Friday, June 3, 2011

Rude Was The Shock

A detective story from my short story collection, 'Angela on My Mind'
 by Alex N Nderitu (

The murder wouldn’t have occurred if old Mrs.Manish hadn’t left her bathroom tap running.

 Arriving at my Knight Mutual Insurance office, I was informed that a Mrs. Manish, her daughter, Leela, and her granddaughter, Devi, were leaving their home in Nairobi’s Parklands area – to see if Devi’s wedding gown was ready – when the old lady remembered that she had left the tap running. She disembarked the car, entered the house and never came out. When Leela’s patience expired, she went to check on her mother only to find the elderly matriarch lying dead on her bedroom floor, beside a stool, a scarlet pool spreading from under her grey hair. Leela’s screams brought Devi to the house and together they called the police. There were no signs of a break-in but Mrs. Manish’s insured jewellery collection – brought out of the safe in readiness for the wedding – was missing. The only person in the house at the time of the incident was Leela’s father, Mr.Manish – an ancient, infirm loner – and he heard nothing, being almost completely deaf.

 Hi, my name is Tracy “Trace” Tergat (alas, no relation to the star athlete) and I work as an Insurance Claims Investigator for Knight Mutual. Like most banks and insurance agencies in this part of the world, Knight Mutual is a branch of an overseas concern but it has the distinction of being the oldest in its field, having been established at a time when the region was still known as ‘British East Africa’. In the ten years I’ve been here, I’ve saved the company millions of shillings in fraudulent claims, but you could have fooled my bank manager – my salary is nothing to write home about. The deceased’s jewels – gold and sapphire ornaments – were insured for nearly half a million shillings and before we compensated her next-of-kin, we wanted to make sure that the claim was genuine.

I drove up to the Manish’s residence and was greeted by the barking of dogs. (Why hadn’t they barked at the intruder/murderer?) Funeral preparations were under way and Devi’s wedding had been postponed indefinitely. From Leela, I obtained permission to snoop around the house, hunting for clues. In the soft soil of a flower garden behind the house, I found what I was looking for – shoeprints. They belonged to a man who wore size 7 shoes wasn’t heavy. They were under a large window through which, no doubt, the intruder had sneaked in and out. I got down on my hands and knees and as I was combing the nearby lawn for further clues, my eyes fell upon the prettiest feet I’ve ever seen. I looked up to see Devi, the bride-to-be, staring down at me. Her large oval eyes, like a tiger’s, were ringed by extravagant lashes. Shiny blue-black hair framed her head and cascaded all the way down to waist level and although the sari she wore exposed her presentable mid-riff, her breasts were carefully concealed, like weapons of mass destruction. Her curves were a marvel of symmetry. She looked as if she had just walked out of the Song of Solomon.

 ‘Sherlock Holmes?’ she inquired, favouring me with a smile.

 ‘No…uh…Actually…Trace Tergat, no relation…Very sorry about your grandmother. Tragic.’

 I was down on one knee as I mumbled and, from a distance, I must have looked as if I was proposing marriage so I clambered to my feet. Devi had a sweet coconut-like smell scent around her. It was probably emanating from her hair. I asked her if she had any suspects in mind – a disgruntled house servant, for instance. No, she didn’t. I said I was sorry about the wedding. So was she – it was going to be quite grand: a horse-drawn carriage parading around the temple and all that jazz. For the honeymoon, they were going to their native India for the first time and they were going to have their picture taken in front of the Taj Mahal! Her fiancé was well off, then? Yes, he had a plum job with Vishnu Steelworks Ltd, a leading manufacturer of pipes, kitchen sinks and similar.

 As it was around mid-day, Devi’s mother invited me to lunch. With us at the table were Mr.Manish and Devi’s fiancé, Visha. The former was frail and balding and the remaining hair was as white as the snows of the Kilimanjaro. By contrast, Visha was a portrait of youth - virile, dark-haired, slim, madly handsome. He could have passed for a Bollywood star. He regarded me with suspicion, as if we were competing for something.

The moment I tasted the food, my mouth caught fire. You can imagine my surprise, then, when I saw Visha reach forth and add more curry to the pepper-rich chicken stew. Despite my manly attempt to contain the culinary inferno, Devi noticed that I was in agony and began to smile. When I gave up pretending that the Asian cuisine was one I could handle and actually started to fan my mouth with my hand, Devi said:
 ‘Would you like a glass of water, Trace? Or should I call the Fire Brigade?’

 ‘A glass of water will do just fine,’ I said, groaning inwardly.

 She went to the kitchen and returned carrying a glass and a jar full of water. Visha’s displeasure at seeing his girlfriend serving me was unmitigated but it didn’t bother me – I was there on business not pleasure. As Devi poured me a glass of the essential liquid, I caught a whiff of the “coconutty” scent again. It was definitely coming from her hair. To give credit where credit is due, the meal – rice, chapati, chicken stew, and a convoy of side dishes – was mouthwateringly delicious and smelled the part. The problem was the amount of pepper and spice in the stews. By the time that curve collection, Devi, came to my rescue, I was sweating bullets.

 The Kenyan Indians, sometimes called “Kenindians”, must live in a kind of limbo. They are not considered “White” (where would that leave the Europeans?) but they’re not considered Black either, being markedly different, in look and culture, from the original Kenyans. But Kenyan they are! Having lived in the country for generations, they have woven themselves into the tapestry of society and become part of the bigger picture. A good many of their ancestors arrived here as workers on the payroll of the colonial government but others simply arrived as traders and never left. I guess most of them see Kenya as their ‘natural’ home and India as their ‘spiritual’ home.
There could be little doubt that Devi got her good looks from her talkative mother. Leela was an extremely attractive woman despite being in her mid-forties and on the plump side. She was still curvy and favoured with the smoothest of skins. On the day of the lunch, she wore a black sari with a headscarf as light as a cobweb. Her outfit was embroidered with green and red flowers and golden threads. She had a golden nose ring, flashy rings on every finger save the thumbs, dangling earrings in the shape of four-armed Hindu gods, and multiple golden bangles that jingled on her light-brown forearms as she encouraged me to have more chicken or chapati.

 Could she have been the culprit? I found myself thinking. It was long shot because she only went to check on her mother after the latter had overstayed in the house. So what kept Mrs. Manish in the house? Did she surprise the jewel thief and was silenced to prevent her from identifying him? Did she simply go upstairs to turn off the tap, trip, burst her head open on the metallic stool and when Leela found her, she (Leela) had grabbed the jewels before screaming for help? She certainly had a fetish for ornaments. It was possible but it didn’t explain the shoeprints in the garden. What about old Mr.Manish? Did he have a motive? Husbands and wives quarrel all the time and sometimes those quarrels lead to violence. In fact, according to statistics, you’re more likely to be killed by your spouse than any other person! But did Manish have what it takes to kill? I spied him eating his food with shaky, leathery hands and eliminated him from the equation. He simply had no stamina. He couldn’t possibly have zipped to the bedroom, stolen the bling bling, gone outside, hidden the loot, and zipped back to his original location before Leela burst into the house calling for her mother. He walked, I noticed, with the aid of a cane. At his age, if he tumbled down the staircase, his bones would break like matchsticks. And of what use were the jewels to him (or the insurance money for that matter)? He was too old and infirm to pursue creature comforts. So who was the second man in the house? Or, as they say in the books, whodunit?

 I had hoped to use the lunch as a forum for further investigation but Devi’s mother turned the tables, figuratively speaking, and fired a salvo of questions at me, only stopping to reload: What position did I hold at the insurance agency? How old was I? Which part of the country did I hail from? Where did my parents hail from? For a moment I thought I would have to retrace my ancestry all the way to Homo Habilis. She struck me as one of those pesky people who can’t keep their noses out of other people’s business: Say you’re getting married and they’ll want details, Take a piss and they’ll probably test it for banned substances! Mr.Manish said nothing at the luncheon and probably heard nothing.

 Towards evening, I left the Kenindian family. I had found more of the same shoeprints on the garage floor – plus traces of garden soil – and quizzed every member of the household but I had no suspects as yet.

The next day, wanting to talk to Visha, I called Vishnu Steelworks only to be told that he had been “dismissed” from the company three months before. The pieces of the puzzle fell into place with an almost audible click. I believe that this is what transpired:
  Devi and Visha, two young Kenyans of Indian extraction, were planning to get married. They laid out lavish plans but just as the wedding day was approaching, Visha lost his well-paying job although he never told anyone. Financial pressure mounting, he decided to steal and sell valuables from his fiancé’s home. One sun-soaked Saturday morning, he sneaked into the residence, which was easy enough considering that the security dogs knew him. He hid behind the house until he heard the family car driving off. He climbed in through a window and, knowing the geography of the house, went straight up to Mrs. Manish’s ensuite bedroom. What he didn’t know is that the car had stopped and Mrs. Manish was coming back into the house. She walked in on him and was so shocked to see her future in-law robbing her that she staggered backwards (or perhaps he made a move to grab her) and tripped on her long dress (She dressed like a nun.) She fell, hitting her head on the edge of a glass-topped metallic stool. The thief then bolted out of house and hid in the garage, pondering his next move. When people started arriving at the house in response to the news, he went round to the front of the house and pretended to be arriving.

 Although Visha was the culprit, Devi may warrant a small portion of the blame. If she hadn’t been so insanely beautiful then maybe men wouldn’t go to such ridiculous lengths to please her. It will be remembered that Sita was at the center of the epic battle of the Ramayana. History also records that the kidnap of Helen of Troy was the genesis of the nine-year Trojan war. Should part of the blame in Mrs. Manish’s demise be apportioned to her gorgeous granddaughter? The verdict is yours.
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