ABOUT THE MAN WHO entered Uncle Bhalerao’s office that morning clung like a garment an air of shiftiness.
He stood on the other side of the glass door and examined it for a moment, resting all ten fingertips upon it and frowning, as if expecting it to crash any moment. Then he found the knob and twisted it. Never had I seen a man approach an entrance to a facility with more suspicion.
First he stuck his neck in, and upon seeing the amiable expression on Uncle Bhalerao’s face, found the confidence to wedge himself in half-way, and grinned, as though he were ashamed of himself.
‘This is the agency for distressed landlords?’ he said.
‘Yes!’ said Uncle Bhalerao, who insisted on placing exclamation points at the end of the most sombre of words when a new client walked in. Gusto, he had been heard to say, is infectious. ‘Come in, come in!’
The man did not seem overly infected. He surveyed the room, and made a queer shape with his lips that indicated disapproval. Here was a man, I thought, with strong tastes about how the interior of an office ought to look. And we were not making a good impression.
Nevertheless, he allowed the door to swing close behind him, and walked in.
‘I am one,’ he said.
‘One what?’ asked Uncle Bhalerao.
‘A distressed landlord.’
‘Aren’t we all?’ said Uncle Bhalerao, spreading his arms in a gesture of grand sympathy. ‘Aren’t we all?’
The man was dressed in a cream-coloured kurta and white pants. Neither had a crease on it. A shining blue Reynolds cap showed from the breast pocket, and there seemed about him a waft of cinnamon. Or musk. I could not tell which. He was of middle height, middle age and middle measurements – a man you would not look twice at if you passed him by, but for the three horizontal lines of pasted sandal that adorned his rounded forehead. He had a thick head of hair, one which he was rather proud of, as the careful side parting showed. Two square teeth emerged from his mouth even when it was closed, and now, as he allowed himself to smile at my uncle, I had the sudden impression that he would drop to all fours any moment, squeak hungrily, and scurry away to a corner.
But he did nothing of the kind. He handed over his card and took his seat next to mine.
Uncle Bhalerao gave him one of his cards, as was custom. He spent a respectable five seconds examining the man’s credentials, and raised his eyebrow just the fraction necessary to suggest that they had left him impressed.
‘Yes, Mr. Muthulingam,’ he said, ‘what seems to be the problem?’
‘Sir,’ said Mr. Muthulingam, and scratched himself behind the ear. ‘I – never thought it would come to this. But none of the other agents would touch my case, and your board outside says distressed landlords especially, so I thought – ’
‘Yes,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, giving me a tiny glance at the same time. ‘I am a landlord myself, Mr. Muthulingam, and after years of suffering in the hands of tenants and government authorities, I decided that it was no child’s play owning a property.’
‘No child’s play,’ agreed Mr. Muthulingam.
‘So many things could go wrong,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, warming to the subject. ‘How do you get the right tenants? How do you maintain the property so that it doesn’t lose value? How do you protect yourself from the rich and the powerful? How do you pay the right amount of taxes? How do you do this? How do you that?’
‘Indeed,’ said Muthulingam, shaking his head. ‘Indeed.’
‘Now what is it that you have come to see us about?’
Mr. Muthulingam looked up at Uncle Bhalerao, and I saw for the first time that there were tears swirling in those black things. ‘I have a tenant that doesn’t pay rent, Mr. Rao.’
‘Bhalerao,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘Mr. Bhalerao Pattanaik.’
‘A tenant that doesn’t pay the rent,’ persisted Mr. Muthulingam, ‘and a tenant that doesn’t vacate the property.’
‘Did you try turning off their water supply?’ said Uncle Bhalerao, ever the paragon of the subtle art of showing people their place.
‘I tried, sir,’ said Mr. Muthulingam, ‘but our pipes are all interlinked, and I cannot turn off one unit’s water without hindering the supply of the other units. If my tenant’s bathroom gets cut off, so does my neighbour’s and mine, for instance.’
‘Ah,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘What you lack is foresight, Mr. Muthulingam. You must always, always insist on separate lines.’
‘Besides,’ said Mr. Muthulingam, looking at me for support and getting only a wan stare in return, ‘I was told that cutting off the water supply is illegal.’
‘Ah, illegal, billegal!’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘Is it not illegal that he is not paying you rent? Is it not illegal that he is not vacating your premises when you ask him to? The problem with you, Mr. Muthulingam, is that you’re too nice.’
‘Her,’ said Mr. Muthulingam.
‘You asked if it was legal that he is not paying me my rent. It is not a he. It is a she.’
I watched Uncle Bhalerao’s face closely, for the fairer sex often invoked in him rather interesting reactions. He had not married, nor had he had kids. Murmurs of a failed love affair flitted about at family gatherings behind his back, but nothing definite was ever said or heard.
For its part, the pumpkin-like face did not change. One could say that it even smiled a little.
‘And she is an old lady, sir,’ said Mr. Muthulingam. ‘Old enough to be my mother.’
Uncle Bhalerao’s moustache bristled, and he caressed it back into shape with his large fingers. ‘Those are the toughest to please,’ he said. ‘The toughest, I tell you.’ And I could not tell for certain if he meant old women or mothers.
‘I wish you would help me, sir,’ said Muthulingam, and once again his eyes turned into bags of clear liquid. ‘I have been paying maintenance out of my pocket for the last six months; I tell you, I’ve been living a pauper’s life – I cannot afford the petrol in my car. I cannot afford to buy my son the bike he wants. I cannot afford anything, anything.’
‘Yes,’ said Uncle Bhalerao sympathetically. ‘It is very hard, no doubt. Now, I take it that you either wish this old lady to pay up or leave. Am I right?’
‘Yes, sir, pay up or leave.’
‘I shall make sure that she does one of those two things,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, and clicked his fingers at me. ‘Deshi,’ he said, ‘take the address and the woman’s particulars, and we shall be off as soon as we have our masala dosa.’
‘Yes, Uncle Bhalerao,’ I said, and snapped into action.
* * *
‘In all of the world,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, as we were ascending the stairs at Bhagirathi Housing Complex on Whitefield’s inner circle to get to the second floor apartment in which Mrs. Abraham lived, ‘there are two kinds of old women. One is the big, boisterous woman, always cursing everyone in sight, stepping on toes, wagging fingers at every passing dog and such. The other is the frail small woman, ridden with arthritis, who has to twist around in half-circles just to take a step. This one speaks to you in dulcet tones, Deshi, and if there isn’t a smile on her face, there is one very close to it every waking moment. Some of these women have been known to chuckle to themselves in their sleep.’
We came to the second floor landing. Uncle Bhalerao hoisted his hands on his hips and huffed and huffed at the dull morning air with a vengeance. I made to ring the bell of Mrs. Abraham’s door, on whose frame stood a miniature figure of the Christ sprawled upon the cross. But Uncle Bhalerao stopped me with a wave of the hand, and made a gesture.
When he got his breath back he said, ‘Of the two, which do you think is the more dangerous one?’
I did not attempt to answer, for I knew this was one of Uncle Bhalerao’s rhetorical questions.
Quite on cue, he said, ‘The second one. Now you may ring the bell.’ He stood facing the door with his legs parted, and the lapels of his black coat opened. ‘Be sure to adopt an intimidating presence, boy, for we are here not to make friends. By Jove, we are going to kick this woman out.’
On the very first ring the door opened, and from within it peeped out the most pleasing countenance on any elderly woman I had ever seen. Now there are faces and there are beautiful faces, but there are faces that you think have never grown out of the age of innocence, faces that make you feel that all was sweetness and light in the world, faces that made you think of cuddles and cool summer rain.
Mrs. Abraham had one of those faces.
There was not even a moment of perturbation on her face at the look of strangers, as we no doubt were. She smiled at us with the expression of a saint, and after crossing herself across the heart once and murmuring a prayer of thanks (to the lord for having sent to her door visitors that she might serve? It did not seem beyond her), she said to Uncle Bhalerao, ‘Would you like to come in?’
Her voice was the deep chime of a church bell.
Uncle Bhalerao was as mystified at this as I was, I could tell, but he snapped out of it with a purposeful clearing of the throat. ‘Yes,’ he said with asperity. ‘We would like to come inside.’
She did not ask us why, the gentle soul. She merely said, ‘The lord has sent you here at the time of my first meal. Come, partake of some of what I have set myself.’ She undid the latch with white, spotted hands. Her fingernails were a clear shade of pink, the precise colour of a cherub’s cheek.
As we moved into the dim-lit living room, Uncle Bhalerao cleared his throat once again, and coughed out, ‘Danger, danger,’ loud enough for me to hear.
‘It is not much,’ said Mrs. Abraham, presenting a table with oven-baked cookies and pieces of cake resting in oval cut-glass trays. ‘But I insist that we share.’
‘We have not come here to eat, Mrs. Abraham,’ said Uncle Bhalerao coldly. ‘We have already had our masala dosa.’
‘Maybe something for the young man, then,’ said Mrs. Abraham, extending the plate to me. I took one, and found, not to my surprise, that the butter melted in my mouth before I made up my mind to chew. ‘These are good,’ I told Uncle Bhalerao. ‘You will like them.’
‘You would perhaps like to sit,’ said Mrs. Abraham to my uncle. ‘You appear a little short of breath.’
‘I am perfectly fine, thank you.’ Uncle Bhalerao went up to the dining table, pulled out a chair, and proceeded to perch himself upon it. He crossed his legs, and rested a giant paw on his knee. ‘I have come to ask you about the rent.’
‘Not before you have had a cookie,’ said Mrs. Abraham, with that laughing voice of all loving mothers. She picked up the largest in its tray, the one with the most number of chocolate chips, and held it out to Uncle Bhalerao.
He shot a look at me, his eyes wide as saucers, as if to ask what he should do.
‘Go on,’ said Mrs. Abraham. ‘I am like your mother.’
That seemed to melt my uncle’s hard heart, so he took the cookie and bit into it. Before long he was licking off his fingertips and saying to me, ‘You are right. These are good.’ But he stopped mid-way, as if suddenly realizing that he was dining with the devil. He looked upon the old woman with suspicion. ‘Why are you giving us food? You don’t know us.’
‘Strangers are but friends that you have not had the chance to know yet,’ said Mrs. Abraham, and pointed me to a chair. She herself sat on the edge of one of the other dining chairs, in the proper way, with her hands resting, palms down, on her thighs, and her head bent deferentially to one side. I swear that a halo formed around her head at that moment; or perhaps it was the light from the window that fell on her a certain way.
‘We’re not your friends, Mrs. Abraham,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘We have come here on behalf of Mr. Muthulingam.’
‘The lord has sent you,’ she said.
‘No, Mr. Muthulingam has sent us.’
Her graceful shoulders rose and fell. There was not a strand of hair on her head that wasn’t either white or silver. ‘It is the same thing.’
‘It might be same or different,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘But we need you to pay him rent for living here.’
A silence took hold of the room, and Mrs. Abraham began to shake like a leaf. ‘I want to pay him,’ she said, and her words got caught in her throat. ‘I am not the kind of woman to do things like this, I really am not, but –’ she sniffed, and brought herself to a steady state with an admirable force of will. ‘But I have no one to look after me, and some of the money I am owed has not been released.’
‘When will it be released?’ asked Uncle Bhalerao, in a tone that made me quite angry at him. Could he not see that the woman was under severe duress? Where was his gallantry, his sense of rightdoing?
‘I don’t know,’ said Mrs. Abraham. ‘But perhaps you could ask Mr. Muthulingam to be patient for this one month? I will assemble the required funds somehow, and make sure that he is paid in full.’
‘Two weeks is all I can give, Mrs. Abraham,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, puffing up his face in a rather distasteful manner. ‘My client has financial troubles of his own. So, as a matter of fact, do I.’
What a liar, I thought to myself. But the woman just nodded and said, ‘We are all one under the lord’s eye.’
‘Two weeks, then? You will pay my client in that time?’
She sighed a sigh of long suffering. ‘If that is all you can offer me, then I must accept it with good grace, must I not?’
Uncle Bhalerao got to his feet and strode out of the dining area toward the living room door. I sprang up and followed him. After stepping out into the corridor, he turned and said to the lady, who had come to see us off, ‘I hope I won’t have to come here again, Mrs. Abraham.’
‘If you do,’ she said, ‘I wish you would do so as a friend.’
And she stood by the door until we turned into the staircase at the end of the landing, and waved goodbye when I turned to glance at her.
* * *
Not two but three weeks passed without incident.
I had begun to think that the whole issue had blown over, that our little visit had scared the sweet old woman enough to arrange for the funds, that Muthulingam had paid Uncle Bhalerao and that all was well.
So I was surprised when on the night of the last day of the month, a Friday, I got a call on my phone, and found that my uncle’s voice was on the other end, urgent and hoarse.
‘Deshi!’ he said, in a fierce whisper. ‘Come to Muthulingam’s house. ASAP.’
He hung up before I could ask why, and for a few minutes I agonized over whether or not to go. I had already dressed down for the night, and was looking forward to reading Chapter Eight of The Sign of Four. Would Uncle Bhalerao really miss me if I gave him the old hand? I wished fervently that I had had the wisdom of not answering the call. Then I could have given him any one of the old excuses: my phone was out of battery. I was already sleeping. I was in the other room. Et cetera.
But now – what could I say now?
And on top of it all, Amma would fume if she came to know that I snubbed her brother. I was carefully working my way toward ‘favourite nephew’ status with Uncle Bhalerao, in her book, so if I did anything to turn the dial the other way, I would be in for a rather unpleasant time.
So with a sigh I turned my heart to iron, and jumped into my clothes, having sent off a message to Uncle Bhalerao that I was on the way.
Ten minutes later, I arrived at the gate of Bhagirathi Housing Complex, to see my uncle, that lion among men, waiting for me in the middle of the road. I slowed my bike as I approached him, because something low and dark pawed the earth by his side, and growled at me with a slow burning anger. I braked a good eight feet away, and blinked once, trying to ascertain if my eyes were deceiving me or if it was really a black Labrador the size of a young bull that Uncle Bhalerao was holding by the leash.
My eyes were fine. It was a Labrador. And it was frothing at the mouth.
‘Don’t just stand there,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘Come and pet him. He is quite friendly. Aren’t you, Dollar?’
‘No, thanks,’ I said. ‘I am coming nowhere near him.’
Uncle Bhalerao nodded, as if he expected the reaction. ‘He has that kind of effect on people. If a grown man such as you fears him, then I have no doubt that Mrs. Abraham will have much the same reaction.’
Something like shock paralyzed me. I could not fathom why my uncle would do such a thing to poor Mrs. Abraham. ‘I thought this issue was dead and buried.’
‘Dead and buried,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, his moustache jumping up and down in the dark. ‘Dead and buried, all right. She dead and buried us, that is what she did.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean she gave us a whole set of nice lies, boy. That whole persona of the meek nun given to the service of the lord – well, that is all bunkum.’
‘No, it isn’t,’ I protested.
Uncle Bhalerao took a deep, indulgent breath. ‘It is, Deshi. I set one of my men on her, and he watched her pretty closely for a week. She goes shopping, our Mrs. Abraham, and buys for herself all sorts of clothes and jewellery. And make up!’
‘She doesn’t!’ I protested further, not knowing why I was taking her side. There was something to those cookies.
‘And guess what,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, bobbing this side and that like a balloon each time Dollar tugged at the leash, ‘for the last week, she has disappeared.’
‘Disappeared? Where to?’
Another indulgent breath. ‘If we knew, I wouldn’t use the word disappeared, would I? She has locked her house from the outside, told the watchman that she’d come in the evening, but she had not been heard from since.’
‘Is she all right?’ I asked. ‘It’s not like a lady like that to go vanishing like this.’
‘Indeed,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘Indeed. I told you, it is these sorts of women that are dangerous. Trust me, boy, I have the experience.’
‘What none of this explains,’ I said, now losing some of my temper, ‘is what we are doing here.’
Uncle Bhalerao held Dollar’s leash very still, and pulled out a key from his breast pocket. He held it up near his eye, and made a motion toward Mrs. Abraham’s apartment. ‘We’re going in,’ he said, in the manner of a conscientious income tax raider.
* * *
‘The thing you have to remember about old women such as this one,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, as we arranged all of Dollar’s food around him and secured his leash to the leg of the dining table, ‘is that they fear dogs.’
‘Dogs,’ I said.
‘Dogs,’ he said. ‘It is one of those lessons taught by experience alone, for there is no logic to this. The same women, in their youth, are known to roll about and gambol with dogs of all kinds, but once they pass a certain age, it’s as if a switch has been flicked. You could almost hear it go click.’
‘But is this even legal?’ I asked him, and he made a sound of exasperation.
‘Of course it is,’ he said. ‘We are acting on behalf of the owner, Mr. Muthulingam. We have come here bearing the key that belongs to the owner. The tenant is on the run. Which court in India would rule against us in the circumstances?’
‘What about planting of a dog in the tenant’s house without her permission?’ I pointed out. ‘Is that legal?’
‘It’s one of those subjective things,’ said Uncle Bhalerao vaguely. ‘I do not wish Dollar to harm Mrs. Abraham, of course, and he wouldn’t. Do you know that in all his life Dollar had not bitten even one person that did not deserve it?’
‘Really?’ I said, retreating further from the beast.
‘Yes. Quite. And he won’t bite Mrs. Abraham.’ He patted him between the ears and woofed in response to his snarl. ‘Will you, Dollar? He will just scare her a little. Okay, enough to give her nightmares, and then she will leave of her own accord.’
‘This seems rather cruel,’ I said.
‘Cruel?’ Uncle Bhalerao’s eyes flashed with hurt pride. ‘Did your beloved detective Sherlock Holmes not make use of a dog to solve his case? Why is it smart if he does it and cruel if I do it?’
‘But you don’t know when Mrs. Abraham is going to return,’ I said. ‘You don’t even know if she is going to. What if it takes a month? Will Dollar starve all these days?’
‘No, of course not,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘We have enough food here for a week. I shall instruct Mr. Muthulingam to keep checking on him now and then. He will have the key.’
I looked at the unsuspecting animal, who was now in the process of licking Uncle Bhalerao’s fingertips. What did he know, poor chap?
‘Still,’ I said, ‘it feels cruel.’
Uncle Bhalerao straightened himself at that, and began to launch into another of his long monologues, but his clearing of the throat was interrupted by quite a definitive click on the main door.
We looked at each other.
The knob turned. And then with a yawn, the door swung open.
Mrs. Abraham stood in the doorway, all four-feet-eleven-inches of her, sturdy as a rock. Her eyes glinted with the light of the moon. None of the kindness I had seen in her that first day was on display now.
Uncle Bhalerao licked his lips. Once, twice, three times.
And then he said, ‘Oh,’ for Mrs. Abraham had pulled out of her flowing white gown what looked like a revolver.
* * *
We were seated quite respectably, the three of us, around Mrs. Abraham’s dining table, on separate, well-spaced chairs. Dollar had his chin resting on Mrs. Abraham’s thigh, and was enjoying her fingers in the fur under his neck.
Her right hand held the gun by the handle. The forefinger rested casually on the trigger. It pointed at Uncle Bhalerao.
‘I am like your mother,’ she told my uncle, but it was plain he did not see it the same way. ‘I have my ways of making you listen.’ She fed Dollar another cookie from the open tin on the table. The dog lapped it up and threw in my direction a look of disdain. ‘Why did you have to break into my house?’
‘You had disappeared, Mrs. Abraham,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, his voice resembling that of an errant sinner kneeling before the pulpit. ‘How were we to know that you will return?’
‘I have left all my belongings here,’ she said, and I noticed that there was a steely edge to her voice. The eyes had undergone a transformation; gone were the meek blue limpid circles of swirling tears. These were frigid and metallic, the kind you would find on a tigress. ‘There is more of value here than you can imagine. I am not a fool to leave it all.’
‘But how were we to know?’ pleaded Uncle Bhalerao. ‘We thought we would leave the dog here for when you return –’
‘You wanted to scare me?’ said Mrs. Abraham. ‘I have handled more Labradors in my life than you can count. It will take more than a dog to frighten me from my own home.’
‘In any case,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, in a game attempt to change the subject, ‘if you would be kind enough to pay us the money –’
She shook her head, and it seemed to me that her grip on the gun tightened. Her bony, almost withered wrists and dainty fingers held the weapon with utmost assurance. She had used it before, I could tell.
‘I am not going to pay,’ she said.
‘I said I am not going to pay.’
‘But – that’s unfair.’
‘I was going to pay out of pity,’ said Mrs. Abraham. ‘Pity for you, pity for that Muthulingam. What will it all come to, a couple of lakhs? I can throw you some alms, I thought, at the end of my stay. But you have crossed the line, Mr Bhalerao.’ Her assassin’s eye trained on me. ‘And you too, young man. You should know better than hang about with people like these.’
‘I – I try my best, ma’am,’ I said.
She turned back to Uncle Bhalerao. ‘So now, I am not going to pay. You can do what you want. Go to the police. Get the local mafia into action. Get the politicians involved. Nothing will touch me. You understand? Nothing.’
‘But – but the money –’
‘Muthulingam employed you to manage me, did he not?’ she said, a sneer taking birth, and widening on her lips. ‘Now let me employ you to manage him.’ She picked up the gun and examined it, while scratching Dollar behind the ear with her free hand. Then she thrust it out toward Uncle Bhalerao, the barrel pointing straight at him. ‘Is this good enough to convince you to work for me?’
‘Yes,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘Yes, yes.’
‘So you manage Muthulingam,’ said Mrs. Abraham, with a dismissive wave of the gun. I had not seen Cleopatra when she first received old Julius Caesar in her palace, but she must not have looked too dissimilar to this woman. ‘He must not bother me for the rest of the year. In December, I shall pack my things, and I shall leave for good, without telling you.’
Uncle Bhalerao nodded. ‘Yes, ma’am.’
‘You must not bother me as well, for the rest of my stay here,’ said Mrs. Abraham. ‘If I see you again, my itchy forefinger would very much like a scratch, let me warn you.’
‘No, ma’am,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, shaking his head. ‘No, no.’
‘Good. Now all three of you – out of my house.’
Dollar was the first to get up and amble out into the corridor. I followed next, and Uncle Bhalerao made up the rear. After the door had slammed in our faces and we had begun to take the staircase down to the main gate, Uncle Bhalerao made a sound of a motor with his mouth, and shook his head.
‘I tell you, Deshi,’ he said, ‘am I glad that we got out of there alive.’
* * *
Mr. Muthulingam deposited the bundle of notes into his satchel and said in tones of reverence, ‘You are a magician, Mr. Bhalerao.’
Uncle Bhalerao waved it off with due modesty. ‘I just know how to negotiate, that’s all. Remember, Mr. Muthulingam, every person has a weakness. One must know how to find it, and then after having found it, how to tap it.’
‘A magician, Mr. Bhalerao,’ Mr. Muthulingam was saying, and shaking his head. ‘That’s what you are.’
‘If you would be so kind as to deposit your fee with my assistant here,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, pointing at me, ‘and please refer my services to your friends.’
‘Undoubtedly, sir,’ said Mr. Muthulingam. ‘Worth every single penny. Every single penny.’ He scratched his ears, and peeled off the first five notes of the bundle Uncle Bhalerao had given him a few minutes before. He counted them in his scented hands, and handed them over to me.
For a long time after he had left, we sat in silence, Uncle Bhalerao and I. Then the old man said, ‘This is called a loss leader, Deshi.’
‘A loss leader in business,’ he said, ‘is a deal that loses you money but gains you much more in the long run.’
‘Here, we might have spent two lakhs of our own money to pay Mr. Muthulingam’s rent, but he will take to the streets, this man, and he will sing paeans to my name. He will bring the rest of them flocking to us, Deshi.’
‘And the other thing we gained – was experience.’
‘Experience that old women are not to be meddled with.’ Uncle Bhalerao ran a hand over the sparse hair on his scalp. ‘She did me a good turn, my boy, by teaching me a lesson. I ought to give her my thanks.’
He said that, but he kept away from Whitefield’s inner circle road for the rest of the year. I did not ask why, for that would have hurt his pride. But in December, he received a card, unaddressed and typed. It said, ‘I am leaving. Good job on managing Muthulingam.’
Uncle Bhalerao read it once, read it twice, and then hurled it into the wastebasket with the loudest sigh of relief I’d ever heard.