The rented vehicle breezed past on the Mumbai-Pune express-way and any other day Avanti would have loved the chill misty November breeze filled with the scent of fresh foliage tapping her senses. But today she just stared at the passing scenery as the unoccupied land passing from the side of the road called out for her attention…
She remembered seeing off a melancholic Keshav to work today morning. He was still silent and yet to get back to his original self even as they had shared breakfast. He had often held her hands and almost hugged her when Mrs. Sinha had entered the drawing room. He had withdrawn again and rushed to the home gym even as Avanti had turned beet red. It was then his phone that he had left behind on the centre table had buzzed with an incoming text with Akshat’s name on display. Her curiosity had gotten the better of her and though his phone was password protected she had scrolled down the notification to read the message on display. Akshat had just texted, ’Address confirmed…Kune it is. Check mail for POA…’ Avanti’s heart had raced… Keshav had the same doubts as her and he had been working on it as promised. She had the same address for the engineer Shamsunder Valmiki. She knew Keshav was still hurting after what had transpired yesterday at the Kulsreshtra’s and especially because of Kamya’s so-called betrayal. Today he was to visit Novo Supremo for a board meeting after which he was scheduled to visit Vedshastra and would be late to arrive home tonight. She had immediately planed her move and had told him she would be resting at home. He had been lost in his own flow of thoughts and had just kissed her on the forehead before hugging her goodbye.
As Avanti stared blankly at the beautifully spread nature’ backdrop, she felt guilty about hiding her plan from Keshav. But he had too much on his plate notwithstanding his health concerns and she didn’t want to pile on without being sure of the facts. At the same time, she wanted to share his burden in every sense of the way. She knew she was being rash and impulsive which was more like Arpita than herself. Her baba would tell Arpita that impulsivity often led to trouble and could have unpleasant consequences. Here she was all set to do just that. Her eyes filled as she remembered him. “…Sorry baba… but I have to find out what happened that day… it’s eating me from within and I cat trouble Keshav anymore…” She sniffled tears away. Even Rahul wouldn’t have approved of her trying out what she was set to do. But she had to find Shamsunder Valmiki without calling for attention and try to extract information indirectly and subtly either from him or at least about him. She knew she had the added advantage of being a woman and usually people opened up to her easily. Would Shamsunder do that? She didn’t know but it was worth a try…besides she was going there in broad daylight as a tourist so it wouldn’t be dangerous either…would it…? As she neared Kune village near Khandala, the address mentioned in Rahul’s findings, heavy rains lashed the picturesque ghats and she hadn’t carried an umbrella… who would have guessed it would rain so much in November…? She got off the vehicle at a point beyond which there was no entry for wheels and the driver instructed her to take a walk up to some point mentioned in the address. Unfortunately, the point wasn’t on GPS and actually it didn’t make much sense either since the signal was crappy. Fortunately, the rain Gods had been merciful and it was down to a drizzle. She had her jacket with her which she pulled around her to ward off the chill from freezing her cheeks and ears. Who knew it would be so cold here? She looked around to see a few hikers on nature trails and was happy that she wasn’t alone… Keshav would throw a fit if he got to know what she was up to but she would beg for mercy if need be and at the moment she had to focus on the task. She was sure Rahul’s man, Akshat’s PI as well as the police would have missed something if they had come here and that was a cent percent possibility. None of them were as invested in the case as her… In fact, her baba’s death was touted an accident and the file was shut…it was only Rahul and Akshat’s sleuthing that got them around to this point… but they had their limitations too and had to go by the book. She inhaled the moist air deeply and hugged herself driving away the shudder which she wasn’t sure was because of the chill or her mounting anxiety… She sighed promising herself she would just take a look around and nothing else…
As she walked along the road her sneakers no match for the slushy winding pathway made worse by the soil flowing down the adjoining hills. She had to tread with caution else she would have a bad fall in this sparsely populated place. She picked a stick lying around and used it for support as she strutted ahead. As she moved further lost in making her plan of action, she suddenly realised the human trails had trickled to oblivion and there was no one in sight for miles around her. It was already 3 PM and as she munched on a protein bar, she had fortunately carried in her little backpack she hoped she would finish soon to return home before Keshav arrived… she wondered if she had to give up. As she moved a little further, she could hear the gurgling sound of the Kune waterfalls. How Shamsuder Valmiki had a house in this remote place away from civilisation was beyond her… and as always, the million-dollar question…why…? She met a couple of local men who helped her with the address not before scrutinising her as if she was an alien visiting their sacred helms. Just a little more…she thought… She shook her head struggling her way through the overgrown foliage and soon she was huffing and panting as she arrived at a little clearing very close to the falls. The area around the falls had been cordoned off for the public since it was pouring heavily for a while now and the terrain was treacherously slippery. She wondered how Mr. Valmiki could get the permission to build a house in this supposedly eco sensitive zone… unless he was influential in some way or…in hiding… She shuddered as the fearful chill further seeped into her body. Did she make a mistake already…she thought for the nth time…should she return…? No… she took in a deep breath and made a resolution. She had come all the way here and now was not the time to turn back and retreat. She wasn’t going to actually confront the guy anyways…just get some background…
With unwavering determination to achieve what she was set to do she strutted ahead. Her feet were wet as her sneakers had soaked in water and were sticking uncomfortably to her feet. She decided to get rid of them once she hit the road again. As she approached the clearing which was farther than what she had assumed from the directions received earlier and a feeling of unease crept up her spine. She walked slowly towards a dilapidated house. There was an electrical line passing the area and the nearest house though far away was at least present, indicating some sort of living here. Promising herself she wouldn’t spend more than ten minutes here and go back immediately, she warily approached the front door only to find a heavy rusted padlock on it. There was mud and slush all round and wear and tear along with wet cobwebs indicating no habitation in the place for a long time… while it brought down her fear, did it also mean Shamsunder Valmiki wasn’t here…? Oh God… after all that trek in wet shoes and bone crunching physical work, she had to endure not to mention she would have to face Keshav’s wrath, to reach here… he wasn’t there? Continuing her grip on the pen knife in her pocket, considering that she was already here, she decided to look around just a bit, she still had a few minutes for her self-imposed deadline… The place was eerily quiet except for the now harsh sound of the waterfalls. Dark clouds loomed over and the drizzle had just set in. She walked around to reach the backside of the house… beyond that the wild grass overgrowth had camouflaged everything else
She stepped cautiously hoping not to rattle any hibernating creepy crawlies…. And as she gradually moved towards the back door of the house, she saw the mesh door ajar and stopped in her tracks. Was he home? She slouched down immediately and walked towards the window adjacent to it. Like other windows it was shut too but there were no curtains covering it inside so she tightened the grip on her pen knife and tried to peep in holding her palm against the glass… she couldn’t make out much but she was now sure the house was empty. The thunder roared loudly with the bright lightening for company and she needed to save herself from getting electrocuted. She slowly pulled the mesh door ajar and tiptoed in her wet sneakers squeaking as the air escaped the water filled pores of its soles… the sound startling her every time it did. As she pushed the inner door, it made a creaking sound and she almost expected Shamsunder Valmiki to just emerge out and her heart stopped… but then nothing happened and she gathered courage and opened the door further but was suddenly hit by a bad odour… it was something rotting and she almost threw up. With eyes watering because of the redolence repulsing her totally, in spite of covering her nose she walked in tentatively… she saw the entire drawing room though sparsely furnished was in a mess. The couple of throw pillows were mercilessly shredded and thrown while the chairs were toppled. There was paper strewn around as if they were ripped from folders or files. It looked like someone had put in a lot of effort to search the place down. She was now confident she had made the right decision of coming here. As she moved ahead the stench increased and she saw the kitchen counter with food on it and thoroughly moulded everywhere… oh…goodness…he had left food on the counter which had rotted. How could she get any information here…? Though she was certain Shamsunder Valmiki was involved in some sinister manner in the plane crash… there was nothing she could do here… She felt dejected and was about to turn when her eyes fell on the landline phone toppled near the wall. She walked towards it stepping on the mess trying not to fall and checked the area around the phone. There was a calendar set for June with the days crossed right upto 23rd…the day of the crash. Her heart raced ahead as a new rush of adrenaline surged through her body. There had to be something…oh Baba please help me…
She looked around and found a telephone diary stuck between the rickety cupboard and the wall…it wouldn’t have been visible if someone didn’t look carefully. It looked strange to maintain a landline phone and diary in today’s times of cell phones. But maybe the lousy signal in these regions made Shamsunder Valmiki do that. She skimmed hurriedly through the pages in the diary most of them were stuck and dirty probably by the rain water that had seeped inside. There were some numbers written in the first few pages which looked like ordinary mobile numbers. However, she looked at the last page and as she turned them, she was shocked to see her father’s name and different amounts against different dates. The lowest amount was 10000/- while the highest was 50000/-. The next page has a few names of people whom she didn’t know but one name she did recognise… Prantik Mukherjee…really…? The bastard was indeed involved in all this…? The adjoining page had a name ‘SIR ji’ and a phone number against it…it was a landline and …very familiar…where had she seen that number? She was blank. She turned the page further and the date and time along with the flight details of the private plane her father was to use were all mentioned. There was some technical jargon about nuts and bolts in the engine and information about how to… loosen them…? Oh God…
Tears rolled over as her heart clenched…so… her baba was murdered and so were the others in the plane. But this didn’t prove anything…how could she do it…? She had to take this diary to Keshav… he would know what was to be done. She couldn’t help but turn the page where Shamsunder Valmiki had written a to-do list.
First installment from sirji
Dnyaneshwar Rane office search
Second installment from sirji
Technician meets for gadgets
Third installment from sirji
Black bound book to be given over
23rd final money tranfer from Sirji.\ Demand only cash
Cancel lease on rental home.
The asshole had planned everything? Avanti was sobbing furiously wiping at her cheeks… why did he do that…just for a black book of formulae…? Just then thunder struck causing vibration all around her frightening her to the core. Wait… what was that smell…? It was different from the malodour from earlier. And…then…something creaked… there was a noise and the chip on the wall beside her was broken. What the hell…? The diary fell from her hand right then and she bent trying to tear off the last pages and only one came off. She stuffed it in her pant pocket but right then there was another noise right above her as the window pane crashed… Fuck…someone was shooting at her and she had narrowly missed… Panic engulfed her and the smell…getting stronger, overpowering the malodour that had spread earlier and why did it suddenly feel warm…? She looked towards the kitchen…oh no…there was a fire…when…? how…? Was there a gas cylinder that could burst…? The fight or flight conflict pulled her out of her shock and she chose the latter… She tried to run outside but the door didn’t budge…did someone lock it…? Was she so engrossed in the diary she didn’t hear anyone? The flames were spreading albeit slowly because of the rain and breeze blowing in…
“…help…somebody out there…? Please don’t do this… HELP…HELP…” she banged at the door but knew it was futile as the heavy downpour and the waterfall roar was masquerading everything, she tried… She began to palpitate and watched in horror as the fire stepped up its ante moving into the drawing room… the smoke making everything hazy around her…there was nowhere else she could go… Was she doomed…? At that moment she just wished to admit her feelings to Keshav…would she ever see him again…?
She cried as the smoke became unbearable. “…Ke…Keshav…I …I…Love you…I am sorry…” she could barely whisper and she went closer to the exit door as the flames roared burning everything in their wake, the smoke threatening to smother her any minute. Taking one last chance she tried to yank open the door and to her surprise it opened. She flung herself outside and rolled down the sloppy overgrowth soaked to the skin. She didn’t know how far she rolled across but she finally halted and looked up, to see the fire blazing in spite of the rain and then there was a blast. She scampered behind a tree as she watched the house collapse completely. She looked at her hands which had blisters rearing their ugly heads, her foot was probably sprained. In a span of half an hour or so she had trespassed into a house, tried to sleuth, almost died of suffocation and had been shot at… wait… if she had been shot that meant the shooter was somewhere around… she wondered, her heart thudding in agreement. Did he see she had escaped…? There was lot of grass and heavy rain. Could she push her luck further today…? She tried to stand on trembling legs but her ankle throbbed. She had let go of her backpack containing her wallet and mobile phone which were probably burnt down now. She checked her jeans pocket where she always kept some back up cash. She had about five hundred in total albeit wet notes. She had to somehow make her way to the little road ahead and that would lead her to the closest main road. She lifted her pant at the ankle only to see it had swollen…Oh God how could she manage to walk the distance. It was getting dark and there was no one around. NO…she was her baba’s strong daughter. She wouldn’t give up…having beaten death moments ago she couldn’t betray her second chance… Keshav needed her…she had to make it for the man she loved more than life itself…
Tears streaming down her face mixing with the rain, she walked in a painfully languid gait her ankle crying out loudly in agony. She cried aloud, the rain drowning her sobs but it felt a bit better to vent out amidst the throbbing ankle. She was sure there were lot many bruises… but the only thought right now was to reach Keshav… She prayed with everything she had. “Oh God…just let me see him only once… please God…” A wave of dizziness hit her and she almost collapsed. She had almost reached the muddy pathway which was even worse than when she had arrived. The mud was actually…oh goodness… it was flowing downwards towards the road. Her baba always said, ’if you can’t beat them join them…’ and she got an idea. She removed her jacket and plucked a huge banana leaf thank fully the penknife was till with her and her arms screaming in protest while her palms were already numb. She placed the jacket on the leaf and moved towards the road. The muddy slush was flowing downwards at a great speed and she knew it was pointless to walk along and so she did the unthinkable. She placed the leaf on the edge of the road and sat on it and gradually shifted toward the road on the path of the flowing mud. And as expected she got pushed. She tried rowing with the unaffected leg and that helped her speed up. Exhaustion had already crept into her beaten body and she had no clue where all she was hurt… all she could see was those mesmerising brown eyes waiting for her at the other end of the ordeal. She had to make it. She remembered when she had been disappointed at someone copying her essay in school right before the competition and submitting it as hers. She was disqualified and had felt humiliated and upset. “Avu bala… sometimes all you can do is just hand on… remember tough times don’t last…tough people do…”
Yes… she was tough… she was her baba’s diamond who couldn’t be broken. She was facing one of the greatest challenges of her life and all she wanted to do was look into its eye and give it a wink. Avanti chuckled with the mere thought and rowed using her leg and arm vigorously. Finally, she didn’t even know how much time had lapsed but she made it to the road…all soaked in mud but alive. She was in a daze energy totally depleted from her rendezvous which showed no sign of ending as she stood soaking in the heavy rain looking around in the dark for some sign of light…
She didn’t even know which direction she was dragging herself. And then she saw a light …it was a vehicle. She had no option she went ahead and stood in the middle of the road…would the ride be dangerous…? She didn’t know…just that she had to take the chance. The car came to a blurred halt and the occupants…a young couple apparently swore at her something about wanting to die before their vehicle. She gathered all her energy and screamed, “PHONE…PHONE PLEASE…”
The man got off the car and stood before her. “…what the hell are you doing here… its dangerous and we are expecting a landslide…this area was cordoned off…so what are you…”
“…Pho…phone please… husband…call him…” Avanti struggled to even whisper.
The man looked at his wife from beneath his umbrella and took out his phone. Avanti rattled off Keshav’s number from memory and the last she heard before collapsing was the call had connected. “…Hello…Mr…Uh… I am speaking from Kune falls near Khandala… your wife…”
His voice faded away as Avanti slipped into oblivion…