What follows is a real account of a real event. Not a word of it is fictional and no character is imaginary. Everything is the truth. The chilling truth.
Some names have been changed to protect identities. Very necessary to avoid legal problems.
Time – Early afternoon, the beginning of the lunch hour (lunch period as a few used to say).
Date – Mid-December in the year 1996.
Place – Tripunithura, a suburb of Cochin city.
Cast of characters –
Mridul Madhavan – Big (Fat) boy, has a fascination for balls. Could his dark hands be behind the strange disappearance of the missing ball?
Anto Athirapparambil – Tall, lanky boy, who owns a mickey mouse bag. Could the football be hidden within the confines of the said bag?
Me – Entrepreneur and Visionary at age 11. Founder and Chief Investigator of the Terrific Three. Also known as Tom Jones.
Neil Napoleon – 2nd investigator of the Terrific Three. Also known as Joe Andrews.
Harish N. – 3rd investigator of the Terrific Three. Also known as Jim Watson.
Cosco football, 3 years and 4 months old – Treasured by the boys of VI-B, it provides immense entertainment during the lunch break. Missing. Apparently.
As soon as the school bell rang out signifying lunch break, interrupting a flowing discourse by Sheela Miss on Viscosity, Mridul Madhavan ran out of the classroom. His destination was the bicycle shed, where the football was kept hidden in a shallow ditch behind the bicycles. We were not allowed to keep footballs in the classroom, and we weren’t keen on sharing this ball with the rednecks of VI-A and VI-C, which was why the ball was kept hidden in this spot, known only to the boys of our class.
Mridul’s ear-splitting cry greeted me as I reached the playground along with my friends, Harish and Neil. Soon enough, the boy followed the cry and ran directly into us, blurting out words in a delirious fashion, reminiscent of Sir Charles Baskerville’s reaction upon encountering the hound in the desolate Grimpen Mire.
“The ball…. the football….it is gone!! It is missing!!!”
A Detective Club
The Terrific Three was formed one fateful afternoon a few weeks before the events concerning the missing ball unfolded. It all started as I finished a marathon session of reading 3 Hardy Boys books over the weekend (1 borrowed from the library, 1 being my 11th birthday present and the last borrowed from Ashwathy Chacko in lieu of a samosa and an orange-flavoured Sip-Up* from Kumar Bakers).
*Don’t know what a Sip-Up is? Known in certain parts of the world as an Ice Lolly, this yummy invention of local bakeries was a staple diet of the school-going crowd in our city. Here’s somebody getting all nostalgic about it.
Having finished those books, I felt a strange tingling feeling run through my self. The tingling of having found my life’s calling. For the third time actually. Astronaut and Football Coach were the two former callings, but the lure of a detective’s life called out louder and overshadowed both substantially.
In order to become a Private Eye though, one had to have a good grounding. Joe & Frank Hardy would undoubtedly use their vast experience in solving cases as teenagers to good effect in their adult lives. So would the Famous Five and the Secret Seven.
Thus, I decided to start a detective club in school.
I was determined to recruit the finest minds for this purpose and luckily enough, our school had many. I zeroed in on Neil Napoleon after he successfully found a Famous Five novel which had been filched from my bag. Neil’s ingenuity made him look in other bags, and soon enough he located the book in the red and green backpack of Anto Athirapparambil, which led to much shame and dishonour for this Anto.
There were rumours that Neil had planted the book in Anto’s bag to wreak vengeance upon Anto, who was the captain of one of the two VI-B football teams which played each other during recess. Anto had once refused to pick Neil in his team when Neil was one of the two last men standing after every other boy was picked. Valid cause for vengeance. But I ignored it.
I recruited Harish as the third member of the club because he gave me the best Birthday card for my previous birthday. Nice boy, him.
In our first meeting, three things were primary on the agenda –
1. A name – This was rather easy to come up with since Famous Five and Secret Seven had already given us ample precedence. Neil argued for Terrible Three, but Harish and I pointed out that we weren’t going to steal necklaces or slit throats. Terrific Three was the consensus.
2. More names – The thought of being boy-detectives with our very Indian names was utterly preposterous! We had to go for fancy anglicized names. Out came Tom Jones, Joe Andrews and Jim Watson.
3. What do we do? – Now, this was far trickier than the nomenclatures. We had a beautiful detective club that Enid Blyton would be proud of, but what mystery lurked in the middle of this monotonous town? There were no strange islands nearby, nor a haunted house. There were no top secret airfields where pilots flew around with top secret plans spilling out of their coat pockets. Darn.
It was thus that when Mridul’s cries reached us, we smelled blood like the aforementioned hound on Sir Charles Baskerville’s trail. We love our Sherlock Holmes references.
The Terrific Three met in our usual spot in the unused storage room behind the Library. We were solemn and tensed. The nerves were telling. Our first case. Wow.
“Tom, I have a very good idea of who might have taken the ball”, began Neil Napoleon, shifting into his Joe Andrews persona with utmost ease. “It must be that fellow Anto. Do you remember how irritated he was after we whipped his team 4-0 yesterday afternoon? This is definitely his devious plan at work!”
“But Joe, he doesn’t gain anything by hiding the ball. Even he can’t play now!”, Harish aka Jim Watson tried to reason with him.
“He’s a sadist, Jim. He would love to see the others miserable.” Neil was taking his Anto-hate to previously unscaled heights.
“There is no use in speculating like this”, I intervened, ever the mature voice of reason. “We need to find the ball and then nail the culprit.”
“But how do we find the ball?”
“We need a strategy. If you were a Cosco football, where would you hide yourself?”
“In Anto’s bag!”
“Shut up, Neil.”
“Sorry. Shut up, Joe.”
“I think we should search the cycle shed first. What if we find a clue?” Harish, the veteran of one too many detective novels, piped up.
“Now, that’s what I call a strategy. A gem of a strategy. A stratagem in fact.”
With these formalities complete, off we went to the bicycle shed.
At the Cycle Shed
We reached the bicycle shed and started digging around the general area where the ball was hidden. A few minutes after Neil unearthed a red earthworm which we mercilessly murdered with a pen, I stumbled onto something.
“Guys, look here. Isn’t that a depression on the ground?”
Neil and Harish gathered around and stared down at the spot where I was pointing. A small trail could be seen in the sand, slightly veering off to the left. A trail which could have been made by a ball being kicked about.
Maintaining our hound act, we followed the trail. It led left, it led right, but finally it stopped at the far corner of the shed, right next to a sleek red bicycle.
Harish was the first to spot the ball – it was wedged in between the handle and the bell of the bicycle.
“We did it! Woohooo – We found the ball!”, Harish let out a war cry quite reminiscent of Superhuman Samurai as he victoriously turned around with the ball, only to meet the stares of two shocked fellow investigators.
The sleek red bicycle. It was Neil’s.
Back in the playground, a mob was ready to lynch Neil. Led by the the lanky Anto, they were rapidly passing motions against him (Banished from football, No more homework sharing, No boys will sit with him in class – only girls – yuck). Neil looked despondent, protesting his innocence all the while and claiming that he was framed. Unfortunately, the rest of the class weren’t up-to-date on mystery novels and had no idea what framing meant.
Harish and I tried to restore a semblance of peace to the proceedings.
“Guys, what if somebody left the ball in there so that we would blame Neil? You cannot rule that out!”
“Why would someone do that?” Anto shouted back. This dude was insanely pleased to have Neil in the docks after the missing book incident.
It was then that I began to suspect him. I could see that Harish was thinking the same. It could all be part of Anto’s masterplan to get back at poor Neil.
But we had no proof.
Harish and I retracted ourselves from the crowd and sat near the library to do some thinking.
“This has to be a setup, Tom! There must be some way we can save Joe..”
“I can’t think of anything. Aaargh, how did those Hardy Boys hit upon those perfect plans just when things were looking bleak?!”
“The chapter before the last is always called “Trapped” but they inevitably escape the bloody trap!”
“I’ve got it! Don’t you see – We have to do exactly what the Hardy Boys would have done now!”
“And what would be that, my dear Jim?”
“They never get their villain by brainstorming. Instead, it’s always a bait. They lead the villain to unmask himself, don’t you see? We should do the same. We should get some kind of a bait. Something that can be stolen. And Anto would steal it again and pin the blame on Neil.”
“Why would he do that again?!”
“Come on, Tom.. You think this missing ball has caused any real harm to Neil? The kids will forget this in a day or two. But a theft would be different. If the teachers get to know of it, Neil would be in serious trouble.”
“Hmmm, that makes sense. So what kind of bait are we looking at?”
“Something valuable…which a boy would like to steal… something not many people have…”
“The Pen-Pencil!! Ramya Nair’s Pen-Pencil!”
“Genius! That’s perfect!”
Ramya Nair’s Pen-Pencil, in addition to being a beautiful blue instrument which she used to write her notes with, was the envy of the entire class. Everyone knew that this Nair’s father Nair had sent it to her from the Gulf, where he was doing something cool inside an oil well. The instrument had several tiny leads which could be inserted one after the other from the bottom and it looked exactly like a pen. So, it was naturally called a Pen-Pencil.
Ramya guarded it like a mother dragon would guard her eggs, never letting it out of sight.
Soon enough though, we had convinced Ramya to be a part of our plan (temporary membership of the Terrific Three was held out as a carrot, and Neil was nowhere to be seen anyway. Bawling in the boy’s bathrooms, someone had whispered earlier) and she did exactly what we asked her to do.
As Ramya left the Pen-Pencil nonchalantly on her desk and wandered out of the classroom, Harish and I lurked around in the corridor outside, hoping that our villain would take the bait. It was a gamble and we knew it.
Barely a few minutes remained for the lunch hour to end and I had just about given up when Harish gave an audible gasp and grabbed my arm. I looked inside and yes, a white-shirted figure was approaching Ramya’s desk. Yes, he looked around to see if anyone was watching. Yes, he picked up the blue Pen-Pencil. Yes, he turned around and made his way to Neil’s desk, where Neil’s bag lay open and uncared for.
We burst in like detectives usually do in moments like these and shouted, “Stop it right there!!” Mridul turned in shock and looked around to find the entire VI-B staring at him, caught red-handed with the blue Pen-Pencil in his grasp.
Harish strode up to him and shouted, “Why did you do this, you idiot? What did Neil ever do to you?!!”
Mridul was trembling slightly as he stared directly at the floor. But when he heard Harish, he raised his head and whispered, “What did he do?? How could you… How could you all forget the Cows?”..
(A few weeks ago)
When Mridul entered the classroom, he saw the raucous gathering in the first couple of benches and tried to steer clear of it. In vain.
“Hey, Mridul – come here! You want to play a game?’
Mridul recognized the voice. It was Neil – the popular boy, always loud, always playing tricks. So different from himself. But hey, a game would be nice.
He made his way to the gathering and sat opposite Neil.
“Imagine a green field”, Neil began, “A green field full of grazing cows. Some yellow, some white, some spotted.”
Mridul imagined. He had a good imagination. He could even imagine the cowherd.
“And the cowherd is from North India”, Neil continued, “Now Mridul, imagine that you are the cowherd. And you love your cows a lot. But cows are rather sensitive creatures, you know. Unless you convey your love to them, they might run away. Go on, tell them..”
“Er.. tell the cows that I love them?”
“Yes. You can refer to them by numbers. 1, 2, 3, 4…”
“OK.. I love Cow 1, I love…”
“Cow? Really? You are a Hindikkaran remember?”
“Hindi for Cow is Gaai.”
“I love Gaai 1, I love..”
“Wait, wait.. Slow down”, Neil shouted, peeking a glance outside the classroom door. A group of girls were walking towards the room, giggling at life in general.
“OK, start now, Mridul.”
“I love Gaai 1, I love Gaai 2, I love Gaai 3..”
Neil’s timing rarely goes wrong. Gayathri Sriraman abruptly stopped giggling at life in general and looked around in shock. The boys had all gone silent.
Extricating herself from her gang of girls, Gayathri turned to Mridul, who was looking as petrified as he usually does when faced by a member of the feminine sex.
“Did you just say you love me, you little idiot!?”
Mridul did not un-petrify.
“Ugh! Disgusting little creep. I’m going to complain to the class teacher!!”
And with that Gayathri stormed off, rapidly followed by her gang of giggling girls, each curious to see whether Gayathri was going to cry or not.
Peals of laughter broke out around Mridul, as he finally un-petrified himself. Neil was literally rolling on the floor laughing, tears of mirth running down his chubby cheeks. Mridul looked around at the others, and could see no friendly face…
The Terrific Three stood watching as Mridul was led away by the Class Teacher to the Principal’s office. We had nothing to say to each other. There was no whoop of triumph, no joy in solving our first case. Harish suggested Sip-Ups from Kumar’s and we followed him, not talking but staring hard at the dusty playground.