Private India City on Fire(4)
Author:James Patterson

    It was a long walk but he made brisk progress on the way from Crawford Market to the Regal Cinema. Crossing the streets, he was greeted by beggars, bums, and vagabonds, as though he were a celebrity to them. A young boy wearing patched clothes smartly saluted him. Santosh nodded in reply.

    “Tell your boss that I need to meet him. Chowpatty, usual day and time,” he instructed.

    At the Regal Santosh turned toward Colaba Causeway, a street notorious for its pubs, pimps, and pushers, not to mention hundreds of pavement stalls selling porn DVDs, vibrators, and electronic goods smuggled in from China, Taiwan, and Dubai.

    He walked a couple of blocks down the main road until he reached an old and decrepit building. The ground floor was occupied by a well-known watering hole that sold the cheapest beer in town. Tables covered in pink checkered tablecloths were occupied by an odd mix of locals and hippies, while high above them ancient ceiling fans groaned and squeaked in an unsuccessful effort to keep cool air circulating in the stifling October mugginess. Above the heads of the patrons floated a thick haze of weed smoke.

    Ignoring the pub, Santosh slipped inside a nondescript side entrance that led to a flight of creaking wooden stairs. Climbing to the top floor, he stood before a battered door, locked with an ancient padlock. On either side were cream-painted walls punctuated by peeling plaster. To the right of the door was a dented mailbox and above this a small ornate mirror with a cracked frame. To the casual observer it looked like the entrance to someone’s home—and someone without much in the way of money.

    However, an investigator looking closely would have found several inconsistencies. The old padlock could not be opened because there was no key slot. The apparently crumbling plaster could not be broken away. The door could not be rattled because it was entirely sealed. The mailbox was glued shut and the mirror stuck solidly to the wall, not hanging by a nail or hook.

    Santosh stood in front of the mirror for a few seconds. Moments later the entire wall—with door, padlock, mailbox, and mirror intact—slid open with an efficient whoosh, like Aladdin’s cave. Santosh entered and the wall closed equally efficiently behind him.

    Unknown to the casual visitor was the fact that the dilapidated mirror held within it a sophisticated retina-scan unit. Only staff members of Private India identified by the biometric system could access the office. Established clients communicated with the firm via a dedicated helpline. New clients were only accepted via referrals from old ones. Investigators from Private India visited clients at their homes and offices rather than the other way round. The offices of Private India remained invisible to the world outside.

    There was a specific reason for this secrecy. Private India had helped law-enforcement agencies solve a few key cases related to deadly attacks by Pakistani terror groups on Indian soil. The result was that Private India was on the radar of several Pakistan-based jihadi outfits. It was absolutely necessary for the safety of those who worked for the company to keep the office impregnable.

    Inside, the office was the exact opposite of its shabby exterior. Light maple floors, recessed illumination, silent air conditioning, and white Corian wall panels ensured that the space was a haven of light, comfort, and tranquility. A middle-aged woman sat at the reception desk handling incoming calls. Santosh waved to her as he picked up an apple from a bowl that stood on the coffee table in the lounge.

    Spread over the top two floors of the building, Private India’s office was accessed via the higher floor containing the offices of Santosh, Nisha, Mubeen, and Hari. The lower floor contained the offices of support staff and junior investigators and could be accessed via a private elevator behind the reception desk.

    All the window frames of the two floors had been preserved on the outside so that the exterior of the building retained its old and dilapidated character, but the frames had been supplemented by modern double-glazed windows on the inside.

    Santosh’s room straight ahead was connected to Nisha’s smaller office and an oversized conference room equipped with videoconferencing and a 108-inch LCD screen. He took a bite out of his apple and headed right to Mubeen’s lab.

    Chapter 9

    ALTHOUGH MUBEEN YUSUF was Private India’s forensic expert, and thus blessed with the strongest constitution imaginable, he looked as though a gust of wind would be enough to blow him away. His shoulders were stooped, he wore his beard unfashionably straggly, and though he regularly smiled his eyes behind his spectacles were often sad.

    Mubeen had been working as a forensic pathologist in Baltimore when his life had caved in.

    Walking home one night with his wife and six-year-old son, a group of neo-Nazis had surrounded them, jabbing and taunting, breathing beer fumes and screaming obscenities. When the kicks and punches had begun, Mubeen had tried to protect his wife and son. Oh dear God, he’d tried. He’d fought like a tiger. And the last words he’d heard before he’d lost consciousness were: “Dirty Indian scum … go back home.”

    He had woken in hospital to the news that his son was dead, and after that no therapy in the world could keep him and his wife together. The guilt they had both felt at living while their son had died. It had been too much for them. Until finally they’d divorced and Mubeen had yearned to return home to India.

    Thanks to Jack Morgan he’d gotten his wish. A murder case had brought Mubeen into contact with Jack, who had offered him a job at Private India’s new office in Mumbai. On his first day at Private he’d met Santosh Wagh, and the eyes of his new boss were the same eyes he saw in the mirror each morning. They had never spoken about their losses, but the sense of a kindred spirit was shared.

    He looked up now as Santosh approached.

    “Anything for me?” asked Santosh and Mubeen pulled away from the microscope.

    “Nisha recovered a strand of hair from the bathroom floor,” he replied, and Santosh nodded. “I have compared it against a sample from the victim. It’s different.”

    “So it should be possible to get DNA from the hair?”

    Mubeen sighed. Forensic analysis of DNA was the most overhyped and misrepresented collection method. Santosh was making the same mistake most people made. They simply assumed that hair samples made ideal material for DNA testing.

    “Unfortunately the successful extraction of DNA from a hair sample depends on the part of the hair that is discovered,” replied Mubeen with a grim expression.

    “Enlighten me,” said Santosh, taking another bite of his apple.

    “Hair is mainly composed of a fibrous protein known as keratin. This protein is also the primary constituent of skin, animal hooves, and nails. The hair root lies below the scalp and is enclosed in a follicle. This is connected to the bloodstream via the dermal papilla. The hair shaft does not contain DNA, which is only to be found in the root.”

    “So what exactly is the problem here?” asked Santosh.

    “This strand of hair has been sliced through cleanly. There is no root available for analysis.”

    “So this was a cut strand of hair?” said Santosh.

    Mubeen scratched at his unkempt beard. “It would appear so. Attached to someone’s clothes, perhaps?”

    “Yes, unless our killer stopped to give his hair a trim,” said Santosh, thinking, then added, “Or perhaps it merely belongs to a former guest. I remember reading somewhere that in a small number of hair samples, forensic scientists are able to extract nuclear DNA from cut or shed hairs.”

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