He remembered that they had breakfasted together at the cafe. But they had sat in an isolated corner of the ill-kept garden. Mehr Jan had gone inside the kitchen and then personally carried out the dishes of kidney and fresh bread. Nobody in this place had seen him, or knew his name, or the place he was staying. The hotel people had omitted to ask for his home address when he signed in. It was a reassuring thought. No one knew anything about his permanent residence, even if by some wild chance they connected him with the killing. In any case there was no such thing as an efficient police system here, and it was highly unlikely a check would be made at each single hotel.
More likely, they would think on the lines of a tribal vendetta.
He would leave the jeep here, make his way back to the hotel by bus or rickshaw, and in the morning leave as if nothing had happened. He had informed the hotel management he was staying for only a couple of days. There was no reason at all for anyone connecting him with the killing.
If they found the body smashed in a deep valley they would presume he had somehow slipped and fallen there, probably with the gun in his hand, while hunting. He had been told (by Mehr Jan himself) that there were wild animals there. They would probably gnaw at the body, so that identification would take even longer.
He turned round to look at the body. The boy looked so peaceful, so trusting. Could he really throw him to wild beasts to devour? Oh, Mehr, my friend, how can I do that to you?
He knew of the traditions of the family. Mehr would have given his own life for a guest.
You were the only surviving son. Now they have none. Your cousin has had her second fiancé snatched away. And the sweet girl in blue. She will keep looking around for you, and wonder where you have gone. For how long will she keep putting off the proposals her mother must be telling her of?
He turned again to the dead body. He noticed now that the eyes were not totally closed. He got down on the ground to peep under the long eyelashes. Are you looking at me, Mehru?
No, Mehru, I am not going to leave you here, as I know you would never have left me. I shall deliver your body to your unfortunate parents. You shall get decent burial, and a grave to mark your resting place. And I – I shall get the punishment for my deed.
Whether it was deliberate or not, the fact is I ended a promising young life, and robbed a family of their hopes and future. I must take my retribution.
He got up and went to the jeep, and maneuvered it as close to the spot as he could. Then he returned to the still body, and placing his hands under the narrow shoulders pulled him as gently as he could to the vehicle. It was difficult, but not impossible to lift him and lay him on the back seat. He was surprised to find a coarse blanket and a much-used pillow there, probably belonging to the owner, who perhaps went out at night sometimes. With the coarse blanket he covered the body, and the greasy pillow he wedged under its side to prevent its slipping down. Then he set off.
He slowed down near a man walking along the side of the road, and mentioned Mehr Jan's father to him. The man recognized the name instantly, and indicated to him the rough direction in which he was to go.
The sun had begun to decline. He drove in between the sentinel-like black hills, sunk in gloom.
What should he tell them? What would they do to him? Shooting would be too simple a death, that would not let them savour the sweetness of revenge. Perhaps the law here might be to stone to death a man who had taken the life of the heir to the chief of the tribe.
Perhaps they would entomb him for the rest of his life in an underground cell.
He felt his shirt sticking to his sweating back. It needed great effort to keep his hands under control.
He seemed to have lost the capability to comprehend the meaning of the thoughts that were passing through his mind. His understanding was refusing to work. With a bitter smile he recalled Mehr Jan's words: "Whatever is fated to be, will be."
He jammed his foot hard against the brakes as suddenly he found his way blocked by a swarm of gunmen, shouting, exclaiming. He took out and gave to them Meher Jan's neatly-penned note, which they carried to someone who seemed to be their leader (probably the only one among them who could read). Immediately he gesticulated to the men to move aside, and greeting Younis with the utmost respect, he clambered into the seat next to him, and started guiding him.
He did not glance at the back seat.
An hour later, they ran into a similar roadblock. His companion got down and talked to the men there. Another person came to replace his guide, but this time he signaled to Younis to take the side seat while he himself took over the wheel. The change was obviously necessary, as it was totally dark by now, and the way wound in and out of the hills.
Sometimes Younis' thoughts wandered over his past life, sometimes his mind went blank.
It was so unreal, this nighttime ride, the voluntary journey to death, undoubtedly a painful death.
Nothing was to be seen of the scenery outside. By the light of the dashboard he could make out the driver's strong fingers firmly laid on the felt strip wound round the wheel. A large green stone glinted on his little finger.
Could he escape even now? He could jump out of the vehicle at the next bend. But they would make it a point to search for him, and they knew the terrain much better than he. Should he say he wanted to stretch himself out on the back seat, and then quietly, in the darkness, roll the body out of the jeep, and sever all connection with it?
Had I wanted that, I wouldn't be here now. I have killed a man. I cannot live the rest of my life with this guilt in my heart. I made a resolve and took a decision, and I must be man enough to go through with it. My father is a man of inflexible integrity. He has instilled into me the necessity to be courageous and dignified under all circumstances.
"God help me," he prayed. "O' God give me strength to carry out my resolve. O' God give patience to my family."
Dawn was breaking as they entered into what seemed to be a village or some sort of communal settlement. By some means, he found, his approach was expected by the residents, a group of whom came out hospitably to welcome him. He was shown into a large tent, probably the chief's.
His host was praying, but as soon as he had finished, he came up with outstretched arms to Younis, and embraced him.
"I have heard from my men you are a friend of my Mehr Jan." He could talk in Younis' tongue. "You are as welcome as my own son. What news do you bring us of him? Is he doing well at the university? You would be able to tell."
"I have bad news for you."
Younis' voice was so weak that the other could not catch his words, and he had to repeat himself. "Very bad news."
"Mehr Jan is dead."
The father seemed to sway backwards with the words, and the colour drained from his lined face.
"How?" Unspeakable anguish compressed itself the single word. He asked: "An accident on his motorbike?"
"He died of a bullet shot." Then, even as the father's hand went involuntarily to his pistol, he stated in a clear voice: "I fired the bullet,"
The old man looked at him, then abruptly got up and went out of the room. The next moment a woman's agonized scream rose into the dawn air, followed by other feminine screams. After that there was silence. Even the women had training in endurance, not to give cowardly expression to grief.
Mehr Jan had recounted how on getting the news of his eldest son's death, the father had asked, "Did he meet his end like a Muslim?" And when he had learned that it was so, he had lifted up his hands and thanked God for the glory of his death.
But Mehr Jan had not given his life for any cause. He had been killed by an individual. And the killer was right here.
To be continued......