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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Chapter 23 - The Virgin with Daisies

Two sleeping pills and a tall glass of warm milk later, Khushi attempted to sleep. ASR was furiously banging away on his keyboard seated next to her on the bed as she watched his worried face. A sudden surge of affection filled her when she realized she could count on him, no matter what. The rest of her world was in tatters.

Garima had tried calling her. News of Payal’s arrest reached them within minutes, sending Garima and Sasi into frenzied search for a good lawyer. Garima appealed to Khushi to let her know that she was safe and asked for forgiveness on Payal’s behalf. Khushi wanted to forget the episode had ever happened and if she could will it away, she would have. But the stark duplicity shocked her gentle nerves.

ASR pored through the email from Akash and Avni. The serial numbers from Sabres were not merely factory order numbers. Avni, the expert in WW2 cryptography, had deciphered the numbers using the Enigma cryptography made popular by Germans during the WW2 era. The numbers had translated themselves to a ditty that made no sense to ASR. He read the ditty many times over, but it did not manifest into anything he had ever heard or learned. 

“Khushi, do you know what this ditty could mean?” he asked.


He noted that she had finally managed to fall asleep. The decoding of the ditty will need to wait.

At that moment, the door bell rang, shaking ASR from his deep thoughts. Who could it be at this hour?


“NK! What are you doing here?”
“Can I come in, before I freeze to death?” NK’s apologetic eyes sought comfort.
“Come in.” ASR stepped aside letting him in.
“What brings you here?” ASR was curt and the tone of rudeness showed his bitterness of not being part of the crux of the Sabres case. 

“Look, I need to explain to you why you were not told about anything. But do you mind pouring me a drink first?” NK urged as he took off his winter jacket and gloves.
ASR brought two whiskey glasses with golden liquid and handed one to NK. Making light of the tension between them, NK joked, “Ah! I see you’ve graduated to Scotch. No more bourbon!”

“I don’t like masqueraders and fakers.” ASR’s blunt rebuttal cleared any delusions for NK.

“ASR, don’t make it more difficult than it already is. I was specifically told by Kevin not to involve you in any of this. We knew there was a mole. I suspected it was Gitu, but when I found out that she works for the CIA, we found ourselves in the midst of our bosses in both agencies embroiled in turf wars and power struggle. It took a lot of negotiations and back and forth before we could reach a working plan. Gitu and I were under a lot of pressure, we could not have shared anything.”

NK paused before continuing, “In any case, I am off the case and so is Gitu. We’ve both tendered our resignations.”
“Why? You don’t have to feel guilty for doing your jobs.”
“Its not guilt. We don’t want to live with uncertainty and our jobs looming over heads.”
ASR raised one eyebrow not quite comprehending where this was headed.
“We are in love, ASR. I proposed and she accepted.” NK clarified with a short smile.
“Wow! When were you planning to tell me?”
“You’re the first to know.”

“Wow! Congratulations. While the world burns all around you, you go on with your life like nothing happened. The master minds behind Sabres are still out there somewhere, Kevin is only too happy to close the case and my best friend and partner is getting married. I feel…I don’t know what I feel.” ASR stood up shaking his head.

“We have the Sabres, we have the guys who were after Khushi and we have the snitch. I think it’s a good day’s work ASR. We will never completely infiltrate the mafia or get to the root of the organization, they are just too many. You know they will lie low for a while now, leaving us no leads. This case is dormant at best for as long as I can see.” NK reasoned.

“Fuck! Dormant? Nothing’s dormant! Khushi’s life is still in danger and unless we find out what those Sabres meant to the mafia, she’s never safe.”

ASR debated whether he should talk about the decryption of serial numbers on Sabres, he decided against it.
He suddenly recalled the final missing piece of the puzzle - the Sabre tooth tiger and the serial number on it. He could not let NK know that he was still in hot pursuit of the case. He could not let anyone know. It was best to let the world think the case was over. It was safer for Khushi if the mafia thought the FBI had left them alone.

It was time to visit the Isaacson bungalow to fit the final piece of puzzle.


“Coffee?” Khushi offered as ASR trudged through the kitchen, the scotch from the previous still wreaking havoc on his temper.
“Thanks!” he leaned over and kissed her cheek. The domestic scene was so appealing he could almost feel it becoming part of his daily routine. He would welcome the day.
“What did NK have to say?” she asked over the steaming cup. Her eyes had sunk into hollows more than ever.
“He came to apologize on behalf of Gitu and him. They are quitting their jobs and getting married.”
“Hmm, that’s good. They are good together.” she noted, “I hope it’s not because of guilt. I mean, I am mad at Gitu for not telling me that she was undercover, but, it’s a job I guess. And I can understand that.”
“This is not over, Khushi. We still don’t know who master minded the operations. By the way, I have something for you.” He opened the drawer next to his laptop table and handed out a piece of paper to her.

“Does any of this make sense to you?”
She read the paper a few times and shook her head.
“It seems like a short ditty. Where is this from?”
“My cryptographer friends decrypted it from the serial numbers on the Sabres.” He offered.
Khushi read the poem out loud in an attempt to decipher the meaning

“Coveted by fair maidens for purity
Peeking from window sills dusted country
Curvy paths seer through crimson virginity
Count me daisies in ones, fours, and fives and twenty
Blue vases caress your plentiful bounty  
Ne’er shan’t we forget the ones in blue dainty
 Oh lovely virgin with daisies, thee of eternal beauty”

“A poem on daisies?” Khushi asked quizzically, “ I wish they didn’t write riddles. It would be infinitely more easy if they just told us what those dratted numbers meant!” she sounded exasperated as she threw herself on the sofa.

“Its some sort of code. A code to something. I wish we had the document on Saber Tooth tiger from Isaacson. I am sure the final clue lies in the sculpture.”

The two of them sat quietly, ruminating over their options as the silence in the room descended portending gloom. ASR began clearing days old newspapers from the coffee table to save his sanity when the nondescript file folder caught his attention.

He picked it from the pile and a yellow sticky on the cover drew his attention

“A parting gift from Gitu and me - NK”

Curious, he opened the file and almost shouted with joy.

“Hallelujah! Praise the lord!” he exulted with naked excitement. Khushi got up startled and rushed to his side.

The two of them peered into the file and neither could contain the rush of adrenalin.

ASR roughly swiped the coffee table off all papers and tchotchkes, and carefully laid the file on the table. Khushi crushed his arm unable to control her reaction. The two sat down and lifted the first piece of paper.

“Sabre Tooth Tiger – A 3D study”

A series of pictures followed and one caught their attention. The picture showed the bottom of the sculpture and the words engraved on it.”

“Schwab, Circa 1919, Wupperal, Germany” ASR read it emphasizing each word and repeated for effect. “Do you know what that means?”

“Schwab is my mother’s last name, so this must belong to her. But she wasn’t born in 1919, so it could be one of her…I mean, my ancestors. The year 1919 seems important. It could be the year of birth or some important event that happened in that year. Wupperal could be the place where Schwab family belonged to. All guesses.”

“Pretty good guesses. The name, year and place are definitely connected. We can do an internet search to see how.” He decided.

Khushi sprang to reach for the laptop and handed it to him. His fingers barely kept steady as he typed the words, Schwab, 1919 Wupperal, Germany, into the search window.

Khushi shut her eyes tight. She was afraid to find out what secrets would reveal with this final piece of the jigsaw puzzle.

When ASR did not say anything ominous, she peeked into the laptop. He was reading through the search results and one item caught his attention. He clicked on it.

A page opened to the Kunsthaus Zurich, Museum. ASR browsed the site to open the links that led them to collections within the museum.

Fauvism, Cubism, Dadaism and Modernism post World War 1
Featured Artists (in alphabetical order) 

ASR clicked on S and a name immediately caught his attention

Schwab, Circa 1919, The Virgin with Daisies (Jungfrau mit Gänseblümchen)

“Gänseblümchen?” Khushi rubbed her forehead.

“Isn’t that German for Daisies?” he asked.

“The Virgin with Daisies!! Just like the poem says, oh lovely virgin with daisies, of eternal beauty! I think we found the answer ASR!” she was ecstatic.

“But what does it mean? Virgin with Daisies, what does it really mean?”
He clicked on the name and an entire section with details of the painting opened with the following description.

Artist: Jakub Schwab (b.1893 – d.unknown) of Wupperal, Germany.

The painting is an abstract, in the most temporal representation of Cubist artistic movement of 1910s. The painting depicts the nude of a woman, purportedly the Virgin, with a blue vase painted in brusque strokes, resting on a nearby window sill. The vase is full of daisies painted in 3D blocks of white and yellow. Out of the window one can see a curvy path of red soil parting in the middle, two abstract fields of daisies, further allusion to the impending loss of virginity of the nude maiden. The painting was commissioned by his fiancé, Salome in 1919, in honor of their impending wedding. The virgin is believed to be in the likeness of his future bride. The painter is known for erotic expressions and symbolism with spectacular details and master brush work evoking different planar shadows when viewed from different positions.

Jakub was a scion of a local business family with means at his disposal. He painted as a hobby, heavily influenced by his peers of the era, the likes of Picasso, and Braque. Jakub’s paintings were featured prominently in Wupperal art museums. However, the family fell into hard times as the WWII approached. Their immense wealth and belongings were stolen or forcibly confiscated by the ruling party of Germany, The Nazis. Jakub’s rich cache of paintings were confiscated, auctioned or simply stolen by the influential members of the party. The family escaped Wupperal using the large underground network of sympathizers in 1939 and that was the last anyone had heard of them.

The Virgin with Daisies resurfaced in Zurich in 1960 when a private collector traced the provenance of the painting back to the Schwab family. The painting was donated to the museum that year and has stayed in our possession ever since. Many attempts were made to locate the heirs of the Schwab family but the museum has thus far failed to find the rightful owners. The museum considers the painting a generous loan until a time its rightful owner is found. The whereabouts of other Schwab paintings are unknown at this time. Jakub Schwab paintings are considered worth in the neighborhood of $500K to a million apiece.

Khushi was silent, unsure of what to say.

ASR finally broke the silence, “Wow! Khushi, your great great grand dad was one helluva rich guy!”

“And horny too!” she added poker faced.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Chapter 22 - Apprehension

The door burst open again. NK appeared and a fresh round of confusion set in the room.

“Fantastic, we have the perfect reenactment of Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom!” ASR threw his hands in the air. He then beckoned NK into the room with a flourish, “Please come in. You were missed. Now, you can explain to me what in the world is happening here, I’d be oh-so-thankful to you!”

The cutting sarcasm wasn't lost on NK, who wore a very matter of fact expression. Khushi couldn’t suppress her smile despite the odd situation she found herself in. The betrayals never ended and for once, she thought she was beginning to get used to them.

“Alright, ASR. Cut it. I can explain.” NK shut the door behind him and stood in the passageway blocking the only exit out of the apartment. ASR sensed something amiss and decided to give it a go.
“OK. Spill it.”
“Payal, Gitu and Khushi. Please sit down where I can see all of you clearly.” NK ordered and the three women complied, for there was little alternative at this point.

“OK. So I don’t want to raise any alarm here, but the building is surrounded by agents. If any of you have any trick planned up your sleeve, I seriously recommend you hold your horses and think through.” NK continued his business like instructions.
ASR shared puzzled looks with Khushi. Gitu was visibly agitated but Payal sat poker faced.
“The suspense is killing me man, just spill.”

NK took a few steps forward and moved part of his jacket aside revealing a holster with gun. It was clear to anyone in the room that the man meant business. ASR leaned against the wall and for once felt like an utter fool not in control of the on-goings in the room.

“A few days ago I caught Gitu doodling through my laptop. She was furiously noting down account information of Khushi’s Swiss accounts and spying on emails regarding the case.” NK watched Gitu as her face melted with guilt.

“Why Gitu!” Khushi’s voice rose.

“Khushi, please. Let me finish before anyone jumps the gun.” NK insisted. “Gitu explained to me that she needed money for her dad’s treatment. I knew she was bluffing because I’d already done a background check on her and I knew her dad was no more.” Gitu sat impassively with her eyes downcast while Khushi grew more bewildered.

“Were you trying to steal money from me, why Gitu?” Khushi’s voice shook with incredulity.

“Please, let me finish first before we pass summary judgments here.” NK appealed, noting an agitated Gitu, who was upset at Khushi’s allegations.

Payal grew impatient and rose from her seat, “Well, you guys have a nice mess you can all deal with. I have better things to do.”

“Sit down, Payal!” NK thundered, his voice steely with determination. Payal cringed back in fear and without further protest, simply sat down.

“I still don’t understand, you had only to ask me Gitu, why, why, why?” Khushi was bordering on hysteric outburst and NK knew he had to intervene fast.

“It was not stealing money, Khushi. It was payment for information on your whereabouts and your activities.” NK added somberly.

“Wait a minute. So Gitu took money from Khushi’s account to pay for information on her?” ASR began piecing the puzzle for everyone’s benefit. “But who was getting paid and why is Gitu in the middle of it.”

A sense of discomfort passed between NK and Gitu, a silent debate on whether they should share a deep secret held between them, a silent agreement reached and NK delivered the news.

“Gitu works for CIA.”


The bomb exploded inaudibly in the room, leaving stunned spectators in its wake.

Khushi was the first to react with a hysteric laughter. “What!”
“Gitu works for the CIA, Office of Narcotics to be precise.” NK reemphasized.

“Is this true?” Khushi looked at Gitu seeking explanations. Gitu nodded. 
“Wow! Wow, wow, wow!” Khushi got up and took short paces in the living room, “I mean wow. In all the years we’ve known each other, you never once mentioned this to me. It never occurred you to tell me. I don’t know what makes me more mad, that you took money from my account or that you hid your real identity from me. Is Gitu even your real name?”

“Come on, Khushi! Everything you know about me is real, our friendship is real, I….I just do the narcotics analysis for CIA, do covert operations as needed and report analysis to CIA and FBI as needed. Look, I knew something big was going on about with your history and past. When I found out that the Russian mafia was behind your attack, I had to know how you were connected. I've done a ton of work on Russian mafia and their drug cartel operations across the globe.”

“She’s somewhat of a Russophile” NK beamed proudly and out of place.

“Well, I knew the mafia had run into money problems recently with the string drug enforcement and I was on the lead to follow their money trail. When I found out about the Sabres, I knew there had to be something connected with their drug cartel. I was snooping in NK’s laptop to find out any suspicious activities in your account and….”

“And I caught her. We decided to collaborate to find the money trail.” NK completed the sentence, both shooting satisfied glances at their successful partnership.

“Wait. So, you were snooping around in Khushi’s account to find out that money was transferred from her account to Tennessee, why?” ASR cut in.

“Over the years Gitu has built contacts within the cartel. This is not the first time Khushi’s account has been hacked to pay off someone. The money trail is interesting. Money gets wired to an outpost in Tenessee from Khushi’s account. A local picks the check and deposits into a local account registered to a fake business. Later, the same business deposits the money into another account in Chicago, again registered under a fake business. We didn’t know who in Chicago collected money using Cash checks from the account. That’s when Gitu suggested we orchestrate a fake transfer to see who ends up picking the money from the Chicago account.”

“And…” Khushi and ASR asked in tandem.

NK and Gitu looked at Payal.

“Why are you staring at me? I am only here because Gitu invited me to coffee.” She looked around the room with all eyes directed on her. “Wait a minute, you guys think I took the money?”

“You had the motive. You hated Khushi all your life and you had all the insider information about her whereabouts. And I did not run into you by accident at the bank, Payal. I knew someone would be there to operate the account, imagine my surprise when I found it was you.” Gitu stood over Payal with her arms crossed across her chest.

Payal stood up with a start. NK reached for the gun and held it up.

“No sudden moves, Payal.”

“You guys are crazy, you are all crazy. Why would I do something like that? I can’t believe you will stand there and listen to all the crap they are accusing me of.” She spat at Khushi, who wore a pained expression that bespoke of her years of misery and shame borne as the step sister to her younger siblings. It all made sense now, the animosity, the hatred and rejection. 

"Easy, Payal. We wired your house and have records of your conversations. It took us a while but we found the secret cell phone you used to reach your contacts. The evidence is overwhelming." Gitu added.

“You're gonna let these bastards treat me like shit?" she glared at Khushi, "What can I expect from you bitch! You are the illegitimate kid of a royal, a wastrel, a tramp. I knew it! I knew it all along. You will not hesitate to throw me under the bus the first opportunity you got!” Payal’s rhetoric got wilder as Gitu and NK tackled her down to the floor and handcuffed her wrists behind her to calm her down.

“Leave me alone, you bastards. Bitch, let me go!” she screamed as she was dragged out of the apartment.
The raucous cries filled the hallway outside as Payal protested with every fibre of her body to resist the FBI agents who took her over from NK and Gitu. Her voice died down as the agents disappeared with her into the elevator.

NK and Gitu returned to find Khushi held by ASR. She was weakened under the weight of the final blow of betrayal.

Gitu wanted to comfort her friend. She reach out when to her horror, Khushi shrank back.
“Khushi..I..” Gitu began to appeal before Khushi cut her short.
“There’s nothing left to say, Gitu. Nothing at all.” She pulled away from ASR and spoke with exteme clarity in her voice. “I need some air.”

“Let me drive you guys home.” NK volunteered when ASR stopped him.
“You should have told me.” ASR seethed under clenched teeth.
“You are off the case ASR, I couldn’t have.” NK reasoned.

No more words were spoken. ASR and Khushi knew the road ahead was theirs to pave, together.


ASR’s phone buzzed announcing a new email. He glanced at the sender and topic.
‘Sabres Crypto-analysis of Serial numbers’, senders were Akash and Avni.
ASR knew the work was far from over.


Saturday, January 5, 2013

Chapter 21 - Surprise!

Dear Readers

This was a long break on my part. A lot happened in the past couple of weeks that left me a bit unprepared and shocked. My mother in law lost her long battle to cancer and left us on Dec 26th, 2012. I was dealing with a lot in the family and not in a frame of mind to write a chapter. She is in a better place and went peacefully. I was trying to distract myself with other short bursts of activity and today finally found the mental discipline to jot the next chapter down. Thanks for your patience and for staying with me.


The knock on the door startled NK. He wasn't expecting any visitors at this hour. He closed the windows on his laptop and shut it. He was surprised to see ASR and Khushi outside the door. A pall sent in his mind as he had a fairly accurate idea of the reasons for their visit. He straightened his face and plastered a smile before he opened the door.

“Hi, you guys! What a pleasant surprise. Hi Khushi!” He looked between them and made a mental note of the grim look on ASR’s face. Khushi smiled but ASR walked in”
“We need to talk.”

“Okay! Come on in Khushi. How about some coffee first?” NK let in Khushi and headed to his small apartment kitchen to start a fresh pot of coffee.

ASR was about interrupt when Khushi shot him a reprimanding look. He decided to hold his horses for a bit longer. Khushi had no idea why they were here. She was simply told they were to meet NK. She decided to help NK with coffee cups and cream.

The two engaged in inane small talk while ASR built a slow burn, unable to hold back his anger any further. When NK brought his cup of coffee, he almost snatched it and set it on the table with a bang.
“Alright, let’s cut to the chase. We have a problem, NK.” He bored at his partner.
“Cool it, man. Whats going on?” NK’s heart was racing while his mind was doing a number thinking of excuses to explain what would be the inevitable question from ASR.

“You moved 150k from Khushi’s account. Why?”

Khushi almost choked on her coffee.

“ASR, sit down and calm down. I can explain.” NK tried to make peace.

“Explain? How can you explain? Its money laundering, fraud. You can have your ass thrown in jail for this travesty.”
“Please, there is a good reason for it. Sit down.” NK was struggling to keep his cool and that drove ASR mad. In a sudden move, he leaned forward and grabbed NK’s collar and spat out, “Don’t you dare do that! I can whoop your ass for good you motherfucker!”

“Hey! Careful now.” Khushi piped in, “Let him explain, ASR. As a matter of fact, I am quite curious too.” She clipped her sentence with short emphatic words, and NK knew he was cornered.

“I did it for Gitu.” He blurted.

Khushi was not ready to believe. Her shocked face alarmed NK and ASR.

“Khushi, don’t panic, let me explain. Gitu needed money urgently. She tried to reach you many times but because you were in protective custody, she couldn’t. She told me that her dad was going through chemotherapy and he did not have medical insurance. The hospital bills were piling up and she didn't know who to turn to.” NK rattled off in quick litany and noted with discomfort that Khushi had tears flowing down her cheeks.

“Khushi, I am sorry. I shouldn’t have let her use my laptop. It is my mistake. But she was so sad about her dad and his condition. I didn’t have that kind of money on me and I was…never mind, its too late now.”

Khushi stood up and simply said, “Gitu’s dad died three years ago.”

NK felt his gut had been punched. “What?”

“Gitu’s dad died three years ago. I was there at his funeral.” Khushi repeated without a tint of emotion.

“Oh my god! No, no, no. This is all wrong. I am so sorry ASR!”  He looked at ASR who was glowering at him and ready to strangle the man. He wanted to punch NK.

Khushi stood up looking gaunt and defeated. 

“You better pray hard you dickhead that your ass is not in jail. I am going to report you.” ASR bit his words
“ASR, I am sorry! Is there anything I can do…Anything, but please, you can’t do this to me.” NK pleaded, unsure if his words would make difference. 

“You bet, I will.” ASR rubbed his temples while Khushi picked her cup and left the room for kitchen. She felt her entire world had been turned upside down once again. Her family had betrayed her, her very best friend embezzled money from her.

Gitu! Why, why did you not tell me? I would have given the world for you. Khushi braced her hands on the edge of kitchen sink and sobbed.

“ASR, please. I beg of you.” NK continued his pleas which were mostly falling on deaf ears. ASR was burning with naked anger from his head to toes. He could not believe his friend would be let his dick do all the thinking and let a chit of girl take advantage of him.

“There is one thing you can do.” ASR deliberated with a calculated move.

“Anything. Just say it.” NK felt a short rush of relief.
“Get me the serial numbers on the Sabres.”

NK’s face drained of color, “I…I “ he hesitated and weighed his options quickly. There were none.
ASR watched him with murderous eyes and NK knew better than to say no. He nodded.
“Fax me the papers by tonite to my home.” ASR finished and headed to the kitchen to take care of Khushi.


Khushi was silent in the car.

“Are you ok?” he asked, patting her head. She turned to him and realized with a touch of relief that he was about the only person who was left in the world who had not lied, cheated or fooled her. But there were a few things she had to do before she could accept him into her life.

“Take me to Gitu’s” she asked. He nodded.

Gitu’s apartment was on the same floor as Khushi’s. Khushi did not like visiting her building, it brought the memories of that unfortunate night back with vivid details. She felt eerily out of place and her senses caught an imagined stench of death as she stepped out of the elevator to her floor. Yet, she had to confront her fears once and for all and find out how many more betrayals she had to face before her life was over. Khushi had no idea the ultimate betrayal she was about to face.

ASR held her by her waist to give her strength and knocked on Gitu’s door. He signaled Khushi to stand away from the peep hole to prevent detection. The door cracked open a bit and a familiar voice asked, "Who is it?"

ASR signaled Khushi to stay silent. The door opened further and a head peeked out to see who was at the door. ASR pushed in while the person behind the door resisted and pushed back. He wedged his foot by the door and with one last force, opened the door completely.

“Payal!” Khushi asked in shock.

“Who’s at the door, Payal?” Gitu walked into the foyer and stopped in her tracks. Her shock was only surpassed by the shocked faces of Khushi and ASR.

“Khushi! What are you doing here?”Payal asked with her usual disdain.
Khushi stepped forward and asked sternly,” That’s what I want to know. What are you doing here?”

“Wait, everyone. I can explain.” Gitu stepped forward.
“Yeah, I’d like to hear that, thank you very much.”ASR scanned the shocked faces of the three women in the room. 

This was quickly devolving into a sleazy soap drama and he did not like it one bit.