The quiet of the morning was broken by a ‘thud’ that echoed in the tranquil valley air like a gunshot. Then all was quiet again. It was 3 am. No one heard anything. No one stirred. No one rushed to investigate.
Come morning, they discovered her. She lay in a crumpled heap, blood congealed around her mangled body.
There were no suspects. She had been a woman madly in love, just a tad unhinged. Her possessiveness had bordered on psychotic control or so everyone had been told.
So, suicide it was then. Not a homicide.
One year later…
He threw open the French windows. Tepid sunshine spilt into the living room. The room opened into the scenic back garden which abutted a sheer drop into the valley. A low stone wall cordoned off the area from the precipice.
He stepped outside onto the deck.
“This is where…” He shook his head, trying to shake the memory off. “I can’t go there. No.”
The sprawling two-story country house stood on breathtaking grounds. Set among picturesque hills, a curved gravel driveway led to a porch supported by ornately carved stone pillars. Lush landscaped lawns, dotted with shrubs gave the entrance a regal feel. The foyer branched into an atrium that overlooked the expansive gardens where seasonal flower beds clustered around tinkling water fountains. To either side of the entrance, a little way off; the hills sloped gently upwards as they merged into the woods. The woods were dark and dense, whispering of hidden secrets.
Retreating, he picked his bags up and climbed the stairs to his room.
The old wooden stairs groaned, annoyed at the intrusion. He chuckled. They had always made that noise, even when as a child he had traipsed up and down. The old interiors had aged with time, lending a quaint feel to the house. It was an old house. When the cold northerly gale blew through the woods, whipping the statuesque pines into submission, the house howled with it too. The chilled blasts of air burrowed in through the many crevices in the old windows and moaned ominously.
As he walked up, his thoughts inadvertently turned to that night, the night when it all began, or rather when it all ended. It had been such a night, dark and misty. Since then he had been unable to come back, until now.
“No. I can’t revisit the past. It wasn’t my fault. It was hers,” he shook his head in vehemence.
The memory of that night brought the trials of the past year to mind. The pestilent police inquiry had dragged on forever. And the media frenzy, that had been crazy. The headlines had screamed for months – ‘Is the Scion of India’s largest business conglomerate guilty?’, ‘Was she playboy’s latest toy?’ etc. He bristled now at the painful memory. “All because of that B****.”
A wave of anger engulfed him making his face turn a darker shade. A pulse started throbbing angrily on his forehead… “Stupid b****!” he thought furiously, “Why could she not have left it at the fun and games? Why couldn’t she have been more open-minded? We could have had so much fun. B****!”
Shrugging off the angry thoughts with large gulps of scotch, he settled in. The property caretaker had left to attend to an emergency the previous day. ‘Sir, my child is sick, please sir; let me go for a day. I will be back tomorrow for sure.’
He had flatly refused. He was expecting guests the next day. How could he be expected to cope alone? Who would see to the arrangements? But, the caretaker was an old hire and he had pleaded till rather grudgingly, he had had no choice but to give in.
“Make sure you are back tomorrow morning with the staff, okay? I have guests coming,” he had instructed in a stern voice. Bobbing his head in deference, the caretaker had made his escape, probably scared that ‘sir’ might change his mind. So for now, he was alone in the house.
Night came early to the hills. As darkness descended the mountains quietened and the woods came alive. In the obsidian air, the calls and sounds of the night denizens resounded. A mist rolled in clinging to the trees in sinuous waves. Its frosty fingers dribbled onto everything. In the hazy, half-light a waning moon hung suspended in the sky, a mute spectator. The eerie atmosphere was nothing new for someone who had been born in the hills. But to a visitor, the sounds of the woods and even the mist were quite scary. Not for him though. His parents had had little interest in him and he had no siblings. So, he had spent most of his formative years in this house, with his old grandparents. Oh, they had loved him but they could not compensate for the attention he craved from his parents. In fact, all the money in the world (and they had thrown plenty of it his side) could not make up for their absence in his life. He had grown up bereft of true love so it was no surprise that he did not understand the emotion. To him love was a tool, to be used at self discretion.
Tired post the long drive he slept, sinking almost immediately into a deep dreamless reverie.
‘You came. I have been waiting. I knew you would come.’
He jolted upright in bed, peering groggily around him. Did he hear someone speaking?
The room was dark except for the mellow glow cast by the dying embers of the fire. The door was shut and locked from inside.
“Was it a dream?” he thought, his mind addled with sleep. “Hmmm…Maybe it was a dream. But, it seemed real.” He cocked his head but heard nothing more. An owl hooted outside as it flew past the window.
‘Twoo…twoo.’ The plaintive sound echoed in the clammy night. Involuntarily he shuddered and drew in a breath.
‘Sniff…sniff.’ Was that jasmine?
Strange! He never used the scent and there were no flowers in the room. “Maybe it’s coming from the gardens,” he thought. “Yes, that must be it. My mind is playing tricks on me,” he concluded and drew his quilt up tighter. Soon, all snuggled in he drifted off into an uneasy slumber.
‘Dong…dong…dong.’ The grandfather clock on the landing, a relic of a bygone era, stuck the hour – 3 am.
Rudely shaken from his restless somnolence, he sat upright and clutched a hand to his violently thudding heart. “Damn the clock,” he grumbled. “It’ll give me a heart attack someday.”
‘You came. I knew you would come.’
It was just a whisper. But, he heard it. He was sure. This was no mistake or dream. There was someone there, in the room. But, how? The door was locked. “I locked it, I’m sure.”
Fear clogged his throat. His eyes darted everywhere in the room but could see no one. With bated breath and clammy hands, he fumbled for the night switch by the bedside.
“What the…?” No lights. He tried again. ‘Click…click.’ Same result. The lights were definitely off. Cold sweat trickled down the nape of his neck. The house had a backup inverter. That should have switched on automatically. He clicked again but the lights stayed off. He reached for his mobile. “I’ll switch on the mobile flashlight.” The mobile was dead, the battery drained.
“Oh God, no, no, no,” he thought, panic knotting his stomach. “How is this possible? I charged it, I’m sure.”
In the still of the night, the sound was ominous. “The stairs… Someone’s in the house.” Tendrils of terror clawed at his innards. He panicked, “God! What do I do?”
Frantically he groped in the topmost drawer of the nightstand for a weapon, any weapon. There was nothing much there except for a few papers. “Okay! I have to stop panicking first. I can’t lose it. I need to stay sharp,” he thought. “It’s probably just an intruder who saw the caretaker leave and thought no one was in the house.” Taking a deep breath to calm his jittery nerves he extended the other hand to grope in the other drawer. It closed around a pair of scissors. Relieved, he gripped those, threw back the covers and silently padded out of bed, walking towards the door.
Whining inwards on its hinges, the door swung open. He shrieked. He felt a blast of cold air invade the room, rolling in like the mist outside. The glowing embers gasped and died. Only a weak sliver of moonlight peeking in through a gap in the drapes cast a light. The huge mirror that hung over the mantelpiece frosted. Then he heard it…the unmistakable sound of breathing, a slow inhale and exhale. But, no one was visible…
‘Whhhoooo….whho’s thhhere?’ he mustered his courage to ask, brandishing the scissors.
In a whisper, the answer came. ‘It’s me. Don’t you remember? Have you forgotten already?’
The voice, he knew that voice. But, it couldn’t be. Or could it? She was dead. He knew that. Who else but him would know?
Outside, a branch scraped against the windowpane, screeching as it whipped across. Startled, he screamed in terror.
She laughed a deep throaty rumble that sent a chill down his spine. He felt a weight press down on his chest as comprehension dawned. The shock rendered him speechless. No, it couldn’t be. No. And yet it was her, the same voice, the same laugh and the same scent of lavender.
“Youu…You’re dead,” he managed to whisper hoarsely. His ashen face looked colder than the cold that seeped into his bones from his bare feet. “You’re dead.”
‘Yes, I am, aren’t I? You would know that, wouldn’t you? Do you remember how I died? Why I died?’
Bathed in a cold sweat all he could do was stare, as a misty shape materialized in front of him. It was her, dead and yet alive. She seemed so real, so present.
Shivering from the cold, he reached out a trembling hand to touch her. ‘Whoosh.’ His hand passed through the air. He tried again. ‘Whoosh.’ Again his hand passed through the air. Shock registered. It was her and not her. He backed away. His foot caught on the floor rug making him stumble and fall.
She laughed again, clearly enjoying his impotent effort to take in the situation.
“Whaaat…what do you want?”
‘You. I want you.’
“Me? Why me?” he blubbered in fear. “I’m sorry.”
She floated closer and bent down till her face was a merely a few inches from his. He tried to scuttle back but got wedged against the bedpost.
‘Don’t you remember? I told you earlier too that I will always love you. Even if we’re apart, I’ll always be with you’.
Ice settled over his soul as she breathed the words. Mouth agape, he sat on the floor inert. She was right. She used to say that all the time when they were together. Truth was, he always indented their relationship to be a dalliance. But she, she had wanted more. Oh, she had been beautiful but a girl with a small town moralistic mentality. She had had an innocent, dainty beauty that had activated a painful lust in him. It had stirred hard feelings in his groin. He had wanted her, from the first moment he had laid eyes on her. And what he wanted, he always got, just like he got her. He had wooed her and pursued her till he had broken down her barriers. For him it had been just another thrill, for her it had been true love, the kind that happened only once in a lifetime.
They had come to the house for a weekend getaway. He had planned on a lustful tryst but she had been appalled at the idea. Initially, he had thought she was parrying that it was all just foreplay.
“Ah! I know how to play that game,” he had thought bemused and hit the scotch hard. But, as the night wore on and the witching hour struck, he had failed to bed her.
She had been adamant in both her refusal and her resolve. “No. Not before marriage. It’s wrong.”
He had scoffed. “Marriage? Who said anything about marriage? C’mon we are just having a bit of fun, you and I. Don’t be such a prude,” he had said pulling her to him, pinning her against his chest.
“No. Leave me. I will not before marriage” She had wriggled free.
Inebriated on alcohol and drunk on his lust for her, he had lost the tenuous grip on his temper. “You w***e! You led me on. I could have chosen anyone; any girl and she would have come obligingly to my bed. She would have wanted it, hungered for it. But, I chose you. I wined and dined you and when it’s time for you to oblige, you say no? No…to me!”
She had cringed at his words as if slapped. Her eyes had widened, misted over. With a quiver in her lip and a tremble in her voice she had whispered, “You don’t love me, do you? You just want to use me for S**.”
“Love?” he had scoffed, “Who could love a country bumpkin like you? I have obliged you by keeping you on my arm. I have opened the doors of high society for you. Now it is time for you to pay me back.” He had lunged for her then. She had stepped back and run out into the back garden to get away from him. He had followed, calling out to her in a few choicest expletives. No one said ‘no’ to him, no one. And neither could she. He would not allow that. He owned her. She was his, his to use. He would take what was his.
In his stupor, he stumbled on the deck stairs, grabbed on the railing for support continued after her. He could see her misty outline at the far end, near the low wall. She could not escape him. She was boxed in. There was no way out but to come back towards him.
He laughed like a maniac. “B***, you thought you could run from me. I’m coming for you. You are mine.”
He had caught up to her at the wall and pulled her roughly to him. She had fought back, desperately trying to claw at his face with her fingernails. That had enraged him.
“How dare you,” he had yelled incensed. He shoved her. She had stumbled and toppled over the wall and fallen…all the way down, to her death.
They ruled it another suicide and not a homicide.
When the police broke open the door to his bedroom the next day, they found him sitting by the bed and staring at the door.
The room was frigid as if touched by the icy finger of death.
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