It was the last case of Inspector Atri Haldar. But he did not know it yet. He was due to retire in another eight years. In this resort town of Mirik, he had been posted for over a decade now. He knew the local goons, the thugs, the clusters, the corrupt and the politicians. The Gorkhaland movement had its toll and kept the cops busy for a decade with the nightmarish memories of rapes, raids and beheaded bodies. He had to sacrifice his left hand eleven years ago, a bomb was hurled at his jeep during the height of political hooliganism, when he was caught in between two rival gangs who were more lured by cash rather than their demand for a separate state. Now the politicians benefit more in keeping the agitation for Gorkhaland alive than from actually delivering it. But over the last seven years he was ravaged by a calamity of a bit different nature.
He had himself volunteered a transfer to this tourist area after his mother’s demise in Kolkata in 2004. Memories of an excursion during his college days, when he had lost his virginity in this idyllic landscape, had haunted him. He never married and never sought a promotion. But his colleagues knew him to be an epitome of efficiency, with an affinity for solving crimes and his expertise was much sought after by the police of Darjeeling, Bagdogra and Siliguri, where murders were more frequent. He was the de-facto head of the Criminal Investigation Department of this hilly district.
He lingered by the closed door for a moment, and then strode quickly into the room, trying to hide the turmoil inside him. Room 202. The room of the Queens’ Hill Resort, alongside Sumendu Lake.
As the door opened and the room spread out before him, Atri saw the lake through the wide window. It was gleaming in the light of the setting sun. In the pine forest around it, darkness crawled through the tall trees. There was an ambulance on the bank and next to it two police jeeps. The forensic team of two persons had just arrived from Siliguri. The body of a naked woman with only her sneakers on, had just been fished from the water. Atri could not look at it anymore and had walked into this room where the couple was staying.
A young home guard, ‘ Bahadur Gurung’ was guarding the room, when Atri entered. He saluted the inspector.
‘How long have you been here, Gurung?’ Atri asked.
‘When did you get here? To this room.’
He was taller than Atri, thin and pale, and his voice trembled when he answered the Inspector of the Criminal Investigation Department.
‘Twelve o’clock, sir,’ he said.
The pain spreading through Atri’s head was both dull and sharp. Unbearable. He wanted to be alone in the room.
‘Gurung,’ he said, ‘I want you to find out how many rooms overlook the lake and how many of them were occupied this morning. Ask for a list of the guests’ names and telephone numbers. Then you can return to the station.’
One of the first things he had realised when he had been called to the crime scene in the afternoon was that a guest at the hotel might have seen what had happened on the shore of the lake.
‘Of course, sir,’ said Gurung. ‘I can also collect statements from the guests.’
Atri did not want Gurung to collect anything. He wanted to talk to the guests himself. Despite two sleepless nights, he would handle the case exactly the way he had conducted countless investigations, mostly murder cases, throughout his thirty years in the police force. Coolly and methodically. Apart from locating potential witnesses, there had to be a search. Had someone already ordered Gurung or some other idiot to rummage through the drawers before he could do it?
‘Only Inspector Sayantani Adhikari was here, sir,’ said Gurung. ‘Do you want me to do another search?’
Atri calmed down. Sayantani have been recently posted here, under him. A bright , young female officer with a very disciplined approached. He had never seen her socially but she had a chiselled face, deep set eyes with thin lips and looked quite attractive in an unusual way. Despite her youth, he had involved her in all the recent cases that had needed sensitive handling including that of Shreya. She, for her part, admired him and never acted without his authorisation. She was single and showed no interest in men. When necessary, she would even spend the whole night at the station.
What exactly was he hoping to find? He listened to Gurung’s footsteps going down the corridor, and when he heard him enter the elevator, he locked the door behind him and sprawled out on the bed. If he had stayed there for a few more minutes, he would have fallen asleep. The white curtains billowed in the cool breeze. He got up and turned on all the lights because the sky was now black with heavy clouds. The drawers of the bedside table were empty and there was nothing under the pillows. The couple’s clothes were laid out on separate shelves in the wardrobe – the husband’s few items on the right and her things on the left. With his only hand, Atri took out the shirts, dresses, skirts and underwear, and arranged them on the bed. Then he looked for her suitcase and found three books inside it, two in English and one in Bengali; there was also a small plastic bag with medicines and a velvet leather belt.
Where do women hide things they don’t want to be found? Despite his renowned perceptiveness, Atri had no answer to that. The suitcase had no hidden compartments. There was nothing unusual in room 202, apart from the picture hanging above the double bed: instead of the customary landscape there was a huge close-up photograph of an old sherpa.
It was a VIP ticket for the cricket match between KKR and Pune Royals, followed by a call from Sahana, seven years back, which started the series of events. In the aftermath of the match there was a boisterous party with all the players, their numerous girl friends and cheer leaders clamouring for attention of the select celebrities.
“ Are you going to introduce me to your friend , Sahana ?” said a voice behind Atri. Mr. Rahul Goenka immediately put him at ease and discussed the situation of the hill district and tea industry. There was a long que waiting to meet the business magnate, Mr. Rahul Goenka, but he was deep in conversation with Atri.
The party was at a large palatial building in New Alipore. Atri asked a passing waiter, where the restroom was.
“ Follow me,” said Sahana who appeared out of nowhere.
Atri happily obeyed. She took his hand and led him up a wide marble staircase to the first floor, and opened a set of double doors into a bedroom that was larger than Atri’s police quarter at Mirik.
“ Use my private bathroom,” she said, gesturing towards a door on the far side of the room.
Atri disappeared as he washed his face, straightened his tie. He should now take a taxi to go his hotel. When he returned to the bedroom, he couldn’t see her. He assumed she must have gone back downstairs to the party, until he heard a voice say, “ I’m over here, Atri.” He swung round to see her sitting in bed, her evening Prada gown lying on the floor. “ Come and join me,” Sahana said, tapping the covers.
After hesitating a moment, Atri nervously discarded his tie and shirt, and climbed into the bed beside her. For quite sometime they got lost in each other, remembering the touches they had made during their youth and then picked up the thread at Mirik couple of years back, on a sheer coincidence. They were lovers in their youth, before Sahana got married. Atri did not yet had the police job. Sahana was younger to him by five years.
She finally leant back, let out a loud sigh and said, “ I can see why the criminals in Mirik, never have a chance.” Moments later she fell asleep in his arms.
In the early hours, he began to gently stroke her long black hair. She slowly woke up and lazily stretched her arms, before pulling him towards her. After they’d made a love a second time, Sahana rested her head on his shoulder.
“Can I ask you something “ she asked.
“ Anything, my darling.”
“ Mr. Goenka is making some investments and he wants some help. I have promised that you will help him. “
“ What sort of investment ?”
“ One of his companies has bagged a major project of making a hydro project. It is called Salil I. You know the labour issues and unionized criminal stuff. I think that sort of help.”
“ But I am only a small police guy.”
“ You have no idea, how important you are. He only pushed me to invite you for the match yesterday.”
“ How well do you know Mr. Goenka ?”
“ We met at Mumbai in a business conference. I went there with my husband. We hit off. Don’t get ideas. He is good friend of us. Now he speaks mostly to me though he does have small dealings in the Jamshedpur area with my husband. Don’t give a second thought of helping Mr, Goenka. He is a thorough gentleman and extremely rich.”
Sahana stood up and let her robe fall on the floor to get ready to step into the shower. She handed him the soap.
Atri at that time did not give much thought as what sort of help Mr. Goenka wanted. One of his managers contacted him soon after.
It started slowly. A labourer was killed. A gang was formed by the management of Salil I. Atri was requested to bury a small investigation where one of their patronised labour was involved in a drunken brawl. Some of the strong guys were handpicked to be the henchmen of the hydro project. They created small nuisances in a bid to increase their income through organised extortion in collusion with the management. A car was snatched. A British tourist was cleared of his belongings. The case went up to the embassy. Atri was forced to arrest a couple of wrong guys. He even requested the management and once called Mr. Goenka to sack some of the trouble makers. He confided to Sahana. She made up to him by spreading her legs.
Each act emboldened the ruffians to take a larger step. The foot soldiers of Salil I project were funded to prevent turf wars between the various factions of the political party. The project was near completion and the blue collar workers needed to be kept happy. Clearances were faster that way in the bureaucracy. The site was roughly fifty kilometres from Mirik. Trees were felled with scant regard to the environment, ponds were filled in to spoil the ecological balance, the labourers got transformed in a kafkaquesque fashion from petty thefts, to robbery, to felony, to extortionist rackets.
Atri stood in the middle of the room and looked around, as if trying to tune into an inaudible message. Then he turned to glance once again at the lake, which flexed itself under the window like a huge, darkly glowing dolphin.
He had not intended to take part in the husband’s interrogation, but after a short talk with Sayantani he realised he had no choice.
‘We should take him to the station,’ suggested Sayantani. ‘He has a story that needs to be checked.’
The headache cut through his thoughts.
‘He claims the victim had a lover here. He thinks the lover killed her.’
Was Sayantani blushing because she had to say the word ‘lover’ twice? They were standing outside the room which had been allocated to them in the hotel’s administrative wing.
‘Of course he thinks that,’ he said. ‘Does he also know who the lover is and where we can find him?’
He suddenly felt how difficult it was to stay on his feet. Two sleepless nights with almost no food were too much at his age. Atri asked Sayantani if she had any painkillers and she said she would get some from reception. He asked her for a cup of black coffee too, and then entered the room where the husband sat waiting.
Why didn’t he arrest him immediately? Sayantani would have done it, no questions asked. Was it because he wanted to hear the husband’s story? And perhaps to watch him talk about her. To hear the disdain in his voice, in order to prove himself right.
Atri sat in Sayantani’s chair, facing the husband. She had noted on the police form that Deepan Deb was 44 years old, two years younger than his wife. He seemed agitated, but not intimidated.
‘Who are you? Where’s the policewoman that was here before?’ he asked, but Atri did not answer. Deepan owned a real estate agency for luxury apartments at Ghatshila, and in the hotel car parking there was a black Volvo waiting for him, in which a meticulous search ordered by Sayantani had revealed no suspicious marks. And he was seven years younger than Atri.
Sayantani came back and handed him the Disprins. She had brought a coffee for Deepan, too.
‘Shall we continue?’ she asked as she sat down next to Atri. ‘Deepan was telling me about what happened this morning.’
‘She woke up at about five thirty,’ said Deepan. “She usually wakes up around then.’
It was only now that Atri noticed Deepan’s strange voice. He was a tall, handsome man, and yet his voice was high-pitched, almost feminine.
She had switched on the bedside lamp in order to get ready, and this had woken him up. At six-thirty she had told him that she was going to have a walk along the lake.
‘Didn’t that seem strange? Wasn’t it still dark outside?’ asked Sayantani.
‘She told me she went to the lake at that hour every morning,’ Deepan replied. ‘She walked in shorts, and she didn’t feel comfortable doing that in the daylight, when people could see. She wasn’t so young anymore.’
Atri closed his eyes as the pain shot through his temple.
Deepan had fallen asleep again and hadn’t looked out of the window when Sahana had gone down to the lake wearing her tee, shorts and sneakers. How long did she walk? Somebody must have been lying in wait for her among the dense pine trees. Somebody must have watched her through the trees, through the morning mist and the dark, as she jogged.
He was the only one looking at her. No-one saw her but him.
The tee and shorts found in the bushes were dry, which suggested that Sahana was undressed before being put in the water. The window in the room had been closed and Deepan said he hadn’t heard her screaming for help, if she had indeed screamed. Other guests hadn’t heard her either. Deepan only woke up at nine, and when he looked out of the window, he saw his wife’s bathrobe on the bed. There was no sign of her. His first thought was that she might have gone for a stroll in the forest, but when she didn’t come back, he went downstairs and asked the receptionist for help. They began the search in the forest, but around noon Sahana was found by the divers in the lake. Her body was pulled out of the water and placed on the wet grass.
Atri washed down the pills with tap water from the restroom. Then he splashed some lukewarm water on his face. A cleaner, Nepali , was wiping the floor with a scented rag. She smiled at him when he came in, as if they knew each other. Yes, he knew her for a long time now. He had to give her some payment. The following morning he would have to talk to most of the hotel’s employees.
Sayantani had pleaded with him to hear Deepan’s story about the lover, and this was the only reason why he now returned to the room, even though before he had gone out to the toilet he had told her, ‘It’s a waste of time, Sayantani. I don’t believe a word he says.’
What was it about Deepan Deb’s words that convinced Sayantani? Was it his hatred of his wife? And the fact that he didn’t conceal it?
They had first stayed at the hotel eight or nine years before, Deepan said, and he suggested that Sayantani check the exact date, which must have been recorded in the register and probably also at the police station.
‘Why at the police station?’
‘Because during our first visit somebody broke into our room and stole our credit cards. And quite a lot of cash, too. We filed a complaint but the police never caught the culprits, or got our money back, despite the fact that Sahana and I were questioned for hours, as if we were the thieves. This was one of the reasons why I didn’t want to come here again. And why Sahana insisted on coming back. I suppose she first met him then.’
‘How many times have you come back since then?’
‘Only Sahana came back. Almost every year. Always in September or October. Sometimes even more than once.’
‘And you didn’t join her?’
‘Never. In September, when I couldn’t leave the business and the school was in full swing for our daughter, she’d tell me she needed a break. It had become a routine over the years. Touching, isn’t it? I mean her devotion to that lover and her naive lies. Don’t you think so?’
He said all this to Sayantani, and only looked occasionally at Atri. But when she asked, ‘And all these years you actually knew what she was doing here?’
Deepan smiled at him. ‘We’re not idiots, Ms Sayantani Adhikari,’ he said. ‘Despite what women tend to think. Of course I knew what she was doing here. It was convenient. I didn’t find Sahana very attractive, in spite of her beauty, for almost a decade, if you know what I mean. Our views were also very different. She got used to easy money and refused to take on the hardships of life. For her life was an eternal joy ride. I have found this trait in lot of good-looking women, who think that they are the greatest beings created by God – brainless beauties. I like women who are more refined in their taste and understand the sine curve of life, self-made women. Sahana’s lover apparently didn’t mind her lack of her cerebral content. Now our daughter also have gone for her graduation to a residential college in Bangalore and am sure she would pass with a job in hand. I thought I’d be able to use Sahana’s little romance to persuade her to give me a easy divorce, so that both of us can lead our remaining lives. I had been going steady with a lady in Kolkata for quite some years now and Sahana knew about it. That’s why I joined her here this time, two days ago, without telling her in advance. I planned to surprise her with her devoted lover and make the split easier for everyone.’
Atri’s informer had been spoon feeding information to Deepan after every check-in of Sahana, right after he had met Mr. Goenka on that fateful IPL night. On a hunch he had created the informer. The cleaner was telling the husband of things he wanted to hear of his tactless wife , keeping the anonymity of the lover. That morning Deepan was called with the information that Sahana is planning the rendezvous that evening. It will be his golden chance of revenge from an eternal disloyal relationship.
Atri didn’t want to hear any more. He was about to take the rope out of his pocket when Sayantani asked, ‘But even if she had a lover here, why do you think he killed her? What possible reason could he have had?’
‘The reason? Because instead of making everybody’s lives easier by agreeing to leave me, Sahana decided to leave him. She confessed she’d been having an affair for years but begged me to forgive her and swore she would never see him again. It was a terrible, terrible disappointment for me. She chose money over love.’
Atri heard only fragments of what followed. His grip on the rope got stronger and he felt it would soon cut his hand.
‘Why would she leave him if she loved him?’ asked Sayantani again.
Deepan laughed. ‘You didn’t know Sahana. She may have loved him, but she found it very difficult to part with our shared bank account, rental income and properties. She loved Armani, Louis Vuitton and Gucci. She had an affair with a known industrialist for being on Page 3. I did not mind it, as it eased by business too. ’
Atri got up from his chair and pulled his only hand out of his pocket.
‘That’s a nice story,’ he said quietly. ‘And I’d probably start looking for the lover who murdered your wife if I hadn’t found this rope in your room.’
Sayantani stared at him, uncomprehendingly. And Deepan Deb did not say a word.
‘I found it under your bed. I believe this is the murder weapon.’
They did not leave the hotel until after midnight. The white Gypsy glided, almost alone, along the wet road. As usual Sayantani drove and Atri sat in the passenger seat. The rain had stopped, and he opened the window and lit a cigarette.
Obviously, the story was not over yet, although Deepan Deb had now been taken into custody. He had already hired Sehgal and Sons, the best and most expensive criminal lawyers in Siliguri. But the rope with which Sahana had been strangled, and which had been found in Deepan’s room by the police, was a piece of evidence that even they would have a hard time handling. There was no proof of his story about Sahana’s lover, and there would not be any in the future.
For a while they drove in silence. Atri closed his eyes. Suddenly Sayantani said, ‘I can’t understand how I missed the rope. I’m sure I looked under the bed.’
Atri’s eyes were still closed when he told her, ‘It’s all right, Sayantani. Don’t take it so hard. The important thing is that we found it.’ He blew smoke rings into the cold air.
‘But why would he keep it? This contradicts everything you’ve ever taught me.’
Now Atri opened his eyes and looked at her. What was she really asking him? Her eyes seemed moist.
‘I don’t see any contradiction,’ he said, and Sayantani quickly answered, as if she had been waiting for his reply: ‘He didn’t love her, right? He despised her even. And it’s the sentimental killers that keep mementos of the crime, isn’t it? Those that love their victims until the end and want a keepsake from the last moment they had them in their possession. If Deepan Deb had really murdered his wife, wouldn’t he just have dropped the rope in the lake?’
Atri was silent.
Was it because Sayantani was lonely that something in this story roused her, he wondered. She had always been a fast driver but tonight, apparently because of the wet road and the rain, she had slowed down and the journey was taking longer.
‘Maybe he didn’t notice that he’d taken the rope with him until he was already back in the room. And maybe my theories are not always correct. That’s a possibility too, isn’t it? He did murder her, Sayantani. You know that, don’t you?’
‘There’s another possibility.’ She kept her eyes on the road when she said it.
‘That Deepan’s story is right. That she did have a lover here. That he’s the one who murdered her because she left him. Then he planted the rope in Deepan’s room.’
Only now did Atri realise she was not driving to his house at the side of Jama Masjid, or to the police station. He grasped what she was really trying to say.
‘I’m almost sure that’s what happened. Sahana simply made a mistake,’ she said.
Atri didn’t want to talk about Sahana anymore. Not now, not with Sayantani. But she continued, and he felt the sharp pain cutting through his thoughts again.
‘She shouldn’t have left him, you understand? She simply made a mistake. She should have left her husband. Can you imagine how he loved her? How he loved this woman, while her husband hated her so much. He waited the whole year for her to be with him just once, for a week. He never got married or had any other relationships. Just her, for nine years. He agreed to live completely by himself in order to spend a week a year with her on the lake. And he certainly didn’t think she was a dumb beauty. To him she was the most beautiful woman in the world, his daffany, when she went for the walk this morning, you understand? He couldn’t let her go. Yet she decided to leave him. And he loved her so much that he could not imagine her living without her. The one week they spent was their annual Durga Puja and his entire year was casted in that week.’
Atri wanted her to stop talking then and there, because everything she said was exactly right.
All would have been fine, if Shreya wouldn’t have been kidnapped. The little daughter of Mr. Manish Bajaj, a rich wood merchant was kidnapped and a ransom was demanded. It was two days, four hours and sixteen minutes before Mr. Bajaj gave a call to the police station and registered a FIR. Nine times out of ten with these child disappearances, the parents ended up being involved. What could you say ? It was a sick world. But in this case, Atri believed the father. The ransom note found under the child’s pillow bore all the hallmarks of an organized criminal operation : no fingerprints, printed on the most common HP Inkjet printer, succinct, untraceable.
Mr. Bajaj had five days to handover Rs. 3 crores to a spot near Bokar Monastery. If they involved the police at any point, the girl would be killed immediately. Screwing up was not an option for the police. Atri located the kidnapper’s car and then matched the DNA on hairs found in the trunk to hair’s from Shreya’s pillow. Then he got one of his men ask official help from Air Force to send a chopper to find tire tracks. He finally got lucky.
Two nights earlier was the operation. Sayantani was with him together with a crack squad from Siliguri police , hiding in darkness to watch a dilapidated Shiva temple at Bunkulung. At the stroke of 10 pm, Atri gave a terse nod to his team. Seconds later, as if by magic, they had dispersed across the hilly landscape, dropping into the undergrowth like so many silent leaves. A single shot rang off, its sound reverberating in the walls of the valley. Then, there was a binding flash of light. A noise like a lion’s roar, but hundreds, thousands of times louder, erupted around them. Instinctively both Atri and Sayantani had covered their ears and dived for the ground. The kidnappers had hurled a grenade. Atri could taste earth and dust in his mouth.
Another roar. Deafening, like being sucked into a thundercloud. Flames were visible at the top of the temple spire. The entire area was lit up. It was eerily beautiful.
Atri fumbled for his gun and told Sayantani, “ Call for back-up.” Then he rushed forward. He knew it was too late. There was another brief volley of gunfire on the other side of the temple. Three kidnappers were killed and all identified as kingpins of Salil I. In their bid to legitimise violence to meet the growing demands, they had violated the thin line where police could not overlook. The girl had got burnt badly and Atri rushed to the hospital after wrapping her in a cloth. Unfortunately he could not save the kid.
He waited for the guilt to hit him when he slept with Sahana that night at the resort. Sahana Deb, naked from the waist up, had crawled across the bed towards him. Her repellent, swollen, sagging breasts swung beneath her like bloated pumpkins. When she peeled off her panties to reveal a neatly trimmed, rust-brown bush, a pungent smell of rotting fish assaulted Atri’s nostrils. He felt the bile rise in his throat.
He shared the details of the kidnapping case with her. “ It’s OK,” she whispered huskily, “ I know the project guys have gone a bit overboard. It happens sometimes .But they have to do their business and keep Mr.Goenka’s business flying high. You will be nicely compensated. You just relax and let me take care of you.”
The whole evening had been a nightmare, a fitting end to one of the worst period’s of his life, when the maid discreetly knocked to signal for him to make his exit. Deepan’s Volvo had just turned the corner of the lake.
Time stretched out in serene slow motion over the next few sleepless hours. The bitch had made him do these tainted stuff. That’s all he could think when the whatsapp videos of his gyrating over Sahana, date and time stamped over the last three years were sent to him last night.
‘Sayantani, can you tell me what you’re doing?’ he asked, when the car stopped by the roadside in complete darkness.
‘I called the thana,’ said Sayantani, ‘to check who it was that interrogated Sahana back then, when they first came here years ago and a theft happened.’
Atri did not say anything. Sayantani took a deep breath before she continued. The man sitting next to her was the person she felt closest to in the whole world.
‘Detective Superintendent Atri,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry, sir, but I have to ask you a difficult question.’