Thursday, September 28, 2017

Tick Tock Tick Tock


This was an entry for the Write India 2 contest (on the Times of India website). This story was written and submitted in September 2017.

I am quite sure this story did not go past the initial selection process. It is always good for the ego to blame the editorial team. Not that it would have succeeded if it had reached the 'Celebrity author of the month', Jeffrey Archer.

It has something I want/have to say. This might be its proper resting place.

Number of words: 2950


The college Principal had waited for six hours, before the interview, in the front corridor of the police station. In the interview room, he was not the sprightly middle-aged man he had been that morning. The lady officer placed a glass of water in front of him. He thanked her, thanked the male officer too, and finished off the water in two gulps. He sat stooped over the table with his elbows on his knees. He was not sure of their ranks. His eyes darted from one to the other.
She said little, her dark eyes never left him. She sat slightly away from the table, to the side, disconcertingly close to the edge of his field of vision. The male officer, with a handlebar moustache, asked, growled rather, the questions. He scribbled in a notebook, the pen jabbed fiercely at the paper. His free hand remained clenched in a tight fist, as if he could not wait to throw a left punch.
“Madam…sir…believe me,” the Principal croaked.
He knew that that would be the last thing the police officers would do. He stooped a little further, his chin barely an inch or two above the table. He began his statement.
“I wish I’d been there earlier. It might have made all the difference. So all I can tell you is why he was murdered.”


An hour later, in her office, Sub-Inspector Shajeeb asked, “What’s going on, ma’am?”
Circle Inspector Shokie did not respond. She placed the Principal’s statement on a pile of seven other interview reports. She leaned back and stared at it. A small smile came on her lips but that went nowhere near those dark eyes.
“Interesting,” she said.
“Bewildering,” he said.
“The murderer stands out,” she said.
“Bullshit,” he blurted out.
Even though she was the finest investigator he knew, in this case and with those reports, it was his studied opinion that she could not have a clue about what had happened.
Those eight interview reports had one thing in common. The statements began with the same three lines, same in content if not in words.


“Humour me, let’s recap,” Shokie said. “Start at the beginning.”
Shajeeb flipped through the pages of his notebook.
“Yesterday morning, Tuesday, around eleven, the Principal informed us that a lecturer, Aneesh A.M., male, age 38, was missing since Monday. He gave the following details.”
Shajeeb licked his finger and turned the page. He did not see his boss frown at that.
He continued, “From Monday to Friday, Aneesh lives in a studio apartment here in the city. Every Friday, he leaves for Kadalil, a town an hour from here by express train, to be with his family and returns on Monday. He has rented a larger house there. This Monday, he did not turn up for work. The Principal called Aneesh’s mobile but it was switched off. On Tuesday, he tried the other contact number in the college records. That turned out to be the landline phone of the landlord of the rented house in Kadalil. The landlord agreed to check up on Aneesh and used his key to enter Aneesh’s residence. He found a pool of blood in the drawing room. The furniture was in a state of disarray. There was no sign of Aneesh. The landlord informed the Principal and the latter reported to us. The local police was glad to hand over the case to us even though they could have argued that it was under their jurisdiction.” 
“Who likes to touch a case with a communal or political touch to it? Some creep will crawl over us soon,” Shokie said. “What do we know about Aneesh’s last actions before he went missing?”
“On Friday, Aneesh left college earlier than usual. Class got over before half past ten. A group from the Students Union had disrupted class for some protest march. From the CCTV at the railway station, we also know that he boarded the noon express.”
“That’s all we know for certain,” Shokie said.
“Well, ma’am, we know that he joined this college as lecturer six months back. The first month, he lived on campus in a faculty residence. He was made the Warden of the men’s hostel. That was only for a month. He then rented the studio apartment and shifted out of campus, giving up the duties of the Warden too. By the way, he rented the Kadalil house before taking up the post of lecturer, and gave that his permanent address to the college. All prior communication was to a residence out of state. We are following up on that.”
“Apart from the pool of blood and upturned furniture, did we find anything else in that house?”
“No, ma’am, the place was bare, no personal effects at all. The studio apartment here at least yielded the diary.”
“A diary he did not take with him last weekend,” Shokie noted. She took out a diary from an evidence bag and opened at a bookmarked page. “A diary with this last and only entry on Friday: They are after me...tick tock tick tock...the end is near.”


“The earlier entries in that diary agree with these statements,” Shajeeb said.
“These statements…!” Shokie brought her hand down on the pile as if she was slapping an irritating suspect. She scowled at it. “Even though it’s hearsay, let’s order this chronologically.” She paused. “Start with the Principal.”
This time, Shajeeb did not check the reports or his notes. He could recite all of it if she wanted.
“According to the Principal, trouble started when Aneesh was the Warden and lived on campus. In the first week itself, Aneesh got embroiled in a fight between two groups of students. Late one night, he heard terrific commotion, left his quarters and went to the men’s hostel to investigate. He reported to the Principal next day that two groups of students had been fighting with iron rods, cycle chains and cricket bats. He identified some students. The Principal warned the students and also told Aneesh not to get involved in the fights between left-wing and right-wing students. A fortnight later, Aneesh witnessed another incident. He saw three students sexually assault a female student. Aneesh once again identified the miscreants. It turned out to be the leaders of the three student groups, the left-wing, the right-wing and the center-right-or-left.”
“How comforting when they come together for such acts,” Shokie muttered.
“Aneesh wanted to report it to the police. But, the girl refused to come forward. The matter was hushed up. The students of course did not leave it at that. They threatened to finish off Aneesh.”
“He mentions all this in his diary…no discrepancy,” Shokie said.
“I wish he had also written down what he did on Friday,” Shajeeb said. “According to the Principal, Aneesh had been to the Principal’s office on Friday, before class. But the Principal had been caught up elsewhere. He seems sure Aneesh had come to see him about some problem with one or all of those students.”
“The Principal’s statement tallies with what we found yesterday,” Shokie said.
“Yes, ma’am, we searched the college campus and hostels yesterday. We found a huge cache of weapons, mostly the type used by students plus a few country-made guns, and some explosives, low-grade stuff used in stone quarries. We have arrested the three leaders. Not just for that.” Shajeeb paused. “In the hostel rooms of those three, we also found clothes with blood on them. The blood type matches the blood found in Aneesh’s house.” 


“Next, the statements of the student leaders,” Shokie said.
“Those rascals are trying to put the blame on the other. The right-wing guy says that Aneesh had confronted the left-wing guys when they disrupted class. He says that he was unwell on Friday, wasn’t in college and that he could have protected Aneesh otherwise.”
“What a saint!”
“According to the left-wing guy, Aneesh was going to confront the right-wing guy with some evidence of their shady activities. He says that his ‘boys’…“ Shajeeb said with air-quotes, “saw Aneesh search for the right-wing leader. He himself was in some ‘high-level meeting’ on Friday. If he had been around, he would have arranged protection for the lecturer.”
“My heart bleeds for these martyrs. And, the weapons just appeared in their rooms without their knowledge.”
“Exactly, ma’am...but, when we confronted them with the clothes with blood stains, they were totally speechless.”
“What did they have to say about the evidence mentioned in Aneesh’s diary?”
“At first, when we mentioned about the physical assault, they sat with baby-like innocence but when we mentioned the video-clip, they changed track immediately. Then, it became consensual sex…that the girl did not protest…her no was too soft and sounded like a yes.”
“Ma’am, I have left them thinking that we have the video-clip.”
“If only Aneesh had left that with his diary…” Shokie said.
“That guy had guts to record the physical assault,” Shajeeb said.
“If he recorded it…” Shokie said. “By the way, where did you find the center-left-or-right guy?”
“The idiot was hiding in his parents’ house. He has admitted to everything…weapons, sexual assault…he explained everything except the blood-stained clothes. His version is that Aneesh wanted to talk to him about another matter. He was supposed to meet the lecturer on Friday morning but he got up late. He says that everyone knew about the Principal’s embezzlement of college funds. Aneesh was going to do something about that.”
“Did you go through the Principal’s bank records?”
“His bank accounts didn’t reveal anything…but, he has got at least one huge mansion in a prime location in this city…and, recently, the extravagance lavished on his daughter’s wedding caught the attention of our income-tax friends.”
“Did you search his office and house?” Shokie asked.
“Yes, ma’am, we did that while he waited here this morning. In an outhouse of his mansion, we found a knife with blood on it…the same type of blood.”
“He couldn’t explain that, of course.”
“No, ma’am…but he has admitted to the embezzlement. That should keep him behind bars.”
“If his case ever comes to court…”
“Ma’am, do you think these four will get out?”
“I know they will get out. Isn’t that how our system works? Such people always go scot-free. All we can do is to make them stew in hell for a while.”
“How do we explain the blood-stained stuff with these four?”
“How I wish it was just four,” Shokie grumbled with displeasure.
“Eight more…” her colleague growled.


“What was the problem at his city residence?” Shokie asked.
“This Aneesh seems to have a nose for problems,” Shajeeb said. “His studio apartment is actually the first floor of a standalone house, the landlord lives downstairs. The landlord claims that Aneesh wanted to meet him Friday afternoon before leaving for Kadalil but that never happened because the lecturer left early. He says that Aneesh had been having problems with a neighbour over a garbage issue. The neighbour’s version is that it is them Aneesh wanted to meet and that Aneesh had a food problem with his landlord.”
“Whoa…hold on…garbage issue…food problem…?”
“Well, ma’am, the basic issue is that the neighbour and family don’t get along with this landlord and family. And, Aneesh did not turn out to be what the landlord assumed him to be.” 
“Can’t you put it simpler?”
“I will have to bring religion into it.”
“Ah, now I understand…”
Shajeeb continued, “The landlord’s problem with Aneesh was with the food he consumed. It seems they had agreed on the restrictions when Aneesh rented the place. The landlord used to go through the garbage to prove that Aneesh had violated the terms and conditions. Aneesh used to argue that the neighbours were putting their garbage along with his. A silly matter but it is the stuff of communal riots. They had flaming rows. Aneesh’s garbage bin is kept outside, to the side of the house, and accessible to the landlord and the neighbours. We had a messy spot of luck. The garbage collector did not turn up the last few days and we had lots to go through. We found bloody rags in the bin. Once again, the blood matches the type found in Kadalil. The landlord and the neighbour accuse each other of murder.”
“How are they behaving in our quarters?”
“They are complaining about police grub.”
The two smiled.


“Tell me about the curious incident of the kid,” Shokie said.
“We found a family who were with Aneesh on that Friday train, a young family with a three-year-old boy,” Shajeeb said. “The parents say Aneesh was a very nice fellow. They were returning home after a short vacation here. They were tired. After half an hour or so, the parents got onto the upper berths to nap leaving their kid with Aneesh. The mother says she kept half an eye and half an ear on Aneesh and her kid. It was a muggy day. Aneesh used a deodorant. The kid wanted to try it on. Aneesh obliged. The mother remembers hearing him ask the kid, how do you like the whiff of perfume?”
“Why did he use the word whiff with a three-year-old kid?” Shokie wondered.
“Now, this kid, like my own daughter, is a bit hyperactive. His speech too is a bit peculiar: his v’s and w’s sound like b.”
“Bengalis have that problem.”
“Anyway, this kid went around the compartment saying, “he gabe me biff, he gabe me biff”.”
“Oh boy…”
“The parents think they should have paid more attention to the issue then. They wonder if it would have helped if they had got off the upper berths and been with Aneesh sooner, or if they had told the other passengers that their kid meant whiff and not beef. Anyway, at Kadalil, they did get down from the upper berth to take care of their kid. They waved goodbye to Aneesh. The parents saw three men follow the lecturer. Kadalil police followed up on that lead. They got clear CCTV visuals. Those three are well-known to police, belong to a fringe outfit, repeat offenders for causing grievous bodily harm to others, and they were picked up. A bloody machete was found in their car. And the blood matches.”


“Now, to statement number eight,” Shokie said.
“The landlord of the Kadalil residence told us that a group of men visited Aneesh two weekends back, made a racket with threats and curses,” Shajeeb said. “They visited him too last Wednesday. They asked about Aneesh’s wife and whether he knew that it was a marriage involving conversion of religion. He says that he should have been there earlier that Friday, and informed Aneesh.”
“Has Aneesh’s family been located?”
“The Kadalil police are helping us locate his family. No luck so far. When he took that house, he told the landlord that his wife was expecting and that they would join him after delivery.”
“How did these people know about his marriage?” Shokie asked.
“That’s the strange part,” Shajeeb said, “no one has met or even seen Aneesh’s family but everyone in the area seems to know that his marriage is an inter-religious affair with conversion. The Kadalil police found these men. They too are well-known trouble-makers. They used the conversion issue only to make Aneesh vacate the residence.”
“Why did they want him to vacate?”
“Someone else wants to live there, and buy the place.”
“Ah, just the usual real-estate game....” 
“I guess blood was found on them too.”
“Not on them…but we found an iron rod with blood on it, and the fingerprints of one of that lot.”
“What did the gentlemen have to say about it?”
“They admitted that they had carried an iron rod when they met Aneesh two weeks back. They say they left it there then. They also say that they had not gone near him since then.”
Shokie closed her eyes and thought for a while. Shajeeb went through his notes again, searching for some clue to unravel the mystery.
“What’s his full name?” his boss asked.
“No one knows what the A.M. stands for.”
“No proof of identity, not even in college records?”
“There was some lapse.”
“But, according to what they say,” Shajeeb pointed at the reports, “the A.M. was different in different places…Abdul Majeeb for some, Antony Moreira or Anantha Murthy for others.”
“I am beginning to love this guy.”


“So, eight statements and a dozen people in custody, for murder or something else,” Shokie said.
“I have never come across a case like this,” Shajeeb said, “with so many to convict.”
“Too many, in fact…”
“Did all of them converge at the Kadalil residence and get involved in Aneesh’s death?” Shajeeb wondered. “How else will his blood be on all of them?”
“That would be a terrific coincidence. It’s his blood, isn’t it?”
“Oh yes, we have proof. He participated in a blood-donation camp recently.”
“How convenient…”
“Ma’am, what are we going to do with all of them?”
“Try them for murder and the other crimes they are guilty of. They will sweat for a while.”
“You said that one murderer stood out,” Shajeeb reminded his boss.
“Haven’t you figured it out?” Shokie said with a small smile.
“No, ma’am…”
“It’s Aneesh.”
“What…?” Shajeeb exclaimed.
“He has finished off Aneesh,” Shokie said.
“He set up the whole thing?” Shajeeb asked.
She said, “Someday when you are free, contact the police in the other states and ask them if they have encountered such a case: man missing or presumed dead and a dozen accused of murder or other crimes.”

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