Chapter 1: The dead and the missing
The present day
Suburban Mumbai, India
The shrill ring of the handheld tore the silence of the night. The Phone twisted and turned as it’s vibrator function joined in the effort to wake the owner up from his dreams. Lights blinked on and off on the phone’s display. The owner of the handheld was a slightly short but extremely fit person. He measured five feet five in his stockinged feet. A slim muscular body was the result of his eating right and two hours of exercise every morning. Used to erratic schedules and a past marred by criminals and the ilk, he always slept lightly like a watchdog on a perpetual alert. As the phone hummed and hawed, Arvind groaned and rose slightly. Without touching the phone, he looked at the display. The number was unknown.
Arvind’s life had rotated around unknown numbers. He had been a police inspector with the Mumbai police for ten long years. Love of all things science had made him do courses in criminology, forensic investigations and to some extent in pathology as well. A sharp brain rendered him a juggernaut when it came to investigating cases. He specialised in cracking murders and kidnappings and his fame rose very quickly. Three years back he had single handed solved a case involving the abduction of a rich businessman’s daughter. Overwhelmed at the sight of his four-year-old daughter alive and unharmed before him, the businessman had offered an obscene sum of money to Arvind and insisted he take it. Arvind had donated half of it to the Policemen Welfare Fund and used the other half to set up his own private investigative practice. A smiling baby face and an easy rapport with his superiors got him called to the Police headquarters many times for his opinion on complicated cases. He loved the Mumbai police’s dedication to serving the people inspite of their many difficulties and felt a sense of nostalgia combined with pride every time he entered a police station.
With one eye open like a pirate, Arvind stared at his phone. Coming to the conclusion that it may be an emergency, he sighed, pressed the call accept symbol and placed the phone to his ear. Immediately a cacophony of noises, voices combined with sirens and traffic hit his ears. A calm voice spoke ‘Arvind Kohal?’ Yes, replied Arvind in Hindi, a typical language of Mumbai. ‘This is Inspector Vijay Pande with Worli Police station. I am afraid there has been an accident at your brother’s home. Please come here urgently’. Inspite of an iron will brought about by years of investigating myriad cases, Arvind buckled. He gripped the handheld tightly and spoke hoarsely ‘ls my brother okay? Is his family okay? His children, he has two daughters - Diya and Aparna. Where are the kids? Can I speak to them? Can I speak to my brother?’ The Inspector responded calmly telling him it would not be possible for him to pass on the phone. His senior had given him this number and asked him to call Arvind and make it immediately to his brother’s house. He again requested Arvind to come there as fast as he could and disconnected the call.
A trained investigative mind kicked in. Police trouble meant something was very wrong with his brother and his family. An urgency brought Arvind to his senses in an instant. He threw of the blanket and quickly slipped into a faded blue jean and a black T Shirt and grabbed his house keys and the vehicle keys bunch. Slamming the door behind him he ran the three floors down to the society’s designated parking spot reserved for him. Running lightly and without a sweat he reached the parking spot and stared at his two vehicles, debating.
When Arvind had received the huge sum of money from the businessman, he had fulfilled one of his lifelong dreams. Typical of a Mumbaikar, he had a car and a two-wheeler. Unlike other Mumbaikars, while his car was a Hyundai, his bike was a costly affair - a Benelli Tornado. Draped in fiery red paint, the Tornado was a 1000 cc monster capable of extreme speeds. A comfortable sitting stance enhanced the riding experience. Arvind rarely drove the bike around considering the Mumbai traffic did not allow him to walk properly, let alone drive a superbike. As he looked at his Car and bike, Arvind made a snap decision. He thought of the emergency awaiting him and straddled the Tornado. With a subdued roar the superbike announced its awakening to the world. Arvind slowly turned it around from his home in Teen Hath Naka in Thane, a suburb of Mumbai. The bike opened up and picked a windy speed as the rider touched the Eastern Express Highway in the direction of the city.
The rider and the bike completed the journey to Worli, an upscale business district in Mumbai in less than forty minutes. Lack of an abject fear and a sense of urgency drove Arvind as he dismounted the bike outside his brother’s apartment and ran towards the huge black gates which proclaimed Aryan Towers II in silver words. The gates were open and two police jeeps stood inside the gates. Three uniformed constables kept watch outside the gates and stopped the media from entering. As Arvind looked up at the tenth floor where his brother had his home, he saw fire men spraying water on the French windows. Smoke billowed from the windows in a leisurely pace as it died down slowly. With a forbidding of the worst, Arvind ran towards the gates looking up at the windows and failed to notice the fat man walking towards him. An imminent collision was prevented by the fat man as he stopped Arvind with his hand on his chest. Arvind stopped suddenly due to the force blocking his chest and looked at the eyes of his good friend and ex-colleague, Assistant Commissioner of Police, ACP Kavish Pandit. He was fondly called a Kavi or a poet because of his preposterous habit of spouting poetry at crime scenes. This time Kavi smartly refrained from airing any wayward thoughts of poetry that came to his mind.
Arvind looked at Kavi and the sombre expression on his friend’s face told him something was very wrong. He tried to speak but words failed him. Kavi gently guided him to the pavement where he made Arvind sit. Arvind did not protest all the while and mutely set himself on the pavement. ’Arvind, there was an accident at Vishal’s home. It was a gas leakage leading to a blast, we don’t know how it happened. I am afraid both Vishal and Gayathri are dead. We retrieved two bodies from the home and they have been sent to Rai Memorial for the post-mortem. Arvind stared at his friend’s face unable to comprehend the sudden loss of his brother and sister-in-law. He spoke slowly and enquired about the kids dreading the worst.
Kavi’s expression changed as he puckered his brow and frowned, ‘that’s the confusing part. Forensics went through the place with a fine tooth, but could only retrieve two bodies, both from a preliminary examination have ages ranging between 35 to 40. No other remains are present. We woke up the day guard who couldn’t tell us anything about the kids. Arvind, I suspect a foul play here.’
An instinct arose in Arvind as he looked at the pensive face of his friend. ‘There is one more thing, Arvind’ Kavi said softly. ‘As the next of kin, you would need to accompany me to Rai Memorial for identification. The bodies are charred so it will be difficult to identify, but it needs to be done.’ Kavi’s voice dropped notches as he spoke. Numbly, Arvind nodded and got up. Although he had seen numerous bodies and still saw them in various stages of pathology, the thought of looking at the burnt bodies of his brother and sister in law shook him to his very core. He stood with his shoulders bent and looked at Kavi. For a second Kavi stared at his neutral face trying to decipher his expression. As his expression changed quickly, Kavi jumped aside. Arvind bent over from his hip and threw up the remains of his last night’s half-digested meals. Kavi motioned a constable to get some water which Arvind used to wash his mouth and face. Drinking the water, a gleam returned to Arvind’s eyes. He handed the bottle back to Kavi. Looking at his eyes, Kavi realised the meaning of his changed expressions and body language. The people who did this would have to be caught by the police first else they would suffer a far worse fate at Arvind’s hands. As if on cue, the constable came with a police jeep to where they were standing. Arvind and Kavi got into it as the jeep turned direction to the busiest hospital in Mumbai, the Rai Memorial.
The Rai Memorial is situated at Lower Parel, a short distance in the empty roads at the dead of night. Kavi switched on the police lights and floored the accelerator on the old jeep. The Jeep in turn threw its power into its rusted engine and made speed as it headed towards the hospital. Within twenty minutes, Arvind and Kavi reached the front entrance of the hospital. Kavi quickly parked the jeep and the duo dismounted making their way to the separate entrance leading to the Basement morgue.
The night is a strange animal. It claims lives more than the day as people become relaxed and drive unsafely. Maximum accidents occur at a time when minimum people are on the roads. A clear road ahead of them turns even the most cautious of riders into a racer. Even at this time at the dead of night, the morgue in Rai Memorial was busy as it took in multiple accident cases, murders and suicides. The morgue attendants wheeled stretchers to and fro from the ambulances coming to a screeching halt at the parking.
Situated in the basement, Rai Memorial was one of the morgues that housed a modern autopsy room with a host of facilities. It was one of the top three choices of the police and authorities for getting quick and effective post-mortems done. It had the capacity of fourteen beds where post-mortems or posts as they were called by the doctors conducting them. The ‘beds’ were basically wheeled iron slabs for placing the dead body and dissecting them to identify the cause of death. The doctors also called Medical Examiners or Coroners were experts in understanding the human anatomy and pathology. With a keen eye trained by years of experience they goaded the dead into revealing their secrets piece by piece.
The basement in Rai Memorial was a secluded area housing only the morgue and the Autopsy room. The access was restricted with two policemen permanently guarding the huge service elevator leading to the basement. As Kavi and Arvind walked swiftly to the elevator, the guards stood up and smartly saluted the ACP. One of them depressed the button calling the elevator. The elevator came up swiftly and Arvind and Kavi got into it. The elevator ran only between the entrance on the ground floor and the morgue on the ground floor. In seconds it touched the basement.
As the elevator doors opened, a strong smell of disinfectant hit their noses. Both Arvind and Kavi during the course of their work were used to the familiar sterile smells of the Morgue. They walked purposefully, Kavi’s shoes making clicking noises on the tiled floor. A straight passage led first to the morgue and then on the dead end was the Autopsy room. Kavi and Arvind however walked a hundred feet to the Morgue and knocked on the huge twin doors.
All this while, Arvind’s mind which had been numb at his brother’s home had now gone into an overdrive. He cursed the murderers and realised that the chances that his nieces would be alive was going down by the minute. Being a veteran of the Mumbai police and handling hundreds of death cases in varying form had made Arvind a mentally tough person. In this situation he called upon every ounce of his strength to catch the murderers and ensure that they regret the day they were born. But his first priority was to ensure his nieces were safe and secure.
Kavi shared similar thoughts with Arvind. He knew that an ex-policeman’s family had been attacked and the repercussions would be unimaginable. Besides Arvind was a dear friend and this made it personal. It would be difficult for him to not snap the necks of the killers once they were caught and he was very sure they would be. He threw a sideways glance at his friend and admired the way he held himself. With a gritted jaw and quick steps, Kavi realised Arvind would not slow down now.
The door to the morgue was opened by John Golin. John was a Goan, brought up in Mumbai. He hated his job, tending to the dead bodies and getting relatives to identify them. But he was very good at it. He had a natural instinct for making people comfortable and for being resistant to the host of dead bodies around him which could break the resolve of any normal person. He recognised Kavi and smiled. He had already been briefed by Kavi and he nodded at Arvind beckoning him to the ice boxes where the two bodies were kept.
The morgue was a cold spacious rectangular room. In the center of the room, three of the post-mortem wheeled beds were present waiting for the bodies identified for autopsies to be loaded on to the them. The walls of the rooms had deep sliding drawers attached. The drawers were continuously kept in a near frozen state by cooled heavy duty air conditioners. This was critical to the preservation of the bodies till they could be identified by their loved ones. John walked to the center of the room and pulled open a drawer and stood aside.
Arvind slowly walked over to the half open drawer. Steeling his mind to prepare for the worst he looked at the charred body lying in the ice box. The body inside the box had suffered hundred percent burns. The flesh had melted and merged with the skeleton. The teeth were visible clearly and stood out amidst the brown flesh. Arvind was shocked at the state of the body. This was a male body and it took him a flash to identify that it was his brother, his elder brother who had been both a father and mother to him. He turned his eyes from the body and his eyes became moist as he looked at Kavi. “It is him, the wedding band is his.” Braving himself he turned to John and whispered, “Let’s get this over with.”
John nodded silently and pushed the open drawer inside. He then led them to the next column holding similar drawers. He pulled open the third drawer at the waist level half-way. Instinctively, Arvind’s eyes went to the fingers of his friend and sister-in-law, Gayathri and he choked. He turned away and dropped on his knees to the floor. Barely a whisper came out of his throat as he nodded to Kavi. Inspite of all his resolve to not breakdown, he wept at a loss that could never be filled. His brother and sister in law had cared for him and loved him like no other. As memories flashed before his eyes, he wept unashamedly. His shoulders rocked and his body shook as Kavi knelt down before him and tried to console him. For a few minutes, Arvind was shattered and experienced a hell like never before.
After a passage of time which seemed an eternity, Arvind got up and wiped his eyes. Silently, he and Kavi exited the morgue and made their way back to the police car. In the car, Arvind looked at Kavi and told him to take it back to his brother’s home. Kavi realised that Arvind would now not look at the place as his brother’s home but as a crime scene. In total silence, the two of them made the short journey back home. The overall process of identification had not taken them more than an hour.