Three women had disappeared from Chapel Road in the last five years. No bodies were found; there were no crime scenes either, only police reports followed by wild speculation that lasted for weeks at a time. The girls were in their late teens and had disappeared in the same month – June.
When the last girl disappeared, the press concluded in unison: the girls had been murdered; no other explanation was plausible. There was a serial killer on the prowl, and everyone had better lock their girls in.
The parents did for a while, putting a curfew on their children, forbidding them to loiter on the roads at night, especially around the Chapel, the edifice after which the road had been named. Two of the missing girls were headed there and the third one – purportedly off to meet her friends – was last seen making a turn at the café in front of it. All three were last seen quite late at night, at a time of day, one would argue, that was still safe and early enough to be outside in the queen of Mumbai’s suburbs – Bandra.
Darya was hearing the story from the neighbourhood grocer, who looked old enough to be senile but spoke with such solemnity that she was inclined to believe him. In any case, she had followed the newspaper coverage with some interest last year, until life’s businesses and other sordid breaking stories took over, and it was relegated to a corner of her memory.
All three girls were of the same type, the grocer informed her, emphasising the word ‘type’ with a knowing nod. What type? Darya asked because she saw he was expecting her to. The girls were attractive, popular, and wanted to live larger than their ordinary life on Chapel Road. They didn’t belong there. And because they were of similar age and character, their disappearances had been automatically linked to each other despite the fact that the disappearances had taken place some duration apart.
The grocer said he had known the older D’Mello girl, Eileen, quite well. She came from a strict Catholic family but had had a Hindu boyfriend, an artist. The families that lived on Chapel Road – twenty-five Catholic, ten Hindu and two Muslim – were sociable with each other, but even so, inter-religion liaisons were frowned upon. After Eileen disappeared last year, the boyfriend came to Chapel Road, mad with worry, banging on her mother’s door. But Nancy wouldn’t talk to him, as she herself had gone nuts, poor thing. Moreover, she suspected the boyfriend had had something to do with it and was only pretending; when her mother’s khich-khich got too much, Eileen had always threatened to run away with him.
And even though there were no bodies, the newspapers worked on the serial-killer theory. A deranged lunatic… kidnapping beautiful young girls… imprisoning them, torturing them, killing them… and so on it went.
Darya grimaced. Her face burned at the morbid glee of his words.
But no bodies were ever found, he told her. The press continued to speculate, the police arrested some suspects, but nothing concrete ever came out of the police or press investigations, and the furore gradually died down.
But the people of Chapel Road hadn’t forgotten.
Now it was the same month again – June – the time of the monsoons, and the residents of Chapel Road were tense again, fearing the worst.
‘A packet of pav, two ten-rupee Parle-Gs and Amul butter, please,’ Darya said, at long last managing to get her order in. The younger D’Mello girl had been in the store five minutes ago, which had prompted the grocer to launch into the history of her older sister. Darya had guessed him to be the street’s gossip, often having caught him with an enraptured audience around, while he talked and gesticulated with enthusiasm.
‘Jasmine… that girl, like her sister she is,’ he muttered, handing Darya a plastic bag stuffed with her purchases. ‘Now she is the same age as Eileen was when she vanished. Looks about the same too.’
‘Uh… huh,’ Darya said, taking the bag from him. She wanted to stay on, hear more, but didn’t know if that would appear too eager. Chapel Road was a funny place; the close-knit group of locals treated outsiders with politeness but kept them at arm’s length. This was apparent only when you stayed with them. Within them. The grocer was friendly enough though, Darya thought.
The old man was now leaning forward conspiratorially.
‘There was some video on the phone.’ He dipped his face to the right, to gesture to the D’Mello house. ‘Jasmine’s into things,’ he said and raised dry palms into the air. ‘I didn’t see anything. My boy… my helper told me. It was deleted later. She told the police or someone, maybe a local MP. Someone powerful. And it was gone.’ He made a whoosh sound with his lips. His eyes gleamed.
Darya wanted to ask him more about the disappearances; if there was something for her to be worried about, but just then three old ladies walked into the shop and the old man scurried away to serve them.
Darya stepped onto the road, straining her eyes to focus on Jasmine’s retreating back, now a speck at the end of the narrow street. Jasmine was wearing a pair of black leggings, a long pink top and golden gladiator sandals. A tan satchel bounced about at her side. She walked briskly towards Hill Road, probably to catch a bus to go to college somewhere.
Darya had only caught a brief glimpse of the girl. She was lithe, fair-complexioned, fine-boned, with wispy brown hair. Overall, she gave the impression of a gazelle – comely, supple, watchful. She looked about seventeen but dressed neatly and precisely, like someone much older. Nurse-like, Darya thought. Their eyes had met when Jasmine had left the shop; they were grown-up, all-knowing.
As Darya approached the villa, she wondered if she had been the only one watching Jasmine. Max was outside smoking, his eyes on the road, lost in thought. He wasn’t in the villa’s garden, which was his usual spot, but a few feet away, by the makeshift Christ on a cross someone had put up a few years ago. The cross had turned into a roadside altar, with flowers, dolls, candles and iridescent shrubs sprouting all around it. INRI was etched on the cross’s cement body. Jesus will deliver us, it promised on a plaque underneath.
Darya saw Viktor standing by the villa’s door, leaning on the frame. Their eyes met and she signalled that she wanted to go inside.
‘Sorry,’ he said and stepped aside. Flashing him a faint smile, Darya walked in. She crossed the reception then took the stairs to the first floor and the room she and her childhood friend Veda were renting for two months on Chapel Road.
Viktor’s Villa, the eponymous abode of Viktor Mascarenhas, was a crumbling cottage at the centre of the serpentine lane that was Chapel Road. On one end of the road was the statuesque Mount Carmel Church – a 123-year-old edifice, painted in lemon yellow with watermelon pink edges – and on the other was Hill Road – a shopping street bustling with hawkers, pedestrians, honking cars and rickshaws, each vying for space and abusing each other for the lack of it. Wedged in between both the landmarks was Chapel Road – with houses and shops of different colours and sizes, stashed tightly together, as if in a filing cabinet. And not one of the houses looked like the other.
For example, the house on one side of Viktor’s Villa was Cecelia Cottage, a single-floor house with sunny yellow walls and maroon-edged balconies; fluttering lace curtains and tiny bulbs on the windows; a bright orange graffiti of a robot on a side wall, and underneath the words: Robots are us. On the other side of the villa was the house that called itself Chapel’s Pride, with greying façades desperately in need of paint, balconies lined with dabs of the brightest blue; a profusion of flowering plants on every window ledge and windows with iron grills in the shape of mermaids. The door of Chapel’s Pride was always open, and its ageing matron sat out in the front, on her beige plastic chair, watching the comings and goings on the street, her usually florid dress hitched up and tucked around her knees.
And every few meters, in between the array of houses, were hole-in-the-wall grocers, tailors, beauty parlours and photocopy shops. There was even a tiny gym, with pictures of men and their abnormally developed muscles plastered on its walls.
Chapel Road was ‘happening’ as Darya declared to anyone who cared to listen, or professed curiosity as to why she had chosen to live there. Because to all outward appearances, it didn’t have much going for it. The street was old, crowded and decrepit. It was terribly narrow in width, easily crossed in two long strides and when strangers walked side by side, almost brushing shoulders, it was definitely awkward. In rush hour, hordes of cyclists, rickshaws and cars found their way in, intending to take a short cut to Hill Road, causing mayhem and traffic jams as a result, a hair-tearing reality for the residents.
But the locals would never consider leaving. They lived in their ancestral homes, inside a quaint village-like setting, at a prime location in the bustling cosmopolitan metropolis of Mumbai. And that was why Darya had chosen it too.
‘Feels like I’m inside a kaleidoscope,’ Veda had said the first day they had come to the lane. Veda was referring primarily to the graffiti on the street – a visual treat for all who passed by. They’d been blown over by the creativity and the colours: Messi, Tendulkar, Ganesha, Jesus, a three-eyed alien, elephants and horses, carriages and maharajas, random squiggles. They took scores of pictures and posted them on Facebook. We are here, they announced sunnily.
So according to them, Chapel Road had much going for it. And so did the place they had chosen to stay in.
Viktor’s Villa had two floors. Right opposite the villa’s front door on the bottom floor was a room that served as the reception area. This room was flanked by two other rooms – 101 and 102 – that were available to be let out. The second floor had three contiguous rooms – 201, 202 and 203 – as in an American-style motel. Due to the flimsy quality of its walls, noise permeated easily from one floor to another. A passage on both the floors overlooked the street: the bottom one was walled with large windows; the top had a long open balcony bordering all three rooms, shaded from outside by a leafy karanj tree.
Inside, the walls of each room were painted a pale pistachio green, embellished with waist-high ‘peel and stick’ wood panelling and imperious impressionist reprints in cheap frames. The furniture was old wood, distressed, probably bought from Chor Bazaar. The upholstery in the lower rooms was crimson and maroon, with gold circles, while the upper rooms sported fist-sized red roses printed on white cotton fabric.
‘Wow,’ Darya had said, taking it all in. ‘Claustrophobic as hell.’
‘Only for two months,’ Veda had comforted. ‘Besides it’s so cheap.’
So they took it.
Darya had moved temporarily from Goa to Mumbai, having enrolled herself in a barista course at Warm Beans, a five-year-old roastery in the south of the city. Over the years, the roastery had built itself a reputation for providing the best quality single-estate, Indian-origin, organic coffee for its fans in the city; its beans frequently went out of stock. The roastery had recently begun barista certificate training and a friend of Darya’s had suggested she apply for it. There were limited places. Darya had managed to sneak herself in only at the last moment, made possible by a referral from an acquaintance of her father’s.
And Darya had been eager to get in. She and her boyfriend, Aaron, had bought a distressed hotel property at Palolem in Goa and while Aaron had dedicated himself to renovating it into a boutique hotel, Darya was keen to turn a part of it into a state-of-the-art coffee shop. Where having coffee is an immersive, life-changing experience. Despite the grandiosity of the statement and the mirth it invited from Aaron every time she said it, she believed in it. She was going to create a coffee parlour which would draw people to the hotel and not be considered as a ‘by-the-way’ for its residents. Getting certified as a barista was the first step to making that happen. It would give her both credibility and insight, and she was determined to ace it.
It worked out well for her, though not in the way she would’ve liked, that Veda needed a place to stay in Mumbai at the exact same time.
Darya and Veda had known each other since they were twelve. They’d studied in the same school and had been neighbours in Nagpur. After finishing school, they left to do different things; Darya got her engineering degree, and then an MBA, while Veda completed her degree in medicine. When they got back in touch six years later, in Mumbai, their childhood bonhomie was instantly reinstated.
Though in the last year, when Darya was in Goa, they hadn’t been able to talk as much and Darya had noted with some concern that Veda had changed. And not in a good way.
Stoic, Darya’s mother used to call Veda. Like her mother, Darya used to admire how calm and in-control Veda always seemed, never reacting to any inconveniences in public, while Darya cribbed to anyone who’d listen. Darya believed in ‘expressing’ while Veda ‘bore’. She was diplomatic. Another of her admirable qualities was that Veda knew exactly what she wanted from her life and hardly deviated from her resolve.
How often had Darya wished she could be like Veda when they were kids?
She didn’t really blame Veda for the change though. A lot had happened to her in the past year.
She had discovered her father had been cheating on her mother. He had announced to them that he was leaving and getting remarried. He hadn’t bothered explaining anything to Veda; he’d just packed his bags, hugged her briefly and left home. Then neighbours began to gossip. To Veda, their fake sorrow and constant prying were even worse, and it led her to near breakdown.
Eight months later, Veda and her boyfriend Rishabh broke up. They’d been having difficulties: he was an obstetrician while Veda was training to be a paediatrician, but they worked in different hospitals, and their working hours rarely allowed time together, even after she’d moved in with him. The days they did find the time, there were massive fights about who was going to do the laundry, the dishes, the cooking. Rishabh had an aversion to keeping maids, so they did most of the work themselves, despite the hardships of their profession. Veda said she’d known the end was coming anyway. They’d grown apart over the years. Darya wondered if Veda hadn’t in some way induced Rishabh to leave, in an attempt to inflict more upset in her life, to perpetuate the cycle of pain her father had initiated.
Darya knew, or could at least in part fathom, what Veda was going through. And also understood why she did what she did next.
She’d quit her practice at the hospital, moved out of the house she’d been sharing with Rishabh and applied for an internship with Mumbai Dost, a tabloid that published advertisement-riddled afternoon news to commuters, cafes and airports.
It was only the last that boggled Darya. Why? Why a newspaper, for God’s sake? This was a total diversion from her erstwhile career. A waste of years of training in medicine.
‘I see it as an opportunity to reinvent myself,’ Veda had countered.
‘What about medicine?’ Darya had asked.
‘I did what I was expected to do. Doesn’t mean I liked it.’
‘You were good at it.’
‘Like I said…’ Veda had started. Then, changing tack, ‘Okay, let’s assume I’m taking a break,’ she’d said.
‘Come on,’ Darya had replied, exasperated. ‘You know no one in India understands that concept! You’ll never be able to get back to medicine.’
Veda had scoffed. ‘I thought at least you would understand.’
Well, she has a point there, Darya had thought. She’d gone through a bad phase herself the year before and had taken some very impetuous risks to deal with it. She hadn’t been sure if any of them would worked out, wouldn’t have cared if they hadn’t, but luckily for her, they had.
But would it be the same for Veda?
‘We have to see, won’t we?’ Veda had murmured.
Darya had been curious to know what Veda’s mother thought of it all.
‘She doesn’t know anything. I’m keeping the rosy picture of my life intact for her. She doesn’t need any more grief right now.’
‘You should go stay with her for a while,’ Darya had said. ‘Take care of her.’
‘Masi is staying with her for now. I’ll visit them next month. Anyway… I want to be away from that house, all that drama for a while.’
Veda had said she’d always wanted to work in media, but it was never considered a sensible career choice in her family. Her father hadn’t considered it sensible. But now that he and Rishabh were both out of her life, she felt free, felt like she could do anything. Coming to Chapel Road was fortuitous for her: it was cheap enough to accommodate the temporary dip in her finances, while simultaneously putting distance between her and Rishabh. In all, a win-win.
The rent for their room was 8,000 rupees a month. They could come and go at any time they pleased; they had keys to the front door and to their own room. They could even access the terrace of the villa with prior permission. The villa was sparsely occupied; in the one week they’d been there, they’d met only Max and his girlfriend Kyra, Polish backpackers barely out of their teens. There were no other lodgers but their broker had told them to expect some soon; the monsoon months were high season at the villa.
As for the owner himself, Viktor Mascarenhas, Darya wasn’t sure what to make of him. They’d been in the villa for five days but hadn’t figured out yet where Viktor slept. They saw him at the reception in the morning and when they passed him to go upstairs to retire for the night; he was always sitting up on his hard chair, occasionally either looking up to greet them, or staring at the wall to his side. Veda wondered if he slept in the reception room, but it didn’t look big enough for that. There was a wooden desk, a large wall cupboard, a books closet, even a kitchenette, but no bed.
He looks like a sick puppy, Veda had remarked one time, still in the early days. The description was apt, given his droopy eyes and the sad smile perpetually plastered on his sallow face. Over them, the hair on his head looked like a wet dog’s fur. Underneath, on his skeletal frame, he wore mono-coloured, always-too-big-for-him, full-sleeve shirts that hung as if on a scarecrow, paired with narrow cuffed pants on his spindly legs. He was easy to feel sorry for, especially after they’d caught him one day, furiously polishing the head of a wooden figurine on his table, smiling and talking to himself. They’d noticed the odd statuette the very first day, a bird of some sort, native-American-totem like. Its sharp beak held a pair of plastic-framed spectacles. A cherry-coloured adult-sized cap covered its head, the front flap reaching down to the edges of the spectacles. Viktor must have put them on the bird himself, but what for, who knew?
‘Poor boy,’ Veda had murmured.
‘He’s twenty years old,’ Darya had retorted.
‘But stupid, like a child.’
‘He manages this place well enough. Checks in guests, keeps the rooms clean, can even answer questions as long as it is nothing too complicated.’
Veda had rolled her eyes. ‘You know what I mean. The way he sits, the way he walks, the way he talks, the way he blanks out when he’s talking to you, as if he has seen someone in the room we cannot see.’
‘Ahem.’ Darya couldn’t disagree. ‘What about the sister?’ she’d asked.
‘Debbie’s okay,’ Veda had said, then tapped a finger on her skull. ‘Victor’s the crazy one.’
Debbie, or Deborah, was Viktor’s older sister who divided her time between the villa and her husband, who she said lived in another part of the city.
‘Viktor used to be okay, you know,’ she’d told them the first day they’d met, in response to the eye-roll Darya had given Veda when they were at the reception, signing the guest-entry register. Viktor had fumbled more than once to come up with the right page for them to sign.
‘What do you mean?’ Darya had asked, embarrassed at being caught.
‘Viktor.’ Debbie had gestured, lowering her voice. ‘I can see you’ve noticed.’ Viktor had paid them no attention, instead moving to fetch their room keys.
‘No, we—’ Darya had started.
‘It’s alright,’ Debbie had cut her off. ‘I don’t take offence, and neither does he. We accept it as a way of life. He is a special boy.’ Then softly, she’d added, ‘He used to be okay, you know… before Daniel died.’
The photograph on the reception’s table had been turned away, but Darya remembered seeing it the first time they’d come to the villa when they were casing it. She’d knocked it over by accident. It was a family photograph – a young girl seated on a high, ornate stool, with two little boys in striped jumpers leaning on her symmetrically – splitting images of each other – most likely twins. Immediately, Darya had seen the girl was a younger Debbie. Behind them were purportedly the parents: the man – droopy-eyed and serious-looking; the woman – mild faced and placidly smiling. You’ve got your mother’s eyes, Darya had commented as she put the photograph back in its place. Debbie had not seemed pleased with the compliment and mumbled to Darya, She’s my stepmom. My real mother died a long time ago. Darya had guessed that the boys leaning on her were Viktor and Daniel.
‘He’s not been the same since,’ Debbie had told them. ‘I’m fourteen years older and was already married when it happened. Our father died in the same accident. Viktor lived with us after that, until four years ago, when he turned sixteen, and we bought this bungalow. I set it up as a guest house so he could earn money and live off it. We also taught him some basic electrical and plumbing skills. Occasionally, he does house calls, but I don’t let him go too far.’
Debbie was beautiful. Skin like cream; hair straight, lush and black, tapering below her hips. A full fringe over her forehead. Soft brown eyes under sharply arched eyebrows. A pointed, attractive chin. Sharp, graceful movements. Shapely despite the fact that she was in her mid-thirties. The only comedown was that she never smiled. Her thin lips, almost always coloured in a severe shade of maroon, moved as if belonging to a marionette, as if being forced to speak, and her face was expressionless all the time. And despite being in good shape, she was always sheathed, from head to toe, in dark, oppressive colours.
In contrast, her brother’s face was pale and wide, like a saucer of milk. He was as awkward as Debbie was elegant. An overgrown boy.
When Darya returned to the room from the grocers that morning, Veda was still asleep. The room was dark, the curtains drawn.
Darya placed the shopping bag down noisily and drew the curtains aside.
Veda stretched and rubbed her eyes. ‘I thought you’d take longer,’ she sighed.
‘It’s eight,’ Darya said accusingly.
‘Wake up,’ Darya said. ‘I got some breakfast.’
‘Well, okay, since you insist,’ Veda muttered, using her elbows to sit up. ‘Wait, let me brush first.’ She got off the bed and headed to the en-suite bathroom.
Darya plonked herself on the bed. Next to her was probably the best piece of furniture in the room, a mango-wood side table. It held an emerald-green lamp along with two disposable plates, crusty from last night.
Veda emerged from the bathroom.
‘What do you think of Max and Kyra?’ Darya asked. Their room was next to theirs. Darya hadn’t thought of them much until this morning when she’d noticed Max smoking outside.
Veda waved her hands dismissively. ‘Gap-year backpackers.’
‘Kyra is a model – did you know that?’ Darya said. ‘She’s eighteen.’
‘How do you know this?’ asked Veda.
‘Debbie told me. She doesn’t like them very much.’
‘Living in sin, she said.’
Veda let out a mock gasp. ‘Really? She said that?’
Darya chuckled. ‘Debbie’s quite a character herself.’
Veda turned to the mirror. ‘They look nice enough to me.’
‘You like Max, don’t you?’ Darya said smugly. ‘I saw you gazing after him yesterday.’
Veda snorted. ‘Sure! I was gazing… I was pining for him.’
Darya threw a pillow. Veda ducked.
‘He is good-looking,’ she admitted. ‘I’ll give him that.’
‘And Kyra?’ Darya asked.
‘Skinny but with good taste in clothes.’
‘Does he love her, you think?’
Veda shrugged. ‘Why not ask if she loves him,’ she muttered. ‘Anyway, who gives a damn?’
Darya wasn’t sure if Veda had noticed Max giving her a once-over, which he had, several times. In her current state, Darya reasoned, Veda was probably ignoring any sort of attention.
Darya was certain though that Veda knew she turned heads. She was beautiful, almost as tall as Darya herself at 5′7″, with shiny, translucent skin and an athletic, albeit slightly thickset body. But it was the harsh contrast of her reddish-brown hair with her large extraordinarily green eyes that stood out to anyone who met her. The two formed an uncomfortable, stunning conflict, and it was hard not to be affected by it.
So why wasn’t Rishabh more regretful at losing Veda? He was. When Veda broke up with him – of course, it was she who did; it was hardly mutual, no matter what she claimed afterwards – he had begged and begged for her to come back. Darya had wondered for a brief moment if Veda was going to succumb to his pleas, or to the hordes of other proposals that followed, but Veda had said she was hurting too much. She needed to heal before she even considered another relationship. And reconciling with Rishabh was out of the question.
Darya knew what Veda was going through because before she’d met Aaron, before her move to Goa, her life had pretty much been the same – a downward spiral, a miasma of desperation. She was sure she could help Veda get through this difficult period, if only Veda would talk to her. But whenever Darya tried to broach the subject, or ask her how she was, Veda changed it. It was impossible to get through to her. She acted like a different person, as if she were impersonating ‘normal’.
Darya told Veda about her conversation with the grocer. She listened intently.
‘I know about them,’ Veda stated after Darya finished.
‘From the news articles a year ago?’ Darya asked.
Veda shook her head. ‘Nah, those I don’t remember,’ she said. ‘When I told my pals at work I was staying here, one said, oh, that’s the lane with all the stories. She covers Bandra as part of her beat, so she knew.’
‘What else did she tell you?’
Veda shrugged. ‘Same as what you did just now. I will ask her more when I meet her today.’
‘The tiniest places have the biggest stories,’ Darya said dramatically.
‘Touché that.’ Then, after a pause: ‘Are you worried?’ Veda asked.
Veda took a pav out of the grocer’s packet and began eating it.
‘Love these,’ she muttered to herself. After she finished, she said, ‘So many girls disappear in Mumbai – what’s new?’
Darya pursed her lips.
‘In any case, we’re here only for two months,’ Veda added.
‘One of them is the month,’ Darya retorted. ‘June.’
‘Don’t worry about it.’
But Darya couldn’t let it go. The story was intriguing, and it was cause for worry. Veda was right in that missing girls were not uncommon in Mumbai, especially in the poorer sections of the city. Girls disappeared every day – sold to prostitution, to the begging mafia or to illicit, underage marriages. A few of them met a worse fate. Perhaps… if they knew what had happened to those three girls on Chapel Road, they could take precautions, keep themselves safe. But they didn’t.
‘Don’t worry about it,’ Veda said, cutting into her thoughts. ‘Don’t worry about what you cannot control. Enjoy your pav.’ Picking up her towel and her clothes, she headed for the bathroom.
Darya stretched lazily on the bed. She didn’t have to get to Warm Beans until eleven, so there was plenty of time. But a light drizzle had started outside and she feared there might be traffic jams. She should start getting ready too.
Propping herself up, she picked up another pav, slathered it with butter and started to eat, enjoying the warm, brittle taste in her mouth. When she finished, she swung her legs to the floor and considered yelling to Veda, asking her to hurry up. She had to bathe too.
Then her eyes wandered to the window.
Immediately, she froze.
Someone was outside their room.
A faint silhouette showed through the stiff, white curtains, through which blotchy sunlight was filtering through. And there it was right behind – rigid, like a stain.
Darya’s heart began to thump. The shadow was trying to look inside the room.
Darya heard the clank of toiletries on the bathroom’s shelf, the spurt of water from the tap. Veda was humming a tune.
The silhouette moved.
Next, Darya heard movement behind the door.
Stupid girl, she scolded herself. See who that is. It’s broad daylight. What can happen?
Steeling herself, she walked to the door and opened it.
And let out a slow breath.
It was Viktor, glowing like a fiery baton in the sun. He had been staring at the door and was now staring straight into Darya’s eyes. He didn’t flinch when the door opened, or react when a soft involuntary gasp escaped Darya’s lips. Merely raised a curious eyebrow. Behind him, the branches of the karanj tree swayed in the breeze, throwing a splatter of tiny oval shadows on his face. A slight sly smile played on his lips.
Darya stood immobile and staring.
Something was different about him. He didn’t look his usual confused self. He was wearing his clothes better; his eyes were alert. His face was calm and hard, like marble; his breath heavy, as if he had been physically exerting himself, but he had only been standing. What else? Yes! The spectacles on his face. They were the same ones they had seen perched on the doll on his desk.
‘W-What is it?’ Darya whispered, cursing herself for stammering.
‘Do you want housekeeping or to change the bedspreads? We do it every weekend but you can request it earlier,’ he said, his eyes unblinking behind the glasses, his words surprisingly clear and precise.
Darya unclenched her fingers. ‘Not today,’ she said. ‘Tomorrow. And… every weekend is fine. Debbie told me about it already.’ She wondered why he came to tell her again. He had been present when Debbie had instructed them on the villa rules: no guests without permission; no parties, smoking or drinking inside; no loitering in the other rooms or at the reception; laundry and change of linen every Saturday unless there was an emergency and it couldn’t be avoided; no toiletries or Wi-Fi to be provided; water to be off for two hours every afternoon; and if a complaint came from any of the neighbours, they were out.
Meanwhile, Viktor had not moved.
Darya shifted on her feet uneasily, grappling for something to say, to make him leave.
Then without warning, he turned to go.
‘Let me know if you need anything,’ he said, looking away from her, his hands buried deep inside his pocket.
Before Darya could reply, he had walked off.
Darya steadied her breathing as she watched Viktor jump down the flight of stairs in long strides. She wondered what all that had been about. But soon after, Veda called to her and Darya hurried inside, burying her questions within.
They would resurface a few days later when things began to escalate beyond her control.