My town had always been a quiet little place until that winter.
Growing up as a nomad who shifted homes every few years, I spent my adulthood in a sort of haze: I couldn’t stick to any place or person for too long. But when I turned forty, I found the perfect town. It was far away from any big city, nestled in a valley between the crispest mountains. Fresh dew in the morning, hot sunny summers, intense rain and bone-chilling winters.
The town had everything I needed to think of life as a well-settled affair. Maybe meet a nice girl, take her out for a drink, put a ring on her finger. Who knows? I wanted to see where it would go. Maybe even quit the force some time soon. That was my plan anyway.
But that winter things were changing.
There had been abductions. A bunch of little children- four to five year old boys and girls were going missing from different parts of the town. Nobody knew where they went. But that wasn’t all. Most of them disappeared when they were out for a walk to the market or the playground with their mothers. And the mothers? They were found on the side of the road with their heads bashed in.
I listened to the report calmly, taking my time gathering the large pile of heavy boxes. These were police records of criminals or suspects or oddballs- piles and piles of files and sheets and photographs shipped in from different parts of the country for the benefit of the local investigation team. I was transferring them from one station to the other- from the out-of-the-way police shack to the team headquarters. Two abductions-killings in and still clueless about the identity of the murderer.
The only clue was that people had spotted a medium-sized white van leaving each murder spot, skidding over the frost-covered winter roads, its windows darkened. Nobody knew who the driver was or what he looked like..
I stared grimly as I placed the last one of the boxes on the sidewalk next to my own little white van. A far-off vintage vehicle from another era but I still used it for everything. Time to start piling all these boxes up in the back. It was a shame this understaffed station couldn’t provide me an extra man to lug all these heavy files into the van.
It was time to get to work anyway. It was started to get dark and it was important to get these files safely to their destination before the pink skyline dropped into pitch black.
The road outside this station ran past a children’s crèche and I could see a woman coming down the road, holding the hand of a little boy who was pulling along a little toy dog on a string.
As the woman came closer, I could make out her features. She had on a dark skirt-suit, her brown hair pulled away from her face. She was stunning. The little boy was lost in another world. As she came closer, she stopped and passed me a smile.
‘Need a hand with those boxes?’, she asked. The little boy paused next to her, his thumb in his mouth, and looked up at me with wondrous wide eyes.
I hesitated. ‘No, I’ll manage. These are quiet heavy.’
She raised her eyebrows at me. ‘I can handle it.’
I was amused. Sure, if the pretty woman with a kid wanted to have a go at it. I stepped back and gestured. ‘Be my guest’
She let go of her child’s hand and bent for the nearest box. Lifting it, she almost staggered backwards off the road. I held out a hand to steady her, reaching for her back in as nonchalant and unthreatening way as I possibly could. As soon as she got her balance, I pulled the box out of her hands before she could protest.
”Whoa, what is in that?’ she exclaimed, stepping back towards the kid.
I laughed. ‘Files. Criminal records mostly.’ I stowed the box into the back of the van and reached for another one.
She was quieter now, thinking. ‘So you’re investigating the mystery murders and abductions, officer?’
I straightened up and looked at her. She had pretty almond eyes, full of concern. I saw her protectively moving closer towards the little boy.
Í sighed. ‘Yes, we are. We’re on the case. You would understand, of course, if I can’t divulge any more information.’ Nodding towards the kid. ”Is that your son?’
She nodded, putting her other hand protectively on his shoulder. I spotted the wedding ring.
‘Look, don’t worry. Just take some precautions. No lonely streets and the likes of that, okay? We will have this murderer behind bars soon enough. It won’t take long, I promise you.’
I smiled at her and she smiled back. I looked at the kid. His eyes were still wide open.
An hour later, my own van was skidding across the slippery roads. I was almost there. With the radio turned up, I groaned when a favourite song was interrupted midway for a newsflash.
Another mother and child. Somewhere close to where I was coming from. All people on alert for white vans.
I reached the gates of the precinct. The guard on duty hesitated, then came closer and said, ‘Mind if we check the van?’
Í stared him down, irritated. You do know who I am, right? What on earth do you expect to do with my van except waste your time and mine?’
He seemed embarrassed. ‘I’m sorry sir. We just got news in of a third abduction and murder. A small boy coming home from his crèche with his mother. A woman in a dark navy suit. She was one of those adoption agency people. Perhaps you saw someone like that on the way?’
‘Oh. Well, I had no idea. I’m just driving in, as you can see. But if you’d still rather check the back of my vehicle, be my guest.’
‘Yessir. I mean, no sir. That’s quite all right. The guard stammered. ‘So, did you see anyone matching the description on your way??’
I flashed a big smile at him. ‘No. No, I didn’t.’
The guard just nodded at me in acknowledgment and I drove right through, whistling.
Note: This story passed through my dream, exactly like this, a week or more back. In the dream, I wasn’t participating in the story but sort of watching it, as though on a television. It was just one of those dreams which you can recollect vividly for a really long time.