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HomespecialsOminous object

Ominous object

‘Don’t touch it!’ screeched Asha. ‘Get away from that thing!’

Rakhi, who was about to sit down on a chair, jumped up hastily, almost knocking it over. Backing away quickly from a black briefcase, she demanded crossly, “Whatever is the matter, Asha? You gave me a terrible fright.”

Asha was unrepentant. “Better scared than sorry, Rakhi,” she said coolly. “Don’t you know that you should never go near unidentified objects?”

“I’m sure I’ve seen this briefcase before,” said Rakhi, eyeing it from a distance discreetly; “Quite recently, in fact. Nothing unidentified about it. It probably belongs to someone here. No need to get worked up over it.”

The girls were in the school auditorium. It was generally deserted after assembly, unless there was a programme in progress, or a practice under way. Whenever Asha and Rakhi were free at the same time, they met there for a chat. That generally happened during history: an elective subject which, unlike many of their classmates in the humanities section of Grade 11, Asha and Rakhi had not taken.

The two friends had missed their favourite haunt for a month. Students had been in and out, preparing for the drama competition on Friday afternoon. By Monday, however, much to Asha and Rakhi’s relief, costumes and props had been cleared. The spacious hall was back to its usual quiet self, the way they liked it. No sooner had the bell rung for history and the English teacher gone, Asha and Rakhi had made their way to their cosy corner, just outside the green room. About to seat themselves on two comfortable old chairs that they considered their own, the girls had spotted the briefcase beneath one of them.

“Evidently,” said Asha, as Rakhi reluctantly left the briefcase where it was, “you were not listening to our principal. On the morning after the recent terrorist threat, Dr Sridhar urged us to bring any strange packages we came across to his notice.”

“Don’t you remember I had a doctor’s appointment that day?” said Rakhi, “I missed assembly. Dr Sridhar had given me permission to stay home after I got back from the clinic.”

‘Sorry, I had forgotten,’ said Asha. ‘I recall now, as we were reading Blake’s ‘Tiger’, Mrs Lobo was looking round the class for her prize pupil.’

Rakhi grinned. ‘I enjoy poetry,’ she said, ‘but you’re the one with the vivid imagination. You should be a writer. Look at you, making a fuss over a harmless briefcase.’

Asha shook her head. ‘It may not be harmless,’ she said grimly. ‘One of our teachers could be involved in a criminal conspiracy. Don’t you think that Mr Goyal is quite capable of blowing us all to bits?’

Rakhi laughed. ‘Just because he is critical of our political science assignments doesn’t make him a villain, though I agree he’s a terror. Anyway, how about trying to open the briefcase? If it doesn’t explode, we’ll know it’s safe.’ She pulled it out from under the chair before Asha could stop her.

‘There could be a dangerous device inside,’ warned Asha. ‘You know, the ticking type, crisscrossed with colourful wires that nobody can figure out…’

‘Except the hero who defuses the bomb in the nick of time,’ concluded Rakhi. ‘You watch too many movies, Asha. There is, of course, another possibility.’

‘The Foreign Hand?’ suggested Asha eagerly.

Rakhi sighed. ‘A friendly hand,’ she said. ‘I think this was used in ‘The Crafty Clerk’, one of the plays in the drama competition. Remember the scene in which Henry Montague steals the money and walks quickly and quietly off the stage with a briefcase? Wait!’ she exclaimed. ‘See these embossed initials: SS.’

Asha began: ‘Sneaky Scorpions, Sinister Snakes, Suspicious…’

‘Sanjay Sridhar,’ said the principal, coming up to the girls. ‘I must say it doesn’t sound half as exciting as those other titles,’ he added, smiling. ‘I had the briefcase with me on Friday, when I came backstage to greet the actors. I searched frantically for it over the weekend, and only just remembered where I’d left it.’

‘Of course, Sir!’ said Rakhi. ‘That’s why it seemed so familiar. I saw it in your office when I was there to request you for leave of absence.’

Red-faced with embarrassment, Asha tried to hide in the folds of the stage curtains. Dr Sridhar said kindly, “I’m glad you are taking my advice seriously, Asha,” he told her. “Unfortunately, while sneaky and sinister beings do exist, they aren’t snakes and scorpions. Sad to say, they are members of our human family!”

(Published 20 October 2023, 18:07 IST)

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