A sting in between my index and middle finger – The pain shot up from my arm and woke me up from sleep as the darkness was crumpled up like a black piece of paper in front of my eyes. Blinding white light behind it flooded my senses. It was my cigarette scorched to a brashly contoured cylinder of ash that had singed them. Something about my trip to Simla played in my head for a second and was gone. Seven hundred and thirty two days – that’s how long it takes for cheap decals stuck to glass doors to start peeling off, for tube lights switched on for thirteen hours a day to start fizzling out, for coffee machines to start manufacturing black colored poisonous gook without their filters being replaced, for me to notice these things, and for me to realize that this was not the candy flossed paradise of murders and dark deception I had imagined my life to be. I was tired of chasing randy old men into seedy little hotels with German umlauts and French accents added into their sordid names in a dismal attempt at providing them with a hint of class. Missing pets, credit card defaulters and phone bill defaulters were the remaining beneficiaries of my dire retribution. Either detectives for hire who solved real crime were a dying breed, or I was the anus of an otherwise smoothly functioning body of crime busters for hire, receiving nothing but shit as the remuneration for my existence. I had plastered the smell of tobacco into the decadent walls of my office, stocked an unhealthy number of rubber gloves, had purchased an exorbitantly priced surveillance kit replete with bugs, magnifying glasses and high powered binoculars and even worn suspenders in the dismal heat of this city the first few weeks – Where was my Roxanne with the red light, where the fuck was my Maltese falcon?
It was eight in the evening as I got ready to leave. Another redundant day was behind me, another packfull of cigarettes had been exhausted off their nicotine laced leaves. I was about to leave when the phone rang. A sound that titillated me now bored me to death. What the fuck was it now?
“Hello” a lady’s voice.
“Detective Sharman speaking. How may I be of assistance to you?” my voice sounded a little worse than a growl. Frustration has its way of creeping its way into and making itself feel right at home in your larynx.
She had barely uttered the words “My husband” when I slammed the phone down (Also makes its presence felt somewhere in your clavicle). I picked up my jacket and headed towards the door again when the phone rang one more time. I didn’t know why I traced my steps back to the phone that evening. The anger had probably dazed my brain, I have little recollection of my reason to have gone back. But go back I did. And I did pick up the phone. And this time the anger was worse, it sought a far stronger vitriolic release, at the end of what I had presumed the lady’s cringe worthy request to be. Except the opportunity never came. Her request was… well let me just get on with it.
“Detective Sharman speaking. How may I be of assistance to you?”
“Sir, I think the line got disconnected.”
Silence. Like fuck I was going to speculate with her the probable cause of the mysteriously disconnecting phoneline.
“Anyways, I called because I saw your number on the classifieds. You see, my husband, well sir, you see he is dead.”
Silence still. This was getting interesting, but there had been several precedents of premature enthusiasm being aborted quite ruthlessly over phone calls in the past. I would need to know more.
“Are you still there sir?”
“Well… you see sir…. I… I… I … I killed him.”
This right here, the chill that ran through my body, the precursor to the cold sweat that was about to break, my mind chugging like a high powered locomotive eating up possibilities like empty space miles while simultaneously drifting into absurdities like envisioning true crime novels with my name on it, and all of this happening in the split second before I said my next few words… This is the moment I had been desperately awaiting all these years.
“I don’t understand. Why did you call me?”
“I didn’t know who else to call.”
A travel agent to transport you as far away as possible from the scene of the crime, a hair and make up artist to doll you up before the cops drag you away as your face is flashed across a hundred million news channels, your lawyer, your best friend, even the police would have been better alternatives than….
“Me?? Why would you call me? I hardly qualify as the saviour of murderers” or had my reputation fallen to such abysmal levels off late.
“I don’t know if you remember me sir. We had met last year at a friend’s wedding. My name is Gayatri, Gayatri Dang. You had given me your phone number. I had been wearing a …..”
Teal sari, coupled with a brown blouse, brocades of gold stitched into it, a string of gold dangled around her neck and a diamond set at the heart of a mermaid pendant dangled from it, she wore earrings that were shaped like gigantic hoops and had tied her hair back to reveal her lovely, lovely neck. Oh I knew who she was. I had stalked her for nearly a week after realizing that she was never going to call me back, just because I had very little else to do in those days.
“….a green sari.”
“Gayatri… Gayatri… I have some vague recollection.”
“Well, I killed him accidentally sir. And I was so panic stricken I didn’t know who else to call. And since you are a private investigator” She began to sob now. For some reason I still imagined her sobbing in that teal sari she had worn that night.
“Where are you calling me from?”
“From Srini. It is in the outskirts of the city. You drive…”
“I know where that is. I meant which phone are you using? Your cell phone, the phone inside your house, from a phone somewhere in the vicinity?”
“From my cell phone.”
Stupid, stupid girl. Why would she do that? She had the composure to fish out my number from so many years ago but not the common sense to use a line that would be more difficult to trace.
“Give me your address.”
Fifteen minutes later I was in my Maruti Omni, hurtling down the highway, wondering quite what it was that I hoped to achieve, what was my grand plan of insulating her from whatever fate awaited her. It was easier to decipher the reason though. I remember vividly, the description of ‘The Thunderbolt’ in a Mario Puzo novel, the insatiable longing a man feels for a woman, the moment he sees her for the first time. It had happened to me when I had seen Gayatri that night at the wedding. It was an unhealthy obsession, and when I had spoken to her, I had bigged myself up to be a super sleuth to somehow pry my way into her affections. And I thought I had done a great job, I was no mean looker… I mean I could see why I was no prized catch, but I was hardly your two bit Jim with an eye missing and a lopsided grin, if you get my drift. I had fallen for her bad, and when the subsequent phone call that I so badly desired never came, I had used the wealth of time I had at my disposal to trace her every move, to gaze at her from a distance. Judge me all you like, but when you spend most of your time watching other people’s husbands and wives, to spot the glitch in their nine yards worth of armour, you tend to become desensitized to the whole idea of stalking people.
As the speedometer consumed the miles of unending road ahead and regurgitated them to me in the form of numbers I began to reminisce on that conversation I had had with her. I was never one to actually walk up to women and speak to them, irrespective of how profoundly their mere presence had affected me. She had initiated our conversation that evening, to thank me for the kindness I had bestowed upon her grandmother. Her grandmother had been one of my first clients, as is often the case with any new entrepreneurial venture – the first clients are always friends or family or friends of the family. Her mother had been a good friend of my mother who had been her private nurse for nearly two decades as she had lived in absolute solitude at her palatial house. Her husband had been an affluent trader in spices and after his death had left her the wealth of his belongings. Gayatri had gone abroad to study soon after her father’s death. It had seemed at that time, the most natural thing to do is what she had told me. She couldn’t bear to be in the same house anymore. I had felt the same way for quite some time. And both my parents were still very much alive.
Anyway, the reason why her grandmother held me in such rare esteem was because I had found her cocker spaniel, her sole companion as she had stumbled her way through old age in decrepitude and loneliness. My mother, herself in her sixties, still spent time with her, even though she was no longer in her employ. Whatever she might have told me her reasons were, I knew that empathy had been her strongest motivator. My father had been a diabetic for most of his life and my mother understood the loneliness of fighting a battle which you were doomed to lose.
I had entered the town a few minutes ago and the darkness and the deathly stillness of the night, unbroken by even the daintiest ripple of sound, was eerie. Srini was a soporific town, with very little to offer by means of civilization. Houses were miles away from each other and all that hindered the vast in-betweens was wilderness, lakes in shades of dark green and barb wire fencing. But then I was a detective heading towards a murder scene. What could possibly scare me?
I stopped my car a few hundred meters away from the address she had given me. Another few minutes of observing her from a distance would do either of us no harm. And it would add a bit more metal to my gut that became so formless every time I saw her. Armed with my binoculars I walked up to the thickets surrounding the farmhouse to which she had requested me to come. And from behind it I gazed into the lenses of my binoculars, searching furtively for her, knowing full well that the thrill of seeing her would make me so very lighthe…. There she was. Attired in a black salwar kameez. And the words of that novel wafted through my ears like whispers in the wind – He found himself standing, his heart pounding in his chest; he felt a little dizzy. The blood was surging through his body, through all its extremities and pounding against the tips of his fingers, the tips of his toes. All the perfumes of the island came rushing in on the wind, orange, lemon blossoms, grapes, flowers. It seemed as if his body had sprung away from him out of himself. And then he heard the two shepherds laughing.
“You got hit by the thunderbolt, eh?”
She was sitting in the drawing room, playing absentmindedly with her hair and she seemed to be talking, with no one else in the room, presumably to herself. She got up now and walked towards the door, she would exit it in a moment, Aah, there she was, he could see her completely as she stood outside the door, peering at the distance where the road met the gate of the farmhouse, arching forwards to catch a better sight of it, to gaze deeper into the distance as she waited for me. And as the thought crossed my mind I reluctantly dragged the binocular a couple of inches towards the room where she was sitting, trying to catch a glimpse of the dead body. I remembered again, forgetting for the third time that night that I was there on a job. And as I caught sight of the body slumped on the floor, a most macabre of sights began to unfold.
The body, lying in the midst of what appeared to be a pool of blood, began to move. It did not merely move but actually sat up and stared, as if straight at me, for a couple of moments before it held the post beside it and began to stand up. And then it began to move towards the door, the door beyond which was the courtyard, where Gayatri now sat listlessly on a swing. I immediately removed my Glock from its holster, swung the binoculars around my neck, aimed at the door from which the body would emerge and began to run along the row of thickets towards the entrance of the farmhouse. The body…. Her husband that is, had now opened the door, his blue shirt soaked with blood was now in full view and as he walked towards her, I could see the blood stained kitchen knife he held in his hand. The moment I entered the gate, I spotted the look of surprise on Gayatri’s face as I ran in pointing my gun in her direction, for she didn’t know that what I was truly aiming at was the person who now stood behind her. He looked up at me in absolute surprise, but before he could exert his malevolent will, I removed the safety from my glock and fired two rounds of bullets straight at his sternum, and immediately thereafter, the man dropped dead.
I could have shouted at him to stop. I could have fired a round in the air to augment my threat. But you must understand, that I was a terrified man. I mean, pardon me, for not knowing what the fuck is the protocol to deal with a man risen from the dead. Meanwhile Gayatri looked stunned as she dropped to her knees to check if her husband was alive. And then she looked up with eyes as dark as I have ever seen. Not the expression of gratitude I had been expecting. She just sat there eyeing me from a distance, not saying a word, grasping the knife that had fallen out of her husband’s hand. I walked up to her cautiously, holstered my gun and asked her to put the knife away. She never stopped staring at me, the look was not accusatory. It was seething with raw, untarnished anger. Our isolation made the whole situation seem surreal, as if we were not on this world, as if we were on a separate planet altogether. In the distance a car cannoned by and I wondered how oblivious the passengers were to this dark little passage of rites that had taken place so close to where they had been. I dropped to my haunches, checking for signal of life. There wasn’t any. I was alert to any sudden movement from her, just in case I needed to spring away. But as I looked at her now, it seemed that moment had passed. Eventually she got up, the knife slid out of her palm and dropped innocuously to the muddy floor. She walked over to the swing and sat on it. I examined the body for the spot where my bullets had penetrated him, and that was when something seemed off to me about the body. I flipped it over and examined it again. And again I was flummoxed.
Apart from the shots I had fired, there were no other wounds on the man’s body. What the fuck was going on here? Which is precisely what I asked her. There was no reply. I walked into the room to take a look at the pool of blood the man had risen from. I tasted it. It was cranberry juice. I walked out to get some answers from Gayatri. But she was no longer sitting on the swing. She had disappeared. I heard a car engine throttle to life somewhere in the vicinity, and just as I kept screaming out her name, I saw her, one last time drive away in a black SUV.
I slipped my phone out and called the police. I had had enough absurdities for one day. I went back to where I had left my car, to park it somewhere closer to the scene of the … death. But I was still in a state of shock. I did not know what to make out of what was going on. If she had not stabbed the man, why in the world had she called me out of the blue? Why pretend that a murder had taken place.
The more I thought about it, the more it became apparent that the intended victim of any murder that was to have taken place that night, would have been me. That the reason I had been called there was to be ambushed. I called Gayatri’s phone again. The number it said was switched off. I stayed, wide awake, and alert, just in case she would surface again, to attack me. But the first signs of life I saw next were the flashing lights of the cop car making its way to the farmhouse. Once the police had made their appearance I gave them a full account of what had happened, of how I knew Gayatri and her husband and everything that had transpired that night. The police took down all the information, but it would not be farfetched to assume that they did not entirely believe the story I had narrated to them. The fact that I was interested in her, in however fleeting a manner would now work against me. And now a couple of hours after I had been speculating permutations on my conversations with her that would convince her to become a part of my life, for let’s face it, what other motivation could I have had to come down to meet her without informing the police, I was now in a situation where I would need to convince them to the contrary. But all that aside, the facts were simple.
She was gone. She knew how much I desired her. And she had used that to draw me to an ambush. To this far out place in the middle of nowhere. She knew what would have appealed to me , to my taste for danger, and she intended to use that to destroy me. And probably dispatch my body, so that I could never be found. Which was all just fine…. In a manner of speaking? What was more baffling was her reasons. Why was she trying to kill me?
It was a couple of weeks before the police got back to me with some extremely disturbing information they had discovered from a safe that was registered in Gayatri’s name. It contained photographs of me. She had been stalking me for the past few months. I was left flabbergasted. I didn’t have any clue as to what might have prompted her to do so, although I did not tell them that I had done pretty much the same thing to her nearly a year ago. The telephone number from which she had called was a prepaid number registered under a fabricated id.
Over the next few weeks more information was recovered about the couple, that insinuated an act of desperation – Debt that had been incurred by the couple over failed investments and uncontrolled spending – but quite why I had become the focus of that angst was beyond everybody’s understanding.
A few days later, I paid a visit to Gayatri’s mother, who was on the verge of passing over to the other side. It was a pitiful sight, watching a woman with so much grace, pass away in so much of loneliness, and my being partially responsible for it, made me feel all the more wretched. I felt as though in some way Karma would contrive to deliver precisely the same, if not a worse fate for me. I spoke to her for long hours, our conversation was sparse owing to her inability to speak, but I offered her every bit of my patience. It was the least I could do. Towards the end of the night, as I asked for her leave, I leaned in to her to give her a kiss on her cheek. She whispered something into my ear, she said she was sorry and said that I shouldn’t worry anymore, that it was ‘all her little flower’s now’. And then she fell asleep. I came to know later that she didn’t wake up next morning. That was the last I ever heard from anyone from their family.
A year later I closed my practice and got myself a job. The charm of the detective’s life had worn thin on me. I got married, had a son and this crazy little incident had been a forgotten episode of my life. But somewhere in my subconscious a deep imprint had been left behind. I feel like I am being watched all the time. It makes me overtly cautious and somewhat paranoid. There are nights I still wake up in a cold sweat, imagining Gayatri, her hair windswept, her black dress wrapped around her body like a shroud looking at me with the same forlorn stare she had caste on me that night, standing at the edge of my bed, with a kitchen knife in her hand. The image stays back sometimes like a shadow suspended on dust even after I wake, only for it to disappear in front of my eyes.