She was ready to draw blood. No other expression could come close to expressing what Anna was feeling right now. She felt so ferocious that she could tear Vikas up, limb by limb, with her bare hands, if he were to fall into her hands right now, by any stroke of luck. She couldn’t even begin to imagine how he had had the guts to threaten her elder sister, Sophia, who was soon to be married. That very morning, a package which had Sophia’s name on it had been delivered to the house by the courier. Thankfully, it had been Anna, instead of Sophia, who had received it. She had playfully stolen back to her own room with the package, with the intention of taking a peek at the contents of it, before hiding it away, just to irritate Sophia. She was sure that Rupert, Sophia’s fiancé, had sent something special for his would-be wife; maybe that something was meant only for the soon-to-be-bride’s eyes, and knowing that her punk sister had opened it and looked at the contents, would piss Sophia off to no end. Smiling widely at the thought, Anna cut open the package to find a pain of envelopes inside. It was then that the handwriting on the envelopes caught her eyes. It was in Vikas’ handwriting – untidy and illegible, as she very well knew. She opened the thinner of the envelopes and out dropped a piece of paper with the same dirty, scrawling handwriting across it. She picked it up and began to read, and as she read, her anger continued to increase until it knew no bounds. The wicked son of a gun! And to think that she had once fancied herself to have been in love with him, and until recently, thought of him with pity! He was unworthy of love or even pity; nay, unworthy of any humane feeling, unworthy even of being left alive. She lost no time in deciding that she had to put an end to him, before he managed to put an end to her sister’s as well as her entire family’s happiness. For the gist of the letter was that if Sophia didn’t sleep with him that night, he would send copies of photoshopped images of the two of them, to Rupert and her would-be in-laws, which would, he ‘sincerely believed’, put an effective end to the marriage and life she was so looking forward to. If she, on the other hand, would ‘oblige’ him with her company, he would destroy every single copy of these images, in front of her and let her go, ‘just like that’. A night spent with her younger sister’s ex-boyfriend was a small price to pay for the chance to have a happy married life. He really ‘hoped’ that she would ‘listen to reason’ and come that night and she had his word that he would do exactly as he had said he would, either way, for he was a ‘man of honour’.
The very first thing that Anna felt, after going through the photographs in the other envelope, was that her entire world was about to fall apart. She sat there like a statue for some time, the open letter in one hand and the photographs in the other, stunned as much by Vikas’ audacity as by the realisation of how much she would hate to see her world crumble around her. And as she sat there, her initial shock was gradually replaced by boundless anger and a burning desire for vengeance. At the sound of her sister’s voice just outside her room, the door to which she had fortunately closed upon entering, she came back to her senses and thrust letter, envelopes and all into the narrow space between her writing-table and the wall, which she knew to be a safe place for hiding things while the package she kicked under the bed; and it was not a moment too soon, for just as she had accomplished these tasks, the handle of the door turned and in came Sophia, asking her to get ready to go to the tailor’s in order to have a look at and maybe even try on the wedding trousseau. However, when Anna turned her pale face towards her, while holding onto the table, Sophia stopped short, petrified at the look on her sister’s face. In another moment, though, she was beside Anna, voicing her concerns that the excitement of the coming wedding was, perhaps, a bit too much for her, that she needed some rest and that she could very well go to the tailor’s alone. Anna, however, brushed away her concern and trying to compose herself, announced that she wouldn’t let Sophia go there alone. For a ghost of a plan was slowly forming in her brain. She needed to be with Sophia, in order to use her phone to send a text to Vikas, confirming the rendezvous. Nobody besides her needed to know anything about the package and its contents. She would go to meet Vikas, disguised as Sophia, which wasn’t a tough job, as the sisters bore a striking similarity in their looks and figures. Even their voices were similar, or so everybody who knew both sisters said. Her plan was to go to his house under the cover of darkness, go through his stuff and his hiding places, retrieve and burn all available copies of the photographs as well as the letter, check his computer, camera, pendrives, discs etc. for backup files and destroy them, and finally, when his turn came… Well, she needn’t think about that yet; when the time came, she would know exactly what to do and how to do it. So, while Sophia was busy trying on her trousseau, Anna took her phone, swiftly typed out a message setting a late hour for the meeting, sent it to Vikas and as swiftly deleted the message from her sister’s phone. The next step was to switch the SIM cards, so that any reply from Vikas might not reach her sister and cause suspicion. This, too, she accomplished so swiftly that, by the time Sophia called her inside to ask her opinion about the dress and its fit, she had had time to calm her wildly beating heart and could give fitting rejoinders to her sister’s questions and misgivings.
By the time Sophia and Anna came back home, it was late in the afternoon. Their food was waiting for them on the table in the kitchen downstairs, but Anna went straight up to her room, on the pretext of getting some much-needed rest. She locked the door so that no one could surprise her by suddenly coming into her room. Then she brought out the package, letter, envelopes and photographs from their hiding-place and put them into the bag that she meant to carry to Vikas’s house. She also put a torch inside. For a moment she debated whether to take her grandfather’s old pistol or at least the sharpest kitchen-knife that she could find, with her but decided that she would think about that later. So she sat down on her bed and tried to think up some more details of the plan that she was going to put into execution in a few hours’ time. But however much she tried to concentrate on chalking out a plan, her thoughts always seemed to go back to the one regret that she nursed within herself – her involvement with Vikas. When they had met at the town church, more than a year ago, he had seemed like nice person. He had told her how he had lost his teen brother to dengue, his mother, who had been delirious with sorrow after her younger son’s death, in an accident, how he himself had nearly lost the use of his right leg due to illness and how he still carried around the effect of the illness in the form of the limp in his right leg, whenever he walked. She had been moved by his tales of suffering and his partial disability, and they had slowly bonded. Now that she came to think of it, she wondered how much of what he had said was actually true, for someone who had suffered so much could never wish to make another person suffer. What good was suffering to anyone if it didn’t serve to mellow one’s feelings and make one more empathetic towards others?
It was only after they started to go out together that she began to discover his true colours. He was a megalomaniac and a xenophobic. He was also extremely critical of other people and possessive to a fault. The first few times she was amused when he had expressed his intention to injure somebody he didn’t like in a bad way, thinking that he was just trying to be funny in his crude, semi-educated way; but as time passed, she came to understand that he actually meant every word of what he said and had he the means and opportunity to do as he pleased, he wouldn’t stop to think before he started putting everybody but himself in harm’s way. She began to feel frustrated when he talked about forgiveness and godliness, on one hand and of the cruel, monstrous things he wanted to do to anybody who chanced to fall foul of him, all in the same breath. So in less than three months, Anna began to try to distance herself from him. She also started to have a bad feeling when he started to ask her for money nearly every day, on some pretext or another, and pressurizing her to take their relationship ‘to the next level’. Here she was trying to put as much distance between the two of them as possible, and he was begging her for money and physical intimacy. She couldn’t but think of him as being really cheap. Then, one day, one of her friends informed her that Vikas worked as an escort for wealthy women and girls living in the other part of the town. A pair of cousins of the girl had showed her his website and told her of their many experiences with him. Anna had been so outraged at her friend’s apparent presumption that she had nearly thrown her out of the house, and had only stopped short when her friend had shown her the photographs that she had brought along as proof, including one of his website. What Anna had felt, when faced with these sordid proofs of her boyfriend’s ugly truth, couldn’t be described in words. She had known that he was cheap, but she couldn’t ever have believed him to be capable of this. Yet, at that moment, she was face to face with his truth. She now had no reason to wonder what kind of ‘business’ he was into and why he always clammed up when any question about his business was put to him. She spent a miserable day and a restless night, crying her heart out, and by the time it was morning again, she had decided to end the relationship, though not without accosting him with the truth first. So she waited for him that afternoon at their usual meeting-place, with a couple of those tell-tale photographs in her purse. When he came, she had to make a sincere effort to form words and be coherent while keeping her voice low. She showed him the photographs, told him that she knew his truth now, that she was ending the relationship and that if he ever tried to meet or harm her, she would have no qualms about making those photographs public and ruining his business. The expression on his face had turned from stunned to ferrety to one of positive ugliness by the time she had finished, but he hadn’t tried to say a word in defence, probably because he had realized that his game was up. And so they had parted.
It had been months since they had parted, and though for the first couple of months Anna had been afraid that Vikas might try to contact her or harm her in some way or the other, for she wouldn’t put it past him to injure her in any and every possible way, he had done nothing of the sort. Until now, of course. She knew exactly why he was doing this. It was the surest way to ruin Anna as well as her family’s happiness. He hated Anna because she knew his truth, but he also hated Sophia, perhaps as much as he hated Anna or may be even more, because Sophia had loathed him from the very beginning. She had tried to tell her younger sister numerous times that there was something very objectionable about this fellow, that she ought not to mix with men of this kind and so on. However, her objections had fallen on deaf ears for three months at least, until her sister had suddenly ceased meeting this imp. That was exactly what she thought of him – as a bringer of evil. So she was greatly pleased when Anna stopped seeing him, though she often wondered why. However, she forbore from asking questions and just hoped that her sister hadn’t been scarred by her association with the vile creature. So she had secretly kept watch over her, so that if and when Anna needed support of any kind or a shoulder to cry on, she could be there for her, no matter what. She loved her sister very much and couldn’t bear to see her hurt.
It was late in the evening when Anna, heavily muffled up in a sweater, a muffler and a shawl, made her way downstairs, after checking to see that nobody was around. She entered the kitchen on her way out, grabbed the biggest and sharpest knife that she could find, and slipped out the back door. She let herself out through the garden-gate and walked rapidly up the road towards the hill where Vikas’ house stood. She looked back stealthily a couple of times to see if somebody had seen her, but everything seemed normal. She was thankful that it was a cold evening, as it wouldn’t cause anybody, not even Vikas, to become suspicious regarding her heavily muffled appearance. The shawl had allowed her to conceal the bag that she was carrying. It would also help her to disguise her voice, so that Vikas wouldn’t know her for who she really was until the time was ripe. She was relieved to see from a distance that only one room on the ground floor had a light on. The rest of the house was in darkness. This meant that the pest was away and she would have the house to herself for quite some time. She just hoped that she might get hold of all the copies and be able to destroy them before Vikas arrived. When she reached the house, she stood in the shadow of the trees and looked and listened for the sign and sound of anybody else’s presence. When she was perfectly satisfied that there was nobody in the house, she entered it through the downstairs window that she had used many times before, whenever she had wanted to startle him. She knew that it was the second room to the left of the room that was well-lit that she had entered. That was the room where she would start her search, for that room was the one that Vikas worked in – his ‘office’ as he called it (and Anna had to stifle a snigger when she thought of his ‘business’ and how necessary it must be for him to have an ‘office’) , and it contained most of his stuff, including his computer. She opened the door of the room, came out, walked past the next door, and opening the door in question, entered the room. She started with the drawers, emptied them out, found a pendrive which she put into her bag before throwing the things pell-mell into the drawers once more and replacing them in their proper places. Then she went through his wardrobes, looking through his clothes and other stuff, and knocking on the inside walls with her knuckles, keeping her ears sharp for any sound that might reveal empty space beyond the wood lining. She was rewarded for her patient search when she discovered a cleverly-concealed locker at the back of one of them, from where she retrieved two envelopes containing photographs, one addressed to Rupert and the other to his father, as well as a camera which, however, contained nothing important. She put the camera back in its place, dumped the stuff that she had taken out into the wardrobes and closed them. Then she sat at his computer (she was able to guess his password correctly at the very first try, which only proved that he wasn’t as clever as he thought himself to be) and went meticulously through all his files and folders, until she came upon the one that contained the original photographs that he had taken somewhere outside, when she and Sophia hadn’t been aware of his presence – for they were both there, together, in the original photographs – as well as the original folder that contained the photoshopped images. These she deleted immediately, and after satisfying herself for the final time that there were no soft copies left on the computer, she made a thorough search of the other rooms on that floor. The rooms on the upper floor were empty and full of dust, as she very well knew. When she had found nothing more in any of the rooms, she went out into the backyard, lit a fire in the bin of trash and put packages, photographs, letter and pendrive into the fire and watched them turn into a pile of ash, undistinguishable from the rest of the burnt trash. Then, with a satisfied look on her face, she went round to the front of the house to wait for Vikas to return home, clutching the handle of the knife still inside her bag, under her shawl. Only the final part of her plan was yet to be put into action.
She had been waiting for around half an hour, when she heard the sound of his bike coming uphill. She steeled her nerves for the coming interview. She walked fast towards the gate as his bike came into view. She needed to keep him from going into the house. Instead she was planning to take him round to the back of the house, where she had discovered just the right spot for a perfect final descent down the steep hill-side. That was exactly where she was planning to take him, to urge him to take the final step into the dark nothingness that extended beyond the spot where the ground ended. She had the knife with her to use to her advantage when trying to persuade him to do that.
Vikas got down from his bike with a surprised but satisfied smirk. He hadn’t expected Sophia to be waiting there for him when he got home. This was a really pleasant surprise. The prey had walked into the net, willingly, without a winkling of what was to happen later. He had no intention of letting her go free. He knew how much she hated him; she, on the other hand, was about to know just how much he hated her and her little sister. True, he was going to destroy the photographs that he had promised to – they weren’t important to him, for he very well knew that anybody who looked at them would know that they had been photoshopped and were not the real ones. He had only used them to lure his prey into the trap. He was looking forward to spending the night with Sophia, for he had a camera hidden away, that would record a video of the two of them ‘in the act.’ That would be the real thing – his trump to play whenever and in whatever way he wanted. The sisters would be getting so much more than they had bargained for, when they had dared to cross his path.
‘I see that you are more than punctual, Sophia. How long have you been waiting?’ he asked, parking his bike and making to walk towards the house.
‘We need not go into the house just yet. We need to talk. Humour me, please.’ Anna said, assuming as much of the authoritative tone that Sophia used with outsiders.
‘Sure. Be my guest. We could talk inside, though. It’s cosier and warmer there.’ Vikas said, mentally noting the tone Sophia had used. That was what he loved about the sisters, the cool air of authority that they seemed to carry around with themselves. They thought they were invincible. Any other girl would have been on her knees, begging him to spare her, with tears in her eyes. Nothing of the sort was to be expected from Sophia or Anna Ealing. He was so going to enjoy breaking them.
‘I wouldn’t feel comfortable talking inside the house.’ Anna said. ‘Or even out here, in front of the house. Somebody might see us.’ She added, apparently as an after-thought. She somehow had to get him to accompany her to the back of the house. ‘I think it would be better if we went round to the back. There’s enough space to walk about in and no fear of being seen or overheard. Anna had told me much about the house,’ she added as an explanation.
Vikas didn’t seem disinclined to accompany her. After all, he was the hunter. He had no fear of being hunted, or so he thought. So they went round to the back; he laughing inwardly at her foolish preoccupation with whether somebody would see them together, when she should instead be worried about what he was going to do to her, and she, clutching the handle of the knife with much more force than was required.
‘It’s a cold night’, Vikas remarked, trying to make small talk, when they had crossed most of the backyard in an uncomfortable silence, and had already entered the darkest part of it, led by Anna. She made no answer. Now, for the first time, Vikas wondered what Sophia wanted to talk about. Still wondering, he bumped into the girl who was leading the way, for she had suddenly stopped. Before he could recover himself, however, he felt the sharp, cold point of something against his throat, slightly cutting into the soft skin.
‘Sophia, what…’ he started to whimper, as realization hit him. ‘Honey, it’s Anna, not Sophia. Don’t tell me that you aren’t happy to see me here, after such a long time.’ Anna said in a cold and murderous voice, cutting him short. ‘Surprised, yes, but not disappointed, surely? Don’t break my heart, darling.’ She said in a voice full of mock caress. She started to advance towards the spot she had chosen, holding the knife at his throat and forcing him to back away towards the edge. ‘Threatening my family’s safety by sending that package was a big mistake,’ she continued. ‘Thankfully, though, it fell into my hands. I knew what you were capable of. Sadly, the same can’t be said about you. You underestimated me, because I let you go last time. This time, though, you won’t escape. I’ll make sure of that.’
They had reached the edge by this time. Vikas was silently and fearfully watching the sheer drop into the darkness beneath while trying to think of a way to save himself. Anna came closer, the knife cutting deeper into the flesh, urging him to take just one more step. Suddenly Vikas grabbed Anna’s hand, the one holding the knife at his throat, and whirling around, so that Anna now stood balancing on her toes on the brink instead of him, with eyes full of surprise, he pushed her into the infinite darkness below. He stood there for some time, shocked at what he had done but feeling relieved at the same time, expecting to hear one last shriek of pain or the dull thud of the body hitting the ground, but no sound came up to him. Then, taking out his handkerchief to stem the flow of blood, he walked back to the house with a haunted look in his eyes.
For the next few days, he shut himself up in his house, afraid that the police would soon come searching for him. He hadn’t planned on killing anybody, not even by accident. He had only wanted to ruin the sisters; it would have been so much fun if he could have wiped the smug smiles off their faces, if he could have only made them grovel at his feet. But he hadn’t thought, even in his worst nightmares, that Anna would have been capable of this. It was only through sheer luck that he wasn’t lying broken into bits somewhere at the bottom of the hill, instead of Anna. And how could he ever forget that look in her eyes as she fell off the edge when he had pushed her? That look of pure malice mingled with surprise was going to haunt him for a very long time. His hours of waking and of sleep were alike being overshadowed by the memory of that look in her eyes and of her voice echoing in his ears that there was no escape for him this time. If ever he chanced to doze off or so much as close his eyes, he would wake up shrieking, for he often seemed to hear her voice calling his name or her hand reaching out for him from beyond the rocky grave. The sound of the newspaper being thrown against the door by the delivery-man or the knock of the milkman on the door made his blood run cold in his veins. The crunch of feet on the gravel path made him crouch into the darkest corner like a frightened animal, in anticipation of her approach. Life started to become a living hell for him, so much so that, had the police got wind of the murder and come to arrest him, he would have welcomed their presence in the hope that their company would save him from the persistent company of the dead.
When they missed Anna at home that evening, her family started wondering about her whereabouts. By next morning, when there was still no news of Anna, Mrs. Ealing started losing consciousness and talking crazy. She started telling anybody who would hear her that she could hear Anna’s voice calling her from far away. By this time, everybody started to have a bad feeling about Anna’s disappearance and the police were notified. They promised to try their utmost to locate her, and after noting down the necessary details – which wasn’t much because nobody had seen her since the previous afternoon – they left.
Sophia missed her sister. For the first few days after Anna’s disappearance, she locked herself up in her room and refused to have food. She kept wondering about where Anna could have gone and why, what could have happened to her and so on. Just about the time her mother started raving about hearing Anna’s voice from far away, she started having nightmares about her. She started to wake up screaming in the middle of the night after dreaming that Anna was falling into a dark chasm. Her parents as well as Rupert grew concerned about her. They started spending as much time with her as possible. Rupert even started to spend his nights at her bed-side, keeping watch over her while she slept.
Things apparently started getting back to normal, after about a month since Anna’s disappearance. The watchfulness and the anxiety, though, were still very much there. Nobody in the family could bear to talk about the pain they were going through, but they could read the suffering in each-other’s eyes. Every time somebody knocked at the front door, the family would rush eagerly to the door, as a body, expecting some news from the police about Anna. And one evening, when Sophia went into her room, she gave a loud shriek that brought the rest of the house running into her room. She later explained that, for a moment, it had seemed as if she had seen a figure sitting on her bed in the darkness. After the light had been switched on, a thorough search was made, but there was nobody there. However, they did find one of Anna’s earrings lying on the floor beside the bed. This incident, though insignificant to the others, deeply affected Sophia and her mother, both of whom were convinced that it was a sign that Anna was trying to reach out to them.
One morning, a month after this incident, the police came to the Ealing house with some strange news. In the early hours of the morning, a woman had run into the police station, dishevelled and in a bad state of shock, and had fainted before she could be questioned. After she had regained consciousness, she had told them something incredible. She had spent the previous night at the house of some guy named Vikas. Though she had tried to hide the fact, they had deduced that she was a one of the women who availed themselves of Vikas’ escort services. She hadn’t heard from him for a long time, nearly two months, nor had any of her friends who knew him. So she had decided to come to his house and see for herself whether everything was well with him. She had found him in a terrible state, crouching in a dark corner and frightened out of his wits, but he had welcomed her presence there, so much so that it had seemed as if his life depended on it. So it had been in reality, as she now knew. They had spent a wild night and had fallen asleep in the early hours of the morning. Sometime later, she had been awakened by a whimpering sound in the room and she had woken up to find that, though it was still dark outside, the room was filled with an eerie bluish glow. Vikas was on the floor, being pulled by the hand across it by a horrible creature that looked like a ghostly parody of a woman, decayed and broken to bits. It was creeping across the floor and pulling Vikas, who was begging for mercy, along with it. She wasn’t sure whether it had all been in her imagination, but the creature had seemed to say, in a voice full of agony, ‘I promised that this would be the last time that you tried to mess up somebody’s life and that I won’t let you escape. When you pushed me off the edge that night, you thought you had saved yourself, but you were wrong. I’ve come back to get you.’ And then, the creature had laughed a drawn-out laugh that was full of malice and something else – pain may be, for the creature that was creeping along the floor and dragging Vikas along with it, was clearly in pain. The whole thing had filled her with revulsion and horror. She hadn’t dared to try saving Vikas from the inexorable creature that had dragged him to his doom. Instead, she had followed them, as if under a spell, as it had dragged him into the backyard and across it, until both of them had disappeared from sight, off the edge of the hill. Then, afraid that the creature might next come after her, she had rushed out of the house, screaming for help, without bothering to put on a proper dress and oblivious of her appearance, and run down the hill and all the way to the police station, as fast as she could, looking over her shoulder all the time to make sure that ‘it’ wasn’t behind her.
This was the story that she had told the police. They suspected that she might herself have pushed Vikas off the hill, for some reason, and was now giving them this story to throw them off-track. However, they informed the Ealings, they were holding this woman, while a search was being conducted to retrieve the bodies of Vikas and this other woman that she had mentioned, just in case there might be some truth hidden in her story.
That day, many a tear were shed by Sophia’s family and her extended family, including Rupert and his family. Sophia and Anna’s mother fainted quite a few times, while Sophia sat there like a stone-statue, unable to shed tears – so deep was her grief at the prospect of knowing for sure that her sister was lost to her for ever – and wondering why Anna would have gone to meet Vikas at his house and how these events had come to pass, if indeed it were Anna that they would find lying broken at the bottom of the hill. Late that evening, however, the police came back with the news that, though they had found Vikas lying there, dead, with his limbs and his back broken and his head smashed by the impact of hitting a huge chunk of rock, they couldn’t find another body, not even after an extensive search of all the nearby places. Yet they were sure that there had been another body, possibly a woman’s, for they had found a set of torn and bloodied clothes that had belonged to a woman as well as a single piece of jewellery – an earring, which they had brought back for identification. Besides, there were marks on the rocky soil of something heavy having been dragged, accompanied by the faint marks of hands and feet. These marks had been present for some distance and had then abruptly disappeared. The police were of the opinion that if it had been Anna who had been pushed off the edge by Vikas, she had tried to drag herself for some distance before she had died. What they couldn’t account for, however, were the presence of the clothes and jewellery and the absence of a body. They thought that it might have been possible that the remains of the body had been carried away by a wild animal or animals, in which case, it would be impossible to locate any part of the missing body at all.
The Ealing family identified the retrieved clothes and jewellery as having belonged to Anna. This was the only way in which the police could ascertain the fact that Anna was dead and therefore close the case. As to how Vikas had met his end, a report citing accident as the probable cause of death was given out. After further investigation, the woman was released as nothing could be found to implicate her in the two deaths. However, the media soon got wind of her story and paranormal activity suddenly became the centre of everybody’s attention. A quiet funeral service was held for Anna by her family and a few off their nearest friends and in the absence of a body, the clothes and jewellery that had been retrieved by the police were put in a coffin and buried. Sophia, however, retained the earring which had been found lying on the floor near her bed, because it was the one of a pair, the other one being the one that had been retrieved by the police from the site of Anna’s death. She was now convinced that Anna had indeed come to say farewell to her that evening. So, that Christmas, which should also have been Anna’s twenty-seventh birthday, Sophia and Rupert paid a secret visit to Anna’s grave and lit twenty-seven candles and arranged them beside the grave so that they read ‘We love you.’ When they came back home, however, they were greeted by a singular sight. Somebody had arranged a number of half-burnt but unlit candles on the floor of Sophia’s room. They read, ‘Love you too.’ When they counted the candles, they found there were exactly twenty-seven of them there. Every year since then, Sophia and Rupert, who are now married, have made it a secret ritual to pay a visit to Anna’s grave on Christmas day and light candles beside her grave, adding an extra candle each year. And every year, when they come back home, they always find the exact number of half-burnt, unlit candles waiting for them on the floor of their room.