The merciless waft pierced through the gash near his jugular, blurring the malignant cluster of stars peeping through the foyer.
The all-familiar dusty black-rider-shoes staccatoed their way towards him, stomping on the new tennis racquet. A birthday gift for his son… and some more.
He heard the crackling graphite, the racquet splintering in its cover… resembling his life.
The deep baritone boomed.
“You son-of-a-bitch, how could you betray me…?” the voice faded before resurfacing. “… can’t let you have Jess…”
But his sinking mind fathomed the only name… Jess. His darling mount, the ace up his sleeve.
What was that? Kerosene? He felt the pungent wetness as the man hunched on his soles, lighting a matchstick. Thank God Jess was far away.
Jess… the one soul he had confided everything in.
“…you have to go… can’t leave traces…” The man’s voice cracked as he retreated, throwing the ember on the floor.
Life made her way out of his battered body even as he felt the burning inferno, the flames around him engulfing everything in its wake, the wind calmly fanning his pyre.
Farewell, dear Jess…
(A year later)
“EVERYONE, HERE RIGHT NOW…” Mrs. Khubyar Dorabjee’s falsetto-filled vibrato chimed through the cool air encompassing the vast grassland of ‘Dorabjee Equestrian Farm.’
The CEO of the enterprise, her bulky form, strutted ahead, supported by a carved cane that served more opulence and less purpose.
“…So please welcome Maanav Deshmukh into team ‘Jess’….” Amidst murmurs, she continued, “… Maanav’s father was our late trainer AadarshDedhmukh whom we lost last year….” She paused, looking up at the vast azure. There was a sudden stillness, the cacophony of the whinny neighs or barfing sounds of the horses and other farm companions filling the void.
The matriarch spoke. “A final year student of the esteemed Malta Institute of Veterinary Sciences, Maanav specializes in equestrian nutrition and is interning here for a few months. So, what better time than the upcoming Sinhagad Derby …?” Khubyar smiled and continued. “…Jess can now be our frontline candidate.”
“Jagan…?” She called out, and a tall, dark, muscular middle-aged man scrambled forward, running a hand through his minimal salt and pepper hair strands. “…show the boy around.”
Her wrinkled, bejeweled hand patted Maanav’s shoulders. “My son and the director of this farm, Ruslaan, will be here in a couple of days. Your father was his closest friend. We all miss him, Maanav….” She sighed and walked away towards the ATV, waiting to take her to the attached bungalow.
Wasting no time, Maanav rushed to the colossal stable and walked towards Jess standing majestically tall behind the wooden framework jutting out his head just a bit. The brown beauty with his glorious mane shining under the sanguine evening rays snorted on Maanav.
“Be careful, son…” Jagan warned behind him.
Blinking back tears, Maanav picked up a large carrot from the bundle nearby and held it up to Jess.
“Hello, dude…” He spoke softly. “…How are you doing?”
As if replying, Jess neighed, accepting the orange delicacy.
“The last person he accepted that carrot directly was your late father….” Jagan reminisced. “…He was the only one who could saddle him up. Special bond it was. Aadarsh talked to Jess all the time, spoke about you too….” Jagan rubbed his face and looked away.
Maanav drove a tentative hand over Jess’s mane while the stallion stood in silence. Suddenly turning towards Maanav, Jess blew a pleasant nicker on Maanav’s face, his ears forward, his nostrils moving.
“He likes you…” Jagan chuckled, walking away.
“I know, buddy… dad didn’t kill himself.…” Maanav whispered.
The next day Maanav got busy learning the ropes of the farm and its strident occupants, also making gradual strides toward Jess.
That evening, to the entire staff’s surprise, he saddled Jess.
“This is unbelievable, son…” Jagan exclaimed, his eyes shining with unshed tears. “…Aadarsh customized this saddle for Jess. None of us could do this since.….”
Placing a foot on the stirrup, Maanav swung over Jess’s rump, and soon they were riding along the farm’s perimeter. Though Jess wanted to ride further away, Maanav restrained him and gradually brought him back to his stable.
Later as Maanav brushed Jess’s mane, he mumbled. “Don’t worry, buddy, very soon we shall venture further….”
During the next few days, Maanav helped the in-house nutritionist design the horses’ food plan, reserving every moment between his chores for Jess. In tandem with his livewire mood, Jess welcomed Maanav with a gentle hoof taps and vibrating nostrils.
That morning Maanavwas summoned to the office. A well-built Ruslaan Dorabjee with bright-brownish-eyes and skin burned and weathered by the sun, warmly greeted him.
“Welcome, son. It’s good to see you in person. Aadarsh was proud of your achievements in lawn tennis. Pity that you don’t play the sport anymore. But that’s a blessing in disguise for us, particularly for Jess….” He walked towards the French window with ornately carved ridges screaming of generations of opulence. “…Jess was commissioned to expand our thoroughbreds and has cost us a fortune. But after Aadarsh passed, he hasn’t been up to the mark, and we are running into huge losses. So, Maanav…” He turned towards the young man. “…I hope you help this farm get back on track. This Derby holds promise if Jess participates. So help prepare him. I heard he has taken a liking for you.”
Maanav nodded, taking in the spectacular office with framed pictures of horses and their owners with the Dorabjees, including a few of his father and Jess.
Everything appeared normal… was he disillusioned?
A couple of weeks later, Maanavwas restless as he mounted Jess. Sensing his mood, the stallion took speed once outside the farm perimeter. Maanav let him have his way, and Jess raced across the broadly spread rocky land and oasis-like meadows.
Jess came to a staggering halt outside a dilapidated mansion surrounded by spookily drying wilderness. There were more weeds than herbage, and a large part of the derelict foyer was burnt. Maanav alighted and scampered through the rubble while Jess sniffed around.
“What place is this, buddy?” Maanav turned towards Jess.
With Maanav close on his heels, Jess dashed behind the house and halted near a broken door, probably the other exit. Jess refused to move, snorting down at muddy mounds.
Maanav painstakingly scraped the mud using a broken window edge and soon spotted dark marks like a running trail underneath. Jess further led him to a burnt tree stump. Maanav’s curiosity snowballed his zeal to uncover the secret behind his father’s untimely death, and he continued the dig.
Jess neighed, and Maanavshut his ears to block the piercing sound. He realized he had unearthed a rather large dark spot… dried blood.
“Was… was this … dad?” Maanav looked at Jess.
The stallion nudged him back towards the wrecked mansion.
His parents had separated when he was barely three, and his father had devoted his life to his passion for horses. The man had vast knowledge of the breeding science. Maanav had inherited the same ardor and was a self-taught rider. However, his mother detested farm life and propelled an athleticMaanav towards competitive lawn-tennis. He had excelled in the sport but soon found his calling in the veterinary nutritional sciences.
Maanav had only recently begun interacting with his father, and his death by suicide had shaken him to the core. It had taken him a year to do his research and arrive here for evidence. The internship was a perfect cover.
Maanav scavenged through the shambles of brick and cement, the cuts on his palms undeterring his resolve. Guilt-laden hot tears cascaded down his cheeks.
What was his father doing in these ruins?
As he turned around to leave, Jess stomped heavily on the floor nearby, and a piece of cloth caught Maanav’s attention. It took a while to drag out a torn tennis racquet bag. His father had mentioned the gift for his 20th birthday.
Hands trembling, he unzipped the bag as the dusky evening cast its nascent shadows. Broken pieces of the limited-edition Rafael Nadal-autographed racquet fell out.He was about to place the pieces back inside when a sound stopped him.
Jess was uneasy.
Maanav jerked the racquet pieces again, and a couple of scrolls fell out of the hollow in the broken racquet. Unscrolling, he read them in the glimmer of the last strands of sunlight; his heart skipped a beat.
Undoubtedly, his father was murdered.
The Sinhagad Derby hosted by the Dorabjees was a major tourist attraction in the otherwise sleepy town. Several thoroughbreds and their Jockeys gathered for the largest Derby in the Satara district.
Maanavled Jess into the arena along with his jockey and took center stage for the introductory round. The Dorabjee camp was in high spirits.
“Ladies and gentlemen….” Maanav began. “…Thank you for the applause. However, today Jess will not be competing.”
“What is going on, Maanav?” Ruslaan roared, breaking through the suddenly descended silence.
“Mr. Dorabjee… Jess belongs to me. According to my late father’s will.”
“Nonsense. Jess belongs to the Dorabjee farm and not to any employee.”
“My father bred Jess….”
“…Aadarsh bred horses for us, and we have an agreement in place… Jess is ours….”
There were murmurs as the two men squared it off.
“The Dorabjees did not commission Jess. However, given Jess’s thoroughbred pedigree, you pressurized dad to train Jess for you… didn’t you?”.
“That’s a lie.” Ruslaan fumed.
“The proof is here, and so are the authorities.” Maanav declared as a swarm of officials spread across the place along with the local police giving enough fodder to the gathered reporters.
Maanav held up the copies of the papers unearthed from the broken tennis racquet.
“Three mares were impregnated on three consecutive days via artificial insemination. At the time, Mr. Ruslaan, deep in gambling debt, replaced the vials of the commissioned Irish thoroughbred with cheaper samples obtained from a dubious sperm-bank. Here is the proof of purchase with the stamps and signatures. The mare who sired Jess was impregnated by the vial my father obtained from his connections. He used his life savings to move away from the Dorabjees with his prized possession. So Jess here belonged to my father and now to me…”
“STOP. You have gone insane like your old man….” Ruslaan launched himself towards the dais, but the police restrained him.
“Mr. Ruslaan, my father had learned about the financial irregularities and the fatal damage you caused to mares by over-breeding to cash in on the mare-heat right after foaling. They are buried under the almost dead tree where you killed dad…”
“That’s atrocious… your father… burnt himself… he embezzled funds.”
“You betrayed my father. The accounts are all in the open now. So the story will change if you are investigated. You wanted Jess for his progeny; for that, he had to win the Derby. But, unfortunately for you, Jess had a mind of his own. Do you own up to killing dad, or should we test the dried blood … should we extract the carcasses of those mares?”
Speechless, Ruslaan stood panting as police took over.
Maanav walked towards Jess, who welcomed him in his trademark snort.
“We did it, buddy…”
Two months later
Maanav patted Jess, restless since the former was leaving for his exams.
“Don’t worry, buddy. I will be back very soon. But, till then, listen to Jagan and be a good stud…”
Jagan watched the proceedings pensively. “Maanav… it’s unbelievable. None of us had a clue about what Adarsh was going through. He was a brilliant man good at heart. Now that Mrs. Dorabjee handed over the reins to a corporate player, things will get different. Every transaction will be transparent. Let’s hope for a better future for these majestic beings…”
Nodding, Maanav lifted his backpack. He turned to look at Jess for one last time.
“Till we meet again, Jess…”
Place: Dilapidated Mansion
Thing: A broken tennis racquet
This Post Has 3 Comments
Awesome one indeed….
The plot was excellent! You must have done quite a lot of research to write this story. There were a few typos, where the space between Manav and other words was absent. But this was a great effort!
Wow u have so much knowledge about horses…u researched well… and included the rest of the prompts also well too… a nice thriller …. free flowing language