Younus was a ten-year-old, snub-nosed garbage collector like any other. This cold Tuesday morning he woke up, shivering just like any other too. He was resolutely happy like many others, and was quite matter-of-fact about his broken blue rubber sandals and stained, thin clothes. When he had come down to the city all fresh from the north he had laughed at the scrounging, unconvincing winter of Karachi. But now, a year into it, he had acclimatized fully, and sometimes caught himself dreaming of the cosy wood fires at home.
He shouldered his resilient garbage bag, and started his day by stealing a tomato from a vendor in the buzzing early-morning bazaar and running away with it, laughing. He had no idea how remarkable his day was going to be. At around seven thirty a.m., while rummaging through a dump on the outskirts of Defence, he caught sight of something glittering in the refuse. It wasn't the gaudy flash of tinfoil, or the ostentatious glitter of cheap confetti. It was rich and beckoning, and altogether different. Reaching in through the peels and wrappers, he pulled it out. It was then that his eyes nearly fell out of his head. What he was holding in his hands was a very heavy gold necklace studded with green and white gems. But it was the stone in the centre, hanging like a pendulum over some heart, surely, that made him catch his breath. Great and red, it glowed with an intense fire that beckoned. For a full minute Younus just stayed there staring at the beautiful crimson jewel. He had never seen anything like it in his life. Ever. And crowned in that dazzling tiara-like creation, it really seemed like the heart of some mighty empire.
Ten minutes later, after scrambling thoroughly in the dump, Younus had gathered enough treasure to have all his pockets bulging. But he was a smart lad, and knew that would attract attention. So he made a parcel using a fished out rag and tied it securely into his bag. Then he hurriedly covered it with as much garbage as his small, impatient fists could handle. And the next moment he ran off. Back to Mukhtar.
It was a beautifully kept garden, with lots of winter flowers, soft green grass and even a pool. When the girl ran out into it, crying, it seemed even more perfect. Just the scene for an impeccable bout of Hollywood filming. Except of course that it was thousands of miles from Hollywood, and there was nothing unreal about it.
She was quite an ordinary girl, but anybody who had lived in the city knew that nobody dressed like that could afford to live in a house like the one she had just emerged from. The reasonable conclusion, therefore, was that she was hired to work there.
The gates were open, and any vegetable vendors passing by, pushing their rather scanty carts, would have reached the same conclusion.
The two bearded Pathans looked almost exactly alike, except that one was slightly slimmer and a shade shorter. What was more, they were both known to her, and stopped in surprise at her state.
Ali, the bigger of the twins, called out, "Oye, Sania!"
"You must be a bhoot, Nabi Khan, for appearing like one on this cursed day!" she cried out bitterly, drying her eyes.
Ali responded promptly, "And you must be a churayl to know me for one."
Sania had snatched a rotten chikoo from off the grass and was aiming at him, when he warned, "Think about that real hard, churaylon ki maa. I've got a whole cartful." Ali Nabi Khan nodded at his pile of tomatoes.
She apparently agreed, for she put her awful weapon down and said grudgingly, "If I was a witch, they wouldn't be able to say things to me." She looked up at the house darkly.
"Yes, they would. They just wouldn't get away with it." Ali grinned, winking.
"What did they say to you?" Raheel Nabi Khan, the twin who had been quiet up until now, asked with his customary detachedness.
"They accused me," she continued to glower at the house, "of theft. They think just because we're poor, we're lesser humans, pettier people."
"That would explain it." Raheel said more to himself than to anyone else, entirely indifferent to her plight, looking up and down the street, which never before in his memory had ever worn this wedding-party air. It was crowded with servants and workmen, and everyone seemed to be peeking around and pointing at the mansion where Sania worked. Only the guards seemed missing.
Ali, however, had lesser tact, "Did you take it?"
Sania stared at him in astonishment, "What?"
"Whatever's been stolen, you dumb blond." he replied rudely, staring back.
"I did not!" she was enraged.
"What was it, by the way?" Raheel asked, seemingly unconcerned about the drama unfolding before him.
"All the jewellery that fat cow had at home." Sania shrugged, and then added, "But the one that's really killing her is that big necklace of hers. It had a red diamond in it."
Ali's eyes had started twinkling with enjoyment as he looked at his twin during the recital. Presently however he snapped back to an incongruence; "When did this happen – how?"
"Robbers last night, obviously." Sania rolled her eyes, "If they had been your relatives, of course, they would have tried out their antics in broad daylight. Luckily for them, they're not, and so they won't be rotting behind bars anytime soon."
"Oh, shut up." Ali said, annoyed, "How come they're accusing you when you showed up for work today? I mean obviously if you had been involved, you would have made a run for it."
"And obviously you don't have a brain!" she returned shrilly.
Raheel sighed, "Her showing up is proof she's smart enough to evade such simple reasoning. And therefore smart enough to plan such a crime."
"What?!" exclaimed Ali, "But that's nonsensical – that would mean she's guilty either way – whether she showed up or not!"
"Precisely." Raheel congratulated him dryly, "I call it the 'prerogative of the rich'."
"But there are other servants in there too, if they're bent on an inside job." Ali was unconvinced. "Why you?"
Sania looked away and then mumbled, "Because I work for the begum sahib and I know where she keeps the jewellery."
"What does that prove?" Ali stamped his foot impatiently, "Everybody knows she has gold in the house."
Sania looked up at him tragically. "The robbers knew where it was."
Raheel was unmoved. "Did you tell anyone about the hiding place?"
Sania started blushing furiously, "Nobody who counts."
"Hmm." Ali gave her one long look.
"What?" she was entirely flustered.
"You really are a dumb blond," he congratulated her.
Imtiaz, the older chowkidar of the establishment, frowned at the twins from under his bushy brows. "Of course I know what I saw, I was there."
"You mean 'here'." Ali said helpfully, copying his tone to perfection.
"Why do you want to know, anyway?" the old guard asked irritably.
"Because we care, Lala ji!" Ali protested in scandalised accents. "We want to know so we can protect you next time."
"You're not even around," Imtiaz refreshed his memory sceptically.
"Oh come on, man, it's a good story."
Imtiaz looked slightly doubtful at this point. Raheel jumped in immediately with the instinctive anticipation of a predator without giving his quarry the chance to recover. "So it was just two men, then?"
"Yes, two men."
"Could you see what they looked like?" Raheel continued without pausing a moment.
"No, they were masked," the poor old man found himself stuttering. "And they kept out of the light – as if they knew exactly what spots to avoid. They didn't even ask us where they had to go. They were like machines. Except that one of them seemed to be giving orders."
"They tied you up?" Ali knew his twin liked it when people volunteered information.
"Yes," Imtiaz scratched his stubbly chin, "They gagged us first. Then they took the keys."
"Did they use force to get the keys?" Raheel approximated his long fingers, as if in an attitude of prayer. Ali noted it and knew immediately that his twin had scented a quarry.
"They held a gun to my head."
"The one who gave orders or the minion?" Raheel asked casually, as if the question wasn't irrelevant at all.
"The leader, yes." Ali observed the old man's face growing all pale and clammy. "I saw his eyes, he would really have shot me."
"Did the other one show any signs of rebellion?"
Imtiaz sat up straighter with a suddenly intent look. "It's strange that you ask that. Because you know, it was quite plain to see that he didn't agree with many of the gunslinger's orders. But he never disobeyed."
"A man to be feared." Raheel tried not to smile, then he changed the subject, "What about the dogs? You have a few here, right? Didn't they bark?"
"No. They were drugged," the old chowkidar shrugged.
"They weren't chased away then?" Raheel looked a good deal surprised.
"Oh, they were. Those were the neighbours' dogs and guards."
Ali looked up and down the street. The house stood on a lane seven houses long. Both ends gave way to crossroads. With many trees and houses, it would be difficult to pursue someone in this quiet residential maze. And if the pursued had allies in the areas, especially those with access to houses, well-nigh impossible.
Raheel had paused on the threshold of the gate a moment, and then walked off down to the left. He had stood in the middle of the cross-roads and taken a few steps in each direction. He had then repeated the performance down the right lane. Another man would have grown impatient, but Ali was used to these whimsical quirks. They had worked these streets for well on fifteen years now. With Raheel, there was only one place impatience got you to: a dead-end. So Ali preferred to daydream about their home up north while Raheel enacted his cryptic theatrics.
He was just dozing off against a pillar, reminiscing about those snow-capped peaks in the distance and the fruit trees, when he heard a familiar shout, "Oye, Ali!"
He started wheeling the cart – today piled with vegetables – in the direction of that faintly musical voice. It was down the right lane, and the north fork off the crossroads. He was slightly taken aback to find Raheel, quivering with excitement, eyes shining, under a mango tree. "This is the place!"
Ali considered him a moment, and then spoke not slightly annoyed, "We're twins man, but our thought processes are not the same."
"I know the feeling," Raheel admitted, unabashed. "They dropped the goods."
Ali was too used to him to question the inference drawn. "They dropped the goods?"
"Yes, there," Raheel turned and pointed about 30 yards off to a garbage dump on the side.
"Why would they drop the goods?" Ali asked but without scepticism.
"Because the men chasing them were from one of these home security companies," Raheel shrugged, "they have back-ups with vans and guns. And they shoot."
"If they found the goods on the robbers, they'd sure as hell be convicted." Ali pieced it together in his own time. "How did you figure out the spot?"
Raheel had taken a handful of almonds from his pocket. "Psychology," he looked up at his brother teasingly, cracking a shell.
"You know, it's no wonder you never had any friends at school," Ali was aggravated.
Raheel grinned. "I never wanted any. Always had you, man."
"Write for Bollywood," the bigger twin snapped, "The dialogues don't work on me."
Raheel gave in, laughing, "Sania's place is two houses away from this crossing – faster getaway compared to the left side. They had a getaway which is obviously how they escaped although they were being pursued. Shows again they came well-prepared. The guy with the gun was in command, he'd go for the more practical option. Two of these streets have a thick tree cover and so would lie in complete shadow at night, north and east. More logical to approach from and disappear into these. If you walk down them, you'll see that the east street has more security, guards with caps and alarm systems. This north street is quieter, more private. See this here," he pointed to the tall, thick hedge separating the two sides. "Perfect to park behind."
He gestured at the few wrappers and empty bottles littered around them. "Someone waited here not long ago."
Ali could see that was true: the sweepers hadn't even had time to clear away those condemning wrappers from these spotless streets where the wealthy lived. "Okay, so they got rid of the incriminating evidence. I get your point. How can you be so sure it was that garbage dump?"
Raheel's steely grey eyes glowed with pleasure. "Because it's been rummaged in but not cleared, and the chowkidar here says the garbage collector comes early every morning."
Because their search of the dump yielded nothing but two pairs of soiled hands and filthy shoes, they reached the conclusion that the collector had collected more than his usual share of junk.
They parked their carts in an empty plot close by and lay in wait for the garbage boy to show. It wasn't until the next morning that he appeared, and Raheel – alert and refreshed from his nap – nudged his sleepy brother awake.
"What?" Ali turned a grouchy shoulder to him.
"Suit yourself," Raheel murmured, eyes alight with adventure, preparing to follow the boy home. "See you later."
"Wait." Ali got up crossly. He had never seen anyone pick through garbage with as much care and fascination as little Younus. His anticipation was almost pathetic: he expected more out of that pile of refuse.
It was a long day. Though they were careful to keep out of sight, and had plenty of tracking experience, it was a weary task. The boy, whistling cheerfully, stealing food occasionally, went about his way, working his usual rounds, blissfully unaware of the two ferocious looking Pathans in his wake. It was a merry dance he led them, through all the dumpsters of the area, picking through the garbage of the rich and the poor, outside slums and veritable palaces. When late in the afternoon he finally fell asleep on a sunlit patch of unwanted grass, Ali almost sprang out of his hiding place and pounded him to pulp for leading them on such a wild goose-chase. Raheel helped him refrain by bursting into unholy laughter.
Every time Younus turned and spotted them it would be to see the two men in strange poses – picking their teeth, scratching their tummies. After it had happened twice he was convinced he was being followed. He stayed away from the den as long as he could, but after dusk and the Maghrib prayers, he knew it wasn't safe if they were around. He had to reach home – and Mukhtar would be there.
to be continued...