— Rahul Dandekar
I was set on the trail of Lady Death by a sombre girl in her twenties, who sat in front of my dusty desk at dusk one early December afternoon as the sun shone feebly outside my Andheri office, and pleaded with me to track the murderer of her father. Not really my area. “It’s true, I did solve a murder some fifteen years ago,” I told her, “and the red-tinted memory of it eclipses all my mucking about in the dregs of society since then, but you’ll doubtless find more experienced men. I can give you some contacts.” She replied that it was alright, but I was the only one she could afford. That settled it.
Lady Death, or Ugly Betty as the papers called her, and actually Betty D’Souza, a sad enough name by itself, had the police on her trail already, and a string of murders littered across the sundry Sahyadris. The sombre girl’s father, a wandering bum, had been done away with in a badly maintained Lonavla hotel, where police found his decomposing body four days after Betty left it.
Some writers (who are in need of a good spanking), cast a red-hot young temptress as Death, and clothe her black, complete with gloves, whiplash, chain, and cleavage. Death the Mistress, with a black scootie, sorry, Harley Davidson, to ride you to hell – and no groping from the back seat, dearie. Of course, the reality is never as palatable as these sweaty-palmed portraits – like when lost old bums fall for ugly women who take their hearts to pieces. Usually with a .44.
I set on Betty’s trail and followed her for the next few months, passing through little hilltop resorts in curiously welcoming townlets in the Sahyadris, sometimes branching out into the Konkan, but coming back soon enough into the shade. My tired, aging heart, of late not used to chasing women (especially up and down crummy green hills) began to beat harder and harder as my inquiries started showing that only a few hours of kindly fate now separated her flight from mine.
And it was almost Spring when we finally left the mountains, which were frankly growing rather tiresome. The bright green gulmohar trees on the outskirts of Goa were clad in the skimpy orange clothes of spring, and the sky and the road and people’s moods were growing steadily brighter. Which of course she, and I, resented in equal measure. In a shady roadside motel I unknowingly booked a room next to the one she had rented.
That night, I saw a graying old woman – a familiar face? – in a light blue nightgown go into the room next to mine – oh, oh – and my heart tried to leap out of my body to find a stronger hiding-place. I held my gun close and my life closer as I tapped on the door of room number six and waited. She opened the door, wrinkled her wrinkled nose at me, scanned me up and down with dismayingly light eyes (not the dark penetrating ones I’d been dreaming about), and flicked back an unruly strand of graying hair with a grace that was disconcertingly sensual. My heart stopped complaining, my brain went offline, while I made the silliest move in a long career of silly moves by flashing my detective license instead of my gun. She made no such mistake and showed me the wrong end of her gun, and attempted to separate my brains from my skull.
My memory of what happened later has the distinct stench of the few smoky gunshots, the vividness of my ear lying (red!) in a (red!) pool of (red!) blood (it is a wonder that I didn’t faint), while the winner of the Murdering Spinster of the Year competition hid, frightened for the first time in years, behind that creaky wooden door. It’s hard to keep calm when you’re covered in blood, but I did the best I could by not kicking her face in after I barged in through the door. All this kicking the suspect business is best left to the police. I just tied her to the strangely single bed, and waited for them to arrive.
They were sure taking a bloody long time about it. She looked at me with an expressionless face, and I wondered whether to ask her the question that had been plaguing me and my nightmares since this whole sordid chase started. Or, you know, find some other way to pass the time, but there was nothing else. So I asked her – what fun it could possibly be snubbing out of existence penniless old bums with drooping pot-bellies? There are surely far better ways of making money, or gaining notoriety, or studying human anatomy, or anything else for that matter.
She didn’t say a thing.
When you’re in a room with a serial killer, what do you do? It was a cramped, intimate room, and conversation seemed to be at a minimum. Do you stare at her and wonder what she thought of the men she killed? Did she know how they felt – listless, rusty old fools, already having lost the memory of that fleeting instant which was the prime of life, perhaps tired of being trod on, perhaps used to being taken for granted, insulted, put in a corner of the universe and forgotten about? No, I couldn’t possibly know them, but the longer I stared at her the stronger they seemed to stare back. However, things get old soon in a dying, dog-eared room, and after a while, even my feeling of sympathy for the dead withered away. In time they would conglomerate into one blob of victimhood, and become evidence for insanity at the Trial of Ugly Betty – Exhibits A-G, my Lord. The early summer heat was drying the once-hot blood on the side of my face. I lost the ability to smile or frown, merely looking at her or looking away. Maybe this is how rigor mortis would feel like, if the dead could feel. Once in a while, she stared back with those impossibly light eyes.
The Trial of Ugly Betty never took place – two months later she died in custody.