Ransom: a short thriller by Pinaki Ghosh

Pinaki Ghosh www.pinakighosh.com
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“Can you get me the August 15 edition of Elite?” the man asks.
“Which year?” the stall owner asks instinctively. He owns an old bookshop where one can find old books and magazines, one of the many in this pavement of College Street, lined with stalls selling books of all kinds.
“Current year,” the man says, “the cover carried the title ‘Fifty young entrepreneurs of India.’”
The bookseller looks for the edition asked for. It doesn’t take him long to find. The man pays for the magazine, rolls it in his hand and jumps up a tram cruising by. The tram rolls its way through the crowded Kolkata streets, the man gets down before an ancient lane in the northern part of the city. The tram passes by ringing its bell. The man enters the lane lined with old, blackened buildings, walks a few pace and opening a green colored door climbs the dark stairway to the upper floor.
The room is nearly dark, the man sits before a table on which a table lamp glows. He opens the magazine, finds what he is looking for. Bringing a pair of scissors from the drawer he cuts out a picture of a young man. Then he switches on his laptop.
K-A-R-A-N  S-E-N-G-U-P-T-A…
The name forms itself on the screen as he types. He clicks on the Images tab. A number of faces crowd the screen. His eyes rove, and rest on the third on the second row. He clicks on it and it enlarges. A handsome young man in his mid twenties, short crew cut hair, a little goatee on the chin. 
His gaze gets intent as he looks, his jaws get firm. He clicks on a link mentioned below the image. The profile of the young man appears on screen. He clicks on a video link. A window opens up, he maximizes it.
Young men and women dancing under psychedelic lights, among them Karan Sengupta, the guy with the goatee beard… 

Karan stops dancing. His head aches under the flashes of purple lights and loud music. He is too drunk tonight, he needs to pee. He pulls himself away from the din and calls his driver.
“Get the car ready at the gate. I am coming in five minutes.”
He comes to the washroom and shrivels in disgust. On the floor lies a guy, flat over his own vomit, its foul smell fills the air. 
“F*** !” 
Karan curses aloud. How could one be such a… The smelly pouring is splattered all over the floor. He has to step over it to get himself to one of the booths. Karan thinks of emptying himself on the man’s face but restrains his urge. He doesn’t want to get into any kind of altercation. He remembers his dad favorite quote, “It takes years to build a reputation and seconds to lose it.” Of late he is trying to follow his dad’s advice. He comes out of the washroom without releasing his burden.
The driver has brought the car to the gate. Karan gets in, reclines on the seat.
“Don’t disturb me,” he tells the driver and closes his eyes. 
“Okay sir,” the driver says.
It takes a couple of seconds for Karan to realize that the voice he heard is not that of his driver Makhanlal’s. He springs up.
“Hey, who are you? You are not Makhanlal!”
“I am his friend. He was feeling sick, that’s why he called me,” the driver says without looking back.
Karan is not convinced.
“No, no… that cannot be, why didn’t he call me then?”
“He did call you sir, you failed to hear the ring,” the driver says still not looking back.
Karan brings out his cellphone… the words are out of focus… is it ‘Makhan’… no it’s not…
Before he could say anything something heavy hits his head, everything goes dark…
The car speeds off.

A ray of sunshine falls over him. Karan opens his eyes and startles out of his slumber. Where is he? This is not his bedroom… He looks up. The ceiling is of red tiles. The walls are painted garish green, plasters falling off. He is lying on the floor of a small dilapidated room that he had never been before. He tries to move his limbs but cannot. His feet are tied, so are his hands. His bladder is bursting, he needs to pee and urgently. But he can’t even call anyone, he is gagged, his lips sealed in tape. He could only let out a mild groan. No one comes. Minutes pass, Karan keeps on groaning, hoping for help, how long could he hold himself back?
Finally, maybe after an hour or so, there is a sound at the door. Karan turns his head. A man enters the room. Small and dark complexioned, a nondescript, fifty something, Bengali guy. Dressed in plain shirt and loose trousers. Karan groans, as loud as he could. But the man pays no attention. He sits on a chair and switches on a small TV. Humming an old Bollywood tune, he surfs the channels and stops at a Bengali news channel. 
A news has broken. About him! Forgetting his anguish Karan looks at the screen. His image being shown in loop, again and again.  Industrialist’s son abducted. Huge ransom demanded, the scroll below reads. 
“Who could abduct industrialist Rajeev Sengupta’s son?How? How much ransom has been demanded? We shall find out,” the female anchor smiles, “after a short commercial break.”
A footage of Rajeev Sengupta appears right before the break. He is sitting in his office, uniformed police officers standing behind him. Stony faced, he seems to be in control of his emotions. 
This is the same look he had in his face when a similar news broke months ago, Karan remembers as he looks at his father’s image on screen.

A storm raging inside him but Rajeev remains stoically calm, his cold gaze grazes upon the faces before him. 
“What is the ransom amount they demanded sir?” One of the journalists shoots a query.
He is not going to answer this one, Rajeev decides. In fact he is not going to take anymore questions, he has answered enough. Rajeev gets up from his seat and heads for the door. The journos scramble behind him throwing questions but Rajeev does not pay any heed, he slips into his chamber, his secretary behind him. He closes the door. Calm descends, but not entirely. The two flat screen televisions blurt out the same news in constant cacophony. About Karan, about him…
“Put the sound off!” Rajeev can no longer hide his feelings.
The secretary puts the televisions on mute. 
“They were asking about the ransom amount sir,” he asks.
“Why should I tell them that? Should they know everything?” Rajeev bursts out. He sinks into his chair. The secretary reads the mood of his boss, goes silent. Rajeev closes his eyes and contemplates, calculates. They have demanded hundred million rupees, it can be negotiated down to fifty, or even forty. His son’s life is at stake, he won’t be bargaining too much. The guy had called in the morning. Didn’t say much.  Only said that he would let know when and where to make the payment later. Didn’t give any opportunity to begin the negotiating process. Sounded cool, a pro in the business it seems, not in any kind of hurry.
“Police commissioner is coming sir,” the secretary says interrupting his chain of thoughts.
Rajeev nods.

“Give me forty eight hours time,” says Gouranga Chakraborty, the Police Commissioner, “You will get back your son in no more than two days.”
“They asked for hundred million,” says Rajeev.
“Yeah? Bring it down to twenty or thirty. Then arrange for the money. It is on me to bring back your son safely, alongwith the money of course.”
“I’d like to believe you, “Rajeev smiles wryly, “but remember I had a headache already. Now it has doubled.”
The Police Commissioner frowns, “you mean… is it about that ship of yours… what’s is its name? MV…”
“Chandragupta. Got hijacked by Somali pirates. It would be exactly one year next month.”
“Right. Any development in that front?” the Commissioner asks.
“Nothing. The situation remains as it is. At first they asked for three million dollars. Brought it down to one million after six months. Indian navy is of no help. The government washed its hands off it. Wants me to pay the ransom amount, the whole of it. But I have decided not to pay a single penny.”
“Where is the ship now?”
“In a terrible port called Puntland in Somalia. There’s no rule of law there. Somalia is a failed state, the government exists only by name, they don’t have any control over most of the country.”
“Very bad place,” the secretary quips.
“Putland port is controlled by the pirates themselves,” says Rajeev. 
“And your ship is stuck there for a whole year? And nothing’s being done about it?” the Commissioner cannot hide his amazement.
“No body cares…,” Rajeev says with a shrug, “neither the government, nor the navy. The media too has lost interest.”
“What about you?” 
Rajeev smiles, not avoiding the Commissioner’s gaze. He opens a drawer and bringing out a folded English language newspaper spreads it before Commissioner Chakraborty. 
“This is four months old,” he says pointing to article, “the last news on MV Chandragupta’s hijacking. The media is silent ever since.”
Chakraborty takes up the paper and reads the news. 32 Lives Hang in Balance, Families Appeal For The Release of Kins, a front page headline reads. Two snaps side by side. One of a group of pirates on the deck of MV Chandragupta. They stand automatic rifles, grenade launchers in hand. At their feet lies the hostage sailors, their hands and feet tied, mouths sealed. The picture on the right is of an aged couple. Tears in eyes they hold a poster of a young boy in his early twenties. They are Biswapriya and Chirasree Banerjee. The boy in the poster is their only son Snehangsu, he is captive in the hands of the pirates for nearly a year, the caption below reads. 
“So they are the only one still making noise, the families of the captives. The rest are silent,” Chakraborty says.
Rajeev doesn’t respond.
Once again the Commissioner looks at the boy in the poster. Wearing sailors uniform, cap in head, he looks rather handsome. An innocent face, a thin moustache above the smiling lips. Snehangshu. So young, hardly twenty two, no older than his own boy. Chakraborty sighs.

It must be hours since he had his last meal. But still he doesn’t feel hunger. His stomach must have shrunk, Snehangshu concludes, a year of starving has killed his appetite for food, the body has adjusted to changing circumstances. Good for him! 
But his mind remains as agitated as before, it has not adjusted much, all his efforts to tame it has failed. It still yearns for freedom, for the sunny days of a past that is slipping further and further away.
He got caught in a storm but couldn’t imagine that the storm would last so long. It was a foggy dawn when they came in three small skiffs, not very far from Seychelles coastline. Even before the crew could react, the ship was taken over by the ten pirates from Somalia. 
It was a devastating experience, extremely traumatic, but still they hoped it wouldn’t last for long, maybe a few hours, a few days at the most. Seychelles is not far from India. They had pinned their hopes on the Indian Government and its powerful navy, confident that the navy would rescue them in no time. But days passed, weeks, months… nothing happened. They were moved to a hell-let-loose port in Somalia named Puntland. They had not been in Somalia before, but knew that there is not much rule of law there, the Government is almost non existent.  The leader of the Pirates, a guy named Muslux, the only one who could speak understandable English, told them that a ransom of three million dollars had been asked from Rajeev Sengupta, the owner of the ship. But he had refused to pay, saying he doesn’t want the ship back. He had put the onus on the government of India. The Indian government contacted its Somalian counterpart but they too expressed their inability do anything as they have no authority over the Puntland region of northern Somalia. The ship’s owner said he would claim the value of the ship from the insurance company and buy a new ship altogether. The cement company whose cargo the ship was carrying would also claim for the twelve thousand tones of cement from the insurance company. The owner of the ship is not bothered about the crew and has no interest in bringing them back. Muslux understood the situation and reduced the ransom amount to one million. But even that didn’t melt the ice. The situation remains as it is. 
Snehangshu feels thirsty. The freezer is in the next room. There’s water there, but no food. Snehangshu opens the deep freeze and takes out two bottles of water. Gulps down a little. There’s strict order not to consume much, water is rationed here. Like everyday he takes the two bottles to Muslux’s cabin and keeps it there. Muslux is in the room. He turns his head at him and smiles.
“You will be released soon,” he says.
Snehangshu remains silent. He had heard such assurances before, but they didn’t turn out to be true. Though this is the first time he heard from Muslux. 
Weird guy, this forty something leader of the pirates, Muslux. He always insists that they are not pirates but Somalian coastguards. He told them why he had resorted to hijacking ships. During the nineties there was no government in their country. Taking advantage of the absence of any kind of regulation, ships from other countries would come to their coasts and dispose off all kinds of toxic wastes, including radioactive wastes, in their waters. As a result of such irresponsible dumping, thousands of tones of marine creatures perished. Somalian fishermen used to catch three million dollars worth of tuna, shrimps, lobsters and many other varieties of fish every year. But due to this rampant dumping all the fish died and the fishing industry just vanished. It was then that Muslux decided he should do something about it. He decided to collect tax from the countries that spoiled their coastline and hijacking ships crossing the Indian Ocean was his means of collecting the ‘tax’ that would go towards cleaning the coastline. For him, the countries that spoiled their coastline are the real pirates. He started his operation in 2005 and had collected ‘tax’ from fifty two ships since then. 
Snehangshu notices a framed photo in Muslux’s bunk. A dark African teen of about eighteen. He hadn’t seen the photo before. 
“My boy,” Muslux smiles, “Maxi.”
“Your son?” Snehangshu can’t hide his surprise. He keeps looking at the photo. Maxi, the boy is smiling. A guileless smile, so much like his father’s…   

Lying in the cold floor of a small, dark prison cell in the Somalian capital Mogadhishu young Maxi muses over his past. So many images float by. He is out in the ocean fishing with his father, how old was he then? Ten- eleven… they would spend two or three days in the ocean fishing day and night and would return to their villages with boat load of shrimps. The entire village would gather in the shore to welcome the cavalcade of boats. They would get heroes’ welcome, he would always keep the biggest lobsters for his mother. She would cook it on fire in the open at night, they would gather by the fire, he and his sisters and father too, eagerly waiting for mother to open the pot. How good were those days… and how they ended, Maxi sighed. 
Huge ships hoisting flags of faraway countries began appearing in their shores. The catch of fish gradually declined in quantity as more and more dead fish floated up from the sea. Then one day a group of men carrying guns came to their village. Maxi heard from his father that war had broken out in the country. The men were revolutionaries. From them the villagers learnt that foreign pirate ships from France, China, Egypt and India are pouring poison into their waters, the fishes are dying because of that. The young adults of the villages enrolled themselves with the group that called itself Al-Shabab. His father formed a group of his own to protect the coastline. The days of fishing were over. 
Maxi heard from a friend that the government of their country was nothing but a puppet in the hands of America and the United Nations and their President is a pimp to foreign forces. Al-Shabab doesn’t obey the writ of this government; they had plans to overthrow the government and take control over the entire country and establish the writ of God’s law. Maxi’s young blood boiled as he listened. The same friend took him to the Al-Shabab Chief Odawa.
It was such a thrill to take up a AK-47 rifle in his hands for the first time. Adrenalin rushed in his veins, his fears evaporated, he felt he could conquer the world with his gun. The training was tough, very tough but he was determined to make it, so were other boys of his team. Odawa admired his guts, he took a fancy on him. He gave him chocolates made in USA, made in India, made in China. They tasted so good! Hard in the outside, soft inside. 
Then one day Odawa discussed with them the secret blueprint of Operation 24 August. Muna Hotel was to be attacked. Three best cadets were selected for the operation. Maxi was one of them. The President and fifty members of Parliament were to attend a conference in Muna Hotel in capital Mogadishu. On the night of 24 August, as the conference was underway, two of his comrades guised in army uniform entered the hotel. He was outside, in the car in which they were supposed to escape. Within minutes heavy gunfire was heard from inside the hotel. Later he came to know that his friends shot dead thirty two people, of them eleven were parliamentarians. The President escaped unhurt. Right after the gunfire, two successive explosions rocked the hotel. His two comrades blew themselves up. The blinding white flashes and the earth shattering noise unnerved Maxi. Fear got the better of him, he couldn’t stick to plan and trying to make a lousy escape got caught in the hands of the security forces. Since then his address is cell number 62 in Mogadishu Central jail. The days of eating foreign chocolates were over, the days of romanticism about carrying automatic rifles were gone. What followed is an unending saga of interrogation and torture of the worst kind. How he survived all that trauma is a mystery to him. They made him divulge everything he knew but still the torture continued, until very recently. The trial has not yet begun though he knew he would get the capital punishment, fair trial or no trial. But the tortures - that in the later stages the jailor himself supervised - had suddenly stopped. 
He learnt from a prison guard that his father Muslux had held several parleys with the jailor. A secret pact has been worked out, an amount has been fixed for his freedom. His father is working overtime to arrange for the money. By the end of this week it would be handed over to the jailor. Then by his order he would be shifted to another jail, but before the prison van reaches its destination he would be allowed to escape in a remote wilderness. The guards would be suspended for six months but they would be more than compensated for their dereliction of duty. The jailor had planned everything to the minutest details. 
But Odawa, the man because of whom he is rotting in this jail, the person whom he had begun to regard more than his own father, has done nothing to arrange for the release of his ‘boy’,” Maxi wonders and feel the anger within him once again. He had done nothing at all. Odawa has forgotten him altogether. He lured Maxi with chocolates, brainwashed his young mind by blood warming rhetorics, programmed him to become a ‘martyr’ and then when its all over, abandoned him like a used cartridge. And he still keeps him close to his heart! 
Maxi gets hold of the locket hanging on his chest. They inspected it during interrogation but did not take it away, perhaps because of the name of Allah engraved upon the silver. What they failed to notice is a minute dent on it. A right kind of pressure on that little spot and the locket would pop open. But Maxi feels no urge to open it now like he had done so many times before, especially when he needed strength, courage. It had failed him when he needed it the most.
Maxi pulls the locket from his chest and throws it away. It hits the wall, falls to the floor and pops open. To reveal a small photo of Chief Odawa. Clean shaved, the head shaved too, he sits in military uniform, the face indifferent but the eyes hard and cruel. Behind him, spread on the wall is the flag of his dreaded organization.   

In his office in the headquarters of Al Shabab, Chief Odawa looks at the plan on the screen of his laptop. He had made a similar blueprint a year ago, the operation was carried as per plan with some success but the real purpose could not be achieved. The President escaped and the government remained in power. But anyway, he had been able to overcome the drawbacks and once again rearing to strike. This time it would be lethal. All the snags of the previous operation had been looked into, the weak links done away with. Only the exceptionally strong ones are hand picked to carry out the operations this time round. No chocolate for these guys, they are real tough ones, already battered and bruised by the ravages of war, no amount of torture can make them speak. He had personally ‘tested’ each and everyone of them. They didn’t squeal a word, even after prolonged exposure to third degree torture. Those who did, received a bullet in the head. This time he is sure of success, one hundred percent. Soon after the lethal blow, his army would swarm into the capital from all sides. Mogadishu will fall in no time. He could already visualize the headlines that would appear in the papers in a month’s time. 
Moghadishu falls… The President killed… Rebels take over… The New President is Odawa …
His time has come. 
He needs more arms, he won’t be taking any chances. Odawa contacted one of his trusted arms suppliers online. He is the one who had supplied him arms for the previous operation. The two exchanged greetings looking at each other’s video image on screen, discussed about the quality and quantity of the items to be procured and where and when the cache is to be delivered, the exact co-ordinates along the Somalian coast where the two ships would meet. 
“You know my Swiss bank number,” the arms dealer tells Odawa, “deposit the full amount today only.”
“Why in full?” Odawa asks, surprised, “it was different the last time, wasn’t it? Half before, half after the delivery.”  
“Situation has changed, buddy,” says the dealer, “these days the navy ships are much more in the alert. The risks are far more.”
Odawa laughs.
“Come forth my friend. Tell me the truth.”
“I told you already.”
“No you didn’t. Things haven’t really deteriorated that much over the last year, I am in the game too you know.”
A pause on the other side, then the arms dealer speaks.
“Ok let me tell you the reason. My own son has been taken captive. I have to pay for his freedom. A hefty sum and without delay.”
Owedah looks at his old pal Rajeev Sengupta, the two look at each other in silence. As if trying to read each others thoughts.
“It happens in your country too?” Odawa asks, finally.
“It has happened. And if you’re not willing to believe then check it on the net. My son’s name is Karan, Karan Sengupta.”
“Ok I believe. The entire amount will be deposited in your account in an hour,” Odawa tells his partner while his fingers type the words ‘karan sengupta’ on the keyboard. He clicks on the search tab and a pageful of information relating to the kidnapping of Rajeev’s son appears.
“Load your ship,” Odawa says, any doubt in his voice has disappeared.
“You said and the loading has already started,” Rajeev smiles.
Odawa smiles too, “you are my old pal. How can I be rigid when a friend is in need? And how can I forget the role you played in the success of the August 24 operation?” 
The smile in his pal Rajeev’s face deepens.

Rajeev turns to his secretary switching off his laptop. 
“The kidnapper will call in half an hour. Give it to me. He will get the money today. We have to know how the delivery has to be made. I want my son back today. Unharmed.”
The secretary nods in comprehension. 
Rajeev feels happy; a load has descended from his chest. Hundred million rupees has been negotiated down to forty five million rupees. One million dollars that is.

About a couple of hours after the conversation that took place between Rajeev Sengupta and the Al-Shabab chief, the pirate leader Muslux receives a phone call in his ship anchored in the North Somalian port of Puntland. 
“You’d get your one million in twenty four hours,” says the caller, “but all the crew have to be released unharmed and without delay. Send your men to Nairobi. Your money will be delivered there.”
“Your son will return to you in good health, I promise,” says Muslux.
“I want another promise from you,” the caller says, “you know my name. Don’t let anybody know who I am.”
“It will remain between you and me. I promise,” Muslux says, and he meant what he said.

That evening a little boy brought a chit to the jailor of the Mogadishu Central jail. On it written in tiny Afsoomaali script: 
Ransom amount has been arranged. Will be delivered to you in two days time. Please honor the contract we made about the release of my son.

A couple of days later a yellow cab stops in front of a green door in an old north Calcutta neighborhood. Gouranga Chakraborty, the Police Commissioner, descends from the cab. He climbs up the narrow, dark stairs and knocks on a door. Biswapriya Banerjee, the owner of the house, opens the door.
“Namasker,” the Commissioner utters the cursory greet. 
“Namasker,” Biswapriya returns the greeting with folded hands, “do I know you?”
“I am Gouranga Chakraborty, the Police Comissioner,” says Gouranga and does not fail to notice the sudden drain of color from his host’s face. He smiles and assures, “Don’t worry, this is not an official visit. I have come in a hired cab, it is waiting outside. Did your son come back?”
“My son…,” Biswapriya cannot hide his puzzlement.
“Yes your son. Snehangsu. Wasn’t he outside the country for about a year?” Gouranga says retaining the smile in his face. It helped Biswapriya to retain his composure.
“Oh yes he returned to India,” says Biswapriya smiling wryly, “he is in Chennai now. Will come home tomorrow… maybe…”
“Good! Very good!” Gouranga broadens his smile.
“May I ask why you…” Biswapriya mumbles, still confused.
“I have come to give you a little gift.”
Gouranga unfolds a paper roll he is carrying. A sketch of a middle aged man. His features quite similar to that of Biswapriya.
“Our police artist has drawn this,” the Commissioner explains, “you must have heard about the kidnapping of Karan Sengupta, son of industrialist Rajeev Sengupta. His driver Makhanlal remembered the face of the kidnapper. The guy offered him tea outside a disco where he was waiting for his boss. Naturally it was drugged and he lost his consciousness. Our artist followed Makhanlal’s description and drew this. Nice work, isn’t it? Normally they are far behind the mark but this one came out rather accurate, isn’t it?” The commissioner looks up at Biswapriya and notices blood leave the face all over again. He smiles, “but you know what. The case would remain unsolved it seems. This sketch would be of no use to us. I had seen a photo of yours in a newspaper in Rajeev Sengupta’s office. You and your wife carrying a poster of your son. The image got imprinted in my mind. When I saw this sketch I could not help remembering you. So I thought it’s your sketch, let’s give it to you. You can hang it on your wall.” 
The Commissioner hands the sketch over. Carrying it in his hands, Biswapriya stands dumb folded. The Commissioner keeps smiling. At last Biswapriya finds his voice,
“So the kidnap case…,”
“Didn’t I tell you? It’s closed. Gone cold like hundreds of other cases. Is it possible for us to solve each and every case? Take care, Mr. Banerjee,”
Without waiting for further response the Commissioner climbs down the stairs in hasty steps and gets into the waiting cab. The driver steps on the gas.
A drizzle has started pouring. Two crows drenching sitting over the electric wire. One must be a daddy crow, the other his son. As the pouring gets heavier they spread their wings and fly off.