Romela hasn’t expected the sheriff of the county police station to come to her home this day. She hasn’t received any call regarding it- Mathew, if he popped in at the house would call ahead usually. More surprising still was the fact that he was not alone.
“Romela, this is Donald- the Christina aunty’s son,” Mathew introduced the bulky, balding man beside him with an uneasy grin on his face. The veins on his forehead stood in relief, as though straining against the skin with tension.
Romela could understand the reason for the tension-after all, it must be hard to be talking with a woman whose only child was murdered by one of the most heinous serial killers to have emerged in recent times. What she couldn’t understand was the reason why he was here, in her home.
Nodding, Romela handed them both a glass of freshly made orange juice.
She had begun her Sunday morning just as she would any Sunday morning- by going to the church. She wasn’t back home more than 10 minutes before these two dropped in.
“Yes, I know Donald. I just saw Christina at the church,” she said to Mathew as she took a seat with them at the dining table. The dining area wasn’t segregated from the living room and it was to the table that she invited them when the sheriff told her that they had something to discuss with her.
To Donald, she said, “How is your father, dear? I heard that the arthritis is getting worse on his knee.”
Donald nodded. The strain in his face abated a bit as he was answering- saying that what she heard was right, but the doctors had said that provided he took rest and the medicine, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t get better soon. “Only, with papa, it’s a task to get him to take rest. He is like a kid who likes to be always on his feet.”
Romela nodded, saying how she could imagine that. Donald’s father, after all, is a farmer and for a farmer, a day without physical activity would seem like a day that’s only half-lived.
Donald nodded, smiled. He asked her after her own health. They chit-chatted a bit, about little things- how the heat wave this year has destroyed a lot of crops across the country, and indeed in the whole state of Dohga, about the opening of a new clinic- the one that the people in the county has been asking the government for so long.
“I guess it’s because the elections are impending that they have granted us the hospital,” said Donald. “But whatever the reason, it’s a good thing.” He smiled, a smile that said he was as much in compliance with anyone regarding the politicians- the breed of humans that’s the embodiment of the term, ‘opportunists.’
But once the topics for such simple chit chat ran over, the strain began to creep back into his face, his body posture which has begun to get relaxed becoming rigid yet again.
It was Mathew who broke the subject that they wanted to discuss.
“As I said, Donald is a lawyer, and he is helping the police of the county as a consultant in the case of the Claw murders.” He paused, to see if the mention of the moniker the media has bestowed on the serial killer evinced a reaction from Romela.
It didn’t. Her face remained neutral as ever. The worry marks that have etched her face in wrinkles over the last two years remained static- no deeper grooves on the skin, not even a nod of the head.
Mathew got to the point very soon-which was one of the things that Romela liked about him. At 47 years of age, she already felt like a 70 year old, and she didn’t have the patience for beating around the bush like a young person. Mathew himself was young- in his early thirties but he was sensitive when it came to such things as not wasting anyone’s time. Sitting at the table, listening to him speak in a calm and methodical manner, Romela thought of the time she has told Natura-only half-jokingly, how he would be a good person for her to marry.
Pushing aside the thoughts of her daughter from her mind, she forced herself to listen to Mathew.
This was the essence of what he said: The killer has been caught and since almost all his murders- at least, the ones that have been known so far, took place in the neighbouring state of Logfyum, the trials were going to take place there first. “And given the overwhelming evidence, and the fact that he has confessed to a lot of the murders, he would get the capital punishment there,” said Mathew, barely meeting her eyes as he spoke.
Logfyum was a state that permitted the capital punishment. Though there has only been three instances in the last couple of decades- since 2000 when the highest punishment was granted to anyone chances are high that the killer named The Claw was going to get the capital punishment- given the grievous nature of the crimes that he committed.
“Now, we know that you did file a missing persons report when Natura went missing…And we also know that the…the evidences on Natura revealed every sign that it was the Claw who murdered her. But just because of the evidences, the missing persons report wouldn’t escalate to an accusation of murder. And for this person to be tried for Natura’s murder, you must press charges.”
“As I intend to do,” said Romela as soon as she got a chance. Though the conversation has been going for some 10 minutes, she still wasn’t sure what this was all about. After all, all the information that Mathew just provided her, she already knew.
Mathew looked to Donald, as though inviting the lawyer to fill in the rest.
Heeding the call, Donald leaned forward, cleared the imaginary wrinkles in his shirt by running a hand down it. He spoke in a sonorous tone, one which Romela could easily imagine as the one which he uses in court while defending his clients.
“Now, what we propose might sound insensitive to you,” he began, “and rest assured that you can go ahead and do whatever you think is right, notwithstanding what we say. But we would like you to hear us out…The proposal that we wanted to make was that you shouldn’t press charges. At least, not yet.
“ As Mathew said, chances are high that the killer would get the capital punishment in Logfyum. Whereas in our state- the highest punishment he could be granted is life imprisonment- that’s 24 years. And since, in this state, your daughter has been the only victim, he would be granted only one count- that’s the best case scenario. Of course, for that, they would have to first prove that it was indeed the Claw who murdered your daughter- something that might be tricky given how so much time has passed since the incident. If he confesses, that would be another matter, but so far he hasn’t, and we couldn’t pin our hopes on that.
“Now, if you press charges and he gets a separate hearing in the Dohga high court, and if he is granted the life imprisonment down here in addition to the death sentence which he would most surely get in Logfyum, his lawyers could move the supreme court and try and move him to a prison in Dohga for serving that sentence. Yes, I know that sounds crazy. In a perfect world, perhaps the more corporeal of the punishments should prevail. But not necessarily in this world of ours. His lawyers could cite conflict in the judgements in the two states. After all, both the states fall under the same sovereign nation and laws should be upheld equally- in theory, at least. So, when that’s not possible, they could at least try to get him in Dohga, citing humanitarian reasons- for the central law stresses very much on the humanitarian treatment of all-even the most heinous of criminals.”
After taking a sip of the orange juice, he continued, “Now, none of this means that he would get away with a life sentence for sure if you press charges- the crimes that this person has committed are all but unprecedented. And the Supreme Court may rule that he be given the highest punishment possible. But even if such is the case, it could take time- the lawyers could cite a multiple reasons to prolong the ruling- the convict being a wealthy individual, he has got some of the best lawyers in the country working for him, and they would be looking for any chance, no matter however slim, to prolong his life..”
Now that he has made his case, the lawyer leaned back in the chair. He couldn’t make out anything from Romela’s still neutral expression. The only indication that she did hear him was a subtle nod of her head.
A few moments of uneasy silence passed between the three of them- moments in which Donald kept looking at Mathew as though for affirmation that what they did was right. The grieving mother meanwhile kept staring at the lacquered surface of the table, reflecting on what they just said, or maybe just thinking of nothing at all.
Once the silence got to be too awkward, Mathew began to say something. But before the first word escaped his mouth, Romela looked up.
She said but one word, “Okay.”
Once the sheriff and the lawyer left, Romela made a breakfast of some oats into which she mixed cut pieces of vegetables. She had readied the dough for making pancakes before she left for the church. But after the converstion with Mathew and Donald, she didn’t feel like making it.
She ate the oats in silence, washed the dish, put it away in the appropriate places and went to her daughter’s room.
Though almost two years have passed since her death- murder, Natura’s room was kept much in the same way as when she was alive. The posters of the pop groups that she listened to- the ones Romela said “made nothing but noise and sold it in the name of music” were still up on the wall, albeit fading in colour with age.
Even her college texts were still preserved in a relative state of intact
. Romela did contemplate giving them away to some poor kid who may not be able to afford the books, but ultimately, she couldn’t bring herself to part with anything that belonged to her dear daughter- not even her clothes.
And it’s to her wardrobe that Romela presently walked, opening the wardrobe slowly, with all the solemnity of the priest opening the Eucharist.
The sight of the clothes hanging from the hangars brought to her eyes the tears which she has been holding back for some time now. And when they came, they came in a rush-which saddened and embarrassed her in equal measure. Saddened, for obvious reasons. Embarrassed, because she didn’t wish her daughter to see her – her bold and independent spirited mother bowing down under the pressure of a heart wound inflicted almost two years back. For surely, her daughter must be watching her from heaven, where she resided on the right side of our Lord, Jesus Christ?
Clearing her eyes of the tears as best she could, she took from the wardrobe a blue shawl with a green pendant pinned on it. The fabric felt fragile as she rubbed it between her thumb and forefinger. It was the last thing that she made for her daughter- presented on her birthday, which was just two days before the fateful day when she stepped out of the house, calling out to her that she was going to her friend’s place for combine-study, never to be seen alive again.
Romela used all her skills as a fashion designer to create an extravagant wardrobe for Natura- something she was extra-diligent at given how she didn’t wish anyone to think that her daughter lacked a good wardrobe just because her wealthy father walked out on them all those years ago.
Indeed, when her husband- an economic consultant for some of the top companies in the state walked out of their marriage- he fell in love with someone else and wanted to live with her- he offered her all the money that she would ever need. “At least for Natura’s sake, you should accept it.”
But Romela was adamant in her stand- accepting not even a single penny even though alimony was rightfully hers.
Natura was just two years at the time, and everyone, including her own parents said that she would do good to accept the money. “But I want to bring her up on my own and not depend on charity! And I can bring her up on my own!” she has told them, with tears in her eyes but fire in her heart.
At that time, she was working as an assistant designer at a fashion boutique in town, more as a hobby than anything else, but soon she went on to build a reasonably good business of her own- now owning two small shops aside from doing one-off projects for select clients who included some of the wealthiest members of the county.
She had hoped that Natura would follow in her foot steps. But the girl, when it came time to choose her graduation subject chose science. Biology, she said, and not fashion design. “A lot of beautiful and useful flowers and trees are disappearing, and I would like to do my bit to conserve them. I hope learning biology would help.” She had said in a most serious tone which made Romela equally proud and happy.
The little girl who would sit on her lap sucking her thumb, as she watched her mother make patterns on fabric using the sewing machine was all grown up and ready to do her bit for the world!
The memory brought a fresh bout of tears from Romela’s eyes.
She brought the blue shawl up and pressed it against her lips.
She has been washing all her daughter’s clothes these last two years regularly, using not just washing powder but also conditioner so that she could preserve them for as long as she could. She did the washing herself- never allowing the maid to do it for her.
The shawl still smelled fresh, but she took it to wash anyway. She used to wash the clothes for her when she was a baby. And the act of washing the clothes made keeping the illusion that she was still alive- an illusion that she wanted at times, one without which she felt she couldn’t be functional anymore, a little bit easier.
Just like the duality of our Lord Jesus- who was at the same time a man and also the highest spirit that resided in heaven, her daughter could be too walking on this earth while in heaven. Isn’t that so?
Who was there to say otherwise?
The news channels were having a field day now that the trail has begun. They went over and over again about how the killer was finally caught, though it’s been almost two months since that happened.
They also kept showing the images of the different victims the killer has confessed to killing: all young and pretty women, all between the ages of 20 and 30, all with a smile on their faces.
Lying on the sofa, watching the different images flicker past, Romela imagined how it would be to see her daughter’s face as another of these snapshots. How would she feel? Would she feel vindicated that finally it’s been acknowledged publicly that her daughter was killed by this vile creature of a man? Or would her heart just sink with sadness?
She thought about the parents of the children whose pictures were being shown like a parade. She felt bile rise to the back of her throat. She has skipped breakfast today and dinner last night. Ever since she agreed not to press charges, her appetite has gone down.
She knew that it was logically the right thing to do. But then, at some part of her mind, she couldn’t help but think that she has somehow let her little girl down. In such situations, eating could be the farthest thing on one’s mind.
They were now showing the killer- being brought to the court in handcuffs and leg chains- a 45 year old man with a thin moustache and a balding head, whose calm demeanor and bespectacled eyes gave him the air of a school teacher than a murderer.
Indeed, ever since they started showing his image-since he was caught, what struck Romela the most was how absolutely ordinary he looked. He had the kind of face which if you saw once you would immediately forget, the kind of face which wouldn’t stand out in a crowd.
And that’s perhaps why he was so successful, she thought.
After all, the man was on a killing spree for almost a decade before he was caught.
But I had hoped that when the time came for the trial, he would reveal his true colours, she thought. That maybe, when faced with the prospect of facing a roomful of people, the maniac would break into a wide grin and proclaim, “Yes, here I am! The one you cannot comprehend. The one who has done something that everyone fantasises about at least once in life- to kill a fellow human being. And I have done that many times over, in the most brutal manners!”
But no such arrogance was on display at the court. In fact, the man looked even meeker than usual, bringing to Romela’s mind the words of Mathew the sheriff- about how the criminal would try to appear meek in front of the public and in front of the cameras-which is more or less the same thing.
The big-shot lawyers the man has enlisted for his trial would make sure that their client is well-versed in such mechanisms of manipulating the audience’s emotions.
Not that the killer could get far with the manipulation, not when the crimes that he had commited were so heinous- he repeatedly raped each of his victims before murdering them. The mode of killing itself was different in many cases- from strangulating to slashing across the throat with a knife to bludgeoning.
But the common aspect, aside from the rape was the claw-like mark which he left on his victim’s body- usually on the cheek, and if the face was mutilated too much for that to be practical, the mark would be found on the neck. Hence, the moniker.
The psychologists who had evaluated the criminal all said that he firmly believed he was the embodiment of an animal spirit which traverses from one body to the next, down the generations. Once he is gone, someone else would embody the spirit, he has apparently said.
Holding on to this theory, the man says that he is not responsible for the killings. It’s the spirit that “does what it wants to do and not me.”
Romela, like a whole lot of people in the country, was surprised to learn that the killer once wanted to become a priest when he was young. But at the Catholic seminary where he joined to become one, he was repeatedly abused by one of the priests who taught there. And, according to the psychologists, this was the period in which the spirit apparently got into his body for the very first time- the spirit of the earth, primordial, dark and wanting of absolution by exercising power- power that was taken away from him every time he had to kneel down in front of the priest.
One night he left the seminary without anyone knowing.
Years later, he appeared in the public consciousness, an avenging angel- a twisted angel at that.
Which was all well, but how the hell could the man appear so meek after committing so many heinous crimes! Romela felt restless, so much so that she sat up in the sofa.
It’s the television. It has to be!
She remembered how once she and Natura went to watch a soccer match live in the stadium- the only time they had done so. Natura went through a phase in school when she was a huge fan of soccer, collecting cards and watching all the matches, having her mother buy her jerseys of her favourite teams. On one of her birthdays, Romela presented her with tickets. She had thought that the girl would want to go with one of her friends but Natura insisted she wanted to go with her mother. “After all, who else could be so sweet to me as to present me with tickets for a match of my favorite team!” she had said.
So they went. And the experience of watching soccer in the stadium was so different from how it’s on TV. There are both pros and cons- the players on the ground as a little more than dots, that’s one of the main cons, even though they had seats relatively close to the stands. But the level of sheer excitement in the stadium was something that you couldn’t experience by watching the TV- this even Romela, who wasn’t exactly the biggest soccer fan could understand.
This has to be something like that, she thought, looking at the criminal being led into the court by a coterie of cops. Transmitted live, in HD quality.
And it infuriated her to see that the criminal looked so ordinary- as though instead of killing innocent people, the greatest crime he had ever done was getting a couple of parking tickets.
“Ma’m, the food is ready. Shall I lay the dinner table?”
She heard the maid’s voice as through a haze, her mind hovering above the courtroom into which the criminal just entered.
“You have it, Martha,” she said, without taking her eyes off the screen. “And what’s left over, you please take it home. I won’t be needing it. I am going somewhere.”
The maid, standing at the door to the kitchen blinked, not understanding what her madam intended to do. Madam hasn’t had dinner last night, nor breakfast in the morning. She certainly hoped that it wasn’t her cooking that was making her abstain from food. But before she could frame the question as to whether madam wasn’t feeling hungry, Romela said, “I am going somewhere. I think I will be back tomorrow. Or maybe the day after. I will ring you once I’m back.”
Romela wasn’t really big on driving. She found the whole series of tasks involving shifting gears and handling the clutch and the steering wheel while keeping a perennial eye on the road, too much of a chore- the reason why even though she got her driver’s license when she was 24, it was not until another 10 years that she got herself a car- that too because Natura shifted to a school a little further from home- some 10 kilometers, and she preferred driving her and picking her up herself. Most of the school buses were too crowded- some kids have to stand all the way.
Thoughts of Natura kept intruding her mind as she drove. She has long since passed the town limits. She has been driving straight for four hours now. The highway stretched in front of her like there was no end to it. She wished she had an interest in music-in which case she could have turned on the radio
She tried to remember when was the last time she took a drive this long- it was almost 8 hours to the next state, where the trial was happening. But no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t recall.
Probably because I have never taken this long a ride on my own, she thought.
By the time the sun began to descent for good, bringing evening and a bleak looking twilight, she was also feeling more bored than she could ever remember.
I hope it’s worth it, she thought. I hope I would get to see that son of a bitch in his true colours- as a monster.
By the time she reached her destination, it was already night. Thanks to the conservative speed in which she drove- never more than 50 kilometers per hour, it took her just above 9 hours to finish the ride. When she got out of the car, she felt her back stiff. More urgently, she felt like emptying her bladder- she didn’t relieve herself at the petrol station where she stopped for gas- she rarely found the lavatories in such places clean.
She walked to the motel as fast as her full bladder would permit, got the room in a jiffy and the first thing she did after entering the room-with a view of the back of the red brick building next door- was to relieve herself.
She hoped to get out and grab a bite to eat after that- she remembered seeing a restaurant right opposite to the motel. After stepping out of the bathroom, she sat on the bed to get the wallet out of her bag. The mattress was hard- not nearly as comfortable as the one in her bed back home. But after having her bottom stuck to the leather seat of the car for nine hours straight, it felt downright luxurious. So much so that the inclination to just lie down for a while, rest for five minutes before stepping out of the room for dinner, overcame her without her even being aware of it.
But the five minutes stretched into hours and by the time she was awake, it was already morning.
The drive back home was even worse. For one thing, the traffic was much worse in several stretches- she wasn’t sure the reason why. Then, there was also the fact that her mind was considerably more disturbed than yesterday.
For what she saw in front of the court house was not a monster but just a man- an ordinary looking man with lost hope in his eyes. What disturbed her the most about the look was that for a second, just a second, she actually felt sympathy for him.
“Damn!” she shouted as she had to stop the car at a traffic. And it wasn’t the traffic that she was cursing.
The man she had seen, who was brought out of a barricaded police van, clad in handcuffs and chains had a long forehead. His eyebrows were thicker than how they appeared in the television, and watching him from a distance of not more than a few feet, it was clear to her that the eyebrows were greying as well. The balding head shined under the light of a harsh sun, whereas the folds of skin on his neck looked pockmarked what with the stubbles that were not well shaved. And there was that look in his eyes- as though he were a lamb brought to the slaughter rather than the slaughterer.
Since it was the second day of the trail, the crowd was lesser than the previous day, but it was still considerable. Enough for Romela to have to squeeze her way past strangers to get a close view of the culprit- as close a view as you could get given the numerous media people and police officers who practically smothered him. And the courtroom where the trial was to happen was already full- even though Romela arrived there a full hour before the court was in session, making any question of getting in to see the proceedings a moot point.
Not that she would have wanted that. That would have been too much of a stress- something that might tumble her down the dark stairs of depression once again- hearing in graphic detail the manner in which he killed all those innocent girls, so much like how he killed her own girl.
No, all she had wanted was to see with her own eyes the monster who did all the murders.
The monster, whom the news had said has kept in minimal touch with his parents –“who were unavailable for an interview”. Apparently, he blamed them for what happened to him at the seminary. For he claims that even though he told them about the abuse, they didn’t believe him, thinking he was making the story up because he found the stringent and frugal lifestyle in the seminary too much to stomach, that following in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ was harder than he thought.
He was close not even with his twin brother, they had said. “I never wanted to be with any of them. The animal spirit which I embody is eternally free- having no attachments to anything, not even to family..,” one news channel reported him as saying.
But back at that courthouse, what she saw was not someone who has emancipated all his connections with his earthy roots. Rather, it was someone who looked forlorn, in need to human companionship, someone who appeared as though he was most deserving of human sympathy.
Romela didn’t know whether she felt more disgusted or saddened by such levels of acting. If she went there seeking a monster, the monstrosity was to be found in how well he kept the monster hidden from public view.
The hot sting of tears flowing down her cheeks infuriated her.
She saw the car as soon as she turned the last bent towards her home. At first, she thought it might belong to Martha, the maid- she might have been passing by when she dropped in to check if Romela had returned. But as she got closer, she saw that the car model was different from Martha’s- more expensive, and judging from the way it’s shiny surface gleamed in the evening light, a recent acquisition.
She heard the man’s voice before she saw him.
“I was about to leave…Are you Romela Anderson?”
If the man’s voice startled her, the sight of him startled her even more.
The long forehead, the thick eyebrows, the folds under his neck were all things that kept intruding into her mind over the last few hours. But he was no more in handcuffs or links, nor was he wearing the single piece robe which was the prison garb. In fact, the man was dressed impeccably- in plain blue shirt and pale white pants. The pair of black leather shoes, like the car, glinted under the sunlight.
Seeing the look of apprehension on Romela’s face, he said hurriedly, “I am Thomas, Jerry’s brother. Twin brother,” he added.
Though his words rang loud and clear across the few feet that divided him from her car, \ it took a couple of moments for the import of his words to sink in.
And once that happened, her heartbeat also came down in rhythm. Yes, of course, he is the twin brother! she thought.
For a few wild seconds she actually thought that the criminal had somehow made it out of the courtroom and gave her chase.
Taking a few seconds to compose herself, she got out of the car.
Acknowledging her apprehension, Thomas moved out of her way as he walked to her front door. She kept looking over her shoulder as she opened the door, the hand that held the key shaking like a leaf in the wind.
She pushed the door open rather too fast, making the door creak on its hinges. She put a leg in the living room floor, one leg still outside the door. Swiveling her face, she asked, “Why are you here?”
For a moment, the man looked like he didn’t have anything to say. He simply raised his arms in a helpless gesture before saying, “If you would invite me in, I can explain.”
Romela looked around. All the other houses in the neighbourhood had their front doors closed at this time- well, at most times, in fact. Not even the Hammonds’ little kid was to be seen- the blue and yellow kiddy pool where he usually plays lying there in the frontyard looking forlorn.
If she were to go into the house with this person, no one would see it. Though she did see differences in his physique from his brother- for one thing, he had a full head of hair, the resemblances were unnerving to aid a comfortable chat.
But then again, it would be downright rude to talk with him in the frontyard just because he looked like his brother.
After gazing at the man for a couple of more seconds, she said, “Please do come in. But I will stand by the door, which I will keep open. I just came from the court..” she added.
Thomas, hesitating for a moment, nodded and walked up to the house. Removing his shoes, he entered the abode and upon her gesture, took a seat on the sofa.
“We used to be close- Jerry and I,” he began without preamble. “But…but we drifted apart once we grew up, and Jerry..he became a recluse as far as I and my parents were concerned. He owned a few farms in Logfyum- mostly oranges, also some corn and wheat. More often than not, he stayed in one of the farm houses, cut away from the larger population.”
Romela nodded even though this information was not new to her- almost all the killings had happened in one of his farm houses, he has confessed.
“I for one live in this state, in Dohga,” Thomas continued. “In fact, I stay in this very county, hardly more than an hour’s ride from here….And Jerry..he owns an orange orchard here. He used to call me whenever he came down there, but as time went by, that too stopped. But the last time he came down there, he did call me..” Thomas looked at Romela in a peculiar manner, as though now that he has begun he was unsure if he should continue.
Seeing the steely look on Romela’s face, he continued, apparently thinking it’s best to get it over with now that he has begun.
“I got the call in the night. I could hear a woman’s voice in the background. It felt like she was complaining about something, in a raised tone of voice. Jerry said he called me just because he came down to the house. No other reason, he said. I was quite surprised by the call because by that point, it’s been years since we talked to each other. I told him as much. With a weary sigh he said, all the loneliness was getting to him. Even as he was talking, I could hear the woman’s high pitched voice in the background. I assumed it was his latest girlfriend- he was always a lady’s man, you see. I assumed whatever fight they were having was the reason why he suddenly felt so oppressed by loneliness, though of course I didn’t say so. Instead, I invited him to my place. He said he would come over the next day. He got off the phone abruptly.” After a beat, he added, “That was the last I heard from him.”
Once Thomas stopped talking, Romela leaned back against the door, gazing out into the distance. She hoped that the tears wouldn’t sprout in front of the stranger.
After a few moments, she turned to look at him. “So, you think that the girl you heard on the phone was my daughter?”
Thomas nodded slowly. “I…” he began but then the words tapered off, like a song fading into silence.
Romela felt another onslaught of tears. But before the tears could appear, she said, “Let me bring you something to drink” and went to the kitchen.
She returned with a glass of orange juice. He smiled sadly, seeing the liquid in the tall glass.
“I should have asked him why he was there,” he said after taking just a sip of the juice. “The oranges in the farm, like in many farms across the state have been ruined with the virus.”
He was talking about the new strain of virus that proved catastrophic for the orange farmers of Dohga. The only solution to the problem that the scientists could find was the use of genetically modified strains which would be resistant to the virus. But thanks to the opposition to the idea presented by many environmental groups- with ample evidence backed reasons- the approval for the gm seeds would take at least a couple of years, maybe more- and that’s a conservative estimate- the kind of time which could put a farmer out of business for good- especially if it’s a small time farmer. The accumulated land areas in which Jerry did farming in multiple states came up to 1800 acres, which didn’t put him in the league of the country’s largest farm producers- not by a long shot. But it was indeed substantial.
However, when the virus crisis hit his orange farm in Dohga, he decided to shut down the operation- those who worked the farm were compensated well and the farm house- which was a modest term given to the villa situated in the middle of the farm, was shut down. It was to this villa/ farm house that he brought Natura.
Romela took a seat near Thomas, her earlier apprehensions about the man having fallen off.
“Why are you here?” she said. “Why are you telling me all this?”
Placing the glass of juice on the tea poe, he looked at Romela. Rubbing the bridge of his nose rather thoughtfully, he said, “I get sleepless nights, Mrs. Romela-“
“Miss. Romela,” Romela interjected.
Nodding, he continued, “I often wonder if I could have made a difference. I wonder if had I said something to him- perhaps, if I had asked him who the woman was, would she…would she have had a different fate? Maybe, if knowing that someone knows there was a woman with him, he might have, might have abstained from doing what he did…And when I came to know that your daughter is the only one who was…who passed away in this county, and when I found the dates matched with the phone call, I just..I just felt like coming here and talking to you…”
Romela lowered her head but she nodded, much like the way Thomas rubbed on his nose, a thoughtful gesture.
When she looked up, there was a faint smile on her face, a sad smile but a smile nonetheless.
“What do you do, Mr. Thomas?” she said, “I mean, for a living?”
“I am a writer,” he said. “Not..like a writer of books or anything. But I am a content writer.” Upon seeing Romela’s eyebrows rising in enquiry, he added, “I write website content…for businesses and products.”
She nodded. She gestured him to drink the orange juice. He obeyed, taking a couple of more sips and telling her how good it was.
“It’s so..good of you to have come, Mr. Thomas,” said Romela slowly, her voice hardly more than a whisper. Keeping the weight of emotions from breaking her was indeed tiring business. “I don’t think many people would have taken the effort,” she continued. “And I appreciate that…As for whether or not you could have made a difference, well, that would be merely an exercise in speculation, now. Wouldn’t it?”
Thomas nodded, though he immediately lowered his head, as though he felt ashamed.
Feeling sorry for him, Romela reached a hand which she placed on his arm. “Really, I don’t think that you could have done anything…God does move in mysterious ways and it’s always God’s will that takes place in the world. Had God willed otherwise, my girl would still be alive today.”
A single drop of tear came out of her eye, which she immediately rubbed away.
Romela took the blue shawl out of her daughter’;s closet the second time in three days. The shawl was washed and put away in the closet by herself. She pressed the shawl to her eyes, letting the tears be soaked by the fabric.
She imagined the shawl to be her daughter’s hand which dabbed tears from her eyes. “Had God willed, she would still be alive,” that’s what she said to the man who came to visit earlier in the day.
But why didn’t you will otherwise, God?, the question arose in her mind even though she would never dare say it out loud- for fear of blasphemy.
“Madam, the dinner is ready.”
She hadn’t seen Martha coming to the door. Looking up, she nodded, not bothering to dry her eyes.
After standing still at the door, at a loss for words, Martha said, “God will bring justice, madam! I heard that monster would get the capital punishment!”
“I know,” said Romela after a while. The silences between them were becoming prolonged, filled only by the sound of the crickets.
“Please, have some food, madam. You haven’t had food properly in so long a time.”
Romela nodded. “You set the table. I would be there in a short while.”
What Martha said that night turned out to be true- Jerry was granted the capital punishment by the High Court of Logfyum. The sentence would be carried out two weeks from now.
Hearing the news, Mathew the sheriff came down to Romela’s house. He brought with him a box of chocolates. “Something worth celebrating?” , he said, grinning, standing triumphantly at the door, a symbol of the victory of justice.
Romela accepted the chocolates graciously, with a smile and thanking Mathew. But she didn’t wish to dwell too much on the court’s sentence. Justice was done and that was enough for her. She didn’t wish to celebrate. In fact, fearing for her soul- which might get plunged into an irrevocable darkness if it reveled in the destruction of another- even if it be a vile criminal, she had planned to attend a seven day prayer camp next week.
She made small talk with Mathew but once the sheriff was gone, she put away the box of chocolates, without having even one of them.
“I would give the unopened box to Martha. Let her enjoy it with her children,” she decided.
Though she willfully tried not to get too happy about Jerry’s death sentence, in the subsequent days she did catch herself in high spirits on many occasions.
The colours of the fabric appeared much brighter these days whenever she sat down to work, designing and stitching clothes for one client or the other. Even mundane chores like cleaning dishes- which she might do on days when Martha didn’t turn up, felt much more enjoyable. In fact, the very air that she breathed felt fresher, much.
But all that changed after the passage of a week.
The very sky itself fell on her, or so it felt, bringing her under a cosmic debris which couldn’t be removed no matter how hard one tried. The pressure which the debris caused translated into nothing but fear.
It was Mathew who alerted her. “Did you see the news?” he said. She was surprised to see that the call was from him- he rarely called unless there was something so urgent.
“No,” she said. “Why?”
It turned out that Jerry committed suicide in his cell a full week before his sentence was to be carried out. Though the authorities were careful to deprive him of any objects which he might use to end his own life or harm others- like belt or a pen, he just bit off a large piece of fabric from his jail clothe which he then stuffed down his throat.
By the time the guard who was posted outside the cell got the idea that the weird sounds that the inmate made were more than just the prisoner fooling around, the prisoner had already died.
But what sent persistent shivers of fear down Romela’s spine- as though there was an electric impulse generating machine clamped on her head which sent pulses down her body, was something else.
One of the news channels reported “ a reliable source in the prison” as saying that Jerry kept saying during his incarceration that they got the wrong person- that it was his brother that they wanted. In fact, the report added that this was something the prisoner claimed even before he was sentenced- only, the lawyers and other officials took it to be a sign of classic “duality” – trying to shift the blame to someone else was part of such behavior.
This bit was a footnote in the channel’s reportage of the prisoner’s death.
But for Romela, it meant the difference between justice and injustice.
Her suspicions were proven true when she read the letter that Marta brought to her.
“Where did you find this?,” she asked the maid.
“It was lying at the doorstep when I came in,” came the immediate reply.
Dismissing her, Romela opened the plain brown envelope which lacked a From address. She couldn’t recall when was the last time she received a snail mail.
The letter was printed on a plain white sheet which wasn’t of the highest quality. In fact, it looked as though the paper has been lying around for a long time, forgotten in one corner of a lonely house.
But she didn’t take in the details regarding the paper’s quality- or lack thereof. At least, not at first. For soon as she opened the envelope, her eyes went straight to the words printed on it.
She recognized the font immediately- Sans Serif, one of the most common fonts used in fashion design when it involved printing words on tees.
She wondered if the killer’s choice of the font was deliberate.
She began to read the letter immediately.
“Hi. I know, I know. Who in their right mind would send a snail main in this age when the Internet itself is old news? But in my defence, I must say that I don’t know your e-mail id. Also, even if I found that out, I clouldn’t be sure if you would delete my mail as a prank mail or not. The thing is, I really, really wanted you to read this. Now that you know that my brother took his life in the prison, I have a feeling that you might have guessed, or suspected that something was amiss. For this proud nation of ours has created numerous serial killers- 182 in the last four decades, according to police count, and who could envision a serial killer who would be sissy enough to take his own life once he gets incarcerated? Well, the good news is that your assumption is right- for it wasn’t a serial killer who died in that prison cell. It’s his brother.
“I’m sure you must be familiar with how I was ‘found’ by the police. I brought a girl to one of my farm houses. She managed to escape. I gave chase. She hailed a car that was passing by the highway at that time of the night-talk about weird luck- even during the day, you get one vehicle every hour or so on that highway! And talk about even weirder luck! For the man in the car happened to have a gun with him which he shot at me, injuring me, sending me crawling back to the farm house.
“I expected that motherfucker-whoever it was to come for me. So, I stayed ready in the house, with my own gun at the ready. But the motherfucker didn’t come- I reckon the girl turned him away from that endavour. Anyway, that was the mistake they made. By this time, I had lost some significant amount of blood. Even if I were to try and get away, I knew I wouldn’t get far. That’s when I had the idea to call my brother-who lived hardly half an hour away. And when I told him that I fell and hurt myself, that I needed help, he rushed to me- even though we haven’t been in touch for a long time. Blood is thicker than water and all that.
“Soon as he walked in the door, I shot him. He died in the second shot. Or so I thought. Now, I could hear the wail of the police car siren in the distance. I got myself as much away from the house, leaving my brother’s body, devoid of any identity, for them to find. I removed his car before getting away, dumping it in one of the pits around the place- one advantage of having a farm in the middle of nowhere is that you have access to as many naturally-formed pits as you like.
“The rest, as you know, is history as farce. I couldn’t believe how much the justice department screwed up. Can you imagine the public outcry if it’s found that they gave the capital punishment to the wrong person? That’s why I decided to send this letter to you and not any of the media houses- so many of them are in compliance with the government that you couldn’t trust many to get the information out there.
“Yes, you could say that the judiciary is distinct from the government, in some ways even higher than it. But then, you would only be peddling theories…Which brings us to this moment- of you, Romela Anderson reading this letter. For you are the only one worthy. The only one I could be sure will bring this letter to the authorities. For you surely want your daughter’s killer to be caught? And I for one, cannot function unless there is the thrill of the chase. I want the cops after me, Romela. And now that they know what I look like, it would be tougher for me to stay ahead of the game, making it even more challenging. More fun!
“But not as fun as it is snuffing the life out of young pretty things-like your daughter.
“Many people wonder why I leave the claw mark on the bodies. There are theories. Some of these wild speculations that I read on the internet, I quite enjoy, I must say. For instance, there’s this one guy from China who believes that the claw is the mark of a beast- a beast that I aspire to become. He develops this theory based on my idea of the animal spirit. But what he doesn’t know is that there’s no higher beast that human- the highest manifestation of all that’s sacred and profane about the evolutionary process- the most current manifestation, I must say.
“I digress. The point I try to make, my dear Romela, is that I don’t make the claw mark to make a point. Instead, it’s just a stylistic tool to show that I am the one doing it. I could have chosen many other marks, but this one-which I found on Deviant Art, looks so cool. I even had a special device made in that design for the purpose. Of course, the maker of that particular beauty would never make anything ever again….
“Romela, now it’s up to you to let the world know that the next time there appears a dead body with the claw mark on it, it’s not some copycat’s job. I trust you to do your citizen’s job.
“P.S: Your lovely daughter’s nipple tasted so good to suck. Thank you for making her so…sumptuous.”
Romela read the letter twice over. The only takeaway from it, as far as she could see, was that God not only works in mysterious ways but his works could be heart breaking also.
As she got dressed, she thought she would cry. She waited for the tears to come like a bird struck by a bullet would wait for searing pain or death – an inevitability. But to her surprise, she didn’t cry. In fact, she felt emotionally neutral.
Instead of sentimentality, there was an odd calmness, brought about by a calm ideology- the only one she could find- the culprit must be brought to the law at all costs.
Parking the car outside the police station’s gate, she got out, taking the two objects from the passenger seat.
She was relieved to find that Mathew was in- it would be so much more easier to explain this to him than anyone else. For the last two years, since Natura passed away, the sheriff has been extremely supportive of her- keeping her updated about what’s going on with the hunt for the criminal, giving her the appropriate advices as and when needed, regarding the moves she- as a mother of the victim, ought to make.
“Romela, What a surprise!,” Mathew exclaimed with a smile as she walked up to his desk.
But seeing the expression on her face, his smile vanished.
“What is it?” he said in a lowered tone.
Romela kept one of the two objects which she had taken from her car’s passenger seat, on Mathew’s desk. Mathew looked at the chocolate box which he had presented her with just a few days ago. He raised his eyes to her, a look of enquiry.
“I think it’s a little premature to be celebrating.”
Her statement only made the furrow in his forehead deepen. Instead of an explanation, she handed him the second object in her hand.
Mathew accepted the envelope without comment, then asked her to take a seat. He pulled out the folded letter the corner of which was peeking out from the torn envelope.
Romela watched without expression as the sheriff started reading the letter- his expression changing from mild curiosity to deep apprehension in the span of a few minutes.
When the sheriff finally looked up at her face, Romela could easily read the meaning of the expression that appeared on his face. It was an expression of realization, that the hunt which everyone thought had mercifully come to an end, must begin all over again.
As for Romela, she sat with nary an expression on her face, her heart whispering the same thing over and over again- God’s mysterious acts could also be heart-breaking.