Research Centre, Room 3A
September 06, 2019
Who doesn’t love a good thriller? Crime novels and thrillers are two of the most popular genres in India and we had to publish something interesting and exciting. In this story, as an EA takes a night off to enjoy a family function, she is blackmailed into sending a damaging email that could have deadly consequences. What does she do? Does she succumb or does she stay strong? Read this story to find out.
“Mic testing, one two three, one two three,” Sunanda heard as she got off her taxi and stepped onto the lawn.
At the main entrance, she spotted Manish uncle putting out his cigarette and heading inside. As she walked under the grand arch adorned with orchids and lilies, Sunanda felt something hard under her heel. It was a blue lighter, probably Manish uncle’s. She put it in her small golden purse to give to him later.
She said hello to some relatives, including Usha masi, who said, “Settle down quickly, the sangeet is about to start.”
Sunanda went looking for a seat near the back, far away from the stage, where she could browse through her phone undisturbed. She felt tired, and not just because it had been a long week. She was tired of everything—her workload, the commute, the household, and managing Akriti by herself. She felt like a pendulum sometimes, oscillating without any control over itself, but following the rhythm set by the clock; in her case, her job’s demands and her daughter’s needs.
Her parents had excused themselves from the sangeet and sent her as their representative, and she had been grateful for the break. She’d have a drink or two, and maybe dance with her cousins later.
As soon as she took her seat on the last row, a woman grabbed a chair next to her and said, “Hi Sunanda.”
The woman’s blue outfit looked rather drab in contrast to Sunanda’s sequined kurta. The woman also had a large black purse, rather out of place at a sangeet.
Was she a distant cousin?
Priyanka leaned in. “Your boss Pankaj Ghosh is on the flight from London to Mumbai. While he’s on the flight, I need you to send an email.”
Sunanda felt a shiver go up her spine.
“What? Who are you?”
“Let’s just say I’m someone who has your best interests in mind.”
Sunanda shuddered. She didn’t know whether it was Priyanka’s words, or a sudden gust of wind through the lawn.
“What do you mean?”
Priyanka pushed her purse towards Sunanda and unzipped it. “Take a look.”
Sunanda peeked into the bag and froze.
There was a gun. And below the gun, a mesh of coloured wires and half a dozen small red cylinders.
“Your daughter Akriti is at your parents’ place in Sion right now, playing carrom. A friend of mine is waiting with a similar bag below their building. He needs a confirmation call from me within 45 minutes or he will pay a visit to the second floor.”
Sunanda felt dizzy and grabbed the chair in front of her.
“So Sunanda, when are you sending that email? The clock is ticking.”
As executive assistant to B.B. Pharma’s CEO, Pankaj Ghosh, Sunanda had access to his email account and often sent emails on her boss’s behalf.
Sunanda recovered a bit and thought quickly. “I can’t send such an email. I’m just an EA.”
Priyanka’s hand lingered on the bag. “Don’t bullshit me. You use Ghosh’s email all the time.”
Up ahead, people were taking their seats near the stage.
“You will send an email to your company’s Research Centre in Bangalore saying that a visitor, a Mr. Sanjay Mehta, will come shortly. He has to be given access to Room 3A,” Priyanka continued.
A young man on the stage announced that the performances would start in five minutes.
“Once Sanjay gets what he needs, he will call me. I will make a call to my friend in Sion so he can leave and your family will remain unharmed. Understood?” Priyanka continued after the guy went silent.
Sunanda wasn’t sure she did. Who was this Priyanka and what did she want from Room 3A? B.B. Pharma made everything from blood pressure medication to antacids, but she recalled someone saying that Room 3A was currently host to a very secret and sensitive project. She tried to remember what it was.
“We don’t want people to get hurt, do we?” Priyanka interrupted her reverie. She gestured towards the bag. “And especially not Akriti.”
Sunanda felt her skin crawl.
“I’m telling you I’m just an EA. An email from me means nothing.”
“I know Ghosh’s email account is already configured on your phone. All you have to say is that you’ve hired a special runner to pick up some highly confidential documents. The fact that the email is from the MD’s email account will authorize his entry. No one needs to know it was you who sent it.” She gestured towards Sunanda’s bag, which had her phone.
“Such things are usually arranged well in advance, and department heads and senior management are always in the loop,” Sunanda replied.
“Well, this time, no one will be in the loop because it’s an emergency.” Priyanka glanced at her watch. “We’re running out of time now. If my man doesn’t get into Room 3A in 30, no, 25 minutes, you won’t get to see Akriti’s smile again.”
What kind of monster was this woman?
Priyanka opened Sunanda’s purse and grabbed her phone. “Do it. NOW. Room 3A.”
Room 3A. Room 3A… What were they doing there? Ah yes, the 3A team was developing a super vaccine that combated everything from ebola to malaria. Most probably the research material and formula for it was in that room.
“Twenty-four minutes left,” Priyanka said. “I’m not going to wait forever.”
Sunanda slowly opened the email app on her phone. The microphone came to life again and someone made crude jokes about the groom. The men in the audience guffawed.
Priyanka pointed to her watch, then to her bag. Sunanda began to type, her hands shaking as she thought of Akriti.
“It’s done,” Sunanda said. Priyanka took her phone to read the email.
This whole situation didn’t make any sense to Sunanda. If these people had been hired by a rival company that wanted the formula for the super vaccine, they would be better off hiring a hacker to break into their computer system and steal their data. Why this elaborate drama?
Suddenly it struck her, the lab in Room 3A also had the bacteria and viruses that the vaccine was supposed to combat. Oh god, were these people terrorists who wanted to spread disease across the country? Sunanda knew that airborne diseases especially were easy to spread in packed and crowded places. She felt sick in her stomach, horrified at what she’d done.
Priyanka nodded, satisfied with the email. “Now we wait,” she said.
“Wait for what?”
A crass Bollywood item song boomed from the speakers and a group of teenaged boys and girls began to gyrate on the stage.
Priyanka spoke in her ear.
“Till my man in Bangalore confirms he’s got what he needs.”
“Look, I’ve done what you asked me to.”
“Shut up and enjoy the sangeet.”
Now that they couldn’t talk much anymore over the loud music, Sunanda leaned back and tried to think. It sunk in that she had put the lives of hundreds of thousands of people at risk, just to save her daughter. And even worse, it would be traced back to Pankaj. Akriti’s face floated through her mind. She could barely breathe.
A waiter in an ill-fitted black suit and white gloves came with a tray.
“Chicken tikka, Madam?”
Priyanka thrust a piece of chicken on a paper napkin into Sunanda’s hands. Sunanda took a small bite and chewed. She had no appetite, but she forced herself to eat the tikka anyway.
Meanwhile, the music changed again and a group of tween girls and boys came on stage. They were around Akriti’s age.
Akriti’s life versus the lives of millions and Pankaj’s job. What was more important? There was no easy answer.
She had to stop this somehow, for her daughter’s sake, for her own sake, for everyone’s sake. So she could live with herself. She had to do something. Anything. And she couldn’t let yet another situation—like this one—push her around. She’d had enough of that her whole life.
No, she wouldn’t be a pendulum anymore.
She had to find a solution.
Priyanka was keeping an eye on her, so Sunanda couldn’t send a text message, nor could she call anyone. Her relatives were too occupied with the sangeet to notice that something was wrong.
Sunanda glanced at her watch. Fifteen minutes till the man arrived at the Research Centre. The music slowed as the bride’s parents grooved to an old Hindi duet.
The song reminded Sunanda of the long time she had spent at B.B. Pharma. Almost 20 years, since she was 21. Since her first day, her life had changed drastically. Within the first month of the job, she had begun dating Rajat. Their engagement and marriage followed, then Akriti’s birth, their nasty divorce, and her mother’s sickness. Through all these turbulent moments in her life, her job at B.B. Pharma had steadied her.
And Pankaj had been her rock since the nasty divorce proceedings began six years ago. Unlike other bosses, he always had time to listen to her problems, offer advice, and had even insisted on paying for her mother’s treatment. His wife had invited her over with Akriti a few times and their kids had played Monopoly together. He felt like family.
Pankaj was already dealing with immense pressure from the board of directors because of the company’s stagnant profits. COO Rajveer Malhotra had been particularly scathing in his report to the board. He had pointed out the declining profits, the poor handling of a recent acquisition, the growing attrition rate, and the high operating costs. Even though the board had confirmed that Pankaj would stay on, Sunanda felt if there was even a small goof-up, her boss would be sent packing.
Her phone beeped. Priyanka glanced at the email that had just come in. “That’s the Research Centre. Answer it.”
“There’s too much light, I can’t see my screen clearly.” It was a flimsy excuse but before Priyanka could react Sunanda got up and walked towards the back of the lawn where a section was curtained off by orange drapes. Priyanka was right by her side, black bag in hand.
The email was from the security in-charge at the Research Centre, confirming he had to let the man in. Sunanda replied affirmatively.
A waiter appeared from behind the orange drape with a tray of mushrooms. Sunanda peeked inside and saw it was the catering area, where cooks were sweating over pots. A diesel generator van bellowed from the far end of the section.
Priyanka drew a Z with the dots on her phone’s lock screen, dialled a number and said, “Go ahead.”
She told Sunanda, “In less than 10 minutes, my guy will be at the Centre. Once he gets what he needs, you’re free.”
Sunanda felt her legs shaking. Was there any way to stop this without hurting Akriti? There had to be a way out.
If only she could get some sort of message to the Research Centre and to her parents. But how?
If she made an excuse for the bathroom, Priyanka would hold on to her phone.
She tried to think of what she could do. She only had her purse, and maybe she could use it somehow. What was in it? Phone, lipstick, money, keys, perfume. And oh, a lighter.
A lighter. Perfume. A flame and a flammable spray.
Sunanda headed to a round table near the catering area where she sat and placed her purse on her lap. Priyanka took the seat next to her.
Everyone’s eyes were on the four balding men prancing to a Shammi Kapoor number.
Sunanda began to cough. Once, twice, then a few more times. Then an almost-incessant bout of cough. Between coughs, she whispered to Priyanka, “Water.”
Priyanka looked around for a waiter, and Sunanda sneaked her hand into the purse and pretended to fish for a napkin. She kept her hand inside and closed her palm around the lighter, then located the tiny perfume vial with her fingers.
She began to cough louder. Some people nearby began to turn and look at her. Priyanka was getting a little anxious and finally got up from her chair to hunt down a waiter or find a bottle of water. As soon as Priyanka’s turned her back, Sunanda sprayed her perfume all over the white table cloth. Then she pressed her thumb on the lighter and dropped it on to the table. The flames came to life.
“Fire!” She screamed. Over the music, some heard her and some didn’t.
Priyanka came running.
“You bitch!” Priyanka screamed and lunged towards her, but Sunanda was ready for this and ducked and ran towards the exit with her purse. She tried to get as much distance between her and Priyanka, and tried to get lost in the confused crowd.
Instead of taking the exit to the main road where she would be visible, she ran into the catering section and darted through the startled catering staff. She hoped Priyanka had not seen her.
The little spot behind the large and noisy generator van would be an excellent place to hide, at least for some time. Of course, Priyanka would find her sooner rather than later. But all she needed was a few minutes.
Shielded by the generator, she dialled her parents’ landline. It was busy. She tried her mom’s mobile number but got no answer. Then her father’s mobile. It rang and rang and rang, and finally Akriti answered.
“Aku, give the phone to Nana!” Sunanda shouted above the din of the generator.
“Mummy? When are you coming home?”
Sunanda peeked from the side of the generator van and was thankful that Priyanka had not yet entered the kitchen area.
“Soon. Give the phone to Nana. NOW!” Sunanda screamed. Maybe hiding near the generator was a bad idea. The noise was too much.
“He’s watching–” Sunanda couldn’t hear the rest over the generator.
“Give him the phone. Or no TV for a week.” Her father was on the line immediately. “Papa, get Aku and Mamma out of the house NOW! Make sure you’re not followed.” She yelled.
“What are you saying?” he shouted back.
From behind the generator van, Sunanda saw Priyanka enter from the far end of the lawn.
“Papa, I don’t have time. Just get out of the house. Go to Mehta uncle’s place. Immediately. Or a hotel. Anywhere. Use the back gate of the building that opens into the side lane.”
“Dad, GO! NOW!” Sunanda yelled as she saw Priyanka hurrying through the catering staff. And she was still carrying the bag.
No time to waste. She dialled the Research Centre. The phone seemed to ring forever.
Finally, a male voice answered.
“Listen, this is Sunanda Pathak. Calling on behalf of MD. Do not, I repeat DO NOT, allow that man Sanjay to enter. Call the police if you have to.” She felt her voice go hoarse.
“Ma’am, he’s already come. He’s inside.”
She felt her heart stop.
“Don’t let him leave. Get your security staff. He is danger–”
Sunanda felt a sudden force on her right shoulder and she fell on the grass. A sharp pain seared through her shoulder.
Sunanda slipped into darkness for a few seconds, or a few minutes, she didn’t know how long. When she woke again, she saw the grass against her nose. It wasn’t just a push. Priyanka had probably kicked her hard on her shoulder. Her head was throbbing, and her right arm felt numb.
She scrambled for her phone, for her purse, anything, as Priyanka turned her around and hurled her fist towards her face. Sunanda’s left hand found a stone and she used all the strength of her arm to thrust it toward Priyanka’s face.
The stone struck near her eye. Priyanka stumbled backward and Sunanda grabbed the opportunity to get up, but found it hard because of the pain. When she managed to partially sit up, Priyanka was screaming and Sunanda saw she was bleeding from just above her eyelid. Sunanda’s eye fell on Priyanka’s bag and she jumped to grab it, just as Priyanka reached for it. They both pulled at it, Sunanda’s right arm burned with an intense pain, but Priyanka was dealing with a bleeding face and Sunanda managed to flay a kick towards her. Her pointy heel struck Priyanka’s left arm and she let go of the handle.
Trying to regain her balance as quickly as possible, she pulled out the gun and pointed it at Priyanka. With her right hand she found Priyanka’s phone and she drew a Z with shaking hands to unlock the screen.
Sunanda’s hand shook as she tried to dial the police. On the phone app screen, her eyes fell on the last few dialled numbers. One of the numbers looked familiar. She had dialled it several times earlier for her boss. It was the number of Rajveer Malhotra, the COO who had been demanding that the board sack Pankaj.
But why would he be on Priyanka’s phone?
“Did Rajveer Malhotra send you?” she asked Priyanka.
Priyanka didn’t respond and tried to move towards Sunanda, but Sunanda swung at her with the gun in her hand. It made impact with Priyanka’s forehead. “Arrghh!” she heard Priyanka say as she fell backwards.
Sunanda dialled 100.
Pankaj poured Sunanda a cup of coffee in his office.
“Sunanda, I still can’t believe that Rajveer would do this.”
“I don’t believe it either. What I don’t get is, why did he?”
“Apparently, he wanted me out and wanted to be CEO himself. So he decided to stage a data theft and hired some people to help out. They wanted to make it look like I gave the instructions. That I’m hand in glove with the competition or whatever. I don’t think they intended to let lose an air-borne virus, but none the less, I’m glad our security managed to stop that Sanjay Mehta, if that even is his real name.”
“And what about the bomb?”
“Well, the police say the gun was real and they found a man with a gun near your parents’ place. But the bomb wasn’t real.”
Sunanda stirred in the sugar. “I’m glad it’s over now.”
“Is your family okay?”
“Yes. They were all very confused and shaken, but they’re fine now.”
Sunanda winced as she moved her right arm in its plaster. “I’ll be fine.”
“Great. Rest up now and I’ll see you when you’re ready to come back to work. Even heroes need to rest.”
Sunanda sipped her coffee and smiled. She wasn’t a hero. She was just another executive assistant.
Rohini Kapur is a writer based in Mumbai, working on everything from corporate projects to fashion blogs. She speaks Spanish and is a fan of tennis player Rafael Nadal. As a moody yet avid reader, she devours everything from science fiction to chick lit to history. Her favourite hobby is looking for ways to procrastinate over the arduous task of putting fingers to keyboard. She also likes to cook, practise yoga and watch superhero movies.
Read her articles here.