Saturday, October 13, 2012

Walk the LIne - Chapter 36

The binging of the alarm clock woke up Pat. She sat up blearily. Sleep had come soon enough, but she’d woken up at the ungodly hour of 3 a.m. and battled to go sleep until it was 5. It was just 7 a.m. now and she knew she had to be up and get ready to for her day at work. She dragged herself out of bed and headed into the shower. Twenty minutes later, she was ready to face the day, minus her cup of coffee. She was dressed in a black suit, a pale blue pin-stripe shirt with the collar thrown wide open, and black low-heeled boots; her hair was loose, the bangs falling on her forehead, and cut straight at shoulder level. She picked up her laptop bag, and headed downstairs. It felt strange not to have a gun in a holster or behind her back, but she had been told not to carry a weapon this time. The local CBI would provide her with any weapons she might need. For now, she was purely there in a consulting capacity.

Down in the lobby there was an air of some sort of event taking place. She headed into the dining room, glancing up and seeing the preparations for the event on a second floor ballroom. She shrugged her shoulders and sat down at the sunny breakfast room. Coffee, flaky croissants and fried eggs, she had her first taste of Indian food, it was good! She was on her second cup of coffee when she noticed the same tall man whom she had seen yesterday. The maître d’ was talking to him and he seemed a little surprised as the maître gestured towards her. She watched him walk with long loping strides across to her.

‘Agent Cromley?’ he held out a hand.

She shook it. ‘Yes.’ He sat down at her table after making a ‘may I?’ gesture at the empty chair opposite.

‘Arnav Singh Raizada. Commissioner Bhardwaj said that you were staying at my hotel. I hope everything is your satisfaction?’

She was surprised at his English – she could hear the faint hint of American in it. ‘Yes, thank you,’ she responded, wondering why the commissioner would have mentioned her to the owner of the hotel.

‘Khushi, the girl you’re here to interview, is also staying here. She’s… my brother’s marrying her sister. Today’s the wedding. I was wondering if you would like to join us?‘

Pat raised her eyebrows. So this was the man who’d provided the commissioner with the information. She smiled at the invite and said, ‘I’ve never been to an Indian wedding.’

‘In that case, we’d be delighted to have you join us. I’ll introduce you to Khushi as well. She’s…. a little bit nervous about this.’

‘I know. Most victims go through that. But it’s been four years, so she’s had time to deal with it,’ she said.

‘She hasn’t been able to,’ he said in a low voice.

‘But she told you?’ her astute perception had picked up on the nuances. ‘She trusts you.’ She tilted her head to one side, her wise eyes looking at him. ‘Would you prefer to be there for the interview?’

‘Only if she has no problems with it,’ he said. She nodded. ‘I’ll leave you to your breakfast. Please let me know if there’s anything you need or… ‘

She nodded and smiled at him warmly, for the first time noticing the caramel brown eyes and the lop-sided smile. Whoa! This one was a charmer, she thought, although he seemed completely unaware of the effect that he had. With another nod in her direction, he walked away.

Arnav had been pleasantly surprised to see Agent Pat Cromley. She was in her late thirties, dark haired and blue eyed, she dressed severely (probably came with her job description, he thought), but her eyes were kind. Doing what she did for a living, she had to be tough inside and out. She reminded him of Anna, somehow. Khushi would be okay with her, he thought, feeling a bit relieved about the Agent. It was one thing for Khushi to open up to him, quite another to open up to a complete stranger and that too, a man. He didn’t stop to think that at the time Khushi had opened up to him, he was also a relative stranger. But he hadn’t forgotten that kiss between them, and a small smile tugged the corner of his lips as he went about his day.

****

Agent Cromley sat in the boardroom at the CBI offices in Delhi. She’d gone through the files and made some recommendations. Now, it was up to the Indians to take her up on those recommendations. One thing that she was able to help them with was the geographic profiling of the phone calls to the US. They had narrowed the comfort zone of the suspect to a few blocks in Vasant Kunj. A majority of the calls had come from that area.

‘That’s his comfort zone,’ she said. ‘Or hers.’

What interested her about this case was that the stalker was a woman. The prime suspect in this whole thing was a woman! The other girl had barely been able to give a description. So to know more about this woman, this Rani Sahiba, there was only one person who could tell her about it. Khushi Kumari Gupta. She was looking forward to the interview tomorrow.

***

Shyam looked at himself in the mirror as he adjusted his tie. His thick, bushy hair had been trimmed down till only a little stubble remained. A dark brush mustache covered his upper lip. His eyebrows had been dyed a lighter shade, lightening his whole face. He put on thick horn-rimmed glasses and then looked at himself. He smirked at the image. Even his mother would not recognize him now, he thought. His mother. What a joke. All she did was bear children, one after another, with no thought as to how she would feed them and no idea what their father’s names were. His mother, the whore, he thought, shrugging those past memories away. He wore a casual checked shirt with jeans and sneakers. He’d lost a bit of weight, along with some of the muscle, since he’d been planning this.

Reverse parking his old, but souped up Suzuki in the employee lot, he entered the Raizada Hotel through the staff entrance, and made his way into the kitchens. The hotel had hired several temporary staff for the wedding and he was one of them. He would be serving at the banquet tonight. He’d made sure of it. He changed into the uniform in the dressing room, stowing his clothes in the duffel bag he had with him. Through the maze of back corridors, he made his way to the kitchen. The chef was preparing to explain to the special staff the menu for the night. Plates of food were waiting to be tasted and explained.

Shyam stepped into the line of waiters, as the executive chef came up to the front and began explaining each dish. Each dish was accompanied by a tasting so the waiters knew what they were serving and how it tasted. The big kitchen would be doing double service today. The restaurant would remain open while the Raizada wedding was on. This particular menu was for the Raizada reception and seated dinner that would follow the wedding. Each of the courses, especially the hors d’oeuvres would need to be explained to the guests. These were a mix of Indian and Western food, although everything was vegetarian in keeping with the Raizada’s social norms. This would be followed by the elegant dinner service.

Shyam listened attentively. He had to be good at this role. So good, that no one would suspect him of being anything other than a waiter.

The sommelier next explained the drinks accompanying the meal. There were alcoholic as well as nonalcoholic beverages for the guests.

The explanations over, each of the serving staff were given a menu with descriptions, and they were asked to taste the food. Shyam mingled with them, tasting the extremely delicious food.

It was now about four in the afternoon. The wedding started in three hours. He went with the rest of the staff to the big ballroom where the main reception and banquet was to be held. The decorations were almost complete and last minute touches were being put into place. The decor was that of a typical Indian wedding. Lots of red and gold with hints of purple and blue. Each table was decorated with a low flower arrangement of purple and white orchids. White, gold-bordered china was placed precisely in front of each seating place. There were no place cards, except at the front row of tables, which were for the bride’s and groom’s families. The idea was to let the guests mingle and get to know one another. At one end, stood a raised dais with two large flower decorated chairs all in white and gold. This was where the bride and groom would be seated. Against one wall, the deejay was setting up his equipment. At the opposite wall, a bar was being set up, and Shyam was assigned to help the men setting up the bar. He worked hard, helping set up the bottles on the elegant wooden shelving at the back of the bar. He took time out to take a good look around. Yes, he’d be able to move freely around when he was handing out the drinks, he thought. Just then, there was a stir in the room, a buzzing like something had happened. He looked around towards the door just in time to see a tall good-looking man enter the room. He walked with an air of ownership, his lean frame sucking in the air around him, making him look taller than the six-feet that he was. So this is Arnav Singh Raizada in person, thought Shyam, unaware that his face twitched as he thought.

The man next to him, nudged him and said, ‘don’t let Raizada catch you standing around. He can smell a lazy person a mile away and he’ll have you out of here like that,’ snapping his fingers for emphasis.

Almost on cue, Arnav looked across at him, and then looked away as he surveyed the room. Then he started walking to the bar. Thankfully, his phone rang just then and he stopped to answer it, before turning around and walking away. Shyam let go the breath he’d been holding and went back to opening boxes of glasses. His phone rang just at that moment and he looked at the caller id. Rani Sahiba. He pressed the Ignore button and went back to his work.

***

Pat sat in the war room - as they had begun to term it now - staring at the pictures in front of her. Twenty-five girls missing in the last fifteen months. Who knows how many were not reported. She’d quickly figured out that the Indian systems were not as state-of-the-art as she was used to. They had copious files, but not the kind of databases where you could cross-reference the missing data and come up with patterns. This was going to be difficult. She ran a hand through her hair and looked up as one of the CBI agents walked in.

Ratan Singh had been assigned to the case from the Delhi office. In his late thirties, he was one of the veterans on the force, based on his experience. He had also been trained at the FBI and that was one of the reasons why he’d been chosen to lead the Indian team.

‘What do you think?’ he asked Pat.

She shook her head. ‘There’s something missing,’ she said. ‘I can’t quite put my finger on it. I can understand this slave-trafficking. But I don’t understand the interest in the Gupta girl. She doesn’t fit the profile of the kinds of girls that’ve gone missing so far. She’s smart, educated, comes from a well-to-do family. So why the interest in her? It seems to me to be a more personal thing with her. It doesn’t seem to be a vendetta. I can’t find any past links between her and this Rani Sahiba or Shyam.’

He nodded. ‘That’s what we think too.’

She looked at her watch, almost four in the evening. She should be getting back to the hotel if she was going to attend this wedding, she thought. Her phone rang and she answered it.

‘Good evening, Ms. Cromley,’ the woman at the other end said. ‘My name is Lavanya Kashyap and Mr.Raizada asked me to get in touch with you.’

‘Hullo, Ms.Kashyap,’ she said, frowning in puzzlement.

‘I’m the COO of AR Group and Mr. Raizada mentioned that he’d invited you to join us for the wedding. As you know, this is a formal affair, so I was wondering if I could help you with some clothes, should you need it.’

Pat could hear the smile at the other end of the line. ‘Thank you so much,’ she said. ‘Yes, I would really like some help.’ She waved goodbye to Ratan who was stepping out of the room.

‘Okay - please tell me your size and I’ll meet you at the hotel in about half an hour?’

‘Fine,’ she said.

Entering the hotel lobby, she spotted Lavanya almost immediately. The tall, model-like girl with the dimples and the black, silky hair at the reception had to be her. With her was a man holding a black garment bag. She walked across to her. ‘Ms. Kashyap?’ she asked.

Lavanya shook hands enthusiastically with her. ‘Ms. Cromley. So nice to meet you. Let’s go to your room,’ she said.

They went up to Pat’s room and the man laid the garment bag on the bed. Lavanya thanked him and he left.

‘Ms. Cromley, here are a few outfits from our collection. Please pick an outfit and let’s see how you look in it!’

Pat looked at the jewel toned dresses in the bag. Each one was a beautiful evening gown, with beaded or crystal work on it. The one that caught her eye was a midnight blue one. It was simple, elegant, with bead work on the one shoulder and on one hip. She loved it.

‘Go on, try it,’ urged Lavanya.

She went into the bathroom and changed. She came out and Lavanya clapped her hands in delight. ‘It’s perfect!’ she exclaimed.

She looked at herself in the full-length mirror. It was perfect, she thought. There was an Indian touch to it, in the bead work, but the cut and the lines were all international. She looked at the price tag and mentally converted the number into dollars and gasped! This was expensive! It was haute couture prices! She couldn’t afford this. Turning to Lavanya, she said, ‘Look, it’s gorgeous. But I can’t afford this.’

Lavanya looked shocked. ‘Oh, didn’t I tell you? This is complimentary from AR Designs, Ms. Cromley. Mr. Raizada had personally asked me to tell you this, and I forgot!’

‘But I can’t accept this,’ she protested.

Lavanya laid a hand on her arm, suddenly serious. ‘Ms. Cromley. I don’t know who you are and what you are doing here. All I know is that you are helping a friend of mine. Arnav is a dear friend of mine, and I have an inkling that this is something to do with Khushi - someone who is special to him, personally. And this is his way of saying thank you for helping, Ms. Cromley. So I would take this gesture at face value and leave it at that.’

Pat stared at her. Behind the flighty exterior, Ms. Kashyap was brainy and astute. She wouldn’t be the COO of a company like AR if Arnav didn’t have complete confidence in her abilities and trust in her judgement. She nodded her head. ‘Alright. I’ll take it,’ she said.

‘Good. Now, is there anything else I can do for you?’

‘No,’ Pat smiled, ‘you’ve done enough already. Thank you so much.’

‘Okay, then. I’ll leave you to get dressed. The wedding is on the rooftop at seven. One of the elevators has been programmed to take the guests up. I’ll come and get you at five to seven?’ she asked.

‘Perfect,’ she smiled. ‘I’ll be ready.’

‘Now, I must be off and getting ready myself,’ said Lavanya. ‘Oh, and don’t worry about the rest. Someone will pick it up from your room later.’

‘Thanks,’ she said once more, before shutting the door behind the other girl.

At precisely five to seven, the doorbell rang. She had been a little surprised to find that hotel rooms had door bells, but it just seemed to make sense. She opened the door to see Lavanya dressed in typical Indian style. A gorgeous silver and hunter green lehenga, flowers in her hair, and loads of heavy jewelry, and lots of skin showing. With her was another tall, fair man, who had equally deep dimples as he smiled at her.

‘Ms. Cromley,’ she began.

‘Please, call me Pat,’ she protested.

‘Pat, then. Pat, this is NK. He’s Arnav’s cousin. NK - this is Pat Cromley.’

NK smiled at her, holding out his hand. ‘Hi. Welcome to India.’

Her eyes widened at his accent. Pure American. He grinned right back at her. ‘I live in San Francisco. Been there all my life. Although I love India, too,’ he said, giving Lavanya a very meaningful look, which she promptly ignored. ‘Come on. We’re getting late for the wedding,’ he said, offering an arm to each woman.

The three of them went down to the lobby. Pat was impressed to notice that one of the elevators had velvet ropes around it that said, ‘Invitation only. Raizada-Gupta wedding.’ So Raizada was taking precautions with his security well, she thought. They stepped into the elevators, the burly security guard, having immediately recognized Lavanya, and it swooshed up to the rooftop on the twentieth floor.

The roof had been decorated with flowers and fairy lights. With the fading light from the dusk, it looked almost fairy tale like. Screens of flowers had been set up dividing the area into three parts. The center was dominated by a raised mandap, which was where the wedding would actually take place. A pandit sat at the sacred fire performing some pre-wedding rituals.

There were people milling around although it seemed like a small crowd, and from behind the screens could be heard more voices. The pandit stood up and immediately everyone’s attention was on him.

‘It’s time for the jay-mala,’ he said. ‘Bring the bride and the groom forward.’

From behind one screen, Akash and his immediate family came forward. He was resplendent in a red embellished sherwani, a turban on his head. Beside him on either side were Anjali and Arnav, both looking equally regal. Anjali wore a heavy maroon sari with gold embroidery and even heavier jewelery. Arnav was in a deceptively simple dark gold sherwani style short jacket, with jodhpur style trousers a couple of shades darker than his jacket. NK went over and joined the family, standing with his and Akash’s parents.

From behind the other screen, Anna stepped out with her friends and family. She held a thaali in her hands, and walked across to Akash. She performed the aarti, applying a small tika to his forehead, smiling with joy at her new son-in-law-to-be. There were jokes being made and people were laughing at something someone said. She couldn’t understand most of it, but the happiness in the atmosphere was infectious and she smiled along with them. She was glad that she had Lavanya at her side to give her a commentary of what was going on.

Now it was time for the bride. Payal came out from behind the screen, accompanied by Khushi and Jaime. Pat figured it had to be Khushi, as she was the sister of the bride and seemed to be doing all the things a bridesmaid of honor would do. She and Jaime walked slowly with Payal to the center where Akash stood.

Payal was dressed in red today. A deep flaming red, from her veil to her lehenga and choli. Heavy jewelry adorned her face, neck, arms and waist. Her eyes were downcast as befit a bride. The faint hint of blush on her face was nothing artificial.

She watched as the bride and groom exchanged garlands and clapped with everyone around them.

Then she let her eyes take in Khushi. So this was Khushi Kumari Gupta. She saw a tall girl in her early twenties, with big eyes, and an incredibly beautiful peaches-and-cream complexion.

‘The bride’s mother - she’s not Indian, is she?’ she whispered to Lavanya.

‘No,’ said Lavanya, ‘she’s American. That’s Jaime, next to Payal, the blonde. He’s their cousin.’

Pat nodded her head. How ironic, she thought, the one Indian wedding she’d likely ever see in all her life, and the mother of the bride was American! In fact, so was the bride’s entire family! Now the whole crowd moved over to the mandap, and she and Lavanya also moved up with them. The families stood to the two sides, as the bride and groom sat on low stools in front of the fire. Khushi stood just behind Payal, while Arnav stood just behind Akash. She noticed that while everyone’s attention was focused on the bride and groom, these two couldn’t seem to stop looking at each other. There was a faint smile on Arnav’s face, while Khushi was doing her best not to blush, but failing miserably at it.

Suddenly, she heard Lavanya gasp beside her. She quickly looked at her. Lavanya seemed to be staring at Khushi. She frowned, and looked at Khushi. Nothing. She was still standing in the same place that she had been before. But Lavanya was smiling slowly, the dimples appearing on her cheeks as she looked from Khushi to Arnav and back again, as if she had discovered some sort of secret. Pat wondered what it was.

Arnav had been impatient to see Khushi. The whole day, he hadn’t had time to even call her, it had been so busy and he’d started to feel a little bit light headed. He’d finally taken his medication and eaten something and was now feeling much better. Waiting for Khushi to walk out with Payal had almost taken all his patience. Finally she had appeared, and his heart seemed to start beating almost immediately.

She was wearing a canary yellow lehenga with gold work on it, and a red choli. The dupatta barely hid the expanse of pale creamy skin of her back and hips and suddenly he’d wanted to go to her and cover her up. That skin was for his eyes only, dammit! he thought. The imp cackled in delight. Stop it! he said. Then his eyes had fallen on it. The necklace. She was wearing it for the first time. The red ruby glowed as it nestled in the soft fall of her breasts above the low neckline of the choli, kissing her skin where he had this sudden urge to kiss her. He couldn’t take his eyes off it, it was stupid to be feeling jealous of a piece of jewelry! he’d thought. Right you are, said the imp, still cackling madly. He stood there, once in a while, looking across at her, sometimes their eyes would meet, and he’d just drown in hers. Sometimes, she’d looked away and he’d see the blush climbing up her neck.

Akash and Payal were finally getting married, and Arnav Singh Raizada was completely missing the whole affair, laughed the imp. 

****  

7 comments:

  1. Superb !!!!! Absolutely loved it.... can't wait to know what happens next... What are Shyam's plans? Will Khushi be able to recognize him? Will Cromley be able to help her... Whoa.... so many questions !!!

    And her lehenga u described... is it the same one from the second mehendi... 'cos I just imagined that !!!!

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  2. Superb, Awesome, Brilliant ,,, loved it completely,
    Its covering a suh a great expanse of story
    Widely focused on emotion,,,,

    Njoied it looking forward for a update,,

    -Jhalak

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  3. hmm super .. just what one wud really expect from the wedding of a premier family .. i liked the intrigue in the back drop .. here pats at the wedding & here shyam is there too .. the plot thickens .. the base to the plots been laid .. now waiting for the plot to unfold ..
    just have a feeling the next one wil have some "interaction" between the leads (wink wink)

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  4. Amazing Madhu,

    Now that A&K are missing the wedding again, can they do something.....useful... ;)

    can't wait for the next update!!!

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  5. Hey!
    You updated! Thank you so much!

    What a fantastic update! Its built up so much anticipation for what's to come.

    Shyam is here, and I am worried. Will they be able to recognise him before its too late?

    Can't hardly wait! Do update soon!

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  6. awwww she wore the pendant.. and la recognized it! cant control the wide grin on my face.
    even in the midst of all the cloak-and-dagger stuff, you manage to infuse the sweet perfume of romance.. sigh.. so arnav missed the wedding, aye? mm mm good.

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  7. Aah we know why Lavania gasped, mand it had nothing to do with NK. I love the way you are now telling the story through Pats eyes, simple yet so effective. Briliant. Trust Khushi to wear the necklace, she knew he would notice it... my he was jealous of sn inanimate object that he himself gifted to her.. hes got it bad, only he doesnt know it.

    Not happy with Shyam being around.... just hope Jamie and NK keep to their side of the deal.

    ReplyDelete

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