An excerpt from the book, Before You Breathe by Tanushree Podder.

It was past midnight. In the tiny Himalayan town of Ramsar, a lone figure hurried across the street, drawing his coat tighter around himself to ward off the chill in the air. In the distance, the mountains loomed like mammoth phantoms.

The night was silent and dark, with the moon hidden behind heavy clouds. Not a soul stirred. The inhabitants of the small, hill town, safe in their homes, continued to slumber. Outside, the wind strengthened in force as it raced through the street, lashing at the houses in its wake.

The tall man stood still in the shadows. He tucked his chin into his muffler and thrust his gloved hands deeper into the warmth of his pockets, his breath forming spirals of vapour in the air.

Casting a cautious look around the dully lit street, he crossed over to the other side and stood before a two-storeyed house, the clinic-cum-residence of the local doctor. The house was located at the far end of a winding lane, beyond a curve that shielded it from the view of neighbouring houses. The location made things easier for the man, as did the moonless night.

Casting another furtive look around him, the man vaulted over the low boundary wall of the house and approached the main door on the ground floor. He extracted a small torch from the pocket of his coat and examined the lock on the door in the thin beam of light. His lips curled, amused at the sight of the flimsy metal masquerading as a lock. He produced a paper-clip from another of his many pockets, straightened it with the precision of a neurosurgeon and went to work on the lock. His long, gloved fingers moved deftly, easily. They had done this before.

Casting another furtive look around him, the man vaulted over the low boundary wall of the house and approached the main door on the ground floor.

Minutes later, having sheathed his mud-spattered shoes in a pair of polythene bags, he slipped into the clinic and bolted the door from inside. Leaving a tell-tale track of shoeprints was not a part of his plan, but a light shower in the evening had left the ground muddy. Thankfully, he had come prepared.

Once inside, the man took stock of the place in the narrow beam of light from his torch. The entrance led to a small waiting room, which in turn led into the space that was being used as the consulting room. An adjoining room, with a counter, served as the dispensary, he noted. Wasting no time, the intruder walked through the waiting room, past the half a dozen chairs and a low table with some magazines scattered on it, to the consulting room.

Twisting the handle, he pushed open the door and entered the room, which was furnished with a large table, a swivel chair for the doctor, a couple of chairs for visitors, an examination bed and a revolving metal stool for the patient. The wall opposite the doctor’s chair was adorned with a painting of the snow-capped Himalayan range.

He pulled open the drawers of the table and inspected the contents. Save for a scattering of pens, a couple of medical instruments and some stationery, there was nothing of value to attract his attention.

A small cupboard and a filing cabinet stood in one corner of the room. The man tried the handle of the cupboard and discovered that it was unlocked. Stacked neatly inside were boxes of medicines and medical instruments. The boxes were clearly labelled and segregated into various categories. Once again, there was nothing of interest for him there.

Finally, he turned to the filing cabinet. Like the cupboard, the cabinet was arranged neatly and methodically. Smiling in the darkness, he thanked whoever was responsible for the immaculate filing system. His brows furrowed in concentration as his quick fingers rifled through the folders. It took him less than five minutes to find what he was looking for. He extracted the file, took out his phone and shot a series of pictures of the pages before putting it back in its place within the cabinet.

Exactly seven minutes from the time of his entry, the intruder emerged from the clinic. On his way out, he removed the polythene casing from his shoes and dropped them in the trash can sitting just outside the entrance. Then, moving stealthily, he vaulted over the low wall and melted into the darkness once again.

Picture Credits: Tanushree Podder/ HarperCollins India

Excerpted with permission from Before You Breathe by Tanushree Podder, HarperCollins Publishers India.

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