The newspapers were in an uproar. Two horrendous murders had been committed within days of each other, and the murderer in each instance had escaped. However, beside each corpse, they had left a piece of paper with the picture of a dragon, and the numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4.
It was in such a time, on a rainy pre-dawn, that Jayanta awoke.
The flute had always been a favourite of his. If he didn’t play the flute for a few moments every morning, his day didn’t feel complete.
That day, when he blew out the first notes of the Ramkali melody, dawn hadn’t yet broken. And yet within moments, someone began banging on his door. Irritated, Jayanta got up and undid the latch… and Maniklal stormed into the room.
“You!” exclaimed Jayanta, astonished. “It’s not even morning yet!”
“The dragon, Jayanta!” panted Manik, “The dragon has appeared again! The third time!”
Jayanta blew experimentally through his flute.
“A third murder, Jayanta! And the murderer has escaped again!”
Jayanta resumed the Ramkali.
“Are you listening to me? It’s not just a newspaper report, I witnessed it all first-hand this time!”
Jayanta lay the flue down. ” I can see there’ll be no music this morning, ” he sighed. “Well, go on then. Tell me everything. I don’t like listening to excited bits and pieces.”
Manik collapsed on a chair. Jayanta raised his voice to order breakfast for the two of them, and then sat facing Manik.
“It was past midnight when I left your place yesterday,” began Manik. “It was still and humid, and I had a hard time falling asleep. Finally, in the final hours before dawn, there was a short burst of shower, and a cool breeze broke the heat. Just as I was beginning to drop off, a scream shattered the night.
You remember the house next to mine, Jayanta? That’s where the scream seemed to come from. For the last six months, it had been the residence of Niradchandra Basu and his family.
Now, you can imagine what happens when one hears a blood-curdling scream in the middle of the night! I froze in bed for a few moments. And then an uproar went up from next door. Many voices started shouting in unison. I could discern ‘Murder!’ ‘Robbers!’ ‘Police!’. I jumped out of bed and ran to the window. There was still a drizzle at that point, but mostly it was a storm. The wind was high, and there were frequent lightnings.
Now, Jay, you know how the mind plays tricks on us, especially when we’re as shaken and confused as I was then. So when I what I saw, even I couldn’t believe it was really happening. Here’s what I saw: in a burst of lightning, a dark figure flew skywards from Niradbabu’s roof. Visibility was poor, but it looked human to me. Now normally, I would have dismissed this as an illusion, but I remember when the first dragon murder happened, some witnesses claimed to have seen a similar figure flying away from the victim’s roof.
Anyway, onto more concrete things. I shook off my stupor and hurried next door. I knew Niradbabu a little. We’d met a few times, and he’d asked me over for tea a couple of times.
Before you ask, this is what I know about Nirad Basu. He’s retired, but not more than fifty. His wife passed away some time back, leaving behind two grown sons, both married. Niradbabu used to work in Military Accounts. During the last World War, he was posted in China. He left that position abruptly to move to Rangoon, and a few years later moved just as abruptly to Kolkata. I don’t know why he left his job or why he moved back suddenly from Rangoon. Rich people are often eccentric, and Niradbabu was rather obviously rich.
When we reached the first floor, I saw Niradbabu’s lifeless body on the floor. It was horrible. Strong hands had wrung his neck, and terror was etched on his frozen face. Beside the corpse, there was a piece of paper with the picture of a dragon. Not too different from the pictures of dragons one sees in encyclopaedias and books: body like a huge snake, terrifying unnatural face, tendrils of fires snaking out of its nose. And on its back, there were the numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4. All numbers except the last had been crossed out in red ink.
There was an iron safe in a corner of the room. Scuffs on it showed that the murder had tried to open it, but fled because of the noise we made. His way in and out of Niradbabu’s room must have been the window, because the iron grill on the window frame was bent out of shape. But it’s a mystery how he entered the house, or how he escaped from it. There’s some fallow land all around the house, so the question of jumping from a neighbour’s roof doesn’t arise. Both the front and back entrances had guards – don’t ask me why – and they both claim they’ve been undisturbed all night.
This is what has brought me to you, Jayanta. Crimes are not uncommon in Calcutta, and most murders appear mysterious at first glance. But this one is absolutely confounding! How could a murderer enter and leave a locked, isolated house? Why would he leave drawings of dragons behind? And what was the dark, shadowy figure I saw speeding skywards?
Jayanta stood up and paced around the room thoughtfully. “There have been, as you say, two more murders of exactly the same kind in this city recently. Clearly, the same people – or at least the same brain – is behind all three. The first victim was Anathnath Sen; the second victim was Chandranath Dutta. This time, it’s your neighbour Nirad Chandra Basu. If I am to take up this case, I first have to see how these people are related to each other. About the flying figure: some of Anathbabu’s neighbours claimed to have seen a similar figure the night he was murdered. I would have dismissed that as fancy, but I am incapable of dismissing your testimony. But the most important thing, Manik, is that these three murders indicate a future murder. Have you caught onto that?
“How so?” said a startled Manik.
“I read in the papers that the picture left behind at the first murder, just the number 1 had been crossed off. Now, at the third victim’s murder, you say all the numbers except four has been crossed off. Clearly, there is a person or a group somewhere that has decided that these four people must die, only the fourth person is still alive.”
“Goodness!” breathed Manik.
“The dragon is an indicator,” mused Jayanta. “It’s the symbol of the person or group responsible for these crimes. Why would such people want these four dead?”
In the ensuing silence, heavy footsteps were heard thumping up the stairs.
Jayanta sat up. “That’s Inspector Sunderbabu”, he whispered, and picked up the flute. Sunderbabu had a distinct distaste for flutes.
The very next second, a wobbling tummy and shining pate pushed through the door, announcing Sunderbabu’s presence. Jayanta blew through his flute, pretending not to notice.
“Hrrump!” said Sunderbabu, instantly irritated. “Here I am, tearing my hair out, and you’re playing the flute! The flute!”
“Don’t be like that, Sunderbabu,” said Manik sweetly. “Jayanta’s only trying to soothe your troubled soul.”
“Don’t you make fun of me, Manik”, Sunderbabu growled. “I cannot abide your jokes. Especially at a time like this!”
“What’s so sombre about this time?” asked Jayanta, lowering his flute.
Sunderbabu jiggled into a nearby chair. The fight seemed to go out of him. “Just my luck,” he said dejectedly. “All the rotten, ridiculous cases always drop on my plate. If those blasted murderers had just taken Nirad Basu elsewhere to kill, I wouldn’t be involved in this ghostly mess. But no…”
“You’re in charge of the Niradbabu murder?” interjected Jayanta.
“Who else? It’s always this old soldier doing the dirty work. But ghosts, I ask you! Dragons! Flying shadows! My liver is quivering in my tummy, I tell you! I want no part of this. I’ll apply for leave straight away.