She froze. Her body tensed up. She strained her ears. She needed to catch every single word.
“Ganesh, what?” whispered Ashok, incredulous.
“Just listen. You remember anything from last night?” whispered Ganesh urgently.
Ashok chuckled. “Not much.”
“Exactly. Me, too. Until now.”
“Oh, no. What did you see?”
“A lot, Ashok.” He paused. “I remember looking out of the window, and I remember a pile of clothes falling out. I don’t know whose clothes they were, but I know I saw them. I also remember a guy walking out of Madhav and Dhule’s room almost immediately after the clothes fell. It wasn’t Madhav, and it definitely wasn’t Dhule.”
“Ganesh, you don’t know that for sure.”
“I do, Ashok. You tell me you didn’t see that guy. I remember talking to you about it.”
“C’mon. Look me in the face, and without blinking, tell me you didn’t see a guy walking out of Dhule’s room. Tell me.”
A few seconds of silence followed.
“O.K., there was a guy. I remember that.”
Nandini had to hold back a gasp.
“And it wasn’t Madhav.”
“I don’t know.”
“Oh, come on!” cried Ganesh. “Ashok, you’re lying to yourself. I rememb—”
“Ganesh!” Ashok’s voice was an urgent whisper. “What the hell are you doing?!”
Nandini couldn’t believe it. There had been a third guy. Madhav was innocent. Her train of thought pulled out of the station, and the roaring of its wheels on the tracks drowned out all other noise.
Unheard by Nandini, the conversation continued:
“First of all, the police have Madhav in custody for killing Dhule. Not some cheap, second rate private eye, the Police Force. Second, you were high! Nothing you say can be trusted. Nothing!”
“It’s not like we had cocaine, or LSD, or something like that.” Ganesh pointed out. “It was just weed. You don’t get hallucinations from weed.”
“Hey, here’s an idea.” Ashok said. “Explain that to the damn police!”
The third guy had thrown out clothes.
“But you have to admit, the guy who came out of their room was a third guy. Not Madhav.” Said Ganesh, but Nandini wasn’t listening.
“O.K.” said Ashok. “Maybe it was. But you have to be careful where you say all this stuff.”
But if he had thrown out clothes, the police would have found them. There was only one logical explanation. The clothes were buried.
“We have to tell the police.” Said Ganesh.
“Are you crazy?!” said Ashok. “Didn’t you hear what I just said?!”
“We have to tell the police!” Ganesh said. “Those drugs are nothing compared to murder!”
“I know that! Stop saying ‘drugs’!” said Ashok. “I just…”
The dorm entrances are always closed at night
“What?” Ganesh asked, but Ashok offered no answer. “That’s what I thought. You’ve got nothing.”
“Yeah. You’re right.” Ashok paused, deep in thought. “Ok, let’s do the following: we’ll come up with a cover story. We weren’t doing drugs. We were studying. We’ll go to the principal, and tell him what we saw. If he asks why we didn’t say anything earlier, we’ll just say we thought nothing of it before, and now it seems important.”
Nandini’s train of thought stopped in its tracks. She realized Ganesh and Ashok had made a decision on what to do.
Shit, she thought, looking down the corridor. The longer she stared, the longer it became. She looked desperately for a place to hide until Ashok and Ganesh left. The rooms in the corridor were still under construction, so, at the moment, everything except the corridor was closed off.
“Got it? Alright, now get to class.” said Ashok.
Where could she go? The farthest she could go noiselessly was about a third of the corridor.
Suddenly, a thought struck her.
Slowly, making no sound, she started going down the corridor, paying close attention to Ashok and Ganesh’s footsteps. When she was confident of her distance, she turned around, and started walking towards them. She looked up – still walking – to see Ashok and Ganesh, and froze.
So did they.
“Oh!” yelped Ganesh, his eyes wide. Nandini gasped, and hoped they bought it.
“What—” started Nandini.
“Nandini! What are you doing here?” said Ashok, looking mad and frightened at the same time.
Nandini looked from Ashok to Ganesh, and back and forth a few times. “No, what are you doing here?”
“We…” Ashok looked to Ganesh, and his eyes widened. “NO! No, it’s not what you think. I swear!”
“I mean,” said Nandini, “You know what this place is, right?”
“Oh, shit!” said Ganesh, realizing what she was implying. “No, Nandini, you’ve got it all wrong!”
“Nandini, on my life—” started Ashok, but Nandini interrupted.
“I mean, I support the LGBT community wholeheartedly. It’s just that… Don’t you have a girlfriend, Ganesh?”
Nandini turned to Ashok. “And isn’t she your sister?”
“Nandini, hear me out—”
“I mean, she is not going to like this.”
“Nandini!” shouted Ganesh. Nandini stopped, mid-sentence, conscious of her rapidly beating heart.
“Don’t do that.” he said, advancing a few steps.
Nandini took a deep breath, internally yelling at her heart to calm the hell down.
“I… I’m sorry,” she said. “I judged you. I shouldn’t have. What you came here to do is none of my business.”
“Damn right.” said Ganesh. They left the corridor, and Nandini kept walking ahead. She got around the corner, and slammed her back into the wall. She peeked out, watching the two of them walk away, and then part ways at the end of the corridor. As soon as she knew they were gone, she slumped to the ground and heaved a great sigh of relief.
She sat there for a while, thinking.
The killer buried the clothes. He first threw them out of the dorm room, and then buried them. How? The murder happened in the middle of the night. The dorms were locked all night. There was no way the killer could have gotten to the clothes from inside the dorms in time to bury them properly.
The dorms had bushes under them, right? Right?
If they did…
The killer threw the clothes out of the window. He waited until the morning. It would be too dark to notice any clothes in the middle of the night. Then, at 6 a.m., when the dorms opened, the killer quickly buries them under the bushes. He runs up to the form and gets into bed just in time for the dorm parent to wake them up.
If they didn’t…
Then I’m screwed. she thought.
One thing was certain, though. Madhav was innocent. Ganesh had seen a third person. She had been right all along.
She had to tell Arnav.
But what about the bushes? If the clothes had to be buried, the evidence on them must be incriminating.
She decided to check out the bushes. She got up, and walked down the corridor. She ran down the stairs two steps at a time. By the time she reached the end of the staircase, she was running. She told herself to calm down. If she was seen running, she’d attract attention. That wasn’t something she wanted. She had to physically strain the muscles in her leg to keep them from darting down the fields.
She knew where Madhav’s dorm was. From a distance, she identified the window. She dropped her eyes in a straight line down from the window, and—
“Yes!” she whispered excitedly. Along the wall of the dorm was a line of shrubs. She ran to the bushes under Madhav’s window. She dived into them head-first, throwing dirt around, frantically looking for a single piece of cloth that could lead her to Dhule’s killer. She didn’t care about the dirt under her fingernails. She didn’t care about the dirt flying into her eyes. She only cared about the clothes.
She felt it before she saw it. She tried to pull the shirt out, but there was too much mud on top of it. She clawed at it, and found it. But it wasn’t just a shirt. There was a pair of pants and a pair of briefs, too. The full package. All covered in blood.
But whose clothes were they?
The launderers always wrote the name of the student on the shirt when they washed it. All she had to do was find the name.
Nandini turned the shirt over, her hands trembling, her heart pounding. The fruits of all her efforts were in the palm of her hand, waiting to be eaten. She pulled the hem of the shirt up, and read the name. The handwriting was bad, but it was still pretty easy to make out the name that stopped her heart: Arnav Nair.
Maybe the killer borrowed his shirt?
She scrambled for the other clothes. She checked the pants. Arnav Nair.
She slowly realized her folly. Arnav was also a suspect. He was a boy. He was in the building when it happened. He could have sneaked out of his room.
But he had no motive! Why would he want to kill Laxman Dhule? And he knew that the blame would inevitably fall on his best friend!
He knew the blame would inevitably fall on Madhav.
The killer went out of his way to frame Madhav.
What if the motive had nothing to do with Laxman? What if Laxman was just the closest person to the real victim of the crime? What if it was never about Laxman in the first place?
What if it was always about Madhav?
These thoughts raced through her head. They made more sense, but less sense. Every question gave rise to more.
She eyed the underwear. Pants and shirt could have been lent, but no one lends underwear. The answer was written in front of her.
It was all down to a pair of underwear.
She picked them up, and read the name.
(TO BE CONTINUED…)