Ensconced on the backseat of his Ambassador with the windows rolled up and the air-conditioning working full blast, Vish Puri kept a wary eye on the crack in the cars windscreen. It had started off as a chinkthe work of a loose stone shot from the wheels of a speeding truck on Mathura Road that afternoon. But despite the sticky tape fixed to the glass like a bandage, the fissure was beginning to spread.
Delhis infernal heat pressed down on the windscreen, trying to exploit its weakness, determined to conquer the defiant pocket of cool air within. The detective imagined what it must feel like to be a deep-sea explorer, listening to your tiny craft creaking under thousands of tons of pressure.
That Monday in early June, the top temperature in the capital had been 44 Celsius, or 111 Fahrenheitso hot, the tarmac on the roads had grown pliable and sticky like licorice. So hot that even now, an hour after darkness had fallen, the air felt like fire in the lungs.
Nothing dampened the frenetic spirit of Delhis rush hour, however. Everywhere Puri looked, thousands upon thousands of people were making their way through the heat, the roar of the traffic, and the belching fumes illuminated in the headlights. Laborers, servants, and students crowded into non-air-conditioned buses; bicyclists in sweat-soaked shirts strained against their pedals; families of three, four, even five rode on scooters, mothers sitting sidesaddle, infants in their laps and older children sandwiched in between.
And everywhere commerce flourished. Chunks of ice-cooled coconut and bootleg copies of Booker Prize novels were being sold by children meandering through the crawling traffic. Watermelons were heaped on the pavements. Handbills advertising the powers of a hakim,* who promised to exorcise malignant spirits and counteract curses, were being slipped under windshield wipers.
As Puri watched countless faces slick and shiny with sweat, eyes blinking in the pollution, lips parched with thirst, he was struck by how stoically Dilli wallahs, as Delhiites were known, went about their lives, seemingly resigned to the capitals harsh and, for most, worsening conditions. Part of him admired their resilience, their surprising good humor in the face of such grinding adversity; but he also mourned humanitys capacity to adjust to any conditions and perceive them as normal.
The survival instinct is both blessing and curse, also, was how he put it.
For his part, the detective had grown accustomed to air-conditioning. Without it, dressed in his trademark safari suits and Sandown caps, he fared badly. At the height of summer, he stayed inside as much as possible. When venturing out was unavoidable, Handbrake, his driver, had to walk next to him with an umbrella to ensure that his employer remained in the shade. Puri had also invested in a small battery-powered hand fan. But in temperatures like these it had the opposite effect for which it was intendedlike putting your face in front of an exhaust vent.
He could only pray that the windscreen would hold. Tomorrow was the earliest he could afford to send Handbrake to get it replaced.
It was going to be a long night.
Puri glanced at his watch. Ten minutes to eightten minutes until the drop was due to be made at Fun N Food Village.
Subject is approaching IGI overbridge, over, he said into his walkie-talkie.
The silver Safari he was tailing left the gated colonies and posh villas of South Delhi and headed onto the new, elevated three-lane expressway that snaked past Indira Gandhi International Airport.
In position, Boss, came back a voice. It belonged to one of Most Private Investigatorss top undercover operatives. Puri, who was in the habit of giving nicknames to people, called him Tubelight because he was usually slow to flicker on in the morning. Tip-top, replied the detective. Should be were with you shortly. If only this bloody fellow will get a move on. By God, such a slow coach!
Excerpted from The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing by Tarquin Hall. Copyright © 2010 by Tarquin Hall. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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