Fiction continued from “Case 93 — Part I.”
— But how did the animal floor become the zoo?
I drew a picture of Henry and then began to put posters up around our school. We listed the main attractions — the Dalmatian mice, the Indian King Cobra, the Peacock, the White Lion and of course Henry, who we painted to match Francis’ fur for the grand opening. We charged 500 Rupees as an entrance fee; Ajit wanted to do 1,000 but I thought that was too much, don’t you think? I was going to get all the profit so I could run away from my father. You know, the zoo never would have happened, all you people would have never gotten to be so intimate with such beautiful animals if it weren’t for my father — that’s Ganesh’s doing.
— What do you mean?
She narrowed her eyes. I’m not an idiot; I know you read the gossip section of the papers.
— I’m sorry Miss Hart. I didn’t mean to offend you; I just wanted to hear your side of the story, not the newspapers’.
She sighed. Why don’t we pull out a smoother bottle of scotch? She got to her feet and walked back towards the bathtub. A year before we came up with the idea for the zoo, so when I was 13, my father started coming into my room at night. The first time he just kissed my feet, stared out the window. Hart yanked out a new bottle of Scotch from the tub then turned and walked back towards me, keeping her eyes on the new bottle. But then he started doing other things. I guess he thought it was okay because I wasn’t his actual daughter. I’m not entirely sure if my mother knew, if she realized his half of the bed was empty for long periods of the night, but that’s when I started looking for my real parents. Hart poured herself another glass of scotch. Ajit’s grandfather tried to help me, though I never told him about my father’s night visits. Dada just didn’t particularly care for my parents. He didn’t care for anyone who didn’t have family dinners. Hart took a long gulp of her scotch.
— Did Ruby notice?
Oh, Ruby was gone at this point. Yeah, they let her go when I was nine. I guess Ajit’s family raised me more or less after that.
At this point in the interview the 15-pound pig strutted out of Hart’s bedroom and sat in front of the couch squealing. She picked him up with a huge smile.
Aw Franny, baby. How was your nap? Hart put her nose up to the pig’s snout — the pig licked her back. The pig was indeed miniature and his fur was indeed this strange intricate pattern of red and blues, like nothing I have ever seen before. I kept blinking my eyes to make sure it was real.
Franny, this is an officer who helped to lock that wretched old man away. The pig began to squeal more. Then Hart looked me straight in the eye.
I’m not affected by it you know, I turned out perfectly sane.
The pig settled down on the empty cushion between Hart and me on the Victorian Couch. Hart stroked the pig as she continued.
Everyone in our entire grade came to Ajit’s apartment building on opening day — 88 14-year olds. Everyone had heard whispers of Ajit’s animals, but I was the only one who had actually seen them outside his extended family. Ajit and I split our customers up into two groups and lead guided tours of the animal floor, which now had signs throughout which said “Don’t Feed the Animals” or “Don’t Touch the Cobra’s Case,” or “Please ask an Attendant for a List of Animal Names, Animals Appreciate it When they are Called by their Proper Name and not their Species Name” — Ajit put that one up, I thought it was a little much, but then again it wasn’t my zoo.
People started coming every Saturday. People we didn’t even know, like you. We started to sell monthly memberships. We brought out a tall ladder we found and placed it next to Henry under the Banyan tree so our clients could climb up the ladder and pose on Henry’s back; I would snap their photo with Ajit’s Polaroid camera. We charged 200 Rupees. Ajit also had me take a picture of every animal he ever had. We covered the walls of the front entrance with them. Underneath the pictures we wrote their birthdays with a dash, sometimes their death dates were on the other end of the dases.
— Where were you planning to run with the profits from the zoo?
Well, I found out about my mother at some point during the year we ran the zoo. My real mother. Sometimes you just find out about things if you want to know them bad enough — Ganesh must have helped me with this one. My mother is from South Carolina and was 15 when she had me. Her parents shipped her off to live with her grandparents in New York when she started to show. I was never in an orphanage; it was some sort of private adoption. I’m not sure how that all works. Maybe she wanted to keep me; maybe it was just her parents that made her abandon me and not her at all.
— Are you still going to look for her?
I’m not here to talk about my future, only about Ajit.
— Sorry, Miss Hart.
Anyways, I don’t know how my adopted parents found out about the zoo and the fact that I was collecting Rupees under my mattress, they didn’t know about anything else going on in my life. I don’t even think they remembered my birthday once Ruby left. But somehow my father found out and walked down the road to Ajit’s that Saturday. He was drunk, and as usual, an angry drunk.
Hart bit her lip.
Ajit was the only one who knew about my father’s night visits. I only told him, because I wasn’t entirely sure if it was wrong or not. If that was something that all adopted kids had to endure.
— What did he say when you told him?
Hart stroked her pig, who began to inch farther away from me and nuzzle its snout underneath one of Hart’s needlepoint pillows.
He said he would pay.
Hart poured herself more scotch.
Ajit isn’t a dangerous person. How could anyone that loves animals be? But sometimes I think he understands his animals more than humans, and thinks that it is acceptable to handle life the way animals do.
— So your father coming to the zoo …
Yes. There were only about 20 kids roaming the second floor that day. I remember I was standing in front of Pirima’s case explaining the importance of the Indian King Cobra to a boy about 3 feet tall when my father walked in. I don’t like seeing people out of place, and my father certainly did not belong in Ajit’s zoo; he taints all magic in the world. He stumbled over towards me and all our clients started to move out of his way. Ajit just stared at me from across the room.
— Did he say anything? Yell at your father?
In a way, but my father can’t communicate the way Ajit and I can … My father started saying awful things. I don’t know if I even knew what cunt meant at 15, maybe I did. But I just remember knowing he knew my plan to run away. He knew everything. He lunged at me and squeezed my neck with both hands. I probably would have been knocked to the ground, but Pirima’s glass case stabilized me. I remember not being able to breathe, my world started to spin; I started writing the first line of my obituary. Fifteen-year-old American girl choked to death by drunken father, sandwiched between him and an Indian King Cobra case.
But then all of the sudden I could breathe again. All of the sudden my father was on the floor, his eyes wide open staring at the glass ceiling above, with Pirima latched onto his left hand. She held on tightly, long enough to get an adequate amount of venom into his blood stream to send him into a 10-day coma, but short enough so that he wouldn’t die. When she was done, she released her grasp and slithered over towards Ajit.
And then I ran. I ran all the way to the Vipassana in Igatpuri where I had gone to with Ajit once. I guess I assumed Ajit would come find me when the time was right, when things with my father were settled. But he never came. And then I read about his disappearance in the newspapers.
— But Miss Hart, what about the case, the cobra, how did he get out to bite your father?
Her name is Pirima. And you figure it out, you’re the detective, Ramaj, I was the girl being choked.
— I’m sorry Miss Hart. I paused. Expecting her to continue, but she only stared at me. So, how did you get here?
Hart looked at the pig and then took another sip of her Scotch.
Well Francis found me after about a year. I came back from painting meditation and he was just sitting outside the door to my bedroom, as beautiful as ever.
— Do you think Ajit brought him there?
Maybe, or maybe he just told Francis where to find me. It doesn’t really matter.
— Ajit never came?
You are fully aware he didn’t … After two years I received a telegram from Ajit’s grandfather telling me about how my father had embezzled from the American Embassy. Dada told me it was safe to come home. So I did.
When I got home, I went into my bedroom and checked the mattress to see if the Rupees were still there. They weren’t. If my father was going to steal from the American Embassy, you better believe he’s going to steal from his adopted daughter.
There was a note though. A note from Ajit. It was an address.
This is it. This is the address. Ajit bought me an apartment, it’s in my name, but I didn’t pay a dime for it, and I have no mortgage on it.
That’s the last contact I’ve had with Ajit.
Are we done now?
— Wait, Miss Hart, What about Ajit’s grandfather. Did he ever tell you where he is?
No. When I saw him that first day I came back we talked about happy things. He gave me a sterling silver cigar case and a necklace with a Ganesh charm. He died the next day, the day I was planning on prying more about Ajit.
Hart finished her scotch in one big gulp.
I don’t know exactly why Ajit disappeared. Maybe it was Ganesh’s doing. Maybe he left because I left. Or, maybe he was worried people would ask questions, because a snake doesn’t just bite a hand. A snake doesn’t just put enough venom in its prey to put it into a coma but not kill it. Maybe that’s why Ajit ran, or maybe he knew Pirima would inevitably be kicked out of the apartment building, and he wanted to make sure she found a new home. Ajit would do something like that; he would spend seven years finding Pirima the perfect home.
You know, Ramaj, magic is like a drug, once you get a taste for it you’ll only want more, but I have a feeling you know this.
I wanted to kiss her, no I had to kiss her. I lunged at her. The pig squealed, but she kissed back and I lost feeling in my toes. I saw her world, her story. I saw her and Ajit as children, lying across the highest branches of the Banyan trees staring at my younger self, staring into my soul. And then I let go. And all she did was smile, take off her sunglasses, get up and walk towards the front door — the pig followed close behind. I quickly grabbed my notes, put my tape recorder in my pocket and followed her, not knowing what would happen next, hoping she would pull me into her bedroom, I wanted another taste, I needed another taste.
But, she opened the front door.
Thank you … I always knew.
At the time, I didn’t know what Miss Hart was thanking me for, but then again I also didn’t understand why I was the only detective in Mumbai that still wasn’t able to let the Agarkar case go.
Stella Hart disappeared a week later. At first I just searched for her at the corner teashop where I had first found her. But then I was able to get a warrant for her apartment. It was barren, except for the bathtub in the back corner.
I walked closer towards it and stopped when I heard a female voice whisper my name. I sent the other officers away telling them to wait for me outside.
I took a deep breath, and continued to walk towards the tub.
And there was the King Cobra curled up in a ball.
She looked up towards me and then slivered up and around my body to rest on my shoulders, like an old friend.