It rained continuously all evening. Trees dripped. The roads up the hill were gushing streams. Dark clouds that touched the treetops blotted out the sun making it impossible to see what lay ahead.
“Don’t think we can make it tonight” said Samir frowning, “I can’t see a thing.”
“Told you it wasn’t the right time” grumbled Arati glancing at the back seat. “I’m frozen and …”
“Shut up, will you? There must be some sort of habitation up here”
“But how do we find it in this downpour? I’m not getting out.”
Samir whipped out an umbrella as he stumbled out.
That was the worst of hill stations. One could never tell when it would rain. He looked about him distastefully as he waded through the gushing water that made the narrow path slippery and dangerous. There was nothing but solid darkness all around as far as he could see. Or was that a tiny flickering light up the the hilly path? He screwed up his eyes to see. Yes, it was. He ran back to the car.
“Hurry up, Arati. Theres’s a light up there. We just have to stay here tonight if you don’t want to sleep in the car.”
“But Samir, what about..?”
“She’ll be OK” said Samir firmly.
Anita, home from school for the holidays, was chopping up vegetables for her mother in the kitchen. She jumped in surprise at the sudden hammering at their door. Who could it be?
“Open the door, dear” said her mother stirring the subzi she was cooking, “looks like someone’s in trouble. I’d better see to getting some tea ready.”
Anita opened the door and stared at the strangers. She had never seen them before and they didn’t look particularly congenial.
“Our car broke down” said the man abruptly, “can we shelter here for the night? There doesn’t seem to be any hotel in sight and we can’t spend the night in the car.”
“Please come in” said Anita, “I’ll get some hot tea for you right away. I’m sure mother will be able to put you up if you don’t mind roughing it out.”
“Oh we’re not looking for five-star comfort” said the woman with a shrug, “tea would be lovely, though.”
Before long Samir and Arati were sitting by a cosy fire.
“I’m sorry about your car” said Anita’s mother. “My husband is away or he could have fixed it for you.”
“I’ll do it myself tomorrow” said Samir frowning, “but I can’t do anything in this rain and it’s pitch dark already.”
“Why did you take this route?” asked Anita curiously, “This place is totally cut off from the main Kumaon hills and has nothing but forests. Tourists hardly ever come this side as there’s nothing to see compared to the other tourist spots nearby.”
“Why pry into what doesn’t concern you?” asked the man in a gruff voice, “we’ll pay you for our stay, don’t worry.”
“We don’t take payment from stranded visitors” said Anita’s mother firmly, “this isn’t a hotel. You’re welcome to spend the night here but if you’re going to ….”
“My brother didn’t mean to be rude” said Arati hastily, “could you show us our room please? I’d like to rest ” Anita led them to the guest room silently.
Back in her own room Anita frowned. “I don’t like them” she told herself, “they’re up to something fishy.” As she opened her window for a minute she heard a faint and muffled scream which made her jump in surprise. It came from a direction where there were no houses at all. Who could it possibly be? “I must look into this” said Anita, “I bet it has something to do with our strange visitors.” At nearly fourteen she thought of herself as a mini-detective. She called out to her mother. “I’m going out to fetch a couple of extra blankets from Sandy’s place. Be back soon”.
“Don’t forget to take the big torch” said her mother, “and remember to wrap the blankets in plastic so thay don’t get wet. Don’t delay, it’s getting quite dark.”
“I’m used to it” said Anita laughing, “don’t worry”.
Once outside, Anita made towards the direction the scream came from. As she carefully waded through the dripping path she heard the scream again, louder this time. Then she saw the car hidden among a cluster of trees. Anita ran and peeped inside. A little girl lay on the back seat of the car, her hands and feet tied up. Her mouth was gagged too, with just her nose free. The window was slightly open so that she might not suffocate. The little girl struggled to get her mouth free and screamed again.
“Gosh!” said Anita, “they’ve kidnapped her! For a fat ransom, I expect.” She tried to open the door but it was locked. She couldn’t get the window open either.
“Don’t cry dear,” she said to the tied-up girl, “I’ll soon have you out of this. Just wait until I fetch someone.”
It was lucky that Sandeep, her friend since her nursery days, was also home on holidays. He’d know how to open the door of the car. Anita dashed towards his cottage and thumped on his window.
Sandeep peered out, surprised. “It’s you, Annie! What do you mean by pounding on my window?”
“Shh…” whispered Anita, “come out , quick. There’s something fishy going on and we have to save the kid.”
“What kid? What are you talking about?” asked Sandeep intrigued. Anita told him.
“You’ll have to open the car door and then we must hide the kid somewhere until we can get hold of the police” said Anita.
“I’ll fetch my toolbox and a hammer” said Sandeep.
Luckily Sandeep knew a great deal about cars and managed to wrench open the door. The little girl was half frozen and sobbing pitifully.
“Buck up, we’ll soon have you home” said Sandeep carrying her, “you must be terribly hungry.”
“I want my mummy” sobbed the little girl, “I’m cold and hungry and I want mummy”
“You’ll have her as soon as we can send her a message” said Anita patting her, “what’s your name, dear?”
“Aruna Chaturvedi” replied the girl, "a bad aunty came to my school when we were playing and said that my mummy was waiting behind the tree and she’d take me there. She asked me to close my eyes and carried me to a horrid car. There was a bad uncle who tied me up and drove fast…and just wouldn’t listen to me.”
“Ransom” said Sandeep, “her dad’s a millionaire.”
“Where shall we hide her?” asked Anita, “I can’t take her home. The kidnappers are there and will see her at once.”
“I’ll take her to my mum. But before that I must fix this car so that the kidnappers can’t run away.”
Sandeep got busy with his hammer and tools.
“That won’t move in a hurry” said Sandeep grinning, “just see to it that the kidnappers don’t escape before the police arrive.”
“How will you fetch them? The phone lines aren’t working” said Anita covering the shivering Aruna with her raincoat.
“I’ll go to the next town in my bike and inform the police”
“In this weather?” said Anita, “better be careful, Sandy.”
“I’ve driven in worse weather” said Sandeep, “don’t fuss, Annie. We’ve got to think of Aruna first.”
They made for Sandeep’s house and told his mother the whole story. Aruna, dry and reassured, had a bowlful of bread and milk and was soon fast asleep. Then Sandeep rushed out in his bike.
“How long you’ve been” said Anita’s mother looking at her, “where’s your raincoat? And the blankets you went to fetch?”
“I forgot” stammered Anita. “I’ll go and prepare tea, mum. You sit with them in the drawing room.”
As Anita prepared an elaborate tea she prayed hard that Sandy might reach fast and bring the cops before the duo could escape. But they were hungry and relished the hot pakodas Anita insisted on frying.
“I’ve had enough” said Samir after his third cup of tea, “Could I borrow your torch? I must go and take a peep at my car.”
“It fell from my hand and broke” said Anita looking flushed for no apparent reason, “But I’ll fetch Dad’s lantern from the attic. It’s much brighter.”
Anita’s mother opened her mouth to say something and shut it again. She wasn’t aware that they had any lantern or an attic either! Still if Anita was lying so blatently it must be for some good reason.
“No need for either” said a voice at the door, “got you at last!”
“The police!” screamed Arati trying to jump out of the window.
“No use, Lady” said another voice, “your game’s up!”
“Thank God you made it, Sandy” cried Anita as the police left with their “guests”!
“You’d better get us fresh cups of tea while I tell aunty the whole story” said Sandeep.