September is Crime Month at HarperCollins India this year and we’ve brought together four talented writers to write Scarlet Night, a brand new serialized crime fiction drama. Our writers will set the plot, one chapter at a time, for you, the reader, to give the crime its destined end. Change everything or nothing, it’s up to you. The same writers —Trisha Bora, Tanushree Podder, Amitabh Pandey and Vish Dhamija—will double up as the jury to select the most fitting finale from entries submitted for the final chapter.
Today we’re starting up with chapter one by Trisha Bora. Enjoy!
It’s the birds that bring her back from the dead.
When she opens her swollen, pus-filled eye, she can discern a black cloud, all feather and beak, gather around her lifeless legs. Kites. There are at least twenty, perhaps more, swooping and cawing urgently; swiping at her open wound, pecking at the torn flesh, ripping sinew from bone. If she had not woken up, they would have gone through her leg in a few hours.
Panic surges through her. She tries to scream but her throat constricts, and all she manages is a faint gasp. Her head is a violent blur.
What is happening to me?
She tries to get up, pressing her palms flat against the damp ground, but it is as if her body is made of stone. And then she feels it, the searing pain – white hot – ripping through her body.
Who did this to me?
A few kites, undeterred by her movement, hop towards her bloody leg. They are determined to get a piece. Her fingers scramble across the ground, digging, searching. She feels something in the loose earth. A rock. She grips it, and taking a blurry aim, throws it at the birds. Even though she misses, it does the job. The birds scatter.
The small action drains her completely, and her hand falls back, limp as a corpse. Her ribs are definitely broken, she thinks, because it cannot hurt so much just to breathe.
Above her, evening is darkening the canopy of trees, and the biting January wind carries a light drizzle. She is freezing; her lips are blue and her fingernails are as white as her eyes. And then she realizes something.
She’s still wearing her red dress. The one from her party.
Not just any red, her husband had said, scarlet. Mira loves attention, you see, she can’t help herself. He had laughed.
Dinesh had been kidding, of course, but she had felt the sting, had felt her stomach turn. And she had heard the voice in her head, warning her – tonight, you must be careful.
It feels like a dream now. Cold, battered and delirious, she could be imagining it all.
But there it is. That fragment once again, playing itself out.
She can’t help herself.
Mira could never help herself. Even though Dinesh had begged her not to go mad over his fortieth birthday party – forty is not something you celebrate, darling, he’d said – she had gone right ahead and done as she pleased. It was only going to be a small party after all. An intimate affair held at their farmhouse in Sainik Farms. Eight guests. Their best friends. Lilies. Wine from the Chilean Embassy. Dinner catered by the best restaurant in town. She had spent so much time fussing over the details – perfect cutlery, Murano glassware, 400-count cotton table spreads.
She knew Dinesh would explode when he found out how much she’d splurged for his birthday, but she also knew how to calm him down. She knew what he liked and what he didn’t. And despite everything, she loved him.
She would do anything for him. She really would. Even if he couldn’t look her in the eye and tell her he loved her.
How could he? When she knew everything about him.
Where is he?
The drizzle is gaining strength. Soon, it’ll pour and if Dinesh doesn’t find her, she’ll bleed to death.
Till death do us apart.
She remembers the party; remembers the game they’d started to play. For old time’s sake. For a laugh. Truth or Dare. Varsha, Dinesh’s boss, and her husband had left at this point. How much had all of them drunk by then? Everyone was loosened up considerably, especially after the lines of coke they’d all done. Even Dinesh, who usually stayed away from chemicals, had given in. What about her? Had she done some herself?
Mira can’t remember, and it makes her feel like screaming. Easy does it, her father would always tell her. And so, even as the pain slices through her frame, she tries to let go, loosening every muscle, breathing deeply. Last year, she’d attended a Vipassana course. She’d taken the vow of silence for ten days, and learnt how to be still through the body scans, even when she was being attacked by mosquitoes, she had remained still. It’s amazing how the mind can forget even the most intense physical reactions if you can train it to.
So she tries to let go, just like she’d done in her class. Tries to gloss over the pain, even though it’s next to impossible, but suddenly a snatch of memory arrests her, and her eyes fly open.
Something had gone wrong at the game, hadn’t it?
Someone had said something about a girl. A girl who had disappeared. No … that wasn’t it. She had been murdered. After that, Dinesh had walked out of the room, and she had followed him. And the voice in her head had warned her once again – tonight, you must be careful. Especially careful.
Had she done something to him? Had she said something?
Just then, she hears a sound. The snapping of undergrowth. Footsteps crunching across bramble. Someone is heading in her direction.
She is about to scream for help, but she stops before the word can leave her mouth.
What if it doesn’t help? What if whoever did this to her has come back to finish the job?
Her heart hammers in her ears. She looks around wildly for shelter, somewhere she can hide. But she can barely drag her body – the pain is incredible. Her right shin is broken in half, and the bone has pierced flesh, making even the minutest of movements hellish agony.
The footsteps grow louder. They belong to more than one person. The harsh beams of flashlights slice through the darkness.
In the moments before they find her, Mira thinks of her life. The perfect, beautiful life she had. The one everyone envied and wanted. She thinks of her parents, who when they were alive, had loved her above all else. She thinks of her home, warm and sophisticated. And in those last few seconds, before the flashlight falls on her, she thinks of a face, twisted in anger. Those furious blood-red eyes, that cruel mouth, and suddenly, Mira remembers what happened to her.
(To be continued. Chapter Two by Tanushree Podder, coming soon on Harper Broadcast.)
Trisha Bora is the author of What Kitty Did published by HarperCollins India.