The people of Venzor believed in a strange folklore, that said the Venzor forest had an archway to hell, hidden amongst the trees. As long it remained shut, things would be good. But the moment the gate opened, disaster would strike. The earth would crack up with a tremor, swallowing everything in it. Or merciless rain would lash the town, flooding the streets, washing away everything on its way. It wouldn’t stop, unless the gate closed. And the gate would only close, when an innocent would be killed. It seemed that the archway had opened this time.
For it had been raining for days in the town.
Or perhaps, it was mother nature, wallowing in woe, unaware how the deluge of her tears were drowning her children in misery. The trees, the birds, the animals, the humans… they had all had their fill, and now they yearned for the warmth of sunshine.
Not Ryan though. He liked the dank cold… He had spent too many years in the sun, in the middle of bullets and bombs, in some godforsaken hamlet of Afghanistan. He sat by the window of this quaint little room, while the captain paced about, red-faced with excitement. Carter sat in a corner.
“Good job, Ryan.”
“What’s next, captain? Is her life in danger?”
There was a brief pause.
“Do you remember Tamaki?”
“Why…” Ryan’s heart raced, “Is it…?”
“Yes, it is her. We had our doubts, but now it seems she is the same Isna Abdul.”
Ryan whistled. The jade green eyes, the dirty-blonde hair, and the cleft lips… Yes, why hadn’t he thought of it? But it had been fifteen years…
“She’s… Is she a threat?”
“How can you be so sure, after Tamaki?”
The captain’s face turned redder, if possible.
“Come on, Ryan. This girl lives with the househelp of the Afghan Consul. She rarely gets out of home! Doesn’t even go to school… But she comes to the cemetery every week. Why is that?”
“Homeschooling, I told you! And she comes here for her dog.”
“I don’t buy it!” The captain grew impatient, “We intercepted a phone call, a parcel will be exchanged in the graveyard today. I bet she’s involved. That’s why I brought Carter. It’d be easier since she trusts you.”
“What does that mean?” A sense of foreboding crept into Ryan’s head, for Carter was a sniper.
“The window will be your vantage point. You will get out and engage Isna, drawing her towards the window. Remember, there will be others, so don’t try anything foolish. Carter will look out for the other man. As soon as he spots someone coming towards the girl, Carter shoots him in the leg. You will catch him. “
“And the girl?”
“I kill her,” Carter replied.
“I don’t believe she’s an assassin. She’s just a child.”
“Whose parents you have killed, and who must be looking for vengeance!”
“Don’t tell me you’ve grown fond of her. Do you think she doesn’t know who you are, Ryan?”
And that was the last nail on the coffin.
The girl had brought him cookies last week.
Was it all a farce? Did she know who he was?
Was she just bidding her time for revenge?
It couldn’t be.
The war, futile as it was, had given him nothing, except for regret. But it had taken so much more… His left arm was gone in a grenade attack, and so were his heydays. But most of all, he had lost his chance at having his own family. Born without one, he had never known what it meant to be loved. But now that he had tasted the sweetness of an unconditional attachment, he wasn’t willing to give it up. He had to save her.
It all became clear to him… fifteen long years after he had left the field, the captain had called him up out of the blue… said it was a matter of life and death… asked him to shadow the girl with the red umbrella while she came to grieve for her dog, pretend to be the caretaker of the graveyard and befriend her, check if she was meeting people here. Well, no one had come for her in the last three months.
The window, half-hidden from the outsiders by some shrubs, offered a generous view of the burial grounds, that gave way to the infamous forest of Venzor at the back. Isna came every Sunday, hiding her face beneath her red umbrella even when it didn’t rain.
“My lips…They make me look hideous. I don’t want people to see me like this,” she had said once.
Ironically, the red umbrella defeated the purpose. For it would be the only bright blotch of colour in a sea of black and dull grey in there.
How could a girl this naive be a threat to anybody!
She would bring some lilies and lay them on a small mound at the back of the graveyard.
“I have laid Leo in here last summer. He was my best friend,” and she would sniff and sob a little for her dead Labrador. She would sit there for an hour, and then traipse back, hiding under the umbrella.
“I don’t have anyone to talk to after Leo died. My aunt’s so busy all the time…”
“What happened to your left hand?”
“Do you know what my aunt baked for me yesterday? Nankhatai! I’ll bring you some next time!”
It hadn’t taken much for Ryan to forge a bond with the girl. Only… only he hadn’t known who she was.
He remembered the botched operation at Tamaki… the captain was heading it. They’d killed a man and a woman. But Ryan had discovered a baby, a baby they had just orphaned, a baby that wasn’t supposed to be there… And then realization had dawned upon them, they had killed the wrong people, innocent people… The baby had jade green eyes, that haunted him for years…
Ryan felt suffocated.
“There!” Carter’s voice jolted Ryan. He must have dozed off.
He peered outside the window. His heart sank. There was the red umbrella, glaring in the eye.
“Isna!” He huffed urgently, as he pushed open the door, gun in his pocket.
“Isna… Listen to me, don’t run,” Ryan fished the gun out of his pocket.
“Whoa-” the girl shuddered, and closed her eyes. Ryan checked the window. Carter was there.
“You are safe with me,” he pulled her away from the window.
A small packet fell from her hand. A parcel will be exchanged in the graveyard today.
“What’s that? Hand me that thing.”
Isna opened her eyes, then picked it up, “It’s not for you today.”
She tucked it safely in her pockets.
“Who is it for then? Give it to me.”
The sudden sternness in his voice shocked her.
“No. It’s not for you,” she started backing away.
“Isna… Stop. Give me the parcel.”
“I thought you were my friend. I was mistaken. I know who you are now…”
“Who am I? What do you know? WHAT DO YOU KNOW?”
She closed her umbrella and ran.
Ryan glanced at the window. Carter was there. But Isna was outside the line of fire.
“Stop, or I shoot. Tell me what you know. Who’s that package for?” He shouted.
A few people who had come to the graveyard turned to look at him.
Isna didn’t stop. Ryan deliberated for a second.
The people gasped, and scattered. The birds and squirrels that had been watching in mute excitement scampered here and there as the gunshot echoed around. The body, that was so alive a second ago, fell with a thud.
Ryan rushed close, tears leaking from his eyes.
“What do you know about me?” He asked, looking into those green eyes.
“Y-you’re a f-friendle-less man, you d-don’t t-trust a friend,” she fumbled, and then stopped breathing. The packet fell on the ground, torn from the side, contents spilling out… Dog biscuits!
Ryan howled in pain. So mournful was the wail that it might have awakened the dead who lay underneath the ground.
A second bullet popped, this time from the window, and hit Ryan in the head.
His brain worked vigorously for the last time before it stopped forever, as he realized they had always meant to kill him… the only other witness to have lost someone in a messed-up operation.
The red umbrella lay in the mud, soaking in the other red that flowed in abundance.
The rain picked up pace. Perhaps, Mother nature was grieving.
“Ex-army man shoots teen, shot dead by police!” The news flashed on TVs that evening.
By night, the rain stopped, after weeks. The archway… the gate in the forest, must have closed. Only the drenched leaves spared a drop or two, for they knew somewhere, an innocent had been taken.
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