Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Crimson Haze



CP had slowed down considerable, all his senses on hyper alert looking for any signs of approaching faint lights or sounds to avoid any contact with anything moving. The thick white fog, which had descended rather suddenly, was quite unusual. Normally wet weather is not conducive to formation of fog but climate is specific to a region and frankly he was not familiar with this part of the world. He could still see damp slushy maroon earth on both the sides of narrow raised road half a meter above the stretched paddy fields on either side. The soft music playing on his car stereo made no difference to the all round gloom. Soon it will be dark, CP became apprehensive that at the rate he was moving, there was no way he could make it to Bareilli before nightfall. He looked at his watch, it showed half past five, but that was no consolation in this weather. His eyes drifted towards the glove compartment on the dashboard, was instantly annoyed at seeing bold ‘CP’ printed at the compartment lid. He had never liked his name, CP was merely an acceptable compromise which he encouraged but only as a compromise to more loathsome Chandar or Chandar Prakash. He wished he had a perkier name like his spiritual guru E.Caulla, whom he was on way to see. ‘Chandar Prakash’ sounded juvenile, lacked luster even though it meant moonlight and certainly did not reflect his cautious and slow analytical personality but then it was not in his hand to alter his name. All this while he was alert as always even though his thoughts were on a rather annoying subject. Suddenly he saw some thing, which drew his attention, something sprawled on the ground on his side of the road. If this was clear weather and he was speeding down the road he might have completely missed the strange object on the road but he was driving very slowly and his senses were on hyper alert.. He immediately brought his car to stop and slowly backed off to the place he had seen the curious object. He parked the car on the side as far off the road as he could and then took his flashlight out of the glove compartment and began walking towards the strange object sprawled on the wet paddy field near the road. There was still sufficient light so flashlight was not really needed nevertheless, he did it on reflex. He jumped off the high road to the wet paddy field below and approached the murky body, which looked like an adult unconscious person sprawled on the ground face down. When he went near the body he realized that the man was beyond any help. His head sheared, lying next to his dead torso. There were streams coagulated blood which had slowly diffused in the soil before hardening. The man must have been dead for quite some time now. CP looked at his watch, few minute to hit the six o’clock so he decided to leave the corpse as it is and call the police from nearest telephone.

Now there was some urgency in his driving but not the casualness. His senses were as alert as they were earlier. Soon enough he reached a muddy road branching off presumably to a nearby village. He turned the car on the branch road unmindful of damage it may cause to his car. A quarter mile up the dirt road he saw first signs of habitation. A silhouette of well-structured cottage surrounded by a high wall was the first dwelling he saw at the outskirts of what seemed to be a well off village. He stopped the car at the gate of the cottage and looked at the nameplate, it said “Judge Sahay”. This is queer, he mumbled. Is this a name or title and name! As the light was falling, he hastily pressed the bell. There was no activity, as he waited impatiently. He pressed the buzzer again, longer this time. Soon he heard some one shouting in annoyance, “Come in Saxena, the door is open.”
Bewildered, CP opened the gate, walked up the drive and gently knocked at the door. Again there was no sound, but a gently nudge revealed the door was open. He entered the room and announced mildly, “Hello! Anybody home.”
This time he heard footfalls approaching the living room. Soon a graying but robust man radiating authority walked in. He seemed surprised at seeing a stranger, apparently he was expecting someone. He said mildly, ”Well, who are you?”
CP said, “Sir, I am a police officer. Could I use your telephone, there is an emergency.”
A wry smile materialized on the man’s face, “Phone’s don’t work in this part of the world, gentleman. I am Judge Sahay. What is the emergency, I may help perhaps.”

“Look at our feet, stranger, “ barked Judge Sahay, noticing CP’s mud splattered shoes.
“Sorry!’ whispered CP realizing his folly, he backed off immediately. Out side the room, he vigorously rubbed his shoes on the doormat and then re-entered the room looking sheepish, he said,
“What a pity, I had to report a dead body, Justice Sahay.”
“A dead body! That’s not an emergency, officer.”
“A body with its head sheared off on the high way. A murder, Justice Sahay.”
“Oh! A murder! On the highway! Now this is becoming rather monotonous I am afraid. Is the dead man wearing a scarlet windcheater? By the way, call me Judge Sahay, everybody does the same here.
“Yes, indeed. The fiery red windcheater had actually attracted my attention even in this thick fog,” said CP completely taken by surprise.
“You have not encountered a murder but a serial murder. And officer, do you have a name!”
“Er, well! Sir, I am CP”, he paused and then continued, ”Chandar Prakash to be precise Judge Sahay.”
“I guess your friends call you CP, right?”
“Yeah, that’s right Judge Sahay.” CP, meanwhile noticed a dinning table set up with an array of neat glasses placed upside down with a sealed bottle of whisky and a couple of other assorted bottles of liqueurs in preparation of what appeared to be a small get-together. He continued,” I see that I have intruded into a planned celebration, Judge Sahay?”
“You have indeed, CP, but you are welcome to join. You will here some very interesting things from my guests about the serial murders I am talking about. Meanwhile I see there is nothing you can do about that emergency of yours in this inclement weather. Anyway, this fog will not disappear until the morning therefore you may as well be my guest for the night. It is early yet, the other guests will not be here till 9 PM, so you can make yourself comfortable. If you are cold, help yourself to a stiff Brandy.” The Judge disappeared in to the kitchen.
CP made himself a stiff whisky and gulped it down. He then ran down the drive, opened the gates wide and brought in his car. And again closed the gate. He was temporarily satisfied with the arrangement. There was no way he could drive in this weather and Judge Sahay’s placed looked most promising to spend the night. Yet something was strange and eerie around here, may be because of gloomy weather, he thought but was not quite satisfied with his own reasoning. Fear, the word crossed his mind, he shook his head in surprise.

. First to arrive was a scowling aging lanky and tall individual walking with a pointed cane seemingly at war with the world. Immediately on arrival he yelled,” Banwari!”, baring his past high ranking government status, the type having ”Koii hai” kind of mentality. He took instant dislike to CP, his scowl getting even more pronounced. He made no effort to camouflage his feeling, said loudly in a mocking voice,” Well, well, we have a visitor .and an extremely dirty door mat” The racket caused by the man brought Judge Sahay to the living room.
“Eh, Saxena, why this gentleman is a stranded police officer. I am afraid you will have to make do without Banwari. He is off to his village for a couple of days. Help yourself, I will be with you in a while.” He disappeared into the house.

Saxena made a stiff whisky for himself and took seat directly opposite CP. CP decided to reciprocate antagonism with even more hostility, after all he was a police officer not many take him so lightly. They both sat facing each other in awkward silence peering intently in their respective drinks. After some ten minutes another visitor arrived. He was quite the opposite of Saxena in manner and temperament. He was short and round, wore kurta and dhoti, had applied large tilak on his forehead. He cheerfully acknowledged CP’s presence,
“Ah! We have a visitor today, how nice. This will make the evening interesting.”
“Acharyaji, you are late today. Did you notice the mud at the door mat,” said Saxena.
“Indeed Sir Prabhakar, guess this rain has loosened the soil. Looks like Banwari is not attending to his chores properly. Where is the good Doctor?” Then turning to CP he said,
“I am Sharma,” then added for effect” Shubhakar.” He took seat next to him. CP was puzzled, Judge Sahay called the pugnacious man Saxena while this amiable man whom Saxena called Acharyaji, calls him Sir Prabhakar. He briefly informed Sharma reason for his presence there. Soon Judge Sahay joined them.
“Acharyaji, I will need your help in kitchen. As regards Saxena and Doctor the less said the better,” he said helping himself to a soda and scotch. He then cleared his throat and said in a deep baritone,
“CP here “ pointing towards CP,” has found yet another body with severed head. Obviously severing of head is amateurish attempt on the part of assassin to derail the investigation but few minutes at the post-mortem investigation will reveal Vader died of poisoning. Yes, He is Shashi Vader, the officer will vouch for that.” He looked in CP’s direction.
“If you allude to scarlet windcheater, then yes the corpse had a red windcheater on”
At this moment they heard mild knock at the door then a dark bearded gentleman entered.
“Dr. Bhaskar, you are beyond redemption. I give up,” said Judge Sahay.

Dr.Bhaskar was a dark, bearded and studious fellow having an easy laid back life style. He was a person of few words not used to raising his voice but very persuasive. He wasn’t a physician but a retired professor of psychology from the famous Berrieli Collage and that partly explained his quiet persuasiveness. He was a mild drinker but smoked heavily. He set for himself soda and gin, greeted everybody with a smile briefly glancing at CP interestedly then settled down next to Judge Sahay. Acharyaji spoke first after the interruption caused by arrival of Dr.Bhaskar,
“The fellow had it coming. I say these young yuppie types have no regard for their own glorious cultural heritage. They are the kind, who bring disgrace to society. I do not think he was poisoned. I strongly believe he was strangled.”
Dr.Bhaskar cleared his throat, sending signal to be filled in on the subject of discussion. Judge Sahay repeated the whole incident briefly then threw the question,
“Who could have killed the fellow?”
“Every man is a potential killer,” instead of replying, Dr.Bhaskar made that enigmatic statement puffing on his cigar. Dr.Bhaskar’s replies were crisp and terse often of general nature rather than specific. CP began to assemble a discernable picture from the bits of conversation around him. This coterie of queer individuals often met at Judge Sahay’s house. The common feature of their interest was crime and deliverance of justice. This Vader fellow was here a few days when they had a similar conclave. From there conversation he could now vaguely draw caricature of Vader. Apparently Vader was a ruthless FMCG salesman with focus on rural marketing. He stomped the villages around here in his motorbike selling sundry commodities. Seems he had a pathological fixation on guarding his turf. His motorbike breakdown near Judge Sahay’s house so like him he too sought help from Judge Sahay and was invited join their gathering just like happened with him. Eventually these four men had systematically peeled every layer of his personas and what emerged was quite grotesque. Vader had a turbulent childhood. He was diminutive and frail that made him prime target of young bullies. One particular kid who was a relentless bullying died in tragic circumstances that left deep scars on his psyche. This bully died in a bizarre accident in which Vader fatally injured him with an arrow. Dr.Bhaskar later ripped apart Vader defenses to make him concede that he had practiced shooting of arrows prior to this incident but Vader had remained adamant that the incident had been purely an accident. When they had left him last he was shaken and doubtful. His thought train was broken by Dr.Bhaskar’s rare monologue,
“Vader was adept at persistently suppressing and blacking out unpleasant facts which did not meld with his conscious persona, that caused innumerable subconscious conflicts in mind. There is always a possibility of suicide …..”

Instinctively CP began to discern a dangerous pattern in Dr.Bhaskar’s technique of autosuggestion. Suddenly he felt that all four of them were playing a kind of macabre game. May be one of them is a pathological killer. He looked around him and decided Sir Prabhakar is unlikely to be subtle murderer, on the other hand Acharyaji wouldn’t kill any one himself. He was most likely to find a faithful zombie to carry out his mission. Judge Sahay and Dr.Bhaskar are most dangerous to pin down. He felt his own life is in serious danger and then realized that there was complete silence in the room. They were all eagerly looking at him. As looked at them bewildered Judge Sahay repeated helpfully,
“We were saying CP, you too might have killed people in course of your duty perhaps. After all you are in the police.”
CP decided to be very very careful with this criminal lot. He said presently,
“I have an investigative job therefore I have been assaulted several times.”
Judge Sahay said soothingly,
“You mistake CP, no offence of course. What we meant was if you had killed someone in self-defense. We, of course, did not have murder in our mind.”
“No, never,” said CP dryly. He had no wish to become subject of their discussion. But they persisted.
“Of course, of course,” said Acharyaji then added slyly,” Have you come across unnatural death at any time in life!’

“Depends what you consider unnatural death. I have been to city morgue several times in connection with my investigation,” said CP unhelpfully yet he wasn’t ready to annoy them and provoke into something. He was by now veering towards an opinion about seedy character of this gathering but not quite convinced though. He was intrigued by the swings in their approach sometimes soft some times brutally candid.
Dr.Bhaskar said.
“What is your most profound recollection, something very poignant like untimely death of a very dear person?”
“I have no such recollection, no tormenting memories if that is what you mean, “ said CP adding,” fortunately!”
“Eh! Yes, yes of course. Your parents, aren’t they alive?”
“Yes they are, very much so,” said CP showing traces of annoyance.
“And your grand parents? As a child you were very fond of them, weren’t you?”
“ I was indeed. Unfortunately they died a long time ago.”
“As a child it must have shocked you as it should indeed you being fond of them.”
“Grandma died in village far away I have no recollection of that. Grandpa died from a heart attack, I guess that rattled me,” CP was surprised saying that.
“He lived with for a while for you to remember all this. A long time back I guess,” said Judge Sahay.
“ And he would send you on minor errands, “ Dr.Bhaskar added.
“Yes indeed, now that you describe this so graphically. He used to give me ten paise to fetch a packet of beeri and two sticks of Panama cigarettes from nearby pan shop,” said CP lost in reminiscence.
“And sometimes it would irritate you, naturally!”

“Yes, always two Panama sticks and bundle of beeri. He wouldn’t deviate on that ever even if I had to go out many times. I didn’t like that,” said CP enthusiastically. But the trap was began to tighten without his realizing. Now they were making very helping suggestion as if hypnotizing him.
“You say your grand father was frail and weak, did your parents discourage him to walk up the stairs, may be in regard to his weak heart, “ suggested Judge Sahay.
“Yes you are right. Now I remember we had small room on the first floor we called it Barsati. Those days houses had high ceilings therefore the stairs up to ceiling were tiresome for Grandpa. The Doctor had strictly forbidden him to climb stairs. He was not allowed to climb up to Barsati. I would often run up the stairs to avoid his frequent errands. “

By now it was very late. There was complete stillness about the house some kind of disturbing eerie silence apart from the conspiratorial whispers of those old men. CP seemed to be in some kind of trance flowing along the suggestive path led by the men. Sir Prabhakar, who was quite silent all this while took over from Judge Sahay, said in a surprisingly different tone, his voice quivering,

“Grandpa died in Barsati. It was a cold winter day. He had sent you to the shop, I guess at least twice to get those cigarettes and beeri. You didn’t like that one bit and were very unhappy. I think it was afternoon. There was no one in the house save young CP. Grandpa was talking to neighbor said goodbye to him and knocked at the door. Sulking CP didn’t open the door. As I said it was cold outside, so Grandpa had no option but to climb up the stairs. He was found dead much later. Of course nobody was blamed.” After a brief silence Sir Prabhakar continued rising from his seat,
“It is now getting late. I guess time to call it a day now.”
Ashen faced CP looked completely lost in thought. One by one they all began to rise. Abruptly CP said,
“Wasn’t winter. It was a very hot day in summer.”
“Of course of course!” they chorused in sympathy.

When a morose, shaken and completely deflated CP saw Dr.Bhaskar heading for toilet, he followed him stealthily. When away from the eyesight of others he confronted him with the question,
“Is Sir Prabhakar a schizophrenic?”

This startled Dr.Bhaskar. CP saw first sign of crack developing in enamel like fa├žade of Dr.Bhaskar. Showing first sign of anxiety Dr.Bhaskar said anxiously,
“But they all are schizophrenic! Look if they saw me talking to you in the dark, I am dead meat.” Then emphatically gesturing him to use the toilet first he retreated to the living room.
Later CP saw them huddled together in an animated discussion.

Avaricious Atiputi Cerma couldn’t stop gloating over the windfall. He was assigned a thoroughly dull and tedious audit of IT department when suddenly this message to audit UP Nal Koop Nigam (UP Tube Well Corp.) came his way. Now anybody who has any knowledge of audit knows what a gold mine it was to audit most corrupt of the state’s undertaking. So first thing the next day he firmed up the tour lest authority changed his mind. Now he was heading towards Bareilli in the corporation’s van. As they were nearing the destination the van was blocked by smashed a red Maruti 800 lying in the middle of the road. Some shepherd kids were vigorously gesticulating towards the treetop of a nearby Peepul tree. Atiputi Cerma came out of the van and looked in the direction of the tree. He was shocked to see a bloodied man with multiple stab wounds was hanging from the tree. Shaken he looked inside the smashed car, he could still see bold CP embossed on the dashboard. He immediately returned to his van barked swift instruction to driver to maneuver the van from the side of the car and speed off from this site.

* * * * *

For away, Sir Prabhakar watching the preceding through a powerful binoculars said resignedly,
“I told you, this rascal can only be trapped by monetary inducement. He speeding away from the scene as if Huns are after him.”

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