Category Archives: Stories

Light in Shining Armour

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The Naughty Light

Once upon a time, it was nearly sunset. You could just barely see a tiny sliver of sun above the horizon of the sea. And even though it was summer and the sun had stayed up as long as he could, it was time for him to leave. Well, almost time, anyway. The sun has many children – millions and billions and trillions of them. And when it is time for the sun’s older sister, Night, to cover the earth in her soft, warm blanket of darkness, the sun and all of his children go home. But, sometimes, there is one naughty little child who will not go home to bed, as he should. And that is exactly what happened this night.

His daddy, the Sun, kept calling to him. But the naughty little boy, kept skating over the sea, and even diving into the waves, sometimes. His daddy told him he was being naughty and even rude, and that it might even be dangerous for him to be alone the whole night.

“Not scared!” said the little boy, turning himself into the teeniest, tiniest speck of light you can imagine, and bouncing from wavetop to wavetop, until he slid off a shiny bit of sand and came to a rolling stop under a leaf so old and yellow it was mostly transparent.

His daddy just sighed. And even though the little boy may have really died, all alone, without his daddy to protect him, the sun could not break the rules of Nature, entirely, though he could and often did, stretch them just a little. And, by now, the rules had already been stretched as far as they could be, for the day, and the sun had to leave.

But Night was watching.

The little ray of light was full of energy and mischief. Oh, the things he could do! He could stretch himself into a line long enough to reach from the earth to the moon and far beyond. He could make himself so small you couldn’t see him He could jump, skitter, slide, and bounce. He never slowed down, even a little, no matter what. And he was fast. Oh, he was so fast! He could go around the whole world a thousand times in less than a second! After all, he could travel at the speed of light. If he had wanted to, he could have been on the other side of the world, where the sun was, in almost no time at all. But he thought he would look silly if he were to go back now. He had said he wasn’t scared. And, well, he wasn’t!

He went to a huge, big city that was full of light. But it was a different kind of light. He couldn’t understand it at all. So, he went and talked to one of the millions of neon signs in the city. This one was on the top of a very tall building – very tall for you and me, that is; he was fast and he had no fear of heights. He was at the top of the building and zipping hundreds of times all around and even inside of the neon sign faster than a shooting star!

The neon sign was big and gruff but very friendly, really. “Are you scared and alone, little boy?”

“Not scared!” he shot back immediately.

“No, of course not,” said the neon light very gently. “You’re a big brave boy; you would never be frightened. That was silly of me. But, you know, you could make lots of friends here.” The little ray of light said nothing in response. “Of course, you would have to change, just a little, to be like us. You’d have to turn into electricity.” And still he did not speak. “It’s easy and painless. Light and electricity – they’re almost the same thing.”

“But they’re not – the same thing, that is. And I couldn’t ever be happy being something I’m really not, you know.”

“Yes,” said the neon sign, who was very wise, having spoken to millions and millions of rays of light, in the daytime, over many years. And then, suddenly, there was a crackling noise and the neon sign went out. The little ray of light waited a long time – almost a whole second. A second is a very long time for a ray of light. And then it shot off, searching for new adventure.

He searched cities and villages, the tallest mountains and the deepest mines. He flashed in and out of exploding volcanoes and the hearts of countless diamonds and rubies. He played with lasers and moonlight, lightning and fireworks. But none of it really interested him. And then, finally, he saw a man standing on the edge of a long, black, empty road, striking a match to light his cigarette. The little ray of light was less than a million miles away, up in the sky, when the man struck the match. And so the little ray of light saw it happen. And down he dived! The man did not have time to lift the match to his cigarette. The little ray of light was playing with the light from the match. Of course, it wasn’t nearly as pure as sunlight but at least it was real, not just electricity. The little ray of light took away all of the heat from the match and turned it all into light. So, the match stopped burning but, strangely enough, it was still alight. The man saw this strange event and was fascinated. He just kept looking at the match. He couldn’t have been more surprised if it had grown ears and a tail. And then, all in play, and just for fun, the little ray of light really lit up the match – not with flame but with light. The light from the match grew and spread until it covered the whole night sky for more than a hundred miles around. It seemed as though there were rivers of rainbows dancing in the night sky – except these rivers showed many more colours than any rainbow. For a moment, the whole world went silent, watching this miracle of incredible beauty – a miracle just given as a casual gift by a naughty little boy. But he was a shy little boy, too. And he didn’t like all the attention. So he waited until the match started to burn again. And when it burned the man’s fingertip and he dropped the match on the ground, the little ray of light was gone!

Now he was having a wonderful time! The sheer joy of being himself without any restrictions had taken over. He wanted to see what else he could do. More, more, more! What else was there he had not seen? Time had seemed to stretch out before him but now it seemed that time would vanish only too quickly. But despite his eagerness for new experiences, he did not rush, now. He glided smoothly, effortlessly, throughout the world not searching any longer, but just looking, drinking it all in, admiring the newness of all he saw. And even though he wasn’t looking (or, perhaps, because he wasn’t looking) he saw a tiny little house. It stood deep inside a wood and the wood itself stood on the edge of a vast, velvety blanket of snow. Inside the house was a little fireplace. It was just barely big enough to warm up the house. Into this little fireplace the little ray of light slowly descended. This was a fire made of neither electricity nor wood, but of gas that came from underground pipes, hundreds of miles long. But, for all that, it was a flame made of natural things. For a little while, he played with the light from the fire. But he did not want to create a big commotion this time, as he had with the light from the little match. Very slowly, the little ray of light took away nearly all of the light from the flame, and let the light seep out of the house through chinks and crannies so small that you or I could never see them. It must have taken him a whole minute, at least, to make a little pool of light outside of the house. But he had been careful. So the house was still dark and warm. In fact, it was warmer than usual. The little ray of light knew a few little tricks that could make the hottest fire just a little hotter.

And, as soon as he was sure that everyone in the house would remain warm and comfortable, he slipped out of it, leaving it still dark, and started to play with the little pool of light he had created outside. Of course, this time he was very careful – at first. Outside of the house, not far from the front steps, was a small little patch of ice, probably no bigger than your hand. And although it was only a little patch, it was much smoother and shinier than the ice around it. It was in this little patch of ice that the little ray of light had created his little pool of firelight without the fire. And he dived into the pool and played with it, entertaining himself for a very long time. And even though he was always conscious to keep the house dark, he forgot, after a while, all of the other things around him. The light had spread.

In the beginning, he had expanded it only a little, from the little space it occupied to a few miles around the house – and always on the ground. But then he had lit up one tree and then another. And then, the snow and the ice, the grass and the trees and anything else that was in the path, glittered with a brilliant light. It seemed almost as if the light had been stretched and stuck on to each object separately. But the little ray of light did not like the way that looked. And so he loosened his control and let the light be itself – bright yet soft, spreading yet lingering, quick yet sinuous. And though he had been careful to keep the house warm and dark, the light outside could not be ignored, after a while. The sleepers woke up and quietly gazed out at the wonder before them. There was light, stretching out for miles, well beyond their horizon. And yet their own house was completely dark and more warm than ever – and while some of the warmth came from the fire, they could feel also the warmth of love and innocence.

Immediately, the little ray of light realized they had all woken up. But he did not go away, this time. He continued to play. At last, he began to tire of the sport, though, despite having much energy left in him. And as his spirits began to fall, the light he had made slowly began to dim. And so he drifted away, quietly, to another forest, thousands of miles away. And still it was dark.

All this time, he had not felt alone or frightened. But now that he was feeling droopy, he began to wonder what Night would do to him, if she caught him. He did not know that Night had been watching him, with love, the whole time. So he curled up into a dewdrop on a leaf and fell asleep. Soon, however, Night reached into the dewdrop and held him in the palm of her hand. And she looked at him, with an expression of slight amusement.

“Uh-oh. I’m in big trouble now!” he thought.

But, as she continued to look at him, Night’s oldest daughter, Dawn, came and kissed her on the cheek. And, Night began to fade away. With infinite grace and love, Night blew gently at the little ray of light who stood tall and bright, even in his fear, in the palm of her hand. And then she was gone. And Dawn vanished too. And the little ray of light felt his spirits rise again. And, with all the power in his little heart, he streaked toward the sky to hug his daddy, the sun – for the sun had risen again.

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The Game With No Name

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Bhai

Everyone called him Bhai but he was nobody’s brother. One day, he had simply appeared on the beach at Candil — nearly dead of hunger, almost too thin and weak to bear his own weight, and completely naked. He swayed a little, and then collapsed, on the sidewalk. Even in that neighbourhood of thieves, rapists, and killers, he got help without asking for it. He could not be taken to the hospital, of course. Everyone agreed on that. There would be too many questions. They took him to Kamala’s house, because it was nearest and biggest. And then, as usual, some of Kamala’s girls went to fetch the doctor.
“Other than being hungry, really, there’s nothing wrong with him,” the doctor said. “Make sure he gets plenty of rest, plenty of fluids, and a little conversation whenever he is awake.”
“Conversation is a medicine?” asked one of the many women, in the room, laughing at the doctor.
He looked at her seriously. “Well, yes and no. He looks to be eight years old. In fact, he could be a tall six-year-old. He’s nearly dead. Clearly, he was running away from something or someone. He hasn’t spoken to anyone in days – not even to ask for food. He must be terrified. He won’t recover unless someone reassures him. That means you simply talk to him and make him feel safe. Don’t ask him any questions. Don’t force him to remember anything. Don’t give him puzzles or complicated instructions or anything else that forces him to think. After all that, he may still remain terrified. And he may die. But then again, he may not. A little good conversation may be the only thing, in the end, that will keep him alive.”
“Are you serious?” asked the same woman again, her face showing as much concern as puzzlement.
“I have a good sense of humour, Kamala,” he said, looking very serious now, “but I don’t joke about people’s lives.”
And Kamala, the thief, stripper, prostitute and con-artist, blushed with shame at that remark. “I didn’t mean it like that,” she said in a whisper, her eyes cast down, so he would not see the tears. He sensed her emotions, all the same.
“Look, it isn’t your fault, if the boy dies,” he said, gently. “You haven’t hurt him. You’re helping him. But I know how it is, here. There’s only so much you can do. Here’s a few pills. If he is too much trouble, you can give him one of these. They will make him fall asleep almost immediately.”
Kamala could no longer control her emotions. She grabbed the doctor by the collar. “Too much trouble? A terrified, dying little boy? Tell me what you think I cannot do! Tell me!” She had started shouting. But she was also sobbing.
Kamala was just a little over twenty and physically very strong for her age. The doctor was nearly twice her age and not nearly as strong but he knew she would not hurt him. “Look, ideally, he needs a room with dark curtains and no outside noise. He may be too confused to go to the bathroom on his own. You may have to clean him. You should bathe him and dress him every day. You should give him a few toys to play with and to sleep with. He should have some relaxing music to listen to while he is awake and someone to hold him and sing him to sleep, at bedtime. But who has the time to do all of these things, here?”
“Never you mind about that! What else should he have?” Kamala asked, fiercely.
“Well, when he is healthy enough to eat solid food, someone should cook him some fresh, healthy food, and see that he eats well,” said the doctor, tiredly, knowing that he was asking for the moon.
“Anything else?” asked Kamala.
“It will be a miracle…” the doctor was going to say, “if he even gets his medicines” but Kamala did not allow him to finish.
“Anything else?” she asked emphatically. The doctor simply shook his head and left.
The doctor knew as well as anyone else about Kamala’s past. At twenty, Kamala had already graduated from being the most sought-after prostitute in a hundred-mile radius to running her own brothel. Most of Kamala’s girls were older than Kamala but they dared not defy her. Kamala paid well, got decent clients who did not beat them or abuse them in other ways, and she made sure her girls always had a ride home when they were done. Kamala made a good deal of money – far more than enough to move out of the poor and crime-ridden neighbourhood in which she lived. But it was her home, where she had been born and brought up. Her friends and her enemies all lived here. It was here, too, that she had lost her first (and, so far, only) child, less than a year ago, to tetanus. The boy had been less than two years old, at the time. He had died quickly and suddenly, in less than twenty-four hours. She had her baby at home, with the help of a midwife. And so, she had not gotten her baby the DTP vaccination that would have been standard, at any hospital, out of sheer carelessness, rather than lack of money. And so, when the child hurt himself, playing, nobody realized, until it was far too late, that the injury carried a fatal infection. And, just like that, he was dead. And so, the doctor realized, this little boy was a surrogate. She would do anything to keep him alive.
And she did.
“Listen,” she said, that night, when she saw her girls. “I need help. I’m taking care of a sick little boy. He’s very sick. He could die. He doesn’t have an infection. He’s basically dying of hunger and fear. He’s in my house. I need three volunteers – six hours each. I’ll be with him in the morning, but I need someone there the rest of the day.” Kamala spent nights at the brothel to make sure everything ran smoothly. “You will get paid the same as if you were working.”
There was silence. Nobody volunteered. Then one girl spoke up. “Nobody here wants money for something like that. But everyone is afraid of what will happen to her if the boy dies.”
“There will be no consequences. You can continue working here as long as you like. Nothing will change,” Kamala said. Still, nobody volunteered. “OK. How’s this? Until the boy is well, everyone here will take turns taking care of him, depending on your schedule. Does anyone object?” There were no objections. And so, for the next three months, the forty most beautiful prostitutes in the city took care of a sick little boy, gradually nursing him back to health.
For several weeks, he teetered on the verge of death. His body grew stronger but fear and depression still held him in their clutches. He hardly spoke. What he said made little sense to anyone. Either he did not remember his name or he did not want to tell anyone what it was. All of the girls were much older than he was but most were too young to be his mother. And so, when they spoke of him, they called him simply “Bhai”, meaning brother.
And then, one day, as suddenly and as inexplicably as he had collapsed on the sidewalk, he came to his senses. “Where am I? Where is everyone?” he asked. He seemed curious but not afraid. It was after dark. He had been sleeping all day and had just woken up. The girl who was there at the time soothed him and reassured him but did not answer his questions. She sent someone to get Kamala, immediately.
Kamala was overjoyed. But she could not leave the brothel at night. It was absolutely impossible. The brothel was a very large and beautiful house, with several bedrooms. None of the prostitutes lived there but they all reported there every evening. Some of them did, in fact, sleep at the house, if they were too exhausted or too high to travel back to their homes on their own but it was always a temporary refuge, at best. Kamala said, “Prepare a room for the boy and bring him here.”
“You want to bring him here?” asked one of the girls, doubtfully. The location and the function of the house was no secret but neither was it openly advertised. Other than Kamala and the girls nobody really knew that the house was the headquarters of the most successful prostitution ring in the city. The police had guessed, of course, that something illegal went on there but it was a highly-sophisticated operation. Despite setting several traps and even searching the place several times, the police had been unable to find any actual evidence of a crime. Kamala was young but she was no fool.
“Yes,” she said, without hesitation. “Bring him here immediately.”
It was dark outside, already. And Kamala had put a very dark tint on the car’s windows. The boy could see nothing of the route to the house. The chauffeur took the car all the way to the front door. From there, the girl who was with him whisked him away to his room. And there, he spoke to Kamala for the first time. Immediately, he felt at ease. The love in her heart was real and he could see it in her eyes.
“How are you, Bhai?” she asked him with a smile.
“You are not my sister,” he said, sadly, but without anger or distrust.
“You and I are now brother and sister, Bhai,” she said gently, looking him straight in the eye.
“Really?” he asked. And then, suddenly, without any warning at all, large, gasping sobs racked his body as he ran to her and held her, for several minutes.
When the storm subsided, she said, “Bhai, there is much I need to know. But the doctor has said not to ask you many questions.”
“Didi,” he said, very seriously, “you can ask me anything!”
“Very well, then,” Kamala said, laughing, “tell me what this says,” and she gave him a book for children.
“Of course!” he said. “The Cat in the Hat is one of my favourite books!”
“OK, then, read it to me,” Kamala said, enjoying herself thoroughly. Nobody had ever read her a book.
And so he sat on her lap and read her the whole book, very slowly, explaining the story and the pictures to her as he went along. It took him an hour to read the book that Kamala could have read for herself in five minutes or less. But she listened to him, not just with patience, but with wonder. Kamala was a survivor. She did what she had to do and she did it well. But it had never occurred to her that someone would actually take the time to explain anything to her. So, she listened carefully, without interruption, as if she had not already read the story at least a thousand times.
But, finally, when the story ended, she said, “Bhai, I have to go back to work now.”
“Can’t I go with you? I won’t bother you at all.”
The request was so sincere and so clearly made with all his heart that Kamala could hardly bear to refuse. But, of course, she wanted to give him a normal life.
“I know. But my office doesn’t allow little children.”
“But you said I’m your brother! Besides, I am not a little child.”
The response was so unexpectedly cheeky and loving at the same time that it made Kamala laugh. “Well, tell you what. See that whole stack of books there? Read all of them and tell me the stories when I come back. And look! There are so many toys for you to play with.” Kamala had hoped that she would not be trapped in the brothel the day the little boy finally came to his senses but she had prepared for the eventuality, all the same.
But his face fell. “I don’t want to read, any more. And I don’t want the toys. I want to play with you.” The girls who were in the room, watching quietly, began to giggle. Kamala ruled the brothel with an iron hand. But this little boy was getting the best of her. They waited, with interest, to see what she would do. Kamala looked around for help. But, for once, nobody stepped forward.
“You know, you’re really a very annoying little brother,” she said, trying to put an edge to her voice. But there was no conviction in it.
“Let me show you how to make an airplane with Lego bricks,” he said, with a smile, in response. He went up to her, held her hand, gently but firmly in his own, and led her toward the toys. She followed, helplessly.
“OK. Wait a minute,” she said. “Tell Mita to come get me if there is an emergency,” she said to one of the girls. “Also, tell Rani to go to the doctor and tell him to see Bhai tomorrow morning, at my house.”
“I’m hungry,” said the little boy. “Can I have some pizza?”
“You’ve done nothing but eat and sleep all day, today! How can you be hungry already?” she demanded. “Besides, the doctor didn’t say if you could have pizza.” Then it suddenly occurred to her that she could get out of the room on the pretext of getting him pizza and send someone else to get it, instead. “OK fine,” she said, “I’ll go get it.”
“No,” he said very clearly. “You stay here, with me.”
“OK. But if I stay you don’t get pizza,” she said, trying to retain some small shred of power over him.
“Fine. You can get it on the way home,” he said. Ten minutes later, one of the girls brought in a hot pizza. There was a stack of pizzas in the freezer and she just micro-waved one of them. “What are you doing, Madhu? He’ll never listen to me, now!” complained Kamala.
“Well, that’s your problem, now, isn’t it?” said Madhu as she flounced away. Kamala looked at her in disgust. Madhu was always the one most afraid to disobey even the least of Kamala’s orders – explicit or implicit.
The night ended without any emergencies. And the next morning, the doctor visited Kamala’s house to examine the little boy. But he wasn’t satisfied with simply a cursory examination, at the house. He took the little boy to his clinic and examined him thoroughly for two hours. Finally, he took the boy back to Kamala. “What you have achieved is beyond a miracle, Kamala! Bhai is as healthy as any little boy in the world, perhaps healthier. We will know more once I get the results of all the blood-tests, urine tests, and stool-tests, but I expect everything to be normal.”
“Can I talk to him and ask him questions about his past, now?” said Kamala, who very much wanted to know all about the little boy.
“Well,” said the doctor. “Physically, he is perfectly healthy. He is also cheerful. There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with his brain. So, yes, technically, you can ask him anything and he should be able to answer. But, remember, he is still a little boy. And something did frighten him, terribly. If one of your questions brings up a memory that makes him remember something terrifying, he may relapse into a state of depression and he may never come out of it.”
“So, basically, I can never bring up his past,” said Kamala, slowly. “So be it. But I can at least help him secure a good future. I will start sending him to school.”
“Yes. Do that. It is good for him to meet with boys and girls his own age.”
Of course, Kamala still did not know Bhai’s real name and, since the little boy himself never volunteered it, she told him that, in school, people would call him Akshar Patel. Kamala’s own last name was Patel and she had named her own son Akshay. So, people who knew Kamala easily understood her choice of name for the little boy. As it turned out, Akshar was an intelligent little boy and was able to pass all of the tests he took, with flying colours. And so she was able to place him in an excellent school.
The Dune School was a very large and expensive private school, with classes from pre-school through twelfth grade. He started school in third grade. The school based its decision on his test-scores, since nobody was quite sure exactly how old he was. Had he been a normal third-grader, he would have been eight years old. But he was far from normal, even though the first year passed normally enough. He was quiet, at first. But he adapted quickly. Soon, he was one of the most popular boys in the school. He was happy, carefree, fearless and honest. However, the school’s principal, Hank Herbert, realized very quickly that Akshar was also incredibly intelligent. By the time he finished fourth grade, it was clear that he needed a far more advanced curriculum. That was arranged – with some difficulty, but it was done. And the school continued to offer him an increasingly challenging curriculum over the next four years. Finally, one day, Mr. Herbert invited Kamala to a private meeting. With much trepidation, she went.
“Is Bhai in trouble?” was her first thought, followed by, “Do they want to throw him out because of my profession?” Not for a second did it occur to her that Mr. Herbert might want to give her good news.
“Please sit down, Mrs. Patel,” he said, in his usual warm and friendly manner. He knew exactly what Kamala did, for a living, but pretended to believe that she was a widow.
“Is Akshar in some sort of trouble?” Kamala asked anxiously.
“No, indeed!” responded Mr. Herbert with a huge smile. “If anything, I am the one in trouble! The fact is, Akshar is brilliant! He has learned everything we can teach him here. Normally, a student would need at least four more years of study to complete high school.”
“Does the school need a donation, to compensate for the four additional years he would have been here? I don’t mind spending more money if you would continue teaching him,” Kamala asked, relieved. If it was only money, she could easily deal with it.
“No, Mrs. Patel, it is nothing like that. You have been most generous with the school. At least half of the students in this school are only able to study here because of the scholarships you have funded, over the years. You may, indeed, spend more money on Akshar, but it won’t be at this school. He is done here. He needs to go to college.”
“But he is so young!” exclaimed Kamala, taken by surprise. She knew Mr. Herbert was right about the scholarships. She had, indeed, paid for several students – almost all of them were either from the neighbourhood in which she lived or were the children of the prostitutes who worked for her. She wanted them all to have a chance at a normal life. But, also, she did not want Akshar to feel alone or isolated in the school. So, to her, it was money well-spent. “I never realized he would finish school so quickly,” she said.
“Yes, of course. And, because of his youth, not every college will accept him, despite his intelligence. But I can give you letters of introduction to the presidents of some excellent colleges who would probably be willing to make an exception.”
“Mr. Herbert, you are wonderful!” she exclaimed.
Barely a year after he had started college, Kamala attended a special graduation ceremony for Akshar’s Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science. And she shared his joy when he said, “Didi, I am a college graduate, now!”
Two years later, the story repeated itself but this time he had earned his Master’s degree in Microbiology. And two years after that, when Akshar earned his Doctoral degree in Chemistry, Kamala was not surprised at all. She had begun to take it for granted that he would complete his studies in record time. But what pleased her most was that he always celebrated his achievements with her, first. Always, he would give her a hug and a kiss and ask her, “Didi, aren’t you proud of me?” And always, of course, she cried, in response. But he was used to that.
And every time he earned a degree, he would also say, “Didi, shouldn’t you get out of this business, now?” Akshar asked her, again and again.
And every time, her response was nearly the same. “How would we live if I did not bring in any money?” He knew that was not the real reason she did not give up the business. But until he could provide her an alternative, there was nothing he could say to her.
By the time Akshar completed his formal education, his Didi was a little over thirty years old. The brothel was still doing well. She had always charged more than the average brothel, for her girls. But over the previous ten years she had become a kind of a living contradiction – a famous underground figure. People spoke of her in whispers and only the very wealthy now approached her — as much for her discretion as for the quality of girls she sent. She included, among her clients, movie stars of both sexes, kings, prime-ministers, and presidents, and even many well-known religious figures.
At heart, though, Kamala was a simple girl. She had no idea what to do with all of the money she had. She still lived in the shack where she had been born and brought up, though she spent increasingly more time in the house that she used as her headquarters. She could not afford to wear very expensive clothes or jewelry for fear of attracting too much police attention. She owned several very expensive cars but she used them mainly to guarantee the privacy of her girls and clients. She used whichever car was available to her at a given moment. She had no car of her own. She spent mostly on her Bhai.
She sent him to the best schools, colleges, and universities, bought him good clothes, encouraged him to travel all over the world, and even funded his expensive hobbies, such as collecting old books and antique furniture and learning to construct and play ancient musical instruments. When he built a huge aquarium in his house, with hundreds of exotic fish from all over the world and showed it off to her, as usual, she was happy – not because she understood the level of time, expense, and expertise it took to construct something like that but because she knew he had done it for her. He loved to present her with beautiful things.
And so, once again, he asked her the usual question. But this time, he had an answer to her usual response. “I can get a job now, Didi, a good one.”
“Yes, I know. I’ve always known that a time would come when you would say this to me. I had hoped it would be a few years later than today. But it was inevitable, all the same. Better sooner than later, I guess.”
“So, you will quit?” he asked hopefully.
“It isn’t quite that simple, Bhai,” she said ruefully. “It isn’t just about money. I know things about people – rich and famous people, even powerful people.”
“So?”
“So, my dear, innocent Bhai, they won’t just let me quit. They will give me as much money as I want, so long as I keep working. But, if ever I try to quit, they will have me killed.”
“Are you serious?”
“Deadly serious, my dear Bhai, deadly serious.”
“So, all of this study and hard work that I did, is all useless?”
“Not at all. You are not part of this world, my world. That is why I wanted you to study – so that you would have a chance at a normal life.”
“And leave you in the gutter to die?”
“Don’t be so dramatic. I have tons of money. And I can live a life of luxury.”
“Right. That’s why you are still living in that old shack, instead of living with me. And that’s why I always see you wearing beautiful clothes and jewelry, right?” he said with bitterness and anger.
“Don’t say such things. I live in the place where I was born, with my old friends. And as for beautiful clothes and jewelry, I do have them and I do wear them – just not all the time.”
“You know what I mean, Didi,” he said, nearly in tears.
“Yes, I do. But think about it for a second. What would I do? I don’t have an education, like you. I could not get any kind of a job. I am doing the only job I know how to do. And I do it well.”
He was silent, for a moment. “You don’t need a job, Didi. You have enough money to live the rest of your life without earning a single penny more. But you would not need money, anyway. I can make more than enough, now, for both of us to live well.”
“But I am just a little over thirty, Bhai. I am not eighty. What would I do with myself? How would I pass the time? Do you really think I can just shop and watch TV all day?”
He was more hesitant now. “Well, you could start a business.”
“I already have a business, Bhai – a good one!”
He was silent. There was no way to say what he wanted to say.
“Yes, I know what you mean. You want me to do a normal business, like selling clothes or running a restaurant or something like that.”
“Yes!” he said, passionately.
“I could. But my life will never be normal, Bhai. Can’t you see that?”
“I will take care of you, Didi,” he said fiercely. “Not all of my learning is purely academic. I know how to use my fists and my legs and even guns and knives. I could protect you. I could hire bodyguards. I could even raise a small army if your safety depended on it.”
“Yes, my dear Bhai. I know you could. And you probably would. And then you would be part of my world – a world of prostitutes and murderers and thieves. And that is exactly what I don’t want for you!”
“So then what am I supposed to do with all this?” he asked, pointing to the degrees framed on the wall and to the aquarium and other beautiful things in his house. “I would have been dead if you had not picked me up and nursed me back to health. I’ve bought all of this with your money. I did it all for you. I made my house as beautiful as possible so that, one day, you would want to move in here with me.”
“I know,” she said quietly. “I would move in with you if you lived in a shack. I don’t need beautiful things to be happy. I just need someone who loves me unconditionally, as you do. And now I know I will always have that, no matter where you are or where I am. And so I am happy,” she said simply.
“But then what am I supposed to do with all this? None of it means anything without you.”
“Yes, it does. It means you can get yourself a good job and a wife and a family, and live away from the world of crime and violence in which I am already immersed.”
“You have money. You aren’t helpless, like the girls who work for you.”
“The girls who work for me have money also. Some of them may even have more than I do – even the youngest ones. But we can never truly retire. Don’t you think people have tried, Bhai? They end up doing something else equally criminal or they end up dead – or both. There are many ways into this world but no way out.”
“Then why did you get into it?” he asked, in frustration, knowing exactly what she would say.
“Perhaps, if I had known then that I would never be able to get out, I may not have gotten into this type of life. But even then I don’t know. My options were limited. I did whatever was necessary to survive – and that’s what I am doing, even now.”
“So, you have all this talent and compassion and money – and all you can do is to barely survive? That makes no sense! There must be a way out. I will carve one out, if necessary. But you aren’t going to be stuck in this life forever. That much, I promise.”
“I hope you can keep your promise, Bhai. It seems impossible to me. But I will love you just the same, no matter what.”
And even though there was no more either could say on the subject at the time, they both knew the conversation was not really over.
A few months later, he asked her, “About how old are most of the men that your girls go to?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“I don’t need details, like names, ages, and so on. Just roughly, about how many of them are, say, over forty and how many are under that age?”
“Almost all of them are over forty,” she said.
“So, there must be times when they are not able to actually have sex, right? What happens then?”
“Nothing. The girls still stay as long as they are supposed to stay and they get paid what they are supposed to get paid.”
“And do those men ever call again, for your girls?”
“My clientele is pretty stable. What are you getting at?”
“Yes, you’re a good business-woman. I doubt that you lose many clients. But let me ask you this: Would you make more money if I could pretty much guarantee that every man would be able to perform every time he got one of your girls?”
“Anyone who could guarantee something like that would either get killed or corner the world prostitution market,” she said, with a laugh.
“Well, maybe not the world, but definitely the local market, right?” She waited. She knew that asking him questions would not work. He would simply keep teasing her. So, she got up, as though she were bored and about to leave. “That tactic won’t work this time,” he said to her with a smile. “I know you want to hear this.”
“Then tell me,” she said, twisting his ear.
“Ow! No need to get violent with your little brother. OK. Here it is. You know I studied Chemistry. I’ve made a drug. It’s harmless but it has an incredible side-effect. What it does is to make a person high – not like cocaine or heroin but a pleasant buzz, like a person has after a couple of drinks. And the happy feeling doesn’t last long – about a half-hour at the most. But, during that half-hour, any man who takes the drug also gets an erection. The erection also does not last very long – maybe fifteen to twenty minutes. It starts a little after the buzz and ends a little before the happy feeling goes away.”
“Why don’t you sell your discovery to some big company?”
“Well, there is one little problem. One in every million men who takes this drug repeatedly, for a long time – say, once every week for ten years – will become insanely violent for a twenty-four hour period. After that, if he takes the drug again, he will have a heart-attack and die instantly.”
“And how do you know this? Have you tested it on a million men?”
“No. That’s the whole point. I don’t have the time or the money to do that. But I wrote a computer-program, with hundreds of variables, and ran a kind of a virtual drug-test. And this is what it tells me. But, as long as we distribute the drug to a relatively small number of people, we don’t need to worry. You are probably never going to sell the drug to a million different customers.”
“Still, you could be wrong. Instead of one in a million, it could be one in a thousand or even one in ten.”
“Yes, I could be wrong. But it is impossible that I could be that wrong! I’ve been very conservative with my numbers. In reality, the danger of someone dying could be less than one in a million, but not more. And remember, too, that death would only happen if a person took the pill at least once a week every week for ten years, continuously. How many clients do you have that call for a girl every single week for ten years continuously?”
“None. Everyone takes a break, once in a while.”
“Exactly.”
“How much does this pill cost?”
A huge grin spread across his face, like a little boy who has just gotten away with something naughty. “Nothing. Absolutely zero. In fact, really, less than nothing. I’m going to get paid for making the pill – before it is sold and after.”
“How are you getting paid for it before you sell it?”
“Well, you know how it is. People pollute lakes and rivers and even oceans, all over the world. Someone has to clean up the mess. I’ve built a machine that takes many poisons out of the water. Private corporations as well as governments pay for such machines. Once the stuff is taken out, it has to be transported and stored somewhere. They pay for that as well. Many of the poisons I take out of the water are only poisons when they are in water. Otherwise, they can be used in perfectly legal ways. For example, mercury is poisonous to drink but it is used in thermometers.”
“Are you putting mercury in these pills?”
“No, of course not! But I make a profit from selling the mercury for perfectly legal purposes. And I use that money to buy the chemicals that I need, to manufacture my pills. And I don’t need to go anywhere special. Any pharmacy sells all the chemicals I need. They are mixed into different medicines – medicines like aspirin, and anti-histamines, for example, that anyone can buy.”
“And what if you get caught?”
“What if I do? The drug I am making does not hurt anyone. It is not like cocaine or heroin or even marijuana.”
“And what if someone dies?”
“All traces of the drug disappear from the system in twelve hours or less.”
“You’ve thought of everything.”
“You think you’re very clever, don’t you?”
“I don’t think so. I know so,” he said, impishly.
“That’s all very well when you’re just dealing with your poor, helpless Didi,” she said, grumpily.
“Since when have you ever been poor or helpless?” he asked, laughing. “Everyone’s terrified of you!”
“Yes, everyone – except you!” She looked at him.
“Don’t look at me like that! I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Yes, but you’re going to, aren’t you? It doesn’t matter what I say. No matter how much you justify it, you know you are doing something illegal.”
“Well, yes, it is stretching the law – but just a little.”
“That’s like being a little bit dead!” she flashed.
“No, it isn’t. Really, it isn’t. It’s more like a twelve-year-old having a shot of whisky. It’s illegal but it isn’t anything major.”
“You don’t understand anything. You’re so intelligent and yet you’re so stupid! These are not ordinary people. They didn’t get rich by winning the lottery or by inheriting money. They are smart, ambitious people, who worked hard to get where they are. They may not be educated but they always know who’s responsible when something goes wrong. And they don’t wait for the police or the courts to take action. If they suspect you of killing one of their friends, even by mistake, they will kill you first and ask questions later – if ever they do ask questions. Understand what you are getting into. You asked me once why I got into this life. Now, I am asking you that same question.”
“You know why. I am doing it for you.”
“What?”
“I had hoped that when I outlined this crazy plan that you would say that you would rather quit your life than let me get into a similar life.”
She was silent. “You really want me to quit, don’t you?”
He did not even bother to reply to that question.
“Well, then, kill me.”
“Are you crazy? You saved my life!”
“Killing me is the only way you can save mine.”
“I’m not going to kill you.”
“But, with your drugs and chemicals, can you make it look like I’m dead?” He was stunned. But he began to understand what she meant.
“Yes, I could.”
“People would have to be able to see my dead body, to touch me, to be sure I was really dead. Can you do that?”
“Yes. That’s easy enough. But what happens then?”
“Then we build another shack just like the one in which I’ve lived all of my life and we can be happy ever after,” she said with a smile. “I want to wear all of those beautiful jewels and fancy clothes and really live it up, at least for a while. I’m bored of this life, now. Most of my friends are either dead or have moved away. I don’t need to make more money. But I do want to see you grow up and get married and have kids and all of that. Maybe I can still do all of those things myself,” she said, wistfully.
They put a plan into motion. It was to move very slowly. First, Bhai announced that he was going abroad, to start his own business. So, it made sense for him to sell his house. Soon after the house was sold and Bhai moved in with Mr. Herbert, Kamala gave him Mr. Herbert a limousine – one that looked exactly like many others that she used, but it was, of course, new, and not used. Then, a few months later, they announced that Kamala was sick and that she was to be taken abroad for medical treatment. They left the neighbourhood several times, returning at intervals, initially, of a few weeks, and then a month or two at a time. During these periods, they stayed at a secret location in some caves that were just a few miles from Candil. Bhai had hoped that, slowly, people would just forget about them and they would be able to simply disappear. It was a futile hope.
Every time they “returned”, people came to visit them. Among the “visitors” were medical doctors who quietly examined her. Some openly asked for medical records and/or the names of the doctors who treated her and the hospitals or clinics at which she received treatment. Such requests, under the guise of privacy, Bhai courteously but firmly declined to honour. Kamala, in a gradual but orderly manner, passed over the reins of the brothel, appointing various of her girls to various roles. Any attempt at selling the brothel would immediately raise suspicions but, given her “sickness”, it was reasonable that she would keep the brothel running smoothly through delegation of tasks. Almost two years passed, in this way.
Kamala seemed to be getting progressively worse. Mr. Herbert, who suspected something but knew nothing, was no alarmed at the state of Kamala’s health. So, Bhai told him to take a week’s vacation and relax. “By the time you return, Mr. Herbert, Kamala will be fine.” That was the closest Bhai came to giving Mr. Herbert a hint as to what was to happen. Of course, Mr. Herbert did not realize that, at the time. And so, he left. Kamala drove him, personally, to the large, private airport, that she and other wealthy people often used. The airport housed several private jets, in its hangars but also accepted a few commercial flights every day.
“I’m going to leave this car for you in my hangar, Mr. Herbert,” she said, driving him to the hangar and parking the car there, so he knew exactly which one it was. “When you return, you can simply come back here and pick up the car and drive home. That way, you won’t need to get a taxi. And you won’t need to wait for me to come and get you either.”
“Mrs. Patel, my dear, I’m an old man, but I’m not stupid. I know I will never see you again. God bless you wherever you go.” Then, he walked to the plane waiting for him and she walked away.
Then, three days after Mr. Herbert left, very abruptly, but very publicly, Kamala “died”. It was late morning and she was alone at the grocery store, without any of her girls or helpers, at the cashier’s, paying her bill when, suddenly, she collapsed. The manager immediately called an ambulance and sent her to the nearest hospital where the doctors pronounced her dead on arrival. Bhai was at her side, immediately. An autopsy was out of the question, he said. She would not her body to be desecrated in that way. The doctors and the police raised some objections. Soon, however, several important people called to support Bhai’s decision. Nobody knew whether someone had killed her or whether she had died a natural death. Almost everyone suspected everyone else of killing her. And yet, nobody wanted an inquiry into her death. It would raise too many questions and too many important people’s careers and reputations would be put on the line. An autopsy, then, was out of the question.
But, despite the default description of Kamala as “a woman of low character” she was, in fact, highly respected and much loved. So, Bhai announced that, over the next twenty-four hours, anyone who wished to do so could offer their respects to Kamala. He was startled at the huge number of people who paid her their last respects. The twenty-four hours stretched into thirty-six. People arrived in a continuous stream, throughout the day and the night. Bhai began to fear that the drugs would wear off and that Kamala would wake up in the middle of her own funeral. But he dared not turn away a single person. Finally, when a half-hour passed after the departure of the last person, he shut the doors of the crematorium. Kamala, fortunately, continued to sleep. She would asleep nearly another twelve hours.
Bhai had considered every detail carefully. In the months it took to execute the plan, Bhai had done many things to ensure the success of the plan. Among other things, he had taken flying lessons and he had purchased a small but luxurious jet. He had taken the plane for a short flight, just before Mr. Herbert and Kamala reached the hangar, so that Mr. Herbert would not be able to see or identify the plane. A few minutes after Mr. Herbert’s flight left, Bhai parked the jet in the hangar where Kamala had put Mr. Herbert’s car, and made sure it was re-fueled. Then he drove the car to Mr. Herbert’s house. Everyone knew he was living with Mr. Herbert so they would not be surprised to see him or Mr. Herbert’s car in Mr. Herbert’s house. He had created and brought a wax replica of Kamala, that he had put in a large, specially-constructed suitcase in his room. As soon as he got back to the house from the crematorium, for his last night of rest at the house, he put the replica in the back of the car. The next morning, refreshed and confident, he drove to the crematorium for the last time.
The back seat was long enough for her to lie down comfortably. He now put the Kamala in the back seat of the car and put the wax replica on display. He then locked the car, leaving open just one of the windows, and then only a tiny bit, for air to go in. And then he went back to the crematorium.
While people had been looking at the real Kamala, a few astute observers had commented that her skin looked a little waxy. It was, in fact, Bhai’s intention to make Kamala’s skin look a little waxy so that people would not see much difference between the real Kamala and the wax replica that would soon be in the place of her real body. But there was a slight problem. The drugs he had given her worked perfectly but had the minor side-effect of drying out the skin, temporarily. And so, he had gone a little overboard in applying oil to her skin. “Well, no harm done,” he thought to himself, though he had been a little worried at the time he heard the comment about Kamala’s skin.
The next morning, everyone came to see Kamala being cremated. Bhai kept the lights low and only Kamala’s face visible, now. Also, he kept people at a sufficient distance that they could not make out details very clearly. Bhai knew that the wax replica of Kamala would begin to melt almost immediately. And so, he had chosen an electric crematorium. The body was put on a belt and it slowly passed through a small steel trapdoor before it went into the fire. Once the trapdoor closed, nothing was visible. So, the whole world saw Kamala die and be cremated. Now, it was time to make the real Kamala disappear. And so, he went back to the limousine.
He drove the limousine to his private hangar, as Kamala continued to sleep. As soon as the car was in the hangar, he shut the hangar door and carried Kamala into the airplane. Once inside, he laid her on a bed. Then, he shut the door to the airplane and, with his computer, opened the hangar door remotely. She was now safe – for the moment. It still remained for Bhai to get her safely to her new residence and establish her in her new identity.
“Where am I?” asked Kamala, sleepily, several hours later.
Bhai laughed at her, gently. You’ve slept through a little more than two days. Now, you’re home safe. You wanted another shack just like the one you had. Well, I made a few minor modifications, and here you are, in your new home. Do you like it?” he asked, anxiously.
It was her turn to laugh. “I knew you would not build me another shack. You make beautiful things. And this is beautiful. I love it!”
It was, in the truest sense, a palatial home. In fact, Bhai had bought one of the many palaces in a small country where the royal family was now struggling for money. He had made the purchase through many intermediaries so that nobody could trace the purchase back to him or to Kamala. He had deliberately allowed certain information to leak, however. Although he never said so openly, to anyone, he allowed people to believe that the new owners were not just a brother and a sister but a Prince and a Princess. He had been deliberately hazy about the details. He had implied that they were running away from political persecution and so wanted their privacy. Kamala was amazed when he told her that. “Seriously? I’m a princess, living in a palace?” She couldn’t help grinning.
“I liked that little touch myself,” he said, happy that she approved.
“You’re just amazing, Bhai!”
“Yes, I know,” he said, cheekily.
For five years, they were “happy ever after” as Kamala had wished. She even got married and had a child, as she had always wanted. Her husband was a true nobleman. She was certain that he knew she was no princess but he never confronted her with the knowledge. He loved her and she loved him and that was all that mattered. She had her husband and her son and her Bhai. Life was perfect!
And then, suddenly, one day, her Bhai told her he was leaving. “Leaving? Where? Why? Aren’t you happy here?”
“Do you remember, many years ago, you asked me if I really believed that you could simply shop and watch TV? Well, I’m asking you more or less the same question now.”
“But you don’t just shop and watch TV. You do useful things. You’ve built a school. You’ve built a clinic.”
“Yes, I have. And now what?”
“Well, you could….” She stopped. He was right. There was nothing else for him to do. “You could get married!”
“That was your dream, not mine,” he reminded her gently. “I do want to get married and have children and all of that,” he said, “but not now. Right now, I want to explore the world.”
“You aren’t coming back, are you?” she said, in tears.
“My darling Didi! How can you say that? I may not ever be able to contact you directly but you will always get news of me. And one day – whether it is next year or twenty years from now — I will come back. And you will kiss my wife on both cheeks and hug my children. This I promise you.”
When he had walked several paces away from her, she said, under her breath, “Don’t let it be twenty years, Bhai.” She thought he had not heard her. But he had. And he kept walking.
Soon, he was in another country, far away from his birthplace and also far from his Didi. He put aside his identity as a Prince and took up his own identity again, such as it was. Once again, he was Akshar Patel. With all that had happened to him in his life, though, he was not able to work for someone else. He would never look for a job, he decided. He had talent and he had money. Surely, he could do something on his own.
Something in him drew him to the ocean. And so, once again, he was in a large city, next to the ocean. Here, too, he saw poverty but not the grinding, hopeless poverty he had seen in his own country. People were poor but they had enough to eat, every day. The city had nearly the same types of crime as any other large city but the police often looked the other way when they saw someone stealing food to feed his family or sleeping in empty homes when the family could no longer afford to pay rent. He liked the people and the culture. And so, he bought a house near the beach. The location was unique, in a way.
The house was located on the curve of the road. As you approached it, all you saw was a line of beautiful homes. But, if you passed the curve and went to the end of the road, which was a cul-de-sac, and if you looked carefully, you would see a string of shacks beyond the palm trees, making up a kind of improvised shanty-town. But his was the last house on the road so there was no point in driving all the way to the end of the road.
“Hello,” he said, to an old man, as he walked into the shanty-town.
“And who might you be?” asked the old man, curious, but friendly.
“I’ve just moved into the house at the end of the road,” said Bhai.
“I didn’t ask you where you lived,” huffed the old man. “Everyone knows you’re the rich guy who bought the fancy house.”
“Is that how you think of me?” said Bhai, with a smile. “Well, let’s have a drink and change all that, shall we?”
“I’ll surely have a friendly drink with you,” said the crusty old man, “but whether I’ll change my opinion of you is a different thing.”
“Let’s just have a drink, then, old man,” said Bhai, amused yet respectful.
“My name is Gabriel,” said the old man, “but I’m no angel.”
“My name is Akshar, but my friends call me Bhai, meaning brother,” responded Bhai.
“And what do your enemies call you?” asked the old man, with a twinkle.
“I hope I have left behind my enemies,” said Bhai, with a shudder. And he went silent, his eyes looking at something in the past that only he could see.
“It was only a joke,” said Gabriel, apologetically. “I didn’t mean to trouble you. I’m just a foolish old man and I talk too much, sometimes.”
“You’re a good old man, Gabriel. There are just some things I would rather not remember, though I can never really forget.”
“Ah. Like that is it? Let us speak of better things, then. What is it you do?”
“Do? Well, nothing for now. That is why I spoke to you. What is there that needs doing, here?”
“We’re poor folk, as you can see, Bhai. We need what all poor folks need.”
“And what would that be?”
“Food, for one thing.”
“Food, is it, when each of you brings in literally boatloads of fish every day, and sell them at the fish-market in town?”
Gabriel laughed a raspy laugh. “Nobody’s fool, then, are you? What is it, then, that you think we need?”
“I don’t know but I do know you don’t need food. So stop playing the fool and tell me what it is you really need.”
“A doctor, then. Well, for the big things, like surgery or cancer treatment, there’s a bunch of government hospitals, down the road, and they’re free for the likes of us. But for the little daily things like coughs and colds and fevers and the like, there’s nobody to care for us.”
“How do you manage, then?”
“Like all poor people, sir – we manage without.”
“I’m no doctor. But I can get you medicines enough, if that will do.”
“It would help, indeed. There was a doctor who used to visit and help, at no charge. But he ran out of medicine and never came back.”
“If you’ll find the doctor, Gabriel, I’ll find the medicine.”
And so began a partnership between Bhai and the people of the shanty-town. He brought them medicine and they brought him gifts of fish and whatever else they could afford. Sometimes, the children from the shanty-town would go to his house to play with him and sometimes he would go to their bar and get drunk with them. It pleased him to be able to help the people of the shanty-town. But, still, there was something missing.
Over the next few years, he built a small shop. It was a kind of a convenience store, selling milk, medicines, magazines, and all of the other little things that an average family would need. It allowed him to order all of the medicines he would ever need for the people of the shanty-town. And it more or less paid for itself because it was the only store for miles around. But it was a kind of an unofficial store. He had built it on his home-ground, quite literally. His home stood on just about twenty acres of land. Putting aside a little space for a small shop was easy, especially as he did not even have to build it. He simply ordered a pre-fabricated structure and his friends at the shanty-town helped him put it together. So, technically, the shop was on residential property and therefore, officially, it did not exist. And yet, he was glad that it did exist.
His first customer was a young woman. She had shiny, thick black hair, that fell in an amazingly straight line, directly to her waist. And, she had a soft, gentle voice. But she was also a little crazy, he thought.
“I’m looking for a horse,” she said.
“A house?” he asked, thinking he had misunderstood her.
“No, a horse. Not a real horse. A painting will do. Even a sculpture might work. I’m just pretty sure it needs to be a horse.”
“You realize this is a kind of a convenience-store, right? We don’t sell horses or even paintings of horses.”
“I’m not stupid, you know,” she said. Then, seeing that he did not respond, she said. “As you said, this is a kind of a convenience-store. It is not a real convenience-store. I just figured that someone who built a store like this on his own personal estate would probably have a picture of a horse.”
“That is the craziest logic I have heard in my life! But the thing that’s really terrible is that it makes a certain kind of very weird sense.”
“I may be weird but I’m not stupid.”
“Do you just randomly barge into people’s homes asking them if they have paintings of horses?”
“Technically, I am at your shop, not at your home,” she pointed out. “You said so yourself. Having a shop inside of your home is much more odd than having a painting of a horse in your home.”
“As it happens, I do, actually, have an original painting of a horse, in my home. It’s oil on canvas. But the painter is not spectacularly famous or super-talented or anything like that. It’s just – normal.”
“I’m looking for something like that. Everyone’s seen all of the famous paintings and copies and adaptations of all the famous paintings, too. So, to see one that’s just normal would be a treat.”
“I never said I was going to show it to you.”
“Are you really going to turn down the opportunity to get a pretty, helpless, crazy girl, into your bedroom?”
“Actually – yes. And, anyway, it isn’t in my bedroom.”
“I never said it was.”
“You’re crazy, you know.”
“As my mom tells it, that’s pretty much the first thing the doctor said, as soon as I was born. And people aren’t very original. So they’ve kept repeating that statement most of my life. So, I’m good with that. Now, where’s the painting I need to buy?”
“I never said I was going to sell it.”
“I never said you did. I just asked you where it was. And don’t bother repeating that I’m crazy. Let’s just take that as a given.”
“You’re dangerous! Anyway, here goes. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, though. It isn’t anything special.”
He took her to the library and showed her the painting. It was horizontal and rectangular – about four feet by two feet, in the frame. The frame itself was flat, dark wood, stained but not painted, and probably three inches wide. The horse occupied most of the canvas, although there seemed to be a suggestion of sunlight, in the background. The horse seemed to be at a gallop. It had no rider and seemed to be charging straight out of the canvas. But its head was not tilted. It was perfectly level and the expression in the eyes was a strange one – excited and happy and almost, one would say, loving. It was all black but for a white diamond on its forehead. There was no signature on the canvas.
“Good effort. When did you paint this?”
“I never said I painted it.”
“You just hang paintings done by random people in your library, then? Besides, nobody says a painting is just normal, unless they painted it themselves. When people buy stuff, they always try to make it look good. So, it is always expensive or rare or brilliant or something like that – never normal. Also, who would buy an unsigned painting?”
“Fine. I painted it when I was a teenager. I used to see this guy training this horse. And every time I watched my horse run, I thought he was running to me. I loved it! So I painted it. No big deal.”
“‘My horse?’ You owned it?”
“No, I just thought of it as my horse. I loved looking at it charge straight at me and then just slow down and stop. He had a trainer, of course, who had trained him to do exactly that. But I always believed he did it for me.”
“I’ll pay you five hundred Euros for it.”
“I never said I would sell it. Besides, five hundred Euros is just plain insulting. It could be a masterpiece, you know.”
“No, it couldn’t. It isn’t that great. It’s good. I like it. But it’s no masterpiece. For one thing, a person who paints a masterpiece uses more than one brush.”
“You weren’t there. How do you know how many brushes I used?”
She sighed. “Look, five hundred is my top offer. But I want that painting. I need it, actually.”
“So make a better offer.”
“I can’t. That’s all I can afford. But I need something original, like this, not all of the boring stuff that I can get for a hundred and fifty bucks. Put it in my car, please. Thanks.”
“I never said I would sell it.”
“Look. Don’t you understand? I can’t offer you any more.”
“So, you’re basically saying it isn’t worth five hundred and it isn’t a masterpiece. Why should I sell it to you when you are insulting me?”
“I’m just telling you the truth. It isn’t a masterpiece. Try to sell this to any gallery. They’ll just laugh at you. They won’t see what I see.”
“What do you see?”
“Originality. There’s emotion here, and a unique perspective. You aren’t looking at the horse. You’re seeing the horse looking at you. That’s very unusual. But your technique is horrible. Who uses just one brush, first of all? And look at your proportions. If that were a real horse, its backside would be ten times as long as its head.”
“I used just one brush because that’s all I had. I had a friend. I used to go to his house, all the time. He was into painting. One day, he gave me a brush and an easel and a set of paints. He pointed to a canvas and told me to paint whatever I wanted on it. And so I did. I painted the only thing I knew, the only thing I cared about. And the proportions, well, I was painting from memory and I was thinking about the horse coming at me, from a distance. When I was painting, the head seemed too large in proportion to the rest of the body so I tried to fix it.”
“Well, five hundred is all I can afford. Are you going to sell it to me or not? I’m not just an interior designer. I’m a really good one. I do things in a way that other’s can’t. And your horse is one way of doing things differently. So, you see, you need to sell it to me.”
“I can’t sell it to you at any price. You said nobody would buy a painting without a signature. I don’t have even a single brush or any paint or an easel. How am I going to sign it?”
“Fine. Here’s the five hundred,” she said, pulling out five bills, out of a huge stack of hundreds. “Put it in my car. Your name’s Akshar. I’ll just have someone paint your name on the canvas. No big deal.”
He took the five hundred and looked at the stack of hundreds. “You said you could only afford five hundred!” he said.
“I lied,” she said. “So sue me. A deal is a deal.”
“I haven’t agreed to anything yet,” he grumbled.
“Yes, you have.”
“I can’t lift and carry that thing on my own, anyway. Give me your address. I’ll have someone deliver it to you.” So she wrote down her address on the back of a receipt she found lying on the floor.
“Give me your phone,” she demanded, and punched in her number. “Call me if you need help with anything,” she said, and left.
And after that, he kept calling her and she kept going to see him. Every time he called, though, he never said when he wanted to see her. He always asked, “When can you come over?” And no matter what time she said, even if it was days later, he never complained. He liked that she made other people’s homes beautiful but he did not like the way she kept her own home. He thought it was a mess. And, though she never said anything, she understood how he felt. So, she always went to see him. Soon, they were more than just friends. And yet, neither of them, it seemed, wanted to get married. They were comfortable with each other but neither of them was even willing to move in with the other person. And yet, it was clear that the relationship was not only strong but a very close and loving relationship. And it continued that way for a few years. Life was good and everything was going well, he thought.
But he faced an unexpected problem. For the first few months, after he opened his shop, he simply sent a truck to the city to pick up his supplies and bring them to him, from the port. Soon, though, it occurred to him that there was an easier way. The people in the shanty-town were fishermen. Having them pick up his deliveries by boat instead of truck was not a big favour to ask. It took less time to bring in the stuff via boat, too, because the distance was much less than the distance by road. And so the fishermen used their boats to bring in his stuff, using the truck only the last kilometre or so, from the beach to his house. Generally, they brought in his supplies during the day but occasionally he had to wait until early evening when the boats returned from their fishing trips. And it was the night-deliveries that caused the problems.
He was not aware that anyone used the beach, other than the fishermen and, perhaps, some tourists. Sometimes, however, smugglers used the beach, late at night. Generally, the smugglers landed their boats far enough from the fishermen that nobody would ever notice or bother, if they did notice anything strange or unusual. But one day, completely by accident, the boat bringing in Bhai’s supplies and the smugglers’ boat saw each other. The smugglers allowed the fishermen to pass without incident.
The next day, however, Bhai received a visit. She was a young woman, well-dressed, soft-spoken, and, from her speech and mannerisms, well-educated. Only a person like herself would have noticed that the brands she wore were not simply fashionable and expensive but exclusive. There were certain designers who made homes, cars, clothes, watches, shoes, and the like, only when a client commissioned them to make something very specific. These were designers about whom you heard only if you knew one of them or someone who had commissioned one of them. They had no shops or websites or even business cards. Bhai, of course, noticed her attire immediately. And she saw that he did.
“Hi. I’m Kaajal.” And then, an instant later, she said, “You’re an observant man, and one with good taste.”
Bhai smiled, wryly. “Yes, we’ve just met and we’re practically kindred souls. Now, why are you here? You can pay for your purchases or not. You can keep them, either way.”
“You have the wrong impression, Bhai. We aren’t here to threaten you.” Bhai knew better than to ask what she meant by “we” and she knew that he knew that, so she continued. “Actually, we want your help. We smuggle things.”
“I’m no smuggler. I don’t want to break the law. And, anyway, I don’t need the money.”
“Yes, that’s why I’m not offering you any money. And I’m not asking you to help us smuggle anything. That isn’t to say that we cannot give you any amount of money that you may need.”
“Need it for what? You’re being very mysterious. Whatever it is, be honest with me. If I can help you, I will. I have no problem with twisting the law a little, here and there but I won’t smuggle heroin or guns or sex-slaves or anything like that.”
She laughed, a brief, tinkling laugh. “It is nothing so dramatic, Bhai. All we do is to smuggle in gold and diamonds and things like that. Granted, we get the stuff from some very unpleasant people but it is purely a business transaction. The things themselves are legal. It’s the sheer volume that makes them illegal. If we started to dump the precious stones and precious metals we smuggle in, on the open market, the prices for these things would collapse.”
“So you are like modern-day Robin Hoods, taking from the rich and giving to the poor.”
“We aren’t that naïve, Bhai. We buy these things from people who are, essentially, criminals, though they have never been charged with a crime in their lives. We pay them cash – nice, crisp, new currency bills from the bank – money that is not tainted in any way. And so, we make a tidy profit on each transaction. The problem is, we all want to retire, at some point.”
“Ah, yes. But how can I help?”
“As I told you, Bhai, we are not naïve. We know who you are. We know how you made Kamala disappear.”
Bhai was now very cautious. “I don’t know how you know about Kamala – not that I have made any secret about having a sister called Kamala. She passed away many years ago.”
“Did she? Don’t under-estimate us, Bhai. We know on which island she lives and the name of her husband and son.” She saw him go pale. “Don’t worry. As I said, we are not here to threaten you. Even if you turn down our offer, we won’t reveal anything about Kamala to anyone. And we aren’t going to hurt her or her family.”
“What do you want from me?” said Bhai, visibly shaken.
“Listen, when you made Kamala disappear, the people whom she could have affected were almost certain that she wasn’t dead. But they did not want to look for her. As long as she was gone and kept her secrets, they did not want to create any fuss themselves. So, they chose not to look. But we are different. We do not just work with celebrities and politicians. And prostitution, for us, is not even a side-business. It is too messy and it draws too much attention. We operate at a level so far above Kamala’s that you cannot even begin to imagine.”
“But if you are so rich and powerful why do you need me?”
“All rich and powerful people need someone like you when they want to disappear. There are many people who do that job and do it well. What makes you unusual is that you don’t need the money. If we hurt Kamala in any way, you would absolutely refuse to work for us or for anyone else. That isn’t what we want. We need your expertise. It is extremely valuable to us. We realize that there are no guarantees but your work with Kamala is impressive. We were able to find her only because we have extraordinary resources.”
“But you found her in one day! The incident with the fishing boat happened only yesterday.”
“No. We did not find her in one day. It took us three years to find her. And even then, tracing back the connection to you was not easy.”
“But why were you even looking for her? In the scheme of things, she is nothing. She is not a major criminal and neither is she someone famous or powerful. What interest could you have in her?”
“We neither had nor have any interest in her. We started to take an interest in you, soon after you bought your house here. The amount of money you spent, for no return, the way you forged relationships with people in the shanty-town, and, most of all, your complete absence of a past for five years, intrigued us. Finding Kamala was not easy – not even for us. And even so, it took us a while to be sure that she truly was Kamala and related to you – not biologically, to be sure, but that she was connected to you in any way.”
Bhai said nothing, for several minutes. She let him be. Finally, he said, “Well, what I did for Kamala was, as you say, extraordinary. And she is only one person. If several rich and powerful people start to disappear, all at once, people will ask questions.”
“Yes, we understand that. And so, we want you to make us disappear slowly. You can have any amount of money – a million, ten million, hundred million, a billion, ten billion – you name it. And that is for each one of us.”
“Ten billion Euros, per person?” Bhai had money but even he was shocked at the numbers.
“Let me ask you, Bhai: If you had eleven billion Euros and you had to pay ten billion Euros to save your life, would you do it?”
“Obviously.”
“Right. Obviously. Each of us has much more than eleven billion Euros.”
“Two things. First, I would have to disappear, myself. And I would need protection. I’m not just talking about bodyguards and armour-plated cars. I mean real protection. I need to be sure that none of the people I help will reveal who I am.”
“There’s always some risk in life, my friend. I cannot guarantee that. But it would make no sense for anyone you help to leak your identity because then you would reveal not only theirs but everyone else’s. So, everyone will protect you. It isn’t something that should really worry you at all.”
He nodded. “That makes sense.” He paused. “I need a favour. It’s time, really. Perhaps it sounds silly and romantic but it’s important. I’ve met a girl. I want to get married. We can start all of this after I get married. She will need to know what she is getting into before I marry her. It’s a risk. But it’s my life.”
“Not just your life. But I know what you mean. And I know the girl. And I think we can trust her. But remember this – we will not hurt you or Kamala. And that’s all I can guarantee.”
“So, if she refuses to marry me?”
“Just don’t tell her too much. We aren’t ruthless people. But we do protect ourselves.”
“That’s reasonable.”
He took his time to think about the deal he had just made. Two days later, he called his girlfriend. “Sanjana, we need to talk.”
The seriousness of his tone frightened her. “Are you breaking up with me?”
“No. This is, well, different. But we do need to talk. Can you come over – right now?”
He never asked her to drop everything and see him. It was one of the things she loved about him. That he would ask her now, puzzled her. He was serious but he did not want to end the relationship. But he gave no hint that he wanted to propose marriage to her either. And yet it was important.
He spoke again. “Listen, if you can’t see me right now, that’s OK. Some other time.” The tone was casual, even light. But she could feel the tension.
“I’ll be there in twenty minutes.” Sanjana had many clients, most of them very demanding. And they all paid very well. So she couldn’t very well afford to ignore any of them. Still, she had no staff and no set office hours. “So, I’ll fall behind by a day or two. And maybe one of them will fire me. It isn’t the end of the world,” Sanjana thought to herself as she drove to Bhai’s house.
He smiled broadly when he saw her. It reassured Sanjana more than anything else in the world. All was well. “Sanjana, I’m so glad you could come!” The relief on his face was obvious. He hugged her and kissed her, as always, but with a little more intensity than she had ever seen in him.
They talked of unimportant things for a little while. Then he said, “It’s lunchtime. What do you want to eat?”
“Never mind lunch. I can tell you’re tense. Tell me what’s on your mind.”
“Well, it’s like this,” he started. And then, over the next three hours, they discussed, in great depth, what he planned to do.
She surprised him, in the end. “Of course, I had no idea you would do this, specifically. But I knew that you would do something, eventually. Just having drinks and spending money – even to help others – that just isn’t you.”
“You’re right, Sanjana. And I know that this is a terribly unromantic way to do it, but – Will you marry me?”
Her heart was thumping and she couldn’t breathe. So he did mean to propose to her, after all, when he called her. But he had to know, first, how she felt, not just about him, but about what he planned to do. She knew that if she said “No” the house would be empty the next morning and he would be gone and would never return. But then again she knew from what he told her that living with him would be dangerous – extremely dangerous. And, even though he never demanded it, she knew she would have to quit her career.
“Yes,” she said, clearly and as firmly as she could. There was a little quaver in her voice. But that was emotion, not uncertainty. And she knew that he knew that, just as she knew he would never ask her if she were sure.
They had a big wedding. But they did not have it at a hotel. The residents of the shanty-town cleared the beach. There was live music and dancing and plenty of food. Even the weather cooperated. It was a bright, sunny day, with a slight breeze but never a strong wind.
Exactly nine months later, Sanjana gave birth – to twins, a boy and a girl. They named the boy Anjan, for his black hair and the girl, of course, they named Padma which, like Kamala, meant lotus. But even with events moving very quickly and in a very unexpected way, Bhai had not forgotten his promise to his Didi – that she would meet his wife and children. However, they made the trip in great secrecy. Since Kaajal and her friends already knew about Kamala, anyway, Bhai used their help to travel. It was also a kind of a test. Bhai did not tell them where to go, exactly – just to take him to Kamala. Bhai, Sanjana, and their children, arrived at Kamala’s home just a week before Bhai’s and Sanjana’s first wedding anniversary.
Kamala squealed when she saw them. “Bhai! You’re back! You said you would be back, and you are! You’re amazing!” She completely ignored Sanjana, who was a little taken aback at the meeting between Bhai and Kamala. She knew they were close but she also knew that they were not really brother and sister. So, she was just a little jealous.
Bhai noticed it immediately. “Remember the promise, Didi. You have to hug both of my kids and kiss Sanjana on both cheeks.”
Kamala realized that Bhai was gently scolding her and blushed. But then, she immediately hugged Sanjana and kissed her on both cheeks. “I’m so happy to see you, Sanjana. You have no idea. I just wish I had known….” She did not finish the sentence because she knew why Bhai had not informed her of their arrival. And that made her sad. But Kamala could not long be sad. Soon, she was hugging both of the babies and playing with them.
“Padma! A lotus, like me! How cute! And Anjan, dark and mysterious, like Bhai. Did you choose the names, Sanjana?”
“Well, I chose Anjan’s name and Akshar chose Padma’s name,” she said, with a smile. “I knew he would want to name any girl after you.”
“You call him Akshar?” asked Kamala. “Everyone calls him Bhai.”
“I don’t think I want to call my husband Bhai, if that’s OK with you, Didi,” said Sanjana, giggling.
“So, I’m just Didi and he gets to be Akshar!” said Kamala, pouting. “That isn’t fair!” She was really angry.
“I wouldn’t have been Bhai or Akshar or anything else without you, Didi,” he said gently and with all of the love in his heart.
“That isn’t what I meant,” she snapped. And then she wept. She held him and she wept like a child. “You went away for years! And even though you promised, I thought you would never come back. And now you’re here and going back tomorrow, right?”
“So, that’s what is bothering her,” he thought. Aloud, he said, “No, Didi, we aren’t returning tomorrow. We’ll stay here until you throw us out,” he said with a grin.
“Seriously? How long are you staying?”
He looked at her. He had meant to stay a few days, perhaps a week. But he knew now that was impossible. He would have to stay longer. He had returned, partly to keep his promise but partly also because he missed her. And the most important reason was that he did not know if he would ever be able to see her again. He could not reveal his plans to her. So, he did not give her a clear answer. “I really haven’t given it any thought, Didi,” he said.
But she was amazingly perspective. “You probably meant to stay a week, at the most. And now that you see me all excited and crying, you think you should stay longer. That’s fine. You may not have given it any thought, but I have, for years and years. You’re going to stay for at least two months. So, that’s settled,” she said happily.
Two months! He and Sanjana looked at each other discreetly.
“You can look at each other all you like. I gave you a chance to state your limit and you did not take it,” said Kamala, a little bossily, but with love.
They ended up staying three months, not two. Kamala already had a child of her own but she had been able to have only one. And her child was a boy. She enjoyed playing with both, Anjan and Padma, but especially with Padma, as she was able to dress her up and treat her like a little princess – something she could not do with her son.
Finally, Bhai decided it was too dangerous, for Kamala’s own safety, to stay any longer. “Didi, we must leave now,” he told her one morning.
“Yes, I know,” she said quietly. “And I know why. And I know you aren’t going to make any promises, this time. But stay safe. And do try to come back. I don’t know what you are going to do but I know it is probably something illegal. You’re a big boy, now, so I won’t give you much advice. But, if you need me, I’m here, no matter what. OK?”
“Are you happy, Didi? All of your dreams have come true. Isn’t that wonderful? I’m so proud of you! You’ve achieved so much!”
“Yes, all of my dreams have come true, Bhai. And I’m happy – happier than I ever imagined I would be. And it’s all because of you. None of this would have happened without you.” There was one more thing she wanted to say but left it unspoken.
Bhai said it for her. “And so you have one more dream – that we will all live together as one big, happy family, one day. It’s a big dream, Didi. And I hope and wish it comes true, also.” After a little silence, he said, simply, “I miss you.” He did not know himself how much those words meant but his Didi did.
They said their goodbyes at night. Everyone knew there would be no formal leave-taking. When Kamala woke up in the morning, Bhai and his family had vanished.
Bhai could see no visible or obvious changes when he drove up to his house. And yet, he could feel a difference in the atmosphere. There was a certain tension in the air. It was too silent, even though it was still just four in the morning. He had barely opened the door to get out, when someone put a hand over his wrist with a grip of iron. It did not scare him. He recognized the grip immediately. It was Gabriel. How Gabriel had simply materialized at his door, he did not know. But he realized that it must be something very important.
“Bhai,” said Gabriel urgently, not whispering but keeping his voice low, all the same. “There is someone in your house. More than one person. Do you know them? If you don’t it’s OK. I’m not the only one here. And we all have guns – more than one each.”
“When did these people arrive? And how many of them are there?” asked Bhai. Sanjana remained in the car, with the kids, while he talked, sensing that something was wrong.
“They’ve been there about a week,” but they haven’t destroyed anything or threatened anyone. So, we left them alone, thinking they might be your guests.”
“Well, they could be guests, in fact,” said Bhai, “but they are unannounced guests. How many are in the house? How many men do you have?”
“We don’t know how many are in the house. We’ve never seen more than one but that doesn’t mean anything. There are just a dozen of us here, right now, but we could signal for a hundred more, and they would be here in minutes.”
“If these people are unfriendly, minutes will be too long. So it’s going to be just us, for now.”
Gabriel handed him a gun. Bhai handed it back. “I want my hands free. If a dozen armed men can’t help me, a gun in my hand isn’t going to help.”
Silently, and cautiously, Gabriel and Bhai they walked up to the front door. The others stood back, ready to rush in but remaining invisible until then. Bhai listened. There was no sound. Of course, that didn’t mean anything. Trained soldiers would know to remain quiet. Slowly, he opened the door. They walked very carefully into the living room. A beautiful young woman sat on the sofa, looking straight at him.
“Kaajal! What are you doing here? I could have killed you!” Bhai did not signal Gabriel to lower his gun, and it remained aimed menacingly at Kaajal’s chest. He could hardly miss.
“Calm down. Keep the gun aimed at me if you like, but calm down.”
“What’s happening?” he asked, puzzled.
“We have a deal, remember? We did not bother you. But certain unexpected events have happened and we need your help.” Bhai continued to look at her with suspicion but in a protective way. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m safe. And so are you.” Something about the way she spoke reassured him and calmed him. “Walk through the house, if you like. But, first come with me.”
Gabriel, Bhai, and Kaajal, all walked together, to one of the bedrooms in the basement. There, they saw a man, about sixty years old, dressed in pajamas yet looking elegant. He also looked frightened and tired. “Bhai, this is Mr. Brown. That’s his real name, in case you’re wondering. As you can see, he’s had quite a scare. He’s been recovering at your home a week, as you know, and he’s still not completely over it. Luckily for us, you had medical supplies in your little shop and so we were able to take care of him fairly well.”
“Why did you need medical supplies?”
“You tell him, Mr. Brown.”
Mr. Brown looked at Gabriel. “I cannot do everything on my own, Mr. Brown. Nobody else knows the details of what I do but I do need to trust a few people to do certain basic things.”
Mr. Brown nodded immediately. “Yes, of course. Well, then, to put it briefly, my car was blown up, my wife and children were nearly kidnapped, and I had to fight my way through half a dozen men with guns and knives.”
“Don’t under-estimate Mr. Brown. Ten armed men may have been a challenge but not six,” said Kaajal, quietly.
“Not ten men like you, of course,” said Mr. Brown, with a hint of humour in his eyes. Mr. Brown was six foot two, with a lean build and a wide but wiry frame that hid his muscles well. But Bhai towered over him, being six inches taller. And though Bhai’s body was more compact than Mr. Brown’s, there was no doubt about his strength. Bhai’s muscles did not bulge, but they rippled when he moved. The effect was hypnotic. Looking at Bhai move was like watching a snake just before it struck.
“We aren’t here to exchange compliments,” said Bhai brusquely. “What happened. Where is your family? And how did you get here?”
“My family,” said Mr. Brown, “is relatively safe – for now. But that won’t last forever. We have to make some arrangements for them. As for myself, I got here because I had planned to get here. We have always known that something like this could happen and each of us has his or her own contingency plan. Both of my children are in their late teens, so they can take care of themselves. Each of them went to a separate location. My wife went to a third location. None of them know where the others are. Even I don’t know where they are. And nobody knows where I am for the very good reason that I did not know where I was going until Kaajal brought me here. And even now, I don’t know where, exactly, I am.”
“So Kaajal was part of your contingency plan. What if she had been somewhere else?”
“We make our contingency plans very carefully,” said Mr. Brown, quietly, “and there is always a Plan B.”
“Well, in any case, here we are,” said Kaajal.
“Yes, indeed. I thought I had years to make preparations,” he said looking accusingly at Kaajal.
“Life happens,” said Kaajal simply. “Will you help us?”
“Yes, of course,” said Bhai sharply. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to snap,” he said immediately.
“What do you need?” asked Kaajal, ignoring the apology.
“Nothing.”
“You’re prepared, already?” said Kaajal, shocked.
“Well, yes and no. I wasn’t prepared for this, exactly. But, as you recall, I have done this before. And, as you said, I had a Plan B – several Plan B’s actually. I have over fifty fake passports and houses in several countries.” He then turned to Mr. Brown, and said, “I assume you have some way of contacting your wife and children. Whatever it is, I don’t want to know. Just tell them to pick up their passports. There will be enough money in the envelope containing each passport to buy first-class airplane tickets and pay for hotels, food, and so on, until they get to their destination.”
“First class?” asked Mr. Brown. “Won’t that draw too much attention to them? And why not charter or buy a plane? Why travel by a commercial airline?”
“First class is smaller and easier to control, from a security stand-point,” responded Bhai. “And, since everyone travels by a commercial airline, that will draw much less attention that chartering or buying a plane at the last minute. Also, keep in mind that the passports are fake. Each of your family members will need to make some changes to their appearance to match the photos that are already there. Customs and immigration won’t ask too many questions – just for this one trip. This is the first time anyone will have used these passports. And though they are fake, they aren’t forged. In a sense, you could say that the passports are real but the people carrying them are fake. So, they won’t ring any bells right away. But once you are safe in your new location, you must burn them.”
“You have stolen passports? Those will ring a bell right away.”
“No, they aren’t stolen. Let’s just say that the true owners of these passports are my friends.” The truth was, before he left Candil, he knew several wealthy criminals who had wanted to flee the country. They had applied for passports quietly – or so they believed – and had been betrayed. Unfortunately for them, their enemies had found them and made sure that they departed the world before they could depart the country. All Bhai had done was to steal their passports after their deaths. These people had never traveled in their lives and had no criminal records. “This is a one-time deal. I cannot do it this way, ever again. But I said I would help and so I am helping.”
“How will we know that we have reached our destination?”
“Each of you will end up in the same hotel. But you will be in different rooms, on different floors, under different names. You are to remain in your rooms until you get the signal to go to a certain place at a certain time. It will be a very public place, but quiet and fairly empty, like a library or a museum. You will see each other immediately. Once you meet each other, you – and only you – will call a taxi at a number that I will give you. As soon as you make the call you will throw away the phone.”
“And where will the taxi take us?”
“You will go to a home that is not as magnificent as you are used to. You need to blend in, not stand out. It will be the kind of home that an average person can afford. I don’t have the time to create fake jobs or businesses for you. But what I will do is to make sure that each of you will have enough money, in local currency, to last you about six months if you spend it carefully. After that, you are on your own.”
“Fair enough. And you?”
“What about me?”
“What’s your fee for all this?”
He looked at Kaajal. “I see. She didn’t tell you. I really don’t need the money. But, if you want to make it easier for me, next time, repay my expenses – the air-tickets, the cash, the cost of the house, that sort of thing.”
“That’s it? For saving my life and the lives of my family? You have no idea who I am, do you?” He looked suspicious. He looked at Kaajal. She shook her head a fraction of an inch. He still looked incredulous.
“Well, when we first talked, Kaajal said each of you could pay me ten billion Euros to disappear. If it makes you feel better, I’ll take that.”
Mr. Brown roared with laughter. “From nothing to ten billion? Quite a jump that! Well, well, you can have it and no hard feelings!”
“But only if you want to pay,” said Bhai. “Really, I don’t need it.”
“That’s what you think, now. But think about it, Bhai, you may need to disappear yourself, one day. And then it will be good to have all that money.”
“Perhaps,” said Bhai, gloomily, thinking of his Didi, whom he would probably never see again, despite all the money he had, already.
And so it was done. It took a few days but Mr. Brown and his family vanished as if they had never been born. But that wasn’t the end of it. Though Mr. Brown’s enemies never traced him to Bhai’s house, they did find Kaajal.
Seven burly men against one small woman – they never thought they could lose. Even if she did have a gun, they reasoned, she couldn’t possibly shoot all seven of them before at least one or two of them got to her. And the idea was to corner her so she couldn’t go for her gun. So they went after her unarmed. That was a mistake they would soon regret.
The plan would have worked too, had Kaajal not been able to move like a cat. She lived in a single-level home. They managed to break in, without tripping the alarm. And they made their way to her bedroom. As soon as they turned the handle on her bedroom door, she came awake and she picked up her car keys that always lay by her bedside and smashed the window as she jumped through it. The window was just large enough for her to go through but the men were too wide to fit. By the time they ran out the front door, she was already in the car and starting the engine. And, unknown to the men, she always kept a gun and several clips of ammunition in the car. But though she had a gun, she did not know what types of weapons they had and so she chose to run. But, even though she was virtually flying down the road seconds before they did, she could not shake them.
In her panic, Kaajal automatically raced to Bhai’s house. At the last moment, though, she realized that endangering Bhai would not help her. And so, she drove all the way to the end of the road and on to the beach, toward the shanty-town. She never got there. She was in a sports-car and her pursuers were in an SUV. There were seven of them. She had nowhere to run. And they did not give her time enough to grab her gun. But she put up a fight.
It was not very late at night, just an hour after sunset, and very close to the shanty-town. So, Gabriel, who always wandered on the beach, heard her cries. Quickly, he called Bhai on the phone. And then, he got into the SUV and took off in it to get his friends. When he got back, there were over a dozen of them – some in the car and some on the roof. And then there was Bhai, looming over all of them.
The fishermen were tough, but they were not trained fighters. Fourteen or fifteen of them against seven men trained in hand-to-hand combat would not have won, in the end, without Bhai. His height, speed, weight, and training, made all the difference. And the seven attackers were well aware that Bhai should be the main target. And so Bhai took a great deal of punishment. Despite his fearsome attack he was, after all just one man. Seeing how the fight was going, Kaajal went back to her car and took out her gun. She fired four shots in quick succession. The blasts terrified the fishermen and even her attackers. Her attackers were thugs but not killers. Their job had been simply to put her in a car and deliver her to a certain location. They were not ready to die. And so, everyone ran, in different directions. Kaajal was tough but she could not lift a man like Bhai off the ground on her own. She saw that Bhai was safe. And so, she got into her car to bring him help as soon as she could. But she would not return in time.
An eight-year-old girl, called Avani, was wandering around on the beach. Her parents didn’t care. Her father was an alcoholic and her mother was a drug-addict. Somehow, they survived, bringing in just enough fish to sell so that they made enough money to buy the food they needed, every day, but that was all. And sometimes, they spent the money meant for the food, on alcohol or on drugs. Often enough, therefore, Avani did not get any food at all or not enough to satisfy her hunger. As a result, she stayed out of the house as long as she could. And so, when Avani heard all of the commotion, she decided to go see what was happening. The fight was long over and everyone had already gone, by the time she got there. And it was dark. She was looking ahead of her, hoping to see the fight. It never occurred to her to look down. So, she tripped over what she thought, at first, was a large log. But she fell right on top of it and it didn’t hurt, like wood. And so, curious, she looked more closely. It wasn’t a log of wood. It was a man. And he seemed dead. She had seen plenty of dead bodies, in her young life, so it did not scare her just to see a dead body. What scared her was that it spoke.
“Help me,” said Bhai.
“You aren’t dead?” she asked, just to be sure.
“No, but I need help.”
“You’re too big for me to pick up. Can you stand up on your own?” she asked.
“I thinks so,” he said, slowly, hurting in every part of his body. But he stood up. And she put her arm around his waist and, somehow, propped him up. She was drenched in sweat by the time they walked the kilometre to his home. But, finally, they got there. As soon as they walked through the gate, Kaajal’s men appeared.
They had raced to the beach as soon as Kaajal told them what happened. But they were all far from the beach when they got the call. By the time they got there, Avani and Bhai had almost reached his house. Some of Kaajal’s men were checking the house to make sure he wasn’t there when they saw Bhai walk in the gate, leaning on Avani. Immediately, they went to help.
“She’s my guest,” Bhai mumbled. “She helped me. Take care of her.” And then he collapsed. Some of the men carried him in and laid him on his bed. The rest, unsure what to do with Avani, told her to sleep in one of the other bedrooms. Though they were kind to her, they made it clear to her that leaving the house was not an option – at least not until Bhai woke up and explained who she was and why he had been with her.
Sanjana, of course, was somewhat gentler. She made inquiries in the shanty-town and quickly found out who Avani was. She got Avani’s clothes, from her parents and laid them on a chair, along with a bath-towel so that Avani could wear fresh clothes when she woke up, next morning.
Being a young girl and very exhausted by the evening’s adventures, however, Avani slept late. It gave Sanjana time to go to the store and buy her some really decent clothes. She had no idea what would happen to the little girl, once she left but new clothes certainly couldn’t hurt! Avani, however, was not to leave, really, for years to come.
The next day, when Avani finally woke up, it was nearly 11:00 a.m. She had never slept in a bed as big and soft as the one she had, the previous night. And nobody disturbed her. Besides, the house had air-conditioning! It was like heaven. The shower had hot and cold water and there was even a bathtub. The little girl soaked herself in the bathtub for an hour, waiting for someone to yell at her and tell her to get dressed. But nobody did. And then, when she dried herself, she saw the prettiest little dress she had ever seen – the kind that the rich girls wore. Her old clothes were gone. So, she had no choice but to put on the new ones. That made her a little nervous. She hoped she wasn’t stealing some other little girl’s clothes. But they were pretty. And, besides, she really had nothing else to wear. So she put them on and went downstairs.
“Avani! I am so glad to see you are awake. You look really pretty!” said Sanjana. “Are you hungry?”
Until Sanjana mentioned hunger, Avani had not really given it any thought. But, suddenly, she realized she was very hungry. But then, in her home, she was often hungry and nobody offered her any food. She ate whatever food she could find in the house. Usually, it was enough. But here was a pretty lady offering her food. Avani decided to take advantage of it.
“Yes,” said Avani, still shy, despite her decision to take advantage of Sanjana.
“What do you want to eat?”
“You mean I get to choose?”
“Yes, of course,” said Sanjana smiling.
“Anything? Even if it’s expensive? Like chocolate milk? And waffles with honey? And ….”
Sanjana knew the little girl would go on and on if she let her. So she said, quickly, “Yes. Anything!”
And so she ate. Sanjana, even though she saw it with her own eyes, could not believe that one little girl could eat so much! She ate the waffles, drank the chocolate milk, asked for eggs and toast, and then she had a big glass of orange juice, and an apple, and a fairly large bunch of grapes.
“Ooh! I’m so full my tummy hurts!” Avani said, finally, at the point where Sanjana thought she would explode if she ate any more. Quickly, and without any sense of dignity, Avani ran to the restroom. When Avani came back she was pleased and had a happy smile on her face. “You’re the best!” she told Sanjana, and hugged her.
“Thanks, Avani. Do you need anything else?”
“Can I keep the clothes I am wearing?”
“Yes, of course. I got them for you. And there’s lots more, too.”
“Like these?” Avani asked, shocked but pleased.
“Yes. Now, there’s one little favour I need from you.” As soon as Sanjana said those words, an expression of sheer terror appeared on Avani’s face. “Don’t worry,” said Sanjana, not realizing that when someone asked Avani for a favour, it generally meant that she had to leave the house and risk getting beaten up, on the streets. “Nobody’s going to hurt you or yell at you. Remember the man from last night? The one with whom you walked over here?”
“The giant?” asked Avani.
“Yes, the giant,” said Sanjana, laughing, because even she thought of her husband as a giant. “But he’s a good giant. He just wants to talk to you and to ask you some questions.”
“Am I in trouble?”
“No, you aren’t. He just wants to talk to you. Would you feel better if I went with you?”
“I’m not a baby!” she flashed, immediately. “I can take care of myself!” And then she softened, a little, as she realized how good Sanjana had been to her, all day. “Besides,” she said, “he’s so big,” sizing up Sanjana, who stood about a foot shorter than her husband, “you couldn’t help much, anyway. Nobody could.”
Sanjana giggled. “Don’t worry. He won’t hurt you.”
And so Avani went into Bhai’s study, to talk to him, on her own terms. In her heart, she was terrified, but she knew too, in her heart, that she had to face him alone.
“Hi, Avani,” said Bhai, with a friendly smile. There was so much gentleness and affection in the smile that much of Avani’s terror dissipated right away. Still, she was careful to stay out of arm’s reach and to remain standing (so she could run) while he remained seated.
“Sit down,” he said, “and make yourself comfortable.” She shook her head, too afraid to say anything. Bhai sensed her fear. “Fine,” he said, “you can stand. But I’m very tired. Do you mind if I keep sitting in my chair?” She looked straight at him but said nothing. Yet, the relief on her face was obvious. “First, I want to thank you for saving my life. Without you, I doubt that I would have survived. So, what can I do for you?”
More than anything else in the world, Avani wanted to get out of the horrible environment in which she lived. Every day she woke up, she wished she were elsewhere. Every night when she went back home, she wished she could be in a nicer place. Although nobody had seriously hurt her, she hated the place and was terrified of it. So, she said the first thing that came into her mind, “Get us out of here and into a nice house!”
“That wasn’t the answer I was expecting. You’re an intelligent girl. OK. It is done. But what do you think will happen if you move into a nice house?”
“My mom and dad won’t be high all the time, and we’ll have plenty to eat and I’ll have good clothes, like the rich girls have, and I’ll be able to go to school and everything will be perfect!” said Avani happily.
Bhai looked at her seriously. There was so much hope in her, so much potential. True, her expectations were unrealistic. But she was still a child. And, perhaps, he could let her remain a child and enjoy her childhood, from this moment. “I don’t know if everything will be perfect, Avani, but you will be in a nice house, before the day ends, and you will certainly go to school and have plenty to eat and nice clothes to wear.”
And from that moment, Bhai adopted Avani just as his Didi had adopted him.

A Story for the Swift!

Standard

Pick-Up Truck

 

            “Kaarin, look!” He looked. A string of pearls lay on dark blue velvet, in the shop window. They had passed by the store many times. They never went inside. “Do you like it?” Lahiri asked, excited. Kaarin shrugged. He knew his sister got excited over all kinds of weird things. “Oh, you’re a boy! You’ll never understand!” she said, laughing.

            “Do you want the necklace?” he asked seriously.

            “Of course, I do! But we can’t afford it.”

            “If you really want it, I’ll buy it for you,” he said, seriously. She looked at him. He was serious. He was just five years old, but she had seen that expression in his eyes, many times. It made her uncomfortable. When he was that serious, there was no joking with him. She was just ten years old, herself, but she knew when to draw the line, with her little brother.

            “Kaarin, you know we don’t come to a big city like this all the time. I’ve never seen anything as beautiful as that necklace. But I know I can’t have it. Forget it. Let’s get some ice-cream, OK?” she said, with a bright smile. But he knew. And she knew he knew. She wanted that necklace or something very much like it.

 

            Ravi owned over a hundred branches of an auto-repair franchise. He had built the franchise from the ground up. From simply playing with toy cars, as a little boy, he had quickly learned about real cars and how to fix them. By the time he was ready for college, cars were not simply his hobby but his passion. He attended M.I.T. and graduated at the top of his class in Mechanical Engineering, at both, the under-graduate and the graduate level. He refused all job offers, choosing, instead, to start his own shop. He had never planned to go beyond owning a single shop. But then a customer walked into his store and changed his life.

            She was young, pretty, well-dressed, and full of confidence. “That’s my car,” she said, pointing to a brand-new, extremely expensive, cherry-red sports car being unloaded off a tow-truck. “Check the battery, the starter, the alternator, the fuel injection, and the spark-plugs. I had another mechanic look at it and he said everything else checks out fine.”

            “So why didn’t you get it fixed at that shop?” asked the young man at the counter, his shirt proudly proclaiming that he was Johnny.

            “He was trying to cheat me. He told me it was the timing belt. But I looked at the timing belt and it is fine. I know enough about cars that people can’t trick me. But I don’t have the time to fix everything myself. I brought my car to this shop because I hear you guys are the best in the city. Charge me whatever you like. It doesn’t matter. But don’t treat me like a fool.” And she walked out of the store, driving off in her other car.

            An hour later, she was back. But there was no car this time. She was on foot. Apparently, she planned to drive back in her sports-car. But she saw her car sitting in exactly the spot at which she had left it, and at exactly the same angle. It had not moved an inch.

            “Why isn’t my car fixed?” she asked.

            The person at the counter was a slightly older man, this time. He had no name-tag on his shirt. He did not respond to her question. “I need your driver’s license and registration, please, for identification,” he said in a cool voice, barely looking at her, over his computer.

            She gave him both documents, with an icy glare. The name on both documents was Tulsi. “Well, why isn’t it fixed?” she asked again, after giving him a few moments to enter her information into the computer. And then he looked her straight in the eye, for a moment. And immediately he looked away, again. But she heard him snigger. “What are you sniggering at?”

            This time, he looked up and he held her gaze. “Me? Nothing, miss, nothing at all. Just some chewing-gum caught in my throat. Anyway, your car is ready, miss,” he said. “Please walk with me.” When they got to the car, he put the key in the ignition and the car started immediately.

            She had no choice but to be impressed. “Wow! You fixed it without moving it.” He said nothing. He simply got out of the car. “Wait. How much do I owe you?”

            He pretended to think. And she could see he was just pretending to think. Finally, he said, very dramatically, “One dollar.”

            “Don’t think I’ll agree to go out with you just because you fixed my car for free!” she said, angrily, knowing he was somehow making fun of her but not able to put a finger on anything specific he had said or done. “Now, how much do I really owe you?”

            This time, there was no doubt about it. There was a wide grin on his face. “Hey, Johnny!” he shouted.

            “Hang on a second, Ravi.”

            “Just drop everything and get here right now. And tell everyone else in the shop to come here too, right this minute.” Soon, six mechanics in dirty overalls were standing all around Ravi. Before he spoke to them, he turned to her and said, “Miss Tulsi, to determine how much I should charge you, I need to know what work these men have done, on your car. So please be patient.” But already he was giggling. “Johnny, did you check the fuel injection?” Johnny just smiled. “And Nikhil, did you check the spark plugs? Rajesh, you checked the bat, bat, bat….” And he could not hold it in any more. He started guffawing. His whole body shook with laughter and the sound of his deep, rich voice, rang out loud and clear. His was an infectious laugh. Pretty soon, all of his friends were laughing too. And seeing the perplexed look on her face only made everyone laugh even more.

            She was furious. “I want to talk to the manager.”

            Ravi stopped laughing long enough to say, “OK, Ramesh, you be the manager, today. Talk to her.” Ramesh fled, still laughing.

            “I’m going to complain to the owner!” said Tulsi.

            Johnny, the youngest of the group couldn’t resist it. He pointed to Ravi. “There’s the owner, rolling around on the floor, miss.”

            “Will someone just tell me what happened?” she asked, helplessly, at last.

            Ravi got up when the paroxysm of laughter finally passed. “Miss Tulsi, you have  a brand-new car. It isn’t even a month old, yet. And it’s one of the finest cars on the road today. It isn’t just a premium car, it is a prestige car. This is a manufacturer who considers BMW and Jaguar to be nothing more than mass-produced drones. Cars like this don’t start having problems in the first month of ownership.”

            “Well, this one obviously did,” said Tulsi petulantly.

            “No, miss. There is nothing wrong with your car. Somehow, I don’t know how, exactly, one of your electrical cables got shaken loose, slightly. As a result, your gas gauge did not operate. Everything in your car is computerized. When you are low on gas, the computer flashes a light. The loose cable did not allow the light to operate.”

            “But that could not have stopped my car.”

            “You never realized you were out of gas. That was the first thing I checked. I poured some gas into your tank. As a matter of fact, I filled up your tank. And, of course, I fixed your loose cable. And that’s all I needed to do.”

            “But a full tank of gas costs more than one dollar.”

            “Well, I had it washed and vacuumed too, if you’re counting.”

            “It didn’t need to be washed.”

            “Yes, it did. It smelled.” She started to speak. “I bet you clean it yourself,” he said with a grin.

            “Ooooh! How dare you say that? How dare you? How..”

            “…dare you?” he finished for her. And then he kissed her. And she started crying.

            Her car left tread marks on his drive as she sped away. As soon as she reached home, she said, “You tell him, Daddy! Just go and tell him. You’re the mayor of the whole city. You tell him. Just kill him!”

            The next morning, the mayor visited Ravi. “Fair warning. She asked me to kill you. That means she plans to marry you. I’m a good judge of men. And you’re a good man. You have my sympathy. But don’t say I never warned you.”

            A few minutes after her father left, Tulsi marched into the shop. “You’re good with cars. But you don’t know how to run a business. I have an MBA from Harvard. I’m going to show you how it’s done.”

            “What if I don’t want to hire you?”

            “Don’t push your luck.”

            In two years, she opened six new shops in the same city. In another two years, Ravi owned forty stores across three continents. But they were married by the end of the third year. And Paatri was born just a week before their first wedding anniversary. After Paatri’s birth, Ravi and Tulsi both decided to slow down, then, to spend time with their daughter, and with each other. But, much as they loved Paatri, they loved each other far more. And, of course, all three of them had a passion for cars.

            And so, Paatri was a little annoyed. She had passed her driver’s license test with flying colours. She had even waited a year after that. In that year, she had learned everything her father could teach her about cars – and that was a lot. She had really expected a car for her seventeenth birthday. It was a week later though, that her mother said, “Paatri, it is our wedding anniversary today. Daddy is going to take me on a long, romantic drive. We’ll be back in a week.” Paatri rolled her eyes. Her parents went on long romantic drives nearly every weekend. But this was a Monday. “And how am I supposed to get around until you return?”

            Before her mother could respond, Ravi said, “Paatri, would you help me get my bag into the car?” Her father still drove a twenty-year-old deep blue Pontiac Firebird, that had hardly any room for luggage. Paatri lugged his suitcase out of the living-room into the drive. But there was no blue Firebird, only a sleek black Mercedes with its top down.

            “Daddy! Someone’s car is in the drive.”

            Her father came over and gave her a hug and said, “Oh, yes. I nearly forgot. That’s your car. The keys are in the ignition.” Paatri was, of course, ecstatic.

            “Oh, Daddy! I’ll take care of this car. I promise I will. And I’ll drive safe and everything. Thanks, Daddy!”

            Her mother smiled. “I wanted to buy you a bigger, safer car. But then Daddy reminded me of what I was driving when he and I first met. Still, we’re going to take my car, this time. He drives that Firebird as if it were really on fire. Way too fast for an old man. I just bought an SUV that has every safety-feature you can think of and some that you can’t even imagine. It may not look great but it is supposedly the safest car in the world, at any price.”

            Paatri was the happiest girl in school, for a week. And it showed. Always considered very pretty, she now glowed with happiness, and that made her look gorgeous. But the week passed and her parents did not return. Nor was there any word from them. Generally, they called the day before they were to return. And she knew they would return Sunday night. But there was no phone call on Saturday or on Sunday. So, when there was a knock on the door, Monday morning, and she saw her grandfather standing there, with tears in his eyes, she knew what had happened before anyone said a word. Over the next year or so, her grandfather sold the business, as he did not understand it or find the time to take care of it. He put enough money in her bank account to last her ten years. There was more money, he told her – much more. And it would be hers, eventually. But, to get all of the money out of the company, she would need to hire attorneys. “And, even then, most likely, you will never see all of that money in one chunk. You will get a good bit of money, every year, the rest of your life. But it won’t be enough to live luxuriously, though you will never starve.”

            Paatri’s grandfather thought of Ravi more as his son than as his son-in-law. And the shock of losing both Tulsi and Ravi, overnight, was too much for him to bear. He survived just long enough to set Paatri’s affairs in order and to attend her high-school graduation. And then Paatri was all alone in the world.

            Paatri could not go to M.I.T. She was valedictorian at her high school but she knew that was not always good enough. And even though she may have been able to afford the tuition, she thought it would be a big drain on her money. She opted to go to another college, far away from her home-town and her memories.

            Lahiri attended the small, elite engineering college, not far from the little town in which she had lived her whole life. Even with the scholarships she earned, there was not always enough money to pay for everything, every semester. It took her five years to earn the degree, that she may have earned in four, but she had to take the summer off, each year, to earn money to pay her expenses. Still, she did very well, both academically and socially. She was, she knew, in the top one percent of students in the college, academically. But she was no match for her best friend, Paatri.

            Paatri puzzled Lahiri, at times. Clearly, Paatri was pretty. Yet she made no effort to look good. Paatri wore expensive clothes but sported a plain, professional look. And she wore the same clothes over and over again. She studied all the time. Other students joked about her. “If she isn’t in class, Paatri’s at the library,” they said. And, mostly, that was true. Paatri studied as though her life depended on it. She was not shy. She was friendly and outgoing. And yet, she had no real friends, aside from Lahiri. From the car she drove, the clothes she wore, the places she talked about, and even the dreams she had, indicated that she had been extremely wealthy, at some time, and, perhaps, was even quite wealthy now. But she never wore jewelry or ate at fancy restaurants or had her hair or nails done professionally. She lived a very frugal lifestyle. Paatri’s one indulgence was her home. She lived in a luxurious two-bedroom condominium. Lahiri, on the other hand, lived as cheaply as possible, at the dorms. Paatri started a year after Lahiri but, since Paatri did not need to work to pay her bills, she and Lahiri both knew they would graduate together. Other than that, though, it seemed they were very different from each other.

            Paatri was quiet, intense, and absorbed in her work. She was friendly enough when she was around others, but it was clear that her real passion was cars, not people. Lahiri, on the other hand, enjoyed learning, but she simply had to go out and meet people. She could not, as Paatri did, spend nearly her entire time studying. And, unlike Paatri, Lahiri enjoyed looking pretty and reveled in the compliments she got. In fact, Lahiri spent a good deal of money on cosmetics and on looking good, in general. But she was not simply vain. She enjoyed looking at pretty things, too, and was quick to compliment anyone who owned, or even glanced at something beautiful and meaningful. And so, Lahiri was a popular girl. Everyone invited her to their parties. And Lahiri was genuinely heart-broken when she had to miss even one party. But she did understand Paatri better than most people.

            “Paatri, why are you always so sad?”

            “I’m not sad, Lahiri. I’m just used to being alone.”

            “Really? Then how is it we always hang out together?”

            “You don’t want to talk to me any more, Lahiri?”

            “I never said that. I’m just saying that nobody likes being alone all the time.”

            And Paatri smiled her sad smile. There was nothing more to say. But they were both young. And, despite their differences, their friendship grew.

            One day, Paatri said, “Lahiri, do you like living in the dorms?”

            Lahiri knew what was coming but she simply shrugged. “It’s OK. The food could be better. But there’s always something happening.”

            “Oh,” said Paatri, knowing how much Lahiri liked to be around people.

            “Just say what’s on your mind, Paatri,” said Lahiri impatiently.

            “You remember how you said, about a year ago, that nobody likes to be alone all the time? Well, you’re right. I don’t like it either. Would you like to stay with me, at my apartment?”

            “You need someone to split the rent?” Lahiri knew that was not true but she wanted to know how Paatri would respond.

            “No. In fact, one of the conditions is that you would not pay rent or buy groceries or anything like that.” She hesitated. “Just keep all of your make-up in your own room.”

            Lahiri laughed. “Fair enough. And what about your books?” Lahiri had visited Paatri’s apartment more times than she could possibly remember. And she knew that there were books everywhere – in the spare bedroom, in the closets, in the kitchen, and even in the bathrooms. The living room was lined with bookcases. Paatri slept on a king-sized bed. And the bed contained a drawer, the size of the bed, that contained nothing but books.

            Lahiri could see it was practically a stab to the heart, but Paatri simply bit her lip and said, “Well, I could remove that one bookshelf from the guest-room.”

            “I know which one you mean – the little one that contains two large dictionaries. Right? Is that the one you mean?”

            “Yes! Exactly!” said Paatri.

            “Two books, Paatri. You’re willing to relocate two books in that whole house full of books, just for me? How generous!” Paatri did not seem to notice the sarcasm. “And where will those two books go?” Lahiri knew well enough there was no place Paatri could possibly put any more books.

            “I’ll – I’ll sell them!” said Paatri, with a sigh.

            “Didn’t you get those dictionaries as a gift from your grandfather?” said Lahiri.

            Paatri nodded, too choked to speak.

            “And you’d sell them just to have me stay with you? Are you crazy? I was just teasing you. I know you love those books. I love my make-up and jewelry too, but I know it is all trash. It’s just stuff I buy and wear for some time. The only reason I don’t throw away most of the stuff is that I don’t remember where I put it last.”

            As they lived together, they got to know each other better and even started to become a little like each other. Paatri had to go to several parties just because Lahiri wanted to go. And Lahiri ended up bicycling for miles and miles almost every weekend. And sometimes, they would go trekking over hills or going white-water rafting, because Paatri loved the outdoors. Paatri went to ballet and karate classes with Lahiri and Lahiri went to rock-climbing and scuba-diving classes with Paatri.

            “Tell me something,” said Lahiri in exasperation, once. “What do you get out of being sweaty, insect-bitten, and hungry? Wouldn’t you much rather learn to dance gracefully or defend yourself, in a nice, air-conditioned classroom, where the worst you have to endure is to tape your earrings so they don’t hurt you?”

            “But I do learn ballet and karate with you, don’t I?” said Paatri very reasonably.

            “This is the whole problem with you. You’re always so reasonable!”

            “Exercise is good for your complexion, you know,” said Paatri, trying to get on Lahiri’s good side.

            “How can my complexion improve when I’ve been in the burning sun for six hours straight?”

            “But we’ve been scuba-diving all day, Lahiri. You’ve been twenty feet under the ocean, and far away from the heat of the sun.”

            “Well, water gets my skin all wrinkly,” said Lahiri grumpily, not knowing how to respond gracefully. But Paatri knew how to calm her down.

            “When you go home tonight, look at your face in the mirror. You look fairer and your skin looks clearer. It looks like you’re wearing rouge, even though you’re not.”

            “Really?” said Lahiri, a little suspicious, but still pleased.

            “No, of course not. You look dry and dark, like burnt toast,” laughed Paatri.

            “I’m going to kill you Paatri,” said Lahiri and ran after Paatri. But Paatri’s long legs and superb training left Lahiri in the dust.

            “You have to – let me – catch up – with you,” Lahiri panted, as she sat down on the sand, a few feet behind Paatri.

            “Here – hold my hand,” said Paatri, and nearly dragged Lahiri to the edge of the parking lot, not too far away. “Wait here while I get the car.”

            “I’m not a baby!” protested Lahiri and got up. And immediately, she sat down. “Well, anyone can be tired,” she said, more to herself than anyone else because Paatri’s long strides had already put several feet of distance between them.

            The parking lot was very large, and it was a few minutes before Paatri returned, in the car. Lahiri was fast asleep, on the pavement. But Lahiri was barely two inches over five feet tall. And she was slim. Paatri, on the other hand, was less than an inch under six feet in height. And although there was not a single ounce of fat on her, Paatri was wider in the chest than Lahiri and Paatri’s muscles were incredibly strong, compared to nearly anyone but a world-class boxing champion. As the car was a convertible, she did not even need to open the door. She simply picked up Lahiri and heaved her over the door into the seat. Then she made sure Lahiri’s seat-belt was buckled. They had rented a small villa near the beach, for a week, while they were on vacation and so, it was not hard for Paatri, when they got there, to unlock the front door,  carry Lahiri through it, dump her on the bed, and then switch on the air-conditioner in her room.

            When Lahiri awoke the next morning, Paatri was already showered and dressed. There was a fresh, hot breakfast on the table, too. “Thanks, Paatri!” said Lahiri. “I slept like a log, last night. I must have fallen asleep in the car.” Then she paused. “But I don’t remember getting in the car – or into the villa either.” Then it hit her. “You carried me! You put me into the car and into my bed! And I didn’t even know it. I’m sorry Paatri. You didn’t have to do that. You could have woken me, you know.”

            “It’s OK. You’re tiny, like a baby. No problem.”

            “I am not a baby! My younger brother says that to me all the time. And I’m the older one!”

            “He must be much taller than you.”

            “So? He’s taller than you too!” Then she paused again. “Paatri, I’m really sorry I’m so mean to you, sometimes. You did call me dry and black like burnt toast, though.” And they both smiled. “So, what are we going to do today?”

            Paatri gave her a sly grin. “Well, there’s this cute guy I met yesterday, on the beach. I told him we would have lunch with him today.”

            “A guy! Finally. Wow, Paatri! You’re all grown-up, now. Tell me all about him.” And so she did. “Won’t it seem odd to him that you’re taking me along?”

            “No. He’s OK with that.”

            “How do you know that?”

            “Same way I knew when you would be ready for breakfast. Magic! Come on. Let’s go.”

            “Go where? It’s barely ten in the morning. Lunchtime is at least two hours away.”

            “Exactly! We can swim for a while.”

            “Don’t you ever stop? Just for a second?”

            “You had your second, last night.”

            “You’re mean. You know that?”

            “Ruthless.”

            “Oh, my poor aching body. Every little bit of it hurts. I didn’t even know I had that many parts that could hurt. Everything is just going to fall apart, one piece at a time.”

            “Right. Now let’s go.”

            They swam and then had a very pleasant lunch with a charming young man. He was very courteous and paid them both many compliments. He also made them laugh. He had, however, the curious habit of injecting certain questions into the conversation that seemed harmless enough but which were, Paatri knew, designed to discover how much money they possessed. After her parents died, Paatri had come across many such people, both men and women, and she had learned to deal with them tactfully, but without giving out any real information. In the end, it was Lahiri who fell for the trick – mostly because she did not realize he was tricking her.

            “What’s your favourite kind of car?” he asked, casually.

            “Convertibles, of course!” said Lahiri.

            “Of course. You drive one yourself, don’t you?”

            “Well, it’s her car,” said Lahiri honestly, “but she lets me drive it sometimes.”

            “Just as a good friend should do,” he said with a smile. “And can I hope to see you two good friends again for lunch, tomorrow?”

            Lahiri was about to speak again, but Paatri quickly spoke up instead, “Tonight’s the last day of our little vacation. We’ll be leaving early tomorrow morning. Thanks for a great meal. We really enjoyed it. Come on, Lahiri.”

            “What did you do that for?” asked Lahiri. “He was so nice!”

            “Something about him felt wrong,” said Paatri, knowing she would never be able to explain herself logically to Lahiri. “You do know that ours is the only convertible in town, right now?”

            “No, I didn’t realize that, actually. Why does it matter, anyway?”

            “If someone wanted to identify us, it would be really easy, wouldn’t it, if they knew we drove a convertible?”

            “You’re scaring me,” said Lahiri.

            “I’m sorry. Just don’t give out personal information like that to people you’ve never met before, OK? Now forget it.” But Paatri made sure they spent the rest of the day around large groups of people. They played volleyball with others, went to the only mall in town, and had dinner at a cheap but crowded restaurant.

            “We haven’t really done anything all day, today,” said Lahiri, after dinner. “Let’s go dancing. There’s supposed to be a really good nightclub here.” Paatri hesitated. “Come on! My treat. I haven’t paid for anything, really, except for the gas in the car, this whole trip. And you might just enjoy it.” But Paatri wasn’t worried about the money. And she knew that Lahiri enjoyed dancing. But she was afraid that their car would stand out, in the parking lot. It was relatively a small lot and there were no expensive cars around, except her own. But she had to let Lahiri have fun too.

            “OK. Let’s go,” she said with a laugh.

            It was 2:00 a.m. when they left the nightclub. Neither of them was drunk. Lahiri was so busy dancing, she hardly had any time to do anything else. And Paatri simply sat with her drink in front of her, mostly so that nobody would try to offer her a drink. She danced for a while, so she would not seem different from anyone else, but she was distracted. She was relieved when they finally left.

            Paatri had the habit of throwing her purse into the backseat of the car as she approached it rather than waiting until she got to the door. But the two boys who had been following her and Lahiri were surprised by this behavior. So, instead of waiting until both girls were in the car, they both lunged at Paatri. To Paatri, the karate training had always been a hobby, something that she did to spend time with her friend. But, to Lahiri, it was real. She was, after all, short and slim, and therefore, apparently an easy target for criminals. So, it was Lahiri who sensed rather than saw the two boys running at Paatri.

            “Paatri!” she yelled. And that was all she had time to do. She and Paatri were walking close together  and so she did not have much space to move as the boys attacked. But, in an instant, she shoved her elbow into the throat of the boy closest to her and then kicked as hard and high as she could, to reach the other boy. She hit him in the stomach, driving the wind out of him. And then, for good measure, she stomped on one boy’s ankle and the other boy’s knee, leaving them in agonizing pain, but with no bones broken. Both girls ran to the car, jumped in, and drove away as fast as they could.

            “Now you realize why you should not give out personal information?” scolded Paatri.

            “And do you realize that karate is not a joke but a real skill?” huffed Lahiri.

            “Fine!” They both said it together. And then, a moment later, they both grinned and high-fived each other.

 

 

            Despite both of them graduating with excellent grades, however, the slow economy made it very difficult for either girl to find a job.

            “Paatri, what should I do?” Lahiri asked her best friend.

            “There isn’t much more we can do here,” said her friend, looking a little worried. “Nobody is hiring, in a hundred-mile radius.” Paatri was very worried. The money she had gotten from her parents had helped her get the education she wanted. She had graduated at the top of her class, having broken every academic record in the thirty-year history of the college. But now, there was no job in sight, and the money would run out, in another year or two.

            “Do you want to go home with me?” Paatri looked doubtful. “Don’t worry. You’ll be welcome. We live in a small town, and everyone is friendly.”

            “Are you sure?” asked Paatri, relieved to have a place to stay and a good friend to help her but also unsure if she should be taking advantage of her friend.

            Lahiri knew her friend’s situation very well. “Listen, if you aren’t comfortable, you can always leave. But, you never know. We might be able to find some work there.” The truth was that Lahiri’s town was tiny and there was little chance of finding any paid work there. But she wanted to reassure her friend.

            “OK, then. What’re we waiting for? Let’s go!”

            They didn’t have much, between the two of them but they both had more than they thought they did. They managed to pack everything they truly valued into a suitcase each. Paatri owned her condominium outright, so her vast collection of books remained there. But even so, each girl’s suitcase was incredibly large and stuffed to the point of bursting. The girls looked at each other doubtfully.

            “Well,” said Paatri, “we just won’t open them until we get home.”

            “Right!” agreed Lahiri, and giggled.

            Luckily for them, their condominium was on the ground floor. But their parking spot was a good twenty feet away. Even with the wheels on the suitcases, one of them had to push and one had to pull each suitcase, all the way to the car. Paatri did all the pulling because she was nearly six feet tall and it was hard for her to bend down. Lahiri, on the other hand, was several inches shorter than Paatri, but she did not mind having her butt stick out while she pushed. Paatri liked looking elegant, even when she did physical work. Each girl was, however, deceptively strong. Lahiri looked a little chubbier than Paatri but years of working around the house and learning various types of martial arts had made Lahiri much stronger than she appeared. And, though Paatri appeared slim, delicate, and elegant, she had learned to swim, climb mountains, and ride a bicycle in any terrain, effortlessly, for miles. And still, despite their strength and training, by the time they had loaded both suitcases into the car, they were both sweating.

            “I didn’t know we had that much stuff!” said Lahiri.

            “I had no idea a few clothes could weigh that much!” puffed Paatri.

            “A few clothes? You’ve got enough books in there to start your own library! What are you going to do with all of those books? You’ve graduated already, you know.”

            “The same thing that you’re going to do with all the make-up and jewelry you’ve got, I guess. I’ve never seen you wear any of it,” Paatri said, very smugly.

            “Well, that’s different,” said Lahiri.

            “Right,” replied Paatri, as smug as ever. “Now get in the car.”

            One of the few things that Paatri had received from her parents that was still with her, was their car. It had been, at the time of their death, a brand-new Mercedes-Benz convertible. The car in which her parents had died had been a four-door SUV, supposedly manufactured with every safety-feature imaginable to man. The convertible had been their gift to her for getting her driver’s license. The convertible was now nearly six years old but still in very good shape. Paatri was not only an excellent engineer, but she loved her car. Every time she took the car to the Mercedes dealer, over a hundred miles away from her college, the mechanics always said the same thing.

            “Wow! Miss Paatri, you have done a better job of maintaining this car than we could have done ourselves!”

            And once, when the manager realized that she would soon receive her Mechanical Engineering degree, he had told her, “Miss Paatri, before you go anywhere else, please see me. I would love to have you work for me.” But when she had, indeed, gone to see him, he looked downcast. “Miss, I would hire you in a heartbeat, if business were good. But we’re shutting down. Look around you.” She did. There were no cars in the lot, either for sale or for repair. The cars that were there belonged to the few mechanics who had not yet found jobs elsewhere.  It was depressing.

            But she was not depressed any more. She was going to spend the next few months with her best friend. And she would have a roof over her head and food to eat as long as she was there. She knew that Lahiri wasn’t rich. In fact, she had thought Lahiri somewhat poor. Paatri expected to see no more than a small, run-down shack in a small, dusty town, when they finally got to Lahiri’s house. So, she was somewhat surprised to see a rather large structure, polished and gleaming, with the front lawn carefully manicured, and flowers planted along the sides of the driveway. Other than the flowers, though, everything was plain and flat. The roof was slightly unusual. It seemed to be a giant flower made of twelve gently sloping white petals.

            “Yes, that’s the first thing everyone notices about the house,” said Lahiri, observing her friend’s gaze. “Daddy says my mother complained that the house was too flat and ordinary. So, just to tease her, he built this weird roof. Her favourite colour was pink and she loved flowers. So, Daddy turned the roof into a giant pink lotus. He claims that she never complained about anything again.” She grinned. “But he’s such a liar!’ She giggled.

            “Where’s your mom, now?” asked Paatri, expecting to hear that Lahiri’s parents had gotten divorced.

            “Oh. We – my brother and I – were very little, when my mother died. She had a sudden, massive heart-attack, and died on the spot. There was nothing anyone could do, to save her. The doctors said it happened that way, sometimes.” Both girls were quiet for a few seconds. But there was not much time to be serious. Lahiri had called and told Kaarin to expect them. She had barely opened the car door when Kaarin ran up to her and swept her up.

            “You’re back!” he said, happily, crushing her in his usual, exuberant hug. Paatri could actually see Kaarin crushing Lahiri, completely, while he swung her around, totally off the ground – and Lahiri’s response to that was a huge smile.

            Kaarin barely glanced at Paatri. She looked old to him. Her square glasses, practical clothes, and serious expression made him feel that she was twice his age, even though he knew Paatri and Lahiri were about the same age. Even her elegance scared him a little. Lahiri, to him, was always the prettiest girl in the world, so he never really thought about that at all. But Lahiri, though she wore clothes that were in style, and well-matched, was never elegant. When Lahiri wore an evening gown, she always looked as though someone had stuffed her into it against her will. Paatri, to Kaarin, seemed exactly the opposite. It seemed to Kaarin that even if Paatri truly were stuffed into a burlap sack, she would still, somehow, manage to look elegant. Still, he knew he should welcome her into his home and so he put down Lahiri – none too gently – and smiled his brightest smile at Paatri.

            Paatri looked at the two of them and felt a little twinge of sadness as well as jealousy. Nobody in her life had ever loved her like that – not even her parents. And her parents, as she remembered them, were a happy and loving couple. She realized how much she had missed, even though she could not complain of her parents’ treatment of her. But she was also surprised. Lahiri spoke of Kaarin all the time. And so Paatri knew that Kaarin was about eighteen. But his expression was so innocent that he could have easily passed for fifteen – a very well-built fifteen. Kaarin was a little over six feet tall, but broad in the chest, with lean, wiry muscles.

            “Here, let me get these for you,” he said, picking up a bag in each hand, as though each one were completely empty.

            “He’s the biggest, strongest, handsomest man in the world,” said Lahiri proudly, seeing Paatri’s astonished expression.

            “Don’t pay any attention to her; I don’t. She’s been saying that since I was three days old,” Kaarin said, with an exaggerated sigh.

            “Well, it’s been true since you were three days old. The first two days you looked like a little wrinkled monkey,” said Lahiri, laughing. Kaarin just shook his head, sadly.

            He put down the bags in Lahiri’s room and then said to Lahiri, “Guess what?”

            “New girlfriend?” said Lahiri, excited.

            Kaarin shook his head, at first. “Well, that too,” he said, blushing a little. “But that isn’t what I’m talking about. Let me show you!” He dragged her by the hand to the huge backyard. “Look!” He pointed to an old, battered, and dirty pick-up truck, with obvious pride.

            Lahiri saw what no other girl would have seen. Her little brother was turning into a man. He was going to fix this truck and sell it and become a businessman. It was a small project but it was his very first one. She was proud of him. “It’s beautiful,” she said, and hugged him. And immediately, brother and sister started to tinker with the car. A few minutes later, Paatri joined them and, without a word, started to help them. They had become a team.

            The truck was in just about the worst possible shape it could be. It had no tires, and no windshield, either in the front or in the back. The headlights were shattered. The hood was bent. The radiator was smashed, there was no battery, and the previous owner had allowed the engine oil to run out, causing the engine to seize up. The upholstery was full of holes and the ashtray was overflowing with cigarettes. It was impossible to tell the original colour of the truck. There were scratches everywhere.

            “I got it for free, sis!” he said with a grin. She grinned back. “They even threw in a new battery and a pair of matching headlights.”

            “Good. So now all you need is an engine, a radiator, some tires, and a bunch of other stuff to get this thing on the road,” said Paatri, wryly.

            In return for that caustic comment, Paatri received a laser-like glare from Lahiri that would have cut through steel at a thousand feet. “Don’t you worry, kid! We’ll have this thing running in no time,” said Lahiri kindly.

            For the next three months, the three of them spent every spare moment they had, on fixing the pick-up truck. People were good to them. They got free paint from a factory, close by, that was about to throw away a huge batch of old paint. It was mustard yellow, but it was free, so they took it.

            Sumat was Kaarin’s best friend. Sumat’s father owned a body-shop. Business, however, was slow. “When you’re ready to paint your car, let me know, and you can bake the paint in my shop, OK?” Sumat offered, generously. “No charge,” he said with an impish grin.

            “You charge me and I’ll kill you!” responded Kaarin with mock ferocity, pointing his finger like a gun at Sumat.

            “Hey! I give up already! Don’t shoot me!” said Sumat, slapping his friend on the back. Like everyone else in town, he wanted to see Kaarin succeed. And, like Sumat, each person helped in whatever way he or she could. But only Kaarin, Lahiri, and Paatri worked on the truck, continuously.

            Over time, between the three of them, the truck began to look respectable. They fixed as many broken parts as they could, and replaced the rest; they hammered out all of the dents, polished out all of the scratches, and repainted the truck to a gleaming, brilliant yellow finish. They were also able to find replacement windshields at auto junkyards, as well as a radiator. All that remained was the engine and the tires. Paatri had an idea.

            “It may not work,” she said, “but it can’t hurt to try.”

            She took them to the Mercedes dealer who was going out of business. On the way they noticed that nearly every business along the road, for several miles, had already shut down. The place looked like a ghost town.

            When they finally reached the dealership, Paatri was afraid that the dealership might have already closed down. Fortunately, however, it was still open, but just barely.  There were a few cars on the lot, but no employees and no customers. When they drove into the office, the owner was sitting there, as glum as could be, but he recognized Paatri immediately and gave her a big smile as soon as he saw her.

            “I’m shutting down in two weeks,” he said, “but we can still sit together and have a cup of coffee,” he said.

            “We need a favour,” she said to him, seriously. “Remember, you said you would offer me a job if business were good? Well, I already have a job – kind of. We’re rebuilding a truck. Everything’s done. We just need an engine.”

            “Is that all?” he grinned. “And you’re here because you think I sell engines?”

            “No,” said Paatri. “But you do have cars, right? Cars that came to you for repairs and that nobody can afford to repair, now?”

            “That’s true,” he said, hesitantly. “But I can’t just give you a car.”

            “How many employees do you have left?” Paatri asked.

            “None. We shut down in two weeks.”

            “And I bet you have insurance on all of the cars that are sitting on your lot, right?”

            “I’m not going to let you steal a car, miss, if that’s what you are thinking.”

            “We aren’t going to steal anything. All we want is the engine. And we’ll pay you back for it once we sell our truck.”

            He just laughed. “There’s no way you are going to make enough off the sale of an old pick-up truck to pay me back for the engine. But, here’s what I can do. As you said, I am the only person on the lot. Tomorrow’s a Saturday, and I don’t work on weekends any more. Now, if someone were to take the engine out of one the cars sitting on my lot, and replace it with the engine from an old pick-up truck, I wouldn’t know, if the person left everything neat and clean afterwards.”

            “So you’re saying…” started Paatri, but he would not let her finish.

            “I’m saying I am not going to be on the lot tomorrow or the day after that. I have no way of knowing what happens in a closed body shop, on the lot, while I am away.”

            And so, they got the engine. It was not easy. They had to borrow a tow-truck from Sumat. They carried the engine of the pick-up truck all the way to the Mercedes dealership. And then they towed the engine of one of the Mercedes SUVs on the lot, back home, to install in the truck. It took them the whole of a day and a good part of the next, just to swap one engine for another. Even with the three of them working feverishly, it was hard to install the engine of the pick-up truck into the Mercedes and then leave the lot and the car still looking clean. But, somehow, they did it.

            Over the next few weeks, they had to make sure that everything worked perfectly – the stereo, the air-conditioning, the power-windows, the brakes, and just about every other component of the truck. While they worked on it, Kaarin’s new girlfriend, Taylor, came by to look at what he was doing. She was just sixteen, and had only recently gotten her permanent driver’s license. Her parents were wealthy and had bought her a brand-new car of her own. But neither her parents nor anyone else allowed her to drive their car. That upset her because she thought she was a very responsible and careful driver.

            “Kaarin, sweetheart! That truck looks wonderful, now! You’ve really done wonders with it! When can I drive it?”

            He looked at her. She was serious. He really liked her. But it took him only an instant to say, “Never.”

            “It’s just an old pick-up truck.”

            “That’s right. And you have a brand-new white Ferrari. So why do you want to drive my old pick-up truck, anyway?”

            “Nobody lets me drive their car. But you’re my boyfriend. So it’s different, right?”

            “Taylor, you ever wonder why nobody wants to let you drive their car?”

            “I’m a perfectly safe driver! I’ve never had an accident. Nobody’s ever given me a speeding ticket. I’m good. Really, I am. I promise to take care of your truck.”

            “No, Taylor. I don’t think so. You got more dings and scratches on your new car, in one month, than I’ve seen on cars ten years old.”

            “But Daddy got them all fixed! Look! The car looks perfect.”

            “No way you’re driving my truck, sweetheart.”

            “Fine! I’m not going to talk to you then.”

            “I really like you, Taylor. You’re funny and smart and I love spending time with you. And I know you like being around me too. Don’t you?”

            “Why don’t you let me drive your stupid old pick-up truck then?” she pouted.

            He hesitated. “That’s – different. I love you, Taylor. But I just can’t let you drive this truck. Please. Try to understand.”

            The sincerity in his voice impressed her. She really did not want to break up with him over an old pick-up truck. But it bothered her that he would not allow her to drive it. After all, she was, without doubt, the prettiest girl around, not just in town, but probably in any town less than a hundred miles away. And she was wealthy. And she really, really liked him!

            “I’ll never understand what it is with you and cars!” she said in a huff and marched off, but not without giving him a little kiss, first.

            Over the next few weeks, as work progressed on the truck, Taylor and Kaarin came closer together. Soon, it was obvious that they were a couple. They went out together in the evenings, when he was too tired to keep working on the truck. He knew she liked the truck, so he let her sit in it, and he showed her all of the special features of the truck – the customized paint job, the powerful, silent engine, the booming stereo, and everything else in which he took pride. He even took her out for an occasional ride in the truck, during the day, even though it meant he had to stop working on it for a while. Lahiri and Paatri simply shrugged their shoulders and said nothing to him. After all, he was just eighteen, and Taylor was special.

            One day, though, Paatri got fed up. Kaarin, Paatri, and Lahiri had all been working on the truck all day. The new engine made the truck drivable but it still needed a good deal of work. And every time Kaarin took it out for a drive, they had to wash the entire truck just to make sure that the dust did not hide something they needed to fix. Lahiri had just begun to attach a set of wipers, when Taylor zoomed up the driveway as usual and came bouncing into the backyard to meet Kaarin. And Kaarin, of course, stopped working on the wiring that would make the wipers run, to give Taylor a hug and a kiss. And then Taylor started talking to Kaarin in her excitable way, with the words pouring out of her in an unstoppable flood.

            While they were talking, Paatri decided to talk to Lahiri. She knew it would be difficult for Lahiri to hear anything against her own brother but Paatri was completely fed up. “Look, Lahiri…”, she began.

            But Lahiri cut her off. “Yes, I know. They’re behaving like a pair of lovesick teenagers. But what do you want me to tell him? Not to look at pretty girls?”

            “Lahiri, it isn’t that! But we need to work on this truck and get it done quickly if we want to make any money on it. And every time Taylor swings by, he just drops everything and takes the truck too! We can’t get any work done that way.”

            Lahiri knew Paatri was right. But she did not have the heart to scold her younger brother. After all, Kaarin worked just as hard as anyone, all the time – until Taylor visited. “Well, there’s nothing I can do,” she said helplessly.

            “Yes, there is,” said Paatri firmly. “Go to your room.”

            “You’re not my mother!” said Lahiri annoyed, now.

            “You’re always on his side. So go away until I deal with this.”

            “OK. But don’t be too hard on him. He’s just a little kid. OK?” pleaded Lahiri. She knew Paatri was right. And someone had to say something to Kaarin. But, still, there were tears in her eyes as she left.

            Taylor was sitting in the pick-up truck already, waiting for Kaarin to give her a ride in it. But Paatri always held the keys. Normally, she just tossed the keys to Kaarin or to Lahiri. But this time, she gave Kaarin another set of keys.

            “These are the keys to your car,” he said, puzzled.

            “Yes. Lahiri and I need to continue working on the truck, right now,” she said firmly but kindly.

            Kaarin knew very well what would happen if Taylor did not get a ride in the truck. And he knew why Paatri refused to give him the keys to the truck. In his heart, he knew Paatri was doing the right thing. So he did not argue. “OK,” he said, simply.

            But Taylor was furious when he asked her to get out of the truck. “This is your truck!” she said, loud enough for Paatri to hear. “What’s she got to do with it?”

            “No, Taylor, no!” Kaarin was embarrassed. “It’s our truck. All the three of us work on it all the time.” He knew that wouldn’t be enough. “Besides, she needs to work on the brakes. It isn’t safe, right now.”

            “You would’ve never let me sit in the truck if that were true,” snapped Taylor.

            By this time, Kaarin could see a dangerous glint in Paatri’s eye. And Paatri had slowly started to walk toward Taylor. Kaarin had no idea what Paatri would do. But he wasn’t sure that whether Paatri would drag Taylor out of the truck. So, hurriedly, he said, “Look, it’s a great car! You always did like convertibles.” It was true. Taylor did like convertibles. But she wasn’t about to admit it.

            “What! You’re going to take me out in that ancient wreck of hers? The car’s a frikkin’ antique!”

            Kaarin knew how much Paatri loved her car. And he knew that she had heard what Taylor had just said. Now, he was really afraid that Paatri would slap Taylor if he allowed the two of them to get close enough. And the worst part of it was that he knew he couldn’t blame Paatri if she did. He was in a state of panic. Taylor realized that she had gone too far, also. And so she quickly hid behind Kaarin. But, in his state of panic, he did not notice that. And just then, Lahiri walked up to both of them.

            “Taylor, how good to see you!” Lahiri said. “You look so pretty today. No wonder my brother is crazy about you. Still, he is the handsomest, strongest man you’ve ever seen, isn’t he? You two have a great time, OK?” And she kissed each of them on the cheek, as they drove off in Paatri’s car. But, as they were about to drive off, Paatri deliberately got into the truck, started the engine, and backed up the car a few feet. It was completely unnecessary. She only did it because she knew Taylor was watching.

            “That girl needs someone to slap her!” said Paatri angrily, to Lahiri.

            “Yes, and you would have done it too if I had not stepped in, wouldn’t you?” Paatri did not respond. “Look, you aren’t the first woman to have that thought pass through her mind. But you can’t do that. Taylor’s irritating but she is good at heart.  She never cheats on anyone and she’s always willing to help.”

            “What is she good at doing?” asked Paatri curiously.

            “Other than looking pretty, not much,” responded Lahiri, honestly. “But if she could help, she would, you know. She does sing beautifully, though.”

            The truck was, eventually, completely off-limits to Taylor. And Paatri made a point of seeing to it that Taylor saw Paatri driving the truck every time Taylor visited Kaarin. As a result, Taylor got into the habit of simply picking up Kaarin and driving off with him in her own car. But she grew to hate Paatri. As a result of the truck being left at home, however, the work on the truck began to proceed at a much faster pace than had ever been possible.

            It still took a few months, but, eventually, the truck was completely ready. It was time to find a buyer. But it was hard. This was not a working-man’s truck. It was a work of art. Although the town was a small one, it was not really poor. There were many who could have bought Kaarin’s truck. But, as Kaarin knew, none of them really needed a truck. If anyone in his town had tried to buy it from him, he would have realized instantly that he had failed, that someone was buying his truck to be polite. And so, nobody offered to buy his truck. He advertised it on the Internet. He drove the truck to other towns, with a “For Sale” sign in large letters displayed prominently on every side of the truck. But there were no takers. Few people had money to spend on what was, in essence, an expensive toy. Kaarin had not meant for the truck to look that way, but it did. Even he could not deny that. The idea of carrying dirt or sand in the back of that truck was just plain silly. And so, several months went by, with no sale.

            “Taylor, want to go for a ride?” became an almost daily question, during that time. And the answer was always an enthusiastic, “Yes!” But, still, he never let Taylor drive the truck. He knew it bothered her. But there was simply too much riding on the truck to let her drive it. And, anyway, it did not seem to bother her any more. She seemed to have accepted, with grace, the idea that he would never let her drive the truck.

 

            One day, there was a knock on the door. A tall, skinny, elderly man, in an expensive, well-tailored suit, stood at the door. “May I speak to Miss Paatri?” he inquired politely of Lahiri, who had answered the door.

            “Of course,” said Lahiri, somewhat puzzled, but put at ease by the man’s courtesy and by the way he looked. “Please sit down,” she said, taking him to the living room. When she went to tell Paatri that someone was asking for her, and described the man, Paatri too, was puzzled. She could not imagine who was asking for her.

            “Good morning,” she said with a smile, when she saw him. “I am Paatri. How can I help you, sir?”

            “Miss Paatri, my name is Donald Weaver. Most likely, you have never heard of me. However, you have probably heard the name of the company I represent.” When he mentioned the name of the company, Paatri recognized it instantly. It was a name known only to those within the automobile industry, not to the general public. The company was famous for manufacturing unique cars – just one per customer, per year. In all, the company probably made no more than a thousand cars each year. But each one was, at the same time, a grand feat of engineering as well as a work of art.

            “Yes, sir. Of course I have heard of your company. But I have not applied there. Frankly, I never thought I would get a job there – not as a fresh graduate, anyway.”

            “You’re right. But then you did not have this truck when you graduated, did you?”

            “You mean the truck in the driveway?” she asked.

            “Yes,” he nodded seriously. “I am here to make you an offer on the truck. I heard the story behind it, from a number of my friends in the area. But first, tell me, how much do you think it is worth? Start with your top price.”

            Paatri was a little puzzled by his manner. “Look, sir. It isn’t really my truck…” she started.

            “Yes, I know that already. You made it with the help of your friend and her brother. Still, it’s only your résumé I have seen. But honesty is always refreshing,” he said with a chuckle. “And, now, the price?”

            Paatri did not know what to say. The truck was old. It consisted of parts taken from different places. The hours of labor that she and her friends had put into the re-construction had no real market-value. She did a little quick math in her head, just adding up the money they would have spent if they had not received most of the parts for free. And then she added in a little money for their hard work. “Ten thousand dollars?” she said, hesitantly.

            “No, miss,” he said quite firmly. “That would be cheating! That is not an acceptable figure at all.”

            Paatri had not really expected that he would pay as much as ten thousand dollars for an old, re-constructed truck. She would have been happy to get even half of the price she had stated. But what he said next shocked her. “Miss Paatri, I am here to offer you the nice, round sum, of exactly one hundred thousand dollars for your truck.”

            She thought she had heard him incorrectly. “What?” she said, blinking. “I mean, what the fuck?” Then she realized what she had said. “Oh shit!” she said, contritely. And then she realized she had done it again. “Oh fuck!” She was now dying of embarrassment. “Look, please, sir, just wait here. I’m sorry. I’ll be right back.” And she ran from the room, to get Lahiri. Quickly, she told Lahiri what had just happened. Lahiri could not stop giggling for a few minutes.

            “Stop giggling, Lahiri. This is serious!”

            “OK, OK,” said Lahiri and started to giggle again. They both stopped talking as they suddenly heard Kaarin’s voice in the living room.

            “Yes, sir. I’d be happy to accept your offer. I just need one little favor, if you don’t mind.” And he whispered something to the man. The man smiled, and put an envelope into Kaarin’s hands.

            “And be sure to tell the girls when you see them. I’m sure they’ll be happy too,” said the man as he left. And they saw Kaarin shaking hands with the older man and ushering him out the door. As Kaarin shut the door and turned around, they saw he had a piece of paper in his hands. They did not see the envelope because had put it in his pocket.

            “I’m afraid you girls have no business sense – or any sense at all, for that matter,” he said, drily. “You just ruined everything!”

            “Why? What happened?” Both girls spoke together in their anxiety.

            “He came here offering a hundred thousand dollars for the truck. And all Miss Paatri here could do was to curse and all you could do was to giggle, big sister!” he said, angrily. They did not know how to respond. What he said was perfectly true. They had just dashed his hopes – for no real reason at all.

            But Kaarin was a good-hearted boy. He could not make them suffer long. His stern expression broke into a grin and then he started laughing until the tears ran down his face. “What’s wrong with you?” asked Lahiri, now angry with him. She punched him.

            “Stop laughing! What do you have in your hands?” He handed it to her. She read it. Her jaw dropped. And Paatri, who’d been reading it over her shoulder, was also in a state of shock!

            “It’s a contract. They’re going to buy the truck for a hundred thousand dollars and display it, to show how much people can achieve just with sheer will-power and hard work. And we’re all going to be working for them, building custom trucks every year! And look how much they’re going to pay us! We’re rich! But you know the best part? Since you two were too goofy to do this yourselves, guess what?”

            They looked at him, questioningly. “I’m the boss! You two are going to be my assistants. I am the team leader, and you two are my team.”

            “Don’t be silly!” said Paatri immediately. “You need more than three people to build a car.”

            “Really?” said Kaarin, opening his eyes as wide as possible. “I thought the three of us together just built a car – well, a truck, if you want to be technical about it.” There was really nothing they could say to that. “I’m just kidding. It’s true. He has made me team leader. But I know I could never do anything without the two of you.”

            “Shut up!” said Lahiri, throwing a shoe at him.

            “For once, I agree with your sister,” said Paatri, throwing another shoe.

            “Wait here,” he said, to both of them. “I’ll be back, soon.” And without another word, he was gone!

 

            He got into his truck and drove it straight to the shop where Lahiri had seen the pearl necklace, all those years ago. The shop was still there. It seemed the necklace was still there, too. But, of course, it must have been a different one. For the first time in his life, he did not simply walk past the shop. “I want that necklace in the window,” he said, pointing to the one he wanted. “And, there’s one more thing. I want a solid-gold keychain, with a name engraved on it. Can you do that for me right now?

            “Of course, sir,” said the clerk politely. Within a few minutes, the necklace was beautifully gift-wrapped. And the keys to the car were on the key-chain. He paid for both gifts with the money that was burning a hole in an envelope in his pocket. When he got home, he found both girls waiting for him.

            “Let’s go out for a drive!” he said, jubilantly.

            “In a hundred-thousand-dollar truck?” both girls said, doubtfully.

            “Well, it’s still our truck, you know.”

            And so, they all went out to the truck. Before doing anything else, he gave Lahiri her gift. She was so over-whelmed, when she saw it, she started to cry. But Lahiri couldn’t cry very long. They were all very happy. And so, for once, he swept up Paatri in one of the huge hugs he reserved for his sister. But he did not squeeze Paatri nearly as hard as he did his sister.

            “You think I’m made of paper?” Paatri said. “I’m just as tough as she is – probably tougher. Give me a proper hug, you little weakling!’

            And so he did. He not only hugged her but kissed her several times on both cheeks. It had always been Kaarin who had taken the truck out on test drives. But he knew, truly, in his heart, that without Paatri’s help in finding the engine and her hard work, in reconstructing the truck, they would have never gotten the truck to look and work as beautifully as it did. So, he gave her the keychain. The jeweler had beautifully engraved the name, Paatri, on it.

             “This is for you,” he said shyly, as he got into the truck and told her to drive him, first, to Taylor’s home, so that he could give her the good news. But there wasn’t time enough for that. Kaarin saw Taylor’s white Ferrari zooming up the road toward his driveway. And he was happy to see her. But Taylor was not happy at all. Taylor had driven up just in time to see the hugs and kisses Kaarin had given Paatri and she watched as Paatri got into the driver’s seat.

            “Taylor!” Kaarin exclaimed, as soon as she got out of the car. “I’ve got some news for you!”

            “Mister, I’ve got some news for you!” said Taylor. “You never let me drive that stupid old pick-up truck of yours! And now, she’s driving it! And I saw you kissing her! I’m not talking to you, Kaarin. It’s over!” And Taylor stormed off toward her car.

            “Wait. Taylor. It isn’t like that. That’s Paatri. She’s my sister’s friend.”

            “Looks like she’s more your friend than your sister’s friend, Kaarin. And it looks like you two are really close!”

            “Taylor. It isn’t like that. We were about to go to your place.”

            “Sure! And you expect me to believe that. How stupid do you think I am? I’m going to tell my Daddy what you did and he’ll beat you up if you ever come to my see me again. Understand?”

            Kaarin rolled his eyes. It was a bad move. But he knew there was no reasoning with Taylor when she was in a bad mood. “Fine. Believe what you like. But at least hear my news.” And he told her.

            “Well, mister, you aren’t the only big star around here. I just got a record contract. And pretty soon, I’ll have my own CD on the market.”

            “Really? Wow! That’s amazing!” Kaarin was really happy for her.

            “Yes, amazing. And there’ll be a song about you on it, damn you!”

            “A good one, I hope,” said Kaarin, trying to bring her back into a good mood.

            She took out, from her purse, a picture of the two of them together. And then, with the cigarette lighter in her car, she set the picture on fire. “Yes. It’s going to be a great song! It’s going to be all about how you cheated on me and what a bad liar you are and how you let someone else drive your pick-up truck when you would never let me drive it! You burn me up, Kaarin. But that’s OK. All you are, now, is just another picture to burn.”