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Disclaimer

Thisisaworkoffiction.Names,characters,businesses,places,eventsandincidentsare

eithertheproductsoftheauthor’simaginationorusedinafictitiousmanner.Any

resemblancetoactualpersons,livingordead,oractualeventsispurelycoincidental.

Yourmemoryisamonster;youforget-itdoesn't.Itsimplyfilesthingsaway.Itkeepsthingsfor

you,orhidesthingsfromyouandsummonsthemtoyourrecallwithwillofitsown.Youthinkyou

haveamemory;butithasyou!–JohnIrving.

Prologue

ChapterOne

ChapterTwo

ChapterThree

ChapterFour

ChapterFive

ChapterSix

ChapterSeven

ChapterEight

ChapterNine

ChapterTen

ChapterEleven

ChapterTwelve

ChapterThirteen

ChapterFourteen

ChapterFifteen

Epilogue

OtherbooksfromtheAuthor

Contents

Prologue

2002,asmalltowninIndia

Thefirstthinganyoneenteringthestreetwouldnoticewastheburninghouse.Theintensityofthe

flamesflaringuptheskywereindescribable.TheChiefFireOfficer,David,stoodinfrontofthe

buildingandwatchedthefireengulfitfromallsides.Thefirewaseverywhere;theroof,thedoors

andwindows,firewasevencomingoutofthehousethroughvariousopenings,liketherewasafire-

breathingdragoninsidethehouse,puffingawayvicariously.Theflamesburneddeepredandamber,

almostlividpurpleashesawhiswholeteamtryingtoputitout.Itwasasmalltown.Thereweren’t

evenequippedtohandlethiskindofaninferno.Hehadcalledineverytruckandmanindisposaland

evenrequestedtheneighborstohelpout.Somegotouttheirwaterpipesandsomecarriedbuckets,

splashingthemovertheburninghouse.Nothingandnooneinsidewaslikelytosurvivethefire,he

thoughtashesawsomeflameslickingupintheairwiththewind,tryingtocatchsomethingelseon

fire,andfindingnothingbutair,disappearingintothewindynight,likedisappointedflutters.Chills

ranuphisspineatthemerethoughtofthatkindofblazespreading.HethankedGodAlmightyforthe

hugelawnandgardensurroundingthehouse.

“What’sthereport?”Davidranupcoughingtooneofthemembersofhisteamwhohadjustcome

outofthebuilding.

Theguylookedathisbossandgrimaced.Davidobservedthathewasalittlepaleunderallthesoot

andsmokethatcoveredhisprotectivegearandface.“Bothofthemwereinside.Dead.AtleastIthink

it’sthem.Can’tsayforsureuntilafterthepostmortem.Lookslikethefirestartedinthekitchen.”

“Anyevidenceofafoulplay?”heasked,gesturingtothewaitingambulanceandmedicalpersonnel

andalsotothepolicetoenterthescene.

“Uh,no.Nofoulplay.But

“But?”Davidasked.Hehadn’tlikedthemanandthewomanwhohadbeenlivinginthathouseany

morethanthepeoplelivinginthestreetorinthetowndidbutthatdidn’tmeanhehadwishedthem

dead.Notlikethis.Beingcharredalivewasahorrifyinglypainfulwaytodie.

“ThereisnopolitewaytosaythissoI’mjustgoingtoputitbluntly.”Davidwaitedfortheguyto continue. “The fire started in the kitchen. Gas cylinder was probably what caused the sudden explosion.I’mguessingfaultyelectricalwiringaddedtoit.Theydidn’tstandachance.Notinthestate theywerein.Theirbodiesareinthehallfloor.Oneontopoftheother.Stucktogether.Ididn’tfind ”

anyevidenceofclothesonthemeither.Notthatthefirewould’veleftanybutstill

“Jesus!”

“Theyaretryingtoseparatethemnow,”hesaidclutchinghisstomachasnausearolledinsidehim.

Davidhopedtherestofhisteamhadastrongerconstitution.Adjustinghisheadgear,hestartedtostep

intothescenewhenacarcamescreechingtoahaltafewhousesaway.Hesawthemangettingoutof

itandswore.Couldthisdaygetanyworse?

“Wait!Isn’tthat

David’snodwasgrim.“Anurag.Vandana’shusband.”

WhatVandanadid Whatthismanandhischildhadgonethroughthelastfewyearswouldprobably havegoneunnoticedhaditbeenametrocity.Intownsthissize,almosteveryonekneweveryone.By nameifnotbyfamiliarity.Mosttimesitwasablessingbutsometimesitwasacurse.

Approximatelyfivefeeteleveninchesinheight,Anurag hadatall,well-builtstature.Addafair complexion and deep brown-black eyes to it, he was downright handsome. But right then his complexionwaspale,thecreasesoverhisforeheadthathadstartedpoppingupafewmonthsback werenowmoreprominentthaneverandheseemedtohaveagedadecadesincethelasttimeDavid hadseenhim.AndDavidcouldalsosmelltheboozeonhimashetriedtostophimfromplunging himselfintotheburntbuilding.

“My

struggledagainsttherestrainingarms.“VANDANA!”

tell me she is notin there!” he pleaded, his voice was a slur as he

wife Vandana Please

“Anurag!Anuragyouneedtocalmdown!Letmyguysdotheirjob.Stayback!”

“Pleasetellmesheissafe.Pleasetellmeshe’salive!Ineedtoseeher.Please!She’smywife!Ican’t

livewithouther.”

Davidsuppressedasigh.“Anurag,I’msorry!Wecouldn’tsaveeitherofthem.”

“Idon’tcareabouthim,”hecried,stillstrugglingtobefreed.“Idon’tcare.Ijustwantherback.It

doesn’tmatter.Nothingmatters.She’smywife!VANDANA!”

“Anurag!Pleasecontrolyourself!Anurag!”

David’swordswentunheardastwostretcherswerebroughtoutofthecharredbuilding,completely

wrapped.Davidgesturedtheguysnottostoporslowdown.Theyquicklyloadedthebodiesintothe

waitingambulancebutasitstartedtorolldownthestreet,Anuragbrokefreeoftheshacklinghands

andbegantorun.

“Vandana!Vandana!Don’tleaveme!IloveyouVandana!Pleasecomeback!”

TheChiefFireOfficercoulddonothingbutstandhelplessasthegrief-maddenedhusbandranbehind

thevehiclethatcarriedthedeadbodiesofhiswifeandherlover.

2015,Bangalore.

ChapterOne

SayingthatShikhaBosewasinacrankymoodwasputtingitmildly.Herneighborwashercurse. Godsabove,notsatisfiedwiththethreebrokenengagementsinherhistoryhadsentthisafflictionto infestnotonlyherbutherentirestreet.DamnthemananddoubledamnhisBulletbike.Thecitywas floodedwithapartmentsofallsizesandtypes.Didherparentsbuyoneofthose?No!Theywantedan independenthouse.Considering thatithadbeenalmostthreedecadesago,theyhadbeenableto affordonetoo.InJayanagar,oneofthebestresidentialareasofBangalore.Aftercompletingher post-graduationinSIBM,Pune,shehadgrabbedagreatjobinthecityshewasbornandbroughtup in.Hermomhadbeenecstatic.EvenShikhahadbeenecstatic.Thatwasuntilshenotedthedistance andtheroutefromherhometoworkandback.APSoccupiedtwotowersatITPL.Didherparents agreewithherdecisiontotakeasinglebedroomneartheofficewhichincludedherpromisethatshe wouldvisitthemeveryweekend?No.Steamhadblownoutofhermom’searswhileherdadhadused emotionalblackmailquiteshamelessly.Netresult?Shewaslefttobattlethetrafficfivedaysaweek. Thefactthatherdadhadgiftedherwithanewcarasanenticementmadethingsonlymarginally better.Andthefactthateveryoneincludingsheherselfassumeditwasatemporaryarrangementuntil theyfoundaniceguyforhertomarryandboardthetrainorflight,dependingonwheretheguywas based,madethingsworse.

Nowthreeyearsaftershehadacceptedthejob,herparentsdecisionthatshewouldstaywiththemand

threebrokenengagementslater,hereshewas,stillworkingthesamejob,stilllivingwiththemand

stillsingle.Notthatshemindedbeingsingle.Infact,shehaddecidedonstayingthatwayforthe

foreseeablefutureafterthelastfiasco.Shewasbetteroff,waybetterofflivingwithherparentsand

climbingupthecorporateladderslowlybutsurely.Badtrafficnotwithstanding.Whichbroughtright

backtothetopicofhergripe.Herhouseandthegoonofaneighbor.

Shikha,alongwithtwobrothers,bothelder,hadbeenbroughtupinthesamehouseandshelovedit. Atleastshedid.Untilthat thatmanhadenteredthesceneacoupleofweeksbackandmadeithis missiontodestroyallherjoy.Godknowswhattheownershadbeenthinkingleasingtheplacetoa

guylikehim.Lastnighthehadriddenhomeinthatbikeofhisat2.45.Unfortunatelyherbedroom

wasonthesamesideofthehouseashisdrivewayandshehadopenedthewindowstoallowsome coolbreezein.Hehadacceleratedittwicebeforeturningthedamnengineoff.Hishelmetfellonce andhismaindoormadeallkindsofnoisesasheshoveditopenwithallthesubtletyofatank.Then heturnedonhisporchlight,whichbysomeevildesignwaspositionedtoshinedirectlyonherfaceif shewaslyingonherbackorGodforbid,facingthewindow,whichshehadbeen.Eventheclosed curtainscouldn’tpreventthebrightglare.Heletthemaindoorslamtwiceashewentinandcame backoutagainforGodknowswhatandwentbackinagain.Anditdidn’tendthere.Heforgottoturn thedamnlightoffbecauseafewminuteslater thehalllightwasswitchedoffbuttheporchlight stayedon.Shecouldn’tsleepuntilweehoursofmorningandwassuperlategettingupbecauseshe slidthephonealarmshutinsteadofsnoozingit.

“Damnit!Damnit!”shemutteredasshejumpedinto theshower andjumpedoutaminutelater, wrappedatowelaroundherwetbodyandstartedbrushingherteethandspittingintothesink.With

herfreehandshestarteddryingherbodyasbestasshecouldbeforeturningonthewatertorinseher

mouth.

Herparentswereinforahugedisappointment,shethoughtglumly.Thepeoplewhohadlivedthere previouslyhadbeentheowners,anice,elderlycouplewhohadoftenaccompaniedhermomanddad tothenearbytempleandsometimesvegetableshopping.Butasluckwouldhaveit,their sonhad shiftedabroadandhadwantedthemwithhim.Herparentshadbeenlookingforwardtointroducing themselvestothenewtenantsandmakingfriendswiththem.Shikhacouldn’tcontrolherscoffasshe hurriedtogetready.Theywereinforaveryrudesurpriseoncetheygotbackfromtheirsixweek vacation.

Theringingofthelandlinetelephonesnappedheroutofherthoughts.Itwaseitherherparentsorone

ofherover-protectivebrothers.Sheprayeditwasherparents.Theywereeasiertohandle.Butshe

should’veknownluckjustwasn’twithherthatday.Itwasherelderbrother,fromUS.

“Yesdada,”shesaidingreeting.

“HeyChoti,howisgoing?Gettingreadyforwork?”

“YesandI’malreadylatesoifit’snothingurgent,we’llcatchmaybetomorrow,”shesaidpushingthe

hangerswithsarisonthemaside.Notimetowrap,drapeandpintoday.“God,whyaren’tjeansmade

anofficialdresscode!”shemuttered.

Herdadalaughed.“Don’ttellme.Youshutoffthealarminsteadofsnoozingit.”

“Dada,Ireallydonothavetimeforthis.I’mfine,thehouseisfine,mycarisfine,nonewscratches

afterlastweekandno,thereisabsolutelynothingforyoutoworryabout.TellmomanddadthatI’ll

talktothemtonight.”

“Fine,OKbutbecareful.Idon’tlikeyoustayingaloneinthathouse.Ifitwereanapartmentitwould

beadifferentthing

“Yeahbutit’snotanapartmentandthestreetissafe.Aresidentialarea,”sheremindedhimasshe

dashedbackintothebathroomforahurriedmakeupjob,slippedapairofearringsintoherearlobes,

strappedthewristwatchandgrabbedtheoutfitthatshealwaysgrabbedwhenshewasrunninglate.

Blackskirt,whitetopandamulticoloredscarfloopedaroundherneck.

“Didyouhaveyourbreakfast?”hefretted.

“Dada,FYI,I’m27not7.I’moffnow,bye.”

Shedisconnectedthecallwithoutgivinghimachancetoaddmoreinstructions,threwthephonein

thegeneraldirectionofthesofa,slippedherfeetintoapairofflats,grabbedherbackpack,keys,

mobileandhightailedoutofthehouse.Shehadahairbrushinherbackpackandwoulduseitbefore

gettingdownfromthecarattheoffice.Onemajoradvantageofhavingabob-cuthair.Itwashassle

freeandsavedloadsoftimeondayslikethisoneconsideringthefactthatherhairwasthickand

slightlycurly.Itwasnotexactlyapixieorcrewcutbutclose.Veryclose.Hermomhadbeenhorrified

andherdadhadbeenoffendedbuttheyhadlittlechoice.Itwasthehairortheirdaughterlivingwith

them.Theycouldn’thaveboth.

ShethrewthebackpackinthebackseatofhermetallicgreenBrio,openedthegate,jumpedintothe

driver’sseatandstartedthecar.Sheputthecarintoreversegearandbackedoutofherhouse.Hercar

hadareversehornwhichmostoftheIndiancarshad.Itdidn’thelpthenoisepollutionbutitsure

preventedafewdents,bumpsandscratches.Fairtrade,sheconcluded.Butapparentlynothersurly-

burly neighbor who came stomping out of his house at the noise.From the thunderous scowl

darkeninghisface,onewouldthinkshehadbeenplayingrockmusicatvolume100forthepastone

hour.Justwhendidhegotowork?Didheworkatall?Sofarshecouldn’tdiscernanypatternor

timings.Onewouldexpectapersontobeawake,shequicklycheckedthetime.At8.30inthemorning.

Buthisbloodshoteyessuggestedthathehaddraggedhimselfoutofthebed.Maybeheworkedina

callcenter,shethought.Buthesuredidn’tlooklikeaguywhohandledcallswithatrainedaccent.

Oncethecarwasoutofthegate,sheputitinneutralandgotouttolockhergate.Hewasoutofhis gatebythen.Sheevengavehimacordialapologeticsmile.Consideringhowhehadwokenherupat

2.45thepreviousnight,ithadbeenahugeeffortbutshedidsmile.Awastedeffort.

“Youtryingtowakethedeadorwhat?”

Shikhagrittedherteethandgavediplomacyonemoreshot.“I’msorry,”shesaidinaneventone,

walkingpasthimtoshutandlockhergate.

Hemutteredanindistinctivereplybeforestridingbackintohishouseandbangingthedoorshut.The sheerinjusticeofthesituationspikedhertemperbutshecontrolledit.Nowaywouldsheadmititto anyonebutherselfthatshewasafraidofthatguy.ShikhaBosewasn’tinthehabitofbackingdown fromanyonebutthisguy hewasscary.Shedidn’tevenknowhisname,shethoughtwithascowlas shedroveofftoherwork.Allsheknewwashewastall,burlyanddidn’tseemtobeworkingany regularjob.HelookedalittlelikethatTamilactorSurya.Onlybigger.Andmeaner.Hecouldbe dangerous.Godknowswhatkindofthingshewasinvolvedin,shethoughtwithashudder.Hewasa big,muscularguywithDanielCraigSkyfallhaircut.Notjustthehairstyle,evenhisbodyresembled

thatofthelatest007.Hehadamustachethatcurledalittleattheedges.NotlikeAmrishPuriinKaran

Arjun.MorelikeAjayDevgninBhagatSingh.Buttheunshavenfaceandbloodshoteyessureweren’t

thoseofanyfreedomfighter.MorelikeWWFparticipant.Hewouldwintoo,shethoughtwithdark

humor.

ShikhaworkedasassistantgeneralmanagerinthefinancedepartmentofAsianPeninsulaSystems,or

APSasitwascalled.Itwasatwentyfivebilliondollarcompanythatsuppliedintegratedcircuitsfor

bothcomputerandmobiledevicesacrosstheworld.Orratheritmanufacturedthecircuitsandsold

themtotheOriginalEquipmentManufacturersorOEMsaspeoplecalledthem,whointurndidthe

integrationandpackagingbeforesellingthemtothecustomers.Andlikeinanylargecompany,the

atmosphereherewasalittleweird.Abizarremixtureofgeeksinjeansandwrinkledt-shirtsand

managementtypesinthreepiecesuitsandafewinsemiformalswhoactedasgo-tobetweenthe

geeksandthehigher-ups.IfShikhahadbeenworkinginthegeeksdepartment,noonewould’vecared

ifshehadbeenlatebutshewasinfinanceandherbosswasasticklerforpunctuality.Hispointedlook

attheclockashewatchedherwalkintotheofficemeantshewouldbestayinglatetomakeupforit.

Addedtothat,herphonehadbeenbeepingitsheadoffwithincomingmailalertsandremainders.She

quicklytypedamessagetobothofherfriendsintheirWhatsAppgroup.

DinnerLadies?

Yes.

HellYes!

Tworepliespoppedupalmostsimultaneouslymakinghergrin.ThankGoditwasFriday.

****

PreetiSinghpackedboththelunchboxesandsnappedthemshut.Shestackedthedirtydishesinthe

utilityforthemaidtofindandcleanalongwiththepreviousnight’sleftoversandusedplates,praying

likeshedideveryday.

“PleaseShanti,don’ttakeofftoday.Please,please.Prettyplease.Pleasedon’tletmeseeallthese

thingsassoonasIgethometonight.”

“Youknow,youreallyneedtostopmumblingtoyourself.It’sbecomeahabitnow,”Preeti’shusband,

Jaisaid,comingintothekitchenforhisearlymorningcoffee.

Preetistartedloadingthewashingmachine.“Youdidn’thavedinnerlastnight.”

“Itwascold.”

“WehaveamicrowaveJai.Thecookmakesrotisintheeveningsoofcourseit’sgoingtobecold.

Whatdoyouexpect?”

“Icomehometiredfromwork.I’mnotinamoodforheatitandeatit,”hesnappedback.“Ihada

heavysnackattheofficeanyway.”

“Andafewdrinkstoo.”

“Iwasoutwithfriendsanditwasjustonedrink.”

“Right,”Preetididn’thavetimetostandandargue.Shehandedhimthecoffeecupandleftthekitchen.

“I’mofftowork.Yourbreakfastisonthetable.”

“It’scornflakes.Youmakeitsoundlikehotparatasarewaitingforme,”hescoffed.

“Ifyouwanthotparatas,youneedtohelpmemakethem.Idon’thavetime.”Itwasanoldargument.

TheylivedinathreeBDRapartmentinKoramangalaandshehadtoleaveontimeifshewantedto

avoidgettingstuckinthetraffic.

“Whatdoyouhavetimefor?Seriously!Weekdaysyougotowork.Weekendsyougoshopping.

You’reneverhomebeforeme.Youdon’twanttogooutwithme

“Bothofusworkonweekdays.Igotobuygroceriesandveggiesoverweekends.Youdon’twantto

comewithmetothateithersoIguesswe’reeven.”

“Don’tstartthatagain.YouknowI’mnotusedtodoingallthatstuff.Ineverdiditbeforeandhave

zerointerestindoingnow.”

“AndIdiditsincethedayIwasborn?”shesnappedback.“ButIlearnt,didn’tI?”

“OKlisten,momanddadareplanningtocomenextmonth.”

“Great!”

Preetiwantedtothrowthehairbrushonthemirror.Takingadeepbreathshestartedtobrushherlong,

straighthairinsmoothstrokes.Herhusbandneverlikeditwhenherparentscomeforavisitbutshe

wassupposedtowelcomeandbowdowntoeverywishandcommandofhis.Herin-lawsdidn’tlike

thefactthatsheworked.Andtheymadesurehowdispleasedtheywereeveryminuteofeverydaythat

theywerethere.Nothingshedidwasright.Shewasn’ttakingcareofherhusband,wasn’ttakingcare

ofthehouse,waspayinghermaidstoomuch.Thelistjustwentonandonandon.Shenormally

didn’tgiveafigaboutanyofthosebarbedcommentsbutinherpreviousvisit,hermotherinlawhad

laidtheblameoftheirchildlessmarriageatherfeet.Saidthattheremustbesomethingwrongwith

herthatshehadn’tconceivedevenafterthreeyearsofmarriage.Preetihadwaited.WaitedforJaito

stepupanddefendher.Tellhisparentsthetruththatithadbeenhisdecisiontowaitforthekids.That

shehadwantedtohavethemallthistime.Itwashewhowasn’treadyfortheresponsibility.Buthe

hadn’tsaidaword.Notaword.Insteadhehadchangedthetopic.

“Mymomwouldn’tunderstandPreeti.Justignoreit,”hadbeenhiswordswhenshehadconfronted

himlaterthatnight.Thiswastheguyshehadbeeninlovewithsinceherunder-graddays.Thiswas

theguyshehadfoughtwithherparentstomarry.Moreimportantlythiswastheguywhohadstoodin

frontofherhostelgateallnightthetimeshehadbeendownwithmalaria.Theguywhohadswornto

herparentsthathewouldtreatherlikeaprincess.Whatwasthesaying?Loveisblind.Marriageisthe

eye-opener.Theguyshehadfalleninlovewithwasintheresomewherebehindallthatattitudeof

takingherandtheirrelationshipforgranted.Shejustdidn’tseehimmuchthesedays.

“Whatdoesthatmean?”hesnapped,trailingafterherintotheirbedroom.

“Nothing.”Shequicklystartedtogettingdressedinblacktightsandmaroon-blackkurta,apartof

notingherhusband’stotallackofinterest.Afterthreeyearsofmarriage,shewasn’texpectinghimto

berampantwithdesireatseeingheralmost-nakedbodybuttherewasn’tevenaspark.Hell,hewasn’t

evenlookingather.

“Youneedtoadjustyourofficetimingswhenthey’rehere.”

“Likeyouadjustyourtimingswhenmyparentscome?Sure,Icandothat.”Hehadn’tevenmadeit

homefordinneronthenightshehadarrangedabirthdaydinnerforherdad.

“Whyareyoubeingsarcastic?”

“I’moffnow.Don’tforgettotakeyourlunchbox.”Throwingalongstylishscarfoverhershoulder sheslungherbackpackontotheother,grabbedherphoneandkeys.APSwasbigondresscodefor theirsalesteamandsinceshehadbeenrecentlypromotedassalesmanagerforhersub-division,she couldn’taffordtogolaxinthedressingdepartment.Thereinlayanotherissue.Herpromotion.She’d betherincreasedpaycheckthatJaihadn’texpectedit.Hehadencouragedhertotakeupajobsothat shewouldkeepherselfoccupieduntilhegotbackhomefromhiswork. Hehadn’texpectedherto startlovingitorthatshewouldexcelinit.

“Preeti!”

Shestoppedatthedoorandsighedbeforeturningback.“Look,IheardwhatyousaidandI’lltrybutI can’tpromise.YouknowIcan’tpromise.”Shemethisirateeyes,herowneyesinscrutable.“Seeyou tonight.”Her phonepingedwithafamiliar music.Shequicklyscannedthemessage.Itwasfrom Shikha.

DinnerLadies?

Yes.Shesentherreply.ThankGoditwasFriday.

****

SiyaDuttafrownedatherreflectionasshepulledbackhercurlyhairandsecureditwithalargeclip atthebackofherhead.Thereweredarkcirclesunderhereyes,shefretted.Tapanwouldn’tlikeit. Sheneededto usesomecucumber slicesrightawaybutshewasalreadyrunning latefor work. Tomorrow,shepromisedherself.Tomorrowwasweekendandshewouldgetacompletefacialdone too.Helovedtoshowherofftohisfriends.Sometimesithurtthathegavemoreimportancetovanity thanthepersonunderneath.Butshedidwanttomakehimproud.Shelovedhimsomuch.Couldn’t imaginelivingadaywithouthim.Andhelovedhertoo,shereassuredherself.Ofcoursehedid.He toldherthat.Multipletimes.Shetriedtothinkbackandrememberthelasttimehehadtoldherthat. Fourmonths?Fivemonthsback?Thesedaysthelovewordshaddwindledtocrudesexwordsuttered whentheywerehavingsexorwhenhewantedtohavesex.

Inthebeginningithadallbeenwonderful.TheyhadmetatAPSwhereshehadbeenscreeningafew

candidatesformanagerialpositionandhehadbeenoneofthecandidates.Andthemosthandsome

guyshe’deverlaidhereyeson.Hehadflirtedwithher,complimentedheronherwork,herastute

observationskillsandyes,herlookstoo.Shehadblushedandglowedbutrefusedhisinvitationfor

coffee.He’dtakentherefusalgraciouslybutgaveherhisnumberincaseshechangedhermind.And

shedidchangehermind,shethoughtbleakly.Shehadcalledhimthenextday.Coffeehadchangedto

lunchandthatweekendtheyhadgoneoutfordinner.Thenextweekendtheyhadspentthewholeof

Saturdaytogether,onceagainendingitwithadinnerandthistimeagoodnightkiss.

Firmarmswrappedaroundherfrombehind,pullingherhardagainstanequallyhardmalebody.Lips

nibbledherneckwithseductiveexpertisemakingherarchandmoan.

“Hmmmm,”Tapangrowledinapprovalashishandswentunderhershirt,fingerssearchedandfound

herhardnipplesthroughherlacybra.“Iwanttofuckyou,”hesaid,thefingersalreadyreachingfor

thehookinthefront.

“Ican’t,”shemoaned.“IneedtoleaveorI’llbelate.”

“WeliveinMarathalli.It’safifteenminutedrivetoAPSinrushhourtraffic.AndI’llbequick.Real

quick.”

Andhewas,shethoughtpullinguphercreamtrousersfiveminuteslater.Quickandamazing.Hehad

theabilitytoarouseandsatisfyherwitheffortlessease.Andnomatterwhat,heneverleftherhigh

anddry.Butwasshejustabodytohim?Thequestionwashauntingherthesedaysmoreoftenthan

not.Assheappliedalightmakeupthatwouldaccentuateherfaircomplexion,shethoughtbackto

theirfirstkiss.Therehadbeennohidingthefactthatheknewwhathehadbeendoing.Therewasno

hesitation,notentativeexploration.Hehadclaimedherlipsandher.Buthehadbeenoh,sotender.

Gentle.Loving.

“Iwanttotouchyousobadly,”hehadwhispered.“Iwanttoworshipyourbody,”he’dsaid.

Butshehadn’tbeenready.He’dwaited.Orhadhe?Theywereloversnow.Almostlivingtogether.A

fewmonthsbackshe’dmovedintoasinglebedroomapartmentthatfacedhistwoBDR.Itsavedalot

oftimethatwasspentontheroad.Anditwasonlyforthetimebeing,shehadreasonedherself.Soon

theywouldgetmarriedandmoveintoabiggerhouse.Hespentmostofhisnightsatherplaceorshe

athisbutitdidn’tstophimfromflirtingwithotherwomen.Sometimesrightinfrontofher.He’d

neverdoneanythingmorethanthatofcourse.Atleastnotinfrontofher.She’doncetentativelytold

himthatithurttoseehisphilanderingways.Hehadlaughedandtoldhernottobeatypicalinsecure

clingyfemale.HerfriendShikhahadtoldhermorethanoncetogivehimatasteofhisownmedicine.

Togoaheadandflirtwithaguyinfrontofhim.Butshecouldn’tdoit.Shewasn’tlikethat.Forher,it

wasandalwayshadbeenTapan.Soshewaited.Waitedforhimtotaketheirrelationshiptothenext

level.

“HeySiya,mysisterandherfamilyaregoingtobeherenextweek,”Tapansaidfromwherehelay

loungingonherbedwithjustathinsheetcoveringhissexybody.

Siya’seyeslitup.Quicklyapplyingthelipstick,shebuttonedupherolivegreenshirtandwalkedout

ofthebathroom.“Wow!That’sgreat!Sowhat’stheplan?”

“Idon’tknow,”heshrugged,gettingupfromthebedtograbatowel.“JustthoughtIwouldgiveyoua

headsupthatwholeofnextweekuntiltheyleave,youandIaregoingtobejustneighbors.”He

winked,walkingpasthertowardsthebathroom.“KnowwhatImean?”

“But why?”

“Whatdo youmeanwhy?Onewhiffandmysister willholler to thehillsandmyparents ”his shuddercompletedhissentencebeforethedoorclosedbehindhim.

Wouldshehesitatetointroducehimtoherparentsasherlover?Ofcourseyes.Butwhataboutasa

friend?Whycouldn’theatleasttellhisfamilythatshewashisfriend?Swallowingdownhertears,

shegrabbedherkeysandlaptop.Thephoneinherpocketbeeped.ItwasShikha.

DinnerLadies?

Hellyes!Shetypedherreply.ThankGoditwasFriday.

Fridaymeantachancetospendtimewithfriends.Achancetounwind,bitchandcheerabouttheir

lives,dependingontheoccasionandmood.Justthethreeofthem.Shikha,PreetiandSiya.

ChapterTwo

Ithadbeenabitchofaday,ShikhathoughtassheenteredTimTaithatnightforthegirls’meetandeat. Butatleastitwasthelastbitch untilMonday.Hopefully.Sometimesshehatedbeingright.Herboss didmakeherstaytheextratimebecauseshehadbeenlatecominginthatmorning.Hedidn’tgivea directordertodotheET.Noonedidthatthesedays.Orratheritwasmoresubtlethesedays.Acouple ofaddedmeetings,documentstobeprepared,approvedandemailed.Ohyeah,itwasdefinitelymore subtle.Shelookedaroundandwaved.PreetiandSiyawerealreadytheresotherewasnoneedtowait foravacanttable,shethoughtwithsatisfactionasshedodgedthroughthewaitersandcustomersand tables.TheywereShikha,PreetiandSiyatotheworldbutShik,ReetandSitoeachother.

“Whataday!”shegroaned,droppingintotheemptythirdchair.

“Tellmeaboutit!”Preetimuttered,sippingherdrinkandpassingonShikha’sglasstoher.“AndI don’twantto thinkabouttomorrow.Bothveggieandgroceryshopping.Doesitever end?”she wailed.

“Yeah,”Shikhasaid,glumly.“ForthenextfourweeksI’llbedoingthesame.”

“You’vemanagedfortwoweeks,”Siyaconsoled.“You’llpullthroughtherest.”

“Patelmadeapassatmetoday.”Preetirolledhereyes.

“Patel?Yougottobekidding!”SiyaandShikhachorused,insynchronizeddisbelief.Patelwasoneof thebestcomputer geek/geniusofAPS.Tall,gangly,young,hewascluelessaboutanythingand everythingthatwasnotrelatedtocomputers.Atwentytwoyearoldwalkingdefinitionofnerdifthey hadeverseenone.InfactitwassaidinthecompanythatPatelunderstoodonlyonelanguage.Binary. Of all the possible offenders, the thought of that guy making a pass at anyone was just too unbelievabletocomprehend.Infacttheykindoffoundhimcuteinanerdyway.

Preetigiggled.“IswearI’mnot.Iwaspreppingforthemeetandhecomes,standsbeforemewiththis

awkwardexpressiononhisfaceandsays,Preeti,Bethtoldmetojackoff.HowdoIdothat?

ShikhaandSiyadissolvedintofitsoflaughter.“Whatdidyoutellhim?”Shikhabroughtherhilarity

undercontrolenoughtoask.

“WhatcouldIsay?”Preetishrugged,“ItoldhimGooglewassuretohaveaninstructionmanual.”She

waiteduntilherfriendsstoppedlaughingandcontinued,“Ididn’texpecthimtoGoogleitrightaway.”

“No!”Shikhashrieked.

“Yes!”Preetishookherhead.“ThenextthingIknow,heturnedasredasaShimlaappleandran.”

“Poor kidyaar.Someoneshouldbreakhim in.Heistoo ”Siyashruggedandleftthesentence incomplete.Yeah,therewerenowordstodescribePatel.

Factofthematterwaspoliticalcorrectnesswaswayoffrealityinmostoftheworkenvironments. Peoplewerepeople.Someguyswerejerksandnoamountofsensitivitytrainingand/or sexual harassmentregulationsweregoingtochangethat.ButmostoftheguysatAPSwereOK.Andit balanced things outbecause some women were synonymous to barbed-wire bitches.Shikha had

stoppedlookingforperfection,bothatAPSandherlife.Perfection,accordingtoher,wasamyth.

Likeunicornsinfairytales.Siyathoughtshewastoocynical.Shewastheyoungestamongthethree

andmaybethatwaswhyshestillbelievedinfairytalesandprincecharmingonawhitehorse.Her

rose-tintedglasseswereabitfadedafterTapanwalkedintoherlifebuttheywerestillintact.

Onthefaceofittherewasabsolutelynothingincommonbetweenthethreefriendsexceptthework

place.Shikhaworkedinfinance.Shewasofaverageheight,withcurvesthatmenfounddrooling

over,accordingtoPreeti.Shehadacroppedhaircutandslightlysmokyvoice.Herbestfeature,even

ifshedidsaysoherself,washermouth.Well,herlips.Lushlips.ButSiyainsistedthatitwashereyes.

Bedroomeyesshecalledthem.Darkgreycirclingblack.Amethyst,ifyouwanttobeparticular.But

thethreebrokenengagements,especiallythesecondonethathappenedthenightbeforethewedding,

attestedtothefactthatbedroomeyesandlushlipsdidn’tworkformen.Godknewwhatworkedfor

themandShikhawasinnomoodtodelveintotheirpsyche.Soshehidherhurtanddisillusionment

quitewellunderthemaskofindifferenceanddevilmaycareattitudeandwentonwithherlife.She

hadagreatjobandahealthybankaccountandeventhoughshedidlivewithherparents,shewasnot

financiallydependentonthem.

Siya, the youngestof the group worked in HRdepartment.Attwenty six she was in-charge of regionalrecruitmentandinitialfiltering ofcandidates.Shewasshortandher figurewasalmost boyish.Butthethickcurlsthatframedherovalfaceandsloeeyedlookcombinedwithhercheerful smiledrewmentoherlikeflies.Now,allsheneededwasafirmbackbone.Shikhaneverunderstood whyher friendsettledfor Tapan.Yeah,sure,hewasgorgeousandsexybutman,hetreatedher shabbily.HehadevenflirtedwithherthefirsttimeSiyahadintroducedthemtoTapan.Yuck!Butthe girlwascrazilyinlovewiththatguyandrefusedtogiveuponhim.Hedoesn’tmeananything.It’s justthatheisfriendly,shetriedto reasonwithher friends.Siyawasoneof thosewomenwho wouldn’teasilygiveuponarelationship.Shedideverythingshecouldtosaveit,evenatthecostof herownemotionalpain.Itwasnotwrong.Ofcourseitwasnotwrong.Buttheguyshoulddeserve thatkindofdevotion.

Preetiwasthewonderwomanofthesalesdepartment.ShewasShikha’sage.Twentyseven.Withtwo promotionsinoneyear,shewasfastuponthecorporateladder.Shewastallandwillowywiththe graceofafeline.Hercreamycaramelskinwassoftandperfectandhervoicewasgentleandlyrical. Shewasremoteandladylikeunlessshewaspitchingherproduct.Thentheygottoseehercharming side.Shehadbeenmarriedforthreeyearstohercollegesweetheart,JaiSinghandtheylivedinanice threebedroomapartmentthatwasmidwaybetweenhisofficeandhers.Jai,accordingtoShikhawas theepitomeofchauvinism,althoughsheneverstatedittoPreetidirectly.Noneedtorubsaltinthe alreadybleeding wound.Itwasnotasif her friendwasunawareof thatfact.PersonallyShikha thoughtPreetishouldjustputherfootdownandlaydownsomegroundrulesforthatguytofollow. Buthell,shewasno expertinpersonalrelationshipsso shetriedto refrainherselffromgiving advice.Well,mostofthetime.Buthemadeitverydifficultsometimes.Hedidn’tliketheirFriday nightget-together.Preetididn’tbowtohiswish,though.Shequietlyignoredit.Itwasnotasifthey wereoutallnighthittingonebarordiscoafteranother.Itwasjustdinner.Somethingtheydidn’thave tocookorcleanafterwards.Andtheymadesuretheyleftfortheirrespectivehousesbeforenine.

“Ruhislappedanewrecruittoday,”SiyaimpartedthelatesttopicofdiscussionintheHRdepartment.

“Allthepoorgirldidwascracksomesexjoke.”

RuhiworkedinHRalongwithSiya.Afemalewhodidn’tknowthedefinitionofhumorandlookedas

ifasmilewouldcrackherface.Itwasn’tthatshewasoldoruglylooking.Shewasabouttheirage, Shikhapresumed.Butherdresssensewas well manlyforthelackofapoliteword.Shewasagood lookingwomanwhohatedanythingandeverythingfeminineandthatincludedherownassetswhich shetriedherbesttohide.

“Sheshouldjusttakealeapandgetthesexchangeoperationdone,”Shikhasaidinablandvoicethat

crackedupherfriends.“Whatwasthejoke?”

Siyagiggledatthatpredictablequestion.“Abosssaidtohissecretary,Iwanttohavesexwithyou,but Iwillmakeitveryfast.I'llthrowthousandbucksonthefloorandbythetimeyoubenddowntopickit up,I'llbedone.Shethoughtfor amomentthencalledher boyfriendandtoldhimthestory.Her boyfriendsaid,doitbutaskhimfortwothousand.Thenpickupthemoneysofast,hewon'tevenhave enough time to undress himself. She agrees. After half an hour passes, the boyfriend calls the girlfriendandaskedwhathappened.Shesaid,thebastardusedcoins,soI'mstillpickingitupandhe isstillhavingsexwithme!

Allthreeslappedtheirpalmsonthetableandcackled.ItwasfinallyShikha’sturn.“Don’tbesurprised

ifIgetarrestedinthenearfuture.Isuggestyoutwokeepthebailmoneyinhand,”shesaidgrumpily,

proppingherelbowsonthetableandmunchingonthestartersthatthewaiterhadjustplacedonthe

table.

“Yourneighboragain?Whatdidhedo?”Preetiaskedsympathetically.Sheknewbadneighborshad

theabilitytomakelifehell.

Shikhanarratedeverythingfromhisporchlighttoherreversehorn.“Hecamechargingoutofhis

houselikeagrizzlybearwithasorepaw.”

“Whydon’tyoucomplaintothepolice?”Siyasuggested.“Maybehereallyisadangerousguyand

you’regoingtobealoneinthathouseforanothermonthalmost.Thesedaysdecentlookingguysare

turningouttobepervertsandthisguy,accordingtoyoualreadylooksdangerous.”

“IfIhaveanotherepisodewithhimovertheweekend,IthinkI’lldothat.”

“Maybehedrankmorethanhisusualthepreviousnightandhadahangoverthismorning,”Preeti

said.

“Hedidn’tsmelllikeadrunkard,”Shikhathoughtbackwithafrown.“Hesuredidlooklikeonebut

hedidn’tsmelllikeone.Dammit,Idon’twanttothinkhowhewouldbewhenheishungover.”

“Atleast,he’sjustaneighbor.Youcanavoidhim,”Preeticonsoled.

Shewassonotgoingtoletthatguyruinherdinnerwithherfriends.“Enoughabouthim.Anything

interestingwithyouguys?”

“Myin-lawsaregoingtocome,”Preetimutteredintoherdrink,wishingitwassomethingstronger

thanPinkCloud.

“Ohman!”herfriendschorused.Theyallknewabouthermotherinlaw’scommentonchildrenand Jai’slackof response.Buttherewaslittleeither of them coulddo to helpother thanlending a shouldertoleanonandaneartoventout.

“Tapan’sfamilyiscomingsowe’regoingtobestrangersandneighborsforaboutaweekorso.”

Siyabitherlipasmiserycloudedherface.

Thewaiter cametotaketheir order for themaincourse.Preetirattledoffwithoutlookingatthe menu.Afterthreeyearstheykneweachother’spreferences.Whenheleft,theyleanedclosertothe table.“WhatthehellSiya!”Shikhagrowledinobviousanger.Shewasanexpertindumpingand gettingdumped.Shehaddumpedthethirdguyshe’dgottenengagedtoafterfindinghiminbedwith anotherguyandthesecondguyhaddumpedherthenightbeforetheweddingwhenhisex-girlfriend hadcometohimpregnant.Gettingoverthathadbeenreallyhardbutshe’ddoneit.

Siyashruggedbuther friendscouldseethetearsglistering inher eyes.“We’renotengagedor anythingna,”shetriedtobenonchalant.“Idon’thaveanyrighttocomplain.”

“IsheworththepainSiya?”Preetiaskedhergently.

“Ilovehim.Ican’tseemyself ”Sheshookherhead.“Ijustneedtobepatient.Hejustneedstime.” ShelookedatShikha.“Iknowyoudon’tbelievebuthedoesloveme.Whenhe’swithmeheisso ”

caring,considerate,sweet

Yeah,right.Shikharesistedtheurgetorollhereyes.“Theyallare,”Preetideclared,playingwithher

napkin.“Untiltheygetwhattheywant.TakemywordSi,theyputonanactforawhile.Butoncethey

realizeyouaretieddowntothem,theyrelaxandshowtheirrealfacesbehindthatfaçade.”

“SoIshouldeitherputuporbreakoff?”Siyachewedherlipsomemore.

“Inanutshell,yes.”Shikhatookover.

“ButIcan’tbelikethat.Ican’tjustgiveup.Ineedtotry.”

“Forhowlong?”

“Idon’tknowbutIdoknowthatIcan’twalkawayfromhim.Iknowhe’snotperfectbut Ineedto try.”

“Butbeingayes-mastertohimisnotthewaytogoaboutit.”Shikhasaid,relievedwhenthewaiter

broughttheirfood.Bitchingaboutmenwouldhavetowait.

****

PreetilovedSaturdaymorningsthebest.MondaytoFridayshehadworktorushtoandSundaymeant

adayclosertoMondayanditwasspentpreparingfortheweekahead.ButSaturday!Ah,Saturdayshe

couldjustchilloutmostoftheday.Andthatwaswhatshewasdoing.Sittinginthebasketswinginthe

balconyandsippinghertea.Herhusbandjoinedherafewminuteslaterwithhiscupinhand.

“Goodmorning.”

Preetismiledherwelcome.“Goodmorning.You’reupearlytoday.”Jaishruggedandleftitatthat.

“Wanttogoforawalk?Weatherlookslovely.”

“Ihaveacallintwentyminutes.YougoaheadandI’lljoinyouafterthat?”

Preetishookherhead.“No.It’snofunwalkingalone.Finishyourcallandwe’llgooutforbreakfast.

Icangetthevegetablesonmywayback.”

Hemadeafaceatthementionofchoresbutrelented.Shehadalong,relaxingshower andeven washedherhairwhileheattendedthecallandgotdressedintracksandaloosefittingt-shirt.After being informalsthewholeweek,shelether hair downfigurativelyaswellasliterallyover the weekend.Grabbingherwallet,shegrinnedatherhusband.“Shallwego?I’mhungry.”

“Goingoutwithyourhusbanddoesn’twarrantydressingwellIsuppose?”heasked,pullingonhis

jeans.

“It’sjustforbreakfastna.”

“Yeahbutyouwouldn’tthinkofgoingdressedlikethattomeetaclientorevenyourcolleaguesnow,

wouldyou?”

“Iwouldgo likethisto meetmyfriends,”sherepliedcalmlyalthoughshefelther goodmood spiralingdownwards.

“Thosetwo?”Jaifelthisownmoodgoingdownhill.HeneverdidlikethatShikhaandSiyaandnever

understoodwhathiswifesawinthem.“Theydon’tcount.”

“Jai,itsweekendandIdon’twanttofight.Come,let’sgo.I’mhungry.”

“WherehasthewomanImarriedgonePreeti?”heaskedalmostresentfully.Thewomanwhoalways

hadaspecialsmileforhim,whowantedtolookthebestforhim,whowrotehimlovelettersdespite

thefactthattheymeteveryday.

“I’msureshe’swiththeguywhomImarried.Whereverheis,”cametheunhesitantreply.

****

“Hey,what’stheplantoday?”TapanaskedthemomentSiyaopenedthedoorforhim.

Sheshrugged.Shehadn’tforgottenhisinstructionsthattheywouldactasstrangersfromnextweek

on.“Nothingmuch.”Shepausedbeforeasking,“Why?”

Firm,gentlehandsledhertothechairwherehemadehersitandstoodbehindhertomassageher

shoulders.“BothofushavebeenbusythewholeweeksoIwasthinkingmaybewecangoforalong

drive,relaxandgenerallychillout.Whatsay?”

Asmallsmileofdelightformedherlips.“Longdrive?Whereto?”

Itwashisturntoshrug.“Dowehavetodeciderightaway?Let’sjustplaybytheear.Wecantaketurns driving,stopwhenwefeellikestopping goonourownlittleadventure.”

Siyafelttheexcitementtakeover.Shesprangupfromthechair.“OK.I’llgoandgetready.Wantme

topackanything?”

“Nah.Noovernightstay.Mysisterandherfamilywillbecomingtomorrownight.”

Hersmileslippedbutsherefusedtoletthatreminderdeterhergoodmood.“Whenshallweleave?”

“Theothersareontheirwaysoassoonasyougetready?”Atheruncomprehendinglookheasked,

“What?”

“Ithoughtitwasjustyouandme.”

Herolledhiseyes.“Whereisthefuninthat?Nowmove,move.”Hepattedherbutt,nudgingher

towardsthebedroom.

****

Saturdaymorningdawnedbrightandbeautiful.Shikhadidn’tknowwhetheritwassheertirednessor

thelackofsleepthepreviousnightorthebelly-filling,calorie-highdinnershe’dhadwithherfriends

orthefactthatshesleptinherparents’bedroombutshesleptlikealogandwokeupfreshandlazy.

Shedidn’tmindlazy.Afterall,itwasweekend.Solazywasgood.Maybesheshouldsleepinher

parents’roomforthenextfourweeks.Itsurewouldmutethebulletsound,especiallyifsheclosedthe

windowsandcurtains.Shethoughtsheheardacoupleofjeepsscreechingtoahaltalongwiththat

noisybikebutsincetherehadbeennoglaringlightsorblaringhorns,she’dslept.Maybethegoon

invitedhisfriendsforadrinkingbinge,whocared!

Alittleafterseventhirtyshegotoutofthebed,brushedherteethandmadeherselfsomecoffee.She wasmostdefinitelynotanearlyriser.Shecouldstayupalmosttilltwooreventhreeinthemorning butwakeherupbeforesevenandshewasagrumpybear.Butyearsofcollegeandlaterthejobhad taughthertogetgoingafteracupofextrastrongcoffee.Caffeinewasherlifesaver.Thensheset aboutmakingcallstobothherbrothers,oneinUSandanotherinRajasthan.ShedidFaceTimewith herparentswhoweretouringtheUS,afterspendingsomequalitytimewiththeirelderson.Shikha’s secondelderbrotherwasinthearmyandafterbeinginKashmirpreviously,whichhadgivenher parentsmanyasleeplessnight,hewasnowpostedinarelativelytrouble-freeareaofRajasthan.He hadsustainedaminorinjuryduringoneofhistrainingexercisesbutmadeherpromisenottoblurtit outtotheirparents.Herarmy-trainedbrotherbalkedatcoddlingandfussingthattheirmomtendedto do most of the time. He never outright objected but he’d always have that deer-caught-in-the- headlightslookonhisfacethatsentShikhaandherelderbrotherintosplits.

Aftermunchingoncornflakesinmilk,sheplannedforthedayahead.Groceries,veggies,washing machineandsomegardening.Thelastoneperkedherup.Herdadlovedgardeningandsodidshe. Betweenbothofthem,theyhadvariousplantsincludingthreedifferentcolorsofroses,twocolorsof hibiscus,marigoldandalilyplant.Hermomneverhadtobuyflowersforherpuja.Herdadhad plannedongettingsomechrysanthemumsaftercomingbackfromhistrip.Butshewouldgetthem now and plant them. As a surprise. Task decided, she quickly showered and got dressed. The eagernesstostartontheplantprojectgaveherthemotivationtofinishtheboring,mundanetasks fasterthantheusual.Byfourintheeveningshewasbackfrombuyingtheplants,additionalsoiland fertilizer.Hergoodmoodjustgotbetterasshelookedattheflowersthatweregentlywavinginthe cool evening breeze.Two colors.Orangewithyellowcenter andpinkwithwhitecenter.Patting herselfonherselection,shegulpeddownacupoftea,changedintoshortsandt-shirtandgotto work.

Shebackedhercaroutoftheshadedporticountilitwasrightinfrontofthesmallgarden,switched onthemusicinthecarradioandgrabbedhershovel.Shesmiledandwavedatafewofherneighbors who likeher wereoutdoing thingsthattheydidn’tgetto do oncrazyweekdays.Itwasanice neighborhoodwherepeoplesmiled,wishedandoftenhelpedeachother.WiththesongsfromRock Onblastingfromthecarspeakersshegottodiggingandmakingspaceforhernewbabies.Ohher

dadwasgoingtobesohappy,shethoughtwithahappygrin.Plantinganewbabyplantandwatchit grow gave her a sense of achievement.It was not easy, especially growing a flowering plant. Everythinghadtoberight.Soil,water,fertilizerandeventheweather.Forsomepeopleitwasboring. ButforShikha,itwasmeditative.Andrelaxing.Andsoothing

Somethingtappedonhershoulder.Sheshriekedandswung,liftingtheshovelinself-defenseagainst

theattacker.Herneighbor,thejerk,stoodthere.Bloodshoteyes,wrinkledclothesandascowlscary

enoughtoscarelittlekids.Withoutaword,hewhirled,stompedtowardshercarandnextmoment,

silencefilledtheairasheshutherstereooff.

“Whatthehell!”sheroared.Thedayhadbeensogoodandhehadtoruinit.Faceredwithtemper,she

stoodwithherfeetapart,readytoattack.

“Areyougoingtousethatorbereasonable?”hegesturedtowardstheshovelthatwasstillraisedin

herhand.

Witheffort,shelowereditdown.Slowly.Thetemptationtoslughimwithitwaseatingawayather.

“Justwhatthehellisyourproblem?”

“Iamtryingtosleep,”heenunciatedeachwordwithclearspacingbetweenthem.“Doyouhaveto

blastmyearswiththatthingthatissupposedtobemusic?”

Shikhagapedathim.“It’sfourintheevening.”

“So?”

“Sogetinthebedatadecenthourmister.It’snotmyproblem.”

“Justwhatisitthatyouhaveagainstlettingmegetsomesleep?You’rethenoisiestwomanI’veever

seen ”

Theinjusticeofthatstatementmadeherforgetthatshewasalittleafraidofhim.Shestrodeuptohim

untilshestoodrightinfrontofhim.Thetopofherheadcameuptohisneck.Almost.Sowhatifhe

wasbig?Shewasmad.Andmadbetbiganyday.Anytime.

“I’mnoisy?”shegrittedherteeth.Itwastoughtoshoutwithherjawlockedsotightbutshetried.“I’m

noisy?”Shejabbedafingerathim.“I’mnottheonewhowoketheentirestreetattwofortyfiveinthe

nightwiththatthingthatyoucallabike.I’mnottheonewhoaccelerateditbeforeturningitoff,

bangedyourdoortwiceandforgottoswitchoffyourporchlightwhichkeptmefromsleeping.”She

advancedanothersteptowardshim,forcinghimtotakeastepbacktoavoidanotherfingerjabbing.

“Furthermore,itisareasonableassumptiontoexpectpeopletobeasleepattwointhenightrather

thanatninefifteeninthemorningorfourthirtyintheevening.Youhaveaproblemwithnoiseduring

daytimeinthiscity?Getapairofearplugs.”

ShikhaliftedtheshovelandslungitonhershoulderlikeHanumancarryinghismaze.“Thedayhad

beengoingsowellandnowyou’vegoneandruinedit,”sheglared.“Don’ttemptmetousethison

you,”sheadded,gesturingtohershovel.

“Yeah,”henodded.“YoubetternotuseitorIwouldhavetoarrestyou.”

“What?”Shestaredathim.

“I’macop.”Hispausetauntedher.“KarthikIyer,DCP,crimebranch.”

Disbeliefwasevidentinhereyesandvoice.“You’reaDCP?”sheaskedforreconfirmation.

“Yes.”Socialnicetiestakencareof,hewentbacktohisjerk-mode.“Look,Idon’tholdaninetofive

joblikeyou.IgetsleepwhenIcan,whichhasn’tbeenmuchinthelastcoupleofdays.”

“Fine,”shesnappedback.“I’llswitchoffthemusicwhenIgarden,whichistheonlytimeIgettohear

itletmeadd.AmIallowedtodigandplantmyplants?”sheaskedsarcastically.“Orwouldthatdisturb

yoursleeptoo?”

“Notunlessyou’regoingtobehittingabassdrumwiththatshovel,”hesnappedbackbeforestriding

offtowardshishouse.

Ican’thitacop.Ican’thitacop.Ican’thitacop,sherepeatedtoherselfasshepickeduptheshovel.

ChapterThree

ItwasSundayafternoonandSiyawaiteduntilalltheirfriendsleft.Correction.Untilallhisfriends

left.Shikhawasright.Beingayesmasterwasnotthewaytogoaboutit.ShelovedTapan,yes.But

thatlovewascostingherself-respect.Shewasgoingtoputherfootdown.Yes,itwouldhurtherbutit

wasnotasifshewasnothurtingnow,wasit?

ShetookadeepbreathandstoodinfrontofthecouchwhereTapanwasslouching negligently, fiddlingwiththeTVremote.“I’mleaving.”

“What’sthehurry?Mysis’sflightdoesn’tlandtillalmostmidnight.”

“Tapan,”sheinjectedfirmnessintohervoice.“I’mgoing.”

Hefrownedandgotupslowly.“What’swrongSiya?”

She took another deep, fortifying breath.No backing down now.“You said we should be just neighborswhenyourfamilygetshere.Ithinkweshouldcontinuethesameevenaftertheyleave.”

“What,youbreakingupwithme?”hescoffed,disbeliefevidentonhisface.

“Yes.IwillstartlookingforanotherapartmentandvacatemineassoonasIcan.Idon’tthinkitwould

becomfortableforeitherofus

“Whoa,whoa,whoa,hangonjustadamnminute.Whereisthiscomingfrom?Youwerefineuntila

fewminutesago.Wewentoutyesterday,spentthenighttogetherandtodayyouwanttobreakup?”

Shewouldmisshim.Shealreadymissedhim.Tearsglisteredinhereyesatthethoughtofnotseeing himagain.Notfeelinghisarmsaroundher astheycuddledandwatchedmovies.Hissmiles,his laughter,histouch,thedeep,soothingvoicehecroonedatherashegaveheramassageafteratiring dayatwork.Shewouldmisshimohsomuch.But

“IloveyouTapan.Youknowthat.IloveyoumorethanIcaneversaybut

“Butwhat?”hejustlookedplainconfused.Bewildered.

“LoveisnotsupposedtohurtlikethisTapan.Andit’shurtingme.Youarehurtingme.Everytimeyou

flirtandcharmotherwomen,youhurtme.Everytimeyoutouchthemyouhurtme.”

“OhcomeonSiya,”hetookasteptowardsherbutstoppedimmediatelywhenshebackedupastep.

Tothisdayhedidn’trememberatimewhenshe’dbackedawayfromhim.“Youknowitdoesn’tmean

anything.I’mjustbeingfriendly.”

“It is not friendly.Don’t tell me it’s friendly because I do know the difference. I can see the difference.”SherememberedShikha’swords.“WhatifIdothesamething?WhatifIhuggedand pattedSunil’sbutt?”sheasked,namingTapan’sbestbuddy.“HowwouldyoufeelifIflirtedwithhim, extendedmyplatesothathecansharemydinner?Complimentedhimonhowhothelooked?”Tapan lookedaway,asifhedidn’tlikethepictureshewaspainting.Toobad.Sheshould’vepaintedand coloreditalongtimeago.“Doyouknowhowitfelttowatchyoudoallthatyesterdaywiththatgirl? Anditwasn’tthefirsttime.”Shewaved,notgivinghimachancetospeakwhenheopenedhismouth.

“IknowtherearealotofwomenouttherewhoareOKwiththatkindofathing.ButI’mnot.I’mnot OK.”Sheswipedatremblinghandoverherweteyes,smearinghermascaraandnotcaring.“Iputup withallthathurtbecauseIloveyou.ButhidingmeawaywhenyourfamilycomeslikeI’myourdirty littlesecret,likeyou’re you’reashamedtoevenknowsomeonelikeme Iacceptthatyoucan’ttell themthatwe’reloversbutwhataboutafriend?Agirlyoulike,respect,someoneyou’reinterestedin? Youcan’tevendothat,canyou?Youcan’tdothatbecauseIdon’tholdthatkindofaplaceinyour life.InevertriedtoholdmyselfawayfromyousoyouprobablythinkI’me-easy.”Moretearsleaked fromhereyes.God,shedidn’tknowitcouldhurtthismuch.

“MaybeIam,Idon’tknow,”shecontinued.Shesniffed,inhaleddeeplyandcontinuedinasteadier

voice.“IdidwhatIdidbecauseIfellinlovewithyouandsawmyfuturewithyou.ButnowIrealize

it’snotenoughifIseeitalone.ByeTapan.Takecare.I’msurewe’llbeseeingeachotheruntilImove

outofmyapartmentbutI’lltrytokeepoutofyourwayasmuchasIcanandIsuggestyoudothe

same.”Withthatsheturnedandwalkedoutbeforehercouragedesertedher.

****

Preetiwatchedthemaindoorasitslammedshutbehindherdepartinghusband.ItwasSundayandhe hadgoneoff to work.Animportantmeeting,he’dsaid.Andmaybeitwas.Shedidn’tdenythe possibility.Sheherselfhadweekendswhenshe’dgonetomeetwithsomeone,aprospectiveclient usuallybutithadbeenrare.Shetriedherlevelbesttoavoidbringingherworkhome.Shetriedher

besttogiveher100%toherhomeandherhusband.ButnotJai.Notanymore.Hehadbeensomuch

funwhentheyhadbeeninthecollege,fulloflaughterandjokes.Wherehadthatcheerfulboygone? Mostofthedayshedidn’tgetupuntilshewasreadytogotoworkandthenbothgotreadyandleft. Hecamehomelate,laterthanherandbythenshewassotiredthatshewouldbeasleep.Ifhisaimwas tonotspendtimewithher,hewassucceedingadmirably.Maybehedidn’twantchildrenbecausehe didn’twanther.Maybeshewastheonewhowashidingherheadunderthesandandnotfacingthat reality.Thethoughtmadeherchesthurt.Shelovedhim.Orratherthepersonwhowasunderneathall thatsurlyexterior.Whenshewasdownortired,hisfacealwayshadtheabilitytobringasmile.Not thefacethathe’dbeenshowing thelastcoupleof yearsbutadifferentone.Onewherehewas laughing,hugging andtwirling aroundwithher thedayshe’dscoredtopinher college.Hehad lookedreadytoburstwithpridethedayshehadclimbeduponthediastoreceivehermedal.She lovedtheclumsy,fumbling,eagerguywhohadtornherblouseinhiseagernesstomakelovetoher ontheirweddingnightandlookedsocontriteandapologeticthatshe’dlaughedandkissedhim.She lovedthemanwhohadpreparedherresumeandappliedinvariousjobsitesbecausehedidn’twant hertojustsitathome,waitingforhim.

Shedidn’tlovethemanwhodidn’tcomenearherexcepttofuckheronceafortnight,ifthat.She didn’tlovethemanwhotoldhertoworkbutdidn’tsupportherwhenshedid.Pathetic,shethought withagrimace.That’swhatshewas.Therewerecountlesswomenouttherewhodidn’thavethe thingsthatshedid.Whosufferedthroughtrulytraumaticmarriagesandpartnersandhereshewas, bitchingaboutwhattheywouldviewasaluxuriouslifewithanicehusband.Shewasindeedbetteroff thanmanybutshewasn’thappy.Withasighshestartedsortingouttheclothestobewashed.Midway inthetaskshestoppedandfrowned.PickinguponeofJai’sshirtsthatshe’dthrowninthewashing machine,shebroughtittohernose.Itsmelledof perfume.Itwasfaintbutitwasthere.Andnotthe onethatsheused.Everythingaroundherrecededandfadedasshestoodthere,clutchingtheshirt, uneaseslitheringdownherspine,chillingherinsides.Wasthereanotherwoman?Wasthatwhyhe hadbeensodistantallthesedays?Sweatbeadedonherforeheadassuspiciontookroot.Wasthisit?

Thebeginningoftheendofhermarriage?

****

Shikhashiftedthecarrybagfromonehandtoanotherassheturnedintoherstreet,herstepseasyand

leisurely.Shehadforgottentogetmilkandjuicepackswhenshehadgoneforgroceriestheprevious

day.Forgoinghercar,shehadwalkeduptothenearestsupermarketandwasnowonherwayback

home.Honestly,sometimesitwaseasier,nottomentionfastertowalkthandriveandspendhalfhour

lookingforaplacetoparkthecar.Lostinhermusings,shedidn’thearabikeroaringandturning

intoherstreetbehindher.Beforesherealizedwhatwashappening,shefeltaswifttugonhershirtand

arippingsoundasthebikesweptpastherwiththeguysonitlaughingtheirheadoff.Hershirthad

beentornattheback,necktowaist.Thankfullythecollarandedgesheldtogether,holdingtheshirtto

herback.Furywashedoverherandshescreamed,“Bloodybastards!”

Theyheardit.Thebikescreechedtoahaltandbothofthemeruptedfromit,“Whatdyucallusbitch?”

oneofthemboredownonher.

Itwasasmallstreetfilledwithwell-knownfriendlyneighbors.Herscreamfollowedbyscreechingof the bike broughta lotof people outof their houses.“What’s going on here? Shikha beti, any problem?”oneofherdad’sfriendasked,comingoutofhishouse.

“Shutupoldman!”thesecondguypushedhimback,comingtobesidehisfriend,almostsurrounding

her.

ThesmellofalcoholwaftedandhitShikha’snoseandshemovedbackastep.Aroundhershecould

heartheneighbors’collectivemutteringsofdisgust.“Someonegoandcallthatpolicewala.Ithink

he’shome.”

Eitherthedrunkardsdidn’thearordidn’tcare.Shethoughtitwastheformerbecausetheysuredidn’t looklikeguys braveenoughto facethepolice.Theyweredrunkenoughto beaggressive,not staggeringandstuttering.“Iashkedaquesion‘erebitch.Whadyucallusjuznow,huh?”

“Bloodybastards,”sheenunciatedeachwordloudlyandclearly.“Drunkenbloodybastards,”she

added.

Thefirstguyroundedonher.“DrunkornotIthinkit’stimeweshowedyouwecandomorethantear

yourshirt.”

Yeah,likeshewasgoingtowaitforthat!Shikhachargedhim,bulldozingintohimfromtheside.The impactsenthimstaggering.Hetriedto regainhisbalancebutlostitandlandedonhisbutt.He struggledtogetupandwithanotherluridcurselungedforShikha.Shedodgedtothesideandstuck outherfoot.Hestumbledbutmanagednottofallonhisface.Thesecondguytriedtograbherbut oneoftheneighborscaughthimfrombehindbywrappingbotharmsaroundhiswaist.Soonanother neighborjoinedhimandbothofthembroughttheguydownandheldhim.Thewomenwererunning intotheirhouses,probablytobringouttheirweapons,apartofShikhathoughtwithwryhumor.

Theguywhohadstumbled,regainedhisfootingandturnedtoherwithbloodinhiseyes.Shefellinto a boxing stance, learnt from being the only girl after two brothers. She only hoped she still rememberedwhatherbrothershadtaughther.Sheheardexcitedvoicesbehindherasshefocusedon theguyadvancingtowardsher.Shehadnodoubthewouldhurtherbutshewasequallysureshecan

getinafewpunchesofherown.Hechargedatherandthistimetherewasnoevadinghim.Shewent

downbutbroughthimdownalongwithherwithasolidpunchtohisribs.Afewyoungsterstriedto

wrestlethedrunkardoffher.Shikharolled,pinningtheguyunderherwithherkneeofhischest,

grabbedachunkofhisfleshathiswaistandtwistedit,pinchingitashardasshecould.Hebellowed

likeawoundedbuffalo.

Shikharaisedherfisttodeliveranotherpunchtohisfacewhenherfistwasgrabbedinastronghand

andanotherwrappedaroundherwaist.Shewaspulledawayfromtheguybutshemadesureshe

kickedhiminhisribsbeforehebecameunreachable.Dazed,shesawthedrunkard’sfacemashedto

thegroundashisarmswerewrenchedbehindhimandhandcuffsslappedaroundhiswrists.She

struggledtoanuprightpositionandcamefacetofacewithherneighbor,thejerk.Thecopjerk.

“Damnit,Ishould’veknownitwasyou,”hesnarled.“YouOK?”heaskedinacalmervoice.

Sheturned,stilldazedandsawthesecondguytiedtoalamppost.Hisshirtwastornandhisface,she frownedtolookcloserandcouldn’tholdbackagrin.Withhisfacecoveredinchilipowder,hewas screaming blue murder and thrashing like a pig.The women surrounding him looked mightily pleasedwiththemselvesastheycalmlyacknowledgedtheelderspattingtheirshouldersandpraising them.Notmanymenknewhowmanyweaponsawomanhadathandinherkitchenalone.

Shikhawasstartledasshefeltsomethingfallonhershoulders.Sheturnedtoseethatthejerkhad strippedhisshirtandplaceditaroundher shoulders,covering her almostnakedback.Well,she couldn’tcallhimajerkafterthat.Shewatchedhimdragthedrunkardandtiehimalongwithhis friendtothelamppost.Thenot-the-jerk-anymore-copsurewasasstrongashelooked,shethoughtas shewatchedthebulging,flexingmusclesofhisforearmthatpoppedoutofhissleevelessvest.Hehad liftedthedrunkardwithonehandasifhewereapillowthathecouldtuckunderhisarm.

“I’mtemptedtoarrestallthreeofyou,”hesaid,walkingbacktowardsher.“Drunkanddisorderly.”

Jerk!Herscowlcamebackfullforce.“I’mnotdrunk.”

“No,theyaredrunk,”hegesturedhisthumbtowardsthelamppost.“You’redisorderly,”heended,

comingtostandinfrontofher.

“Yousawwhattheydid,”shethundered,gesturingtowardshisshirtthatwasnowdrapedonher. “Whatdidyouexpectmetodo?Cryandscreamfor helplikeawimpor begthemtoleaveme alone?”Morewordshoveredoverthetipofhertonguebutsheswallowedthemback,notwantingto getarrestedforreal,forbadmouthingacop.

Heconcededherpointandhiseyessmiled,asifheknewwhatkindofwordsshewasholdingback

andwhomtheyweredirectedat.“Ineedyourstatement.”

Asifoncue,apolicejeepcamebarrelingdownthestreet,sirensandall.Withinminutes,theguysin uniformhauledthedrunkardsintoit,salutedthejerkcopandbarreledawayleavingbehindabuzzof excited chatter.Anxious women came forward to fuss, patand commend Shikha for her actof braveryandcheckonthemenwhohadbeeninvolvedintheruckus.

“Adakadavule!”Thejerkmuttered,lookingaroundthegatheringcrowdandbackather.Sheknew

enoughTamiltounderstandhisGoodGod!Orsomethingtothateffect.

Theelderlymanwhohadbeenthefirstonetocometoherrescuecameforward.“Areyoualright

Shikhabeti?YoudidawonderfuljobItellyou.Yourfatherwouldbesoproudofyou.Youshould’ve beenheresir,”hesaidto thecop.“Shemadeafistandkickedthatguy,”heswung hisarm in imitation,makingherjumpbacktoavoidthatdemonstrativepunch.

“Yessir,”shesaid,stressingonthesir.“Youshould’vebeenhere.”

“Iwasonthephone,”heglaredbackandpaused.“AreyouOK?”

Shenoddedandlookedaroundforherpurchases.Anotherladypickeduphercarrybagandextended

ittoher.Shepeepedin,expectingthemilkpacketstornandthemixedwiththejuicebrokenoutofthe

tetrapacks.Butthankfullyeverythinglookedintact.

“Your kneeisbleeding,”heobserved,givingher athoroughonceover.“Andyour knucklesare bruised.Areyouhurtanywhereelse?Doyouneedtogotothehospital?”

Nowthattheexcitementhaddieddown,Shikhawasexhausted.Allshewantedwastogohome,hitthe

showerandhaveafewgallonsoficecream.Sheshookherhead.“I’mfine.HadaTTshotrecently

andIcancleanthescraponmyown.”

Thankingeveryone,shestartedtrudgingtowardsherhouseanddidn’thideherscowlwhenshesaw

thecopjerkfallintostepbesideher.“Areyoualwayslikethat?”

“Likewhat?”

“Violent,”hesaidafterthinkingforamoment.“YouareuptodatewithyourTTshot,”headdedasif

thatexplainedhisquestion.

Ican’thitacop,Ican’thitacop,Ican’thitacop,shechantedsilently.Hestoppedherathergatewith

afirm,gentlehandonherarm.“Youdidgood.IneedastatementbutI’lltakecareofthatlater.Put

someiceonthosebruisesandcleanupthatknee.”

Well,hell,didtheguyhaveasplitpersonalitydisorder?“Look,uh,”

“KarthikIyer.”

“ShikhaBose,”sheintroducedherself.“DoIneedtocometothestation?”

Heshookhishead.“I’llgetthepapersforyoutosigntonight.Areyousureyoudon’twanttogoto

thedoctor?”helookedonceagainatthebleedingshinpeekingoutofthetorncapris.

“Justdon’tthunderaroundinthatbulletinthemiddleofthenightandwakemeup.”

“Solongasyoudon’tblastmyearsinthemorningwithyourreversehorn,”hecountered,sauntering

towardshishousenextdoorwithasmallwave.

Shikhawokeupthenextmorningwithoutthebenefitofalarm.Thesimpleactofrollingoverwoke herupasherkneeandhandprotestedloudlyandsimultaneously.Shecheckedthetimeinherphone andsawthatshehadmissedoutonawholeconversationintheWhatsAppgroupthathappenedthe previousnight.Quicklyscanningthemessages,sheswore.Thiscalledforanemergencymeeting. Somethingsjustcan’twaittillFriday.TheydecidedonmeetingatthePizzaHutclosesttoAPSafter work.Thattakencareof,shelimpedtothebathroomforahotshowerthatwouldloosenupherstiff kneeanddressedinaform-fitting plainwhitekurtaandamulticoloredPatialapants.Theywere

loose,atthesametimecoveredtheinjury.Shewassonotinamoodtogointodetailswithher curiouscolleagues.Apainkillerandcoffeelater,shewasgoodtostartherday.Hercarhadspentthe nightoutsidethegatesinceithadbeentherebeforethatincidentandlater onshedidn’thavethe energytodriveitin.Sothatsavedherafewmoreminutesnottomentionanotherconfrontationwith you-know-who.MondaystendedtoflybyatAPS.Andsoonitwastheendofthedayandshewas stridingintothePizzaHutasfastasherinjuredkneewouldallow.Thethreeofthemhadreached almostatthesametimeandfairlyfellintoeachother’sarms,givingthemselvesatightgrouphug.

Shikhawasthefirsttopullaway.“I’msorryIwasn’tthereforthechatlastnight.”

Preetiwavedawaytheapology,headingtoacornertable,thankingthefactthatitwasnotcrowded.

“Howisyourknee?”

SiyatookShikha’shand,checkingthebruises.“God,thatmust’vebeenquiteapunch,”shecrowed.

“Wonderhowthatguyisdoing.”

“Hopehehadacoupleofbrokenribs.”Preetigrowled.

“Andguesswhat?Thejerkisacop.”Shikhaannounced.

“What?”theotherchorusedinshock.“Areyousure?”

Shenodded.“Hewastheonewhomadethearrestandlatercamebytomyplacetotakemystatement.

ADCPnoless.”

“Iguesscopsarejustaslikelytobejerksastherestofthemales,”Siyamuttered.

“YoureallybrokeupwithTapanSi?”Shikhaasked.Siyanodded,sadlybutfirmly.“AndyouReet?

Areyousure?ImeandidJaisaysomething?”

“Ididn’task,”Preeti’seyesweredowncast.“IguessI’mafraidto.Nowit’sjustinmyheadbutifIask

andhedoesn’tdeny,itwillbecomeareality.”

“Whatdoyouplantodonow?”Siyaasked.Breakingoffwithaloverwasonethingbutadivorcewas

quiteanother.

Preeti shrugged.“WhenIhadmethim first,during our college days,he hadbeenperfect,you know ”herfaceheldequalamountsofpainandanger.

Siyashookherhead.“Perfectioninmenisamythbuddy.Comesrightbesideunicornsanddragons.

Notthatweareperfectbutmostofusatleasttry.”

“Mensuck,”Shikhastatedflatly,makingeventhedespondentlookingPreetismile.“Andifsomeone

saysthey’reseeingaperfectmanitmeansthey’rewatchingasci-fimovie.”

Allthreeexchangedhighfivesatthatstatementandthetensionthathadheldthemuntilthenbroke

freeandtheylaughed.Themusicsysteminthejointfinishedonesongandanotherstartedjustasthey

placedtheirorders.

'CauseIwoulddieforyoulookintomyeyesandseeit'strue

ReallyIcouldneverlietoyoujusttomakeyouseethat

NooneelsecouldeverloveyoulikethewayIdo

Theyexchangedglancesandgroaned.“Yeah,sci-fialright!”Shikhamuttered.

“WhatifyoureallyfindamantodieforShikha?Howwouldhebe?”Siyaprodded.Lifesucked,men

suckedbuttheyhadtomoveon.Findreasonstosmileandlaugh.

“Idon’twanttodiebuddy,leastofallforaman!”Atherfriend’sraisedeyebrowlook,shesighed.

“Youwanttotalksci-fi?Fine.Mysci-fimanshouldlovethiscountry.”

“Wait,wait,wait,”Siyahastilypulledouthereverpresenttabandstartedtypingaway.

“What?We’remakingalistnow?”Shikhaasked.

“Ofcourse.Mrtodieforwouldhardlyhaveonesinglequality.Thatwouldmakehim,well,”

“Reality!”Allthreechorusedandburstoutlaughing,thebadmoodcompletelydispelledforthetime being.Preeticlapped.“OK.OK.Ifit’salistthenpatriotismcan’tbenumber one.”Theother two nodded and started thinking.“Faithfulness,” she said after a fewmoments.“You can’tlive with someoneyoucan’ttrust.Heshouldnotlieorcheat.Notever.”

AllthreenoddedandSiyatypeditup.“Numbertwowouldbeheshouldbedependable,”shesaid

firmly.“Hasregularincome/steadyjobandkeepshispromises.Heshouldbeaguywhodoesn’t

needtosetagooglereminderthathehasadatewithme.Heshouldrememberandshowup.Ontime.”

Inotherwords,unlikeTapan.

PreetiandShikhaagreed.Shikhagavethenumberthree.“Heshouldatleastunderstandthejokewhen

it’scracked.Andnotjustthedirtyones.Ifhecancrackafewofhisownitwouldaddafewmore

pointsonhisscore.”

“Youmeanyoudon’twantamaleversionofRuhi,”Siyasaidgigglingandtyping.

“Ormyboss,”Shikhastated.Analretentivecontrolfreakdefinedhimnicely.“OhIwantpatriotism now.Heshouldlovehiscountry.Absolutely,loyally,possessivelyloveit.Implying heshouldbe royallypissedoffatanyonewhodisparagesit.” Theyagreedunanimously.Doesn’tmatterwhereyou livedbutrespectingone’smotherlanddidcomeundermostimportantrequirement.

“Numberfourshouldbekids.Heshouldlikeoratleastbecomfortablearoundkids,”Preetisaid.

“I’mgoingtogofornumberfivetoo.Parents.Ifhewantsmetotreathisparentsasminethenhe

shouldtreatmyparentsashis.Noone-waytraffic.”

Shikhaslouchedbackinherchair,stretchingherlegs.“PersonallyIwouldlikearichguy.Well,not

filthyrichofcoursebutcomfortablyrich.”

“What’swrongwithfilthyrich?”Siyaaskedcuriously.

“Areyoukidding?Filthyrichequalsto arrogance.Hewillstartcalling alltheshots.Experience speakssoheedit,”shesaidthinkingbacktothefirstguyshehadbeenengagedto.

“That’snumbersix.”Siyaraisedherhand,stallingPreetiandShikha.“Numbersevenisheshouldbe

handsome.Sexilygoodlookingpackingafewpacks.”

Preetigrinned.“Jaihasneverhadanypacks.”

“Yeahbuthedoesn’thaveabeerbellyeither,”Siyaswiftlypointedout.“Heshouldbeagreatkisser.

Andtoucher.Hiskissesshouldmakemytoescurl.Histouchesshouldmakemewetinalltheright

places.”

“Tapan!”Bothherfriendschorused.Afterall,sexhadneverbeenanissuebetweentheirfriendand

Tapan,thetoad.“Hedefinitelyscoresthatone,”Siyaagreedignoringthetwingeinherheart.

“Look,”Shikharubbedherhands.“Iobviouslydon’thavetheexperienceyoutwohavebutifthereis

amanIwoulddieforthenheshouldbegreatinbed.Notjustgoodbutgreat.Heshouldbeableto

makememoan,groanandscream.HeshouldhavethestrengthofanOlympicswimmerandstamina

ofahormonedriventeenager.”Preetichokedonherstarterbeforeshethrewtheoneinherhandback

ontheplateandclutchedherstomach,almostfallingofftheseatlaughing.Siyatriedtocontrolalittle

buthershouldersshookinsilenthilarity.“What?Don’ttellmeit’shumanlyimpossible.Heismy

man.MycreationandhecanbeanythingIwanthimtobe.”Bothofthemnoddedwithdifficulty,afew

snickersstillmanagedtobreakfree.Shikhaleanedforwardinquisitively.“Tellmesomething.Dothe

dimensionsmatter?Somethinglikethebiggerthebetterorlongerthebetter?”

Theywerequiteliterallyclutchingtheirstomachsandroaringwithlaughterbythetimethewaiter

broughttheirpizzas.Thepoorguyhadtowaituntilhiscustomerscontrolledthemselvesenoughto

getbackintotheirseats.Itwastoughbuttheymanagedit.Preetiwaiteduntilheservedandleftbefore

saying,“Ofcoursethebiggerandthelongerthebetter.”

“Ihopeyoudon’tmeanmonsters.Idon’tthinkIwantmonsters.”Shikhabitherlip,tryingtolook

innocent.Andfailingmiserably.“Doesn’tmeanIprefercashewsandwalnutsofcourse.”Thelaughter

thistimeincludedtablethumping.

“But,but,but!”Siyaraisedherfinger.“Attheendoftheday,it’snothowmuchhehasbutwhathe

doeswithitandhowandforhowlong.”Sheconcluded,typingawaybutherfingersweretrembling

inanefforttocontrolhermirth.

“And he should definitely lastlonger than a TVad,” Preeti inserted sending them into another paroxysmofhystericallaughter.

“What’stheheading?MrTodiefor?Sci-fiman?”Siyarattledouttheoptions.

“Nah,”Shikhawaveditaway.“Amantodiefor!”

ChapterFour

Preetiwasinarush.ShehadbeenlatecominghomeonMondaynight,courtesyofthedinnerwithher

friendsbutJaihadn’tbeenhome.Shehadtriedwaitingupforhimuntilalmostmidnightbutintheend

hadfallenasleeponthecouch.Shehadwokenuptothesoundofthekeyinsertinginthedoorandhad

evenstartedheatingupthedinnerforhim.Buthehadbarelyglancedatherashesaid,

“Don’tbother.I’vealreadyhadmydinner.”

Hehadgoneintochangeandhitthebedwhileshewaslefttocleanupandshoveeverythinginthe fridge.Bythetimesheswitchedoffallthelightsandenteredtheirbedroom,hewasfastasleep,his bodyturnedawayfromher.Hedidn’tevenhugorcuddleuptoheranymorethesedays.Itwasasif therewasnoneedtotouchheriftherewasnosexinvolved.Howlonghaditbeensincehehadrolled overandkissedherawakeinthemornings?Stoodinthekitchenchattinguptoherwhileshecooked? Grabbedanddraggedhertoshoweralongwithhim?Acompanionablearmaroundhershoulders,an occasionalwarmhug Something anythingtosuggestthathewasgladtoseeher?Longerthanshe couldremember.Nowitwaslikeiftheywerenothavingsex,hedidn’tfeeltheneedtotouchher.The fearthathemightbeinterestedorinvolvedinanotherwomanmighthaveallbeeninherheadbut neitherwasheinterestedorinvolvedwithher.Wherehadtheygonewrong?

Thesecontemplationsmeantshegotdelayedincookingandpackingtheir boxes.Cursingherself softlysherantogetdressed.Jaiwasintheshowerbutifhegotreadyfast,maybetheycouldleave together.Abouttostriphert-shirtinfavorofalongskirtandtop,shestoppedwhensheheardan incoming messagebeep.Boththeir phoneswerebesideeachother,insertedinto their respective chargers.Shecheckedhersbuttherewasnothing.Withoutmuchthought,sheopenedJai’sphone. Sureenoughthelightwasblinking.ItwasanemailfromsomeonenamedZara.Afteraquickglance attheclosedbathroomdoor,sheclickedthemessageopen.

Clientmeetingat11today.Hopeyou’llwearthatnewblueshirt.ItsuitsyoutoaT.

Zarawashiscolleaguethatmuchwasobvious.Acolleaguewhosuggestedwhatshirtheshouldwear? JaiwasnoTapan.Sheknewherhusband.Atleastshethoughtshedid.Andthemansheknewwhereto drawtheline.Quicklymarkingtheemailasunread,shereplaceditandgotready.Justasshewas placingher lunchboxinher bag,Jaicameoutoftheroom.Dressedintheblueshirt.Hebarely glancedatherasheslunghisbackpack.

“Idon’tneedthelunchboxtoday,”hesaidasawayofgoodbye.

BecauseyouwillbehavingitwithZara?ThequestionhoveredonthetipofPreeti’stonguebutshe

swallowedit.

****

Tuesday,thankGod,hadbeenuneventfulanditwasover,Shikhathoughtwithwryhumorasshemade her way home. Other than her boss being his regular ass-self, there hadn’t been any major catastrophes.Morethanonceshehadfeltlikeaskinghimwhatthefuckwashisproblembutnot wantingtostirwhatwasboundtobeahornet’snest,shehadbittenbackthewordsthathadbeenonthe tipofhertongue,fightingtogetout.Hehadalwaysbeenachauvinisticpigtobeginwithandrumor

haditthathewasundergoingarathermessydivorcebecausehewascaughtwithhispantsdownwith someoneother thanhiswife.Averyyoung someone.So currentlytheperpetual nagger wasan irritatingnagger.Inalotofwaysherbossremindedherofherfirstex-fiancé.Arrogant,snottyanda totallyself-absorbedguywhosethoughtscenteredononepersonandonepersononly.Himself.But hewasbrilliantwithnumbersandeventhoughitgratedonhernerves,shehadtoadmitthathisWC managementwastopnotch.Bottomline,therewasnochoice.Iftheywantedthesweet,theyhadtoput upwiththeshit.Andhehadnevercrossedthelineinhisworkplacesomanagementturnedablind eyetohisattitude.

TheentertainmentofthedayhadbeenRuhiagain.Oneofthejuniormanagershadstucksomekindof quoteposter onher deskandRuhihadobjected.Siyahadpostedapictureofboththewomenat loggerheads,almostreadytopulleachother’shairout.Shikha’sgrinturnedintoasuppressedgiggle. ShehadmessagedbacktoSiyaaskingwhyshehadn’trecordedtheincident.Theywould’veatleast hadagoodlaugh.Whenlifegotboringor tiring,youtakeentertainmentwherever youfoundit. Parkinghercarunderthetreebesidehergate,shegotout.Shewouldparkitinsidelater.Firstshe neededtogetoutofthesari.

“Hi.”

Thevoicecamefromrightbehindherjustasshewasinsertingthekeyintoherhousedoor.Stiflinga shriek,shewhirledandfacedher neighbor.Thejerkcop.Andhewaswearing hisuniformtoo. “Dammit,”sheshouted.“Stopsneakinguponmelikethat!”

“It’stheonlywayIknowhowtowalk,”herepliedinadeadpanvoice.“IfIhadwaitedforyoutoturn

arounditwouldn’tbesneaking.”Hepaused.“Youcursealot.”

“Youwoulddriveasainttocursing,”shesnapped.

“Andyoudefinitelydon’tbelonginthatcategorynow,wouldyou?”

Ican’thitacop,Ican’thitacop,Ican’thitacop.“Didyousneakuponmeforareasonoristhis

yournewformofentertainment?”

“Tellme,isthereadaywhenyoudon’tpickafight?”

“ThedayswhenIdon’tseeyou,”sherepliedsweetly.

Henoddedoncebrieflyasifhehadexpectedtheexactsameanswer.“Thosetwo areoutofthe hospitalandinthejailrightnow.”

“Hospital?”

“The guy you hit had a couple of cracked ribs and the second had chili powder in his well everywhere,”helookedindangerofsmilingasheimpartedthedetails.Shikhalookedso smugthathissmilebrokefree.“Theirparentsmightpostabailbutthecaseisstillactive,thatisif youhavenointentionofwithdrawingit?”

“Noway.JustletmeknowwhenthecourthearingisandI’llpresentmyself.I’llseeifafewother

womenwilljoinmetomakeitstronger,”shesaid,gesturingtotheneighborhood.

“Itcan’tgetanystrongerandIthinkyouwon’tevenneedtocome.Oneofthekidsinthestreettooka

videoofthewholethingfromhisphone.Hisfatherhandeditovertomethismorning.”

“Hegotwhattheydidtoo?Orjustmepunchingthatguy?”

Thistimethesmileturnedintoafull-fledgedgrinmakinghimlookhuman.Averyhandsomehuman.

Shikhawishedtheyweren’tstandingontheporch,withthesettingsunthrowinglightonhisprofile

becauseshecouldseehowdenseandthickhiseyelasheswere.Theyprobablytouchedhischeeks

whenheslept.Thebrown-blackstriationsinhiseyesandthesharp,regalnoseweremoreprominent

inthatparticularangle.Hewasn’tbadlookingatallwhenhewasnotsnarling,sheadmittedtoherself

grudgingly.Truthbetold,helookedtough,competentandarealbadnewsforherpeaceofmind.

“Hegoteverythingfromthemomentyouturnedintothestreettillthepolicejeeprolledawayafter

thearrestandtheyhavepriorstoo.”Hepausedagain,slantinghisgazetoherlegs.“Howisyour

shin?”

“Itwasn’tasbadasithadfirstlooked.Justascrape.”Shesighed.“Look,Ijustgotbackfromwork

andquiteliterallydyingforacupoftea.Wouldyouliketocomeinandhavesomewithme?”Hehad

afterallkeptherupdatedontheprogressandgaveherthegoodnewsthatshewouldn’thavetoattend

thecourtsessionsforGodknowshowmanytimes.Notthatitwouldhavedeterredherbutstill

“Sure,”heremovedhiscapandfollowedherinside.“Ithoughtmostsinglewomenpreferredtolive

inapartments.”

“I’mnotasinglewoman,”shesaid,makingherwayintothediningandkitchenarea.“Well,IambutI

livewithmyparents.They’reinUSrightnowvisitingmybrother.Whataboutyou?”

“I’msingletoo,”hesaidwithagrin.

She’dthoughtasmuchbutallthesame,itwasgoodtogettheconfirmation.Shewaiteduntilhepulled

oneofthediningchairsandsatbeforedepositingherbackpackintheotherchairandenteringthe

kitchen.“TeaOKwithyou?ImakecoffeebutnottheSouthIndianstyle.”

Hewaveditaway.“Teaisfine.Soit’syourparentsandyouandyourbrother?”

“Twobrothers.I’mtheyoungest.”

Hegaveanotherofthosebriefnodsofhisthatprobablymeanthehadconnectedthedots.“They

taughtyoutofightlikethat,huh?”Hiseyestwinkledagain.

“WhenwewerekidsallIwantedwastobeapartoftheirteam youknow playlikethem,belike them ”sheshrugged,smilingatthosefondmemories.“Ibegged,cajoled,threatenedthemuntilthey ”

taughtmeallkindsofstuffstartingfromjumpingthewallsto

“Kickingmen’sballs,”hefinishedforher.Shikha’sowngrinbrokefreeassheaddedtheteapowder

totheboilingwater.“Whatdotheydo?”

“ElderbrotherdidhisMSandisworkinginUSandyoungeroneisarmy.”

Heregardedherwithintenteyes.Athersmallfrown,heelaborated.“Yousaidheisarmy.Notheisin

thearmyorworkingforthearmy.Yourbrotherisalife-giverforthecountry.Andyouarevery

proudofthat.Ofhim.”

“You’reveryobservant,”sheacknowledged,pouringtheteaintotwocupsandbringingthemoverto

wherehesat.Hetookoneandshetooktheother.“Yes.NotadaygoesbywhenIdon’targuewithmy

dadaastowhyhecan’tdosomethinghere.”Shewaitedabreathbeforesaying,“Ilookedyouupin

Googletoday.”Heraisedhiseyebrow.Sheglareddefensively.“Well,consideringthefactthatIhad

initiallypeggedyouforagunda

“Gunda?”hechokedalittleonhistea.Shewasn’tsureifhewasoutragedoramused.

“Unshavenface,bloodshoteyes,cominghomeatoddhours,makingalotofnoise,ill-temperedasif youhadahangover ”sheshrugged.“WhatelsewasItothink?AndlateronIthoughtyouwerea dirtycop.”Thistimehewasdefinitelyoutraged.Funny,hewasmorefuriousaboutthedirtycop

commentthanherassumptionthathewasagoon.“SoIlookedyouup.Age32,oneoftheyoungest

officerstobepromotedasDCP,fourpromotionsandtentransfersinfouryears.Threats,bribery,

blackmail,nothingworksonyouincludingpoliticalpressure.Ifthearticleistobebelieved,themere

thoughtofKarthikBalakrishnanIyerinterrogatingisenoughformostofthecriminalstoconfess.”

“Thelastcoupleofweekshavebeenhectic,”hesaidafteralengthypause.“Wehavebeentryingto

catchachildmolesterandIdidn’twanttogivehimachancetocrossthecitylimits.”

“Didyoucatchhim?”

Henodded.“Thegirlistwelveyearsoldandstillhospitalized.Innopositiontobeawitnessinthe

court.”

“Sowhatareyougoingtodo?Youcaughthimbutwithoutthewitness

Inthelastcoupleofyearsshehadstoppedgettingshockedathearingsuchthings.Whatdidthatsay

aboutthecurrentsituationofthecountry,shewondered.Forthelifeofhershecouldn’tunderstand

howtheycouldcommitsuchanactonasmallchild.Evendemonshadbeenknowntosparethekids.

“Heconfessed,”hesaid,cuttingthroughherwordsandthoughts.

“Sothearticlewastrue,huh?”Maybeshecouldgetalongwithhim,shethoughtwithasmallsmile.

Especiallysincehehadsuchavalidreasonbehindhisbehavior.“I’msorryforsnappingatyou

Heraisedhishand,haltingherwords.“Don’tapologizeandspoiltheeffect.Itwasthebestformof

entertainmentI’vehadinalongtime.”Grinninghetookhisemptycupandplaceditinthekitchen

sink.Shefollowedhim.“Iwisheverywomandoeswhatyoudidtheotherday.”

“Ithinkawomandoestrytofightbackbutinsituationswheresheiscompletelyalonewitha1:5

ratio,”sheshruggedandleftitatthat.“You’vebeenaDCPherefornearlyayearnow.Wherewere youlivingbefore?”Sherealizedthequestioncameunderthepersonalcategorybutwhatthehell she hasalreadyaskedit.Hecanjustnotanswerifhedidn’tlikeit.

“Banashankari,”herepliedwithouthesitation.“Theownerssoldthehouse.Doyouruneveryday?I

sawyouacoupleoftimesinthemornings.”

Hersmilewasrueful.“Itryto.IfImanagetograbshuteyeforatleastsixhours,Igo.Otherwise,you

know,”sheshrugged.

“I’lltrynottowakeyouwhenIgethomeatnight,”heoffered,pickinguphiscapandblackleather

jacket.

Shewalkedhimtothedoorandopenedit.“I’lltrynottowakeyouwhenIleaveinthemornings.”

Withanothergrinandasmallwave,hewasgone.

****

Siyatrudgedupthestepsthatledtohersinglebedroomapartment.Therecruitmentswereonforthe

yearandthenextfewmonthsweregoingtobeabitch.Teamsfromeachdepartmentwouldbegoing

todifferentcollegesandinstitutestoconductinterviewsandhirepeople.Shewasin-chargeofall

travelschedulesanditinerariesofthehigher-ups.Ifanyofthemhadnotsignedup,itfellonherto

makesuretheydoandthattherewerenooverlaps.Whatshewouldn’tgivetoseeTapan’ssmiling

facefirstthingwhensheopenedthedoor,shedespaired.Theywouldrelaxtogetherinthatbathtub

withbubblesfloatingaroundthemandlaughastheytriedtoshiftandtheirelbowsandkneesgotin

thewayinthatsmallspace.Hewouldpullherbetweenhislegsandwithhisfronttoherbackgiveher

amassagethatwouldturnhertightlywoundmusclesintolimpnoodles.Hadshebeentoohastyin

breakingoffwithhim?Shouldshehavetalkedtohimsomemore?Beenmorepatient?

Riddledwithdoubtsandsecondthoughts,shereachedher floor andstopped.Musicandlaughter couldbeheardfromTapan’sapartment.Hisfamilywasthereprobably,shethought.Hereyesfellon theshoesandsandalsscatteredinfrontofhisdoor.Notjusthisfamily.Hisfriendsweretheretoo. Guysandgirls.Hurtfuryrolledthroughherandshequicklyblinkedawaythemoisturethatsprung intohereyes.Stridingtoherdoor,sheopenedit,enteredandbangeditshut.Apparentlyshewasthe onlyonewhowassupposedtopretendthatshewasastranger.Tohellwithhim,shethoughtwithan angryswipeofhandoverherdampeyes.Tohellwiththemall.Hedidn’tdeserveherlove.Hedidn’t deserveasinglebloodymomentofherlife.Andhemostcertainlydidn’tdeservehertears.Hewasa toucherandakisser,yes.Andhemightknowwhattodoandhowtodoitbutthat’sallheknew.

Shewouldshowhimwhatshethoughtofhim.DraggingoutherTab,shewentintoherFacebook

accountandstartedtyping.

AMantoDiefor!

Doyouqualify?

****

Shikhastretchedandbent,touchinghertoesandarchingherback,doingherwarm-uproutinebefore

shestartedonherrun.Afterherconversationthepreviousevening,shehadbackedhercarintothe

portico.Thatwaytherewouldbenoneedtoputthereversegearatallinthemorning.Andshehadn’t

heardthethud-thud-thudofthebulletlastnightnorhadtheporchlightcomeonhereyes.Allinall,a

greatsleepandafreshmorning.

“Goodmorning.”

Sinceshehadheardhismaindoorsnapshut,shewasbetterpreparedforhim.“Goodmorning,”she

greetedhimbackpleasantly.Shegavehissweatshirt,shortsandshoesaquickonce-over.“Youout

forrunningtoo?”

Hegaveabriefnod.“Ifyoudon’tmindthecompany.”

Hersmilewidened.“WithDCP,crimebranch?Ifeelsaferalready.”Lockingherdoor,shestuffedher

keysintohershortspocketandjoinedhimoutsidehergate.“Youalwayscarryyourweapon?”she

asked,gesturingtothesmallbulgeathisback.

Heshruggedandleftitatthat.Shedidn’tpushhim.“Areyousureyou’reOK?”heaskedasthey

startedwithabriskwalk.“Youhaven’tinsultedmeyetandwe’vebeentalking,”heglancedathis

watch.“Formorethanaminute.”

“I’msavingmyenergyforsomethingimportanttocomealong,”sherepliedflatly.

“That’smygirl,”camehisgrinningreply.“Ifeelbetteralready.”

“You’rereallypushingit.”

Helaughedatherdrycomeback.Thirtyminuteslatershewasstillmatchinghimstrideforstride.

Talkingwhilejoggingwasn’teasy,sotheydidn’teventry.Theyhadrundownthestreettothepark

thatwasfewstreetsaway.Theydidn’tgointothepark,insteadranaroundittwice.Itwasstillearly

withonlytheoccasionalmilkvansandafewautosdrivingbyandthevegetablevendorsunloading

theircartsandtrucks.Theearlymorningairwascool,yettobepollutedbytherushhourtraffic.

Gravelanddirtcrunchedundertheirpoundingfeet.Shewasstillbreathingeasilyandtherewasstill

plentyofspringinherlegs.Shelovedthefeelofhermusclesbunchingandrelaxing,withnothingto

concentrateonbuttherunning.Besideher,heranasiftheyhadjuststarted.Hisstridewaseffortless,

hisbreathingslowandeven.

“Doyouruneveryday?”sheasked,scowlingthatshewaspantingalittle.

“Amongotherthings,”herepliedevenly.

Shestopped.“Whatotherthings?”

Hestoppedbesideherandshrugged.“Swimming,sit-ups,pull-ups

“Breaststrokeorside-stroke?”

“Both.”

Shehopedhereyesdidn’tpopoutofhersockets.“Anythingelse?”hertonehadasarcasticedgetoit butitcouldn’tbehelped.Hereshewas,draggingherselfoutfortherunasandwhenshecouldand panting after merethirtyminutesandtherehewas!Listing outhisexerciseregimelikeawaiter rattlingoffthemenuatoneofthosefastfoodjoints.

Hegrinned.“Idon’thavetimetodoallIwanttodoShikhaBose,”andhestartedoff.“Nowcomeon,

timeiswasting.”

“Karate,KungFu,boxing,wrestling ”sheranafterhimrattlingofftheoptions.

“Judo.AndIdotargetpractice.”

“Righthandorleft?”

“Both,”cametheconfidentreply.

“Great,”shemuttered.“Youaretheonlyspecimentoyourparentsoraretheremorelikeyou?”

Hethrewbackhisheadandlaughed.Theystoppedrunningandstartedwalkingastheyturnedinto

theirstreet.“Ihaveayoungerbrother.He’sachefinthemaking.”

“Achef?”shechoked.Itwasasfar frompoliceworkasitcouldget.Talkaboutsiblingshaving differentaspirations.“YourparentswereOKwiththat?”

Heshrugged,bothofthemcomingtoahaltnearhergate.“Dadwasfineoncewetalkedtohimabout

it.Momthrewafit,bothtimesbutIguessnowsheisslowlyreconciling.”

Shenoddedandcheckedherwatch.“Ineedtorush.Anduh,thanksfor ”shegesturedtowardshis bike.

Hiseyessmiledbackather.“Thanksfor ”heglancedathercar.“HaveagooddayShikha.”

“YoutooKarthik.”

Sheranhome,gotreadyandstuffingahastilymadesandwichintohermouth,fledtowork.Thank Godthemaidhadherownsetofkeysandafterworkingintheirhouseforalmostadecade,shewas regular andcompletelytrustworthy.Shikha’sworkhadbecomeallthemoreeasier onceshehad

taughttheladyhowtooperatethewashingmachine.Shereachedworkby8.30andwasreadyfora

breakby11.Therewereseveralgirlsandguysgroupedaroundatablewhensheenteredthecanteen.

Thegirlswerelaughinglikecrazyandtheguyslookedtotallypissedoff.Curiousshemadeherway

thereaftercollectinghercupoftea.

“Hey,what’shappening?”

Pallavi,agirlfromHRtriedtocontrolhermirthenoughtoanswer.“Ohthisoneyougottaread

Shikha.”

“Thatwassonotfunny,”aguywithasulkyfacemuttered.

ThegirlsignoredhimasPallaviextendedherphonetoShikha.“Readthat.I’msogoingtolikeitand

forwardittoallthegroups.”

“I’vesentabulkemailtoeveryoneinthecompany.Excludingthetopguysofcourse,”anotherone

pipedup.

Aaah,anotherofthoseman/womanjokes,Shikhathoughtwithagrin,takingthephonefromPallavi. AMantoDiefor!Doyouqualify? Shikhabitbackhergroanatthelastsecond.DammitSiya!

ChapterFive

Whowasshe?Whowoulddaretowritesuchdisgusting,filthystuff?Makingalistofamanworthyof

forhertodiefor!Whatdidsheknowaboutaman’sworth?Shewantstojudgemen?Gothroughthem

untilshecanpickouttheoneshewants?Whodidshethinksheis?Angelofperfection?Goddesses

steppedoutofheavenlygates?Whore!That’swhatshewas!Sheisn’tworthyesterday’strash!Eyes

filledwithhatredstaredatthewordsthatdancedonthelaptopscreen.Internetwasfullofdisgusting

stuff.Butthiswasdifferent.Thisonehurt.Didn’tsheknowhowmuchthishurt?Andeveryonewere

readingandlaughing.Asifitwassomejoke.Howcouldtheylaugh?Whowrotethis?Itwasso

frustratingnotknowingtheidentity.Wastherenowaytofindout?Whoeveritwas,shouldn’tgo

unpunished.Sheshouldpay.Sheshoulddefinitelypay.

****

“DammitSi!Youactuallypostedonyourwall?”Shikhagroaned,coveringhereyeswithonehand.

“IwaspissedoffatTapanandIguessIwasn’tthinkingstraight,”Siyamutteredguiltily.“Howbadis

it?”Shehadn’tcheckedheraccountandhadsilencedthenotificationsinherphoneafterpostingit.

Thethreeofthemhadgatheredinthecanteenduringthelunchbreaktodiscusstheissue.Truethat

Siyahadn’tactuallymentionednamesbutthewordsweandushavepoppedoutmorethanacoupleof

timesinthewholepost.Itwasjustamatteroftimebeforesomeonenoticedthatitwasagroupeffort.

Wouldanyoneconnectthedotsandrealizeitwasthem?Shikhahopednot.

“Youweretheonewhocopypastedthewholething,”Preetisaidwithascowl.“Youshouldknowhow baditis.Prettymuchverbatimofwhateverwetalked.”SheturnedtoShikha.“Howdiditevenreach theAPSemailinthefirstplace?Andsomeonesentmethesamething asaWhatsAppmessage, completewithemoticonsattached.”

Shikhagotcurious.“Really?Whatemoticonsdidtheyuseforpointsnineandten?”

Siyatriedtoglarebutinthenextmomentallthreedissolvedintogiggles.“Honestly,don’tpeople

haveanythingbettertodothanforwardingmessages?Andwhothehellhastimetotypeallthatin

WhatsApp!”

“Well,youareafriendofthatPallaviinyourFB,aren’tyou?”Shikhaaskedtherhetoricalquestion. “Shelikeditandherfriendreaditandlikedit youknowhowthatstuffspreads.Guessithadbeena slowdayyesterday.AccordingtowhatIgathered,Pallavilikeditsomuchthatshecopieditandsentit asabulkemailatAPS.AsfarasIknow,itstoppedatthemanageriallevel.Andoneofthemlovedit andtookafewminutestosenditasaWhatsAppmessage.Sheisinsometengroupsandshewanted everyoneinthosegroupstoread.”Shepausedtotakeabreathbeforedeliveringthelastbitofnews. “It’sbeentweetedandretweetedtoothelastIheard.”

Theothertwogroaned.“Peoplereallydon’thaveanythingbettertodo!”Preetimuttered.

“Ohcomeon,howmanytimesweforwardedsomethingstupidorfunny,”Siyacountered.“Wenever

knowwherethesethingsoriginatefrom.Someonesendsusandwesendtosomeoneelse.”

“Let’shopethesameisthecasenowtoo.Badenoughthatthewholethingisout,itwouldbeworseif

peoplecometoknowwhowrotetheminthefirstplace,”Preetigrimaced.

“Therewasnothingoffensiveinit,wasthere?”Siyaaskedpuzzled.“Westatedwhatwewantandhow wewant ”realizinghowthathadcomeout,theygiggledsomemore.

“ItisturningintoabattleofsexesatAPS,”Shikharolledhereyesassheimpartedthetitbit.“Guys cribbing aboutthecommentsaboutbeing comparedto walnutsandTVadsandwomenretorting aboutpaybacktimes.”

“Howironicthatthetopfiveonthelisthavebeenallbutforgottenandpeopleareclingingtothe

physicalstuff,”Preeti’scommentwasruefulasshegotupandstartedtoclearhertrash.“Chalo,I

gottatogonow.Thereisoneclientvisitcomingup.”

Shikha andSiya followedsuit.AManto Die for,sure had beena figmentof their veryactive imaginationbutitwastakingalifeofitsownrightinfrontoftheireyes.Theyonlyhopedtheir namesnevergotout.Whowouldbeinterestedinbacktrackingastupidjoketoitsorigin?Noone. Thisonewouldholdpeople’sinterestuntilthenextonecamealongandthenitwouldbeforgotten.

****

“Yesdada,everythingisgoingonfineandno,Idon’thaveproblemssleepingaloneinthishouse,”

Shikhastifledayawnandasigh.Whatawaytobeginherday!Talkwithheroverprotectivebig

brotherandremindhimforthethousandthtimethatshewasanadult.Switchingtohands-free,she

startedonherwarm-upsbeforetherun.

“AreyouevenlisteningtomeChoti?”

Shestifledanothersigh.Hewashardlymumblingforhertoignore.Shelovedhimthoroughly.No

two-waysbuthegotonhernerves.Shewishedhewouldgetmarriedtothatlong-termgirlfriendof

hisandpopoutafewkids.Atleasthisattentionwouldbesplit.

“Yesdada,I’mlistening.”

“Momanddadarebeginningtoworry.Theydon’tneeditinthisageandcouldeasilybeavoidedif

youjustsayyestomarriage.”

Thereitwas again!“Easyfor youto say,”shesnapped.“You’renottheonewiththreebroken engagementsbehindyou.”

“Choti,youneedtogetoverit,”histonegentled.“JustseethesnapIsentyou.Heismycolleagueand

areallygoodfriendofmine.”

“AndlivesinUS,”shefinishedforhim.“Greencardholderandsoon-to-beUScitizen.Youknowmy

thoughtsonthat.”Ohhowshewishedherfaujidadawaswithhernow.Asatypicalmiddlechildhe

hadplayedthepeacemakermorethanoncebetweenhislittlesisterandelderbrother.

“It’sridiculous,”hesaid,losinghispatience.“Thisisnotthe70s.Thesedaysithardlymatterswhich

countryyoulivein.Lookatme.YouguystalktomeeverysingledayandIearnenoughtocomefor

avisitatamoment’snotice.”

“It’snotaboutthatandyouknowit.Dada,changethetopic,”shesaid,lockingthedoorbehindherfor

herearlymorningrun.

“StopbeingsorigidandselfishShikha.Ifnotforyoumomanddadwouldstaywithmeforlonger.

Nowalltheydohereisworrythatyouaretherealone.Nowondermostofourrelativesblameyou forthebrokenengagements.Thiskindofattitude ”hiswordsendedabruptlyasifhehadrealizedhe hadcrossedthelineandhurthislittlesister.

Toolate.“OK,youknowwhat?Gotohell!”Shedidn’twaittohearmore.

Thatwasheratherpeacemakingbest,shethoughtandthenhadtoblinkawayanuncharacteristic

dampnessintheeyes.Stuffingthephoneinhercapri,shelookedupstraightintotheeyesofher

neighbor.Theystaredateachotheroverthemaingateofherhouse.Slidinghereyesawayfromhis

intentlyprobingones,sheopenedthegateandstartedwalkingatabriskpace.Hefellintostepbeside

herbutdidn’ttrytostrikeupconversation.Walkturnedtojogandjogtorununtilshewassweating

andpanting.Butitwasagreatoutletforherhurtandfrustration.Andshewasgratefulforhersilent

companionwholeftheralonebutmadesureshedidn’tfeelalone.Almostanhourlatertheywere

back.Hestoppedwhenshestoppedinfronthergate.

“ThankyouKarthik,”shesaidwithasigh.

Hedidn’taskforwhat.Didn’tpressfordetailsasmostpeoplewouldhavedone.Hegaveabriefnod,

tookoutacardfromhispocketandextendedittoher.Shetookitwithaquizzicalglanceathim.It

washiscardwithhiscellnumberonit.“Keepthatwithyou.Inthemoodyou’rein,ifyouendup

kickingsomeone’sballs,callme.”

Shewantedtobeoutragedbutfeltagrintuggingthecornersofhermouth.“YouthinkIwouldneed

yourhelp?”

Hescoffed.“Nobuthewould.”Thegrinturnedintoadelightfullaughter.Hegrinnedbackandpatted

hercheek.“Keepthatup.GooddayShikha.”

“GooddayKarthik,”Hergoodmoodrestored,shewavedandwenthome.

Andhergoodmoodlastedallmorning,wellintothenoon.Herbrothercalledagain.Heapologized,

sheforgaveandtheymadeup.Thenlunchtimecameandthedaywentspiralingdownwards.She

enteredthecanteenandrealizedtheconversationsflowingthereweremainlycenteredonthepostand

thewomeninvolved.Sothey’vecaughtonthefactthatitwasmorethanonewomanwho’dwrittenit.

ShehidherscowlandtriedtotuneoutthebanterbutperkedupwithshespottedSiyaenteringthe

canteen.

“Stillgoingon,huh?”sheaskedploppingherselfbesideShikha.

“Ohyeahandtheyseemedto havefiguredoutthattherearemultiplepartners,”Shikhareplied, wavingtoPreetiwhohadwalkedinwithherlunchbox.

“What’stheFBstatus?”Preetienquired.

“Morethanalakhlikesandcrossedthirtythousandretweets,”Siyasaidaftercheckingherphone. Theylookedateachother,notsurewhethertheyshouldbeworriedorproudofthenumbers.“I’ve lostcountofnumberoffriendrequestsI’vegot.ThankGodIwasn’ttheonewhoputitonTwitter. Canignorethefriendrequestsbutkeeping trackoffollowers jeez!”sheshuddered.“Butonthe flipsideIthinkaswithmostofthecases,focusisonthecontent.Noonecareswhodidit.”

ShikhastoppedchewingasPallavistrolleduptotheirtable.Judgingfromthewayhereyeslitup

whenshefoundthemtogether,thecatwasoutofthebag.“Hey,”shesaidwithahugegrinsplitting herface.“It’syouthree.Imeanthatpost itwasmadebythethreeofyou,right?IreaditonSiya’sFB pageandyouguysarethick.Itmust’vehappenedononeofyourFridayget-togethers,”sheclapped, pleasedatherowndiscovery.

Theredidn’tseemanypointintryingtodenyit.Shikhahidhergrimacebehindwhatshehopedwasa

smileandshrugged.SiyagaveanabbreviatednodwhilePreetijuststartedonherlunch,ignoringthe

question.

“Ohthisissocool!Howdiditallstart?Imeanwhatwasyourinspiration?”Pallavipulledherchair

andsettleddown,nodoubtforaroundofinquisition.

Themeninourlives,Siyawantedtosaybutbitbackthewords.Thewaythingsweregoing,theirlife historieswouldbeoutonTwitterbynightfallifsheopenedhermouth.Atthesametimeshedidn’t wantto tell her thatitwas a forwarded message and give the credita faceless person.Shikha, evidently coming to the same conclusion, took over.“We were just having some fun.Nothing preplannedoranythinglikethat.”

“Ithinkitissupercoolgirls,”sheenthused.“Isentittomyhusbandtoo.Heismightilypissedoff

rightnowbutthefemalesinhisteamareabsolutelylovingit.HeyPreeti,yourhusbandandmine

workatthesameplace,right?”Shelaughed,delightedatthenewrevelation.Shequicklytookouther

phonetorelaytheveryvitalinformation.“Ohhe’sgoingtolovethisone.Hisfriend’swifeisoneof

theauthors.”

Preeti lookedasifshewantedto grabthegirl’sphoneandthrowitoutofthefourteenthfloor window.AndShikhacouldunderstandthefeeling.Maybesheshouldbraceherselftoo.Thewaythis onewasgoing,itwouldn’tbelongbeforeherbrotherinUSreadsitandgivesheradressingdown. Siyawastheonlyonewhoseemedtobetakingthingsinherstride.Understandable,sincesheisan onlychildandherparentswholivedinAhmedabadhadzerointerestinthesocialnetworkingsites.

“We’reauthorsnow?”sheasked.

“Well,ofcourseyouare.Mysisterthinksthisonehasthepotentialtoreachthetop100listofhighest

numberoflikesinFB.Hey,whydon’twedothat?Let’saimforthetop100.IfnotFBthenTwitter.

Maxretweets.Whatsay?”shelookedatthethree,finallyregisteringtheirtotallackofenthusiasm.

“What?”

ShikhahadwhatthefucklookwhileSiyawasstilltryingtodecidebetweenhellnoandisyourhead

screwedright.

“UhlistenPallavi,”Preetigaveashotatdiplomacy.“Wewrotethatthingjustforfun.Thisiskindof

totallyunexpectedandnoneofusareinterestedinsettingupanyrecords.”

Thegirllookeddownrightputout.“Oh.ButIthinkit’sagreatchanceandyoushouldn’tmissit.

Thinkaboutitandletmeknow.WegirlsatAPSareallbehindyouinthis,”sheaddedwithawink.

“Justsaythewordandwe’llfloodtheTwitterandsoonyouallwillbefamous,signingautographs

andstuff.”

Shikhachokedbackagrunt.Shewouldgetherassfiredbeforethat.Herbosswasalreadylookingfor

excusestoknockherdownasteportwo.Thiswaslikedeliveringherheadonasilverplatter.She

waiteduntilPallavilefttheirtablebeforemuttering,“Autographs?Seriously?IfthisgoesonI’llhave

toaskKarthiktoprovideusprotection.”

SiyaandPreetistoppedwiththeirspoonsheldmidwayintheair.Therewasalongpause.“Karthik?”

Siyaaskedslowly.

“Yeah,Karthik.Myneighbor.Youknowhim.”

Preetichoked,droppingherspoonbackinhercasserole.“Thejerkneighborwhoturnedouttobea

jerkcopwhoresembledamafiamemberandadrunkardwhoseclotheshadn’tseentheinsideofa

washingmachine

“OK,yeah,fine,it’sthesameguy.”

Siya’seyeswentround.“Youareblushingbuddyandyouneverblush.”Theyshouldknowafterall.

Bothofthemhadbeenwithherthroughallthethreeengagementsandthesubsequentbreakups.

“What?No!”Shikhaprotestedviolently.

Preetiblinked,astonished.“You’vefallenforhim?”

“Good God no! What’s gotten into you guys? We just kind of introduced ourselves and he accompaniedmeduringmyearlymorningrunsthelastcoupleofdays,that’sit.”

“Ifyousayso,”Siyashruggedoneshoulder.

“No,really.He’snotabadguy,Iacceptthatbutthere’snothingmoretoitthanthat.Imean,comeon, heisaTamilian.Iyer.Withmyhistory,eventhinkingofanythingwithhimwouldbeaskingfor trouble.Aabailmujhemaar,”shequoted.Shewavedthemto silencewhentheytriedto protest. “We’regettingoffthetopic.Preeti,what’sJaigoingtosaytothis?”

Preetigaveatightsmile.“Idon’tseeanypointintryingtodenyitorhideit.Irefusetofeelashamed

ofsomethingthatwasdonewithmyfriendsjustforfun.”Sighingshepackeduptherestofthefood

andgotup.“Atleastthiswouldgivemeachancetoclearoutafewthings,right?”

“Goodluck,”ShikhahuggedPreeti.“Keepusposted,OK?”

****

Siyalockedherbikeandwalkeduptoherapartment,herthoughtsstillonPreeti.Didheronecareless

actruintherelationshipbetweenherfriendandherhusband?Agreedthatthingshadbeenrockyeven

beforethatbutthispostdidn’thelpthematters,didit?WouldJaiunderstand?Shedidn’tthinkshe

wouldforgiveherselfiftheybrokeoffbecauseofthis.Theinitialpointshadallbeenvalidones.It

waslateronthatthehumorhadgottenthebetterofthem.Nowtheywerestuckwithpeoplejudging

thembasingonthose.Thatwastheworstpartofthiswholefiasco.Thejudgementthatwassureto

come.Asifalltheycaredaboutwasthesizeofapenisandtimetakentoejaculate.

Herphonepinged.SinceitwasnotanFBorTwitternotification,sheopenedit.ItwasfromTapan.

Youdidthistomakefunofme,didn’tyou?

Makefunofhim?Shefrowned.WhywouldIevenwanttomakefunofyou?

Well,that’swhat’shappeningtome.Whoeverhasreadyourstupidpost,myfriends,arelaughing.

AskingformysizeandhowlongIlast.

YouknowIwouldnevermakefunofyouTapan.ButIwashurtwhenyousaidwehavetoignoreeach

otherinfrontofyourfamily.

Aaahsoyouaretakingrevenge.

Suddenlyshewastired.Tiredoffightingforhim.Forthem.Thehopethatrefusedtocompletelydie

down,diminishedalittlemore.Sighingshetappedherreply.Youknowwhat?Youareright.Partsof

thatlistwereaimedsolelyatyou.Likefaithfulness,dependability,senseofhumor.

****

Preetienteredthehouseandclosedthedoorbehindher.Jaiwashome.Earlierthanher.Butshedidn’t fool herself thinking hewantedto spendtimewithher.Whathecamehomelooking for wasa confrontation.HewasprobablyinthestudyorinthebedroomwithhisKindle.Shewentintothe kitchentodepositherlunchboxandgotherselfaglassofwater.Shedidn’thavetowaitforlong.He cameoutofthestudyandstoodattheentranceofthekitchenasifwaitingforhertostammeran apology.

“Wow,you’rehomeearly.Willwonderseverseize.”There.Hecanlookforherapologyinthat.

Hislipsthinned.Hehadn’tevenchangedaftercominghome.Sheglancedathisstylishclothesand trimhaircut.Healwaysdiddressverywell.Evenifwasapairofjeans,heworeitwithstyle.“What thehelliswrongwithyouPreeti?”Shetiltedherhead,waitingforhimtoexpand.“Seriously,have yougonemad?Makingthatlistandpublicizingitlikeitwassomekindofanachievement?Youhave anyideathekindofcommentsguysarepassingonaboutyou?Youhaveanyideahowitfeltwhen thatguywalkeduptomelaughingandtoldmethatyouwereoneofthewomenwhowroteit?Inever likedthosefriendsofyoursto beginwithbutnow?I’mjust.”Hethrewuphishandsintheair. ”

“They’rejust

“Stop.”Helookedstartledatherfirmvoice.“Youwanttotalkaboutmefine.Don’tbringthemintoit.

Not.One.Word.”Shestressedwhenheopenedhismouth.

“Fine,”hesnapped.“Theyarewhattheyarebutwhatiswrongwithyou?Writingaboutwhoyouthink

isamantodiefor!”

“NotwhoJai.What.It’saboutqualities.Youknowthingslikedependability,”shelookedstraightinto

hiseyes.“Faithfulness.”

Heslidhisgazeawayfromhers.Preetiwaitedforthecripplingpaintohither,thengathereditand

shoveditintoacornerofherhearttobeairedoutlater.Takingadeepbreath,sheaskedinacalm

voice.“Whoisit?Zara?”

Jaiseemedtakenabackandstammered.“Whoiswho?WhatZara?Whatnonsenseareyoutalking?”

“Thewomanyoukeepcomparingmeto.”

Withadistractinghandthroughhishair,hewhirledawayfromher.“I’mnothavinganaffairwith

anyoneifthat’swhatyou’reasking.Anddon’tchangethesubject.”

“Maybenotyetbutthereissomeone,isn’tthere?Someoneyou’reattractedto?”Hedidn’tturntoface

her.Hedidn’tdenyandthatwasaloudanswerforher.“I’mgoingtoshiftmythingstotheother

bedroom,”shesaidcalmly.“Doesn’tmeanI’mgoingtofilefordivorcetomorrowmorningbutI

reallythinkbothofusshouldstepbackandthinkaboutourrelationship.Whatwewantfromit.Ifwe

evenwantit.”

“You’rechangingthetopic!Weneedtotalkaboutyouandyourdiscussionaboutthemanmakingyou

moanandscream.MyteammembersarelaughingatmePreeti!”

Ithadn’tbeenherwhohadaddedthatbutshewasn’tgoingtoratoutherfriend.“Andallyouhadto

tellthemwasyes,you’vespoiledmeforanothermanandthatyou’rethereasonyourwifehassuch

highstandards.Wediditforfunandthat’sallI’mgoingtosayonthatsubject.Somenewthingwill

popupandthisonewillfadeawaybeforeyouknowit.It’sanissueonlyifyoumakeitintooneJai.”

Sighingsherubbedherforehead.“NowI’mgoingtoshiftmystuffintotheotherbedroom.Think

aboutwhatI’vesaid.”

****

ItwaspastninebythetimeShikhareachedhome.Shebackedhercarintotheporticoandlaughedout

loudwhenshesawKarthikpushinghisbikeintohisportico.Gettingdownfromhercarshecalled

outagreeting,“DCPsaabishomeearlytonightIsee!”Hegrinnedbutshecouldseethelinesoff

tirednessetchedacrosshisfaceevenfromthatdistance.Shetookoutherbackpackandthecarrybag

fromthecarandwalkeduptothewallthatseparatedboththehouses.“Lookslikeyourdayhasbeen

asdelightfullybitchyasmine.”

Helaughed,dispellingsomeofwearinessonhisface.Atacloserinspectionsherealizedsomething

else.Shepeeredcloserathisdamagedknuckles.Bruisedbuttheydidn’tseemtobebroken.“Theguy

isinthehospitalormortuary?”

Thatdrewanotherhuffofalaughterfromhim.“Bloodthirstywoman.”Andthenitwashisturnto

peer.“Ismellfood.”Shegrinnedandliftedhercarrybag.“Bhelpuri,sevpuri,dahipuri,samosachat,

kachorichatandvadapav.”

“You’regoingtoeatallthat?”helookedastonished.

“Imight’vegottenalittlecarriedawaywhileordering.”

“AndIdidn’tgetachancetohavemylunchtoday.Caretoshare?”

“Sure.Igottwoofeach.Whatdoyouwant?”

Helookedattheskyandsurroundings.“Weatherisnice.Let’seathere.Thatwaywecanhavealittle

ofeverything.Thewallcanbeourtable.”

Shegiggled.“You’rereallyhungry,aren’tyou?OK.Letmegetchangedandwe’llmeethereinfive

minutes?”Bothofthemhurriedintotheirhousesandwereoutinfourandhalfminutes.Shegotthe

plates,spoonsandanapkintospreadoverthewallandtheyspentthenexttenminutesgorgingonthe

junkfood.Itprobablywouldn’thelphercaloriesbutitsurerevivedhergoodmoodonceagain.As

theygottothelastitem,shesaid,“Fine,don’ttellmehowyougotthoseknuckles.I’lljustreadin

tomorrow’spaper.”

Hefinishedchewingandsaid,“Youwon’tfinditinanynewspaper.”

“Onlinethen.”

“Notthereeither.”Hegrinnedandshrugged.“Amissingperson’scase.Iwenttoapoliticiantoaska

fewquestions.Hisuh,bodyguardgotintheway.”

“Andnoonewillcometoknow?”shewailed.“That’ssounfair.Youshouldbetheoneinthenewsnot

me.”

Heraisedhiseyebrows.“You’reinthenews?”

“Notinthewayyouthink,”shescowled.“MyfriendsandIwrotesomethingforfunacoupleofdays backandnowit’salloverthesocialmediaalongwithournames.EveryoneatAPS that’swhereI work arenowsplitintotwogroupsbecauseofthatonepost.Applausesfromwomenandcatcalls frommen.”

“What’sitabout?”heaskedpolishingoffthelastofthebhelpuriandlickinghisfingers.

Hereallyhadbeenhungry,shethought.Thenhisquestionregistered.“Idon’twanttotalkaboutit.”

“Fine.I’llcheckoutformyselfthen.”

“DowhateveryouwantbutI’mnottalking.”

Thesoundofthegateopeningmadethembothlookinthatdirection.Anothercopjustwalkedinto

Karthik’shouse.Hesawthembothnearthewall,changeddirectionandcameuptothem.“Aunique

waytohavedinner.”

Karthikwipedhishandswithatissueandmadetheintroductions.“Salim,thisis

“ShikhaBose,”Salimcompletedthesentencewithagrin.“HiI’mSalim,DCPSouth-East.Karthik’s

friendandcurrentcolleague.”

“Howdidyouknowmyname?”Shikhaaskedsuspiciously.

Themenexchangedhastyglanceswhichshewassuremeanttoconveysomethingtoeachotherina

languageunknowntoher.“UhthoseguysKarthikarrested?Isawtheevidencevideoandrecognized

you.”

Yeah,right.Shewouldbetherpaycheckherneighborcopsharedsomeotherfactsabouthisneighbor.

“Ifyousayso.”Shejustgotbackhergoodmoodanddidn’twanttoruinitsosheletitslide.“Soyou

guyshaveknowneachotherlong?”

“SamebatchduringourIPStrainingandwehadbeentogetherforthefirstcoupleofpostings,”Salim

replied.HewasalittleshortedthanKarthik,leaningtowardsthelankiersideandminusthemustache.

Butbothofthemsportedthesamecrewcutstyleofhair.HeturnedbacktoKarthik.“Boss,weneedto

go.OhandbeforeIforget,Nafizareadsomepostonlinetoday.”Hesighedinexasperation.“Iamto

tellyouthataccordingtothatlistshe’dbetthatyouareamantodieforandIwouldcomeaclose

second.”

Shikha,whohadbeenintheactofgulpingdownwater,chokedandspeweditout,makingthemen

jumpbacktoavoidbeingsprayed.Bothofthemglancedather.Onewithmildconcernandanother

withintentspeculation.Eventhroughhersputteringandcoughingbecausethewaterhadgonethe

wrongway,shesawthewheelsturningatsupersonicspeedinKarthik’shead.Andwaitedforthe

groundtoopenupandswallowherwhole.

ChapterSix

Theimagethatstaredbackfromthemirrorwasfamiliaryetstrange.Andnowonder.Eversinceall

thisstarted,therehadbeennosleep.Onlyfitfuldozing.Besides,somuchpain,hurt,angerandhatred

bottledupinsidewoulddefinitelychangethepersonontheinsideaswellastheoutside.Noonewould

takeawaythepainofcourse.Buthatred.Yeah.Thatwouldgoaway.Thatwoulddefinitelygoaway

oncejusticeisserved.Soon.Realsoon.TothinkthosebitchesworkedatAPS!Themerethoughtwas

blasphemous.Thefactthattheywerecolleagues!Itbroughtthestomachcontentsintothemouth.They

thoughttheyweresosmart,tryingtohidetheiridentities.Somethingscan’tbehidden.Andnowthe

nameswereout.ThewomenatAPSwerecallingthemTerrificTriowhilethementhoughttheywere

TerribleTrio.Neitherwascorrect.TheywereTrashTriowhomockedandtaunted.AMantodiefor

indeed!Whatdidtheyknowaboutsuchaman?Nothing.Theyhadabsolutelynoclue.Hadtheyever

triedtomeasureupandfaileverysingleday?Didtheyknowwhatitwastotryandtryknowingyou

wouldfail,yetunabletogiveup?Didthey?No.Theydidn’tknow.Andtheydidn’tdeservetolive.They

wantamantodiefor?Theysurewouldn’tgetthatmanbuttheywoulddie.Yes!

****

“Don’t.Say.It,”Shikhasaidthenextmorningasshecamebackfromherrunthenextmorningand

sawKarthikbackhome,parkinghisbike.Hehadleftthepreviousnightsoonaftertheirchatdinner

andhisbikehadn’tbeentherethismorningwhenshehadcomeoutforherrun.

Helookedlikehewantedtothrowbackhisheadandlaughoutloudbutmanagedtocontrolit.Barely.

Good.Itwouldn’tdogoodtoattackacop.“Notevenagoodmorning?”Shegrowledandthelaughter

he’dbeentryingtosuppressbrokefree.“SorryImissedourrun.”

Shewasnot.Shewas200%surehe’dreadthedamnpost,despitewhateveritwashe’dbeendoingall

night.Shewassparedfromdiscussingitwhileshetriedtoburnhercalories.ThankGodforsmall

merciesSiyaatleastdidn’twritewhosaidwhatinthat.Allsheneededwasforhimtoknowshewas

talkingaboutcashewsandwalnuts.Andmonsters.“Night-out,huh?”sheaskedinstead.

“Yup.”

“Offtobednow?”

“Forafewhoursyes.ThenIhavetoleaveagain.”

“IthoughtDCPsdroveScorpiosandXUVsthesedays.”

Hislipstiltedinahalfsmile.“Ilikemybike.”

“Andsecurity?”HeworkedincrimebranchforGod’ssake.

Heshrugged.“Icanhandlemyself.”

“Howdoyoumanagecookingandcleaningandstuff?”sheaskedcuriously.

“Mymaidhasakey.Idon’tknowwhattimeshecomesbutshegetstheworkdone.Foodisnotgreat

butedible.”Hepaused.Sheknewhewasgoingtotalkaboutthatdamnpost.Shejustknew.“Ireadthat

post.Anyonewhoratesfaithfulnessasnumberoneandpatriotisminthetopfour,hasherheadfirmly

onhershoulders.Yougirlsdidgood,”hegaveonehiscustomaryabbreviatednod.

Sheblinkedandblinkedagain.OK,thatwas,well,unexpected.Whycan’tthismanbepredictablefor

once,shethoughtwithdespair.Shehadbeenbracingherselfforhisderidingcommentsallnight,

evenduringthelittletimeshehadrunthismorning.Andherehewalkedinandtotallyblindsidedher.

Men!Gofigure!

“Uh,yeah,well,thanks.”Shemumbledandscowled.“Everyonehasallbutforgottenthoseimportant

points.”

“It’sallaboutpriorities,”heshrugged.“Ignorethemandthiswillblowoversoonerratherthanlater.”

Shikhatookadeepbreathandstraightenedhershoulders.Funnyhowtwosentencescouldmakeher

feelsomuchbetter.“Yeah,guessso.I,uh,IneedtogoorI’llbelateforwork.Lookslikeyouused

yourknucklesagain.Youneedtoputsomeiceonthemortheywon’thelpyounexttime,”shesaid

grinning.

Hehuffedasmalllaugh.“I’lldothat,thanks.AndShikha?”

Almostatherdoor,shestoppedandturnedherheadtowardshim.“Yeah?”

“Youareright.Monsterscanbeuncomfortabletosaytheleastandcashewswon’thelpyou.”

Hermouthquiteliterallydroppedopen.Shestaredathim,aghast.Theonlythingshecouldthinkwas,

“HowdidyouknowIsaidthosethings?”Thenwantedtobangherheadagainstthenearestwallasshe

realizedshehadaskeditaloud.

Headdedawinktohisgrin.“Evenonprintyouareprettyeasytospot,ShikhaBose.”Shedidtheonly

thingshecoulddounderthecircumstances.Duckedherhead,ploughedintoherhouseandbangedthe

doorshutwitharesoundingthud.Itdidn’thelpthingsatallwhensheheardhisroaroflaughterthat

accompaniedherundignifiedexit.Men!

Shewasstillmiffedabouttheconversationwhenherphonerangandsheanswereditdistractedly.

“’lo?”

Anoddghostlywhisperreachedher.“Youwon’tgetthemanbutyouwilldie!”

Andthelinewentdead.Whothehellwasthat!Thecalleridsaidunknownnumber.Shestartedto

redialbutherphonerangagain,thistimedisplayingherfaujidada’snumber.“Heydada,howisyour

legdoingnow?”sheaskedwithagrin.

****

Preeti wasalmostoutof her apartmentcomplexonher wayto APSwhenher phonerang.She frownedattheunfamiliarnumberbutanswered.“Yes?”

“Youwon’tgetthemanbutyouwilldie!”Andthelinewentdead.Whatthehell!Furiousshestarted

topressthecallbackbuttonbutanothercarhonkedloudlyfrombehind,makingherswearsoftly.She

threwthephoneonthepassengerseatandputhercaringear.

“Well,well,well,ifitisn’toneoftheauthors!”

Preetihaltedandturnedjustinsidetheconferenceroom,barelymanagingtoholdbackherglare.

Afteraterrible,lonely,confusedandpain-fillednight,shehadquiteliterallydraggedherselftowork.

Curlingupintoaballandwallowinginhermiseryhadbeenohsotempting.Butwhatwouldthat

solveotherthanrobbingherofhersanity?APSatleastkeptherbusyanditwasFriday.Theirdinner

night.Shecouldleanonherfriends’shouldersanddrawstrengthfromthem.Ifshegotoutofthis

meetingunscathed,thatwas.EveryFridaythesalesteammetforreviewandreappraisal.Butfromthe

looksofit,thisweekthemeetingwouldbecenteredmoreonthatstupidpostthantheirreports.Ugh!

Fine!Inforapenny,inforapound,shesighed.

Drawing a smile from somewhere, she looked at the guy who had drawled out that extremely sarcasticwelcome.ArnabDas.Theguywhohadbeenbrushedasidewhenshehadgottenthelast promotion.Asoreloserifshehadseenone.

“YouseemsurprisedArnab.IthoughtIwassupposedtobeinthismeeting,”sherepliedcalmly.

He flushed and glared. “Ashame!” People in the conference room looked uncomfortable and entertained.“Asalesheadholdsthereputationofthecompanyinthepalmofhisorherhand.And nowthereputationisinthehandsofashamelesswomanwhowritestrash.”

Preeticontrolledherflinch.“Andwhyisthat?Ithoughtitwashonest.”

“Honest,”hescoffed.“Yeahright.Thewholethingrevolvedaroundwhataguyhasinhiswalletand

inhispants.”

AfewgirlsexclaimedinobviousoutragebutPreetididn’tshifthereyesawayfromArnab.“Itstarted

withsomegenuineissuesoffidelityanddependabilityandendedonahumorousnote.Mostofour

colleaguesseeandrealizeitforwhatitis,”shegesturedtotherapidlyfillingconferenceroom.

“Itwasfilthyandmean-spirited,”hesaid.

“Idon’tagree.Peopleseewhattheyexpecttosee.Dirtymindsseegrubeverywhere.”

“You’resayingIhaveadirtymind?Howdareyou!”

“Enough!”TheirCEOwalkedin,tookinthesceneatoneglanceandbarkedthecommand.“Arnab,

stopdraggingoutthesameoldshit.WehavebetterthingstodoatAPSthandiscusssomepostinFB.

Nowgetyourheadoutofyourassandsitdown.We’regoingtohavenewclientsandnewtargetsfor

thenextquarter.”

Preetilethertensemusclesrelaxslowlyasthesituationdiffused.Howlongwouldthisgoon?The

meetingbeganandconcludedquicklyandpeacefullyafterthat.

****

SiyahadsleptalittlebetteronThursdaynightandwokeupfreshonFridaymorning.Maybeshewas recoveringfrombrokenheartormaybeshewasmovingondespitethebrokenheart.Sinceitwas Friday,shecoulddiscuss andevaluateduring thedinner withher friends,shethoughtwithwry humor.Reachingherbike,shewasabouttopullonherhelmetwhenherphonerang.Frowningatthe unfamiliarnumber,sheneverthelessanswered.“Hello?”

“Youwon’tgetthemanbutyouwilldie!”Andthelinewentdead.Whatthefuck!Frowndeepening,

shepressedthecallbackbuttonbutthelinewasengaged.Nutcase,shemutteredtoherself,strapped

thehelmetonandstartedthebike.

“Siya,herearetheschedulesandthependingsignups.Crosscheckthemwiththetopguys.”

Siyatooktheprintoutsfromhermanagerandstartedgoingthroughthem.“Theircalendarsareallup

todate?”

“Ithinksobutdoublecheckthatjustincase.Ohandtherearesomeoverlapsinthepreviouslistof

signups.”Shegrimaced.“ThankGodwecaughtitoritwould’vebeenamess.”

Noddinginagreement,shetookthesheafofpapersandsteppedoutofhermanager’scabin,almost

collidingwithRuhi.“Oh,sorry,”shesaidpolitely.

“Itwouldn’thavehappenedifshehadher mindonher jobinsteadofthatdisgustingpost,”Ruhi growledinalowtone.

“Excuseme?”Siyasaid,takenaback.Sheshouldn’tbesurprised.Ruhineededanexcusetogether

danderup.Infactitwasasurprisethatshehadwaitedaslongasshedid.Maybethelistofthingsthat

pissedheroffhadbeenprettylong,shethoughthumorously.

“Theoverlapsintheprevioussignups,”sheclarified.“Theywouldn’thavehappenedifnotforthat

cheap,dirtyarticlethatyoupostedonthenet,”shesaid,herfaceflushed.Thensheshookherhead

firmly.“Idon’tevenwanttodiscussitwithyou.”

“Finebyme.”Siyasaid,tryingnottolookamused.

“I’mgoingtoseeifIcanchangemygroup,”shesaidwithafierceglower.

“Youarewelcometotrybutdon’tgetyourhopesup.Youknowhowitisuntiltheinitialroundof

recruitmentsareover,”shesaidsweetly.

“Fine,”sheglared.“Butyoubetternot

Siya’spatienceranoutatthatpoint.“Ruhi,doyourealizeyou’rebehavinglikeapetulantschool

kid?”Ruhiopenedhermouthtoprotestbutwasn’tgivenachance.“Getbacktoworkandleavemeto

domine.”

SiyawaiteduntilRuhistrodeawaybeforemutteringtoherself,“Whothehellhiredher?”

“Notme,”cametheimmediatereplyfromhermanager’scabin.Siyagiggled.

****

Shikhawascalledintoherboss’sofficejustasshewasabouttogoinsearchofsometea.Herboss,

VittalRaowasaperpetuallygrumpy,ill-temperedboor.Somepeoplecamebyitnaturallywhilesome

peopleworkedatit.Raodidboth.Shesighedanddraggedherselfintohiscabin.Hewasn’tpleased

withher,thatmuchwasglaringlyobvious.Andabsolutelynothingnew.Hewasneverpleasedwith

anyofthefemalemembersofhisteam.Guessheconsideredwomenwerefitforcooking,fucking

andbreeding.Evenifhehadn’tbeencaughtwithhispantsdown,thatalonewasenoughforawoman

oftodayforfilingdivorce.

Shesuspectedthereasonforthisconferenceandpreparedherselftobechewedout.“MsBose,the

environmentatAPSisgettingruined.”

“Ruinedhow,sir?”sheaskedinnocently.

“Don’tbefacetiousMsBose.TherehaveneverbeengenderfightsatAPS.Norhasthelanguageof

thecompanyhaseverdeterioratedtothislevel.Youandthatridiculouspostofyoursarethereason

forthis.Itisvulgaranddirtytosaythatleast.”

“Howisitmydoing?”sheaskedwithabewilderedfrown.

“Thatdirtylistofyours

“Itwasnotexclusivelymine,”shecouldn’thelppointingout.“Youcouldsayitwasacollaborative

effort.”Anddamnifsheapologizedforit.Whythehellwasheholdinghersolelyresponsibleforthe

wholemess,shedidn’tunderstand.Fine,itgotpostedonFBandtookoffafterthatbuthowwassheto

beblamedifpeoplelikedandlovedandretweetedit?Shewasn’ttheonewhoputthemtoworkinthe

socialmedia!Butlogic,womenandRaoneverwenthandinhand.

“MsShikha,please.YoumightnotbetheonlyonebutIhavenodoubtyou’retheonewhostartedall

thatnonsense.Andnowit’suptoyoutocontrolit.”

Hereyesbuggedout.Shereallycouldn’thelpit.“Controlithow?”

“That’snotmyproblem,”hewaveditaway.

“Howcanyousaythatsir?Thereputationofthisdepartmentisonyourverycapableshouldersand youneedtohelpmeoutifpeopleouttherearebesmirchingit.”Shesatbackwithasmileandstarted outliningherplan.“YoucouldstartbysendinganemailwithinAPS.Yourwordwouldundoubtedly holdmoreweightthanminewould.”Boostedbythelookofdiscomfortspreadingacrosshisround face,shecontinued,“I’lladdyouasmyfriendontheFacebook.Youcanstartbacktracking and ”

“Uh,Idon’tthinkthatwouldbethebestwaytohandlethings.”

encouragingpeoplenottolikeitandtalktotheminto

“Thenwhatdoyousuggest?”sheaskedwithinnocenteagerness.Shenevercouldfoolherbrothers

withitbutRaowasanothermatter.Hisexpressionwentcompletelyblankashestretchedhisnecklike

aturkey.Shehidhersmile.

“Uh,onsecondthought,Idon’tthinkthatwouldbenecessary.I’msurewithtimesuchnonsensewill

dieitsowndeath,”hesaidnoddingrepeatedly.

Thatmeantheknewtherewasnothinghecoulddo.Therewasnothinganyonecoulddooncestuff

reachedtheinternet.

****

“Ithinkwecandeclarethesituationofficiallyoutofcontrol,”Shikhasaidglumlyastheyfortified

themselveswithVirginMariesandPinacoladastogowiththeirdinnerattheThairestaurantthatwas

situatedsmackinthemiddleoftheirrespectivehomes.

“1.5lakhlikesandoverfiftythousandretweets,”Siyasuppliedthelastnumbers.“Seriously,wasit

reallythatgood?Imeanhaven’twereadmoreribaldandinterestingonesbefore?”

“Yeah,butwe’venever kepttrackofthelikesor retweetsofsuchstuff,right?”Preetishrugged. “Peoplehavelivestoleadandthisonewillgetitsfifteenminutesoffameanddieawayjustlikethe onesbeforeandtheonesafter.”Theyclinkedtheirglassesonthatnote.“Anyway,thiswholethinghas finallygotJaiandmetalking.HernameisZara.”

“OhGoodGod!”SiyaandShikhastaredattheirfriendaghast.“I’msosorryReet.Whatareyou

goingtodonow?”Siyaasked.“He’sadamnstupiddumbassifhechoosessomeotherfemaleover

you.”Shikhalookedtotallypissedoff.

Preetishruggedandtriedtosmile.Shikhaalwayshadtheabilitytomakehersmile.“Thanksforthe

voteofconfidencebuddyandI’mnotgoingtodoanythingfornow.Hesayshehasn’tbeenunfaithful

tome.”

“Andyoubelieveit?”Shikhaaskeddoubtfully.

Preetiranafingerovertherimofherglass.“Ihavebeendoingsomethinkingsincelastnight.I

realizeI’mnotcompletelyblamelessyouknow.”Atherfriends’twinstaresofdisbelief,sheasserted.

“Ifhe’snotamantodieforthenI’mnotawomantodieforeither.”

“Wedon’tseeyouhavinganEMA,”Siyascowled.“Oreventemptedtohaveone,”sheadded.

“Ididn’tsaywe’reequallyatfault.JustthatI’mnotcompletelyblameless.Ihaven’tbeenneglecting

myselfbutIhaven’tmadeanyeffortstobeattractivetohimeither.BeforeIusedtodressupforhim

butnowIdressupforotherswhilehegetsthetracksandnighties.”

“Yeah,well,ifthat’shiscomplaint,IcanonlysaythatheiswatchingwaytoomanyEktaKapoor

shows,”Shikhasaiddryly.“HomeiswhereyoucanchilloutforGod’ssake,notdeckupindesigner

wearandperchyourselfonthecouch!”Siyadidn’tcomment.Shefeltshehadnorighttosinceshe

herselfhadbeenoneofthosewomenwhodeckeduptopleasetheirmenuntilrecently.“Andifyou

aretalkingaboutappearances,”Shikhacontinued,“Doeshemakethateffort?Doeshedressupin

anythingotherthanhisPJsorshortswhenhe’sathome?”

Preeticoncededthepointbutcouldn’thelpverbalizingtherestofherthoughtsoutloud.“Wewere

bestfriendsbeforewebecamelovers.ButnowIhardlytalktohim.Ibounceoffmythoughtsand

ideaswithyouguysinsteadofwithhim.Igivehimthecookandthehousekeeperinsteadofloverand

partner.That’snotthewayit’ssupposedtobe,right?Maybethat’swhyhegotbored.”

“Whenisheeverthereforyoutotalktohim?Heexpectsyouhomebeforehimbutdoeshemakean

efforttospendtimewithyou?Comeearlyonceinawhile,plananouting,something?”Shikhaasked

gently.

Pokingholesinherfriend’smarriagewasmostdefinitelynotherintentionbutshecouldn’tstandand letPreetishouldertheblameofJai’sinfidelity.Ifapersonwantedtobreakhisvowsthenhewillfind

1001reasonstodoso.Theywerenotreasons.Theywereexcuses.

“Idon’tunderstandwhyforeverysinglethingthatgoeswronginarelationship,awomanendsup

takingtheblameforit.You’renotsharingthingswithhim,correct.Hashebeensharing?”

“Idon’tthinkherealizedtheamountofadjustmentshewouldhavetomakewhenhetoldmetolook

forajob,”Preetisaid,leaningherheadbackonthechairandclosinghereyes.

“YouknowsometimesIthinkforallthelackofmodernity,thepreviousgenerationshadbeenbetter

off,”Siyastabbedherforktoemphasisherpoint.“Theroleshadbeenclearlydefined.Man,thebread

winnerandwoman,thehomemaker.Nowwe’rebroughtupwithideasofequalitydrilledintousfrom

cradle.Butourparentsdon’ttellusthatthefateofthatequalityliesinthehandsofourpartners.

We’retheirequalonlyiftheythinkwe’reequal.”

Shikhastartedcuttingherstartertopieceswithmoreforcethanrequired.“Especiallysincemostof

thosemen’smothersarehousewives.Theyseetheirmomandexpecttheirwifetobeliketheirmom.

Butatthesametimethisequalitythingpopsintotheirmessedupheads.Soattheendofthedaythey

wanttheirwivestoworkandbetheperfecthomemakers.”Sheopenedhermouthtoaddmorebut

snappeditshutatthelastsecond.

Preetisawthatandgiggled.“OutwithitShik,IpromiseIwon’tmind.”

“Idon’twanttobeaccusedofequatingyourhusbandtoadog.”WhenSiyalookedconfused,Shikha hadnochoice.“Iwasabouttosaydhobikakuttanaghar kanaghaatka.”Roughlyandpolitely translated,neitherherenorthere.

“Nowdon’tyoudaretakeoutyourtabSi,”Preetiwarned.“Ican’ttakeanotherpostgoingviral.”

“What,youthinkI’mcrazy?Thisonehastraumatizedmeenough.Idon’tevenlogintoFBorTwitter

anymore.”Siyashuddered.

“AnypeepfromTapan,thetoad?”PreetishiftedthetopictoSiya.

“Yeah,hethinksIpostedthelisttotakerevengeagainsthim.”Theothertworolledtheireyes.Men

andtheiregos!“Isaidyes,thelistwasaimedathim.Mostimportantlythefirstthreepoints.”

“Waytogogirl!”ShikhaclappedandPreetiblewanairkiss.

Shikha’sphonerangbeforetheconversationcouldcontinue.“Hello?”

Aslightlyfamiliarghostlywhisperspoke.“Youwon’tgetthemanbutyouwilldie!”

Thelinewentdead.Furyrolledthroughher.Whatthehell!Thatwasthesecondtimethatday.She

quicklypressedthecallbackbuttonandjustthenSiya’sphonerang.Shewatchedherfriend’sfaceturn

redandthenwhite.Andbeforeshecouldaskher,Preeti’sphonerangandthenextmomentevenshe

woreasimilarexpression.

“Igotthiscallthismorningtoo,”allthreechorusedatthesametime.

“What’shappeninghere?”Shikhaasked,frowning.Worryslowlyreplacingdismay.

“Withthekindofcreepsthatarepoppingupthesedays,whoknowswhosechainwe’veyankedwith

thatthingthatwewrote,”Preetilookedequallyperturbed.

“Ohcomeon!”Siyashookherhead.“That’sjustcrazy.Imeanthingslikethathappeninthemovies.

Ormaybeforsomefamouschicks.We’rethreenormalwomen.”

“Whopostedaratherboldlistofqualitiesthatmenshouldhaveiftheywanttocomeanywherenear

us.”Preetiadded.

“ItcouldbeacrankcallbutIdon’tthinkanyofuscanaffordto brushitoff,”Shikhainsisted. “Someonegotournumbersandhascalledustwice.Saidthesamethingtwice.Itwasthesamething, right?Youwon’tgetthemanbutyou’lldieorsomethinglikethat?”Theothertwonodded.“Soitis relatedtothatpost.Thewordsaretoosimilartobeamerecoincidence.”Shescrolledbacktocheck hercallerlist.“Andhecalledfromtwodifferentnumbers.”

“Ifhegotournumbers,hecouldgetouraddressestoo.”

“Buthowdidhegetournumbersinthefirstplace?”

“Idon’tthinkweshouldthinkaboutthehow.Thefactishegotitandmaybeheknowswherewelive

too,”Shikha’sheartthuddedwiththefirsttraceoffear.

“JaicomesinlateandSiyalivesalone,”Preetivoicedherfears.“Thesecurityinourapartmentsis

notgreatbutatleastit’sthere.ButShik,youlivealoneinthathouse.”

“Aren’tyoutwooverreacting?Gettingscaredlikekidstellingghoststories?”Siyaasked.

“Questioniscanweaffordtobrushitoff.”Shikhasaidinalowvoice.

“Whatdowedonow?”

Allthreelookedateachother,theirmindsdrawingablank.

ChapterSeven

“Canyourcopfriendhelp?”Preetiaskedafterafewnailbitingmoments.

“Yeah,IguessIcanaskhimwhenIgetback Heywait,hegavemehiscardyesterdayandIsavedhis number.”

“Thencallhim.”

“Now?”

“Guys,maybeweshouldjustwait?Itcouldbenothing.”Siyasaiddoubtfully.

“Wecan’tbrushthisincidentasacoincidence,canwe?Itmustbethesameperson.Atleastthecop

willtelluswhattodo.”Preetiinsisted.

Shikha tapped her phone before Reet finished talking. “Uh, Karthik, hi. This is Shikha. Your neighbor.”

“Don’ttellmeyoukickedsomeoneagain!”Thebackgroundscoreaccompanyinghisvoiceindicated thathehadthecompanyofseveralhonking carsandbikes.Probablystuckintraffic,aswasthe Bangalorenormduringweekends.

“No.BecauseI’monthephonewiththepersonIreallywanttokick,”camehersweetreply,making

himlaughoutloud.

“Sowhat’sthisabout?”

“We,myfriendsandIhavegottenafewcrankcallssincethismorning.Someguysayingthatwe

won’tgetthemanbutwewilldie.”

Everytraceofhumorgotwipedoutofhistone.“Whereareyourightnow?”heaskedquietly.

Shenamedtherestaurant.“Iknowwe’reprobablypanicking for no reasonbuttheywerefrom differentnumbers.Landline.”

“Givemethenumbersfromwhichyougotthecall,”heorderedinwhatshecouldonlytermashis copvoice.Allthreeofthemcheckedtheirphones.Shikhamessagedthemtohisphone.“OK.Gotit,” hesaid.“Keepyourcellphoneswithyou.Imeanwithyou.Notinyourhandbagsorcarsorbeside your beds.Inyour pockets.Always.Makesurethey’renotdischargedatanypointof time.Put someoneyouabsolutelytrustinthespeeddial.”

“Speeddial.OK.”Snatchingapapernapkinshestartedjottingdownhisinstructions.

“Didhisvoicesoundfamiliar?”hisquestionwasclear.Hemusthavemovedawayfromthetraffic.

Sherepeatedthequestion.BothPreetiandSiyashooktheirheads.“No.Itwaslikealoudwhisper.

Soundedweird.Kindofraspy.Anditwasjustonesentence.Hedidn’tevenwaittohearourreply.”

“Anybackgroundnoisesthatyoucanidentifywith?”

“No.AsIsaidthecalllastedbarelyforafewseconds.”

“Wheredoyourfriendslive?”Switchingthephonetothespeakermode,shegavehimtheareaand

apartmentdetails.“Dotheyhavefamilies?”

“Siya’sparentsliveinAhmedabadandPreetiismarried,nokidsandin-lawsdon’tlivehere.”

“Shikha,listentome,I’mrightnowinthemiddleofsomethingnasty.Iprobablywon’tbehome

tonightoreventomorrow.ButIwilllookintothis,Ipromiseyou.Anduntilwefindoutwhodidthis

andwhy,youthreebecareful,youhearme?”

“You’resupposedto tellmeI’macrazycowardfor thinking ofworstcasescenarios,”shesaid nervously.Her gazedartedaroundtherestaurant.Theyhadchosenacorner table,awayfromthe crowdandnooneseemedtobepayinganyattentiontothem.

“Iwon’tsaythat.Notwhenitconcernsyoursafety.Donotletanyoneintoyourhousesexceptfamily

andthefriendsthatyouabsolutelytrustwithyourlife.Don’tgetinthecarwithanyone.Ifyourcar

breaksdown,lockyourselfinsideandcallforhelp.Carryapepperspraywithyouanddonottake

helpfromstrangers.Keepthedoorsandwindowsofyourhouselocked.IfI’mnotwrong,Siya’s

apartmentisfairlynew.Tellhertoinformthesecuritytokeepaneyeoutforstrangers.Preetishould

giveinstructionsnottosendanyoneintoherapartmentunlesstheycallaheadthroughtheintercom.

Notevenamaintenanceguy.Isthatunderstood?”

“Yes,yes,weunderstand.”

“Andyou.Whenareyourparentsgoingtobeback?”

“Inaboutthreeweeks.”

Heswore.“Isawtheburglaralarmatyourplacetheotherday.Doesitwork?”

“Itdoes.”

“Startusingit.Youhearme?”

“Yes.IpromiseI’lluseit.”

“Yourglasswindowshaveirongrillontheoutside.Sotheyshouldbesafe.Slidetheglasswindows andcurtainsshut.Switchonallthelightsinthehallandkitchenandalsoinother bedroomsthat you’renotusing.Itwouldgiveanimpressionthattherearemorepeopleinthehouse.Playsome music.I’llmakesureapatrollingjeepmakesacoupleofroundsandI’llbebackassoonasIwrap thisoneup.”Shecouldhearhiminhaledeeply.“Itcouldbesomethingoritcouldbenothingbutdon’t takethechance.”

“Butyouthinkit’ssomething,don’tyou?That’swhyyou’regoingallcoponme.”

Areluctantchuckleescapedhim.“IfIhadbeengoingallcoponyouIwould’vetoldthethreeofyou

tospendthenightatPreeti’shouse.Ijustwantyoualltobecareful.Preetiji,yourhusbandisintown,

right?”

“Yes.HiKarthikanduh,thanksforthesafetytips.”Preetigotherfirstrealsmileoftheday.

“Howthehelldidyouknowthatyou’reonspeaker?”Shikhaglaredatthephone.

Hemadeanoisethatwassomewherebetweenamusementandexasperationbeforesaying,“Don’t

makemegoallcoponyoubyaskingsillyquestions.Siyaji,doyouhaveacar?”

“Abike.”Siyarepliedwithagrin.“HiKarthik.We’veheardquitealotaboutyou.”

Helaughedthatdeep,throatylaughofhisandShikhawassurehewasrunninghisfingeroverhis

BhagatSinghmustache.“Isurewouldbeinterestedtoknowthekindofadjectivessheused.”Preeti

andSiyajoinedthelaughterwhileShikhapokedouthertongue.“Don’tparkyourbikeintheusual

spot.Parkitsomewherewhereit’snotclearlyvisible.Don’twalkinthebasement.Takeonlywell-lit

paths.I’llkeepShikhapostedonthedevelopments.Youalltakecare,OK?”Bothofthemchorused

theiragreement.“Takemynumberfromher.”

Fear subsidedandappetitetookthefrontseatasshestartedonthemaincourse.“I’llgivethem,” ShikhasaidoveramouthfulofPadThainoodles.

“KeepyourselfsafeformeuntilIreachyouShikhaBose.”Andthelinewentdead.

Temporarilyreassured,theyrelaxedandtheatmospherelightened.PreetiandSiyaexchangedlooks

asifdecidingwhoshouldgofirst.Siyatooktheplunge.“Ican’tbelieveyouthoughtthatguywasa

drunkjerk!Icouldgetdrunkonhisvoicealone!”

Shikhaglowered,thengrinned.“Youshouldseehimwithhisscowlandinthoseold,tatteredjeans

andwrinkledshirtwithbloodshoteyesandunshavenface.Butyeah,hedoesclean-upprettywell,”she

added.Infact,hewasdroolworthyinhiscopuniform.Andshortsandt-shirt.Butshedidn’tsharethat

titbitwithherfriends.

“Ishegoodlooking?”Siyaprobedmischievously,thecrankcallalreadydelegatedtothebackofher

mind.Itwasjustprobablysomenutcasehacker.Ignoreandhewillstop,sheconcludedandbrushedit

off.

“HelooksalittlelikethatTamilactorSurya.Onlytallerandmoremuscular.”Shikharolledhereyes

asPreetistartedfanningherselfandSiyapretendedtoswoon,almostfallingfacedowninherfried

rice.“SinceTapan,thetoad,isnolongerinthepicture,youarewelcometotryyourluckwiththis

guy,”shesaid,wavingherforkasifgrantingpermission,ignoringthegreeneyesmonsterpoking

holesinherfromalldirections.

ItwasSiya’sturntoscoff.“Whenthatguyhasthehotsforyou?Thanksbutnothanks.”WhenShikha

lookedheavenward,sheadded,“Youdon’tneedtobeapsychetoknowthatMsBose!”

Preetinoddedinagreement.“KeepyourselfsafeformeuntilIreachyouShikhaBosesaiditall.Why

areyounotreadytoevenconsiderhim?”

“BecauseIhavezerointerestininvestingmyemotionalenergyonsomethingthat’snotgoingtoget

meanything.”

“Thebrokenengagementswerenotyourfault.”Preetisaidgently.

“Iknowthat.Ofcourse,Iknowthat.”Shikhalookedaway.Shehatedtalkingaboutit,evenifitwas withherbestfriends.“Ijustmeanthat look thethreeofthemhadeverything.Horoscopesmatched,

familieslikedeachother,samefinancialstatus,samecaste,samesect,sameeverything.Iftheydidn’t workout girls,comeon,heisaSouthIndianBrahmin.Hismothercouldn’taccepthischoiceof profession.YouthinkshewouldacceptagirlfromaBengalifamily?Ifheiseveninterested,thatis,” sheadded.

“Youdon’teatnon-vegna,”Siyapondered.

“YeahbutI’manexceptioninmyfamilyandmybrothersarestilltryingtoconvertme.It’snotjust

aboutthefood.Look,firstly,Idon’tknowifhe’sinterested.”

“Ohheis.”Preetisaid,brushingherlonghairbackinasmooth,elegantstroke.

“Second”ShikhacontinuedasifPreetihadn’tspoken.“Idon’twanttobeinterestedinhim.”

“Youmaynotwanttobutyouare,”Siyawinked,exchangingfistbumpswithPreeti.

“Ha,ha,ha,veryfunny,”Shikhasaid,flappingherhandslikewings.“Butseriously,girls,becareful

andmarkyourattendanceintheWhatsAppgroupanddon’tforgetyoupeppersprays.”

****

Frustrationaddedanewdimensiontohatredandfury.Itmadetheeyesredderandthetickonthejaw wasalmostapermanentfixture.Aswasthepacing.Everythinghadbeenplannedsometiculously. ShikhalivedalonebecauseherparentswerevisitingherbrotherandSiyatoolivedalone.Ohyeah, shehadhadathinggoingwithaguybutapparentlyshehadbrokenoffwithhim.APSgossipwas prettyreliableifonepaidattentiontoit.Poorguywastriedanddiscarded.Herapartmentsecurity waslaughable.Theyhadn’teveninstalledtheCCTVcameraswhichwereacompulsorythingthese days.Preeti.NowthathadbeendifficulttothinkandplanbecausePreeti’sapartmentcomplexwas hugeandguestshadtosignandallthatnonsense.Butwherewasitwrittenthatshehadtobekilledin her home?Bottomline was she hadtodie.They all hadtodie.Unlike the previous girls,mere threateningorhurtingwillnotdo.Thesethreeweredifferent.Whattheydidhurt.Thebitcheswill learntheirlesson.Willknowhowmuchithurttoreadthattrashoftheirs.Andtheywillpaywiththeir lives.

Yetnothingworkedoutasperplan.Twonightswasted.FridaynightandSaturdaynight.Shikhahad someguestsover.Lightshadbeenonalloverthehouseandmusicwasheard.Nottheloudblaring kindbutmoreintunewithfamilygatherings.Andthepatrolvanshadbeenanaddedhurdle.Siya’s apartmentlightshadbeenoffandherbikewasmissingfromitsspot.Wheredidshego?Wasshe tryingoutsomeoneelseforsize?Thatmustbeit.KnockingonPreeti’sdoorwasanywayruledoutand thatbitchdidn’tcomeoutofherapartmentonSaturday.Dedicatingthedaysandnightstoteachthem alessonwasregrettablynot possible.Therewereresponsibilities.Obligations.Family.Familyof coursecamefirst.Butthiscan’tgoon.Somethinghadtobedone.

****

“PCOs?”ShikhastoppedherruntostareatKarthik.“Ididn’tknowtherewereanyofthoseanymore.I

meanevenmymaidhasacellphone.Hell,eventheguywhocomesintobuyoldnewspapershasa

cellphone.”

Withafirmhandonherback,hegotherrunningagain.“Yeah.Thisoneisnotatraditionalone.More

likeasmallgroceryshop.Apparentlypeoplesometimescomeintomakecalls.Andno,nocameras.

Twodifferentareas,twodifferentshops,neitherofwhichhadanykindofsecuritycameras.”Hearing

hersighinfrustration,heasked,“Didyougetanymorecalls?”

Sheshookherhead.“MylandlinerangafewtimesbutgotdisconnectedwhenIpickedup.Doyou

thinksomeonewasplayingaprank?Straightanswerplease.”

“It’sastrongpossibility.”

“WhydoIhearabutintheresomewhere?”

“I’velearnednottoignoremygutfeelings,”hesaidwithashrug.

“Andyourgutsaysthisoneisnotacrankcall.”

Hegaveabriefnod.“One,whythePCOs?Whynotjustaprepaidcellphone?Two,yousaidyouguys

don’tdisplayanyofyourcontactinfointhesocialmediasohowdidthisguygetyournumber?He

couldbeahackerofcoursebutagain,asyousaid,you’reextracareful.Youdidn’tenteryourphone

numberanywhere.Howdidhegetit?Three,disguisingimpliesyouwouldrecognizethevoiceif

spokennormally.Soit’ssomeoneyoumightknow.”Hewaitedaheartbeatbeforeasking,“Thecalls

toyourlandline.Didtheothertwogetthemtoo?”

“I’llask.”

“Howarethey?”

“Fine.Siyaspentherthelasttwonightsandyesterdaywithhercousinwholivescloseby.Preetihas

someissuesgoingoninherpersonallifesoprettymuchstayedathome.”Theystoppedoncethey

reachedhisgate.“Thanksforthepatrolvansanduh,well,thanksforeverything.”

Headtiltedalittletotheside,hestudiedherintently.“Youdon’thavetothankmeforanything.I

didn’tdoitforyou,Ididitformyself.IneverwanttoseeShikhaBosescared.Ofanything.Or

anyone.”

Shikhaswallowedandforcedherselftolookaway.“Yousaidyouwereinthemiddleofsomething

nasty.Allwrappedupnow?”

“Thingsdon’tgetwrappedupsofast,especiallywhenthesuspectlistisamilelong.”

“Don’tyougetfrustratedbythiswholesystem?Theloopholesinthelaw,thedelayinjustice Imean ”

“Ican’taffordtogetfrustrated.Myfocusisonthecriminal.Incatchinghimandmakingsureheor

witnessesdieorgetsoldout,evidencedisappears,lawyerspushfortrialsandretrials

shedoesn’tdoitagain.Idon’tlookattheloopholes.Ilookatthecasesthataresolveddespitethe

loopholes.Casesthatslidethroughthemarerememberedbutpeoplereadthesolvedones,saygood

riddanceandforget.Youknowhowmanyterroristattackshavehappenedinthiscountrybutyou

don’tknowhowmanywe’vemanagedtostopbecausethosethingsnevercomeout.”Hegestured

towardstheroadandchangedthetopic.“Wanttohavebreakfast?Wecangotothatnewplacea

coupleofstreetsaway.”

Notwantingtocomeacrossasanadmiring,besottedfool,sheforcedhergazeawayfromhim.Itwas

justbreakfast,shetoldherself.“Letmedunkmyselfintheshowerandwe’llmeetinfifteenminutes?”

Henodded.“Ohafterthatdinner,it’syourturntopayandIwantmasaladosa.”Sheranintothehouse

withhislaughterfollowingher.

****

Preeti adjustedher hands-free to peekinto her refrigerator.Never mindthatsomeone outthere probablywantedtooutherandherfriends.Nevermindthathermarriagewasfallingapartatseams. Shestillhadtoeat.Andthatmeantshehadtocook.

“Landline.Yeah, I’ve gota fewof those too,” she said to Shikha.“No one spoke though.Just disconnectedthemomentIpickeditup.AndJaipickedupacoupleofthosehang-upcallstoo.”

“Speakingofwhom,howisthatsituationReet?”

Preetigrabbedafewveggiesandthrewthemonthecounterbeforestraighteningandrubbingher

forehead.“Nochange.Myheadispounding.IthinkitallfinallyhitmelastnightandIcrieduntilI

wassick.JaiknockedonmydoorafewtimesbutIdidn’topen.LastthingIwantedatthatmoment

wastohashoutorplaymoreblamegames.”

“Didyoutellhimaboutthesethreateningcalls?”

“Yeah.Thismorning.Helaugheditoff,”sheshookherheadandsighed.“Saiditmustbesomeone

whomustbeaspissedoffashehadbeenwhenhehadreadthatfuckingpost.Quote,unquote.”

“Well,thatsomeoneknowsourcellnumbersandnowthelandlinestoo.Heshouldthinkaboutthat,”

Shikharemarkeddrily.“Siisgoingtobeathercousin’sthroughtheweekendorwhat?”

“Nah.Shejustgotbackhome,”Preetirepliedaftercheckingthemessages.“Markedherattendancein thegroupandupdatedher plans.Apparentlyher cousinwasouttoattendsomefriend’swedding. What’syoursituationwithKarthikIyer?”

Shikhamadeasoundatthebackofherthroat.“He’sbackfromwhereverhehadbeenthelastcouple

ofdays,wewentforourrun,hemademerunmorethantheusual,”shesaid,groaningandstretching.

“DamnwhatIwouldn’tgiveforamassage.”

Preetigiggled.“I’msurehe’llprovidethattooifyouaskhim.”

“Andwe hadbreakfastafter that,” she continued,completelyignoring her friend’s not-so-subtle comment,makingPreetigigglesomemore.“He’stakingthesecallsprettyseriouslyReet.”

“Butbottomlineisthereisnothingmuchhecandounlesswhoeveriscallingtalkingleavesussome

cluesorgetscaughtintheact.”

“Yeah,”Shikhaagreedglumly.“Chalo,youtakecareandkeepmeposted.I’lltalktoSioncemy

phonegetscharged.”

“OK.”Preetiendedthecallandsighedinreliefasoneoftheboxesthatshehadpulledoutofthe

fridgehadtheaataready.“ThankyouShanti,”shemurmured.Hermaiddidfollowtheinstructions

mostofthetime.

“Sowhat’syourfriendsaying?”

PreetidartedaquickglanceatJai,whowasleaningagainstthekitchendoorwaybeforegoingbackto

choppingthevegetables.“Shehasbeengettingthoseblankcallstoherlandlinetoo.”

“Youthreearedriving eachother crazyconjuring upallkindsofnonsense,”Jai’svoicewasas derisiveastheexpressiononhisface.

“She’sneighborswithaDCP.Apparentlyevenhedoesn’tthinkthreateningcallsarefunny.Heis

investigating.”

Jaiwaveditaway.“Neighbor.Probablytryingtoimpressandshowoff.Youremindmeofpeople coming outafter watching Omenmovie.Scaredoftheir ownshadows,”hesaidwithasarcastic snicker.

“Atleastheisnotlaughingatthethoughtthatsomeoneoutthereisthreateningtokillme,”shereplied

inadeadpanfaceandtone.“Ithoughtyouhadacall?”Jaiglancedattheclockandsworesoftly

beforestridingofftowardsthestudy.

****

“Yeah,everythingissilentonthisend.”Siyasaidstretchingherfeetonthecouch.“Noideaofthe

landlinethoughbecauseIwasnotthere.Maybewhoeveritwasgottiredofhisownbullshitandgave

up.Yougirlspanickedfornoreason.”

“Maybe. Both my phones have been creep-free since morning,” Shikha agreed with cautious optimism.“Ihaveabreakfastmeetingtomorrowwiththewholeteamregardingsomebudgetcuts,” shegavetheunpleasantnews,effectivelyshovingthetopicawayforthetimebeing.

“Youbetternotbecuttingmybonus,”Siyawarned.

“Ifthingsdon’tpickupsoon,expectcutseverywheremydear.UntilthebigbossmansaysMogambo

khushhua,everythingisupintheair,”Shikhareplied,referringtotheirCEOwhowasfamousforhis

exacting,impossiblestandards.

“Theregoesmybonusthen.Raamnaamsatyahain!”Bothofthemcackled.“How’syourhothero?”

Gruntingunderherbreath,sherepeatedtheincidentsshehadupdatedtoPreetithatafternoonbefore

asking,“Andyourneighbor?StillsilentIpresume?”

“Thatremindsme,Iwentapartmenthuntingwithmycousinyesterday.Foundacouplethatarealmost

nexttoAPS.Ithinkit’stimeImovedoutShik,”shesaidquietly.

“Iagree.Makeaclean,completebreakoff.Si,youdeservesomeonemuchbetter.”

“Shik,it’snotthateasyforme.Ican’tjustletgoandturnthetapoffmyfeelingslikethat.EverydayI

wakeup,myfirstthoughtisabouthim.IkeepthinkingifIhadbeenpatientmaybe

“Si,”ShikhasighedSiya’sname.Siyawasthesoftestamongthethree.Shehadamushyheartand

alwayslookedforthebestinothers.“Youwon’tbemovingoutofthecity.Justoutoftheimmediate

vicinity.Andit’snotenoughifonlyoneofyouwantstherelationship,right?Ifdistancehelpsandhe

seesthelight,heknowshowtocontactyou.I’llseeifIcangetoutoftheworkalittleearlytomorrow

andwe’llgo,checkoutthoseapartmentsandfinalizeone.OK?”

“WhatwillItellmomanddad?”

“JustsaythenewoneiswalkingdistancetoAPS.Itwouldsaveyoutimeandfuel.Itwouldbethe

truth,wouldn’tit?”Thatwasanothercommonthingthatboundthethreeofthem.Theyneverlikedto

lietothenearanddear.Evadethetruth,yes.Outrightlie,no.

Siyainhaleddeeplyandsurrendered.“OK,fine.Done.We’llgoandfinalizetomorrow.”

“Goodnightbuds.”

“Goodnightbuds.”Siyacutthecallandsawthattherewasamessage.Sheclickeditopen.Itwasfrom

Tapan.

Ithoughtaboutwhatyousaidtheotherday.Youareright.I’vebeenanassandI’msorry.Butifyou

givemeanotherchanceIpromise,I’llmakeituptoyou.IwanttotalktoyouSiya.Reallytalk.Please.

Sheblinkedandsatupinshock.Tapanwasapologizing?Hewantedtotalk?Herdoorbellrangbefore

shecouldprocesstheinformation.Shestaredatthedoorindisbelief.Hewasn’tevengivinghertime

tothinkbeforehecameknocking!Wipinghersuddenlydamppalms,sheinhaleddeeplyandquickly

ranherhandthroughherhair,wishingshehadtakentimetowashit.Justasquicklyshepushedaway

thatthought.Heshouldlikeherforwhoandwhatshewas.Notjustbecauseshelookedbeautifulor

dressedinacertainway.Inhalingdeeplysheopenedthedoor.

ChapterEight

Killinghadbeenoverwhelming.Ithadnotbeeneasy.Ithadbeentoughandtiring.Anddraining.Even a little bit scary. But the wild rush of joy, the sense of achievement had been ecstatic. It made everythingworthwhile.Mostimportantly,itbroughtbackthesleepthathadremainedelusiveuntil then.Deep,dreamlesssleep.Nowtheeyesinthemirrorwereclearandbright.Mindwasfresh.Timeto getreadyandgotowork.APSwouldprobablybebuzzingwiththenews.Thethoughtbroughta frightenedfrown.Wouldanyoneknow?No,ofcoursenot.Howwouldanyoneknow?Therewereno cluesleftbehind.Everythingthatwasusedhasbeenbroughtback.Thefrowncleared.KillingSiyahad beennecessary.Therehadn’tbeenanychoice.Eyesclosedtoreliveeverymomentoftheprevious night.Theshockinthebitch’seyes,thecrunchingsoundastherodconnectedwithherhead,the flailingoflegsastheropetightenedaroundherneck.Theknifewasjusttomakesure.Butitwasthe onethatgavethemostthrill.Thesensationofthesharpbladediggingintothebody,messingwiththe organs.Therehadbeennomovementthough.Siyahadn’tfeltthepain.Theropehaddonethejob.The nextonewouldhavetobeplannedbetter.Ohthiswassomuchbetterthanscaringthoseschoolgirls offorthreateningthemeanbitchesincollege.Thisonetookawayalittleofthehatred.Itworkedand waswaymorepowerful.Yes.Power.Thatwaswhathadbeenmissingbefore.Notanymorethough.Not anymore.Onedown,twotogo.Onedown,twotogo.Feettappedinsyncwiththelyricalwordsas fingersgrabbedandpulledalightbrownshirtfromthehanger.Onedown,twotogo-o-o.Onedown, twotogo-o-o.

****

MondaymorningShikhawashummingtoherselfassheenteredtheliftandpressedthebuttonthat wouldtakehertoherflooratAPS.Shehadtoacceptit.Hermorningsweredefinitelybetterthese days.Uninterruptedsleep,well,reasonablyuninterrupted.Thelightsandmusicwerestillon,although onlowkey.Butshehadworkedherwayaroundit.Shekeptoneroomdarkanduseditforsleeping. Sinceshewasnotblaringherspeakerswithrockband,themusicdidn’tbotherher.She,infact,liked it.Founditsoothing andrelaxing.Andlastbutmostdefinitelynottheleast,her earlymorning exerciseregime.Thatmorningherphonealarmhadpingedatitsusualtimeandasusualshehad snoozedit.Butthenextmomentithadstartedringing.Eyesstillclosed,shemutteredasleepy,“‘lo.”

“TimeforourrunShikhaBose.Moveit,”camethevoicefromtheotherend.

Shehadblinkedandsatup.“W-what?”

“Iplantorunacoupleofextrakilometerstodayandyou’recomingwithme.Bereadyinfive.”

“GoddammitKarthik!”

“Goodmorningtoyoutoo,”hehadlaughed.Hehadactuallylaughedathercursebeforeendingthe

call.

Andshehadbeenoutofhergateinsixminutes.Notbadatallconsideringshehadansweredthe

naturecall,brushedherteeth,changedhert-shirtandgotonhersocksandshoes.Theydidrunthose

extrakilometerstoo.Butshecouldtellhelookedtiredandfrustratedaboutsomething.Thatnasty

businesshe’dmentionedwasprobablystillon.Shedidn’tpressfordetailsandhedidn’tofferthem.

Hersilentcompanionshipmusthaveworkedbecausebythetimetheystoppedforsomecoffeeinone

ofthoseroadsidestalls,hehadbeenbacktohisusualself.Whichwasacombinationofaheroanda

jerk.

Shehadfeltwideawakeandquiterefreshedasshegotreadyinoneofhermostfavoriteworkoutfits.

Creamcoloredtrouserswithablackfullhandsshirt.Thecuffswhenrolleduponcehadthesame

creamcolorontheinsideashertrousersandsodidtheinsideofhercollar.Atancoloredthinbelt

aroundherwaistandablackstrappedwristwatch.Ohandthickgoldearringloops.Shesighedin

satisfactionasshesteppedintothefoyerthatledtotheconferenceroom.Shewasthefirstone.She

didlikebeingthefirst.Gettingajumpstartontherestofthelazybones,shethoughtwithagrin.As

shewalkedthroughthefoyer,shecrossedpathswithPatel.

“HiPatel,howzitgoing?”sheaskedwithagrin.

“Uh,what,yeah,fine,OK,”hemumbleddistractedlybeforeduckingintotheelevator,hisfingers

busyonhistab.HergrinturnedintoachucklewhensherememberedPatel’scommenttoReetasking

herhowtojackoff.Hedidtakegeekinesstonewlevels.

Therewasanothergoodnewsthatday.Shehadcomeacrossquiteafewofhercolleaguesonherway totheelevatorsandeveninthecarparkarea.Nonehadmentionedorevenhintedatthedamnpost. Maybethecrazinesswasdyingdownandpeoplehavefinallymovedontosomethingnew,Shikha thought,silentlycrossingherfingers.Nonastycallstoherphoneandnosnidecommentstoherface. Sofar,sogood.ThebudgetmeetingtooklongerthanusualandeveryoneincludingtheCEOwas gladwhenitfinallyended.Hewasnothappybutneitherwashepissedoffenoughtoslashofftheir paychecksinhalf.Butnomorenewrecruitmentsunlesstheperformanceandprofitgraphspickedup inthenextcoupleofmonths.HRwasso notgoing to behappyrescheduling andcancelling the campusinterviews,Shikhathoughtwithagrimace,asshewentbacktoherseat.

AndthatremindedherthatsheandSiyaweregoingtogoapartmenthuntingthatevening.Frowning,

shetookoutherphone.Afterhavingsaidherhellointheirgroup,shehadputitinthesilentmode

andgonetothemeeting.Thehellowasasignalthatshewasaliveandkicking.Preetihadputona

raisedhandemoticonmarkingherattendancealittleafterthatbutsofarnoSiya.Frowndeepening,

shecalledhernumber.Itrangforaboutsixtimesbeforegoingtothevoicemail.Shakingawayher

uneasiness,sheleftamessage.

“Si,whereareyou?Callmeatthefirstchanceyouget.”

Herinboxpoppedupwithanewmessageregardinganupcominginvestors’meetandbeforeshe

knewitwaslunchtimeandstillnowordfromSiya.ButtherewasamessageinthegroupfromPreeti

askingwhereSiyahasdisappeared.Bitingherlip,shemadeherwaytotheHRdepartment.Siya’sseat

wasemptyandhermanagerhadbeentryingtoreachhersincemorning.Heartthuddingloudlyinher

ears,shecalledPreeti.

“Reet,Siyadidn’tturnuptowork.”

Preeti soundedequallyperturbed.“Itriedboththemobile andlandlinenumbers Shik.She’s not answering.Hopeshedidn’thaveanaccidentorsomethingonthewaytowork.”

“Or ”Bothofthembecamesilentasneitherwantedtovoicetheirincreasingterror.

“OK,let’snotgetaheadofourselves.Bestcasescenarioisshelostherphoneandisprobablystuckin

trafficsomewhereorbikegaveaproblem.Worstcasescenarioisshehadsomeaccidentandisina

hospital.”Preetisaid,makingherwaytotheelevatorsthatwouldtakehertothecanteen.“I’llmeet

youatthecanteen.”

“I’mcomingthere.IthinkI’llcallKarthik.Hemightbeabletohelpus.”SheendedPreeti’scalland

speeddialedKarthik’snumber.“Hey,sorrytodisturbyou.”

“Icoulduseabreak,”camehisreply.

“Listen,it’sprobablynothingbutwe’renotabletocontactSiya.Shehasn’tcometowork,notpicking upherphone maybeshewasinanaccidentorsomething.Howdowecheckthehospitalsandstuff? Whatdowedo?”

“Whereareyounow?”

Hehadthatcopvoiceon.Shikharuefullywonderediftheyhadsomekindofspecialtrainingforthat

too.“Atwork.”

“Preeti?”

“Atwork,”sherepeated.

“I’llcheckwiththetrafficpolice.MessagemehercompleteaddressandI’llhavesomeonecheckher apartment. Stay put until you hear from me. Don’t go anywhere alone. Either of you. Is that understood?”

“Yes.”Herthroatworkedassheswallowed.“Karthik,shewouldbefine,right?”

“I’llletyouknow.Takecareofyourselfforme.”Karthikdidn’ttaketimetothinkaftertalkingto Shikha.Evenasanewrecruitinthepolicedepartment,he’dlearntnottodiscounthisgutanditwas screamingathimthatShikhawasnotoverreacting.Shewasnotthetypetopanicovernothingeither. He swiped his finger on his phone.“Salim, I’m sending you one address.Itcomes under your jurisdiction.Iwantyoutogoandcheckitoutbutdon’tgoalone.”

SalimknewKarthiklongenoughtonotwastetimeaskingquestions.“Wantmetobreakin?”

“Ifthedoorisnotanswered,thenyes.Callmewhenyouknowsomething.”

Aquickcheckathisphone,hesawShikhahadsenthimSiya’sbikename,modelandregistration

number.Hepassedthemontothetrafficsectionandaskedthemtolethimknowofanyaccidents

involvingthetwowheelerandthewoman.FortyfiveminutesaftercallingSalim,hisfriendcalled

back.“Boss,doyouknowthiswoman?”

Karthikstrodetowardsthepolicejeep.“Isshealive?”

“No.Karthik,it’sbad.Doyouknowthiswoman?”herepeatedhisquestion.

Scribblingtheareanametothedriver,heswitchedonthesirens.“I’venevermetherbutI’vespoken

toher.”Heslammedhisfistonthedashboard.“Dammit!Itoldhertobecareful.SheisShikha’s

friend.”TyresscreechedandhornsblaredastheScorpiocutthroughthetraffic.

“It’sbeenmorethantwelvehoursismyguess.”

“COD?”

“Toughtosay.I’vecalleditin.Doesshehaveanyfamily?”

“HerparentsliveinAhmedabad.ShehasacousinsomewhereinBangalorebutrightnowisoutof

townattendingsomewedding.”

“WewouldneedyourShikhatoidentifythebodythen,”Salimsaidquietly.“I’llstarttalkingtothe

neighbors.Askthemiftheysaworheardanything.”

Karthikclosedhiseyes.Dammit!Dammit!Dammit!“I’llbethereinafew.”

KarthikandSalimremainedsilentasthemedicalpersonnelshiftedthebodyintothewaitingvan.Siya hadlivedinasinglebedroomapartmentconsistingofasmallhallcumdiningarea,kitchenanda bedroomwithattachedbath.Nothinglookedoutoftheplace.Siyahadonewholewallofherhall filledwithphotoframes.Siyawithherparents,SiyawithShikhaandPreetionherbirthdayprobably withthecakeonthetableandthethreeofthemwiththosejauntybirthdaycapsontheirheadsand huge grins on their faces.Another one was probably during office Christmas party.They were wearingreddresses,withtheirglassesraisedinatoast.Anotheronewasofthreeofthemintheir nightwear,laughingintothecamera,probablytakenatShikha’shouse.Herecognizedthefurniture.

KarthikandSalimlookedatthemarkingsinthehall.Herbodyhadbeenlaidsprawled.Karthikhad

Siya’sphonewithhim.HehadreadShikha’sandPreeti’smessagesintheirgroup.Thelatestonesaid,

I’vecalledKarthikandifIknowhimright,he’sgoingtohavesomeoneatyourplaceasap.Ifyou’re

hurtSi,sittight.Someonewillbetheretohelpyoushortly.Therewereacoupleofmissedcallsfrom

Siya’smomandacouplefromsomeonenamedTapan.TherewasamessagefromTapantoowanting

totalktoher.Dammit!

“Whatareyouthinking?”Karthikasked.Hepushedhisfeelingsout.Justasheignoredtheodor.Lots ofpeopleknewthatdeadbodiessmelledbad.Butheknewfromexperiencethatthesmellvaried dependingonthestageofdecomposition.Freshlydeadbutintacttheysmelledofmeat. Disrupted theysmelledofbowel,stomachandbladdercontent.Burnedtheysmelledthesamebutwithaporky barbequetang. Decomposedtheysmellsweetlycheesyinanoverpoweringlysickly,vomit-inducing way.Thisonewasacombinationofdisruptionanddecomposition.Thefirsttimehehadwitnesseda similarscene,hehadpukedhisgutsout.Themedicalexaminerhadrolledhiseyesandhustledhim awayfromthemortuary.Nowhewasabloodyexpertintuningouthisfeelingsalongwiththeodor andtuninghisobjectivityin.

“Thatwhoeverdidthis,it’safirstforhim.”Asusual,Salim’sthoughtsransimilartohisown.They

oftencompletedeachother’ssentencesandalwayshadeachother’sbacks.Nomatterwhat.Thatkind

oftrustintheirprofessionwasrare.Andprecious.Andneitherhadtoworryabouttreadingonthe

other’sterritory.

Karthikwalkedaroundthemarkings,seeingthebodyinhismind’seye.“Headinjury,knifewounds,

strangulation.It’sasifhecouldn’tdecidewhattodoorhowtokill.Hatredandragedrovehimuntil

thatpointbutheprobablydidn’trealizetheeffortitrequirestoactuallytakealife.Tokilltheobject

ofhishatred.”

“Yup.”Salimpointedtotheplacebesidethedoor.“Heprobablyhitherontheheadassoonasshe closed the door behind her.Whoever itwas, she knewhim, opened the door for him.She fell

unconsciousprobablyorjustdownonherknees.Hethendraggedherhere,”theyfollowedtheblood

trialthatstoppedinthemiddleofthehall.“Triedstranglingbeforegoingfortheknife.Orusedthe

knifefirst?”

“Ortriedtheknifefirst,thenswitchedtostranglingandswitchedbacktoknife.”

“Orstrangledandlaterusedtheknifejusttobesure.Orforthehellofit.Wewon’tknowuntilweget

thepostmortemreport.Shehadhernightieonsocan’tsayaboutsexualassault.”

IfthebastardleftanyDNAonher,hewasnailed.“It’sgoingtohitShikhahard,”hemuttered.“Ihave totellher.Shehastoidentifythebody,notifySiya’sparents dammit!Itoldthemtobecareful.Itold ”

them

“Them?”Salimfrowned.“IstheresomethingIshouldknow?Thisisnotasmallthing.Thecrowd

withinthissmallapartmentcomplexhasbeenrelativelyeasytohandlesofarbutoncethereporters

enterthefield

“Yeah,”hecouldseethecircus.“I’lltelleverythingIknowtonight.Comebymyhouseonceyou’re done here. Meanwhile I’ll handle the body identification and see if I can put a rush on the postmortem.”Hepausedbeforeadding,“Thisonemightbethebastard’sfirstandifwedon’tfigure outwhodidthissoon,itwon’tbehislast.”

“DammitKarthik,thatissonotreassuring.IfIhavetowalkuptotheCommissionerandtellhimthat

wehavesomekindofserialkillerinourhands

“Akillerwithspecifictargets.Fornow.”Becauseonceaguygotthetasteofitandstartedtoenjoyit,

hewouldfindreasonstostrikeagainandagainuntilheisstoppedorkilled.Anditdidn’thelphis

furythatoneofthosespecifictargetswastheoneheloved.Bothofthemsawthenewsvansrolling

downalongtheroad.“Youseetothem.I’moutofhere.”Capinhand,Karthikstrodetowardsthe

waitingjeep.

****

Shikhawasreadytotearherhairout.Lunchtimehadcomeandgone.NeithershenorPreetihadbeen able to swallow a bite. The longer Karthik took in contacting her, the more she got agitated. Something waswrong.Definitelywrong.Shestoppedherselffromcalling him.Ifhewasinthe middleofsavingherfriend,shedidn’twanttodistracthim.Itwasalmostfourthirtyintheeveningby thetimehecalled.

“Youstillatwork?”heaskedwithoutbotheringwithpleasantries.

“Yes,”sheswallowed.Nowhehadcalledandshedidn’twanttoask.Didn’twanttoknow.

“I’mattheAPScarpark.Besideyourcar.CanyouandPreeticomedown?”

Shedidn’twastetimeaskingquestions.“We’llseeyouthereinfiveminutes.”

Havingdiscardedhiscap,hehadpulledonhisblackleatherjacketoverhisuniformshirt.Hewas

leaningagainsthisScorpioandstraightenedwhenShikhaburstintothebasementandstrodetowards

himthemomentshespottedhim.Hereyeswerestarkwithfearasshestudiedhisexpression.Hehad

onhiscopface,anexpressionlessmask,butshewentwhite.

“Tellme,”shewhisperedinachokedvoice.

Hesighedandopenedhisarms.“I’msorryShikha.”

Shestumbledandfellintothemonachokedgasp.Sheclutchedhisjackettight.Hefelthershaking andheldher tighter.“She’s dead,isn’tshe?” she saidina trembling whisper.“Si is dead,” she repeatedonachokedgasp.Itwasn’taquestion.Sheknew.

****

Shikhahadcriedsomuchhereyeswereswollenalmostshut.Karthiksimplyheldhertightthrough

thestormofweepinginthebasementcarparkofAPS.Thenshehadgainedabitofcontroluntil

Preetiranuptothemandithadstartedalloveragain.Karthik,thistime,hadgentlybutfirmlyhustled

themintohisjeepandtoldthedrivertotakeofffromthepremises.Hedidn’twanttodrawattentionto

thewomen.Theysatinthebackwhilehetooktheseatbesidethedriver,heldontoeachotherand

criedfortheirfriend.

“W-weneedtocallher p-parents,”Shikha’svoicewasthickasshefumbledfor atissue.Karthik extendedtheboxthatwasinthejeep.Shepulledoutafewandblewhernoseandwipedherface. Preetigrabbedtheresttodothesame.

“Ishercousinbackfromthewedding?”Karthikaskedinthatquietvoiceofhis.

“I-Idon’tthinkso.Idon’tknow.S-Siyasaidthreedaysandwedon’thavehern-number.”

“IneedtocallJai,”Preetisaid,swipingthescreenofherphone.“HelloJai?”

“I’minameeting,”hisreplywascurtbeforehedisconnectedthecall.

Gritting her teeth,shetappedthecallbackoption.Thistimeshedidn’tgivehimachanceto say anything.“IjustcalledtosaythatmyfriendSiyaisdead.We’reonourwaytoVydehinow.Idon’t knowwhenI’llbehome.”

“W-what?Preeti,wait!”Butshedidn’twait.Justsilencedherphoneandthrewitintoherhandbag.Her

friendwasdead.Shehadnobusinessfeelingbadthatherhusbandhadnotimeforher.Despiteof

everythingthathadgonewrongbetweenthem,shehadwantedhimtobewithher.Wantedhimtohug

herandtellherthathewasthere,thateverythingwouldbealright.

“Ihaveherparents’number,”shesaidtoKarthik.“Shouldwecallthem?Whatdowetell?Howdowe

tell?”Tearsrolleddownhercheeksonceagain.“Siistheironlychild.”

Karthikcouldthinkofnowaytosugarcoatwhatwastobedone.Hetookadeepbreathandturnedto

faceShikha.“Weneedsomeonetoidentifythebodyfirst.”

****

Karthik feltShikha leaning againsthis back, arms wrapped around his waistrelaxing.She was exhaustedandprobablydozing.Heletherrelaxashedrovehisbullettowardstheirhomes.Itwasten fifteenthatnightwhenKarthikfinallypickedherupfromPreetiandJaiSingh’sapartment.Shikha hadbeenwiththemsincetheygotoutofVydehiHospital.Hehadtogiveittothetwofriends.After theinitialmomentsofstunnedsilence,bothhadstiffeneduptheirspinesandagreedtoidentifythe body.Ithadn’tbeeneasy.Theimageofthebodylockerbeingpulledopentorevealtheirfriendwould

betheonestayingwiththemforaverylongtime.Buttheyhaddoneit.Theyhadgrippedeachother’s handstightandmadethepositiveidentification.Heknewthemedicalexaminerandhadrequestedhim toshowthemjustthefaceandhadbroughtthemoutassoonasthedeedwasdone.Theyhadhugged eachother andcriedsomemoreafter comingout.Preetihadlookedlikeshewantedtopukebut controlleditwhilehisShikhawasmadeofsternerstuff.Justashehadbeendebatingwheretotake them,Preeti’shusbandhadcome.KarthikintroducedhimselftohimsinceneitherShikhanorPreeti thoughttoandrequestedhimtotakethewomenhomeandnotletthemoutofhissight.Hisphonewas ringingnonstop.BothSalimandthecommissionerhadbeentryingtoreachhimandhehadtogo. PromisingShikhathathewouldpickherupfromPreeti’shouse,hesentthembothwithJai.

Now,almostsixhourslater,hewasdrivingherbackhome,thistimeonhisbike.Hewastiredand angry.Tiredbecausethiswasnottheonlycasehewashandlingandangrybecausehehadn’tbeen abletoprotectaninnocentwoman.HehadtoldSalimtogivethetwowomensometime.Thatthe questionscouldwaituntilthenextmorning.Theyneededto cometo termswithwhathappened. ProcesstheinformationandacceptthetruthwhileheandSalimtriedtofigureouthowtokeepthem safeandcatchthekiller.

“Didyoueatanything?”heasked,stoppingthebikebesideaKatirolljoint.

Sheliftedherheadfromitsrestingplacereluctantlyandshookherheadwithblearyeyes.Shehad

fallenasleep,hethought.“Ijustwanttogohome.”

Aftermakingsure,shewouldn’ttopplefromthebike,hewentandgotacoupleofrollsforeachof

them.Hegavetwotoher.“YouneedtotakecareofyourselfformeShikhaBose.Eat,”heordered

gently.

Andsheate.Shejustdidn’thavetheenergytoargue.Besides,shehadskippedlunchtooandbreakfast

hadbeenabowlofcornflakes.Sheneededtheenergytostayonherfeetandkeepherselfalive.“Ileft

mycaratAPS,”shesaidasshebitintothespicyrollandfeltthetasteexplodeontohertongue.

“It’sinasafeplace.Letitbe.Youcancollectitlater.Didyoutalktoyourparents?”

Sheshookherhead.“Ispoketothemlastnight.They’reontheirwaytoNiagaraFalls.Firsttime

they’vegonetotheUS.Idon’twanttospoilitforthemunlessabsolutelynecessary.”

“Youneedtohavesomeoneintheloop,”hesaid,polishingoffhisroll.

“Itold my fauji dada.Noteverything but overwhelmher.

“That’swhatyoucallhim?Faujidada?”hequietlydivertedthetopic.

Itworked.Sheexhaledandswallowedherfood.Evenmanagedasmallsmile.“Yeah.Eversincewe

wereinschool,joiningthearmyhadbeenhisdream.Hisaim.Hebecamemyfaujidadafromthen

on.”

“Youwantmetotalktohim?Lethimknowthat

Shestartedshakingherheadevenbeforehecouldcompletethesentence.“After ”shehesitatedand thenthoughtwhatthehellandplunged.“Aftermybrokenengagements,anymentionofamantends tomakemyfamilygoonredalert.”

Itold

him aboutSi.” Grief once again threatened to

Hiseyebrowsshotup.“Justhowmanyarewetalkingabouthere?”

“Three.Goaheadandsayit.I’vehearditall,”shewavedherhand.

“I’mwaitingforyoutocompletethestory,”hesaidofferingherasmallmineralwaterbottlethat

he’dboughtalongwiththerolls.

“Ididn’thavethefortune ormisfortune,dependingonhowyouviewitoffallinginlovewithaguy. SoparentssawamatchandIgavemyOK,gotengagedandthenrealizedhewasarichjackass.He lookeddownandtalkeddowntomeandaweekaftertheengagementrealizedthatIbroughthimbad luckbecausehelosttwomajorcontractsafterwegotengaged.Hebrokeoff.Secondonehadbeen fineuntilthedaybeforetheweddingwhenhisex-girlfriendturneduppregnant.Thirdonewasweird. IfeltoffwheneverIspoketohimthenonedaysawhimwithhisboyfriend.”Sheexhaled.“Hewas gayanddidn’twanthisparentsto know.”Her shoulder liftedinanegligentshrug buther eyes couldn’thidethebeating her trusthadtakennotoncebutthreetimes.“Itoldmyparentsto give themselvesabreakandsentthemtoUSfortheirweddinganniversary.Itwasagiftfromallthreeof us.Howdidshedie?Imean,whathappened?”

Ifhewassurprisedbytheabruptchangeoftopic,hedidn’tleton.Karthikhesitated.Reluctanttogive

herthegorydetails.“Shewashitonthehead.Wewon’tknowallthedetailsuntilaftertheexaminer

givesusthereport.”Hespokethetruth.Justnotthewholetruth.“Don’t,”hesaid,gentlyshakingher,

forcinghertoopenhereyes.“Don’tthinkaboutit.”

“HowcanInotthinkaboutit?”

“Thinkabouther.Hervoice.Herlaughter.Yourfriendship

“Shenever didtakethosecallsseriously,youknow?Thoughtsuchstuffhappensinmovies.She brokeoffwithherboyfriendrecently,”shesaidabruptly.“ReetandIkepttellingherthatshewas betteroffwithouthimbutshewasprettycutupaboutit.Kepthopinghewouldchange.Butafterthat ”

damnpostIthinkshegaveup.Heblamedher,saidshewastakingrevengeonhim

“What’shisname?”hisquestioncutthroughherramblings.

“Tapan.TapanGrewal.”Shefrowned.“Wait,youthinkhecould’vedoneit?”

“I’lllookintoit,”Karthik’stonewasneutral.Hewouldquestionhim.Anirateboyfriend,onewitha

woundedegooverthatpostandamurderedwoman.Thatwouldmaketheguynumberoneontheir

suspectlistbuttherehastobeevidencetosupportitbecausetruthhasawayofgoingagainsttheodds.

Shikhasettledforajerkynodanddidn’tsayanythinguntilhestoppedhisbikeinfrontofherhouse.

Shegotdownandwaitedforhimtoremovehishelmet.“Thankyou.Idon’tknowwhatIwould’ve

doneifyouhadn’tbeenthereKarthik.”

“Youwould’vemanagedanyway.Goandpackwhateveryouneedforthenight.You’llbestayingat

myhouseuntilwecatchthisguy.”

“What?No.I’mnotmovinginwithyou.”

“Alarmsystemisgoodbutitwon’tstopadeterminedkiller.Sountilthisisresolved,eitheryoumove

intomyhouseorImoveintoyours.Chooseone.”

ChapterNine

JaiclosedthedoorbehindShikhaandhercopfriend.Karthikhadbeenincivilclothesbuthehadhis

weapontuckedintohiswaistband.Legalornot,hewishedhehadonetoo.Withadeepsigh,herubbed

hispalmoverhisface.Damn!Talkaboutlifeturningupsidedownintheblinkofaneye.Justthe

previousnighthehadmockedhiswifeforoverreacting.Whenhethoughtabouthercurtmessagethat

shewasgoingtoseeherdeadfriend,itwaslikehe’sbeenhitinthesolarplexus.Hisglancefellon

Preeti.Shewassittingonthecouchwithherfeettuckedinunderherandheadrestingonherarm,

staringintospace,hergazevacant.Theravagesofgriefhadleftherpalebutshewasdry-eyed.Like

therewerenomoretearsleftinher.Someoneouttherewastryingtokillher?Becauseofthatstupid

post?Itwastoobizarretocontemplate.Thingslikethathappenedinmovies.Notinreallife.Did

they?Sure,theposthadmadehimangrybutasPreetihadrightlysaid,itwasalreadyforgotten.Not

byeveryoneapparently.

Hemadewayintothekitchenandheatedupthefood.Themaidhadcookedsomebisibelabaththat morning.Heheateditinthemicrowaveandtransferreditintotwobowlsandcarriedthemintothe hall.Hewasn’tanyhungrierthanshewasbuttheyneededtoeat.IfwhatKarthiksaidwastrue he shook his head, notwanting to contemplate the scenario.They would think and make decisions tomorrowmorning.Notwhenshewasinpieces,ravagedbygrief.

“I’mnothungry,”shesaid,lookingatthebowlsinhishands.

“Youneedtheenergybuddy.Eatatleastafewspoons.Please.”Hekepthisvoicelowandsoothing

andsuppressedarelievedsighwhenshetookthebowlandstartedeatingquietly.Reluctantly.

Truethathe’dneverlikedherfriendsbuthewasn’tacompletebastard.Heknewshelovedthemto piecesandthathadbeenoneofhismaingripes.Hehadbeenjealousofthetimeshegavetoher friends.SiyaandShikhahadtakentheplacethathadoncebeenexclusivelyhis.Shesmiledwiththem, laughedwiththem,wentoutwiththemandsharedherthoughtsandsecretswiththem.Itwasasifonce hebecameherhusband,hewasnolongerherbestfriend.Yeah,right,youexpectedhertogiveyou somethingthatyouyourselfwerenotgivingher.Time.Butnowshehadlostoneofherfriendsand shelooked broken.Forheritwaslikelosingaclosefamilymember.Itwouldbeawhilebeforeshe recovered.

Andwhilesherecovered,hecouldusethattimetorebuildtheirrelationship.Hedidn’tknowhowthey hadlosttouchwitheachother.No.Heknew.Hehadnotbeenreadytocompromiseonhisworkorthe timehespentwithhisfriendsbutexpectedhertodoitforhim.Hehadwantedhertoworkbutwork aroundhisschedulesothathisliferemainedunchanged.Undisturbed.Heleftheralonetobalance both her professional and personal lives and on the occasions when her professional life took precedence,heresentedit.Andher.TheinnocentflirtingatworkwithZarahadstartedtoseemmore important.Ormaybeithadnotbeensoinnocent.OncehehadstartedcomparingeverythingPreetidid andsaidtoZara,whonevernaggedandalwayswentoutofherwaytoaccommodatehim,ithad stoppedbeinginnocent.Preetiwashiswife,forGod’ssake!Shehadtherightandthefreedomtonag himandpushhim,to demandhistime.Hehadignoredher demandsandpleasuntilshefinally stopped.Untilshegaveup.Andresentedhersomemorebecauseshegaveup.Andheknewwhat finallymadehergiveup.Itwasthedayhismomhadaskedaboutkids.Hismomwasatraditional womanwhowouldn’tunderstandaguyneedingtime.Shewouldnagandhoundhim.Soinhisattempt

towheedleoutofthat,hehadkeptmumnotrealizingthatshewouldstartontheblamegame.

HehadlovedPreetisincehewasnineteenyearsold.Howhadhelostsightofthat–ofwhattheyhad

together?WhyhadittakentheterrorofrealizingthatakillerwasbehindPreetiandherfriendsfor

himtorealizethattherewouldnolifeforhimwithouther?Hewantedtomakeituptoher.Butwould

shelethim?Forthepastfewdays,eversinceshe’daskedaboutZara,Preetihadpulledawayfrom

him.Didshereallybelievehehadbeenunfaithfultoher?Hehadtriedtoimaginehowhewouldfeel

ifshehadflirtedwithoneofhercolleagues.Ifshewentoutonnot-so-professionallunches.Thefood

he’dbeentryingtoswallowstuckinhisthroat.

“Youdidn’thavetoleaveyourwork.Iwould’vemanaged,”shesaidinavoicethathadturnedraspy

fromallthecrying.

“Iwantedtobewithyou.I’msorryIsnappedthefirsttimeyoucalled.I’msorry.”

“Forwhat?”sheasked,makingherwayintothekitchentodepositherhalf-eatenbowl.

“Foreverything.Fornotbeingresponsible.Fornotsupportingyou.IloveyouPreetiandIcan’tlive

withoutyou.”Hewantedtoholdher.Asifsensingthat,shetookastepback.

“Whataboutyour girlfriend?”Shecouldn’tevendredgeupher anger or painas sheaskedthe question.Shewasnumb.

“Iknowyoudon’tbelievemebutIswearIdidn’t Iwasnever ”Herubbedhishandsoverhisface.“I flirtedalittlebutnothingmorethanthat.Notever.It-Itdidn’tfeelright.IknewwhatIwasdoingwas wrongbutIletmyegogetthebetterofme.ButInevercrossedanylinesRitu.Notonce.”

Ithadbeensolongsincehe’dcalledherbythatname.Hewastheonlyonewho’devercalledher Ritu.ShewasPreettoherparentsandReettoShikhaandSiya.OnlyShikhanow.Hereyestearedup againatthethoughtofSiya.“Ican’tthinkrightnowJai.I’mjust Ican’tthink.”

“Ijustwantedyoutoknowthetruth.”Hepaused.“CanIsleepwithyouRitu?”

“Youwanttohavesex.”Itwasatiredstatement.

“No.”Hecontrolledhiswinceatherassumptionthathewouldwanttohavesexatatimelikethis.“I

meansleepwithyouinmyarms.Inourbed.Iwanttoholdyou.”

Preeticouldn’tdenyhimthat.Truthbetold,shewantedtobeheldbyhim.Shegotherblanketfrom

theguestroomandcurledupintohiswaitingarms.

****

“HowisShikha?”Salimasked,themomentKarthiksteppedintowhatcouldonlybetermedastheir

denatthepoliceheadquarters.

“Aswellascanbeexpected.APSisclosedtodayinmourningsoIdroppedheroffatPreeti’splace.”

“Isthatwise?Ifeverythingwe’vediscussedlastnightistrue,theguymighttakeitasachancetooff

bothwomeninoneshot.”

“Preeti’shusbandhastakenofffromwork.He’llbetheirshadowuntilwemakeaproperplan.Did

youtalktothebigguy?”Karthikasked,perchingontheedgeofSalim’stable.

Theyreferredtothecommissionerasthebigguy.Notbecausehewastheirboss.Theguywasreally

big.Hehadabigface,broadbodyandatummythatmadeitimpossibleforthemantoseehisbig

feet.Hewasalsoamanwhohadtheabilitytoseethebiggerpictureanddidn’thesitatetobendthe

rulesifitmeantcatchingthecriminal.ThatwaswhatmatteredtoKarthik.SalimhadcometoShikha’s

housethepreviousnightandKarthikhadupdatedeverythingthatheknewwhileShikhasleptinthe

nextroom.AndsincetechnicallythisonewasSalim’scase,heleftittohisfriendtokeepthebigguy

intheloop.

“Yup.Sincethethreatcomesunderspeculation,hethinksweshouldkeepitclosethechestandtreatit

likeasingleincidentmurdercase.”

“IgotthatwhenIreadthenews.”Karthiknodded.Therehadbeennomentionofanythingotherthan

thefactthatthegirlwasanITemployeeandpoliceareinvestigating.“HaveyoutriedcallingTapan

Grewal?”

Salimgotupfromhisseatwithagrin.“Ididonebetter.He’sinside,”hesaid,thumpingtowardsthe

interrogationroom.“ThoughtI’lllethimsweatitoutalittle.”

“Hopeitworked.”Karthikfellintostepbesidehisfriend.

Theyhadvariousmethodstobreakasuspect.Dependingontheevidence,themethodschanged.Less evidence,theystartedoutmildandtightenedthescrewsfigurativelyaswellasliterallyastheclues piledup.TheyenteredthetenbyfourinterrogationroomwhereTapanwasrestlesslypacing.Salim tookachair whileKarthikoptedtostandominouslyinfrontofTapanuntiltheguywentandsat facingSalim.

“So,MrTapanGrewal,youwereattheairportthismorning.Goingsomewhere?”

“No.Myplanehadjustlanded.Iwasonmywaytomyapartment.What’sthisabout?WhatdidIdo?”

Tapan’sbewilderedgazeswungbetweenboththecops.

“Idon’tknow.Youtellus.Whatdidyoudo?”Karthikaskedalmostcasually.

Tapantriedtosmilebutitwasawkwardandnervous.“Ijumpedthesignalacoupleoftimeslastweek.

Isthatwhatthisisabout?”

“Dowelookliketrafficpolicetoyou?”

“Then I’msorry.What’sthisabout?”

“DoyouknowagirlnamedSiyaDutta?”

Tapanfrowned.“OfcourseIknowher.Sheismygirlfriend.Why?”

“Youconsiderheryourgirlfriendevenaftershebrokeupwithyou.Possessive,huh?”Karthiksaid,

circlingaroundTapanlikeaneaglereadytoplungeandgrabthesnakebyitsneck.

“Well,yes,shedidbut ”Hesighed.“Yes,IknowSiya,wehavebeenloversforthebetterpartofa yearnow,shelivesinanapartmentoppositetominebutshespentmoretimeinmyapartmentthan hers.”HiswarygazeshiftedtoSalimashereluctantlyadded.“Untilshebrokeoffthingswithme.You

needtotellmewhatthisisabout.WhyareyouaskingaboutSiya?”

“WherewereyouonSundaynight?”Salimcounterquestioned.

“IhadbeentoLucknowalongwithmysisterandherfamily.TheyhadcomefromtheUSlastweek

andmyparentshadplannedafamilygatheringovertheweekend.Sundaynight.SoIattendedthatand

gotbackthismorning.”

SalimdartedaquickglanceatKarthik.Theywouldverifyitofcoursebutifwhathesaidwastrue,

thentherewasnowayhewould’vekilledSiya.UnlessheflewinonSundayevening,offedherand

flewbacktoLucknowagaintoattendtheparty.Again,thatcouldbeeasilyverified.“Whydidshe

breakoffwithyou?”KarthikaskedwhenSalimlefttheroomtodojustthat.

Tapanexhaledinasoftgrunt.“BecauseIwasanass.Iwasaselfishbastardandhurtherwithmy stupidbehavior.Butaftersheleft,I-Imissedher.Iwantedherbackinmylife.Iwaswithmyfamily buteverythingfeltwrongwithouther.Itoldmymomabouther Isenthermessagesbeggingher to whyareyouaskingmethesequestions?Please,couldoneofyouexplain?”Hepleaded.

Karthikpulledupanotherchairandsat.Salimcamebackintotheroomafewminuteslaterandgavea

subtlenod.“SiyawasattackedonSundaynightatherhome,”hetoldTapanasgentlyashecould.

“Siyawasattacked?Whereisshenow?Whichhospital?IssheOK?”Tapanfiredthequestionsashe

shovedthechairbackandgotup.

LookingathimKarthikrealizedthenewswasgoingtohithimprettyhard.Buthedeservedtoknow.

“I’msorryMrGrewal.Siyadidn’tsurvivetheattack.”

“Didn’tsurvive?”Shockflaredinhiseyesandhestaggeredback.“She-she’sdead?”

Salimnodded.“I’msorry.”

Tapanstoodstunnedforalongmoment,thenslowlybegantocollapseuntilhewasdownonhis

knees.Heburiedhisfaceinhishandsandsobbed.Givingthebrokenmanafewminutesofprivacy,

bothofthemwalkedoutoftheroom.

“Theregoesourmostprobablesuspect,”Salimmuttered.

“SiyaspoketoShikhathatnight.”Karthiksaid,thinkingaloud.“Shewasattackedthesamenight, probablyminutesafterthecall.Nosignofforcedentry.Sheknewthekiller.Feltsecureenoughto openthedoor to himdespitethethreatening calls.Andtheattackhadbeenpersonal.Clumsybut characterizedbyrageandhatred.Thekillerknewhercontactdetails.”

“Andyou’resurprised?DoyouhaveaFacebookaccount?”Salimaskedderisively.“Wow,whata wayto startaday,”hetriedto emulateanenthusiasticspeaker.“Sitting inmybalcony,watching sunrisewithmynewcoffeemug.Hey,hubbygotmethisnewdress,howdoyoulikeitguys?OK,off toForummallforshoppingandmovies.I’mnolongerpartofacouple.Statuschangedtosingle.” Karthikcouldn’tholdbackhisgrin.“Theirwholelifestoriesandroutinesarepostedoutthere.One justneedstoknowhowandwheretolook.That’sit.”

“Whenarewegoingtogetthepostmortemreport?”

“I’veputarushonit.Willletyouknow.”

****

Shikhawincedasherphonerangagain.Checkingthecalleridshethrewitasidewithagroan.People

fromAPShadbeencallingeitheroneofthemonandoffallmorning.Theystoppedansweringafter

thefirstfewbutdidn’thavetheluxuryofsilencingorshuttingofftheirphones.WhatifKarthikorhis

friendtriedtocall?WhatifSiya’sparentswantedtospeak?ShikhahadcalledthemfromPreeti’s

house.TheywerestayingwithSiya’scousinwhohadcuthertripshortaftergettingthenews.They

wereinshock,hardlyabletoformacoherentsentence,theirthoughtsandwordscirclingaroundtwo

questions.Whathappenedandwhydidithappen.Herfaujidadahadcalledinthemorningtomake

sureshewasfineandithadtakeneverythinginhertoactandspeaknormalwhenherparentshad

called.

“Yousleptlastnight?”Preetiasked,settlingherselfbesideShikhaonthecouchwithherteacup.Jai

wasworkingfromhomethatdayandwasinthestudybuthewastheonetoopenthedoorwhenever

thedoorbellhadrung.Onceithadbeenthemaidandsecondhadbeenthecarwashguy.

“Yeah,Ididn’tthinkIwould.HadakillingheadachebythetimeIreachedhome.Karthikwantedme

tomoveinwithhimbutIrefused.”

“Hedoesn’tseemlikeaguytotakenoforananswer.Whatdidhedo?”

“Oh,hetookitalright.”AtPreeti’sraisedeyebrowlook,Shikhaadmittedtherestofit.“Hemovedin withmeinstead.”Bothofthemgrinnedalittle.Buttheirhumorfeltincompletewithouttheirthird partner.“HestretchedoutonthecouchwhileIsleptinthedownstairsguestbedroom.Isuggestedhe takeupanotherroom.Hegavemethatcoplook.Iwastootiredtoevenfeeltheweirdnessofitallso tookapainkiller for theheadache.Iremember closingmyeyesandthenextthingIknowitwas morningandhewasloomingacrossthedoorwayproddingmetowakeup.”Shikhasippedthelastof herteabeforeshiftingthetopic.“Thingsseemtobechangingforyoutoo.”

Preeti’ssmilewasrueful.“Yeah,guessapsychokillerwantingmedeadtendstorearrangepriorities realfast.Ididn’texpecttosleepthenighteitherbut ”sheshrugged.“Ineededtobeheldandhedid that.Justwishthecircumstancesweredifferent.Imeanitcouldeasilyhavebeenme,”shebither tremblinglipandbreatheddeeplyuntilshecouldgethervoiceworking.“Ithinkthatscaredhim.You thinkweshould’vetoldherparentsaboutthepost?”sheaskedsuddenly.

Shikha shook her head. “We don’t know it for sure, right? I mean, all said and done, we’re speculating.Haveyougottenanycalls?”

“NothingafterSaturdaynight.You?”

“Meneither.”Bothfellsilent.“They’regoingtoquestionTapantoday.Guesswe’llknowmoreafter

that.”

Jaicameoutofthestudyandjoinedthemafterthat.HehadmetSiyaonlyacoupleoftimesduringthe

officepartygatheringsandoncewhenbothShikhaandSiyahadcometotheirplacefordinner.He

didn’tknowmuchabouther,hadneverbeeninterestedininteractingwitheitherwomanbesidesa

casualhello,howareyou.ButthateveninghesatbesidehiswifeandlistenedtothemtalkaboutSiya.

Theycried,laughedandplayedaroundwithwhat-ifscenarios.Siya’smurderwassounbelievablethat

onlyendlesslytalkingandrehashingcouldtheygraduallycometotermswithit.Withlosingher.It

waslateintheeveningwhenKarthikcametopickupShikha.

“Shecanstaywithus,”Jaiofferedimmediately.

ShikhashookherheadbutthesmileshegaveJaiwasgenuine.“ThanksbutI’llbefine.Youcomingto

worktomorrow?”shedirectedthequestiontoPreetiwhonoddedheraffirmation.

“Doyouthinkthat’swise?Imean won’titbesaferforthemtostayathome?”JaiaskedKarthik.

“Anymoreofthosecallstoday?”Karthikasked.

“Nope,”Shikhaanswered.

Karthikthoughtforafewmoments.“Sofarwedon’thaveanyconcreteproofthatthecallsandthis

murderareconnected.”

“ButyoujustsaidTapanhasbeencleared,”Shikhasaid.“Whoelsewould’ve