Chapter-1 He and She

‘Click.’ She heard the key turning into the lock. The wooden steps creaked as he climbed up. Hurriedly, she switched off the lights and pulled the sheets over her head. Her heart was sprinting. Clouds rumbled angrily before she heard his footsteps outside the room. She held her breath as he opened the door and entered. “How dare you sleep?” He hissed, very close to her ear. He hadn’t switched on the lights. She waited with bated breath hoping against hope that he would leave her alone. “Get up, you fraud woman.” He yelled. She was trembling. His hand was tugging the sheet. She knew it was just a matter of time. “Will it be the same story again tonight?” She wondered. His hand held her hair and began to pull. “Please, help.” She pleaded to the invisible shadows.

It was nothing new. Just as she closed her eyes, clenched her teeth, and braced herself to be tormented, she felt his grip loosened. She no more felt his presence close to her. Someone was being dragged away. She could hear his laboured breathing. “How is this possible?” The room received a flash of lightning through the curtains giving her a brief glimpse. A scream escaped her lips involuntary. Her horrified eyes had captured the scene but her brain couldn’t grasp it. She sat on the bed rocking herself. Rhythmic sound of raindrops against the window felt comforting. All she knew was that she must run but she kept on caressing her swelled belly, numbed by the shock. She looked at the darkness, feeling his presence. Strangely, she was no more afraid. She had found her savior. Her hysterical laughter echoed through the silent valley.

Chapter -2 The Joshis’

The bright, crisp dawn had lured the inhabitants to leave their homes. The park adjoining the row of bungalows was infused with energy. Sun peeped through the foliage and decided to bless them with warmth on that wintry morning. A well-turned-out man in his mid-sixties was holding his audience captive as he narrated some anecdotes from his eventful past life. His high-end sports gear and shoes spoke of his rich taste. His enthralled audience consisted mostly of women. She sat at a distance, on the park bench away from the crowd, smiling at him, “How does he do it?” Mrs. Joshi murmured to herself. “A real charmer. Thank God, he has his heart at the right place.” She mused. She and her husband had shifted to Solan, six months back after Brigadier Joshi hung his uniform and decided to settle at a quiet place. A quaint little town surrounded by the Shivalik hills promised serenity and peace. Mrs. Joshi found these newly constructed bungalows delightful for a peaceful retired life. Finally, the promised long walks seemed to be happening.

Soon, the couple was hosting parties and had been pronounced as ‘settled’ in the community. Brig. Joshi had a great love for female company and his charm, as his wife always pointed out, never failed on women. Grudgingly though, even men couldn’t find fault with him.

“Shall we go home, darling?” Mrs. Joshi interrupted her husband’s lively session. “I am famished.” She added and smiled at everyone. “Oh, it’s time for breakfast.” Brig. Joshi checked his watch and bid farewell to everyone. He took his wife’s hand and quickly walked towards the park’s gate.

“So, did you find something?” His curious wife could wait no more. “Shhh! Not here, darling.” He whispered. They did not speak until they had crossed the road and entered the woods. “Not yet, but my sixth sense can’t be wrong. We will find out.” He squeezed her hand in reassurance and looked at his wife’s face with a sober expression. The ladies whom he had been entertaining a few minutes back would have refused to believe that he was the same man but then, they did not know the real man.

Chapter- 3 Shilpi

I believe God has a twisted sense of humour. Otherwise, why would I be here? Just when I thought I could embrace happiness, fate threw this paradoxical situation in my way expecting me to deal with it.

It all started a month back. Life was breathing easy. I was basking in the happiness of a perfect life but I had forgotten. Nothing could be perfect, at least not in my life.

My husband has been very ill and the doctor is insistent that we must give up living in the town. It is essential for him to breathe the purer air of the country if he is to get strong again. So, I have been feverishly house-hunting of course. I have seen innumerable houses but there has been something foreboding with all of them.” 

“Foreboding? Did you say? Well, that’s strange.” He had an odd habit of creasing his forehead and nose together. I merely nodded my head. “I know only you can help me find an appropriate house.” He looked at my imploring eyes and smiled.

“Till now, I have shown you the best of houses but I could not understand why you didn’t like them. They are all close to the shopping arcade and the hospital. You and your husband would have had medical help at arm’s length. Let me see what I can do.” He clicked his tongue, muttering something under his breath. I kept quiet for a while and then said, “Mr. Mahesh, you have been so helpful and I am grateful. You see I am under a lot of stress. We got married last year and since then life is more of a roller coaster ride. My eyes welled up with tears. He looked away.

“I tell you what, there is just one more left. A bungalow across the woods. I very rarely show it to anyone. Five years back something happened there but that was a long time ago. Isn’t it?” He again contracted his forehead and nose. I just nodded my head. “Beautiful location though a little far from civilization. With your sick husband, I thought it wasn’t a suitable place.” He looked at me.

“Let me see it once before I decide against it. I hope the rent is reasonable. We cannot afford a very expensive one.” I added.

“Don’t worry. Since the house is away from the main road, the owner is desperate to fix any rent for the house. He just inherited the property. It is tastefully furnished with a fireplace. Very romantic and beautiful interiors. Domestic help comes thrice a week to clean it but if you move in, I can ask her to come daily. The caretaker stays in the outhouse. If you want, he can cook for you.” He went on.

“Can we see it today?” My eagerness rubbed off on him or it was the greed of extra commission, but he readily agreed. “We can go now. Would you like your husband to accompany us?” He asked.

“No, no. It is too much exertion for him. I will let him rest in the hotel.” I quickly added.

I picked up my bag and came out of his dingy office. My cold body thawed under the warmth of the sun. I took a deep breath. I knew my search was over.

Chapter -4 The House

Shilpi sat in Mahesh’s cramped car, as he drove it through the thickets. For a few minutes, she was captivated by the resplendent beauty of the hamlet surrounded by Himalayan Cedar trees. At a far distance, she could see the mountain ranges standing like some tall and handsome sentinels, covered in white. She couldn’t help feeling nostalgic. The car stopped with a jerk and she looked outside the window.

It looked just the same. It was as if time had stopped since that night. She stepped out of the car and looked at the house, spellbound. The gate squeaked a little as Mahesh opened it. Shilpi slowly walked in, stepping carefully on the red gravel stones that adorned the pathway. A grasshopper came and sat on her green dress and she let him be deceived. Mahesh pointed towards the front door. By the time, she crossed the patio and reached where he was standing, he had already unlocked it. A musty, cold waft greeted her as she entered and it came back gushing, the torrent of memories.

Mahesh moved ahead in the long, partially dark passage. She couldn’t muster the courage to enter till he switched on the lights and opened the stained-glass windows. Surprisingly, dust covers were already removed from the furniture. She stood there lost in her thoughts, her past taking control of her senses. It took her some time to shrug it off to realize that Mahesh was calling her. “Madam, come and look at the kitchen. It is well equipped with whatever a woman can want.” “Not every woman’s fantasy Mr. Mahesh.” If he was perceptive of Shilpi’s tone, he didn’t let her know. He chose to laugh at the remark.

The kitchen was just the same except that the marble slab was replaced by a granite one and a new steel sink had been installed. She opened a cupboard to find it neatly stacked with cups and saucers. New ones! The door that led to the kitchen garden was left open and she moved out. An Unkempt cabin and empty grounds were all that was left of the memory that she had been nursing all these years. Quickly, she retraced her steps and entered the living room. The afternoon Sun soaked the room like some divine light from heaven. Carved wooden chairs looked as if freshly polished. The most attractive piece of furniture a huge wooden swing was still kept close to the window. She was tempted for a moment but controlled herself. Hearing the floorboard creak, she looked up. Mahesh’s voice broke the silence. “Madam, come and look at the bedrooms.” He was looking at her. She forced her leaden feet to climb up. Her head was spinning. Mahesh was waiting. She took a deep breath and kept her face down. “Madam, the master bedroom has been recently refurbished. I am sure, you will find it to your taste.” He was right. It had no resemblance to its past.

Chapter -5. Brigadier Joshi

People here think that I am a recently retired army officer. What they do not know is that I retired a long time ago and never reached the rank of a brigadier. I just used it here as a cover-up. It all started ten years back. I had just started my detective agency when I met Abhay. Though much younger than me, Abhay shared my passion for solving mysteries. He assisted me with a few cases. I offered him a partnership. Soon we were reaping success and began to spread our wings. We had developed a strong bonding.

“What are you doing this weekend?” I was surprised when he blushed. “So, finally, you found someone.” I teased. He nodded. We held this conversation five years back.

“I am going to Solan this weekend to solve a personal case.” He laughed. “If all goes well, you will meet her on Monday.” I saw a twinkle in his eyes and could guess the profundity of his words. “This calls for a celebration. Suparna would be happy to hear this wonderful news. You know how fond she is of you. Come over in the evening for a drink.” I proposed.

That was the last drink, we shared. His laughter had been echoing in my ears since then. He never returned. I used all my resources to locate him but he had simply vanished without a clue. His parents questioning eyes haunted me everywhere. I hadn’t given up though. Suparna, as usual, supported my decision to settle down in Solan. I started a new venture in mushroom farming and bought a house in the most beautiful housing society. I was still looking for my best friend who turned rogue. If only I had a clue about the girl, whom he had come to see, here. I searched his entire office. Nothing. His phone records too didn’t reveal any unusual activity or number. If he was using some other number, he had left no record in any file. His desktop was super clean as if someone did it on purpose. The cyber investigation uncovered no hidden truths.

Over the last six months, my search for Abhay had intensified. It happened because of a random picture. I remember that evening so vividly. That was the day when I decided to give up my search. I was heading in no direction and work was suffering. Suparna called up to remind me of some people coming over for dinner. I closed the files and was locking the office when the doorman brought it in. A small yellow envelope with my address. He said he had just noticed it lying behind the main door.

At first glance, it was an ordinary picture of the famous Dusshera fair of Himachal but somehow it made me feel uneasy. I scanned it for fingerprints but found nothing. Handwriting was unfamiliar. For a reason unknown, I put it in my pocket and carried it home.

It was Suparna who noticed. Leaving the envelope on the table, I went to wash my hands. I came back to find Suparna, white-faced, holding the picture with trembling hands. She looked at me and pointed her finger. I saw it then. How could I have missed it? I had always been very proud of my sleuthing skills. Nothing could escape my hawk-eyed scrutiny.

Hope is the essence of life. That evening, my hopes were revived when Suparna found that brown hat. No one in the world could have possessed that hat for it was Suparna’s hands that had embroidered my initials on it. R.J, so aesthetically embellished by my dear wife as our anniversary present. I gave the same to Abhay on the last evening that we met.

“Take it. It would be cold there.” The only clue that brought us here for I was sure, he was alive and somewhere around. The man who was wearing the hat in the picture was of Abhay’s height.

I had been combing the place in the hope to unravel something big with the help of my agent. The Police refused to assist me. They never believed that Abhay had entered Solan. There was no proof. His car was seen at no toll plaza, nor were there any witnesses found, who had seen him anywhere. It had turned out to be the most difficult case of my lifetime. My desperation had led me here and my intuition said I would find him here, soon.

Chapter- 6 Samar

Shilpi reached the hotel to find Samar in an agitated state.

“Shilpi, we shouldn’t have come back here. It is too dangerous.”

“Look at me Samar. No one knows we are here. No one cares even. Today, I went to the estate agent, Mahesh. He didn’t recognize me. These grey lenses and short hair have changed my looks. So, calm down. No one knows us here.”

“Why did you have to go to the house? Have you forgotten what happened there that night?”

“Can I ever forget, Samar but that is the only house where we can stay without any fear. It is away from the inhabited areas and my darling, you will get all the fresh air amidst the wilderness. Moreover, the rent is affordable.” Shilpi smiled and winked at Samar. He wasn’t convinced. His gut feeling was warning him.

Samar had met Shilpi six years back. He had come to Chandigarh to look into the finances of a company when he bumped into Shilpi. She was holding a Styrofoam cup of coffee in her hand. Samar’s white shirt was stained and his skin burnt. Shilpi was profusely apologizing and he had chivalry by his side. He smiled and brushed the incident aside. Shilpi offered to buy him a cup of coffee. Samar couldn’t refuse, nor did he want to. He liked Shilpi. Her dusky complexion, deep brown eyes, and beautiful, long hair tugged at his heart. What was meant to be an ‘Apology Acceptance’ brief meeting turned into an ‘I want to know more about you’ evening. It was a mutual attraction but nothing had prepared them for what happened later in their lives.

“Why did I have to fall sick? We were happily lost to the world living peacefully in a remote corner of a metropolitan city. We had learned to accept the situation and made peace with it but now we are sitting on a bombshell.” Shilpi looked at Samar with a sad expression as he kept on mumbling. “Trust me, as soon as you begin to feel better, we would go back to our world. You must recoup and recover. Leave everything on me.” She held his thin face in her hands and kissed him passionately. He smiled and nodded. Her magic still worked with him.

Chapter-7 Joshi’s predicament

A beggar stopped in front of me and extended his bowl. I picked up a neatly folded paper and slipped a hundred rupee note into his bowl. I slid my hand inside my jacket’s pocket and turned away. Park looked deserted but I still chose its remotest part. My heart was racing at an abnormal speed. It was after a long time, that the agent sent a message. “It better be good,” I said aloud as I brought out the slip. It was a ruled sheet, on which was written a distorted version of a famous phrase from antiquity. ‘She came, She saw, She conquered.’ I understood the message.

It was late afternoon. Sunlight was losing its warmth but I decided to sit for some more time. I knew now that my hunch was right. Abhay was here. But why did he come back? He was a good detective. He had studied crime and criminals’ minds thoroughly to know that it was hazardous for any criminal to revisit the scene of the crime. Then what could be his reason?  My patience was giving away. I had paid a heavy price for trusting him. The worst was that I never saw it coming. Was it a premeditated or accidental crime? I didn’t know nor wanted to know. Was he the victim or the offender? It mattered no more to me. It was personal now, very personal. I had to turn my failure into victory. That is what I cared for, now. The game was on and losing wasn’t an option.

Dark shadows surrounded the bench and cold wind brushed my cheek. I got up and moved towards the exit. A shiver ran down my spine as I heard a sound. I stopped and looked behind. A toppled garbage can. Strangely, it lay just in front of the bench where I was sitting a few seconds before. A stray dog was rummaging through its contents. I wasn’t able to shrug off the feeling that someone was watching me.

Chapter-8 Samar

I sat in the hotel room, alone waiting for Shilpi to return. I knew what brought her here. She couldn’t stay away, after all. My love wasn’t enough for her. When I met her, her life was so tangled up. I knew even then; I was just a distraction. She wanted to get away from whatever she was distressed with, but for me, it was love at first sight. Not any puppy love but love in its supreme form, where one could go to any level to see a flicker of a smile on one’s lover’s face. And that is why I did what I did. I couldn’t see Shilpi enduring such pain but it didn’t change anything. Did it? I tried to help her in forgetting her past by taking her away as I had promised but she was still trapped. I couldn’t set her free.

It wasn’t that she didn’t love me but her past lurked between us and I had no choice but to accept. After all, beggars can’t be choosers. I smiled ruefully at my reflection in the mirror and saw him standing behind me with a look of disgust in his eyes.

“No, please, go away. I have no strength to deal with you right now.” I pleaded with him but he kept on standing asking the same question, “Why did you kill me?” “Abhay, stop it. I don’t have an answer. I would have lost Shilpi had I not killed you. Remember, you used to say, everything is fair in love and war. So, I declared war on you. I had to, Abhay. I couldn’t afford to lose her. Please let me live peacefully. Leave me alone.” I was sobbing but Abhay showed no sympathy and kept on making holes in my heart with his bloodshot eyes. “Do you think you can run away? No, you can’t Samar. See, you had to come back here. You ended my story here in this place and now, I will do the same for you.” Abhay’s devilish sneer left me helpless and weak. I knew I wasn’t strong enough to fight him. My sunken eyes and hollowed cheeks predicted my demise. It was just a matter of time.

I quickly moved away from Abhay. Feeling breathless and exhausted, I sat down on the bed. Just then the door opened. Shilpi was back, looking content. She had signed the lease papers of the house. We were ready to move.

“By tomorrow evening, we would be able to shift. Why, you look exhausted, darling. My poor baby.” Her long fingers played with my hair. She knew I loved it. I sat happily, nodding my head, not caring that we were going back to that dreaded house. She kept on massaging my head and I felt peace overcast my gloom. I happily sat there drowned in the moment. Nothing else mattered anymore. Nor did I care. Let the world find out about our existence. If Shilpi was so confident that we would get away unscathed, then we would. There was a resurgence of confidence and I decided to stand by that faith, even if it were a lie!

Chapter-9 Stay Calm

The next morning was gray and dull unlike his exhilarated and excited state. Dark clouds loomed close, turning the day into night. The agent stood at the bend of the lonely road, looking at his watch. It was evident that he was waiting for someone. His agitated to and fro walk spoke of his restless state. He looked up as the clouds thundered, again checking his watch and the empty road. His expression changed from anxiety to expectancy as he saw the distant headlights of a car driving in his direction. He moved a little away from the road, inside the grove of pine trees. The car halted a little ahead of his hiding place. As soon as he saw the driver, he rushed towards the car. He was meeting the detective for the first time but he had seen his picture. “A pleasure to meet you, sir.” His animated voice surprised Joshi. They shook hands and sat inside the car. “Sir, as I wrote in my message, she is here with a man whom she calls her husband. She has a sob story about her husband being sick but she desperately wants to be back in her house.” The agent quickly briefed the detective.

“Thank you, Mahesh. It wouldn’t have been possible without your consistent efforts. Your idea of advertising the house with a picture in the National newspapers was brilliant. It paid off, otherwise, we would have been groping in the dark. Are you positive she is Shilpi?” Joshi couldn’t control the earnestness in his voice. “Of course, sir, though she has changed her appearance I know her so well. She no more uses her surname though. We grew up together in this town. I can’t be mistaken. She took a big risk in returning.” Mahesh clicked his tongue and shook his head. “Why do you want her so badly? You promised to let me know. Police had closed the case a long time back. Why are you so much interested?” Mahesh asked.

“Yes, Mahesh, I owe you. You must know the truth. It is not Shilpi whom I seek but Abhay. Abhay was my partner who vanished five years back. Not only that, he took with him all the profit that we had earned together as well as the database of my clients. Since I wasn’t techno-savvy, I trusted Abhay to handle all the transactions and our clients’ confidential reports. He knew my weakness and took advantage of my trust. He must have been planning for a long time but as you know, there is no perfect crime and neither was this one. I found proof that he was here that night of the murder. However stealthily, he had entered the house, but he wasn’t invisible. Yes, he took the woods to reach the house but he needed a vehicle to take Shilpi out of the town. I wondered why was there no record of their travel. No bus, train, or cab. How was this possible? I checked stolen cars’ record but found nothing. I kept on wondering how did he get out of the place. Yesterday, I got that last piece of the puzzle. What if you steal from someone who wouldn’t report it? Abhay had done his homework so well! Had he not been a murderer and embezzler, I would have admired the way he planned it all. He found Mr. Bhatt’s lumber business here was all farce. He had a cannabis plantation that he smuggled out of Solan with false number plates. Abhay stole one of his trucks. They changed their appearance to move out. Mr. Bhatt resides in my residential society. Yesterday, he had too much to drink at my place and blurted this out. He never reported the stolen vehicle.

So, you see my friend, Shilpi forced Abhay to come here maybe because she wants the house. When she met Abhay, she confided her husband’s atrocities to him. Abhay was in love with Shilpi and decided to help her out. Samir was not ready to divorce her, nor would he let her stay in that house. She had nowhere to go. She was carrying his child but Samir had no interest in mending his ways. His torture and Shilpi’s helplessness were increasing day by day. The house being away from the population, no one knew what happened there except for the caretaker and the maid but they ignored Shilpi’s plight for they were bribed by Samir. Abhay met Shilpi in Chandigarh where she had come to meet an advocate. She wanted to get rid of Samir. Abhay came as a fresh breath of air in her miserable life. That night, they had no intention of killing Samir. They just wanted to find their safe haven, leaving no trace of their existence but Abhay must have lost his temper when he saw Samir torturing her. Samir was killed and left on the bedroom floor. It was a gruesome murder that shook this small town but Shilpi’s disappearance did not make any sense. Her fingerprints were nowhere on the body, nor was the murder weapon found.” Mahesh looked very alert. It was pouring outside. The car’s wipers were pendulating rapidly.

“Then, why has she returned? She knows somebody will recognize her.” Brig. Joshi nodded his head. “Maybe she is sick of hiding and wants her name to be cleared. Maybe she wants her house so that her daughter gets her due.”

“Abhay, aka Samar, is dying. He needs peace and fresh air. Shilpi came to see me yesterday. she offered to return the money that Abhay stole from me. I refused. I offered to help her in getting the house back. I believe Samir’s relative owns that house. Isn’t it Mahesh?”

Joshi observed the change in expression. Someone tapped on the car’s window. Mahesh looked up. It was the police. His face contorted in anger but before he could strike, he was apprehended. “Inspector, finally, the case is solved. Here is your murderer. Shilpi told me the truth last night Mahesh. Your phone location proved it. Moreover, they found the blood smeared murder weapon with your fingerprints in your office. Only one question, “Why didn’t you kill Shilpi that night? She had seen your face.”

“I didn’t need to, you fool. Abhay stood behind me. She didn’t see me. She thought it was Abhay who killed Samir.”

A car stopped. Abhay and Shilpi got down. Joshi looked away. It was painful to see handsome Abhay looking so frail. He wiped his tears and looked at Abhay. His remorseful eyes sought forgiveness and Brig. Joshi hugged him. “Forget everything Abhay and live happily. No more running. You are free. You never killed Samir, then why did you run?”

“I dragged Samir away from Shilpi but never knew that Mahesh was there. I felt I killed Samir with my bare hands and Shilpi was so shocked to fathom the truth. She also believed that I killed Samir. It would have never come to light had she not found out that the house had been inherited by Mahesh. Suddenly her confusion cleared. When she asked me, how I killed Samir, she knew the truth for she had kept a newspaper clipping. Samir was stabbed to death. I think I was punished for breaking your trust but all I wanted was a fresh start for us. I know what I did can’t be forgiven.” Abhay hung his head.

“Thank you Shilpi for sending the picture. That brought me back.” Shilpi nodded with tears in her eyes. “We were so wrong. Please forgive us.” She whispered and Brig. Joshi smiled. “Let’s go home Abhay. Suparna and your parents are waiting.” Abhay sat in the car and looked behind. He saw Samar dead on the empty road. He took a deep breath. He felt lighter. He was free at last.

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