It was coming down heavily. The bus had departed. Darkness enveloped Rajendran and Thenmozhi as both of them began looking around for a place to seek shelter. When a bolt of lightning lit up the sky, they glimpsed a small hut and a haystack nearby.
Rajendran ran quickly towards the hut. Thenmozhi, not sure what else to do, followed him.
The door of the hut was unlocked. Inside was a small earthen lamp. In the corner was a cot, and on the cot was an old lady.
They both ran inside to get out of the rain. Thenmozhi, wiping her face with the edge of her sari, caught sight of the old lady and let out a deep breath.
“We’ve barged into this woman’s home and she isn’t even saying anything,” Rajendran whispered, watching her. “Do you know her?”
“Yes. This is Ramayee. She’s blind and deaf. She has a daughter—but she doesn’t seem to be here now. That was the last bus, and she wasn’t on it. Maybe she missed it and she’s walking home.”
“In a way this is a very good place for us.”
Thenmozhi gave him a surprised look.
“Oh, don’t misunderstand me. What you just told me outside is something extraordinary. I am not sure what to make of it. I just meant that this is a good place to continue our conversation.”
“Oh! I thought you meant something else…” Her chest heaved, and then she relaxed.
“You’re sure there are no more buses? That’s it for the night?”
“Looks like I won’t make it back to Chennai then. But that’s okay. I thought my work here was done—but going by what you’ve just said, it sounds like there’s still plenty to do!”
“I’m scared. Why is all this happening to me? I don’t understand it.”
“Be brave. Tell me what happened with Chinna Pechi.”
“She started speaking in Ramasamy Anna’s voice. Even thinking about it now makes my insides shake!”
“I wonder why all the ghosts only seem interested in possessing her.”
“What do you mean, all the ghosts?”
Rajendran wasn’t sure how to respond to the question. He didn’t know if he should tell her about Ganesan’s spirit communicating through Pechi.
His hesitation grated on her. “Did you speak to spirits through Pechi as well?” she asked.
“Whose ghost did you talk to?”
“Oh, why go into all of that now? All this ‘spirit’ business… Inspector Rudra is sure it’s all some sort of trickery. That’s what I thought at first too. But now—especially after what you’ve just told me—I don’t know what to believe anymore.”
“Ramasamy Anna asked me to pass on some information to the police. But his spirit left abruptly, mid-conversation. Then Pechi started crying and talking in her own voice, asking to leave.”
“What did Ramasamy ask you to tell the police?”
“He said that the dead body wasn’t the escaped prisoner. That’s one thing I remember for sure…”
“That would mean that the convict is still very much alive!”
As Rajendran said this, the rain poured down even harder. A deafening clap of thunder sounded out, as though the entire sky was a sheet of glass that had been shattered with a gigantic stone. The sound came from directly above them.
The loud noise startled Thenmozhi, pushing her into Rajendran’s arms. She clung to him with the tight grip of a monitor lizard.
It was the first time she had ever held a man so closely.
Rajendran felt a surge of comfort from her touch course through him.
Through all this, Ramayee sat on her bed, pounding away at betel nuts in a small iron mortar. She was oblivious to the loud thunder and the pouring rain.
The two stood in an embrace for quite some time. Thenmozhi slowly loosened her grip and began to step back. Suddenly, overcome by embarrassment and guilt, she jumped back and stood a few feet away. Rajendran, too, slowly came back to his senses.
At that moment, his cell phone rang. He put it to his ear.
It was Rudra on the other end. “Rajendran, have you started for Chennai?”
“Yes sir. I was just about to call you myself. Good thing that you phoned.”
“So that’s it? Your investigation is over?”
“What kind of a question is that, sir? I’m not a policeman, you know; I can’t spend all my days and nights trying to solve this one case. I’ve got other stories and essays to write.”
“You have a good life, Rajendran! You can leave whenever you want to. But I think my work is only getting started.”
“Have you received any new information?”
“You’ll be amazed when I tell you what it is.”
“I have some surprising news for you as well!”
“What is it, Rajendran? Did you meet Mariadas again?”
“No, no. Anyway, you tell me your news first.”
“I will, but you have to promise not to publish it in your magazine yet. Also… I want you to postpone your journey. Stay on in Aayakudi for some more time.”
“I think that’ll be difficult, sir. My editor will tell me to quit my job as a reporter and join the police force instead!”
“No, he won’t say anything like that. I’ve just spoken to him.”
“Oh! So that’s how it is. Don’t you have enough people in your own department? Why are you asking me, a reporter of all people, to stay and help you?”
“For good reason Rajendran. Please.”
“Okay, sir. But you still haven’t shared your amazing news with me.”
“The body we found—it’s not Irumbaadi!’’
Rajendran fell silent. Rudra’s news was exactly what Ramasamy’s ghost had told Thenmozhi!
He turned to look at her. “Rajendran, say something.”
“What is it?”
“I was about to give you exactly the same bit of news!”
“About Irumbaadi? How did you come to know of it?”
“Well I’ll say this much… You can’t question the existence of spirits anymore, sir.”
“What happened, Rajendran? You had another conversation with a ghost?”
“Not me, sir. Ramasamy’s spirit possessed the body of that girl Chinna Pechi again. He said that the dead body wasn’t the convict’s—but he also dropped an even bigger bomb.”
“What did he say?”
“He said that there were going to be six more murders in the village!”
“I only heard the news ten minutes ago. I was on my way home, but because of this I missed my bus. Now I can’t leave even if I wanted to.” Rajendran kept an eye on Thenmozhi throughout the conversation, but he carefully avoided mentioning her. She watched him too, surprised.
“But Rajendran, you said you didn’t speak to the ghost. So, who did?”
“I’ll explain in detail when we meet tomorrow, sir.”
“Okay. I’ll be at the teacher’s house by eight tomorrow. Be ready.”
“Yes sir!” Rajendran folded his phone and put it away in his pocket.
Thenmozhi’s doe-like eyes still didn’t leave Rajendran’s face. The rain was not coming down so hard now.
“Was that the police?” she asked.
“Yes. So now they know, too.”
“In all these years, this is the first time the police have come to our village.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they set up a permanent station here now. But let that be. Can I ask you something?”
“What kind of a man is your soon-to-be husband, Rajamanickam?” In an instant, her eyes were full of tears.
“What is it, Thenmozhi? Did I say something wrong?”
“Yes. Who told you that I was going to marry Rajamanickam?”
“The entire village is talking about it. Why, even your own father said so.”
“Even if God himself comes down and tells me to do it, I will not marry that… thing. It’s not even human. Just a beast. That’s why I had decided to kill myself. But Chinna Pechi showed up and spoiled my plans.”
“Is… is that how you met Pechi tonight?”
“Yes. Now everyone at home must be looking for me. If Rajamanickam catches me here with you, he won’t wait for the wedding—he’ll tie a thaali around my neck while I’m sleeping tonight and say that it’s done! And before that, he’ll chop you up into pieces!”
“Don’t worry. You’re not a minor, are you?”
“What do you mean?”’
“I mean, you’re over 18, right?”
“Yes, I’ve had quite a few birthdays. In the month of Aippasi, I’ll turn 26. My friend Raasaathi is the same age, and she has a son who’s in the fifth standard!”
It was clear that despite her dissatisfaction with Rajamanickam, she was dreaming of a happy married life.
“Don’t worry, Thenmozhi. No one can force you into a marriage against your will. I am here for you.” Thenmozhi looked at him, and ventured a smile.
“So, you’ll be staying here in our village a while longer, then?” she asked with a lilt in her voice.
“Yes. Now each day will bring a new thrill. Ghosts on one side, murderers on the other. I think I’m going to enjoy myself!”
“I’m still feeling scared.”
“I’m here. Don’t worry.” Rajendran had stopped addressing her formally; his words took on a greater sense of familiarity. It was a pleasant surprise for her as well. She gazed at him silently. He took a step towards her and snapped his fingers in front of her eyes. She slowly returned to her senses, embarrassed. Just then, they heard someone at the door. They both turned to see who it was. A furious Rajamanickam stared in at them.
“Aiyyo!” Thenmozhi’s heart almost came to a stop. Rajendran, too, was frozen.
But Rajamanickam only stood there, watching them.
The seconds ticked on.
He didn’t move.
Rajendran stepped forward. “What, Rajamanickam? Why so angry? Thenmozhi and I were just seeking shelter here from the rain.”
But there was no response.
“Come on, say something. What happened to you?” Rajendran asked, nudging him lightly.
Rajamanickam fell forward like a tree trunk. His body was lifeless. Lodged deep inside his back was a large knife.
Excerpted with permission from the book The Aayakudi Murders by Indra Soundar Rajan, translated by Nirmal Rajagopalan, published by Blaft