It was 7 PM. The weather was gearing up for the night. It was getting dark and stormy, preparing everyone for the rain that was to befall. I was ready to meet Mr. Minds. That was my day. I promised myself to take full advantage of it. I drove to my destination and witnessed a motorcade of vehicles waiting to get in through the huge black iron gates. Mr. Minds Mansion read the gold letters on huge black granite slab studded with blue crackle glass stakes to form its border. The walls on both sides of the gate had espaliers trained to grow along the walls, giving the place a mystic appearance. At a distance from the main gate I saw the enormous, brightly illuminated Baroque architectural style chateau that represented triumph and absolutist sensibilities of the owner.
The two kilometer long driveway in the form of approach road signaled a dignified arrival setting which formed a vital element of the gardens and estate. The expanse blends seamlessly into the lawn and the larger landscape, providing a link from the street to the parking court. All along the driveway there were Katsura and Asian white birch trees. With 175,000 square feet, it is the largest privately owned house.
I reached the entrance. A man in uniform took the keys from me and a young lady came over with a bouquet, handed it to me and said, ‘Welcome Sir. This way please. And may I know your name Sir?’
‘I am Ai.’
‘Nice to meet you Mr. Ai. Your seat is beside the pool with the other senior members of the syndicate’ she said.
I looked around as I silently followed her. I was left enthralled by the white Byzantine mosaic floors and the mahogany work on the ceiling along with, illusionist paintings. Interiors of the rooms were filled with antique furniture and Belgian mirrors. Then there was the striking Varsace swimming pool that had been designed like a roman bath with marble steps and white walkways. Taking a dip in that exotic pool specifically meant for the kings was a true privilege.
‘Here Sir, this is your table.’ She signaled to one of the barmen and asked him to take care of the new guest and disappeared into the crowd. I sat quietly sipping my drink looking for familiar faces in the crowd. I didn’t know anyone there. A few minutes later Mr. Creas spotted me, waved smiling and came over to me and said, ‘Ah, Mr. Ai, nice party eh?’
‘Yes, indeed, quite lavish.’
‘Come let me introduce you to some of my friends, prominent members of the town’ he said and led my way through the crowd. I wasn’t interested. My target was Mr. Minds. But, I smiled and followed him. There were there men in a circle talking in low voice in a corner and Creas joined them turning the circle into a perfect rectangle – dustha-chatustayam, the infamous four. One was Mr. Liver Pool mayor of the town, one man was Mr. Kid Beans an eminent builder and the other was Judge Prudence. I shook hands and stood smiling, nodding now and then, sipping my drink, looking interested in their conversation. One of them said, ‘The town has improved in all areas in the past three years.’ ‘Yes, since Mr. Minds came back. All this credit goes to him.’ I was waiting for my call.
The man in uniform said, ‘This way Sir,’ and led my way to the middle of the living room, leading up the spiral staircase onto the second floor of the building. He walked ahead of me, stopped at a huge carved teakwood door with two dragons entwined, with a silver knob. There were two armed guards at the door. The man knocked gently on the door. A voice said, ‘Come in.’
He pointed to the door and asking me to go in. I felt all my body parts over-working with stress and it was definitely showing on my face. I was sweating. I took my hanky out, wiped my face, placed it neatly back in its place, ran my fingers through my hair, straightened my jacket and asked the guy, ‘Do I look Okay?’ He nodded, smiling.
I entered the room in mellow steps and I could hear my heart thump. I was sure my mercury levels were much, much higher than normal. I looked around and saw a man seated in a large leather chair with his back to me. All I could see was his arm holding his pipe. He was wearing a black suit I presumed.
The room was lit adequate. I looked around. Apart from enormous racks of books gracefully kept behind closed glass doors, the most prominent piece of furniture in the room was a huge antique wall clock hug across on the wall across the antique leather sofa. I was startled as it struck eight. A Great Dane that was lying low at his feet until then barked. He changed his pipe from his left hand to the other and ran his left hand over the beast. I heard his voice for the first time. He said, ‘Welcome Mr. Ai. I am glad you could come at such short notice’ and inhaled smoke from the pipe and breathed it out like a dragon spitting fire. If only I knew then, that it was the smoke before the fire that had the capacity to destroy anything and everything that came in its way.
‘It is an honor Mr. Minds…Sir.’
‘Please have a seat.’
I sat on the edge of one of the couch, leaning forward a little with my hands on my lap.
‘The reason I called you is to offer you a position in the syndicate.’
‘I want you to continue doing what you are doing and give me all the information on the goings on in the town. Every little detail. And you will work from your office and will not contact me unless it is an emergency. If you agree to the conditions, name your price’ said the voice in the chair.
I was thinking fast. Do I settle for this or ask for what I came for? Will he agree? Will he see my greed through it or will he see my ambition to succeed?
‘What is it Mr. Ai?’
‘I’ll work for you and do what you want me to do.’ Paused and said, ‘In return I want you to make me your partner. And will work without any pay until such time.’
‘You are quite ambitious Mr. Ai. I choose my partners not the other way round. However, I like your self-confidence and would like to give you an opportunity. Deal?’
‘Deal then. Thank you for your faith in me. I won’t disappoint you.’
‘Good. Meet my secretary and she’ll follow up with all the paper work.’
‘If there is nothing else, good day Mr. Ai’ he said and put a period around our conversation.
I wanted to take a look at the man but shrugged my disappointment off, thinking I’ll have lot more opportunities to meet him. Let me concentrate on my job.
I walked out and saw Miss Cee, completed all the formalities and left the place. Once my goal for the day was accomplished I had no interest in socializing.
That very night when everything was calm, resting. There was one area of town that was awake with activity at its zenith. She was going to join the party shortly. She looked at herself in the mirror, adjusted her wig, gave final touches to her makeup, pulled her scarf over her head, wore her big dark glasses, picked her handbag up and walked out onto the street. It was raining indicating disharmony in nature and the roads were deserted. She whistled for a cab from the portico and a cabbie stopped with a screech before her and she got in and instructed, ‘Mr. Rationality’s office please.’
Cabbie smiled at her and said, ‘Nice wig. Marlin Munroe huh?’ She reciprocated with a smile and stole her gazes away as her fists clenched involuntarily, indicating tension brewing in her heart.
“Boy, nature definitely seems to be angry at someone,’ he said, looking at the sky turning his wipers on, to clear the water dripping on the glass, obstructing his view.
He added, ‘It doesn’t seem like it’s gonna stop. It is dangerous to drive in this weather Miss. Sorry, I can’t drive you.’
‘I’ll pay you more than you have ever seen and don’t worry, I’ll take care of your safety and security,’ she said, trying to convince him, displaying her false bravado. After fifteen minutes of her coaxing him, a deal was struck. The cab drove through corners and lanes of the town that she didn’t know existed. She was amazed at the complexity and vastness of the town and could not help but utter a silent thank you to her boss for such massive accomplishment. The thought of him brought her fears back and sent chills through her spine. She looked at the cabbie and he was concentrating on driving through back alleys and streets sparsely populated with homes, occasionally looking at her in the rear view mirror as if trying to gauge who she was. She definitely wasn’t Marlin Munroe as the makeup and wig suggested. She took a closer look at the cabbie. She had a slight inkling that he may be in disguise as well. She kept looking at him and it was his turn to steal his looks.
After exchanging a few silent gapes, he sarcastically asked, ‘So Miss, are you part of Mr. Rationality’s team fighting for equity and social justice?’ looking at her in the mirror.
‘Yes of course.’
‘Miss, don’t mind me saying this, but don’t you know it is utopia and can never be achieved?’
‘What do you mean?’ came her defensive question.
‘I mean the gap between haves and have-nots cannot and will not be reduced in the history of mankind. If there is no loser in the game, there is no fun winning it. You need someone to be below you to make you feel superior, is it not? Also, the gap will continue to exist forever as this economic shift of class is like climbing an endless ladder.’
‘What are you saying?’
‘Miss, the poor get a little rich, the middle class becomes upper middle class and upper middle class becomes high class, high class becomes very rich class and so on and so forth. Only names change the positions don’t. Everyone is in the rat race and is climbing the endless ladder. If you climb one step, the guy above you does the same and the one above him. There is constant change without actually changing anything and that is called economics.’
‘Hmmm, you do have a point. Cell phone once a luxury to upper middle class is everyone’s necessity today and a car, a luxury limited to the high class is unavoidable for middle class today. Every class has taken a step towards betterment yet, everything is at status quo.’ She rationalized his argument.
She recovered from her thoughts and said, ‘You are awfully knowledgeable for a cabbie! How qualified are you?’
‘I am a seventh grade dropout.’
‘You are quite smart for a seventh grade dropout. Why didn’t you study further?’
‘The same reason millions don’t in this country – economic status – my father couldn’t afford it.’
‘Indeed. I’m sorry you couldn’t study further.’ She then put her hand under her chin and dropped into her world of thoughts.
He could not stop himself from looking at her. A woman with quite the curves! Delicious. He felt a gush of warmth run through him filling with raw desire.
With great difficulty, he shrugged his thoughts off, especially those taking off on amorous tangents. He concentrated on his driving. They didn’t say much to each other for the rest of the journey. She was in a way thankful to him for shutting up. Nevertheless, she missed the company of his words that shielded her from her inner demons – fears. Little did she know she was going to face bigger fears with his intervention. They both continued to occasionally steal each other’s stares.
After another hour or so of driving, the cab reached a dark area of town where there was no electricity in the homes and the street lights were breathing their last blinking, ready to die. It was thundering, raining – like water pouring out of a colossal demonic sieve. She looked out of the window, cursed the weather, turned to the cabbie and said, ‘Here is your payment’ and gave him a bundle of 100s, keeping her promise. He took the bundle from her, took five notes from it and returned the rest to her and said, ‘Miss. I have taken what is rightfully mine. And here we are safe and sound. I need nothing more.’
‘But I promised, take it,’ she said.
‘No Miss, I insist,’ he replied.
‘You are one weird cabbie’ she said, dropping the bundle into her purse.
‘I’ve been told so on numerous occasions’ came his reply with his lips stretched to his ears.
‘Thank you for all your help. And hope to see you around some time.’
‘I sure hope so.’
She got out of the cab, took her umbrella out, opened it and in slow and steady steps, walked away from the cab into the dark.
Cabbie watched her move farther away from him. Took a deep breath, pulled his cell phone out, and dialed a number, when the other man said, ‘Salaam Aalekum Your Highness.’
Cabbie said, ‘She is ready and is perfect for the job. Put her on it right away.’
‘Yes, your highness,’ said the voice on the other end.
‘Mr. Rationality, how many times have I told you do not call me Your Highness? Just call me Junior like everybody else. No one should suspect me. Do you understand,’ he roared.
‘Yes, your highness, Sorry, Junior … Sir.’
Nodding side to side, eyebrows drawn together, dusting his frustration off, he said, ‘Get on the job right away. I need every little detail of the man under our radar. I repeat, DO NOT miss any detail. And handle her with caution.’
‘Yes Sir. Will be on the job and will keep you posted.’
He ended the call, sighed deeply, turned the key in the ignition and drove away.
The mystery woman in disguise walked through narrow lanes, drains over flowing from excessive rain and streets flooding with water reaching above her knees. Her umbrella was unwilling to listen to her as it tried eloping with wind. She angrily looked at it as if warning against misconduct, stood still for a few seconds, took her sandals off, held them in one hand and waded through the water. Finally, she reached her destination – A gated community guarded by a barbed wire fence. She looked for the guard and he was nowhere to be seen. She signed her name in the register in the booth next to the gate and walked in. She walked into the colony like it was a familiar territory. She passed through homes with low roofs, windows unmasked, small kitchen gardens, wooden gates and croton fences between the homes. She had seen it many times in broad day light. She walked towards the playground at the end of the colony, stood in the center of it and waited. A man appeared at a distance. He walked towards her in the dark and said, ‘Miss. Heart Crux?’
‘This way please’ he said, and led her way to a barn at the end of the playground. She looked around to gauge her surroundings but darkness didn’t cooperate. She quietly followed the man. They reached the center of the barn. He moved the big hay stack aside and flung the metal door on the floor open and said, ‘After you Miss.’ she quietly escalated down the metal staircase. She heard murmurs from below. As soon as she entered the cellar, everyone stood up and Mr. Rationality said, ‘Adab, Miss. Crux, Welcome. We’re all waiting for you.’
‘Hello. Thanks for trusting me with the job. The blue prints are in my purse’ she said, and took them out and spread them on the table. Everyone in the room two men and two women, all Mr. R’s assistants, moved closer and looked intently through the papers. She moved away from the round table and said in a low voice, ‘I need to take this wig and make up off.’ She pulled the wig off and her original hair came dangling down like a silk curtain flowing in the air. The men’s jaws dropped to the floor at the sight while the young women looked with envy. She took out her pocket mirror and checked her makeup and took a brush out and ran it through her hair a couple of times and caught the men’s expression from the corner of the eye and smiled to herself with pride.
Mr. Rationality looked up from the papers and said, ‘Miss. Crux this is excellent evidence. Now we can make our first move against the king pin behind all this. I hope your boss didn’t suspect the actual reason behind your resignation.’
‘No, he is not that smart. But he’ll figure out eventually. The man behind all this is someone else.’ And I want him. She clenched her fists hard exposing her veins. I’ll take back what is rightfully mine, she vowed.
Mr. Rationality moved away from the table, lit his cigarette, took a drag from it and paced around the room for a few minutes and then decoded the puzzle for everyone’s knowledge, except of course Miss. Crux.
‘This is the first gigantic acquisition of land in the name of progress, displacing so many hundreds of lives. They want to construct a multiplex on the land that belongs to the consortium. Those poor guys do not have a voice nor can they buy a lawyer to be their voice. I am sure this will not stop here. His greed is insatiable. It will destroy one community after another and we’ll have to leave our homes and be at his mercy, dwelling in the place that he allocates to us.’
‘He can’t do that. There are laws in this country and we are all lawyers, Sir’ said, one of Rationality’s female assistants.
‘Of course he can. He is the head of everything here. He controls everything. He does what he feels is right and we can’t do a thing but comply’ said, one of the male assistants.
‘We’ll change that,’ said Miss Crux as her face turned red with all her blood gushing to her face. She walked to Mr. R, took the cigarette from him, took a drag from it and asked everyone in the room, ‘Won’t we change that for the benefit of everyone?’
‘Yes’ came their unanimous reply, mesmerized under the spell of her beauty and command.
‘So, what’s the next move Mr. R?’ she asked taking a drag from her cigarette.
‘If you are ready for your next assignment, we’d like you to be our eyes and ears giving us inside scoops on the man himself.’
‘No, that is too dangerous,’ came her defense.
‘If one of us had your beauty or ‘skill’ we would have volunteered,’ said one of Mr. R’s assistants mocking her. She looked sharply at her shooting darts through her eyes directing the woman back to her boundary of decency.
Mr. R stepped forward in her defense and said, ‘It is not her fault. You have quite the reputation outside with your falling in and out of love so easily.’
‘I am a spy Mr. R. That’s my job. I can’t help if people think low of me. I work to keep them safe and look what I get in return,’ came a stream of anguish out of her.
‘So go for the big shark instead of small fish in the pond. You can do it and we’re all here to help you if you need something’ he said, assuring her with a pat on her shoulder.
She paced around the room for a few minutes engrossed in thought while the others looked on in anticipation.
It is better to face the enemy head on. Why play hide and seek? For what he did to my father and the humiliation my father suffered, he should be dead by now. He missed the last time but he won’t this time. I need to avenge him for my own peace. Moreover, my ex-boss Mr. Bean will be after me when he finds out, I am the one behind the disappearance of the blue prints. To escape his wrath and avoid friction at this point of time, I need to take the offer.
For some reason she thought of her father’s last words, ‘When you think of revenge dig two graves, one for yourself.’ My father was too nice a man to excuse a crook like him. I am not him and will either destroy him or die in the process. A decision was made. When revenge becomes larger than life, human rationale and logic gets blurred.
‘Yes’ she said, ‘I’ll do it, but on one condition. I should be given the liberty to leave the assignment anytime I choose.’
‘Yes, of course,’ assured Mr. R.
‘When do I start?’
‘Whenever you are ready. Is next week okay for you? I’ll make all the arrangements to join him as his new PR Manager.’
Miss Crux looked at Mr. R’s assistants as they got ready to leave. Mr. R moved closer to them and said something in an inaudible voice and they both nodded in agreement before leaving the other two in the company of silence.
Mr. R went up to the barn and noticed it still raining. He came down to the cellar and said, ‘It’s still pouring out there. You can spend the night at our place. My daughter and wife will be pleased to see you.’
‘Yes, thank you. I’d like to see aunty Rationality and Nafeesa. Give me five minutes to get this makeup off’ she said, and went into the washroom and returned after half an hour looking fresh like a washed pearl.
‘Come let’s go, he said and led her way to the top of the barn. He moved the hay stack back to its place and they walked towards his home.
Mr. MINDS here I come, she thought under her gritted teeth as streaks of red grazed her eyes.
The stage was all set for a curtain raiser.
End of ACT 1.