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The Cosmic Cluesby Manjiri Prabhu
The Cat Walks Out
"This is Stellar Investigations and we don't read horoscopes!" Jatin unsuccessfully checked the exasperation in his voice and slammed down the receiver. He thrust a restive hand through his untidy mop of hair and wheeled to face his boss.
Sonia Samarth stood by the table, scanning the newspaper with interest.
"That was the twentieth call demanding if this was an Astrology institute!" Jatin exclaimed.
"Natural, isn't it?" Sonia shrugged nonchalantly. "After all, it's common fact that people do get attracted to anyone who can predict the future."
"But we don't predict the future. We are Investigators!" he emphasized.
"With a difference," Sonia pointed out gently. "Relax, Jatin, I'll take the next call. You go finish your novel, till I need you."
Sonia settled in her cushioned seat and took up the paper again. The advertisement was small and crisp, as per budget constraints, but, to be absolutely impartial, hardly deserved the misunderstanding it had created.
Now a detective agency which combines astrological science with investigations! If you have a problem, contact at . . .
All morning the phone had pealed constantly, ringing from all corners of Pune city. Voices--timid, uncertain, overconfident, and even incredulous, all requesting appointments. The questions were many--How much did they charge? Did they need the horoscope? Was it possible to predict the date of marriage? Could they predict without a horoscope? Initially, Jatin had braved the tide of queries on his own, intelligently masking his inexperience. Gradually, however, his polite, wordy explanations had turned to one-liner wisecracks and finally to downright insolence and refusals.
Sonia bore the confusion with better tolerance and patience. People were basically insecure, bogged down with innumerable worries, with a tendency to clutch at hopeful straws. Sonia knew and understood that feeling. She may have just set up her business a few months ago and had barely two cases to her credit, but she was a Masters in criminal psychology. Perhaps it was her understanding of human nature which had further led her to study Vedic Astrology--a science she deeply respected and used as a guideline. It had all begun in fun--reading horoscopes for friends, predicting their love affairs and life partners in college. Then finding missing articles at home, first for the family and then for relatives. It was when she successfully tracked down the missing son of a close friend that she realized that she had stumbled onto a rather apocalyptic and pivotal discovery. Her in-depth study of Vedic Astrology would prove invaluable in her lifelong ambition to become a detective.
A rented office and two itsy-bitsy cases later, however, the knowledge had dawned on her that people did not look kindly upon her brilliant brainwave. Reading horoscopes for fun was one thing; using them to solve life-and-death issues was quite another. The result was filling the long office hours with chores like cleaning up or reading books on Astrology and listening to music over cups of chai--tea with milk--and sandwiches, to avoid boredom! Luckily for Sonia, Jatin was an ardent detective-cum-office-assistant, willing to hang on for the big break, however long it may take.
Sonia recalled her parents' reaction on seeing the ad that morning and smiled. They'd just finished a hearty breakfast of pohey--soft puffed rice fried in onion and potatoes--and coffee. Her mother, petite and dignified in a pure silk peach sari draped around her exquisite figure, was skimming over the paper. Sonia adored her beautiful mother. She was her idea of a perfect mother and woman. Unfortunately, perfection does not always equate with compatibility of thought. Despite being a businessperson and working shoulder-to-shoulder with her husband, Mrs. Samarth had her qualms about Sonia's profession. Her voice was a sigh as she studied the advertisement.
"Need you be so open about your operative methods? You may end up making a fool of yourself! I can't understand why you must make yourself an object of ridicule!"
Mr. Samarth took the newspaper from his wife and spent a thoughtful, leisurely minute over it. He was tall with an athletic body maintained in good form due to a strict tennis routine and a controlled diet. To Sonia's immense relief, he nodded in approval, sealing his role as her lifelong champion. He patted her on the shoulder and smiled that wonderful encouraging smile he'd used on her ever since she was a kid.
"Keep moving, never mind in which direction, but don't sit still!" he remarked with a wink.
It was exactly what she had in mind.
Now as she sat in her office, she realized that her parents, regardless of their initial hesitation, had been supportive. It hadn't been easy to accept that their only daughter had plunged into an unaccountable crazy fancy, relinquishing all claims on the family business and nipping off the lucrative marriage proposals. And yet here she was, launched in her sparsely furnished but comfortable abode of work--with no work at all!
But at least she had been lucky enough to find an office on F.C.Road. It was a prime location of Pune. She had managed to rent one of the two-room offices lying vacant on the ground floor. The box window overlooked the main road and the small garden surrounding the building--an ideal office in the centre of the city. The only problem being the traffic sounds, since F.C.Road was a crazy route at office hours.
For a minute, she glanced out of the window. The May sun beat down like a sweltering heat wave on the passing vehicles. It had been an unusually hot summer; she only hoped the monsoons would drive away all this heat.
The traffic was at its peak hour this morning. Black and yellow autorickshaws screamed and made their way skillfully between the Maruti vans, Zens, and Indicas. And the famous scooters and motorbikes--commonly called two-wheelers--weaved through the gaps, at breakneck speed! Driving was a necessary evil, in the cozy yet fast-churning city of Pune. Not for the girls though. Teenagers and women office-goers were wrapped from head to toe in scarves, suncoats, and dark glasses to escape the sun. Totally unrecognizable, they enjoyed their anonymous freedom and mobility through the city.
Sonia's attention returned to the newspaper in her hand. Her eye traveled down from the first page to the next and halted on a write-up on the Rebel Cross gang. Sonia had followed this particular news story with a great deal of interest. The Rebel Cross was a group of unidentified young people with queer ideas of morality. They wore a cross, stamped like a tattoo, on their bare upper arm. They tracked down injustice and passed their own judgement. The spate of recent happenings, thefts, or thrashings in the city was an outcome of their policy.
Sonia shook her head. Strange is the idea of justice for some people!
In the outer room, Jatin switched on his portable Television, and Sonia smiled. Jatin was boyishly good-looking and had just stepped into his twenties. He had agreed to work with her--on one condition. That his TV set get a permanent position in a corner of the outer office and that he could watch cricket, whenever his mind pleased. Sonia had instantly agreed. She couldn't dare refuse such a request in a cricket-crazy country like India! Besides, she needed Jatin, and at this point couldn't afford to displease him!
Folk music emerged from the Television, followed by a male voice. Sonia's head jerked up spontaneously. She could barely decipher what the man was saying. But the quality of his voice made her step into the outer office.
"What are you watching?" she asked Jatin curiously.
"A new series. A documentary on Pune," he replied.
Sonia seated herself beside Jatin and viewed the programme with interest. The camera panned from verdant, hilly slopes to a tall, good-looking man, who was commenting smoothly and effortlessly. He was standing atop Hanuman Tekdi, the hill behind F.C.Road. The sun was dipping along the horizon behind him and the camera panned again, as he indicated the sprawling city below with his hand. Patches of lush green were beginning to dull as the sun disappeared and the lights began to twinkle amidst the stretches of concrete structures. The Presenter continued to drawl into the mike.
"This is Pune, spread out before us. A city of green trees, hills, rivers, and of course masses and masses of unplanned buildings. But that can be expected with a population of four million and a land size surprisingly larger than neighboring Mumbai! And yet, Pune, which is India's leading industrial, educational, and research city, has retained forty percent area under green cover. Pune is one of . . ."
As he continued to elaborate on the richness of culture, Sonia realized that she most certainly liked the Presenter's voice. It was clear, resonant, and deep, but not deep enough to echo jarringly into the ears. It had a musical feel to it. And she also liked his face. It was an interesting face, well-defined features--
The telephone shrilled into her thoughts and Sonia gestured to Jatin to reduce the volume of the TV. She returned to the inner office and picked up the receiver.
"Sonia!" boomed the familiar, friendly voice of Inspector Divekar.
"Smart guess. You have my horoscope before you, right?"
"How can you poke fun at something so serious! Do I ever mock you about the methodology the police use?"
"Hey, just kidding, you know. Even though it's worth considering the possibility that you may throw us out of business! Perhaps you could succeed where we police have failed, like in catching the Owl."
"Haven't you heard of our world-famous thief, nicknamed the Owl? An intelligent international crook, who has managed to slip from the long arm of justice for a very long time. If you do manage to trap him, it will be a feather in your cap!"
"There you go again!" Sonia sighed. "Believe it or not, Uncle, I'm up to my eyes in work!"
"I get the hint. I just called up to say I liked your ad. Keep it up!"
His patronizing tone rankled a little as she hung up. Inspector Divekar, her father's dear friend, meant well but tended to go overboard with his sense of responsibility towards her.
A coconut Vendor was passing by the window, shouting loudly in Marathi, "Tender coconuts!" Sonia was tempted. This hot weather was giving her an unquenchable thirst. She popped her head in the outer office.
"Jatin, why don't we treat ourselves to some coconut water?" she asked.
"Good idea. How about stocking our little fridge for this summer?" Jatin responded with a grin.
"Only if our official budget for the month permits it," Sonia said primly.
"Well, in that case, I can buy just two more!"
"Oh, are we in that bad a shape?" Sonia looked astonished.
"Quite, but I'm also being careful! I have my responsibilities. We need to pay the rent on this place, remember?"
"Don't remind me. I know we need to get a case, fast, or we may have to close up office," Sonia said with a grimace. "But let's not get our spirits down. Go fetch our coconuts!"
Jatin switched off the TV, flew out of the office, and hailed the coconut Vendor. Within minutes, he was back with four tender coconuts and straws. He placed two coconuts in the small refrigerator Sonia's parents had loaned her.
"It's awful out there! The sun! Boss, as soon as we have some money, we need to get an Air Conditioner," Jatin announced, handing her a coconut.
Sonia accepted the fruit and sipped the cool, sweet water. "Don't I know that?"
"An AirCon, and also a computer, a bigger office, two cell phones, one for you and one for me--"
"Right. But first we need a case--a real money-sprouting case!" Sonia finished. She returned to the inner office and sat behind her table, sipping the coconut water. The ceiling fan whirled overhead, with fits and squeaks, and she glared at it.
"Don't you break down on me!" she warned aloud.
As if on cue, the fan slowed, swinging noisily. She watched the reducing speed with alarm. A hot and dry summer without a fan? What misery! She focused on the fan and muttered, "Go on, move, you're not failing me. I rented this office with you. You better last out till the end of the season!"
The fan chugged and squeaked again and, much to Sonia's amazed relief, picked up speed with a loud groan.
"Wow! I just experienced what positive thinking can do!" she exclaimed. Then she raised the coconut to the ceiling. "Thank you for being considerate!"
The tasty fruit water was refreshing and she immediately felt replenished and energetic. She had just eaten the soft tender coconut and tossed the empty shell into the dustbin, when the connecting door opened and Jatin walked in.
His eyes were gleaming. "There's a man who says he'd like to meet you. A Mr. Mohnish Rai. And you're not going to believe this . . ." he said in an excited voice.
Sonia picked up her ears. "A prospective client?" She raised an inquiring eyebrow.
The expression on Jatin's face snuffed her hope. "I doubt it! But . . ." Jatin paused dramatically. "He's the man we just saw on TV, on the Pune show."
Sonia was startled. What a strange coincidence! "Are you sure? I mean, you know your TV loses colors and gives distorted images from time to time!"
"Of course I'm sure!" Jatin was indignant. "And my TV set is the best piece you can get in the market, for the price I bought it. It just--"
"All right, I get it." Sonia hastily curbed his flow of indignation. "Send him in."
She threw a pleading look at the ceiling fan. Don't ditch me, she prayed silently. Then she flicked open her appointment diary and sat with pen poised. The door opened and a man entered, shutting the door behind him. Looking up, she saw the man throwing a casual glance around her neat, discreet office. In one sweep, she took in his spotless, creaseless white shirt, clean blue jeans, and polished leather shoes. Well-to-do, she made a note. And definitely the Presenter from the show.
"Yes, Mr. Rai. What has brought you here?" she inquired in her best business tone.
His gaze had passed over the music system with its display of cassettes and CDs and lingered on the set of Astrology books, lined systematically on a shelf. An almost imperceptible change overcame him. A smile plucked at the corners of his mouth and his gaze shifted to her.
"Curiosity. And you can call me Mohnish," he replied, drawing out a chair and seating himself.
"I said curiosity." He smiled.
Sonia stared at him. Actually, Mohnish Rai looked much better off-screen than on-screen. He was a handsome man, clean-shaven, with intelligent brown eyes and a straight nose. The smile produced a rather attractive dimple in his right cheek. The crop of well-trimmed hair with a straying flick falling over his forehead made him look young, but actually he seemed to be in his late twenties. He exuded confidence bordering on arrogance and was certainly no client. She extinguished her wilting hopes by closing her diary with a determined bang.
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