Sunday, November 23, 2008

Ramesh and the Landlord’s Secret (Part III)

Part III: Discovery!

Ramesh and his friend are stunned to hear that their school may close because the landlord won’t renew the lease. In the course of retrieving an unflattering poem about the Principal from his study, Ramesh stumbles upon a secret passage which links the school to an abandoned house, and another tunnel. The boys explore and find a secret underground cellar, full of bubbling cauldrons and bottles and men working. It is clearly an illicit liquor factory! As they watch, a man walks in. He talks to the men and is obviously the boss. It is the school’s landlord!

For a few minutes, the landlord addressed the men, who stood in a circle around him, listening. Then he left the hall through the opening by which he had come, followed by the two men who had come with him.

“Psst!” I quickly turned my head and saw that Ramesh was signalling me to follow him back up the passage.

When we were about twenty or twenty-five feet away from the mouth of the passage, Ramesh stopped. “Now we won’t be overheard!” he breathed.

“What’s going on in there?” I asked.

Ramesh looked surprised. “You mean, you haven’t guessed? Why, it’s an illicit liquor factory!”

I stared at him. “What?”

“Yes. The fumes smell of methyl alcohol – which is what illicit liquor-makers mix in the liquors they brew! Remember the newspaper reports about how illicit liquor has suddenly started appearing in this district? Well, I guess, this is the place where it’s made!”

I was amazed. “But –but that means the local landlord is behind the illicit liquor!”

“Yes,” agreed Ramesh grimly. “He must have started this racket just after his father died and he inherited everything – including this underground hall. The third entrance we were talking about must in the landlord’s residence!” Ramesh’s eyes widened suddenly. He looked as if he had just been struck by a thunderbolt. “Of course!” he exclaimed “Perhaps that’s why the landlord refused to renew the lease on the school building! He didn’t want anybody stumbling on the secret entrance leading to this hall and thus discovering his secret factory!” Ramesh grinned happily. “And that’s just what I’ve gone and done!”
I was impressed by this reasoning “Perhaps you’re right,” I conceded. “Then let’s go and report to the police!”

Ramesh became thoughtful. “Of course!” He scratched his chin. “But the landlord is an important man. When you’re my age –”.

“I am your age.”

“So you are! I forgot that. Well, anyway, since you’re my age, you should know by now that you can’t go around accusing important people of being hooch kings without having some evidence to back up your story. Let’s see now…yes…if we could take a bottle of this illicit liquor, the police would naturally want to know where we got it from. That would make them listen!”

Warning bells began to ring in my head. “Are you crazy!” I exclaimed. “Imagine the risk involved!” Ramesh’s spectacles began to glint excitedly. “There shouldn’t be much risk involved if we do everything properly. Did you see those crates containing bottles of yellow liquid? Well, that must be the illicit liquor! All we’ve got to do is crawl behind the drums until we come to the first crate, pick up a bottle and then crawl back behind the drums. Why, compared to this morning’s ordeal in the Princi’s study, it’ll be child’s play!”

Even I had to agree with this. Ramesh began to creep back to the mouth of the passage. With my heart in my mouth I followed him.

When we were about five feet away from the mouth of the passage, Ramesh fell on his knees and began to crawl like a baby. Without saying anything I did likewise.

On reaching the mouth we paused for a few tense seconds and tensed our muscles. Ramesh turned to look at me and nodded. Like two snails in a hurry we quickly crawled across the couple of feet separating the row of drums from the mouth of the passage. Nobody shouted. We had not been spotted!

Ramesh began to crawl to the other end of the row of drums.

I followed my reckless friend feeling, as all of us do at one point or the other, that I wanted to be somewhere else.

Ramesh, however, did not seem to share my feeling. He continued to crawl single-mindedly and, half a minute later, had reached the last drum. He peered round the corner and gave a self-satisfied smile. Immediately in front of the drums was the first stack of a long row of crates containing bottles of yellow-coloured liquid! For the first time in many minutes I began to breathe freely. Perhaps we might get away with it after all!

Ramesh quickly thrust his unlit torch into my hands. Then, he carefully rose to his feet and began to stretch his arm over the last drum in order to pick up a bottle form the top-most crate of the stack in front of us. Suddenly, his mouth fell open and he quickly dropped to the ground.

Puzzled by my friend’s behaviour, I peered through the drums and then my heart seemed to leap straight up into the air twiddling its feet, like a Russian dancer! A man had detached himself from the group around the nearest cauldron and was coming in our direction!

Did he suspect our presence?

I stared at the approaching man as if hypnotized. Nature, stretching this illicit liquor-maker out, had forgotten to stretch him sideways. On top of the straight-line body was a thin, ratlike face, with a long nose, long hair, and small eyes.

As this tall man neared the drums behind which Ramesh and I crouched, I stopped breathing. As I watched, the man came to a halt. He glanced casually about him and then turned and leaned against a stack of crates about fifteen feet or so away. He fumbled about in his trouser pocket and then drew out a packet of beedies.

I released my breath with a hiss and ceased to tremble like a malaria-patient. This man was only taking a break! He did not suspect our presence!

Ramesh, too, seemed to realise this, for he suddenly revived like a watered flower. The crate of bottles no longer looked too far. Ramesh once again slowly got to his feet and began to stretch his hand over the top of the drum. I stared breathlessly at the tall man. He had not noticed anything. Ramesh very carefully picked up a bottle by its neck from the top-most crate and began to withdraw his hand, holding tightly to his prize.

Then disaster struck.

The torch, which had already given us trouble, chose that moment to demonstrate again that something was wrong with it. I had just raised the hand holding it to scratch my chin when, all by itself, the torch suddenly switched on its light. The beam of light passed clear between the gap I was peering through and hit the tall man’s left eye! The man jumped as if he had been hit by a water-balloon. He swung around just in time to see Ramesh standing behind the last drum and holding a bottle of illicit-liquor. The man stopped chewing his beedi.

He lowered his eyes – and saw me staring in horror at him from between the drums.

The beedi fell from his mouth. Time sometimes does seem to stand still. It did then. For perhaps half a second nobody moved. Then, the tall man began to open his mouth. As if that was a signal, Ramesh and I came to life together. There was only one thing to do.

We ran.

As we raced down the row of drums, the hall erupted to the sound of shouting voices. Feet began to pound after us. We turned into the passage and began to race down it, feeling like a couple of rabbits with a whole platoon of dogs on their track. Ramesh was holding tightly to the bottle we had risked so much to obtain.

I scarcely noticed when we flew over the pile of rubble, careless of the danger of falling and breaking our necks.

We reached the fork in the passage. Ramesh, without pausing, grabbed my arm and dragged me into the passage on the left.

“The Princi’s study’ll be locked at this hour!” he gasped, his chest rising and falling like a troubled ocean. “Our only chance of escape is through the abandoned house!”

We ran. Suddenly, we no longer heard the sound of pounding feet behind us.

Ramesh slowed down a little and grinned triumphantly. “They ran on straight!” he exclaimed. “They must think we came from the school entrance!”

I said nothing. I had no breath left to talk. Besides, we had reached the mouth of the trapdoor.

Ramesh quickly swung himself through the opening overhead with an agility even Tarzan might have envied. I followed more clumsily but just as fast.

Once safely inside the cellar of the abandoned house, Ramesh quickly slammed down the wooden lid of the trapdoor. Then he ran to the nearest trunk and began to drag it onto the trapdoor. As he did so, a small box that had been lying on top of the trunk, fell to the ground and broke open. An envelope fell out.

Satisfied that nobody could now open the trapdoor from below, I crossed over to the door of the cellar. Seeing that Ramesh had not followed me, I turned around. Ramesh had picked up the envelope and was staring at it curiously.

“What’s wrong with you?” I exclaimed. “Come along!”

Ramesh thrust the envelope into his trouser pocket and joined me.

We ran all the way to the police-station.

The inspector knew Ramesh and me. We had helped him catch crooks before. But even he was sceptical at first when he heard our story. However, when we placed the bottle of illicit-liquor on his desk then, as Ramesh had predicted, he sat up and took notice. A police-party was immediately dispatched to the abandoned house. Another jeep-load of policemen was sent to the landlord’s residence. Meanwhile, at Ramesh’s insistence, the Inspector telephoned Mr. Gupta.

He gave our principal a summary of our story and asked him to come to the police-station.

The police-party sent to the abandoned house radioed back confirming our discovery. The Inspector asked us to wait and himself left for the abandoned house with another jeep-load of policemen.

While we waited, Ramesh took out the envelope he had thrust into his trouser pocket and tore it open. There was only a single sheet of paper inside. As he read Ramesh’s eyes suddenly lighted up as if a lamp had just been switched on in his head.

“Would you believe it __,” he began and then broke off as Mr. Gupta burst into the police station.

Mr. Gupta had been in the middle of another meeting of the governing body of the Educational trust that ran our school, discussing the disaster that had overtaken the institution, when the Inspector’s telephone call had arrived. His eyes were a little weary. He hurried over to Ramesh and me, his face creased with lines of worry.

“What have you two got yourselves involved in, now?” he exclaimed.

Ramesh jumped to his feet and thrust the paper he was holding into Mr. Gupta’s surprised hands. “Read this, sir!” he said.

Something in Ramesh’s tone made our Principal obey. He glanced down at the paper and began reading. As he did so, a strange look appeared on his face.

Mr. Gupta finished reading and looked up. His mouth opened. He made a remark we couldn’t hear.

“I beg your pardon, sir?” asked Ramesh.

“I said ‘Thank you, my boy’,” said Mr. Gupta, “You’ve saved the school!”

I swung my head around and stared at Ramesh. “What-what—”

Ramesh grinned happily. He pointed to the paper in Mr. Gupta’s hands. “That’s the old landlord’s will!” he explained. “He’s left the school building to the Trust!”

The landlord and his henchmen had had no time to escape and were caught redhanded by the police. We found out later that the landlord had not known of the other two entrances to the underground passage-way when he started his illicit liquor factory just after his father died. He had used only the entrance from his house. His father had walled up the passage when he first leased out the school building to the Educational Trust and rented out the second house. It was only when the wall, painted the colour if the surrounding rock, collapsed, that the present landlord had realized that his racket might one day be discovered by accident. That was why he had refused to renew the school’s lease.

The will, it soon came out, had been deliberately hidden by the old landlord, who had doubted his son’s honesty. Wanting the good work of the school to continue, the late landlord, in his will, had granted absolute ownership of the school building to the Trust. Thus, the school would not have to close down, after all! Mr. Gupta was so pleased that he never asked what Ramesh was doing in his cupboard in the first place!