Palacio De Maria stood on a plateau close to Palolem beach. The lush greenery surrounding it was in sharp contrast with the shiny sands that lay beyond. Remo Pareira was its sole occupant at the moment.
Remo looked down at the flashing strobe lights from the shacks, milling tourists with fluorescent headbands and folding tables set close to the lapping waves. November nights had turned even the quieter beaches into buzzing hives.
Once, he too used to look forward to the tourist season. He would set up his small booth next to Big Bamboo and paint the portraits. It fetched a bit of money, not that he was in want of it. A sizable inheritance had set him free.
His early youth was spent dabbling in painting, music and biking. He would pack his gear and go off the radar for days on end. His grandfather was already too ill to care and was gone before Remo had turned 20.
Remo had travelled with his art supplies and painted the landscapes; coconut trees, beaches, ghats and hills- he got the hues of them like the first ray of the sun. He had enjoyed teaching art to the kids at Sunaparanta.
All that had changed when Anya came into his life.
Or was it when Lily had smiled?
Remo was not very sure.
Anya had come to him on a cool October evening. It was a Friday. He had stood on the edge of his property with his canvas propped up on the easel board. Beyond the bamboos and thatched roofs being readied for the season, the sun was about to be gobbled up by the Butterfly Island.
That was when he had seen her for the first time. Gold of her hair knotted in a bun, she seemed to be gliding on the waves. Her brown eyes had locked into his before he broke it with his smile.
“Careful! It’s a full moon night!!”, He had shouted without thinking.
She had waved back, smiled and glided away.
He had thought of going back to the beach the next morning and looking up the shacks for her but felt it was inappropriate.
He chose to set his easel at the same spot and keep an eye out for her.
A couple of fishing trawls floated at a distance and dissolved themselves in the grey mist at the horizon.
October mornings were still hot and humid. By noon it was sweltering. Remo went back into the house and had a lunch of Chicken Xacuti and rice with a big bowl of salad. Mr. Pinto, the caretaker always prepared good food when Remo stayed home. Remo stayed home a lot nowadays. He reached out to a couple of gallery owners when needed. The only thing he was increasingly involved with was painting.
All afternoon he spent painting at the glass-walled gazebo. Then he snoozed off.
He woke up to the whoosh of a giant paper lantern colliding with the pane. Its body was swiftly devoured by the flame before it became one with the darkness.
In that brief moment of flickering light, he saw Anya standing on the other side.
In the days and nights that followed, they were inseparable.
She was an art curator from Russia and was older than him. She showed keen interest in every bit of his mansion. It was nearly 350 years old- its original Portuguese architecture bolstered with reinforcements; the exquisite antiques preserved with generations of care.
When he spent his morning hours painting, she scrutinised every priceless antique, marvelled at the collection of Ming vases and pored over the books in the library.
The afternoon breeze saw them snuggling with each other on a hammock under the coconut trees.
They danced away their evenings as the gramophone in the ballroom played Uma Casa Portuguesa. Or walked on the beach holding hands.
They looked up at the stars twinkling in the night sky and whispered sweet nothings to each other.
Remo had lost touch with most of his friends.
To his pleasant surprise, even Anya did not seem to miss her friends.
Then on one fine day, she left the heritage house to get a beach hat and never returned.
Remo could not believe it.
Only on the previous day, they had prayed in the family chapel together. He had done that after a long time.
He had gone down to the basement cellar later in the day and had picked a bottle of vintage wine.
They had toasted to a long happy future together on the balcony overlooking the Arabian Sea.
After she left, he stopped painting and ate intermittently.
Mr. Pinto who had given the youngster a wide birth after Pareira Sr had passed away was worried to see his dishes barely touched.
After what seemed like an eternity Remo picked up the phone and dialled 100.
Detective Sayed sat across Remo on the brocade upholstered sofa in the spacious verandah. The arched windows let in bright sunlight that reflected on the colourful ceramic tiles that bordered the paisley-patterned walls.
“You called to file a missing person report, Mr. Pareira?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
The detective brushed his forehead, took out his note pad and continued,
“Okay, let’s go through the details once again. Name, Age, Relation?”
“Anya… Petrova, I think, About 30, Uh friend.”
The detective cocked his eyebrow and twitched his lips.
“A Russian! Description? occupation?”
“About 5ft 8in tall, blonde, oval face, brown eyes. She said she was a curator at a museum and was on a sabbatical.”
“When was the last time you saw her and where?”
“Uh oh I think the day before yesterday. She was here.”
The detective continued in an even tone,
“You are not sure? Why do you say she is missing? She might have just left.”
“Left ME? It’s just not possible!” Screamed Remo with a passion that the detective chose to brush off.
“Okay, is there anyone else who can corroborate your story?”
“No, detective. I live alone and she had no other local friends.”
“There must be people in your employ who take care of your mansion. I would like to speak to them.”
Remo drawled, “People from uh... some company come once a week to clean up. I have no permanent staff…except Pinto, who used to assist my grandfather.”
“I would like to speak to him.”
“Sure, he lives in the outhouse. I’ll give him a call.”
“Why don’t we just walk down?”
“Uh okay. I don’t feel very well. Do you mind going on your own?”
“Of course not. You might have to come to the station to complete the formalities. Also, our sketch artist would need your help.”
Detective Sayed felt two eyes boring into his back as he went out.
The outhouse looked modern compared to the mansion.
Mr. Pinto had not been called by Remo and tried to hide his surprise.
They sat outside on a raised platform.
“How long have you been living here, Mr. Pinto?”
“Forty years, sir.”
Detective raised his eyebrows,
“Forty years is a long time. What about your family?”
“Pareira Sr employed me, sir. He was a generous man. My family used to live here. My son moved Baga to work in a resort and I lost my wife a year ago.”
“What are your duties?”
“I supervise everything that goes on in the mansion.”
“Okay, what do you know about Mr. Pareira’s social life?”
“He had a lot of friends till about five years ago. After his grandfather passed away, he started spending more time in the mansion. Went out occasionally with his friends. But for the past year, he has had no friends visiting him. All he does is paint.”
“What about Mr. Pareira’s family?”
The old man spoke hesitantly,
“His father was from Portugal. His mother died during childbirth. His father went back to Portugal and we never heard from him again. His grandfather was so furious he didn’t even give the young master his father’s surname.”
“I see. Any aunts, uncles or extended family?”
“He had an aunt. She died in a fire accident when he was 5. Extended family distanced themselves after they came to know that the old man had not left them anything.”
“Did you see a young Russian woman staying at home recently?”
Mr. Pinto gave a puzzled expression.
“Are you sure?”
The detective scratched his chin.
“You may have to come to the police station when called.”
Detective Sayed stepped out of the imposing gate and thought to himself, “The old man is hiding something.”
Remo looked at Mr. Pinto with irritation. The old man usually kept himself out of his way. But he was making a point of poking around that day.
“Baba, you have not been eating properly and you look like you could use a shave and freshen up. Are you okay? Should I call the doctor?”
“I am fine Mr. Pinto. I’m not a child. Stop fussing over me!”
“Baba, what was the detective talking about? A young woman…?”
“Will you please mind your own business? And leave me ALONE?”
The old man fought hard with himself as he finished his chores. Then he called Dr. Desouza.
He spoke in a trembling voice, “Doctor. I think it has started. Again…”
Detective Sayed showed the sketch of the young woman to the 9th shack owner on the beach since morning.
“Can you recall seeing this young woman?”
And was met with the same answer,
He completed this routine with all the establishments on the beach.
The detective sat down at the last shack and ordered a bottle of sparkling water. He watched the subdued waves as he drank down his disappointment.
The afternoon sun had heated the sand and had stolen the blue from the sea.
What is it that the old man is hiding from me?
Detective Sayed climbed up the angular terracotta staircase with a blue and white banister and rang the doorbell.
It was almost a minute before it was answered. The old man stood at the entrance.
“Ah! Good morning, Mr. Pinto.”
Mr. Pinto looked uncomfortable as he said,
“Good morning detective. Mr. Pareira is not expecting to see you.”
“Just as well. It was you I wanted to talk to, Mr. Pinto.”
“Yes, May I come in?”
The old man let him in.
“Mr. Pinto, can you please show me around the mansion?”
The old man took him from the verandah into the ballroom. The detective felt as if he had moved back in time. An exquisite Belgian crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling of the big airy room. The ornately carved furniture lined the borders. Huge oil paintings hung on the walls. Detective Sayed stopped to take a look at the photographs displayed on the corner shelf. He picked up a group photograph where a middle-aged man bearing a striking resemblance to Remo stood flanked on both sides by two young women, one of them in her wedding gown.
“That is Pareira Senior on the wedding day of his daughter,” informed Mr. Pinto.
“Who is this?” asked the detective pointing to the young woman with bright eyes.
“That is Miss Clara. The younger daughter.”
“The one who died in a fire accident?”
“Yes,” the old man looked away.
Both men continued to look through the heritage mansion. The detective was struck by the vision of opulence slowly being eroded by the sands of time. As they passed by one of the rooms, he noted that the window panes, wallpapers and furniture looked different from that of the other rooms. Different and unused.
“Was this room renovated in later years?”
“Yes sir, about 20 years back”
“And it has not been used much since?”
“Who was the last occupant?”
The grandfather clock in the drawing-room chimed at 3.
“Any other rooms left?”
“No, just the underground cellar. Nothing much in there.”
The wooden boards creaked as they climbed down a dimly lit stairwell. The musty odour of linseed oil hung in the air. There were no jars of pickle or vintage wine.
There was a single spotlight at the centre of the room. It fell on the easel board. Remo with his back to them was painting with a frenzy. As detective Sayed’s eyes got accustomed to the surrounding dimness, what he saw churned his stomach. The walls were filled with portraits of young women. Each one of them had blood-red tears rolling down their eyes.
Remo froze for a second when he heard the old man,
“Baba, Detective Sayed wanted to see the cellar.”
He turned slowly to face them. With his hands dripping red he growled menacingly,
“How many times do I have to tell you NOT to disturb me!” and charged at them without a warning.
The detective dodged, swung back and pushed Remo down. As he kneeled to pin down Remo, he felt a movement that made his pistol drop from its holster. Before he could lunge for it, two shots were fired. The first one pierced through Remo’s leg and the second one grazed the detective’s neck. The detective dialled SOS before he collapsed on the dark floor.
It was a miracle that Detective Sayed was able to close the case in a month after that fateful day.
The first part of the month he had spent in ICU battling for his life.
The Goan Times carried the news on its front page.
Heritage House Horror
In a shocking turn of events, the Goa Police have arrested the 60-year-old caretaker of Palacio De Maria in Canacona.
The accused has been charged with multiple offences including administering psychotropic drugs, swindling the family fortune and assault on the officer on duty.
In an instance of greed and devolution of human values, the young inheritor, aged 25 years was kept in captivity by his caretaker by administering drugs through the food.
The young man was a budding artist before he allegedly began to show the symptoms of mental illness. There is a strong rumour suggesting that his maternal aunt suffered from schizophrenia. She perished in a fire at her home 20 years ago.
After a thorough investigation, it came to light that the caretaker had hatched a plan with the family doctor to siphon off the sizeable family fortune. Our correspondent has learnt through reliable sources that the young man’s grandfather had made a will that would give the power of attorney to a board of trustees to make financial decisions and take care of his grandson if ever such a need arose. The caretaker wanted to run away with the fortune before such a situation arose.
The young man has been sent to a rehabilitation centre.
The investigating officer Mr. Sayed said, “I had a hunch that the youngster was framed. Though the pistol was found in his hand there was no paint on the trigger, instead, it had the partial fingerprint of the caretaker. The forensic report on the angle of the impression of paint on the pistol concluded that the young man did not pull the trigger. His art came to his rescue!”