Like she had never run before....bare feet.
She couldn't remember where she had left her shoes.
Was it a pair of shoes? Or sandals?
Uff...This was not the right time to think about such trivial things.
She only knew she had to get away and get away fast before somebody else could....
She didn't let herself think further...there was no time for even that.
Her feet felt cold.... and sticky.
Looking down she found a slim streak of blood coursing down her leg....left leg.
The road felt rough and rugged underneath.
In the dark.....pitch dark....it was impossible to make out why the terrain felt so uneven.
Was it unpaved? Wasn't it a proper road? She had no way of finding out.
When she had left, the house was in absolute darkness. Most probably the lights had gone out.
Or they must have switched off the lights before leaving.
She was not sure.
The road leading to the house was unlit. She remembered that distinctly.
Never mind that. Once she was out somehow she would be able to make out the direction.
She had that instinct fully developed from years of driving.
She knew the road ahead bent leftward.
And then straight down....was her destination.
But everything was so foggy.
But everything was so foggy.
The roads....the trees lining the roads....the night sky.....the stars twinkling high above....the crescent moon staring down with a crooked smile...she could figure these out but through a film of mist. No...it wasn't the mist...it was the tears that rolled down her cheeks incessantly.....she realised she was crying. Crying out of pain...out of sheer fatigue...out of a kind of pukish feeling which was knotted at the bottom of her stomach desperately trying to well out again and again.
She bit her lips hard...her tongue tasted salt...
The wind blew ferociously. It was moist and prickly. The rains had stopped just a while ago. But the dampness continued. It was not a much-wanted-rain. It came in torrents without any notice and stopped as suddenly as it had started. What remained was a chill that froze the bones.... a draught that was determined to be wayward... and a night sky surprisingly awash with button-like stars and a scornful moon.
Her pace was becoming erratic because something kept coming between her legs. A flapping thing...a torn piece of cloth ...Oh! It was her salwar. She couldn't recollect when it had got torn. Perhaps when she had run out of the house in a hurry. No, not hurry....it was panic. She was driven by panic then. Panic was driving her now.
Ouch!! She was almost going to fall headlong but balanced herself on time on all fours. A twig, like an amputated limb, lay askew on the road. In the dark she had missed it.
She scrambled up. And as she did so, she saw the lights...further down...dim but steady...a sign of life and civilization.
Palampur was located on the outskirts of the main city.
It could neither be described as a sleepy small town nor could it be called a back water village.
Similarly, Palampur Police Chowki was somewhere between a full fledged Police Station and a Beat Officer's roadside Booth.
It was generally headed by a bored Sub-Inspector and a grumpy Havildar, both, waiting for their turns, to grab one single opportunity to show their prowess in investigation and (man)handling the most wanted goon.
But unfortunately, nothing happened in Palampur. Nothing whatsoever, not even a case of petty theft or pick pocket.
The residents were too docile...too contented in poverty....too God fearing to go astray, which was a pity.
However, the stature of Palampur Police Chowki had recently been elevated as an Officer of the rank of SHO had come to be deputed to head the post.
Although, for Kaamesh Baraat, it was a virtual demotion but for Havildar Ram Bhuvan and SI Nidhiram it was something to boast of and brag about.
Baraat, fondly called KB Sir, spent his days killing flies and drinking innumerable cups of chai in tiny earthen cups and the nights dreaming when he would be reinforced to the mainstream where his reputation of being a formidable cop would once again be restored in full glory.
He regretted his foolhardiness in the previous posting where he had knowingly locked horns with the wealthy and the influential.
Now, at nights, when sleep evaded him, KB Sir made elaborate plans of making amends.
Tonight, he lay on a convertible bed (which also doubled as his work desk) in his office, unblinkingly staring at the ceiling fan with a twisted blade and thinking from where to begin...when he heard a muffled commotion ...and then a soft knock on the door and Havildar Ram Bhuvan entered with an incredulous look on his face.
"Janaab", He stammered, "There's a woman out at the front office who wants to lodge an F.I.R. "
An infinitesimal pause...
And then he blurted out, "She says she is witness to a gruesome murder."
Kaamesh Baraat literally leapt out of his office and reached the so-called front desk or reception or whatever one could call Havildar Ram Bhuvan's work station where the woman stood shivering like a leaf. Kaamesh's eyes took it all in...in one swift roving glance...She was most probably in her late thirties....not a beauty but definitely not a forgettable face...her hair, dark brown streaked with grey, rested limply on her thin shoulders. Her Salwar was tattered...her kurta had one slashed sleeve...bare feet in this cold, KB saw she was bleeding. A thin line of blood trickled down her left leg...the flapping sleeve barely covered a hideous looking bruise on her upper arm. She looked fragile but her eyes shone with....what was it rage?....hatred?...or something else? KB couldn't pinpoint. But one thing was sure...the woman was desperate.
KB drew closer to the desk. The light here was a little dim. Perhaps the coat of dust on the bulb made it so. He peered at her. Doing so, he was at once taken aback. It took him a few seconds to shake that strange feeling down. Clearing his throat, he embarked upon asking her all the routine and right questions that he was supposed to ask in such a case.
No, the woman was not a local. She told him the place where she lived. The office where she worked. This evening she was late leaving office. As she came out of the building somebody had called her out at the car park. As she had turned around something hit her hard and she lost consciousness.
No, she did not know anybody who would want to harm her. She was just an ordinary office-goer with a routine job. She led an unexciting life. Of course! She stayed alone. Her family lived elsewhere. Her daughter was in the hostel. Her little son was being looked after by her mother. Her husband was posted in another city. A scattered family...nothing unusual though in today's times.
She did not know what time she regained consciousness. When she did she found herself lying in a room. It was dark. She got up and her whole body ached. With outstretched arms and unsure steps she tried to wade through the darkness and had almost crossed the room when she stumbled and fell....on a body. She gasped...stood up trembling and almost hit her head on the wall. And then by a stroke of luck she found the door. It was not locked but screeched to her touch.
Did she shout for help? Yes, she kept on shouting but nobody answered. And as her voice echoed back to her she realised she was alone in that house in the midst of nowhere. Somehow she managed to make her way out of the ramshackle building and took to the roads.
How did she know that the other person lying in that room was dead? She felt the body...it was cold and felt lifeless. The person could have concussed but she was positive she could not hear or feel the person breathing. In that pin drop silence of the night even shallow breathing would have been audible.
No, she did not know the address but knew the direction and could take the cops there.
KB gestured to Ram Bhuvan.
"I would first like to visit the scene of crime before writing down an F.I.R?" Who knew if it wasn't a ploy! The woman could be making up the whole story...
"How far is it?"
The woman looked uncertain.
"Ok. We will take the jeep and go down there."
The woman nodded mutely.
The Short Story continues here.....