The moment Amir stepped out of the warm and cosy hut, he wanted to go right back in. The chilly air made him sourly miss his gloves and cap. He let out a sigh and started trudging through the snow, retracing his footprints.
The sky was greyish-white - not a hint of colour anywhere. The entire landscape was white and lifeless, the grass and earth buried deep under mounds of snow. The tall trees in the distance looked skeletal and gruesome with sharp branches dusted with snow.
A shrill cry made him pause and look up; a large black crow was sitting on one of the elm trees that formed a thick circle around Sadiq Chacha’s cabin.
The crow let out another cry. A knot of unease formed in Amir’s chest. For some reason, it seemed as if the scavenger was warning him. The crow’s cry was taken up by many others perched on the fir and elm trees till it seemed as if the entire woods was echoing with their shrieks. Without warning they took flight, shooting up in the sky.
Clever eyes. Sharp beaks. Deadly talons.
The phrase ‘a murder of crows’ came to his mind, but he shook it off. They were just birds, probably nesting in the trees and his sudden appearance had disturbed them. Crows were particular about intruders, after all. Amir watched the flock of black crows disappear against the pale sky. The sound of their flapping wings and caws faded. He laughed at his silly thought and resumed walking the path he had carved when he had hurried up the hill to check on Sadiq Chacha near 10:30, when the morning snowfall had almost ended. Eyeing the sky Amir noted the thick, grey clouds spread like a blanket, waiting to shed snow yet again. Amir fervently prayed for a reprieve as he started walking towards his house.
The weather and the crows left Amir’s thoughts as his mind became consumed by the recent murders. Amir remembered waking up at 8:00 am. He could hear his wife, Maham, in the kitchen preparing breakfast and the sound of his sister Sara’s chattering. He had gone over to help them and to discuss possible theories with his sister as eggs sizzled in the background, and the aroma of chai filled the kitchen. Maham wasn’t a chatty person when working in the kitchen, especially early in the mornings. She certainly didn’t like the topic of murderers and possible suspects being discussed right after waking up.
She had fixed them both with a disapproving stare. ‘Need we discuss such horrible things so early in the morning? You two seriously need a change of subject.’
Sara had wrinkled her nose. ‘We are trying to solve the murders so we won’t have to discuss it anymore.’
Maham had rolled her eyes. ‘Fine, but no detective work in the kitchen. Focus on the paratha; don’t burn it.’
After finishing breakfast, they all had retired to the living room. Amir and Sara sat on the carpet near the fire with their notebooks and pages spread on the low table, while Maham had sat on the easy chair, sipping chai and giving an occasional remark or advice, listening to them, her mind only half on the Urdu novel open on her lap.
They had been discussing the first two murders. The first victim had been Sakina Begum who had been killed by strangulation on 3 December. The second victim, Khalid, had also been strangulated, but also had a knife wound on his stomach. He was killed on 10 December. Both belonged to different families,
And their families had not heard or seen anything at all. The servants were also clueless. The unexpected killings had caused panic throughout Shadbad.
Amir had gone to the victims’ families and had searched the house and gardens thoroughly. He had even questioned the neighbours and the servants. He had recorded his findings in his notebook, and on his spare cell phone. Unfortunately, the information was still not enough. Nothing made sense, no matter how hard he tried; it was like a dead end.
Amir’s 17-year-old sister had asked if anything had been taken away or stolen from the victim or if something was missing from the house. Amir had shaken his head. ‘The family searched the whole house, but nothing seems to be missing. The killer didn’t come to rob or steal; his sole purpose was to end the victim’s life.’
Sara looked up from where she was studying the notes, her grey eyes, similar to Amir, were sceptical. ‘How do we know that this killer is male or female? It could be either. Why are you so sure it’s a man?’
‘Of course, it could be either, but the use of brute force to strangle someone would require the person to have enough strength to subdue the victims effortlessly and noiselessly. No one heard the victims screaming for help. And how many women do you know in Shadbad capable of that?’
Sara considered this and nodded slowly. ‘You’re right. But you can’t dismiss Balqees.’ Noting Amir’s confused expression, she explained. ‘Balqees is Tehseen Auntie’s servant. She’s tall and sturdy, built like an ox. She helped us with the heavy crates and boxes when we moved here, remember?’ The last word was directed at Maham.
Maham gave Sara a withering look. ‘You can’t go around accusing people of killing someone without any proof. It’s wrong to suspect others and gossip behind their backs.’
Sara flushed. ‘I wasn’t. I am only trying to narrow down our list of suspects.’
Maham shook her head. ‘You both should leave this for the police to solve.’ Before Maham could lecture them, the faint banging at the gate made Amir get up.
It was Raju who had come to their house bearing news of another murder. His eyes darting here and there like a frightened deer’s, expecting the killer to jump at him from some dark corner. He had explained to Amir what had happened. He had found Rauf dead in his office. He had said the nurse had told him Rauf had been poisoned. Before Amir could interrogate him further, he excused himself, saying he had to start digging the grave. Amir felt pity for the poor boy. Digging a grave when the ground was hard as rock would be tough, but Amir was sure other workers would help him out.
Preoccupied with his thoughts, Amir didn’t notice a dark figure lurking in the thick fir watching Amir as he made his way home.