Shadows Speak

Jan 2023 I had a feeling I was being watched for the last few days. The fear washed over me like an icy tide as I wondered who could be following me. It was an instinct. I had the urge to brush it away, but it has been happening too often this past week. I tried to put it to the back of my mind and focus on my life’s most important work in front of me. But the nagging feeling wasn’t going away. I knew I was being tailed. It started last week when I was at the Metro station. I saw a fleeting glance of a face staring at me when I purchased my ticket and turned away from the counter. There was something familiar about that face that I turned to take a better look. But it was gone. How could someone vanish in a second? I brushed it aside thinking it was a figment of my imagination.  3 days ago, it happened again during shopping. I saw the same face peering at me from the other end of the hyper market. The person was hiding cleverly enough to have a clear sight of me. A trained agent, I wondered. My paranoia kicked in. What if it was an assassin? I was trained on surveillance, hand-to-hand combat and shooting during my brief time at the military, as was my family tradition, but I knew my interests were at the science lab with my equipment and experiments.  Even from such a distance I saw the person’s eyes. They were like a sniper’s scope. Laser focused without even blinking. The eyes looked middle-aged, so I was sure it was not a young person. I could outrun the person if it comes to that. As I was contemplating the same, someone pulled at my shirt, and I turned around with a start. It was a cute kid smiling at me with a chocolate bar in hand. I cursed myself for the distraction and no surprise, when I turned back, the person had vanished.  The latest episode was a few hours ago. Born and brought up in Chennai, the early morning coffee along with a newspaper was a routine, I wouldn’t skip for anything. I put the optimum amount of coffee powder in the filter and poured hot water on it with clinical precision. The smell of the coffee powder interacting with the hot water was instantaneous. I smiled in glee as I knew the perfect coffee was brewing. I closed the lid to ensure the aroma didn’t escape. I opened the front door and as I picked up the newspaper a piece of paper dropped from it. I picked it up and it read “DR TONY ROW, THE END IS NEAR.” The letters were cut out from various newspaper articles and stuck on the paper to make the words. I dropped the newspaper from my hand and absent-mindedly closed the door as I kept staring at the note. Who the hell is Dr Tony Row?? What did it mean by the words the end is near? This didn’t seem like a misplaced note or a prank. This looked serious and fear gripped me. I knew I could take care of myself if it came to a fight, but that’s against a known enemy. How do I fight a shadow? If only the shadow speaks. I had been working on the project of a lifetime and have been paranoid now that I am awfully close to success. This would change the world and how we look at it. It would be the greatest invention in the history of humanity. Fire, wheels, aeroplanes, and internet would pale in comparison, if I succeed in my efforts. Either I would be Dr Pushpa, Nobel Prize Winner, or just another eccentric wannabe genius.  Was the note a threat? What should I do about it? Should I tell someone or just ignore it? I had too many important tasks at hand to be worrying about such threats, especially when the source or action to be taken was completely opaque. I put the note in my daily handbook I always carried with me. Only in novels would the person send such anonymous notes for fingerprint analysis. Anyone worth their salt would know that either we would find zero fingerprints on it or find so many of them, that it would be a waste of time chasing such a red herring. ***  I watched her as she opened and read the note I had kept inside the newspaper. The look on her face was worth it. I was just starting to have my fun with her. *** Oct 2017, 5 years ago I was waiting outside the office of the Chairperson of the Council of Scientists for Advanced Innovation and Research (COSAIR). My project proposal was one of the top two selected from across India for the final stage. The process has been going on for the last 3 months starting with a paper submission, followed by multiple rounds of presentations, prototype demos and discussions with eminent scientists across India from various fields. As there was a race amongst various countries on who would be the first to make the perfect invention of this type, the panel had only Indian scientists. This was a closely guarded secret project for the government and everyone involved was sworn to secrecy and, I am sure, was under constant surveillance and monitoring.  I was sure my paper was outstanding, and I impressed everyone during the discussions and interviews. But I didn’t have a prototype to display. This would be a first of its kind invention and there was no way a prototype would have been possible. If I built a prototype, I would submit it for the Nobel prize. I was confident enough, but I was fidgeting nonetheless as I waited to be called into the room.  I was ushered into the room, and I immediately knew the mood was positive. I felt that the project was in the bag, but I acted innocent and to be honest, couldn’t control my eagerness and enthusiasm. The Chairperson got straight to the point. “Dr. Pushpa, you very well know a prototype was a key requirement as part of the proposal and it was even mentioned as non-negotiable.” My heart sank! Was I not getting the project? He continued “But I need to agree that your approach and ideas really stood out amongst the applicants. I am quite excited to see how you are going to take this project forward. We would be in constant touch, and you already know the review mechanisms as detailed in the project requirements document. Congratulations! You have the opportunity to put India on the map and we are all with you to make you succeed.”  I was ecstatic. Time to show the world what I was made of. I had always felt I was special. When I aced my school exams and engineering, while others felt it was a significant effort, I knew it came easily to me. People sometimes squander their gifts from the almighty above. Not me. I knew I had to make use of the special gift I had to make my parents and country proud. I was given 5 years to complete the project and a brilliant team of my choosing. Therein started the labour of love to deliver the best invention ever. 2108 – 2022 The years passed by in a blur. There was significant amount of activity to be done. Various things had to fall in place and work together seamlessly. While the pressure was immense and the focus of the government was on our every move, I loved it. I knew we were under surveillance. But I couldn’t care less. There is nothing in my life to hide and I wouldn’t lift a finger for any action that’s against this great country that’s given me everything. So let them spy on me all they want. All they would know is what a brilliant scientist and full-blown patriot I am. Jan 2023 I finished another productive day at the lab and reached home. I sat on my favourite couch with my legs curled under me and a glass of orange juice in hand. I had the note open in front of me. Dr Tony Row was consuming me. I searched my personal phone book, in case my memory was failing me, but couldn’t find anyone under that name. I opened my laptop and googled the name. The internet didn’t have a Dr Tony Row. That was quite weird and which one it piqued more, my curiosity or fear, I wasn’t sure. I didn’t want to escalate the note to the project team Chairman or even the intelligence officials. I didn’t want to look stupid. Eventually, the person tailing me or maybe Dr Tony Row would present themselves. The next day was a Saturday, and my routine was to visit the Sri Parthasarathy temple at Triplicane. This was my quiet time for me to pray and meditate. I didn’t prefer company during these visits except for my bestie. She was a hot-shot senior executive at a top company. She couldn’t make this week due to work commitments and that gave me the excuse to take the metro train from Alandur to LIC from where I would take an auto to the temple. I loved to enjoy the hustle and bustle of this vibrant city and being in the metro and auto gave me great satisfaction.  From the time I left the house, I got the familiar feeling of being tailed. I didn’t want to be reckless and at the same time didn’t want to lose my guard too. I kept to busy streets enroute to the metro station taking anonymity in the crowd and to shake off my tail. I did look back a few times in a way my tail couldn’t realise it. I was itching to find who Dr Tony Row was, but not by putting myself in danger. I kept cool but increased my walking pace.  I reached the metro station and purchased tickets for both the lines. One that would take me to LIC and the other that would take me to the airport on the opposite side. I waited at the main level and was looking at the display board that displayed the arrival time of the train. Both were scheduled to arrive at 6:02 PM. I wanted to wait till the last minute with a choice to board the train at either side and to shake off my tail in that manner. I casually looked around and noticed the same body hide behind a newsstand. Ok Mr Tail I said to myself. You think of me as a lab scientist and hence an easy quarry. Well, you are in for a surprise.  As the clock struck 6:01, I saw my tail move closer towards the stairs. His clothes were unmarked, and he kept his face at an angle such that the shadow was always falling on the side facing me. I couldn’t make out the features or get an identity. He moved down the stairs as he heard the train enter the station. He chanced to look back at me and was satisfied I was taking the stairs down too. He took left at the end of the stairs and reached the train door just as it opened. He stood to the side inconspicuously and waited for me to enter. I nonchalantly ambled towards the open train door and knew that behind me on the opposite platform the train towards the airport had its doors open too. That train was a few seconds late and hence I calculated that the door would be open a few more seconds. As the announcement of “Doors Closing” came in the LIC bound line, I made an act to run towards the door and on the 5th step made a quick you turn and dashed towards the airport bound line and just got in as the doors closed. I turned around and looked through the window. I wanted to see the look of frustration on the person tailing me, but he looked straight ahead and didn’t show any expression. Ha! Ha! I laughed to myself. I shook the tail successfully and he took the failure in the chin without expression. Points level. I took a seat as the train went underground next to the airport runway. I was considering my next course of action. Temple visit would have to wait. Two things were a priority. One, I was sure I was being tailed. Two, whoever was tailing me now knew that I knew I was being tailed, thanks to my crazy stunt at the metro station a few minutes back. As I was thinking about my next move, I got the feeling I was being watched. I just shook my tail. Who would be watching me now? I shirked the feeling as I didn’t want to give into paranoia.  The train stopped at airport station, and I exited quickly. I didn’t want my tail, who I just shook off, to take the next train and follow me to the airport. I had to hit the road, take an auto, and get lost in the traffic making it impossible for anyone to tail me. I bounded down the escalators and reached the auto stand. As I was about to get into the auto, I turned around to take one look again to see if I was being followed. There were too many people milling about. I got into the auto and as it took off the driver said “Madam, there is a piece of paper stuck to the back side of your shoulder.” I was thinking it should be an advertisement flyer from the metro. I reached with my left hand, took the piece of paper, and opened it casually. I froze. “DR CEVIN MOE I AM WATCHING.” This time it was handwritten and looked to be scribbled in a hurry. Was the person in the metro? Did I have it at the station earlier or was it stuck to me as I got down from the train? So, I didn’t shake my tail at all. I changed trains at the last second. How could someone have tailed me? Did they have 2 tails on me? How could someone have thought I would change trains at the last minute? They were getting into my head now.  Who was Dr Cevin Moe and what did all these doctors have to do with me? I knew a Kevin, but he wasn’t a doctor. I googled for Dr CEVIN MOE and no surprise, there was no one by that name. What did this all mean? Were these notes threats? What should I do now that there is a 2nd note as well? I picked up my phone and dialled ACP Vikram. Vikram was the head of the kidnap rescue division and was recently famous after Operation Chintu Bhai, which he headed, that resulted in the rescue of multiple kidnapping victims, all children. Vikram picked up the phone on the second ring. “To what do I owe this pleasure.” he started with a smile in his voice. “I need your help, Vikram.” was all I could manage. His tone was immediately business-like “Do you want to talk over the phone or meet-up?” “I need to show you something. We better meet up.” I stated. “My team and I are in a surveillance op near Hotel Hablis at Guindy. I can get my team to cover for me for an hour. Let’s meet up at Uptown food court below the Kathipara flyover.” he said. “As luck would have it, I am just crossing the Officers Training Academy, Vikram. I would be at Uptown in less than 5 minutes.” “See you in 10 minutes. I shall have to jog all the way.” He hung up. *** I watched her get into the auto and the driver pointing out the note. The look on her face showed shock. Yes, the message has reached the intended recipient and in the intended manner. I took another auto with a new destination fixed in my mind.  *** It felt good to talk to Vikram. I was still a scientist despite my short stint with the military. It would be good to confer with someone who knew all about crime, tailing and random notes. However, I don’t expect him to know my latest friends Dr Tony Row and Dr Cevin Moe. I laughed to myself despite the situation. I reached Uptown and aligned from the auto. I waited outside my safe-haven, Starbucks. The smell of coffee calmed my nerves. Vikram knew me quite well and came straight to the entrance of Starbucks. After a quick hug we went in to get a cuppa.  After sitting on a plush sofa and taking a few sips of my favourite white mocha, I started narrating the events of the last few days to Vikram. Starting from the first sighting of the tail to the latest notes which I handed over to him. He handled the notes as an expert would and analysed carefully. He read the notes several times in silence. He looked up at me finally after a few minutes. “I have a hunch, Pushpa. But I need a couple of days to turn it over in my head. I shall get back to you.” said Vikram. “Meanwhile, do you want protection? I am sure your project sponsors won’t object”. “I am not sure whom to trust, Vikram. I don’t know who is tailing me. I thought I lost the tail only to realise there was someone else tailing me. Someone knows my next moves. Someone who knows my routines. So, while I shall be on my guard, I don’t want to panic yet.” said I. We finished our coffee and left with a promise to get in touch the moment either of us had an update. I reached home, quite exhausted. I hit the bed straightaway but couldn’t sleep, not because of the notes and the possible threat from the tail. But the project had hit a snag. A roadblock that I couldn’t clear even with my best efforts. It was now 2 weeks since I had been struggling to overcome the same. I kept the issue to myself, lest the team lose momentum and enthusiasm due to the stress. Only I could solve the issue and I was hoping I could do it intime for the review by the sponsors next week. I couldn’t go in front of them to present the project with the issues unsolved. I was at my wits end. The visit to the temple was partially with the hope that the spiritual intervention might cause a brainwave to solve the issue.  I was tired tossing and turning on the bed. I got up and went to my laptop. I was a crazy fan of Ilayaraja songs and knew that my mind can be put to peace only by his compositions. I went to my favourite playlist and hit play. Raja sir and me have a blissful connect, is what I always tell my friends. Singing along my favourite number I absent-mindedly opened the fridge to fetch a bottle of water and froze with my outstretched hand. There was a 6-pack case of Red Bull. While it used to be my favourite drink, I had gotten addicted to it and was trying to stay away from it. I was sure I didn’t buy it. I saw a note attached to it. I was shivering as I took the note. Someone had been inside my house.  I opened the note with trembling hands “DR KITON DIRSK NO ONE WOULD KNOW.” I was scared, perplexed, frustrated. Who are these doctors? What does these notes mean? “What end is near? Who is watching? What would no one know?” I shouted out loud. Just as I hit the pause button on the laptop, I heard a sound in the other bedroom. My heartbeat was racing. Was the intruder in the house? Why would an intruder give me energy drinks? How did they know it was my favourite? How did anyone know I had stopped drinking it? What was the intruder looking for? I picked up a kitchen knife and proceeded cautiously towards the bedroom. The intruder would know I was up as the music was loud. I didn’t expect anyone to be in the room. But still I kept my guard up. I peeped into the room and didn’t find anyone. The room appeared untouched except for a picture of me with my parents, taken years ago. The frame was handmade by my dad and hence it was my most prized possession. The picture appeared to have fallen face down on the table. The window was open, and I thought a breeze knocked it down. I was relieved that there was no intruder. Still, I double checked all the doors and windows and went back to my music. I was even thinking of indulging in a Red Bull can. I clicked a picture of the new note and sent it to Vikram with an accompanying voice note detailing what happened at home. *** Oops! I shouldn’t have touched the photo frame. What was I thinking touching things and moving them out of place. She can’t know I am here, nor can she see me. I was having so much fun with her that I was losing my concentration. Thankfully, I exited the room through the window before she came in. It would have caused problems the other day as well had she seen me clearly at the supermarket. But she was quite predictable. After all who knew her better than me?  *** The next day at the lab went in a frenzy. I was nowhere close to solving the issue. The entire day went in meetings, and I came to my cabin just to pick up my bag. There was a sheaf of yellow colour papers under my bag. I always use only white colour sheets and no where in the lab had I seen these yellow sheets. I took the sheets and opened them. I was taken aback by the contents. There were related to the project but was unlike anything I had seen before. I sat on my chair engrossed in the contents. There was information on the project approach, formulae, and calculations. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry because I now knew how to solve the problem. Someone was nudging me in a direction. I don’t know who left it there or how it came to me, but the issue could be solved. I knew this wasn’t ordinary thinking. It would take a genius to solve this. On my own, I would have taken months to solve this. I didn’t know if I had to report it. I checked and double checked for any signs of any sabotage in the formulae and calculations. But there were none. It looked like how I would have done it myself had I found the solution. I scanned the pages and stored soft copies in my primary and back-up drives. I carefully kept the papers in my file and carried it home with me.  *** As I entered home, my mobile rang. The caller was Vikram. I picked up and said, “You won’t believe what happened.” He replied, “You won’t believe what I have to tell you.” “Interesting! Ok you go first.” I said. “I have cracked the notes. They aren’t names. They are messages to you.” said Vikram. “What do you mean, Vikram? Are they jumbled words? Were they threats?” I was quite intrigued by Vikram’s finding.  “Quite the opposite, Pushpa. DR TONY ROW END IS NEAR is actually DON’T WORRY END IS NEAR. DR CEVIN MOVE is actually NICE MOVE DR. This relates to your stunt at the metro station in changing lines at the last minute. If the tail was a threat, why would they appreciate you?” “I am lost for words, Vikram.”  I stuttered.  “There is more. DR KITON DIRSK NO ONE WOULD KNOW is actually ITS OK DRINK NO ONE WOULD KNOW. It points out to the fact that the intruder knew you stopped drinking Red Bull. Who might know you this well?”  “I have no clue, Vikram. All this seems very surreal to me. These notes, these tails, the solution turning up at my desk. I really don’t know what to say.”   “It means someone is looking out for you and someone is having your back. Do not worry. You only concentrate on completing the project. I don’t think we need to worry about the notes.” said Vikram and hung up. I sat lost in thoughts. If the notes weren’t threats, then the tail wasn’t a threat too. If I had only one tail on me, then the assumption that I had 2 tails at the metro station was a figment of my imagination. My brilliant stunt at the metro was for nothing after all. Who left the papers on my desk. The approach was remarkably similar to what I would have done myself. Given time, I would have cracked it myself. I was lost in thoughts as I toyed with my Red Bull in hand.  *** Jan 2043 I walked out of the machine much to the delight of my crew. The machine had worked perfectly many times, but it still didn’t make the crew any less anxious as time travel still hinged on many factors working right. But I was back to my home. It was risky going back in time as I couldn’t be seen by anyone, especially my past self. But it was needed. The Government had decided that I would go back to 2023 and push things along. Left on its own the project would have taken 2 more years to complete. Though I would have solved the problem in 2 years, humanity couldn’t wait. The Time Machine invention had to be hurried along for the benefit of all living beings. It was nice to go back and relive that past world for few days especially the Metro, Uptown and the autos which were now extinct.  I laughed as I recollected my past-self in 2023 wondering how someone knew her every move, and how someone was predicting her every action. Ha! Ha! Who else would know me better than me? I took a can of my favourite Red Bull, sat on the couch, and looked at my two most prized possessions. The Nobel prize medallion I had won in 2024 and the photo frame handmade by my dad that held the picture of my parents with me!        Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!