Mystery by the Bay

Lalitha Ramanathan posted under Short Stories Versions on 2021-03-27

The sea was a placid turquoise. The sky, a serene blue. My vacation at the Bayshore hotel had been magical so far. Standing on the balcony of my room and basking in the warmth of the sun, it was hard to imagine that a man had been found dead here, the previous evening. A knock on the door startled me.  “DCP Sadashiv? Inspector Raghuvaran wishes to meet you.”  I nodded to the hotel attendant. “I will be down soon.” Monday, 3:00 PM “Sir, I’m Raghuvaran. I’ve been assigned to investigate the death of the victim, Mr. Paresh Nanda. It is good to run into you here!” “My first holiday in years and look how it turned out! It seems that wherever I go, crime follows me,” I joked. Raghuvaran gushed,” Sir, I have heard so much about you! Everyone in the department speaks so highly of you. I am in awe of you! Given your experience, I would like your guidance on this case.” “Sure. What have you found so far?” “The victim, Mr. Paresh Nanda, aged fifty-eight, was a businessman. He was holidaying with his son Nihar, and his daughter-in-law, Sujata.  At around 11:45 PM yesterday, the security guard found the victim’s body behind the hotel, lying in a pool of blood. The victim fell from a height and broke his neck. Initial forensic reports suggest either suicide or homicide.” “Where did he fall from?” “Mr. Nanda was last seen alive at the Bayshore club at 9:00 PM. The club is on the tenth floor of this hotel. At one end of this club is a corridor, leading to an external fire-escape. This fire-escape is a treacherous spiral staircase, ten floors high. It faces a rocky beach. The hotel had closed it down for maintenance.” “The corridor is located behind the toilets of the club. There were no witnesses or CCTV cameras in that corridor. The door to the fire-escape was locked. Mr. Nanda must have unlocked it somehow. Perhaps, for a quick smoke on the fire-escape? Either someone pushed him, or he fell. Forensics estimates the time of death to be between 10:00 and 11:00 PM.” I interrupted Raghuvaran. “But how did he unlock the door?” “He must have procured the key from the reception. The key had his fingerprints on it when we recovered it from the door.” I went through the victim’s file. Paresh Nanda started from humble beginnings. He married a wealthy heiress and grew his business. A man like him would surely have made enemies on the way.  Subsequently, we made inquiries at the Bayshore Club. According to CCTV footage, Mr. Nanda entered the club at a quarter to nine on Sunday. He had ordered a couple of drinks and at one point seemed to have disappeared. There were no cameras in the lounge area. No one remembered anything significant from that evening. An inspection of the corridor and crime scene were fruitless as well. Raghuvaran was frustrated at the lack of evidence. I told him it was plausible. “The club here is quite popular, dimly lit, and very crowded. Even I was there on Sunday, but I doubt I ran into Mr. Nanda.” We reviewed the guest register to see if anyone had a link to Mr. Nanda. Here as well, we drew a blank. The forensics teams were already combing through the room of the deceased. We hoped something would pop up there.  We then proceeded to interview the family. Nihar and Sujata were a handsome couple in their mid-thirties. They looked disconcerted.  “I can’t believe Papa is gone!” Nihar exclaimed.  “This is a blow to both of us. Papa will be missed.”  Sujata said tearfully.  “Was it an accident? How did this happen?” Nihar demanded. Raghuvaran assured him that we were doing everything to get to the bottom of this. Did I imagine it or did Sujata flinch for a second? We let them grieve for a day. We would interrogate them later.  We set off to talk to the staff and struck gold at the hotel café. There was a waiter who was particularly verbose. He had attended to the family’s table on Sunday.  “The three of them dined here yesterday. What a scene it was! The father and son had a fight. The daughter-in-law cried. The father threatened to cut his son out of his will. The dinner ended with the son storming out.” There it was. Motive. ****************** Tuesday, 10:00 AM Raghuvaran and I waited for the Nandas in the meeting room. They came in, dressed in black, and looking morose. “We would just like to interview you both. Separately.” “Why?” Sujata panicked. “Just a formality.” Husband and wife exchanged glances. “We will interview you first, Mrs. Sujata.” Nihar left the room. Sujata’s version “Can you please let us know where you were between 9:00 and 11:00 PM on Sunday?” “Oh! We were in our room. We turned in early.” “And before that?” “We had a nice dinner with our father-in-law. He was in such good spirits.” Sujata sniffed. “Staff stated that there was an argument between your husband and his father?” Sujata paled. “Oh! That! Just a small tiff.” “Can you describe your relationship with your father-in-law?” “We were not close. But we were cordial to one another.” “During your stay, have you ever been to his room?” “No! Never! Why should I?” I held up a Ziploc bag with eyedrops. “We got this from Mr. Nanda’s room. It’s empty, but we found your fingerprints on it. Are you sure there isn’t something you are hiding from us?” Sujata’s mask crumbled. She burst into sobs. Raghuvaran looked on, sympathetically. “Papa was a tyrant! So different from the image he projected to the outside world.  He arranged my marriage with Nihar to seal a business deal.  As time went by, my husband and I fell in love. Papa never let us be happy. He harassed us for many years. He mandated this annual vacation to pretend we were one big happy family. Appearances were important to him! He made Nihar miserable. He always belittled him at work. When we couldn’t conceive, he made cruel taunts. He called me barren and useless. Every single day he mocked me. I hated him!” Sujata cleared her throat. “The arguments started at lunch. We wanted to adopt a child. Papa put his foot down. He said that he wouldn’t allow us to taint his bloodline. I was disturbed. Later, I went to his room to give him a piece of my mind. He was in the washroom. There was a glass of rum on the dining table. I noticed his eyedrops, lying outside his travel bag. I remembered reading an article about a woman who poisoned her husband with eyedrops. In a moment of weakness, I emptied the eyedrops into his glass. My eyes fell on my reflection in the mirror. This was what had become of me! I was horrified. What had I done? I knocked down the glass and watched it shatter. He came out that second. When he saw the mess on the floor, he called me a clumsy buffoon. It was mortifying. I left immediately.” “When your first attempt didn’t succeed, did you push him?” I prodded gently. Sujata gasped. “NO! I’ve not even harmed a fly in my entire life.” “We went for dinner, later that night. I was shaking. Papa hadn’t gotten over our intention to adopt. He insulted me and threatened Nihar. My husband has been working so hard to keep the business afloat, and it was his business as much as Papa’s. There was a fight. It ended with Nihar leaving.”  “Did you return to your room?” “I had a bad headache. I needed some air. I made my way to the playground in front of the hotel. It was empty. I made a call to my therapist. I was very perturbed and didn’t want anyone to know about these calls.” “What time did you return to your room? Please don’t lie.” “I returned around 11:00. I had made up my mind. I was going to ask Nihar for a divorce. I couldn’t live this way. I didn’t know who I was anymore.” “Was your husband in the room when you came back?” Sujata shook her head.  “He returned after I did, around 11:15. He was dripping wet. He had been to the beach.” Sujata trembled.  Since she had no other information, we let her leave. As she made her way out, Nihar walked in. Their eyes met. One look at his wife’s face and Nihar knew that their alibi was blown. “Sit down and make yourself comfortable. We will be back after a cigarette break.” Raghuvaran informed Nihar. We exited the room. Raghuvaran had an update for me. “There is the matter of the key. All spare keys are hung on the wall, in a room behind the reception. There was a fire alarm in the lobby on Sunday evening. The receptionists stepped out for five minutes, as part of standard protocol. It’s possible that someone walked in then and stole the key.” “Didn’t forensics confirm that the key had Paresh’s fingerprints on them? If Paresh sneaked in and stole the key, was he planning his death?” We pondered over this possibility. Nihar’s version Nihar looked less assured when we returned. “I’m sorry for your loss,” I began. “I’m not.” He laughed bitterly. “Papa has always been cruel. I have heard rumours that he married my mother for money. I was told that she died of natural causes after childbirth complications. Then again, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had anything to do with her death. Papa was capable of anything!” Nihar continued his rant. “On my thirteenth birthday, he presented me with a DNA test. He wanted to confirm if I was indeed his son. Can you believe how traumatized I was? And the affairs! Innumerable. Once, it was a collegemate of mine.” Nihar shuddered.  “The poor girl got pregnant. God knows what happened to her. He had a way of ‘fixing’ things.” I inhaled sharply. “Tell me what happened on Sunday night.” “We had an epic fight that night. He insulted Sujata, yet again. He commanded me to remarry. I just hoped he would drop dead!” Nihar gasped.  “I didn’t mean that.” Raghuvaran nodded understandingly. “Papa stood up and said loudly, ‘Everyone! This is my son. He will not inherit a penny. I am modifying my will tomorrow!’ I couldn’t take it anymore. I walked out.” “There’s more to it, isn’t it?” I prodded. Nihar kept his gaze to the ground. “Do you want to tell us how you got that drop of blood on your shoes?” I asked, pointing to a pea-sized dot on his sneakers. My eagle eyes had spotted a tell-tale piece of evidence. Nihar’s shoulders drooped, and he wore a resigned expression on his face.  He spoke. “I walked for hours along the beach. I was heart-broken for Sujata, and the life we had condemned ourselves to. I wanted to break free, but Papa would never leave us alone. I reached a rocky stretch along the beach, behind the hotel. It was cordoned off, but I was feeling particularly rebellious. I ignored the sign and continued walking. I was somewhere near the old fire-escape. That’s when I saw a body. I ran towards it, thinking that someone was hurt. I tried turning the body around. Imagine my horror when I saw it was Papa. I screamed. I inadvertently got some blood on my hands. Papa had had an accident. He was dead.  And then it hit me. My being there, could raise some uncomfortable questions, especially after our public showdown. I fled from there and made my way to the sea. I took off my shoes and washed the blood off my hands. I missed that spot on my shoe.  I returned to my room in a daze. I couldn’t tell Sujata. Her ignorance would protect her. The next day, I told her that we would confirm each other’s alibi, to avoid any suspicion.  I know what you are thinking. As much as I hated him, I swear that I did not kill my father.”  Nihar’s voice cracked in desperation. Inspector Raghuvaran’s version Thursday, 4:00 PM “Mr. Nihar. Mrs. Sujata. Please be seated.” Raghuvaran welcomed the couple. “Sadashiv Sir and I have been discussing the case. We have the final reports from forensics. This is Mr. Nanda’s blood work. It came free of any Tetrahydrozoline, ruling out poisoning by eye drops.” Sujata lowered her gaze fearfully.  “However, anti-depressants were detected in the victim’s blood. Were you aware that your father was being treated for depression?” Nihar shook his head in denial. Raghuvaran continued. “Let’s try to reconstruct. After dinner, Mr. Nanda headed off to the club on the tenth floor. Eyewitnesses saw him alive and drinking in the lounge.” “Nihar- you would have been the prime suspect in this case since you found the body first. But some people saw you walking along the beach at night. You couldn’t possibly have pushed the victim and then walked back to the beach without coming into CCTV focus. There was undisturbed dust on the steps of the fire escape. No one could have pushed him and taken the staircase to exit. Sujata- we found CCTV footage of you in the playground at the time of the incident. It confirms your alibi.” Nihar and Sujata looked on tensely. Raghuvaran paused. I picked up where he left off.  “Mr. Nanda was depressed. Your argument must have triggered it further. The fact that he was talking about his will indicates that he had contemplated his death already.  He had holidayed at Bayshore hotel several times before. He would know about the fire escape being cordoned off. Procuring the key indicates a certain degree of pre-meditation. He grabbed the key when he had the opportunity and jumped off the staircase. Death was instantaneous.” Raghuvaran concluded. “The investigation will be closed as a case of suicide. We will be releasing the body to you today for the last rites.” The couple looked relieved. They left after thanking us. Raghuvaran exclaimed, “We could have charged Sujata for attempt to murder. She confessed!” “Hasn’t she suffered enough already?” I asked quietly.   I bid adieu to Raghuvaran. A few years later Sadashiv’s Diary I have had a long and distinguished career with the Police force. Of the many cases I have handled, there was one that was personal to me. The Paresh Nanda case. That day, we heard three versions. There was an additional version that went unheard, my version. I was fifteen when Janki was born to my parents. I was her big brother, but unwittingly, I became her guardian and protector. How the years flew by! I joined the force and her, college. I was posted to a rural area and hadn’t seen Janki for over a year. She told me that she had met someone. She said he was older than her and she would introduce me to him when the time was right. I wish I had taken her seriously. I thought it was a passing fancy. Six months later, we received a call from her hostel. She had died of septic shock, a result of her trying to abort her four-month-old pregnancy at an unauthorized place. I never found out who the father was. Her death left me unsettled. I had vowed to protect her, yet when the time came, I failed. Years later, I met a friend of hers who handed over some of her belongings to me. I was jubilant that I had something to cherish Janki by. In her belongings, was a diary that told me all that I had been searching for. She had been in love with a man old enough to be her father. He had impregnated her and refused to take any responsibility. She had his photo. A one Mr. Paresh Nanda. My blood boiled. I researched. Janki wasn’t his only victim. There were many other women too. That womanizer didn’t deserve to live, not after he had destroyed so many lives. I planned meticulously.  I booked a holiday at the same hotel that he often frequented. I bided my time. One evening, Paresh was at the club lounge, sipping whiskey. I walked over to him and chatted politely. I made sure we were out of CCTV focus. When his attention was elsewhere, I slipped anti-depressants into his drink.  I suggested that I had some 'good stuff' to smoke. That caught his attention. I told him I would meet him in the dark corridor near the fire escape where we wouldn’t be caught. He readily agreed and stepped out. I left my jacket on the chair to create an impression that I had never left. No one noticed us. I had triggered the fire alarm and stolen the key, earlier that evening. I now handed over the key to Paresh, using my gloved hand. He unlocked the door and stepped out onto the rickety fire escape. I pounced on him and hurled him ten floors down. I heard his dying screams. There was no way he could have survived that fall. I gingerly closed the door and stepped back into the club. It was as if I had never left.  Thankfully, Raghuvaran was assigned to the case. I could easily manipulate him. I had been careful enough not to leave any traces of my involvement including any incriminating footprints. We closed the case as death by suicide. The press reported it as such and there was no further follow-up. It is ironic that I, a staunch protector of the law, had to break it, to avenge my loved one. In hindsight, I have no regrets.  I’m Sadashiv Rao and this is my truth, that I will take to the grave, and beyond.

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