“No one understands me, that’s why I did it!”

It was the same thing, everybody had the same reason. I didn’t need one more baby-faced teenager telling me that they were misunderstood! Since when was teenage a glorious period for anybody? Did no one ever watch teen dramas anymore? Heck, that’s how we got through our teenage!

My mind was buzzing and I desperately needed a breath of fresh air. I left the brightly lit room leaving four teenagers following my every move.

The air was hot and the day’s heat had not died yet, Hyderabad can be a literal burning hell in summer. I just couldn’t go in though, the cold air-conditioned room and the morose faces of the kids were more depressing than a morgue. No, I preferred to stand out on the balcony and hope for a lucky gust of wind. Time was running out and I just couldn’t catch a break.

“Madam, we found her mobile ping near the Botanical Park in Gachibowli 15 mins ago!” Inspector Pratap Reddy said even as he was gasping for air from running down the length of the balcony. He was accompanied by Naresh our mobile technology expert.

“And you tell me this now? Reddy, we cannot lose control of this case. Every minute is important here. Where was the exact ping? Do we have a backup patrol there on call?”

I knew I was intimidating him; I had not built a reputation as ACP Renuka by being a nice person. You had to ruffle a few feathers and I didn’t mind doing so. I had been directly posted in the Cyber Crime division after my IPS training and had cracked open a few cases. I knew if I wanted to be taken seriously as a woman in the department I had to take the serious, no-frills attitude. It’s not a cliché when movies depict us as serious women, it’s a professional hazard we need to deal with. If I were to laugh and joke with my subordinates I might as well say goodbye to my reputation in a week’s time!

“Yes Madam, we have 3 patrol cars on backup, ready to move on call. The ping has been found near the Lalchand Estate, which is still under construction.”

“Isn’t the Lalchand Estate those 50-floor high rise towers which are coming up?”

“Yes, which is why I think the girl is trying to head to them. We have coordinated with the construction manager on site, they do have security on site but there are a lot of unsecured exits. I have asked them to cover them and have asked another of our patrol team to work with them!”

“Okay good! We will head there in a while, but what about the other number who is constantly in touch with her? We really need to narrow it down, I am sure whoever is behind the operation is coordinating with her”

I checked my watch; it was 03:00 AM. We were working against the clock, if the inevitable happened it was to happen at 04:20 AM and we were about 10 minutes away from the location.

————————————————————

I headed back inside the room, this discussion had to be taken care of. The kids hadn’t eaten the dinner that was offered to them, it lay there in the bright McDonald boxes. The police station has never seen the boxes before; we were certainly improving in our hospitality standards!

There was also the state-appointed psychologist sitting with us, she had been working with us on the case since the beginning. I admired the woman, she was smart and didn’t focus too much on theories and certainly didn’t indulge in generalizations. She got up and motioned towards me to head out with her.

I was back out on the balcony; the contrast between the temperatures was stark. Over time I have learned to distance myself from the cases I solve, as a police officer you can’t show empathy as much as you want to. Sometimes it does clash with my sensibilities as a woman, and this was one of those cases. A young girl of 14 was out there in the dark streets of Hyderabad, vulnerable both physically and mentally. We needed to save her, I needed to save her.

“Renuka, the kids are very silent. They obviously have gone through a lot of trauma and are not saying much. They are not even talking to themselves about it. We are going to have to spend a lot of time in bringing them back to normal!”

I could sense the resignation in Sheetal’s words even as she was trying to come to terms with the case. She had seen her share of violent cases but this was new to her too. She was looking out at the bright city lights glimmering but her eyes were weary. One could say she turned quite a lot of heads; she was a good-looking woman who emanated strength through her actions and words too. But she was defeated here too.

“I know Sheetal, but we are trying to get hold of the other number, to check if it is in the same vicinity! Have the kids mentioned what has been told to them?”

“No, they are not sure what happens. Apparently, they are informed of one task at a time. Aditya who is the oldest at 16 is just starting out it seems, he only has watched horror videos till now. Adarsh already has a YES marked on his calf which means he has agreed to the final task. Nidhi who is 14 has also carved the tattoo on her arm with a blade, it’s quite disturbing and I just can’t find any words for the neglect she faces at home! Rachana, the youngest at 13 has many scars. Being the youngest has saved her from other horrendous acts, considering she couldn’t go out alone from her home!”

“I find this all so disturbing! Sheetal, we are of the same generation; tell me did you go through such terrible times? I find myself blaming the parents for this whole fracas! Of course, I don’t have kids of my own so I don’t truly understand parenting, but reflecting back I don’t think this happened much back then!”

“I know what you mean, but things are changing. Parenting has certainly become hard. We are all victims of technology in our own ways. Although, we don’t have time to surmise on parenting philosophies now do we?” quipped Sheetal.

“Yes, we don’t! Let’s get into action and prevent the worst!”

I checked my watch again; it was 03:15 AM.

————————————————————

I walked back in and decided to confront the kids one last time.

“Guys, do you know who is behind this game? Do you know what happens in the end? Nidhi, please tell us. We need to save Shruti, her parents are out there waiting to meet her! They really miss her you know?”

“Miss her? Then why is she even playing the game? Her parents fight all the time and never even have time to speak to her properly! This is why she is ending her own life.”

I had not expected such a vociferous reply from that timid girl sitting in front of me.

“I agree, Nidhi, her parents made some mistakes. But she is making a mistake now too, everybody is allowed second chances. Just tell us and we all will work towards helping you kids. Please!”

I didn’t remember the last time I pleaded with someone. I was only used to having my orders obeyed and questions answered. If this was parenthood, I am not game!

“Whatever! Anyway, we don’t know what happens!”

That was it. I had to move, there was nothing else for me to do there.  

————————————————————

I rushed down to the lower offices where the central systems were set up and the team was working overboard. I found Reddy bent over staring at a screen with Naresh.

“Reddy, any more updates?”

“Yes, I was just about to call you. We need to move! The other phone is right behind Shruti’s phone and is in the vicinity of Lalchand Estate. We also got the registered details of the phone; it is of one Pratik Shetty. This doesn’t look a mastermind plot because this boy is related to the kids. He graduated from the school and is a senior to these kids. He currently has no job and stays in Banjara Hills.”

“Okay, let’s get going! We don’t whether he is armed or not but we better be prepared. Let’s go!”

We rushed out to our vehicles and I touched my holster on my hip to make sure my revolver was there.

I checked my watch again; it was 03:40 AM.

————————————————————

The roads are no longer empty at nights in this part of the Cyber City anymore! There were office cabs plying sleepy passengers to their homes after a workday of dealing with American clients. The shimmering tall buildings are a world apart from the crowded bylanes of Amberpet where I grew up as a child.

I could hear Pratap constantly coordinating with Naresh and the construction manager at Lalchand. All the entries were cordoned off and unless someone was inside the property there was no way of going in. We reached in through the gates and gazed up at the dark looming enormous building that was soon going to be homes of jet-setting corporate guys. The girl had to be up there, she could be up there and he could too.

I checked my watch again; it was 04:00 AM.  

————————————————————

We took the lift all the way up to the last floor with the construction manager accompanying us and showing the way. The building was out of one of those Bollywood movies where all the action happens. I had to admire the guts of this girl, who was for some reason forced to take this step.

We almost ran out to the terrace. I stopped to check my watch; it was 04:14 AM.

Standing on the edge, waiting to take her final step is what I was expecting I would see. But instead, she sat there near the parapet, curled up on her knees sobbing while he stood there towering over her, making her feel worthless.

“Back off Pratik! You are surrounded by the Police!” I screamed as I ran to scoop her up and pull her far away from harm.

I checked my watch again, for the last time that night; it was 04:19 AM.

————————————————————

We were back again to the cold air-conditioned room, this time there was a dishevelled young man in front of me, Pratik Shetty. I had many questions as usual, why did he do it, why did he create this bizarre suicide game, why did he harm his own juniors?

Instead, I just asked him, “Why?”

He looked up to me and said, “Because they were stupid!” He could see the incredulous look on my face and he went on to speak.

“Those kids are stupid, they are a biological waste. I was cleaning our society of such people. All these nasty kids complaining about depression and neglect. Take that, bitches! You deserve to die!”

————————————————————

The headlines read the next day, “Hyderabad Cyber Crime Police solves the Suicide Game Challenge”. Police prevented the suicide of a young girl from jumping off Lalchand Estate yesterday night. They have arrested Pratik Shetty, 21, who has been identified as the creator of the game. He is unemployed and is suspected to suffer from mental problems. A computing genius, he started the game and spread it in his old school group where he got access to these young children who fell victim to his game. The investigation is going on about the extent of this game and victims are coming out with stories. There is a wide public debate about mental health too.

*****

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