Matilda reached the top of the stairs, stopped for a few moments to catch her breath and then knocked on the door. There was no answer. She frowned and knocked again. “Lazy slut of a girl,” she muttered under her breath and pushed the door open.
Matilda stood frozen for a moment and then she opened her mouth and began to scream. The girl lay on the carpet, staring at the ceiling with wide open eyes. A wasp was hovering over her face. Matilda did not dare go near her but she was certain the girl was dead. “Oh! Mother of god, preserve us from evil,” she cried, clutching the door. She put a hand on her mouth to stop herself from screaming again. “Help me, O lord. Sweet Jesus, protect me!” she chanted. Her head was spinning and she could hardly breathe. She noticed, in a blur, that all the lights were switched on in the bedroom and sunlight danced on the dead girl’s face. Matilda crossed herself quickly and ran out. She stumbled down the stairs, landing at Mary’s feet in a heap.
“Calm. We must all stay calm. I must call Dr Bay,” Mary heard Helen’s voice repeating over and over again from somewhere in the house. She was not sure whom she was talking to since they were all in the library, huddled like refugees seeking shelter. She could not believe what had happened. Matilda had come running down the stairs which had amazed all of them since they had never seen the old ayah move so fast. Then she had said in a strangled voice, “The girl is...she is dead...god bless us all...she is dead, completely dead and gone to heaven.”
In the confusion Mary could not remember who had run upstairs with her but when they went into the room, Helen was standing near the bed, looking at the dead girl. “All over. It is all over now,” she had said softly and moved towards the dead girl, as though she was going to pick her up.
“We must not touch her,” Mary said and Helen moved back. Now as she heard Helen’s voice repeating its incantation, she tried her best to remember who had followed her upstairs. This person had shut the door behind her silently as she stood staring at the dead girl and then switched the lights off. Who had been standing behind her? Was it Matilda?
Mary forced herself to think back but her mind seemed to have erased that moment. All she could remember was the brightly lit room suddenly going dark as someone switched the lights off and a strange, sweet pungent smell in the room as if someone had burnt roses. The sunlight was trembling on the walls and a wasp was droning over the girl’s face.
“We must call the police at once. William should inform them. We must do that now,” Mary said, dragging Helen out of the room. She remembered suddenly that Helen had picked up something from the floor. What was it? Then the lights came on again.
William sat hunched in a chair in the library, staring blankly at them. “She is dead? Are you sure? How can you be so sure?” he kept mumbling, wiping his hands on a handkerchief.
“Old fart. How he can hold a job in the government, I don’t know. Can’t tell his arse from his elbow. What a terrible thing to happen,” Johnny said under his breath to Rani Sahiba.
“Why are you so upset? Did you know the girl? Hope all this will not delay lunch,” said Rani Sahiba.
She turned to Mary and said, “These dancing girls are so odd, one never knows what they will do next. They drink, they sing and then out of the blue they drop dead.”
Rani Sahiba knew she must pretend to be shocked, but she couldn’t be bothered. These cheap European girls – Spanish, Russian or Polish – who cared about them. They were swarming like flies all over India, hoping to catch a rich maharaja. She looked at her watch impatiently. All she wanted was a drink. Maybe she could ask Johnny to make her a gin and tonic. The shock of what had happened was surely excuse enough to have one.
“Some people can be so inconsiderate to their hosts, dying just when lunch is about to be served,” she whispered to Johnny. He did not reply, a sullen look on his face. There was a line of faint, red scratches on his cheek. What had he been up to? She must ask him later when they were alone.
Mary, unable to think of anything except the dead girl’s staring eyes, stood quietly by the window. They must stay in one room till the police arrived. Dr Bay was out on a call but they had left a message with his wife.
Mary had not spent too long in the room but she knew the girl had not died a natural death. The swollen face, the blood on her neck...the awkward way her head lay on the carpet – but she was not going to think about that now. She must control herself and make sure everyone else was all right. She turned around and looked at Emily who kept asking what had happened, and when they were going to have lunch.
“Someone has died. That girl who came here last night for dinner. She is still in the upstairs bedroom. We have called the police,” said Mary, her voice sounding strangely matter-of-fact as if she was reading aloud from the newspaper to Emily. The dead girl’s face loomed before her, golden hair flowing, her eyes full of laughter. How lively she had been last night, dancing and singing melancholy Spanish songs that no one understood.
Mary sat very still and tried to remember all that had happened last night. The picture in her mind was so blurred, so filled with loud voices, that she had to concentrate very hard to make sense of anything.
It was quite late when the girl had walked into the drawing room, ushered in by a bewildered Mohan. “I am Rosa Rodriguez – an old friend of Richard’s from Calcutta. Sorry but he had to leave for Delhi suddenly. Sent this note. Oh! Where is it?” she said in a lisping voice as she searched in her huge bag. “Come out little note, come out from the bag,” she giggled.
They had all stopped talking and stared at the girl. She was stunningly beautiful with gleaming, dark eyes and a cloud of golden hair that rippled down her shoulders in unruly curls.
“She looks like a doll I once had,” Mary thought, watching the girl as she fumbled in her large, cheap leather bag. Then Helen muttered something under her breath and got up from her chair. Rosa Rodriguez smiled at her, folded her hands and said, “Sorry – sorry, so naughty of me. Note is lost.” She laughed. “Please, please do not throw poor me out into the cold night.”
Her eyes scanned the room and fell on William who was staring at her with his mouth agape. She went up to him and kissed him loudly on both his cheeks. “Oh! Sweetheart, so lovely to see you,” she said. William began to splutter and cough. The Brigadier slapped William on his back.
“Windpipe. Careful with the windpipe, old chap,” he said. Mrs Bucks sniffed loudly and stared at the ceiling. Helen pushed her chair back and stood up. She narrowed her eyes at the girl as if she was a piece of dirt the wind had brought into the house and said in icy tones, “Do sit down. Will you have a drink?”
“Oh, yes, thank you so much. So very kind of you. Look, here is the naughty note.” Rosa laughed and waved a crumpled piece of paper above William’s head. William blushed crimson and looked very sheepish for some reason. Rani Sahiba noticed this at once and pounced on him. Patting her heart dramatically with one bejewelled hand, she laughed. “Ah. So sweet! It seems, William, your long-lost love has arrived.”
Mary shut her eyes as she tried to picture the room more clearly in her head and then she remembered the look of cold anger on Helen’s face last night. Someone had snatched the note from the girl’s hand. Was it Helen? What had she done with it?
Excerpted with permission from Murder In Shimla, Bulbul Sharma, Speaking Tiger.