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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Chapter 10 - Old habits die hard


Khushi jumped off the sofa. He pulled her back with equal force, landing her on him. She could feel every inch of the solid mass of his body against her.  She was suddenly conscious of the thin T-shirt and Capris she was wearing. She held her breath as his eyes scanned her face with a deep fire burning behind their caramel tones. He could not stop admiring the smooth flow of her skin and wanted to lose himself in the grey-greens depths of her limpid eyes. Moment ticked by and she lay still on him, watching him. Her lips trembled and he knew he had to taste them. He cupped the back of her head and pulled her face down to recapture her mouth.

His lips were soft and firm. She relished his feel on her mouth as their lips mated in a slow hunger. He shifted positions, swiftly winging her down to the floor and sprawling himself on top of her. She squealed in surprise but her sounds were muffled by his insistent lips. His massive weight pressed her down while every fiber of her body screamed for his attention, his touch, his caresses. She was drowning and fast.

A flash of panic coursed through her.This is going too fast, too soon.  

In a short span of time, she had let her defenses down and let this man overwhelm her senses. But questions and probity simply shut down when he dipped and swirled his tongue in the little well at the base of her throat, tracing it up to meet her lower lip, setting her on fire. She closed her eyes and obliged by parting her lips as his fingers caressed her neck in lazy strokes. She arched her back, and pressed against him, realizing with a pleasant shudder that he had a hard on for her. She whimpered in anticipation.

He dove deeper into the kiss. His hardness bore into her lower belly, probing, seeking and demanding its rightful place. His tongue began its fresh exploration into her mouth and she couldn’t resist raking her fingers through his thick dark hair. He released her from the kiss, leaving her gasping for breath. He turned his attention, setting a greedy trail of kisses over her jaws, ears and chin, finally to what he most wanted – the curve of her neck.

“Ow!” she yelped as he nuzzled and bit into the strawberry heavens of her neck. 

She stretched her neck to allow him more access and he did not hesitate. He licked, bit, nibbled, smelled the entire expanse, from base of her throat to the back of her ears, firing her skin with his raspy tongue. She shifted her head for more and he understood she wanted him to continue to explore. A small beating pulse near the base excited him to the point of bursting with need. He flicked the pulse with his tongue and blew a puff of air on it. She moaned and clutched his hair. She could not take the torture, she wanted him too bad. It hurts, she thought.

 “Arnav, please.” She pleaded.

He paused. He searched her eyes but they had rolled back into their orbits. He knew she was ready and he found no reason to stop himself, professionalism be damned! He cupped her face and claimed her mouth once again and he shoved his hands up her T-shirt. He let out a satisfied grunt when he discovered she had no bra.

I like that.

She moaned and thrust her perky breasts up, wanting, longing and feeling the touch of his rough hands. ASR was sinking fast in the heady aroma of her body. Her scents, her warmth and her softness pulled him faster than he had imagined. This was surreal and it was a dream. He thrust his tongue deeper into her mouth bringing out another moan from her. He pulled off her T-shirt and sank his nose into the valley of her chest. He showered kisses on her mounds as he held them caressed them in his hands.

“Oh, Lana, I missed you so much.”  He exhaled nestling his head on her chest.
Khushi crashed back to reality with a thud.  She opened her eyes and stopped her renegade fingers that were enjoying the feel of his head of thick hair.

Shit, shit, shit! You moron, you just called her Lana!

He paused and loomed over her for a brief second. It was going to be impossible to face her now. So he got up and extended his arm for her to help her to her feet. She picked her T-shirt and got up, refusing to take his help. She slipped her T-shirt on while he looked away.

He turned to her with an apologetic look, “Look, Khushi I am so sorry, I…I don’t know what got into me.”
Khushi raised her palm to stop him. “I guess we got carried away. Let’s just pretend it never happened.” She pulled the edge of her T-shirt down, hoping to salvage some of her remaining dignity and left the room. She could not face him and she better wear her bra next time.

Shit! No, I can’t pretend it didn’t happen and I am so sorry, Khushi. It was stupid and insensitive of me. He fisted his palms in utter fury at himself of calling her Lana

He needed a drink really bad. If he continued this charade and pretense he would destroy everything - for him and for her. It was time Khushi knew about Lana and why he was forever damaged. Perhaps, she would take the initiative to put a stop to their budding feelings for each other, something he did not have the courage or the will to do.

****

“Payal, Molly, come down for breakfast” Garima ordered the girls over the intercom.

Sasi was poring through the newspaper and sipping his cup of coffee. Sunday breakfast was a holy tradition at Gupta’s. Hot Aloo Parathas, sweet yogurt and waffles with maply syrup and eggs, a blend of their mixed cultures. Payal joined them in her indecently short shorts and sat on the chair criss-crossing her legs. Garima’s skin crawled at the show of flesh; the girl didn’t have an ounce of propriety in her. But she bit her tongue because she didn’t want to end the peaceful Sunday morning in another row. Molly walked in covered in ill fitting loose PJs, channeling the opposite end of the fashion spectrum.

Garima couldn’t resist a smile. Molly, her youngest, was a cuddly bear but with a growing attitude. She was easily influenced by Payal but thankfully had not taken after Payal in her dressing sensibilities. Molly was a bright kid but her occasional venom was usually reserved for Khushi but Garima felt there was still hope to salvage her relationship with Khushi. Garima wished Molly would see the inner beauty of her eldest before it was too late and she too was set in her ways like Payal.

“Mom, we should have our usual Christmas party, you know how much my friends enjoy coming over.” Molly requested, helping herself to a Paratha.
“We can’t Beta. Khushi will be here and her safety cannot be compromised.”
“It’s always about her, isn’t it” Payal chimed in, resting her hand on the edge of the table and leaning forward to make her point.
“She is your sister and she in trouble. I am worried about her and can’t host a party when my child is in trouble.”
“Sister? She doesn’t look like one, heck, she doesn’t even act like one. Ms. Ice Queen, I am so much better than you guys, I am so sweet and nice you can’t beat me. I am….”

“Enough!” Sasi barked at Payal, “You need to stop this rhetoric, Payal. She is family and the sooner you change your attitude the better for all of us. Do you understand?” he commanded sternly but she was not one to shrink back in fear. She knew her father had a temper that was rarely exercised and she found the perfect opportunity to rile him further.

“I understand perfectly, Dad! Don’t let me be the party pooper. And you can blame Khushi when this fucking security surveillance we have finds out your dirty little secrets.”
“Payal, that’s enough! Leave, now! ” Garima thundered and ordered the girl back to her room. She slumped next to a tired looking Sasi. “She’s impudent. Don’t take it to heart, darling. I will talk to her” she reassured her husband. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Molly had stopped chomping on her breakfast and watched the drama that had become a daily routine, ever since the security guys had shown up.

Payal ran upstairs to her room. She had other plans for her Ice Queen sister and she couldn’t wait to meet the bitch the next time. If and when Khushi chose to come home, Payal had planned a nice little surprise for her, one she would never forget in this lifetime. The security guys were a huge crinkle in her plans but she’d have to find a way around it. She opened her laptop and began typing away furiously.

Downstairs, Molly was on her third paratha. She could not leave a good breakfast even if it was for Payal. Garima was relieved; there was still some hope with her youngest. She sat across Molly and prodded, “Molly, why do you hate Khushi?”

Molly looked surprised at the direct question. She wiped the corners of her mouth and took another bite of her food.

“I don’t hate, Khushi, Mom. There is something about her that is…..odd. I can’t quite place my finger on it. To top it all, she is so sweet and kind, always. Sisters fight. Why can’t she be like us, normal?” Molly took her next bite without realizing the significance of her observation. Garima sucked in her breath. So that was it.
“You can’t punish her for being different or for being a good human. Molly, I want you to try ok? To be civil to her and see for yourself the truly good human being that she is.” Garima urged with her daughter. Molly shook her head in agreement, “I’ll try.” and got busy with her fourth paratha.

Sasi was worried. If the secrets were revealed, he would lose Khushi to unknown forces and he would lose everything he had held dear, his career, their lifestyle, everything. His life had been a careful house of cards that threatened to topple at the slightest hint. He had to find out what the Swiss contacts were doing about these new developments. He excused himself to his study and called the SOS number again.

“You've made a habit of calling me again and again, Dr. Gupta” the thick accent sounded groggy and irritated.

“Henri, my daughter’s life is in danger. The Sabres! FBI is asking me all sorts of questions. How much longer do you think I can hide the truth? You have to give me some guidance.” Sasi broke into a sweat as he pleaded with the man on the other side of the world.

“Tell them everything you know.” It was a plain answer.

“What? Tell them? Didn’t I destroy my past just guarding this secret with my life, hiding it from the whole world and now you are telling me to spill it, just like that? What does this mean?” Sasi voice rose in the study causing Garima to peek in. Sasi waved her away and cupped the receiver to shield his voice.

 “What you know is only the tip of the iceberg. FBI will figure that out without any help. In other words, the value of your information is now worthless.” The phone call disconnected. Sasi stood there, feeling punched to the gut and helpless.

He could not believe his ears. A secret he had sworn to secrecy, to carry unto his grave, one that had fundamentally changed his entire life, had guided all his decisions, had changed the very identity of his family, a secret he considered so profound that he had spent endless hours in virtual hell, was worthless. The years of suffering, pain and agony was worthless. The man had just ordered to him to reveal it all, to the FBI no less. 

Unbelievable!

*****

Two days had passed since that kiss. Neither of them talked about it and ASR was thankful she did not question him further. He tried to broach the subject but one look at her lovely face and her complete trust in her, he bit back his tongue. Sooner than later, he would have to come clean about the faux pas. 

Both immersed themselves in case study and internet searches. Khushi was not allowed to access her emails as the internet lines were encrypted for FBI purposes only. Her phone was still confiscated and several times during the day she had the urge to strangle ASR. Her need to know the secret and ensure her family’s safety kept her from going insane.

ASR ached for her. He could not believe he was asinine enough to blurt out Lana’s name in the throes of passion. He had not been with any woman since Lana and the heady concoction that was Khushi assaulted his senses to such an extent that he assumed it was Lana.

Asshole!

He had no hopes of ever redeeming himself in her eyes. It was for the better, he consoled himself. The growing attraction was distracting him from his work. Yet, every time he watched her hair tied in a casual pony revealing that bare neck of hers, he rued his mistake. The sooner he got her out of this mess, the better it would be for both of them.

Maybe, just maybe, I can pursue her in more appropriate setting.

Their break came when Kevin called ASR. He wanted them to meet Dr. Sasi Gupta, who had some information on the Sabres. He insisted he wanted ASR and Khushi home. It was easier now that the family had a security detail keeping them under 24/7 surveillance. They decided to take the road trip back to the suburb of Chicago.

*****

Zurich, Switzerland, Bank Herzog Deutschland Private

The clerk hurried into the expansive office of the manager and hammered away in German.  

“We have a suspicious activity on an account, Mr. Herzog.”

“What kind of suspicious activity?” the young upstart and scion of the Herzog family dynasty asked.

“there have been numerous attempts to access the account. The safety deposits were visited ten times last quarter and every time the authorization failed. The visits were time apart so the accounts would not be automatically locked but this repeated failure is cause for alert.”

“Give me the account details and get the security camera footage from safe deposit location.”

“The account details are on your desk in that yellow folder. I will get working on the footage.”

Herzog pulled the file open and noted the date on the account.

January 10th, 1940.

That is a world war two era account

He had a distinctly uncomfortable feeling about it. He got up to call the Police but on second thoughts decided his internal security should try to handle it first. The history of inquisitions, questions and impropriety were better left as relics of the past, untouched and unnamed.

If this is blood money, I don’t want my bank’s name pulled through muck.

For Herzog, the prestige and honor of running one of the oldest banking institutions in Switzerland came with grave responsibilities and some brutal truths. But one thing was clear in his head, the bank’s name could not be put under more scrutiny than it had already encountered.

No blood money will ever cross my bank. I will see to it.



Monday, October 29, 2012

Chapter 9 - A little bit of us


ASR heard her screams.

“Khushiiiii!”

He ran in the direction of her screams. He ignored the sticking branches and slippery ground as he rushed into the woods. He heard her scream again and then everything went silent. He doubled up.

He found her on the ground. NK was bending over her, checking her pulse.

“Khushi! Is she ok? Khushi, are you alright?” he shook her gently but there was no response. Her head rolled around and her body was limp.

“O no, no, no.” He carried her in his arms and rushed to the cabin. NK followed and opened the door for them.
“Quick. First aid and water.”

ASR lowered her to the bed and quickly loosened her jacket and scarf. He noticed a purple bruise on her forehead and a thin red blood stained line on her light corduroys. She was hurt. NK rushed in with the first aid box.

“What happened? Did you see anyone, anything?” ASR queried as he unbuttoned her jeans.
“I was driving in when I heard her scream. I followed the trail and found her passed out on the ground. She must have gotten scared of something; there are deer and coyotes here.”
“She was running from something. Coyotes and deer don’t chase people, dammit.” 

His mind was racing at the possibility of being discovered. They could not risk it. He instructed NK to recon the area and inform headquarters. He turned his attention to her.

He was about to pull her jeans down when he realized NK was still in the room. He titled his head and gestured NK to leave the room. NK left the room to see through his instructions. ASR pulled her jeans down slowly and checked the gash. It was not deep, thankfully, but it was a long one across her thigh. He cleaned the area and applied antiseptic cream before covering it with gauze and bandage. He placed an ice pack on her forehead. He covered her bare legs and patted several times on her cheeks.  

Khushi opened her eyes and her pupils moved around. She saw ASR peering over her with NK behind him. She tried to rise up when she was promptly pushed back into the bed. 

“Keep your head down, Khushi. How are you feeling?” ASR asked, wiping her forehead with a tissue.
“Groggy, tired, woozy, crappy, fucked up.” she barked
ASR looked at NK, “She is fine.” NK agreed,”Yes, she is.”
“No, I am not. Something happened there in the woods.”
“Khushi, why were you running? You apparently hit a low hanging branch on the head and passed out. Did you see someone?”
“I don’t know, I don’t remember.” She rubbed her temples and frowned, “I think someone followed me.”

NK and ASR exchanged looks.

 “What is he doing here?” she asked, shifting to her side on the bed.
“He is here to update me with some new information and also to check on us to make sure we have everything we need.” ASR got her a glass of water and sat on the edge of the bed. She raised her head and sipped a bit before handing it back to him.

“I want you to rest now and later I want to re-bandage that nasty gash on your leg.”  He patted her head and stood up, “Try not to fall asleep. You hit on head on a branch, there is  left the room.

“Nasty gash?” she raised her head and peeked under the blanket. She was horrified to find that she had no pants on and a 4 inch bandage ran across her left thigh.

“Argh! This is all I need. A nurse who undresses me and nibbles on me.” She complained to an empty room and threw her head back. She fell asleep with no energy left in her to rue her pathetic situation.

****

“ASR, its not good news.” NK got himself a cup of coffee and settled in the dining room chair. A reams of paper lay on the table, as ASR studied them one by one. “Eleven members of royal families from different parts of the world, missing or dead. The Sabres that belonged to them are missing too.”

“What are they hiding? And why is mafia interested in those Sabres? I mean those are worth nothing in the open market. Sure they were made in the world war two era, but it has no other significance. So why in the world do they want it?” he scratched his fresh stubble that had already grown barely hours into the day.

“I wonder if we can lay our hands on one of those. “ ASR asked, standing up and stretching his back. NK nodded and offered,”We can ask our art historian experts. They might know what it means.”

“That’s a fantastic idea NK. Send the pictures of the sabre to them right away. Consult Joseph Isaacson from Field Museum, if you have to. He’s consulted with us before.”
“Sounds good.”
“I am beginning to wonder if Khushi is somehow related to these families. It might be a case of mistaken identity. I will try to find out from her. Meanwhile keep me updated on what you find out about the Sabres.”
“Will do.” NK rose to leave. “Alright bro, take care.”

 ASR landed a quick hug from NK. “And tell your lady love to stay off the phone. Her friend Gitu is asking a million questions. In fact, she’s asked me out on a date and something tells me it’s not because she finds me interesting.” He stood with a stupid grin on his face.

“She is not my lady love. And yes, keep your eyes and ears open. There is no way they could have found us heading here but they did. I suspect a mole.” ASR’s forehead creased in deep thought.
“No kidding! You think so?” NK answered in surprise, “Who would dare such a thing?”
“Someone who wants a piece of the pie. The question is, is this person in the bureau or someone Khushi knows.” ASR shot NK a glance. NK’s face was drained of color.
“What’s the matter?”
‘Ugh! Nothing. Better watch our backs.” NK mumbled and bid adieu in a hurry.

ASR went back in to check on Khushi.


****

Noam planned the next steps carefully. First, they would find a place in Door County. The area was about 100 square miles, fairly large to scout for the bird but they’d have to begin the dragnet from one corner to the other. It was an FBI safe house but the Snitch had failed to get the exact coordinates. A bit of hand wringing was in order.

“David, wake up, you idiot. We are not here to vacation.” He kicked the back of his companion who was sprawled on the bed. David swore and got up reluctantly.

“Call the Snitch and twist the dagger, don’t want anyone getting too comfortable with us. A little reminder to show what they are dealing with would be nice.”

“What do you have in mind?” David grumbled through the foam of paste hanging on the edge of his jaw. Noam winced at the unsightly man.

“Fuck you! Do I have to teach you everything? Send a dead fish, cut an animal and parcel that, anything that is threatening enough.”

Noam’s phone buzzed and he noted it was the Snitch. “Hello there, now tell me we have good news.”
“Listen, you bastard. I am trying very hard to get the coordinates but the fucking FBI agent smelled rat and now I have no idea where they are. I need more time.”

Noam grinned. He was a man of infinite patience, and the chance to play the game turned him on.

“Oh, really? I need not remind you what we can do. Need I?” his menace was on full throttle. His dirty teeth gnashed at the smell of fresh kill. There was nothing in the world Noam enjoyed more than watching the blood rush out of the jugular vein of a human body. The process of capture, incarceration, the struggle of the captured, the pleas, the horrified cry and finally the buttery skin splitting open as the knife slice through the vein, gushing red juices flowing out in copious amounts. He had a hard on just thinking about it. And of course, Mariam, his lover of 30 years.

Noam, a butcher by profession was no bumbling fool. His placid face and hillbilly appearance hid a deeply disturbed psychopath, the only kind Mafia hired to do their dirty jobs.

The Snitch shivered in fear. Time was running out.


*****

Khushi got up and warmed her lunch. Her stomach growled in protest having been ignored for over six hours. She found ASR poring over a mound of papers on the dining table. She decided to watch TV and eat in the living room. She found the newest episodes of New Girl and began chomping on the Chinese take out. ASR lifted his head to watch her.

She was chuckling at the antics of Zooey Deschanel. He decided to work on the papers later and joined her in the living room.
“What are you watching?” he asked.
“oh nothing, just this new series. She is funny, Zooey.” She patted the seat next to her, inviting him to sit down.
He sat next to her and watched with her. He stole a glance in her direction and there it was again. Her neck sported a small purple hickie below her ears.
Shoot, I did that to her.
“Khushi, I wanted to ask you something.” He decided to change the subject in his mind.
“Sure”
“Do you know if your family has any royal lineage?”
Khushi stopped munching on her food. She set the plate on the table and turned in his direction.
“No, why do you ask?”

ASR narrated everything NK had found - the missing Sabres, the dead royals and the threat of being followed to the cabin.
“Are you saying that they could follow us here?” she panicked.
“Well, that’s always a possibility.”
She stood up with a jerk and began pacing the room.”See, I really thought I was being followed this morning. I am damn sure of it. What do they want?”

“I doubt it Khushi. If they were here, they would have either tried to kill you or kidnapped you by now.” ASR stretched on the sofa and offered an explanation, “It could be a deer, because the woods have quite a few of them”

“I don’t know, this whole thing is so fucked up. I am so confused.”

“Can your Dad help us trace your family tree? May be there is a royal connection that ties you back to the Sabres? And if there is then….” ASR paused and stood up with alarm.

“Then my family is in danger too!” Khushi finished his thought. “Tell me, they are safe, tell me that FBI can protect them, please ASR, you have to do this for me.” She pleaded with him, tugging his shirt collar.

He held her wrists to steady her and then he cupped her face. “I promise Khushi. I will get a detail dispatched to your family’s place right now.” He lifted her chin and continued in a soothing voice, hoping to calm her, “Now, you don’t panic. Ok? We need to think this through. Panicking wont help.”

She shook her head. She looked so innocent and scared, it broke his heart. He leaned forward and pecked her lips. Then he let go of her. She knew if she did not stop, she would go into a full anxiety attack and she could not let any harm befall her family, least of because of her. She sat down to calm her nerves.

After a few phone calls, he joined her in the living room with his plate of food.
“I’ve sent security over, so no worries. Let’s talk about your family, friends, people you know. Maybe, there is a lead we can work on.” He put his arm around her shoulders and squeezed. She laid her head on his shoulder and said in a weak and distant voice, “What do you want to know?”
“Tell me who’s in your family.”
“Well, my dad, mom and two sisters. Dad is a practicing doctor at Mercy’s and Mom is a homemaker. My younger sister Payal is in her second year of undergraduate study with Northwestern, she wants to be a lawyer and my youngest, Malayka, is a sophomore in high school.”
“Your sister is in Chicago?” he was surprised to find this bit of information.
“Yes” she replied in a very small voice, “But we are not close. She hates me.”
“We begin by hating our siblings. But they grow on you.”
“Maybe yours do. Not mine. Do you have siblings?” she turned and watched him down his chow mien with a swig of beer. He nodded and spoke with a mouthful of food, “I do” he swallowed and the bobbing Adam’s apple did not skip her notice. She lowered her eyes.

“I have an older sister, Anjali. She is married and lives with her husband in Boston. They have a daughter, Anya.”
“Oooo, so you are an Uncle.” She clasped her hands and detected the pride with which ASR described his family.
“But more about me later, tell me more about your siblings.”
“Payal and I never connected. Her hatred for me has only grown worse over the years. And she influences Molly, Malayka. Payal is home for the holidays right now. She is doing independent study this semester so she does not need to be on campus.”
“Hmmm.” ASR took another swig of the beer and looked away from Khushi, getting uncomfortable about the next question he was about to ask.

“What about your fiancĂ©?” he spoke with considerable difficulty trying to keep his anger bolted and locked.
“Who? Oh, you mean Shyam. He is a pain in the ass.” She said casually waving her hands in a dismissive gesture. ASR’s eyes bulged out in surprise.
“He is.” He mocked eliciting a smile from Khushi. “But whats the deal between you two? Sorry for being direct, but I can’t picture you with that overbearing…” he stopped after changing his mind about using an expletive to describe Shyam.

“Prick? Neither can I.” she finished the sentence for him and rubbed the bridge of her nose. She grew visibly irritated at the mention of his name and was debating whether to reveal the real deal between them. It could destroy her family and it did not seem relevant to the case. He waited for her to continue but she remained silent. He decided to prod her further.
“So….”
“So, nothing. He is my fiancĂ© and we have our differences. I don’t think our private issues are relevant for our discussion here” She effectively shut that discussion. ASR picked on her irritation regarding Shyam but he didn’t want to push his luck or opinion on her. He decided to bring him up another time.

“Ok, Do you have family in India?” he took another mouthful of his food and changed the topic.
“Yes, we did. But no one close is alive now. My great grandparents and grandparents were from Gwalior but we migrated to the US when I was a month old. Dad and mom don’t tell us much about their siblings but I am pretty sure there is no love lost between them. We have not really kept in touch with anyone.”
“Hmmm, tell me more about your grandparents in Gwalior. Do you think they belong to the royal families of Gwalior?”

Khushi sat up, her eyes blazing with wild curiosity. “You know Mom told me tall tales of how I resembled my great grandma, given my grey-green eyes. I thought she said those things to make me happy. But her narrative always included chariots, royal palaces, and a prince charming, do you think my great grandma could have been a royal?” she looked as excited as a child in a candy store. She was sure she had hit the jackpot.
ASR could not help but notice the grey-green eyes. They were unusual and right now, there were burning bright. He really wanted her and he was tired of resisting her. But, first things first.

“Its possible. We should talk to your parents; perhaps we could pay a short visit for Christmas, in 4 days!”

“Oh, ASR!” she jumped with excitement and threw herself on him, tightening a bear hug around his neck. “You don’t know how happy it makes me. To be back home with my family, for Christmas. Oh, thank you, thank you so much!” she pulled back and landed a careless kiss on his lips. Before she could pull back, ASR cupped the back of her head and pulled her face down, completing the kiss. 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Chapter 8 - Perception of Deception??

Gitu tapped away on her laptop. The sandwich place was full with business types, suited and ready to impress their corporate bosses. A few of them noted her and nodded in her direction that she mostly ignored. She made quite a statement with her glossy long hair and shiny apple cheeks, an exotic beauty who was quite used to unsolicited attention from men. NK entered the bakery and immediately spotted her. She waved at him.


He grabbed the chair next to her.

“Order something, its lunchtime or do you Greek Gods don’t feel hungry?” she chirped away without leaving the email she was typing away. NK peeked into her laptop and she promptly shut it. “Bad manners” she quipped frowning her brows and set her laptop aside.

“Well, I don’t eat sandwiches, hate that crap. What I really want to eat is a big, juicy, gooey…” he began his description of a burger, forcing Gitu to change the subject.

“I wanted to talk to you about Khushi.” She interrupted him.


(play the music for mood)
“Sure, anything I can help with.” He sat back and locked his eyes with her.

“Is she ok? I mean is she safe? I worry for her, she is the only friend I have. And..” her words trailed when he held her hands and pressed them gently in reassurance.

“She will be fine. She has ASR protecting her. Of all the agents in the world, she couldn’t have asked for a better man to be with her.” He smiled flashing his dimple. Gitu was momentarily distracted, then she cleared her throat and continued.

“I understand. But she said they were followed and I am just worried that the safe house is not safe at all. Perhaps, she should be with her family. Where is this safe house? It just seems a bit farfetched to take her to Door. How long can they stay away? I can’t even reach her today. I tried calling many times.” She fidgeted with the spoon on the table and appeared genuinely worried.

NK was not happy that Gitu knew as much as she did. She knew that ASR and Khushi were tailed last night and she knew that they were located in Door County. 

Breach of safety procedures. How did it slip ASR’s notice?

“You should not have to worry about her. Our best security detail is shadowing them. She is safe, Gitu” He lowered his voice and assured her once more.

Gitu liked the sound of NK’s words. She told herself she worried too much about her friend. Khushi was a delight and had saved her ass one too many times during their college years. It was only fair Gitu paid her back in full for all the generosity Khushi had showered on her. In kind, she smirked.

NK caught the curious expression. “Anything interesting?”

“No, not really. I was just thinking….” She shifted uncomfortably in her seat. He noticed her eyes search around the room as if looking for something or someone. He leaned forward and asked once more, “Are you expecting someone?”

“No, just you. Errrm…I was wondering….If you’d be free for dinner tonite.” She puffed her breath out and looked away. NK could not help but smile. She had just asked him out and he kicked himself for not picking the signals.

“Tomorrow?

"Umm, on call, how about day after?" she perked up.

"Day after. 7 pm? I will pick you.” His beguiling smile took away any awkwardness Gitu had felt moments ago. It was agreed, they had a date.

She stood up to leave. They parted ways outside the sandwich place. Gitu had a definite bounce in her steps, things were falling into place once again. She fished out her cell from a huge hobo she carried and called someone.

“Mission accomplished” She smiled wickedly and slipped the phone back into her purse. 

Her mind raced with possibilities, because her interest in Khushi could not be easily explained. She could not begin to share it with anyone, least of all NK. The years of shame, lack of self-worth, had made her resolute and single minded in her pursuit. Khushi was indeed a dear friend, one she cared tremendously about, however, she was also a means to an end that Gitu never let herself forget. 

Using NK to get what she wanted was a small price to pay for her eventual goal. She was genuinely fond of him just as she was of Khushi, but she had to keep her secret from him and eke out from him the whereabouts of Khushi. 

A girl had to do what she had to do to survive. She could not afford it any other way.

*****

“What the fuck, ASR? I have half the bureau following this case and your lady love goes around announcing her whereabouts. Are you so dumb that you forgot the protocol? ” Kevin Calhoun blasted ASR on the phone as he pounded the pavement laden with dry bits of salt. 

The city had scraped the last bit of snow leaving a white residue and build-up of salt everywhere. “ASR, another episode and I may have to remove you from the case.” The last words carried enough threat in them to snap ASR out of good manners.

“Fuck you, Kevin. You know you can’t get anyone better than me to work on this case. So you don’t fucking threaten me, because if I am not on this, you got nothing. I am not blinded by anything. It was an honest mistake on her part and I will make sure it doesn’t happen again.” ASR reasoned.

“Honest or not, make sure this is not repeated. By the way, are you fucking her by any chance? Need I remind you the last time you got personally involved, the consequences weren’t pretty.” Kevin barked into the receiver.

“Shut up, man! You know I won’t compromise the project.” ASR barked back. “Do we need to move from here?”

“Let me have NK recon the area. If we see something, we can decide then.”Kevin disconnected the call. ASR paced his room fuming at Kevin. How did Kevin figure out the breach? NK, Dammit! 

He dialed NK’s number.

“NK! What the fuck is your problem? You couldn't have informed me first. You had to tattle tale”
“Yo! Bro, hold on. I was just doing my job. Now, if you haven’t forgotten yours, tell your lady love to stop informing every one of your whereabouts.”

“Why does everyone call her my lady love! She is not my lady love, dammit. And shut up, alright.” He disconnected the call. It was beyond him - the gross assumptions his bureau made about him. 

If he were not careful, he would be pulled off the case, it was not lost on him. The last time he took personal interest and got this involved, the consequences were fatal for Lana. He could not repeat the mistake. Lana was not in his personnel files because Kevin had made sure none of it ever appeared in his file, but Kevin had every reason to worry about him. 

Not ever, not again!

*****

Shyam threw his scrubs into the laundry hamper and shut his locker. He was exhausted and desperate to have a word with Khushi. She had all but shut him out of her life and he could not afford that. His phone buzzed and he checked the number. 

Damn!

“Hello, didn’t I tell you not to call me, ever! What do you want?”

The voice on the other side sounded angry and muttered some expletives. Shyam responded with his signature venom, “Well, I know where she is. And she is safe there. You don’t have to inform me about Khushi. Listen, you do this one more time and you get us all in trouble. Do you understand? So stop right now.” 

The phone clicked on the other end after few heated exchanges.

“Damn!” he knew he could not lose Khushi, not with everything that was at stake for him. He could not afford a wrinkle in his plans. He knew his every move was under scrutiny and anything he did could stack the odds against his chances. He called another number on his phone.

“Yes, listen, the chick is creating trouble again. Keep a close watch on her, will you?” Next, he texted Khushi because she refused to take his call.

Khushi, where are you? I want to come and meet you.

He did not trust the FBI agent, ASR. He felt there was something odd about that man, something personal that made him unpredictable. Shyam was very uncomfortable with the idea of khushi spending time alone with ASR far from any contact with civilization.  He only hoped Khushi knew how to keep secrets, even their dark little shared secret.

 *****

ASR marched into the cottage and found Khushi on the sofa sipping her morning cup of coffee.

“We need to talk.” He thundered as he rushed in. She shot him a glance and immediately knew something was wrong.

“What’s the matter? Are we in trouble again?” She stood up and pushed her hands into her pocket.

“We will be if you don’t stop letting the whole world know where we are!” he grabbed her shoulders and shook her gently, “Did you text our whereabouts to your family?” he seethed.

She looked confused and shocked. 
(play the music for mood)
“That’s just it. We had the protocol described to you. And you go right ahead and do what pleases you.” He raked his hair in exasperation.
“Hand me your cell phone. Now.” He retorted harshly and extended his hand for the phone.

Her indignation was writ all over her face. She pulled out her cell from her jean pocket and thrust it into his hands. She marched to the front door but paused before exiting.

“You didn't have to shout at me. My life just turned topsy-turvy. I am not sure I even need this fucking protection.”

She gripped the door before her next words came tumbling in a wail, “I don’t care if I die really, I don’t. So, I called my friends and family and you can shove the secret of the Sabres up yours and see if I care.”

She slammed the door behind her. The morning chill hit her tear streaked face as she marched into the woods hitting a trail. She needed fresh air to clear her head and she needed to be away from him. He confused her. Last night she had felt a connection with him, a bond that she had not felt with any human being in a long time.

How dare he tell her what to do and what not to do! Wasn’t Shyam enough of an obnoxious presence in her life, she didn’t need another overbearing male in her life to tell her what to do. She had spent a life time wanting nothing more than to please her loved ones, Mom, Dad, Payal, and Molly, and later Shyam. All she wanted was their happiness, to fit in, to feel included and to stop living on the edges. She was finally figuring it out albeit inadvertently aided by Shyam, the mystery of Sabres came crashing into her life. She didn’t care for protection.

If I die today, I would be happy. 

More tears rolled down her cheeks as she walked briskly deeper in the woods. The mushy dead leaves left slippery footprints behind her and fallen pine cones crunched under the fury of her steps.

*****

ASR felt pathetic. He had hurt her without explaining why it was important to be secretive. The story of Sabres and his involvement in it had colored his approach. He wanted to get the mafia but he began to realize he could not do it to the detriment of Khushi’s feelings. Perhaps, it was time to explain to her why the case meant so much to him and why they must maintain utmost secrecy at all times. He decided to come clean with her and ran out of the cottage. He stood on the cabin porch and looked around. She was nowhere to be found.

Khushi was still fuming when she heard crushing of leaves behind her. She froze in her path. She turned slowly to check the trail behind her. There was no one.

“Hello? Anybody there?” her shaky voice echoed in the lonely woods. The dead silence was only broken by the shushed whispers of pine needles. She began tracing her steps back.

Oh Shit!

She immediately realized her mistake. There were 5 different trails criss crossing the woods and she was not sure which one led her back to the cabin. She paused to think hard and decided to take the one in the middle. She began tracing her steps back when she heard the noise again. She turned swiftly to watch her back.

“Hello! Who’s there?” the woods were silent again. 

She began shaking as a drop of sweat formed on her back dripping down her spine to the seams of her corduroy jeans. She pulled her jacket closer and made a sprint for the trail. The wintry dry thicket crushed under the anonymous footsteps, chasing her on her heels. She sprinted forward with all her might, slipping a couple of times on the decayed leaves, scrambling up and running again. The footsteps followed matching her tempo.

The air filled with her breathless pants as she struggled to breathe. 

“Aaaaarnav!” she screamed with as much air as she could draw into her lungs. She stole a glance behind her but there was no one. She could hear the broken twigs and crushed branches as the chaser kept up with her a few paces behind, hiding in the winter brush. 

“Aaaaarnav!” she screamed again as she dashed forward. A thick, low hanging branch appeared out of nowhere and she hit the ragged bark with full force. She lost her footing and fell on the wet undergrowth. 

And then everything went dark.