Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Magnum Opus !

This is my 100th post ! I was keen to finish my mini-novel - in fact, that was the first story I wrote several years ago, but never completed it. This novel was one of the triggers to start this blog, but its funny that it has made as the 100th post ! Thanks to prodding from someone near/dear, and thanks to the cross-country plane time, here it is, completed.

So here goes... I'm posting this as multiple chapters, one chapter a week. Hopefully, it would work!!

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THE BAIT

Prologue (posted 22/May)
Chapter 1: Opening Gambit - the Good Guys, setting it up (posted 26/May)
Chapter 2: The Past
(posted 31/May)
Chapter 3: The Middle Game - the bait
(posted 6/Jun)
Chapter 4: The Event
Chapter 5: The End Game - Cleaning up
Epilogue

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Prologue:

Vel had been ushered into the rear of the aircraft with rest of the passengers left behind. He was tense waiting for the signal. Then he heard three shots ring out from the front. Trusting his commando training in a worst case scenario, Vel sprinted to the business class section of the plane, stopped behind the curtain and took a silent peek with a heightened sense of alertness. There was carnage – with dead all around. Nawaz Khan was the only one alive and he had the gun in his hands and he turned, with the gun pointing at Vel….

Chapter 1: Opening Gambit – The Good Guys – Setting it up

The Scrap

Tariq should have been rejoicing – he had been just told by his boss that he has been chosen for a plum assignment; Instead, Tariq was furious. During the recent past, on a few occasions he had let go of the barbs. It was not easy but he was used to it and he was brought up and trained to ignore it. It had become more frequent since the patriotism had been usurped by a few sections, more so since the rise of rightist forces. But today it was different; Sikander Singh, who was transferred to same team Tariq was on about 4 months ago, had made it a point to needle Tariq at every possible instance. Today it went beyond the line…

Tariq was still furious – he was taking out his fury in the Karate dojo. Earlier, this morning, Major. Uday Chatterjee had called for a quick briefing session of his department. He had talked about imminent terrorist threat in generalities and specific intelligence that a possible hijack or a 9/11 type of attack is being planned within the country. He had chosen a team of two – Tariq and Murugavel (aka Vel) for a specific high-profile and high-risk assignment and the rest would support them. He had asked the two to meet with him in the evening at 5PM.

The Major left the hall and as the team began to disperse, Sikander looking at Tariq remarked, “The country is being destroyed by Muslim terrorists; why would another of the same ilk do anything to prevent that?”
It was the first time that Sikander got so direct with his innuendo. Furious, Tariq asked,
“what the bloody hell do you mean ?”
“You know, bloody well, what I mean”
“I will rip your heart out…”, said Tariq and jumped at Sikander; there was pushing and shoving with others getting into this; Vel separated Tariq,
“Tari, let go, it is not worthwhile, there will be another time”
“I will be looking forward to that”, baited Sikander

It was now pre-Lunch. Tariq and his partner (and who also became a very close friend through the past 3+ years in TIW) Vel were at the dojo ahead of the class; Tariq was letting go of the steam, doing his kicks and punches. Holding the punching bag for him, Vel wondered if Tariq was going to rip apart the punching bag. Just before the class start at 12 Noon, others filtered in, including Sikander (who claimed that he was an expert in another form of Karate). Sikander looked like he was in for a scrap and walked dangerously close to Tariq; Vel sensing that would happen had placed himself in between the two. Sensei Subburaman, a retired army major, walked in at 12 and after the initial warm-up, and kathas, announced the class would have shi-ai (sparring session), with standard rules; 3 points per shi-ai; when one scores a point, the fight stops and restarts; the stop-restart is to avoid a street-fight. Unfortunately and not knowing what transpired the morning events, he had paired Sikander with Tariq. By the time the sparring session started, Tariq was very calm – he seemed to be in complete control of himself.

First round had started. Sikander danced around darted in and out with his front jab. Tariq, who seemed to be in a zone, easily swatted them out. Once Sikander tired himself out with his dancing, Tariq feinted with his own jab; Sikander fell for that speed and went for defending that; as he was doing that, Tariq followed the fake with a front kick to Sikander solar plexus. He had scored a point and clearly the round was over; as he was withdrawing to start the second round, Sikander hit him in the jaw, as if he was countering Tariq’s attack. Tariq brushed off the apology that ensued from Sikander and assumed his sparring stance – he felt a numbness in his jaw, tasted blood in his mouth and knew the swelling would start soon. The second round started as the first round had. Tariq again warded off attacks from Sikander with ease and had decided that first time in his life, he will pay back in kind; “well, what the heck, there is always first for everything”. As Sikander came forward with one of his front kick, Tariq quickly stepped to his left moving forward to the right of Sikander, drawing level with him, blocked the kick with his right hand and unleashed a round house kick. Typically, that kick in a sparring is aimed at the solar-plexus; but today, Tariq was beyond caring, he aimed at Sikander face; when it connected, Sikander doubled up with a scream of pain. He got up holding his nose with blood in his hands. Sensei, stepped in and stopped the fight and sent Sikander to the hospital and Tariq to corner for his punishment of 100 push-ups and 100 abdomen kicks.

Meeting:

It was 5’o clock. Both Vel and Tariq were standing in attention in front of Maj. Chatterjee. Major started the conversation,

“Tariq, I had heard about the incidence in the gym. This is very disappointing”
“Sorry sir, but, to be honest, I’m notr”, Tariq replied.
“Sir, you should hear what Sikander did this morning and then at the dojo”, Vel interjected.
Major stopped Vel short - “That’s no explanation”, Turning to the other, he queried, “ Tariq?”
“I apologize sir, it won’t happen again”. After a pause, Tariq asked, “However, can I add something, sir ?”
“Go ahead”
“Sir, The real issue in this country now, when people like you look at people like us, we are first looked at as Muslims and then as Indians. Even during peaceful times, each and every one of us has to constantly prove our Indian-ness Sir. Somehow, I hope that isn’t spawning new terrorist elsewhere”

The room fell silent for a while. The Major broke the silence,

“Sit down both of you; I need to talk to both of you on this assignment. What do you know about Maulana Mazhar Khan ?”
Vel broke in, “Sir, he is the one who led the mid-90s insurgency in Kashmir; and after the successful brokering of peace in the 2000s, he went underground somewhere in Pakistan”.

Peace had indeed been brokered between Pakistan and India. A combination of US tilt towards India after the India voting at IAEA against Iran, softening of the LOC post the Kashmir earth quake had accelerated both the countries towards Peace.

Maj. Chatterjee nodded, “and when we established peace with Pakistan last year, and under pressure from Western agencies, it was getting too hot for him there. He apparently fled from there and was supposed to have come back into the country and is hiding somewhere in the north. He is heading a terrorist organization named Jamiat Ul Islamia (JUI). Inspired by the 9/11, he is planning an attack within the country – our information is either a 9/11 type of attack on one of our buildings or a hijack with inside collusion”.

He added, “Here is the dossier, go over it. We will talk again at 9AM tomorrow. Dismissed”.

Tariq and Vel rose, saluted and began to leave.

Maj. Chatterjee called out, “by the way Tariq…” Tariq stopped and turned around, as Vel left the room. “Major Subburaman and I spoke. I’ve recommended Sikander be transferred out”

Tariq remained silent.

The major continued, looking Tariq in his eye, “Tariq, I wish everyone else had your commitment to the regiment and country; I am proud to have you in my regiment. I will see you both at 9 tomorrow”.

Tariq started to thank the major, but the major was already looking into another file. He turned around and joined Vel in the corridor.

The Plan:

Tariq and Vel had just finished their breakfast and there was untold excitement in them – they had hardly talked with each other during the morning run or during the breakfast, probably deeply lost in the thoughts of what the assignment would be. Their initial attempt at conversation petered out. When they reached the major’s office, he was already in there talking on the phone and seemed had put almost 4 hours of work already.

Maj Chatterjee looked up from the phone and gestured them to take their seats. He handed them each a folder as he continued talking on the phone. He was saying to someone on the phone, presumably his superior, “…Thank you, sir. We will need complete support and anonymity and strictly need to know basis on this assignment”. He looked up at both Tariq and Vel, winked and continued, “I’m having my best people on this”.

He replaced the receiver on the hook, he asked,
“What do you know of changes in the airlines post 9/11 ?”
Vel answered, “Unidentified Air marshal for a while, some basic commando training for the pilots”.
“As time went on, I’ve heard the airlines were against having air-marshal in the flight; solely for commercial reasons and they believe that the threat perception has come down significantly”, Tariq interjected.
“Right”, said the major, “Instead as a part of basic commando training, the pilots were also given basic training on shooting. The airlines installed an automatic gun in the cock-pit, secured inside a safe”.

Both Tariq and Vel looked surprised.

“Yes, this practice was started some 8 months ago”, Maj Chatterjee continued, “however, the gun can only be taken out after the Chief pilot and 2 other cockpit crew punch in the number for the safe. This apparently, is to avoid pilot based madness as it was alleged with the Egyptian Airlines in the late 90s”

Both the field operatives knew this was going somewhere and waited, finding their excitement growing.

“We had an intelligence tip-off that there is a captain who would give away the gun to potential hijackers for the hijacking to be carried out. You have read about the JUI in the dossier...", the Major trailed off absent-mindedly waving towards a bunch of files on his desk. "...The JUI have this captain on their radar and if they get to him, the consequences would be terrible. I would like to bait the captain out and put him away for ever. That’s the assignment”. He paused; there was a silence in the room for a while.

The captain looked at Tariq – Tariq seemed glazed over. Tariq’s mind was working furiously. He got up from his seat and paced the room a couple of times. An idea was forming in his mind…

He turned to Vel and the major, “Sir, I’ve another plan…”

The Plan B:

As Major and Vel listened to the Tariq’s plan, they could feel the tension in the room and possibilities. It was a plan most daring and most dangerous and most comprehensive – it will be a major coup against terrorism. Although the TIW had enormous powers and autonomy, for this plan, Major needed to go back to his superior for approval who will perhaps need to go the secretary in the ministry; It was not going to be easy, but that his problem, he will have to solve it and he will, and at the same time ensuring that plan is not known outside 3 of them and perhaps one more. He didn’t believe the sieve that is bureaucracy. He will have to manage his lies.

For the next 5 hours, well past Lunch, they sat in the room and discussed the pros and cons and each and every possibility in detail. At around 2PM, the major had asked for some lunch to be served and dismissed both his officers.

“Go back and think more about it on your own and come back at 6PM”.

At about 6PM, both Tariq and Vel were back at major’s office. When they broke after going through each and every possibility, they had a draft plan by 2AM in the morning. It was also clear, that both of them will have to be transferred out of the base due to the very high sensitivity of the plan and will set-up base in an undisclosed area, where Major is the only other person they would see. They had by that time, in broad terms, had set up contact points, codes and modus operandi; and because of the expanse and the need for travel, Vel and Tariq knew that they would hardly meet in the next 3-4 months. Little they knew that will never meet in the next few months, and when they eventually do, it would be in circumstances, so uncertain and that potentially can set them up against each other.

Chapter 2: The Past

Tariq Ahmed:

Tariq aka Tariq Ahmed was born in a small-town in Tamil Nadu near Nagapattinam. His family and world were made up of his parents, mother a teacher in the local school and father running a up and down tailoring shop and his older brother, Shafiq, who seemed to be constantly ailing of something or the other and was a paraplegic. He was brought up in a household where his parents were righteous and god-fearing. More, they brought up both their kids with a strong sense of social and civic commitment and what was wrong and right (they had a picture of Gandhiji in their hall, which also doubled up as bed-room). Shafiq hardly went to school, whereas Tariq seemed was outstanding at everything he did – with minimum effort at studies, he constantly seemed to top in his class; he had a great flair for sports and was exactly opposite to his brother, whenever the schools were closed for holidays he helped out his father in small chores in tailoring – within a short time, at the age of 11, he could cut and stitch dresses. In short, in that innocent and young age, Tariq was an extremely well-behaved boy with outstanding talent, an amazing sense of inner-strength constantly fed by his parent’s teachings and extremely positive thinking. He was a happy kid and was well appreciated in the neighborhood. Then two things changed his life in a space of 3 years…

When Tariq was 13, Shafiq was afflicted by strange sickness that Tariq could not understand and he passed away. Tariq’s mother was shattered. Everyday in that place reminded her of Shafiq and his father merchant business was also in shambles. After the grieving of one year, the family shifted to Coimbatore, with his mother getting to teach at a local school in the rural areas around the city; his father opened a small tailoring shop outside their house. Shafiq’s absence and realization that he was the only son for his parents seemed to mature Tariq more and he carried himself with an air that was far beyond his age. He had also become taller and with his proclivity for physical play, filled out nicely and was looking more like a young man… He also, on a whim joined the local Karate dojo and seemed a natural for it. The family, probably more because of Tariq’s presence, became a respected family in that street and their family was called as “Bai’s House” (Bai-veedu, in Tamil).

He clearly remembered the day, when the 2nd event had happened. It was one of those things that Coimbatore seemed to have recently afflicted with. It was during the diwali and it was one of the topical times, when Bai’s tailoring shop did the best business of the year. Somewhere, something silly happened and the communal riots had flared up – Tariq’s father, was in his shop when the rioters stormed his shop – bruised him severely, burnt his shop and damaged the clothes, both stitched and unstitched. The rioters were lead by a small-time charge-sheeter, who was aspiring to be a local councillor. It was Bai’s neighbors pleaded with the rioters to spare Bai of his life and saved him. Tariq, who was in class 12th then, perhaps for the first time in his life, felt what fury and anger meant. He was infuriated at the senselessness of the event and infuriated by the people who perpetrated it and at the same time thankful for the neighbours to have saved his father’s life. Bai, sensing Tariq’s mind for revenge, sat Tariq down at edge of the government hospital bed and told him how some people from the same community had saved his life and there are fanatics everywhere. Quoting Gandhiji’s eye-for-an-eye and pointing out the duality of the people who inflicted him with the damage were of the same ilk of those people who had saved him, he urged Tariq to do something about it to correct such a situation. Once again, thinking far beyond his age, Tariq came to a resolve, a resolve that he undertook that he will eliminate evil in all forms where possible; at that time, Tariq could not have known his simple idealistic resolve will in future have a far reaching consequence to the country…

Tariq, who passed his school exam with flying colors (was 1st in the district and 8th in the state), chose to do Bachelor of Arts in Economics and then prepared for the IPS exam with a maniacal intensity and resolve. During this time, his father who never recovered from the injury, perhaps more mental, had to close down the shop, joined as a security guard in a local factory – there were times, when Bai was abused, but Bai took that with an equanimity that Tariq had inherited. In his Civil Services exam, Tariq was placed 19th and had no hesitation choosing IPS over IAS and other possibilities that were open to him. Within IPS, once he had heard about Intelligence wing it was obvious to him and others that he would apply for it. During the mandatory training period, Bai passed away, perhaps secure that his son would do something. Tariq did realize at that time, how much influence his father had on him; it was a reinforcement of what he has to do. At the end of the training, the top 10 of the class were asked to write an exam that tested their analytical ability, their physical ability and their flair for languages. Tariq easily topped the analytical ability; his training in Karate for the past 11 years (he was a 2nd degree black-belt now) helped him easily finish the physical tests ahead of others. He was placed 2nd in the language test, behind a rich small-town Malayalee (“with a tamil name”, he thought wryly) – Vel. Post-test, Tariq and Vel were introduced to Major Uday Chatterjee, who was in-charge Terrorist Intelligence Wing (TIW) in the National Intelligence Bureau and were offered a posting as field-operative-trainee. Tariq, merely thought it to be a natural destination of where he wanted to go and instantly agreed. He was now the ‘spy’ that is so glamorized by the movies – but for Tariq it was merely hard work and a path towards what he wanted to do.

Basheer Ahmed:

Basheer (called lovingly as Basha by his doting parents) was born in a lower middle-class family as the only child in bustling metropolis of Mumbai. Basheer’s father worked in a state government and they had lived in the suburbs of Mumbai in Andheri, which was closer to the airport. They lived a typical Mumbai lower middle-class life: Mother taking care of the household, looking for best prices on anything and everything, so that they can save away a little bit of money every month. His father, Mr. Waseem Ali, awoke at 4AM in the morning to travel by the suburban train and bus for more than an hour to get to his work. Consistent with every middle-class family’s dream of getting Basheer a better life, he started his schooling in a place, which was slightly upscale and over-the-pocket for their life.

Basheer’s awakening to their state-of-life came when he was about 7. One day, when he missed his school van getting back, he was dropped at his street corner by his class-mate Prakash, in a car that, to Basheer, looked as large as his living room and perhaps more comfortable than it. That was the time when Basheer wanted out, of what he began to consider life of drudgery. At the age of 11, when he found purse in the school ground with several 100 rupees notes in it, he did not even miss a beat in throwing the purse away and taking the money and living the life that would parallel Prakash’s, even it was for a day. By the time he was 13, he had less and less of scruples of what shouldn’t be done. By 15, when he finished schooling, he knew what he wanted to do, he will be a pilot – it will give him the glamorous life that he craved for and perhaps, it was symbolically getting-out too. To get the money needed for pilot training, Basheer did not really bat an eye-lid to go to lengths, even if it were outside law’s parenthesis. He also had the smartness to pick the right people for his scam and selling his scam. In 1st year of his college, Basheer went to great lengths to secure the exam question papers, borrowing money from the lenders at exorbitant rates to pay the people who had access to them; few days later, after targetted selling of the leak to a select few ‘customers’ who can afford an high price, he made neat sum of profit in the vicinity of Rs.3 Lakhs after paying back the loan within 22 days. That profit went to his pilot-training kitty. By the time he was 25, Basheer had sponsored himself through Pilot training and was hired as the in-flight navigator by Government airlines, which was to him the first step to get the private airlines and more money. By the time he was 29, he was a pilot and had command of a plane. He still wasn’t looking to get married or settling down and he found that a nuisance to his path to utopia. In any case, the pilot and the way he looked after himself got him the girls he wanted.

Murugavel Balakrishnan:

Vel was lost in thought... His thoughts went back to his past. He was a son of a rich land-owner in Kerala, bordering Southern Tamil Nadu – his father had multiple and flourishing business, centered on a hugely successful exports business. He was the only son with 3 other elder sisters, with a gap of 7 years between himself and the third. He had heard the story, that his parents after praying for a son at a particular temple in the neighboring state, had gotten him – hence the name Murugavel which is quite alien in those parts. He had seen them shower him (to some extent, a punishment) with love and kindness. He was the prince of house. Since there was never an issue about money, he had got whatever he wanted or whatever his parents and sisters thought he may want. He had the best of everything. When most students walked to school, he was always dropped to school in a car, mostly 2-3 different cars within a week. His school mates never could jell with him, although he wanted them to. Somehow, he tried hard but never seemed to be good at it – in a small town the rich bridge wasn’t the easy one to cross for the rest. Also, as he grew up, he found two things – that he wanted to get out of his home town and live a normal life, away from all his riches; secondly, he had a flair for languages, other than that, he was good at most things that he did, but never the best in the field. By the time, he was in college, he had reconciled to the fact that he will never be the top dog, but will be in the top 5 and his strengths were in being the best supporting player. He was perfectly ok in what he was doing now – supporting Tariq who was in the field. Someone else may feel a tinge of jealousy and would want to be out as number 1; not Vel, he was extremely satisfied and happy what he was doing and enjoyed it – he had understood that not being #1 was his calling; and he was merely glad that this job had taken him away from his hometown and he could slip into an egalitarian anonymity...

Chapter 3: The Middle Game – The Bait

Dec 5th, around 11.20AM:

It was nearly 6 months past since the plan was first discussed. He had not met his friend Tariq during these months. But progress had been made – slow but very deliberate, for there cannot be any slip-ups. It had been a tortuous inch towards the goals.

Vel thoughts were interrupted by the ring of his scrambled phone. He knew it was Tariq on the other side of the line... He picked it up, “Yes?”

“I have zeroed in on the pilot – Basheer Ahmed; he has been contacted and he is apparently very much ready to play – one down”, said Tariq on the other end of the line. “On the other two, the first meeting is being set-up in the next two days; I’ve a hunch it would happen tonight. This is where the link between the pilot and the preacher is being made”, said Tariq on the line.

Vel knew the preacher was the Maulana. He asked, “What do you need?” – Vel did not need to take notes; the conversation was getting recorded somewhere, that he can play it back, if required. He was sure Major was awake and listening in on the conversation.

Tariq pointed out what he needed. Vel responded, “It will be delivered to you in the drop box 3”.

Tariq had hung-up the phone.

Dec 5th, 10.00PM:

Ahmed Akbari, the second-in-command of Jamiat Ul Islami, was in a pensive mood; there was a sense of elation in him – although he was second-in-command, he did not really think himself of so; he simply lived to serve the Maulana. Ahmed had listened in rapt attention few months ago, when Maulana had talked about one strike. They knew and understood that something grandiose as the Parliament attack was bound to fail. It was idiocy of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed to attempt something like that – that had only served to make things tougher for pragmatist such as themselves. Ahmed believed it was stupid to under-estimate the Indian Government and politicos’ will to come together in such adversity. So choose the target right, design to align a few variables and then strike. He can still recall what the Maulana had said – ‘one strike at the heart at the appropriate time, and enemy will be weakened tremendously. We should pick one target that will get the world to sit up and notice what we are doing; then we should not have any problems in recruiting and financing”.

Ahmed knew the Maulana was right; the opportunity to do that one strike was looming right in front him; a mercenary was willing to give access to a weapon for lot of money (sometimes it amused Ahmed that he is called the mercenary!!). A loose but very committed cannon, named Nawaz Khan, had the conduit to the pilot. Maulana himself had recommended Nawaz’s name, but Ahmed had done some research on Nawaz independently before recruiting him into the project. All he needed to do was to google and re-verified his findings with someone in the government service – he smiled wondering what people would do for some money; if greed dies, terrorism would be the first casualty.

Nawaz Khan had come up from a poor family in Lal Darwaza area of Ahmedabad. Ahmed had learned that Nawaz was 4th son (of 8 in the family) of a shop keeper in the walled city; they had lost their belongings and his father in one of the localized mini communal riots that happen all the time, but hardly gets reported. Nawaz had roamed from state to state; a great target for potential recruiters, which he eventually was in Uttar Pradesh. After recruitment, he was sent for terrorist training, most specifically in fire-arms, bomb-making and close-combat in the city terrain. Nawaz was caught in New Delhi during one of the failed attempt to blow-up a shopping complex and jailed. What caught the attention of Maulana was, in a daring move, he had killed two of his guards, blew up the vehicle, further maiming 3 other guards and had escaped. Fearing loss of face just ahead of the election, the government had hushed up the whole event. Maulana had sensed an opportunity and had sent his recruiters after Nawaz Khan.

Now there was this opportunity. From the first contact in mid-october, Ahmed had finally gotten to Nawaz through a series of intermediaries. Nawaz had also brought the golden goose to him – in form of a pilot, who was willing to do a couple of things for them, for huge amount of money. Ahmed had nothing but scorn and hatred for people such as this pilot – who have no ideological mooring and are willing to do anything for money; but he will live with this, if only it will get him to reach their goal quickly.

It was the typical shady joint in the deep innards of Bangalore. Bangalore was chosen as meeting point by Ahmed as it was easily the most cosmopolitan of all the cities. At the same time, if you tip the ‘authorities’ well enough, they seem to see the other way and would tend to ignore minor offences. A decrepit restaurant near Russell market was chosen for the meeting; Ahmed, who was clean-shaven and had a very short hair-cut had chosen a separate box, that can seat about 4. He was just reading the newspaper and was getting absorbed in new mobile phone that is being touted as the ultimate tool, he had heard a soft ‘Salaam-Alaikum’. He looked up and saw a young man, who had silently slipped into the opposite seat. The young-man was thin and wiry, spectacled with a scar running from his cheek to his chin, but most of it was masked by the stylish goatee and the thin mustache. He was aged between 28 and 30. As is wont, Ahmed looked his visitor in the eye and tried to gauge him – he thought he saw steel there…

“I’m Nawaz khan”, he had introduced him simply.

“Valaikum Salaam Nawaz”. Ahmed did not introduce himself; looking up he found the young man could pass as one of the software people that Bangalore had in abundance.

They called in the waiter and got the order out of the way and got into business. They did not certainly want to be seen together. Quickly, they got into the crux of the point – executing a 9/11 type of hijack; Nawaz talked about the pilot he had come across in Mumbai. The pilot was willing to do the transfer of fire-arm to enable the hijack.

Nawaz had added jokingly, “if only we could get a high-value target in the same flight... The infidel wanted 2M$ for the work; I think he will accept a half-a-million dollars; his other demand was the transfer of gun should have look liked a forced one. After the hijack, he will pilot the plane to one of the safe haven and will get lost in there”, said Khan.

“That will be done”, Ahmed was impatient– the talk about the high-value target peaked Ahmed’s interest, “The stars have arrayed”, he thought. “Hold on, lets talk about the target…”

Ahmed and Nawaz talked quietly for the next 20 minutes or so. At the end of it, Ahmed could sense victory and believed the plan could work; at the same time, he knew that they have to be extremely careful. If they strike well, it will also be safe passage for himself and the Maulana – the martyrdom can wait, another 9/11 can wait. Regarding Nawaz Khan, who the Maulana had highly recommended, he was ambivalent – that was Maulana’s decision.

“...need to meet up with Maulana, when the right opportunity comes up”, Nawaz khan was saying.

Ahmed Akbari gave the details necessary for planning to Nawaz and they broke up, with the food lightly touched.

Dec 5th, 11.45PM:

Tariq was in the shadows, he had been waiting patiently in the balcony in front of the hotel where the meeting had taken place some 2hrs ago. He had expertly opened the shop with a key and with a snack watched to see if the people from the meeting will return. After an hour, he went in as a dilapidated old man, who has saved some money from days alms and was going to get food at the end of it. When he left the restaurant, he had the wire he had set-up earlier in the day, in the hollow of the wooden table leg. He would deliver it to Vel and the Major; and they could look for nuances in the conversation – he had would hear them a few times before he made the delivery.

He took his phone and punched the regular number. It was familiar voice at the other end. Tariq simply said. “The wire will be in the drop box 4 by 2AM tonight” and disconnected.

Dec 29th 11.20PM:

The Major was quite tense and was pacing the floor; in the last few weeks, his smoking had increased and he believed he had smoked away 3 months of cigarettes in the last week, since the plan had gained speed. It seemed to have a lot of momentum now, that he can do nothing to stop it. He also had to be imaginative to create and build a scenario; since it was highly secret operation with not more than 2 other people in know (“that too not completely”), he personally had to pore through record with a fine comb to ensure there are no holes – there cannot be even an iota of doubt in anyone’s mind. He had to pull all his strings possible to get the bait set-up. He probably had used up all his quid-pro-quos of his lifetime.

He paused his pacing and returned to his desk and looked at the computer screen – in his Level-Z secure account, he stared at the draft press-release he had started writing that he’d use when the operation ended. Uday prided himself on his uncanny ability to predict outcome of an operation earlier in the inception – has been one reason that his ops ended up as successes more often than not. Here too, he had predicted this op to end in a certain way. He read through it and smiled and placed a bet on his prediction… Amidst all the tension, he grinned – he’d love to see how Tariq and Vel would react to the draft, if they read it!

That thought petered out to give way to anxiety of wait – As he lighted up another smoke he thought wryly, the smoke could kill him or this operation could kill him! Either way, he was fine! Since the time his dear wife Moushumi and Shylu were lost in senseless violence in Kashmir, he had no personal life. It suited his bureaucratic and political bosses well – he was dedicated to the cause and he had not the one looking for moving up – all he seemed to want was to ensure that his people received fair treatment and he did his best that no else loses their Moushumi and Shylu. He looked at the phone one more time willing it to ring! He ran through the checklist in his mind again. He was not sure if he should put something in writing ahead of time… As he glanced at the phone one more time, it rang – seemed eerily loud with the pall of smoke around. He picked up the phone. It was Tariq.

Major just said tersely, “All set, everything is a go”

Jan 9th 21.45Hrs:

This time, Nawaz Khan was waiting in the booth at the same restaurant for Ahmed Akbari. They were like anyone else - appeared to have walked into dinner after a night at the movies. They had decided that this was the last time they would meet. Ahmed walked in, with a paper and they greeted each other. The tension was palpable and neither of them wanted to prolong the meeting more than it needed to be.

“Everything has been set-up Ahmed-bhai – the date is 13th, two days from now”. Ahmed assumed the bhai was a practice from Nawaz’s upbringing in Gujarat. “We will be out of the country and with the prized possession”.

Nawaz quickly ran Ahmed with the necessary information. The tickets have been bought – they would be in the Business class of the flight for easy access; and they would board at Bhopal.

Ahmed confirmed for the last time… “..so, both of us will board the plane at Bhopal ? I will bring Maulana and will not be talking to you until we are in charge of the flight. Your pilot has been set-up?”

Nawaz Khan nodded quietly in affirmative.

Both of them arose, and in a silent mutual respect, shook hands and embraced each other thrice and left.

Jan 9th, 02.05AM:

Tariq woke up with a start. He had waited in the shadows, on the balcony, as he had done a few days ago. The tiredness and lack of sleep should have gotten to him - inspite of the incessant buzz of the famous Bangalore mosquitos, he had dozed off. He glanced at his watch in his pocket - it was close to 2AM. He was sure Vel would be waiting, a bit concerned on the lateness. Vigilant, he hurried to the back of the restaurant, went through the worker’s quarters, to the booth, picked the wire from the hollow of the table leg and returned it to the drop box.

On reaching the drop area, he called up Vel, “It is in the drop box 8 tonight”, he knew Vel would be out on his bike to pick it up in about 15m from now – he wanted to stay back at the box and see his friend and talk to him about the plan one more time. He heard Vel say, “Good Luck, my friend and take care”. Tariq, quickly closed the flip-top on his cell and left.

Jan 12th, Around 8.30 PM

Nawaz Khan was at his desk, he was at his last part of the plan. He was giving final touches to the pen. It would neatly go into his pocket, when he walks through the security. It would beep along with his belt and when the security man pats him down, he would take out his wallet and pen and leave it on the table. To the bored security, under cursory examination, it would be just a pen. It was one of those, that when clicked would push the nib out – and another hidden click, it actually pushed out the needle with the clicker becoming the plunger – it had the thing that would immobilize the victim… After a few minutes, he was done – Nawaz Khan looked at his work, he had no doubt it would pass – he had the best material to work with.

Chapter 4: The Event

Maj. Chatterjee was restless, with nervous energy – it seemed to be the norm since this op had started; his characteristic cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth. He was nicely very economical with truth and he knew that if things were to go south, there would be major inquisition. He knew that there was a very fine line between success and failure – between patriotism and a scoundrel; if it fails that would be the end of the career and perhaps even a court-martial. But then, looking at the whole with checks and balances, he still believed it was surplus for the country. So, he had shut that out from his mind and pursued his part of the assignment with a single minded laser focus – or else he would have failed Tariq and Vel. In front of him, he saw the itinerary of the home minister – the home minister in the coalition and the bait – Mr. Marichamy was going to Chennai en-route a brief stop-over in Bhopal with the security attaché that Maj. Chatterjee had assigned to him. “I’m fortunate to have two of the top field-operatives on it”, he thought. Although Vel seemed not comfortable to be in the limelight or the first option, he believed that Vel was almost as good as Tariq is. He stared at the ticker on the screen that he had his assistant stream to him on his monitor – it was about airline departure. He glanced at his watch, it was close to 10.45AM, and he noticed that the New Delhi ATC has given a go ahead to the plane for push-back and taxi, after a brief delay…

Jan 13th, Around 10.15 AM

At the departure hall at Delhi, Vel had his internal strife in check. He had two assignments in parallel – help protect the minister from harm and at the same time ensure the plan is a resounding success – it would halt terrorism dead on its track and give peace an opportunity to succeed. The previous night, as he was channel surfing to get rid of his tension, something caught his eye on TV – he had looked at the TV program with interest that gave way to morbid fascination to dilemma. He had immediately gone on the net and searched for the details; rushed to the TIW archives and looked it up. His hunch was right – he had fleetingly, wrestled going to Maj. Chatterjee… Finally, he had come to that decision – He would give that possibility of ever-lasting peace a chance.

Vel was waiting in the VIP lounge of the departure hall for the minister to finish his durbar. The final announcement for boarding had been done. An airline official came to the minister and fawned on him – “Sir, all the passengers have boarded, we would be ready when you are”. The minister talking to the chamchas ignored the airline official and continued talking to his crowd – Vel had half a mind to get rid of the chamchas and drag the minister to the plane.

Finally, the minister turned to Vel and said, “ennayya, polama”? Vel who knew Tamil very well, started walking, in assent – On his ride to the plane, the minister was saying that he was going to his home town to celebrate pongal in his home-state. Vel nodded, he wanted to speak very little to the minister.

Elsewhere, Tariq was waiting comfortably – everything was going on plan and he had inserted himself into the situation and had ensured he has gotten lost in the crowd – he had disguised himself sufficiently enough that he can pass close scrutiny for a while. He looked around, there officials milling around and there was a delay in departure. Although, it was annoying, it didn’t make him desperate or edgy. He knew this would play out to the end. He had spent hours listening to the nuances in the taped conversations and other intel. The terrorists would show up on the plane. The bait was too strong for them to pass up. Like Vel and the Major), he knew this was one good chance for cleansing and to end the strife. He just needed to wait for the opportune moment to strike.

As they boarded the flight, the captain had come out from his cockpit and fawned on the minister for a while. Vel immediately knew he was the kind of person who would sell his mother to make a few bucks. Vel took his seat next to the minister on the aisle. Finally, the plane departed about 30 minutes late thanks to the minister’s aimless talk to his chamchas. Vel did not notice the stylish young man with a goatee beard about three rows behind him.

For his part, Nawaz Khan seemed immersed in working on his laptop. Nawaz sitting in the 3rd row of the almost empty business class saw the minister climb in with his attaché, his mouth tightened a bit into a grimace. He quickly looked into his laptop and continued on his work. He had also noticed the captain, with a couple of blanket-packs in his hand come out from the corner of the eye and talking to the minister. The captain walked up to the end of the section and made small talk to the only other passenger in that section; and then to Nawaz. As he turned around, he dropped the pillow-blanket pack at Nawaz’ feet, nodded perceptibly. The signal has been given.

The plane made a landing at Bhopal – it was quite uneventful. There were passengers deplaning, including the other one in the business class and new passengers boarding. There were two new passengers in the business class; Nawaz glanced at Ahmed briefly without any trace of recognition and looked at the person accompanying him – his heart soared – he had seen the maulana – very few have!

Now to the next step – he had a practical problem – he needed to get to the minister going past the security attaché. He had seen the minister take a few drinks, right from Delhi; and he waited for his opportunity – he knew the minister would need to go to the toilet. And it happened in about 30 minutes and as soon as the seat belt signs were off. As the minister got out of the toilet, with amazing speed, Nawaz got out of his seat and in few paces had minister in a lock with the needle on the throat. He quietly told the attaché to be seated and try no heroics or the minister’s throat would sport a puncture.

Tariq’s heart soared. He had all the ducks lined up in a row. Their plan was going to be a success. His plan is going to be a success too. The terrorist were contained in the front and he knew he could take them. He had seen Vel and that assured him… like earlier, just need to await that opportune moment and he could sense it around the corner.

Nawaz Khan saw Ahmed and the Maulana get up from their seats. On the way to the front the Maulana tightened the attaché’s belt and asked him softly to get his hands behind his head and warned of no heroics. They knew the “Hijack code” was on the door to the cockpit; and told the head stewardess to knock at the door.

Inside the pilot cabin, Basheer and his co-pilots heard the knock differently; they knew there was trouble. They decided to open the safe and take out the automatic and make a reconnaissance of the situation to see if the automatic could be used since they were not quite certain if any other arms have been smuggled in and how many of the hijackers were in the plane. Basheer took automatic gun, tucked it in his waist behind his back, slipped on his coat and stepped out. As soon as he cleared the toilets, he went black.

Nawaz waited for the pilot to show; he had the minister cringe on the floor, near the door with the sharp edge of the knife on his throat. As the pilot crossed the toilet, Nawaz hit him with such a force that he fell as if he was pole-axed. Quickly, Nawaz took the gun away from the captain. By this time, Ahmed had expertly patted down the attaché and found a gun in the holster and relieved him of it; then found the knife tucked it in his shoes. He threw the knife to Nawaz, who put his pen away and had the knife in the other hand. Ahmed, now commanded the aircraft to Amritsar; and at the same time asked the co-pilot to get in touch with the ATC for a negotiator to state his litany of demands. Then Ahmed went to the economy section of the aircraft, waved his gun and herded the passengers to the aft of the aircraft.

As the plane landed in Amritsar, Nawaz and Ahmed saw lot of activity and some trucks which they had no doubt were military and police. They knew that the game has to be played and played out – they had decided to pilot the plane beyond Kabul and onto one of the new Islamic republics and had asked for fuel; and that had set the negotiations going.

After several hours of negotiations, with the assent from Maulana, they had agreed to free all the passengers, except for a few men and the minisiter for exchange of fuel. The remaining few passengers were bundled into the last few seats, the rear door firmly locked. The last act was to send the Security attaché to the rear to join rest of the passengers, before the plane was ready to take off.

Tariq looked around at the passengers left behind. He did not see any heroes there. But we never know, he thought to himself. Like the Flight-93 on that fated September 11th, desperate situations are likely to throw up unlikely heroes. He needed to keep an eye on them to ensure there aren’t any disruptions. He had seen Vel in the rear and Vel knew that he was around and would wait for the signal.

As the aircraft was preparing to move, Vel was at the rear with rest of the passengers, waiting for the signal – a signal from Tariq. Then he heard three shots, two quick shots and one a few seconds later, ring out from the front. A thought flashed across, “Things have gone horribly wrong…”. Mortified, Vel sprinted to the business class section of the plane and he found Maulana and Ahmed Akbari dead, Maulana with the knife expertly thrown into his heart and Ahmed shot; Basheer was also shot – Vel didn’t bother much about him, but looked for the home minister; Marichamy was very much alive, but dying with a bullet shot below his the throat, severing the windpipe – it was macabre to see the gurgling blood and his life ebb out – perhaps he had his whole life replay in front of him. Seeing Vel enter, Nawaz Khan straightened up over Ahmed Akbari, who seemed to have shot Marichamy; as he turned to face Vel, Nawaz Khan’s gun was pointing at Vel, fingers on the trigger, the safety off and …

Chapter 5: End Game, Cleaning up…

As Nawaz Khan’s eyes bore through Vel…

Flashback to Jan 12th, 10.35PM, night before the hijack

Vel was all tensed up – tomorrow was the big day. He tried to get rid of some of the tension through channel surfing – he had gone for a 10k run in the evening and that hadn’t helped much. He wished he was running with his friend Tariq now, as was their wont. As he was flipping channels, he caught a news item on the Home minister Marichamy. The news anchor was covering the meteoric rise of Marichamy from being a councilor in Coimbatore locality and slowly to the MLA and then to the minister in the regional party. Later on, in the coalition, with a bit of arm twisting to the level of home minister. Then something clicked in Vel’s head – Vel jumped onto his computer and searched on Marichamy’s life; then a short ride to TIW archives for further confirmation. He found how Marichamy was a small town crook, then rose to a status of local henchman and how he shot to prominence by rioting and arson; that was the short-step to a councilor and then onto state and national politics. That one thing caught Vel’s eye was Marichamy’s alleged role in the 1993 riots. The gang led by him had allegedly set fire to several shops, including a poor tailor’s shop; It was rumoured that Marichamy himself had personally lit fire to shops on that part of the street – It was never proven, since no one, including the tailor had come forward to speak up against him – there was a photo of the ailing tailor in the hospital, with his young son looking squarely into the camera, with piercing eyes.

Back onboard the Plane

As Vel entered the business class, Nawaz pivoted around smiling and lowering his gun – “Hello Vel, we have some collateral damage. Ahmed got to him...”. Vel recognized that cold mirth in his friend’s eyes; at that instant, he knew that his friend Tariq had achieved what he had set out at – revenge and eliminating evil. In Vel’s mind, there was very little doubt, that Tariq had shot Ahmed first and killed Maulana with the knife that was taken away from him. Using Ahmed’s gun, he had shot Marichamy and Basheer and fixed up the gun on dead Ahmed’s hand.

He went over to Tariq and looked at him. He knew that Tariq recognized that he knew. There was an unsaid Thank you in Tariq’s eyes.

Epilogue

Four days later, after all the hoopla had died down a bit, Major Chatterjee was in a room; for the past two days he had been questioned several times by his superiors. He had shielded both Tariq and Vel as much as possible, on the pretext that both were undercover and needed time to recoup. Now, it was a meeting with the Home secreatary and with the Security Advisor to the PM.

He was asked again and he again faithfully stuck the story - he glanced at the paper in front of him - it was a meesage that he had sent out to the command on hearing from Vel about the "collateral damage". His eyes caught parts of the message - “… and the honorable home minister was killed in the cross-fire between the TIW operatives and the terrorist on-board”.

The Major heard the Advisor asking, "...stick by your message and are you sure that is what really happened ?".

Major replied, "Yes Sir !".

Afterall that was the message he had prepared around a month ago. He smiled to himself and once again, he won his little bet with himself – he had the analysis spot-on and predicted the outcome accurately. Only this time, he did nothing to stop the course of the events.

32 comments:

En Chiang said...

nice start... am curious to read more. :-) some sentences could be better.... how? can't help you there! ;-)

AJ said...

Prologue certainly creates want to read more!

Anish said...

Ok thumbs up for prologue and chap 1 - now the following chapters better be good :-)

Anand said...

Neat. I hope the other comment is right :-) Looking forward to read more.

Sankara said...

First episode seem to indicate a big SAGA is on the making.

I do see lot of resemblence to real life events. A twist at the end of each episode will make folks to look forward for the next one.

Anand said...

Good detail on building the background of the key characters. Looking to see the momentum going through in the next chapter.

EnGeetham aka "My Song!" said...

4EnC: Actually, when i read the story back, I can see some sentences could be better... I could see some repetitions... Will correct it.

4Anish: Danke, thanks for the visit.

4Anand: This is my first "mini-novel" - lets see if it turns out well.

4Sankar: Thanks for the visit. Twist? Something like in the serials ? :)

ramesh said...

build up is good ...can't wait now for the chap #3 on middle game :)

Mayank said...

Couple of lines brought smile on my face.. [Vel]. Looking forward to reading other chapters.

Okay - my take - till now this story is trying to break a stereotype [islamic fundamentalist]. And you've done it successfully - and we are only in chap2. Also, Tariq's Tamil roots have linked him to a respectable President in many reader's mind. So if it wasn't a respectable citizen like yourself writing this story, I would've STRONGLY suspected a major twist in the end - very much related to Tariq's irritation with prejudice against him. [Tariq was the one who came up with plan B].

Respectable citizen or not, this is only 40%... so I think a lot [of twists] is yet to come... keep 'em coming! :)

Comment : some details are overwhelming..

Anonymous said...

Good start.. Accustomed to your "twists" I started having palpitaitons till I came to the end of chap 1 without any twist..That itself was a twist:)..Anyways.. good you are back.. waiting to read more of this..
C

Anonymous said...

errors in my comments.. make it "palpitations" & chapter 2.

k said...

Writing a long novel is a different ballgame altogether with character building, detailed planning, planning the twists upfront etc. You seem to have covered all angles. And the topic is unknown territory for us civilians. So more room for creativity. Looking forward to the rest of the chapters. Keep 'em coming.

EnGeetham aka "My Song!" said...

4Ramesh: Will post this Fri/Sat

4Mayank: Detailed comments, thanks. On speculation, ;)

4Accs: Too old for twists !

4K: Hope to keep it interesting. Thanks.

ramesh said...

is coming up nicely...you certainly have an alternative fall back career option :)

VA said...

Getting very interesting. Looking to the ending sooner than the week gap!

Anonymous said...

very nicely put...but not for my heart and imagination.. palpitations on.:).. waiting for the next instlmnt..
C

mux said...

hmmmmmmmmmmm......

Obviously Uday is in for a big surprise.. and so are the readers!

EnGeetham aka "My Song!" said...

4Ramesh: Thanks. Hopefully the finish is as good.

4Anand: Thanks, kind of require the week to proof-read and post

4accs: :)

4Mux: Uday is "dada" of them all ! :)

Anand said...

Nice and good pace. Looking forward to the ending.

ramesh said...

It was very clear that the twist was coming...and it did...good show man..keep it up..ramesh

Anonymous said...

As usual the twist was there... good twist... once the twist is in the open you can read between the lines about it in earlier chapter ( which obviously we had missed while reading earlier).. but that is the marker of a good twist, isn't it?
C

Anand said...

An excellent ending. Very well set up to close. Enjoyed the story. Look forward to more.

EnGeetham aka "My Song!" said...

4Anand: Thank you for all the comments. Its a sense of ennui now that i've finally finished this "hanging-for-long" stuff...

4Ramesh: I've become the master of "Twist". The movie Twister-2, would be about me :) :)

4Accs: Yep, on the clues. I was hoping the clue was there enough to be there, but not open enough to give away the ending...

8:04 PM, June 22, 2008

Anish said...

Great story and great end. IMO, soem of the stuff is better left unsaid - exlicitly stating that "there is n doubt that the minister was shot by tariq" is probably best said unsaid and for the reader to figure out in a more subtle way. Nvertheless great story - just need some polish in the story telling :-)

En Chiang said...

enjoyed the end!
some more? :-)

balas said...

Nice gripping story-telling. Could use some editing (btw, in the end, you meant an epilogue not a prologue:-)).

Using Tariq and Ahmed to mean the same person did confuse me a bit, while reading the story. Major's actions in the end were not clear (Tariq had a bone about the minister, what bone did Major have?). Maybe a re-read on my part will clear the confusion. All in all, a great story and a great ending. Could have done a bit with some diversity character:-), and possibly a hint of some romance:-).

mux said...

Very exciting and fitting finish. Very descriptive.

I've shared the link with a few friends - hope you don't mind.

Mayank.
ps: honorable HM had it coming.. :)

EnGeetham aka "My Song!" said...

4Anish: I think so too; but couple of times, I tried subtleties, i got feedback the other way...

4Balas: Changed it. Also, I tried to keep the characters to the min

4Ena: Thanks. Need to come-up with something more. Dont think I'll write another mini again, but short-stories, yes ! :)

4Mux: No issues in sharing :) Thanks for the compli. Yep, the H-HM had it coming !

Anonymous said...

quite a few twists!!!! I could be losing my mind of course.. that has been known to happen.. hmmm..huhhh lost my thought..
varun..
ps : good start.. keep pouring these out.. a release every quarter!!!? - Varun

k said...

Nail-biting and crisp. Very well written. Keep'em coming.

k

ps: My only thought otherwise was: why 2 Ahmeds - Tariq Ahmed and Ahmed Akbhari.

EnGeetham aka "My Song!" said...

4Varun: Thanks - keep coming back - hope you rediscover your mind !

4K: Lets see, if I get another idea for such!

Anonymous said...

Looking forward some more novels??? with more twist..
Enjoyed reading it.

BH