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Witness to a Murder - Excerpt from #NoSafeZone

 

Blurb

London-bred activist Qiara Rana will do anything to save her mentor and their NGO, Girls Rock!, from ruin. Even if it means visiting the city she had vowed never to return to. But within a few hours of landing in New Delhi, she is being chased by a gunman and is a potential suspect in the murder of a high profile businessman. The only person she can turn to for help is Kabir Shorey, the man who stood her up ten years ago.

On a mission to bust an international women’s trafficking ring, Intelligence Bureau officer Kabir Shorey runs slam bang into the girl who has tormented his dreams. He is determined to protect her but can he save himself from the all-consuming passions that flare up between them all over again?

As the past and present collide in a deadly plot of crime and greed that moves from the cosmopolitan streets of London and Delhi to the bazaars and villages of Rajasthan, old secrets are ripped away. Treading the fine lines between safety and danger, truth and lies, love and betrayal, Qiara and Kabir discover that in life there is no safe zone.


Excerpt 

Qiara settled into the plush leather settee in the opulent conference room overlooking the polo field. MF Husain’s iconic horse painting graced one wall. On another, a floor to ceiling cabinet showcased trophies, photographs and memorabilia of past tournaments. Her shoes dug into a thick Persian carpet with intricate patterns. Khanna poured a cup of tea from a delicate porcelain tea set.

“Is this your personal office, Mr. Khanna? It’s such a lovely room and what a terrific view! You could never tell you are in the heart of Delhi.”

“Being a patron of a new team has its benefits,” Khanna smiled as he handed her the tea cup. “So, Ms. Rana, how can I be of service?”

Khanna’s gaze skimmed over the slim young woman seated opposite him. Her stylish pixie crop hair made her large eyes look even more luminous beneath their thick, long eyelashes. She sat before him, poised and elegant, her smooth brown legs disappeared into tan ankle-length boots. She flicked the hair that fell across her narrow forehead away and flashed him a smile that was like a splash of sunshine spreading over her pretty face.

Qiara knew she had to play this right. She had got an audience with Khanna by pretending an acquaintance with his daughter.

“Mr. Khanna, I’ve heard so much about your philanthropy and the amazing work you have done to promote girls’ education. My area of work is in child rights and I’m really hoping you can help me with my study project.”

“I’m flattered but honestly, my charity is a drop in the ocean.” His smug smile belied his modest words. “I wish I could do more. Unfortunately, I neither have the means nor the time. Is this for your PhD research?”

“Not really, but the findings will definitely give me insights for my own thesis. I also work as an independent researcher and this is a UNICEF-funded project. I’m currently documenting the progress made by donor-funded rural schools in South Asia and the impact it has made on the lives of these girls. The research is aimed at identifying best practices to help similar institutions in the region.” She smiled winningly as she fished in her bag. “Would you like to see the letter of introduction provided by UNICEF?”

He waved his hand dismissively. “Indeed, a laudable project. If you wish I can direct you to some of the schools we have worked with in Delhi.”

He walked across to a polished mahogany desk. With a little key he opened a drawer and pulled out a tablet device.

“I could put you in touch with some people.”

“That’s so kind of you.”

Qiara dug into her bag and brought out a notepad and pen. “I’m especially interested in looking at some schools in Rajasthan.”

His fingers stopped on the tablet screen for a brief moment as he gave her a piercing look. “Is there any particular one you have in mind?”

Qiara kept her gaze steady and hoped her smile didn’t waver. “Since you are one of the donors of the Girls Rock! project at Sitara Devi Memorial School—”

“Your information is incorrect,” Khanna snapped. His smile was still in place but the warmth had gone.  “I’m not aware of any such project.”

Qiara nodded earnestly, her mind spinning like a top. There certainly was something fishy going on. She’d been right to adopt a cautious approach.

“Oh, well, I think there must be some mistake. I deal with a lot of secondary sources in compiling my information. However, I’d definitely like to check out the school and find out more about their activities. I guess I just have to call them up directly and find out. Though, it always helps to go with a reference. Never mind—”.

 She stopped herself short; she had begun to babble and it would only put him on guard. If she hadn’t been watching him closely, she probably would have missed the way his eyes flickered in anger for the briefest of moments.

He pushed back his chair and loomed over her. “Seems to me like you’re on a fishing expedition, Miss Rana. And I do not like my privacy to be invaded. Which year did you say you graduated from Magdalen?”

Qiara swallowed nervously. “You are welcome to check with—”

A loud commotion broke out outside the room. Qiara let out the breath she didn’t realise she was holding when Khanna rushed to take a look. The man was hiding something and all was not right at the school! Was he involved in Reshma’s disappearance? A cold sweat ran down her spine at the thought. What had she gotten herself into? Wracking her brains for a plausible story, she set down the tea cup. Some of the hot liquid splashed on the coffee table. Oh no! Her hand shot out to pick up Khanna’s tablet before it was ruined.

The dark screen of the tablet lit up, enticing her to check out its contents. Should she risk it? Glancing nervously at the door for a second, she set aside her misgivings. She could hear raised voices outside and this might be her only chance to get a clue about Reshma’s whereabouts. She had no time to waste. Heart beating rapidly, her finger skimmed the screen, her eyes searching for anything that would give her some leads.

Tapping on the photographs folder she scanned through them quickly. They were mostly of Khanna with guys in polo gear, at official events, and business meetings. Something made her stop. She didn’t know what had grabbed her attention and she went back to the ones she had already seen. Looking over each one more carefully. She stopped short when she came across a picture of Khanna with two other men. Recognition flooded through her turning her blood cold. She zoomed in till the pixelated image revealed a close up of the face she’d recognise anywhere in the world.

A loud, cracker-burst like sound startled her. Grabbing her handbag she rushed to the door. She pulled it open and nearly fainted in fright at the sight. At the far end of the long corridor a man stood over Khanna, who was lying face down on the polished marble floor, blood pooling around his neck. The scream died in her throat before she could give voice to it.

Despite the fear and adrenaline pumping through her, she pulled away from the door, closed it silently and tiptoed back into the room. Luckily the man had been facing away from her. Had he shot Khanna—was that a gunshot she had heard? She needed a place to hide. Quickly. She heard heavy footsteps approaching. Heart in her mouth, she wheeled towards a door. It led into a washroom. She hurried inside and waited, holding her breath.

She heard him moving around in the room, opening and closing drawers. A few unbearably long minutes later she heard the outer door close. She waited for a bit longer before cautiously sticking her head out. The Club was swarming with people. What if someone spotted her sneaking around in Khanna’s office with his corpse lying in the corridor? Or perhaps, she could blend into the crowd without anyone noticing? The thought propelled her out of the room as if she was being chased by a pack of hounds.

The long hallway leading to the lounge was empty and her heart beat out a rapid tattoo matched only by her clicking heels. At the end of the corridor, she slowed down. She cast a nervous eye around the lobby which now only had a few people sitting around and talking animatedly. Quickening her pace she hurried past the mustachioed guard who opened the door smartly for her.

“Ma’am, should I call your chauffeur…”

Before the guard could finish his sentence, she was dashing towards the car park. She prayed nobody had seen her come out of Khanna’s private office. All she had to do was locate the taxi driver who had ferried her to the Club from the guest house where she’d checked in, and she would be home and dry. Gosh!  She had no idea of the make of the car or its number. All she remembered was it had been white. There was a sea of cars in front of her and almost every other one was white! Panic began to fog up her brain.

She dipped into her handbag for her cell phone in which she had stored the driver’s number. Her fingers closed around something unfamiliar. She pulled it out and nearly dropped it—Khanna’s tablet. She’d no recollection of when she’d thrust the device in her bag.

Casting a quick look behind her to check if anyone was following her, she froze. A man in a blue-and-white T-shirt with the Polo Club logo on it was talking to the guard. Khanna’s attacker too had worn a tee in the same colour combination and now the guard was pointing him towards her.

Heart thundering like a runaway train, she ducked down and weaved her way between the cars as fast as it was possible to do so in an ungainly crouching posture. Too terrified to take a peek she knew she had to keep moving. She hoped she would be able to make her way to the exit before the man caught up with her. Once out on the street, it would be easier to hop into an auto-rickshaw or lose herself in the crowds. Or, so she hoped. Her handbag brushed against the door handle of the car and it began to emit an ear-splitting alarm making her jump out of her skin. That was all she needed!

Holy Crap! The man in the blue and white tee was coming straight at her. There was only one thing she could do now: run as fast as her heels would let her.

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