Assistant-Inspector of Police (Crime) Dougan rarely took his personal vehicle to a crime scene, but these were hardly ordinary circumstances. He had taken the latter part of the day off work for some badly needed dental work, and had actually been seated in the dental waiting room scanning his messages on his various WhatsApp groups when his deputy Naik had called. Naik had worked with his boss long enough for the latter to know that Naik would never have intruded on his personal time unless it had been truly urgent. Naik had not wasted time over the phone, asking only if Dougan could come in ASAP. Dougan had responded to the terseness in his deputy’s tone with a quick affirmative, and rising, conveyed his regrets to the dental receptionist before racing down to the parking lot. And now here he was, driving his car towards what was billed as the tallest building in Mumbai.
His GPS had the co-ordinates keyed in, but even without the assistance of that wondrous piece of technology Dougan knew he was headed in the right direction. The Sentinel loomed over fifty floors into the greying skies above the metropolis, built by a consortium of high-powered tycoons and backed by no less than five banks. The top twenty levels were owned by a resort chain, laying claiming to be the most swanky resort ever built in these latitudes. Each room commanded a spectacular view of the Bay. Dougan could only imagine what the room rates were like.
Less than a minute later, he taxied into the designated driveway of the Sentinel Resort. Naik had instructed him to head direct up to the guest entrance, and he slowly trundled towards the bright lights, looking out for police uniforms. He spotted Naik in a knot of uniformed personnel and gently braked to a halt beside him. Naik leaned into the passenger window which was open. Dougan had seldom seen such a sense of despair on the man’s face. “Sir, let this police constable take your car to the parking lot. There is no time to waste.”
Dougan stepped out, his face reflecting his consternation. The constable briskly saluted him and slid in behind the steering wheel. Dougan allowed Naik to lead him across the tiled granite and into the foyer. Before he had a chance to ask his deputy for a situation report, a tall man in a charcoal grey suit and matching hair walked out to intercept them.
He looked at Naik with a hint of annoyance in his features. “Inspector, why are your men still here? I thought we had made it clear that the presence of the police was no longer required? Surely your services can be utilised elsewhere where they can he better put to good use.”
Dougan felt Naik stiffening, but instead of retorting, Naik turned to his boss, saying: “Sir, this is the manager of the Sentinel.” He looked at the elderly man. “This is my boss, Assistant Inspector Dougan.”
The manager let out his breath, giving a mild shake of his head, as if in reproach. “I don’t know why you bothered to come, you are just wasting your time.”
Dougan gave him an amused smile. “Why don’t you let us decide that, sir.” He said politely. He turned to Naik. “Naik, want to tell me what’s going on here?”
Naik nodded quickly. “Lali Gangolia checked into the honeymoon suite of the Sentinel Resort last night with his wife. They had gotten in from Dubai and were en route to the wedding reception of the Governor this evening. This morning, when the wife woke up, she found that Gangolia was dead, inside the bath tub.”
Dougan let out his breath slowly, stunned at this revelation. Lali Gangolia was one of the biggest real estate magnates in India. Or had been….
Naik went on. “The incident was passed on to the Crime Bureau as a matter of courtesy, according to what I understand. Because when I arrived here with my team, i was greeted by the manager and told my services were not needed.”
The manager inched closer to the two police officers. The look on his face was far from sociable. “As I have already told your man, things have been taken care off. Mr. Gangolia was having a long bath last night. Prior to that, he had apparently had too much to drink. While in the bath, he fell drifted off, and drowned in the bathtub. Mr. Gangolia was a big man who loved his drinks. And he wasn’t in the best of health. It’s easy to see how he could have been unable to save himself when he slipped underwater and realised he was drowning.” He shrugged. “And his wife was in bed, fast asleep. She heard nothing and only realised something was wrong when she got up in the morning and saw the bed empty. When she went into the bathroom and saw him, she called us immediately. Obviously by that time it was too late for Gangolia…”
Naik intervened. “We were stopped right here in the lobby. We haven’t been allowed to go up to the honeymoon suite. We haven’t spoken to the wife, and we haven’t seen the body. And right now the body has been secretly taken out of the hotel and is on its way to some private crematorium.”
Dougan was stupefied. “On whose directives?”
The manager looked at him directly in the eye. “Do you know who the owner of this resort is?” he asked quietly.
Dougan didn’t and when Naik told him, he began to see the bigger picture. The Minister of State for Health. They didn’t come bigger than that, and if this politician had money invested in the Sentinel, it was easy to see why strings were being pulled. The politician wanted no negative publicity for his super-posh resort and he was doing everything he could to make the problem go away. Including covering up a possible homicide.
Dougan looked at the manager. “Do you understand that you could be standing in the way of a possible murder investigation?” He said sharply.
The manager sighed. “There was no murder, Inspector! Have you seen his wife? She’s half his size: there’s no way she could have drowned the man! And no one in his right mind would believe that angelic creature could be capable of such a terrible thing.”
“Why don’t you let us judge for ourselves?” said Naik heatedly. “We want to talk to her. And we need details of where his body is headed. We cannot allow the cremation to go ahead!”
The manager looked grim. “It’s more than my job is worth to allow you to go upstairs – either of you. It doesn’t matter if the whole damn police force turns up: i have my orders.”
Dougan turned to Naik, about to say something when he noticed a change of expression come over his deputy’s face. He turned to see what Naik was looking at. Apparently the manager had seen it too, because a horrified look sprang to his face.
A van had screeched to a halt at the main entrance and three men jumped out. One of them was carrying a video-camera, and when Dougan saw the name of the news station on the side of the vehicle, a small smile came to his face. Faced with his investigation being impeded, Naik had summoned Dougan, but he had also had a Plan B up his sleeve.
The news team saw the police officers and instantly came over. The manager stopped them in their tracks, waving his arms furiously. “What is the meaning of this!”
The leader of the unit held out his hand. “Are you the manager? Our newsroom got a call from a source in hotel management. I heard that Gangolia was murdered in the honeymoon suite last night.”
The manager looked sick. “That’s not true!”
Naik stepped in smoothly. “You media people are just too much! Jumping to conclusions before our investigation has even begun! We don’t know if he was murdered or not because we only just got here. In fact, the manager here was just about to show us the way to the honeymoon suite when you guys barged in.” He looked the manager in the eye. “Because he knows that the only way the media is going to believe Gangolia wasn’t murdered in the honeymoon suite of his nice, posh hotel is if the police go up there and try to find what really happened. Right, sir?”
Stricken, the manager could only stare. Naik didn’t hesitate. He ‘suggested’ the media crew wait in the reception lounge for the outcome of their enquiry and walked with Dougan to the reception desk. The manager watched them walk to the lifts with open mouth. He quickly pulled out his mobile phone.
“We don’t have much time, sir.” said Naik, as they got into the elevator. “That media stunt has bought us some time, but if we are not able to quickly come up with some evidence that foul play was involved, that corpse is going to be fed to an electric crematorium and all our chances to get an autopsy done will be gone.”
They rode up the lift to the top floor in tensed silence. Dougan knew that Naik had stepped out on a limb here, calling him urgently and then even calling in the media crew on what merely a hunch. He had no good reason to suspect foul play, but seeing justice being perverted in this audacious manner had rankled, making him react. Even so, even though his intentions were noble, Dougan realised that if Naik was wrong there would be hell to pay for them both.
The woman who answered the door had clearly not been expecting the police. She was wearing a cream coloured silk negligee that clung to her curves like a second skin. She was in her twenties and slim and ravishingly beautiful. According to the tabloids which Naik shamelessly read, she was Gangolia’s third wife. They had been married less than a year back, and Naik could see why the property tycoon had been attracted to her.
Dougan introduced themselves and asked if they could come in. She hesitantly stepped aside.
She was so flustered she did not bother to cover herself and Naik could see the flimsy materiel moulding itself to her contours as she moved ahead of them. Naik felt himself turn red, imagining things that were far from professional. Flustered, he looked about.
The suite stretched out before his eyes, and the reception room itself was about as large as the single bedroom affair in the distant suburbs that he called home. The air conditioning was humming agreeably in the background, no doubt apart from the central unit for the rest of the resort. The place probably had its own swimming pool as well, he thought with a hint of envy.
She was shaking her head. “I slept right through the night. I didn’t notice anything until this morning….”
A phone began chiming, and Dougan took out his phone from the his pocket and looked at the caller ID. The screen told him it was a private number, but he had a pretty good idea who was calling – and why. He looked at Naik and saw the tensed expression on his face.
Shaking his head, Dougan pushed the phone back into the pocket unanswered, feeling the canister of his inhaler as he did so. He wondered if the stress he was feeling would trigger an attack of asthma. It had been a long time since he had suffered an acute attack. He hoped he wouldn’t have to resort to a puff this evening. He glanced around, thinking quickly. There wasn’t much time. The manager would be barging through the door any time now, ordering them to leave – or else.
“Where’s the bathroom?”
She led the way to another door, and when he pushed it open, he gasped.
He gasped for two reasons. One was the sheer opulence of the room they had entered. It was like entering a kingdom where everything gleamed and shone and sputtered radiance. There was chrome and tile-work everywhere, and everything looked like it had just come out from a factory.
And the other reason was the heat. After the chill of the sitting room, it was like walking into a tropical jungle. Dougan felt the sweat spring out of his pores in instants. He shook his head. You’d think they would have air conditioning in a bathroom like this. After all, the damn set-up was equipped with just about everything else….
The place was already in gloom, courtesy of the darkening skies outside, and he looked around for a light switch. Naik was already one step ahead, and he clicked at a panel near the door-frame. Both men stared at the ceiling lights but nothing came on. The bathroom remained obstinately dark.
In the darkness, bereft of one set of senses, Dougan was aware of a strong smell: lavender. He walked over to the tub and saw it was still filled with water. Leaning forward, he touched the water. It was cold, but the fragrance of lavender that wafted up from it was unmistakable. Unless the wife had been having a pleasant session in the same tub her husband had died inside less than twenty-four hours ago, thought Dougan, it appeared that Gangolia had liked adding essential oils to his bath water.
The doorbell rang at the same moment the next thought struck Dougan, and he marched out of the bathroom, silencing the manager’s furious exclamation with a single remark of his own.
The manager’s words died in his throat, and in reply to Dougan’s query, led the way to a small enclave. He pointed and when Dougan opened the plastic casing concealing the electrical circuit breakers, he let out his breath. His temples pounded as he stared at the single MCB that had tripped. He flipped it and looking sideways, saw that the bathroom lights had come on.
His eyes met Naik’s and Dougan saw understanding leap into the other man’s face.
The manager watched in stunned amazement as the two men raced through the room, scattering objects as if possessed by some foreign influence.
It was Naik who found what they were looking for. He stared into the drawer for a moment, peering and frowning as if not grasping the significance of what he was studying – and then, almost gently, took out the object.
Dougan stopped what he was doing and stared at the hair dryer.
Plug it in, switch it on and drop it into a bathtub filled with one fat old excuse for a husband whose net worth was more than a couple of hundred crores. Result: one dead husband – and one very rich widow. But – how to prove it?
And then Naik ever so delicately leaned forward, the hair dryer raised in his right hand – and sniffed.
And there it was: streaming out from the business end of the hair dryer – the unmistakable fragrance of lavender.