(Book 2: Hello, Can You Fear Me?)
Ravi looked out of the window as the car sped along. The lights in this part of the city were still on. The people here appeared to have more of a nightlife compared to the ones at their previous stop.
‘Where are we headed, Rehan?’ Fernandes asked her colleague after a while.
‘The Mukherjees’ Bungalow, ma’am,’ said Rehan, not taking his eyes off the road. ‘We should be there in half an hour. Not much traffic at this time.’
‘You’re sure this one is for real? I don’t want Mr. Thakur to feel like we’re wasting his time.’
‘I am sure. I visited it earlier, yesterday. The whole house feels eerie, ma’am! I can’t explain it, but from the moment you enter the place, you get a feeling like there’s something in there with you.’
‘But did you see anything? Any of you?’
‘Oh, we saw alright! And we screamed, and we ran!’ Rehan took a deep breath. ‘There’s a room in the bungalow that they have locked up pretty heavily. They warned us not to go in, but obviously, that just made us more curious. We asked them for the keys and we took a peek inside.’
‘What did you see?’ Ravi asked.
‘People who shouldn’t have been there.’
‘Who?’ Fernandes asked.
‘People I know for a fact are dead. They were strolling around in there! I have seen many deaths during my career, ma’am. They were there! And then they saw me, they walked towards me, calling me. That’s when I ran. I’m not paid enough for this supernatural business!’
‘And the others with you? What did they see?’
‘Everyone said the same thing. We all saw dead people. We all ran, and not just from the room. We left the scene as quickly as we could. It was rather scary!’
Ravi tried to imagine grown police officers running away, frightened. It looked comical in his mind’s eye. ‘Tell me about the family,’ he said to Rehan. ‘What sort of people live there?’
‘Live?’ Rehan said sarcastically. ‘No one’s living in that godawful place, not now anyway. The owners have moved away to a holiday home. A week of this haunting was just about enough for them. They’re good people, you know. Very successful, with a lot of money. But they say this dark presence is bringing gloom and depression into their lives. They can’t handle it.’
‘I see. How many members in the family?’
‘A husband and a wife, both doctors. They have two daughters — one is in school, the other in college. There is a grandfather who is in a wheelchair. That’s about it.’
‘If they don’t live there, how are we getting in?’ Fernandes asked. ‘Is this a break-in?’ she laughed.
‘Not quite. There’s a maid and a servant. They stay nearby, and they visit the bungalow every other day for cleaning.’
Nobody said much for the rest of the way.
At long last, they arrived at the bungalow, a large three-story building in a slightly secluded area. The car came to a halt on the driveway.
Two figures were approaching from the side. Ravi could see the hint of a few scattered huts and shanties behind them, in the distance. When the figures came closer, Ravi saw they were a man and a woman.
‘Welcome, sir,’ the man said to Rehan. His tone wasn’t as polite as the words. ‘Didn’t think you’d come by at this hour.’
‘We’re sorry,’ Rehan replied through the car’s open window, ‘but that’s how it is with us these days. Hope you don’t mind?’
‘My mind is beneath anyone’s bother. Have to do my job to survive, don’t I?’ He looked to the woman with him and said, ‘Why are you still standing here? Go unlock the door. The sooner this is over, the better.’
The woman hurried off to the entrance of the bungalow.
‘Well, let’s going, shall we?’ he then said to Rehan.
The party inside the car joined the man outside, and together they followed the woman. When they reached, she was still fiddling with the keys. Finally, Ravi heard the creak of wood as the doors opened.
The servant and his wife walked confidently into the dark passageway. Very soon, the lights began to switch on inside.
A horrible smell assaulted Ravi’s nose almost as soon as he walked in. Not so much a stink as an odour that evoked panic in him. He suppressed his emotions and continued walking. From the looks on their faces, the smell was bothering the police officers as well. Rehan was visibly worried.
Inside the spacious bungalow, they found the servant and his wife sprawled on two separate sofas in the living room. The man was sitting with both his legs spread on the cushions, his shoes still on.
The woman asked them, ‘Would you like any tea or coffee?’
‘No, thank you. We’ll only be here for a bit,’ Fernandes said.
Ravi and Rehan nodded their agreement.
The wife rested back on the sofa happily. ‘Let us know if you need anything,’ she said.
Ravi approached Rehan and spoke to him softly. ‘They seem to be rather enjoying the luxuries here while their masters are away. Did you notice this the last time as well?’
‘Not so much,’ Rehan said, ‘but I guess it’s only human nature.’
‘Hmm,’ said Ravi, but he walked to Fernandes and whispered, ‘I find this pair suspicious. I wonder if they are planning something.’
‘Let’s—’ Fernandes began, but then sneezed suddenly. ‘Excuse me, it’s this smell.’
‘Yes, the smell,’ Ravi agreed. ‘I wonder if that has anything to do with the hauntings.’
‘Huh? How do you mean?’
‘I’m thinking… I remember reading an article about how our sense of smell is connected to our memories. Good smells can remind us about good memories. Bad ones, about bad things. That could be one explanation to Rehan’s vision.’
‘You’re suggesting that this smell can induce hallucinations?’
‘I’m not sure, but it’s definitely making me uneasy. Let’s be careful.’
Fernandes rocked her head a few times as if churning the information around. Then she straightened and said aloud, ‘Let’s have a look at that room then, shall we?’
‘Yes, ma’am,’ replied Rehan. ‘Can we have the keys to the room, please?’ he asked the woman on the sofa.
At that, the servant’s expression grew dark. He scowled at the carpet.
In contrast, his wife’s eyes widened. She stiffly withdrew a heavy bunch of keys from her waist, sorted through them, and pulled out a key-ring with six keys on it. Her hands shook as she gave it to Rehan.
‘Right, let’s go,’ he said to Ravi and Fernandes.
While the servant and his wife stayed behind, they followed Rehan up a flight of stairs and then another. On the second floor, he led them across a long corridor until they arrived at the absolute end, where a chestnut door awaited them. Half a dozen locks secured it shut, all but one of them brand new.
The smell was intense here. Ravi was more than certain that it was coming from beyond the door.
At this moment, Rehan turned around. He raised the keys in his hand, offering them. ‘This is as far as I’m going,’ he said, his lips dry.
‘Right,’ said Ravi, taking the keys. He set about undoing the locks, figuring out which key went in which lock through trial and error.
Finally, the door was open. He heard Rehan step away quickly. Ravi turned to Fernandes, and she seemed a little unsure herself.
Ravi rolled his eyes and marched into the room alone. The smell grew overpoweringly strong.
The room was every bit as spacious as the rest of the bungalow. Moonlight was rushing in from a giant window on one wall, illuminating the clean, empty interior. There was nothing in sight, nothing but one dark mass in a corner where the light was weak. It looked like a messy pile of discarded rags.
Ravi walked to it. The smell, whatever it was, was coming from under there. He bent down to pull the cover, but found some resistance, like it was wrapped around something heavy.
The next moment, the bundle stirred.
It turned around. What Ravi had taken to be a pile of rags was a person in dirty, torn clothes, curled in a foetal position.
Ravi let out a gasp. He hurried back.
The figure moved, standing up with some effort. The person looked old.
Then he walked towards Ravi, slowly stepping into the moonlight until his face was perfectly visible.
Ravi gasped, louder than before. ‘NO! It can’t be! It can’t be you!’
‘Ravi,’ his father spoke in a weak voice. ‘You promised me…’
‘No— you’re not — you died!’
‘You promised me,’ his father repeated, angrier. ‘You promised you would become a great literary figure.’
‘How are you here? I saw you breathe your last. I was — I was there.’
‘You promised me, Ravi. Why did you break your promise?’
‘I — I haven’t!’
‘You shifted from your course. You have disappointed me.’
‘You’ve broken your promise.’
‘No, I’m working on it. Please, believe me, I’m going to get there.’
‘You’ll bring shame to my memory.’
‘No, no, I won’t…’
His father screamed in response. It wasn’t a scream like Ravi had ever heard anyone produce, let alone his father. It made the blood in his veins go cold.
His father lunged at him like a wild animal.
Ravi moved back in such a hurry, he tripped, falling on his back. He hurried to cover himself from the oncoming attack.
But his father was gone.
Someone else stood towering over him. It was a large boy in a school uniform, cracking his knuckles.
‘Aww, did you hurt yourself?’ Ravi’s bully from so many years ago asked him. ‘Who will praise you now? You know what I think? You’re pathetic, Ravi. Pathetic! The only good thing about you is that you make for a great punching bag!’ The boy guffawed.
‘No,’ Ravi croaked.
‘You fighting back, are you?’ The boy laughed madly. ‘I’d like to see that! Stand up and fight me. FIGHT ME!’ The order thundered throughout the place.
The room plunged into darkness without warning. The moonlight was no longer shining through the window. Ravi took the chance to get up and run. He managed four scrambled steps before colliding against something, someone.
A woman in a sports jersey looked down at him. He could see her despite the dark, her form almost shining. A long stick was held up threateningly in one hand.
‘Where will you run? Your thin legs are worthless,’ his former sports teacher told him. ‘Last place, always. When have you done any better? Show me your hand. A good hit should put some motivation in you.’
‘No! Please… no.’
‘Hand, now. Or would you prefer it on your head?’
He heard the sound of kids laughing at him.
He looked around. A woman in a violet top and a black pencil skirt stood beside him.
Ms. Dixit pointed a gun straight at Ravi’s temple.
‘We can do away with you, Ravi. Things could have been so different. Did you have to disappoint me?’
‘Good thinking,’ said the sports teacher. ‘He’s beyond punishment. Kill him.’
‘Nerds like you are better dead,’ said the bully.
‘No, please…’ Ravi said, trying to get up.
‘Don’t deny it,’ his father’s voice came.
Ravi couldn’t look at the man.
‘You’ve failed me,’ his father said again.
‘You’ve failed us all,’ they said together.
‘You deserve to die.’
‘Do it now.’
Ravi covered his ears, shut his eyes and broke out in a run, screaming as he went.
He felt them follow, hands clawing at his back, trying to grab him. There was a light in the distance ahead of him. If only he could reach it, but he was running too slow…
When he awoke, Ravi was out in the corridor. The door to the room was shut. Fernandes and Rehan were bent over him.
‘Are you alright? What did you see?’ Fernandes was asking.
‘Did you see dead people?’ Rehan added.
‘Yes,’ Ravi replied with some effort. ‘Not everyone was dead, but—’
‘But you saw some? You agree that there are ghosts?’
‘I’m not sure.’ He was still breathing hard, but his mind was beginning to clear.
‘What? How can you not be?’
‘I’ve acted carelessly,’ Ravi said.
‘It’s fine. You were brave, but courage can only take you so far, especially when it comes to the supernatural.’
‘No, no, I got overwhelmed. The room surprised me. I forgot what I went in there for in the first place.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘I can’t forget the objective out of fear. I’m going in again.’
‘Are you mad?!’ Rehan blurted out, bewildered.
‘You’re sure?’ Fernandes asked Ravi, sounding rather alarmed. ‘You don’t have to risk yourself, Mr. Thakur.’
The words of his father’s ghost repeated in Ravi’s mind. You have failed me.
‘I must go back,’ Ravi said firmly. He felt much calmer now.
He stood up, picking up the Captura. Then, hesitating for just the tiniest moment, he pushed open the door to the room a second time. The strong smell welcomed him back.