SAMIRA SLAMMED THE DOOR behind her as Neil skulked back to his car and drove off. Exchanging a look, Radhika and Arjun put down their half-eaten slices of pizza and breathed out loud.
“Whew.” Arjun sighed. “What do you suppose that was all about?”
Radhika thought for a second. “I don’t know, Arjun,” she admitted, “but those two seem to have some serious problems. Do you think I should—”
“Do I think you should get involved?” Arjun finished for her. “Absolutely not.”
“But ‘Samira’s my neighbor, Arjun. I’ve known her for a long time. She’s always been so levelheaded and sure of herself. I’ve never seen her upset like that.”
“Come on, Rads,” Arjun said with a sigh. “It’s young love. First-time romances are always stormy.”
“I don’t know.” Radhika didn’t feel right about it. She knew Arjun was probably right. Some young couples had fights every day. She and Arjun had had a few spats during the first months they were together.But the exchange Radhika had overheard didn’t sound like a simple spat. Radhika couldn’t help worrying about Samira. Something was really upsetting her. Maybe if Samira had a shoulder to cry on, someone to talk to . . .
Radhika knew Samira wasn’t prone to threatening people. Still, Samira had sounded as if she meant it. Radhika decided that the next time she saw Samira she’d find outiftherewas anything she could do to help her.
• • •
Kajal Magesh was waiting anxiously when Radhika got to Vanities the next morning. “I’ve got to take care of things in my two other stores,” she explained quickly. “Fortunately, there haven’t been any thefts there. Here’s a list of my employees,” she said, handing Radhika a piece of yellow legal paper. “I’ll check in with you later. Meanwhile, Trisha will help you out.”
Trisha nodded her assent. “Right, Ms. Magesh. Don’t worry. I’ll handle things here. And I’m sure Ms. Mishra will hold up her end.”
“Please call me Radhika,” Radhika corrected her when Kajal Magesh had gone.
“Sure,” Trisha said, barely managing a smile. “Well, what do you want to start with? I’ve got a lot of work to do back in the stockroom, so—”
Radhika noticed that the minute Kajal Magesh left the store, Trisha’s eager attitude dropped away. “If you don’t mind, I’ll just tag along with you, to get a feel for the place,” radhika said.
“That’s up to you,” Trisha said with a shrug, leading her back through the door to the stockroom.
“What kind of security system do you have here?” adhika asked.
“Oh, Vanities is well-protected,” Trisha answered, pointing to electronic devices spaced along the walls up near the ceiling. “We have a supersophisticated alarm system, complete with video cameras. There are magnetic tags on most of the merchandise and electronic locks with codes on the front door and the door to the loading area in back.”
“Then it would be pretty hard to break into from the outside,” Radhika murmured. “How many hours a week is Ms. Magesh here?”
“About three hours a day, on the average. Except when she’s on a buying trip. Then she can be gone for up to two weeks at a time.”
So there really was no efficient way of preventing an inside job, Radhika thought as they made their way past racks of clothing.
She wondered if there was a way of keeping track of when each employee was in the store. “Are the people who work here on a set schedule?” she asked.
“Not really. There is a schedule, but it’s always being changed. Most of the sales help is part-time. There’s no logging-in system on the registers, or anything like that. Ms. Hayes mostly leaves us alone to get our work done.”
Radhika realized that meant it would be relatively easy for anyone who worked there to tamper with the camera system and sneak merchandise out the back way to the loading dock.
“Who knows the electronic code on the doors?” she asked.
“Just Ms. Magesh,” Trisha answered. “And me, of course. One of us is always here to open the store. But the codes are changed weekly.”
From the police the day before, Radhika knew that the amount of merchandise stolen was large. Too much for one person to smuggle out during working hours. Someone must have found out how to open the coded locks, disarm the security system, and rob the store while it was closed.
“Is there somewhere private for me to interview the rest of the staff?” Radhika asked when they stepped into Trisha’s small inner office.
“Sure,” Trisha answered. “You can use my office.” Although she was being cooperative, Trisha’s manner had not warmed up. She went to her desk and took out a few sheets of paper. “I’d better go up front and open the cash register. We really don’t have that many people working here. I’ll start sending them in right away.”
In the brief time Radhika was alone, she checked out Trisha’s office. On the desk were inventory sheets and employee records. In the top drawer was a huge account ledger. Everything relevant to the store’s business was probably in this office. Nancy would have to go through it all later.
She wondered about Trisha. After all, who in the store was in a better position to carry out a series of thefts? But if Trisha was behind it all, why would she have blown the whistle? The thefts might have gone undetected for a long time, but she had called them to Kajal Magessh’s attention instead.
Radhika heard a knock on the door. Aashi was standing in the doorway, looking nervous. “Trisha said you wanted to see me. I really don’t know anything. I didn’t even know there’d been any robberies until Trisha told me.” The words spilled out of Aashi. From the way she looked at Radhika, it was as if she thought she were about to be sentenced.
“Well, come on in, anyway. There’s a lot I need to know about the store and how it operates,” Radhika said with a friendly smile.
Aahi stepped into the little room. To Rahika ’s surprise, a large man with bushy dark eyebrows and a thick crop of wavy black hair came in after her. Radhikarecognized him as another employee.
“This is Titas. Titas Kapoor,” Aashi explained. “He’s a salesman for the men’s clothing line we’ve just added.”
“Hi, Titas,” Radhika greeted him. “I’m looking forward to meeting everyone on staff. Would you mind waiting until I’ve talked to Aashi?”
Titas didn’t move. “It’s okay,” he stated flatly. “If you got a question for Aashi, you can ask her in front of me.”
“Titas’s my boyfriend,” Aashi explained in a trembling voice. “He’s just trying to protect me.”
“Oh?” Rahdika ’s eyebrows jumped up. “Is there something in particular you need protection from?”
Titas tensed, but Aashi put a hand on his arm and said, “Well, I was kind of in the middle of it yesterday, when the dresses were found missing.”
“Listen! If you think Aashi took those dresses, you’re nuts,” Titas put in. “And I didn’t steal them, either. So go ahead and ask your questions, okay?”
“Sure.” Radhika cleared her throat. “Well, you two know a lot more about Vanities than I do. Who do you think is stealing from the store? Any ideas?”
Aashi bit her lip nervously, shook her head, and studied the toes of her shoes. Titas stood there glaring at Radika. A silence descended over the office. Radhika was determined not to be the first to break it.
“I have an idea all right,” Titas finally told Radhika. “You ever hear of an insurance scam? That’s what I think is going on. I think she’s saying these things are gone so she can collect for them.” Titas looked proud of his theory.
“You mean Kajal Magesh, of course,” Radhika asked.
Titas nodded. “That happens a lot, you know.”
Aashi put her hand on Titas’s arm to quiet him. “You won’t repeat any of this to Ms. Kajal Magesh, will you, Ms. Mishra ? Tony’s just a little upset because of the way Ms. Magesh treated me. But I understand. She’s been under a lot of stress lately.”
“I won’t say anything,” Radhika said, her eyes moving from Aashi TO Titas. Obviously, if she wanted to question aashi, she’d have to do it when Titas wasn’t around. “Well, thanks, you two. That’s all for now,” she said.
“Detectives,” Radhika heard Titas muttering as they left. “What does she think? That we’re criminals or something? Why would we be slaving away here if we were thieves?”
“I agree,” an unfamiliar voice just outside the door said. “Well, I guess I’m next.”
“Good luck, Saral,” Aashi said.
Saral Sharma had to be the best-looking stockboy in the world, radhika decided when he stepped into the room. He had strong, handsome features, tousled black hair, and a bodybuilder’s physique. He shot Radhika a wry grin and flopped down in the chair beside the desk.
“Here I am,” he announced. “What do you want to know? I’m Saral, by the way.”
“Saral Sharma, right?” Nancy asked, double-checking the name against Kajal Magesh’s list.
“Yup.” Saral sounded totally bored.
“Well, Saral,” said Radhika, “I’d like to ask you a few questions about the robberies here, if you don’t mind.”
Saral shrugged. “Go ahead,” he said, leaning back in his chair.
“Saral, who do you think is behind the thefts?” Radhika asked, putting the question as bluntly as she could.
“Beats me” was all Saral had to say in return.
Radhika waited for him to volunteer more. He didn’t
“Did you ever notice that anything was taken?” she probed.
“Nope. I only see the boxes. I don’t open them. Stuff comes into the store, I put it in the stockroom. After that, I don’t know a thing.”
That’s strange, Radhika thought. Stock boys usually unpack the boxes and log in the merchandise.
“I heard there were several boxes of jewelry taken a couple weeks ago. Did you ever see them?” she asked.
“I remember a few boxes were taken, but that’s all.”
“You never actually saw the jewelry, then?”
“No, just the boxes.” Saral couldn’t be less cooperative. As he talked to Radhika, his piercing Black eyes wandered around the room like those of a schoolboy waiting for recess.
“Thanks, Saral. That’s all for now.”
Saral got up with a cursory nod and shuffled out of the room, a hint of a smile on his otherwise sullen face.
Radhika gave a quick shudder. He knew more than he was telling. Those terse replies of his told her he was holding back.
“Knock, knock.” Radhika looked up and saw Trisha standing in the doorway.
“Is that everybody?” Radhika asked her.
“That’s it for full-time employees,” Trisha confirmed. “We used to have more, but most of them didn’t work out for one reason or another. It’s hard to find good help, as I’m sure you’ve heard.”
“Well, I’d like to go over the employee records, past and present, if that’s okay. And the inventory sheets.”
“That’s fine,” Trisha said, “but not now. A big shipment just came in, and I’m going to be needing the office for the next couple of hours. And I couldn’t let you take the books out of the store without Ms. Magesh ’s permission.”
“I guess I could come back later,” Radhika suggested. “What time do you close?”
“Tonight, at eight,” Trisha answered brusquely. “If you come back then, I can give you the books and teach you the security code so you can lock up when you’re done.”
“Great. Will you have time for a few questions then?” Radhika asked.
Trisha smiled coldly. “Sure,” she said. “I’m probably your number-one suspect, right? Store manager, knows the whole operation . . .”
“Right now everyone is my number-one suspect, Trisha,” Radhika said wryly.
“That’s all you’re going to say? Well, I’ll be happy to answer any questions,” Trisha told her wearily, an edge to her voice. “I want this thing solved just as much as Ms. Magesh does. My reputation’s on the line, too, you know. See you later.”
• • •
Radhika slid into the front seat of her car and fitted the key in the ignition. The car purred into action, and Radhika rolled out of the parking lot and onto the street. What a perfect late-summer day, she thought. Too bad she’d had to spend so much time in the store.
Heading for home, Radhika considered the situation at Vanities. Titas Kapoor was definitely suspicious. He acted proud of his classic tough-guy stance. Radhika couldn’t help wondering why Aashi, who seemed so shy and sweet, would be mixed up with a guy like him. Could his looks and manner be deceiving? Of course, it was possible that he and Charlene were working together.
Saral Shamra might have both the brains and know-how to organize the robberies. It was hard to tell, he’d been so tight-lipped. She remembered feeling that he was hiding something. Heading for the wealthier side of town, Radhika felt a pang of regret that she couldn’t go undercover on this case.
Then there was Trisha Rapp. There was a girl with brains and know-how to spare. And she had made it clear she didn’t want Radhika snooping around. But, assuming she was guilty, why would she have told Kajal about the thefts in the first place? And why would she still be working in the store? Wouldn’t that be risky?
As for Kajal, surely a woman who owned three clothing stores might be able to run a scheme to defraud her insurance company. If she were an unethical person, that is. But judging from Vanities, Radhika decided Kajal wasn’t in any financial difficulty. An insurance scam seemed a slim possibility.
Radhika sighed and turned the car onto her street. So much for what she didn’t know.
There was only one thing she was sure of. Whoever was behind the Vanities thefts couldn’t be operating alone. Goods had to be trucked from place to place and turned into cash down the line. Radhika had to be looking for a partnership, not a single criminal.
Lost in thought, Radhika got out of her car and began heading up the front steps of her house. It was extremely quiet. Her dad was away on a business trip, and Ankita But, the Mishra family’s housekeeper, was visiting her sister. Radhika knew she’d be alone that night.
“Radhika! Radhika!” A familiar voice rang out as Radhika was fishing out her keys. Turning, she watched Samira Khanna run up the walk, waving a geen envelope in her hand. There was a worried look in ‘Samira ‘s soft blue eyes when she reached Radhika.
“Hi, Samira,” Radhika said, concerned. “What’s wrong?”
“I said call me Sam. I told you this before.”said Samira.
“Ok, Sam but what is wrong”. Said Radhika.
“Oh, Radhika. Everything’s wrong,” Samira blurted out. “Look at this!” She handed Radhika the large Green envelope.
Radhika reached in and pulled out a Native Indian -style turquoise-and-silver pendant necklace. On the back of the center stone was a large etched Z, almost like a lightning bolt. It was very similar to the mark she’d seen on the necklace in Vanities.
“Nice,” Radhika murmured, turning the necklace and flashing it in the bright sunlight. “Why is it a problem?”
“Oh, Neil,” Sam moaned. “My boyfriend gave it to me,” she said quickly, still trying to catch her breath. “My ex-boyfriend, I should say. I’m going to give it back to him, though.”
“You mean Neil Malhotra ?” His name came back to Radhika from the fight she’d overheard the night before.
Samira looked at her curiously. “Yes. How did you know?”
“I heard you arguing with him,” Radhika confessed. “Want to talk about it?”
Sam nodded her head and the two girls sat on the top step. “Oh, Radhika, love is so complicated. I mean, sometimes I get so angry with Neil I just want to kill him! And other times, all he has to do is look at me, and I melt.”
“Sounds pretty intense, Sam,” Radhika said sympathetically.
“It is! I mean, Neil is a nice guy and all, but he’s got a lot of problems,” Sam explained. “At first I thought I could help him, but then—I don’t know. I kind of felt like I was in over my head, you know? So I told him I thought we both needed a little time apart. That’s when he gave me this!” Sam clutched the necklace in her slender fingers.
“Well, if you don’t want to accept an expensive gift, you can always give it back to him,” Radhika advised.
“It’s more than that,” Sam explained. She looked at Radhika strangely. “I’m worried about Neil, Radhika. He doesn’t even have a job anymore.”
“Does Neil have a lot of money saved up?” Radhika asked, her eyes fixed on the expensive necklace.
“No!” Sam proclaimed. “That’s what’s bothering me. Oh, Radhika, I hate to say this—but I think he stole it!”