This story is selected as Editor’s Choice and won INR 500
The pub wasn’t too crowded when I walked in, which was a good sign. It meant that my favourite seat next to the counter was available, and I hastened to occupy it. As I walked past people dancing to the slow music or catching the evening game, I felt heads turn. Being a famous detective had its perks, but I didn’t like the idea of being hounded by the press. After a particularly long case, I’d decided to wind down at my favourite watering-hole and the last thing I needed was a mike thrust in front of my face.
But none of them approached me, and I finally perched upon my stool. Perhaps I’d have a lucky night after all, I thought, as the bartender gave me a nod of welcome and approached me.
“Heard you wrapped up the triple murder upstate?” he asked, polishing a tiny caballito glass, a wry smile on his face. I smiled back at him. The rumour that he knew most underground stuff seemed to be true.
“That stuff hasn’t even made the papers yet, how’d you know?” I asked him.
He chose not to reply, focusing on the glass on his hand, and I understood his meaning – Ask no question, get no lies in reply.
“Scotch on the rocks, then.” I said. He nodded and went back to his bottles, picking one up and whipping it into a frenzy. I tapped my fingers on the glass countertop, waiting for my glass. I tried to follow the game, but it was too boring for my likes. The slow music had changed into a fast, zippy number, and more people seemed to have arrived.
I was too engrossed in looking at the sudden throng of people in the middle, and I completely missed seeing the man sit next to me. I only noticed him when his cloak made a swishing sound. He had a lean face, and bright, intelligent eyes.
“Whiskey, neat,” he said, hardly looking at the bartender. His attention was focused on me.
“You’re that famous detective, aren’t you? The one that’s been in the papers.” He said in a low, clear voice. His tone seemed neutral, but I detected the undercurrent of more questions to follow.
I swore silently. I’d allowed my senses to wander and let a bloody reporter sit next to me. My drink hadn’t arrived yet, and I couldn’t leave without annoying the bartender, who would be less accepting of me the next time I entered. I let out a small sigh and adopted my “no comment” face.
“Yeah, that’s me,” I said, trying to look pleasant. “But I’m really not in the mood to answer questions, I’ve had a hell of a day, and…”
“Oh no,” he said, still sounding perfectly amiable. “I’m not a reporter.”
“Oh!” I exclaimed, the tension easing from my shoulder immediately. I’d be able to spend the night in peace, then.
“But I would be lying if I said I didn’t have questions for you,” he said, winking slightly.
I gave him a wary look. He delved a hand into his pocket and gave me a card. I read it, and with a start, recognized his name. He was a pretty famous detective himself, and his name had been mentioned on the radio once. I blinked and looked at him again.
This time, I looked beyond the two-day stubble and the black shadows under his eyes, and I recognized him. I wondered what a rival detective wanted with me.
“I’ve certainly heard of you. What is it you wanted to ask me?” I asked.
“It was a case I was assigned last week. A client told me a particular story, and he wanted me to get to the bottom of it. I’ve been wracking my brains, and as you can see, it shows. I haven’t slept in days. I want your opinion of it. A little tete-a-tete between detectives, all off the record of course.”
My interest was piqued. I was also a little flattered. Of course I’d been in the field for a much longer time, and he wanted to hear my opinion. I was also interested to hear of this case, which had stumped him and left him in a state of disarray.
Our drinks arrived, and I took mine. I sipped it slightly – it was perfect. I nodded at him.
“I’d prefer not to name my client, of course. Let’s call him Mr. Smith. Now Mr. Smith is unbelievably rich, having many properties around the country, including his own summer house. The summer house is complete with an improvised enclosure where he keeps several animals – rabbits, deer, monkeys and the like. It is in this summer house that our story takes place,”
He sipped his drink and nodded, as if it appealed to him. I’d noticed that the bartender was discreetly listening in, but I made no comment. He continued.
“Now, it was an incredibly hot day, when Mr. Smith heard a knock at his front door. His manservant opened it, to find a swarthy man and a woman standing outside. The woman seemed to be in fits of hysterical tears, and the man seemed to be consoling her. Perturbed, the manservant let them both in, at which point the lady fainted.”
“The swarthy man and the manservant both carried her in, where Mr. Smith was astonished to see a woman lying on the sofa. With the help of some smelling salts, she was coaxed into consciousness, and the men managed to get the story out of her in between tearful sobs.”
The story seemed quite unremarkable to me, but I did not interrupt. I had a feeling he was building up to a great climax. I snapped my fingers for a refill, and motioned for him to carry on.
“The woman – let’s call her Jane – seemed to have been wandering around Mr. Smith’s enclosure – a part of which was open to the public – where she lost her diamond ring, worth several millions. Noticing the loss very late, she took the help of the swarthy man – call him William – to search for the ring. After many hours of searching, they finally found it glittering in a clump of bushes.
Overjoyed, they moved forward to take it, but in a split second, it was swallowed by a deer! The deer bolted as soon as the ring went down its throat and all hopes to catching it seemed lost. William suggested they better talk to the owner – Smith – and they had no sooner made their way to his doorstep that the lady fainted. At his point, she was so overwhelmed that not another word could be gotten out of her.”
““What do you want of me?” asked Mr. Smith, knowing perfectly what they wanted.”
““Well, sir,” replied William, with an air of a person with a messy job in front of him.”
““The lady is very distraught. The diamonds were a gift from her husband you see, and she says he has a frightful temper. If you could allow us to… ah, explore your deer, we might just be able to find the diamond.””
““Why, I have more than thirty deer in my enclosure, sir. I simply cannot allow you to cut up each one, just to find a single stone.” said Mr. Smith, looking uncomfortable.”
At these words, the woman gave another pitiful scream and relapsed into fresh tears. Her makeup ran down the side of her face, giving her a very heart-rending look. Mr. Smith’s heart sank.
““I believe I can identify the deer in question, sir. If you could just allow us to capture two, then that would be adequate.” said William, with a half-glance at Jane. She didn’t look very reassured, but gave a sad nod. Mr. Smith knew he could never live with himself if he refused, and agreed with a heavy heart.”
“Therefore Smith, his manservant – who carried a hunting rifle, William – himself armed with a big knife and Jane entered the enclosure, looking for the criminal deer. They wandered around the bushes, leaping over thick shrubs and ducking under low branches. Once or twice, they passed deer, but each time, William shook his head, declaring that wasn’t the one. Then finally, a particularly fat one met their gaze, and William pointed at it discreetly.”
““I think that’s the one, sir,” he whispered.“
“Mr. Smith nodded at his manservant, who promptly took aim and fired. The deer fell to the ground, dead and William approached it eagerly. He picked up his knife and cleanly gutted it, searching its underbelly for the jewel. After five minutes of frantic groping, he got up with a disappointed look in his face and shook his head. The girl fell upon his shoulder and wept uncontrollably.”
“One moment,” I interrupted. He raised an eyebrow.
“Did you by chance ask your client what the girl was doing when William was gutting the deer?” I asked.
He smiled, and I knew I’d asked the right question.
“As a matter of fact, I did. She watched the entire thing, and didn’t even flinch.”
An inkling of sense had begun to permeate my clouded mind, and I nodded again. He carried on.
“Further and further they walked, and Mr. Smith passed most of his deer. For each one of them, William shook his head and swore it wasn’t the one they were looking for. The hours went by, and Mr. Smith was now hoping they could go back into the house and call it a day.”
“But his hopes were dashed instantly, as William pointed to another deer – again, this one was fatter than most – and exclaimed it was most certainly the one. By this time, Mr. Smith had had enough. He angrily whispered that he could not carry on like this, and that this would be the last deer he would allow killed. Once again, he gave the order, and the deer was shot and killed.”
Now the detective sat up, and I understood the story was nearing its end. I was pretty sure I knew what was coming, but trained my ears nonetheless. Even the bartender had stopped cleaning the glasses and fixed him with a beady eye.
“William strode up to it and cut it open again. Next to him, the girl watched again, eyes staring wide. His hands were curled tightly into fists by her side, and Mr. Smith was sure she would faint again. Minutes passed agonizingly slow, and it seemed they had come up empty again. Smith was about to ask William to give it up, when he gave out a shout of delight.”
“It’s here, it’s here!” he said.
“And from the glistening red belly of the beast, he brought out a superb ring which had a huge diamond set in it. The girl shrieked and pulled it from his fingers, holding it up and examining it under the light of the setting sun.”
““This is it, this is it!” she said again, her voice awash with joy.”
“William cleaned his hands on the grass and stood up with a grin on his face. Mr. Smith was less happy, of course, knowing that he was two deer less. William enquired as to what he would so with the deer, and Mr. Smith exclaimed that he would bury the bodies in a small dump nearby. William requested that the task be given to him, as a token of gratitude for Mr. Smith helping them out. Already tired of the long evening, Mr. Smith gave in. And all was well.”
The detective leaned against the countertop, sipping his fourth drink. I was still on my second, and the ice had long melted. The bartender had long given up being discreet, and now watched open-mouthed.
“Surely, there’s more!” he said, looking between me and the other detective.
“Yes, there is. After Jane and William had left, the manservant told Mr. Smith a rather curious thing he had witnessed, and Mr. Smith hastened to tell me about it. That’s what puzzles me.”
“What did he say?” asked the bartender.
“That when William bent down to gut the second deer, he slipped a hand into his own pocket, and took out a diamond ring, which he then put into the deer’s belly. After a few seconds of groping, he pulled out the same ring from the deer!” he said, finishing his drink with a flourish.
“So William had the ring all the time?” the bartender asked, looking astonished. “The deer never swallowed it?”
“The deer never swallowed it,” agreed the detective.
“And that is the question I ask you, sir. Why put up this big charade when the man had the ring with him? Why waste so much time and energy to look for a ring he already possessed? I confess quite unashamedly, I am at my wit’s end. I need to get back to him by tomorrow, and I fear I will be made a laughing stock.”
I cracked my knuckles and smiled. The answer was so simple.
“Of course, I knew it was a charade the moment you said the girl did not flinch at the deer being disembowelled.” I said, keeping my eye on the detective.
“An anxious, delicate and forlorn creature like her, watching a living thing being cut open without the merest glance away? It was impossible. From this, I knew that she had watched the man William – who was most certainly her partner – cut open innumerable deer like this before. Thus, I knew this was something they had done lots of times before.”
“But why? Why was it so important that they fool my client? Why would the con-man William go to such great lengths? He already had the diamond!”
“My dear fellow, their aim was not the diamond in the first place!” I replied, now smiling wide.
“It was the deer.” I said.
“The deer?” he asked, his mouth opening in shock.
“Yes, you noticed how took the dead deer with him? He was always after the deer’s dead body. You see, William wasn’t a con-man. He was a poacher!”
The detective stared at me in utter disbelief for a couple of seconds. Then he leapt to his feet and dashed out of the bar, leaving a couple of notes behind for his drink. I smiled and asked for a refill again.
The bartender pushed one across the counter and whispered, ‘On the house.’
I nodded and sipped it. Perfect.