This short story is selected as Story of the Month July’2015 and won INR 1000
This story is selected as Editor’s Choice and won INR 500
The police vehicle raced through the darkening streets of Mumbai, its siren screaming. The constable at the wheel of the car cursed under his breath at the traffic, aware of his two important passengers and the urgency of his task.
Directly behind him was Assistant-Inspector of Police Dougan, newly promoted to the Crime branch, the stars on his uniform shoulders so fresh they were still shining. Dougan sat close to the door, trying to keep a safe distance from the other man in the back seat. IGP Sibal was the Joint Commissioner (Crime), and one of the most foul-tempered officers that Dougan had ever met. Only six days on the job and he already understood why Sibal was so unpopular in the department. Rumour had it that Sibal stopped smiling the minute he entered police HQ. He was shrewd, calculating and politically well-connected. He had held on to this post for the last five years mainly through these connections despite the branch’s poor record in solving cases.
Dougan had been on duty when the phone call came in. In ordinary circumstances, Sibal would not have stepped out of his air-conditioned office, directing one of his minions to the crime-scene. But these were no ordinary circumstances: the call that had stirred such a hornet’s nest concerned Monmahar Gargal…
Every large city allegedly had its mafia don, its crime boss, a larger-than-life criminal who ruled over the metro’s underworld, and in the case of Mumbai, the king-pin was Monmahar Ali. If it was illegal and it was transacted in Mumbai, Monmahar had his hooks in the operation, however superficially. He was Sibal’s self-declared nemesis and the cop had sworn countless times to bring Monmahar down. Numerous attempts had failed mainly because no one had ever come forward to testify. A few hours ago, all that changed when Monmahar’s advocate of 15 years suddenly decided to seek police protection.
Sibal had brought Dougan into the loop only thirty minutes back, and his details were sketchy. The advocate, a Catholic whose name was Diniz, had been diagnosed with a terminal illness. He had suddenly decided to come clean, wanting to clear the slate before departing. He was ready to spill the beans on Monmahar’s many ‘business’ dealings.
The ring of a mobile shattered the silence. It was an Arabic sounding chant, and Sibal answered with a curt monosyllable. He listened for a few minutes then barked out fresh orders. “Keep Diniz in his apartment with his police bodyguards until we get there. Seal off the base of Diniz’ building lobby until we have him en route to the safe-house. No one except our personnel inside, and keep a buffer zone outside the building so that no vehicles are parked anywhere near our convoy. Make sure you have enough men on the ground. I want the perimeter sealed tight! You can be sure Monmahar has heard about this by now through his sources in our department. He will be desperate to get to Diniz.” His eye twitched as he processed the data coming to him over the phone. “We’re almost there – five minutes, traffic permitting.”
He settled his bulky frame back into the upholstery with a grunt of satisfaction, not turning even once to look at Dougan. Fingering the asthma inhaler he kept with him at all times, Dougan cleared his throat and spoke up. “What are we giving Diniz in exchange for his testimony, sir?”
Sibal’s smile was an icy one. “Whatever he wants.” As nothing more seemed forthcoming, Dougan looked away. He was wondering what his role was if Sibal was going to play his cards so close to the chest.
The police car stopped at the security post of a gated residential complex. The sentry peeked in and when he saw the uniforms, he almost jumped back in shock. He yelled at his colleague to open the wide gate and actually saluted as the car swept inside the compound.
They screeched to a stop outside the lobby of a building that soared forty stories. The driver leaped out to open the door for Sibal. Dougan got out, noting the presence of at least seven police other vehicles, their strobe lights flashing eerily. The police footprint was a major one. Barricades had been erected, holding back curious onlookers. As they walked into the lobby, Dougan counted ten armed officers, all peering out watchfully, eyes searching for anything out of the ordinary. The lobby attendant scurried over.
Sibal took out his phone. “Bring him down.”
“Which floor does Diniz live on?” Dougan asked the attendant.
“The top floor. He has a penthouse there.” The attendant escorted them towards the elevator banks, where they stopped, looking expectantly at the display. The right hand side lift showed 30 in glowing red.
“They’re on the way!” Sibal hoisted his uniform trousers up over his bulging abdomen, turning slightly as he did. “Dougan?”
“It’s been one week on the job for you, right? And you haven’t cracked any cases so far…” He smiled mirthlessly. “So this should look good on your record.” He wiped his brow with a hanky.
Dougan had noticed he was sweating freely, thought it likely the superior officer was unused to life without a functioning air-conditioner. A quick glance at the display panel showed him the elevator had reached level 12.
“Something I want to ask you, Dougan… how exactly does one pronounce your name? Is it Dow-gan, or is it-”
And right at that moment, the power supply to the entire building failed.
In the ensuing darkness, Dougan heard Sibal swear out loud.
Dougan pulled out his mobile phone, seeing others around him doing the same thing as the lights failed to come on. The light on the elevator panel had disappeared but Dougan remembered seeing 3 while his boss had been speaking.
Police personnel clustered around them with their mobile phones all glowing in the darkness. Dougan located the lobby attendant. “Doesn’t the building have a back-up supply?”
The attendant was gulping nervously as he nodded. “It’s supposed to kick in instantly, sir. I don’t understand why that hasn’t already happened…”
Dougan gestured at the closed doors of the elevator. “What happens to the lift in a black-out?”
“The battery powers it to the nearest floor and the doors open.”
“That means they’re on the second or third floor.” guessed Dougan. “We need men up there now, sir…”
Before Sibal could respond, the lights in the lobby flickered back on. Several of the policemen had relieved looks on their faces, saw Dougan. He recognised a sub-inspector from his zone and beckoned Naik over. And then the elevator reached their floor with a loud ping, and the doors parted.
Smoke poured out into the lobby from the elevator, and as startled faces all around watched, first one and then two more men crawled out from inside, coughing and gasping. The three task-force policemen were pulled out by their colleagues. By this time the smoke had cleared sufficiently.
Both Dougan and Sibal walked forward to look into the lift. The man the task-force troopers had been escorting was propped up against the far wall in a seating position, eyes open and lifeless. His arms were at his side, limp. But what held both men’s attention was the handle of the knife projecting from Diniz’s chest.
Sibal swore and turned to the troopers. “How?” his voice was edged with venom.
There were only two other things of interest that Dougan noted before he turned to hear the reply. One was a smoke canister lying on the floor of the lift, and the other was that overhead, the panel of the access hatch leading to the roof of the elevator box was open.
The three troopers were clad in black tactical gear, and they were surrounded by their counterparts from the regular police. Everyone was looking at them. One of the three, likely a veteran, had recovered before his colleagues. He spoke quickly, wasting no words. “Sir, we were in the flat with Diniz until we got the call from the task-force commander to bring him down. That’s what we did. We got into the lift, just the four of us. Everything was fine until level 15. I heard a sound from overhead. Something was dropped in through the access panel in the ceiling. It was a smoke canister. Inside that closed space, we were helpless. We were all on our knees, coughing and retching. And then the lights went out and the doors opened on level 2. With my eyes watering so much I couldn’t see clearly but I had a vague image, of someone get into the lift. And then a yell then the lights coming on and then-” he shrugged, a futile gesture. “-this.” He looked down as he uttered these last words, his face bleak.
“Imbeciles!” shouted Sibal. “You had just one task and that was to keep the man alive.” His lips quivered with rage. He spun on Dougan. “Dougan, I’m placing you in charge of this case.” He looked around for his driver. “Get me back to my office!”
Dougan gave orders to sub-inspector Naik. “Naik, disarm these three troopers.”
His words caused Sibal to freeze in his tracks. He turned, face awash with consternation. “Disarm?” He looked at the troopers. “Why?”
Dougan looked surprised. “They’re suspects, sir. And since you’ve placed me in charge officially, I want to interrogate them without any delay.”
Sibal exhaled noisily for a few moments then nodded. “I’ll stay, this should be interesting.”
“Naik, send men to the first five floors, see if they can find anyone who can’t account for their presence. And someone tripped the fuses to cut the power.” He motioned to the lobby attendant. “I need the use of the lounge for the next thirty minutes.”
In the lounge Dougan found a chair and asked the attendant to arrange for bottled water. Sibal leaned against the wall. Naik waited beside Dougan, ready to offer assistance. The three troopers stood in front of them, facing Dougan.
One by one, he made the three troopers tell their story. In all aspects, the story was the same: someone had entered when the lift had opened on the second level and whilst they were incapacitated due to smoke inhalation, stabbed Diniz through the heart.
The water arrived. The veteran trooper who had answered most of the questions broke the seal and gulped down the water.
“I notice you’re wearing gloves.” Dougan said to him.
The trooper nodded. “For an op like this, we come in full tactical gear, sir.”
“But if that’s the case,” Dougan turned to one of the other troopers, a well-built youngster who suddenly looked startled at being singled out. “where are your gloves, trooper?”
The young trooper swallowed. “Uh, I actually forgot in the rush, sir…”
Dougan stood up and approached him. “Show me your right hand, trooper.”
The trooper hesitated, but with every eye in the lounge on him, he lifted his hand, palm up. There was a wound on the inner aspect of his ring finger. To Dougan the break in the skin looked recent. “In the lift, where were you standing in relation to Diniz? To his left, right – or in front of him?”
The trooper licked his lips, now visibly nervous. “Sir – I was standing on his right side, sir. I mean – until the smoke started coming from the canister…”
Dougan looked into the man’s eyes and saw the fear that lurked there. “Meaning that while you were part of the plot, you weren’t the trooper who killed Diniz.”
Sibal stiffened. Naik frowned. The older trooper protested. “Sir, we had nothing to do with this. We are guilty of having failed in our duty to protect him, nothing more!”
But Dougan appeared not to have heard him. “There are inconsistencies here. For instance, when the smoke started spewing, all three of you were down on hands and knees, stricken. What about Diniz? Did he simply stand there, waiting to be struck in the heart with a knife?” He shook his head. “The posture we found him in suggests something entirely different. He was propped against the wall, arms at his side. How does that happen when he should be on the floor, coughing and retching?
“And how does an assailant step into a lift with men writhing on the floor and manage to pinpoint his victim and then with surgical precision, slide a blade in between his ribs straight into his heart? And why take the risk at all? Why not just drop a grenade into the lift instead of a smoke canister? Inside the elevator’s confined space, there would have been no survivors, for sure.”He shook his head slowly. “Unless all is not as we have been led to believe…
“For instance, what if there was no assailant? And what if there was no third party dropping a smoke canister into the elevator either? How would our little scenario have played out then? Imagine instead a set-up where all three troopers are involved. Inside the elevator as it descends, one trooper is in front of Diniz, with the other two on other side of him. Before the power fails, the two men at his side grab his arms and pin him to the back wall. Our trooper on his right side covers his mouth with his gloved right had to shut off his screams for help. Diniz struggles but he is no match for two fit troopers. The third trooper turns around, draws a knife. Diniz sees what is about to happen, bites through the glove in desperation, breaking skin. He is then killed with the blade. He slumps to the ground, dead, and his arms drop to his side – which is how we find him. The troopers then shift the access panel on the ceiling. The power failing is the signal for the smoke canister to be popped.”
Naik had a stricken look on his face. “Dougan, this is – crazy…” he said hoarsely.
Dougan nodded to the trooper’s hand. “You haven’t had a chance to wash your wound. If we swab it, will we find traces of Diniz’s saliva in the wound? And if we examine the dead man’s lips and mouth, I wonder if we’ll find your blood. DNA analysis will tell us the story.”
The trooper in question looked at the floor, saying nothing, but his face was ashen.
Sibal stepped in front, looking at the faces of the troopers. “So your theory is that they were in it together.” He turned to Dougan. “It would help if you could make these men admit to their crime.”
“I doubt that will happen, sir. Whatever incentive played a role in this affair, it had to be powerful enough to convince three officers to go against all they stand for. Not money, not even blackmail – not all three. I think they were threatened.” He studied their faces. “I want your cell-phones. Naik, check the call directories of all three phones. Look for a common incoming number received in the last few hours.”
It took naik under two minutes to find it. His eyes widened. “You’re right! Look at this number, ending 007. This person called all three mobiles within minutes of each other. Time stamp is about four hours back.”
Dougan crossed his arms. “Dial the number, Naik. Let’s see who answers.”
An Arabic sounding chant filled the lounge and everyone turned in Sibal’s direction. He took out his phone and rejected the call. He looked at Dougan venomously. “Are you going to accuse me as well, Dougan? Yes, I did call these men! I was giving them instructions on how to proceed with handling Diniz until we got there. I’m their boss, remember!” he yelled.
Dougan did not flinch. “Except that your calls were made four hours ago, before Diniz reached out to us. The only way you could have known four hours ago is if someone else had told you about Diniz.” He held out his hand. “Your cell-phone please.”
There was pin-drop silence in the room as the men inside stared at either Dougan or Sibal, unable to believe what was happening in front of them. Sibal’s stare was forbidding. “You will lose your job over this, Dougan. I will personally see to it.”
Dougan shook his head. “My orders come from a higher authority: your boss.” He saw a frown crease Sibal’s forehead. “All your years on the job and Monmahar still untouchable. There were suspicions, that you were his inside man. That’s why I was shifted to Crime, to your section. And when this Diniz issue came up today, I saw the perfect way to trap you. I knew you would go after Diniz, not just for Monmahar, but to protect your hide as well. You set a plan to kill Diniz into motion, then called three troopers and threatened them into enacting your scheme. When Diniz reached out to us, your plan was ready for execution. You made me come along, not to share the glory, but to be left holding the ball when his body was found.”
In a rage, Sibal turned to face the three troopers. “Is any part of this insane story the truth? Did I call any of you and order you to kill Diniz?” When none of the three spoke, he spun. “Well?” he demanded stonily of Dougan.
“I’m guessing that whatever threat you’re holding over them is still an effective one.” said Dougan quietly.
“So what you’re saying is that you have nothing.” His voice was filled with menace.
Dougan pursed his lips. “When the Commissioner brought me in, he said he did it knowing of my reputation. He knew I would get the job done. And when Diniz called, I put my own plan into play. I hauled out of prison the most ruthless man I’ve ever faced, a man facing the death penalty. In return for Timbo’s co-operation I got a judge to agree to a diminished sentence. All he had to do was to accompany my men to the suite at the top of this building – and pretend to be Diniz.”
The blood drained from Sibal’s face.
“When Diniz contacted us, he refused to give us any names until his safety was secured. But when he sees Timbo’s corpse in that elevator, I predict he’ll have a change of heart. If your name is on his list, your days are numbered, Sibal.” He held out his hand. “I’ll take that phone now…”