‘How old were you at the time of death? Fifty-two – right?’ Angel Suryakanta asked.
‘Yes – fifty-two,’ Anindyasundar Choudhuri answered wearily. He felt as though all he had been doing since his arrival was answering questions.
‘Cause of death?’ the angel continued.
‘Heart-attack. At least, that’s what I think,’ replied Anindyasundar.
‘Hmm.’ The angel appeared slightly perturbed. ‘Now for my last question. The register says, what was the primary reason for the heart-attack – choose any one: self-sacrifice, accident, blood-pressure, physical labour, foolishness, murder, etc. I see that ‘murder’ has been ticked.
Anindyasundar sat up straight. ‘Murder?’
‘Yes,’ said Suryakanta. ‘This is your entry in the register. It says here, murder. Of course, you can correct me if I’m wrong. You were murdered, weren’t you, Mr Choudhuri?’
‘Er no, I didn’t get that impression. I…’
‘In other words, you don’t know that you were murdered?’ Suryakanta asked sympathetically.
‘No, I never even dreamt of it.’
Suryakanta sighed. ‘Yes, it isn’t as though things like this don’t happen from time to time. But most people come to know when they’ve been murdered. Realisation always dawns, even if it’s at the last minute. I have not yet learnt how to break such news gently.’
‘I simply cannot believe it.’ Anindyasundar told himself absently several times.
‘I’m sorry to inflict this on you, Mr Choudhuri. But you must understand that none of this makes any difference here.’
‘I remember sitting in my study. Perhaps I fell asleep. Suddenly I woke up with a sharp pain in my chest – and then there was no more opportunity for further thoughts.’
‘There’s something else written here as well,’ Suryakanta said, running his eyes over the register. ‘The wound was indeed on your heart, Mr Choudhuri. You were stabbed with your own pocket knife… in the back…’
‘This is absolutely barbaric,’ Anindyasundar exclaimed in astonishment. ‘My paper-cutter is so beautiful – genuine ivory handle – who did this?’
‘What do you mean? Who did what?’
‘Who murdered me?’
‘How would I know?’
‘If you don’t, who will? I thought this register of hell of yours has everything noted down.’
‘This isn’t the register of hell.’
‘Be that as it may, tell me who killed me.’
‘Mr Choudhuri!’ Suryakanta admonished him sternly. ‘Surely you know that we do not encourage retribution and revenge here.’
‘All right, all right. I simply want to know, that’s all.’
‘I don’t know who killed you, Mr Choudhuri. I may be an angel, but I’m not omniscient. We get the complete dossier on a person only after his death. His register is created only when he dies. You may rest easy, therefore. I will have all the information about the person who killed you once he is dead, you’ll get all your answers then.’
‘When will that happen?’
‘If the murderer is caught and is hanged, you could say we’ll get to know quite soon. But if the criminal is clever enough to pull the wool over the police’s eyes, then it’ll mean a long wait.’
‘I can’t wait indefinitely. I want to know right now.’ Anindyasundar began to pace up and down.
‘I’m sorry, Mr Choudhuri…’
‘Don’t you have someone here who knows everything?’
‘Of course there is, the king of the gods. He knows everything.’
‘Then ask him.’
‘Impossible. We cannot bother him over such trifles. Sit down, Mr Choudhuri.’
But Anindyasundar paid no attention, continuing to pace up and down. Then suddenly he stopped in front of Suryakanta to ask, ‘You did say I can live here in peace and happiness?’
‘Of course,’ Suryakanta said with great assurance.
‘But can you tell me how I can possibly live happily or peacefully if I don’t know who murdered me?’
‘I cannot understand the difficulty, Mr Choudhuri.’
Anindyasundar composed himself with palpable effort, resuming his seat on the golden chair. He began speaking calmly, ‘Can you kindly tell me what your register says about my profession?’
‘You were a writer of detective mysteries.’
‘Exactly. I have written seventy-five mystery novels under the pseudonym of Sundar Sanyal – over a dozen of them have been filmed – not to mention numerous short stories and articles. Can you guess anything from this, Suryakanta-babu?’
‘Er no, not quite…’
‘You still don’t get it?’ Anindyasundar almost lost his composure. ‘Who am I? None other than Sundar Sanyal, the famous writer of mysteries, who has been consistently asking for the past thirty years, whodunit? And now. I myself have been murdered, but I don’t know who killed me.
Angel Suryakanta smiled. ‘I see what you’re getting at, Mr Choudhuri. But the answer you seek will be available to us when the time is right. You must keep calm and be patient till then…’
‘I simply have to know the identity of the murderer.’ Anindyasundar’s resolve was unshaken. ‘Until then I shall have no peace, no happiness. Stabbed in the back! Oh, what gall.’
‘Don’t be disappointed so easily,’ Suryakanta consoled him. ‘Take a look around this place. The conveniences and facilities here…’
Anindyasundar slumped in his chair, looked at the floor, and said, ‘I don’t want to. All the conveniences are sham.’
‘Lies. All lies! Peace! Happiness! I have no peace on my heart whatsoever. I hate it here.’
‘You’re bound to like it here.’ Suryakanta’s voice betrayed a hint of terror. ‘It is absolutely impossible not to be happy here. Because this is heaven – you are in heaven, Mr Choudhuri.’
‘Heaven my foot. I don’t like it a bit here.’
Rising to his feet, the angel began to pace up and down barefoot on the lovely marble floor. He muttered to himself several times, ‘How strange! No, this is impossible!’ Turning to Anindyasundar again, he said, ‘I urge you to reconsider, Mr Choudhuri. You…’
‘No, I don’t like it here one little bit.’
‘Please try to understand, Mr Choudhuri,’ pleaded Suryakanta. ‘If you let it out all over heaven that you have no peace or happiness in your heart, what do you think will happen to all the respect and reputation we have amassed? Indra, the king of gods, will hang his head in shame if he hears that you’re unhappy in heaven.’
‘I am not at peace, believe me.’ Anindyasundar repeated, his expression making his statement even more clear.
‘Very well, let me ask Indra, the king of gods,’ responded Suryakanta. His expression made it obvious that at this moment peace and happiness had disappeared from his heart as well. Hesitating, he continued, ‘It’s just that the king is so busy… and he’s not in the best of moods these days either. But he must be informed. Or else, if he comes to know that a human being is unhappy in spite of being in heaven, he’ll only blame me. I’m the manager of this department, Mr Choudhuri. As you can understand, it will be my responsibility.’
‘What can I do if I don’t like it here.’
With a sharp intake of breath, the angel continued to pace up and down. Snatches of exuberant laughter came in through the open window, interspersed with strains of light music. But inside the room Anindyasundar Choudhuri’s expression was grim and frustrated.
Suddenly a smile appeared on Suryakanta’s face. Striding back to this desk, he sat down in his chair.
‘You’re a writer of mysteries, Mr Choudhuri,’ the angel’s words came out in a rush. ‘Wouldn’t you agree that there’s no match for you when it comes to creating clues or trapping murderers?’
‘You could say that.’
‘The plan that has occurred to me is completely illegal,’ Suryakanta continued, ‘but there is no other way out at present. If you’re permitted to go back to earth, Mr Choudhuri, will you be able to solve the mystery of your own murder? What do you think?’
‘That’s something I might…’
‘There’s nothing more I can do,’ declared Suryakanta sternly.
‘I can try, but how…’
‘Very simple,’ interrupted Suryakanta. ‘You’re in the afterlife now, where there is no such thing as time. What we will do is just engineer a repeat of a particular period of time – of one day, let’s say. You will go back to earth and relive your final day as a living being. Here… this is how we’ll do it. You died at eleven PM. You are being given time from the moment you wake up in your bed that day till the hour of your death.’
‘Just one day?’ Anindyasundar frowned. ‘Do you think I can do it in a such a short span of time?’
‘If you cannot, then we can try for a little more…’
‘No, I can,’ stated Anindyasundar quickly. ‘Tell me when I should leave.’
‘Immediately. But let me tell you something first, Mr Choudhuri. Every detail of your last day on earth is written here in this register, so you cannot change any of the data. But yes, you have to do a bit of detective work, which you couldn’t do the first time around. So I can make a few minor changes in the register if necessary, but I’ll be in trouble if I have to make any major alterations.’
‘Simply put, you’ll have to manage without upsetting the course of events in a big way. Remember that you are being given the priceless boon that dying creatures are given once in a blue moon.’
‘Foresight!’ said Anindyasundar in astonishment.
‘Yes. But Mr Choudhuri, let me tell you right now that you must allow yourself to be murdered the same way again.’
Anindyasundar’s shining eyes dimmed at once. ‘I’ll have to be stabbed in the back again,’ he said in disappointment.
The angel nodded in agreement. ‘That’s what the register says,’ he said. Then his baritone boomed as he issued his divine edict, ‘It is entirely up to you to agree to my proposal or not. Think it over carefully before you choose.’
‘No – I agree. I must find out who murdered me.’
‘Very well, so be it. Accept my best wishes, Mr Choudhuri. We want every single soul here to be happy.’
‘Thank you,’ said Anindyasundar sulkily and, opening the giant golden door, walked out…
… He woke up in his own bed, in his familiar bedroom. The house was a dark palace of shadows. A favourite haunt of Anindyasundar’s. For he considered the character and atmosphere eminently suitable for a writer of mysteries. The ancient grandfather clock in the living room rang out eleven times. Still in his bed, he counted the chimes, and suddenly wondered whether this portended eleven PM – but only for one horrifying moment. Gathering his wits, Anindyasundar realized his mistake. He observed that a dazzling sunbeam had made room for itself on the floor through a parting in the curtains. So it was eleven AM. Certainly a suitable hour for a well-established author to awaken. Anindyasundar always wrote through the night, which was why waking up at eleven was a regular affair for him. But it was different today. So much time wasted. He had only twelve hours. Regretting his tardiness, he sat up in bed.
Someone had been knocking on the door for quite a while.
‘Come in,’ said Anindyasundar.
His secretary Kingshuk Bose entered. ‘The mail came a little while ago,’ he said.
‘There’s a letter from Ramen Gupta.’ Kingshuk held the letter out towards Anindyasundar.
Ramen Gupta was the owner of Wave Publications, and the publisher of several of Anindyasundar’s novels. Taking the letter, he sized Kingshuk up afresh. Kingshuk was a well-educated, courteous man. He lived in Anindyasundar’s house. About thirty-five years of age. He seldom smiled, but right now there was a hint of a smile at the corner of his mouth. ‘I opened it under the assumption it was a regular letter,’ he said. ‘I thought it essential that you read this.’
Anindyasundar cast an eye upon the letter.
I hope you are well. I am writing to you because of an urgent reason. I will say what I have to frankly. I published your last novel, ‘Sin was the Crime’ quite hesitantly. Perhaps it will sell briskly – if it does, it will be on the strength of your name and fame. To tell you the truth, I feel that your writing has become rather loose of late. Each book is weaker than the one before it. Is your ocean of plots drying up? I think you need a long holiday. But I am in trouble since my contract with you involves publishing three books more. I will visit you at home around ten AM on Thursday to discuss this.
‘Yours, Ramen.’ Anindyasundar smiled bitterly. A friend indeed. Suddenly he realized that Kingshuk was still present.
‘I have a suggestion,’ Kingshuk said.
‘Really!’ said Anindyasundar harshly.
‘Ramen-babu feels you should take a holiday. So do I. But there is no need to deprive readers of the pleasures of a mystery novel by the famous Sundar Sanyal.’
‘What do you mean?’ Anindyasundar leapt out of bed.
‘I will keep writing new novels under the pseudonym of Sundar Sanyal,’ Kingshuk said placidly. ‘There’s no need to inform Ramen Gupta. And there’s no point in informing our readers.’
‘Our readers! Do you think your language and style can match mine?’
‘I can do even better, Mr Choudhuri. I’ll write much better than you.’
‘What audacity! How dare you…’
‘Don’t forget how I helped you with your last few books, Mr Choudhuri. From working out the plot to changes, additions, editing – I did them all…’
‘Get out of my sight.’
‘There’s no other way out if you want to keep Sundar Sanyal’s reputation intact. You and I can share the royalties equally.’
‘You needn’t come here anymore. You’re fired.’
‘You won’t find anyone else as efficient as me. And besides, you won’t be able to write even one more book without me.’
‘Pack your things and leave immediately, Kingshuk, or I’ll have you thrown out.’
‘You’ll pay for this,’ said Kingshuk and left the room.
Yes, this was how the last day of Anindyasundar’s life had begun. The letter from Ramen Gupta and the altercation with Kingshuk. It does seem strange when the same events are repeated down to the last detail. As though it has happened before – perhaps in a dream…
Anindyasundar was startled by this thought. A dream? He hadn’t just dreamt of his meeting with the angel Suryakanta, had he?
The telephone jangled, interrupting this novel line of thinking. The instrument was within his reach. Therefore Anindyasundar answered mechanically.
‘This is Suryakanta.’
‘Surya… oh yes, what is it? Where are you calling from?’
‘Where am I calling from?’ Suryakanta appeared surprised. ‘Why are you asking silly questions, Mr Choudhuri?’
‘What… what do you want?’
‘I wanted to check whether you’ve reached earth safely. Are you making progress?’
‘Give me a chance – I haven’t even started.’
‘All right, get to work quickly, Mr Choudhuri. As you know, you haven’t much time. Goodbye.’
‘Goodbye.’ Anindyasundar put the receiver back.
This, at least, was settled. He hadn’t dreamt anything. Therefore it was best to get down to work as quickly as possible. But if Suryakanta was going to be peeping over his shoulder all the time, how was he to do his work without interference?
The next thirty minutes were spent washing up, shaving and dressing. He was thinking of Kingshuk – of all days, the calm, courteous, deferential Kingshuk had chosen this day to reveal his execrable real self. Yes, Kingshuk blatantly coveted Sundar Sanyal’s name and fame – the very same Sundar Sanyal who was dearer than life to him. No, Kingshuk Bose did indeed have sufficient motive to murder him.
What exactly had happened after this?
Anindyasundar discovered in astonishment that he remembered nothing. All he knew was that he would have to be murdered precisely at eleven PM in his study with his ivory-handled paper-cutting knife. He couldn’t recollect anything else. He should have made some more enquiries with the angel.
But from another perspective, this was a better alternative. He might have recoiled if he could have seen every last detail of the future in advance. This way, he could conduct his investigation with a free mind.
As he went downstairs, Anindyasundar realized he was hungry. Entering the dining room, he saw the cook setting out breakfast with the help of her daughter Sita. He looked at the cook’s plump, sweat-drenched body, sizing up her tired face with sharp eyes. Sita was busy helping her mother. The girl mostly took care of his wife’s orders. But Anindyasundar could not think of a motive that mother and daughter might have to murder him. Besides, they went home every night. Therefore he removed them from the suspects’ list with complete certainty.
‘Have your breakfast quickly, barobabu,’ said the cook, offering him a plate of toast and poached eggs. ‘I mustn’t be late with lunch, boudimoni has invited someone to lunch.’
‘Whom has she invited?’
He remembered now! This was also a repetition. Ranabilash Dutta. A hulking young man. With a full head of curly hair.
‘Good morning, darling.’
Anindyasundar turned around at the light, fleeting touch of a cold kiss. In his head, a sharp suspicion sped through the air like a spear – this kiss was treacherous. But he responded softly, ‘Good morning, Trina.’ He threw a perturbed glance at Sita and her mother, but they were on their way to the kitchen.
Ignoring his breakfast for a moment, Anindyasundar dissected his wife with his eyes. Trina Choudhuri. An aggressively young woman of twenty-eight – nearly half his age. Her behaviour and demeanour were those of a modern Western woman. She was always made up, but she was exquisitely beautiful. That was why Anindyasundar had married her, without considering his own age. He had wanted to drown in her eyes. His very own Trina. But…
‘So Ranabilash is coming to lunch?’
‘Do you have any objections, darling?’
‘Yes, I do. A penniless young athlete lurking around my house ogling my wife is something that I have considerable objections to.’
‘Your imagination is unmatched, darling.’
‘Do you love him, Trina?’
‘Of course not.’
‘You’re lying, sweetheart. I saw everything yesterday.’
Anindyasundar surprised himself. As soon as the words escaped his lips he realized that he must have forgotten all this in the excitement of being murdered. All these events had taken place in identical fashion before.
‘I saw you in the garden. But believe me, I wasn’t particularly surprised. Because you weren’t careful earlier either.’
Someone seemed to have sucked all the blood out of Trina. She slumped to a sitting position.
‘Surprised, Trina? Then let me tell you something. I have no objection whatsoever to Ranabilash Dutta’s coming for lunch this afternoon. In fact, if you were to take my advice, the two of you should have a chat after lunch. Tell him that I know everything. Then both of you can decide what you want to do. You have just two options. The first is to leave me and go away with Ranabilash. Of course, you must remember that he doesn’t have even a penny in his pocket, and surely you don’t expect me to build a love-nest for the two of you at my own expense. When you’ve had enough of starving with Ranabilash, you may come back to me if you wish. Your second option is to stay on here. In that case, I will seek fidelity and honesty from you. And Mr Ranabilash Dutta will have to arrange for two square meals a day at someone else’s residence.
Anindyasundar expected this to bring matters to a head so far as the business of Ranabilash was concerned. Trina wasn’t the kind of woman to survive on love alone. She had been spoilt by a life of luxury – opulence and prosperity were intimately connected with her life now. But then he had served her this ultimatum earlier too. But he hadn’t considered something then that he was considering now. Trina’s motive for murder.
Trina was now the inheritor of half of the enormous wealth and status that he had earned as a writer. His will said as much. If Ranabilash was aware of this, if Trina really did want the young man, and at the same time maintain her claim on Anindyasundar’s property as mentioned in his will, she had just one option…
‘You’ll have lunch with us, won’t you?’ Trina was asking him.
‘No,’ answered Anindyasundar generously. ‘I don’t want to stand in your way unnecessarily. And besides, I’m having my breakfast quite late, as you can see. I have some important work too.’
Trina left after this, while Anindyasundar gazed at the retreating nymph. Then he turned his attention to his toast and eggs, finishing his breakfast rapidly. Relinquishing the responsibility for making arrangements for the luncheon guests to the cook, he left the dining room.
Then he went to his study – the blood-soaked scene of the crime.
Anindyasundar felt a stab of fear when he entered his own death chamber. With curtains drawn across all the windows, the entire room was sunk in an eerie, mysterious shadow. Filled with disquiet, he drew the curtains. Sunlight burst into the room. He looked around.
There was his sturdy mahogany desk. He must have been sitting in the chair at the desk. Perhaps he had fallen asleep, as he often did – spreading his arms on the desk and resting his head on them. Simply put, he had virtually invited the murderer in. And there it was! His paper-cutter. Reluctantly he hefted the knife, as though its blade was stained with dry, blackened blood.
But then there wasn’t meant to be any blood on it – not yet, anyway.
No, it was an ugly instrument of death, mused Anindyasundar. The handle was made of smooth, heavy ivory, nearly four inches long. A careless murderer would leave clear fingerprints on this handle. The gleaming blade was quite long – but neither very sharp nor very pointed. If wielded with accurate aim and sufficient force, however, it was enough to do the job – any human being’s heart could easily be silenced with this.
His spiral of thoughts was disturbed by someone knocking on the door. The person who was knocking entered without so much as a by-your-leave.
‘Not at all. Come in, Avi, come inside.’
Entering, Aveek jumped up to sit on the desk. The sturdy piece of mahogany furniture creaked under his weight. Aveek’s small, owlish eyes glittered behind his thick glasses.
‘Feeling rich, Sundar-kaka?’
‘How much this time?’
Anindyasundar leaned back in his revolving chair. He scanned the lump of flesh on his desk. Then he said, ‘I’ve told you already, Avi, I can’t repay your loans anymore. At least, not till you look for a job. Therefore my straightforward answer is: no.’
‘I’m in dire straits, Sundar-kaka.’
‘That’s your problem.’
‘But what do I do?’
‘That’s your business too.’
‘Then I’ll just have to do something unwelcome…’
Anindyasundar was startled at this comment. Just like his conversations with Kingshuk and Trina, he had had the same exchange with Aveek too earlier. Aveek was the heir to the other half of his property – no, Anindyasundar had not bequeathed this portion on him out of affection, it was due to his nephew by virtue of being his only relative. And now this good-for-nothing nephew was demanding money from him.
Another motive for murder.
‘Do something unwelcome? What does that mean, Avi?’
‘I don’t know. But if you don’t give me the money, I will have to do something – and the entire responsibility will be yours.’
The huge lump slid off the table, advanced towards the door and left the room. Despite his bulk, Anindyasundar’s nephew Aveek’s movements were like a whiplash. How strange that he had never observed this before. But then he had discovered several things today that he had not noticed earlier.
The sunlight streaming through the window seemed to beckon to him suddenly. No, right now the room didn’t seem appealing to him at all. How about a walk in the fresh air instead? The warmth of the sun in winter would be pleasant – and he needed to think with a clear head. Anindyasundar made up his mind.
In the garden, instead of solitude he found Hira Singh. Elderly Hira Singh was the gardener, caretaker, driver – all in one. In the absence of Sita’s mother, he even cooked. Hira Singh had another identity too – he was a former convict. He had helped Anindyasundar in different ways. Tipsy on the liquid refreshments provided by his employer, he had told Anindyasundar of many of his misdeeds. And Anindyasundar had taken all the details down in his diary, enriching his stock of plots. He knew that some of these incidents were still unknown to the police, and that Hira Singh had not been punished for those crimes. There were still warrants out for him in different parts of the country.
At that moment, Anindyasundar was not in a mood to collect plots. But Hira Singh had some other objective in mind.
‘I’m hearing things, sahib.’
‘Hearing what, Hira Singh?’
‘About your books…’
‘About my books? What’s wrong with my books?’
‘I believe you won’t be writing anymore.’
Ah, so Kingshuk had spread the word. So no one here was in the dark over the sum and substance of Ramen Gupta’s letter. Trina knew, Ranabilash knew, even Aveek knew.
‘Even if that’s true, what difference does it make to you, Hira Singh? Do you fear losing your job?’
The aged Hira Singh threw him a sidelong look. The glaring sun made his ugly appearance look even more hideous. ‘I’m not thinking of my job, sahib,’ he answered, ‘I’m thinking of the stories I’ve told you. It was fine as long as you were writing your novels. But now that you’ve stopped writing, you might talk to the police. You might inform them of all the things I’ve done…’
‘Why would I do that, Hira Singh? How does your past matter to me? You are reformed now, you work here for me, you lead an honest life.’
‘The police will not care for all that.’
‘But I’m not going to be talking to the police – don’t you believe me, Hira Singh?’
Clearly, he did not. The elderly man turned around and continued digging the garden with his shovel. He wielded his tool firmly, flexibly and flawlessly. His winkled face was dark and violent.
With a shock, Anindyasundar was reminded yet again that this had already taken place once. He had just dug up a grave in his own garden and excavated a terrifying potential murderer.
He returned to his desk in his study, sitting down slowly in his chair. How strange that none of these thoughts had occurred to him the first time he had spent his final day on earth. Why had he not realized then that he was surrounded by dangerous people who would gain from his death? Besides Sita and her mother, everyone else had a motive for killing him. And at least one of them also had the nerve to actually do it.
The telephone rang. Anindyasundar answered without any further thought.
‘This is Suryakanta.’
‘Has there been a problem, Mr Choudhuri? You sound very dejected.’
‘I’ve lost all hope.’
‘Besides the two maids here, everyone else in this house would be relieved if I died.’
‘That’s nothing to be upset about, Mr Choudhuri.’
‘If you conclude that no one on earth wants you, you won’t have the slightest regret about coming back here.’
‘Hmm. You’re right.’
‘There’s no other problem, is there, Mr Choudhuri?’
‘To tell you the truth, there is. I haven’t found a single clue yet.’
‘Try to look for them.’
‘That’s the trouble. Normally, in my novels – and even in real life – clues are found after the murder, not before. The murderer leaves clues behind only after the crime. What do I do now?’
‘How can I tell you, Mr Choudhuri? You should have thought of that before leaving for earth.’
‘I really should have.’
‘You have no choice now but to wait for eleven PM. I’ll see you after that. Goodbye.’
Replacing the receiver, Anindyasundar poured himself a whisky and soda. Alcohol gave him peace and comfort in times of worry. Who knew whether it would do the trick now.
The afternoon trundled on. It was four PM. Five hours of his allotted second life had passed already. Only seven hours to go. A despondent Anindyasundar went up to the window. The sky was overcast, rain seemed imminent.
A perfect night for murder.
By pure accident, Anindyasundar observed a strange scene as he stood at the window. Trina and Ranabilash. The young athlete was busy kissing his wife with unbreakable concentration.
At that moment a new resolve was born within Anindyasundar Choudhuri.
He did not smash his fist into the window-pane as a normally distraught person might, nor did he tear his hair out. Instead, he stood still, a faint crease appearing on his forehead. Meanwhile, Ranabilash was standing upright again, having completed his kiss. Anindyakumar’s tranquillity was on account of the stirrings of a strategy in his mind.
He set off towards the kitchen a little later. Addressing the cook, he said loudly, ‘Ranabilash-babu will have dinner here. Kingshuk and Aveek, too. And tell Hira Singh to serve the meal tonight.’
Going to Kingshuk’s room, he discovered him packing.
‘Never mind the suitcase for now, Kingshuk.’
‘But you told me to leave,’ answered his former secretary grimly.
‘So I did. But I would like you to stay tonight. It will be to your benefit, Kingshuk.’
Aveek Choudhuri was sunk in a siesta, Anindyasundar shook him awake.
‘No need to go anywhere tonight, cancel your plans, Avi. I need to talk to you. It’ll be to your benefit.’
Then Anindyasundar went out into the garden.
‘Pardon me for not lunching with you, Ranabilash-babu,’ he said, addressing the artist who had inscribed kisses on Trina’s lips. ‘But I shall not let you go without dining with me tonight.’
Ranabilash’s handsome face expressed surprise. ‘It will be my pleasure,’ he murmured hesitantly. As for Trina, she was speechless with astonishment. Anindyasundar smiled at them, keeping his excitement hidden. If his plan succeeded…
Dinner began precisely at eight-thirty.
The darkness and the intensity of the cold were at their peak. It had begun to rain torrentially soon after Sita and her mother had left, and hadn’t stopped yet. Hira Singh was serving dinner in silence. Traces of a vicious expression were evident on his face.
Only Anindyasundar ate to his heart’s content. Although the others moved their hands mechanically, they were clearly weighed down by anxiety. Trina’s restless eyes kept flitting towards Ranabilash, who returned her glances. Kingshuk’s drawn face was an expressionless mask, which lifted occasionally to reveal flashes of animosity. Aveek’s performance at the dining table usually earned him the epithet of ‘glutton’, but there was no evidence of it today. Everyone observed Anindyasundar covertly.
The dinner ended around nine PM. Anindyasundar rose to his feet. Smiling at them, he said, ‘I’d like all of you to meet me in my study in an hour. Nothing special, just a little chat with everyone before taking my leave – something like a farewell party.’
Everyone stared at him, baffled at this cryptic statement. Looking extremely pleased, Anindyasundar left for his bedroom on the first floor, where he began to pack a suitcase; he had just tossed in two pairs of socks when the phone rang.
‘I was expecting you to call any moment.’
‘I see your mood has changed completely over the past couple of hours.’
‘It has indeed.’
‘Where are you off to with the suitcase?’
‘I have to be leave on a long journey soon, don’t I?’
‘You don’t need spare socks here, Mr Choudhuri. We supply everything.’
‘You’re spying on me…’
‘I don’t need to spy.’
‘Are you afraid that I’ll deceive you – give you the slip?’
There was no response. The phone was silent. But the answer was clear. The angel was worried. If the possibility of deceiving him worried the angel, then it must be within the realms of possibility. As he packed, Anindyasundar allowed his bottled up laugher to escape.
He packed sufficient clothes for a few days. He didn’t forget his toothbrush and shaving kit. From the safe in his wall he took ten thousand rupees, which he had saved for an emergency. From the drawer in his dressing-table he took his automatic pistol, making sure it was loaded. Yes, it was. This pistol would serve as additional life insurance.
But, as he had promised, he didn’t go downstairs for another hour. He wanted to keep the suspects in a state of anxiety. He knew they would wait. Especially the murderer – who had no choice but to wait. Sinking into his soft sofa, Anindyasundar rested, his pipe in his mouth, new plans for the future running through his head.
He arrived in his study downstairs with his suitcase at a quarter past ten, appearing before Trina and the guests. He found all of them in various degrees of nervousness, just as he had hoped. Kingshuk’s fair face was tinged with red. Aveek glowered in a corner like a bad-tempered pig. Trina and Ranabilash occupied a settee, brazenly intimate. And the elderly Hira Singh lurked outside in the veranda, behind a pillar. Anindyasundar summoned him inside.
‘Have any of you noticed something peculiar about today?’ he began. ‘That it will end in just forty-five minutes?’
Naturally, none of them understood. For a few moments his question was answered only by the continuous sound of the rain lashing the house, punctuated by loud claps of thunder.
‘What are you saying, darling, I cannot make head or tail of it.’ His wife Trina. She had left her settee and taken a step towards him.
He sized her up coldly. She was dressed in a tight, transparent, synthetic sari imported from Japan. Three inches of smooth skin were visible both above and below her deep navel. The shape and nature of her blouse suggested that only the build of Trina’s body held it in place. All this was undoubtedly for Ranabilash Dutta’s benefit.
‘Sit down, Trina, don’t get excited.’ His tone held a quality that made Trina retreat. ‘I had expected you to have noticed this even if no one else did. Using the natural sixth sense that women have.’
‘What should I have noticed, Anindya?’
‘Haven’t you observed something strange about this day? Didn’t you feel even once that all that you did today was very familiar to you? As though you had done the same things earlier, said the same things?’
Their expressions made it obvious that everyone thought that he was either drunk, or joking with them.
Summoning a faint smile to the corner of his lips, Anindyasundar continued, ‘Last night I… no, perhaps not last night. It’s very difficult to keep track of time in life after death – not that I was there very long, so I believe it was last night. Last night I was murdered.’
A suppressed moan escaped Trina’s lips.
‘Wonderful, so you do remember, sweetheart?’ asked Anindyasundar.
In other words, Trina hadn’t understood a word of what Anindyasundar was saying. Her appearance suggested she wasn’t acting. He looked at the others – all of them were staring at him in surprised incomprehension. So he explained everything. He told them about Suryakanta, why he had returned to earth. They listened with great concentration, exchanging glances with one another now and then.
When he had finished, Aveek declared, ‘You’ve gone mad, Sundar-kaka. See a doctor.’
‘Ramen Gupta said you need some time off.’ Kingshuk’s tone was sharp with vengeful contempt. ‘I can see he was right.’
‘This is a gathering of lunatics.’ Ranabilash Dutta rose from his settee. ‘I’m leaving.’
‘Sit down, all of you.’ Anindyasundar took his automatic out of his pocket. His expression held a steely resolve.
Everyone sat down. The phone rang at the same time.
As soon as Anindyasundar answered, someone said from the other side, ‘What’s all this, Mr Choudhuri?’
‘A cheap ploy,’ answered an unperturbed Anindyasundar. ‘This is how it happens in all mystery novels. The detective summons all the suspects to a single room at the end of the novel and tells the story of the investigation, whereupon the murderer either confesses, or gives himself away out of carelessness. You’ll just have to change a few details in your register.’
‘’Very well, I’ll take your word for it, Mr Choudhuri. But remember, you have just twenty minutes more.’
As soon as Anindyasundar put the phone down Ranabilash commented, ‘That must have been the angel on the phone.’
‘Yes,’ said Anindyasundar.
Ranabilash was silent.
‘He reminded me that I do not have much time on my hands,’ began Anindyasundar. ‘Anyway, I accept the fact that none of you believes my story, but now I shall turn my attention to facts. I hope you will accept these without argument. There are five of you in this room. And each of you would like me to die. But one of you wants it so much that this person won’t even baulk at murdering me.
‘Here’s Aveek, my favourite nephew. He’s up to his neck in debt. His only hope for relief is to get some money as one of the benefactors named in my will. Aveek needs his money at once. But I die, the will has to be probated, and his creditors will be patient for some time.
‘Then there’s Kingshuk, my former secretary. Kingshuk believes that if I got out of the way, he would be able to take the responsibility for Sundar Sanyal’s further progress and fame all by himself. My publisher is coming to meet me tomorrow, and this is Kingshuk’s big opportunity – but only provided I die.
‘Now consider Hira Singh. He believes I will have him arrested if I give up writing. All his past history of crime will no longer be of any use to me for my stories.
‘Finally, there are my beloved wife Trina and her friend Mr Ranabilash Dutta. If only Ranabilash could become rich, Trina would have left me for him long ago. If she were to inherit half my property, they would be able to spend their life in the same comfort and luxury as now. Therefore, one of them may well consider killing me extremely important.’
‘You’re clearly not in a pleasant mood, Sundar-kaka,’ Aveek said quietly.
‘My mood isn’t pleasant, Avi, but my mind is clear. This is my paper-cutting knife. According to calculations, I’m supposed to be asleep at my desk. Precisely at eleven PM, the murderer – one of you five – will plunge this knife into my back, murdering me.
Kingshuk was listening with rapt attention. Despite his reluctance, he was drawn irresistibly to this unusual mystery. ‘Let’s assume all that you’ve said is true, Mr Choudhuri,’ he exclaimed. ‘But do you plan to fall asleep at the appointed hour and give the murderer the opportunity to kill you?’
‘Never, Kingshuk, never. Since I have come to know that I will be murdered, do you suppose it will be easy to simply fall asleep? I think it is absolutely impossible to sleep in such circumstances, don’t you agree?’
‘Then there is no question of your being murdered at precisely eleven PM, like last time.’
‘Exactly, Kingshuk. You have homed in unerringly on the heart of this mystery. No, the murder can no longer take place according to the rules set by the first time it happened. The method will have to be modified slightly. I’m sure you remember that the angel has agreed to make a few alterations in his register if necessary.’
Engrossed, the occupants of the room hung on every single one of Anindyasundar’s words. Obviously, this extraordinary situation had silenced them temporarily.
‘But Mr Choudhuri,’ resumed Kingshuk, ‘I cannot quite make out how you expect to investigate your own death. In our – er, your – books, the murder takes place, the murderer leaves clues behind, and the detective arrives even later to make enquiries. But what clues will you use in this case? Let me give you a simple example – this paper-cutting knife of yours will capture fingerprints beautifully, but the murderer won’t leave his fingerprints on it before committing the murder. And by the time he does, it will be too late for your investigations.’
‘This is an important issue that you’ve raised, Kingshuk. Working with me has clearly sharpened your faculties. Yes, I admit that this problem didn’t occur to me first. Indeed, how can I solve my own murder mystery before being murdered?’
‘You have just ten minutes, Sundar-kaka,’ Aveek said excitedly.
‘Are you expecting the murderer to confess before the murder?’ This question came from Hira Singh.
‘It’s possible,’ said Anindyasundar evenly, ‘but I’m not counting on it.’
‘Then you will sit here and wait – and watch the murderer attack you. You will identify the killer at that moment, and your curiosity will be assuaged.’ The suggestion came from Ranabilash Dutta.
Anindyasundar smiled. ‘No, that’s not the case,’ he answered in a tone suggesting that he was participating in a debate amongst friends. ‘I don’t have the courage to sit quietly at my desk and watch the murderer loom over me while I sacrifice myself to his knife.’
‘What other option do you have, then? I for one cannot understand,’ said an irritated Trina.
‘That’s true, how will you understand? Listen carefully, I’ll explain clearly. You must have guessed by now that I do have a plan. I will not betray Suryakanta – he behaved very well with me yesterday – he has even arrived here in this study in the middle of the night to keep an eye on me. But unfortunately, the murder will no longer take place.’
They could not keep their disappointment hidden. Anindyasundar smiled again. Then he continued, ‘I am under no compulsion to the angel after eleven PM. The murderer cannot commit his murder as determined at the appointed hour – therefore I shall remain alive. I shall remain alive for several years. But because all of your real selves have been revealed to me now, I shall not live in this house for even a single day longer. As you can see, I have packed my suitcase. I shall leave this place and go far away. Then I will make arrangements to deprive you, Trina, and you, Avi, of my property. And if you were to ask about my future as a writer, let me inform you that I plan to write a book about today’s events. I am convinced that the uniqueness of this story will restore Sundar Sanyal’s tottering crown to its rightful place. You will have to blaze your own trail, Kingshuk. And Hira Singh, thank you for reminding me of my duties as a responsible, law-abiding citizen.’
Anindyasundar smiled again.
All the five people caught in the shadow of suspicion were still, silent. The wall-clock showed the time as exactly ten fifty-three. The elderly Hira Singh was the first to speak. ‘You’re using your gun to detain us here, sahib. No one can kill you with that knife now. So you will betray the gods eventually?’
‘I will not betray them,’ answered Anindyasundar calmly. ‘I do not have the slightest wish to detain any of you here with a gun.’ To prove his point, he replaced his pistol in his pocket. ‘My plan is much simpler, without involving guns or knives.’
‘May we know this plan?’ demanded Kingshuk.
‘Certainly. Here I am, sitting in the appointed place at the appointed hour, according to the agreement. And I have also ensured that my possible murderers are present here. What better arrangement could there be?’
‘There’s a trick in there somewhere,’ his nephew declared.
‘So there should be, Avi. One of you five is the murderer. Now, Mr or Ms Murderer, you have just two options. You can murder me at precisely eleven PM – under this bright light, in the presence of as many as four witnesses besides me. In that case you are sure to be apprehended by the police, for I can swear that the four remaining execrable characters will turn extremely eager to testify against you. Therefore you have another alternative too – you can give up the opportunity to murder me. In that case it is you who shall be responsible for allowing me to stay alive, and I will not be betraying Suryakanta’s trust in any way. At one minute past eleven I shall leave this house and your lives forever.’
The phone rang loudly. Picking up the receiver, Anindyasundar offered a greeting, ‘Hello, Mr angel – what’s the matter?’
‘You’re deceiving me, Mr Choudhuri,’ the angel said.
‘Uh-huh, not at all. This is the only way to identify the murderer. It isn’t possible to find a clue before the murder, and I won’t be alive after it. If the murderer decides not to kill me, you cannot blame me.’
‘You’re very clever, Mr Choudhuri.’
‘But not as clever as you think. You’re forgetting that the murderer has to perform a specific act at eleven PM – just like you, he has had the time to think about it too. Therefore he may have a counter strategy.’
Anindyasundar replaced the receiver. His smile had vanished. He hadn’t thought of this aspect at all. That his confidence was shaken did not remain concealed from his attentive audience.
‘What time is it?’ asked Aveek. His eyesight wasn’t very good.
‘Ten forty-seven,’ answered Kingshuk Bose, who was standing nearest to the wall-clock.
A heavy silence descended on the room. Trina and Ranabilash exchanged glances. The rest were looking at Anindyasundar Choudhuri. Their disbelieving expressions had disappeared completely now. And amongst them, the murderer had taken the ultimate decision.
Suddenly Ranabilash Dutta jumped to his feet and strode towards the door. His movement was as swift as a leopard on the prowl, his footsteps absolutely silent. Anindyasundar watched him warily, fingering his automatic. Stopping at the door, Ranabilash whirled around.
‘Mr Choudhuri’s right on one point,’ Ranabilash began to speak, slowly. ‘If the murderer were to kill him before your eyes, all of you can testify against the killer. And your safety will be assured. But what if the murder is committed out of everyone’s sight? No one will be able to say for sure who the murderer is. It’s true that each of us has a motive for the murder, the police will suspect each of us – in fact, they might even argue their case to suggest that the five of us have collectively murdered Mr Choudhuri. But what if the police does not get to know of this gathering at all? Then none of needs to be worried, and the murderer too will get the opportunity to deceive the police, just like the first time. All that has to be done is to murder Mr Choudhuri precisely at eleven PM without any witness to the act.’
‘But how will the murderer do this?’ Anindyasundar asked sharply, discovering to his surprise that his voice was trembling. ‘How will the murderer kill me in front of a roomful of people without anyone witnessing the act?’
Ranabilash began to laugh. An utterly hostile laugh.
‘Why, that’s very simple,’ he answered. ‘Mr Sundar Sanyal, famous writer of mystery novels, how could this have escaped your attention? All that I have to do is to switch off the lights.’
Before Anindyasundar could react, Ranabilash’s fingers reached the switch. The room was plunged into darkness in an instant, remaining in that condition. The flashes of lightning that had been throwing successive spears of light all this while stopped suddenly like a rampaging intruder caught in the act. The roar of the torrential rain lashing the walls of the house ferociously drowned out the pad of footsteps.
The murderer would have no trouble moving about without being revealed.
If Anindyasundar had not been paralysed temporarily, he might have done something. But he sat like a statue in his chair without moving.
Someone had appeared next to him. One hand pushed his head forward, forcing it down on the desk. A position he would have adopted if asleep. Anindyasundar realized that the other hand was looking for the paper-cutting knife – it had found it – it was gripping it tightly.
He did not feel much pain when he was stabbed.
Dimly Anindyasundar realized that the hand that had forced his head down on the desk was now groping in his left pocket, it pulled his handkerchief out – now the murderer was wiping the fingerprints off the handle of the knife…
A bell rang sharply in Anindyasundar’s head…
Or was it the sound of the telephone…
‘Welcome, Mr Choudhuri. You have returned exactly on schedule.’
Anindyasundar sat down limply on the golden throne opposite Suryakanta’s desk.
‘How did it go on earth, Mr Choudhuri?’
‘I’ve been murdered again.’
‘Who murdered me?’
The angel laughed loudly. His laughter echoed all over the ivory-adorned palace.
‘That was what you went back to earth to find out. And now you’re asking the same question. I hope you’re not thinking of going back a second time.’
‘No, thank you,’ said Anindyasundar wearily. ‘But I will not have a moment of peace here…’
‘The same old story,’ intervened the angel. ‘Let’s rack our brains over the mystery of your murder instead. Put yourself in the murderer’s shoes, Mr Choudhuri. When Ranabilash-babu switched the light off, would you have gone up to the desk to commit the murder?’
Anindyasundar plunged his head into his hands to think. Then he said, ‘No, I would have suspected it to be a trap. He could easily have switched the light on again just as I was stabbing the victim, and I would have been caught in the act.’
‘You’re right, Mr Choudhuri. It would have been a huge risk. Now another question. If you were the murderer, what reason could you have had to take a handkerchief from the victim’s pocket to wipe your fingerprints?’
‘There’s only one answer,’ said Anindyasundar. ‘I can’t have had a handkerchief of my own.’
‘Right,’ agreed the angel. ‘Now tell me, which of those five people knew you always had a handkerchief in your left pocket?’
‘I see what you’re getting at.’ A mysterious smile appeared on Anindyasundar’s face.
Suryakanta smiled too in response. ‘I’m sure you’ll be happy in heaven now, Mr Choudhuri.’
‘Trina’s young paramour Ranabilash was near the switch,’ Anindyasundar spoke almost to himself. ‘Trina was sure that he would not switch the light on till she had murdered me. Besides, Trina didn’t have a handkerchief. She might have stained her sari with blood if she had used it to wipe the handle of the knife. So she chose my handkerchief. Trina was the only one who knew where my handkerchief would be.’
‘Just as I thought, Mr Choudhuri.’
‘You’re no mean detective yourself.’
The angel forced himself to look humble. He admitted gently, ‘I’ve picked up a few tricks during my time here. You could call it the benefit of being in the right company…’
‘The right company?’
‘Oh, I didn’t tell you, did I, Mr Choudhuri? Oh dear. If I’d told you right away, you might not have been so unhappy. On the contrary, you’d have been quite pleased. Come, let me introduce you to the others. This is Panchkari-babu, this is Dinendra-babu, and this, Saradindu-babu…’
‘Panchkari-babu! Dinendra-babu! Saradindu-babu!’
‘Yes, Mr Choudhuri.’ Didn’t you know that writers of mystery novels go to heaven when they die?’