Commissioner Bhardwaj heard his phone buzzing as he walked into his room. He checked the caller id. Arnav Singh Raizada. Finally. He called the number back and Arnav picked up almost immediately.
‘Arnav. Bhardwaj speaking. How are you?’
‘I’m fine, sir. I saw that you were trying to reach me.’
‘Yes, are you okay? I was getting a bit worried about you.’
Arnav shook his head impatiently. ‘It’s okay. I was out for the day, and left my phone in the car.’
Bhardwaj raised his eyebrows at that. It wasn’t any of his business how Arnav handled his business, he decided and came straight to the point. ‘Arnav, the CBI has been digging into Shyam’s back ground. It’s troubling to say the least. I’d like to meet with you.’
Arnav looked at the clock, seven p.m. ‘I can meet with you right away. We can meet at my hotel, the restaurant will be open. Perhaps we can have dinner?’
‘Excellent. I’ll see you in half an hour, then.’ Commissioner Bhardwaj hung up the phone.
Arnav hurriedly changed out of his casual clothes and threw on a suit forgoing the tie. As he hurried down the stairs, he heard his sister calling after him, ‘Chotey? Where’re you off to now? Dinner is almost ready.’
‘Sorry, di. But I do have to go out. It’s urgent.’
‘Another emergency?’ she came up to him, her hand cupping his face. ‘Chotey, you have to slow down. You’ve been gone all day, working, and now you’re running off again? Tomorrow is the wedding and so much work is still left,’ she whined. ‘And you shouldn’t be working so hard.’
‘Di, I promise, I’ll do it all when I come back. Right now, this is something that I have to do. I’ll have dinner out, okay?’
She looked at him with her large reproachful eyes, her lips pouting as she knew she couldn’t stop him. ‘Okay,’ she said reluctantly.
For the second time that day, Arnav drew up at the Raizada Hotel. The Commissioner was waiting for him in the lounge. He waved him over, and Arnav led the way to the dimly lit dining room. They ordered from the menu, the chef having been told that Mr. Raizada was in the house, so everything better be perfect, by the maitre d’.
They ordered a shot of whiskey each and waited for the drinks to arrive, chatting about inconsequential things. When the stubby glasses were in front of them, they settled down to business.
‘Arnav, CBI worked backwards from the time you mentioned Shyam Manohar Jha came into existence. He lived in Lucknow for a while and they started their search there. Turns out, his real name is Sudhir Kumar Jha. He worked part-time at a dress store. There he met a lady. So far, the only name they have is Rani Sahiba. No one knows her real identity. At some point, Sudhir and Rani Sahiba got married. There is no record of the marriage, so it must have been a quickie temple marriage.
‘Then one day, Sudhir quit his job and vanished. Six years ago, Shyam Manohar Jha surfaced in Delhi. What they are still investigating is where he gets his money from. He has a bank account, and he deposits money there but only at irregular intervals. Not large sums, nothing to raise flags, and its always in cash. He doesn’t have credit cards. But they have found an address for him.’ He gave an address is a sleazy part of the city. ‘They raided there. The rooms were empty. There was no one there. It had been cleaned out. Once again, he is on the run.
‘Now, we also know that in the last six years, there has been a significant increase in slave-trafficking in Delhi. The CBI has been on the case for a couple of years only. What is apparent is this: girls from out of town are lured to Delhi with the promise of jobs - modeling, acting, veejay-ing, glamourous jobs. They arrive in Delhi and it’s as if they are swallowed up. No one knows where these girls go to.
‘The only break we got was when one of the girls managed to escape. She named a Rani Sahiba as being the person who is behind this ring.’
Arnav felt a cold hand clutch his throat. He swallowed a drink of the whiskey to clear it. The waiters arrived with their appetizers and Bhardwaj waited till they had left before resuming.
‘She showed us a house in Vasant Kunj, but again, there was nothing there. What is interesting is that it’s next to the house that Ms. Gupta was kept when she was kidnapped. The only thing linking these two cases is Rani Sahiba and the address in Vasant Kunj. That’s why it took us such a long time to get to some results.
‘Coming to the phone calls Ms. Gupta received in the US, we talked to the FBI and were given access to the LUDs of those calls. We traced the calls. All of them came from the Delhi area, but were all over the place. We don’t have that much expertise in the kind of profiling that the FBI does. So they are lending us an expert. He’s arriving tonight, and he’ll be working with the CBI on this. The only thing is, he might need to interview Ms. Gupta again. He’s already gone through the transcripts of her interviews and feels that there is material in there that needs more details. And she is the only one that can provide them.’
Arnav could feel the coldness wrap itself around his heart. Hearing Khushi’s name in conjunction with this entire sordid matter was taking his utmost self-control. He wanted to get up and punch a hole in a wall somewhere. But he sat there, calmly drinking his whiskey and listening carefully. She had been so close, so close to something drastic happening to her, to being lost forever; and for some reason, Rani Sahiba still wanted her.
He looked at the Commissioner and asked the same question, ‘so why are they stalking her even now?’
‘That’s something we haven’t figured out yet. Perhaps the profiler will be able to help us there.’ He chewed thoughtfully and said, ‘will it be possible for her to be interviewed tomorrow?’
‘It’s the wedding,’ said Arnav, shaking his head. ‘I don’t know that she can make the time for it.’
Bhardwaj sighed. ‘Okay. But the day after, it has to happen. We need to shut down this operation, if that’s indeed what it is.’
Arnav nodded. ‘I’ll talk to her,’ he said.
‘Meanwhile, for tomorrow, I’m going to suggest that she is always shadowed by someone. Do you need a bodyguard for her?’
Arnav shook his head again. ‘I have that covered, her cousin and mine will be with her constantly. I’ve made sure to explain to them what has happened. They’ve known about the phone calls in the US, so they are prepared to protect her.’
‘Good,’ the policeman approved.
They finished the meal with some more discussions around Khushi’s safety. By the time, they finished it was almost nine-thirty. They headed out the front doors, where the valet was bringing around the commissioner’s car. Arnav saw him into the car and was about to ask for his car when a thought struck him. He pulled out his phone and called.
She picked up on the second ring.
‘Khushi?’ the husky voice never failed to make shivers run down her spine.
‘Khushi. Sorry for calling so late, but I need to talk to you.’
‘If possible,’ he held his breath although he didn’t know it.
‘Okay,’ she said after a little thought. He let out his breath.
‘Are you in your suite?’
‘Good, I’ll see you in five minutes,’ he said and hung up.
Khushi looked at her phone in puzzlement. Payal looked at her with raised brows. ‘It’s Arnav. He wants to come over.’
Payal smiled, ‘looks like someone can’t stay away from someone,’ she teased.
Khushi gave her an exasperated look and headed into the bedroom. She picked up her robe and was just heading back to the living room, when the doorbell rang. Payal opened the door much to Arnav’s discomfort. He’d forgotten that Payal shared the room with her. He looked at Payal and said, ‘Hi’.
‘Come on in, Arnav,’ she smiled widely at him. He blinked in surprised. Sure, she was going to be his sister-in-law, but what’s with the big smile? he thought.
Khushi walked in from the bedroom, wrapped in a large fluffy robe that came down to her calves. ‘Hi,‘ he said to her, too.
‘Hi,‘ she said back, looking warily at him.
‘Er, Payal? I need to speak to Khushi alone, please,‘ he said.
‘But of course,‘ said Payal, ‘I’ll leave you two alone.‘ With a smirk she walked into the bedroom and very dramatically swung the door shut behind her.
He looked at Khushi with raised eyebrows, ‘what’s going on with her?‘ he asked, completely forgetting that the last time he had seen Payal he had been passionately kissing her sister.
‘Maybe because she saw us kissing,‘ Khushi said sarcastically, her cheeks still tinged with pink from her sister’s antics.
He stopped in his tracks, feeling a dull heat rising up his throat. He wasn’t going to go into that, now. He couldn’t. He had to focus on the more important stuff.
‘Khushi,’ he came across to her and led her to a sofa. ‘Sit. We need to talk.’
She looked at him suspiciously as he sat down beside her. Unlike her, he was dressed in a formal suit, while she was already in pajamas. She tucked her feet under her and turned sideways to look at him.
‘So. Talk,’ she said.
He’d barely had any time to think over what he would say to her. He looked at her face at a loss for words. Her rumpled look, makeup free face, the short plait and the robe made him yearn to just pull her into his arms and shelter her from whatever was wrong with her world. He wanted to make sure she was safe, always. She had lightened up a lot, since the calls had stopped, but he wanted her to have that sense of safety always. He was surprised at how intense these feelings were, but right now, he had to make her understand the seriousness of what they could potentially be up against.
She was looking at his face equally intensely. The relaxed look had given way to carefully gelled and styled hair and the formal wear - like he wore an armor. His eyes were tired although still alert. She noted the tired lines that had not been there on his brow earlier today. She wanted to run her fingers through those lines and wipe them away. His lips were compressed and she could see the tension in his jaw lines. She wanted to hold him and tell him to rest for a bit. He couldn’t take the weight of the entire world on his shoulders and not relax a bit.
Without thinking, she raised her hand and smoothed it tenderly over his brow. He was surprised at her gesture. He held her hand looking at it. He raised his eyes. ‘Khushi, this is serious,’ he said.
She nodded, a frown crinkling up her forehead.
‘The CBI has been digging into Shyam. They found out who he really is. But they’ve not been able to find out about Rani Sahiba. They seem to be involved in some really nasty stuff. Tomorrow an FBI agent is coming to help with the investigation. He will need to talk to you.’ He felt her fingers curl around his tightly. ‘It’s going to be okay, Khushi, but tomorrow we have to be very careful. Promise me, you won’t be alone. Keep NK or Jamie with you. Please?’
She nodded, recognizing that he was just giving her the bare facts, and not the entire story. She was right.
‘I ... I think you should do the interview day after tomorrow, Khushi,’ he said. ‘And this time, tell him everything. Everything that you told me.’
Her eyes lowered. She tried to tug her hand away, but he wouldn’t let her. He wanted her to know that he would be there for her. But this was something she had to do on her own. ‘Khushi, if you want to put them away, you have to help the police.’
She looked at him, her eyes filled with tears. ‘Do I have to?’
He nodded. A tear spilled over and another. He put his arms around her. ‘It’s going to be okay. Shhhh.’ He didn’t know what else to say. He felt helpless at having to put her through this. She clung to him, silently crying into his shoulder. He hated having to be the one that was responsible for those tears. All he could do was hold her and say ‘Shhh... ‘ every once in a while. Finally, she stopped crying.
She drew back and looked at his suit, seeing the dark marks of her tears on it. ‘I ruined your suit,’ she sniffed.
He couldn’t help smiling. ‘It’s okay.’ He put his fingers under her chin. ‘You okay?’
She nodded. He smoothed back her hair from her flushed face.
‘I’ll go with you to meet the agent, okay?’ She nodded again. ‘Stay close to NK and Jaime tomorrow. I’ll be busy, you know that, and so will you. If you need me, all you have to do is call me, are you okay with that?’ She nodded once more. ‘I should be going now, it’s late.’ He untangled him self from her, getting up. All of a sudden, he was extremely tired.
She stood up too, and then leaned up to place a soft kiss on his cheek. ‘Thank you,’ she said. They looked at each other for a long second, before he finally left.
She let herself into the bedroom where Payal was sitting on the bed, trying to look engrossed in her book. She looked up at her sister, who didn’t seem to be glowing. In fact, she looked like she’d been crying. All her sisterly instincts rose up at once.
‘Khushi, what’s wrong? What did Arnav say to make you cry? What is wrong with him?’ she was really mad at Arnav.
‘It’s not Arnav, jiji,’ said Khushi, feeling the same tiredness now.. ‘Go to sleep. It’s not important.’
‘Khushi?’ her sister was not about to give up so easily.
She shook her head and crawled into her side of the bed. ‘Go to sleep, Jiji,’ turning away and curling under the comforter. She didn’t know how she was going to get past the next day, but get past she had to. This whole trip to India had been so much more than she had bargained for. Surprisingly, with all these thoughts running through her head, she fell asleep almost immediately.
Agent Pat Cromley stepped into the humid air of Delhi and looked around. Looking around, the agent spotted the man standing with a sign that said ‘P Cromley’ on it. Heading towards the man, Pat stopped and said, ‘are you here for me?’ The man, rather the driver, looked surprised to see Pat there. The tall brunette with a handsome face, in a sharply pressed suit even after twenty-plus hours in the air, was certainly not what he’d been expecting. ‘Pat Cromley?’ she asked again. He nodded. ‘I’m Pat.’ He hurriedly took her bag from her hand and let the way to the parking lot.
He put her bags in the trunk and opened the door for her. She got in and they headed out. Agent Pat Cromley was looking around as the car drove through the dark streets of Delhi. This was her first visit here, but she was here on a case, and that was her first priority. She leaned back and kept an eye on the streets they passed, till they drew up at the Raizada Hotel. She was impressed. This was as good as any five-star hotel in the world, she thought. As she clicked her way to the reception desk, she passed a tall man, good looking with a slight scar over his left eyebrow. He had his head down, but she was surprised to see almost everyone straighten up as he passed by. She reached the desk and turned around, the valet was just pulling up the tall man’s SUV. He got in, started the car and drove off. She turned around and put her passport on the desk. ‘You have a reservation for a Pat Cromley?’ she asked the front desk attendant.
‘Just a minute please, let me check,’ the attendant looked through something on her screen. ‘Yes, ma’am. You are in room 1503,’ she said. ‘If I can just get you to initial here, and a credit card please?’
Two minutes later, she was ready to go to her room. She entered the elevators and the doors shut. On the fifteenth floor, she was amazed at the view. Room 1503 was a warm inviting roon. She sighed and kicked off her high heels, before sinking into one of the sofas. Tomorrow was another day. She needed to go to bed. Right now. Jet-lag was a bitch, she thought.