The Pickled Blend

 

AS I run my eye over the accounts I have set down of some of the cases solved by my friend U Sha Lok, the famous Yangon consulting detective, I can find few that can be described as commonplace. To be sure, all of them feature the extraordinary skills that he honed in the course of his singular profession, particularly the acute powers of observation and deduction that allowed him to perceive truths that eluded lesser men. I think in particular of the chilling case of the Madwoman of Mingalardon, and the great relief felt throughout our city when he successfully unmasked the Tarmwe Terror. But of all these strange affairs, I can think of very few that rival in eeriness and horror the mystery surrounding the villainous tea exporter, U Kappa Cha, and his two step-daughters.

I shall never forget the April morning in ninety-nine that I awoke with a start, in my bedroom in the bachelor quarters that I shared with U Sha Lok, to find him, fully dressed, standing over my bed.

I remember it was that sweet Thingyan season of our New Year, when our youths and maidens, normally so demure, follow the quaint custom of sprinkling strangers in the street with a few drops of perfumed water from small silver bowls, spreading laughter and good fellowship.

“Very sorry to knock you up, Wa Zone,” he said. “But our landlady, Daw Hat Sun, was herself aroused very early, and woke me in some urgency. A client has arrived, a lady in great distress, who requires my services. In view of the interest you have shown in my little cases, I thought you might wish to attend our interview.”

“By all means,” I replied, reaching for my trousers. A few moments later we entered our sitting room. At our entrance, a lady who had been sitting by the window rose to greet us. She was tall and slender and, though she had the face and figure of a woman of some thirty summers, her hair was streaked with grey and her features bore the traces of fear and anguish.

“Good morning, madam,” cried U Sha Lok cheerily as he advanced. “I am Sha Lok, and this is my friend Dr Wa Zone. You may speak as freely before him as before myself. But I perceive you are shivering. If you are cold, pray sit by the window, where the sun is just beginning to peep through the curtains.”

“It is not cold that makes me shiver, U Sha Lok,” said the lady in a low but cultured voice. “It is fear. I fled to you this morning in mortal terror.”

“You must not be afraid,” said U Sha Lok gently. Daw Hat Sun will bring us some hot tea, and—”

“Tea!” she said sharply, her voice suddenly strained and her face twisted into a mask of horror. “I wish the foul brew had never been invented! I greatly fear, U Sha Lok, that it is tea that has led me to these dreadful straits.”

“Well, that is a new one on me,” U Sha Lok admitted. “But calm yourself, dear lady, and take your seat and tell Wa Zone and myself what has brought you here. Other than the obvious facts that you are a reader of The Myanmar Times, that you left home before first light and came here by train, I know nothing.”

“Yes, yes,” she murmured distractedly. “I have read of your methods in the newspapers, U Sha Lok. I am wearing odd slippers, in different colours, because I put them on in the dark, hastening to get out of the house before first light.” She stooped to pick up a scrap of paper. “You will have noted that I inadvertently dropped the return half of my train ticket. And I am carrying the newspaper under my arm.”

“Ah, precisely so,” said U Sha Lok, smiling a little tightly. “Pray tell us why you have come here in such haste.”

She sank back into her chair, nodding distractedly. “Gladly. Oh, U Sha Lok, what a terrible night I have had! I had no wink of sleep and, as I said, I dressed hurriedly before dawn and made my way here as swiftly as I could. I am in fear of my life. I caught the 05.50 Yangon train from Bago to U Ston station. I came to you because I have no-one else to turn to and because my life is a world of fear. When I read of your last case in the newspapers, it seemed to me that you alone might be able to protect me. But perhaps I should begin my story at the beginning, omitting no detail, however bizarre or apparently irrelevant.”

“That is exactly what I was about to suggest,” said U Sha Lok, his smile now fixed in place.   

“My name is Ma Chit Khaing,” said the lady, assuming with obvious effort a new calmness of manner. “You should know that I am the stepdaughter of U Kappa Cha, who made a fortune exporting tea to England. It was in England, in Aldershot in fact, that he met my late mother, the widow of Brigadier General U Phone Kyaw, late of the Bago Lancers, who was stationed there to train the British Army. When they married, he became the stepfather of myself and my dear late elder sister Ma Ei Ei.”
“Your sister is dead, then?” U Sha Lok interposed swiftly.

“I see your reputation for acute observation is not misplaced, U Sha Lok. She died two years ago, under dreadful circumstances which I am about to relate. If I may.”

“Pray proceed with your narrative. I am all attention,” said U Sha Lok, leaning back in his chair and steepling his fingers together on his chest in his customary manner.

“After marrying my poor mother, U Kappa Cha’s behaviour became increasingly erratic and violent. Though he had made a fortune purveying tea to England, he had lost the greater part of it in a series of ill-advised speculations and failed investments. He also lavished huge sums on a small zoo which he insisted on maintaining at our home, in which he kept animals imported from Myanmar. At one point he even had two tigers and a small elephant, which he allowed to roam free in the back garden of our home in Bei Zin Stoak township, near Aldershot, despite the complaints of our neighbours and from the local police. Because of his reputation for great wealth and his surly disposition, it seemed nobody could compel him to moderate his behaviour.

“I don’t know if you gentlemen are at all familiar with England. I would describe the English as shy rather than friendly, good-hearted enough deep down no doubt, but less than welcoming to outsiders in their midst. Of course, being regarded as wealthy and successful expatriates among them, we did enjoy a certain status. But surprisingly few people speak Myanmar in England, even among the London elite, and in the countryside we found no one who could speak our language.

“My father often travelled to London for business, and even occasionally to the great northern English townships of Myan Chit Sta and Ba Min Gum. He also had dealings with the large Tamil community in the northern province of Sri Lankashire. The rest of the time he would brood idly at home, sunk deep in some nameless anger.

“We lived in seclusion, he having no connection with other Myanmar people in England, and allowing my mother none. When she died a few years later, my sister and I were left alone with him. In her will, she left him an annuity to be spent entirely at his discretion, except for an allowance to be devoted to the education of her two daughters until we married, at which point we would receive one-third of the income each. After her death, which was caused by mistakenly eating a fatal combination of egg and watermelon, my stepfather’s seclusion deepened still further and his violent rages became more frequent and ungovernable. In the end, he was forced to leave England after being involved in a disgraceful incident involving three drunken Millwall supporters, a Polish chambermaid called Elzbieta, a Russian oligarch’s chauffeur, a pet dachshund belonging to an elderly Conservative member of the local rural district council and—”

“Ma Chit Khaing,” said U Sha Lok gently.

“Yes?”

“I know you promised to omit no detail, however irrelevant, but—“

“Of course,” she said at once. “Allow me to resume my narrative.”

“The three of us returned to Myanmar three years ago, after my stepfather had entirely dissipated the great fortune he had made exporting tea to England,” said Ma Chit Khaing, resuming her narrative. “We moved into his family’s ancestral home just outside Bago City. The house is very old and in a state of considerable disrepair. We lived very quietly, and despite our modest lifestyle were constantly in want of money. My sister Ma Ei Ei and I were lonely, having only each other for company. Though we loved each other dearly, we were eager, being back in our own country, to move in society, an opportunity denied to us by our stepfather’s evil, jealous and solitary disposition.

“Then, a little over two years ago, quite by chance, my sister met a young army officer in connection with a small remembrance ceremony held by the local barracks in honour of our late father, the Brigadier General. The friendship swiftly deepened into love, and the officer proposed marriage. My sister at once accepted, and informed our stepfather, who expressed no objection. But then things began to change, quite horribly.” Ma Chit Khaing broke off and dabbed at her nose with a scrap of cambric. “Forgive me,” she murmured. “Even now, I can scarcely bear to relate these events.”

“I quite understand,” said U Sha Lok soothingly. “Calm yourself, dear lady. Perhaps a cup of—no, never mind. Please continue when you feel able to do so. This is the part where we need the details,” he added helpfully.

Having brought her feelings under control, Ma Chit Khaing spoke again, slowly and haltingly.

“Details! Oh, U Sha Lok, I can give you details. That dreadful night is burned into my memory, and haunts me to this day.

“As I told you, our house in Bago is very old, and only one wing is habitable. Our three bedrooms are all on the first floor, and open onto the same corridor. My stepfather’s room is at the north end of the corridor, my sister’s was in the middle, and mine was at the south end. I trust my description is clear.”

“Eminently.”

“Good.”

 Please proceed.”

“I shall. On the night in question we had all retired when my sister knocked softly at my door and entered. She apologised for coming to me so late, but said she was disturbed by the strong smell of the English cigarettes our stepfather habitually smokes. She sat on my bed and spoke for a time of her approaching wedding, and of the happiness it brought her to know that she would soon be leaving this lonely existence. Bless the dear girl, she made a point of saying that once she and her husband were established, I would be welcome to stay as their guest. ‘For under Mama’s will, I shall have a third of the bequest once I am wed,’ she said.

“At about midnight, she rose to go. But at the door she turned and, with a slightly troubled expression, spoke to me. Perhaps it was the gloomy surroundings, or the unearthly expression on her face, or a shadow of the loneliness I feared would assail me on her departure. But for some reason, her next words cast a shiver of horror down my spine.

She said, ‘Tell me, Chit, have you ever heard anyone whistle in the dead of the night?’ ‘Never,’ said I. ‘I suppose that you could not possibly whistle, yourself, in your sleep?’ ‘Certainly not. But why?’

“She told me that twice during the past week, on waking in the small hours, she had heard a low, clear whistle. ‘I could not determine the source of the sound,’ she said. ‘Could it be coming from the garden? Or from the corridor outside my bedroom door? It is a mystery.’ She laughed, as if shaking off a sombre mood. ‘A mystery, but a small one. I'm sure it is of no importance. Good night, my dear!’

“That night was very wild. The wind howled and the rain dashed against my window-panes. Some vague fear kept me awake. In the darkest hour of the night I heard a scream of terror from my sister’s room, a scream that turned into a horrid gurgle, as if she were being stifled. Throwing on a shawl, I sprang out of bed and ran to the door. As I emerged into the corridor I seemed to hear a low whistle, coming from I know not where, followed by a harsh metallic clang. I ran to my sister’s door and flung it open, to see her, in the dim light of the corridor lamp, lying half on and half off her bed, moaning feebly, her face distorted by pain and fear. She seemed to be pointing, with a trembling finger, at the blank wall behind her bed, I know not why. I swear I shall never forget her dying words, which she uttered in a hoarse whisper that sent chills down my spine: ‘The blend! The pickled blend!’”

U Sha Lok sat up with a start. “The what?”

“‘The blend. The pickled—’.”

“Yes, yes. I see. Are you sure she did not say,” and here Sha Lok assumed the same hoarse and horror-struck whisper employed by our client, ‘The band! The speckled band!’ or something of the sort?”

“No, it was definitely ‘The blend! The pickled blend!’”, insisted our client, repeating the dread words in her sister’s dying voice. “I am quite sure of the words, as I will explain in due course. Anyway, to return to the night in question. My sister’s mouth worked horribly, as if she strove to say something else, and her hands fluttered. But then she fell into a swoon. We sent for the doctor in all haste, but she was already gone. At the inquest, the coroner could find no obvious cause of death. A small puncture wound was found in my sister’s throat, but there was very little blood. No bones were broken, and no poison was found in her system. U Sha Lok,” Ma Chit Khaing spoke in a hollow, spectral voice. “It is my belief that my sister died of terror. Her sad and terrible end meant the beginning of a new and terrible life for me.”

“What do you mean?”

A faint glow seemed to suffuse our visitor’s features.

“Some months ago, I made the acquaintance of a gentleman, a widower resident in Bago. He is no longer young; but then, neither am I. He appears to be a person of excellent character, and we have reached an understanding. When I conveyed this development to my stepfather, he made no objection. However, just yesterday, he initiated building work on the outside wall of the wing in which we live which, he said, necessitated my moving … into my late sister’s room.

“U Sha Lok, I was terrified. Though I was forced to move out of my own room, I could not bear to spend a night in my sister’s death chamber. It was not just the emotional association, you understand. I am convinced that there is something about that room that caused her death. I sat up all night, without a wink of sleep, and at first light fled to Yangon to consult you.”    

“You should have no fear,” said U Sha Lok kindly. “You have passed through a very dark episode, but I believe I see light at the end of the tunnel. I will gladly take up your case, dear lady. I do have some questions.”

“Your narrative is of the greatest interest,” U Sha Lok told our visitor. “But I would like to ask some questions.”

“Of course,” said Ma Chit Khaing.

“Earlier on,” he went on, speaking with some delicacy, “You appeared to express some distaste with regard to…”

“Yes?”

My friend seemed to be in the grip of an uncharacteristic reticence, bordering almost on embarrassment. “Ah, it seemed to be related to … uh, tea.”

Ma Chit Khaing smiled palely. “Forgive me, gentlemen. Indeed, I did. Perhaps it was an over-reaction. Allow me to explain my two reasons. First of all, as I mentioned, my stepfather, U Kappa Cha, made his money in the early days as a tea exporter. His whole family was in beverages, his brother, U Kappa Joe, being in the coffee trade. But I digress.

“Our house in Bago smells of tea still. Though in itself it is not an unpleasant scent, I cannot help associating it with him in general, and with the terrifying scene of my sister’s death, in particular.

“Many years ago, my stepfather was closely associated with the efforts of a number of our neighbouring countries, particularly India and China, to expand their tea market in England using, to that end, the most brutal and immoral methods to do so. Though China is often blamed for the Tea Wars, which reduced England to an abject dependence on the drug, I know that my stepfather played a leading but secret role in that undertaking.

“And I saw the terrible results. When I lived with my parents in England, we schoolgirls were sometimes conducted, as an object-lesson in the evils of moral decadence, to view some of the teahouses of London. ‘Tea-dens’, I should call them, for they have nothing in common with the friendly, convivial air of our own Yangon teashops.

I remember the one we visited, in a pestilential rat-ridden east London slum known as ‘Canary Wharf’. Our teachers led us through crooked, squalid streets lined on either side with tenements teeming with the dregs of London’s criminal classes. The tea-den lay in the heart of this dismal labyrinth. Inside, the walls were lined with faded floral wallpaper, the tiled floors cracked and coated with grime. A waitress called Lil in a stained white apron, old beyond her years, moved from table to table, her hair in curlers, an unfiltered Woodbine dangling from her lips. The tables are littered with the paraphernalia of the vile drug—chipped jugs of cow’s milk, containers of sugar shaped into cubes that they pick out with miniature tongs and dissolve in the brew, silver teaspoons on whose stems are carved local religious images. They even…” she broke off with a slight shudder. “If you can believe it, they even conceal the potion beneath knitted woollen articles in garish colours that they call ‘tea-cosies’. Individuals, couples, entire families would sit slumped motionless before a succession of pots of tea, sometimes murmuring unintelligibly, sometimes just gazing vacantly at each other in silence. Truly, narcotic addiction is a terrible thing. How am I doing with the details, U Sha Lok? Is this enough?”

“Quite enough, thank you. Do please resume your narrative.”

“I will proceed right to the point. On the night of my sister’s death, there was tea in her room. I smelled it, and could identify it at once. It was a particular blend of pickled tealeaf that my stepfather had perfected after years of research and experimentation. A subsequent search of the room, which otherwise offered no clues as to her death, found traces of the dried leaves amid her bedding.”

“It is to that, then, that you attribute her dying words: ‘the pickled blend’?”

‘The blend! The pickled blend!’ corrected our client, adopting the same spine-chilling whisper as before. “It is, U Sha Lok, though what the tealeaves could have to do with her death, Heaven alone can say. She was not poisoned, and the leaves themselves are harmless, save for their role in promoting addiction.”

U Sha Lok rose and paced the room for a few moments, before turning to face Ma Chit Khaing. His face was very grave and resolute.

“This is what I propose. You should return to Bago this morning. Wa Zone and I will come later today to view the house and make some necessary arrangements. We will need to carry out a thorough inspection of the premises, and we will also need to spend the night in your room. For, like you, I fear the denouement of this deep affair cannot be far off.”

“Oh, thank you, U Sha Lok!” exclaimed the lady. “You have given me new hope.” Putting on her coat, she left the room with something almost like a spring in her step.

Once she was gone, however, U Sha Lok looked sombre. “This is a dark business, Wa Zone, a very dark business indeed. I had to use words of comfort before the lady, but I foresee terrible risks. Indeed, I am reluctant even to ask for your help—“

“My dear fellow!”

“I knew I could count on you. But you must bring your pistol.”

“I am a desk officer with a respectable international NGO. I don’t actually have a pistol.”

“Knuckledusters will do just as well.”

“Oh, those I have.”

“Better still, a cricket bat.”

“Very well. When do we leave?”

“I must do some research at Yangon Zoo—”

At that moment, the door was flung open with a crash. U Sha Lok and I turned in amazement to see, standing in the doorway, a large, heavy and evidently very angry old man, who glowered at us both in turn.

“Which of you is the nosy snooper Sha Lok?” he thundered.

“I have that honour,” said my friend coolly. You have the advantage of me, sir.”

“I am Kappa Cha. And I want to know what my stepdaughter was doing here!”

“It is warm for the time of year, don’t you think?” said U Sha Lok.

“Do not palter with me! I want answers.”

“I suggest the Yangon Public Library. They have answers for almost everything.”

“So you think you can fob me off, do you? I’ll show you!” cried our visitor. Pulling from the waistband of his longyi a large, multicoloured plastic water pistol, he squirted it full in U Sha Lok’s face for several seconds, then directed the jet with a zigzag motion until my friend’s clothing was completely saturated. Sha Lok stood motionless and dripping, a bemused expression on his face.

“There! Ha!” cried the fierce old man in angry triumph. “That’ll teach you!”

He turned on his heel and stalked from the room, slamming the door behind him before clattering down the stairs and out into the street, cackling madly as he went.

“Now we know our enemy,” said U Sha Lok quietly. “Wa Zone, be good enough to meet me at U Ston station at 3, with an overnight bag. Don’t forget your weapons, and two powerful battery-powered torches. I am off to do my research. But first I’d better get changed.”

U Sha Lok and I passed a pleasant enough rail journey to Bago that afternoon. After our train had emerged from the smoke and congestion of the city, I happened to remark to him how pretty some of the rural villages were that we could see out of the windows. The lush green plain stretched for miles to the east, gently rising in the distance to low wooded hills, atop which could be seen the glint of golden spires. Closer to the tracks, hump-backed cattle grazed placidly under the watch of a young lad. A girl waved at the train as we passed, with a dazzling gap-toothed grin. But his response chilled me.

“There is more wickedness concealed in those smiling villages, Wa Zone, than you will find in the meanest back-alley in all Bahan township.”

"What can you possibly mean?"

"Merely that country-dwellers can be every bit as steeped in criminality as their town-dwelling cousins; and that the forces of law and order may be less vigilant and more easily circumvented in the village than in the city. You may depend upon it that there is enough devilry in these pretty surroundings to supply MRTV with several years' worth of episodes of their 'Mandalay Murders' radio series."

Alighting at Bago Station, we took a local conveyance to the house of U Kappa Cha, which was evidently well known to local cab drivers because of the fearsome reputation of its owner. It was an old and rambling place with two wings, one of them entirely in disrepair, its windows boarded up and its brickwork crumbling. At one end of the newer wing, evidently the living quarters, bamboo scaffolding had been erected, and the windows of the end room were broken. No workers were visible, however.

“You see the excuse U Kappa Cha used to force his unfortunate daughter into the chamber of her sister,” said U Sha Lok quietly. “I’ll warrant there is nothing wrong with that wall, apart from the general decay that seems to infect the entire building.”

Our ring at the door was answered at once by Ma Chit Khaing, who seemed enormously relieved to see us. She at once invited us inside. “My stepfather is away for the day,” she said, though something about the brooding character of the house seemed to oblige her to whisper.

“Oh, we have met your charming stepfather,” said U Sha Lok with a laugh, relating our encounter with the former tea exporter.

Ma Chit Khaing was aghast. “Then he knows you are coming?”

“We told him nothing, but evidently he tracked you down this morning and he must be able to hazard a guess as to our involvement. No matter. We are here to assist you. May we see around the house?”

Ma Chit Khaing took us upstairs, to the first room in a long corridor. “This is my stepfather’s room,” she said. Other than a single bed, a washstand and a large, heavy iron safe about six feet high, it was empty. Seeing a saucer on the floor, U Sha Lok picked it up and sniffed it. “Milk. Do you keep a pet cat?”

“Indeed, no. Now that you mention it, though we are on the fringe of the forest here, the house is remarkably free of any kind of bird or animal presence. No rats, mice, no stray dogs or feral cats, no geckos, not even birds or insects.”

“That is highly suggestive,” said U Sha Lok.

We passed to the next room. “This was my poor sister’s bedroom,” said Ma Chit Khaing, “and though I wish it were not so, it is now mine.”

U Sha Lok stood in the middle of the square, low-ceilinged space and looked around him carefully. It contained only a narrow bed, a spare deal bedside table bearing a carafe of water and an ancient armchair with broken springs. As if interpreting his thoughts, our hostess said softly, “My stepfather spends very little on furnishings or upkeep. Hence my suspicions concerning the renovation works that he said obliged me to move into this room.”

U Sha Lok pointed to an opening in the plain whitewashed wall above the bed, just below the ceiling, about a foot square. “With what room does that communicate?” he asked.

“With my stepfather’s room, which is that way, on the north side. My old room is on the other side, to the south,” said Ma Chit Khaing.

“That small passage would account for your sister’s being able to smell the smoke from your stepfather’s cigarettes on the night of her death,” mused U Sha Lok. “But what have we here?” He stepped forward and peered at a length of rope that hung over the single bed.

“The bell-pull is disused. Indeed, we have no servants. They deserted us for fear of my stepfather’s evil temper. My sister and I did all the household chores ourselves,” said Ma Chit Khaing.

“Disused, indeed!” cried U Sha Lok, tugging at the rope. “Had you a battalion of servants, none would answer this bell. For the rope is a dummy. See!”

Standing on tiptoe, I was able to see that the rope was indeed hanging from a nail just inside the square aperture leading to Kappa Cha’s room.

Now U Sha Lok was on his knees beside the bed. “And look at this!”he said grimly. Turning to Ma Chit Khaing, he said, “Did you know your sister’s bed was bolted to the floor?”

She seemed to pale. “I did not,” she said, her voice almost inaudible. “Who would do such a thing? And why?”

“These are deep waters. You were right to come to me when you did. I do not believe your life would be worth a moment’s purchase were you to spend tonight alone in this room,” said U Sha Lok gravely.

He turned to her and spoke swiftly. “This is what I propose. Wa Zone and I will stay here, in this room, for the remainder of the afternoon, and into the night. When your father returns, try to behave normally. If he should tax you with your visit to us this morning, you may say I rejected your plea for help, on the grounds that I was not aware of any crime being committed. That may embolden him.

“Retire to your room at the normal time. And then, we wait.”

At about 10pm, Ma Chit Khaing returned to her room, to find U Sha Lok and myself waiting. 

U Sha Lok spoke to her in a whisper. “Pray take your seat in the far corner, well away from the bed. Wa Zone and I will stand here, against the wall. Extinguish the light, and then we will await events.”

I think I have never passed such a slow, agonising wait, for I know not what. The darkness was almost complete, there being no moon. Leaning against the wall, peering into the Stygian gloom, my eyes played tricks on me, and I seemed to see twists and gleams of phantom light that were not there. Because of the curious isolation from the natural world about that house that Ma Chit Khaing had explained, no squeak of mouse or hoot of night-bird reached our ears. I may say that I kept a tight grip on the cricket bat I had brought with me from Yangon.

Suddenly, deep into the night, a faint glow appeared. It came from the square aperture above Ma Chit Khaing’s bed, from which also came soft metallic sounds, as of a safe being opened. The light went out, but the hair stood out on the back of my neck as I strained eyes and ears to locate the menace that I knew had been unleashed into the room.

Even when I heard it, I did not understand it at first for what it was. The low, sibilant hiss came from the opening in the wall.

“Wa Zone, to me! Strike now, for your life, and strike hard!” cried U Sha Lok in a ringing voice. He had pulled a torch from his pocket and played its light on the head of the bed. There, uncoiling itself with a horrid sinuosity, squirmed a Burmese python of monstrous proportions, caught by the light in the act of creeping down the dummy bell-rope. Its yellow eyes seemed to blink evilly at us. I brought the bat down hard on the end of the bed to frighten it. The beast immediately reared its toad-like head, and instinctively I took a step back. When I brandished the bat again, the snake, with a parting hiss, swiftly turned on itself and retreated back up the rope, heading for the aperture with an astonishing speed. As I watched, its tail vanished into the darkness of the square passage that led to U Kappa Cha’s room.

“Quick, quick!” cried U Sha Lok again. “There is not an instant to lose!” He dashed out into the hallway, with me hard on his heels, and Ma Chit Khaing bringing up the rear, holding a candle that she had lit. U Sha Lok led us to the door of U Kappa Cha’s room, which he attempted to open. It was locked or barred. We barged it with our shoulders, but the door was stout and would not yield. From behind it, we heard a blood-freezing shriek, followed by a horrible gurgling sound. Redoubling our efforts, we at last succeeded in forcing the door and half-running, half-falling into the room, where a dreadful scene awaited us.

The serpent was coiled around Kappa Cha’s body, squeezing the life out of him. His eyes bulged and his tongue protruded horribly in his blackened face. As we stood there helpless, a final rattling noise escaped his livid lips.

“Wa Zone, your bat!” cried U Sha Lok. “Do not strike the beast too hard, it is but obeying its nature. Just give it a gentle bonk or two on the head, which may persuade it to loosen its coils.”

Indeed, the python offered no resistance but, its grisly task complete, unwound itself from the still-warm body of its prey and retired, almost sulkily, to the corner, where it continued to watch us unblinking with its yellow eyes.

U Kappa Cha was beyond our aid. Swiftly examining him, I detected no pulse or vital signs. His eyes, the whites mottled with blood, stared sightlessly at the ceiling.

Such was the fate of the villainous tea-exporter of Bago, U Kappa Cha. Once we had notified the police there was little left for the two of us to do at that ill-omened house. Upon our advice, Ma Chit Khaing told the investigating officer who arrived a little after dawn that, awakened by her stepfather’s cries, she had forced the door to find him in the grip of his murderous pet. Everything in her account suggested an accident, to which the victim himself, by virtue of his strange habits and practices, had made himself liable. Once U Sha Lok and I had satisfied ourselves that Ma Chit Khaing could go to stay with an aunt in the safety and comfort of Mayangone township, we left for Yangon.

In the train, U Sha Lok explained to me the background to the scene whose culmination we had witnessed.    

“The blackguard murdered the elder of his two stepdaughters to retain her share of the bequest from her late mother. She was safe as long as she stayed single, for the allocation to her of the one-third share would occur only upon her marriage. Once she announced he intention to wed, her fate was sealed. The same was true of our client, her sister. Hence her stepfather’s prompt response to her announcement of an understanding with her not-so-young gentleman. Thank Heaven she had the wit and the courage to consult me, and that we were able to act in time!”

“At what point did you become aware of the nature of the threat, and of the method U Kappa Cha used to carry out his schemes?”

“You will recall that Ma Chit Khaing told us of his propensity for surrounding himself with wild animals, even to the extent of keeping two tigers and an elephant in the back garden of his house in England. That must indeed have raised one or two eyebrows. It did occur to me that he might have trained some animal to do his vile work. Once Ma Chit Khaing had told us that there were no rats or mice, or stray cats or dogs in the vicinity of the house, I surmised it was because some great predator dwelt there. My suspicions were confirmed when I observed the aperture in the wall above the intended victim’s bed. The dummy bell-rope was clearly there for the convenience of the snake.”

“And the pickled tealeaves?”

“U Kappa Cha had to exercise some control over the python’s movements. My deduction, and we shall never know the full facts, is that having raised the serpent from the egg, he accustomed it at a very early age to the particular blend of pickled tea that he himself had perfected. He turned this snakish innocent killer into a tea addict, and used its addiction to guide it to its victim. Once had had made up his mind to kill his stepdaughter, it would have been the task of but a moment for him to sneak into her room and sprinkle dried pickled tealeaves on her bedding to attract the snake, which he would later unleash in the dead of night. Having made its way through the hole in the wall, the serpent would descend via the rope, attracted by the scent of the blend. And there it would commit murder. The dying words of the unfortunate woman suggest that, all too late, she had suspected the role played by the tealeaves in attracting her killer.”

“But the whistling sound in the night-time?”

“There would have been two or three occasions when the python, which is of a naturally placid disposition, may have enjoyed the tealeaves without feeling the need to kill the sleeping woman. It might even have fallen asleep beside her after its snack. If she had wakened to find she was sharing her bed with a giant python, her suspicions might have been aroused. U Kappa Cha had evidently trained the beast to return to his presence at the sound of his whistle.”

“But, U Sha Lok, U Kappa Cha sprinkled no tealeaves on Ma Chit Khaing’s bed the night we were there.”

“Indeed. It’s my belief that, alarmed at our possible involvement in the case, the killer felt trapped into precipitate action. He sensed that the clock was against him. He was determined that someone should die that night.” U Sha Lok paused grimly. “But the death he foresaw turned out to be his own.”