“The only problem with your murder theory,” Dr. Deshpande suggested, “is the absence of murder in any form.”
“Not in the traditional sense, maybe,” I countered.
“If by the ‘traditional sense, you mean caused to die at the hands of another, neither by accident nor the transmission of disease, then I’d be interested to know in what innovative and exotic manner you believe Mr. Rawalpindi died. There is no doubt whatsoever that Arjun was the victim of anaphylactic shock resulting from an insect sting?”
“No…” I admitted. That Saanvi Deshpande had used Arthur Rhawalpindi’s birth name rather than his customary adopted U.S. name was really the only reason I’d braved the labyrinthine Sandburg Center for Arts and Literature. Well, I wasn’t that brave, and the professor had generously swapped venues for the Campus Coffee Commune.
“Mr. Rhawalpindi’s doctor told Curtis — Det. Mead — that the victim suffered from several severe allergies, and, they found a dead honey bee near the body.”
The graphic design prof cupped the chipped mug the fair-trade, organic-forward folks had held onto like grim death. It was part of the charm of the place, along with pricey gluten-free pastries and judge-y employees.
“If only he’d had an epi pen at hand,” Saanvi lamented.
“He had 15,” I stated, biting the end off my conflict-free chocolate croissant for effect. “Ten stashed in every room in his house, on his porch, and on top of his toilet tank. Five more in his car — glove compartment, driver’s door pocket, center console, clipped to the visor, one in the damned wheel well. Sorry.”
Saanvi smiled wrily. “If you perceive that because I am a reasonably observant Hindu, I might be offended by such an adjective, I assure you I’ll recover. The Hindi language employs a large and spectacularly graphic range of profanities across the Hindi-speaking diaspora. On occasion, I’ve even referenced my madarchod department head with my peers. Highly cathartic.”
“Fucking A it is,” I nodded. She laughed. And although it was a weak literary device, her lecture was a solid enough segue. “That’s actually why I wanted to talk to you. You wrote that book on West Asian culture and religion in contemporary graphic design, right?”
“With 26 orders since 2020, an unequivocal hit.”
“I found it at the University library.”
“Chod,” Saanvi muttered, grinning. “And how might I help you in that regard?”
“If you have a few, let me set it up?”
“For that,” Prof. Deshpande said, nodding toward my washer-scarred plate, “I will require one of those.”
The strange and yet poignantly mundane death of “Art” Rhawalpindi had come to my attention only because Saanvi had referenced the campus IT guy’s passing after the monthly Millington Against Hate meeting. I mentioned it to Kate at the community garden after ineffectually flailing at a bee vying for sunflower access. Had I not been obstructing the pollination process with my iPhone camera, the hymenopteran likely would never have been up in my grill. Kate phrased it differently.
And then The Curious Case of the Pissed-Off Apis came up over Italian beefs with Curtis Mead, late of the Millington Police Department Detective Division. Amid COVID re-resurgence and the political validation of racism, Indo-Pakistani Americans and Hindus were experiencing a new wave of abuse. That Rhawalpindi had suffered his fatal sting inside a University clean room pushed the Asian Students Coalition to push the MPD to dig deeper.
“I mean, there’s like a dead bee right next to the body, which admittedly was hinky considering the venue,” Curtis muttered. “Probably brought the thing in on his clothes, but the guy hung up his jacket and put on his paper booties before he went into the room.”
“Coulda crawled down his shirt or something, and somehow restrained itself.”
“Or it was one fucking determined bee,” Curtis theorized. “Anyway, the students wanted us to make sure Rhawalpindi hadn’t gotten injected with some untraceable poison. Luckily, the stinger was still in the puncture wound.”
“Still,” I said reluctantly, through a cheekful of beef and mozz, “weird the bee made it all the way into the building, into the lab, and through I assume two doors into the clean room.”
“One of the students wondered if somebody coulda smuggled a bee into the clean room, knowing Rhawalpindi had an allergy. Luckily, again, there are about 23 faculty members, assistants, and IT staffers with access to the lab. And Rhawalpindi was only in the lab because of a separate issue — no one could have predicted he’d be there at that time or even that day. As far as the University and the students were concerned, case closed.”
I caught the provisos, and put my fry down. “But?”
“The epi pen. Rhawalpindi had it in his lab coat, right within reach. But he didn’t use it. And he had just the previous fall, when he was swarmed by hornets. Why not then?”
And that’s when Curtis told me how Art Rhawalpindi was almost singlehandedly supporting the epinephrine autoinjector industry.
I suggested the most logical possibility, and instead of telling me to shut my beef hole, Curtis pushed the rest of his sandwich aside and yanked his tie open. Bought his dessert, too.
“Arthur was a very polite young man,” related Olive Pizer, the decedent’s possibly 130-year-old former landlady. Curtis nodded patiently.
“Every once in a while, I’d smell that incense stuff coming from under his door, and I suppose he might’ve smoked a little of that reefer weed the kids seem to like. But boys will be boys.”
Rhawalpindi’s only other key quirks during his tenure were an ornate statue of the elephant god Ganesh on a corner table, a respectful level of virtual warcraft, and an addiction to Golden and Silver Age DC.
Without soliciting it, Pizer poured us a second cup of a particularly acrid tea we’d initially refused. I’d pried, and Curtis had passed his curse onto me, like The Ring.
“Always had his rent to me first of the month. A nice boy, even if he was the unluckiest young man I ever met.”
I perked. “Unlucky how?”
“Wellll, first of all, there was that girlfriend of his – oh, what was her name? This was maybe three years ago. They were going to be married, but then she got hit by the Big Green.”
“The crosstown bus, the Green Line. She was going to one of her classes when the bus swerved to avoid a boy on a bicycle. I understand she was killed instantly. Arthur was heartbroken. It seems as if his life went downhill after that. The first accident took place a few months after that girl died.”
“Oddest thing I ever heard of,” the senior related. “He hit a deer in his car. At 11 p.m. on a Tuesday night, downtown. It jumped in front of his car, and he killed it.”
“Was he hurt?”
“Arthur? Oh, no. He had one of those balloons, you know, those car balloons.”
“That’s it. Oh, no – the mauling was much worse.”
“Mauling?” I leaned forward.
“Yes. A poodle. Or a Pomeranian.”
“A poodle mauled Mr. Rhawalpindi.”
“Yes. Or a Pomeranian. It was horrid. Arthur was out front, getting ready to go visit his parents on the west side, when the little cur just, well, launched itself at him. It was just gnawing at his neck – blood was all over the sidewalk. It took Mr. Wallace in 2 and Ms. Jankowicz in 6 to get it off him. The bitch.”
“Yes, it was a female. Even when they pried it from Arthur’s throat, the beast tried to reattach itself. Mr. Wallace was forced to use a golf club to beat the dog to death. A No. 7.”
“Then what happened?”
“Well, I suppose all of this must have taken its toll on Arthur, because he tried to hang himself. This was a few months after the mauling – for a while, he could scarcely be persuaded to leave his apartment. But that day, he’d just gotten back from a Chiefs game, and he seemed very chipper. Then I discovered a piece of Arthur’s mail had gotten in with mine, and I went up to return it. I could hear his music, so I knocked, but he didn’t answer. I unlocked his door to check on him. He was hanging from the light fixture, which certainly wasn’t built to withstand that sort of weight. I called the ambulance, and they were able to bring him around.”
“He say why he did such a thing?” Curtis asked.
“When I visited the hospital, he apologized profusely for frightening me and for abusing the light fixture,” Pizer informed him. “He said he realized he’d made a dreadful mistake, that his plan wouldn’t have worked. He said he was too good for it to work, which seemed a little odd and uncharacteristically boastful. That was about four months before he left that computer place in the old K-mart plaza for the University, and moved out. You don’t think he finally killed himself?”
“Positively not,” Curtis declared.
Mrs. Pizer shook her silver-blue head. “Poor young man. He was so unlucky.” She leaned toward us, and her voice took on a confidential tone. “I don’t want to judge another person’s faith, but I always felt the boy worshiping an elephant would lead to no good.”
That felt like a good endpoint.
“Means, motive, opportunity,” Curtis said as he dropped me back at the Tucson in the Portillo’s lot. “I don’t see any of the three here. Take opportunity and means: For this to be a murder, killer would have to have known Rhawalpindi was prone to anaphylactic allergies and ensure he would be stung by a bee in a totally random visit to the computer lab.
“Motive? Your professor pal said everybody at the University loved the guy. He didn’t have a huge social circle, so no conflict. As for a hate crime, the average Proud Boy prefers guns and bombs and clubs to entomology. I’m inclined to call this an act of an especially lame God.”
“He didn’t get real weird until the corgi attacked him,” Byrin Gittes told me, fingering his eyebrow ring and eyeing his Mac like a lover he’d been forced to abandon mid-coitus.
“I thought it was a poodle,” I said.
The chief programmer at 3.0 Development and Rhawalpindi’s BGB (best gaming bud) shrugged. “Whatever. It like messed up Arjun’s mojo or something. He started gettin’ all religious and all. And worse, man. I showed up at his place with a pizza one night, and he was watching fucking Steel Magnolias, and had Redboxed some piece of shit chick flick called The Cemetery Club. That was when I knew Raj was seriously whack. Then he brought in the snake.”
I straightened. “Snake?”
“Yeah. He almost got his ass fired over that. Arjun insisted the thing got in through the air vent, but I think he was into, you know, that snake handling shit.”
“Snake handling’s generally a fundamentalist Christian practice, and I understand Mr. Rhawalpindi was a devoted Hindu. What kind of snake was it?”
“What do I look like, an ornithologist? One of the code writers freaked and beat the shit out of it.”
“Did you know Rhawalpindi’s fiancé, Sana?”
“Jesus,” Gittes breathed. “Sana was a world-class bitch, dude.”
“The Search for Bridey Murphy,” I proclaimed, displaying the book. The volume had stood out among Rhawalpindi’s shelves of Indian cultural and Hindu religious texts, tech bios, coding guides, motivational books by guys who’d made their first million peddling motivational books.
“Doesn’t sound like an Oprah pick,” Curtis grunted, sorting through envelopes on the side table where Ganesh had come to rest. “Thought I was done with this shit.”
“This not beach reading. It’s the ‘true’ story of a woman’s paranormal experiences. Got some Edgar Cayce here, too.”
“You buried the lead. Let’s go – this is a waste of time. This poor man was just lonely and unlucky.”
“Very lonely,” I murmured.
“Beginning to think he wasn’t the only one.”
“Racist dogs?” I squeaked as I presented Sarah with her jambalaya. I carefully deposited my steaming, nearly overflowing bowl at the opposite place at the sunporch table.
“There was a story maybe a few years back about a Chicago police dog that got suspended for biting a black child only a few minutes after letting a white boy pet it.”
“No, but I saw the Kristy McNichol movie once. White Dog, that was it. Shit. You made me watch it after the kids subjected us to an Airbud marathon.”
“Beats your theory,” Sarah said, masticating.
“Your theory being that Arjun Rhawalpindi was the successive victim of a racist deer, a supremacist lap dog, a religiously intolerant serpent, and a xenophobic bee?”
“Speaking of movies,” my bride said, knocking a chunk of andouille to the side. “You mentioned Steel Magnolias. I haven’t seen it in ages. I wonder if it’s on Netflix.”
“Sana was perhaps the finest argument I ever saw for the old pre-arranged marriages of my father’s and grandfather’s times,” Singh Rhawalpindi said, straightening a dental pick on his chairside tray, “She was a grasping, venal, and rabidly jealous woman.”
“Rabidly jealous,” I echoed.
“Mr. Dodge, one of my sons was married a few weeks prior to Sana’s unfortunate death, and Arjun brought her along. Well, at the party afterward, Sana mistook a cousinly embrace for an overture toward my nephew, and nearly wrestled the poor woman into the dal bukhara. She was pathologically, violently possessive. She told my son he was hers’ forever.’ Sana was nuts, and poor Arjun loved her beyond reason.”
“I believe I see where you’re going with this,” Saanvi suggested, scraping croissant debris into her palm and back onto her plate. “Bridey Murphy, Edgar Cayce the psychic, this devolving series of attacks on Arjun. His tragic attempt at suicide, his mounting paranoia about his health. And I understand why you’d ask me – I did discuss the issue for nearly a half-chapter.
“But you know, belief in reincarnation is not widespread in India. Reincarnation is a mainstream teaching in Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Jainism, of course. Roughly 40 percent of India’s Hindus supposedly believe in reincarnation, but Christians and Muslims appear more likely than Sikhs to give it much credence. Do you really believe this was somehow about reincarnation?”
I shrugged. “I think it was about love…”
“I think Arjun Rhawalpindi developed an interest in chick flicks as an offshoot of his fascination with Shirley MacLaine and her fascination with reincarnation and past lives.”
“This, actually, is fascinating,” Saanvi responded.
“Look, what if the karma we create in this life shapes our destiny? What if the evil we do demotes us to a lower niche on the food chain in the next life? Or the good we do elevates us? I think these are the questions Arjun Rhawalpindi began asking himself when the pattern began to emerge.”
“And what pattern was that, Michael?”
“Deer, dog, snake, bee. What would that suggest to you?”
“Steps on the evolutionary ladder? Except is a deer higher on the ladder than a dog, or simply larger? Quibbling aside, many Hindus do believe humans are in a cycle of death and rebirth called samsara. When a person dies, their atman or soul may be reborn in a different body. And yes, according to some, those who have failed to achieve dharma – the virtuous, proper, moral life -- may return as a lower form of existence.”
“I think Arjun began to consider the possibility these animals were consciously attempting to kill him. But why would the animal kingdom be out to kill a single human being? Who would know he was susceptible to anaphylactic shock? Who might have a reason to want him dead?”
“Sana.” Dr. Deshpande said. Neither mockingly nor incredulously. Simply inviting a failing student to prove their sieve-like thesis.
“I think Rhawalpindi began to ponder the possibility Sana had been reincarnated, and that he was on her hit list. Arjun’s uncle and his gaming buddy told me Sana was a rabidly jealous woman. She told Arjun he belonged to her forever, and she meant it. She wanted Arjun to join her on the next go-round, and tried to punch his ticket to get him aboard.
“But Sana never understood the nature of dharma. Her misplaced ‘love’ for Arjun made her sink deeper into fanatical obsession. With each descent, Sana got bumped down a few more notches. Reincarnation for Dummies, I’m sure, but when it comes to the unknowable, I have as much chance of being right as Joel Osteen thinking God wants him to have a new pool.”
“And Rhawalpindi’s suicide attempt was some tragically romantic bid to join Sana in this journey?”
“But dangling over his coffee table the day Mrs. Pizer discovered him, I think he had a dual revelation. Killing yourself is neither as easy nor fun as one might suspect. And that he and Sana were ships that were spiritually incapable of passing in the night. He told Mrs. Pizer his plan wouldn’t work. That he was ‘too good’ to make it work. Rhawalpindi was a kind, compassionate man. His death likely would serve merely to elevate him to a higher station, while Sana was doomed to shuffle further and further down the evolutionary ladder. ‘Maybe in another life’ wasn’t in the cards. Finally, death was his only escape.”
“And your friend, Detective Mead, what does he think of all this?”
“Oh, shit, that’s why I invited you for coffee. What do you think?”
Saanvi smiled. “That the chocolate croissant may be the highest state of pastry existence.”
“Do you think you’d ever love me enough to kill me?” I asked Sarah that night, in the dark, on the edge of conscious thought.
“Keep talking,” she invited.