Rita Ferreira was Mother Nature’s ace: a blessed metabolism in her gene pool with a bit of calisthenics and yoga at the crack of dawn kept her in top form, and a stunning form that was. Her face wouldn’t register beautiful on the Phi and Golden Ratio proportions that model scouts used, but she was seriously sensuous.
Thirty-something – Rita never quantified the something – five-foot six in her stockings, tawny and toned. Curvaceous enough to warrant a double take wherever she went. With that physical description she shouldn’t have joined the police. Anyone who didn’t blend into the background in mufti shouldn’t be in the force. You couldn’t hide a peacock amongst the crows. But she had defied that. She had joined the police and had been eminently successful.
The radio was tuned to 98.3 FM Radio Mirchi, and a fun item number about the poor and much-maligned Munni played while Rita lowered the mirror in the visor to check herself one last time before the car turned into the venue. She looked at her watch. 9.40 p.m.
Kuldeep stopped the car and, as usual, waited expectantly for Rita to get out before he parked the vehicle.
“You’re coming in with me, aren’t you?”
“Then park the car, and we’ll go in together,” Rita indicated a vacant slot on their right.
“You go on ahead, madam, I’ll join you after I park.”
“No. You were delayed because of me, so we’ll go in together.”
The occasion was Senior Inspector Rajesh Nene’s farewell party. He had been the senior-most member in Rita’s team and had initially been deeply sceptical of a woman leading the Crime Branch. In the course of time and several cases later, he came to realize and appreciate her dedication, commitment and her astute powers of deduction that helped solve crimes. Nene became a reliable associate and a big asset. He had forgone all promotions because he was reluctant to move away from Mumbai. “Family reasons,” he had claimed. His voluntary retirement at fifty-one would be a great loss.
“Ma’am,” he boomed over the din of the party, “I had given up on you.” Nene still looked young for his age, with a full head of curly L’Oréal black hair. His five-foot eleven body was ramrod straight. He raised his glass half-full of whisky.
“And why would I miss this opportunity, Rajesh? Sorry I’m late, though.”
“I’m just glad you could make it. What will you drink, ma’am?”
“Whatever you’re having...” Rita discovered that Kuldeep had already made himself scarce despite walking into the party with her. Cheeky!
There were about thirty people in the large hall, but mostly men. A reminder to Rita that she was in a job that was traditionally a man’s domain. She spotted two other direct reports.
Senior Inspector Vikram Patil, marginally older than Rita, was clearly the next in the chain of command, now that Nene had retired. He was from the State Police cadre and a strong contender for the post of Assistant Superintendent. This advancement was in the offing and the meeting that Rita had attended just before starting from work today was about personnel. Vikram Patil’s name had been put forward for a promotion. A gentle giant, Patil towered over Rita. A few years ago, he had gone on a strict fitness regime and had lost some thirty kilos. Today he was lithe and lean.
“Blended or single malt, ma’am?” he asked.
“Whiskey with an e, if there’s any.” Rita had a predilection for bourbon, Jim Beam to be precise.
“Let me check.”
“I’ll ask someone to get a bottle of Jim Beam for you, ma’am,” said Nene who had overheard this exchange although he had been chatting with another guest.
“Forget it Rajesh, I’m an equal opportunity drinker – I’ll have any whisky. Vikram was only pulling my leg.”
“No ma’am, I insist. You’re my guest for the first time.” Nene was at least six drinks down and Rita had no desire to wrangle. Although she would have loved to drink anything that was offered – even vodka – she figured that waiting another ten minutes wouldn’t hurt.
How was she to have known that the gods had something else entirely on their minds?
Rita chatted with Vikram as Nene walked away. Vikram was a tad tipsy as well. Inspector Jatin Singh, who was the other aide-de-camp to Rita, strolled over to greet her. It was common knowledge that Jatin had aspired to join the movies and that his brigadier father had nipped this hankering in the bud.
Jatin was a couple of inches shorter than Patil and, in addition to looking like a Greek god, was a sharp dresser. This evening he was in full sartorial splendour in a linen suit with a pale blue, open-collared shirt. There was nothing after the initial hello. Just a vague smile and she realised that he, too, was quite inebriated and perhaps didn’t want to unwittingly commit a social solecism.
Rita suddenly felt out of place in a room full of plastered policemen. She espied two other inspectors she had worked with, Akhil Mathur and Ravi Mathur, clearly wasted, having a loud argument over something trivial with some other policemen.
From a distance, she saw Rajesh Nene triumphantly wave a bottle. She waved back at him with a smile and just then, her iPhone started to buzz.
Rita was still single and an orphan, her parents having passed away some years ago. The only person who called her at odd hours was Ash Mattel – he lived in London – but she knew that he was on a flight tonight, winging his way to Delhi for some workshop. Given that almost everyone she worked with was here at the party, her phone ringing at this hour – past 10 pm – wasn’t a good omen. If the caller couldn’t wait to call in the morning, it asserted that there was something burning somewhere. And if you were in the police force, you knew that the fire wasn’t lit up for a barbeque.
“DCP Rita Ferreira,” she said, glancing at the number. It was a local Mumbai mobile phone but the caller wasn’t in her phonebook.
“Good evening, madam,” said the voice at the other end. “I’m Senior Inspector Vinod Shukla from Worli Police Station. We were called in an hour ago about a missing person’s enquiry, which turned out to be a homicide at Dr Annie Besant Road. I’m at the scene of crime, and it looks like the work of the person you’ve been looking for.” Rita’s heart raced as Vinod Shukla gave a quick summary of the victim and the tableau.
Excerpted with permission from Lipstick, Vish Dhamija, HarperCollins India.