Story by Mohan Pandey
Illustration by L.A. Spooner
I was replying to the business mail when I heard my wife Sheila asking, “Did you read the news of the missing writer, Anna Smith?”
“No,” I said, and continued with my work. I wanted to finish it before our friend Charles showed up to join our weekend chess games.
“She’s among my favorite writers,” Sheila added, and thrusting the Daily Mail into my lap, said, “It’s three weeks now since she was reported missing.”
I set aside the newspaper when the doorbell rang. I got up to greet Charles and escorted him to the sitting room while Sheila went in to bring his favorite jasmine tea.
Charles was a college friend, a mild-mannered 52-year old, medium build, average features, rather thin but muscular in his limbs. Behind his penetrating black eyes, focused by a pair of thin-rimmed glasses on a round face, lay an exceptionally sharp mind. A math professor and a man of few words, his mind worked fast on puzzles, mysteries or tasks that were challenging. Bachelorhood was agreeable to his introvert personality.
I ran an IT consultancy, and Sheila, my wife of 22 years, in her late forties, was also on the faculty of the math department along with Charles. Her hobby of experimenting with the exotic herbs and spices blended well with her interest in exploring the nutritional value of different foods.
Pouring tea for Charles, Sheila said, “Did you hear the news of writer Anna Smith? The husband found her missing.” Charles nodded but showed no reaction. Quietly, he lit a cigarette while Sheila groaned, “No clue so far.”
She set up the board and arranged the pieces. I withdrew for a while to close the business mails. In the folded newspaper that had been put aside, the headlines of the missing woman were peering out.
— ♦♦♦ —
The next day, we had John, a veteran cop, and his wife Clare for supper. His 26-year eventful career had got him the reputation of a hardboiled detective. An avid golfer, John was also good at chess and enjoyed playing with our common friend Charles. Reacting to Sheila’s concern over the missing woman, he said, “A tough case, my chaps have made thorough searches and questioned friends, colleagues and the servant, no lead so far.”
“You may have other ways, something that can make the connections…,” I chipped in.
“Yeh … we need a breakthrough. The higher-ups are keeping a tab,” John said, staring into space with blank looks.
— ♦♦♦ —
Returning home after a business meeting the next day, I found Sheila busy in her cooking. I refreshed myself and checked the mail before moving to the kitchen. The cooking was done and Sheila waited at the table.
I picked up a meat chunk from the new dish and rolled it over in my mouth.
“How does it taste?” Sheila gazed at me.
“Great… a perfect blend of spices!” I exclaimed
“Yesterday in the store,” Sheila said, “I sampled a snack cooked with ‘haleem’, a new mixture of spices, a blend of cardamom, coriander, turmeric, ginger powder, and star anise …, got awesome reviews from chefs as a wonderful ingredient for non-vegetarian dishes.”
“It does have a stimulating taste,” I said.
She smiled at my admiring looks.
— ♦♦♦ —
At the next weekend games, Sheila was up with brilliant moves with white pieces and forced Charles to a draw in the first game. But in the next, he engineered a checkmate with a new opening move. He complimented her on an unconventional opening as we moved to the dinner table.
“Here’s a new dish with spices used in the South Asian cuisine…nutritious and tasty,” Sheila said.
Savoring it, Charles remarked, “Superb…my compliments to your culinary talent.”
After dinner, Charles lit a cigarette when the prime time news channel highlighted the mystery of the missing woman.
“Why is the media hype on it? Let the police figure it out.” Charles was miffed.
“Sheila said, “But it’s taking them too long.”
After a pause, she asked him, “You do relish looking into the mysteries, how about taking it as another challenge, a live unresolved mystery? Your hypotheses fitted perfectly in the two unsolved cases that had gone cold. I remember the remarks you made each time: a chess player can see plays beyond plays.”
“Oh. No. The police are on the job.” Charles was evasive.
“Yes, but far from cracking it,” I persisted.
“I am aware of the news but not of the facts. I do enjoy deciphering the mystifying cases, but I better avoid wearing the hat of a criminologist.” Charles then took up the newspaper and read the story. He thought for a moment, closed his eyes, and went through it again slowly as if dissecting every sentence. Something in the story put him in a contemplative mood. Sensing that he had let the story sink in, I nudged further, “Our friend John would welcome fresh thinking.”
As if under a spell, Charles got up and said, “Thank you, Sheila, for the wonderful meal. I will have to be going now.” A pensive Charles left quietly without any further word. It was not uncommon for him to excuse himself midway from any conversation if an idea flashed in his mind.
— ♦♦♦ —
There was no word from Charles the following week.
“I hope all’s well with Charles,” I said thinking aloud during the dinner. “I’ll not be surprised if he has taken up Anna Smith’s case seriously.”
The next day, I happened to run into John at the golf club. He looked tired after finishing the 18th hole. We sat down with a beer to chat.
He said, “Charles was with me last week, quite inquisitive of the missing woman’s case. I told him all that our team had pieced together. He wanted to visit Anna’s house. Didn’t tell me specifically why, but I took him along.”
“How did he react?”
“He spent a good deal of time in the bedroom, living room, the kitchen area and the big pantry which was well stocked with tinned and packaged food and spices. Didn’t ask any question but watching all the time for something that must have been weighing on his mind. Then he went around the house. It’s an old two-storied house with a sprawling lawn in the front and a small garden in the rear. Richard, the husband, kept himself busy with usual chores, cleaning, tending the lawns, cooking. Charles spent more time outside, going around the lawn, the flower beds, shrubs and the rear garden where Richard had cut wood down to small pieces. Before leaving, he wished to borrow the manuscript of Anna’s new novel which he had noticed lying at the top of her papers.”
“Any more input he needed?”
“No. He was deep in his thoughts, only asked about the servant in the house, and when exactly the police were informed.”
“How is Richard coping”
“Normal, cooperating in the investigations.” He added after a pause, “Gardening is his new hobby, shelving temporarily his company’s commitments, spends more time cutting trees, stems, branches, pruning sh
— ♦♦♦ —
The next weekend, Sheila and I noticed Charles was not in his usual disposition all the way through the chess games and the dinner.
As he took out a cigarette, I said, “Your somber mood makes me wonder if the missing woman’s mystery is weighing too much on you.”
“No… it’s all right. I’m fine, just some queer pieces of the mystery are not on all fours, so groping in the dark.” He threw a serious glance and took a drag, blowing the smoke out from his mouth in a hard line.
Sheila recollected, “I’ve admired Anna’s style of storytelling. At her book launch, I was floored by her cordiality when she signed a book for me and talked about a story that I had read in her last collection. Her first publication was a collection of poems which set her as a promising writer. Critics were impressed by her ability to craft out the chaos of emotion and language, something uniquely artful. I felt concerned that her case might go cold if investigations remained tardy.”
“I had sensed your feelings,” Charles nodded. After taking another puff, Charles said, “That’s fine and understandable. But the facts that I have come across are tough to get past.”
He continued as if thinking aloud, “So far, there is no one with a motive to cause her disappearance, no evidence linking it to any incident, no suspicious person around. The husband who saw Anna last has the perfect alibi of claiming to be away.”
“But there has to be something behind it.” Fine lines became visible on Sheila’s forehead.
“Of course, there has to be a reason …, quite elusive so far.”
“Any profiling of potential suspects?” Sheila’s casual question was a shot in the dark.
“Profiling is a useful tool, but where are the suspects?”
The chilling silence that followed was broken by Charles who ground the butt of his cigarette in the ashtray and said, “The housemaid Rosa, who was on vacation, has returned and got back to me after my message I had left on her phone to meet. So far she has merely told the police that the Smiths were a good employer, but she must be in the know of more.”
“Good luck,” I said as Charles raised his hand to say adieu.
— ♦♦♦ —
I was happy to greet John when he rang the doorbell the next weekend.
“Haven’t played with you guys for weeks,” John said as he entered and greeted Sheila. Charles was next to show up. Sheila served the tea before the game. We admired the way John was able to dodge being checkmated despite losing his queen to the white castle of Charles.
When the post-dinner chat veered round the case of Anna, John turned to Charles, “Anything strikes you?”
Charles shook his head. He recalled what Rosa had to say. “The elderly maid with the couple for six years had maintained that she was away on vacation. First, she didn’t volunteer her own impressions. After posing as Anna’s friend who felt the great loss on her disappearance, I found her empathizing with me. She opened up to admit that Anna was very caring, always gentle and often talked about Rosa’s children. She whispered, ‘I didn’t like the way Richard behaved; never saw a smile when he talked to his wife… even heard loud voices from their room on occasions.”
“Do we have any relationship issue then?” John said.
Charles’ vague gesture showed no certitude. He added, “Rosa was doubtful if Richard’s frequent absences were always for business …, her intuition after noticing unwittingly Richard’s sweet tone while receiving some calls.”
“Have you finished with Anna’s manuscript?” John asked.
“Yes, a love story, full of juicy accounts. A woman writer finds her world transformed when her love is reciprocated in abundance by her literary partner.”
— ♦♦♦ —
Charles knew the auto engineering firm where Richard was a vice president. He met Samuel, an engineer who had worked with Richard until his retirement.
Describing Richard as an intelligent marketer for the company, Samuel said, “His flirtatious behavior with an attractive middle-aged sales executive didn’t remain unnoticed but their team kept the company’s order book swelling. She would accompany him to outstation client meetings which grew in frequency.” He also added, “She was single and professionally ambitious.”
The new twist to Richard’s life distracted Charles. He turned attention to Anna. He had learned from my wife that Anna took to writing from an early age, and had many published works to her credit. Charles met a celebrated writer, Geoffrey Lyons, ‘Jeff’ to his friends, who was seen most often with Anna at the writers’ workshops and literary events.
Jeff was quite forthright. About his relations with Anna as a writer and friend, he explained, “The emotional commonalities in writers’ thoughts and works tend to develop into a bond of mutual appreciation, sometimes intense and very deep. It happened everywhere, not uncommon regardless of any apprehension that Anna’s husband might have harbored.”
Charles assumed that the frosty marriage of Richard and Anna was devoid of any physical or emotional bearing, a barren lingering companionship, so purposeless that it rendered their lives vulnerable to any untoward eventuality. It was, therefore, not surprising if somewhere a storm was brewing up beneath a cool and uneventful partnership.
The mathematician’s brain went on overdrive soon. The coming days saw Charles busy, checking on Richard’s business activities, the conferences, and meetings which kept him away frequently. He also met Anna’s literary agent and went through the reviews of her works, though he came away with a smile after he learned from her publisher that he was expecting rising sales of her last book following the news of her disappearance.
— ♦♦♦ —
A week had passed when punctilious Charles rang the bell on the weekend evening. I was happy to see the gentle smile back on his face. Sheila heard me greeting him and peeped in to say ‘hi’ before going in to bring the tea.
A relaxed Charles sat comfortably, looked at me with a half-smile and lit a cigarette. Inhaling deeply, he turned to the chess table, and said, “Let’s try with a new opening today, quite similar to King’s gambit.”
It was fun playing with the new moves. After supper we shifted to the comfort of the recliners.
He had anticipated my wife’s probing on Anna Smith’s case. With a new cigarette, he took a deep puff and said, “I better unwind myself of the mystery of the missing lady. It has engaged my mind far too long.”
A nonchalant Charles began his homily monologue in a calm voice: “I’ve looked into every angle, and find no more room left to brood over it. He put his cigarette in the ash-tray before resuming.
“In the absence of any direct clue, I had to struggle to uncover a pattern that made connections in the circumstantial account.”
After a pause, he resumed. “I had interesting talks with Anna’s literary friends about her persona as a novelist and about her works. Their logical assumption was that the kind of passionately portrayed account one read in her recent novels could be a reflection of her own experience. The woman character in the latest unpublished novel cherishes a deep relationship with someone which might not necessarily be out of sheer fantasy, quite disturbing to a husband, whose suspicion was growing stronger with other tell-tale signs.”
“You mean someone ably filled in the lady’s emotional void?” I saw the plot thickening.
Charles sounded scholarly as he resumed, “Life becomes complex and unpredictable when emotions run wild and take over our thinking, blurring our vision. The resulting vulnerability can drive us to any misadventure. We fall in this pattern time and again because not many of us ever learn from the experience.”
“So what’s your hypothesis?” The emotional tinge in my wife’s tone was not hidden.
“In the absence of a criminal motive, everything defied logic. It could be anything, two love triangles that triggered it, aggravated by factors of infidelity, emotional freeze coupled with jealousy, envy, too much possessiveness, the absence of any stabilizing weight in the marriage. Obviously, with one partner’s mysterious disappearance in such a scenario, the other emerges as the suspect. The specifics of ‘why’ and ‘how’ can be handled by the police sooner or later.”
“Any concrete reason to cast such a doubt?” asked my wife.
“It’s all circumstantial at this stage, but I see a pattern which fits Richard. We have a character, a dry and somewhat detached husband in a fruitless marriage with an established writer. Their diverse living lacked what could bind them together physically, intellectually or emotionally. The drifting apart intensified with the suspected entry in their midst of outside partners. It kept growing and snowballed into a situation that ran out of their control.
“Richard does not behave as a husband who has lost his wife, no sign of distress. Then Rosa’s insight into their worn out relationship provides an important clue. And, finally, at one point in his unguarded moments during questioning, he ruled out the possible kidnapping. But how could he do that unless he knew the situation otherwise?”
Charles had connected the dots.
But he was not finished as yet. “The vast majority of people who until the day they commit a crime seem perfectly normal. The signs of mental disturbance can unfold very quickly, quite hard to predict before the action. Richard is ambitious, and unemotional, rather ruthless. Despite his own wayward behavior, he’s extremely possessive of his wife, an established writer which also raises his social profile. But the conflicts start building up once their fidelity comes under question, manifesting in bouts of heated exchanges. Lacking the control mechanism, he becomes impulsive. And, remember, extreme conflicting emotions can lead to an extreme reaction.”
Reconstructing the sequence, Charles added, “Surprisingly, Richard returned early from the conference. Not finding Anna at home infuriated him. When he learned that she was with Jeff, something exploded inside him uncontrollably.
“It must have been a powerful rage when they faced each other. The heated exchange resulted in a sufficient provocation for Richard to cause physical blows which turned out to be fatal for his wife. But after Richard regained his senses, he planned the disposal of the body very wisely, very hard to detect. On a final note, Charles remarked, “Probably, he may not have the killer’s instinct, but it just happened – he alone knows how. The specifics of ‘why’ and ‘how’ belong to the police domain.”
“But isn’t it just a theory you’re talking about?” I asked.
“Well, I discovered a crucial dent in Richard’s alibi: he was present only in the opening session of the conference, the documents circulated to the participants later were forwarded to his address because of his absence, a fact he fuzzed cleverly.”
Charles put out the last stub of his cigarette.
“And how do you explain the absence of any trace of Anna’s body?”
Unfazed by our perplexed looks, Charles continued, “A criminal mind can find many ways.” With half-closed eyes, he said, “Did you notice the new hobby of Richard? The gardening activity was uncharacteristic of him, didn’t fit with his type. Yet, he changed the whole landscape around the house, cut small trees in the garden and then needlessly kept splitting them into smaller and smaller sticks. It made no sense in the beginning, but then it revealed everything.”
“So what’s that ‘everything’?” I asked.
“I hope it’ll not be disturbing,” he replied calmly and looked at Sheila.
“Come on, Charles.”
“You prepare a delicious meal with a particular brand of spices ‘haleem’. And Richard, not an expert cook, had stocked packets of it in his pantry. He had to burn calories after heavy food…, and so did he with extensive gardening.”
“What…? How could you…?” Sheila almost cried.
“Oh my God….,” she held her head with both hands.
There is no other answer – he didn’t need that much gardening, just as there was no other purpose of the ‘haleem’ packs in his food pantry.”
We were stunned, but a cool Charles extinguished his cigarette and got up to leave.
After closing the door I returned to the kitchen where Sheila dumped something in the bin. I asked, “What’s that?” She did not answer but I noticed the pack of ‘haleem’ in the trash.
— ♦♦♦ —
“Stick around and see if anyone else caught a glimpse of this little man. Go on.” When he looked to his partner, Reed was bent down and peaking under the sheet. His face unmoved by whatever remained of Anthony Giante. “Getting pretty juicy, huh?” McGraw said.
“These greaso killings usually are.” Reed dropped the sheet and rose. “Doesn’t mean much, I don’t think. There’s always some guy that never gets found. Maybe he was just another poor bastard ducking for cover.”
“Maybe.” Smoke poured slowly from McGraw’s nose as his iron jaw shifted thoughtfully. “But I still wanna find him and ask why he ducked before the shooting started. It’ll be up to McGraw to find out who spilled the blood on the curb.