Yusuf groaned when he saw the shutter was down.
The young man turned off the engine of his scooter while he wondered what to do next. He worked for a courier company and the envelope in his bag was the last of his deliveries for the day. The address on the envelope matched the shop in front of him but apparently the owner had closed early for the day. He looked at his watch. It was just after five in the evening. And the contact number looked to be a landline which he had tried ringing thrice before taking a chance and coming out all the way here. He grimaced, wondering at the idiot sitting comfortably inside some office somewhere who had accepted the envelope without asking for a mobile number.
What to do now was the primary thought running through his mind. As a matter of policy, the delivery boys were not supposed to take any of their goods home at the end of the day. Anything that had not been delivered had to be returned to the office, and re-routed the following working day. The firm he was employed at was strict about that. Yet, Yusuf was loath to take the parcel all the way back to his office. It would mean a detour of thirty minutes, whereas his rented room was merely a five minute bike ride away from this place. The company wasn’t generous with the travel allowance, and as he had made the trip without making contact first, he had actually broken protocol. Under those circumstances, he couldn’t see his boss shelling out extra for gas. It seemed more sensible to go home now and return with the parcel in the morning, before heading to work. He could back-date the delivery. He had already broken one rule; what was there to break another, he figured.
The sun had not yet called it a day, the sky was clear, and people around were walking and laughing and talking on their phones and to each other. It was one of those days that made you feel wonderful just to be alive, and Yusuf was happy to sit there awhile and soak it all up.
When Yusuf finally got home, it was half past the hour. He parked his scooter, purchased second-hand about eight months ago, shortly after he had ventured into Mumbai, on the road and locked it. It was not a community but with his salary, the best he could afford. His rented quarters were located on the upper storey of the dwelling he had chosen. It was a one-room affair, which was fine for, at 27 he was still single.
He slid his bag from his neck and dropped it on the solitary piece of furniture in the room, a square table. It served as his desk, storage place and his dining surface. The bag hit a steel glass, knocking it over. He grunted out loudly, more annoyed than anything and went to put it upright.
It was then that he saw what had happened. Leftover tea in the glass had spilled over his bag. His office documents were inside and he quickly removed the bag, lifting it away from the puddle that had formed on the table top. Tea dripped from the bag, and now he cursed and opening it, took out its contents.
His company stationary had been spared, he realised to his relief and then his heart began racing when he saw the dark stain on the envelope he had been supposed to deliver that evening. The package was white and the tea had spread across half the surface.
He checked the envelope quickly. It was not one of those thick, high quality envelopes, and he feared that whatever was inside might have gotten wet. If he delivered the parcel with this huge stain across it and the owner found the contents had been damaged, there would be hell to pay.
Yusuf thought quickly. Why not open the envelope and transfer the contents to a new envelope? It was highly unlikely the recipient would know it wasn’t the original packaging. And if by some misfortune the contents had been damaged, who would think to blame the courier service?
He ripped open the envelope without a further thought, careful not to damage the sender’s and recipient’s details.
Squatting, he shook the contents of the envelope – addressed to a Rita Sousa – out onto his mattress. He saw instantly that they were photographs and a single glance at the top one was enough to freeze his frame into instant immobility. It seemed an eternity before his senses recovered, and then he reached out a shaking hand and picking the full lot of photos up, sifted through them.
There were just seven prints and the subject of all was the same person. Whoever had been holding the camera had gone about his task with a finesse that bordered on the artistic. Even to his untrained eye, it was clear the photographer had talent. The lighting had been carefully placed, the contours of the bedroom tastefully arranged, all done to highlight the features of the naked woman. All seven had been taken while she was asleep in bed. From the change in angles and postures, they had been taken over different periods of time. Perhaps there had been a lot more, but these seven must surely have been the pick of the lot, and they were what the artist had intended them to be: very revealing.
He had been studying the photos for a while before he realised there was a sheet of A4 size paper along with them. The message had been printed, and every letter was in capitals.
MY DARLING RITA, THERE ARE A LOT MORE OF THESE, MEMORIES OF A TIME BEFORE YOU ABANDONED ME. AND EACH OF THEM IS JUST AS LOVELY, JUST AS INTIMATE. WHAT I’M SENDING YOU ARE JUST SEVEN. IMAGINE WHAT YOUR DEAR HUSBAND WOULD SAY IF HE SAW THEM… I’M SURE WE CAN COME TO AN UNDERSTANDING – TO MAKE CERTAIN THAT THIS NEVER HAPPENS. DON’T TRY TO CONTACT ME, DARLING. I’LL BE IN TOUCH…
Yusuf stared at the page, stupefied. Country lad he might be, but he had watched his share of detective serials. This woman was being blackmailed! Someone she had once had an affair with had sent Rita Sousa nude pictures, and he, Yusuf had intercepted it.
There was no way he could inform the police, not without getting into trouble himself. Even if the cops overlooked his part in the matter, his company certainly would not. He would lose his job. And for what? It was not like he knew this dame, this Rita. She had messed around with some creep and now he was out for revenge. That was her fault, her look-out. He wanted no part of it. The wise thing to do was to stick to his original plan, which was to re-seal the materiel in a new envelope and deliver it the following morning. Just pretend the whole thing had never happened, he thought. He dropped the whole lot onto his bedding and grabbing his keys, rushed out the door to the stationary outlet across the road.
Later, he attributed the error to his shaken state, and when he slid the photos along with sheet of paper into the new envelope, he didn’t notice the single photograph that had fallen aside, off his mattress and onto the floor near the wall.
The investigating officer named Dougan was studying the wedding photograph of Allen and Rita Sousa when his deputy Naik arrived.
He turned from the wall where the portrait occupied the pride of place and looked at Naik with a frown. His usually immaculate subordinate looked weary and was actually perspiring. There was sweat rings under his arms and when Naik lifted a hand to salute him, he saw that it was streaked with dirt.
“Flat tire, sir.” said Naik. He even sounded breathless.
Dougan nodded. Knowing how touchy Naik was about his car, he realised that he wouldn’t have allowed anyone else to handle it, even something mundane as changing a tire. Dougan looked at the other person in the living room of the villa. Allen Sousa had watched Naik enter and address his superior officer wordlessly, not even standing from his sofa by way of greeting. But that would be expected of a person who had just lost his wife, thought Dougan and he motioned for Naik to sit.
He looked across at the table where the envelope was placed. The photographs and the single white sheet of paper were neatly stacked on top of it, where Dougan had kept them after going through them with a gloved hand fifteen minutes ago.
Allen nodded when Dougan asked him to speak. Dougan glanced at his watch. It was nearly 10 AM. He had already been here for twenty-five minutes.
Allen turned to face Naik and blinked a few times, as if to process and channel his thoughts. Naik kept his own expression carefully neutral. “I suppose it all began yesterday. A courier delivered this envelope to our shop down the road. Rita was not there at the time and I received it. I brought it home after closing mid-day and forgot to tell her about it when she returned for lunch. Later we both went to the shop. After closing, she had some groceries to pick up, so I walked home. I saw the envelope and opened it.” His eye fell to the envelope on the table. “And I saw what was inside… And when Rita came home at 8, I just pushed the whole thing toward her and – I used words that were very harsh.
“Then I told her that I was going to contact my lawyer in the morning and find out how to file for divorce. I didn’t allow her to say a single word. Then I left the house and went to a bar, where I stayed until about midnight. I got home not long after that and I just crashed onto this sofa and blacked out.
“I woke early and went to the kitchen to make some coffee. The door to the kitchen was shut and when I pushed it open, there was a strong smell of gas.”
Dougan completed the tale. “The gas cylinder was empty. And there was a container of pills next to the corpse. The label says they are sleeping pills but we’ll know better once the report is in.”
Allen looked deeply distressed. “I never expected her to do that, not take her own life… I was angry, I was furious, and yes, I actually wanted her out of my life, but not like that…”
Using his hanky, Naik was looking through the photographs. “Are you in the habit of opening your wife’s mail?”
If Allen was offended by the question, he didn’t allow it to show. “You’re looking at the photos, Inspector. And what you’re seeing is the result of infidelity, pure and simple. Sure, the pictures were a shock, but at the back of my mind, I knew something was not right with Rita. I don’t think I actually suspected an affair, but it was enough to make me want to check her mail.” He let out a long sigh. “It was such a shock to me, to see those seven pictures of Rita…”
“Six, you mean.” said Naik, looking up. “Six photographs.”
Allen gave a bitter sort of laugh. “Inspector, I sat on my rocker and looked at those photographs for thirty minutes while my world crashed down around me. Looked at photos of the woman I married laid out naked on our bed, in my own house. In three of them she’s actually got a smile on her face, put there by someone other than me. In another two, you can see the birthmark on the inside of her thigh, very clearly, and in the last two, she’s wearing the gold bracelet I gave her as a birthday present.” He shuddered, looking at the policeman in the eye direct and Naik looked away uncomfortably.
Dougan cleared his throat and putting an arm on the sofa, pushed himself up. “You understand that we cannot release the body until an autopsy has been done. Under the circumstances this is protocol. Once we know more, Naik will contact you.” He nodded to the envelope. “And we’ll need to take those along, for now.”
Allen watched them leave, giving just one nod to indicate he had heard. He didn’t bother to rise, and when he heard the door shut, he waited. The sound of vehicle engines roaring to life seemed to finally stir him to life, and he gripped the arm-rest tightly.
He gazed down at the cup of tea on the table. It had long gone cold, but even if it was freshly brewed he didn’t think he would have trusted himself to lift the cup without spilling it all over himself.
The truth was, he was scared. Scared that these policemen would catch him somewhere. Scared that he might have made a mistake, that his carefully laid scheme would come crashing down like a house of cards. It had been great in theory, but now that his plan had come to fruition, he found himself sweating and imagining the worst.
For what seemed like the millionth time, he went through the whole sequence of events in his mind, starting from when he had put the photographs of Rita into a white envelope and dropped it at a courier collection point using a false name. To the best of his knowledge Rita had never had an affair; no, the photographs were from their personal collection, taken some years ago when things had been less sour.
To cover gambling debts that suddenly became frighteningly high, he had diverted funds from their business. That had been enough, but not for long. Allen knew Rita had personal funds in the form of stocks, gifted on their wedding day by a doting father. To get his hands on those, he toyed with the idea of sending her those photos as a blackmail tool. Allen could pretend his computer and the collection of their personal photos had been hacked. He would urge her to pay up into an anonymous account.
But that plan died a quick death when Rita came home one day and slammed a sheet of paper onto the table. Her accountant had discovered some disturbing facts involving the assets of their business. Rita had demanded answers. Allen had blustered, pretending he had invested the funds into ventures to further the growth of their business. Rita had not bought his story and had given him an ultimatum: five days to return the funds or else she would ask for a freeze on their joint assets, an act that would financially cripple him. He could imagine the bouncers coming to visit, armed with bats and iron rods, when his payments began dwindling.
Desperation showed him a new way out, one that involved Rita ‘taking her own life’. He realised he could still use the same photographs. The storyline would be blackmail, and then suicide by a scorned woman unable to face an uncertain future.
In truth, Allen had never showed her the photos. He drugged her meal with the sleeping tablets she habitually took, and then laid her out in the kitchen and turned on the gas. He left after that, spending the next few hours at a bar in the company of enough witnesses to convince even the most hard-nosed cop of his whereabouts during those hours.
He hoped the Inspector would take the bait and close the case after ruling it a suicide.
Allen’s hands would have begun trembling anew if he had been witness to the conversation going on in Dougan’s cabin.
Naik was seated opposite Dougan, looking perplexed. “I don’t understand, sir. How is it possible for neither Rita nor Allen’s prints to be on the photographs?”
Dougan had asked his fingerprint expert to dust all six of the pictures. The technician had found only one set of prints on the entire set. On two of the photographs there had been partials which he matched with the husband.
“How did you get Allen’s fingerprints?” Naik wanted to know.
“I lifted a photo-frame off his mantle and told the technician to use the prints he found on the glass as a control. I presumed that only Rita and Allen would have handled an object of such a personal nature…” Dougan waved away the junior man’s objection. “Yes, I know, not standard operating procedure, but I had my suspicions…” His gaze was fixed on the frame he had taken. “When I saw the nude photographs for the first time and went to see the body in the kitchen, it was like I was looking at two women who were the same yet different in some subtle ways. I couldn’t figure out what was irking me, not until minutes later in the living room, waiting for you to arrive.
“I was looking at their wedding portrait. And what occurred to me was that the Rita in the wedding picture looked like the Rita in these photographs.” He tapped the glossy prints on his desk. “You see, Naik: these nude photos are not recent…”
“So, she had an affair in the past, and her lover has waited until now to use them?” said Naik slowly, but his tone suggested otherwise. “Or-”
And Dougan nodded, slowly and precisely. “That’s right, Naik. And precisely because of that, I asked for the photos to be dusted. The results are not what I expected though.” He shifted his gaze. “One set of prints we cannot ID, which we may or may not attribute to the lover. But Rita’s prints are not there which is puzzling; and the fact that Allen’s prints are only on a few are even more perplexing when you consider he knew all the minor details.”
“But he said there were seven photos when there were only six.” pointed out Naik.
Dougan looked grave. “And so does the printed note accompanying the photos.”
Naik followed with that line of reasoning. “If this is the husband’s handiwork, then his prints got on when he was putting them into the envelope to be posted. And when he received the envelope he simply had to open it. He didn’t have to handle them because he already knew what the envelope contained.”
“Or thought he did. One photo is missing, remember. And we still have one set of prints we cannot identify. Somebody we don’t know handled the photographs before they were delivered.”
Naik sat up, struck by a thought. “I’ll contact the courier service. They’ll trace the origin point of the package, and then we can talk to the staff on duty at that office that day. We can show them a photo of the husband and see if anyone recognises him as the person who brought in the envelope. All we need is a photo of Allen.”
Dougan gave Naik a grin and opened his drawer. “Lucky for us I took the wedding photo home…”
It had not been a good day for Yusuf. One of the other boys had called in sick, which effectively increased his load. Then he had forgotten his mobile at one of his client’s offices, and had realised about thirty minutes and 17 kilometers later. He had gotten six missed calls during that time, almost all of them from his boss, demanding to know where he had reached. And now this…
Seated in the office after a long, hard day. Grabbing his first bite since breakfast. He had glanced down at the front of a newspaper which happened to be on the receptionist’s desk. Rita’s photo had been on the front page, and when he read about her suicide, his whole body froze into shock.
There was movement at the door of the office but he didn’t look up. His mind was in turmoil as he read the facts of the report.
It had been two days since he delivered the package. He had thought his hands happily washed clear of the matter until the previous morning when he discovered the single photograph near his mattress. He had pushed it under his pillow before leaving for work, not knowing how else to proceed. And now this… the woman, probably as a result of the delivery he had made, was dead. According to the report, she had taken an overdose of tablets and then turned on the cooking gas.
What could he have done differently, he wondered, his misery acute. Inside, he knew what he should have done before, when he realised what he was dealing with. He should have gone to the police, and put the matter into their hands. Had he done that, Rita would still be alive.
In grief, he looked up and saw two police officers talking to the receptionist. She was looking at something in her files and then she looked up, turned in his direction and pointed at him.
The two men approached him and Yusuf straightened.
“Yusuf?” said Inspector Naik.
Dougan looked apologetic. “Forgive me, Mr. Sousa. If there was any way I could have accomplished this without requesting you to come over, especially so close after this tragedy-” He shrugged lightly.
Allen nodded his understanding, sitting straight in the chair in front of Dougan’s desk. He watched silently as the police detective produced the envelope from a tray.
“It’s about these photographs of your late wife. There’s some confusion here.” explained Dougan. “Please look through them again; I’d like to know if they’re exactly the same ones you received in the mail.”
Allen frowned at that. He was about to say something, but then with a shrug, he picked the envelope up. Sliding the photographs out, he quickly sifted through them. He stopped, blinking rapidly, then went through them again.
“Is something wrong?”
Allen was still looking down at the prints. “There seems to be a photo missing.”
Dougan turned slightly, and took the photograph Yusuf handed him. He placed it on the desk. “Is this the one”, he asked quietly.
Allen peered at it, and instantly nodded. “Yes, that’s the one.”
Dougan leaned back in his chair. “Gotcha.”