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A mystery story, from the Duckbill Workshop in Chennai.

‘It’s all because of your father, that thief!’

‘He’s not a thief! Don’t say that!’ Ramu threw himself on top of the school bully, who towered over his small frame; he was tossed aside like a broken leaf and landed with a hard thud on the sandy playground.

‘Stop it boys! Velu, if you say one more word I will suspend you for the next week! Ramu, come to my office.’

The Principal walked off and didn’t hear Velu mutter:

‘Huh! Anyway they are going to close. Thanks to his father, who’s disappeared with a truck full of money.’

‘Ramu, you must ignore what these ignorant boys say,’ Arpita Madam told him later. ‘I know your father. Ramesh would never run off with a hundred rupees – leave alone the donations for the school. Don’t worry, the police will find him – and the money – and everything will be ok.’

‘Thank you Madam,’ Ramu muttered, trying very hard not to burst into tears. This was the first time he had ever had anything to do with the Principal – everyone was terrified of the strict middle-aged lady who ruled the school with an iron fist – and he was very grateful for the unexpected kindness.

‘Who do you think it could be?’ Seema glared at the boys as if it was their fault; she couldn’t bear Ramu to be unhappy.

She also didn’t dare to ask the question that was on everyone’s minds: What had happened to Ramesh Uncle on Sunday night? Was he alive? It had been three days since the truck went missing after it drove out of Cuddappa town and headed to their small village, Mylapore.

Tahir shrugged unhappily and Ramu said nothing, just continued to stare at the ground.

‘I’ll tell you what – lets make a list of all the names of the people who could have done it. After all, we live in such a small village. It has to be someone we know.’

‘Motive,’ Tahir said, looking up slowly. ‘Who needs the money the most?’

‘My father,’ Ramu said softly. ‘Everyone knows we are amongst the poorest families in the village. That’s why they believe so easily that he ran away with the money.’

‘But since we know he didn’t, who else could have done it?’

Seema jumped up and began to pace up and down the small playground. It was four in the evening and almost everyone had gone home. Seema’s mother was the school Ayah ma and was in charge of locking up for the day; the children normally hung around till she finished her work.

‘The Toll Guard – that drunkard Daniel!’ Tahir sprung up and joined Seema’s little march.

‘Yes, my father always said that he couldn’t drive past the check post without giving Daniel fifty rupees. He may have planned it with his other rowdy friends,’ Ramu’s eyes shone; then his shoulders slumped as he realised that even if he was right, how could they prove it?

‘It can’t be Daniel,’ Seema’s mother broke in, as she began to briskly sweep the path that led to the playground ‘He hasn’t been on duty for the past week. Lying in the hospital, thanks to all his bad habits.’

‘Then who Ma?’

‘You children think,’ and Seema’s mother, Sulekha amma, as walked off to clean the toilets.

‘What about…Ibrahim?’

‘Mad or what Tahir? Ibrahim is the police.’

‘So what? So many policemen are bad,’ Tahir sneered at Seema. ‘And Ibrahim is my distant relation. I know he’s been trying for a promotion all these years, but he’s never got one. My father said that he wouldn’t be surprised if Ibrahim paid some big money to someone to get pushed up. He could have arranged for the truck to be stopped at some lonely point – he knows the route – after all Ramesh Uncle has been bringing the truck in year after year, and being in the Police he would know all about it.’

‘Maybe,’ Seema said, secretly impressed by this new theory. ‘But we can’t be sure. Anyone else?’

‘Fauji Sir…he used to be in charge of the donations, remember?’ it was Ramu’s turn to jump up. ‘And after he was thrown out of school, he swore revenge! He could be the one.’

‘Maybe. But you know what I think – I think it’s Bhavani Shankar,’ Seema said.

‘Now you’re mad or what?’ Tahir sniggered. ‘Why will he bother to donate everything if he’s only going to steal it all back?’

‘Exactly! Don’t you see? He’s fed up of donating his precious money away, year after year. He wants to use it on the upcoming elections. After all, everyone is saying that he might not get re-elected this year and he’ll need spare cash to throw around.’

‘I’m not convinced. He’s an MLA. Why would he…?’

‘I’m telling you it’s him! I just know it,’ Seema crossed her arms over her chest and stood her ground.

‘Ok, why don’t we ask your mum what she thinks,’ Ramu got up and began to walk to the school building. He felt like a dozen hammers were pounding away inside his head; all the arguing and hypothesizing weren’t helping either.

‘Bhavani Shankar will not attempt anything like this right now because he’s already in trouble with the Police,’ Sulekha Aunty explained as they walked along the school corridors bolting all the classroom doors. ‘The what’s-it-called – CBA…CBI… – whatever, are supposed to be watching him closely.’

‘But you can’t be sure Ma,’ Seema protested.

‘Ramu, please pick up those papers and put them in Principal’s desk drawer,’ Sulekha amma clucked in irritation as they stood outside Arpita Madam’s office; she always left the Principal’s office for the last and she was now in a hurry to go home and get started on dinner.

‘Yes Aunty,’ Ramu picked up the papers and was about to shove them back into the top most file when he stopped.’

‘Hurry up boy, I don’t have all day.’

‘One minute Aunty…’ Ramu’s eyes scanned the paper.

‘What is it?’ Tahir took one look at his friend’s face; soon all four of them were pouring over the documents.

*****

‘Why have you called me here?’ Fauji Sir growled at the children and Sulekha amma. He didn’t dare say anything else as the local MLA Bhavani Shankar and Arpita Madam’s husband, who was the village sarpanch, were also present; the politician looked distinctly uneasy and kept cracking his fingers, Arpita Madam’s husband looked crabby: they had been summoned just as they were about to sit down for dinner.

‘Ibrahim, you are the in-charge of the affair. Please tell us why you called us. And why are these children here? I hope you aren’t harassing them in anyway,’ Arpita Madam ignored Fauji Sir and addressed the policeman like she would one of her students.

‘No, no Madam, no harassment. These people only wanted a meeting. They say they have some information about Ramesh Babu – but refused to tell me until you all were here.’

‘Oh,’ Arpita Madam turned to the little group that stood in a huddle near Ibrahim’s desk, a puzzled look on her face. ‘Is that right? And why didn’t you come to me first?’

‘Bloody drama!’ Fauji Sir muttered under his breath. ‘Wasting our time! What are they going to know?’

Bhavani Shankar said nothing but his face darkened a little. The sarpanch muttered something about someone getting coffee at least.

‘Yes Sir, I’ll get coffee now only Sir,’ the peon was immediately dispatched to bring some coffee. ‘Children! Don’t waste time, we are all busy…especially Sirs and Madam.’

Ibrahim had never had so many powerful personalities sitting in his small police station at one time and it made him nervous.

‘Nothing,’ Seema piped up. ‘Only we have found Ramesh Uncle. He will be here in about 10 minutes.’

‘What?’ a chorus of voices broke out. ‘Where? When? How?’

‘He will tell you everything himself,’ Sulekha amma said, smiling all around. ‘Isn’t it wonderful news?’

‘What did you put in this coffee?’ a voice hissed from the back of the room; the sarpanch slid off his chair and fell to the floor.

Everyone rushed forward and crowded over the lifeless form; Arpita Madam shoved them aside:
‘Get him to the car! He must get to the hospital right away. He’s got a weak heart.’

‘Not so fast,’ a voice said; everyone turned in amazement to see who had spoken.

‘Arpita Madam, the game is up,’ Ramu waved a blue file in his right hand. ‘Now tell me where my father is.’

*****

‘They would have killed me had I not managed to jump out from the back of the truck when one of them was dozing. Still, thank God the forest rangers came when they did or I may never have made it out alive.’

Ramu sat pressed up against his father; his smile lit up the room and Tahir and Seema smiled at each other.

It had been a stroke of luck that they had found the papers; but they had used their brains – and all the courage they had – to plan the ambush.

‘She always was an arrogant woman. And he, being the sarpanch and all…they could never have borne the shame. That’s why even at the very end, in the police station, he pretended that he had been poisoned, and Arpita Madam had realised his game and played along, hoping they could make a getaway,’ Sulekha amma shook her head, a little sad that the villain of the piece had turned out to be the Principal and her husband.

The bank had threatened to sell off everything the couple owned if they couldn’t repay their huge loan by the end of that week. They had hit upon the idea of waylaying the truck and blaming it on the driver (after ensuring he would never return) and had then immediately cleared the loan. In her arrogance, Arpita Madam had even filed the letter of congratulations that the bank had faxed them that very day (Thank you for clearing your loan of 5 lakhs. We hope you will continue to do business with us and remain our esteemed customer.)

‘And if poor Bhavani Shankar hadn’t helped us and arranged for the meeting, this would never have happened,’ Sulekha laughed.

They had approached the MLA and begged him to give them a chance to prove their story, and to their surprise he had agreed.

‘We’ll make sure everyone votes for him,’ Ramu’s father chuckled. ‘That will be sufficient thanks.’

‘And maybe your distant-Uncle Ibrahim might also get a promotion thanks to solving this case,’ Seema dug Tahir in the ribs and everyone burst out laughing.

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