The night was as dark as my coat. It was amavasiya. I was confident that the man would arrive at midnight carrying a slaughtered hen in a bag. He had been doing it now for more than 3 years now. He would stop at the center of the courtyard and chant some verses, motioning to the sky and the earth. He would finally place a severed hen’s head in the middle of the courtyard. He would then proceed to the corridor where I stayed and toss the headless carcass out of the bay window and leave the fort as surreptitiously as he came. I knew it well because that was my feast for the day, the served head. The next day, there would be no sighs of the midnight rituals when the tourists thronged the fort.

The fort was Jaan Quila and as the name says, it was the place the queens of the erstwhile kingdom retired during their pregnancy and for delivery. The fort was where the future kings were born.

That night too he arrived, did his bidding and left. I rushed towards my feast and snatched it away to my niche where I could relish it in peace. However, I noticed something strange tonight. I saw a figure pulling a large gunny bag approaching the courtyard from the inside of the keep. There was no other way into the fort except the entrance. Either the figure had entered the fort before it was locked by 8 o’clock or it had the supreme strength to scale the 20 feet back wall with the heavy gunny bag. The figure left the heavy bag at the center of the yard and disappeared again into the inky darkness. I went back to my sleep.

***

The parched air blew her hair out to ribbons as Nanda Babu drove her to fort town of Rajogarh in the open jeep. Radhika assessed him with amusement. Tall and well build a slight look of inadequacy always swimming in his eyes and in his hand a short heavy baton, he fits the bill of the MLA’s right-hand man to the T, intimidating to others yet at the bidding of his master’s authority. She toyed with the idea of taking him into confidence. What she learned from years of working as CBI was that the case was better observed by a third party than the victim.

‘So what’s the story, Nanda Babu?’, her direct question startled Nanda Babu.

‘Nanda Madamji. Call me so’ he said.

He hesitated and continued, ‘The situation in Rajogarh has been very unsettling for the past few months. Two deaths in a row had shaken the town.’

She waited for him to continue.

‘The first one was a businessman, Mr.Balwant’s son Shyamsundar. He was into marble export business like our Shivraj sir. In fact, a few days before his death, Shivraj sir had outbid him for large hotel contract and in the melee that followed the tender meeting, Shyam openly threatened our MLA with dire consequences.’

Shivaraj, the MLA of Rajogarh was the one who requested Radhika to investigate the case, the local police being noncooperative, thanks to the MLA’s raging temper and the Chief Minister’s dislike for MLA. Radhika had done her background check.

‘The next one?’ she prodded.

‘The second victim was actually my buddy, ma’am.’

Radhika thought she heard a quiver in Nanda’s voice.

‘Gopal, his name was. We worked together for Shivraj Sir. Money was not pouring. But we had the power and wielded it well. The poor guy had two families to look after, if could get my drift ma’am.’

Nanda kept starring at the dusty road but it was clear the past haunted him. Radhika did not deter his reminisance. She knew the value of such information.

‘He was enticed by the opposite political camp and became a mole within us. It got ugly when Shivraj sir confronted him. Suffice to say, he had a few broken ribs when he formally quit us and joined hands with Narashima.’ Nanda said as a matter of fact and involuntarily reached for his baton that lay beside his seat.

Nanda continued as if he was recollecting to himself.

‘The first murder shocked the town. Before we could recover, the second one happened exactly one month later on new moon day.’

Radhika frowned. The next new moon day was just two days away. Now she understood Shivraj’s anxiety and urgency to get her on board. In whatever short time she had, she did a background check on the MLA. However, Nanda seemed to be the kind of person who would reveal more than what was expected of him. So she led him on.

‘And the police?’

Nanda said, ‘The police are more interested in framing our sir than helping us. You see, Shivraj sir had a spate with our CM recently over allotment of developmental funds and the CM had been hounding us ever since. Considering that Shivraj Sir was instrumental for the CM’s growth within the party, I expected more from him. But it looks like he is turning the police on us’.

Nanda wanted to know if she wanted to take rest before visiting the crime spot. She was fine and they went straight to the fort.

The MLA was there waiting, wearing his typical MLA clothes, kurta pyjama, with a hint of nervousness in his eyes. As soon as his eyes set on Radhika, he blurted out a weak greeting. He was clearly intimidated.

The fort had tourists streaming from all its corners.

She turned to Shivraj and asked ‘Sir, Why was the crime scene not isolated?’

Shivraj replied, ‘The fort is the only means of sustenance for many in the town. If I close it down, the economy would be affected’.

‘And so would be your vote bank’, Radhika thought.

Radhika prided herself in reading people cues. Just as how she knew Nanda Babu was a harmless gossip trying to show off, she saw that Shivraj was unreliable. Her dislike for politicians added to her judgment. The nervous but order-like request, he had given her on the phone to take up the case, the furtive looks all made Radhika smell an inner motive. Shivraj’s speech was halted, measured and rehearsed, a sure sign concealing something important.

On his part Shivraj did not do much to contradict Radhika’s opinion on him. He was preoccupied and edgy. He said he suspected one person. His name was Narashima, his political rival. He would benefit the most if Shivraj’s name was tarnished by multiple murders in the town or even better if Shivraj was killed, he claimed.

‘If I may, can I take a tour of the fort’ she asked Shivraj who seemed to be pleased to be relieved of her presence around him. He said he had to go back to his office anyway and took leave of her and added that she had Nanda Babu at her disposable for all her queries. As he left, he kept glancing over the western corridor of the fort. Radhika instinctively knew she had to check it out later.

Radhika made a mental map of the fort. The fort was on top of a small hill with a steep fall on its west side. She learned from Nanda Babu that the only way to access it was through its eastern gate.

The Keep or the main building, which was where the erstwhile queens would have retired to deliver the future kings was surrounded by a large courtyard in the front and ensconced safely within the bailey walls running around its peripheries. From the walls abutted the rampart pathway that ran around the full circle of the fort. There were pillared corridors beneath the rampart walls.

By now night had descended swiftly on the fort.

Radhika took out the flashlight from her pocket and held it near her chin. A startled Nanda jumped up when he saw Radhika’s green eyes scan the courtyard.

‘There’s actually a very much spoken legend behind this very courtyard. Did you overhear the story from one of the tourist guides? But for now, allow me to do the job.’

Though she knew it before, Radhika winced at the thought of having to hear hearsay, but Nanda had already started.

‘You see, ma’am, a pregnant Vishnavite queen was killed by her Shivate servant in this very place we are standing on, to usurp the power from their sect. Shivites reigned from then on, but not without their share of many unnatural deaths. It is believed that the pregnant queen’s curse haunts every shivite king and his progeny.’ Nanda concluded.

‘Well, that seems rather real now with the situation and the story cut out for each other. The past sins are coming to bite us in the back’, Radhika lightly chuckled to herself.

‘That’s what most people, including me and Shivraj sir, believe’, Nanda Babu said with seriousness

‘Well, I’m not either of you’ Radhika said but regretted immediately. She should let Nanda talk without her opinion holding him back. Someone was using the curse as a prop to commit the murders.

As they moved towards the western wall, A black cat jumped out from the dark. He immediately earned Nanda’s wrath but he did not care.

Ignoring the cursing man, the cat tried to approach Radhika. But sensing repulsion from her as well moved away to the western corridor of the fort wall.

She took the path that the cat had taken, climbed to the rampart and peeped outside the fort. The Westside of the fort dropped into a gorge, an apology for a river threading through it. She beamed her torch in futile attempt to discern something. She made a mental note to check it out in daylight. The next day, she had to be on her vigil for the new moon follows the night after and if she could go by what Nanda said, there might be a murder on that night.

Just then, she heard Nanda call her out from the courtyard. It was getting late and they had to close the fort for the day. Nanda led her outside the fort and locked the entrance.

‘Who has the keys to the fort?’, she asked Nanda, who was surprised that Radhika did not know.

‘Shivraj sir, of course!’, he said as they climbed back into the jeep and drove along the dusty roads to Shivaraj’s guest house.

The guest house was minimally furnished with nothing to complain about and Radhika was not particular about luxuries anyway. After making sure she was comfortably settled, Nanda left for the day. The dinner arrived from Shivaraj’s house and Radhika realized how hungry she was. After the simple homemade meal, Radhika began to thread pieces of information together.

Two victims, one beneficiary, the MLA, his business rival and a detracted henchman. Was she called upon by him as a decoy to divert the world from the truth?

***

The next day she was ready and waiting when Nanda came to pick her up.

‘You lock the fort yourself every day?’, Radhika asked Nanda as she climbed into the jeep.

‘No ma’am. The security guard locks it and hands over the keys Shivraj Sir.’ Nanda replied as he backed out the vehicle from the guest house and proceeded in the dusty roads.

The keys were with the Municipal office before. But for three years now, it had been with our MLA in his house locker. He insisted on keeping the keys to himself easier for him to visit……. whenever he wants…’ he trailed off and stopped as if it struck him that he had blurted out something that he should have not.

‘Can we go to the police station first? I want to have a look at their reports’, Radhika requested.

Ten minutes later, she was sure she could not get any useful information from the police.

The sub-inspector handling the case was uncooperative and disinterested and sprayed some titbits of information along with paan spittle. Cause of death was strangulation. No, he could not afford to share the report. Government business, he could not divulge more. Radhika was not intimidated but she knew it was futile to try to get any coherent information from them.

Ligature strangulation, rustic yet very effective, she thought. All one needs was a chord or a chain. Suddenly, Shivraj’s thick chain that dangled gaudily from his neck flashed before her eyes.

Later, Radhika was dropped at the fort and she was on her own today. Nanda had work that needed attention. She had time to sieve through the crime area. She went around the fort crowded with visitors, each guide giving out his version of the Queen’s murder. In some, the Queen was murdered by her King to appease his courtesan.

She wanted to inspect the western wall. When she approached it, she saw the familiar animal comfortable perched on the wall’s niche inside the corridor. She then peered out of the bay window which framed the vast desert land. When she looked down to see, as expected, the hillock peppered with tourist garbage. Discarded water bottles, empty snacks bags were fluttering in the wind. She climbed out of the window and jumped outside to have a closer look. A few feet from where she landed, she saw a fading yellow bag that looked as it had been ravaged by birds. On closer inspection she found a few brittle bones in the bag, possibly belonging to a bird.

It was not new that there were bones and carcass in deserts. But it was odd that it was stuffed in a bag,

***

‘It’s only half past six, Nanda. I have a few places I am yet to inspect, let me do that, then we will leave.’

‘Shivraj Sir has ordered me to bring you back. We are closing the fort early today if anything can be prevented by this…’

Reluctant, Radhika climbed onto the jeep and sat at the back. She instructed Nanda not to disturb. She needed to think. Nanda sneaked a look at Radhika in the rearview mirror, parted his lips but went quiet and began driving.

Radhika had been here for two days and got hold of a fair amount of evidence to calculate who the murderer might be. All the odds were against Shivraj. His masterstroke was trying to frame Narashima, his political rival to clear his route to power. She suspected he was the brains behind this. All the signs pointed to him. The nervousness with which he met with her, the constant peeking at the west gate, having the keys at night, closing it early on the murder night, the gaudy murder weapon. She could not help but suspect him.

She had set her mind to visit the fort tonight. Radhika had thought this through. The RR credentials threaded duffle bag was her go-to bag for any detective expedition. It included two blankets, flashlight, her Walther P22, and Ruger Blackhawk .44 magnum, and a magnifying glass, binoculars among other things.

As usual, the dinner came from Shivraj’s house. Radhika was starving. With all that work shoved on her, she ate her meal quickly. She took a bite and thought that if her suspicion on Shivraj turned out to be true, the already backward town would drown in misery and development would be a far sight. She pitied them but it wasn’t her worry. One thing she was certain of was that she wanted to catch him and end his game. She reached the plate but her hand went weak. She couldn’t bring her muscles to reach it. In a matter of seconds, everything around went hazy. The lights seemed to go out in straight lines and her seat was not steady. And in that instant, the back of her head struck the couch and her eyes closed slowly.

***

The fort has been my home ever since I was delivered here along with four of my litters. My sibling did not make it. But I, the black one with startling green eyes survived. I never ventured out of the fort. Why would I? Food was aplenty small rodents and hatchlings.

The new moon night arrived. It was already midnight and my feast had not yet arrived. I was losing my humour. I should have not missed that scurrying mouse earlier that night. But I thought my dinner was sorted because it was a new moon day, the day of Shivraj’s visit.

It had been two days since the detective lady had arrived to inspect the fort. She had been here during the day. We both had our similarities apart from the healthy hatred we shared for each other. We had startling green eyes that could be disarming at the least. People shy away from us like they have seen their soul reflected in our eyes that bared all their fetishes. When she bent down to inspect the courtyard yesterday, I noticed that she had an extra appendage in her left hand. We both were a bad omen in the society’s eyes.

Finally, I thought I saw some movement in the courtyard. Late by half an hour, but I was not complaining. I rushed towards my dinner.

The man came chanted his verses, placed the chicken head in the courtyard, throw the rest of the body out of the bay window overlooking the west side of the fort and left.

As I was relishing my dinner, the familiar second man came lugging a large gunny bag from inside the fort. He placed it in the exact spot, where I had snatched away my dinner from and left. All was well and I went back to my late night dinner.

***

Radhika got up feeling groggy and bemused. Someone had drugged her at the instance of Shivraj. She has missed the crucial night. A nagging unease churned in the pit of her stomach. Does that mean another body?

She pulled herself up and approached Shivraj house to confront him and finish this game once for all.

However, the house wore an anxious look. The usual sounds of men scuttling about, gregarious voices, all were missing. Only muffled sounds escaped.

When she entered his house, he saw Shivraj hunched on a chair, worry written all over his face.

‘There has been another murder last night. The police called just now.’ The visibly shaken Shivraj blurted out.

‘Who was killed?, Radhika suddenly felt foolish and guilty as if it was her fault having let it happen.

‘The man whom I suspected, Narashima’, Shivraj said shaking his head in confusion.

‘Convenient, is it not?’ Radhika was angry now.

‘The murderer chose only your enemies’, Radhika did not beat around the bush.

Shivraj gave her a confused look.

‘You don’t suspect me like the police, do you?’, his resigned voice asked.

Radhika did not back down.

‘Is that the story you have cooked up to tell the cops when they come for you now?’ Radhika said.

‘Why would I murder those people?’, Shivraj said in utter disbelief

‘You use the curse to eliminate your competition, quiet handy those curses’, Radhika mocked.

‘I…I’d never. Every new moon, I think I might be the target. See, I am a Shivate descendent and I fear I might be next in line every time someone is killed’. It was clear Shivraj was losing it.

‘I don’t believe you. Nanda said that you go to the Quila every new moon night.’

‘Nobody knows about that. But I guess it’s your job to know everything. But still, you can’t suspect me–’

‘Why? I have every reason to suspect you.’ Shivraj was stopped mid-sentence

‘I go there to save myself. I go there to carry out a ritual, hoping that it would cancel the curse. I read it in one of my ancestor’s books. But once the killings started, I was terrified. But I could not stop as the ritual specified rigorous continuity. I still feel that the ritual is what is saving me till date.’ Shivaraj came clean.

‘Why cannot I suspect that you performed the ritual but with human bodies?’, Radhika tried to take out every piece of information she could from Shivraj.

‘I have been warding off the curse effectively for three years now with a sacrificial hen. Why would I change that now?’ Shivraj replied.

‘Your actions and your words contradict. How do you justify drugging me, Mr. Shivraj?’, Radhika did not want him to get away with this.

‘I did not drug you. In fact, I wanted you to accompany me to the fort yesterday. I wanted to explain it all to you and take you with me. I was at your door knocking, rang your bell many times. But, you didn’t answer. It was getting past the prescribed time of the ritual and as much as I hated it, I went there alone.’ Shivraj explained.

Radhika pondered over it. Many murderers play the victim card. This was not new.

‘Did you notice anything suspicious when you visited the fort the last three times?’ she asked.

‘No’, Shivraj replied, ‘In fact, the last time I was late by half an hour and nothing seemed out of place.’

If Shivraj was to be believed, was the murderer trying to frame the MLA, waiting until his ritual was over to place the bodies?

‘Try to understand, Ms. Roy. I am the victim here’, as Shivraj was saying the phone rang.

Nanda had called Shivraj to tell him that the police were trying to get an arrest warrant issued for him.

***

As she was standing in the courtyard, evening sun setting, Radhika knew she was closing in on the murderer. Shivraj had been arrested by the police in the afternoon. But she was convinced he did not do it. Why would a murderer leave an obvious trail of evidence leading to him?

She went over the facts. The murderer had to be physically strong to strangulate three well-built men, had to know the MLA quite well and for a long time too, to know about his late night rendezvous to the fort. Someone she knew fitted the bill. Someone she had been spending a lot of time with, in the two days. The image flitted in and out.

Suddenly it dawned on her as the sun lit up the west side wall of the fort silhouetting Nanda.

Nanda who had been so long standing over the rampart walls, came down as Radhika watched him in disbelief.

He had been deliberately feeding her wrong information and misguiding her spectacularly. Her bias towards politicians did not help the cause.

When he came near all it took was one look at her face. He knew he had been found. Instinctively Radhika touched her holster but before she could act, Nanda hit the crown of her head with a heavy object, the baton he carried with him always. As she passed out, Radhika’s thought was that a baton could be as effective as a chain for strangulation.

Nanda dragged Radhika into the pillared corridor which ran beneath the western rampart wall. She was not as heavy as the men. But she was the hardest to trick. The men had been easy to fool. All he had to tell Shyamsundar and Narashima was that he could give them incriminating evidence of their rival, Shivraj, performing witchcraft at the fort on new moon day and they were ready to accompany him to the fort on those inky nights. Gopal, Oh Gopal!, he fell for that foreign liquor bottle that Nanda dangled before his eyes and promised they could share it in the fort that night. A duplicate key to the fort and a baton was the only cost involved.

Now he had to finish the job, stuff her into a gunny bag and place it in the courtyard as he had done three times before.

Nanda stared at the mangled Radhika at his feet. How he wished he could let her live. He had asked Radhika to leave Rajogarh, the imbecile. He had grown fond of her ignorance-laced know-it-all attitude. He squatted to inspect her closer. A trickle of blood from the crown of her head ran down her face. He hated to hurt women. They were easily breakable mentally and physically.

‘Like a twig’, he thought as he tried to free the Walter from its holster.

He stood up and inspected the gun. It would go well with his new shades, he thought.

‘Maybe once I become an MLA, I can carry it with me all the time’, he thought as he took aim around the dark corridor.

Suddenly, his focused eye met a pair of starling green eyes. Everything that happened after remained hazy in his memory. A ball of black fur pounced on his face, claws retracted and digging into his eyes. He screamed in agony as the gun slipped down from his hands. Before he could free himself from the cat’s clutches, two bullets shattered his knees caps. The sharpshooter with glaucous eyes got him.

***

Radhika was getting her wound stitched by the nurse when the local TV reporter was squawking about the triple murder in their area. The Man Friday of the MLA was charged with homicide. It was suspected he wanted to frame the MLA Shivraj, the reward for it being the assembly seat of Rajogarh. The assistance to execute the plan had been from the higher-ups in the political circle. Some even suspect the CM. Radhika knew this charade would go on for a few more days and die on its own. As for her, she could not wait to get back to New Delhi.

***

Written by Sarveswari Sai Krishna & Srishti Gupta
Cover Credits to: Shankar Hosagoudar