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.’

‘Today?’

‘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.’

***

5 comments:

  1. Super Super Super ... loved it to bits .. super progression .. loved the slow unravelling of the villain taking place .. the pace is just perfect ... i loved the conundrum which is Arnav .. his characterisation is pure perfection .. the person who conceptualised the character has not be been able to live up to the justification as well as u have ..

    Cant wait for 41 now ... thrilling stuff coming up .. with a bit of exciting drama & romance ... Bring it on mads ..

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  2. loved it.... continue on... yours is one ff i wait for an update

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  3. Wonderful Madhu.....read the last 3 ch in 1 go.....& wow....a brilliant mixture of drama, suspense, intrigue, & love.....

    Cant wait for the next update.....keep them coming & fast!!!!!

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  4. Absolutely loved it girl !!!!! Reading your story is a visual treat... I can just see everything happening in front of my eyes... and its super !!!! You have to leave on a cliffhanger.. don't u... damn it !!! What is in the box... c'mon now !!!

    BTW... Congrats on the Big 40 !!!

    Can't wait for 41 !!!

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  5. Brilliant, trust Arnav to pick out the similarities. I do think he should tell her, maybe it would keep her safer.

    I love how you explained the investigation, having Arnav there smoothed the way, if only they could put the memory of Rani Ssheba together with the guest list. I take it Arnav has retrieved a gun from the safe. Khushi will not be happy going back to SF, without talking to him properly.

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