Deven spread out a large sheet of paper on the table as the others watched. They were sitting around the dining table, not eating for once but discussing the murder. Deven had declared he was in charge and when no one protested he appointed Rosie as his assistant. Prema was not pleased at all but after giving Rosie a dark look as if to say, “You wait and see what I do to you”, she kept quiet. Maria had agreed to help them, though she was not sure how. “You get information from the inspector for us. He is so infatuated by you and will tell you every detail of the case,” Rosie told her. Maria was surprised to see the sparkle in her faded eyes.

Cyrilo had already been to the village and found out from the grocer that the dead woman was a stranger and no one knew where she had come from. A few people said they had seen her driving around in a big car but they hadn’t spoken to her.

“Why should we? We have nothing to do with her kind of people,” they said. “They come and go like summer flies. Why should we care?”

“I asked everyone at the market too but they said they had never seen her in Trionim before this summer. The grocer said a rich woman had come last week to his shop to order a large quantity of bottled water and five family packs of ice cream but sat in the car the whole time so he didn’t get a good look at her face. The driver paid and he could hear her scolding him in Hindi for taking so long. She used some really good abuses which the grocer hadn’t heard before. He was quite impressed. She was the only stranger around here except for the foreign tourists hanging about near the beach,” said Cyrilo. “Imagine buying five family packs of ice cream in one go.”

“So at the moment we don’t have anything to start with except this.” Deven wrote the following down in bold letters.

  1. Woman found dead in Happy Home (hanging from mango tree)
  2. Woman’s identity not known but could be from Delhi
  3. Seems to be very rich

“Why Delhi? How can you be so sure?” asked Yuri. He had not yet told them about the photograph. He wanted to see it once more and then reveal it but he could only do that if Olga called him to the villa. Maybe he would go and hang about there. If that Rana fellow came out, he could always pretend to be a Russian tourist looking for a hotel.

“I know why you wrote that. You think she’s from Delhi because she spoke in Hindi and abused the driver. Only people from Delhi are so free with bad words,” said Prema, giving them a gleeful smirk.

“You should know, since you are from Delhi,” muttered Rosie, keeping her voice low. She knew that Prema was hard of hearing and the barb would not reach her.

“I heard what you said, Rosie. I may be from Delhi but I come from a very respectable family. My father was a senior officer in the railways,” said Prema.

“My father was also in the railways,” said Rosie.

“Well, I’m sure he was a railway guard. My father was the station manager in Saharanpur. We always travelled first class. Our cook travelled with us in second class,” Prema retorted.

Rosie kept quiet. Her father was indeed a railway guard and she wondered how Prema had known. He was a brave, honest guard and had been awarded a medal by the local mayor once. She wondered if she should tell Prema that and shut her up.

“If you ladies have finished telling us your family history, may I continue?” asked Deven, looking at them sternly like a schoolteacher. His glasses were perched on his nose and his eyes looked very bright.

“Inspector Chand told me that the woman had been drugged and then killed. She was already dead when they brought her here. It was definitely murder. The body has been sent to Panjim to a forensic team,” said Maria, looking at them. She thought it was very brave of them to help solve the crime but she felt uneasy. Should she allow them to get involved? What if they got hurt? What if the killer was still around? But she had never seen them look so happy and excited. They had huddled together all day talking to each other, planning things. It was sad that an unfortunate woman’s death had brought them together but that was what life was like when you got so old.

At their age, anything – a broken-down car, a petty theft, a funeral and even a death – was exciting. It broke the monotony of their everyday lives.

One day she too would become like them and get a thrill every time she heard of a death in the neighbourhood.

“MURDER.” Deven wrote this in big, bold letters and looked at them. “I knew that for sure. I knew it was murder the moment I saw the body. I noticed her fingers were badly bruised. She must have put up a fight,” he said quietly.

“Write that down too,” said Yuri. “What for?” asked Cyrilo.

“Just like that. It’ll fill up the sheet a little bit. I hate seeing a blank sheet,” he said.

“Maybe you can draw a dead body hanging from a tree.” Prema threw him a nasty look.

“Good idea. Here, take my pen,” said Cyrilo with a smile, sliding his pen towards Yuri, who quickly picked it up. He began to draw a long, wavering line.

Deven snatched the pen away. “Don’t be idiotic, you two,” he said angrily. “We must draw up a plan. Enough of this rubbish talk. I will give each of you a task and you must report back to me in the evening. You have to talk to people, find out every little detail. We must follow each clue and link them all together to reach a conclusion. The most important thing is to find a person with a motive. Who gained from this woman’s death? We also have to find the boy who saw the body first. He could lead us to other people. Someone must have seen the body being brought into the garden of the Happy Home at night. We have to do this very carefully. I don’t want any of you to make mistakes.” He glared at them.

“He thinks he’s back in his office and we are his employees,” whispered Rosie to Cyrilo and giggled. Deven was suddenly looking taller and smarter, like a general in the army. Rosie smiled at him, twisting her curls with her fingers and thinking that marrying for the third time might not be a bad idea.

Excerpted with permission from Murder at the Happy Home for the Aged, Bulbul Sharma, Penguin Random House India.