The last few months have been really hectic for the ex CBI officer turned private investigator, Radhika Roy. Exactly a year ago her agency Radhika Roy Intelligence Bureau was registered and within no time it was  soaring high. Solving 9 big profile cases in just a span of a year is an achievement in itself. Being an ex-CBI helped her gain the attention of prospective clients no doubt but, it was her keen observatory skill that actually aided to nab the criminals with efficiency and sail smoothly in this hard hitting world.

So today she was celebrating the anniversary of her Tughlaq road office registration with her favourite pal,  Ruffy and a glass of orange juice. Scratching him behind the ears, she said, “I’ll be away for a week Ruffy. Be a good boy and don’t scare the dog house owner. Ok?”

As though he understanding her words, Ruffy  leaned his head against her knee and replied with a soft woof sound. Radhika sighed, looking at the packed bags. It was always hard to stay away from Ruffy darling. But, meeting her mother was important and she was kind of missing her too. It was more than a year she last visited her and also a break was becoming necessary to refill herself after a frenzied year.

 *******

Next day early morning Radhika dropped Ruffy at Cuddle inn, a cage-less dog care centre and headed towards the airport. The flight to Kolkata was on schedule. After more than a year Radhika was visiting her mother. She always wanted her mother to live with her. But the old lady preferred to live in an old age home in Kolkata, that was her father’s birthplace. For years she hoped her mother would come out of the shock of the accident that killed the man they both loved. It hadn’t happened yet. And now Radhika is also convinced it is best for her to stay in a place where she has her hearts on.

*******

Leaving the airport Radhika booked a prepaid taxi. While in Kolkata, she always prefers the yellow taxi for touring. Though Delhi is her  home now, her teen days of Kolkata would always have a special place in her heart.

The bustling city was gearing up for the impending Durga Puja, which was  just weeks away. So the roads were unusually jam-packed and the journey was taking more than the normal time. Stuck in a never ending traffic jam, Radhika decided to rush through the morning news. Scrolling down the headlines, one news particularly caught her attention. Both because of the nature of the news and also the victim’s name.

The news read, “ Mysterious death near Maithon Wild Life Sanctuary of North Bengal. A wildlife vet, Reshmi Mallick, died after she was attacked by some wild animals, in her own house. She was living alone in the government bungalow.  Her dead body was discovered in the morning by the caretaker. The ajar front door raised his suspicion. And when he went inside after ringing the bell for quite some time, he found a mutilated body of the vet on the sofa.

There is no sign of breaking into the house or any major damage to the households. The main question remains how did the animal entered, opening the front door? The police is waiting for the forensic report and did not comment anything.”

Reshmi Mallick! The name was uncannily  familiar. And the case was interesting. But, there wasn’t much time to ponder in that distant case presently. Because her destination has arrived.

********

Radhika’s hotel was just a block away from the old age home where her mother was residing. She decided to walk the distance after her luggage was safely tucked in her room. On her way Radhika stopped for a while to admire the under construction Puja pandal when the phone call came.

-Am I speaking to crime investigator Radhika Roy?
-Yes, speaking.
-Hi, my name is Sonia. I called up your office in Delhi regarding a case and took your number…
-They shared my number? Didn’t my office informed you I am on a holiday in Kolkata….

A beep beep sound was interfering in the call. Radhika checked the mobile screen. It was her office landline on the call waiting. Most probably trying to inform about this unwanted call. She decided to tackle them later.

The woman on the other side was continuing to speak with vigour.

-Please don’t be angry. They told me everything. I have promised them I will just speak to you once and if you are not interested, will never bother you again.

After a brief pause Radhika relented

-Shoot
-This is about the murder of Reshmi Mallick.

Radhika was now all ears.

-She was my best friend. And was murdered near the Maithan wildlife sanctuary by some wild animal attack.
-Yes, I read that in the newspaper.
-Oh you’ve read it! Good. Now tell me will she invite any wild animal inside her house by opening the front door! I suspect it is a murder. And I want you to investigate it.

Then taking a deep breath she urged.

-I know you’re on a holiday and I’m invading your personal time.  But, this place is not very far from Kolkata. So if you can manage it will be of great help.

Radhika was already interested. But decided not to show too much enthusiasm.

-Can you come and meet me at my hotel at 9 pm today? Then perhaps I can decide whether to take up the case or not.
-Of course I can. You are staying at…
-I am sharing the address of my hotel.

Radhika was already standing in front of the old age home. Her mother won’t be too pleased about this  recent conversation. But she will manage.

*********

It was already 10 pm. Radhika was waiting in her room. Sonia has already called up and messaged to apologize for her delay.

The intercom rang. It was the reception. They were informing about Sonia’s arrival.

-I am really sorry for being late. Actually, I am a model and I had a photo shoot today. The shooting took more time to wrap up than I pre-empted. I am really sorry.

The dusky, tall, slender woman standing in front of her actually looked like a model with the pointed nose and dreamy eyes. Looking straight out of any magazine cover, Radhika thought to herself and wondered what can be the relation between a gorgeous model and a wildlife vet.

As if reading her mind, Sonia herself started narrating, making herself comfortable on the blue sofa.  

-“ My friendship with Reshmi dates back to the early school days when we didn’t even know how to spell friend. While I was the naughty, prankster kind, she was the studious type, helping me out with all the projects and the studies. Though we were poles apart and now in totally different fields of interest we constantly kept in touch. It was during our last conversation a few weeks back that I had the first hunch that she might be in some kind of trouble. She was unmindful while talking and was even considering to finalize her will.”

Sonia paused to take some breathe. Radhika  passed her the bottle of water

-Will you have some tea, Sonia?
-No thank you. I am in a hurry. I have to attend a party after this.

Oh, so this explains the decked up lady, Radhika thought. Sonia was still speaking.

-I do not believe this attack by wild animal theory. It was a cold blooded murder. Uncle and Aunt are devastated when they came to know about the death of their only daughter. Now, if only the real culprit is arrested, I hope they will find some solace in this untimely grief

And I know only you can find out the truth.

-Do you suspect anyone?
-So you’re taking up the case? Sonia’s eyes shone bright.
-Yes. Now, if you can share any name whom you suspect or any hint Reshmi may have given.
-She had some enemy at her work front. Earlier, while posted near Jim Corbett national park, she was falsely accused of smuggling and helping illegal poaching. But she proved all the allegations wrong and was acquitted with respect. But, soon she was transferred and we could  never find out who had tried to malign her career.

Now Radhika remembered. Reshmi Mallick was indeed accused of smuggling and the case was handled by her department. A fellow officer, Ramesh, with whom she later had a fall out, was handling the case. Though not personally involved, she had knowledge about the case and thus the name was sounding familiar.

-“So you suspect someone from her office, who earlier tried to sabotage her career, may be responsible for the murder”,  Radhika exclaimed keeping her composure not revealing what she knew already.
-Perhaps, but the actual truth can only be searched on investigation. Tomorrow I am going to the spot, would you care to join?
-I have to if I am investigating. But, first I need to handle a more severe case tonight. On the personal front.

*******

Next day afternoon Radhika was in the back seat of the white sedan driving through the dusty road, away from the hustle of the city. Convincing her mother was difficult, but, she knows her daughter. So didn’t protest much. Radhika has made up her mind to postpone her return ticket. Once the case is solved she will spend some quality time with mother before returning.

 It was almost a 3 hour long drive. But, the scenery outside the glass pane was soothing enough to take away the stress from the tired eyes.

-“I have talked with the local authority. They will be arranging our stay at the forest guest house.”

Sonia broke the long silence

-“Isn’t the guest house adjacent to the forest bungalow where Reshmi was murdered”,  Radhika was curious.
-Exactly so. I thought staying near the spot may help you in the investigation.
-That was a good thought. But, I have a request. Please introduce me with the local people as a common friend who has come to pay homage to the departed soul.

Looking at the confusion on the face of Sonia, she explained.

-It is always easier to get the information as an alias rather than an investigating officer. My year long experience in  the police department and CBI taught me so.
-Okay, okay, I understand. Look, we are almost there.

Indeed a board was displaying “Welcome to the Maithan Wild Life Sanctuary”.

A few minutes drive and Radhika spotted the most astonishing figure. Effigy of a dark centaur at the entrance of the small tribal village adjacent to the sanctuary.

What a curious thing, Radhika thought. A Greek mythological figure in the abundance of tribal India!

But without giving her any more time to ponder a police van screeched to stop beside their car.

To their good luck the officer already knew Radhika and promised to work in collaboration.

-“It will be really nice if you can share what you’ve found so far. And one more thing. Keep my identity a secret for now”, Radhika urged
-I understand Madam. You’ll get our full support.

********

The arrangement of the guest house was nice. The caretaker, Thiago, was an old man in his seventies, very friendly and caring. Though a local resident, he could converse in broken Hindi and Bengali, which made it easier to communicate.  He had already arranged for the lunch when Radhika and Sonia arrived.

After the lunch Radhika decided to take a stroll around the village, while Sonia took rest in her room.

She trudged along the dusty paves, her mind focused on the gentle footsteps that seemed to echo throughout the desolate road. The village was quite empty at this hour it seemed. Slowly she walked towards the forest.

-What do you want here?

Her trance was broken by a coarse, loud voice. Turning around she found an intimidating figure staring at her with glaring eyes. Radhika could not ascertain what made the person look so fearsome. The deep bruise across his uneven, expressionless face or his rude  voice. Adding to the fear factor was a large black dog accompanying the guy. The dog somehow faintly reminded her of the Grim of Harry Potter.

-Hi, I am Radhika Roy. A friend of the deceased wild vet Reshmi.

Did he squinted his eyes at the mention of Reshmi? Radhika was not sure because in a flash of a second the man was as expressionless as before.

-It’s getting dark. Do not loiter in the forest area during this time. It can be dangerous.

The voice was more of an order rather than a friendly caution and that somehow irritated Radhika, but, she decided to keep her calm.

-“Thanks for the guidance sir. Actually, I reached just this afternoon and wanted to see the place around. Are you a local resident?” Radhika asked in the most friendly way possible.

The man did not seem to hear her.

-The forest has some rules and regulation and one who over steps will meet the same fate as your friend.

With this final warning, he walked away

What a weird being! But, Radhika decided not to venture further into the woods. It wouldn’t be wise to get into a row on the first day of visit. So instead she started walking towards few cottages in a distance. Meanwhile the sky was aglow with the last orange rays before twilight beckons the star and was giving an eerie feeling to the quiet ambience.

-Madam ji, are you looking for something?

Radhika turned around to find their caretaker, Thiago, with a bag of vegetable looking at her rather astonished.

-Not really. I was just looking around the place.
-I will show you the village tomorrow morning. It’s not safe in the evening to loiter near woods. Especially when Nongbuh is enraged.

Who is Nongbuh? Radhika wondered. But, before she could probe further a queer looking villager interrupted the conversation. He must be an old acquaintance of Thiago. After the usual greetings they discussed something in a low, grave voice. Though Radhika was unable to grasp the complete local dialect she could gather the words – Curse, Nongbuh and Reshmi. So indeed they were discussing the murder. Radhika decided to talk with the caretaker later. He would be able to give some clues it seems.

********

–    “Tell me more about Nongbuh. I want to know more about this Nongbuh and his curse the villager was talking about,” Radhika asked sipping her Darjeeling Tea.

She was sitting on the porch, savouring some good snacks with a hot cup of tea and talking to Thiago. Sonia was busy on her phone in some other room

–    Oh you have seen his effigy. At the entrance. He is our God.

 The forest or as the local people call “btap” has since time immemorial endured as a revered entity for the local tribal communities. The forest is a well loved home, a game sanctuary and also an abode of worship all rolled into one, around which their social, cultural and religious activities revolve.  If you look closely at the value system of these tribesmen, one would find that it is centred on the Supreme Being, Nongbuh, God of the forest. Their relation with God is one of esteemed reverence and fear and they believe that Nongbuh confidently entrusts and commits to them the basic requirements necessary for their survival and provides all their needs. Thus forest, as a natural resource with its bountiful products is freely accessible to humanity. But, only till the resources are not  squandered.

The legend says that those who enter the forest with any ill motive meet this dark, chiselled figure with fiery eyes, half-man and half-horse. The head, arms and torso, human and joined at the waist to the body and the legs of a horse. He would usually carry a large spear, called the Spear of Truth. The judgement is always short but painful. His army of dogs, then gives the  culprit the most excruciating deaths.

–    Ok, so this explains the dark figure of centaur at the entrance.

– Yes, He is our ultimate guard. And these villagers believe that Reshmi Madam must have exploited the forest resources in some way and so was punished by Nongbuh’s army.

– What do you mean by exploiting? Radhika looked askance.

Thiago did not answer promptly. Seeing him hesitate, Radhika comforted him softly, “You can share with me Thiago. The world needs to know the truth.”

After dithering for some time at last Thiago started speaking,

-Reshmi madam was rumoured to be aiding the poachers to smuggle the rare animal species and the trees. She even had a spat with Abinashbabu regarding the same.
-Who is this Abinashbabu?
-The chief forest guard. You will never forget him if you see him once. Initially, everyone seems to be intimidated by his look, but deep down he is a true gentleman and he loves this forest like his own children.
-Does he have a bruise mark across his face and roams with a dog?
-Yes, how do you… you have already met him?
-Hm. I met him on the way to the forest. He forbade me to move into the woods.
-He is always too strict about the forest rules.

Then getting up slowly, Thiago excused himself to check the arrangement of dinner, leaving Radhika  in a deep thought.

*******

The next morning, Radhika was woken up by a loud knock on her door.

The Inspector had come to visit her.

-Sorry madam, to disturb you so early in the morning. I came to the village for some work and thought to share some recent updates about the case.
-It’s absolutely okay. So what’s in news?
-Well the forensic report has confirmed, the bruises and teeth marks were indeed of some animal. The death happened due to a deadly attack by an animal.
-That’s a very important point. What else?
-Well, tracking the call records and other unsolicited  accounting details of Reshmi we are sure she was actually associated with some kind of illegal activities around the forest region.
-Just the confirmation I wanted. Tell me one thing. Do you believe some forest God can punish her for the misdeeds?

The Inspector hesitated for a second and then in a hushed tone added,

-I don’t know Ma’am, but the conviction with which the villagers are claiming, even I am wondering sometimes if it’s actually true.

Radhika sighed. Some beliefs are kept live for other benefits.

-Can you help me to check the murder spot once?  Of course with your permission and if possible some photograph of exactly how the place was looking like when entered first after the incident.
-No problem at all. I have some work in the police station, so I will take your leave. My sub inspector would accompany you.

Then, before leaving, he added

-I have very high regards of your work Ma’am. Its a great privilege for me to be able to help you.

Respect. Yes, that’s what Radhika has earned during these years and for a moment she felt proud of her decision to  never compromise with her ethics.

********

Scrutinising the murder spot and the photographs the Inspector sent, Radhika was sure of one thing. The only thing broken in the room was a large flower vase beside the sofa where the mutilated body of Reshmi was found. The table beside it dislocated slightly due to some hustle maybe, but the focus of the attacks were the vase and victim. Why?

-“Thiago, can you find out if anybody came to meet Reshmi on that fateful night?”
-“I was there till 10 pm. Only a small boy had come to gift some flowers in the late evening. Cannot tell if anyone came after that. But, I will ask the locals around, if they noticed someone.”
-“Why would some kid bring flowers for her?”
-“Oh! these are poor kids. They would bring fruits or flowers for the officers from time to time and expects some food in return. It is very common here.” Thiago stated as a matter of facts.
-“Flowers! Curious. And where did Reshmi put them”
-“In the vase”, Thiago commented and went off to do his errand.

Radhika rushed to her room and started going through her notes she was making from time to time. It was time to make some calls and confirm certain details.

*******

-So you’re saying you had no idea Reshmi was associated with some illegal activities
-Obviously not. Rather, I still believe there must be some mistakes. Reshmi wasn’t like that.

Radhika was discussing with Sonia on the dinner table. Sonia was quite flustered after hearing about this discovery by the police

-I understand your dilemma Sonia. But, the police have proof. Now tell me one thing. You told me that you felt Reshmi was little lost when you last talked with her. So do you remember anything from your last conversation with her which can give a hint what or rather who was bothering her.
-She never divulged. I did ask her, but, she brushed away saying it was just work related stress.
-Hm. And one more thing. Was she fond of flowers?
-Oh yes. She just loved flowers. Everyday she would put fresh flowers and decorate vases.
-Thank you Sonia. I guess I will be able to untangle the mystery around your friend’s death soon.

******

Next morning Radhika decided to stroll around the village a little and took along Thiago as the interpreter. After talking to a few villagers,  including the head of the tribe, it was clear that nobody liked Reshmi much. Her nuisances were an open secret and every tribesmen were convinced that she was punished by their Supreme for her miscreants. She even happened to find the little kid who gifted Reshmi the flowers. After talking to him Radhika was sure she needed to visit the Inspector once.

*******

It was the fall of dusk when Radhika walked up to the forest guard’s cottage. The trees were crazy silhouettes against a newly silver sky, its blue hue almost gone until dawn. Their branches swayed in the wind, creaking into the gusting air. As the first sound of nocturnal animals sound comes, a hoot of an owl, a rabbit taking cover in the hedgerow, the ambience suddenly turned a little chilly.

Radhika knocked hard on the door.

-“Who is this?” Came the loud crackling voice.
-Its me Radhika. We met the day before yesterday. I need to ask you something

The door opened with a loud thud after some delay.

-I told you not to roam about the forest in the dark. Don’t you understand that it can be very dangerous walking alone like this. Anything can happen to you.

The threatening undertone of the dialogue was hard to miss. But Radhika kept calm and somehow barged into the room. The petrifying black dog stood up in alarm.

-What do you think you are doing Miss?
-Nothing, Mr. Abinash . I just think you have some clue regarding the murder of Reshmi and wanted to know that.
-And what made you think so, Miss?
-Well, I have my reasons. But, first tell me, I heard you own a fantastic nursery and you are growing some rare species of flower there. So won’t you care to show the guest around it?
-Well miss, first of all, you are no guest of mine. You’ve entered forcefully. Secondly, my nursery is not a public place to show off and thirdly, I want you out of this house right now.
-Tsk tsk tsk. You know very well, why I am asking to see your nursery. Don’t you? Well, so Mr. Dog trainer turned forest guard. Before joining this service you worked in a circus I believe. And you trained the dogs and the other canine families. And I also heard you were pretty good at it.
-So is changing profession a crime? What is the charge against me?
-No, no, not at all. But, using some previously gained knowledge to murder someone can be a serious charge isn’t it?
-Don’t talk gibberish young lady. I am not taking any further nonsense from you. Just get out.
-Now, now, sir, please calm down. This temper of yours has never been much of a boon to you, isn’t it? You engaged in some row with Reshmi a few days before she was murdered.  You accused her of theft of the forest property and she threatened you to bring a defamation case against you and ruin your career.
-Don’t you talk about that filthy woman. Being a woman you should be ashamed to take her side. The one who exploits Mother Nature has no right to live.
-I know what she was up to and I agree she deserved punishment. But, punishment by law. Why did you break the law.  You could’ve complained against her? The authority would’ve tackled.
-Huh. The corrupt authority. They would’ve again taken a lump sum bribe and let her roam freely. I had enough of this authority thing.  Anyone messes with my forest, I can tackle them myself.
-But, now after you go behind the bars for a murder case who would protect your beloved forest and your nursery?
-And who’ll turn me in? You? Do you think I’ll let you leave this place alive?

And he suddenly opened the back door. A strong and intoxicating smell filled the room. Radhika could see the purple flowers in the dim light of the nursery and could feel the change in the behaviour of the third living being of the room, who was yet to join the ongoing party.

-His name is Grumpy and I hope you’ll enjoy his company for a while. And when your dead body will be discovered in the forest ground, everyone will know Nongbuh have avenged upon another trespasser.  

And then with a violent push, Abinash startled Radhika, before fleeing the room, locking her inside with the only the dog and nowhere to go.

*******

The green piercing eyes of the black furry creature seemed to focus on Radhika. His growls were echoing in the otherwise silent room. The scent of the flowers was becoming denser.  In a reflex Radhika pulled out the gun. She wanted to use it only as the last resort. But, now she was cornered. Having no space to move further she climbed up the table opposite to the door.  Grumpy positioned himself to attack. Then in a flash of a second a number of things happened. Someone broke open the door and the suddenness of the events made Grumpy miss the target and he bumped into the wall behind Radhika, instead. Radhika taking advantage of the situation, jumped across the floor. Someone was already ready with a tranquilizer. With the perfect aim, Grumpy was unconscious on the ground in no time.

-Abinash is trying to run away!
-Don’t worry ma’am, we’ve already arrested him at the boundary. But, you should have waited for us. This kind of lone venture can be risky.

Radhika only smiled in reply. She was born to play with fire. And these small delinquents were inconsequential to her.

*******

-The forest guard? But, why?  And how?

Sonia was still in awe at the turn of events and the quick solution.

-Well, your friend Reshmi was indeed helping the poachers and the smugglers. Abinash somehow came to know about it. He threatened to disclose . Reshmi, as usual, confident on her high end contacts, who helped her to escape the noose last time, did not pay any heed. Abinash in the meantime tried to complain against her and came to know about the earlier history and was disgusted about the system. It was then he decided to handle the situation in his own ways.
-But Reshmi was attacked by a wild animal?
-Animal, yes. But, not wild. Domesticated and specially trained for this purpose. Being an ex dog trainer it was easy for Abinash to train his dog to attack fiercely. The only thing needed, a stimulus.

For that he chose a unique method. Holicithius, a flower belonging to crocus family. Commonly known as the Midnight Petals, its fragrance could instigate certain predatory behaviour in mammals. For humans, it would take a prolonged time to go savage but, Grumpy was trained especially under the spell of that fragrance to be more effective and would go wild even on slightest exposure to the fragrance. Abinash somehow visited her on the murder night and unleashed Grumpy on her, which turned fatal.

-If this flower can turn on the ravening nature in any mammal, how come Abinash was sane with all the training and nurturing the flowers?
-Well, there can be various reasons. First of all it would need a prolonged exposure with quite a volume for a better effect on Human body, especially when one is not trained like Grumpy. Like, it didn’t affect the kid who brought it to Reshmi. Moreover Abinash had suggested the kid to carry the flower in a bag and not to smell it, I learned. So he himself must’ve taken precautionary measures to avoid the fragrance during training. The police have found two gas masks hidden in the nursery. He was perhaps using a gas mask.
-But, how did you find out that the flowers and dog was related to this death?
-Well, the first clue was when Thiago told me, some kid gave her flowers in late evening on that fateful night and Reshmi put them in the vase. But, I could not find any flowers on the broken vase. So must be someone cleared them up. But, why?

My doubts were cleared when the kid told me that he had collected the flowers from Abinash’s nursery and he particularly told him not to smell them.  

I used my sources to find out about the past life of Abinash and found out, he was a dog trainer at a famous circus earlier. Though a very honest man, his bad temper was well known all across.

His passionate love for the wild was another hint. Reshmi was in a way looting the forest resources, unabashedly and would’ve continued to do so, if not stopped by Abinash.

The last sentence was quite harsh on Sonia. She was finding it hard to process all this data at once. Her best friend, who is no more, was a smuggler and a seemingly harmless forest guard could plot, such an intricate murder, was way too much for her to handle.

-I still can’t make peace with the fact that Reshmi was aiding the poachers. She loved animals and trees. That was the reason she chose to be a wild vet above all. How did she ever chose this path? Only if I had known earlier.

Sonia broke into sobs. Radhika did not know how to comfort her. She understands that Sonia not only loved Reshmi as a best friend but, rather revered her for the unique path she chose to tread. Losing respect for someone whom one had admired so long, could be heartbreaking. She left Sonia to calm herself down and come to peace with the reality.

Radhika climbed up the terrace. The dark sky studded with thousands of twinkling stars overlooking the black forest trees was indeed a beauty to watch. And in a way she does support the craze that Abinash felt to save this raw allure. Only if he hadn’t turned savage himself to save his belief. With a sigh, she returned to her bedroom. Quickly she made a call to the vets enquiring about the health of Grumpy. The innocent soul partnered a heinous crime without knowing. But, it was good to know that he was under proper care now. Then she opened her laptop in urgency. A  lot needs to be planned now. Her mother was waiting eagerly.

 

——-X——-