Published by StoryMirror on 24th February 2018
Genres: Mystery, Psychological
Amazon UK, Amazon US
Moira Madhwa is the typical young, beautiful and successful urban woman until the day she goes missing. Her friends start looking for her, but quickly realize nothing is as it seems. Moira had kept devastating secrets—secrets that could wreck their lives if revealed. As days roll by, one by one, skeletons tumble out of closets, and each of Moira’s friends’ looks guilty. But did one among them hate her enough to do the worst?
A nail-biting, psychological suspense thriller, Dead to Them weaves a web of deception, lies and paranoia in the city of Mumbai, where every face hides a dark story and uncovering it can lead to disastrous consequences.
The last time
June – August 2012
A strange thing happened when I was breaking up with Himanshu. When he was gone, really gone—not the sticky remains of breakup kind of gone when you still have hope—I went into some sort of rebound almost immediately. It was short—a few weeks at most—and it came with its consequences, but it did comfort my heart, which was haemorrhaging then.
My affair with Himanshu had been a bad decision to start with; I cringe now thinking about it. I was lonely and he was willing; I think it was more of the latter. Whatever the reason, it worked well to strip away my loneliness; the thrill of our clandestine affair a reason to wake up in the morning and do the mundane. When we were together, it was fun and exciting and I didn’t want to let go. I clung to him when we were together. I clung to him after we broke up.
Like algae. After it shows up. Hard to get rid of.
I pretty much hated him when I first met him. Overall, he was nice, pleasant-looking, nothing other women would complain of. Oldish, just over forty; he took care to dress well and smell good. Wide chest, strong chin, intense eyes, thick bushy eyebrows that came together in a unibrow, only a slight belly over his fashionable leather belt, and a head full of thick, black hair, something he was quite proud of. But most conspicuous of his features were his legs—long, sickeningly thin, moving along the floor like a swing. And the shoes on his feet, tapering brown, arched snout, no lace. Little things tick me off, niggling at the back of my head like a worm, and in those first few weeks I had a hard time looking beyond the disgust of them. Those legs. And those shoes.
But that wore off as we spent more and more time together; he made sure that we did. He took an immediate liking to me and he was important to me, to my life, to what I was expected to achieve in Brevity, and so I stoked that liking. Then I realized he wasn’t half as bad; in front of other people he tried hard to be insouciant, gruff, and hard-to-like, but with me, wrapped around my body, he was as vulnerable as they came. Gentle, even.
Only two things about him were worrying. One was his anger—simmering, always on the edge, explosive when teased out—and the second was his (soon to be ex-) wife—a rich, Dubai-born, London-schooled Indian with whom he had had two children. His father-in-law’s business connections had been instrumental in his success at Brevity, but after he died, things changed. Himanshu let go of his self-control, his good behaviour, his need to please his wife and do good by his family.
We kept our affair under the wraps for as long as we could. Because it wouldn’t have done my reputation any good if my colleagues knew that I was dating a still-married, with children, and much older Himanshu Chawla, also my boss. So I gave him a cute nom de guerre. Bonny. Bon(n)y long legs.
A secret affair is better than a regular one, in that it’s such thrill to keep it that way. The heart lurch, the blood rush. Stealthy, clandestine, communicated only through stolen glances and sneaked-in messages. If I had to choose, I’d choose that kind over any other, any day.
Our secret love affair was the abyss we dug together.
Our first client meeting together, that was the first time we felt something. This was a month after I’d joined Brevity. We wound up a very good meeting and were driving back. In the back of a hired cab, awkward, wondering what conversation to make. The driver fiddled with the channels on the cab’s radio, but it was broken. After a few tries when nothing good came on, Himanshu rummaged through his bag and handed him a CD. A second later Miles Davis came on, turning that stuffy, old car into something quite magnificent.
I smiled at Himanshu and he smiled back. Something passed between us then and I don’t know why—or perhaps I was only waiting for a sign from him—I stretched out and touched his hand. He did not draw away but looked straight at me—into my eyes. In the dark corner of the seat’s edge, he was like a phantom—his body, luminous in the traffic lights from outside, glowing against the dusty window. We stayed that way for half an hour, indifferent even to the driver who threw us curious glances from the rear-view mirror.
We stayed that way until he dropped me home.
I couldn’t wait to get to the office the next day.
The next time, we went to my place to spend the night.
And then again.
The walls of my home were witness to those nights, nights I lived over and over again, nights I wished would never end.
But they ended. Like all things I yearned for, they ended too.
Slip. Slip a few more inches down the abyss.
Misha and Avni thought I’d made him up. They never saw him, only heard about him occasionally, along with promises that they’d get to meet him someday. I hoped that day might come, when we could be legitimate—married—and I could proudly walk by his side, hold his hands and tell the world, “Here is my man.”
I’m glad though, in retrospect, that they did not meet him or know who he was, and neither did anyone else, which worked out well for me when I realized nothing could come out of it.
For a while, I was in love with him, but I was also terrified of him, as were those around him. His temper was quick, nasty, and did not heed consequences. He lashed out in the worst possible ways, with words that were vitriolic and cruel, and when that wasn’t enough—when the anger engulfed him totally—he hit.
The signs were always there. I just never noticed.
Sometimes, after we’d made love, he would prop an elbow on the pillow, rest his head on a palm, and stare at me, puffing away on a cigarette. He’d stretch a finger to stroke my forehead, trace a finger down my nose, my chin, resting at the nape of my neck. Move the fingers around and grasp it. Then, he’d pretend he was choking me. You’re mine, he’d say, I can do with you as I please. We’d smile at each other after: our moment of intimacy. Our secret ritual. Then after he’d leave, I’d take a bath, scrubbing extra hard to remove his smell, which clung to my skin like stubborn prickles. I remembered that smell later, and the memory of his hands on me—sinewy fingers with stray clumps of hair at their centres.
His temper was not something to be trifled with, I knew.
The abyss crept up to me. Falling into it took less than a nudge.
Then one time, it went too far. When I fell down the abyss. Nothing to save me. Nothing to break my fall.