“That’s the way all blackmailers meet their end, dear,” said Arunima, threading her needle to stitch the rip in my trousers.
“I agree…though I rarely expected Mrs. Gangwal to join their ranks…” I trailed off, sipping my coffee.
“Aged around sixty-five with her husband dead for over five years, might have lost a couple of screws, you know,” she shrugged, almost pricking herself in the process.
“May be,” I replied, taking the needle from her to thread it myself—Arunima had the tendency to get overly excited when things take such a turn. A complete sucker for blood and gore with a healthy dash of gossip.
Arunima and I had been married for over twenty-five years now, living in the quiet town of Heavenridge buried in the mountains. We were both on the way of turning fifty, though Arunima had more grey hairs than me. She was short and slightly stout with beady grey eyes framed with black-rimmed glasses with her graying hair held in a neat bun at the nape of her neck. She was usually clad in a loose shirt and skirt when at home, often telling me off when I tried to point out how bizarre it looked on her.
I was taller and more on the healthier side, courtesy to the regular tennis games with Anshuman, my best friend, in the evenings. After I closed down my medical store for the day, I would troop off to the club for a game or two before sharing the day’s events over glass of orange juice with him.
Anshuman worked in the real estate sector, many often jokingly referring to him as the guy responsible for making Heavenridge “suddenly popular amongst the citybulls”. He was younger than me, but we hit it off pretty well. Tall, broad-shouldered with a posse of jet-black hair on his squarish head, light grey eyes and a tanned complexion, he looked that suave businessman tabloids went crazy about.
Though in Heavenridge, he was always “our Anshu”.
It was Sunday, the day when the Heavenridge “originals” came together for the weekly feast. Unlike the newcomers, we “originals” had been here since the time when the town was no bigger than a score of houses on the either side of a solitary street. Every Sunday, we had made it a tradition to come together to have a feast and share news (read gossip) over a plate of chicken tikkas and kebabs.
As I dressed up in my t-shirt and trackpants, I heard Arunima call for from upstairs.
“Hey Vikram? Did you see my hair needle anywhere? The one I use to hold up my bun with?”
Women and their accessories…
I sighed before looking around—and found the object sitting happily on the dinner table.
“It’s downstairs dear…on the dinner table.”
I could hear her patter down the wooden steps and soon saw her dash to the dinner table.
“I swear these things are getting legs to move around,” she muttered, putting it in her bun.
I shrugged without comment. Arunima was a hell of a scatterbrain…only she would never admit it.
“She was stabbed, you say?” I asked, startled. The fat from the chicken breast jumped and crackled, almost burning my skin and making me jump.
“Hey there, slow down,” said Anshuman, handing me a cold bottle to ease my burn before lowering the flame.
“Yeah, that’s what I heard. The police chief in charge of this case is a school friend of mine…and that’s what he told me this morning.”
I nursed my hand thoughtfully.
“But the paper boy said…” I began.
“Initially, I did look a case of poisoning…I mean, they couldn’t find any external wound. But apparently, she was lying on her back on a red carpet. And at the nape of her neck was the stab wound. She did bleed a lot, but the carpet kind of hid the fact.”
“Hmm…the murderer seems to be a tough cookie,” I muttered, looking at the direction of Mrs. Gangwal’s house.
“I wonder who was blackmailing? And about whom?” he muttered, placing the cooked pieces on a plate.
“Beats me…no one looks that suspicious here,” I said, giving a discreet look around.
Anshuman laughed, almost dropping the plate.
“Turning detective, eh?”
“What’s the harm? It isn’t everyday someone gets murdered in Heavenridge…” I said defensively.
He sobered down as he began to skewer the paneer cubes and capsicum slices.
“I think it would be fun…besides, I often prided myself of having a brain better than my friend who’s currently in charge of the case.”
I slapped him on his back.
“Then, we have a deal.”
He gave me an equally mischievous grin.
“On a side note, could you come and check out our new projector in the office? It’s behaving funny…. I could have gone to the repair shop but I really don’t trust those newbies… ”
I nodded in agreement.
“Okay, I will drop in sometime this week,” I said, spearing my kebab on to a fork.
“…Mrs. Srivastava is a nutcase, you know,” Arunima gushed.
“Why?” I wondered out loud. Mrs. Srivastava was a retired History professor who lived with her fourteen-year-old grand-daughter and had a nice, humorous way of talking. I would certainly not classify her as a nut-case.
“I mean, I know it’s scary when the house next to yours is a murder crime scene,” she continued, removing her scarf and folding it neatly.
I gave a low whistle.
“She says she wants to camp in our house for a few days until the murderer is caught…I mean, it not like I am not hospitable or anything but our house just cannot take in two more people…you getting what I am saying?”
I nodded absently. Maybe she would know who came into Mrs. Gangwal’s house that night?
“The lady’s scared…and it is obvious, seeing the situation. I think she just needs some time to relax,” I said soothingly, walking up to the door.
“Where are you off to?” Arunima asked.
“Anshuman’s…got some work…”
“Okay then…you would be back by dinner, I suppose?”
“Yep…make something light today. I kind of stuffed myself in the afternoon.”
Anshuman lived in a simple yet stylish two-storied bunglow made of stone and wood, giving it a rugged castle-like look. Inside, fuzzy carpets and warm lighting gave it a cozy look. I loved his house.
I rang the doorbell. Shyam, his manservant, opened the door.
“Mr. Choudhury! It is nice to see you. Mr. Mitra is in his study. If you would follow me…”
He took my hat and coat and placed it on the stand next to the door. It was just September, yet there was a noticeable nip in the air.
Shyam went down the hallway towards his study. He knocked the door and announced my presence.
“Come in!” came a muffled voice from inside.
I entered the study. It was simply yet elegantly furnished—a sturdy oak desk and chair, two recliners by the fire place and divan on the other end of the room. The walls were covered with scores of shelves over-flowing with files.
“What’s up?” Anshuman asked, shutting down his laptop and turning towards me.
I repeated the conversation I had with Arunima.
“Hmm…” he said, scratching his chin.
“It wouldn’t harm if we go and talk to her,” he mused.
He stood up, stretching.
“Let’s go then,” he said.
The sun had stared its homeward journey by the time we reached Mrs. Srivastava’s home. I could see Mrs. Gangwal’s modest home now swathed with red tapes emblazoned with “POLICE: DO NOT CROSS”.
She was a nice lady. I felt bad for her.
Anshuman knocked the door. After a minute of various clinks and clangs, a wizened face peered through the crack.
“Oh! It’s you two. Come in,” she said, opening the door wider.
She led us to the drawing room where the fire in the fireplace was burning brightly.
“Old bones…they freeze quickly,” she said, motioning us to sit.
“Did you see anything?” Anshuman began abruptly. I nudged him slightly with my toe, but he ignored it.
Mrs. Srivastava didn’t look much surprised, though.
“Police had been asking on the same lines, Anshu. But I will tell again. I didn’t see or hear anything. Apart from the postman, no one came to her house yesterday.”
Both of us deflated on hearing this. We all knew about the postman—I had personally asked him in the morning. Mrs. Gangwal was hale and hearty when she received her daily post.
Then what happened at night?
“Mrs. Gangwal…her husband died five years ago. And she was one of those devoted wife types…his death must have unhinged her. I do not know why did she begin blackmailing in the first place,” Mrs. Srivastava said dreamily, looking at the crackling fire.
“But how do you know it was blackmail?” Anshuman asked.
“The police said they found a lot of money in her drawer…a lot of money that was not accounted for. Mrs. Gangwal lived on her husband’s pension—which was not much, to be honest. Where did she get such a huge amount of money?”
That put us in a deep thought.
“A point to be considered indeed,” I mused, staring at my interlocked fingers.
Anshuman stood up with a sigh.
“Thank you Mrs. Srivastava. I think you do not need to worry much…where’s little Ayesha, by the way?” he asked, referring to her grand-daughter.
“I sent her to her boarding school a bit earlier…such an environment is not good for young impressionable minds, you know,” she replied.
I nodded in agreement.
“Good thinking,” I said.
“We should take our leave now. Good night, Mrs. Srivastava,” said Anshuman before we left the house.
After exiting Mrs. Srivastava’s house, we stood in front of the “crime-scene”, trying to figure out all the information, paltry as it was, to a suitable timeline.
I saw a man clad in a thick navy over-coat and black trousers walk down the cobbled path of the house to where we were standing.
“Anshu! What brings you here?” he boomed.
He was tall, plump with a huge moustache sitting over his lips.
“This is Chief Inspector Karim Singh. He’s in charge of this case,” said Anshuman.
I offered my hand.
“Hello Inspector. I am Vikram Choudhury. I own the Heavenridge Medical Store”
“A chemist, eh? Do give me a couple of aspirins, will you? Coz this case is giving me a headache.”
Anshuman looked startled at his words.
“Why? What happened?”
“Does this town of yours have a café or something? I am starving,” he replied.
“There’s the Cheshire Cat…it would be the nearest and it serves decent sandwiches,” I said, running through my mental database.
“Let’s go there.”
After we each had a sandwich and a cup of coffee, the inspector began to speak.
“This one is proving to be a pain in the neck, you know,” he sighed, calling the waiter and ordering yet another sandwich.
“You sure are ravenous today,” Anshuman remarked.
“I had nothing since a measly breakfast of some watery tea and biscuits,” he defended before leaning back and taking in a deep breath.
“The postman,” he began, his eyes closed.
“He came in the morning as usual. But how did Mrs. Srivastava see him, since she is a habitual late-riser?”
That stumped us.
Anshuman gave a low whistle.
“You have got a point there, Karim. Continue.”
“And that old woman’s a mass of nerves, bursting into tears every now and then. Finally, we came to know that she was referring to a postman who came in the evening, not morning. When we checked with the post-office, they confirmed the fact that no postman was on rounds on that fateful Saturday evening.”
The waiter placed the sandwich on the table before moving away.
“So, you mean that…” Anshuman began slowly.
Karim opened his eyes and sat up straight, picking up the sandwich.
“The second one was the murderer.”
It was almost eight in the evening when we reached Anshuman’s house.
We made a beeline for his study, he shutting the door securely before sinking into a recliner.
“Whoa! This case is something, what do you think?” he said, lighting up the fire.
“Yeah, you are right,” I said, sitting opposite him.
He looked at the eager flames thoughtfully.
“A postman’s attire…hmm, who would have it apart from the postman?” he mused to himself.
“I don’t know…the inspector’s more suited to find out that kind of info, you know—” I began, before Anshuman cut across.
“Leave it out…Karim’s gonna lord it over me for like eternity if he solves this case,” he said, stretching his limbs.
After chatting for sometime, I left.
It was almost nine…I cringed mentally. Arunima is going to have my life now.
But really, time flies, especially when one has work to do.
“You really don’t know what time is dinner-time, do you?” Arunima asked, her eyes thin as slits.
“Um…you know how work is…right?” I said, trying to placate her.
“Hunh! Be happy I am not suspending you from the dinner table. Mashed potatoes with gravy and fresh bread-rolls…now hurry up before it gets anymore colder.”
I nodded, quickly sitting down. There is nothing more dangerous in the universe than an angry wife.
After dinner, when we were sitting in the living room, me arranging the old newspapers for selling to the recycler while Arunima was knitting a sweater, I realized I was missing something.
“Hey Arunima, did you see my mobile phone anywhere?” I asked, patting the pockets of my dressing gown and pyjamas while running an eye over every possible surface.
“I don’t think so,” she said, pausing her knitting.
“Come to think of it, I didn’t hear the stupid thing ring once…you must have dropped it somewhere,” she said gleefully. My mobile phone was her biggest enemy—according to her, it’s jarring ringtone was something she hated the most in the world…and that included my abysmal bathroom singing.
“Oh crap! I must have left it at Anshuman’s house!” I said, dimly recalling the fact that I had placed it on his desk.
I looked at the wall-clock. It was eleven-fifteen.
“Is it necessary to go now?” she asked.
I thought for a moment before coming to a decision.
“I have a shipment coming tomorrow, dear. And I cannot afford to lose it over something as stupid as misplacing my phone. And you do know we are going through a rough patch now.”
I put on a thick overcoat over my dressing gown and jammed a hat on my head.
“Will be back soon, dear.”
With that, I stepped out into the night.
Shyam was surprised to see me—I mean, who wouldn’t be? It was almost nearing midnight.
“I think I left my mobile phone in Anshuman’s study,” I said sheepishly.
“This way, Mr. Choudhury. Mr. Mitra is apparently still in his study, though. You are in luck.”
“I see,” I said, following him. Anshuman is taking work too seriously for his own good.
To my surprise, I found his dinner lying untouched outside his door.
Shyam too mirrored my look.
“That’s strange…Mr. Mitra didn’t eat his dinner?”
He knocked the door. There was no answer.
I felt my heart getting crushed by an icy fist, feeling a dreaded sense of foreboding.
“Mr. Mitra! Sir! Mr. Mitra!” Shyam shouted, banging the door.
“Anshuman!” I too yelled, adding to the din.
Our shouts attracted the entire household, his wife and two sons joining us.
“What happened?” asked his wife, sounding scared.
Shyam motioned one of the maids who stood at a distance to take away the two young boys.
After five minutes of shouting, I decided to break the door open. With Shyam’s help, we broke it off its hinges, stumbling into a gruesome sight.
Anshuman lay face down on the carpet, blood caking the back of his head.
I stood, shell-shocked. Shyam clapped his hands to his mouth in horror.
“Oh god!!!” he whispered shakily, taking a step back. I felt a chilly wind ruffle my hair.
The window was open.
A loud scream made me recollect my senses—Mrs. Mitra was staring at her husband’s corpse, wide-eyed with horror.
“Shyam! Take Mrs. Mitra to the living room…get her some brandy to calm her down,” I croaked, wrenching my eyes away from the sight.
“I am calling the police,” I added, looking at the desk.
My mobile phone was no where to be seen.
I called up Arunima from the Mitra’s household phone, informing her of the incident.
“I understand,” she said softly when I told her I would be late.
“Take care,” I said, before hanging up.
The police came up and began their investigation. Karim came up and stood next to me in the verandah, puffing away a cigarette.
“Anshuman was a good man,” he said between puffs, staring up at the sky.
“He was,” I agreed, gripping my arms.
Why? Why him?
“He was my best friend, you know,” I said, looking up at the stars.
“I know…he told me about you,” Karim replied, stubbing the butt with his toe.
“I left him at around nine…who thought it would be the last time I would ever see him alive,” I said softly. I still couldn’t digest the fact Anshuman…was dead. I mean, we had barbecue in the morning, went about in the evening…how…
“Yeah, and that manservant heard him tell to leave the dinner outside at nine-forty-five…and the maid who delivers his dinner corroborates that fact,” Karim mused, stuffing his hands into his pockets as he stared at the floor, deep in thought.
“The open window!” I gasped out loud.
“It’s the only way. But no one heard any noise…so the killer’s got to be someone who Anshuman knew very well.”
“That would include all of us ‘originals’”, I stated, looking at him.
“Who knows? Murder is bad business, I say.”
I did not find my mobile phone.
Though thankfully, the shipment arrived without any problem.
I returned home at five in the morning, to find Arunima asleep on the couch.
Typical her…waiting for me to return home.
I found the boxes at the doorstep…now I had to buy a new phone.
I sighed, dropping on an armchair.
Two murders in two days…what was happening at Heavenridge?
I opened shop at my usual time, but there was a noticeable gloom in the air. Anshuman was a well-loved man.
Everyone who dropped by offered me their condolences…and I felt like breaking every-time they did that.
He was too good a friend to have.
The funeral was scheduled on Wednesday…as it would take time for his parents and other members of his family to come. I hated funerals but for society’s sake, I had to attend it.
Arunima went out on Tuesday to buy some white clothes for us…since we had none. Our house was mostly silent these days, words uttered whenever necessary. Unlike Mrs. Gangwal, Anshuman was almost like family to us.
The next day, on Wednesday, we walked down to the cremation ground where most of the town was gathered. I saw Karim motioning me to come to him.
I told Arunima to go ahead before walking over to him. He was clad in a crisp white kurta and pyjamas, just like me.
“Have a minute?” he asked.
“Wouldn’t mind missing the funeral—I hate funerals,” I said.
“Me too…and certainly, I don’t want to see Anshuman go up in flames. Care for a walk?”
“Okay,” I replied.
We walked down the narrow hilly path to the more wild areas of the mountains.
“We found the culprit,” he said as we came to more flatter portion.
“You did?” I said, surprised.
“Think so. You remember Mrs. Gangwal’s husband died five years ago?” Karim said, coming to a standstill.
“I know…he died of a heart-attack, I believe,” I replied, slightly confused.
“What if I say that he didn’t die of a heart-attack? What if I say he was made to have a heart-attack?”
I was shocked.
“Exactly.” Karim paused for a moment before continuing.
“We went through the forensic report…and we found out that the dosage of one of his medicines was increased suddenly…something that could lead to a heart-attack. And it did. Mrs. Gangwal found it out and decided to confront her husband’s killer. But then,”
Karim turned to face me.
“She found out how easy it would be to black-mail the killer to earn money. Her husband’s pension was paltry…and she did have a lavish lifestyle. She had Chinese antique vases, for god’s sake!”
I stared at him.
“But then, the killer realized that he was walking into troubled waters because if Mrs. Gangwal opened her mouth, he would be over.”
He walked a step forward.
“So what does the killer do? He visits her in the guise of a postman, walks into her house and stabs her at a fatal point in the back of her neck.”
I just stared at him blankly.
“Why are you telling me all this? Shouldn’t you arrest the culprit?” I said.
Karim stared at me in the eye.
“You tell me, Vikram. Who is the culprit?”
My brows furrowed.
“Stop playing games, Choudhury. I know you were Mr. Gangwal’s chemist.”
“You were having an affair?” I repeated, astonished.
Mr. Gangwal smiled weakly.
“Savitri’s is so old and gone…you see what I mean. I might be sixty-plus…but I am not senile…”
“So you killed him,” said Karim slowly.
“He was cheating on his wife, for god’s sake! He’s a damn sexagenarian and he’s behaving like a teen bursting with hormones. Of course he had no right to be in this world!” I raged.
“And Mrs. Gangwal?” he prompted.
“She was too intelligent for her own good…and too greedy. She sucked out more than half my savings in one year alone…and was becoming increasing restless. She had to be removed.” I said slowly, sitting on a rock.
“Initially, I liked her, respected her. She was a nice lady. But when she found out, it became dangerous.”
I walked up to the edge dreamily.
“I used my wife’s hair needle…the one used to hold up the hair-bun. Arunima’s so scatterbrained, she never realized that I had ‘borrowed’ it.”
“Where did Anshuman come into the picture?” Karim asked but I barely listened to him.
“Last year, we had a fancy dress party. I dressed up as the postman…it was so much trouble to get an authentic looking costume. Anshuman remembered that fact…and he knew I was old Gangwal’s chemist. Not to mention the fact I was down on money the last one year—around the same time Mrs. Gangwal became suddenly extravagant. That night, when we returned from the Cheshire Cat, he told me everything he knew, urged me to make a clean breast of things….”
You guys never realized what I did between eight to nine that fateful Sunday evening, did you? I had a thing with gadgets, with a knack to tinkering up the electronics. When I realized Anshuman knew everything, I had no choice. I stood up, picked up the heavy oak chair and smashed it into his head before he could realize anything. I was always the better athlete.
Next, I programmed his cellphone to stay online with mine, his being on speaker mode. Then, I opened the windows wide, as if the murderer had entered through the window. After that, I exited the house, making sure everyone saw me.
I hid myself amidst a grove of trees two streets away, jamming the cellphone to my ear. Some fifteen-twenty minutes later, I heard the faint voice of his servant announcing dinner.
“Leave it out!” I said into the phone, mimicking his voice.
I switched off my phone and buried it in the garden, destroying the sim card.
I returned home by ten…justifying Arunima’s anger. After all, it was rational on her part.
I had ensured Anshuman’s phone had minimum battery charge left, so by the time I would come for “searching my phone” it would be discharged.
And when Shyam took away the tearful Mrs. Mitra, I quietly stole it for good measure.
“…and that was the only mistake you made,” Karim sighed.
“You might be his best friend, but I knew Anshuman since we were kids. And he was a tech-freak—he would never be without his mobile phone. And when Shyam said about you being the last person to exit the room, my doubt gave way to certainty.”
I looked up at Karim, who was pointing a gun at me.
“I would have loved to throw you behind the bars…but that would be a punishment to your wife too. She loves you very much…and would be shattered to see you in prison. And it’s not her fault at all. Not to mention the fact that after three murders, I dare say you would be let off…so what will you do?”
I stood up, breathing in deeply.
“I know what you are saying,” I said softly.
We were standing at a precipice, the sun hiding behind the clouds, bathing the countryside in its dull glow. It was almost two hours…the funeral must be over by now.
Arunima…my dear, scatterbrained Arunima…
Karim cocked his gun.
“You wouldn’t need to use it…” I said softly. “Don’t let her know…every man is entitled to one dying wish, right?”
“Anshuman was my best friend…I was truly shattered by his loss. Not to mention the fact my business was going downhill…enough reasons to make a man jump off the ledge, eh?”
I stared down.
We were pretty high up.
“I will ensure that Arunima is taken care of,” he said.
I nodded before walking up to the very edge.
I hope Anshuman died as soon as I hit him…that way, he wouldn’t have had suffered much.
But they say when you jump off, you don’t always die immediately.
And the death is really painful…and slow.
I guess I deserve that…after all I did.