Book Extract : The Soul Catcher A Novel By Monica Bhide

When the waters turned dark, years ago, the locals began to stay away. The dark waters attracted the sad, the depressed, the unworthy, the unwanted. People would suddenly disappear and, within a few days, their bodies would be found floating in the muddy, black, baoli waters. Incredibly, the corpses always looked peaceful, an eerie smile etched on their faces. The elders forbade children from going to the step-well for any reason. Once a vibrant pool of life-giving water, the well turned macabre.

Over the years, the waters receded and the baoli became just another stop on “The Most Haunted Places of Shahajahanabad” tours. While tour operators joked about all the other haunted sites in Shahajahanabad, this site always came with a disclaimer: “Don’t go down the stairs. We will not come down and look for you.”

A year or so ago, much to the horror of the locals, the stench of dead bodies returned to the baoli, prompting much speculation.
“There is a smell, but at least there are no bodies,” one of the locals complained to the police. After a few dozen calls came in, the police investigated but found nothing.

“The old walls are telling tales, but we don’t know how to listen yet,” one of the senior officers remarked during a press conference, then announced they were padlocking the main entrance so no one would wander in by mistake and be hurt.

Rishi, of course, had been informed of that, and was instructed to use a hidden entrance on the opposite side of the baoli. The entrance was behind an old palm reader’s shop. As they had walked by the store, the sign had made Rishi stop: DEFEAT KARMA. DESIGN YOUR DESTINY. It brought back memories of his first love. Now he shook it off. That was a long time ago. No time for those memories. Some events are best forgotten.

“One hundred and three. We are here. Mama, I counted one hundred and three steps.” The three of them now stand at the bottom of the well. The only light is from the fading sun above. “Rishi, I smell jasmine—” Sehar whispers. “How is it that this place smells like death at the top of the stairs and life at the bottom?”

“I’m scared, Mama, I don’t want to be here.” Amya suddenly clutches her mother’s leg as she notices dark stains on the ground. Rishi carefully moves forward towards the wall. He uses the light from his phone to see if he can locate an electronic keypad he’s been told is there.

He struggles to find it as he randomly pushes on the small stones. “This was a bad idea. I told you. We need to leave now, Rishi. Stop this madness now,” Sehar says, looking at the stairs. Rishi could barely make the journey down, and Sehar worries how he will make it back up.
“Please. Just give me a moment. There is supposed to be a keypad here,” he says, and moves the flashlight slowly as he searches for the elusive keypad.

“There—there it is, look at the bottom. Papa, I see it, there it is,” Amya squeals with excitement, the fear of the darkness forgotten again as quickly as it appeared.

“Can I please punch in the numbers? I want to, can I? Please, Papa, can I?” Amya is stubborn and insistent. Rishi relents.
“Okay, but you have to do it slowly. Punch in the number I tell you and then stop. Okay?” She nods. 2-3-8-5-3-2.

The numbers are punched in. Rishi checks to make sure the code is correct. He then tells her to push the “enter” button. Nothing happens.
Rishi hits the button again. Nothing.

“Papa, maybe you should say, ‘Open Sesame?’” Amya whispers, recalling her favorite tale, “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.”
“Rishi, we need to leave now. This is a sign from the Universe. Come on, please, stop this madness,” Sehar says, placing one hand on her thumping chest.

(Carried with due permission from Publisher and the author)

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