A Piece of String 

By Ahmed A. Khan 

Perhaps you too have heard of the legendary Arabian trackers and detectives of the past. It was in 1952 that I happened to observe one such detective in action with all the tools of his trade which, by the way, were comprised of instinct, common sense, acute observation, knowledge of people and places, and, oh yes, a piece of string. It was my second year in a Middle Eastern country, working as a journalist. I lived alone in a big house near an old market place, or 'souk' as it is known, with roofed alleys, where you could buy almost anything you wanted, from spices to the highest quality Persian rugs. The souk was a busy place indeed, with all the shops opening at seven in the morning and doing brisk business till eight in the night. Then one by one the shops would close, the vendors pulling down the shutters and locking them for the night, and silence would descend and fill the dark alleys where for the last thirteen hours there was light and all the sounds of life. During my stay in that country, I had made friends with one Syed Najem Al Khaleel, who was a police detective. Najem spoke good English. He lived in the house beside mine, with his wife and six well-behaved children. He was in his late forties, of medium height but sturdily built. His bearded face with sleepy eyes was, if not handsome, pleasant enough. The old wooden tea-stall in the souk was one of my favourite haunts in my free moments. It was here that I first heard about the murder. One Thursday, early in the morning, I was sitting at the tea-stall, sipping a 'finjan' of 'qahwa' (a cup of black coffee, for you) when Najem walked in and sat at my table. I order another qahwa for him. While we waited for his qahwa to arrive, I noticed that his mind seemed pre-occupied. "What's the matter?" I asked him. "Why so quiet today?" "I am thinking," he said. "Do you do that often?" I grinned. "Don't joke. This is a serious matter." "What is it?" his tone made me sit up. "Murder." "What?" I was taken aback. Then he related the whole thing to me. Some time last night, a murder was committed in the souk. The victim was a young perfume-seller. His body was discovered that morining at five when people were out on the streets going to or coming from their morning prayers at the mosques. The case had been officially assigned to Najem and he was on his way to the scene of crime. My journalistic instincts came fully awake. I had heard tales of the acutely trained senses of Arabian detectives. Here was my chance to find out about them first hand. I requested Najem to take me with him. He agreed. It was now 7 AM, and as it was summertime, the morning was quite hot already. One by one, the shops in the souk were being opened and readied for business. The traffic on the roads was gradually increasing. Water sellers, some on foot and some on donkey-carts, were about. Bicycles were there too, and there were children prancing about in front of their houses. We found the body of the victim lying in a dim and narrow alley of the souk. The cause of death was clear enough. His throat was cut. The alley had already been cordonned off by two policemen who saluted Najem and led him to the body. Najem examined the body for some time, then stood up, his sleepy eyes looking sleepier than ever. "There was a struggle before he died," he said. I looked around for signs of struggle, and found them - broken buttons of the dishdasha (the common dress of the Arabs), torn sleeves of the same, and a puffed up left eye. Najem then proceeded to inspect the surroundings. Bending low, he peered carefully at the ground. Then he whipped out of the pocket of his dishdasha a piece of string and started taking some measurements with it on the ground. Slightly surprised, I looked at him questioningly. He called me near him. "Footprints," he pointed to the ground. I looked. They were barely visible, some moving towards the corpse and some going away from it. "Murderer's?" "Yes." "How can you be so sure?" I asked. "So many people might have passed this way since morning. In fact the marks could as well have been made by us." "Look around you. Don't you see a difference in the footprints made by us and this particular set of footprints?" There was a difference. Our footprints were much more vivid and sharp. "You remember there was a sandstorm last night?" Najem asked. "Remember!" I exclaimed. "I can still taste the sand in my mouth." Then I realised what he meant. Sand had covered the ground all around and it was this layer of sand which had made our footprints so vivid. "That means these footprints of the murderer were made before the storm," I tried playing the detective. "No," said Najem. "They were not made before the storm. They were made during the storm. If they had been made before the storm, they would have been totally obliterated." He paused. "In fact, judging the strength of the storm and knowing the time when the storm ended, I can place within a fifteen minutes bracket the time of the making of footprints." I was impressed, but immediately thought up another objection. "How do you know these are not the footprints of the victim?" He seemed a bit surprised at my question. "Use your eyes, my friend, use your eyes," he said. "Look," he pointed to the victim's feet, "different size of feet, different kind of footwear." "What were you measuring on the ground?" I quickly changed the tack. "Steps." "Steps?" To demonstrate, Najem once again brought his string into play and measured the distance between two consecutive footprints. Then he proceeded to repeat the measurement randomly choosing another pair of footprints. "Do you notice anything?" he asked after about four or five measurements. "What?" "All the measurements that I have taken are exactly the same." "So?" "So we can definitely say that the murderer had what you might call a measured gait." "What's so extraordinary about that?" I really didn't see his point. Why was he giving importance to the gait of the murderer? "Many people have such a gait. In fact, even I have a measured gait." "You are right. Many people have measured gait, but how many of those people could maintain it under these circumstances?" "Under what circumstances?" "Come here." I went near him. "Do you see any difference between the footprints which move towards the corpse and the footprints which move away from it?' I examined both the sets. "The prints moving towards the corpse are sharper than the ones moving away from it," I said. "Good. What does that suggest to you?" I had an inspiration. "The murderer was carrying something heavy when he came here and he had dropped the weight before moving away." "Very good. I will make a detective of you yet. Now tell me what heavy thing could he be carrying?" I had another inspiration. "The corpse." "Once again right on the head," said Najem. "You mean to say that the murder was not done at this spot?" "I am positive. Look at the evidence. First, there is the matter of the footprints. Second, even though the victim died due his throat being cut, there is very small amount of blood on the ground. Third, even though the body shows signs of struggle with the murder, the ground itself is devoid of such signs." I thought over what Najem had said. "What has all this got to do with the gait of the murderer?" I asked. "You said you have a measured gait but do you think you could keep up your measured gait while carrying a corpse on your back?" I considered. "No, I don't think so." "There you are." "So what does the measured gait tell you?" "It tells me that the murderer is a strong man and a man whose measured gait is the result of years of training." "Who?" "A military man," he stated positively. My respect for this man was growing by the minute. Truly, this was the stuff that legends are made of. "Now let us see where the murder was committed and why it was necessary to shift the corpse." Eyes to the ground, Najem started tracing back the footprints which came towards the corpse. After a while, the footprints vanished, being obliterated by the day's traffic. Najem took his bearings and moved off in the general direction from which the footprints seemed to have come. His eyes were still fixed on the ground. After about five minutes, he stopped and looked up. He was in front of a house with green doors. He stood there for some time, deep in thought. Then he came away from there and motioned his assistants to remove the corpse. "Well, that ends our investigation for the day," he said. "Meet me at the tea-stall tonight after the evening prayers," and he was gone. I met him at the tea-stall at the promised time. For the first five minutes, there was no mention of the murder. We just drank our tea and talked of this and that. "Do you remember the house with the green doors we saw this morning?" Najem asked. At last, I thought, he is going to speak of the murder case. I was eager to know the developments. His next question, however, was totally unexpected. "Do you know that a very pretty girl lives there, young and with tons of sex-appeal. And what's more, she belongs to one of those 'modernized' Arab families who think nothing of their women folk wearing provocative dresses and roaming in the streets." "What's this?" I asked, surprised. "Turning into a lecherous old man?" "Actually, I was thinking about your bachelorhood," he smiled. "Don't trouble yourself on my account." "The murder was committed in front of the house with the green doors," he said suddenly. "How do you know?" I pounced. "Intelligent guesswork." "Explain." "Direction of the footprints, slight signs of struggle on the ground in front of the house, and the presence in the house of a pretty girl who goes about freely displaying her charms." I caught the drift of his words. "You mean the motive for the murder could be jealosy between two young men over the charms of the said pretty girl?" "I am sure of it." "And the corpse had to be moved away from the house in order to protect the girl, and also to hide the motive of the murder, which might then lead to the detection of the killer?" I was getting excited. The murder case seemed to be nearing its end. "Yes." "So what are you going to do next?" Now would begin the chase between the detective and the criminal as it happens in the novels, I thought. "Next, I am going to go home and relax with my family," said Najem. "What do you mean?" I was confused. "The case is closed, my friend." "Closed," I almost shouted. "You caught the murderer?" "Yes." "How?" "Nothing exciting, I am afraid," he peered out of the tea-stall into the darkness of the night. "Just routine stuff. A little bit of questioning frightened the girl enough to make her confess." "Girl? Confess?" I was totally lost. "The pretty girl, you know." "What did she confess?" "Of course, I knew the time of the murder and that the murderer was a military man," said Najem. "It helped me a lot in my questioning." "What did she confess?" "She confessed that she knew the murderer. She confessed that she had witnessed the murder." "She had witnessed the murder?" Najem nodded. "She had a rendezvous with one of her admirers. By a co-incidence, the other admirer felt the urge to see her, and came by uninvited. That is how the two rivals came to know about each other." He was silent for a while. "And they had a fight," he picked up the thread of his narrative, and one of them was killed. The other one is now caught and will be punished." We sat there for a long time staring into the dusk, not talking, each of us thinking our own thoughts. THE END

Ahmed Khan is a computer consultant and a part-time freelance writer. His works (both fiction and non-fiction) have appeared in magazines like Science Today, Millennium SF, Murderous Intent, Realms, and webzines like AlienQ, Anotherealm, Jackhammer, etc.

He is originally from India, currently settled in Canada

Contact Ahmed

February 27, 2001
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