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Fiction Mystery Suspense

TW: child enslavement, trafficking

It had been a long day for Chetan. His work at the office, interspersed with four meetings, a training programme to conduct for his staff, topped up with a few customer complaints to be attended to, all had his mind go into a tizzy as he negotiated the traffic snarls on his way home. Tired as he was, he literally pushed himself out of his car and plodded up to the elevator.

His wife, Urmila, opened the door of their plush three-bedroom apartment as he rolled into the house and plonked on a sofa.

“What’s up? Did you run a marathon today?” asked Urmila, aghast at Chetan’s tired exterior and the frown that he exuded to her query.

“That would have been better,” replied Chetan, in a muffled voice, his brain gradually absorbing his wife’s remark as an admixture of his already depleted energy.

“Why, what happened?” Urmila persisted in a subdued tone.

“Oh, don’t ask. Never did I have a busier day at office than today. There was work, meetings, training and then complaints all piled up one on top of another. Almost didn’t have time to breathe and just had a bite for lunch. I’m famished. What’s for dinner?” queried Chetan eagerly.

“There’s chapatti, mixed vegetable curry, baji (side dish) and potato fritters,” replied Urmila nonchalantly.

“Good, I’ll have a quick wash and we’ll have dinner,” said Chetan, kicking off his shoes and yanking his socks from his tired feet. He got up and made his way to the bedroom where he undressed and then got under the shower.

Dinner was always a nice experience in the Dungarpur household. Chetan, Urmila and their two children, Swapan and Sharmila would sit together and talk about their day’s activities with passion, while chucking in morsels of delicious goodies that Urmila would have doled out on their eight-seater dining table. But, today was different; for Chetan was in no mood to again go through the rigmarole of narrating his day’s happenings. So, he listened passively to Urmila and the children and when it was his turn to speak, he gave a huge yawn, which prompted Urmila to say, “Daddy is very tired today. He will tell his stories tomorrow.”

Chetan rose from his chair with a ‘I hope so’ sort of a feeling which was accentuated by a wry smile that he exuded to his kids. Urmila cleared the table and the family moved to the TV viewing area abutting the spacious drawing room. Swapan switched on the TV and selected a channel in which the next episode of their favourite serial was only minutes away. The serial began and Urmila and the children were glued to the TV. Chetan, too, was attentive for some time but his weariness got the better of him and soon, beginning with a posture where he looked at the TV screen with one eye, he was snoring in full glare of his family.

Urmila went over to him and prodded him gently and, when he was awake, led him to the bedroom where she stayed on till Chetan had got under the sheets. She then returned to continue to watch the serial which had now come to an interesting inflexion point.

Chetan, meanwhile, felt he was in for a long duration of uninterrupted sleep; and, sure enough, in a blink of an eyelid, he was steadily snoring away. Soon he began to dream; and this is what he saw.

He is going on a long excursion with friends and relatives to some hilly area where they have booked themselves for two night’s stay at a resort. It is going to be an enjoyable trip, so everybody feels, as they all get their bags and baggage loaded on to their reserved seats in the first class AC compartment of the express train. Once the journey has begun, it is excited chatter all around with the men-folk engaged in a rummy game, whilst the ladies exchange notes relating to cooking, recipes and the like. The children play some board games and add their bit to the excitement of the trip.

Once they have reached the station where they have to disembark, they rent a minibus to take them to their destination. It is all noise, laughter and singing as the minibus winds its way along the hair-pin bends to their destination. About a furlong before they reach the resort, amidst all the din and mirth within the bus, Chetan happens to notice a dilapidated building, which at one point of time must have been a majestic manor, which strikes him as being strange, practically in the middle of nowhere.

At the resort, everyone decides to rest before setting forth on the first item of their agenda, viz. boating. Chetan and his family also take some rest to wean away the traces of exhaustion that may have encompassed them in their long journey. The boat ride is enjoyable and exhilarating with the route taken having exposed a wide expanse of the surrounding scenery.

The next day after breakfast, Chetan takes the bell-boy aside and quizzes him on the dilapidated building. At first, the guy feigns ignorance but, on having a 100-rupee note thrust into his palm, becomes very agitated and says something incoherently. Chetan, who has had a stint in the army, before joining a corporate giant, calms the fellow down and guides him to a corner, where the bell-boy opens up. He tells Chetan that, by all accounts, the house is not inhabited and is also rumoured to be haunted. His eyes are livid with fear as he says that people have heard weird sounds emanating from within the building and nobody dare venture to go near it after sundown. Chetan’s interest is kindled and he decides to make a trip when nobody would miss his absence.

Chetan slips out of the resort in the afternoon when everybody is taking a nap and heads towards the building. It’s a comfortable trek since he is walking downhill with a pleasant breeze blowing across the gaps in the trees. Chetan is taking in the fragrance of the lovely flowers that line the roadside. After a leisurely walk of about seven minutes, Chetan suddenly beholds the outline of the building through the leaves of the lush green trees on the right. He walks further and comes to a clearing which leads to a pathway that takes him to a wicket gate and an open area that would have once been a courtyard in front of the manor. He looks up at the building as he takes small but sure steps towards it. Denuded trees line the precincts of the compound wall of the courtyard and the remnants of some dried leaves crackle under his feet as his attention is now focused on the portico and entrance. There are cobwebs all across the exterior of the building and absolutely no semblance of any habitation. He is now standing before the main door. There is a broken-down calling bell hanging down from exposed copper wires and above him is a cluster of broken bulbs held in the rusted holders covered by a broken piece of glass that might have once been a beautiful chandelier. Strange enough, no glass pieces are strewn on the floor; probably, these might have been blown away in some strong wind that often traverses the hilly tracts. The brass knob of the massive teak door is dusty as is the door itself. He peers through the panes of a shut window beside the door but is unable to see anything within the dark interiors. Without touching the door knob he is about to push the main door to see if he can enter the building, when there is a shout. At first, he does not know the origin of this sudden and loud sound, till he experiences a vigorous tapping on his right arm.

Chetan sat up on the bed only to see Urmila holding his mobile and saying that she has kept an urgent call for him on hold.

“It’s 9.15 a.m. What sort of sleep is this? Have you become a version of Rip Van Winkle? Now, take this call. Somebody on the line said the matter is very urgent,” said Urmila, as she held forth the mobile before Chetan. The latter rubbed his eyes and with a feeble protest took the phone.

Chetan disposed off the matter that was supposedly urgent in a jiffy for he didn’t want to be stretched on official matters on a weekend.

After a quick shower and breakfast, he dived into the morning newspapers. But he was unable to concentrate, for the dream had left an indelible impression in his mind which pestered him throughout the day and in the weeks and months ahead. He forgot about it, a year down the line and the mystery that may have unfolded before him in a subsequent sequence of the dream was never contemplated, as the memory of the dream itself was involuntarily pushed into the sub-conscious mind.

Years passed and life in the Dungarpur household went on as usual. Then one day, Chetan’s aunt and her family came down from America for a month’s vacation to India. Chetan broached the subject of an outing to his family and siblings and they were only too eager to venture forth.

“We haven’t got together for a long time. With Aunty Vandana in our fold, this would be the ideal time to meet up with our other relatives and friends,” said Kishan, his younger brother, very enthusiastically.

Chetan agreed and he spent the next couple of days browsing the internet for a pleasant location with all amenities. He finally zeroed in on a resort located on a hilltop. Even for one moment he did not reflect upon the location as being strikingly similar to what he had seen in a dream five years back.

Their train journey ended close to the base of the hill from where a bus would ferry everyone to the top of the hill. On the way, Chetan got a peculiar notion, a feeling of deja vu, that he had been there before. He looked out of the window and all of a sudden, he saw it before him; the dilapidated building stood ominously imposing against the backdrop of lush greenery on the hillside. Chetan couldn’t believe what he saw. The memories of a dream seen many years back came floating before his eyes, as if he had seen it only yesterday. Yes, it was indeed the same building he had dreamt about. As the bus passed the spot where the building stood, Chetan craned his neck to get a glimpse of it from every possible angle, till it was out of sight.

That night Chetan tossed and turned in his bed.

“What’s the matter?” Urmila asked, frowning at him. 

“I take time to settle down and sleep when the bed and pillows are changed,” blurted Chetan, using all the resourcefulness at his command to engineer an answer that would belie his true predicament. Urmila seemed satisfied with the response for she did not bother him with any more questions. As for Chetan, he was wide awake for an hour or so, thinking about his earlier dream, then the building and finally about his strategy to probe into the mystery; for investigate he would or all the learning that he had imbibed during his tenure in the army would have come to naught.

The following day, after breakfast, Chetan put a 100-rupee note into the palm of the bell-boy, Ramu, and made him pout all that he knew of the building. Scared though he was to even speak about the eerie structure, Ramu was gratified with the generosity of Chetan.

Later, when everyone was ready for a boat ride, Chetan excused himself by complaining of a headache and then after the entire picnic party had set sail, he made his way towards the dilapidated building. It was just as he had seen in his dream, to the last detail.

He pushed the main door ajar. A gradual creaking sound ensued that one normally hears in horror movies. The building was pitch dark inside. With the help of the torch in his mobile, Chetan inched forward in no particular direction. He was now standing in the centre of a large empty hall. He shone the torch in all directions and barring walls all around, there was a staircase at the far corner. Chetan moved towards it and as he put his foot on the first step, it wilted under his weight. ‘Would I be able to climb this flight of stairs?’ thought Chetan. He was in two minds, but after a moment of deliberation, he decided to go ahead and climb.

With his heart in his mouth, he made it to the landing on the first floor. Here, he observed there were many rooms over a wider floor area than the hall below. Presumably, the ground floor would be having some other rooms and space next to the hall, he thought. He passed by each room and shone his torch inside. The rooms were absolutely empty. He moved ahead treading carefully, till he came to a corridor which curved to the right. He saw there was a door at the far end of the corridor and wanted to know what lay behind it. He twisted the knob of the door. It squeaked as it opened gradually onto a small terrace. He walked the length of the terrace and at the end of it came across a massive concrete structure extending from the ground to the first floor with high ceiling and windows all around. Most of the windows were closed, but there was one which had a small crack in the glass which Chetan peered through to see the dimly-lit hall below.

What he beheld sent shock waves through his brain and a chill down his spine; for huddled together and all in chains were about two dozen children, boys and girls. ‘There is some sort of a human trafficking racket going on here’, thought Chethan, as he viewed the hapless children. He looked all around, but there was no one in sight. He dialled the police emergency number, but before he could connect and speak, something hit him hard across the nape of the neck and he blacked out.

Meanwhile, the picnic party had returned from the boat ride and Urmila rushed to her room to enquire about Chetan’s condition. She was surprised to see that he was not in the room and also the bed had not been slept on after the house-cleaning staff had changed the sheets in the morning before she left. ‘So where could he be?’ she wondered, as she made her way to the reception.

“No, I haven’t seen him, since you all left for the boat ride,” said the receptionist, which was confirmed by other staff of the resort.

Once the word spread that Chetan was missing, everyone was concerned and different opinions were put forward. But search as they might, Chetan was nowhere to be found. Urmila spoke to Chetan’s brother, Kishan, and suggested they inform the police. This suggestion gained currency amongst the crowd and so the police were called in to investigate.

Inspector Talpade came with two constables and heard what everybody had to say in response to his queries. After taking notes, he decided to leave and promised to revert the next day with whatever information he had gathered.

As he and the constables made their way to their vehicle, Ramu, who was all along watching the proceedings from a corner, came running out of the entrance of the resort.

“Sir,” said he, as he accosted Inspector Talpade. “I have something to say,” he blurted out. The ‘warmth’ of the 100-rupee note on his palm was still fresh in his memory and he wanted to reach out to the police and reveal everything about his interaction with Chetan; if it was going to be useful in any way. The inspector listened to him attentively and boarded the vehicle.

Later, in the night, a contingent of twenty armed constables and sub-inspectors surrounded the building and another ten policemen including sharpshooters entered it. It was a blind raid with no inputs whatsoever. The policemen spread out inside and sharpshooters took up their positions but there was no sign of anyone. Just when they thought that the building was empty, a constable opened the door to the terrace and before long, a team of three policemen was witness to the cruelty that had been meted out to the children. Inspector Talpade joined them and issued instructions to search every nook and cranny of the vast structure. Just as he was turning to go back into the building, he noticed the silhouette of a person crouching against a railing. On being challenged, the person opened fire injuring the inspector on the right shoulder. The sharpshooters returned the fire. A cry from the individual indicated that he had been hit. Moving towards the person, one sharpshooter removed the hood to reveal a man’s head. He was still alive and when the gun was pointed at his chest, he revealed the whereabouts of Chetan. The policemen quickly moved to the indicated location and found Chetan unconscious and tied to a post. There was tape across his mouth, legs and hands. He was carried to the police vehicle and transported immediately to the nearest hospital, along with Inspector Talpade and the assailant.

Reinforcements were ordered after which the children were rescued and sent to a shelter. There was no further firefight and apparently the child traffickers had not anticipated a police raid.

As for Chetan, he realized the risk he had exposed himself to but, nevertheless, took pride in the fact that he was instrumental in the rescue of so many innocent children.

July 20, 2021 16:11

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