Arnav’s face was frozen in a state of confusion. “You want to what?”
“Help Madhav! Your best friend?” said Nandini, a little annoyed.
“I know who Madhav is, thanks.” he said, rolling his eyes. “I meant, what did you say before that? Did you say ‘investigate the murder’?”
“Yeah!” she said, exasperated. “Have your ears stopped working?”
“Nandini, what do you think the police are doing right now?”
“Accusing Madhav! Seriously, Arnav, have you been paying attention?!”
“If there’s any evidence to show that Madhav is innocent, they’ll find it.”
“No, they won’t! They’ve stopped looking. They have opportunity and the weapon. I have to do this, Arnav, no one else will!”
Arnav stood in front of her, silent.
They were standing in a nondescript corner of the football field. It had been Madhav and Nandini’s “place.” This was where they’d go when they had a free class. They would sit and talk. Often, they’d be late to class because they hadn’t heard the bell, or ignored it.
Being back here without Madhav pained her. But this was the only place where she wouldn’t be disturbed.
“And I can’t do it alone, Arnav.” Nandini continued. “I need you. You know the boys better than I ever will. The murder was done in the boys’ hostel. It can’t have been any of the girls.”
Arnav was silent for a long time. Too long, it seemed to Nandini. Just say yes. I can’t do it without you, Arnav. Just, please, say yes.
“O.K.,” said Arnav suddenly. “Let’s do this.”
They sat down with Nandini’s pen and notepad, and began formulating a list of suspects. A little less than half the school had been eliminated simply because they were girls. They then realized that only one floor of boys could have done it, because the lifts are guarded by night. If anyone from another floor had come to Laxman’s floor, Madhav wouldn’t be their only suspect. Their suspect pool was down to one grade — theirs. They now had 84 suspects. Still too many.
It was Nandini’s idea to break it down by motive. They found several motives to work with, but only one which would certainly cause a murder: a girl.
Sanika Gandhi was the most popular girl in the school. Not in the sense of Plastics from Mean Girls. She was actually a nice girl. Pretty, kind, and generous.
At some point or the other, even for the smallest amount of time, every guy had felt something when they saw her. The only guy who could positively say that this hadn’t happened to him was her brother, Ashok. One guy, however, was lucky enough to confess this feeling and get a positive response. Ganesh Iyer, the Head of Sports. Five-ish months ago, he had asked her out, and she said yes. They’d been dating ever since.
Laxman Dhule also had a huge crush on her. He felt like he had nothing to lose. One day, Laxman walked up to Sanika and confessed his love. Not a crush, or vague “feelings for her.” Love.
Sanika, being the nicest girl in the grade (and most popular), had become an expert at rejection. Nandini had never heard a nicer way of rejecting someone. She explained that she was with someone else, and that she did think he was cute, but what he wanted could never happen. Nandini had always respected Sanika for that. Envied her, even.
Laxman didn’t seem dejected. For the longest time, Nandini thought that the rejection had been so good that Laxman didn’t even feel bad. She thought that was the end of that.
Boy, was she wrong.
It could have been the fact that Sanika called him cute. Maybe that had translated to “Keep trying, and maybe my answer will change.”
A few days later, Sanika found a note on her bed. She opened it to find a poem — badly written, and more lovesick than a little puppy. It was sappy, cliché, and signed with a flourish at the end: Laxman Dhule. And that wasn’t the only poem he wrote.
At first, it was funny. After that, it got borderline creepy. Since Sanika was an angel on Earth, she couldn’t refuse the poems. She kept accepting and reading them. Laxman probably thought she’s liking them. Nobody liked them. He kept sending them, more every day.
He began to go farther than complementing her eyes and hair. That was when Sanika stopped reading. Still, he persisted. Sending four or five poems a day. Five days and a few tonnes of poems later, Sanika stopped being nice, and told him off. She told him to stop immediately.
He must have been really insulted. That’s what made him really repulsive.
He began spreading disgusting rumours about Sanika. No one really believed him, but if the wrong words reach the wrong ears, it doesn’t matter who believes.
His worst mistake was spreading a rumour about the biggest brute of the grade, Jayesh Sinha.
Jayesh, son of the legendary movie star Santosh Sinha, acted like he owned the school, mostly because he did. His father had the principal under his thumb, so Jayesh got whatever he wanted. That and his well-built body made him a fearful candidate indeed. Almost everyone hated him, but nobody said anything. There were a few who were smart enough to get onto his good side, and those smart enough to just stay away from him altogether. Laxman, however, was stupid enough to deliberately get onto his bad side.
“I saw them!” he cried to anybody who would listen. “Both of them, in an empty classroom!”
Only a few days before Laxman’s death, word had reached Jayesh. His anger was like never before.
Word had also reached Sanika, her brother Ashok, and her boyfriend Ganesh.
Together, they made up Nandini’s suspect list.
“But, Nandini,” said Arnav, after they had discarded several pages of weak motives and non-suspects. “We can’t walk up to them and ask if they killed Dhule. Especially Jayesh.”
“Of course not, dumbo.” said Nandini, excitedly flipping the pages of her notepad and scribbling. “They’ll all say ‘no.’”
“I mean, we can’t ask them anything about that night directly. We can’t do an interview like on all the cop shows.”
Nandini looked up at him. “You’re right…” she sat in the grass and thought about it a little. “We have to be discreet. We’re going to have to ask the questions without asking the questions. We have to observe.” She put her book and pen down. “This is all anyone will talk about for the next few days. We have to be fast. God knows when they’re going to charge Madhav. We have to be quicker than them. We have to find any evidence that someone else was in the room. We’re going to listen in to their conversations.” She looked at Arnav. “Tonight, you go to Madhav and Dhule’s room, and search that place.”
“Nandini, that’s a crime scene. I’m never going to get in there.”
“I don’t care.”
“There’s tape there saying ‘Do not cross.’”
“Are you listening to me? I don’t care! There’s got to be something in the room. You’re going to find it. Don’t get your fingerprints on anything in that room. Go through the tape, and get the damn evidence!”
Arnav gave an exasperated sigh. “Fine!”
“During the day, you’re going to get as close to any of these three as possible. It should be easy to get Ganesh and Ashok together. I’ll take them. You take Jayesh—”
“Why do I get Jayesh?”
“Because I don’t like him very much.”
“I don’t like him very much.”
“I don’t care, Arnav.”
Arnav didn’t speak.
“You take Jayesh. If you see him and his street gang hanging about, try very, very hard to eavesdrop.”
It was a murder investigation – something she’d been dreaming of doing for most of her teenage life. She was Nancy Drew (or Nandini Drew, if you like) and she wasn’t going to stop until justice was served.
Today’s investigation was going to bear fruit. She felt it. It can’t have been Madhav. He wouldn’t do anything like that. Furthermore, he didn’t have a clear motive. These three were the only people with any motive at all. It had to have been one of these.
She got up from her corner, armed with notepad and pen, and walked into the day, regenerated. Nandini’s heart fluttered. She was trembling with excitement. One of these three would free her Madhav, and reunite them. One of these three would let her touch his face again. One of these three would make Madhav the happiest guy in the school.
And no matter what it took, she was going to find out who.
TO BE CONTINUED…