One eventful day, Aman ventures on a trek in a dense forest, overlooking the gloomy forecast of heavy downpour and thunderstorms. He gets stranded in the woods by evening because of heavy rain. But he was not prepared for the series of unpleasant events which the forest tosses on him one after another. As the night progresses, he finds himself in the middle of a complex mystery which seems impossible to solve. Without Sahil, he finds himself severely handicapped and helpless, a lame spectator to the crimes which are committed right under his nose. Will he able to catch the culprits alone? Read on to know more about his adventures in the fifth story of the Aman and Sahil series.
Illustrations drawn by Varun.
The dense foliage filled his heart with joy. The flowers bloomed and the branches of the trees ruffled to the gentle breeze of the wind.
Aman had come to relax in the woods for the weekend. He could hear the friendly banter of the birds chattering with each other. He had come to Bengaluru for a short business visit and had decided to drive to one of the jungle camps, few hours’ drive from the city.
The transportation from the city to the jungle camps was quite convenient with a considerable number of buses frequenting the route at regular intervals. The journey was roughly three hours one way.
Little did he know that this weekend was to be anything but tranquil. To begin with, there was a forecast of heavy rain and thunder storms for the next two days. He had braved the prediction to spend his time in the moist woods rather than shutting himself down in the claustrophobic luxurious hotel he was checked into.
Aman checked into a cottage in the jungle camp, cleansed himself and had his breakfast. He played with the pet dogs, Whisky and Soda, then lay lazing on the hammock for few hours reading a book.
He set out for a trek early evening. There were no indications of rain whatsoever. The sky looked bright and clear. His plan was to trek for a few hours and come back to the cottage before night fall.
The wilderness welcomed him with open arms. The tall teak trees were lined up gracefully next to each other, separated by shrubs and bushes. As he strolled on, the canopy became denser. The jamun trees and the jujuba trees were ripe with fruits, occasionally he could even spot the wild fig and rosewood trees. He followed the trail till he heard the gushing sound of water. The stream ahead ran along the length of the forest.
He waded across the stream to reach the other side of the forest, which was thick with bamboos and the great Banyans. The roots of the Banyan trees spread deep and wide into the soil, each entwined to another like cobras dancing on a moonlit night.
A chill wind brushed past him. He looked up. Dark clouds had begun to take shape in the sky. The weather-man was not wrong after all.
Aman ambled through the trail hastily. After a short distance, the trail ended. He turned around to retrace his path back to the cottage, when he heard a commotion nearby. He looked back and realized that he had reached the verge of the forest which was marked by the concrete road. That appeared to be the road taken by the vehicles to cross the forest along its border.
He was curious to know what the commotion was all about and strode towards the concrete road. The reason behind the uproar became apparent when he neared the bend; a full-grown elephant was sitting majestically in the middle of the road. It was flanked on either side with cars, which were desperately waiting for the animal to get up and clear the way. Unfortunately, the elephant had no intentions to relinquish the comfortable spot it had chosen. The forest department officials had put barricades on either side of the animal and had stranded all vehicles and pedestrians on the road. They had issued a strict decree that disturbing or harming any animal in the precincts of the forest is a crime.
In short, till the elephant decides to walk away on its own, everyone was stranded in the rain. Momentarily, he thought of asking a lift from one of the vehicles to escape from the rain. He looked back at the lush greenery behind him. Getting drenched in the succulent foliage seemed far more appealing than being stranded in a car, a familiar sight he witnessed on city roads every day. He decided to take refuge in the woods till the rain stopped, an impulsive decision which he would repent soon after.
Lost in his thoughts, he started walking back towards the forest. A sudden movement caught his attention. He turned his head and looked sideways. That’s when he saw her.
Her moon like face popped out of one of the stranded cars. Those doe-like-eyes had a magnetic charm to flutter any man’s heart. Her gaze kept drifting back and forth, not resting on anyone. As he moved closer to her car, he saw a man in the driver’s seat. He could see her face sideways conversing with her partner. With one long lasting glance at the girl, Aman walked back into the woods.
Aman trekked deeper into the muddy patch ahead and found shelter under a big Banyan tree. It was probably one of the biggest trees in the forest, with its roots hanging from its tall branches. The vast branches, like the roots, were intertwined, forming crisscross overlapping patterns, thus making the tree look like a giant labyrinth. He climbed up the tree getting hold of a hanging root and settled on one of the lower branches of the tree. It was well covered, a comfortable cozy spot to protect him from the incessant rain.
Time ticked past slowly. There was an eerie silence all around him, other than the rustling of the leaves and the sound of the continuous downpour of rain. There were intermittent flashes of lightning followed by thunder. Boredom made him sleepy. His head drooped down and he fell asleep in his cozy shelter.
He did not know how long he slept; he was jolted awake by a soft growl. It was pitch dark by then. he saw a pair of glistening yellow dots moving towards the tree. The night life of the forest had begun to reveal itself. He knew instantly it was a leopard.
His heart skipped a beat. Knowing the natural instincts of the predator before him, it just took one leap and he would be dead meat. He was trapped. There was no time even to run. He bit his tongue and blamed himself for his sloppiness. The next day newspaper headline flashed before his eyes. “A man, who ventured on a reckless trek in a stormy weather yesterday night, was killed in a fatal encounter by a leopard!” What a pitiable and disastrous end he was about to meet!!
He looked down. The yellow dots were prowling very close to the tree. He closed his eyes and waited for his death.
At that very moment, a bright torch light flashed in a distance. He could not believe his luck. The leopard, staring at the bright light, ran into the trees. He heaved a huge breath of relief and craned his neck to take a good look at his savior. He could see the face very clearly through the torch light.
The stranger was in his early thirties; tall and ruggedly handsome, with deep eyes, sharp nose and thin lips. He was wearing a thick jacket and jeans, which gave him good protection from the rain.
He came under the tree, put on his cap and covered his face with a mask. Aman’s impression on him changed from gratitude to fear when he saw him pulling out a rifle from his bag and fiddling with it.
Tons of suspicions arose in Aman’s head. Who was this man? Had he come to hunt the leopard? Or had he come to threaten or kill someone?
Aman heard a shrill trumpet at a distance, and soon after, the screeching of the tires. The elephant must have decided to give way to the cars after all. He thought about the girl and the elephant, it felt like ages since he saw them both on the road. Time was indeed moving at a snail’s pace.
He waited eagerly to see what transpired under the tree.
Within few minutes, another torch came flashing towards the tree. If the leopard was loitering nearby, it would have definitely run away by now. Between the two flash lights, it appeared like it was a hunting expedition.
The man carrying the second torch was also well built. His water proof attire protected him well against the heavy rain. His face was hooded, but Aman could make out his handsome features. His gait had an aura of arrogance and recklessness around him.
“Where is the girl?” he hissed as he stepped closer to the man with the mask.
“First, the money,” the mask-man demanded.
“It is here in my backpack. But I will not give it to you till I get the girl,” the hooded man argued.
“You thought I will hold her captive here in this rain? Leave the money and go back home. The girl will knock at your door by the morning,” said the mask-man.
“No girl, no money,” asserted the hooded-man raising his hand towards his opponent.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” threatened the mask-man, pointing his rifle to the hooded man.
The hooded-man recklessly stepped forward and tried to grab his foe by his collar. The mask-man dodged and hit him on his temple hard with the back of the rifle. The hooded man instantaneously collapsed on the ground.
The mask-man hurriedly opened the bag which his adversary was carrying. Aman could see bundles of currency stocked in the bag from his seat, which had an advantage of higher elevation. He then took the bag and hastily walked away from the muddy path deeper into the woods.
Aman was in a state of shock. It took him a while to calm down. He was about to get off his seat, when he heard muffled voices. He could see another torch light flashing by and two silhouettes strolling towards the tree. As they came closer, Aman realized it was the same girl whom he had seen earlier on the road. She looked resplendent, her bright red dress complementing her fair complexion. Her thin frame looked delicate; her clothes hugging her body tightly in the rain. With her doe-like-eyes, aquiline nose and fully blossomed lips, she looked completely out of this world. He came out of his reverie when he heard her whining, “First the elephant blocks the road. Then it starts raining. And as if that was not enough, the car breaks down! Looks like the entire universe is conspiring against our elopement. Now we have to tread this scary road in this dark, rainy night! Are you sure this path will lead us to your friend’s place?”
“Be patient. I know the place quite well,” her partner replied curtly.
He had a lanky frame, curly hair and big eyes. He was dusky and good looking in his own way.
They came near the body and froze. “Oh God. What is this now? Who is he? Is he alive?” the girl’s voice was frantic.
Her partner examined the body. “Yes, he is still breathing. Someone hit him hard on his temple,” he said observantly.
“Thank God. What do we do now?” the girl’s voice sounded worrisome. She was more nervous than before.
“We cannot help him. We have to get to my friend soon. He cannot safeguard the money for us for long. My family will get to him sooner or later. We are already delayed due to the elephant and the broken car. We got to hurry,” said her partner blatantly.
“Alright. Let’s go,” said the girl. She walked past the body stiffly, not even glancing at it once.
They headed deeper into the woods.
After he lost sight of them, Aman climbed down the tree and bent forward to examine the body on the ground. The man was still breathing. He checked his pockets, he could not find any phone or wallet, but his hand stumbled on a piece of paper. He pulled it out and stared hard. It was the photograph of the girl who had just walked past with her partner! Something was scribbled on the backside of the photograph. Scrutinizing further, he deduced they were directions to the precise spot on which he was standing right now.
This night was getting weirder by the second, dragging him along into the abyss of darkness.
Did the girl know this man?
She had not even glanced at the body. Why was he ransoming her? Who was the mask-man? It is obvious he had not kidnapped the girl. The girl was eloping at her free will. Why did he stage the kidnapping?
Million questions zoomed past Aman’s head. But first and foremost, he had to help this man on the ground. He checked his phone. The connectivity was lost because of the rain. Aman hurried towards the concrete road to get some assistance.
The muddy path was slippery in the rain. It took him a long time to reach the road. After few attempts, he managed to stop a car. After hearing his predicament, the two kind men aboard the car readily agreed to help him. We rushed back to the spot. By the time they reached the banyan tree, the body had vanished.
A chill fear gripped Aman’s mind. Did the leopard take him away? It was nearly an hour since he had left the place. There were no traces of a body being dragged, but the rain could have easily washed it out even if there were any. His heart sank. Where will he search for him in this dark rainy night, with a leopard on loose?
Aman felt guilty and helpless. Had Sahil been there, they wouldn’t have left the man alone. But now there is nothing he could do to trace this man.
He had no intentions to spend the rest of the night on the Banyan tree. His love for adventure had greatly subdued, thanks to the events he had witnessed in the past few hours. He requested the two gentlemen to give him a ride back to the cottage. It was almost midnight by the time he reached his room. He collapsed on his bed.
It was still raining when Aman woke up the next day. He wanted to report the missing man to the forest department. But there was a flood alert issued in the surrounding areas and everything was closed.
He heard that the last buses to the city were leaving in the morning. Post afternoon, if the rains do not stop, they will close down the roads. He hurried to the bus stand.
But the forest was not yet done springing its unpleasant surprises. As Aman walked towards the bus stop, whom should he see, but the mysterious girl with her partner waiting for the bus!
They had not changed their attire since yesterday night. She was still wearing the same red dress.
He pulled up his hood to cover his face and waited under the shade of a tree. There was a decent crowd at the bus stop, making him look less conspicuous.
The situation got more intriguing when the mask-man, aka the kidnapper, made an entrance at the bus stop. Aman had seen his face clearly yesterday in the torch light. He was also pretty sure that his presence at the bus stop was also not coincidental.
The kidnapper walked very casually and halted a few feet away from the couple, who appeared completely oblivious to him.
Aman waited tensely for the bus to arrive. Across the road, he saw another fully-grown elephant eating sugarcane deep in the woods. He chuckled at the irony. There were times when he had walked nonstop for hours trying to spot a wild animal in this forest. And this crazy weekend, he had already spotted two elephants and one leopard effortlessly when animal spotting was the last thing going on his head.
The girl whispered something in her partner’s ear and walked away into the woods. The partner followed her. Shortly, the kidnapper disappeared. Aman hesitated for a second, but decided to pursue them. He could not let the kidnapper harm her.
Aman kept a safe distance from the kidnapper and trailed behind. He tried not to be seen, concealing himself behind trees and bushes. Soon, they both spotted the girl standing near a clearing. The partner was nowhere to be seen. Aman hid behind a tree and steadied himself to pounce on the kidnapper from behind, when the girl’s words wrung sharply into his ears, “What took you so long?”
Aman froze instantly in his hiding spot.
“Where is he?” the kidnapper asked, striding towards the girl.
“Unconscious. Lying there,” she replied pointing to her right.
He went into the clearing. Aman waited with bated breath. He came back in few minutes. “I drugged him. He will be asleep for at least an hour. We will be off by then,” he said.
“What about his money?” he asked.
“I have it with me. We collected it from his friend’s place yesterday night.” whispered the girl.
“Do you have the ransom from my brother?” she asked him.
“Yes, in my bag,” he replied.
“Was my brother badly injured yesterday? You hit him on his temple,” complained the girl.
“No. I saw him getting up and limping back. He will live,” he sneered.
They both held hands and smiled into each other’s eyes. They then headed back towards the bus stop.
Aman was astounded. He stared hard at the girl. She still looked resplendent. And beautiful. And cunning. And cruel…
He jolted upright. Before him were two swindlers on the run! He had witnessed their crime all along, but had done nothing to stop them except being a curious onlooker.
Aman walked behind them making sure not to be seen. The bus had arrived and the passengers were already boarding the bus.
He could see the elephant at a distance. It had come forward near the road. It appeared as if it was also intrigued by the turn of the events.
The duo ran to catch the bus. Aman was far behind. He howled, crying for help. It was obvious that he was going to miss the bus.
The bus started. Aman felt like an accomplice in crime. He stood in his spot, helpless, defeated. Without Sahil, he felt handicapped. If Sahil were there, the story would have been something different. They would have together stopped the first assault itself. Currently, there were two assaults and two thefts, and there is nothing he could do about it. He had let the tricksters escape.
After a short distance, to his surprise, the bus came to a halt. Aman ran towards the bus in full speed and halted abruptly, shocked at the scene which presented itself before him.
The elephant had ambled forward and stood in the middle of the road, blocking the bus. The passengers alighted the vehicle. Aman could hear the tricksters cursing under their breath. They still did not know that their cover was about to get busted. They stayed along with the rest of the passengers next to the stranded bus.
He was exhilarated at the turn of the events. The forest officials arrived just in time to put barricades around the elephant. Aman went up to them and reported the case. The trickster duo was flabbergasted when the officials approached to search them and took them into custody. They looked around and saw Aman smirking at them. Their glares hinted that they had figured out that he was responsible for their capture.
As she walked past, for the first time, the girl glanced straight into Aman’s eyes. Her looks pierced his heart. He held her gaze. She gave him a wry smile as she passed, escorted by the forest officers.
Aman then looked up and beheld his mighty companion, the elephant. He was now moving away from the road. He squinted sideways as he passed by. Aman could have sworn that he winked at him.
The elephant knew he had stopped the swindlers and was flaunting it. He had blocked the bus on purpose. What could have prompted him to do so?
Wait a minute!
Aman had heard the trumpeting very clearly from his tree the day before. Perhaps he has had company all along! There have not been one, but two curious onlookers for the events which had transpired since yesterday night.
How he wished, he had told the girl, that the elephant was the one who had ensured their capture. He had just been a lame witness all along.
Aman laughed out loud. Who will believe him if he told the truth? People will think he has lost his mind. This was quite an extraordinary turn of events. But perhaps the truth will be revealed only to those who look beyond the mundane, the ordinary.
Aman reached Bengaluru and called up Sahil, the one person with whom at least he stood a chance.
The voice cracked up on the other end. Sahil was in splits of laughter.
“It sounds funny, isn’t it? An elephant stopping them?” Aman asked, slightly hurt.
“No. That was the credible part,” said Sahil.
“What is it then?” Aman was irritant.
“After all these days, you fell for a girl who is a swindler!”, Sahil burst out laughing.
Aman put the phone down and smiled to himself.
“There is no escaping Sahil,” he thought. “He can pull out the secrets buried deep in my heart!”
More to read in the Adventure Series
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