“Nothing bad happens there?” Athreya queried. “Surely, a hundred years would have seen deaths.”

“Death is not necessarily a bad thing,” Margot countered. “For the aged or the gravely ill, it is a relief.”

“And for their loved one too,” Dave added. “Seeing someone suffer from an incurable illness can be heart-wrenching. Locals believe that anything that happens at Peter Dann happens for the good.”

Athreya didn’t pursue it further. He was acutely aware that Javed had fallen silent. His late wife, Naira, had died at Peter Dann a few years ago. Athreya knew no details, but he wondered how it could have been a good thing for Javed or Asma. Especially when Naira had only been in her late forties and Asma a teenager. It was curious that Dave and Margot, who were good friends with Javed and a very sensible couple, had so openly spoken about Peter Dann being blessed. That too in Javed’s presence. Mrinal, who seemed to be a perceptive young woman, had sensed something and fallen silent with a puzzled expression on her face.

Thankfully, they were interrupted by the entry of a man who had apparently been out for a run. His T-shirt, which was two sizes too small for him, was clinging to his well-muscled torso. He was wearing high-end running shoes and must be in his early thirties. He was the second person staying at Clarkson’s. “Howdy, Margot, Dave,” he said breezily with an acquired Western accent. “Wonderful evening for a run. I must have done at least five miles.”

Dave beamed back at him as if the salubrious evening was of his making. “That’s a lot in such hilly terrain,” he said. “I’m impressed that you did five miles!” The newcomer shrugged and went on, “I can do more. By the way, you really must install a gym, you know. I crave some upper-body exercise. Running only exercises the legs.”

Dave’s smile vanished but he said nothing.

“This is Kinshuk,” Mrinal cut in, turning to Athreya and Javed. “My fiancé. He’s a celebrity trainer, you know. I don’t think I know a fitter person in all of Mumbai.”

Athreya’s eyes followed Kinshuk as he pulled out a mobile phone and clicked a couple of selfies of himself with the others at the table as the background. He inspected the photographs critically and decided to take two more from another angle. He went over to a table and poured himself a large glass of water. He had short hair and was clean-shaven and friendly-looking, but the touch of hubris couldn’t be hidden. His well-toned body corroborated Mrinal’s opinion about his fitness.

“I’m sorry if I offended you, Dave,” Kinshuk said as he set down the empty glass. “Mrinal will tell you that I am a bit of an exercise freak. I go wonky when I don’t get my full quota. I realize that people who live in the hills don’t need a gym. They probably get their exercise just going about their work every day. My apologies.” The smile that had vanished from Dave’s face, returned.

Javed glanced at his watch. “We should be going shortly,” he said.

“One for the road, gentlemen?” Dave asked. “I see that you are not driving.”

“Thank you. I always bring a driver when I come here. I don’t fancy negotiating those bends after imbibing your brandy.”

As they were talking, Kinshuk put a protective arm around Mrinal and clicked another selfie of himself and his fiancée. Mrinal wrinkled her nose and pushed him away, telling him to go and bathe. With a grin, Kinshuk left.

“We’ll come over to Peter Dann sometime in the early evening the day after tomorrow,” Mrinal said to Javed. “Mrs Clarkson is cooking us a special French lunch tomorrow. I want to enjoy more of her cooking before we go over to the castle.”

Margot rose and excused herself. “I better ensure that dinner gets ready in time,’ she said. ‘Goodbye, Javed. Bye, Mr Athreya. Come back soon.” As Margot turned, Mrinal also rose. “Let me help you, Mrs Clarkson,” she said. “Goodbye, gentlemen. I’ll see you in two days at Peter Dann.”

Dave waited till she was out of earshot before leaning forward. “A nice, sweet girl,” he whispered conspiratorially. “Can’t, for the life of me, understand why she went and hooked up with a pseudo like Kinshuk. Must have fallen for his looks and muscled body, I suppose.”

“What’s wrong with Kinshuk?” Athreya asked.

“He strikes me as a bit of a narcissist and a faker who is interested only in himself. Do you know how many selfies he has taken here alone? Dozens every day! He’s the kind of man who will get attracted to the next shiny thing that come along. I fear it’s only a matter of time before his attention wanders from Mrinal. I’m afraid the poor girl is in for a heartbreak.”

“Feel sorry for her, Dave?” Athreya asked, wondering if Mrinal had evoked the same kind of response in Dave as she had in him.

“Don’t you?” His voice dropped a notch. “I get the impression that she doesn’t have much of a family. Maybe, she has nobody to guide her on how to judge people. She seems to trust her fiancé quite implicitly.”

He shook his head and sat back in his chair. As Javed picked up his glass to finish his last drink, Athreya’s gaze wandered towards the dark lawn outside the wide-open doors. Of the three at the table, only he was facing the doorway, and he saw a tall, hirsute man outside. His long hair was thick and unkempt. He was heavily bearded and was dressed like a hippie in faded jeans and a heavy pullover.

As Athreya watched, the grim-faced man came to the doorway and peered in as if he was looking for someone. Dismissing the three men, he scanned the rest of the room with his flinty eyes. Finding no one else, the hirsute stranger turned and vanished before Athreya could say anything or alert the others.

Excerpted with permission from Praying Mantis, RV Raman, Puskin Vertigo.