Aniket Mathur cursed his adventurous trait for the third time in less than thirty minutes. It all started at the birthday party of his brother-in-law where his niece, a civil service trainee narrated the haunting stories from her many trips across the country, especially in the eastern parts.

Sure enough, Aniket traced his old classmate, Rudra, an IAS officer posted in Bhubneshwar and fixed up this trip. Together, they had planned to spend couple of days at this Govt. Dak Bunglow that also serves as a training centre for the civil servants, reliving their college day’s adventure. Unfortunately, Rudra had to rush back to the city on urgent call promising to be back in the morning. Aniket was all alone in the spacious Govt. Bunglow in the outskirts of Bhubneshwar. There was not a soul around except the care taker who had taken the food order and gone to prepare the same. It is nothing fancy, just simple chicken curry and rice with some salad. Aniket surveyed his surrounding, it was a big room with a double bed in one end of it and a sofa set on the other. Well lit for now but there is a likelihood of load shedding during the night. It was just 7:30 pm but felt like 10pm with absolute darkness all around except the room and the corridor just outside it. The care taker, Raghu had promised to get the dinner in the room by 8:30 pm, so there was about one hour to kill. Aniket had a bottle of his favorite whiskey that he loved to call ‘elixir of life’, he poured himself a large portion and added plain water in the absence of any aerated water (soda). He then started reading ‘1962: The War That Wasn’t’, the book he started reading a week back and soon got engrossed in it.

Raghu the care taker came with the dinner of chicken curry and rice with salad on the side exactly at 8:30 pm, by which time Aniket had his two large pegs of whiskey and was feeling hungry. He finished his dinner in a hurry and as agreed with Raghu, kept the tray outside his room to be picked up by Raghu later at night.

It was too early for Aniket to retire to bed so he went out for post dinner night walk. The bunglow was almost in the middle of an acre plot with most of the area maintained as manicured lawn. On the edges were palm trees, mostly coconut and betel nut. On one corner there were a bunch of banana trees some of which had banana flowers soon to convert into fruit. In the centre of the lawn were flower bed of various kinds but Aniket couldn’t make out what kind in the darkness. Behind the boundary of the bunglow, there was a stretch of greenery that almost resembled a forest and beyond that was the highway that connected Kolkata on one end and Vizag at the other end. As he turned to return, a dilapidated structure on his left came in his view, he could only make out that it was a bunglow too but nothing more. Aniket made a mental note to check it out in the morning.

Aniket changed over to his pyjamas and locked the door and checked the windows. The windows were all secured with wire nets from the outside so that one can keep them open for breeze to sail through. With so much of greenery around, there was no question of any pollution. Aniket switched on the reading lamp on the side table and switched off the main lights and settled down in the bed with his unfinished book. In a way he was happy to be alone, he can finish the book in two days. The only sounds emanated from the lawns are of the cricket and occasionally the croaking of frogs. Aniket was tired and soon dozed off, the book resting on his chest.

It was well past 2 am when Aniket was jolted out of his dreams by the crying of a female that drifted in from the outside. He tried to figure out the source but it stopped suddenly. He thought that it must be from the care taker’s hut and it must be his wife that was crying, probably the guy must have abused her after consuming toddy, the local wine made from a particular palm fruit. Aniket decided to admonish him in the morning and kept the book on the side table and switched off the reading lights to sleep.

Aniket woke up with the first light of the sun peeping through the gap of the curtains of the window. It was 5:30 am by his watch. He got up and brushed his teeth, ready for his morning yoga. Something he has been doing for last ten years. It not only keeps him physically fit but makes the brain sharp too. Exactly at 6 am there was a knock on his door and Raghu came with a tray of tea and biscuits. As he laid down the tray on the table next to the bed, Aniket asked him “What happened last night? Did you beat up your wife? I could hear her crying.” Then without waiting for his answer added, “If it is repeated again tonight, I will call the police.” Raghu was dumbstruck but feebly replied, “But Babuji, I am not married and I stay alone here. You can come and check please.” It was Aniket’s turn to be surprised and shocked, he blurted out “T-Then who was that lady crying last night? I could hear her very clearly.” Raghu shrugged and said, “I don’t know Saheb what you are saying. There is nobody else besides you and me in this place. The gardener will come by 8 am and the cleaning lady by 9AM. That’s the routine for these two people. The city guys send in cook and server when there are meetings of more people otherwise for small gathering, I only do the cooking.”

Aniket dismissed him without further discussion but was in deep thought, was it all his dreams or his mind playing games because he has come for adventure of the paranormal kind. He decided take a walk and put on his sneakers. Walking in the lawns, he soon forgot all about the night for the beauty of the manicured lawn with the variety of flowers was breathtaking. Aniket kept walking and taking pictures with his phone camera. He did realize but he had reached the spot of the plot from where the dilapidated bunglow could be seen clearly. It seemed, no one lived there except a few stray dogs. He tried to figure out if any human could be seen but even after 15 minutes of wait there was no sign of anybody. He decided to go there and check out himself. But before that he needed to take bath as Rudra is expected now anytime.

Aniket was ready and about to call Rudra when he heard the approaching car on the driveway. And soon Rudra appeared on the door. He was dressed in deep blue jeans and white T-shirt and a Nikon camera with long lens hung from his neck. He said, “Hey Ani, are you ready? We can start right now and have breakfast on the way. There’s a nice place serving authentic Utkali cuisine.” Aniket was ready; he picked up his backpack that contained his camera, binocular and a notepad. Then they were on way to Konarak Sun Temple. The plan was to see the Sun Temple in the morning and then proceed to Puri to see Shri Jagannath Temple, have the fabled bhog-prasad and spend the day in the beaches before returning to Bhubneshwar.

The day was well spent, both Rudra & Aniket could capture some breathtaking shots of the Konarak Sun Temple and before that had Luchi-Aloordom and Prawn Cutlets for breakfast at the highway restaurant. Then on way to Puri, they stopped over at Olive Ridley Sea Turtle Reserve taking as many pictures as they possibly could. The darshan at Jagannath temple was satisfying and the bhog-prasad was superb. On way back, they picked up fried fish for the evening snacks to go with their drinks and prawns for the dinner. Aniket was doubtful if Raghu can do justice with such nice big prawns but Rudra said he had it earlier too and Raghu is a brilliant cook. True to his reputation, Raghu had made marvelous prawn curry in mustard sauce that was complemented by the hot basmati rice. The fish fries were as fresh as one can get in the coastal areas which went well with the bottle of Chivas that Rudra had brought with him. After dinner, they went out for stroll in the lawn which was washed with bright moonlight. They were engrossed discussing the day’s events, particularly the exclusive darshan of Jagannath Ji and the awesome sighting of Olive Ridley turtles complete with their nest. They had reached that corner of the lawn from where the ghostly bunglow can be seen. Aniket stopped in his track and whispered to Rudra, “Look Rudra, there’s light coming out from that haunted bunglow.” Rudra did not know anything about the woman’s crying or about the dilapidated bunglow, so he said nonchalantly, “So what, somebody must be staying there.”

“No, nobody is living there. This morning I was here for quite some time, except for a few stray dogs, there were no other living things; I mean I did not see any activity there.” Aniket said excitedly.

“If you are referring to paranormal activity, my dear, let me tell you, the ghosts don’t need any light. They are better off without it.” Rudra guffawed at Aniket.

Aniket then told him about last nights’ crying of a woman and his morning conversation with Raghu. Rudra became serious and then said “We must then investigate in the morning.”

Meanwhile, the light flickered for a while and then everything became dark. No sounds emanated from anywhere barring the chorus of crickets and occasional croaking of frogs.

Aniket and Rudra came back to their room. It was well past midnight and they decided quit for the day. Rudra had an adjacent room and both room had a connecting door internally. Aniket was tired and half a bottle of Chivas soon put him in sound sleep.

Aniket was awakened by the commotion just outside the window next to his bed. He could hear male voices discussing something in hushed up tone, someone was clearly agitated for some reason. Aniket thought of waking up Rudra and take a look outside together. He went to Rudra’s room through the door joining the two rooms. The bedside lamp was on but there was no sign of Rudra, in fact the bed looked like it hasn’t been used at all. Aniket turned to return when his eyes caught something shining in the light of bed lamp under the pillow. He moved the pillow and lo and behold, a pistol just came into his vision. What is Rudra doing with a pistol? Aniket picked up the pistol and went out to check outside.

In the full moon light, he could see Raghu and two more persons covered in shawl discussing animatedly. Near them was another person lying, may be unconscious. Aniket called out, “Raghu, what’s happening?” Raghu and the other guys hadn’t noticed Aniket so they were startled by his voice. One of the guy with a stick in his hand moved menacingly towards Aniket but stopped short of him noticing the pistol in his hand. He spoke to the others in his native tongue and all three scampered away towards the back of the building. Aniket went to check on the figure lying on the ground and was shocked find Rudra lying unconscious. He immediately went inside to get water and sprinkled on Rudra. He opened his eyes and immediately stood up. “Where have they gone?” asked Rudra anxiously. Aniket told him that they ran towards the back of the building. Rudra ran towards the back followed by Aniket but nobody could be seen. Rudra took the pistol from Aniket and went to check the room where Raghu lived. No one was there either; he started searching the room and came out two local pistols or kattas and notebook which had some names with mobile number and some numeric figures against each. Rudra took all of those and said, “Let’s go.”

Rudra called a few number from his mobile once they were back in the room and gave some instructions. Then he got up and started towards the door indicating Aniket to follow him. They got into their Scorpio and Rudra drove it straight to the dilapidated bunglow at the back of the govt. dak bunglow. It was all dark, not a flicker of light from anywhere except a shadowy light from the full moon. The whole image was haunting and Aniket could feel goose bumps all over his body. Rudra switched of the lights of the Scorpio killed the engine which made the surrounding even more eerie. Aniket started to say something but Rudra stopped him as he wind down the vehicle windows. The only sound was that of the chorus of the crickets and occasional croaking of frogs. Once in a while a street dog could be suspicious of something and bark and then some its clan would join in without knowing the cause and create a ruckus in otherwise calm night. In the distance, one could hear the movement of the heavy vehicles on the highway. One such sound of vehicles became increasing clear and it seemed a convoy of vehicles was approaching the very spot where Aniket and Rudra were. Slowly the silhouettes of the vehicles, SUV’s, five of them came into vision as they came closer and closer. When the vehicles were about 200-250 meters from their Scorpio, the first vehicle used dipper and Rudra also responded by using his dipper. Then the vehicles rolled over having killed their engine noise. A posse of uniformed police men and women came out from the five vehicles. Rudra and Aniket also went out to meet them. The Police Inspector from the first vehicle approached Rudra and saluted him. Aniket wondered why a police man was saluting a civilian!

“Have you got the search lights and are your people properly armed?” Rudra asked the Inspector who had introduced himself as Inspector Rajiv Patnaik along with Sub-Inspectors Muhim Raza and Indrani Sen.

“Yes Sir, we have got all the equipments you asked for and all are carrying fire arms” replied Inspector Patnaik.

“Okay, then let’s move in then. I suspect the kingpin is also hiding in there and they may be heavily armed. So we have to go in there with minimum noise and catch them alive because I want to get the entire gang” said Rudra. Then he turned to Aniket and asked him to stay put in the vehicle and come when he calls him. Rudra led the team of police personnel towards the dilapidated bunglow and soon became invisible in the darkness as the moon had also gone behind a patch of dark clouds. Aniket sat in the Scorpio but his eyes were glued towards the building where Rudra had gone.

Rudra placed the men and women strategically at the entrance and at other exits of the building and arranged the search lights to give maximum coverage. At the signal from him Sub-Inspector Muhim Raza switched on the lights and the building became all lighted up. At that very moment, someone from inside fired at the searchlight but the bullet ricocheted from the glass cover. These are new age search lights with bullet proof glass covering. Rudra fired from his pistol at the source of the gun fire and low agonized cry confirmed it had hit the target. Rudra signaled his team to move inside the bunglow and made rapid stride himself. More gun shots followed from inside and the police team retaliated with equal zest. This was no hold bar operation. One of the bullets had grazed past Inspector Patnaiks left shoulder but he was undaunted and reached the hall of the bunglow where the fugitives were hiding. He spoke in a stern voice “Surrender now and save your life. Your outnumbered 10:1 and cannot hide anymore.” His message was greeted by more gun fire and this time the bullet hit him in the chest and he went down. Rudra was just behind him and he had seen the source of the bullet and instantly fired at the head of Raghu. There was no need for more firing; three men came out from behind a closet with their hands up in the air. They were handcuffed and taken away. Rudra checked the nerves of Inspector Patnaik, he was still alive and was immediately rushed to the nearest hospital. The search of the house yielded more fire power and 15 Tribal girls in the age group of 12 to 18 years. They were taken to the local NGO shelter for the time being. The whole Operation Maira was over in 20 minutes.

Next day evening, Aniket and Rudro along with Sravani, Rudro’s wife were seated in the living room of his spacious apartment in Patia, Bhuvaneshwar. Aniket took a sip of Single Malt whiskey and asked, “Rudro, as far as I knew, you had joined Administrative Services, so how come are you involved in crime busting?” Rudro smiled and said, “About 5 years back, fed up with mundane work in administrative services, I decided to leave the services and get into private service just like you. But then I met Sravani and her father who was then a senior rank official in PMO, convinced me of a more adventurous profile in IPS. So, about 4 years back the switch over happened.”

“And you got hitched around the same time too” quipped Aniket. Sravani threw a cushion towards Aniket and all had a hearty laugh. Then on a serious note Aniket asked, “But tell us the whole story from the beginning.”

“If I start from the beginning then it will be too long, so I will briefly tell you how and when it started and the rest as we go along”, replied Rudra.

Rudra narrated:

About 4 years back when I shifted to the Police Services, I had to go through a three months long training schedule. Then finally, when I was ready for posting, I was called to the Home Ministry to meet a gentleman by the name Mr. Gopalkrishna Iyer, a Secretary rank official in the ministry. Later, when I met him, I got to know that he was the head of the famed NIA. He told me that I have a choice of regular posting or I can join the elite team of Special Officers. He told me that I will be an ACP/ ASP ranked officer attached to a police station but my real job would be very different from the regular police work and I shall report directly to him only. My first assignment was tracking down a high profile fugitive with political connections who was hiding in Europe with a fake identity. The person was brought back to the country to face criminal charges and has been sentenced to jail now.

On my way back from Amsterdam, I met a guy named Ashim Das, hailing from Odisha and running an NGO that provided job oriented education to the tribal girls. The state of Odisha has a sizeable tribal population, probably next to Jharkhand. He told me as a matter of fact that they only manage to enlist a small percentage of girls from the tribal areas as most get sucked into the Maoist insurgency or are traded in human trafficking. The situation was really grim. He said that there exists a web of conspirator which unfortunately has the blessings of some unscrupulous politicians that shield them from law. He provided certain names but I could not act on them immediately on my own, I needed proof of their connivance. So, when I met Mr. Iyer for debriefing, I told him about my conversation with Ashim Das. Mr. Iyer heard me patiently and then said that it (Maoists) is indeed a big headache for the govt both central and state. He suggested a transfer to Bhubneshwar to investigate the case and bring the culprits to justice.

Here, for ease of work, I am reporting the CM directly and have access to all departments and their heads are told to cooperate with me for their own good. I had found out the kingpins of this human trafficking web but needed to catch them in the act as our laws have too many loopholes through which these guys can escape. As we speak, two politicians and three senior govt. officials along with the members of the gang have been arrested under non-bailable offence. Once we zeroed on these individuals in high places, we not only tracked their physical movement but their telephonic conversations as well.

About a fortnight back I had the intelligence report that a ‘consignment’ of humans was supposed to be handed over to the representative of Maoists. And as luck would have it, you, Aniket, wanted to come here to experience haunted bunglow and I agreed as it would coincide with the Operation Maira. I did not join you on the first day as I wanted to tie up some loose ends.

When you narrated the events that your niece had experienced, I checked on the bunglow and realized it was being used by these guys for transit-cum-handover joint. To be honest, I had not suspected Raghu to be part of the gang. When you confronted him with allegation of beating his wife, he got alarmed and called up one of the suspected govt. official for help. This in a way helped us in nabbing that person for conspiracy and under interrogation he sang like a canary and came out with names and modus operandi of the group.

Last night after you had gone to bed, I moved out and went call Raghu but he was not in his room and as I was coming back to my room to call Inspector Patnaik I met Raghu near our room. When I asked him what he was doing there at that hour, someone hit me hard on my head and lost consciousness. Rest of the story you know. This evening I checked on the health of Inspector Patnaik, he is critical but out of danger. It is sad that Raghu had to die because he was really a very good cook.

“Why call it Operation Maira?” asked Sravani.

“Oh, that’s the name of a very bright student of Ashim Das ran NGO school. She was abducted by the Maoists and raped repeatedly before killing her. It was to honor her.” Rudra said solemnly.

“So, what’s next?” Aniket and Sravani asked in chorus.

“Let’s see where we go next and what story awaits us”, Rudra said with a wink in his eyes.

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