Trigger Alert: Violence
I spy with my little eye,
A girl left high and dry.
“You are under arrest for your suspected involvement in the Zenobia Construction bomb blast case. Please come with us to the Police station.”
I shook my head in disbelief.
Me, who wouldn’t hurt a fly, now the prime accused in an act of terror? Was this a bad dream?
“Just because I vehemently opposed an illegal construction doesn’t mean that I aided with its destruction!”
My protests fell on deaf ears.
A lawyer. I needed a lawyer, like yesterday.
“You don’t scare me. I am an influencer with thousands of followers. There will be a social media storm!” I threatened.
The tenants in my building stared at me with disbelief and sympathy.
“Aru! Are you OK?”
A voice I recognized; Viaan, my one-time date, who also lived in the same building. The techie with an insipid personality whom I ghosted after the most boring evening of my life. Yet, he persisted, leaving numerous gifts at my doorstep in the hope of scoring a second date.
“Aru, I’ll help you engage a lawyer. We’ll get you out in no time, OK?”
Yesterday, I scolded myself for dating losers. Today? I thanked God for desperate lover boys.
Six years ago, I was a marketing manager slogging away in a thankless job. My boss, Satan in a suit, drained me of all happiness. In a moment of extreme emotion, I recorded a rant and uploaded it on YouTube. It trended at number one for weeks, and to date has garnered over three million views. Netizens called it heartwarming and witty. They empathized with me; my boss not so much. When he threatened to fire me, I saved him the trouble. I quit.
I set up my own YouTube channel, Aru’s Point Of View, offering opinions on anything and everything under the sun, incorporating my trademark sense of wry humour. Slowly, I began to commercialize my brand and tied up with sponsors. I increased my fan following by creating an Instagram account. Subsequently, Aru’s Point Of View became a household name. I received numerous awards for representing the voice of the Youth; be it on fashion trends, lifestyle products, or social issues.
Over the years, I’d gotten used to showcasing every aspect of my life. But there was a certain method to this madness; I only flaunted those parts that I wanted everyone to see. Not the bad hair days, or the days when my anxiety hit the roof. I had to look perfect, act perfect, and represent the causes I talked about.
Occasionally I committed a goof-up or two. Like when I was trying to go vegan for a collaboration with a cruelty-free brand. A few days later, one of my fans caught me chomping on a chicken burger like it was the last food on this planet. #CancelAru trended before someone else made headlines for a careless remark on cutlery.
Saved by a spoon.
Being in the public eye is no cakewalk; it means showcasing the best version of you and documenting your life in detail to make your fans resonate with your girl-next-door ness.
My home page showcased me doing a happy dance in the rain, making a wish on an eyelash, and jumping in puddles. The kind of saccharine sweet stuff that people easily lapped up.
As a rule, I’ve stayed away from all politics. One time I was interviewing a young influencer, a girl from the slums who landed herself a plush modelling contract. She mentioned the illegal construction site that had replaced her home. I remarked that Zenobia Construction stood on a foundation of tears and dashed hopes and should be torn down at all costs.
This episode garnered 7000 likes in an hour, a new record.
The newspapers reported that this project was businessman Prem Malhotra’s brainchild. Two weeks later, the headlines screamed that a bomb blast had destroyed a major part of the Zenobia Construction site, rendering it practically unviable. At that time, I tweeted that it was Karma, without an inkling that it would come back to bite me.
Relax, Aru. If everyone who used social media to express their views was taken to jail, there would be no space left.
At the station, I filled in my details- my name, my address, my marital status (unmarried), name of my parents (both deceased). Viaan had been true to his word. He had put a lawyer in touch with me; a balding man with a walrus moustache.
“The allegations are quite serious. There is also ample evidence of your involvement,” Mr. Walrus-face said in a sombre tone.
“Just because of what I said on a free YouTube channel?”
“No. Because you have transferred funds to an organization with terrorist links that makes bombs. Your internet history shows access to the dark web. Your social media shows chats with accounts that link back to sleeper cells. There are coded messages you have sent too- with the words Zenobia and bomb.”
How was that possible? I didn’t do any of this!
Walrus-face assured me that he was going to try for my bail.
No one in their right sense was going to grant me bail; the evidence against me was formidable.
There was no way I was going to survive even a single night locked in a smelly cell with other women who looked terrifying. This place didn’t even have a mirror; what if I looked bad? Thank God there was no one shooting a video in here.
I wouldn’t want my followers to see me like this.
I spent a sleepless night, not daring to even relieve myself. A million questions kept torturing me. How could my social media be hacked? I always changed passwords on time. I built security recovery questions around my personal life. And my banking? How did that get compromised? For that, the hacker would need to know the intimate details of my life, like my first cat’s name. Stuff I never shared with anyone. I sighed, thinking of the next day’s headlines.
Aradhna Singh, 28, a social media influencer and online show host, is now the chief suspect in a bomb blast.
Would I lose my followers?
I spy with my little eye,
Some truths, and a lie.
I woke up with a start. Were they going to take me to a magistrate for my hearing? I stumbled, waiting to get out of this hellhole. The other women sneered at me. I never wanted to see them ever again.
“We are taking you for questioning.”
My first round of interrogation was brutal. A lady Police Inspector kept asking me about my ‘terrorist’ links. She showed me the messages from my account; ones that I’d never sent, and links I’d never accessed. I pointedly denied knowing anything about these messages.
“Please bring in IT experts; they will prove my innocence.”
“Do you want anything else, Madam?” the woman asked me sarcastically.
“I need to speak to my lawyer!” I demanded.
“Shift her to a single cell!” the woman ordered.
I didn’t like the idea of a single cell one bit. It meant no witnesses. Anything could happen.
My desperate protests were turned down, and I found myself trapped, like an animal in an ill-fitting cage. This whole episode was a crazy nightmare, from start to finish. The hours passed by. I was bone-tired and helpless. On a normal day, I would have posted ten updates by now.
What were my followers thinking about my silence? Would they protest and have me freed?
The evidence against me was frightening; all digital links circled back to me. There had been another round of questioning, but I had nothing to offer except my repeated claims of innocence.
Was it night already? I’d lost all sense of time or appetite.
It must have been close to midnight when a constable hovered by. He looked at me pointedly and then dropped something on the ground.
A key. Not any key. The key to my cell.
I waited till the coast was clear. If I had to prove my innocence, it couldn’t be from within. I was going to establish that I hadn’t broken the law, by actually breaking it.
Why did that constable choose to help me?
There were many mysteries to be solved, but some could wait.
Raising my hoodie, I quietly unlocked the cell door and slipped out, dodging any eye-witnesses. The minute I was out of the station, I raced as fast as I could, looking over my shoulder, expecting a flashing siren or a police jeep to chase me. There were none, the keyword being ‘yet’. Stifling my sobs I ran for dear life, and that’s when the irony of the situation hit me.
Friends and followers everywhere, but not one by my side, in my time of need.
Where could I go? I didn’t have a phone or money with me. And from the bank statements the Inspector had shown me, there was hardly anything left in my account, not after buying bombs. Not chocolate bombs or soap bombs, but actual explosives.
As an influencer, I talked about products that blew my mind. But these could blow up much more than just the mind.
Could I sneak into my place, and grab a few things? It was risky but worth a try.
I had barely set foot into my apartment complex when I heard a voice.
He clasped my wrist and led me away from the lifts.
“Let’s take the stairs; there is no CCTV there. Come to my flat; your place is swarming with the police.”
Dazed, I followed Viaan, too tired to protest. His flat was small and cozy but seemed to be heavenly compared to the horrors I had seen. He handed me a bowl of noodles which I devoured in minutes, my best meal of the past two days.
“Viaan, I’ve run away from jail. But I’m innocent.”
“Hush. It’s OK. I know.”
“I’m being framed. You have to help me. You are a techie, right? Can you find out who is hacking me?”
“Yes, Aru. You relax. Here, have some wine.”
I gratefully gulped down the glass of wine. Viaan looked so eager to please and protect me.
I had misjudged him. Once this mess was over, I might go out on a proper date with him. Hell, I might just marry him and have his kids.
As I sipped the wine, my eyelids grew heavy. Must be the exhaustion.
My head was going round and round. I crashed into Viaan’s arms before everything went black.
I woke up with a start; the darkness whirled around till it settled finally. It took me a while to piece the information together.
Had Viaan turned me in? That sneaky rat.
But this didn’t look like a police station. I was lying on a comfortable bed in a dark room, with narrow windows. This was not Viaan’s flat.
Where the hell was I? Why was it so dark in here?
I got up, my head still hurting. My clothes were intact; thanks to small mercies; I hadn’t been assaulted. I would have wrung Viaan’s neck with my hands if he dared make a move on me, without my consent.
Finding my footing, I walked gingerly towards the door. It swung open with a dull creak, revealing a narrow corridor. I barely walked three steps when I was confronted by a masked man in black, carrying a gun.
This was it. The end. I closed my eyes.
The creature in front of me turned and pointed ahead. I did his bidding.
One did’nt argue with the other person, especially if they had a gun. Where was Viaan? Had they killed him, already?
The corridor opened into a chamber, which widened into some sort of throne room. Behind the throne was a giant marble eye. It was dark and eerie. In dramatic fashion, the lights switched on, one by one, and I became aware of an ominous presence on the throne.
This man was just like the other one, only more regal; he wore flowing robes, wielded a staff, and donned a mask. The mask itself was elaborate with criss-cross lines and shaped like a tiger’s face.
“Welcome to the Syndicate. This is Agent T, and you are in the Hall of the Eye.”
I spy with my little eye,
One way to live; others to die.
“Who are you? What do you want?” I demanded.
“I’m the all-seeing, all-knowing eye of the Tiger. Welcome to the Grand Hall of the Eye. My name is Agent T.”
The mechanical voice from the mask sounded eerie. What was this Marvel mumbo-jumbo?
“Why am I here? Is this Prem Malhotra’s doing?”
“Your view of the world is too narrow. I am much bigger than all of that.”
I did not miss the hint of a threat in Agent T’s voice. The man rose; he must be at least six feet tall, and well-built. He descended the steps and moved towards me.
“Stay away from me!”
“I urge you not to resist.”
By now, I knew that flight was futile; I followed him reluctantly as he led me to an adjacent giant room housing hundreds of computers and cutting-edge technology. He snapped his fingers and a giant screen materialized in the air.
Whatever technology this was, it must be very advanced.
“This is my intelligence unit, where information is mined from social media sites across the world. Let me show you our processing power, with the help of two subjects and their public social media accounts.”
The screen lit up, flashing names and photos.
Mother’s Name: Bertha.
Bertha’s first post: Twenty years ago on this day, I became a mother.
Algorithm: DOB of Sally is 1st Feb 2003.
Bertha’s Instagram story: Our first family puppy, Dobby. Sweet memories!
The algorithm stores data for future reference.
Sally’s Security question for banking: What is the name of the first pet you owned?
Sally posts on Facebook: Today, my favourite teacher, Mdm. Rita passed away. She made such a big difference to my life.
The algorithm stores data for future reference.
Sally’s email recovery question: Who was my favourite teacher?
Sally posts on Twitter: I’m off on a holiday, and shares ticket’s picture with barcode details.
The algorithm extracts passport details.
Bertha sings a song for a reel.
The algorithm samples notes and reconstructs voice for voice authentication.
“Our computers build a whole blueprint out of the data that is shared freely. We monitor your likes, dislikes, your official information, and even your unofficial snippets. You have essentially flung the keys of your house to the public and invited them to take a look.”
My mind was reeling. I had shared much more than Sally, on my accounts.
“Now imagine a computer sifting through millions of profiles and generating hundreds of thousands of data maps. When we have your data map, we own you; we control you. We can initiate transactions with bank accounts, post messages on the dark web, or set up conversations with terrorist outfits, spewing chaos, and confusion.”
“Take for instance the Zenobia blast, which was sponsored by Prem Malhotra’s business rivals. We tested our operations by hacking into your accounts, making you the scapegoat. The pilot test has been successful; the authorities believe you are behind it.”
I couldn’t describe what I felt. Shock. Indignation. Anger.
“Why was I the guinea pig?” I demanded.
“Your loose remark on a public platform made you an ideal candidate,” Agent T remarked, calmly.
“Then why am I here, and not in jail?”
“We are recruiting to expand our operations.”
“I cannot be part of a criminal syndicate!”
“Agent V was keen to get you to join us.”
Who was Agent V?
“If we let you go, you’ll rot in some jail somewhere, and meet with a miserable end. We are offering you a job. Not many people get a chance to change the world. Don’t walk away from your destiny.”
I was filled with revulsion for Agent T. His staff lay propped on the ground; this was my chance. I grasped it with both hands and swung it will all my might. Before I could land a blow, I felt strong hands hold me back.
“Thank you Agent V! Aradhna has still not understood her situation. Can you inform her of the implications?”
I turned abruptly to get a hard look at Agent V.
Viaan? Agent V?
The man who was reduced to a stuttering, stammering jelly in my presence, stood with a confident glint in his eye.
“Aru, you cannot defeat us. Join us, instead.”
“In your dreams, you filth!” I spat.
He slapped me, and I reeled under the force of his blow.
Gentle, timid, Viaan?
“Aru, I am sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“Who are you?”
“I am Agent V, Aru. Viaan is one of my undercover identities. When I first saw you, I knew you would be perfect for the syndicate. You are spunky and fearless. But to hire you, you needed to be convinced. The old Aru had to die. So, we framed you. You’ll agree that your stay in jail was only a minor inconvenience. We even bribed the constable to drop the key.”
Minor inconvenience? Who was this person? How deluded was he?
“You are free, Aru. Free from your demons, free to start a new life. You can now become Agent A of the syndicate.”
“What demons are you talking about?”
“I know about your anxiety. The constant panic attacks when the requisite likes and views don’t come in. That fear of wanting to be perfect all the time, refreshing your view stats hundreds of times in a day, and popping pills when someone says something negative about you.”
I did suffer from a pathological need for validation and crippling anxiety that I’d lose relevance one day and become a ‘has been’. Anyways, how did he know all of this about me?
“Viaan, were you spying on me, you pervert?”
The chocolate baskets and the fruit hampers he regularly sent me! There must be hidden cameras in them.
“I was only keeping an eye on you. You don’t have to worry about being perfect always. You can start a new life, dealing with identities.”
“What you are doing is unethical and wrong.”
“If information is offered freely, is it stealing?”
I spy with my little eye,
Unholy things that money can buy.
Three weeks later
Every day, I would wake up to the announcement of, “Syndicate! This is Agent T.”
Every day I’d curse my luck. If I wanted to, I could walk out, but what awaited me outside was scarier. I was a framed terrorist, one with nowhere to hide.
Who’d believe my story?
The Syndicate was like a chessboard. The common soldiers or the Pawns, had no idea what they were guarding, only that they were paid to wield guns and pledge their allegiance to Agent T, the one that wore the tiger mask. Agent T was the King and the Queen, both rolled into one. Viaan was his right-hand man, his Bishop. They wanted me to fill the shoes of the Rook; I rather be a rookie forever.
The rules of the Syndicate were simple.
- Loyalty, loyalty, loyalty.
- Renounce your identity.
- Do not form any attachments.
The organization was in its fledgling stages, trying to build a strong list of clientele. According to Viaan, the scope for expansion was enormous. Framing evidence was only the tip of the iceberg. Agent T had plans to sell identities to criminals so that they could start new lives. With days passing, my chances of escape were diminishing.
When you can’t beat them, join them. At least till you can figure a way out.
“OK, Viaan. I will consider joining you. But you will never hit me again. Is that understood?”
Viaan, visibly elated, leaned forward to hug me. I shuddered and pushed him away.
“Aru, let us not delay your induction into the Syndicate.”
He led me to the Hall of the Eye, to meet Agent T, the boss.
“I am glad you have come to your senses. Else, we would have been forced to kill you,” the voice behind the mask spoke.
I swallowed nervously, as Viaan squeezed my hand reassuringly. I resisted the urge to punch him.
“Please familiarize yourself with our modus operandi. Recently, we were approached by a new client who wanted to eliminate his business rival. We plan to fabricate evidence of the target’s illegal stock trading and wait for the watchdogs to pounce on it.”
“Aren’t you destroying an innocent man’s life?” I grimaced.
“We are in the business of buying and selling identities. The highest bidder wins; we owe no loyalty to anyone but ourselves. The target willingly destroyed his life by sharing personal data online.”
“How do you know he has anything to share?”
“Before we accept any job, we run a feasibility check on the target. We explore his vulnerabilities, his social media, and his digital footprint. 99% of the time, we can exploit the chinks.”
Willing myself not to have a panic attack, I took deep breaths.
This was about survival.
I plastered a fake smile on my face.
“Where do I fit in?”
“You will help us pitch to our clients. Agent V will help you navigate the systems,” decreed Agent T.
A Month Later
Viaan and I waited in a posh restaurant for our client. I, Agent A, the newly appointed Chief Communications Officer of the Syndicate, had to ‘pitch’ to our latest prospective client.
The client was competing in an official election, one in which there was another candidate touted to win. Our pitch was to turn the tables around, and get the other candidate disqualified for a hefty price.
Our client was late. My knees began to shake. Viaan kept his hand on my thigh. I inhaled sharply and pushed his hand away. My eyes fell on the table nearby; a woman with her baby. She clicked a picture of the toddler and posted it on social media.
Telling Viaan I had to use the restroom, I excused myself. Peeking into the woman’s screen, I noticed her responding to the comments on the picture, most of which were ‘how cute’, or ‘how adorable.’
On an impulse, I hissed at her. “Ma’am, you shouldn’t be uploading pictures of your child on social media.”
The woman scowled back.
“None of your business,” she snapped.
Oh, but I had made a business out of it, hadn’t I?
The client, a seedy politician, arrived and haggled with us. We ended up signing a multi-crore fees. Reasonable, considering that we were handing him the election results on a silver platter.
Later, that night, when we appraised Agent T, he was pleased with my effort to secure the client. Viaan not so much.
“The man was ogling at Aru, I mean Agent A. Do we have to work with him?”
Agent T took his staff and delivered a blow to Viaan’s shoulder. He doubled to the ground in pain.
“Never let your emotions obstruct work. Understand?”
I’d become accustomed to the routine. Pitching to the client and closing big deals. The lines between right and wrong were fast blurring. I can’t remember how many ‘pitches’ I locked in. The bank balance of the Syndicate swelled, as well as our kitties.
All the luxury products I pretended to review in my earlier life, I could actually afford now.
Deep down, what worried me was not the fear of being caught; it was the fear that I had started to enjoy what I was doing because I was becoming good at it.
A slippery slope indeed.
I heard a knocking sound.
“Viaan? Why are you here, so late?”
“We closed a big deal today. We make a great team, you, and I.”
“I’m tired, please leave.”
“Aru, loosen up. Be thankful that instead of leaving you to rot, I pulled you in. Agent T wasn’t sure, but I kept fighting for you.”
“I’m eternally grateful,” I replied sarcastically.
Viaan grabbed hold of my hand and pulled me closer to him. I turned my face away, trying to mask my revulsion.
“I love you Aru. I always have. My beautiful Aru.”
My tears were falling fast, and I let Viaan hold me to his chest. What choice did I have? Why did any human contact feel so good?
I craved validation, even if it came from a monster.
Six Months Later
I couldn’t recognize the person in the mirror anymore. The one who went about negotiating identities with simple ease, who lived a life of opulence, and woke up every day with her abuser.
The girl who had everything, but also had nothing.
“Viaan, don’t you get tired of it all? Don’t you want to stop sometime?”
“No Aru. We have only begun. We can make this Syndicate Global. Think of all the money we can earn.”
“And the lives we ruin?”
“Aru, what’s gotten into you? You’ve dipped your hands into this gutter; there is no going back.”
I was tired of being controlled by Viaan and Agent T. I was smarter than both, and yet they used me, each for their whim.
Viaan tried to kiss me. I pushed him away forcefully. He was about to hit me when I pleaded.
“Don’t hurt me. I’m pregnant.”
I spy with my little eye,
A sigh, a cry, and humour wry.
“Viaan, have you thought about the future? We have a lot to plan for,” I persisted.
“Aru, I’ve told you I love you and our child. Why the doubt? We have a secure future ahead.”
“As long as Agent T exists, our lives are in danger. We formed an attachment that violates the rules of the Syndicate. We can’t tell him about the baby. If he turns against us, we will be doomed.”
“Viaan, we have to kill Agent T. We can run the Syndicate the way we want. We will be the King and the Queen and safeguard our child’s inheritance and live fear-free.”
I could see the struggle on Viaan’s face. He was close to Agent T- they were mentor and protégé. But blood is thicker than water; the child made all the difference.
“Aru, how do we kill him?”
“I have a plan.”
Viaan had slipped into Agent T’s chambers- his access was unimpeded because he was the only one the boss trusted, explicitly.
Today, that trust would be shattered.
He had requested an emergency meeting with Agent T to discuss his relationship status with me. I knew for a fact that the boss did not like me much, for I spoke my mind freely, and I was growing more powerful.
I poisoned Viaan’s mind against him in such a way that even the slightest objection from Agent T would trigger him.
I hoped the dagger I’d sharpened and handed over to Viaan was put to good use. Once the deed was done, he would slip out of the chambers unnoticed, with only one souvenir- the tiger mask. The Pawns would sway in the direction of the person who donned the mantle of Agent T. Once the mask was in our possession, the Syndicate was ours to run and rule.
“Viaan, you did it.”
He hugged me, reeking of sweat, and the metallic smell of blood. He sobbed in my arms.
“I killed him. I can’t forget the look of shock on his face, Aru.”
I handed him some wine.
“Here love, quench your thirst first.”
He grabbed the wineglass and gulped it in one go.
“Aru, do you want some wine? Oh, I forgot you are pregnant.”
“No. I am not,” I said softly.
He had started to teeter.
“Viaan, this is for dragging me into the mess. For forcing me against my will. For trapping me. There was no baby in the first place, and now, there never will be. Rot in hell, you fiend.”
Viaan fell to the ground, convulsed, and foamed at the mouth. After a minute, I checked if he had a pulse. None. When I was sure he was dead, I kicked him. Good riddance!
By the rules of succession, I was promoted to run the Syndicate, in the way I wanted, like how I had planned, by lying about a non-existent child and manipulating Viaan.
I headed towards the Hall of the Eye. Decisions had to be made. What were my options?
Did I want to go back to the constant worrying? That anxiety, that panic, that feeling of never being good enough? If not, what other choices did I have?
Turning myself in?
Maybe I’m cynical, but I don’t think any of that stuff works for anyone who is truly broken. Serves us better to just keep barrelling forward and hope the demons can’t keep up, so you might as well be who you are.
Deep down, didn’t I feel important playing God? Trading identities, assigning them to whom I liked, wreaking havoc on their lives, and living in a space where validation didn’t matter anymore.
Cathartic. Exhilarating. Liberating.
I donned the Tiger Mask, the one that Viaan had extricated for me. I was now Agent T, sitting on a goldmine of data, on my throne, under no one’s control but mine.
Could I turn this data into something more constructive than destructive? Should I use this information for something productive? Or should I just continue the work of my predecessor? Only time would tell.
I made my first announcement.
“This is Agent T, addressing the Syndicate.”
I spy with my little eye,
A girl whose identity is a lie.
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