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Friday, February 15, 2013

Chapter 26 - Pictures that speak numbers


Dear Readers

Many of you asked if The Virgin with Daises is a real painting. It is not. It is only my imagination, however limited. If I have two inspiration to thank, they are Van Gogh's Sunflowers and Starry Nights. But Van Gogh will not appear from the dead to chop off my ears for plagiarism, for not even he, the great Van Gogh himself, owns the concepts of the color royal blue, and flowers.

Enjoy
SJ
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Martha knocked on the door. Khushi wiped her tears and stood up. ASR signaled her to sit down and gave her a quick squeeze. She was thankful he was with her.

“Ah! Dinner is served. Why don’t you join us downstairs? Everyone’s here and wants to meet Sarah’s child.” Martha smiled drawing darkening her ruddy cheeks.

She stepped in to the room and inspected the open truck. “Well, I hope you got a chance to look through Sarah’s belongings. It was really heartbreaking. They loved each other you know. But he had to leave. And she never told him she was….you know…expecting you.”

Khushi labored to ask the one gnawing question she had, “How did Sarah die?”

Martha looked very uncomfortable. She smiled and tried to change the subject, “We will have time for all that later. First, you must eat something.” She injected a false cheer into the gloomy room.

Khushi reached out and held Martha’s hand. “Please Aunty Martha. I want to know.”

Martha exhaled and settled on the bed. She shook her head as if deciding the level of details she ought to tell the eager daughter. And then she nodded as if coming to a definitive conclusion. Her face was red when she looked up at Khushi.

“She died during childbirth.”

Khushi let out a small cry and sat next to Martha.

“I am sorry child, to be the one telling you this. My parents weren’t exactly thrilled about Sarah. She…she got to the hospital too late and there was internal hemorrhaging. I am sorry Khushi, I wish I could have done something for her but I was too young and na├»ve.” She begged for Khushi’s forgiveness but Khushi was sobbing hard to notice.

Sarah died young, lonely and without a chance to even hold her baby once. She wanted to know if her so called her dad was a soulless man, so she braved her next question, “What about Mahinder? Did he come back for her?”

“Oh Khushi, Mahinder was the best thing that happened to her. Sarah was so happy with him. But he had his own problems. He was married you know. And it was not right for him to fall in love with Sarah, but it happened. And when I wrote to him about Sarah, he was devastated. He was planning to take you with him to India, but something changed. I waited for him at the airport and in those days calling India was not easy. So I assumed he got cold feet. Later, your uncle, Sasi was here and I found out that Mahinder was dead, killed by someone. Sasi told me your life was in danger too and he had instructions from Mahinder to adopt you. I am glad they took you with them. I don’t know if I could have given you a happy life. It’s true.”

Martha’s honest confession didn’t do much to help Khushi. She was sad and furious at her parents. Mahinder and Sarah, young fools who fell in love with the wrong persons at the wrong time. Yet, they loved each other till their last breaths. How love could stand up to such demands escaped Khushi. But then again, those were innocent years, unaffected by the caprice and selfishness that eventually gulfed us as all. She wiped her tears.

“Child, you should not hold it against them. I urge you. They were far too much in love, they didn’t know what they were doing. They were stupid and lovely. They made you. Look at you! You got your mom’s eyes and nose and your dad’s thick glossy hair. You are a perfect reflection of all that was right about them.”

Martha pulled Khushi into a generous hug and rocked her till her breath evened. ASR sat by Khushi and held her hand as she found comfort with one person who knew her mother well. They were thankful for the silence in the room, a tribute to the dead from three souls connected to them in different ways. At that instant, Khushi knew she could not let things loiter for ever. She knew what she had to do.

She announced with renewed clarity in her voice, “I know what I have to do. Aunty Martha, I am sorry I will have to beg your leave and go back to Zurich in the first train tomorrow morning. I have some business to finish making sure my parents’ souls rests in peace.”

Martha looked puzzled, “Why? You must stay for Daniel’s wedding. He’d be disappointed.”

Daniel walked in at that moment with a huge smile, “Did I hear Cousin Khushi wants to leave? I can’t let that happen.”

Khushi stood up and reached for Daniels hands. “Daniel, I don’t have a brother, but if I did, he would look like you. I came to Zurich seeking answers and the sooner I find them, the better it would be for me. I need closure.”

Daniels’ hazel eyes softened with understanding. He squeezed her palms and assured her, “I understand.”

That night Khushi held ASR tight while neither slept a wink. The next day bore heavy on their minds. They had to be at the museum, figure out the painting and if everything went well, access the blood-tainted vaults.

****

A quick word and his unabashed charm were all that took ASR to convince the curator. The hapless old man granted permission to the duo to examine The Virgin with Daisies. There were strict orders that they were not to touch the painting or alter it from its hanging frame, but they were allowed to spend three hours to examine it after the museum closed for public. They were provided a museum magnifying glass and special flashlight that did not deteriorate the painting surface. The waiting hours passed achingly slow for Khushi.

The two took the tour of the museum to stay occupied. They ate a light dinner and loaded on espresso to notch up their alertness for the task ahead. All through the afternoon ASR made sure he did not let Khushi out of his sight, holding her hand tight and walking with her everywhere following her to the women’s bathroom. She gently shoved him out with disapproval.

Strangely, she felt calm and composed. The worst of the truths were out. The deeds of her ancestors, her great grandfather Maharaja Ratan Singh’s indirect yet lethal contribution to the miseries of millions of Jews, Jakub Schwab in particular, could never be forgiven. Mahinder tried to absolve it by compensating Sarah, but ended up hurting her more. Khushi suddenly shivered as she realized it was going to be her onus to right the wrongs of the past. She wasn’t sure if she was ready for it.

“Alright, Mr. Raizada, you have three hours to finish your job here. You should thank Field Museum officials, and that signed letter from Isaacson. How is he by the way?” The elderly curator stood and looked up to ASR who was a good foot and a half taller than the diminutive man.

ASR quickly changed the subject, as he didn’t wish the man to discover Isaacson’s death.

“Thank you!” he nudged ahead and pulled Khushi with him to the room that housed the painting.

“Now remember there are cameras in the room and the guards will be watching you, so please keep your promise.” The old man dropped a veiled warning before he left the two to their devices.

As soon as the old man left the room, ASR whipped out a piece of paper and read aloud.

“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” 


Khushi held the flashlight for closer examination, while ASR scanned the painting once over with the magnifying glass. He read the poem out again.

“Do you think these numbers in the poem mean anything? Count me daisies in ones, fours and fives and twenty”

As he scanned the painting, he began noticing a clear pattern. The rows of daisies on each side of the red soil path were symmetrical. Each row had one grouping of daisies consisting of single, four, five and twenty daisies each group. The grouping was then repeated through the row, like a stencil pattern. He then counted the number of such grouped stencils throughout the field of daisies to a total of 286 groups.

“286 groupings, each grouping has bunch of daises in 1,4,5, and 20 per bunch”

He read the poem again, “Blue vases caress your plentiful bounty, these Blue vases are also part of the mystery.”

Khushi added, “caress your plentiful bounty, what is the plentiful bounty? In the picture it’s the daisies because the blue vase holds the daisies…”

Before she finished, ASR blurted, “Could it be the vaults? Blue vases caressing the plentiful bounty, what is the bounty? why is the blue vase caressing it? It could be the vaults that hold the plentiful bounty, that is, the spoils and wealth of royals and Nazis. It is probably a symbol of a bank. I wonder if there are banks in the area that use a blue vase or a shape like a blue vase for its insignia.” 

Khushi felt so proud of him that she pulled his head down and kissed him, "I love you, I love you, oh Arnav, I love you." she gushed. They forgot for a second why they were there  in the room as he bent his head to kiss her some more. She cleared her throat and signaled him to the cameras. He smiled and diverted his attention back to the painting.

His head was suddenly muddled as he noticed two things, Khushi had said "I love you" albeit flippantly and two, she called him Arnav whenever she felt close to him. He could burst with joy on the museum floor. He began his inspection with renewed inspiration. 

Khushi took out her IPad and furious typed many combinations of search words she thought would work.

“Blue the color of royalty, banks with blue logos, banks with blue vase logos, banks with blue objects as logos, bluebells, banks named after royalty, Suisse banks” she mumble her search words as she accepted and rejected many search results.

“Bingo!” she almost fell off the bench she was sitting on at her discovery.

“Listen to this, Arnav, Bank Herzog Deutschland Private! Herzog is the title for a Duke in German, dukes and other nobilities revere the color royal blue, and the logo for the bank is a blue vase. What are the odds?” she looked at him.

“It can’t be coincidence, when was this bank established?”

“Right before the war ended, in the late 1940. I think they chose the symbol after Jakub’s painting to connect the codes in the Sabres to the bank’s creation. And look at this!” she turned the IPad to him.

He read out the news item she pointed.

“The bank was recently in some controversy as its owner was murdered under mysterious circumstances. Police investigation found that there were numerous attempts at unauthorized access to purportedly secret vaults in the bank right before the owner was murdered. The police are looking for Mr. Herzog’s secretary, Ms. Becker who has been missing since the death of the banker.”

“Can’t be a coincidence.” ASR repeated.

“Now what?” Khushi asked checking her watch quickly and realizing they had very little time left.

“Lets examine the painting, I have a feeling these numbers lead us to the vault. If so…” he didn’t complete the sentence as it was too much for them to digest in one evening.

“Ne’er shan’t we forget the ones in blue dainty
Oh lovely virgin with daisies, thee of eternal beauty” 


ASR read the words as he scanned the vases closely. Suddenly he froze. There in the vase was another three grouping of 1,4,5 and 20 flowers.

“289, 1,4,5,20”

He took a deep breath and straightened his back, feeling the tension drain out of it. His action caught Khushi’s attention before she got up and rubbed his neck.

“I think we have it.”

“What!” Khushi let out a gasp.

“I think we have the account number to the vault in Bank Herzog." he somberly noted.

"It’s a combination lock with numbers 289 1 4 5 20”



Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Chapter 25 - Vaulted Secrets


She stared at the large trunk sitting on the bed. ASR sat next to her. The trunk seemed big enough to hold a body but to Khushi it was a lifetime of memories. 

“Won’t you open it?”

Khushi sat frozen. The upstairs bedroom of Martha’s house was small, with gabled ceiling giving the insides an impossibly angular and claustrophobic structure. ASR had to watch his head as he navigated the room. Khushi simply sat watching the trunk from the time Martha and Daniel had carted it to their room.

“Open it, Khushi. You’ve come this far. Now’s not the time to hold back.”

She stood up wearily and walked to the other bed. She took the keys left on a side table and fumbled with the lock. The contents inside the box looked undisturbed, and untouched by the 28 odd years after its owners had died. She ran her fingers over the soft silk blouse of a woman and a vest that must have belonged to a man. On top of the clothes, a small black diary sat quietly. Khushi picked the book and opened the cover. ASR stood behind her and peeked in.

Diary of Sarah Schwab – Diary 4

Khushi drew her breath in. ASR urged her to sit down before she read further. She began reading the first page. It was part of a 4 part diary series. It wasn’t clear where the first three had disappeared. This one started with the day after Sarah’s twentieth birthday. She was on the heels of a broken heart as she had discovered that her boyfriend was cheating on her. Strangely, the script was in English.

Sarah’s penmanship was impeccable as was expected of people in the eighties. The diary had a few pages dealing with Sarah’s rebound from her broken relationship. Then a few pages later, she talked about meeting a stranger in a coffee shop.


I don’t know why but I feel so attracted to him. He says he is from India and that he is a Prince of a state called Gwalior. I don’t know anything about the country, I will check out some books from the library about India, if they have it.

I want to believe him. He is so....handsome. And when he talks, I feel I can listen to him for hours and forget about the rest of the world. I so wish I could share this with someone. Martha? No! If she tells Aunt and Uncle, they’d skin me alive and stop my allowance. Then I'd have no money to buy coffee and chat with my new friend. No, not Martha. Who else? No one. I have to find a way to meet him without letting anyone know. Yes, that’s it, then.

Khushi pulled her legs up on the bed to sit more comfortably and began reading out the text for ASR. A few pages later, another note caught their attention.

Mahinder. I think I am falling in love with Mahinder. How do I say his name? Ma Hind er? I wish Mamma and Pappa were alive. I wish Sonja was alive. I can’t tell anyone. But I don’t care. I will tell him tomorrow that I love him.

Khushi’s tears were only beginning their journey into the long evening ahead of them. Sarah was an orphan who lived with Martha’s family. No wonder no one had ever tried to find Khushi or reach out to her. Suddenly, she missed Garima and Sasi. They were always kind and loving to her.

I am so happy! I can dance all evening. Mahinder says he loves me. But there is sadness in his eyes. I don’t know why. I will have to find out.

A young Sarah was falling in love and fast. Khushi could only imagine her heady feelings and euphoria of discovering first true love. The innocence in those words left Khushi scared for Sarah. It was irrational, all of twenty and head over heels in love.

Mahinder – an enigma for me. A sweet, tortuous enigma that I am willing to drown myself in. It may be suicidal but if I don’t love him I will die of pain, anyway. Either ways I am dead!

That innocent observation with a smiley graphed in, brought a fresh bout of tears for Khushi. Sarah was speaking metaphorically about losing herself in love, but the words came more than true.

I can hardly believe this. Mahinder is married! Oh dear lord, help me. What have I done? I seduced a married man. Mahinder says he wants to be with me. But I can’t do this to him or his family. Give me strength to do the right thing. Why? Why? Why me again and again, God?

Khushi stopped reading as her eyes clouded. She continued reading despite her urge to stop reading Sarah’s private pain and loneliness.

I fought with him today. Our first fight. He says he wants to leave me money as a safety net. Money? I don’t want money. I just want him but I am willing to give him up too for his family’s sake. No, this is all wrong. He says his grandfather was part of some bizarre Royal Pact with eleven other royal families of the world.

He says they colluded with Nazis to protect their wealth from unknown forces of the war. Nazis - the demonic warlords of the world. Why did they seek the Nazis? Mahinder says royals didn’t want to lose their wealth after the war was over.

They needed protection. For their money? Monarchies that stole from others? They could not count on righteous Allies, so they turned to Nazis, who also had tainted and stolen wealth they needed to hide…money stolen from families like mine. Mahinder says he needs the Royals to agree before he can access the Swiss vaults where they’ve kept the spoils. He wants me to have that money.

I should hate him. I must. For my family, for my ancestors and dead brothers and sisters....but I can't.

Khushi sobbed like a child. So that was the tainted, ugly history of her ancestors. Jakub was rich and persecuted. Maharaja Ratan Singh had blood money on his hands. One side was indirectly responsible for the annihilation of the other. Yet, nature had brought the young ones together and created her, Khushi. Mahinder wanted to do right by Sarah, but he could not access the money, she assumed. If he had accessed the money, Sarah would not have died alone nor Khushi be orphaned and raised by others.

The diary continued as Khushi read it aloud, her voice shaky yet calm.

I could see guilt in his face. He told me that he came to Zurich seeking answers. He tried to find other Jewish families but he could only find me. Are the others dead, wiped out of the face of earth? In a gas chambers or shot point blank? I shiver just thinking about it. I must have positive thoughts.

He wants to do right by me. He wants to return all that wealth to me. But what will I do with it when all I really want is to spend every waking hour with him? He says he came looking for me, for someone who he can help and...rid of his guilt? He said something about finding Sabres from the Royals so he could claim the vault.

But he was afraid. No, he was scared. I think he worries that the royals will retaliate. I don’t know what to do. I wish he had not told me any of this. The secret is a burden on my soul especially now…..that I carry the seed of our love. I can’t tell him that though. Not in this lifetime.

She closed the book unable to read further. Her chest hurt under the weight of the avalanche. She felt sorry for Sarah, who was barely more than a child herself at the time. Twenty years old, pregnant, and a secret so reprehensive, she probably could never share with anyone. The pain of the knowledge that Mahinder’s family was responsible for Sarah's family’s fate must have devastated her. Yet her love for him was untainted, unyielding and strong.

How did Sarah deal with the gore at such a tender age? She was pregnant, and more than likely abandoned by Mahinder as he most certainly had returned to India. He probably never knew about Sarah’s pregnancy until it was too late to return to her.

Something had happened that had scared Mahinder. She remembered Sasi telling her about how he had instructed Sasi to take the box with saber tooth sculpture and flee from India. Someone killed him and his family, Khushi was sure of that. Who and why? Perhaps, the other royals who were afraid that he would let the cat out of the bag or was it the Jewish mafia, which was responsible for her own ghastly recent experiences. They had to know about the vaults because every royal that ever had a sabre was dead...except her. Her head spin at all the possibilities and questions.

This was bigger and more macabre than Khushi could ever imagine.

ASR was piecing the puzzle just as fast as Khushi was. He knew he had to find where the vault was and he knew the poem of the Sabres led to the painting by Jakub, which meant only one thing. The painting hid the clue to the account number, name and location of the Swiss bank that housed the tainted vault.

Then fear struck him hard. The mafia does not give up so easily. There was greed and revenge in their motives. If they had followed the two to Zurich, he had very little time.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Chapter 24 - Roots and Routes


“I still don’t get the connection ASR. The poem describes the picture. The numbers in the poem must somehow be connected with the painting. But in the end, what do those numbers mean?”

“Beats me. I think we need to go to the source. We need to go to Zurich Museum, talk to the curator there and figure out.” ASR finished his thought.

“Hmmm” Khushi meandered into some distant haze and then snapped out, “You know what! I can meet my mother’s sister Martha there. Maybe, she knows about Jakub and she can help us understand more about the painting, and…” she paused, “tell me more about Sarah…I mean my mom.I wonder why Martha didn’t claim Jakub’s paintings?” She set her eyes down, as if the name reminded of her illegitimate status and shame.

“Call your Dad to get your aunt’s address. And do you have a current passport?” ASR asked.

“Yep, my passport is in the office safe. I will have to go to the hospital and collect it. Do you think its safe?” she queried.

“I wont let you go by yourself, Khushi. No worries. “ He assured her.

So it was decided. They were to travel to Zurich and find out more about the painting, Khushi’s ancestors and the connection to the Sabres.

*****

“Whats this?” ASR picked a bag of syringes and held it up.

“Valium”

“What? Why are we taking syringes of valium?”

“You never know!” Khushi quipped, “it may come in handy if we have to deal with big bad guys. I don’t want to kill again.”

He put the bag back in her luggage and asked, “Don’t you need prescription for this?”

“Why do you think I am a doctor, ASR?” She twined her arms around his waist and kissed his muscled back.

“Well, then. Doctor, I think I need to be treated because I have this grave condition.”

Playing along, Khushi walked around to face him, “Yes, how may I help you?”

“I think I need some rocking sex to cure me, doctor. Do you think you can help?”

ASR’s invitation left her laughing and wanting him even more than she thought she ever could. The clothes flew around the room and their naked bodies flopped on the bed. Their noisy affair was enough to wake up the entire apartment building but what they didn’t know, was that it was a precursor to an avalanche.

****

Garima and Sasi were at the airport. Khushi least expected to find them there. The apologies on their faces tore through her heart as she tried to reconcile the events of the past. The gate checks went well and soon enough, the couple was on its way to Zurich.

As the flight passed over Transatlantic seas, Khushi’s nervousness began to mount. ASR knew she was afraid to find out more about her ancestors and what lay in store when the secrets of the Sabres were revealed. She held his hands through the flight unable to eat or enjoy on flight movies. ASR urged her to sleep, so they could resume their investigation as soon as they landed at Zurich.

Zurich airport was an expansive mess. German instructions did not help either of them and after asking a lot of passersby, they located the tram that took them to their hotel. The cold, bleak landscape was broken by distant promise of Alpine and a hope of final discovery. Khushi breathed in the air brushed from the Alps and marinated in local smog. ASR smiled at her, feeling for her.

A steep cable car later, they were in their rooms.

“Do you want to call the number your dad gave you?”

Khushi nodded. The number belonged to her mom’s sister, Martha. She showered and changed and finally dialed the number with trembling fingers.

“Hallo das ist Martha Schneider.”

“Hello, this is Khushi, Khushi Gupta, daughter of Dr. Sasi…I mean daughter of Sarah Schwab.”

“I know who you are.” Came a heavily accented, yet affectionate voice.

****




The ride to Berner Oberland was a steamer ride to Interlaken and then a train up into the mountain to Muerren. Every bone in Khushi's body screamed in protest, tired of jetlag and fatigue. But the sight of the snow-capped mountains as she got out of the train simply took her breath away.

“ASR, this is beautiful!” she gasped.

“Not more than you.” He countered to ease the tension that was building up inside her.

The two walked along the small country road, following the directions provided by Martha. As they neared the village, and the house, Khushi’s fear and trepidation only grew.

“That’s the house. “ ASR checked the map and looked up. The house was decorated with festoons and lights that were off at daytime. Voices emanated from the back of the house and ASR decided to check it. He signaled her to stay back as he cleared the area for her. The back of the house had many party tables and chairs. A small gathering of what seemed to be locals was gathered, drinking, cheering and celebrating something.

A portly woman noted the starkly contrasting presence of ASR among the blonde and blue eyed gathering. She smiled welcoming and gestured him to come over. He in turned gestured khushi, who looked ready to flee back to Chicago.

As the two walked into the gathering, the conversations stopped as they noted the new entrants. Martha waddled hurriedly to the couple and without warning pulled Khushi into her embrace.
“Oh, my dear child! Here you are. I can’t begin to tell you how happy I am to see you. Look at you? You look just like Sarah! Oh my word!” she gushed in a refrain. She shouted out to a guy who seemed to be young enough to be her son.



“Daniel, come and meet cousin, Khuushii” Martha stretched the vowels and stressed the consonants, giving the name a distinct Yiddish bent. The smiling handsome man came over and ASR could not help but notice the similarities of features between the young man and Khushi. Same eyes, same nose, and same strong jaws. Khushi didn’t miss the features either.

“This is Khushi, Sarah’s daughter!”

Daniel leaned and pulled Khushi into a bear hug. She laughed at the sudden outpouring and hugged him back.

“Cousin Khushi! Welcome. When mother told me you’d be here, I was ecstatic. Its my wedding tomorrow. Surely, you and your friend will join.” He continued.
“Sure, she would. There is no question.” Martha went on without batting an eyelid.

ASR wondered how Khushi could be remotely related to such a rotund and puffy looking woman. He didn’t have to wait to find out.

“Well, come in my child, and have some cider. I should tell you though, I am not Sarah’s real sister. I am her cousin from her mother’s side. Sarah’s fathers side is from Wupperal, they migrated here during the war, you know.”
Khushi lost any hope of finding more about Jakub, since Martha was from her maternal grandmother’s side. She was grasping for any bit of information.

Martha pulled them into the house and continued her monologue, “Well, since you made a half a day trip here, you cannot go before the wedding. So, I insist, you stay here and leave day after.”

“But we are not prepared for overnight stay.” Khushi protested.

“Oh, you can have Sarah’s clothes. And he can have Mahinder's clothes. I have them all saved up in the house just like they left them here. And if you promise to stay” Martha labored for breath due to the short exertion,"I will tell you all about your mother and your father. Hunh?" she turned around and stood at the threshold of the door leading into the house.

Martha just sealed the deal for Khushi.