Police Inspector (Crime) Dougan studied his reflection in the mirror. Clean-shaven and with his hair combed back neatly, he looked as presentable as he was about to get, he thought. Smart enough for a reception celebrating his colleague’s son’s first birthday.
He edged out of the bathroom and found his wife standing in the doorway of their bedroom. She looked gorgeous, and he told her so. She smiled a wan smile. It was the sort of smile a woman who has not been able to conceive after six years of marriage would give on the verge of attending a social function centered round a young child. Dougan felt his heart go out to her. He reached out to embrace her but she backed away, warning him that her make-up would not stand the damage.
The gauge on the car dashboard showed the outside temperature was 35 degrees. He ramped up the air-conditioning and they slipped out onto the roads of Mumbai.
Lines of yellow and blacktop taxis were parked at the curb. Some of the owners were washing the vehicles in the heat of the mid-day sun. Groups of children huddled under the refuge offered by trees, eating from plastic bags or playing with crude toys. It never ceased to amaze Dougan how so much poverty could co-exist alongside the obvious wealth of the city.
The car in front of him was a lime-green BMW. Dougan was looking at a stuffed animal peering out at him from the back of the German machine when he experienced a sudden, overpowering bout of giddiness.
The feeling was so unexpected that without hesitation, he gave the left hand indication that he was pulling over. He slowed down gradually, grateful for the lack of traffic and found a place at the curb. He shut off the engine and leaned back fully against his seat, shutting his eyes and willing the sensation to pass.
His wife was immediately concerned. She caught his arm quickly. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
He let out his breath slowly. He was acutely aware of his heart thumping strongly. “I suddenly felt giddy.” He murmured, opening his eyes.
“Did you take your tablet this morning?” Both of them suffered from high blood pressure. She handled it better than Dougan, who had been diagnosed recently. Unlike his asthma condition where he used an inhaler to tackle the attacks, here he was forced to rely on tablets, something he hated with a vengeance.
He turned to look his wife in the eye. “I made it a point to take my pill because of the party.”
A sharp rap at the glass on the driver’s side made him look away from her. A grimy face stared at him through the window pane. It was an urchin, one of the multitudes that prowled streets of the city. She held out a hand at him, mouthing words he couldn’t hear over the blast of the air-con unit. Dougan stared at the child for some moments, taking in the dirt-streaked hair that was tangled and the dull eyes. He wondered how old she was. With a little shake of his head, he lowered the window and gave her a ten rupee note. She scurried away without a word.
His wife sighed and touched Dougan’s face. “That’s the first time I’ve seen you giving money to a beggar. I guess you must really be feeling unwell…” She peered out through the window. “We should get your pressure checked. There must be a clinic round here somewhere.” He began to protest. She quelled with a firm shake of her head. “We’re going to find a doctor who will check your pressure and then we’ll see what he has to say about it. Make any fuss and we turn around and I’ll drive us home to see our doctor.” She knew Dougan would not want to miss this particular reception.
She stepped out of the car and gasped as the heat struck like a physical thing. Quickly she moved into the shade of a bus shelter, looking at the signboards on the commercial units lining the street. The fifth shop in the row, less than fifty meters away sported a board with a prominent cross. She leaned out, squinting and confirmed it was a doctor’s clinic. The last thing she wanted was to walk into some quack’s set-up.
Together they got out and walked slowly to the clinic. Dougan was feeling decidedly better now but he knew that telling his wife this would make no impression. She would not rest easy until she saw the mercury in the doctor’s pressure apparatus with her own eyes.
Both of them exhaled in relief as they entered the coolness of the waiting room. Dougan went to stand directly under the ceiling fan while his wife approached the young receptionist seated in a corner behind a tiny desk. A door likely leading to the cabin of the doctor creaked open and a man came out. He had a bandage on his arm and Dougan noticed he was limping. Almost immediately, a stout woman who had been standing near the same door pushed it inward, making it groan eerily, and went inside. Dougan saw the receptionist was staring at the door with a frown on her face. He heard his wife explain his condition to the girl. She told them she would send them in next and asked her to take a seat. His wife found a place and gestured to him. He shook his head, pointing upwards at the fan, indicating he was comfortable where he was.
Besides them, there were two medical reps and two other patients in the waiting room. The waiting room was not a large space, carved out of the premises by installing a partition of aluminium and tinted glass which separated it from the doctor’s cabin beyond. On the wall behind the receptionist’s counter was a poster depicting mountain scenery. One of the taped corners had peeled back unceremoniously and was coated with dust. Dougan turned to study the other wall. There was a big photograph mounted there, bordered with a glittering silver-finish frame. It was a picture of a young man in a suit receiving an award from a former Chief Minister. There was a pretty smiling woman standing next to the man.
The phone at the receptionist’s desk rang, startling him. The girl picked up, spoke a few words then presumably transferred the call to the cabin, because then an inside line began ringing.
Feeling a lot cooler behind the collar, Dougan went to sit beside his wife. She had found an aged copy of a fashion magazine and was turning the pages with little enthusiasm. Dougan ran an eye over the other three publications on the side-table but could see nothing of any interest.
A creaking sound made him look up. The internal door had opened and Dougan straightened in anticipation of being told his turn was next. But the person who emerged was not the plump woman he had seen go within a few minutes before. A man had come out. He was holding a black case, and Dougan realized it was the same man from the framed photo. This was Dr. Shah.
With his free hand holding the door slightly ajar, the doctor looked back into his cabin and said: “I’ll be back in ten minutes. Don’t go, okay?”
From inside, a feminine voice called back. “Okay, okay!”
Shah went to his receptionist. “House-call. I’ll be back in ten minutes.” Ignoring the patients who were seated in his waiting room, he quickly exited the premises without another word.
Dougan looked at his wife with a frown, unhappy at the delay this development would cause. “We can’t wait here until he comes back. We’ll be late for the reception.”
She got up. There was a vexed look on her face. “Stay here. I’m going outside to see if I can find any other doctor’s signboard around.” She was gone before he could protest.
Dougan settled back with a shrug. He found that the medical reps were looking in his direction. He nodded to them. “I’m a police inspector.” He said, leaning forward. “I didn’t think you people worked on Sundays as well…”
Intimidated, one of the duo cleared his throat. He looked like he was in his twenties. “Uh, sir, no – actually, Sunday is our holiday, sir. But uh, Dr Shah is usually very busy on other days. When we came on Friday to meet him, he checked his calendar and gave us an appointment today. The time was for 12.30-” He would probably have revealed more had it not been for the scream.
It was loud, feminine – and it came from inside the doctor’s cabin.
Everyone jumped. The reps looked about with their mouths gaping, as if unable to believe they had just heard a scream. The receptionist was staring, eyes wide open, at the door to the cabin. Dougan registered these facts as he got to his feet. Standing, just for an instant, he hesitated. He wasn’t sure what made him pause but then, shaking aside the feeling, he went to the door and pushed it open.
He felt the chill in the air instantly. The doctor had left the air-conditioner running, Dougan thought. Which was odd because no light fixture had been switched on. It was mid-day so it wasn’t dark, but the tinted glass of the partition made the interior appear gloomy.
There was a large desk near one wall, along with three chairs. None of the chairs was occupied. There was no sign of the stout lady he had seen enter when he had walked into Shah’s clinic.
He moved over to a curtain drawn across the room like a makeshift screen, keeping him from seeing the other half of the cabin. He sensed the others coming in behind him and he lifted the curtain. Behind it was the doctor’s examination bed and on the floor was the fat lady.
Dougan fished out his mobile phone and tapped the flashlight app. White light lit up the area and he focused the beam on the woman.
She was collapsed on the ground, face-up. Her arms had fallen at her sides and there was a large wound under her chin. Judging from the amount of blood on her dress and the floor, Dougan was sure she was dead.
Stepping forward carefully, he felt her neck for a pulse. There was none. There was a bloodied scalpel on the floor near her right hand. Hearing a muffled gasp from behind, he killed the light and straightened. The receptionist’s frightened face was peeking from behind the curtain.
Before he could say anything, Dougan heard a woman’s voice: “What’s going on? Why is everyone inside?”
He backed away from the examination area, letting the curtain drop into place and saw the newcomer. She was at the doorway, behind the others. Dougan recognized her face from the same photograph hanging on the wall in the waiting room. “Are you Mrs. Shah?”
She nodded, hesitant. “Who are you?”
Still blocking access to what lay beyond the screen, he introduced himself. “I’m Inspector Dougan. I was waiting to get my pressure checked.” He turned to the receptionist. “Could you switch the light on, please?”
The girl scooted to a panel and two tube-lights blinked on.
Dougan told the girl to herd everybody except Mrs. Shah out into the waiting room. When he was alone with the doctor’s wife, Dougan quickly explained what had happened then lifted the curtain.
When she saw the corpse, she sagged against the wall with a gagging sound. “O God, o God…” she kept mumbling, turning her face away from the devastation.
Dougan glanced at the knife on the tiles. “It looks like her throat has been cut.”
She went to a chair and sank into it, shaking her head. “She finally went and did it, the stupid fool! She had to go and kill herself!”
“I take it the victim was not simply a patient of your husband then?” said Dougan carefully.
“Her name’s Laila Shah. She was my husband’s sister.” She had stopped shaking her head. “She kept telling me about how depressed she’d been feeling, that she’d been getting suicidal thoughts. She wanted me to tell my husband to change her anti-depressant medication, that it wasn’t doing the job.” She covered her mouth with her hand. “I never thought she would do it. My God, she actually killed herself…”
Knowing he should secure the crime scene, he told her to wait outside. Nodding she got up. “I have to inform my husband…” she said, taking out her mobile.
Dougan took out his own phone and made call to Assistant Inspector Naik. He knew Naik would be at the office. He had planned to drop in at the reception later, as a show of courtesy to the Inspector whose son was celebrating his birthday.
Dougan explained to Naik what he wanted and then hung up. There was a movement at the main doorway, and he quickly glanced up. It was his wife. Her face was wet with perspiration and for a guilty moment Dougan realized that she had probably been walking about in the sun seeking a doctor for him. He quickly explained what had happened in her absence.
Her face was a picture of shocked disbelief. She stared at the curtain. “She’s behind that?” He nodded. She shook her head sadly. “Poor thing. She was there, so very alive only minutes ago. Imagine if one of us had known. We could have saved the poor soul…” She sighed. “What a waste…” She looked up at him. “If only she had screamed before making the attempt, the delay might have made a difference.”
Dougan looked at his wife strangely, focusing on what she had just said.
She stopped speaking and took his arm, leading him into the cabin and away from the others. “You’ve got a strange look on your face…”
“It was her scream that alerted us.” He said slowly. “If she hadn’t screamed we would all just have been sitting there, waiting for the doctor to get back. But she screamed – and we did the logical thing, which was to rush in to see what was happening.” He frowned. “Why did she scream? If she was so determined to kill herself, why scream at all?”
“That’s what’s bothering you?” She shrugged. “She wasn’t in a normal frame of mind at the time. Who knows what she was thinking when she decided to scream…” Seeing that he still looked unconvinced, she went on: “I don’t understand: what’s there to think over? The woman killed herself. We all saw the doctor leave. And there’s no way into the cabin besides this door, I suppose? Maybe she was upset that he had left her so suddenly. Maybe while she was waiting she found a scalpel and sliced open her neck. It can’t be murder. We’re all witnesses to the fact that no one was inside after the doctor left.”
That made him nod. “That’s very convenient for the doctor, having so many witnesses. It seems he gave our two medical reps an appointment for this afternoon.”
She shrugged, not seeing the connection.
“It means Shah knew in advance he would have witnesses outside. Even if there were no patients at that time, he was already sure there would be two reps there. Two reliable witnesses…”
“Why are you even suspecting foul play here? What doesn’t feel right to you?”
Dougan paused before speaking, trying to put into words what was niggling at a part of his brain. “The fact that she screamed. There was no logical reason for her to scream. She can’t have been trying to get attention, because her brother, the one person who would have responded, had already left. And at this stage I can’t accept your reasoning that Laila was not in a proper mental state. Not unless I get some independent verification as to her psychological profile.” He shook his head ever so slightly. “And I don’t like the fact that it was the scream that made us barge in and find her dead.”
The receptionist appeared at the door. “Uh, Inspector, the patients and the reps want to know if they can go… I mean, since the doctor obviously won’t be able to check them…”
Dougan thought about that for a moment. As witnesses, he doubted they would have seen any more than he himself had. He nodded. “Okay, but get their contact numbers. Oh, and I want the doctor’s contact numbers too.”
She entered the cabin. “It’s on the prescription pad on the desk.”
He went to the desk and leaning over, ripped off a page. As he extended his arm, he noticed dust streaks on his shirt cuff.
Seeing his grimace, the girl said. “The woman who cleans everyday did not come to work today morning. Doctor Shah told her not to come to work today.”
Dougan looked up from his cuff. “Did he?” Was this another coincidence? “Why not?”
Somewhere in his mind, an alarm bell was going off. “Tell me, who opens the main shutter each morning?”
“Usually I do it when I arrive for work. The doctor comes at 11. But today the clinic was open before I got in. Dr. Shah was already here. He had some early patients.”
A beep indicating he had received a text made him take his phone out. The message was from Naik. Reading the contents, he exhaled with a slow nod. Speaking in a low voice to his wife, he said. “I had told Naik to do some checking up on the Shahs. The sister, Laila had twice filed complaints against the doctor. Harassment because of an on-going property dispute. She is not married, so that makes him the only surviving direct relative. Second, Dr. Shah’s caller, the one who conveniently made him leave his clinic in front of us all, is a patient. Naik spoke to her. Yesterday Dr. Shah had told her he wanted to check her pressure today morning. He instructed her to call him at 12.20 sharp.” His expression was grim. “It looks like our good doctor had engineered quite a number of things for this morning: the phone call, the medical reps, the ‘off’ for his cleaning woman…”
She shook her head, bewildered. “Even so, even if this looks suspicious, how could it be a case of foul play? We both saw him leave…”
Dougan was looking curiously at the doctor’s desk. He went over and walked around it. It was a large steel affair. There was a space under the table-top for the doctor to stick his lower limbs into, and this area was enclosed by the paneling on three sides (except the front). “I wonder what else Dr. Shah engineered…” murmured Dougan, looking mesmerized, into the space under the desk. A shrill musical note sounded and both husband and wife looked at each other sharply. It was a mobile phone, he realized but the phone that had made the sound didn’t belong to either of them. It was his wife who located the instrument. Dougan drew it out with his hanky. Looking at the background, he saw that the phone belonged to the sister, Laila. It took him a minute to get into the call records and find out who the last caller was. “Dr. Shah…” he breathed. The time stamp was at 11.00. Her brother had called her at eleven that morning, over two hours ago.
“Shah himself opened the clinic this morning. He cancelled the day’s cleaning services. He arranged for the call to summon him out, in front of witnesses, two of whom he had specifically told to be here.” He gazed at Laila’s phone. “And now there is evidence he spoke to the victim this morning only hours before they met. Did he call her here as well?
“I’m going to take a guess and presume he did. Just as I’m guessing that when Laila entered this cabin, Shah wasn’t the only person waiting inside.” He touched the surface of the desk. “I think the doctor’s wife was hiding here. She had come in when Shah opened the shutter in the morning. No one else knew she was here. And it was his wife who called out when the doctor was leaving in front of us all, the point being to show us that Laila was still alive when he left.
“The next thing she had to do was to scream. It was important that we rush in and discover the body before the doctor returned. This we obligingly did. The wife is hidden behind the door as we enter in a panic. Once she sees we are inside she joins us. We all assume naturally that she has come from outside, like us.”
Dougan’s wife was shaking her head slowly. “Wait… you said it was the wife who called out?”
“They killed the sister before he left for the house-call.”
She felt cold. “You’re saying they murdered her and then coolly make it look like suicide.” She looked through the glass at Shah’s wife and shivered. “Could you be wrong?”
“Right now all I have is conjecture. I need hard facts to support this line of speculation…” Dougan rubbed his jaw. “Laila enters. Shah tells her to come to the examination section. He gets behind her, pins her arms and closes her mouth with the other hand before she can scream. The wife is waiting with a scalpel. He jerks her head up and she cuts her throat.” He had moved to the curtain, and lifting it looked down at the body. “Shah would have held Laila till she stopped struggling. With her carotid artery severed there would have been blood everywhere. And as a doctor he knows this, and he’s prepared. Both of them would have worn gloves and coats to prevent her blood from spraying on them…” He began searching for any sign of either gloves or white coats, even poking through the bin. “Wait a minute! Shah had a case with him when he left for his ‘house-call’… He must have stuffed those items inside, the crafty bugger…”
“You need to get the address of that patient who called him.” said his wife quickly. “Those things are the only real evidence you have.”
Dougan was already moving outside to accost the receptionist. He saw Mrs. Shah look outside the waiting room and heard the sound of a car door slamming. Turning, he saw the doctor hurry towards them without bothering to lock his vehicle.
Dougan saw Mrs. Shah stand up to greet the doctor with a tearful face. His own face hard, Dougan stepped in before she could say a word. He introduced himself curtly and put out his hand. Startled, Shah shook his hand. Instead of shaking it, the police officer held it up in his own and looked at the other hand as well. “I notice you are not wearing your wedding band today. No rings at all, in fact. And no watch either, doc. I understand that doctors have a habit of removing their accessories when they put on gloves before a procedure.” He looked the man in the eye. “Were you planning a surgery today, doctor Shah?” He dropped his hand and went to the car. On the front seat was the case.
Holding his breath, Dougan opened the door and using his hanky, popped the cover. Inside was a stash of white materiel. He lifted it out. It was a doctor’s white-coat, only now it wasn’t just white.