The Goa Connection – Chapter 5
Awesome monsoon storms upset Dan’s first attempt to locate the valuable hoard. More devastatingly, he’s taken prisoner at gunpoint. Many miles away in the foothills of the Himalayas, we discover Katie Barnes is recovering from a traumatic experience.
Late the following afternoon, monsoon storm clouds began to roll in from the Western Ghats, dark, ominous and threatening. Thunder increased in intensity as daylight faded prematurely. Dan bemoaned his luck. He’d picked an ideal spot in a padded wicker chair at a table in a popular shack just off Repousante Beach to view the sunset over a glass of ice-cold Kingfisher lager. Having spent hours mulling over ways of getting on with the task of discovering treasure, he needed to wind down for a while. Now the weather had thwarted that intention. Deciding to head back to Villa Maranda before the storm took hold, he drained his glass, returned it to the bar, paid the bill and left.
As he walked hurriedly, huge thunder drops fell, quickly becoming a powerful tropical downpour. Within minutes, the road became a muddy river. Sheet lightning flashed rapidly, and then forked lightning zigzagged downwards accompanied by ear-splitting crashes. The electricity supply failed, plunging the village into darkness. Without a working fan, Dan’s room became unbearably hot, so he sat on the front porch, shining a torch over rainwater spewing from guttering unable to cope with the deluge.
When the storm abated, Maranda arrived with a supply of candles. “You might need these, Dan. I’ve heard we might not have electricity for a few days. Several important substations have been badly damaged by lightning, and it’ll take engineers ages to fix things. I do have an emergency generator, but it’s only powerful enough to run a few lights around the place and one communal fridge in the passageway which guests can share during long power cuts.” She placed a box of candles on the porch table.
Dan asked, “Is it normal to get really long power failures?”
“Unfortunately, yes. The people in charge always deal with heavily populated areas first, meaning Repousante ends up with a long wait.”
“I see. Well, we’ll just have to grin and bear it.” Even as he spoke, Dan’s brain was racing. This must be the answer. No floodlights up at the fort. Right, time for action, he thought.
After Maranda had left, Dan took bottles of drinking water from his de-icing fridge, went out to the passageway and placed them on a shelf in the communal fridge. He wondered if a nearby tall metal cabinet was also for guests use, and opened the door to find out. It contained brushes and brooms, and behind them various tools, presumably property of the deceased Mr Rodrigues. The pickaxe, crowbar and spade caught Dan’s attention immediately. Then he spotted a battery-operated headlight and a coil of rope.
* * *
A smoking old oil lamp provided the only lighting in the house occupied by Subram and Valdares. They sat late into the night at a rough wood table, poring over an enlarged photo of the treasure map.
Subram said irritably, “How am I supposed to know which cross marks the spot? Could be any of them—unless the treasure is all over the place.”
“Well, we need to make up our minds where we’re going to start looking. This power cut won’t go on forever.” Valdares placed a finger on the cross over the cannon. “I reckon it’s here—inside this gun or maybe underneath it. This is where we should look.”
“No, that’s too obvious. It’s sure to be one of the harder to spot places. We need to work methodically, starting at the most isolated spot.”
Valdares shrugged. “Okay, if you say so. The tools are in the back of the truck. Let’s go.”
* * *
Light from an almost full moon picked out the way up a steep and narrow cliff footpath. Dan could still hardly believe his luck on finding equipment suitable for the search. He regretted not packing suitable clothing for climbing in treacherously wet and muddy conditions; cotton shorts, short-sleeved shirt and trainers made the task extremely hazardous. He switched off the borrowed headlamp, unnecessary in the moonlight, and prayed he’d go unspotted by anyone out and about below at that early hour. After a few minutes climbing, he reached the stretch where trees provided cover and heaved a sigh of relief. He paused to rebalance the pickaxe, crowbar and spade on one shoulder, then adjusted the coil of rope over the other. He checked to ensure the torch clipped to his trouser belt was secure.
His next step dislodged a boulder. It gave way and rolled down the cliff wall, leaving Dan precariously balancing on one foot, sliding backwards. He reached out and grabbed a branch of a bush, managing to steady himself and prevent the tools from being lost.
On reaching the cliff top, he hurried to a gap in the fortress stonework and dropped to his knees behind it, breathing heavily for a few moments before covering the short distance to the old cannon, abandoned on the ground and surrounded by flagstones. Dan switched on the headlamp and searched for any sign of disturbance to the large stones, hoping to find telltale signs like new weed growth or soil removal between them.
Less than halfway round the cannon, he found such evidence at a flagstone. With thumping heart, he dropped the tools and rope, grabbed the pickaxe and eased up the stone enough to be able to grip it. Discarding the axe, he used both hands to slide the heavy slab away, revealing a square iron manhole cover. Yes! Touché! Incredible! His mind raced feverishly. He picked up the spade, slid the blade between the cover and frame, levered up the cover, grasped it with his free hand and toppled it over. Dan knelt and peered down a shaft. Needing more light, he took the torch from his belt and shone it around the hole. The shaft ended about ten metres below, forming a solid rock floor. Halfway down was a narrow ledge, hewn from the rock wall. An opening in the wall was accessible from the ledge, and large enough for a human to enter.
As Dan uncoiled the rope, he heard a vehicle approaching, so hastily abandoned his attempt to climb down the shaft. The glow from headlights appeared beyond the rear perimeter wall and gears crashed noisily as the driver negotiated the steep approach. Swiftly, Dan coiled the rope, refitted the manhole cover and manoeuvred the flagstone into position. Desperately, he kicked soil, grass and weeds over the stone and pressed the mixture down around the edges. After gathering up the tools, he dashed towards crumbling remains of a small building in a central area, hoping to hide in the shadows.
Before he reached cover, a man’s voice rang out. “Hey you! Stop or I’ll shoot!”
Dan froze, dropped the tools and raised both arms in surrender. He heard squelching footsteps behind, then what felt like the barrel of a gun rammed against his neck.
“So we meet at last, Dan Mapleton.” The gravelly voice sounded menacing.
A different male voice asked, “What do we do with him?”
“Take him to our place. He can’t get up to mischief there,” The first voice replied. “You go in front and I’ll make sure our friend follows. Oh, you’d better collect his tool kit first.”
Dan reckoned the man leading the way was Indian; he seemed to have black hair and dark skin, but it was hard to discern in moonlight. In addition, both men had an Indian accent. They reached the wall at the back of the fort, walked through a gap and headed to an old pickup truck parked at the end of a rough track.
The gunman ordered his accomplice to put the tools in the back of the pickup, and then forced Dan to climb in and sit on the floor before jumping up himself. “Okay, let’s go,” he barked. The second man got into the cab, started the engine, turned the vehicle round and headed down the track to a surfaced road.
Dan tried to concentrate on remembering anything he saw around him as they travelled, just in case it came in handy later. He noted it only took a few minutes before they turned left off the road and bumped over rough ground for about half a kilometre. He even managed to memorise a landmark at the spot where they turned; a colourfully painted Hindu roadside shrine with a yellow domed top.
The truck stopped outside a small, dilapidated house with a palm frond roof. Peering around, Dan realised they had arrived at an extremely isolated dwelling.
* * *
Inger Hagen, a pretty Norwegian in her twenties, dressed in skimpy shorts and top, put an arm round Katie Barnes’ shoulder as they wandered amongst pine, spruce and maple trees in the grounds of an abandoned ashram. They made several stops at viewpoints affording breathtaking views of soaring Himalayan peaks, steamy lowland jungles, revered temples and peaceful hill stations reached by twisting roads.
Inger flicked her auburn ponytail out of the way and said, “Uttarakhand is stunningly beautiful. India is so diverse.”
Katie nodded. “How long have I been here?”
“Oh, goodness knows. Weeks, but not as long as Lars and me. We were so lucky to stumble on this place. It used to be popular in the 60’s when meditation and gurus attracted people in their thousands from around the globe. We decided to stay and live rough for a while instead of spending our travel money on accommodation,” Inger explained.
Katie sighed. “I still can’t remember much at all—not even my name or where I come from.”
“Tell me the bits you can remember again. It may help to keep repeating them,” encouraged Inger.
“Someone hit me on the back of the head with something heavy. I was waiting on a quiet road for a bus to continue my journey from Kathmandu to Rishikesh.”
“Good, I think . . .” Inger pointed and whispered, “Look!”
Groups of Rhesus monkeys peered out from foliage and swung between trees.
Katie spotted something else. “And there! That bird. What is it?”
“A Ghughuti bird, known as the famous bird of Uttarakhand. It’s quite like a pigeon. Now then, what else do you remember?”
Katie thought for a moment. “I recall a man running off with my backpack containing clothes, money, passport, phone—and everything else. But I only saw his back and can’t describe him. Then I must’ve slumped down on the roadside and lost consciousness.”
“And that’s where me and Lars found you.”
Just after moving on, they halted abruptly, watching anxiously as a huge python slithered across the track in front of them.
Inger said, “That’s supposed to be good luck. Come on, that’s enough for now.”
* * *
Towards sunset it turned stiflingly hot. Katie got up from a bedroll spread on the concrete floor in one of several derelict buildings of the ashram. The room had flaking plaster walls, marble pillars and several rotting wooden window frames with shattered glass. Wooden rafters—some broken—stretched beneath what remained of corrugated roofing sheets.
Looking in a small cracked mirror propped on a window ledge, she ran her hands through her tousled blonde hair. Even without makeup, her tanned face remained unblemished and radiant. She noticed the mustard coloured Kaftan dress, and it gradually dawned on her that she had been wearing Inger’s clothes since arriving at the ashram. She walked towards a wooden door with missing panels, pulled it open and went out to a shady porch with steps leading down to a neglected stonewalled courtyard where birds chirped merrily. A red-billed blue magpie with an extraordinarily long tail mesmerised her with its call; a grating rattle followed by a high-pitched whistle like a flute.
* * *
Squatting over a wood fire in the centre of the courtyard, Lars Pettersen, a slim, bare-chested Norwegian, about thirty with long blond hair, hitched up blue denim jeans and carried on cooking fish in a buckled and bent pan. A mouth-watering aroma of fish and wood smoke wafted around as the food loudly sizzled and spat oil. Sitting crossed legged on the flagstones next to him, his girlfriend Inger busily prepared salad on a flat piece of wood.
Lars looked up as Katie joined them round the fire, grinning broadly. “Well! Look who’s here! Have we got news for you, Miss Katie Barnes.”
Katie gasped, clamping a hand to her mouth. “What? Er—I mean . . .” She slowly sat down beside Inger.
Inger explained. “We had a bit of luck this afternoon. Lars decided it was worth taking a look around the area where we found you. He reckoned it was probably a local villager who stole your backpack, only wanting cash and maybe your phone. If so, the pack may well have been thrown away. And guess what? We found it—under a road bridge. Obviously, there’s no money in it, or your phone. But unbelievably the little bag holding your passport and stuff was still inside—including your bank cards.” Inger reached inside a canvas bag beside her, pulled out the passport, opened it to the photo page and passed it to Katie.
Katie stared at her own photo and name blankly, shaking her head in amazement. Eventually she said, “Yes. Yes, that’s me. Now I remember.” She threw her arms round Inger. “Oh thank you, thank you so much.” Tears trickled down her cheeks and Inger wiped them away.
Lars said, “Look at the last page. It has a name and telephone number to contact in an emergency.”
Katie turned to the page. “It’s my mother!” After a pause, she said, “I have to contact her. She must be in a terrible state, not knowing why I haven’t been in touch for so long.”
Inger offered, “You can use my phone, but there isn’t much credit left I’m afraid. The signal is lousy around here. I’ll check.” She looked at the indicator on her mobile and shook her head. “Nothing. But sometimes it works by climbing that hill.” Inger pointed to a steep path leading up to a viewpoint. “Go on, give it a go.” She passed the phone to Katie.
“Thank you.” Katie placed the phone and passport in the canvas bag, stood and headed for the path.
“Good luck. I hope you get through to your mother,” Inger called after her.
Lars and Inger concentrated on getting the meal ready. A few minutes later Katie returned, with a beaming smile.
Inger said, “You look happy, so I guess you’ve spoken to Mum.”
“Yes, only briefly but long enough to put her mind at rest.”
Lars said, “We also found a few pieces of paper in your pack. It looks like you were in the Philippines before coming here.”
Katie frowned. “Philippines. Philippines. Yes, I’m beginning to remember lots of things now.”
“Good. Anyway, food’s up. Help yourselves.” Lars placed the pan of fish next to the salad before pulling some plates, spoons and forks from a plastic bag. As the three set about devouring the spread, a woodpecker started drumming on a nearby tree.
Inger said, “We went to that little police station again after finding your pack, and told them we’d sorted things out ourselves. They just said they’d pass on the information.”
Lars added, “Problem is, the police in these parts don’t normally have these situations to deal with. I should have contacted a main police station—and the British Embassy. I guess we just thought you’d soon be okay. Sorry I messed up.”
Katie replied, “It’s okay, I’m much better now. Maybe just being in this special place was the best thing that could have happened.”
After the meal, Lars told the girls, “Well, that was the last meal in this place. We need to be up very early in the morning to reach Delhi by nightfall. In a couple of days from now we’ll be in Goa.” He glanced at Katie. “Unless, of course, Katie has other plans.”
Katie replied, “No, no other plans.”
“What about letting friends know you’re okay,” enquired Inger.
“All contacts were in my phone,” Katie explained. “I must buy a new one, and then Mum can give me important contact details from a list I kept at home.”
Inger said, “I’m really glad you’re coming to Goa with us. The dry season will be starting there now.”