The Story

A short story about a story.

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This has been submitted to The Mays XXV for its annual publication. The Mays Anthology is a collection of short stories/poems published annually as a book.

“Where are we going ?”, I asked meekly.

“A woman has been shot in Gresham Place. It’ll make for a fantastic story, don’t you think?”, finished Amol without a hint of inflection in his voice.

“You mean murdered?”

“Let’s not jump to conclusions so quickly like the tabloids do. A woman’s been shot. I think that’s an important enough reason to write her story.”

I grabbed my coat and my neglected umbrella. I had learned enough not to trust the British sunshine.

Amol seemed cheery, which was odd. Maybe, this was because this was our first true commission that we had been together. We left behind the chattering keyboards of the aging studio which masqueraded as the headquarters of the Cambridge Post and headed into the desiccating petrichor.

It would be a ten-minute walk. I had not yet finished my cup of Earl Grey when the editor had apparently found us our first scoop since my hurried employment interview a week ago. Indolence was my passion. Investigative journalism was paying my rent though, so I figured a few sacrifices were in order.

“Why do you think this story is important?”, boomed Amol’s voice over the residual white noise of my own thoughts.

“Is it important?”, I asked rolling my ingenuous eyes. Does he think we’ve struck gold, I wondered, bemused. The story had already been mentioned briefly in today’s morning news. What more could our feature piece add?

“Well, no story is more important than the rest anyway. There are seven billion stories just floating out there for someone to write about. But you see, journalists are the ones who get to choose which ones should be read. In a way, we are responsible for the class divide. What do you think of that?”

“Well, you see Amol, I don’t think too well without my morning Earl Grey.”

“You better start thinking mate because we are approaching Gresham Place. I’ll need you arrange the leads we get to make the readers think that the woman in Gresham Place could have been any of them and relate to it. An untimely death due to any reason is ultimately a failure of the society around.”

There was a big police van guarding the entrance after the crime had already been committed. A couple of scribes accentuated the dereliction of the otherwise desolate street. As we headed to the main porch, a cop at the door mouthed “no journalists” as if we were filthy creatures. Amol didn’t seem to mind. But I figured this story would probably revolve around the perspectives of the people around Gresham Place. We wouldn’t even get a shot of the crime scene.

I was right about the weather though. A mild drizzle had decided to soak up our spirits a bit more. The story would have better prospects, I hoped.

We knocked on the first door opposite to the police vans. He asked us if were cops and then slammed the door on our faces. It was all very quick. I wouldn’t miss my lunch after all.

We did a couple of houses like this with varying degrees of gregariousness, but too much of an increase in actual information.

“I thought you said journalists are powerful people who decide which stories are written. And now we aren’t better than random salesmen”, I yawned.

“People need to sell their stories if they need to be heard anyway. Besides, I thought you weren’t listening”, said Amol as he eyed me suspiciously.

“I guess it would be harder for a dead person to sell her stories”, I quipped.

But as we headed towards 81 Gresham Place, I grabbed those inertial doubts and knocked confidently.

“Ma’am, we’re cops. We need to ask you a few questions.”

“But didn’t you do that already?”

“We’re with the MI6”, I whispered with an air of secret urgency trying not to appear like a rooster. This was, of course, complicated with a half snort from Amol, but the septuagenarian didn’t seem to notice. We had been invited for tea. Earl Grey was not going to be missed after all.

“You need to lie, to hear the Truth”, l breathed into Amol’s ears.

“Or someone else’s version of truth anyway”, he smirked.

The lavender curtains betrothed to the yellowing wall paper shyly revealed the developing disturbances outside as an additional police van and a TV truck had seemed to have joined the bevy of growing onlookers. The Chesterfield surrounding the television set seemed to closeted to a different reality. Presently our host poured out a hot pot of tea as the Renaissance Napoleon peered at me from the left gallery.

She regaled us with her perspective on Mrs. Emily Hamilton. The lady in our story had at last been provided a name and a marital status. My editor would be proud. She had been a delightful soul, but after being subjected to intermittent domestic abuse, she had become a lot paler. She had had a miscarriage and only last month had obtained a restraining order against her husband.

Husband, possible suspect scribbled Amol on his notepad.

“How do you know she was cheerful?”, I asked innocently.

“She threw these lavish parties, didn’t she? All the top names in Cambridge and London would turn up in their fancy chauffeured cars.”

“And what about the neighbours?”

“She never invited them. Maybe, she never got along with them. Maybe they were too cold to her. I don’t really know.”

“Maybe she was a classist?”, I asked helpfully.

“I don’t think so. She invited me, didn’t she?”

I found the barrage of rhetorical questions irritating but hard to deflect.

“And she had a few of her close friends from school and other places. They were hardly what you would call ‘aristocratic’. And suddenly all those parties stopped six months ago. And I saw less and less of her.”

I continued sipping those delicately brewed Darjeeling tea leaves considering which of these details could be made juicy enough for the next day’s front page.

“So you see I was surprised when she invited me over to her place for another party yesterday night”

My throat seared as the warm flavour burned through.

Amol seemed to have recovered faster and gently enquired it further. I was still grappling with the pain and this sudden incongruity.

She continued, disregarding that the temperature in the room had fallen by at last a couple of degrees.

“I was surprised, obviously. But more curious actually. So I said yes, of course.

There had been four other people at this small party. The city council chairman: Mr. Raziq Khan, the lead hairdresser from Cicero’s on Mill Road, Mr. Emily Hamilton and an another woman who I had not seen before.”

“Her husband was there yesterday? Didn’t he have a restraining order?”, Amol asked, incredulous.

“Yes. Didn’t I just say so?”, she snapped.

“She had obviously invited him over. Why else would he be there? But I couldn’t see her for a long time. Eventually, I had to rest my old self and left early without bidding her goodbye. The prosecco was exquisite though.”

“I’ll return the tea cups to the kitchen if you fine gentlemen are done.”

While she bobbed to the larder, Amol flipped on the remote. Channel VI had somehow managed to get a feed of the crime scene.

The woman lay asleep with her right hand folded and her fingers coiled in the middle of the heavily pixelated room. In fact, it would be hard to tell she wasn’t merely sleeping save for the seared strands doing their best to hide the gaping hole on the right of the cerebrum.

A Colt 2000 was left beside the body. It was registered to a certain Mr. Hamilton.

Post-mortem had concluded that the time of death was around 10-11pm. This, however, seemed to be conflicted with an eye witness who seemed to have seen something like Mrs. Hamilton leaving her residence at around half past ten.

Police had named the husband as primary suspect for the murder of Mrs. Hamilton who was still at large. Everyone seemed to have a suitable alibi post 11 pm. Except for Mr. Hamilton, whose presence had been confirmed at his hotel last night at a half past midnight but there was no account of what he did in the four hours prior to that.

“Case closed, isn’t it? Channel VI seems to have done a pretty good job.”, I gestured to Amol who was trying to reduce some of those knotted creases from his forehead.

“But, that’s not possible”, whispered the old woman so close to my ears that I almost jumped.

“I forgot to say this to those cops. Actually, it was more because I didn’t want to get involved in this mess. But I went back last night to the Hamilton’s. You see, I had forgotten my scarf. It’s a pretty dainty one, that scarf. And before I even knocked, Mrs. Hamilton opened the door and handed it to me. She appeared a bit pale, but nothing unusual. This was around midnight. See, that’s why I never believe in this modern science stuff that your generation keeps coming up with.”

Maybe ghosts exist and that’s what you’ll become, I muttered to myself.

“You’ll tell those cops, won’t you. You are working on the case as well, right?”

“Oh yes. Absolutely”, I lied.

“You were not lying throughout were you”, she added recoiling a bit from my fake smile.

“Oh no. We Zoroastrians don’t lie on Wednesdays”, Amol interjected placidly.

“Is that even a religion. And isn’t it Thursday?”

“Rest assured ma’am, Zoroastrianism is a religion. And the Zoroastrian weeks are always six days ahead.”

“Or one day behind”, she added sternly. “Good day gentlemen!”

As we headed out, I almost lunged at Amol. Zoroastrianism? Wasn’t that the worst possible fib?

But the case still remained to be solved.

“The case is solved”, Amol said cheerily almost as soon as we were outside the earshot of 81 Gresham Place.

“So do you believe in ghosts now? Clearly, the post mortem can’t be wrong!”

“Oh no. She is a filthy liar. Why do you think I cooked up that bit about Zoroastrianism? But the husband is not the murderer.”

“So-”

“Wait, first tell me, why do you think people tell stories?”, Amol asked.

That was the first time he had asked me for my opinion.

“Mostly because you wish to experience certain things but can’t. So you invent these fantastic characters who may be perfect or flawed and then send them out on journeys. But importantly it allows the storyteller to share some of those emotions, not all of which could be articulated and not all of which could be spoken aloud.”

“That’s well spoken. But isn’t it all a lie. Which is why another name for story is fiction. And guess what is also a synonym for a lie? You see that old woman knew from the start that we were some journalists or some curious onlookers who had no business asking her those questions. Or maybe you just look like a pretty bad agent!”

I could think of several objections but held them back.

“As Conan Doyle once wrote, when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

“So you mean the old woman was involved in Mrs. Hamilton’s murder”, I quipped wide-eyed.

“Hardly. She was never invited to any of Mrs. Hamilton’s parties. If you notice, she struggled to describe the lavishness and pomp of a house she had never visited and instead regaled us with small talk about gossip you could find by watching Channel VI all day. There was no mention of a fifth person at the party both in the news and the police report. No, she made that all up.”

I felt an emptiness thrusting down my stomach.

“So, how?”, I barely whimpered.

“It’s simple really. The old woman was able to do one great thing. She shook my belief in the rigor of post-mortem. The police report indicated that they are almost certain from witness accounts that Mr. Hamilton had not invited his husband over and his presence must have distressed her greatly. Besides, everyone seems to have a reasonable alibi save the poor Mr. Hamilton, who is missing since yesterday.”

“Go on”, I breathed.

“You see her body was found in the middle of a room and there seemed to be no sign of struggle. This means that her husband or any unknown person could not have barged in. She would obviously not let them in beyond the door. This leaves us with only known people. And all of them seem to have strong alibis. Thus, it was Mrs. Emily Hamilton herself who pulled the trigger. A standard case of suicide. I have a feeling that this was probably due to exacerbation of her mental health after seeing her husband.”

“But why are you so sure? After all, Mr. Hamilton’s whereabouts couldn’t be traced for an incriminating amount of time!”

“Not really. You see the fingers of Mrs. Hamilton were curled exactly in a way one would hold the revolver. It’s clear that when she fell, the Colt dropped out of her hand and that’s the position in which she achieved rigor mortis. And, after looking at the images Channel VI presented, you’ll notice that her hair was seared near the wound. This only happens if you place the gun close your head. A murderer usually shoots from an arm’s length or farther.

But the biggest puzzle was the conflict between the eye witness account and the post mortem timing. And I’ll need to thank our old lady for clearing that puzzle. Post-mortem timings are often affected by physical activity. It reveals a much earlier time of death if the person has been involved in a fight prior to her death. In this case, a lack of physical injuries rules that out. It looks like she went out on a late night jogging session and then came back and shot herself. And Mr. Hamilton seems to be confirmed to be seen at the hotel post-midnight.”

“This should become obvious a couple of days later when the comprehensive autopsy report comes out”.

“It’s going on print tomorrow”, I gleamed.

What could be the motive though, I thought. Weren’t we violating the cardinal principle of solving a case by avoiding that?

“If you are thinking about the reason, she took her own life, you need to only look at the people around. None of them had anything to say about her. And the one person that did, lied. What does that tell you about society today? Maybe your feature could focus on that?”, added Amol with a tone of clairvoyance.

My feature piece grabbed a lot of attention the next day while Amol became a fleeting star. The other seven billion lives continued as if nothing had happened to wait to read the next big story that popped up on the front page.

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