Ramya rode shotgun and Samar sat in the back of his Ma's Camry that crawled through traffic. A blanket of smog tainted the sky a permanent, bloody shade of red. Buildings bordering the melting road stood like poorly painted cardboard boxes from the playroom of an absentminded child. 'Ugh, the traffic!' Ramya remarked. 'Why isn't ridesharing a thing already?'
'There was an attack.' Ma swerved into a less-crowded road, swinging a large cliff into view. 'Some thugs burned shops with people inside.' She shuddered. 'They're in jail.'
The cliff ran along the town's northern edge like a majestic wall, punctuated by rocks. Tall trees, a mash of green and brown, peppered its edges but the show-stopper was a large structure glued dangerously close to the tip—landmass jutted a few feet over the edge, baring the masonry of its foundation. The edifice overlooked the town like a sentry bowing to his king. Or a father bending over to scold his kid. Its walls were black, mold mottled the rotund domes, coils of weed mobbed its windows. 'Ma, what's that?'
She didn't look from the road. 'Maitra Mahal.' The palace played hide-and-seek behind roadside shops and trees. Despite seeing it for the first time, a sense of familiarity invaded Samar, as if he'd traversed its cold and desolate halls in the gravest of nights. They turned left at a signal and the Mahal was out of sight. 'People call it Rajewada.'
'Hmm, yeah, I read about it,' Ramya said. 'Someone lives there, right, Aunty?'
Ma smiled. 'Allegedly. Nobody knows for sure.'
Samar was confused. What did they do for food? 'How do you know all this, Rum?'
'Gee Dipper,' Ramya said. 'It's normal for one to look up a place before moving there.'
Ma chuckled as they entered a quiet locality. 'You must also know about the curse?'
Samar sat back as Ramya nodded. 'To quote the king, "for each sin the townspeople incur, its walls will go a shade darker."' She said it with a dramatic flair.
Ma laughed. Samar only smiled, sated to see his two most favorite people so happy.
'So poetic, no?' Ma said between her snorts and giggles. They entered a street lined with residences with lawns and driveways. The biggest of them all was at the end of the street, called the Amatyapad, Ramya's new home. 'So, Ramya, what do you know about this?'
Past the gates painted black and golden yellow was the mansion birthed from the dreams of an architect with a fetish for baroque designs. Despite belonging to the medieval era, the structure stood new and fresh, its plump pillars supporting the Porte-cochère that overlooked a broad courtyard with a vintage fountain of a maiden in marble watering a bed of marble roses. A cemented driveway skirted the fountain, bordered in-turn by a garden that encircled the compound. The caretaker hired by Ramya's father had done a great job.
'The minister's house,' Ramya said. 'I've always wanted to be a Kathleen Lutz.'
'You're sure you don't want to stay with us till tomorrow?' Samar said.
'Nah, I need to unpack,' Ramya said. 'You know how I feel about stuff in suitcases.'
Her father was to arrive tomorrow but her mother needed a month in Nagpur to wrap up her spa business. 'You're being awfully stubborn,' Samar said, helping with the bags into the house. The smell of new paint lingered like the overstaying guest at a house party.
'I don't have to justify my decisions to you, Sam,' she said, miffed. 'See you later.'
He sighed, pursing his lips. 'Fine, suit yourself.'
On the ride home, he stared out the window riding shotgun, breeze combing his hair. Independent houses lined streets, much smaller than those from Ramya's locality. 'And, we're home!' Ma said. Her smile shrunk her eyes, dimpling her cheeks.
YOU ARE READING
The Devil Within: Looking for Beta ReadersMystery / Thriller
Best friends Ramya Chaudhary and Samar Sengupta vividly recall the Incident from four years ago when they'd killed two peers, decapitating one Sunil Desai-the school golden boy who'd secretly plagued the campus with drugs. Having graduated and reloc...