Story 29: The Red Dot

‘I love him with all my heart,’ said the girl, disregarding the sweaty glances of some five constables that stood at various dark corners of Venkat Reddy’s office. Krishna Shastri turned his neck just enough to look at the smooth-faced young man that stood inside the biggest cell of the police station. His hands were marble-white, and each strand of the black hair on his fingers seemed to have been combed with utmost care.

‘That does not answer my question,’ said Venkat Reddy, with the quiet calm of a man used to dealing with women.

‘It does,’ the girl insisted. ‘I know him better than anyone else in the world. He could not have killed my father, and I don’t care what the evidence says.’

Venkat Reddy signalled to a constable. He said to his guest, ‘What will you have? Cool drink? Water?’

The girl shook her head.

‘Bring three cokes,’ he said to the darkness, and a lathi-bearing shadow shifted away out of sight. Then he turned to the girl.

She had the flat face of a mud-sculpted doll; a straight, line-like nose, two thin lips forming an angry mouth, and an expansive forehead on which she wore no marks of adornment. The eyes were more circular than oval, more black than brown, but two sets of curved, lush lashes lent them all the beauty they possessed. A bean-shaped black spot marred the otherwise clear skin on her left cheek.

Krishna Shastri once again looked at the spotless face of the man in the cell. Even in this stuffy dark room he glowed like a small sun, eclipsing everyone else. If such a man was seen about with such a woman in Amaravati, it would be deemed as fact by onlookers that the woman had ‘other desirable attributes’. These attributes generally came in the form of a rich father, a large fortune, a foreign passport and the like.

‘But we need to care about what the evidence says,’ said Venkat Reddy. ‘We’re not in love with him as you are.’

‘Well.’ The girl raised her chin in the manner of an aristocrat, but Krishna Shastri saw hesitation in her eyes. ‘There is money in it for you if you get him out.’ A pause, then: ‘Lots of it.’

‘Madam,’ said Venkat Reddy, ‘offers for bribes are made with slightly more tact than that. I could have you arrested right at this moment, and each of my five constables – and my good friend here, who is a priest – will be more than happy to testify as witnesses.’

The bluster disappeared in the girl, and she threw a look of refuge at the man in the cell.

‘He cannot help you in any way,’ said Venkat Reddy. ‘I shall forgive your misdemeanour with a warning that you never do it again. Do I have your word?’

‘Y – yes.’

‘Good. It’s a hot afternoon, and here come the cool drinks. Have yours and go home. Please wait for us to look into this matter and make our recommendations.’

‘He did not do it, I tell you,’ she said.

‘You did tell me, more than once,’ replied Venkat Reddy. ‘Though it sounds like little more than blind hope at this point, we will give your opinion due consideration during our investigation.’

She looked about to cry, but gathered herself with an effort. She looked once again at her lover, and this time he gave her a smile of reassurance. It visibly strengthened her and lifted her spirits. As the constable placed the bottles with their dangling straws on the table – one before each of the three of them – she pushed her chair back and stood up.

‘I am not thirsty,’ she said, to no one in particular. ‘I will wait for you at the house.’

And she turned and left, her anklets jangling on the burning granite floor.

* * *

After they finished their drinks, Venkat Reddy got up and reached for his hat. He said to Krishna Shastri, ‘I’m off to Dharanikota. Have to see about this business. Want to come along?’

‘Is it worth the trouble?’ said Krishna Shastri.

Venkat Reddy shrugged and sighed. ‘Part of me wants to believe the girl. But this is as open and shut as they come.’

‘Then maybe I shouldn’t.’ Krishna Shastri looked at his watch. ‘If I leave now, I might just be able to reach Amaravati by sunset, and that will keep me in good shape for the pooja tomorrow.’

One of the constables came out, as if from nowhere, and placed a packet of documents on the table. As he retreated, he murmured: ‘Your passports.’ Krishna Shastri collected them under his upper garment and walked out of the station with the sub-inspector.

At the outer gate, Venkat Reddy stopped and pointed at his TVS Champ. ‘Flat tire. I’m taking the bus. If you come along, you can catch the bus back, direct to Amaravati. You can still get back before dinnertime.’

Krishna Shastri said, ‘Is there something that’s bothering you?’

Venkat Reddy scratched the tip of his left sideburn, around the gathering sweat. ‘Hard to say. But I know for sure that the girl is deluded.’

‘Love is like that.’

‘I know for a fact that the man is an ass of the first degree. I’ve run into him a couple of times in the past. Got caught red handed and then wriggled out on a technicality each time.’

‘Ah,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘What kind of crimes? Forgery?’


Krishna Shastri looked into the police station, and pictured the pale hairy fingers squeezing the bars of the cell.

‘Did you tell the girl that?’ he asked.

Venkat Reddy nodded. ‘The boy himself told her. Aryan, his name is. Horrible name. He told her the stories, but he changed them so that he came out looking like a wronged hero, and you know how women love that kind of man.’

Krishna Shastri looked away into the distance for a couple of seconds, and nodded.

‘You have a daughter, don’t you, Shastri gaaru?’

‘I do. But I don’t like to be reminded of her.’

‘That bad?’

‘Some bonds are broken for good, Venkat Reddy.’ Krishna Shastri felt a chill down his back as he said those words. He wrapped his garment tighter about him, and clutched the packet of documents to his bosom. ‘And one is glad that they are.’

‘I am sure.’ Venkat Reddy waited an appropriate amount of time before turning the conversation back to the matter at hand. ‘This girl just has it in bad for him. Her name is Soumya. Uma Soumya in full. She believes that Aryan loves her for who she is and all that, but I know that if she is not the daughter of Narasimhachari, he would not have given her a second look. Between you and me, not many men would.’

Krishna Shastri began to nod, but something about the name struck him, and he asked, ‘Say, is this the same Narasimhachari who made his fortune with his hardware business?’

‘The very same. He makes automated air pressure pumps for pesticide sprays. Why? Do you know him?’

‘Used to. We were in the same class in the first year of college. His room was one floor above mine, but we were the only two Brahmins on campus, so we bonded.’

‘I see.’

‘How is he doing?’

‘Well,’ said Venkat Reddy, eyeing the cloud of dust that had begun to rise at the end of the road to the East, ‘I suppose he is at peace, because he died last evening at his home.’

Krishna Shastri made a sign of purity with his hands and murmured, ‘Shiva Shiva.’

‘And the boy in there? The devil with the crooked smile? He is the one who drove the knife into your friend’s back.’

The cloud of dust settled down, and a red bus took shape in the haze. It honked twice as it approached them. Venkat Reddy held out his hat and waved it in a long arc over his head. As the vehicle screeched to a halt, a khakhi-clad barefooted boy jumped out into the dust, swung the door open, and crisply saluted Venkat Reddy, a wide, yellow-toothed smile stickered across his emaciated face.

‘So?’ said the sub-inspector.

Krishna Shastri looked at the bus. It seemed to be empty enough. The ride to Dharanikota and back would not be as uncomfortable as he had first feared. Besides, what difference did it make if he returned to Amaravati by sundown or in time for dinner? If all went well, he might just have an opportunity to knock some sense into old Chari’s daughter. Just for old time’s sake.

He tied his upper garment around the torso, so that the bundle would be held in place.

‘I will come,’ he said to a smiling Venkat Reddy.

* * *

‘The case, as I said, is as open and shut as they come,’ said Venkat Reddy, holding onto the bar as they eased into their seat. Krishna Shastri tried to ignore the stench of cheap beedis in the hot air, the tired groan of the engine each time the driver changed gear, and the orange marks of chewed up and spat out paan that stained the window glass. He held his breath for a few seconds, but the stink was so bad that it seemed to creep under his skin.

Venkat Reddy motioned to the conductor and took two tickets.

‘Narasimhachari was not too keen on this boy for his daughter,’ he resumed. ‘Can’t say I blame him. Aryan does not have much of a profession. No one really knows what he does for a living. Not even Uma, I don’t think. He is known to give vague answers whenever he’s asked, and in our trade, that’s a sure fire alarm that something is not quite right.

‘Add to that his name appears too close to a few of our past cases. Heroin. Gold. Black money. He’s not implicated in any of these, you understand, but he is always there or thereabouts, hovering, and then there are these two murders he committed.’

‘You’re sure he is guilty of them?’ said Krishna Shastri, finger still on left nostril.

‘I will stake my career on it,’ replied Venkat Reddy. ‘With such slippery guys we always hope that they get into a pickle right and proper, in so deep that they cannot possibly escape. So when I went down to Dharanikota yesterday and saw that it was Aryan they caught, I nearly jumped in delight.’

‘There is always a “but”, isn’t there, Venkat Reddy?’

‘There is.’ The policeman’s face twisted in an expression of disgust. ‘The first “but” is this girl, ready to stake her father’s hard-earned money on a man that would sell her off to the highest bidder with a grin on his face. And the second “but” is that he tells a story that is impossible.’

‘How so?’

‘Well, he is summoned last night to the girl’s house, and it turns out that the girl is not even aware of it. What the purpose of this interview was, no one knows. Aryan says that the old man called him home to discuss “business interests”. Apparently, Narasimhachari was quite friendly over the phone, and said that since the business was going to be given over to Aryan, they might as well make a start.’

Krishna Shastri said, ‘Does that not seem plausible to you?’

‘That’s not the crux of it yet,’ said Venkat Reddy. ‘It is what the boy says happened after he got there. He is let into the house by Madhavayya, the only other resident in the house. Madhavayya has been the housekeeper with the family for well on fifty years, ever since he was a youth of fifteen, they say.’

‘Just one housekeeper for such a rich man?’

‘Well, they employ a battery of servants from the village,’ said Venkat Reddy, ‘and Madhavayya is the de facto head of them all. But they arrive at sunrise and leave at sunset. None of them stay over.’

‘And Aryan went to visit Chari after sunset?’

‘Around eight in the evening, yes. The boy wanted to greet Uma, who occupies one of the ground floor rooms, but Madhavayya insisted that he is to go straight upstairs where Narasimhachari was waiting for him. This did not strike him as odd, you understand, until he came to know later that Uma had no idea he was to come.’

‘So the invitation for dinner – if the boy’s story is true – was fake.’

Venkat Reddy suddenly half got up in his seat and pushed at the sliding glass on the window with all his might. It yielded just a couple of inches with a loud whine, but it improved the air inside the bus enough for Krishna Shastri to let go of his nose.

‘Fake or not,’ said Venkat Reddy, ‘the boy enters the room, and the first thing the old man asks him to do is to bolt the door. The boy sits down, and they have a pleasant chat. Aryan’s words.’

‘For how long did this pleasant chat last?’

‘For a few minutes, he says,’ said Venkat Reddy. ‘And then Narasimhachari gets up and pours them both a drink. They have a sip each, almost at the same time, says the boy. This is the moment things start to happen.’

Krishna Shastri leaned a little toward Venkat Reddy and listened.

‘The drink I refer to is regular Coke. Narasimhachari has been a lifelong teetotaller. As soon as Aryan drank his first gulp, he says he began to feel funny in the head. Narasimhachari kept talking to him as if nothing was wrong. And in a few seconds, he says he passed out.’

‘Was he right? Did you check his drink?’

‘We did,’ said Venkat Reddy. ‘Found nothing in it. Also got him tested last night. Nothing found on his system either.’

Krishna Shastri’s eyes narrowed. ‘Go on.’

‘When he came to consciousness again, the room was exactly as it had been before he was knocked out. Only now, to his side lay Narasimhachari’s body, on his stomach, a knife driven through his back, right between the shoulder bones.’


‘Now here’s where Aryan admits to being a little foolish. He says that he was so affected by what he was seeing that out of pure instinct, he touched the handle of the knife sticking out of the old man’s back. Only after he touched it did he realize that it was dangerous to do so.’

‘Does he recognize the weapon?’

Venkat Reddy shook his head. ‘Says he never saw it in his life.’

‘What happened next?’

‘Almost immediately after he woke up and felt the knife, there was a banging on the door. Madhavayya and Uma were outside. He says that Madhavayya tried to break down the door, but it wouldn’t budge, because the bolts are really strong. Aryan then opened the door for them to come in.’

‘And the girl saw the man she loves locked in with the dead body of her father,’ said Krishna Shastri.

‘That’s right.’

‘And she still thinks that he would not have killed him. Does she know something we don’t?’

‘She is blinded by love, that’s what it is,’ said Venkat Reddy. ‘But here’s the detail that makes the whole thing rather funny. Narasimhachari, we discovered late last night, was already dying. He had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last month. The doctor gave him six months.’

Krishna Shastri felt the first settling down of the sounds of the bus. A strange silence enveloped them, and as the groan of the engine and Venkat Reddy’s voice died down, two loud clicks sounded from deep within his mind, one from the left, the other from the right.

‘We made an examination of the old man’s room, of course,’ Venkat Reddy said. ‘On the table, right under the day’s newspaper, were a few papers that made for interesting reading. From somewhere, Narasimhachari had procured some pretty damning letters that would incriminate Aryan’s past.’

‘Letters that you don’t have?’

‘Letters that we don’t have.’

‘Would they have shaken Uma’s love for the boy?’

Venkat Reddy sighed. ‘Who knows? Narasimhachari believed so, and it might just be that he called Aryan home to drive him out of his daughter’s life using these letters as negotiating chips. Maybe the deal was: if you don’t leave my daughter alone, I will show her these letters and she will kick you out herself. On the other hand, if you leave on your own, you can take these letters and a sum of money that will keep everyone happy.’

Krishna Shastri said, ‘But according to the boy, that conversation never happened.’

‘Which is why I don’t think the boy is speaking the truth,’ said Venkat Reddy. ‘The letters are on the table. The motive is there. And Aryan is capable of driving a knife into a man’s back. He has done it before. Trust me on that.’

‘I see,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘But?’

‘But!’ Venkat Reddy thumped the bar with his large brown hands, leaving it vibrating. ‘But he’s a better liar than that. Why tell a lie that is sure to tighten the noose around his neck?’

‘Maybe this is the only alternative,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘He has been caught by two people who have seen him in the room with the victim. One of them believes that he cannot be guilty, though her testimony – if she’s honest – will probably send him straight to the noose. And Madhavayya – what does he make of it all?’

Venkat Reddy nodded to the front of the bus. ‘We’ve arrived. Why don’t we ask him?’

* * *

Krishna Shastri tried to reconcile the image of the old college-going Narasimhachari with the demure little two-storied cottage that stood right on the edge of Dharanikota. It was the one drop of urban luxury in a river of dust, muddy roads and thatched roofs. His memory of Narasimhachari painted him as a jovial if sometimes reserved young boy, orthodox in manner but brilliant at academics, slow of tongue but not lacking in courage. A patron of the arts. A Ravi Varma admirer.

How many of those old attributes had fallen off over the years? Which of them had survived? Which new ones had entered his personality and made him the person he had been until the night before?

Krishna Shastri would never know first hand. He would have to rely on people like Madhavayya to tell him.

‘I do not poke my nose in matters that don’t concern me,’ said Madhavayya, after he had let them in and showed them to their chairs. ‘It is the secret of our long association, the master and I. He minds his business, I mind mine.’

He had a deep, serene voice of a pastor, and it sat queerly inside his frail, diseased body. He was dressed in a white shirt and a grey dhoti; unusual choice of attire, thought Krishna Shastri, with a death in the family.

‘But,’ he said, jabbing the air in front of his face with a bony finger, ‘when it came to Uma baby, she was both of our business. She is as much my daughter as she is the master’s. And even now, though the master is gone, I am here, and as long as I am here, that boy won’t be able to lay a finger on any of the wealth, I assure you.’

‘Why do you dislike him so much?’ asked Venkat Reddy.

‘Because anyone with two eyes can see he is just after the master’s money. Uma baby is a lovely girl. Innocent as a flower. She has not seen the world. She judges people by the words that come out of their mouth. And there are always serpents about with tongues dipped in honey.’

‘Will you tell us what happened yesterday?’

Krishna Shastri looked around the walls of the house. Paintings hung off just about every square inch, some of them framed in lean brown wood, others in ornate brass. Some of them Krishna Shastri recognized, but the vast majority of them featured landscapes and people that did not belong to Dharanikota. Or India, for that matter.

‘The master invited the boy to dinner at eight in the evening,’ said Madhavayya, twirling his moustache. His eyes bristled at the mention of Aryan. ‘I let him in and took him straight to the master’s room, upstairs. Those were the orders. After the boy went in, I stood by the edge of the staircase and waited.’

‘Do you always do that, when Narasimhachari takes visitors?’ asked Krishna Shastri.

‘Yes,’ said Madhavayya. ‘Far enough to be out of earshot of conversation, not so far that I am not able to attend to a call or a cry.’

‘Were there any cries last night?’

Madhavayya swallowed, and fought off a visible reddening of the eyes with some effort. ‘There was just one. One final cry, that’s all. I rushed to the door and knocked on it.’

‘How long was Aryan in Narasimhachari’s room before you heard the cry?’

‘Twenty minutes, I should say.’

‘And how long did it take you to reach the door after you heard the cry?’

‘Not too long,’ said Madhavayya suspiciously. ‘Maybe three seconds?’

‘What did you do after you reached the door?’

‘I knocked once, twice. Then I waited for a few more seconds, trying to hear what’s going on inside. By this time Uma baby had come up the stairs and joined me. So all of this must have taken around ten to twenty seconds. By that time we were both agitated, so I tried to break down the door. On the second try, the door opened and the boy was standing there by the dead body.’

He stayed calm throughout, but his voice cracked right at the end, and his eyes took on a distant look, as though he were peering into the past night, reliving the ghastly moment.

‘What did you do then?’

‘I could tell, of course, that the master was dead,’ said Madhavayya. ‘The boy was looking at Uma baby, and they were going toward each other, but I went and knelt by the master’s body. I checked his heart. Then his neck. I heard nothing in either place.’

‘What did Aryan say at this point?’

‘Well, what else will he say? That he has not killed the master.’

Venkat Reddy asked, ‘Do you believe him?’

Madhavayya laughed. ‘One would be a fool to believe anything that man says. I told Uma baby this morning too, after she returned from your police station, that she must not trust the boy’s lies, that he will say anything to get what he wants.’

‘I hear that your master was suffering from cancer,’ said Venkat Reddy.

‘He was,’ said Madhavayya. ‘We did not want to make it known, but I suppose it must come out when something like this happens. That fiend would not let the old man die in peace, even! And to have the cheek to deny it all after we caught him red handed! A special breed, that’s what he is. Special!’

‘Who is special, Madhavayya?’ said a female voice that emerged from one of the side rooms, and it startled all three of them. Uma Soumya held herself with poise, with none of the fidgetiness that had characterized her presence at the police station. She walked in the straight, sturdy manner of an angel, and it seemed to Krishna Shastri that she was floating along the floor. She gave Venkat Reddy a cold nod. At Krishna Shastri she did not even bother to look.

Madhavayya fumbled to his feet and muttered, ‘The inspector was asking me about what happened yesterday, baby.’

‘And you told him the truth, didn’t you?’ she said, stepping forward and holding out her hand. ‘Keys.’

Madhavayya handed over a bunch.

She said to Venkat Reddy, ‘I take it that you would want to examine the room upstairs, for the benefit of your friend here.’

‘Yes, madam, I would,’ said Venkat Reddy.

‘Come,’ she said. ‘I will guide you.’

And warding off the advancing Madhavayya with a firm wave of the hand, she led them up the stairs.

* * *

The room was the shape of a large square, with the only piece of furniture a teak study table with a glass top, set against the wall immediately opposite the door. On one side of the table stood a high-backed leather office chair, and on the other, facing it, were two distinctly smaller, thinner chairs with dirty brown cushions.

On all four walls, like on the first floor, were paintings, and it was here that Krishna Shastri saw a glimpse of the old Narasimhachari, the Ravi Varma fan.

Venkat Reddy pointed to the windows to the left and said softly, ‘They haven’t been opened. Even if Narasimhachari had opened them during the meeting for some reason we don’t know, the wall of the cottage is bare, and there is no vantage point anywhere.’ Then he spread his arm toward the opposite corner. ‘Attached bathroom. One barred ventilator. No way in or out.’

Krishna Shastri nodded, and made his way to the ‘X’ mark on the floor, about equidistant between the table and the windows. He first stood facing the painting of a milkmaid, with the door behind him. Then he turned and faced the door. He judged that he was about the same distance from both. He looked at Venkat Reddy, and the latter nodded.

‘He fell facing the door,’ he said. ‘And now, madam.’ He turned to Uma. ‘Will you tell us your story?’

‘I will.’ Krishna Shastri noticed that she was frowning at the painting of the milkmaid. He looked over his shoulder. The woman’s face had been blown up to fill a two-by-three-foot frame, and the two vessels of silver she carried in her raised hand shimmered in the afternoon light.

‘Did something catch your eye?’ asked Krishna Shastri.

‘No,’ she wavered, looking at the painting again, then shaking her head. ‘No. I was in my room at eight in the evening, reading. I had no idea that Aryan was coming home, of course. I heard the knock on the door when he came in, but I assumed it was one of Father’s visitors. He conducts some of his business from here. I paid no attention to it.

‘Then after about twenty minutes, I hear Father yell from upstairs. This also is not an uncommon occurrence, but it felt – different. Louder. Sharper. Unlike anything I’ve ever heard.’

Krishna Shastri interrupted smoothly. ‘Are you certain, my girl, that it was your father’s scream that you heard?’

‘Yes,’ said Uma, eyeing him with scorn. ‘Who else could it be?’

‘A scream could belong to anyone,’ said Krishna Shastri, looking at Venkat Reddy. ‘It is funny how many people cannot place a person they know from their screams.’

‘Well, I am not one of those people,’ said Uma. ‘I am certain it was my father.’

‘Excellent. Please go on.’

‘I ran into the downstairs room, and then up the stairs, just in time to see Madhavayya punching the door. Then he tried to break it in. He called out for Aryan, which surprised me because that was the first that evening I’d heard his name.

‘After a couple of false tries, Aryan himself opened the door, and – and –’ Uma gulped a couple of mouthfuls of air, and watched the ‘X’ at Krishna Shastri’s feet. ‘We stormed in, the both of us, and saw that Father was right here, sprawled on his stomach, with a knife in his back.’

Venkat Reddy allowed a moment of silence to pass, after which he said, ‘Yes?’

That broke Uma out of her trance. ‘Yes. I went to Aryan, of course, to see if he was all right. Madhavayya goes straight to Father, and he stands up and he says that he is dead. Then he looks at Aryan and says, move away from baby, or something laughable like that.’

‘Pardon me,’ said Krishna Shastri, ‘but why do you think it’s laughable?’

‘Because!’ said Uma. ‘The idea that Aryan would do anything to harm me – well, if you knew him like I do, you would know how funny the thought is.’

Krishna Shastri said, ‘Then you don’t believe that he killed your father.’

‘No,’ she said.

‘Even after you’ve seen the papers that were on your father’s desk?’

‘I have seen them,’ said Uma. ‘Madhavayya showed them to me yesterday, after they arrested Aryan. It doesn’t change anything.’

Krishna Shastri folded his arms in front of his chest, faced the girl fully, and said, ‘Then how do you explain what happened here, my girl?’

For the first time, an expression of puzzlement came upon her face, and the mouth hesitated over words that just wouldn’t form. ‘I – don’t know. It all seems very damning. But deep within my heart, I know he is innocent, and I will spare no expense to see to it that he’s freed.’

‘Well!’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘We shall see to that.’ He walked in slow, measured steps toward the painting of the milkmaid. He had to tilt his head downward a little to meet the woman of the painting in the eye, and the red dot in the middle of her forehead reminded him of a setting sun. ‘How long has this painting been here?’ he asked Uma.

‘Perhaps a week,’ said the girl. ‘This is the latest addition to Father’s collection. He wanted to blow up the face of the woman, said her eyes speak to him.’ She came to Krishna Shastri’s side and stood looking at it, with something approaching fondness. Then a flicker of puzzlement passed her face, and she said, ‘Funny. I seem to remember that she wore a black bindi. Did she? Or has it always been red?’ She reached out with her hand and felt the canvas around the milkmaid’s eyes. She touched the red solid circle gingerly. She allowed her finger to rest on the canvas for a moment. Then she withdrew it.

‘I must be mistaken,’ she said. ‘It must have always been red.’

‘I’ve seen this painting elsewhere too,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘The woman does wear a red bindi.’

‘Well, then,’ said Uma. ‘That settles it.’

‘Yes,’ said Krishna Shastri dreamily. ‘It does, rather.’

* * *

Krishna Shastri shut the door of the room behind Uma and turned back to face Venkat Reddy. ‘We have to get that painting down,’ he said.

Venkat Reddy held the frame in both hands and shook the hook out of the nail. The wall behind it was bare. Krishna Shastri tapped along the length of the frame. It rang hollow each time. He laid his hand flat against the back of the painting, and pushed hard at it to see if the impression showed on the other side. It did.

‘Ah,’ he said to Venkat Reddy. ‘We were a bit late today. But there might still be a chance.’

‘A chance for what, Shastri gaaru?’

‘Can you tell me more about this knife sticking out of the man’s back? How big was it? Did it have one of those large handles? Ivory and design and all that?’

Venkat Reddy shook his head. ‘Not at all. It was a light hand-knife. The kind you would see on a pickpocket. It is just the kind of knife you would expect to see on a snivelling fellow like Aryan, actually.’

Krishna Shastri nodded. ‘Indeed. And what kind of injury did it cause Chari? I suspect damage to the spinal cord was the main cause of death?’

Venkat Reddy shook his head again. ‘The stab was a deep one. It missed the spinal cord completely, but punctured the heart. The point of the knife almost made it to the front of the body.’

‘Ah,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘Do you think a man of Aryan’s body strength could have stabbed Chari with such ferocity?’

Venkat Reddy said, ‘I am sure –’

‘You don’t sound sure. And why would you?’ Krishna Shastri looked for a moment at the milkmaid again, and smiled. ‘What kind of business did you say Chari built over the years? Something to do with air pumps?’

‘Automated air pumps, yes.’

‘Well,’ said Krishna Shastri, ‘I cannot prove it, because you were not farsighted enough to post a constable here guarding the room while you arrested Aryan for the murder of Narasimhachari. But I believe I know how this happened.’

Venkat Reddy stared at the priest. ‘I don’t care about the how. Tell me it is Aryan. It is him, isn’t it?’

Krishna Shastri said kindly, ‘I wish it was, Venkat Reddy, I really do. But I don’t think it was, this time.’

* * *

Madhavayya came into the room almost limping, with Venkat Reddy by his right arm. Krishna Shastri, who had pulled out Narasimhachari’s office chair and was now sitting on it, waved him into one of the cheaper visitors’ seats.

‘Yes?’ said Madhavayya as he sat down. Krishna Shastri noted that Venkat Reddy wore the gun on his holster half-drawn.

‘I am going to do a bit of talking now, Madhavayya,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘I request you to listen, because I am making a few leaps of fantasy in my story, and correct me wherever I go wrong.’

‘What is the meaning of this?’ said Madhavayya.

‘No meaning,’ agreed Krishna Shastri. ‘Just the truth. Right, we might as well discuss the how before the why. I am seeing in my mind a small machine – this high and this wide? Something that can fit behind that painting over there?’ He pointed at the milkmaid behind his back.

Madhavayya’s eyes darted to the image and back. His face turned a faint shade of blue, like it had just been drained of all good blood.

‘Yes?’ said Krishna Shastri, nodding. ‘I see that I am there or thereabouts with that. It has some sort of compressed air pipe fitted to it, and you could shoot reasonably heavy stuff out of it. Like a hand-knife, perhaps?’

‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’

Krishna Shastri shrugged. ‘I asked you to correct me, not deny everything I say. If you’d rather do that, I won’t mind telling my story completely and see what the sub-inspector likes. I rather think that he will want to talk to you in private, once we’re done.’

‘I am not going to say anything until my lawyer is present.’

‘Smart,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘Except I’m asking you no questions. I just want you to listen. Now where was I? Yes, the machine – this is semi-automatic, you understand, something that you can trigger with a remote-controlled device. I am told that you deal in intelligent pumps, so I figured it wouldn’t be too much to expect you to design a remotely controlled one.

‘So a person presses the button, and the compressed air pipe blows out the knife, sending it, arrow-like, at its target. When I stood in front of the painting just before, I noticed that I had to tilt my head downward to meet the eye of the milkmaid. The painting had been hung deliberately lower than usual. Why? I guessed that the red dot between the woman’s eyes had to line up with the chest area of Chari.

‘I am not the tallest person in the world, as you can see, and Chari was at least half a foot taller than I was in college. If he was to stand facing the painting, his chest would be perfectly in line with the dot on the milkmaid’s forehead. Wouldn’t it?’

Krishna Shastri waited, but Madhavayya would not say anything. The corner of his left eye began to twitch, though, and his gaze would not leave the painting.

‘I will take your silence as at least half-acceptance,’ said Krishna Shastri, ‘and assume I’m more or less on the right track.’

‘If you think I killed the master –’

‘Oh no,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘I know you were merely an accomplice. You played your part in the plan. You set up the painting at the right place at the right height. You entered the room after Chari fell to his death, and on the pretext of checking his heartbeat, took the remote control from his pocket and deposited it into yours. Then after Aryan has been arrested, you changed the painting to the original – and the black bindi that Uma saw during the first week had magically turned into red.’

Venkat Reddy said, ‘I don’t understand.’

‘The black bindi was just a hole, Venkat Reddy,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘The knife and the machine had been mounted behind it, ready to snap at the press of a button. Once the boy had been arrested and Uma’s energies became focused on getting him out of jail, Madhavayya here had enough time to replace that painting with this one. Tell me,’ he asked the old man, ‘did you have two paintings made, one with the black hole and one with the red dot?’

Madhavayya stared at Krishna Shastri. ‘I said I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

‘Then that other painting must be lying around in the house somewhere. Or did you manage to hide it so well that we won’t be able to find it?’

‘Search all you want,’ said Madhavayya. ‘You can’t find something that has never existed.’

‘True enough,’ said Krishna Shastri.

‘But wait a second,’ said Venkat Reddy. ‘If you’re saying that the remote control was in Narasimhachari’s pocket, that means this was all –’

‘Yes,’ said Krishna Shastri, ‘his plan. Right from the beginning. He knew that he was dying. He had less than five months to turn his daughter’s mind about the boy that she’s bent on marrying. How does he do it? He has tried everything. And finally he gets hold of some letters. He could either go to his daughter and make a clean breast of it, hope that she will see reason, or he could do it his way. A more diabolical, but perhaps a more foolproof way.’

Tears collected in Madhavayya’s eyes. He hung his head and allowed them to drip on his thighs.

Krishna Shastri watched him for a few seconds, murmuring a prayer, exhorting the lord to grant the man’s mind some succour.

‘So he invites the boy to the house,’ he said, in a gentler tone. ‘He doesn’t tell his daughter that Aryan is coming. She would only complicate matters. The plan has been in motion, though, for a good week. The new painting had been brought. The machine is in place. When Aryan arrives, Madhavayya is to take him directly to the master’s study, in which Chari is awaiting his future son-in-law with a couple of drinks.

‘I don’t quite know how he managed to pull off the trick of sipping from his drink and not being affected by it. Maybe he only pretended to drink it. A teetotaller like Chari might have had to perfect this trick to get by at social events. One could just raise a glass, immerse one’s lips into it, make the appropriate sounds and movement of the Adam’s apple, and carry off a decent show of having drunk something.

‘Aryan doesn’t suspect anything, because the conversation preceding has been amiable. He drinks from his glass and begins to feel the effects of the drug that Chari has mixed in it. Now there are any numbers of sleep-inducing drugs that leave no effect on the body an hour afterward, so there’s no surprise that the doctors were unable to find traces in Aryan’s blood.’

Venkat Reddy said, ‘But we found nothing in the glasses either.’

‘Exactly,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘As soon as Aryan dozes off, Chari empties the glasses in the attached bathroom, refills them with good Coke. He does this in order to make Aryan’s testimony inconsistent, you see, and he leaves the letters on the table though they never speak about it. He is banking on Venkat Reddy finding them and ascribing motive to Aryan’s actions, which he duly does. Now the stage is set. All he has to do is step onto the designated spot, reach into his pocket, and press the button on the remote control. The knife flies out and drives into the back, with enough force to puncture the heart.’

‘Fingerprints?’ said Venkat Reddy.

‘I think Chari would have been smart enough to take the sleeping man’s prints and apply them to the knife. He would not have banked on Aryan touching the knife after coming to, though it would turn out to be a bonus if he did.’

Krishna Shastri looked at Venkat Reddy. ‘If the blade of the knife was driven with such force into a man’s back, we have to at least entertain the possibility that it was not a stabbing wound but a shooting wound.’ To Madhavayya he said, ‘Did I get the essentials right, sir?’

The old man covered his face with two brown, lined hands. For a long time he neither spoke nor moved. Just as Venkat Reddy placed his hand on the handle of his pistol to guard against any quick movements, he said, ‘I need my lawyer.’

Krishna Shastri smiled. ‘So I was not too far off, then.’

* * *

They sat in the same seat on the bus back to Amaravati. The same smell of beedis. The orange shapes of spit on the glass. A cool night breeze hitting them in the face. The white lights inside the bus blinking, flickering, blazing.

‘What happens now?’ said Krishna Shastri.

‘It will be hard to get him off,’ said Venkat Reddy. ‘We have absolutely no evidence for all that you said, and Madhavayya isn’t going to break.’

‘And how do you feel about that?’

Venkat Reddy did not answer at once. He held the bar in front of him with both hands and stared ahead. Then he said, ‘Doesn’t matter what I feel about it. But I will tell you this. Justice is being done. Not in the way I would like, but it is being done all the same.’

‘And the girl?’ asked Krishna Shastri. ‘Will she have justice as well?’

‘She will live,’ said Venkat Reddy, ‘and she will learn.’

Krishna Shastri smiled, and held the bundle of documents close to his chest. They finished the rest of the journey in silence.