Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Finally, I worked out a story that fits into the PWG canon. I really like the way this came out - The language isnt totally professional yet, but it's more suited to this genre than my earlier work. Let me know what you think.

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Pawar Guest House : Chapter 7

"As it turns out," I said, "I do have a story to tell today. Your tale reminds me of one I heard when I went trekking a few years ago."

Her story had resolved the situation for me : We were just telling tall tales. This had nothing to do with any philosophy - The diary had been just a coincidence, striking me at a weak spot. And if she liked wierd tales, so did I, and I had a store of them, too.

---

Dokha would have been a nice little place to spend a few days in, but Shekhar knew there were other, possibly nicer spots to visit on this trekking holiday. Today's walk had been mostly downhill, though, and he had reached Dokha before noon. Now they'd all have lunch and take a much-deserved afternoon nap. Tomorrow and the day after were going to be killer climbs.

He looked around for the lodge where they were staying - everyone else must have reached there by now. Shekhar was the odd one out of his group - he was overweight and looked like he wouldnt be able to walk for ten minutes. But he'd been trekking for some years now and had actually done several difficult treks, if slower than everyone else.

The street was slushy and the drizzle was beginning to fall, so he was glad when one of the porters from their group walked onto the street some way ahead, and gestured excitedly at him to come on in.

Lunch was khichadi with vegetables, and they all ate heartily. Everyone then slept for atleast three hours.

As usual Dossy was the first to wake up, and as usual went around waking everyone else. "Rise and shine, guys! Its such a nice evening and you're wasting it lying around!" They groaned, but sat up and came out onto the balcony to sniff the chilly air. The rain had stopped, and the sky was clear for the time being. Fog would be coming in, but that was later at night.

Dossy then came up with the idea of playing a few games of Badam-satti. But Panku had left his pack of playing cards at base camp. Shekhar said, " They must be selling cards at that little shop at the beginning of the village - they have all sorts of things. I'll check."

He went down to the shop. The village was hardly more than a dozen huts and lodges, and the shop was the only one here. Being the only centre of commerce, and the village being a rest stop for trekkers, it had a tremendous responsibility. It had everything from rental sleeping bags and tents, jackets, altitude sickness pills, to whiskey, bottled drinking water, chocolates, chewing gum, a few board games, and, yes, playing cards.

As he was buying the cards, Shekhar's gaze fell on a small poster on the wall next to the counter.

SEAN O'MALLEY
LOST
it said. Sean O'Malley and his sister had been trekking, and he'd twisted his ankle some distance away from Dokha. His sister had left him on a jungle path to get help. When she got back with help, he was gone. No traces had been found. A photo of O'Malley, a blond, young, cheerful-looking fellow, was also printed. There was something about that photo...

The shopkeeper noticed him looking, and said, "It was very sad, saheb. Nearly a month now and still no trace of him. His sister's still hoping somebody'll find something."

Shekhar said, "Can I take that poster? I think I've seen him." The shopkeeper seemed incredulous, but let Shekhar take an extra copy, which the sister had left for just such a case.

Shekhar walked back, still looking carefully at the photo. His friends were waiting for the cards on the chairs on the balcony. He put down the pack of cards and the poster on the centre table, and said, " See this. I'll be back." Then he went to his room.

A few minutes later, he camer back and sat down in a spare chair. Panku was holding the poster and reading it curiously. Dossy asked him, "What's going on? Did you see this guy?"

"Not exactly. Let me tell you what happened. You know that stretch, about 3 kilometres from here, that steep slope through a narrow passage where the rocks are all covered with slippery mud? Right at the beginning of that, there's a sort of split in the path, and you need to be a bit careful to choose the right one. Well, I was distracted while clambering over those rocks, and went onto the wrong path. The path got narrower and narrower, through thorny bushes, and my hands started getting scratched while trying to part those bushes. Thankfully, I noticed a piece of black woollen cloth stuck on a bush, and used that to wrap one hand. But only a few metres further, the path gave way onto a steep precipice, and there was no way to go on further. I turned back, finally found the right path, and went on - slipped once, too, on those damned rocks. But I'd stuffed that woollen cloth into my raincoat pocket when I came out of the bushes. And here it is. "

Everyone looked on with interest as Shekhar unrolled the scrap onto the table. The piece, about 6 inches square, was black, with white and blue patterns of snowflakes on it. It didnt seem to be very old, because it hadnt faded much. It was probably part of a sweater or something like that.

"But so what? How do you link this rag with this missing guy? The poster says he was wearing a T-Shirt, jacket and jeans when he disappeared. "

Shekhar chuckled. "Hum bhi kisi Sherlock Holmes se kam nahi hai! Check out that muffler he's wearing in the photo."

Sean O'Malley appeared to be wearing a dark - black, most likley - muffler in the photo. Now that they'd seen the original, it was easy to make out the snowflake patterns in the black cloth.

"Okay, now what? Look at the date on this - it's about a month old. If nothing's been found so far, there probably wont be more than a skeleton left at the end of that sharp drop you talked of. So why are you after this?"

"Heh heh. The Sherlock Holmes bit - with a desi despo touch. Please note the contact person."

"Its... its his sister! You dope, you're trying to play a hero because of some girl? Ladkiyon ke peeche padna tha to Pune mein hi rehta!"

Shekhar grinned triumphantly and stood up. "Hey, its just a few minutes job. Go to her place, show her the cloth, tell her the path, get some thanks from her, end of story. I'll be back by dinnertime."

He found the "Hill View Lodge" without much trouble. (Stupid name, he thought. Every shack in this village has a mountain view.) Chrissie, Sean's sister, was in her room.

Chrissie was a medium-height blonde, with shoulder length hair and green eyes. Though she was wearing a T-Shirt and jeans, she looked like she belonged on a ramp, not on a trek. She grinned at him inquizitively as she opened the door for him. Shekhar felt justified for having come here.

"Erm, hello, Chrissie. My name's Shekhar. I'm here about this poster- " He unfolded it and showed it to her -" and maybe I could help a little..."

Chrissie's eyes had brightened a little on seeing the poster, and when he said he could help she clasped her hands together between her breasts and said breathily, " Oh, thank you! Thank God! I've been waiting for so long for some clue about where Sean disappeared! "

Shekhar knew he was in love.

* * *

"WHAT do you mean, you're staying behind a day? What's going on?" Panku thundered.

"Why's it so hard to understand? Look, the next two days are straight paths. The third day, we're going on a day-long excursion to Blue Lake. The fourth day is a rest stop. I'm just staying here tomorrow, and I'll skip the Blue Lake excursion instead. There are any nuber of groups that travel this route, and I'll just hook up with one of them until I catch up with you. Unless one of you wants to stay with me tomorrow when I go show Chrissie the spot?"

Panku looked irresolute for a moment, then shook his head. "There's no point. I mean, there's going to be nothing to see except maybe a skeleton, and I for one dont want to miss Blue Lake for this. Main to bolta hoon, tell her you need to go ahead and just give her directions. "

The memory of Chrissie's green eyes haunted Shekhar. "No guys, I think I'll stay."

Shekhar expected the day to be fairly easy. After all, the spot was only about three kilometres away. But it turned out that of the duo, Sean had been the experienced trekker and Chrissie the newbie. Nine o'clock, Shekhar had been ready for two hours, and Chrissie was still fussing around her bags. "Hmmm....Sean always told me to double-check the water-bottles....Oh my goodness, this bottle's leaking!... Now where did I put that compass?"

Shekhar didnt have the heart to tell her it would only take an hour or so to reach the spot. She seemed to be preparing for a multi-day trek, with the number of water bottles and emergency food packets she had.

Finally, she was ready - at nearly nine-thirty. Then, of course, they had to wait till breakfast was ready. She seemed to be slow at everything - she even chewed slowly. Then she took her time packing their lunch of a boiled potato and two doughnuts. The sun was high up in the sky before they set foot out of the village.

The pace was no better once they'd started. Chrissie insisted on taking photographs of every odd-looking tree and insect. At one point, he reminded her of the purpose of their trip. She sobered a little. "I remember, Shekhar. I've thought about making this trip every day for God knows how long." But she did not speed up.

Lunch time came and went, and they had covered less than half the route. Shekhar felt frustrated with the progress. Now Chrissie was tiring. She stopped every few minutes, found a suitable rock, sat down, drank a gulp of water, and started walking again. "Sean always told me to drink a little water every few minutes when I'm tired. And he used to say I should always walk at my own pace." Her eyes dared him to reproach her slow pace.

It was beginning to darken when they reached the final steep climb. "This is it, Chrissie, we just get to the top of this passage, and we're there. Let's try to see the spot in daylight. My torch doesnt have extra batteries, so we might have to hurry a little, going back." But Chrissie seemed all the more depressed when she saw the climb. "Oh, this will take forever! It's so steep!" She was stopping every two minutes now, and drinking a lot of water. Shekhar had offered to carry her bag, but she'd refused. "You're helping me so much now, I cant ask you to do anything more." she said stubbornly.

The torches came out when they were three-fourths of the way up. And finally, when they reached the top, all they could see was the jagged circle of light from their torches. The fog was beginning to roll in, too. But they were there. Shekhar wondered how they were going to get bacl at this pace.

He looked around a little, and found the fork in the path. "Look, here it is - this is where I lost my way."

"Uh, could you lead the way? It's - it's a bit scary here!" The quaver in Chrissie's voice, and her hand on his shoulder, emboldened him, and he began demonstrating the way. "Look, the path is just as wide as the normal path here, so Sean might have mistaken it if he tried walking in the dark. Then, from here, it's a bit narrower and - what was that?" There was a rustling in the bushes, something big. Chrissie jumped too. They pointed the torches here, there in the darkness, but saw nothing.

"Must have been a rat, or something." Shekhar said. But there was a quaver in his voice too. "N-now, a little bit further, the path drop steeply. We could fall if we arent careful."

In looking for the edge of the cliff, Shekhar didnt notice the hand on his shoulder was withdrawn, or that Chrissie seemed to be getting more distant. When he noticed, he turned around abruptly. But the turn wasnt completed.

A heavy arm, twice the size of a human arm, struck the back of his neck, hard. Dirty, overgrown nails gouged out trails of blood on his back, tearing open his shirt, but he didnt notice. The first blow had broken his neck.

Chrissie stood a few steps away as the creature felled Shekhar. She'd switched off her torch once she'd been sure it was coming. Now she just waited, while it completed its part.

The creature grunted, hoisted the limp body on it's shoulder. It stood nearly eight feet tall, roughly humanoid, but furry. Its barely human, bear-like features were just about visible in the starlight.

It gestured to Chrissie to follow it, and set off through the undergrowth. Chrissies tiredness seemed to have disappeared. She was having no trouble keeping up with the creature's loping walk.

In a few mintues of crashing through the jungle along no visible path, they came to a small clearing, bounded by a stone wall on one side. The creature dropped the obdy on one side, and shambled to the stone wall. There was a boulder set against it, and the creature put a shoulder against it and pushed. The boulder rolled a bit, revealing a cave. There was just enough space for Chrissie to put in her head and an arm. She called softly," Sean? Sean, are you there?"

Sean stirred weakly inside the cave. She could make out his gaunt face and heavy stubble. "I've brought food and water for you, Sean," Chrissie said, and opened her haversack. She dropped packets and bottles into the cave. "Hang on in there, kid. It'll be real soon now, we're nearly there." The starlight shone on her tears as she withdrew from the cave. "I should never have brought you along on this trek."

The creature had been waiting for her. Now it pushed the boulder again to seal the cave. It grinned at her, showing stained, pointed teeth.

"How many more are left?" She asked him.

It led her to a tree at the edge of clearing. It had scratched about two dozen deep scratches into the bark. And most of them had diagonal slashes, cancellation marks as it were, across them. As she watched, it drew a diagonal mark across one more line - For Shekhar. There were just about three or four straight lines left. The creature turned to her and grinned again.

The moon was rising. It shed blood-red light through the fog, on the scores on the tree, as she turned and walked back through the jungle. Behind her, the creature walked over to Shekhars body.

As she hurried back to the path, she pulled out the woollen cloth and laid it, bait, across the bushes again.

- - -







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