‘So, we meet again,’ Mihir says cheerily, ‘What have you been up to, these days? What’s the next city you’re looking to bomb?’

Mihir has one eye on the road, and another on the rear-view mirror. He wants to pay close attention to her reactions.

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, sir. I’m done with all of that.’

‘Come on, don’t lie to me. I know how addictive violence can be for people of your kind. You can’t just be done with it,’ Mihir prods on.

Spa Maid grows distraught.

‘I swear, sir. I was dragged into it once upon a time through sheer blackmail. But you rescued me, and I will always be grateful for that. But please believe me, I’ve moved on from all of that. Why would I have continued in the same job, knowing that you’d know where to find me, if I were still involved in that stuff?’

Her confidence intrigues Mihir.

‘Okay. Let’s just assume for a moment that you are telling the truth. But don’t tell me that they’ve let you get away and haven’t made any attempt to contact you. If I could find you, surely, they too would be able to find you.’

She shifts uneasily in her seat. Mihir knows he’s onto something here.

‘To tell you the truth, they did try, sir. And what I said to you over the phone, about me trying to contact you, is true as well. I can prove it to you.’

Spa Maid pulls out her phone and scrolls through her SMS outbox.

Much to Mihir’s surprise, there indeed is a message sent to the discarded number he had used under cover as Rajinder Talreja. The message read: ‘Sir, pls help. They r contacting me. I dntknwwt 2 do.’

From the distress apparent on her face, in addition to the SMS, Mihir realizes that she is indeed telling the truth. For a moment, he even feels bad. Bad for her, bad about himself. Here is a vulnerable woman who had reached out to him in her hour of distress, and he had been unable to help. He wants to apologize, but holds back, reminding himself that he cannot do or say anything that might upset the dynamics of their relationship. He has the upper hand, and it must be that way always.

Trying hard to keep a straight face, he finally responds, ‘Okay. So how have they tried contacting you? And how many times?’

‘All by email . . . I can show you.’ ‘Where’s your laptop?’

‘Uhh . . . I don’t have one. I just use the desktop at the hotel.’

‘You can use mine,’ Mihir tells her, pulling up to the side, before retrieving his laptop from the back seat.

She signs into her email ID and moves closer to him, softly brushing against his shoulder. She explains, as she scrolls through the emails, ‘They keep reminding me of all the photos and videos they have, and how they can destroy me, unless I choose to help. Then there are these invitations to adult chat forums, all kinds of strange things. I’m too scared to click. What if I get pulled in again? It is divine providence that you’ve come looking for me. Please, you must help me get away from this once and for all. I’ll do anything for you. I want to get away from all of this. I’m sick of this existence, sick of being scared all that time.’

Mihir stares at her in silence. At first, he’s just processing all the information he’s just had to take in. But after a few moments, his attention wanders towards the diamond stud that complements her finely shaped nose, the strangely endearing mole on her cheek, and the single strand of hair curled up over her forehead.

Spa Maid can tell that he’s checking her out. She’s happy to let him.

Mihir realizes what he’s doing, and quickly snaps back into focus. ‘I’m so sorry, I just haven’t slept all night. Anyway, yes, I can help you. But I’ll need you to respond to those emails, get in touch with them, and become part of the group once again. What you will say, what you will do, everything will be decided by me. And don’t worry, no harm will come to you. I won’t abandon you this time.’

She nods in agreement.

After a few moments of awkward silence, he asks, ‘One more thing. I realized that I don’t even know your name.’

‘Rukmini. Rukmini Jaiswal, sir. A-and yours?’ ‘You know, already. It’s Rajinder Talreja.’

She smiles. A warm smile that fills him with an inexplicable sense of joy.

The excerpt is from ‘Operation Sudarshan Chakra’ (published by Penguin Random House India).