Neville said, “Peter, if you could start by telling Satish where you were yesterday morning around six o’ clock. You were not in your cottage when I walked across with Nanu who discovered the body.”
Peter looked blankly at him. It seemed like he was having trouble registering words and their meaning. Not quite all there.
Slowly, he said, “Well, I spent Friday night at Steven Lal’s place over in Satbunga. I had gone across for dinner and had one too many. It wasn’t a good idea to drive back in the dark. Crashed at his place, drove back Saturday morning.”
Neville and SK exchanged glances.
SK asked, “Who’s Steven Lal?”
“Neville knows him.”
SK waited. It dawned on Peter that more was expected. “Well, he is Anglo-Indian, used to be a hunter in the area till they banned it. Mostly he’s just holed up in his ranch in Satbunga. He is a keen chess player. We get together occasionally for a game or two.”
Neville nodded. “And what time did you reach Steven’s house that evening?”
Peter paused to think. He said, “To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. My sense is that I would have reached before nine, but you could cross-check that. I was up with him past midnight and came back home around ten the following morning after a cup of coffee with him.”
If this were true, Peter Watson would have set out from Birtola by around quarter past eight. This explained why he hadn’t raised an alarm when Clare hadn’t returned to the cottage on Friday night, but didn’t strictly provide him with an alibi. Technically, it was possible that he had murdered his wife sometime between four and eight on Friday evening before heading to Steven Lal’s place. Was this overnight trip just too pat, too convenient? Or were they being cynical?
SK asked, “Mr Watson, we would need a more detailed account of how you spent the evening in question.”
A mild trace of irritation crept into Peter’s tone. “Obviously I have no idea what the exact time of death was, but I was in this cottage in the evening, plugged into the market opening in New York. I trade quite actively from Birtola, though I have hung up my boots at the fund I used to manage. Anyway, once that was done, I got into the car and drove up to Steve’s. That is an honest account of what I was up to on Friday evening.” The last bit was said in a testy tone.
“Sure, Peter. I hope you realise that none of this is because we have any reason to suspect you, but it is routine police procedure to try to eliminate as many potential suspects as possible. In that sense, whatever corroboration you can offer with the facts you’ve presented, the better it is for us. For example, did anyone visit you in the cottage that evening? Did you execute any trades? That would make it easy to get a handle on the exact time of execution.”
SK suppressed a smile; Neville Wadia was slowly getting into his stride.
“Unfortunately, no, I don’t think I did. Markets are so overheated now, it is tough to buy anything. And no, no one came by to the cottage either. Very few people actually do after sunset. I think Tara was here to speak to Clare, but that was Wednesday evening, not Friday,” Peter replied.
“And when was the last that you saw Clare, or spoke to her? This is important. If you could please be as precise as possible.”
A shadow seemed to pass over Peter’s face.
“That is not difficult. We had lunch together at the cottage on Friday. After that she had a village women’s council meeting around three in the afternoon. She said she would be back by evening but that I should go ahead to Steven’s place without waiting for her return. There was cold soup in the fridge and she would have that for dinner.”
Peter paused. He stared down at the wooden floor for a full minute. They couldn’t say if he was straining to remember the exact sequence of events or composing himself from the strain of speaking about Clare. SK would have interrupted his thoughts had he not spotted Neville’s palm, raised ever so slightly, signalling to him to let Peter resume on his own.
“She would have left the cottage around half past two I imagine, and that was the last I saw her. I tried calling her just before setting off for Satbunga and then again from there, but her phone was switched off. This wasn’t unusual for Clare; her phone habits were quite terrible. She used this antiquated dinky thing of a handset and, at the best of times, it was difficult to reach her. So, I wasn’t unduly alarmed...yes, it was dark outside but sometimes she would hang out with the teachers after a meeting and they would walk her back to the resort in the evening. Wasn’t that unusual.”
All of this would need to be cross-checked, of course. The time of arrival at Satbunga, the women’s council meeting, the phone calls to Clare. For the moment, Neville decided to change the line of questioning.
“Peter, I’m aware that Clare wasn’t popular with everyone out here but would you say she had enemies capable of harming her?”
“Evidently, she did, right?” Again, that testiness. “Unless you think this was the act of a stranger. You know about that episode with the local MLA. He is a vicious chap. I had advised Clare to get away from here following that feud. I mean, we are outsiders. But she wouldn’t hear of it. I had warned her as well about the work she was doing against domestic violence in the area. Hauling up men and shaming them for beating their wives. May have been an exemplary exercise in social fairness but it hurt the pride of these local guys.There’re many that must have nursed a grudge against her, don’t you think? Wait. You and Shehnaz weren’t around last month during that incident with the animal entrails, were you?” Peter asked Neville. Neville looked blank.
SK sat up. “Animal entrails? What was that?”
Peter answered, “A few weeks ago, Clare was at this big congregation of women from five neighbouring villages to get them to be part of a domestic violence helpline that she had been working on. At the end of that meeting she walked out to find loads of blood-drenched animal entrails piled up on her car windshield with a note saying ‘Caution’ in Hindi, stuck under the wiper. She freaked out completely. I was quite concerned and we filed a report as well, but nothing came of it. In hindsight, I feel I should have been more assertive. It was only a matter of time before something bad happened to her, she was trampling on too many egos in her zeal to do good.” There was an edge to Peter’s voice.
Neville’s tone was gentler as he asked, “What do you intend to do now, Peter? I can’t see you staying on here alone.”
Peter shook his head, “No, that’s out of the question. I have no idea when her body will be released. Whenever it is, after the funeral, I will settle up with Lalit and move back to England. With Clare, my connection with this country is over.”
“First the investigation will have to be concluded, Mr Watson.” Neville thought he detected some terseness in Satish’s tone.
“Did your wife have considerable assets? And would you be the sole beneficiary of her estate?”
“Assets?” Peter appeared stunned. But he was an investment banker and it didn’t take long for the import of Satish’s question to dawn on him.
“I see. She would have had some savings, I imagine. Book royalties and such but it couldn’t have been a lot. If you think that may be a motive, one look at our individual assets would disabuse you of any such notions. My stock portfolio alone would be worth several times her entire life’s savings.”
This seemed to satisfy SK, but he still said, “We will need to verify this, of course. She didn’t leave a will behind, did she?”
“Not to the best of my knowledge.”
With that he turned to Neville with imploring eyes that asked if they really, honestly, thought that he could be behind this grisly murder.
The time had come for them to ask him that dreaded question. It fell on Neville to do it. He asked, in a soft voice, “Peter, you will forgive me but I have to ask you this. Didn’t you know that Clare was pregnant?”
Peter’s face was transformed by surprise, disbelief, and horror. In a raised voice he blurted out, “What? No, that’s not possible, you must have got it wrong. How...”
Then staring at their faces, realising it had to be true, he clutched his head in both hands and let out a low wail. There was not much more to be gained from Peter Watson immediately, both men reckoned.
Neville patted his shoulder and without saying another word, they took their leave. Peter sat hunched with his head bowed. A terrible sadness seemed to have engulfed him.
Excerpted with permission from A Death In The Himalayas: A Neville Wadia Mystery, Udayan Mukherjee, Picador India.