A Piece Of String by Ahmed A. Khan

The greatest detectives have always had their particular methods and tools.

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 Kuwait, 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 ordered 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.


“What?” I was taken aback.

Then he related the whole thing to me. Some time the previous night, a murder was committed in the souk. The victim was a young perfume-seller named Rafiq. His body was discovered that morning 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.



“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 these 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.



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.


“All the measurements that I have taken are exactly the same.”


“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 to 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 murderer, 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.”


“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. But then there were thousands of military men in the city. How was he going to pinpoint the right one among them?

“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. He took out his notebook and wrote the number of the house in it. Then he came away from there and motioned his assistants to remove the corpse.

“Well, that ends our investigation here,” he said. “The next part of the investigation will take place at the police station.” He turned to me. “Want to come?”

“Does a fish want water?”

As soon as we reached the police station, Najem called his young assistant, Hameed, to his office. He took out his notebook, flipped the pages until he reached the place where he had written the number of the house with green doors. “I want full details about the occupants of this house,” he ordered, showing Hameed the house number. Hameed nodded and left.

Najem then got up and poured two cups of tea, one for me and one for himself, from the kettle that lay on his table. For the next twenty minutes, there was no mention of the murder. We just drank our tea and talked of this and that. Then the assistant came back and placed his report in front of Najem. Najem read the report, nodded as if the report had confirmed some theory that he had, and passed the report to me.

Briefly, the report indicated that the house was occupied by a cloth merchant named Zubair who owned a shop in the souk where the murder had taken place. He was a widower of about fifty. The only other occupant of the house was his eighteen-year-old daughter, Yasmeen. Probably the most significant fact in the report was that the daughter had been quite friendly with Rafiq, the murdered man.

“Describe the old man and his daughter,” Najem ordered Hameed.

“The man looks older than his age, has deeply etched furrows in his forehead, as if he is accustomed to scowling. He is not a jolly fellow. On the other hand, according to the neighbours, the girl is extremely jolly. She is also quite pretty. She is also of the modern bent and does not wear the Islamic hijab. In fact, her dresses are as meagre as the present Arab society could allow. She has completed her high school education and helps her father in his shop.”

“Get the girl and the father here.”

Another half an hour passed before Hameed returned with the news that they were here.

“Send the girl in. Keep the father with you. Question him to see if he saw or heard anything last night.”

Within moments, Yasmeen walked in and, at Najem’s command, sat down on a chair. I looked at her carefully. She was quite attractive and would probably have been even more attractive if she was smiling instead of fidgeting nervously, looking tense and worried.

Najem just looked at her silently for some time and this made here even more nervous.

“Why have you called us here, inspector?” She broke the silence.

“The murder of your friend, Rafiq, must have come to you as a shock.”

“Yes, oh yes!” She breathed hard and seemed on the verge of tears. “He had just proposed marriage to me a day ago.”

“That makes it even sadder,” Najem nodded, “and then circumstances heap tragedy upon tragedy.” He paused. “You know, your other friend, the one who is in military … what’s his name…” He tapped his forehead as if he was thinking hard to remember the name.

Yasmeen sprang out of her chair. “Matar? What happened to Matar?”

“Matar, yes. Give me his full name.”

“Matar Al-Mutawa. What happened to him?”

“Nothing happened yet but something is going to happen soon,” Najem said calmly. “He is going to be arrested for the murder of Rafiq.”

“Wha!” Yasmeen was looking at Najem open mouthed, her face pale, blood drained out of it.

“What are you talking about,” she managed to say, in a small voice.

“Last night, when Matar heard about Rafiq’s proposal, he was angry because he wanted to marry you himself. They had a confrontation right in front of your house and Matar, being so much stronger than Rafiq, managed to grab him, cover his mouth with one hand to prevent him from screaming, and cut his throat with the other.”

He paused. “Am I right? Tell me, am I right?”

“I – I don’t know.”

“How could you not know when it happened right before your eyes?” Najem went on relentlessly.

“No,” she almost screamed. “No. I don’t know anything.”

“There is absolutely no point in denying. How do you think I know all this? I have another eye-witness.”

At this, Yasmeen’s legs seemed to turn rubbery. She flopped back on the chair sobbing hysterically.

Najem called Hameed. When Hameed walked in, he pointed to the crying girl. “Take her to your office and get her statement.”

After Hameed had left with Yasmeen, Najem leaned back on his chair, looking sad and tired.

We sat there for a long time, staring into the empty air, not talking, each of us thinking our own thoughts.

Ahmed A. Khan is a Canadian writer whose works have appeared in several venues including Interzone, Strange Horizons, and Anotherealm. He has also edited the anthologies A Mosque Among the Stars and Dandelions of Mars: A tribute to Ray Bradbury.

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2 comments on “A Piece Of String by Ahmed A. Khan
  1. Anne says:

    Best story I have read here.

  2. Ahmed says:

    Thank you very much for your kind words, Ann.

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