The lounge seemed to be even more crowded this particular Friday evening. Mark surveyed the surroundings from his usual place at the bar. The week had been exceptionally good for Mark. The deal was finally inked, his Hong Kong posting would be announced first thing Monday.
His thoughts were interrupted when a distinguished looking man joined him at the bar. “God! Hope I look that good when I get to his age!” thought Mark as he raised his glass and smiled.
They shook hands. “I’m Mark. Mark Williams,” he added, “Head of APAC Sales. With this start-up that just got VC funding!”
“Pleased to meet you. I’m Jonas. Jonas Welch from Ohio,” he smiled and returned the firm handshake.
Mark ordered a round of drinks for both of them. He looked at Jonas and said, “So, what brings you to Mumbai?”
“Oh! Life, I guess. Uncanny that of all the cities in this big world, everything should end in Mumbai. I would have thought Mumbai is supposed to be the beginning!” he said, giving Mark a strange look.
Mark threw back his head and laughed. “True that! For me, Mumbai is indeed the beginning. Hey Jonas from Ohio! Good to finally have someone I can celebrate with. Just got promoted. Will be heading out to Hong Kong early next week.”
“Well, Congratulations! Here’s to new beginnings then!” said Jonas as they clinked their glasses.
Conversation was surprisingly easy. Jonas and Mark realized they had similar interests – they both played golf, enjoyed horseback riding, and were just about learning the nuances of playing great chess. “Nurtures strategic thinking old man! Time to show those old snooty b******s at London what strategy’s all about!” slurred Mark.
Jonas smiled and put his arms around Mark’s shoulders. “Yes. Everything is in the game. Players change. Pawns don’t.”
“Hello!” said a husky, feminine voice behind them. Both men turned to see if the woman matched the voice.
“I’m Kajal Chotrani. My companion just ditched me. Meeting with the boss, he says. I don’t want to ruin a perfect Friday evening. May I join you? That is, if you don’t mind,” she said.
They both stared at this vision of a woman. “Only an Indian woman is capable of looking like this,” thought Mark. To combine sensuality, beauty, charm and somehow still look innocent.
Both men stammered simultaneously, with Mark taking the lead, “Oh Please, do join us. Hi Kajal! I’m Mark, this is Jonas.”
She smiled at them. And sat down daintily on the bar stool, demurely crossing her long legs. The deep purple dress hitched up an inch over her thighs. She had charcoal-grey eyes, a dusky complexion. Shoulder-length hair. An hourglass figure that looked like a sculptor’s work of art. She leaned towards the bar man and smiled “Hey Jeet! My usual. With olives and bitters.”
Mark thought to himself, “Jonas needs to leave. This woman belongs to me.”
Jonas thought to himself, “Meera, it’s been two years since you passed on. I love you Meera. And I have been alone. You know that.”
Kajal thought, “Well, who would have thought today will turn out to be so eventful? Mark’s cool. But still a boy. He’ll play with me in the sandbox. Jonas .. well Jonas is something else altogether. Maybe he needs a real woman!”
The evening was highly entertaining. For all three of them. The air was heavy with an unexplained tension and the chemistry between the three of them was palpable.
Kajal had moved to Mumbai two years ago. A brilliant graduate from one of India’s top-ranking B-Schools. Wanting to make it big in advertising. Realized very quickly she needed a lot more than brains or talent to make it big any place. She ditched advertising and joined an IT conglomerate. Public Relations is what they called it. She had different names for it though! She smiled to herself. She had inherited her Mother’s figure, good looks and her Father’s sharp business acumen. She had learnt to desensitize herself to situations and people. Life was meant to be fun! Not saddled with guilt, loyalty and such other useless stuff that drags you down. You should put yourself up there. Among the stars. Where you truly belong.
Mark excused himself from the group, went to the men’s room. He splashed water on his face and stared into the mirror. He didn’t look so bad. Considering he’d almost felt suicidal two years ago. The scandal with Katie had almost blown his career to bits. A botched abortion, the rich cold husband he’d nearly bludgeoned to death in a fit of rage. Luckily, his Dad knew how to pull strings. Scotland Yard couldn’t touch him now. They had arrested the ‘attacker’ too. After all, the homeless fellow had to pay a price for a new kidney for his ailing daughter. He quickly controlled his thoughts, practiced his smile, and hurriedly walked out.
He saw them engrossed in conversation, their heads close. He didn’t interrupt, simply watched them. Kajal looked up and said, “Hey Mark! We were just talking about visiting this art gallery later tonight. I know the artist and I think you will like his work.” Mark shrugged his shoulders. Art wasn’t his area of interest, but he had no plans of leaving Kajal and Jonas alone.
Jonas and Kajal spoke animatedly. About current trends in contemporary art. They seemed to inhabit a world that Mark didn’t even know existed. It turned out Jonas invested in art, especially paintings. And he was a potential buyer on the lookout for new talent. Mark felt a slight tremor in his right hand. Usually that happened when he had extreme emotions of any kind. Pure animal. Jonas looked at Mark quizzically. “Sorry for my poor manners. I seem to be monopolizing the conversation. Kajal, let me get that one last round of drinks for all of us before we head out. Excuse me.”
Jonas went to the far end of the bar and placed his order. He observed Kajal and Mark. It was obvious Mark had plans that Jonas was most definitely not a part of. Jonas didn’t like playing games. If he thought Kajal was the slightest bit interested in Mark, he would have walked away. But he knew she wasn’t. She didn’t look at Mark the way she looked at him. Their interactions had transcended from the basic level of physical attraction to something deeper. After Meera, no one had really intrigued him the way Kajal had. Then he saw Kajal lean very close towards Mark and say something that made him laugh. Well, one never knew with women!
He’d had enough. He could visit the dang gallery on his own. Kajal had mentioned the artist’s name. His office would do the rest.
Jonas plonked their drinks on the counter and very cheerfully said, “Folks, I’m beat! I’m heading back to the hotel and catching up on sleep. Need to give the art gallery a miss. Maybe we catch up again soon?”
Kajal looked at him quietly for a few seconds.”No Jonas. You come with us.”
Mark said, “Hey Kajal! Let’s ditch the art gallery. Let old Jonas leave eh? Then you and I? We can take a long walk down the beachfront at my hotel. Maybe talk some more? Let’s take my car!”
There was an awkward silence and Jonas gallantly said “Okay then. Let’s shelve the art gallery for now. It’s late. We’ll go to Mark’s hotel. Beachfront eh? Lucky young man! Mine overlooks a tall building!”
Kajal excused herself and elegantly walked to the ladies’ room. Jonas and Mark couldn’t help noticing how every man in the room looked at her. It didn’t matter if he had a woman with him or not.
Kajal reapplied her lipstick. She looked at her own eyes in the mirror. Jaded? Nah! She still had it in her. Maybe the mouth needed a little rework. She made a mental note to contact Dr. Shah, her plastic surgeon. She determinedly shut her tiny makeup case. Well Mark, Jonas, may the best man win!
She walked in the middle, linking her arms with both men and headed towards the hotel entrance. A very nervous valet brought Mark’s car. He would be nervous. A customer with a silver Bugatti in India was every valet’s dream and nightmare at the same time.
“Mark, are you sure you can drive?” asked Jonas
“Don’t worry, the cops won’t stop me. They know who I am!” Mark slurred slightly.
They drove towards Mark’s hotel. Kajal sat in the front, quiet. Jonas sat at the back. Few times, he’d met Kajal’s eyes in the rear view mirror. Mark continued with his talk, mostly related to his work, Hong Kong and this “shitty world full of scum.”
They reached his hotel. As promised, Mark directly led them to the beachfront. There were hardly any people around at this time and the place was a little deserted. “It’s a private beach. It’s a part of the hotel property,” Mark explained.
They slowly walked on the sand in silence. Their feet were bare and the night got darker.
After a few minutes, Mark could not contain his patience any longer. He turned to Jonas, “Old man! Please scoot now. Don’t you get it? The woman is mine. You’re a nuisance. Go. Now!”
Kajal suddenly took Mark’s hand. “No Mark. Jonas has to stay. And this is why!” she said as she took out the knife.
Jonas watched in silence as Kajal caught Mark’s both hands in a vice-like grip, kicked him in his shins, pushed him to the ground. All in a matter of seconds. Mark was too startled to even put up a struggle. Nor did he scream. Kajal slit his throat neatly. Side to side. Execution style. She was magnificent. No sudden blood spurts, no mess. She securely tied his hands at the back, left him face-down on the sand. Just like she’d been told to do.
Jonas said very quietly, “I guess you already made plans for me?”
Kajal smiled. “Yes Mr. Heidelberg. Only, they never told me you’re this good-looking.”
“And I never had you down for a contract killer. The sultry seductress act had me confused for a moment.”
“Well, who said it was an act, Jonas?” she arched her perfect eyebrows, a mischievous smile dancing on her lips.
Jonas laughed, linked his arms with hers and they slowly walked on the sand back towards the hotel.
It had all begun four years ago. There was a brilliant bio-tech merger that Heidelberg had accomplished sitting in New York, and for some reason it was starting to unravel. There were millions at stake, that’s what his Board of Directors told him ominously, “Jasper, well, if this deal doesn’t go through then.. ” So he landed in Mumbai for a stay of “four months only.” That’s the time he had been given to either close the deal or disappear for good.
And by then, he had met Meera. The sweet intelligent daughter of the friendly Goan businessman who lived next door to his Cuffe Parade flat. Meera would often drop in to discuss art with him. She was almost ten years younger than him, but they always felt like equals. She was a fabulous cook, could speak German, Spanish and French. It was only a matter of time before they fell in love. He had never met a woman like her. She challenged him intellectually and had a way with people that he simply envied. She was a charmer. His Meera.
They got married at a beautiful church in Colaba. Meera had only one wish. She said, “Jasper, please. Let me be known as Katherine. I always wanted to be named after my Grandmother.” Oh well! Katherine she was, atleast to everyone else. To Jasper, she was always Meera.
Jasper and Meera moved to London and had what one would call an ‘idyllic relationship’. She was beautiful, gentle, amazingly talented. He was rich, good-looking. They were always chased by the paparazzi. The celebrity couple on the art scene who actually got along with each other! They were in love. And the world believed.
One beautiful morning, Meera walked up to Jasper and said, “Oh Jasper! God has been kind. I am pregnant!”
He held her tight and said, “Oh Darling! I love you so much!”
He went back to his office, shut the door and didn’t come out for three days straight. He knew he wasn’t the Father. That accident during his golfing days had made him sterile. Something he didn’t care to tell anyone. Not even his Meera.
It only took a few phone calls to find out about Mark Williams. Meera and Mark had been seeing each other for almost a year. She planned to leave Jasper. Mark had proposed to her. He had promised to break off his engagement to his childhood sweetheart. But the pregnancy threw a spoke into their plans. Meera truly believed Jasper was the father. She felt guilty for cheating on a relationship with a man she really loved. She hoped their child would help make things work with Jasper.
After about a month, Jasper finally spoke. “Meera, abort the baby. I don’t want the child.” Meera was devastated, “But Jasper? I’m already into 5 months of pregnancy! You have a son, I can feel him move.” He held her arms in a tight grip, his voice menacing, “Do it.”
She did. Through her tears, she phoned her gynaecologist and like a zombie, went through the motions. Her body couldn’t withstand the strain. She died within an hour of surgery.
Blinded by rage and helplessness, Mark had stormed into Jasper’s office, just as Jasper was walking towards his car. Mark found the fire extinguisher on the wall and hit Jasper’s face with it. He hit repeatedly, he knew not for how long. Then he threw the extinguisher, called his Dad, and wept on the phone. His Dad took care of the rest.
Jasper lay still on the ground next to his car for about three minutes, bleeding profusely. He willed himself to bear the pain. To stay conscious. His cell phone was in the jacket pocket. He managed to find it. He hit redial on the last number he had called. And passed out.
He woke up at the hospital. They told him he was lucky to be alive after such a brutal mugging attack. And that Dr. Shah, the brilliant young plastic surgeon from India was in London. She would fix his face.
Dawn was breaking. It was already Saturday morning. Kajal and Jasper walked to the hotel entrance. They shook hands and promised to stay in touch. They knew neither would. Jasper took the taxi and went back to his hotel. Kajal continued to walk towards the opposite end of the street. She still had work to do.
She sat on a leather sofa in the swanky lobby of this new hotel that had opened last week. A young man walked up to her and said, “Good Morning. Madam will join you for breakfast in the Coffee Shop.”
Kajal nodded and followed. As usual, she took the corner table at the far end of the room. She heard the smart click of heels and looked up. The woman was tall, blonde. Elegance personified. “Class!” thought Kajal. She also saw the cute two-year old boy behind her. His face looked oddly familiar.
“Hi. I’m Gwendoline Barre-Williams,” She shook hands and discreetly handed the envelope to Kajal. “And this is my son, John M. Barre-Williams.”
Kajal smiled at the little boy who couldn’t stop staring at her. She sipped her coffee. Both women talked about Mumbai’s scorching heat, traffic woes and the emerging art scene. Mumbai was a potpourri of talented artists and painters. A distinct new style was starting to emerge that had New York and London’s most seasoned art collectors queuing up to invest. After about an hour, Gwendoline excused herself to go up to her room. She had an important phone call to make.
“Hello. Am I speaking with Jasper Heidelberg? This is Gwendoline Barre-Williams from London. Your office said I can get in touch with you on this number. Yes…we had met at the art auction at Sotheby’s last year. Perfect. Will see you at 12:00 Noon. Let’s have lunch after the exhibition. The Italian place at Taj President works for me.”
Gwendoline hugged her son and left instructions with the nanny on his routine. “I’ll be back as soon as I can, love. Be good.” She tousled his curly hair and gently closed the door behind her.
Two years ago, she had been told she would never have children. On the same day, Mark had said he couldn’t marry her. Because of Katie.
Fate couldn’t have been any kinder. The hospital gave her the baby. They said the “cruel husband” had wanted the baby dead. The boy was weak, premature. Gwendoline needed the boy to live. She told her parents in Edinburgh she had been with child. And Mark didn’t need to know. The papers were easy to obtain. The tests would also prove he was Mark’s son.
Mark proposed to Gwendoline and they were married in June the same year. For two years, the boy was her best kept secret. She had hired her trusted childhood nanny.
Gwendoline started to realize that having Mark in her life was a nuisance. Mark’s father, Lord Williams had passed on recently and left his entire estate to his only son. But Mark’s philandering ways had started to ruin the Williams inheritance. And her political future. She confided in Dr. Shah. They had been to finishing school together and continued to keep in touch. Dr. Shah mentioned Kajal to her.
Heidelberg had been Dr. Shah’s most challenging medical case till date. It was a miracle he’d even survived the mugging episode. She mentioned Kajal to Jasper.
Gwendoline and Jasper met up for lunch at the Taj President. The exhibition was a runaway success. The new artist that everyone was raving about lived up to his reputation. They decided to work together on a plan to launch the brilliant young man in London and New York. Jasper thought Gwendoline was a bright and attractive woman. Gwendoline thought Jasper was one of the very few self-made men she had met.
Kajal unlocked her front door. The labrador came bounding and almost threw her onto the floor, knocking over the framed picture on the mantelpiece. “Oh Perry, get off me you minx!” she laughed. She picked up the picture, looked at it fondly and kept it back in its place. It was clicked about a year ago, when they were honeymooning in Switzerland. She loved the merry twinkle in Vikram’s eyes. And the way he made her laugh.
“Coffee, my sweets?” asked the comfortably plump, bespectacled bald man who was still in his pajamas. Kajal rushed to hug him. “Oh yes my darling Vikram! I missed you my love, my Winnie the Pooh! The dang flight was late and they lost my bags. And I could kill for that cup of coffee. Mumbai drives you crazy doesn’t it?”