Suspense, Short Stories -Rekha Valliappan



Murder at Malabar Hill

By Rekha Valliappan


It was a wild and tempestuous night. Sadie put away the book on the mantelpiece and brought out the hurricane lamp. She walked to the window to secure them against the beating rain and glanced out into the deserted road. The street lamp cast a weak gleam on the slick pavement. She saw a cab splash its way from the Chowpatty Beach end.


In a few moments a knock sounded on the door. Who could that be and what could they want at this late hour and in this weather? Sadie ran to her mirror to neaten her strands of long loose hair and re-arrange her saree. Above the roar of the winds she heard a car drive away.


"Malathi," she called for her maid, "See who's at the door." In the bright light of the entryway, she had no difficulty in recognizing the khaki uniform of a police officer. A sigh of relief escaped her. His black raincoat was shining with water drops.


"Wonderful to see you," said Sadie, her voice barely rising above a whisper, "You look terrible. It must be something important that brings you out in a storm."


"Did you see anything of the Medha Deshpande case in the evening editions?" the Inspector asked, without preamble.


"Well, what I read was only a small paragraph. First you went down to Back Bay, seventeen kilometres from VT. Then you went to a house in Malabar Hill, it does not say which. You conducted your investigation. And now you're here."

"It means I can make neither head nor tail of it. Not a ghost of a motive. When a crime has no motive it bothers me a lot. A whole lot. And what with all the transfers going on in the Commissioner's office, things are falling apart, Sadie."


Sadie asked Malathi to bring some fresh coffee. It would be a long night. The Inspector divested his raincoat in the hallway and settled down in a comfortable sofa.


"How bad is it?" she asked.


"So far the overall story goes like this. Some years ago this mansion in Malabar Hill, not too far from here, was taken by a retired Professor Floyd. He is an invalid, keeps to his bed most of the time. An old gardener helps him with his daily constitutional or walks in the garden. An elderly housekeeper Mrs. Williams who accompanied him from America, assists. She keeps house."


"Does your Professor have a hobby?"


"The Professor is writing a book on Indian leeches and immersed in research on the insect's mandibles, once a known staple for wound closures. About a year ago he hired a secretary. Several applied but were unsuccessful. Finally Medha Deshpande, a young woman, biology major, fresh out of university, was hired."


"Was she pretty? There's always that angle, an old man, living alone . . ."


Nothing like that. The Professor is too engrossed in his work. Medha was certainly quite attractive, but a quiet, decent female from a middle class family. Nothing extraordinary. She had no known boy friends--not an enemy in the world. I've studied all testimonials from all who knew her. Yet this is the woman who met her death yesterday morning in the Professor's study under circumstances which can point only to murder."


The windows rattled as if shaken by supernatural forces beyond one's control as the winds blew in hurricane force. For a few seconds the lights flickered.


"What of the others?"


"The gardener is an old army pensioner of excellent character. Highly respectable. I've checked. He has a genuine love of trees and plants, and lives in a small room at the back of the house. There is no access road through the back. Someone entering the mansion can do so only from the front gate of the garden. Now that bothers me. If the gate is unlatched, anyone can walk in."


"You haven't mentioned the housekeeper?"


"Ah-yes, as it turns out Mrs. Williams was hanging some freshly laundered curtains in the upstairs bedrooms. She says she heard the Professor below. She could tell because of the thump-thump of his steel-tipped cane on the tile floors. Then she heard a wild cry of a creature in pain, so dreadful, she was petrified. After that there was a loud thud which shook the whole house. It took Mrs. Williams several moments to recover and rush downstairs."


"Did she see anybody?"


"Nobody. She says her immediate thoughts were for the Professor, that perhaps he had fallen, was in need of help. So she pushed open the study door. Inside she found Medha stretched upon the floor. She tried to revive her then grew alarmed at the sight of the blood flow. The young woman's carotid artery had been severed. She was stabbed from behind. Clearly a homicide. We found the knife a few feet from the body. The weapon was one of those small kitchen knives with a fancy handle, of decorative value. The household has many such knick-knacks from the Professor's travels.


"What did Mrs. Williams do next?"

"Before she could do any more, Medha opened her eyes briefly. 'Professor,' the dying girl slurred, 'was red leech.' She then fell back dead."

"And the Professor?"


"Professor Floyd was agitated beyond belief. Truth to say I've not seen anyone lament the way he has. The young woman's death has left him a broken man. All he says is he heard a terrible cry that shook him to the core. He knows nothing more. He can give no explanation for Medha's dying words. He thinks she was delirious. His research did extend to cannibalism among horse blood suckers and medicinal leeches, which is why her hallucinations, if any, could easily have been of red leeches. I've compared notes with a professor friend at Bombay University. I'm inclined to believe the Professor's theory. But give me your views, Sadie."


"Presuming an unknown assassin entered the house how did he or she come in?"


"I'm perplexed. The windows were all latched on account of the storm, none broken. Both study exits were blocked, one by Mrs. Williams rushing in, the other by the gardener who lives at the back. My men studied the garden path for signs of an intruder.


Although the recent rains wiped out all tracks the grass was trampled upon, large or small footprints impossible to say. Neither the gardener nor the housekeeper were in the garden after the deluge began. Without a break-in, with no robbery committed, how could an outsider gain access?"


"Are you double sure nothing was taken?"

"The Professor assures me nothing is missing. My men have covered the entire house. No robbery. I've something else . . ."


"Did the Professor identify the knife as his?"


"Not him, but Mrs. Williams did. She recognized it immediately as the one purchased by the Professor several years ago in Kuala Lumpur."


"A murderer without a murder weapon enters a house unprepared?"


"You have a point Sadie, and that's a good clue, which is why I've been unable to find a motive for the crime. There's none. Looks like our unknown assailant was up to something in the house and in the process forced to commit a murder."


"Whatever it was had to have been in the Professor's study."


"Close. Medha walked in taking the intruder by surprise. The person was not meant to be seen. So she had to be silenced."


"It's possible she recognized the stranger."


"Good! Good! Now we're getting somewhere."


"What was the something else you have?"


"Oh that. It can wait. The hour is late, nearly two. We'd best get some sleep."


"I doubt I could with a killer running loose in my neighbourhood," said Sadie with a rueful smile.


"I'm trying not to leap to conclusions, but I think what we have here is more than a clue. It's a very important piece of evidence we found clutched in the dead woman's hand."


From his uniform pocket the Inspector drew a small plastic packet. He opened it with great care and disclosed a fattened blood-filled leech that appeared to have fallen asleep from a food coma. "There can be no question that this was snatched from the killer."


Sadie took the packet and examined the bloodied mess inside. She turned on her coffee table lamp and studied it most minutely.


"The ends justify the means," she said and gave a soft chuckle.


"How do you mean?"


"Of course. If you know leeches the way I do, the person you are after must have a patch of traumatized skin, maybe even turning septic, which in all probability will be oozing. Some leeches are venomous."


The Inspector smiled tiredly. "Marvelous, I follow your thinking," he said with relief, "I've been wracking my brains on it."


"You'll manage well. You always do. Morning will bring fresh possibilities. Your room is readied, as always. I hardly get to see you these days, so am content for the few hours you visit."


The storm had blown itself out the next day, but skies were grey and gloomy, as dreary as the waters of the Arabian Sea. At the Inspector's express invitation Sadie was to accompany him to the mansion up Malabar Hill cordoned off to visitors. Two police constables met them at the garden gate.


"Well, Madhav, any news?"


"No, sir, nothing."


"No passing cabs? No strangers seen?"


"No, sir. From the station the report is no stranger came or went this way at the height of the storm."


"Do we have updates from The Trident, Oberoi, other area hotels?"


"Yes, sir, all hotel guests are accounted for, even those in nearby lodgings."


"Well, it's a reasonable walk from Victoria Terminus. Anyone can arrive unobserved by train and take the garden path to reach this gate. On which side of the

grass were the footprints seen?"


"This way, sir," said the constable leading the way," Look closely at the flower-bed. You may not see it now, but we have pictures of the traces."

"Yes, yes, undoubtedly someone passed by," said the Inspector. Sadie stooped over for a better look.


"You say the intruder must have come this way?" asked Sadie.


"There's no other way, Madam," replied the constable.


"Nothing more to learn staring at the flowers, Sadie. The front gate is usually kept open in the daytime. Our visitor had but to walk in. Now what could the person have wanted from the study filled with bookshelves on leeches?"


"Investigation's on-going, sir."


"Let's complete the formalities then. Bring Mrs. Williams in." said the Inspector. A morose-looking elderly woman, her white hair tied in a tight bun, appeared.

"Did you notice anything out of place in the study?"


"No, sir, I did not."


"Who has the key to the safe?"


"The Professor, sir."


The Inspector dismissed her with a wave of his hand. "Do you see Sadie, nothing touched, nothing out of the ordinary. My hypothesis of the crime scene is that Medha surprises an intruder who then rushes to the kitchen and returns with a knife. She struggles, tries wresting it away when the fatal blow is struck. The young woman falls and the killer escapes."


"From the garden?"


"Could anyone have got out through the back door?" the Inspector asks the constable.


"No, sir, impossible. The gardener's room is just by the passage. He would have seen or heard."


"That settles the back exit then. The person got out through the second exit that leads to the Professor's room."


"Precisely, sir."


"Where's the Professor?"


"In his room, sir."


The group climbed a short flight of stairs ending in a teak wood door. The constable knocked.


Sadie was amazed at the size of the Professor's large bed-chamber. It had vast collections of bookshelves which overflowed into unruly piles on the floor. The four poster bed was in the cent er. Propped up with pillows was the very sick looking owner of the mansion, a thin man with a grey beard and parchment skin. His yellow eyebrows were so bushy they shaded his piercing blue eyes. He had a cigar in his mouth which he puffed furiously. He lifted a weak palm to shake hands, which fell limp by his side.


"To a cripple like myself the blow I've suffered is paralyzing. Such an efficient young woman, Medha. What do you make of it, Inspector?"


"I've yet to make up my mind," replied the Inspector gruffly. He was busy glancing sharply around the room, as was Sadie.


"Crushing blow," moaned the old man on the bed, his voice shaking "and just as we're on the cusp of a fine analytical breakthrough on leeches--fifty-four varieties. With my feeble health, the time-consuming process of finding a replacement, I'm crushed."


"I'll not trouble you too much longer, professor. But what I do find necessary to inquire is what you imagine the poor girl meant when she said "'Professor--was red leech?'"


The Professor shook his head. "Haven't a clue. I fancy the poor woman could have been delirious, or my housekeeper misunderstood the message."


"I see. And you have no explanation yourself?" pressed the Inspector.


"None whatsoever."


The Inspector exchanged glances with Sadie, lost in thought.


"Tell me Professor, what's in the safe?"

"Family letters, some house plans. You may look if you wish."


"My men will, professor. I should prefer going to your garden. As you know you are not to leave the premises till our investigation is complete. I have informed your gardener and housekeeper of the same."


"Have you got a clue?" asked Sadie once they were in the garden. But the Inspector was immersed in thought and in no mood for amicable chatter. He was awaiting the return of the police officers from the Hanging Gardens. They were sent to investigate new rumours of a strange man seen by some children in the park the day before the storm.


The police found the children in the Old Woman's Shoe, but the description of the strange man did not add up.


"Have you solved the mystery?" asked Sadie noting the grim smile in the Inspector's eager countenance.


"Yes," he replied, "I've solved it. A leech, who could have thought?"


"Surely you're joking, sir," volunteered one of the constables, timidly.


"When have you known me to joke, Madhav, in the line of duty?"


"Never, sir."


"I still have gaps to fill. Now, gather everyone in the Professor's room. It's large enough."


All pairs of eyes were upon the Inspector as he reconstructed the crime step-by-step in the Professor's bedroom.


"And the red leech?" nudged Sadie in a whisper.


"All in good time, Sadie. Your skills have been a big help," he whispered back, then to the group, "No, a murderer does not come unarmed. Horrified by the tragic outcome, the killer wildly fled the crime scene, and has been cowering under this very roof since."


The audience sat with their mouths agape. Fear was stamped upon several faces.




"Here, sir?"


"Have I heard you right? You mean in my house, under this very roof, Inspector?"


Sadie rolled her eyes expressively. Her own theories were splendid. But the Inspector's were flawless.


The Professor's eyes glowed like fire. He burst into a fit of coughing and rose painfully to his feet.


"This is insane. You're mad! You're all mad!" he cried, "So where pray is this killer?"


"There!" said the Inspector pointing dramatically to a large earthenware jar in the corner of the room which contained the leech specimens.


A terrible convulsion passed over the professor's gaunt face, and he fell back helplessly in his bed.


"You're right!" he cried in a strangled voice, "You're right."


He stared at them out of bloodshot fevered eyes of one who had not slept for forty-eight hours. "You now know the truth. I confess it all. It was I who killed sweet Medha. It was an accident. I did not mean to. I don't even know how I held a knife in my hands. This is the truth."


"I'm sure it is," said the Inspector, "I fear you're far from well."


In slow motion the old man removed various makeup add-ons, hair extensions used to disguise his features. In a short while the person facing them was nowhere near the frail old professor they knew, but a young man, "Yes, Inspector, whom you see is a longtime student of Professor Floyd."


Mrs. Williams smothered a scream, "You wretched imbecile!"


"As I've said Inspector, if anyone knew of Professor Floyd's death, the research funds would have dried up. I could not let that happen."


"You mean to tell us the real professor is also dead? How?" inquired the Inspector.


"Natural causes. He died over a year ago. I could see the trouble if I reported the death. That's when I started in dead earnest searching for a secretary. You may call it ill- gotten gains. I call it a noble cause."


"God bless our souls," murmured Sadie in prayer.


"And so you decided to not only kill but also steal the professor's work?" queried the Inspector sternly, "Hardly noble!"


The young man was trembling. "I hired Medha Deshpande. She was loving, unselfish, kind -- all that I was not. I maintained a diary in which I entered my deep feelings for her, how they grew. You'll find it locked in the safe."


"Did Medha know of your diary?" asked the Inspector.


"No. Neither did she have the key to the safe. On the day of the storm I did not expect her to show up for work since the forecast was bad. I had just put away a new batch of leech specimens in the earthenware jar, decided I'd return the diary to the safe. I knew my gardener would not emerge from his room till lunch time, that Mrs. Williams was tied up in housework duties."


"So you went to your study without disguise, risking all?"


"I've done it before. It's a chore to dress myself each day. I was not intending to spend more than a few minutes. My study is always empty, except for the hours Medha spends in it."

"You succeeded, but at what cost!"


"I opened the safe, replaced my diary and was turning the key to lock it when she seized me. I did not hear her enter or I may have reacted differently."


"Exactly! Exactly!"


"She wouldn't let go. I tried. She had a strong hold."


The young man's face contracted with waves of fresh pain at the remembrance. He broke down in tears.


"When she had fallen I could not bear to spend a moment longer in the study and found myself in my own bedroom. On my arm was a thin trickle of blood. At first I assumed it was Medha's, when she fell. Then I realized what had happened. One of my leeches unbeknownst to me had attached itself to my arm. In the skirmish with Medha she had grabbed at whatever she could."


"Yes. Like a drowning victim, by some freak of coincidence she clutched the very thing that gives you away--a little red leech," said the Inspector solemnly.


The professor rolled up his sleeves to show the wound which had started to fester, as Sadie had predicted.


Best get that attended to. As you can see, crime does not pay."

"No, crime does not pay," murmured Sadie.

"Madhav, you're in charge here. I'm dropping Madam home and proceeding to Headquarters."



Rekha Valliappan is an award-winning multi-genre writer of short fiction and poetry, holding degrees from both Madras University and the University of London. Her masthead credits include a Pushcart Prize nomination 2018, the Boston Accent Lit Prize, Across The Margin Best of Fiction 2017, Schlock! Quarterly Best Short Stories and cover feature, in addition to being published twice in Aphelion and many international journals and anthologies including GHLL, Lackington's, Foliate Oak, Five:2:One, The Punch, Thrice Fiction, Madras Courier, ColdNoon, Rabid Oak, Liquid Imagination, The Ekphrastic Review, Small Orange Poetry, Scarlet Leaf, Queen Mob's Teahouse, and elsewhere.




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