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The Diva's Last Bow: Arjun Raj Gaind brings Firstpost readers an original 'Maharaja Mystery'

Editor's note: Indian crime fiction writing — after several dry years — has been slowly coming into its own. And at Firstpost, we've had some discussion on the subject: Read 'A very pukka murder: Indian historical crime fiction has come of age, these sleuths prove' and 'Nuanced noir: As Indian readers devour crime fiction, desi writers are producing great stories'. It's a genre that's only going to gain greater prominence in 2017, and that's good news for Indian readers. As we look to the year ahead, we thought, why not bring an original story for our Firstpost readers, instead of yet another analysis of a publishing trend? Arjun Raj Gaind, whose historical crime caper A Very Pukka Murder earned much acclaim in 2016, penned this original short story just for you. Titled 'The Diva's Bow', it features his detective — His Highness Farzand-i-Khas-i-Daulat-i-Inglishia Mansur-i-Zaman Maharaja Sikander Singh, Light of Heaven, Sword of Justice, Shield of the Faithful, sole ruler of Rajpore, 'a lover of beautiful women and luxury, whose deepest passion is reserved for mysteries'. The story begins, as all good mysteries do, with a dead body. How it ends? That's for you to find out...


The Diva's Bow: A Maharaja Mystery

I have always been a great admirer of the theater. Perhaps it is the melodrama that appeals to my morbidly Punjabi temperament, or the fact that it permits me to escape from the burden of my responsibilities for a few hours, but I can think of few more pleasant diversions than an evening spent visiting the West End, however distasteful it may be considered for a man of my breeding to engage in so common a pursuit.

As you can imagine then, when my dear friend, Frank Eliott, a contemporary from my days at Cambridge, suggested we attend the premiere of a new play,  I was only too eager to jump at the chance. Until then, my visit to London had been wearyingly tedious, and the thought of watching one of Shakespeare's tragic soliloquies or better still, an hour or two of Webster's bloody mayhem, perked me up immeasurably.

Sadly, the evening's entertainment turned out to be an awful song and dance revue, one of those lamentable tamashas that fall under the dubious description of music-hall. Not so long ago, such rubbish had almost exclusively been the domain of the working classes, limited to the distant fringes of Drury Lane, but now, as a new century beckoned, the popularity of variety theatre was skyrocketing, and an entirely new type of venue was beginning to open up in the most fashionable districts of London, to cater to a new species of well-heeled patron.

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Image courtesy: Flickr Creative Commons

The Tivoli was just one such example, a dreadful Arabian Nights-inspired monstrosity that had opened some years previously bang in the middle of the Strand. The place made me want to squirm the moment I set eyes upon it. Inside, I was almost blinded by a dizzying array of imitation Khajuraho statuary surrounded by Arabique embellishments, as if the decorator had imbibed far too much opium before drawing up his blueprints. If the hideousness of the decor wasn't quite enough to give me a headache, the entertainment itself turned out to be truly execrable. The first act was a pantomime with the barest rudiments of a plot, involving a sailor, a dandy and his unfaithful wife, who spent most of their time hitting each other with cricket bats. This was followed by a trained monkey that turned somersaults and a juggler who caught a cannonball with his neck, and then two dreadful minstrel acts, before the piece de resistance, a cruel Maharaja wearing an oversized turban, who came out to sing a medley of bawdy songs.

Beside me, Eliott's handsome face lit up with a broad grin. No wonder he was so insistent I attend this particular  performance. He had always had rather an astringent sense of humor, and as I, a genuine Maharaja, sat there and watched the ridiculous antics of the depraved stereotype prancing about on stage, my mood, already dolorous, grew steadily more annoyed.

The sole redeeming grace came half an hour later, when a tall, swan-necked opera singer came out to perform. I sat up, surprised, because I recognised her. Her name was Flora Mulvaney, and I had long been an admirer, ever since I had seen her perform in Paris in my youth, playing Amneris in Verdi's 'Aida'.

Sadly, with the passage of time, her star, it seemed, had steadily dimmed until now all that remained was this, the occasional appearance at the very fringes of respectable theatre.  It was apparent however, that the lovely Miss Mulvaney had lost none of her grace or skill, for as soon as she began to sing, I found myself utterly transfixed. The piece she had chosen was a marvelously dramatic aria from Massenet's 'Le roi de Lahore', an old favorite of mine, and particularly appropriate in this case, given my Indian origins. It was a bravura rendition too, one of the finest I had ever heard. I remembered her as a halfway decent mezzo-soprano, but with age, her voice had deepened, grown into something darker, more hypnotic. A thrill ran down my spine, and I found myself lost in the ebb and swell of each liquid note, like a sailor cast adrift in a storm.

To my chagrin, the performance was all too brief. Even as the exquisite Madame Mulvaney was replaced by a snake charmer and then a shrill comedian, I struggled to shake free of the spell she had cast. What can I say? Her voice had transfixed me, seducing me utterly, and I was quite unable to get her out of my mind. It  was baffling, the sudden serpentine flourish of desire I felt uncoiling inside my chest. I am not the sort of man to lose his wits over a woman, especially a stage performer. No, that sort of madness was best left to my old friend Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala, who has refined skirt chasing to an art form. Nonetheless, in spite of my reserved nature, I found myself contemplating making an advance towards the beatific Miss Mulvaney, wondering what blandishments I could offer her in exchange for a brief rendezvous.

As the curtain fell upon the final act, Eliott, who seemed to have read my mind, turned to me, and said, “Well, shall we go pay our respects?”

Needless to say, I jumped at the chance. Summoning one of the ushers, we offered him a generous tip, in exchange for which he was only too happy to escort us backstage. Grinning like schoolboys, we followed after him as he led us down from our private box to a door behind the stage that opened into the bowels of the theater. Back here, it was a complete contrast to the front, a world of bare bricks and sawdust covered boards. Everywhere, barely restrained chaos reigned, a bedlam of chattering performers and stagehands darting around, weaving their way through a maze of sandbags and ropes and canvas sets piled haphazardly.

Oxford Street, London, circa 1900. From Living London, Vol. 1, edited by George R. Sims. Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images

Oxford Street, London, circa 1900. From Living London, Vol. 1, edited by George R. Sims. Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images

Barely had we set foot into this madhouse when a deafening crack rang out, followed a heartbeat later by a shrill scream.

“What on earth was that?”

“It sounded like a gunshot.”

I broke into a run, followed closely by Eliott. We came to a stop outside a private dressing room, just as its door slammed open and a frantic maid tottered out, crashing headlong into me.

“What is it?” I snapped. “What has happened?”

“Madame Mulvaney,” the girl gasped, her eyes wide with barely repressed terror. “She is dead!”

Leaving Eliott to try and calm her down, I dashed onward into the dressing-room. The girl had not been exaggerating. Flora Mulvaney lay sprawled on the floor in front of the dressing table, face down amidst a spreading pool of blood, clad only in a diaphanous satin robe. Grimacing, I leaned and turned her over,  so that I could check for a pulse. As I had dreaded, there was none to be found. An inchoate rage flared inside me. What a waste! I thought bitterly; such a brilliant flame, extinguished in the blink of an eye. That ephemeral voice, lost forever. It made me want to scream.

“Goodness,” Eliott exclaimed, leaning over my shoulder. “Do you think she was murdered, the poor thing?”

I didn't reply. Instead, I wrinkled my brow, studying the corpse for clues. It must have happened quickly, I thought, because there was a look of surprise fixed upon her face, her eyes wide open, the deep blue of Lankan sapphires. As I gazed down at her, I realised she was older than  I had taken her to be, nearer forty than thirty. Up close, I could see time had not been kind to her. The russet of her hair was dye, as the silver roots attested, and beneath its thick coating of face powder, her skin had that rheumy softness of the habitual tippler, I guessed, for there was a half empty bottle of brandy on the dressing table.

At first glance, even to an amateur, the cause of death was all too apparent. A smoking pistol lay nearby, and a single bullet hole still seeped claret, a few inches below Miss Mulvaney's left clavicle. But still, in spite of that, something about the scene, it struck me as odd, contrived somehow.

Sadly, before I could ascertain exactly what was causing my doubts to flare up, we were interrupted.

“Oy, what do you think you're doing, eh?”

A constable of the Metropolitan Police stood in the doorway, a middle aged man with a bushy pair of whiskers glaring down at us, his features distorted by a mixture of shock and dismay.

Eliott reacted with an admirable alacrity. “I am Lieutenant Eliott from the Home Office,” he explained, reaching into his vest and extracting his calling card, “and this gentleman is Sikander Singh, the Maharaja of Rajpore. Perhaps you have heard of him. He is a well known detective, the very fellow who solved the Savoy Murder a few years ago.”

“I remember that!” The Constable considered me for a long minute before offering a curt nod of approbation. “A pleasure to meet you, sir!” To my surprise, he held out one hand. I frowned, not just because it was unexpected to find an Englishman who wished to shake hands with an Indian, but also because, on most occasions, I preferred to eschew physical contact of any kind.

It was quite a quandary. How was I to rebuff the man without seeming rude? Thankfully, the sound of a commotion outside rescued me from embarrassment.

Emerging from the dressing room, we found that two burly stagehands had cornered a young man, and were advancing on him with obvious menace writ on their snarling faces. Behind them, the maid who had nearly bowled Eliott over stood, urging them onwards shrilly.

“Stop!” Eliott shouted, his voice imperious enough to give the pair pause. “What do you think you're doing?”

“He's the one who killed Madame Mulvaney,” the maid announced.

“He was her kept fellow, he was.” One of the stagehands added, the taller of the pair.

“Aye, they were fighting earlier,” the second chimed in a moment later. “I heard them arguing, I did.”

“Arrest him!” Eliott commanded the constable. Even as he hastened to obey, I held up one hand to restrain him.

“Hold on just a moment! Before you take him into custody, let me speak with him briefly.”

The constable paused, looking to Eliot for validation, who gave him a nod.

“Very well,” he said, “You lot, step aside, let his Lordship through.”

As the stage-hands retreated, I approached the boy, who cowered away from me. Frowning, I studied him. He was about twenty five, very slim with flaxen hair and a weak chin. His clothing was garish even by theatrical standards, a crushed velvet suit and an ostentatious vest. An actor of some kind, I guessed, because only a fool or a dandy would dress in such an extravagant fashion.

He mistook my curiosity for sympathy. “I didn't do anything, I swear it. This is absolutely preposterous.”

“Quiet!” Without warning, I raised  one hand and slapped him squarely across the face, a dull thwap that made Eliott wince. I regretted having to resort to such brutality, but it worked precisely as intended. The boy let out one last shocked gasp, before falling silent.

“Is what these gentlemen are saying true? Were you indeed Ms Mulvaney's lover?”

His eyes darted left, then right, searching for a way out, but all he saw were hostile faces, watching him intently.

“I was.” He swallowed and combed his hair back, trying to gather his wits. “We met about five months ago, a whirlwind romance. I came in to audition for a role and Flora became utterly besotted with me.”

“What about you? Did you reciprocate?”

He choked back a sob and gave me a birdlike nod. “I confess, she was a beautiful woman and I was flattered to be the focus of her passions, but as time passed, it became too much for me to bear. Frankly, her attentions were becoming more and more cloying. She wanted to control me, every aspect of my life, my clothes, my friends, everything, but I had no desire to become her plaything.”

“And then you met someone else?”

The boy's eyes widened. “How did you know?”

I made an effort to remain suitably sphinx-like, but it was an old story. The boy was much too young to realise that, still at that age where it came easily for him to be fickle. That was the problem with youth. It made you unkind, uncaring of anyone's feelings but your own.

“What was her name?”

“Clara,” he replied. “I met her just over a month ago, and it was love at first sight. I knew then I had to end my involvement with Flora.” His mouth curled into a determined frown. “I confronted her last Monday, and told her we could not be together any longer, that I cared only for my beloved Clara.”

“And how did she react to that?”

“She was irate, of course. At first, she raved, and called me names. Then, she wept, and offered me money to stay with her.”

“An offer you refused?”

“Of course! Love is not something that can be bought and sold.”

I rolled my eyes cynically, trying not to laugh at the boy's naivete. Judging by the state of his threadbare elbows, this was his only good suit of clothes. And his shoes; it is an old truth that you can learn everything about a man from the state of his shoes, and this boy's boots were held together only by their laces. But still, in spite of his obvious penury, he was foolish enough to speak of love. What an odious creature!

“You say you ended your dalliance with Miss Mulvaney a week previously.” I gave the boy a stern frown. “Then why, pray tell, are you here now?”

“Flora asked me to visit her today,” He replied without missing a beat. “I received a note from her requesting me to come by precisely at the stroke of seven, so that we could share one last drink together, for old times sake, and I didn't have the heart to refuse.”

“Why that particular hour?” I wondered aloud, taking out my Breguet hunter and glancing down at its dial. It was just after 7.30, which suggested that Miss Mulvaney had set her rendezvous for the very moment of her murder. Was that just a macabre coincidence, or did it mean something more insidious?

“Do you still have that note?”

“No, I disposed of it.” He let out a  piteous sigh. “I did not shoot her, I swear it. Look at me. Do I look like the sort of man who could kill a woman?”

Pursing my lips, I contemplated that question. It surprised me to find that I was inclined to believe the boy. He certainly did not look the part of a cold blooded killer, but more than that, there was the matter of his body language. The forthrightness of his manner, his willingness to answer my questions, the desperation in his eyes; either he was an extraordinarily talented liar, or he was telling the truth.

Even as I struggled to make up my mind, he tried to make a break for it, the fool. As quick as a ferret, he scrambled for the exit, but Eliott was quicker still. Neatly, he tripped the boy, sending him stumbling to his knees, and then the Constable was on him in a trice, twisting his arm around behind his back.

“Right, that's quite enough nonsense from you. Consider yourself nicked, my old son!”

Roughly, he dragged the boy upright and was about to march him away, when I moved to intervene.

“Wait just a minute,” I exclaimed. “Show me your hands please.”

“What? Why?” The boy said, obviously bewildered by this unexpected request, but he did not resist me as I grabbed at his wrists. For one long moment, I squinted down at his palms, before turning to face the maid.

She was eyeing me curiously, as if she were convinced I had taken leave of my senses; a plump little creature who might have been attractive if not for a web-work of pox scars pocking her cheeks.

“Hello, my love,” I said, giving her my most charming smile. “I have a question for you, if you please.”

“Ooh,” The girl, exclaimed, blushing and exposed an expanse of stained, cracked teeth. “Aren't you a cheeky lad?”

“You seem very convinced that this young gentleman murdered your mistress. Might I ask what makes you so sure?”

“Why, she told me he would, that's why.” The girl took a deep breath and gave the young man an acidic look before continuing: “He is lying through his teeth. It was not he who spurned Madame Mulvaney. She was the one who jilted him. I came upon her last week, you see. She was crying her heart out, and when I asked her what was wrong, she told me the whole story. She said that this fellow had been unfaithful to her, and that she had tried to end things amicably, but he turned violent and threatened her. She told me that he had sworn that he would kill her if she turned him out, and that she feared for her life. In fact, sir, that was why I acquired a gun for her, so that she could protect herself.”

“Hold on a moment! Am I to assume that it was this very pistol that killed her?”

The girl shook her head despondently. “I am sad to say it is. My brother is a pawnbroker in Lambeth, and she asked me if I could get him to find her a gun, and so I did. It was intended for Madame Mulvaney's safety. I certainly never thought she would be murdered with it!”

“You bastard! How could you?” She flew towards the boy, as if she intended to claw his eyes out, but thankfully, Eliott managed to restrain her before she did any permanent harm.

He gave me a grin, holding the young lady close enough to enjoy her ample charms. Rolling my eyes, I turned to the two stagehands.

“You say that you heard this young man arguing with Miss Mulvaney,” I asked the first man, a swarthy fellow with paint-stained hands and a protuberant nose.

“Aye, I did.”

“When exactly was that, before or after her performance?”

“It was just now, your Lordship, just before she was killed.” He made the sign of the cross, touching his shoulders and his forehead. “We was putting the finishing touches on a backdrop right over there, when I heard the sound of raised voices and then, the gunshot went off.”

“Tell me, when you say you heard the sound of voices, did you hear the gentleman's voice specifically, or just the ladies voice?

It was an unexpected question, and it seemed to stump him entirely, for all he offered by way of reply was a vacant look.

“It was the lady's voice we heard,” the second stage-hand spoke up, an ex-lascar by the look of the inky tattoos entwining on his forearms, with a prominent scar across his lip which made him look far more worthy a suspect than the young man. “She was shouting and then the shot went off. We came running, the both of us, and that was when we caught this bugger trying to make good his escape.”

“Is that so? Incidentally, was he running towards the dressing room, or away from it when you apprehended him?”

The stagehands exchanged a guilty look, which was all the affirmation I needed.

“That is what I suspected.” Turning to the constable, I said, “Release him. He did not kill the woman.”

“Are you sure?” Eliott interjected. “It seems rather open and shut to me.”

“If you give me a few minutes, everything shall become quite clear.” I retreated once more towards the dressing room, indicating that he should follow me. “Come along, Eliott, let us examine the scene of the crime once more.”

As always, my word was enough to get Eliott moving. As for the constable, he trailed after us rather more grudgingly, and I noticed he did not relinquish his grip on the boy's arm, not one whit.

Inside, Flora Mulvaney's corpse awaited, her eyes still wide open. The boy let out a wail when he saw her and broke down completely, dissolving into a cacophony of sobs. Ignoring his histrionics, I knelt down by her side, and gently, took one of her hands in my own and raised it to my lips, as if I intended to kiss it.

“What are you doing?” Eliott inquired, dismayed by such ghoulish behaviour.

Giving him a withering look, I sniffed at her fingers, rubbing each one carefully, and then at the cuffs of her robe, before letting the hand drop back to her chest.

“Tell me, Eliott, have you heard of Locard's principle?”

“I have not, no.”

“Well, he is the assistant of Alexandre Lacassagne, and a fine criminologist in his own right. He has an interesting notion, that every crime scene tells a story, if we only bother to examine the details. You see, wherever the criminal steps, whatever he touches, it leaves behind a trace, a silent witness that can tell an observant investigator all he needs to know.”

I nodded at the corpse.

“The story here is quite evident, if we only we spare a moment to examine the evidence. Let us begin with the gun, shall we? As you can see, it is of a small caliber, a Remington .41 Derringer to be precise, which has a very low velocity. That means that for a fatal shot, Miss Mulvaney would have to have been shot at extremely close range.” I demonstrated by bringing one finger up to jab Eliott in his chest. “That bring us to our first question. Say the boy was seized by a temporary madness, a blind fury perhaps as he recollected how Miss Mulvaney had insulted his manhood by trying to buy his affections, and so he shot her point blank. If that were the case, then wouldn't he have been splashed by droplets of her blood? Shouldn't he have the odour of gunpowder discharge on his fingers and his sleeves?” I raised one sardonic eyebrow. “Locard's Principle, my friend! I have examined his hands and they are quite clean. Miss Mulvaney's on the other hand, if you will pardon the pun, have a distinct scent of cordite, and the sleeves of her robe are stained with gunpowder soot. How do explain that, if I may ask, not to mention the fact that the gun was in the possession of Miss Mulvaney, as her maid has just testified? How then did it come to be in the boy's grasp?”

“I don't know. Perhaps she fought with him? Perhaps he grew belligerent and she tried to hold him off with the gun, and they wrestled and he snatched it from her?”

“Well done! A fine conjecture! Of course she would have fought him! What woman would stand by and let someone shoot her without putting up a fight? Of course she would have resisted. Which brings us our second question. If she did indeed resist him, then where are defensive wounds? Where are the bruises on her arms where she tried to wrestle with him? Where are the scratches on  his face? For that matter, why did she not scream for help? How could she just stand there, facing her killer and not let out a squeal? Frankly, it makes no sense, does it?”

I could see that the logic of this final salvo had managed to shake Eliott completely, and the constable too, for he relinquished his grip on the boy's arm at last.

“Incidentally, Eliott, are you a devout sort?”

“Only on Sundays, I am afraid,” The Englishman replied sheepishly. “Why do you ask?”

“You see, when I look down at Miss Mulvaney, I am reminded of Potiphar's wife. Are you familiar with the story?”

“I cannot say I am.”

“In the Bible, it is said that Joseph was sold into slavery to a man called Potiphar. His wife was very attracted to Joseph and attempted to seduce him, but Joseph rebuffed her advances. Because of this rejection, she was furious and falsely accused him of trying to rape her, as a result of which Joseph was sent to prison.”

“That was the case here with Miss Mulvaney, I imagine. This is what I believe really happened. When the boy jilted her and that too for a younger woman, Miss Mulvaney was completely heartbroken. A mania seized her, an insurmountable melancholy, and she decided to kill herself. However, she did not wish to take her own life without first having her vengeance on the originator of her sorrows, and thus, she put together a cruel plan. First she laid the ground by having her maid acquire a gun for her, after which she sent this unfortunate young gentleman a note asking to call upon her at precisely seven 'o clock today. Then, she went onstage and gave the finest performance of her career, before returning here, to her dressing room, where she proceeded to enact a fictitious argument, making sure she was overheard, before finally shooting herself, all the while trying her best to make it seem that it was this hapless fellow who had killed her.” I shook my head, looking down at Miss Mulvaney sadly. “Just like Potiphar's wife, she could not bear to be scorned by the object of her affections, not without wanting some semblance of revenge.”

My explanation was greeted by a stunned silence.

“Good heavens, Eliott mumbled, “who could have imagined she could be so devious?”

“She was a performer, my friend, to the very end,” I said, reaching out to finally close the diva's staring eyes. “And this, I suspect, was intended to be her last and greatest role."

Also read an excerpt from A Very Pukka Murder: The First Maharaja Mystery by Arjun Raj Gaind here.

Updated Date: Jan 01, 2017 08:42 AM

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