Sayan Bhattacharya frowned. He had a queasy feeling inside. Whether it was because of the eight cups of cha he’d consumed in the past hour or because of the case reports he was studying, he couldn’t tell. But one thing was clear. He’d never felt this uncomfortable in his career spanning fifteen years as an investigative journalist.
The case he was reading about was one which had stumped the best of the best in the Police department and even the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Nearly eight years since the first reported murder and the case was still open. Yes, the case was that of India’s most notorious serial killer in decades.
Eight years, five states, twelve cities, seventeen murders, one M.O. The victims’ throats were slit clean and there were two puncture wounds through their nipples. But the most telling call sign left by the serial killer was that he’d chopped the noses clean, post mortem, of all his victims.
The media had conferred the serial killer with the sobriquet ‘The Surpanaka Killer.’ Sayan had always felt the name was tacky. He actually argued with his editor-in-chief that it was Lakshmana who had chopped the demoness Surpanaka’s nose. If anything, he had opined, the killer should be called the Lakshmana killer. His logical argument didn’t fly in a country where the mythical hero Lakshmana was considered a demi-god and the name ‘The Surpanaka Killer’ had stuck.
Sayan had been covering the progress of the Surpanaka murders right from day 1. What started as a grotesque one-off murder soon spiralled into an uncontrollable tornado of serial killings. The last murder had happened two years back in Dindigul, Tamil Nadu. Sayan opened the pertaining file and leafed through its contents – on site pictures, copy of the First Information Report, Post Mortem report and the forensic reports.
The victim was a thirty seven year old male called Raju Sundaram, who worked as a two wheeler mechanic. Forensic analysis had estimated the time of murder between 1:00 and 4:00 AM. Other than the tell-tale injuries, the victim also had a blunt force trauma injury to the back of his head. This was something Sayan had always been interested in. Out of the seventeen murders, eleven had similar blunt force trauma injuries. He separated those cases alone and sorted them chronologically.
- April 23, 2010 – Name: Vasudev Menon, Male, 48. Tea shop owner, Wayanad, Kerala.
- June 30, 2010 – Name: Rithika Shetty, Female, 29. BPO Employee, Mangalore, Karnataka.
- November 3, 2010 – Name: Abu Ismail, Male, 15. Student, Ambur, Tamil Nadu.
- March 13, 2011 – Name: Catherine D’Souza, Female, 57. Retired teacher, Benaulim, Goa.
- August 15, 2011 – Name: Shankarnath Upadhyay, Male, 39. Bus Conductor, Bangalore, Karnataka.
- December 25, 2011 – Name: ‘Cycle’ Guna, Male, 27. Cycle stand owner, Erode, Tamil Nadu.
- January 14, 2011 – Name: ‘Kokki’ Stephen, Male, 34. Fisherman, Chennai, Tamil Nadu.
- October 25, 2011 – Name: ‘Dodda’ Arasappa, Male, 43. Small time politician, Mysore, Karnataka.
- March 23, 2012 – Name: Hasan Ali Mir, Male, 32. Painter, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh.
- November 10, 2015 – Name: Shantamma, Female, 46. Financier, Guntur, Andhra Pradesh.
- April 15, 2016 – Name: Raju Sundaram, Male, 37. Mechanic, Dindigul, Tamil Nadu.
Sayan filled rows and columns with data pertaining to the victims, hoping to find a connection. He wracked his brain, willing it to unearth the invisible thread connecting these eleven murders. He drank two more cups of tea and smoked three cigarettes in the next half an hour, but after being jet-boosted by tannin and nicotine, his brain was not functioning fast enough to crack the case.
Were these seventeen people just randomly chosen? There were no eye-witnesses in any of the cases. How can someone commit these many murders and run away scot free. The Surpanaka Murders were the closest to ‘The Perfect Crime.’
Nothing’s perfect in this imperfect world, Sayan thought to himself. He closed his eyes and let his mind wander – 11 victims with head injuries, 8 men and 3 women. Ages varied from 15 to 57.
He opened his eyes suddenly. A seed of an idea had just germinated within the deepest recesses of his mind. He felt a sudden rush of excitement and he went over to the whiteboard and started writing.
Within minutes he’d cracked the whole thing. He felt disgusted with himself. The answer had been staring at his face for the past three years at least, but he’d been blinded by rhetoric and allowed at least two extra murders. He just needed to verify few more things to ascertain his theory.
First he called the Police Station in Guntur and asked to speak with the inspector in-charge of the killing of Shantamma. His theory took one more step towards taking a solid shape after that five minute phone call.
Next, he repeated the procedure with cases 6 through 11. Sayan’s grin broadened with each completed phone call. He just had one more phone call to make and then he had a fantastic news story to write.
He called the Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) office in Bangalore. He requested to be connected to the officer in-charge of the Personnel Department. One, Mr. Nagendra identified himself as the Dy. Chief Labour Welfare Officer.
‘Sir, Namaskara, This is Sayan Bhattacharya from Revolution TV. I want to ask you some questions related to Mr. Shankarnath Upadhyay.’
Nagendra hesitated, ‘Who is this Upadhyay? I don’t remember!’
‘Sir he was killed six years ago by the Surpanaka killer.’ Sayan almost retched mentioning the irritating sobriquet.
‘Oh! Yes, Yes! I remember now. Very bad scene, Sir. We had a lot of issues internally. Our conductors working on night shifts were perplexed. Eventually it settled down.’
‘I understand Mr. Nagendra. I just need some details about Mr. Upadhyay.’
‘If it is within my power, I’ll help you.’ Nagendra proclaimed solemnly.
‘Can you send me the soft copies of Upadhyay’s itineraries? Which routes he plied with dates, times and bus numbers.’
‘That can be arranged. But it will take a couple of weeks.’
‘Sir, this is required urgently. We are very close in catching the Surpanaka Serial Killer. I will make sure your name comes out prominently once we nab the rascal.’
Sayan almost could see Nagendra’s smile, ‘I’ll see what I can do. Give me few hours.’
‘Thank you, Sir.’ Sayan replaced the phone and hooted for joy and banged his desk with unbridled emotion.
His colleagues Shipra and Rohan burst into the room on hearing the noise.
‘Buddy, what the hell just happened?’
‘Guys, you won’t believe it. But I think I have solved the Surpanaka Murders.’
Both had identical expressions – a combination of shock and joy.
‘I’m confident guys!’
‘What are you waiting for then? Go, get cracking on tomorrow’s headlines buddy!’
‘I’m waiting for some reports to corroborate my theory. It’ll be with us in the next couple of hours.’
Rohan couldn’t contain his curiosity, ‘So, tell us now. Please!’
Sayan sat down, still a bit dazed. ‘I started by segregating the cases. 11 out of 17 had blunt force trauma injuries. I was trying to find a pattern but nothing jumped at me. I started grouping them by age, sex, religion, location… but nothing worked. Then I started grouping them further.’
He paused and took a deep drink of water before continuing,
‘If you look at the overall age grouping, nothing stands out. The range is far too wide. But if you take cases 6 to 11, then you are on to something. All victims were middle aged.’
Shipra interrupted, ‘But you can add in cases 1, 2 and 5 to that group as well.’
Sayan smiled, ‘Not quite! Look at their names and professions. Vasudev Menon and Rithika Shetty are way different from ‘Cycle’ Guna, ‘Dodda’ Arasappa and ‘Kokki’ Stephen.’
‘So?’ Rohan scratched his head.
‘So I called the Police officers who handled the murders before transferring to the serial killer special team. Victims 6 through 11 were not so clean cut.’
‘They were anti-social. All six of them had cases filed against them on accounts of robbery, assaults, forgery and blackmail. What does that tell you?’
Shipra understood first, ‘The Surpanaka killer had started targeting the bad guys of the society.’
Rohan chimed in, ‘Yes! Yes! You are brilliant, buddy. Ok, now you’ve made a differentiation. But that doesn’t give you any information about the killer.’
‘On the contrary, my dear Rohan.’ Sayan lit a cigarette ignoring dirty looks from Shipra, ‘I believe I know who the Surpanaka killer is.’
‘Yes! I’m just waiting for…’ He was interrupted by the screech of the Fax machine. Yes, people still used them. Sayan sprinted to the Fax and scooped up the papers.
‘Rohan, red markers please!’
For the next half hour, Sayan was bent at his hip on the floor poring through the sheets. Shipra and Rohan watched him fascinated. Suddenly, he stood up and smiled a triumphant smile.
‘Buddy, what happened?’
‘Yes, but you are also crying!’
‘I’ve solved it, guys. It’s done!’
Sayan composed himself and sat down. For few minutes no one spoke.
‘Shipra, when you said that cases 1, 2 and 5 could be grouped along with cases 6 to 11, I categorically eliminated cases 1 and 2, but said nothing about case 5. Any guesses why?’
Both shook their heads in the negative.
‘Because, victim number 5, Mr. Shankarnath Upadhyay is the Surpanaka Killer.’
‘How is it possible?’
‘It’s an absurd deduction, buddy!’
Sayan raised his hand, ‘Let me explain. The one thing that puzzled me was the geography of the cases. Murders happened in four different states initially. How could someone keep going to many places and keep finding targets? Then I started sorting the victims by profession and the answer was right there – Upadhyay was a conductor with the KSRTC. I called up KSRTC and had them fax his route lists. Viola! Mr. Upadhyay had been in Wayanad, Mangalore, Ambur and Benaulim respectively in and around the dates of the murders. Mr. Nagendra of KSRTC also sent across his personnel records. It seems our Mr. Upadhyay had quite the violent streak in him. Twice he had been suspended from service for showing unnecessary aggression towards passengers. One plus one is two, gentle-lady and gentleman!’
‘But, but, but…’
‘Ah, yes! What about cases 5 through 11? We have been quite cleverly fooled by a copycat murderer, guys. Someone who deduced that Upadhyay was the Surpanaka Killer and then killed Upadhyay himself before assuming his mantle. This man is quite clever and quite dangerous, my friends.’
‘But, who could it be? And most essentially, do we report this theory? Afterall, the new Surpanaka is targeting only the wrong kind.’
‘You are right. We won’t report this now. Not because, the new guy is doing good. Trust me he is as much of a psycho as Upadhyay was. But because, we don’t want to warn him and make him run away.’
‘Mum’s the word. We will start working on the new killer soon.’
‘Still, heck of a plan isn’t it? Killing a serial killer and hiding him right in plain sight among his victims. Almost a perfect crime!’
Sayan grinned, ‘Almost! There’s no perfection in this world, guys. Except, Darjeeling tea!’