the layers begin to peel…..


  Chapter 28

Shiv rubbed his face. Hands on his hips, he stood with his head lowered, trying Bullet’s number yet again. It had been two days since the Princess had dropped a bomb on him. She remembered that day in the mango grove when his mother had passed.

Though it made him happy, it also troubled him because even the thought of separating from the Princess was torturous.

Padma had stomped away after he had been silent and not answered her question. He knew she would be mad, and rightly so. He knew everything about her, but she was in the dark. He had only fed her tidbits of information.

And then… he couldn’t control his libido. Shiv placed the burner back in his jeans pocket and looked behind where a trail of wilderness spread its hues. Somewhere up, there was the house where Padma sat brooding. They hadn’t exchanged a word in the last couple of days. But fortunately, she was eating whatever he was providing her with. For that, he was grateful. Despite living a princess’s life with all the comforts in the world, she didn’t hesitate. He could never forgive himself if her health were to take a downward spiral.

He sighed… He knew what they shared was beyond physical gratification. He berated himself umpteen times… she was a virgin for crying out aloud. But he was experienced and now was sure she had ruined him for every other woman. For the first time, his heart was involved… the way she shattered in his arms was something he would take to his grave.

He couldn’t let this go on for long… it would be difficult to break away. He had lost his head when she had moved closer. If the tightness in his pants were any indication, he wasn’t still over her. He missed her. He missed being close to her, talking to her. Missed her infectious laughter. He had smiled for the first time in years when he was with her. He had forgotten protection… something he would never do. He had meant to discuss that with her but now wasn’t the time… he had to wait for her. But Padma did that to him, making him lose his equilibrium. He couldn’t afford that, especially when she was still in danger.

His phone buzzed with an incoming message.

‘meet me behind Koini post office…urgent’

Maanav was dependable. He had informed in yesterday’s update about finding some information. There was turmoil and rioting and people had taken to the streets demanding to see the King after the rumor of his demise had been floated.

Maanav and Shiv, in cahoots with Keshav, had decided to keep the news about the King’s death under wraps to avoid political unrest. But now that the rumors were out, there were demonstrations and gatherings with slogans and chanting, demanding to know about the King’s well-being. Last evening the police chowky was torched along with a couple of State Transport buses after evicting the passengers. There were no casualties, thankfully.

The Royal court was silent over the matter, and the locals demanded to see the Princess offering their support. However, if Padma had to assume the responsibilities, she would have to tie the knot as per the rules. Keshav and the other elders were contemplating solutions in closed-door meetings. They were all told the Princess was recuperating in her room and was not to be disturbed for another week. Keshav and Seema were handling the secrecy at that end.

So basically, he had a few more days, after which he would have to return to the palace.

Shiv met Maanav in the dark lane behind the Post office. Death silence prevailed in the area after two groups of people clashed about who would take over the throne versus abolishing Royalty altogether. Shiv saw torn cloth banners left behind by the protesters. He wondered if anyone participating in rioting even knew what they were doing.

His gut instinct told him they were instigated… but by whom? Majumdar? Would he take such a risk with upcoming State elections?

He heard the hoot from the lonely corner and knew Maanav had seen him despite his camouflage tactics. His friends could find him anyhow…

“What’s up, Bullet?” He spoke, standing in the corner turnaround, his eyes scanning the environment.

“New piece of news is going to upturn everything…”

“What’s that?”

“There is a piece of news about the Princess…”

That made his ears straighter, and Shadow walked further closer towards the turn where Maanav stood in hiding.

“What… about her?”

“I got to know from an old geezer out there who was fishing. He had known the King’s father’s driver. The old hound was probably in delirium given his age, and no one took notice of the ragged old man who loved to fish… But he spilt the news that the Queen couldn’t sire children. So Princess Padmavati being the biological child of the Royal couple seems questionable.”

“What?” Shiv felt the earth slip under his feet.

Suddenly everything made sense… Someone was out there to discredit the Princess, probably because she didn’t have Royal blood. But why kill her?

“I think Shadow, you have to tell her everything now…She doesn’t know about the King, does she?” Maanav asked

Shiv shook his head. “No, she doesn’t… She doesn’t even know I have an idea of where the crown may be…”

“So when do we raid the tunnel? Our guys are ready, and by the way, Razor is joining us too on this…”

“Razor is back…?” Shiv asked in surprise. His friend Avinash Razor Thakur was somewhere in the Himalayan foothills on a special mission for the Government. “…Mission accomplished…?”

“Razor has been dismissed from active service…” Maanav said softly.

“Is… is he hurt?” Shiv asked in concern for his close friend.

“No idea, Shadow. He seemed fine on the phone at least… but you know how it is in the projects… we cannot tell it all. We only struggle as the turmoils churn their way in our guts…”

“But I am glad he will be there. I can’t trust anyone apart from the three of you to have my back.” Shadow said. He knew what their lives as special operatives entailed. PTSD was cruel and played havoc with their lives. He had almost given up on everything, but the Princess had provided him with a new lease of life.

“So when do we make that hike?” Maanav brought him back to the present.

“When is the fort festival?” Shadow asked

“It’s in five days from now…”

“In that case, we have to make a move quickly…” Shiv mentally calculated. “…You know the way from inside the fort. I shall come from behind the falls where I found an entrance. I am sure it leads to the fort cellar. We will meet there tomorrow at 2 AM… I am positive the crown and other stolen artefacts would be found there…”

“…Roger that Shadow. I think Razor will be here by noon. I shall mobilise the boys. Let’s do this. But there is something else too.”

“What is it, Bullet?”

“Evidence… the Queen, had found out something sinister and she was meticulous with record keeping. We need to find that evidence, and we will have our perp on a platter.”

“Yes… I am aware of it. But so far I haven’t found it anywhere. I almost ransacked the late Queen’s chamber but nada… I have checked every nook and corner of the Princess’s room even torn the photo frames apart before joining them together. But found nothing. The walls are clean too… No hollows, no vaults. Where could the evidence be?”

“Shadow think harder. I am sure the location has something to do with the Princess. Try talking to her and see if she gives away anything. Because even if we find treasure out there or the crown, it will help the Princess ascend the throne, but some documents can question her credibility as an heir and evidence we need for convicting our perps.”

“I am on it, Bullet…” Shadow sighed again. Padma was giving him the silent treatment. He had to get into her good books yet again, get her to talk to him, and trust him again. He had to use gentle coaxing or a bit of force and though he hated himself for it, he knew just the way.

“Shadow there is…er… one other thing you need to know…” Maanav spoke, hesitating.

Shiv wondered why Maanav was discreet and shying away from talking to him. He could sense the guy’s mood when they met a while ago… something was amiss. However, Shiv knew it wasn’t the situation because they had been through worse as operatives.

“What is it, Maanav?” Shiv used the man’s given name, indicating he was dead serious.

“Its… it’s about your mother…”

Shiv’s heart stalled. What was Bullet talking about? For years his mother had been on the backburner. Now suddenly, hearing about her caused the memories to gush in. Her indifference towards him, her indiscretions with the other man, and finally the vision of her lifeless grotesque body hanging from the roof….

“What… what is it?”

“Shadow, the old man I told you about kept ranting about old days when he spoke about that beautiful woman on the hills who lived with her hardworking son and the absentee husband. I knew it was about you because the hill was haunted, and no one wanted to build homes there at the time. So… he mentioned … he was there that night when that tall man and another one who limped went up the hill in the dead of night. This man couldn’t sleep and was strolling out in the dark. But he always had poor eyesight and couldn’t make out anything beyond the silhouettes. They rushed out in some time, and the next day the woman was found dead….” Shiv began to palpitate as Maanav continued. “…Shadow, my gut tells me it was a homicide and not suicide… can you think about anything? Remember anything?”

Shiv shut his eyes even as the vision of his mother’s limp body swarmed in, messing with his head. And right then, it struck him… he had been so busy pushing the image back into his subconsciousness all these years that he didn’t realise the fact starting at him.

His mother hung a foot above the mud flooring of his house barely. The roof wasn’t too high but there was no stool or stone or brick on which she could stand… His mother was always well dressed and no matter what she wouldn’t have used the saree she was wearing to hang herself… it wasn’t a cotton saree either. His mother wore cotton sarees to bed… and finally, Shiv swore loudly, unconcerned about his surroundings and Maanav had to emerge out of his hiding to check him out.

“What the hell, buddy…do you want centre stage here?” Maanav looked around and patted Shiv on the back.

“I saw it that night…but it didn’t strike me to date…” Shiv muttered.

“What did you see? You were only fifteen buddy… what do you remember from then?”

“The anklet…” Shiv looked at Maanav. “…Bullet that anklet I told you about… the one I found in the fort tunnel…”

“Yes… you mentioned it belonged to your mother… but it was just one of the pair… wasn’t it?”

“Yes…” Shiv continued to stare at Maanav, feeling the unhindered wetness on his cheeks. “… I now recall seeing the other one… it was on her feet that night… just one foot… as she hung… and then…” he rubbed his face as further realization struck. Why didn’t it get to him all these years?

“…and what, Shadow?”

“…the remaining anklet… was gone… later… when they laid her on the hearse…”



©Priya Nayak-Gole

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