This story is selected as Editor’s Choice
32 Brushberry Lane was an epitome of architectural beauty and superb workmanship—a two-storied structure of sheer elegance whose ethereal quality rarely escapes any passing eye. Residents and neighbours feign nonchalance about them but deep down, they harbour a hesitant admiration for the Sanders.
Hamilton and Elizabeth Sanders were the perfect example of happy marriage for the world. A decade of marital bliss has in no way dampened the love they had for each other—rather it would not be incorrect to assume that adoration increased every passing year. An architect by both profession and vocation, Hamilton Sanders left no stone unturned to build his own piece of Elysium.
Tall and well-built with a mop of wavy dark brown hair now slightly speckled with grey, he was man of great integrity and character. His perpetually smiling visage, twinkling bespectacled grey eyes and frank body language made anyone feel at ease with him. The female interns of his firm were often starry-eyed about him while their male counterparts held a grudging admiration for the boss.
Elizabeth Sanders was quieter and softer than her husband. Preferring the library to parties and philanthropy over unnecessary splurging, the petite slender lady had many who admired her flawless personality. Her thick waist-length voluminous black hair which was often braided down her right side, large almond shaped green eyes and pale heart-shaped face gave an aura of delicacy and childlike innocence which made her husband all the more protective of her.
It was the fifth of September, with the autumn just edging itself into the calendar. The Sanders were having breakfast in the garden as the pale watery blue sky slowly got tinted with the rays of the rising sun. The cobbled driveway was already beginning to fill up with golden brown leaves shed by the many trees in the carefully tended garden but were left as it is on Elizabeth’s insistence—she loved it when the cobbled path played hide-and-seek with the fallen leaves.
“Liz, why don’t you employ a full-time maid for the household chores? The house is too big for you to clean up alone and besides, why waste time in cleaning vases when you could do something interesting and worthwhile instead?” asked Hamilton, sipping his tea.
Elizabeth smiled at the schoolboy whine in Hamilton’s voice as she poured tea from the pot into her cup.
“I do not feel bothered at all, dear. Moreover, you know I hate strangers scurrying about the house all the time—I feel terribly public, like as if I am staying in a hotel or something. Amba does the dishes and scrubs the floor…and I am pretty satisfied with it. And I do not trust anyone but myself to clean those antique Japanese vases. I would be devastated if any maid broke it by mistake,” she said gently, holding the enamel cup delicately for a sip.
Hamilton couldn’t help but shrug—Elizabeth might be gentle and soft but at times could be surprisingly stubborn.
“Alright, Liz. It’s your call. But promise you will hire someone when the need arises.”
Elizabeth nodded in agreement, making him smile.
“Rohan Mehra and his wife Sakshi are coming in for dinner today.”
It was noon and Elizabeth was about to leave for a visit to the orphanage when the phone rang.
Hamilton had told her earlier that his design firm was entering into a partnership with Rohan Mehra’s construction company to build a world-class hospital for the underprivileged. She was extremely enthusiastic about the project and had already consulted various doctors in this regard.
Rohan Mehra was a young and ambitious businessman who had made a name for himself in a relatively short time. It was a little over a month ago that the deal was finally formalized in a legal manner.
“I am sorry for informing you at such short notice,” said Hamilton apologetically. “But the fact is, they are leaving for Germany sometime this week and there are some fine print we need to clear. Nothing better than a dinner, eh?”
“Don’t worry dear, I will get the cook whip up something. You just come home early so that you can be well rested by evening.”
She heard Hamilton heave a sigh of relief from the other side.
“Thanks a lot Liz. You have taken a lot of load from my shoulders. See you this evening.”
After hanging up the phone, Elizabeth proceeded to call up the cook and inform her as to what was exactly desired for the evening.
It was almost seven in the evening and the setting sun played with fiery colours over the cream walls in the dining room. Clad in an off-shoulder pale blue dress, silver stilettos and her hair loosely falling down her back, Elizabeth instructed the cook’s assistant, a plump girl of sixteen, to lay the table. Light brown table cloth was laid on the circular walnut dining table with her prized white enamel dinnerware laid out in precise manner. The French red wine was cooling in the refrigerator, all ready to be uncorked. The crystal wine glasses stood like proud sentinels next to respective plates, as if surveying the table for some fault.
“Listen carefully. When the guests arrive, they will be seated in the living room where you will be bringing the margaritas and the vegetable pops. When we proceed to the dining room, you will first put the bread basket, followed by soup, ask for second helpings then the main course. After the main course is cleared, serve the dessert. After we leave the dining table, clear it and some fifteen-twenty minutes later, bring coffee into the study. Am I understood?”
“Yes, Mrs. Sanders,” the girl replied cheerfully.
“Do not mix up anything—it is an important deal for my husband and I do not want anything to mess it up.”
She nodded and hurried to the kitchen.
Elizabeth smoothened down her dress and looked around. The paintings were well-placed on the walls and the geraniums and roses in the vases lent a refreshing fragrance to the atmosphere. The lighting was proper, the cushions on the sofa colour-coordinated and the rug straightened and free of errant dust.
“It looks perfect.”
She turned around to find Hamilton leaning in the doorway. Clad in a beige suit, he looked dapper and elegant.
“The meeting will go well, don’t you lose your sleep over it.”
“I hope so. Everything has been arranged so hurriedly…”
“But without any compromise on quality.” Hamilton finished, giving his wife a one-armed hug. “And the Mehra’s are nice people. Just you wait.”
“I must say Mrs. Sanders, you are one perfect hostess.”
Rohan Mehra was shorter than Hamilton but slightly stouter. Clad in a grey suit, he looked the typical businessman. On the other hand, Sakshi Mehra was tall and had a sophisticated air about her. Dressed in a pale white-and-pink silk sari with her shoulder-length dark brown hair curled and set properly, she had that unconscious grace which many women lacked but desired all the same. As she sipped her margarita, she nodded in agreement with her husband’s statement.
“Thank you, Mr. Mehra,” Elizabeth replied, lowering her head slightly in his direction.
“Elizabeth refrains from attending social events, but that doesn’t mean she cannot organize one,” Hamilton beamed.
Rohan Mehra was loud and jovial, cracking jokes and anecdotes which made even the soft-spoken Elizabeth laugh out loud. Generous with praises without making it sound like flattery, he had the ability to talk about anything under the sun—thus making the dinner a very vocal affair. Sakshi, on the other hand was quiet, preferring only to listen.
The blood red French wine was heavily appreciated by the guests, leaving a tinge of red in Elizabeth’s cheeks.
“I bought them from the vineyard run by a friend of mine to experiment with various ways of maturing. I am glad you liked it.”
After dinner, the party proceeded into the study for coffee and to discuss some details of the project. Hamilton sat on his straight back oak chair while Rohan made himself comfortable in the armchair opposite him. The ladies sat on the loveseat, talking about random topics.
“I trust you more than my PA, Hamilton. Your reputation of an honest and straightforward man is what made me sign this deal…do what you deem fit,” said Rohan seriously.
“Rest assured, I will do nothing to betray that trust of yours.”
“ARE YOU ALRIGHT?”
A sickening crash followed by a moan echoed through the house—Sakshi Mehra had slipped and rolled down the last few steps of the staircase, knocking down Rohan in the process. Though he escaped unscathed, her ankle swelled rapidly.
“I might have broken it,” she said through gritted teeth.
“Rohan, call up the hospital and get your car out…quick!” said Hamilton urgently.
Rohan nodded in agreement and dashed out of the house.
Hamilton hurried down the steps with Elizabeth following close behind.
“Are you alright?” he asked gently.
Sakshi nodded, fighting the pain with a grimace.
“Can you stand?”
“I will try.”
But the strain of standing proved too much for her ankle and she slid to the floor again.
He swung her arm over his shoulders and helped her hobble to the driveway where Rohan was waiting. He helped her gently into the backseat and climbed into the shotgun seat.
“I will return in an hour Elizabeth,” he said as Rohan drove off, not waiting to hear her reply.
“A broken ankle, but not very bad. At least that what that intern said. She has been told to visit the doctor again tomorrow for a proper check-up.”
Elizabeth patted his shoulder in an attempt to show solidarity.
“I hope she will be okay,” she said softly.
“She will be, don’t you worry. I know Sakshi…she is not the whiny type—in a way, she reminds me of you. Both of you have that quiet strength which I admire and unfortunately lack.”
“You must be tired and it is a long way past midnight…let’s turn in for the night.”
Hamilton gave a tired sigh as he nodded in agreement.
“How is Sakshi?” Elizabeth asked over the phone.
It was two days after the incident—the doctor said it was a hairline crack.
“She is fine…well as fine as you can be with a banged-up leg. But she is holding up the fortress pretty well,” said Rohan, sounding slightly worried.
“I am glad to hear that. I hope she gets well soon. And I am really sorry for what happened…”
“Don’t be, Mrs. Sanders. It wasn’t anybody’s fault…just bad luck on Sakshi’s part, I guess. Germany is indefinitely postponed now…can’t expect her to hobble all around the airport.”
“Wish her well on my behalf, Mr. Mehra.”
“For sure, Mrs. Sanders.”
After a couple of more pleasantries, she hung up.
Just then, the doorbell rang.
It was mid-afternoon and all the maids had left…who could it be?
She walked down the hallway to the front door as the bell kept on ringing insistently.
“Coming!” she called out loudly.
Opening the door, she gasped out loud.
Hamilton had an irritating day at the office—his meetings interrupted by a series of phone calls from some newbie travel company in an attempt to tele-market its packages. Not to mention one of his interns messing up his files.
“A series of unfortunate events designed to drive me mad, that’s what it is,” he said to himself.
The upcoming project and the subsequent meetings with various financers made him stay in the office till late hours. And he was glad Elizabeth understood his predicament—a nagging wife would have just been the cherry on the problem pie.
It was almost ten when he finally began his homeward journey, his stomach rumbling in hunger and his back aching to lie down on the soft mattress. As he proceeded to exit the garage, his cell phone rang.
It was Rohan.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“Sorry to bother you, Hamilton but did Sakshi drop into your office by any chance?” said Rohan, trying to sound nonchalant but Hamilton could hear the underlying tension in his voice.
“No, Rohan. What happened? Is something the matter?” he replied, steering the car on the side of the road to a halt.
“I don’t know. But she’s not at home. The maid said she left at around four for your house and did not return. I tried calling up your house but the operator said your phone’s disconnected. Does your wife have a cell phone?”
Hamilton mulled for a moment before replying.
“Yeah, Liz was saying something about repairing the base phone so maybe that’s why it is disconnected. And no, she doesn’t have a cell phone—Liz is old-school in that way. She hates cell phones. But don’t worry—I will go home and call you back as soon as possible.”
“Thanks a lot Hamilton. Sakshi might be at your home…the girls enjoyed each other’s company very much the last time and I dare say they are swapping stories of their girlhood days and lost the track of time.”
“Don’t worry, Rohan. It will be okay. Don’t panic.”
Elizabeth was knitting sweaters in the living room when Hamilton burst in.
“What happened dear? You look worried,” she said, lifting her head from her knitting.
“Did Sakshi come here?” he asked.
“Yes, she did. So?” she answered, sounding slightly bewildered.
“When did she leave?”
“At around six…you are scaring me Hamilton. What happened?”
He sat down on the armchair as Elizabeth went up to him, looking worried.
“Rohan had called up—he said that she hasn’t returned home.”
Elizabeth clapped her hands over her mouth in horror, dropping the half-knit sweater.
“Now that you mention it, she was behaving a bit strangely. Like jumpy and scared. And she left by the back door. Even the lady at number thirty-three asked me later as to what was wrong…she saw her walk in a suspicious manner towards the main road.”
Hamilton stared at his wife with narrowed eyes.
“Why did she come here?”
“I don’t know but I got the feeling that she wanted to tell me something,” she said, her face scrunched up in an effort to remember.
“She was scared…literally. I think something’s up between Rohan and her…and frankly, I feel it is something that isn’t good.”
“Whatever it is, we can’t do anything. But I really hope Sakshi reaches home safely—she shouldn’t be walking much with a broken ankle. I will just call up Rohan and inform him the same.”
As he commenced to dial his number, Elizabeth went into the kitchen to lay table for dinner.
Hamilton sipped the red wine before putting the glass down with a confused look.
“That day’s wine was perfect…what happened to this one?” he asked, twirling the liquid.
“I don’t know…maybe it needs to mature a bit more.” Elizabeth answered, wiping the red stain from her mouth primly with a napkin.
Hamilton stretched his arms, yawning.
“Everything’s perfect…except this missing Sakshi mystery. I do hope everything is fine and alright.”
“I guess she’s fine. It might just be a matter of marital discord.”
“You might be right Liz. After all, not many are as understanding and as caring as you are.”
Two days later, Hamilton did not return from the office. When the clock struck twelve, Elizabeth was finally feeling the pangs of worry and misgivings—he was never late from the office. So where was he?
After some thirty or so minutes later, she drove to the office only to find it locked. She asked the watchman as to the whereabouts of her husband.
“Sir left early today, around five in the evening. He went by taxi, preferring to leave his car behind. And no ma’am, he did not return.”
She was puzzled…he left by taxi?
She drove to the police station and lodged a missing person’s report. The inspector insisted her to go home—after all, nothing would be accomplished by staying the whole night there. On the other hand, if Hamilton returned home, he would find it empty.
After a lot of convincing, she agreed to go home and wait.
The next day, his PA called her up to give a curious bit of information.
“I am Mr. Sanders’ PA. I was searching through his e-mail inbox at the request of the police when I found a very curious e-mail. A ticket for two to Hawaii registered under the names of Hamilton Sanders and Sakshi Mehra.”
“What?” Elizabeth whispered.
“Yes ma’am. And it was dated yesterday. The time of flight was seven p.m.”
“Have you informed the police of this?”
“You are supposed to provide information to the investigators…however painful it might be.”
“Alright, Mrs. Sanders. I will keep you posted.”
“ARE YOU SAYING MY WIFE ELOPED WITH HAMILTON SANDERS???”
Rohan looked furious while Elizabeth sat primly, her hands folded on her lap.
“That’s what the evidence points at. Sakshi Mehra came to meet with Mrs. Sanders on the seventh of September. She was behaving in a very suspicious manner which has been testified by Mrs. Carrie Brown of thirty-three, Brushberry Lane who was weeding her backyard at the time Sakshi Mehra left. On the ninth of September, the entire office was witness to the fact that Hamilton Sanders was behaving strangely—and he left the office in a taxi while his car was in the garage. The plane tickets prove the very facts and so does the confirmation with the flight officials. The flight roster has these names in attendance, Mr. Mehra. What more proof do you need?”
The inspector looked kindly at the broken man.
“I know it sounds harsh but it is the truth. Go home and sleep, sir. We will have a more coherent conversation in the morning.”
Elizabeth drove the ashen-faced Rohan to her house.
“Have some wine, Mr. Mehra. It will calm down your nerves.”
The house was stone cold, like a tomb. It was positively freezing.
“Is your thermostat not working, Mrs. Sanders? It is freezing in here.”
“I know. But I like the cold…you don’t like it?”
Rohan refrained from answering but a shiver ran down his spine.
He sat on the armchair in the living room while Elizabeth went in to bring the decanter and glasses.
The wine looked bright, blood red, the sole colour in the pastel-coloured room.
He sipped only to gag.
“What is this? It tastes so awkward and strange!”
Elizabeth sipped deeply.
“You didn’t like it, Mr. Mehra? It is the best wine ever…though my husband didn’t like it too. But he will like it now.”
“What do you mean, Mrs. Sanders? Your husband will not return to you. Nor would my wife.”
“Seriously? Do you really believe that? My husband loves me very much and I love him too…no one can separate us. Why, he is here…with me. He will always stay with me…forever.”
Rohan shivered, but not because of the cold. There was something about Elizabeth Sanders that made him scared…something manic in her eyes that made his legs go wobbly and jelly like.
“Hamilton likes the cold, so I like it too.”
He followed her into her bedroom, only to be greeted by a sight so ghastly and so horrific that he almost fainted on the spot.
Hamilton Sanders lay on the bed, propped up by several pillows. The moonlight from the windows was reflected in his glassy, unstaring eyes as he lay motionless. But the most overpowering feature was the smell—putrid, sickly sweet smell of rotting flesh filled the room which was attempted to be masked by faint perfumes but no avail.
“Mrs…Mrs…Mrs. Sanders….” Rohan stuttered in fright.
“Your wife wanted to take away Hamilton…so I ensured he will be with me forever.”
The investigation into the murders of Hamilton Sanders and Sakshi Mehra concluded on fifteenth of September. Elizabeth Sanders was declared mentally unfit and was admitted into a psychiatric hospital for treatment. Sakshi’s body was found in a highly decomposed condition…it was hacked into innumerable pieces and stuffed into a garbage bag in the cellar next to the wine casks.
It was Elizabeth who had called Sakshi over on the pretext of organizing a party. It was Elizabeth who had disguised herself as Sakshi and ensured that the near-sighted Mrs. Brown saw her leave the house through the back door.
It was she who had called up Hamilton from a public call office and threatened him, disguised as a terrorist, to pay up money and come home in a taxi—not doing which would result in Elizabeth’s death.
“And when Hamilton came home, I killed him!” she exclaimed, clapping her hands in childlike delight.
“All went by clockwork precision, didn’t it?”
And the red French wine?
It is best to not talk about it.