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Manchester United PLC (Earnings Call Transcript)

Prepared Remarks:
Operator
Good day, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for standing by. Welcome to the Manchester United Fourth Quarter and Full Year Earnings Conference Call. [Operator Instructions] Following the presentation, we will conduct a question-and-answer session. [Operator Instructions]
Before we begin, we would like to inform everyone that this conference call will include estimates and forward-looking statements, which are subject to various risks and uncertainties that could cause actual results to differ materially from these statements. Any such statements or forward-looking statements should be considered in conjunction with the cautionary note in our earnings release regarding forward-looking statements and risk factor discussions in our filings with the SEC. Manchester United plc assumes no obligation to update any of the estimates or forward-looking statements.
I will now turn the conference over to the Executive Vice Chairman of Manchester United, Mr. Ed Woodward. Please go ahead, sir.
Edward Woodward -- Executive Vice Chairman and Director
Thank you, and thank you to everybody for joining us today. We're looking back today on what's been one of the most extraordinary and challenging seasons in recent history and I'm proud of the way the club continues to respond. There are still big challenges and uncertainties ahead as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt our way of life across the globe. This disruption is clear to see in the financial results that we're announcing today, and we expect the impact to remain visible for quite some time to come.
However, the past years also demonstrated the underlying strength and resilience of the club, the special role that sports plays in our societies and the meaningful impact the club can make in our communities through this period of adversity. On the field, we will never be satisfied with Manchester United unless we're winning trophies, but our third-place finish in the Premier League and strong cup runs last year showed us that while there is more hard work ahead and the path is not always smooth, we are making progress.
We have a clear strategy under Ole to build a successful committed team with a core of homegrown talent blended with high-quality recruits that plays fast-playing attacking football. To that end, we are pleased with our recent additions to the first team squad of Donny van de Beek and Alex Telles, two players we've been tracking as part of our recruitment process for a long period of time. And Edinson Cavani, a top striker, who adds a proven new option to our forward line.
We also welcome Facundo Pellistri and Amad Diallo, who will join in January, two exciting young prospects who we've also been scouting extensively. Added to the arrival of Bruno Fernandes earlier this year, these recruits underscore our continued commitment to strengthening the squad and take our net investment in new players since summer 2019 to over EUR200 million, more than any other major European club over that time frame.
We also continue to invest strongly in our thriving academy. These graduates make up a third of our current first-team squad. The pipeline of new talent looks as exciting as ever, with Ole giving first -- giving first team debuts to eight academy graduates last season; the highest number since the Busby Babes were breaking through 68 years ago. This faith in youth remains an integral part of our identity of the club. Even with the addition of some more experienced players this month, our squad remains one of the youngest in the Premier League with an average age of 25. This means the team has potential for significant further improvement as our young players develop and mature.
We are also tremendously excited by the progress being made by our women's team under Casey Stoney, following the arrival of several new players this summer, including Tobin Heath and Christen Press to -- both two-time World Cup winners with the U.S. National Team. While our commitment to investment remains, it must be balanced with recognition of the extraordinarily challenging environment facing us and all football clubs at this time.
Let me share a few initial observations on this summer's transfer window that finished recently. Gross transfer spend across the Big 5 European leagues was down about 40% this summer, driven by both the lower volume of transactions and lower average fees. The contraction was also felt at the top end of the market with no transactions over EUR100 million for the first time in five years and an almost 30% reduction in the average fee for the Top 30 transfers. There was a material increase in the share of free transfers and loans, which were up 20% and 30% respectively.
At a club level, many of our peers were cautious, with Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus and PSG, having combined net spend of EUR9 million. Of course, there were one or two outliers the other way, most notably Chelsea, who are making up for not being able to be active during their transfer ban from Summer 2019. So we need to look across multiple windows to gain a clearer perspective. And as I mentioned earlier, our aggregate net investment over the last three transfer windows compares very favorably with our peers. The bottom line is we are investing and we will continue to invest to back our manager.
More recently, you may have read about the discussions taking place within English football, about plans to address the near-term financial predicament created by the pandemic for clubs in the lower leagues. We've been playing an active role in those discussions, because we strongly believe in supporting the English football pyramid, both in the short-term to address the issues created by COVID-19 and in the long-term to improve financial sustainability at all levels of the game. There will always be intense debate around any changes to the structure of football just as there was before the formation of the Premier League 28 years ago.
Now, at this critical juncture for the game, we must ensure that the huge success of the Premier League is reinforced while ensuring that the wider football pyramid continues to thrive in a rapidly changing media environment. Achieving this will require strategic vision and leadership. We are pleased that the Premier League is committed to work together on a plan for the future structures and financing of English football. Now it must deliver on that promise, and we are committed to playing a leading role in pushing that process toward a successful outcome.
Another crucial issue for the hold [Phonetic] of football is the reopening of stadium to spectators as soon as the government allows. While the situation in Greater Manchester and the U.K. as a whole continues to evolve, our plans for the return of fans are well advanced and we are confident of ours and the whole league's ability to welcome them back in a safe bio-secure environment. Crowds have been permitted to return to varying degrees in over 200 European -- sorry, 20 European countries, albeit with significant capacity restrictions to allow for social distancing. And we urge the U.K. government to follow these positive examples as soon as it is safe to do so.
While we recognize that public health must always be a priority, what is needed is consistency of approach. People are allowed to sit on an airplane for hours or in a cinema or even watch football in a cinema and why are they not allowed inside a stadium environment, which is professionally managed and controlled. If indoor concerts are allowed, why should outdoor socially distanced football fans be treated differently. Fans are the bedrock of this game and some of the inconsistencies out there are frustrating for them and indeed for the clubs.
Despite severe near-term pressures created by the pandemic, we do remain optimistic about the medium to long term. Demand for live football around the world is strong and our sustainable commercial model means we're very well placed to harness that growth, while continuing to pursue what will always be our Number 1 priority, delivering success, entertainment and trophies on the pitch.
I'll now hand over to our Group Managing Director, Richard Arnold, who will update you on our key business activities. Thank you.
Richard Arnold -- Group Managing Director and Director
Thank you, Ed, and thank you to everyone for joining us today. Resilience is a trait closely associated with Manchester United. And since we last spoke in May, that trait has been needed and demonstrated once again. Cliff will walk you through the impact that COVID-19 has had in our revenue streams and the continued impact we expect into fiscal 2021, but I'd like to share a few insights into how we face this challenge.
First, throughout the fourth quarter, we continued to use our global platform to raise awareness and provide assistance to those in need in our surrounding communities, across the U.K. and internationally. We stepped up our efforts by our Manchester United Foundation by supporting local food banks, providing meals for the NHS, making cash donations to partner schools, teaming up with supporters clubs and launching a fundraising contribution -- fundraising campaign. Contributions to date for that are already over GBP1 million and climbing. And as we highlighted in May, we are appreciative of the generosity of our players and our colleagues who've donated their time and energy, and is our intent that these efforts will inspire more sustainable long-term support for our community.
We're also incredibly proud of the individual effort of Marcus Rashford, who served as an exemplary red both on and off the pitch this year by using his platform to bring incredible awareness to a cause that is very dear to his heart, child hunger. Marcus was successful not only championing this very important cause and bringing considerable awareness to the plight of many U.K. school children who were suffering during this pandemic, but he also campaigned for and successfully achieved change that affected children across the whole country.
We also wanted to take a moment this morning to discuss the diversity and inclusion initiatives of the club. Whilst this is a topic that is rightly moving to the forefront of conversations in boardrooms across every industry, we're proud that we've been leading and executing in this area within our organization over many years. Whilst we acknowledge that there is clearly no room for complacency, our #AllRedAllEqual initiative, which commenced in 2016, is the most visible example and is both the guiding principle and remains a vital annual campaign for the club. We are committed to striving for real change within the industry on and off the pitch, both through our own campaigns and through the support of other organizations.
Turning to our business. We have needed and been able to continue to strengthen our digital and media capabilities during the pandemic. This meant we achieved higher engagement levels relative to last year across all platforms during the fourth quarter. To highlight a few stats, despite the pandemic, our total rate from April through the end of the season in July improved by high-single digits against the prior season. On our owned and operated platforms, June and July represented record months for engagement on our mobile app, while it was also a record year on our social channels as we achieved over 1.1 billion social interactions; higher than any season previously and 24% higher than last season.
This engagement in turn contributed directly to stronger e-commerce conversion levels. Whilst our Megastore reopened on June 15th, foot traffic has remained depressed relative to last year, obviously given the absence of fans at Old Trafford home matches and to a lesser extent the continued closure of our museum and tour operations. However, our e-commerce business with Fanatics has performed ahead of expectations and we plan to accelerate our e-commerce initiatives throughout fiscal 2021.
Turning now to our sponsorship business. Fiscal year 2020 was a solid year. And despite the pandemic, it was one of the busiest in the Club's history for our sponsorship team. For the year, we signed eight new sponsorship deals with partners, including Lego, Mondelez and Visit Malta. Manchester United's commercial strength drives not least from its strong and effective commercial partnerships. Pandemic proved an opportunity to demonstrate resilience in delivering to our partners, in particular, migrating to delivering digital campaigns in the absence of games. As a result of this, we've also renewed eight partnerships.
Whilst we remain in the midst of this pandemic, we are mindful of the current tenuous macro backdrop affecting our partners. We've been working very closely with them to support their activities through these challenging times. To that end, due to the disruption caused by the pandemic, we entered into a variation agreement with General Motors to extend our current shirt sponsorship agreement for six months.
Though we can't provide any certainty at this time regarding the precise timing of the return of our supporters to Old Trafford, due to the very fluid nature of recent Coronavirus developments in the U.K., we do remain optimistic. In the meantime, we continue to prepare to welcome back our supporters with hygiene and social distancing protocols as health and safety obviously remains a top priority. Further, we have used the downtime to explore and implement upgrades that we believe will serve to enhance our supporters' in-stadium experience such as contactless entry with mobile ticketing.
I also want to take a moment to highlight the Club's commitment to our supporters in China. Since our first friendly match on the Mainland in 1975, Manchester United has established a significant fan and follower base in the region. Earlier in the fiscal year, we announced a strategic partnership with Alibaba, which includes the Youku platform, and we are now producing more localized Chinese content than ever before. We are also the first and only club to reach 10 million Weibo followers, and we are also the most engaged club on both the Weibo and WeChat platforms. We remain committed to providing our passionate supporters in the country with highly engaged Club content.
As you are aware, in August, the Premier League terminated its deal with its China broadcast partner, Suning's PPTV. And the League entered into a one-year contract with Tencent, while the league searches for a new long-term partner. This means that the Club has its games and content shown on both at the two largest digital platforms as well as the expectation of linear broadcasting. Together with the exciting progress on the Harves Experience Centers, this puts us in a strong position for future engagement with our fans in China.
Finally, as I had highlighted, the near-term economic environment remains challenging, but there remains much to be optimistic about regarding our long-term prospects. We'll be relentlessly pursuing the growth opportunities that remain for our brand. The strong commercial engine of this Club driven by our commitment to delivering the engagement our fans craving demand is what ultimately fuels our ability to continuously and sustainably reinvest in the team.
With that, I'll now turn the call over to our CFO, Cliff Baty, to review our results and discuss our financial outlook in more detail. Cliff?
Cliff Baty -- Chief Financial Officer
Thank you, Richard. Firstly, I'll talk through our fiscal year results, which had been impacted by COVID-19 pandemic, and then I'll provide some details to the upcoming fiscal year. However, we will not be providing EBITDA guidance today. As a reminder, year-on-year comparisons relative to fiscal 2019 have been impacted by non-participation in the Champions League, as well as a number of games played in the year.
In terms of headline figures, total revenues for the period were GBP509 million, down GBP118.1 million versus last year, due to the impact of COVID-19 particularly on Broadcasting and Matchday revenues. Adjusted EBITDA was GBP132.1 million, down GBP53.7 million from prior year. Overall, we estimate the impact of COVID-19 on total FY '20 revenues was GBP70 million; of which, GBP40 million were lost from Matchday closures, Premier League rebates and impact on our Megastore and other operations. The remaining GBP30 million relates to Broadcasting revenues from the '19-'20 seasons' matches, which were played in July and August, and those revenues will be recognized in the current year. We estimate that the adjusted EBITDA outcome for FY '20 had COVID-19 not occurred, would have been an additional GBP60 million, delivering a total adjusted EBITDA slightly over GBP190 million, comfortably ahead of our previous guidance range.
Turning to the key items in the results. Total commercial revenues were GBP279 million with sponsorship revenues of GBP182.7 million, 5.6% higher than the prior year. This reflects the underlying growth we saw throughout fiscal 2020. Merchandising and licensing revenues were GBP5.8 million below prior year at GBP96.3 million, reflecting the closure of the Megastore from mid-March through mid-June. Broadcasting revenues decreased by GBP101 million to GBP140.2 million. This reflects both the lower Europa League revenues in FY '20 compared to Champions League in the prior year, as well as the impact of 10 matches from the '19-'20 season, including six Premier League matches that were played after the period-end.
Revenues were also further impacted by rebates to broadcasters, which we estimate totaled GBP14 million for the full '19-'20 season with around GBP11 million recognized in FY '20. Matchday revenues for the year decreased by GBP21 million to GBP89.8 million impacted by suspension of matches in March. This meant revenue associated with four home Premier League games and the Europa League Round of 16 match was lost.
Moving down to income statement. Operating expenses, excluding depreciation, amortization and exceptional items, decreased by 14.6% versus the prior year. This includes wages, which were down 14.5%, primarily due to the contractual reduction related to non-participation in the Champions League. Other operating expenses for the fiscal year decreased by GBP16.1 million, reflecting the suspension of matches together with the reduced activity and cost saving actions taken in response to COVID-19.
Amortization costs were GBP126.7 million for the fiscal year, a decrease of GBP2.5 million versus the prior year. Net finance costs for the year were GBP26 million, an increase of GBP3.5 million due to foreign exchange movements on the unhedged portion of our U.S. dollar debt. As mentioned in previous quarters, our cash interest costs in U.S. dollars remain broadly consistent year-on-year.
Turning now to our balance sheet. At the end of June, cash balances were GBP51.5 million, down GBP256.1 million against the prior year. This decrease is comprised of three main items. Firstly, as we mentioned throughout the year, player capex is elevated in FY '20 by GBP56 million due to player investments made during the year and the associated accelerated payment profiles. Secondly, the impact of COVID-19, the uncertainty around return to fans to the stadium has meant that the bulk of season ticket moneys, which is typically received by the 30th of June, have not been received this year. We estimate this impact to be over GBP50 million.
Finally, some sponsorship money is normally due prior to 30th of June relating to the 2021 [Phonetic] season have been agreed to be deferred for some commercial partners that have been impacted by COVID-19. This reduced our cash flows by amount in excess of GBP80 million. However, a large portion of this is now been received with the remainder due in installments during fiscal year '21.
Net debt at the period end was GBP474.1 million, an increase of GBP270.5 million compared to the prior year due to the lower cash balances described, together with the impact of unfavorable foreign exchange movements on a U.S. dollar-denominated debt. In terms of cash liquidity, we now have GBP200 million of undrawn committed facilities, have increased our available lines by another GBP50 million. This provides additional flexibility in the current environment.
And turning to our outlook for the fiscal year '21. In line with many other companies, we are not providing any revenue or EBITDA guidance. The main impact on revenue and EBITDA for FY '21 will be the loss of Matchday and ancillary revenues should the entire season be behind closed doors together with the loss of our pre-season summer tour. As mentioned, this will be partially offset by GBP30 million of deferred broadcasting revenues relating to season '19-'20 fixtures and our return to the Champions League. Finally, we expect our committed player capex net cash outflows for this year to be approximately GBP120 million with amortization of GBP127 million.
Before we hand the call back to the operator to take your questions, I wanted to make you all aware that we will not be hosting a first quarter conference call when our results are released in mid-November, just a few short weeks from now. Due to the unusual timing this year related to the pandemic, we will only be issuing a press release with our first quarter financial results. However, we will return to normal conference call cadence for our second quarter report in February.
With that, we're ready to take your questions. Operator?

Questions and Answers:

Operator
Thank you. We will now begin the question-and-answer session. [Operator Instructions] Today's first question comes from Randy Konik with Jefferies. Please go ahead.
Randy Konik -- Jefferies -- Analyst
Good morning. Can you hear me?
Edward Woodward -- Executive Vice Chairman and Director
Yes, we can.
Richard Arnold -- Group Managing Director and Director
Hi, Randy.
Randy Konik -- Jefferies -- Analyst
Hi. Great. Thanks, guys. Good morning and congrats on the nice win yesterday to start the Champions League. I guess, the first question is, Richard, you talked a little bit about some of the changes or adaptations you made in the commercial and sponsorship segment. Let's talk about, I guess, for example, Chevy, you extended the sponsorship by, I think, six months. Have you done that with any other partners?
And then the other thing I picked up on in the -- in your remarks, you talked about shifting some activations to more digital means kind of gave your partners good return on their -- in their partnership investments, etc. So give us some perspective on what you kind of specifically done more there on the digital side, kind of help the partners kind of get the great value for their sponsorship, just curious there.
Richard Arnold -- Group Managing Director and Director
Thanks, Randy. I think, in some part, the second part of your question answered the first. The overwhelming majority of individual sponsor cases what we've done is worked with partners to build commercial strategy that leverage what is available to us. Obviously, as you indicated, the work that we've done in establishing leadership in our field in terms of our digital engagement techniques with fans mean that we were able to offer them, yeah, something that's pretty cutting edge in the market and very, very effective. And I think that's testament to the work of the team in this area that we were able to do that and also the support that we had from players and others in terms of deriving that content.
Randy Konik -- Jefferies -- Analyst
Got it. And then, anything changes with explorations of deals in terms of the extension of the Chevy deal? I know probably just more of a one-off, but anything there that we should be thinking about with other partners or not?
Richard Arnold -- Group Managing Director and Director
By and large not. Our partners are no more immune to the macro effects than any other businesses in the world. So, you've seen in these results the work that we've done supporting them particularly on the cash flow basis. That having been said, equally, we're hugely fortunate that we have some of the best companies in the world as partners. By and large, the majority of those have rebounded very strongly and have traded relatively well through the period. And I think that the renewals we've seen even during this pandemic and literally during this pandemic in the last three months have been strong. And I think that that's an indication of the high caliber companies we have as partners and the work that we've been able to do with those partners to drive results in even the most difficult of circumstances.
Randy Konik -- Jefferies -- Analyst
Great. Very helpful. Thanks, guys.
Operator
[Operator Instructions] Today's next question comes from Connor Murphy with Deutsche Bank. Please go ahead.
Connor Murphy -- Deutsche Bank -- Analyst
Hey, everyone. Just a few from me. Can we first just dig into a little more when you're anticipating fans might be able to come back and any sense of capacity? I know it's a very fluid situation, but I'm just trying to get a sense of how discussions are going and how that might evolve throughout the season. And then, I have a couple of others.
Richard Arnold -- Group Managing Director and Director
Yeah. So, as you're aware, we are subject to government regulation -- the regulatory environment in this regard. The initial expectation had been that there would be a return to partially filled stadium starting on the 1st of October, following on from test events that were successfully conducted in August and September. That advice was changed not because of the effect of what was happening as a result of the partially filled stadia and in fact there is significant track record across Europe for that being executed successfully, but because of what was happening in other sectors, particularly around the return to school and university in the background infection rate.
The government guidance had been at that point in time, the absent what they refer to as the moonshot was not to affect -- not to expect full stadia prior to March next year. Where they refer to moonshot, that is the ability for us to have either variously vaccine programs or quick response testing at a mass scale, so the most often referred to as pregnancy-type test, where people can achieve certified infection-free attendance. At this point in time, it's unclear as to the probability and timing of those two moonshot items. So, we remain subject to the more general situation in terms of the return of fans.
The guidance in respect of the fill rate was a function of distancing both in the access points to the stadium and in the stadium itself and that trended out approximately 30% under the prior regulations. Although again, going back to what I said earlier, the evidence was that the sort of professionally run stadia that had very well developed protocols in this area meant that there was no evidence at this point that that was an infection risk.
Connor Murphy -- Deutsche Bank -- Analyst
That's very helpful. And could we dig a little more into this FIFA-backed European Premier League and what the impetus is? It sounds like supporting lesser teams, but just sort of flesh that out a bit and what the advantages of a larger League would be.
Edward Woodward -- Executive Vice Chairman and Director
Are you referring to what was in the press yesterday or you're referring to what...
Connor Murphy -- Deutsche Bank -- Analyst
Yes.
Edward Woodward -- Executive Vice Chairman and Director
Okay. I mean, I saw the reports on that and candidly don't know where that story came from, but there isn't really anything for us to say. We are engaged on a very regular basis through my role within ECA and also on the UCC SA with UEFA. With those two entities ECA and UEFA talking about potential changes to the Champions League from 24 [Phonetic] onwards, you might have read, I think, two or three days ago in the press, there was a story about whether the Champions League may go to 36 teams, that -- there the conversations that we are actively involved in. So, I can't comment on your question.
Connor Murphy -- Deutsche Bank -- Analyst
Fair enough. And then the last one was, can you talk a little bit about the Premier League contract in China and what the expectations are in terms of a new deal? I mean, it sounds like you guys have a -- it's very popular over there, so I guess your vision would [Phonetic] be for a longer term contract higher pricing.
Edward Woodward -- Executive Vice Chairman and Director
Yeah. If you heard the call early, you'd have had Richard talk about what happened there. So I assume you're up to speed with regard to that. Absolutely, the plan on the back of getting a fantastic partner in which is Tencent in China for a -- you could view it as a stop gap period of one year. It's pretty incredible actually that they've managed to lock that in so quickly. The plan now is to go back to market in due course in a much more measured way and try to do a full year deal to get us back lockstep with the cadence of the cycles. So that will happen in the coming months.
Randy Konik -- Jefferies -- Analyst
Great. Thank you.
Operator
[Operator Closing Remarks]
Duration: 32 minutes

Call participants:

Edward Woodward -- Executive Vice Chairman and Director
Richard Arnold -- Group Managing Director and Director
Cliff Baty -- Chief Financial Officer
Randy Konik -- Jefferies -- Analyst
Connor Murphy -- Deutsche Bank -- Analyst
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With trembling hands and shaking voice, she stepped back. “No. Don’t do it. Just don’t even try.” He voice was terribly shaking. “What have I done to you? Why are you behind me?” She shouted. Her feet struck the legs of the table and she fell down on the floor. “Don’t come near me. Don’t you dare!” she shouted. The clock struck 11 in the night. Suddenly, there was the loud sound of a gunshot. Then, everything became silent as the clock moved forward towards the dead of night.
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- “Just do the forensic tests fast and send the report to my office,” Akash shouted, “It’s my duty to investigate.”
Rohit followed him out of the room, “Sir, I haven’t seen you ever lose your temper like this. What happened?”
- “Nothing. I am shocked by the fact that she could have been dead.”
- “Do you know her?”
- “Used to know her.”
- “How?”
- “Will tell you later.”
Akash went back to the room and clicked a picture of the crime scene. They surveyed the entire room. After the body was taken in the ambulance, Akash locked the door and drove back to the police station.
“Sir, can I say something?” Rohit asked.
- “Yeah, sure.”
- “I feel it’s a suicide. I mean, the doors, windows, everything was locked from inside. No one could have entered or left. And there are so many neighbors. No one has seen anyone.”
- “Rohit, even if all the evidences go against it, I’ll never accept that Rohini tried to commit suicide. She can’t do it.”
- “You know her well?”
- “In my college days, she was my junior. We were extremely close. I spent many days in that apartment where we found her body today. She was very lively and she knew how to fight back any sort of depression.”
- “So, she is from your college, right?”
- “Yeah. She was a beautiful person, you know. I don’t know her as a business woman but I know her as that cute and innocent girl who stood beside me every-time I felt low or sad. She used to keep me awake with her non-stop chatters till about nine o’ clock every night before we retired to our respective hostels. There were many evenings, she fell asleep in my arms and I used to stare at her innocent face like an idiot.”
- “Oh okay.”
- “One day, she came to me, blushing terribly and held my hand. I asked her, ‘What happened?’. She didn’t say anything. She just went on blushing. After about five seconds of blushing, she took a step forward and said, ‘Akash, you know it right? You know why I am blushing, right?’ – ‘Nope. How would I?’ – ‘You should know. I love you.’ I didn’t know how I was supposed to react. I dropped her hand and walked away. I felt too awkward. She was someone with whom I could share all my feelings, all my emotions. But, thinking about love was awkward for me. Maybe I loved her too but when she proposed me, I felt too awkward and I started to avoid her. Frankly speaking, that was the last time I talked with her. Later, I tried to approach her but both of got busy with our works and we couldn’t clear the misunderstandings. I never knew, I would have to meet her like this.”
- “Sir, if you don’t mind me asking, is that the reason you haven’t married yet?”
- “Maybe. I don’t know. I miss her a lot.”
The car screeched in front of the police station. They entered Akash’s cabin. Akash sat on the chair and look out the evidence book. He was writing something there and said to Rohit, “You see, I’ll find her murderer out and freaking kill the person, whoever might it be.”
The phone on the table started to ring. He picked it up. “Hello. This is inspector Akash speaking.”
- “This is the forensic department.”
- “Yeah. What happened?”
- “It was a case of attempt to suicide. There is no evidence otherwise.”
- “And what about the gun. Whom does it belong to?”
- “It is licensed to her name only.”
- “Let me continue the investigation.”
He said to Rohit, “Can we go to the crime scene again?”
- “Yeah, sure.”
Akash drove to the apartment and entered. “You know, whatever happens, Rohini had a habit of diary writing. We can at least know what she went through before taking this decision, if she took it.”
- “Sir, do you think this is a suicide?”
- “Nope. I am sure we are overlooking something. This cannot be a suicide.”
Akash entered the bedroom and pulled out a drawer. He took out a leather-bound diary and flipped the pages:
“Dear Diary, I am naming you Akash after my first love. I know very well that that idiot loves me too but he is too afraid to confess. I don’t know whether what I did that day hurt him. I mean why would he be hurt if I fell in love with him? He is too shy to confess, I know. The days I spent in his arms were the best days of my life. I just want to relive those days, no matter what….” Akash went on reading the diary with tears in his eyes, “You loved me so much, Rohini and I couldn’t even understand?” he murmured to himself.
Rohit shouted from the kitchen, “Sir, you need to take a look at this.” Akash lifted his eyes from the diary and wiped out the tears. “Coming, Rohit!” he replied and walked towards the kitchen.
- “Sir, last night, it seems, she made a cup of coffee for herself.’
Akash peeped into the microwave oven. There was a cup inside. “There is no way that a person who made a cup of coffee for herself would decide to commit suicide the next moment before having the coffee.”
- “Believe me, I won’t let the person who tried to kill her go. The person might be intelligent and leave us no evidence but every criminal makes a mistake. We need to solve the case.”
He picked up the diary and continued reading, “Today, I decided to start my own company, ‘Akash Cyber Solutions.’ I am naming it after him. No, I won’t change my mind later and change the name. It would have been better if he were with me. I dreamed of starting this business with him. I don’t know; perhaps proposing him like that was my mistake. Perhaps I should have given him some more time. But I love him and I’ll love him till the end of my life. I have never fallen in love before and never will I fall for anyone but him. He was the one who understood me. Perhaps I couldn’t understand him. Perhaps, I should have understood that he would feel awkward if I proposed him.
I don’t blame him but he also should have understood me a bit more. I mean, he knew that I am an orphan. He knew that I had no one else in my whole life. He knew that I have no one else to share my thoughts with. He knew that he was the only person I trusted. He shouldn’t have left me like that.
No, I don’t think that he has fallen in love with anyone else. I am pretty sure he still loves me. And I promise to wait till the date, he comes to me.”
Akash closed the diary and wiped his tears. Rohit had never seen him cry earlier.
That evening, he bought a bouquet of flowers and drove to the hospital. He asked the doctor, “How is her condition, sir?”
- “She is stable but she has lost a lot of blood. About three to four days before she regains consciousness.”
- “Please see to it that she gets well soon.”
- “Okay, but sir. I think contacting her family would be better. I mean, a patient here is fighting with death and her family doesn’t even know.”
- “She has no family, sir. She is an orphan, unmarried.”
- “Then what about the hospital formalities?”
- “Don’t talk about the formalities now. We will see to it later. And if it is so urgent, write my name in place of her family.”
- “And what as relation do I write?”
- “Umm… write anything. I am her very close friend.”
- “Okay. Thank you, sir.”
Akash entered the cabin and stared at her face for a long time, “It’s been so many days that I last met you, my dear,” Akash whispered. Perhaps she heard, perhaps she didn’t. He kept the flowers in the vase on the table, kept his hand on the bandaged forehead. It was lucky that the bullet missed her. He stood there for about five minutes and then left the cabin.
The next morning, he woke up early and reached the police station before time. Wait, he didn’t wake up early. Actually, he couldn’t sleep. He spent the whole night thinking about her. Suddenly the telephone on his table started to ring. He picked it up.
- “Sir, this is Ajay from the Cyber Cell.”
- “Yeah. Say what happened.”
- “The recent case victim, Rohini or something. The forensic department couldn’t unlock her phone and brought it to us. Even we cannot unlock it.”
- “Wait. I am coming.”
- “It seems, she is using a custom operating system and our machines are not compatible with it.”
- “Okay wait.”
Akash and Rohit entered the Cyber Cell control room and walked towards Ajay. “Yeah, what error are you getting?”
- “Our devices are unable to recognize her phone.”
- “Show me.”
Akash looked at the screen and said, “Very strange. Where is her phone?”
Ajay pointed to another table, “There. Connected with the cable.” Akash picked it up and took a brief look at it, “Wait, she still uses this phone? How nice of her.”
Rohit said, “Sir, you know what is the problem?”
- “Rohit, with this phone, everything is a problem. It cannot be unlocked. Let me see.”
He took the phone and walked out of the room.
- “How can you be so sure sir that it cannot be unlocked? I mean, we as Cyber Cell has broken security of top-class devices,” Ajay said.
- “You can’t unlock this. Take my word.”
- “How can you be so sure?”
- “Because I programmed it five years ago.”
- “You programmed it?”
- “Yeah. I gifted that phone to her that time.”
- “So, can you unlock it?”
- “Umm, no. Can’t be unlocked without the password.”
Rohit still took the phone out and typed in a password. As he hit the ‘Enter’ key, the phone got unlocked. “Umm… what? She still uses the same password for so many years?”
Rohit took it to his cabin and sat down. Pulling down the notification bar, he turned on the internet. Suddenly a window popped up: “New E-Mail arrived from HaveIBeenPwned.com”
He tapped on the ‘Open Email’ button. It read:
“Your email account has been pwned in a recent Oculus Rift data breach and has been stored in a temporary pastebin. Details leaked: Email ID, Oculus account password. Please review your account.”
He ran back to the cyber-crime cell and said to Ajay, “Ajay, you need to track down the pastebin and the author ASAP.” He quickly typed in the URL and hit the search button. The computer returned: “Paste author not found. Paste accessed by Ankit Sharma last three days ago. IP address available.”
Akash said, “Track down this IP address. By that time, Rohit and I are visiting the crime scene once again. And I am going to borrow a laptop.”
- “Sure.”
Akash and Rohit entered Rohini’s home, pulled out a drawer and took out the Virtual Reality headset. He connected it to the laptop and entered some codes. The computer started show the log files:
“Stream overridden externally…” was the last line of the log. Akash said, “This is definitely a murder.” Suddenly the door-bell rang. Akash went up and unlocked the door. It was the milkman. “Sir, milk for Rohini madam,” he said keeping the bottle of milk on the floor.
- “You are the regular milkman here, right?”
- “Yes sir. For the past five years.”
- “Do you come every day?”
- “On the days I don’t come, another person comes.”
- “Did you come the day before yesterday?”
- “No, sir. Another person came. I mean, my boss told me another person would come so I didn’t come.”
Akash said to Rohit, “Quickly call the hospital and the forensics. We need an immediate narcotics test on her.”
After half an hour, Akash received a call from the forensic department, “No sir. There is no sign of being drugged. However, I think, she tried to commit suicide twice.”
- “Twice?”
- “Yeah. Most probably, she overdosed on sleeping pills or any other similar nerve agent.”
- “And then seeing that she isn’t dying, she took out the gun and shot herself? This doesn’t make any sense. The made a cup of coffee, didn’t drink it; she overdosed on sleeping pills and started to play video game on Oculus Rift and suddenly took out the gun and shot herself? Does it make any sense?”
- “No. But there is no sign any narcotic.”
- “I am coming to your office with a cup of coffee. You need to do a narcotics test of that too.”
- “Okay.”
He took out the cup from the microwave oven, poured the contents in a bottle and drove straight to the forensics department office. Having an urgent narcotic test, he waited for the results. “Sir, this cup of coffee has nerve agents mixed in it,” the official said.
- “What type of nerve agent?”
- “It makes the brain numb. You will believe whatever you see. You lose the ability to think.”
Akash turned towards Rohit and said, “Do you understand the case now?”
- “Not really. Seems confusing.”
- “Let us finish the investigation. I understood the murder plan. Not gonna leave this guy. Just make sure, he rots to death in the jail.”
He drove straight to the milk delivery office and talked with the manager. Showing the address of the apartment, he said, “Your milkman delivers to this address, right?”
- “Yes sir.”
- “Why didn’t he go the day before yesterday and who went instead?”
- “Why sir? What happened?”
- “Just answer my question.”
- “Sorry sir. It won’t happen again. I am extremely sorry.”
- “Will you freakin tell what happened?”
- “A man came and requested me that he wanted to deliver milk to that area that day. He gave me thirty thousand for allowing him to do so.”
- “Who was he?”
- “I don’t know sir.”
- “And you let him do it?”
- “Sorry sir. Please forgive me.”
- “Did he pay you by cash?”
- “No sir. By cheque.”
- “Show it.”
Trembling, the man took out the cheque from the drawer. Akash took a look and said, “The same guy. Ankit Sharma.”
Rohit said, “The man used a pastebin and also delivered milk. What? Doesn’t make any sense.”
- “Rohit, do something, pull up a search on this man.”
Rohit typed it on the cell phone and said, “Sir, seems legit. His company is a business rival of Akash Cyber Solutions.”
On the car, Akash picked up the cell phone and called the police station, “Please issue an arrest warrant against Ankit Sharma… Yeah, attempt to murder.”
Other units of the police force arrested the Ankit Sharma. Two days passed. Ankit was presented to the court and was found guilty. He was sentenced to lifetime imprisonment.
The next day, Akash didn’t come to the police station. “Perhaps, he needed a break,” Rohit said. A few more days had passed, Akash didn’t come to the police station. “No, something is wrong. Akash sir is extremely regular. He even came to office with high fever,” Rohit said to himself.
Rohit’s phone was ringing. He picked it up. It was Akash.
- “Hello sir.”
- “Rohit, I need a help from you.”
- “Yeah, sure.”
- “Today evening, meet me in the jewelry shop. I need to buy a ring as I would be proposing Rohini.”
- “Seriously? Congratulations, sir.”
- “And one more thing. There are two letters in my desk in the police station. Please put them in an envelope and keep them ready. I’ll take them.”
- “Sure sir.”
Rohit entered the room, pulled out the drawer and took out the papers. After reading the first paper, Rohit couldn’t believe his eyes. He read it again: “Resignation letter,” the heading read. “What? How is this ever possible? How could sir leave this job? He is literally the best in this city.” Rohit turned to the second paper. It read, “Application requesting the post of vice-chairperson – Akash Cyber Solutions.”
Rohit smiled, “Maybe, he would like being with the person he loved for so many years.” That evening, as Rohit sat in Akash’s car, he said, “Rohit, did you understand the case finally?”
- “Partly sir.”
- “This Ankit guy first went as a milkman to her home. The bottle of milk was drugged. As Rohini drunk that that evening, her brain was numb. He knew her schedule. As she turned on the VR glasses, he hacked into it and showed something depressive. As her brain was numb, she believed what she saw, took the gun out and shot herself. The murder was well-planned. I am glad that nothing happened to Rohini.”
- “The murderer was intelligent. We literally had no evidence when we started the investigation.”
- “Yeah.”
After they bought the ring, Akash bought a bunch of white flowers and drove to the hospital. Rohini had regained consciousness. He stood in front of her and said, “I am sorry, Rohini.”
- “You should be. Where have you been so many days? You know how much I missed you.”
- “You are still the same chatterbox, right?”
- “I don’t want to talk with you.”
Akash pulled her close. Hugging her, he said, “I am sorry Rohini. Literally sorry. I should have thought about you. I mean, I was the only person you trusted.” Rohini held him tightly, “Now promise me, you won’t ever leave me again,” she said with a shaking voice. Akash knelt down on his knee and said, “Rohini, will you marry me?”
Rohini broke into tears of joy, “I was waiting for this day all these years, Akash. I don’t want to lose you again. And a word of caution: I am still a chatterbox.”
- “No worries. I like the chatterbox version of you.”
- “By the way, if you don’t mind me asking, what do you do now?”
- “Well, I just resigned from the job of police and I am looking for a job,” taking the envelope out from his pocket, he handed it over to Rohini, “I hope I would be able to be a good employee in your company.”
submitted by cryptaneonline to writers