Saturday, December 17, 2016

Guru


My mother's family (kudumbam) is supposed to be that of Sri Narayana Guru. They have a kudumba kshetram (family temple) close to Chempazhanthy. I think it is called Elanjikkal Devi kshetram.

Irrespective of whether that is fact or fiction...

The Guru would not have objected to any intelligent thought. That is why he was a great teacher.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Face In A Book


Number of words: 12000


THE FACE IN A BOOK

Day 1: 7 am.
Cheriyaaru is a quiet neighbourhood on the eastern hilly outskirts of Kadalil. At Valiyakkada Market on Highway 47, follow the signboard and winding road to Cheriyaaru Temple.
The residents are middle-class and generations-old in the area, most related to one another. They are not nouveau riche but their houses give that impression–the sprawling one-storeyed structures, on plots of a few hectares, with new extensions like Lego parts fixed without a clue of or a care for the final outcome. In some, copycat architecture is the culprit, a mix-without-match of styles observed around the globe by that much-travelled lot. In the more blighted cases, it is a result of astrology rather than architecture having had the last word on design– ‘front’ doors at the side; bathrooms outside the house; refrigerator and washing machine in the living room ceding ‘proper’ space within for prayer. This ugly larval stage, with conflicting impressions of a close community and that of free spirits unhindered by conventions, is not uncommon in this state where every town is in transit from ancient city to modern village.
House number 5 is the third on the left (1.8 kilometres from the market and 0.6 kilometres to the temple by the river). The five-foot-high front wall, the rarely-locked multi-coloured grilled gate and the brass nameplate with ‘P a nickar Villa’ in Old English script gel well in that neighbourhood. The rest of the boundary wall is more practical, as on other plots, an informal demarcation with granite rocks, pineapple hedges or survey markers.
The courtyard is tiled and there is a car-shed to the right. A black SUV and a white hatchback were parked there. The nicely-done flower garden is small for the plot. Old trees have more space, by the side, teak, jackfruit, mango, coconut and rambutan. On the left, to the back of the house, an old cow-shed is used as an open barn where rubber sheets are rolled, dried and stored. There is a large kitchen garden. The rubber plantation starts after that, on more than three-quarters of the plot, stretching over a hill and down to the market and highway. There is a path through the plantation, a shortcut of less than a kilometre, from the house to the market. On a bright day, the canopy of rubber trees could be ideal for a romantic rendezvous. With chilly wetness and a reluctant sun, it is more of a shroud, for criminals and their dead. It had rained the previous night and heavy rainfall with strong winds was promised.
The well, wash-area and clothes-lines are in between the kitchen garden and an outhouse to the right, that used to be the servants’ quarters and storehouse. There is a covered path to the outhouse. The ground around the house, and the well, is paved with concrete. Faint footprints, but too many, were visible all around. The well is not visible from the front. It is of the traditional type, with a diameter of five feet, a three-foot-high protective wall and a semi-circular beam with a pulley on top for the rope and pail. In the dim morning light and the gathering gloom of dark clouds, the well looked like a monster with a prey in its mouth.
“In steakhouse parlance, that’s called well-done,” Constable Antony observed, staring at the corpse in the well. He is a tall young man with an out-of-fashion pencil moustache, a serious face itching with a joke and a crisply-ironed uniform at all times. He is unmarried and claims to be searching for a woman who shares his interests of gourmet cooking and Krav Maga (a martial arts form).
“When did you start having steak?” Sub-Inspector Shajeeb asked, between deep breaths to quell the queasiness brought on by a quick look down the well. He sports a handlebar moustache, a permanent scowl and a heavily muscled body. He admits that he is more devoted to his wife and kid (one more on the way) than to his job, but he tries hard to hide a gentle soul to be an efficient policeman.
“I have been brushing up on my English,” Antony said.
“Shokie-madam and her English,” Shajeeb grumbled. “Which textbook are you following?”
“Textbook? English cook book.”
Shajeeb held back a snort when he saw Circle Inspector Shokie approach them. The two men stood to attention.
“Go on, say Good morning teacher,” Shokie muttered to them.
The men smiled briefly and relaxed a little. Shokie is five-foot-eight, athletic, attractive when she smiles, prefers a quiet dark look. No one is ever too sure about her. The uncertainty has kept the keepers and breakers of the law on a narrow path. She was transferred to Kadalil four months back, rumoured to be a ‘punishment posting’, and has had only petty crimes during her watch.
Shokie stood near the well, studied the body within and the ground around. Markers and tape were in place to prevent contamination of the scene.
A double-track of small black rubber tires was on the concrete, from the backdoor to the well-wall where a large trolley suitcase, about four-foot-high, lay open. Burn marks were visible on the suitcase and on the ground. The smell of kerosene still lingered in the air. The steel pail used in the well lay on its side close to the suitcase, detached from the rope. In its place, the man hanged by the neck within the well. His lower half looked badly burnt, mouth gagged with a cloth, face a grotesque mask and hands bound at the back with a waist-belt.
“I contacted the crime-scene lot again. It will take them another hour to get here,” Shokie told the men. “They are still in Akkara, at last night’s rape-murder scene. Crime Branch has taken over that case but most of the local force will be tied up there, for a day or two at least. How many do we have here?”
“Apart from us, only the one at the gate controlling the crowd, ma’am,” Shajeeb said. “There are two at the station. As per your instructions this morning, I sent the others to Akkara. That case has been on the news non-stop.”
“All the VIPs are landing there, their little ones too…plenty of cameras, of course.” Shokie looked at the sky. Her mood seemed to be reflected there. “We better get started before that storm washes away anything important. When did it rain last night?”
“About seven, ma’am,” Shajeeb said.
“What do we have?” Shokie asked.
Shajeeb quickly briefed his senior.
“The maid turned up at the house at around 6:15 am. She lives close to the market. She says she left her house at quarter to six, stopped at the market to buy two half-litre packets of milk, and came by the road. There is a shortcut through the plantation but she avoids that because she is scared of snakes. She collected the newspaper lying on the courtyard and proceeded to the back of the house. She has a key to the backdoor but she did not enter the house today. The pail lying next to the well, unattached to the rope, and the suitcase caught her attention. She looked in the well and started screaming.”
“The maid finding the corpse…what a clich√©…” Shokie muttered to herself.
Shajeeb continued, “The neighbour from house number 2 was on his way to the temple at that time, he says that’s his usual routine, and he responded to the maid’s scream. He had his mobile with him. He called the station. That neighbour and the maid say that the victim is the house-owner, Sudheer Panickar.”
“Does he live alone?” Shokie asked. “The house looks empty.” 
“His wife is with her mother in hospital. Her mother was admitted yesterday morning,” Shajeeb said. “It’s that private clinic close to the market. The neighbour told us all that. He is a relative of the victim, second cousin or uncle or something.”
“What do we know about Sudheer Panickar?”
Shajeeb consulted his notes. “No criminal record in the station. Again, from what we learned from that neighbour…age 34, married close to ten years, no kids, couple of shops in the market, a hardware store and a clothes-shop, and rubber-trading, of course. He was in Dubai for a few years, in some business with his brother-in-law. He returned when his father died. He inherited this house, his father’s. His mother and younger brother live in another house near the market. They used to live here till a few years back.”
“Why did they shift?” Shokie asked.
“No fight-shite, the neighbour says,” Antony said.
“Hmm…have they been informed, them and the wife?”
“The neighbour contacted the brother after he called the station,” Shajeeb said. “The brother was here when we got here. He has gone to bring his sister-in-law, the victim’s wife.”
“Did he see this?” Shokie asked.
“The neighbour did not allow anyone to enter the compound till we got here,” Shajeeb said.
“He says he watches crime shows, foreign ones,” Antony added.
“That helps,” Shokie muttered.
Shokie looked at the body again. The man was about six feet, eighty kilos.
“What seems to have happened?” Shokie asked. She turned to Antony. Her subordinates have got used to her disregard for seniority and protocol, but they still find her rapid-fire Q&A sessions unsettling. 
“The killer brought him out of the house in that trolley…suitcase,” Antony said and looked at her. Shokie nodded. He continued, “He removed…” He corrected himself, “The killer detached the rope from the pail, made a noose, placed it around the head of the victim.”
“The victim must have been alive, otherwise why gag and bound,” Shokie said, “unconscious, drugged or otherwise. What happened then?” She asked Shajeeb, “Was it as gruesome as I think it was?”
The three did not hide the disgust on their face.
“The killer must have poured kerosene on the lower half and put the body on fire, here outside the well,” Shajeeb said.
“God Je…” Antony exclaimed. “He must have regained consciousness. What a way to wake up?”
“How long did it take for him to realize his situation?” Shajeeb said. “Did he die like that?”
“Or was he pushed into the well for death part two?” Antony said.
“Or did he jump in for a speedier death?” Shokie added. “Or had he hoped the rope or pulley wouldn’t hold and he had a chance…? Doesn’t matter...for now.” She looked at the suitcase. “Can a woman place him in that suitcase and drag him here?”
The men looked at each other. Shokie could, quite easily.
“Possible…” Shajeeb said.
“What would make a killer do this?” Antony wondered loudly.
“Motives later…let’s get an idea about who’s who, what’s where and who’s where,” Shokie said. She looked at the sky again and then stared in the direction of the rubber plantation. “There is a way here from the market through the plantation, right?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Shajeeb said.
“Shajeeb, I want you to search that shortcut, from here to that hospital. You might have to do that fast, before the storm, cover as much ground as you can. Antony, go to the hospital and talk to the night-shift before they leave for the day. The shifts usually change around now. Get a fix on the wife’s whereabouts last night. I will talk to the brother and wife, and take a look around here. Let’s regroup after that. By then, the crime-scene lot should be here.”  
They moved towards the side of the house. A small brown hatchback stopped at the gate. A man and a lady got out. The man argued with the policeman blocking their way within.
“That’s the brother,” Antony told Shokie, “and possibly, the wife of the victim.”
The brother, Sreedhar Panickar, is young, handsome, about six feet, slim and looks like a college-student. He was distraught with grief.
So was Susheela, the young lady with him, pale and nearly fainting. She is one of those women endowed with perpetual youth, a teenager even in her twenties, about five feet, less than fifty kilos, frail, boyish. The way she wore the cotton saree, the large unblinking eyes and the quivering bloodless full lips made her seem like a young girl badly cast as an older woman in a school drama, awkward and ill-prepared.
“Bloody hell,” Shajeeb said.
Shokie turned towards him.
“She couldn’t lift even one of his legs,” Shajeeb said.
“Maybe she can, when it’s going to be a kebab,” Antony said.
“Don’t joke…” Shajeeb retorted.
“He has a point though,” Shokie said.
Shokie and Antony went towards the gate. Shajeeb did not budge. Silent, distant, he stared at the young lady.
Shokie turned towards Shajeeb and said, “You better start on the shortcut.”
Shajeeb nodded, and after another look at the young lady, he turned and walked towards the rubber plantation. Antony hurried towards a police jeep outside the gate and left for the hospital.

xxx

When Shokie reached the gate, Sreedhar stopped protesting to the constable. Shokie’s dark eyes were on Susheela. Then, she shifted attention to him.
“You shouldn’t have brought her here,” Shokie told Sreedhar.
“She insisted,” Sreedhar said. “Please, madam, what’s going on? Is it true that you people have not even started the investigation, not even taken him to hospital?”
“I request you to take her to the neighbour’s house,” Shokie said. “Kindly wait for me there.”
“Madam,” he raised his voice, crying, “please catch whoever did this to us, please.”
Shokie nodded.
A man of about seventy came towards them. He introduced himself as Krishnan, the neighbour and relative from house number 2. He waited, rather expectantly, to be questioned. Shokie told the old man to take Sreedhar and Susheela to his house. Before they left, Shokie got the house key from Susheela.
Shokie entered the house and closed the door behind her. Outside the compound, the hacks and those with phone-cameras clicked photos incessantly.
In the living room, there was a five-piece sofa set around a low-table, a large showcase with curios and photos of family and friends, and a large TV. There was no sign of struggle. No plates or glasses, not even a smudge, on the bare low-table. Shokie closed the curtains on the French windows facing the courtyard. The room is unexceptional except for the rooms attached to it.
To the left, next to the front door, there is a small bedroom. A new mattress was on the bed, still in its plastic cover. On the side-table next to the bed, there was a landline phone. The room looked as if it was used as a phone-room rather than as a bedroom. One window faces the courtyard. There was a wall-hanging next to the window with a key on a hook. Shokie found that the key fitted the front door, and that it could be taken and replaced from outside if the window was open, which it was. Security and thieves had not been a major concern.
There is a staircase to the right of that bedroom. On the first floor, Shokie opened three doors there: to the terrace at the back, a large balcony overlooking the front courtyard and a bathroom. She went back downstairs. There are two more doors in the living room, both facing the front door and the sofa. The one to the left leads to the dining room and other rooms within. The other door in the living room is to the master bedroom with its attached bathroom. If the curtains are drawn and the door to the bedroom left open, a person standing in the courtyard, or even at the gate, can see the bed in the master bedroom.  Shajeeb had told Shokie about the curious architecture in the area. Shokie kept the master bedroom for the last.
The dining room was clean and tidy. There are two small bedrooms to the left of the dining room. It looks like one was constructed first and then the other added on later. There is a joining door and even a window between the two bedrooms. Guests have to use the bathroom on the first floor or the one in the master bedroom. The kitchen was large, modern, neat and clean. The sink was dry. Five glasses, five plates, one glass bowl, three teaspoons, half a dozen tablespoons and a steel container with cover were in the draining area, wiped dry. Shokie opened the cabinet beneath the sink to find an empty bottle of whiskey, half a dozen beer bottles, a garbage-bin with leftover food and takeaway packing from an eatery, all carefully segregated. There were cleaning fluids, brushes and wipes too. The large refrigerator was well-stocked. Shokie noted that all the shelves in the refrigerator were full except the top one, where there was space for a container like the steel one in the draining area. The storeroom within the kitchen had the usual array of foodstuffs on one shelf and household articles like tools and washing material on another. A can of kerosene was also there.
Shokie then went to the master bedroom. She entered and closed the door. The bed, pillows and blanket had no indentation. It was well-made, as in a hotel. The bathroom was spotless. Next to the bed, and facing the bedroom door, there was a large wooden floor-to-ceiling cupboard, with a built-in space for mirror and cosmetics. The left side of the cupboard had lady’s clothes and the right the man’s. Everything was impeccably arranged. There was a small safe too. As with the easily accessible front door key on the hook, the combination number to the safe was right there on a sheet of paper on top of the safe. Shokie opened the safe expecting nothing out of the ordinary and she was not surprised. The only things in the cupboard that Shokie found interesting were a sophisticated camcorder in its case and an expensive tripod, both beneath the clothes on hangers. After putting on gloves, she checked to find that the camcorder did not have a memory card in it.
She closed the cupboard and turned to the last pieces of furniture in the bedroom, a large table and work-chair in the far right corner, away from the door, the window and the bathroom. There were stacks of account books and folders on the worktable. Something troubled her. Everything in the room looked undisturbed and neatly arranged, but there were small spaces without dust around many items. Someone had searched the room thoroughly and also tried to replace the items exactly as they were. Shokie did not want to disturb anything before the crime-scene lot got to work. She opened the drawers of the table. In the top one, there was a file with official documents and papers. A pocketbook, 165cmx90cm in dimension and with a rubber band holding it closed, was on top of that file. Shokie photographed the drawer from various angles before picking up the pocketbook. She flipped through the pages. She did not find any sign of torn pages. It had page after page of neatly written accounts, with four columns titled: date, type of expenditure, amount spent and balance.  At first glance, nothing unusual caught her eye. She studied the numbers again. She chewed her lips, she could not figure out certain items in the book. Each one was a small amount, not more than five hundred rupees, and had ‘Small Pers Exp’ as type of expenditure. In the column for balance, instead of a decreasing balance, the amount corresponding to those numbers looked like a cumulative amount. Shokie placed the book in an evidence bag. She took out a medium-size thin-leather pouch from a back pocket and used that as a carry bag.
Shokie left the bedroom and walked back to the kitchen. She opened the back door with the key the policemen had got from the maid, and took the path to the outhouse. There is a bathroom behind the outhouse, a modified old privy. The maid had told them that the key to the outhouse was kept on top of the refrigerator. The outhouse consists of two rooms. In the first room, there was a card table with five chairs. There was the smell of liquor, cigarette smoke and food. The door to the inside room was closed but not locked. The room was almost bare. There was no bed but a large king-size mattress stood against the far wall. The lights in that room were strange, and excessive. There were dim and bright bulbs on the ceiling and on the walls, pointing from various angles. Most of the floor was thickly carpeted. Only the area near the door had old mosaic. Shokie knelt down on the mosaic and with her head close to the floor she looked sideways at the carpet. She noted the depressions in the carpet, the small circular ones in triangular pattern particularly, like those a tripod would leave.
Shokie locked up the outhouse, went back to the house and to the front, locking up behind her. She kept the keys with her. She walked to house number 2. A crowd followed her. She did not bother to shoo them away.

xxx

Shokie found Krishnan, the neighbour, on the courtyard of his house, glaring at the crowd, daring them to contaminate his scene. Even before Shokie addressed him, the old man started off on a soliloquy, stating his name, his family’s tenuous relationship with the victim, recalled that the victim’s father had been principal of the village school where he too had been a teacher and that Sudheer’s father had been “the most upright character in the village”, he also added that he had taught Sudheer, his wife and the brother.
“Sudheer was a gem of a boy, you see.” He talked about the victim’s many charitable deeds in the village. “He was with me in the temple committee. I am President, you see.” He went on and on about a temple festival they had organized recently. “Sudheer ran around so much, helped us old men so much, without holding any post, you see. So good with the accounts too, all so perfectly done. He is not like this new lot who want their names on every donation, some want their name announced even if they sponsor fireworks. Sudheer did everything without asking for credit, without his name announced even once, a gem of a boy, he did not even ask for reimbursement when he bought something we had forgotten for the pujas and the feasts. He gave most of the tips too, you know these people these days, no one does anything without tips, huge tips these days, the priests, the artistes, the elephant mahout and those rascal cooks who wanted so much even before they started cooking, rascals...”
Shokie finally put a stop to it by telling him that she had to talk to the brother and wife urgently, that too privately. The old man did not look pleased. Shokie asked the sulking old man, “When was this temple festival?” She noted down the dates. The slightly mollified geriatric gave her directions, “use my drawing room to interview the brother…and the bedroom for the wife…I will make sure no one disturbs you.” Shokie replied, “Very kind of you, sir.”
The brother of the victim, Sreedhar, stood by a window in the drawing room, staring at the ground, blankly, or praying silently. It started raining heavily. He did not hear Shokie clear her throat.
“Mr Sreedhar…” Shokie said.
Sreedhar turned towards her with a start. He wiped his eyes and went towards her.
“I know that it’s a tough time for you,” Shokie said, “but I have got to ask some questions.”
Sreedhar nodded.
“Did you see your brother yesterday?” Shokie asked.
“Yes, my mother and I were here yesterday evening,” Sreedhar said.
“What time? Was there anyone else there? Help me get an idea about what happened yesterday,” Shokie said.
Sreedhar hesitated, staring at Shokie, as if he was trying to make sure she was serious about the task.
“We came here…you see, my mother had this prayer meeting at the temple. I left home around half past six. Amma (mother) had told me to pack food in a tiffin box. She had prepared food for Susheela-chechi (chechi - elder sister) and her mother.”
“Not for your brother?” Shokie interrupted.
“No, Amma had called him. He told her that his friends, some business associates, were in town and that they were meeting. He told Amma that they would get food from some hotel.”
“Ok…”
“Where was I? Yes…I picked up Amma at the temple. She had payasam (a sweet offering) from the temple. Sudheer-chettan (chettan - elder brother) is…was…crazy about payasam. So, she wanted to give it to him. And, he had called me at around six…he wanted to talk to me…”   
“That payasam from the meeting…did your mother give it to him on a banana leaf?” Shokie asked.
“Oh no, she gave it in a steel vessel. She always takes one from home. He is…dammit, was...very finicky about such stuff…always got it in some vessel…even from temples, he somehow took it in a vessel rather than on banana leaf like the rest of us.”
He continued, “So, we were at his house for a short while. His friends were already there. Chettan told me that they had got together around tea-time. I didn’t meet them. They were in the outhouse, playing cards. On the way back, Amma and I stopped at the hospital to check up on Susheela-chechi’s mother and to give them their dinner. We were there till eight. When we were there, chechi left for here. That must have been around seven. We sat with her mother till she got back, around eight, I think. Then, they had dinner. We left after that, around eight thirty or so.”
“How did she go?”
“Oh…I offered to take her but she wanted to walk.”
“Do you know which route she took?”
“The shortcut through the plantation…”
“Is she not scared of snakes?”
“Did the maid tell you about the snakes? Stupid lady claims she has seen snakes, all my time here I never saw one.”
“Why did you and your mother shift out?”
He hesitated for a while, “We all needed space and it worked out fine. It’s not that we drifted apart. We were still very close. After father died, chettan took his responsibilities very seriously. He took care of us…” His voice broke.
“Did he give money to his mother?” Shokie asked.
“Oh yes…first of every month, he went to bank, came home, gave five thousand rupees to Amma for her temple stuff and such, she did not need it, she receives pension, my father’s pension too. They were teachers. He also gave me ten thousand rupees to take care of Amma and as pocket money…always treated me like a kid brother.”
“Hmm…so, that explains the regular withdrawals of fifteen thousand rupees mentioned in his account book…” Shokie said.
“Did you see his account book? I have not seen it but I have heard that he is very meticulous with that.” He paused. “We got it from our father. He was a very strict Math teacher.”
“What did he want to talk to you about?”
“Talk to me…?” He looked confused. “Oh yesterday…one of those friends, a guy named Shekhar…his business is in a very bad shape. My brother had put in a lot of money into that. I am working in Shekhar’s company. He wanted some details.”
“Do you know his friends well?”
“Not well…they are my brother’s age-group.”
“Do you have their mobile numbers?”
“I have Shekhar’s number. Chechi might have the rest. And…”
“Yes?”
“Two of them are on their way…should be here shortly. They got to know. They called Chechi’s mobile…it’s with me.”
“Hmm…what do you do?”
“I take care of accounts and operations. The firm is into decorative flowers.”
“How long have you been working there?”
“Oh…not long…a year, fifteen months…”
“And, before that…?”
“After engineering college, I tried couple of businesses…my brother helped me with funds. I even had one of those food-vans…then, an education centre. Nothing worked out…looks like I am not good at business. My brother told me to take something steady for a while. So, I am doing this office work now. Figuring out what I should do with my life too. I have realized that I don’t need much. Not a successful business anyway...” He laughed bitterly.
“Did he have any enemies?” Shokie asked.
“No, I don’t think so,” the young man replied.
Shokie noted down his and Susheela’s mobile numbers. As she was moving within the house, she turned and asked Sreedhar, “By the way, did he have the payasam you gave?”
“Of course, he couldn’t resist it,” Sreedhar laughed fondly, “he can finish off a pot in one sitting.”
“Did he finish it off then?”
“No, he ate a bit. Then he said he would have the rest later, after his friends left. Didn’t want to share that, he said…”
“Did he keep it in the fridge?” Shokie asked.
“He told me to keep it. He chatted with Amma.”
“When did he talk to you about that other business?”
“When we were leaving…Amma was in the car. He took me aside. We stood in the courtyard…”
“Ok, thanks…”
Shokie went within. Susheela was in a small bedroom, sitting on a bed, hugging a pillow, her legs curled up beneath her, crying silently. She looked like a lost little girl.
“I am sorry to trouble you now,” Shokie said.
“Can I see him?” Susheela asked.
“Not now…later…” Shokie said. “Do you know if your husband had any enemies?”
Susheela shook her head. She bit her lips, tears kept flowing.
“Yesterday evening, at what time did you get home?” Shokie asked.
“Around seven…I wanted to freshen up. I don’t like using the hospital’s toilet.”
“Did you meet your husband?”
“He was with his friends. I saw him as I was leaving.”
“Why wasn’t he with you at the hospital?”
“He was…till afternoon. His friends called. My mother’s condition had stabilized by then. I told him to go. He wanted to be with me at night. But, you know how it is like in a hospital.’
“How did you come and go?”
“I walked. It is just a ten- to fifteen-minute brisk walk.”
“Didn’t it rain last night?”
“Oh yes, I got caught in the rain on the way home. I took bath, washed clothes. It wasn’t raining when I left.”
“And the washed clothes…?”
“I put it on the clothes-line. I should have put it inside but at that moment, in that rush, I put it there.”
“How did your husband seem?”
“As usual…that’s all I have been thinking about. Whether he said anything, whether he looked like he was in trouble…but he looked as usual…maybe, just a little drunk. His friends were still there.”
“He didn’t say anything which seemed strange...?”
“No…he asked about my mother. He gave me some money when I was leaving…”
“How much did he give you?”
“Five hundred rupees…”
“Will that be enough at the hospital?”
“Oh no…yesterday morning, we took twenty thousand from the bank. I gave the deposit of fifteen thousand to the hospital. I still had most of the five thousand with me.”
“Then…why the five hundred..?”
“I don’t know…he told me, keep this.”
“Do you have it?”
Susheela took a small purse in her handbag.
“Here it is…” It was a new five hundred rupee note.
Shokie took it, “I will give it back to you…”
Susheela nodded.
“He did not record that in his book,” Shokie said, “the morning’s twenty thousand is mentioned.”
“Oh, he would have…” Susheela said, silently crying.
“Are you familiar with his account book?” Shokie asked.
“Uh…huh…”
“What are those entries mentioned as ‘Small Pers Exp’?”
“Oh those…that’s just small personal expenditure with small change in the house. You know, with money we got after selling old paper or pepper or coconut or ottupaal (leftover scraps of rubber). We did not put that in the bank. Just used it for small stuff…maid, provisions, temple, such things…”
Shokie nodded. She told the younger woman she would be in touch.
She found Antony waiting for her in the drawing room. There were also two men standing with Sreedhar.
Shokie asked Antony, “Who are they?”
“Those two are the victim’s friends. They were here yesterday,” Antony replied.
“Ah! They have got here.” Shokie stopped on her way to the men, turned to Antony and asked, “Where’s Shajeeb?”
“Ma’am, he called to say that he’s going home to change. Got caught in the rain, it seems. His place is not too far from here.”
Shokie frowned. “Tell him to wait at his place.” She thought for a while. “Tell him that we are bringing breakfast.”
“Breakfast…” Antony repeated dreamily.
Shokie moved towards the men who had arrived. Sreedhar excused himself and went to be with Susheela. The men introduced themselves. Anand is a tall fair man in his early thirties with a model’s looks. He seemed nervous and preoccupied. He kept looking in the direction of Susheela’s room within. He said that he was a relative and close friend of the victim. The second man, Chandran, is short and stocky, with a powerful upper body and disproportionately thin legs, wears a bad wig, speaks authoritatively.
“How did you get to know?” Shokie asked.
“It’s a small place,” Chandran said, “a colleague in pathology told me at the hospital.”
“Do you work in a hospital?”
“Oh no, I am a dentist, I have my clinic. Didn’t you know…how would you know?”
“Know what?”
“One of our friends, he was here yesterday, is in a critical condition in hospital,” Chandran said.
“Who was this?”
“Shekhar…”
“The one with the flower business…?”
The two men nodded.
“What happened to him?” Shokie asked.
“He met with an accident last night, on his way home from here,” Chandran said.
“Was he driving?”
“Looks like it…bloody fool,” Anand said.
“Didn’t you all leave together?”
“We did. We were at the gate, about to leave. Sudheer suddenly remembered something and asked Shekhar to stay back,” Chandran said.
“You all came in your own cars?”
“Anand and I came together. I have a driver. Thomas came in a hired car with driver. Shekhar drove his car.”
“Do you know what they talked about?”
The two shrugged.
“What time did you all leave?”
“We left around eleven. Some locals took Shekhar to the hospital a little after midnight. Not far from here. That’s what they are saying at the hospital.”
“Where’s the fourth person, Thomas?”
“Colombo…Bangkok…” Anand said.
“He told us he was going straight to the airport, some early morning flight,” Chandran said. “He’s always flying around the world.”
“What does he do?”
“Fly,” Chandran said with a laugh but cut it short when he saw Shokie’s stare.
“He’s in the hotel or travel business,” Anand said, “never been able to figure out what he really does.”
“Have you contacted him?” Shokie asked.
The men shook their head.
Shokie asked them about the previous day. They informed her that they had got together because Thomas was in town. They did not notice any difference in Sudheer’s manner or mood. They played cards, drank a lot and had food from a hotel. They admitted that they had played with “a bit of money, just to make it interesting”. They did not elaborate on the stakes.
“Do you get together often?” Shokie asked.
“Once a month or so,” Anand said.
“When did you meet last month?”
“We did not meet last month,” Chandran said.
“Why was that?”
“Sudheer and Susheela went to Goa.”
“When was that?”
Anand shrugged.
“I remember, I went for a conference in Paris the same time, fifteenth to eighteenth, those were the conference dates,” Chandran said.
“Dentists have conferences?” Shokie queried.
“Well, it was more of a company-sponsored trip,” Chandran said sheepishly, “one of the medical equipment companies.”
Shokie told Antony to get their mobile numbers. As they were leaving, she noticed Anand go within to meet Susheela. Chandran waited in the drawing room.
It was still raining. Shokie checked on the crime-scene lot at Sudheer Panickar’s house. They had reached the location after it had started raining and were still going about with their job.
“Let’s go to Shajeeb’s place,” Shokie told Antony.

xxx

On the way, they stopped at a small hotel. Antony did not look pleased with the selection. They got puttu, kadala curry, boiled eggs and banana fritters. Shajeeb’s is a small one-storeyed house. His wife and kids were not there.
“She’s in the eighth month…my kid’s going to school from the grandparents’ place” Shajeeb explained while preparing coffee.
They waited till the coffee was ready. Shokie asked for the bottle of coffee powder and when she sprinkled powder liberally on the foam in her mug, the other two grimaced. Shokie shrugged. “I like it strong.”
Shokie then asked Antony, “Food gourmet enough for you?”
Shajeeb smirked at Antony’s deadpan expression.
Antony changed the topic and told them about what he found at the hospital, “It was tough catching the nurses, them more interested in changing and leaving for home”. He informed them that the nurses were sure Susheela was with her mother till midnight. Around eleven, the mother’s temperature had shot up and Susheela had called the nurses. They gave medicine for that and later checked around midnight. They were not sure if Susheela was with her mother from midnight till five when the cleaning staff went on their rounds.
“Shajeeb, what did you find?” Shokie asked, standing near the front door, smoking.
“There were a lady’s footprints on the path,” Shajeeb said, “only towards the market, not to the house.”
Shokie told them about Susheela’s trip to the house when it rained.
“There were a man’s footprints too, not on the path though, he walked a little away. Size 10 or bigger...I have taken photos of those. Rain must have washed away all that by now.”
“The lady could have taken the shortcut a second time but walked further from the path,” Antony noted.
“True,” Shajeeb frowned at his junior. “I did not have the time to cover the whole area.”
“Or, she could have worn size 10 shoes,” Antony said, making Shajeeb frown even more.
“What else?” Shokie asked.
“Nothing,” Shajeeb said, clearing the table, not looking at Shokie.
Shokie stared at him but did not probe further. She gave the men a complete summary of her observations in the house and outhouse, including what she had gathered from the brother, wife and two friends of the victim. At the end, she stressed on the importance of the marks on the carpet in the outhouse, presumably that left by a tripod.
She asked Shajeeb once again, her face grim, stare coal-black, “What else did you find, Shajeeb?”
Shajeeb went inside and came back with a plastic bag and a large notebook. He placed the bag on a table. He stood to attention, looking uncomfortable.
“There is a garbage dump on the main road, midway between the plantation and the hospital. I found this there.”
There were lady’s clothes in the bag, with a strong smell of kerosene.  
“The mystery of the lady’s missing clothes solved,” Antony said, “looks like she spilt it on herself.”
“Possible,” Shokie said, “or someone staged it for us to think that way.” Shokie turned to Shajeeb. “And, what made you want to be her knight in shining armour? It better be good.”
Shajeeb looked at his two colleagues, uncertainty writ on his face.
“Over the years, I have had this obsession…” Shajeeb pointed at the book.
Shokie opened the book. It was a common two-hundred-page school notebook. Each page had photos of men and women, just their face. The source of the photos was evident from the facial expression of most.
A bookmark had been placed on one page. Shokie flipped to that. She recognized the three on that page–Susheela; her husband Sudheer, recognizable from the family photos rather than the bloated face in the well; and the friend-cum-relative Anand who had turned up with the dentist. They looked ten years younger.
“When I saw her this morning, she looked very familiar,” Shajeeb said. “It struck me while searching the plantation. I had to come back here and check.”
“And you thought of keeping this from us?” Shokie said.
“Can’t you see what she has gone through?” Shajeeb argued. “She must have been a kid when those bastards…”
“Shajeeb, I should kick your ass out of the force but that might affect this case,” Shokie said slowly, her dark eyes on Shajeeb, “I need to know one thing now. Are you going to continue with your schoolboy sentiments?”
“No, ma’am,” Shajeeb said without hesitation.
“Good, one less body in a well.”
“What’s all this?” Antony asked, he had been flipping through the notebook. “You gone crazy, sir?” he asked Shajeeb.
“I do not know what triggered it,” Shajeeb admitted.
“Thank god there’s no sob story of a sister or girlfriend killing herself because of such stuff,” Shokie muttered.
Shajeeb looked at his colleagues, clearly frustrated with the lack of empathy.
“I started this even before joining the force. Do you know how much of this porn goes around? Especially this local stuff, just search for desi girl or bhabhi or aunty, it is sickening. Most of the girls look drugged, they must be. Nearly all must be forced or tricked into it.”
“I thought I told you to quit schoolboy sentimentality,” Shokie warned.
“Surely, you as a woman…” Shajeeb started to protest but stopped immediately. He could sense his boss retreat into a different state, menacing, almost scary. He did not want to trigger an attack.
“Do you have the video clip?” Shokie asked Shajeeb.
“Of course not,” Shajeeb said, “I delete them after capturing snapshots of perpetrators.”
“What a shame. It would have been useful,” Shokie remarked, then allowing a small smile, “Antony would not have done that.”
Antony concentrated on the banana fritter in his hand.
“Let’s focus on the pertinent matter,” Shokie said. “This kind of explains the room in the outhouse and the marks on the carpet. I think they have continued with this business. It is possible others are involved too, maybe that circle of friends.”
Shajeeb turned pale, as if he was going to puke.
Antony blurted out, “Who would do such things…for what?”
“What’s the purpose of any business? Money…” Shokie leaned back, faced the men. “We don’t have the resources to go after this. We will hand it over to vice. But, after we have tried to crack our case…it could be related to this, it may not be…”
“Can’t we do something about this?” Antony asked.
“The poor lady…” Shajeeb stopped.
“I have never worked in Vice squad,” Shokie said “But, I have heard about these rackets. It is quite likely that even Vice might not have time for this category of smut. They have enough to do preventing the kiddie and violent stuff. As Shajeeb rightly said, there’s plenty of this and every type. There’s a big market for desi stuff which looks natural…and consensual.”
“It can’t be…” Shajeeb muttered.
Shokie ignored him. “These rackets, like most underworld stuff, are highly organized. Multiple levels…top rung, resource allocation and strategy; next level, procurement and distribution; then, the franchise network and the local gangs; finally, many levels of sellers, buyers, enforcers and even corporate social responsibility kind of stuff to keep the public happy, most of that through bribes, to the police, politicians, everyone. Most of the time, we don’t have the resources to go after that. And, you know our system…such stuff rarely sees daylight.”
“They can even shut down our case if we go barking up the wrong tree. So, we stick to our case.”
Shokie paused. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we hit a dead end with this smut angle, even if we tried. If we are lucky, we might find a memory card. Quite unlikely, I think. It is quite possible the actors involved in this, at the outhouse level, have no idea who they are dealing with. That’s the beauty of the Net and the Dark Web. Above all, it would be quite a task getting them to admit to this. They are usually trained well and know the perks and threats. And, who really cares…a day or two in the papers, a bit of shame in public, praise more likely, in fact. This lot won’t be the confessing kind.”
“How will they face their family?” Shajeeb asked.
“People underestimate what loving families can endure,” Antony said.
Shokie nodded with a smile. “And that love can be sacrificed…for a greater good…like money…”
Shajeeb looked at his two colleagues and shook his head, silently disagreeing with their cold opinion of the world.
For his sake, or to taunt him further, Shokie recalled, “I read a book recently. In fact, when I shifted here, on the bus to Kadalil, bestselling thriller and all, a top jihadist…all set to release a deadly virus on their sworn enemy…he gives up his project because the hero threatens to kill his son. I couldn’t stop laughing… they nearly kicked me out of the bus…” 
The two men looked at each other. They could not picture their boss laughing.
“The author even put his message in bold italics: love conquers all. What crap…” Shokie snorted. Antony nearly smiled. Shajeeb’s pained expression got worse.
“Back to our case,” Shokie said. “I think this explains those entries in the accounts book, those items marked ‘Small Pers Exp’ or what Susheela describes as small personal expenditure from small change.”
“They look legit, even my small expenditures which I never keep track of would look like that,” Antony said.
“Antony, look at two sets of dates.” Antony took out the pocketbook from the evidence bag, placed it on the table so that the three could study together. “First, the dates around the temple festival…” She mentioned the dates. “What’s the total expenditure on those dates?”
“Two hundred rupees,” Antony said after adding up the entries.
“Now, their Goa trip…”
This time, Shajeeb did the calculation, “Five thousand rupees.”
“Thirty years back, that might sound ok…” Shokie said.
“Oh boy…” Shajeeb exclaimed.
“The rascal has some kind of multiplier,” Antony said.
“Could be a simple hundred…instead of twenty thousand, write it as two hundred…five thousand instead of five lakh rupees…very modest and pleasing to the eye,” Shokie said.
Shajeeb flipped through the pages, “Fifty…seventy three…two hundred and ten…one hundred and fifteen…a monthly average of hundred or so, I guess…hundred thousand per month.” He whistled. “His other expenditure is half or a third of that…”
“As expected, the black economy is much larger than the white one,” Shokie noted.
“And, it is from this…?” Shajeeb pointed at his notebook.
Shokie nodded.
“Where do they keep this…under the mattress…in lockers?” Antony wondered.
“That, again, we will leave it to others…Fraud, IT, whoever…” Shokie said, rubbing her hands. She looked at her watch.
“Nearly half past nine…Antony, let’s go to the house. I want to check the progress of the crime scene lot. At ten, I want to be at their bank...that’s when they open, right? Shajeeb, go to the station…take all this there,” she pointed at the evidence on the table, “including your notebook.” She thought for a while. “Tell Sreedhar, the brother, to bring Susheela to the station…around eleven…”
“Now…? When she is mourning…?” Shajeeb asked.
“Strike the iron when it is hot,” Antony said.
“Also tell that friend Anand to come to the station…at once…I want him to stew a bit longer,” Shokie said.
“That one, with pleasure,” Shajeeb said.

xxx

Day 1: 10 am.
When Shokie and Antony got to the house, the crime scene lot’s work in the house and the outhouse was still in progress. They had not found anything till then to provide a breakthrough.
At the bank, they went to the manager’s room. The manager was a plump lady of about fifty five who seemed eager to avoid any confrontation with the police before her retirement. She offered tea which they declined politely. Antony took a seat. Shokie remained standing. Shokie took out the five-hundred-rupee note she had got from Susheela, the one which her husband had given to her on the night of the murder. Shokie placed the note, still in its evidence bag, in front of the manager.
“Madam, is there any way for you to confirm if this note is from this branch?” Shokie asked the manager.
“Oh no, I don’t think that’s possible,” the manager said, “unless, we had reason to note the number on the note.”
“There is something marked with a pencil on the note’s face, quite faintly, some numbers,” Shokie pointed out.
“Oh, that could be from anywhere, anytime,” the manager pointed out.
“Could be your cashier too,” Shokie suggested.
“Very unlikely,” the manager said.
“We are hoping for a bit of unlikely luck in this case,” Shokie muttered.
“But which cashier? They change on rotation basis, you know,” the manager said.
Shokie mentioned couple of dates, the dates on which Sudheer Panickar withdrew that month’s and the previous month’s instalments of fifteen thousand to be given to his mother and brother.
 The manager checked the duty roster. “Ah, it is the same cashier on those two dates.” She phoned the cashier on the internal line and ordered, “Come here.”
Antony looked at Shokie, her pensive mood suggesting to him she might start ordering her subordinates around like that.
The cashier was a pretty young lady. The manager did the talking. The cashier started sweating when they were introduced as the police. She looked at the note, shook her head. The manager looked pleased. Shokie stood in a corner and watched the proceedings silently. Antony turned to his superior and got a nod.
Antony asked the young lady, “By shaking your head, did you mean yes or no to marking that note?”
“Yes…yes, sir,” the young lady stuttered. “Sir, are you here because I marked the note?” The young lady was nearly in tears.
“Hmm…” he continued with his bad-cop act, “is it some kind of personal code?”
“Yes, sir…just to keep track, sir...”
“What’s this 2-1-10 on this note?”
“2 for the date, 1 for the bundle, 10 for how much taken from that bundle.”
“Can you tell us to who you gave this note?” Antony asked.
“Sir, if I check that day’s payments…”
Antony nodded impatiently, very lord-like. Shokie’s deadpan expression did not alter a bit. The young lady ran to her table, checked some books and raced back even quicker.
“Sir, I think this was from the second of this month. Sir, I gave ten five hundred rupee notes to the first customer that day. So, this was to the second customer who took fifteen thousand in thirty five hundred notes. That customer’s name is Sudheer Panickar, sir.”
“Hmm…” Antony grunted.
Back in their jeep, Shokie remarked, “You enjoyed bullying that girl, didn’t you?”
Antony did not reply. He maintained his usual serious face.
“Do you know that that young lady is an expert in kalari-payattu (a martial arts form) and local gourmet cooking…?” Shokie said.
“How did you know about that?” Antony burst out.
Shokie did not reply. She presented her usual expressionless face.
At the station, they gathered in Shokie’s room. Shokie told Shajeeb about the spot of luck with the note.
“How did it get back to him?” Shajeeb wondered loudly. “He gave it to his mother or brother, didn’t he?”
“When he told his wife to keep it, he must have meant that she should keep it safe,” Shokie said, “he must have got it yesterday.”
“They were gambling,” Antony said.
“Very good,” Shokie said, “go on.”
 “And their gambling would be under the head ‘Small Pers Exp’,” Shajeeb said. “Who would use anything but black money...now, how did this white money enter that?”
“My thought exactly,” Shokie said. “They have some kind of racket going on. We do not know who controls that porn racket, who distributes their stuff, and more importantly, who gives them money for their efforts. I would love to know how or where each one gets paid. I think all that must be done in some convoluted way to keep their controller or distributor invisible.”
She thought for a while. “We know that Sudheer Panickar gave this five-hundred-rupee note money to his mother or to his brother Sreedhar. How did that note come back to Sudheer? He was meticulous with his accounts, almost anal-retentive. He must have recognized that note, probably the same way we did, through that cashier’s mark. If it came back with black money, he must have figured out who their controller is, he must have suspected someone.”
Shokie continued, “The brother seems to be in a bad way financially. He works for Shekhar, the accident victim, in the decorative flower business. Did that money reach Shekhar through the brother, say, through some transaction in the office, and did Shekhar mix that note with his black stuff inadvertently? Or did the note get mixed up with the black money before distribution which would mean the younger brother has a hand in it?”
Shokie paused. “Sreedhar and his mother brought payasam for Sudheer. Sudheer had a little when they were there. His brother kept the rest in the fridge. From the number of bowls and spoons in the draining area, I gather that Sudheer finished it off later that night, probably shared it with Shekhar when the two had a chat after the others had left. Sreedhar says it was about some business gone wrong. It could have been about the note. Sudheer also talked to his brother that evening. Was that a confrontation about the note or did he voice his suspicions? Anyway, I think someone laced the payasam with some kind of sedative sometime that evening. It must be some late-acting sedative. Sudheer washed and cleaned all the stuff in the kitchen. Shekhar was driving when he succumbed to the drug. All of them had opportunity, the wife too.”
“Ma’am, do you know who the killer is?” Antony asked.
“The facts point at one person…the three of us have figured out who that is…” She allowed a small smile. “We have our prejudices and preferences too. At this point, it is best to allow all. Unless the crime scene guys or the forensic lot uncover something, we have no hard evidence so far.”  
“It would be a great twist if the killer was that Shekhar, the guy lying in hospital,” Antony said, “though the accident must have not been in his plans.”
“Even better if the dead one is the actual killer,” Shajeeb continued in the same vein, “you know, for some reason, drugged Shekhar and made sure he would crash his car; and then, staged his own suicide. How about guilty conscience brought on by abusing his wife all these years?”
“How about the mother, she could have been fed up with what they were up to?” Antony suggested.
“I would place my bet on the dentist,” Shokie said. “They have all the drugs. And, I hate doctors.”
They all laughed.
“Gentlemen, let’s do proper work instead of writing fiction,” Shokie said, getting up from her seat.
“Is Anand here?” Shokie asked Shajeeb.
“Yes, ma’am, he is standing outside my room,” Shajeeb replied. “Susheela and Sreedhar have also turned up…early.”
“Let Anand wait. I want you to interview her first,” Shokie told Shajeeb. She ignored Antony’s frown. “Ask her about the photos in your notebook. Why don’t you clear your doubt? Whether she was forced into it? Then, try to make her talk about the new racket. After that, tackle Anand. Ask him about the m√©nage a trois, whether he put it on the Net. Maybe, he did that when she chose Sudheer as her life-partner, maybe he still nurses a grudge. Ask him about the new racket.”
“Yes ma’am.”
“And, Shajeeb, don’t tickle him too much.”
“No ma’am.”
Shokie turned to Antony. “Make sure he doesn’t go overboard.”
“What about the brother?” Antony asked.
“Let him wait outside,” Shokie said.

xxx

In the interview room, Shajeeb sat opposite Susheela. Shokie stood leaning against the wall, facing Susheela.
Shajeeb opened the notebook with photos, at the page with the photos of Susheela, Sudheer and Anand. He placed it in front of Susheela. She frowned.
“I guess you know from where we got this,” Shajeeb said.
Susheela nodded like a schoolgirl admitting to a teacher about a prank.
“What made you do it?” Shajeeb asked.
“Did I do something wrong?” Susheela asked, without a change in expression.
Shajeeb sat back, clearly flabbergasted.
He tried to make her talk about that. She did not offer anything other than admitting that it was a consensual act and that it should not have been put on the Net. She did not reveal who had done that. Shajeeb then asked about their new venture. She refused to talk about that, not even confirming if their suspicions were true. After half an hour of unproductive grilling, Shajeeb left the room.
Shokie stayed back. Susheela looked at Shokie, like a woman seeking empathy from another woman. Shokie moved towards the table, looked down at the young lady.
“Do you want us to catch the killer of your husband?” Shokie asked.
“Yes,” Susheela said, without hesitation, with anger evident in her eyes, “of course.”
Shokie stood silently, staring, as if measuring the young lady’s trustworthiness or looking deep within.
“Madam,” Susheela said, “even if I have shared my body with others, as he suggested, I did not share my mind with anyone other than with Sudheer.”
“As far as I am concerned, it isn’t a crime even if you had done that,” Shokie said.
This time, it was Susheela’s turn to sit back surprised.
“I am going to ask you to act like that once more,” Shokie said.
“I don’t think I can,” Susheela said.
“That’s up to you…whether you want your husband’s murderer caught or not.”
The two ladies stared at each other. Shokie then detailed her plan. The other listened carefully.  
“Is he the one?” Susheela asked.
Shokie nodded. “Don’t do anything stupid. Can you trust me to deal with the killer?”
The younger lady looked into the dark eyes of the older woman. “You have seen worse than this, haven’t you?”
Shokie nodded again.
After that, they stepped outside. Susheela stood near Sreedhar and they waited for Anand.
Shokie went to the other interview room. Shajeeb and Antony had managed to make Anand admit that he had put the first clip on the Net. He had also admitted that it was a result of unrequited love. He also said that they had patched up after the couple got married. He too refused to provide any information about the goings on in the outhouse.
He was interviewed for more than two hours. Anand came out of the interview room looking shaken and stirred. There were no visible injuries but he left clutching his sides and he walked awkwardly with a limp, as if his groin and legs were hurting.
Susheela who had been standing outside with Sreedhar rushed to Anand.
“What did they do you?” she asked Anand. He shook his head. She turned to Shokie and said angrily, “You told me you wouldn’t hurt him. That was the deal. What have you done to him?”
Shokie shrugged. “He mistook a wall for a door…poor fellow.”
Susheela held Anand’s hand. She broke down into tears, unsteady on her feet, as if all the agony she had endured that day had broken through every barricade.
“Come on, Susheela, now…” Anand tried to console her, lost for words. “Let’s go to your mother. How is she?”
Susheela held his hand as they walked out of the station. Sreedhar followed them.
“Wow, she recovered fast,” Antony said. “Have you let her off the hook?”
“Why do you not like her?” Shokie asked.
“I don’t know,” Antony replied, “I think she’s guilty.”
“You are too young to hold a grudge against her. Maybe, you are not old enough to appreciate the type.”
“In my book, she’s the root cause.”
“Thank God your book does not matter one bit.”
Meanwhile, Shajeeb stared at the departing trio, his scowl growing nastier by the second. Shokie stood leaning against a pillar, biting her lower lip, worry and doubt in her eyes. The men turned towards her.
“How are you two in following people?” she asked the men. The men shrugged. “I want you to watch Anand and Susheela…looking at what’s happened just now, I wouldn’t be surprised if you find him with Susheela most of the time.”
The men nodded.
“And, Shajeeb, don’t interfere unless someone is in danger,” Shokie said.
Shajeeb nodded, rather unconvincingly.
“What about that brother Sreedhar?” Antony asked.
“Let him be.”

xxx

On that first day, the crime scene investigation, forensics and fingerprints, yielded little to take the case forward. Shokie tried to fast-track the identification of the drug, and also a search of cars, mobiles and computers of the main suspects in the case. She knew that resources were stretched and that she would have to wait.
That evening, Susheela’s mother was discharged from the hospital. Susheela and Anand were at the hospital the whole day. Sreedhar came in his car and took the women to his mother’s house. They spent the night there. Anand went back to his house. His house too was close to the market. Shajeeb and Antony managed the stakeout. They had little to report to Shokie. They hardly saw Shokie the rest of that day.

xxx

Day 2: morning
The next day, Shokie informed Susheela that the police were through with the house. She told her that the local police would keep working on the case. She also mentioned that she had to go on leave for a day or two, for personal reasons. Sreedhar expressed his anguish and displeasure. He wanted the case to be handed over to the Crime Branch or the CBI. Shokie told the young man that she would help him get the case transferred after her leave. Shokie’s disinterest and loss of confidence surprised Shajeeb and Antony. They did not dare to protest.
They asked her later, when they were on their own, “What should we do when you are on leave?”
“Oh,” Shokie shrugged, “continue with the stakeout, I guess.” She looked defeated.
As per instructions, the policemen’s stakeout continued. That morning, the day after the murder, Anand visited Susheela and her mother. He stayed till lunch.
Susheela decided to return to her house that evening. The others tried to dissuade her but she told them that she just had to be at her husband’s place.

xxx

Day 2: 4 pm
Around tea-time, Sreedhar drove Susheela to her house. Krishnan, the neighbour in house number 2, and a few others in the area came to express their condolences and they offered to help in any way possible. She thanked them all and told them that she needed “some time alone with her husband…he is still here”. They looked at her oddly but nodded sagely and left her alone. Antony, despite his tall frame, managed to remain hidden from view and observe the one he called ‘black widow’.
Meanwhile, Shajeeb followed Anand. The latter left his house after dinner, around eight pm. He took the short cut through the rubber plantation to Panickar Villa. At the house, Anand knocked at the back door. Susheela opened the door. They hugged each other fondly. Shajeeb, watching that from a fair distance, nearly growled with anger. The couple closed the door and went within.
Shajeeb found Antony hiding behind rubber sheets in the old cowshed. The two policemen could make out that the couple had moved to the bedroom right next to the dining room rather than to the master bedroom in front. Shajeeb moved in closer to the side of the house, near the window of the adjoining bedroom. The couple switched off the lights within. Shajeeb could still make out the two on the bed. Antony shifted from the barn and took position near the back door. According to the policemen’s plan, Shajeeb was supposed to indicate if there was any sign of trouble within, and Antony was supposed to break open the back door and charge inside, hopefully in time.
Shajeeb watched the amorous lovemaking with gritted teeth. Antony waited patiently for a signal from Shajeeb. He could barely make out his senior in the dark.
Minutes and hours crept by, the couple within slipped into slumber. Shajeeb leaned against the wall near the window. Antony too sat on a step near the backdoor, the step over which, about forty eight hours back, a killer had dragged a man to a gruesome death.
The policemen were not in a position to notice a silhouette cross the front courtyard, around 1 am. The intruder opened the front door, entered the house, checked the master bedroom first and then moved towards the dining room. The front door was left open for a quick exit. That one stood and listened to the sound of sleeping couple for a few moments before proceeding to the storeroom in the kitchen, moving silently and surely in the dark. The intruder returned with the can of kerosene, stood outside the bedroom where the couple slept, the form melting into the darkness, motionless for a long while as if in meditation, choosing the moment for the flurry of activity that followed. 
It took barely a few seconds. Shajeeb would have missed it if he had not kept his angry eyes glued on the sleeping couple.
The intruder opened the can, entered the bedroom, poured the liquid over the couple, lit a soaked rag with a lighter and threw it at the bed and the couple.
Shajeeb could raise an alarm only then. By the time Antony stood up and charged at the backdoor, the person within would have reached the front door, probably even the gate, and escaped into the dark without leaving a trace, if everything had gone according to the intruder’s plan.
Something held the intruder back, probably the fact that the rag and the place did not catch fire, or the fact that the sprayed liquid did not smell of kerosene. Or, the left fist that crashed into the intruder’s side, bruising if not breaking a few ribs, before a truncheon on the back of the head felled the intruder.
The lights came on when Antony reached the dining room, with Shajeeb close behind. The drenched couple got up from the bed. Susheela covered herself with a housecoat. Anand looked stunned and scared, and tried to cover himself with a bed-sheet.
Shokie stood next to the unconscious figure of Sreedhar.
“What are you doing here?” Shajeeb asked.
“You didn’t actually expect me to go on leave, did you?” she replied.
“Where were you?”
“In the bedroom with the phone…”
“Since when…?”
“Since I went on leave…this morning…”
“Did you arrange all this? Did you replace the kerosene with water?”
“Hmm…Susheela did not want to use the master bedroom. And, this bedroom seemed like a good idea…to keep you two guarding the back of the house. I wanted him to take the front route.”
“Did he know about us following those two?” Antony asked, pointing at Sreedhar.
“You two weren’t exactly totally undercover,” Shokie said.

xxx

Day 3:
It was a long night.
Susheela thanked Shokie and the two policemen. She looked eager to hug Shokie but the older woman kept her distance. Anand remained dazed, especially when Susheela told him that she did not need his company anymore. Her mother and her husband’s mother took her home from the station. Sudheer’s mother did not want to see her younger son.
Around dawn, the two policemen sat with their boss in her office.
“How do we pin the murder on him?” Shajeeb asked.
“Something will come up on that,” Shokie said. “I want him off the street, in custody. He can at least be put behind bars for this attempted murder. Whatever we have might seem circumstantial at the moment but we will discover loose ends, I am sure.”
“Can’t Sreedhar say that he attacked the couple because of their illicit relationship just a day after his brother was killed, you know, some kind of honour killing?” Shajeeb asked.
“Possible,” Shokie agreed. “But this will unsettle people in his setup the same way it unsettled him and made him reckless when he saw Susheela and Anand becoming a team. We will leak something to the press too. It should take him out of that action.”
“Why did he?” Antony asked. “No one was spilling any beans.”
“We can sit and analyse the criminal mind for days without reaching anywhere.” Shokie leaned back in her chair, looking tired. “What did Sreedhar get out of all this? He lives an ascetic’s life. He does not seem to need money. Did he do it for a secret power over others? Did he have some perverted desire for his sister-in-law? Sreedhar’s setup must be as meticulous as Sudheer’s accounts, calculating and logical minds a result of their father’s mathematical training, I gather.”   
Shokie continued, “Something as simple as that note managed to upset the cart. I think Sreedhar made the mistake of including that note in one of the bundles for this group of actors. Who knows, I doubt he will enlighten us. I wouldn’t be surprised if he replaced a torn or soiled note in his black money pile. Anyway, he never expected that to reach the equally attentive eyes of his brother, what were the odds on that happening. That bad luck then snowballed. He knew that his brother would figure out his racket. Sudheer must have been fine sharing his wife with others but he would have had qualms about including his younger brother in that business. He would not have appreciated being a puppet in his younger brother’s drama, or having a younger brother as his pimp.”
“Anyway, with all that we knew, he was our prime suspect. I wanted him to react before he had too much time to influence others. I had to unsettle him, that too quickly. So, I asked for Susheela’s help.”
“Did you tell her that Sreedhar was your prime suspect?” Shajeeb asked.
“No, I told her the minimum required. I asked her to be close to Anand. In fact, I told her to be careful with Anand,” Shokie replied.
“You told her to sleep with Anand?” Shajeeb asked, not masking his displeasure.
“Of course not,” Shokie said, “definitely not on-the-record.”
“What if she had killed Anand, revenge and all that?” Antony wondered.
“Well, you two were supposed to prevent that, right?” Shokie said. She allowed a small smile.
“You trusted her more than us,” Antony protested.
“She is a better actor.”
“You used us,” Shajeeb grumbled.
“Do you want me to say sorry?” Shokie asked. “All I can say is not to be fooled next time, though men being fools can be useful.”  
Shokie got up, stretched and yawned. “I need breakfast. Antony, I think you should treat us to a proper gourmet breakfast.”
“Yes ma’am,” Antony mumbled.
“So, what’s it going to be?” Shajeeb asked with a broad smile.
“Steamed rice and coconut sandwich cake, black chickpeas in fiery coconut gravy, batter-fried ripe plantain, oeuf dur avec sel et poivre and a fresh decoction of coffee,” Antony replied.
They went to the old shop to have puttu, kadala curry, banana fritters and, boiled eggs with salt and pepper; and, instant coffee.