Patrick Po studied his reflection in the bathroom mirror of his house as he brushed his teeth. At six in the morning, few people look their best. Po looked perhaps even less so, with his skinny build, gaunt facial structure and the few wisps of grey hair snaking across his gleaming scalp. In fact he looked so very ordinary that few would have suspected that Po was actually a policeman, and that too an Inspector.
He rinsed his mouth and changed into his track suit, set for his morning jog at the stadium ten kilometers away. The rest of his family was already round the breakfast table when he got into the dining hall. The kids said good morning and his wife handed him a bottle of drinking water and hurriedly waved him away when he tried to give her a farewell kiss.
The middle-aged Inspector left his house after donning a pair of jogging shoes, and in the gloom of the cold winter morning, he unlocked his car, got in, and started the vehicle. He let the engine run awhile and used the time to secure himself with the driver’s side seatbelt. A minute into his routine, he shifted into reverse gear and began to move backward slowly out of their short driveway.
His eye was on the rear-view mirror and later, when he was seated in the waiting room of the hospital and trying to reconstruct the sequence of events, he wasn’t sure which alerted him first: the flash of white in the mirror – or her cry.
He jammed his foot down hard on the brake pedal and though the screech of the wheels locking down was loud, he still heard the cry. He sat in the motionless car, heart thumping. The main door of the house was jerked open and he saw his wife scurry out, a scared look on her face. He jumped out of the vehicle, assured her in a few sentences that he was fine and then hurried to the rear to discover what he had briefly spotted in the rear-view.
The inspector and his wife found a young woman lying on the ground. She was curled up and moaning, her eyes closed. Looking to be in her twenties, she was dressed in white pyjamas.
“Looks like she was sleep-walking.” said the lanky doctor, forty minutes later. Inspector Po knew Casualty Medical Officer Patel from the urban health center where he had transported the victim. After ascertaining that the woman was not visibly injured, he had opted for taking her for a check-up in his own vehicle, rather than wait for an ambulance, whose services appeared not to be necessary. “She claims to have a history.”
Po nodded. “I guessed as much. She was alone, and there was no vehicle in sight. And she was dressed in pyjamas.” He looked at the curtain separating the patient from the rest of the Casualty. “How is she?”
“I’d say your reflexes saved Lilian from injury.” His eyes met Po’s and he lowered his voice. “However, there’s something else I noticed…” Seeing Po’s raised eyebrow, he went on. “While I was checking her for signs of trauma, I found several bruises, around the lower neck, the shoulder region, and ribs. Not one of the bruises is recent.”
Po was silent for some instants. “So Lilian received those injuries someplace else – before the accident this morning…”
“Why don’t you ask her.” Doctor Patel gestured at the curtain. “She asked to see you.”
Lilian sat in a chair, wearing hospital garb. “I sleepwalk.” She said to Po, after the introductions were made. “The doctor told me what happened. I wanted to meet you to apologise for everything that happened this morning.” Her voice was surprisingly firm for someone who had just been in an accident. “Doctor Patel told me you were about to drive to the stadium for your morning walk when I, well – got in your way…”
Po smiled at the young lady and sat at her side. “No need for any apology, Lilian. I’m just glad you’re safe and sound.” He glanced at the doctor. “Dr Patel here is a bit puzzled by some injuries he found on your body. They’re not from the accident…”
She gave a careless shrug. “Fell here, banged that. I’m clumsy and always have been. Combine that with my sleepwalking nature, and I’m a potential disaster waiting to happen.” She turned to the doctor. “If it’s alright, I want to leave. My husband will be worried.”
Po stood up. “Where do you live, Lilian? After this morning, reaching you home is the least I can do…”
During the short ride in his car, Lilian asked for his mobile to call her husband. She had tried before from the doctor’s phone but her husband had not answered. Po glanced at her as she re-dialled. Lilian gave him a wan smile. “He never keeps his phone in the bedroom. I guess he’s still asleep. Well,” She chuckled lightly. “if he doesn’t know I’m gone, at least he won’t be worried…”
When they got there, she got out of the car and led the way to the front door. It opened before she reached it and a man stepped out. He stared at Lilian, face dark. “Where the hell have you been? The front door was opened wide.” He saw the Inspector behind her, and frowned. “Who are you?”
“Inspector, this is my husband, Ian.” said Lilian softly. She went to Ian’s side and linked her arm through his. “I had a slight mishap early this morning, Ian…” Speaking slowly, she explained what had happened. “Then the inspector took me to the hospital and the doctor checked me to make sure nothing was wrong.” She smiled at Po. “Thanks for everything, Inspector and once again, my sincere apologies.” Drawing Ian inside, she shut their door.
Po got into his car. He was unsettled by Ian’s gruff attitude. Any ordinary husband would have been concerned and more with a missing spouse. On the positive side, she didn’t seem cowed by her husband. Lilian’s behaviour – both at the hospital and now with Ian – certainly hadn’t seemed to indicate anything untoward. He hoped her claim of clumsiness was not a cover for spousal abuse.
It was only an hour later that he realized his mobile phone was missing. Lilian had used it, he recalled. He would pick it up on his way to work. Surprising that though they lived in the same neighbourhood, he had never seen her before.
Ian answered the doorbell. He looked startled when he saw Po. “Yes?” His tone was almost hostile.
Po detected a whiff of booze. “Lilian borrowed my mobile phone this morning to try contacting you. She forgot to return it.”
Ian paused for a moment. Po thought he was going to tell him to come later. “Wait here.” He finally said.
Po watched him walk through the living room and up the staircase. Ian glanced once at him as he climbed. Po turned, looking out at his car, thinking that he had to wash it and wondering if he would have time the coming Sunday. He heard a sound, and turned back to the living room.
Ian approached, breathing heavily. “She said she doesn’t have it.” He put a hand on the door to shut it, but Po stilled the move with a hard frown.
His tone was firm. “She might have forgotten, what with the stress of the accident, but she definitely has it here someplace. Let me speak with her, and we can clear this matter quickly.” He saw Ian open his mouth, no doubt to object, and he cut him short. “I’m not leaving here without it. My phone is much too important.” He stepped around the man and hurried upstairs. There were two rooms and he found her inside the second one. She was sitting on the bed, and when she looked up, he stopped in his tracks.
“What happened?” he said, and his voice was like an icicle.
She touched the bruise on her cheek gently, and tried a small, nervous laugh. “I slipped.” She shrugged. “Like I said: clumsy.”
Po looked at Ian who had appeared at the door. The latter’s gaze wavered, and Po looked back at Lilian.
“I slipped.” She said quietly. She got off the bed, something in her hand. It was Po’s mobile. She met his eye without flinching.
She shook her head. “That’s twice I’ve inconvenienced you in one morning, Inspector.” She paused, looking thoughtful, then nodded. “I’m going to make it up to you. Inspector, I’d like you to drop in this evening for some pizza. Say five o’clock? I’m great with an oven and things that go crunch!” She saw his hesitation. “Think of it as my way of saying thank you for caring.”
Later that evening, Lilian opened the door and invited Po in. Perhaps out of some consideration for what her neighbours might be thinking, he had come out of uniform. He smiled at her and was relieved to see no new marks on her face, neck or arms.
The dining section was visible from the living room and Po saw Ian seated at the table. There was a bottle of alcohol and a glass at his elbow. The table had already been set, but before Po could sit, Lilian touched his arm. “Why don’t you freshen up first.” She gestured to a door in a side-wall. He nodded agreeably and pushed through the door then locked himself in.
He was searching for the light-switch when he heard Ian’s voice. He couldn’t make out the words but they sounded angry. Lilian said something back. Po found the button and switched on the bulb. A chair scraped back and there was a sharp cracking sound. Po’s hand froze at the faucet. Was that – a slap? More words, masculine and harsh followed by the sound of glass smashing. And then he heard a heavy thud. He turned his head, startled and heard the gasp, this one feminine and then there was a soft cry. Hurrying, Po unlocked the door in time to hear her scream.
He stopped, shocked at what he saw. Both of them were on the floor, struggling. Ian was on top of her, his whole body pressed down on Lilian as they struggled. Their arms were entangled and his face was mere inches from hers. “No, Ian, don’t!” she was crying out.
Po didn’t hesitate. He reached down and grabbed Ian hard on both arms, digging his fingers into the flesh. Ian cried out in pain and as Po pulled the heavier man sideways Lilian scooted away. Po saw her blouse was torn. The observation distracted him for just the few seconds it was necessary for Ian to break free and lunge.
The fist hit him in the nose and Po staggered backward, almost blinded by the pain. Ian got to his feet and struck, raining down the blows of a man bereft of his senses. Po’s arms were raised in self-defence, but he was still dazed and then a hard punch caught him in the abdomen, winding him.
Ian threw himself upon his bent, wheezing form and they crashed to the ground together. Having fallen atop the police officer, Ian reached down and grabbed Po’s exposed neck with both his hands. Lilian leapt to her husband’s side, yelling at him to stop.
But Ian seemed oblivious to any external influences. He kept on squeezing. Po had caught hold off Ian’s wrists but could not break the stranglehold. Lilian hammered furiously at Ian’s back, trying to hurt him enough to distract him. Ian didn’t even flinch and Po seemed utterly powerless to stop Ian’s relentless squeezing. Already it seemed to Lilian’s stricken eyes that his face was swelling. If Ian didn’t stop, he would end up killing the policeman.
In desperation, she jumped to her feet, looking frantically for something.
The knife on the dining table had a seven-inch blade. She grabbed it, looked down at them. Po’s eyes met hers, flashing a message of utter desperation.
She didn’t hesitate: she plunged the knife into her husband’s back.
Po’s superior looked about the master bedroom and then at Po, who was lying on his bed, throat wrapped in bandages. “Never thought I’d be seeing the inside of your bedroom, Po.” He nodded at the wound. “How’s the neck?”
Po’s voice was strained, raw. “A few days of voice-rest and medication. What did you find out?”
“We spoke to the servants.” Seeing Po’s surprised look, he nodded. “They weren’t there that day. Both servants had gone to attend a wedding in their community. Speaking to them, we found out a lot. Lilian and Ian had been married a year. He was rich, an inheritance, she was a teacher. Both servants had been with them right from the time she moved in. He started drinking two months after marriage when he found out she couldn’t have kids. He started beating her soon after that. A couple of times, he almost ended up hitting the servants too.”
“So she was being abused.” said Po, and his shoulders seemed to sag.
“Yes. There will be a full investigation, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that she killed her husband in self-defense.” He frowned. “Well, not actually self-defence. She did it to save you.” His frown deepened. “Why didn’t she stab him in the leg? She didn’t have to kill Ian to stop him choking you.”
Po pursed his lips. “You weren’t there. At that moment, in the heat of things, the last thing to expect from an untrained, frightened woman is the power of rational thought.”
Downstairs, Po’s wife opened the door to find Lilian standing outside. She had flowers and she was invited into the sitting room. “How’s he doing?” she asked.
“He’ll survive. Sit down. His boss is with him at the moment.”
Lilian sat on a couch as Po’s wife took the flowers away. Great sorrow had been erased from her life with Ian’s death. It had not been easy to decide that his death was the way out of her predicament, and less easy to manipulate Po into carrying out her plan. Divorce had not been an option. She had forsaken her family for Ian. Things had gone sour shortly after the wedding and a year later, there was no sign that they would ever change. She could not continue to live with him and endure the beatings. She could not return to her family and she could not stay with him. The brute owed her everything he had, but the only way she could collect in full was if he died.
Finding a cop who lived in her neighbourhood had not been difficult. After that everything had fallen into place. Killing Ian would give her nightmares for a long time. But she had struggled long and hard with herself before arriving at this decision. The other thing that troubled her was the deception of a good cop. She had jerked him around like a puppet-master, getting him involved, making him a witness, and then using him as a tool to stage the final kill. She wouldn’t have been able to have managed without him.
When Lilian looked up, what she saw was the showcase on the opposite wall.
She was still staring at it when Po’s wife entered with a vase. She saw Lilian’s gaze and smiled. “Po’s got 37 of them. Thirty-seven awards collected over the last five years. The finest martial-arts expert in the whole Police Force.” She halted as she saw Lilian’s face. “Are you alright? All of a sudden, you look very pale…”