friend and her boyfriend are going to be my guests for a while. At least until you come where I ask you. Also, you have 20 minutes. And the twist is, every 2 minutes you waste after that 20, I’ll kill one of them. So, finally we shall meet. And come alone, or all four of us will die together. See you in 20 minutes inside the abandoned warehouse beside the train line in Dum Dum. The one that used to belong to the Rover Tyres company.”
And before I can plead with the computerized voice, the phone goes dead.

This is when my fight or flight response kicks in, and at the moment, I know exactly what I have to do.

. . .

I’m standing outside the massive corrugated metal building with giant delivery bays in the back, which once used to be the Rover Tyre’s factory, in this bone chilling cold, with my right fist, tightened on my father’s old Glock 43, inside my jacket pocket, which used to be his unofficial weapon, and I’ve kept for all these years, maybe thinking, one day might come, when I’ll have to use it.
20 minutes are about to be up, so after taking a deep breath, I walk in.
The insides of the dilapidated factory, brought out the worst fears of my life. But now is not the time for fear. It’s the time for a showdown. A showdown to bring my friend back.
I’m just a few steps in, when the timer on my watch said, I’m 2 minutes late, and exactly at that point, I stumble upon something and fall face first on the dirt rag concrete. I struggle for my phone, and as soon as the torch light falls on what I stumbled upon, I’m gripped by fear. The kind of fear I’ve never felt before.

Lying near my feet, with the eyes open wide, is the bullet shot faced, Sania’s boyfriend. As dead as dead can be. My scream is choking me and before I know it, I’m throwing up my guts out.

But, I can’t waste my time mourning the dead. Sania is still alive and I have to keep it that way. Shuddering in fear, I get up, and start walking inside. One step at a time, all the while, praying to every god and deity that I know of. And after a few more steps in the darkness, I can see a lot of light ahead. Not just literally, but figuratively, as the advertisement killer stands in front of me, with a malicious grin, and eyes that say, “you are next.”

. . .

It’s 3 AM right now, and I’m sitting in an ambulance, with a thick blanket wrapped around me. What happened in those last few minutes, have seared its memory in my core, which I can assure you will never leave me.

I’m about to light my cigarette, when a junior officer arrives to take my statement, but I don’t want to talk to some unknown guy about the deepest scar of my life. It’s almost as if Samar hears my thought, and steps in, sending the junior on another duty. Suddenly, the cop filled factory seems quiet. It seems comfortable.

He sits down next to me, and lights my cigarette, and by now, I know this is his way of telling me, “go ahead. Share what happened.” Thus, I start.

The malicious grin parts into speech. Hearing that voice sends shivers down my spine, and for a minute I thank god that Sania is ok. She’s safe, and she’s standing in front of me, but what she says, turns the whole plot around.

“Oh wow! My saviour has arrived. But, why couldn’t you save Raj? What bad had he done, that he didn’t deserve being rescued by you?”

My mouth fell slack, and honestly I didn’t have anything to say to her, so she continued.
“I really hope that by now, you must have understood everything. Or else, soryy but, you’re really dumb sweetie. “

Slowly but steadily, the clouds are parting, and I can see the story clearly in front of my eyes.

“I am your advertisement killer Rooh. It’s me. It has always been me. And I’m not just any killer. I’m a serial killer, and after killing you, my body count will rise to 20.”
I stagger back, but still nothing comes out of my mouth.

“I kinda feel like you haven’t caught up yet. So let me simplify. Wednesday, I came back home, and left before you woke up. Then, I did what I always do. I stood there waiting. Awaiting my prey. But, honestly, I didn’t think you’d be the one. Anyways, the paperplane bit was already planned, so that happened. After that, the involvement of the cops gave me a headache. Reason why I suggested vodka after lunch. You remained asleep, and I slipped out the back of our building, and then gave Raj a distressed call, telling him that I’m being held by a maniac. Dumbass, sprinted to his death. And now, finally you’re here, rendering myplan, totally successful. And for that I thank you.”

Finally I spoke my first words. “But why?”

She laughed and laughed and then suddenly she became still. Still as a doll.

“But why does anything happen? Why do you take Xanax? Why does 80% of the world’s populace drink alcohol? The why is the question, to which there can be a straightforward answer. Let’s just say, I love the thrill. Remember I had told you. It’s thrilling to be chased by someone, but it’s way more thrilling to be hunting your prey. That’s what you amount to. My prey.”

And then, saying goodbye, she aimed her pistol at me, and then bang.

When I opened my eyes, she was lying there, in a s;lowly forming pool of her own blood, but I didn’t shoot her. I heard a swarm of footsteps coming towards me, and when I turned back, Samar pulled me into an embrace.

“It’s over. You’re safe now. We heard all that was to be heard, and as she was about to pull the trigger, one of my finest officer’s pulled his.”

. . .

It’s been six months since that fateful night. It’s a memory, still fresh. Maybe that’s the reason I’m about to be a published author. My book got picked up by Penguin Random House, and according to my agent, it’s definitely going to be a bestseller.

Also, Samar and I are giving our relationship another go. What happens with that is about to be seen, but, this time, I don’t know, it just somehow feels right.

And lastly, with the money I got as an advance from the publishers, I bought a new car. No! Not Tata Nano. A Mercedes 1st class, and man, does it drive smooth.

I have also bought an apartment now, and I live there alone, with the occasional stay with Samar, at his house, which is just a 10 minutes walk from mine, but I still have my old apartment. I don’t know why I can’t sell it? Maybe like she had said that night, we are all looking for our whys, but are oblivious to the answer that’s staring at us from a distance.

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