(Book 2: Hello, Can You Fear Me?)
The ride was awkward and silent.
Inspector Fernandes had taken up the steering wheel over from Rehan, who had been having a hard time coming to terms with the presence of a ghost in the car. He sat in the passenger seat at the front, refusing to even look behind. Fernandes, in contrast, would often snatch glances through the rear-view mirror.
Ravi was the most relaxed of the lot. He was seated on the backseat, right beside the wisp, whose appearance often altered. At present, it was in Uncle Silver’s guise, staring intently at the road that was blurred by motion.
From moment to moment, the figure would stir, always as they arrived at a fork in the road or at an intersection. Silently, the ghost would point to one of the available directions, then fall back to what it was doing before. Ravi would relay the instructions verbally to the inspector.
‘I think we’re getting close,’ he said as the figure of Uncle Silver pointed again, appearing more anxious than it had before.
Rehan flinched in his seat, darting a look behind.
‘Which one of you spoke just now?’ he asked, his eyes narrowed in suspicion.
‘You both look the same. There are two of you! How can we know which one to trust?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous, Rehan,’ Inspector Fernandes said. ‘Mr. Thakur has been sitting on the left side. Wouldn’t you have heard him if he moved about back there?’
‘I can’t be sure.’
‘Besides, it’s not that difficult to tell us apart,’ said Ravi. ‘Ghosty, here, has a glow about it. You can see the appearances it dons even in the dark. Just let go of your fear and it will be easy.’
‘Hmm,’ Rehan said, but Ravi could tell that he wasn’t convinced. ‘Named it, have you?’
A shimmer to his right distracted Ravi. The glowing figure of his father now sat beside him. The figure was shivering even though the air was stuffy inside the vehicle. Ghosty met Ravi’s eyes for a second, then lifted a trembling hand to the right, index finger pointing outside.
Ravi followed the ghost’s finger with his eyes and saw that they weren’t approaching any turns. He knew what it meant, then.
‘Inspector,’ he said, even as he felt himself stiffen, ‘stop the car. We’ve arrived.’
They came to a halt in the middle of a wide street. It was well past midnight and the only light was the silvery shine of the moon overhead. With its help Ravi studied their destination.
A huge temple was on one side, and a wide clearing lay before it, littered with flower petals and threads and rotten fruit peels from the day’s activity. The building itself was more massive than any of the temples Ravi and Sharmila had visited. The staircase that led to it climbed on and on and on. At the very top was a giant metallic dome, glowing brilliantly in the moon’s light.
Ravi got out, followed shortly by the police officers. He went around the car to hold the door open for Ghosty, but found the rear seat empty. A glowing figure of Madhu was already standing in the clearing. She beckoned them, then headed onward.
They followed. At the base of the staircase, they found a bunch of shoes, even at this hour. Ravi recognised a few of them. There was no mistaking Subro’s traditional sandals, or Uncle Silver’s boots. He felt himself gulp involuntarily as he walked passed them.
They trudged up the stairs, quietly at first. After a couple of minutes, though, Ravi could hold in his exhaustion no longer. He had already climbed over two dozen staircases that day. His legs felt like jelly beneath him. Huffing and puffing, he walked beside the two officers, who matched their pace to his even though they were fitter than him. They seemed to prefer his company over Ghosty’s.
At long last, they approached the final few steps. Ghosty had already climbed beyond their view. The officers on either side of Ravi withdrew their guns, faces strained with caution. Ravi fell back a couple of steps, behind their cover.
Before long, they were at the top.
The interior was unlit, and at first, Ravi could see nothing but a line of large bells hanging from the ceiling. Then the officers switched on their torches and what they illuminated made Ravi shudder.
At the center of the cold, smooth floor sat Abhijit, his legs crossed, his back straight and his eyes closed. The man didn’t even stir as the bright light shone upon him. He appeared to be in a deep meditative state. Before him was the machine he had stolen from Uncle Silver, the Echorder.
Fernandes marched towards Abhijit. With a sudden jolt, Ravi realised that she had no clue who the man was. If she disturbed him, things could turn ugly. But how could he stop her without giving themselves away to the man?
As it turned out, he didn’t need to. Something to the side caught Fernandes’ attention as her walk made the light of her torch to sway. She directed the beam there, revealing a tied-up figure by the wall — an unconscious police officer who began to stir at the sudden illumination. Fernandes swept the light across the wall and discovered a couple more people bound by it. Rehan had similar luck with the other wall.
They found Subro, Anurag, Madhu, Uncle Silver, and two police officers in all.
Rehan whirled around to Abhijit, pointing his gun at the man, and would have yelled an order if his superior hadn’t grabbed his shoulder. She met his puzzled look with a signal with through her eyes, pointing to where Madhu was sitting.
Ravi and Rehan both turned to the girl. She was awake and had a finger to her lips, her eyes screaming at them to obey even with the bright light glaring at her face.
Fernandes made a quick hand sign to Rehan, who nodded and put his gun back in its holster. He withdrew a pocket knife instead, then moved silently towards the nearest bound policeman.
Fernandes kept her torch and her gun aimed at the meditating Abhijit to check for any movement, avoiding hitting his face directly with the light.
Slow seconds passed as Rehan went about cutting the captives free. Fortunately, the cords weren’t very thick. His knife easily did the job in three or four swipes each time.
The two policemen joined Fernandes as soon as they were released. Stealthily collecting their guns from beside Abhijit, where the man appeared to have confiscated them, they trained their weapons at Abhijit too. One of them looked angry, the other was shaking.
Madhu was freed next. She walked up to Ravi quietly, looked at him as if she wanted to cry out, but then decided against it. She grabbed him in a hug instead. Ravi softly patted her on the back.
Uncle Silver followed her soon, grimacing a little as he walked without the help of his multi-utility walking stick, holding it up with one hand instead. Madhu let go of Ravi and embraced the old man.
Anurag joined them moments later, making it a family hug.
Ravi watched as Rehan freed the last of the captives. The rope came off just as easily as the others, but Subro was not awake. Rehan tried lightly slapping the boy’s cheeks, but to no effect. The officer looked back to check with his superior, and Fernandes motioned him to carry the painter out. One of the policemen they had freed, the one who wasn’t shaking, volunteered to help. Together, Rehan and the other officer lifted the painter and set him up on Rehan’s back. With some effort, Rehan began to walk to the rest of the group.
Fernandes urged the others to get going down the staircase.
Ravi stayed where he was. The inspector had no idea what she was dealing with. He had to get her to retreat as well, while they had the chance.
As he moved in her direction, though, a ruffling noise cut through the silence.
Ravi paused. It hadn’t been him. He looked around urgently. The others were as still as him. He couldn’t place the source of the sound. Not until he looked to the center of the room.
Abhijit got up from the floor, a broad smile on his face. He looked around at everyone; his eyes were the colour of blood.
‘Thank you everyone. I’ve been expecting you,’ he said.