More than one path leads from Thornfield to Shambala Villa. The shortest is a narrow, winding trail that cuts across the southern face of the ridge. An easier route follows the old bridle trail to the top of the hill and then descends gradually past several other homes. Because of the rain, I chose the longer path but, on the way down, it had turned into a river of mud and I wished I’d worn my gumboots. Of course, I could have waited until the downpour eased, but there had been a note of urgency in Thapliyal’s voice.
Shambala Villa is a sprawling, rundown building with a rusty, corrugated metal roof. Most residents in Debrakot call it Shambles, for obvious reasons. The house looks abandoned, especially during the monsoon when the gardens are a jungle of weeds.
As I entered through the gate, the windows were dark, though I could make out a single low-wattage bulb burning in the hall. A constable was standing just inside the main door and saluted as I left my umbrella and raincoat on a hook in the screened porch. Though I considered removing my wet shoes, the frayed jute carpeting was sure to be full of scorpions and spiders. Besides, the police had already tracked mud into the house.
Thapliyal was in the hallway, smoking a cigarette, which he hid behind his back as soon as I appeared. We shook hands and I gave him a moment to get rid of the cigarette while I examined a portrait in the hall, a dingy photograph of a sour-faced European woman with piercing eyes and a hat that looked like a dead pheasant perched on her head. This was the first time I’d been beyond the front gate of Shambala Villa and the derelict conditions extended indoors. Ancient coats of whitewash on the inner walls were blistered and peeling. The discoloured marble tiles on the floor of the hall were cracked and several were missing. Cobwebs clung to every corner and the musty pungency of mildew and mould filled the air.
“Two bodies, you said?”
Thapliyal nodded. He is one of the most competent police officers I’ve known, slightly built but physically strong and mentally as sharp as they come.
“Where are they?”
“In the kitchen, sir,” he replied, gesturing towards a door that stood ajar at the end of the hall. The dim yellow light from the single bulb overhead barely extended that far into the shadows. Passing through the door, I entered a drawing room, full of bookcases, two mismatched chairs, and an overstuffed sofa coming apart at the seams.
A standard lamp with a crooked shade had been switched on and a faint, spectral aura filtered through a skylight that also admitted a trickle of rain, which had left a damp patch on the carpet. Another door opened from the drawing room into a storeroom lined with steel cupboards and shelves stacked with household relics, old kerosene heaters, and dented tin trunks. Beyond this lay the kitchen, which had two windows that ushered in a watery grey light from outdoors. The only other illumination came from a flickering tube light on one wall, which cast a fluorescent glow on the scene.
The first body I examined was hanging from the ceiling by a length of rope tied to a hook screwed into one of the wooden beams. It was a woman, dressed in a faded green cotton sari. The pallu had fallen off her shoulder and cascaded to the floor, though her bare feet were about half a metre off the ground. Her dark, lank hair was open over her shoulders and the woman’s neck was twisted to one side. Her face seemed remarkably calm. She was heavily made-up, with kajal around her eyes, powdered cheeks, and lipstick on her mouth. Her arms hung by her sides, surrendering to the complacency of death. A small abrasion was visible on the inside of her wrist, though I couldn’t see it clearly because her hand was partly hidden by the sari’s folds. Her blouse was loose fitting, as if she had no breasts.
A two-burner cooker sat on a marble countertop, attached to a gas cylinder. The kitchen was also equipped with an ancient coal stove that looked as if it hadn’t been used for years, a black, wrought iron beast with a gaping maw and a crooked chimney that disappeared through a sooty hole in the ceiling. The slate flagstones of the kitchen were awash in blood, which came from the second victim, slouched against the stove. He had several wounds on his chest and stomach, as well as a slashed throat.
I recognised Reuben Sabharwal immediately, though I’d met him only two or three times. Even in death, his bearded face bore the solemn expression of a man consumed by dark, metaphysical broodings. The only time we’d spoken was a brief conversation about the transmigration of souls, which he had initiated at the funeral of another neighbour, eight months ago. I couldn’t help wondering if his spirit had escaped from his body at the moment of death or whether it still lay imprisoned within his corpse, waiting to be released.
Over the years, I have seen my share of murders, from meagre, impoverished deaths in village huts and city slums to lavish displays of bloodshed in extravagant mansions, but the scene of the crime at Shambles was one of the gloomiest I’ve ever witnessed. Part of it may have been the grim weather outside but the interior of the house added to the horror of this macabre tableau. A kitchen knife, presumably the murder weapon, lay on the floor beneath the woman’s left foot. On the counter was a wooden cutting board, where the knife had been used to peel and chop onions before it was employed in the deadlier act. One of the constables was dusting the knife for fingerprints while another was doing the same on the doorknob, though I didn’t have a lot of confidence that they would find anything.
Excerpted with permission from Death in Shambles: A Hill Station Mystery, Stephen Alter, Aleph Book Company.