Monday, October 29, 2012

Walk the Line - Chapter 43

Pat sat down with the notes that she’d made from Khushi’s conversation. She dismissed all the women in their early 20s and the women above 45. A very small list of names stood out.

‘Ratan,’ she said, ‘would it be possible to get backgrounds on these three women?’

‘Just three?’ he said.

‘Yes. After what Khushi told me, and given the timelines they came into her life, these are the only three that fit the profile so far. I need to get some background on these women. One of these is Rani Sahiba. It doesn’t have to be detailed, but I need as much information as possible,’ she explained.

‘Luke,’ he called the agent over. ‘Can you help Pat with these? She needs the CVs of these three women.’

‘Sure,’ he said agreeably. ‘What do you want on them?’

Pat moved over to sit next to him. ‘Date of birth. Place of birth. Current residence. Profession. Financial status. Employers,’ she listed.

‘Not a problem,’ he stated, his fingers flying over his keyboard.

She sat back, allowing him to do his work. This was how it was with Joe, too. The man could work magic given a keyboard, a screen and a server. Half an hour later, the printer spat out six sheets of paper. She picked them up and sat down to study them. Two of them she set aside almost immediately. The third though, was interesting. She read through it carefully and then re-read it. Her profile was almost hundred percent accurate. This woman fit the bill. She was holding the identity of Rani Sahiba in her hands.

‘Ratan,’ she said, calmly, although her heart was pounding, and her hands were clammy. ‘We’ve got her.’ This was the moment that any law enforcement official waits for - to say those words! Now, it was a matter of cracking the case wide open.

They all crowded her as she spread the two sheets of paper in front of her.

Gauri Virdi. Female. Mid-thirties. Owner of one of the biggest modeling agencies in India. Tie-ups with the best modeling agencies in the US and Europe. Self-made woman. Came into the limelight about six years ago. Was contracted to AR Group for the upcoming Madrid-Raizada Fashion show. It couldn’t fit better.

‘Yes!’ said Ratan as the group high-five’d each other. ‘Luke, dig up everything you can about Ms. Gauri Virdi. And I mean everything, her finances, her properties, her travel, even when she goes to the bathroom, if you can.’

‘Sure!’ said Luke, grinning widely. He sat down immediately at his computer. This was the second break they’d had. He did a search on the internet, found a picture of hers and quickly printed it. Now all they needed was a good print of Shyam and they were ready.

Ratan pinned the photo up on the wall with satisfaction. ‘And now, Rani Sahiba, all you have to do is make one mistake,’ he said. ‘That’s all I need.’


The blue Honda City sat by the side of the road diagonally across from AR Group. The two men had been there for over two hours and were getting bored sitting there. The white SUV had gone into the underground employee parking lot and they couldn’t follow it in. Once in a while, one of them got out for smoke. What they didn’t know was that the exit from the parking lot was on the other side of the building. So they were vastly astonished when they saw the SUV coming up the street with two occupants in the front, and turn into the parking lot. They looked at each other in consternation. What the hell? How had they gotten out?

Just at that moment, there was tap on the driver’s side window. A policeman stood there, gesturing at them to lower the glass. The driver rolled down the glass.

‘What’s going on here?’ the policeman spat out a brown stream of tobacco. ‘What’re you doing here?’

‘Nothing, we’re waiting for someone,’ the driver said.

‘Really? People are complaining that this car has been sitting here for the past two hours. This is not a parking zone, so get moving!’ he rapped his baton against the body of the car for emphasis. ‘Come on, Move! Or I’ll get you towed.’

‘Look if you need something for tea...’ the passenger offered a bundle of notes to the policeman.

‘What? You’re offering me a bribe?’ the policeman was incensed. ‘Shall I put you away?’

‘No, no... ,’ they backed away. ‘We’re leaving, we’re leaving.’ The driver quickly started the car and they drove away. The policeman watched them go with a satisfied smile. He walked over to a white car parked a few yards away.

‘Good job, havaldar,’ Amar clapped him on the shoulder, before getting in the car and driving away.

The men drove down the street looking for a turn-off. Finally they found one about a kilometer away and turned down the side street before coming to a halt.

‘Shit!’ said the driver. ‘What do we tell boss?’

‘Rocky, we have to call him. And we’ve got to find out how they got out without us knowing,’ said Mannu.

Rocky nodded. He took out a cell and dialed. ‘Boss,’ he said, when the phone was answered. ‘We had to move the car. We can’t sit there. A policeman came by and..... no boss, he wasn’t taking bribes.... yes boss...’ and with a few more ‘yes boss’es he hung up.

‘Boss was not happy,’ he told Mannu. ‘Let’s go find that exit, and then find a way to keep an eye on them.’ He started the car and they doubled back towards AR Group, circling the building till they spotted the exit. For once their luck was with them. Across the street was a public parking spot. They drove in and left the car there, glad to be able to stretch legs.

They settled down for a long day.


It was almost three in the afternoon, when Arnav got a call from Ratan. He’d been working through the day, catching up on the innumerable details that had fallen by the wayside during his on and off presence. He hadn’t even had time to dwell on the ramifications of what his feelings for Khushi meant and what he wanted or needed to do with those feelings. For now, he moved it aside and focused on his work. Lunch had been a brief hurried affair at his desk with Lavanya, working through the details of the show. His jacket was off, slung over the back of his chair and he was pacing in his office, firing off dictation to one of the secretaries, when the call came in.

‘Arnav Singh Raizada,’ he turned on his bluetooth. On hearing it was Ratan, he gestured to the girl, we’ll pick it up later. He waited till she was out of the room before he said, ‘Yes, Ratan?’

‘We’ve identified Rani Sahiba.’

He was quiet for a moment. ‘Who?’

‘We’re working through the details right now.’

‘Who is it, dammit?’ his voice was cold.

‘We can’t tell you that right now. Try to understand, Mr. Raizada, we’re still planning our strategy right now.’

Arnav nodded his head. ‘Okay. I understand.’ They spoke for a while more, Ratan making sure they were okay before hanging up.

His head was pounding. He sat down at his desk, thinking things through. Khushi had to get home, now, he thought. At least he’d know she was safe. Picking up the extension he asked Lavanya to come to his room.

‘Lavanya, can you give Khushi a ride home? I’m going to be staying late and I don’t want her delayed because of me.’

‘Sure, ASR,’ she said. She looked at his hard face, hesitated and said. ‘Is everything okay, ASR?’

‘Yeah,’ he raised his eyebrows. ‘Why?’

‘Nothing,’ she said. She turned away and said, ‘I’ll drop her home. No worries,’ and walked out. At around four o’clock, she told Khushi, ‘by the way, ASR said he’d be late, so he asked me to drop you home.’

If Khushi was surprised, she didn’t show it. She knew ASR and what a workaholic he was, but with Rani Sahiba out there he’d been almost paranoid about not letting her out of his sight. Yet, he wanted her to go home with Lavanya? Well, that was his call, she thought, feeling a bit miffed. They left soon after.

Across the street, Rocky and Mannu watched the red Lexus exit the parking lot, but didn’t pay much attention to it. About two hours later, they watched as the white SUV exited the same lot. They dashed to their car, and screeched out of the parking lot, falling in behind the car. Rocky was driving, his attention on the road and the car ahead. Mannu called their boss.

‘They just left AR Corp, sir. We’re following them.’

‘Stay on them. As soon as they reach the mountain road, grab her,’ were their orders.

Arnav Singh Raizada drove slowly through the thick traffic, wanting to make better time. So much was churning through his head, but he tried to keep his focus on the road ahead. He halted at a signal and out of habit looked in the rear view mirror. A sea of cars were there behind him. Once the light changed, he was able to open up a little. As he sped up, he glanced once more into his rear view. A dark blue car was hopping lanes, trying to get through the thick of the traffic. He took a right turn and kept up his steady speed, luckily hitting all the green signals. He glanced at the rear view and saw that the blue car was now about two cars behind him. He resumed driving, the traffic thinning out. The blue car was still behind him, still two cars behind. He frowned. Was he imagining it? Was the car following him? He unbuttoned his jacket, making sure his gun was easily accessible.

Turning onto the mountain road he glanced once more in the rearview. Nope. There it was. He wondered what they wanted, and then it struck him. This was an ambush! He smiled grimly. Their victim had long since reached the safety of Raizada Mansion. He slowed down. The car behind him sped up. It went past him, the two men in it looking straight forward.

He hit the accelerator and came up to their rear. They slammed on their brakes, the car fishtailing as the driver fought for control, tires slipping, struggling for traction. The ABS system in the big SUV kicked in as he shifted down and applied the brakes. It halted smoothly. He leapt out of the car, leaving the door hanging open. He pulled the gun out and was running to the Honda before it had come to a complete stop. He stood at the drivers side, gun aimed straight at driver’s head.

‘Out!’ he said to the passenger. ‘Don’t make me repeat myself. Out! And your hands where I can see them.’ The passenger held his hands up and crawled out of the passenger seat. He came and stood in front of the car.

‘Now you,’ he gestured to the driver. ‘Out!’ Keeping his gun trained on him. The driver got out of the car, hands above his head. ‘Stand next to him,’ he said.

In the back of his mind, he heard the sound of an approaching car. His phone rang. Without taking his eyes or his gun off the men in front of him, he tapped on his bluetooth.

‘Mr. Raizada? Ratan. Don’t shoot. My men are just coming up to your location. Let them handle it from there.’

He could hear the car approaching, very fast. He flicked a glance towards it, and one of the men made a small move.

‘Please ... make me,’ he growled menacingly, his eyes flat and cold. One look at those cold eyes and the men stayed put.

The car braked hard next to him, and two agents leaped out of it, running up to Arnav, who had his eyes and gun still trained on the men from the car.

‘Mr. Raizada, it’s Amar. Let us take it from here.’

He nodded. The agents walked over to the two men, and he lowered the gun only when they were cuffed. They dragged them to their car, and locked them in. Amar came over to him and said, ‘Mr. Raizada.’

‘How did you know to get here in time?’ Arnav asked mildly, putting his gun back in the holster and buttoning his jacket again.

‘We ... were following you .. and them,’ said Amar.

‘I see. So you knew about these people?’ his voice was still mild, but there was underlying steel as he raised his eyes. They were molten with anger.

The agent was a little taken aback, but he stood his ground. ‘Yes, we did. And Mr. Raizada, at no time were you or Ms. Gupta in any danger.’ He looked at the SUV but couldn’t see her. ‘Where is Ms. Gupta anyway?’

‘I sent her home with one of my colleagues,’ the corner of his mouth lifted in something that wasn’t exactly a smile, more a sneer. ‘I think that was a good decision on my part, don’t you?’

Amar nodded. This guy was sharp as well as dangerous. None of them knew that he was capable of pulling a gun on the bad guys, in fact they didn’t even know that he was licensed to carry a gun! He watched as ASR nodded at him and headed back to his SUV. Time to call Ratan, he sighed. This big shot was going to be blowing his top very soon.

In reality, the big shot was smiling on his drive home. As he neared his house, he called Khushi,


‘Hi,’ he said huskily the smile growing wider as he heard her voice. His pulses raced just to hear it. He couldn’t wait to get home and see her. ‘You at home?’

‘Yeah. Where are you?’

‘Almost home,’ he smiled. I can’t wait to see you, the imp said. For once, he ignored it. ‘I’ll see you in a bit, then,’ he said.

‘Sure,’ she said and hung up.

As he walked into the hallway, he saw his sister sitting with Dilip and Akash in the lounge.

‘Chotey, it’s good you’re back early!’ she said. ‘We’re all going out for dinner. In about half-an-hour. Payal’s parents and NK and Jamie will also be there,’ she informed him.

He nodded, ‘Okay, Di.’ Damn! He wanted Khushi to himself tonight, but looks like it wasn’t happening. Running up the steps, he absently started unbuttoning his jacket. Looking up, saw Khushi just coming down the stairs.

She was obviously coming from Payal’s room and was all ready to go out. Today she was in a sari, the same color as her eyes, but three shades darker. The shade they got when she was aroused. He stopped to take her in. The chiffon clung to her curves. The sleeveless blouse she wore with it was embellished with tiny crystals that glittered on her shoulders. Her flawless skin glowed through the folds of her pallu. Her hair was down and she’d done something with her makeup that emphasized her eyes and brought out their unique color.

He smiled at her, and she smiled back, her gaze traveling down his body and then he saw her eyes widen. He looked down at himself. The barrel of the gun was just visible under his arm. He took the stairs two at a time, and grabbed her arm, leading her to his room, shutting and locking the door behind them. He pulled the curtains to the windows closed, before turning back to her.

‘Arnav, a GUN?!!’ her voice rose three decibels.

He strode forward, one hand jerking her close, the other clamped over her oh-so-delectable mouth.

‘Keep your voice down,’ he hissed.

‘mmmff... mmfmarhhh!!’ she was trying to pull his arm off.

‘Khushi, if I let go, will you promise not to yell?’ She nodded, her eyes round as saucers. ‘Okay,’ he said, before slowly removing his hand.

‘What’s with the..’ he made a move towards her as she raised her voice again. She stopped. ‘Okay, okay..’ taking deep breaths. ‘A gun, Arnav? You’re carrying a gun?’

‘You know why,’ he sounded exasperated, turning away to take off his jacket. Automatically, she walked over to him, holding the jacket while he slipped it off, taking a hanger out of his closet and hanging it up. He took off the holster and saw her hanging up his jacket and for a minute the picture it painted in his head shook him to his core. It was so intimate ... and yet, so ... so .... right. He came up behind her to hold her shoulders and turn her around. Looking deep into her eyes, he said, ‘you know they’re out there. I can’t let anything happen to you. If they try anything, it’ll be over my dead body.’

She clapped her hand over his mouth. ‘No! Don’t talk like that.’

He gently removed her hand and pulled her close, cradling her head, one arm around her waist. They stayed like that for a bit, before he pulled away. ‘I need to shower, you need to go downstairs. Di said something about dinner tonight.’

‘No gun?’ she asked.

‘No. I promise,’ he dropped a swift kiss on her cheek before turning her around and giving her a push towards the door. ‘I’ll see you in ten minutes.’

She looked over her shoulder, ‘Okay.’

‘And Khushi?’ she turned around fully. ‘You’re going in my car, okay?’

She just smiled at him and left the room. He smiled to himself, picked up a towel and headed to the bathroom.


Saturday, October 27, 2012

Walk the Line - Chapter 42

She narrowed her eyes. ‘What happened yesterday? Why’d you leave so suddenly?’

‘I.... I think Khushi spotted me,’ he said. He’d been thinking about the story he would tell Rani Sahiba, since the night before. There was no point in telling her what had happened. It had been his own plan and it had failed miserably. He wasn’t going to tell her that. She’d kill him. He’d seen her go into rages and he didn’t want to see it directed at him.

‘What the hell made you decide to be a waiter, of all things? A WAITER?’ she shrieked.

‘How else was I supposed to get in there?’ he whined.

‘With me, you idiot. Your disguise was perfect. I didn’t spot you. How d’you think Khushi would have? You could’ve stayed out of her way.’

‘She almost saw me, Rani Sahiba,’ he was sulking, looking away from her. ‘I had to get away.’

‘And do you know that both ASR and she were missing for the better part of an hour?... ‘ she paused, ‘and when they came back, she had changed out of what she was wearing?’ she was trying to read his eyes, but he kept looking away. ‘And from that point on, they were inseparable!’ she finished.

‘Really?’ was all he said.

‘Really. You wouldn’t happen to know why that happened, would you, Shyam?’

‘Rani Sahiba, how would I know?’ he was looking anywhere but at her now.

She slapped him hard across the face. He jerked and looked at her. ‘If I find out, that you had anything to do with that, I will kill you, do you understand?’ her voice was low and menacing. He nodded, one hand up on his smarting cheek. He was looking down, and if she could have seen into his eyes, she would have seen the flare on intense hatred in it. It would have given her pause. But she didn’t see anything.

He swallowed, before looking up at her slyly from under his brows. She was frowning, thinking.

‘What do you want to do now, Rani Sahiba?’ his tone was conciliatory, servile.

‘Get two men on the Raizada house. If she steps out, I want to know about it, immediately. I’ll tell you what to do after that. Just have the men ready to move right away.’ He nodded.

‘How do you know she’s at the Raizada house?’ he asked.

‘Where else would she be? He never moved from her side the entire party. Even when I asked him to dance, he barely did so. Next thing I know he's standing by her side,’ she hissed. ‘I don’t think she’s at the hotel. I think she’s at the house. He couldn’t keep his hands off her,’ she said in disgust.

‘Alright then, I’ll get the men to follow her,’ he said, turning away to leave.

‘And Shyam?’ she called. He turned around. ‘Please don’t let me find out that you had anything to do with yesterday,’ her voice was pleasant, almost friendly and it sent a chill down his back. He left quietly, not wanting her to see the worried look on his face.


Pat Cromley sat back with a sigh. Dinner had been good. She’d been too tired to dress up and go down again to the dining room. She’d decided to stay in her pajamas and just watch TV. The plethora of channels in India had frankly amazed her, and she tuned into CNN International, absently watching Anderson Cooper. She wasn’t really watching the show as much as she was thinking. At the back of her mind something was niggling at her. Was it something she had said? or someone else had said? Something... She decided to give it a rest and let it bubble up naturally. She lay back against the pillow, switching her attention back to Anderson Cooper.

‘Four years ago in Denver, then presidential candidate Barak Obama promised that he would change America...’ AC’s voice faded as the pieces fell into place. That’s it! She jumped out of bed and grabbed her case. Going through it she found what she was looking for. She spread the papers on her bed and hunkered down, going through them one more time, just one more time. She wished she had her systems analyst with her. They would have crunched through this in no time, but now she’d have to do it the old-fashioned way. Wait a minute! Maybe there was a better way! What time was it in the US? She looked at her watch, 7:30 p.m. - which was around ten in the a.m. in DC. Oh well! She needed his help, and she was just going to go for it. She dialed a number from her satellite phone.

The number rang in an apartment in Washington, D.C. A tanned muscular arm came out from under a comforter and picked up the phone. ‘Hello?’ his baritone was ragged with sleep.

‘Hey babe,’ she said.

‘Pat?’ he sat up in bed, the rest of his muscular body as tanned as his arms. His brown eyes were blood shot with sleep but the smile tugging on his well defined lips was one of pure pleasure.

‘Are you still in bed?’ she asked.

‘Mmmm and missing you next to me,’ he said. She laughed a little at that. ‘How’s it going in India?’

‘It’s an interesting case but I need your help,’ she explained. ‘Hence the early morning call.’

‘Ah! and here I thought you were calling me for some booty time,’ he drawled. She grinned into the phone.

‘Get serious, Joe,’ she said.

‘Okay, babe, tell me how I can help you.’

She explained what she wanted him to do. He listened carefully, frowning and paying close attention. When she stopped speaking, he said, ‘It’s fairly simple. Scan the pages and send them to me. I’ll do the cross check and have it out to you by late evening, my time.’

‘Okay,’ she said. ‘I’ll send them to you in a bit.’

She pulled on some warm ups and went to the business lounge on the top floor. The receptionist was quite polite. All the staff had been alerted to the fact that Ms. Pat Cromley was to be given access to whatever she wanted, no questions asked. Pat told her what she needed. The receptionist led her into a tiny office. A printer/scanner stood at one end. She showed her how to operate it and left. Pat scanned the papers in, sending them to Joe in Washington, DC. It took her almost half an hour to finish the scans. Thanking the receptionist, she came back to her room. If what she suspected was right, then they should have Rani Sahiba’s identity by morning! Back in her room, she shoved all the papers aside, fell into bed and slept almost immediately.


Arnav had woken up early so that he could swim first thing. But Khushi had beat him to it he saw, when he went out by the pool. There were wet footprints by the poolside. Somebody had just been in the pool. He knew it had to be her. He was still feeling sore about the argument they’d had yesterday. It had started off with him telling her to go to the US, and somehow it had flared into something that he didn’t want to dwell upon. They’d barely spoken to each other since. Even his going to call her to meet Payal had met with stubborn silence on her part. She’d avoided his eyes and left.

He swam his ten laps and sat by the pool allowing the water to dry on his skin, feeling more and more annoyed with himself. Then he hauled himself out of his chair and went to his room. A quick shower to wash away the chlorine, before he chose his clothes. A slightly looser fit of jacket was what he needed today. The suit was charcoal grey and the vest was just a shade lighter. He chose a white shirt and white tie to go with it, and black wingtips. Before putting on his jacket, he unlocked the safe in his room and pulled out the box. He opened it to reveal the dull gleam of a black .32 that he hefted easily in one hand. The barrel almost disappeared in his big palm. He reached into the safe and pulled out a box of ammo. Deftly he removed the magazine and loaded it with bullets. The semi-automatic held 8 rounds. He didn’t think he’d need more than that. He took the shoulder holster out and put it on, it fit snugly without a wrinkle on his shirt, the straps criss-crossing across his back. He made sure the safety latch was on before he tucked the gun into it, and put on his jacket. Perfect! There wasn’t the slightest bulge to give away the gun under his arm. He tried drawing it a few times, making sure he could slide it out easily, before buttoning his jacket. Arnav had held a gun license for the longest time.

Locking everything else away, he headed downstairs for breakfast.

Today was another rasam in the house, he groaned inwardly looking at the flowers being put up along the hall.

‘Chotey,’ Nani came out of nowhere and stopped him. ‘Where are you going?’

‘To work, Nani,’ he said.

‘Well, then I’ll just tell Hari to get your breakfast ready,’ she looked harassed with all the workers coming and going.

He smiled at his grandmother, gently holding her arms and said, ‘Nani, I’m quite capable of telling Hari to get my breakfast, okay? You do what you were going to do.’ She nodded worriedly and hurried off to wherever it was she was headed to.

Arnav stepped into the kitchen and stopped in surprise. He’d expected to find Hari there, instead Khushi was pouring herself a cup of coffee, while a bowl of cereal stood on the counter. She’d obviously been grabbing some breakfast for herself, instead of asking Hari to make it for her. ‘Khushi?’ She looked around in surprise. ‘What’re you doing?’

‘Having breakfast, what else?’ she gestured to the bowl of cereal.

‘Why isn’t Hari making breakfast?’ he asked.

‘Well, with everybody tied up in the rasam, I thought I could get my own.’ She eyed him and then said a little belatedly, ‘what’re you doing in the kitchen?’

He chuckled. ‘Came to get breakfast.’

She looked around and said, ‘what would you like?’

You, said the imp. NO! he yelled. ‘Ah! ...cereal?’

‘Sure,’ she said, turning around towards the crockery cupboard to get a bowl. He looked around quickly, and spotting nobody nearby, he moved towards her in two swift strides, placing a hand on either side of her on the cupboard doors, effectively blocking her in. She spun around in the circle of his arms, looking at him with wide eyes. ‘What’re you doing?’ she whispered aghast.

‘Still mad at me?’ he murmured, trying to look into her eyes.

‘Yes,’ she pouted, lowering her eyes, her nostrils flaring at the familiar smell of him and his cologne. He moved in a little closer, keeping just a little breathing space between them.

‘Will saying I’m sorry help?’ He couldn’t help smiling. She was wearing D&G!

‘No,’ she said, looking up at him, but her eyes were sparkling and belied her words. He leaned in to kiss her, his lips brushing the corner of her mouth. She could feel her heart beginning to race. Her breathing quickened even as she flattened her hands against cupboard to stop herself from clutching at him. His eyes had turned dark, as he drew back and then swooped in again this time finding his mark. She opened up to him with a small moan at the back of her throat. His tongue darted into her mouth, tangling with hers, as his arms went around her. She clutched the lapels of his jacket, as she fought his tongue with hers. He pulled back a little, sucking on her upper lip as she sighed in pleasure.

‘Chotey!’ Nani’s voice brought them back to earth with a thump! She pulled out of his arms, turning around to get a bowl while he stepped back a pace, hoping Nani wouldn’t hear the thundering of his blood. ‘Oh there you are,’ said Nani. She looked at the scene in front of her. Khushi was pouring cereal into a bowl while Chotey stood watching her. She seemed slightly flushed, though.

‘Nani, you wanted something?’ he asked innocently.

‘No. I see Khushi is getting your breakfast anyway,’ she said. She liked this scene. Khushi getting Chotey his breakfast! He was actually pouring himself a mug of coffee while waiting for her to put together his cereal. She added sliced bananas and apples into it, along with cold milk, before handing the bowl and a spoon to him.

Nani looked on at the scene in front of her. It was perfect! She wanted this for her grandson. A wonderful girl in his life, one that loved him and took care of him and his needs, and one that fit into their family too. Most importantly, she had noticed how little she was intimidated by him. His wife needed to be a strong woman, and she had a feeling that this girl, for all her frail looks, was very strong inside, or he wouldn’t be this attracted to her, he needed someone that matched up to him.

Both Akash and Payal had given their reports to the rest of the family. His reading was that Bhai was definitely very attracted to Khushi. Payal on the other hand, knew that Khushi had strong feelings about Arnav but was unsure about his. They’d been wondering how best to bring these two together. Nothing was popping out at them at this point. Nothing that would make Arnav Singh Raizada and Khushi Kumari Gupta say, ‘I do!’

‘Nani?’ Chotey was asking her something. ‘Does Khushi need to be here for this rasam?’

‘Not really,’ said Nani, ‘why? Do you have something planned for her?’

‘Actually, I need her to come with me today, too. And this time Nani, I promise you I will feed her lunch,’ he smiled a little boy smile.

Khushi smiled at him. She knew there was something else going on, but he wasn’t telling her what in front of his grandmother.

Nani nodded, ‘Okay. Go and get changed, Khushi,’ she said. She nodded and headed off.

He was waiting for her in the lounge when she came down the stairs, carrying her laptop bag and purse. Her hair was plaited today. She was dressed in an elegant long-sleeved churidar kameez in a pale beige color, that almost melted into her skin. The pale tones of the salwar were offset by the pale green print at her throat and the bottom.
The dupatta hugging her throat, was also the same green color, with a beige border. She wore long, dangling earrings, a single silver strand, with at teardrop pearl at the end of it. She looked almost ethereal today. Thin-strapped flesh colored heels completed her outfit. 

He hadn’t realized that he’d been staring at her till she stopped in front of him. ‘Arnav?’ He kicked himself. ‘Shall we go?’ he nodded and led the way out of the front door.

From the corridor above, his sister and his grandmother had watched his reactions as Khushi had come down the stairs and walked to him. The stunned look on his face was all they could ask for! They grinned at each other and Anjali said, ‘Chotey is so ...’ she made a going-away gesture with her hand, ‘done for!’ Her grandmother laughed with her.

‘Yes, he is. Much as he tries to deny it, he is very much in love with her. Question is, will he realize it or will we have to make him realize it?’

Anjali nodded her head thoughtfully. Right now, however, there was another bride that had to finish the last of the rasams. She headed over to Payal’s room.

The white SUV exited the gates of Raizada mansion, nosing its way towards the street corner, before merging into Delhi rush-hour traffic. The couple inside didn’t notice a dark little Honda City slip into the traffic behind them.

The two agents in the car further along the street watched as the blue Honda followed them. One of them dialed a number. ‘They just left Raizada mansion, and they have a tail,’ he said when the phone was picked up. ‘The car is a Honda City, dark blue, license plate number.....’


They arrived at AR Group and went up the elevators to the floor on which his cabin was. He let them in, and was just in the process of putting his laptop on his desk, when his phone rang. It was Ratan. They needed to see them at the CBI offices, when could they come?

‘Lemme check,’ he said. He flipped the hold button and hit the Aman’s extension number. ‘Aman, can you please cancel my appointments for this morning? I need to go out.’ He looked across at Khushi who had been standing at the door, and raised a finger to her, one moment. He went back to Ratan’s call. ‘We can be there in half an hour,’ he said. He hung up and turned to her, ‘we need to go to the CBI offices. Can you give me five minutes?’

She went to Lavanya’s office, but not finding anyone there, she wrote a note and pasted it to her computer screen. ‘Be back later. Leaving my laptop in your cupboard. Khushi.’ She placed her laptop bag in the cupboard, before heading out the door again.

Arnav took off his jacket and his holster. He couldn’t go to the CBI offices with a gun. Moreover, Khushi would be frightened if she knew why he was carrying a gun. He locked it back in the safe and put on his jacket, before leaving his cabin.


Pat, Amar, Sachin and Luke sat around the conference table. Ratan had had CCTV equipment set up in the room so that they could view the hotel security tapes. She had told the other agents what to look for. Look for people that appear in the vicinity of Khushi in more than one scene. Two of them were following the actions of Shyam Jha, two of them focusing of Khushi and others. However, it was difficult given what a teeming crowd there was that day to actually pick out people who seemed to show interest in Khushi. To top it all, she was the bride’s sister. There seemed to be a lot of interest in her. Nothing jumped out at them as they pored over the tapes.

It was ten in the morning, and Khushi and Arnav hadn’t yet shown up. Pat got up to get a bottle of water. She stopped by her laptop and checked her email. There it was! The one from Joe that she’d been waiting for! The subject line read, ‘You owe me one, babe!’ She shook her head while she clicked on the email and opened the attachment. It was a list of people who appeared on both Arnav’s and Khushi’s list of acquaintances, friends, colleagues. About thirty names.

‘Ratan,’ she said. ‘Here’s the list of people that both Arnav and Khushi know. Rani Sahiba is on this list.’

‘How did you get that?’ he was amazed.

‘I asked a friend in DC for some help. He came through,’ she smiled. ‘Now if only Mr. Raizada and Ms. Gupta would show up,’ she said.

Almost on cue, the phone rang. Ratan picked it up. ‘They’re downstairs,’ he said. ‘I’ll take them to the room next door. Why don’t you join us there?’

She nodded and went to wait next door. About five minutes later, Ratan ushered the two of them in. They sat down together. Formalities over, she began, ‘Ms. Gupta,’ she pushed forward a single sheet of paper. ‘How many of these people did you know before you came to Delhi?’

Khushi took the sheet of paper and a pen and circled some names. She handed it back and said, ‘Why?’

‘I need you to tell me exactly when and where you met these people,’ said Pat, not answering her question.

Khushi’s heart was doing a slow hammer. She felt Arnav sliding his hand into hers, his fingers lacing through hers and giving it a small squeeze. Suddenly she felt better, almost as if he was willing some strength into her.

She started at the top of the list, while Pat made notes on her laptop. Against each person, she wrote the date or time period when Khushi had first met them and the circumstances around which she met them. They already knew about Shyam Jha. It was a question of joining the dots and finding the right time line for her to have met Rani Sahiba. The original list had been pared down by removing all the men, so there was a smaller subset of names to work with. Now with Khushi’s help they would be narrowing it down even further.

Khushi went down the list and finally she was done.

‘Thank you, Ms. Gupta,’ said Pat. ‘I think that will be all for today.’

‘I thought you wanted us to look at CCTV footage,’ Arnav said.

‘No, I don’t think we’ll need that,’ said Pat.

‘You mean, you know who Rani Sahiba is?’ asked Arnav. He could feel Khushi start to tremble, and he put his arm around her.

‘No, we don’t,’ Pat was stretching the truth just a little bit, ‘but we will, soon.’

He nodded, before helping Khushi up and leaving the room.


Khushi was shaking. She felt as if her whole body would not stop shivering. She sat in the car and stared straight ahead, arms wrapped around herself, teeth chattering. The images from those days years ago were pounding in her brain. She felt sick to her stomach, but knew she wasn’t going to be sick. That wouldn’t happen. Tears were flowing down her cheeks and she wasn’t wiping them away.

Arnav glanced over at her, and cursed under his breath. They were on a fairly lonely stretch of road. He braked to a halt, turning off the engines, taking off his seat belt before unlatching hers. He hauled her into his lap wrapping his arms around her, his face buried in her hair. She clung to him desperately, still shivering. He wrapped the lapels of his jacket around her, cradling her head with one hand, while his mouth searched for hers. He kissed her then, hungrily, pouring his love for her into it, wanting desperately for her to feel him, understand him, know that he was there with her. Nothing would ever take that away from her, not if it didn’t kill him first. His tongue reached into her mouth, tasting each corner of it, his hands roaming all over her, trying to make her understand that he would always hold her like this. This is where she belonged. Somewhere inside his head, he finally acknowledged his heart. He was in love with Khushi Kumari Gupta and he was damned if some Rani Sahiba or Shyam Jha was going to stop him from making her his!

The two agents following the car, braked almost as soon as he did. They watched the car for a little, not able to see anything through the tinted rear windows. What had happened? Why had Raizada suddenly stopped? They waited for a while, but nothing seemed to be happening. Puzzled, they looked at each other, before carefully stepping out of their car. They walked slowly over and peered in. Raizada and Ms Gupta were in a passionate clinch in the driver’s seat! Eyes closed, lost in each other, they never noticed their guardian angels, who had huge grins on their faces, barely controlling their laughter, before heading back to their car.


Friday, October 26, 2012

Walk the Line - Chapter 41

It was five in the evening when Bhardwaj walked into the war room. The others had all taken their places and Ratan stood at the head of the table. There were six people around the table. Ratan, Bhardwaj, Pat, Amar, Sachin and Luke. They had compiled all the information that they had found throughout the day and each person had a folder in front of them. All of them had their eyes on Ratan as he began to speak. 

‘Let’s start with Ms.Gupta’s abduction. The waiter, Amit Mathur, was brought in. According to him, one of the other waiters asked him to locate and give Ms. Gupta the message as he did not know who Ms. Gupta was. We suspect that the kidnapper is none other than this other waiter.

‘We questioned the manager of the hotel. It seems this waiter, was a last minute addition. New to the hotel. We don’t have pictures of him, but in your file, you will find a sketch of him based on the description provided.

‘The car in which she was abducted was found abandoned on a side road, about 20 kms from the hotel. Fingerprints found in the car have been lifted. We are waiting on the finger prints results. They should be ready by tomorrow.

‘The car registration shows that it belongs to one Mr. Himen Choudhury of Daryaganj. Mr. Choudhury reported the car as being stolen two days ago. He was questioned about it, but suffice to say that Mr. Choudhury’s alibi is water-tight and therefore is not a suspect.’

‘What alibi?’ asked Sachin.

‘Mr. Choudhury is about 45 years old. The waiter in question was in his early thirties,’ Ratan said.

‘Rani Sahiba was present at the party yesterday. However, none of the primaries have been able to give us an adequate description of this Rani Sahiba, so far.

‘We caught a good break today when Mr. Raizada pointed out the similarities between four victims and Ms. Gupta. So now we know we have two parallel crimes taking place. Rani Sahiba and Shyam are involved in both these cases.

‘Rani Sahiba is still elusive at this point, but Ms. Cromley has been working with Ms. Gupta to get a profile for both Rani Sahiba and Shyam. Ms. Cromley?’ he stepped back and Pat took his place.

‘Rani Sahiba and Shyam Jha work as a team. She is the alpha person in this team - the leader. She is probably a woman in her mid-thirties to forties. She is a career woman, and a success in her field. Whatever her field is, it includes working with and/or access to young beautiful girls. Rani Sahiba is bi-sexual, that is, that she likes both men and women. She possibly indulges in S&M practices. Since these are more or less taboo in India, it means that she has traveled extensively in Western countries, where such practices are more common. We should look for a rich, successful career woman, who has traveled extensively in the West. Being successful also means that she has access to finances that are beyond the reach of the average person. She would probably own the properties where the girls are kept until they are sold. This woman is well-known enough to be invited to the Raizada wedding. From this we can infer that she will be someone that the Raizadas do business with on a regular basis.’

She took a deep breath and looked at her notes.

‘Shyam Jha. He is a male in his mid-thirties. We know this from descriptions that Khushi has provided us. He is financially supported by Rani Sahiba. He has been living in her shadow ever since their marriage or whatever relationship he has with her. He is charming and smooth, and this makes him the perfect bait for their targets. He entices them to meet with Rani Sahiba. Once that is done, they abuse the women sexually and use them. Finally selling them off into the slave market. Physically he is a powerful man and he likes to show that power off in front of Rani Sahiba. In his mind, he attempts to show her that she is not the leader, he is.’

She sipped from a glass of water before continuing.

‘Coming to Khushi Kumari Gupta. The first known contact between Khushi and Rani Sahiba was in Delhi, when she started getting blank calls. Later she (air quotes) bumped into Shyam Jha. They became friends, as the blank calls had already alienated her from her best friends. It is obvious that Shyam had been following her around, taking pictures of her and perhaps, also making those blank calls. Then one day he drugged and kidnapped her. There two possibilities here. (a) That Khushi had been targeted solely by Shyam as a possible slave or (b) that Khushi had already caught the eye of Rani Sahiba some time prior to their move to Delhi. The time period would be immediately preceding this move. The latter seems to be a more probable scenario.

‘The reason I say this is because she continued receiving those calls after she reached the US. Then the calls began when she came here. Obviously, she has not been forgotten. Rani Sahiba has fixated on Khushi as the one that got away. During the period when Khushi was away in the US, four girls were murdered that looked very similar to Khushi. This is a classic expression of transference by the killer. He or she wants to have the real thing. They find a replacement, but when they realize that it is only a replacement, they kill the girl. The particularly brutal nature of these homicides exhibits the anger that the perp has towards Khushi.

‘Rani Sahiba still wants Khushi, and she is unwilling to let her go.

‘I believe that the kidnapping was a solo attempt by Shyam to get Khushi to Rani Sahiba as a prize offering. But as we know, it failed.

‘Our first priority should be to find Rani Sahiba. She is the mastermind behind the whole slave trade. But with the murders, she has become a dangerous woman and must be treated as armed and dangerous. Shyam, whether on her orders or not, is also capable of murder, and therefore should also be considered dangerous.’

Pat finished her spiel and sat down. The operatives were given time to ask her questions and she answered them as honestly as she could.

‘What can we expect from them? That is, how do we expect them to behave at this point?’ asked Amar.

‘Their escalation has already occurred. Since they knew Khushi would be at the wedding, they have kept a close eye on her, so they must be shadowing her. The failed attempt yesterday might act as a trigger to a more violent attempt to get to her.’

‘Shouldn’t we be warning the Raizadas and the Guptas about this?’

‘Mr. Raizada has Khushi at his home. It’s fairly securely guarded from what he has told us. But it would not be past Rani Sahiba or Shyam make another attempt. Moreover, she will not be in the house all day. She has to go out and about. If they are watching her, then they will definitely make the attempt outside the Raizada house.’

The meeting dispersed soon afterwards and Pat found herself alone with Ratan.

‘The CCTV tapes from the hotel have just arrived,’ he said. ‘We should start looking through them and see if we can spot him.’

‘Why don’t we get Khushi in here tomorrow, too?’ asked Pat. ‘She’d know if she saw him, surely?’

‘Good idea, Ms. Cromley,’ he said.

‘Also, Ratan,’ she said. ‘I think it would be a good idea to have someone watch the Raizada mansion. If Shyam and Rani Sahiba are following her, then this would be the ideal place to do so.’ She ran a hand through her hair, feeling tired and grimy after this long day. Suddenly she remembered something. ‘Ratan, I need a gun,’ she said.

He nodded his head. ‘What kind do you prefer? Our standard issues are Glocks or Brownings.’

‘The Glock,’ she said, ‘I’m more comfortable with it.’

‘I’ll have one assigned to you,’ he nodded, opening the door to let her out.


Nani, Payal and Anjali were waiting impatiently in the lounge. They’d seen the SUV pull up but it seemed like it was taking a long time for the two of them to come inside. Finally the door opened and Khushi and Arnav walked it.

‘Chotey, you’re back!’ said Anjali with a delighted smile. He looked at his sister at a loss for words. Why does she always have to state the obvious? he thought.

‘Yeah, di,’ he gave a slight nod and a grimace that passed for a smile. He headed for the stairs, leaving Khushi alone. She moved towards her room when Anjali’s voice stopped them both in their tracks.

‘Have you had lunch?’ she asked sweetly, obviously unaware of the palpitating tension between the two of them. Payal and Nani watched with barely suppressed smiles. Anjali could make anyone’s life hell with her sweet- coated words.

‘No, di,’ he said. ‘We didn’t have time.’

‘What?’ Anjali was astonished. ‘It’s almost two and you two couldn’t get lunch? Come and sit down, both of you, right now,’ she took charge. They protested that they weren’t hungry, but when she got on a charger there was no stopping Anjali. The two of them finally sat down at the dining table, and Hari brought out food for them.

Khushi realized how hungry she was and began to dig into her food.

‘Khushi,’ said her sister. ‘How was your day?’

‘Good, jiji,’ she said. ‘It was good.’

Anjali tried to make conversation with Chotey, but he was answering in monosyllables, his brows together in a glower. The day that had begun so well for him, had rapidly gone downhill. He was wondering how the hell he’d let it happen. The imp just looked at him, shook his head and let himself out the door. As soon as they finished eating the two of them headed off in opposite directions and very soon, the trio heard two doors slam almost in unison.

‘What the?!’ said Anjali. ‘I wonder what happened between them?’

‘Looks like they had another fight,’ said Nani.

‘Khushi is a very stubborn girl. Whatever it is, he is going to have a hard time making it up to her,’ said Payal worriedly.

‘And why should Chotey be the one making up, pray?’ asked his sister defensively.

‘Because my sister .. ,’ Payal stopped. Good grief! This was her first day in the house, and already she was getting into it with her sister-in-law! She swallowed back what she was about to say and then said mildly, ‘I mean, I’m sure she irritated your brother about something.’

Naniji smiled at that. Good work, Payal! she thought approvingly. ‘Anjali, in a relationship, it’s always better for a man to apologize. He is the one that has to do the making up, even if she is in the wrong.’

‘Wait,’ she held up her hand, ‘and why haven’t you given this piece of advice to your grandson-in-law?’

Naniji laughed merrily at that and instead turned to Payal. ‘I think you should go see why your sister is so angry.’ Turning to Anjali she said, ‘and get Akash to talk to Chotey now.’

‘But Nani, he is in such a temper right now,’ she was worried.

‘Exactly. He won’t be thinking straight,’ slyly.

‘Nani, you are beyond great,’ said Anjali with a big grin on her face.


Khushi was standing in the middle of her room. She’d kicked off her heels as soon as she’d got in. The jacket was off, and she was alternately pacing the floor and muttering to herself. Hearing the knock on her door, she walked across to fling it open, startled to find Payal there.

‘Jiji,’ she said.

Payal walked in without an invite, taking in the handbag thrown in a corner, the shoes in two different places and the jacket tossed on the chair. Khushi was in a fine mood, she thought. Gently now, she told herself.

‘Khushi? What is it?’ she put a soft hand on her sister’s shoulder.

Khushi stood there for a moment rocking on her feet before going, ‘aaarrgghhh!!! I am so pissed... I could.. Who does he.... ‘

‘How about you complete one sentence at a time?’ her sister raised an eyebrow at her.

‘Jiji, I am just so mad!’

Payal took in the red flags on her cheeks and innocently said, ‘Who’s he?’

‘Arnav Singh Raizada. Dear Lord, give me patience. The man thinks no end of himself.’ Payal kept quiet waiting for the tirade to finish. ‘What does he mean by telling me how I should live my life? Where I should go and what I should do?’

‘Perhaps because he wants to,’ Payal slid that thought in, quietly.

‘He .... What?!’ Khushi looked at her sister, her anger falling like a cloak at her feet.

‘Perhaps because he wants to.’ Payal repeated. ‘Or perhaps because he thinks he has the right to. ... Does he, Khushi?’ her eyes searched her sister’s face.

Khushi slumped onto the bed, head bent taking that in. She could feel her heart racing at the possibility. She looked up with lost eyes at her sister, ‘I don’t know, Jiji. I really don’t.’

Payal let it go. ‘Go take a shower, you’ll feel better, then come join us for tea.’

She nodded, slowly getting up and walking to the bathroom. Her sister followed her with worried eyes. Arnav seemed to have made a dent on Khushi. But was it mutual?


Akash in the meantime, had gone looking for Arnav. He knocked on the door, and heard a short ‘Come in.’ So in he went carrying two cans of Coke.

Arnav had obviously just come out of the shower, a towel wrapped low on his hips, hair still dripping water. His laptop, a bag and a box lay on the bed, which was quite unlike him, since he was almost obsessively neat.

‘So, bro, how did it go with the buyer today?’ he asked.

Arnav stared at him blankly. Buyer? What buyer? ‘What?’

‘You know, the one from America that you and Khushi were going to meet this morning. Although why you would take her to meet a buyer, I didn’t quite get.’ Smooth, Akash, he thought to himself. He watched as Arnav turned away, picking up his blow dryer to dry his hair, the buzzing drowning out any conversation that Akash might want to have.

‘It was good,’ said Arnav, when he realized Akash wasn’t going anywhere.

‘ why didn’t you take her to lunch then?’ Akash continued his quiz.

‘Did you come here to ask me about the buyer or was there something else?’ he was pulling on his warmups as he spoke before pulling out a white tee and slipping that on.

Akash waved the two cans of Coke. ‘I just thought we could hang out for a bit, relax, chew the cud, so to speak.’ He handed over the diet Coke to his brother, who nodded and popped open the can. They headed out to the pool, pulling a couple of chairs into the sun.

‘So you want to chew the cud with me? Akash, you got married yesterday! Shouldn’t you be spending time with your wife?’

‘She’s busy with the womenfolk. They have another rasam coming up! These never-ending rasams,’ he groaned. ‘Bro, if you ever get married, just run away, elope, okay?’ Nicely done, Akash, he patted himself on the back.

‘I’m not getting married,’ Arnav scoffed. He pause and then said, ‘Well, at least not in the near future.’

‘So you ARE thinking about getting married?’

‘What?! I never said that,’ he looked at his brother over the rim of the can as he raised it to his lips. What was he going on about? ‘Why’re we talking about my marriage?’ he asked.

Akash looked down and said shyly, ‘you know, bro. Marriage is a pretty cool thing.’ He looked away into the distance. The poetic look, and then turned to look at his brother who had a baffled expression on his face.


‘Really, bro. It’s beautiful. Just being with the person you love.... Knowing she’s yours for all the days of your lives..... it’s a really great feeling .. being in love....’

Arnav snorted and shook his head.

Akash was wondering how to introduce Khushi into the conversation when the bulb lit up inside his head. ‘But of course, you wouldn’t understand.’

‘What makes you say that?’

‘You do understand?’

‘Akash,’ Arnav was now getting annoyed. ‘What the hell are you talking about?’

‘Being in love, bro’ he watched his brother closely. Arnav pulled out his shades and put them on. He also found the slow rise of color in his brother’s neck very interesting. ‘You got something you wanna talk about?’ he asked gently.

Arnav shook his head and looked away. ‘No,’ he said shortly.

‘Oh well, I’d better go,’ said Akash. His phone rang. He listened for a moment and said, ‘Okay, Payal. I’ll tell Khushi.’ From the corner of his eye, he watched his brother jerk at the name. Oh ho! Not so immune, are we, brother mine? he thought, grinning in his head. He hung up and looked at Arnav. ‘I gotta go call Khushi. Payal wants her for something.’

Arnav nodded and said nothing. As he reached the French doors, Arnav stood up, ‘Akash! Why don’t you go to Payal? I’ll send Khushi.’

‘Sure, bro, thanks,’ said Akash before turning away with a huge grin on his face. Excuses, excuses, Arnav Singh Raizada. All you want is an excuse to see her.


Gauri Virdi paced the floor of her penthouse apartment. She hadn’t heard from him in over twenty hours. The wait was killing her. Something had happened yesterday. She was sure of it. Something that took ASR and Khushi out of the room for over an hour. Was it the same something that made him leave? She looked out of the window, tapping the glass with her long red nails. Come on, where are you? she thought. She looked at her phone. No messages, no calls, no nothing. Where was he?

The doorbell rang and she turned around. Her manservant ran to open it. Shyam stood in the doorway. He’d shaved off his moustache and got rid of the glasses. Now the only thing that remained of his disguise was his hair. There wasn’t much he could do about it.

She marched over to him and yelled, ‘What the fuck, Shyam? Where the hell have you been?’

‘Rani Sahiba, I’m sorry. But I needed some time to change and rest up before I came here.’

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Walk the Line - Chapter 40

Arnav relaxed on his favorite lounger next to the pool, sipping his coffee and reading the newspaper. Behind him in the house, he could hear conversations and sounds of breakfast being made. He was glad he’d opted for a swim instead of a shower. He felt totally invigorated after the dozen laps he’d done, and was ready to face the day. The newspaper was just a facade, however, because all he could see was her flushed face in the throes of passion, and all he could hear was the long-drawn out, throaty ‘Arnav’ from her lips. He hadn’t realized that he’d been smiling to himself, until Nani sat down across from him.

‘Chotey,’ she smiled at him as he lowered the newspaper. ‘What’s going on? You look very happy today.’

He looked Nani in the eye and said, ‘nothing,’ but continued smiling.

She smiled at him gently and said, ‘your face says differently, Chotey. What happened?’

‘Nothing, Nani. Seriously,’ he tried to look serious while saying it. Getting up, he said, ‘is breakfast ready? I have to be going. I’ll go and get changed then.’

‘Almost ready. It’s Payal’s first day in the kitchen, you know.’

‘Ah! Of course,’ he turned away to leave, when Nani stopped him.

‘By the way, where were you coming back from in this morning?’

He stopped in his tracks and could feel the heat burning up his throat. Taking a moment to compose himself, he slowly turned back, ‘this morning?’ with one eyebrow raised, trying to buy time to think, Arnav, think! THINK!!

‘I saw you, coming around the pool,’ she explained.

‘Oh, I’d gone to check on the sprinklers,’ he improvised as quickly as he could. Then stopping suddenly, he said, ‘is Khushi up? I need to take her ..... to the office.’


‘Er... yah,’ he said, nodding vigorously.

‘I haven’t seen her yet,’ Nani said.

‘No worries, Nani, I’ll see you at breakfast.’ He turned around quickly and walked away. Shit! He’d have to be careful next time, he thought. Next time, Dude? the imp was roflmao at him. So you plan on a next time, hunh? Ah, shut the front door, said ASR rudely to the imp.

Breakfast was a cheery affair. Payal had prepared almost a full meal for breakfast, keeping in mind Nani’s and Arnav’s dietary restrictions. The food was served out by the pool, everyone finding loungers and chairs where they could relax and eat. Khushi sat with Payal and Anjali, happily chatting with them while she ate. Arnav had been looking to find a way to join her, but he ended up sitting alone. He looked up only to find her totally focused on her meal. Finally, he could take it no more, ‘Khushi!’ he exclaimed, much to everyone’s surprise.

He cleared his throat and tried again, as she looked on in astonishment along with the rest. ‘Khushi, we have to leave in fifteen minutes or we’ll be late for our appointment,’ he said.

She frowned, ‘Appointment?’

‘Yes, the buyer from America?’ he reminded her. She finally got it.

‘Oh, I forgot about that. Right. I’m ready, I just need to get my purse and my laptop.’

He nodded. ‘I’ll get the car out,’ before pushing back his chair and standing up. ‘Excuse me. Di, I don’t know when I’ll be back, so don’t wait lunch for me.’

‘What about Khushi?’ Anjali asked.

‘I’ll bring her back with me,’ his voice brooked no arguments. He left out of the front door.

Khushi quickly finished eating and stood up, ‘I have to leave as well,’ she apologized.

‘No problem, dear, Arnav is waiting. You should leave,’ Nani smiled kindly at her.

She hurried outside, heading for his SUV. He got out of the car when he saw her coming, his heart quickening its pace as it did every time he saw her these days. She was dressed in a business suit today, a pearl grey suit, with a strawberry pink shirt, her lips outlined in matching gloss, and her hair in a ponytail. Four inch black Loubotins were on her feet; she looked elegant yet business like. He went around and took her bags, dumping them on the back seat, before opening the passenger door and helping her in.

Getting into the driver’s seat, he leaned over to her, splaying his palms across her back and hauling her close. Her hands automatically went to his shoulders as his lips came down on hers in a hungry, eyes-closed, open-mouth, tongues-dueling, hearts-racing, hands-all-over-each-other kiss.

The rear door opened and NK poked his head in with a ‘Whoa!’ at the sight that met his eyes. Nannav and Khushi in a passionate kiss! What the heck was going on here?

They froze in place, eyes flying wide open looking at each other before drawing apart.

‘NK!’ he recovered first. ‘What the hell?’

‘Nannav, that should be my question,’ he protested. ‘What the hell is going on?’

‘And What. Exactly. D’you think was going on?’ he gritted out.

‘NK, Arnav, stop it!’ said Khushi. She twisted around in her seat to look at NK behind her. ‘NK, what are you doing here?’

‘I came to see if I could get a ride to the hotel, that’s all,’ he mumbled, blushing a bright pink at what he’d ended up witnessing, raking a hand through this hair, looking anywhere but at them.

‘Alright,’ she sighed. ‘Just get in. Arnav?’

‘Yeah, Let’s drop him first,’ he agreed, in a low angry voice, putting the car into gear.


Back at the pool, Akash smirked as he came and sat down next to his wife. ‘We should do something about those two,’ he said. Now that he was married, like all other happily married people, he wanted everybody else to be happily married.

‘What do you mean, Akash?’ asked Anjali.

They’d gathered around a circular table; cups of coffee and tea and gossip was the order of the day. Nani was content, and this was a topic that she would dearly like to address.

‘Yes, Akash, is there something you’re not telling us?’ she asked.

‘Actually,’ he was wondering how to put it delicately. ‘I think Bhai likes Khushi, a lot. Perhaps we should ask him how much?’ He paused and added, ‘actually, I know he likes her a lot.’

Payal was giggling next to him. She’d told him about the time she’d seen them kiss, and he’d told her about the airport kiss at that point. After all, they were husband and wife, so there were no secrets between them.

‘Since when do you know this?’ Anjali asked.

‘Since San Francisco,’ he replied a little shamefacedly.

She tilted her head to one side, ‘and you never thought to tell me about this?’

‘Bhai would kill me if I did,’ he protested. ‘In fact, he told me he would.’

They all looked at each other. Anjali looked at Payal and said, ‘Bhabi, you should ask Khushi.’

‘I did, but she wouldn’t say anything. She did seem happy. Though the other day, he came by late at night, and said he wanted to talk to her alone. When he left she was crying,’ Payal frowned at the memory.

‘Did Chotey make her cry?’ Anjali was shocked.

‘No.... no... I don’t think it was him. Something else seemed to be the matter,’ she said.

Akash sat up straighter. He didn’t want to talk about the whole situation with the security since Arnav had made him promise not to. Besides, once again, it was their matter to talk about. He didn’t know the whole story and he doubted very much that Payal did either. No point in raising the matter here, but he was going to ask her about it in private, he thought.

They wondered what it could be that Khushi and Arnav were obviously keeping from them. Anjali brought the conversation back to point. ‘So. Who’s going to ask Arnav?’ Blank faces met her question. At which point she turned to her husband and said, ‘I think it should be you.’

‘Why not Akash?’ Dilip protested. ‘He already knows about them.’

‘I don’t even know there’s a them, Jijaji,’ Akash threw his hands up.

‘Akash, you’re the one who started this topic. So. You’re the one who’s gonna ask him. And Bhabi, you’re going to ask that sweet sister of yours what she thinks of that sweet brother of mine.’

Payal’s big eyes opened even wider. ‘Oh no!’ she exclaimed, much to everyone’s amusement.

‘That,’ said Anjali with a flourish, ‘is your first official task as a Raizada daughter-in-law.’ Payal sighed in defeat.


They drew up in front of the CBI offices, having first dropped NK off at the hotel. To everyone else, they were in the office. Checking in at the front desk, they were told to wait. A few minutes later Ratan Singh came out and led them back to the war room.

Pat, Bhardwaj and the rest of the team sat or stood around the large table. Notes, maps, pictures, graphs hung on all the walls. Khushi looked at it all, trying not to feel intimidated. Once they all settled down after introductions, Bhardwaj took the lead.

‘Ms. Gupta, can you please tell us what happened last night?’ She went over the details of her short account with them, stopping every now and then to answer a question raised by some of the team members. She’d finished the account by telling them how when she came to, she found herself in the hotel room.

At this point, Arnav told them what had happened the night before. He was an astute observer, he just didn’t how much, until he was questioned on details. Little things, the necklace on the stairs, the make of the car - these had leapt out to the detectives. They took notes while the two of them spoke, and finally they were done.

‘Can you remember anything else, either of you?’

‘Just one more thing’ she said, keeping her gaze averted from Arnav. He’d been holding her hand under the table while she spoke, giving her silent support. She swallowed. ‘Rani Sahiba was at the party last night.’

‘What?!’ Arnav’s eyes opened wide, his hand clamping down on hers. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’

‘It was just before we left,’ she looked apologetically at him. ‘Everyone was milling around. She came up and told me I looked beautiful.’ Her voice shook. ‘I didn’t want to spoil the party,’ she said. ‘I looked for her, but I didn’t see her, she was somewhere in the shadows. There were too many people there.’

‘What was she wearing?’ from Ratan.

‘Sari, I guess. There were quite a few ladies in saris standing around there.’

Pat had sat quietly listening to the narrative. She spoke up. ‘You have a guest list, I presume?’ she asked Arnav.

He answered in the affirmative, before taking out his phone and calling Wendy. ‘Wendy? Arnav Singh Raizada,’ he said. ‘Do you have a list of the attendees to the party yesterday?.. You do?... Good. Would you mind faxing it over to this number please?’ Ratan slid over a business card, with a number circled on it. He read out the number to Wendy, and repeated it to confirm. ‘Thanks, Wendy. Can you send it asap?... Thanks.... Bye.’ He hung up. One of the operatives went out to the fax machine waiting for it to come through.

‘We also need a list of the attendants at the party, those who were on duty yesterday,’ said Bhardwaj.

‘Sure,’ said Arnav before once more dialing. The hotel manager had been dreading this call and was relieved to find out that all his boss wanted was the list of employees working last night, as well as their contact info. ‘Fax it to me,’ Arnav barked. ‘The number is...’ he read out the number from the card, again.

Pat got up and said, ‘Khushi, would you please come with me?’ Khushi nodded her assent.

Arnav squeezed her hand as she got up and left with Pat. ‘What now?’ he asked Bhardwaj.

‘Ratan here is leading the investigation. I’ll leave him to continue,’ he answered, before stepping out the door.

Ratan stood at the head of the table, ‘let Ms.Cromley talk to Khushi. In the meantime, let’s go over the lists that we have and see if anything pops up. The two names we are looking for are Shyam Manohar Jha and Sudhir Kumar Jha, including aliases and initials. The police are still looking for the getaway car, and we’re waiting on that.’

The operative came back into the room with the two sets of names. They all sat down and began going through names and addresses, cross-checking both lists for similar addresses. Arnav sat for a while listening to them talk. Then he got up and wandered over to the wall where pictures of girls had been pinned. The missing girls, he thought. He looked at them carefully, wondering who their families were, and where these girls were now. Were they even alive?

Something caught his eye and he looked over the pictures again. Then he turned around and said, ‘Excuse me?’ Ratan raised his head from the file in front of him. ‘Are these the girls that went missing?’ The operative nodded. ‘Can I take these pictures down and look at them?’ Ratan narrowed his eyes. ‘There’s .. I’d like to see if ...’ Arnav shook his head as he tried a third time. His throat was dry now and the cleared it before trying one more time. ‘There’s something here, I think.’

Ratan was intrigued. What had they missed that ASR had spotted so easily? He got up and came around staring at the pictures. Nothing jumped out at him. He looked at ASR who was still staring at the photos. ‘Go ahead, take them down,’ he said. Each photo in any case was numbered with date and name. They could always reorganize it.

Arnav took them over to the other end of the table that was relatively empty. He spread the photos across the table top looking at them carefully. Then he pulled out his phone and scrolled through the pictures, coming to one of Khushi. He’d taken it yesterday, during the party. She had been laughing at something someone had said. The profile was three quarters only, but her features were clearly visible. He laid the phone down in the center of the photos and picked out the four pics that had caught his eye. The others he moved aside, but these four were different. He laid them down under Khushi’s picture and a chill ran through him. The girls bore a striking resemblance to her. Each one was different yet the similarity was unmistakable! He turned over each of the pictures. Name: (Name), DOB: (date), DOD: (date), COD: HOM. Each of these girls were dead. Each of them had died in the last four years. Each of them were between 19-21 years of age. Cause of Death was Homicide.

Ratan watched him turn pale as he picked out four photos and turned them over. He knew what ASR was reading. Quite a few women on that list had turned up dead, like these girls. ‘What’s the matter, ASR?’ he asked clapping a head on the taller man’s shoulder.

Wordlessly, ASR handed him the phone and the four photos. The resemblance jumped out at him. These four girls hadn’t been part of the slave trade. They’d been part of the Khushi side of the equation! The only reason why they had jumped out at ASR was because he knew her so well. Her face was imprinted in his memory and the leaps his brain had made was due to that imprint. Put those pictures in with a mess of photos and it would be hard to find the resemblance, which was why nobody had spotted it earlier.

Ratan’s face broke into a grin. ‘Thanks, ASR!’ he said. ‘This is great.’

ASR shook his head, still feeling stunned by what he’d found. He wanted to delete that picture of Khushi right away. It didn’t belong with those four girls.

‘Can you give us this picture of Ms. Gupta?’ Ratan said. ‘We need to print it.’

‘Sure,’ he said, ‘I’ll email you.‘ He sent the message. As soon as the email arrived, an operative sent it to the printer in the corner of the room, which hummed for a few seconds before spewing out an 8.5”x11” vivid colour print of a smiling Khushi Kumari Gupta.

Arnav sat down in a corner, feeling sick to his stomach. So, this Shyam and Rani Sahiba were murderers, too? His brain was whirling, wondering what he was up against. He could stand up in any business meeting, any big conference to address crowds of people but he didn’t feel a hundredth of how nervous he suddenly felt at this moment. The magnitude of evil he was facing now, was much, much worse than he’d imagined. The room hummed with activity as his brains hummed as well. At the back of his mind, the patterns were forming, he was beginning to understand the implications of what he’d just found out, but he was unwilling to open that can of worms. One thing was certain. Khushi had to be kept out of their reach. She’d been safer in America, he thought.

The cups of black coffee he’d had were burning the lining of his stomach. It was almost two hours later that Pat and Khushi walked back into the room. A glance at her face told him she’d been crying. However, there was a calm and peace about her that hadn’t been there before. He got up and went to her, holding on to her hands, uncaring of who was looking at them. ‘You okay?’ he asked, she nodded, yes.

Before he could say anything, a peon knocked and walked into the room. In his hand was a file which he handed to Ratan. He opened it and started reading it, a slow smile forming on his face. ‘They found the car,’ he said, ‘with fingerprints. That’s a good start.’ There were smiles around the room. ‘They’re bringing it in for testing.’

‘Ms. Gupta,’ he addressed her directly. ‘We need your help. We know you were the target at yesterdays’ incident, but we need you to focus on the list of guests. Circle the people you know, acquaintances, relatives, friends.’ He handed over a sheaf of papers to her. ‘Mark them and give them to us.’ But before that, we need you to go through these photos and see if your abductor from last night is there.’ He handed her a flat spiral bound file. Unknown to her, it contained the pictures of the wait staff from the hotel.

Arnav and she sat poring over the pictures. She found the picture of the waiter who’d told her that Arnav wanted to speak to her, but she couldn’t find the picture of her abductor. Arnav put a note next to it, this was the same waiter who’d told him a ‘lady’ was looking for him.

‘Ratan,’ he said, ‘this waiter. He told Khushi that I wanted to speak to her. Later he told me that she was looking for me.’ The CBI officer looked at the back of the photo and handed it Sachin, one of the operatives. ‘Get him in here for questioning,’ he said. Sachin nodded and left through the door.

Pat took the file and began going through the pictures as well. Something struck her. ‘Ratan, how many wait staff were there?’

‘Fifty,’ he replied.

She quickly did a count. ‘So why are there only forty-nine pictures in here, counting that one?’

Ratan looked at her puzzled. ‘What do you mean?’

‘There are nine pages of wait staff. Six prints to a page. That’s forty-eight prints. He’s got one. Where’s the last one?’

One of the other agents, Amar, pounced on the sheet and between him and Pat they started to match through the list of names and photos. One was missing. Jaswant Sodhi. JS. SJ. Shyam Jha. Ratan dialed Sachin. ‘Get the manager from the hotel as well,’ he said, looking at Arnav, who nodded slightly.

They finished marking the list of guests and handed over the sheets to Ratan. ‘Thank you for coming in, Ms. Gupta, Mr. Raizada. You’ve been enormously helpful,’ he said, shaking their hands. Arnav lifted a brow questioningly. Why hadn’t he mentioned anything about the pictures to Khushi? The team lead shook his head slightly. Not now. He looked at Pat. I want to hear what she has to say first. Arnav shook his hand again, taking Khushi’s elbow and leading her out of the room.

‘What was that about?’ she asked him.

‘What was what about?’ he raised his eyebrows.

‘That little by-play with Ratan,’ she frowned at him.

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ he denied.

‘Arnav. I know that look. What WAS all that about?’

‘Nothing, Khushi. You’re imagining things,’ he said. ‘I want to go to the office now, can we go?’

‘Fine,’ she sulked, ‘be that way. See if I care.’

For once, he was in no mood to indulge her.

They drove to the office in silence. His entire staff was a little surprised to see him come in, with Ms Gupta in tow. Aman came hurrying up. ‘ASR, you said you weren’t coming in today. Do you want some coffee?’

Thinking of the cups he’d downed at CBI he shook his head. ‘Nope. I just need some files, after which I’ll get going.’ He ran up the stairs to his room, making sure to close the door behind him. Khushi stopped in Lavanya’s office to say hello, but ended up spending a good five minutes rehashing last night. Finally, she made her way up to Arnav’s cabin. She entered without knocking and was surprised to see him shutting the safe on the back wall. A flat, black, wooden box lay on the table, something that he’d obviously taken out from the safe. It didn’t belong there. It looked like a cigar box, but it wasn’t. There were no markings on it.

He looked up when she entered and said, ‘hold on. Let me put this stuff away,’ putting some files in a file cabinet and picking up some more. He picked up a bag and put the files in there, but the box was too big to go into it.

‘Here let me carry it,’ she offered.

‘No,’ he said, a little too sharply. She was taken aback. What was going on with him? He’d been behaving very strangely with her since they’d left the CBI building. He’d been mostly quiet on the drive back., but now this sharpness? What was running through that convoluted head of his?

He could read the confusion in her eyes, but he wasn’t going to say anything at this point. He couldn’t. If what he was suspecting was true, then he didn’t want to worry her any further.

They left the office and were heading back to Raizada Mansion when he asked, ‘you’re parents are going back on Saturday, right?’

‘Yes,’ she was still sulking a little.

‘Are you going back with them?’

She looked at him. He was staring straight ahead, his expression blank, his eyes flat. ‘Yes, I think so.’

‘Good,’ he said. ‘I think you should.’


Monday, October 22, 2012

Walk the Line - Chapter 39

Dinner wound down and it was time now for the speeches. Arnav had organized this a little like a Western wedding. So there were toasts, and fun and teasing and laughter. The ballroom was quickly cleared of dinner and the Deejay started playing music. The lights were dimmed while strobes and lasers hit the floor. People started heading towards the dance floor as the front half of the room had been transformed into a nightclub. Drinks were flowing freely and those that wanted to sit down and enjoy the party could still do so, while the youngsters were enjoying themselves as well. The music came to a halt and a couple of spotlights focused on the deejay.

No one had actually started dancing at this point, so the floor was still empty. ‘Ladies and Gentlemen,’ he growled into the mic. ‘This evening is a special one - for Akash and his lovely Payal. This first dance is dedicated to the couple of the moment. Give it up for them - Akash and Payal Singh Raizada!’ A slow, dreamy song came on as Akash led Payal to the floor. Everybody clapped as they moved into the center of the floor, a single spotlight on them. Everyone held their breath as the two of them couldn’t seem to look away from each other, lost in their own private little world. Mothers wiped their teary eyes while fathers watched with lumps in their throat. So beautiful!

As the song moved into the second refrain, a few more spotlights hit the floor. NK and Lavanya stepped into the light, swaying to the music, content to just barely move to the rhythm. Arnav stood watching them from the side, with Khushi’s hand tucked into his arm. He knew what he wanted to do, but this was his brother’s evening, so he’d wanted to wait awhile. With NK on the floor, and Jaime leading Pat on to it as well, it was time for him. He held Khushi’s hand and led her out to the floor. He held her loosely, aware that this wasn’t the place to hold her as close as he wanted to. He looked down at her and smiled, she looked up at him and smiled. Automatically, his arms pulled her in a little closer. He bent his head to her and whispered, ‘I could keep doing this all night!’ She blushed and turned her face towards him, both of them unaware of the hundreds of eyes on them. He pushed her away, holding on to her hand, and then twirled her close, dipping her, circling her, his eyes never leaving her, his hands never stopping touching her. She kept her eyes on him too, not wanting to lose even one moment of this magical evening. The sound of clapping brought them back to earth.

More spotlights hit the floor, and the music changed to something uptempo. More young couples and older ones too began dancing on the floor. Anjali and Nani on one side and Anna and Shashi on the other side had watched Arnav and Khushi dance. They had seemed even more lost in each other than Payal and Akash if that were possible.

Anna turned to Shashi and said, ‘do you see what I am seeing?’ He nodded. ‘I’m worried for her, Shashi.’

He looked at her puzzled. ‘Why?’

‘Did you notice how long the two of them were missing? And NK came up with this story of her having spilt food on her dress, she said spilt orange juice. So what was it - food? or orange juice? Something happened, Shashi. And I think young Mr. Raizada knows about it.’

‘Anna, our daughter is an adult. She has to make these decisions on her own. We’ve raised her with good, strong values. And I know she won’t disappoint us by doing something she’ll regret. My only worry is, we leave for the US next week. What happens then?’

‘My point exactly, Shashi. What then? If he hasn’t said anything by now, when will he?’

‘Anna, we can’t rush it. There’s one thing about him. He’s got a solid head on his shoulders. He might not know it or acknowledge it, but he’s as much a traditionalist like Khushi is, especially about things that matter. So let’s leave them to work it out. I’m sure they’ll come to the right conclusions.’

‘What right conclusions, Nani?’ asked Anjali on the other side. ‘Look at how they were dancing. It’s obvious and Chotey is making a public display of it. Something he never does. I think we should just ask him, Nani,’ she said.

‘Anjali, you know Chotey will shy away from such things if we ask him. He has to make his own choices. This is how he is,’ said Nani.

‘Nani - for once I have to agree with Anjali,’ Dilip chimed in. ‘Chotey will not go the extra mile to say what he wants to say. Years of practice have left him handicapped. Something or someone will have to force him to say it. And if asking him does it, then why not?’

‘I don’t know, Dilip,’ Nani answered. She was worried about Chotey. He’d had girlfriends before, they all knew it. But he’d never displayed affection so openly before. There was something different with this girl. And while she couldn’t imagine Khushi hurting him, she could very well imagine him hurting Khushi, just so he could crawl back into his shell again.

Unknown to them, Rani Sahiba stood just behind them and had listened to every word of their conversation. She was worried too now. She’d seen them together today, and she’d seen their little food play. So these two are now an item? she thought. The dance had been very revealing. Arnav Singh Raizada knew how to dance, and Khushi had been melting into it. An ugly scowl marked her botoxed brow. She’d been feeling jealous and disgusted ever since she’d seen how possessively Arnav had been guarding her. Right after dinner, she’d noticed it. He was always with her, never letting her out of his sight! This was going to be difficult, she thought. Difficult but not impossible. There was always a way to get what she wanted. Right after dinner, she thought. What had happened right before dinner, then? She thought back, Khushi had left by that side door. Then ASR had vanished for almost an hour. Where had they gone? And she’d come back in a different dress. Had they been....? Her eyes narrowed, and nostrils flared in anger. With compressed lips, she moved in towards her prey.

Arnav and Khushi came off the floor and were standing in the darker part of the room. The floor was quite crowded now. He felt a tap on his arm and turned around. ‘Ms. Virdi!’ he said.

‘Hi, Arnav, won’t you ask me to dance?’ She smiled up at him.

‘Would you do me the honor?’ he was just being polite. He looked around for Khushi but she was engaged in a conversation with NK and Lavanya.

‘Thank you!’ she said, curling her fingers into his arm as he led her to the floor. He held her formally at a distance as they danced. ‘So,’ she began, ‘I guess I have to ask you the one question everyone is wanting to know the answer to.’

He raised an eyebrow. ‘What?’

‘What’s going on with you and Ms Gupta?’ she smiled.

He narrowed his eyes. Anyone who knew ASR knew better than to ask him personal questions. Gauri Virdi was a business associate. She had no right to ask him a question like this. Tamping down the annoyance inside, he smiled and said, ‘it really is none of your business, Ms. Virdi’, making sure she got the hint. She didn’t.

‘Oh, come on, Arnav. I mean you two were dancing like...’ she trailed off making a suggestive gesture with her hand.

‘I don’t know what you mean, Ms. Virdi. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I see someone needs my attention.’ With that, he led her off the floor and stalked off.

Khushi had been watching him dance with Gauri and needless to say, she could feel a little green-eyed monster chewing inside her. She’d known that there would be other women around him, that could possibly want him. But he was ... hers.. her special person, she thought. He’s mine! Her eyes widened at the thought. Did she really want him to be hers in every sense of the way? ... Yes, she did.... she wanted it. But... was that what he wanted? He acted like he did... but then... he’d never said anything about it.

Just then, she heard a voice, the same obnoxious voice whisper in her ear, ‘you look beautiful today, Khushi.’ Rani Sahiba.

For a moment she stood frozen. Then she spun around. There were a dozen people walking by and in the darkness she could barely make out who they were. Rani Sahiba was here! at the party! She shivered as if cold, looking around for Arnav. She couldn’t see him anywhere. She moved closer to Jaime as he continued chatting and hooked her arm through his. He looked down at her. ‘You okay, Khushi?’ he asked. She nodded and smiled at him, although her face felt like it was cracking open with the effort.

‘Just tired,’ she said.

‘It is getting late, and I guess the party will wind down now,’ he said, patting her arm. ‘Do you want to go upstairs?’

She shook her head. ‘No, I’m fine.’ He frowned down at her taking in the pale face, but thought it must be because of what happened earlier.

She didn’t want to say anything now. It would create a ruckus and she didn’t want anything to spoil her jiji’s day. She saw her sister sitting with her new husband, their heads bent towards each other, talking and smiling. No. There was time enough tomorrow. She would tell Arnav then, she thought.

It was around midnight that Mamaji whispered something to Arnav. It was time for the bride and groom to leave. He nodded his head and signaled the DJ. Once he song finished, he picked up the mic and walked to the center of the floor. ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, once again, thank you for joining us tonight. As you know, we still have some rasams to complete, so we will be bidding you all good night. But please carry on partying, there’s still music, the bar is open, and late night snacks will be coming out soon. So please carry on!’ he concluded. There was clapping and cheering and ‘Noooo’s, but he left center stage. The music started pumping again.

The bridal party left the hall and headed up to the nineteenth floor.

Unmarked cars drew up to the rear entrance of the hotel, away from the eyes of the inquisitive press, so that the Raizadas could go home comfortably. The Guptas would take their leave of Payal here itself. Khushi was helping Payal with the last of her packing, hurrying to help her, when her phone rang. She picked it up, ‘Arnav?’ she said.

‘Pack your things as well. You’re coming home with me,’ he said.

‘Excuse me? Why?’

‘We’ve got to go to the CBI tomorrow, we might as well go from there,’ he replied. ‘Besides, I don’t want you alone in that room tonight,’ he said.

She sighed. ‘And what exactly do I tell Mum and Dad?’

He frowned and said, ‘I’ll handle it.’ He ended the call and called Shashi’s room. But before he could get through, Anjali came up to him. ‘Chotey, we are ready to leave.’ He nodded.

They walked over to the Gupta’s room, where Payal was bidding a tearful goodbye to her parents and Khushi and Jaime, hugging each of them in turn. Arnav could see Khushi sniffling as she hugged Payal, her nose red and eyes redder. As Payal turned to hug Jaime, he whispered to Khushi, ‘you are going with your sister to her in-laws’ place. Why on earth were you crying?’

She looked up at him with outrage in her eyes, tears still trembling on her eyelashes. ‘You wouldn’t understand,’ she mumbled.

He raised an eyebrow.

She said, ‘You’re not a woman.’

He raised both eyebrows, mouth pursed in an ‘O’ trying hard not to laugh at her completely senseless comeback. ‘Shouldn’t you be thanking your lucky stars I’m not?’ he murmured..

She whipped around to look at him, eyes popping open even more if it were possible.

Finally, Payal was ready to leave, and they all headed downstairs and into the waiting cars. Arnav maneuvered Khushi into his car, sinking into the seat next to her, before telling the driver to ‘Drive!’

They arrived in Shantivan in a little convoy. Akash and Payal waited in their car, while Anjali and Mami went in ahead to make sure all the preparations were ready to greet the new couple. Once they were done the front door was opened, and the newlyweds ascended the steps to the doorway. They stopped at the doorway where Anjali first did aarti for them, applying tika and sprinkling rice on them. Payal then took her first step into the house as a daughter-in-law. She lightly tapped and overturned the small metal vessel of rice and mango leaves, spilling fortune into the house. Next, she stepped into a plate of vermillion mixed in water, and then carefully stepped out. Each of her footprints marked that of prosperity being welcomed into the house.

‘Akash, now for the final rasam,‘ said Anjali. ‘You may carry your bride into the house.’

He smiled and quickly lifted up Payal into his arms carrying her like a precious load, one that he would happily carry his entire life. He carried her off to his room to the cheers and claps from below.

Khushi looked around at the happy faces and the decorated house. The whole milieu of a wedding redolent in the overpowering perfume of flowers and incense, the bright colors of the flowers and the long panels drifting from the rafters, the twinkling lights on the walls and ceiling.

Arnav tossed his car keys to Hari and said, ‘get Khushi’s bags out from the car, and put them in her room please.’

Hari ran off to do his master’s bidding. Khushi was feeling extremely sleepy at this point, and said her good nights, before heading to her room. She closed the door behind her, suddenly feeling very exhausted. Taking out a pair of simple cotton pajamas from the closet, she headed into the bathroom. A long shower later, she came out to find that Hari had left her bag on the luggage rack. With a sigh, she crawled into bed and fell asleep.

The beeping of her phone woke her up. It was still dark outside, but the dim night lamp gave her enough light to see by. The phone beeped again. She picked it up. Arnav.

She closed her eyes, her breathing even, barely getting out a ‘Hmmmm?’

‘You asleep?‘ his voice was low and husky.

‘Mmm hmmm...’

He smiled a little wryly. She was tired he knew, but he had been feeling so restless since he got back. Lying alone in bed with the moonlight playing dark and light in his room, he suddenly needed her next to him. The events of the evening had unsettled his nerves and the picture of her falling out of the car kept playing in rewind in his brain, seared on his eyelids every time he shut his eyes. For the first time, he wanted her in bed, next to him, safe. He needed to know she was safe.


‘mmmm.... what is it, Arnav?‘ her voice was raspy with sleep.

‘Nothing,‘ he said. He hung up.

She put the phone down and snuggled back into bed. She blinked her eyes open. Now she was awake. She sat up in bed, running a hand through her hair, wincing at the bump on the back of her head. A knock on her door startled her.

She got out and went over, opening it slowly. Arnav stood there, his hair was tousled, he was clad only in a white tee and low slung black silk pajamas. ‘Arnav!‘ she said, ‘what are you doing here?’

He took her arm and led her back into her room, shutting and locking the door behind him. Then he turned around and hugged her.

‘Arnav?‘ she asked, putting her arms around him. ‘What’s wrong?’

‘Nothing. Not any more,‘ he muttered. He pushed her back, looking for a long moment into her eyes, his hand smoothing her hair back from her forehead. ‘I need you tonight,‘ starkly, honestly. ‘I just need to hold you tonight.‘ Raw need blazed in his eyes. She nodded her head. They both got into bed and he scooted her over, tucking her head into his shoulder. For a moment they lay there quietly just listening to their heartbeats. ‘I’ve never ... ‘ he stopped. She lifted her head and looked at him. His eyes searched her face, as if looking for answers to the questions in his heart.

She looked at him, this strong, proud man who looked at her like he was waiting for her to give him the solace he was looking for. She lay down again, her arm hugging his chest. She ran her palms over his chest, up his throat and to his face, her fingertips running over his forehead and his eyes, his nose, his lips. He held her fingers and kissed them.

‘I’m here, Arnav,‘ she whispered, feeling safe cocooned in his arms.

He hugged her again and swallowed. Things needed to be said, he just couldn’t bring himself to say it. He didn’t know what it was that was holding him back. He kissed her on the forehead, and tucked her head under his chin. All of a sudden he felt incredibly exhausted. He sighed and closed his eyes and almost immediately fell asleep.

She stayed awake for a little while, the deep even rhythm of his breathing eventually lulling her to sleep.

The morning sky was just lightening when he woke up. With a frown he looked around the unfamiliar room and then realized where he was. He looked down at Khushi, sleeping peacefully in the crook of his shoulder, the faint flush of sleep on her cheeks. One arm was curled around his chest and one leg was thrown across his legs. He smiled, never having felt so peaceful in his life. He bent down and dropped a kiss on her forehead. She stirred slowly, opened her eyes and looked at him sleepily.

‘Good morning, sleepyhead,’ he whispered.

She smiled sleepily at him, as if it was the most natural thing for her to wake up next to him. He turned on his side, so they were face to face. His hand came up, sliding under her pajama top, along her back, pulling her a little closer. He lowered his head, his lips softly brushing hers. He could feel her smile and his lips echoed hers. He sucked on her lower lip and she sighed in pleasure, eyes closing again. His tongue lightly licked her lips and she parted them. He dipped his head further and deepened the kiss, stroking her tongue. She stroked his tongue in return, dancing into his mouth.

Their breathing was becoming ragged, flames shooting from their mouths to the tips of their toes. His hand dipped into her pajama bottoms, closing around her buttocks, pulling her under him, his leg sliding in between hers. She was breathing rapidly, her hands moving restlessly over his chest, curling around to his back, dipping lower till she found the edge of his t-shirt. She slid her hands under the shirt, skimming flames along his back, and then dipping lower under his pajama bottoms, seeking and finding his skin. His hand slipped under her top, pushing it up and he bent down to take a rosy tip into his mouth. He heard her gasp as his tongue flicked along the hard nipple. He bit softly on it, gently tugging on it and heard her moan. He was already hard with need, and was having a hard time controlling himself, but this was about her. His hand found the waistband of her pajama bottoms and slowly peeled it away along with the lace panties she had on. She gasped as his fingers found her wetness. He found the hard nub, stroked it, pressing down in circles. She groaned and he almost lost his head. The blood was pounding in his head. Her hands were under his shirt, trying desperately to take it off. He sat up and quickly tossed it off, pulling her back into his arms, her breasts flattening against his nipples, sending shivers down his back. His leg slid between hers and he groaned as his knee came into contact with her core, feeling the wetness through his pajamas. He pressed his knee up as he felt her hips writhing against him. ‘Yes, ride me, baby,’ he whispered harshly.

Her hands were in his hair, tugging him up to kiss him almost desperately. Their tongues fought with each other, as she continued riding his knee. He could hear the moans coming from her throat and more than anything he wanted to watch her come. He reached down between them, rubbing her hardened nub with his thumb, and slid a finger into her dripping wetness. She bit down on his shoulder as she felt the intrusion and began to move faster against him. He slid another finger into her, and then another, keeping the pressure against her nub, moving his fingers in and out of her, increasing the pace. She was almost crying now, deep gasps as she could feel the tension building inside her. He knew she was almost there, her head tossing on the pillow, her hands grasping for anything around her. Just as he felt she was ready to come, he whispered in her ear, ‘Come for me, Khushi, please ... come for me,’ keeping his eyes on her face.

She went over the edge at that, the explosion radiating out from her core, her back arching before shuddering in release, moaning his name holding on to his shoulders for support. She panted as she came down from her high, eyes closed. His hand still stayed inside her, lightly soothing her, feeling the aftershocks shooting through her body. He looked at her with a smile on his face. She blushed a bright red and hid her face in his shoulder. He withdrew his hand and said, ‘look at me.’ She peeked up at him as he hugged her. He smiled. ‘That was the most beautiful thing I ever heard,’ he said. She gasped and pounded his shoulder with her fist, as he chuckled. He stopped her and said, ‘yes, it was,’ very seriously.

She snuggled for a bit, and then said, ‘but you didn’t...’

‘It’s alright,’ he smiled into her hair. ‘I should get up,’ he said after a few minutes. They both sat up looking for their clothes which seemed to have been thrown into random parts of the room. He pulled on his shirt, and leaned down to kiss her, cupping her face. ‘I’ll see you at breakfast,’ he said. She nodded.

He opened the door slowly and peeked out. Thankfully, no one was around and he took the long way around the pool entering his room through the french doors. He needed a cold shower and how! he thought, looking at the wet patch on his pajama bottom, with a smirk on his face. He’d barely had three hours of sleep last night, but for some reason he felt completely awake!