This story is selected as Editor’s Choice and won INR 500
The air about him reeked of old shoes and broken dreams. His cheekbones looked more pronounced, the shadows under his eyes telling of all that he had to endure. I tried to give him a bright smile, which he didn’t bother to return.
I sat on the chair facing him – with an inch-thick layer of glass separating us. Prison had not been kind to him, I mused noticing the way his bones protruded from under his skin as he took his seat and the uniformed officer handcuffed him once again. I started off without preamble:
“I just got off the phone with your lawyer, and he says they’re making good progress on the bail plea. You might be out of here before you can guess, mate.”
“No, Rajeev! They’re not letting me go so easily.”
“Now seriously, stop being such a pessimist. I will get you out of here and I mean it. You were such a good friend to her – to all of us. I’m sure you were not in control when that happened. You need a rehabilitation centre, my friend. Not a prison.”
“It doesn’t matter whether I was in my senses or not. At the end of the day I killed her. I am dangerous and I don’t deserve to be let off any easy.”
I let out a sigh as the guard signaled to me that my five minutes with him were up. I got up and walked towards my bike, wondering how time could change everything so much and take such a large chunk out of a person’s life. The memories of that fateful day exactly two years ago were imprinted in my mind vividly as if everything had happened yesterday. I shuddered as they came rushing back now.
* * *
(2 years ago)
The fire had almost burnt itself out when the six of us finally managed to decide on a place to go next. The girls wanted it to be Lakhamy, but after many rounds of bribing and emotional blackmail, we guys managed to convince Shruti and Alvina to come with us to Gotara. So after gulping down the food and finalizing the plans for the next morning, we decided to call it a day.
I was returning to my tent when I remembered that Alvina had borrowed my torch the previous night. I went up to her tent to ask for it. The girls were already tucked inside their sleeping bags, but Alvi was sitting up and laughing away with Shruti when she spotted my head through the open flap and waved out, “Hey Rajeev, you wouldn’t believe what premonition Shruti here supposedly had right now.”
I was perplexed. “Umm, would I not?”
“Look how confused that made you!” she exclaimed and laughed at my bafflement. It didn’t take a lot to make Alvi laugh, I reflected. Shruti took a gulp from her water bottle, and stared at me dreamily. I could tell by the look in her eyes that every fibre in her body was yearning for sleep. “Apparently,” Alvi continued, “I was lying in a pool of my own blood, with my stomach ripped open, and my eyes rolled up almost to the lids. There was so much blood that-“
I could hear no more. “Stop it Alvi,” I reprimanded. “You do not need to describe such vivid details. Just go to sleep. Look at Shruti, she is almost asleep.”
She looked crestfallen at not being able to complete describing the scene of her own death, but readily obliged when I asked her to return the torch. We exchanged a few pleasantries before I bade her good night. Shruti was snoring softly in her bed when I left the tent.
* * *
The cold predawn air was rent by Shruti’s high-pitched blood-curdling scream that rudely broke my slumber. Arjun, who shared my tent looked equally bewildered, and we changed confused glances in the early morning sunlight that crept in through the gaps in the tent roof. Our hearts beating fast with fear, the two of us ran out. Vivek joined us from the adjoining tent, and together we ripped open the flap of the girls’ tent.
The shock of a lifetime awaited us inside – Shruti was white with fear, sobbing uncontrollably and Vivek went up and put his arms around her. And Alvi – she lay motionless on her back, her mouth slightly open, her eyes almost rolled back inside their sockets. She was bleeding profusely from a gaping wound in her stomach – quite obviously dead.
Himanshu was out of breath when he joined us a second later. His eyes were red with fear, or was it anger? He let out a howl of despair when he spotted his girlfriend lying dead in a pool of her own blood. He ran towards her, and tried to take her in his arms, but Arjun and I held him back. His body was burning, as if on fire! We understood his grief and we were affected in pretty much the same way, but this was clearly a case of cold-blooded murder, and the clues were not to be tampered with before the competent authority arrived.
* * *
The morning sun painted the world in golden hues, but beneath the branches of the trees in the little clearing, and in our hearts – the night still huddled.
Shruti was still crying, and Vivek was trying his best to comfort her. Arjun and I stood side by side, too shocked to utter a word. Himanshu was seated on a rock nearby, his hands covering his face, lost in his own world. The uniformed policemen were all over the place – combing our tents for clues. It was impossible to imagine that they believed the murderer to be someone among us.
A million thoughts were running inside my head. Alvi was beautiful and charismatic, oozing confidence wherever she went. The air of positivity around her was infectious – it was impossible to meet her, and not leave feeling happy. Who then, could have murdered her so brutally? How was it possible that Shruti had hat weird premonition that very night Alvina would be found dead, and in the exact same way as she had dreamt? And where had Himanshu been when we had discovered the body? Why was he huffing so much when our tent was just a stone’s throw away? Something far more sinister than anyone of us could have ever imagined was going on. I could do nothing but hope that the true culprit was punished for what he had brought down upon us.
A sharp voice broke my reverie. “Well well, who could have thought that such an innocent bunch of college kids could have pulled off such a brutal murder, ha?”, said Inspector Yadav in his rasping voice. “But look what we have found here!”, he said, his white-gloved hand brandishing a blood-stained dagger. Shruti drew in her breath sharply. I knew she recognized the patterned wood on the hilt, I did too. It belonged to–
“Himanshu. It was found concealed in the sheets of Himanshu’s sleeping bag.”
The statement was followed by a shell-shocked silence from the group. Himanshu looked up as if in a trance. He got up and walked slowly towards the Inspector, as if to examine the incriminating evidence himself. Yadav grabbed him by the collar and spat at him, “So she was your girlfriend, eh? Why did you kill her? Why, tell me.”
And he slapped him! This was too much for Arjun to bear, and he shouted, “Inspector! You cannot manhandle anyone of us unless you have some concrete proof. Just because Himanshu’s dagger was used as the murder weapon doesn’t mean he was the one wielding it. In fact he was not even present when the murder occurred.”
And then he suddenly backed off, sensing that he had spoken more than what was necessary. The poignant silence was punctuated by Yadav’s sneering words – “Not present when the murder was committed, eh? But the five of you had reconstructed the crime scene for me. The girl here woken up to find her friend dead, and the four of you were awakened by her screams and rushed to the tent. What is this new nonsense about him not being present at the scene of murder, ha?”
I knew Arjun must have been mentally kicking himself after this. We had decided upon a story that did not incriminate anyone. Himanshu was indeed absent when Shruti had screamed, but the Police did not need to know about this… Or did they?
It was Himanshu’s turn to look petrified now. He blurted out, “Sir, I was out of the tent. Vivek must have noticed when he woke up that I wasn’t present. But I swear I had nothing to do with Alvina’s murder. She was my girlfriend, why would I ever kill her? We were so much in love!”
“Love, eh? The bruises on her forearms tell a different story, Mr. Himanshu. And from the way they had started to yellow, my team has confirmed that they were at least a week old, and not in any way caused by the murder, or the struggle before it. Those marks strongly suggest physical abuse. Are you aware that being her boyfriend, you’d be the one suspected for inflicting those on her?”
And then suddenly Shruti spoke up – “Sir, I knew he was hitting her. Their relationship had been going through a rough patch for a couple of months. She used to cry every night because of him. I never knew he would kill her for this though. Crazy man, he is. He suspected Alvi of cheating on him, whereas she was the most loyal girl I had ever met! Arrest him, Sir!”
A fresh wave of sobs overcame her. Inspector Yadav ordered her to be taken inside the camp for her statement to be written down. This was an interesting new development for him, and he appeared pleased. I glanced at Vivek – he returned my confused look.
“Now now, this is all very interesting, isn’t it boys”, Yadav went on. “A physically abusive relationship and suspicion of adultery on the girl’s part. Looks like the perfect motive to me.”
Himanshu had been my best friend since we were kids, and to see him getting framed for something I was sure he had not committed was horrible. I gathered my courage and spoke up – “Sir, please do not jump to conclusions like this. Maybe there was someone else. Someone who hated Alvi and had a genuine reason to kill her?”
“That will all be explained pretty soon, boy. We found fresh footprints just behind the tent, deeply impressioned on the ground as if by someone lying in wait outside, listening to the girls’ every move, every word. They will be matched shortly to all the shoes you guys are wearing or have carried on this trip. Also the girl Shruti was drugged. We found a generous dose of amphetamines in her water bottle – that might have caused her to hallucinate a bit, and then lull her into a deep sleep, so that she was blissfully unaware of what was going on inside the tent.”
Hallucinogens! That suddenly explained why Shruti had had that strange premonition just before Alvi was killed – and in the same way! It was a curious coincidence – or was it? And he mentioned that someone was standing outside the tent. Could it be – ?
“Sir,” I was speaking more to myself than to him now. “When I left Alvi’s tent last night after bidding her good night, I walked away just from the front? Could it be possible that Himanshu, I mean the killer was standing outside just then, waiting for me to leave so that he could carry out the act? Shruti was already asleep by then.”
“Oh this is fascinating,” said Yadav and turned to Vivek. “When was the last time you saw Himanshu after you people finished dinner and decided it was time to sleep?”
Vivek appeared unsure and he looked at Arjun before answering. Arjun merely nodded, and he stammered – “S-Sir, I just walked inside our tent and lay down on my bag. I had a few things to talk about with Himanshu, but I was too tired to wait up for him. He still had not returned when I closed my eyes. But it was pretty normal – he usually comes in late after probably having a smoke. After that the next thing I remember is Shruti’s scream.”
All eyes turned to Himanshu now – eyes accusing him of an unspeakable act, of the cold-blooded murder of one of our closest friends. Eyes that demanded an explanation, and answers to questions that we knew he could not provide.
Yadav yelled in his raspy voice – “So? Tell us where were you last night? From the moment everyone else went to sleep to the time Shruti screamed? There is a gap of almost two hours, Himanshu. You have got a lot of explaining to do!”
Himanshu looked quite unnerved, but he managed to speak, “Okay this is something I have never confided to anyone. I was diagnosed with ADHD as a kid, and have never been able to stop using the prescription drugs since then. Things have deteriorated to such an extent of late, that I have succumbed to a serious Dexedrine addiction. Alvi knew about it, and she was trying her best to help me get rid of it. But at times I got violent, and I lashed out at her – verbally as well as physically. It was horrible, but I saw no way out. And last night I was out on a small hillock ten minutes’ walk from here. I had some tablets with me and I gulped them down, and just sat there until I heard Shruti’s yell. Alvi’s death came as a great shock to me too, please believe me. That is all, Inspector. That is all I have to say in my defense.”
Just then another officer arrived and beckoned to Yadav for a private word aside. After Yadav walked off, I looked at my friends’ faces and could see the effect Himanshu’s revelation had on Arjun and Vivek. It was as if we were seeing our friend in a whole new light. That he hit Alvi was bad enough, but he hit her because she was trying to stop him abusing a drug? That was just unfathomable! Himanshu’s gaze was lowered, as if he did not dare to meet our eyes. The tension in the air was so pregnant that it weighed down heavy on us.
The officer handed him a packet and I could see that it contained a pair of shoes – brown Crocodile leather, impeccably crafted and an unbelievably classy pain of John Lobbs – that could have belonged to no one but Himanshu. And when I turned to face him, the look of horror on his face was enough to confirm my doubts.
“This was the pair of shoes that made those impressions behind the tent, Himanshu. Any idea where we found them? That is right! In your bag! And it seems you have tried and hastily cleaned the mud off, but how do you wipe off footprints from the ground? You do not! And that confirms my hunch. Constable Sarma, handcuff this hooligan. Let’s see if a taste of the lock-up gets him to talk! I promise I would get a full confession out of you, lad. Just wait and watch!”, Yadav finished his monologue on a chilling note.
Himanshu was sweating profusely now, and pleading to let him go for he was innocent. Shruti and Vivek were huddled together, watching the drama unfold with perturbed looks on their faces. Arjun and I exchanged glances. We ran up to Himanshu and tried our best to comfort him.
“Don’t worry mate. Mehta Uncle is the best criminal lawyer in town, and he is a family friend too, right? I am sure he would solve everything, and soon. Let me call him up right now!” Arjun said as he snapped out his cellphone and dialed a number. That seemed to calm Himanshu down a bit, but the defeated look in his eyes made me sad. The case against him seemed pretty air-tight. We sighed and proceeded to pack our stuff. We were instructed not to leave the country till the court proceedings were over, but it was not like that we had any plans of doing so any way.
The last look that crossed Himanshu’s face as the car went round the corner was one of resignation. Or was it guilt at having done something unspeakable, something unforgivable?
* * *
My face was flushed because of the wind in my hair, as I rode off – leaving a puff of smoke and dust behind me. Himanshu’s state would have made me sad, but I had given up on remorse and guilt long ago.
It is one thing to kill the woman you love because she did not return it, but it is entirely another to do that, frame her boyfriend and get away with it.