Lal Tibba

 

 

 

            LAL TIBBA

 

            [a short story]

 

            By

             VIKRAM KARVE 

 

 

            “Excuse me, Sir,” said a feminine voice, “Do you have change for twenty rupees? Even two tens will do.” 

            I put down the bunch of grapes which I was examining and looked up. She proffered a crisp twenty rupee note, folded into half at the centre, the reverse side of the watermark turned upwards and she held it in such a way that I could not fail to notice something written on the watermark in neat capital letters in blue ink. I understood at once. An active dead letter drop, vintage David Mackenzie style, used only in emergencies. 

            “I’ll check,” I said, pulling out my wallet from my hip pocket. I extracted two ten rupee notes and gave them to her, taking her twenty rupee note and putting it into my wallet. 

            I didn’t make any purchases, but rushed a straight home, walking the fastest mile of my life. 

            I reproduce below the exact words written on the twenty rupee note: 

            D E W D O L O E            I dusted out my codebook and deciphered the coded message – ‘LAL TIBBA’. 

            So that was what David Mackenzie has sent me. It was vintage David Mackenzie. Tell a guy only the place of the rendezvous. Never mention the time. It was too risky. Now all I had to do was to reach Mussoorie by the fastest available means and then trek up Landour to the

peak of
LAL TIBBA, the highest point in Mussoorie. David Mackenzie would find me. We both knew the area around Lal Tibba quite well. We had many a rendezvous there and had even used it as a dead letter drop once in while. But that was more than ten years ago. I had retired and broken all contact with David. I wondered why he had summoned me. All of a sudden after ten long years. What was the assignment? And why Mussoorie of all places when there were so many secure and convenient rendezvous in and around Pune!             I picked up the telephone and dialed my travel agent booked myself on the next flight to
Delhi. Beyond
Delhi I would have to make on-the-spot decisions and improvise to shake off a tail, if any.
 

            Of course I had torn up the twenty rupee note that had brought me the coded message, into small pieces but I wondered who the woman was. Maybe she was just a housewife. David Mackenzie has a vast network of contacts – agents, runners, watchers, sleepers. I was certain that I would never see the woman again. Though it had happened so fast there were two things about the woman which made a distinct impression on me. Her eyes were the restless eyes of a woman with a great thirst for life. And from her body emanated the lingering fragrance of her enticing perfume! 

            I reached
Delhi airport took the airport bus to

Connaught Place

, walked around a bit, ostensibly window-shopping, had a pizza at a fast-food joint, and convinced that I was not being followed, took a taxi to Old Delhi railway station. It was almost 9.30 at night by the time I purchased a second class unreserved ticket to Dehradun and walked onto the platform clutching my small briefcase. And out of the blue, I ran bang into Manisha Rawat. 

            David insisted that a man and a woman would be far less conspicuous than a single man or a pair of men. So I always teamed up with Manisha Rawat. She worked as a stenographer in our office and like most girls from the hills was extremely attractive, had a flawless complexion and carried herself very well. Then one fine day she got married and resigned from her job. I never maintained contact with her after that, for obvious reasons. 

            I was wondering how to avoid her when Manisha Rawat called out me, “What a surprise,
Ravi. But what on earth are you doing here?”
 

 

            “Heading for Mussoorie,” I said. 

            “A/C sleeper?” 

            “I haven’t got reservation.” 

            “No problem,” Manisha said. “We’ve got two berths. Me and my son. He is sitting inside. We’ll adjust.” I knew I should refuse, but I could see that Manisha was so genuinely happy to meet me and was yearning to talk to me that I couldn’t do anything else but agree and I joined Manisha and her ten year old son in the compartment. 

 

            “I won’t ask you why you are going to Mussoorie,” Manisha said. 

 

            “But I’ll ask you,” I replied tongue-in-check. 

            “I’m going to Dehradun,” she said. 

            “Dehradun?” 

            “We have settled down in Dehradun. My husband and I, both of us work in the Survey of India office. He’s an engineer and, by the way, I’m an HR officer now.” She opened her purse, pulled out a visiting card and gave it to me. 

            “So you are Manisha Joshi now. I’m looking forward to meeting Mr. Joshi.” In my mind’s eye I was visualizing how I could avoid meeting Manisha’s husband. 

            I was tempted to tell Manisha everything, get it off my chest, but I stopped myself. Life has taught me to leave dangerous things unsaid. I asked her, “Your husband must be coming to the station to pick you up tomorrow morning?” 

            “No,” she said. “He’s gone to
Australia for a seminar. That’s why we had come to
Delhi see him off. He left yesterday. But that doesn’t matter. You must come over to my place in Dehradun. It’s on Rajpur road, on the way to Mussoorie. The address, phone number – everything is on the card.”
 

            As I put Manisha’s visiting card in my wallet I knew that visiting her was out of the question. At least this time. Manisha probably realized it too. I noticed she had not asked me anything about myself. She had given me her visiting card and left the ball in my court. 

            The Mussoorie Express reached the destination, Dehradun, precisely at 7:20 next morning. I engaged a tourist taxi for my onward journey to Mussoorie. En route I dropped Manisha Joshi and her son at their house on Rajpur road. 

            The road to Mussoorie, coiling like a snake, was surrounded by dense vegetation, and as we made our way up I noticed patches of snow, like lather, which became denser as we neared Mussoorie. It was off-season, quite cold, and getting a room at the
Savoy wouldn’t be a problem.
 

             When I reached I was shocked to find that a room had already been booked in my name. Something was wrong, terribly wrong. I couldn’t believe that David Mackenzie would commit such a grave lapse. I tried to smoothen my startled look into a grin and quietly checked in, trying not to arouse any suspicions. 

             All sorts of confusing thoughts crowded my brain. The coded message, the woman with the restless eyes and fragrant perfume at the fruit stall in Pune, Manisha appearing as if from nowhere after fifteen long years and very conveniently offering me a berth and now a room booked in my name at the
Savoy. Coincidence, Red Herrings, or an invisible hand guiding me into a trap?
 

            Complete anonymity was my best weapon I had always relied upon. But now it was useless. Invisible eyes seemed to be following me everywhere. There was only one thing to do now – contact David Mackenzie and ask him what the hell was going on?  

            I went down to the reception and asked the girl at the counter, “Please can you tell me who made my hotel reservation?” 

            “Just a moment, sir,” she said and began consulting a register. “It’s here,” she gave me a curious look, “A travel agency. Hill Travels. They rang up from Dehradun this morning at 8:30.” 

            Dehradun! Manisha? How could she be so naïve?  Or was she? I’d have to find out for myself. But first the rendezvous with David Mackenzie at Lal Tibba.  

            After lunch I walked down the Mall, posing as a tourist, seemingly clicking photograph with my camera. But this was in fact a LASER-DAZZLER or Dazer which could dazzle or flash blind the victim by means of laser beam. Nobody even gave a second look to an inoffensive-appearing, meek-looking man like me, which was really to my advantage. 

            There was a chill in the air now and I knew it would get bitterly cold so I bought a trench-coat from a Tibetan roadside stall at Landour Bazaar and then turned left and began climbing up the path towards Lal Tibba. At the char-dukan junction I did not take the normal route to Lal Tibba, but instinctively turned right, in a last-ditch attempt to spot any tail, and began negotiating the steep and longer route skirting and traversing and undulating mountainous slopes. It was this instinctive decision that probably saved my life, for when it suddenly started snowing I took refuge under the porch of the entrance to a cemetery. Gradually it stopped snowing and all of sudden rays of evening sunlight filtered through the gaps in the Deodar trees. Indeed the weather in Mussoorie was as unpredictable as the stock market. 

            As I was about to leave, I heard the bark of a dog. I turned in that direction. A Bhutiya dog was sitting about fifteen feet away from me. It was a friendly breed. I smiled. And then I froze, my blood ran cold for next to the dog was a tombstone, illuminated by a ray of sunlight. And on the tombstone was engraved in large bold letters: 

            DAVID W. MACKENZIE            BORN 24 MAY 1935            DIED 15 JANUARY 2006 

            I stood motionless on the Lal Tibba peak which jutted out like a bird’s beak, holding the railing in front of me below which there was a sheer drop of over thousand feet into dense jungle. The cold hung like a cloak of ice around my shivering shoulders. I breathed in slowly, mouth and nose together. The air was so pure that I at once sensed her arrival. A whiff of that familiar fragrance. No doubt about it! It was the same woman at the fruit stall in Pune. The woman with the restless eyes. 

            “Why did you kill David?” I asked softly. I did not turn around but I could feel the waft of her warm breath on the nape of my neck. Suddenly, at the same spot I felt a needle. With cobra speed I ducked and rammed against her with my shoulders. Then I turned around, pointed the dazer camera in her direction and pressed the button. Despite the weather, the laser beam was quite effective at that short range and soon she began screaming. The manner in which her silhouette was moving it was evident that she was totally dazed. 

            “Don’t kill me,” she shrieked in anguish. “David was going to die anyway. He had terminal cancer. I just put him to sleep to spare him the agony.” 

            I look two quick steps and pushed her towards the railing. Her hands, which were earlier cupping her eyes, now gripped the railing. As gripped the railing. As I walked away from Lal Tibba, I could hear her trailing voice, “Don’t’ leave me here. I’m blinded. I can’t see anything. Please don’t go ………..” 

            I stopped in my tracks. In this profession one operated on the basis of the 11th Commandment – “Thou shalt not get caught”. I closed my eyes with my palms for about half a minute and when I opened them again I could see better in the dark. I carefully scanned the footprints in the snow, where or scuffle had taken place. After a bit of searching I found what I wanted. The syringe was intact. I looked towards her silhouette. She was standing still, gripping the railing. It was evident that she could not see anything.  

“Give me the syringe,” I shouted. 

“I dropped it,” she said. 

“I don’t believe you,” I said. 

 “No. I don’t have it,” she said desperately. “Search me if you want.” 

“Okay. But tell me first. What was in the syringe?” 

“Ketamine.” 

            I smiled to myself. Ketamine. An anesthetic with hallucinatory emergence reaction. 

 

            “Take off your coat. I want to check it,” I commanded, and as she started to do so I moved fast. With my left hand I pushed up the sleeve of the pullover and with my right I jabbed the needle of the syringe into her wrist, and injected the entire contents of the syringe into her body. 

            At first she struggled but soon she gave up and in a few moments slid down on the snow, her body limp. I lifted her body, struggling, using all me strength rolled it over the railing watching it vanish into dark nothingness.      

            Miraculously, the dazer was still intact around my neck. I was tempted to throw it away, but no – I may indeed need it yet. David Mackenzie was dead, I had taken care of the woman with the restless eyes, but there was still the question of Manisha. I had to be sure, dead sure. It had started snowing again and it was with great difficulty that I made my way down the slopes of Lal Tibba in the enveloping darkness. 

            When I rang the door bell of Manisha’s house it was dark. I had not gone back to the Savoy hotel, but caught the first bus to Dehradun from the

Picture
Palace bus-stand near Landour Bazaar. Though I could read the surprise in her eyes at my disheveled state, she didn’t say a word. She just made me sit down and gave me a cup of tea. So I played it straight. I told her everything the whole story, exactly as it happened; observing her closely I knew she was innocent. 

           
Ravi, it’s high time you broke off with the looking-glass world,” she said tenderly.
 

            Manisha was right. David Mackenzie was dead. My link broken. Now it was entirely up to me. 

            “Sleep here and we’ll go and collect your baggage from the
Savoy in the morning,” Manisha said.
 

            We reached the hotel at noon to find a police officer waiting to interrogate me. “Where were you since yesterday afternoon, sir? The hotel staff has reported you missing. Almost twenty-four hours. We were about send a search party.” 

 

            “He was with me. In Dehradun,” Manisha answered. 

            “Full night?” 

            “Yes,” Manisha opened her purse and showed him her identity card. 

 

            “Oh, you are an officer in Survey office, madam,” the policeman said. He gave me a conspirational look and advised, “Better to inform the hotel staff and avoid panic.” And then he walked away, smiling to himself. 

 

            I cannot begin to describe the emotion I felt towards Manisha at that moment. But before I could say anything she held my arm and said “It’s okay,
Ravi. For old times’ sake. But remember what I said. There’s no point living a lie – a double-life, it’s not worth it.”
 

 

            The reason why the woman with the restless eyes wanted to murder me became clear only a few days later. When I reached Pune I found a letter asking me to contact Mehta and Co., Solicitors, at Mumbai. The matter was urgent. I rushed to Mumbai the next morning. 

 

            “It’s good you came, Mr. Ravi,” Mehta said. “We are the executors of the late Mr.David Mackenzie’s will. He has left you everything he had, except his bungalow – The Anchorage, at Lal Tibba in Mussoorie.” 

 

            “Who gets the
Anchorage?” I asked.
 

                        “Susan Morris,” he said looking at his papers. “In fact, she was the one who came here on the second of February and personally handed over the death certificate.” 

 

            I looked at the wall-calendar. Second was Friday, Third was Saturday – the office closed, Fourth, a Sunday, on the Fifth she handed me the coded message and the Sixth afternoon I was on the flight on my way to Mussoorie. Everything was falling into place. 

 

            “Who gets my share in case of my death?” I asked. 

 

            “Susan Morris. And, of course, you are the alternate nominee for the
Anchorage.” He paused, and said, “It’s surprising. We’ve sent her two letters by Speed-post, but she hasn’t contacted us yet. Do you know who she was to David Mackenzie?”
 

 

            “I’ve never heard of her,” I answered. “David Mackenzie was a bachelor, and bachelors do get very lonely sometimes, don’t they?” 

 

             Mehta smiled and said, “We were hoping she turns up fast and we can settle everything. Anyway, we’ll wait.”  

             “Yes, you wait. She’ll surely turn up,” I said nonchalantly, and walked away, and lost myself in the crowd on the street.  

 

 

VIKRAM KARVE 

Copyright  2006  Vikram Karve 

 

http://vikramkarve.sulekha.com 

vikramkarve@sify.com 

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