September 2, 2017
The case was out of Malolan’s hands within five hours of the discovery of Nikhil Taneja’s corpse. Media was ablaze with the news once they knew who Taneja was and how he had died. Sudhakar could no longer keep Prabhu’s death under wraps and the local Police was under intense scrutiny by the social media warriors.
Naturally, the Police retaliated by tripling their efforts in the case. Early that morning, two constables from the local Police Station had come with warrants to appropriate all the material given by Sudhakar as evidence in the Prabhu case. Though they had left the moth-eaten documents with a sagely nod and a warning to make them available when required.
Now, all Malolan was left with was the recorded conversation with Sudhakar, his copious notes and the aforementioned documents. He sent Kannappa away to buy his favourite egg biriyani from Arcot Hotel and dived right into the damaged papers.
It was tough work, the dust that rose from the moulding papers made Malolan sneeze, and cough alternately. His working idea was simple – there was clear connection between the deaths of Prabhu and Nikhil Taneja. One had died in Chennai on the 25th of August and the other had breathed his last on the 31st of August in Mumbai. Taneja’s body had been discovered nearly thirty hours after his death and was in a serious state of decay. He wanted to find out if there were any such previous cases.
Malolan had already contacted his friend Shweta, who worked in one of the leading English dailies to check their archives for any mentions of such gruesome deaths. He also had requested the Police Inspector who was handling the case for the Post Mortem reports of Prabhu and Taneja, but was not confident of getting them any soon. He had to find out what had bound the two dead men and somewhere in the back of his mind, he felt the answer lay within the pile of damaged papers in front of him.
He checked his notepad and segregated the files pertaining to the thirty films that had already been restored by Prabhu. Maybe the technician had watched one of those before his death! The more he thought about it, the more confident Malolan was with his theory. He leafed through the files – the first page on the files was an application stating the name of the movie, language of the movie, year of production, the director and cast, and details about the production house. He opened his MacBook and typed the details from each file into an excel spreadsheet.
Malolan knew that there was a clue somewhere just out of his reach. Without the material the Police had seized, he was all at sea. Sudhakar had called just after the Police had left and had offered to settle his bill. Malolan had refused immediately as he felt he hadn’t done anything worthwhile on the case. His client then had suggested strongly that Malolan should continue a parallel investigation. He had agreed, but three hours later he was proceeding nowhere. He needed a slice of luck to come his way somehow.
Right on cue, Malolan’s mobile rang. He snatched it and saw the caller. It was Shweta.
‘Sway, tell me you have something for me. Please! I’m at my wits end.’
Shweta’s soft voice came with a chuckle, ‘I may have something, Lola! It might be helpful or completely useless. You take a call.’
Malolan closed his MacBook and stretched his leg against the wicker coffee table, ‘I’ll take that. Something is better than nothing.’
‘Nothing is better than nonsense, Lola. But hey, you asked and I dug. I found absolutely nothing from our archives. I placed phone calls to my contacts in various regional language newspapers as well, but without any success. But then a guy from Malayala Manorama called. He said he’d heard something like this from his neighbour. I’m WhatsApp’ing you his number. Talk to him.’
‘Cool! What’s his name?’
‘Dennis Tomachhan. He lives in Kochi. Call him, and let me know.’ Shweta paused, ‘Hey, if there’s a story…’
Malolan grinned, ‘Don’t worry! You’ll get it first.’
‘You said the same thing last time as well, Lola!’ Shweta grunted, ‘But Sayan got it first. Even before I could write the piece, Bengali Baba’s face was all over TV spouting the news.’
‘Alright! Alright! You got first dibs. Thanks, Sway.’ Malolan cut the call and immediately a ping indicated the receipt of a message.
He saved the number to his mobile and then pressed the call button. A gruff voice greeted him, ‘Tomacchan!’
As he was driving towards the oldest library in Chennai, the Connemara Public library, Malolan started sorting the details about the case in his mind. His call with Dennis Tomacchan had yielded a couple of interesting details. Tomacchan had recalled the story told by his now-deceased neighbour Mr. Mathew. Almost forty-five years ago, Mathew’s friend Koshy Varghese had walked into his office to find his two colleagues dead in similar fashion to Prabhu and Nikhil Taneja. Koshy was cleared as a suspect as Mathew had testified in favour of him. Mathew had claimed that Koshy and he had taken a long ride around the city on his brand new scooter at the exact time of the deaths. Unfortunately, the horrific event took a huge toll on Koshy’s mental and physical health and he had passed away within the year.
Malolan thought he’d come across the name Koshy Varghese somewhere. He racked his brain as he navigated the notorious midday traffic of Chennai. As he pulled up outside the library it came to his mind. He’d seen the name on one of the damaged papers from CBFC left behind by the Police. So Varghese’s colleagues had watched the same video as Prabhu and Taneja. Malolan could see intricate patterns forming in his brain. He sat down under a tree and calmed his mind. A seasoned practitioner of the Akido martial art, Malolan used the Ki breathing technique to concentrate. He focused on the patterns and allowed his brain to throw the data it had stored in the subconscious mind.
Ten minutes later, he stood up with a clarity and walked briskly into the library. He put in a request to access the famous gossip newspaper of the sixties and seventies – ‘Ssssssh!’ If there was an inkling of a scandal or a gossip somewhere, Ssssssh! ran a piece on it. In those days one would be ostracized by his community if they caught him reading the magazine. Malolan was directed to a section deep into the bowels of the ancient library. He’d asked for the editions between 1970 and 1975. He found what he was looking for after an hour. The article was in page 7 of the eight page magazine. Even the gossip writers had judged the story far-fetched. If only they knew what would transpire after forty odd years.
Malolan looked at the date of publication – June 29, 1973. The incident had occurred three days earlier. The reporter had claimed that Koshy Varghese, 33, had found his colleagues Srilatha, 37 and Kalyan Sharma, 58 dead in the video room. They had died from apparently self-inflicted wounds. Koshy had claimed that he heard someone say that a witch had cursed the movie they were watching. The producer had abandoned the film as he thought that the movie was doomed because the audience believed that it was cursed. The article had the picture of a sullen looking young man standing outside the Censor Board office. The name under the picture identified him as Mayur Pednekar, the director of the movie. Pednekar had apparently created a scene against the producer’s decision to abandon the film. He had been calmed down by three suit clad foreigners.
Malolan closed the magazine and stood up. The answer to the four deaths lay within the reels of Mayur Pednekar’s debut film. He had to see the movie immediately and he knew whom to contact.
He dialled his client, Sudhakar.
5:30 PM Singapore
Casey Teo sat dumbfounded in front of her laptop. The last twenty four hours had been surreal. Nikhil Taneja’s mail which asked the other partners of CineMafia to come up with a viral marketing campaign for some secretive movie had piqued her interest. She’d been corresponding with Delgatto and MissyB (other partners of CineMafia, real name: unknown) throughout the previous day to come up with a solid plan. They had decided on targeting the illegal online streams of movies, sports events and even porn to place ticker ads.
And then the bomb had exploded. Taneja had died in a gruesome fashion, apparently minutes after shooting out the email. An hour later, Casey had read an online news that Taneja was the second person to die in a similar way. Even more interesting was that the first victim also worked in the movie industry. Casey wondered whether the two deaths were connected in some way.
Now, she was sure. Taneja’s second email had just popped into her mail box and had cleared her doubts. Mayur Pednekar’s unreleased first ever movie had resurfaced after nearly forty five years. The guy who died in Chennai was apparently working on restoring old films. Taneja had somehow obtained a rare film in the same week and now both were dead in similar fashion. Two plus two did equal four. Casey knew that Pednekar’s film was somehow at the centre of the deaths and she now had serious misgivings about releasing it online. But, before voicing her doubts she had to make sure. She entered the login details to the CineMafia server and clicked on the video.
Her pet German Shepherd, Snookie, came keening for her attention. Casey picked her up and started petting as the movie started. Casey was thrilled to see Mayur Pednekar’s name on the credits screen. At that exact moment, the mobile rang. It was her mother making her weekly call. Grunting with frustration, Casey moved to the kitchen to speak.
She came back after ten minutes and was immediately confronted by a crazed Snookie. The German shepherd was going crazy, trying to climb atop her table and reach her laptop. Casey ran to pick Snookie up and was immediately hit by a nauseating sensation. A dull pounding started in her head and she thought she heard a laugh somewhere. Alarms flared in her mind as she turned towards the screen and saw the hideous eyes of the witch burning a hole through her soul.
Casey stumbled and fell down. The pounding in her head started to increase as she desperately crawled towards her laptop. She knew that she had to stop the film. Casey could hear an evil voice in her head now. The film was pure evil and she knew it had already claimed the lives of two people. If she didn’t stop the film, she was next. She pulled herself up and almost reached the laptop when Snookie flew in and lodged her teeth around Casey’s throat.
Somewhere at the same time…
In his hideout, the person nicknamed Delgatto smiled at the video footage from Casey Teo’s den. He pulled out his mobile and sent a message to his other partner MissyB
‘Initiate Project Xenia!’
To be continued…