December 4, 2020

Surakhia

(c) J. Singh, 2016

The billionaire's five-year old daughter hugged her teddy bear close as she walked through the crowded marketplace, navigating throngs of people.

"Don't worry Teddy," she said quietly, "we'll find a way. Those bad men chasing us won't catch us. I'll keep you safe."

She looked around desperately for a hiding place. Being small had its advantages, she could squirm into little spaces where no one would think to look. Quickly, she ran as fast as her little legs could carry her, and slipped unnoticed under a hanging sheet in between two stalls.

Seconds later, two men walked past, scanning the crowds. They stood in front of the stall, exchanged a few brief words, then continued on their way, stopping every few seconds, searching. There were a least a dozen more like them, spread out across several city blocks. All of them searching for the little girl. She peered out from under the sheet, watching them intently.

When they had gone, she whispered to Teddy.

"They're gone. We have to go before they come back. Ready, Teddy? Let's go!"

She scrambled out of her hiding place and ran out of the market into the streets. It was midday, and the sun was beating down mercilessly. Traffic was at a standstill, with the congested roads overflowing with vehicles, from trucks and cars to ox-carts, auto-rickshaws, cyclists and pedestrians. The sidewalks were similarly crowded with street vendors and their stalls and people sleeping. Diesel fumes hung thick in the air. The loud din from all the car horns blaring was deafening. It was a chaotic scene with haphazard traffic flow.

The girl looked at all the commotion, wide-eyed and confused. She didn't know which direction to turn. Nearby, a street vendor was roasting peanuts. He glanced down at her in derision and then shooed her away. She inched away from him, clutching her teddy bear tightly.

She was frightened. But she kept walking, looking for something she could recognize, something she could make sense of. She didn't know anything about the sensational news story about her kidnapping that had made world headlines, or the ransom demand that her abductors had made. She didn't know about all the private detectives and law enforcement agencies that were working around the clock to locate her whereabouts.

She had managed to escape in the most unlikely fashion, when one of her captors had become distracted and forgotten to lock the door of the room she was being kept in. She had quietly tiptoed out of the room and then bolted out of the building. When they discovered that she had escaped, only minutes later, she was already in the town square. They came looking for her, of course. And they were determined to find her.

There were many people all around, but she avoided everyone. Some women noticed her, but she steered clear of them. She kept looking over her shoulder to see if she had been spotted. So far, so good.

She turned a corner into a side street. It was relatively calm here. A few scooters parked on one side. The usual groups of people milling about outside the stores. Otherwise, nothing too exciting. At the end of the street, she caught sight of someone standing and speaking with the shopkeeper.

The man was dressed in blue, was tall and well-built. His dress was unique, it looked like long flowing robes to her. And he was bristling with weapons. They seemed to be decorating his body from all sides. In his waistband he appeared to have swords and all other manner of sharp weapons. On his turban, he had several sharp chakkars. On his back he carried spears and what appeared to be a katana.

She approached him and tugged at the hem of his blue robe. The fierce warrior looked down at the little girl, and his steel eyes softened.

"Will you help me?" she asked, staring up at him earnestly, "those bad men are trying to catch me, and I'm very tired now. If they catch me, they'll take me back to that room in that house, and lock me up there, and I don't want to go there." She shook her head sadly. "I don't like it there. And Teddy feels scared. But, they are coming. Will you help me, please?"

The warrior knelt down on one knee so they were at eye-level.

"Where are your Mom and Dad?" he asked gently.

"I dunno," she replied. "Those bad men, those ones who came to take me away, they took me away from my Mommy and Daddy."

The warrior understood and nodded. "You don't know where you are?"

"Nope. Will you help me?"

"Yes. I will take care of you. Don't worry about anything."

"And Teddy too?"

"Yes, and Teddy too. Nothing will happen to you or to Teddy. And we'll find your Mom and Dad also. How does that sound?"

The girl beamed a smile and showed a thumbs up to the warrior. She spoke to her teddy bear. "See Teddy, I told you he would help us!"

The warrior stood up and stared towards the main road. The two men from the marketplace had reached the side street, and were staring at him and the girl. One of them was talking on his cellphone. They began to walk briskly towards the warrior and the girl. She quickly hid behind the warrior and peeked out from behind his robes.

"Go into this shop here, you will be safe" he said, as the shopkeeper ushered her inside. She caught a glimpse of him drawing two swords from their scabbards, the metal flashing brightly as it caught the sun. Then, he disappeared from view as he went to meet her captors.

There were sounds of a commotion. The shopkeeper kept her inside and gave her a toy to play with. "Stay hidden here, under this table, you will be safe," he whispered urgently. Outside, there was shouting, and what sounded like firecrackers popping, but were really gunshots. A woman started screaming, and then, sounds of a stampede.

The little girl hugged her teddy bear tightly, hoping the warrior was alright.

Her hopes were confirmed within a few minutes. The warrior returned, his right arm and shoulder completely soaked in blood. The blades of his swords were still dripping with fresh red blood. His face had the look of a predator that had just made its kill.

He shared a few quick words with the shopkeeper, who nodded solemnly and then bowed.

It was over. No one was chasing her anymore. They had all fled, or had been killed, with one exception, who had been caught.

The next day, the news headlines featured the face of the captured kidnapper. He had confessed all the sordid details of their plan to abduct the billionaire's daughter for ransom. The news also contained the harrowing account of the girl's ordeal, and how she had managed to survive and escape. At the end, when asked how she had known who to ask for help, she said simply, "When Mommy used to read me the bedtime stories, she would always say that the lion was the king of the jungle, and no other animals dared to challenge the lion. When I found the lion, I knew I should ask him for help because nobody else would dare challenge him."

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