Sin 01: The Ally

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A packed Rajdhani Express crossed a bridge over the River Wena, headed to Chanakyanagar. The town was seventy miles from Nagpur, the latter a city where eighteen-year-old Samar Sengupta's heart still belonged. Now, this remote ancestral town of Ma would be his residence. At least for the next four years. Ma was there already, setting up the house, and college was a month away with "a glorious rest of the summer to enjoy," to quote Ramya, his friend.

And what a weird start to it all—for the hundredth time, the young woman with almond-brown eyes sitting across looked him up from the book on her lap. He ignored the gnawing tug in his stomach, hugging his backpack tighter. Ombre, frizzy hair outlined her face like a lion's mane, stiff under an air vent's draft in the coach. 'D-do I know you?' he said.

'I know you. Samar Sengupta.' A smirk stretched her brown lips.

Samar's hazel eyes widened. It was odd, sure, that a total stranger called him by his full name. But the passenger names could be found on the roster stuck on the coach's door.

'We can talk?' the woman added.

His thumb scratched one of his caterpillar brows. 'About what?'

'It's important. But must speak to both of you.' Her stormy eyes drifted to Ramya who sat dozing beside him, ears plugged with buds tethered to her cellphone. The coach swayed and her head lolled, smacking his shoulder. An earphone dropped but she didn't stir. Instead, she snuggled against his shoulder for a more comfortable position. 'Meet outside, quieter there.'

'Hold on,' he said as she closed her book and got up.

She blinked, looking tad amused. 'Who're you, first of all?'

'What's in name,' the woman said simply. 'Motivations go beyond.'

'Okay, I'll try that—what do you want?'

The woman stared blankly as if debating something. 'Incident.'

Samar's grip on his backpack grew lax. It was March the sixth and the world was four years younger. A cramped wooden shed blinked into existence and he was trapped in it with Ramya and two predators—Sunil Desai and Meena Seth. Ramya banged on the locked door, screaming for help. Sunil lunged at her, grabbing her hair and hurling her to the floor. A shelf of gardening tools toppled over, the sound piercing Samar's ears. He yelled when Meena dug her nails into his face. If he didn't act, she'd gouge his eyes out. He grabbed her wrists and shoved her to the side, brain humming like the idle engine of a car. She hit back with stunning ferocity, tackling him to the floor. Her frenzied face filled his vision as she towered over him.

'We'll retract everything!' Ramya cried from somewhere. 'Let us go, Sunil, please!'

'Let you go?' Sunil sounded hoarse. 'You guys won't see the end of tonight.'

Garden tools rattled and Ramya let out a guttural squeal. Sunil was hurting her and Samar had to do something before it was too late. Gritting his teeth, he volleyed Meena's back. She shrieked, sliding away. As he straightened up, Sunil pawed to him, holding a sickle, face pumped red, eyes high-strung. 'Want to be a hero, yeah, Samar? Come at me, you dipshit. I'll show you how it's done.' Samar started but something heavy smashed into his back.

It was Meena. He flailed over a table that buckled under their weight, raining dust on his face. Ramya sneezed from somewhere close. She was alive, thank god! His nose was tender and the salty metallic taste of phlegm filled his mouth. Meena collared him, pinning him to the floor, her atop him, ready for the closing kill. But the tussle had ended with him driving a garden knife into her heart and Ramya beheading Sunil with a machete.

As the present rushed into his head, his watery vision shook. He blinked and looked to the side. He must've done something, for Ramya was wide awake, her earphones gone and her blue-green eyes wide. 'I said, what's wrong!'

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