On their wedding night, in a hotel suite, a fighting couple headed for divorce, discover a suitcase in the closet with a dead body inside. What happens next?
This is a work of fiction and a murder mystery but the inspiration comes roughly from a newspaper report of a fire breaking out in Regent Plaza hotel, Karachi in 2016.
This is a 5000 word short story and a 17 minute read.
Sonia stepped inside the room of the luxury hotel bridal suite. She looked around at the two towel doves pecking one another, rose petals strewn in a heart shape on the white cotton sheets and flower bouquets placed artfully around the room. She bent her head shyly walking forward, daintily holding on to her traditional red and gold heavy embroidered gown. The weight of her embroidered veil was pushing down on the her elaborate hair do but she tried to keep her neck gracefully straight. When she had reached the centre of the room she hesitated undecided what to do next. She turned around to look back at Bilal, her husband. He was looking handsome in his cream and gold shervani. She remembered the remarks of her relatives earlier that night telling her how lucky she was. Her cousins commented on his looks, the aunties exclaimed how rich he was and all of them wanted to know how she had caught him as if he was some rare kind of fish. When she explained that he had pursued her and convinced her to marry him they refused to believe her. Looking at him now she knew they were right. She was lucky. All her prayers of a happy life had been answered.
He had been standing still watching her and now he came closer, smiling. She smiled back at him coyly. He leaned forward and whispered in her ear, ‘You look lovely tonight.’ His tone was soft, like petals brushing against skin and then with equal softness he added, ‘A lovely little moron.’ She pulled back from him startled. He laughed derisively at her shocked expression. ‘You really thought I would marry someone like you for love, and especially after what you did?’
‘What do you mean someone like me?’ she asked, her expression crestfallen.
He looked at her deliberately from head to toe. ‘Someone so ordinary.’ She stepped back as if he had taken a fling at her. Noticing her hurt look he put up his hands. ‘Look, you are alright but not enough to tempt someone like me into spending my whole life with you.’ He finished his analyses dispassionately.
‘Why did you marry me then?’ she asked genuinely confused. She turned around to look at the beautiful hotel room waiting for clowns to jump out from behind the curtains. Was this his idea of a practical joke? Did he have a twisted sense of humour?
‘For revenge. Tomorrow morning I will divorce you.’ He told her calmly. There was a finality in his tone.
‘Revenge, for what?’ she stammered still processing the information in her brain.
‘You are dumber than I thought. For insulting me in front of my friends. You slapped me remember?’
‘That’s because your friends and you were eve teasing my friend.’
‘So, what? She was hot, and a woman should know better than to take on men otherwise there are consequences. You remember what you said that day in your little tirade?’
She strained to remember but she couldn’t. It seemed so long ago. A lifetime back.
‘You said “No self-respecting woman would marry or fall in love with someone like me.” Well, here you are. After what you said that day, my friends challenged me to a bet to shatter your inflated ego.’
‘So your apology and your confessions of love were fake. You were just pretending to go to the mosque with my father every day to be a better man?’
‘Great, one point for finally getting it.’ He shrugged and turned to pick up the room menu. She swayed where she was standing. Her father was a heart patient and she had three unmarried sisters all younger than her. What would a divorce mean to her family? She couldn’t think of that right now. Shock was rapidly ebbing away from her brain and fury was settling in.
‘You think you can trick me into…….. you won’t get your way with me tonight,’ she yelled at him angrily, ‘I am leaving right now and if you try to stop me, I….’ she faltered. He raised his eyebrows curiously. ‘I will kick your balls so hard you…’
He raised a hand. ‘I get the picture. You can stay , you can leave, I don’t really give a bat’s wing.’ He turned his attention to the menu card. His disinterest added further insult to her injury. ‘Anyhow, I am ordering the chef’s special club sandwich with the thick fries. If you plan to stay you can tell me what you would like now?’ he asked her politely. She stared at him. She wondered whether he was unhinged.
Wiping the sweat off her forehead, she realised she was feeling faint and needed to get out of the heavy dress that was now suffocating her. She pulled open the zip of her bag, pushing the revealing night gowns impatiently aside to take out the plainest dress she could find. It was bright pink with dull gold embroidery all over it. She frowned at it but she realised it would have to do for now. She also fished out her vanity case and stormed into the bathroom locking the door firmly. She roughly pulled at the hundred pins in her hair and an equal number of safety pins to keep her bridal veil in place. Her friend, the same one who she had stood up for, had whispered mischievously in her ear before she stepped out of her house, ‘Take his help with undressing. You will never get out of all this alone.’
Thanks Mariam, she thought bitterly, why couldn’t you have slapped him yourself, then you would be here instead of me. The same instant she felt thick guilt rise up like bile in her throat. She couldn’t wish this fate on an enemy let alone her friend. He was right, she was a moron for not seeing through him. It had taken him just two months to convince her and her family for marriage. When her hair and her dress remained intact, despite her pulling and tugging, she sank down to the spotless marble floor and buried her face in her hands. Hot tears rose to her eyes but she pushed them back. She would not give that bastard the satisfaction of making her weep.
With great effort she pulled herself up and splashed cold water on her face. She pulled open the vanity box and saw large scissors peeping out of it. She cut open her dress callously with them until she could finally wriggle out of it. She walked into the shower. Her elaborate hairdo disintegrated in the hot water and she pulled out the pins with ease. She felt calmer as the warm water washed over her. She decided she was quite safe in the room with that man. She didn’t want to call him her husband anymore. He wasn’t interested in her. Tomorrow morning she would go home and explain what had happened. She wanted to delay the ordeal her family would have to go through. She dressed herself hurriedly, towelling her hair dry and leaving them loose. There wasn’t a trace left of the thick layer of makeup that had cost her father thousands of rupees. The fake eyelashes, artful contouring and glowing highlighters were all sitting in the gutter.
She walked out of the bathroom to find him lying on the bed. He had changed into black pyjamas and a t-shirt and was flicking through the channels on the TV. He looked up at her as she entered the room and his eyes followed her as she walked across it, picking up the menu card. She realised he was giving her an odd look.
‘What?’ she snapped. He shook his head and looked away. She concentrated on the menu and selected an option.
‘Hasn’t your food arrived?’ she asked curtly. Without waiting for his reply she added, ‘Order number 9 for me.’
He gave her an amused look. ‘So you plan on staying tonight?’
‘Why, you said you don’t care either way, right?’
‘That’s right.’ He picked up the phone and gave the order, then shoved earphones in his ears and closed his eyes.
Her suitcase was lying wide open and the nighties she had rifled through were hanging out of it. She decided to place it in the cupboard till the morning. She closed the zip and wheeled the bag to the walk in wardrobe. The lights came on automatically as she stepped in. She slid the oak doors of the wardrobe open and pulled back in surprise. There was already a suitcase exactly like hers lying inside. She thought it might be his luggage although she remembered distinctly that the bellboy had brought up her suitcase and a light duffle bag for him. She shrugged and placed her luggage in another section of the spacious wardrobe.
She was about to slide the door of the wardrobe shut when she saw what looked like the sparse hair on top of a human head peeping out from an angle of the suitcase where the zip had torn. She undid the zip trying to get a better view and as she saw what was inside a terrified scream escaped her. She stumbled backwards. Lying wrapped up in bubble wrap was a dead body of a man. His limbs had been folded at various angles to fit inside the suitcase. As Sonia pulled back in shock, the bag now open fell out of the cupboard and the body slid out of it. It now lay face up on the marble floor, it’s still eyes staring lifelessly at her. When she was able to move her frozen legs she ran out of the room and called Bilal. With music blaring in his eardrums, he was oblivious to her cries. She ran up to him angrily and roughly pulled his earphones out. ‘What kind of sick jokes are you playing with me?’ she shouted at him.
Bilal got up startled. ‘What is it now?’
‘There is a dead man or a man pretending to be dead inside the closet. What the hell is happening here?’
‘What are you talking about?’ he asked surprised at how hysterical she was.
‘Go to the closet and have a look for yourself.’ She pointed towards the room, her hands shaking. Bilal got up at her direction and walked inside the walk in wardrobe. A few minutes later he walked out, stunned. The colour had drained from his face.
‘This is very….’ He shook his head, lost in thought.
‘Very what?’ she asked impatiently.
‘Strange. That…… ,’ he hesitated pointed towards the wardrobe room, ‘corpse is not supposed to be here.’
‘What are you waiting for then? Call the hotel staff, ask them why it’s here and tell them to take it away.’
He rolled his eyes walking rapidly towards her, ‘You think this is some dirty towel that I should call the reception staff about and demand it to be taken away.’
‘I don’t understand. It’s their room, they should know something.’
‘I booked this room for our honeymoon. The hotel staff must have checked it and cleaned it before giving it to us. Do you think they would overlook a dead body lying in a big suitcase in their cupboard?’
‘What are you trying to say?’
Bilal shook his head. ‘I don’t know but at the moment, I can’t trust this hotel. This couldn’t have happened without at least one of the hotel staff’s knowledge. Someone is trying to frame us.’
‘Why would the hotel do this?’
‘Someone is obviously colluding with or bribing the hotel staff to set us up.’
‘Oh god, but why?’ Sonia’s patience was wearing out. Her nerves were already on edge.
Bilal shrugged. ‘Even if I call the reception staff up here, they will call the police and they will assume we have something to do with this.’
‘The police can check the CCTV. They can see what happened.’
‘There are no CCTVs in the bedrooms.’
‘But it will show we entered the room alone, without that man and the bag.’
‘Did you notice that the suitcase with the corpse is exactly like your suitcase?’
Sonia’s hand flew to her mouth. He was right. The police could assume they had brought the dead body in with them. But why would they do that? There was no motive.
‘Why would we kill him? We don’t even know him.’ At the back of her mind it registered that she was using ‘we’ for them. They were a ‘we’ now.
‘I know him.’ Bilal announced heavily and sank down on the bed.
Sonia paled. ‘You killed him? You are a murderer as well?’ she pointed a finger at him. His brows snapped.
‘No, are you crazy? And what do you mean by also? You are accusing me as if I am already a proven rapist or worse and besides why would I kill him, leave him here and then come back with you to this same suite. If I had to murder someone I would do it in a lonely place where I could get rid of the body with ease. Preferably in a forest and burn the body. That way there is no DNA.’
‘You know an awful lot about how to murder someone. Is that your family business?’ She asked suspiciously.
‘It’s just common sense.’
‘How did you know that dead man anyway?’
‘He was the husband of a woman I had an affair with.’ He told her distractedly.
‘I can’t believe this!’ Sonia marvelled at how he had uttered the line as if it was part of his daily routine to sleep around with married women.
‘You have motive.’ She said, her heart sinking.
‘No, he had motive to kill me. He was jealous of me.’
‘You could also have been jealous of him. Jealous boyfriend kills husband.’ She headlined for him.
He nodded. ‘Fair point.’
Sonia ran her fingers through her wet hair. A thought struck her. She had nothing to do with all this. He had booked the room. They had his credit card details and address and she was getting a divorce from him the next morning so this wasn’t her problem. ‘OK, look. I changed my mind about staying tonight. I think I will leave right now. It was nice knowing you.’ She smiled nodding politely at him and turned around towards the door. Bilal got up and grabbed her arm turning her around roughly to face him.
‘Darling, you are an accomplice in this now. We were both in the room with the dead body. Even if you leave the police can pull your details from the copy of ID I provided for you and can locate you.’
Sonia pulled her arm free from his grip and groaned. ‘I should have shot you in the face instead of slapping you,’ she fumed.
‘Well, you missed your chance,’ he offered sympathetically and then bit his lip, ‘So, we could put the body back in the suitcase and throw it out of that window and then leave the room. That way no one will find anything when we leave this room and they won’t associate us with the murder.’
‘That is assuming no one sees us throwing this heavy suitcase out of the window and also assuming there are no cameras outside the room capturing us doing this.’
‘Then you come up with something?’ he told her defensively.
There was a knock on the door and Sonia screamed. ‘Relax, it might be our dinner order.’ Bilal said walking forward.
‘Or the police.’ Sonia whispered urgently. ‘At least put the body back into the suitcase and….’ she added but Bilal was already at the door. Sonia dashed inside the walk in wardrobe and started struggling with the body trying to squish it back inside the suitcase. She heard the trolley of food being wheeled in and then the waiter’s voice.
‘If there is anything else you need, sir, please let us know. We have a special menu you could order that is not printed in the room menu for the obvious reasons. You would need to ask the reception staff for it.’ She heard the waiter’s discreet tone.
‘Yes, good idea! I will call to find out more. Can’t wait.’ Bilal replied with exaggerated enthusiasm. She wondered what the secret menu was. Alcohol?
In her struggle with the body, she knocked over a glass vase which smashed to pieces on the floor.
‘Is everything alright, sir?’ The waiter asked.
‘Yes, don’t worry.’ He reassured the waiter.
‘You want me to clear whatever is broken, sir?’ she heard footsteps approach the room and placed a hand over her mouth staring frantically at the body still sprawled across the floor. Another pair of footsteps rapidly followed the first. ‘No, no. I didn’t give you permission to go there. My wife is changing in the wardrobe room so you can leave now unless you want me to report you to the management.’ Bilal told him curtly.
‘Oh, I’m sorry sir. I didn’t mean to intrude. I just wanted to offer my help.’ The waiter replied, his tone clearly disappointed. He left the room hurriedly.
Bilal entered the room and looked at her exasperatedly, ‘Couldn’t you wait two minutes to start creating a ruckus?’
Sonia approached him with an excited look, ‘I am certain it’s this waiter. He is the guy colluding with whoever to frame you otherwise he wouldn’t be in such a hurry to enter this room.’
‘It doesn’t matter. We are running out of time. We need to get out of this mess.’
Sonia and Bilal looked at the dead body as if waiting for it to give them an answer.
‘You know, it serves you right. You cheated this poor man of his dignity by having an affair with his wife and now he’s come back to haunt you.’ Sonia told him angrily when she could think of nothing else.
‘He wasn’t a poor man, ok? He was a drug junkie who regularly beat his wife up. In fact his wife, Rani told me he was into selling drugs as well. Maybe some rival drug gang killed him, I guess we’ll never know. But poor Rani wore layers of foundation to cover the bruises. Why do you think she was having an affair with me? At least she felt a little better when she was with me.’
‘What a great social worker you are.’ Sonia said sarcastically.
Bilal rolled his eyes. ‘Why do women always pivot from the main point? Why can’t you stay in the discussion and not go off into side lanes?’
‘What if we just leave from this room pretending we don’t have any idea about the suitcase.’
‘The police will come after us because we booked this room. Why can’t you get something so simple. The dead body is now associated with us unless we do something to get rid of it.’
Sonia craned her neck to look up at the ceiling and nodded. She walked out of the wardrobe room and walked around the bedroom staring up at the ceiling and muttering to herself.
‘Why are you looking up at the ceiling. Prayers won’t save you right now.’ Bilal remarked.
‘Hush, prayers have always saved me by the way. Let me think.’ Sonia walked up and down the room quietly for a few moments concentrating hard. Bilal sighed placing his hands on his hips waiting for her. She finally turned around to face him.
‘Ok, I have an idea. We smash all the smoke detectors in this suite and then set the bag on fire. When it is completely charred we set the room on fire. You said if you were to get rid of a body without any DNA or trace you would burn it. Since the smoke detectors won’t work we could delay the hotel staff coming up to check up on the room. By then everything in the room, including the body would have burnt and it would seem as if it was an accident. We will go downstairs, pretend we have had a fight and ask to be checked out right away. By the time the fire in the room is discovered we would have left.’
‘I meant set a fire in a forest, not in the middle of a hotel. The nearby suites, hall everything will also burn down. A fire can get out of hand very quickly and there might be some hidden fire alarms in this room.’
‘My sister worked as part of this hotel’s management for a while. She complained about the faulty fire safety equipment but no one listened to her. There are only smoke detectors in the rooms and fire alarms outside in the corridors. When we head out we can alert the suites on our floor by triggering the fire alarm in the corridor so they can leave their rooms well in time before the fire gets out of hand on this floor. We will also stuff the vents and close the windows in the wardrobe room tightly so the fire is contained to that room until the hotel staff can bring it under control. I’ll leave my ironing rod on so it would seem like that was the cause of the fire.’
‘This weird plan will never work. It’s too complicated and risky.’
‘Do you have a better plan?’
Bilal fell silent and then sighed. The scheme was elaborate, complicated and risky but they were in a risky mess as well. He sighed, agreeing. ‘Alright then.’
It was 2am at night. The concierge was trying very hard not to doze off. His senior had just gone out for his break. This was his first job in a hotel. The lobby was deserted. Maybe a couple of winks won’t hurt anyone. He was about to place his face in his arms on the desk when the fire alarm went off. The concierge wandered if it was a fake alarm. One of those test alarms or a maybe a faulty one going off. He didn’t have much experience working in a hotel so he didn’t know. He was sure someone more senior would tend to it. A moment later he was stunned to see a couple shouting at each other, carrying their bags and heading towards him.
‘I can’t spend a minute of my life with you.’ Bilal shouted at Sonia and then turned towards the man at reception, ‘Check us out right away. Charge my card now.’
‘I can’t stand to see your ugly face as well. It looks like a cross between a snake and a crocodile. ’ Sonia retorted haughtily.
‘My ugly face? Look at your face. You look like a female baboon.’
The concierge stared from Bilal to Sonia. ‘Sir, can I ask what’s the problem? Did you not like our service. Should I call the manager?’
‘No need to bother him. It’s not your hotel. Your hotel is brilliant. It’s her. I can’t stand her. Come on boy. Hurry up. Process my credit card. I want to leave her at her father’s house and pretend this wedding never happened.’
‘Yes sir.’ The concierge nervously pulled up Bilal’s details and then processed the card. Meanwhile a stream of hotel guests from their floor flooded the lobby muttering angrily at being woken up by an alarm so late at night.
‘What is happening here?’ Bilal asked the concierge faking curiosity.
‘Oh, I think sir, maybe a faulty alarm has gone off. I am sure it’s nothing to worry about and someone is looking at it right this moment.’
Bilal and Sonia exchanged a look.
‘Payment processed?’ Bilal asked.
‘Yes, sir.’ The concierge nodded and smiled. ‘Should I ask for your car to be brought out?’
‘No need, we’ll ask the doorman. Just help us with the luggage as no one else seems to be here.’ Bilal and Sonia walked out of the revolving glass doors exiting the hotel. Bilal caught Sonia’s hand and hurried past the doorman who gave them a bow. ‘Sir, can I get you anything?’ he asked.
‘Yes, get my car in less than two minutes.’ Bilal told him giving him the car keys and a five thousand rupee note. A driver drove the car up to the main door and then handed the key back to Bilal. Bilal held open the passenger seat door for Sonia and then climbed into the driver’s seat. He thanked his good sense that he had chosen his black Audi with no silly flower decorations to draw attention to it. They had exited the main gate of the hotel and were driving down the street when they saw a police vehicle speeding up to the gate from the opposite side. Bilal glanced at Sonia. ‘That was a narrow escape.’
His phone beeped. Bilal swiped to open a message that read: ‘Hope you liked your wedding gift. Enjoy the rest of your life.’
‘It was her.’ he exclaimed in disbelief.
‘The jealous wife. Rani. She murdered her husband and tried to frame me for his murder, can you believe it?’
‘I thought she was grateful to you for making her feel better?’ Sonia asked, amusement lacing her tone.
‘Apparently, she wanted me to marry her instead of you. I think she couldn’t bear being cheated on. Ironic as she was cheating on her husband.’
‘Whatever, I just want to get home.’ Sonia told him impatiently. Bilal accelerated and the powerful engine roared. The car sped down the deserted street, night lamps casting spotlights on stray dogs and homeless men passed out on the pavement. He glanced at the beautiful woman seated in his passenger seat. They had been driven to the hotel by his driver in the backseat of the car. This was the first time any girl was seated in the front seat beside him. He recalled his rule of allowing only his life partner to sit in the passenger seat with him. He smiled involuntarily.
‘You know, your weird plan actually worked. I didn’t think it would.’
‘Are you complimenting me?’
‘I’m impressed. You know an awful lot about how to get rid of dead bodies. Are you sure this isn’t your family business?’
Sonia shrugged and repeated his own line. ‘It’s just common sense.’
‘Can we reconsider the divorce? Let’s start fresh? I think I might have lost my heart to you back there.’
It was her turn to laugh at him derisively. ‘You know what they say; fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice shame on me. Besides, you are so ordinary. Not enough to tempt me anymore.’
Bilal laughed heartily. ‘Ok, madam, whatever you want. You saved my life back there otherwise I would be rotting in jail right now. I lied about your ID card. They didn’t have your details except your name. I’m sure Rani had made sure to tip the police about me not you. So I owe you.’
‘Interesting. Since you owe your life to me, I’ll think about when to take it back.’
Bilal gave her a curious look. Sonia lowered the car window, closed her eyes and let the cool night breeze run through her open hair.
The police car swerved to a stop in the hotel’s driveway and the inspector, followed by two constables tried to approach the front door but were stopped by one of hotel staff. The inspector turned to glance back at the huge crowd of hotel guests in their night suits gathered in the outer gardens.
‘Sir, you cannot go in there.’ One of the hotel staff warned running towards the Inspector. ‘There has been a fire and we have evacuated the whole hotel.’
‘But I have a tip off about a murder. Who’s in charge here?’
The manager approached the inspector. ‘How can I help you? Are you here for the fire?’
‘That’s what the fire department is for. Haven’t you called them?’
‘Yes, they are on their way here.’
‘Look, we had an anonymous tip for a murder in room number 402. I need to check it.’
‘That’s impossible, the fourth floor is where the fire broke out. That is definitely closed to public. Thankfully the fire alarm on the floor worked, I mean not that our fire alarms don’t work.’ He added quickly wiping the sweat off his forehead, ‘But no one was injured or burnt. We have managed to evacuate the whole hotel and done a head count.’
The inspector looked up at thick smoke swirling out of the terraces of one of the top floors.
‘Do you know who was in room number 402?’
‘Yes, I remember checking them in earlier. I can’t recall their names but they are a newly-wed couple on their honeymoon. They must be in the crowd outside.’
The blaring sirens of the fire engine sounded as it entered the hotel grounds.
The Inspector sighed. It was getting late. He scratched his head. Murder was the last thing a honeymooning couple would think of doing specially in a hotel suite unless one of them killed the other in a fit of fury. He had handled cases where the husband killed his wife on their wedding night assuming she wasn’t a virgin. He made a mental note to find the details of the couple and check both were alive. He decided someone had played a prank on him tonight, possibly that irritating nephew of his. He motioned to his constables. ‘Let’s go.’
As the police drove away the manager decided to update the fire security of the hotel as soon as he was able to, like that irritating know it all girl had warned him. This was a close call and an eye opener for him. He wondered how many people would have died or been injured if the fire alarms hadn’t work.