Sunday, June 13, 2010

Monalisa Smile

Wrote this story for a short story contest when I was 18 or something. The story had to be developed from the photograph of a little baby. Silliest stuff although I should say I didn't copy the ideas from anywhere. Read a cyber crime novel and the whole thing was inspired from the same.
Note: Never finished the damn thing! But typical Mills and Boon stuff. Predictable.

Life couldn’t get anymore static, I thought as I settled on my couch to do something I've been doing every evening for as long as I remember…watch TV. At an age as young as twenty-five, I can almost successfully describe myself as a pathetic old Indian widow, with no night life (I am too lazy to dress up for others sake), no boyfriend (not my fault!!!!!), no social skills(my mom's fault........?), no vacations (my job's fault, obviously, I'm a call centre executive) and no family to take are of or being taken care of (I ran off from home when I was sixteen because it wasn't my real family. I was adopted! I wish I had thought "whatever!".....then). I've been independent for so long that I hardly consider dating and partying fun anymore. I now prefer spending my evenings alone, curled up in my couch and watching TV. It feels better not to think much when whatever you think makes you want to puke.

That night too I dutifully followed my T.V regime my watching the 9:00 PM movie (it was "Mohabbatein" a dull over emotional movie, however I watched dutifully for probably the hundredth time). After that I briefly changed to CNN in which someone was speaking about a notorious robber while the screen showed a lovely picture of a cute smiling baby with a towel mischievously drawn over its head (like a traditional Gujarati lady covering her head, I thought). In the background the woman was reiterating that this was the first clue that the "smart thief" left for the police to ponder with--his childhood photograph. The face registered something in my mind, especially the smile but my clogged groggy mind refused to give through to a late night investigation knowing that the results would anyway be far from extraordinary (That was my first mistake, I realized much later). So I settled for a late night talk show and immediately felt some familiar ground in the idiotic blabber of insensate people. Satisfied I drifted into a semi sleep still aware of the noises. At that moment I realized that I was forever that way, all alone and quiet in a world buzzing with the constant chatter of all kinds of people. My life reached a stand point. Nothing is ever gonna happen in my life, I thought.

That was exactly the reason why it took me more than a moment to realise something was actually happening to me. About half a dozen men(..or women, I coudn't say), wearing helmets, clad in indistinguishable black outfits and.........holding rifles hovered over me and shouted "Freeze". I just watched them with a blank expression. May be its time to change the channel, I thought and fumbled for the remote which was at the moment pressing hard into my butt. I tried to remove it but it unknowingly sent panic waves among my intruders and all of them shouted in unison "Interpol. Freeze!" I was suddenly shaked to the core probably because my brain was wide awake now and my heart threatened to pop right out of my mouth. How embarrassing the would be! My initial idea was that they were a group of hotshot burglars (but Interpol? what was that?) "CHOR" "CHOR" I shouted as hard as I could in my native tongue. Amidst the never-before-experienced amount of panic I heard someone saying "Put your weapon down" and was advancing towards me "BACHAO" "BACHAO" I shouted again "Help me" "Help me" and I threw the remote away in a jerk over them. It hit a person in the stomach and they all suddenly panicked. The guy who has been hit fired and I could feel my couch vibrate in return. That was just enough to drop me right into hysterics. I never heard a gun in my life......and one so near....? I didn't even imagine. I screamed and kicked and shouted names incoherently as two strong hands carried me away. I could feel the quiet astonished stares of my neighbors but couldn't find any help there. I spoilt their sleep for the thousandth time. That was all I could think of but felt nothing...for the thousandth time.
I was then dumped into the rear of a ghastly looking van which matched their outfits. I felt the van slowly move away and suddenly jerk into high speed while I was still struggling against my captors. After what seemed to be an eternity I slowly let go and started to sob. First softly, then violently. "Who are you?" I shouted in desperation, sitting down and kneeling against a bare wall. the other two flanked by black leather covered platforms on which the group were sitting and ........probably enjoying the sight. They looked at each other and quietly removed their helmets and probably started to speak something. Though I could never exactly figure out why, nothing shocked me more than what I saw that day. They were all white. They were not the familiar brown Indians. Foreign nationals come to me with rifles and........  I never concluded that thought because all of a sudden I found myself shrieking and rushing towards the door (a mighty reflex), which I never quite accomplished because I was stopped by the group with all their force(I thought. honestly, they wouldn't require much). I felt so awkward being held by so many people at once---petrified! I struggled to get back to my senses when I noticed another identical white monster coming forward to me holding something. It was a syringe. All my nerves jerked at once sending a bone biting shiver through me. I tried to jerk away on the sight of it. Now I knew what they were up to. They were all set to kill me though I never actually considered why. CAUSE OF DEATH: POISONING. That part of my death certificate was already visible. I yelled with fright and twisted shouting "PLEASE!". The sting of the cold needle was more painful than anybody could imagine . And slowly darkness loomed.

I woke up to the sounds of muffled chattering somewhere. I was too afraid to open my eyes because I already had one thing confirmed---I wasn't in heaven. My every muscle ached as I tried to move, I guess, from the struggle. I tried to concentrate for a moment because I was in no way ready to open my eyes and go through any more horror. I could hear better now.
"I tell are wrong this time Fred. She couldn't be him." some sturdy male voice was speaking in a clearly American accent. I recognise it well. My job requires me to speak American and I somehow always thoroughly hated it. I feel it is some  unclean nasal tongue and always alien.
"It is always her, never him. You can never imagine what women are capable of these days!" another american spoke--Fred.
"It doesn't concern me what women are capable of. But by the look of her I can never imagine she is capable of such a stupendous and brilliant crimes."
"You have little experience with criminals, don't you?" Fred sneered,"all you people from the cyber crime department. Ha Ha! real life criminals are nothing like those in your fancy computer games Chris. They are just too.....human."
CRIMINAL? Who the hell is this Fred thing calling a criminal? Since when on did inertia become a mortal sin, that they had to import some ghostly whites from hell to nab the guilty? Ex cuse me, but I think there is something terribly wrong here. I wanted to shout but the....sedative (I think) was so strong that I couldn't move a muscle. Moreover I wanted to lie there unharmed as long as I could till the whole thing proves itself to be a dream. I rested a little while so that I could let my mind think more clearly. A moment later I heard someone rush in saying there is an important development in the case and whisper something to someone.
"Well....then", the Freddy voice said,"lets keep this silent for a moment...till the...." he hesitated as if to say 'you-know-what' (unknown to me though).

Who are these people anyway? Angels of death? But that’s not fair! I still work out twice a..........year? Anyway I found comfort in the fact that angels (or demons, whatever!) don't use advanced technology. Well then....they might be kidnappers (in which case they found an empty case because there is no one in the world who would pay ransom for me). They might be a group of psychos running loose from their group psychology session! I heard that the group thing is highly prevalent in America. They might be.........well......INTERPOL! Now I remembered...International police. The revelation struck so hard that my eyes flew open. I saw these Interpol people in a few English movies. But never did I imagine that such a thing can reach a small coastal city in India.
A little while later I was sitting opposite an almost  bald and almost seven feet tall white male---Commander Frederick Mathews from the covet operations section of the Interpol. My mind was still groggy from the sedative....or a truth serum probably, I thought, now that I had to imagine all the unimaginable things. I sleepily looked at him and said, "Where am I?" My voice was almost inaudible and strained. My heart was unusually calm though.
"What is your name?" He was not going to answer me. I didn't pursue.
"Lakshmi...Aziz. Lakshmi Aziz." I gave him my Hindu-Islamic name. He didn't notice though---the bald white alien(he was pink-red-purple faced, I have to say. Though god meant it to be a good joke, it only added to my fears). "Are you police or something? Interpol is international police isn't it? I know as much . Nobody knows over here. I know only because I watch so many english movies and....Ethan Hunt of ...mi3? He was from Interpol.....?no some IMF. Impossible.......Mission Force!" I said triumphantly Why was I blabbering? "Am I put on some truth serum kind of thing?" I watched a smile cross on his bull like face for the first time. It seemed so odd and out of place. "But that is illegal. Indian courts banned its usage in many parts of the country. You need a special high court permission to perform such a test on any person." I wasn't protesting. I was just stating. "And Kangana says she will have to get some of that and make everyone drink to find out who ate up the funds granted for her farewell party........." I went on. I could see a slight disappointment loom over his mighty face. It quickly passed.
"Can you recognize this photograph?" He pushed towards me a photograph depicting a cute smiling baby. The same baby shown on TV moments before disaster struck.
"Who is this criminal you are after any way? Is it a thief or a murderer or a Zihadi from Pakistan? Actually we used to call a guy, back in school, a Zihadi. Well, you know he had this very peculiar Pakistaaan kind of look on him and sidelocks...."
"We are looking for a thief. Would you like to tell me who is that in that photo Lakshmi?" He pronounced my name wrong and I pointed out to him. He apologized and asked the same question again.
"I'm surprised you don't know...." he leaned forward in anticipation as I said that. "It is....."
"Commander, we have a breakthrough." Someone barged in excitedly. But the commander put out a palm gesturing whoever it is to stop right there as a mild annoyance passed through his face. He again set his deep gray eyes into my dark brown ones and waited.
"Well I'm surprised you don't know. It seldom happens with the police, I think. Are you the police?" I could see he was getting irritated though he tried no to show. Not too well. It is better not to irritate him if he indeed was one. "Actually this is the childhood photograph of a...some notorious criminal. Didn't you know?"
The commander sighed loudly and relaxed all his stiff muscles.
"That was precisely what we knew Laks... lady." He dismissed me off and turned to the intruder.
"Whats wrong with you Chris? Didn't you know how important this is?"
"I'm sorry Fred. But as soon as our team checked out the history of this woman and informed us that she is clean, I started with the new mail tracing system which we hadn't done yet. I think we are just hours away from solving the case." His eyes shone as he said that. "Our team is currently working on it and I think we even have an address."
"You have an address? Are you sure about that?" Seeing Chris nod smilingly, "Oh goodness I've known all the way you would find a way Chris. Great job! Stay back here as I go check out what is to be done ,will you?"
"Hey Fred, what are you talking about? I'd like to be there when you nab him, don't you think?"
"You've messed up hard with the poor lady's couch and I woud'nt want things to go wrong this time because I don't expect hysterics this time. So stay put. We'll keep you informed." He paused. "Do me a job, will you? Send this lady home. We'll square things with her later. We don't want the local police start looking for a group of monstrous hoodlums, do we?" He laughed at his own joke and left.

"Damn this fellow. He'd be the the face of all TV channels by morning and he woudn't want someone else to even remotely share the glory. How egotistical people are. Don't you think Miss Aziz?" Chris said as I refocussed on the photo.
"Of course. I think so too. And mom used to say dad was too egotistic when it comes to her income." I restarted the blabbering as he pulled up a chair near me. I was still looking at the photo. "Well she isn't my real mom anyway but still the way she loved me.....she remembers every detail of how I grew up, what I liked when I was an infant....and she even told me that I was very difficult with the photographer . I wouldn't stay still at all and all the while I would be crawling away from the set up." Chris looked at me disinterestedly. Nevertheless I continued, "and I would slide under a towel lying on the floor. And finally the photographer had to let the towel be there with me." It took him a while to comprehend and he stared at me with utter disbelief screaming in his face. Even that didn't bother me at all, "You know what, my mom named the picture Monalisa and when I asked her why, she would just smile and say 'because you knew a secret when you smiled for the photograph honey, just as Monalisa did'. And no matter how much I asked her what I knew, she would just tell me it was for me to find out. And I never did. She was just like that all the time. So secretive. And even dad---"
"Whoa! wait a minute," he cut me short,"are you saying the baby in the photograph is actually you?!!!"
"Yes me..Lakshmi Aziz, when she was six months old." I chuckled and continued,"actually my parents weren't from mixed religions as you might tend to believe----"
"Hey stop." he interrupted me again. I am beginning to like this less and less. I looked at him in the face for the first time. He had blue eyes. Dark brown hair. He was dressed in a coffee coloured crisp formal shirt that seemed to have been made just for him. He did not tuck it in but just left it out in a more casual way. He appeared saintly to me as I realised I've never seen a pair of eyes as blue as his. Well, I haven't met many foreigners in the small south Indian city I lived anyway. He seemed equally mesmerized as I was. Suddenly as if waking from a trance, he shoved me aside along with the chair I was sitting in and pulled an elctronic device, the size of a match box, from under the table. He quickly examined it and dismantled it in one move with surgical precision. Then he placed the pieces back on the table. Then as if sensing my state he explained almost mechanically, "This is a..... crude voice recorder capable of recording any minute sound, for two hours at a stretch. Crude because it isn't user friendly. You need to dismantle it if you want it to stop recording."
"Now listen Miss Aziz, I am going to ask a very important question and just answer me in yes or no. Do you understand?"
I nodded, too dazed by the proceedings to find a suitable answer.
"Did you or did you not....commit these crimes? Just say yes or no."
I wanted to shout 'Which crimes???" , but then I just said "No" my eyes still locked in his. That just asked him a lot of questions.
"Good. Let's go" He said.

Out with him in his car, I felt strange. Everything is so different,.....foriegn! The roads, the landscapes, the cars, the traffic and...the people. Everything is so different. I looked at him in disbelief but my heart didn't start leaping like it did earlier. Whether it was due to the drug or the nice reliable hunk (he was quite a hunk, I forgot to mention) silently driving me into an alien land, I didn't know.
"Its just a sedative you are under. It will wear off soon. Don't worry." That was the beginning of a very long story.
He told me I was in Los Angeles, United States of America. Then he told me about a series of skillful robberies that took place across the globe. They were all similar in nature usually affecting banks, business men and sometimes a wealthy tourist. There was always technology involved. For example, a banks databse is somehow tampered with, thus generating a crisis and then somehow access is gained into the renewed systems. In one case it was found out, a bank's system's manager keyboard was fitted with a chip that stored the keys typed and then amazingly transmitted them to an unknown location...and then destroying itself....amzingly! This way the new passwords set up by the employee himself had been tapped conveniently with minimum risk. In another case, a highly secretive millionaire, who always used encrypted
e-mail was caught off guard by a group of hoodlums during a vacation and he had to let go of a very valuable piece of nineteenth century jewelry. How did anyone know that he is carrying the piece with him let alone the fact that they knew where he is vacationing and where he is staying? It turned out that his eight year old daughter wrote in an e-mail to her best chum that her dad is going to present her mom, a big blue coloured diamond necklace, in the vacation they were going to take, which looked so pretty and that she is not depressed that he wouldn't give it to her because the necklace has her initials carved on it, SK which implied it ultimately belonged to her. It also implied that it is the same piece the millionaire bought at a recent auction. The mastermind behind this is not only brilliant but witty too. Chris described to me yet another baffling case in which the thief forged the signature of a famous Hollywood actor, not with his own hand but by programming a robot to copy it with utmost accuracy. This time he had done away with an amazing ten million dollars. The only clue police could find out was that there was only one person around all this. And it wasn't difficult to find that out. Because he wanted people to know that. He paused a little while as if letting me sink in what he has said.
I felt nothing. "What does all this stuff got to do with me?" I asked with a blank face and probably a blank mind. It is very difficult to face things that you have never thought of.
"I was coming to that. As you have seen in the news, the latest clue we have acquired in this case is this photograph of a child which we believe is the criminal himself.... when he was a child. In fact we've come across it quite accidentally."
I looked at him not all that stunned. I didn't anticipate this but among the myriad impossible solutions my mind provided, this wasn't an insignificant one.
"And what convinced you that this is the criminal himself?" I ventured.
"It wasn't without proof that we concluded this. you must be aware of the hacker communities in the internet. Majority of them are tech savvy teenagers."
"So?" I said impatiently. Small talk was never one of my etiquettes.
"So accoding to some visual and logical descriptions of this person, we figured he might be around the age of twenty-five. Too smart for the age but we are quite sure about it. So we checked ome hackers profiles some ten years back. Because every computer wizard starts from hacking . Sometimes these hackers leave profiles in their communities so that their successors can revere them. We gained access to these community profiles and tried to find someone who matches our criteria. Not that much could be found there except some very serious expeditions and experiments in the computer world....I mean achievements which the hacker may like to flaunt. Then we found this Bluebrain, that's a nickname, whose profile matched our and methods. One other thing we found in a heavily encrypted profile of his, is this..... photo in question.
"You are saying a photo in a dumb profile led you to me? I have Aishwarya Rai's photograph in my profile but that doesn't mean I am her!!!" I exclaimed with utter amusement over the policeman's folly. But seeing that he wasn't yet enlightened, "She is an Indian actress. Very famous." I offered.
"I know who she is. Saw her in Oprah," he said calmly, "You don't seem to get the point Miss Aziz."
"Call me Lakshmi" I said. I am not at all comfortable with being referred to with my last name. I explained him much later that it is not a habit followed in India.
He continued without commenting. "This person wouldn't do anything in random. He wouldn’t ever be amused by the fact that he could use the photo of a celebrity in his profile without worrying about copyrights!" It took me a while to register that he was mocking me. But since it was mild I didn't make it a point to him that I hate being mocked.
"Would you mind fetching my laptop in the rear seat?"
"Sure" I said and did as told. Then he asked me to open a file while he was managing the traffic. When I did so he explained me the working of a software which could develop adult faces, while the input is a photograph of the same person in a different age. He told me that though the concept is not new, now the software is highly improvised and can produce nearly accurate outputs. Then he showed me the result when this photograph is fed into the program. It was a guy with nice dark brown eyes and moderately large lips (for a guy that is). His face is almost hexagonal but looked small in spite of the fact that hexagonal faces are usually wide. He had a nice complexion and he looked vaguely familiar.
" that is your guy!" I said foolishly.
"Well...If we assume it is a guy. Some people came up with the idea that we might not be a male after all. True enough most of the criminals who baffle us are males but there is no rule written isn't it. So we reprogrammed the computer to give us a female output and this is what we got."He showed me. Despite the fact that I should've expected what the output is, I gasped. I looked at my own face with stupid awe. It was a different version of me. It had a different hairstyle and was blonde. It had a fairer complexion. Then he scrolled to another photograph of a woman with black hair and light brown skin. I was staring at myself with mouth wide agape. Why did I do that? What other output would my own photograph give? As far as I remember the 'Monalisa smile' (as my mom named it) is lying on the bottom of a rotting cardboard box in my attic untouched for years. There was only one copy and I was sure the negative was long lost. Has someone stolen it? I moved out of home about nine years ago i.e. about the time this 'profile' is made. May be I lost it and some Idiot hacker kid used it. I didn't find the explanation plausible enough, not even with a hundred modifications.
"Which place does he live in?"
He laughed."That was a question that haunted a hundred officers all day my dear." he said "But yeah, I personally feel he belongs to the States. I have my own deductions which weren't approved of course. However we are positive that he lived here when he was a child. One of his emails dating some ten years back could be traced!" I could feel the triumph in his voice as he explained me the concept of tracing old e-mails at a time when the databases were not so improvised. As far I can guess this guy deeply reveres his job. 
"That doesn't even remotely answer my question, I guess?" I smiled mockingly with the I-know-your-secret kind of look. The events of the day are slowly getting past me. I was beginning to feel more at ease with this guy and believed that he could protect me from any more impending dangers.
"Well two of his e-mails proved he lived around Wisconsin.....or Philadelphia. The 'or' thing comes because as I have said the databases were not perfect at that time. We are pretty sure he lived in the United States."
"Then I think I have a pretty amazing alibi. I have never been out of India. Never. And yeah, I've never even travelled in an air-plane!" I said excitedly, "There are my teachers and friends and my....." I hesitated, “parents.....I mean my foster parents." I couldn't conceal a tinge disappointment and he wasn't late to catch it.
"Were you brought up under foster care?" He asked with genuine concern.
"I was adopted out by my fucking parents." I said and tears brimmed. I could never forget the bitterness I felt when my mom told me she adopted me.
"Hmmm........" He said as he U-turned the car into an alley. He was quiet for a moment and said suddenly, "Hey, you did travel in a plane by the way. You can't get to L.A
from India in a Ford Fiesta"
"Well...of course. What was I thinking.......I mean......" I jumped suddenly."How long have I been here? HOW LONG?"
"Whats wrong? It takes a day and a half to travel and then we had some formalities to consider, and also you were pretty fucked up.."
"HOW LONG?" I cut him short.
"Two and a half days...thirty minutes, to be precise" He winked,"Whats the matter dear?"
"I'm fired. I AM FIRED!" I shouted," You petty people scare my wits out and then knock me out and then get me to this....whatever fucking place....just because...JUST BECAUSE you can't figure out who's who!" I was at the verge of breaking down yet again. He just looked at me without any expression and said, "OK. here we are!" and drove to a small house, visibly pleasant.
"I've been doing this job for six whole years," I sobbed, "par kya kare",I sobbed again,"I love my job rey." I said in my normal indianized accent unable to bear the American shit anymore.
He escorted me into what I thought was his home. I sat on his couch silently as fond and harsh memories of my job rushed in. After a while he came in and handed me a cup of coffee. I never drank coffee nor anything made from milk. I told him so. He kept the cup away and sat silently beside me.
"Are you people done fucking with my life? I wanna go home." I whispered.
"In due time. I have just booked you on a flight to Mumbai, departing at 4:00 PM in the evening."  He said solemnly.
"Fuckers. All of you!" I said bitterly.
"Don't ya worry so much! You ain't gonna get fired babe." He said and as soon as he did a beam of hope flickered inside me. His words were somehow very soothing and reassuring. Then he told me he was going to get some stuff to eat.

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