Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.
"'anna McLean," he said and smiled dreamily. Just the mere mention of the name brought a smile on his lips. "Oh, she was a little gal of seventeen an' I was nineteen. That was twenty-five years ago, Miss Dench. I still remember what she was wearing. A white frock with pink flowers. Oh, an' she had a bonnet on 'er 'ead too."
"Right," I nodded making notes of things and moved on. "Let's talk about some recent times, shall we Rodger? Like when did you last saw her?" I asked tugging a strand of hair behind my ear.
"Last? Why just 'esterday."
I looked up, a little concerned. I know him for the past twelve years. He had always been there to lift my spirits whenever I felt low. He was a simple man spreading laughter, a good friend and company, but something in those brown eyes of his concealed grief. When I was out of job once and had no money to rent a room, he gave me shelter and food, not just for days but for a whole year, without wanting anything in return. He said I could return him the favor whenever he would be in trouble.
So, when he was in trouble and I was informed of it, I personally took the case just to make sure he was not misjudged. Tonight he appeared jarred.
"Yesterday?" I asked.
"'eh, Friday, ain't it?"
"Rodger. Today is Thursday. You mean you saw her on the Friday of last week?"
He looked a little confused. For a man of just forty-four, he looked ages older. His eyes were deep, the flocking crow's feet deepened when he smiled. The bags under them looked ugly. His sunken in cheeks were covered in beard of five days. He clothes had outgrown him inside a week and I doubt that they had seen soap for days.
"Last week?" He rubbed his chin. "Time sure flies. It seems just 'esterday that we went for a picnic. She made the sandwiches, ya know. They're the tastiest thing I 'ave ..."
"Rodger," I pulled him back from his reverie. "Last Friday. What happened last Friday?"
His brows fell together, eyes looked down and he rigorously scratched his rugged chin. "Don't remember."
"Rodger," I slammed the notepad. "You remember what happened fifteen years ago, but can't remember what happened last Friday? Are you kidding me? I know you for years and I know you are a good man. That's why I had been so polite about the whole thing. But the other officers wouldn't. And don't forget this is a murder case. A man and a woman had been found dead in your joint. And obviously, they didn't kill themselves. Do you realize the seriousness of the matter?"
Rodger kept quiet for a long time. His head hung low. His hands were clasped together as if he was trying to decide.
"Rodger," I called. My voice hit the steel walls of the interrogation room and came back to me, unheard. "Rodger." I wanted to touch his hand but restrained myself. He was a suspect and I was an officer interrogating a suspect.
"What do ya wanna know?"
"You have said you were not in the town that night when the incident took place. You came to know about it from your neighbors. But I think you know something about it. You know the girl. You have just said so yourself. Rodger. I want the whole story."
He turned up his eyes at me making them look like crescent moons and menacing.
"Ya want the w'ole story? Then listen up."
He took a deep breath and started to speak. "It was fall of '94, when she came ta town. I fell 'ead over 'eels for 'er at first sight. She was the prettiest thing I'd ever seen. She was shy at first but slowly we became friends. She taught me ta read an' write. She even 'elped me in my pa's joint. We used ta go for picnics on Sundays. It was the happiest times of my life."
"What happened?" I asked.
"Then one day she left."
He lifted his shoulders and let them fall.
"I donno," he said. "After that, I didn't feel like staying there. So I left too."
"Where did you go?"
"Places where fancy took me. After five years of wandering, I came 'ere. I opened a joint of my own an' settled."
"Haven't you heard of Hanna McLean in that time?"
He shook his head. "Nah."
He took his time before speaking. "Then I saw 'er on We'nesday. Imagine, after twenty-five years, of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine."
"At first I couldn't believe my eyes. There she was. As beautiful as ever. She stopped at the doorway, looked about the place an' after she 'ad spotted me, she... she smiled. That same sweet smile. Then she walked up to me an' I saw she was not the same anymore." He looked up, bewildered, at me.
"Her eyes were dark, big black all around. What ya call it?"
I raised my brows. "Dark circles?"
"'eh. She 'ad never 'ad those. Then there was that mark on 'er fore'ead."
He moved his hands like he as trying to get hold of a fly.
"'ere," he said pointing at his own forehead at a point over the left eye. "Didn't ya see it?"
I took out the file picture and found it. Taking it closer I found it to be an old mark.
"Maybe she fell or maybe she was hit," I said.
"'e 'it 'er," Rodger yelled. "'e did it."
I was startled by his sudden reaction. "He hit her? Who hit her?"
"That man who followed 'er. That man who wanted to kill me. That man."
I took out another file picture and turned it to him. It was the picture taken by the forensic members before the body was removed.
"How can you be so sure?" I asked sitting up straight. "You have been saying for all these days, that you had no idea who he was."
"That was to the other officer," he smiled. "Ya are a friend."
My jaws dropped. "Tell me about it."
"It was midnight," he said. "'anna promised to meet me at the joint at midnight. I went. She was there: scared an' terrified an' all. I asked 'er. 'anna dear, what's wrong with ya? She started to sob. Oh, how I 'ated those tears, Miss Dench. She went on crying. I pleaded 'er to tell me what the matter was. Then she begged me to save 'er. She clasped my 'ands an' begged." He clasped his own hands and shook them. "I asked who do I save ya from? Gal, tell me."
"What did she say?"
"Samuel? Samuel Neil?" I asked. Samuel Neil was the man in the photo.
"'eh, 'im. An' ya know what? 'e was 'anna's fiance."
Well, that was something new. In this small town murder is a big thing and double murder was ever bigger yet this case had made the officer's scratch their heads. Then they called for the big city's Force. When I came this case was sitting on the desk under piles of other cases. There was no witness and hence no progress. But it seems things were taking a different turn and I was going to be in a mess.
"You knew Samuel was Hanna's fiance?"
"'eh, I did."
"Then what happened?"
"Well, ya know. She cried and I tried to console 'er. She said 'e was torturing 'er an' she 'ad run away. So I promised 'er that I'll save 'er when that Samuel walked in. 'e saw me an' fell apart in anger. 'e blamed me for 'anna's running away. She was crying, pleading with 'im, saying it wasn't my fault. But that fool didn't listen. 'e raised his gun and fired."
"'eh." He waited for a while as if collecting himself. "But... but..."
"But?" I grabbed the edge of the table. "But what?"
He broke down like a child.
"She jumped in front of me. She... She..." He spoke through his tears. "She died there. In my arms, she died."
I sat stunned for a few moments. Then something occurred to me.
"What did you do, Rodger?"
He cried a little more before sniffing and steadying himself.
"I grabbed that idiot's throat," he said bending his fingers in a manner resembling a pair of claws and closed them tightly. "An' squeezed till my arms ached."
I sat there staring at his face. His brows had crashed together and eyes had narrowed down to slits.
"Rodger," I called him slowly. For the first time, I was scared of him. "Rodger? Are you alright?"
He looked up at me and then relaxed. His hands went down to his lap, his features calmed and he smiled.
"I'm absolutely fine, Miss Dench," he said. "How are ya?"
"Rodger. Do you have any idea what you have done?"
"'eh," he said in the same way. "Samuel killed my 'anna. So I killed 'im."
"I do. To ya, my friend."
I left the interrogation room in a daze. He was so calm about confessing his crime. He didn't do it in self-defense. He did it for revenge. I couldn't let it pass and definitely not because he was my friend. On the other hand, I couldn't see him behind bars or being executed.
I was in a predicament I was afraid of and never wanted to be a part of. Instead of reporting I made an excuse and went out to sit and think, to find a way to save him.
But I needn't take that trouble.
Next day a note was waiting for me at my desk. I asked around and the sergeant said it was from Rodger. I opened it with steady hands but they trembled by the time I had finished. I rushed to the confinement area where Rodger was held.
I'm feeling a lot easy after speaking to you. He wrote. I'm glad that I've a friend like you to whom I'd speak freely. But I'm sad and have lost my meaning of life.
I called the guard and had the cell opened. He fumbled with the keys. My hands were sweating and heart thrusting against my chest. Please don't do anything silly, Rodger. Please. In my mind I had my hands clasped together.
His words came back to me again and again.
It'd been long I've lived without her. But now I know where she is and I'm going to her.
The key grated in the lock and the door opened swinging on its hinges with a squeak. I pushed the guard aside and went in.
Rodger lay on his bunk with his back to us, the sheet drawn till his shoulders. I called him once and then shook him by the shoulder. He was cold. I turned him to lay on his back. His eyes were half closed, lips slightly ajar. Blood had streamed from his mouth and then dried. The lot of it had dried on the bunk and on the floor. He had chewed his tongue and bled to death.
The guard rushed out of the room calling emergency.
I stood there alone, indebted forever.
I had lost a friend but hoped he had found peace after all.