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APARAJITA SEN

SONGSOPTOK THE WRITERS BLOG | 4/15/2017 |



The sudden knock on the door made Nina jump out of her skin. She was totally absorbed by the microscope in front of her – it was an urgent piece of work that needed to be done before she quit for the day. The task had proved to be more complex and she had not noticed the whole office going quiet around her. She quickly glanced at her watch – it was almost seven. Very few people stayed this late, and she thought that that the cleaning lady had come in early today. ‘Come in’ she said, and went back to the instrument, pushing the bin forward with her feet.

- ‘Hey Nina, sorry to disturb you’ said the visitor, and Nina looked up to find Tania standing in front of her desk, impeccable as ever, not a hair out of place after a full day’s work. Tania was the latest recruit in their office, a startlingly beautiful girl hired to help with running the office that was becoming too much to handle for old Molly. Molly had been with the company since day one, and ran the office with incredible efficiency. But she was getting old, and wanted to retire to her little cottage in a picture postcard village. Tania had walked into the office one day, résumé in hand, looking for a job, temporary or permanent, and had charmed Nina’s alpha male boss. Molly too, wonder of wonders – she was definitely not a woman to be taken in by a comely face and a stylish dress. Whatever the reason, Tania was hired and very soon proved to be as efficient and as well organized as Molly. Everybody was happy with her, especially Molly, who could now come in late and leave early – a small favor accorded for her loyal services to the firm.

Tania was young, probably in her early twenties, though Nina had never enquired about her age. She had the poise and cool elegance of someone twice her age. Perfectly polite and respectful, she never got on the wrong side of anyone. She worked with quiet efficiency, and what she did was faultless. The arrival of this beautiful girl had caused quite a buzz amongst Nina’s male colleagues. In those early days, bets were being made as to who would date her first. Nina had joined in the fun, putting her dime on Ari, the charming happy-go-lucky techie with the big sunny smile. But so far nothing seemed to have materialized on that front as far as Nina knew. Tania had an ailing mother, and left punctually at six every day. She was a quiet person, not given to gabbling like some of Nina’s female colleagues, though she was always present on the periphery of the office parties and impromptu pizza lunches.

Nina summoned up a smile. Tania made her faintly uncomfortable, though she could not imagine why. She really was Miss Perfection – or maybe that was the reason? Nina pushed the uncharitable thoughts to the back of her head.
- ‘Hi, Tania. What are you doing so late?’ she asked.
- ‘Oh, I thought I’d clear up my desk today’, dimpled Tania. ‘Got a bit carried away, actually – didn’t notice the time’.
- ‘Now you can go home with a clear conscience then’, Nina smiled. ‘I wish I had the energy to clean out that filing cupboard. I’ll get around to it someday…’
Tania smiled too. By now Nina had run out of pleasantries and was a bit puzzled. She wanted to finish her work and get home – it had been a long day.
- ‘Is there anything you wanted, Tania? I’ll lock up when I leave. I suppose everyone else has left?’
- ‘Well, I was wondering, Nina – would you like to go out for a drink? Maybe to that quaint bar down the street? They have a Happy Hour there, you know’.

This took Nina completely by surprise. She was not part of the group that went out for after hour drinks in the neighboring pubs and wine bars regularly. She had joined in a few times, on very rare occasions, only to sip insipid mocktails that left a chemical taste in her mouth. Tania could not know that, though – in fact, this was the very first time that Nina had seen her in the office after the closing hour. She thought of fending Tania away pleading work or a prior appointment – at least the work part would be true. But she was getting very curious as to why this young goddess was inviting her for a drink. And as always, she gave in to her curiosity, knowing full well that she would have to be up with the sparrows next morning to finish her work.
- ‘I really should have finished this piece of work but I shall call it a day. Let me just turn off the instruments, and then we can go. You know this bar, do you?’ she asked while turning off the various switches.
- ‘Never been inside’ said Tania, ‘but it looks sort of nice and warm when I walk past it every day. There is quite a crowd in there, you know. People grabbing a drink before getting on to the bus or the train, I suppose’.
- ‘I don’t really like alcohol’ said Nina, ‘but I suppose I can make an exception today’.

Tania looked very pleased, and went to collect her things. They switched off the office lights, locked the doors, turned on the alarm, and took the elevator to the now deserted lobby. The streets were emptying rapidly as another workday got over. The lights were being switched off in the offices & the windows looked like blind eyes now. A chilly breeze lifted the debris off the pavements and overflowing rubbish bins. Nina shivered and pulled the warm scarf closer, wishing that she had refused Tania and gone home directly. Not that there was an awful lot to do at home. She would probably have switched on some music & rustled up dinner halfheartedly – like she often did during the week. The weekends were different & often festive, especially when Gary was there and sometimes a few close friends. It was all very different from the life Nina had before, and she was content, if not really ecstatic. She was too old to be starry eyed happy, she had decided long time back – she was ‘cool’ as Ari would have put it. She shook her head and came back to the present, walking silently and companionably with young Tania.

As they turned a corner, Nina saw the bar. It did look inviting, warm golden light pouring out from the glass windows. The entrance was set back from the pavement, closed off by a dainty little gate. They pushed through the gate and discovered a narrow path, fenced on one side. Pretty creepers trailed over the trellis. Nina was really surprised – she never imagined something like this in an area crowed with tall office buildings. The door was a brass and glass affair set with a heavy brass knocker in the shape of a three-leaf clover, set with tiny green bits of glass. Nina immediately fell in love with the door and was almost reluctant to go inside. But that would have been ridiculous, so she followed Tania inside.

The room was not too crowded, only comfortably full. While a fair percentage of customers were certainly from the neighboring offices, she noticed quite a few who were not – tastefully dressed elderly couples, a group of young women huddling over two tables and obviously having a good time, totally wrapped up in themselves, two young men playing chess in a corner table, a serious looking girl in outsized specs reading in another corner. There was a long bar counter at one end of the room, dark polished wood reflecting the glasses hung upside down from the rack overhead. A dignified looking man was wiping the counter with a rag. He looked up as the two girls entered and smiled at them warmly, waving them to a table for two. As they took off their coats, Nina could feel the warmth of the room seeping into her body. She felt relaxed & happy that she had accepted Tania’s suggestion. This place was definitely worth spending time in. She settled down in the comfortable leather chair & smiled at Tania.
- ‘What a lovely place, Tania. You have a good eye. Really cozy, isn’t it?’
Tania smiled back. ‘I’m glad you like it, Nina. I have wanted to come here for some time now’.
-‘Why didn’t you? I’m sure a lot of guys at work would have loved to accompany you’, joked Nina.
A shadow passed over Tania’s face. ‘You know, I don’t want to send out wrong signals’ she said seriously. ‘And in any case, I find our male colleagues somewhat immature. I am never sure how I should behave with them’.

Nina hid her surprise. She knew her male colleagues quite well and would not have qualified them as immature. Frivolous and silly at times, certainly; occasionally rowdy; sometimes rude. But she let it pass. She started saying something lighthearted but stopped when she glanced at the beautiful girl. She had turned her head for a moment to look out of the glazed glass window. Her face in profile looked infinitely sad. Nina was tempted to touch her hand that lay on the table. She did not, of course. She did not know the girl at all & Tania may take offence. At that moment Tania turned her head, looking perfectly normal, just as the man from behind the counter came around with the menu card. As they ben their heads on the card, Nina saw a group of four men walking into the bar. They were shown to a table nearby. As they settled down, Nina looked up from the menu, her choice made, and glanced at the newcomers. They seemed different from the rest of the people there, almost identically dressed in very chic casual clothes. They had a big portfolio on the table. Nina thought that they could well be photographers or from the advertising milieu. The man sitting opposite Nina, and so facing Tania, was staring straight at her bent head. Nina smiled to herself – Tania’s beauty often had this type of effect on men. She looked at her young companion, who seemed to be undecided about what to order, and had not quite made up her mind when the waiter came around to take the order. When Nina ordered a cup of hot chocolate, she hastily followed suit. The waiter seemed surprised at their order – after all, it was the Happy Hour – but went away without any further comment.

- ‘I don’t like alcohol much’ said Nina. ‘They tend to give me a headache’.
- ‘So you never drink?’
- ‘Oh yes, I am not a teetotaler. I do like good wine. But I prefer drinking at home when I have company. I find it more relaxing, especially since I don’t have to worry about either driving or taking public transport to get back. I suppose you are too young to like wine, Tania? People in your age group tend to stick to beer and such stuff - isn’t it?’
Once again a shadow seemed to pass over Tania’s face & Nina wondered if she had said anything wrong. But it was so fleeting that Nina was not even sure that she had seen it.
- ‘Yes, you’re right, Nina. But I don’t like beer. And I don’t go out very much either. Actually, I don’t have many friends here, you know.’
- ‘Have you recently moved in here, then, Tania? Did you grow up somewhere else?’
- ‘Well, yes, but I have lived in a lot of places, so I am sort of like a temporary visitor wherever I live’.

Nina thought about the small town where she had grown up. Even today, even as her visits there became more & more infrequent, she always thought of it as her home. She still had quite a few friends who had chosen to live there and Nina was swept up in a whirl of visits and parties and shopping expeditions every time she went home. She felt sorry for Tania & chastised herself silently for not paying more attention to the girl.
- ‘Our colleagues are really very friendly, Tania, though of course you are much younger than us. But we do some fun things occasionally, and you are most welcome to join us’.
- ‘Oh, I don’t care about that. But I don’t want to impose, Nina. Also, I don’t want to be treated like a youngster either. That is what annoys me, really – that most of you think that I am from a different planet with typical interests. I am not.’

If Nina was slightly taken aback by her sudden outburst, she did not have the time to reply. She saw one of the arty types getting up from the next table & walking towards them. For some time now Nina had noticed one of them staring intently at Tania while she seemed totally oblivious. Nina felt a little uncomfortable, hoping that the man was headed somewhere else, though the washrooms were at the other end. As the man neared their table, Tania looked up too and frowned. They had just enough time to exchange a look before the man was there. He looked directly at Tania, paying scarce attention to Nina and smiled.

‘I think we know each other, don’t we’? he said, sticking his hand out. ‘Only, I just couldn’t figure out from where. I think I have got the answer now. How are you?’
Tania looked at the man blankly and shook her head. ‘I think you’re making a mistake’ she said ‘I saw you come in, but I don’t think I’ve ever met you before’.
The man looked surprised, and shook his head in turn. ‘Maybe you’ve forgotten me. I did a photo shoot with you a few years back. It was for a fashion magazine – I forget the name. But you seem to have a worse memory than me. I am Brad – you still don’t remember me?’
Nina sat there listening to the conversation, totally lost. She looked at Tania and was surprised by how different she looked. She was frowning, eyes narrowed, lips pursed almost in a straight line. She suddenly looked years older, a trapped look in her eyes.
-‘I have already told you that you have made a mistake – I don’t know you and do not want to in the future. Now will you please leave us in peace?’ she almost spat out the sentence, her eyes hard & glittering.
The man shrugged. His eyes narrowed too. ‘Cool it, lady’, he said. ‘There is no need to get insulting. But let me tell you one thing – I do not make mistakes. I am paid to study and remember faces. You certainly have your own reasons for denying that you know me. No sweat. Enjoy your evening.’
With that he went back to join his friends. Nina could see them talking in low voices, huddled over their drinks. Nina was feeling disturbed. Her antennas were up – those famous antennas that her friends had first laughed at and then started believing in. The incident was no doubt unpleasant, but it should not have made the hairs on the nape of her neck stand up the way she felt now. She looked up as Tania spoke to her.
- ‘What a nuisance, honestly. God knows what they can get up to for making a pass. Sorry Nina.’ Her face was now back to normal, the smile guileless. Nina smiled faintly too.
- ‘In the meantime, my chocolate has gone quite cold. How about you? Do you want another cup or shall we call it a day? I must admit that I feel a bit tired’.
- ‘Let us leave then. We can always come another day. Stupid guy – he quite spoilt the evening’ said Tania.
As they went up to the counter to pay, Nina saw the two guys looking at them in a way that made her uncomfortable once again. They came out into the cold windy evening and started walking towards the bus stop. Both of them were silent, walking side by side like two strangers. Well, that’s what we are, thought Nina. What do I know about the girl, after all? What does she know about me? She practically jumped out of her skin when Tania spoke, as if answering her unspoken thoughts.
- ‘I wish we had more time to talk, Nina. We hardly know anything about each other, really.’
- ‘True. But there will always be time’ Nina said vaguely.
As Nina sat on the bus on the way home, she suddenly realized that throughout the evening, it was the younger girl who had actually taken the lead in every single thing, and Nina had not felt, even for a moment, that she was with someone almost two decades younger than her.

****************************************************************************
Nina did not sleep well that night. She felt restless and strangely disturbed, though she could not put her finger on what exactly was troubling her. The small incident in the bar was curious but in no way sinister or threatening. True, she had not been totally at ease with Tania, but that was nothing new – Nina was well aware of her lack of socializing skills. She tried to push the unease to the back of her mind and finally fell into a somewhat disturbed sleep.

Nina arrived at work very early, feeling guilty about the unfinished job, hoping desperately to complete it before the boss came in. She was totally focused today, and it did not take her long to finish the report. It was not even eight in the morning and the office was still totally empty. People will start arriving in another half hour so. Nina went to the cafeteria and made herself a cup of coffee. She was feeling hungry and debated about going down to the coffee shop in the lobby to get something to eat. It would be nice to have a quick chat with the bubbly Lisa before the morning rush started. She decided to finish the coffee and then go down. She started walking back to her office with the coffee cup in her hand. She idly glanced at the closed office doors, result of new security restrictions in the building. Their doors were never locked before. She smiled as she remembered the initial confusion as colleagues kept losing their keys and the security guys became totally fed up of supplying duplicates. And then she frowned. Tania’s office door was wide open. She had not heard anyone come in, and her office was almost opposite the front door; she had not closed her office door this morning while working. She walked to the door to wish Tania a good morning. But there was no one in the office. Nina thought back to last evening – she now distinctly remembered Tania locking the door and putting the key in her bag. It was unthinkable for Molly to arrive this early and now Nina walked into the office to investigate. Tania’s desk was perfectly organized, each object in its place. She had no personal things on her desk or on the cabinets or on the walls other than a big calendar. Nina herself did not have many personal effects in her office either, but nothing like this. It was as if Tania did not want anyone to know anything about her. And suddenly Nina discovered what had been bothering her since last evening. Tania was hiding something. As always, she had no way of justifying this train of thought, but she knew she was right. But her immediate problem was to find out why Tania’s office was not locked.

Nina made a quick tour of the office – as before, it was totally empty. The toilettes too. So someone else had opened Tania’s office. A nagging worry started somewhere in Nina’s head. The office archives were just behind this office, separated by a steel door that was kept locked at all times. The company dealt with a lot of confidential information, and no one other than Molly, Bernard the accountant and her boss had access to this room. If they needed something from the archives, they had to get a special permission and then Molly would go get the files. Nina walked through the office and sighed in relief. The archive door was closed, and there was nothing remotely unusual there. On her way out she glanced at Molly’s desk. Chubby children with gap tooth smiles stared out of small ornate frames. A collage of faces – children, adults, dogs and cats adorned the wall behind. Molly’s fluffy pink shawl was draped over the chair. Compared to the other end of the room occupied by Tania, Molly’s corner looked positively cluttered.

Nina was just coming out of the office when the front door chimed and Anita walked in. She seemed to be in a good mood today – at least she did not have the grumpy morning look on her face. She made a beeline for the coffee machine, as usual. Anita was not a morning person. She turned around only after the first gulp of coffee.
- ‘You’re early today, baby’ she said. ‘Fall off your bed?’
Nina followed Anita into her office and told her about Tania’s open office. Anita frowned as well.
- ‘It’s very unlike Tania to be so careless’ she said. ‘She is our Miss Perfection, isn’t she?’
Nina had another flash.
- ‘You don’t like her, do you, Anita?’
Anita started to say something and changed her mind.
- ‘To be honest, no, I don’t like her. There is something spooky about the girl’ she said. ‘Don’t get me wrong now, honey. She is perfectly friendly and polite and of course, super-efficient. Even David seems to be totally under her magic, let alone the other guys. Yet she never pays them the slightest bit of attention – if you know what I mean, Nina. Don’t you think that is totally unnatural at her age?’
- ‘Anita, maybe she has a boyfriend already. Maybe she does not fancy any of the guys here’
- ‘Even then, Nina. It’s like she wears a beautiful mask all day long, and never ever exposes her true self’.
Once again Nina was startled by Anita’s acute perception and did not try to counter it.
- ‘Anita, I went out for a drink with Tania yesterday and….’
- ‘You did WHAT?’ exclaimed Tania. ‘How come, Nina? Wow, you must be the only person in this bleeding office to have actually gone out with her. What was it like?’ Anita was now all fired up. ‘Tell me all, Nina’ she commanded.
- ‘I shall, but this is not the time. Listen, we went out together. I am certain she locked her office door. How come it was open this morning?’
- ‘Maybe she came back for something’ Anita said easily. ‘Ask her when she comes in. Why are you so worked up?’
- ‘I don’t know, Anita. Maybe that was it. You are right. No need to worry’.
- ‘We’re having lunch together today, Nina. I want to hear all about your evening.’
Nina smiled. ‘OK, that’s a deal. Shall we go to the Lebanese restaurant?’
- ‘OK, deal. See you later Nina’.

******************************************************************************
The day did not go as planned for Nina, Anita and a host of other people in the office. Tania did not come into work that day. She did not call to say that she won’t be coming either. It was Molly’s day off – she now worked only three days a week, and there was no one to attend to the daily secretarial chores. There were calls to be received, calls to be made, papers to take out, mail to sort and distribute, and a thousand other small things that secretaries do to make things run smoothly. It took some time to redistribute the different tasks, and things were just settling down when David walked into the office from an early morning meeting in a perfectly foul mood. People steered clear of him on such days because he behaved really like a bear with a sore head. He walked into his office without greeting anyone. He was out in a few minutes.
- ‘Where is Tania?’ he asked with a thunderous look on his face, to no one in particular.
Nina’s office was just across the corridor. ‘She hasn’t come in today’ she replied.
- ‘Why?’ asked David. ‘Is she sick? She hasn’t printed out my appointment diary today’.
- ‘Well, we don’t know’ Nina replied. ‘She didn’t call’.
- ‘Didn’t call? She knows damn well the rules of this office. And Molly is not here today either’.
- ‘Don’t worry, David, we are taking care of the phone calls & other things. Maybe Tania will come in later today. Maybe she is unwell.’
- ‘Well, I am sure going to find out’, muttered David as he walked back into his office.
As it turned out, there were plenty of surprises in store for them. The phone number recorded on Tania’s personal file as her contact number did not exist. David had called the number and got the recorded message. Tania was not listed in the telephone directory. Since she did not have a professional cell phone, she was not required to provide her mobile number and didn’t. In other words, there was no way of getting in touch with her other than actually visiting her home. Nina’s feeling of disquiet returned with full force. Somehow the chain of events since she went out with Tania last evening was disturbing, to say the least. She didn’t dare to talk about the open office door to David – in his present mood he would probably bite Nina’s head off. But she continued to fret silently as she went back to her work.

The delivery boy walked in punctually at 11 am. Anita was there to sign for the letters and parcels. She had agreed to do the sorting too. In any case, there were hardly any personal letters these days, other than bills. The parcels contained journals and professional reviews ordered by each person according to her area of specialization. They would come and pick up their orders at lunch time. Tania would update the record book when she came back. Jerry, the office boy then told Anita that he will come back with the bouquet in a few minutes. ‘It was a bit bulky and I didn’t want to damage the flowers.’
- ‘What flowers? Jerry, when have you ever delivered bouquets here? You must have made a mistake’ said Anita.
- ‘Not at all, Miss. It is for Miss Tania. Her name is written on the card.’
- ‘Tania is not here today, as you can see. How can I sign for her personal delivery?’
- ‘Seems a shame to take it back to our depot’ said Jerry. ‘The flowers will all die. Lovely flowers they are too – those special roses, you know, that are almost black?’
- ‘Oh, I suppose I could take them and put them in water. Wait while I ask David. We really are not supposed to receive anything personal at work. The new safety regulations don’t allow it’.
David was still in a foul mood. ‘What?’ he snapped. ‘Flowers for Tania delivered here? We are not her concierge – are we? Send them back. And how dare she give the office address to her friends or admirers?’
Anita nodded and made a hasty exit. She went back to Jerry and asked him to do whatever he liked with the cursed bouquet.
‘No problem, Miss’, said Jerry. ‘We’ll send it back to the shop.’

*****************************************************************************
Nina could not concentrate on her work. Her mind kept drifting back to the evening with Tania. Something was not right – she felt positive about it now. The series of events this morning could not be coincidences. Tania had been working here for more than six months now and there has never been one single hitch. She just couldn’t believe that Tania, who was quiet and discreet practically to a fault, would ask for any personal deliveries made at the workplace. The non-existent telephone number made her wonder too. Has she given a false telephone number intentionally? If so, why? She was certainly a very private person, but that did not her give her the right to provide false information to her employer, certainly. The more she thought about it, more she became convinced that something was wrong with Tania. And then she had the brainwave – the only way to find out was to visit Tania, if she did not come in or call later in the day. Her mind made up now, Nina suddenly found out that she was ravenously hungry. She was picking up her purse to go out when Anita walked into her office, somewhat pale and tight-lipped. She closed the office door and sat down in front of Nina.
- ‘What’s the matter, Anita? I was just going to call you – are you ready to go out for lunch?’
- ‘Nina, David says he can’t find the project application we are supposed to submit today. You know, I prepared the whole dossier, signed by our accountant, lawyer and our technology providers. I gave it to Tania a couple of days back. She was supposed to make a copy and then give David the original file. We can’t find either the original or the copy.’
Nina stared at her colleague aghast. Of course Nina, like everyone else, knew all about this new project that was crucial for the growth of their company. Anita had worked hard on the proposal along with a few other colleagues. They were trying to get a substantial funding from an investment fund to buy some real state of the art equipment and software. David was to accompany the President of their company for this crucial meeting.
- ‘Shit, Anita. Have you looked properly? I know David is careful about his papers, but maybe he mislaid it? Have you looked into the archives?’
- ‘Of course, Nina. I didn’t find anything. Of course, I have not looked into Tania’s drawers and her personal cabinet. They are locked.’
- ‘Well, there’s only one way to go about it. Call the maintenance. We have to force the locks. Didn’t David say the same thing?’
- ‘David just went out to meet Mr.Jordon. He is completely shaken’.
- ‘Right, Anita, I shall take the responsibility. Let’s call Mayer. Or do you want to me to do it?’
- ‘If you don’t mind, Nina. I’ll go get a glass of water’.

***************************************************************************
Tania’s cabinet was as neat as her desk, everything impeccably organized. There was a folder marked ‘Pending’ but contained only a few bills awaiting payment. The rest of the cabinet was filled with consumables for different types of equipment used in the office. It took Nina and Anita less than five minutes to ascertain that the file was not there. There were no Xeroxed documents either. Tania’s desk drawer contained nothing of any interest either other than a pile of magazines stacked neatly in the bottommost drawer. The two women looked at each other. ‘There’s only one thing to do, Anita’ Nina said. ‘We have to go to her place’.
- ‘That’s daft, Nina. She may be on her way to work right now’.
- ‘What if she isn’t, Anita? What if she is sick in bed or has sprained her ankle? At least we’ll be able to ask about this file. And also find out if something is wrong with her’.
Anita agreed reluctantly. ‘But let us grab a couple of sandwiches first. I am starving’.
- ‘OK, we’ll eat on the way then. Let’s ask the reception to call us a cab’.
In less than ten minutes they were on their way. They didn’t talk much on the way. Nina felt restless and worried. Anita was visibly nervous, twisting the end of her bright scarf in her fingers. Traffic was reasonably fluid – the lunch hour rush was yet to start in earnest, and they soon reached their destination.
Both Nina and Anita exclaimed almost at the same time. They were in a very beautiful and posh neighborhood. The street was lined on both sides by sleek towers of glass and steel. Each building was surrounded by high fences and the massive gates were all closed. Neither of them knew this area though it was not that far from the center of the city or from their own office.
- ‘Hey Nina, did we get the right address? This looks like a real rich mans’ area. Look at those gardens on the balconies. They have whole bloody tropical forests growing there!’
Nina checked the piece of paper again. ‘Yes, this is it. And there is a flat number too. It must be in this complex’.
They moved to the gate and pressed the buzzer. A video camera was positioned above the entrance. A disembodied voice asked them what they wanted.
- ‘We want to go to Apartment 1729 to meet Tania Maleck’ Nina said.
- ‘Please wait. I shall ring her now’ said the voice.
- ‘So she does live here, Nina’ Anita whispered in awe. ‘Hell, her family must be loaded! And I thought she was working to look after her mother!’
Nina didn’t reply. Her apprehension was growing every second, and she could feel her stomach slowly tying itself up in knots.
- ‘I am sorry, but Miss Maleck does not seem to be at home’ the voice had come back.
- ‘Look, can you please come out for a second? We have a very important message for her. It is absolutely essential that she gets it as soon as possible. We are her colleagues from work.’
The gate opened in a few seconds and a middle-aged man wearing a fancy livery came out.
- ‘What can I do for you, ladies?’ he asked politely.
Nina looked straight into the slightly rheumy eyes. ‘Tell us one thing first, please. Did you call Tania on her phone?’
- ‘No, we have an interphone here. She did not reply when I buzzed her’.
- ‘Can you call her on the phone? She may not have heard the buzzer’.
The man looked at Nina sternly. ‘Well, she may not hear the phone either, then’.
- ‘Please try’, pleaded Nina. ‘It is really very important’.
The man relented. ‘Well, come into my office then’, he said. ‘I don’t have the number here’.
Anita started to say something but caught Nina’s eyes and shut up. They followed the man into his office.
The inside of the building was gleaming with chrome and glass. A big swimming pool, silent and empty now, glittered in the early afternoon sun. There were several signs indicating the way to gym, sauna, tennis court, snooker etc. It was like a five star hotel, except that it was totally silent at this hour of the day.
The janitor went into his office and asked them to wait. He came back a few minutes later, frowning. ‘It says that the number does not exist’ he said in a puzzled way. ‘But that is not possible. Why shouldn’t the number exist?’
- ‘Did you see her today?’ Nina asked the man.
- ‘No, but then I don’t see all of them going out. Most of them take the elevator to the parking’
- ‘But you’d have seen Tania, right? She doesn’t have a car’ said Anita.
Now the janitor goggled at her. ‘Of course she has. A very modern sporty thing too’ said the man.
- ‘But are you sure we are talking about the same person? Tania takes a bus to come to work’ said Nina.
- ‘Well, there is only one person of that name in this building. And she does have a fancy car that she uses every day. I have this surveillance camera in my room, see, and I know for certain that it is used every day’.

Nina’s head was spinning. Who was this girl they saw every day at work? Was she someone even real? What if she was usurping the identity of the person who actually lived here? But that seemed impossible – The HR department must have checked her ID papers before she signed the contract. The only other possibility was that Tania for some reason had woven a fabric of lies for her colleagues.
- ‘I just thought of something’ Nina said brightly. ‘Maybe she had to take her mother to the doctor. Maybe there was an emergency. Maybe that’s why she couldn’t call us at work’.
The man looked at Nina like she was from a different planet. ‘But she lives on her own, Miss Tania. There is no one else!’ he said.
He now seemed to make up his mind. ‘Look, ladies, it seems that you don’t know Ms. Maleck at all’ he said sternly. ‘You’ll have to go now. This is a private residential complex.’
- ‘We believe that there is something wrong with our colleague’ said Anita. ‘Can you please take us to her apartment? Look, this is my office badge. My friend here has hers as well. You can check if you want. Do we look like hustlers? How could we have the name and address of Miss Maleck if we didn’t know her?’
The janitor seemed to hesitate for a second. ‘But it is our policy here not to take visitors up unless we get the go-ahead from the owners’ he said.
- ‘Well, so be it, then. If our colleague is lying there with some major problem, you’ll be the one who refused to help’ Anita said. ‘Come on, Nina, let’s go. No point in wasting time here. We’ll soon find out what happened to Tania, one way or the other’.
Nina gave the man a nasty look and then turned to go.
- ‘Wait, ladies. You do have a point. She may be ill. I’ll take you up to her apartment.’
- ‘Please take your pass key’ said Anita. ‘We may have to take a look inside if she is not in a state to answer the door.’
They took the elevator to the 17th floor and rang the doorbell. As they had expected, there was no answer. There was no sound from inside, and Anita motioned the janitor to open the door. He slid the plastic card and the door opened silently. The apartment was sumptuous, with a fabulous rooftop garden and sparsely furnished with top of the range furniture. Nina and Anita waited at the door while the caretaker went inside, calling out Tania’s name. He came back a few minutes later, saying that the place was totally empty. He did not offer to take them inside and they did not ask, though Nina was fairly bursting with curiosity. She had a brainwave.
- ‘Excuse me, do you think I can use the restroom? Sorry to be a bother’ she said apologetically.
Their escort nodded reluctantly, pointing the way. ‘Please be quick. I need to go back to my desk’.

Nina scooted into the bedroom. The bed was perfectly made, the coverlet in place. There was nothing on the bedside tables. She looked into the bathroom – everything in place there as well, perfectly arranged. She quickly lifted the curtain of the walk-in closet – it was totally empty. Now she realized that there were no personal effects in the bathroom either. Tania had left.

They accompanied the concierge downstairs and left after thanking him. Nina told Anita what she thought. Anita shrugged. ‘I don’t care where she is. But what did she do with the file? You don’t think she stole it, Nina?’
- ‘Anita, I don’t know what to think. Everything she told us is lies. She even took the bus everyday – I often met her at the bus stop in the evening. She must have parked her car somewhere along the bus route. She lives alone – so why did she give us the sob story about an ailing mother? Why did she take so much trouble? There must be something really important that she wanted to hide. Industrial espionage? Who knows, could well be. But somehow I think it is something different’.
She told Anita about the outing the evening before, about the encounter with the man who claimed to know her. Anita was just going to answer when Nina’s cellphone rang. It was David.
-‘Nina, listen, I’m so sorry to have bothered all of you. I have the application file and the copy as well. It had slid under my car seat and wedged firmly between the front and the passenger seat. That is why I didn’t find it when I looked earlier. I am off to the meeting now. I tried calling Anita, but she must have gone out for lunch. Do let her know.’
- ‘Of course, David. Good luck’
Anita was immensely relieved by the news, though she did not forget to curse David and men in general. ‘We could have had a nice relaxed lunch and gone for a quick walk in the park instead of all this sleuthing. Bloody waste of time.’
That wasn’t what Nina thought but she didn’t bother to contradict her friend. The visit to Tania’s apartment was disturbing. Why had the girl lied to everybody? Why would someone living in that high class apartment bother to work as an underling in a small company? Why did she take so much pain to hide her own identity? How could she afford to have the stylish condo in a posh neighborhood? What was the mystery about Tania?

****************************************************************************
Nina worked quietly for the rest of the afternoon. She finished a whole series of tests, tabulated the results and locked everything away. She wanted a latte badly and decided to go down to the basement cafeteria. As she had expected, the cafeteria was empty. Lisa perched behind the counter with a huge mug of steaming coffee. She greeted Nina cheerfully as she perched on a high stool at the counter. Nina ordered a big latte.
- ‘So, how are you doing, Lisa? Everything all right at home’?
- ‘Oh yes. My girl is going away to college, Nina. I am thrilled to bits. Never had a chance myself’.
Nina beamed. ‘What lovely news, Lisa. You must be so proud. Where is she going? What is she going to study’?
They chatted amiably for a few minutes. Nina took time to finish her latte and got up to go. ‘Better get going, Lisa. I’m going to leave on time today for once’ she said.
- ‘Oh Nina, I wanted to ask you something’ said Lisa. ‘You have a new girl in your office now, isn’t it? To replace Molly, I suppose?’
Nina was not surprised, not one bit. Lisa had this amazing capacity of keeping track of things going on in different offices in the building.
-‘Ah yes. She is called Tania. And yes, she’ll probably replace Molly once she retires’.
- ‘She is beautiful, isn’t she?’ said Lisa. ‘No wonder people are asking about her. And not only the lads from our building, Nina’.
Nina looked at Lisa carefully. She had never noticed Tania in Lisa’s cafeteria. In fact Tania hardly ever left office. She always brought her own lunch and ate at the office.
- ‘She comes here often, does she?’ she asked Lisa.
- ‘Oh no, I’ve never seen her here. I saw her in your office the other day when I took up the sandwiches for some meeting. I’ve crossed her once or twice in the lobby, that’s all’.
- ‘I wonder where all these young Romeos met her then’ Nina said lightly, though she was once again feeling her antennas stir. ‘Tania hardly ever goes out of office.’
- ‘I was thinking that too’ said Lisa. ‘And as I told you, I have never seen some of them before either. Take the guy who came in this morning. He ordered a coffee and started a conversation. You know me, Nina. I’m always friendly to my customers. And soon he was asking about this beautiful girl who works in this building. ‘A lot of beautiful girls in this building, young man’ I told him. ‘Who are you asking about? He then described her, and I knew for certain that it was Tania. I teased him a bit, but he was kind of serious, you know. So I told him that maybe he was talking about Tania. He then wanted to know where she worked’.
- ‘Did you tell him where she worked, Lisa?’
- ‘Yeah I did. I am a romantic, Nina, you know that. He looked very dignified and presentable. A bit arty, you know’.
Nina thought about the man who had claimed to know Tania last evening. She was somehow sure that it was the same guy, and that Tania’s disappearing act had something to do with him. He must have sent the flowers as well, probably a coded and personal message which only Tania would understand, except that she did not get the message.
- ‘Right Lisa, I shall make a move. You have a lovely evening and good luck to your daughter’.

*******************************************************************************
As she made her way back to the office, Nina was certain of one thing – Tania had definitely come into the office, either last night or very early in the morning, and cleared out all her personal possessions. Probably in the morning – she must have been in a hurry to get out, and forgot to lock her door. Nina remembered the pile of magazines in the bottom drawer – she must have either forgotten them or they were of no interest to her. She decided to go into the office once again, and this time take a closer look. She debated about going into the quaint bar again, just on the outside chance of meeting the man who had spoken to Tania.

She busied herself with reading the journal that she had received in the morning while the office gradually emptied out. David had sent them a message saying that he was likely to be stuck in the meeting till late, and asked them not to wait for him. He would come in early tomorrow to take care of anything urgent. Nina waited till the office slowly emptied out. As the last person walked out bidding her goodbye, Nina shut down her computer and walked into Tania’s office. She made a tour of the office once more and did not find anything new. Now she took out the pile of magazines from the bottom drawer and took them to her office.

*******************************************************************************
They were all glossy fashion magazines, some famous, some not so famous. The most recent one in the pile was from last year. Tania’s photo was on the front page, gorgeous in a daring outfit, her face lifted to a stormy sky. Except that the model was not called Tania Maleck. Nina quickly went through the pile – each magazine had one or several photos of Tania, each time with a different name. The same beautiful face, the same gorgeous body. Sexy, alluring, demure, classic, gothic, punk – it was Tania in all of them, each time with a different name. Each photo reflecting a different mood, perfectly blended with the background, and the expression on the model’s face. Nina looked at the dates – the oldest magazine was from 2000. And yet, she looked exactly the same, in all the photos. Nina started reading the texts. The magazines talked about discovering a new talent in the modeling world. Some of the articles compared her to herself under a different name. Each article described a quiet and unassuming person, very private, refusing to participate in the lavish parties and galas organized by the rich patrons. As Nina skimmed through the articles, she could not find one scrap of personal information about this beautiful model. One woman reporter confessed to actually stalking her for a time and then giving up entirely since there was nothing of any interest in her personal life other than ‘trips to local groceries, swimming pools and gyms, always alone’ (sic). Just like the Tania she knew. Just like the Tania who has now disappeared.

Nina did not know what to think. Her intellect told her that what she saw was impossible. Even top models and actresses aged, often gracefully, but they did age. Their glossy photos, heavily air brushed and manipulated, still caught the subtle changes. It was not possible for anyone to look the same over 16 years. There must be an explanation, thought Nina, flipping through the pile again. She stopped and stared at the photograph ‘Rosa’ – a comely girl surrounded by a mass of black roses, lounging on a plush white couch. Did that explain the bouquet delivered to her this morning?

*******************************************************************************
Nina gathered up the magazines and put them back in Tania’s drawer. Maybe she will come back one day. Maybe she won’t. Maybe she sensed the danger of being found out and flew the coop. Maybe she didn’t. Maybe Nina was mad to think of Dorian Gray, maybe she wasn’t. Maybe there are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of which Nina had no inkling. As she shut the bottom drawer of Tania’s desk, Nina was certain of only one thing. She walked in beauty, like the night….


[APARAJITA SEN]



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