Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Fort Vengeance

          The campus wore a deserted look. The tall shady trees stood in silence all around the large ground on which Ramnath was running. He stopped briefly, panting. Despite it being a cold morning, he was sweating profusely. He was the oldest watchman of the college, who also doubled up as a personal peon to the Principal. He started sprinting as fast as his tired legs could take him. The Principal would be sleeping at this hour. Ramnath hated being the bearer of bad news, specially this one. In the past one month this was the third time.

           Ravi Gokhale had had a rough night. It was one thing to manage a college and another to look over a criminal case. As if that was not enough, his wife had raised a storm over his negligence. He no longer had time to look after any of the house matters and she had persistently asked to be taken to her maiden home. It had infuriated Gokhale but he could do little to shut his wife up. She was ,after all,  the sister of a powerful politician, to whom he owed his position. He had resorted to alcohol and surrendered to sleep. The banging on the door got louder. Gokhale forced his eyes open, praying that it wasn't Ramnath.

           '"Sir, there is another case." Ramnath said, letting out a huge sigh.
           "What! This can't be! Where?" Gokhale asked, at once all alert.
           "Near the old fort." Ramnath answered, shaking his head.
           "How is it possible? The guards are everywhere!"
            Sardesai had been on a night shift the day before. He was returning home after long hours of duty. His 6 yr old daughter stood at the gate of their house, dressed for school. She came running into his arms.
            "Baba, drop me to school. You are wearing uniform, I want my friends to see!"she exclaimed.
             His wife came out, packing his daughter's tiffin into the satchel.
            "Baba is tired. Some other day, today I am dropping you."
             His daughter looked at him with hopes. He was about to give in to her request when  the call came.
             His daughter was crest fallen and it broke his heart to disappoint her, but duty came first.

             Gokale stood at a distance, covering his nose with a handkerchief. He had retched at the sight inside. Ramnath and a few other guards looked around the old fort. A police jeep was approaching. Gokhale heaved a sigh of relief. Sardesai would know what to do.

            The fort stood strong even after centuries of its inception. It was built by a Maratha ruler to safeguard his kingdom from the sea enemies. Much of its fine structure was dilapidated as it was never maintained after the reigning kingdom lost its heir. The fort was at the north end of the campus. Beyond it was the sea. The only way to reach the fort was through the campus. The small town of Raiji was once a stronghold of  Maratha kings. Its past glory was forgotten in the years to come until this huge sprawling campus drove in students from all over Maharashtra. Raiji was famous for one more reason. It was the constituency from where Patil won the elections.


                                                               Image source
           Sardesai had  a look at the fort. When he was a college student, he had come to the fort with this friends so many times. It was here that he had brought his wife, then girlfriend, on their first date. It was a heaven for young couples back then. On lazy afternoons, one could see couples in nooks and corners of the old fort, in the comfort of embraces or enjoying the sea breeze. The fort also had little rooms where soldiers were stationed in olden times. Most rooms were closed now. The rooms were nothing more than spaces to sit. A few rooms were open where people often stood for photographs as it faced the sea.

          Sardesai had handpicked his team of 5 members. Vishal was the youngest recruit in the force and was taken in for his sharp wit. Arjun was a boxer and had the strength of a bull. Yogendar was transferred as a reward for his bravery against North Indian top brass. Rajat and Vikas were his most trusted men from the force. He had called them at the crime scene on his way.

         Unlike the previous two cases, this time the murderer had made no attempt to hide the body. It was kept lying on the stairs of the fort.  Like the earlier murders, this too was done by smashing the head with a heavy, blunt object. It was man whose face was beyond recognition. From his clothes, they found out his identity.

        "Vinod Vichare?" Sardesai raised an eyebrow.
        "No idea", Gokhale shook his head.
        "Check the records."

        Sardesai had a  gut feel that Vinod Vichare was a past student, just like the previous two, Rangnath Kamath and Abhinav Patole.
        Bhimraj Patil was busy skimming through the papers. These days, he made it a point to check all the local papers of Raiji. With the elections close by, he was in turmoil. For over 15 years, the college functioned smoothly under his brother-in-law, Gokhale. The revenue was growing, the publicity was good. The land acquisition went as per plan and the acres of campus had every amenity that a city college could boast of. Raiji had students swarming in from various corners. Hostel was built, PG accomodations cropped up. The locals did a good business. He was  God sent for people of Raiji. Without doubt, they made him win every time.

        "Sardesai, I trusted you to handle this case." Patil shouted at the other end.
         But Sir, this situation is serious. Three murders in 15 days and no clue. You have to let us operate openly. We have to close the campus for a few days."
         "Are you out of your mind? Between semester if we close the campus, everyone will come to know there is something wrong. Besides, the students there are the biggest source of leak that can happen.  Get your act up. I don't want an issue when I come for campaign next month."

           It's a pity he didn't even ask who was murdered. Given that his own kids studied at the campus, he was least bothered about their safety! Sardesai had a long day ahead. He could do with a large cup of coffee.

          The campus was slowly getting filled with students. It could be any one of them. The nerd with big glasses and straight oiled hair, the reckless boy on the bike, the uninterested boy sitting with a guitar or could it be one of those scurrying around in a white apron?

         Bhimraj Patil College of Science, Commerce and Arts was just one part of the campus. The other had  a medical college and an engineering college. A total of 8000 students. Around 500 in hostel and rest day scholars. It could be any one of them. Or could it be a local who knew of ways to get in?

         What were Abhinav, Rangnath and Vinod killed for? Was it just plain robbery or something more than that? Did Patil know something that he was evading?
         Rangnath found murdered at the south end of the college, body hidden under plastic sheets. Found by a rag picker who came to collect campus garbage.
        Abhinav found murdered at the east end of the college, body hidden in gunny bag, found by Ramnath.

        Vinod found murdered at the north end of the campus, fort stairs, body in open. Found by one of the guards Keshav.

        Sardesai and his team got to their work.

To be continued