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Prologue: A Personal Choice

 

Standing in a dark room accompanied by that eerie stillness which surrounds death I am terrified.

I speak the truth. I have no desire to impress anyone making tall claims of false bravado. My personal choices are mainly inward directed.

No. I am not some sadist who gets the jollies putting people on defensive and watching them squirm. Though I happen to be one of those privileged few not overly concerned by what people might think or say about me. I prefer to keep my own counsel.

I know it makes me come across as detached and that is never an attractive quality in a person always in the public eye. Fortunately popularity ratings have never disturbed my night’s rest.

So I speak the truth. For I believe to be a better human I must constantly fight this streak of cowardice that gapes at my core a mile wide. Speaking the truth makes me feel brave. To be considered brave is important to me.

 

From glass windows hang blackout curtains gently swaying in the breeze. Headlamps of cars passing on the road curve a yellow arc of illumination. Ghostly shadows lurk. Dark reflections of tree branches patterned on the wall seem ominous, menacing in intent.

I think of crossing the room to draw the curtains but this particular window faces the highway. It is unlikely anyone will observe my torch light to make a note of it.

Maybe building a courage account on daily increment stands me in good stead. Despite a racing pulse, the fact I am assailed by nausea; I stay remarkably clear headed. I search the flat by torchlight and leave just before the first rays of sunshine pierce the eastern gloom.

I am thorough.

I recall thinking when they make this a movie for this scene I want them to cast me as a shadowy silhouette.

The camera will zoom on a white Italian marble floor tracing my footsteps while a voice offstage records my impressions and thoughts.

How do I know?

I am not some base criminal craving for headline attention. But this is too tantalizing a subject and the country’s film industry is populated with scavengers that move in on the kill once the predatory media eat their fill.

 

They say the murderer always leaves a clue. So, the converse too has to be true. But will anyone who reviews this case later have the intelligence to factor that?

I honestly doubt.

There can be nobody else who can walk in my footsteps to see this from my perspective. No other person on earth can begin to understand how burdened I feel. My life has been the equivalent of taking one wrong turn and ending miles away from the destination hopelessly lost and with no way of retracing a path back to that point in time where I made that one fatal choice.

I should have fought for my love. It was not fear that stopped me. I did not fathom how deeply involved I was…

Is the extent of love something the heart fully comprehends only in retrospect?

Hopefully regrets will stop chasing me soon.

 

My eyes are drawn to the empty beer bottle lying on the cold stone floor. Its brown mouth gapes at me empty, accusing-

Silly, stupid Truth or Dare game.

I wonder who he played it with. Its fatal outcome- his death and I realize in hindsight that it was inevitable for a man like him to go that way.

His life was a series of calculated choices; its end grossly miscalculated.

 

I do not walk over the dead body but go around. Respect for death is huge in all funerary rituals for Hindus.

I am still proud of it for God knows I was tempted.

 

When the door shuts behind me an obscure thought crystallizes- survival instinct overpowering the philosophical.

The glass windows were shut so why was the curtain moving? Didn’t they say a murderer always returns to the scene of crime? It was how they nabbed the infamous Abhyankar killers in Pune.

Heart racing, adrenalin pumps through my veins I jab at the elevator buttons. But the urge to flee overpowers and I run towards the stairs.

When I exit I waste no time looking over my shoulder. Racing towards the taxi waiting for me at the curb I slide into the passenger seat. The driver looks to me and I tell him to Go…

Chapter 1 Forty Eight Hours and Counting

7, Race Course Road

New Delhi

The minute K.D. Sharma, the incumbent Prime Minister of India, had his niece in his sights he pursed his lips stitching them in a thin pink line almost white. Daman noted K.D.’s glance flick downwards to his wristwatch. It was a masking action.

So far the information was accurate. There was internal conflict.

Daman believed in doing homework. Prior to meeting the P.M., he had managed a face to face interaction with Dr. B.K. Srinivas, the celebrated author of two biographies on India’s premier. Both books had received wide critical acclaim for the in-depth study and absorbing narrative. Srinivas was in the middle of writing his third eagerly awaited book on his favorite subject.

“Retired Chief Justice Aditya Rao is a valued friend,” Srinivas received Daman in the drawing room of his palatial house.

“When I got to know from Aditya that you need to speak to someone who knows K.D. and his family I volunteered. I did not want to miss the opportunity to meet you in person. Daman Shekhar Vaidya who doesn’t know you? You are a legend in your own right as one of India’s most successful prosecuting attorneys.”

Srinivas, himself was considered a man of method.

In his late forties with just a touch of grey at his temples, his broad shouldered athletic frame accentuated by a black turtleneck, hipster jacket and fancy jeans the successful writer projected a metrosexual air. Rimless glasses completed the look.

During the process of researching material Srinivas had bonded well with K.D. and his family gaining valuable insight into the Prime Minister’s home life.

“I’ll do my utmost to help you,” Srinivas assured Daman and his team, “but it would be easier if I knew exactly what kind of information you want from me.”

“I am fascinated by K.D. and how his mind works,” Srinivas confessed. “Our Prime Minister has developed an iconic presence on both the national and international stages as a Statesman par excellence.

When K.D. came to power India had this political image of a corrupt developing nation where thugs ruled the roost. You wanted to set up industry here you had to have deep pockets to pay out some bribes first.

This man has a clear cast vision for the country. His empathy, leadership skills, and a bodacious bulldog attitude have changed the face of this nation.

Today we are in the Security Council; we are at the cutting edge of science, and technology. Our politicians are eminent lawyers, doctors, sportsmen and men of such ilk.

K.D.’s the man behind all this transformation.

I believe the greater his works; the greater the man for the Creator is always bigger than his Creation.

That’s why I am completely justified writing another book on him.”

“Let’s start with your impressions of the people who live in K.D.’s home. Whether they are closely bonded or there is infighting? I know human nature is said to be the same worldwide but I am curious to know how people who live in glass houses conduct themselves.” Ayesha piped up.

“K.D. is a widower. He has two daughters Tarika and Sarika. Tarika recently married and does not live with him anymore. But Sarika, the younger one does. Then there’s Mallika, his niece. Mallika is the daughter of K.D.’s younger brother who was a Brigadier in the Army. The brother and wife died in a tragic car crash. They also had a son Lt. Col. Mahendra Sharma, Mallika’s elder brother, who is currently posted in Delhi but he stays with his regiment.

K.D. is a doting uncle by all accounts. Telling point is the fact K.D. chose his niece to act as his official hostess instead of Sarika who is the epitome of grace and beauty. Here, take a look at her picture-” Srinivas, placed a glam shot of K.D.’s younger daughter on the coffee table.

Daman picked up the photograph more to convey interest than to actually study the face in the photograph. Though Sarika was indisputably beautiful and knew her fashion designers Daman gave her picture a cursory glance then passed it to Gaurav Mhatre, his second-in-command.

Gaurav was a tall, high-energy man whose chiseled features clashed discordant with his prominent nose. Just as his quirky nature contradicted an innate genius. The class clown with ADHD luckily discovered the world of computers and it was equally fortuitous Daman discovered him.

Gaurav studied it with interest as if he had not seen Sarika Sharma’s face a hundred times already. Daman had to admit Gaurav was a far superior actor.

Actually the men and woman of Daman’s core team seated in Srinivas’s drawing room in assorted chairs and sofas were all extremely talented in their respective fields. Srinivas however was unaware of the honor he had been awarded.

Rarely did the core team interview a Person of Interest together.

But time was short and the matter dire. Within forty eight hours an important international treaty was to be signed and the documents had disappeared from the Prime Minister’s home. If those documents fell in the wrong hands it would lead to the Premier’s impeachment and political embarrassment on a global scale compromising national security at the same time.

Unfortunately in this case Daman could not rely on his own objectivity. He had a blind spot. The team was in place to provide protective cover.

“This is Tarika. The tall taciturn man standing next to her is her husband Kunwar Dalip Singh.

As you can probably tell I am not a big fan of his,” Srinivas smiled self-conscious. “I am frankly surprised he had the good sense to snap her up when he did for his exalted ex-royal parents who originally arranged their meeting were now dead set against the match. Dalip’s mother was especially vocal about Tarika’s objectionable male friends before marriage.

I don’t want to get sidetracked here starting a conversation about what is it with family sensibilities. The son is indulgently allowed to sow his wild oats but the wife he brings home must be pure as the driven snow.

Are we for real or what?

I maintain despite him being handsome, rich and of royal descent Dalip married up, if you know what I mean.”

Daman nodded his head placating.

“You are all wondering if I am infatuated with her. Maybe, I don’t know,” Srinivas raked his hair back plowing it with long, tapering fingers. “Tarika is elegant, intelligent, articulate, outgoing, and warm with a great sense of humor. No man can help but be attracted to her generosity of heart and spirit.”

Srinivas leaned forward to place a third photo on the glass and steel coffee table shifting long legs. Daman admired the author’s designer boots. A corner of his mind worked out in an abstracted manner the income Srinivas made in a year from royalties and such.

“And this is Mallika.”

Since Daman did not move a muscle Ayesha reached for the photograph.

“She is beautiful.” Ayesha Pathak was no less a stunner in the looks department. Five feet six, slender and willowy with a heart shaped face and luminous dark brown eyes. She was fair complexioned. Long, silky, jet black hair swirled about her shoulders like a fragrant dark cloud.

Intriguingly her feminism was completely dominated by her intellectualism. Many times she seemed like one of the guys to the team with the sole exception being Gaurav.

Like the Billy Joel song She was always a Woman to him.

Gaurav flicked the photo from Ayesha’s fingers. “Show me.”

Ayesha’s gaze met Daman’s head on. “I am a woman but I understand her sex appeal.” That in a nutshell was typical Ayesha- playful and direct.

“So does Rahul Desai.” Srinivas’s voice dripped with dry humor. “He initially got admittance to 7 Race Course playing moth to Tarika’s flame.

But after Tarika married Dalip, Rahul had no qualms transferring his attentions to the nubile Mallika.”

“If I am correct you are talking of Rahul Desai philanthropist, social activist right?” Arvind Godbole enquired in his lazy drawl.

Arvind Godbole was nicknamed RV- go figure! Six feet two Arvind had a burning ambition to become a Cricketer and would have been successful at it. Unfortunately his doting aunt gifted the stubborn jawed laconic teenager geek a computer. RV developed some serious hacking skills when he was not working out in the school gym or sweating it out on the cricket field under the harsh glare of a tropical sun. For some time cricketing ambitions ran parallel with his passionate love affair with computers but in the ensuing face-off between IIT (that he topped) and Cricket (where he never debuted), India lost a fine batsman and wicket keeper.

Srinivas snorted. “If you believe the media PR version Rahul Desai is a handsome, eligible bachelor well-heeled and suave but in reality I have yet to encounter a more debauched man.”

“Are you holding it against him that he fell for Tarika first before falling in love with Mallika?” Ayesha gently jibed.

“Why not Sarika,” Bhairav inquired frowning at the photograph in his hand.

Daman sighed to himself. If the world was marching North Bhairav Mehtani could be counted upon to head South in the diametric opposite direction just so he could be different and stand apart from the rest of the crowd.

With an unruly mass of curly hair, a permanent look of innocent wonder in malt brown eyes highlighted by thick eyelashes, sharp aquiline nose and chiseled lips Bhairav could easily have been the most handsome man on the team if not for Manav. Even then with a hand cupping his dark, stubble chin and a come hither look in his eyes Bhairav was like a lighthouse flashing a beacon calling all female ships ashore.

Jokes apart there was a method to his madness but it was not always apparent at first glance.

“Sarika!” Ayesha turned in her chair to face Bhairav. “What do you mean Sarika?”

“See if he is falling in love sequentially shouldn’t he fall for the younger sister first and then the cousin?” Manav Deshmukh supported his best friend spouting the most ridiculous nonsense as if it made utter sense.

Manav was fair with chocolate sweet looks- a veritable Apollo foil to Bhairav’s dark and brooding Byron. He was so handsome women stopped and asked for his autograph convinced he was an actor or a male model.

However Manav’s six pack abs were not for show as anyone who came up against him in a fight always found to their disadvantage.

“Hello? Haven’t you guys heard of true love, huh?” Ayesha inquired grinning.

Somehow this nonsense disarmed the usually reserved Srinivas. He smiled.

“Before I answer those questions let me give some background first.

Mallika is a complete outsider to the Lutyens’ social circuit. She hails from a military background. It handicaps her.

Sarika knows what a sleaze Rahul Desai is. Even if Rahul tried his utmost Sarika would never give him the time of the day.”

“Sleaze?” Ayesha echoed surprised. “That’s harsh!”

“Only those with long term memory recall Rahul’s humble origins in an impoverished middle class family.”

“So, his family is not Lutyens’ pedigree- should we hold that against Rahul?” Ayesha was sarcastic.

Srinivas carefully touched the fingertips of his right hand to his left hand. His eyes focused on his steepled fingers and not his audience. “Rahul Desai’s rags to riches story began with bagging a scholarship sponsored by Blue Distilleries a Goa based Liquor Company. It was his first introduction to Helen Lamb, aptly named after Helen of Troy and the only daughter of Dexter Lamb, the company’s founder.

Hold on, I have her picture somewhere-”

With an unerring instinct that can make sense out of self-generated chaos Srinivas walked to the writing desk in his office cum library. Pulling open the right side drawer he extracted some papers. Selecting the photo he wanted Srinivas crammed the papers willy-nilly back in the drawer and slammed it shut.

Daman stared hard at the beautiful woman in the snapshot as if committing her face to memory. She had a hand in her hair that blew wildly about her oval face. Helen had a hauntingly beautiful quality. But it was the expression in her eyes or rather the agonized expression in those limpid greens- that display of unadulterated grief made Daman feel as if he was looking in the face of a heart break.

Something felt wrong.

The date printed on the photo informed the picture had been clicked by a digital camera three months prior.

No it was not the date. Daman frowned at Helen Lamb’s unguarded expression. She seemed not quite all there.

“Nobody pays much heed to this company’s sinking fortunes now but when Dexter was alive, owning Blue Distilleries stock was the equivalent of owning a share in a gold mine.

Rahul managed to make a strong impression on Helen worming his way into her inner circle of friends. However the real catalyst to this love affair was Dexter’s untimely death.

Dexter was the unfortunate victim of an armed robbery at his Goa home.

A grieving Helen clung to Rahul for emotional support and he induced her to marry him. Rahul specializes in preying on emotionally vulnerable women.”

Srinivas threw a cheap tabloid on the coffee table. “If you care to look at today’s ‘scoop’ they have published an exposé of a romantic liaison between Rahul Desai and Mallika Sharma.”

Daman’s lip curled with distaste on viewing the photograph of the couple caught in a passionate lip-lock.

“Helen, Mallika- their names are different but circumstances very similar. Mallika’s lost her parents and Rahul is taking advantage of that susceptibility.

Coming back to Rahul and Helen he repaid Helen’s trust by systematically looting her inheritance after their marriage. Using her power of attorney Rahul transferred Helen’s financial assets to his name, emptied her bank lockers and even sold the brewery to the competition. When Helen got to know, she was devastated. She suffered a nervous breakdown. That was sufficient reason for divorce on the grounds of mental incompetency. After their marriage ended Helen isolated herself in Goa while Rahul began ruling the roost in Delhi.

I am just an inquisitive author with limited resources and I have dug up all this dirt on Rahul just this morning. Who knows what K.D. has managed to unearth with all the resources at his disposal?

Anyway K.D. is understandably furious.”

Bhairav was dismissive. “Once Mallika hears the truth about Rahul from K.D. this affair will be yesterday’s news.”

“I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. All I can tell you right now Mallika is infatuated with Rahul and determined to marry none other. Uncle and niece are the only two people in this family at loggerheads with each other.”

Daman could see the thinning of the Prime Minister’s lips to a hardline. K.D.’s hands fisted at his sides till the knuckles turned white as if he was exercising great restraint.

“K.D.’s going about this all wrong. Women crave love and attention,” Ayesha felt strongly. “He should be tactful with Mallika. All this putting his foot down business will only make her all the more determined to marry this Don Juan guy.”

However Daman could empathize with K.D.’s perspective. He would not care for his niece dating an unsavory character as this Rahul Desai. He would dislike seeing her mug on the front page of tabloids with that debased lover of hers. He would hate that… she completely dishonored the memory of her parents.

Mallika Sharma stood on the lawns of the Prime Minister’s house taking in the atmosphere around her. A tasteful breakfast buffet spread was laid on the garden bar table with servers at the ready. Sitting in the shade of a colorful sun umbrella her uncle glanced down at his wristwatch then looked at the three men and lone woman seated at the breakfast table with him.

Mallika thrust her jaw up and walked towards the table where her uncle sat with a nonchalant grace in her walk.

She was petite and slender. Sharp features, clear complexion, face expertly made-up, hair pulled back in a small, tight bun at the nape of her neck. She looked sophisticated and oddly vulnerable at the same time in a buttery yellow soft cotton sleeveless sundress with a flirty hem.

Her collarbones, shoulders and toned legs were displayed at an advantage. She wore strappy sandals- jute with heels that made her appear taller than she was. The coral pink nail paint on her toes added to an understated look- organic but wholesome. Ironically she reminded Daman of what Srinivas had described as the kind of woman a man took home to meet his mother.

Daman arose first the other men following. His shrewd eyes keenly noted her reaction while K.D. conducted the usual round of introductions.

Mallika looked across the breakfast table and forgot the practiced words. Her custom smile slipped as her jaw dropped open.

“Everyone, this is my niece and hostess- Mallika Sharma.” K.D. introduced.

“Mallika I want you to meet Daman Vaidya and his team of extremely diligent investigative professionals. Ms. Ayesha Pathak, Mr. Gaurav Mhatre and Mr. Manav Deshmukh come highly recommended.

Mr. Vaidya and his team are confident they can help recover my documents missing since Saturday.

Actually Daman I don’t know when the documents went missing.

Saturday afternoon is the last time I remember handling them when I put them in my briefcase before going for a swim. I am positive I locked the briefcase using a combination lock.

Sunday afternoon when I unlocked my briefcase so I could do some final editing I realized those particular documents were missing. I have searched everywhere but haven’t found them.”

 

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