4: The Call

>> Sunday, May 31, 2009

They were blurring past her eyes. Trees, bushes, people, even cars. Before she could catch a glimpse of them, before she could figure out what they were like, they were gone. At one moment, there they were, going about their business in all glory. And as her eyes landed on them, they whizzed past her. Just like all the good things in my life, thought Neha as she stared out of the bus window.

It had been a month now. She tried to think about her life before things had suddenly gone wrong. Her life had started finally to go back on track. It had been a tough year for her till then. Born and bought up in Pune by a rich doting single father, she had always been accustomed to getting things done her way. Not that she had let it all go to her head. She believed she was still level headed. Just a little pampered, that's all.

When she had graduated, she was looking forward to working in her dad's firm. Why wouldn't she? Her father owned one of the largest IT companies in Pune. His firm had major dealings with India's defence services. They provided them with state-of-the-art software security systems used all over the country. Bu no, her dad had other things in mind for her. He was a self-made man. He had started his company a la Narayan Murthy. From scratch. He may have pampered his daughter a little uptil now, but when it came to her career, he wanted her to stand on her own feet. He asked her to apply for campus placements. He wanted her to experience a world not protected by her father. Atleast for a year. Then she would be welcome into his company.

Neha had been very angry at him for this. And in that anger, she had gone and sat for Infitech's placements. Knowing very well, that her job would be in Mumbai. She thought she could emotionally blackmail her father into letting up. Bargain with him with a threat of going away. But not for nothing was her father one of the shrewdest brains in the business. Not only did he ask her to join Infitech's offices at Mumbai, he even refused to splurge money on her and buy her a flat there. He told her, you need to understand how to survive on the salary you get.

Neha had been aghast! But all said and done, she was her father's daughter. She took this as a challenge. She wanted to prove it to herself that she could survive out there. And she had. Overcoming the occasional pangs of homesickness, adjusting her way of life so that her meagre fresher's salary could take care of her expenses, she had managed to stay in Infitech for a whole year. Along the way, she had found a best friend in Ishika. A person she didn't know in Pune, but now she couldn't live without.

Then she had found Sid. She didn't believe in online romances. She thought them to be unsafe. But she found herself falling in one. She was truly happy. She was happy that she had been able to justify her dad's faith in her. That she would be able to stand on her own two feet, and build a life of her own.

And then, as they always seem to with her, things went wrong. Ishika packed up her stuff and moved back to Pune. And Sid - it was just right out of left field. She had been shattered. Overlooking the setting sun through the window, Neha almost smiled when she remembered her state in those days. She had been angry, she had been despondent, she had been tearful, she had been plain down right depressed. And there had been no Ishika to sit by her side. Two people, whom her new life revolved around had suddenly disappeared. And the sure footing on which she had stood and proclaimed to herself about her independence, had suddenly crumbled.

It was maybe the fighting spirit that she got from her mother and her dad's inherent belief in her that made her still stand. Somehow get through it all. Ofcourse, Ishika's constant calls from Pune didn't hurt.

Neha thought about Sid. In the last month or so, had she been able to get over him? Ofcourse, its not hard to get over a philandering scoundrel, she thought. But somehow somewhere she had glimpsed something in him that she still held on to. It was something so small, so tiny, insignificant even, that it never made its presence felt amidst the fury, the sadness and finally the acceptance that had been her emotions throughout. That something insignificant was still buried somewhere deep inside. Never to surface again.

Slowly, but surely, she had gotten back on track. She was surprised at her own resilience. In a month's time, she had come to a point where she would go days without even remembering Sid. Her friend circle kept her busy. Her boss tried to keep her busy, but she was too smart for him - what with no distractions now. Life was slowly going back to what it used to be. Until today...

She had just finished up her work in office. She had been getting real good at it lately. It was just 4 o clock. She was wondering whether she should call up the gang to make plans with them or indulge herself with some shoe-shopping. And the phone rang. It was dad. "Neha, I know this is on short notice, but catch the next bus out of Mumbai right now. Something very important has come up. I have already booked the ticket and Ramesh will be waiting for you at Dadar."

Since her mother had passed away, Neha had kind of been her dad's care taker. She knew his every mood. She could understand just from his tone what he was thinking. But the tone that Neha heard today was something she had never heard before. It was grave. It had such a firmness to it that she didn't even ask a single question. She just said yes and picked up her bag. She went home, packed a few clothes and took a cab to Dadar.

As the sun finally set and the shadows turned into darkness, her wandering mind came back. She didn't know what to expect. Even though his voice had been grave, there had been no panic in it. There had been a chilling calm. She knew her dad. He would have things in control. She looked forward to meeting him and figuring out what was the important thing that had come up.

Little did she know, that the very thing hidden deep into the recesses of her subconscious, never to surface again, would exactly do that. And therein would lie a test of her character that she would have never imagined...


3: Big Mac

>> Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Like a tiger, she growled as Sid came into the alley. The growling turned to a purr, menacing still, as Sid slowly came to a stop. Kicking out the side-stand from his Royal Enfield Machismo, Sid lovingly caressed the beast. She was his pride. He spent hours on lazy Sundays tinkering with her. She was probably the only constant in his life right now.

Sid looked around at the familiar alley. To a normal bystander, it would look like any one of the hundreds of typical, dusty back alleys in the heart of South Mumbai. The one thing that stood out though was the collection of bikes parked there. Shiny Royal Enfields, imported Harley Davidsons, renovated Mazdas and Bullets, 'Hot Rod' Choppers. It was a biker's dream. As Sid locked his bike, he smiled. There was actually no need to lock it. His bike was small fry amongst the monsters out here. And then ofcourse, no thief in his right mind would try to put his hands anywhere on a bike that was parked in Big Mac's alley.

The sun cast a beautiful glow over the evening skies as Sid walked to an old wooden door. He knocked. A small slit slid out and two eyes poked from it. Then they seemed to smile. The door opened. Sid shook hands with the old doorkeeper, grinning at his toothless grin. "Sid's here!", he hollered and there was a roar as Sid went inside.

What was an old wooden door outside, seemingly of a run down establishment, transformed into a chic bar inside. The bar was styled after the Italian hangouts in the Godfather movies. Big Mac loved the Godfather movies. Sid had an inkling that he thought himself to be one too. There was a long bar at one side, with all kinds of drinks neatly stacked behind it. An overlying frame structure held glasses of all shapes and sizes across the length of the table. True to its styling, a short portly bartender was behind the bar, trying to look busy. In the area up front, there were two rows of short tables with three to four chairs around each of them.

A mix of 20 odd guys, mostly of Sid's age were either sitting at the tables playing cards, flirting around with the ladies, or downing drinks at the bar. All of them had one thing in common. They had a certain swagger about them. They were men in control. Men with power. They talked with the girls in a sort of off-handed way that can only come with that kind of power.

As Sid walked through, they nodded, winked and grinned at him. "What's Sid's score?" someone asked. "He's scored one more, haven't you?", someone else asked. "Update the scoreboard!", another one pointed at a white board on the wall. "You are the man, Sid!" One more yelled. Sid just smiled. He didn't react much. There was admiration, there was envy, but there was also a sense of belonging.

At the far end, there was a plush leather sofa. In the middle of it was sitting a huge mass of a man, with a cigar in one hand and a drink in another. A twenty something girl was trying to cozy up to him. But Big Mac was busy discussing something with two skinny gentlemen in front of him. Big Mac not just had a huge physique, he also had an impressive personality. Shoulder length hair neatly combed back, a graying beard hiding most of his fair-skinned face. But what kept you captivated were his eyes. While his overall persona seemed laid back, his eyes told a different story. They were intense. They didn't miss a thing. They bore through your whole being, trying to figure out exactly what you were thinking. Like they were doing right now to the two people sitting in front of him, scared shitless.

Sid walked right up to him. Big Mac looked up and roared in his guttural voice, "Ah Sid! My boy!" He gestured Sid to sit down. "You don't have a drink in your hand! Tony... get Sid a drink." He yelled out to the portly bartender. Like a mouse who has just realized that the fat cat has noticed it, Tony scurried around to prepare the drink. "So, how you doing Sid?" Sid nodded. "I see you are still topping the scoreboard ha!"

"I wouldn't be anywhere even near you hadn't you taken yourself out of the competition, Big Mac."

"Ah... I have grown too old for that, young man. And nowadays, this flesh does not excite me as much..." He looked at the pretty young thing besides him. He took his cigar towards her ample cleavage. She thought he was joking and started giggling. "Oh Mac, you naughty boy..." And then suddenly, she shrieked as she felt her bare skin singe. Big Mac laughed out loud as she ran away, sobbing. The two sitting in front seamed to cower down even more.

"But yes, these two gentlemen here do have a proposition for us that excites me a little. Sit down Sid. Hear them out. I am glad you are back to your old ways. That bitch of yours had me worried!"

Sid grimaced a little as Big Mac referred to Neha. But he hid it well. "Well, Sheila solved that problem without even doing a thing." Sid replied. He remembered the look on Ishika's face when she saw Sheila cosying up to him. And then, it was all over.

Since he had joined Big Mac, there had never been a dirth of girls. Big Mac had just one rule. Don't get involved. 'Ain't good for our business. No more than two months with one gal', he always said. 'Two months is just about enough time to fuck the living daylight outta her and yet not get completely involved', was his mantra.

Neha had been different. She was not one of the girls that Sid used to date. After his last job for Big Mac, he had taken a break. He wanted to live normal for a while. That would keep him sane, he figured. He had gone to one of the flats that he had bought recently. And then he had accidentally met Neha on orkut. She was searching for someone else, but found him. The messaging started. And the rest fell into place pretty quickly.

She was a software engineer living in a new city and he had a lot of time on his hands. Long weekends became a regularity. He had no idea when the two months became three. After a long time, he was feeling normal again. And then Sheila turned up.

Big Mac had sent her. Big Mac always knew everything about his boys. Sheila was one of Big Mac's special girls. "Fetch and Retrieve". That was her specialty. Sheila met Sid to make him understand that it was time to move on. And she did that in her own peculiar style. And just at that moment, Ishika saw them. Before he could decide what he wanted to do, his decision got made for him.

He didn't know how he really felt about Neha. Maybe, he didn't actually feel anything. Maybe, she was just another score. Like on of Big Mac's girls. Just a little different. Or maybe, he was too scared to know how he really felt about her. Whatever it was, he decided to act the cold hearted bastard. Maybe that was what was best for Neha. Anything else and she would have required an explanation. And he couldn't give her any.

Sheila had made things easier for him that night. Dragged him back from his so called 'normalcy' back to this world. Where he belonged. And just like that, he was back in contention as leader of the scoreboard. The "WTF" scoreboard they called it. It was a game amongst Big Mac's boys. It was really simple. No rules. Just the number of scores. And Sid had been leading the board for the last year or so. Neha had made the competition a little interesting. In the last three months, others had been able to catch up with Sid. But now, he was back at the top.

"Big Mac, sir, your reputation precedes you. So when we wanted this job to be done, we came straight to you." The mustached one had hesitantly started talking. Sid looked at the two properly for the first time. They were decently dressed in matching flannel suits. You could make out that this sort of a situation was not an everyday occurrence for them. They were scared.

Their kind were the best to work with, Sid thought. Their jobs were typically simple and straightforward. Out of fear, they paid well and on time.

He brushed away thoughts of Neha out of his head and started listening intently to what was probably going to be his next job...


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