(Book 2: Hello, Can You Fear Me?)
Anurag got to the painter’s motionless body before Ravi was halfway there. He had overcome his initial shock and was checking Subro’s vitals already. As Ravi approached, Anurag panted, ‘Still breathing… But doesn’t look very good… Need to get him attention… quick!’
Ravi nodded absently. He tried to help pick the artist up, only to find his own strength betray him. He felt fatigued beyond anything he had experienced before.
Madhu arrived behind him. ‘I’ll take care of Subro,’ she said to Ravi. ‘You look after Uncle, okay?’
Ravi silently nodded again. He let the girl take his place and turned to Uncle Silver. The middle-aged man looked ruffled but was still in one piece. Ravi made his way towards him.
He wasn’t the only one who did.
As he crawled, unable to stand, Ravi noticed another man approaching Uncle Silver, wearing a familiar suit of brown. Ravi recognised him as the person he’d bumped into earlier — the grumpy man who had been arguing since he’d arrived.
The man looked deceptively calm now, as he walked to where Uncle Silver had been sitting. He grabbed the large bag lying beside the seat and lifted it up, turning to make away with it. For a second, his eyes met Ravi’s and there was pure hatred in his piercing gaze. The next moment, he finished the turn and broke into a jog, heading straight for the exit.
Ravi struggled to get the words out of his mouth. ‘W — wait… Wait… Hey! WAIT! COME BACK!’
Unsurprisingly, the man refused to pay heed, but the protests did get Madhu and Anurag’s attention. Anurag gave chase at once; Madhu followed close behind.
The man, however, was a mere seven strides from the exit by then, giving him a nice head-start as he changed gears to a full sprint.
In his hurry, he missed a leg that someone had stuck out before him. He tripped, stumbling forward, the large bag he’d stolen adding to his woe. It unbalanced him further and he fell. But he cushioned the fall with the bag and rolled on to his back, jumping to his feet with the efficiency of a martial artist. His glare even fiercer now, he turned to get a good look at his oppressor.
Sharmila stood her ground.
‘You!’ the man gasped, wide-eyed.
‘Yes, Dada,’ Sharmila confirmed in her soft voice. But she displayed all the confidence that had failed to show earlier.
‘Sharu! How dare you trip an elder?!’ the man spat out his words. ‘Have you no shame?!’
‘I didn’t mean to insult you, Dada. I just needed to speak to you. I know you wouldn’t have stopped otherwise. I’m sorry.’ Even in her apology, she didn’t lose the confidence that she was emanating suddenly.
Madhu and Anurag reached on either side of her. Seeing them, the man reflexively picked up the bag again.
‘You’re with these people?!’ he asked Sharmila, his face wrinkled in disgust. ‘To think that my own sister is hanging out with the enemies of our family! What other surprises have you in store for me?!’
‘It’s not what it looks like, Dada. I only did it to get to you. I thought it would be a good idea — I was positive I’d run into you by sticking with them… I wasn’t wrong, was I? Here you are.’
Madhu took a step away from Sharmila, eyeing her cautiously.
‘Why’re you stealing from us?’ Anurag asked the man. ‘What do you want?’
There was no reply.
‘We have you outnumbered,’ Madhu pointed out. ‘Don’t think you can just walk away from here.’
The man laughed for the first time. Not heartily. It was a fake, almost bored laugh, as though the threat did not phase him one bit. When he was done, he said, ‘Outnumbered? You sound so confident! If only you could see what I can, how you would disagree!’
‘You don’t need to do this, Dada!’ Sharmila pleaded. ‘What are you hoping to achieve? Revenge isn’t going to solve anything!’
‘And what would you have me do? Forget the disaster that they’ve brought upon our family? Find a silver lining in this unfair mess?’
‘It isn’t wholly unfair, Dada. Please, think it through with a clear head. You know what our family has dabbled in. Some of what we got, we did deserve.’
‘Are you seriously siding with them? Them? Over your brother? Over your family?! Disgusting… When did you become so sick and ungrateful, Sharu?’
‘Come on, Dada! You’re ignoring my arguments now. Just listen to what I’m saying, please!’
‘I’m done listening. You disrespect me, you join our enemies, and you betray your own family!’
‘It’s not like that at all—’
‘Shut up! Just shut up! I’ve no interest in hearing out a traitor. Go rot in hell for all I care! I will make things right myself. Mark my words! I’ll bring the family back to its glory and there’ll be no place for you in it. Don’t come crying back to us then.’
‘Okay,’ Anurag said, ‘Sorry to interrupt your sibling fight, but what is it you want with the bag? Can we have it back, please?’
If the man had been angry at his sister, it was nothing compared to the glare he directed at Anurag. When he spoke, the contempt in his voice was clear. ‘You’ll find out soon enough! And then you will regret ever going against my family!’
‘Umm, can you elaborate on this grudge you hold against us?’ Madhu asked.
‘I don’t need to waste my time explaining,’ the man spat out. He turned around again, stepping through the doorway.
Anurag, Madhu and Sharmila all ran after him. It was Sharmila who reached him first, grabbing an arm. ‘Dada, wait, please,’ she begged.
At that, the man wheeled around, violently jerking the arm she had touched. A brilliant light flashed at the point of contact. As though a great jolt of electricity had struck her, Sharmila was blasted away. With a shriek of pain, she arced through the air a good twenty feet from the door and tumbled to a halt close to the spread-eagled Subro.
‘What did I just tell you Sharu!!’ the man roared at his sister, who stayed down twitching and moaning. ‘Never show your face to me again! I’m warning you!’
Then he turned to leave once again.
Madhu and Anurag took a moment to overcome their shock. Then the two of them darted across to the man and landed a kick and a punch on his back, in unison.
The combined attack threw the man into the corridor outside, but he steadied himself at the last moment and managed to stay on his feet. He balanced the large bag with both his hands and flung it up with all his might.
In the time that it took for the bag to fly up, decelerate and come back down, the man spun around to face his attackers, thrusting his arms out in front of him, palms facing outwards. The posture looked almost defensive — as though he were asking for a timeout — except for the determined hate in his eyes. His arms were aimed at the cousins.
Madhu and Anurag tried to dodge, but the effect was quicker than they could have anticipated. Yellow lightning crackled from the man’s hands, shooting straight out at the two of them. One bright bolt struck each cousin, knocking them away much as Sharmila had been.
Madhu crashed into the seating area, disappearing between two rows of chairs. Anurag dropped to the stage, rolling and skidding before he came to a stop. Neither got up to challenge the man again.
‘NO!’ Uncle Silver screamed in horror, helpless.
Ravi found himself shaking, but he couldn’t give voice to his emotions.
In the meantime, the man coolly caught the stolen bag as it fell back to him. He momentarily studied the scene in the auditorium, hatred burning in his eyes. Then he grabbed the door and pulled it shut.
A screeching sound from the other end announced the use of a latch to lock the door in place. The sound of diminishing footsteps that followed declared the man’s departure.
Sharmila stirred at the noise, forcing herself up on all fours. Slow as a snail, she practically dragged herself to the exit. She struggled to pull the door open but to no avail.
‘Dada! Dada!’ she half pleaded, half cursed.
But her brother was gone.