Rambo, a multifaceted man, has an interesting encounter with a girl called Mary. Rambo is not only drawn to this stranger but also to her fascinating challenge. He accepts the proposal. Everything is going on as per the plan until he is caught red-handed. Does he escape the repercussions? Read this nail-biting thriller to find out in this story by Vignette Rioters..

***

I whistled a random tune while sauntering through the lonely, dark alley. My pulse quickened as I climbed down the steps and looked with wonder at the contrasting spectacle.

Cacophonous sounds greeted me from the far end of the street. I closed my eyes and sniffed the air. 

Ah! Marigold.

Temple bells rang discordantly, aggravating the chaotic humdrum of hawkers and horns around. I smiled, looking at the crowds that thronged the place. “Good for the business,” I mumbled and swiftly melted into the crowd, the moon and the clouds playing my perfect accomplices. 

In less than twenty minutes, I called it a day and retraced my steps down the dark alley. As I made my way, jostling through the rabble, my eye caught a brisk movement. It all happened too quickly. I checked my pocket. It was gone, my earnings of the day.

I stopped and looked around. It didn’t take me long to spot the culprit. Her body language gave her away. She walked too straight-faced, not looking at anyone, just a few steps ahead of me. Amused, I tapped on her shoulder.

She turned and looked me in the eye. A complete stranger. “Gotcha!” Her laughter echoed in my ears as the most melodic music and I couldn’t help smiling. 

“People warned me that you can’t be fooled but I didn’t believe them and see, I was right, boss.” Her eyes were challenging my stature and I caught myself gaping at her. 

“Tell me now, who is better at pickpocketing? You or I, Mr. Rambo?” A slight drawl in her tone brought me back onto mother earth and it felt like falling with a thud. 

“You were caught the next moment you swindled my loot. Real art is not the sleight of hand but also about camouflaging your presence. You still have a lot to learn, kid.” 

My patronizing tone evened the score and I looked at her with a smug smirk. Her pretty face turned hard and she pursed her lips before she spoke.

 “It was because I wanted to be caught, Mr. Rambo.” 

She rolled her brown eyes, raised her arched brows, and twisted her lips, as her hand slid inside her bosom and came out with ‘my winnings.’ 

“Here, take them back. I have already proved my point.”

  “You are an interesting character Mr. Rambo.” She went on. “Who would think that your divine name ‘Ram’ turned into ‘Rambo’, borrowing ‘Bo’ from the famous stage pickpocketer ‘Borra’?” 

Deep frown lines in my forehead made her stop. “No, no I am not judging you. We are kindred spirits. I christened myself Mary taking inspiration from the most notorious cutpurse Mary Frith.” 

As she spoke, I watched, fascinated by the interplay of light and darkness on her animated face. Moonlight’s ethereal glow made her eyes glimmer with the spirit of youth. Crowds had fallen behind us. It was unusually peaceful. I wondered why I was listening to her but then I didn’t want her to stop.

“I believe our meeting today is no accident. It was deliberated by you and for a reason, Miss Mary.” I finally spoke.

“Wow! You are straightforward. Yes, I am here to challenge you.” 

“Challenge me?” I was puzzled.

“You see Mr. Rambo, times have changed.  Soon your body and mind will surrender to old age and you will not be able to trust your skill to earn your bread and butter. My challenge or proposal will change your life.” 

I kept quiet. 

“I know you don’t trust me and you shouldn’t. But hear me out once.” She added.

“Ms. Mary, I work alone. I have never had accomplices or partners and what challenge? You are too naive to contest with me.” I was falling in love with that hurtful expression on her face.

“So, you are afraid of being overthrown by me, a girl?” 

Her indignant tone made me cackle loudly. “Go home, child, and don’t play this gender oppression card with me”  

Her eyes were blazing with fury and her voice quivered, “Don’t you dare be scornful. There are many personal crusades in everyone’s life but I am not here to discuss them with you. Festival times are approaching and a very good opportunity awaits us. You would thank me later for this proposal.”

 I looked at her and saw in her eyes, the reflection of me from the past. I took a deep breath and said, “Okay, I will listen to you but can’t promise to agree.” 

The excitement on her face was worth this peace making. For the next hour, I quietly listened to what she had to say. I couldn’t help being tempted and trapped.

 

ONE AND A HALF MONTHS LATER

“Ram, how much work is still left on the Ganesha statue? It is less than a week now. I don’t know why Seth Sir insisted that only you will sculpt it this year and that too in clay! Eco-friendly? Immersion in a private pond? ‘ Hey, Deva! Where is our culture?”

His mumbling went on. I ignored him. Raju, the old faithful security guard, didn’t trust me but couldn’t veto his boss’s decision. Good that the top man wasn’t so shrewd. 

Mary’s plan had worked so far. It was because of the excellent references from my previous employers that Sundar Seth hired me. I was impressed by Mary’s meticulous planning. Those recommendations were all genuine but I had never bothered to seek them. They had been happy with my work as I never plundered their stores. I had put my dexterity to another use. 

If an astrologer had looked at my horoscope at the time of my birth, he would have prophesied that I was going to be an ace magician and that I was. I was a true fingersmith, not only as a nipper but also in carving figures to perfection. Being a sculptor worked well as a coverup. 

I wondered how the girl found out so much about me. I checked her background. She had been raised in an orphanage. Life taught her tricks of the trade much earlier. That she was smart, she had proved during our short interaction, but this challenge seemed like a personal score. 

Sundar Seth, the proprietor of a large jewellery store, was chosen by Mary for a reason. Her proposal seemed to be interesting but not without risks. But where was the fun if the stakes weren’t high?  

“You have fifty days to show me what you are good at. Sundar Seth is looking for an extra hand in his jewellery store. That you are a fine sculptor has already reached his ears. His arch-rival in the town has professed to build the most beautiful Ganesh idol and the biggest pandal for Ganesh Chaturthi. I have done my homework. Now show me your handiwork. If you fail or need my help to complete the challenge, you must accept defeat, leave the city and settle somewhere else. I will find my way out.”

Mary’s smooth but firm voice left a stirring inside me; the adrenaline rush after ages. 

There was something about this Mary, too. Challenge was accepted.

In one month, I used all my charm to make myself trustworthy. My eagerness to help everyone and my disarming smile made me popular among all my co-workers except for Raju, who was a hard nut to crack. I avoided him as much as I could. 

“Where did you say is your birthplace?” He would question unexpectedly. “Why didn’t you go back to your old employer? His pestering wouldn’t stop and he never seemed to be satisfied with my answers.

I had been allocated a special room to work on the idol. During the day, I worked as a salesman at the shop, and from dusk till midnight, my hands were kneading clay. It was Sundar’s clear instructions that I must not be disturbed during those hours. My food was left outside the room. Around midnight, I was to lock the room and leave for home from the side exit. Raju checked everything, every night. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy under his hawk-eyed scrutiny.  

Some days are etched in one’s life to create memories. Horrid or sweet, in the end, they are those fragments that can add colour to one’s life or ruin it forever. One wrong move and the whole plan goes to dogs.

Mary and I had mutually decided not to meet till the end of the challenge. However, I had her number in case of an emergency which my vanity would never allow me to use; until that night!

It was the last week of the challenge. The idol was complete but still in the room, covered with a sheet. No one had seen it yet. Sundar Seth would be unveiling it in front of the staff the next day.

Daylight entered my room the next morning to find me awake and ready. I gazed at the blue skies streaked with clouds random and wondered if it was my last day in the city.

I reached the store and noticed an unfamiliar guard unlocking the store. He seemed to be friendlier and more agreeable than Raju but I felt a little uneasy.

The girl is right. I am getting old. Raju must have his reasons for not coming to the store. 

 “Where is Raju Sir?” I asked casually. 

“He had to go somewhere.” He smiled showcasing his beetle-red teeth. 

“I am his regular substitute. Sundar Sir always calls me when Raju takes leave.”

He blabbered on without encouragement.

The store was ready to receive the customers. Sundar Seth would be late today. He had gone to check the arrangements of the pandal. Banners, posters, and flyers were already printed. He wanted to make it ostentatious. 

“Ram, no pressure but there is a point to prove here. I hope you understand.” Sunder had sounded almost genuine that day.

It was late in the afternoon. The store hadn’t yet opened after lunchtime. The shrill ring of the landline stole its tranquillity.

It was Seth instructing us not to open the shop. He wanted the staff to take leave for the rest of the day. 

“You can prepare for Ganpatiji’s departure. Tomorrow, being the big day, after the unveiling ceremony, we will shift him to the pandal. The priest has asked me not to look at him tonight. 

“Okay, sir,” I said quietly. 

I knew what I had to do. 

I asked the new guard to leave. “But Raju is not here. How can I leave?” He asked.

“Raju sir called up to say that he will be here in an hour. Don’t worry, I am here till he arrives.” I reassured him. 

He went away without much protest. In five minutes, the store was empty. Everyone had left. All the jewels had been locked in the safe by one of the oldest and most trustworthy employees. He took the keys. I locked the front door.

 I quickly picked up my bag and rushed towards the room. As I was opening the lock, someone pushed me inside, making me stumble. I tried getting up but I was kicked in my stomach. “You thief. I know what you are up to. Do you think we are fools out here?” Raju bellowed angrily.

“Raju, what is wrong with you?” I protested feebly, holding my left side. My ribs were hurting. 

“Open your bag and show me what is there. Will you?” He shouted. I cowered and hid my face. “You are a filthy scoundrel but your game’s up.” He said before kicking me once more. 

Before I could react, the door was closed and darkness devoured me. 

I knew he had gone to call Sundar Seth but I knew what he did not. Thanks to Mary’s painstaking research and planning, Seth wasn’t available till the next morning. Fidelity wasn’t Sundar’s strong attribute and he never picked up his phone whenever he was with one of his mistresses. It wasn’t easy to trace him. 

Raju must have switched off the central switch. I was floating in endless tenebrosity, helplessly staring at the phantasmal shadows. I realized how disastrous the situation was. I had the foreboding that Raju was up to something. I should have been more cautious. Despondency enveloped me.

As I lay there wrapped in ghostly silence, random flashbacks played through the darkness. Shady memories loomed wickedly, drowning hope in their sinister laughter. I turned my face and there she was, Her mellifluous voice tantalizing me. I woke up with a jolt.  

I can’t be defeated tonight. I may lose the challenge, but I can’t let us lose. 

I groped in the dark and decided to pursue the only path left for me. My hand touched my bag. Raju wanted me to be caught red-handed with the evidence. The only reason for confiscating the bag. But now it would be his biggest mistake. I felt for its pocket and my hand touched the cold metal, my mobile. I quickly switched it on and called her, “We would have to change the plan.”

*****************

I was awakened by their voices outside the room. “Are you sure, Raju? He came with peerless recommendations and the jewels are in the safe. I checked them. Sundar Seth sounded confused.

I heard the key turning in the lock and the door opened. I was sitting in the corner, holding my belly. I tried to look as forlorn as I could. The pain was genuine. 

“Ram, did you steal the jewels?” Sundar looked at me.

 “No, sir. Look inside my bag. What you will find is some junk jewellery to decorate Bappa. Raju saw this and misunderstood the situation.” 

I spoke slowly, wincing in pain. Raju picked up the bag and held it upside down. There were multiple clinks of metal on the floor. Sundar picked up a necklace and looked at it. 

“Raju, did you see this jewellery? This is imitation.” For the first time, Raju’s face was streaked with shades of doubt.

“Sir, I saw him keeping the jewellery from the counter into the bag.” 

“Sir, Raju is not wrong. I had kept these fake ornaments on the counter as I had dressed the mannequin to see if they would look fine on Ganpatiji. He saw me and mistook the whole situation.”

I gave Raju a sympathetic look and stole a glance to check Sundar’s expression. He was still in a thoughtful mood. 

“Raju, though you were wrong about Ram, your loyalty can’t be questioned. Good, you didn’t call the police without informing me. Now, hurry up, clear this mess and decorate the room, both of you. Ram, you get ready before the staff and their families come in. I want to unveil Lord Ganesha.” We both nodded. I went to the store’s washroom to freshen up. 

 Lord Ganesha’s colossus form stood in the centre of the room, covered with a red silken cloth. Staff members had gathered around the room, waiting expectantly. There was no trace of the previous night’s havoc. The air smelt of marigolds, roses, and incense sticks. 

I stood away from the crowd staring into oblivion. My chest still hurt. I wished I could hit Raju back.

Sundar Seth entered the room with his wife and smiled at everyone. I stood stunned. His wife had no resemblance to the vivacious girl I met in the alley. But it was her, alright. She stood coyly in the corner, like a little mouse when he rudely pulled her hand, and together they unveiled the statue. 

Lord Ganesha looked at me through his ‘fake’ ruby-studded eyes and I lowered my lids in silent prayer. Sundar was standing quietly, looking at the idol and my heart was racing at an unnatural speed. He beckoned me. 

“Ram, you have left me speechless. What a masterpiece! No one can compete with us now. I never expected you to do such an incredible job. The embossed jewellery has enhanced the beauty of the divine. I am impressed. 

“Thank you, sir,” I said humbly. “Sir,  I am leaving tomorrow for Kolkata. I have been called by my old employer for Durga Puja.” 

“Oh! So soon? We will miss you, my dear.” I smiled and kept up my pretences. 

People came and appreciated my efforts but she still stood away admiring the idol. I went to her. 

“I have fulfilled my challenge, though not without your help. It won’t be long before he discovers the truth. Your idea to not touch the real jewellery in the top boxes of the safe worked. He didn’t check the others.”

 I looked around. Sunder was talking to Raju. I continued,

“I hope the remaining diamonds and precious stones that we sneaked out yesterday have found their new abode.Ganpatiji must be protecting us, otherwise, Raju would have opened my bag. Such a fool!” I gritted my teeth in anger.

“Your forethought at getting the duplicate keys to the room and the safe was commendable. No one has checked the fiddled security cameras. Sundar had been too busy with his new girlfriends. You even thought of that to keep him away from the store. I couldn’t get it. Why did you need me?”

She looked at me and smiled.  

“Mr. Rambo, who could have carved this idol with perfection and deceived a jeweller by hiding the stolen jewellery so cleverly? I salute you. Embossing was a brilliant idea. I am grateful to you. My revenge is complete. My poverty was my biggest impediment in getting rid of this despicable man. Sundar will think twice before taking advantage of young orphans. I am no longer the victim. You will get your share after Ganpati immersion.”

Mary folded her hands. Sundar, her husband, stood there, his leering gaze so egregious. I was going to miss her but there is nothing more interesting than a new city and being a new whiz boy. I quietly left the room.

 

***THE END***

Glossary:

  1. Ganpati, Bappa, Ganesha – Elephant-headed hindu God.
  2. Deva – a divine being

 

Prompt:

The doors were closed for him/her. Your MC saw nothing but darkness and disaster in front of him/her. Drawing a deep breath your MC firmly decided to pursue the only course open to him/her. 

Team: Vignettes Rioters

P.C Sanjib Samanta, Pexels free images

 


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