The middle-aged police Inspector (Crime) was named Dougan and when he parked his car, the very first thing he did was feel for his asthma inhaler, in his trousers pocket. His physician had warned him that stress was one the factors that triggered an attack, and he had learned the hard way that in his line of work, stress was unavoidable. And so, like his mobile phone, his inhaler was now something he could never leave behind when he had to set out.
This looked to be one of those stressful episodes, thought Dougan, glancing out his window. At half past one in the morning, you would have expected this largely residential district to be empty of life. But here he was, parked behind two police jeeps outside a single-storey villa-type unit. The villa had a narrow strip of landscaping bordering it, and the property itself was ringed with a high wall. Other than the jeeps, only one other vehicle was stationed at the curb.
From the knot of personnel clustered at the main gate to the villa, a tall man in uniform detached himself when he saw Dougan’s car. Dougan recognized the officer as Assistant Inspector of Police Naik. Dougan had requested Naik’s transfer to his section after he himself had received a promotion to his present position.
Despite the odd hour, Naik looked fresh, his face scrubbed clean of any residue of the day’s activities and his khakis crisp as though he had just stepped out of his home. He had a clearly unhappy look on his face when he greeted his boss. “Which idiot roused you out of bed?”
Dougan raised a hand to pacify him. “My standing instruction to the night-duty officer is to notify me of any incident occurring after-hours. He also told me you had responded to the call. I thought I should come in; you are, after all, still new to the department. Any advice I can offer, I am happy to.” He opened the passenger door in invitation, and was glad to see Naik give a brief nod of acceptance at his words as he got in. He looked at the villa, noting that there was no sign at the gate advertising the name of the occupant. “Who’s the owner?”
Naik too turned so that he was facing the villa. “His name is Sadiq. The man is a bachelor, in his mid-fifties. He worked in Dubai for thirty years, over time investing his earnings in several properties in the city, of which this is one. He gave up his job three years ago, and instead of enjoying a nice retired life, decided to take up another, different form of employment. He started a brothel…”
Dougan looked startled. “Where? Inside this villa?”
Naik hesitated. “Maybe I’m being too judgemental. Sadiq himself insists it’s a high-class establishment that he’s running. The word he uses is ‘club’. He says his operating style is unique, and that he has a very exclusive clientele. Clearly it is not the kind of business one promotes in the yellow pages. All new applicants for membership are from referrals via word of mouth.”
Dougan indicated the surroundings. “How is he able to run a sleazy business like this in a decent community?”
“He operates low-key, and only after dark. And I suspect he has friends in high places. Oh, and sir, sleazy isn’t the word he used: I think he mentioned classy several times.”
Dougan’s eyes narrowed. “Sounds like you’ve had a fruitful discussion of the workings and merits of his club. Did you actually get around to getting details about the man who was murdered?”
Naik hid his discomfiture by pretending to cough. “I’ll have to explain a bit more about the club’s operating style first, sir. You’ll understand why later…” He gestured to the villa. “Inside that building is a living room named uh, Nirvana; that’s where the action takes place. Connected to Nirvana are four private rooms with storage facilities for each client’s belongings. Now here’s where it gets interesting…
“The USP of this uh, club is the surreal experience it offers. Those are Sadiq’s words, not mine. The set-up is like this: inside Nirvana, waiting for the four clients, are four naked females. Each client pays for one hour, and for every hour, four clients are allowed inside, each being assigned a private room. The purpose being that none of the clients knows who the others are. They enter the villa separately, wearing a jacket with a hood or whatever as disguise. With the number allotted to them, at the assigned timing, they let themselves into the private rooms. There, they undress completely. From these rooms, they enter Nirvana where the women are waiting.
“Nirvana has several features intended to make for a unique experience. The first thing is the absence of any light fixtures. The place is totally dark, and thus one’s anonymity is preserved right from the start. There is soft music playing, and light incense filling the room. There is no furniture inside, except for mattresses on the floor. So, four men enter a room, each with no idea of who the others are. For sixty minutes they are free to interact in any and every imaginable way with any of the other occupants. A warning bell sounds five minutes prior to the end of the allotted time. The threat of the lights coming on at the end of that time means that no one ever stays beyond that limit. They then go to their respective rooms, dress and exit.”
Dougan’s eyebrows had gone up. “Amazing what some minds can come up with…”
Naik gave a curt nod. “Well – the session that started at midnight got over at 1 sharp. But instead of four men leaving, only three men left. Fearing the worst, Sadiq went into the room which the missing client – his name is Alcento – had been allotted. Alcento’s clothes were still there,so Sadiq went into Nirvana where he found the man, dead. Seeing the marks around his neck, he assumes the worst, locks the doors, and calls us.”
Naik saw that Dougan was listening closely. He chose his words carefully. “I’ve looked over the whole villa, and it is as I have described to you. Other than the four connecting rooms, which are locked by clients when the session is underway, there’s no way into Nirvana. For obvious reasons, there are no windows in any of Nirvana’s walls. And I looked at the ceiling: it’s a concrete structure, with no openings at all. It’s clear that the only access to Nirvana is through the clients’ rooms. And in that time-frame, there were nine people in the villa. My conclusion is that whoever killed Alcento is one of them: the 3 clients, the 4 women – or Sadiq himself.”
Arms on the steering wheel, Dougan nodded to him to carry on.
“After I conducted my walk-around of the premises, I received the preliminary on-scene forensic report. It indicates that Alcento was strangled. There are visible finger marks trailing backward round his neck, so it’s likely that the killer was behind him when he struck. The specialist also pointed out the impression of a band, possibly a wedding ring on the neck where Alcento was caught in a strangle-hold. And there are blood and tissue fragments in Alcento’s fingernails. He didn’t go down easily: apparently he was able to claw his attacker in a bid to break his hold.” Anticipating Dougan’s question, he nodded to the house. “There’s a police-woman inside, examining all four females for any wounds. I checked Sadiq myself. He wasn’t happy about the idea of stripping to his underwear, but he understands the gravity of the situation. He may have VIP friends, but there is a body on his premises and the killer is either a client or an employee.”
“You feel you can rule out Sadiq?”
“He bears no scratch marks. And he has rings on all fingers, and presumably those fingers have become so thick over the years that none of them are able to come off. I actually tried…”
“Did you have a chance to interrogate the four women?”
Naik nodded but his expression was bleak. “None of them heard anything out of the ordinary. Sadiq has a sound system in Nirvana. The music is supposed to both soothe and drown out any sounds. And obviously with the lights out, nobody could actually see anything either…” He sighed. “We’ll see what our lady constable finds, but I’m not hopeful. Alcento was well-built and muscular despite his age. All four females are skinny. I doubt any of them have the strength…”
Naik led Dougan down the cobbled pathway to the east face of the villa. High hedges designed to offer concealment ran round the path. Naik pointed to a teak door with a handle which was ajar. “This is the room Alcento used.’ They entered and Dougan found himself inside a room that was tastefully done up, from the choice of the wall-shades to the paintings that hung on two walls. A cut-glass chandelier dangled from the ceiling, casting a dim yellow wash over them. Along one side was a wall-unit with his belongings. Opposite was a chair alongside a side-table. Folded towels were laid on a rack next to a laundry hamper.
Dougan nodded to a door in the far wall. “I presume that leads to the main room…” He noted that this interior door had no latch or locking mechanism, unlike the external one. Naik followed Dougan through the doorway into Nirvana.
Tube-lights installed at a height on the sides had been switched on, and Dougan immediately spotted the corpse on the floor. Alcento was stretched out on one of the several mattresses positioned around the room. He cast a quick eye over the naked body, noting the bruising around the throat and the bulging tongue. From the stricken look on Alcento’s face, he had died a horrible death. As Naik had pointed out, the victim had an impressive physique, the kind associated with someone who spent time in a gym. Whoever had nailed him was likely in even better shape, concluded Dougan.
He cast a slow eye about the premises, noting the mounted air-conditioner units. They were still running, and Dougan thought he detected the smell of lavender in the air. It was not overpowering, just strong enough to tickle the senses. He pressed the plastic canister of his inhaler, drawing comfort from the contact.
Naik was right: there was no way in other than the doors of the four rooms. One of the four women or three clients had to be the killer. But there was something that didn’t add up, he realized suddenly. He stared at the mattresses on the floor and then at the body. Except for his wedding band, the man was as naked as the day he had been born. So, wondered Dougan, a frown creasing his forehead, how on earth…
One of the inner doors opened and Dougan watched a lady constable enter. API Naik moved to meet her. She spoke to him, and Naik shook his head. “She didn’t find any sign of injury on any of the women. So that leaves the three clients.” He looked grim. “I’ll go get Sadiq.”
Dougan stopped him. “Before you leave, turn off the lights in this room. I see a control panel by that door.” He watched Naik snap off the switches one by one before leaving the room and closing the door behind him.
Darkness enveloped the room. Taking a few moments to adjust, Dougan could make out phosphorescent numbers glowing eerily on each of the four doors, no doubt to guide the clients to the right rooms after the games. But what the police officer found remarkable was the degree of darkness. He could barely discern the outline of his hand which he held out in front of him. Without any doubt, the identities of the clients would have been remained unknown to each other. It gave rise to a new, disturbing line of thought.
One of the doors opened, and light spilled inside making him blink. Naik stood in the doorway, and Dougan made his way into the private room. A short, stocky man stood next to Naik. He was grey-haired and bearded, and he wore a kurta. It was Sadiq, and the man was shaking his head. The look on his face could only be described as mournful.
Naik’s expression was flinty. “I need to know the identities of the other three clients, Sadiq!”
When Sadiq spoke his voice was filled with regret. “I am placed in a very difficult position. One of the men here tonight is a government minister. If I reveal his name, I will have no future in Mumbai. Everything I own is in this city. I would be cutting off my head.”
Naik crossed his arms. “And what if we throw you in jail for shielding a possible killer?”
Sadiq looked down at the floor. “I have already spoken to the minister and explained the situation to him. He has assured me of his full support in exchange for my silence on the matter.”
Dougan had taken a chair. “Tell me how your scheme operates. Do you meet direct with the clients when they come?”
Sadiq shook his head. “Everything is done online. I have a website, accessible only to members. Our program begins at 8 PM daily and all available slots are listed. Any client wanting to book a particular slot sends me a one-line email. I confirm the availability. Payment is by card.”
“Are you on the premises during these activities?”
Sadiq gave a surprised now. “I have to be here. I unlock the door before a client is due, and after each person leaves, I check the rooms to make sure all is in order. I maintain a thirty minute gap between clients for discretion. Also, my girls use the time to clean Nirvana, also to freshen up. I stay in a cabin in a corner of the garden. My day starts at 5 PM and ends at 3 in the morning.”
A humming sound made them all start. Naik realized it was Alcento’s phone. After his expert had dusted it for prints, it had been placed in the cupboard with Alcento’s other belongings.
Dougan checked it to see who had tried calling. “Ravi Alcento. Three missed calls from him. He’s obviously a family member.” He looked at Sadiq questioningly.
Sadiq shrugged. “I have no idea. My knowledge about my clients is mostly limited. Alcento has a factory in Mumbai; he makes clothes for women. I know nothing more.”
Dougan’s attention was drawn to the mobile’s wallpaper, of a family photograph. Alcento was seated alone, between two young couples. He wondered if Alcento was a widower.
He dialed the number for Ravi Alcento. “Hello? Hello is this Ravi Alcento? This is police Inspector Dougan speaking. Before I go on, could you kindly tell me what your relation to Mr. Alcento is?” He paused then nodded. “Okay, you’re his son. Ravi, I have some- bad news for you. I’m very sorry to tell you that your father has expired.” He held the phone away from his ear in anticipation of the shocked outburst. “Ravi, I will give you all the details – in person. I need you to come over. You will need to bring somebody along, for emotional support.” His eye fell on a pack of condoms next to Alcento’s folded trousers. “Preferably a male relative…”
Dougan crooked a finger at Sadiq. “I have not decided what to do with you yet. I don’t like this spirit of non-co-operation that you have developed.” He allowed Sadiq to squirm for some moments. “However if you don’t want to be a guest of the Mumbai Police for tonight, there is one detail I will require from you…”
Sadiq left the door to the private room Alcento had last used open for Dougan’s use. Dougan told Sadiq to remain on-site. Naik had left to await the arrival of Ravi Alcento. Dougan remained in the room. He rubbed his eyes and then checked his watch. It was after two.
The two men who followed Naik into the room looked to be in their thirties. Both men were in the picture on Alcento’s phone. Dougan stood up and shook hands with Ravi, offering his sympathies. Ravi introduced his companion as Vikram. He was his sister’s husband. Both of them worked together in the garment firm that Alcento had founded. Both men were dressed smartly despite the circumstances, Ravi in tees and jeans, and Vikram in formal attire. Sadiq had provided extra chairs and Dougan motioned to them to sit. In a few sentences he explained what had transpired in the last two hours.
Ravi did not appear shocked that his father was a member. “Ever since our mother passed away, I’ve had my doubts.” He shrugged. “Since it was a personal matter, I never enquired…” He straightened, visibly perturbed. “You say my father was strangled?”
“Where were you last night?”
For a moment, the youngster looked startled. “From 9 until just past midnight, I was at a dinner affair at the Ramada. When I got home and found my father had not reached I tried calling him.”
There was a tap at the door. They all turned to look. A constable stood there holding a tray with coffee. Naik took the tray from him. Nearing the group, he put it on the side-table round which they were seated. Lifting two cups, he handed one to Ravi, who murmured his thanks. He turned with the other cup and appeared to stumble. The cup dropped right onto Vikram’s lap, where his arms had been placed.
Vikram jumped up with a howl that was part pain and part rage.
Dougan looked up sharply. “Damn it, Naik!” He gestured urgently to Vikram whose left sleeve was stained with the coffee. “Get your watch off before the coffee ruins it!”
Vikram reacted without thinking. Unfastening the single button, he peeled back the sleeve over his watch – and then stopped. But it was too late, for the eyes of every person in the room had been on his actions. They had all seen the marks on his wrist and hand.
Dougan’s eyes lifted to someone standing at the door. Sadiq had entered quietly and when he saw the scratches on Vikram’s arm, his face filled with shock and incomprehension.
Dougan broke the ensuing silence. “Sadiq, was this man here between midnight and one o’clock this morning as a registered client?”
Sadiq sighed then nodded. “He said his name is Johan. I had no idea he was related to Alcento.”
Ravi had been glancing from face to face, and now he stared at his brother-in-law, bewildered. “Vikram, what the hell are they talking about?”
Dougan replied. “As your father was being strangled, he resisted. We found tissue debris collected under the nails of his fingers. The assumption is that he scratched the hands or arms of his assailant to free himself. Since we now have a suspect who we can positively place at the crime-scene at the time the murder took place, it will be a simple matter to match the DNA.”
Ravi lurched to his feet, his face a mask of horror. “Vikram, this is bull-shit! Tell them this is all bull, man!”
But Vikram said nothing. Instead he sank into the same chair he had occupied before. His complexion had gone pale. He tried to speak, but no sound emerged.
Ravi clutched his forehead, moaning “O God!” over and over again.
Dougan stood and walked past them and out into the night. The room had suddenly become claustrophobic, almost coffin-like, he thought.
Sadiq followed. “Inspector. How did you know?” When Dougan said nothing, he shrugged. “After this, I will have to close down this place. There is no way I can continue. My conscience will not allow me. Won’t you at least tell me how you suspected the son-in-law?”
Dougan was looking out into the night, breathing in the cool air, feeling it permeate his tissues, replacing the rot he had imagined seeping within as he sat in that room and looked into the face of a man who had murdered his own flesh-and-blood. “Your whole operation revolves round the fact that your clients’ identities stay secret. Except you, nobody is aware of who the others are, not even when they’re in the room together because of the utter darkness within. So how would a potential killer even know who his victim was?
“Because the list of suspects was so short, I felt certain the murder was not planned in advance. The killer didn’t know you would refuse to show us the list. But for the murder to have been unpremeditated, it meant that in a dark room he not only recognized Alcento somehow, but was then forced to kill him. And if you rule out recognition by sight the only likely alternative is sound. And who is more likely to recognize a voice more intimately than a close relative…
“Seeing the family picture gave me two suspects, the men. That’s why I showed you the phone and asked if either were a client. And when you pointed out Vikram, all I had to do was see if he had the scratches to prove it. I can figure out the rest: Alcento probably heard and recognized Vikram’s voice in the dark. He must have been angered that Vikram was cheating on his daughter. Alcento was not only his father-in-law but his employer. Maybe he issued a threat. Vikram must have reacted out of desperation, and he killed him, his own father-in-law…