At the wheel of his green Maruti Alto, Police Inspector Dougan (Crime) suddenly noticed that it was a moonlit night.
That he had noticed this was in itself surprising, if one considered that most of his time on the road was spent either fixed on the bumper of the vehicle in front or looking sideways for an opening in the traffic that he could take advantage of; one didn’t get a chance to admire the scenery when driving through Mumbai’s congested roadways. It was more surprising because at that moment, Dougan had plenty on his mind.
Assistant Inspector Naik – who was already at the scene – had briefed him over the phone. An anonymous tip had come in an hour back, shortly before seven pm, to report a crime. The caller (designated by the police as JJ) was a male, and he had spoken in fast, excited sentences, urging the police to come quickly. JJ was a self-confessed peeping Tom. He was especially adept at climbing trees that overlooked bedroom windows. And that very evening, ogling the lady of the house undressing after returning from work, JJ was witness to a shocking crime. Barely a few minutes after she had begun disrobing JJ saw a masked man slip into the bedroom and attack her. Before JJ’s shocked eyes, he began throttling her. She had struggled before eventually collapsing to the floor. At this point, JJ observed another man step into the bedroom and both men looked down at the floor before leaving together. JJ instantly called the police.
The nearest control room had sent a van to check the address. When knocking had yielded no results, the police team made an inspection of the rear of the house and found the kitchen door lock broken. The woman, Rekha Patel was alive but unconscious, and she was now in hospital.
Dougan slowed down when he saw a crowd in the distance ahead. The house was a two storey affair, a clone to virtually every other residential unit in the row down to even the paint finish. Dougan found a place for his car behind a police jeep, and made his way to the front gate.
At that moment, a silver Fiesta pulled up close by, making Dougan pause. A police havaldar tried to wave the car on but the driver’s door opened and a bald man hurriedly got out. “Where’s my wife?” he blurted, looking about, his voice edged with worry. “Please tell me where she is!”
Dougan turned quickly, but Naik was already there. “Mr. Patel, I am Assistant Inspector Naik. I’m the one who called you.” He quickly explained what had happened.
Horrified, Patel took a step back, hand over his mouth. “O my God…” He looked from man to man. “Where is she now?”
“Let me find out, sir.” offered Naik, reaching for his mobile.
Around them, people were staring at Patel pointedly, wondering what the police were saying to him. Dougan moved in close to the distraught man, keeping his voice low. “You obviously need to see to your wife now. Our questions can wait until later.”
Patel nodded his thanks, and with the hospital details, got back into his car. The same havaldar helpfully held back the curious bystanders so he could reverse his car.
Naik filled Dougan in as they headed toward the house. “We were unable to trace JJ’s identity through the SIM. It was bought over a year back, with no verifiable ID. We weren’t even able to get a fix on the SIM location, so I’m guessing he’s disabled it.”
Dougan nodded. “When JJ called, it was likely a split-second decision because of the gravity of the situation. He’s obviously realised now that he should not have used his own phone, and he’s disabled it. But at some point, he will have to switch it back on again. We just have to be patient.”
Naik pushed open the main door. “The point of entry is the kitchen door. It’s possible the attacker could have been in the house before Rekha came home.”
“Have we established any motives for the assault?”
“I doubt it was robbery, but I only say so because nothing looks out of place: no mess, no opened drawers, no scattered debris, nothing broken…” He shrugged. “Patel’s input will be necessary, of course.”
“Any useful intelligence picked up from the vicinity?”
Naik shook his head ruefully. “So far, my men have spoken to the immediate neighbours but no one has heard or noted anything untoward. No strange vehicles, no men moving about suspiciously.”
Dougan looked at him oddly. “Suspiciously? How does one move about ‘suspiciously’, Naik?”
Naik was saved from answering by the sound of his mobile buzzing. Dougan moved on to the kitchen, where an officer was taking photos of the door with a digital camera. The damage to the lock was not substantial; it looked like a hammer and screwdriver job.
He swung around, hearing a heavy tread.
It was Naik, looking flushed. “JJ called again! He called the police landline, and identified himself as the man who had called before. He said until a few minutes back, he had been outside this house in the crowd of on-lookers, watching all the activity, when he noticed something that made him call again.
“JJ mentioned there was a second man. What he had forgotten to tell us was this second man wasn’t masked. And just minutes ago while outside in the crowd, JJ saw the second man!”
“What!” Dougan’s eyes went wide.
“He said it was the man who got out from the silver Ford Fiesta: Rekha’s husband!”
Dougan gestured to the camera man. “It’s probably too late but I need you to get multiple shots of the people outside.” The man nodded and quickly exited with his equipment. “Naik, if JJ is correct about Patel, then Rekha is in danger. We need to keep him away from her, but it has to be done in such a way that Patel doesn’t get suspicious…” He snapped his fingers. “Got it! Contact the hospital Medical Superintendent. Tell him to keep Patel away from her on whatever medical grounds he can think of.”
Naik was already dialing on his mobile.
“We also need to put a plains-clothes officer on Patel. He’s on his way to the hospital so we can start following him from there. Once Patel gets the news that he can’t see his wife, he will start plotting his next move, and I want to know what it is.” He pointed upward. “I’ll be in the master bedroom when you’re done.”
When Naik went up thirty minutes later, he found Dougan sitting on the bed with some papers. Dougan looked up.
“Sorry that took so long, sir. The Medical Superintendent was not happy. He feels it’s our responsibility to protect the wife if we think Patel’s a threat. But he’s agreed to keep his end of the bargain for the next twenty-four hours. As for Patel, my man followed him from the waiting room to the hospital canteen. He’s watching him as we speak.”
Dougan gestured to a mobile phone at his side. “I found it on the dresser. Belongs to the wife. I went through the call logs, found one contact that she has been in frequent touch with. I figured it was either her sister or a close friend and called up. Turns out it’s one of Rekha’s colleagues from the investment firm. She was able to clue me in the husband’s background.
“Marriage of ten years, one child born seven years back, passed away after a severe illness. He was a school teacher, and after the death of the child, he went into retirement. He is currently unemployed. Rekha herself inherited a handsome amount of money, plus this house, from her father. She’s a top-notch adviser, and is on track to be taking up the reins at her office within the next six months.” He held up what Naik saw was a bank passbook. “I found this on her side of the bed, on the side table. Joint bank account, with several withdrawals via ATM card going back seven months, amounting to over five lakhs in total.” He handed the book to Naik. “It’s time you woke up the manager of this bank, get him to crank up his computer and get a look at the husband’s financials. If they have separate ATM cards, we’ll know who took out the monies.”
He stood and walked up to the single window in the room. “I have this strange feeling that we’re overlooking something important here, Naik. Something that should be obvious. It’s just clawing at the edge of my subconscious, teasing me…” He shook his head in frustration.
Naik’s phone rang. He listened then hung up. “While Patel was eating, he was joined by a man who sat down, but he didn’t eat anything. They spoke for a while and he left. According to my man, it didn’t look very cordial.”
“All that talk of eating reminds me…” He checked his watch. “Time for dinner, Naik.”
Patel was seated in the waiting room on level six of the government hospital. From his vantage point, he could see the door of his wife’s room. The doctor who had met him before dinner had explained that Rekha’s condition was stable but she had been heavily sedated and they thought it advisable for her to have no contact at all until the next morning. That had been before dinner, over two hours ago.
He thought back to the conversation with his dinner companion in the hospital cafeteria. Well, dinner companion would not be describing it accurately: the man had eaten nothing. He had come expecting to be paid. Patel hoped he had made it clear enough to him that the only way he could hope to see any money was if Rekha died. What remained to be seen was if the man would make a move tonight.
If he did, he wouldn’t get a better opportunity. It was close to midnight. The room was halfway down the corridor, out of sight of the nurse station. And the ceiling light was dead. And besides the two nurses behind their counter, the only other person in the waiting room besides him was a man in a dark shirt staring up the wall TV which had been muted.
And right then, before his very eyes, a figure appeared further down the corridor, treading softly. Patel could not see the man’s features in the distance, but he did not need to: the gleam of a gold chain at the man’s neck was enough for Patel to identify his dinner companion. The figure halted in front of Rekha’s door, and then the person had slipped in the room.
Patel closed his eyes gently, and wondered how it would happen: probably a pillow pressed hard against her face. So deeply sedated, would she even be aware? Would her eyes open, suddenly looking deep into the cold eyes of the man who was firmly squeezing the life from her body? What thoughts would run through her mind in those final moments, he wondered. He felt his heart thump harder, and he wondered if he was going to be sick.
He sensed the movement and looked up in time to glimpse the door open and the killer slip out, leaving down the corridor as silently as he had approached.
Patel got to his feet, breathing heavily. He walked in the opposite direction, towards the lift and pressed the button. The lift doors open and he blinked in surprise when he saw Dougan and Naik standing within.
Dougan brightened. “Patel, we were on our way to meet you. You remember I mentioned some questions we had to ask you? Good, why don’t you come with us – we can talk downstairs.” He invited the man into the lift.
Flustered, Patel nodded and stepped in. They went to the ground floor in silence. When the doors parted, Naik led the way to a room which was empty.
Naik held up some papers. “We were hoping you could help clear up some facts that have come to our attention. Several withdrawals with your ATM card this year for large sums of money, from an account joint with your wife.”
Patel took out a cell phone from his pocket. “My son died a year ago, Inspector. I was teaching at the time. I blamed myself and soon after, left my job. I couldn’t face seeing kids each day of my life, knowing that my child was dead. I began gambling. Some people drink, or take drugs. I handled my troubles differently and in little time, I had amassed huge losses.
“Too late I came to my senses, and I stopped gambling. I started paying back what I owed to a man called Ali, by withdrawing amounts over time, hoping my wife wouldn’t notice. But she did, and I had to stop. That’s why there have been no withdrawals since the last four weeks. Ali then started threatening me for the remainder. I swore to him I had no funds, and that I would get back my old job and pay him over time. He laughed in my face.
“Then this evening, he must have sent someone to attack Rekha. It was a warning to me. As I sat in the waiting room, I knew what I had to do. I called Ali and told him to send someone over for the money. He sent his man to meet me when I was at dinner. I knew the risks I was taking but I had no choice if I wanted the threat to end. And that’s why I recorded our conversation.” He held out his phone.
“Where’s the money, Patel?”
“I don’t have it.”
“Is this a joke? You called-”
“I called to beg for more time. He didn’t have to hurt my wife.”
“Hurt your wife? I don’t know anything about that. That wasn’t me.”
“I know it was Ali because he threatened me. First he would hurt her, and then if he didn’t get his money, he would kill her. He laughed, made a joke of it, saying that by killing her he would be doing me a favour, because then I would get it all and be able to pay off my debts.” A bitter laugh. “And now she’s lying upstairs alone and half-dead, for no fault of her own…”
Dougan had remained silent, but now he spoke and his voice was soft, almost awed. “I didn’t have all the pieces until now. And now that I see the whole picture…” He shook his head slowly. “Naik, this man could be the most cunning individual we have yet encountered.”
Naik stiffened and quietly turned so his gaze was upon Patel.
Dougan addressed his deputy. “That anonymous caller was crucial to this plot. Just how crucial became clear when I understood what those calls achieved. Think about it, Naik: two anonymous calls, one after the other, placing Patel at the scene of Rekha’s attack, forcing us to consider him a suspect. Because it was a tip-off, Patel was suspect but not implicated. What would our next move be? Keep him away from the wife, but using a medical pretext so he would not be alerted that he was under suspicion. And the next obvious thing: put him under surveillance.
“But something kept eluding me, and when I stood in Patel’s bedroom and looked out of the single window, I knew what it was. And right there and then, I knew there was no peeping Tom, there was no JJ.” His eyes glinted fiercely. “So then who made the two phone-calls? What if it was Patel himself…
“I could picture it all: the planning going back a year, at the time the mysterious SIM card was bought. The gambling, the losses mounting. Patel then stages an attack on his wife, wearing a mask. She’s admitted in hospital where she is vulnerable. Due to the tip-off, Patel is under surveillance. He is witnessed having a dinner with an unsavoury character, during which he masterfully suggests that Ali can recover his money by killing Rekha in hospital.”
“I did no such thing! I only made contact with him to beg for more time!” Patel said angrily.
Naik lurched forward, his face ashen. “O God! Sir, if what you’re saying is true-” He grabbed his phone. “She’s in danger-”
A loud beep came from Dougan’s mobile, indicating a text alert. The Inspector looked at it quickly. His face hardened, and when he looked up at Patel, his voice was like flint. “You claim you didn’t suggest your wife being killed. I guess that means you will be shocked if I told you your wife has been found smothered in her bed.”
Naik’s frame tensed and he uttered a curse. He too looked at Patel, and there was anger in his expression.
“That was why you left the waiting room.” said Dougan softly. “You had seen the killer go in, and you knew what was going to happen.” His eyes blazed with a cold fury. “And for the last ten minutes, you have been sitting here, knowing what your actions-”
Patel stood up. “Inspector, I refuse to remain and listen to these absurd accusations! You know you have no proof. You can’t stop me from walking out of here!”
Dougan smiled wryly. “Yes, all I have are suspicions. I can’t prove anything I’ve said because you planned your moves skillfully.” He looked past Patel to his deputy. “Back in Patel’s house, after you went down to get Chinese takeaway, I remained in the bedroom. That’s when it struck me like a slap in the face that there was no peeping Tom.” He chuckled lightly. “Your tip-off claimed he was on a tree outside the bedroom window when he witnessed it all. Naik – there are no damn trees facing the bedroom!”
Naik’s mouth didn’t exactly drop open but it came close.
“And then all the facts slipped into place. I called the hospital and had Rekha secretly shifted out of the room.” His eyes dropped back to Patel. “I believe you were in the cafeteria then.”
Naik looked stunned. “So Rekha is alive?!”
Dougan nodded. “The room was empty. The man who walked inside very likely got the shock of his life.”
Naik was staring at his boss carefully, trying to comprehend. He said slowly. “So he got away?”
“What would we have charged him with? Walking into an empty room?”
Naik began to smile. “And Patel’s recording is useless, because the man never made any threats…”
“And Ali is not a concern.” Naik finished, with a satisfied nod.
“Well, he’s not our concern.” Dougan walked over to Patel. “You suddenly look very pale. You’ve just realised that your plan didn’t work: you’re still penniless, and still in debt. Let me add to your worries: I plan to meet your wife tomorrow morning, to share some of my ‘suspicions’. I wonder if she will come to the same conclusion: that she’s safer not married to you.” He opened the door. “Mr Patel, you are free to go.”