The only thing worse than tracing a witness five years after is to find out he has forgotten all about the crime.
Or at least the bits that matter.
But detective Syed was no greenhorn. He smiled at the 19-year-old who was sitting across the table devouring his second plate of chicken cafreal.
“So, is the chicken tangy enough?”
“Yes, detective. Thank you for buying me lunch,” Daniel D’Souza grinned, his cheeks still plump with the spicy treat tucked in.
“Not at all, thanks for agreeing to meet me here,” Detective Sayed swirled the sparkling water, then took another swig.
It was a hot April afternoon and Baga beach looked bare.
“I know it’s hard for you to talk about it… But what you can tell me can save a life.”
The fork fell into the green sauce and the young man picked it back up. He wiped the corners of his mouth with the paper napkin Britto’s had stacked at every table. And met Detective Sayed’s gaze.
“Sir, I was just fourteen at the time and was visiting my uncle…”
“And helped him in his gallery that sold souvenirs and other knickknacks,” Detective Sayed completed the statement.
“And catalogue the antiques. It was off-season and he had very few customers walking in.”
“So, you used to stay till the shop closed in the evening?”
“And what time would it close?”
“All shops in Panaji close around 8 p.m. I thought you knew it,” the youngster snorted.
“So, you closed at 8 p.m. every evening?”
“Not any that I can recall.”
“Well, on the 30th of April 2016, it was open at least till 9.30 p.m. Afterwards the CCTV blanked out.”
“Oh! It was the last day of the month. Maybe it was open for stocktaking.”
“Staying open late at night after a whole day of no business?” Detective Sayed cocked his left eyebrow.
“Detective, can I leave now? I’m not feeling too well. And I can’t recall much.”
Daniel tried to slide out of his bamboo chair. The detective’s eyes held steady.
“Daniel, I have not even started asking anything yet. And you know I’m going to get to it one way or the other. So, why don’t you help me out here?”
“I can be of no help to you, detective. I shouldn’t even have come here, it was a mistake,” Daniel got up and hobbled on the slippery sand.
Detective Sayed cleared his throat and said in a voice that rose above the waves that crashed outside,
“We went through the old CCTV footage. It shows someone coming out of the shop at 9.30 p.m.”
Daniel stopped in his tracks and turned. He walked back to the table and growled.
“You know detective, I was a minor at the time and can’t be charged with anything.”
“True, but you could have been sent to a juvenile detention center.”
“COULD have been but wasn’t. Wait, for what?” Daniel’s face turned red.
“For whatever you didn’t confess to…” Detective Sayed said in an even tone as he gestured for Daniel to sit down. “We are not here to talk about it though, we are here to discuss the footage we got from Tanishq Jewellery three days ago.”
Daniel’s sported the same look as the fish kept on the ice at the entrance.
“So, Daniel… how about you sit down and I’ll order you a bebinka?”
“No thanks, I’m full. What is it that you want to know?”
“Daniel, on the night of 30th April 2016, between 9 to 10p.m, robbers drilled a hole in the back wall of Swarna Jewellers and hauled the stuff worth INR 8 crore with them. As you already know, it’s next to Pablo’s Gallery. You didn’t hear anything?”
“No, as my uncle said at the time, I was not there…” Daniel rasped through a clenched jaw.
“Which we know now is not true.”
“How can you say that? I’m sure many own a hoodie of the same brand.”
“But I’m sure they will not be wearing one on a humid April night. And who said anything about a hoodie?”
“What hoodie?” Daniel countered.
Detective Sayed let out a chuckle. He knew it was the best antidote for teenage bravado.
“Okay, the same one that the CCTV outside Tanishq captured three days ago. This one should be easier to remember?”
Daniel’s face turned pale.
“What is the connection between the two?”
“You tell me,” The detective parleyed in a calm voice.
“Okay, I was helping my uncle at the store the night Swarna Jewellers was looted. But I swear, we didn’t hear a thing. We had almost finished when a man in a dark blue hoodie turned up at the store asking for a lighter. He was wearing shades and I found that suspicious. He didn’t realise I was watching him as he took out his wallet and dropped a gun. My uncle at the register could not see it, but I did. The vase in my hand fell and the next moment the gun was pointed at me.”
“Okay, what happened next?”
“I can’t remember what exactly happened,” Daniel’s eyes were like the floodgates about to be opened.
Detective Sayed leaned back on his tubby chair. Rocked the back of his head in his knitted hands and cajoled, “Take a deep breath and try again. That bebinka is still on the offer.”
“I think my uncle begged him to spare me. The man asked us to turn off the CCTV and stay in the shop. And left.”
“Was that what happened?”
“And you left the city the next day to return after 5 years?”
“Mmm…only the new CCTV footage we found from Tanishq across the street tells a different story.” Detective Sayed leaned forward and drummed his fingers on the table.
“Which is?” Daniel sniggered.
“The man in the hoodie never walked out of the gallery!”
Daniel’s eyes went wide,
“But you said you saw him walk out.”
“No, it was a 14-year-old who walked out wearing a dead man’s hoodie.”
Daniel gulped air.
Detective Sayed half shut his eyes. Scratched his chin and continued,
“And walked back into Tanishq store 3 days ago. And quite possibly other places across Goa before that... I have a theory. He was tracked down by the fellow robbers of the dead man. They made him an offer he could not refuse- be a part of their gang or go to juvie for murder.”
Daniel’s face went blank. He whispered in a trembling voice,
“Nice theory. I came back as I got admission into a college in the city.”
“Which is a nice cover-up. Daniel, you don’t have to tell me what happened at the gallery that night. And I think I know the reason why you wore the same hoodie.”
“Which is? Supposing your theory is correct?”
“You wanted to be rescued.”
“Is that a possibility?” Daniel’s eyes begged, still too scared to be hopeful.
“Yes, if you can help nab the gang. And finish eating bebinka!”