It had been roughly 2 hours past 8, factories mid churning, white collars behind their desks, and worker bees busy bringing home the honey. Although the breakfast briefing just ended, Nurul was still asleep in her head, unmindful of her surroundings, exhausted, her eyelids sagging, her corneas flared red. No amount of coffee helped this morning.
‘Boss, the Assistant Commissioner wants to…’
‘Yeah, yeah!’ she dismissed the poor messenger and cracked her weary knees, forcing them to bear the weight of her thorax as she trudged herself to the man’s office, zoned in on his door without a glance left or right, anticipating what she already knew.
‘So, I’m guessing you know what this is about.’
‘Case closed?’ Nurul pretended to check her messages before putting the phone away. She sighed a laborious one. ‘Or am I just off the case?’
‘No, no. You don’t get to put this on bureaucracy. If anything, you expedited the process, adding even more red tape. I mean what were you thinking?’
‘I was merely doing police work.’
‘Don’t try to be funny. It’s not as simple as rounding up people by force. They were not even suspects.’
‘In a way they all are.’
The commissioner tiredly massaged his forehead. ‘Not in direct relation, Nurul. Only the perp goes behind bars, not the guy who bought him the machete, nor the store that sold to him.’
‘But that’s the whole thing about this case isn’t it. No one actually cares why she did it, just that it was self-inflicted, so no one is to blame although there is a glaring evidence of a possible suspect.’
‘Why? Because he wasn’t physically standing there and pushed her off that roof himself?’
‘Then it’ll actually be a homicide case.’
Nurul paused, disappointed. She had grown to love the character of the deceased, pondering constantly how a strong-willed woman like her could succumb to such pressures. ‘Dr Sheila Thomas had a very impressive portfolio. Despite her rebellious nature, she handled her work very professionally and had an exemplary rapport with just about anyone she’d ever met. Her psych review though spoke differently; her peers saw her as someone else and to her parents, she’s was a different person entirely. She might not have really flaunted an identity of her own, rather changed her demeanour with whomever she was engaging with. This was probably how she managed so many relationships well, but it was to her detriment. She was a troubled girl, and like it or not, I believe she was already on the edge every single day of her carrier, just hoping for that fatal push.
‘How about that Dr Daniel?’
‘Dead end. He told me nothing happened, and from what I have heard so far, he is still sticking to that story.’
The commissioner rolled his chair to the back, reaching for his AC remote. He needed to cool off. ‘Look, I know you have been trying frivolously. Sometimes a suicide is just a suicide.’
‘No. Boss. Come on. No suicide is just a suicide.’
‘Well, what can I tell you? How can I help?’
‘Nurul smiled. ‘So, what’s the verdict? That she was stressed? She couldn’t hack the job? It’s so tough to be a doctor?’
‘Well, not all these kids want to become doctors, right? Sometimes it’s a calling and sometimes they are just pressured.’
‘Calling? Wow! You make it sound like she was joining a monastery. See, that’s why I know her better now than that shitty hospital ever did while she was alive.’ Nurul started getting riled up.
‘You’re taking this too personally. Why don’t you just focus on your backlog for now. Don’t take any new cases.’
‘At least let me talk to the family.’
The commissioner anticipated as much from his favourite Detective. ‘Alright, and that’s all we are ever going to talk about this.’
Sheila’s parents’ house was situated far in the developing suburbs of Kuala Lumpur, asemi-D, and the neighbours were scarce. Clothes dried on the rails outside with a Nissan parked under the shades of the porch. Mrs Karen was at home.
The frantic mother quickly arrived at the door as soon as she saw the police vehicle stop before the house gates.
Sheila was always a city girl, grew up in quiet home, played in the playground in front of the house, rode a bicycle to the community badminton court and swam in public pool on weekends. She had an upright piano in the house right under a quaint little Christian altar.
‘She had a great voice. She used to sing for the church you know.’
‘Really?’ Nurul appeared impressed. ‘I didn’t know she sang well.’
‘She did.’ Mrs Karen showed the detective to their living room and hurried off to the kitchen to prepare some tea. Nurul didn’t bother declining. There was usually no way out of it. Instead, she used the time to admire the rest of the living room.
The whole place was kept cozy, and Sheila’s presence was everywhere. By the looks of the family photos, she was the middle child, sandwiched between two boys. Everyone seemed to have graduated at some point from some university or rather and on hers’, she had the happiest smile. ‘No way she was forced into it.’
Nurul realised the mother had already prepared two cups of piping hot tea, with an enticing jar of biscuits to go along.
‘No, I’m just looking at your photos. I don’t mean to pry but she looked so beautiful, your daughter.’
‘She did.’ Mrs Karen adjusted her skirt before sitting, dainty, proper and with English manners. ‘Come. Your tea will get cold.’
Nurul obliged and sat opposite the coffee table. They had a quite moment, just sipping off hot cups and having a biscuit or two.
‘That’s a very nice necklace.’ Nurul made small talk.
Mrs Karen’s eye lit, as if hoping the woman would notice. ‘My husband bought it for me. It’s not like him to get me gifts, but this anniversary, was really something special.’
‘OH!’ Nurul cleared her throat after a hot gulp. ‘Congratulations.’
‘How about you?’
‘Missed the boat.’
‘Oh, don’t say that. There is no such thing.’ Karen slapped the Detectives knees from across.
‘It’s alright. I am happy.’
‘You are? Good.’ Karen had finished her cup and Nurul started to chug down what was remaining.
Now it was time for the difficult bit.
‘Mrs Karen. I…’
‘We know. It’s over. You have finished your investigation.’
‘Yes. And…’ Nurul watched the woman’s shoulders regress, awaiting disappointment. She forgot what she was going to say. ‘I… I…’ but Mrs Karen patiently waited for her to string something coherent.
‘I tried… Mrs Karen. I really did. I read the forensics report. I met the psychiatrist, the friends, her peers – everybody. There was no…foul play…’ Nurul felt a metallic brash under her tongue, disgusted at her own lie.
‘So why did she do it? Were they mean to her?’
‘She was a sweet girl. Easily triggered. She had a tough exterior, but inside…’ Mrs Karen shook her head, tears dripping on her blouse.
‘You do?’ Mrs Karen smiled. ‘How? You’ve never even met her.’
‘It feels like I did. I have never come across a character so genuinely real and true to herself. She will be sorely missed by all those who knew her. It’s unfortunate to all those who never got privilege.’
‘What about the woman who gave birth to her, huh? How do you think she’ll feel?’
The hostility permeating through that frail, defeated, and angry woman was palpable. Nurul replied it with a gentle silence; the best she could do for the mother. Karen smiled back, keeping her tamed beasts in their cages.
‘Can I ask you something?’ the detective decided to prod, inquisitive, unsettled. ‘Was she engaged in anything romantic with anyone?’
‘Not to my knowledge, No. I mean she had a boyfriend in school. You know these kids. There was one boy in college, but he was real loser and it was a good thing too. My baby finally realised her self-worth after that ended. Nothing after that.’ Mrs Karen smiled again. ‘Why? Was she seeing someone?’
‘No, I was just wondering.’
‘Sheila believed she was too good for boys. We joked if she should try girls.’ The mother chuckled. ‘There was this one who lived around here, Malay kid, two blocks down. He used to make fun of her when they were little. He used to call her “BLACKY”, of all things. Can you imagine? The times they grow up in.’
‘I’m sorry for that.’
‘Don’t be. Three years later, we caught them kissing in the playground.’ Mrs Karen chuckled even louder. ‘Oh, she had it from me that day.’
‘He was the boyfriend?’
‘No, the boyfriend was Indian. That happened during her rebellious phase. You know these kids. She started learning about Hinduism and wanted to stop going to church. After that didn’t end well, she was back at our Lord’s doors every Sunday. She even considered becoming a nun.’
Nurul smiled at her mother’s albeit saccharine recollections. It was obvious the parents had been a very big part of her upbringing.
‘When did she decide to become a doctor?’
‘As a toddler, she loved going to the clinic. It was odd. Kids hate the doctor, but she would be so excited. She would climb the desk, pull on his stethoscope, throw a tantrum if she didn’t get a nebulizer and weigh herself a million times on that little scale. Maybe it was just him, the doctor, you know. He was very good to her.’
‘So, it was like a “calling”?’
‘Beats me. I told her I would support her in anything.’ Mrs Karen tried to hide her grimace. ‘I wanted her future…’
‘It’s alright ma’am,’
‘I wanted her future… to be exactly what she needed it to be. I mean she would come back from school and say she wanted to be this thing, and next week it was that thing. I really thought singing and theatre was going to be it. It’s what she spent the most time and money on. I did whatever I could to support her. We both did, her father and I.’
‘Mr Thomas must be going through a lot of pain himself.’
‘Yeah. Like father like daughter, all tough on the outside and a 5-year old girl underneath.’ Mrs Karen giggled under the cover of her fingers.
‘I honestly thought you were strict parents. You know some people put all their expectations in their kids, but you just let her do whatever she wanted. That’s very commendable.’
Mrs Karen wiped her face with face tissues she drew out from a box underneath the coffee table. ‘Yeah, but all kids think their parents are the worst. Once she was all grown up, we hardly talked. The job was getting to her, a mother can tell. But she didn’t want us to worry, my sweet child. They think just because we don’t know the specifics, we’ll never really understand. Remember that for when it’s your turn.’
Nurul returned a quick chuckle and stood up. They had reached the natural end to their conversation.
‘I believe that’s best, Mrs Karen. Thank you for the tea. It was amazing chatting with you about your daughter. I meant it, you know. It’s my misfortune that I never had her as my doctor or as my friend.
‘You want to see her room?’
Nurul couldn’t say ‘No’.
Sheila’s childhood room was a tiny square, fit for a middle child. Yellow walls, a tall mirror, and a myriad of cosmetics.
‘She loved her make-up stuff. I thought I was bad, but I was the one who always wanted a daughter. They really surprise you by showing you how alike you both are.’ Mrs Karen picking up an old bottle of dried up nail polish. ‘She spent so much on just her looks. I mean she was always beautiful, but I don’t know, it was my fault, I guess. I didn’t do enough, so she came out a little tanned I guess, like her father and my grandfather. Maybe I should have drank more milk or something you know- fight the genes?’
‘Nonsense. Come on.’
‘Yeah I mean look. I have a whole box of them.’ She started to peer around the room looking for it and found one by the corner.
‘It’s OK! You don’t have to…’
‘No, It’s fine.’ She opened the lid and to Nurul’s surprise it was full of product, covering every aspect from head to toe; trimmers, curlers, shavers, waxing creams, powders and stacks and stacks of foundation, contouring sets and even a pleasure toy.’ The mother immediately pulled that last one out.
‘Look at this, huh?’ she comically waved it around before dropping it back with rest of Sheila’s stuff. ‘The things these girls learn in college. We had a long talk about this too.’
‘But let me guess, she won the argument?’
Mrs Karen giggled. ‘Of course, she did.’ Mrs Karen teared a little at the Detective. ‘You do know my daughter.’
Nurul sincerely wished she had met Sheila sooner. Perhaps she could have done it, the thing that Daniel couldn’t. There were so many boxes on the floor, each representing a different part of Sheila’s childhood, adolescence, teen years, all the way till a year ago.
Then, something struck her eye. In the far-right corner, in another box, Nurul spotted a blazer, blue, just laid bare on a cardboard box. Nurul approached to pick it up.
‘That’s not hers.’ The mother replied.
‘It’s a man’s,’
‘She said she went out with her housemen friends. It was cold and one of them was kind enough to lend it her. She drove home that night and left it here instead of taking it back to her apartment. No one has come back for it, so it’s just been there.’
Nurul held it straight by the shoulder pads. Something wasn’t right. Sheila had 5 friends, 3 of them male, and none of them were large enough to fit into this. She brought the material close to her nose. Although had been a year, the blazer had been left in this closed off room the whole time and fermenting in whatever lingering smell.
Nurul had a hunch and it was getting clearer. She remembered him from when she was admitted in the hospital. She remembered the cologne he wore. Then, she remembered the tape, the very tape Ram had kept synced to the cloud, the amateur attempt of voyeur pornography that still circulates the wide vortex of the internet, the video that he thought was going to give him the leverage he needed, but instead dug him a deeper grave and strangely enough, it was how they meet. To think, Mr Jamal was just having a night of passion with his wife, but Nurul knew there was something there. She remembered watching that tape incessantly, studying the details of the master bedroom, the clothes that came off, and the characters that played in it, only to be paid off by the comical moment of when the cameraman slips and falls. She had seen this blazer before, the Brook’s Brothers emblem by the side, among others, hanging from his open closet, because it was right there in that tape.
Awestruck by her own discovery, her mind was ruminating. In the distance, she heard Mrs Karen sobbing, looking at the mirror.
‘I’m quite black myself, aren’t I? I never told her I was just like her.’
‘What?!’ Nurul asked confused.
The mother continued to sob, fixated on her own reflection. ‘We always tell them they look so much like us. But I also look so much like her.’
Nurul brought herself closer. ‘Mrs Karen, you did everything you could.’
‘NO!’ she moaned. ‘I didn’t. I was a bad parent. I didn’t stop her. I didn’t even see it coming. It was all here. It always starts at home.’
‘No, Mrs Karen. You can’t blame yourself. There is no way you could have known. Children go through phases. I have seen many cases. I have seen neglect, overprotection, abuse, you name it. All I see here, is a wealth of memories, and mostly good.’
Mrs Karen padded her face with her tissues. ‘You’re very sweet, Inspector.’
‘You mind if I keep this?’ she held the collar of the blazer. ‘I think I know which friend it belongs to. I’ll give it back to him.’
‘Sure,’ Mrs Karen smiled. ‘And tell him thanks, for being there for her, when she needed it.’
Nurul nodded politely and together they left, Mrs Karen having one last look as she always does to that room ever since Sheila laid there in her cot as a baby.
‘Yes, Zakir. Tell me,’ Nurul waved at Mrs Karen one last time before getting inside the driver’s seat. With her handphone pressed closed to her ear in one hand, she dropped the blazer with the other on the passenger’s side.
‘There were many guests that night, but I found a reliable source, and we went through the guest list. There was a man who booked a table and had dinner with either a blonde Indian or African woman. He just called himself Jamal; the bloke used his actual name.
‘Yep. The description fits our “vic” too.’
‘What was the man wearing?’
‘A blue blazer. Why?’
Nurul opened her glove compartment and stared at her pack of cigarettes. For the first time since she started working on this case, she didn’t feel like smoking. She turned to blazer, crumpled and laying idly on the seat cushion.
Nurul smiled ear to ear, ‘I got you now, you piece of shit.’
Ready to turn on her ignition, she noticed a message come in her phone, from an “unknown” number.
‘Hi, I’m Dr Julie from Hospital Puchong, I don’t’ know if you know me, but I think I might be able to help you with the Sheila case. Let’s talk.’
The engine rumbled and the radio turned on. Nurul started singing along, elated, over the moon, while she drove back to the office, eager to meet the commissioner once more. ‘Case closed, my saggy spinster ass.’