Shiksha Innvestigates & Vanisahes
“Shiksha,” said Parul loudly. “Tell me, what am I supposed to do?"
Both she and her room mate were standing in the Old Church. It was exactly half past five and the presentation was still going on in full swing. The college had fallen silent- and seemed frighteningly still after two days of chaotic activity. As per her promise, Parul had dutifully accompanied Shiksha to the Old Church -- duly appreciated the glass paintings but now was beginning to feel bored and wanted to go back to the room to lie down before supper!
“Here, you better take a sheet and pen to jot down important details…” said Shiksha and shoved a blank sheet of paper and a pen into her friend’s hand’
“What details?” asked Parul facing her friend. “And what about you?”
“I have my note book and another pen, thank you! Details, Parul…” Shiksha gesticulated with her free hand. “About the paintings for instance,” she said.
“They are good.”
“Look…” said Shiksha looking irritated – furrows appearing on her wide brow. “No book is gonna give me details on the paintings…we are fortunate that we can see them in person, so please just write down what you can observe in them!”
“OK,” said Parul reluctantly moving away and taking position near the right wall. After some considerable amount of time she looked up and raised her voice, “Hey, why don’t I go outside?”
Shiksha, near the pulpit writing hard did not even glance up. “Do whatever you want! As far as I can remember, I got you here to help me and not irritate me?” she said.
“You did not carry me here,” Parul snapped. “I am going outside, if you need anything just give me a shout! I will be at the back.”
Shiksha shrugged as the tall figure of Parul Desai moved out of the doorway. She finished writing and fell to thinking – “where was the basement?”
There was no visible entrance but, Shiksha knew that there had to be one. The light she saw daily at four in the morning came from the basement. She put her notepad and pen on the pulpit and slowly moved about. She could not see any visible door or stairway to the floors below and so, it must be hidden. She glanced at the wooden paneling thoughtfully, and touched them gently -- nothing happened!
She frowned -- in the distance the clock struck six. “Lata must have finished her presentation now,” she mused aloud.
“SHIKSHA! ARE YOU ALRIGHT?” a husky voice hollered from outside and Shiksha grimaced thinking, “Parul thought her to be a helpless damsel.” She raised her voice, “YES.”
Everything was so quiet and peaceful -- and then she heard it. A shuffling sound of someone moving below! She felt a surge of excitement -- there was a basement. And now she was going to find it for sure. She pressed the wooden panels hard- nothing happened! She frowned -- and then heard the shuffling become louder as a cough penetrated the walls and reached her ears. Someone was down in the basement but how did that person get there -- she saw no opening leading down.
“Shiksha! Come outside now! I am going!”
“Coming! Wait a second! I have found something…”
But Shiksha did not hear her friend but now pressed the far wooden panel hard and to her astonishment the wall next to it slid back neatly. She gasped in amazement…..
“Shiksha! What is going on? Come out…” Parul, leaning in front of a statue in the overgrown garden at the back, got up frowning as a sharp Agonizing pain shot up her spine. “Oh no,” she thought, “not now PLEASE…”
She fervently prayed – “the timing was worse!” She had been grappling with a serious muscle back and neck ache the past three days and had been massaging hot herbal oil over the affected areas! The pain was excruciating and she collapsed onto the grass again, raising her voice to a mighty yell, “Shiksha! What are you doing? come out or shall I come in?”
When no answer was forthcoming, Parul grimaced and yelled again,”Shiksha! Come out!”
“Just a second!”
She slowly hesitantly went in and found a dusty stairway. Groping the railing unsteadily she cautiously descended. The shuffling sounds increased, as someone was breathing hard and removing something. Curiosity washed over her and she gently opened the door leading to a small room. She blinked as a pungent strong smell of decaying rotting flesh reached her. In front of her was a big yawning gap where the bricks had been carefully removed and in the corner lay something heavy, rotund and very human but still! Her common sense and reason took a hike and she slowly went in. The door creaked and shut behind her. She carefully made her way to the still object lying in the corner and touched it firmly -- then gasped in horror. The object rolled over to reveal the unblinking, terrified face of Shanta Ganshyam!
Shiksha slid to the floor in a daze with a single thought racing through her numb mind, “someone had murdered Shanta and then hidden her body her! All these weeks, they had thought that she had disappeared- but all that time she had been here lying dead! Someone had killed her but why?”
She straightened and swallowing moved aside towards the hole in the brick wall. Several mud bricks lay scattered on the dusty floor and in the faint light she could see the faint outline of footprints – shoes -- someone was here! She stood up -- frightened but then looked more closely at the footprints -- there seemed to be two sets caused by two different people. She visibly swallowed terrified. The seconds ticked by and she hurriedly yanked the door open. She would call Parul and together they would tell Matron. But then things happened -- a black gloved hand grabbed her from behind…
She screamed and screamed, kicking furiously, trying to escape the iron grip -- then suddenly the grip loosened and she stopped kicking when she realized that she was no longer captive. Tears of terror streaming down her face, she made a dash for the door but then she heard a low moan turned in time to see a black masked figure come crashing towards her. She screamed and kicked the body away from her feet trembling and yanked the door open again.
“Oh God, I better get out of here…” she thought. The door slowly creaked open but before she could make her escape something struck her on the head. She caught sight of a dash of pale blue and then everything went black and silent! Blood started trickling down her forehead and she slowly slid to the floor, dead! The figure watched her still form for a while as mourning her, and then quickly went inside again, past the black masked body and, picked up a curiously large shaped bag from the dusty floor with a wrinkled hand. The bricks were pushed neatly to one side and the door was closed. The figure walked past the still bodies of the black masked person and Shiksha Malhotra- here the figure paused in regret and then slowly climbed the dusty wooden steps clutching the bag tightly. The figure reached the first floor and hurriedly pressed the panel and the wall slid back cleanly. The figure then hurried down the aisle and disappeared into the open.
“Shiksha! Are you alright? i am coming in! It is getting late,” a voice cut through the eerie silence. The pain had at last subsided and gratefully, Parul got up thanking the Lord for small mercies. She needed to go to the sick bay before supper time. Humming softly cheerfully, she appeared in the church and frowned perplexed. There was no sign of her room mate! She slowly moved along the aisle calling out but there was no trace of her! Parul was puzzled thinking, “had she finished writing and gone back? But when? It was only two minutes since she had last called out to her, and within those two minutes she had cleared out without telling her! Two minutes was enough time to sink a ship, kill someone and win a race - -so Shiksha could have gone back and she would not have even noticed it! But it wasn’t like Shiksha to go back without telling her!”
Parul shrugged and shook her head -- it just wasn’t like her! She looked around for a bit longer but in vain. She glanced at her watch -- it was nearing seven and the light outside was very dim! She went out, down the path to the hostel, hurriedly – “maybe Shiksha had gone back to the room.”
Sue Danely, impeccably dressed as usual, hair tied at the back into a severe bun, paced agitatedly along the narrow corridor on the first floor of the main building. It was supper time and the girls should be now seated in the dining hall eating and talking without a care in the world -- but most of them with a group of teachers were now scouring all the buildings thoroughly to find Shiksha Malhotra. Parul and the other two girls -- Lata and Jyotsana had rushed up to her room in the hostel at seven, saying that Shiksha had mysteriously disappeared. She had managed to slowly glean out all the facts from a hysterical Parul who had been wrongly convinced that it was all her fault!
The three of them -- she had been informed by Lata Naidu in her coolest manner, had searched the Old Wing, the hostel and the college lawns thoroughly but, had found no trace of her. At this point Parul had burst into tears -- Matron had never known Parul Desai ever since she first enrolled at Mayfair to be so upset, emotional and clearly out of control, to cry uncontrollably. She herself had been quite alarmed – “this was not a good sign -- disappearances at Mayfair seemed to be happening quite frequently of late- first it had been Shanta Ganshyam and now it was Shiksha Malhotra.”
She had hurriedly summoned a couple of seniors and Gayatri Raghav to her room at once and instructed them to gather a search party and turn the college upside down. Then having collected her wits, in a somewhat rational manner she had dispatched Parul and Jyotsana to the Sick Bay. Clearly that hysterical girl could hardly be of any help in their search mission! Accompanied by Lata, Nandita Sharma and a couple of teachers, she had toured the outside premises including the nearby shops, and, the bus stop. But to no avail, Shiksha it seemed had simply vanished into thin air. Then Parul had come up to her restored to her usual calm sedate self, and shortly told her that Shiksha could not have gone out anywhere outside the college, or hopped onto a bus in the spare time of two minutes –no -- she had disappeared inside the Old Wing! She had not gone anywhere -- so it would be useless to conduct searches of the college buildings.
Parul had insisted sharply -- she had vanished inside the Old Church -- so they should limit their search to the Old Wing if they hoped to find her at all. The girls and some teachers had volunteered to do this but Matron had put her foot down. She had dispatched the eager, anxious girls to the dining hall for supper. She then sent Nandita Sharma and Seema Choudhary to keep an eye on them and, herself rang the bell for Sister. And now she stood under the tube light in the corridor anxiously waiting- what in the world could have happened to that girl? As Parul had strongly hinted it was not possible for her to be there one minute talking and the next minute not be there- something must have happened…
“Ah, Matron, what seems to be the problem?”
Sue Danely started and looked into Sister’s serene face and said, “There is a problem, Sister -- a very serious one.”
“Can’t it wait till morning? It is quarter past eight,” Sister Prudence was clearly puzzled -- she was never summoned and disturbed at any hour to be told problems- usually Sue Danely handled them very well -- but this definitely was out of her league and Matron had disturbed her at last!
Sue Danely wiped the beads of perspiration from her forehead -- her calm aloof manner was gone and she wore a pinched, anxious nervous look.
“A student- a hostellite has disappeared…” she said.
Sister Prudence stared -- maybe she had misheard… “PARDON?” she said loudly.
“Sister, a hostellite has disappeared from the Old Wing…”
“Who?” Sister Prudence collapsed onto the nearby settee and took strength from the wooden fibers. “Is this some kind of a joke?” she said -- her tone was sharp and unfriendly.
“Oh no…” Sue Danely wrung her hands and recounted every detail of what had transpired leading upto the present minute.
For a while there was complete silence, then Sister cleared her throat -- in her twelve year tenure as Principal, she had never been faced with a mysterious disappearance of a student within the college premises.
She said in a low clear voice, “Are you sure?”
“Oh yes, we searched everywhere even outside and then Parul, the girl who was with her when she disappeared…”
“The one who was crying….”