Anshuman was mystified with what had happened even as he sipped his coffee. His morning encounter with his one-night fling had left a sour taste in his mouth which didn’t get rid of by an extra serving of sugar in his coffee. Though she had warmed up to him…melted in his arms she was still obscure. He was now sure Simrat knew something… there were so many unanswered questions in his mind which threatened to explode. There were 2 avenues of information for him and if he played his cards right then he could squeeze out information from both. One was Simrat and the other Kader who had lived here for ages and had contacts he could use.
Anshuman hoped, Kader probably hadn’t realized his folly as yet… and decided to visit Passion later in the evening without prior announcement. There was some event he had read last evening on their bulletin board… about some pop singer performing in the club and the tickets were limited given the pandemic restrictions. He wasn’t interested in the gig but just wanted to look around and see if he could catch Zulfikar chacha or his whereabouts. He had been a successful businessman and had taken his family business to new heights within a short period. He couldn’t have done it without foresight and planning. In hindsight, he realized he had been undaunted, fearless, and confident. He just had to do that now. He had to keep his deep-rooted emotions for Meera under wraps and try finding out information with a logical mind.
He knew Meera wouldn’t return but he owed it to her to uncover the mystery surrounding her last days and most of all he owed it to himself.
As he settled before his laptop trying to conduct some searches on the news from a decade ago… as he had always been doing, his doorbell buzzed. Startled since he didn’t know anyone here, he walked to his door. He was amazed to see Manpreet with his grandmother who was huffing and panting. He invited them in and offered the lady water. Manpreet directly walked to the balcony and settled himself on the rocking chair with his sketchbook as if he owned the place. His grandmother spoke. “…I couldn’t handle the boy… his mother had left for work while he was still asleep… and he brought the house down… but… I am glad in a way…”
It probably was a day full of surprises as Anshuman looked in bewilderment. The woman who till a couple of days ago was hostile towards him was suddenly courteous. She continued. “…His mother had refrained him from doing everything a child of his age does… I hadn’t restricted even my daughters the way she does her son… the boy was troubled always… his father not being there, it was tough you see… but then in two days… he changed… he is…he is alive… I am thankful… his mother doesn’t see reason… but then I saw her talking to you today morning and I know you ruffled her feathers… she normally doesn’t get disturbed like that… so son, if you are fine with it… can he stay here for a while…? Call me on my number… he has memorized it… I will come to get him…”
“…Oh Don’t worry aunty… I will drop him and he can stay all the time he wants to… what time does his mother return…?”
“…She doesn’t have any fixed time… sometimes she doesn’t come back at night… but most days she arrives late… poor girl works hard for Manpreet… for us…” The woman stood up and walked slowly towards the door.
Once she left. Anshuman got back to the balcony with an additional chair and joined Manpreet. He saw the boy sketch yet another portrait of his. “…hey buddy… why is it me all the time…?”
Manpreet replied without looking up from his work. “…I like you…”. He didn’t stutter.
After about half an hour Anshuman fed him the light lunch his housekeeper had prepared that morning and then started to teach him to read. He had learned a couple of techniques using phonics and decided to experiment with Manpreet. To his utmost wonder, the boy picked up the skills like fish to water and they practiced for the next couple of hours. He even helped the boy solve simple maths problems and Manpreet appeared to be a pro. Anshuman wondered what ailed the boy who didn’t seem like a slow learner at all. He decided to speak with Simrat once she had calmed down. As they relaxed after a meal of kadhi chawal, Anshuman casually asked him. “…Buddy who taught you to draw so well…?”
“…No one…” he curtly replied.
“..Oh I thought your mother did…”
Manpreet shook his head. “…maa isn’t at home ever… only Nani loves me…”
“…It isn’t like that buddy… your mom loves you too in fact a lot more than all of us do… but she has to work right…?”
“…But she will leave too one day… like dddda…daddy…” Manpreet’s face crumbled.
“…Why do you say that Manpreet…? Did something happen…? And where is your daddy…?” the moment he asked the question Anshuman kicked himself.
Manpreet stilled and looked at Anshuman. His expressions broke his heart. At that moment the boy looked so vulnerable, his eyes wide and the cleft on his chin pronounced… Anshuman realized the cleft brought out the cuteness in the child. And then Manpreet frowned in annoyance for the first time since he had met the boy, the bushy eyebrows struggling to touch each other in the center, his forehead wrinkled. “…Daddy died… many years ago… aaaa…I haven’t sssseen him… Nanu also ddddied ttttwo years aaaago….Maa was hurt so many times… it scares me…”
Now that caught his attention. Simrat was a widow, but she also had been hurt. “…When did she get hurt…?”
“…So many times… she rushes to the bathroom comes out only after I sleep… I have acted sometimes lllllike aaaa…I am asssleep… then I saw her cry…I am ssscared Anshuman… what if shshshe… dies too…?”
He held the boy close. Somehow he felt they were bonded in grief. “…Don’t worry buddy… nothing will happen to your mother… I promise…”
He had to have a serious talk with Simrat he decided. Later that evening before he left for Passion, he dropped Manpreet back to his house with a promise to collect him the next morning.
He entered the Passion premises and as expected there was a huge hustle bustle with people in masks trying their luck with the now unavailable tickets. The singer had belonged to the Bombay Rockers band and now had branched out independently. But given the popularity of the original band, he was on-demand too. Anshuman crossed the crowds and walked behind the building towards the shacks and it was empty given that it was still early by partying standards. He settled himself in the corner most seat away from anyone’s direct sight of the vision and watched the sea for a while. He saw little kids running on the sand building castles or just digging their feet. Water sports were not allowed at this end of the beach but he could hear the occasional buzz of the motors. He hoped tourism returned to pre-covid levels soon so that these guys could make a living.
Just then he saw movement in the bushes at his side. Since he sat in the dark, no one could see him but he saw the unmistakable silhouette of… oh goodness… it was a hand holding a pistol. Something got into him and instead of freezing, he crouched slowly towards the bush on the other side. He saw a sleek figure in black overalls bent and looking ahead aiming the pistol. He looked up to see the target was Kader… who was chatting with a couple of guests who had assembled at the far end of the shack. He had his back towards the bushes and though there was a great distance, there was a possibility of him getting shot. Adrenaline surged through him and without giving a thought he rushed ahead and grabbed the person. The shot rang but missed and hit the asbestos roof making a loud sound and ricocheting and hitting the only light bulb that hung close to them. He was now totally plunged in darkness. The commotion caused a furor and the person in his arms struggled to move. Finally, Anshuman held him down and straddled him with his legs on either side. He took out his mobile phone and switched on the torch. He realized the person had given up the fight. Fuck… the guy was injured in his hand and it was bleeding. He bent and removed the mask covering the face and along with it, thick hair came down in waves… Oh God, it was a woman, although her face was still covered with the special clothing she wore and she looked downward. Anshuman jerked up and the woman suddenly held his hand and rushed out from the bush covering.
Anshuman didn’t even know which direction she was dragging him but he ran for the next fifteen minutes or so, along with on autopilot and they reached a corner most shack away from Passion. She pushed him to the ground and he was immediately surrounded by a few men holding guns trained on him. The lights came alive and the woman had disappeared.
A tall man stood before him then bent and patted him throughout as if checking for hidden guns while he was stunned to silence. He was a businessman not a fighter for god’s sake. The man stood up to his complete height and spoke. “…Who the hell are you man…? Which organization do you work for…?” The man had taken his wallet and tossed it to another man close by. That guy took out his Driving license. “…The name is Anshuman Khanna…” he read it aloud.
The tall man continued in a tone that gave Anshuman the chills. “…bloody hell… you are a civilian… and you just messed up an important mission for the country… you idiot…”
©priyagole. No part of the story can be copied or shared anywhere without the consent of the writer.