The Gilbert Jessop Mystery is a tale of detection etched on a vast canvas. A cricket historian plays the role of an expert hired to solve an intriguing problem involving old scoring sheets, fast hundreds, modern-art masterpieces, antique wagon wheels and old Victorian letters.
As he puts together pieces of the puzzle, he gets entangled in a bizarre mystery which spans across a century in time encompassing subjects as varied as Victorian England, the last days of British Raj, Scientific influence on Art and the Internet.
This novella is available in the volume Bowled Over – Stories Between the Covers by Arunabha Sengupta.
Kumar was not at home. The RRCC phone rang on and on yet again. I racked my brains.
Damn, why did I get so insufferably drunk?
I had a sudden idea. Fishing out my telephone book I rang the office number of Sushil Joshi, a team mate and fellow member of RRCC.
“Hey, professor, what’s up? You made off to Calcutta during our match? That’s just not done.”
I tried to think of a way to say it. “Sushil, I am calling from Calcutta.”
“What? Why on earth? And at this hour? Did you just make it big at RCTC?”
“Royal Calcutta Turf Club.”
“No, man, but this is serious. Please listen carefully. Will you be going to RRCC today?”
“RRCC? No, we just completed our match yesterday. Without you, I might add. We won’t be going there again till the weekend.”
“Sushil, could you contact Kumar?”
“Hang on buddy, isn’t he with you? It was he who called you away.”
There was too much to explain.
“No, he’s gone back to Jaipur this morning. Please, Sushil, this is urgent.”
Sushil seemed to be thinking. I could not blame him. I did not sound very coherent even to myself.
“Yes, buddy, still here. Okay, I’ll try to contact him. What’ll I say?”
I had no idea.
“Tell him…tell him to wait for me. I’ll try to get to Jaipur by tomorrow. And …tell him he might…”
“He might what?”
“He might be in danger.”
There was a pause.
“Hey Anand, did I hear you right? Did you say he might be in danger?”
“Well, I think so. I mean … just tell him this much. I’ll come over and explain.”
“What’s wrong with you guys?”
“Sushil, it’s too much to explain.”
“What did you do? Did you get mixed up with the underworld?”
“No, man. Bye…Please pass my message to Kumar.”
I could not get away from Calcutta for two more days. I was not carrying enough cash for an air ticket. I had not yet received the credit card I had applied for. In 1996, while we had stepped on the jet age with one foot, the other was still stuck in the bullock cart. I had to go around the huge city, hunting down friends and colleagues to borrow enough money for a return flight.
I called up several acquaintances in Jaipur, but none of them had been able to contact Kumar. I began to fear the worst.
The manager of Hotel Hindustan International graciously allowed me to stay on. Kumar Mangalsingh had been a trusted customer of over forty years, and as he put it, any friend of his was an honoured guest. Grateful though I was to him, I was too deeply buried in my troubled thoughts to thank him properly when I finally left for the Dumdum airport. Throughout the last two days in Calcutta, I had looked up countless books and searched the furthest nooks and corners of the internet. All the bits of collected information darted around my mind, as I tried to connect the innumerable pieces into a concrete picture.
I finally got to Jaipur on an Indian Airlines flight that was jerky, rough and topped it all with a terrible landing. By that time I was certain that everything I had worked out was true.
The moment I landed, I rang up Kumar’s residence. He was not there. The relatives were starting to sound worried.
I rang up RRCC and there was no reply.
I took an auto-rickshaw headed straight for the RRCC. Sprinting across the familiar ground, I rushed to the clubhouse. It was locked. Bansi was nowhere to be seen.
“Bansi!” I shouted several times. There was no reply.
I tried to peep through the windows. It was dark inside and I could make out precious little.
I had been with the club long enough to know about the alternative entrance. I walked to the rear of the clubhouse, raised the green tent cloth that had merged with the bushy undergrowth and squeezed in through the small undetectable gap between the wire fencings. I crawled into the big room and switched on the light.
Everything seemed to be as expected. The clubhouse was silent and in perfect order. I looked around for any evidence of disturbance, but there was none.
I moved towards the table. The eleven chairs stood around it as usual. It was a monstrosity carved out of mahogany and brass. The idea had probably seemed innovative, but the end result was a nightmare for one and all, from the diners, to the waiters and even to simple onlookers.
I moved to the chair positioned at gully. It seemed no different from the others, a comfortable wooden make with brass hands and boots. I tapped the floor beneath it. To my untrained ears, it did sound hollow. I tapped the floor at other locations around the room and was more or less convinced. My deduction had probably been correct. There was a vault below the gully.
I got down on all fours and scanned the ground, looking for catches, buttons, levers – anything that might open a trap door. I tried moving the chair, but the legs seemed fixed to the floor.
My next attempt was at moving the joints of the chair this way and that, amateurish endeavours at finding a key to the secret entrance, honed by half remembered adventure stories. None of the arms or legs or the backrest worked as levers. I was pretty sure that I sucked at this sort of thing. I was a historian, perfectly at home with bookish, archaic information. This was the Indiana Jones type of field work that had never been my forte.
It was after considerable struggle and sweat that I sat helplessly beside the chair at gully – the creation of old Jones if my theory was right. I rested my head against the seat and tried to think.
I was not even trained to think for such a situation. The questions that ran through my mind could not have been more inane. Could I get hold of someone who was slightly better than me at this Sherlockian stuff? Should I fetch one of my students? Should I call one of my nieces educated on a diet of Enid Blyton? Or should I go directly to the police?
I was lost in such useless trains of thought when I literally struck gold, purely by chance. As I was trying to think, my hands had been going up and down the smooth brass cricketing shoes of the gully chair. My right index finger ran over a small metallic ridge that seemed strange. In fact, it took four or five such contacts before I became aware of the oddity in the surface and bent down to inspect.
That was how I noticed the digits on the bronze cricket shoe on one right foreleg of the chair. Four circles of numbers had gone across the side of the shoe, much like the digits in a combination lock. It was well concealed along the bronze work. But for my wavering finger, it may have stayed undetected till this day.
Four circles of digits. I was certain they would hold the key to the entrance to the treasure trove as Paul Hackensmith had put it.
The question was what was the combination that could be tried? My first guess was 9994. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation used this as the Post Box number for audience response. After all, it was the monumental test cricket batting average of Sir Donald Bradman. I tried it but nothing happened.
Of course, the secret hiding place dated to sometime before 1946. Bradman finished his career in 1948. So, if the same code had survived, it could not be 9994. Which other four digit number could work? Some landmark year? I tried to think of some.
1857 – The Sepoy Mutiny?
1877 - The first Test match?
1919 - End of the World War I?
1908 - Birth of Sir Don Bradman?
1941 - Death of Rabindranath Tagore?
1932 – The first Test match played by India?
1942 - The Quit India Movement?
I tried all one by one. None of them worked.
6,996? Total number of Test runs scored by Bradman? Though the factor that Bradman kept playing until 1948 made it unlikely, I tried it. To my lasting surprise, there was a click and with a soft, smooth rolling sound, the panelling beneath the chair slid open, revealing a flight of stairs leading down into unknown depth.
I looked around for a light. There was an old hurricane lamp lying in a corner of the club house. I got hold of a box of matches from the grounds-man’s kitchen and after several attempts, managed to light it.
Gathering all my guts about me, I placed a big stool at the edge where the panel had slid under the floor and started walking down the steps. The hurricane lamp swayed in my hand and my own giant shadow kept leaping about on the walls around me. The entire episode was extremely eerie.
As I went down, I reflected on the last few days. Last Saturday, I had been in the same RRCC, batting against the visitors, gradually regaining my touch. And then the phone-call had summoned me to Calcutta. Now I had got into the clubhouse through the backdoor, had unlocked an ancient hiding place and was descending the dark staircase with an old hurricane lamp, dreading every step.
It was at this moment that the stench hit me. I had never smelled such odour before. Even as I covered my nose, I knew what was wrong. I tentatively took another couple of steps.
The stairs ended somewhat abruptly after leading into a large room. The light of the swinging hurricane lamp darted across the walls, almost taking me on a journey through the history of the game. From different corners, cricketers smiled at me from photographs, busts, statuettes. Tables were crammed with various mementoes, autographed bats, balls in glass cases, gloves and pads … From most of the photographs on the walls, Ajaysingh beamed in all sorts of poses with a veritable who’s who of the cricketing folklore. In the middle of the room, a few feet away from me, lay his son – or whatever remained of him. I could clearly see the blood stain on his clothes. I could also make out that an unusual amount of blood had flown from his right hand, which lay bent at an awkward angle.
I cursed and ran up the stairs. The hurricane lamp in my hand hit one of the steps and went out. In the pitch black darkness, I tripped and groped for a way out. Scrambling and feeling my way on all fours, I somehow reached the clubhouse room in a painful tangle with the stool I had placed on the staircase.
As I came out, I noticed two tiny levers jutting out from the brass boot on the leg of the chair. On one of them was engraved ‘Close’ and on the other ‘Change Code and Close’. It was high class craftsmanship of early twentieth century. I brought my hand down on the ‘Close’ lever. The panel slid smoothly and merged with the floor. There was a noise of rotating metal and clicking levers, and the hiding place was securely locked once again.
I sat down, gasping for breath. That was the most gruesome sight I had ever seen. Shivers continued their way relentlessly down my spine. My hand shook as I placed the hurricane lamp on a table.
In front of me, young Kumar Mangalsingh in his flannels smiled from the wall. All of a sudden, my fear changed into rage. I moved towards the telephone.
This novella is available at John McKenzie Cricket Bookshop
(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but cleanses the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two. His author site is at http://www.senantix.com and his cricket blogs at http:/senantixtwentytwoyards.blogspot.com)