Saturday, 23 June 2018

The Europe Trip: Part 1 - Preparation


Swami Gulagulaananda quoted Abraham Lincoln:
"Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe"


Europe is a dream destination for many travel enthusiasts. Having read about the intricate work of Michaelangelo, the grandeur of the Vatican, the glorious Roman empire as well as of relatively modern periods of the Nazi era, I thought that a visit to Europe may be a great idea.

I am not a travel expert, but I will try to walk through some of the things that I did in order to make my entire trip hassle-free. Spend time to prepare well and the trip will go through smoothly. There are a couple of ways to plan your trip. One, is through package tours with a travel agency like Kesari Travels, Thomas Cook, etc. and the other is to plan your entire trip yourself.

Booking through travel agencies has several advantages. You don't have many headaches. The agency takes care of everything, including stay, food and point to point travel. Personally, I tried travelling through an agency once and I liked the way in which they had taken care of everything. What I didn't like was the schedules. We had to stick to their schedule and we didn't have the choice of spending more time in some areas and less in another. Also, you don't have many customisation options in these package tours.

I prefer planning the entire trip myself. This way, I have complete control over every element of the trip. It is a lot of work but the result is totally worth it. This post is about preparing for your trip if you plan it yourself and while most of the advice is relevant to other places, some points are very specific to Europe.

At this point, I would like to thank Google for the fantastic work that they have been doing. They are truly on their way towards organising the entire world.

Apps

Google Trips

This app has proved to be an invaluable tool and is an absolute must while planning your trip. Google Trips is a trip planning tool that allows you to:
  • maintain all reservations (hotels, travel, etc.) in a single place
  • maintain places that you have planned to visit in a city
  • get recommendations of places to visit in a city
  • get valuable tips about transportation (metro, bus, taxi, etc.) within a city



There are alternatives available, but I stuck with Google Trips.

Google Maps



Google Maps might seem to be a no-brainer. However, apart from showing the route to a particular place, Google Maps also has the public transport option. That shows you exactly which Metro or Bus to take, the boarding stop, the direction, the intermediate stops and where to get off.





Uber

Public transport in Europe is fantastic and very cheap. Sometimes, though, you may choose to travel by Uber. Having Uber installed and ready may prove to be useful.


Bags

Tourist locations in Europe have a reputation of having several pickpockets, especially Rome. Several people have had their passports stolen and apparently even hotel rooms aren't safe. While most hotels and even B&Bs have safes installed in rooms, I decided to keep very important things close to me.


I decided to purchase a bag which proved to be an invaluable companion throughout the trip. The bag is called "God's Ghost Backpack" and you can buy it from Amazon if you would like. 

I would highly recommend buying this backpack. It has several compartments and the bag is theft-proof. It's made of a robust material and the zips are positioned such that one cannot open them without getting it off their backs. I kept everything including passports, laptop, camera and other important paraphernalia inside this bag. It's water resistant and has a rain protection cover add-on if you would like to purchase (I got that as well).

Also, remember that bags sometimes get lost. So, make sure that your essentials are distributed across bags (don't put all your eggs in the same basket)

Food and Water


Tap water is potable and directly consumable in all places that we visited. A simple Google search will help you get this information in case you are unsure. However, bottled water is extremely pricy, with a one litre bottle costing € 5 - That's about ₹ 400 and is totally not worth it. Make sure that you read labels on water bottles in hotel rooms to see if they are complementary or charged.

Surprisingly, most restaurants also charge for water. So, it would be better for you to carry a pre-filled bottle of water to avoid paying a high price for something as basic as water.


There are plenty of restaurants in Europe and there are plenty of Indian restaurants in Europe as well. So food is not much of a problem. If you are a vegetarian, there are plenty of vegan/vegetarian restaurants as well. However, there are very limited Indian vegetarian restaurants (sometimes non-existent). Some cities like Paris offer multiple Indian pure vegetarian restaurants like Saravanaa Bhavan and Sangeetha which are absolutely fantastic (better than most restaurants in Bangalore), in Rome, passable and in Brussels, non-existent.

You can consider carrying ready-to-eat food where you just add hot water and have it available, if you are a stickler. Most hotels and B&Bs have microwave ovens and hot water kettles available. 


Expenses

There are several apps for keeping track of expenses. Personally, I maintained everything on a Google Sheets document.

Not all places accept cards, and sometimes, a little extra is charged if you use a card. So, carry money in a combination of card and cash. You can use International Credit Cards, International Debit Cards of Forex Cards, depending on your preference. A simple Google search will help you choose. Personally, I opted for the prepaid Forex card.

In Europe, there is an additional charge called as Tourism Tax that gets charged while checking into the hotel. The charge is around € 3-4 per person per day.

Stay

You have two major options - Staying in hotels or staying in B&Bs. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages.

For the uninitiated, B&Bs or Bed and Breakfast places are an alternative to staying in hotels. They are generally entire apartments or apartment rooms rented to you for the few days that you plan to stay in a city. While they are considered to be a cheaper alternative, I didn't find their pricing to be different when compared to hotel rooms.

One advantage of staying in a B&B is that you may get a kitchen and occasionally a washing machine. Kitchens are fully featured with refrigerators, microwave ovens, electric kettles, dishwashers, coffee and tea, sugar, etc. Some B&Bs offer breakfast, some offer croissants, cakes and biscuits while others don't offer anything beyond the plain kitchen. This is something that you will have to read about the one that you are looking at.

These B&Bs are run quite professionally - They provide receipts, sometimes provide maps and other useful information, etc. They even have cleaning people who clean your rooms, just like a hotel. So, you don't have to worry much about that. If the location is really good (close to the places that wish to visit), it is something that you should seriously consider if other parameters are met.

Hotels, on the other hand, are pretty standard. My suggestion is to go for well known chain hotels like Best Western, Crowne, Holiday Express, Ibis etc. Apart from offering budget rooms, they sometimes offer additional services like shuttle services that can save you some money. Most hotels have electric kettles and coffee makers, some like Best Western also have microwave ovens.

Almost every hotel and B&B in Italy has toilets equipped with bidets along with toilet paper. But the rest of Europe only have toilet paper. The bathrooms are equipped with shower gels and the shampoos aren't great. So, you may want to carry your own personal shampoo.

I used Expedia for all my bookings. They even have options of reserving rooms without paying in advance and refundable bookings. This can be particularly useful if your visa is not ready.

NOTE:

Make sure that you avoid using MakeMyTrip. Their customer service is absolutely horrible. Read more about it here.


Transport

Public transport in Europe is absolutely fantastic. Cities like Rome, Venice, Paris and Berlin have the concept of a single pass that can be used any number of times in a single day. The same pass can be used on metro trains, trams and buses and can be a significantly cheaper option compared to taxis. The public transport network is great in Europe. Some other cities like Brussels and Amsterdam have their public transport tickets like in Bangalore, where each trip costs money.

Google Maps has the public transport option that shows the metro train or bus number, direction, intermediate stops etc. It even tells you when to expect the next train/bus. This option is a must-use.

Occasionally, you may want to hail taxis. Hailing taxis on the road is not very easy. Taxis in taxi stands are easier to board. Taxis are well regulated in Europe and the prices are pretty standard across normal taxis and Uber. 

Travelling from one city to another, within the same country or across countries, is possible via train and airplane. The trains are super smooth and are a great way to look at the countryside along the journey. You'll love it if you are a fan of rail journeys. However, some train journeys could take longer and you may want to consider airplanes for those journeys. I opted for trains when the time was under 2 hours and airplanes when train journeys were longer (like around 7-8 hours).

For booking trains, you can consider websites like Rail Europe and Trainline.


Visa

You have to apply for a visa depending on the port of entry or the country where you plan to spend the longest period of time. If you live in a city that doesn't have a consulate (most of us do), then you can opt for working with a company called VFS Global. They have a website that is very straightforward. Book an appointment and make sure that you carry all the required documents in the exact order in which they have requested. You will have very little time inside. Get a photocopy of each document for each person in your group because they process visas independently. Visas take about 15 days to arrive after the submission of documents. It's better to complete the visa process at least a month prior to your trip.


NOTE:
Make sure that you avoid using MakeMyTrip. Their customer service is absolutely horrible. Read more about it here.





The problems of scale

Swami Gulagulaananda said:
"There are always problems associated with scale... especially when my weight doesn't seem to reduce"

Scalability has been a popular buzz word for some time and with the increasing use of the internet, social media and machine learning, data collections and performing operations at scale has become very important. But scale isn't something that is necessarily confined to the realm of technology. In this post, let's have a look at how solutions that work for some problems don't work at scale.

A long time ago, I came across a fascinating website called Project Euler. Project Euler presented us with a series of mathematical problems of increasing difficulty and the objective is solve them under a minute using a computer program. The first few could be as simple as sum of the first 100 numbers or sum of first 50 even numbers which were quite easy to solve for even novice programmers. Most engineering students might remember these as practice problems as part of their curriculum. Then you may also remember a problem that asks you if a number, x, is prime or not. How do you check if a number is prime or not? You divide the number by 2 (or take the integer nearest to the square root) and ensure that the number x is not divisible by 2 or any odd number till half (or square root). If even one number can divide x, then x is not a prime number.

There was another problem that asked us to find the, say 100th, prime number. Now, the problem became somewhat interesting. We had to start with an odd number, and keep incrementing by 2 to go to the next odd number. Then, for every odd number, we have to determine if the number is prime or not. If the number is prime, then we increment a counter and proceed. This seems to be a relatively easy solution, and for smaller numbers, the answers pop out quite quickly. However as we proceed to larger numbers, the same operation of dividing larger numbers by halves (or square roots) is repeated several times resulting in a significant delay in the overall solution and you end up taking a really long time. (The solution, in case you are interested, is to use the Sieve of Sundaram or sieve of Eratosthenes)

Thus, the solution of determining if a number is prime or not cannot be used to effectively solve a related problem due to scale. Even our power computers take considerably longer than a minute as you increase it from 100th prime to say 200th prime.

The same is true for restaurants and businesses. If you have visited any restaurant where you place order and collect your food from the counters, like the self service Darshini restaurants, you will notice one of three types:

  • You order along with the rest of the customers. The guy keeps placing plates on the counter. Whoever is closest picks them up and you often feel cheated if someone who came after you got his food first
  • You order along with the rest of the customers. However, there is one guy who keeps collecting the tokens from you and maintaining a mental note of who came first and who came later. He ensures that food gets delivered on a first come first serve basis
  • There is a numbered token system. Food is given based on the token. You show your token and collect your food
The first ones are obviously the worst. However, they are the easiest to implement because there is no additional overhead involved. This system relies on the goodness of people that people are self regulating and will pick up orders in the same order in which they gave the tokens. Let us assume that there are only 3 customers at the counter. Then, this system will work without any issues because it is easier to manage and since people are being watched by other people, they will be at their best behaviour. However, as the number of people increase, like during a rush hour, this system will simply collapse. Customers will be watching like hawks so that they don't get cheated. Some customers might even be motivated to get someone else's food first because they know how long they have to wait.

The second system is relatively better. But it has an additional overhead of a man watching. We have to rely on his memory. Also, since looking at the order isn't his full time job, he is bound to slip up occasionally and thus, it ceases to remain a scalable solution.

The third solution is the most scalable of the lot and you can see the smoothest operators using this solution. Even McDonald's that has improved their processes over the years uses this. Thus, solutions that work at lower scale don't work at higher scales.

I have made similar observations while boarding buses or metro trains. During peak hours, people wait for the doors to open. The moment the door opens, people clamour to get in to try and get a seat (or at least get into the vehicle so that they don't have to wait). However, during non-office hours, people follow the rules and breathe easy, wait till the door opens, get in and stroll to their seats. The resources are more and the competition is low.

And these observations are not limited to Bangalore or India even. I made similar observations in western nations within Europe as well as in the US. It is a myth that cars in the US or Europe don't honk as much as they do in India. It is not really a behavioural problem. They don't honk because they are not presented with the situation. When I was in New York City and in Berlin, cab drivers demonstrated behaviours very similar to those in Bangalore during peak hours where they threaded their cabs across lanes, honked and swore. 


And thus, we have to look at Bangalore and India quite differently when comparing with other countries. A lot of things that work at lower scales don't work at higher scales.

Monday, 16 April 2018

The Cynical Citizen

Swami Gulagulaananda said:
"A person with jaundiced eyes sees everything yellow... figuratively speaking"

A lawyer who deals with contracts and divorces observes that every litigant who approaches him complains about breaches of contracts and unhappy marriages. As he goes through years of practice, he perhaps becomes cynical and distrusts contracts and marriages because he has seen so many of them fall apart. However, the reality could be that there are thousands of happy marriages and thousands of people who have been adhering to their contractual obligations. And yet, the lawyer never gets to hear of them in his daily routine - If everything was fine, people wouldn't approach a lawyer to tell him that everything is going hunky-dory...

Let's have a look at policemen. Policemen are among those who are often distrusted by the average citizen. Most of the times, an ordinary citizen's opinions of policemen is that they are lazy, corrupt, don't do their jobs and accept bribes. Lieutenant Tragg from the famous Perry Mason series (Mystery series by Erle Stanley Gardner) laments about the state of policemen in an epic monologue in The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink. Hundreds and thousands of policemen work very hard under very harsh situations and very low pay. Many of them lose their lives when terrorists like Naxals target and attack policemen for no fault of theirs. But we, average citizens, don't remember their sacrifices. We often attach the pot-bellied bribe-taking image to the policeman and paint the entire force with a single brush.

This is particularly important in today's digital world where usage of social media is growing rampantly. Everyday, we see our newsfeed or wall getting plastered with posts. And since these social media websites are adding intelligence to their systems, they make it a point to show you more of what they think matters to you. This results in your feed getting plastered with more of similar content, resulting in an avalanche of similar posts.

For a moment, try to suspend your personal opinions and leanings before continuing. If you 'liked' a post that was shared by a friend of yours who doesn't like the Prime Minister, you will start seeing more such posts where attacks are being made against the Prime Minister. These posts show content where the Prime Minister has 'failed' to meet promises made. Notice that I have put failed in quotes, because the reality doesn't matter for the moment - The fact is that this content is displayed to you because you seemed to 'like' it before. Now the fact that you are shown more of the similar content further reinforces your opinions - "Yes, the Prime Minister is indeed a big fat liar", you feel, and you will like this post again. Social Media websites mark this as content 'liked by this user' and show you more of the same posts since you have shown interest in this content, suppressing other content that shows good things done by the Prime Minister.

This is the same, irrespective of the kind of content you are liking. However, over a period of time, we become like the aforementioned lawyer - a cynic, because you are not seeing any good happening. It is because we are not actively seeking out information, but rather simply consuming information as it is presented to us. Since this 'news' is getting tailor-made and curated for you, the reinforcement flywheel will continue to fuel your original thoughts.

If you think that your country is failing you, you will start seeing a hundred problems in your country. If you think of your country as a place brimming with unbridled potential, then you will see a hundred opportunities. The reality is that your country is the same - It is your attitude that changes your viewpoint.

It is, therefore, important to not broadly paint an entire nation of a billion with the same colour. It is important to take a step back and look at each news item objectively and understand that you are seeing only a slice of the real world - a slice that was customised for you because the website thinks that this is who you are... If you saw other slices, you would perhaps arrive at a different conclusion. You would see that the world is not as grim as it originally appeared, nor as happy as it originally appeared. In reality, the world is the world, and you can see it with eyes of a pessimist, an optimist... or preferably, a realist.


Related Video

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Phone numbers for signing up is quite dangerous

Swami Gulagulaananda said:
"Reduce, reuse... I am not so sure about recycling phone numbers"

In the good ol' days, people used to create accounts on various platforms using email addresses. But as smart phones started becoming ubiquitous and as 'Mobile First' approaches became the norm with a million apps cropping up every other day, a paradigm shift happened in the sign up process - Mobile numbers were introduced for registering new accounts.

Mobile numbers had a few advantages over email addresses - Creating an email addresses is cheap, and people can quickly create multiple email addresses without much hassle. However, people most likely have only one number, and occasionally, some have two. People are less likely to abuse systems like First time user discount using mobile phones because it is not possible, unlike emails. Verification using OTP is a lot faster than signing up using emails.

And so, signing up using mobile phones started becoming the de-facto standard. But what about platforms that had already accounts registered using email addresses? They decided to create a hybrid system of accepting mobile numbers in the future and then allowed customers to sign in using either method. Paytm and Facebook are fine examples of this.

However, one thing has not been taken into account by most of these companies. People some times give up their phone numbers, and these numbers get recycled. And this can create a lot of problems.

Today, one of my friends went into a panic mode. Her Facebook profile had the picture of an unknown moustached man and his name adorned her profile's name-slot. She believed that her account had been hacked by some guy... The reality was that he was the new user of her old phone number - a number she had abandoned some time back. So, the moustached man simply signed up/signed into his Facebook account using his phone number. Facebook simply looked up to see if an account with such a phone number already existed - Since it did, it happily gave access of this account to him.

We were able to quickly boot him out - After using email recovery to sign in, we changed password, removed all signed in users, kicked him out a second time after he signed in again, and then disassociated the phone number to lock him out. While the profile picture was brought back, Facebook's policy of not being able to change names for 60 days has made his name stick to her profile (a complaint has been registered)

However, this got me thinking about other places where we also use phone numbers - Especially these days with a large number of app based wallets like Paytm, Mobikwik, Tez and PhonePe using mobile numbers to not only create accounts, but also use the phone number to connect with the bank to get account information. This is very dangerous.

Developers should make it a point to make sure that phone numbers are not primary IDs, but instead, create an account ID and use phone numbers as one of the ways to sign in, so that disassociation doesn't result in account deletion (Facebook has done this... AWS Cognito does this by default)

Also, there should be a service that deletes phone numbers from all associated accounts like banks, wallets, social media, etc. so that recycling doesn't cause this much heart burn.


Sunday, 18 March 2018

The Mole

Swami Gulagulaananda said:
"The higher the moving parts, the higher the chance of failure. Unless you have a process set up"

Startled by the shrill sound of my digital alarm, I groped around to hit the snooze button. I thought I had explicitly turned it off, but I was mistaken. Sleep had eluded me for the past few weeks due to the murder case that had kept me awake through several nights at a stretch, and having finally solved it, these few winks of sleep that I had been having were well deserved. As I groggily waved my arms into the darkness trying to reach my clock, I realised by the alternate shimmering of the screen, that it was my phone that had been ringing. Through my heavy eyelids, I tried to concentrate on the name on the screen - It was the Police Commissioner.

The sight of that label jolted me upright. I immediately grabbed the phone and answered it. "I'm sorry to wake you up in the middle of the night, Surya, but there has been a development. How soon can you meet me at the office?", he asked sombrely. "I can leave immediately. I'll be there in twenty minutes, Sir", I answered. "Good boy. We'll be waiting for you" and he disconnected the call.

As I raced through the quiet thoroughfare, I wondered what the new development was. Through the corner of my eye, I observed a pack of cigarettes that had been lying around for a while. I was tempted to reach out for it, and remembering my resolution to quit, decided to ignore it. The cigarettes were tempting me, beckoning me to inhale a lungful of the addictive menthol and tobacco smoke, but my resolution was stronger. It had to be. I am not a slave to a roll of tobacco. I decided to toss the cigarettes out of the window and get rid of the source of temptation once and for all, and suddenly a large banner showing an ad of Swacch Bharat whizzed past me.

The parking lot offered me a buffet of spaces to pick from. I decided to pick the one that was closest to the building and eased my car into it. There were three other cars including the police commissioners. The constable by the entrance gave me a perfunctory salute as he stifled a yawn. I nodded to him and jogged up the stairs to the first floor and reached the commissioner's office. The commissioner's discussion with two other gentlemen abruptly ceased as his eyes fell on me waiting by the door. Introducing me to them, he said "Ah, gentlemen, I would like you to meet Surya, the best undercover agent in Karnataka. He has infiltrated and gathered information for the toughest of cases. In my opinion, if anyone can get this done, it is him. He is the man of the hour".

The rare praises lavished by the commissioner brought some hues to my otherwise pallid cheeks. Slightly embarrassed by the unexpected turn of events, I smiled and shook hands with the two men. "The pleasure is ours, young man. If you are everything that Sharma has assured us, then you are the only man who can achieve this. Let us introduce ourselves. My name is Avinash Gupta and this is my colleague Ravindra Reddy. We have recently received information that there has been an upheaval and complete consolidation of the underworld drug business in Karnataka by men from Maharashtra who have taken the state by storm." Drugs? They woke me up for drugs?

"Naturally, you must be wondering that drugs aren't a big enough problem here. But that's where you are wrong. This organisation is not to be trifled with. The consolidation is nearing completion, and these are people with massive amounts of money, muscle and weapons - Powerful, automatic weapons. If they are allowed to flourish here, they will pump huge amounts of money to recruit low level street corner sellers and pour drugs into colleges, destroying the youth and their future. No, this cannot happen. The organisation is run like a corporate, Surya, and it's driven by one man known as Wazir. The only way to destroy this organisation is to destroy Wazir."

I was carefully listening to the man, waiting to understand what role I was supposed to play. As though sensing my imminent question, he continued, "The organisation works very effectively because arresting low level sellers doesn't work. You see, under normal circumstances, when one perpetrator is caught, the entire scheme starts tumbling like dominoes. They rat on their accomplices in a bid to save their own skin. But Wazir runs his organisation differently and that's why they thrive", he said, as though admiring the man's shrewdness. "In Wazir's drug organisation, people don't know one another. Suppliers don't know who the seller is. They use messaging applications, codes and go through elaborate systems, never having to need face to face contact. Dead drops are the best way to exchange, and the fear for their lives prevent curiosity from creeping in. Wazir runs a tight ship, and only he knows how the entire process is run. It's a very complex network and he has been managing it very well"

His partner took out a file and placed it in front of me. "We got this information from a delivery agent whom we apprehended by a stroke of luck. He was stopped for questioning for a completely different reason, and the man panicked thinking that the police had grown suspicious of him. He pulled out his gun on our men that resulted in an unfortunate casualty. We did manage to gather a lot of valuable information, which we have shared with you thus far. This is a real breakthrough. This delivery agent was supposed to meet Wazir's second in command as his role was being upgraded. This is a singular opportunity, and we want to capitalise on this. Since the two men have never met before, I want to send our man in his place and gather intelligence about their organisation. Well, that's where you come into the picture."

I turned around and looked at the commissioner who stared back into my eyes. It seemed like he had very high hopes on me, and I was not one to turn my back towards my duty and my country. "When is the meeting happening?" I asked Reddy. "It's happening today" he replied.

"This is crazy.", I ejaculated. "This is too short a notice from me. I have a process. Before infiltrating any organisation, I canvas them for several weeks to understand their patterns and idiosyncrasies,  to know who's who and what the pecking order is like. You don't just walk willy-nilly into a powerful crime syndicate headquarters and take meetings with the boss's right hand man. No, postpone the meeting by at least a week. I cannot do it before that. That would be suicide."

Reddy looked expectantly towards Avinash Gupta with a hint of despair on his face. Avinash Gupta patiently replied, "I fully expected that answer, Surya. This is where we come into picture. The file that Ravi has handed to you contains all the information that we have collected on Wazir and his organisation. Besides, though you are going for the meeting alone, there will be policemen everywhere in plainclothes for your safety. The file even contains questions that you should be asking him. We will have your back all the way through."

I drove back to my house for a change of clothes. The journey back home was completely different from my earlier one. This time, there were a million thoughts running through my head, a file on the seat next to mine and a cigarette on my lips, releasing wisps into the air and tar down my throat, as it calmed me down. On reaching home, I immediately sat down to work. The file was indeed detailed, with a character profile of the man I was supposed to be very elaborately explained, his mannerisms described, his North Karnataka accent among many other things.

I was at the cheap restaurant at the appointed hour. It was a sunny afternoon, and I was in this dingy eatery on the first floor of the building trying to wash down what the waiter claimed to be a paratha with some watered down juice, rather than enjoying a delicious buffet in the fine dine restaurant across the street. Very soon, the plates were empty and I got tired of waiting for the thug. I had worn the leather jacket and red scarf as mentioned in the file, and nobody had approached me. Thinking that the meeting was a failure, I decided to pay off my bill and get the hell out of there. Suddenly a shadow formed on my table. I looked up to see a man with a slick face, oiled hair and a french beard, smiling at me like he knew me. I raised my eyebrows and asked him what he wanted. "The boss is waiting for you in the basement. And don't worry about your bill, it's been taken care of. Take the elevator." A small rat scurried out of my way as I stepped out of the door towards the elevator. A large man with a tattoo stood by the elevator holding it open for me. As I stepped in, I noticed that the button had already been pressed for the basement. As the doors closed,  I could see the slick man grinning at me through the gap. A sudden chill ran down my spine. Had they discovered that I was a policeman? Was I descending towards my death? Before I could contemplate further and press the emergency button, the elevator announced that I was in the basement and the doors opened into a poorly lit space. I walked out and and tried to find my thug when suddenly powerful arms grabbed me from behind, another put a dark bag over my head and a gun was pushed into my abdomen. "Don't make any sudden moves or you are dead. Nod if you understand." I nodded. My hands were tied and I was shoved into a car. I had two men on either side and a third drove the car.

After what seemed to be an hour of driving, the car drove down a slope and finally halted. I realised that we were in another basement, making it impossible for me to determine where I was. I was escorted by the two men through another elevator into a nice building with heavily curtained windows. With the bag off my head, I tried to look around to see if I could gather any clues. They untied me and asked me to sit on a bench outside a door. "It's just like waiting to see the doctor", smiled a goon as he looked at my worried countenance, "except there you could get a shot, and here you could get shot".  He chuckled at his lame joke and walked away as the door in front of me opened and a man in a suit invited me in. This was it. "I hope you were not offended by the way in which you were brought in. You never know when you are being followed. As they say, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. If you want to be free and safe from the police, we need to be vigilant" he smiled.

I smiled back, shrugged it off and followed him into the room. I looked around to see if I could figure out where I was. The fully carpeted room was plainly furnished, with a few pictures adorning the walls and a large rosewood table at the centre. There were neat looking wooden cabinets along the walls and a large bookshelf behind the chair on which the suited thug was seated. I noticed he had been intently observing me. "Is everything alright?" he asked. "I am just a little shaken by the escort service, that's all", I answered. "Ah, put that behind you. Look, you've been working with us on a contractual basis for some time now. Wazir is extremely impressed with your deliveries. The reason we brought you in is to invite you to join us full time." He pushed a small notepad across the table. I looked at the large number scribbled on it. There were many zeroes following the first digit. I turned up questioningly towards the man. "That's per week, of course" he answered. This was a ton of money!

"Well? What're your thoughts?" he asked me. "The amount is, of course, quite satisfactory. However, before I accept the offer, I would like to meet Wazir", I said. "You're joking, right? Nobody meets Wazir. That's the way it's always been", he replied. "Look. I like to know whom I am working for. My services, as you have seen, are not cheap. I can take my talent elsewhere. It's not like I need the money."

The man thought about it for some time and pressed a button under his table before answering "Alright, let me check with him." Two men, dressed in full black, walked in looking like bouncers from a local pub. "Escort him to his room and make sure that he is protected", he said, smiling at me. I understood what he meant.

I was pondering over my next move. My phone and wallet had been taken away from me. The clock on the wall showed that I had been waiting for about seven hours. Suddenly the door opened and the suited thug walked in with a briefcase in his hand. "Wazir has agreed for the meet. However, you have to deliver one last time. Here, take this." I accepted the briefcase and lay it on the table and said to him, "Give me the delivery information". He looked at me with some surprise and said "The delivery information is inside the case, as always." I immediately realised that I had made a faux pas. Could this blunder raise suspicion in his mind? I opened the case and was expecting to see it filled with drugs. But what I beheld before me made me realise that my faux pas was nothing compared to the blunder of the gentlemen I had met in the morning. The styrofoam casing inside had an imported handgun, a silencer, a key and a photograph of a distinguished looking man. "It's been loaded. We leave in an hour. Deliver him and you earn a meeting with Wazir". I asked him who he was. "Soldiers never question orders. Just get it done." he said and shut the door.

This man, the man I was pretending to be, was supposed to be an assassin, not some drug supplier. I felt like a complete idiot, and I was stuck in this situation. There was no way for me to escape, no way to communicate with my fellow officers, and even if I could, no way to tell them where I was. The hour was up and the suited man and his bouncers entered the room. One of the bouncers handed me a black bag and asked me to put it over my head so that I couldn't see. I was led to the basement and seated in a car, just like earlier, with a bouncer on either side. After a long drive, the car finally stopped. "You can take it off now", said the voice of the suited man. I took off the bag and breathed in a lungful of air. The deep breath calmed me down. We were in a dark alley and all the houses on this road seemed to have very high walls. "That's the house", said the suited man, pointing to a house with a car parked in front of it. "It's simple, go in, finish the job and come out."

With the gun firmly in by belt, I tugged the jacket closer to myself and calmly walked towards the gate, looking around to see if anyone else was watching me besides the suited man and his crew. There was a deafening silence. Though I seemed extremely calm while opening the gate, a hundred thoughts were racing through my mind. Should I kill this man? It would definitely get me deeper into the organisation. But I didn't even know this man. What if he was an innocent man? A law enforcer even? Is the mission that saves hundreds of lives in the future more important or the life of some man? But wait, what this was no innocent man? What if he was a rival drug lord and this was part of the final consolidation? No, he was no drug lord. The man looked far too distinguished. I pulled out the key from my pocket and silently slipped it into the keyhole. Before I turned it, I tried to recollect the layout of the house from the profile provided behind the photograph. The man lived alone, according to the profile, so I didn't have to worry about additional deaths. These were no ordinary thugs. They were as organised as my own bureau. I suddenly realised that my bureau and being organised was an example of an oxymoron.

I turned the key slowly and grabbed the handle of the door and pushed it in. The door opened, noiselessly, and I walked into a small room. I could hear the sound of the TV from the drawing room inside. I carefully walked to the edge of the door and peered inside. The TV was tuned to a channel that showed a cricket match and a glass of scotch was on the table. The match was suddenly interrupted by an ad. The man picked up his phone and started mindlessly scrolling through it, occasionally tapping on it. He was probably browsing through Facebook. He was just a regular guy. As I was planning on my next move, my eyes fell on the refrigerator in the adjacent room.

I walked out hurriedly, not bothering to lock the door. As I opened the gate to exit the building, I saw that the suited man had started walking towards the house with a gun in his hand. "What took you so long?" he asked in an irritated voice. "It's done. Let's get out of here", I replied, walking towards the car. "No, I need confirmation. Show me." he said, grabbing my arm and pulling me back. "Look, it's not a good idea to hang around a dead body. The job is done. Let's get out before someone sees us." I tried to convince him, but it didn't seem to have an effect on him. We both walked back to the house. I pushed open the door, coughed and cleared my throat. We walked into the drawing room and stopped at the door, because the suited man didn't need much evidence beyond what he saw. The man lay dead, face down, in a pool of his own blood. The blood spatter around him was a clear indicator of what had passed on some time ago. Satisfying himself with the gory scene, he said, "Alright, let's get out of here"

I sat quietly between the bouncers on our way back with the bag on my head. I smiled at my ingenuity. I had walked in quickly, held the gun to the man's face and asked him to keep quiet and not panic. I told him that I was a policeman and he had to do exactly what I told him if he wanted to stay alive. Assuring him that I wouldn't hurt him, I had sprinted to the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of tomato ketchup, some beet juice and added some water to get the consistency right. I asked the man to lie on the floor, face down, and had set to work. Having worked on several homicides throughout my career, I knew exactly how murder scenes looked. By the time I was done, the masterpiece looked realistic. I told him that I would warn him with a cough in the unlikely chance I had to come back, and that he would have to hold his breath for as long as he could and remain motionless. The man had complied, following which I shot twice into the couch and everything had worked out exactly as planned.

The car finally stopped. The suited man asked the bouncers to stay back in the car. He held my arm and helped me walk. As I struggled to walk on the uneven surface of a muddy trail, occasionally stumbling, I thanked my good fortune for not being blind. We finally stopped. The suited man took the bag off of my head. I looked around and saw that we were in the middle of a strange wilderness. "Wazir will meet you in a few minutes. Wait here, and don't move", he said, and walked back a few steps. He then turned to me and said "You know what? I didn't trust you when I first saw you. You have a certain quality about you which made me uncomfortable. I thought you were a cop. But Wazir, he had no doubts about you. He said that you were the number one assassin in the market. I told Wazir that I didn't think it was a good idea. I wanted to give you a test and see the proof for myself. So I hope you don't think less of me and certainly don't think less of Wazir. It was my idea, and I am sorry for not trusting you.", he said, rather sheepishly. He then turned around and walked back towards the car. A few moments later, I could hear the sound of the car driving away.

I was in the middle of nowhere, standing alone, in the starless night. I suddenly realised how tired I was. However, I was close to the end. It was time. Suddenly a deep voice came out from behind a nearby tree, "You know what makes me successful? Hiring the best people". I turned towards the tree. The silhouette of a man appeared next to it. "He didn't trust you from the beginning. And though I told him that it was his choice to test you, it was organised by me. I was the one that sent you the briefcase and set the parameters of the test..." The man stepped forward with a gun in his hand, "and you, my friend, have failed the test!"

I saw a sudden flash of light in his hand and felt a searing pain in my chest. As I fell backwards, I felt my energy draining out of my body. The man appeared in front of me and the light of the moon illuminated his entire body, highlighting the deep red stains of tomato ketchup and beet juice on him. He pointed his gun at me, and I saw one final flash of light...


[Parts of the story were inspired by TV show Castle]

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