Private India City on Fire(5)
Author:James Patterson

    Mubeen nodded. His boss always managed to spring a surprise on him whenever his knowledge was called into question. “The presence of biologically dead cells or keratinocytes in their last stage of differentiation may make it possible to extract a profile derived from nuclear DNA,” he replied. “It will take me some time to tell you whether that’s possible or not in this case. It’s highly probable that DNA will be absent.”

    “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” said Santosh. “Let me know if anything new emerges.”

    Chapter 10

    SANTOSH LEFT MUBEEN’S lab and walked into Hari’s office. At thirty-five the youngest member of the team, Hari Padhi was Private’s technology geek. If you needed a cell tracing, you went to Hari. If you needed to know the precise speed and trajectory of a naked corpse falling from the twenty-first floor of a building, then you went to Hari.

    He looked somewhat like a wrestler. His chest bulged out of his shirt and his arms were thick and muscular. It was evident that he spent a substantial amount of his free time working out at the gym. His gray matter was also in peak form.

    He was seated at his desk, closely examining the video feed from the hotel’s camera. His workspace was fitted out with high-capacity microprocessors, surveillance equipment, GPS trackers, signal jammers, bug-sweep equipment, password-decryption software, and wiretap-detection systems. Also available to Hari was a full suite of ballistics equipment including microscopes with digital imaging capability, sensitive measuring equipment, and instrumentation to check and record surface temperature, projectile velocity, internal gun pressures, trigger characteristics, and lock time.

    He was using an ultra-high-resolution monitor and a high-density time-lapse deck with a built-in time base corrector to forensically examine the video feed from the hotel.

    “Any news for me?” asked Santosh.

    “We checked the room for fingerprints. Most of them were of the victim or assorted members of hotel staff. I’ve also been looking at the CCTV, and we have a guy going in and out of the room.”

    “Excellent,” said Santosh. “Let’s see him.”

    Hari scooted to the place on the tape and they watched as a man first entered and then, forwarding the tape, left.

    He wore a baseball cap, jeans, his hands thrust in the pockets of a jacket. Conscious of the cameras, his head down.

    “Not much help, is it?” said Hari with a pained face.

    Santosh looked at him. “Everything’s a help,” he said. He looked back at the screen where the man was freeze-framed as he left room 1121, certain he was looking at the killer.

    Hari looked up and wordlessly scanned the footage to the point at which the baseball-cap-wearing visitor had been recorded leaving the room. “See this? The time stamp shows two minutes past nine on Sunday evening.”

    “So?” asked Santosh.

    “Now let’s scan back further to see when he went in,” said Hari and pressed the deck’s rewind button to take the footage back by eleven minutes. “Ah, here we are. See this? Eight fifty-one p.m.”


    “Nisha spoke to receptionists and the doormen. Nobody remembers seeing anyone matching this description enter or leave, nor does he turn up on any of the reception CCTV.”

    “So he used a back entrance?” said Santosh.

    “Sort of. There’s a separate entrance from the bar at the rear of the hotel. There’s no doorman, the reception area is set back, there’s far less chance of being seen. But … they do have CCTV.”

    With a showman’s flourish Hari clicked on his laptop’s desktop and a new picture appeared. Once again it showed the same figure, baseball cap on, head down, hands in pockets. Once again there was no hint of any identifying features.

    “He certainly knew what he was doing,” hissed Santosh. “He must have known the location of every single camera in the place.”

    “It’s frustrating, isn’t it?” agreed Hari. “Except. The image from the rear entrance is a slightly higher resolution and something caught my eye. Here …” He clicked again. “Look at the shoes.”

    Santosh peered at the screen, in particular at the shoes. Expensive-looking, polished black shoes with a distinctive buckle at the sides, they were incongruous set against the baseball cap and jacket.

    He straightened, nodding with satisfaction. His phone was ringing and he delved in his jacket pocket for it, gesturing from Hari to the image on the screen.

    “Find those shoes,” he said, his finger hovering over the call-accept button. It was Rupesh. “Find where they’re sold and who’s bought a pair.”

    Hari nodded and looked pleased with himself as Santosh answered the call. “Yes?”

    “There’s been another murder,” said Rupesh. “And guess what? The victim has a yellow scarf around her neck.”

    Chapter 11

    THANE, A NORTHEASTERN suburb of Mumbai, was home to several large housing cooperatives. The second body had been discovered in an apartment that was part of a gated community there.

    Nisha drove past the security gate and down a long winding road surrounded by well-maintained lawns until the car reached the block that Rupesh had indicated. There were several police vehicles parked outside. Santosh, Nisha, and Mubeen got out of the car, picked up their equipment, and headed for the stairs. The police had already cordoned off the entrance to the third-floor apartment.

    Rupesh was waiting for them at the doorway. “Her name is Bhavna Choksi, aged approximately thirty-seven. A journalist who worked for a tabloid—the Afternoon Mirror,” he explained as he led them to the bedroom where her body had been discovered.

    The apartment was a compact one-bedroom unit. It was quite obvious that Bhavna Choksi was single but financially sound. The furnishings were simple yet elegant and the apartment was well organized and clean.

    The body was suspended from a ceiling fan in the center of the bedroom. The room was completely still but for the barely noticeable pendulum-like movement of the corpse. Nisha shuddered.

    Santosh sniffed, detecting the odor of urine. He looked down at the floor and noticed a puddle by the base of the bed. “She was strangled there,” he said. “She peed involuntarily as she was being choked. Urination or defecation are known body reactions that can be triggered by strangulation. Yes, triggered by strangulation.”

    Unlike the first victim, who had been in her nightdress, the second was fully dressed in work clothes—cotton slacks and linen top—ideally suited to a journalist on the prowl in Mumbai’s hot and humid weather. The slacks were damp with urine. Around her neck was an unmistakable yellow scarf to which a rope had been attached in order to suspend her from the fan. Both her hands had string tied around them. In one hand the victim had been made to hold rosary beads, and in the other a plastic toy bucket—the sort that kids use to build sandcastles on the beach—containing a couple of inches of water.

    “Who found her?” asked Santosh as he looked up at the hanging corpse.

    “The cleaning lady let herself in with her key at nine thirty,” answered Rupesh. “She assumed that Bhavna Choksi had already left for work, which was the case most days.”

    Santosh took advantage of the police ladder that had been placed under the fan. Handing his cane to Nisha, he climbed up several rungs so that he could look at the ligature. It was the same sort of yellow scarf as they’d found on Kanya Jaiyen. He peered into the victim’s wide-open eyes. Lifeless now, they must have been terrorized as a garrote choked the victim and deprived her lungs of air. Eyes are the windows of the soul … reveal your soul to me, woman, thought Santosh. Tell me your story, Bhavna.

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