“Do you believe in Mermaids?”
 
The random question startled Ayan. Everything about this locality, marked as Area 153, is appearing weird to him. The place, its people, all.  Since his arrival yesterday, odd things are happening. First the cab driver, who was petrified to enter the locality. Even after much coaxing and cajoling, he just refused to enter the boundary of Area 153. And he wouldn’t even give a satisfactory reason for his inhibition. The only thing the distressed couple, Ayan and his wife Paramita, could make out was that this area was cursed. Finally, they had to carry their heavy luggage themselves for almost one kilometre to reach their new home.
 
After his business failed, Ayan was kind of forced to take up a new job away from his hometown. And with his tight budget, he was unable to get any other accommodation in the new town. This house, which he zeroed down finally, was a beautiful archaic building only a few minutes away from the rocky sea beach. But, the rent was unreasonably cheap, considering its size and location. Ayan grabbed the offer immediately.
 
But, now he is having a second thought about his decision. Maybe a little more research about the locality was required. The neighbourhood gave an eerie feeling of a deserted hamlet. Most of the houses were empty. The shops were all locked up. As if some calamity has eradicated the existence of humanity from this location. Even the local restaurant refused to deliver food in this area last night. The dry foods packed for the journey came to the rescue ultimately. So the first duty in the morning was to buy some bread. And thus Ayan was now standing at the nearest grocery shop, someone kilometre away from his house, buying bread. The store owner, who introduced himself as Abdul was a friendly man. So Ayan decided to inquire about this area. Just then a complete stranger interrupted him with the crazy question, “Do you believe in mermaid?”
 
Weirdo, Ayan thought to himself.  But, he did not want to be rude to a neighbour on the first day of his stay. So he flashed a warm smile and said, “Ariel was my favourite Disney character. But, never encountered a real one.”
 
The man burst into a hysterical laughter. Then shaking his head vehemently said, “This Disney is the master of misrepresentation. It created so many false notions about so many things. Good Monsters, helpful fairies, friendly mermaid…”
 
And then suddenly his expression changed. As if sharing a great secret he whispered, “Mermaids are very dangerous creatures. They can rip your heart apart. If your luck runs out, you may soon encounter the real one.”
 
Ayan now noticed carefully. The middle-aged man was well dressed, with a stylish beard and hair dyed golden. Apparently not looking like a mentally ill person. On a closer look, Ayan could even spot a stethoscope peeping from his unzipped bag. So this person is a doctor and speaking such gibberish!
 
The man paused for a moment and then in a grave tone said, “ I can see it on your face that you do not believe me. In your mind, the bubbly image of a mermaid similar to Arial predominates. But, trust me being a doctor, a student of science, it was difficult for me also to fathom this deadly fact. This is the reality of Area 153. For your own safety move away from the beach as far as possible.”
 
With these words, he left hurriedly. Stunned with this fishy warning,  Ayan turned to the shop owner for some clue. But, he himself looked shaken.
 
“I would suggest you should not ignore Dr Sahil’s warning. He is the wisest fellow around.”
 
Then he started narrating the recent incidents in and around the beach of Area 153 which have defamed the area so much.
 
“Our family has been running this small business here for decades. This place is the only home I have ever known. Like all children of the locality, we also grew up listening to the story of the rocky beach.  As the legend goes, the beach of Area 153 was gifted to the mermaids by a God and after sunset, the humans are forbidden to visit that place. Usually, the mermaids who are extremely beautiful creatures with the body of a female human and the tail of a fish do not harm the humans. But, if one crosses their territory, they turn ferocious and the result is fatal. Years ago a guy tried to build a beach house over there but his mutilated body was found the very next day he started living there. Since that day the building has earned the fame of being haunted and everybody was cautious as not to break the protocol. That was until six months ago when a guard broke the rule. The next day his body was recovered from the abandoned beach house. One look at the corpse and anyone would understand that this bestial act cannot be performed by any human being. His whole body was ripped apart, organs are eaten off, blood all over the place, even his genitals were cut off. Don’t know how he peeved off the mermaids so much but that night’s incident saw the start of a series of killings and children started going missing. Every other day there was news of a murder of similar fashion around the beach area. The residents living near the beach were the most affected. Occasionally they could hear the cry of mermaids, agonised and pained. As if the mermaids were now addicted to human flesh.
 
The people were terrified. They stopped coming out of their house after sunset. Fear started overcoming the once bustling town. The air was heavy, the roads were silent. Slowly people started moving out. Some new tenants like you people came, only to leave within a few days. Only a few people like us who has nowhere to go are left behind. But, even we close our business before sunset and stay indoors since then. Once a vibrant town is now synonymous with the palace of death. Leave this town before the curse of the mermaids ruins your life.”
 
Ayan was feeling helpless. Their life was in danger. The man was right.  They should move out without any delay. He rushed back home to warn Paramita.
But, the door was locked. Paramita was nowhere to be seen. Even her mobile was switched off.
 
                               *************
 
The houses near the beach were the worst affected.
 
The words rang in his ears and Ayan started perspiring profusely. Because of his carelessness, Paramita might be in a danger now.
 
-“Hey, you are back?”
 
Ayan turned around to find his wife standing behind. Heaving a sigh of relief Ayan thanked his stars for his good luck.
 
-“Where were you? And why did you switch off your mobile? I was worried.”
 
– “Oh, the battery drained out. You were late, I was getting bored sitting in the house, so I decided to explore the beach by myself. You know there is….”
 
– “Are you mad? Why did you even think of going near the beach? Do you know how dangerous it is to even live near the beach? “ Ayan was literally fuming.
 
Paramita was surprised to see such a furious side of her otherwise cool husband. Without losing her calm, she asked gently, “What has happened, dear? Why are you so anxious about my visit to the beach?”
 
Then Ayan narrated whatever he heard and added, “We should leave this place immediately.”
 
-“And shift, where, exactly, in this short notice?”
 
It seemed the story did not affect Paramita so much.
 
-“Anywhere, we are not safe here.”
 
-“Don’t you think you are overreacting. We have not seen anything unusual. Only based on rumours we cannot disturb our settled lives. I will check it out myself tonight and decide for our own. Maybe after midnight. What say?”
 
– “Do not tell me you are going to the beach at night.”
 
– “Of course I am. You remember how I always craved for such an adventure. Today I have a chance to experience it. You may join if you want. Live mermaids! So exciting.
 
Now please excuse me, I need to make some urgent phone calls. My phone is switched off, can I borrow yours?”
 
Ayan did not try to argue. He knew his stubborn wife too well. If she has decided then no one can persuade her otherwise. With a trembling heart, he waited for the night.
 
                         ***************
 
As the time neared Ayan became more and more nervous. And watching Paramita acting so relaxed, increased his palpitation further.
 
Then there was another explosive announcement.
 
“Till the gas connection comes it will not be possible to cook any meal at home and your mermaids have already frightened away the delivery boys. So we are left with the option of dining out or bring the food ourselves.”
 
“Paro, my darling, just look at the desolate road. Can you see a single person on the street? Will it be wise to go for dinner now?”
 
“Wiser than to die out of starvation.”
 
It was impossible to win any verbal battle with Paramita. Hiding his sigh Ayan started getting ready to go out for the dinner.
 
                     *************
 
The foods were packed from the nearest restaurant spotted and the cab was booked. As expected the cab did not enter Area 153 and for the last one kilometre or so they had to walk back.
 
The street lights were out for some reason. But, a bright full moon in the sky did offer some illumination to the blind roads. Turning the phone torch on, as they moved through the dark roads, the ambiance indeed reminded of an abandoned ghost town.
 
“Do the mermaids have a knack for the street lights too or are they broken deliberately?” Paramita asked cheekily.
 
But, Ayan was not paying any attention. He was busy praying under breathe and walk as fast as possible to reach the safety of his home.
 
“Stop, Ayan. You are almost running.”
 
He indeed was. As if he could feel the preying eyes following him everywhere.
 
“You try to walk a little faster lazybones”, Ayan shouted back. Paramita had to actually run behind him to catch up.
 
“What am I going to do with this nervous wreck”, she thought to herself.
 
Gasping and panting Ayan rushed to open the front door. As Ayan balanced the light and the key with both hands, Paramita stopped for a while in front of the gate to catch her breath. For a moment she thought she saw two shadows walking in the direction of the beach, but, before she could apprehend properly, the street was empty as before.
 
                       ****************
 
While arranging the plates on the dinner table Paramita casually exclaimed, “I think I saw someone going to the beach.”
 
-“When?”
 
-“While coming through the gate.”
 
-“And you are telling me now?”
 
Ayan rushed to close the windows. Paramita could not help but laugh at his childish behaviour.
 
After the dinner, as she cleaned up the plates, Ayan became busy to prepare the bed.
 
-“Aren’t you coming with me to the beach?” Paramita was surprised.
 
-“Look, Paro, I don’t want to argue. But, I do not think going to the beach is the best idea.”
 
– “It’s ok Ayan. I can go alone.”
 
– “And you think I’ll let you do that?”
 
-“Then come with me.”
 
There was no room for further argument. So the anxious wait till midnight began.
 
                ********************
 
It was a full moon night. Untouched golden sand covered as far as your eyes can see. Looking around one can only admire the perfection of the beach. The palm trees are lined in serried rows and dip their heads in obedience to the sea. The horizon was a line of nickel-silver. The opera of the sea washed over the duo and the wave-music calmed down their tension. Even Ayan was feeling much relaxed now. It was impossible to believe that this amazingly beautiful place can witness any ghastly acts. Paramita stretched her hand to take a deep breath. The smell of the salty sea rushed through her nose. A soothing, gentle sea breeze rustled through her hair. Everything about the beach was calm and serene. And, the mermaids were nowhere to be seen.
 
“Come, with me,” Paramita tucked him along the direction of the abandoned beach house.
 
“Are you hiding something from me, Paro?”
 
“I am not sure. Just have a gut feeling. That is what we need to find out. Hurry up.”
 
The beach was desolate. Not a single living soul was evident on it. But as they neared the ‘haunted’ house, they could feel some movements around it. Hiding behind the big black rock outside the house, they decided to keep a watch.
 
Surprisingly, someone has turned on the lights of the ‘abandoned’ house. Some shadows were moving on the other side of the closed windows. Suddenly someone cried out loudly.
 
“The mermaids.”  Ayan gushed.
 
“Yes, technologically advanced mermaids who come by speedboats to party in the beach house, in electric lights.” Ayan never noticed the speedboat parked at a distance.
 
Within minutes the front door opened and two men come out. In the bright moonlight one face was quite clear, even from a distance. A familiar face.
 
“Dr. Sahil!” Ayan could not believe his own eyes.
 
-“You know him?” Paramita whispered.
 
-“He is the same man from the store who first warned me to stay away from the beach.”
 
-“So my guess was correct. The story of a mermaid is just a plan to drive people away from the beach to cover up some wrongdoings.”
 
-“What an intelligent girl!   But have you ever heard of the phrase, ‘Curiosity kills the cat’. We will be so sorry to kill such ‘intelligent cats’.”
 
Startled, they turned around to find Abdul pointing a revolver at them. Paramita immediately tried to dial some number on her phone but was soon overpowered.
 
                *******************
 
“Welcome aboard,” the crazy man announced as they were dragged inside the beach house. The man was looking so dangerous now.
 
Looking around the room Paramita saw some girls all gagged up in the corner. Dr Sahil was standing with a syringe in his hand, ready to inject the girls with sedatives.
 
“I guess I warned you well enough Mr Whatever to move away from the beach. And look at you. As foolish as ever. Strolling across the beach in the middle of the night, that too with your lovely wife. Wanted to meet your Ariel or what?”
 
“The moment I saw cigarette butts near this beach house I knew the story of mermaids is false. So you murdered all those innocent beings only to ease your illegal operation of trading kids!” Paramita exclaimed between her clenched teeth.
 
“Kids, women, drugs- you just name it.”
 
“But why murder such brutally…pulling out their heart, livers, kidneys?”
 
“To prove the existence of mermaids, what else.”
 
Then lowering his voice he added, “Also, selling the organs fetches a lot of moolah. Nothing personal, all for the prosperity of the business.”
 
“And you call yourself a doctor!” Paramita felt like spitting on his face. She wiggled to get out of the tight clenches of Abdul, holding her but was unsuccessful.
 
Ayan was actually shivering at the turn of the events. The mermaids would have been a better option, he thought.
 
“Today is my birthday and I did not want to kill anybody. Only, if you decided not to gate-crash my little party, you would have been alive.”
 
“Even if you kill us, you would not be spared, doctor. Your game is over.”
 
“I am amazed at the positive attitude of your wife.” Sahil said, turning to Ayan, “I think I should gift her something. Let me spare her life for a few more minutes and kill you first.” He pointed his rifle at Ayan, who did not know what to say and stared back blank.
“Do you think we are fools to come here alone, doctor? The police are already informed and would arrive soon.” Paramita tried one last time.
 
“Darling, please do not try to bluff death.”
 
“This is no bluff doctor,” a voice from the door confirmed, “Thank you, madam, for informing us at the right time.”
 
Then a number of things happened at once. The day was saved, as swarms of uniformed men started taking over the goons. The mastermind was immediately arrested with his accomplices. The kidnapped kids were rescued and a search was initiated to find their parents.
 
An enquiry ensued that pulled out a lot of old skeletons from the closet, busting an age-old racket of human trafficking and smuggling. This beach was used as the safe haven of the smugglers to carry on their illegal trading.
 
Paramita and Ayan were much applauded for their valiant act and were recommended for bravery awards.
 
     *************
 
Two days after that eventful night, Ayan was reading an article covering the misdeeds of Area 153 in the local newspaper. It even featured a small photo of the couple.
 
“So you are happy with your “dream come true” adventure?”
 
“Don’t be so sour Mr Brave. Don’t you forget because of my small adventure, you are regarded as a hero in your office even before joining it.”
 
“Yes, yes, I know. But, please do not go after any more mermaids in the future. It was almost costing us our lives.”
 
“ Ok, no more mermaids, but maybe pixies or goblins?”
 
And the house was filled with laughter. All was well in Area 153.
                                 
 
 
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About the Author Sreeparna Sen

Sreeparna Sen is an engineer by education, a banker by profession and a writer by passion.