A body, face down, floating in the pool, apparently dead by drowning. But his death is hiding a secret – like the man was, when he was living. Did his secret get better of him? Inspectors Supriya and Rahul use all the tricks up their sleeves, to deworm the killer, hiding in the underbelly of the rich and elite. Will they apprehend the murderer?
Natash is a software engineer turned author. This is her fourth story in the series featuring ace detective duo Supriya & Rahul.
Chapter 1: Dead fishes go belly-up.
“Good afternoon Mr. Shukla. Are you all set for your 3.00 pm swim?”, Mahesh asked, continuing, deferentially, “Sir, as part and parcel of my job, I must warn you, there’s no lifeguard available at this hour as our pool is closed.”. Shantanu Shukla nodded his head, said, “Yes, I’m aware of that, Mahesh. You mention it. Every. Single. Day.”, without breaking his stride. “Err…Mr. Shukla, your membership to the club has expired, we need to renew it. I’ll need your signature on this renewal form. It’ll only take a minute, sir.”, he said, handing over a sheet with an attached pen to Shantanu. Shantanu, though annoyed, still accepted the proffered chart. While he perused the document, he chewed on the pen, absentmindedly. The document met with his approval and he hastily scribbled his signature on the form and returned it. “Thanks, Mahesh.”. “Thank you, sir. We appreciate your patronage at the ‘Healthy for the Wealthy’ club.”, he offered his hand to Shantanu. Shantanu directed his gaze at Mahesh’s face, and then down, at the hand offered, hesitated for a brief moment, and grasped it for a quick handshake, before he strode off.
In the empty, yet clean, shower area Shantanu stripped off his suit and changed into his swimming suit. He took a quick shower and shivered at the coolness of it. He adjusted his swimming cap, rubbing the water off of his eyes, before donning the goggles. He walked up to the pool steps, and carefully placed a black pouch near the edge, within an easy reach. Shantanu suffered from a severe peanut allergy and he was very diligent about managing it. He ensured he always had access to his EpiPen, several of them, that he carried in the black pouch. He was fastidious about it, almost maniacal and never moved out of his house without the EpiPen being on his person. Shantanu dived into the Olympic-sized pool, and began to swim his customary seven laps. He enjoyed the lull during the afternoons at the club when there was no one around in the pool, especially the irksome lifeguard. The lifeguard constantly nagged him, and read the riot act, if any of the rules were disobeyed. He shrugged off the stress of the day and concentrated on his breathing. Swimming was his way of de-stressing, and it provided, not only an excellent exercise for his body, but gave his brain an opportunity to mull over important issues.
Today, he was preoccupied with his thoughts, and even swimming couldn’t break their hold on his mind. He felt a slight twitch in his right eye, but didn’t pay any heed to it, his mind wrestling with its troubles. In the midst of his fourth lap, he felt a cramp coming on in his right-calf, and an itch grew in his throat. He grew cautious, as he thought he was exhibiting symptoms of an allergic reaction. His earlier problems forgotten, he analysed the sequence of events, prior to his diving into the pool, that may have exposed him to an allergen. He turned towards the pool steps, where the black pouch and its contents, lay a few hundred metres ahead. Shantanu clutched at his throat, beginning to feel dizzy with the effects of it swelling up. His breathing quickened, partly in panic as his airway started to constrict. His skin broke into a hive, and dizziness and nausea washed over him. He tried to quicken his speed, his legs kicking violently, desperate to get to the black pouch, but he couldn’t breathe, his blood pressure starting to fluctuate. He began to choke and cough, and felt his bladder let go, as he tried to call out for help, but his airways were completely closed, and his body began to go into a shock. Panic setting in it completely; there was no one near the pool. The solitude around him, broken by his painful attempts to breathe, and ineffectual gasping. Help was just a few meters ahead, and the black pouch was the last thing he saw before he blacked out.
Chapter 2: Here comes the guards.
Inspectors Supriya and Rahul entered the exclusive club, examining it with curious eyes. They had heard about the club’s opulence and exclusivity, and were in awe. “Right through here, Ma’am and Sir.”, sub-inspector Ketan said as he led them to the pool area,” The body was found face-down in the pool about an hour back, discovered by the cleaning lady. They re-open the pool at 4.15pm, and she wanted to clean…”. “Re-open? If the pool was closed, how was the victim swimming?”, Rahul interjected. “Sir, the victim, Shantanu Shukla didn’t follow the club timings or schedule, he was one of their oldest members, and being a multi-millionaire, no one dared to stop him. The pool is closed from 2.00-4.00 pm for others and there’s no lifeguard on duty during those times. A fact that Mr. Shukla was aware of, and in fact, preferred. He was found by the cleaner, she pulled him to the edge of the pool, but he was dead by that time. She raised an alarm and later, the club management contacted us.”. Supriya and Rahul bent down to closely examine Shantanu’s body, while Dr. Suresh made his preliminary examinations. Shantanu’s face appeared splotchy, and his eyes were shut tight, slightly swollen at the corners. His mouth was open in a gasp, a frozen expression of pain. There were no other physical marks on his body. He was dressed in a full-body, black swimsuit, the swimming cap, now askew and his goggles lay next to him. They waited for the coroner to finish, taking in the surroundings as they approached the cleaner lady, Meena, asking, “What happened, Meena?”. “Sir, I came into the pool area at 4.00 pm. My duties included cleaning the bathrooms, drying the floors, placing the fresh towels and emptying the laundry baskets. When I was near the pool, I saw a man there. For a moment I thought he was floating, but when there were no movements, I got scared. I dragged him by his hand near the edge of the pool. I screamed and the others came in and we turned him over. It was Shukla sir. It was horrible to see him like that, he looked like a puffed-up doll, wasn’t breathing. I’m going to have nightmares for the rest of my life after looking at his pasty face. How can he drown when he knows swimming? What a hideous day this has turned out for me!”, she broke off in sobs. “Not as bad as it was for Shantanu Shukla.”, whispered Rahul, under his breath as they walked towards the coroner. “He died by drowning, that’s all I am ready to say now, folks. I’ll give you more details when I have him opened up on my autopsy table. He seems to have suffered from some allergies, there are epinephrine auto-injection or EpiPens near the pool steps. Laters.”, Dr. Suresh said, leaving with the body on a gurney. Supriya and Rahul went up to the manager, Mahesh, “What happened today?”. “Yes, Ma’am. Shantanu sir came in at 3.00 pm sharp, as usual. He comes…used to come every day at 3.00 pm. And sir, and ma’am, I warned him there was no lifeguard but he didn’t pay any attention to me. He was used to getting his way, and we couldn’t stop him. He must have taken his shower, changed and kept his black pouch, near the edge.”. “What was in the black pouch?”. “Shantanu sir was severely allergic to peanuts, even a whiff would set him off. He always carried his EpiPen with him. Everywhere. He usually placed it within striking distance, when he swam.”, he said shaking his head. “Weren’t you curious when he didn’t come out?”. “No, ma’am. Shantanu sir always swam for one hour, and then he would take a shower and dress in his office wear. We didn’t suspect anything till Meena raised an alarm.”. “What happened next?”.” Meena cried out so we all raced to the pool area, and there was sir, floating. We got him to the edge by pulling his hand and the lifeguard tried to resuscitate him, but there was no pulse. We immediately called the police and stepped away.”. “We’ll need everyone’s fingerprints for the elimination process, Mahesh.”. “Of course, sir. We’re ready to help you in every way possible. This first day of the year 2004 has been a bad start for us, and of course Shukla sir’s family, too.”, and as an afterthought, “For Shantanu sir, too.”.
Chapter 3: The unmasking of the man.
Next morning, the smell of freshly fried, piping hot samosas and ginger tea assailed Supriya’s nostrils just as she picked up the murder book, “Ah! Here you are, Rahul. I hope you remembered to get the fried, green chillies.”.” When have I ever forgotten them, Supriya? Let’s capture the nice interview room and dine there.”. Once they had devoured the food and drinks, Supriya spoke, “Shantanu Shukla, our victim was a multi-millionaire, head of several of the Shukla Industries that have their fingers in almost every industrial pie. He was a very successful, tenacious, workaholic and ruthless leader, and a very well-respected man. He’s survived by his wife, and a son. From his childhood, he suffered from a very severe form of peanut allergy, and was very careful about consuming any food that wasn’t vetted. He always carried several EpiPens with him, as he had some prior episodes where he unknowingly consumed food with peanuts. He was quite diligent about his health, and visited the ‘Healthy for the Wealthy’ club every afternoon at 3.00 pm for swimming, and also ran daily. A fact well known, along with his allergies. The team has spoken to his widow, Ms. Manasi Shukla, and son, Shivam Shukla. They are devastated, and his wife had to be sedated as she completely broke down on hearing the news. We have scheduled a meeting with his personal assistant, Ms. Aashna Bhat for giving us details about his movements on 1st January, the day he died. She’s meeting us in 30 minutes. We’re expecting the autopsy report from Dr. Suresh by evening. Since this is a high-profile case, there’s bound to be a lot of media attention, which comes with unrelenting pressure from the brass.”, she sighed, “We better make sure we cross our t’s and dot our i’s, this time around.”. “How droll, Supriya. The case is barely 24 hours old, and we’re already under pressure from them. Anyway, let’s go and meet the cap.”.
On returning from the meeting with their boss, they headed towards the Shukla Industries’ headquarters where they were to meet with Shantanu’s assistant. Aashna Bhat was a middle-aged, attractive woman, with a competent air around her, though her eyes were red and swollen. “How was Shantanu as a boss?”. “He was a normal boss – I mean if I made a mistake he would get annoyed but didn’t raise his voice or scream, and occasionally he would have some bad days where he would snarl all day but they were rare. But last week, he was troubled by something, he didn’t disclose it but I often caught him looking out of his window, lost in thought. A couple of times, I asked him if anything was wrong but he denied it.”. “Could it be a work related issue?”. “No, I don’t think so, since I run his daily schedules and am in charge of his correspondence, there wasn’t any work related crisis that could be troubling him. In fact, currently, we’re experiencing the best turnover since our existence in most of our portfolios.”. “How was his relationship with his wife and son.”. “I think they were an average couple. They had their fair share of fights but nothing serious. There was a lot of love in that marriage, and it was obvious to all. Shantanu respected Manasi tremendously, and was willing to do anything for her, and she, too, reciprocated the sentiment. She felt a special gratitude towards him.”. “Why’s that?”. “Shantanu married Manasi when she was pregnant with another man’s child. When her son was born, Shantanu adopted him, and raised him as his own.”.” Ah, so Shivam is his step-son.”. “Just semantics. For all practical purposes, Shivam had accepted Shantanu as his father, and they were thick as thieves. The three of them were quite a close knit family. And to learn the ropes, Shivam had just joined the company and was working his way up.”. “How about Shantanu’s enemies. He couldn’t have reached here without making enemies.”. “Shantanu sir, on a professional front, was ruthless when it came to his business, he didn’t make emotional decisions, but he weighed each possibility, each action before committing to it. But on a personal front, he was a very kind, loving man. He was charitable, supported several causes, and kept his employees happy.”. “He sounds like a saint.”. “Oh that he definitely wasn’t. He was flawed as a man but he was a good man, honest and trustworthy. Even his peers would agree. So as for enemies, there were none that would want to cause harm to him or his family.”.” What was his schedule on 1st January 2004?”. Aashna consulted her diary, “Shantanu reported to the office at sharp 9.0 am, where I served him black coffee. Since he was allergic to peanuts, I oversaw all his food preparations or bookings at the restaurant and ensured his food allergies were taken seriously. He had a meeting with the CFO, Mr. Bharat Chand, and then a phone call with one of his clients, Ms. Kirti Shah. We broke for lunch at 12.00 pm, where he had his sprouts and beetroot salad with strawberry milkshake. At 2.45 pm, he left for his swim at the club, and…and…that was the last time I saw him.”, tears rolled down her cheeks, as she hung her head down. “Were you close to Shantanu, Aashna?”. “Yes, Ma’am, but not in the way you are hinting at. We were friends, and at the end of the day, I was his employee. We never crossed that line nor did we have a reason for it. We had a platonic relationship where he trusted me completely to manage his schedules, and I ensured I did my best.”. “Was he a good swimmer?”. “Yes, Shantanu was an excellent swimmer. He was very fit and healthy and never missed his seven laps around the pool. He said the mid-afternoon swim relaxed him, gave him fresh insights into the problems either work or personal issues.”.” And you mentioned that during last week, he appeared distracted.”. “Yes.”. “Can you confirm your whereabouts during the 2.00-4.00 pm time frame?”. “I was here at the office. My swipe card will confirm that and so will the other employees as I had a meeting with the other assistants till 3.15pm.”. “Thank you, Ms. Aashna, we may contact you again.”. “Ma’am, are you treating Shantanu’s death as a homicide?”. “We’re investigating it as a suspicious death, Ms. Aashna. It’s still fairly early in the game.”.
Chapter 4: Hidden secrets.
Inspectors Rahul and Supriya have been partners for a few years now. They were well-settled in their routine, comfortable, and trusted each other with their lives. Supriya had earned her grey hair, dyed chocolate brown, and seniority, in the homicide department, whereas Rahul achieved his name, and bullet scars in narcotics as an undercover agent. They were partnered when Rahul moved to homicide. Since then they had worked on several cases together. Their success rate was fairly good, and they were well respected in the homicide department. Rahul had the more jocular countenance, and Supriya was the calmer one, spoke less, and when she did, people listened.
“So, we have a dead body, who has allegedly died by drowning despite being a strong swimmer. Shantanu was known to have a severe peanut allergy, a ruthless yet kind man, who married his pregnant-with-another-man’s-baby college friend, and had a hunky dory relationship with her and his adopted son. Everyone – except one, the murderer – loved him and he was well respected. What am I missing? Has the autopsy report been sent?”. “No, Dr. Suresh is meeting us at 3.00 pm at the haunted house.”. “Rahul, it’s the mortuary and not haunted house.”. “One and the same for me, Supriya. One and the same.”.
They met Dr. Suresh, thankfully for Rahul, in his office. He peered at them over his glasses, “Shantanu Shukla’s death occurred around 3.00-3.30 pm and he drowned. There was some water found in his lungs. But he didn’t die because of drowning.”. He paused for effect – while Supriya and Rahul looked at him with shock on their faces, “Are you sure doctor? You just said he drowned while swimming.”. “No. I said, the reason for the death was drowning but it was not the cause. The cause was an anaphylactic shock to the body, leading to a cardiac arrest, its side effect was drowning.”. On reading their puzzled looks, he continued, “Anaphylactic shock occurs when the blood pressure drops very low and the blood is unable to circulate in the body, it’s a complication of anaphylaxis.”. He raised a hand, pre-empting their questions, continuing, “Anaphylaxis is an allergic reaction when there’s an exposure to an allergen, here, peanuts – it can develop within minutes and if untreated, can be fatal. In the case of this current victim, possibly just before his swim, a maximum of 30 minutes prior, as per my opinion, he was exposed to peanuts, which entered his bloodstream. I found traces of peanut and mint in his eyelashes. Someway, or somehow he managed to get peanut and mint extracts in his eyes, and he probably rubbed it, and that is how the allergen entered his system. He faced a very severe allergic reaction or anaphylaxis while swimming, and had no immediate access to his epinephrine injection. His airways swelled up, and his blood pressure dropped significantly, triggering a cardiac arrest. It’s a situation that could have been handled without any fatalities.”.” So, you’re saying he died due to a severe allergy. That he was murdered?”.” No. He died due to complications arising from the peanut allergy, which were untreated. If he was exposed to the allergen intentionally, then it’s definitely a case of murder, if not manslaughter. But if it was by chance, then it’s a case of an accidental death.”. “What do you think?”. “I don’t know – all I can confirm is that he was exposed to peanuts and couldn’t reach his medicine on time.”. “If there were a lifeguard around when he was swimming, could the death have been prevented?”. “Oh yes, if he was administered the EpiPen, and taken to the emergency services, barring any other complication, there was a good chance of survival. He was a healthy individual and showed no signs of any morbidity in his system. If this incident hadn’t happened, he would have lived up to a ripe old age.”. Dr. Suresh consulted his notes, “Another noteworthy detail on examination of the victim revealed his rectum showed healed tears and scars, indicating regular, penetrative sex. If the victim was a consenting adult, he was a homosexual. Rest appeared normal, no findings under his nails, no signs of external force applied anywhere on his body. All bones were intact. No drugs in his system. The needle marks were consistent with the usage of the EpiPen. Any more questions, folks?”.
* * *
“What!!! Shantanu was gay?”. This meeting has been quite a revelation. Especially after Aashna’s story about a loving marriage that he enjoyed with his wife. We need to talk to his wife Manasi Shukla immediately, to get more details about it, and if she was aware of his sexuality. “Yes, sorry. It’s imperative, as we couldn’t really talk to her last time. About the cardiac arrest, it could be a possible murder, Supriya. Knowing how finicky Shantanu was about his meals, I’m quite sure there’s no way he would ingest the peanuts voluntarily. The whole thing is hinting at a pre-planned murder.”
To Be Continued