A Poisonous Affair
A Poisonous Affair13 mins 263 13 mins 263
The inspector felt the effects of the adrenaline rush beginning to wear off. His hands stopped shaking, his heartbeats dropped to an agreeable rate, and he felt the chill in the air. He pulled his jacket tighter and looked at the girl sitting in front of him. She too was shivering, despite the shawl wrapped around her. She still hadn't uttered a word.
He could see the petechiae (the brown-purple marks indicating bleeding under the skin; he had picked up the word from the medical examiner) on her neck. Those were the results of strangulation. However, he was sure the injury wasn't the reason for her silence. She was in shock. Inspector Shamim was pretty shocked himself.
The murder was extremely rare in the picturesque town of Panchgani. Shamim could count the number of murder cases in the many years of his service on the fingers of a single hand. So two crimes and two deaths in two weeks had left him and everyone else reeling.
The nightmare had started yesterday, at the home of one Eshan Sharma. Or rather, the matter had been bubbling under the surface for a long time, and it came to fore in a shocking turn of events at a party hosted by Eshan.
Around six that evening, when the doorbell rang, Eshan was busy getting things ready for the evening's party. Wondering who had turned up so early, he grumpily went to the door. It was Nathan. "I'm here to help you," he said with a smile. "How much can you possibly do all by yourself." Holding forward a single rose that had a long, slender stalk, he bowed dramatically. "Congratulations. For now, you could stop being jealous," he sneered. Eshan knew that the emphatic 'all by yourself' was hardly intentional, but it bothered him.
He hadn't done the preparations all by himself. His friends simply didn't trust him enough. Ever since they had talked Eshan into hosting the party, they had been anxious about whether everything would go to plan.
Nathan was the third visit he had had that day.
The visits started early in the morning. Eshan had just finished his breakfast, and he was idly doodling in the newspaper when the bell rang. He opened the door and found Jenie standing outside in her running gear, her hair tied in a bun. She was sweating.
She said she passed his house on her morning run, so she thought of checking on him, and asking if he needed any help with the preparations for the party.
Jenie never had mastered the art of lying. Eshan knew for a fact that his home was nowhere near her usual route. But he didn't call her bluff. She was far too sweet, not to mention completely cuckoo. He merely thanked her and told her he had everything under control and would let her know if he needed any help. She left satisfied.
Sharlee was an entirely different proposition. She arrived at four, right when he was leaving for the bazaar. It was no accident. Sharlee knew his habits well, just the way she knew the habits, likes, and dislikes of all her friends and acquaintances. It was as if she maintained a catalog in her head.
She insisted on accompanying him on his supply run. In the end, it was good she did because he had forgotten to put a few things on his list. Things like Jasmine tea for Feroza mam, and packets of sugar for Riya.
She also came back with him and helped him arrange the supplies they brought back, segregating, and pouring them in containers. Then she took his leave.
Jenie and Sharlee must've spread the word that the party looked pretty much on, but still, Nathan's arrival before time meant that they were still anxious.
Eshan couldn't blame them. His hot-headed nature was pretty well known among his friends and his professional circle. They had all witnessed him losing his head at the drop of a hat and had seen him cancel plans at the last moment due to foul mood. Wasn't his fistfight with Prateik the chief reason why the friends had not gotten together for a long time?
Of course, he and Prateik had come to blows during a drinking session, and no alcohol would be served tonight. That was the chief condition Feroza mam had put forth when they had proposed starting the literary club a few years ago.
"Never mix literature and alcohol," She had said. They had agreed.
There was another reason why things wouldn't go south at the party.
"I've decided to be the bigger man tonight," Eshan informed Nathan while they were cleaning the cups. "Metaphorically, of course"
"Obviously," Nathan replied with a sneer.
Eshan's fingers tightened painfully around the cup he was holding, and his ears became red. He didn't need Nathan to remind him that Prateik was bigger, and stronger. And better looking. Wasn't that the reason why-
He noticed Nathan looking at him closely, and turned to put the cup away. Nathan excelled at riling people up. He even gathered all gossip so that he would have enough ammunition for his taunts. Eshan would have to watch his temper during the evening.
The first ones to arrive for the gathering were Feroza and Jenie. Feroza had been the English teacher, and then the principal for a reputed school in Panchgani. All the members of the literary club had been her students; they had worked with her for the school magazine. Now she was retired. Jenie, her daughter, had carried forward her tradition. She taught English at the same school.
They were followed by Sharlee and Kimsy. Kimsy ran the mess at their former school. She made good money. She said nowadays the parents were less interested in the teaching and academics, and far more concerned about the living conditions at the dorms and food in the mess.
Feroza mam greeted Sharlee more enthusiastically than the rest. Sharlee was the only member of the literary club who was a full-time author. She had been Feroza's favorite student during school days. Feroza had spotted and nurtured the spark within her from an early age.
"So Jenie, have you found any prodigies in your class yet?" Nathan asked.
"Prodigies? Bah!" Feroza answered for Jenie.
"Mom read the assignments I brought home to rate"
"And?..." Kimsy wanted to know more. The girl loved to bitch about people. No wonder she and Nathan get along so well, though Eshan.
Feroza mam jumped at the opportunity to make her feelings clear.
"The kids these days… They want to pen epics before they master joined-up writing"
"But mom, sometimes you have to run before you can walk"
"You can't run or walk unless your legs are sturdy enough to carry your weight. You can dream of flying while you are in the cocoon, but you've to tear through it, which strengthens your wings for flight. This one's the exception. She could always spin a tale!" Feroza pointed at Sharlee, who blushed.
The bell rang.
"That must be Prateik" Sharlee said.
"And Riya" Nathan added.
"He's never on time," Sharlee muttered, completely ignoring Nathan.
Being the host, Eshan went to get the door. Nathan accompanied him to provide moral support. Eshan took a deep breath and opened the door.
Prateik stood outside, looking dapper in a blue tee, his bulging arms crossed across his chest. It seemed as if he struck modeling poses even when he was not working. Riya stood beside him.
Riya was the only member of the club, who was not Feroza's student. Eshan had met her while shooting a travel show. They used to chill together after the shoot, and he once mentioned the literary club. Riya seemed interested, so he brought her to a meeting.
Once she met Prateik, she became a fixture at the meetings. She also began to visit Panchgani frequently to meet him, much to Eshan's chagrin.
The greetings Eshan exchanged with the pair were cold and formal, but that'll do for the moment, Nathan thought.
They went back inside. The members had already chosen their favorite spots. Kimsy and Sharlee took one look at Riya's blue hair, and they snorted into the pillows. Riya was either too dumb to notice that, or too intelligent to react. Nathan thought the former was more likely.
Eshan waited until Prateik and Riya chose their seats, and then settled in a corner where they would be out of his sight. Then the gathering commenced.
There was no formal structure to the proceedings. The members simply read any prose or poetry they had written, and then discussed them in detail. Feroza mam took the first turn. She had written a piece about growing old in Panchgani. It made them all nostalgic. The description of food in the piece also made them hungry.
This was where the host of the evening came in. It was his or her duty to keep the members well-fed as they enjoyed the literature and the company of friends. This was also the part where the evening began its descent into darkness.
No one was aware of what was to come at that moment, bar one person.
Eshan brought forth refreshments taken straight from the works of P.G. Wodehouse. There were club sandwiches, chicken sandwiches, bacon sandwiches, ham sandwiches, tongue sandwiches, and many more. They were accompanied by muffins and cakes and crumpets and croissants. They were accompanied by myriad flavors of herbal tea.
Feroza mam was delighted to find the jasmine tea. Eshan graciously thanked Sharlee. Meanwhile, Kimsy was staring agape at the sugar pot.
"Who puts sugar in herbal tea?"
"Of course! Who else?" Kimsy rolled her eyes.
Riya ignored her once again and added two spoons of fine powdered sugar to her cup. Kimsy rolled her eyes again. Undeterred, Riya tested the concoction and then added two more spoons. Kimsy made puking faces and passed snide remarks. Jenie joined in the rag. The boys wisely stayed away. Uncharacteristically for her, Sharlee stayed silent.
Kimsy and Jenie continued making fun of Riya, who seemed to be taking it in good sport, but frown lines began to appear on her face.
"Come on girl, let her be," Sharlee said. "It's her choice."
The other girls guffawed. Riya glared at Sharlee.
"What? " Sharlee was confused. "I'm not being sarcastic, Riya. You drink that tea any which way you want."
Her words did not have the desired effect. On the contrary, Riya plonked the cup on the table and stormed out. The cup stood fuming on the table.
Riya's exit brought Prateik out of his stupor. Till now, he was blissfully gorging on the tongue sandwiches, which he had monopolized. He made to follow Riya.
"Her tea is getting cold." Sharlee pointed out. Prateik grabbed the cup and followed Riya to the room she had disappeared into. Kimsy pulled a face.
For the next few minutes, the members tried their best to ignore the cooing sounds from the other room and discussed Feroza mam's writing.
When Prateik and Riya emerged from the room, all seemed well. Nathan took the stage and read a story. Then Eshan took a turn, reading his poems. The evening seemed to be going fine, despite the slight hiccup. The cherry on top would have been the first-ever reading by Riya, which had been saved for the last. They never got to it.
Midway through Eshan's poetry recital, Prateik complained of severe stomach pain. Nathan helped him to the toilet. They could hear him being violently ill. When Prateik came out, he looked sweaty and pale. His eyes were unfocused. He took two steps and then collapsed. His breathing was irregular, his pupils dilated. Eshan called an ambulance.
Riya went ahead with the ambulance. The others followed. Prateik was declared dead on arrival at the hospital. The doctors said he had died of poisoning.
The entire gang was speechless. The police were called. They spoke with everyone who attended the party and collected samples from the house. Inspector Shamim Akhtar, the investigating officer, had no trouble zeroing in on his prime suspect.
Since he was the host of the party and had the easiest opportunity to spike Prateik's food or drink, and because he had motive due to his feud with Prateik regarding Riya, police arrested Eshan. Now the only thing left was to prove his guilt.
In this, Shamim hit two roadblocks. First, Eshan steadfastly maintained his innocence throughout the seven days he spent in custody. Secondly, while the poison that killed Prateik was identified as arsenic, the police failed to find even minute traces of the poison in any food, or drink, or utensils, or cutlery, or sugar and salt pots collected from Eshan's house.
This meant that police couldn't prove that Prateik had ingested the poison at the party. Once ingested, the time arsenic takes to act upon the victim varies from person to person, which meant, as Eshan's lawyer rightly pointed out during the bail hearing, that Prateik might have consumed the poison before he came to the party as well.
The police had to let Eshan go, but Shamim was convinced of his guilt and decided to keep an eye on him.
The next time Shamim came face to face with Eshan, he got the chance to discharge his service revolver for the first time in his career.
Shamim came across Eshan at Sharlee's place. Eshan was throttling Sharlee with one hand, while he and Sharlee were rolling on the ground, wrestling for a knife lying nearby. Before Shamim could reach and separate them, he saw Eshan grab the knife, and raise it. Shamim unhooked his revolver in haste, took aim, and fired two shots.
Both rounds found their mark. Eshan rolled off Sharlee, and slumped to the ground, lying in the pool of blood oozing from the wounds.
Shamim took a shaking and terrified Sharlee to the hospital, where they treated her injuries. She hadn't spoken a word yet. Shamim thought it would take at least a couple of days for the trauma and the shock to subside. After that, he had a few questions for her. Why did Eshan attack her? What was she hiding?
Sharlee could sense the questions. She knew the answers, but she was in no haste to provide them.
Eshan had attacked her because he had somehow realized she was behind the poisoning. He must've had plenty of time to think in the lockup. Just the way she had had a lot of time to plan it. Ever since the gathering was announced, she was consumed by the thought of revenge and murder. Only, her target wasn't Prateik. It was Riya. Riya, who had stolen Prateik away.
She had observed Riya's habits, and she had found out the menu Eshan had decided on. It wasn't hard, Eshan had told Nathan, who blurted to her. Sharlee settled on arsenic, which being a tasteless, odorless powder, could be readily mixed with sugar. She had bought a sugar pot similar to the one Eshan had at his home, and mixed arsenic in the sugar. When she helped Eshan bring the supplies home on the day of the party, she had switched the pots.
She had thought she would be arrested after Riya died. What she hadn't counted on was the girls mercilessly bullying Riya, leading her to put her tea aside. Then Prateik must've drunk the tea to mollify Riya.
Sharlee could remember how she fought to hide her tears when she realized it was Prateik who had ended up being poisoned. She could remember the immense struggle she went through to not tell someone what poison Prateik had ingested. The information might have saved his life but would have gotten her arrested. She could do nothing but watch as the love of her life died a painful death.
Many times during that torturous evening, the emotions swirling in her head threatened to overwhelm her, but she somehow still managed to switch the sugar pot back and collect Riya's teacup. She stowed them both in her purse, and now they were both resting at the bottom of a lake.
When Eshan came to her house, she could sense his anger. He seemed aware of her guilt. She hid a knife on her person, planning to kill him and plead self-defense. That plan had gone awry, as he realized her ploy and lunged at her. When he started choking her, she thought she would die, until Shamim showed up and shot Eshan.
Sharlee decided not to speak until she came up with a compelling, bulletproof version of events, one which would satisfy whatever questions Shamim or anybody else had. She knew she could do it. After all, as Feroza mam had said, 'she could always spin a tale!'