We’re back with Scarlet Night, part of our month-long celebration of crime fiction. Hope you enjoyed reading the first chapter by Trisha Bora which we shared exclusively on Harper Broadcast last week. Today, we bring you the next instalment of the series, the second chapter by Tanushree Podder. Here we go:
I hate these tasks. A peeved voice, complaining, floats to Mira.
Unfinished tasks make me feel like a scavenger, it goes on. She listens. Why can’t they finish what they started?
In reply, a cautious grunt. The voices draw closer.
Mira shrinks further into herself, praying for a miracle.
Her mother believed in miracles. Never lose hope, she’d say. Mira remembers the words consoling her when she’d been distraught after a terrible performance at an audition for a television show. There’d been no miracle then. But Mira had also soon realized that acting wasn’t her calling anyway.
Now, she fiercely hopes that her mother had been right. Now, more than ever, Mira needs a miracle.
The footsteps draw closer by the second. The crunching leaves under their feet give her goosebumps. They’re looking for her. To finish the task, the voice had said. What task?
Suddenly, the flashlight swings in an arc, missing Mira by an inch. Almost on cue, the sky opens-up and big drops of rain begin pelting the ground.
The men curse.
‘Let’s wait for the rain to stop,’ one of them says. ‘She can’t get away anyway. Not after those injuries.’
‘No. we can’t take chances. Let’s keep looking. It shouldn’t take long,’ the other voice says.
Once again the flashlight swings her way. Once again it misses narrowly.
I have to get away from them, now!
Gathering the last vestige of strength, Mira twists and rolls her damaged body further away from the flashlight’s glare. She stifles the moan that rises to the throat at the physical effort. Her every nerve tingles with unbearable pain as she waits for the men to move away.
But she knows that it’s a matter of time before they find her. Somehow, the impending danger clears her mind. Fragments of a conversation come back to her.
They had been leaving for a family gathering when the call came.
One glance at the caller’s name on his phone and Dinesh had paled.
You go ahead and take the car out of the garage, he’d said to her. I’ll join you in a minute.
He hadn’t told her who was calling. And curious to find out, Mira hadn’t left. She had lurked behind the door instead, listening.
But Dinesh had barely spoken. The pallor on his face alarmed Mira, and she’d watched beads of perspiration lining her husband’s brows.
I will not betray you. I promise. This was the only sentence Dinesh had said during the call, just before hanging up. His voice had been laced with fear.
That was one week before the party.
Something changed after that phone call. Since then, Dinesh had remained on edge, starting at every sound, jumping at every sudden movement. Another woman? Mira had wondered, and then, when she got tired of wondering, she’d confronted Dinesh. But he’d simply waved her away. Don’t worry. I will tell you everything, soon.
She shudders now as another memory assails her – those furious blood-red eyes glaring at her through slits in a mask – so like an executioner’s mask.
And she was meant to die, but something had gone wrong.
Once again, Mira forces her mind to remember the night of the party. She’d followed Dinesh out, her head had been spinning from the coke. It had felt good to leave the room, which was beginning to feel claustrophobic.
And then, something had happened. Someone had attacked her, as she’d stood smoking in the portico, looking for Dinesh.
That’s where her memories stop, segueing into a muddle of pain and darkness.
She should have been somewhere around this place. The man’s voice pulls Mira back to the present. We can’t go back without her.
The rain is now coming down in sheets, obliterating traces of her blood from the ground. The kites have long flown back to their hideouts.
Mira lies shivering, alone, on the cold, wet earth; the leaves have grown soggy under her inert body. The red dress clings to her, reminding of her husband’s acrid comment.
He was wrong. She didn’t seek attention. It chased her. Always.
Mercifully, the footstep begins to slosh away in the opposite direction, picking up speed to escape the rain. The beam of the flashlight swings in shorter arcs, further and further away from her.
The rain has forced the hunters to abandon their search for the moment. But she knows they’ll be back.
She lets out a breath she didn’t know she had been holding, and her mind returns to Dinesh.
Is he looking for her? Surely, he must have realized that she is missing? Is he safe himself?
Or was it him who wanted to have her harmed?
The thought appears like a flash of lightning; like a warning.
Do not seek him.
But Mira knows she needs to find her husband. The voice in her head screeches.
You can’t trust anyone. Not even Dinesh. Do not look for him.
But she can’t help it, can she? Dinesh is her only link to this mystery. Her only way to the truth of what’s happened to her.
And he’d said something during the game, hadn’t he? She can’t remember, but knows that this memory will also come back to her, like the rest are – piece by broken piece.
And every fragment seems to lead her back to Dinesh. The mysterious call, his nervousness, the long absences that had begun after that call.
The rain is petering to a drizzle. The men will be back soon. Mira knows she needs to leave this place before they return.
But her body is cold – numb and uncooperative. She grabs the ground under her, trying to heave herself up, and her hand touches an object. Something hard, cold and metallic. In a flash, she recognises it.
Desperately, she clutches at it, its shape familiar in her hands. It couldn’t be. It shouldn’t be.
But it is.
She shivers involuntarily as the tentacles of fresh fear grip her heart. Her horrified mind refuses to admit the truth.
But Mira knows. She knows the identity of her attacker.
(To be continued. Chapter Three by Amitabh Pandey, coming soon on Harper Broadcast.)
Tanushree Podder is the author of over twenty books, of which Solo in Singapore was published by HarperCollins India. Her forthcoming novel, a whodunnit, will be published by Harper Black, the crime-fiction imprint of HarperCollins India.