Neither the sub-zero temperature nor the stiff freezing breeze carrying the needle-sharp snowflakes deterred the search party from trudging through the ankle-deep snow. The thickly padded winter uniforms, the hooded parkas, the woollen ski masks, the gloves and the snow boots were fighting a desperate battle to keep out the cold that was penetrating the protective layers and reaching the bone marrow. The near-barren tall trees of the woods were proving to be stingy insofar as allowing the winter moonlight in its attempt to reach the ground below. Notwithstanding the acute physical discomfort, the search party indefatigably persevered with the task.
It was a long, cold, windy and desolate night in Sterling, Virginia.
Pamela Allen went to college two days earlier and did not return home. The Sheriff's department registered a missing person report. After the mandatory twenty-four hour wait, the search party got into the act.
'Pam is like a daughter to me and my wife, Rose. Search every nook and corner. Bill and Paula, question her college friends. When was she seen last? What were her movements that day?' Sheriff Wayne Atkins paused and barked. 'What are you waiting for...New Year? ... Move your asses.'
The twelve-strong search party got into the act immediately.
The sharp barking of the German shepherd broke the eerie silence of the cold winter night.
A shout. "Chief, over here."
Snow crunching under rushing feet.
A sharp exclamation. "Oh, my God!"
A pregnant pause.
A terse order. "Call the Allens."
Pamela Allen, Jack Anderson, Robert Scott and Katherine Cook were sipping Coke in the cafeteria. It was 04.30 P.M.
'Here's the lover boy,' Robert announced.
'Hi, devils.' Sandeep kissed Pamela softly on the lips and dropped into a chair. Pamela offered him her Coke. He took a swig form it. The five friends were doing Communication Design in Northern Virginia Community College, Loudoun Campus.
'Pam, you look serious. Is anything the matter?'
'The matter is us, Sandy; had an argument with dad last night.'
Sandeep looked worried.
Jack intervened. 'Your dad is right, you know. After all, Sandy is an Indian.'
'Jack, mind your tongue,' Sandy warned. An argument ensued.
'You know what, Jack, you're a complete jerk. Come, Sandy, let's go.'
'Usual place, lovebirds, woods near Hardwood Forest Drive? ' Jack mocked.
'Fuck you, Jack. Ignore him, Sandy.'
'Any food-poisoning cases at dad's restaurant, Sandy?' Jack kept mocking.
Angered, Sandeep held Jack by the jacket collar. Jack held Sandeep's wrist and wriggled free. Pamela dragged Sandeep to his bike in the parking lot.
The time was 04.45 P.M.
Ten minutes later...
'Where are you going, Jack?'
'Urgent work, Bob. Mom asked me to draw money from ATM. Ciao.'
It was not the freezing cold that made Deborah's hand shiver while she placed the receiver on its cradle and missed. The Panasonic cordless slipped and fell to the carpet on the floor.
Brian stopped wringing his wrist and asked. "Who was it, Debbie?"
"That was Wayne." Deborah's voice was an inaudible whisper. "They found her."
Jack stealthily skirted the tree line and entered the woods. He halted at a short distance from Pamela and Sandeep. They were sitting on a wooden bench near a narrow footpath. He could faintly hear their voices.
'Brrr...It's cold, Sandy,' Pam said.
'Now?' Sandy hugged her.
She snuggled deeper in his embrace.
'Hmmm...Still cold.' She giggled.
He hugged her more tightly and planted a kiss on her lips.
'Hmmm...Better now. Can time stand still, Sandy?'
'What? Now? Our asses will freeze. Wait till spring.'
Their long conversation in whispers was intermitted by hugs and kisses.
On a nod from Sheriff Atkins, the paramedic at the morgue slowly lifted the bed sheet and displayed the body on the gurney.
"Aaah..." Deborah gasped loudly. She leaned against Brian and wailed.
Sheriff Atkins looked at Brian inquiringly. A choked Brian nodded and blurted, "Yes...it's...it's Pam..." He rushed out of the room, found a sink and threw up.
Sandeep entered the drawing room. 'Ahem...You wanted to see me, Sheriff?'
'Sandeep Rao, right? Do you know that Pamela is missing since two days?'
'Yes, the same night her mother called asking if I knew her whereabouts.'
'When did you see her last?'
'Hmmm...I met my friends in the cafeteria that evening. Pam was there, too. We spent some time. Then she and I left, around 4:45.'
'Where did you go from there?'
Sandeep fidgeted a little. 'Woods near Miranda Falls Square on Hardwood Forest Drive.'
'Is it where you two usually go?'
After a few moments' silence he replied, 'Yes, sir.'
'What happened next?'
'We talked for a while and then I left as I had to go to our restaurant.'
'At what time would that be?'
'Did she leave, too?'
'I thought I heard someone. I didn't want any trouble. She lives nearby. She wanted to stay a little longer.'
'That was the last you saw of her?'
'What happened to your wrist?' There was a tape wrapped around Sandeep's right wrist.
'Oh, this? I sprained it. Jack kind of twisted it.'
'OK. Call me if you remember anything or if you hear from Pamela.'
"The autopsy report has come in, Chief."
Deputy William Moore handed a thin file to Sheriff Atkins who flipped through the report, tossed it to the Deputy and sat back in his swivelling chair thoughtfully. Deputy Moore browsed through the report.
"Time of death, between 04.00 P.M. and 10.00 P.M. Cause of Death (C.O.D.) is blunt force trauma to the left temporal region of the skull; with some flat object. Light external lacerations; heavy internal bleeding; damage to temporal region of skull. Her neck broke, too. Poor girl must have been hit with brutal force."
"Yeah, Bill, read on."
"That's interesting, Chief."
"Yeah, isn't it?" He paused. "Let me inform the Allens."
'Come in, Wayne.' Deborah invited the Sheriff inside.
'Is Brian home?' Sheriff Atkins asked.
'Gone to get groceries and medicines. He'll be back soon. Can I help you?'
'I just wanted to ask about Pam, her friends and her movements that day.'
'Jack, Bob, Kathy and Sandy are her classmates. They come home sometimes. That day, she went to college as usual. I saw her in the kitchen. She gulped a glassful of milk and ran out with a sandwich in hand.' She sniffled for a few moments. 'I didn't see her again. She didn't return home. Oh, God! Wayne. Where could she be?' She leaned against his shoulder and cried her heart out.
'Now...Debbie, get a hold of yourself. We're looking for her. We'll find her.'
Brian and Deborah looked at Sheriff Atkins anxiously.
"There's no doubt she was murdered; a blow to the left side of her head; skull fractured, causing internal haemorrhage. Her neck broke, poor girl."
"Oh, God! My poor child...Pam...Pam..." Deborah broke down.
Brian shook his head in anguish.
"Was she...was she..." Deborah's question was lost amidst hiccups.
"No, Debbie, no evidence of rape or molestation. In fact, she was a virgin."
Briand looked sharply at Sheriff Atkins with tear-filled eyes.
"We will find the killer," Sheriff Atkins said and walked to his car.
Near his car, he turned and looked behind. He found Brian clinging to Deborah and weeping like a child, while she was rubbing his back in an attempt to console him. He shook his head sadly and got into the car.
"I've already given all details to your Deputies, sir."
Sandeep looked haggard and tired. Sheriff Atkins gave him a couldn't-care-less look. He noisily dragged a chair and sat opposite him. Sandeep looked up sharply. His eyes were red and tear-filled.
"So? Let's do it again. It ain't a shoplifting. We're investigating a homicide here. Come on," the Sheriff said snappily. "When did you see her last?"
"Around six o'clock."
"Your movements after you left the woods?"
"Went straight to our restaurant in Ashburn; stayed there till we shut down for the night at 10.00 P.M."
"Someone can vouch for it? Of course, your father would, wouldn't he?" Sheriff Atkins said sarcastically.
The glass door of the interrogation room rattled.
"What's that supposed to mean, Sheriff?" Rama Rao closed the door and stood beside his son.
"Nothing, Mr. Rao, just confirming his alibi."
"He came in around 06.30 P.M. and was with me till we shut down."
"Will there be anything else, Sheriff?"
"That's all, for the time being, Mr. Rao." He paused. "Oh! Don't leave the town without my permission."
Sandeep stopped near the door.
"Sheriff, I remembered something. In the woods...Pam and I were chatting...we heard the crunch of snow...like someone was there."
"Who was it?"
"We couldn't see. That's another reason why I left."
"Mighty nice of you for coming in, Brian. I visited your home the other day. Debbie said you went to get some medicines. Are you OK?"
"I'm OK; just some pain in the wrist. Thanks for asking."
"How're you and Debbie holding?"
Brian gave a wry smile. "How would you expect us to be, Wayne?"
"I understand. Pam was like a daughter to us; filled our childless lives with lovable prattle; barged in when it pleased her; she had the right, you know." Sheriff sighed deeply and continued. "Brian, don't take me otherwise; it's routine, you see. Your movements on that day?"
"Hmmm...Nothing much, Wayne. Left just before 08.00 A.M.; reached office in Tysons Corner after 08.45 A.M. Left office just before 06.00 P.M. and reached home after 07.00 P.M. That's it."
"Thanks, Brian. Call me if you remember anything. Say 'hi' to Debbie."
"You didn't tell the whole truth," Sheriff Atkins said authoritatively. "You didn't go to the ATM from the cafeteria that evening, correct? You left the cafeteria ten minutes after Pam and Sandy left, but you withdrew cash from the ATM only around seven o' clock."
Jack fell silent for a couple of minutes.
"You're right, Sheriff. I didn't go to the ATM straight away."
"Where did you go? Lemme guess. You followed Pam and Sandy, right?"
Jack gaped. "Yyyy...yes."
"Come clean, young man. Otherwise, you'll be in trouble."
"I gave them a ten-minute head start and followed them. I knew where they were going. It was only three to four miles away, you see. I parked my bike in the Community Centre's parking lot near Miranda Falls Square. I walked towards the woods beyond the tennis and basket ball courts."
"What time would that be?"
"A little after five."
"I skirted the trees before entering the woods. I stopped at a distance from them and watched silently. They talked for a while and...it's awkward...huh...they hugged and kissed. After sometime, I left."
"Did you hear any sound?"
"Footsteps...crunch of snow under boots... breaking of a twig..."
"I thought I heard something; maybe the shuffling of Sandy and Pam. I am not sure. Look, it was very cold. I had my cap covering my ears."
"You loved her and were jealous. You three often argued bitterly."
"Yes, I loved her and was jealous. What are you driving at, Sheriff?"
"Did you happen to go back, start an argument with Pam and hit her?"
"Are you accusing me, Sheriff?"
"Just exploring possibilities. Hmmm...OK, Jack, you may go."
"I'll have mine without sugar, Debbie. How're you, Brian?"
"What's going on, Wayne? Haven't you caught the murderer yet?"
"We are investigating, Brian."
"It was the Indian boy who saw Pam last, wasn't it?"
"It's an ongoing investigation. I can't reveal details."
"Why haven't you arrested him? Why is he roaming free?" Brian shouted.
Deborah returned with coffee and cookies.
"What's the matter, Brian? Sheriff's department is doing its job."
"Pam was with Sandy in the woods. He was the last person to see her alive."
"Here's your coffee, Wayne. What are you doing with those drawers, Brian? Come and have your coffee."
"Looking for my bracelet. OK, give me my coffee."
"Will you have cookies, Wayne?"
"Yeah, thanks, Debbie." Sheriff Atkins slurped a mouthful of coffee.
"We got a new lead. We're looking into it. We'll catch the killer soon."
"As I see it, there are three possibilities," Sheriff Atkins spoke after being lost in thought for a long time. Paula and Bill drank their coffee in silence.
"All evidence points to Sandy. He and Pam were in the woods for an hour. They were in love. There is tension because of it. Did her parents know? How did he sprain his hand? Was it when he hit her? Remember, a hefty blow killed Pam. The sound of footsteps may be a decoy, to divert attention from him or he might have heard Jack shuffling around. Jack wasn't sure if he heard any sound. If it is Sandy what is the motive?
"I won't rule out Jack. He's also in love with Pam. The jealousy angle is evident. He was snooping on them. There was bad blood among the three. He tried to hide the fact from us. He also lied about the timing of his visit to the ATM. He wasn't sure of hearing any footsteps. He says he left but could have gone back, had an argument with Pam and killed her. Jealousy is the motive in Jack's case.
"The third is the mysterious unknown person whose footsteps Sandy says he heard. Is he telling the truth or is he creating an alibi for himself? Was it a man or a well-built woman? Pam was neither raped nor molested. Then what is the motive?
"Question everyone connected once again. I want info quickly. Already negative reports have started appearing in the press. Got it?"
"Sheriff Atkins...Sheriff Atkins ... Why hasn't any arrest been made yet? ... Why is the department dragging its feet? ... An Indian boy is said to be involved ... Is it true that he is the last person to see Pamela Allen alive? ... Will he be arrested? ... It is rumoured that politics are involved ..."
The reporters raised an unbearable din. Sheriff Atkins cleared his throat.
"Whoa...whoa...Hold your horses. I can't divulge information or the status of an ongoing investigation. We're in pursuit of certain leads. We hope to reach a definite conclusion very soon. That's all, ladies and gentlemen."
"Spoken like a true politician, Wayne ... Running for Guv'nor, Wayne? ..."
"...through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, on God, now and forever. Amen." The priest concluded the burial services of Pamela Allen.
"Amen," the congregation echoed.
People started departing after speaking a few words of condolence. Brian looked sad and Deborah repeatedly wiped her eyes with a handkerchief.
"We are very sorry for your loss. Please accept our condolences."
Brian looked up. Sandeep was standing in front along with his parents. An uncontrollable rage overtook Brian. He held Sandeep by the collar, shook him violently and shouted, "You son of a bitch. My daughter died because of you. If it weren't for you, she'd be alive now. You bastard, I'll kill you..."
Wayne Atkins and some other mourners separated them and pinned Brian down on a chair.
"Stop it, Brian," Deborah hissed from underneath the black hat.
Brian collapsed in the chair like a broken rag doll and wept uncontrollably. Sandeep shook his head sorrily and slowly walked away.
Sheriff Atkins referred to his notes repeatedly and was lost in thought for a while. Finally, he spoke to his Deputies.
"Pam and Sandy went to the woods. He left. She stayed back. Jack was there, too, and then, the mysterious person. Later, we found her body there. She wasn't raped or molested but a brutal blow killed her. I say it was committed on impulse, rage. Goddammit, something is missing; damn the snow. Search the woods again immediately. I have a hunch we'll find our answers there."
"Yes, Chief." The two Deputies dashed out of the chamber.
The search party was once again busy. This time they were combing the crime scene with the proverbial fine-tooth comb. This time they were looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack. This time the evidence they were searching for was nowhere near the size of a teenage girl.
The sub-zero temperature did not make their task easy. Luckily, some of the snow had melted, leaving about an inch-deep snow cover. What made their task difficult was the sleet formed by the freezing of the melted snow. The ground became dangerously slippery, but the search party trudged on gamely and untiringly, searching every square inch, literally.
The search went on for several hours.
A worker, who was covering the area bounded by the tape with the inscription 'CRIME SCENE DO NOT CROSS', called out loudly.
"Officer, over here."
Bill and Paula rushed to the spot. The worker was pointing to something on the ground under the thin crust of ice. Bill and Paula looked at each other. The evidence was photographed and sealed in an evidence-envelope.
The words were echoing in Sheriff's ears.
'Oh, this? I sprained it. Jack kind of twisted it.'
'Yes, I loved her and was jealous.'
'My daughter died because of you. If it weren't for you she'd be alive now.'
'It was the Indian boy who saw Pam last, wasn't it?'
'Oh! It is nothing; just some pain in the wrist.'
'Looking for my bracelet.'
The answers that stared Sheriff Atkins in the face stunned him.
Deputies Paula McGill and William Moore entered Sheriff's chamber and handed him the evidence envelope. Sheriff Atkins looked at it and was lost in thought.
"Chief, we have made inquiries again in the college, among neighbours of Allens', in Brian Allen's office. This is what we got..."
For over fifteen minutes the Deputies spoke, in turns, referring to their pocket books frequently. Sheriff Atkins listened to them attentively asking for clarification on some points. Finally, he gave detailed instructions to Deputy Moore.
"Bill, we've got to get an arrest warrant. See to it and meet me there."
"OK, Chief." Deputy Moore rushed out of the office.
It was about five o' clock in the evening. Sheriff Atkins, Deputy McGill, Brian and Deborah were sitting in the drawing room.
"Any progress, Wayne?" There was an undercurrent of despondency in Deborah's voice.
"There is, Debbie, there is. I need some clarifications, though."
"Oh God, Wayne! You're still seeking clarifications instead of arresting that Sandy scum!"
"Arrests are made on evidence, Brian, not on anybody's whims or fancies."
"Cut it out, Brian." Deborah intervened.
"Debbie, are you guys aware that Pamela was in love with Sandy?"
Both Deborah and Brian were surprised by the sudden question. Deborah debated within herself for a few minutes.
"Yes, we are aware, Wayne." Her voice was soft and almost inaudible.
Brian sat with his head hung onto his chest.
"Go on, Debbie."
"They are both eighteen. It's their life. There's nothing we could do. I felt the boy was good, responsible. He adored the ground on which Pam walked. I was sure he'd take good care of our daughter..."
"For God's sake, Debbie, he is an Indian. How can you...?"
"So, what, Brian? I wanted her to be happy. Any guarantee that she'd be happy if she were to love an American or a European?"
Brian growled. "The bastard hypnotised my Pam with his Indian tricks. When will you arrest him, Wayne?"
"Brian, I have a couple of questions for you."
"I don't believe you!" Brian growled.
"At the funeral you said to Sandy, 'My daughter died because of you. If it weren't for you, she'd be alive now.' You did not accuse him of killing her. Why?
"You asked me, 'It was the Indian boy who saw Pam last, wasn't it?' We did not reveal it to anyone! How did you know?
"You told me that you sprained your wrist. Even Debbie doesn't know how. How did you sprain it?
"You said you lost your bracelet. Again, Debbie doesn't know about it. When, where and how did you lose it?"
Throughout the questioning, Brian was silent.
"At what time did you leave your office on the day Pam went missing?"
"I've already told you, 06.00 P.M. Reached home around 07.00 P.M."
"Are you sure?"
"What do you mean?"
"Wayne, what's happening?" Deborah was perplexed.
"Debbie, he left the office at about 05.00 P.M. ..."
"That's a lie..." Brian interrupted.
"We've checked with your management. You left around 05.00 P.M."
"Is it true, Brian?" Deborah sounded worried.
"I might have. I forgot. I had some work. So what? Is it a crime?"
"No, it is not." The Sheriff paused. "What work did you have?"
"I...I don't remember."
"Shall I refresh your memory? You went to Pam's college and inquired; snooped would be appropriate. Her friends told that she had already left with Sandy to the woods. You must have been livid, seeing them together."
"Is this true, Brian?"
"It is all a lie, Debbie. This fellow is giving in to politics."
"Is that so? Tell me what's wrong with your wrist. You've been wringing it. Debbie said you went to get medicines for it."
"I sprained it."
"In the office, when I moved something heavy. I don't remember."
"And where is your bracelet, Brian? I don't see it around your wrist."
"I lost it."
"Brian..." Deborah tried to intervene.
"One moment, Debbie." Sheriff Atkins sternly interrupted her.
"Brian, do you recognise this?" Sheriff Atkins dramatically produced an evidence-envelope inside which was a golden bracelet.
Brian's jaw dropped an inch.
"Seen a ghost, Brian?"
Deborah gasped. "That's Brian's; see the monogram 'BA'? An anniversary gift from me. Where did you find it, Wayne?"
Sheriff Atkins looked at Brian scornfully. Brian did not speak. He kept looking at his feet. Deborah saw tears drop onto the carpet.
"At the spot where Pam's body was found."
Deborah was dumbfounded. Brian fell onto the carpet weeping uncontrollably.
"Sorry, Debbie," Sheriff Wayne said, pointing to Brian, "there is the murderer of your daughter Pamela."
Deborah started shivering from head to toe like a person suffering from ague. She stood face to face with her husband, held the lapel of his waist jacket and violently shook him.
"You son of a bitch. Why did you kill my daughter? Why?" She screamed.
"In the woods he found Pam and Sandy hugging and kissing. Brian must have made some sound. Sensing someone was watching, Sandeep left. Pam stayed back. Brian confronted her. An argument ensued. Brian flew into a rage and hit Pam. Poor Pam couldn't withstand the blow. She must have died instantly. He lost his bracelet there." Sheriff Atkins paused. "Is it an accurate account, Brian?"
"Oh, Lord Jesus! I didn't mean to...I would never hurt Pam...I saw them...I was angry...Waited till he left...We argued...I don't know what got into me...I hit her...I didn't mean to...I swear...She collapsed...lifeless...I panicked..." Brian cried uncontrollably.
Deborah slapped him repeatedly until his lips split and blood trickled down his chin.
"You are a blot on this peaceful and fun-loving community, Brian. Several Asians live here in harmony with the locals, and you...you, son of a bitch..." Sheriff Atkins shouted, "Bill, arrest him. Read him his rights and take him out of my face. I'm ready to puke," and stormed out of the house.
Sandeep and his friends entered the house as Deputy Moore was whisking away Brian Allen. Sandeep stopped in front of Brian.
"Why Mr. Allen? I loved her more than anything else in the world."
For a moment, Brian attempted to say something. Then his eyes dropped.
"Come on, Mr. Allen," Bill pushed him into the rear seat of the patrol car.
As Deputy William was reversing the car, Brian looked into his house for a brief moment. Deborah was silently weeping over the shoulder of Sandeep who was softly patting her back in an attempt to console her ravaged soul. The patrol car sped away from the residence of the Allens.
PROLOGUE AS EPILOGUE
'Heard India is a beautiful country.' She lay on the grass, her head in his lap.
'Very...' He was playing with her shoulder-length blonde hair.
'When shall we go there?'
'Soon after we complete our studies.'
'What about jobs? How will we live?'
'I have an offer from my friend in his web-designing company.'
'Once I settle in it, we shall look for a job for you, too, honey.'
'Where will we live in India?'
'Is it expensive? Can we live comfortably?'
'What does it matter? We have each other. That's enough.'
'True. We can weather any situation, can't we, Sandy?'
'Of course, we can and we will, Pam.'
'Oh! I love you so much, Sandy. Do you love me?'
'You see that boundless blue sky?'
'Yes, I do.'
'It won't be able hold all my love for you, Pam.'
'I pray to God that this dream never ends, Sandy.'
'It will come true, Pam, and it will never end. I promise.'
... Shaym Sundar Bulusu
All the characters and situations portrayed in this story are fictitious. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. However, Hardwood Forest Drive, Miranda Falls Square, Sterling, Ashburn, Virginia are real.
Miranda Falls Square is a quiet and peaceful community in Sterling, where people of various nationalities live harmoniously amidst the locals. The crime index for Sterling stands at 57% (100% is safest) and the crime-rates are less than those of the state of Virginia are.
The present story is set in the serene sylvan background of this community and the nearby woods. A blend of love, romance, crime, suspicion and drama makes beautiful setting for a thriller, doesn't it?
For further information about Sterling, please follow the links below: