Silence greeted Mayank's 'Hello' as he picked up the phone.
XVI. In Quest of Harsh
"Hello..." Mayank repeated, his heart suddenly slamming, his mouth dry with terror... somehow certain that this call had something to do with Harsh.
"Worried, huh?" asked the voice, chilling Mayank's heart... The man had called, finally!
"Where is Harsh?" Mayank pleaded, his voice barely above a whisper, trembling. And after that single question he remained silent, listening... his face going pale as he slumped back in his chair.
Ali saw the changes, saw the facial muscles go slack, the colour gradually draining... as the eyes looked across the room at the far wall, tinged with fear. Slowly getting up, he went behind Mayank, placing a reassuring hand on the hunched shoulder... the man was totally exhausted after the three terrifying, sleepless nights.
Nalin had interviewed the three cab drivers the previous afternoon, but unfortunately the account of their assignments, or the description of the passengers didn't match what Nalin was looking for... And finally, Ali and Milind had prevailed, forcing Mayank to agree, and they had then gone over to the police station, to report Harsh missing... Yet Thrusday morning had not brought in any fresh news, or clues... and now they could only wait, wait for the other two drivers to return from Mumbai... and hope that Nalin would then get his breakthrough...
"Who was that?" he asked as Mayank slowly replaced the handset, shivering all over.
Mayank remained silent for a moment, and then suddenly sprang out of the chair...
"Mayank, who was that, what happened?" Ali repeated, his own voice trembling with tension.
"It's... it's Harsh," Mayank finally answered, his eyes wild with panic, "the guy's got him..."
"He's taken Harsh, and I must go..."
"Mayank, relax, calm down, you're not making much sense..." Ali said his hands back on Mayank's shoulder.
"This guy, the guy who kept calling with those threats," Mayank shouted in a hoarse voice, "he's taken Harsh... I have to go get him..."
"Mayank, where is Harsh?"
"He'll kill him if I don't go... and... and... Oh, my God... what have I done, I'm not supposed to tell anyone!"
"Listen, Mayank..." Ali called as Mayank rushed towards the door, "the place, where is Harsh..." but there was no one to answer. Mayank was already out of the room... starting his car.
The car sped down 4A... down the familiar lifeline running west-east, past the towns and villages, and the green fields...
The instructions had been very precise, and Mayank hadn't dared to question, or deviate, following them with deliberate care... He had driven down to the church in Panaji as instructed, and parking the car exactly where told, had gone on to stand on the steps of the grand old church... He wasn't supposed to tell anyone, speak to anyone, and especially, the police... he was being watched, the voice had said, and Mayank believed him... wishing, just wishing that he hadn't blurted out to Ali about being asked to go, get Harsh... praying that Ali wouldn't contact Nalin and put Harsh's life in danger... And as he waited, the cab, as promised by the caller, had pulled up. The passenger side glass went down and the driver asked if he was Mayank, and when he nodded, the driver opened the rear door, asking him to get in. He had been told not to talk to the driver, or ask any questions, and so, he sat back, praying silently that Harsh should be fine... unharmed.
Going past Tisk the driver turned off the national highway, headed north... right up to Usagao, and once they crossed it, the driver once more turned off, onto a rutted side-road, moving east, the land suddenly bare and wild, the road bumpy... Another twenty minutes, and as they passed over a culvert, he pulled up and cut the engine.
Mayank sat up, looking around for any sign of habitation, wondering...
"Sir, I'm supposed to drop you here," the driver said, turning around.
"Here?" asked Mayank, "this is the middle of nowhere!"
The man shrugged, "That's my instruction," he said, reaching into the glove compartment and extracting a sealed envelope.
"Who gave you the instruction?" Mayank asked, opening the door.
"The manager, sir," the driver replied, "and I'm supposed to hand this to you before I return."
"Return... and what am I supposed to do?" asked Mayank, taking the cover.
The man shrugged again, giving Mayank a weird look, "I was told to drop you here, give you the paper and return to the office."
Tearing open the envelope Mayank stared at the sheet... 'Follow the white arrows on the ground' it said in bold prints.
'White arrows?!' mused Mayank aloud, totally clueless, wondering what it meant, or where to look for white arrows... and as he got out, looking around, he heard the car start, reverse... and drive away, leaving him stranded in the desolate wilderness.
He stood staring at the sheet of paper, his heart beating fast... he was here, and now had to probably follow some path marked out with arrows... but where to begin? Mayank once more looked up - there were a few trees on the roadside, but no signboards... where to look for the arrows... but then, the note said 'on the ground'... and almost instantly he looked down, at his feet. Okay, now he was getting the idea... Mayank moved to his right, keenly observing the red earth... but it was bare, not a sign of any marking, arrow or otherwise. He crossed the road and did the same on the other side without spotting anything, his heart sinking with that hopeless feeling... desperate. Crossing over once again he stood on the culvert... and then walked across it, to the other end, getting off the concrete structure and checked the ground... noticing the narrow cattle trail about a couple of yards away... and where it left the road to enter the overgrown field he saw it... a large, distinct, white arrow... spray painted on the red soil!
His heart skipped a beat and he once more read the note, re-checking the sign on the ground. Yes, this had to be it! Looking around he saw the vast expanse of overgrown field before him... the land gently rising...
Taking a deep breath Mayank stepped forward, praying, praying that he was on the right path... that Harsh was safe... Praying that he would not disappoint whoever it was that had brought him here with the promise to release Harsh...
The path cut right through the grass, going straight, and Mayank followed the trail, eye on the ground... and sure enough, there was the second arrow... and after every ten or twelve metres he saw further arrows, stark white against the rusty red, pointing ahead. The grass was taller here, the land crowded with thorny shrubs... and there were a few trees in the far distance... The path soon joined a gurgling rill, twisting and turning with the water as it cut its way across the uneven ground... going down an incline, and suddenly Mayank was facing a tall hedge... wild and straggly... and wherever there were gaps in the foliage, Mayank saw the rusty barbs of the fence behind. The path turned right... going on along the perimeter, the runnel still to his right, flowing on.
Oblivious of the hour, or how far he had gone, Mayank trudged on... shoulders hunched with that crushing sense of guilt... an unforgiving guilt for not taking those calls seriously enough and asking for help when he should have... guilt for putting Harsh into danger by his stubborn silence, refusing to respond to the events that had happened, events that were a sure sign of things to come... a terrible sense of remorse at letting Harsh get entangled in this unknown conflict that he, Mayank, had with this mysterious protagonist, become an unwitting victim in a battle that even he didn't understand... Mayank walked on, eyes fixed on the ground, searching for the next arrow, hurrying on... praying... and hoping of soon finding Harsh...
He'd nearly done over a kilometre along the hedge when abruptly it stopped, turning left... the ground sloping away to meet a rivulet before him... the path split into two - one following the runnel as it went on to meet the rivulet, and the other went left, along the perimeter. Wondering for a moment, since there were no arrows to show him the direction, Mayank decided to turn left... He was right, for there, right before him was the white arrow... pointing straight. And as Mayank followed it he saw another one, this time bent, pointing towards the hedge... Looking up he saw the huge opening where the barbed wire fence had fallen down, the shrubbery hacked away... Gingerly stepping over, Mayank entered the grounds...
Though wild and overgrown, the area within the fence was different from the surrounding landscape... there were huge trees all around... and the narrow trail soon joined a proper track... dark under the tall trees, the thick trunks shrouded by wild creepers. On either side Mayank could see the rolling ground, overgrown with wild grass, and weed, but mostly devoid of trees. The white arrows remained a constant companion, every 5 metres now, pointing out the direction - straight here and then a right bend, or a left, guiding him on... till suddenly the track opened up onto a cobbled courtyard encircled by the grassland and trees... and before him loomed the huge structure, a barn... He spotted another of those white arrows scrawled across the ground, pointing towards the open barn door.
He slowly went forward, holding his breath... stopping at the entrance, peering in. The interior beyond the illuminated doorway was totally dark and foreboding... silent and still.
He cleared his voice and called out, "Hello?" not really expecting an answer, yet somehow sure that it was the end of his search... he would find answers within the gloomy interior of this building.
Cautiously stepping in he paused once more, trying to see... to his right was a solid wall... and to his left the barn stretched... dark and silent... He could see absolutely nothing... the pale of the rays that entered the doorway and fell across the cobbled floor seemed to be gobbled up by the pitch blackness of the interior... impenetrable...
Leaving the bright patch of light, he slowly ventured in... peering into the vast belly of the silent building... "Hello?" he called out once more, the blood pumping audible in his ears.
He heard nothing, and he could see nothing... but he needed to go forward... needed to find Harsh, and something told him he had to hurry... or it might just be too late... The thought made his heart slam with terror, giving his feet a new urgency... he plunged in, beyond the security of the sunlit square... going deeper into the darkness, his eyes closed now in the desperate hope that the pupils would quickly adjust to the darkness... afford him better visibility in the pitch blackness.
And as he opened them, looking around... he could just make out some darker shadows in the blackness... There seemed to be an aisle in front of him... and... and... it was a stable! Very similar to the ones he had seen the other day at Sandeep's stud farm... There were horse stalls on either side...
He didn't have any idea about the horse breeding industry, or any clue as to how many studs were there in Goa... but this was one, and it didn't look inhabited!
Cautiously inching forward he called again, "Hello... I'm Mayank," he said in an unsure voice addressing Harsh's invisible abductor, "you wanted me to come here..."
But there was no answer... just silence.
He went a few more steps... looking to his sides, into the dark booths... and behind him... the light square on the floor now distant. He called out again, wondering if he was on the right path... but then, there was a clear arrow on the ground, and it pointed towards the open barn door... Or, could he be mistaken... maybe he was meant to go behind the barn... but again, all the arrows were very clear in their direction... straight or curved, and had got him here without any problem.
He had taken another five or six steps, calling out once more, "Hello... I've come..." and then stopped... was that a sound?
It was like a very faint shuffle... almost indistinct... He waited, straining his ears, trying to catch it again, detect the direction... but there was only silence...
He again moved forward... another two steps and then stood rooted as with a faint click a light directly overhead went on, flooding him in its powerful glare, making his eyes hurt.
"Who is it," he called out, blinking his eyes, spinning around in the hope that he would see someone... or maybe even Harsh, "where are you? Harsh?"
But only silence answered his calls...
Tentatively stepping out from under the glare, Mayank went forward... one step at a time, his ears pricked, hoping to catch a sound... eyes straining in the futile hope of catching a movement... and then he stopped once more... listening... there it was, that faint shuffle... sudden and jerky... It was ahead... somewhere in the darkness.
With a new resolved Mayank plunged forward... ten quick steps and then he stopped as another spotlight flashed overhead, bathing him in its brilliance... and as he blinked against the glare... a light to his right came on - a bright overhead lamp in one of the stalls... making him turn his head and look...
He gasped as his heart froze with terror... the body going numb, as every ounce of strength slowly seeped out of him...
To be continued...
a story by outlaw
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