Saturday, 10 May 2008

The Malabar Rites

Roman statues and Grecian temples dwarfed Chelsea Bunn as she walked through a maze of long, echoing corridors. She turned a corner and emerged into a vast gallery filled with crumbling Egyptian mummies and gleaming golden sarcophagi. She had always thought of the British Museum as a sombre place, a great mausoleum stacked high with monuments to the dead. And today the Museum seemed more sombre than ever.

Past the ancient treasures of Western Asia she walked and on into the long, twisting galleries of the Orient. Then along a dark little corridor beyond a sign that said 'Private: Museum Staff Only' and down an old wooden staircase that led into the dusty gloom of the basement.

Finally, she arrived at a heavy oak door bearing a brass plate on which was engraved:

"Prof. Chearsby Carruthers (Snr. Curator, Crypto-History)"

Chelsea hesitated before she knocked upon that door. If anyone could help her unravel the sinister trail of events which led from the opium fields of Rajpooristan to the backstreets of Kings Cross, Professor Carruthers was that man. But all the same her mood was far from jovial. There had been too many deaths, too much tragedy in this affair. And Chelsea still trembled when she recalled once again the stark white face and staring eyes of her friend and chief styliste, Trish Winterbottom, as she had slumped to the floor of the salon.

At first, Chelsea had feared that Trish had breathed her last. But then, after a few terrifying moments, Trish's rigid features had begun to slacken into an expression of witless imbecility. At that moment, Chelsea had realised, with relief, that Trish was on the mend again.

"That was a close shave, young Miss," grumbled Chief Inspector Spiggot of the Yard who, by a fortunate coincidence, happened to be visiting the salon at the time, "If my suspicions is correct, one more squirt of that conditioner and your blow-drying days would've been well and truly done."

The Chief Inspector had immediately seized an entire consignment of Bunnz Salon Specialities shampoo and conditioner which had been delivered to the salon that very morning. After analysis by the boffins at Scotland Yard, it had been discovered that his suspicions were correct. The bottles of Frangipani Deep-Cleansing shampoo and Sandalwood Rich Emollient Conditioner had been tampered with to potentially deadly effect. Each had been contaminated by the addition of a volatile oil of a sort well-known to certain sects of the Near and Far Orient. On their own, each of these two oils were harmless. But when mixed, they were deadly. They were, in fact, precisely the same two agents which had been used to kill Hiram Hartleberry-Smythe in the unseasonal monsoon at the Malabar Emporium!

"But why would anyone want to kill Trish?" Chelsea had asked Chief Inspector Spiggot.

"I don't think this shampoo was meant for your styliste," Spiggot had answered grimly, "It is my belief that it was meant for you!"

"Yes, yes, of course," Chelsea had spluttered.

"That still leaves us with a mystery," Spiggot had said, "I mean, after all, Miss Bunn, who on earth would want to kill you?"

"Oh, it could be almost anyone," Chelsea had answered sombrely, "You see, Chief Inspector, a hairdresser makes many enemies."

Chelsea rapped upon Professor Carruthers' oak door.

"At last," she thought, "I may be about to discover who that enemy really is."

A quavering voice called out from within - "Come!"

Chelsea opened the door and stepped into a small room filled with an almost palpable gloom. Books lay everywhere. Huge, leather-bound volumes were piled upon the floor. Ancient tomes weighed heavily upon the sagging shelves. And in their midst a tiny, grey-haired man crouched over a vast cherry-wood desk, peering through a magnifying glass at a dusty yellow scroll of imponderable antiquity.

"Just a moment," he said, without looking up, "Two more glyphs and one cartouche, then I shall be at your immediate service… ah, now, ah, yes, yes! Yes indeed! I see it now. It is all as clear as day. There's the sign of the Pharaoh and there's his servant boy and there's… oh, my!"

"An Egyptian death scroll?" Chelsea asked.

"What? This? No, no! Ha-ha! Certainly not! No, no, just some ancient pornography, I fear. Deary me, yes, the scribes of the Middle Kingdom, you know, had a rather fine line in smut, do you see? Tut-tut, dear, dear. Quite crude, really! Yes, yes, smutty, crude and vulgar," and with that the professor put down the magnifying glass and put on a pair of half-moon spectacles, "And who, I wonder, may you be?"

Chelsea presented her card.

"Ah," said the old man, "Miss Bunn! I am a great admirer of yours. Oh yes, indeed. The manner in which you solved the case of the Afghan Dung-Beetle Murders has become quite legendary."

"Oh, that?" said Chelsea, "A mere trifle. As soon as I discovered the trap-door in the Queen Anne commode, the case practically solved itself."

"You are too modest, indeed, Miss Bunn. Yes, yes, too modest by far, I must protest. But how on earth can I, a mere crypto-historian, be of service to such a notable sleuth as yourself?"

Chelsea explained, in brief, the macabre chain of events in which she had become an unwilling link. When she had finished her story, she produced from an inner pocket of her poncho a scrap of red paper. "I believe," she said, "That this scrap of paper may hold the key to this mystery. But of its true significance I am ignorant."

The professor took the scrap of paper, pushed his spectacles back above his voluminous eyebrows and, using his magnifying glass, examined it with care and attention. When he had finished, he slid his spectacles down upon his nose again and looked Chelsea straight in the eyes.

"Where in the name of Amun Ra did you get this paper?" he said.

Chelsea told him about the mysterious delivery of a pound of coffee from an anonymous benefactor. The paper, she explained, had been wrapped around the gift.

"You are in more danger than you can dream of," the Professor said, his voice quavering with dread, "Would I be right to assume that the precise variety of coffee formerly enclosed by this fragment of paper was of the Malabar variety?"

"Quite right," said Chelsea, "I am told it is known as Monsoon Malabar."

"What do you know, may I ask, of the Malabar Rites?"

Chelsea thought a moment and then answered with confidence, "Nothing, Professor. Not a single thing."

"Then let me explain."

Sitting there in the comfortable gloom of that tiny office, Chelsea could barely believe the strange and fearful histories which Professor Carruthers unfolded to her.

"It was in the year 1605," the Professor began, "...that Father Roberto de Nobili, a missionary of the Society of Jesus, began to serve his apostolic apprenticeship in the Southern part of India. Father Nobili was a man of ferocious religious fervour by all accounts, and threw himself into his devotions with a passion that was terrifying to behold.

"But no amount of missionary zeal could convert the equally zealous Hindus to the faith of Mother Rome. And so Father Nobili conceived a more audacious plan. After studying the secret rituals and holy emblems of the high caste of Hindu ascetics called the Saniassy, he began to adopt a most curious manner of dress and was frequently to be seen wearing crimson robes and a tiger's skin. These garments, as you are no doubt aware, were regarded as signs of high learning among the native peoples of that time. Furthermore, it was reported that father Nobili claimed to be none other than the great sage, Tatuva Podagar Swami."

"Through his cunning, Father Nobili mixed the Hindu and the Christian doctrines in such a bizarre and, one might say, blasphemous manner that the matter of those so-called 'Malabar Rites' was brought to the attention of the attention of Pope Clement XI at Rome. Apparently, particular objection was made to a fashion among the Christianised Hindu women in Father Nobili's flock, of engraving a cross upon the traditional golden tingum or, ahem, male organ, which they wore between their breasts.

"But several Popes and dozens of decrees later, the whole thing was more or less brushed under the Papal carpet. After all, converts were converts. And better a corrupt Catholic than a virtuous Hindu." - the Professor broke off at this point, cleared his throat slightly and looked sheepishly at Chelsea over the rims of his spectacles, "Oh dear, oh dear," he said at last, "I do hope I'm not offending you with my perhaps over-forthright views."

"Not at all," Chelsea assured him, "A hairdresser is not easily shocked, Professor."

"Ah yes, quite so, quite so. But to get to the crux of the matter. As far as most scholars of divinity are concerned, the Malabar Rites are no more than a minor curiosity which passed into the oblivion of history more than two and a half centuries ago.”

"But you don't believe that?" interrupted Chelsea.

"Quite so, quite so," agreed the professor, "As a crypto-historian, my study takes me into strange highways and byways of both past and present and I have discovered that the Malabar Rites live on to this very day, and in a far more depraved and malevolent form than in the days of Father Nobili.

"As the centuries have passed, the Rites have grown into a distorted and malignant mixture of dark mythology in which the Lord Siva and the skull-garlanded Kali ride, each in twin incarnations, upon four horses signifying War, Strife, Hunger and Death. Upon the horse of Hunger sits Siva's incarnation as Sundashvara the beautiful. Upon the horse of War sits Siva's incarnation as Bharaiva the terrible. On the horse of Strife sits the goddess Kali Yuga the destroyer. And finally, on the horse of War sits Bhavani the Kali to whom the Thugee murderers dedicated their victims.

"This impious admixture of the Hindu Vedic traditions with the Christian Apocalyptic legends forms today the dark core of the secret society of the Malabarites. A more ruthless, vicious and dangerous sect I know not. Curses are their prayers, blood sacrifice their sacrament, murder most foul is their daily bread. They believe that the world is passing from the light into a new dominion of darkness - one which they, and their dark Lords, shall rule! They further believe that Father Nobili possessed the supernatural powers acquired from blood sacrifices to demons and gods and that his powers have been passed on from generation to generation to an earthly Lord or Rajah who leads the Malabarite sect."

"And how are these powers passed on, Professor?"

"There are only two ways. Either the sect leader appoints his successor. Or he is killed by a more powerful adversary."

"Murdered? How ghastly!"

"It has happened several times in the bloody history of the sect."

"Who, then, is their present leader?"

"Nobody outside of the cult itself knows his identity. But surely, Miss Bunn, your sleuthing activities can not have brought you into contact with these most barbarous of heathens?"

"I…" Chelsea hesitated, "To tell you the truth, Professor Carruthers, I am not entirely sure. On the one hand, there is the evidence of the scrap of paper which you hold in your hands. Wrapped around a package of Monsoon Malabar coffee bought at the Malabar Emporium, it bears a hand-written addition that can only be a reference to the Malabar Rites."

Staring once again at the scrap of paper, Professor Carruthers read out the inscription: "'Two wrongs for Two Rites?' I suppose," he suggested, "This might be some sort of practical joke?"

"I don't think so," said Chelsea, "It is my belief that the two wrongs refer to the two deaths - first, the fatal accident that claimed the life of Cedric Crackington-Haven as he made another delivery of Monsoon Malabar coffee to a restaurant in King's Cross. And then, the following day, the murder of the proprietor of the Malabar Emporium, Hiram Hartleberry-Smythe. I was there as he died, Professor. His final words were, 'The Malabar Rites'."

"Ah, I see," murmured the Professor, "That is, indeed, compelling, if somewhat circumstantial, evidence!"

"It is the final piece of a complex puzzle," Chelsea said, "I believe now, I know who the killer is!"

"How very, very thrilling!" bumbled the Professor, patting the palms of his hands together excitedly.

"Would you have a telephone to hand, by any chance?" Chelsea asked.

"Oh, indeed I have!" said the Professor, sliding an antique two-piece instrument across his desk. When Chelsea picked it up, an operator at the Museum asked if she required an external line.

"I certainly do," Chelsea said, "Get me Chief Inspector Spiggot of Scotland Yard."

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