Authors: Raghu Srinivasan
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Adventure
First published in India in 2014 by Hachette India
(Registered name: Hachette Book Publishing India Pvt. Ltd)
An Hachette UK company
This ebook published in 2014
Copyright © 2014 Raghu Srinivasan
Raghu Srinivasan asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
Map on page vii illustrated by Sworup Nhasiju
All rights reserved. No part of the publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system (including but not limited to computers, disks, external drives, electronic or digital devices, e-readers, websites), or transmitted in any form or by any means (including but not limited to cyclostyling, photocopying, docutech or other reprographic reproductions, mechanical, recording, electronic, digital versions)without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Certified that the views expressed and suggestions made in the book are made by the author in his personal capacity and do not have any official endorsement.
Print ISBN 978-93-5009-574-4
Ebook edition ISBN 978-93-5009-601-7
Cover design by Siddharth Dasari
Originally typeset in Adobe Jenson Pro 10/13
by Ram Das Lal, NCR Delhi
Hachette Book Publishing India Pvt. Ltd
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Plot No. 94, Sector 44, Gurgaon 122003, India
For Appa, who I’m sure would have
been a bit surprised; and very proud
The Monastery of the White Elephant, Louangphrabang
The man made his way silently along the corridor, his body almost hugging the wall. His head was covered with the cowl of his robe and his movements were quick and jerky. He needn’t have been quite so furtive; the whole monastery was asleep and there were still two hours left before bleary-eyed young acolytes began sounding the gong to awaken the other monks. The man’s heart was pounding so hard he could hear it beat above the murmur of the Mae Nam Khong, the Mekong River, which ran along the monastery’s stone walls.
When he came to his destination, a room to the right, he pushed aside the curtains and stepped in without sparing a glance at the dark corridor he had sneaked through. He stood silently in the doorway for some time, till his eyes had adjusted to the dim light in the room. The tiny glow of light in the corner from a brass lamp, half-filled with butter, failed to reach the low wooden bed in the centre, where the Teacher lay deep in slumber, his bulky form half covered by a white sheet. The intruder stared at the sleeping man and listened intently to his soft, whistling snores. His eyes darted to the room’s single window; the shutters had been thrown open and the smell of the river, flowing two storeys below, wafted up to him.
When his eyes had fully adjusted to the gloom, he saw that the Teacher was lying in a foetal position, buttocks slightly raised; the position made him look somewhat ridiculous. The man stood absolutely motionless, making sure the Teacher hadn’t stirred and was still fast asleep. After several minutes had passed, he crouched forward and knelt at the foot of the bed. From the folds of his robe, he took out a pair of
– needles – one of the eight worldly items mandated to all Buddhist monks. He also brought out a small glass bottle, half-filled with a translucent, viscous fluid. Opening the bottle carefully, the man dipped the needles in the liquid till they were half-submerged. He pulled the needles out and placed the bottle gently on the floor.
With a needle in each hand, he leaned over and pricked the sleeping man just above the ankle with surgical precision, making sure that one of the needles went into the artery and that the two pinpricks were half an inch apart. As he pulled out the needles, he held his breath, crouching on the balls of his feet and ready to spring up and flee should the need arise. But the Teacher merely stirred to change his position and straighten his knees so that he was now sleeping on his stomach.
Crouching at the foot of the bed, the intruder forced his breathing to return to normal and maintained his vigil. Forty-five minutes. The Kammu medicine man had said it would take that much time for the poison – the venom of the
ngu tab tan,
the Blue Krait, sixteen times more potent than the cobra’s – to take effect. The alpha neurotoxin would paralyse the victim as it moved up through the artery. The medicine man had been right about the victim not feeling the jabs of the needle; many victims of the
ngu tab tan
died in their sleep without ever knowing they had been bitten.
After an hour had passed, the intruder felt certain that the poison had taken effect. The snores of the sleeping man had subsided ten minutes ago and there were no visible signs of him breathing. The intruder now moved to the head of the bed, rubbing the stiffness from his legs. Leaning low over the Teacher, he gingerly felt his neck and found the cotton thread from which a single key dangled. Taking the key between his fingers, he carefully removed the string, pulling it over the man’s head. Suddenly, he froze; the Teacher’s eyes had opened and were focused on him! He felt his insides turn to water as the prostrate man’s lips moved, trying to form words. Involuntarily, the intruder leaned forward to catch them.
‘You will embrace the third sister as well,’ the dying man’s voice rasped, sounding very tired, his eyes devoid of expression. Then his eyelids drooped and the Teacher slumped forward, saliva dripping in an uncontrollable stream from his mouth.
Clutching the key in his trembling hand, the assassin knew he should be elated, but instead felt tears streaming down his cheeks. He knew the curse of the dying man would haunt him in the days to come.
It had not rained very heavily the previous night; the ground, though damp, was still firm. Henry Ashton got off the trail, running through the woods and on to the tarred road that wound its way uphill to Stiles, the manor house that had been with his family since the Boer War. His boots were wet, plastered with the leaves of ferns and gorse he had been tramping through, and he shrugged off the droplets of water which had dripped from the trees onto his waterproof. When he left the house after lunch, it was foggy and overcast; the weather had improved since. It would be nightfall soon enough, but it was still bright; the light lasted a mite longer this time of the year. Ashton took the incline slowly. Not that he was tired, but the leg was giving him trouble again; it did in wet weather.
Soon, he had reached the manor’s tall wrought-iron gates. One stood open; a car had evidently passed through. He could make out its muddy tyre marks on the gravel drive.
Someone is visiting
, he thought.
People usually took the trouble to call in, considering that Stiles was at a dead end, six miles from the village through wooded country. He walked through the open gate, pulling it shut after him. His grandfather, Lord Mortimer Ashton, the man who had built Stiles, had been something of a recluse. He had chosen his house wisely, if you went for that sort of thing. Ten-foot-high lime-and-stone walls, crowned with broken glass, enclosed the property, the only access to it being the gates his grandson had just passed through.
There were two cars parked in front of the house. He recognized one – the Panda belonged to Constable Heron. The other was a Bentley with police markings he hadn’t seen in the village before; he guessed it was from the County Headquarters.
What the devil was going on?
A young police constable in uniform stood next to it, with the police radio on. As Ashton passed by, she mumbled a greeting. He nodded in acknowledgement, although he hadn’t seen her before. He thought about asking her what this was all about, then quickly changed his mind. The people who had arrived in these cars were probably already inside the house. He assumed that if they had taken the trouble to drive all the way here, they were going to tell him what had brought them. He also wanted his tea.
He climbed up the front steps and used the old-fashioned knocker on the heavy oak doors. Duggy, his house manager, had no doubt been waiting in the hallway, for he opened the door almost instantly. Henry Ashton raised his eyebrows enquiringly, but the other man simply shook his head. Behind him stood another police constable.
‘I don’t know, sir. They wouldn’t tell me,’ Duggy finally offered in response to Ashton’s unasked question, then added, ‘there was a call while you were out. From a Mr Liu Than who said he had come from London and urgently wanted to meet you. I took the liberty of calling him over for tea. It could well be about that.’
Ashton glanced over his house manager’s shoulder at the young constable who was staring blandly at the hallway, but probably taking in every nuance of their exchange.