The story so far: Ace detective Jayanta’s friend Manik witnesses a dark, shadowy figure flying away from his neighbour’s roof, moments after his neighbour is murdered. The police detective assigned to the case, Sunderbabu, is inclined to see the matter as supernatural and wash his hands of it. Part 1 here.
‘No, of course not’, said Sunderbabu hurriedly. ‘Of course not. But you’ll notice, whoever killed Niradbabu – and I’m not saying it was ghosts – didn’t actually steal anything. They merely tried to open a locked strongbox.’
Jayanta looked thoughtful. “And you say it was the same in the two previous cases?”
“Yes”, said Sunderbabu. “In each previous instance they managed to open the almirah and strongboxes, but didn’t actually take anything. Not money, not jewellery… nothing.”
“So clearly the murderers were looking for something else”, mused Jayanta. “There must be something else, otherwise nothing makes sense.”
Sunderbabu cleared his throat. “Well, there was something in the locked strongbox, but nothing important or valuable. Just this silly little doll.”
His hand dipped into his pocket and brought out a small porcelain figurine. An old Chinaman was sitting on a ram, looking quite satisfied with himself. The entire statute was about six inches high.
Jayanta plucked it out of Sunderbabu’s fist and peered at the design. “This is very old porcelain, and the craftsmanship is excellent. I’d say it probably comes from China’s more glorious times – a true symbol of the country’s rich artistic heritage. Sunderbabu, it might be news to you, but old Chinese porcelain is as rare and valuable as snakestone. That must’ve been why Niradbabu kept this ‘silly doll’ in a locked strongbox.
“So this is what the murderers were looking for?” Manik asked.
“Could be”, said Jayanta, “but what about the other two victims? What were the murderers looking for in their homes? We haven’t found Chinese porcelain there.”
“Lao Tzu!”, said Sunderbabu suddenly. Jayanta and Manik stared at him.
“Those two men!” Sunderbabu exclaimed. “I knew I should have held onto them. Little twerps! I bet they know about the other two deaths. Hah!”
Jayanta brows jerked together. “What ‘two men’”?
“Young upstarts”, snorted Sunderbabu. “Found them on the last crime scene, poking about and asking questions. I knew straightaway they were trouble. ‘Who are you?’ I demanded. ‘What d’you want?’ Do you what they said? They said they were looking for an adventure. Adventure! On a murder scene! Cheeky buggers. ‘How would like the prodding of a copper’s rule instead?’ I snarled at them, but they just laughed. ‘If the police prods us, we’ll prod right back. Prodding the police definitely counts as an adventure in our books!’ Can you believe that? I was about to have these nuts thrown out when one of them saw this doll. ‘Lao Tzu!’, he shouted, ‘Look, Lao Tzu!’
Now, you know two I don’t stand for that sort of tomfoolery. So I got right in their face and bellowed, ‘Get out! Get out of my sight right now!’ My at the top of my voice is usually a force to be reckoned with, but these two fools were not fazed at all! They sauntered out arm in arm, still laughing. Hoom!”
“Did you get their names?” asked Jayanta.
“Yes. Bimal, Kumar… something like that.”
Manik sat up in his chair. “Bimal? Kumar? Sunderbabu, you don’t mean… could these be the famous adventurers Bimalbabu and Kumarbabu?”
Sunderbabu waved a dismissive hand in front of his face, like batting away a fly. “Who cares? I don’t. Adventurers indeed. What they are is a precious pair – just like the two of you. They spout gibberish just like you, and just like you, they’re barking mad. ‘Lao Tzu’, honestly! What does that even mean? Anyway, I’m off now. Lots to do’.
And so, with his mood apparently restored, Sunderbabu stomped out of the room. Jayanta broke the silence first. “I’ve heard of Bimalbabu and Kumarbabu too, Manik”, he said softly. “Amazingly strong, wonderfully smart, appearing on the scene whenever anything strange happens. If they’ve visited Niradbabu’s home, then something about his murder must have struck them as odd. Which means, at least for now, they know more about it than we do.”
“What about this Lao Tzu though?” asked Manik. “That’s what confounds me. What is it?”
“Never heard it myself. Tell you what, let’s look it up in the encyclopaedia. Would you get the volume down from the shelf?”
Manik not only got the encyclopaedia down, he started looking for mentions of Lao Tzu himself.
“Here it is!” he exclaimed after a few minutes. “Jayanta, listen to this! Lao Tzu is a person. Was, I should say. He was a Chinese philosopher born in 604 AD, and is considered to be the founder of Taoism, an eastern religion.”
“Hmm”, Jayanta said almost to himself. “But what does a man living in China nearly three thousand years ago have to do with the death of a Bengali clerk in twentieth century Calcutta?”
Silence descended on the room.
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.”
” 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.