“Assistant Commissioner sir”, My secretary informed over the phone, “A woman named Urmila Singh insists on meeting you.”
A woman in her early forties waited in the visitors lobby. As I clasped her extended hand, I could feel the tremor in her body. Her brown eyes had dark circles under it and the face looked swollen. She swallowed most of the words that she spoke, “Mr. Sanjay Srivastava, you have to bring my brother, Arun Singh’s murderer to justice”.
Trying to sound professional and polite at the same time, I said evenly, “I will see what I can do”.
She acknowledged my assurance with a dip of her head and by the time tea was served, she had relaxed enough to sit back on the sofa.
“Do you suspect anyone?” I asked.
She straightened herself, hesitated and frowned slightly before answering in the negative.
After she left, I sent for Inspector Shyam Singh, the officer dealing with the case. He handed me a file with crisp anecdotes declaring the sequence of events.
On the ill-fated day, Arun Singh had chosen to sleep in the guest room and not his own bedroom. Gautam, a delivery boy from a nearby eatery had delivered a food parcel ordered at eight in the evening. Avinash, Arun’s son and Priyanka, his girlfriend, along with her dog were present in the house. Priyanka was downstairs with her dog, while Avinash was moving around in the lobby of the first floor. Priyanka told Gautam to carry the food packet to the guestroom on the first floor. Arun was lying there on the bed covered by blankets. On Arun’s instructions, Gautam placed the food parcel on a table in the corner of the room.
Priyanka paid Gautam. Avinash and Priyanka left within fifteen minutes of Gautam’s departure.
Avinash returned home after mid night and straightaway hit the bed. The maid usually reported at six in the morning and it was a part of Arun’s daily routine to let her in. Avinash was woken up by the persistent ringing of the door-bell.. Soon he found the guestroom bolted from inside, and he knocked. Eliciting no response, he rang Arun’s mobile number, but the call went unanswered. Consequently, the matter was referred to the police. Inspector Shyam Singh entered the room by breaking the window pane. the room was bolted from inside and the window lock was securely fastened from inside. The food parcel was left untouched.
Dr. Jayaraman, the forensic expert had opined that the victim had died due to acute hypoglycemia. Arun Singh had apparently bolted the door from inside after injecting himself with four times his normal dosage of insulin. He had not eaten anything for many hours. Tranquilizers in large doses were detected in his blood.
Arun’s personal physician had indicated that he was undergoing treatment for depression, not surprising for a man who had lost his wife few years ago and his business partner a couple of months back. He had been prescribed Zolfresh, 10 mg as a sedative and Tryptomer, 25 mg as an anti-depressant. Therefore, it was not surprising to find tranquilizers in his blood sample.
Gopaldas, a close friend recounted that Arun had tried to drown himself in a pool, but was rescued by the life guard. A few days later, Gopaldas himself had prevented him from jumping from the top of a cliff.
This time round, there was no one at hand to stop him. He had taken care to execute the suicide operation when he was alone and within the confines of his home. Despite the absence of a suicide note, Shyam Singh had made a compelling case for suicide.
I called Urmila over to my office. She looked different, sporting a new hair style. Doing my best not to sound frazzled, I gestured towards a chair,
“Please relax, as I update you.”
She gave me a searching look. “I hope you are not suggesting that it is a suicide”.
I groped for an answer. She got up and walked .Resting one shoulder against the wall, she had her back towards me. She turned around to face me again,
“Mr. Srivastava, my brother was murdered and it is your duty to nab the culprit”.
There was determination in her eyes and conviction in her tone.
Much to Shyam Singh’s discomfiture, I took the case into my own hands. It was difficult to pick holes in an ironclad case, but at the same time, there was something about the finality and stridency in Urmila’s voice that made me look at it afresh.
I decided to talk to Gopaldas again. He mused with a faraway look in his eyes,
“Arun was obsessive about protecting his feet. Even in temples, he would take off his footwear at the farthest point possible.”
Then, I stopped at Arun’s ophthalmologist. He said emphatically,
“Arun was practically blind without his glasses. He would keep them as close to him as possible”.
I was beginning to lean more towards Urmila’s hypothesis, though I wasn’t yet sure .At the site of the alleged murder, I found a police ticker tape cordoning off the area. The two constables on duty saluted me.
It was an old building, often called haveli by the locales, with a massive courtyard encircling the house. There was a huge hall in the ground floor. A winding wooden staircase connected it to the guestroom in the first floor where Arun had been found dead. Two other bedrooms including Arun’s bedroom also occupied the first floor.
Shyam Singh had not found any slippers in the guestroom where Arun had been found dead. I tiptoed into the adjacent bedroom which was Arun’s usual bedroom. I sighted a pair of slippers under a coffee table. Arun’s spectacles were placed on the table, unfolded. Since Arun’s slippers and the eyeglasses, which he wore constantly, were in his own bedroom, I deduced that Arun was originally sleeping here before being forcibly brought to the guestroom in which he breathed his last.
Used insulin syringes were lying in different places in the room, under the bed, in the shaving kit, in the book case, but the last four syringes, according to batch labels were missing. It was absurd that a careless man like Arun had taken so much pain to destroy the four syringes that were to cause his death.
Urmila was right! There was more to this “suicide”!
I opened the top shelf of the bookcase. A certificate issued by a sperm bank to Arun twenty two years ago rested over volumes of hard bound books. The presence of this document issued decades back at a prominent retrieval place indicated a recent usage.
I wandered into the lawn, where the gardener was watering the plants. The constable guarding the site informed me that Shyam Singh had permitted the gardener.
I prodded the gardener,
“What kind of person was your master?”
Pat came the answer,
“He was God”.
Tears welled in his eyes, “His son is a good boy, but his girlfriend ruined the father-son relationship”.
He pressed his fingers to his temples as though his head ached. He continued,
“They started quarrelling often”.
I goaded him on with an encouraging nod and rapt attention. The old man was happy to be heard.
“Master was a strict vegetarian and he hated animals”.
I could feel my head cocking forward in anticipation.
“This girl would always take her dog into the house and deliberately feed him a bone inside the house to irritate the master”.
I scratched my chin rigorously. The gardener went on,
“The dog would unfailingly have a bone in its mouth only while returning, but never while going inside, so the bone was given inside the home”.
As I tried to make sense of what the gardener mentioned about the dog and the bone, my cell phone trilled. It was Avinash, seeking permission to remove a few documents from a shelf in the guestroom. I acquiesced. I felt sad for Avinash. An outstanding student at school, he had topped the state in mechanical engineering. He had won many prizes in mimicry and ventriloquism. I had expected to meet a devastated personality, but here he was whistling joyously. Humming energetically, he stuffed a sheaf of papers into a bag. Avinash thanked me and began to leave.
Suddenly, the truth dawned on me!
I observed him carefully as he walked towards the door. I knew time was running out, but suppressed the urge to check my watch. I took a deep breath and started counting in reverse under my breath. “Ten, nine, eight, seven”, then I timed my leap and caught him by the waist, bringing him onto the floor.
Priyanka, who was standing downstairs with the dog on leash, let go off the pet. Released from the leash, the dog came barking excitedly, bounding up the stair case. He stood near the door, stared expectantly at the latch, sniffed and looked at Avinash.
“What right do you have to attack him?” Priyanka shouted at me as she ran up the stairs.
She helped Avinash get up on his feet. Dusting his trouser, she pointed her index finger at me and threatened,
“My father has a lot of clout, you will pay for this.”
The girl wasn’t kidding. In the evening, I received a tick off from the commissioner for my indiscretion. It didn’t bother me as I had scented victory . I called Urmila and instructed,
“Come with Avinash, Priyanka and the dog to the Haveli by ten, tomorrow morning”.
When I arrived with inspector Shyam Singh, sub inspector Preeti and constable Karamveer, Urmila, Avinash, Priyanka and the dog were waiting for us. Leaving Preeti to take care of Priyanka and her dog, Shyam Singh led the way up the stair case.
Shyam Singh entered the bedroom, lifted the steel latch of the inside bolt and propped up the latch with a bone. The bone was wedged in such a way that the door opened to a slit as we stepped out softly. Karamveer placed a stool outside the door. The ends of the bone were tied to different legs of the stool with a string that held the bone in place, which in turn propped up the latch.
At a signal from me, Preeti forced Priyanka to unleash the dog. It loped up the stairs and barking joyously, tugged at the bone. The string broke, the bone got gripped between the dog’s teeth, the door closed and latch fell in place with a thud, bolting the door from inside.
Knowing that his game was up Avinash pushed Urmila and started running, but Karamveer tripped him with a well aimed kick on the shin. Shyam, then handcuffed him. Preeti held a sobbing Priyanka.
“Arun was asleep in his bedroom, after consuming a heavy dose of sedatives and anti-depressants. Taking advantage of his semi-conscious state, Avinash and Priyanka forcibly injected more sedatives, rendering him totally unconscious. Then, they injected the insulin and carried him to the guest room”. I told Urmila.
“So, they could use this dog trick and make it seem like suicide? I can see that the latch in the Arun’s room is a rotating knob”.
“But”, Avinash countered, “Father spoke to Gautam in the guestroom”.
In the mirror, I caught myself sneering. I turned to face Urmila.
“When Gautam delivered the food parcel, Arun was already unconscious. Avinash, an accomplished voice artist and ventriloquist fooled Gautam as though Arun was talking”.
Avinash and Preeti were too dazed to contest a word.
Seething with rage Urmila caught Avinash by the throat and demanded to know,
“Why did you kill your own father?”
Priyanka retorted with venom,
“He had no right to ruin our lives!”
“Your lives!” Urmila echoed.
“Arun”, I explained, “had donated his sperm and Priyanka was born from that noble act. Avinash and Priyanka were madly in love with each other. Arun refused to allow Avinash to marry Priyanka and he threatened to spill the beans to Priyanka’s father.”
“My father would have also opposed the marriage and kicked me out of the house”, she sobbed.
Avinash butted in,
“Why should everyone else have a say on our lives?”
I had no answer.
In the evening, Shyam Singh and I walked into a park, where we ran into Urmila. She requested us to sit at one of the chipped Formica tables. She returned, carrying a tray with three cups of coffee.
“I have mixed feelings”, she confessed. “I am glad that my brother’s killers are behind bars but feel sad for Avinash”.
I asked Shyam,
“Did you talk to the gardener?”
“I did, but couldn’t digest a word of what he said. I lost my patience with his drawling style of talking”.
Urmila stirred her coffee.
“The way you unravelled the closed door mystery from the gardener’s prattle is pure genius”.
Shyam Singh nodded. I shook my head,
“No, pure listening, a forgotten art”.
The light had faded, night replaced dusk.