Kathir pressed the calling bell and checked the tag dangling on Mohan. He looked down at his own attire and almost smiled.
‘I look like a thirty year old,’ he thought.
A middle-aged woman opened the door.
She ran her eyes through them, noticed the tag of Kathir’s ID card and sighed.
Mohan did not give her time to think, “It’s regarding Ramya’s case, madam”.
“Even the milkman doesn’t come to my doorstep as often as the detectives and policemen,” she said in a distraught tone.
“One last time. We won’t bother you much. We already read the reports,” Kathir said.
The woman ushered them in and had them seated on the couch.
Bold Hindi letters danced on the LED screen, with a Mute sign on the right bottom corner.
The woman surprised them by asking if they’d have something to drink. They tried refusing her, but she insisted.
She left to the kitchen glancing at the Hindi soap opera playing on TV.
Mohan found the bungalow in the soap opera similar to the bungalow he was seated in. The couch felt feather soft, the air ice-cold and the walls were paneled with wood, half a dozen speakers here and there. He was lost in awe.
“Work on your look, buddy. You look like a kid brought to a circus,” Kathir whispered to Mohan.
‘Beautiful bungalows hide ugly truths,’ he thought.
Minutes after the serial started rolling, the woman returned, and placed two cups of coffee from a tray onto the table. She pointed at the packets on the tray, “Sugar packets, in case you need more sugar.”
Kathir began even before she settled, “We’ll verify a few facts that are on the record, first.”
Mohan took out a recorder from his bag, switched it on and placed it near the tray. He drew out a pad and a pen and looked up at the woman.
She did not wait for a question. “Ramya was like a daughter to me. She was 19 when she fell from our terrace and died, during a party my son hosted for his graduation. Date – fifteen, six, two thousand fourteen. In the course of the investigation, my son revealed to your authorities that he had proposed her once, to no luck. He is perfectly sane and has had no history of substance or alcohol abuse prior to the incident. Okay? Make the other questions quick.”
Mohan was busy noting down when Kathir asked the next question, “So your son was a teetotaler prior to the incident. What is he now?”
The woman’s visage turned into a grimace.
“I’ve seen him smoke a few times, on the terrace and in a tea stall in the opposite. Your people are to be blamed. He holds himself guilty for her death,” she replied.
“What type of party was hosted by your teetotaler son?”
“It was more of a get-together. He’d asked me money for a party. Knowing the outstanding quality of his friend circle, I decided that I’ll give him the money but supervise the party. It was so much fun, to be frank, until she tripped and fell down.”
The lack of emotion in her tone was striking. Kathir wondered if it was the repeated telling or something else that had taken away the horror of a death.
Mohan questioned her next. “Why was the terrace parapet so small at that place?”
“I begin to doubt if you’ve gone through the reports,” she said sweeping a glance over them.
“We have, Mam, this is just for verification,” Mohan answered.
“The parapet had a minor crack that remained since this house was built. A few weeks before the party, it fell off, thankfully, on the lawn and not on anyone’s head, or we’d be dealing with the authorities from then.”
She turned to the TV. An advertisement was playing. A countdown timer showing ’13’ followed by hindi text was on the top left. “Shall I un-mute it, or will it a disturbance to the investigation?” she asked no one in particular.
Kathir sighed. “We are sorry for the questioning, but we need you to take this a bit more…”
The calling bell rang.
The woman got up to open the door. Kathir noticed Mohan’s face turn ghostly white and pressed his hand in assurance.
When her husband came in, she whispered something to him and was sent into the adjacent room.
The man winced. “Who the hell are you?” His voice sounded more manly than the man he seemed.
“We are investigating Ramya’s case, sir… there are some… things,” Mohan fumbled.
Kathir completed it. “We want to know if she’d worn her slippers to the terrace and if they were in her feet when she fell”
“I’d answered that… already… to a bunch of people last month,” he replied.
The shakiness in the man’s voice gave Mohan the confidence. “And what was the answer, sir?”
“She must’ve worn her heels to the terrace, but there was only one… when she was in the… hospital,” he replied.
He went into the room undoing his buttons. Kathir wanted to follow him in, but decided against it.
Mohan turned to the LED TV. An actress in the serial was crying inaudibly. He turned away on impulse.
The man came back moments later, in a T-shirt and a track pant, after a hushed conversation with his wife.
Mohan recalled the tennis court near the lawn that he’d noticed when he walked into the bungalow. He wished the man would move them over there for the rest of the conversation. The room felt like it was closing in on him since the man had entered the scene.
“Do you have a warrant to question us? You have not shown my wife anything as proof,” he asked just as he sat on the opposite.
Mohan looked for the papers inside his bag. He closed one zip after not finding them inside, and opened another.
The woman hurried from the adjacent room and handed a phone to her husband. She picked the coffee cups from the table and headed to the kitchen.
Mohan felt the papers in his hand, but knew they’d be of no use.
After about half a minute on the call, the man slammed the phone on the table, and turned to them in fury, “Who the fuck are you? You cannot investigate a closed case. No one’s got permission to question us, bastards!” His yell echoed across the room like thunder.
Kathir thought of so many things to say, but it was Mohan who answered, “Sir, we’d come for our… project…”
The man pulled the recorder from the table and smashed it against the wall. He tore down the sheets from the pad and dragged the two out of the bungalow.
Kathir had changed to his T-shirt by the time he was called to Professor Surkanan’s house. He stopped only once before he reached there.
The gate of Sarkunan’s house was open, and as he removed his slippers, he noticed Mohan’s.
The Professor was pacing left and right in the hall.
Mohan was seated facing him, with a coffee cup in his hand, still in the dress he’d worn earlier in the day. The fake ID card was lying on the glass table.
“Here comes the main culprit, eh?” Professor Sarkunan noted.
“Sit down,” he said in his firm voice. Kathir sat beside Mohan.
“When I meant you had to submit a project, I wasn’t this serious,” he said.
Mohan tried to justify his position, “I asked him, no, begged him, sir, to do something less criminal.”
“You said a bad case could get us failed,” Kathir protested.
Sarkunan sat on his bean bag. “I don’t want you solving a high-profile murder mystery, lads. You could have got into jail. You most probably will in the coming days.”
“But the other day, you talked about the Detective Instinct… And I just happened to follow it.”
“That’s where you went wrong, mister. You are not even half-a-detective.”
He continued, “You guys remind me of my mentor, being wild, brave and stupid.”
Kathir wondered if that description fitted Mohan except for the ‘stupid’ part.
“There are simple ways to pass this subject. Take this Karthik’s case for example,” he said, gesturing to a stick file on the dining table,”he has solved a domestic mystery. Missing ice creams – refrigerator – black hand print on freezer door – bam! His father was the culprit. Very good observa…”
Kathir had been thinking of the elusive title. “He’s given you a short story I studied in my sixth grade text. I can’t recall the title.”
The amusement in Sarkunan’s face slowly faded.”But it’s okay, I guess. The first school lesson that has helped someone I know.”
Mohan smiled, but Kathir was honest enough to keep mum.
Sarkunan’s eyes were on Kathir, “The point was this. You needed to show your skills of observation and deduction. It’d be easier to observe details in simple cases. If you’d only solve something highly challenging, then I suggest you start with a societal mystery. How about trying to find who lifted this street’s CCTV camera to which marriage hall.”
Sarkunan turned to Mohan, “I’m not used to having sugared coffee. You might add some sugar from the kitchen if you want.”
Mohan drew a packet of sugar from his pant pocket, “I can manage, sir.”
Kathir didn’t hide his smile.
When Sarkunan looked at him, he continued, “But the girl has a cinema background which kindled my curiosity. A Death Under Suspicious Circumstances was filed, but that was the end. Her death was labelled an accident. Isn’t it…”
“So, you mean to say nothing is an absolute accident. No child of a big shot is allowed to die by accident?”
Kathir did not know what to say.
“Understand this first, you two.”
“It was Kathir’s idea, sir, not mine,” Mohan protested.
“Whatever. Stop questioning everything around you. That is the thumb rule. Nine times out of ten, you are not dealing with subjects and suspects, but people, like you and me, and such people do not like to be questioned the way you’ve done today. Did you even imagine what sorrow your questions would evoke in that businessman’s family when you went to his house? You need to weigh the damage your actions can cause.”
Kathir did not take his eyes off his professor. There was a long pause before he began. “True, sir. I think I’ve learnt a valuable lesson here. I’ll go find the CCTV camera for the project.”
A faint bit of excitement struck Kathir when he wore his sandals, but he decided to ignore it.
He checked his watch. “The tea was so good there.”
“What? You just heard what the man said, right? We are not going back to that case. Moreover, I had coffee just now.”
“I never said about taking the case again. That’s done, it’s just that we both loved the tea, and why should a bad day stop me from getting good tea?”
Mohan could not convince him otherwise.
At the tea stall, Kathir’s eyes were fixed on the bungalow, looking into a glass pane that showed a flight of stairs inside.
“Kathir, I’m telling the Professor,” Mohan warned.
Kathir ordered a tea and sipped it leisurely. “It’s not as you think, Mohan. It’s over, I promise. It’s just…”
A guy in a stained shirt, riding a tricycle of gas cylinders, stood at the gate of the bungalow. The watchman let him in. Mohan frowned. He couldn’t fathom what Kathir had set up.
A few minutes later, as the two watched on from the tea stall, the boy struggled up the steps dragging the cylinder, with the woman close behind. When he re-appeared behind the glass pane, coming down, he showed Kathir the thumbs-up gesture.
Mohan sighed, “What in fuckin’ hell does that mean?” His words were more curious than angry.
Minutes later, the boy casually drove his tricycle out of the bungalow and stopped at the tea stall. His face did not show any sign of familiarity even when he walked past Kathir to order tea. He settled on the bench and ran through the newspapers.
“That’s the face I always wish I can put on while investigating,” Kathir whispered.
Before he went, the boy left a smart phone on the bench next to his half complete tea glass.
After the boy was gone from the place, Kathir filled his seat, and casually put the phone into his pocket.
Mohan tried not to sound curious. “What did the guy do with your phone? Photos?”
“Remember what Sarkunan sir said? We must forget what happened here. This case is over, Mohan. We shall burn this phone… Or better, use Factory Reset, huh?”
Mohan’s ego hesitated to beg him further.
Kathir took some time to finish his tea, pondering pensively about something, and left the empty glass beside the boy’s half-complete one.
He took the phone from his pocket and turned to Mohan. “Do you want to know what’s in this?”
Some two feet behind them, inside the tea stall, a guy of about twenty-two stood with a cigarette between his fingers wondering what details these two strange men could have collected from his house.