By Ashwin Sanghi
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A Preview of Private Vegas
A Preview of The Games
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FOURTEEN MINUTES PER room was all she had.
Whether it was tidy or left smeared with chocolate sauce, whipped cream, and telltale buttmarks on the recliner, fourteen minutes was what she had to clean each room. Start in the bathroom, change the towels, change the bed, clean the cups, dust and vacuum, and then on to the next room.
And though she would never have admitted it to her colleagues at the Marine Bay Plaza, Sunita Kadam took a pride in meeting (and especially beating) that fourteen-minute time limit. In fact, on her housekeeping cart was a stopwatch she carried for that very purpose. She picked it up as she arrived at room number 1121 and knocked smartly—maid's knock, loud but gentle—then began the stopwatch.
Twenty seconds. No answer. With a deliberate jangle of master keys she let herself in.
Again no answer. Good. And what's more, the room was tidy. Though an evening dress hung from a handle of the closet, the bed looked as if it hadn't been slept in. Nets at the window billowed beneath a blast of air conditioning, giving the room a clean, aired feel. Six minutes to service this room, thought Sunita. Maybe seven.
Unless, of course, there was a nasty surprise in the bathroom.
From her cart she collected towels and toiletries and went there now, clicking on the light at the same time as she reached for the door handle and pushed.
She came up short. The door would only budge an inch or so. Something on the other side—probably a wet towel that had slipped off a rail—was preventing it from opening.
Inside, the fluorescents struggled, flickering as she pushed the door. With an exasperated sigh she gave it one last shove and there was a splintering sound. Something heavy fell to the floor on the other side and, finally, the lights came on—and Sunita Kadam saw what was inside.
On the tiles lay a woman's corpse. She wore a white nightshirt and her face was colorless. In contrast, the yellow cotton scarf around her neck was a bright yellow. The marks it had made were a livid red.
Sunita stared at the body. A numbness crept over her. A sense of wanting to run but being rooted to the spot. Later she'd look back and stifle a guilty laugh about this, but her next thought was: How the hell am I going to clean this up in fourteen minutes?
"YOU KILLED THEM, you drunk bastard."
With a gasp, Santosh Wagh pulled himself from the grip of his nightmare, fingers scrabbling for his spectacles on the nightstand. He pushed them on, squinted at the numbers on his bedside clock and groaned.
4:14 a.m. Drinker's dawn.
He pulled himself from bed, avoiding his own reflection in the mirror as he lolloped out of the bedroom. Who wanted to see a hungover man at 4:14 in the morning, a craggy, 51-year-old vision of guilt and shame? Not him. Right now what he wanted was a little something to guide him gently into the morning. Something to chase away the headache lurking behind his eyes. Something to banish the residual nightmare image seared into his brain.
His apartment was empty, stale-smelling. On a coffee table in the front room was a half-empty bottle of Johnnie Walker, a glass, and his Glock in its holster. Santosh dropped with a sigh to the couch, leaned forward, fingertipped his Glock out of reach, then drew the bottle and glass toward him.
He stared at the drink in his hand, remembering, casting his mind back to 2006 and the seven Mumbai train bombs. At the time he'd been an agent with RAW, India's intelligence agency, and the investigations into the bombings had brought him into contact with Jack Morgan.
Two years later, the car accident that plagued his dreams.
It was Jack who had asked him to head up Private India; Jack who had picked him up when he'd needed it most. And if he drank this drink then it would lead to another drink, and another, and with each subsequent drink he'd fall a little harder and fail Jack a little more.
He placed the glass back on the coffee table, pulled his knees up toward him. Decided to wait the morning out. He dozed, then woke, then dozed again, and each time he woke the drink was still there, waiting for him. He ignored its call. He chose Jack over Johnnie.
Even so, it was a relief when the phone rang and duty called.
SANTOSH LEANED ON his cane and scrutinized the dead woman who lay on the bathroom floor of room number 1121.
"Name?" he said, without taking his eyes off the corpse.
Nisha Gandhe, mid forties, head-turningly attractive, even dressed down in cotton shirt, T-shirt, and jeans, marveled that her boss could be an investigative genius and still not know that breath mints were useless at disguising the smell of whisky.
"Dr. Kanya Jaiyen," she replied, reading from notes made on her phone. "Mean anything to you?"
"No," he said. He angled his head to study the face of the deceased. She was South-East Asian, middle-aged. Her sharp, attractive features looked incongruous pressed to the hard tiles of the bathroom.
"She's Thai—from Bangkok apparently," continued Nisha. "Her body was found by the maid. It had been hanging on a hook on the back of the door but when the door moved the hook gave way, and…"
Santosh glanced at the damaged door then back at the body. He scratched salt-and-pepper stubble on his cheek.
"No signs of sexual assault," he said, part question, part statement.
"Apparently not, but Mubeen is on his way. We should have a clearer idea once he's through," replied Nisha.
Mubeen was Private India's full-time medical examiner. Time of death, cause of death, manner of death—death was his specialty. He'd arrive with Hari, Private's technology geek, who'd be dusting for prints, scanning the cell phone that Santosh had spotted by the bed. Tech-wizard stuff.
Santosh shifted his weight on his cane. The car accident had left him with a limp.
"You do realize it's psychosomatic, don't you?" a doctor had told him.
"I'm keeping the cane," he'd replied.
"Have it your own way."
He did. One of the few advantages of being Santosh Wagh was that he had things his own way. Plus it was useful to have a cane sometimes. On a morning like this, for example, when he felt as though it was the only thing keeping him upright.
He palmed sweat from his forehead. "Okay, let's not touch anything until we get the go-ahead from the police. There's nothing to prevent us from observing though. And I'm especially interested in this…"
With the tip of his cane he indicated the victim's hands, both wrapped with string. A flower was bound to one, an ordinary fork to the other.
"And this," he said, motioning his cane at her foot. "What do you make of that?"
Tied to one of the dead doctor's toes was a small toy Viking helmet.
Nisha bent down to take a closer look. "Could the killer be a nut job with a Viking fetish?" she asked.
"Maybe. But if he was a genuine Viking enthusiast he'd know that real Viking helmets didn't have horns," said Santosh. "The bull horns are an artistic contrivance."
"Okay. So…?" said Nisha. You could almost see the cogs of his encyclopedic mind turn, she thought.
"So—either our killer doesn't know about the horns. Or he doesn't care. Or the Viking bit isn't significant but the horn bit is."
"Right…" she said, uncertainly. "And what about the flower on her hand? A lotus. And the fork? Maybe she snatched it to defend herself?"
"No," said Santosh, lost in thought. "They were tied to her hands to look as if she's holding them."
Crouched down close to the body, Nisha noticed a black hair on the otherwise spotless tile floor. "There's a hair here I'd like to bag, when we can," she said. Santosh nodded.
"When do you think she was killed?" asked Nisha.
He glanced at her. "Look at the body. Consider the bed. The nightdress. When do you think she was killed?"
"Exactly. Mubeen can tell us for sure, but yes—this happened last night. Did you check for signs of forced entry?"
"The windows are hermetically sealed. There's no sign the bedroom door was forced nor any indication of lock tampering," replied Nisha, glancing at her notes.
Santosh nodded. He looked from the body to Nisha with eyes that had seen too much pain. "This isn't the last, Nisha," he said. "Of that you can be certain."
"WE HAD RATHER hoped to avoid involving the police," said the general manager, Mr. Singh—a nervous man who wanted nothing more than for the whole affair to go away. "After all, the hotel employs Private India for that very reason. Are you not the world's biggest detective agency…?"
Santosh found his eyes drawn to a bottle of whisky tucked away in a corner of the office but Singh was pouring coffee instead. Probably just as well.
"We are indeed. But unfortunately we do not manage your internal CCTV system. Furthermore, this is a murder investigation, Mr. Singh," he said regretfully. "There is no avoiding the police, I'm afraid. However, as your advisor may I suggest the call is better coming from you than from me." He passed a card across the desk. "Ring this number, tell them there has been a suspected murder and that you have appointed the hotel's detective agency—that's us—to represent you in this matter."
Singh picked up the card. "ACP Rupesh Desai," he read. "This is the policeman I should call?"
Santosh nodded. "Rupesh is the Assistant Commissioner at the Mumbai Crime Branch. I can promise you his cooperation and discretion. We're…"
He stopped himself saying "old friends"; even just "friends." Not since the accident that broke everything.
"… we go back a long way. Now, tell me everything you can about Dr. Kanya Jaiyen."
"All we have is the information she gave us when she checked in," explained Singh. He passed a paper folder to Santosh, who scanned it quickly. A copy of her passport, a printout of online booking data.
"Excellent. You have a record of when the door was used?"
"Yes. It's on its way."
"And CCTV footage?"
"Also coming," said Singh.
"Good," said Santosh.
"So what now?" said Singh. "Can we assume the hotel will be kept out of any… unpleasantness?"
Santosh opened his mouth, then remembered that the Marine Bay Plaza Hotel was a client of Private India, and as the head of Private India he had to kiss ass every now and then.
"You can rest easy, Mr. Singh," he said with what he hoped would be an ingratiating smile. "Leave it to us."
"WHAT'S PRIVATE INDIA'S interest in this case?" asked Rupesh bluntly, his hands pushed into his pockets.
He and Santosh stood in the corridor outside room 1121, now an official crime scene. For the moment Santosh had conveniently forgotten to mention the hair Nisha had recovered from the bathroom. And hopefully, if all went to plan, things would stay that way.
"The hotel chain employs Private globally," replied Santosh. "If it isn't a bother, Rupesh, we'd like to manage the investigation."
Rupesh looked him up and down with disdain, as though Santosh were wearing an expensive, tailored suit rather than the same shabby beige two-piece he'd worn for years. "Private India," he sneered. "You certainly landed on your feet there, didn't you, Jack Morgan's little favorite? Just think, without those train bombings you two might never have met. They were the best thing that ever happened to you, weren't they?"
Santosh tried to remember that he wanted Private India to handle this case. And for that, he needed Rupesh onside. So instead of sweeping the cop's feet from beneath him and ramming the point of his cane down his throat, he merely gave a thin smile. "To business, Rupesh, please."
Rupesh avoided his eye as he pondered the matter for a moment. "Wait here," he said. "I need to make a call. See what the Commissioner says."
He moved out of earshot, his back turned and his phone to his ear as he made the call. Moments later he returned with a smile that went nowhere near his eyes. "The Commissioner is fine with it."
Rupesh shrugged. "The Police Forensic Science Lab at Kalina has a six-month case backlog and half my men are on VIP duty. I'm happy to offload this case onto you."
He reached into his pocket and withdrew a pouch of chewing tobacco, placing a pinch of it in a corner of his mouth. Mumbai had long since banned the sale of all processed tobacco products. Not that the ban applied to Rupesh, apparently.
Just how deep are you getting, old friend? wondered Santosh.
"So that's settled," added Rupesh. "Private India can spearhead the investigation provided all information is shared with us in a timely manner. Oh, and as long as any credit for successfully solving the case comes to us." His grin was shark-like. "Mubeen will be doing the autopsy, I take it?"
"With your consent."
"Granted. Provided the corpse is first taken to the police morgue and that the state's medical examiner is present during the final examination. Fine?"
Santosh nodded and the two men parted. Rupesh back to the crime scene. Santosh headed to Private HQ. What happened to us? wondered Santosh as he waited for the elevator. What happened, when we used to be so close?
Had life come between them? Or was it death?
THE COCKTAIL PARTY on the rooftop of the Oberoi Hotel was what's known as a "page-three event," where guests came to strut and pose like peacocks, hoping that the shutterbugs' lenses would alight upon them.
Events like this made Bhavna Choksi feel inadequate. Even the white-gloved waiters made her feel inadequate. Not for the first time she wondered how her dreams of great journalism had been reduced to this, eking out pathetic tidbits for the Afternoon Mirror gossip column.
She hated the fact that she was familiar with these people. Priyanka Talati, the "singing sensation." So what? Lara Omprakash, "Bollywood's hottest director." Sure, until next week, when there would be a new one. She hated the fact that she'd be reporting on what the politician Ragini Sharma was wearing, rather than her policies.
Keeping her eye on the door for new arrivals, Bhavna saw Devika Gulati—a yoga guru to the hip set—waft in through the doors at the rooftop, the cutouts of her gown emphasizing her body. Devika accepted a drink from a waiter, then stood, surveying the room.
Bhavna took her chance and moved over before any of the rooftop's single men made their move. "Hello," she said, extending her hand to shake. "It's Bhavna Choksi, from the Afternoon Mirror. May I say that's a beautiful gown."
Devika's gaze traveled over Bhavna's shoulder, still scanning the rooftop.
"Miss Gulati?" prompted Bhavna. "We spoke on the phone. I was wondering if you'd had second thoughts about an interview."
At last Devika focused on her. "I'm sorry. Yes, of course. I'm sure we can arrange that. Please, call the studio, speak to Fiona, and she'll fit you into the diary."
"Thank you." As Bhavna moved away, she was able to see what it was that had caught Devika's eye. Or, in this case, who it was: India's Attorney General, Nalin D'Souza.
Interesting, she thought as she heard the faint buzzing of her phone inside her tote. Pulling it out, she answered the call.
"Ah, it's you," she said. The voice at the other end spoke for twenty seconds before Bhavna replied. "Sure. Tomorrow morning is fine. I usually leave for work by nine thirty but I can wait for you. Do you need my address?"
SEVERAL FLOORS BELOW the party that still raged on the rooftop of the Oberoi Hotel was a room, dark apart from the glow of a dim lamp, and silent but for low moans from the bed. Puddled on the carpet was Devika Gulati's metallic-blue gown. Beside it a pair of boxers belonging to the Attorney General, Nalin D'Souza.
In bed the couple moved to their own urgent rhythm. Naked, Devika was on top, skin bathed in a thin film of sweat. Beneath her Nalin arched upwards each time that she ground herself into him. He reached to cup her breasts as he felt his climax approaching. Some moments later they had switched positions and he rode her with double the passion.
Spent and tired, the couple remained intertwined under the bed sheets, breathing heavily. She switched positions again, clambering on top of him in order to gaze upon his handsome features, pushing a hand through his hair.
"You've had it cut," she said.
"The other day. Do you like it?"
"It makes you look younger. Where did you go?"
"The Shiva Spa Lounge. I'm told that Mumbai's trendy young things are flocking there. Talking of which, was that a newspaper reporter I saw you with earlier?"
"An irritating woman from the Afternoon Mirror."
"What did she want?"
Sensing a change in him, Devika moved off him and lay with her head propped on her hand, tracing his chest hairs with her fingertips. "She wants to speak to me."
Tickled and irritated, he brushed her hand away. "Why does she want to speak to you?"
"Wouldn't you like to know?" she teased.
But he had lost patience. "I've got to go," he said, shoving her to one side.
She pulled him back toward her and kissed him deeply, twining her tongue around his. "Sure you don't want to go again?" she asked playfully.
"I need to be back in New Delhi to prepare for a case tomorrow," he said, pulling away. "I'll give you a call sometime."
"That's crap and you know it," sneered Devika. "You will be too busy with your wife. The one who wants you to fuck her but can't inspire you to get it up."
"That's not true," said Nalin impatiently. "Her inability to produce a child has absolutely nothing to do with any failure on my part. You should know that by now."
"There are many stories about your other women," said Devika. "It's a bloody exhaustive list. How long before you tire of me—and what will happen to me when you do?"
The Attorney General smiled at her. She had one of the best bodies he had ever had the pleasure of pleasuring. Besides being beautiful, Devika was a seductress. There was an erotic charge to virtually everything she said or did. He still found it difficult to believe that she had once been in prison. What an amazing transformation.
He grasped the edge of the sheet and whipped it back, leaving Devika lying on the bed, resplendent in her nakedness. He felt the tumescence between his legs once more.
She laughed. "Don't you need to be back in the office?" she asked.
"Fuck the office," he snarled as he got back on top of her.
"I thought the fucking was reserved solely for me."
SANTOSH STEPPED OUT into a scorching October morning for his walk to work. He never drove. Driving meant revisiting the screeching tires and the burned-rubber smell of his nightmares.
Mumbai—once known as Bombay—was a throbbing metropolis with the attitude of New York City, the chaos of Kathmandu, the vibe of Miami, and the infrastructure of Timbuktu. It was the fifth most populous city in the world, its population nudging a little over thirteen million.
It could be charming yet repulsive. Old British monuments jostled for space with corporate glass towers and filthy slums. At traffic signals, handcart pullers slowly made their way to warehouses, their bodies bathed in sweat, while chauffeur-driven Mercedes-Benzes transported their millionaire owners to luncheon meetings. Long queues of people waited patiently outside temples to catch a glimpse of their favorite deity while an equally long line of people waited to get inside the stadium for a celebration of India's alternative religion—cricket. Mumbai was a study in contrasts and people tended either to love it or to hate it. Santosh loved it when he was drunk—which was often—and hated it when he was sober.
It was a long walk but he made brisk progress on the way from Crawford Market to the Regal Cinema. Crossing the streets, he was greeted by beggars, bums, and vagabonds, as though he were a celebrity to them. A young boy wearing patched clothes smartly saluted him. Santosh nodded in reply.
"Tell your boss that I need to meet him. Chowpatty, usual day and time," he instructed.
At the Regal Santosh turned toward Colaba Causeway, a street notorious for its pubs, pimps, and pushers, not to mention hundreds of pavement stalls selling porn DVDs, vibrators, and electronic goods smuggled in from China, Taiwan, and Dubai.
He walked a couple of blocks down the main road until he reached an old and decrepit building. The ground floor was occupied by a well-known watering hole that sold the cheapest beer in town. Tables covered in pink checkered tablecloths were occupied by an odd mix of locals and hippies, while high above them ancient ceiling fans groaned and squeaked in an unsuccessful effort to keep cool air circulating in the stifling October mugginess. Above the heads of the patrons floated a thick haze of weed smoke.
Ignoring the pub, Santosh slipped inside a nondescript side entrance that led to a flight of creaking wooden stairs. Climbing to the top floor, he stood before a battered door, locked with an ancient padlock. On either side were cream-painted walls punctuated by peeling plaster. To the right of the door was a dented mailbox and above this a small ornate mirror with a cracked frame. To the casual observer it looked like the entrance to someone's home—and someone without much in the way of money.
However, an investigator looking closely would have found several inconsistencies. The old padlock could not be opened because there was no key slot. The apparently crumbling plaster could not be broken away. The door could not be rattled because it was entirely sealed. The mailbox was glued shut and the mirror stuck solidly to the wall, not hanging by a nail or hook.
Santosh stood in front of the mirror for a few seconds. Moments later the entire wall—with door, padlock, mailbox, and mirror intact—slid open with an efficient whoosh, like Aladdin's cave. Santosh entered and the wall closed equally efficiently behind him.
Unknown to the casual visitor was the fact that the dilapidated mirror held within it a sophisticated retina-scan unit. Only staff members of Private India identified by the biometric system could access the office. Established clients communicated with the firm via a dedicated helpline. New clients were only accepted via referrals from old ones. Investigators from Private India visited clients at their homes and offices rather than the other way round. The offices of Private India remained invisible to the world outside.
There was a specific reason for this secrecy. Private India had helped law-enforcement agencies solve a few key cases related to deadly attacks by Pakistani terror groups on Indian soil. The result was that Private India was on the radar of several Pakistan-based jihadi outfits. It was absolutely necessary for the safety of those who worked for the company to keep the office impregnable.
Inside, the office was the exact opposite of its shabby exterior. Light maple floors, recessed illumination, silent air conditioning, and white Corian wall panels ensured that the space was a haven of light, comfort, and tranquility. A middle-aged woman sat at the reception desk handling incoming calls. Santosh waved to her as he picked up an apple from a bowl that stood on the coffee table in the lounge.
Spread over the top two floors of the building, Private India's office was accessed via the higher floor containing the offices of Santosh, Nisha, Mubeen, and Hari. The lower floor contained the offices of support staff and junior investigators and could be accessed via a private elevator behind the reception desk.
All the window frames of the two floors had been preserved on the outside so that the exterior of the building retained its old and dilapidated character, but the frames had been supplemented by modern double-glazed windows on the inside.
Santosh's room straight ahead was connected to Nisha's smaller office and an oversized conference room equipped with videoconferencing and a 108-inch LCD screen. He took a bite out of his apple and headed right to Mubeen's lab.
- On Sale
- Nov 11, 2014
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Grand Central Publishing