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Birds of Prey
by Archana Sarat (Book Preview) | Published On: 23-Mar-2017

This book is a crime thriller.

Ex-ACP Anton Pinto reluctantly joins the investigation into the mysterious disappearances of men from affluent families of Mumbai. There is an inexplicable pattern behind the abductions and all suspicions point towards an old, physically-challenged, mysterious lady. Soon, Anton discovers that the seemingly unrelated men have one common link—the most popular and expensive international school in Mumbai. Following clues that span from schools and old-age homes to illegal dingy hospitals, Anton is led through a labyrinth of incest, abuse, torture and suffering, spanning decades. 

This is an excerpt from the book.

 

7th August 2014

Powai, Mumbai

 

Ashish Kumar tapped his feet impatiently and looked at his watch again. She was fifteen minutes late. Should he continue to wait for her or just confront her at the school the nextmorning? Today, when he had been to school to drop off Aarna, his daughter, a chubby old woman had approached him and said she needed to speak to him privately about an issue concerning his daughter. Though Ashish had agreed and was waiting in the chosen café to meet her, the whole thing seemed like a hoax to him. She was reluctant to even mention her name to Ashish. He only knew that she worked at the school. He wondered if she was going to tell him some sob story and ask for money.

In spite of all his misgivings, he was here for just one  reason. Why had she mentioned it was about Aarna? The fear in that lady’s eyes had disturbed him. He needed to check out what this was all about. He wondered if he should have spoken about it to his wife. He hadn’t wanted to because she would worry unnecessarily. She usually became paranoid about even the silliest thing when it concerned Aarna. After all, this might just be some new way to swindle him. Ever since he was made a partner in his law firm, everybody had wanted a share in his good fortune.

The café door opened and Ashish looked up expectantly.Yes, it was her. She was wearing the same faded, white cotton saree that she had worn that morning. She covered her face with the pallu of her saree. He hadn’t taken her to be a person conscious of how dust could affect her skin. He wondered if she was old. Her hair, her eyes, her skin—everything showed her much younger than the way she presented herself. She limped towards Ashish and seated herself across from him.Her face glowed and her bright, black eyes sparkled. Possibly,a little make-up and good clothes might turn her into a different person, he thought.

“So what will you have?” Ashish asked, handing over the menu card to her. Though he was still sceptical about her motives, he wanted to be polite. Her eyes darted around and she wrung her hands. “What happened?”

She leaned towards him across the table. “I cannot talk here. We need to go some place private.”

“Look, you need to tell me at least something before I budge from here. You told me you cannot speak at school.So, I agreed to meet you here. If you can’t speak here too,then. . .”

“Let’s go to my place. It’s more private.” She pulled the pallu even more snugly over her head.

“I am not moving till I know what this is all about!” Ashish folded his hands and leaned back in his chair. The entire scenario seemed like an elaborate ruse to him. “Do you need money or donation or something? Just tell me and get over with it.”

“No. I don’t need any money but I can’t speak here. Try to understand. What if someone sees us here? I will lose my job.”

“Why will you lose your job?”

“I am not supposed to tell you anything but my conscience pricks me.” Her eyes were scared and pleading.

“What are you talking about?”

She gave a slow nod, gesturing him to come closer. He leaned across the table. She looked around furtively and whispered, “Your daughter was sexually abused at school.”

Ashish felt a punch in his heart. He sucked in a breath of air sharply and then couldn’t breathe anymore. Thiswas certainly not something that he had expected. “What are you saying?” He struggled to articulate even those few words.

“Not here,” she said.

“Okay, let’s go to your place,” Ashish said. “Where is it? We can drive down there.”

“No. That is too dangerous for me. Mala, the Biologyteacher, lives next door to me. They are sure to notice a car. I’ll tell you the street name. We’ll take two separate autorickshaws.Whoever reaches first will wait under the mango tree in the middle of the street. Do not speak to anybody on the way, not even on phone and do not mention my name.Okay? Please.” Ashish felt uncomfortable about all these elaborate preparations. However, he had no other option left but to agree with her. Sexually abused. The words kept replaying in his mind. The images of the rally in Bengaluru,in support of a little child who was sexually abused at school,flashed through his mind. The school had tried to cover up the incident, but will Aarna’s school do such a thing? It was the best school in Mumbai. Many of his friends’ children studied there. Still?

Ashish took an auto-rickshaw and left first. He turned back and peeped out behind him. She took the next autorickshaw and followed him. He wanted to speak to his wife but wondered what he would tell her. She would panic and rush their daughter to a hospital. Next, the police and media would disrupt their lives. This was a sensitive matter and Ashish reckoned that it had to be handled with utmost discretion. When they approached the street, he was dismayed to see it was a dead-end. The auto-rickshaw took a U-turn and left him standing there in the dark, all alone. The mango tree,towards which he walked, seemed ominous. The low hum of television from the few houses nearby was the only sign of presence of any life there. Ashish was thankful for that little noise. The old lady reached in a few minutes and got off at the beginning of the street. She paid off the auto-rickshaw driver and limped towards the mango tree. She walked away without acknowledging him. Ashish tagged along behind.

They did not speak to each other.

Ashish looked at her limping form and felt a sudden pang of pity. She seemed older and weaker when she limped. She walked up to the gate of a bungalow. The place was falling into ruins. On one side, where there must have been a lawn earlier,there were grass and weeds over grown to more than three feet.

The weeds had spread around the walls of the bungalow and dried weed creepers seemed to have sprouted from the roof and climbed down to take over the house. In some parts ofthe bungalow, the roof had collapsed to expose the interiors to the harsh nature. She looked around once before opening the gate and quickly ushered him inside. Five feet from the gate stood the main door of the house. She opened the doors wiftly. A little yellow bulb seemed to be alight inside.

“Go in! Fast!” she said.

“No one lives with you?” Ashish asked. The house was too big to live alone. However, the expanse did not surprise him. There were many houses like this one all around the country. They were inherited white elephants that fell intoruin before finally being sold off. She must have belonged to better times, Ashish thought.

“My parents live with me. They are old and bed ridden.”She walked inside, switched on the lights and bolted the front door firmly. Ashish heard a cough from inside the house.“It’s me, Amma. I’m back home. What will you like to drink,Sir? Hot or cold?”

“Nothing. Nothing. Tell me what happened.”

“My mother would be angry if you don’t have something.Please accept a glass of water at least.” She walked towards a table in one corner of the room. A jug of water and two glasses were on it. She poured out a glass and brought it to Ashish.

Ashish drank the water in one gulp and handed the glass back to her. She limped up to the table, placed the glass, and came back towards Ashish.

“I’m so worried. . .please tell me what happened,” he said anxiously. He noticed that she looked calm here. All the confusion and fear he had seen before, in the café, had dissipated.

“Wait a minute. Give me a moment please. I have a bad leg. Let me sit.” She sat down in the chair and gestured himto sit in the only other chair in the room. It was a low easy chair with a cloth seat that caved in when you sat on it. He sat on it and felt himself go in. It was the ideal chair to lay back and rest, but he couldn’t. He sat upright, as though he were squatting. She sat comfortably and seemed in no hurry to start the conversation.

“What happened? Tell me. Was she. . .”

“No. No. She was not raped. At least I didn’t see it. It may or may not have happened.”

“What did you see?”

“I saw him carrying her and his palms were patting herbuttocks. He squeezed her tightly and kissed her. Then she cried. I saw her tears. After that, he touched her breast and patted it. Then, he was angry. He stared at her and scolded her.”

“WHAT? How could he? Who is this? Was he a teacher at the school?”

“No,” she said. “This is a terrible wrong. I know that it starts like this. Caressing the buttocks and then one fingerpushes itself into the panty, and then the panty comes off.The poor child. . .so helpless. . .” She burst into tears. Ashish’s eyes widened. Something was insanely bizarre about her tears.What had he let himself into? He tried to get up from his chair.The damn chair made it so difficult for him to get up.

When she realised he was trying to get up, she turned towards him and her eyes flashed with fury. “You are leaving? You don’t believe me?” she asked enraged.

Ashish wanted to get away from the place as soon as possible. This lady was crazy; he was locked in and there was no one around to help him. He hadn’t heard any noise from inside after that first bout of coughing. “I don’t understand what to believe but tell me who did it. Maybe then this wouldn’t seem so incredulous.”

“Isn’t it your duty to protect her? Anyway, whether you do it or not, I’m going to protect her. I’ll do what is right for her.”

“It’s so nice to see you care about my child but you need to tell me first who did it. I can’t do anything till then.”

“It happened in the school playground when all parents come to drop off their kids,” she said.

“It was a parent?”

She ignored him and continued. “Everyone is busy dropping off their kids and no one notices this, except me.”

She got up from her chair and walked up to him slowly and steadily.

Oh God! Is she not limping anymore?’ he wondered. He tried to get up again but this time he felt dizzy. He closed his eyes to steady his whirling head. Why was he feeling dizzy, suddenly? Had she added something in that glass ofwater?

“Now you tell me who did it?” she asked him. Ashish tried to get up again. She pushed him back with both her hands.

“I don’t know. How will I know who did it? Call your mother, your father, anybody. Let us speak before them.I cannot understand what you want.”

She burst out laughing. “My mother?” She went towards the switch box and pressed a switch. He heard coughing once again. “How do you all fall for the same trick?”

“What are you doing? Why?” Ashish could hardly keep his eyes open. His head felt too heavy. “Why?” He could sense his speech slurring.

“You are not a good father. I know all about you,” she said. “You will pay for it, you dirty pervert. You will never lay hands on your daughter again.”

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