Sue Danely nodded -- the level headed cool aloof Sister was very upset -- she thought following Sister to her office where a call was placed to the Dehradun police station.
One ring -- Two ring -- Three ring -- Sister rolled her eyes in frustration and was about to hang up and search the Old Church on her own, when a dead pan expressionless voice at the other end answered. Sister gave a huge sigh of relief and abruptly recited into the receiver end. There was a pause and then she put down the phone, and faced Matron, white faced and pale saying, “The Inspector, a constable and the guard are on their way as we speak….that was the Inspector………Matron, send the girls to bed and ask Ms Stevens, Nandita, Mrs. Das and Mrs Kaul to come up to my office as soon as possible…you too, Matron after making sure that all the girls go to bed and locking the hostel…”
“Locking the hostel?” Matron was a trifle surprised -- she had never locked the hostel building before in her twenty eight years of service in the college as Matron!
“Yes, Lock the building,” said Sister crisply. “I don’t want girls disappearing from their beds….Do you realize how serious this is Matron? The granddaughter of the Election Commissioner…” Sister Prudence was shaking her head.
Sue Danely nodded somberly as Sister Prudence fidgeted with some files on her desk. She said,”I run a girls college for education not disappearances….do you realize what this disappearance means?….The girls are not safe anymore….Shiksha disappeared in broad daylight…..with people present in the college in a nearby building….a friend out at the back of the Old Church… anti publicity for my college when I am doing so much….Oh, Lord…” Holding her head in her hands Sister moaned softly.
Sue Danely looked distressed but said emotionlessly, “We must not blame ourselves, Sister…”
“Who else do I blame? I am the Principal and my student disappears inside the college…. In a way I am responsible Matron… yes… yes I am responsible.” Sister Prudence shook her head again.
“It was the last day of the show…..there were many people coming and going…” Sue Danely’s voice trailed off as Sister Prudence looked up sharply.
“‘You mean someone killed her… and then hid her body in the church,” she said.
“I am not the police Sister…..Pull yourself together, please,” saying this Matron went out to do as instructed, terribly shaken and frightened -- what had happened to Shiksha?
She passed the dining hall and smiled forlornly at Gayatri Raghav and Seema Choudhary. Nandita Sharma was sitting at a table at the far end with a couple of junior and senior college girls. A shadow fell over and Anu glanced up to see Lata and Parul with plates – “May we sit here?”
They sat down and Sonal spoke at length – “Shiksha and I were organizing a mass ragging event for the freshers.”
“Stop talking as if she is dead,” snapped Anu. Parul looked up straight at her and said, “I was there, remember…I am telling you…..she couldn’t have just gone off and where could she go? She had not planned anything…..she was not going to her guardians….”
“Matron did phone them….they know nothing….” Nandita interrupted.
Parul grimaced and continued, “Someone killed her….”
“Ow shut up…” Malti cried stuffing her mouth with rice.
“I am not hungry,” announced Lata. “How can anyone eat when we don’t klnow where she is, and in what state…”
“I tell you someone has probably killed her and right now she is DEAD…” Parul screamed and all hushed whispers stopped as her voice echoed in the hall. Nandita cleared her throat, “You don’t know that Parul…”
“I do! She shouted that she had found something…..well you see I think it was the basement where she used to see this light at four every morning…why she even asked me to search the church….and she was sure that Shanta had disappeared inside that church!”
“What light?” asked Sangeeta sipping water and soon everyone at the table was totally engrossed in what Shiksha had seen and what she had thought…
“ENOUGH…” Lata announced getting up. “Parul, you are coming up with me now…”
The intercom burst open and Matron’s cool tones resounded in the hall – “Girls! Finish your supper now and go upstairs to the common room! Then be in bed by nine.”
Slowly as if in a trance some of the girls stood up -- Anu offered to wash their plates and Lata dragged Parul out of the hall who was still voicing her view that Shiksha had been murdered by someone in the basement of the Old Church – “you never listen to me…” she had said loudly – “she discovered the basement entrance and went down -- there found something and so someone killed her and then went away…and so when I came the church was empty…”
“so where is the basement…..you didn’t see any door or stairs, did you?”
And Parul had admitted very reluctantly – “NO... but I tell you I am right!”
“Sure, I expect the police will want to talk to you first…then tell them,” Nandita helping Lata had smoothly replied. In the dining hall, all the girls had finished eating supper and cleaning their plates. Gayatri sighed on her way upstairs, heading towards the common room. Roll Call was duly taken, following which a reluctant Parul was forcibly put to bed by Gayatri and Lata. The TV switched on, but as usual the TV played up, and soon the girls curled up into cushioned comfortable chairs in pajamas to reading novels. But there was a minimum of chatter as each girl absorbed in her own dire thoughts sought comfort in the pages of a steamy Mills & Boon. No girls hung about in the corridors or the shower rooms- the hostel was eerily quiet as if in mourning. In room 5 Lata switched off the main light, and sitting at her desk, put on her table lamp and stared into space thinking -- Parul, she knew from experience, had put two and two together and come to the right conclusion! But it was too frightening, terrifying a possibility- that her room mate and friend- one who had volunteered for four events just to get four certificates- Shiksha Malhotra had actually been murdered in cold blood by someone! A murder of a student at Mayfair- Lata shook her head incredulously- murders did not happen at Mayfair college- one of the most respected old academic institutions in India- the idea was laughable- Murder at Mayfair- nothing like that was ever capable of happening at Mayfair! NO! Lata decided firmly- Murder was simply not a viable and feasible option!
She glanced at her clock- nearly time for bed and sure, she heard Gayatri Raghav’s authoritative voice shooing the various girls to their rooms. She sighed- if only Shiksha had not seen that damn light, become obsessed with the Old Wing- and chosen it as her research subject- she would not have gone there and none of this would have ever happened! And now everything was awry- Shiksha had disappeared- Parul was hysterical- Jyotsana’s flu had made an appearance and she was going crazy! She switched off the lamp and climbed into bed. Quarter to nine and one by one, lights in each room went out!
Gayatri Raghav sighed and waited patiently for Matron to show up. Matron came in before nine and checked and then went out after making sure all the balcony doors were thoroughly fastened and switching off all lights. She stepped into the open and swiftly locked the building and made her way to the main building. The Banyan leaves swished in the inky darkness.
Inspector Chauhan sipped his fourth cup of tea of the morning and gazed forlornly out of the window -- this was not happening to him -- he thought dismally -- why did such a thing have to happen here of all the places -- it had been four days since the disappearance of that girl, Shiksha Malhotra -- four days since he and his underlings had set up camp in the inner hall in the main building near the Principal’s and Matron’s office in the college -- four days of endless searching and talking over and over again with Parul Desai, the tall attractive girl who had been with Shiksha at the time of the disappearance -- interviewing her had been tough, she had been thoroughly convinced that her friend had been murdered by someone in the basement of the Old Church and, had practically screamed this at him the last time he had had a tete- a tete with her in the hall. Sure he was also convinced that Shiksha had not gone off hiking or bungee jumping but if she was murdered by whom?
It was unlikely that she had any enemies -- she was a harmless little college girl. It was then Inspector Chauhan had pulled on his thinking cap. Maybe the intention had been political -- after all her grandfather was the Chief Election Commissioner of the country -- someone wanted to have revenge on him -- sad, he had reflected, that she had met her death cruelly because someone held a grudge against her politically influential grandfather. Constable Pathak and Bahadur had conducted an intensive search of the Old Church and then, Inspector Chauhan had sprung into action. He and his senior constable had contacted the police in New Delhi and somewhat importantly told them of what had happened, and then transferred to the CID and the security force and instructed them to increase the number of security men around the Chief Election Commissioner’s family.
After duly accomplishing all long distance duties, he had relaxed and sighed -- if this disappearance was politically motivated, he had absolutely nothing to worry about. Her finished his tea and wiped his lips in satisfaction. The only bees in his bonnet were his idiotic Junior Constable and his Chowkidaar, who were hundred percent sure that this disappearance was related to that of the college’s cleaning lady. In fact Constable Pathak had argued with him that both disappearances were actually murder cases, committed by the same person in the same building for the same motive.
And then to add further to his misery, that tiresome girl had joined forces with Kishen Pathak and proceeded to play detective with him- as she had loudly told him the previous day – “we used to see this small light shining in the basement at four in the morning- we saw it from Shiksha’s window which faces the Old Church and so she was quite curious! In fact she had found out that Shanta had been in the Old Church that day…and when I called out to her that evening…Shiksha said she had found something’, here there was a pause and then that girl’s excited voice had floated through infuriating him further- didn’t she have lectures to attend? Why didn’t she go and study and leave all investigation to them?- ‘what do you think she found?” -- here again there had been a pause heavy with anticipation and Inspector Chauhan sitting in the other room, had imagined the Junior Constable giving a negative shake of his stupid head –“she had found the door or some entrance leading to the basement! She went in and there someone killed her…” -- at this point Inspector Chauhan had heard enough, he had simply walked into the adjoining room and begun questioning Parul Desai for the sixth time.