AUTHOR BRIEF: Hemendra Kumar Roy was a very popular author of children’s and young adult fiction, not that there was much of a difference between the two at his time. Society was rather different then – India was still a colony, for a start – and therefore the flavour and style of Hemen Roy’s stories are rather different from what one might expect today. This is also what makes them particularly interesting, despite Roy’s somewhat bombastic and ethnocentric style.
The next morning at breakfast, Jayanta was on his second cup of tea while Manik monopolised the newspaper. Suddenly, he threw the newspaper down in front of Jayanta with some force. “Joy, look!” he exclaimed.
“What?”, asked Jayanta, putting down his cup, “Another new murder?”
“No no, an advert! A strange little advert. Listen to this: ‘Anathnath Sen, Chandranath Dutta and Niradchandra Basu have been murdered by person or persons unknown. These three gentlemen had come to Calcutta from Rangoon, accompanied by a fourth. The fourth man’s life is now in great danger. The followers of Lao-Tzu are looking for him, with death on their minds. If he wants to save himself, he should contact Bimalbabu and Kumarbabu immediately, at 40 Shyamakanta Basu Street’.’
Jayanta brought his fist down on the small tea-table. “Manik, we’ve been such fools!”, he said. “We should have put out an advert like that. This initiative should have been ours. I, too, knew there was a fourth man, and that his life was at risk, and that an advertisement in the newspaper would be the quickest way to get him to come to us. But Bimalbabu and Kumarbabu have bested us at our own game, Manik! We should quit this case right now, while we still have some semblance of respect left.”
“Come on, Joy”, said Manik soothingly, “don’t be so hard on yourself. Sometimes we make the first move, sometimes someone beats us to it. What matters is that we solve this confounded mystery! Look, the advert implies the followers of Lao-Tzu are the murderers. Who might these followers be?
” I suppose they must be Chinese”, muttered Jayanta, still distracted.
“But what connection might these Bengali gents have with Lao-Tzu’s Chinese followers?”
“Manik, you’re an even bigger ass than I am!” snapped Jayanta. “Niradbabu was a military accounts officer stationed in China – you told me this yourself! Clearly, the other two murdered men were also stationed in China.”
“Ah!”, said Manik. “Now I see why the murderers leave the picture of a dragon behind! Like the cross is a symbol of Christianity, the half-moon a symbol of Islam and the lotus a symbol of Hinduism, the dragon is a symbol of China!”
“Well,” mused Jayanta, “it’s possible that the dragon here has other meanings hidden beneath…”
The rest of his words were swallowed by a furious stomping on the stairs, followed by the banging open of the room’s door. A panting Sunderbbau crashed into the room. “Lost! All’s lost!”, he exclaimed, collapsing onto a chair. “Jayanta, tea, tea for me! Curse this job! I’m parched like the desert’s parched – make it two cups, Jayanta, quick!”
Jayanta shouted an order for the tea.
A little calmer, Sunderbabu said, “That porcelain doll has been stolen.”
“What?” exclaimed Jayanta and Manik together. “Stolen? From the station?”
“Yes!”, said Sunderbabu, pounding his thigh. “And not just any thief. There was supernatural mixed in this, you mark my words.”
The two friends exchanged glances. “Let’s hear it all from the beginning, Sunderbabu”, said Jayanta.
“I had kept the doll on the desk in my bedroom”, said Sunderbabu. “I planned to examine it closely after dinner. My room is on the second-floor of the police station, as you know. Till about ten o’clock, I was in my office on the ground floor, sorting through the paperwork of a big robbery. It was after eleven when I finally climbed up to my room. The first thing I noticed when I opened the door was that the desk-top was empty. The doll was missing. Just then, I heard a steady thudding sound moving towards the end of the verandah. I ran to the verandah, and there it was, a big ball of dark smoke! Don’t tell me that’s natural! And then a shadowy figure emerged from it, and disappeared skywards with a whoosh!. Goodness! I nearly collapsed right there!”
“Damn the smoke and flying shadow,” said Jayanta, irritated, “I want to know what happened to the doll.”
“Lost, I told you. It’s gone. Burly constables everywhere, plus me, the fearsome officer-in-charge, plus my family on the second-floor – normally, I would never have believed a thief could have reached my bedroom past all of us. But someone came in, stole the doll, and disappeared. I’m telling you, it’s either magic, or its supernatural stuff. Either way, a poor policeman shouldn’t have to deal with it!”
Jayanta disregarded Sunderbabu’s excitement. “This thief”, he said thoughtfully, “didn’t he leave any signs behind?”
“Well, there were two signs, I suppose. One was a piece of paper with a dragon on it, but no numbers. The other sign is no more.”
“What do you mean, ‘no more’ ?”
“Well, it was raining last night, do you remember? There were wet footprints on the floor of my room. But they are dried and gone now.”
“Did you measure the footprints?”
“Uh, no. All that confusion and smoke and whatnot… frankly, procedure was the last thing on my mind. But I’ll tell you something odd – there was only one foot-print. The right foot. It’s almost as if the thief was playing hop-scotch in my room. Damned nutty criminals.”Jayanta sat back in his chair and let out a long, relieved sigh. “Sunderbabu”, he said, rolling a pinch of snuff between his fingers, “we’ve finally found something concrete about your shadowy thief; he has just one leg.
“Heh, really? And how do you arrive at this ‘concrete’ fact?”
“Didn’t you say you heard a thudding sound before the thief flew away from the verandah?”
“So the thudding sound was from a wooden leg. Your thief is lame, and wears a wooden leg for support.”
“Impossible!”, growled Sunderbabu. “Are you trying to say the thied thudded into the station, thudded up two floors, thudded down the corridor into my room, and none of the us at the station heard him even once? Come on! Do you think we stuff cotton in our ears at the station?”
Jayanta stood up and started pulling a shirt on top of his vest. “Tell you what, Sunderbabu. Manik and I were on our way to meet Bimalbabu and Kumarbabu before you arrived. Would you like to come along?”
“Those nutjobs?”, exclaimed Sunderbbau, amazed. “Why would you go to them? Those two should be locked away!”
“No, they shouldn’t”, said Jayanta calmly. “Besides, they know a great deal about this case. If you want to hear about them, come with us.”
Coming soon, The Dragon Nightmare 3: Lasso.