Authors: Barbara Ismail
Volume III in the Kain Songket Mysteries Series
There was no moon, but Yusuf knew his way well enough along the banks of the river to forego its light without compromising his balance. Besides, lights came through the cracks of the doors of the Chinese shophouses he walked behind, and with them the sounds of the interminable mah jongg games within.
Yusuf knew something about the economics of gambling, running a gambling parlour himself in the front rooms of his house, but the majority of his clientele were Malay rather than Chinese, and cards rather than mah jongg were the games of choice. Still, he was, as always, buoyed by the sounds of tiles smacking the tables and what was clearly the crowing of a triumphal win, even though it was in Hokkien, a Chinese dialect he didn't understand. The tone was clear enough without a translation.
Though gambling was frowned upon by the religious authorities in particular, and many Kelantanese in general, it nevertheless remained popular with a certain crowd, and Yusuf's place was never empty. Two years earlier, he'd even hired a waitress to take some of the pressure off his wife, who handled both the cooking and serving, and the availability of their meals allowed some of his more devoted customers to spend several uninterrupted days at Yusuf's tables. Liquor was also servedâa great deal of it, since it was the ideal lubricant to keep gamblers playing. As alcohol was forbidden in Kelantan, it was presented in teacups, which preserved propriety.
Yusuf had been providing what he considered a valuable service to Kelantan for over twenty years, having opened his place immediately after his parents' death, when he inherited their home. He'd been a player long enough to know no gambler really enjoyed having to trek to the tables, wasting time and money on the journey. (Travelling all the way to Sungei Golok in order to find a game had taught him that.) What was needed, what would be greatly appreciated, would be an intimate and convenient spot close to home, providing home-cooked food in a familiar yet discreet location. Yusuf strove to offer this environment to his customers, and they flocked to it, as he knew they would.
He was a large man, in his fifties, bald but with a fringe of pepper-and-salt hair around the back of his head. He had small, shrewd eyes and a broad nose, made broader by the amount of whiskey he sipped throughout the day and into the night. He was big enough to serve as his own bouncer, and it was not only a matter of strength, but of skill which kept unhappy losers or overexcited drinkers from ignoring his orders more than once. He ran a quiet shop, wishing for no trouble from the neighbours, or â heaven forbid â the police. He correctly calculated that people might ignore what took place in his house if they didn't hear it: once they did, however, they'd object.
One of his regulars, Ruslan, had an unfortunate run of luck at the tables, and had availed himself of house credit to rack up a spectacular loss. Yusuf had known him for years, and had no intention of letting the debt ride for too long, lest it become unmanageable. One evening, he appeared, genially, at Ruslan's house on Jalan Tengku Cik, letting his bulk loom over Ruslan and his nervous wife, Munira. He spoke on a variety of topics, including current events and the fortunes of Kelantan's football team (things were looking good after a win against Terengganu!), allowing his hosts' palpable anxiety to grow. He noted Munira twisting the side of her sarong, and the ever-so-slight shaking of her husband's hands against his coffee cup. Yusuf leaned back in his chair and smiled amiably, including both husband and wife in the smile's warmth. Then â still friendly, still calm â he introduced the topic of debt. There was no doubt in his listeners' minds, however, that the next talk might be far less friendly, and may well have included some unwelcome physical attention.
Ruslan was not a large man: he was rather rabbity and easily intimidated, and Yusuf did not believe he would be able to stand for long against a determined beating. As was his habit, Yusuf uttered no direct threats, and made no motion to touch his hosts in any way on this, his first visit. Rather, he allowed his debtor's imagination to do much of his work for him. He stressed the necessity of working things out, as though he might welcome any suggestion on their part as to how this might be done. He assured them, solicitously, that he would return to hear what they might have to say in two days' time. And with that, he politely took his leave, secure in the knowledge that his message had been received.
As large as he was, Yusuf moved gracefully and quickly along the muddy bank, taking a shortcut between Jalan Tengku Cik and his home near Kota Bharu's small Chinatown, next to the river. He walked behind the stalls of the Taman Sekebun Bunga, still serving late dinners at this hour, and the closed, silent stores next door. As he passed the shophouses, nearing his own home, he suddenly slipped on the mud, surprising himself. He stamped his feet and brushed off non-existent dust from his
, looking around to see what, if anything, might have caused him to nearly lose his balance. Seeing nothing, he shrugged, and turned to climb the low bank separating the river from the road.
As he reached the top, someone or something grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back, throwing him on his back into the river. It was shallow at the side, not too much more than wet mud, but the determined foot which now pressed into his chest knocked the air out of him, and within moments, his head was under only inches of water, but it was more than enough. After he stopped struggling, he was pushed out towards the middle of the river, where he joined the current and sank.
The ferry between Kota Bharu and Kampong Laut was a large, flat raft, capable of moving people, small livestock and motorbikes. It plied the Kelantan River from sun-up to sundown during the dry season, and somewhat more unpredictably during the monsoon. Whenever it went, however, it was almost always uneventful, and a good ferryman could, after a while, do it in his sleep, and many appeared to do just that.
On this particular trip, Awang the ferryman poled mechanically across the river, thinking of nothing in particular, squinting against the sun itself and its reflected rays on the muddy water. It was hot, but when wasn't it? He leaned hard against his pole, propelling the ferry and its passengers â including several tethered goats â toward Kota Bharu, when it seemed to hit something large and heavy, though only for a second, and he wondered whether he had imagined it.
He leaned over the side to get a better view through the murky water, not with any great interest, but nothing else was occupying him at the moment. He thought he saw something tumbling under the water, but it was hard to tell, and not until it suddenly appeared at the surface did he realize it was a man, and he'd been in the river for a while.
The police had been summoned by a nearly incoherent Awang, who might otherwise have been grateful for a diversion â but not for this one. He cried out when he realized what he had caught, and all his passengers rushed over to look, nearly capsizing the ferry in the melee. Shuddering, he brought the ferry to the shore as quickly as he could, and fled to the nearest
, breathlessly informing them of the body he'd swiped in the water. The two policeman exchanged a long, thoughtful look, and then as one decided to call Police Chief Osman, in Kota Bharu, who had handled murder before and would undoubtedly know what to do.
Osman had come to Kota Bharu from his home state of Perak, on the west coast of Malaysia, and had been unprepared for how different the east coast, and Kelantan especially, was compared to what he was accustomed to. The dialect, with its generous helping of Thai, dropped the letter âs', and its obscure vocabulary eluded him, though he tried manfully to master it. He still found it difficult to interview suspects or witnesses entirely in Kelantanese, and it sometimes seemed to him they spoke it more deeply just to show him up. He was, however, determined to do his best in the job, protecting life and limb in Kota Bharu and if necessary, the Kelantanese from themselves.
Osman arrived reluctantly: murder was a rare occurrence in Kelantan, a primarily rural state, yet this was the third time in as many years he'd been called to a crime scene to find a body, and he was feeling vaguely responsible for it.
The local police had, thankfully, gone back with Awang and brought the body back to shore, where it now lay on a wet sarong on the ground in front of the pondok, just downriver from the Chinese shophouses. Osman dropped to one knee for a closer look at it: it was, he thought, a mess. Waterlogged, perhaps nibbled upon by fish, it was bloated and disfigured, and he was glad no family members were there to see it. The police doctor placed a hand on the dead man's arm, and with a moue of distaste, turned him over. âDoes anyone know who he is?' he asked.
Rahman, Osman's right-hand man and invaluable interpreter, frowned. âI've sent some officers to ask house to house,' he said, eyeing the corpse with caution. âIt looks as though he might not have travelled too far downriver,' he said, pointing to some weeds wrapped around his leg, âWe'd be lucky if that were true and he can be identified here. If he's from the
, it'll be more difficult.'
âWe'll wait and see,' Osman said firmly.
They did not have long to wait. A short, very dark woman was walking in step with one of the officers, looking both wary and fascinated. She came closer to the body, then stood on tiptoe and peered over at it. She nodded slowly. â
Yusuf,' she said with finality.
No one had been looking for Yusuf, though no one remembered seeing him for over three days. Each person who might have been expected to notice he was gone merely assumed he was elsewhere: his was that kind of life. His wife thought he might have gone to Sungei Golok, across the border in Thailand, to bring back a supply of whiskey. His children gave little thought to his absences since they were both common and unexplained. And his clients â¦ well, they had other things on their minds.
And now it appeared he'd been fished out of the Kelantan River, waterlogged and bedraggled, clearly having been in it for several days.
Puteh was tired. It had been a long morning, with all seven of her young children whining for attention and food, and she hadn't quite enough of either for them. Money was always tight: she'd grown up with that state, so working within those parameters was no surprise to her. Children seemed to keep coming, even though she privately felt they already had more than enough. A lifelong habit of keeping bad news to herself kept her from discussing this with her husband, though she doubted he'd be much interested even if she broached the subject with him.