Murder at the Grand Raj Palace


By Vaseem Khan

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For a century the iconic Grand Raj Palace Hotel has welcomed the world’s elite. From film stars to foreign dignitaries, anyone who is anyone stays at the Grand Raj.

The last thing the venerable old hotel needs is a murder. . .

When American billionaire Hollis Burbank is found dead — the day after buying India’s most expensive painting — the authorities are keen to label it a suicide. But the man in charge of the investigation is not so sure. Inspector Chopra is called in — and discovers a hotel full of people with a reason to want Burbank dead.

Accompanied by his sidekick, baby elephant Ganesha, Chopra navigates his way through the palatial building, a journey that leads him steadily to a killer, and into the heart of darkness . . .



As Inspector Ashwin Chopra (Retd) stood below the soaring arch of the Gateway to India, gazing up at the Grand Raj Palace Hotel, he couldn’t help but reflect on the history of that architectural marvel that, over the decades, had graced countless covers of countless magazines around the world.

It was said that the Grand Raj Palace owed its existence to an insult.

A century earlier, India’s wealthiest industrialist, the legendary Peroz Khumbatta, had been refused entry to the nearby Watson’s Hotel in Khala Ghoda. Watson’s—at the time the nightly scene of raucous British and American debauchery—maintained a strict whites-only policy, rigidly enforced and wholly despised by Indians such as Khumbatta, who had just begun to awaken to their own sense of national identity. Incensed, the fiery Parsee had vowed to build a hotel so opulent that even the British would be humbled, a thumb in the eye for the arch-colonialists.

And that is precisely what he had done.

For more than a hundred years the Grand Raj had served as a symbol of India’s ambition, its own sense of self-worth. It had taken on the mantle of grand old dame of the city; the jewel in the crown of the Indian hospitality industry, a beacon of light and hope to which all Mumbaikers turned whenever dark clouds momentarily settled over the metropolis.

And now, somewhere within those yellow basalt walls, a terrible crime might have taken place, one that Chopra had been summoned to investigate with the utmost urgency.

His phone went off in the pocket of his grey linen trousers.

Chopra, a tall, broad-shouldered man in his late forties, with an impressive head of jet-black hair—greying only at the temples—and a thick moustache lurking below a Roman nose, was dressed conservatively, as was his wont. Below the grey trousers were sensible brogues; above, a white shirt fashioned from fine Indian cotton. This was as close to a uniform as he could now manage. Long after his forced retirement from the Mumbai Police—forced by a heart condition known as “unstable angina”—Chopra still felt something amiss in the matter of his dress. His khaki uniform had been so much a part of his life, and for so long, that it had become more than mere clothing. In many ways, it had become a second skin.

And who could shed their skin and remain wholly the same person?

Chopra answered his phone.

It was his wife, Poppy.

“Where are you?” He heard the unusual snap in her tone. Poppy was upset, and for good reason.

“South,” said Chopra, weakly.

“South? South of what? What sort of answer is ‘south’? Are you in the South Atlantic? Are you at the South Pole? What, precisely, do you mean by ‘south’?”

Chopra hesitated.

The sun beat relentlessly down on him in waves of simmering heat. “Something urgent came up, Poppy… I am in south Mumbai.”

He expected an explosion. Instead, after a moment of speechless silence, Poppy hung up.

In many ways, this was worse.

In the twenty-four years of their marriage, they had so rarely fought that when they did Chopra was left floundering in a sea of uncertainty. He knew that Poppy’s anger was justified. He had failed to show up for a matter that was of great importance to his wife. And yet, he could not have rightly ignored the summons that had brought him to the tip of Mumbai that morning.

He would just have to explain later.

The prospect did not appeal to him.

The thought of confronting his wife when her temper was up was as attractive to him as placing his head into the mouth of a ravenous tiger.

He felt a tug on his arm.

He looked down and saw young Ganesha peering up at him with concern in his dewy eyes. The baby elephant was finely attuned to Chopra’s moods. Anxiety, in particular, appeared to infect the little elephant acutely.

Chopra patted him on the top of his skull, with its little mat of short hairs. “Can’t be helped, boy,” he muttered.

Ganesha snuffled at the pulpy remains of a mango on the ground. Disinherited flies buzzed around his ears, protesting indignantly.

Chopra struck out across the crowded square that lay between the Gateway to India and the Grand Raj Palace Hotel, navigating his way through the tourist hordes that had gathered to have their picture taken beneath the Gateway’s eighty-foot-high arch. A warm breeze blew in from the blue expanse of Mumbai’s harbour, in which a thousand and one seagoing vessels bobbed on the chop. The tourists attracted locals of every ilk and design. Emaciated beggars, owl-eyed urchins, sombre lepers, ice-cream salesmen pedalling bicycle carts, peanut vendors brandishing twists of newspaper, eunuchs in colourful saris and designer stubble, snake-charmers, dugdugdee drum-beaters, tongawallahs… a howling menagerie of Mumbai’s finest.

Chopra held grimly on to his pockets as he pushed his way through the throng.

He knew that in this crowd a man would be fortunate to reach the other side of the square with his bones intact. Better to be thrown into the path of a tide of ravenous army ants.

The front elevation of the Grand Raj Palace Hotel climbed into the sky before him, with its iconic red onion domes, arched balconies and hints of an Islamic facade.

A red carpet had been laid from the parking crescent out front into the hotel lobby. Uniformed porters pushed a convoy of gilded luggage carts loaded with suitcases through the brass doors. A beautiful Indian woman in a summer frock sashayed ahead of the porters, a golden langur monkey in a velvet waistcoat scampering along behind her. Chopra did not recognise the woman; no doubt she was another model or up-and-coming actress of the type Mumbai had always had in abundance.

The pet monkey was a particularly garish touch, he thought, darkly.

Inside the lobby, he was confronted by the unmistakable elegance that had defined the Grand Raj since it had first opened its doors. The first hotel in India to boast air conditioning, the first to open a licensed bar, the first to install a steam elevator—even now, the Grand Raj’s dedication to opulence remained undimmed. The interiors, a mix of Florentine, oriental and Moorish styles, showcased vaulted alabaster ceilings, columns of tooled onyx, fretted stonework and pietra-dura floor panels. Marble was conspicuous by its sheer abundance, as were silk carpets, crystal chandeliers and an art collection that was the envy of the subcontinent.

Well-heeled visitors from all corners of the globe floated about the lobby.

Chopra approached the reception counter.

A smartly dressed young woman beamed at him. Her eyes flickered momentarily to Ganesha, then, with only the barest hint of surprise, returned to Chopra. This was the Grand Raj, after all. There was possibly no species on earth that hadn’t passed through the celebrated hotel at one time or another.

“I am here to see the general manager,” said Chopra, handing her his card. “He is expecting me.”

“Give me one moment, sir.”

While Chopra waited, his thoughts flashed back to the summons that had brought him to the hotel in such haste. The call had come from an old police colleague, Rohan Tripathi. Chopra had worked with Tripathi for a number of years, until the junior man had been posted to the southern half of the city. He remembered him as an ambitious and quick-witted policeman, one with a meticulous sense of order and getting things right.

For this reason they had worked well together.

His former colleague appeared to have a tricky situation on his hands, and had requested Chopra’s help. An American businessman had died at the Grand Raj Palace, a wealthy and powerful individual. Tripathi had laid out the basic facts for Chopra, but warned him that there might be little to find. Tripathi’s colleagues believed the American had committed suicide. It was simply the policeman’s own uneasiness that had led him to seek Chopra’s counsel. Tripathi’s senior on the investigation, Assistant Commissioner of Police Gunaji, a bellicose, old-school policeman with the looks and temperament of a walrus, had taken the facts at face value. And, for ACP Gunaji, the most salient fact was that a verdict of suicide would be the least uncomfortable of the myriad possible outcomes in the matter of Hollis Burbank’s death, for those who ran the city of Mumbai.

The murder of an American billionaire in India’s most glamorous metropolis was a story that no one wanted to see making headlines in the world’s press.

Nevertheless, Tripathi’s instincts deserved consideration. For men like him, it was not enough to simply conclude an investigation, to tie up the manila folder with string and file it away to gather dust. Justice made its own demands on those who wore the khaki as a genuine calling. This desire for the truth, a notion that in his country often flickered like a candle flame, was the reason Chopra took on any new case. His investigation into the death of Hollis Burbank would be no different.

Yet he knew that he would have to tread lightly here.

Tripathi had gone out on a limb by bringing him in. Should ACP Gunaji discover him sniffing around an investigation he had personally seen fit to describe as open-and-shut, it was likely that his old friend would find himself posted to a frostbitten outpost in the foothills of the Himalayas by the end of the week.

He glanced down the hotel counter and saw the elegant Indian woman checking in further along. Her pet monkey sat on its haunches, surveying the lobby with a baleful look. Chopra wondered again who she was. If she was an actress, he didn’t recognise her. This intrigued him, as he had only just completed an investigation that had taken him behind the scenes of Bollywood, the city’s celebrated movie industry.

As he mused on her identity, Ganesha trotted over to the monkey and extended his trunk, an instinctive gesture of curiosity.

When the little elephant had arrived on Chopra’s doorstep, sent to him by his long-vanished Uncle Bansi, he had been accompanied only by a brief letter that raised more questions than it answered. Bansi had not explained why he was sending Chopra an elephant, only that he wished him to take the helpless calf into his care. His letter had added, mysteriously: “This is no ordinary elephant.” At first Chopra had been bemused and more than a little disconcerted by the extraordinary bequest, but over time, an unexpected bond had sprung up between himself and his ward. The little elephant had proved to possess depths that he had yet to fully fathom. He had also turned out to be an able, if somewhat unusual, companion in the detective agency Chopra had established following his retirement.

The monkey glared at Ganesha’s trunk, then slapped it away, baring its teeth and shrieking maniacally.

Ganesha trotted swiftly back to Chopra and hid behind his legs, nursing his offended organ.

A young man—part of the Indian woman’s entourage—dressed in absurdly tight jeans, pointy shoes, a butch T-shirt and more gold than Chopra had ever seen outside a bank vault, sauntered over to him. His square jaw jutted out belligerently. “Here, you watch that elephant!” he said, pointing at Ganesha with the surfboard-sized mobile phone in his hand.

“What do you mean, ‘watch that elephant’?” growled Chopra. “Your monkey just assaulted him.”

“Have you any idea who that is?” snapped the flunky, glaring at Chopra from above a pair of insolent sunglasses.

Chopra glanced again at the glamorous-looking woman. Before he could reply, a voice hailed him from behind. “Sir, may I escort you to the GM’s office?”

Chopra turned to find an old man in a butler’s outfit hovering before him. The man had sunken cheeks, neatly oiled and perfectly parted jet-black hair, a pencil moustache and eyes that glowed with an unusual light. He stood ramrod straight, poised like a ballerina.

“Lead on,” muttered Chopra, casting a last, dark glance at the gold-encrusted young hoodlum.

“My name is Ganesham,” said the old man. “I am the head butler here.”

“Chopra,” said Chopra.

“I understand that you are here about the Burbank affair?” said Ganesham. “Nasty business.”

“What do you know about it?” asked Chopra.

“I think it is better you receive the details from the GM, sir. I will be available afterwards, should you need me.”

“Do you have pertinent information?”

“What is ‘pertinent,’ sir?” mused the old man. “I have been at the Grand Raj for over fifty years. I have seen everything a man might hope to see, and all without leaving these walls. The only pertinent thing is that the hotel will endure. We have weathered everything from Partition to riots. Whatever your investigations may reveal, the Grand Raj will float serenely on.”

“They said something similar about the Titanic,” muttered Chopra.

A prim smile fluttered over the martinet’s lips. “The Grand Raj is unsinkable, sir.”

Tanav Dashputra, the general manager of the Grand Raj Palace Hotel, was a large, dark man, with a permanent sheen of perspiration on his brow. And this in spite of the air conditioning being turned up so high that Chopra could almost see his breath emerge in white puffs. The GM had bulbous eyes and a moustache that flowed over his bulging upper lip. An old-fashioned double-breasted suit, in blue serge, fitted snugly around his stomach.

Chopra found him in conversation with a petite middle-aged woman in a maroon sari.

The GM had his head in his hands, a glass of bitter gourd juice set on the untidy desk before him. Two tablets fizzed in the noxious bottle-green liquid. “This hotel will be the death of me,” he said dramatically, as Chopra introduced himself. “This is the worst possible time for something like this to happen.”

“Is there a good time for a guest to be murdered on the premises?” asked Chopra.

Dashputra blinked rapidly. “Murder? What are you talking about? Burbank committed suicide.”

“Perhaps,” said Chopra.

Dashputra continued to stare at him, then dismissed his colleague. The woman left, casting inquisitive glances behind her.

“I must ask you to refrain from such speculation,” said Dashputra. “Have you any idea how damaging such rumours would be?”

“I can guess,” said Chopra mildly.

“You cannot!” snapped Dashputra. “Our guests have a certain expectation, founded upon a century of service. That is why the very best come to us, time and again. At this very moment, the cast of Boom 3 are checking in to the hotel—they are shooting on the premises. I have a royal wedding booked in—two of India’s oldest noble families are practically taking over the place for the next week. And if that isn’t enough, the premier of Mongolia is due here in three days’ time. A state visit. He is bringing a stable of horses as gifts for the chief minister. He breeds them, wild ones direct from the steppes. I am reliably informed that one of those brutes kicked to death the manager of the last hotel he stayed at.” He shook his head ruefully, then did a double-take as he spotted Ganesha lurking behind Chopra. “What is that elephant doing in here?”

“He’s with me.”

The GM blinked. “Animals! Truly, they will be the death of me.”

“Perhaps we should concentrate on the matter at hand?” said Chopra.

Dashputra’s moustache twitched. “Yes, of course. Let me take you to the Khumbatta suite. We’ll talk on the way.”

The Khumbatta suite was the most opulent of the 500-plus rooms at the Grand Raj Palace Hotel.

A gilded elevator whisked Chopra, the GM and Ganesha up to the hotel’s top floor, depositing them into a lushly carpeted corridor. Two security guards posted outside the suite snapped to attention as they approached, exchanging glances as the little elephant passed by.

The GM used an electronic keycard to open the door to the suite.

“I assume one of those keycards is the only way to get into the suite?” asked Chopra.

“Yes,” confirmed Dashputra.

“Who had access to the keycards for the Khumbatta suite on the night Burbank died?”

“Burbank had the only copy that we had issued. But that doesn’t mean anything. These keycards can be reproduced by anyone on reception. It’s all electronic. Guests lose them all the time.”

“I will need a list of all those who accessed the suite—or had access to it—during the twenty-four hours prior to Burbank’s death.”

“It will be arranged.”

“By the way, is there CCTV on this floor?”

Dashputra shook his head. “I am afraid not. Our guests value their privacy far too much to allow us to install security cameras.”

Chopra was silent, hovering in the doorway. “There’s always the possibility that Burbank let his killer in. If he was murdered, I mean.”

The GM shuddered. “We have kept the details from the press so far. It is fortunate that the hotel’s owners have such influence in the city. They have prevailed upon the editors of the major news outlets to confine their reporting to the scant facts that we have released, namely that Burbank passed away in his suite. We have not yet informed them of the circumstances of his death. Can you imagine the headlines when they find out that he committed suicide?”

“Can you imagine the headlines if it turns out he was murdered? And that someone in this hotel might be the killer?”

Dashputra blanched, but said nothing.

Chopra followed the GM into the suite, Ganesha close behind.

Although he had visited the Grand Raj before, he had never stayed there, and certainly had never been anywhere near the rarefied air of the Khumbatta suite. As he looked around, he understood why the suite—favoured by presidents and A-list actors, billionaire industrialists and spoilt scions of noble families—cost a million rupees per night. This was opulence on a scale that Chopra—living in a mid-sized apartment on the fifteenth floor of a tower block in the Mumbai suburbs—could barely comprehend.

The thought bothered him.

He was a man to whom wealth meant little. The vast inequalities in his country had always seemed to him a matter too readily accepted by his fellow countrymen, and paid lip service to by successive Indian governments. In the seventy years since India had gained her independence, the country had made steady economic progress, such that now she was being touted as a global superpower. You could not turn on the TV without being accosted by yet another self-congratulatory report of Indian advancement, the velocity of which appeared to be increasing with each passing day. Just last week, for instance, the media had foamed themselves into a fury of excitement at the news that India had launched a hundred satellites into space from a single rocket, a world first.

But the truth was that, for the vast majority of its billion-strong population, this glowing vision of a prosperous, globalised, Sputniked India was little more than a pipe dream, a billboard advert that hovered mirage-like before their swimming eyeballs—as far out of reach as those satellites—even as political slogans clanged incessantly in their ears. What did it say for a nation claiming to be a “serious player in the burgeoning private space market” that each year thousands of farmers committed suicide at the advent of famine? In the slums of Old India, millions of men, women and children toiled beneath the back-breaking weight of their inheritance—the inheritance of caste prejudice and grinding poverty—while in the marbled halls of power, the country’s leaders drove the unstoppable tank of New India into the steaming swamp of the future.

Perhaps Dashputra mistook Chopra’s grim silence for a momentary awe as he began a potted description of the suite, one he had no doubt delivered many times and from which he could not keep a note of personal pride. “You are standing in the most desired hotel room in the whole of the subcontinent,” he gushed. “Five thousand square feet of unparalleled luxury. The floors are white Makrana marble; the upholstery and draperies cut from handwoven silk. The suite boasts a private spa area, a dining room and a master bathroom overlooking the Gateway. A dedicated valet is on call twenty-four hours a day, as well as a personal chef and a private butler.”

Ganesha stared round-eyed at Dashputra. The little elephant seemed more impressed than his guardian.

“Where was Burbank’s body found?”

Dashputra led the way into the largest of the suite’s bedrooms, another vast space that could have accommodated most apartments in the city. A hand-knotted carpet rippled over the marble floor, and a crystal chandelier shimmered above the four-poster bed. There was no canopy, he noted; the bedposts, fashioned from dark Burma teak, speared nakedly towards the room’s mirrored ceiling.

Above the bed’s carved headboard was a covered painting.

“What’s that?” asked Chopra.

“That is the reason Burbank was staying at the hotel,” replied Dashputra. “Two nights ago, the Grand Raj hosted an art auction. Burbank purchased this piece for ten million dollars. It is now the most valuable painting ever sold by an Indian artist.”

“Why is it still here?”

“The police would not allow us to move anything from the room. Everything has been logged as evidence. That is why I have a twenty-four-hour guard on the door. No one goes in or out without my express permission.”

“Can we remove the covering? I’d like to take a look.”

Dashputra frowned. “I would rather not touch it without someone from the auction house being present.”

“Which auction house is it?”

“Gilbert and Locke,” replied Dashputra promptly. “From London. It was quite a coup for us to convince them to host their auction here. A number of our rivals also attempted to woo them, but there is no place like the Grand Raj.” Dashputra’s haughty tone folded into sorrow. “It is terrible that Burbank has died. I don’t think Gilbert and Locke will look favourably upon this at all.”

“Who is representing them here? I’ll need to speak to them.”

“A woman by the name of Lisa Taylor. She is the auction director.”

Chopra wrote the name down in his notebook. “Where can I find her?”

“She is staying at the hotel. I will give you her contact details.”

“Thank you. Where exactly was Burbank’s body?”

“On the bed.” The GM gave a little shudder.

Chopra knew that the body had been taken to the morgue at the local hospital, presumably for an autopsy. He would soon have access to the report and the forensic findings, including photographs of the crime scene, if indeed that was what it was.

“I must tell you that the police believe that this was suicide,” said Dashputra, as if reading his mind.

“Not all of them,” muttered Chopra.

“In that case let me show you something.”

He led Chopra into the suite’s master bathroom. More white marble, gleaming mirrors and a porcelain tub in which a herd of hippos might comfortably have bathed.

Dashputra pointed at the tiles on the far wall. “This should convince you.”

On the wall, written in what looked like foot-high letters of blood, were the words:




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On Sale
Jun 12, 2018
Page Count
384 pages

Vaseem Khan

About the Author

Vaseem Khan first saw an elephant lumbering down the middle of the road in 1997 when he arrived in India to work as a consultant. It was the most unusual thing he’d ever encountered and served as the inspiration behind his series of crime novels.

He returned to the UK in 2006 and now works at University College London for the Department of Security and Crime Science where he is astonished daily by the way modern science is being employed to tackle crime.

Learn more about this author