A beacon of noon light pierced through the mullioned panes of the window. Even the light colluded to imprison me with its shadowy bars slanting across the bedroom, casting it’s striped shadow over the marble floor, giving the illusion of a jail. I checked the clock on the wall. A minute had passed since I last checked an hour ago, or so it seemed. Time is flowing like cement. Life has been arduously boring for the workaholic manager after retirement. Trapped in the vicious, aimless cycle of reading, eating and sleeping, I recall something my father used to say a lot in his last days.
“Everybody thinks the greatest curse of old age is death. But that’s not true. There is a greater bane. Loneliness.”
Blind with the pride of youth, I used to laugh at his senility. Today those words are my reality. Especially after Sarita left, my ancestral house feels emptier than the crypt. Sarita, my wife, had been the one that had smoothed out the rough edges of my life. With her gone, the silence of the house, once filled with conversation, laughter, and music, today creeps me. Sitting idly for hours, on the comfortable rocking chair, with the book on my lap, I began to drift into an unpleasant daydream and may have dozed off, when suddenly a shattering sound from the attic jolted me up.
I rushed to the attic. Outside, the afternoon was fading into an early evening.
I pushed open the attic against the tide of objects that littered the floor on the other side. A damp smell gushed out. The attic with its low beam was made all the smaller by the heaps of dusty boxes, piled one above another, covering almost every inch of the floor. The last patch of bare floor was littered with a fallen box, some photo frames peeped out of it with broken glasses. So this was the source of the sound. Must be the rats. Very carefully I started clearing the mess. As I tried to put all the broken items inside the box I was pleasantly surprised to find some photos and an old camera already inside it. I collected the camera and the photos and came back to my room.
These photos are the remnants of my happier past. So many memories flashed through my mind. Sarita, my bereaved wife and my younger brother, Anik. My family. The photos hold all the smiling faces. That is the beauty of photographs. It can cease a moment, even long after the person photographed has left this earth.
The discovery of the camera was intriguing. It even had an undeveloped film inside it. I never knew the camera was still in this house. It was the aspiring journalist, Anik’s favourite possession. I gifted him this camera the last birthday we spent together. We were childless. Anik was a son to us, our world. But death is a cruel taskmaster.
On that dreadful night, Sarita and I were away to attend a marriage function. Anik did not want to come.
Meanwhile, some robbers tried to break into the house. My brave little brother wanted to stop them. When we returned, we found the total house was rummaged. The floor was red with blood and the lifeless body of Anik was lying on the sofa. The case was never solved and our life was never the same again.
But who kept the camera in the attic? I particularly remember putting the name of a camera in the list of missing valuables for investigation. So Anik himself must have kept it there. That too with an undeveloped film. But why? My intuition was telling me, the film in my hand can help me with the answer and may open the Pandora’s box. I decided to get it developed.
Two days later I got a call from my friend Ashok. He owns a photo studio and I had given him the film to develop. Not many studios in these digital days can develop this antic type of films. But Ashok, I can trust.
“Where did you get this film?”
“Why? What did you find?”
“The images are of… You better come down here. We need to talk.”
There were in total ten photos. Serially showing a murder. One person was being shot by two others. One of the murderers was a lady wearing a sari. The images were perhaps taken from a distance in low light, so the faces were not clear. Even with the maximum zooming, the faces of the murderers were unrecognizable. And the lady in saree was facing away from the lens. Hence it was impossible to identify her. Only the last photo which focussed on the lifeless body of the victim was somewhat clear. He was wearing a doctor’s apron.
“So that day’s intruders were not any random robbers. They were seeking this camera. Anik chanced upon their crime and so the whole drama was staged. It was not an accidental death, but a planned, cold-blooded murder.” I cried out. My face was red with fury.
“ You must inform the police. They will surely find out something.”
The police officer took my complaint very politely and kept a copy of all the photos. He assured me to reopen the file as soon as possible and start investigating immediately. A twenty-year-old case would need time to solve, he said. I was about to leave the police station when I remembered my umbrella, left on the officer’s table. I went back just in time to overhear, “Government should increase the age of retirement. These oldies. Fit and fine, but no work left to do in life.
They will make up stories, create fake images and try to make us run as if we are fools.”
I clenched my fist in fury. My ears were burning with anger. They think I’m lying? These bastards are good for nothing. I need nobody’s help. Justice will be served and I will find out the truth myself.
That night I dreamt of Anik. Standing in a bloodstained cloth, but still flashing his prankster smile.
“Dada, in your age the truths are a fiction, and so I have buried the truth in the fiction. I am sure you’ll find them. Happy investigating.”
I woke up flabbergasted. Meaningless dream, but the dream gave me a clue. Anik used to keep a diary. I decided my first task in the morning would be searching Anik’s room.
The next day I stood amidst the heaps of books lined across the wall. Anik was a bookworm. All kinds of books were piled up in the room. Taking a deep breath I started my search. I ran through the list of places it could be in my mind, checking off the ones I had already searched. After an hour, as I gazed around the room, it now had the look of a place that had been burgled. Then it occurred that we often find things while tidying up, and I set about the task with a sort of meticulousness that was quite uncharacteristic of me. As I shifted and sorted my eyes were constantly on the lookout for the red-bound notebook. But it was nowhere in sight.
When I was young I always dreamt to be a detective but never imagined it to be such a tedious job. Dejected and exhausted, I was about to leave the task for good when the title of a book caught my attention.
“Organ transplant – A Boon or A flourishing Business”
Anik was never interested in medicine. Then this book? It was taken from the local library, the entry date has been just a week older than the fateful day. He never had a chance to return the book.
Opening the book, more surprises awaited. A list of some people, name of a few hospitals and phone number of certain Doctor Ajay.
I did not find any dairy, but at least some breakthrough to start.
It was quite easy to track the address of Dr Ajay with the telephone number. So I set out for the address immediately.
The gate was opened by a middle-aged woman.
“I am here to meet Dr Ajay.”
She made a strange face, and in a grave voice said, “He doesn’t stay here anymore.” Then looking at my curious face she added, as an afterthought, “He died twenty years ago.”
“I am so sorry….”, but I guess I was sorrier for myself. My only key, gone.
Looking at my crestfallen face and perhaps considering my age the lady offered me to come inside and have some water. On entering, I got the biggest shock. A large portrait was hanging on the wall of the drawing room with a garland. A familiar face. The tenth image. The fallen victim.
“Who is he?” I asked softly.
“I thought you came to meet him. My husband, Late Dr Ajay.”
“When did he die? And how?”
Now the lady seemed to get miffed at my over-enthusiasm. But she did answer my question. With a sour face.
“19th April 1998. He was shot dead. The murderer was never found.”
There was a strange coldness in her voice.
19th April. That means just a day before that horrific incident with Anik.
“Why do you ask?”
“I think his death is somehow related to my brother’s death. He was also shot. On 20th April 1998.”
There was no reaction on her face.
“So you are trying to find the truth. But how did you connect the two murders?” She was quite relishing the question, it seemed.
“I found some….never mind. Something happened. Thanks for the water. Just one more thing. Where did he work, Dr Ajay?”
“It’s ok. He used to practice in the Tulip Hospital. You may try your luck there. And best of luck with your endeavour. May you find Anik’s murderer soon.”
As I left the house, my mind was racing fast. Tulip Hospital was the first name which appeared on Anik’s list.
The hospital was the most non-cooperating one. I tried to ask a number of persons. But, they did not divulge any details and I thought my visit to them was a complete waste of time. And fatal too.
Leaving the hospital, as I was about to get into my car, a truck driving on the wrong side tried to hit me. Death was absolutely sure if not for a godsend ward boy who pulled me out just in the nick of the moment. And then vanished inside the hospital. I never even had a chance to thank him.
My car was slightly damaged, but it was still working. I decided to visit Ashok, my friend for some advice.
As I narrated the whole story, he became worried.
“It was an attempt to murder it seems. This investigation is becoming too dangerous. Must be someone from the hospital itself. But how did they stage it in so little time?”
“Even I am wondering that. If not for that ward boy, my ghost would have been visiting you now.”
“I am very worried Pulak. I think you should stop bickering after a twenty-year-old incident. Whatever you do, Anik will never return.”
I shook my head vigorously. Ashok will never understand. I cannot die without knowing the truth. This case has added a purpose to my otherwise meaningless life. A breath of life, a source of hope in my mundane days.
But where are the answers to my doubts? There are too many questions with too little answers. The tension appeared as sweats on my forehead even in the cool November days. As I rose to leave, a piece of paper fell from my pocket.
“Call after 9 pm in this number”
A mobile number was given below. Not knowing whether it is from a friend or a foe, I decided to keep the information to myself. And waited for the clock to strike Nine.
When I left Ashok’s studio, dusk was setting in. The last of the sun’s rays cossetted behind orange clouds, the blue hue of the sky almost gone till dawn. The street taking the look of a greyscale image. Will the darkness of the night give some direction to my lost ways? I wondered.
More surprises were waiting for me in the house. Someone broke into the house in my absence. The rooms weren’t just a mess, it was a disaster zone. It looked like a drunken cyclone had erupted over the floor, then made its haphazard way across to the exit. And the camera was gone! Along with some copies of photos which I kept on the table. I made a quick call to Ashok, warning him to keep the films safe and then reluctantly called the police to update about the situation. The police this time, to my surprise, was quick to arrive. They took my statement, clicked some photos, interrogated the neighbours; the routine works I guess. After the neighbours testified that I had returned only in the evening and they had spotted some mysterious bike riders earlier today near my house, did the police started taking the complaint seriously. When the police left, completing all their procedures, it was already ten o’clock.
Oh, the phone number! I almost forgot. Quickly I dialled the numbers. The call was picked in a single ring. As if he was waiting for my call.
“Hello, I got this number in the note…”
“Your life is in danger, sir. Every day there won’t be a superhero to push you aside. Your brother also tried the same. I tried to help him. But he was too reckless. Don’t repeat his mistake”
“But who are you? And why all these murders? Which secret are they guarding?”
“Sshhh. You talk too much, sir. Now listen to me. I do not know who are the murderers. But I know something that can help you. Hear me carefully.
Twenty years ago Dr.Ajay was a leading surgeon of this hospital. He was a saint like a person. His skill and good nature helped the growth of this hospital. But then some untoward incidents started happening here. And then suddenly he was murdered. The investigation revealed that he was working with some organ trafficking group and illegally supplying organs from the hospital. Some business deal went wrong and they murdered him. Even his wife Shruti, an erstwhile nurse of the hospital, attested that claim.”
His wife also worked there? She never told, I thought.
The person on the other side of the phone was still talking, “Dr Ajay was a very good person. He saved my daughter’s life. I want his murderer behind the bars. Try to find the truth for him and your brother.”
And he disconnected without giving me a chance to probe him further. I tried to call him back, but the phone was already switched off.
That day I spent another sleepless night. Replaying the various incidents of the last two days in my mind.
Pieces of conversations echoed in my head.
“Dr Ajay was a very good person.”
“Organ Trafficking group.” “His wife, an erstwhile nurse of the hospital, also attested the claim”
“Best of luck for your endeavour. May you find Anik’s murderer soon.”
Suddenly everything was clear to me. And there was only one way to confirm. A busy morning waits for me.
Saying that I woke up early would be an understatement, because that night I never slept in anticipation of the dawn. I set out for my destination as early as six in the morning. Finishing some important tasks on the way, I reached my final destination at seven.
The person who opened the door was both surprised and irritated to see me, bothering her so early in the morning. Shruti, the widow of Dr Ajay.
“May, I come in?” And without waiting for an answer I entered the house.
We were sitting in the drawing room. Shruti was evidently vexed at my sudden invasion into her peaceful morning. She was facing me on the opposite sofa with knit brows and was looking askance.
Without any introduction, I started,
“So Shruti madam, why did you kill your husband?”
She was a little taken aback by this sudden attack. But she did hold her composure.
“Mr Pulak Mitra, are you out of your mind? Who the hell gave you such an idea?
“You only gave me the idea madam.”
“Me? You’ve totally lost it, Mr Mitra.”
“Yes, you. I never had a chance to introduce myself last day. But you know my name. You even know my brother’s name. And you even knew that its Anik’s murder, which was related to your husband’s death.”
“Does that prove that I am a murderer? Just knowing somebody’s name?”
She was a hard nut to crack. So I had to play my trump card.
“ No, it doesn’t prove. But the document that shows you were the main dealer of organ trafficking proves a lot.
How you made a scapegoat of your husband to escape the law, colluding with your fellow offenders is not a secret to me anymore.”
Did I see her biting lips in anxiety?
“Don’t try to bluff me. My men searched your entire house. Something like that never existed.”
“ But I guess they missed the attic this time also, from where I retrieved the camera, that you were searching for twenty years and at last found yesterday, without the film.”
Shruti’s face turned white as paper. She got up from her seat nervously and walked towards her husband’s portrait. Is she repenting her deeds? But the face that turned around, showed no remorse at all.
“ Tsk, Tsk, Tsk. So intelligent to put two and twos together after twenty long years. But reckless like your brother, you come running to confront me. Yes, I did everything that you described. Ajay was an honest doctor. When he came to know the truth, instead of shielding his own wife he wanted to help the law! Stupid fellow. I really loved him. But I had no option left other than removing him forever.”
Her cold voice ran a shiver down my spines. She was pointing a tiny revolver at me.
“Did you really think that I will let you go after knowing that you can sign on my death sentence? I will kill you and prove that you were a mentally unstable person who tried to attack me and I had to kill you in self-defence. You already know how well I can stage such dramas.”
She was smiling cruelly. I looked at the door nervously. They should have been here by now. But I need to hold my nerve. Only my wit can save me at this moment.
“But even killing me, won’t help you today. Everything you just said has been recorded and relayed at the police headquarter and they would be arriving any time now.” I gave a last try.
The smile on Shruti’s face vanished momentarily, but the murderous zeal in her bloody eyes remained intact.
Desperate to save myself, I jumped on her trying to snatch away the revolver. But she was much stronger than I had imagined. The woman pushed me with such a vigour that I was thrown on the other side. My head hit the corner of the table and it started bleeding. She aimed the revolver at me. The world around me started getting darker. Just then a miracle happened. Somebody broke the main door and in came a bunch of uniformed men. Within some seconds Shruti’s weapon was seized. Two of the female guards handcuffed her. I looked at the door. Ashok, my friend was standing at the entrance, relieved to see me safe and sound. I thanked my star that I had the good sense to inform Ashok of this operation before coming.
The relaying of the conversation and having another documented proof of organ trafficking was indeed a bluff.
But I did record our today’s conversation and now handed it over to the police. My job was done. Now Anik’s soul can rest in peace and at last, I will have a sound sleep.
My life was again back on the usual track. Eating, reading books, reciting the newspapers, and sleeping. The few days of adventure and the shocking revelation in-between, today seems like from another life. Shruti is still in police custody awaiting the sentence. Her arrest has busted a twenty-year-old organ trafficking racket.
She confessed her crime under police interrogation and also revealed the name of some of her partners in crime.
For a few days, the local media was busy covering the new scoop. Some articles even included this worthless name and my contribution and it made me quite famous in my social circle.
But all that was one month ago. Now the people have again lost interest in the case and I am back to my mundane life. Sitting on my rocking chair, with a book, missing all the excitement and nodding off occasionally.
Suddenly my otherwise buttoned-up phone started ringing.
“Hello, Mr Mitra. I got your number from an ex-colleague of yours. Will you help in investigating the mystery of my missing daughter? Please don’t say no. I need the help of your detective skill.”
Well, you are never too old to live your childhood dream, it seems.