It was a cool August evening, and the setting sun was bleeding into the tranquil, languorous waters of the Hussain Sagar. Fatima was curled up on a cane chaise in her balcony in Hill Top Colony, with a mug of steaming hot chocolate and a book by Kundera.
Below her stood a stone statue of the Buddha, an imposing monolith in the center of the lake, resplendent in all its glory. To her right, she could see the lights from the Birla Mandir glimmering atop a hillock. From her left, she could hear the sonorous recitals of the azan fill the sky; they merged with the clanging of the temple bells.
The city of Hyderabad, truly, was a convergence of diverse cultures; a reflection of all that was beautiful in every religion.
Fatima was lost in thought when the doorbell rang and snapped her out of her reverie.
She opened the door and exclaimed in pleasant surprise.
“I didn’t know you would be back from Jeddah so soon!”
The man standing in the aisle was tall and rugged, and wore a white kurta with a sleeveless waistcoat. He was clean shaven with neatly-trimmed sideburns, a sharp nose, and piercing eyes lined with surma.
“Some urgent work came up that I had to attend to,” he replied, walking in and handing her a large plastic packet. “I also wanted to make it in time for your birthday.”
Fatima’s face lit up, and she blushed a deep crimson. “That’s really thoughtful of you, Waheed.”
“Won’t you see what I’ve got for you?” he continued.
She gingerly opened the packet, taking out a georgette and net salwaar kameez. Next, she opened a case which held a pendant studded with zircon crystals.
Lastly, she pulled out a blue silk scarf with a paisley jacquard print. She let out a gasp of happiness and clutched Waheed’s hand. “I absolutely love this!”
“Saturday is not only your birthday but also the day we complete two years of togetherness, Fatima.”
Fatima wrapped her arms around her fiancé’s waist, resting against his broad, heaving chest. He placed his hand tenderly on her head, and they stood in a long embrace. Fatima loved how he smelled of musk, how he twirled her hair in his fingers. She cherished every moment with him; she always had, and always would.
Or so she believed.
When his cell phone rang, the sound was jarring to her ears.
Waheed drew away from Fatima and walked toward the balcony.
“Salam Rafiq bhai. Kaisen hein aap?”
She watched him flick his penknife. He seemed clearly agitated.
Is something the matter?’ Fatima ventured to ask after he had hung up, touching his shoulder lightly.
Waheed didn’t reply. He just looked out toward the lake. In the distance, traffic lights encircled the lake’s perimeter like a jeweled necklace.
“They’re making a mistake by hanging him, and it’s going to cost them.”
“Who’s “they”? What is going to cost them?” Fatima felt uneasy.
Waheed didn’t answer. With a brusque “I’ll see you tomorrow,” he stormed out of the apartment, leaving Fatima clutching the blue silk scarf to her breast.
The scent of musk lingered in the hallway.
It was a sweltering afternoon, and the bylanes of Old City were bustling with activity. Fatima was trying on trinkets at a roadside stall beside a pushcart selling haleem; Waheed was huddled around a few acquaintances outside a cyber café run by his friend Rafiq. From the corner of her eye, Fatima observed Waheed’s lean and sinewy frame, and her mind wandered back to the first day she’d met him.
She was a second year student of English literature at Osmania University. He was a firebrand youth wing leader of a political party; the same party from which his brother Zakir Pehelwan, a notorious land mafia don, was contesting elections.
She remembered how their eyes had first met. Waheed was delivering a fervent speech on minority affairs outside her campus; she had happened to pass by.
She remembered how he had gone on to pursue her, leaving flowers in her books and notes in her locker. She remembered how, the more she had tried to shun his advances – taciturn and reserved as she was – the more she had felt drawn to him.
She might have failed to distance herself from him, but she had always distanced herself from his divisive politics.
Politics that had started to cause an ideological rift and a resultant strain in their relationship.
A strain that was most deeply felt last year, when she had found him in the company of Zaid Abdul-Hadi, a member of one of Hyderabad’s most notorious terror outfits.
A few months ago, on raiding one of Abdul-Hadi’s godowns in S-dabad, the police had found rifles, detonators, and a cache of remote bombs. These arms, it appeared, had been procured from Pakistan via Kashmir, for the purpose of orchestrating a terror attack in the city. Abdul-Hadi had since been absconding, and Waheed had become increasingly virulent in his denunciation of the system.
Fatima stood with her back turned to Waheed. She held a jhumka to her right ear and peered into a small mirror. In its reflection, she could see him talking to Rafiq between sips of Irani chai.
It was also then that she observed Rafiq suddenly throw a furtive glance in her direction, and surreptitiously slide a small slip of paper into the side pocket of Waheed’s kurta.
Surprised, Fatima almost dropped the pendant earring she was dangling to her ear.
When she turned around to face the men, they appeared to be in the midst of regular boisterous banter. Did she just imagine what she had seen? For a few minutes, she stood there looking disconcerted and almost foolish.
“Are you done buying your jewelry?” Waheed called out to her.
“Yes, I, uh…” she grappled with her words.
Why would Waheed feel the need to conceal something from her? She felt a pressing desire to find out.
“I don’t feel very well; it’s probably the heat.” Fatima cupped her hand to her forehead as though shielding herself from the sun, and pretended to swoon.
With a cursory ‘khuda hafiz,’ Waheed took leave of his friends and hastened toward her.
As she entered his jeep, her mind was overwhelmed by a flurry of thoughts. A part of her hoped that what she had witnessed was a harmless message or a mere joke passed in jest; her gut feeling, though, hinted at a more insidious agenda.
Back in her apartment, Fatima served Waheed some mutton keema and fresh rotis. She also poured him some lukewarm kahwa, ensuring he was somnolent by the end of dinner.
I’m taking a short nap,’ he said, yawning and squinting at his watch.
Fatima nodded and followed him into her bedroom.
The stillness, broken only by the incessant ticking of her wall clock and the whirring of the ceiling fan, was unnerving.
Fatima waited for Waheed’s breathing to steady in order to ascertain that he was fast asleep. She then cautiously extricated the chit of paper from his pocket, unfolded it, and strained her eyes at the scribble in the white glow of her laptop.
The chit contained an unintelligible alphanumeric string, presumably a cryptic code. The writing was slanting, the letters falling over each other.
At first glance, the gobbledygook left Fatima baffled.
She needed to think fast, before Waheed woke up. She carefully copied the message onto her laptop, and returned the chit to Waheed’s pocket.
An hour of surfing articles online revealed that what appeared to be garbled numbers and alphabets was actually the link to an anonymously hosted website on the “dark web.” This invisible part of the internet, as she came to understand, consisted of websites that search engines couldn’t reach and index, including databases, internal networks, and other private pages.
The most unfathomable depths of this mostly uncharted ocean also consisted of secret websites accessed by people who didn’t want their clandestine activities to be traced: distributors of drugs, illegal pornography, pirated media, stolen credit cards, and other contraband.
By weapons dealers, assassins, whistleblowers, and political insurgents.
And of course, by terrorists.
After installing Tor, a special browser that was required to surf the murky waters of the “dark web,” Fatima took a deep breath, and with shaky hands, began entering the string into the address bar.
The page was slow to load, but when it finally did, Fatima saw what looked like an online bulletin board with a black background and messages mostly in Urdu. The page had an amateur look to it, and a very basic design. On the left was a logo of two swords crossing each other; on the right, a payment portal that allowed “supporters” to “fund our cause” from anywhere in the world, using bitcoins, an online currency, as a mode of transfer.
It was a gathering of all true mujahideen who were encouraged to wage an all-out war on the enemies of Islam employing the rhetoric of jihad bil-saif.
One of the posts on the bulletin caught Fatima’s eye. It read “Saturday, Starbucks, Cityscape Mall.”
As she clicked on the link, Fatima felt overcome by nausea; she tried in vain to fight the feeling, but she couldn’t help her body from going numb.
The messages on the thread spoke of a planned blast in one of the most populous malls in the city.
Fatima shook her head in lament. As far as she believed, her religion was against the killing of innocents.
The man who was to be instrumental in carrying out this operation went by the acronym wajju123.
When realization dawned on her, Fatima felt a crushing sense of betrayal, an almost stabbing pain.
Wajju was the name Waheed was commonly known by.
It was an overcast afternoon; the sky was slate grey, and the clouds were pregnant with rain. Waheed was driving down Outer Ring Road with Fatima, on the way to his farmhouse beside Gandipet Lake.
Fatima gazed out the jeep at the tors and boulders that studded the undulating, rolling terrain of the city’s outskirts, her blue silk scarf fluttering in the wind.
When she looked down at the corrugated paper box of red velvet cake on her lap, she felt sick in her stomach.
After last night’s disturbing discovery, she had spent hours trying to come to terms with the situation and resolve her moral conundrum.
She had finally sent an email to the cyber cell of the Hyderabad police, with a screenshot of the webpage she had stumbled upon. The webpage had since been taken down by its creators.
Fatima was hoping she could contain Waheed at the farmhouse till the police took necessary action. She didn’t have proof to implicate him as yet.
She glanced at him obliquely from the corner of her eye.
He appeared nonchalant as ever, his fingers drumming the steering wheel.
Fatima felt like she was sitting beside a stranger; she hardly knew this man, despite having been in a relationship with him.
After a period of inscrutable silence, Waheed slowed down the jeep, bringing it to a grinding halt at the side of the road. He put a cigarette between his lips, flicked open a silver Zippo to light it, and took a long deep drag.
“I got a call from the cops early morning. I wonder why” he mock-mused.
Fatima froze, trying to quell rising panic.
“You might have an idea?” He removed his aviators and turned to face her; his face was deadpan and placid, like a calm before a storm.
The silence was almost palpable, and there was not a soul in sight. Fatima fidgeted in her seat, on edge.
“They raided Rafiq’s cyber café today,” he continued, blowing concentric rings of smoke.
Fatima’s heart was racing.
“How strange,” she managed to blurt.
“You know what’s stranger?” he asked, leaning toward her and adjusting her scarf with his left hand. “Someone from your IP location visited our website last night. And it wasn’t me.”
“Didn’t you stop for a moment to think about the repercussions?” asked Fatima, her voice barely over a whisper. “Didn’t you stop to think about me?”
Waheed’s face had darkened like the brooding clouds overhead. “I love you, Fatima; I always have.”
Fatima felt the scarf tighten around her neck, and she gasped for air.
“But sometimes we need to sacrifice our most valuable treasures to serve a greater cause,” Waheed enunciated his words slowly and menacingly.
Fatima clawed at the fabric as it cut into her skin; she could hardly breathe.
She felt the blackness seeping in, and frantically groped the box on her lap.
That’s when she felt the cold steel of a cake knife brush against her fingers.
It felt like divine intervention.
With a smooth and swift motion, she jabbed the knife blade into Waheed’s stomach, upward toward his heart, using both hands to drive it all the way to the hilt.
There was a deafening crack of thunder, and rain pelted the car’s windshield.
Waheed convulsed and sputtered blood, his hands on his carmine-stained kurta where the knife had gone through, and then slumped face-forward on the steering wheel.
Cityscape Mall in Banjara Hills was thronging with people; couples on dates, friends on shopping sprees, families with their children, colleagues enjoying their weekend outings.
Despite the lively faces around her, Fatima’s expression was downcast and pensive.
She sat in the Starbucks café, sipping her coffee and staring out of the window. The blood stained knife lay next to her handbag, covered with her blue silk scarf and out of view.
Inspector C. Reddy sat opposite her, plain-clothed and evidently worked up. He was a man of forty, with eyes that were shrewd and perceptive made conspicuous by his overhanging eyebrows.
“We’ve done a thorough security check. The mall staff is on high alert,” he said, jotting down the last of his notes into his file and then closing his brown folder.
“We couldn’t have done this without you, Ms. Hamidi. I can’t express my gratitude. I’m sorry this had to happen on your birthday.”
Fatima gave him a perfunctory smile.
“Before I take your leave, I have one last question,” the inspector continued, standing up and straightening his chair.
Do you have any idea where Waheed Pehelwan could be at this present moment?”
Fatima didn’t look up. She continued to stare out the window, her eyes tracing the rivulets of rain meandering down the glass pane.
“We know he holds two passports. Could he have left town?” the inspector inquired.
In her mind’s eye, Fatima saw the image of Waheed’s limp and lifeless body in the trunk of the jeep; of the body sinking into the turbid waters of Gandipet Lake, and the sanguine skies overhead.
When she finally looked up, her face was composed and serene.
“I shall let you know in case I hear anything, inspector. Please help yourself to the last piece of cake?”
Bhavika Sicka is a writer and social media enthusiast from India, based in Calcutta, the country’s artistic capital. She has completed a B.A. in English Literature from Lady Shri Ram College, and has published her prose and poetry in newspapers and journals. She is currently working on her first novel, a science fiction thriller on dinosaurs in Cretaceous India.