The sound of the engine revving up seemed unfamiliar to my own ears. I tried hard to focus my mind on a singular point and ward off any stray thoughts.
I failed again.
A cold shiver went down my spine. I needed to complete three more laps and already my mind was slipping away! Gritting my teeth, I pushed down the nauseating feeling that was slowly creeping up my throat.
Damn it! How did I end up like this today? Why couldn't I concentrate on the simple task which I had been performing continuously for the last one year?
Outside the Well of Death spectators cheered on happily as I struggled to keep my mind focused on the path curved on the wall inside the cylindrical arena. They stood on the platform around the opening of the cylinder, high above my head, and looked down into the well. Their cheerful sounds reached to me as blurry and incoherent. Still, their presence helped me to regain my control over the motorbike. I reached the critical speed and maintained it firmly as my bike circumvented the cylindrical space.
Amid the shouts from the crowd I finished my final lap and slowly killed the engine. Then I dumped the motorbike in its usual place and hurriedly took off my riding gear. Beneath its protective layer I was already drenched in sweat. I stood in front of the pedestal fan, allowing the cool air to caress my body and soothe me slowly.
As I pulled up my jacket the door behind me suddenly opened with a bang. I didn't bother to turn my head. Who else could it be, but Inna? She strode by my side and grabbed my hand.
“Ah! Just come with me.”
Resisting was pointless. So I resigned and allowed her to drag myself out of the service area. As we came out in the open, the cool night air blew in my face and I felt relieved at once.
Inna worked as the manager of the Well of Death show in this amusement park. Tall and muscular, she was a giant of a woman. But she was equally soft and kind hearted. It was she who brought me here, gave a steady job and arranged for a place to stay. I was indebted to her and couldn't even begin to pay her back ever.
The Well of Death was situated at one end of the amusement park. In front of me there was a number of food joints and theme based restaurants. Decorated with colourful lights and festoons they looked like giant drops of candy.
Inna dragged me towards one of these restaurants. As I recognized it I shuddered instantly. It was a newly opened one, an exotic theme based restaurant. It was owned by Inna's live-in partner, Elle. They wanted to throw a housewarming party, but till now, all of our friends couldn't manage to agree upon a single date.
Or at least I thought so.
“Inna! Please, I need to go now. I don't feel well today.”
Inna didn't heed to my weak squeal and firmly grabbing my shoulder, she pushed open the glass door.
The large dining area in front of us was almost packed. Forks and knives clinked as people ate and chatted happily. Warm smell of food floated in the air and stirred the nauseating feeling in me again.
A gorgeous woman sailed towards us from behind the counter. I took a few seconds to recognize Elle in her formal dress. She greeted me with a dazzling smile and led us towards a smaller place at the back of the counter. It was dimly lit and looked cosier. As we entered, I discovered to my horror that almost all of our common friends had gathered there. It looked like a small private party with more booze and less solid food.
Thanks to Inna, I had landed in the thick of their housewarming party and on a day when even the thought of eating made me feel nauseating.
The party was already in full swing when Inna dragged me in the middle of the room and unceremoniously dumped me on a bar stool. Someone pushed a plate full of French fries towards me from across the table. Reluctantly, I picked up some and nimbled on them.
I looked around the room lazily. Everyone seemed to be chatting happily and sipping from the glasses in their hands. Closing my eyes, I let myself get accustomed to the low humming sound of voices and the smell of alcohol floating in the air.
But something was definitely off today.
At the far end of the room Bill was sitting alone on a couch with a glass in his hand. As my eyes fell on him, I realized that he had been staring hard at me, his brows drawn together in a frown.
I traversed the floor slowly and arrived by his side. He put down the glass on the floor and looked up at me.
“You look pale. What's the matter?”
I was surprised. Bill's kin eyes had detected that I was off. But I avoided giving him a direct answer.
“When did you arrive?”
“Ten minutes before you arrived. Inna threatened me over phone this evening that she was gonna kill me if I didn't come.” Bill chuckled.
Inna was Bill's little sister, after all. It was her who had arranged for me to stay as a paying guest in Bill's apartment. I had long come to the conclusion that the brother-sister duo did this out of their compassion for me. Bill, who owned a small, yet successful security agency, didn't need to keep a paying guest. Nor was he the type of man who would feel lonely and seek another's company in his house. In my opinion, he was a perfect loner and a self-sufficient man.
Seeing Bill smile, I plastered a smile on my face as well.
“Very nice! But I can't stay. I don't feel well today.”
“I see.” Bill straightened his back. “In that case, leave by the door here. I'll tell them later on.”
I shot a thankful glance at him and slid through the door. Outside, the fresh night air greeted me again and I felt relieved. Thanks to Bill, I had escaped from the embarrassing attention of my friends there. I couldn't possibly handle them today.
Three years ago, on this day my mother had passed away.
I dragged my KTM Duke 200 motorbike from the shade in the parking area and put on the helmet. The extra helmet was locked and dangled from the side. It was for Bill who used to return with me from time to time. As I turned the ignition key on, my obedient pet purred into life as usual. Somehow the familiar sound and touch set my heart at ease immediately.
As I steadily accelerated on the solitary road I started to think about my uneasiness in the evening. It had been more than a year that I was driving a motorbike in the Well of Death in this amusement park. The stunt required full control over speed of the bike and the angle of inclination of the rider, beside other things. A single mistake, even for the fraction of a second, could throw the rider into danger. My failure to concentrate enough from this evening could have easily become fatal.
I looked inside my mind and tried to find the reason. Perhaps I was giving too much thought to trivial matters, after all? What was the point in thinking about past which was already beyond my grasp?
Still, there was one matter in regard to which I had to take a decision.
I was deeply absorbed in thoughts while my hands and feet controlled the motorbike on their own. But I was jerked into full consciousness as my bike slowed down at the turn of the road. There was a small shop by the roadside here which sold exotic sweet drinks. It had become my customary practice to stop there everyday on my way home and have a glass of drink.
The shop was closed today. The road in front of it as well as the nearby bus stop wore a desolate look. A girl was waiting at the bus stop. Three young men stood a few feet away from her, with their motorbikes parked by their side. They laughed and talked among themselves at a loud voice.
As I stopped my bike some of their talks entered my ear.
Lewd, obscene remarks, clearly directed at the lone girl waiting for the bus helplessly. She was familiar to me. Most of the nights when I stopped here for a drink I would find her waiting here with her companions. Most probably they worked in some nearby departmental store or saloon. They would happily chat among themselves as they killed their time waiting for the arrival of their bus.
Tonight she was alone there, shifting nervously on her feet as the men hurled lewd comments and drew near her.
I accelerated and then brought myself to a stop in front of her, partly blocking those men.
“Mind if I drop you at your place?”
Surprised, she looked up at me. The helmet I was wearing was an open face one, with the transparent windshield drawn over my eyes. She gazed at my face for a moment, then her countenance brightened. She had recognized my appearance from those previous chance meetings. A nervous smile crept up on her face.
“Thank you so much!”
I realized how frightened she was so that she easily agreed to ride a bike with a stranger.
“By the way, where do you live?”
“Third Block, First Avenue. Do you live somewhere nearby? I hope it won't be too much of a detour for you?”
“It's fine, don't worry.”
Twisting my body, I unlocked the extra helmet dangling from the side and handed it over to her.
“Put this on and get on the pillion. Quick. It's going to rain soon.”
Indeed, the sky was overcast and loomed over our head menacingly. The wind was rising fast. I couldn't afford to wait more.
The three men who had been chattering at the top of their voice had fallen quiet slowly. I could sense their keen eyes boring at my back all this time. I couldn't see their countenance, but the girl could see them well as her face was turned towards them. She was trying hard not to look at them.
The silence around us felt unsettling. I could sense tension beginning to crackle in the air.
The girl, too, looked tense. She seemed to be eager to leave the place at once.
“Please don't mind!”
Blabbering out an almost inaudible apology, the girl grabbed my shoulder and putting one foot on the footrest she got on the pillion seat in one swift movement. I couldn't help but appreciate her. The pillion seat of my bike was raised high and it wasn't easy for a girl to get on it so smoothly. Perhaps she was quite accustomed with riding bikes.
But KTM Duke 200 wasn't a bike in which you could give a ride to an aunt sitting in a chair position. Here one had to hold on to the rider if they didn't want to fall off the seat as the bike sped up.
Sensing her embarrassment, I turned my head towards her.
“Hold on to me if you don't want to fall off. I'm going to drive fast.”
She gave me an awkward smile.
“Don't worry! I'll be alright.”
I started the bike and accelerated steadily. I had no intention of causing jerky movements and making the girl lean on my back.
Then I heard a humming sound rising rapidly from behind us. In the rear view mirror I saw three motorbikes speeding up from behind. Two on the right, one on the left. One of the bikes on the right side accelerated more and came by my side. A second one did the same from the left. A few seconds more and they would overtake me.
So they wanted to block the road from both sides and force me to stop!
Gritting my teeth, I pushed the accelerator on my right hand. In a flash my bike wheezed past the one trying to overtake me.
I shouted, but the wind swept away my voice. Nonetheless, I felt the hands of the girl going around my waist and holding me firmly. She, too, had realized what was going on.
For a miniscule second I felt the absence of Bill. If only he was here, I wouldn't have to run like this. Alone, I was no match for these three hooligans.
Fleeing was the best option here.
I weighed my options in my mind. The bikes of my chasers were of high quality. I could tell that from the sound of their engines. The riders were probably experienced as well. I wouldn't be able to outrun them for long.
Our path lay through the deserted streets of the block known as the official district of the city. The skyscrapers here housed almost all the major Government as well as private offices of the city. During the day the streets would buzz with people and vehicles. But after 8 in the evening the offices closed down and the whole block was wrapped in eerie silence.
I couldn't allow our pursuers to take over and stop us in this desolate place.
By this time I had reached the fork in road from where one lane branched out towards my destination and another one went up a flyover. I took the lane up the flyover. It would be a slight detour, but there was a way I could shake these chasers off.
In the middle of this flyover there was a sharp bend. For a motorbiker it was an extremely difficult one to manoeuvre. This was my only chance to gain a good lead over my chasers. I was only worried about the girl riding behind me. If she panicked it would be the death of us two. But I had to take the risk. It had already started to rain and the road was completely deserted. It wouldn't be a pleasant experience if we were to be caught by these men here.
Like a celestial whip lightening cracked upon the sky from horizon to horizon. The bend was approaching fast. As I braced myself the hands embracing me tightened over my body and I felt a soft yet supple body leaning over my back. Two soft mounds pressed into my back and I could feel their heat piercing though my clothes, travelling deeper into my flesh and bones.
I shook off the distracting thought. Still, its lingering warmth stayed with me, as if her form had melted and sipped into me like warm sunshine. All my apprehension regarding her had vanished instantly. Her frame was like one with my own and I could manoeuvre it as I wished.
The sharp turn came in view and I leaned on the handles of the bike a little more. All my senses concentrated on a single point in front of me as my eyes stared unblinkingly at the road ahead.
My bike tilted precariously as it braved the turn. It almost skidded on the wet surface of the road, but somehow I could manage to straighten it up and wheeze towards the slope without slowing down. Our pursuers had already lagged way behind us. The screeching sounds from behind had revealed how frantically they were trying to pull the breaks.
I slowed down as my bike started to climb down the slope. Just then the rain started to fall in large drops. It loosened the knot inside my heart at last. There was no way anyone could chase us in a motorbike in this rain.
I took the detour and at last arrived at Third Block. By this time the downpour had been reduced to a fine drizzle. The so called First Avenue was actually a narrow lane that meandered through rows of four storied buildings on both sides. As I approached the mouth of the lane, suddenly I felt a pressure upon my left shoulder.
Only now I became aware of the girl behind me. She had been nestling against my body all this time, her face buried in my back. Now that her destination had arrived she was signalling me to stop.
Obediently, I pulled up the bike in front of the entrance to the lane. The girl clambered down the pillion and put off her helmet. Then she held it out to me and smiled.
I could only nod in return. My mouth felt so dry that I couldn't utter a word, only stared at her face entangled in a rippling cascade of dark hair and adorned with a chiselled nose and a square jaw. All her features bore such a distinct mark of individuality!
She must have felt awkward, so she nodded again.
“Please take your helmet.”
Her voice broke through my trance. I took the helmet from her and hung it from one handle. Then something stirred inside my chest and without further thought I pulled off my own helmet. The mass of my asymmetrically cut brown hair fell on my shoulder as well.
The girl look startled. Her eyes stared into mine quizzically.
“Thank you again, Mr…?”
The girl laughed.
“You look so...cute! I almost took you for a girl.”
All on a sudden I felt so cold as if all my blood had drained out of my body. Without a word I clammed the helmet down on my head and started my bike. Before she could even utter another word I was already gone from there.
I couldn't take her teasing words. God! Not those words. Not from HER!
Shoving away all thoughts from my mind I focused on returning home as soon as possible.