A Cryptic Tale

C'est la vie! We can’t alter our fate. If only you didn’t relocate...”  Sonya remarked in a cheerless tone. “My husband had been very ill and the doctor was insistent that we must give up living in the town. It was essential for him to breathe the purer air of the country, if he was to get strong again. So, I was feverishly house-hunting. Of course, I had seen innumerable houses, but there was something foreboding with all of them. I didn’t know if it were the houses or my tired soul that perceived such feelings. And then I found this perfect place. It was like a dream house. I didn’t expect anything to go wrong in that house.”    I broke into sobs again. That’s all I’ve been doing for the past one year. Crying my heart out. The heart, that refused to come to terms with the truth. The heart that refused to let go of the guilt I felt. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you...”  “It’s alright. Pain that I fail to express in words pours out as tears. They ease my burden, a bit; a momentary relief.”   “I’m glad you joined our Holistic Healing Centre. A wise decision, surely. You showed courage in the face of adversity. Now leave the rest to time. Our therapeutic sessions will help you to heal, gradually. Stay strong, ok?” “Thank you, Sonya! Glad I bumped into you at the store the other day. I think it was destined. We had to meet.” Sonya hugged me and left to carry on with her chores. A graceful young lady who talked me into joining this centre. She assured me that I would benefit, eventually. A visit to the site convinced me to give it a try. I wanted to heal; I needed to heal. I didn’t want to be bogged down by the tragedy that befell me, and my family. I wanted to live, for them. *** “But how’s that even possible? He said he’ll be back in an hour or two.” Shaken, I dropped down on the couch. “Five minutes back, we received an anonymous video. It’s positive. They got Noah.” The officer sounded serious. “Did he say where he was going?” “He received a text on his phone. I was right there beside him. He said it was something important. I didn’t ask much. He checked his gun, tucked it in, and left in a rush. It’s only been an hour, officer. Maybe there’s some mistake. Let me call him. I’m sure there’s some kind of mixup.” “Ma’am, we called, but the phone is switched off. We are trying to track his last location. Anyway, I’m sending two officers right away to get you’ll out of there. We can’t take chances.”  That day, all hell broke loose.  We were a family of four. Me, my husband Noah and our two kids, David and Alexa. Noah was a sergeant in the LA police department. Their team cracked several cases under his lead. But that fateful evening, when he left home after a tipoff, the unexpected happened. He got abducted. Some unidentified fanatics held him, hostage; for reasons unknown to me, if not to the department. That night, two police officers escorted us cautiously as if we were national treasures. The drive to the hideaway was long and hectic. It only added to my anxiety. I was worried for Noah; I missed his presence all along. David and Alexa slept during most of our travel. When they woke up, they were excited, assuming it was a surprise holiday. Well, that’s what I told them. I couldn’t think of anything else.  The car dropped us on the highway. From there, we walked a mile through a thin forest pathway, to reach the safe house. It was pretty intimidating for us. The headtorches acted as our guiding light through the darkness. We braved the silence and sounds of the forest just to stay out of harm’s way.    “Are we on an adventure trip, mom?” David couldn’t hold his horses.  “You can say so.”  Alexa wasn’t pleased at all. “It’s so spooky. And scary too. I wish dad could come with us.”  “You’re such a kid, Alexa.”  David mocked his sister. “This is so thrilling. I’m lovin’ it!” We reached the house at the crack of dawn. A stone cottage built in European style, and Trumpet vines covering it from all sides. No one would guess it houses humans. A perfect hideout. The interiors were well done with every modern amenity and felt quite cozy. The unpleasant, musty smell confirmed that the place was seldom accessed. Or accessed only when someone had to be protected.  “Ma’am, make yourself comfortable. You’ll be safe here. One officer will be on the watch. Just in case you need assistance. There’s not much stock in here. If you can give us a list of supplies you need, I can get them later.” Make myself comfortable? How? When my husband’s been abducted by god knows who and why! Arrgh!  But then I couldn’t say it aloud. They were just doing their duty and I understood it.  I jotted the names of a few essentials, including some stuff to keep the kids engaged. The officer briefed me about the precautionary measures and left.  “Mom, is this our vacation home? Can we go swimming tomorrow? Did you bring my wetsuit? Mom...mom...” David was 11 and quite inquisitive. His questions kept coming, unlike my tears which knew how to control their motion. He didn’t wait for my reply. “When will dad join us? Will he bring toys and picnic stuff? Why did he not come with us now?”  I didn’t want to keep my kids in the same darkness I was in. The darkness that had no answers. So I replied, “Dad is away for some work. He will be with us soon. Till then, be a good boy and listen to mummy.” It was a distressing time for all of us. The toughest days of our lives. We were living with constant uncertainty. We had to cut off communications with the outside world. No phones; no Wifi. No TV. My kids couldn’t attend school. Every second day, in the wee hours of midnight, two officers would bring in our daily supplies. We weren’t allowed to stand near the windows. I had to keep the curtains drawn and keep our voices low. We had to dwell in a lowlight condition. A safehouse where I hardly felt safe. Not even comfortable. “Ma’am, I understand your apprehensions, but trust me. We are doing whatever it takes to get him out safely.” The officer replied when I questioned him about Noah.  “It’s been a week now. The kids are scared. I am scared. Noah was always watchful of his moves. How did this one go wrong? Can someone tell me what’s happening?” “Sorry, ma’am! I can’t discuss anything right now. Just trust us. We will bring him back soon. I promise.”  With that, the officer left us. Again, to dwell in obscurity. And in the murkiness of the ‘safe house’ that never failed to discomfort us. Even after a week, it failed to become our home. We longed for Noah. We longed to return where we belong. I prayed for peace and happiness to resume to our lives.  “Mom, the school didn’t tell us anything about a holiday. Our midterm tests are a week away. Why are we on vacation now?  How long will we be here? I didn’t bring my books. Can I call dad and tell him to get them when he comes?”  Alexa was 9, but she was way too mature than the kids of her age. Her questions were sensible but tough for me to answer. I never disclosed the truth to the kids nor discussed anything in their presence. They didn’t need to know the reality. Not now. Not even in the future,  if everything goes well.  Before I could reply, David told his sister, “Dumbo, we’re on a holiday. No one studies when they are on a ho..li..day..”  He rolled his eyes and then suggested, “Let’s have fun. You can catch up with your studies later.” “Alexa, sweetheart, we won’t be here for long. It’s just a matter of a few days. Dad will be here soon, and then we can go back home. In the meantime, write stories and poems or write letters to grandma and grandpa. That’d be nice. We can post them on our way home. You got notebooks and a stationery box. Use them as you want.” David sulked, “Wish we could watch TV, or play games on the Tab. I wish dad was here.” I was trying my best. The best I could in that situation. Kept myself composed and took care of the kids while fighting a battle within. The conflict between doubt and hope was getting uglier with each passing day. Our days inside the safe house weren’t easy. I felt as if we were in a war; hiding in an underground bunker, holding on to our dear lives. Even a feeble sound, or an owl’s hoot, alerted my goosebumps. Each time the moonlight casted a shadow through the windows, my fingers fumbled for my gun, automatically. It was a licensed one. I carried for our safety. Noah taught me to use it. I didn’t know he was preparing me for such days. Despite all, each time I thought of Noah, our troubles seemed very meagre. Were they torturing him a lot? Have they been feeding him? Was it an act of revenge? Can his team keep their promise? And then the most terrifying question... Was Noah still alive? Will he return? To us; to his kids and wife. Will he return safe and sound?  I closed my eyes and prayed for his safe return.  *** The therapeutic centre was the best thing that happened to me in ages. I made friends with a few ladies who, like me, were fighting their own demons. Each one had a story to tell, and each story was equally gut-wrenching. I couldn’t compare the degree of misfortune between theirs and mine. Life it is! “Ladies, how are you doing today?”  Sonya stopped by for a quick chit-chat.  “Hello, young lady! We’re doing great. How are you today?”   “Busy as a beaver, as always. I gotta go. Ciao. Enjoy!”  She replied with a smile.  There was something about the way Sonya smiled. At times, it seemed real, and at times, I wondered if she was faking it. If she was forcing herself to put up a cheerful face infront of the world. Perhaps, she had a story too.  Perhaps she was inside a story with distressing incidents. Oh, I’m overthinking again. It must be her work stress. Yoga, meditation, gardening, music... the sessions were extremely calming and helpful. I went on walks with my co-residents. I painted and penned my thoughts. I was feeling better. I was healing, slowly. It has been a month and I could the difference. I thanked myself for taking the right decision. A decision that led me to the truth. The truth that gave me the much needed closure. The closure I’ve been yearning for, for years.  *** After fourteen tormenting days, came the news I have been desperately waiting for.  “Ma’am, we’ve good news for you.”  The officer’s words reverberated in my ears like the sweetest jingle.  “Is he fine, officer?”   “He’s a tough guy, ma’am,” came the reply. “It’s time to go home.” The rescue operation went as planned. They got Noah out safely. I couldn’t help but allow my tears to flow freely. The suppressed pain was revealing itself. My emotions were out in the open. Hurt and happiness were playing hide and seek inside my soul. I heaved a sigh of relief. My prayers were answered, finally.  The first rays of the morning sun peeped through the curtains. I pulled them apart and opened the windows. A gush of fresh rushed in as if it’s long wait to meet us, was over. It wrapped me in its warmth and filled my heart with joy. A smile flickered on my face after long. I bid goodbye to our temporary shelter hoping never to see it again. The kids were excited to meet their dad and bombard him with questions.  The bad days are over. At least, I thought so. We were taken straight to the hospital where Noah was kept under medical supervision. Besides protocols, they had to tend to his wounds. I left the kids at the hospital nursery and ran towards his room. As they opened the door for me, I shuddered at the sight. There he was, lying unconscious, covered in bandages from head to toe. A bunch of mixed emotions overwhelmed me. I was happy and relieved. His sore eyes and cut marks on the face were visible. They were speaking of the torture Noah underwent for the last fourteen days. His condition shook me to the core for, I never imagined seeing him in such a terrible state. Noah, my Noah who was strong and healthy and handsome; who could take down the strongest opponent with just one blow; who was smart and quick, who loved to dress elegantly, was lying still on a hospital bed wrapped in straps. It was all so unbearable for me. Agonizing. Yet, deep down I felt contented that he was alive.  “We had to sedate him to make him sleep. More than his body, his mind needs rest. It’ll take some time, but he will be fine. We will keep him till he’s fit to be released. I hope you understand.” I simply nodded in affirmation.  The doctor continued, “We are monitoring his vitals. Once we see signs of improvement, we will start with physiotherapy and counselling. So far, he has been responding to the medications. We will do whatever it takes to get him up and running again. It might take days or even months for him to recover fully; to recommence his normal life. But we are positive and hopeful.” With a lump in my throat, I found it difficult to speak. My incessant tears were conveying my emotions.  “You need to stay strong. Noah needs you, your support. Just keep praying. Have faith in us. We’ll do our best.”  Our struggles are not over. We’ve a long way to go. The doctor’s right. I need to stay strong. For Noah, for our kids and for myself too. I couldn’t help but lie to my kids. They were restless to see their dad.  “Mom, why is dad in the hospital? Why can’t we meet him now?” “Alexa, dad slipped and fell from the stairs. He got a few bruises. The doctor gave him medicines so he sleeps most of the time. Dad is in a special room. They don’t allow kids there. Once he gets better, I’ll take you both.” “Dang! How did that happen?” David thought for a second and said, “I think he was unmindful and didn’t watch his steps. Happens, sometimes. Don’t worry mom, he’ll get better soon. Afterall, my dad’s the strongest.” “Is he hurting too much, mom?” Alexa asked. “I’ll make ‘Get well soon’ cards and give him when we visit.” I was loss of words and my tears were about to spill. They were too innocent to know the truth.  *** The hullabaloo in the corridor woke me up from my deep slumber. The sun was up and its rays were peeking through my translucent curtains. Suddenly I heard a knock on my door. The tap got louder and louder until I answered the door.  “Mrs. Peterson is missing. The cops are here, interrogating everyone. Go to the lawn once you are ready.  The matron said the whole thing in one breath and left before I could grasp the matter.   Missing? Really? I freshened up quickly and headed towards the lawn. Two cops along with Sonya and one of our directors were present there. A busy Sunday morning for everyone. That’s life! “Good morning!”  “Good morning, officer!” I greeted back with a smile.  “You must’ve heard about Mrs. Peterson. We are investigating her missing case.” “I doubt that. Mrs. Peterson is an early riser. She goes for long walks every day. A fitness conscious young lady of 70 can’t go missing. I think she’s taking a nap somewhere. Your guys just missed to spot her. The premise is huge, you see.” “Interesting. Thank you. We’ll do a few more rounds with the sniffer dogs. In the meantime, if you could help us with some information... like when did you see her last? Was she upset? If she had plans to go somewhere this morning...anything you can remember.” “Upset? Hell no, officer! She has this sportsman spirit. We’ve been good pals since I came in last month. Yesterday after dinner, we went back to our rooms. That’s when I saw her last. If she had plans for today... nope, none that I know of.” “That was helpful. Thank you, Mrs....” “Mrs. Clark.” “It was nice talking to you Mrs. Clark. We hope to find your friend soon.” Later, I heard that the guards on patrol saw her walking down the avenue that leads to the far end of the ground, but no one saw her return. They searched the whole area but in vain. That was when they called the cops. Morning walks can be tiring. The old woman must be sleeping somewhere peacefully while we are all wide awake on a Sunday morning.  Well, she never went missing before. But there’s always a first time.  Despite a rigorous search operation, the cops failed to find her. That evening, as I walked past the office room, I heard Sonya’s voice. She was having a heated conversation with someone. The door was closed, so I couldn’t make out much. I left to join the others in the dining hall. “Someone told me that this isn’t the first missing case here. In the previous years, a few people went missing mysteriously. Like poof, they vanished into thin air. Investigations led nowhere, and thus the saga continues.”  I was shocked when a lady from our group shared this information.  *** When Noah looked at me for the first time in twenty two days, I knew something was amiss. Something big and significant. The thought scared me. I veiled the fear with a wide grin. I had to put up a show. For us.  “Noah is doing much better now. You can take him home tomorrow. I’ll issue the discharge papers. His medications and weekly therapy sessions will continue. Just in case you need me, I’m reachable on my phone 24*7. The nurse will explain the rest in details. Remember to keep him out of stress.”  “Thank you, doctor! I’ll keep that in mind.”  Noah was home, but he didn’t flaunt the usual expressions of happiness. We decorated the house. I got a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, a bouquet of tulips, with solidago and eucalyptus, and cooked his favourite dishes.  “Yeyhey! Daddy’s here. I missed you so much, dad.” Alexa gave him a tight hug. “Does it hurt?”  Noah didn’t reply so she continued, “See, I made two cards for you. Do you like them?”  David was right behind. “Welcome home, pops! Bad you missed your steps and tripped.”  He pushed Alexa to a side. “Give us some room, kiddo.”  He did a fist bump, but Noah didn’t react. “Next time. Get well soon, daddy.” The kids kept on pouring their piled up gibberish, labrish talks. Noah stayed silent and seldom reciprocated with a faint smile. I understood his psyche. The fatigue and mental trauma exhausted him. He needed some quietude. He hardly ate any food and didn’t even touch the wine. My heart ached seeing him in such a miserable state.  “David, Alexa, let dad take some rest now and you two, go to your rooms. Remember not to make noise.” A month passed, but Noah’s condition showed no signs of recovery. Rather, it was deteriorating. From diarrhea  to vomiting, anxiety, dyspnea to temporary amnesia... he was experiencing several health issues. The clinical tests couldn’t determine the cause. His doctor suggested we shift to the countryside. A change of place and fresh air might work wonders. It was a tough call to make, but then I had to; for Noah.  Numerous calls to Real estate agents and several site visits went in vain. The search was tiring me down. It was then that I came across an advertisement in the newspaper. It sounded like a perfect place for us. I dialled the number provided in the ad. Set amidst a lush green valley, overlooking the snow-capped mountains, the place was around two hour’s drive from our current home. The handler offered me a fair price so I scheduled a visit to the location. It was a farmhouse with a contemporary look. Tastefully done interiors, well furnished spacious rooms, a private pool, a well- maintained garden with a patio and a school nearby where I could enroll my kids... what more could I’ve asked for. I confirmed the deal immediately and we shifted the week after. Thus began a new chapter of our life. The chapter that was about to haunt me till my last breath. *** What started as a missing case of Mrs Peterson, eventually turned into a case of organ trafficking. Investigations revealed that it was an inside job. They targeted individuals with no living family members. For some reason, the cops took this case seriously and the revelations were terrifying. I shuddered at the thought, for I could’ve been the next. A week later, as I opened the morning newspaper, I froze seeing Noah’s photo on the front page.  Organ Trafficking racket busted: The probe Sergeant Noah Clark initiated last year, finally sees the light of day The first thing I did after gaining my senses was to call his boss. He agreed to meet me. I needed some answers. “It’s good to see you after long, Mrs. Clark. You look better since we last met. How are you doing now?” I unfolded the newspaper and laid it on the table. His expressions turned grave. “Was this the reason he went missing?  Or was he on some other case?  Tell me, please! I deserve to know the truth now.” “Mrs Clark..” “Chief, as the wife of an ex-cop, I know you have your limitations. But at the same time, you need to consider my position too. I have been kept in the dark eversince. First, he gets abducted. When he returned, the trauma was killing him slowly. We shifted hoping for things to get better but...” “Yes, Noah was investigating this case. A year back, one of our officers reported that his dad’s first cousin was missing from a healing centre. He went for a walk and never came back. Further probe led us to a string of rackets including drugs, human and organ trafficking. We made a few arrests, but lack of proof forced us to drop the case. But Noah wanted to pursue. He followed the tip-off which was actually a trap. It was to scare him so he drops the case.” Once again, I found it hard to gulp the lump in my throat. The tears spilled.  “I’m so sorry for what happened to your family. We should’ve been more careful.” I cleared my throat. “What about the blast? Was it the same guys? Were we being followed?” “Mrs Clark, we don’t know about that yet. We are on the case. I’ll let you know if I come to know anything.” A knock on the door interrupted our conversation. A police officer walked in with some papers.  “Aren’t you the lady from the healing centre? Remember me?  We spoke when I was inquiring about a missing case.”  The officer stared at me. It was a brief encounter so it took time for me to remember. “I guess so. Any news on Mrs Peterson?” “None as of now, ma’am. The search is on. You must’ve heard about the racket. We have appealed to the court to close the place down. Once it’s granted, everyone needs to move out. Anyway, it’s not safe to stay there.” “You mean you are staying at the same centre? You knew Mrs. Peterson?”  The Chief sounded startled.  “Yes! I went into depression after that incident. Then one day, I bumped into this girl named Sonya who works at the centre. We got into talking and she suggested me to join their healing centre. I agreed and it has been helpful as you see me now.” “Can you tell me what exactly happened?  From finding the house till... Didn’t you sense anything odd prior to that day?” “You know, Noah wasn’t keeping well so the doctor told us to shift to a healthier setting. New environment, fresh air... We were hopeful that he would get better once we move out of town so I was house-hunting frantically. Strangely there was something foreboding with all the places I saw. Illusion of a disturbed mind, I guess. Then a newspaper ad led me to a perfect house which was a good bargain. I didn’t feel anything odd about the place. No negative vibes or sorts.” “I see. Please continue.” “Noah was getting better, slowly. He was regaining his strength. We started going for short walks with the kids, made a trip to the nearby beach. He was getting back to normal. Things were taking a positive turn. I was happy; we all were. It was a peaceful area in a small neighbourhood. We never saw spotted any odd activity. No suspicious people, no peeping toms, no visitors except a couple who lived a few houses away from ours. They were friendly and quite helpful. We thought our bad days were about to end.” “If only we didn’t take the matter lightly. We failed as a team; we failed our best officer.”  I wiped my tears and continued. “It was a Sunday. I had to pick a few things from the supermarket. I told the kids not to step out since it was sunny outside. Noah promised to keep them engaged....if only I didn’t...”   “It was not your fault. You didn’t know. No one knew...” “If only I was there, I would’ve died in the same blast that killed my family. I would be with them today and not suffering alone. I shouldn’t have gone out that day. I should’ve stayed with my husband and kids.” I choked. “ This pain is unbearable, you know.” “Mrs Clark, I understand what you are going through and I know no words can pacify you. But do think once. Maybe you were meant to be alive. To know the truth; to see the culprits behind bars. To see that your family got the justice they deserved.” “I don’t know. Perhaps you are right.” “You’ve been brave and strong. Wherever they are,  Noah, David and Alexa must be feeling proud of you. Just hang on for a bit more time. We won’t rest till we get to the bottom of this and till the killers are hanged to death. In the meantime, if you wish, you can help us  with this case.” “Me?  how?” “Ok. Firstly, we need information about the couple you met during your stay in the farmhouse. Their names, how they looked, where they moved in from, something about them that caught your attention.... just anything. Secondly, you need to extract information from Sonya. Try to talk to her, ask about her family, and check what she knows about Mrs Peterson... you know, even a small lead can be of immense help. We are not rushing the matter ‘cause we want to nab the mastermind behind this whole racket. Hope you are getting my point. Don’t push her; that might alert her. Just be friendly.” I agreed and left. I wanted to help. For Noah’s sake; for my children’s sake. And for my own peace.  *** Next morning, I was sitting on the lawn when Sonya joined me. She started the conversation. “How are you feeling today, Mrs Clark?” Her voice was firm and the note, stern.  It surprised me a bit, for, the sweetness of her voice was missing. The happenings must’ve stressed her out. “I’m good, Sonya. You look tired. Hope everything’s fine.”  “That depends on you.” She smirked sarcastically and looked straight into my eyes. “So how did your meeting go?” “Meeting?  When? With whom? You’re mistaken.” I was taken aback by her words. This time, her expressions were grave. “Mrs Clark, I don’t intend to harm you, but your actions are betraying your words. You shouldn’t have gone to the cops. You left me with no choice. We injected thallium, but your husband recovered. A tough man he was, I must say. You got lucky then, but don’t worry, I made preparations for you to join your family soon.  My senses numbed. My throat went dry. So she’s the kingpin; the brain behind my loss and our sufferings. She was keeping an eye on me. She knew about me all this while. Damn! From the corner of my eye, I saw two men standing right behind us. I was too scared to turn. It was a flight or fright situation for me, but I didn’t dare to move. Wish I carried my gun. I could at least resist or scare them.  Sonya looked at the two men and gestured them to take me away. “So long, Mrs Noah Clark. Hope you enjoyed your time here.” As the chloroform made its way through my nostrils, I uttered my last prayers.  *** “Mrs Clark, are you alright? Ma’am...” I could hear faint voices and feel the wetness on my face.  I opened my eyes slowly. “It’s over, ma’am. We nabbed Sonya and her accomplices. You are safe now!  And alive too!  A lone tear tangoed with my smile. Finally, we got the justice we deserved. Amen!    Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!