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June, 2006

The following story was the first place entry in the first Annual Sleuth Mystery Fiction Contest.

UnTouchable

by Elicere Townsend

India isn't supposed to be cold. But it was January, and it was Delhi, and northern India in January is cold. Whether it is supposed to be or not. Elicere Townsend shivered in her crochet shawl and wondered how she had ever been convinced to leave London.

The answer stretched in string and pegs across a broad field of red Delhi earth - the future St. Stephens College, and the architectural masterpiece of Walter George. Walter, whose small sketches decorated the walls of Elicere's flat, whose irrepressible red hair defied every comb and patent preparation, whose friendship Elicere had valued since her girlhood.

Walter, who had woken from a light sleep in mid December to a night splitting scream, and stumbled into the cool humid Indian night to find broken strings and uprooted pegs and poured into the midst of them a sari'ed young woman who would never be woken by anything again.

"Dearest Elly" he had written, "I do not know which is worse today - that everyone believes I have killed this girl, or that no one cares. She was Dalit, I am told with a shrug, as I am reassured that such a small thing as the murder of one scrap of Untouchable girl will not be allowed to interfere with the groundbreaking for the college."

"I recall your love of puzzles, and of justice," he had ended the letter, "and here you will find a great many of the former and lack of the latter. Please say you will come - I cannot bear this."

So Elicere had come, and here she stood in January, in the cold, looking at the stretched strings and pegs of the future St. Stephens College and wondering how she had ever been convinced to leave London. It was, as Walter had said, an awful puzzle, and now a many weeks old one. Sunitha Gopalan had not died quietly, but hers had been the only protest - in the gossiping streets of Delhi there was only silence on this question.

Other then the stunning indifference to the brutal death, the investigation had gone much as any other investigation would. Walter had given her a few leads - there had been trouble between the Hindu and Muslim populations of late, and fellow named Allah Muhammed had been known to be stirring up trouble by harassing Hindu women about their work. And there had been whispers that a Brahmin boy , Singh, was seen looking fondly towards the street when Sunitha had come sweeping - not that love was any motive for murder. Louder whispers suggested that Singh's father Vijay had not looked with favour upon his son's infatuation with a lower caste girl.

The one bright spot Elicere could see was that as her stay drew out, the local people became more and more comfortable with the plump English woman that 'George-Sahib' had brought to the construction encampment. A few of the English speaking merchants that served the site might be worth talking too.

It was a short trek from the building site down into the westerners district at the near edge of Delhi - even in what was nominally the English section of town, Delhi was still a riot of the senses. Flashing colours gaudier then any that would be seen in polite society back home, and such a confusion of scents - spices beyond number overlaying the baser odors of close packed humanity. And every where the high enchanting lilting sound of Hindustani song. Elicere made her way through the closely packed streets to the shop of Ismail, the butcher. If not for the growing British presence, his would have been a sorry shop indeed -- most of the small Muslim population saw to their own butchering, and the rest of the largely Hindu city eschewed meat eating. Ismail greeted her with a smile, and a cup of the ever present masala chai was pressed into Elicere's hands before she could refuse it. Sipping the sweet milky brew, she considered how best to broach the subject, and finally opted for directness.

"Ismail, I wanted to ask you about the unfortunate death at the college last month." Elicere looked into the spiced tea and not at Ismail, whose stiffening anxiety she could feel. Years in the law, serving in Chambers and speaking before court had taught Elicere to tell within a sentence how much a witness would be willing to talk. Ismail might be willing to answer a question, if he was willing to discuss the murder at all.

"I was just wondering if you'd heard anything about it -- it just that the British constable they have investigating it doesn't seem to be making much progress at all." She paused, then added a final flattering note, "Of course he's probably not talking to the right people." The constable that was nominally in charge of the investigation was not talking to anyone at all -- Sunitha's death was nothing more then a two line notation in diary, Elicere was sure.

Ismail sighed after a moment, and rattled something off in a scolding tone. With another sigh , he began wrapping a small roast in paper, and tying it with string. It slid across the counter to her and as Elicere fumbled with her change to pay for the unrequested meat Ismail bent forward, pointing helpfully at the right coins, and whispered, "Allah Muhammed knows something about this - speak to him, if you must continue this foolishness."

Bundle of beef in hand, Elicere made her way across town to the Muslim quarter. Over the usual noise and bustle of Delhi came the high chant of prayer call, and she knew that she would have to wait before Allah Muhammed would be ready to talk to her. If he would talk to her. Tension was running high between the Hindu and Muslims in the city, more so since talk in independence had started to spread among the educated Indians of the country. The ground breaking for St. Stephens College was only making matters worse.

When Allah Muhammed finally returned from prayers he stared at her a moment - a plump brown haired Englishwoman in spectacles, wrapped in a crochet shawl and blinking at him owlishly. Elicere got straight to the point - "I wanted to ask you about the unfortunate death at the college site. I thought you might have some idea who was responsible for it."

Allah Muhammed looked at her with narrowed eyes, and then nodded. "That Brahmin brat that followed her around - I saw him the next day, up at the jewelers here, trying to pawn a little gold ring she had. These Hindu women, you know they crave gold - she wouldn't have parted with that willingly."

Now that was a puzzling tidbit, Elicere thought as she made her way back to her rooms at the College encampment. Why would Singh have murdered a girl he was by all reports in love with? If what Allah Muhammed had said was true, he was the prime suspect. But what was the motive?

It was early the next day when Elicere found that the case was taking on some life of it's own. She had only just finished morning tea when one of the white clad servants bowed his way into the room and announced, "Vijay Khurana." He had scarcely finished speaking when a wiry old man stalked into the room.

Elicere was rising politely to greet him when the old man spoke sharply, "They tell me you are making trouble, asking questions about that girl who died here. I do not know why you bother, but this trouble you are making will lead to my son, and I will not have you pulling him in to this trouble you are making. He and I spent that whole night together at the astrologers, seeing over charts of proper young women he might marry. That girl you are making this trouble over, talk to her family. She has a father, and it his business, this trouble." And with that, he made a fierce short bow, and turned and stalked out again. He brushed past the servant carrying in a tray of the ubiquitous masala chai, who looked to Elicere in bewilderment. Elicere waved him away, and sighed. Well, at least now she had some alibi's she could check.

The astrologer lived in a small neat building near the center of town. He was distinguished older man, whose spectacles matched Elicere's. They blinked at each other politely over the requisite tea, before Elicere got down to the point. "Vijay Khurana told me that he and his son were here last month, the night that there was the unfortunate death at the college. I am, at the request of the architect, looking into this unfortunate death, and was hoping you could help me with my inquiries."

The astrologer chuckled politely. His voice was easy and oxfordian, with the faint lilt of India - the voice of the upper-class Brahmin educated in England. "Of course Singh and his father were here. Singh has been very interested in marriage recently, and Vijay wishes him to make a good match. The Dalit woman, however pretty she might have been, was wholly unsuitable." He paused, took another sip of his tea. "Even astrologically. After his father left, Singh asked me to make up a chart for her, even though he knew the match was impossible - her father had already given him back the ring he tried to give her. The stars only confirmed what he already knew."

Elicere studied the intricate charts displayed on the walls, hiding her excitement. "So Singh stayed much later then?"

"Oh, yes. We talked until well after midnight, looking at different charts. He needed to talk. His father left on some business and for dinner, but Singh was here until quite late."

It was in a tizzy of excitement that Elicere left -- finally, some progress was being made. Singh's motive had become clear - he had been rejected in his suit. A quite serious suit apparently, if he'd been giving the girl gifts of gold. Although he had a strong alibi, his father did not. And Elicere could well imagine the rage of a father on hearing of his son's pursuit of such an unsuitable bride.

The Gopalan family lived in a small mud brick building in the outskirts of Delhi. It had taken Elicere some pretty sweet talking to get that information out of the constable, but she thought it about time she spoke to Sunitha's father. And caste issues be damned - she'd be back in England in a fortnight if she could clear up this case.

Ajit Gopalan was a man old before his time. The heavy work of refuse hauling had left him bent and stooped, but his eyes were bright at the mention of his daughter's name. "She was a beauty, our Sunitha. She would have married well, and gone from our home. There was a gardener who worked in the city, so fond of her...." He trailed for a moment, a distant look in his eyes. "But you are not interested in that. Yes, the Brahmin man Singh was interested in her. I wish he had not been..." The silence was longer this time.

Elicere leaned forward gently, "Do you have any idea who might have killed your daughter? Is there anything you've seen or heard that might lead to who it is?"

Ajit looked at her for a long time. "I would not say this again, not if you offered me ten thousand rupees. My daughter is already dead, my sons have been beaten, my wife threatened. I will say this to you once."

He looked off into the distance for a long while before speaking again. "Some days before she died the Brahmin man gave my daughter a ring of gold. She hid it at first, but when I heard of it I took it from her and sent it back to the man. Then after a few days her father came here. He was angry."

The silence was unbearable. Elicere shifted in her seat, and Ajit looked at her with hopeless quiet. "You cannot understand - you are English. He took Sunitha away. And she did not come back. When I go to haul the trash away in the Brahmin district, I must carry a broom to sweep away my footprints so they do not pollute their streets. I must go before dawn or after sunset, so my shadow cannot fall upon their shadows and make them unclean."

And then there was nothing more to be done. After a silent time, Elicere left the small mudbrick house with it's hopeless loss, and walked back to the encampment at the construction site, where soon would rise the elegant walls - styled after Cambridge - of St. Stephen's College.

Vijay Khurana was waiting for her when she got back, sitting stiffly in one of the high backed chairs of the morning room. Elicere looked at him, and sat down, calling for tea. "Stay and serve," she instructed the white clad servant, "I shall want more shortly." The tea was warm, and English, and comforting. A bracing dark drink, unsweetened, unspiced, un milky. Bitter.

"My friend Walter George has been accused of the death of the girl, Sunitha Gopalan," Elicere said after a few sips of tea. "It unease's him, makes his work hard, and it is not true."

Vijay nodded, lifting one hand slightly. "It is not true." His eyes flickered for a moment over to the servant, standing by, listening, then back to Elicere.

Their eyes met, and after a moment Vijay nodded again. There could be no constable, no punishment. An Untouchable woman had ventured beyond her place, and no one would claim that he had done any wrong in killing her for it. "Yes," he said, "It is not true. She insulted the honor of my son, brought shame upon her family, and I have mended it. Her father and brothers would not kill her for her dishonor - so I did." The servant who listened would hear this, and it would be whispered among the servants of the English, and then too the English.

Elicere nodded herself then. The weight of suspicion against Walter George would be lifted. It was as much as she could do for him. There was nothing she could do for the Gopalan's, or for Sunitha. Vijay Khunara took one last drink of the bitter English tea, and departed.

Elicere watched him go, drinking her own bitter brew, and angered at a world in which a man who killed a pretty girl was untouchable.

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