7: A dark room

>> Sunday, June 21, 2009

Sid slowly came to his senses. He got up and looked around. His head was pounding. He put his hand to the back of his head. It hurt like hell. He tried to see if there was any blood. Atleast, his fingers couldn't feel any. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he looked around. It was a small room, about 6 ft by 8 ft. He had been lying on a creaky old bed with a smelly torn mattress. There were no windows. The only light came from the gap formed by the door's hinges. He tried the door. It was locked.

A slight feeling of claustrophobia came over him. He brushed it aside. Focus, Sid, focus. How did I land up here? He tried to remember. The cobwebs in his mind slowly cleared as he remembered the last hour before he lost his consciousness. And then it all suddenly dawned upon him.

'Big Mac! The French bastard!' he thought. It had to be his doing. Nobody else knew where he was staying in Pune. It had to be his men who must have knocked him over. And then Sid suddenly smiled. He now realised where he was. This had to be one of Big Mac's new places just on the outskirts of Pune. Big Mac had told Sid about it. In fact, boasted about it. It was a huge villa on one of the hills near Paud, a small town some 30 kms from Pune. To an onlooker, it looked like a typical weekend getaway place for one of the rich businessmen of Pune. Well, weekend getaways did happen here. But not the kind rich businessmen would want to take part in.

Judging from the artificial light coming from the door's hinges, Sid could make out that it was still night. So, it had not been long after being hit on the head. And then Sid smiled again. This was typical Big Mac strategy. You want information from somebody, knock him over his head from behind. Leave him in such a dark room and wait for him to wake up. The fellow, however hardened he maybe, slowly starts panicking. Wait for about 6 to 7 hours and then bring him out and do some tough interrogation. "Being in the dark with a girl, my dear fellow, can bring out the devil inside you. But being in the dark alone, young man, can also easily set the Devil on you!" Most often than not, it worked.

Sid relaxed. He could play along with Big Mac's game. He still had an ace up his sleeve that Big Mac didn't know about. Sid reclined back on the bed, propping himself up with his elbows. He took a deep breath. And his mind wandered to the happenings of the evening.

The moment he had laid his eyes on the contents of the DVD, he knew what it was. And a plethora of emotions had broken out in Sid's mind. His whole life had flashed past his eyes. His parents' fatal car crash when he was just 17, his completing his college education with whatever insurance money his parents' death had given him, and then his slow and steady involvement with Big Mac. Sid's was not a typical story of a street urchin rising through the ranks of the underworld. Sid was an educated, English speaking graduate about to join the boring routine life of thousands of engineers passing out from mushrooming colleges across the country. But Sid never was interested in that life. Even in college, he was the daredevil. He had trained himself in martial arts. His Royal Enfield was a prized possession. With no parents to hold him back, he had enjoyed his college life to the hilt. With his parents' insurance money slowly dwindling, he knew he was not going to be happy with a typical fresher's salary in IT world.

Through a friend who knew of Sid's other talents, he had a chance meeting with Big Mac. Big Mac had immediately realised Sid's potential. Sid, being Sid, had immediately realised the opportunity that existed for a educated, polished, English speaking conman in Big Mac's world. And the rest, as they say, is history. Sid had led a good life. He knew he was good at what he did. And he knew Big Mac knew he knew. So, they both had an understanding. It would be only the classy jobs that would come Sid's way. In sheer professional terms, Sid would have to agree that this DVD job had been the classiest one of them all.

Which brought him to the DVD. Sid knew that he was not particularly patriotic. Hell, he was a conman. He also knew, he was no Robin Hood. What he did, he did just for himself. But one thing Sid knew and Sid knew well, was that he was not a terrorist. Neither did he want to be associated with one. Big Mac had, for once, bitten off more than he could chew. Doing this would be taking them into a completely different league. And with that would come the additional attention of not just India's intelligence agencies, but also those around the world. He didn't mind dealing with the Bombay police, but Sid knew that there was no point getting all this attention just for money. Screw Big Mac, he had thought.

And then he had decided exactly what he would do with the DVD. He set about doing it. It had been a roller coaster ride of emotions and thoughts. And in all this, he hadn't realized that it was half an hour past the meeting time with the two gentlemen. In a moment of weakness, he had switched on his old mobile phone. And just as luck would have it, Neha had called at that time. Somewhere inside, he really liked this girl. When he got to know she was involved in this as well, in another moment of weakness, Sid had uttered probably the corniest line that he had ever uttered to a girl in his life.

As Sid sat on the old bed thinking about it, he almost laughed out loud. Two moments of weakness in one day. Not good. Who did he think he was, a Hindi film hero? After doing a world of bad-doing, the hero realizes in the end that he has found his true love and gives up his crimes! Sid laughed again. What Sid had said to Neha on the phone had been true. But the way he had said it, Sid couldn't stop laughing at himself.

The he remembered what he had in mind for the DVD, Big Mac and the two gentlemen - whoever they might be. As the door to his room was suddenly thrown open, blinding him with light, Sid's laugh slowly turned into a sardonic smile...


6: The DVD

>> Tuesday, June 02, 2009

At around the same time that Sid was making the decision that would probably change his life, Neha sat along with Ishika in her posh Aundh bungalow thinking about the events that had unfolded in the past 12 hours.

The moment she had reached Pune, she had found a company car waiting for her at the bus stop. She was a little surprised to see the company car. Her father was very particular about keeping work and home as two different aspects of his life. Even though he owned the company, he would never use a company vehicle for personal use. The fact that he had sent a company car for Neha meant that her destination would not be home. It would be her dad's office. And the important thing was definitely related to his company. That's weird, thought Neha. How would she be involved in the company's matters? It wasn't as if she was a technical expert that her dad would call on to help with some problem they might be facing.

She called up her dad and told him she was on the way. He asked her to come to the main conference room in the main building. One more ominous sign. That room was always reserved for brainstorming sessions on big problems. Her heartbeats increased a little.

The car shortly pulled in through SecureSoft's massive gates. On reaching the conference room, she expected it to be brightly lit with a bunch of geeks with laptops in front of them discussing away some technical mumbo jumbo that she wouldn't understand. But she was surprised to find pin drop silence. The light was dim. And instead of a group of people, she found her dad at the far end of conference table, sitting alone. He got up as she came in. She quickly went to him and gave him a quick hug.

"How are you Pa?"

"Have seen better days, beta... Come have a seat. I am sorry I had to call you directly to office. I am sure you would have liked to relax a little at home first. But, this was a little too important..."

Neha sat down with a perplexed look on her face. She waited for her dad to continue.

"See beta. I don't know how to put this to you. You know I hate involving personal equations into company business. What I hate even more is getting into your personal business. I have always tried to let you make your own decisions and never doubted your judgment on people around you."

Neha still couldn't put a finger on where her dad was going with this. "Papa, what are you getting at? Come straight to the point na. I am getting a little confused here."

"I guess there's no use beating around the bush. I will come straight to it. Do you know this guy?"

He pressed a key on his laptop. What Neha saw in front of her took her so much by surprise that she couldn't speak for a while. Staring at her from the big conference room screen was an image of the same guy that she had tried so hard to forget for the last month or so. His hair color was a little brighter, his skin tone was a little lighter, but there was no mistaking him.

She just looked at her dad. Her mind was too numb to process anything right now.

"Well, we had this person visiting our office today. And there have been some problems and we have been trying to desperately locate him. It just so happened that Ramesh glanced at his picture while serving me tea here and he said that he had seen this guy in Mumbai once. With you!"

Ramesh was their trusted family help. He would be the one traveling to Mumbai to deliver anything that Neha might need from home. Neha remembered now the one time when Sid had come to drop her off at her place after a lunch date. And she had completely forgotten that Ramesh was supposed to come home with some of her stuff. He had met them downstairs and left.

"Is he a friend?" Her dad asked.

"Yes, I know him. Or rather, knew him." Neha replied. "What has happened dad? Please tell me." she urged.

"Ok. I will. But understand what I tell you is extremely confidential. This has to remain between us."

Neha nodded. This was turning out to be a little too surreal for her.

"My dear, you know that we build software for our country's defense forces. Well, unknown to anybody, we had undertaken a top secret project a year back, right around the time you left for Mumbai. It was also one of the reasons that I agreed to send you to Mumbai so that I could work long hours here overseeing the project without feeling guilty about you at home."

Neha nodded. That was all she could do at the moment.

"Well, the defense ministry recently purchased a huge number of specialized missiles from the Russians, capable of launching with pinpoint accuracy towards any target within a 400 km radius. What was so special about this deal was that India also got a centralized control system from the Russians.

The missiles are currently spread out along India's western border, many of them at crucially hidden locations to nullify the insurgency threat from our neighboring country. Even though the centralized control system could work to some extent, it's software had to be heavily modified according to India's strategic needs.

And that's where SecureSoft came in to the picture. We bagged the contract for doing these much-needed changes. However, the majority of the team does not know exactly what they are working on. It's just me and a couple of designers who know what this is meant for. Everything else has been modularized such that its only on a need to know basis."

Neha nodded. Again.

"Well, now that you have got a background of the work, let me tell you that in the last month or so the project was in its final stages. It was being tested extensively. And for field testing, the actual data that would be used later on was being used for testing of all the functionalities of the software. We also have a system of backing up data everyday for this highly sensitive data, and we had put a tight security system in place for securing that data as well."

"Today, this fellow", pointing at Sid's image on the screen, "had come in posing as an Israeli govt official checking out various security systems that we design. Ofcourse he was shown around the other smaller softwares that we use. But he somehow got one of our project leads to take him to the server room. And using a stomach upset ruse, he got away with the backup DVD containing all the actual data that we are using for the testing of this project."

For the second time in a matter of 15 minutes, Neha had been stunned. The only thing she could muster up was, "What is in that DVD?"

Her dad let out a sigh. "It contains exact locations and details of all the missiles that protect India and it's defended sovereignty..."

"You want some coffee?" Neha was nudged out of her reverie by Ishika. Neha shook her head. "Hey! What's up with you, sleepy head?" Ishika asked her. Neha just shook her head again. She was happy that Ishika was with her right now. But she was in no mood to talk. Ishika, sensing her mood, didn't probe further.

Neha's thoughts went back to last night. After it had sunk in that Sid had been involved in the theft of that DVD, Neha had been able to tell her dad about how she got to know him. She left out the romantic angle. But she knew her dad sensed it. Neha gave whatever details she could of Sid. And while she was trying to, she was surprised to realize that she actually didn't know much about him. The only tangible facts that she had about him was his cell number and the address of the flat he was supposedly living in. Her dad had them immediately checked out. The number was a duplicate SIM and not in use right now. By morning, they had found out that his flat had been rented out just for a month and no details were available. Both had been dead ends.

The day had passed in a daze for Neha. She couldn't make sense of it. Not only had she failed to judge Sid's character, she had failed so completely that she had now started doubting her judgment on everything.

Out of despondency, she had called up Ishika. She didn't want to be alone. And yet, even with Ishika sitting right besides her, she couldn't help but feel even more so. She toyed with her phone. She came up to Sid's number. And not knowing why, she just dialed it. Even though she knew it would not go through.

But suddenly, the display on her phone indicated that the call had connected! Neha didn't know what to do. She just kept staring at it! She could hear a faint voice answering from the other end as she held the cellphone in her hand. Without thinking, she put the phone to her ear. "Hello", she said.

"Neha? Is that you?" It was after a whole month that she heard Sid's voice.

And then she suddenly found her own. "Yes. Who are you, Sid? What else do you do? Kill people?"

"Neha! What are you talking about? Listen..."

"You listen. The DVD that you stole yesterday was from my dad's company. Do you have any idea what is in that DVD?!"

"Oh God! It's a small world! Neha, listen to me! I did not know what that DVD contained. Not until right now. And now that I know, I am not going to let it fall in the wrong hands... I may have broken all my other promises to you until now. But I promise you this. Tell your dad to meet me with the police at Bund Garden in.. Ahhhhhhhhhh!" Neha heard a huge thump and a big groan as the phone went dead.

"Hello? Sid?? Hello???" Neha yelled. No response.

Ishika had been sitting up in a state of major alarm for some time now. Neha looked at her. "We need to call dad! And we need to get to Bund Garden! Let's go! I will explain it to you on our way there!"

She literally dragged Ishika with one hand as she tried to call her dad with the other. Ishika just looked at her with her big eyes. Unknowingly, she too had gotten caught up in the hurricane that was Neha's life at the moment...


5: On the job

>> Monday, June 01, 2009

Sid sighed. It had been a long month. The job had not been as easy as he had thought it would be. The two gentleman had proved to be picky customers, after their initial fear of Big Mac had subsided. But Sid didn't really get their special request. What was so important in the DVD that he was holding in his hand right now?

It had surely not been easy getting it. He was reminded of the Mission Impossible movies. It felt almost like that. Just that, there had been no last moment hitches, no drama and definitely no hot bodied heroine. Yes, he had to plan everything to the minutest of details. But that's the reason why he was Big Mac's favourite for such jobs. Sid never liked the muscle jobs that Big Mac also dealt in. And Big Mac never gave them to Sid. Big Mac knew his men. And he gave Sid the jobs that required his strengths. A sharp analytical mind, an actor's bravado and a cool composure to get the job done under heavy pressure. And his analytical mind had been put to real test for this one.

The place: SecureSoft, a big IT company in the once sleepy town on Pune. The target: A DVD that he was now holding in his hand. Time: Friday evening, when every week a backup DVD like this one of some important data is made and stored in a secure vault at the basement of the main SecureSoft building. Security: Four guards stationed in the basement, with firearms. And ofcourse, there were the security cameras. A little too much for an IT company's data, Sid had thought. But he had encountered weirder and even more panicky people before. The problem: taking on the security guards under security camera surveillance was out of the question. He couldn't get to the source of the data - the server - as the systems used were on an internal network, heavily encrypted and out of reach.

This information was provided to him by the two gentlemen. He had been surprised at their level of homework on this. They meant serious business. Sid also wondered why people who could get this kind of information couldn't also end up snatching the DVD. But he put that thought aside. He could immediately see one place where he could get his hands on the DVD. And that was in the short time when it was being transferred from the server from which it was copied to the vault in the basement. The server was on the third floor of the building and the DVD was made by one of software engineers. Before he made it, he called two security guards. They would come up and escort him out of the room, to the elevator and to the basement. So, the only time he was going to have to make a switch was going to be in the elevator. And he was going to need a strong alibi to be in the building at that time of day. Furthermore, he would have to be somebody of big stature to demand being in the elevator while the DVD was being transferred.

Sid got to work.

First stop - Mr. Mallik. To any outsider, Mr. Mallik looked like any of the typical jewelery shop owners in Zaveri Bazaar.Dressed in a spotless white kurta, matching pyjamas with his round muselin cap adorning his balding head. His neatly trimmed, almost white beard and the rimless glasses on his pointed nose completed his decent, small-time businessman look. His shop, a small one compared to the biggies besides it wore a sleepy look that kept the typical window shoppers out. A half asleep security guard sat outside the shop With his rusty rifle resting on his shoulder. Mr. Mallik had his loyal flock of customers though. But they never came to his store for jewelery.

Sid had met Mr. Mallik earlier, so they knew each other. Sid had straightaway come to the point.

"Mr. Mallik, You had a talk with Big Mac?"

"Yes yes... He told me what you wanted. I already have it ready."

"Great! Let's have a look..."

Mr. Mallik motioned to the old guard sitting outside. He nodded and pulled out a small 'Shop Closed' sign from behind his seat and hung it out from the door handle. Mr. Mallik then pulled on the blinds so that nothing would be visible from outside. He then stepped out from behind the glass panel and came around to Sid's side. He pressed a particular pattern into the glass panel and gave it a slight push. The whole assembly slid inside and revealed a small staircase going downstairs.

Sid smiled. He had witnessed all this before. Big Mac always had his incorrigible one-liners for every situation. "Sid, my fellow! You can't tell a shop by its windows or a girl by her boobs. You need to wait till they both take you in to really know how deep they go!"

They descended into what seemed to be a basement of sorts - Mr. Mallik's work shop. It contained an assortment of imported tools and gadgets which he used for his artwork. Mr. Mallik stepped forward to his workbench and picked up a fresh Israeli passport. "Mr. Neel Siddique", smiling he addressed Sid. "That's your new name. Like it? You are the young new head of the Security Analysis Wing (SAW) of the Israeli government. And as all new turks tend to do, you have been studying various security systems around the world to see what things you can incorporate into your own system. Here." Mr. Mallik handed over a manilla folder to Sid. "This contains documents which will help you establish your identity without doubt."

As they came up to the shop, Sid familiarized himself with the passport. He asked Mr. Mallik a few questions regarding the kind of background he could build for himself as Neel Siddique. Mr. Mallik brought back his glass panel to their original place and it locked into place. He moved the blinds away and Sid walked out into the busy street with a completely new identity.

After this, had been the tough part. Sid had spent the next two weeks in a frenzy of information gathering and planning. He tried to find out information regarding the exact time at which the software engineer made his DVD copy. He got one of Big Mac's Middle Eastern girls to call up the SecureSoft office and make necessary appointments. He had his documents faxed over to them. He got it so arranged that he would be in the SecureSoft building discussing security systems with one of their project leads on Friday afternoon. And ofcourse, Sid sat down and studied whatever little he could about security systems in general so as not to sound completely dumb out there.

As Sid held the DVD in his hand right now, he thought about yesterday. Unlike the MI movies, everything had gone according to plan. His slight makeup and a little slur in speech made him pass off very well as Mr. Neel Siddique. He was accorded the respect expected to be given to such a dignitary. He was shown around the softwares - a little of which he understood. He could figure out that they had something to do with co-ordinated security systems across India. And then he had purposefully asked them, what do you do about backup? And the project lead, a typical indian trying to impress a foreigner, had overzealously taken him to the server room. Sid had timed it all just right. Just when they reached there, the software engineer was done with his DVD copy and was headed to the basement with the two guards.

Sid suddenly feigned a stomach ache. "The spicy food I have eaten here!" He complained. "Oh, yes. That could be it. Foreigners normally have problem eating Indian curry." The project lead added. "I guess we are pretty much finished with the tour. I will just leave now. Can we go downstairs?" And before the security guards could understand what had happened, Sid had gotten into the elevator along with them. "Its ok." The project lead had said. As the elevator went down, Sid caught his stomach and lurched over on the software engineer, falling down as if in pain. The software engineer immediately put down the DVD on the lift floor to help Sid up. As he was getting up, Sid quietly slipped the DVD into a specially made pocket in his waist coat. Out came another DVD. And replaced the one on the floor.

It had been too easy. Nobody checked him on the way out. What with him convulsing and the project lead to clear his way...

Big Mac would be happy, Sid thought. He had to deliver the DVD in the evening. One of the two gentlemen was going to meet him near Bund Garden. Sid looked around in the temporary flat he had gotten for himself. His sight fell on his laptop. He opened it. And then he looked at the DVD. What was in that DVD that had such a security system in place? That had made the two gentlemen come to Big Mac to get it?

He placed the DVD into the DVD tray and pushed it in. He browsed around lazily. What he saw next on his laptop screen sent a chill down his spine. In a matter of seconds, beads of sweat broke out on Sid's forehead. Why did the two buffoons want this kind of data? What exactly were they upto?

He had to leave for Bund Garden in half an hour's time. But what he saw in front of him made him really think. About everything. About what he was doing. About his life. About his country. And in a defining moment of clarity, Sid knew exactly what he had to do...


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