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*This can't be happening. This is some kind of a twisted, surreal nightmare.* Zoya chanted in her head, but the barrel of the gun inches away from her forehead and aiming straight at the spot between her eyes reminded her of the stark reality . The reality that it might as well be the last moment of her life.
Standing there in the middle of the darkness, looking closely into the eyes of death, Zoya thought her entire life would flash before her eyes, just like it happens in movies and novels. Instead, something else popped up in her head. Something so trivial that she herself had forgotten that it ever existed; but it made more sense to her than anything else at that moment.
"What's your greatest fear, Miss Zoya?" the interviewer had asked Zoya when she wanted to join the crime branch.
"Well, my greatest fear is to have one." Zoya had replied with the defiance of an overenthusiastic new rookie.
"That sounds good." The interviewer, an elderly man with an experience of nearly 25 years in the bureau, had smiled fondly, "...or maybe you're yet to come across it."
For a fleeting moment, Zoya had this irrational urge to go back to the moment, and to thank the interviewer for his apt, almost prophetic foresight. All along she'd been thinking that she'd seen it all; she'd visited the dirtiest places, had roamed through the darkest alleys in human mind and faced the deadliest of life threatening events. Yet nothing in her past 26 years of life had prepared her for this situation. It's one of those blood-curling, all-consuming, suffocating feeling of fear that drag you deep into the murk, and all you can do is to stare helplessly at your own demise.
"Ya Allah, ab main kya karoon?" Her mind furiously searched for an escape route...just one miraculous moment which would take her far away from this bad dream she'd been trapped into.
The respite finally came in the form of Ali's voice, offering a much needed breathing space for Zoya. She heard him saying, "Alpha, mere khayal se yeh ladki sach bol rahi hai. I've seen how badly the police officer treated her, kaise unn darindon ne isko mara, peeta...aur iski behen ko utha ke le gaye."
"Ali, humesha jo dikhta hai, wo hi sach nahin hota. Kabhi kabhi hum woh dekhte hai, jo hum ko dikhaya jaata hai." The man had not taken his eyes off Zoya even for a moment. Zoya's heart sank as she heard those words. This man clearly didn't trust even his own shadow, a must-have quality to be a worthy leader in the world of organized crime. *This is proving to be tougher than I thought it would be.* Zoya thought gingerly. Now she had to play the sympathy card' very wisely, as it was the only way to get out of this hell she'd volunteered to visit.
"Ali bhai, aap mera yakeen kijiye...main sach bol rahi hoon. Maine aap ke upar itna bharosa kiya, aur aap humein yeh kahan leke aa gaye!" Zoya looked reproachfully at Ali. Her eyes shone brightly with tears. Ali couldn't meet her eyes and dropped his gaze awkwardly to the floor.
"Aap Bhagwan ko maanti hai?" Alpha's voice interrupted the dramatic moment she'd successfully built up. This sudden reference to religion startled Zoya. She paused for a moment, and then replied "Haan. Kyon?"
"You said you're a Christian, right? Julie D'souza, from Goa, a devoted Christian...So much devoted that she sometimes forgets to wear her cross!" The man's gaze lingered on Zoya's bare neck. Once again, Zoya had this weird sensation that his piercing eyes were penetrating through her. She squirmed in front of his gaze.
Ali's expressions, too, had changed drastically at the mention of Zoya's religion. His eyes were wide, as if he was desperately trying to recall something, then he suddenly yelled "She swore in the name of Allah', while she was talking about her sister...she said Allah Kasam'." Realization slowly dawned on his face. He turned round to face Zoya, his face contorted with hatred and fury "You b*tch! Tujhe laga ke mujhe bhai jaan bulane se tera kaam aasan ho jayega! You bl*ddy wh*re, bol kiske liye kaam kar rahi hai?" He took out a gun and waved it menacingly in front of her.
Zoya felt as if she was falling down a bottomless pit. How on earth she could let that happen! Because of her one mistake', the whole operation is going down the drain.
"Easy, Ali, easy. The dead do not talk, my friend." Alpha's voice was soft, yet the steely calmness in it sent a chill down Zoya's spine. Her body shuddered involuntarily.
"...but Alpha, she's dared to walk into the lion's den. Isse toh aisi sabak milni chahiye ke zindagi mein dobara jasoosi karne ke layak nahin rahe..." Ali gritted his teeth in anger.
"Sazah toh isse milegi, beshak milegi...but not before she coughs up the name of all her acquaintances." Alpha was standing dangerously close to Zoya, his brown eyes delving deeply into her tearful eyes. He dragged the barrel of the gun slowly down her cheeks and pressed it against the hollow of her throat, forcing her to look up. "yeh ladki akeli toh kaam nahin kar rahi hai, iss ke peeche koi na koi organization ke hath zaroor hai...aur wo raaz kaise iske zubaan se nikali jaye woh mujhse behtar koi nahin janta." Zoya flinched at the cold metallic touch of the gun against her skin and moved her head back, desperately trying to avoid any contact with him.
"Alpha, ek bar aap hukum kijiye...zubaan kheench lunga iss chuhiya ki..." another young fellow with surma' laced eyes spoke with such a hateful vengeance that left hardly any doubt about Zoya's fate once these guys lay their hands on her.
"Fikar mat karo, Bilal. Aakhir hai toh ek chuhiya...kab tak bhagegi? Iss ke sath kya karna hai, woh main tay karunga." Alpha signaled Ali and Bilal "Blindfold this girl and put her in my car."
Zoya struggled in vein as those men gripped her shoulders hard and forcibly tied the black scarf on her eyes again. She could feel a pair of handcuffs cutting on her skin and the metallic click with which it locked around her wrist.
Then someone whispered in her ears "Game over, Miss Julie."
Another blindfolded journey towards another unknown destination! This time, Zoya didn't bother to keep a track of the path they traveled. She leaned against the back seat of the car, trying not to think what's awaiting her at the end of this fateful journey. *Whatever happens, I am not going down without a fight.* She still had the gun, and somewhere, in another part of the world, Vikrant and her entire team was keeping a tab on her whereabouts. *Perhaps they were on their way to reach Me.* the thought comforted her instantly.
After what seemed like an eternity, the car screeched to a halt, the sound breaking through the tangled web of thoughts being woven in her mind. An unseen, faceless fear slithered softly down her spine, as she realized that she's now closer than ever to face her worst fear in life. In a fleeting moment of self-reproach, Zoya wondered whether she'd pushed the boundaries too far; maybe she could've listened to Farhan and contented herself being a trophy wife for her pricey husband, but she vehemently dismissed the thought as soon as it crawled into her head. *This is not the moment, Zoya.* she thought. Self loathing was an indulgence she couldn't afford at this moment, especially when she'd come this far!
She heard the door of car unlocking. Some disturbing images flashed in her mind; a pair of strong, merciless fists closing on her neck and forcefully dragging her out of the car.
Instead, she heard the deep, commanding voice again "Get down. Quick."
Zoya almost felt a rush of gratitude towards the guy for not touching her. The maddening thumping of her heart slowed down a bit. It might have exploded if the guy had tried to touch her.
She fumbled a little to feel her way out of the car. The moment she set foot on the ground, she felt a sharp, metallic touch on her waist which made her wince in pain.
"Don't make a sound. Keep moving forward." The man pressed the gun a little harder against her skin. Zoya obeyed him and silently staggered forward, without having any clue where she was stepping.
She could hear the sound of pebbles crushing beneath her feet. Then they climbed a few staircases, Zoya trying hard not to trip on them. Her journey abruptly came to a halt as she felt she'd reached a dead end. Something was blocking her road ahead. She tried to feel it with her hands and her fingers brushed against something cold and steely...it's a door-knob!
"Wait. Don't move." The man, who had not said a word since she got out of the car, spoke again. Zoya heard some kind of metallic jangle, then a click of a doorknob and the door opened with a low thud.
"Step inside", he was almost breathing on her neck now. Zoya's entire being trembled, as if every atom in her body was ready to burst into protest, warning her against the impending danger that awaited her in the room. The feeling of dread was so powerful and overwhelming, Zoya stood frozen at the doorsteps.
"Scared now? Are you?" A soft chuckle rang in her ears "Did it scare you when you were lying in front of a bunch of strangers back there, knowing that your lies could kill you? Was it frightening to venture into a blindfolded journey towards an unknown destination with a complete stranger? If not, then why now?"
"Saab, main jhooth nahin bol rahi hoon. Please mera yakeen kijiye." Zoya's own voice sounded hollow and vain to her. She wasn't even sure why she bothered to maintain the faade in front of this man. He could probably see through all her lies.
"Miss Julie, aap ko nahin lagta ke ab humein ek dusre ke sath yeh aankh micholi khelna bandh kar dena chahiye?" The man sounded a little weary this time. "Aap ko bhi pata hai, aur mujhe bhi...ke sach kya hai." Zoya could feel his warm breath softly fanning her cheeks.
"Come on, Miss Julie. Lies are for cowards...and lovers. Not for us, people like you...and me...jo sach bolne ki himmat rakhte hai, aur sach sahne ke bhi." He was almost whispering now.
*Enough of this cat and mice game!* Zoya steeled herself.*let's face it the way it is.* She stepped inside the room. The sound of the door closing behind reminded her once again that there's no turning back from here. From this moment onward, it'd be a mind game, a battle of will-power between her and this stranger. If she wanted to survive, she should better take a lead in the game.
She took a deep breath and spoke with a calm and steady voice, "Ab jab aap ko pata chal chuka hai ke main kaun hoon, toh mujhe yahan pe kyon laye hain? Aap toh mujhe wohi maar sakte the." Despite her best efforts, her voice trembled a little bit.
"Relax, Miss D'souza. Insaan ko kabhi kabhi poori zindagi lag jati hai sawalon ke jawab dhundhne mein, aur aap ko ek hi raat mein saare jawab chahiye?" There was a faint but unmistakable hint of melancholy in his voice which Zoya couldn't read, but it scared her even more. *What the heck is going on in his mind?* She wondered.
"Get rid of your little toys now, Miss Julie." The authoritarian tone was back in his voice.
"What do you mean?" Zoya knew very well what he meant, but the gun strapped to her leg was the only thing that stood between her life and death now; and she won't let go of it at any cost.
"Acting dumb will not buy you much time, Miss D'souza." The voice hardened. "Get rid of your weapons now. Don't force me to do something which I wouldn't like to do to you. Mujhe majboor mat kijiye..." the menacing tone in his voice was too blatant to ignore now.
Zoya's heart was in her mouth as she stood there in silence, unable to move even a muscle. *If I lose my gun, that's the end of me...and without the transmitter, they won't be able to recover even my bones from here.*
"Don't tell me I didn't warn you." Zoya cringed at the touch of something sharp and pointed below her neck. It took her a moment to realize that the pointed tip belonged to a knife blade. *Ya Allah, yeh mujhe jaan se maar na chahta hai!*She shuddered and tried to step back, but the moment she moved, the pointed blade of the knife cut deeper into her skin, making her wince in pain.
"Don't touch me." She cried out bitterly. "Mere paas koi weapon nahin hai. Dur rahiye aap mujhse."
"Don't worry. I won't touch you." Zoya felt the tip of the knife tracing down her neck and cutting through the soft fabric of her cloth. A moment later, her blouse was hanging limply from her shoulders.
"Please, Khuda ke liye mujhe yahan se jane dijiye." Zoya wrapped her arms around herself tightly, trying in vain to protect her decency.
"Khuda ka wasta sirf insaano ke liye hota hai, Miss D'Souza. Aur mere andar ka insaan bahut saal pehle hi mar chukka hai." Another swift movement of the knife, and her ghagra' dropped to the floor too. A blindfolded Zoya was now standing there clad only in her bare minimums, completely exposed and vulnerable in front of a stranger. There wasn't an ounce of energy left in her body and soul to stand up against such an evil force. Her legs gave way and she collapsed to the floor, curling up into a ball and sobbing breathlessly.
"Do you know what happens to a nasty little rat that pokes its nose everywhere?" The man's voice was eerily calm, as if nothing had happened. His hand reached for the gun strapped to her left leg. Zoya nearly convulsed as his fingers brushed against her skin, dangerously close to her most intimate parts; but they didn't linger there for a moment more than necessary, working with a clinical precision to remove the strap and seize the gun.
"Maine kahan tha...mujhe majboor mat kijiye." Apparently, Zoya's breakdown had made no impression whatsoever on this man, as he continued to speak with the same chilly calmness, without any hint of remorse, shame or anger in his voice. "Listen Miss D'souza, I need to take a bath right now. Afterwards, we can have a nice little chat about your future. Till then, take your own sweet time to make up those pretty little lies about your sad life...as a prostitute...or as a spy...whatever."
(NEXT PART: See below)
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