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Poisoned trail

The Monastery of the White Elephant, Louangphrabang, 1986

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 khems—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.

Excerpted with permission from Hachette India. The book is out in stores.

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