Witness

The man glared at the ten-year-old as he passed.

The boy cowered behind the Police officer.

“I’ll get you,” muttered the man, under his breath. His fist curled inside his handcuffs. “I’ll come back and get you if it’s the last thing I do.” His eyes glowered in astonishment and disbelief at his own words.

The look went far beyond the evidence and the murder, and it terrified the boy.

The Officer patted the boy on the back. “Don’t worry about him. He isn’t coming out for a long, long time. You’ll get an award,” he added. “A small medal we give people who help us keep law and order.”

The boy had pointed the man out to the police officer. His lips quivered and he shook like a leaf but he pointed to the man at the gate.

The Police Officer had seen it in the boy’s eyes the moment he walked in. He waited but the boy said nothing. The Officer was intelligent. He knew that children see things adults don’t, and they sometimes don’t speak unless spoken to.

“Do you have something to say?” he asked, gently, bending to the boy’s height.

Viren stared at him for a second and shook his head. His eyes slid to the turbaned man at the gate and caught the warning. The Officer did not seem to notice it.

The Officer straightened. “Let me know if you remember something.”

He walked away. A faint smirk appeared at the corners of the security guard’s face. That’s when Viren whispered “Officer” and pointed.

The Officer whirled around. His glance followed the direction of the boy’s finger. The Officer had men with him who did his bidding before he asked them to. Before his eyes reached the guard’s face, they had the man by the scruff of his neck.

The Officer turned to Viren again. “Does the belt belong to him?”

Viren nodded.

He knew the belt very well, of course. When the guard changed to his uniform, he always left his brown belt hanging from a nail in the corner of the room. It was an ordinary belt, much worn and withered rough by use, the kind that every other man would have, except that for this one, there was a small bear on the buckle, a yellow one with a red shirt. He would ask the guard, Security Uncle as he called him, whether it was Winnie the Pooh. The guard would smile; he didn’t know what the boy was talking about.

The Police had not spotted the belt at the scene of the crime. It was Viren who did, the day after the murder. He asked aloud innocently, “What’s that long thing hanging from the second floor?”

It looked like a dead snake to him. The police brought it down. They confirmed that the stains were indeed blood marks, and sent it for further examination. When the belt was taken away in full view, Viren watched with his mouth open, but no other resident of the apartment seemed to recognise it. His eyes travelled to the corner of the garden. The guard was observing him. He knew that if anyone were to recognise it, it was the boy. Something in the man’s eyes stopped Viren.

When the people dispersed and began standing in small groups and discussing the incident, the guard casually approached him. There was something new and so far unseen in his eyes. He was no longer Security Uncle. The boy felt a coldness creeping in his veins. The man said between his teeth, “If you say a word, I will kill you and your family.”

He must have decided to run since it was only a matter of time before the police found out it was his belt, and identified his fingerprints on it. He had planned everything; the belt was a lapse, one he could not avoid.

The apartment had woken up to loud complaining the previous morning. The woman in the first floor apartment was screaming. She was the proud owner of a bad temper, a loud voice and uncultured behaviour, a deadly combination of characteristics. If she could not complain of noise, she would complain of silence – such was her predisposition. Someone had poured ketchup, she claimed, on the white clothes she had hung out to dry the previous evening. Her most favourite white salwars, she said. Her white dupatta. Her white undergarments! The guy who stayed alone above her house – of whom no one else in the apartment had any complaint; in fact others found him smart, honest and well-behaved – often played music to irritate her, spoke loudly on the phone to deafen her, smoked so as to suffocate her. This time he did it on purpose – he must have seen her hang out white clothes and decided to do mischief.

“The apartment association has to take some action,” she shouted to no one in particular, “I cannot tolerate such insensitive neighbours! How do you think I will wash this stain away!” She shook her stained underwear at the onlookers.

The association chairman and secretary went out to her balcony and looked up. Sure enough, there was some thick red liquid that flowed down from the floor above and hardened on the ceiling. Some of it had dripped on to her clothes. They glanced at each other in alarm and, without a word, darted up the stairs, leaving the woman glaring after them.

They found the door open and Shah’s body crumpled on the balcony in a pool of blood. There were strangulation marks on his neck and a deep gash on the back of his skull, with a line of blood on the wall. The police could easily conclude that in the struggle, he was shoved back against the wall.

The security guard had come to the apartment over a year ago, looking for job. He began as a handyman, doing the occasional plumbing or electrical work whenever needed. After a few months, he politely pointed out to the apartment association chairman that he could take up the job of the security guard during the night as well.

“I need a place to stay, Sir,” he said, “and you need a night watchman.”

It was true – the existing guard could not do the job during the day and the night. The regular night watchman had quit without warning one day.

The chairman liked him. The man seemed honest, and worked hard. He was appointed. He did not talk much or indulge in bad pursuits, and was alert at work every night. Even the old man in seventh floor who considered it his duty to drive in late at night and catch sleeping guards, nodded in approval.

In a few months he gained the trust of the people in the apartment. Not many knew his name, naturally; they knew him only as the ‘Security’ but he knew next to everything about them. They left money with him to pay the gas-wallah or for the electricity bill, and he ran errands for them. They gave him sweets for Diwali and their old sweaters during Winter, and a hundred rupees for Dussehra.

He never took off his turban. In winter he wore a close fitting cap instead of the turban.

After a year of his taking up his new position in the apartment, some of the younger folk in the association came up with the new idea of recruiting security guards and housekeeping staff through an agency. They’re more reliable, they claimed, and will be answerable if something goes wrong. It will also be a lot safer with the guards rotating every couple of months. The elders did not completely agree with the idea, but it was time to give in to the demands of the younger generation. The existing guards and housekeeping staff were given two weeks to clear out.

He had to act earlier than he thought. There was no time to put his plan to action, and he had to proceed with whatever he had. He had gained everyone’s trust, but he was hoping for more time so that no suspicion would be raised against him.

He decided to do it a few days before new guards took over. That way he would get three or four days to leave the apartment and vanish without raising any eyebrows. He asked the day security to stay the night. He had to go out, he said, something to do with finding a new job. Instead, he will do the whole of next day and night.

He had expected Shah to be asleep when he knocked on the door at twelve. Shah was surprised. What was the guard doing at his door so late at night? He barely noticed that the guard was not in uniform.

“Any trouble?” Shah asked.

“Yes, Sir, I thought I saw a shadow at your balcony. Was that you?”

“No, I was inside, but the door is open.”

“Be careful, Sir. These days… Can I take a look, just to be sure?”

There was no concrete plan. He just had to get inside the house.

As they walked out towards the balcony, Shah in front, he pulled out his belt. At the door, he wound it around Shah’s neck. Shah gawked and struggled, and his eyes began to bulge.

He had to make sure Shah recognised him. He loosened his grip and turned him around just enough for Shah to focus his eyes on him. Then he took off his turban. He saw Shah’s eyes settle on the huge scar across his forehead. He waited till it dawned on the dying man’s face. Then he pushed him to the wall. Shah’s head banged against it and he crumpled to a heap on the floor. He slowly loosened the belt from Shah’s neck.

He would have to wear it till he was out of sight of the apartment. Then he would have to get rid of it, as well as all other signs from his body. He had not touched anywhere else to leave fingerprints. Just as he was about to wear it back, he heard a knock on the door. In a flash of panic, he let go of the belt and it slipped across the railings. He waited for some time. The knock did not come again. He slowly went to the door and peered through the keyhole. There was no one. He went back and looked down over the railing. The belt had come to a halt below the railings and was hanging down from an unseen nail, close to the wall to the left. He bent and stretched his hand, but could not reach it. He looked for something to pull it up, but there was nothing. At that moment, the night watchman passed by, on the ground two floors below. If he looked up, he would be caught.

In the morning, the bachelor staying next door to Shah said to the police that he heard a loud thud sometime after twelve from Shah’s room and knocked at the door, but no one opened it. He heard no more sounds and so he assumed Shah was asleep and went back in. The Police also came to the conclusion that the death had happened around twelve. The watchman was questioned, but he had not heard a thing, and there were no visitors.

When he reappeared in the morning, the watchman narrated the incident to him. He had contemplated running in the night itself. But that would immediately arouse suspicions. He had to return in the morning for two reasons: he had to show he was innocent, and he had to know what happened to the belt – if possible retrieve it before anyone noticed. If there was any likelihood of it being identified, he would have sufficient time to run. He could see the belt hanging near the wall, a foot away from the balcony if he looked closely. The Policemen looked up at the second floor and then to the first floor. No one would have noticed for a long time – and he could have made his escape before they did – had Viren not seen it.

Shah had come to the city looking for work. He used to work in a small town far away, for several years. After a few weeks of wandering, he found a job at the supermarket. His pleasant attitude and honest interactions soon won the hearts of the shop owner and customers alike. No one noticed his alert eyes always darting to the door and scrutinising everyone who came in. No one noticed him vanish to the back of the store once in a while to calm his terrified heart. When they asked him what kind of work he did in the town, he said he did odd jobs, nothing relevant or significant. He said he could not find anything to satisfy him, that’s why he came to the city. He did not even give anyone the name of the place he came from.

He did not admit to anyone that he had once been a cop. He did not confess that his last act before he ran away from home was to try to plant false cases on a man with a scar across his forehead. He did not say that he was running for dear life.

He had not seen the man with the scar. It was another policeman who informed him, casually, that a man had come asking for him. They were having tea at the small stall.

“What man?” Shah said, uninterested.

“Never seen him,” said the policeman. “Has a beard and a large scar across his forehead.”

Shah froze. “What did you tell him?”

“Oh, I said you’ll be around later. He promised to come and meet you. Old acquaintance or something, he said.”

“Old acquaintance, my foot,” Shah struggled to keep his voice normal. “He is wanted for an old murder case. I suppose he came to bribe me. You might want to lock him up if he comes. He’s a real crook.”

Shah never returned to the police station. He left without bothering to take anything and caught the first bus out of town, and then the train to the farthest city he could afford. He had tried to believe, all those years, that being a policeman he could protect himself. He had always known the man would come looking for him. Now it was time to face his destiny, and he could no longer expect his uniform to save him.

He had dreamed of joining the police force ever since he was a boy. Ever since he saw the brave policemen in uniform march the criminal into their jeep and drive away. He worked for it. From school days he understood from elders what was expected to become a policeman, and worked hard for it. He requested his parents to move to the next village where there was a bigger police station. His father, seeing how obsessed the boy was, had complied.

But it was in his own little village where he had witnessed the crime. He was by the riverside, playing alone, as always. Three men, strangers, appeared with a box. As he watched, they sat down on the rocks hidden behind the trees and opened the box. He saw gleaming jewels and stones inside. They didn’t know they were being watched. He crouched and listened. They were dividing the jewels when the scuffle broke out. One man drew out a knife. The other resisted. The third tried to pull them apart. All of a sudden, the mediator fell back, clutching his stomach that was now splashed with crimson. The other two stared at the dying man and at each other. The man with the knife lunged again.

Shah almost fainted, with the effort from trying to keep himself quiet. He knew that if his presence was known, he would be dead as well. But the killer didn’t wait any longer. He took the box and swam across the river, leaving the two bodies behind. The thirteen-year-old ran back to the village, found some men and collapsed before them, after muttering enough words for them to understand.

When he came to, he was surrounded by policemen and villagers. The dead bodies had been taken away. The police were waiting to question him. He narrated all that he saw.

“Do you think you can identify the man if you saw him again?” asked the officer.

He nodded. He caught a movement in the crowd and saw the killer slink away. So he had not gone! He had returned to see what was happening.

Shah raised his hand and pointed.

The man tried to run, but the police set the dogs on him. He tried to scramble away and kicked at the dog. A commotion of barks, howls and yells ensued, and the man fell on his knees, shielding his head with his arms. Blood oozed out from a cut across his forehead.

The villagers and policemen surrounded him. Soon he confessed to the crime and also told them where he hid the box full of jewels.

The Police officer turned to Shah. “Good job. You’ll get an award. A small medal, a token of gratitude.”

That’s when he began to dream of being a policeman.

The criminal, bleeding profusely from the forehead, was led away by the officer and other policemen.

As he passed the boy proudly smiling at the officer, he curled his fist.

“I’ll get you,” he muttered between his teeth. “I’ll come back and get you if it’s the last thing I do.”

*  *  *

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3 Responses to Witness

  1. Ramu Nair says:

    when I started reading, it reminded me of unnikale oru katha parayam movie…. “velli kuthira….” 😉
    Good one, but till too lengthy to keep the interest on… probably after your finetuning, it would as great as your other stories… keep up the good work…

  2. gud work jeans… my son read this in a single stretch and has asked to convey his regards to u..

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