Constable Kelly, Kent Police, London, looked at the young man sitting opposite her. He looked as if he hadn’t slept properly for a couple of days. His unkempt hair and haggard eyes with hollows under them made that evident.
Kelly looked at the papers on her desk and asked him, “Your name is Akash Reddy and you had reported that your wife, Kalki Reddy, has been missing for the last three days. Have you received any communications from her, after that? A phone call or an email or a text?”
Akash shook his head.
“A neighbor of yours, Catherine Brooks has reported that she had heard you both quarrel on the day she went missing. Is that correct?”
“Yes. It had been a Sunday. We had quarreled just after breakfast. But soon we made up. She said she would cook my favorite biryani for lunch. I went for a run in the woods, so I could build up an appetite. I came back a few hours later. I could not find Kalki at home. She had already cut the vegetables, so I thought that she had gone to buy some ingredients from the shop nearby. But she did not come till lunchtime. Then I called a few of her friends to check if she had dropped by. I waited till evening and then I reported her to be missing.” His voice shook and he seemed to be restraining himself from crying.
Kelly nudged the glass of water towards him.
He took a sip and composed himself.
“What was the quarrel about?”
Akash was silent for a minute. Then he spoke in a voice that was laden with feeling. “Kalki had been blaming me for spending too much time with my band. So I had canceled my music practice to be with her. But she had made plans with our neighbor Catherine to go for an outing. I was angry and blamed her for missing my band practice. But she would not listen. She insisted on her freedom to choose what she liked. It led to more words. But in the middle of the quarrel, I stopped using harsh words and instead spoke to her sentimentally about how music had brought us together. I talked to her about a favorite song of hers called ‘Woman in love’. I even played it to her. Immediately she softened and our quarrel stopped.”
“How long have you been married? Was your relationship with Kalki always like this?”
Akash took a deep breath before replying “We have been married for four years. We had moved here, from India, as soon as we got married. We had explored London, enjoyed setting up this house in Seven Oaks. We had a great life till two years back. Then I got busy at the office and Kalki began working at the library. After that I don’t know what went wrong, Kalki began quarreling with me. She began accusing me of having affairs. For some reason, her personality underwent a massive change. Earlier she used to be sweet and even-tempered. Suddenly she turned into an emotional wreck, suspicious and mistrustful.
“Can you think of any reason why this happened?”
Akash hesitated before replying, “The only thing that happened around then was that Catherine moved into the house next door and Kalki found a friend. They would always hang out together. Catherine never really warmed up to me. So I don’t know much about her personally except that she was single and lived alone.”
After he left, Kelly summoned the detective, Lucas, and asked for updates.
Lucas reported “I had been to Mr.Akash’s office. They say he is a quiet, well-behaved guy. A bit of a loner but well-liked because of his ‘cool’ demeanor.”
“Exactly the kind of profile a serial killer would have. Did you enquire about money problems, girl issues?”
“Yes, I did. No red alerts. No screaming entries in his bank account. No long regular calls on his mobile from girls. He plays the bass guitar at a local Indian band. There is a singer there by the name of Pranati. While all his colleagues insist that Akash and Pranati share a platonic relationship, one of them reported to me secretly that once, Kalki had accosted Pranati and harangued her about being too close to her husband.
“Oh. Did you follow that lead?”
“Yes. I spoke to Pranatii. She admitted that the incident with Kalki did happen. But she says it was an unfounded accusation. She seemed to think Kalki has some mental issues.”
“You said Kalki works at the local library. Did you check with her colleagues? Maybe we can get some leads there.”
“I spoke to them. But, it seems she kept to herself and was not very social, except with Carol, who also works at the library. I will be talking to her today. Also, I will be calling on the couple’s neighbors. I have a feeling that the girl is missing on account of some personal issues. Maybe the neighbors can throw better light on her disappearance.
Kelly told Lucas, “Ask them not just about Akash and Kalki, but also about the neighbor Catherine Brooks. She sounded needlessly vicious when she spoke about Akash. Also, I did not get good vibes from Akash when he spoke about her”.
Lucas looked at her with a smile. “I have a gut feeling you suspect Akash in Kalki’s disappearance.”
“Because statistics prove that in most cases, it’s the husbands who are the culprits. That’s why even if there is no proof, I will keep on suspecting him, till he is cleared.”
FIVE YEARS BACK
Kalki was walking home alone.
Her parents had bought an apartment on the outskirts of the city. It was a huge complex consisting of many buildings. They had moved in even before the construction was completed. While they had occupied their house the utility work on other buildings was still in progress. A large group of workers lived in a shed very near the entrance, completing the last of the mason work.
As she walked on the lonely path leading towards the complex, she could see the buildings shrouded in darkness and the lights blazing only from a single unit, which was their flat.
Kalki finished dinner, took the novel she had been reading, and went into the balcony. She was passionate about her reading and singing. She had been learning Carnatic music earlier but now, after moving here, she had yet to find a new teacher. She settled herself comfortably and began reading her novel. Suddenly the power played hookey and the lights went off.
With a sigh, she chucked the novel aside and leaned back on her chair. That’s when she saw it. Because of the buildings around, most of the sky was blocked out, except for a violetish blue patch that peered at her from above. A handful of stars twinkled merrily at her from the patch. Some wildflowers blooming nearby diffused the balcony with an intoxicating fragrance.
The workers downstairs had finished dinner and were sitting together in the darkness. There was a silence and then one of them began singing. The language was an unknown one, but Kalki could identify the feelings of wistful sadness in the tune. What were they singing about? Was it about missing their loved ones? Was it about a lost love back at home? The song somehow stirred her soul. Her Carnatic trained instincts automatically tried to identify the raga that the song could be based on. ‘Must be some variation of Subha Panthuvarali. Yes. That’s it. The only raga that could be so stirring and soulful.’
The yearning in the song continued to haunt her for a long time, even after the singing had stopped. For some reason, Kalki was filled with an unknown longing for some undefined emotion.
The next morning Kalki was brushing her hair on the balcony when she noticed the activities in the house right opposite to theirs on the opposite building. The painters were busy, coloring the walls. Her mom, who had joined her, explained, “Another family has asked the builders to hurry up with the work because they want to move in by next week.”
Kalki and her parents watched with excitement as the flat got ready. One night, they knew that the family had moved in. The lights were all blazing from all the rooms.
Kalki had had a bad day at college. She climbed the stairs wearily and opened the door. She was surprised to see strangers at home and suddenly realized that they were the new neighbors.
The couple looked very elegant and were talking and laughing with her parents. Her eyes fell on the youngster sitting with a smile on his face. He got up and came to her with his hand outstretched. “Akash. Your new neighbor. We moved in last week but could only meet you all today.” His dark wavy hair curled around his ears and his eyes looked perennially amused. He looked a couple of years older than her. Kalki thought with a skip in her heart that he was the quintessential dark-tall-handsome guy.
Both the parents surrounded them. Her mom told her excitedly, “Do you know Kalki, Akash also loves music and reading books. Just like you.”
After an impromptu dinner, Kalki and Akash sat on the balcony.
He was talking animatedly “For me, music transcends all genres. Good music is good music- Be it old Hindi songs, or western classics. Or even folk songs….. “
She looked into his passionate eyes and felt a sensation of sinking into them.
Kalki was impatient to get back home. She thought about how life had changed after Akash’s family moved into the apartments.
While they bonded over music, they also fought over it. Kalki had not been exposed to western music. Akash played for her all the latest hits. But she took a liking only for the songs of yesteryear bands and singers like ‘The Beetles’ and Paul McCartney.
One day, as a challenge, he asked her to try and sing western. She hesitatingly sang ‘Brown girl in the ring’ and he laughed and laughed because she gave the song a total Carnatic twang.
A couple of days later, Akash was listening to a lilting western song, playing on the stereo. Kalki knocked and entered. As she took in the music, she was mesmerized by the song.
Akash explained to her that it was ‘Woman in love’ by the singer Barbra Streisand. He hummed along. Paused at a place and recited the words aloud to her
“With you eternally mine
In love there is
No measure of time
We planned it all at the start
That you and I
Live in each other’s hearts”
His voice had a magical stirring quality to it. Kalki would not meet his eyes because she knew she would find tenderness and passion there. She knew she would not be able to stop herself from sinking deep into the warm pools of his eyes. But the intense emotions scared her too. She chose to be silent.
He stopped reciting and continued whistling the rest of the song nonchalantly.
It was a Sunday evening. Both the parents had gone out together for a movie.
Kalki had finished her novel. She went to the balcony and saw that the lights in Akash’s room were burning. On a whim, she locked up the house and went over. She opened the door and found that ‘woman in love’ was playing on the stereo, filling the whole room with dulcet tones and he was sitting on the sofa with his eyes closed.
He felt her presence and opened his eyes. They looked at each other for eternity as time stood still.
He stood up and silently stretched out his arms for her and she spontaneously moved into them. There was such a sense of belonging and warmth in the embrace that she felt herself loosen up and mold snugly onto him.
Kalki felt his lips graze her hair, slowly travel to her forehead, move on to her eyes briefly and finally land on her lips. Unknown emotions swept through her making her weak at her knees. She dimly realized that her arms had gone around his shoulders and she had raised herself on her toes to take in the kiss and was unconsciously responding to his tongue.
Suddenly there were loud shouts from the kids playing downstairs and the trance was broken. She moved away from him but he would not let go of her hands. He looked deeply into her eyes and said “I love you so much, Kalki. I have loved you from the moment I first laid my eyes on you.”
She moved nearer and rested her head on his chest, looked up at him with ardent eyes, and said “I love you too.” Then she quietly left him and ran back to her house.
Both of them stood in their respective balconies and looked at each other. The canopy of the trees blocked the ground and gave them a feeling of being in their own world. The heady smell of the wildflowers pervaded the air. The handful of stars winked down at them.
‘Woman in love’ soon became their song. Akash would whistle it from his balcony to summon her. Like a kid following the pied piper’s call, Kalki would present herself at the balcony.
Some nights the whistling would sound desolate and forlorn and Kalki would wish with all her heart that she could go to him and alleviate his loneliness.
Within a year, Akash found a job in London. They got married and moved to Seven oaks village, a small village in Kent, from where he could commute for work.
It was a cold night. The time was twelve and Akash was trying hard to fall asleep.
Suddenly he heard a discarnate, eerie voice, singing. It sounded disjointed and unearthly.
With fear rising, he tried listening. It sounded as if someone was singing without looking for an audience. As if they were recollecting an old forgotten song. Abruptly, he realized that it was Kalki’s voice and the song was ‘woman in love’.
Terror took over and he whimpered in fright, cowering under the blanket.
He began breaking out in cold sweat. He did not sleep the whole night, even though the singing stopped after a while.
The next day he stood at his bedroom window, trying to recollect the direction from which the spooky voice had originated. He was on the first floor and he could only see his and the neighbor’s tiny backyards separated by a thin hedge.
He wondered if he should report this to the police or not!
Lucas was at the library talking to Carol. She was a middle-aged, dignified-looking lady.
“Kalki had joined two years back. I could see she was lonely and was taking time to adjust to the library. So I befriended her and we got close. Initially, she was very amiable and gentle. Slowly a hatred seemed to envelop her. She began being negative and cynical about everything. Especially about marriage and husbands.
“Can you think of any reason for the change?”
“Hmmm. I hadn’t thought about it, but now that you mention I realize something. Yes. She started changing around the time. ……”
As she continued talking, Lucas looked up at her and slowly he began having misgivings about the person Carol was talking about. He called Kelly and asked her to check up on the individual.
Lucas had trudged all over the street where the couple lived. But none of the neighbors had seen or heard anything helpful.
Finally, he reached the house that was plumb opposite the one in which Akash and Kalki lived.
He felt a pair of eyes looking at him from behind the thick curtains.
He rang the bell and he heard someone call out, “Come in”.
He opened the door and walked in. He saw a woman sitting behind the curtains. She was grossly obese. She sat snugly on a chair in front of the window facing the street.
When he explained why he was visiting her, she spoke up. “My name is Noami. I had been normal till a few years back. But due to some hormonal issues I suddenly gained so much weight. Now I need help even to move about the house. So I have a lady who comes in the morning and guides me to this chair and I sit here watching everything that goes on in the street. That is my only entertainment because I don’t watch TV. I am sure you have come to the right person. Now tell me, when did this girl disappear?”
“Last Sunday. Her husband went for a run just after breakfast. She has not been seen after that.”
Naomi replied “Sunday? Hmmm. Yes, I remember now. First, I saw them quarrel, heard them arguing in loud voices. Then it looked like they made up because they hugged and were smiling at each other. After a while, I could hear some soft music floating up. Then the husband left for his run. No, the husband was NOT the last person to have seen her. I saw her. She was …….“
Lucas did not have any doubts about whom he should question next. As he left the house, he picked up his phone to call Kelly.
Akash was debating whether he should tell the police about his ghastly experience the previous night. He was afraid they would infer that he had killed Kalki and her ghost had come to haunt him. His eyes filled with tears. Killing her? Only he knew much he loved her. She doubted his love and assumed he was having affairs. But his love for her was all-consuming. He loved her with all his heart.
But the thought of spending another night with her eerie voice floating around scared him so much.
He picked up the phone to call Kelly.
Half an hour later, he heard the police jeeps with their strident siren. He watched from the window as they came to a screeching halt just outside his house.
The armed police ran stealthily into the neighbor, Catherine’s house. They found her cowering in fear. She came out of her room, her hands raised and her eyes shining madly. While Kelly handcuffed her, she kept muttering, “Kalki wouldn’t listen and that’s why I had to do it. To keep her safe. I explained it to her so many times not to trust Akash. But she kept going back to him.”
Lucas gestured urgently for the other policemen to go and search inside. They all came back in a short time empty-handed.
Kelly deliberated for a few seconds and went to the backyard and stood looking. She could see that the place was unkempt and overgrown with vegetation. But there was a kind of rough way that had cleaved on the grass because someone had often walked through. She ran over lightly to where it led to and at the end of the path she could see a grate that seemed to be fixed into the ground with a deep, rectangular pit underneath.
She soon had men removing it. Kalki lay on a rough mattress inside, barely alive.
The next day, Lucas and Kelly were discussing the case.
Lucas analyzed, “When Carol at the library told me that Kelly was ruining a happy marriage after being negatively influenced by Catherine, I had a feeling that she would be the culprit and immediately called you to find out more about her. Later, when Naomi told me that she had seen Catherine leading Kalki to her house, seemingly against Kalki’s will, after Akash had left, my doubts began to come together.”
Kelly explained “I asked for information from other police stations about her. It seems she has had a traumatic childhood with an abusive father. She had witnessed her dad killing her mom. She was psychologically affected and grew up hating men. She could never bear to see a couple being happy together. When she moved next door to Akash and Kalki and saw their happiness, she was determined to split them up. Kalki was a simple gullible girl who fell prey to all the negativity Catherine had spewed on Akash. Today, I got a report from another county that she had similarly befriended a young married girl, kept poisoning her mind against her husband. When she felt that her ploys were not working, she had dug a pit and kept the girl inside thinking she was protecting her from her husband.”
“But what prompted you to look for Kalki in the garden?”
“Akash had called me saying that he had heard an eerie voice singing in the night, that sounded like Kalki’s. On questioning him, I realized that his bedroom looked into the backyard. When we could not find Kalki in the house, I remembered this and guessed that she would be hidden in some underground pit there.”
“But how come the singing could be heard by Akash at all. After all, there is some considerable distance and also she was buried inside?”
“Oh. That’s a scientific fact. In cold weather, the voices carry very long distances. But they do get distorted and sound ghostly.”
Akash and Kalki lay cuddled together on their bed.
Kalki took Akash’s face between her hands and told him. “When I lay there underground, in the darkness in Catherine’s backyard, I could see my ‘handful of stars’ through the grate. It brought so many memories of my falling in love with you. I was sure I was going to die and would never be able to meet you. I thought I would sing our song “Woman in love’ to myself before I died. I never thought you would be able to hear it, or that it would help the police in saving me. Now this song is more precious to me.”
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