This story is selected as Editor’s Choice and won INR 500
Saturday evening, 7.30 PM.
Lanky and pony-tailed, Derek stepped into the Chinese restaurant, unimaginatively named Kung Fu Panda and saw that the place was almost full. Instrumental music was playing softly through hidden speakers, and waiters moved gracefully, bearing menus and trays with drinks and starters. He nodded to several familiar faces, shaking hands several times when people got up to greet him.
Arthur made his way over and offered his hand to Derek. “You look exactly the same as you did when you left six years ago.” marvelled Arthur, as he led him to a table set for three.
“You haven’t changed much yourself, Art.” retorted Derek, and nudged his waistline. “Except perhaps for a few inches out here.”
Art regarded his paunch fondly. “One of the benefits of owning a restaurant…” He showed Derek to his chair. “You’re early, Derek. Our dinner date was for a quarter to eight.”
Derek shrugged. “In that respect, I haven’t changed one bit. I used to always be the first at any social event back in our college days.” He chuckled. “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten?”
Arthur shook his head. “Six years is a long time, Derek, but some things one doesn’t forget, especially when it involves your best friends back then.”
Derek looked surprised. “Well, we were dorm-buddies, that’s true. Best friends would be putting it a bit too strongly, though.” He looked over his shoulder, noticing some movement.
Less than a foot away, at the next table, an attractive young woman wearing a low-cut blouse was taking a seat. Seeing him glance at her, she offered him a bright smile before turning to her dinner companion.
“Still single, I see.” observed Arthur, motioning to the lack of a wedding band.
Derek groaned. “You sound like my mother, Art… In my defence, I’ve been away for six years. And that damn desert is the last place on earth for anything even remotely romantic to take place.”
“Not to worry. Now that you’re back in town, you can start putting out feelers. You’re probably the most eligible bachelor in this small town.”
“That honour would go to you.” said Derek. “Owner of this fancy restaurant. I hear it’s one of the classiest joints in town.” He looked about, charmed by the surroundings. “It’s nice, buddy.” He glanced at his watch. “Greg’s going to keep us waiting, I take it.”
“Just like the old days.” murmured Arthur. “Have you guys kept in touch over the years?”
“Mainly Facebook. Hardly a substitute for a normal conversation, even over a phone.” He shrugged. “But I’m aware of what’s been happening in his life. He’s got a baby girl three months back.”
“I had no idea.” admitted Arthur. “We rarely meet. The last time was when he came for the inauguration of this restaurant.” The tinkle of bells at the entrance made him look up. “Speak of the devil…”
Derek’s face lit up when he saw his old dorm-mate. He gave Greg a warm hug and thumped him on the back. The shorter bespectacled man backed away with a mock groan. “Easy, easy!” The smile returned as he gazed at his old chum. “You haven’t changed! And not a hint of grey! I’m already turning green in envy!”
He shook hands with Arthur and they took their chairs. Derek regarded his old buddy fondly. “You used to be the baby of our class; and look at you now: a father already!”
Across the table, Arthur was filled with resentment at the warm greeting Derek had accorded Greg. All he had merited was a stiff handshake. He cleared his throat. “I hope you guys don’t mind: I’ve taken the liberty of ordering us soups.”
Both men nodded agreeably. It was Arthur, after all, who had suggested a welcome-back dinner affair when he heard that Derek was home-bound. Arthur raised a hand, catching the eye of his maitre d’ and gave a single nod. His employee bowed in acknowledgement and retreated to the kitchen inside.
“How long do you plan on staying?” asked Greg gradually.
Derek gave a shrug. “A couple of months at least. I need to answer some exams.”
Arthur grimaced. “Studies! I thought we left that behind us in college.” His face brightened. “Speaking of college, do you guys remember some of the pranks you played on me?”
Derek gave a half-hearted smile; clearly he did remember and the memories were not pleasant ones.
“Derek was the mastermind; obviously he was the brains of the outfit, but it was the two of you together who pulled off all those stunts.” He sat back, head furrowed in thought. “That one about the dead rat. I bet you still remember that! That was a classic!” He shook his head in wonder. “The way you stuck the animal with Fevicol to the ceiling fan in my room. I hunted for days for the source of the stench!” He grinned, not noticing or choosing to ignore their uncomfortable looks.
He suddenly shuddered. “And what about the chilli-powder prank? Putting that stuff in my underwear! Genius! Sheer genius! I bet you guys got a real kick of that one, huh? And oh, what about that one where you filled the shower head with washing powder? That didn’t work too well, but the concept was brilliant…” All his teeth were on display as he chortled. “But the animal tricks were the best ones, I would say. Lizards in my shoes, a frog in my wardrobe…”
Derek leaned forward, his tone almost stern. “Art, we were kids back then. Dumb, brainless idiots whose idea of fun involved ridiculing others. Most of it was my doing, and I’ll admit that I was wrong. Maybe it was funny back then, but I don’t see it that way now at all. We were probably very cruel, some of the things we did to you in college, and right now I feel awful about it. If it’s an apology you’re after-”
A waiter appeared at his elbow and Derek straightened, suddenly conscious of his surroundings.
“The Panda special for the two of us.” murmured Arthur as the bowls of steaming soup were placed before them. “And for Greg, his usual, befitting his recent vegan status.”
Derek was reluctant to reach for his spoon; his appetite had diminished. He watched as Greg dipped his spoon into the dark brown broth in his bowl and stirred gently. He leaned forward and sipped.
A queer look came on Greg’s face and he stirred the soup some more. To Derek’s sudden horror, gleaming coils of something very unnatural broke through the surface before vanishing again. “What the hell.” He muttered, peering in consternation.
Arthur picked up his spoon and lifted out long pinkish-looking strands. He smiled at Greg. “Worms, my dear friend. How’s that for a great prank!”
He dropped the worms back into the soup as Greg made a retching sound and hurriedly got up with his hand clutching his mouth, before rushing across to the men’s room.
Derek was incredulous. “You did that intentionally?”
Arthur nodded, his face bursting with merriment. “What’s the matter, Derek, can’t take a joke?” He hooted with mirth, his bulk shaking with the motion. He seemed to choke suddenly and reached out stricken, for a napkin. The move was a careless one, and his hand knocked a glass of water directly into Derek’s lap.
Derek pushed his chair, and patted down his trousers with a spare napkin. Arthur coughed into his serviette, his expression apologetic. “There’s a towel in the Men’s room.” Derek nodded and stood up.
The meter box was located close to the entrance, concealed cleverly by a display of flowering potted plants. One of the restaurant staff stood nearby, trying to look inconspicuous. He was looking at Arthur, waiting for his signal to turn off the power.
Arthur looked in his direction and gave him a curt nod. The employee switched off the mains and the whole restaurant was instantly plunged into darkness.
A few startled gasps rose out from the darkness, but there was no other sounds, either of alarm or annoyance. Most of the guests were regulars and knew there was a generator.
So when the scream came, it caught the diners by surprise, and most of them whirled in the darkness, turning to where they had heard the sound. “Thief!” The single word was yelled by a woman, and it was loud and piercing. “Help!”
Several cell phones burst into life almost as if by magic and then the lights twinkled on, one after the other.
Blinking, what everybody could see was Derek being manhandled by one of the diners. It was the pretty woman who had been sitting behind him. “Someone help me please!” Her arms were gripping his tightly. For his part, Derek looked like he was trying to get away from her. His face was a picture of stunned shock.
By this time, other diners had risen and the maitre d’ had come forward. The woman released Derek, but her arm was pointed at him and her voice was stony. “He was sitting at that table. When the lights went out I felt someone grabbing the chain around my neck.” Her hand went to her throat which was empty. “I realised what was happening immediately and I turned and grabbed him by the arm. He was pulling away and I managed to get up and grab him and hold on tightly because I feared letting go in case he escaped before I could see who it was.” Her chest heaved with emotion and all eyes had now turned to Derek. “Someone please check his pockets…”
Derek looked at Arthur who was on his feet.
Arthur shrugged. “This is a serious matter, Derek. The best way to sort things out would be if you allowed yourself to be searched.” The maitre d’ came forward and began going through Derek’s pockets.
The attention of the whole establishment was riveted on the patting-down search, diners and staff alike. Emerging from the washroom, Greg stared aghast at what was happening.
Derek had grimly raised his hands in a half-hearted spirit of co-operation and was staring rigidly at the far wall.
It took less than five minutes and finding nothing, the maitre d’ stepped back, flustered. He turned to his boss for guidance. Arthur felt the colour drain from his face. But that was impossible, he thought. He had planned it very carefully, even positioning Derek’s chair so that it was back-to-back with the woman’s. He had promised his staff bonuses in return for their parts in his prank. The woman, whom he had chosen for her looks, was to have pushed the necklace into Derek’s back pocket when the lights went off. Then, according to Arthur’s plan, she would have grabbed Derek and held on tight until the lights came on, accused him and then the humiliation when the necklace was discovered. What the hell had gone wrong? And where was his necklace?
The woman suddenly found herself at the receiving end. Derek was glaring at her and when she turned to look at her boss, she found he too was regarding her with a murderous look. “I don’t understand…” She said, but her voice had lost its edge. Wilting under the contemptuous gazes of those around, she shrunk back into her seat, lifting a hand to shield her face.
It took Derek only one step to reach his table. He picked up his bowl of soup and moved over to the seated woman.
Uh-oh, thought Arthur, stirring to life. If Derek got belligerent, she might just get frightened enough to spill the beans. He couldn’t have that. It would be a back-fire of the worst kind.
The woman, sensing something was amiss, lowered her hand and looked up to find Derek looking down at her, his gaze as hard as nails. Around, conversation came to a stop as a dozen pairs of eyes watched what was unfolding.
“I don’t know who you are and I’m pretty damn sure you have no idea who I am.” said Derek harshly. “Probably like me, you are a native of this town. Probably like me, you grew up here. I left this place six years ago, to make my fortune. I left behind my family and a lot of friends and people who I had grown up with, and as you might imagine, that was very painful. But I could do it, because I knew that some day, when things were better for me, I would be able to return. The knowledge of returning some day was like a source of strength for me, and it kept me going.
“It’s been six years and I just got back today, early this morning in fact. I returned to this place I have known always as home. A place where I grew up, a place which has given me memories I hope never to forget. When I set foot at the airport, I actually had tears in my eyes, that’s how happy I was. I was home, at last. Each step I took to my house was a happy one. Nothing could have spoiled it for me.” His eyes narrowed. “After all those years away, you have managed, without any provocation on my part, to ruin my first day home. You have publicly humiliated me in my home-town, in front of people I’m seeing after a long time. You really ruined my day.” His face was flushed with fervour. “And now – I’m going to ruin yours.”
He leaned forward and with his free hand yanked the front of her blouse forward. Before she could even gasp, he poured the contents of his bowl of Kung fu Panda Special soup all over her chest.
She stared at him, too dazed even to scream.
Around them, people began to clap and cheer and laugh in delight.
Derek was still holding her blouse forward in one hand and he was staring down and the expression that suddenly came across his face was so startling that diners around stopped their sounds, curious and suddenly apprehensive.
His hand fell to his side and he took a step back, and he was shaking his head, staring at the woman in what was clearly mounting anger. “Please stand up.” His voice was so cold that she pushed back her chair and got to her feet, casting fearful eyes at him.
Derek took a deep breath. He looked about. “I have to do this.” He announced loudly and before anyone could understand what he meant by those words, he reached forward, grasped the soaked blouse with both hands and yanked in different directions.
The buttons on her blouse gave way without any protest, flying off. The action made several women gasp out loudly in shock and then silence filled the room as people stared, first in bewilderment then in sudden understanding.
Arthur’s eyes bulged too. He was unable to believe his eyes. Right there, hooked onto the central bow of the woman’s lacy bra, right between the cups, was the missing necklace.
As if comprehension had dawned on them all at the same time, customers began to mutter and point at her, their gazes dark.
She had tried to steal it, realised Arthur. It dawned on him swiftly that he could be in trouble if the woman broke down and told her side of the story. He signalled frantically to his maitre d’ and the man rushed forward and escorted her away.
Derek found Greg standing beside the wash-basin. “Let’s get out of here, Greg.”
“Derek.” It was Arthur. He had hurried over. He looked at Greg who looked away, sullen. “Can we sit-”
Derek gave a decisive shake of his head. “No chance, Art.” His eyes were like flint. “I guess this is your idea of revenge for all the pranks we played on you. You waited all these years, and obviously what better opportunity to humiliate us in public than to do it the day I got back.” He ignored Arthur’s weak protestation. “Worms in our soup, missing necklace. You must really hate our guts to think up stunts like that.”
Greg looked at him sharply. “You mean that necklace incident was set up by him?”
“The way Art planned it, his stooge would have found the necklace in my pocket. I would have been disgraced publicly.”
“But the necklace didn’t turn up in your pocket. It was inside her blouse.”
Derek slid his hands into his pant pockets. “I put the necklace there.”
It was Arthur’s turn to stare. “What?”
Greg was puzzled. “Wait a minute… how did you even realise that it was a set-up?”
“When the lights went out, I was standing. The next thing I knew I was being held by the arm by someone distinctly feminine. After the worms in your soup, I was already alert to the possibility that Arthur might have more up his sleeve. That’s when I felt her hand go into my pant pocket. I understood then what she was up to, and what would happen when the lights returned.” He regarded Arthur dispassionately. “I realised my only option was to put the necklace somewhere else.”
“Inside her blouse?” said Arthur, disbelieving. “But that’s ridiculous! She would have realised-” He stopped when he heard Greg laugh. “What?”
Greg was looking at Derek in admiration. “Well, Arthur did say you were a mastermind…”
Arthur looked from face to face in consternation. “I don’t get it! Where did Derek hide that bloody necklace?”
Greg couldn’t stop grinning. “He dropped it into his bowl of Kung Fu Panda Special soup.”